Memoir / Autobiography
by Robert Kerbeck
Idea/Concept: From the first page of this memoir about the 2018 LA fires, Kerbeck immerses readers in the experience of witnessing a familiar territory burning. Kerbeck provides not only a personal account of the disaster, but also a portrait of the region, from its socioeconomic makeup to its past wildfires.
Prose: The author delivers a riveting story, writing in a manner that, at times, reads like a novel. Readers are brought uncomfortably close to this terrifying event.
Originality: Relatively few titles have been written about the circumstances Kerbeck describes. His ability to both document the events of the recent disaster while also humanizing its impact, is notable.
Execution: Kerbeck describes his own confrontation with one of California's worst fires, a narrative that is compelling and heart-gripping. The inclusion of other firsthand accounts from the broader community, drives home the widespread devastation.
by Channy Chhi Laux
Concept/Idea: Laux's powerful memoir centers on her experience as a teenage girl living through the brutal events of the Cambodian genocide, during which she and her family were forced to relocate, and were then separated by the Khmer Rouge.
Prose: Laux's prose is straightforward, quietly descriptive, and somewhat youthful in tone. The author recounts devastating circumstances with a degree of emotional distance, though readers will not struggle to grasp the disorienting and traumatic nature of the events as they unfold.
Originality: The author provides a first-hand, highly personal account of an ugly chapter in Cambodian history that will be unfamiliar to a great many readers.
Execution: This important, edifying story sees Laux's growth from a child unaware of tumult to unfold, to a girl in the grips of a horrific circumstance. Despite candid descriptions of suffering, hunger, violence, and family separation, Laux also recounts playful moments and relationships forged through shared trauma.
by James Hill
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.
by Carolyn Affleck Youngs
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.
by L.A. Davenport
Concept/Idea: L. A. Davenport’s short memoir is light on action and heavy on chronology. It renders an effective, novel, and touching portrait of a man’s love for his dog, yet its repetitive day-in-the-life recitations can become tiresome. Still, the author’s self-expression and cogent insights provide necessary breaks from the quotidian’s invariability. Two intriguing plot points spark curiosity but remain unpursued. While in some respects it’s a missed opportunity to enliven the narrative with conflict and characterization, the work is intentionally esoteric, often brimming with inventiveness and wit.
Prose: The manuscript opens with a brilliantly crafted passage, which captivates the reader and establishes tone and pacing. Elegant and highly descriptive prose portrays the scene and landscape and the physical attributes and behavior of the memoir’s central figure — indeed, such descriptions comprise the narrative’s bulk.
Originality: Though the book's emotionalism and anthropomorphism are occasionally irksome, it's obsessional rhythms are decidedly unique. A more diverse narrative structure may well benefit the narrative without resulting in a lessening of its charms.
Execution: Davenport’s concept-driven memoir is a snippet of his life with his dog. While many readers may lose interest as a result of the narrative quietude, the memoir's freshness and intelligence cannot be discredited.
by Robert K. Brown
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.
by George Baum
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.
by Joanne Hartman & Mary Claire Hill
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.
by Armando S. Garcia
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.
by Janet Cheatham Bell
Idea/Concept: Bell's polished memoir reflects on an interracial marriage in an era before the ban on mixed marriages was deemed unconstitutional. With its uncommon focus, this work shines a light on a tumultuous moment in history and a society on the brink of change.
Prose: Bell's prose is evocative and clear. The author writes with grace and authority, telling her story in a manner that is both inviting and edifying.
Originality: By focusing on the life of a marriage, Bell offers a unique framework for her memoir. Though she maintains this narrow focus, the specific circumstances provide a window into the greater social climate, offering a stark perspective on racism, politics, and cultural change.
Execution: The author effectively places her story within its historical context, blending the personal with the universal, while portraying individuals with compassion and circumstances with nuance.
Blurb: Bell’s easy and engaging style draws the reader into a story of personal drama inextricably entangled with the background of national turmoil.
by Jeff Lester
Idea/Concept: An extraordinary survivor is at the heart of this poignant yet uplifting story of outliving a medical prognosis. Vibrant life emanates from every page, making this an astounding accomplishment that proves the will to live overrides all else.
Prose: Incredibly powerful, this articulate narrative explores every aspect of managing ALS, delving into the practical as well as emotional problems that arise. A straightforward use of language empowers the text, concealing little, divulging even the most uncomfortable incidents.
Originality: This day-to-day description of the devastating impact of ALS alternately enlightens and disturbs readers. Frank discussion, detailed and graphic, educates the unfamiliar, while demonstrating that no doctor’s opinion is final and a worthwhile existence is possible—an original endeavor.
Execution: Utilizing specialized computer technology, this candid memoir written by a resilient man afflicted with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, inspires and motivates. Deeply moving, often religious, the book may risk limiting its audience through its tendency to expound on Christian doctrine.
by Suzanne Skees
Idea/Concept: "The stories of our jobs become the stories of our lives," writes Suzanne Skees in her introduction to this second volume in her "My Job" series. Skees's project surveys the on-the-ground truth of what work is like right now, around the world, as the dynamics of labor are upended by automation and contract work. Skees demonstrates her acumen as a curator and editor -- gathering a diverse roster of workers to tell their stories -- and as a listener. She invites her subjects to discuss their careers, their hopes, their disappointments, and the changes they've seen at length, all with disarming frankness. Her subjects include a nursing student in Honduras; an environmental activist in American coal country; a banana farmer in Uganda; a college admissions counselor in Rwanda; and a "fringe diplomat" in Tel Aviv. Few books dig so deeply into life as it's actually lived, with such unsparing intimacy.
Prose: Skees's own prose is sharp, clear, and purposeful, but outside of introductions and some notes, most of the book come straight from the mouths of her subjects through first person monologue. Skees breaks the chapters up into short labeled sections. This is helpful for skimmers, but the shortness of the individual sections gives the chapters a stop-and-start feeling, impeding narrative momentum.
Originality: This isn't the first book to survey workers in their own words about work, nor even the first one by Skees to do so, but the author has selected a fresh, fascinating cross section of people to reveal truths about the world and this current moment.
Execution: The book offers insights, wisdom, challenges to orthodox thinking, and some arresting first-person storytelling. It's both eye-opening and a pleasure to learn about the day-to-day work of a Zambian "mobile-money agent" and to discover how that work is vital to a population outside of the banking system. That said, the narrators' individual voices sound somewhat similar to each other, and the speakers too rarely offer up surprising or engaging anecdotes. The emphasis here is strongly on the work itself, and the sociopolitical context that created the opportunity for such work. There's great value in capturing that, but the book might prove more enticing for general audiences with a greater emphasis on voice and storytelling.
Resurrection Lily: The BRCA Gene, Hereditary Cancer & Lifesaving Whispers from the Grandmother I Never Knewby Amy Byer Shainman
Idea/Concept: Shainman writes an illuminating, if at times disjointed, memoir about learning that she carries the BRCA gene mutation, which makes her susceptible to cancer. Shainman's path toward addressing her cancer predisposition begins through research into her family history--and at the nagging of the author's own intuition.
Prose: Shainman writes eloquently about her relationship with her body and her anxiety relating to a possible disease diagnosis, while also informing readers about the gene that begins to dictate her life. The melding of more introspective passages with a straightforward account of disease progression and medical procedures, is not always tonally harmonious, but certainly unique and intriguing.
Originality: The focus of Shainman's memoir--her awareness of the suffering of women close to her as a result of their diagnoses, and her own susceptibility--is highly original. The author's decision to obtain a mastectomy without a cancer diagnosis but as a preemptive action, is a bold and personal one that is infrequently discussed.
Execution: Readers facing breast cancer or who have newly learned that they carry the BRCA gene mutation, will be inspired and moved by this account.
by Janelle Molony
Idea/Concept: Molony draws from her first-hand experience serving as a foster and adoptive parent in this poignant memoir. She details the intricacies of the foster care system and the hurdles of formal adoption, while also candidly exploring the unique emotions experienced by parents during a “paper pregnancy.” Molony openly addresses her fears and anxieties relating to adopting a child, while speaking candidly about the psychological, physical, and emotional struggles her son endured after she and her husband welcomed him into their home.
Prose: Molony's prose is clear, communicative, and effectively serves the author’s intent: to tell her own story of fostering and adopting a child, while helping prospective parents to navigate a complicated, emotionally draining, process.
Originality: Though stories of fostering and adopting children aren’t uncommon, Molony offers a uniquely intimate perspective on a life-altering experience.
Execution: Molony's audience may, naturally, be somewhat limited to readers who are considering becoming foster or adoptive parents. Molony relies on her faith as she learns to become the parent she wants to be, which may also somewhat restrict her potential audience. Nevertheless, Molony's genuine voice and candor will find a grateful readership.
by Ross Victory
Idea/Concept: Victory offers a compelling and tender story of his relationships with his father, family, and flying. The author effectively blends memories from his own past, with biographical details from his father's storied history. What emerges is a complex portrait of a father and son whose love persists despite--and in the midst of--broken bonds and betrayals.
Prose: Victory's prose is vivid, clear, and pleasantly descriptive. The author's quest to understand his father--and to reconcile the man he knew with the one he sees suffering before him--is poignant and effectively conveyed.
Originality: Personal memoirs of family are common, but Victory's memoir stands apart through its unflinching portrayal of complicated family dynamics, mistreatment of the elderly, and the realities of the process of dying.
Execution: This work benefits from the integration of its central plane metaphor and Victory's decision to begin the memoir in a present, pivotal moment.
by Twilah Hiari
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.