Robert L. O’Connell’s Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman includes a photograph of the celebrated Civil War general with his staff. While the other men strike classic poses and gaze into the middle distance, Sherman sits slightly slumped, legs crossed, jacket unbuttoned, glittering eyes focused directly on the camera. It fits with the popular notion of Sherman, the man who invented “modern war” and whose soldiers burned a path of destruction through the American South.
Amid the 21st-century glut of overindulgent memoirs, The Removers is a poignant, near-perfect addition to the genre. Andrew Meredith writes of growing up in a crumbling Philadelphia neighborhood, his family quietly imploding in the wake of a scandal that cost his father his university job.
There are many reasons to love a good misery memoir: In my case, reading about other people’s dysfunctional childhoods offers a sense of community, a sisterhood of resilient Gen Xers who survived a 1970s childhood. Cea Sunrise Person’s engaging new memoir, North of Normal, evokes both the miserable excesses and occasional beauty of growing up in a counterculture family in the wilderness of the Me Decade.
It’s easy to understand why Don Wallace and his wife Mindy were captivated by a beautiful French island called Belle Île. Don, who grew up in California, and Mindy, who was from Hawaii, were living in a cramped, dark Manhattan apartment. Belle Île’s sunshine and surf spoke to their soul.
BookPage Nonfiction Top Pick, June 2014
It was on a gray December day that 23-year-old Joanna Rakoff, nestled into her couch rereading Persuasion, received the call that she had gotten the job. Fresh out of grad school and without much of a game plan—aside from a deep-rooted desire to become a poet—Rakoff landed a position at one of the most storied literary agencies in New York City, one that represented such literary legends as F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner and Judy Blume.
Ah, WASPs: Those guilt-ridden, uptight, real estate-obsessed traditionalists. In Perfectly Miserable: Guilt, God and Real Estate in a Small Town, Sarah Payne Stuart captures the essence of this distinctive culture, tracing both her own childhood in Concord, Massachusetts, and the lives of some of Concord’s famous residents, including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Louisa May Alcott.
Fond looks back at profound dysfunction have become so commonplace, it’s a wonder there’s not a “crazy parenting” section in bookstores to help the next generation of memoirists get a leg up. At this point, crazy itself is not sufficient reason to publish. In Take This Man, Brando Skyhorse, who won a PEN/Hemingway Award for his first novel (The Madonnas of Echo Park), captures the details of his dysfunctional upbringing with note-perfect language and does so in pursuit of the truth about his family.
Young Saroo loves his older brothers, especially Guddu, who at 14 is less and less at home. One night in 1986, Guddu comes back to his family’s poor village in India for about an hour, and 5-year-old Saroo can’t contain his excitement. When Guddu announces that he’s leaving, Saroo declares that he’s going off into the night with his older brother.
On September 13, 1993, the day Yitzhak Rabin and Yasir Arafat shook hands on the White House lawn, several dozen CIA officers quietly gathered at the grave of Robert Ames in Arlington National Cemetery. While most of the world focused on the hope of Middle East peace, those at Ames’ grave paid tribute to an operative who may have made that peace possible, even though few knew what he had accomplished—not the presidents he served, not members of Congress, not even his own family.
In the middle of her otherwise fascinating story about reclusive heiress Huguette Clark, Meryl Gordon’s narrative suddenly flattens. The daily details of Clark’s life during this long period of seclusion are assembled from wan notes to almost-lost relatives, bank statements and legal correspondence, and the memories of the few close friends who received cards and phone calls—but never visits—from Mrs. Clark.