At age four Joelle Fraser was smoking pot and drinking beer through a straw. A tow-headed free spirit, she roamed unchaperoned through the hippie-strewn streets of Sausalito, California, in the early '70s, selling her watercolor paintings to strangers. As a teenager, she partied with her father's 21-year-old girlfriend. Fraser's experiences, recounted in her debut book, The Territory of Men, are the stuff of which unforgettable memoirs are made. Full of lively, honest prose that flows like poetry, the narrative of her life reads like an intimate conversation and is reminiscent of the work of Mary Karr and Lisa Michaels other gifted authors whose lives were shaped by hard-drinking, troubled parents with unconventional child-rearing styles. Fraser opens the book with the image of her pregnant, sweaty mother driving herself to the hospital windows down, hair flying while her father and his buddies smoke cigarettes, swig gin and sing California Dreamin' in the back seat. Rowdy and a bit sad, the snapshot captures the essence of much of Fraser's childhood. Set in northern California, the small towns of Oregon and the islands of Hawaii, Fraser's story traces the events that shaped her restless spirit. Her mother leaves her father a likeable writer who works odd jobs and drinks away his dreams when Fraser is just a toddler. A steady stream of boyfriends and husbands follows, paving the way to Fraser's understanding of relationships. Early on, she writes, I decided that it is always better to have a man around. With sharp candor, she tells about her own forays into love, from the awkward sweetness of a first kiss to the dull ache of a failed marriage. She finds herself drawn to violence, to prisons, to men who use her. And from her mother she learns how to leave. Still, Fraser writes about her parents and their choices with compassion and insight. The scenes involving her father are some of the most touching and graceful in the book. Without claiming to know all the answers, Fraser evocatively describes her mistakes, triumphs, disappointments and dreams. Her thoughts and feelings are beautifully rendered even when the portraits aren't flattering. Ultimately, her vignettes fall into a larger pattern that resonates beyond her personal experiences. Full of truth, forgiveness and gentle introspection, The Territory of Men is an impressive first book from a promising young writer. Rebecca Denton is a copy editor and freelance writer in Nashville.

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