Book List

Best Indie Biographies & Memoirs of 2019

A quirky, captivating biography.

IN SEARCH OF AL HOWIE

An energetic work that chases the legend and captures the life story of premier Canadian extreme-distance runner Al Howie.

In an eccentric sport, Howie stood out. He would run hundreds or thousands of miles cross-country to the starting lines of multiday races—and then run to the next. Like a tour guide, Beasley (The Black Sheep, 2016) explores the cloistered world of extreme-distance running—involving races longer than standard 26.2-mile marathons—where Howie became an icon but never a household name. In 2014, the author found Howie, a silent shell of his former self, at a group home for the mentally ill. During the runner’s final two years, Beasley teased out recollections while tracking down documentary evidence and Howie’s friends and relatives, charting a path through memories and mythology. Howie, a native Scot, grew up in a hiking family and later enjoyed a hippie lifestyle before leaving his drug-addicted wife with their preschool-age son. He moved to Canada, where he was “on the run” long before his first race, which took place after he was 30. His stamina, flowing hair, and penchant for hydrating with beer defined him. In 1989, he became first to finish the 1,300-mile “Impossibility Race”—in 17 days, nine hours. In 1991, he ran 7,295 kilometers across Canada in 72 days, 10 hours—still the record—and two weeks later, broke his own 1,300-mile record. The book also reveals the relationships, personal demons, and twists of fate that shaped Howie, rendering the legend fully human—fearful and driven, flawed but likable. Beasley, an actor, director, and screenwriter, writes in a cinematic fashion, interspersing flashbacks between chapters with third-person snapshots of Howie’s signature trans-Canada run. He also seamlessly shifts focus from wide-angle settings to character close-ups, packs details into scenes without slowing the pace, and uses the colorful runners’ vernacular that christens a competitor a “manimal,” “alien,” or “freak.” Some may find the style hyperbolic, but they’d likely concede that if the author described a smoke-filled bar, they’d smell it. He achieves a fluid narrative that makes the pages fly by, like the miles beneath Howie’s feet.

A quirky, captivating biography.

Pub Date: Oct. 8, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-77160-338-6

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Rocky Mountain Books

Review Posted Online: Sept. 16, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2019

A keeper of a book by a talented author.

THE RED RIBBON

A MEMOIR OF LIGHTNING AND REBUILDING AFTER LOSS

A debut memoir that recounts a woman’s tragic loss and hard-won survival.

On July, 23, 1994, lightning struck Bills’ husband and their son—pseudonymously called “Geoff” and “Teddy” here, respectively—as they were kayaking off the coast of Maine. The strike took Geoff’s life and nearly did the same to Teddy. The author and several members of her family, including Teddy’s older brother, “Simon,” and his wife, rushed to the hospital in the nearby town of York, Maine. It was initially touch and go for Teddy, but he came through. Then, as Teddy recuperated physically, he and the author faced psychological and spiritual recuperation—which sometimes seemed to be a matter of taking one step forward and two steps back. After this tragedy, death seemed to shadow the author for the next few years; her aged parents back in Montana passed away, as did her uncle and Geoff’s sister, who was such a rock for her after the lightning strike. These losses engender a booklong meditation on mortality. However, Bills does survive the ordeal, and an afterword lets readers know that today, she, Teddy, and Simon are all doing OK. Memoirs of loss and survival are rather common, but what sets this one apart is Bills’ extraordinary perceptiveness and writing talent, as when she notes that “I’m a woman with an emotional thermometer always in her mouth.” Bills also raises intriguing questions, such as whether the obituary cliché “he died peacefully” is really ever true. Essentially the book is a collection of essays, but she uses fictional techniques when appropriate, and some chapters are given over to very impressive poetry. She poignantly evokes a happier past in her chapters about Geoff (they were separated at the time of his death) and their young family. And a chapter titled “The Myth,” in which she asks Geoff questions directly, is exceptionally and deeply moving. There are even moments of goofiness in a chapter on a graveside service (“Planting Iris”), which may take some readers aback, although it’s clear that the author understood the need for occasional levity.

A keeper of a book by a talented author.

Pub Date: May 28, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-63152-573-5

Page Count: 216

Publisher: She Writes Press

Review Posted Online: March 12, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2019

A luminous, engrossing meditation on family love and loss.

BOWING TO ELEPHANTS

TALES OF A TRAVEL JUNKIE

An American woman’s trips to foreign lands help her come to terms with a troubled past in this memoir.

Dimond, a retired writing professor, juxtaposes scenes from her world travels with fraught episodes from her personal life to tease out hidden resonances. She begins with an account of a three-year teenage sojourn in Italy in the 1950s, during which she contrasts the warmth of the local culture with her chilly relationship with her mother, a free-spirited artist, which left the young author feeling lonely and undervalued. Her adult travels took her to more exotic locales, which she intersperses with more family memories and Buddhist teachings that she adopted in maturity. At one point, for example, a nunnery in Burma evokes recollections of a childhood girlfriend’s family, which was as welcoming as her own was alienating. A 2013 visit to see Ho Chi Minh’s miraculously preserved corpse on display in Hanoi takes her back to a similarly hallucinatory acid trip that she had during the 1967 Summer of Love. A 2010 encounter with an elephant herd in Kenya, in which the adult females vigilantly guarded their calves, provokes a recollection of a time in 1966 when she briefly abandoned her husband and 1-year-old daughter for a fling in Las Vegas. She closes with a long, Proustian remembrance of her childhood hometown of San Francisco that takes in bohemian North Beach, the bustling downtown, and the Pacific Heights house where her grandmother led an elegant life that was full of disappointment. The author’s loose-limbed narrative moves back and forth in time, telling a tale that’s less about specific events than it is about shifting moods in shifting places—sometimes anxious, plaintive, or grief-stricken and other times brimming with interest and wonder. The prose is gorgeous and novelistic, vividly depicting the pitiless African savanna (“Greasy-looking black vultures swooped and hovered and swooped again, pecking away at the sour-smelling carcass; they shrieked nervously”) and the mellow ambiance of Florence (“golden light reaching down and blessing an arched doorway, a cloud of cigarette smoke, as children scurried along with their soccer ball”). Much of the book’s sensuousness comes from its lavish descriptions of food, from elaborate feasts to a simple egg: “warm and comforting to hold in the palm of your hand, the creamy and sticky richness of the golden yolk, so good you must lick the little egg spoon clean.” At its haunted center is a wistful and wounded portrait of Dimond’s relationship with her mother, who is a changing landscape in her own right: She was movie-star glamorous in her youth, but the author describes how, in her decline, she had “the ugly wide calloused feet she tried to squeeze into pretty flats, the gnarled hands that she didn’t cherish anymore…her lipstick always seemed cracked.” Overall, this is not merely an account of strange lands and novel adventures, but also a moving saga of a woman wandering the world in search of home.

A luminous, engrossing meditation on family love and loss.

Pub Date: Sept. 17, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-63152-596-4

Page Count: 256

Publisher: She Writes Press

Review Posted Online: July 8, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2019

A straightforward and uplifting story of helping others through earnest Christian faith.

FROM CINDERS TO BUTTERFLIES

A SPIRITUAL JOURNEY TO HEALING

A burn unit doctor’s account of healing and transformation.

Fratianne, an emeritus professor of surgery at Case Western Reserve University and the founder of the burn center at Cleveland’s MetroHealth Medical Center, combines his experiences as a physician with his unfolding faith journey as a Christian in this debut, crafting a narrative that centers on the concept of personal development: “Most of us never fully know or appreciate the person we can become,” he writes. “We do not fully explore our potential; our gifts and our talents or our qualities as human beings.” Fratianne and his team, which he calls his “extended family,” have treated many patients with pain and long-term trauma from serious burn injuries. In some ways, he says, the most challenging injuries are those to a victim’s sense of self. He notes how patients with scarred skin or deformed features felt afraid that they would be objects of pity or ridicule when they rejoined society. The stress of dealing with this brought Fratianne to the edge of quitting his job, but at this point in his story, he recounts a personal spiritual awakening—a sense that God was urging him to love his patients despite the enormity of their needs. His first response to God, he writes, was “I can’t. I can’t. They need too much; much more than I can give.” The author employs a highly effective blend of autobiography and spiritual manifesto in these pages, revealing how transforming the lives of others became possible by using what he calls the “supernatural gifts” of faith, hope, and love. The religious elements of the memoir are skillfully interwoven with stories of the impressive achievements of the burn unit; specifically, he tells how the team worked wonders by always treating patients as beautiful people and by affirming every bit of progress that they made in their arduous journeys back to their everyday lives. Fratianne’s own health scare at the book’s climax only underscores the lessons that he so touchingly conveys throughout.

A straightforward and uplifting story of helping others through earnest Christian faith.

Pub Date: June 3, 2003

ISBN: 978-1-59299-018-4

Page Count: 196

Publisher: Franklin Street Books

Review Posted Online: May 26, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2019

A painfully beautiful portrayal of an indomitable, loving mother’s survival.

MY SISTER'S MOTHER

A MEMOIR OF WAR, EXILE, AND STALIN'S SIBERIA

In this heart-wrenching debut memoir, a mother and child survive Stalin’s work camp then struggle to find inner calm in America.

As a child growing up in 1950s Chicago, Urbikas longed for a “normal” mom. Instead, her Polish-born mother, Janina, often told gruesome war stories and talked to herself in the mirror. But as Urbikas matured and suffered her own hardships, she began to understand her mother’s need to recount her past. On the extremely cold morning of Feb. 10, 1940, Communist soldiers pounded on Janina’s farmhouse door near Grodno, Poland, and informed her—a young, single mother—that she was sentenced to 10 years of hard labor. She and 5-year-old daughter Mira were stuffed into lice-ridden train cars and taken to a remote logging camp in the Siberian wilderness. Fed little and plagued by vermin, disease, and blistering cold, Janina lugged a heavy ax 4 miles to and from work every day, where she chopped thick branches off trees. Meanwhile, poor little Mira was left by herself to wait in agonizing bread lines, often unsuccessfully. After years of torture, Janina and Mira—helped by a Polish army officer who eventually married Janina—escaped to England and then America. Urbikas’ flashbacks are seamless as she alternates chapters between her mother’s and sister’s stories—written in third person—versus her own first-person account. With many vivid sensory details—like “the grainy taste of…coarse rye bread”—the author’s lyrical prose instantly transports readers to the labor camp. This gripping page-turner is also filled with stark contrasts. For example, in the camp, Mira and Janina sleep together on a dirty, bedbug-infested cot, and when Janina feels a rat scrabble across her chest, she can barely lift her tired arm to heave it onto the floor. In contrast, one of Urbikas’ biggest worries is making the majorettes team in her American high school. A realistic depiction of the effects of evil, Janina’s and Mira’s experiences are sometimes overwhelming. In one scene, a tiny girl drowns and nobody helps.

A painfully beautiful portrayal of an indomitable, loving mother’s survival.

Pub Date: April 27, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-299-30850-6

Page Count: 312

Publisher: Univ. of Wisconsin

Review Posted Online: March 22, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2019

A thoughtful, witty, and evocative recollection of a life and the convictions that energized it.

THIS ALL-AT-ONCENESS

Youthful, left-wing idealism subsides into pragmatic careerism before returning in unexpected ways in this memoir.

At the start of this book, Schlack, the founder of market-research firm C Space, thinks back to growing up in a Jewish neighborhood in suburban Montreal and in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in the 1960s. To her, it was an idyllic time despite the political and countercultural chaos around her. She recalls vacations at her family’s Quebec lake house, long evenings shooting the breeze with friends about possible UFO sightings, and youthful romance at a progressive summer camp. In high school and college, she got caught up in the anti-war movement, and she “went from flower child to anti-imperialist to ambivalent Maoist a few years later,” she says. She also wrestled with radical feminist stances on makeup, shaving, and traditional marriage. The author carried her political commitments into the 1970s and ’80s when, married with kids, she worked at factories while trying to sway workers to her militant leftism—an effort that fizzled in the Reagan era. The narrative then skips ahead to the 2000s and Schlack’s career in tech startups and marketing—a milieu of moral ambiguity and hope. She felt heartened by the Occupy movement, appalled by Donald Trump, and conflicted over her role in a capitalist society that might be “ready to sacrifice the planet and the lives of younger generations to satisfy…limitless greed.” Schlack recounts her ideological journey with humor and nuance throughout this sometimes-wry, sometimes-lyrical memoir. She riffs on what she sees as foibles of progressive dogma as well as absurdities of corporate culture, including a darkly hilarious incident in which a con woman almost financially destroyed the company where she worked. Schlack’s graceful prose balances cleareyed reflection with luminous passages that celebrate past passions, such as this one about the aforementioned summer camp: “As I try to summon up how I felt being there, what gets revived is the shocking carnality of my first French kiss, the energy stoked by being part of a group and feeling myself to be a pulsing cell in a larger organism.”

A thoughtful, witty, and evocative recollection of a life and the convictions that energized it.

Pub Date: May 31, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-947548-51-0

Page Count: 238

Publisher: Regal House Publishing

Review Posted Online: June 5, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2019

A uniquely poetic memoir with dark humor and profound insights.

FRONTAL MATTER

GLUE GONE WILD

A North Carolina woman reexamines her life after being diagnosed with a terminal illness in this memoir.

“Everything was fine. And then everything went to shit within twenty minutes,” Samples (English/Appalachian State Univ.; A Mad Girl’s Love Song, 2016, etc.) writes of a fateful leg seizure at the age of 36 that ended with her in the hospital, diagnosed with brain cancer. Before that, she was enjoying her life teaching and writing and being part of a roller derby team. Her medical dramas revolved around Type 1 diabetes and her love-hate relationship with her endocrinologist. But now everything changed; as she puts it, “Diabetes is a slow, drawn-out death; cancer is a quick blow.” She writes in percussive sentences that jump from her diagnosis and treatment to moments further in the past and other stray thoughts. She muses on the secret sex lives of her nurses and reevaluates relationships as a parade of friends, family, and exes come to visit her. She dwells most notably on Chole (pronounced “Cole”) the “narcissistic sociopath” with whom she had a tumultuous relationship. She tells of Uber drivers who offered to pray for her, her partying sister who sent her drunken texts about conspiracy theories, and how she spoke directly to her own brain tumor, asking for its opinion on the life that it might be cutting short. “This is not a Tuesday with Morrie,” she writes, speaking to the existential weight and poetic form of her writing. At times, Samples repeats simple sentence structures over and over, like a record that has broken, but she marries this with short, smoothly written vignettes that manage to be frightening, sad, and humorous all at once. At one point, for example, a nurse confuses her asymmetrical haircut for brain-surgery prep gone wrong. Samples also bravely commits to paper her darkest thoughts about dying and the most humiliating physical moments of her illness. Overall, her memoir perfectly reflects the chaos of her experience, but she guides readers through it by staying true to her belief that “honest writing is good writing.”

A uniquely poetic memoir with dark humor and profound insights.

Pub Date: Oct. 15, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-947041-24-0

Page Count: 262

Publisher: Running Wild Press

Review Posted Online: Oct. 17, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2019

An engaging picaresque that explores the role of chance and fate inside the casino and out.

TRIPS

PEOPLE, PLACES, POKER

Poker becomes the key to understanding life and history—though not to winning money—in this meditative gambling memoir.

Literary agent and novelist Goodhart (Cards, Kafka and Prague, 2016, etc.) entered Texas Hold ’em tournaments in Prague; Nottingham, England; and the French seaside resort of Deauville, pitting his eternal hopes against repeated, inexorable experiences of failure. Feeling overmatched by the obsessive young men in dark glasses and hoodies who dominate poker tournaments, he fortified himself with magical thinking—he found himself bargaining for divine assistance by offering a percentage of the prize money to charity if he triumphed—and conflicting advice from poker manuals, which had him lurching from his instinctive “tight weak” style of “doing nothing” whenever possible to ill-judged “loose aggressive” betting that occasionally won big pots but inevitably ended with him going bust. The author regales readers with engrossing poker play-by-play rendered in clipped but colorful jargon—“I’m up against Ace, Queen and 7s, way behind, at least until the flop when 10, Jack, 10 gives me a huge lead”—as he tries to figure the odds, suss out opponents’ thinking, and tame his own psychology as he veers between timidity and recklessness. (A glossary and appendix on the rules of Texas Hold ’em should help newbies decipher the goings-on.) He fills in the downtime between hands with beguiling travelogues, snatches of history—he interprets the tragic miscalculations leading to the outbreak of World War I as a kind of botched poker game—and wide-ranging intellectual ruminations. (He imagines a lunchtime meeting between Einstein and Kafka that might bring out their clashing perspectives on the universe as a coherent expression of scientific laws or a tissue of happenstance and enigma.) Goodhart infuses the mechanics of poker hustling with philosophical and literary resonances—“Hansen counsels using my chips, making some moves, stealing a few pots, going for it; Rilke suggests patience and discipline. Never listen to a poet”—in a piquant counterpoint that’s both insightful and entertaining.

An engaging picaresque that explores the role of chance and fate inside the casino and out.

Pub Date: Nov. 23, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-73128-961-2

Page Count: 263

Publisher: The Gate Press

Review Posted Online: Nov. 1, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2019

A commanding chronicle of focused leadership and admirable humanity.

LIFE AS TRAUMA

THE WARTIME JOURNALS OF AN ANESTHESIOLOGIST

A war doctor shares her battlefront journals of aiding military and civilian casualties during the 1990s Balkan wars.

Belgrade-born Serbian physician, anesthesiologist, and debut author Mitić’s time as a trauma physician after the historic breakup of Yugoslavia is on brilliant display in these meticulous journals. Her journey began when she heard about the war in Yugoslavia while vacationing with her husband and two small daughters in Greece in 1991. “The people in Krajina are fighting for their lives and they need help desperately,” wrote the determined Mitić, who rushed home to Smederevo to make plans to travel to the war-torn region of Knin—even though her mother and brother both disapproved. She arrived in Knin the next year and began working immediately at a hospital where “the wounded, the dying, and the dead are arriving from all directions.” At this early point in Mitić’s powerful narrative, she begins incorporating stories and profiles of the medical rescue staff and of the grisly casualties. As explosions reverberated throughout the region, and civilian anger and confusion at the disintegrating multinational army seethed, she saved lives—Croatian children, countless anguished soldiers, a suicidal young mother. Her humanitarian determination kept her working in the hospital despite exhaustion and sleep deprivation. Further travels brought her to a Kosovo clinic, where there was tension with arrogant Albanian staff; and to central Croatia, where “life [was] disappearing fast.” Mitić struggled to manage casualties while ensuring her own safety, harrowingly depicted in an account of an assault by an agitated sniper. The final section finds the author back at home dealing with a catastrophic personal tragedy. At times, the book’s graphic depiction of violence and bloodshed can be arduous to read. However, Mitić shows a knack for relating vivid details of the wounded, of families’ suffering, and of her devoted colleagues. She also unflinchingly sketches her own extended family’s haunted history. Readers interested in the strife and unrest of the Balkan region, its divergent politics and populations, and the plights of its refugees will find Mitić’s narrative illuminating.

A commanding chronicle of focused leadership and admirable humanity.

Pub Date: Sept. 3, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-9709198-6-1

Page Count: 354

Publisher: Unwritten History

Review Posted Online: March 22, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2019

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