Tag Archives: Memoirs

Two New Reviews: House of Silence, by Sarah Barthel and Nowhere Else I Want to Be, by Carol D. Marsh

Two new books to share with you, via my reviews in the 1/13/2017 issue of Shelf Awareness.

House of Silence by Sarah Barthel is “an engaging, fast-paced blend of historical fiction and suspense.” Before reading this, I didn’t know much about Mary Todd Lincoln’s stay at Bellevue Place, a sanitarium where her son Robert had her committed 10 years after President Lincoln’s assassination. This novel weaves Mary Todd Lincoln’s story with the fictional Isabelle Larkin, a socialite whose fiancé Gregory is a political hopeful and one of Chicago’s most eligible and attractive bachelors. When Isabelle catches Gregory committing a crime, she’s trapped … until being sent to Bellevue where she befriends — you guessed it, Mary Todd Lincoln. You can read more under the Fiction section in the Shelf Awareness issue.

Nowhere Else I Want to Be is Carol D. Marsh’s memoir of her 14 years as executive director of Miriam’s House, a community of women who are addicted to drugs and dying of AIDS. She lived on the premises with her husband Tim and together with their staff, provided the women with a home and cared for those forgotten by their families and society.  Along with the many heartbreaking stories of the women she came to know at Miriam’s House, Marsh shares her own story of growth in this role as she learned to confront her naiveté and false assumptions.

Although I didn’t work in a direct service capacity, a lot of this reminded me of my time working at a domestic violence shelter. More of my review in the Shelf Awareness issue, under the Social Science heading, as well as a review with Carol Marsh by my writing colleague Katie Noah Gibson, who blogs at Cakes, Tea and Dreams



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Book Review: Under Magnolia, A Southern Memoir by Frances Mayes (37/99)

Under Magnolia

Under Magnolia: A Southern Memoir
by Frances Mayes
Narrated by Frances Mayes
9 hours, 46 minutes

Anyone who has ever called the South home will likely identify with the people and recollections that Frances Mayes – born and raised in Fitzgerald, Georgia – serves up in Under Magnolia: A Southern Memoir.

“Memory is capricious. I can look back and see decadence, old bigots, the constant racial slurs, the bores, the wild cards, the bighearted, the family album of alcoholics, the saints, the old aunt propped in a chair saying only “da-da,” the slow-motion suicides, but at four, six, ten, they loomed, powerful, not as types but as themselves. Among them, logic takes wing.” (pg. 31)

Many such characters appear in Under Magnolia as those who have shaped Ms. Mayes into the person she is today. She writes that “sometimes you have to travel back in time, skirting the obstacles, in order to love someone.”  Those of us who have had the gift of time and the occasion to reflect on certain experiences in our lives know how very true this can be.

When I read memoir, I’m looking for more than a life’s chronology or experience that transcends a good story. I look for some renewed understanding about that experience as a result of that process.  The real story isn’t what happened; the real story goes behind the images to have the memorist share what he or she has learned, how someone has changed as a result, (“Images are the pegs holding down memory’s billowing tent.”)

Under Magnolia is more chronology, a recollection of what happened, with the feel of autobiography.  Frances Mayes, who narrates the audiobook version (which I listened to) of Under Magnolia sounds like a lovely person with many stories and experiences from growing up in the South that have shaped her. But it’s hard to pinpoint the “takeaway” from these experiences. Is it that we really can always go home again? That we can’t truly leave because home is always with us? That change is possible? That despite our family history we have the strength in us to overcome issues like a parent’s alcoholism and devastating illness and societal expectations? All of the above?  I’m not quite sure.

Yet, there are parts of Under Magnolia where Ms. Mayes takes her reader on a journey with her back to her hometown, in a poetic yet rambling way.

“Growing up in Fitzgerald, I lived in an intense microcosm, where your neighbor knows what you’re going to do even before you do, where you can recognize a family gene pool by the lift of an eyebrow, or the length of a neck, or a way of walking. What is said, what is left to the imagination, what is denied, withheld, exaggerated-all these secretive, inverted things informed my childhood. Writing the stories that I found in the box, I remember being particularly fascinated by secrets kept in order to protect someone from who you are. That protection, sharpest knife in the drawer, I absorbed as naturally as a southern accent. At that time, I was curious to hold up to the light glimpses of the family that I had so efficiently fled. We were remote-back behind nowhere-when I was growing up, but even so, enormous social change was about to crumble foundations. Who were we, way far South? “We’re south of everywhere,” my mother used to lament.”

A gorgeous passage with so many fascinating questions to explore. Which may be the point — maybe finding out who we are and how place shapes us into the people we are isn’t a definitive process.  Maybe it is supposed to feel somewhat incomplete, a stream of conscious narrative in our lives.

99 Days of Summer BloggingThis is post 37 of 99 in my 99 Days of Summer Blogging project. 




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Book Review: Letters to Sam: A Grandfather’s Lessons on Love, Loss, and the Gifts of Life, by Daniel Gottlieb

Letters to Sam: A Grandfather’s Lessons on Love, Loss, and the Gifts of Life 
by Daniel Gottlieb 
Sterling Publishing Co.
176 pages 

There’s something powerful in a personal moment of vulnerability, of difference, of change or of broken spirit, when you find another soul who says, “Me too.”

Sometimes that person is a friend or a teacher. Sometimes it is a stranger. Sometimes, a relative.

Daniel Gottlieb is a Philadelphia-based psychologist, family therapist, columnist, and author. When Dan talks with his clients or writes about coping with life’s changes and unexpected turns, his insights come from a deep well of personal experience.

More than 25 years ago, Dan became a quadriplegic after an automobile accident paralyzed him from the neck down. As most of us would, he thought his career – and his life – were over, that he didn’t have anything left to give.

He was wrong.

Sometimes we don’t understand the reasons behind the circumstances in our lives. In Letters to Sam, Dan shares the moment he knew he would be able to continue living, but this memoir’s purpose is to show that there is sometimes even more of a greater reason than may readily be apparent.

For Dan, that reason is his grandson Sam. Like many grandparents, Sam is the very joy and light of Dan’s life – a reason to keep living in spite of adversity; however, theirs isn’t like most grandparent-grandson relationships. At 14 months old, Sam was diagnosed with PDD-NOS (Pervasive Developmental Disability), a form of autism.

(My boy was initially diagnosed with PDD-NOS shortly after his 2nd birthday.)

Daniel Gottlieb knows a little something about the frailty and unexpected nature of life. While he hopes he has many years together with Sam, he knows more than others that things can change in a matter of seconds. Thus, the concept of Letters to Sam – a touching book that is exactly that: a grandfather’s words of wisdom to his grandson about how to survive (no, thrive) in a world that may not always be too kind to people with disabilities, about embracing life and keeping hope, about making peace with the past, and ultimately, about finding acceptance.


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Book Review: Blown Sideways Through Life: A Hilarious Tour de Resume, by Claudia Shear

Blown Sideways Through LifeBlown Sideways Through Life: A Hilarious Tour de Resume
by Claudia Shear
The Dial Press
116 pages

When I was job-hunting, one of the things that I found to be somewhat of a pain was having to complete a job application with the same exact information as on my resume. I know there are reasons for such, but it just always struck me as something that took entirely too long – and I don’t have nearly as many jobs in my history as most people.

Now, I can be thankful that I’m not Claudia Shear, who writes in her memoir-turned-one-woman-show Blown Sideways Through Life about the 64 different jobs she’s held – and quit, and been fired from, too.

“She worked as  (among other things) a pastry chef, a nude model, a waitress (a lot), a receptionist in a whorehouse, a brunch chef on Fire Island, a proofreader on Wall Street (a lot), and an Italian translator.” ~ from the book jacket

Told in essay format, on their own these stories seem to be simply a collection of “I had this crappy job, I hated it even there was this cool person or two that I worked with, but I wound up telling the owner to go fuck off, so I got fired or quit.”

Repeat. Repeat again. Sixty times.

This is billed as “a hilarious tour de resume,” which made me think that I was going to be in for a very funny read. Although there are certainly some amusing moments as Ms. Shear is sharing anecdotes about her various jobs, something about this kind of irked me and it took me awhile to figure out why. Because I can understand this “take this job and shove it” mentality once, maybe a couple times in one’s career… but not 64 times.

Finally, it dawned on me: I’m reading this in the wrong decade.

Because no way, no how does anyone, in this 2014 economy, treat 64 jobs with that kind of laissez-faire attitude. But Blown Sideways By Life wasn’t written in 2014; it was published nearly 20 years ago, when life was all kinds of different, indeed.

The takeaway is what matters, though, and it’s timeless. It’s especially relevant for this economy. It’s a reminder that every person taking your order, bagging your groceries, cleaning your hotel room, answering the phone, sweeping the floor, and getting your food is more than their job.

You got that, right? We, you, they are more than our jobs.

“You talk to the people who serve you the food the same way you talk to the people you eat the food with. You talk to the people who work for you the same way you talk to the people you work for…

“Sitting on rooftops, desktops, countertops, under counters; perched on milk crates, wine crates, paper cartons, front steps, hanging out in back alleys, deserted cafeterias, spooky hallways, we are all the same: a motley crew of artsy-fartsy types and single mothers and social misfits and immigrants who work six days, double shifts and send all the money home. We are people in recovery, people in denial, gay guys shocking the shit out of pizza guys from Queens – and vice versa. We all fit in because none of us belongs anywhere. And, boy, what you can learn: dirty words in every language and the fact that nobody is just a typist, just a dishwasher, just a cook, just a porter, just a prostitute. That everyone has a story. Everyone has at least one story that will stop your heart.” (pg. 114-115)

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Two Book Reviews: Devotion; Slow Motion, both by Dani Shapiro

DevotionSlow Motion

You’re getting a two-fer with today’s review, mainly because these books are so connected (and yet, not) and because I read them back to back.

Dani Shapiro has been on my want-to-read list for awhile. She shows up regularly on lists of recommended memoirs and we have slightly more than a baker’s dozen of writing friends in common via Facebook.

I wasn’t sure how to approach Devotion (2010) and Slow Motion (1998), both memoirs. Do I read them chronologically? In the order that they were due back at the library?  For whatever reason, Devotion was calling out to me. I’ve become more cognizant of how books choose us at the right time and perhaps for reasons we might not realize (I know that sounds kind of woo-woo and whatever, but I’ve seen this happen in my literary life more times than not). Devotion it was.

Of the two, Devotion turned out to be the book that I related to most closely.  In it, Dani is a mother and happily married wife in her mid-40s and struggling to understand the “what’s the meaning of it all?” questions that tend to swaddle us when we hit midlife.

“It wasn’t getting easier because it isn’t supposed to get easier. Midlife was a bitch, and my educated guess was that the climb only got steeper from here. Carl Jung put it perfectly: “Thoroughly unprepared we take the step into the afternoon of life,” he wrote. “Worse still, we take this step with the false assumption that our truths and ideals will serve us as hitherto. But we cannot live the afternoon of life according to the program of life’s morning; for what was great in the morning will be little at evening, and what in the morning was true will by evening have become a lie.” (pg. 182) 

As Dani reflects on her son’s rare illness (he had infantile seizures) and the horrific car accident that took the life of her father and left her mother with extensive injuries, Dani writes about exploring aspects of meditation and Buddhism in a quest to find inner peace. combined with her childhood upbringing in an Orthodox Jewish home and how that influence fits with the person she’s grown up to be and come to believe.

“I believe that there is something connecting us … Something that was here before we got here and will still be here after we’re gone. I’ve begun to believe that all of our consciousnesses are bound up in that greater consciousness.An animating presence.” (Devotion, pg. 205-206) 

Connection is a strong theme throughout Devotion: connection to one’s faith (both in childhood and as an adult), connection to a place and the symbolism of home, connection to relatives we may have once been close with and now never see or talk to because of physical or emotional distance. Ms. Shapiro writes about getting into a cab in New York and discovering that her driver was a cousin she hadn’t had contact with in many years.

“We lapsed into silence. Small talk seemed out of the question. Our common ground was an empty landscape, littered with misunderstanding and loss that had nothing to do with either of us…I thought about my grandfather – buried along with his two sons in the Brooklyn cemetery – and wondered what he would make of his ten grandchildren, who had scattered far and wide, creating their own tribes like the children of Genesis. Some of us had prospered, and some of were struggling …My grandfather’s patriarchal spell did not extend itself into my generation. There was nothing keeping us together. Had it been inevitable that we lose track of one another? That our children would be strangers?” (pg. 62)

I completely get this. One of my mother’s cousins passed away last week. As I was explaining that branch of the family tree to my children and telling them stories of playing in Philadelphia rowhouse basements with my second cousins during long-ago family gatherings, I felt like I was talking about someone else’s life. I realized that they wouldn’t know these cousins – or the cousins’ kids –  if they were playing in our own basement that very minute. Neither would I.

That’s nobody’s fault, of course. No blame cast. It’s the way things are, have been, always will be. My grandfather’s patriarchal spell did not extend itself into my generation.

Still, all kinds of hazy memories have risen to the surface in the past, begging additional questions.

“Why do we remember the particular things we do? Great pain certainly carves its own neurological path. But why random, ordinary moments? …. I knew what all of us were thinking. What would our children remember? The oldest among them – Jacob – was nine. What ordinary moments had imprinted themselves on him at this point? And what painful ones? …. Who the hell knew? It was all in there, conscious or unconscious. What rose to the surface – and why?” (pg. 132)

Slow MotionGreat pain and its neurological path. In Dani’s story, it was her tumultuous relationship with a high-profile married lawyer (who also happened to be the stepfather of her college roommate) combined with the aftermath of a car crash that would take the life of her father and leave her mother with 80 broken bones and fractures.

We learn about the fatal crash and the love affair with “Lenny Klein” (an alias) in Devotion, but it is in Slow Motion – an immediate, less introspective memoir than Devotion – where we get the full backstory.

In that sense, Slow Motion serves its purpose. Because Devotion is so reflective and thoughtful and this one has a “just the facts” feel, I’m not sure I would have liked Slow Motion as a stand-alone read (and may not have even read Devotion). Dani comes across as unlikable in Slow Motion‘s pages as she describes her cocaine abuse and jet-setting trips on the Concorde with Lenny (who doesn’t seem to have any redeeming qualities whatsoever) and decision to drop out of college.

The takeaway for me of reading both memoirs back to back was seeing an individual’s growth from one era to another. Most of us have made a bad decision or two, and most of us are different people in our mid-40s than we were at age 20. (Sometimes.)  From a literary perspective, it’s also interesting to see the evolution in Dani Shapiro’s writing from 1998 and 2010. In Devotion, it’s much more refined, poetic, and personal; Slow Motion is heavy, cathartic, brash.

‘I feel no connection to the kid I was,’ Michael suddenly said. I had never heard him say anything like this before. ‘I’m a completely different person.’

‘Me too,’ said our friend.

I understood feeling like a completely different person. I had been a late bloomer too, and when I thought back to my teenage self, my twenty-something self, I had a hard time understanding how I had gotten from there to here. But no connection?  I looked at my friend across the table. I could still see the seventh grader I had once known, alive inside him. Could he see that in me? Was there – surely there must be – a through line connecting the disparate parts of ourselves? ….

Nope, no connection. Completely different person. I could see that it would be desirable, maybe even preferable, to disavow pieces of the past – all the uncomfortable, unexplainable, embarrassing bits. But I knew better. I had experienced my own memory as a living thing, a palpable presence in my body. I had felt my past unfurl inside me as if it had a mind of its own. These layers of ourselves are  always there, waiting for the right moment to emerge. The cooking of an egg. An overheard argument. A walk in the woods. The black-necked cranes of Bhutan. A jumble, perhaps, but nothing is ever missing. Just hidden from view. (Devotion, pg. 132-134)



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Book Review: Borrowed Time: An AIDS Memoir, by Paul Monette

Borrowed TimeBorrowed Time: An AIDS Memoir
by Paul Monette
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich
342 pages 

During a critique session, someone in my writing group asked me about my motivation for my novel-in-progress. It’s set in the midst of the AIDS epidemic and is a young adult novel based on real-life experiences. It’s a story that I’m compelled to tell for several reasons.

I thought about my answer for a minute before responding to my friend.

“I don’t want this story to be forgotten,” I said simply, adding that for my kids’ generation, the fear and the panic of AIDS – not to mention the blatant indifference from the government – has become the stuff of ancient history.

Borrowed Time brings it all back.

Paul Monette’s memoir about caring for his partner Roger Horwitz during his fight with AIDS is, without a doubt, one of the most powerfully affecting memoirs I’ve ever read – about AIDS or otherwise. It doesn’t matter that this was published in 1988. This is timeless.

Drawing heavily from Paul’s journals, Borrowed Time has a chronological feel to it, giving the reader the feeling of being in medias res during the nineteen months from Roger’s diagnosis in March 1985 to his death in October 1986.  It’s unabashedly human and raw, as Paul spills emotions of anger and frustration, admitting what he doesn’t remember and portraying vividly what he does.

Living with AIDS feels akin to living on the moon, Paul writes, and that metaphor – along with the symbolism of light and dark – shows up frequently in Borrowed Time. In 1985, that’s how it was; AIDS patients and those caring for them were very much on a different planet than the rest of society.

The writing in Borrowed Time is spectacularly gorgeous. There’s not a single page where Paul Monette doesn’t leave a piece of his heart while taking part of his reader’s.

“Hope had left us so unprepared. We had grown so grateful for little things. Out of nowhere you go from light to dark, from winning to losing, go to sleep murmuring thanks and wake to an endless siren. The honeymoon was over, that much was clear. Now we would learn to borrow time in earnest, day by day, making what brief stays we could against the downward spiral from which all our wasted brothers did not return.” (pg. 183)

Borrowed Time is a lot of things. It’s a roller-coaster ride; one minute Roger is well and the next he is near death. It’s a testament to the bond of friendship, because not only do Paul and Roger have a support system of close friends, they also know the right people in 1985 to be able to access drugs like suramin and AZT and protocols that buy Roger extra time.

Borrowed Time is maddening as hell, because of what we know now. (“It will be recorded that the dead in the first decade of the calamity died of our indifference.” (pg. 18).

It’s about family. “Craig’s mother cut him off one night as he complained about the blood tests and the circular doctors’ appointments: ‘Listen, this whole thing is your own fault. I don’t really want to hear about it.’ That turns out to be rather mild, and at least it’s honest. The real hell is the family sitting in green suburbia while the wasting son shuttles from friend to friend in a distant place, unembraced and disowned until the will is ready to be contested. And even that is to be preferred to the worst of all, being deported back to the flat earth of a rural fundamentalist family, who spit their hate with folded hands, transfigured by the justice of their bumper-sticker God.” (p. 205)

It’s about the very real emotions of being the primary caregiver for someone who is terminally ill. It gets at the unbearable burden of secrecy that was absolutely necessary to protect the people we loved.

Above all, Borrowed Time is a story about what it means to truly love someone. It’s impossible to come away from this without realizing how very much in love Paul and Roger were, which is part of what gives this memoir its overwhelming sadness.

Paul Monette died of AIDS in 1995, nine years after Roger’s passing. From a literary perspective, the mind reels at the loss of such an immensely talented writer as Paul Monette. It’s impossible not to think of what might have been if things had been different, in so many ways.

5 out of 5 stars. Highly recommended.






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on being patient, and being a patient – and some reflections on elisabeth tova bailey’s the sound of a wild snail eating

Philadelphia Flower Show (2)Philadelphia Flower Show (1) Philadelphia Flower Show

Day 5 of recovery (they say give it another few days still) and I think that I may be getting the hang of this. I don’t have a history of being the best patient, haven’t always “done sick” very well. I am not usually very patient as my work projects get delegated to others, as I project forward into the future and fret about lost vacation days as snow continues to fall.

Yet the rhythm of these intensely quiet days – of appreciating the taste of chamomile in the afternoon instead of my usual coffee, of reading almost a book per day, of bedtimes that are closer to dinnertime than dawn – there is something restorative in all of this.

Sometimes it takes focusing on the small to understand the whole.

The Sound of a Wild Snail EatingExactly two months ago, at Christmastime, I sat in my mother’s sunroom and read The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey.  Fittingly, it’s a small book, a natural history/medical memoir of only 190 pages. At 34, Ms. Bailey was in all aspects very healthy when she contracted a debilitating virus during a trip to Europe and, upon returning to the States, became bedridden. When a friend brings her some violets, she notices a woodland snail nestled in the pot. The snail becomes a companion – and a comparison to and a focal point of her own life.

“Everything about a snail is cryptic, and it was precisely this air of mystery that first captured my interest. My own life, I realized, was becoming just as cryptic. From the severe onset of my illness and through its innumerable relapses, my place in the world has been documented more by my absence than by my presence. While close friends understood my circumstances, those who didn’t know me well found my disappearance from work and social circles inexplicable.

Yet it wasn’t that I had truly vanished. I was simply homebound, like a snail pulled into its shell. But being homebound in the human world is a sort of vanishing. When encountering acquaintances from the past, I sometimes see a look of astonishment cross their face, as if they think they are seeing my ghost, for I am not expected to reappear. At time even I wonder if a ghost is what I’ve become.” (pg. 116-117)

“Each relapse shrinks my world down to the core. And each time I’ve started to make my slow way back, over many years, toward the life I once knew, I find that nothing is quite as I remember; in my absence, the world has moved forward. (pg. 153)

My situation is different from Elisabeth Tova Bailey’s. I’m recovering from two surgeries in 24 hours, one being fairly common. (Who needs a gallbladder anyway, right?) There’s a name, a diagnosis, an expected return date to my regularly programmed life. This taking to my bed, I know, is temporary.

It has, however, shifted my perspective. To perhaps reach out more when those I care about may be hurting. To listen more closely. To try and make the extra effort. To do the unexpected.

I’d like to think I didn’t need the gallstones to remind me to think a little differently, that maybe I am capable enough without surgery and bedrest to vow, once again, to appreciate the small things. But it is our job to notice the reminders when they are given and to take them in the form that they appear.

“I could never have guessed what would get me through this past year – a woodland snail and its offspring; I honestly don’t think I would have made it otherwise. Watching another creature go about its life … somehow gave me, the watcher, purpose too. If life mattered to the snail and the snail mattered to me, it meant something in my life mattered, so I kept on …Snails may seem like tiny, even insignificant things compared to the wars going on around the world or a million other human problems, but they may well outlive our own species.” (pg. 154)

(Photos taken by me at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, Philadelphia, PA, March 7, 2009. I thought this teacup display was so cool and have been wanting to use these photos in the right blog post forever.)



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