What We Talk About When We Talk About… | Memoir

Why do we read memoir? What’s the irresistible pull of this particular form? Is it because we want to know how someone lives through the unimaginable? Or because we want to become better people, absorbing strength, courage, patience, and resilience through the words of others? Perhaps we are struggling with similar issues and looking for hope. There are many reasons to read memoirs, and all of them are good ones.

This month, we have memoirs by a father who lost a child in a rafting accident, an executive director of a sober-living community for women with AIDS, a woman persecuted for expressing herself through fashion, and a creative writing professor who has struggled to understand who she is. Each of these titles share stories about becoming more patient, generous, and self-aware. So, whatever your reason for reading memoir might be, these should all fit the bill.

febos-abandon-memoirFebos, Melissa. Abandon Me. Bloomsbury USA. Feb. 2017. 320p. ISBN 9781632866578. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781632866592. MEMOIR
After Whip Smart, a memoir about her experiences as a dominatrix, Febos returns with a close analysis of her own identity. The narrative jumps from past to present as the author explores her history, revisiting feelings of abandonment as her sea captain stepfather/adoptive father leaves for extended stretches of time. She also seeks to rekindle a relationship with her biological father, with whom her mother severed ties when Febos was two. She talks about her drug use, her brother’s depression, and her American Indian heritage. In a long story arc, set against the backdrop of a long-distance romance, she meets and falls in love with a married woman, who later leaves her wife for Febos. Throughout the relationship, Febos details the feelings of euphoria and the excitement of new love, moving through the realization of what the relationship means to her. VERDICT This raw, brave work about truly knowing oneself will appeal to those interested in gender and women’s studies, origin stories, and LGBTQ narratives.

gerson-disaster-memoirstarred review starGerson, Stéphane. Disaster Falls: A Family Story. Crown Archetype. Jan. 2017. 272p. ISBN 9781101906699. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781101906705. MEMOIR
This diamond-sharp book is both meticulous and breathtaking. With methodical pacing and painstaking detail, the author describes how his eight-year-old son Owen died in a rafting accident on Utah’s Green River, at a place called Disaster Falls. It is evident that Gerson is driven by a desire to get it right, to tell the full story of the accident, including its aftermath and preceding events. And while he takes us to the precipice of the fatality, it’s as if the accident itself is secondary to the larger story. This creates a narrative tension in the passage about the incident itself. Though we know the outcome, we hold our breath as he and Owen approach the falls in a raft: we hope that it will end differently. Gerson also connects these events to the loss of his father in the year after his son’s death, and in this way offers a meditation on the connection between fathers and sons. VERDICT A beautiful book, even as it deals with unthinkable anguish.

marsh-nowhereelse-memoirMarsh, Carol D. Nowhere Else I Want To Be. Inkshares. Jan. 2017. 325p. ISBN 9781942645061. pap. $15.99. MEMOIR
Marsh describes some of her day-to-day responsibilities and interactions as executive director of Miriam’s House in Washington, DC, a sober-living community for women affected by late-stage AIDS symptoms. Any one of which might be more than many of us could handle. She faces each day with equanimity, patience, and most importantly, love. The author is purpose-driven in her mission to care for women in recovery and in hospice; she discusses the many components involved in caring for women dying of AIDS, from the mundane (cleaning of common areas) to house politics (sobriety is nonnegotiable) to the heartbreaking (women being abandoned by family members because of their diagnosis). With honesty and openness, Marsh acknowledges the cultural differences that create tension in the community, demonstrating a genuine desire to work through these challenges to engage with the women as individuals, treating them with respect, even as each come up against situations that threaten her human dignity. VERDICT Marsh exemplifies social justice and shows her willingness to work for the betterment of society as well as oneself.  

raaissi-fashionfreedom-memoirRaassi, Tala. Fashion Is Freedom: How a Girl from Tehran Broke the Rules To Change Her World. Sourcebooks. Sept. 2016. 320p. ISBN 9781492635185. pap. $15.99; ebk. ISBN 9781492635192. MEMOIR
Arrested as a teenager by the Iranian religious police for attending a party with boys and wearing Western clothes, Raassi ultimately turned her experience into a successful fashion line. In this title, she reveals her rebellious teenage years, her love of recklessness and pushing the limits, her family history, and her entrée into the fashion world. Her experience in the industry is hard-won, and colorful episodes in her professional trajectory that provided some difficult but useful lessons are highlights. Raassi’s venture undergoes some significant setbacks, and she is forced to start over several times, but these obstacles only serve to energize her vision and motivate her success. While clothing choices may seem frivolous to those of us who have the freedom of options without consequences, the author was imprisoned and beaten for hers. Still others in similarly restrictive cultures face severe punishments, torture, and even death if they wear prohibited items or styles. VERDICT Raassi’s memoir provides an international perspective on gender and women’s rights and would be a solid addition for collections that cover those subjects.

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Rachael Dreyer About Rachael Dreyer

Rachael is currently the Head of Research Services for the Eberly Family Special Collections Library at the Pennsylvania State University. If she's not at work or reading, she's probably binge-watching bad TV, trying out some recipe with ingredients she can't pronounce, or getting lost on a new hiking trail. She's a fan of farmer's markets, strong coffee, and unconventionally attractive dogs.