Memoirs of Merit

Even this early in the year, we’re seeing a strong showing of top-shelf memoirs, with one already selected as an “LJ best memoir of 2017” (Myriam ­Gurba’s powerful Mean), and another positioned as an early contender for best of 2018 (Sands Hall’s Flunk. Start). This quarterly roundup is an all-female slate, with LJ columnists Rachael Dreyer and Derek Sanderson highlighting the must-have titles. For more memoir reviews, go to: ow.ly/2mtv30i5Jz2.

redstarGurba, Myriam Mean. Coffee House. 2017. 160p. ISBN 9781566894913. pap. $16.95; ebk. ISBN 9781566895019. memoir

Gurba’s writing makes you want to know the author better. Her voice is irreverent, lyrical, and sharply observant, even as her book offers dark commentary on what it means to be a woman in American society. Here, she addresses traumatic experiences, including sexual violence that men forced upon her and against other women, disordered eating, and the cultural norms of women’s beauty. Gurba’s work also explores issues of race and sexuality; the author is mixed race and queer, and her narrative packs a lot into a few pages. If you believe that women, and all people, have the right to safety in public and domestic spaces, the right to control their bodies and express their gender identity and sexuality, and that prejudices of all kinds continue to impact and restrict the promise and potential of many in this country, then this is a book you’ll want to read. ­VERDICT Gurba is a writer for our times; her memoir brings a powerful perspective. (Memoir, 10/20/17)—Rachael Dreyer, ­Pennsylvania State Univ. Dept. of Libs. (RD)

redstarHall, Sands. Flunk. Start. Reclaiming My Decade Lost in Scientology. Counterpoint. Mar. 2018. 400p. notes. bibliog. ISBN 9781619021785. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781619021808. memoir

Novelist Hall (Catching Heaven) has written a beautiful memoir about spending seven years as a Scientologist. What sets this account apart from so many recent “leaving Scientology” narratives is that the author has no ax to grind. Though Hall never felt comfortable as a member of the religion, she fell in love with the study of words and their meaning, which she says is an integral part of Scientology coursework. Hall still uses these methods as a teacher of creative writing. Although her experience in the religion was mild compared to others’, she was frequently pressured to “disconnect” from her parents, as they disapproved of her involvement in the faith and were thus considered “suppressive persons.” Hall leaves readers to decide, but few will close this memoir wishing to become Scientologists, hearing the author ultimately sound a clear warning to stay away. VERDICT An early candidate for memoir of the year, this is a thrilling story of one woman’s search for truth and her place in the world. (Memoir, 1/12/18)—Derek Sanderson, Mount Saint Mary Coll. Lib., Newburgh, NY

redstarNarayan, Shoba. The Milk Lady of Bangalore: An Unexpected Adventure. Workman. Jan. 2018. 272p. ISBN 9781616206154. $24.95; ebk. ISBN 9781616207618. memoir

Writer and cookbook author Narayan grew up in the Indian capital of Chennai and has spent most of her adult life in New York City. As her parents and in-laws grow older, the author and her husband decide to move their family to Bangalore to be closer to them. Settling into her new home, Narayan begins to buy milk from Sarala, the local milk lady, whose small herd grazes in the city. Sarala and Narayan become friends, and as their relationship develops, Narayan’s involvement with and interest in the cows increases. While Narayan never loses sight of her own privileged position, even as she navigates the intricacies of caste and class in modern-day India, her stories radiate with compassion. Living in Bangalore, the author’s Western sensibilities are met with both delight and inconvenience, and she revels in relating her experiences on the page. VERDICT An absolute joy to read. Through her close encounters with the bovine kind, Narayan shows how Indian traditions are incorporated into contemporary ways of life. (Memoir, 10/20/17)—RD

redstarO’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 takes on challenges from all sides. (Memoir, 12/13/17)—RD

redstarSeeger, Peggy. First Time Ever. Faber & Faber. 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, Seeger shares memories of her idyllic childhood and reflections on race, as her family employed 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 the 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. (Memoir, 12/13/17)—RD

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