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The 10 Best Memoirs I've (mostly) Read This Summer. And a chance to Pre-order The Exact Place: A Memoir by Margie Haack. On Sale.

You've surely heard me say before how much Beth and I enjoy memoir and we'vememoirs.gif recommended many over the years---ahh, just think of Buechner and L'Engle and Merton, of course.  All three by Mary Karr, of course. Think of A Severe Mercy, Angela's Ashes, My First White Friend, and A Girl Called Zippy.  And Lauren Winner. And Kathleen Norris. Yes, it is a genre which can be lyrical and moving, informative and edifying, hilarious and fun.  The best are often harrowing, showing how the author made meaning out of her experiences, out of what is so often called the human condition.  The tale of the story we find ourselves in can be terrible or terrifying, mundane or joyous, but often can point us to the deepest truths of the way the world works.  A well-written memoir can be as powerful as the best fiction, and as hard to put down.


So, here are a few that we have read (or have appeared on our "new book table" here at the shop this summer and we have at least started.) We hope you order one or two before the dog days of summer wane.  As September looms, it seems like a good time to ruminate a bit on our lives, our stories, what we've gotten ourselves into, each of us.  These interesting books can help, and will bring you a few great hours of reading pleasure, too. It may be just what you need to read next.


have-mother-will-travel-nook-book.jpgHave Mother Will Travel: A Mother and Daughter Discover Themselves, Each Other, And the World  Claire and Mia Fontaine (Morrow) $24.99  Those who follow the literature of memoir know Come Back, the stunning, painful, and finally hopeful story of screen-writer Claire Fonaine's efforts to reach her drug-addled, addicted, young daughter, Mia.  On the heels of that moving book, they went on the road, telling their story, over and over, and both became a bit burned-out on their life of motivational speaking, recovery work, and life coaching.  They drifted apart as mom entered a bit of a mid-life crisis and Mia tried to figure out what she wanted to do as a young working gal in New York City.  Nearly out of no-where this idea arose and the pair travel the world, getting to know each other as adult friends.  The journey is fun, and revealing, the adventures make great reading, and their relationship issues illumine a fairly universal concern about parents and adult kids.  It's complicated, moms and daughters, and often poignant.  The writing is fine, the story unforgettable.


january-first.jpgJanuary First: A Child's Descent into Madness and Her Father's Struggle to Save Her  Michael Schofield $25.00  Half-way through this page-turner I choked up, went in to the kitchen, announced to Beth that this book was the saddest I had ever read, sighed, and returned to keep reading; I just had to say it out loud, perhaps to fortify me for the rest of the story.  I'm not sure that is true (about it being the saddest book I ever read, that is) and in a few ways, it was one of the most maddening.  (How could the earnest and smart dad be so dumb about parenting a special needs child?  And why does he so blithely rule out the supernatural? And, and, well, really?)  So, I talked back to, and certainly talked about this book, for days.  It is truly extraordinary.

Early on-set childhood schizophrenia wasn't considered common when Janni was born and their horror tale of a violent, genius-level preschooler is told in ways that are plain-spoken and realistic. Their anguish is not over-analyzed (they don't have time for that) nor sensationalized. It is well written, clear and concise.  They tried to get help and received less then helpful diagnoses and some dead-end treatments. The incompetence and even cruelty of medical professionals and educators was stunning, and brought up painful memories for me---good stories can do that, and it is good, even if hard.  Still, this story of the Schofield's mentally-ill child, the family stress, of raising an new baby with a special needs sibling, of holding a marriage together when husband and wife disagree about how to raising their children, of coping with the depression that sometimes accompanies such trying times, all of this is good to read, really good.  It is told in clear prose, both tender and raging and remarkably honest. I won't recount episodes as I don't want to spoil a single page.  One reviewer said "this modern parable may be the most compelling book you will ever read."  It certainly is one of the most compelling memoirs I've read in a while, one of the books of the year.  Riveting and highly recommended.


some assembly required.jpgSome Assembly Required: A Journal of My Son's First Son  Anne Lamott (Riverhead) $26.95  Lamott holds a rare place in the literary world. She is a Christian (progressive, eccentric, yet, as she and her friend Annie Dillard put it, Jesusy) and she is an acclaimed, mainstream novelist.  She has made her fame, also, though, for essays about Christian faith such as the classic Traveling Mercies,  Grace (Eventually) and Plan B, and for some excellent books about writing (the essential Bird by Bird ) and parenting (Operating Instructions.)  Sam, the baby whose upbringing is so wonderfully told in Operating Instructions is now grown up and in art school.  His beloved is, like him, young and poor.  And she is pregnant.  Anne brings her wit and faith and touching honesty to bear as she---and Sam, who helps write a bit of this---tells this next chapter of their lives.  Anne the Grandma.  If you are a fan you are surely going to want to read this!


reborn-on-the-fourth-of-july-the-challenge-of-faith-patriotism-and-conscience.jpgReborn on the Fourth of July: The Challenge of Faith, Patriotism & Conscience  Logan Mehl-Laituri  (IVP) $15.00  I've got to be honest, I have wanted to write about this all summer, but kept fearing that some of our customers would take offense.  I fully realize that the doctrine of Biblical nonviolence/pacifism is contested -- in fact, I understand that many Christians hardly know that some believe that being involved in the military is not consistent with the way of Jesus.  Still, regardless of how much you've thought about peace-making, or where you come down on the ethics of war, this story of a brave U.S. soldier who comes to question his role in the Iraqi war is an excellent book, spectacular at times, helpful, honorable and very good.  I really do hope many people buy it and consider it.  It's quite a story.

Mr. Mehl-Laituri, involved in youth fellowship programing in his high school years, struggles with his faith as a young man (itself nicely told), joins the Army, and this book explains much of what happens throughout his tour of duty. He clearly recalls his feelings and invites us into his interior life, his attitudes and values his confusion and concern.   As a forward observer/fire support specialist he sees heavy stuff before he applies to change his status to noncombatant as a conscientious objector.  Much of this is very powerfully written and proved very touching to me. You have to admire a young man who has such integrity, to think all this through, even as he struggles to be true to his comrades, honorable to his conscience, faithful to his Lord. After his discharge, by the way, he want to another battle zone in Palestine with Christian Peacemaker Teams and later returned to Iraq (with Shane Claiborne) to help make the documentary film The Gospel of Rutba.  We have the book by that name, as well.  Logan mentions it, and even critiques it just a bit in one of his very thorough footnotes. 

Reborn... is a high-octane story, clearly told, brave and thoughtful, about some of the toughest questions any Christian, or any human, can ever ask.  I am impressed with Logan, and only wish I had such evangelically-minded models of this caliber as I applied for my own C.O. status in the early '70s.  It is rare (and great!) that an orthodox evangelical publisher, who also publishes the likes of J.I. Packer and John Stott and Francis Schaeffer, committed to releasing a book like this; it strikes me as one of the most interesting and significant publishing events in our time.   I am sure that not everyone (if anyone) at IVP agrees fully with Logan or embraces fully his Biblical pacifism as, say, Mennonites do.  That they are willing to publish this memoir is extraordinary, and I applaud them. A book like this doesn't come around very often and we heartily commend it. (And there are those great footnotes---you'll get a great education just by reading them!  By the way, Logan has started a ministry to and with soldiers and vets called The Centurion's Guild.  He will have another book coming documenting Christians who have been soldiers and offering a glimpse into the hearts and minds of some who have grappled with a Christian view of soldiering.  Again, agree or not, this is a page-turner, a heart-felt book, and quite a story.  Very highly recommended.  Here is a short video clip that may inspire you to order the book. 


radical reinvention.jpgRadical Reinvention: An Unlikely Return to the Catholic Church  Kaya Oakes (Counterpoint) $15.95 Okay, let's get this out of the way: not every book we recommend here is good for every reader.  I'm not sure most of our friends and fans will appreciate this heavy-metal story of a vulgar-mouthed, counter-cultural, pro-choice activist's journey to a somewhat convoluted version of liberal Catholicism, but it is a stunning memoir and its electric prose captured me quickly.

I want to suggest it for at least two reasons.   First, I am surely not alone for wanting to read about subcultures different than my own and this bald portrait of the life of a rugged gal who regularly visits the mosh pit and celebrates all manner of bohemian liberations takes you there.  One could just as easily enjoy a book about headhunters or gangsta thugs or rugby players; it's a helluva story about some amazing folks.  Secondly, I can only stand in awe that one such as this finds her way back to her Catholic faith, struggling the whole way. I am moved by story and glad for her faith, such as it is.   This is not exactly Dorothy Day (who left behind a serious life of lefty intellectual culture to embrace the virtues of devout Catholicism and wrote so beautifully about it in The Long Loneliness) or Anne Lamott (who was an esteemed writer and middle-aged alcoholic when she embraced Jesus, so bluntly, in Traveling Mercies.)  Maybe it is rowdy Gen Y blend of Dorothy and Anne, with a bit of Rage Against the Machine and Pussy Riot thrown in for good measure.  She is a good writer who wears her heart on her sleeve (as she did in her previous book, the curious Slanted and Enchanted, a study of indie culture.)  For what it is worth, troubling as it will be to most of us, the back cover is right:  "This is a story of transformation, not only of one woman's from ex-Catholic to amateur theologian, but ultimately of the cultural and ethical pushes for change that are rocking the world's largest religion to its core."  When conservative Catholic Russ Douthart (Bad Religion) and liberal Protestant Diana Butler Bass (Christianity After Religion) debate the future of the church, in some ways, voices like Kaya Oakes are part of the deal, for better or worse.  Read her artfully told, anguishing, fascinating first-hand account of her longing for God, for faith, for church; who knows, you may share the book with punk rock grrrls you know. Or maybe you will be moved to pray for her in pity.  It's that kind of book, you will not be indifferent.


heroes and monsters.jpgHeroes and Monsters: An Honest Look at the Struggle Within All of Us  Josh James Riebock (Baker) $16.99 I want to applaud evangelical publishers who give room to young creative writers to experiment with the form; this is a memoir, with illustrations, and maybe a bit too creative. Ha!  A few times you'll rub your eyes and wonder what the heck Riebock is talking about.  (I don't know why Jack the Scarecrow reminded me of a Dylan song, but there you go.) You might even wonder why the managing editor of as sober an enterprise as Leadership Journal says it is "a beautiful book."  Here's why: simply, because it is. What a story, and what a writer.  Leadership Journal editor Drew Dyck (himself author of the astute Generation Ex-Christian) continues, "it is beautiful because it's so honest, and ugly for precisely the same reason.  Josh tells his life story with lively prose that explores the paradoxes of human splendor and wretchedness while dangling hints of redemption.  As you read, don't be surprised to find your story in his story, and the divine companion who interrupts his life..."  This is an unconventional book, especially for younger adult readers, maybe those who liked Blue Like Jazz, looking at dreams and family conflicts and grief and great, nearly allusive beauty.   Very interesting, surreal at times.  Kudos.


view from lp.jpgThe View from Lazy Point: A Natural Year in an Unnatural World  Carl Safina (Picador) $18.00  Safina is a splendid writer and a world-renowned marine biologist (founder of the Blue Ocean Institute.)  I may be stretching the category here to call this memoir as it is in the grand tradition of natural history, told in first-person, as the we follow along with the scientist on a set of journeys along the water's edge (or under the water, in some cases, as in the wonderful chapter telling of a set of dives studying the erosion of coral off the coast of Central America.)  Safina lives at the very northern tip of Long Island and he loves the ocean's edge.  He knows birds and there is delight a-plenty here for any birder or any beach lover.  But his agenda is serious as he heads to four quarters of the world over four seasons, to document the impacts of climate change.  As the New York Times Book Review put it, "Safina's book soars...I had to--wanted to---read it very slowly, allowing myself to digest its wealth of information, to revel in the beauty of Safina's writing, to absorb fully the implications of his musings.  What a pleasure it is to find such an enlightening, provocative companion for walking and talking.  We can ask no more from those who warn about the dark days ahead than that they awaken us to the miracle of everyday life."   You have to love a book that The Economist calls "A call to arms in the cause of hope."  Here is a short review done by the lovely Orion magazine;  here is a good interview with him about the book.


in the w.jpgIn The Wilderness: Coming of Age in Unknown Country  Kim Barnes (Anchor Books) $15.00  Barnes' beautiful, lyrical prose has made her one of my most admired memoirists (and I am not alone; she was a finalist for the 1997 Pulitzer Prize.) I have rarely been so absorbed in story, and what a story it is: she was raised in a loving rural community of lumberjacks, timber workers in the very rural parts of the forests of Idaho.  As a gypsy-like existence took her parents and relatives deeper into the woods for work, they grow increasingly aware of the beauty of this land and their small homesteads are nearly self-reliant. Soon, they enter a serious sort of blue-collar, mysterious, Pentecostalism.  Barnes description of their services seem spot on (bringing to mind not only my own brief experiences, but of amazing writing like, say, Dennis Covington's Salvation on Sound Mountain.) Things are both good and, eventually, in ways I cannot easily recount, troubling.  The work gives out and they move to town.  It is the late '60s and in junior high Kim starts to rebel.  She is embarrassed by her modest outfits and religious ways, and has been given a pretty negative view of women's sexual desires, which doesn't help. Man, does she rebel. It gets pretty ugly and she recalls it with remarkable memory and remarkable insight.  How do some people do this, recall things so eloquently?  She has a vivid gift and she is very talented, and she is fearless.

Words fail me to do justice to this remarkable story in a brief annotation, but you should know it was a fully engrossing read, artfully told, reflective and profoundly moving; it is surely one of the best memoirs I have ever read.  One reviewer called it "revealing, spiritual, cleansing, transcendent - and awash in the elements that make life's flow so unpredictable, wonderful, and often haunting."  Barnes is an artist of the printed page, has led a truly interesting life, and has been through some horrible stuff, stuff that begins to surface as her journey turns dark and her family relations unravel.  I ought not explain much, but this rivals any novel I have read, and is as reflective about a life as any memoir I've read.  Highly recommended, for those who can take such an intense and beautifully-written tale of loss and regret and of the formation of the life of a writer.


hungry for the world.jpgHungry for the World: A Memoir  Kim Barnes (Anchor) $13.00  Please, please, I must say this clearly.  I sometimes remind our readers that not every book we suggest is recommended for every reader.  This is one of those, and parts of this rank among the most disturbing stuff I have read, even though she is elegant and most often discreet.  Ms Barnes is a spectacularly gifted writer, and a very honorable woman who boldly lays her bad decisions bare and evaluates deeply what has been really going on as her troubled life unfolds.  Remember the part of Cheryl Strayed's Wild (I raved about it here) where she tells of her foolish sexual involvements and inexplicable drug abuse?  Her inability to grapple with the grief of the loss of her beloved mother?  Well, this is like that, sort of, but times ten.  So, there's that.

The first third of Hungry for the World revisits the same ground covered in the wonderful In the Wilderness, but it did not at all feel redundant. It was fully enjoyable and, again, deeply moving, as she gently pondered extra layers of meaning, named other details, retold more and more of those years of joy and faith and loss and trouble.  As I was reading this a few weeks ago I was telling everyone about the beauty and haunting lyricism of her splendid prose and her remarkable self-reflection, and how good it was, carrying us toward this next part of her story.  It was a bit dark, naturally, and then about the middle, the next chapter of her life hit, and I was stunned. I'm not naive, but I was stunned.  If anybody is taken by any of the dangerous nonsense of the 50 Shades fad, well, the middle portion of Barne's auto-biography, telling of anguishing obsessions and the menacing dominance of her truck-driver lover, will disabuse us of any romance to such indignities.  One reviewer put it mildly that Barnes was "overwhelmed by a restless curiosity that propelled her into a turbulent journey of self-discovery."  Another says, "it is refreshing to read such a moving story of human regeneration."  I'm not so sure I'd say it is refreshing, but I must admit that this glimpse into the darker corners inhabited by some of our neighbors is helpful and poignant.  You know those movies that are raw and dark and messy and yet it is good to spend a few hours taking it all in.  With discernment and courage, this story may be a very good read for some of us.  Others should avoid it.  It is one of the most haunting books I've ever read and I'd be amiss not to tell you. I like Ms Barnes a lot, and look forward to reading her new novel.  This memoir is dire and gorgeous, hard and healing.


exact place.jpgThe Exact Place: A Memoir Margie Haack (Kalos Press) $12.99 (introductory price)  I will be telling you more about this great new book when it is actually released next month, but I'm thrilled to at least announce it here, now. In a list of my favorite reading experiences this summer I have to name this.  Beth and I were quite privileged to get an early manuscript (Margie is a friend) and I literally raced through it, eager to read chapter by chapter, story by story, the pieces of her life remembered and retold.  It is a very good book.  And she is a woman who, no matter what she wrote, I'd want to read it.

Allow me to at least introduce you to her, for now: Margie and her husband, Denis Haack, run one of the most wonderful ministries of which we know (with one of the fabulously interesting websites, too.)  They call themselves Ransom Fellowship and they publish (for free, although a donation would be proper) the very wise and useful and sometimes a bit provocative Critique magazine, inviting people of faith into better conversations, cultural discernment, seeking (as their mentors Francis and Edith Schaeffer used to say) "honest answers for honest questions." They often write (beautifully) about music and film and the questions of ordinary Christian life.  Their home---delightfully called Toad Hall---is almost like an Upper Midwestern L'Abri and their ministry of hospitality and speaking and writing and hosting concerts and reviewing movies have made them low-key rock stars among some younger evangelicals who still can't seem to find a safe place to be mentored into wise and fruitful cultural engagement.  Margie is a sassier writer than Denis and her candid look into the hectic craziness of their lives is told colorfully in another newsletter, which she does, nicely called Notes from Toad Hall. You can browse stuff Margie writes, also at the Ransom webpage, here.  You can even listen to her read a few essays (click on the "audio" icon and spend a few minutes enjoying her fine writing and wonderful insights.)

Those who read her know that Margie has the gift---a way with words, such an honestmargie haack.jpg voice---and we are glad for both Margie and Denis' good writing.  Together they've served and cared and guided many of us for decades and we are glad to call them friends (my, how they have been supportive of our bookish work.).  Anybody who has heard a bit of her story has told her that she has to write a book. 

Haack was raised in very (very) Northern, and very (very) rural Minnesota, growing up in the harsh and lovely terrain of animals, subsistence farming, outhouses, hard weather, poverty, and country neighbors, the kind that, I gather, good fences should make better.  Although I adore the rural earnestness of Michael Perry (more on him, soon--his Visiting Tom is just out) and the Lake Wobegone stories of humorist Garrison Keillor, nobody has looked at the rougher underside of a "little house in the big woods" like Haack.  Read her few paragraphs introducing herself, here, and tell me you don't want to read her book! 


We are taking pre-orders for The Exact Place, as we are eager to sell this rural memoir (and we are quite glad it is being published by folks we respect, a classy, indie press Kalos.) Maybe you should buy several, take it to book groups, talk it up, and wonder how, as Ms Haack so honestly does, God works to bring us to "the exact place" we need to be.  You know that Quaker hymn, Tis a Gift to Be Simple that assures us in turning, turning, we come round right?  This quiet, simple set of interesting farm-girl stories testifies that it is true. In many ways, this is one of the most urgent lessons to be learned in life, and it is a story of Providence and Grace.  Margie speaks honestly about our foibles, fears, and brokenness.  And yet she realizes that it comes round right.  Just click on the "order" link and type in your info.  We'll ship the book the day it comes, at our BookNotes discounted price.


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Eager to read Margie's book and look forward to your review. About Anne L's newest book, not so much. I was eager to read it, but finally set it aside 3/4 through. She just struck me as whiny and it seemed an easy way to make dollars from her loyal audience. Sam, though . . . I was impressed by his maturity and his writing style. I found myself feeling sorry for the baby's mother, having their story out there like that. Agree to disagree with you on this one, Byron. :-)