Dan Curtis ~ Professional Personal Historian

Entries tagged as ‘reviews’

15 Great Memoirs Written by Women.

July 14, 2010 · Leave a Comment

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, recently 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 Amazon.com 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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5 Print-On-Demand Sites You’ll Want to Consider.

January 6, 2010 · 6 Comments

A colleague in the Association of Personal Historians, Sarah White,  has kindly given me permission to reprint her excellent article on print-on-demand websites. I’m  adding another site that I used to produce a book for my mother’s  ninetieth birthday. Memory Press offers outstanding customer service and an excellent product. While I haven’t used the other sites, I can  recommend Memory Press without hesitation. For more information click here.


For a writing class this fall I researched print-on-demand websites, in order to make recommendations to my students. I had in mind users with limited technical sophistication who had a goal of creating books for family and friends, not necessarily for sale on the open market.  After about 6 hours of surfing the different sites, here are my findings:

  • Lulu.com has the widest range of page size/binding options and the best prices if you’re comfortable producing your own PDF page files to upload.
  • Blurb.com was close on price but a bit more than Lulu. Blurb’s point of difference is a nice interface for converting a blog to a book. It has fewer page size/binding options than Lulu.
  • CreateSpace.com (a subset of Amazon, formerly known as BookSurge) had lower pricing but is intended for people who want to sell to the general market. Starting a job required setting yourself up as a publisher and pages of information to fill out. Prices are a good deal lower than Lulu; publishing wholesale as opposed to retail, essentially.
  • Bookemon.com was my best discovery. It has a good range of page size/binding options, and a really nifty online page building tool. It’s a hybrid that allows you to upload files and pictures and do layout online. But it also allows you to upload formatted documents and you can blend both approaches. Pricing is in line with Lulu and Blurb.

In terms of cost, any of these sites were considerably cheaper than going with a FedEx Print Online or Office Depot Print Online option. All the above information will no doubt change over time, but I hope this comparison is useful to you.

Sarah White


Linda Coffin, another APH member,  has added this useful postscript.

One quick addition to Sarah’s fine comments: Whichever online option you choose, think carefully about how you might want to use the book in the future. If you choose an online layout option like Blurb, for instance, then any time you want to reprint or update your book you will have to go back to that service again. If Blurb has gone out of business in the meantime, you will have to start from scratch. On the other hand, creating your own PDF file and uploading it (to a service like Lulu, for instance) gives you the option to revise it easily and have it printed in a different place the second time around if you wish.

Linda Coffin

Photo by Rob Overcash

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Part One: How to Find an Audio Recorder That’s Right for You.

April 9, 2009 · 4 Comments

Marantz PMD 620

Marantz PMD 620

It’s time for me to upgrade my audio recorder and I’ve been doing some research on what’s out there. I thought you might find what I’ve discovered of some value  if you’re planning on getting a new recorder.  This week I’m concentrating  on solid state field recorders which range in price from about $600 US to $300 US.  Next week I’ll tell you what I found in the under $300 price range.

Solid state recorders contain no moving parts and record audio directly to memory cards. The advantage of these machines is that there are no moving parts to wear out or jam. The recorders I’ve listed here all produce high quality sound, ideally suited for creating legacy quality audio memoirs. I’ve used one of my favorite sites, Transom.org to do my research. You can find out more information by clicking on each recoder listed.  Next week I’ll tell you what machine is right for me.

Marantz PMD 661 : About $600 US. “There are new, smaller, less-expensive recorders from Zoom and Tascam that feature XLR inputs and phantom power, but the sound quality and ergonomics of the 661 set a high bar to leap over. If the size is not a problem, and the approximately $600 pricetag is affordable, the PMD 661 is worth considering.”  Transom.org

Sony PCM-D50 : About$500 US. “Overall, the Sony PCM-D50 is a very well-built recorder, … The internal mics sound great, and most impressively, external mics do as well. It comes with 4 gigs of built-in memory, which will provide a lot of record time, even without buying any removable Memory Sticks… among all the small handheld flash recorders, the Sony D50 certainly is near the front of the pack. It does most things right, with only a few minor problems, and no tragic flaws.” Transom.org

Marantz PMD 620 : About $400 US. “With its small size, easy operation, and relatively clean sound with popular reporters’ microphones, the PMD 620 is almost an ideal choice.”  Transom.org

Olympus LS-10 : About $400 US. ” For simplicity, size, and ease of use, the Olympus LS10 is near the head of the pack of recent flash media recorders. Its small size, quiet mic preamps, compatibility with external mics and long battery life make it very attractive to reporters and field recordists.”  Transom.org

Zoom H4 Digital Recorder : About $300 US. “The Zoom H4 is an extremely versatile machine, perhaps a little over-complicated, but if left in stereo recording mode, can be easily operated without too much menu navigation. The excellent built-in mics and combo XLR/1/4″ jacks for external inputs make it able to work in many circumstances.” Transom.org

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The 10 Best Selling Books on Life Story Writing.

March 25, 2009 · 3 Comments


I’ve compiled the following 1o best sellers from Amazon.com. 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 Amazon.com)

Review: A comprehensive, easy-to-follow guide for assisting anyone on the path to completing a first-class autobiography.

Amazon.com 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)

Amazon.com 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.

March 13, 2009 · Leave a Comment

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  StoryCircleBookReviews.org 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 Amazon.com 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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Categories: Book reviews · Life stories · Memoirs · Personal historian · Resources · Writing
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