Tag Archives: debut memoir

All Strangers Are Kin, by Zora O’Neill


All Strangers Are Kin: Adventures in Arabic and the Arab World

By Zora O’Neill

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016

336 pages


All Strangers Are Kin is a linguistic romp through the Arab-speaking world in which O’Neill struggles to learn various Arabic dialects and sheds light on how difficult it is to become fluent in another language, especially one so different than her own. O’Neill, who studied Arabic in college and later did graduate work in Arabic Literature, is in her late 30s when she spends a year living in Egypt, The Gulf, Lebanon and Morocco.

She begins in Cairo, where she admits that she no longer wants to study the formal written form of the language, Fusha, and instead sets out to learn the local dialect. She reconnects with old friends and tries to find her way in a city that has changed since the January Revolution. In the UAE, she searches out local Arabic speakers in a community where most people are transplants, and ends up the only student in her Arabic class. In Lebanon and Morocco she has more success studying Arabic and regularly strikes up conversations with locals, but encounters two more dialects she is never fully able to master.

Before reading this book, I knew Arabic was a language with many distinct local dialects, but did not know how much they varied. O’Neill is open about her struggles using Arabic and dubs her travels, “my Year of Speaking Arabic Badly,” which nicely sums up her reflective and self-effacing character. But she loves Arabic language play and relishes in their idioms. And she is most at home with the dialect in Egypt, where they have a sense of humor she enjoys. As I read the book, I felt like I was traveling along with O’Neill — driving a car with her in the UAE desert, hiking in Lebanon and visiting a Berber village in  Morocco. If you enjoy different languages and want to learn more about Arabic, and the Arabic-speaking world, I think you will enjoy this book.

O’Neill is an accomplished travel and food writer. She has written travel guides for Rough Guides, the Lonely Planet and Moon and also published a cookbook, Forking Fantastic, about an underground supper club she hosted for many years with a friend in Queens. My path has crossed with hers in New York and she is as delightful on the page as she is in person.

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Is my favorite debut really a debut?

As I read the “Best of” book lists, and reflect back on my year of reading, I concur with Michelle Obama that the best book I read, and reviewed, this year was Elizabeth Alexander’s The Light of the World. Her poetic use of language, emotional openness and roving intellect made this memoir stay with me weeks and months after I put it down. And as I wrote in my review, my husband got so engrossed with the story that he actually missed his subway stop on his commute home, ending up in a completely different part of Brooklyn than he was headed, when he finally looked up from this book.

She tells the story of the untimely death of her husband at age 50, then goes back in time to share their love story and moves forward to explore her, and her children’s, grief. The book is a wonderful meditation on love and on loss. But although this book is her first memoir, Alexander is such an accomplished poet and academic, with eleven books of poetry and four books of essays published, that I wonder if she counts in the debut category? Since it was her first memoir, I took liberties to include her on my “debut” reading list, and after I loved the book so much, I wanted to share that with all of you.

As for the more traditional debuts, meaning an author without much of a publishing record when their debut novel came out, of the novels I read and wrote about this year, The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen won the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize and is being picked up on best book lists, including the Times 100. And while I enjoyed this book and admired its ambition, the three books that stayed with me the most are:

Etta and Otto and Russell and James, by Emma Hooper, for its magical tale and quirky story.

The Unfortunates, by Sophie McManus, for its breathtakingly precise and beautiful language that made me feel like I was reading a book written 100 years ago.

And Disgruntled, by Asali Solomon, for her ability to capture the teenage years of a unique girl growing up in Philadelphia.

Although The Unfortunates was written up quite widely when it came out and was nominated for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, all of these books deserve more attention than they got. And the authors all capture unique female stories which deepen our collective understanding of the world.

How about you? What debuts did you read this year that you really loved?

In the new year, I will write about books that I didn’t get to yet in 2015, including The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma and Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House.

Happy holidays, dear readers….to a festive end of the year. Until 2016!


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Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget, by Sarah Hepola


Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget

By Sarah Hepola

Grand Central Press, 2015

239 pages

The title sums up the book: Hepola excavates her childhood and young adult years to understand, and come to terms with, why she became a chronic binge drinker who regularly blacked out. The book begins when she is living in NYC, working as a freelance writer, and goes on a trip to Paris where she has a memorable night that she only half recalls. She then flashes back to her childhood and recounts her life growing up in Dallas, going to college in Austin, and her move to New York. She eventually gives up drinking while in New York where she worked as an editor at Salon.com.

Hepola is a gifted writer. She is funny and insightful and does a great job unearthing in print feelings she was not able to discuss when she was a young woman. She writes openly about the pain of growing up: of boys who snapped bras in fifth grade, of being told she was too fat in middle school and of feeling she was never good enough after college. Her story is that of a young single woman who seems to be taking care of herself, holding down a good job, paying her bills, changing her own light bulbs, and yet who gained fifty pounds and alienated many friends after too much binge drinking and too many blackouts. There is no one reason why Hepola drank as much as she did, but eventually she couldn’t live with her habits and found a way to sober up. This is a moving story of a young woman coming to terms with her limitations and finding a new way to live her life. It is at times a sad story, but for anyone interested in addiction or how people turn their lives around this is a good read. I found it as engaging as I found The Tender Bar, for those of you who have read that book.

Hepola lives in Dallas and still works with Salon.com.


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From the Ground Up, by Jeanne Nolan — Debut, not new


From the Ground Up

By Jeanne Nolan

Spiegel & Grau, 2013

282 pages

Teenagers often dream of running off to live a life completely different from their parents and this is exactly what Jeanne Nolan did. In 1987, she left behind her suburban Chicago life to join Zendik Farm, a commune, which at the time was located outside of San Diego. Nolan went in search of a more authentic, greener, way of life, joining a community that lived by its own rules: growing their food and eschewing monogamy and traditional relationships. Nolan spent 17 years on the farm, moving with the community to two other locations, until she decided this life no longer served her.

This memoir begins as Nolan is arriving home, moving back in with her parents to the same suburban community, Winnetka, IL, that she had left behind, returning with her two-year old daughter Thea. Nolan is physically thin and emotionally wrought, struggling with deep self-doubt, as she tries to reimagine life for herself and Thea. Goaded by her mother to plant a vegetable garden in the family’s backyard, Nolan embarks on a journey she could not have imagined when she fled home as a teen. It is now the early-2000s and her farming/gardening skills have value in a world where organic food is sought after. Her green political views are coming into the mainstream. Nolan tells the story of how she finds her way back in Winnetka, starting a small business, the Organic Gardener, in which she plants and cultivates organic gardens in suburban yards, and eventually getting swept into the urban farm movement in Chicago.

I much enjoyed the book, which is a window into the organic gardening/urban farm movement, and into Nolan’s transformation, as she rebuilds her relationship with her parents and finds a way to balance her green values with life in the suburbs. Soon after she returns to Chicago an old love from the farm reaches out and Nolan finds both love and professional success in a community she never thought could value her on her own terms. Most of the book is set in Chicago, with flashbacks to her farming days, and I did wish she shared a bit more about what eventually turned her off from the farm, but she shared enough for me to figure out that after she had a daughter there, she became alienated from the others for loving her daughter in ways that challenged the communal values.

Nolan’s passion for gardening and farming is infectious. I particularly loved reading the pages about her buying seeds and envisioning gardens for her clients, including Rahm Emanuel and his family.

Nolan lives in Chicago with her family where she continues the works she writes about in this book.


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The Light of the World, by Elizabeth Alexander


The Light of the World

By Elizabeth Alexander

Grand Central Press, 2015

209 pages

The Light of the World tells the story of Alexander’s husband’s death, at the age of fifty, and how she and her sons coped with the loss. Alexander’s use of language is singular, and her narrative style is unique. Her poetry background shines through as she narrates the circumstance of her husband’s death, how they fell in love, how they created a home for their sons together and then how she and her teenaged sons made a life for themselves on their own. I devoured this book in a few sittings.

Ficre Ghebreyesus was a worldly and passionate man who cooked, loved music and literature, and created beautiful paintings. He was from Eritrea and was working as a restaurant owner and painter in New Haven when they met. Their love was instant. Alexander has a deep appreciation for the small ways that people connect and love – watching her husband smoke, cooking together – and the big things that happen over the course of fifteen years together: two kids, two successful careers, multiple homes. She also weaves in culture references from literature, music, and African culture making her story both personal and universal.

This book is a page-turner; or at least it was for my husband and me. My husband, who reads mainly historical non-fiction, recommended the book to me after he got so engrossed in the story that he missed a subway stop on the way home from work and ended up in the wrong part of Brooklyn—many stops from our home. And as I wrote last week, this book made me cry. The story is so moving.

Alexander is a poet, playwright and professor at Yale. She wrote and delivered a poem at Obama’s 2008 inauguration and was the third black woman to get tenure at Yale University.


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Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson


Just Mercy

By Bryan Stevenson

Spiegel & Grau, 2014

336 pages

Just Mercy is one of my favorite books so far this year. Part-memoir, part-social commentary, Stevenson tells the story of his law career, founding the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in Montgomery, AL, while also recounting the many hard cases he has worked on with the EJI since 1989.

I’m possibly hard wired for this book. My late father, David Baldus, was a death penalty researcher, working in the same community as Stevenson. I was brought up hearing about men on death row, mainly black men, who were sentenced to death for killing white people, men whose sentences were harsher than those given to black men who killed other blacks. My ear is open to Stevenson’s story, but I believe this book has universal appeal. Stevenson is a fluid writer and he tells such a powerful story—of all the injustices poor, mainly black, people face in our legal system. He takes on death cases proving the innocence of wrongly convicted men and mitigating the sentences of others. At the center of the book is the story of Walter McMillian a man who claimed he was wrongly convicted for a murder he didn’t commit. Stevenson also writes about his work to reduce excessive juvenile sentences—kids who are given life in prison for rape or robbery at 12 or 14. Winner of a MacArthur Award for his work, he is a champion of the under-represented.

I was given a copy of this book by a friend and before I read it my sister and husband had also devoured it, each of us reading the book in less than a week. For anyone interested in legal justice, Just Mercy is a must read.

Stevenson is the Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative and a law professor at NYU.


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The Bicycle Diaries, by David Kroodsma


The Bicycle Diaries

By David Kroodsma

RFC Press, 2014

413 pages

In 2005 David Kroodsma set off on a bicycle journey from Palo Alto to Tierra del Fuego. Alone, with four panniers strapped to his bike, which he affectionately named Del Fuego, he embarked on this journey to raise awareness about climate change. He lived on a tight budget, regularly eating pasta cooked on his stove, camping in backyards and crashing with bomberos, firefighters, across Latin America who took him in. While most of his journey was spent on his bike, he regularly visited schools and talked to kids about his trip and climate change, and he did numerous television and newspaper interviews, and did his best to engage locals along his trail. The Bicycle Diaries captures his journey, mile by mile and country by country.

I enjoyed this book on many levels. Kroodsma, who was in his late 20s when he went on this adventure, captures the excitement of being young and free to explore and meet new people without a fixed schedule, job or family. In Mexico, he camped next to a family of shrimp fishers who struggled to make a living. In Venezuela he spent the night with engineers for an oil company. And in Argentina he visited a college friend who has made a life for himself in an artists’ community in Patagonia. I enjoyed the life stories of the people he encountered. He also explores how climate change might affect the regions he visited, including impacts on industries like fishing and shrimping. He also looks at the history of climate change in the region and recounts how drought was connected to the decline of the Mayan civilization.

This is a sizable book (413 pages) and when I first picked it up, I wondered how he would keep the narrative moving, given that biking across countries happens at a slow pace, but his story moves well, and I felt completely immersed in his journey. I have traveled to parts of Mexico and Central America he visited and felt he captured those cultures well. And it was fun to read the South American section and to learn more about places I was less familiar with, in particular, Colombia where I learned biking is popular and the major cities close their streets to cars on Sundays for bikes. If you’re looking to visit Latin America or to just learn more about the region, this book is worth picking up.

From the looks of Kroodsma’s website, he is now cycling across Asia!

The author gave me a copy of this book.





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Men We Reaped, by Jesmyn Ward


Men We Reaped

By Jesmyn Ward

Bloomsbury Press, 2013

256 pages

Jesmyn Ward’s debut memoir, Men We Reaped, about growing up in DeLisle, Mississippi, a low income coastal Mississippi town, and the deaths of five young men (between the ages of 19 and 32) she grew up with, provides a unique look at inequality in the United States.

Ward’s family has been in DeLisle since the early 20th century. She begins her story with the history of her grandparents, and great-grandparents, and how her parents met. She continues to chronologically tell her own coming-of-age story in this small rural community in a state where 23% of the population, and 35% of Blacks, live below the poverty line. She then intersperses her life story with the stories of five young men, including her younger brother, who died between 2000 and 2004. As she tells their stories, Ward explores the extent to which their deaths were caused by the entrenched gender and race roles of the region, and by the histories of their families in which Black men die young and the women work too hard and take care of their families.

This is a moving, yet sad, story and Ward is a poetic and emotional writer. She is the one who got out of her community and yet she has not left it behind. She wants to tell its story and after living in California, Michigan and New York she now lives in Mississippi again. I was moved by this paragraph in which she describes the pressures on her community:

“My entire community suffered from a lack of trust: we didn’t trust society to provide the basics of a good education, safety, access to good jobs, fairness in the justice system. And even as we distrusted the society around us, the culture that cornered us and told us we were perpetually less, we distrusted each other. We did not trust out fathers to raise us, to provide for us. Because we trusted nothing, we endeavored to protect ourselves, boys becoming misogynistic and violent, girls turning duplicitous, all of us hopeless. Some of us turned sour from the pressure, let it erode our sense of self until we hated what we saw, without and within. And to blunt it all, some of us turned to drugs.” (p. 169)

Ward teaches at the University of South Alabama and has written two novels. I look forward to exploring her fictions, which I have not read yet.

I borrowed this book from a friend.





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BEA and the Chautauqua Prize

BookExpo America (BEA) was last week and although I didn’t attend this year, I have been following their Buzz Books list, which features summer and fall release books they think are going to do well. Of the debut novels featured, war and family are themes I saw in a lot of the books, with a few of them being historical novels. Three that stood out to me are:

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton. A historical novel set in 17th Century Amsterdam involving a woman who gets a miniature replica of her home as a wedding gift. The author was written about in this recent Guardian article, after the London Book Fair. (Summer 2014)

Island of a Thousand Mirrors by Nayomi Munaweera. A story about two families divided by the Sir Lankan Civil War. It has been compared to Anil’s Ghost and The God of Small Things, which are two of my favorite books. I really want to read this one! (Fall 2014)

The Last Breath by Kimberly Belle. After spending many years living overseas, a young woman comes back to Tennessee to come to terms with her father’s release from prison and the death of her stepmother, who her father killed 17 years before. (Fall 2014)

And finally, congrats to Elizabeth Scarboro for wining this year’s Chautauqua Prize for her moving debut memoir, My Foreign Cities, which I reviewed earlier this year. A well-deserved prize for a remarkable book. If you have not read it yet, this memoir, a love story between a 20-something woman and 20-something man with a terminal illness, is one of the best books I have reviewed this year, but make sure you buy some tissues before you get too deep into the story.

More reviews next week…for the next couple of reviews, I will be writing about debut memoirs.





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Maya Angelou’s Powerful Debut


I read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in high school, as many of my generation did, and was inspired by Angelou’s poetic prose. She spoke to me in a way that many other writers I read in high school did not. Maybe this was because she was poet and a prose writer, and I love that combination (tho I did not know that at the time). But I think it was something deeper. She wrote from her heart and although she was 40 years older than me, and I grew up a white woman in the Midwest, I felt close to her when I read her work. Her life felt real, in the way that the lives of other writers did not.

I didn’t realize until I read her obituary that I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was her debut. What a debut it was! She went on to publish a series of memoirs, but I have only read the first one. I now have more books to add to my list.

As I scour the Internet reading about her life and accomplishments I thought I would share a few links that stood out.

  •  This interview from the Paris Review, in 1990, gives a glimpse into her writer’s life and how she wrote Caged Bird.
  • USA Today did a nice round up of powerful Maya Angelou quotes. In reading them, I’m moved by her ability to accept life as it is, while simultaneously believing that we all have the power for great things, no matter where we come from or how much defeat we absorb. She was a mentor to Oprah, and in reading the quotes, I can see the influence. Thank you Maya Angelou for this one:

 “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Interview for Beautifully Said Magazine (2012)

  •  Did you know that Maya Angelou tweeted? Her final Tweet was: “Listen to yourself and in that quietude you might hear the voice of God.”

May you rest in peace. Your voice, and debut, will live with us forever.


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