Book jacket image for Slow Noodles by Chantha Nguon

March 14, 2024

Memoir March 2024

Literary luminaries unearth stories of family, food and grief in seven satisfying memoirs.

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Memoirs are expected to be intimate, laying the groundwork for an author’s backstory and how they got to where they are currently. But it is less common for a personal account to be rendered in a way that’s hilarious, clever, profound and poignant at the same time, particularly one with food as its focus.

Geraldine DeRuiter’s If You Can’t Take the Heat: Tales of Food, Feminism, and Fury provides all these elements and more. As the James Beard Award-winning blogger who penned a viral response to celebrity chef Mario Batali’s ill-advised #MeToo “apology” (in which he shared a recipe for cinnamon rolls), DeRuiter is no stranger to writing about culinary escapades. In this meaty series of essays, she travels from her childhood encounters with food to the present day, with many experiences in between that are as entertaining as her gifted voice and knack for description.

Subjects that she covers include religion, teendom, dating and marriage, all the while sharing life lessons that will resonate with many readers. The result is a memoir that is raw, revealing and relatable, with particular attention given to challenges women face in patriarchal society. For example, in a chapter hilariously titled “The Only Thing in My Oven,” she defends her decision not to have children and smartly draws parallels between what others call “maternal instinct” with her desire, since, childhood, to bake. As she explains, “I think a prerequisite to being a parent is that you should want to be one. And there’s a long diatribe here that I could go on about, but simply: parenthood should always be a choice. But baking didn’t feel like a decision. It was a calling.”

Her articulations are sincere and nostalgic, particularly in the story of how she learned about her past and ancestral roots, and how she has processed (and is still processing) what she has discovered. She doesn’t shy away from grappling with childhood trauma, but If You Can’t Take the Heat is by no means depressing. Quite the opposite. DeRuiter’s divulging is comforting and significant to both women and those who have made a similar culinary journey. Readers will find this witty series of vignettes humorous and enlightening.

Geraldine DeRuiter braids her love of food with feminist critique in her hilarious, relatable memoir If You Can’t Take the Heat.

To playwright and performer Susan Lieu, the woman she called M&aacute was “more mystery than mother.” In her deeply moving debut memoir, The Manicurist’s Daughter, Lieu excavates her family history and the painful narratives she’s stubbornly preserved over the years to answer the questions that emerged after her mother’s shocking death in 1996: How can you heal from intergenerational trauma if your family denies its existence?

When Lieu was 11, her family structure collapsed. Lieu’s mother, a dynamic 38-year-old Vietnamese refugee and successful nail salon owner in the Bay Area, went to a plastic surgery clinic for an operation that included an abdominoplasty, or “tummy tuck.” During the procedure, she lost oxygen to her brain, and 14 minutes passed before the surgeon called 911. She spent five days in a coma before flatlining. The surgeon, a white man who didn’t carry liability insurance, had been placed on probation four years before operating on Lieu’s mother, and remained on probation for years after her death. He specifically marketed his services to the Bay Area’s Vietnamese population.

Avoiding displays of grief, Lieu’s family refused to acknowledge the death of her mother, just as they refused to talk about their exodus from Vietnam. The emotional distance between Lieu and her father, who had suddenly become a widower with four children at 42, steadily grew as the years passed. As Lieu navigated adulthood, she struggled to make sense of her mother’s death, and her role as a daughter.

Lieu’s narrative provides a touching tribute to her mother and a probing investigation of destructive beauty standards. With considerable nuance and vulnerability, Lieu carefully deconstructs her own image of her mother as a victim without agency. Her journey to find closure is as vulnerable as an open vein, but eventually leads to a place of acceptance and forgiveness. To feel is to heal, and Lieu’s willingness to embrace emotional honesty, no matter how uncomfortable, is at the heart of The Manicurist’s Daughter.

In her deeply moving memoir, Susan Lieu tries to find closure after her mother’s untimely death.

Until the publication of his raw 2011 memoir, Townie, Andre Dubus III was known exclusively for bestselling novels like House of Sand and Fog. The 18 emotionally generous and beautifully crafted essays in Ghost Dogs: On Killers and Kin are certain to please the fans of this empathetic writer’s fiction and nonfiction.

Though there’s no organizing scheme to Dubus’ book, the themes of money, family and the writing life predominate. He’s the son of esteemed short story writer and teacher Andre Dubus II, who abandoned 10-year-old Andre and his three siblings to the care of a devoted mother who struggled to provide for them throughout their childhood. His life was shadowed for decades by this impoverished past. This comes to bear on his essay “The Land of No,” in which he describes his challenging relationship with a girlfriend who was the beneficiary of a $2 million trust fund. In another essay, “High Life,” he reveals his ambivalence over a few days of profligate spending he indulged in as the organizer of a celebration for his aunt’s 70th birthday in New York City.

That essay also reflects the centrality of deep family relationships in Dubus’ life. He and his wife Fontaine, a dancer and choreographer, have been married since 1989, a union that’s produced three children. “Pappy” is a warmhearted tribute to his maternal grandfather, who introduced Dubus to the virtues of hard physical labor one steamy summer in Louisiana. In “Mary,” he offers an affectionate portrait of his relationship with his mother-in-law, who lived in an apartment at the Massachusetts home Dubus helped build until her death at 99.

Reflective of Dubus’ passion for writing is “Carver and Dubus.” It’s a touching story of the sole encounter between Dubus’ father and one of his literary idols, Raymond Carver, only a few months before Carver’s death in 1988, and at a time when the younger Dubus was emerging as a writer. As a whole, the essays plumb great emotional depths. Strictly speaking, Andre Dubus III’s estimable gift for words may not be in his DNA, but as this book reveals, it’s at the core of who he is as a human being.

Andre Dubus III plumbs emotional depths in his beautifully crafted memoir in essays, Ghost Dogs.

Sasha LaPointe’s 2022 memoir, Red Paint, offered readers a profoundly moving glimpse into trauma and healing through the Indigenous perspective of a Coast Salish punk. Now, in her powerful new collection of personal essays, Thunder Song, LaPointe expands her poetic lens to take in the collective healing needed in a world shaped by colonization, structural racism and a global pandemic. These vibrant essays are grounded in the personal but committed to the political, moving from grief to righteous anger and activism.

The essays in Thunder Song are shaped by the city of Seattle, built on top of the tidal lands that are the ancestral home of the Coast Salish people, and LaPointe’s beloved great-grandmother, a Coast Salish elder committed to preserving Indigenous languages. The central themes are entwined in the titular essay, in which Grandma Vi convinces a composer to write a symphony shaped by the orations of Chief Seattle, who witnessed the sale of Native lands to white settlers.

Like her grandmother, LaPointe believes in the healing power of music for a world in crisis, as seen in her work as a vocalist and lyricist in Seattle-area punk bands. In essays like “Reservation Riot Grrrl,” LaPointe offers a loving but necessary critique of the whiteness of the Seattle music scene. Her attentiveness to the erasure of Indigenous identity and landscape in the region acts as a corrective to colonialist histories of the Pacific Northwest; the essay “Tulips” is a particularly stunning revisionary reading of the flower as settler colonist.

“Swan Creek” and “Basket Woman” suggest that new growth may still emerge from the ruins of loss and violence. In the former, LaPointe’s sensitive meditation on miscarriage twines individual grief with creative expression, while her focus on the thousands of missing and murdered Indigenous women in the latter expresses a communal need for all Native women to believe themselves worthy of safety.

Thunder Song proves LaPointe is a dynamic emergent voice in Native arts and letters, arguing that collective art and activism, powered by love, among Indigenous peoples around the globe is the medicine this planet needs.

Read our interview with Sasha LaPointe on Thunder Song.
Thunder Song is an essay collection full of sensitive meditations and powerful observations from Coast Salish author Sasha LaPointe.

After Sloane Crosley’s apartment is burglarized, she’s unmoored. The thief stole handfuls of jewelry that once belonged to Crosley’s grandmother—a cruel woman whom she didn’t like, Crosley’s mom reminds her. But the jewelry was Crosley’s, and she wants it back. She also wants the sense of safety that fled with the burglar as he exited her bedroom window and descended the fire escape onto Manhattan streets. That isn’t so easy to recover, so instead Crosley channels her uncertainty into detective work.

Crosley wrestles with her feelings about the burglary, writing, “Grief is for people, not things.” And on the one-month anniversary of the incident, her grief finds a new object. Her best friend, Russell, dies by suicide. If the burglary unmoored Crosley, Russell’s death sends her out to sea.

In her memoir Grief Is for People, Crosley attempts to write her way through the five stages of grief, which provide the book’s structure. Russell’s death trumps Crosley’s missing jewelry, but the two incidents are intertwined in both her psyche and her experience. She and Russell—a former boss from when she worked in book publishing—would spend hours at flea markets in search of treasures. The spice cabinet the jewelry was taken from was one of Russell’s finds, and a missing ring was one of the identifying factors Russell noted on Crosley’s resume during her job interview (“Long brown hair. Square ring”).

Crosley’s work is often praised for its humor, whether in her essay collections (I Was Told There’d Be Cake, How Did You Get This Number) or novels (Cult Classic, The Clasp). But Grief Is for People places at the forefront a remarkable willingness to face the dark questions that follow a suicide. Crosley began writing one month after Russell’s 2019 death in an attempt to convince herself that he was really gone (a conclusion she accepts, inconveniently, during the COVID-19 pandemic). Her search for acceptance is an impulse that readers who have mourned a loved one may recognize—an effort to map a new emotional landscape on what looks, to a non-mourner’s eye, like the same old world.

In Grief Is for People, Sloane Crosley shows a remarkable willingness to face the dark questions that follow a suicide.
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After fleeing Cambodia during the brutal regime of Pol Pot, Chantha Nguon spent decades in increasingly desperate poverty, first in urban Vietnam, then the squalor of Thailand refugee camps and finally in the malarial jungles of Cambodia. Through it all, Nguon relied on the delicious food of her childhood for comfort. In her heartbreaking, exquisitely told memoir, Slow Noodles: A Cambodian Memoir of Love, Loss, and Family Recipes, Nguon tells her story with co-author Kim Green.

At the end of each chapter, Nguon shares a recipe; some are delicious and intricate (sour chicken lime soup, village style), others bittersweet (silken rebellion fish fry or as Nguon’s subtitle calls it, “How to Make Unfresh Fish Taste Rather Delicious”). Most of these she learned sitting in her prosperous childhood kitchen, watching her mother and older sister create magical dishes they shared with their less wealthy neighbors.

That generosity got Nguon through her years in exile. She writes of sharing resources when she had so few, and making friends who would find and carry each other again and again. In the Thai refugee camps, where Nguon and others waited years for even an interview, they found a chosen family. “We refugees had nothing,” she writes, “but many of us drew close, and found ways to ease one another’s suffering. . . . Here in camp, we were all poor and full of loss. Often, that united us.”

Throughout Slow Noodles, Nguon returns to that theme: loss and despair giving way to strength. While this is a war memoir, it also is ultimately a story of hope. Despite the decades of horror the Khmer Rouge inflicted on millions of Cambodians, Nguon infuses her memoir with a spirit of persistence and defiance. Even in the face of evil, she continued cooking her childhood dishes, speaking her childhood language and slowly, slowly making her way home again.

“When you have nothing, weakness can destroy you,” Nguon writes. “No one would carry me out of the jungle. I would have to carry myself.”

In her memoir, Slow Noodles, Cambodian writer Chantha Nguon survives the terror of the Khmer Rouge and keeps her family recipes intact.

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