Monday, March 24, 2008

Book Beat: Memoirs, Like the Corner of My Mind

Memoirs have gotten some bad press recently with the release and recall of Margaret B. Jones' Love and Consequences. Turns out that this tale of drugs and gangs was actually written by a valley girl with little experience of either. There was also last year's James Frey/Oprah controversy. This post is not intended to be an in-depth (or even semi-enlightened) discussion on the genre of the memoir. My feeling is if a book is mostly fictional, it ought to be published as a novel and not a memoir. Those who have considered this issue more carefully might be able to speak to what distinguishes a memoir from, say, an autobiography. Whatever the case, lies are lies. However, it does seem to me that there ought to be some degree of freedom in the genre of memoir, given how strange a phenomena memory actually is. I have clear "memories" of certain key events in my life, but I'm not sure that some of these "memories" I treasure would be accurate accounts of these events. I guess my point is, some stretching or misremembering of the truth (capturing the "spirit of the truth," let's say) seems inevitable in a memoir. Complete fabrication of events and circumstances seems inexcusable.

I have recently enjoyed a few memoirs, and I heartily endorse them with the caveat that I can't say for sure that every word in them is true! The best memoirs typically leave me feeling like, "Hey, you couldn't make this stuff up." Here they are . . .

1. Dry: A Memoir by Augusten Burroughs: Last year, my book club read Burroughs's Running With Scissors, but I skipped it. I don't know if it was the fact that the movie was out at the time or what, but I just didn't feel like reading it. No one in my club hated the book, but no one acted like I was missing much either. However, my friend and fellow book lover (and blogger) E really enjoys Burroughs's writing and, as I really trust her taste in books, I thought I would try a Burroughs book. I choose Dry: A Memoir, which is the story of Burroughs's journey through and out of alcoholism. I feel like I have a whole new understanding of what it might be like to struggle with addiction and alcoholism. Burroughs manages to tell his story with honesty (especially about his own denial of the problem) and, more impressively, with humor. I will try another of his books for sure.

2. Dark at the Roots: A Memoir by Sarah Thyre: I was completely delighted with and captivated by Thyre's memoir. She traces her childhood and teenage years in Louisiana with a intensely Catholic (and yet strangely, strangely quirky and at times surprisingly inattentive/lax) mom and asshole dad. She is not a "good girl," but she is a funny one. Her home life and childhood are often appalling, but the memoir is not really a hard luck-type tale. Some moments may be a bit much for some readers (but not hard-core shocking like a tale of sexual abuse or physical torture) but I appreciate her honesty throughout. The details are priceless. Cutting the alligator off an Izod shirt and reattaching it to other items of clothing as needed. A white car with red interior dubbed "the tampon." Sticking one's finger in an infected eye in an attempt to give one's self pink eye and miss school. Good stuff. This book has humor (lots of it and kind of dark) but also heart.

3. A Girl Named Zippy: Growing Up Small in Mooreland Indiana by Haven Kimmel: My friend E also recommended Kimmel's memoir to me. I had avoided it for a couple of years in the way that I tend to avoid books that I see everywhere (it was a Today Show pick, and though I have no problem reading books that are "picks," I am a loyal Good Morning America girl). When I finally read it last spring (not so recent, but it made quite an impression), I was blown away. Kimmel's memoir of growing up in a really small town in Indiana was beautifully written. Her ability to capture her childhood perspective without polluting it with her adult understanding of these events is just amazing. If you only read one of the memoirs I've recommended in this post, read this one so that you can then read She Got Up Off the Couch: And Other Heroic Acts from Mooreland, Indiana, which is the continuation of Kimmel's (and her mother's) story that completely knocked my socks off. Her mother spent years of her life sitting on the couch reading novels, talking on the phone, and watching television and then got up, put herself through college with zero support from her husband, and became a high school English teacher. I am desperately hoping that Kimmel has another memoir in the works, as I would love to know what the next chapter in her family's life entailed.

Also, it seems worth noting that Kimmel is friends with Augusten Burroughs and gave a really positive blurb for Thyre's memoir. My life is too boring for a memoir, but were I to write one, I would want to be in the same corner with Burroughs, Thyre, and especially Kimmel.

5 comments:

Actchy said...

I hear you on false memories. My family likes to accuse each other of "remembering" things that never happened (e.g., my brother swears that my mom always had Tang in the house when we were growing up. NFW.)

Irrespective of recent bad press, I too like memoirs, and will continue to pick them up. My aforementioned "Tang-drinking" brother bought me "Another Bullshit Night in Suck City" a few years ago, which describes Nick Flynn's experiences as a social worker in a homeless shelter, including one night when his estranged father unexpectedly showed up in need of a bed. I also liked "Liars' Club" by Mary Karr: she depicts an intensely shitty childhood and the conflicting emotions a child deals with when parental adoration is targeted toward a relatively pathetic father figure, but with real humor and compassion.

T-Baby said...

The "misremembering" topic is very timely given Hillary Clinton's recent "misremembering" of dodging sniper fire in Bosnia. Personally, I think that I would remember someone shooting at me pretty clearly.

Anonymous said...

I believe there has been some other misremembering lately, a certain pitcher thinking someone misremembered what happened.

E... said...

I am so glad you enjoyed my recommendations. I can't second the enthusiasm for Kimmel enough, as well as encourage others to read her novels. If I were going to be a groupie of any writer, she would be it. I've been working on Flynn's book for a while, hopefully I'll finish it before I lose the thread of it completely. I can also recommend a pair of memoirs -- Lucy Grealy's story of her struggle with cancer and disfigurement: Autobiography of a Face and Ann Patchett's chronicle of her friendship with Grealy Truth and Beauty. I'm also a huge fan of Anne Lamott's nonfiction. I am a memoir junkie, spent much of my time in grad school contemplating the ins and outs of creative nonfiction and confessional poetry, but still have no good answers on how to deal with its inherent issues of lies and invention. Maybe I'll write about my own boring life one day to sort it all out...

Steph said...

Thanks for these recommendations! I'm working on memoir writing in a class I'm taking. Have you read The Glass Castle? Several people have recommended it to me (for the style, not the content I suppose).

 
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