Memoir / Autobiography
by Shelley Muniz
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.
by S. C. Sterling
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.
by Frank South
Concept/Idea: Frank South's A Chicken in the Wind and How He Grew collects columns reprinted from ADDitude Magazine about the author's experiences as a father, son, husband, and writer with ADHD. While many of the columns are short, South recounts and interrogates his life with welcome wit and frankness. South focuses on crucial and compelling details when describing his children's problems in school, his father's health issues, various relatable crises, and the way people with ADHD often get treated by society as "vacant, lying, retarded troublemakers." Occasionally, he offers well-considered advice for parenting, writing, and facing life with ADHD.
Prose: South's prose isn't just clear, clean, and lively. It's memorable and epigrammatic, with any page of the book offering pleasing lines and insights. Between the passages of purpose and power dealing with alcoholism and ADHD, or the harrowing experience of helping tranquilize his father, South generously studs the text with phrases and observations that are their own reward.
Originality: South's experiences are unique, and their treatment is thoughtful, original, and fresh.
Execution: South's A Chicken in the Wind and How He Grew is as funny as it is wrenching. That said, the reprinted column structure of the book rewards browsing through more than it does reading the collection straight through. Narrative momentum occasionally develops when pieces on related topics follow each other, but often readers will be starting fresh with each short piece, which can create a feeling of repetitiveness. Some of the pieces are longer than others, taking their time to tell their urgent story, while others sometimes feel too short.
Blurb: Sharp, funny, insightful, and unflinching, Frank South's A Chicken in the Wind and How He Grew illuminates the mind and heart of a father facing life and family with ADHD.
by Howie Cohen
Idea/Concept: Cohen's text is a memoir of his experiences and a journey through the advertising world. He provides many anecdotes that are relatable, but more importantly, are incredibly entertaining.
Prose: Cohen's lively and often intimate prose is carefully crafted to captivate the reader from the outset and hold their attention. The work offers a fresh and inviting storytelling style with a gratifying narrative arc.
Originality: Cohen's book is set apart from other, less concept-driven memoirs. The author provides unique insight into the world of advertising in its golden era. References to (sometimes) familiar advertising slogans, provide a highly original element.
Execution: It is clear that Cohen has a purpose and direction for his memoir, each anecdote being intentionally timed and placed. Overall, the information is presented chronologically, deviating at times, but always for a compelling reason.
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 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 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.
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 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 Bernard N. Lee, Jr.
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.