A journey of self-discovery begins in family archives.
An invitation to deliver the prestigious Massey lectures at Harvard inspired photographer Mann (Sally Mann: Immediate Family, 2014, etc.) to embark on a search for her past, beginning with boxes stored in her family’s attic. She hoped to find “a payload of southern gothic”: juicy details of “deceit and scandal,” including suicides, fortunes made and lost, and even a murder. Her sources did not disappoint her, and she effectively weaves a “tapestry of fact, memory, and family legend” in this candid and engrossing memoir. An incorrigible child, Mann loved to cavort naked on the Virginia farm where she grew up. Her mother, exasperated, turned over her care to Gee-Gee, the loving African-American woman who served as the family’s housekeeper, cook, and nanny. Mann’s rebellion continued throughout high school, where she discovered a passion for writing and photography that channeled her energies. “I existed in a welter of creativity,” she recalls, “—sleepless, anxious, self-doubting, pressing for both perfection and impiety, like some ungodly cross between a hummingbird and a bulldozer.” Married at 18, she continued her creative life at Bennington College and made photography her vocation. For the next several decades, she “virtually lived in the darkroom,” dealing with “some end-of-tether frustrations” in printing her work. She was “blindsided,” she writes, when she was accused of child abuse and exploitation after the publication of Immediate Family (1992), which included nude photographs of her children. Besides revealing portraits of her parents and Gee-Gee, Mann chronicles the sordid murder-suicide of her husband’s parents; a deranged letter-writer later accused Mann and her husband of the crime. Although committed to photography as an art, Mann is troubled by the medium’s “treacheries”—i.e., its power to displace real memories.
Generously illustrated, Mann’s memoir is testimony to photography’s power to evoke tender, lucent portraits of the past.
Novelist, Guggenheim Fellow and co-founder of the Believer magazine, Julavits (Writing/Columbia Univ.; co-editor, The Vanishers, 2012, etc.), now in her mid-40s, noticed that the smallest unit of time she experiences is no longer a minute, a day, nor even a week, but years. That disquieting perception inspired this book: “Since I am suddenly ten years older than I was, it seems, one year ago, I decided to keep a diary.” Time is much on her mind in gently philosophical entries that do not appear chronologically but instead are disrupted and reordered, recounting two years of her life in New York, where she and her husband teach; Maine, where she grew up yearning to leave and now spends joyful summers; and Germany, where the family lived during her husband’s fellowship at the American Academy in Berlin. Admitting that she is a “sub-sub-subtextual” reader of the world, Julavits analyzes her marriage; the needs and growing independence of her young son and daughter; her visits to a psychic, with whom she discusses the mystical power of objects and synchronicity (“My life seems marked by a high degree of coincidence and recursion,” Julavits confesses); former lovers; her aspirations as a writer; and such guilty pleasures as watching the reality series The Bachelorette, whose “love language” she and her husband gleefully parse. Other pastimes include shopping on eBay, which, she writes, “has immeasurably improved my quality of life more than doctors or drugs”; succumbing to temptation at yard sales; and swimming, despite her overwhelming fear of sharks. Some entries are slyly funny, gossipy and irreverent; others, quietly intimate, reveal recurring depression and anxiety, “alternate states of being” to which she gratefully returns: “When you become you again, you can actually greet yourself. You can welcome yourself back.”
An inventive, beautifully crafted memoir, wise and insightful.
An ambitious, literary-minded memoir of the author’s relationship with his late brother, a much older heroin addict.
Mann (Writing/Univ. of Massachusetts, Dartmouth; Class A: Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere, 2013) works on a number of different levels, delivering a narrative of addiction, memory, and family dynamics; of the attempt to see someone through the eyes and different memories of other people; and of the challenges faced by a writer as he attempts to fulfill his literary ambitions. Ultimately, this is a memoir about trying to write a memoir: the challenge, the impossibility, and the catharsis. It begins at the funeral of Mann’s older brother, Josh, since the author, 13 at the time, “once read a Philip Roth novel that begins over a grave.” Before he’s done, he will invoke Nabokov, Burroughs, Woolf, and Kincaid as literary antecedents whose inspiration has informed his own work. Unlike, say, James Frey, Mann drops his cards on the table from the start, admitting in his author’s note that though the focus of the book is a real person, “it is not, however, an exact representation of his life. People’s memories contradict one another, and many of the scenes are my imagined versions of the stories they told me, complete with my own subjectivity.” In the book, in death, and in the memories of the author and others, Josh is larger than life, a person who “could have been a rock star so easily. Some kind of star,” as a friend recalls. He was a would-be musician, a would-be writer, the lover of all sorts of gorgeous, exotic women, a troubled child from before the author’s birth, and a junkie who died alone, unexpected and inexplicably, after he’d shown his family and friends he’d cleaned up.
In constructing his aching, poignant narrative, Mann offers a fine meditation on fate and on how “the story of addiction is the story of memory, and how we never get it right.”
A fiercely provocative and intellectually audacious memoir that focuses on motherhood, love and gender fluidity.
Nelson (Critical Studies/CalArts; The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning, 2012, etc.) is all over the map in a memoir that illuminates Barthes and celebrates anal eroticism (charging that some who have written about it hide behind metaphor, whereas she’s plain from the first paragraph that she’s more interested in the real deal). This is a book about transitioning, transgendering, transcending and any other trans- the author wants to connect. But it’s also a love story, chronicling the relationship between the author and her lover, the artist Harry Dodge, who was born a female (or at least had a female name) but has more recently passed for male, particularly with the testosterone treatments that initially concerned the author before she realized her selfishness. The relationship generally requires “pronoun avoidance.” This created a problem in 2008, when the New York Times published a piece on Dodge’s art but insisted that the artist “couldn’t appear on their pages unless you chose Mr. or Ms….You chose Ms., ‘to take one for the team.’ ” Nelson was also undergoing body changes, through a pregnancy she had desired since the relationship flourished. She recounts 2011 as “the summer of our changing bodies.” She elaborates: “On the surface it may have seemed as though your body was becoming more and more ‘male,’ mine more and more ‘female.’ But that’s not how it felt on the inside.” The author turns the whole process and concept of motherhood inside out, exploring every possible perspective, blurring the distinctions among the political, philosophical, aesthetic and personal, wondering if her writing is violating the privacy of her son-to-be as well as her lover. Ultimately, Harry speaks within these pages, as the death of Dodge’s mother and the birth of their son bring the book to its richly rewarding climax.
A book that will challenge readers as much as the author has challenged herself.
A former member of an extremely insular Hasidic sect tells his story of becoming curious about the outside world—and the consequences of that curiosity.
Unpious magazine founding editor Deen was raised in the Hasidic sect known as “the Skverers,” an offshoot of Orthodox Judaism that shuns the outside world. Radio, TV, newspapers, the Internet—these are all gateways that, once opened, let forth a flood of sinful thought and action into one’s heart. The author knows the story of how New Square, in Rockland County, New York, came to be and the travails faced by those seeking to establish it; he knows that even among strict, rigid devotees of Judaism, New Square is considered a place where the real fanaticism takes place. Like some who went before him, Deen’s intellectual curiosity led him to pursuits considered borderline sacrilegious. As a young boy, he was scolded for reading Then Again, Maybe I Won’t by Judy Blume, and as an 11-year-old, he would sneak off to read Hardy Boys mysteries. Turning 13, however, meant putting those texts behind him and focusing more on religious studies. Deen did so, but his interest in the world outside New Square followed him into adulthood, marriage and children. In equal measure with his interest in how others lived was a growing dissatisfaction with some of the practices within the Skverers—how on one hand, the elders would speak of the importance of offspring, but when Deen’s children arrived, it was treated as irrelevant. When instructed as a teacher to fudge the progress reports—to ensure continued approval that they were teaching, along with religion, the arithmetic and reading required—to the government, the author felt this untruth to be a betrayal.
In this moving book, Deen lays bare his difficult, muddled wrestling with his faith, the challenges it posed to everything he thought he knew about himself, and the hard-won redemption he eventually found.
A writer and professor’s account of the trauma she suffered in the wake of a murder committed by a close friend.
Defunct magazine editor Butcher (English/Ohio Wesleyan Univ.) met Kevin Schaeffer, the sweet-faced boy who would become her best friend, three days into her freshman year at Gettysburg College. They were kindred spirits who “enjoyed familiarity in all things,” found solace in each other for being social outsiders and knew “absolutely nothing of loss.” Then, less than two months before their graduation in 2009, Kevin suddenly snapped and stabbed to death his ex-girlfriend, Emily Silverstein. Like the rest of Gettysburg, Butcher was stunned. But what she found especially disturbing was that two hours before the murder, a normal-seeming Kevin had walked her home from an evening out. The aftermath of the murder caused chaos in the author’s personal life and relationships, yet she stubbornly refused to abandon her friend when almost everyone else did. Tormented by survivor’s guilt and eventually diagnosed with PTSD, Butcher became obsessed with the incident and with trying to understand the reasons behind her friend’s behavior. She scoured her memories and public documents for clues. What she discovered were dark truths about the nature of their relationship. Kevin was a depressive who had tried to commit suicide during his junior year. When he murdered his girlfriend, it was after he had stopped taking his antidepressants. Butcher had understood Kevin’s impulse toward self-destruction because she had experienced it as a young teen. Yet she had done nothing to help him. Ultimately, the author realized that her distress came from the fact that her best friend’s actions had presented her with a mirror image of her own heart. With equal parts horror and anguish, she understood that “the chain of events that led to Emily’s death [were] events that could happen to any of us.”
Oxford American humor columnist Key (English/Savannah Coll. of Art and Design) pens a memoir about his father, a man with “the emotional tenderness of a Soviet farm tractor.”
As a boy, the author was partial to sock puppets, calligraphy, and poems tapped out on an electric typewriter. Even so, “Pop” attempted to teach his son all the necessary outdoor skills so important to a growing boy, including contact sports, fishing, fighting, and the frequent employment of firearms to “kill shit.” (In a “Note to the Reader,” the author writes, “I have changed the names of many characters…because most of those people own guns.”) Those were the pertinent and suitable activities for boys coming of age in the environs of Coldwater, Mississippi. Key’s relationships with his loving mother, a badass elder brother, and, eventually, a beloved wife and cherished children all connect with Pop and the author’s position as the strange scion of a big man with a huge head on a red neck. The author eventually evolved from a blameless, scared kid to an innocent, scared adult as he learned the odd joy of danger and how to wear a bow tie. Pop evolved, as well, as the paterfamilias who learned to disregard his instinctive rule for human contact: men over here, women over there. Key had his basic training in American civilization, particularly as practiced in the not-so-long-ago South. His spouse supervised such matters as babies—how to make them, diaper them, and raise them—though she is never mentioned by name. Forget the touch of Jean Shepherd, the satire of Gary Shteyngart, or the dash of Dave Barry; Key’s talent is all his own, and it is solid. Consistently seasoned with laughs, this memoir is adroitly warm and deep when it is called for.
An uncommonly entertaining story replete with consistent wit and lethal weaponry.
Agent and producer Phillips begins her candid debut memoir by recounting three miserable years as assistant to Judy Garland, “a demented, demanding, supremely talented drug addict,” a self-destructive drunk who lived on a cocktail of pills downed with limitless bottles of liebfraumilch. Enraptured with Garland from childhood, Phillips quickly became disillusioned with the woman she was charged to travel with, minister to, dress, feed, and, most of all, manage to get on stage. Despite feeling exploited and angry, Phillips admits that Garland served as “the lens through which I have seen, lived, and dealt with my life” and gave her “the armor to face the world.” As this sometimes-venomous and often very funny memoir shows, there were many deep chinks in that armor. After leaving Garland, the author became an agent at Creative Management Agency; her first client was 16-year-old Liza Minnelli, Garland’s “brilliant and lovely” daughter. Phillips took her under her wing, starting her on a dazzling career. After seeing her perform on TV variety shows, producers and directors clamored to hire her, and Phillips saw her own reputation rise. Along the way, she signed Robert Redford (“an actor who has both good looks and real ability”), Peter Sellers, David Bowie, and Barbra Streisand, among others. Planning to represent Liza exclusively, she resigned from CMA, where she had worked for 15 years. But Liza suddenly, and without explanation, dumped her, leaving her stunned, depressed, and unemployed. When friends invited her to see a musical production at the Actors’ Studio, she reluctantly dragged herself out of the house. That evening changed her life, and she decided to reinvent herself as a producer, starting with The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.
An unsparing look at the dark side of show business.
A debut memoir about a woman’s emotionally charged relationship with the mother who walked away from her marriage and family.
The youngest of three children, Cistaro was barely out of toddlerhood when her mother got into her Dodge Dart and suddenly drove off. She neither called nor acknowledged her children’s birthdays for the first few years of her absence. Only later would she connect with them, but only for short periods of time. When she did, it was often in the company of different men with whom she shared homes as well as alcohol and drugs. Cistaro’s mother was constantly—and painfully—“just out of…reach” of the children who craved her love. The author and her brothers became each other’s main sources of support, and their father did his imperfect best to hold the family together. However, the children each carried a deep anguish that marked them for life. Both her brothers eventually became substance abusers, while Cistaro narrowly avoided a similar fate. She went on to build a happy, stable marriage and family, but privately, she lived with the constant fear that she carried a “leaving gene” that would cause her to want to abandon her own family. When she learned one Christmas that her mother was dying, all her old fears of being left behind resurfaced. The author went to her mother’s side to “hold [the] body” she had not touched since childhood. During her stay, she discovered letters her mother had written but not sent to Cistaro and her brothers. From them, she gained insight into the powerfully contradictory impulses that drove her mother and that often surfaced in herself. The author finally found peace knowing that while her mother ultimately needed to fly free, Cistaro could embrace “the messy, maddening beauty” that responsibilities brought to her life with equanimity and even joy.
An honest and affecting story of the many complexities involved with family relationships.