Memoir / Autobiography
by Maraya Loza Koxahn
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.
by Earik Beann
Concept/Idea: Beann offers a vivid first-hand perspective on the 2017 Tubbs Fire in Sonoma County, detailing how neighbors, friends, and acquaintances banded together to protect their community from further destruction.
Prose: Beann writes in a lively, novelistic prose style that is well-suited to the author's on-the-ground account.
Originality: Writing from a unique vantage point, the author provides an uncommon chronicle of a recent tragedy, greatly humanizing the disaster.
Execution: Beann provides a general timeline of the fires, while also focusing intimately on his immediate surroundings and describing his efforts to protect his family and home. Beann's recollections of his community's perseverance and cooperation, are heartening.
by J. D. Simmons
Idea/Concept: This book is the author’s account of her discovery and acceptance, after decades of a conventional marriage and motherhood, that she is gay. She recounts the story of her life—lived from a traditional middle-class upbringing in the mid-twentieth century, through a marriage to a husband ill-suited to her, and her eventual encounter with her true life partner—with affecting honesty.
Prose: Despite the occasional overly dramatic passages, the candor with which Simmons describes her life and relationships is highly engaging. She comes across as relatable and sympathetic as she navigates tumultuous life experiences—the loss of loved ones, the foundering of her marriage, the acceptance of an identity different from the one that steered her for most of her life—with a strong sense of self-awareness.
Originality: The author’s coming-out story is decidedly her own, while it will resonate strongly with readers in similar circumstances.
Execution: This is a well-crafted and authentic memoir about discovering and embracing a personal truth. The author writes meaningfully about her growth, evolution, and awakening to her true identity.
by Kay Rock
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.
by Margaret Seven Wellman
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.
by Caroline Havord
Idea/Concept: This wholly charming memoir details the author’s unconventional experience of making her home on a Thames barge.
Prose: Havord shows a strong grasp on narrative storytelling, and writes about the evolution and ultimate demise of the barge with flair and attention to detail.
Originality: Havord breathes fresh air into the memoir genre with her story of risk taking, adventure, and chasing uncommon dreams.
Execution: To use a cliche, the Varuna itself emerges as the most distinctive and compelling character in Havord’s work. Through descriptions of the barge, readers will also come to understand the author, her motivations, and her emotional arc.
by Beth Ruggiero York
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.
by Paula Baack
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.
by Robyn S. Brodie
Idea/Concept: In an energetic and charming story, a former beauty queen finds herself unexpectedly single and sets out to find a partner, whatever it takes.
Prose: Reading somewhat like a romantic comedy throwback, this memoir showcases the author’s bold, frequently awkward, often amusing, and ultimately satisfying journey to find love.
Originality: Stories of dating following the demise of a long relationship, are common territory, but Brodie’s self-awareness, humor, and refusal to give up on romance, heightens the reading experience.
Execution: Brodie emerges as a fully sympathetic and sincere character in her own story. The casual writing style, paired with well-rendered dialogue and description, will gratify readers of romantic fiction and stories of second chances.
by Mary Ellin Lerner
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.
by James R. Mapp
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.
by Gary McAvoy
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.
by Meagan Gordon Scheuerman
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.
by Judi Roller
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.
by Myra Mossman
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.
by Roland O'Brian
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.