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Memoir / Autobiography

  • Idea: Over the Hill and Gaining Speed compiles lifestyle columns that author Rock penned for the Bucks County Herald circa the early 2010s, around the time of her retirement from full-time work. A searching, reflective tone helps tie the collection together, but the columns -- though often engaging and artful -- vary more widely in subject than the subtitle "Reflections in Retirement" might suggest.

    Prose: Rock is a polished, thoughtful columnist, and the selections here are well composed and meticulously edited. She's skilled at infusing the personal and particular with a sense of the universal, as in her excellent, moving column about the return of a "prodigal son." Later in the collection, she reveals herself to be a portraitist in prose, offering compelling character sketches of hikers, local storytellers, and "Ray the Bluebird Guy." For all that, Rock's work is at its best in that reflective mode promised by the title, when she sets down notes for her first grandchild about what she has learned over the years, or dares to wonder in print about what to do in retirement with "this gift of life."

    Originality: Nobody else is writing about Ray the Bluebird Guy. Rock displays the strengths a good newspaper lifestyle columnist must, such as snappy engaging prose, an interest in local characters, and a keen sense of time's passing -- this collection offers paens to spring, to February, to the "irrational" season of Advent. But the work here is most original when Rock takes her own life (and the lives of her family and neighbors) as inspiration. Even in columns on familiar subjects or turns of the calendar, she always finds a fresh insight to share.

    Execution: The sketches of Bucks County residents will be of interest to local historians for generations, and Rock's columns about retirement, aging, and the passages of her own family offer many rewards. The collection's organization doesn't enhance the columns or reveal connections between them, and over the course of the book no sense of a larger narrative emerges. Several columns in the book's first section, "On the Road," recount travels of Rock's that she doesn't quite (within the space restrictions of a newspaper column) make fascinating to those of us who weren't there. One exception: The knockout column "Of Baseball and Battlefields," which is about the surprising connections Rock draws between finds at seemingly unrelated historic sights. The book is best when Rock alerts to people, places, and ideas that are not familiar.

  • Barrington

    by Margaret Seven Wellman

    Rating: 8.25

    Idea/Concept: Wellman’s memoir is an affectionate child’s-eye view of her childhood home and household. Its brief, episodic chapters sing with the authenticity of youthful memories in both their scope and scale.

    Prose: Wellman’s descriptions of her childhood home are crisp and evocative. They convey clear images in an economy of words, as when she writes of the household Nurse, “I am the last in a long line of Brothers and Sisters that Nurse has looked after, and she is tired in a way that singing in church no longer heals.”

    Originality: The originality of this work lies in it universality. Wellman’s remembrances of things past don’t add up to a memoir of her childhood specifically, but rather show how a home and family can serve as touchstones for memories for all of us.

    Execution: There’s an appealing poetic quality to Wellman’s impression-laden, self-contained chapters. The reader comes away from each with a clear image of what the author is seeing, describing, and feeling.

  • Flying Alone

    by Beth Ruggiero York

    Rating: 8.00

    Idea: The determination, suspense, and pilot's life milieu at the heart of Flying Alone are all inherently compelling. The book offers many tense and exciting scenes of in-air danger, a pained love affair, heartbroken accounts of several acquaintances' crashes, vibrant portraits of airport characters, and the sense that its showing readers a fascinating private world, one full of cocky pilots and business owners all too eager to flout the rules.

    Prose: York excels at in-the-moment accounts of flight and its dangers, making clear to readers what is happening no matter how complex the physics and the pilots' maneuvering. She's also adept at sketching characters and capturing their essence in dialogue. Her prose is sturdy and unfussy but sometimes repetitive, and often dispassionate to a fault. For all its gripping incidents, Flying Alone often keeps its author's feelings too distant for readers to track, especially in lengthy scenes with her bosses, instructors, and lover.

    Originality: York tells her unique story with many individually compelling and surprising incidents to share.

    Execution: Flying Alone seems most grounded when its author is facing danger in the air. When the book turns to life on earth, its author's thoughts and feelings are subordinated to lengthy scenes of colleagues and bosses and work where it's not quite clear what York thinks or feels. The material could be more compelling if its author were more present.

  • Rescue the Teacher, Save the Child!

    by Paula Baack

    Rating: 8.00

    Idea/Concept: Although Rescue the Teacher, Save the Child! sits somewhat uneasily between memoir and guidebook, the author ultimately presents a highly informed, insightful look into the state of education in America and the toxic work environments many educators face.

    Prose: This book is well-written and organized, while the author's prose conveys her passion for teaching and her frustration toward the many impediments facing teachers and students today.  

    Originality: As a devoted educator, Baack backs up her findings with her own unique experiential evidence, while broadening the scope of the book to focus on the collective experiences of teachers and students in America. 

    Execution: Baack's own experiences offer credibility and immediacy to the sections that are more pointedly informational. While the focus of the book is more on how to rescue teachers than on how to save students, Baack’s ideas are inspired and potentially broadly beneficial. Her clearly-referenced religious overtones sometime interfere with the more actionable advice, but not significantly. She does not proselytize, but, rather, espouses values that many of us, religious or not, still hold.

    Blurb: Baack makes an urgent plea to teachers, administrators, parents, and students to work collaboratively to improve the American education system to some of its former high standards. 

  • Marilyn's Kids

    by Nancy Palmie

    Rating: 8.00

    Idea/Concept: With good humor and Midwestern directness, the daughters of a loving, lonely woman persevere, taking care of themselves and of each other. Tragedy shapes the narrative of Marilyn's Kids, but the mood of the book -- and the lives it documents -- is feisty and hopeful. This volume collects the memories of several siblings, tracing their childhood lives across the Midwest, offering a kids' eye view of their parents' divorce, their mother's subsequent surprise pregnancy and re-marriage, and, eventually, their mother's suicide. The story then becomes one of healing, of finding strength in solace in family. By the end, it becomes clear that the composition of the book itself is a vital step in understanding their past -- and each other. The story is moving, and the book is necessary, though at times it reads more like a family keepsake than something intended for an outside audience.

    Prose: Nancy Palmie and her siblings write clear, direct, often gently wry prose. Their accounts of childhood happiness (summers in Wisconsin, for example) are vivid and touching, as are their descriptions of life in a "cinderblock" apartment in a Kansas munitions town. Later incidents, such as a pair of road trips centered on adult tragedies, are piquant and funny. Occasionally, especially when covering generalities, the prose becomes vague and ungrammatical. Another round of proofreading could eliminate such confusion.

    Originality: The family history told here is entirely unique, yet touches on universal themes. The book's most resonant passages explore the process of healing from tragedy and coming to understand one's place within a family over the course of a lifetime, all urgent concerns.

    Execution: While the prose and material are strong, Marilyn's Kids ultimately reads like an act of reminiscence intended for an audience of those already familiar with the family at its core (or for historical societies collecting stories of Wisconsin and eastern Kansas). The authors get caught up in memories and anecdotes, many of them fascinating, at the expense of narrative. The opening chapters recount memorable incidents but don't take efforts to demonstrate why readers unfamiliar with the family should persevere with this dive into the everyday lives of strangers.

  • Sober Heart: Life and Love in Recovery

    by Mary Ellin Lerner

    Rating: 7.75

    Idea: Lerner's bite-sized essays deliver wisdom via vulnerable anecdotes and quietly lyrical confessions. Though their brief length makes them feel at times like incomplete thoughts, the work resonates with emotional candor.

    Prose: The clear and compelling prose comes across as an intimate letter from a close friend who can assess problematic situations clearly and prescribe solutions in a quick and satisfying manner. That it's the author accounting for her own foibles, affords the memoir particular power and grace.

    Originality: The author focuses on an often-parodied character of a mom who loves wine too much, affording the subject personality and dimension, while shining a light on the toxic environment addiction creates even in middle class settings. Lerner movingly captures the motivations that lead to substance abuse.

    Execution: Lerner writes in a reflective, genuine manner that relays the author's particular past mistakes, while providing a generally relatable, poignant narrative within the present.

  • Idea: This text follows the history of Chattanooga, especially its role in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. The details here reveal extensive and admirable background research.

    Prose: The prose/style is somewhat scholastic and formal, but also somewhat journalistic, and the book might have been slightly differently organized to its benefit. This text should most interest those invested in the field of African American studies or history or Tennesseans themselves. The research is meticulous and impeccable.

    Originality: This book is highly original in its concept. The book focuses on the Civil Rights Movement in the South, but draws in extensive research and case studies.

    Execution: All of the characters, at least of Mapp's family and community, are depicted as heroic and extremely dedicated. These were not rich people, but rather were incredibly hard-working in their fight for justice. Only Mapp himself stands out as a fully fleshed-out character, however.

  • And Every Word Is True

    by Gary McAvoy

    Rating: 7.75

    Idea: McAvoy revisits an infamous crime immortalized through Truman Capote's In Cold Blood. Relying on newly uncovered documents, the author brings fresh insights to the case with extensive elaboration on the Clutter murders, its investigation, and Truman Capote himself.

    Prose: McAvoy writes in a clear-eyed, no nonsense prose style ideally suited to the true crime genre. The author capably and meticulously details information in a manner that will keep readers engaged.

    Originality: By combining elements of true crime and memoir, McAvoy offers an immersive account of an infamous murder case. Most unusually,  McAvoy raises compelling questions about the veracity of Truman Capote's accounts and the role that In Cold Blood played in influencing public opinion.

    Execution: While McAvoy doesn't arrive at definitive truths concerning the Clutter murders and rehashes well-established details, he shapes new theories about the case, casting archival and forensic materials in a new light.

  • Babies Are The Worst: A Memoir about Motherhood, PPD, & Beyond

    by Meagan Gordon Scheuerman

    Rating: 7.50

    Idea: The author's personal experience facing postpartum depression and then a miscarriage makes for an urgent and relatable story, especially as (as is noted in the book's chapter about the author reading Brooke Shields' memoir) the sharing of such stories helps others to understand and work through their own experiences.

    Prose: Scheuerman is a funny, feisty, insightful storyteller who excels at capturing subtle emotional states and stirring feeling through vivid scenic detail. Her raw accounts of depression in the book's first third have rare power. As the book progresses, however, Scheuerman focuses less on capturing detailed moments from her journey, and the book comes to feel more scattershot.

    Originality: While this polished work is surely not the only memoir about PPD, it's distinguished by the vital voice of its author, her ability to set a scene, and to elicit honest emotional responses in readers.

    Execution: The first chapters of this memoir promise a singularly affecting, funny, and urgent read. The chapters that follow don't dramatize as much or cut as deeply, and the book's power ebbs some as the pages pass. Still, even a cursory chapter (like the one about building a new house in Florida) boast the sparkle of Scheuerman's prose and wit.

  • Idea: The book's structural presentation occasionally meanders from one storyline to the next, but each story shared is individually interesting, endearing, and often humorous. Collectively, the tales form a touching narrative about human and animal bonds.

    Prose: Roller’s greatest strength lies in the book's descriptive language and the author's ability to craft evocative, viscerally powerful scenes. Those moments unfolding in nature and during periods of travel and exploration, are the most alluring.

    Originality: Each of the animal characters presented carry distinct personalities and each comes to life in memorable moments. Their tales, set in various states from Hawaii to Ohio to Pennsylvania, make for a one-of-a-kind adventure.

    Execution: While Roller's memoir is readable, engaging, and sweetly eccentric, the story ends somewhat abruptly, with a quality of open-endedness that may be unfulfilling for invested readers.

  • My Random Death

    by Myra Mossman

    Rating: 7.50

    Idea/Concept: Fueled by a quest for meaning, and only briefly interrupted by her own murder, Myra Mossman's life has been extraordinary, dramatic, and surprising. In addition to adventures in hitchhiking, spiritual searching, and arguing a case before the U.S. Supreme Court, Mossman's story turns to a near-death experience on Martha's Vineyard in 1978, when a man strangled her and left her for dead. That (briefly) fatal incident awoke in the author five "divine directives" to follow in her life, setting her on a path to master Kabbalah, karate, Tarot, and more. Mossman achieved all this and more, moving between the U.S. and Canada, all while pondering the nature and fate of the "Evil Man" who once attacked her. This is a fascinating life and an excellent subject for a memoir.

    Prose: Considering her creativity and accomplishments, it's no surprise that Mossman can craft an eloquent sentence. The prose in My Random Death offers many memorable, compelling descriptions of people and places, families and fashions, incidents and beliefs. Mossman's lines can be urgently dramatic and laugh-out-loud funny. That said, Mossman's dialogue often is stiff, even unnatural; at times, the narrative jumps from topic to topic without clear logic, usually between paragraphs. The last lines of sections and chapters often offer stray details rather than resonant summations or revelations, creating the sense that the story is petering out rather than building.

    Originality: Few have lived a life (or experienced a death) like Mossman's, so few people have written books like this one, which bursts with unpredictable incident. The endless novelty of Mossman's journey becomes, eventually, a distraction from the book's most original element. With so much life to cram in, Mossman devotes scant pages to her glimpse of death, described here with a vision of complex geometry, or to what she has discovered in her journeys. Instead, it's the journeys themselves that are her focus.

    Execution: Mossman's life is fascinating, and her sentences are strong, but My Random Death lacks a strong narrative thrust and organizational throughline. It's always moving on to the next thing rather than guiding readers to find meaning in what it's already covered. The memoir moves restlessly between topics, only occasionally cueing readers to the logic of these shifts with clear transitions or any sense of a larger thesis or structure. The narrative is mostly chronological, with a couple (somewhat confusing) flash-forwards, but even as it surges ahead in time it never gains momentum as a story. Mossman spent some early years wandering Canada and the U.S., and her memoir, too, tends to wander, telling readers what she did next rather than emphasizing how each adventure fits into a larger perspective. Questions readers are bound to have go unaddressed. Mossman's life has centered on a search for divinity, but her memoir does not frame her narrative in this way or, often, in any particular way. Mossman's book presents her life as a series of loosely related misadventures rather than as a fascinating woman's singular journey.

  • Real Life American: A view of the American life

    by Roland O'Brian

    Rating: 7.50

    Idea/Concept: Roland O'Brian's memoir recounts in frank and vivid detail the author's journey from a childhood marked by bullying and rage, through a toxic early marriage, and finally into a successful career in law enforcement in Arizona. The author includes questions for reflection, inviting readers to consider how his experience might inform theirs; he concludes the book with a call for Americans to listen to each other, to share our stories, and to understand what we have in common. An invitation into the thinking and experiences of a police officer is, of course, a strong subject for a book, but much of Real Life American concerns the author's memories of childhood, which he presents without guidance to readers.

    Prose: O'Brian excels at the kind of detail a writer of police reports must: he quickly, convincingly sketches people and incidents and (especially!) cars. The prose is clear and direct, sometimes confessional, with strongly rendered moments of action. O'Brian is especially good describing conflicts and violence, though the book often stubbornly stays in a summarizing mode rather than offers fully dramatized scenes. Transitions are often casual in the mode of a journal or a blog entry, which works against the development of narrative or thematic momentum. Real Life American also includes very little dialogue, which could help enliven the storytelling.

    Originality: O'Brian's experiences are unique yet relatable, and he describes them with vigor and insight.

    Execution: O'Brian declares, at the book's start, that his story is worth telling and reading because he is "JUST. LIKE. YOU," an America struggling to find meaning and connection in a tumultuous time. Other than that and some brief questions for reflections, the author offers little guidance to readers about where his story is going or what his story should mean to us over the next 120 pages. Those pages cover O'Brian's bullied, angry youth, and while his memories are sometimes compelling, the storytelling is structured by his chronological recollections rather than a narrative or thematic idea. The story moves in fits and starts, covering year by year the author's encounters with bullies, his refuge in video games, and his occasional crushes. The most interesting passages are the ones where he dramatizes a moment and connects it to the larger themes introduced in his prologue, as when he describes his decision to carry a knife to elementary school.

  • A Lion Where Where Were Lambs

    by Bill Erxleben

    Rating: 7.25

    Idea/Concept: In this witty and engaging memoir, Erxleben treats readers to a blow-by-blow account of a civil servant’s fight for the little guy during the turbulent 1970s. This book takes the obvious route of starting at birth and simply recounting interesting and relevant events until the end of Erxleben’s FTC career.

    Prose: The prose is clear and concise. While Erxleben is prone to the occasional tangent, they never outstay their welcome and often prove to enrich the narrative. He also manages to ensure the reader understands both historical and legal matters in a manner that is illuminating rather than condescending.

    Originality: This work is an often fascinating addition to the memoir genre, and, while standard in its execution, is unique in its blending of history and law into a personal narrative.

    Execution: Erxleben’s more serious footnotes and asides help ameliorate what might have otherwise come across as a smug tone. The humor and humility of the early chapters are unfortunately not continued throughout, and their appearance in later chapters is rare but welcome. The final chapter attempting to comment on current affairs seems to be a last-minute addition that doesn’t mesh well with the rest of the text.

  • Alex's Eyes

    by Kay(Karen) Carroll

    Rating: 7.00

    Idea/Concept: Carroll tells an important family story, driven by a thought-provoking central concept. The blending of authentic history and the necessary fictionalization of conversations and circumstances, results in a compelling, if somewhat awkward, narrative juxtaposition.

    Prose: The original documents are useful as supportive evidence, and Carroll provides a meticulously researched history of Choctaw Native Americans. The tone of the book, however, varies significantly between passages detailing historical circumstances and those devoted to narrative storytelling.

    Originality: By focusing on her great grandfather's struggles, the author provides a unique personal story. The focus on the topic of proving one's identity as a Native American, is an especially compelling angle, and allows the book to resonate thematically.

    Execution: This work is highly unique and frequently engrossing. However, the book struggles to define itself as a work of fiction or true memoir; as a result, the reading experience is somewhat disorienting.

  • The Beginning of the End

    by Tara Blair Ball

    Rating: 6.75

    Idea/Concept: Ball delivers a candid and genuine memoir about a broken relationship, addiction, and human frailty. The author’s honesty about her own mistakes and moral complexity, is particularly refreshing.

    Prose: The author’s prose is refined and clear-eyed, if bare bones in style.

    Originality: Many memoirs explore themes of addiction and problematic marriages, but Ball’s experiences are distinctly her own, and she delivers a cathartic, potentially relatable narrative.

    Execution: This work offers an often captivating look into the inner workings of a dysfunctional relationship and the chilling impact of secrecy and distrust. While in part due to Ball’s modest and restrained writing style, readers may crave additional substance, with more in-depth exploration of the author’s emotional and psychological states.

  • Idea: With elements of travelogue and memoir, Porter delivers a lively account of her enviable international travels, replete with perilous adventures, insights, and excitement.

    Prose: Porter's frank, conversational prose style is well-suited to the genre. While reflections on  lessons learned from her journeys may strike some readers as overly quaint or prescriptive, the work provides readers with a clear sense of the author behind the journeys.

    Originality: Stories of world travel and venturing into unknown territories are hardly unusual, but Porter's voice is pronounced and engaging, while the author's passion for the study and teaching of yoga provides a somewhat uncommon thread.

    Execution: Porter's story is peppered with intriguing encounters, warm reflections, and quiet moments of wisdom.

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