Population: 485

Memoir of a small-town First Responder

This is a great example of the way that a book changes, based on you (the reader). I first read Michael Perry's Population: 485 when it was released, way back in 2002. At the time, I had been a city girl all my life, and I still was - I was living in West Seattle, battling traffic across to the eastside every day. It struck me as an interesting look at a wacky small town. An entertaining read, to be sure, but I didn't really connect with the book on a deeper level.

The Kindle version recently came up on sale at Amazon, so I snapped it up, thinking it would be a nice bit of lightweight summer reading. I was genuinely surprised at how different it seemed to me now, a decade later. Partly simply because I have grown older, with a deeper sense of mortality. And partly because I live in a small town, now, too. (Although not as small at Perry's: my town has 891 residents. Almost twice as many as in Perry's town!)

Population:485 is first and foremost the memoir of a First Responder. Perry is a volunteer firefighter, along with his two brothers. His mother is a physician and EMT. When there is trouble in this small Wisconsin town, the Perry folk are on the scene.
The memoir skips between his early days as an EMT and more recent times in the small town he has made his home again. I had some difficulty following the timeline, not that it really matters. The book is essentially a collection of essays of varying lengths, some of them little more than anecdotes. This makes for excellent reading in small moments, although it frustrates any attempt to tease out a larger narrative.
I found myself thinking how many narratives could be written about New Auburn, Wisconsin. 485, at least. But Perry's gives an unusual perspective to small town life: all the ways that things can and do go wrong. The freak accidents, the drunk drivers, the heart attacks and babies that can't wait until they get to the hospital to be born. 
If there are any other memoirs about being a first responder in a small town, I haven't heard of them. It's a unique perspective on small town life, and one which avoids the usual traps of sentimentality (apple pie; open entry parades) while occasionally slipping into others (the delicate line between life and death). It's well worth the read, if only because it will probably convince you to wear your seatbelt at all times.

Skip it, you're not missing anything

Some serious memoir duds

I'm quick to admit that memoir is my favorite genre. Real life is a million times more fascinating than fiction, and memoirs take us to places that even the greatest literary imaginations can't dream up. The real person behind a memoir is always more multi-faceted and complex than any fictional character, and the stories these people have to tell are often more important than anything found in a novel. Yet even the greatest genre has some duds. The following is a list of memoirs you can happily skip. You won't be missing anything. 

Everyone loves Scott Jurek. He's an ultra-running champion, a proud vegan, and... well, he just seems like a really nice guy. In his new memoir Eat & Run, Jurek gives detailed accounts of his impressive ultra-marathon records while crediting his plant-based diet for his victories. He also discusses his upbringing in Minnesota, his determination, and his beliefs about raw food, yoga, and...zzzz... Scott Jurek is a runner, not a writer. He either hired a terrible ghostwriter (which I doubt) or spent the better part of a year talking into a tape recorder for his publisher. The book literally reads like a transcription. There are no real descriptions or imagery. There's not a lot of tension or suspense. Instead of a narrative arc, there's really just a list of Jurek's ultrarunning victories. The monotony is broken up by a few of Jurek's favorite vegan recipes at the end of every chapter, but with a turn of the page it's back to more drudgery. On the positive side, Jurek does have some interesting ideas about veganism and offers some healthy alternatives to the horrific, standard American diet. If you decide not to skip it, then read this memoir to learn something. Just don't expect to be entertained. Let's hope Jurek doesn't quit his day job.

I actually wrote a review of Brave Girl Eating: A Family's Struggle with Anorexia on another website and sent the author a link to what I'd written. The result wasn't pretty. I stand by what I said the first time I reviewed this book. This memoir is one of self-delusion: when a talented writer is blind to her own faults as she pens a memoir, she's able to blind her readers as well. The problem is this simple. Harriet Brown's daughter becomes ill with anorexia; instead of listening to doctors and mental health professionals saying that the disease is not about food, Brown does exactly the opposite and focuses solely on food. Her own existence -- and that of her family -- suddenly becomes one of fixation on her ill daughter's calorie intake. Instead of letting experts do their jobs, Harriet Brown insists that they're all wrong and that her method of refeeding her daughter is the only proper course of action. The outcome is that her daughter puts on weight but continues to relapse. Instead of trying to find another solution, Brown continues to champion her refeeding method, despite the fact that it hasn't succeeded. The book ends on a shaky note of hope, but with no real resolution. That's a frustrating conclusion for any reader who knows that the illness is curable if properly treated. Unless you want to be infuriated, skip this one. 



In the Absence of Sun: A Korean American Woman's Promise to Reunite Three Lost Generations of Her Family is the follow-up to one of the best memoirs ever written, Still Life with Rice. Unfortunately, In the Absence of Sun​ is a colossal failure. ​Still Life with Rice​ was the combined effort of Helie Lee and her grandmother. It recounted the grandmother's life during the last years of a united Korea, and her courageous escape from Pyongyang during the Korean WarThat book is written with emotional depth, beautiful descriptions about a time slipping away, and a country ripped apart by war -- and it accomplishes all of that with dignity, without ever sinking in to bathos. That's a rare thing in this day and age. In contrast, In the Absence of Sun reads like a PMSing California-girl weeping at every turn because Koreans in Asia don't treat her as nicely as Koreans in L.A. It's a conversation. It rambles. It's disorganized and rife with grammatical errors and typos. It takes a story that should be fascinating -- smuggling relatives out of North Korea -- and renders it dull and irritating, leaving one wondering if the two memoirs are indeed by the same author. Skip it. Reread ​Still Life With Rice instead. 


If you have ever been to Italy or have any plans of visiting, save yourself the headache and don't read Four Seasons in Rome. I'll bet you fifty bucks that the author was under a deadline with his publisher and had nothing to submit (probably because he spent too much time daydreaming in Rome instead of writing), so he typed up the pages of his journal from his year abroad and dubbed it a memoir. It's the story of the author making all of the cringe-worthy mistakes of the typical American tourist who has never left home. While Doerr's musings are very poetic and pretty, they're meaningless and disconnected from the plot ... But then again, there isn't any plot; it's just a series of events that have nothing in common and no real place in the story. What's worse? Doerr lacks the self deprecating sense of humor that makes these kind of memoirs work. It's simply a series of mistakes made by a tourist, who never realizes that he's made any gaffe or faux pas because he never stops being a tourist. One of the greatest reviews out there on Four Seasons in Rome ​said it best when he called this book"superficial" and  "a Fabergé egg, a festoon, the rich-and-creamy icing on a cardboard cake." The whole thing is a disaster. Shelve this one. 

So, not all memoirs are perfect. But even with the duds, memoirs are still better than fiction. 

Reader be wary

A few quietly controversial memoirs

If there's one thing that my college classes taught me, it was to remember to be a critical reader. We should never be passive receptacles of material, especially when it comes to reading memoirs. (James Frey reminded us of this point, no?) The following are a few must-read memoirs, but reader beware. Don't lose yourself in the fascinating tales and completely forget the person behind the story. 

Under a Cruel Star, A Life in Prague 1941-1946 is the tragic story of Heda Kovaly, who survived the Holocaust only to face persecution by the Communist government a few years later. Informative, heart-wrenching and ultimately triumphant, you won't find a bad review of this book anywhere. Nor should you. It's an unhappy story told with dignity, eloquence and beautiful writing. But keep in mind one minor detail that Kovaly implies but never says outright: not everyone in post-war Czechoslovakia joined the Communist party. Many brave souls protested against the party and suffered the consequences. Many were persecuted and others lived as permanent dissidents. Many more fled the country. But our author did join the party and was married to one of its top members. While nothing will ever justify what Kovaly her family endured at the hands of the Communists, it is important to remember that she was a part of and benefited from a non-democratic system of government until it turned against her. 

A memoir of her six years of captivity in the Colombian jungle, Even Silence Has an End is easily Ingrid Betancourt's most popular book. Her writing is astoundingly beautiful and much of the prose reads like poetry. Few people will ever have Betancourt's gifts for describing love, hopelessness and reaching the depths of despair while clinging to faith through it all. It's hard not to be swept away by this must-read memoir, but do try to keep your feet firmly on the ground. Don't forget that Betancourt was (and still is) a politician, that all of her former fellow captives have described her book as pure lies, that she sued the very government that rescued her and that she is quite possibly the most loathed figure in Colombia. None of this changes the fact that this is a wonderful read. Just try to remember the whole picture. 

Escape from Camp 14 is an as-told-to memoir about Shin Donghyuk, the only person to have been born in a North Korean prison camp (think modern-day Auschwitz with an Asian twist) and to have escaped with his life. This is not an uplifting read and it offers absolutely no resolution. Escape from Camp 14 is to memoirs what Human Centipede is to film: a lot of gruesomeness and descriptions of torture that make you question just why you chose this particular story.  Yet it does offer some miraculous tales of courage and survival, and it also provides a lot of fascinating facts about life in the Hermit Kingdom. Before you take this book at face value though, remember that Shin Donghyuk's story is impossible to verify and that he's admitted to fabricating parts of his story in the past. 

While none of these memoirs is as extreme in untruths as those by James Frey, Margaret B. Jones or Herman Rosenblat, it's still important to remember that each memoir you read is one person's side of the story. Never assume that you will be given the whole truth. 

Thin Places: A Memoir

There are memoirs that are meant to be funny tell about the humorous experiences in a person’s life and there are those that are thrilling like spies talking about the Cold War. Others are heart felt and meant to inspire people going through similar situation.

Thin Places: A Memoir by Mary DeMuth is one woman’s journey through pain and suffering only to come out unscathed after finding God and religion. DeMuth was an abused latchkey child who spent long hours alone with no one to talk to or be with.

Her life began spiraling out of control and it wasn’t until she found God that everything suddenly became clear. She explores how her life changes after discovering the Lord and encourages people to seek their own path to enlightenment through God. We all have those days, weeks or months where we feel lost and out of control.

Right when something good comes along, it seems something else comes to knock you off your feet. DeMuth shows us that even during our most darkest hour the light of God is there for us. We can reach out and take a hold and find our way out of the darkness. Thin Places: A Memoir tells Mary’s story, but also is a guide on the importance of finding God and salvation and how it can turn your life around. You see the world differently and there is a very bright light at the end of the tunnel. The book makes you want to understand not only yourself more, but God’s glory as well.



Writing The Memoir

Have you ever thought that your life was worthy of a memoir? Have there been events in your life that truly make you unique? Many people would love to write a memoir of their experiences, but they just don't know where to begin.


Where do they start? What voice to the write it in? Do you need to get the permission of anyone in the book? These are all common questions that many people have to deal with, but can't find the answer. Writing the Memoir is one of the leading books on how to turn your life into a story that can inspire.


It answers all your questions on ethics, format, craft and the retrospective voice. There is even an appendix to help with all your legal questions. If you are considering turning your life story into a book, then don't even start the process without reading Writing The Memoir. It could mean the difference between a best seller and book that never even gets to see the store shelves.


Judith Barrington is the author of this amazing tome and is both a writing teacher and a award winning memoir writer. Her writing style is simple and succinct, so you don't get lost in a world full of jargon and difficult concepts. If you have a writing background all ready, then this book will be a breeze to understand, but even without it you will be able to gleam the information that Barrington so expertly sets down.

Gas Drilling and the Fracking of a Marriage

There are countless books on the market about hydrofracking for natural gas, but they are all science-based and have little to do about the impact it has on the people. Fracking companies walk into your town and offer you piles of money to frack your land, but it has impact far beyond monetary.

Stephanie Hamel and her husband were approached by a company looking to allow hydrofracking on their land. That involves infecting high pressure fracking chemicals into the ground so companies can get easier access to natural gas deposits.

Hamel had a Ph.D. in environmental science and knew the dangers of fracking not only for the environment, but also for the people in her community. Her convictions told her to deny it, but there were dollar signs in her eyes. She also knew about special laws that would allow companies to draw offer her land by going through the neighbor.

This way the company still gets her commodity without paying her a dime. While Hamel weighed the decision and talked about it with friends, family and colleagues, the patience of her husband was tested because he had no problem signing the rights as soon as possible.

This is an interesting memoir that is both emotional and light hearted. It shows how something such as fracking can fracture far more than the ground and have a tremendous impact on the people. Hamel struggled with the decision for a long and for every second she waited, her marriage became more and more tumultuous.

Swallow the Ocean: A Memoir

Today, we have barely scratched the surface of mental illness in all of its forms, but in the 1970s it was something to be ashamed of and hidden rather than treated. This is the world Laura Flynn grew up in. When her mother began losing her battle with paranoid schizophrenia, Laura and her siblings did their best to hang on to normalcy while placating their mother's delusions.

Her father left and Laura was forced to live in a world of stage demands and odd notions as her mother slipped further and further in delusion. Most people would have given up or ran away rather than deal with the prospect of life with a mentally ill parent, but Laura and her siblings fought hard to keep their mother in check and find safety as their mother became more violent.


Flynn captures the voice of her child in prose that is dreamy and introspective. She recounts experiences with the innocence of a child, but with the cold realization of an adult. The book is a glimpse of what life is like with someone is mentally ill. Today, her mother would have gotten treatment and understanding from society, but in the 1970s the mental problem was a mystery to scientists and therapists.


Flynn discusses how she and her family survived their mother delusional world to grown up to be stable and happy adults. Life wasn't easy, but their determination to survive in the face of danger makes for an interesting and thrilling read.

Confessions of an Heiress: A Tongue-in-Chic Peek Behind the Pose

When I heard that Paris Hilton had created a memoir, I had no choice but to go out and get it. Did I do this because I was genuinely interested in the life and times of heiress? Not a chance. First of all, I didn't even know she could read.


After hearing her talk and seen some of her court appearances, I didn't think she could carry a thought in her head and after reading Confessions of an Heiress: A Tongue-in-Chic Peek Behind the Pose, I realized that I was right.


While this book is supposed to be funny and offer a glimpse into the life of a person that has never had to work a day in their lives. You'd be surprised at exactly how little she does in a day that is actually meaningful. I have no doubt that she hired someone to write this book for her because I don't she has actually ever seen a keyboard.


If I may make a suggestion to anyone contemplating getting this book, then stop. Don't do it. Once you're stuck in the head of Paris Hilton, you're lost for a good two to three days after. You just walk around like a zombies repeating “That's Hot” over and over again. Save your money and buy something else...anything. If you took the money, then walked out into the street and set fire to before throwing it into the air, then it would be better spent than buying this book.


Can I give a book a review less than zero?

Memoir of a Milk Carton Kid

I've read many inspiring memoirs over the years, but Memoir of a Milk Carton Kid is certainly not one of them. The book is written by Tanya Nicole Kach with her attorney Lawrence Fisher. At a tender 14 years old, Kach was abducted and held prisoner by a security guard from her school.


Initially, she had run away from her broken home and went to Kach for support because thought he was someone she could trust. Instead, she was forced to live in his second story bedroom for 10 years before telling a store clerk she was in trouble.

The story itself is amazingly tragic – the youth and innocence of a young teen stolen. And for that, I'm truly sorry. No one should ever suffer at another person's hand as she did. However, the book is hard to read, not because it is so shocking, but because it's so haphazardly put together and Kach's tone is merciless, even to those that loved and stood by her after her release.


It's hard for me to write a negative review for a book written by a victim of such a heinous ordeal, but the fact of the matter is that it is poorly written and edited, lacks organization and so seeped in bitterness that it's actually hard to empathize with her. Further, the greater part of the book is about the legal end of the situation, rather than Kach's account of what she went through. And because it essentially has two authors, it bounces back and forth and is difficult to follow at times.


Kach survived an indisputable tragedy and my heart goes out to her as she continues to heal. However, as a lover of memoirs and books in general, I would have to say, I wouldn't recommend it to others.

Gwyneth Paltrow: My Father's Daughter

If there's one room in the house that is the hub of family activity, it has to be the kitchen. As a kid, I remember watching my dad make breakfast and grabbing ingredients for my mom. All the while we'd be chatting and catching up on the day. Now that I'm a grown man with a family of my own, the same daily flurry of activity still takes place in our own kitchen. The only difference is that my wife and I are manning the stove and it's our three little boys taking turns tugging on our apron strings.

I think it's this relatable kitchen centered family tradition that draws me to Gwyneth Paltrow's cookbook and mini-memoir, My Father's Daughter: Delicious, Easy Recipes Celebrating Family and Togetherness. Reading passages about the values and loves instilled in her while working alongside her dad in the family kitchen reminds me of my own experiences. Paltrow's love of family and food is quite endearing and as with all her endeavors, she's just as down to earth as you could hope for an actress daughter of celebrity parents to possibly be.


Along with personal stories and insights into Paltrow's family values, there are tons of personal pictures, ideas to involve your kids in food preparation and, of course recipes for simple, but delectable meals, desserts, sides and sandwiches.


If you love hanging out with your family while you're preparing meals, you'll appreciate Gwyneth Paltrow's book. Its clear to see that she was raised in house full of love, as well as good eats.