Beyond the Comfort Zone | Memoir

This month, we have several memoirs on the theme of venturing outside one’s comfort zone. Take for instance, Maggie O’Farrell’s account of the numerous times in her life that she has nearly died; in spite of these, she embraces adventure and exploration. Laura Smith’s work illustrates how her currently settled life started far from that. Folk singer Peggy Seeger’s book is thick with travel and music, while Susan Sokol Blosser’s walks readers through the process of starting a winery, with no prior experience. As we head into the New Year, it is a time to reflect and consider new challenges. Perhaps you’ll find something here to inspire resolutions.

starred review starO’Farrell, Maggie. I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death. Knopf. Feb. 2018. 304p. illus. ISBN 9780525520221. $25.95; ebk. ISBN 9780525520238. MEMOIR
This memoir will make readers look more closely at the danger they’ve brushed up against in their lives. British novelist O’Farrell (This Must Be the Place; Instructions for a Heat Wave) explores episodes in which she came close to death: a near-drowning, an encounter with a murderer on a deserted hiking trail, dysentery, meningitis, close calls during surgeries, to name a few. With each chapter, the author reveals more of her experiences, including parenting a daughter with multiple and severe allergies. Though not expressly addressed to her daughter, O’Farrell’s book serves to show her (and readers) that we are not alone in our clashes with fate. In confronting her own mortality, she proves that she isn’t isolated in these frightening moments, but instead resilient and courageous. VERDICT A heartfelt meditation on the fragility and wonder of life, O’Farrell’s work emphasizes the body’s desire to fight for survival, even as it encounters challenges from all sides. [See Prepub Alert, 8/28/17.]

starred review starSeeger, Peggy. First Time Ever. Faber & Faber. Oct. 2017. 416p. photos. ISBN 9780571336791. $29.95; ebk. ISBN 9780571336814. MEMOIR
The author, half-sister to folk singer Pete Seeger, is a force of folk all her own. In this lovely firsthand account, she shares memories of her idyllic childhood and reflections on race, as her family had African American domestic workers. She also explores cultural differences as she looks back on her travels through Europe and Asia as a young woman playing music; she delves into her identity as both a public performer and a woman, daughter, partner, mother, musician, activist, and feminist, crafting her narrative from recollections and her own diaries. Readers will find a constellation of folk music greats here, all linked by Seeger’s anecdotes. Now in her 80s, Seeger is enmeshed thoroughly in the search to know herself fully. One delightful aspect is Seeger quoting from biographies of her life, written by others. The chronological structure zigzags a bit in time, but it mimics the way memory works. VERDICT An engrossing read for all, even those who don’t know their folk music history.

Smith, Laura. The Art of Vanishing: A Memoir of Wanderlust. Penguin. Feb. 2018. 272p. ISBN 9780399563584. $25; ebk. ISBN 9780399563607. MEMOIR
Smith introduces us to the enigmatic figure of Barbara Newhall Follett, a child prodigy who published a novel in 1927 at the age of 12, and second one two years later. Follett’s precociousness is fascinating (she joined a ship’s crew and sailed unsupervised by a guardian) but so is the story of her sudden disappearance as a young newlywed in 1939. Smith dives deeply into an investigation of Follett’s early years and explores various hypotheses for her vanishing, using this compelling life story as a foil for her own. For many years, Smith resisted all forms of settling down. However, she comes to realize, as she explores a nomadic life, open marriage, and other forms of resistance to conformity, that her husband is who she wants to be with, and that her job and home can be whatever she chooses. With thorough historical research, she brings the parallels between Follett and herself into view; in her own life, Smith discovers that the bonds she builds with others don’t confine but nourish. VERDICT Readers will enjoy the multiple themes that Smith weaves deftly throughout this memoir.

Sokol Blosser, Susan. The Vineyard Years: A Memoir with Recipes. Graphic Arts. Oct. 2017. 288p. photos. ISBN 9781513260730. $34.99; ISBN 9781513260716. pap. $16.99; ebk. ISBN 9781513260723. MEMOIR
Oregon-based winemaker Sokol Blosser’s account of the Sokol Blosser vineyard and winery will teach readers a lot about the science, craft, and even luck of making wine. As a woman in a predominantly male craft, the author reminds readers of the need to be brave and persistent, even as we stumble through the learning process. The obstacles that she and her family encountered as they built their brand make it clear that becoming a vintner is not for the faint of heart. From the unexpected loss of a rained-out harvest and balancing loans to working to repair family tensions, the Sokol Blosser Winery overcame these challenges and more. The included recipes also give suggested wine pairings: all featuring Sokol Blosser bottles, of course. VERDICT This book will educate somewhat on the finer points of winemaking, but the main takeaway will be the crucial roles of tenacity and flexibility in the success of a new business.

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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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