In this stunning debut memoir, Hong (Special Education/Brigham Young Univ.-Hawaii) recounts her exceptional transformation from floundering student to flourishing professor.
Born in Singapore to an uneducated mother and an alcoholic, abusive father, Hong grew up in severe poverty. She attended school against her parents’ wishes. Despite her intellectual curiosity, she consistently failed her subjects because she couldn’t keep up with the fast-paced, competitive, shame-inducing educational style. Flunking her 10th-grade finals just about extinguished her academic hopes. But one act of kindness radically changed her trajectory when an inspired acquaintance convinced her to redo the grade. Her new teacher—who was passionate and caring—taught students instead of subjects. A friend from her church gave her the finest tutoring, much-needed friendship, and even an example of a loving home and family. After completing 10th grade with top marks, she spent her remaining school years working tirelessly, eventually earning the Best All-Round Student award. Her passion for learning expanded into a passion for teaching; she pursued post-secondary degrees in America and began an influential career as a professor of education and international education consultant. Hong’s eloquent present-tense narration animates scenes of family strife and academic struggle and evokes an astounding range of emotions—commiseration, frustration, and eventually elation. Something is always developing, whether it’s the narrator herself or the plot. Though the memoir charts the author’s intellectual growth, it also considers complex family relationships, poverty, Southeast Asian culture and education, disability, and determination. Hong demonstrates, through her own experiences, the pleasures and rewards of scholarship and effective teaching, and her account underscores how ordinary people can have life-changing effects on others.
An absorbing, eye-opening narrative about the value of grit and education, sure to inspire a wide audience.
A young woman experiences a sexual awakening—and romantic frustration—in a kooky cult in this debut coming-of-age memoir.
After her graduation from Harvard in 1999, Zuman’s search for herself took her to the Zendik Farm commune in North Carolina. Founded in the 1960s on countercultural blather, Zendik preached back-to-the-land living, contempt for the “Deathculture” of competitive capitalism, and psycho-motivational aphorisms—“Dare to demand the impossible and it becomes possible”—from deceased guru Wulf Zendik’s The Affirmative Life. In Zuman’s telling, Zendik’s reality is strange and crass. Members supported the commune by hawking its magazine, music CDs, and bumper stickers—“Stop Bitching Start a Revolution”—on the streets, which made maniacal salesmanship a Zendik must. Meanwhile, sex on the farm was rigidly bureaucratized. Members proposed “walks” (dates) or “dates” (sex appointments) with other Zendiks by lodging requests with administrators, who acted as go-betweens in scheduling assignations; women were denied dates if group gynecological exams indicated they were in a fertile phase. (The guru, who had bedded most female Zendiks, disliked condoms.) Zuman, a shy but yearning virgin, appreciated this protocol because it obviated her awkwardness at courtship; soon she had an active sex life and got to act out her rape fantasy (in a graphic description, it’s a painful, bloody fiasco ending in herpes). Unfortunately, Zendik thought monogamy undermined the group, and Zuman was repeatedly pressured into wrenching breakups with long-term boyfriends; but when she left the farm to hitchhike to Idaho and find permanent love, predatory men sent her running back. Zuman’s vivid portrait renders Zendik as a pressure cooker of jealousy and exploitation under the manipulative leadership of Arol, Wulf’s consort. Zendiks were exhorted to take personal responsibility for their dysfunctions, yet the supreme sin was “running your own show” in defiance of the collective—read Arol’s—will. Yet Zuman never makes herself a victim: She retains her sense of agency (and humor) as she weighs Zendik’s weird creed and power plays against the sense of righteousness and belonging that drew her in. Her whip-smart prose—on her selling shifts, she “hit up mostly single men, zeroing in on the disheveled, disaffected, afraid, and misshapen…if they paired superhero trucker caps with Coke-bottle glasses…so much the better”—conveys the squalid exuberance of Zendik’s blend of idealism and fraud.
An engrossing and offbeat story of ideological bonds that chafe—and sometimes liberate.
An Auschwitz survivor refutes Holocaust deniers in this debut memoir.
Birnbaum was motivated to write this memoir by the fact that some people still deny the reality and scope of the pan-European mass killing and torture of Jews between 1938 and 1945—even though survivors, like himself, still walk among us. Born and raised in Przemysl, a Polish town near the Ukraine border, the author, along with his family, never had it easy. The anti-Semitic locals were more open about their bigotry after the Nazis invaded in 1939. Some old Jewish men were tied to carts, beaten, and mocked, and hundreds of other grown men in Birnbaum’s neighborhood were forced into manual labor or shot. All the Jewish families were crowded into a ghetto, from which Birnbaum watched children of collaborators playing beyond the barbed wire. In painful stages, the ghetto’s residents were placed on cattle cars; Birnbaum’s mother and siblings vanished, and his father was imprisoned and killed. The author was later sent to Szebnie concentration camp, where he was fed only “baleful gray liquid,” made to work extra hours on Jewish holidays, and forced to watch as fellow prisoners suffered torture. Herded again onto cattle cars, Birnbaum and his companions finally arrived at Auschwitz. It would be a travesty to paraphrase what he says he encountered there; this is a book that demands to be read in full. The cruelty and grotesquery of camp life reveals itself clearly through Birnbaum’s engaging, pellucid prose: The filth and insanity of the cattle cars, the smug sadism of the guards, and the agony of the tortured may provoke readers to tears and anger. At one point, he writes of how kapos and SS men at Szebnie barked “Schnell” (“fast”) day and night: “You had to wake up—schnell! You ate and drank—schnell! Worked schnell and died schnell.” Later sections, describing the writer’s escape and work with the Polish resistance, are compelling and even inspiring, but the first half of the book overshadows all else.
A Jewish American working in the United Arab Emirates fears hostility but finds humanity in this debut memoir.
Fleeing divorce and midlife crisis, journalist Eden leftOhio in 2008 to take a teaching job at the United Arab Emirates University in the Emirati oasis town of Al Ain. There was much in the desert oil monarchy on the Persian Gulf for him to get used to: searing heat; arrogant but inept bureaucrats (who assigned his first class to meet in a women’s bathroom); and female students who were almost impossible to tell apart due to their similar names and their identical, all-covering black sheylas. There was also pervasive anti-Semitism in the Muslim country, he says, and a deep enmity toward Israel; his students, not realizing that he was Jewish, blithely penned anti-Semitic cartoons for his approval. But Eden’s driver, Noor, a devoutly Muslim Pashtun tribesman from Pakistan, proved surprisingly receptive when Eden revealed his secret religious identity to him; Noor became his “Pashtun Rabbi” when the two men engaged in long theological discussions. Noor’s explication of the concept of “insha’Allah”—Arabic for “God willing”—attuned the author to the virtues of trusting in Providence. Eden was also able to turn a confrontation with a bitter Palestinian student into an occasion for mutual respect, and he was made an honorary member of another student’s clan. Throughout, Eden keeps the book’s tone light, filling it with colorful travelogue and amused double-takes about culture clashes: “Mahasba lowered her head, flicked her long eyelashes, moved in, and gently set her lips, her hairy lips, on mine,” he writes of a Bedouin ritual that involves kissing a camel. At the same time, he undertakes a poignant exploration of identity and belonging as he and Noor bond over their shared experience of exile and outsiderhood. As he tells of being plunged into an unfamiliar and daunting society, Eden manages to uncover and celebrate ordinary kindness and common feeling in the most unlikely places.
An entertaining fish-out-of-water (and gasping-in-the-desert) saga, with an inspiring message of inclusion and understanding.
A Californian polio survivor shares memories of her challenging but fulfilling life in this debut memoir.
Falk-Allen remembers being what she refers to as a “normie”—“what the ‘crip’ community…calls non-disabled people.” Her memoir opens with her as a toddler in 1950,running carefree down West 109th Street in the Westmont neighborhood of Los Angeles. This was her last memory of running; at 3 years old, she contracted spinal polio, causing paralysis of her right leg. Doctors said that she’d be in a wheelchair for the rest of her life. Falk-Allen recounts her two weeks in quarantine, which was followed by six months in a rehab center that felt like imprisonment. She began physical therapy and, contrary to her doctor’s initial prognosis, was able to learn how to walk with assistance from crutches and a leg brace. But after she was released, she faced new adversity as she tried to assimilate as a “normie.” She charts her growing interest in boys, her high school fascination with rock ’n’ roll during the mid-1960s, her time as a co-ed at San José State University and the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland,and her development into a confident young woman. Along the way, the author shares many painful memories; as a child, she says, she was injected with a muscle relaxant every day for 180 consecutive days, which resulted in her becoming “permanently needle-averse.” But she recalls her difficulties with unflinching prose, and her directness and dry humor are captivating: “I have never felt I had the choice to Scarlett O’Hara my experience (‘I’ll think about that later’).” Some readers may interpret this candor as overly abrupt, or even unfunny; the author is aware of this possibility, but she knows her target audience: “if you are a fan of Monty Python, I ask you to remember the irony of the song, ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’—sung while Brian was being crucified—as you read on.” Overall, this is a frank, no-nonsense account of living with a disability edged with a razor-sharp wit.
A live-aboard sailor recalls five decades and 300,000 nautical miles at sea in this debut memoir with an environmentalist edge.
Forsyth admits that he’s partial to the idea of escape. For starters, he escaped working in the cotton mills of Lancashire, England, by going to university and then joining the Royal Air Force. When his squadron was disbanded, he escaped England for Canada, emigrating in 1957 with his future wife, Edith. Soon, sailing also became a form of escape in itself. He and Edith had their first taste of it in 1961, chartering two bunks on a 78-foot ketch sailing around the tropics. After crewing on a number of other vessels, the couple purchased their first boat, Iona, in 1965. The memoir then documents the building and captaining of Fiona, a 42-foot cutter upon which Forsyth would do most of his travels. There were many breathtaking voyages, including two global circumnavigations and trips to the Arctic and Antarctic, the Baltic Sea,and the Panama Canal, among others. The memoir is also a tender love letter to Edith, who died in 1991. The tone of the book is likable from the outset; Forsyth is knowledgeable, earnest, and endearingly modest given the magnitude of his achievements. His sense of understatement is typified in his account of meeting the prime minister of Tonga: “As I sauntered up in my scruffy shorts and t-shirt, the Prime Minister was handing out long service medals to local officials. Despite my appearance, I was invited to the official luncheon, which was already laid out on the grass, covered with lace to keep the flies off.” Yet beneath Forsyth’s affable raconteurship lies a vital message, as during 50 years of sailing, he’s witnessed an alarming change to the environment: “I have often wondered which societies that I have visited by boat would be able to survive in a post-fossil fuel age.” This is a lovingly compiled work, with charts and photographs that effectively complement the narrative. It will be a joy for anyone familiar with deep-water sailing and an inspiration for those eager to try it.
An intrepid, educational, and thoroughly enjoyable voyage.
A stunning debut memoir that documents the societal and racial changes of the mid-20th century, told from the perspective of a Chicago family caught in the middle of them.
After the deaths of their parents, Fred and Lillian Gartz, the author and her two brothers found a genealogical treasure: decades’ worth of “letters, diaries, documents, and photos” written and taken by her parents and grandparents. Using these detailed sources, she pieced together this family memoir, which begins with her grandparents’ immigration to Chicago, their strict and sometimes-abusive child-rearing methods, and their financial devastation during the Great Depression. The spotlight then shifts to her parents’ romantic courtship and the early days of their marriage. The joy and innocence of their young love would soon face the demands of everyday life, including caring for Lil’s psychotic mother, “their time-sucking devotion to building maintenance” as landlords, and Fred’s travel-heavy job that severely strained their marriage. Later, she says, the 1950s brought “a mass migration of African Americans, escaping from the…cruelties of the Jim Crow South.” Gartz describes the racial tensions that existed in her white family’s neighborhood, manifesting especially in discriminatory property laws that kept black people in poverty. Gartz concludes the book with her own recollections of the civil rights movement and the era’s changing sexual mores before returning the spotlight to her parents in their old age. Although the subtitle suggests that this book is primarily about race in 1960s Chicago, it actually covers a much broader array of material, both chronologically (from the early 1900s to the ’80s) and topically, as she addresses mental illness, marital distress, and her own quest for independence, among other issues. Her primary sources, which include the aforementioned photographs and quoted letters and journals, provide an invaluable, up-close-and-personal view of historical events and family drama. Gartz writes with a warm tone, and the various people and settings are as well-developed and intriguing as those in a riveting novel.
A rich remembrance of a captivating, transformative era in American history.