Families & Addiction, Philosophers, Two Debuts, & Joyce Maynard | Memoir

This month we have a grab-bag of books about drug addiction, prevailing against all odds, almost forgotten ancestors, and a Renaissance philosopher. Really, there’s something for just about everybody. [A review of Joyce Maynard’s cancer memoir is also included.—Ed.] Until next time, happy reading!

Fitzmaurice, Simon. It’s Not Yet Dark. Houghton Harcourt. Aug. 2017. 176p. ISBN 9781328916716. $23; ebk. ISBN 9781328918581. MEMOIR
Filmmaker Fitzmaurice’s debut memoir is a life-affirming chronicle of his struggle with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), very sparely written. After his diagnosis and contrary to conventional medical advice, the author chooses to go on a ventilator so that he can live as full a life as possible, at home. He and his wife go on to have more children, and he completes his first feature film, which was released earlier this year. In a particularly effective section, Fitzmaurice suddenly plunges into his life before ALS. In breathless prose, he takes us through his first job, first kiss, experiences traveling abroad, all leading up to the time when he met his wife and his life changed. Then, just as quickly, we are brought back to the present. It’s a marvelous narrative device that’s not often encountered in memoirs and fully cements readers’ identification with the author. VERDICT This memoir is a quick read that will long remain in the minds of its audience.

starred review starPerry, Michael. Montaigne in Barn Boots: An Amateur Ambles Through Philosophy. Harper. Nov. 2017. 240p. bibliog. ISBN 9780062230560. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062230584. MEMOIR
This warm and humorous memoir by New York Times writer Perry gives us a crash course in the life and ideas of Renaissance philosopher Michel de Montaigne (1533–92). Montaigne’s thinking was famously flexible, and he seemingly wrote something about everything. Here, Perry takes us through Montaigne’s, and his own, thoughts on sex, marriage, forgetfulness, kidney stones, religion, and a number of other matters. The author shares with his subject a seemingly congenital humility, combined with an openness to new ideas and ways of thinking. Readers will laugh out loud frequently while reading this very funny memoir, as this reviewer did, yet it’s a profound laughter that comes from the writing, which gets you thinking. VERDICT One couldn’t hope for a better introduction to the work of Perry or Montaigne. [See Prepub Alert, 5/15/17.]

Rausing, Sigrid. Mayhem. Knopf. Sept. 2017. 224p. ISBN 9780451493125. $25; ebk. ISBN 9780451493132. MEMOIR
This is a shallow book masquerading as something deeper. Editor (Granta magazine) and author (History, Memory: Identity in Post-Soviet Estonia; Everything Is Wonderful) Rausing attempts to explore her brother’s and now-deceased sister-in-law’s drug addictions. She writes around the issue and quotes authorities on the matter, but little time is spent actually exploring the lives of addicts themselves. Though the disease has profound effects on families, all of whom respond in their own way, there is no sense here of the impact on the Rausing family, or if it was in any way unique. The author’s writing initially dazzles, then appears vacuous upon a second glance. Chapters often end with such pseudoprofundities as: “We live, and then we die. Things end.” VERDICT There are thousands of addiction memoirs out there; this is not the place to start. Readers might want to try Jerry Stahl’s Permanent Midnight or Mary Karr’s Lit instead. [See Prepub Alert, 4/3/17.]

Williams, Brooke. Open Midnight: Where Ancestors & Wilderness Meet. Trinity Univ. Mar. 2017. 232p. illus. ISBN 9781595348036. pap. $17.95; ebk. ISBN 9781595348043. MEMOIR
Wilderness advocate Williams’s debut memoir has two major strands. He writes about his time in southern Utah “ground truthing” maps—that is, verifying that roads on maps exist as roads in reality—and campaigning for preserving that state’s wild places. Into this narrative he blends the story of his English ancestor, William Williams. Knowing little about this man but feeling his spirit more and more profoundly each day, the author re-creates details of his relative’s life, in passages that are obviously fictionalized. It is the spirit of this ancestor that spurs Williams into even greater advocacy for saving what’s left of our wilderness, through the seemingly paradoxical idea that the wilderness saves us more than we save it. VERDICT An unusual memoir that will not be for everybody but should be read by lovers of the outdoors or those rethinking their relationship with their environment.

additional Memoir

Maynard, Joyce. The Best of Us. Bloomsbury USA. Sept. 2017. 448p. ISBN 9781635570342. $27; ebk. ISBN 9781635570366. MEMOIR
Maynard—novelist (Under the Influence) essayist, memoirist, columnist, commentator, and unofficial voice of women of a certain age—chronicles the next frontier facing baby boomers in her account of later-in-life love and loss. Twenty-five years after a contentious divorce, and after weathering years of solo parenting, bad romance, critical press, and disrupted adoptions, Maynard married Jim Barringer, a Bay Area lawyer. Barringer could have stepped out of Central Casting as “Joyce’s soul mate.” The pair reveled in their idyllic relationship until, just after their first anniversary, Jim was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. In the 19 months leading up to Jim’s death, Maynard tells us that she found a capacity for love, understanding, and partnership she had never known, even as she struggled to adapt to the drastic changes in her life. While the terror and torturous course of Jim’s disease are not sugarcoated, Maynard’s memoir conveys the joy the couple maintained in her conversational telling of the latest chapter in the life she has been living out loud for many years. VERDICT Although the specter of Jim’s death hangs over the book from the prolog, Maynard’s story is not a solemn one; it is more of a love letter to a love story. [See Prepub Alert, 3/8/17.] —Thérèse Purcell Nielsen, Huntington P.L., NY


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Derek Sanderson About Derek Sanderson

Derek Sanderson is currently Assistant Librarian for Instruction Services at Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh, NY. When not reviewing books or at the library he enjoys spending time with his son, reading, listening to the Grateful Dead, making mix tapes, and watching whichever sports are in season.

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