If you believe a writer should only pen a memoir if she has
a truly interesting story to tell and can tell it honestly and sincerely, look
no further than Little Chapel on the
River: A Pub, a Town and the Search for What Matters Most by Gwendolyn Bounds;
Nightlight: A Memoir by Janine Avril;
and Michelle Tea’s classic The Chelsea Whistle.
Little Chapel on the River: A Pub, a Town and the Search for What
Matters Most by Gwendolyn Bounds (Harper Paperbacks)
In the fall of 2001, journalist Gwendolyn (Wendy) Bounds
thought she had it all: a job writing about fashion at the Wall Street Journal, an apartment in downtown Manhattan, and a beautiful girlfriend named
Then came Sept. 11, and everything changed. Bounds and
Kathryn, who were forced to flee lower Manhattan
that fateful morning, lost their home. Days later, after rescuing their cat
from their condemned apartment building, they did what many other New Yorkers
were forced to do: They began to search for a new home.
Little Chapel on the
River is a record of that search, a journey that takes Bounds to Garrison, N.Y., a town by
the banks of the Hudson River. What Garrison lacks
in size — it’s so small it does not necessarily qualify for "official town
status" — it makes up for in heart.
At the center of Garrison is the famous Guinan’s, a tiny
Irish pub and country store. Bounds is immediately enchanted by the
establishment — its rustic and comfortable setting, charming proprietor Jim
Guinan and his children, and the distinctive patrons who are treated like
Needing more than just a new place to call home, Bounds also
finds a family at Guinan’s. As New
York and the country begin their slow recovery, she
immerses herself in this new life, a life very different from the one she led
in the city.
At the end of each chapter, Bounds includes a memory from
her childhood, usually one about her grandfather. The vignettes are well-placed
and offer insight into how her background informs her connection with Guinan’s,
and with Jim in particular.
Bounds’ sexuality is not an issue in the small town, but her
coming out to Jim is one of the more tender moments of the story. Because she
doesn’t correct him the first time he asks how her "sister" is, she
is unsure how to backtrack. ("Maybe he means ‘sister,’" Kathryn jokes.)
Finally, one afternoon while they’re alone watching TV,
Bounds explains the relationship to Jim. "I swallow hard. Kathryn’s not my
sister, you know, I tell him, feeling my face get hot. The next thought is
habit: What if he doesn’t like me
anymore? I’m a grown adult and this is still hard."
Jim does accept her: "From that day on, whenever we see
each other, Jim now makes a point to ask: ‘And how’s Kathryn?’ It’s a slight
alteration of the question, but it says it all."
In beautiful and lyrical prose, Bounds shows how moving to
Garrison forces her to slow down and pay attention to both her interior and
exterior worlds. She adopts a dog. She buys a house. She takes care of her
neighbors and allows them to take care of her. She thinks about starting a
"This is the story of a place, the kind of joint you
don’t find around much anymore," Bounds writes, "a spot where people
wander in once and return for a lifetime." Little Chapel on the River is about the importance of home — not
only the people in it, but the actual place.
Nightlight: A Memoir by Janine Avril (Alyson Books)
If Chapel on the River
shows how strangers can become family, Janine Avril’s powerful Nightlight is about just the opposite.
"A secret is something told to protect you and, in many
ways, it does. It shields you from that which will make your life more
painful," Avril writes in the beginning of her memoir. "On the other
hand, that which you don’t know is still there, continually shaping your
Nightlight is the
story of Avril’s attempt to uncover her family’s secrets, no matter how
painful. Barely a teenager when her mother dies of cancer, Avril is so numb
from the loss that she can barely say goodbye. She is haunted by the guilt that
she had been ashamed of her mother’s ailing body, a guilt her father does not
allow her to escape: "I was filled with shame about my family, but far
worse was the shame I felt toward myself."
Shortly after her mother’s death, Avril’s father, a
successful French chef and restaurateur, throws a "motherless Mother’s
Day" party. He refuses to invite Avril’s maternal grandparents and instead
fills the house with "topless women" and "pranc[es] around
jovially in his skin-tight green Speedo."