Category Archives: True story

*** The Widower’s Notebook by Jonathan Santlofer

Jonathan Santlofer’s wife died suddenly and unexpectedly after what was supposed to be routine surgery — and to this day he has never received a precise accounting of what happened. The memoir describes his grief, the solace of his work, the minutiae of after-death, and his entire marriage.

Sad but absolutely not depressing, and with a lovely description of his relationship with his daughter.

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*** Heartland by Sarah Smarsh

Sarah Smarsh, the author of Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth, grew up poor in Kansas to a mother who harbored a great frustration, anger even, at having led a harsh live of abuse, poverty, and teenage motherhood (like her mother, and her grandmother). Her relationship with her dad was sweet, but her parents split up. She describes the hard life of farmers and how difficult it is to escape poverty for another life. She did it with her brain, hard work, and college financial aid — and her fierce desire to avoid another teenage pregnancy. Her memoir is told to the daughter she never had. I found it quite hopeful: after all, the author is a successful college professor — but how many other children remain trapped in poverty?

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** There Was A Country by Chinua Achebe

There Was a Country: A Memoir is both a personal memoir of the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe and the story of the Nigerian civil war of the 60s, which left millions dead from both slaughter and, especially, starvation. I found the personal part of the memoir to be especially successful, as it traces the life of a smart child growing up in colonial Nigeria, mostly in the demanding educational system brought by the British but with many familial links to traditional ways. The political memoir is interesting, although more guarded and even stilted at times. Achebe is never afraid of pointing out the weaknesses and especially the corruption of the post-colonial regime. Indeed, he seems to have a very pessimistic view of the future, even as Nigeria seems to be experiencing some strong growth.

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*** Heavy by Kiese Laymon

Heavy: An American Memoir is not, or not only, a memoir of man with a weight problem. It’s a powerful description of what it’s like to grow up in a body that marks you for abuse and discrimination, in a family where abuse is rampant alongside fierce love. The author chose to write the story as an ambitious and forceful diatribe to his mother, a woman of great intellect but also deeply flawed, and the result is astonishing.

If you decided 2019 would be a great year to read a serious book, this is it.

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** On Sunset by Kathryn Harrison

On Sunset is a delightful memoir of the author’s childhood, being raised by her grandparents as her unmarried mother lived nearby and seemed responsible enough, but not, apparently, to raise a child. Her grandparents had unusual lives. Her grandmother, born in an Iranian Jewish family, grew up in Shanghai there her father was a wealthy merchant. Her grandfather grew up poor in England but spent time working in Alaska before marrying late in life.  She tells of growing up in a mansion, the furniture of which gets sold off to pay for necessities, while proper manners and decorum are observed at all times. I loved the description of her relationship to her grandfather, who is kind and wise and generous, as perhaps only someone who grows up poor can be.

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*** Dear America by Jose Antonio Vargas

Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen is a memoir and book-length argument in favor of immigration reform. The author was sent to the US at age 12 to live with his (documented) grandparents with the hope of a better future. Things worked out well for him: he attended a good high school and was able to take advantage of generous financial help to attend college, but proper paperwork proved elusive and a talented journalist finds himself with no legal avenue to regularize his situation — although, interestingly and despite (or perhaps because of) his fame, he has not been deported. I would have preferred more of a focus on his personal history and less political commentary, but it’s important to show how productive individuals are left in limbo because of decisions made long ago by their parents.

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** My Brother Moochie by Isaac Bailey

My Brother Moochie: Regaining Dignity in the Midst of Crime, Poverty, and Racism in the American South is a messy book, perhaps proving that, much like physicians should not treat family members, journalists should not write about their families. But the story is stunning, even if the exposition is convoluted.

The author’s brother went to prison for a senseless act of murder, and several other family members did time as well, whereas he did well for himself. Many reviews of the book present it as a story of racism, which it is, but it’s much deeper than that. The most interesting character in it may be the mother (of the author and the disgraced brother), who cares for all her many children (and many non-children to boot), regardless of their position in the world. I feel for her most.

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