Category Archives: Memoir

ALABAMA BLUE by Toni K. Pacini

* I received a copy of this book in return for a fair review.

A woman’s story of her southern girlhood and the long, hard road to finding her own voice after decades of abuse and neglect.

Book cover of Toni Pacini's memoir

Alabama Blue on Amazon

Even under the care of the most loving parents, few of us make it to adulthood without figuring out that life can be harsh and unfair and we usually have a varied collection of emotional bruises to prove it. Now imagine you didn’t enter this world into the warm embrace of an attentive, affectionate nuclear family, and that the very culture surrounding you seemed to exist for the sole purpose of smothering you with the reality of your own insignificance. Stands to reason that by the time you reached adulthood, if you reached adulthood, there might not be an inch of you, inside or out, left unmarked.

Toni K. Pacini’s memoir of growing up in a tiny Alabama mill town is gritty and ugly and sad. So many times I wanted to throw the book across the room and say NO MORE. But I couldn’t stop reading. Because when a voice that’s been stifled and stomped on finally claims itself and demands you listen–you listen.

Pacini’s tale is more than just another “I had a lousy childhood” whine-fest. It’s a case study in how to create a family tradition of broken spirits and ruined futures. The author shapes her demonstration in exquisite detail. Generation by generation. Children undervalued, forgotten, or thrown away grow up to undervalue, forget, throw away their own children. She shows through her own experiences how unprotected children never learn how to protect themselves. How this leaves them at the mercy of those who wish them harm and at the mercy of their own desperate attempts to scratch out some sort of existence.

What I admire is how in a literary format that often leaves itself open to the excesses of subjectivity–what is the truth, really?–Pacini goes out of her way to balance experience with understanding. She lets us know from the beginning that her mother and father started out damaged, and that many of the choices they made, especially as regards their children, weren’t really choices at all. They were the natural outcome of a completely unnatural cultural phenomenon specific to a particular time and place. Basically, the working poor in the deep south during the middle of the 20th Century.

Pacini also puts her own behavior under the microscope and points out tragic decision by tragic decision how she hurt her own chances of escape again and again. How, running from one coast to another coast and back again, she could not break free of what that small mill town taught her to expect from life and from herself. Less than nothing.

Would it ruin things for you if I tell you there’s a happy ending? It takes a while to get there. And the detours are numerous and scary. But, I promise, it’s well worth the trip.

Review: STARTING TO FRAME

** I received a copy of this book for review.

*** A video version of this review is available HERE.

Moving memoir of a young man’s youth in Sheffield, England and his family’s struggle with divorce and mental illness.

Starting to Frame: A Memoir

Starting to Frame: A Memoir

The author is a scientist who emigrated from England to Canada in early adulthood, leaving behind a difficult childhood and troubled family. Turns out several thousand miles of ocean isn’t enough to put that past to rest.

The author does a beautiful job setting scenes. I could imagine myself in that dreary Northern England town between the 1940s and 1960s. We start in the ramshackle, mouse-infested home his family shared with his maternal grandparents. Things seem fairly normal there, though the tension between his parents simmers under the surface. Later, the family moves to a new housing estate, but their fresh start is short and painful.

Gordon portrays his parents with honesty–his father’s diffidence, his mothers erratic and explosive temper. There’s compassion as Gordon details the torturous breakdown of the marriage and the chaos that followed.

We also learn the hardships the author faced getting through university and graduate school while battling his own bouts of depression, which left him hospitalized more than once. The bigger wonder is that he managed to get into university at all. His mother paid lip service to the importance of education, but support (practical or emotional) was scarce and full of resentment.

In STARTING TO FRAME, Roger Gordon offer compelling account of a man’s struggle to build a good life on the rubble of a ruined childhood.

Review: RING AROUND THE ROSARY

* I received a copy of the book from the author for review.

** To view a video review of this book, click HERE

Ring Around the Rosary: The Memoir of a Girl, a Nun, a Wife, and a Mother

Ring Around the Rosary: The Memoir of a Girl, a Nun, a Wife, and a Mother

Memoir of the author’s five years as a Catholic nun and the challenges she faced upon leaving the convent.

Grossman grew up the youngest child in a family of actively practicing Catholics. The Church was central in her life. An innocent, sheltered kid, she showed symptoms of severe anxiety early on–obsessively counting things, especially at Mass.

As Grossman grew up, she wasn’t bullied into joining a convent so much as passively carried along by assumptions that she helped create. She knew from the start her vocation was probably a mistake, but she wasn’t confident enough to follow her own instincts.

She spends five years as a nun, a good three of them come after she tells her superiors that she wants out. But she made that five-year commitment. They held her to it, and she doesn’t fight the obligation.

Turns out leaving the convent isn’t the end of Grossman’s challenges. She’s socially immature compared to her peers. Dating is traumatic and, in one sad instance, violent. Yet it isn’t long before she’s swept into marriage to a seemingly charming, urbane man. She feels something is off. They are so different in temperament and what they want out of life. She’s a quiet homebody. He’s a flamboyant social butterfly. Again Grossman fails to listen to her own internal counsel.

RING AROUND THE ROSARY is well paced and told with an honest almost “Gee Whiz, how did I get myself into such tangle” tone. Grossman is open about her own failures and weaknesses along the winding path to self-hood.

An engrossing book about learning to trust yourself. How to hear that small voice inside and, when it screams DANGER, to act in your own best interests, even when it’s scary, and hard, and the people you love might get mad at you.

Review: FROM PIGTAILS TO CHIN HAIRS

Memoir of a mid-western childhood and the author’s experiences with marriage and family.

From Pigtails to Chin Hairs: A Memoir & More

From Pigtails to Chin Hairs: A Memoir & More

Becky Lewellen Povich writes in a humorous, conversational style that pokes fun at herself and her subjects even while hitting on points of deep truth and honest emotion. She starts with her earliest memories and travels through her own girlhood with an objective and generally forgiving eye. And it isn’t all Golden Oldies, television shows, and trips to grandma’s house. A sudden and painful divorce not only robbed the author of her father, who moved away, but also of her mother, a difficult and complicated personality.

Through Llewellen Povich’s poignant recollections, we witness how her efforts to rebel against her mother’s smothering hold lead to a hasty first marriage and early motherhood. The union ends with a dramatic escape by mother and child from an army base in Germany. Years later, the author would enjoy a more successful partnership. Though even a happy marriage isn’t insulation against life’s tragedies, as we learn through Lewellen Povich’s story of flying home after seeing her terminally ill older sister, a person who repeatedly stepped into the breach with the emotional support that their mother wouldn’t or couldn’t provide.

The chapters of this memoir are presented in roughly chronological order, but one doesn’t necessarily directly lead to the next in terms of topic. Lewellen Povich’s recollections meander a bit, the way human memory does as we look back and try to make sense of the people and experiences that weave in and out of our lives. Yet, despite the skipping from episode to episode, the author’s chipper voice and honest spirit provide a continuous thread that guides the reader through. The only portion that I personally would have left out are the writing exercises at the very end. Interesting as they are, they don’t seem to fully mesh with the larger narrative.

Overall, I enjoyed FROM PIGTAILS TO CHIN HAIRS. It demonstrates the importance of our own particular lives and the power of memory.

Review: 50 Shades of Grades

The non-bookish son of hardworking immigrants leaves Pittsburgh for the west and carves out a life in Academia.

50 Shades of Grades: My Journey Through Wacademia

50 Shades of Grades: My Journey Through Wacademia

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Anthropologist and author Mary Catherine Bateson (daughter of Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson) wrote that “we are not what we know but what we are willing to learn.” I don’t think I had a concrete example of this philosophy–that the most important thing one can learn is HOW to learn–until I read 50 SHADES OF GRADES, Andrew Nixon’s account of how a late-blooming kid whose schoolwork was mediocre at best ended up not only earning a Doctorate degree in education, but built a life within and beyond academia.

This son of Eastern European immigrants starts his story in steel-milling Pittsburgh and recounts how a series of apparent accidents led him to a top private university in Utah and a career in teaching that spanned several states and every grade level from elementary through university. He accomplished all of this while working various demanding side jobs. Fair warning, Nixon’s idea of a “sideline” is often a hilarious understatement. Decades working in the livery business? Starting his own hugely successful company providing promotional products to the advertising industry? Designing the programs for whole new schools? His sidelines exhausted me just reading about them.

Don’t let Nixon’s light, happy-go-lucky tone and humorous style fool you. There’s a keen intelligence at work here. I go so far to say that very little of what he presents as “accidental” is actually happenstance. Nixon may not have been a natural-born genius, but his sharp observational skills and an almost superhuman work ethic carried him way further than even the straightest of straight-A students. There’s a special power that comes with true self-knowledge and the ability to not only see opportunities but CREATE them.

Nixon’s story isn’t all rainbows and birdsong. At times, his dedication to work and to his own continued improvement strained his personal relationships. There are several instances in his professional life where his good intentions and honest efforts bumped up against immovable obstacles–big egos and big bureaucracies are often allergic to innovation. What I love is how Nixon never accepts the limits set by others. And when the naysayers get him mad enough…well…he’ll build his own path right around them. Failures become stepping stones. The Cowboy Christmas debacle comes to mind. A business reversal that would have sent most of us running from entrepreneurship with our tails between our legs was a mere detour for Nixon and Promotions By Pat, the company he built with his wife.

In short, FIFTY SHADES OF GRADES is an entertaining memoir about a lousy student who nevertheless learns how to learn and has some amazing life experiences in the process.

Review: BOARDINGHOUSE STEW

* A copy of this book was provided by the author in return for an honest review.

A memoir of the author’s experience during a summer she spent working at a Sacramento boardinghouse during WW II.

Boardinghouse Stew

Boardinghouse Stew

Eleven-year-old Eileen lies about her age to get a job as a maid/cook at Mrs. Mumford’s boarding house. The war has made domestic help scarce due to better paying work in the munitions industry. Mumford also lost her Japanese gardener, who was forced to move with his parents into an internment camp. The moral conflict these camps pose is a running theme through the book…especially as Eileen’s mother is of German descent and fears it’s only a matter of time before the government rounds them up as well.

BOARDINGHOUSE STEW is an appropriate title. Not only does it highlight one of the book’s running joke–Eileen’s unique wartime kitchen concoctions, many of which are inedible–but also the wonderful mix of personalities brought together under Mrs. Mumford’s roof. These men and women run the gamut from a love-sick doctor, to a tough-as-nails lady welder, to a fellow whose profession remains a mystery…which must mean there’s something shady going on.

Eileen is a lovable kid. Rebellious, hardworking, loyal…but still just a kid caught up in an extraordinary time in history. The author does a great job bringing the era to life through concrete details: victory gardens, radio shows, blackout curtains, ration books. There’s also a nice mix of humor and drama. I especially enjoyed the specter of the late Mr. Mumford, whose portrait and reserved place at the dining table were both ever present.

Smith originally wrote this as a stage play, but she successfully adapts it to standard narrative from. The end scenes retain a slight “staged” feeling…in particular the Doc/Patsy wrap up. Luckily, we’re so happy to see that resolved, it doesn’t detract from what’s come before.

I happily recommend BOARDINGHOUSE STEW for its detailed setting, rich characterizations, and the entertaining window it provides into a pivotal time in American life.

Review: WARRIOR PATIENT

The story of journalist-businessman Temple Williams’s three-year journey navigating the treacherous waters of the modern medical system.

Warrior Patient: A Memoir About Survival, Hope, Love & Laughter

Warrior Patient: A Memoir About Survival, Hope, Love & Laughter

A cancer diagnosis is scary enough. What most of us don’t expect is that our lives will be more endangered by the people and methods employed to cure us than by the disease itself. This is exactly what Temple Williams experiences when his prostate cancer leads to a three-year-long comedy of errors that includes massive infection, kidney failure, partial blindness, seeping open wounds, and on and on. Through his experience, Temple transformed from a passive receiver of medical wisdom to an active advocate for his own best interests–a Warrior Patient. His memoir tells his story and in the process offers hope and guidance to others who find themselves victimized at the most vulnerable time in their lives by the very system that is supposed to help them.

Though the subject matter is serious–and the details often raw and graphic–Williams tell his story with a surprising lightness. His rich humor and conversational style draws the reader in and keeps you with him even through the toughest parts of the narrative. And it gets really tough as combination of poor medical practices and inane miscommunication lead Williams to the brink of disability and death.

Chapter by chapter we are taken from a simple fall on the tennis court (that has repercussions that are anything but simple), step by step (or cock-up by cock-up) through Williams’s saga. Interwoven with the main narrative are episodes from his life that show Williams is no stranger to life-threatening situations. As a young journalist in New York City, his undercover investigation of the subway police nearly got him killed. And in Africa, he had a close-up and personal introduction to a Malawian prison. After these close calls and several others, the last place he probably expected to face annihilation was in a urologist’s office in Boca Raton, Florida.

Williams’s close, quick-paced account reveals how much of patient care both in the hospital and out is arranged for the convenience of doctors and staff rather than in the best interests of the people they are supposed to be curing. For instance, catheterization is normally standard procedure upon admittance to the hospital, though it is often unnecessary and can lead to serious infection. Then there’s the reluctance of medical professionals to actively communicate with patients. At its most innocent, this failure to engage can leave people confused and unsure as they struggle to understand the details of their condition. At worst it leaves them ignorant of their full range of treatment options and the possible negative, even devastating, side effects of those options.

Throughout the book, Williams offers tips to turn his readers into Warrior Patients. He demonstrates how vital it is that patients arm themselves with knowledge of their own condition and of the backgrounds of those they are trusting to treat them. Williams emphasizes each patient’s right to demand honesty and competency from their medical professional…and to fire those professionals who fall short.

In closing, WARRIOR PATIENT is not only full of humor and riveting drama, it instructs and empowers readers how to–literally–fight for their lives in a medical system that considers those they serve more as economic units than as flesh and blood human beings.

Review: FINDING LIVELIHOOD–A PROGRESS OF WORK AND LEISURE

Finding Livelihood: A Progress of Work and Leisure

Finding Livelihood: A Progress of Work and Leisure

Work as necessity.

Work as vocation.

Work as expression of our deepest selves.

In a series of lyrical essays, author Nancy J. Nordenson explores the nature of work as a place of intersection between the practical and the spiritual. She does this in language so gorgeous, it’s tempting to linger over each image and turn of phrase. Luckily the subject matter pulls the reader through.

“Work” in Nordenson’s view, is a mutable concept, a series of competing imperatives that exert a constant push-pull between the life we want and the one we end up with. Responsibility vs. freedom. The individual vs. the collective. Creativity vs. practicality. There’s no escape from this whirl of duality, only an ever-shifting accommodation. So much of the meaning of what we do is in the DOING, the figuring things out, the balancing of our needs and our desires.

Nordenson grounds her spiritual and philosophical exploration firmly in the practical using stories from her own work life and that of her husband–the ups and the downs–to demonstrate that one still must make a life even as they are “making do,” and how so much of our day-to-day contentment is a matter of knowing what is in our control and what it not. Negotiating where we can. Accepting what cannot be negotiated. Sometimes acceptance might mean getting on with an imperfect situation, or it might mean cutting our losses.

On a personal level, the concept that most resonated for me was that when it comes to human effort, value and compensation often have very little to do with one another. This is a pretty radical assertion in a culture that places so much emphasis the bottom line and too readily confuses a person’s worth with their annual income even as the notion job security goes the way of the dinosaurs.

Finding Livelihood argues that we–and our work–are so much more than the amount of our pay check.

Life as a Work of Art

I hadn’t heard of Amanda Palmer before a friend recommended this book saying it changed how she managed her indie writing career. Have to say that I admire Palmer’s honesty and her bravery. She holds nothing back as she describes her struggles to live her art. At times I doubted there was a usable takeaway for the more introverted among us. But the more I read, the more I saw that the same online world Palmer makes such good use of can be a comfy place for shy people to connect with fans and fellow artists

The Art of Asking; or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help

The Art of Asking; or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help

Palmer’s strength is her beautifully human approach to art. Her efforts to democratize it, making and sharing it in a way that doesn’t depend on mainstream Curators of Culture, is refreshing. I also appreciate that she doesn’t minimize the financial worries that haunt creative types. Most of us would work for free if not for a few inconvenient truths–such as the need for food, shelter, and antibiotics. Palmer shows by example how we don’t have to make a fortune from our art for it to count. Just the fact that you’ve created a painting, a book, a performance piece, gives it value. At the same time, she acknowledges that society doesn’t always see things this way. It’s okay to work in an office sixty hours a week to afford a BMW and trips to Aruba. But working in an ice cream shop to buy time to paint or write? That only counts in hindsight–after snagging the book-movie deal or the show on reality TV.

THE ART OF ASKING does jump around in time, and the text is occasionally interrupted by song lyrics, but this jagged style fits Palmer’s story and reflects her personality. On the whole, it’s an entertaining and thoughtful memoir by someone who’s led a fascinating life just by following her own star.

Healing can be Messy

A volume of short, life-based pieces about love, pain, survival and transformation.

Broken Pieces

Broken Pieces

This is a book the reader needs to take on its own terms. The essays/poems are loosely organized. Trying to impose a thematic/chronological structure on them is a sure way to become disoriented.

BROKEN PIECES isn’t pretty. It isn’t polished commentary. Thompson is not looking back on the events of her life with measured objectivity. Her subject matter (sexual abuse, dating violence, broken trust) can be difficult to face head on, but her voice is clear and honest. It’s as if she’s allowing us to observe the workings of her brain as she process experiences which can only be taken in small bites. We become caught up in her personal and beautifully imperfect storm of anger, confusion, love, despair, and ultimately, acceptance.

I can’t say I enjoyed this book. “Enjoy” just isn’t the right word. It misses the whole point, I think. BROKEN PIECES made me sad and angry and even a little embarrassed…as if I were eavesdropping on someone’s intimate conversation with her younger self or maybe “collective self” is a better word–the sum total of all the different Rachel Thompsons that had to live and break to create the one living right now.