Whenever someone learns that I work in a library, this question inevitably follows: what’s your favorite book? It’s like Sophie’s Choice, impossible to answer. So when it came time for me to review a recently published memoir, I couldn’t pick just one. Following are a few of my favorites from this year. Written by four women from diverse backgrounds, I hope one of these books will appeal to you too. Just don’t ask me to choose.
Born to parents of Korean descent, given up for adoption, and raised by devout white Catholics in a small Oregon town, Nicole Chung writes of her experiences as a transracial adoptee. Despite being raised in a loving family, Chung’s questions regarding her origin – and her struggles with identity and belonging – permeate every facet of her life well into adulthood. When Nicole becomes pregnant with her own child, she feels driven to make contact with her birth family. She learns that the adoption story that she was told her whole life was just a portion of the truth, and the shocking revelations she uncovers have a lasting impact on her life. Although Nicole’s background and story are unique, anyone who reads this book will be able to appreciate her ruminations on what constitutes a family, what it means to be a mother, and the complex, often fraught, dynamics present in families of all kinds.
In 2015, Harris Wittels was a writer/producer on the NBC television comedy Parks and Recreation. With fame, wealth, success, and loving family and friends, Harris seemed to have it all. He also had a drug addiction. At the age of 30, Harris Wittels died of a heroin overdose. This book, written by Harris’s older sister Stephanie, is a tribute to his genius comedic talents, a loving memorial of Harris as brother, son, and uncle, and testimony to the devastation his choices, addiction, and death caused Stephanie and her family. The title is taken from one of Harris’s keenest observations about human nature – that people are at once horrible and wonderful. In keeping with Harris’s words, Stephanie shares moments that are heartrending – from first learning of Harris’s heroin use to the devastating realization that her daughter would grow up never having known her uncle – tempered with fond, and funny, memories of their childhood. I highly recommend the audiobook, read by Stephanie herself – a drama teacher and voiceover actress. Her reading had me crying one minute and laughing out loud through my tears the next.
Sarah Smarsh grew up in the heartland of the United States – Kansas – the product of a long line of poor farmer laborers and teenage mothers. She opens her memoir by addressing it to her unborn child, a device she continues throughout the book. Although I initially thought this ploy a gimmick, as the book went on, I found myself appreciating the tactic. For not only is this a book about Smarsh’s personal childhood, but she frames her experiences in the larger context of the endless cycle that other women like her become trapped, due in large part to teenage pregnancies that limit their work and educational prospects. Smarsh goes all the way back in history to Westward expansion, the Homestead Act, Title IX, Reagonomics and discusses how various social and economic policies through the years contributed to the divide between the working class and middle class, and how that divide has continued to grow since she was a child in the 1980s. She directly attributes not becoming a teenage mother with her success breaking free from the cycle her mother and grandmother found themselves in. Having grown up in a small midwestern farming town myself, I found Smarsh’s experiences relatable, but eye-opening, recognizing in hindsight the intertwined cycles of teenage pregnancy and “working hard and going nowhere.” This book is part memoir, part economic treatise, part social commentary and all thought-provoking.
Although Sally Field is the winner of two Academy awards and one of the most recognizable names in Hollywood, working steadily as an actress for over fifty years, her story is far from Hollywood perfect. In her memoir In Pieces, Field reveals painful details about the childhood abuse she suffered at the hands of her stepfather, recounts her complicated relationship with her alcoholic mother, depicts ex-boyfriend Burt Reynolds’s behavior as controlling and emotionally abusive, and recalls multiple instances of sexual harrassment she experienced at the hands of prominent producers and directors. Field writes candidly about difficult periods in her life, sometimes culling directly from journals which she kept her whole life. I came away from this book with a new-found respect for Field’s talent and admiration for bravely allowing us to see past the facade to the driven, complicated, messy, insecure – in other words, fully human – woman beneath the Hollywood image.