Memoir

ROUGH MAGIC: RIDING THE WORLD'S LONELIEST HORSE RACE

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ROUGH MAGIC BY LARA PRIOR-PALMER

“Somehow,” writes Lara Prior-Palmer in her debut memoir, Rough Magic, “implausibly, against all odds, I won a race labeled the longest and toughest in the world—a race I’d entered on a whim—and became the youngest person, and first female, ever to have done so.” In 2013, she indeed won the Mongol Derby, a grueling, 1,000-kilometer race on horseback styled after the medieval Mongol postal system. Any prosaic record of this improbable victory would sell plenty of copies. But Rough Magic doesn’t just describe one triumph: it constitutes another, and in a whole new territory. “Because my competitiveness is like a kite I refuse to pull down from the sky and examine,” Prior-Palmer writes, showcasing both dexterous imagery and hapless ambition, “it has power over me.” Through arresting landscapes and many awkward moments, she rides a muscular yet floaty prose, replete with deftly mixed metaphors and off-kilter verbs. Dogs “snorkel” along the ground and cameras “drink color” from the land.

The memoir draws much of its energy from Lara’s escalating rivalry with the frontrunner, Devan Horn, which, we begin to understand as she paints the Texan “devil-woman” in increasingly cartoonish hues, is really a rivalry with her own vices—fear and self-consciousness, pettiness and ambition. “Who’s worse?” she asks at one point, “Devan or Lara?” On the page, the main difference is that Devan keeps her mask on, but Lara lets hers slip so that readers can peer beneath. If we still have trouble grasping her, it is only because, as she writes, “[t]his being human means inhabiting an unfinished form, forever moving on to the next thing . . . What use is a conclusion, or an understanding, when all I want to do is open up, mess up, unpack, and unreel?”

What use, indeed?

Catapult.

—Review by Mekiya Walters

THE BODY PAPERS

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THE BODY PAPERS BY GRACE TALUSAN

In The Body Papers, Grace Talusan positions her memoir as a series of bodies: the body of the family, the body of a city, the body of a culture and a heritage, and all link inextricably back to the personal body that Talusan inhabits. The topics she explores are numerous, which could become overwhelming if not for her undaunted prose, the connections drawn between images. The memoir itself becomes a body—many parts cooperating, an alliance of movement.

It would be too simple to say this is a brave book. Talusan guides us, so we see what must be seen about how a body survives, the danger from within and without. As a Filipino immigrant, she grows within a racist society that simultaneously others her and makes her invisible. Her memoir tells us of the measures that her parents took to protect her from deportation; her sexual assault as a young girl by a grandparent, leaving her with unanswerable questions and harm to her body and mind; and the cancer she faces in adulthood, in her own body and in the bodies of beloved family members. But in each of these narratives, Talusan finds a way to reflect on love, community, and responsibility—even in their most broken, desperate forms. She writes of watching Filipinos cross the life-threatening streets in Manila: “They do it calmly and gracefully, taking a few steps and then stopping in the middle of a busy intersection, where they wait patiently for cars to cross their path. They don’t flinch when a car brushes past them. They don’t scream or jump when a car speeds towards them. Sometimes they hold on  to the person next to them and they cross together, guiding each other to stop or go, now, quickly.” With The Body Papers, Talusan offers to cross with you, through distress and danger, always moving the body forward.

Restless Books.

—Review by Joy Clark

UNCERTAIN MANIFESTO

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UNCERTAIN MANIFESTO BY FRÉDÉRIC PAJAK, TRANSLATED BY DONALD NICHOLSON-SMITH

The first volume of Frédéric Pajak’s Uncertain Manifesto (currently in its seventh volume in French) is composed of oblique relationships. The relationship between its large illustrations and short snippets of text is loosely associative, even mysterious. The chapters range from memoir to historical account to philosophical musing. At first, the book feels something like a stack of random pages ripped from Pajak’s sketchbook, notes haphazardly compiled rather than meticulously ordered. Though, as the book progresses, a greater arc emerges. Uncertain Manifesto is haunted by the memory of Europe hardly holding onto “the vestiges of peace, and with these crumbs improvising a society that erases other societies,” as Pajak hints in the introduction. The book exists in the shadows of other manifestos—centrally, Mein Kampf and the Communist Manifesto—but, by the end of this first volume, one gets a sense that Pajak has set about concocting some kind of balm, something to ward against the dangers of entrenched ideology.

Much of the book chronicles Walter Benjamin’s travels during the 1930s, and his thoughts on the rise of fascism. A reflection on the nature of fascism, likely felt important when the first volume appeared in French in 2012—in 2019, Uncertain Manifesto’s arrival in English feels vital. In less capable hands, such a genre-defying, heady enterprise might have sagged under the weight of its own ambition; here, it’s full of wit and life. Powerful precisely on account of its subtlety.

New York Review Books.

—Review by Landon McGee

BLAME THIS ON THE BOOGIE

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BLAME THIS ON THE BOOGIE BY RINA AYUYANG

Rina Ayuyang’s graphic memoir, Blame This on the Boogie, reads like a sequence of freestyle dance numbers of her life, chronicling her childhood, motherhood, and career, as well as the ways in which music has propelled her through each. Music and dance rule the world of Rina’s imagination—help her through school boredom and bullying, and live in her adult mind as a place of escapism, obsession, and artistic appreciation. Boogie is a love letter to the style and art of golden age musicals, to football, dance, and family, and an exploration of the ways in which we cope with juggling the thrills and responsibilities of daily life.

Ayuyang’s stunning, bold style leaps off the page and draws you in close, pulling you into the images where you find tiny captions, thoughts, and text hidden on road signs and football jerseys. The bright colored pencil drawings slide from realistic to otherworldly with the grace of a broadway musical changing scenes—at times combining memory with song or football practice with dance number. Reminiscent of concept art for animation, these images thrum with movement and life. Blame This on the Boogie manages to create its own beat, a visual rhythm that sweeps you through to the last page.

Drawn & Quarterly.

—Review by Claire Pincumbe

FOUND AND LOST: MITTENS, MIEP, AND SHOVELFULS OF DIRT

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FOUND AND LOST: MITTENS, MIEP, AND SHOVELFULS OF DIRT, BY ALISON LESLIE GOLD

Alison Leslie Gold's memoir, Found and Lost: Mittens, Miep, and Shovelfuls of Dirt, is a compilation that reflects on the decline and the loss of loved ones and the memories and possessions that they once held dear. Gold is best known for Anne Frank Remembered, an autobiographical account, written with Miep Gies, over Gies' and her husband’s time spent protecting the Frank family from Nazis in Amsterdam. Themes of remembrance pervade every line of Found and Lost, including the moments from Gold's life that brought her to the Gies family. Gold’s desire for a sense of purpose, to move beyond her struggles as an alcoholic and single mother, led her to them. Her memoir re-sketches the aging process, the loss before and after dying, and the grief and acceptance that surrounds what comes to pass: “Though every clock in the house shows a different time since Jan died, she [Miep] lives apart from time, sails quietly on, contending with old, older, oldest age.”

Found and Lost is littered with an array of descriptions via letters, vignettes, and essays, including other scattered details like—a scam email, her parents' canceled NYT subscription, piccolos in pipes, and Medvedev's cat Dorothy. Surely by this memoir, Gold finds who and what was lost to her, as well those who know her now: “As a writer, I've tried to 'translate' what's been rescued into wordswords addressed sometimes to the living, sometimes to the dead, picking from little bones, skulls, and relics tossed from graves.”

New York Review Books.

PROMISE AT DAWN

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PROMISE AT DAWN, BY ROMAIN GARY

Promise at Dawn is, above all else, a son’s love-letter to his mother. In this compelling and humorous memoir, Romain Gary lavishes attention and affection on the woman who went through Herculean efforts to provide for him in the years preceding the Second World War. As the two fled west from Lithuania to France – Gary’s adopted homeland and a place his mother spoke of “as other mothers speak to their children of Snow White and Puss in Boots” – his mother supported them and always provided “that daily miracle,” a beefsteak for his lunch while she went without.  Proclaiming him destined to become a great artist, his mother encouraged Gary to design a “pen name worthy of the masterpieces which the world was to receive” from him. Gary took these words to heart. In fact, John Markham Beach was one of Gary’s several pseudonyms, and the memoir itself is self-translated.

In his prose, Gary gives us an honest portrait—he bares himself to his readers, exposing his doubts and his faults as well as his kind and intimate acts, what he calls his true “great services to humanity:” rescuing an exhausted hummingbird trapped in his apartment, fulfilling a promise to tell the “famous and the great of the world” the story of Mr. Piekielny, a peasant of Vilna. But time and again, Gary comes back to his mother’s love. He muses that perhaps “it is wrong to have been loved so much so young, so early. At the dawn of life, you thus acquire a bad habit, the worst habit there is: the habit of being loved.” This habit—of being so intensely loved and expected to succeed— becomes the driving force of Gary’s life: why he writes, why he joined the military, why he strove to become the ambassador of France. Gary’s love and gratitude are clear; here we see him giving thanks.

New Directions.

THE GLASS EYE

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THE GLASS EYE, BY JEANNIE VANASCO

Jeannie Vanasco’s memoir The Glass Eye weaves together stories of grief, obsession, and mental illness in an account of self-exploration that acts as an on-again, off-again commentary on the genre of memoir itself. The text centers on a daughter grieving the loss of her father, whom she promised a book. Parallel to this loss is the author’s struggle with mental illness—diagnosis, hospital stays, re-diagnosis, balancing medication, et cetera—as she navigates finishing her college degree, entering the workforce and subsequent graduate programs, while also maintaining relationships with her mother, come-and-go friends and boyfriends, employers, and her own research. It is this research into the dead half-sister with whom Vanasco shares a name that serves as another critical throughline, a product of Vanasco’s grief and mental illness, and sometimes also, a cause.

This text succeeds primarily in its capacity to document grief and complicated family history as they relate to the individual. The author’s plea, implicit and explicit, is that the memoir be enough to honor the memory of her father, while recognizing the inherent futility of that task. Though the intersection of the author’s own mania with the extensive catalogue of her writing process will appeal particularly to those in the writing community, Vanasco’s memoir is valuable reading for anyone who has ever tried to create something. Artists of all stripes will see that it is, in fact, Vanasco’s tireless self-awareness of her own role (as memoirist, as careful practitioner of her craft) that allows The Glass Eye to function as a fruitful addition to the genre.

Tin House

FEVERLAND

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FEVERLAND, BY ALEX LEMON

Feverland is a memoir written in essays and lyrical fragments. This book is written like a shattered mirror, each shard reflecting different light on the author, forcing the viewer to piece things together, to read with care. At the core are two central stories of trauma: sexual abuse during Lemon’s childhood and physical deterioration during his young adulthood. But Lemon’s experimental memoir, though darkly wrought, is soaked in grace. In writing about days of drug addiction and alcoholism to hospitalization, the fear of being touched to cheating on partners, Lemon exhibits a sharp self-awareness and self-compassion that makes this memoir full of hope for all of us and for “the heart overripe . . . the heart always raw. The heart churning . . . the heart aflame.”

Lemon’s voice as poet provides the perfect counterpoint to the intelligent, fact-laden content of some of the essays, which is presented as a hive of interconnected knowledge. In the essay “Heartdusting” he transitions swiftly from John Wayne to stomach cancer, from androgynous names to Quaker Oats, from Wilford Brimley to cockfighting to Bruce Dern’s 1981 movie Tattoo, from tattoos to Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease to the meat industry, from Vaishnava Bauls to Lazzaro Spallanzani. But the heart of the book is soul searching, questioning. Feverland asks us “how long to learn you are not behind the steering wheel but still you are driving the ambulance” and reminds us of the dizzying joy of forward momentum.

Milkweed Editions.