Memoir / Autobiography
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.
by Leonard Cachola
Idea/Concept: Leonard Cachola's The Truth Within: A Humanist's Memoir details the author's eventful life: Houston childhood with an alcoholic father, his misadventures as a cartoonist and graphic designer, his uncertain romances, a cancer diagnosis, the death of his father, and his attempts to reconcile his lived experience of the world with churchgoing. And swing dancing -- he often goes out for swing dancing. Cachola's memoir surveys a lifetime's worth of spirited wandering and wondering, steeped in vivid memories of Gen X pop culture.
Prose: Late in the book, Cachola praises the writing on the blog of a woman he was dating as "full of life and verve." At its best, The Truth Within exhibits those same qualities, especially in Cachola's quick, precise physical descriptions, his ear for memorable dialogue, and his detailed accounting of the joy and confusion of uncertain romantic relationships. Cachola adheres to the show-don't-tell school of storytelling, dramatizing his life in scenes that sometimes carry on at great length, such as the many accounts of first meetings with women he then dated. Those passages might benefit from trimming and more authorial guidance alerting readers to what matters most rather than immersing them for so long in the moment.
Originality: Cachola's experiences, while unique, often glance up against universal truths, such as the terror of facing a bad diagnosis, the pain of losing a parent, the baffling rules and rituals of dating, and the struggle for spiritual meaning.
Execution: Despite many memorable and moving passages, Cachola's memoir lacks a strong narrative hook and the sense of momentum crucial to the most compelling storytelling. The lengthy scenes that introduce a succession of new romantic partners slow the book down, as does the occasionally wordy passage of exposition. The many references to music, movies, video games, and swing dancing establish a vivid milieu, thought the memoir might be enriched with some analysis of what these cultural choices meant and mean to the author.
by Bill Erxleben
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.
The Greatest Gambling Story Ever Told: A True Tale of Three Gamblers, the Kentucky Derby, and the Mexican Cartelby Mark Paul
Plot/Idea: This book tells the story of the 1988 Kentucky Derby winner, Winning Colors, from the somewhat unconventional angle of a gambler who won big on the race through risky gambling exploits.
Prose: This narrative is an exciting read from the get-go. The author does an excellent job of depicting the action and atmosphere of a racetrack from a different angle than many are likely accustomed.
Originality: According to the author, the story is based in truth, but contains fictionalized elements. The book presents an energized narrative surrounding a historical sporting event.
Execution: While the gambling and cartel aspects of the story are attention-grabbing, they somewhat pale in comparison to the story of Winning Colors and the actual race, which the author relays with precision and vividness. The insights into the world of racing ownership and training groups is intriguing, and at times overshadow the gambling elements of the story.
by Kay(Karen) Carroll
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.
by John and Mahin Goodall
Idea/Concept: In a work of creative nonfiction, the Goodalls dramatize the circumstances of a love story--presumably, their own--that unfolds against the backdrop of 1960s Iran. While highly intriguing, the alternating perspectives can result in a degree of confusion, and readers may struggle to fully grasp the work's vision and intention.
Prose: Highly novelistic in structure, language, and voice, this book might readily be fully adapted into a work of fiction. The writing in Passion, Paradox, and Revolution varies widely in quality. Sections featuring dialogue and in-scene action are often clunky and unbelievable, while many prose passages are lyrical, polished, and elegant.
Originality: This work is highly unconventional in concept and execution. While initially unclear, readers will gradually become engaged in the foretold romantic relationship unfolding at its center.
Execution: Passion, Paradox, and Revolution offers readers an immersive story with a vibrant setting. Nevertheless, inconsistent writing and a somewhat disorienting framing concept, results in an uneven reading experience.
by Paige Lammers
Idea/Concept: This heartfelt and painful memoir recounts Lammers's teenage struggles with emotional regulation and an eventual diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder. The author movingly describes her lifelong love of riding and caring for horses--a consistent source of comfort and solace as she navigates the tumultuous world of BPD.
Prose: Lammers's writing is at its strongest when describing her relationship with her horse, Tiny, and the peace she finds through riding him. Less consistent in quality are her descriptions of her emotional struggles, while expository passages and dialogue are often unpolished, awkward, and strained.
Originality: Lammers's path toward wholeness and recovery is uniquely her own. The author's passion for riding and her personal quest to understand her emotional vulnerability, are vividly explored.
Execution: Despite lackluster exposition and thin dialogue, Lammers--who emerges as both sympathetic and empathetic--ultimately tells an inspiring story of personal growth and human-animal bonding.
by Tara Blair Ball
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.
by Lindsey Porter
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.
by Leigh Dannhauser
Idea/Concept: In a heartfelt memoir, Dannhauser tells the story behind her time spent serving in the Peace Corps in the West Region of Cameroon. Writing with warmth and genuine emotion, the author discusses her experience living in an unfamiliar environment and her adjustment to the culture of the Peace Corps, where circumstances rarely go exactly as planned.
Prose: Dannhauser's prose is plainspoken but lively, featuring substantial detail and honest reflection.
Originality: This narrative is hardly original in concept or presentation. Regardless, Dannhauser takes ownership of her time serving abroad, while emphasizing that no two Peace Corps experiences are the same. She proceeds to tell a personal story of the roles she played, the individuals she met, and how she grew as a result.
Execution: While this work may not stand apart from other Peace Corps accounts--and the primary audience may be individuals considering joining the Peace Corps themselves--Dannhauser's memoir is clear, engaging, and uplifting.