Category Archives: Memoir

Review AND Giveaway: Up For Renewal by Cathy Alter

WIN A COPY OF UP FOR RENEWAL!  See the review for details. CONGRATS to JESS of Book Reviews by Jess; She’s the winner!

renewalTitle: Up For Renewal

Author: Cathy Alter

Genre/Pages: Memoir/336

Publication: Atria Books; July 2008/Washington Square Press (re-release); July 2009

Rating: 3.5 BOOKMARKS

A year in the life of a woman who has committed herself to change, taking advice from glossy magazines on the big Fs: fashion, fitness, food, finance, and, ultimately, FINDING herself.

I’m a huge fan of essays and memoirs–Jen Lancaster, Bill Bryson, David Sedaris–are some of my favorite nonfiction writers.  I have laughed my way through so many memoirs that deciding to review Up For Renewal was a no-brainer–it was a memoir AND the premise hooked me!

At the age of 37, Cathy Alter’s life wasn’t exactly going according to plan.  Recently divorced and spiraling down a bleak pathlittered with sexual conquests and take-out food containers, Alter commits herself…to change.

Over the course of one year, Alter focuses on improving herself.  Each month she tackles a different aspect of her life–fitness, finance, fashion, relationships.  Using the magazines as her holy grail and life map, she charts a new course for herself and learns that sometimes it’s necessary to cross choppy seas to get to a safe harbor. 

An entertaining read, Alter doesn’t sugarcoat her bad behavior, nor does she apologize.  She takes responsibility for her actions–good and bad–and is able to learn and move on.  Though I had difficulty relating to some of Alter’sbehaviors, I enjoyed the memoir and found her writing to be witty and easy to read.  Her tirades against Saran wrap had me snorting with laughter.

That said (and since there is a giveaway associated with this review), some readers with more Victorian sensibilities might be a bit put off by profanity and adult situations.  Consider this fair warning.  For the rest of you corrupt little scoundrels, carry on!

For a chance to win a  copy of Up For Renewal, simply leave a comment and tell me which magazines you love to read.  Contest ends Friday, September 4th at 8pm EST. 

Thanks to Minjae Ormes for the review copy!

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Review: The Patron Saint of Used Cars and Second Chances by Mark Millhone

patronsaintTitle: The Patron Saint of Used Cars and Second Chances

Author: Mark Millhone

Genre/Pages: Nonfiction, Memoir (Humor, Relationships)/192

Publication: Rodale Books; July 7, 2009

Rating: 3.5 BOOKMARKS

 

Nat’s ‘In a Nutshell’:  One man’s nine month journey to hell and back with a layover in Dallas where he picks up a honey of a used car hoping it will have the power to ferry him back (literally and metaphorically) to his wife, children, and the way things used to be.

To say that things aren’t going well for Mark Millhone and his family would be an understatement.  In the span of time equivalent to a baby’s gestation, Millhone fields tragedy after trauma, from his mother’s death, father’s diagnosis with cancer, infant son’s near-death after birth, and older son’s run-in with the family dog’s fangs. 

As his world and marriage crumble around him, Millhone takes to his computer, stalking eBay Motors for a car.  His salvation comes in the form of a 1994 BMW 7 series–the panacea to all that ails him.  The symbolism is clear–the car is much more than just four wheels and seat–it’s redemption with leather upholstery.  Under the pretext of asking for help, Millhone orchestrates some father-son bonding by enlisting his father to ride shotgun on the drive home from the Lone Star State (where the Beemer is)  to the Big Apple (where Millhone lives).

In the interim, Mark packs up his wife and sons and trundles them off to his in-laws’ house in upstate New York.  He mentions that in better times, he and his wife owned and renovated a farmhouse in Margaretville.  My great-grandfather owns a piece of prime real estate in the Margaretville Cemetery and has been in residence there since 1954.  Before that, he owned a dairy farm in Halcottsville, where my dad summered as a boy.  (It was a kick to read about these towns–especially since I spent part of my summer vacation there last month!)

Millhone and his father make the epic drive, and as readers we ride along, getting filled in on the back story.  He doesn’t shy away from the telling–even when it would be less painful or easier to edit events or conversations.  He confronts his failures and examines his self-doubt.  He openly discusses the difficult relationship he had with his mother and the challenge that parenthood really is. 

It was refreshing to read such an honest account of how parenting and marriage can, despite best efforts and intentions, go bad.  No one sets out to be a bad spouse or parent, but both roles are jobs that require Herculean dedication and responsibility.  Millhone’s memoir examines marriage, family relationships, and being a father with humor and authenticity that comes from experience and perseverance.    

This memoir acted as springboard in my house for some interesting discussions about marriage and family.  Children dramatically impact the landscape of a marriage and the husband-wife dynamic shifts.  If you have children, did you find the adjustment to be more or less difficult than you anticipated?  Do you have any tips for dealing with this issue?

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to read and review this memoir–nonfiction is one of my favorite genres!

 

Review: The Sitting Swing by Irene Watson

swing

Title: The Sitting Swing

Author: Irene Watson

Genre/Pages: Memoir, Inspirational/215 pages

Publication: LHP; July 16, 2008

Rating: 2.5 BOOKMARKS

A journey to find freedom from codependency and unhappiness, Irene Watson’s The Sitting Swing is one woman’s story of recovery.

Raised by Ukranian immigrant parents in almost absolute isolation from society until she was six, Watson recounts her stark childhood in the unforgiving Canadian province of Alberta and how her upbringing shaped her personality and perception of life and relationships.

After losing one child to illness, Irene’s mother isn’t about to let her second child wander too far from her vigilant watch.  As a result, Irene’s attempts at independence are stifled and her personality development is retarded by her mother’s domineering parenting.

The memoir recounts Irene’s struggles to learn English, make friends, and her numerous attempts to escape from under her mother’s thumb.  As an adult, she finds herself repressing her feelings and struggling with her marriage.

A few years shy of 50, Irene, a therapist herself, checks into a 28-day program with little hope of taking away more than just some rhetoric to pass on to her patients.  Initially, she works against the program and is high skeptical of its efficacy.  In the end, she opens herself to the lessons and counselors, finding the tools she needs to make peace with her past and change her present.

This book was a quick and interesting read, though I typically don’t read inspirational nonfiction.  Without minimizing Watson’s childhood struggles, I have to confess that I kept waiting for the big reveal–a major and catastrophic event that brought her to Avalon for help. 

Watson’s diction–chatty and conversational at times–detracted from her story.   Maybe she was aiming for candor, but this memoir could be markedly improved if she would have detached from her audience and relayed the story without casually addressing the reader.

Don’t ask me how, because I don’t know, and I’m not sure I would want to bore you with the details if I did…Let’s zip forward ten years… (Watson, 18-19)

Ultimately, Irene Watson finds the tools she needs and is able to recognize the past for what it is.  From there, she can let go and move forward in her marriage, life, and career.

Thank you to Dorothy at Pump Up Your Book Promotion! for this review copy! 

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Review: Don’t Call Me a Crook! by Bob Moore

crookTitle: Don’t Call Me a Crook!

Author: Bob Moore

Genre/Pages: Memoir; 255 pages

Publication: Originally published 1935; republished by Dissident Books, Ltd. 2009

Rating: 2.5 BOOKMARKS

Originally published over 70 years ago, Bob Moore’s memoir, Don’t Call Me a Crook! is part sensation, part confession. 

Bob Moore lived a wild and wicked life–he was a cad and a scoundrel and who tried to rationalize his criminal hi-jinx. 

“…I thought of the guy waiting in the Shellman Hotel for me, and I thought how he had meant to fool me nicely by making me take all the risk, and then paying me off with a paltry hundred dollars while he made thousands of pounds (on loose, stolen diamonds).  I reckon he deserved to lose those diamonds…”  (Moore, 28)

He explained that when opportunity presented itself, he didn’t have to think twice about stealing.  I imagined him as a moustache-twirling villain who managed to charm most everyone–and was I ever right! 

I’m no Puritan over here, but even I was a tad scandalized by the blase manner in which Moore glibly told of swindling, bootlegging, and murder.  He amazed me by dodging one proverbial bullet after another.  He traveled the globe, often at a moment’s notice–especially when fleeing from the scene of a crime, something he did with alarming frequency.

The direction of Bob Moore’s life was led by the Grand Theft Auto moral compass–theft, adultery, and cheating were his cardinal directions.  Despite his shortcomings and criminal lifestyle (or maybe because of them), the book is an entertaining read.  As he goes from one improbable adventure to the next, the reader is left questioning how one person could live so many lifetimes in one life.

This book was not widely received after its original publishing in 1935 and was recently re-released with an introduction, afterword, and footnotes–some  superfluous and distracting.  There were many nautical references footnoted (crow’s nest, galley, stateroom, purser, list) and though I’ve never captained a ship, I’ve watched enough episodes of The Love Boat to understand the lingo.  Other footnotes, however, were necessary and helpful.

Perhaps because this book was penned so long ago (or because Moore just didn’t give a damn), prejudice is evident in a few of his interactions.  I understand that they aren’t themes of the novel, but intolerance turns me off.

Overall, Don’t Call Me a Crook! is an entertaining, albeit scandalous, read.  Moore can really tell a story–and he has the details to support his tales.  People who enjoy this genre and are interested in reading about the life and times of this Glaswegian shouldn’t hesitate to pick up this book! 

Thanks to Lisa from Online Publicist for sending me this memoir!

Review: Pretty in Plaid by Jen Lancaster

plaid1Title: Pretty in Plaid: A Life, a Witch, and a Wardrobe, or the Wonder Years Before the Condescending, Egomaniacal, Self-Centered Smart-Ass Phase

Author: Jen Lancaster

Genre: Nonfiction Memoir/Essay; 384 pages

Publication Date:  May 5, 2009

Publisher: National American Library (NAL)

Rating: 4 Bookmarks

If you’re anything like me, you have a Santa Claus-sized ledger in which you record book titles that other bloggers recommend.  If this is the case, please add Jen Lancaster’s Pretty in Plaid to the top of the ‘Nice’ list. 

Lancaster has been likened to “David Sedaris with pearls and a supercute handbag”, and her latest memoir weaves a hilarious retrospective highlighting fashion highs and lows over the last four decades.  Entire essays are devoted to size-5 Jordache jeans, odious Brownie uniforms, and the edgier Girl Scout uniforms.  (I donned both and can attest to the faux pas that was the Brownie Beanie.)

Lancaster takes the mundane and spins it into a giant, literary confection of equal parts humor, hubris, and habiliment.  This book should come with a Surgeon General’s Warning printed on it–Reading this book should be done only in private and may induce:

  • laughing until your mascara runs down your face in twin, black rivers
  • laughing until you snort (Swine flu be damned!)
  • laughing yourself into a wheezy, cartoonish fit
  • laughing yourself into hyperventilation (as your husband frantically dials 9-1-1 for help)

Maybe you’re in need of a good laugh or you’ve been meaning to pick up some nonfiction for a reading challenge–either way, here’s the perfect vehicle!

Lest you think I’m being paid to write such a glowing review, I will say that the book starts off with a few missives I wasn’t barking mad about. Additionally, the footnotes may get a bit tedious for some readers–having to glance down two or three times on one page–but beyond those minor quibbles, this book has already become one of my favorites.

You can catch Jen on her nation-wide book tour, kicking off tomorrow.  She’ll be in New York on Thursday and I hope to be there (with pearls on).  Thanks to Kate and Melissa for the galley!

Review: Here’s The Story by Maureen McCormick

brady1Title: Here’s The Story: Surviving Marcia Brady and Finding My True Voice

Author: Maureen McCormick

Genre: Personal Memoir; 274 pages

Released: 2008

Rating: 1.5 Bookmarks

 

Like many kids, I grew up watching The Brady Bunch (in reruns) and admit to having a crush on Peter.  I wasn’t very keen on Marsha; I preferred the middle sister, Jan, because she seemed more personable.

When I spotted this book at my library, I snatched it up, immediately flipping to the photographs.  On a whim, I borrowed it and hoped for an entertaining and dishy read.

I was disappointed on both counts.  I found myself wanting to take a red pen to the book to excise whole pages (and chapters) where the book dragged and Maureen McCormick waxed poetic on snorting whole bags of cocaine, which left her strung out for days.  

Her writing was serviceable, but the story meanders so much that it’s as if she’s writing about living 500 years instead 50. 

McCormick aired lots of dirty laundry when it came to her family–her father’s infidelities, her mother’s hoarding tendencies and syphilis, one brother’s drug addiction and mental illness, another brother’s mental handicap.   

She wrote about working on the set of The Brady Bunch, her fling with Greg (Barry Williams), but mostly she complained about the “ghost” of Marcia Brady following her when she auditioned for other roles.

In 1985, McCormick’s drug use reached a fever-pitch and she began to cast about for help.  She began to pray to God for a sign of His existence.  

McCormick was walking with friends down Westwood Boulevard, “…when suddenly and without warning (McCormick) was thrown to the ground.  Literally thrown…a force pushed from behind…and two hands reaching down from the sky toward (McCormick’s).  It was Jesus.”

McCormick was so inspired by her epiphany that she became a Born Again Christian.  At church she met her future husband who helped her down the long road to come to know her true self.

The rest of the book details McCormick’s efforts to get clean, her religion, the birth of her daughter, Natalie, the death of her mother, and the renaissance of her celebrity thanks toVH1’s Celebrity Fit Club.

Overall, the book left me uninspired and sadly shaking my head, uttering those three words Maureen McCormick’s been running from since the early 70s: “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia.”

A Review: Wishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher

wishful_drinking Title: Wishful Drinking

Author: Carrie Fisher

Genre: Personal Memoir; 156 pages

Released: 2008

Rating: 2.5 Bookmarks

I’ll preface this review by saying that my husband is a huge fan of the Star Wars movies.  By default, I’ve seen said movies about 1,241,938 times which prompted me to borrow this book from the library. 

Carrie Fisher is funny.  Who knew?  The material for this memoir was taken from a one-woman show she wrote and performed at the Geffen Playhouse in 2006. 

The memoir is a quick and amusing read.  Fisher dishes on life as a daughter of  Hollywood royalty (parents Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher), but isn’t afraid to let her flaws and foibles hang out for all to see.

I laughed out loud during her discussion of her father’s penchant for adultery and remarriage.  Betty was his third or fourth wife.

…he meets and marries Betty Lin. She’s from China…and they’re happy for ten or fifteen glorious years…but Betty passes away.  But don’t worry, he’s not alone for long because now he dates all of Chinatown!  He does this partly as a tribute to Betty and partly because he has had so many face-lifts that he looks Asian himself…”

Star Wars fans will get a kick out of Fisher’s description of working on the movies, including the part where she calls George Lucas a sadist for making her wear a hairstyle that added 20 pounds to her already-round face. 

Fisher doesn’t hide her substance abuse issues or her electroshock therapy experiences.  The book has a friendly, chatty tone, as if Fisher is just talking you up at the local coffee shop. 

A quick and entertaining read and not the typical weighty tomes of other celebrity memoirs and autobiographies, add Wishful Drinking to your To Be Read pile, especially if you’re a Star Wars fan.