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Memoir / Autobiography

  • Idea: This illuminating memoir tells the multi-generational story of a “family/activist band” whose members travel the country playing music, sharing stories, and advocating for vulnerable communities.

    Prose: The co-authors write in a style that is both highly readable and informative. Polished descriptive language heightens the country-traversing appeal of the story, allowing readers to gain a clear sense of place and circumstance. Quotations and dialogue read naturally.

    Originality: Original in scope and approach, this book is thoroughly researched and tells a unique story of a fascinating set of activist entertainers. Photos and discographic information chronicle the history of the group, while offering fans greater insight into their dynamics and musical contributions.

    Execution: Part tribute, part history, this well-executed memoir admirably contextualizes  biographical and historical details, while focusing on the spirit of activism and power of music.

  • 33 Percent Rockstar

    by S. C. Sterling

    Rating: 10.00

    Idea: By using a linear narrative, the reader sees Sterling’s progression from budding guitarist to recognizable musician. Circumstances wrap up wonderfully with an ending that is both spot-on and satisfying.

    Prose: Sterling’s voice is straightforward, clear, and offers the perfect balance of humor and candor. His writing is captivating and intimate; readers will readily become lost in the author's story of struggle, growth, and the music that sustained him.

    Originality: Sterling has a life story that is truly one of a kind. His experiences, successes, and failures while playing with multiple bands and band members are relayed in a manner that is honest, amusing, and often poignant.

    Execution: As the central figure in his story, Sterling displays refreshing self-awareness. His personal imperfections and emotional tumult, along with the often gritty backdrop of the music world, allow for this story to be both relatable and compelling.

  • Idea/Concept: Hill’s narrative progresses from diagnosis to the uneven terrain of recovery at the perfect pace. Nostalgic memories occasionally slow down the plot before things progress forward again.

    Prose: Hill has a fantastic, calculated control over his prose. He expertly blends comedy into his narrative, creating the ideal balance of light-hearted humor and everyday unease.

    Originality: As Hill reminds the reader, everyone’s cancer journey is unique. Hill’s personal history with cancer, combined with his unrelenting candor make his story one of a kind.

    Execution: Hill is raw and reflective, providing an unusually candid look at how prostate cancer affected and forever changed his life. His musings give the reader an intimate look at his psyche as he progresses from an average man in the throes of middle age to a cancer survivor over the span of four months.

    Blurb: A funny and honest look at life with prostate cancer.

  • Walking to Japan - a Memoir

    by Carolyn Affleck Youngs

    Rating: 9.25

    Idea/Concept: The author recounts an exceptional true story in a memoir that is interesting, easy to follow, and dynamic. 

    Prose: Affleck Youngs’s narrative voice is warm, vivid, and inviting. Readers will immediately engage with the conversational storytelling style. 

    Originality: As a memoir, this work is wholly unique to the author. Affleck Young crafts a spirited and inspirational chronicle of finding purpose and meaning by stepping beyond one’s comfort zone.

    Execution: This memoir is a charming and insightful reflection on faith, the impact of trauma, and the uncertain path toward wholeness and healing.

  • Hundred Percent Chance: A Memoir

    by Robert K. Brown

    Rating: 9.00

    Concept/Idea: Brown presents a compelling journey from pre-diagnosis to recovery that movingly explores the impact of leukemia on a young person's life. Frequent unexpected humor provides refreshing levity. Readers battling their own diagnosis--or other overwhelming circumstances--will value Brown's candid insights. 

    Prose: Brown's voice is immediately distinctive and inviting, with a clear and easy storytelling style. 

    Originality: While memoirs of surviving disease are plenty, Hundred Percent Chance stands apart through its genuine humor and unflinching portrayal of both the physical and psychological struggles that accompany a diagnosis of disease. Brown avoids inspirational platitudes, instead demonstrating the need for perspective and perseverance in the face of illness.  

    Execution: Every person Brown introduces, whether their role is significant or small, will leave a memorable impression on readers. This memoir's focus on the tiny moments that ultimately shape and define a life, are particularly poignant and engrossing. 

  • The Human Spirit Under Siege

    by George Baum

    Rating: 8.75

    Idea: A Jewish family torn apart under Nazi rule, most of whom faced extermination, emerge from the pages of this survivor’s illustrated memoir, a heartbreaking account that allows a candid view of their devastation. Historical records and photographs enrich the reading experience, although these images tend to overwhelm the brief text.

    Prose: Succinct, straightforward, and heart-rending, this revealing autobiography reaches into the past to illuminate the present and, like evidence in a time capsule, its contents will educate. Immersion—a nonstop read from beginning to end—is the best way to embark on this journey.

    Originality: Holocaust memoirs have been written in abundance, detailing the horrific genocide during World War II—every approach different, every story unique, every personal tragedy an unspeakable nightmare. This particular account stands out for its clarity.

    Execution: From the viewpoint of an innocent boy, and later, a traumatized man, this haunting look at existence in the former Czechoslovakia under Hitler’s regime, then at the Terezin transitional concentration camp, brings to life the terror of anti-Semitism, even after WWII ended. Loss of business, loss of money, loss of home, loss of family, and finally, loss of life—all are addressed in this work's detailed description of atrocities.

    Blurb: A survivor’s harrowing, photograph-enhanced memoir sheds light on the holocaust.

     

  • She's Got This! Essays on Standing Strong and Moving On

    by Joanne Hartman & Mary Claire Hill

    Rating: 8.75

    Idea: The subjects explored in this empowering essay collection range widely, but are anchored in themes relating to life purpose, transitions, and redefining personal truths.

    Prose: The essays in this anthology, while somewhat inconsistent in overall quality, are varied, engaging, and professionally edited. The contributors powerfully explore seminal moments of their lives with refreshing candor.

    Originality: While anthologies devoted to the topic of female empowerment aren't uncommon, these essays offer fresh, personal perspectives on navigating life changes and achieving self actualization.

    Execution: This collection shows clear vision and professional execution. While each essay stands alone, the editors maintain a sense of thematic consistency throughout the works, providing readers with a gratifying overarching reading experience.

  • Idea/Concept: Garcia’s gratifying exploration of the Self and Being is broken into three well-structured parts in this book. He easily explains a complex topic by dividing his thoughts into digestible pieces.

    Prose: Garcia’s language is straightforward but poetic and eloquent. Under his fine grasp, topics are approachable and enjoyable to read.

    Originality: Garcia’s voice is a blend inspired by Siddhartha and philosopher Martin Heidegger. His musings on Being and the human condition are similar to others on the market, but Garcia brings a uniqueness to the conversation by incorporating his experience as a pediatrician into his musings.

    Execution: Garcia addresses his subject matter efficiently and accessibly, while conveying his own enthusiasm to readers. His section on Being is the shortest of the three, and might have benefit from more expansion, but still addresses the topic appropriately.

    Blurb: Garcia offers readers a clear-eyed, well-informed approach to achieving peace of mind.

  • Regression

    by Twilah Hiari

    Rating: 8.50

    Idea/Concept: Twilah Hiari's Regression explores, via a clever and twisty question-and-answer structure, the author's harrowing experiences with indifferent medical personnel, misdiagnoses, medicinal side effects, and institutionalization. The story is urgent, and the structural conceit original.

    Prose: Line to line, Hiari is a strong stylist and incisive observer capable of stirring strong emotional responses from readers. While the story is often anguished, the prose is sharp, memorable, and often mordantly witty. That said, the repetitive nature of the narrative reduces the prose's freshness as the pages pass.

    Originality: Hiari's story is an important, of-the-moment cry for greater empathy and understanding for patients whose chronic symptoms are not easily diagnosed. She recounts in vivid detail her misadventures over decades with a battalion of medical professionals who failed to diagnose, among other things, her apparent autism, sometimes treating her as a problem patient or a grifter eager to score meds or file malpractice suits. Hiari writes upsetting accounts of doctors' disinterest and hostility and ties the narrative together with the inventive device of question-and-answer sessions from what readers assume, at first, is an especially engaged therapist.

    Execution: Despite its sharp prose and memorable detail, Hiari's story is by its very nature repetitive -- this is an account of cyclical suffering. The book covers similar situations again and again, often in protracted scenes, steeping readers at length in miseries that sometimes -- especially in the book's second half -- could be summarized rather than dramatized.

  • Love, Death & Tango

    by Maraya Loza Koxahn

    Rating: 8.50

    Idea/Concept: Full of exciting twists and turns, Koxahn’s memoir has something for everyone. The writer’s passion for tango ties together her varied life experiences.

    Prose: Koxahn’s strength is painting simple yet vivid scenes, from the evening she told her dancing partner she loved him to the time she participated in an Ayahuasca ceremony. Her decision to incorporate her personal emails keeps the manuscript lively and refreshing.

    Originality: Koxahn’s myriad of adventures during her journey abroad are unpredictable and enjoyable to read. Even when writing about some of the most tragic moments in her life, such as the death of her ex-husband, Koxahn tackles topics with unique flair and grace.

    Execution: Koxahn’s personal experience descriptions here are unapologetic and real. Although she constantly hopes for a dramatic transformation, she leaves Buenos Aires feeling almost as if no changes had occurred at all; this dose of reality is the perfect ending to her story.

  • 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.

  • Idea/Concept: The second volume in a series of memoirs, Bernard N. Lee, Jr.'s A Look Back in Time: Volume II digs into rich material: the experiences of an African-American teen army brat and his family while stationed in Germany in the late 1950s, during the period of desegregation of the military. The author covers growing up, cultural changes, social unrest, marital struggles, and how these three years overseas have shaped his understanding of himself, his home country – and his idea of what a man owes to his family. This is vital, arresting material.

    Prose: Lee writes with forceful clarity. His prose is assertive, detailed, convincing, and never ambiguous. He is empathetic and attentive to the emotional states of everyone he writes about, including himself. At times, he offers more detail than readers might prefer, especially in the prologue and first chapter; the book might also benefit from a little more "telling” of why a detailed memory or scene might matter.

    Originality: The story here, like the life that it's drawn from, is unique and fascinating, and almost overflowing with detail.

    Execution: The author has a keen eye and a voluminous memory, and his pages come to life as he recalls playing the guitar at a jam session, spinning Elvis records at a party, practicing for a sock hop with his sister, or scoring a job setting pins at a bowling alley. Especially engaging are the late passages, near the book's end, about tensions in the army over desegregation, as well as trouble in his parents' marriage, especially concerning money and gambling. Those passages emit urgency; others, while written with grace, might prove more compelling if the author guided readers more toward what mattered most or why these memories mean so much to him today. A chapter like "Field Trip to a Pencil Factory" offers some fine sentences but lacks that urgency and narrative momentum.

  • 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.

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