Bullying, Relocating, Observing, Inventing | Memoir

Among this month's memoirs is one that explores what it means to remember and thus questions the very nature of writing a memoir. It is destined to become a modern American classic.
This month, three of our four memoirs focus on, among other things, iconic U.S. cities: Oakland, Detroit, and Los Angeles (and environs). Peter Selgin's The Inventors, which is the outlier in this bunch, is also in its own way very American—a major theme is reinvention. In his quest to find himself, the author explores what it means to remember, thus questioning the very nature of memoir writing. It is a book destined to become a modern classic. abramovichBulliesAbramovich, Alex. Bullies: A Friendship. Holt. Mar. 2016. 256p. ISBN 9780805094282. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781429949064. MEMOIR In some aspects a 21st-century successor to Hunter S. Thompson’s Hell’s Angels, this debut memoir by journalist Abramovich provides readers with a wonderful and compact history of Oakland. On a whim, the author gets in touch with a classmate who used to bully him in elementary school. It turns out that his tormentor, Trevor, is now president of an Oakland-based motorcycle club called the East Bay Rats. Through Trevor, Abramovich gets to know members of the club and begins to investigate a city where he will eventually live. An unanswered question in the book is whether Trevor was really the bully Abramovich remembers him as being, or if Abramovich was himself the oppressor. Or, were the boys simply mean to each other? This question is raised early but never returned to, nor answered, and this leaves a (perhaps deliberate) sense of dissatisfaction long after the last page has been read. VERDICT This essential memoir, which could have been twice as long and remained as fascinating, is recommended for general readers. Detroit.HaimerlHaimerl, Amy. Detroit Hustle: A Memoir of Love, Life & Home. Running Pr. May 2016. 256p. ISBN 9780762457359. $24; ebk. ISBN 9780762457441. MEMOIR After being priced out of Brooklyn, journalist Haimerl and her husband decide to make their home in Detroit. They purchase a house that has to be completely gutted and ends up costing them more time and money than anticipated. In the process, they fall deeply in love with their new city and neighbors, coming to admire the resiliency of both. Haimerl also tells us about her upbringing and previous experience as a homeowner, encounters that have immensely informed the person she has become. Readers further learn many engrossing details about Detroit. Who knew, for example, that the city has canals?  VERDICT Pictures of the house in question would have enhanced this book, and, at times, the prose is overwrought. Still, it is surprisingly full of practical advice and always entertaining. Rifkin.WaterBurdenRifkin, Alan. Burdens by Water: An Unintended Memoir. Brown Paper Pr. 2016. 214p. ISBN 9781941932049. pap. $16.99; ebk. ISBN 9781941932056. MEMOIR This collection of mostly personal essays by short-story author Rifkin (Signal Hill) focuses primarily on his life in and around California’s San Fernando Valley. Three pieces in particular stand out. “Pool Man” chronicles, with humor and pathos, the author’s adventures trailing after a Southern California pool man. “Consider the Richardsons” compares his own attempt (despite being Jewish) at living a Bible-based Christian marriage with the marriage of an evangelical pastor acquaintance of his. It is a funny and touching essay. Finally, the elegiac “E Luxo So (It’s Only Luxury)” details growing up in Encino, CA, in the wake of his parents’ divorce. The rest of the collection is equally engaging, but these three pieces are excellent examples of the craft.  VERDICT An original and funny/sad compilation of writings that will appeal to a wide readership. Selgin.Inventorsstarred review starSelgin, Peter. The Inventors. Hawthorne Bks. & Literary Arts. Apr. 2016. 352p. ISBN 9780989360470. pap. $18.95. MEMOIR Selgin’s (Life Goes to the Movies; Drowning Lessons) memoir debut focuses on the two men—the author's father and his eighth-grade English teacher—who had the most impact on his life. In telling the story of his relationships with these individuals, he uncovers not only what they hid from him and most other people in their lives, but unravels what people keep hidden from themselves. Short interludes are interspersed throughout; some tell fablelike stories that enhance the larger narrative, but just as often Selgin uses them to delve into the matter of how we narrate our lives, how impossible it really is to remember the past, how blending fiction and nonfiction often leads to a more believable version of the truth. As such, readers might wonder about the veracity of Selgin's story. Are we being told “the truth” or a version of the truth, and is there a difference?  VERDICT A remarkable model of the art of the memoir, this book will satisfy all readers. Highly recommended.

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