Memoir Roundup

Reviewed by Jane Ciabattari
Sunday, November 2, 2008

SCATTERSHOT My Bipolar Family By David Lovelace | Dutton. 292 pp. $24.95

Imagine a family where bipolar illness is the norm. David Lovelace and his father, mother and brother all struggle with the opposing poles of "night sickness" and "bright blindness." Only his sister has been spared. In his memoir, Lovelace interweaves descriptions of the numbing despair and thrumming hypomania of the illness with images from his upbringing by religious parents. His father, a Princeton-trained theology professor considered too eccentric for the ministry, taught at a fundamentalist seminary in Massachusetts. His mother experienced lengthy postpartum depression each time she gave birth and was tormented by paranoid fantasies as she grew older. Episodes of madness were so common that the family dubbed them the "whim-whams." Lovelace was a teenager when his first paralyzing depression hit; he was in college when he first became manic.

The family discovered lithium in 1986. The drug can be a lifesaver, but also a poison; his father nearly killed his mother with overdoses. Lovelace details the temptations of going off the mood-stabilizer, which deprives him of the "fluidity of thought, the expansive, even beautiful, mind that hypomania brings." At times, both father and son have been driven back into the extremes of mania and suicidal depression. This family story is helped immensely by the author's empathy for all involved (including his wife, children and friends) and by his poetic descriptions of emotional states most of us cannot imagine.

THE ROAD OF LOST INNOCENCE By Somaly Mam with Ruth Marshall | Spiegel & Grau. 193 pp. $22.95

Somaly Mam fights the trafficking of women and children in Asia, activism triggered by her own experience with forced prostitution, a horrifying tale she tells in The Road of Lost Innocence.

An orphan, Mam spent her early years with her maternal grandmother in the forests of northeast Cambodia among the Phnong ethnic minority. Foraging in the woods, taking shelter with neighbors, she was safer than most during the brutal Khmer Rouge regime. (Between 1975 and 1979, one in five Cambodians died from starvation, execution or forced labor.) But by age 9, she had become an indentured servant for an older man whom she called "grandfather." He took her to Vietnam and later sold her into prostitution to cover his gambling debts.

Mam's descriptions of her years in the brothel are chilling. She was regularly gang raped, beaten and punished by having buckets of live maggots dumped on her. She escaped at last, married and became a mother. But the terrors of her past haunted her. In 1996, with her husband, she founded an organization to help Cambodian girls forced into sex slavery. As her work became known, it extended to Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.

Since then, Mam has risked her life and her family's safety to rescue the growing number of children as young as 5 who have been victimized by the sex industry. In The Road of Lost Innocence, she writes of corrupt government officials and police who allow the illegal businesses to thrive. Her account inspires outrage. "How did Cambodia get to be this way?" she writes. "Three decades of bombing, genocide, and starvation and now my country is in a state of moral bankruptcy."

UNPACKING THE BOXES A Memoir of a Life in Poetry By Donald Hall | Houghton Mifflin. 195 pp. $24

Donald Hall (pictured below) the U.S. poet laureate from 2006 to 2007, offers a plainspoken memoir revolving around landmarks of his literary life. The title refers to dozens of boxes Hall took from his mother's home when she died in 1994, at 90. When he at last opened them after many years, he writes, "my childhood rose like a smoke of moths." The memories are vivid, sometimes pained. Ridiculed by an Exeter English teacher who mockingly read Hall's poems out loud in class, he discovered "the power of outrage and the motive of revenge." Eight years later, this English teacher introduced Hall when he returned triumphantly to read from his first book. Hall downplays the delight, but it's there.

Hall retains the freshness of discovery as he writes of his first poem (he was 12, and poetry was "secret, dangerous, wicked, and delicious"); his first rejections (at 14); and his first publication (at 16, he published "Scythe Mowing" in a magazine called Trails). He ends with good-humored insights into the "thin air of antiquity's planet" he inhabits at the age of 80.

THE BOOKMAKER A Memoir of Money, Luck, and Family From the Utopian Outskirts Of New York City By Michael J. Agovino | Harper. 353 pp. $24.95

Michael Agovino brings a gift for capturing urban sounds and symbols and a keen sense of shifting social status to his memoir of growing up in the Bronx. In the early 1970s, his mother, a Brooklyn girl from Bushwick, and his father, who was raised in East Harlem and worked for the welfare department, were among the first to move into Co-Op City in the Bronx -- Robert Moses's "working class utopia," already termed "relentlessly ugly" by Time magazine. " I hated it. I absolutely hated it. My mother hated Co-op City," Agovino writes. In this, the most effective element of the memoir, he embeds italicized riffs within the narrative, giving the impression of an overheard conversation.

Agovino's father had a sideline business as a gambler and bookmaker. When times were flush, the family traveled to Italy, Puerto Rico, Portugal, Morocco, Las Brisas and Geneva. When his dad's luck was off, the family endured bounced checks, eviction notices and fears of bankruptcy. Agovino devotes a bit too much attention to commonplace boyhood rituals: baseball, soccer, school. He is at his best when he focuses on his family's considerable idiosyncrasies: "The only thing my parents agreed on was psychotherapy, what a sham it was, a racket. . . . People are looking for answers; sometimes in life there are no answers."

MY NAME IS NUMBER 4 A True Story of the Cultural Revolution By Ting-Xing Ye | Thomas Dunne. 230 pp. Paperback, $11.95

Ting-Xing Ye was barely 14, an orphan with four siblings (she is named for her place in the birth order), when she saw her first "big character" posters: "Suspend classes to make revolution!" and "Long Live the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution!" It was the spring of 1966. The Red Guard was purging schools and universities; by August, Ye writes, "Mao Ze-dong had unleashed a violent windstorm that would engulf me and my siblings because we had been born to a capitalist father and mother who were no longer around to be attacked." Her story, told with little embellishment, covers her years of "education and reform" in Shanghai and her years of hard labor after she was "sent down" to a labor camp called the Da Feng Farm.

The rigors of farm life -- converting cotton fields to rice paddies by hand, harvesting and threshing -- were made more onerous by other torments. Ye ran afoul of the "red face . . . white face," or good cop, bad cop, team that oversaw her brigade. They put her through "struggle sessions" and weeks of torture by sleep deprivation until she wrote a fake confession implicating her only friends. She was denied visits home and sentenced to prison. The mounting set of obstacles called forth a courage and fortitude that are likely the intended lessons for this book's young adult audience, as is her persistence, which is highlighted when her determination to learn English became her path back into the world.

Jane Ciabattari is the author of the short story collection "Stealing the Fire" and president of the National Book Critics Circle.

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