Emotional Rescue Reads | Memoir

Love, escape, education, and family are the themes throughout this month’s memoirs. These subjects are intertwined in the following works in ways that make for emotionally engrossing reading, perfect companions for cold winter evenings.

Baker, Laura Jean. The Motherhood Affidavits. Experiment. Apr. 2018. 288p. ISBN 9781615194391. $24.95; ebk. ISBN 9781615194407. MEMOIR
Baker’s memoir uses the language of addiction to talk about pregnancy and child-rearing experiences. The subject of addiction is especially relevant for Baker, as her husband, who works as a criminal defense attorney, represents many clients charged with drug-related offenses or who struggle with substance abuse. Starting with her first child’s birth, Baker admits to being “hooked” on oxytocin, a naturally occurring mood-altering chemical released during pregnancy and breastfeeding. As a result, she persuaded her husband to have more kids, even as the financial support, time, and care that five children require stretched the couple to their limits. Her narrative demonstrates the power and privilege of choosing to become a parent but also the wisdom to know when enough is enough. In between vignettes of family life, the author writes with compassion about her husband’s clients, shedding light on the inequity of the American justice system. VERDICT A feminist’s perspective on prolific procreating; the unusual premise of linking addiction and crime with motherhood and birth will keep most readers on the line.

Kaifala, Joseph. Adamalui: A Survivor’s Journey from Civil Wars in Africa to Life in America. Turner. Mar. 2018. 240p. photos. ISBN 9781681626840. $29.99; pap. ISBN 9781681626833. $16.99; ebk. ISBN 9781681626857. MEMOIR
In this heartrending story of Kaifala’s childhood caught between civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone, he points out that many of the first-person accounts about African civil wars center on child soldiers. However, there are many children caught up in armed conflict who have different perspectives to offer. Kaifala focuses on his struggle to achieve an education. Born in Sierra Leone, he moves to Liberia, when his father finds work there. Then civil war strikes, and they flee back to Sierra Leone. The conflict crosses the border, however, and the family soon seeks safety in refugee camps in Guinea. Throughout these hardships, Kaifala describes his tenacious pursuit of knowledge. This serves him well, as he receives a scholarship to attend high school in Norway and ultimately completes college in the United States. VERDICT Kaifala’s story provides readers with a view of what it is like to grow up in the midst of civil war and be swept up as a bystander rather than a participant.

starred review starRao Pingru. Our Story: A Memoir of Love and Life in China. Knopf. May 2018. 368p. tr. from Chinese by Nicky Harman. illus. ISBN 9781101871492. $30; ebk. ISBN 9781101871508. MEMOIR
Rao has created a truly remarkable graphic memoir. Born in 1922 in Nancheng, Southeastern China, Rao witnessed massive, sweeping changes to Chinese society. He documents these as he shares his personal history with readers in a series of self-taught paintings. Each image depicts a different memory, from Rao’s first day of school to treasured family meals to his marriage to Mao Meitang. Indeed, the core of the narrative is the couple’s life as they navigate the impact of the Cultural Revolution and its aftereffects. Captions describe the images, but Rao also pens longer narrative pieces that will deepen readers’ understanding of his life and compel them to wonder about what is not included. For example, Rao is sent to a rural reeducation camp for 17 years, but we never learn why. Filling the gaps, in part, of these years are letters from his wife. VERDICT A fascinating intersection of personal, cultural, and political history.

Singer, Natalie. California Calling: A Self-Interrogation. Hawthorne Books & Literary Arts. Mar. 2018. 291p. ISBN 9780998825717. pap. $18.95. MEMOIR
Singer’s memoir covers a lot of ground, literally. The early pages describe the author’s move from Montreal to the suburbs of San Francisco with her mother, stepfather, and siblings. This transcontinental transition serves as the backdrop for the family drama that unfolds around her: an affair, a divorce, a remarriage. In the midst of these changes, Singer turns 16 and grows into young adulthood. California becomes a powerful force in Singer’s life—it comes to symbolize limitless possibilities, self-discovery, and escape. The “self-interrogation” of the subtitle takes the form of questions or statements the author has seemingly asked herself many times over, followed by her responses. VERDICT As much about the mythical powers of place and the comfort of belonging as coming of age and seeking purpose, this book zigzags through the formative events and realizations in Singer’s life, but it doesn’t always make for a clear narrative.

More Memoir

Styles, Rhyannon. The New Girl: A Trans Girl Tells It Like It Is. Headline, dist. by Hachette. Mar. 2018. 336p. ISBN 9781472242587. pap. $15.99. MEMOIR
You name it, Styles has done it: club kid, performance artist, clown school student, drag performer. The hardest thing the author has done, however, is transition from Ryan, a sometimes depressed, sometimes substance-abusing, always uncomfortable male, to Rhyannon, a much happier, healthier trans woman. Styles recounts the circuitous course her life took (for 30 years!) before she acted on the reality that she was dealing with gender dysphoria. A not-so-idyllic boyhood in rural England provided Styles with early insight into her preferred wardrobe and recreational choices, but it was not until much later that she realized what her interest in fairy dresses, makeup, and hanging out with the girls after school meant. VERDICT Styles’s matter-of-fact telling of the painful path to the life she was meant to live will appeal to a broad base of readers, including those already familiar with her popular journalism. Readers in search of a clear illustration of all that gender transition entails will find answers in this sometimes meandering, but always earnest, account of how Styles came to be “the new girl.”Thérèse Purcell Nielsen, Huntington P.L., NY

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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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