Book Review: Cakewalk by Kate Moses

Cakewalk: A Memoir

I’m often a little wary of memoirs. It may sound ironic coming from someone who has a blog, but so often I find that memoirs make me wonder at the chutzpah of someone who chooses to write about their own life as if their life was somehow so interesting it deserves a whole book that the rest of us should read. I think this perception comes from hearing about memoir after memoir that are about family dysfunction, addiction or an awful childhood of some form. While overcoming an awful childhood or addiction may be praiseworthy, I’m of the opinion that it doesn’t necessarily translate to a book worth reading.

Cakewalk by Kate Moses is a memoir well worth reading. I think it transcends the genre (or at least the stereotype I have of the genre) for several reasons. One is that Moses is an established author. She was a writer and editor at Salon.com, has edited several bestselling collections of essays on motherhood and wrote a novel about Sylvia Plath. And she’s not just a writer but a good writer. So although her book is about a pretty awful childhood it’s not that alone that makes it a good read.

A lot of her childhood is fairly predictably bad: the parents who are stuck in a terrible marriage, the cold and inattentive father, the frequent moves around the country leaving her more and more alone, and the struggle with a weight problem and subsequent bullying at school. What’s not predictable is the way she writes about it. From the memorable cross-country car trip that involved outrunning a tornado, a veterinary emergency and a sandstorm to the painful remembering of the jeans she hand-embroidered in junior-high with all the dog breeds of America, Moses vividly recalls the good, the bad and the ugly with a style that is vivid, endearing and often quite funny.

In addition to the excellent story-telling, Moses punctuates each chapter with a recipe for dessert. Food, and more specifically sweets, is the thread that runs through the book. The desserts relate to something in the chapter (the elaborate layered pecan cake her college boyfriend’s mother made her or her grandmother’s homemade jam) and so serve as icing on the cake to the rest of the memories (pun totally intended).

Finally, I appreciated this book because Moses allows for grace when talking about her parents. There was badness, but in the end there was forgiveness and significant repair of relationships. That made for a fuller and more mature book  ultimately than one which just showed one side of the story.

4 thoughts on “Book Review: Cakewalk by Kate Moses

  1. I’ve been enjoying memoirs lately, but they’re all about adult life mostly, difficulties and suffering overcome as an adult. I never know whether those pitiful childhood stories are really true, or whether there might be another side to the story.

  2. Pingback: Saturday Review of Books: February 26, 2011 | Semicolon

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