Picone describes how, decades after her abusive mother cast her out, she attempted to reunite with her estranged family—including her now–Alzheimer’s-stricken mother.
Quiet, sensitive Picone and her four siblings spent their New York City childhood being tormented by Eva, their Colombian-born mother. Yet Picone simultaneously longed for her mother’s love, especially after her father’s death. When a handsome older man asked 17-year-old Picone to marry him following an innocent courtship, Eva coldly cast her daughter out of the family. Picone remained shattered by Eva’s decision for decades, but after her stepfather’s funeral, she strived to reconnect with her family. Unfortunately, her siblings responded with varying degrees of hostility, having long believed Eva’s slanderous (and false) tales about their sister. Picone focused on rebuilding a relationship with her mother, but Alzheimer’s disease was ravaging her, leaving the matriarch increasingly confused and ill while forcing Picone and her combative older sister Julia to share caregiver responsibilities in Eva’s crumbling Queens house. Two additional narratives then unfold: poems describing Picone’s childhood, starting with her earliest memory and circling back to her heart-wrenching abandonment; and the histories of her mother, her Colombian and Italian grandmothers, and Picone’s charming but womanizing father, recounted by Eva in rare moments of lucidity. In this exquisitely beautiful, haunting debut memoir, Picone weaves a personal story of familial alienation together with sharp, unforgettable portraits of Colombian social hierarchy, the American immigrant experience and post–World War II life. The complex dance of family dynamics rises to life, instantly ensnaring readers. Whether it’s Picone arguing with Julia over their mother’s prognosis or Eva’s painful transition from upper-class Colombian to divorced American immigrant, Picone approaches every character—even herself—with resolute compassion and unflinching honesty. Occasionally, the story steers near self-pity in some distressing scenes, but it never fully falls into that trap. Between the story’s rich layers and Picone’s captivating writing style, this memoir and its nuanced characters will carve a place in readers’ minds.
A fascinating, magnificently epic family saga told by a gifted storyteller.
The heart-and-guts career of a California firefighter whose good days saw children saved and bad days saw loved ones lost.
At the time, Ashby’s choice of profession seemed random. A self-described “non-directional male,” he went to the courthouse to pay some parking tickets and saw a recruitment flier for the Pasadena Fire Department. It was the late 1960s, and fighting fires while attending college seemed like a better choice than Vietnam. Little did Ashby know he would spend the next 30-plus years crawling through smoke-filled buildings, racing to accident scenes and saving lives. In this sometimes humorous, sometimes heart-rending memoir, Ashby rises from lowly recruit at Pasadena to battalion chief with the Los Angeles County Fire Department. The author recounts with authentic detail the horrific incidents that firefighters encounter. In one instance, he and his crewmates responded to an apartment where a man had slashed his girlfriend with a machete and then buried the blade in his own neck, nearly decapitating himself. There are also harrowing accounts of river rescues, gang shootings and even a bomb threat at a sex-toy warehouse. More revealing is how Ashby coped psychologically during grueling 56-hour workweeks. He describes a mental “filing cabinet” where he stashed the “terrible things I’ve seen that would otherwise scar my soul.” The book’s stomach-turning tragedies are counterbalanced with more prosaic reminiscences about first loves, old chums and fatherhood. Yet Ashby doesn’t shy away from the darker corners of his life, including his problems with alcohol and the murder of his nephew. Given that he often witnessed the ugliest side of humanity, Ashby might be forgiven if his words carried a cynical edge; instead, he writes with a sanguine, sympathetic outlook that acknowledges bad things happen to everyone. His personal credo reflects the workmanlike attitude of emergency professionals who confront calamity every day: “We do all we can, and it has to be enough.”
Bloodcurdling recollections from a regular guy who answered the call when the alarm bell rang.
This memoir by a country doctor Down Under is rife with memorable characters and odd happenings. And the reader gets a glimpse of semi-exotic Australia.
Debut memoirist Carter and his wife moved from their native England to Australia in the 1970s, settling in Melbourne. They tried to start a new, antipodean life after the death of their infant daughter, but the loss eventually killed the marriage. At a loss himself, Carter relocated farther into the countryside and found himself a harried country doctor (underscore “found himself”). Woongarra seems at times like Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Macondo: Not only do Carter and his dog, Hardy, have soulful conversations, but Carter has mixed “true life events with small doses of storytelling, and the final brew is a mix of many things that really took place and a few that definitely never did.” We meet Dave, filthy and homeless but an amazing musician; Phill (the second l is silent, he says), the gay waiter with the Carmen Miranda headgear; the prolific Gaggliano clan with their inedible sausages; Teddy and Michael, a gay couple with a gentle hospitality; and several others. Most chapters are humorous, but some are bittersweet and then some. We get the back story—thanks to Teddy’s prompting—of the death (SIDS?) of Carter’s daughter at 10 months. We get the brave story of twisted Isobel and the heartbreaking one of Eileen and Harold, for whom reconciliation comes too late. With Carter, we mourn Hardy’s death. And at book’s end, our hero has found a good woman to be his second wife (“Helen” in the book, Gillian in real life). Carter often gets his leg pulled or gets a bum rap for something not of his own making, but he is an innately cheerful, decent chap, and that shines through. The reader comes to like Doc Carter a lot; he is the antidote to Doc Martin of PBS fame. Carter is an impressively gifted tyro who understands fictional tricks better than many experienced practitioners of the craft.
After this auspicious start, one hopes that the good doctor will keep on writing. Highly recommended. A keeper.
A general contractor and author looks back on a 35-year career contending with a variety of houses and people—most in disrepair.
Beginning when the author was just starting out as a novice handyman in the 1970s, this collection of short essays roughly progresses through to the present day, when, despite numerous tumbles off ladders and at least one impaling, Cottonwood is still plying his trade. The many blue-collar jobs that Cottonwood (Clear Heart, 2009, etc.) wonderfully describes in his latest offering may involve worm-gear saws, ladders, lighting fixtures and the like, but they’re really all about people. Some are wealthy, some poor, but all are frail in some way and in need of some proper shoring—that includes the ace carpenter himself. Each vignette confidently stands on its own, whether several pages long or only a few paragraphs. The robust snapshots of the carpenter’s working life toiling in crawl spaces and basements around Northern California over the last four decades consistently play on important themes of mortality, class and personal fulfillment. Elegant entries like “A Working-Class Hippie” and “The Airplane Room” touch on the often ephemeral nature of close human relationships. A vague sense of melancholy pervades much of Cottonwood’s work, even in the midst of relative triumph, such as when Cottonwood receives a check for a job well-done: “This simple act always fascinates me: the transfer of wealth. So casual. So vital. A rich man of immense power, a tradesman with none. What if he refused?”
Expertly crafted narrative nonfiction that reveals the framework of people’s lives.
In her debut memoir, Engelhardt writes about losing her husband, Tony Hawkins, who was on Pan Am Flight 103 that was blown out of the sky over Lockerbie, Scotland, in the 1988 terrorist attack.
Hawkins was returning home to Brooklyn after a short visit to his native England. He was 57 and left behind his wife, Helen, and their son, Alan, who just turned 6. They’d had 16 years together; Alan was the late-life—and very precocious—child that they doted on. The book recounts that first year after Lockerbie but also looks back and recalls both the good times and the hard times. Like all marriages, theirs was not without challenges, but their love was rock-solid. And such lacerating irony: Tony was supposed to fly home a day earlier but begged an extra day to tie up loose ends. So many had stories like that to tell; others were supposed to make that flight but were saved by their “bad luck.” With other survivors, Engelhardt organized the Victims of Pan Am Flight 103 and began lobbying, marching, protesting, writing letters (and newsletters), badgering whatever powers they thought could and should do more. She became all too familiar with the media and no fan of it. Engelhardt knows how to work up drama, switching between accounts of the couple’s honeymoon in Europe and accounts of the crash 16 years later, oscillating in time between the two and thus accentuating the horror. Engelhardt’s quietly moving poem to Tony and their love (“There Was So Much to Love”) provides the only imaginable coda to a memoir that begins with her prose poem titled “Incident at Altitude, 12/21/88,” which launches us into the nightmare. Thus is it bookended. The narrative of course brims with details both public and private. For the most part, Engelhardt writes clearly and with tight control, knowing that histrionics would cheapen her story. Such restraint makes the telling all the more powerful.
Engelhardt is an accomplished poet and writer, and there is not a single significant misstep in this moving and engrossing book.
An affecting coming-of-age memoir looking at life in the Soviet Union at a time of political and social change by American debut author Kalis.
Recent college graduate David found himself at loose ends. He knew he wanted to use his degree in Soviet East European Studies but wasn’t sure how. He embarked on a 30-day trip to the Soviet Union, hoping to improve his language skills, and ended up staying two and a half years, only returning to the United States when he had completed a voyage of self-discovery. On his very first day in Moscow in 1991, he found himself on a Soviet tank photographing a political uprising; two years later, he repeated the experience at a demonstration at the Bely Dom, the Russian White House. However, the second time, after being shot at, he underwent a watershed moment, realizing that it was time to leave the city he had made his home. Although small in stature, Kalis is big in chutzpah: He talked his way into a job, met his hero Gorbachev, and stood up to the Russian Mafia (vodka helped). Kalis’ forthrightness allows readers to see the flaws in his younger self, most of them attributable to the foibles of youth. However, despite his immaturity, he possesses a moral code, which prevented him from taking advantage of the prevalence of prostitution and pornography, preferring instead to meet partners the old-fashioned way. When Kalis finally visited the village of his grandfather’s birth, in Ukraine, he achieved a deeper understanding of his heritage and the losses his Jewish grandparents experienced during the Holocaust and pogroms. The scenes in Ukraine, in which he feels a deep connection with the people and his own faith, are particularly poignant in the context of recent events in the region. While Kalis doesn’t provide much historical background, his first-person account of life in the Soviet Union at the tail end of the Cold War provides depth that history texts cannot. Well-written and absorbing, his memoir will appeal to general readers as well as those with an interest in Eastern Europe.
A personal look at the disintegration of the Soviet Union, experienced through the eyes of an occasionally callow, but always likable, young man.
In 1996, the worst disaster in recorded Mt. Everest climbing history occurred when, due to a combination of factors, eight people died on a single expedition. This memoir is Kasischke’s personal account of how he survived.
Hours before the tragedy, Kasischke’s reservations about the expedition were mounting. Too many people were climbing the mountain at once, and despite some unnecessary delays, the leader, Rob Hall, had continued to lead the climb, although the team wouldn’t be able to reach the top and return down before nightfall—a decision so poor that Kasischke and others blame it for the climbers’ deaths rather than the treacherous storm they faced that night. Kasischke is alive to tell his tale because he chose to turn around at a critical juncture, and he admits that he shouldn’t have even gone that far. He was trapped for days once the storm hit. The author dramatically recounts being frozen, dehydrated and snow blind and says that he relied on his love for his wife and his faith to get him through. It seems that Kasischke has chosen to relive this nightmare in order to come to grips with it and to honor those who didn’t make it, as well as to add a new perspective to a tale most people know via journalist Jon Krakauer, whose very presence, Kasischke implies, played an inadvertent role in what happened. Kasischke, however, never comes across as bitter or recriminatory but simply honest. He also pays tribute to his wife, Sandy, who, despite not being physically there, was a very real presence for him throughout the ordeal. The hand-drawn illustrations by Jane Cardinal also help the reader visualize the people and environs.
A vivid, intimate memoir that, with great clarity and attention to detail, tells an unforgettable survival story.
Miller, a Mexico-based American journalist, celebrates Africa in this compelling travel memoir.
While awaiting her flight to Nairobi, Miller found herself in close proximity to an explosion at Charles de Gaulle Airport. Shaken but remaining levelheaded, she later boarded a plane to begin her African adventure. The tempo of the memoir is thereby set: fast-paced, occasionally bordering on the urgent, yet always coolly informative. Miller writes that during her time spent away from Africa, she missed it as she might “a close friend or beloved relative”—a sentiment palpable throughout the memoir, as the continent and its diverse array of people are described in tender detail. The author’s journey takes her to Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe. The Nairobi men are “lean and long, with chiseled features,” whereas the Masai men, have “[d]eep-set eyes, [and a] penetrating gaze, yet soft and soulful.” This form of earnest portraiture captures the manner in which, as with the landscape, human physical characteristics change as the miles pass. The political landscape is also carefully considered, with a specific focus on the impact of colonialism and subsequent waves of tourism. The book’s true power lies in its ability to communicate the freedom and wonder of traversing through Africa’s wide-open spaces. Readers share in the amazement of seeing wild animals in their natural habitats and traveling under a “canopy of moon and stars.” The author describes spiritual aspects of the continent—for example, the legend of Nyami-Nymai, the river god of the Zambezi—yet this travelogue is also an intimate account of a deeply moving inner journey. Although Africa’s dangers are present, not central, the memoir has its thrills and spills, most notably a shipwreck in Zimbabwe. Focus is placed upon the positive impact the continent can have on the individual, which is helpful in debunking Western perceptions of Africa as merely perilous and politically unstable. Carefully researched and written with passion, the narrative buzzes with an energy drawn from the land itself.
Mindermann’s personal story as a San Francisco police officer who became an FBI special agent in Washington, D.C., during the Nixon administration.
Mindermann worked as an FBI agent on Watergate and witnessed the shadowy intrigue that episode trailed in its wake, including the FBI occupation of the White House—Secret Service turf—and the “swirling, ethically confusing” dance of Washington’s subculture of undercover operations. By the end of this particular tale—with its on-the-spot anecdotes, finding and following the money trail, and profiles of major characters, including acting Director L. Patrick Gray and Mark Felt (Mr. Deep Throat)—few will contest Mindermann’s suggestion that “Watergate was an FBI story,” with all due respect to theWashington Post. Following Mindermann, as he details the tarp thrown over the break-in, for all its holes and gaps, highlights the collective smarts of the agency. The action switches to Mindermann’s years growing up in San Francisco, nicely documenting why he is one tough character, and joining the San Francisco Police Department, with a fine array of fleet stories involving bar fights, police corruption, drunks and druggies, and a terrifying story of a near lynching: “That evening I’d come face-to-face with the potential for human barbarity.” Mindermann has a taste for Sergeant Friday stylization—“I targeted the most hardened, felony prone hoodlums, whose rap sheets vividly revealed a criminal panorama,” “a foreboding chill swept over me”—but it works well here, for Mindermann spent most of his life in the company of murderous bottom feeders, and the chronicles of their takedowns benefit from his Technicolor delivery. After joining the FBI, the author was not only involved with plenty of high-profile operations, such as the John DeLorean sting, but he notes that he was a pioneer on the poison of stress in police work and helped developed criminal profiling (as a refined police tool rather than excuse for bigotry).
Both sophisticated and rowdy, Mindermann reminds us that the cops and FBI often wore white hats during their darker days in the 1960s and ’70s.
The story of the creation and marketing of some of Ford’s most popular, iconic cars, as told by one of the company’s early “Whiz Kids.”
“I have always loved to drive,” Morsey says in this debut memoir. “Ever since I was a small boy, I have been fascinated with automobiles and felt the tug of the open road.” His passion took him from driving his first Ford Coupe in 1936 to convincing a boardroom of Ford executives in 1949 that V-8 models would be necessary to put the company back on top. After college, with World War II ongoing, Morsey’s father shot down his idea of going to law school, saying, “You’re going to get drafted, and you’re going to have absolutely nothing to offer the army—no skills at all.” So, with his father’s recommendation, Morsey instead started working for IBM, where he learned the essentials of good business and how customer satisfaction could sell products better than market research. The author deftly weaves the lessons he learned into his narrative, but he’s always careful to bring his readers back into the action of the story. As a lead market analyst for Ford, he learned of a new initiative to stop production of the V-8 engine. Morsey’s passion comes through in this section, since he understood that the V-8 didn’t sell Ford cars because it was cheaper or more efficient but because it gave people pride to drive one. It’s intriguing to watch the concepts develop, such as the author’s idea of the Thunderbird as “the apple in the window”: The legendary car didn’t make money on its own, he says, but customers desired it so much that it led them to buy other, more practical Ford cars. Children who saw their parents idolizing the sleek Thunderbird grew into adults, and Morsey and future Chrysler CEO Lee Iacocca sold them the sporty yet sensible Ford Mustang in the late 1960s.Morsey’s detailed prose, passionate recollections and careful documentation help bring this era of automotive history to life.
A compelling narrative of the design and development of Ford cars in the 1950s and ’60s.
A chronicle of the fishing exploits of five generations of the Mumford family, who for the past 100 years have been enjoying regular trips to the fishing camps along Canada’s Miramichi River.
At the beginning of the 20th century, some well-heeled New Englanders began heading up to New Brunswick, Canada, to take part in the excellent salmon fishing along the Miramichi River. These “sports,” as the touristswere called by locals, hired their own guides, cooks and packhorses as they set out on their one- or two-week adventures into the wilderness. The journals and log entries from these expeditions inspired Mumford (Cloudy Night Books, 1979) to assemble the collection into a memoir. In 1916, the author’s father accompanied his own father to the Miramichi for the first time, and he began writing the journal entries that make up the first, most interesting, part of this book. These were the early, rustic years, during which guides could raise a makeshift shelter out of birch bark in time to protect their charges from an oncoming storm. Lunches were served by campfire along the shore, and the guides happily shared their life-in-the-wilderness techniques and local humor with the citified members of the Miramichi Fish and Game Club. (It doesn’t seem that the “sports” actually practiced any of these survival skills themselves.) Time marched on, and automobiles began to replace the trekking by foot, horseback and wagon. Lunches were served at the lodge in between morning and afternoon fishing forays, and the frequent comments in the club log, which make up the bulk of the latter portion of this book, focus on the number of salmon caught, the number of grilse (salmon that have returned to spawn after their first trip into the Atlantic) caught, the number of each that avoided the hook and a seemingly endless list of lures used. Information like this might only be relevant to fellow anglers already familiar with the terminology—e.g., a fishing experiment includes “a brown dry fly known as a Macintosh or Squirrel Tail.” Likewise, the extensive citing of names of fellow participants might only concern the men and women of the Miramichi Fish and Game Club.
An enjoyable look at how outdoorsy vacations have changed, though the appeal isn’t too broad.
A rich, lucid debut memoir of an American hippie’s adventures on a goat farm in southern France in the early 1980s, pieced together from the author’s journals.
Murray writes with grace, complexity and humor of the months she spent living and working with a farming family in France’s Languedoc region in late 1980 and early ’81. Jumping into farm life cheerfully, with no running water and limited French, Murray quickly learned to make cheese, birth calves and survive on one bath a week. With compassion and candor, she vividly paints the strong personalities of the farm’s family members and hired hand and deftly describes the relationship she developed with each one. These interactions are fraught with cross-cultural misunderstandings, language barriers or good old-fashioned dislike. But they’re also interwoven with kindness, humor, simple pleasures and the joy of shared work. Murray provides both bleak and beautiful descriptions of the climate and landscape, along with meditations on her spiritual transformation and purification in the southern French mountains. She portrays her beloved goats as well as she does the humans in the story; as she grew fond of her little flock, she struggled to confront the harsh realities of farm life. But just as readers will weep at the death of baby goats, they’ll also laugh at the comical portrayals of truffle hunting and relish the descriptions of simple Christmas festivities and evenings spent reading by the fire. They may also admire the author’s metamorphosis from a privileged preppie to a hardworking farmhand who herded goats during raging blizzards. The author gives the narrative a strong sense of place and time with continual references to the popular culture and politics of the day. At the end, this highly enjoyable book turns somewhat unexpectedly toward the tragic, which invests the memoir with a rare balance of light and darkness.
A welcome memoir of France that offers a complex mosaic of memories.
In these essays, a noted bioethicist takes a thoughtful, wry look at his personal life as a way to touch on larger issues.
Appel (Scouting for the Reaper, 2014, etc.) is one of life’s overachievers: a physician, attorney and professional bioethicist, he also writes fiction, essays, opinion pieces and plays; his 2012 novel The Man Who Wouldn’t Stand Up won the Dundee International Book Prize. This strong volume brings together 13 previously published essays, in which Appel delves into his family history, childhood and other personal experiences, generally as jumping-off points for insights related to his medical, legal and ethical concerns. In “Two Cats, Fat and Thin,” for example, Appel spins an anecdote about stolen toys into a consideration of wealth, privilege, loss and changed lives. Should his parents try to get back Appel’s toys, which may have been stolen by a motel maid for her own son?: “Did I really want to yank [them] from his deprived little hands? Yes, I did.” Here, as in other essays, the author is disarmingly willing to consider his own shortcomings and misprisions. Several essays examine the role of history in family culture. His Belgian Jewish grandfather’s experience of anti-Semitism, for example, led him to adopt “Never, ever, stick your neck out” as a motto—which, Appel comments, is “probably good advice when you’re hiding from a mob of middle-class churchgoers lobbing stones, but my grandfather applied it universally.” Among the many thought-provoking pieces is “Opting Out,” which examines decisions around death and dying. Here, too, Appel mixes personal observation, family drama and his work as a physician to tease out difficult issues: “My grandfather had always said, ‘Where there is life, there is hope,’ which may explain—at least, in part—our family’s reluctance to withdraw care. But the unfortunate reality is that, where there is life, there is often false hope too.” Readers may not agree with every conclusion (“No acute sorrow, not even the death of a friend, compares with romantic rejection”), but they will understand how Appel reached them.
Entertaining, intelligent and compassionate essays that provoke reflection.
Booze, chaos and depression pass from mother to daughter in this searing memoir.
Van Ivan grew up in the 1950s smoldering in a childhood from hell: dragging her inebriated mother home from bars where she’d passed out; weathering a string of unstable stepfathers; getting yanked from home to home and toted along on drunken transcontinental joy rides; being left alone to take care of her younger brothers when their parents disappeared for days on end. There’s squalor aplenty in this saga but also feisty resilience and even lyricism in van Ivan’s unsparing account of her appalling circumstances. The adults in her life—her beautiful, cruel mother, her charming and mostly absent bookie father—loom mythically large in her child’s-eye perspective, which, depending on unpredictable twists of fortune, veers among apprehension, panic, wary relief and rare carefree idylls. The toll all this takes on her becomes gradually apparent as van Ivan makes her way into adulthood determined not to make her mother’s mistakes but apparently fated to do so anyway. Bouncing between New York and Hollywood in pursuit of a marginal show-business career (she sketches vivid portraits of celebrities she encountered, from a dapper Cary Grant to a crazed John Cassavetes), she develops her own unappeasable yen for alcohol and drugs and embarks on a series of rickety marriages and relationships. Her empty, unmoored life becomes a whirl of hangovers, blackouts and compulsive thoughts of suicide. This is dark material, but van Ivan treats it with an exhilarating irony that avoids bathos. She tells her story with novelistic detail and nuance in a raptly observant prose that’s matter-of-fact but infused with mordant wit and occasional flights of hallucinatory fancy. The result is a gripping read that spins painful experiences into deeply satisfying literature.
An affecting memoir of dysfunction in a fragmented life that gains clarity and grace in its telling.