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Memoir / Autobiography

  • The Other Mrs. Samson

    by Ralph Webster

    Rating: 8.00

    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.

  • 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.

  • Alabama Blue: A Southern Gothic Memoir

    by Toni Pacini

    Rating: 8.00

    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.

  • Idea: Allen's gripping account of the Khmer Rouge genocide is both essential and beautifully told. Earlier sections that portray relative peace during Allen's Cambodian childhood are generally used to strong effect.

    Prose/Style: Minimalist and urgent, Allen's writing style mirrors the life-or-death situations to which she and her family were subjected.

    Originality: This memoir is unusual in that it provides a rare, in-depth account of a brutal event already in danger of being forgotten. The lack of chronology is also unique, although after the death of the narrator's father, its utilization becomes less effective.

    Character Development/Execution: Allen can hardly be blamed for focusing more on the events than the people affected by them; after all, there are so many events to be covered. That said, insight into this story's "characters" and the reasons for their actions, beyond a survival instinct, is uncommon.

    Blurb: The Girl Who Said Goodbye: A Memoir of a Khmer Rouge Survivor by Heather Allen gives a detailed account of the Khmer Rouge genocides that is both harrowing and beautiful. Readers are sure to tear through the story, deeply invested in each of the lives of Allen's family and loved ones, along with Allen's life itself. Occasional sections portraying Allen's life in Cambodia prior to the unrest provide a welcome balance and also lend a lovely humanity to the overall story.

  • Lou Who?

    by Louise Johnson

    Rating: 7.75

    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.

  • The Girlfriend Mom, A Memoir

    by Dani Alpert

    Rating: 7.75

    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

    Rating: 7.75

    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.

  • Idea: Author Norman Weeks's memoir is a deeply introspective narrative presented in an epistolary format. Weeks reflects on his early formative experiences in an orphanage; travels as an adolescent; his psychological development; and how literature has shaped his identity as an individual and as an author. 

    Prose: Weeks writes in a formal, yet warm tone that vividly recounts memories and significant moments from his past. The text somewhat assumes a reader's previous knowledge of the author and his work. Abundant literary references are laced throughout the text, while playful passages (notably, the author's imagined conversation with God), provide additional texture.

    Originality: The choice to draft the work as a letter is an intriguing one. The author provides a unique perspective on 20th-century events as seen through the gaze of a writer, intellectual, and a flawed individual seeking to define himself and his legacy.

    Character/Execution: While Weeks writes with honest candor and self-reflection, readers may not gain a truly intimate sense of his character. Weeks's memoir will be best enjoyed by readers familiar with his writings who seek greater insight into his creative development.

  • Idea: This is an engaging memoir, both in terms of the growth of the brothers and also in the physical descriptions of the trail. As one of Nate's philosophical thoughts puts it: "the simplicity of trail life felt similar to my life in Iraq... living close to the bone, close to the earth."

    Prose/Style: The writing is clear and simple for the most part, which proves effective; at other times it is quite poetic and descriptive.

    Originality: Coming-of-age texts are not unusual; however, this one based on hiking the Appalachian trail, where a returning military person experiences so many new, intriguing ideas, feels unique. Nate is extremely open-minded and this contributes to the diversity of his life experiences.

    Character Development/Execution: The tale is told chronologically with flashbacks to Nate's time in Iraq. The reader gets to know Nate, Ben and their new "hippie" friend, Dylan, who becomes a sort of mentor to Nate. The 2,180-mile journey takes months and is replete with wonderful views and conversations, bad weather, lack of nourishing food, and stinky clothes and bodies, where the characters get to know both themselves and each other much better.

  • Wherever the Road Leads

    by Kathryn Lang-Slattery

    Rating: 7.50

    Plot: K. Lang-Slattery's Wherever the Road Leads: A Memoir of Love, Travel, and a Van recreates, in the form of a memoir and travelogue, an around-the-world road trip taken by the author and her husband in the early 1970s. The book draws on the couple's letters, notebooks, drawings, photos, and memories to revisit far-flung locales, their long-gone converted VW microbus, their encounters with friends and strangers, and, touchingly, the couple's relationship as newlyweds discovering how to communicate with each other. Despite the decades that have passed, Slattery evokes the adventure and beauty of Mexico and Central America, then Europe, India, and the Middle East with the eye of a travel writer, though her account is more concerned with the couple's adventures than with the cultures they visited.

    Prose/Style: Lang-Slattery's prose is strongest when she's most specific, which makes a decades-later travel memoir potentially tricky. Passages that detail misadventure or an amusing encounter are written with an engrossing clarity, touched with wisdom and good humor. Some descriptive passages are marvelous, but the book's cheery tone doesn't change much as the couple's travels continue, so it offers little in the way of suspense, mystery, or surprise, even when the couple has to stop to refuel near the "Desert of Death" near Kandahar. Lang-Slattery examines arguments the couple engaged in early in the marriage, which illuminates their relationship for readers, but at other times the dialogue feels somewhat stiff and expository.

    Originality: The story of Wherever the Road Leads is unique to its author and her experiences, and supplemented with fascinating original sketches and photos. Seeing the world through this couple's eyes is certainly a unique treat, though the book itself doesn't always offer much information about what the pair learned, thought, or felt about the world.

    Character Development: For all the book's varied locales and lovely descriptions, Lang-Slattery’s book would be better served to shape the material according to the impulses of a storyteller. The book offers an engaging itinerary and welcome glimpses of the world of the early '70s, but it lacks the narrative throughline of the best memoirs and, outside of the accounts of a few arguments, little sense of the couple's growth and discoveries.

  • Idea: This is a unique travelogue through the American Southwest. The integration of  journal entries and photography provides an engaging window into the history of the land and its people.

    Prose: The book features some strong writing, from well-structured sentences to skillful description. The dialogue can feel somewhat thin, but still conveys the personalities of the speakers well.

    Originality: This work delivers a vital and vivid portrait of one of America’s more ancient places.

    Character/Execution: The book is well crafted, presented in short, readable, chronological chunks, and interspersed with appealing photography.

  • Unreal: Adventures of a Family's Global Life

    by Phil McDonald

    Rating: 7.50

    Idea: McDonald’s “journey memoir” unfolds chronologically and engagingly, as the reader follows his career moves and adventures with his family in exotic settings across the globe, never knowing what dangers or challenges might lurk beyond the next corner.

    Prose/Style: McDonald’s prose is direct and candid as he informs readers about the foreign places he encounters and his own professional development. His voice is encouraging and his style readable as he combines personal stories with telling dialogue. The narrative integrates work project outcomes and 60 “takeaway lessons,” which are delivered succinctly and in a manner that doesn’t impact the narrative’s flow.

    Originality: Unreal rises above dry conventions to combine lively adventure with insight into international places and peoples, tips for living abroad with family, and career and personal reflections. McDonald’s accomplishments are inspiring and his “lessons” are most often noteworthy without being cheesy or preachy.

    Character Development/Execution: McDonald and his wife Rebecca are the two main characters who come across admirably in their lives helping others in developing countries, and the foreigners they befriend along the way are diverse and interesting. McDonald and his wife’s decision-making, concerns, responses, and mistakes make them multi-dimensional.

  • The Soul Grows in Darkness

    by Loren E Pedersen

    Rating: 7.50

    Idea: The author’s life story is tightly plotted, feeling almost novelistic in its storytelling techniques. As the memoir progresses, its ideas increase in complexity, but this does not negatively affect  readability at any step along the way.

    Prose/Style: Pedersen has an excellent instinct for selection of detail, and the “plot” feels expertly manicured to its most important moments. The memoir’s more complex ideas, coming later in the narrative, are deftly told through the device of dialogue and succeed in holding readers’ interest.

    Originality: The author’s truly exceptional life makes this a more unusual memoir than many, with many unexpected twists and a surprising level of analytic reflection.

    Character/Execution: Although an incredible number of events take place in this narrative, it is often at the expense of characterization. Few of the characters aside from Pedersen himself feel deeply explored or considered.

  • A Story of Karma

    by Michael Schauch

    Rating: 7.25

    Idea: Though this work is uneven, as it progresses, it becomes increasingly fascinating and immersive. The author’s journey is often moving and inspiring, while the setting is vividly conveyed.

    Prose: If at moments prone to being longwinded, Schauch keeps the reader engaged in the story. The author demonstrates a clear gift for creating vibrant imagery.

    Originality: While stories of self-discovery and transcendence through travel are familiar, Schauch offers an original focus via the book’s striking setting and the author’s refusal to idealize the lives and circumstances of those he encounters.

    Character/Execution: Schauch is appropriately cautious in his storytelling, displaying awareness of his position as a cultural outsider and maintaining respect for the nuances of the culture he closely observes. The result is a candid portrait of a place and one individual’s powerful experience of it.


  • Autobioscenes & Necrographies

    by Norman Weeks

    Rating: 7.25

    Idea: Weeks’s intriguing personal narrative has a unique structural framework. Rather than focusing on purely autobiographical episodes, the author integrates ‘death stories’ into the narrative. Death, he appears to suggest, is the inevitable counterpart to all lived experience and, therefore, well worth examining.

    Prose/Style: Weeks’s prose is straightforward, though at times stilted. His memorable voice narrates some 65 episodes of his life in a searching, analytical manner that includes moments of dry humor. This episodic telling can sometimes result in a jumpy and underdeveloped narrative.

    Originality: Weeks provides much interesting content and the decision to split the narrative into life and death stories, is a compelling one.

    Character Development/Execution: Weeks’s introspective narrative gives form to his personal development. Despite his in-depth sharing of experiences, he remains somewhat elusive.

  • Idea: An avante-garde multimedia book from a unique artist’s perspective. The book broaches some deep and personal topics and will stimulate readers’ senses.

    Prose: The book contains writing of many different types, but is largely presented through poetic forms. The prose sections are well written and effectively stylized. There are also activity descriptions which encourage readers to participate in the book’s artistic experience.

    Originality: A very personal and unique book, full of poetry, visual art, and snippets of memoir.

    Character/Execution: While the art and poetry won’t be to every reader’s taste, those willing to give themselves to the spirit of the book, and to participate in the suggested activities, will find a rewarding experience.