A debut memoir delivers a meditation on a writer’s Texas Panhandle homeland.
Armitage (The Post-2000 Film Western, 2016, etc.), a professor emerita of English and American Studies at the University of Texas at El Paso, begins her book with a return to her family home in Vega. Located in the middle of a sprawling prairie surrounded by acres of grassland, the area was settled by folks like her father, who arrived there at age 16 in 1926 with his family after being flooded out from their Arkansas delta farm. The author fondly describes the 32,000-square-mile Llano Estacado of her homeland as one of the largest North American plateaus and a place historically cultivated primarily by private ranches. Only briefly does the writer dip into her more recent ecological efforts, using government-funded conservation resources, to restore the native grasses and the natural wildlife habitats decimated from decades of farming. She questions what the land has to say and intends on discovering just that in an expansive series of hikes, beginning at her father’s Armitage Farms ranch and spanning miles to reach the cow camp of original cowboy and area settler Ysabel to “track the arc of their stories.” In a meandering, somewhat repetitive, but no less resonant fashion, Armitage unfurls the bucolic history of her family and the land through a rather haphazardly assembled procession of convivial anecdotes from her youth. In a series of spontaneously navigated summer treks, she tracks alongside the long-dried-up Middle Alamosa creek bed to behold dramatic canyons, Native American petroglyphs, and majestic mesas, all interwoven with the often bittersweet snippets of her life growing up. Beholden to the dusty plateaus of her past and the sweeping natural beauty that remains, the author’s intent was to revisit and rediscover the bounty of the area and to share its nostalgic and environmental potential. Armitage’s language and her memories are poetically written, even when describing the prairies that have become tainted by human occupation and depleted and disfigured by “sheep, cattle, farming, strip mining, oil, gas exploration, feed lots, dairies, microwave and cell phone towers.” An engaging geographer and historian, Armitage takes the pulse of the sacred land spread out before her through luminous memories and photographs, all with an appreciative eye and a nod toward its untapped ecological splendor.
Both an intensely lyrical and intimate scrapbook of familial history and a uniquely sublime travelogue of the American Southwestern landscape.
A writer recounts the emotions and memories of losing her mother and battling cancer.
“Have you ever heard a tooth smash?” Avery (The Last Nude, 2012, etc.) asks readers early on. “It’s a tiny sound, and a terrifying one.” Avery, winner of the Lambda Literary Award, offers 15 autobiographical essays about grief, death, and illness—and on almost every page includes a powerful observation, usually both tiny and terrifying. In 2011, the author received word that her mother had died, and in her essays dealing with her grief, she weaves together short, piercing moments ranging from childhood to the months after the funeral. By moving nonchronologically from her mother’s alcoholism to family Christmas fights to selling her mother’s jewelry after her death, Avery avoids simplifying her mother or their relationship, offering instead an emotionally driven and complex portrait of her family and of herself. Avery also writes about her deteriorating health, overhauling her diet, and the search for alternative treatments to fight cancer and arthritis. Months after her mother died, she was diagnosed with an autoimmune condition called reactive arthritis, and the medication she takes subsequently led to the development of a rare form of uterine cancer. By her own admission in the introduction, some of the essays, like “Goodbye Ruby,” delve deeply into the technical aspects of her conditions to help readers facing the specific health challenges she did. But even as she explains dense research and terminology or painstakingly recounts frustrating conversations with doctors, she anchors every new challenge with carefully crafted and insightful moments of everyday life. A small child interacting with a cat, a simple trip to the grocery store, or her most embarrassing struggles with menstruation take on fascinating new depth in the context of her illness. As Avery waits in a hospital at one point, she writes dryly about her thoughts with each bouquet of flowers that arrives, “You have cancer. You are getting a hysterectomy. You might die.” Her narration throughout this heavy subject matter strikes an uncanny balance between funny and sad because she has taken the time to pay attention to the details in every moment and has written about them with honesty and wisdom.
A well-wrought memoir that turns simple observations and memories into powerful illustrations of grief and illness.
In this photo-rich debut memoir, an urban planner recalls bicycling through Southeast Asia, his camera in tow.
Daly had been to Vietnam before, way back in the 1960s as a diver directing “explosive ordnance disposal work” for the U.S. military. But the journey he chronicles here is a much different, far happier one. From November 2013 to January 2014, Daly cycled from Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) north through Cambodia, east through Thailand and Laos, then south to Ho Chi Minh City again, hewing to the long Vietnamese coastline. Though he saw many of the same places he saw in different circumstances 40 years ago, little was familiar. Vietnam “embraced consumerism and market capitalism,” women on the street wore skirts instead of black pajamas, cheap consumer goods were hawked at every corner, and in a city like Danang, “nothing was recognizable apart from misty, foggy views of Marble Mountain, the harbor and the Han River.” Eschewing the daily journal format, Daly organizes his book like a long, in-depth, and personalized travel encyclopedia. Separatesections walk readers through guesthouses where he stayed and the state of their facilities, how to avoid dishonest touts and fixers “smooth and slippery as an overripe mango,” and what to eat and what not to eat—“Cook it or peel it; if in doubt, boil it,” a friend wisely cautioned. Color photographs accompany the text, mostly Daly’s own colorful snaps but also maps and a handful of professional landscape shots. The photos are generally excellent, not professionally framed but, perhaps because of their casual quality, convincingly true to life. Readers are offered glimpses of riverboat vendors, idle boys killing time between jobs, the furious colors of a Hanoi street scene, the stillness of a large white Buddha. Daly is a competent, often eloquent writer, as when he describes an evening walk through Ho Chi Minh City, smelling the “huge array of orchid varieties; the fresh-cut aroma of tropical hardwoods; smoky haze wafting through the streets and alleys as charcoal fires were lit at dusk.” A few readers might be inspired to retrace his path.
A useful, attractive travel guide and memoir recommended for anyone curious about Southeast Asia.
A memoir offers extensive reportage of a sexual assault and a reflection on the author’s future course and evolving faith.
Everhart (Chasing the Divine in the Holy Land, 2012) has been a Presbyterian pastor for more than 25 years. Being raped as a young woman sparked a bitter faith crisis and a long journey toward healing and the ministry. One night in November 1978, two masked African-American gunmen broke into the home she and five other female Calvin College seniors shared in a rough area of Grand Rapids, Michigan. It was ostensibly a robbery, but they also raped all but one hostage. Mini explanatory flashbacks give background about Everhart’s upbringing in the conservative Dutch Reformed Church and her unfamiliarity with blacks; rather than breaking up the narrative flow, these sections maintain tension throughout the incident. Admirably, the book faces ironies and grim realities head-on: when one gunman ordered her to strip, Everhart sucked in her stomach; she was menstruating heavily, so hospital staff administering a rape kit had to remove two tampons. She’d been raised to accept the Calvinist doctrine of God’s sovereignty, meaning nothing is random: was rape her punishment for having consensual sex during her summer job at Yellowstone? “I had bought into an idea of sexual sin that was unequal,” she remarks, with heavier punishment falling on women. This notion of being “ruined,” which intensified after her affair with a married man, haunted the author for years, even after the crime’s ringleader was sentenced to life in prison. Only gradually, through attending multiracial and women-led churches of other denominations, did she overcome her fear of African-American men and reclaim the possibility of biblical feminism. Incorporating trial documents (including transcripts of the prosecutor’s closing argument and a defendant’s and judge’s court statements) and an excerpted seminary essay, the perfectly balanced volume has equal relevance for readers of true crime and progressive theology. This consistently riveting book ends with Everhart’s tender letter to her daughters, reassuring them that a woman’s worth is not dictated by sexual experiences. “Love and suffering are tied together” through Christ’s incarnation, she insists, yet “we are all more than what happens to us.”
Forthright, compassionate, and expertly crafted—everything readers should want from a memoir.
In this luminous debut memoir, a woman struggles to care for her Alzheimer’s-stricken mother, experiencing exhaustion, heartache, moments of joy, and a renewed connection to her loved ones.
Kincaid, an only child who never married, spent a decade caring for her mother, Dixie Garrett Kincaid, after she began suffering from dementia, eventually taking her into her own Arlington, Virginia, home. As the disease progressed from forgetfulness to eccentricity to losses of reason, self-control, and language, the author found herself becoming a parent to her mother, whom she often characterizes as being as helpless and demanding as an infant yet big and mobile enough to cause chaos. Kincaid is unsparing about the realities of Alzheimer’s care, describing her mother’s hygiene problems and violent outbursts; her sometimes-charming, sometimes-infuriating habit of hiding clothes and household objects; and her recurrent medical emergencies, exacerbated by her inability to explain what was wrong. The author also describes her own sleep deprivation and her feelings of intense guilt when she had to deposit her mother in respite care to let herself recuperate. She cogently criticizes the nationwide Alzheimer’s-care network for its frequent lapses and callousness, castigates doctors for making cavalier treatment decisions without considering her mother’s circumstances, and accuses a nursing facility of making false medical claims to justify sending her mother back to the hospital. The author’s wrangles with HMO doctors to get treatment for her own serious ailments, including breast cancer, constitute an appalling health care horror story of its own. But there are also rewards here: her mother’s once-difficult temperament improves as she experiences happiness, satisfaction, and episodes of clarity, and Kincaid’s caregiving results in a deeper familial bond. The author sets the story of her care against descriptions of her fraught relationship with her mother before her decline and of the strong, inspirational women in her extended family. In vivid, graceful prose, she offers an honest account of the burdens of Alzheimer’s patients without losing sight of their importance in the lives of those who care for them.
A cleareyed, moving portrait of Alzheimer’s and the family ties that transcend it.
A California couple realize their ambition of owning a house in rural France in this debut memoir by Les Américains.
Other than a handful of names being changed in the interest of privacy, this work tells the true story of an American husband and wife, Marty and Eileen, studying French and learning how to live in France. The couple co-authored the volume, with Marty “driving” and Eileen “navigating.” The stark differences between American and French cultures become clear from the outset. When they visited Paris, a concierge refused to converse with them because they “did not say bonjour,” and a raging chef burst from the kitchen wielding a knife when the party chose not to order entrees. Despite their early showcasing of French pomposity, the authors remained adamant that they did not simply want to speak the language, they wanted to “be French.” To achieve this goal, they purchased an old stone farmhouse near Bergerac in Aquitaine, southwestern France (“The large kitchen had a massive white range and a clay tile floor…and the master bedroom looked out towards the view through two walls of French doors. There was a large old tree in the courtyard”). The transition was not without calamity, and when the boiler malfunctioned, flooding the house with water and ruining the majority of their possessions, the two grasped that striving for a new life abroad can come with a price. Living in France offers many rewards, and the couple’s triumphs in learning the language and assimilating into a new culture are a joy to discover. The gorgeous landscapes provide an ever present backdrop, captured in bursts of warm, descriptive prose: “As we drove, the landscape changed from rolling hills and vineyards to forests and rocky outcrops. Golden cliffs curved out over the road, undercut by the carving action of long-ago rivers.” The duo displays a gastronomic fascination with French cuisine, and the text delivers mouthwatering recipes, such as an indulgent goat cheese soufflé and a scrumptious lemon cheesecake. Thoughtfully written, understated, and without pretension, this book should appeal to Francophiles and epicureans alike. It also pays testament to the single-mindedness, bravery, and unfaltering desire of two particularly likable “Américains” who set out to fulfill a dream.
A delightfully evocative farmhouse tale; as satisfying as a summer evening on a French terrace with a cool glass of rosé in hand.
A woman looks back on growing up in foster homes in England during World War II.
In this memoir, Mickelson (Our Sons Were Labeled Behavior Disordered: Here Is the Story of Our Lives, 2000) recounts her childhood. Born to a working-class Jewish couple in London, she and her sister, Viv, were moved to the countryside with other children to avoid German bombing. The sisters encountered kindness but also cruelty and anti-Semitism in their foster homes. Their first stay, with a good-natured vicar and his wife, ended abruptly when the vicar suffered a stroke. After spending six weeks across the street in the overcrowded Short residence, the girls moved to another foster home but had to leave when Mickelson contracted scarlet fever. Placed with a couple named the Canns, the sisters were treated like family members until one day they discovered Ma Cann dead in bed. Frightened by their next set of elderly foster parents, they ran away. After their billeting officer caught up with them, they stayed with a family whose mother hit and yelled at them, hollering, “That’s enough, you little kike!” at Mickelson when she wouldn’t eat bubble and squeak that “smelt like manure.” Following her expulsion from school, Viv returned to her parents. Mickelson eventually followed. But the sisters reunited only to have their mother die suddenly. Pondering anti-Semitism and their faith, Viv concluded: “Accept the fact that you’re a Jew and that everyone hates you.” Mickelson has written a stirring account of her childhood. The book is especially poignant because it’s written from the viewpoint of a child who can’t understand the purportedly rational adult world and grown-ups’ conceits and prejudices. The author’s particularly adept at description, whether reminiscing about eating wild mushrooms that “smelled of the fields and the sun” or the many characters who people this memoir, such as her sex-starved spinster Aunt Mimi, who wore a see-through pink organdy skirt, made lascivious remarks about the men around her, and ended up in a psychiatric facility. Capturing the quirks, kindness, and cruelty of her foster families, Mickelson delivers a sadly realistic personal account of life in England during the war and of the anti-Semitism that pervaded that country even as it fought Nazi Germany.
A moving work of memory—focusing on two sisters’ wartime struggles—that helps bridge the wide gulf between childhood and adulthood.
As the rumble of World War II draws closer, a young boy leaves behind his once-comfortable life in Split, Yugoslavia, to embark on a turbulent adventure.
This debut memoir opens in July 1943, with the 11-year-old Novakovic in flight from his hometown, where “the Axis Powers made life impossible for us.” He recalls street executions and even recounts a time when he was shot at on the way home from school. This new existence, lived in perpetual fear, stands in stark contrast to his past, when he would explore the catacombs beneath the Diocletian Palace, a part of which was owned by his wealthy family. He describes his father possessing three automobiles “when simply owning one was a novelty” and, while dining, how his grandparents would place a gold ducat under the children’s plates as a reward for finishing the meal. Leaving almost everything behind, the family begins an odyssey that first takes it westward to Italy. Suffering with a toothache on the road to Maggio, young Novakovic is unaware that his own personal journey will lead to Buenos Aires and New York. The memoir is divided into four parts, determined by a key moment in the author’s life: “From Split to Milano,” “Becoming an American,” “An Officer and a Gentleman,” and “From an Officer to a Businessman.” Each section remains engaging in its own right. Many passages are so vivid that they startle the reader. At one point, the author describes a fighter plane bearing down on him: “He was also shooting in my direction. I could have decided, like Cary Grant in the Alfred Hitchcock movie, North by Northwest, to run and try to find cover….But I did not choose to use my speed. Instead I stood, looked up, and waved at the pilot.” Yet, beyond war’s chaos, this work examines a life punctuated by achievement, as the author reflects on a dazzling career in the military and as a successful entrepreneur. Written with humility and elegance, Novakovic’s memoir displays a solid command of transnational history, which he wraps effortlessly around his own story, giving the memoir a greater cachet. This book should appeal to readers manifesting an interest in World War II or anyone searching for inspiration in the tenacity of others.
A remarkable and gripping account of a boy fleeing a war-torn nation and eventually flourishing in America.
In this raucous debut memoir, an addict hits bottom in spectacular fashion by getting arrested for a string of bank robberies.
Piotter describes a Seattle boyhood tangled in familial and personal dysfunctions: an authoritarian yet deadbeat dad, swerving between frauds and gambling binges; a defeated, alcoholic mom; and junior high pot smoking and dealing that served as a gateway into serious cocaine and heroin addictions. His adulthood was even more chaotic as he weathered homelessness, jail stints, gangsters who beat and shot at him, epic benders with druggies and prostitutes, and a ceaseless, exhausting search for anything he could steal—including oscillating fans, driving gloves, and a box of raw oysters—to feed his $500-a-day habit. It was with palpable relief that in 1993, after a spell as a gentleman bandit knocking over local banks,he was sentenced to nine and a half years in a federal penitentiary.There, Piotter began an unlikely turnaround as he received treatment for his addictions, kept his nose relatively clean, and learned construction trades. He’s a keen observer of the prison’s often bizarre and occasionally noble characters and twisted moral economy; for example, in one sequence fraught with chilling irony, a sober friend flushes his dealer cellmate’s stash down the toilet to avoid a search by guards, which puts him in debt to the prison’s Colombian cartel, who in turn extract repayment by making him kill one of their Mexican rivals. Piotter’s narrative unfolds as a picaresque of brief, punchy, shaggy dog stories; even after his release, as he stays sober, starts a construction company, and woos his wary future wife, he’s still beset by lurid happenstances, including road-rage episodes, a public sea lion orgy, and the hanging suicide of his neighbor. His storytelling is briskly paced, evocative, and laced with piquant character sketches and wisecracks such as, “I’m allergic to alcohol; every time I drink I break out in handcuffs.” The author’s life, as portrayed here, contains enough screw-ups for 10 dysfunctionality memoirs, but unlike other memoirists, he eschews angst and self-pity and highlights the absurd humor of the predicaments he made for himself. The pathos here is all the more moving for being spare, understated, and well-earned from hard experience.
A smart, occasionally wise, and always entertaining recollection of addiction, crime, punishment, and recovery.
In this LGBTQ memoir, a teacher and activist relates the changes, challenges, and joys of her marriage to a trans-identified psychotherapist/rock ’n’ roller.
“The first time I ever saw Katy, she was wearing a full beard and a prosthetic man-chest with perfectly molded pecs and sculpted abs,” begins this memoir. Schilt was attracted to Katy Koonce but not yet ready to come out. The two finally connected in group therapy, “a strange place to start a relationship,” but it had some advantages: “Before we ever spent a moment alone together, Katy knew that I was a depression-prone approval seeker….I knew that Katy was a former drug addict with hepatitis C” and also a therapist herself. Both had trouble with body image, Schilt from growing up with “compulsive dieters” and Koonce, who is transgender, from experiencing gender dysphoria. In Part I, Schilt describes the couple’s courtship, marriage, and birth of their child Waylon, ending with Koonce’s much-desired final chest reconstruction. Part II turns to Koonce’s treatment for hepatitis C, which weakened her and required much caretaking while Schilt was also looking after their young son. This left Schilt feeling bruised; Part III examines how she learned to stand up for her own needs and began writing. What makes Schilt’s engaging work stand out in today’s crowded memoir field is how well she avoids its besetting sins, self-pity and melodrama. Her wry humor, hard-won insights, and appreciation of eccentricity come through instead, as when she describes Donna, Koonce’s force-of-nature mother: “Saying your prayers to the moon is pretty risqué stuff in a town where the Baptists still believe that Methodists go to hell.” Especially absorbing is seeing how Koonce’s illness forced Schilt to change. “All of my life, I’d been waiting for permission,” she writes. She had to deliberately “practice acting as entitled and taking up as much space as Katy,” which she found agonizing at first. Activism, a faith community that fit, and motherhood all contributed to her growth as well, described with lively clarity.
A well-balanced, soul-searching family memoir with broad appeal.
A gay man recounts his tumultuous relationship with his partner during the 1980s AIDS epidemic in New York City and Boston.
In his debut memoir, retired psychotherapist Ward recalls his rocky relationship with a man named Mark Halberstadt in the early ’80s. The pair met during the author’s vacation to Fire Island, and soon the author found himself “sick with love.” The two shared a passionate but volatile relationship as Halberstadt struggled to pursue a career that he loved and attempted to resolve a legal issue that kept him financially strapped. Although the pair constantly fought about money and their diverging paths in life, they always managed to stay together. The AIDS crisis was always lurking in the background of their lives, but even as the crisis mounted, the author notes that he “didn’t see how AIDS related to me at all.” After a period of illness, Halberstadt was diagnosed with AIDS, and he had to reconcile the fact that the disease had entered his world. Ward decided to stay with Halberstadt “for the duration….In sickness and in health,” finding support and guidance from the growing community in Boston dealing with AIDS and especially from other couples in their position. This fast-paced memoir not only focuses on the hard times between Ward and Halberstadt, but also highlights the couple’s many vacations and sailing trips (a favorite activity of Halberstadt’s) before the latter became ill. The author does an impeccable job of portraying Halberstadt multidimensionally, and he treats him with compassion and fairness throughout. Ward is a talented storyteller who’s created a compelling, emotionally rich tale out of a difficult, tragic time in American history. Anyone looking for more insight into the AIDS epidemic from a deeply personal perspective will likely benefit from this book. It could have been incredibly difficult to read about someone watching their partner struggle through disease, but Ward handles his and Halberstadt’s story with admirable grace.
A well-handled look at the AIDS crisis from the perspective of a man who lived through it.