Category Archives: Memoir

Best Books of 2018

In past years, I’ve done a Reading Year In Review as my last post of the year, including my standout reads from the last 12 months. This year, I’m adding a Best Books of 2018 post, because everyone else is doing one. (It’s always important to do what everyone else is doing, right?) 

Ok, here goes: my favorite 8 books of 2018 and why I liked them. These weren’t necessarily my favorites as I was reading them, but with time to reflect, they are the ones that I found the most moving and beautifully written, and which have stayed with me over the months. I’ve linked to my original reviews for each title.

A Cloud In The Shape Of A Girl by Jean Thompson is my #1 read of the year. Poignant, with spare writing and insights about being a woman, family and parenting, this book was a recent read and well worth it.

You Think It, I’ll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld. I’ll read anything she writes, but every page of this collection of stories was enjoyable. Memorable characters, believable situations. I want to re-read this one. 

Born To Run by Bruce Springsteen. If the purpose of a memoir is to let the world know who you really are, then this one succeeded in spades. It’s long and sometimes meandering but hey, it’s Bruce, so it’s ok.

A Place For Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza. The first 3/4 of this book was very slow, but the final quarter made up for it. Heartbreaking, deeply moving and a story that has stayed with me for months.

Waiting For Eden by Elliot Ackerman. Don’t let the subject matter – a severely wounded soldier lying in a coma while his conflicted wife waits for his condition to change – drive you away. This short novel raises a number of ethical questions and is a good reminder of the constant danger our soldiers face.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. Theres’s a reason this book is all over everyone else’s top 2018 reads. It’s a small story about a love triangle that says big things about the state of race in America. So well written and beautifully constructed.

The Gunners by Rebecca Kauffman. This one was a sleeper. I liked it fine when I read it, but the main character has really stayed with me and in retrospect I think this was a pretty good book. It’s sad and lonely and atmospheric, and at the same time it’s totally believable.

Kitchens Of The Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal. I re-read my favorite book from 2017 and loved it just as much. I’ll shut up now.

ALL YOU CAN EVER KNOW by Nicole Chung

It’s Non-Fiction November, folks! So I read some non-fiction.

All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung is a deeply personal memoir about the Korean-American author’s life as an adopted daughter. Born to Korean-American parents in 1980s Seattle, Nicole was given up as a premature baby and adopted by a white couple from a small town in Oregon. She grew up as the only Asian in her whole town, suffering teasing and bullying by those around her who couldn’t accept her being different. As a result, she was shy and insecure, constantly trying to fit in.

When Nicole got to college and was surrounded by other Asians, she started to think more about her identity and what it meant to be Korean. After a few years, she decided to pursue a search for her birth family. When she initially learned that her parents were alive – but not living together – and that she had two sisters, her reticence about hurting her parents and her fear of rejection were both overpowered by her intense curiosity about her birth parents and her roots as a Korean girl. All You Can Ever Know is a detailed, emotional and very clearly written memoir about the experience of tracking down her birth family and what their reunion was like.

I liked All You Can Ever Know a lot. I appreciated the insights into her unique circumstances, including her interactions difficult birth mother and formal, academic father. Chung is so honest and forthright that it’s hard not to get emotionally involved with her story and feel affected by what happened to her. The book is a good look at adoption from the point of the adoptee, with all of the conflicting emotions and identity questions that it raises.

I listened to All You Can Ever Know on audio. It was narrated by Janet Song, who did a decent job with it. Song’s precise, clear delivery mirrored Chung’s writing style, and it was easy to follow. I was surprised that it wasn’t narrated by the author, which I think would have been very powerful. Ultimately, I felt a bit of a remove from the content, knowing that it wasn’t the author herself that I was listening to. I wonder if it was just too personal for Chung, and that she didn’t want her own voice out there talking about her parents and her feelings.

All You Can Ever Know is a short and satisfying read, and I recommend it to anyone interested in adoption, particularly trans-racial adoption.

I AM, I AM, I AM by Maggie O’Farrell

I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell is an exquisite collection of essays about 17 brushes with death by the Irish author Maggie O’Farrell. From the medical – a c-section gone wrong, a brain infection – to near-drownings while on vacation and narrowly escaped violence at the hands of others, O’Farrell has faced a lot of physical adversity and danger over the course of her life. A life lived on the razor edge of death made O’Farrell less, rather than more, risk-adverse, pushing her to embrace mortality, almost daring it to stop her as she sought out adventures and experiences, often ill-advised, that her body may not have been able to handle.

Some chapters are more successful than others; the chapter about an AIDS test ends rather vaguely, for example, and detracts slightly from the overall collection. But there are others in which danger is so clearly present that I found myself rattled and anxious, even knowing, of course, that O’Farrell is alive and well. How frequently have we all been in situations where our safety was in grave danger, most likely without even knowing it? Life is a daily, ongoing miracle that we so often take for granted and think about only fleetingly, yet many of us could likely fill 17 chapters with our own harrowing brushes with disaster. I finished this book feeling grateful and lucky.

I enjoyed I Am, I Am, I Am quite a bit as I read it, but my feelings about it changed when I got to the last chapter, which is about O’Farrell’s daughter. Without spoiling the book, it wasn’t until that last chapter, when risk and worry were upended and transposed, that I really understood why O’Farrell wrote it: her ever-present, unwavering and never lessening fear and vigilance caused by her daughter’s auto-immune disorder. As a parent, I found this chapter the most harrowing of all.

I Am, I Am, I Am is definitely worth a read. If you’ve read any of O’Farrell’s novels (see here for reviews of Instructions For A Heatwave and The Vanishing Act Of Esme Lennox), then you know already what a beautiful writer she is. Her writing about her own personal experiences is even more meaningful and moving.

I listened to I Am, I Am, I Am on audio. It was narrated by Daisy Donovan, who did a great job conveying the intensity of this personal narrative. (I was a little surprised that it wasn’t narrated by O’Farrell herself, and I supposed I just pretended it was O’Farrell reading it as I listened.) I highly recommend the audiobook, which breathlessly and urgently conveyed the gravity of the subject.

A BEAUTIFUL, TERRIBLE THING by Jen Waite

A few weeks ago, I said that I was done reading popcorn thrillers about sociopathic husbands. So what did I do next? Picked up a memoir about a sociopathic husband. SMH.

A Beautiful, Terrible Thing is the story of the demise of Jen Waite’s marriage to a charming Argentinian man named Marco. She married him after a frenzied period of dating and enjoyed 5 blissful years with him before everything fell apart. A few weeks after she gave birth to their daughter Louisa, she found a strange email on his computer that suggested that he was seeing someone else. He denied it repeatedly, but it came out over the next few months that Marco was cheating on Jen with another woman (and that there had been others).

The cheating was bad enough, but hardest for Jen was Marco’s coldness and lack of empathy. He claimed to be “sick” and “numb” and “unable to feel” anything about what he had done. After a lot of internet research and therapy, though, she concluded that he was a sociopath who had tricked her for years into believing that he loved her, but who cast her off when he decided he was ready to move on due to his own need for attention and adoration.

I guess I’m glad I read A Beautiful, Terrible Thing… ??? In the end, yes, Marco was awful and Jen’s pain was very intense, but did I need to read a whole book about it? I was more interested in the analysis of sociopaths and the identification of their patterns than the timeline of the revelations about Marco’s infidelity. Waite is a good writer, so it’s not like the book wasn’t written well. It’s just a somewhat familiar story and in the end I didn’t really grow that much for having read it. There is a lot of talk about not giving too much of yourself to another person or being so invested in their happiness, but if Marco hadn’t been a sociopathic monster, I don’t think Waite would be advising against either. (That’s what marriage is, right?)

You probably know by now whether this book is for you or not.

 

HAPPINESS by Heather Harpham

Vacation read #4 was Heather Harpham’s memoir Happiness, which I grabbed on an impulse from my 2017 Book Expo box the night before we left. Harpham, a writer living in New York, meets and falls in love with an author named Brian. They have a strong, passionate relationship that is leading toward permanence, except for one issue they can’t resolve: Heather wants kids and Brian doesn’t. When they accidentally become pregnant, the decision of what to do – and how it will impact their relationship – becomes too much for them to survive. Heather moves home to California to have the baby, leaving Brian in New York.

Their daughter Gracie is born outside San Francisco, and from the start it’s apparent that she is suffering from a mysterious blood disorder. Within the first few weeks of her life, Gracie received a blood transfusion, a procedure she requires every three to four weeks to help get oxygen to her body. Heather handles Gracie’s condition and treatments solo, with help of her mother and some longtime friends, bearing the emotional and physical burden of caring for a sick infant. Brian finally flies out to California to meet his daughter a few months later, and he slowly backs his way into fatherhood.

Ultimately, Heather and Brian reconcile, and are then faced with the question of whether to have another child who might be a genetic match to provide bone marrow for Gracie. Given their history, this is a complicated question, but one that is quickly answered when Heather becomes unexpectedly pregnant with their son, Gabe. From there they must decide whether to transplant his marrow into Gracie, and where, and how they will get through it, emotionally and professionally.

I enjoyed Happiness. Even though I knew how it would end, I felt the suspense and stress of Gracie’s treatments and procedures and was eager to hear how it all worked out. Harpham does a really good job of letting the reader into the head of the parent of a sick child. She’s honest and genuine, sharing her innermost thoughts while Gracie was hospitalized, including the guilt she felt about neglecting her young son, her ambivalence toward her partner, and the conflicting emotions conjured by watching other parents enduring the same awful experiences in the hospital. I felt great empathy for her and for Gracie.

Happiness was a compelling read and I’m glad I included it on my travels.

CAN’T HELP MYSELF by Meredith Goldstein

I am a sucker for advice columns. I read several on a regular basis – Carolyn Hax, Ask Amy, Dear Prudence – so when I learned that there was a book coming out by Boston Globe advice columnist Meredith Goldstein, author of the “Love Letters” column, I knew I wanted to check it out. (Goldstein also wrote the novel The Singles, which I reviewed here.)

Can’t Help Myself: Lessons & Confessions From A Modern Advice Columnist is about Goldstein’s column: how she started it, the types of letters she gets and her interactions with her readers. But it’s also about Goldstein’s own life – her relationships with men and the people close to her. The “Love Letters” column addresses her readers’ relationship quandaries, covering everything from one night stands and overdue marriage proposals to work spouses and online dating. Goldstein divides the book into themes about love lives while threading her own personal narrative throughout. We learn about the guy who got away, her very close relationship with a colleague, and her mom’s cancer diagnosis.

Can’t Help Myself is a quick and interesting read. Goldstein is funny and deeply honest, so I really got a sense of who she was. I almost always agreed with the advice she gave out to her readers, even while she had trouble following it in her own life. I do wish she had spent more time behind the scenes. I wanted to hear more about how she picked the letters and trends she has noticed in 9 years of writing her column. Goldstein always seemed so sure of her answers; I’d like to have heard about the times when she just didn’t know what to advise. More focus on the role and responsibility of the advice columnist would have given Can’t Help Myself more heft.

I liked the reader letters spread throughout the book, and have, of course, now subscribed to “Love Letters” updates.

This is a fun book if you’re an advice column junkie, but in the end I wanted a little more detail and analysis.

BORN TO RUN by Bruce Springsteen

Born To Run is Bruce Springsteen’s epic, spiritual, meandering memoir, written over six years as a side project to his touring and songwriting. It starts at Bruce’s birth in Freehold, NJ in 1949 and ends in his mid 60s, exploring not only his musical career but also his relationships and his spiritual and emotional journey through life.

Like many of Bruce’s songs, the writing in Born To Run is rich and poetic. Yes, I think the book could have been edited a bit. (But who wants to tell that to The Boss?) Yes, he repeats himself a lot. But the memoir also intensely personal and introspective, and his perspectives on his working class roots and the demons he’s battled throughout his life are quite moving.

Here’s what surprised me from reading Born To Run:

  • Bruce is a lot more insecure than one would think (I mean, he’s Bruce!), and that insecurity fuels him. He says his 3 1/2 hour shows are because he feels like he has to prove something.
  • He also has a big ego and manages the E Street band more like a autocracy than a democracy. He makes the decisions and the other musicians – as accomplished as they are – have to fall in line.
  • He has dealt with depression throughout his adult life, including some crippling bouts in the last decade that left him paralyzed and unable to work.
  • Patti Scialfa, his wife, is intensely private but more interesting (and patient!) than I realized.

If you’re a fan of his music, Bruce talks a lot about his albums and what he was trying to accomplish on each of them, how/where they were recorded and how they fit into his overall musical evolution. He also spends a lot of time on his bandmates, including “The Big Man” Clarence Clemons, Steve Van Zandt and Nils Lofgren. There’s plenty of fodder for those who are well-acquainted with Bruce’s songs and the guys (and woman) he’s had on stage with him over the decades.

The first third of the book is a little slow, as Bruce gets bogged down in endless details about early bands, gigs and roadtrips. I found that Born To Run picked up a fair amount when his career did.

I listened to 2/3 of Born To Run on audio.  It’s narrated by Bruce, which was a thrill. He infuses his narration with emotion and humor in his distinctive, raspy voice. Unfortunately, it was just too long to do the whole thing on audio, so I switched to print for the last third.

Born To Run gave me a much better sense of the complexity behind this great showman. And I liked how, at the end, he expressed his hopes that reading his memoir would encourage others to take some time for the process of self-reflection. If you’re a Bruce fan or you like rock memoirs, pick this one up.

Apropos of nothing, my top 5 Bruce songs of all time:

  1. Thunder Road
  2. Badlands
  3. Tunnel Of Love
  4. The Rising
  5. Born To Run