Summering Down | Memoir

As summer winds down, we feel the passage of time more acutely. This month’s memoirists each address this in their own way: grieving loved ones, facing health issues, overcoming broken relationships, documenting the milestones of children, aging, and rebuilding marriages and family connections. For some, sorrow eases over time; for others, time is marked by loss. It’s especially poignant to read these works in August, when we start to mourn the end of the season before it’s even over.

Cawood, Shuly Xóchitl. The Going and Goodbye. Platypus. Jun. 2017. 192p. ISBN 9780993532191. pap. $16. MEMOIR
Cawood’s essays explore love and its counterpoint loss. The reverse of romantic partnerships is rocky breakups and separations; marriage counters divorce; the reverse of friendship is loneliness; the contrast to good health is illness. The author shares what she has learned from her experiences of loss and reflects on the process that brought her to the end point. One essay delves into her nostalgia surrounding the futon she bought at age 24 and kept through many relationships, moves, a marriage, and a divorce. Something as central as a soft place to sleep takes on new meaning when Cawood revisits the people who sat or slept on the futon over the years. Other pieces contain deeper explorations: for example, friend Tsafi receives a cancer diagnosis and Cawood supports her through treatment, just as Tsafi once helped the author through difficult times. To be human is to be “going” about our lives, always saying “goodbye” to someone or something. Cawood stands firmly in the camp of “better to love and lose.”  VERDICT Powerful writing that reminds readers the time with loved ones is both precious and limited. Those experiencing grief may find a welcome and fresh perspective in this account.

starred review starFennelly, Beth Ann. Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs. Norton. Oct. 2017. 128p. ISBN 9780393609479. $22.95; ebk. ISBN 9780393609486. MEMOIR
The subtitle of Mississippi Poet Laureate Fennelly’s memoir provides readers all the explanation they need. Each of the “52 micro-memoirs” range in length from a sentence to several pages. The author covers motherhood, marriage, childhood, family, writing, her parents, the death of a beloved sister, the quirks of neighbors and friends, aging, her husband, and a multitude of other observations. It may seem incongruous, but Fennelly packs a lot into each short essay, with some light in subject matter, while others have a sudden punch-in-the-gut feel, weighted with existential exploration. VERDICT Potent despite their brevity, many of Fennelly’s micromemoirs bring hefty topics to the surface; the lack of excessive text allows readers to fill in the gaps in the narrative themselves. Readers who enjoyed Anne Lamott’s memoirs (Bird by Bird; Hallelujah Anyway) will delight in these pieces.

Gisleson, Anne. The Futilitarians: Our Year of Thinking, Drinking, Grieving, and Reading. Little, Brown. Aug. 2017. 260p. ISBN 9780316393904. $27; ebk. ISBN 9780316393898. MEMOIR
Gisleson faced much loss, as did many of her friends and family living in New Orleans before and after Hurricane Katrina. Instead of succumbing to despair, the author and her compatriots formed the Existential Crisis Reading Group (ECRG). There is wine, there are novels, but the book of choice is not the latest cozy mystery. In this New Orleans pseudo-Bohemian group, the readings and gatherings are designed to parse meaning from tragedy. Interspersed throughout, with insightful literary analysis from the ECRG readings, is Gisleson’s own family’s stories. Her younger sisters, twins, both commit suicide within months of each other. Her father dies of a bacterial infection. Her husband loses his partner, the mother of his son, six months before meeting Gisleson. Through these experiences, the author reveals that meaning exists when we are willing to look for it and interpret what we see, a search made even more powerful when its done with friends. Themes of fellowship and family override what might at first seem like a depressing endeavor. VERDICT Readers interested in expanding their reading lists, as well as those fascinated by New Orleans, will find this a meaty work.

Jarrell, Andrea. I’m the One Who Got Away. She Writes. Sept. 2017. 176p. ISBN 9781631522604. pap. $16.95; ebk. ISBN 9781631522611. MEMOIR
Jarrell begins her memoir with an account of the tragic murder of her neighbor Susannah, whose death triggers a wellspring of emotion that reminds the author of her own childhood. Jarrell’s mother married her father, Nick, while still in high school; he quickly became controlling and abusive, isolating her from her family. When Jarrell is a baby, her mother leaves Nick and scrimps and saves to take her daughter to the theater and to Europe, but Nick is never far away. Jarrell gets to know him in her teens, and his verbal abuse and mercurial moods set her up for some unhealthy life choices. She ultimately marries a man who seems stable and calm, but the relationship is fraught. In Susannah’s death, the author sees the future her family might have had if her mother had stayed with her father: patterns that might have resulted in tragic endings for both mother and daughter. VERDICT Jarrell writes powerfully about coming of age in the shadow of domestic violence and her growth as a spouse, parent, and daughter. How she successfully navigated her responsibility to her children as well as her desire to know her father may be of interest to readers who wish to explore boundary-setting in their own families.

More Memoir

Harpham, Heather. Happiness: The Crooked Little Road to Semi-Ever After. Holt. Aug. 2017. 320p. ISBN 9781250131560. $27; ebk. ISBN 9781250131577. MEMOIR
Dancer/performer/playwright Harpham’s debut memoir is harrowing and human. The author writes about the joys and sorrows of motherhood, childbirth, and ad-hoc family without veering into corniness or bathos. This is a pretty amazing feat when you consider her critically ill daughter, Gracie, received a transfusion hours after birth, requiring many more such procedures in the following years. Initially, Harpham suffers these ordeals as a single mom (albeit with a strong support group). When Brian, her boyfriend in New York, balks at fatherhood, the author flees to her native California to give birth to Gracie. As her daughter’s condition worsens, Brian reconsiders his parental role, and he and Harpham face agonizing choices about treatments for their child. VERDICT Especially good at conveying sights, smells, and sounds, Harpham portrays those around her—hospital staff, family members, friends, foes—with nuanced observation, though some of the characters’ walk-on parts seem superfluous. All in all a strong first book that will touch parents and nonparents alike. [See Prepub Alert, 3/8/17.]—Liz French, Library Journal


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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.

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