Tag Archives: debut memoirs

Books that Made Me Cry

I’ll never forget the experience of reading Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. The book made me cry while flying on a transatlantic flight from New York to London. I’m not someone who cries easily in public, it probably helped that most of the people around me were asleep and could not see the tears quietly streaming down my face, but this book is such a powerful story of love, loss and grief that I cried through most of it.

When I finished The Year of Magical Thinking, and for many years after, I never thought I would read another book that addressed the same topics with such grace, but I have now read two other memoirs about love and loss that rival Didion’s classic. And they are both debuts.

Last year, I read and wrote about Elizabeth Scarboro’s My Foreign Cities. Some of you might remember this review. The book tells the story of her love for a man who had cystic fibrosis. Liz met Stephen in high school, where the book begins, but they do not commit to each other until after college when she moves to San Francisco to be with him.

So in her early 20s, Scarboro chooses to love, and live with, a man who will likely not live past 35. That set up is enough make my heart flutter for her bravery. But add to it that Scarboro’s writing is so open, and honest, by the end of the book I felt like I was her friend, as if she was telling the story just to me. I cried when Stephen went to the hospital and I cried when she knew she was going to lose him. But through the tears, I felt hope. Scarboro told a tragic story that was also a testament human resilience, to our ability to keep going when times are tough and to do everything we can to keep those we love alive.

And now there is Elizabeth Alexander’s The Light of the World, a memoir about the loss of her husband. I will provide a full review next week, but if you have not heard of this book yet, it is another beautiful portrait of love and loss. Alexander explores what happens when we deeply connect with someone and what happens when that person dies, suddenly, at the age of 50.

Love and loss are tearjerkers, but each of these authors has an openness to write about their emotions that I find inspiring. I aspire to have as much courage as they do to put their experiences out in the world so openly and vividly. How about you? What books have made you cry?


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My Foreign Cities: A Memoir, by Elizabeth Scarboro


My Foreign Cities: A Memoir

By Elizabeth Scarboro

Liveright, 2013

304 pages

This debut memoir is a moving love story—chronicling a young woman in love with a man who has a chronic, life-threatening disease.

Liz and Stephen date in high school, where the book begins, but they go off to different parts of the country for college. Their connection perseveres, and although Liz dreams of living overseas after college, instead she moves to San Francisco to be with Stephen. Stephen has cystic fibrosis (CF); chances are slim he will live past 35. If she does not move towards him at this point in her life, she might not get another chance. Travel will be there later. And so they grow up together, in the Bay Area and Boston, and Scarboro does a masterful job chronicling both their love and the challenges of living with, and loving someone, with CF. Although Stephen lives a fairly “normal” life, he struggles with his health and shortly after Liz moves to San Francisco both of his lungs collapse. She deftly recounts Stephen’s stays in the hospital, consultations with doctors and what it means to consider a lung transplant. Together they go through the ups and downs of his disease, and even when life is stable, Stephen is in so much pain that he eventually becomes addicted to painkillers. Through it all, they make a life together.

This is sad story, but Scarboro beckons the reader into her life and heart in such an open way that by the end of the book I felt like she and Stephen were my friends, and I fought back the tears as I knew his end was near. This story is also a window into human hope, the resiliency of the human heart, and what we will do to stay alive, and keep our loved ones alive. And although this is at times a difficult read, and possibly not for those who have any kind of medical anxiety, I was completely drawn in to this beautiful book.

Scarboro has published novels for children and continues to live in the Bay Area. Library Journal listed My Foreign Cities as one of the best memoirs of 2013 and the SF Chronicle put it on their top 100 list for 2013. She recently published an essay in the Huffington Post about being a widow.

I downloaded this book and read it on my Kindle. Thanks to JW for telling me about this amazing memoir!





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Top debuts of 2013….

So the end of year lists are out…I like perusing the lists to see the range of books called “best,” and to find titles I had not read about yet this year.

Flavorwire has a list devoted to best debut novels, and it includes more experimental, off the beaten path, books. Two I noted, and have been recommended to me by friends, are:

In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods, by Matt Bell. A mystical, slightly experimental, novel about a couple who move to a house on a lake where they hope to raise a family, but things do not unfold as planned. The book has been noted for its moving prose and memorable language.

Elect H. Mouse State Judge, by Nelly Reifler. With mice as the main characters this book is meant to be genre-bending noir, where two girls are kidnapped and rescued by doll private detectives. At a mere 112 pages it is described as a quick and kooky read.

Over at The Daily Beast, Adelle Waldman’s, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. gets acknowledged as best debut of the year. This book explores the psyche of a modern urban male, living in New York, who has to make a choice between a handful of women he is dating. It can be found on quite a few “best of” lists.

The Wall Street Journal’s “Best Fiction of 2013” list features six debuts out of its ten picks!  They featured some books that have been widely written about like, The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton, and Ghana Must Go, by Taiye Selasi, but Bogotá, by Alan Grostephan, a novel about family who migrates into the slums of Bogota, and Wash, by Margaret Wrinkle, a novel about slave breeding, are less well-known picks.

And in the memoir category, Jesmyn Ward’s, Men We Reaped, got mention on New York Magazine’s “10 Best” list. This book tells the story of five African-American men, including the author’s brother, who died in the early naughts in the Mississippi town Ward is from.

I hope you all find something to read over the new year, whether you’re picking up a new author or returning to one you love.





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A Hundred Thousand White Stones, by Kunsang Dolma

Hundred Thousand_1

A Hundred Thousand White Stones

By Kunsang Dolma

Wisdom Publications, 2013

256 pages

This memoir is a look at life in Tibet, and a Tibetan woman’s journey to the United States.

Growing up in Tibet in the 1980s, Kunsang Dolma was one of eight kids in a dysfunctional family. She went to elementary school for a few years before she dropped out to pitch in at home. After an adolescent trauma, Kunsang becomes a Buddhist nun and eventually flees her family and home for life in India, where over the course of six years she loses contact with her family, and meets and falls in love with an American man, Evan. Together they decide to get married so that Kunsang can come to the U.S, where she eventually settles in Maine. Once a U.S. citizen Kunsang is able to finally return to Tibet with Evan and their two children. She is reunited with her family after not seeing them for over ten years.

This is a moving book. I was particularly drawn to the early pages, when she writes of her life in Tibet, and the customs and ceremonies of that culture. Her overland trek from Tibet into Nepal was riveting and while I knew she would eventually make it, there were times when I wondered if they would. However, Dolma writes in a simple voice, which might not appeal to all readers, and the middle of the book revolves around the story of how she got a visa to come to the U.S. from India. This attempt, which took months, sounded real, but the book dragged for me in those pages. However, I was engaged again when she got to the U.S., especially during her first few months, which she spent in Colorado, where she struggled to find her way in a culture so different from any she had experienced before. In particular, she writes about how in the U.S. our social life is planned and scheduled, unlike in India, where people would drop by or gather locally. I recommend this book to someone who is interested in Tibet or in an immigrant story, which is a long and complicated journey from a small Tibetan village to Maine.

Dolma and her family still live in Maine. The book’s blog includes photos from her life and deleted scenes from the book.

I received an ebook copy of this book from the publisher via Net Galley.




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Fast Times in Palestine, by Pamela Olson


Fast Times in Palestine

By Pamela Olson

Seal Press, 2013

320 pages

In this memoir, a year after college, and after studying Arabic on her own, Pamela Olson travels to the Middle East with a friend. Unsure of her exact itinerary, she begins in Egypt and ends up in Jayyous, Palestine, where she is taken in by expats and Palestinians. She is so moved by her time in Jayyous that six months after her backpacking trip, she returns to Palestine, this time to live in Ramallah and volunteer for Dr. Mustafa Barghouthi’s presidential campaign. From there, she gets a job with a Palestinian newspaper. Olson’s Arabic develops over time and she gracefully integrates herself into the Palestinian culture, sharing both its beauty and sorrow. She writes about the fun stuff: friendships formed, long chats over tea, and olive picking expeditions, and the hard stuff: check points with long waits, random interrogations, police raids and senseless violence.

I was quickly drawn into this book because Olson is such an open and thoughtful narrator. When she sets off to the Middle East she has little knowledge of the region and frankly shares her ignorance with the reader. Once in Palestine, she connects with the people in Jayyous and becomes mystified by, and drawn into, the injustices she sees in their lives. Olson is a witness and with this book becomes a voice for the voiceless. There are sections of this story that are sad and hard to read, but Olson’s frankness, and sense of humor, kept me engaged. Her story begins as a travel narrative and evolves into an exploration of day-to-day Palestinian life.

Olson lives in New York now and has a blog where you can read more about the book, excluding excerpts that didn’t make it into the published edition.

I received a PDF version of this book from the publisher.





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Two Debut Memoirs

I started this blog with the intention of writing about both debut memoirs and novels, but so far have just written about novels. I’ve started reading a couple memoirs, but often their tone is so much more matter of fact than novels that I find myself less drawn in. I relish the dream of fiction, and sometimes memoirs feel stark in comparison.

That said, one debut memoir that looks very compelling is her by Christa Parravani. It is the story of an identical twin whose sister dies when they are in their twenties. I read the first few pages of the book on my Kindle and was immediately drawn in by the weight of her story and the beauty of the prose. A lovely review of the book was just published on BookForum by Heidi Julavits.

Another memoir that I have read a lot about this spring is Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala. Wave tells the story of the 2004 tsumani in Sri Lanka. Deraniyagala was in Sri Lanka at the time and lost her husband, two children and parents all at once. I noticed the book’s cover in bookstores: Wave

It has been widely reviewed and described as a heart felt and deeply moving story.

Full reviews of some debut memoirs to come this summer!












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