Foreword Reviews

An Act of Giving


These eight distinct stories range from dialogue-heavy narratives to short-story formats, but each is a sincere gift of life experience and a tale worth telling.

Hail of Fire

A Man and His Family Face Natural Disaster

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Randy Fritz
Trinity University Press
Hardcover $24.95 (320pp)
Buy: Local Bookstore (IndieBound), Amazon

One of the worst wildfires in history hit Texas in 2011, and Randy Fritz was among those who lost his home to the blaze. Rather than a mere account of the fire, Hail of Fire is the story of Fritz and his family, told with the fire as an inciting incident. Writing about the lost home and its contents provides opportunities to write about the family’s move to Texas and the children’s early years.

The uncertainty over the fire’s path lets Fritz write about his neighbors and their stories, and he shares his experiences working in government while writing about the local government’s response to the disaster. Fritz is at his best when he recounts the impact the fire had on his own psyche, with raw reflections on the difficult time he had coping and how his depression became difficult for his family. Ultimately, Hail of Fire is a book about overcoming the family’s loss, how people come together, and how they rebuild their lives.

JEFF FLEISCHER (August 27, 2015)

A Woman Writing

A Memoir in Essays

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Mary Lou Sanelli
Aequitas Books
Softcover $18.00 (250pp)
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A columnist and author of several essay collections, Mary Lou Sanelli writes about everyday life, but does so in a way that feels like a friend sharing stories; it’s the details more than the circumstances themselves that stand out. A Woman Writing includes more than forty essays about a range of subjects—from the author’s bemusement at the concept of a “pet stylist” to her thoughts about how she’s been able to devote her time to writing.

Some of the best essays focus on her experiences as a relative newcomer to Seattle, and how she’s been able to find a community of friends there. Others reflect on the interplay between nature and the city (such as writing about a crow nesting near her home) or look at how relationships change over time (as when Sanelli writes about her mother or her husband). Her style is conversational and thoughtful, and the essays combine to form a memoir about the idiosyncrasies of modern life.

JEFF FLEISCHER (August 27, 2015)

The Haunting of the Mexican Border

A Woman’s Journey

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Kathryn Ferguson
University of New Mexico Press
Softcover $24.95 (240pp)
Buy: Local Bookstore (Bookshop), Amazon

Since the early 1980s, documentary filmmaker Kathryn Ferguson has crossed the border between the United States and Mexico to tell stories, and she recounts those experiences in The Haunting of the Mexican Border. She writes about the logistics of making her films, from scouting locations to finding interview subjects. But the bulk of her book focuses on the people she meets while making those films, including the Raramuri tribe in northwest Mexico, laborers crossing the desert and the border to find work, and migrants caught up in detention centers.

Ferguson shares her own experiences dealing with border security, and the book subtly shows the progression of how the border has become more militarized and more dangerous in the years since her first filming trips to the area. As a documentarian, Ferguson brings a journalistic approach to the material, providing context for the in-the-moment situations she describes, and the book itself provides useful context for the border as a whole.

JEFF FLEISCHER (August 27, 2015)

Nobody’s Girl

A Memoir of Lost Innocence, Modern Day Slavery and Transformation

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Barbara Amaya
Animal Media Group
Softcover $13.95 (245pp)
Buy: Local Bookstore (IndieBound), Amazon

When Barbara Amaya was eleven, she ran away from her suburban Virginia home, where she had been sexually assaulted by both her father and her brother. Her early teen years soon became a nightmare of prostitution, drug addiction, jail time, and dependence on a series of sex traffickers. In Nobody’s Girl, she does an excellent job of capturing how naturally these events follow from one to another, making it easy to trace how she went from a runaway teen to a prostitute relying on an abusive pimp, as each turn builds upon the previous ones. Though written in past tense, her narration style keeps the story in the moment rather than looking back at events, so it reads like a good novel and builds suspense about how this young girl might escape her situation.

The story remains interesting when it covers more recent developments, such as Amaya’s efforts to have a relationship with her parents and her experiences raising a daughter. Telling her story makes Amaya’s current advocacy efforts on behalf of victims even more powerful, and the book is as readable as it is valuable.

JEFF FLEISCHER (August 27, 2015)

Host of Memories

Tales of Inevitable Happenstance

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Peter Rupert Lighte
Acausal Books
Softcover $15.95 (342pp)
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Peter Rupert Lighte is a natural storyteller, and Host of Memories collects short stories from throughout his life to form a memoir. Some of the childhood memories are as simple as searching for supplies for a family gathering or rushing to get home after spending time with friends, but Lighte is able to enhance those experiences with vivid detail and a real sense of how a child would approach those situations. A housesitting gig in graduate school prompts a great yarn about the complicated rituals of the cat who comes with the house.

Lighte conveys how an opportunity to meet a scholar in his field of study had the same impact as meeting a celebrity, and he relays the experience of meeting the actress who played the Wicked Witch of the West during a visit to his mother’s hospital ward. Lighte’s banking career and Chinese language skills take him around the world, but Host of Memories is more concerned with the personal interactions he has throughout his journey, and that approach creates stories that feel relatable no matter how far flung the setting.

JEFF FLEISCHER (August 27, 2015)

Passing on Curves

While Death Rides Shotgun

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Craig McLaughlin
Herne Publishing
Softcover $16.95 (154pp)
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Some of the experiences Craig McLaughlin writes about in Passing on Curves could provide enough material for an entire book. He spent much of his childhood on a farm where his mother’s boyfriend collected jaguars, tigers, monkeys, and other exotic animals, despite an inability to care for them. McLaughlin, a hemophiliac since birth, contracted HIV from a blood transfusion, and his health has been a lifelong struggle. His stories about those two subjects are the best parts of Passing on Curves, which collects essays McLaughlin used for stage performances.

Because of the essays’ original spoken-word purpose and the book’s short length, the best pieces feel like they can use expansion, as the book format would allow even more detail, and sometimes the more everyday stories feel slight when compared to those about the author’s singular experiences. The early stories about the makeshift zoo are particularly memorable, with a real sadness to how a hot-tempered father figure could prove scarier than a loose jaguar. The book could use more of these, because McLaughlin relates them so honestly, with the right mix of emotions. What’s here is good stuff, and unique.

JEFF FLEISCHER (August 27, 2015)

When Europe Was a Prison Camp

Father and Son Memoirs, 1940–1941

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Otto Schrag
Peter Schrag
Indiana University Press
Hardcover $30.00 (328pp)
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This book takes a unique approach to a World War II memoir, combining not only the stories of a father and son, but both men’s years apart writing about the subject. When the Nazis invaded Belgium early in the war, Otto Schrag was arrested and put on a train west, while his wife and young son soon fled in the same direction. When Europe Was a Prison Camp includes the late Otto Schrag’s writing—in the form of a fictionalized memoir about his experiences in one prison camp after another—as well as Peter’s first-person recollections about his escape with his mother. The two perspectives really flesh out the events and the confusion of the time.

Otto’s detailed accounts tell of friends and strangers dealing with the uncertainty of where they’re being sent, whether they should escape, and what to do about disease outbreaks and other awful conditions. Meanwhile, Peter’s writing looks back, contrasting what he understood then as a child and what he has since learned about where they were, the risks his mother took, and how they found his father and emigrated. The dual perspectives are invaluable and create a fresh approach to an important story.

JEFF FLEISCHER (August 27, 2015)

Night People, Book 1

Things We Lost in the Night: A Memoir of Love and Music in the ’60s with Stark Naked and the Car Thieves

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Larry J. Dunlap
Claremont Village Press
Softcover $14.95 (460pp)
Buy: Local Bookstore (Bookshop), Amazon

In the early 1960s, Larry Dunlap made a choice plenty of others have dreamed about—moving out to California to join his friends in a singing group. In Night People, he recounts the early days of trying to make it, when the dreams of stardom give way to subpar apartments, intraband squabbles, and booking second gigs to stay afloat. He describes a difficult visit from his wife during their separation, a gig in which the crowd turns violent, and the band’s tense arguments about firing members.

Dunlap relates much of the story through conversations, and his California journey features a number of memorable characters. The book could stand to be tighter—it sometimes feels its length at more than four hundred pages, and is labeled book one in a series. Less about the destination, this is an enjoyable hangout book, a chance to spend time with witty characters at that point in their lives when success feels so close, but the path to get there isn’t quite clear.

JEFF FLEISCHER (August 27, 2015)

Chicago-based Jeff Fleischer is the author of Rockin’ the Boat: 50 Iconic Revolutionaries (Zest Books), The Latest Craze: A Short History of Mass Hysterias (Fall River/Sterling), and a civics book to be published in 2016. His work has appeared in Mother Jones, The Sydney Morning Herald, Chicago Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, National Geographic Traveler, The New Republic, Mental Floss, and dozens of other publications.

Jeff Fleischer

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