Sasha Martin intended to publish what’s called a stunt memoir: Do something outrageous — live the Bible for a year, fix typos on road signs, take a “sex break” — then write about it in a memoir (or, perhaps before you get your book contract, on a blog). In Martin’s case, the pitch for the book — and the blog — was “195 recipes, 195 countries, 195 weeks.” Thankfully, her memoir, “Life From Scratch” (National Geographic, $25), is not that book. It has more in common with “The Glass Castle” than it does with “300 Sandwiches: A Multilayered Love Story . . . with Recipes,” though it does include recipes. Born in the late ’70s, Martin grew up playing with her older brother under the kitchen table in a cramped Boston apartment where their mother tried to make ends meet working as a seamstress. (Their “con artist” father had left the scene.) Especially vivid are Martin’s memories of meals, some of which her mother cobbled together using “welfare cheese,” “suspiciously fuzzy bread” and other ingredients disguised in creative recipes such as overnight crepes that masked aging fruit.
Their mother’s eccentric ways — not allowing her children to wear seat belts, for example — eventually caught up with her, and one day Martin and her brother were taken to a foster home. It was the beginning of a protracted battle with the state that her mother finally conceded by giving up her children to longtime friends. The affecting tale that follows — of being raised by a well-meaning but cold, peripatetic family — is lightened by Martin’s plain-spokenness and a steeliness instilled by her mother. “Just keep saying, ‘All is well. All is well,’ ” her mother tells her when she visits briefly after a family tragedy. Throughout, Martin finds strength and comfort in food. In one passage, she tells of baking an elaborate, 21-layer chocolate cake from her mother’s recipe. Creating it “was a sheer exercise in will power” that offered something beyond deliciousness, she explains: the knowledge that “I have kept going.”
Abigail Thomas, too, knows adversity and how to make some kind of joy — if not a dessert — from it. In her bestselling memoir “A Three Dog Life” (2006), she wrote about coping with a terrible accident: One day while her husband was walking the dog, he was hit by a car and suffered a severe brain injury. He died several years later.That book was a lengthy exercise in mindfulness flecked with humor. “I’m okay alone,” she wrote. “I appreciate not being interrupted in the middle of thinking about nothing.” As suggested by the title of her new book, “What Comes Next and How to Like It” (Scribner, $24), this time she’s thinking more about her future. “I want the possibility of change, not change itself,” she writes. Written in short, present-tense episodes, the book is essentially a meditation on aging and family that brings to mind Anne Lamott or Anna Quindlen. Thomas, who has three children, 12 grandchildren and several dogs, offers quick wit and sprinkling bon mots (“My ankles are now my best feature”) amid difficulties (sick children, pets and friends, addictions and lost loves). But her gift is to never ponder too long on life’s woes. As she puts it, “Neurosis is for the young, who think they are made of time.”
For those in need of a “Downton Abbey” fix, Sofka Zinovieff’s “The Mad Boy, Lord Berners, My Grandmother, and Me” (Harper, $35) delivers an entertaining dose of British country life and high-style scandal. Zinovieff’s grandfather was the dashing Robert Heber-Percy, who along with his lover, Gerald Berners, “created an aesthete’s paradise” at Faringdon, their stately home in Oxfordshire. Berners was known for, among other things, dyeing doves in colorful shades and holding elegant dinners with the likes of Gertrude Stein, Igor Stravinsky, Salvador Dali and H.G. Wells. Zinovieff, who now lives at Faringdon, mines her family history in this beautifully illustrated book, focusing on the period in the 1940s when her grandmother, already pregnant, married Percy and came to live with him and Berners. It would be easy to see these three central figures as “caricatures,” Zinovieff writes, but in her well-researched, engaging memoir, she paints a nuanced portrait.
In “Bettyville” (Viking, $27.95), George Hodgman finds himself in a position familiar to many adult children: back at home playing the role of parent to a parent. In small-town Paris, Mo., Hodgman, a semi-employed book editor who’s left behind many demons in Manhattan, faces his past and present with tenderness and bittersweet humor: He calls himself a “care inflictor,” taking his ailing mother to medical appointments and the hairdresser and staying with her to watch “Wheel of Fortune,” “a show we despise so avidly we cannot ever miss it.” Though the particulars of the story are Hodgman’s alone, his tale resonates broadly: “For both of us, finally, I know, these are our final days of home.”
Krug, a contributing editor of Book World, writes monthly about new memoirs.