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Memoir / Autobiography

  • 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.