Memoir / Autobiography
by Amy Herrig
Idea: Herrig's narrative of her personal and professional struggles is compelling and keeps the reader riveted from the memoir's start to its finish. Though the work at times veers into overly technical descriptions of judicial matters, readers will remain invested in her turbulent adolescence through the aftermath of her criminal case.
Prose: Herrig's prose is conversational, funny, direct, and engaging--perfect for a memoir. Her voice shines through the stories, making readers both sympathetic and critical of her experiences and actions. One quibble: a run-through by a copyeditor would help to fix grammatical errors and typos.
Originality: This memoir is a roller coaster ride of emotional, legal, and personal struggles openly and honestly portrayed. Elements of seemingly sincere contrition and emotional resonance elevate the narrative, creating a complex and complete personal story.
Character/Execution: Herrig writes about her legal issues and her path toward spiritual and emotional growth in an authentic manner. She confesses her shortcomings with refreshing candor, presenting a nuanced self-portrait. Her depictions of supporting characters--her father, friends, family, and legal associates--are sufficient, yet would benefit from further development.
by David Pietrusza
Plot: This polished and gently humored work of memoir contains two threads: Pietrusza’s personal history of his Polish family between the '50s and today, and the history and decline of the small town of Amsterdam, New York.
Prose/Style: Pietrusza's experience as an author is clear throughout the well-developed text, which offers a graceful blending of personal insights with historical content.
Originality: This history focuses on a small, unique town in New York, and of the personal story of the author's family. The details of Polish community and Polish food (such as stuffed cabbage rolls, pierogi, and many beers) are especially engaging. Pietrusza also discusses at length, and with great nostalgia, TV shows and movies.
Character Development/Execution: The characters, including the author, are warmly and quite fully detailed. The author’s voice as a professional historian is memorable and accessible. Much of the book concerns family background, but the story becomes more universally appealing when discussing the history of Polish settlement, the upstate New York region, and baseball.
by William Spencer
Idea: Spencer’s coming-of-age piece is a memoir that flows well and holds the reader's interest because of precise, colorful details of the people, places, manners, and food he encounters on his travels.
Prose/Style: Spencer is a very clear, effective, and fluid writer, with a prodigious vocabulary and great descriptive powers that will make his readers feel like they have truly accompanied him on his journey.
Originality: While other authors have written about these kinds of quests, what is unusual and unique here is the individual man, his routes, and the time during which he undertook this huge, strenuous journey: the 1970s.
Character Development/Execution: Spencer appears to be impeccably honest, even growing angry and frustrated when he remains sick for quite a long time and when various locals treat him poorly. He feels "pushed beyond the bounds of his sanity”; however, he always strives to understand the cultures and habits of the people he encounters and is open to learning a great deal about their customs and religion.
by Diana Estill
Idea: In Clarity, Estill recounts her harrowing journey as the daughter of a narcissistic, sexually exploitative father and a passive-aggressive, enabling mother. In the tradition of The Liar's Club and Running with Scissors, the book is a testament to the slow, painful process of reclaiming oneself from the wreckage of the past after a lifetime spent suffering under the despotism of a mentally ill parent.
Prose/Style: Estill writes with the wit and grit of Mary Karr and Jeanette Walls. Although, like theirs, her subject matter is anything but funny, the author manages to find humor in relating the absurd and often brutal situations her feckless father imposes on her and the rest of the family his madness holds in thrall.
Originality: While the precocious plunge into premature adult responsibilities forced upon the children of mentally unstable parents will be a familiar on to readers of The Liar's Club and The Glass Castle, Estill's voice is both fresh and vigorous. Her narrative captures the terror, pain and yes, even the hilarious aspects of a life lived in a home governed by the whims of a dictatorial, emotionally underdeveloped egomaniac, and the poignancy of growing into an adult unable to fully disengage from the responsibilities of loving a parent who demonstrates only unending demands and relentless abuse in return.
Character Development/Execution: Told with sardonic wit and unflinching candor, the narrative hums with tension between the smart, savvy survivor of a daughter and the monstrous, Santini-like, sexually exploitative father. While this is not a comfortable book to read, it is a memorable one.
by Michael Tobin
Idea: Tobin’s memoir is about an adventure of grand proportions, as well as of two individuals working to determine whether their relationship will persevere.
Prose/Style: Tobin is a very engaging writer with clear prose. Especially delightful are his passages on landscape, landmarks, and various regional cuisines. The chapters on Paris and Corfu are fascinating and memorable.
Originality: Although this memoir initially reads like a straight travel narrative, it is much more. The book’s emotional substance stems from Michael and Deborah’s work to resolve issues within their close relationship and to ultimately determine the course of their future.
Character/Execution: Both Michael and Deborah are quite thoroughly depicted as loving, intrepid, and curious, while several engaging, eccentric people they meet on their travels provide additional texture.
by Julie Gray
Idea: Gray delivers a fast-paced, enlightening journey, finding time for playful anecdotes and historical exposition that compliments the story's main focus.
Prose: Gray weaves her story with a soft, human elegance that colors the whole affair with the hues of a coffee-table conversation, while affecting a scholarly vernacular that elucidates and entertains in equal measure.
Originality: By framing Gidon's story via the context of his long and storied life, rather than isolating it to his time as a Holocaust survivor, and playing it against her own experiences as his chronicler, Gray constructs an unorthodox, surprising form of memoir.
Character/Execution: Gidon and Gray inform each other's character throughout the memoir, in a way that initially makes the former feel like background compared to Gray's own foreground observations, but unfurls to create an interesting ebb and flow between the two.
by Ralph Webster
Idea: A story within a story within a story, The Other Mrs. Samson reconstructs the lives of Ralph Webster’s friend Katie, a postwar German émigré, her husband Josef Samson, a Jewish doctor forced to flee his affluent Berlin home due to Hitler’s rise to power, and Josef’s first wife Hilda, who was raised in an atmosphere of wealth and privilege in turn-of-the-century San Francisco until love made her cross an ocean to start married life with the man she adored. Part history and part mystery, the tale unfolds in a series of different voices as Ralph, Hilda, Josef and Katie tell the tale.
Prose/Style: The book is historically very well-researched and is artfully crafted to withhold crucial plot points from the reader until the moment of revelation is right. The story reads like a mystery, and there are enough plot twists and turns to surprise the reader, who is never entirely able to anticipate where the action will go.
Originality: The Other Mrs. Samson is not a Holocaust memoir of the type that the reader may expect. Some of the mysteries the book sets up – for example, the fate of the painting that disappears en route to New York - are never cleared up, but this, if anything, only serves to enhance the narrative’s realism.
Character Development/Execution: If there is criticism to be made here, it is that the author does not make it sufficiently clear which portions of the text are taken verbatim from the writings of its principal characters – Katie, Hilda, and Josef – and which are his own fictive reconstructions based on such writings. The techniques of the “nonfiction novel” are very much in evidence, but it is left up to the reader to decide how much of this smoothly-unspooling yarn is based on first-person source material.
by Laurie Anne Zaleski
Idea: Zaleski, a marine geologist, offers a riveting, photo-filled account of her time aboard an archaeological research vessel in search of an ancient shipwreck.
Prose: Zaleski’s narrative blends science, history, technology, and archaeology, with candid, day-to-day descriptions of life aboard a research vessel. Middle grade readers will delight in both the mundane aspects of the journey and the moments of excitement and anticipation.
Originality: The journey Zaleski chronicles aboard the Hercules is wholly unique, and sure to engage young readers. In terms of content, tone, and presentation, this work is perfect for fans of the Scientists in the Field series of children’s nonfiction titles.
Character/Execution: The author is keenly aware of her readership and capably holds their interest through detailed descriptions of life at sea on a research vessel.
by Toni Pacini
Idea: In Alabama Blue, Toni Pacini recollects her abusive childhood and the violence she endured and survived, as well as the psychological and emotional scarring that led her to make sometimes catastrophic choices as an adult. It also depicts one of the most touching stories of a human being rescued from the depths of an emotional abyss by the pure, uncomplicated adoration of a canine soulmate in recent memory.
Prose/Style: The events in Pacini's story are often horrifying and deeply sad; however, her gaze is unflinching, and she has a knack for crafting idiosyncratic dialogue and the unexpected turn of phrase that can inject a note of wry humor at any moment. She has a story worth telling, and she tells it well.
Originality: Like Mary Karr and several other recent memoirists, Pacini survived a childhood blasted by parental alcoholism and mental illness, as well as horrific sexual abuse by a predatory acquaintance. Her book shows her journey from wounded child to becoming an adult who is able to reflect on her life and take pride in having become a woman who can love, live and forgive.
Character Development/Execution: It took courage to write a book this graphic in its depiction of the ugliness of life under the reign of a desperately sick, mentally ill alcoholic parent. It took still more to depict the missteps a child raised in such a home inevitably makes as an adult, and to take responsibility for them and for her own healing. That the child Pacini describes grew up desperate to be loved is not surprising; that she became a woman able to give love deeply and wholeheartedly is miraculous.
by Kevin M. Callahan
Idea: This book presents a new and clever approach to World War II stories, focusing on the biographies of siblings buried in U.S. military cemeteries overseas.
Prose/Style: The text reads clearly and is structured effectively. A large number of family histories have been researched, and are presented in short segments of a few pages each. This book is easy to pick up and enjoy in short bursts.
Originality: The book offers a different approach that works well in its favor. The stories it presents are many and varied, and create a larger collage of an increasingly distant era.
Character Development/Execution: The short sections allow for ease of reading, while the well-integrated images are invaluable. This text taps into the curiosity one can feel if flipping through a photo album in a stranger’s house. This is further strengthened by the variety of subject matter, as the investigations feature families from different geographical, socioeconomic, and ethnic backgrounds.
by Vahid Imani
Idea: Like the Wind I Go is a genuine, fresh account of the author’s experiences as a young man in 1978 Iran. Readers will gain a deeper understanding of Iranian history and culture from this informative and personal first-hand narrative.
Prose: Imani’s prose is clear and soundly integrates historically relevant details with more intimate storytelling. Dialogue is at times strained and ultimately less engaging than the narrative sections.
Originality: Imani’s account of his life in Iran during a period of intense conflict and uncertainty, is surely unique. Most intriguing is the author’s struggle to reconcile his yearning for a life in America, with his obligations to his home country.
Character/Execution: The author is most successful when describing the political and social tumult he experiences in his young life and the ways in which these events shape him psychologically and emotionally. The recreation of interactions between family members, friends, and strangers, can come across as somewhat flat and inauthentic.
by Darien Hsu Gee
Idea: Gee delivers a sparely written micro-memoir that explores Chinese American identity, family, and coming-of-age. With an overarching theme of existing between two worlds, Allegiance offers a striking collection of memories and reflections.
Prose: Gee is a polished and precise writer, whose poetic vignettes capture the haunting intensity of memories as filtered through time.
Originality: Though works about cultural identity and its conflicts are familiar, with its visceral language, poetic sensibility, and visual presentation, Allegiance takes a unique approach to memoir.
Character/Execution: While readers may not gain a complete sense of the author's experiences, Allegiance provides a lovely and impressionistic look into the small, formative moments that help to create a sense of self.
by Marty Essen
Idea: This book highlights pivotal events in the author's life, inspiring and entertaining readers with tales of his diverse sets of careers and the range of characters – human and animal – that he encounters along the way.
Prose/Style: Essen is a clear and effective writer. He is self-assured. He has a friendly, natural style with plenty of detail when necessary, especially concerning the animals – wolves, orangutans, octopus – he has encountered in his travels. One of the most eloquent moments in the book occurs when the author and his companions are taken to meet an octopus in a small lodge in Mexico.
Originality: This book is quite original, but at times, the memoir also feels like the author is covering too much ground.
Character Development/Execution: The author is forthcoming and honest. Two of his strongest lifelong interests include music and animals, particularly dogs and snakes, and this book encompasses many moments of his fascinating, varied life.
by Dani Alpert
Idea: Told from a humorous perspective, this work is based in a strong premise. Not many memoirs focus on the relationship between children and a live-in girlfriend.
Prose/Style: The author is an effective and clear writer, often funny and brutally honest. It is easy for readers to become involved in her life and in her text.
Originality: While this book feels quite original, it may only garner a niche audience of women who have found themselves in this exact situation.
Character/Execution: The narrator's character is well-developed as is the personality of Tyler. However, Julian's character is never made quite clear. He seems on one hand lenient with his kids, but controlling and manipulative with the narrator.
by Anna Penenberg
Plot: Dancing in the Narrows is a poignant, memorable book about a young woman's struggle with chronic Lyme disease and her treatment options, as well as the enduring, courageous connection between a mother and daughter in times of grief and crisis.
Prose/Style: This memoir is well-written, gripping, and emotionally resonant.
Originality: While books addressing the impacts of disease are familiar, Penenberg’s memoir is set apart from others in the genre by her strong prose and well-drawn figures, as well as the focus on a condition that, while wide-spread, is rarely the topic of memoir.
Character/Execution: The mother and daughter here come across clearly and vividly, but primarily in relationship to the disease and how it has changed both of their lives. Readers will be moved by the sacrifices both women have had to make in the face of this often misunderstood and frequently devastating. disease.
by Louise Johnson
Idea: While funny, powerful, frank, and interesting, Lou's story--especially the focus on dating--can become repetitive at times and slow down the narrative. Her interactions with friends, family, and coworkers are glossed over, which prohibits readers from seeing how these relationships also contribute to the strong sense of self and purpose she attains at the end of the memoir.
Prose/Style: Conversational and extremely personal, Lou's voice shines in this memoir. She's also self-deprecating and honestly self-assessing, which brings a nice emotional depth to her self-awakening and creates a strong picture of who she is. It also draws readers into the narrative and makes them root for her successes, both in romance and in life.
Originality: Lou shares her post-divorce romantic travails in a new country--the good and bad--with honesty and humor. While her romantic relationships compel with funny anecdotes and emotional break-ups, her growth through relationships with others aside from romantic partners gets short shrift.
Character Development/Execution: Lou's voice and personality are dominant, as they should be. Her characterization is fully formed and reveals all of her complexities, especially in regard to her sense of self and her romantic life. The supporting characters would benefit from more definition and depth. The story would be more emotionally engaging with a stronger sense of how her friends and family helped contribute to her journey of self-actualization.