Category Archives: Book reviews

Encore! 15 Great Memoirs Written by Women.

15 Great Memoirs Written by Women. I don’t know about you but I find a friend’s assessment of a book is often as good, if  not better, than some of the reviewers. That’s why I wanted to share with you this list, compiled by some of my colleagues in the Association of Personal Historians.  Here are fifteen gems to add to your list of summer reading… Read More

My Top 10 Posts of 2010.

In the past twelve months these are the posts that have ranked as the most popular with  readers.  If you’ve missed some of these, now’s  your chance to catch up over the holidays. Enjoy!

  1. How Much Should You Pay A Personal Historian?
  2. Your Photo Restoration Resource List.
  3. 15 Great Memoirs Written by Women.
  4. 5 Print-On-Demand Sites You’ll Want to Consider.
  5. #1 Secret to Getting More Clients.
  6. 5 Top Sites for Free Online Videography Training.
  7. How to Interview Someone Who Is Terminally Ill: Part One.
  8. How to Salvage a Damaged Audio Cassette.
  9. Warning: Using Copyright Music Without Permission Is Illegal.
  10. How to Make Your Life Story Workshop Memorable.

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From The Archives: Don’t Pass Up This Keepsake.

Don't Pass Up This Keepsake. Keepsake by Marilyn Koop is a must-have for your library.  A friend  gave me a copy the other day and I’ve been totally captivated by it. Each page contains a photograph of time-worn hands cradling a loved keepsake. On the page opposite is a cameo history of the person, a brief story behind the keepsake, and words of advice. There are twenty portraits in the collection. All save two were of people living at the Wellington Terrace, an assisted car … Read More

A Personal List of Books on Dying.

Do you have an interest in recording the life stories of palliative care patients? If you do, I can tell you that it’s very satisfying and rewarding work. Over the years I’ve had the honor and privilege of bearing witness to those who were dying. In the process  I’ve accumulated a library of resource books that I’ve found particularly useful. This is an eclectic selection and by no means exhaustive. However, you might find the list helpful if you’re planning to work in this specialized area of personal histories.


Tuesdays with Morrie: An Old Man, a Young Man, and Life’s Greatest Lesson. Mitch Albom. Broadway (October 8, 2002)
“This true story about the love between a spiritual mentor and his pupil has soared to the bestseller list for many reasons. For starters: it reminds us of the affection and gratitude that many of us still feel for the significant mentors of our past. It also plays out a fantasy many of us have entertained: what would it be like to look those people up again, tell them how much they meant to us, maybe even resume the mentorship?” From Review

Dying Well. Ira Byock. Riverhead Trade; 1 edition (March 1, 1998)
“Byock, president elect of the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Care, is a gifted storyteller. Beginning with his own father’s terminal illness, he details without scientific cant the process of decline that awaits most of us. The case studies, which form the humanistic soul of this work, never devolve into the maudlin or saccharine. Life on the edge of the great crossing is explored in all its sadness and pathos, but Byock also makes room for wisdom, hope and even the joy of final understanding.” From Publishers Weekly

Another Morning: Voices of Truth and Hope from Mothers with Cancer. Linda Blachman. Seal Press; 1 edition (February 10, 2006)                          “Another Morning is the best oral history of the experience of cancer that I have ever seen. The women’s voices are angry, sad, and most of all, loving, as they tell stories of illness, loss, families and motherhood. Linda Blachman has written an essential documentary resource for clinicians and health researchers, and she offers those living with cancer the companionship of generously shared experiences.” Review by Arthur W. Frank, MD, Author, The Renewal of Generosity and The Wounded Storyteller

Final Gifts: Understanding the Special Awareness, Needs, and Communications of the Dying. Maggie Callanan and Patricia Kelley. Bantam (February 3, 1997)
“Impressive insights into the experience of dying, offered by two hospice nurses with a gift for listening. The “final gifts” of the title are the comfort and enlightenment offered by the dying to those attending them, and in return, the peace and reassurance offered to the dying by those who hear their needs.” From Kirkus Reviews

The Year of Magical Thinking. Joan Didion. Vintage (February 13, 2007)
“Didion’s husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, died of a heart attack, just after they had returned from the hospital where their only child, Quintana, was lying in a coma. This book is a memoir of Dunne’s death, Quintana’s illness, and Didion’s efforts to make sense of a time when nothing made sense.” From The New Yorker

Mortally Wounded: Stories of Soul Pain, Death, and Healing. Michael Kearney. Spring Journal, Inc (December 1, 2007)
“Through somber stories, a hospice physician shares his experiences of working with people near death, revealing how the dying process can be a time of personal growth. Kearney, medical director of palliative care at Our Lady’s Hospice in Dublin, Ireland, argues that the terror of death stems from a split between the rational and intuitive minds. When an individual becomes alienated from his deepest and most fundamental aspect, he says, the result is soul pain.” From Kirkus Reviews

What Dying People Want: Practical Wisdom For The End Of Life. David Kuhl. PublicAffairs; 1 edition (July 8, 2003)
“Drawing from case studies that he conducted as part of the Soros Foundation’s “Death in America” project, Kuhl provides a balanced perspective on caring for the terminally ill. An M.D. himself, he acknowledges that doctors sometimes have poor interpersonal skills, and he offers helpful insight into why this is so and how patients can foster better communication. Besides discussing the physician’s account of the clinical aspects of the dying process, Kuhl sensitively examines the harder-to-define psychological and spiritual issues.” From Library Journal

A Year to Live: How to Live This Year as If It Were Your Last. Stephen Levine. Three Rivers Press; Bell Tower Trade Paper Edition. 11th Pri edition (April 14, 1998) “As a counselor for the terminally ill and author of many works on spirituality and dying, Levine has come to believe that preparing for or “practicing” death reminds one of the beauty of life. In this production of his book (Crown, 1997), Levine himself relates his experiences and emotions in his yearlong experiment in “conscious living.” From Library Journal

Facing Death and Finding Hope: A Guide To The Emotional and Spiritual Care Of The Dying . Christine Longaker. Main Street Books (May 18, 1998)
“Christine Longaker’s experience with death and care of the dying began in 1976 when her husband was diagnosed with acute leukemia at the age of 24. Since his death, she has devoted her life to ease the suffering of those facing death. In a clear and compassionate tone, she identifies the typical fears and struggles experienced by the dying and their families. The core of the book is presented in “Four Tasks of Living and Dying,” using the Tibetan Buddhist perspective on death to provide a new framework of meaning that can be applied to every type of caregiving setting. These spiritual principles are universal, enabling readers to find resonance within their own religious traditions.”  From the Publisher

Dying: A Book of Comfort. Pat McNees. Grand Central Publishing; 1 edition (August 1, 1998)
“This remarkable collection, coming from personal experience and wide reading, will help many find the potential of growth through loss.” Review by Dame Cicely Saunders, founder of the hospice movement

How We Die: Reflections of Life’s Final Chapter. Sherwin B. Nuland. Vintage; 1 edition (January 15, 1995)
“Drawing upon his own broad experience and the characteristics of the six most common death-causing diseases, Nuland examines what death means to the doctor, patient, nurse, administrator, and family. Thought provoking and humane, his is not the usual syrup-and-generality approach to this well-worn topic.” From Booklist

The Good Death: The New American Search to Reshape the End of Life. Marilyn Webb. Bantam; Bantam Trade Ed edition (February 2, 1999) “Webb’s message is clear: The modern way of dying involves excessive emphasis on exotic technology and too little reliance on palliative care. The book is richly textured with personal, international, and cross-cultural suggestions for remedying the imbalance.” From Library Journal

Grace and Grit: Spirituality and Healing in the Life and Death of Treya Killam Wilber. Ken Wilber. Shambhala; 2 edition (February 6, 2001)
“A tremendously moving love story. Wilber presents cancer as a healing crisis, an occasion for self-confrontation and growth.” From Publishers Weekly

Photo by Denis Collette

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15 Great Memoirs Written by Women.

I don’t know about you but I find a friend’s assessment of a book is often as good, if  not better than, that of  some of the reviewers. That’s why I wanted to share with you this list, compiled by some of my colleagues in the Association of Personal Historians.  Here are fifteen gems to add to your list of summer reading.

What’s your favorite memoir written by a woman? I’d love to hear from you.

An American Childhood. Annie Dillard. Harper Perennial; 1st Perennial Library Ed edition (July 20, 1988)
“Dillard’s luminous prose painlessly captures the pain of growing up in this wonderful evocation of childhood. Her memoir is partly a hymn to Pittsburgh, where orange streetcars ran on Penn Avenue in 1953 when she was eight, and where the Pirates were always in the cellar.”  From Publishers Weekly

Pilgrim At Tinker Creek. Annie Dillard. Harper Perennial Modern Classics (October 28, 1998)
“The book is a form of meditation, written with headlong urgency, about seeing. A reader’s heart must go out to a young writer with a sense of wonder so fearless and unbridled…There is an ambition about her book that I like…It is the ambition to feel.”  Eudora Welty, New York Times Book Review

Balsamroot: A Memoir. Mary Clearman Blew. Penguin (Non-Classics) (July 1, 1995)
“Blew mines the repository of her aunt’s memoirs and diaries, uncovering near-revelations that suggest Imogene’s life was far from what it appeared to be.
The memoir is energized by the search and by the author’s connectedness to a Montana heritage.” From Publishers Weekly

Bone Deep in Landscape: Writing, Reading, and Place. Mary Clearman Blew. University of Oklahoma Press (September 2000)
“I cannot reconcile myself to the loss of landscape, which for me often is an analogy for my own body…. And yet I know that I have never owned the landscape.” In her second collection of essays (after All but the Waltz), Blew again demonstrates her artistry and strong connection to the Western terrain of her past and present homes in Montana and Idaho.”  From Publishers Weekly

A Girl Named Zippy: Growing Up Small in Mooreland, Indiana. Haven Kimmel.Broadway; Today Show Book Club edition (September 3, 2002)
“It’s a cliché‚ to say that a good memoir reads like a well-crafted work of fiction, but Kimmel’s smooth, impeccably humorous prose evokes her childhood as vividly as any novel.” From Publishers Weekly

The Leopard Hat: A Daughter’s Story. Valerie Steiker. Vintage (May 6, 2003)
“In this finely etched memoir, Steiker relives her childhood the family apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side,
the Parisian escapes with her mother, the family holidays in India and Nepal in delicious, Proustian detail.”  From Publishers Weekly

Little Heathens: Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression. Mildred Armstrong Kalish. (Bantam Books, 2007)
“Simple, detailed and honest, this is a refreshing and informative read for anyone interested in the struggles of average Americans in the thick of the Great Depression.” From Publishers Weekly

Lazy B. Sandra Day O’Connor.Modern Library; First Edition edition (November 1, 2005)
“A collaboration between O’Connor and her brother, the book recounts the lives of their parents “MO” and “DA” (pronounced “M.O.” and “D.A.”) and the colorful characters who helped run the Lazy B ranch.”  From Publishers Weekly

The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts. Maxine Hong Kingston. Vintage; Vintage International Edition edition (April 23, 1989)
“The Woman Warrior is a pungent, bitter, but beautifully written memoir of growing up Chinese American in Stockton, California.”  From Review

Personal History. Katharine Graham.Vintage; Reprint edition (February 24, 1998).
“This is the story of a newspaper’s rise to power but also of the destruction of a marriage, as Philip Graham slid into alcohol, depression, and suicide, and of Katharine’s rise as a powerful woman in her own right.”  From Library Journal

Some Memories of a Long Life [1854-1911]. Malvina Shanklin Harlan. Modern Library (July 8, 2003)
“These memoirs by the wife of a noted Supreme Court justice, John Marshall Harlan, first appeared last summer in the Journal of Supreme Court History…. Justice Harlan, though a former slave-holder, is remembered for his lone and eloquent dissent in Plessy v. Ferguson, the case that established the doctrine of “separate but equal.” From Publishers Weekly

The Road from Coorain. Jill Ker Conway.Vintage Books; First Vintage Books edition (August 11, 1990)
“At age 11, Conway ( Women Reformers and American Culture ) left the arduous life on her family’s sheep farm in the Australian outback for school in war-time Sydney, burdened by an emotionally dependent, recently widowed mother. A lively curiosity and penetrating intellect illuminate this unusually objective account of the author’s progress from a solitary childhood–the most appealing part of the narrative–to public achievement as president of Smith College and now professor at MIT.” From Publishers Weekly

The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio: How My Mother Raised 10 Kids on 25 Words or Less. Terry Ryan. Simon & Schuster (August 30, 2005)
“Married to a man with violent tendencies and a severe drinking problem, Evelyn Ryan managed to keep her 10 children fed and housed during the 1950s and ’60s by entering–and winning–contests for rhymed jingles and advertising slogans of 25-words-or-less. This engaging and quick-witted biography written by daughter Terry… relates how Evelyn submitted multiple entries, under various names, for contests sponsored by Dial soap, Lipton soup, Paper Mate pens, Kleenex Tissues and any number of other manufacturers, and won a wild assortment of prizes, including toasters, bikes, basketballs, and all-you-can-grab supermarket shopping sprees.”  From Publishers Weekly

Wait Till Next Year: A Memoir. Doris Kearns Goodwin. Simon & Schuster; First Paper edition (June 2, 1998)
“Goodwin recounts some wonderful stories in this coming-of-age tale about both her family and an era when baseball truly was the national pastime that brought whole communities together. From details of specific games to descriptions of players, including Jackie Robinson, a great deal of the narrative centers around the sport.”  From Library Journal

A Romantic Education. Patricia Hampl. W. W. Norton & Company; 10 Anv edition (June 1, 1999)
“A now classic memoir, described by Doris Grumbach as “unusually elegant and meditative,” once more available with an updated afterword by the author. Golden Prague seemed mostly gray when Patricia Hampl first went there in quest of her Czech heritage. In that bleak time, no one could have predicted the political upheaval awaiting Communist Europe and the city of Kafka and Rilke. Hampl’s subsequent memoir, a brilliant evocation of Czech life under socialism, attained the stature of living history, and added to our understanding not only of Central Europe but also of what it means to be engaged in the struggle of a people to define and affirm themselves.”  From Product Description

Photo by Kathryn

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Don’t Pass Up This Keepsake.

Keepsake by Marilyn Koop is a must-have for your library.  A friend  gave me a copy the other day and I’ve been totally captivated by it. Each page contains a photograph of time-worn hands cradling a loved keepsake. On the page opposite is a cameo history of the person, a brief story behind the keepsake, and words of advice. There are twenty portraits in the collection. All save two were of people living at the Wellington Terrace, an assisted care residence near Fergus, Ontario.

"This little cup and saucer was given to me by my great-grandmother on my second birthday when we were still in England. My mother used to threaten me: "What might happen to your little cup and saucer if you don't behave?" Winifred Banbury

Marlene Creates, a Newfoundland environmental artist and poet has written of the book:

When objects are keepsakes, they relate most to our hands and our sense of touch. In Marilyn Koop’s photographs, hands are as eloquent as faces. On first glance, many of the cherished objects being held by these elderly people seem quite modest … But on reading these elders’ stories, it turns out that…[these keepsakes] are important not because of their monetary value but because of their history and meaning. I am struck by the profound  human caring and gratitude in these stories. The keepsakes are stand-ins for lost loved ones and times past. Through Marilyn Koop’s photographs and the brief life stories she has gathered, we are given the real value of these keepsakes.

"Henry carved this bar of soap on our honeymoon night in Niagara Falls." Agnes Koop

As a personal historian, I see a number of ways Keepsake can be of value:

  • a gift for special clients
  • in workshops as an example of creative story telling
  • to awaken care facility administrators to the potential of life story  projects with their own residents
  • a source for  reflection on aging, keepsakes, and remembrance

To Order

Contact Marilyn Koop directly at:

Price: Cdn $24.00 includes postage and handling.


Images by permission of Marilyn Koop Copyright 2009

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The Year of Magical Thinking.

This past Saturday I attended the Canadian premiere of Joan Didion’s play The Year of Magical Thinking, based on her book by the same name. Both her book and play are extraordinary. The Chicago Sun-Times has said:

Unforgettable…Both personal and universal. She has given the reader an eloquent starting point in which to navigate through the wilderness of grief.

Didion’s work is a stark reminder of the frailty of life. In a heartbeat we can be  alone and bereft. And as she points out, this will happen to us all. I believe that personal historians are involved in important and soulful work. We make it possible to preserve the memories of those who will inevitably die. We create legacies that can be a part of the healing process for those left behind. Didion’s opening words to her book are achingly observant:

Life changes fast.

Life changes in the instant.

You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.

If you haven’t read The Year of  Magical Thinking, I urge you to do so. If you have an opportunity to see the play, don’t miss it. If you haven’t yet started on your life story, begin today.

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Book Lovers Don’t Miss This!

readingLike most personal historians you’re probably a lover of books. You read them, discuss them, shelve them and share them. I just came across a terrific  website that I think you’ll like. It’s called Goodreads and  was launched in December, 2006. It currently has more than 2,300,000 members and 54,000,000 books added to member profiles. Here’s how Goodreads describe itself:

… a free website for book lovers. Imagine it as a large library that you can wander through and see everyone’s bookshelves, their reviews, and their ratings. You can also post your own reviews and catalog what you have read, are currently reading, and plan to read in the future. Don’t stop there – join a discussion group, start a book club, contact an author, and even post your own writing.

What makes Goodreads different from other book sites like is that it’s more like going to a friend’s house. As the founder of Goodreads, Otis Y. Chandler writes:

When I want to know what books to read, I’d rather turn to a friend than any random person, bestseller list or algorithm. So I thought I’d build a website — a website where I could see my friends’ bookshelves and learn about what they thought of all their books.

Goodreads is that site. It is a place where you can see what your friends are reading and vice versa. You can create “bookshelves” to organize what you’ve read (or want to read). You can comment on each other’s reviews. And on this journey with your friends you can explore new territory, gather information, and expand your mind.

Goodreads also allows you to share your own writing. There’s even a biography and and memoir group. So check out Goodreads.  You’ll not be disappointed.

Photo by Ianqui Doodle

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The 10 Best Selling Books on Life Story Writing.


I’ve compiled the following 1o best sellers from The books  represent Amazon’s highest sales ranked life story books listed from 1997 to 20o8. If you’re starting to build your personal history library you couldn’t go wrong by adding these titles. Two books that I’ve used and like are: How to Write Your Own Life Story by Lois Daniel and Legacy : A Step-By-Step Guide to Writing Personal History by Linda Spence. Click on the titles for further information. (all reviews from

Review: A comprehensive, easy-to-follow guide for assisting anyone on the path to completing a first-class autobiography. Review
Linda Spence’s Legacy proves to be just that: the creation of a family heirloom that money couldn’t buy. Through a series of thought-provoking questions about each phase in human life, Spence helps readers record their personal history, think back to feelings that any number of snapshots could never capture, and reflect upon their lives. What events occurred during your childhood? What did you like most about school? What do you wish your parents had done for you? The text includes sample essays by the author and quotations by other writers to encourage your muse.

Product Description
Writing the story of one’s life sounds like a daunting task, but it doesn’t have to be. This warmhearted, encouraging guide helps readers record the events of their lives for family and friends. Excerpts from other writers’ work are included to exemplify and inspire. Provided are tips on intriguing topics to write about, foolproof tricks to jog your memory, ways to capture stories on paper without getting bogged down, ways to gather the facts at a local library or historical society, inspired excerpts from other writers, and published biographies that will delight and motivate.

  • Your Life as Story by Tristine Rainer.Tarcher; 1st Trade Paperback Ed edition (April 13, 1998) Review
Every person’s life tells a story, but few of us dare to consider our own story worthy of being written. Tristine Rainer shows us how to apply the structure of story telling to an ordinary life to give it shape, meaning, and clarity. Learning the tricks to becoming a better autobiographic writer may not lead to getting published, nor should that be the goal. Rather, it is a process that helps us re-remember the past so that we can better understand the meaning of the present.

I can’t imagine a better guide to lifestory writing. Sharon Lippincott pushes, cajoles, encourages, shares, and stays with you every step of the way. Don’t worry if writing and computers are new to you. Do your children and grandchildren a favor. Get this book, take a deep breath, and give them your story. –John Kotre, Ph.D. Emeritus Professor of Psychology, University of Michigan, Dearborn.

Product Description
Creating stories allows individuals and their families to see and honor their connection to older and younger generations. The authors believe that through such writing, individuals not only communicate the meaning and spirit of their lives to their loved ones but also gain perspective on the larger world. This beautifully designed and illustrated guide escorts readers through the process of writing down their stories and illustrating them with photographs, memorabilia, and other images, including digital format. By offering readers questions to draw out events and memories, the book emphasizes a person’s full life, in all of its highs and lows, magic moments, and simple pleasures. The book’s supportive approach will inspire even first-time writers to forge a collection of stories to share and pass on to the important people in their lives.

From the Publisher
Your Story offers comprehensive, yet fun questions that help generate memories and thoughts about our past. Your Story was designed to help the writer recall and record memories about early childhood, school, parents, friends, first love and so forth. After each thought provoking question there is space for writing responses, attaching pictures and/or small momentos. The reader and writer will be grateful for the many memories, thoughts and experiences that these interview questions illicit.

Product Description
Writing Life Stories is a classic text that appears on countless creative nonfiction and composition syllabi the world over. This updated 10th anniversary edition gives readers the same friendly instruction and stimulating exercises along with updated information on current memoir writing trends, ethics, Internet research, and even marketing ideas. Readers will discover how to turn their untold life stories into vivid personal essays and riveting memoirs by learning to open up memory, access emotions, shape scenes from experience, develop characters, and research supporting details. With creativity sparking ideas from signing a form releasing yourself to take risks in your work to drawing a map of a remembered neighborhood, this book is full of innovative techniques that prove that real stories are often the best ones.

From Publishers Weekly
Veteran authors Franco and Lineback lead readers from beginning to end through the daunting process of writing a memoir-for fun, loved ones or publishing. Examining each stage of life, the authors outline the issues to consider and the questions to ask oneself, as well as techniques for successful writing.

Baltimore Sun Review
Anyone intent of writing a family history should read Turning Memories Into Memoirs.

Photo by Julia Laing

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Here’s A Book You’ll Want for Your Library.

cat-and-booksAs a member of the Association of Personal Historians, I’m pleased to tell you about the publication of the Association’s new book, My Words Are Gonna Linger: The Art of  Personal History. The APH website describes the anthology as a celebration of  “the full range of life story writing, from lighthearted stories and deeply felt reminiscence to eyewitness accounts of history…. this rich collection of 49 stories from real life — gathered or written by members of the Association of Personal Historians — also explores the importance of life review and why these stories matter so much.”

Susan Wittig Albert writing in says:

If you’re a fan (as I am) of stories rooted in real life, you will very much enjoy this book. It would also make a delightful gift for the storytellers in your family—and might even give them a few valuable ideas (and some important motivation) for telling their own stories. And if you’re a teacher of memoir, reminiscence, or personal history, it would make an excellent addition to your classroom teaching or to your students’ reading list. Imaginatively conceived, thoughtfully arranged, and professionally
edited and presented, My Words Are Gonna Linger: The Art of Personal History will be a source of pleasure, information, and instruction.

You can read excerpts from the book here.  Priced at $19.95, you can order the book through the APH by clicking here or at by clicking here.

The anthology is edited by Paula Stallings Yost and Pat McNees with a foreword by Rick Bragg.

Photo by Tyler

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