Archive for the ‘Memoir’ Category

Imperfect Harmony

Author Stacy Horn

Author Stacy Horn

Imperfect Harmony is Stacy Horn‘s memoir about singing in an amateur choir. The choir has added depth and meaning to Horn’s life. But this book is much more than that. It is also a brief history of choral singing. Horn touches on the lives of the composers of great choral music, and much of that is fascinating. There are also very interesting passages on the research which has shown the benefits that music, and singing in particular, has for people.

Horn sings with The Choral Society, which is associated with Grace Church in New York City. The Choral Society is one of the premiere amateur musical groups in the city. As part of her well-documented research for this book, Horn has interviews fellow choir members, as well as the choir director and the associate director. All have a unique perspective on choral singing and on The Choral Society.

Grace Church is an old, established Episcopal congregation. Most interesting to me in this book is Horn’s exploration of the dichotomy between her non-belief and the inspiration she receives from performing some of the most religious choral works written.

I really enjoyed reading Imperfect Harmony. As an amateur musician myself, I feel that Horn did a masterful job in explaining how being part of a musical group can enhance one’s own life. I play in a community band, and every year I look forward to that first e-mail with our rehearsal and performance schedule.

Many thanks to LibraryThing Early Reviewers for sending me this book!


Published in softcover-Algonquin Books-2013

Imperfect Harmony: Finding Happiness Singing with Others


The Fortune Teller’s Kiss

Author Brenda Serotte

Author Brenda Serotte

Brenda Serotte has penned a moving memoir of her childhood in the Bronx. The title refers to her paternal grandmother, Nona Behore, renowned for her skill in reading fortunes in Turkish coffee grounds.

Serotte’s childhood was dominated by her bout with polio. Despite participating in a clinical trial of the vaccine, Serotte contracted polio in the late summer of 1954, the last U.S. epidemic of this terrible disease. Prior to contracting polio, young Brenda had a difficult relationship with her mother; being a “polio” did not help. And much of the focus of this book is Brenda’s relationships with her family. She adored her handsome father. She had close relationships with many relatives which were formative for her.

Brenda recalls fondly her early years growing up near the Grand Concourse. Although her Sephardic Jewish family had little to do with their Ashkenazic neighbors, Brenda had friends of all religions and ethnicities. Until she contracted polio, Brenda was a happy, outgoing little girl.

Months in the hospital and in rehab separated Brenda from her friends, and she poignantly describes the shunning she receives from her former friends upon her return to the family home.

My only quibble with this book is that it could use a better editor. Some of the writing seems awkward. Numerous times I had to flip back a few pages to see who or what Serotte was writing about.


Published in hardcover-University of Nebraska Press-2006
Softcover edition-University of Nebraska Press-2012

The Fortune Teller’s Kiss (American Lives)

Jujitsu Rabbi and the Godless Blonde

Author Rebecca Dana

Author Rebecca Dana

Jujitsu Rabbi and the Godless Blonde is billed as a “true story” by author Rebecca Dana, formerly a senior correspondent for The Daily Beast. Dana tells the tale of a rather dark and confusing time in her life. Forced from her  Manhattan apartment by a breakup with her boyfriend, she resorts to Craigslist to find a place to live. Dana ends up in Crown Heights, Brooklyn renting a room from Cosmo, a Russian emigre.

Cosmo had trained as a Rabbi at a seminary of the Chabad Lubavitcher  sect. He is having a crisis of faith, and is working at a copy shop shop in Brooklyn awaiting his green card. He is also becoming a serious student of jujitsu.

Dana is a non-practicing Jew, and is astounded to find herself living in the center of ultra-Orthodox Judaism in America. She is in her late 20’s and is really floundering in her life in general. She came to New York after college to live the lifestyle of Carrie Bradshaw (from Sex and the City, in case you’ve been living under a rock). All her relationships (friends, boyfriends, workmates) are shallow and self-centered.

So-here she is. Living a split existence between her high style, high living Manhattan work life, and her rodent infested room in Brooklyn. Dana is so numbed by her breakup she doesn’t seem to mind the long commute or the odd neighborhood she has chosen.

Jujitsu Rabbi is a quick and easy read. Unfortunately, I think too many people are writing memoirs today. And a self-centered, immature 27 year old does not have the most interesting life experiences. Dana just bounces from one experience to another, and rarely seems to learn anything from either her errors or successes. This book is an unimportant piece of fluff.

Once again, though, I have to thank the LibraryThing Early Reviewer for sending this on to me.


Published in hardcover-Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam-2013

Jujitsu Rabbi and the Godless Blonde: A True Story

My Father’s Paradise

Author Ariel Sabar

Author Ariel Sabar

Ariel Sabar was raised in Los Angeles, the son of an immigrant father and an upper middle class American mother. As a child, he was embarrassed by his father. Yona Sabar drove an old car, wore clothes that were, at best, unfashionable, and, in general, was confounded by modern American life. Yona was a professor of Semitic languages at UCLA; most of  the parents of Ariel’s classmates were in the entertainment business.

Despite attending a Jewish day school, Jewish summer camps, and regularly visiting relatives in Israel, Ariel wanted nothing more than to escape his Jewish family and, especially, his immigrant father. He attended college in New England, and made a life for himself there. He married, and worked as a journalist for the Providence Journal and then the Baltimore Sun.

Ariel eventually became curious about his father’s past. How did this man, who was born in 1938 to a Jewish family in a tiny village in Iraqi Kurdistan, end up as a well-liked and distinguished professor at UCLA? And so begins the story of My Father’s Paradise. This memoir is about the extraordinary life of  Yona Sabar, but also of Ariel’s personal journey to discover and honor his father.

In 1950, shortly before the Iraqi Jews were all allowed to renounce their citizenship and emigrate to Israel, Yona became the last boy to become a  Bar Mitzvah in Zakho, not far from the Turkish border. His family (then known as Sabagha) left with others of their village and were settled by the Israelis in a squalid camp in Jerusalem. They speak Aramaic, as the Kurdish Jews had for centuries. The Kurds are discriminated against in Israel, and the family finds life difficult and confusing.

As the eldest child, Yona works his way through high school, then Hebrew University. He hopes to become a physician, but his grades are not good enough. An encounter with a professor of linguistics sets him on his life’s path-to record and preserve the oral Aramaic language of his ancestors.

This memoir is detailed, personal and moving. Yona’s story is a remarkable one, a combination of serendipity, perseverance, and love of family and culture. It was not always a compelling read, but is is definitely worthwhile.


Published in hardcover-Algonquin Books-2008
Softcover edition-Algonquin Books-2009

Yona Sabar

Yona Sabar

My Father’s Paradise: A Son’s Search for His Family’s Past

The Memory of All That

Katharine Weber
Photo by Marion Ettlinger

Having previously read Katharine Weber’s moving novel Triangle, I was thrilled to receive this book from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. The Memory of All That is a memoir of Weber’s family. Or, to be specific, the family’s legacy of infidelities, many of which occurred on a grand scale.

Weber’s grandfather was James Warburg, of the  international banking family. Her grandmother was Kay Swift, the talented composer, pianist and arranger. Swift worked with George Gershwin for many years, and was involved with him romantically for ten years, until his untimely death in 1937. Swift had divorced Warburg to be with Gershwin, and this involved leaving her three daughters in the care of their father. Swift and Warburg’s middle daughter, Andrea, was Weber’s mother.

Weber’s father was Sidney Kaufman. Sidney and Andrea married in 1948 when he was 38 and she was 26. They had two children; Weber’s brother was born in 1951 and she was born in 1955. Weber was named for her grandmother Kay, and they shared a special bond that lasted until Swift’s death in 1993.

Sidney Kaufman remained a mystery to his wife and children for most of their lives, and the Memory of All That delves into the mysteries and fabrications surrounding Kaufman. Kaufman was, peripherally, in the movie business. Although he had aspirations to be a producer, the only verifiable film work he actually did was to insure completion bonds.

Kaufman disappeared from his family’s home in Forest Hills, Queens for days, weeks, or months at a time. The family did not know know where he was, or when he would return. As it turns out, he was seriously involved with a number of other women throughout his marriage to Andrea. For her part, Andrea put up with this poor treatment. Although she herself was a talented photographer, and also had income from the Warburg family, she never considered leaving Sidney.

Being from New York, and being very close in age to Weber, I find her memories of her early years accurate and evocative of the place and time. Although the book is based on her own family, she has not relied so much on family stories and memories. She has done a tremendous amount of research into her own family history. Where the book falls short, in my opinion, is where Weber tries to give some explanation or motivation to someone’s actions. She clearly cannot know what was in someone’s mind at a certain point in time, and the conclusions feel contrived and condescending.

Overall, I do recommend this book. It is well researched, and well written. Weber’s family is interesting and intriguing. Much has been written about the Warburg family and of course about George Gershwin, but this is a new and interesting take on these grand personalities.


Published in hardcover-Crown-2011
Softcover edition-Broadway Paperbacks-2012

The Memory of All That: George Gershwin, Kay Swift, and My Family’s Legacy of Infidelities

The Invisible Wall


This photo  shows the author Harry Bernstein as a child. He is seated on his mother’s lap, surrounded by his siblings. Bernstein’s memoir, The Invisible Wall, begins when he was four years old, about the time this photo was taken.

Harry was raised in the English mill town of Stockport. His father worked in a tailor shop, while his mother struggled to feed, clothe, and educate their children. Much of his father’s meager salary went for his drinking and gambling, and the family was poorer than most. The family were observant Jews, whose life revolved around the Sabbath and Holy Days.

The street the family lived on was populated with similar families. The Jews lived on one side of the street, and the Christians lived on the other. Down the middle of the street runs the “invisible wall” of the title. Except for attending the same schools and frequenting each others’ shops, the Christians and Jews had little to do with one another. When one Jewish girl fell in love with an unsuitable Christian boy, her family shipped her off to a relative in Australia. While there was some animosity between the two sides of the street, the families mostly co-existed in an uneasy peace.

Life changes, however, during the Great War. The families rely on each other for news of the war and of their sons. All mourn when a son is killed or wounded.

When the soldiers return from the War, the budding relationship between Harry’s sister Lily and the Christian neighbor Arthur Forshaw blossoms. Harry becomes Lily’s co-conspirator in her trysts with Arthur.

There are many poignant scenes in The Invisible Wall. This memoir reminded me of Angela’s Ashes. The ignorance and poverty of both families was strikingly similar, but The Invisible Wall was much more focused on the relationships between the Christians and Jews than the fact of the poverty.

This book tells a very sad, but true story. As in Angela’s Ashes, the redemption comes from the author’s successful life in America, a stark contrast to its meager beginning.


Published in hardcover-Ballantine Books-2007
Softcover edition-Ballantine Books-2008

The Invisible Wall: A Love Story That Broke Barriers

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

In the last few months, there has been extensive buzz  about Amy Chua’s  Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. People seem furious over her methods of “Chinese” mothering.  She is very strict with her children. They must get only A’s in school. She allows no sleepovers or play dates, and requires hours of piano or violin practice daily, in addition to tutoring in Mandarin. To many “Western” parents, she seems like an ogre.

The critics of Chua’s child-rearing techniques clearly have not read this book. In it, Chua admits her errors, particularly with her younger daughter. And her daughters seem to be happy, successful, caring young women.

Most important of all, this book is a memoir. It does not pretend to be a child-rearing manual or a manifesto on the best child-rearing technique. And as a memoir is funny, well-written and interesting. I definitely recommend this book very highly!


Published in hardcover-Penguin Press-2011

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

Cocaine’s Son: A Memoir

This new book by the New York Times culture writer David Itzkoff is actually part memoir/part rant. Itzkoff writes of the trials of growing up the son of a prosperous fur merchant, who also happens to be a cocaine addict. While an excellent provider for his wife and two children, Gerald Itzkoff was not a fatherly figure. He was rarely home and when he was, he was either high or coming down from a high.

Dave’s rebellion against his father took the form of becoming a heavy drug user himself. While criticizing his father for his drug-induced absences from his life, Dave coasts through Princeton and early adulthood in a fog of marijuana and other drugs. Eventually Gerald is clean and sober (although we have no idea how and when that happened) and he and Dave attempt to reconcile. They try couples therapy and shared activities. Eventually Dave begins interviewing Gerald about his early life and how it led to his drug addiction.

Notably absent from this memoir is much about Dave’s mother. She appears to have been a serious drug user herself, but she escapes the blame for Dave’s confused and sad childhood. Also absent is any true emotion. I did not have any of the expected feelings of empathy, sadness or anger I would expect from hearing this tale. I suspect much is being held in reserve for the next book!

That said, Cocaine’s Son is fairly interesting and well-written. Thanks once again to the LibraryThing Early Reviewer Program for sending me this book.


To be published in hardcover-January 2011-Random House

Cocaine’s Son: A Memoir

A Supremely Bad Idea

The complete title of this charming memoir by Luke Dempsey is A Supremely Bad Idea: Three Mad Birders and Their Quest to See it All.  This book tells the story of Dempsey and two friends who travel the United States trying to see as many different species of birds as they can.

Along the way they stay in scary motels, meet scarier people, and see many beautiful sights. Under the tutelage of his friends “Don and Donna Graffiti”, Dempsey develops into an avid and knowledgeable birder (not a birdwatcher). A transplanted Englishman, Dempsey also develops a love and appreciation for the United States  and its spectacular natural beauty.

Dempsey generously shares his emotions with the reader: his loneliness; his glee at spotting a rare bird; his gratitude towards his friends; and his fear at confronting the various miscreants they meet on their journeys. Dempsey’ s self-deprecating humor keeps this book from being overly sentimental and mawkish.

I guess the biggest compliment I can give this book is that I went outside and looked for some birds.  And there was a turkey in my yard! So-read and enjoy. I received a copy of this book from the LibraryThing Early Reviewer program. Thanks!


Published in hardcover-Bloomsbury 2008
Softcover edition-Bloomsbury-2009

A Supremely Bad Idea: Three Mad Birders and Their Quest to See It All

Julie & Julia

OK-I’m blogging about a movie, which is based on a book which is based on a blog which is based on another book-got it? Anyway, Julie & Julia is a lovely Nora Ephron movie with a great soundtrack.  Starring Meryl Streep and Amy Adams, it’s quite a good movie.

In 1961, after years of studying and teaching cooking, and years of revisions, Julia Child, Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle published Mastering the Art of French Cooking. This was a groundbreaking cookbook which introduced Americans to gourmet home cooking. This book led, eventually, to Julia Child’s cooking show for PBS, The French Chef. For those who have never seen the real Julia in action, take a look at her introduction to her roast chicken show.

In 2002, self-described “government drone”, and aspiring writer, Julie Powell decided to tackle all the recipes in Mastering the Art of French Cooking. She planned on cooking over 500 recipes in one year, and blogging about her efforts.

Meryl Street gives a stellar performance as Julia Child. We see the pleasure she takes in her cooking, and in sharing her knowledge with others. Amy Adams is not an actress of the same caliber. She gives a competent performance as Julie Powell. She is best showing the frustrations of Julie’s every day working life.

I thoroughly enjoyed Julie & Julia. However, if you don’t get a chance to see it in theaters, it will be just as good on DVD.

Julie & Julia (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)