Category Archives: Book reviews

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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Get Up And Go Talk to Somebody!


The latest issue of Utne magazine arrived in my mailbox yesterday and I was immediately drawn to an excerpt from a recently published book, The Lonely American: Drifting Apart in the 21 st Century by Jacqueline Olds and Richard S. Schwartz.  The authors write:

Americans in the 21st century devote more technology to staying connected than any society in history, yet somehow the devices fail us:  Studies show that we feel increasingly alone. Our lives are spent in a tug-of-war between conflicting desires – we want to stay connected, and we want to be free. We lurch back and forth, reaching for both….

The significance of this increased aloneness is amplified by a very different body of research. There is now a clear consensus among medical researchers that social connection has powerful effects on health. Socially connected people live longer, respond better to stress, have more robust immune systems, and do better at fighting a variety of specific illnesses.

The author’s insights reinforce the  importance of story gathering.  By sitting down with a parent or grandparent and recording their stories we begin, in our own way, to break down the isolation and loneliness that has become endemic in our society. Our electronic gadgets have their place, but they can never replace the meaningful connection that comes from sharing our tears and laughter with those we love. What’s more, being socially connected improves our health!  So put down your telephone, shut off your computer and go talk to somebody.

Photo by Don Brubacher

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The Storyteller and Recovering From Trauma

Peter Renner at there is no path… alerted me to the power of narrative in treating trauma. I thought you might find his excerpts from the San Fransisco Chronicle book review of Healing Invisible Wounds: Paths to Hope and Recovery in a Violent World of interest.

Contrary to existing dogma in the mental health field, this book posits, trauma survivors have an innate capacity to heal themselves without medical or formal psychological intervention. There is a “healing force hidden in all of us, even if depleted by violence, that is always striving for survival,” writes Richard Mollica, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

Mollica bases his theory of psychological self-healing on 25 years of counseling war refugees, victims of torture and survivors of natural disasters. He uses personal, or “trauma,” stories from Khmer Rouge survivors, Bosnian doctors and Rwandan genocide witnesses and applies them to survivors of more common crises, such as sexual abuse, life-threatening illness or death of a loved one by accident or violence.

According to Mollica, victims of violence must play an active role in their healing. Not only telling but interpreting one’s trauma stories is crucial for healing. Understanding the cultural meaning of the trauma, taking a new perspective on it and realizing the motivations of the perpetrators, are necessary to reframe the trauma for the survivor. “Storytelling coaches” can guide survivors in telling their stories without overwhelming listeners with horrifying details. The realization that by telling their story they will pass on valuable lessons in dealing with loss and tragedy also contributes to healing.

Mollica has identified several measures that encourage self-healing: engaging in altruistic acts, working to provide for oneself (rather than accepting long-term handouts), spirituality (but not necessarily formal religion), humor, physical exercise, relaxation techniques and good nutrition. Empathic communication between healer and patient also has restorative power, as does the creation of beauty, e.g., making art, tending a garden, and keeping a journal.

via recovering from trauma (book review) « there is no path …