Where's the book?

Sunday, November 22, 2015

A race to the finish

Gotta get all these latest reads down on paper before the last two biggies of the year...I just realized what a theme I've got here--of these five books, three are memoirs, one is a faux memoir, and the last is about memoir writing. Did I mention I'm teaching a memoir class?

#35 Negroland by Margo Jefferson
Been reading a lot of memoirs lately and, sad to say, this was not one of the better ones. I thought it would be really interesting--the story of a woman who grew up in the African-American upper crust, whose father was a doctor and head of a hospital and whose mother was a socialite--yes, that's what she calls her, a socialite. But there isn't much story there, just lots of rambling exposition that gets tiresome quickly. I wanted to yell at her, "Show, don't tell!" Someone forgot to remind her of the prime directive of writing, and the book really suffers because of it.

#36 The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr
I thought I would get so much more out of this book. After all, it's by the author of one of my favorite memoirs, Liar's Club, and two others I haven't read, who is also a famed teacher of memoir at Syracuse University. But the book rambles and meanders, and there is almost no concrete writing instruction or advice. There is a lot of interesting discussion of different memoirs that Karr uses in her teaching, but I was hoping for some illumination, not just entertainment, and I didn't get much.

#37 The Kiss by Kathryn Harrison
Oh, wow. A memoir by Harrison about her affair with her long-lost father. The book is short but packs quite a punch. Although the writing isn't always beautiful and she wanders in time and tense, the subject is so fraught and intense that I found myself literally holding my breath. Harrison was raised by her mother--a damaged and distant woman herself--and grandparents, after her father left when she was a baby. She saw him twice as a youngster, finally reconnecting with him when she was in college. The intensity of their reunion and his need to dominate and control her soon led to a sexual relationship. The story resonated with me, and I respected her honesty and the careful but powerful way she deals with what could have been a lurid recounting.

#38 I Claudius by Robert Graves
Read it for the first time back in the '70s and loved it. Read it again for book group and, well, liked it a bunch. It's a fascinating faux memoir of much of the life of the Roman Emperor Claudius. The story begins with his childhood and ends with his becoming Emperor. But there's no narrative arc--it's one (very interesting) story after another, but because of the lack of through-line (and the fact that so many of the characters drop out of the book because they're poisoned, or die in battle, or are killed) it's hard to truly connect with the story. It's kind of like sitting on a barstool in some ancient Roman pub listening to the guy on the next stool telling really cool stories about his whacko family. It's interesting, but you never cry, and you don't really care, and you don't remember half of them in the morning.

#39 As You Wish by Cary Elwes
The Man in Black speaks! Or writes! He isn't much of a writer, even with his co-author, but for anyone who loves The Princess Bride like I love The Princess Bride (and I know it's a large club but I count myself one of the premier members), it's so much fun to hear his stories of the making of the movie...of how sweet and good-hearted Andre the Giant was, and how Billy Crystal as Miracle Max was so funny they had to clear the set during his scenes so as not to ruin the takes with laughter, and how difficult the fencing training he and Mandy Patinkin had to do was, and how insanely hot the R.O.U.S. costume was and on and on. It was like eating delicious candy and just made me love the movie more. And he has little sidebars of stories from all the other people involved (except poor Andre of course). One of my favorites: Billy Crystal said not a week goes by when someone doesn't come up to him in a restaurant or an airport or a store and say, smiling, "Have fun storming the castle!" and he loves it.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Life gets in the way

Somehow I got very far behind. Actually, I know how I did it. It's called life. I was working a lot, and going to plays, and watching great television (just discovered Fargo--how did I not know about this show???), and playing with friends, and cleaning the bathroom, and cooking dinner...

Anyway, numbers 30 through 34 coming right up, in brief. Numbers 35 through 38 to follow shortly.

#30 Wild by Cheryl Strayed
More memoir reading for the memoir class, and I liked this one a whole big bunch. She's a terrific writer, which I knew because I had read Dear Sugar. And she had a great story to tell, about how after the death of her mother, the breakup of her marriage, and a scary drug addiction, she decided to tackle a huge (some might say insane) challenge: hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. She wasn't a hiker, didn't plan well, and faced some serious obstacles. But the story of the hike is interwoven so skillfully with flashbacks to her childhood, her mother's illness and rapid decline, her misbegotten marriage, and dalliances with drugs and dangerous men, that I couldn't tell if I enjoyed the story more, or the way she kept all her balls in the air and never dropped one. Respect for the writer and the woman!

#31 Lucky by Alice Sebold
A beautifully written memoir, as you would expect from the author of The Lovely Bones, about an awful experience--her rape as a college freshman. It's hard to read, in a good way, and a very moving, honest account of an awful, brutal attack. I was happy to see that the book doesn't rely on the cliches of an experience like this--brutalization of the victim, backwards cops, cold clinicians. Sebold has many people who help her through this time--and a few who turn away--but she doesn't flinch in her honest, compelling writing.

#32 Prozac Nation by Elizabeth Wurzel
A memoir that could turn you off memoirs. Self-indulgent, poorly written, repetitive, boring...so many ways this book went wrong. It slips around loosely in time and place, never actually rooting you in any events or any characters. Nothing is described, no person is depicted, so you can't visualize anyone or anything. And there are few actual scenes, just page after page of her talking about her craziness, her depression, her need for help that never comes. It's hard to believe this got published, but she was pretty and it was 20 years ago and Prozac and depression were new and exciting. Could that have been it? I can't see any redeeming value in this boring, dreary, poorly written book.

#33 The Art of Time in Memoir by Sven Birkerts
Read it for the class I'm teaching. Not terribly helpful but there were some choice bits and pieces about structuring memoir, with an awful lot of unhelpful stuff in between.

#34 They Came Like Swallows by Joseph Mitchell
Oh, what a wonderful book. Beautiful story, beautiful characters, and so beautifully written. It's quite short, and every page and paragraph feels perfectly crafted, almost like poetry. Although it was published in 1937, it has an unusually modern conceit--the book is divided into three parts, and each part is seen from the POV of a different character: an eight-year-old boy, his older brother, and their father. The lives of each revolves around the mother in the family, a loving figure who holds the household together. The first section, from the eyes of the young boy, is the best depiction of a child's-eye view of the world that I have ever read.