Post #74 – Women’s Memoirs, Book & Video Raves – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler
By Susan Ideus, guest book reviewer
As one of the editors for Story Circle Book Reviews, I see a wide array of books in every genre. In fact, one of my most pleasurable duties is to search out the newest and the best in women’s literature for our able team of reviewers. We strive to provide a review venue for small presses and for women authors whose books may not be reviewed elsewhere. One of favorite genres personally is that of the memoir. So, when Matilda Butler of Women’s Memoirs asked me to pen a list of memoirs to be read in the New Year, I was delighted. The only problem?—limiting the list to just 11 books. I’ll do my best but be sure to check out our site for many more selections.
Memoirs are not biographies. They rarely encompass the entire lifetime of the author. Rather, there is a focus on a particular time, a specific set of circumstances. Whether intended or not, a memoir can be rich with life lessons, gained through the author’s experiences. They are often a rich source of inspiration and hard-earned insights. Some are serious; some are witty and fun, with something for every taste and interest. This list may be short but it is representative of the marvelous selection of the many women’s memoirs reviewed by SCBR in the past year. Enjoy!
[Note 1: The 11 Memoirs to Read in 2011 are listed alphabetically by title.
Note 2: The title of each memoir links to the full review on Story Circle Book Reviews.]
MEMOIR #1: An Extraordinary Year of Ordinary Days by Susan Wittig Albert. This is a beautifully formatted book in daily journal form, enhanced with quotations from favorite authors in the margins. It is an honest accounting of her activities, her travels, her reading, and her feelings, all of which give an intimate look at the daily life and thought processes of this prolific and erudite author. The reader sees Albert’s world through her very observant eyes, and there is very little that escapes her notice. Both personal reflections and her knowledgeable commentary on politics and current events make this a fascinating read.
MEMOIR #2: As a Farm Woman Thinks by Nellie Witt Spikes. Three decades (1930-1960) of columns for four local and regional newspapers, arranged in chapter form, record history as ordinary rural Americans lived it, documented by an ordinary West Texas woman who recorded the ordinary events of her daily life and the lives of farmers, ranchers, and friends on the Llano Estacado: the Staked Plains. Sparks is that rare diarist who understands the value of the mundane and the ordinary, and she gives us a glimpse into life as it was actually lived in her place and time.
MEMOIR #3: Devotion by Dani Shapiro. On reaching midlife and in the midst of personal crisis, the author found herself with a need to connect with her own spirituality, and found she had to create it herself. Not believing in the strict Judaism of her father’s family, and not knowing if she believed in God, she found we must often search beyond our known borders, our comfort zones, to find our spiritual selves, and Shapiro does just that with the help of mentors from several belief systems.
MEMOIR #4: Growing, Older by Joan Dye Gussow. This new collection of personal essays is Gussow’s free-ranging exploration of a wide number of issues: the loss of her husband of forty years and her reassessment of her marriage; her experiences of growing her own food in the garden of her Hudson River home; her concerns about climate change and resource depletion; and her thoughts about entering into her ninth decade. This is a lively book, energized by Gussow’s straightforward, often blunt observations that are by turns witty, argumentative, cranky, and funny—but always interesting, enlightening, and provocative.
MEMOIR #5: Let’s Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell. This book celebrates Caldwell’s extraordinary and enduring friendship with fellow writer Caroline Knapp. This honest narrative of friendship, loyalty, loss, and grief explores how they met, why they bonded, and what kept them together—and how they dealt with Knapp’s much-too-early death from cancer. Her memories are clear and deep, and she shares them all, not shying away from the unpleasant nor overwhelming with the too saccharine. Caldwell’s words are powerful and genuine, and will gladden your heart with the good times, and wrench your soul with their stark pain.
MEMOIR #6: Looking Like the Enemy by Mary Matsuda Gruenewald. The 80-year old author writes of her experience as a Nisei—a second-generation Japanese-American citizen—interned during World War II. Gruenewald movingly portrays what it felt like to be a high school senior, on the verge of beginning her life, and then to suddenly have that life stripped away and replaced with a prison camp existence. The memoir is remarkable on many levels, not least because the subject is one that many Japanese-Americans avoid speaking of to this day.
MEMOIR #7: Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen. Having left her religious roots behind to pursue a career in English literature, the author finds herself back home at a trying point in her life. Her recollections and reflections show the nature of the Mennonites in a heart-warming and compassionate way, while explaining her current view of life and providing a lens for readers to understand her cultural background.
MEMOIR #8: Picking Cotton by Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton. She was white and the victim of a horrific rape; he was black and wrongly convicted and imprisoned for the crime. Eleven years later, he was exonerated, and they worked their way to becoming friends and advocates for judicial reform. An amazing story of forgiveness, reconciliation and renewal.
MEMOIR #9: Unbought and Unbossed by Shirley Chisholm. Aptly titled, this timely reissue of the autobiography of the New York Congresswoman and presidential contender, Shirley Chisholm, is a must read from an historical perspective. It educates and serves as a reminder that her struggle for social justice is still important today.
MEMOIR #10: The Journal Keeper: A Memoir by Phyllis Theroux. A testament to the importance of writing our thoughts, our feelings, our questions, and our doubts, Theroux demonstrates that keeping a journal is spiritual exercise and a technique by which the writer grows and opens her heart. She shows us that a journal can be a thoughtful probing of responses to life, creating a path to new clarity with regard to home, family, community, and work. A valuable resource for beginning or accomplished journalers.
MEMOIR #11: The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey. An active woman with many interests, Bailey became not only housebound but bedridden and despondent when she was felled by a mystery illness. With grace and wit, Bailey shares the story of the impact that an ordinary, humble creature, a wild snail, had on her during this trying year, and all of the lessons she learned as she lay motionless, observing in minute detail the everyday rituals and wanderings of her tiny companion.
There you have it. Eleven out of many choices. Several of these I have read; the rest of them I heartily recommend and most are already on my to-be-read stack. What a lovely addition to the start of the New Year—new books to look forward to! Don’t forget to visit SCBR throughout the New Year as we bring you reviews of the newest and the best of women’s literature in all genre throughout the year. From all of us at Story Circle Book Reviews, we wish you a year filled with joy, peace, health, and of course, good BOOKS!
A Note about Susan:
Susan Ideus has recently moved from Magnolia TX to Las Cruces NM. (New Mexico, she says, is the “home of my heart.”) She is an editor at StoryCircleBookReviews, one of the editors of One Woman’s Day, SCN’s latest blogging project, blogs at Being Me, and is active on Facebook. Newly and happily retired, Susan is married and has two daughters, Johanna and Becca.