I'm trying to read a lot of memoirs now, for the memoir writing class I am scheduled to teach in October, so two out of the next three books are from that genre. And there will be more. Luckily, I just love memoir!
Verghese is a doctor-writer who grew up in Ethiopia, and his knowledge of both his homeland and his chosen profession informs every page of this book. It is the story of twin boys, born to an Indian nun working in a mission hospital in Addis Ababa. Their mother dies at their birth, and their father, the staff surgeon, vanishes. They are raised under the very loving care of married doctors and the entire mission staff. The book is fascinating for its portrayal of Ethiopian life and history, as well as the way medicine is applied in such a place. But it goes on (and on and on) and the last third, when the main character ends up in the Bronx in the 1970s, becomes tedious.
#27 Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home
by Rhoda Janzen
The memoir of a woman whose life falls apart and she is forced to go home again. It's a frequently used trope -- the escapee forced to turn to the people who have to take her in -- and I wish I could say this is a whole new slant on it that makes the old tale new again. But other than learning about the Mennonites and getting a few nice Mennonite recipes, the book felt meandering and shallow. Joanne tells us what happens in the story, but she doesn't go deeper to tell us how she felt about the events, what the repercussions were, what she learned, how she changed. It moves along nicely enough, but it's a pretty meaningless ride.
Another memoir, this one even thinner than the last. Susanna Kaysen's story of being committed to McLean Hospital at the age of 18 is padded with wide margins, pages of her committal papers (which repeat the same information over and over), and wide open spacing. Put together normally, it's probably shorter than an article in The New Yorker. There are no meaningful discoveries, no compelling characters, no distinctive narrative or voice. It's hard to imagine how this ever got published -- much less made into a movie. I guess I'll have to watch the movie and see what they did with it.
#29 Thinking About Memoir by Abigail Thomas
A very (very!) slim little book about writing memoir by one of my favorite teachers from the MFA program at the New School. It's more like listening to her talk for an hour or so, memories from her life, occasional writing exercises, ramblings about time and order and events. To paraphrase Spencer Tracy, "There ain't much to it, but what there is is choice."