An essayist pens an ode to womanhood in this debut memoir.
When the young, single mother who lived across the street from Jarrell was murdered, it triggered insecurities about her own upbringing: “It was her aloneness. That old, familiar, just-we-two aloneness I couldn’t bear to see up close again.” The author was raised by her mother, with periodic appearances from her handsome father, a charismatic yet manipulative man they called Nick. Her mother wed Nick at age 16. Jarrell recounts tales about their early relationship, “his jealousy and her bruises,” with a sense of dread. Once the author was born, her mother saved up enough money to leave her father, leading to a series of childhood stories linked by the inherent danger of inhabiting a female body—from Jarrell seeing a woman get harassed by three adolescent boys to Nick voicing his disturbing opinions about “good girls.” Later, in the author’s adult relationships, she took great pains to avoid her mother’s mistakes. Still, she found herself shacking up in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with Wes, a dead-end boyfriend who was not completely unlike Nick, and learning to cope with her husband Brad’s imperfections. What shines in these autobiographical essays is Jarrell’s rendering of her mother, an honest examination of this capable, desirable, and well-traveled woman who was nonetheless unable to resist Nick’s pull. Their mother-daughter relationship is more poignant than any love story (in one stirring vignette, the two crammed into a tiny single bed on vacation because they couldn’t bear to sleep in separate rooms) and similarly fraught with complications. These difficulties included Jarrell’s disgust when her mother repeatedly succumbed to Nick’s charms. The author has published essays in the New York Times and the Huffington Post, and her skill is evident in her deliberate prose. Regarding her father’s infidelity, she simply writes about her parents: “Twice he’d told her to go to the doctor to see if he’d given her gonorrhea.” Though the settings of Jarrell’s stories range from Camden, Maine, to Italy and Los Angeles, the author’s small-town Americana tone is reminiscent of Joyce Carol Oates. The work’s lasting message is that love, like Jarrell’s prose, is both painful and beautiful.
A stunning series of recollections with a feminist slant.
A widow details her husband’s final years—when he was in a nursing home—but also presents a sweeping view of their four decades together.
Munat first met Chuck in Chicago in 1968. He was a 34-year-old high school English instructor and father of three, soon to be divorced; the author was a 21-year-old college senior and his practice teacher at the time. “The first thing I loved about him was his bravery,” she recalls, opening with a powerful vignette of Chuck negotiating between riot police and students protesting poor conditions in black schools. Munat would need to channel that courage when Chuck’s health went downhill rapidly in 2003 following a small stroke. After three weeks in rehab, he came home, but Munat couldn’t cope with his incontinence and falls. Back he went to St. Thomas nursing home, where he remained until his death in 2009. A diagnosis of Lewy body dementia explained Chuck’s shuffling gait and occasional disorientation. LBD is characterized by “fluctuating cognition,” and the book gives vivid examples of Chuck’s “Downtime” versus “Showtime” behavior. The narrative fluidly shifts between sections about the daily challenges of caregiving and flashbacks to the couple’s earlier life together, including confronting career changes, forming a blended family, hosting exchange students, and moving to Bainbridge Island, Washington. Re-created dialogue is excellent throughout. Excerpts from journals and family newsletters enrich the text, as do frequent photographs and inventive chapter titles (“It All Began with a Pink Wastebasket”). Munat provides a clear sense of marriage as an ongoing passage, along with chronicling her separate caregiving journey: leaving their home for a condo and drawing strength from family, a “Circle Babes” support group, and short vacations. Visiting Chuck nearly every day for six years was a drain but also a labor of love. “Illness could not take away what we’d always had: an abiding love and respect for each other,” she writes. “And that kind of love does not come to an end.”
A beautiful, richly panoramic book that should reassure caregivers and delight memoir readers.
A mother recovering from the death of her newborn child experiences both hope and intense anxiety as she embarks on another pregnancy in this debut memoir.
Chute, a photographer and artist, lost her second child, Zachary, just moments after his birth when he died of an inoperable heart tumor caused by a genetic abnormality called Tuberous Sclerosis Complex. After a period of anguish that included an episode in which she pounded her head against a wall and stabbed her palm with a golf tee, she immersed herself in a “Year of Distraction” through frenetic work. Then, after being reassured that Zachary’s illness was not inherited, she became pregnant again—and began a new ordeal, chronicled here in 40 week-by-week chapters. Chute’s worry that the new pregnancy would also end in tragedy preoccupied her and made every doctor’s appointment, ultrasound scan, and bodily twinge an agony of apprehension. Meanwhile, she tried to process the unfinished business of Zachary’s death in a church-run mourning group where she found mainly a gruel of unhelpful platitudes; mothered her rambunctious 2-year-old daughter, Hannah; and tussled and bonded with her husband, Aaron, who was supportive but sometimes wounded her with his determination to get on with life. In this sometimes-fraught, sometimes-luminous work, Chute’s narrative brings together in a roiling, deeply felt tangle maternal experiences that are usually separated, as the exhilaration of pregnancy and the exhausting happiness of raising a toddler are overshadowed by lingering grief and dread. It’s an emotional roller coaster, with giddy anticipation turning on a dime into fretful, claustrophobic brooding and self-laceration. Chute’s prose conveys the full force of her turmoil with powerful imagery—“I felt that I would be like uncooked ground beef, bloody and grated, for the rest of my life”—but keeps enough distance to probe and interrogate her feelings and gain a deeper understanding of them.
A moving saga of motherhood in extremis that earns its moments of certainty and bliss through an honest grappling with pain and doubt.
A psychologist looks back on his struggles to quiet the seething minds of his patients—and his own—in this debut memoir.
Miller, a child and family therapist and founder of UCLA’s Parent Training Clinic, takes as his central task the “soothing” of psyches agitated by anxiety, shame, compulsions, and the unfulfillable expectations of parents and society and brings to bear two sources of insight into that process. The first is his own dysfunctional family history with an unstable father plagued by nervous breakdowns and a resilient but sometimes-cold mother. Out of that stew came the author’s own compulsive talkativeness and crippling stage fright when speaking to large audiences, a blend of neuroses he spent much of his life battling. The second is his trove of reminiscences of his patients. Miller’s case studies run the gamut: a young girl who hatches a new phobia whenever he cures the last one; a man in his 70s who obsessively buys CDs he never listens to; a bright, socially awkward teen with Asperger’s who fantasizes about mayhem and skulks on the roof with his dad’s rifle; and a female psychologist who comes to him for treatment, then leaves a note on his wife’s car ordering her to “stay the hell away from my therapist!” They also include a baseball player trying to get his batting average back to .300 and a young man slipping into paranoid schizophrenia who gets yanked from therapy by his parents, with tragic results. Miller writes with a nice balance of subtle, searching analysis and warm empathy that vividly evokes psychic pain and embarrassment—especially his own—while teasing out the convoluted mechanisms behind them. (Of one patient who threw a fit when a leaf fell off the author’s office ficus plant, he writes, “All she needed to recover from hellish abandonment was for her words to be accepted just as spoken with no judgment…to have her very existence acknowledged.”) It’s fascinating to watch as he improvises strategies to resolve his patients’ problems through everything from traditional talk therapy to breathing exercises and a technique called EMDR that involves slowly tapping the patient’s hands to unearth buried childhood traumas. The result is a revealing, humane, down-to-earth look at the day-to-day art of clinical psychology that should give many readers insights into their own problems.
A fine, engrossing portrait of mental illness and healing.
A recently widowed college professor looks back on her marriage and the death of her husband.
In 2015, Reid (Tillie Olsen, 2011, etc.) experienced “a loss that nearly destroyed my mind and life” when her husband, John Fischer, died after a four-month battle with a mysterious respiratory illness. She turned to writing about their marriage as a way of coping with her loss, and the result is worthy of comparison with classic memoirs of grief. The author, a professor of English, met Fischer on a visit to Louisiana State University in 1974, and they were married the following year. They were a devoted couple who shared a similar sense of humor and a passion for literature; Fischer was a leading scholar on the satirist Jonathan Swift. They would read the poems of Theocritus to their daughter and enjoy research assignments in England. The idyll ended after Fischer experienced spasms in his chest while shopping in January 2015. “Sat there until my lungs quit quivering,” he told her. Fischer’s death just four months later left the author “ravaged by guilt” and wrestling with a litany of things that she thinks she could have done to save him. But she found solace through writing the memoir and going on an African safari with her daughter, where their adventures “brought us close to nature, to each other, and to John’s spirit.” Throughout this book, Reid charts her spouse’s rapid physical decline with agonizing clarity—“John’s skin looked like a larger man’s hand-me-down bodysuit”—and she also makes convincing assertions that he was a victim of neglect by his doctors: “alarm bells should go off when doctors just keep offering the same hypotheses despite declining health,” she says. The author also points out that the best grief memoirs “provide both a powerful feel of the person lost and sharp insight into the writer herself.” Her own book passes that test with flying colors.
Reid vividly depicts both her husband’s sickness and her own feelings of loss and guilt in this memoir.
A Canadian doctor in India finds romance and a fraught quest for professional and personal fulfillment in this debut memoir.
The author was a young medical student when she traveled to India in 1981 and met Pradeep Kumar, a soulful pediatrician; after a four-year, long-distance courtship, she married him and returned to India to live there. The couple dreamed of practicing medicine among the impoverished villagers in the Himalayan province of Garhwal, and they did so at two ashram-run charitable health programs. But the dream became a nightmare when an autocratic ashram leader aroused local opposition—a situation that eventually resulted in someone’s death. Trollope-Kumar’s multifaceted memoir offers an adventurous fish-out-of-water narrative, showing how she struggled to learn Hindi and adjust to India’s vibrant, chaotic culture with its constant noise and bustle. She also encountered corruption—her request for a re-entry document prompted an investigation into whether she was a CIA agent, until a suitable bribe smoothed things over—as well as deformed beggars, street elephants, colorful rituals, and intrusive etiquette. She also delivers a love story, telling how she and Pradeep negotiated their evolving relationship, especially after Pradeep immersed himself in Hindu spirituality, which she sometimes found hard to fathom. In addition, the book is a fascinating anthropological study of clashing Western and Indian cultural perspectives on health and illness; for example, village midwives smiled at the author’s germ theory of neonatal tetanus, then patiently explained that it was really caused by evil spirits. Finally, it documents a journey of self-discovery as the author’s and Pradeep’s happy success at setting up rural health centers turned to dismay as they fell apart, and then to depression and a rethinking of goals. Trollope-Kumar’s prose is evocative throughout; of her deepest melancholy, she writes, “The world around me was like a black-and-white photograph—the colour had disappeared, leaving nothing but shades….This stark world of angles, planes, and lines.” In this luminous memoir, she captures both India’s charm and its deep poverty and squalor without ever succumbing to exoticism, and she renders the people she encounters with sensitivity and insight.
A vivid saga of a woman who found an enthralling new home.
In fragments of memory and description, Fletcher (Descanso for My Father, 2012) recalls his mother’s life, his family history, and a New Mexico that’s disappearing.
In this unusual work of creative nonfiction, the author’s memories spill out like newly discovered treasures. In a narrative framed by his visit to his aging mother in his native New Mexico, Fletcher provides a series of prose poems—some short, some essay-length—inspired by artifacts that his artist mother “rescued” from the desert and his own explorations of places he heard about in childhood stories. The book lacks a strictly linear plot and is instead organized into eight thematic sections with titles that evoke their moods, including “homing,” “root,” and “nostalgia.” Fletcher’s prose vividly depicts the New Mexican landscape; for example, he describes a valley as “the small of a woman’s back, an earthen hollow beneath the shoulder blades,” and a river as a “mud-brown tapeworm.” When he arrives at his mother’s house during a storm, he realizes how little he knows “of her life—and how it came to be,” so he delves back in time, uncovering stories of his grandparents, his great-grandparents, and other ancestors, which border on folklore. Along the way, he pieces together a family history, with memories overlapping one another through multiple generations. In these stories, a complete picture of his mother gradually emerges—as a young girl, as a wife, as a widow, and as an artist. The tales sometimes evoke the supernatural, including “presentimientos,” or visions of loved ones at their deaths, which he says once “happened all the time.” These hints of magical realism complement the dreamlike writing and the prominence of the natural world in it. “We live in a world of miracles,” his mother says at one point. Fletcher’s book is a chronicle of all the quiet miracles that make a life.
A lovingly crafted portrait of a person and a place.
A historical account of a harrowing mountain battle during the Vietnam War.
Debut author Sly was drafted (he says “kidnapped”) into the Army only days after his graduation in 1968 from the University of South Dakota. He was assigned to the Awards and Decorations Department, which is responsible for writing accounts of notably brave conduct under consideration for commendation. He was sent to work as unit historian for Alpha Company, which had just weathered a macabre battle that decimated their ranks. When it comes to the issuance of medals, it's best to gather eyewitness accounts in the immediate aftermath of combat. Years later, now a civilian, Sly researched the battle further, even contacting some of the participants, which ultimately led to this breathtakingly fastidious record. In June 1969, after B-52s bombed a mountain called Nui Ba Den, which harbored the North Vietnamese army, Alpha Company was tasked with securing the base of the mountain in case enemy troops descended. However, a general ordered the company to aggressively ascend the mountain “dismounted”—meaning without either tanks or other military vehicles—despite objections from the company’s commanders. There were only a few ways up, and the visibility of the paths was greatly obstructed by massive boulders. Once specialized enemy snipers began picking off American soldiers, there was little they could do but retreat. The casualties were considerable, but so was the heroism of the soldiers involved. Sly carefully reconstructs the entire battle—including its tactical context and aftermath—and offers a moving account of his motivation: “Those who fought, particularly those who were killed in action, deserve to have their heroism, dedication to each other and dedication to their unit properly documented.” The writing is speckled with technical terminology and a farrago of initialisms; Sly helpfully provides a glossary at the beginning of the book that the reader will surely reference often. That grouse aside, the book is stirring and rigorous, a shining example of investigative journalism.
An impressive blend of drama and history marvelously researched.
NFL Films producer and debut author O’Brien offers a frank, firsthand account of his and his family’s journey with autism, starting with his son’s early childhood diagnosis.
The author had a lot going for him when his twin children, Grace and Frederick, were born in 2001. He and his wife, Bernadette, had a strong, loving relationship and a supportive extended family; he was also enthusiastic about his sports-producer job and fatherhood. But as time passed, concerns about Frederick surfaced. At first, the O’Briens assumed that he was just a late bloomer, but by the time he was about a year old, they realized that he wasn’t connecting emotionally with people. After countless evaluations and interventions, Frederick was diagnosed with the dreaded “A word.” His autism, along with a degree of mental disability, translated into a lifelong need for constant assistance and supervision. This book, however, is not a simple or predictable inspirational story. Instead, it recounts the complications and nuances, both logistical and emotional, of living in a family with a special needs child. The intense work never ended, and it took an undeniable toll; O’Brien reveals many negative emotions, including jealousy (of neurotypical families), anger, and sadness, and he describes frustrating attempts at “normal” family dinners and theme-park excursions, during which the family felt the glares of the uninformed. But the book also includes good measures of joy and revelation, showing the family’s rocky journey to acceptance and their improbable adoption of an infant son from Ethiopia—an event that turned out to be a well-timed gift to all the family members. The author packs the book with anecdotes, often told with wry wit, which make his story highly tangible. He also shares abundant insights, including spiritual perspectives and thoughts on the benefits of being Frederick’s father. There are a few text-formatting issues, including some unnecessarily boldfaced type, but they don’t detract from the overall quality of the read.
An honest, riveting work about living with autism that will enlighten and offer hope to readers.