So many books, so many superb memoirs. I recently read two classics, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers, a Pulitzer finalist, and In Pharaoh’s Army by Tobias Wolff. Both men write with clear, distinctive voices which most writers dream of acquiring. Both have a subtle sense of humor; both are earnest and self-effacing. A third memoir that seeped compassion from my bones is The Boy Who Loved Tornadoes by Randi Davenport. Though raw, painful, I felt privileged to read this crystal clear, honest book.
When you notice a blogger hasn’t written from December through April, you may presume they’re in Tahiti. Or Fiji. Or some equally remote, romantic hide away. But, no I’ve been right here, mostly, at home, writing, tending my family, and watching the pages on the calendar fly by.
I’ve started teaching two classes at the community college-one on memoir writing, and one, an overview for those who’ve dreamed of writing. My traveling has taken me to college campuses from Portland to San Luis Obispo to Boston. Oh, how I wish my senior had chosen the beachy schools! But no, serious student that she is, she’s headed to Boston.
In the meantime, I continue to revise both my proposal and my manuscript. More importantly, to you, my dear readers, I have been reading memoirs. I promise to catch you up on my favorites, but here’s a teaser: a Pacific Northwest female adventurer, writing from her journals about a trip she took in the eighties. Sound familiar? Try Wild by Cheryl Strayed, a true page turner.
- Let’s Not Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexander Fuller
- Wild by Cheryl Strayed
- Tales of a Female Nomad by Rita Gilman Gold,,,
- The Boy Who Loved Tornadoes by Randi Davenport
- A Staggering Work of Extraordinary Genius by Dave Eggars
- In Pharaoh’s Army by Tobias Wolf
- I’m Not Dead yet by Dave Berry
- —Marriage, I’m Too Tired for an Affair by Erma Bombeck
- An Exact Replica of a Fragment of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracker
Although Betty MacDonald’s old homestead is virtually around the corner from my home in Washington state, I grew up three thousand miles away in Holyoke, Massachusetts where I savored MacDonald’s Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books. I read the same stories to my daughter. I laughed uncontrollably at the Fred McMurray movie, based on her memoir. So, I was a fan of MacDonald’s before I began her bestseller The Egg and I.
Written in 1945, the story has the same theme as my Of Gods and Goats –a city woman moves to an isolated mountain farm, unprepared to live with no water, plumbing or heat. MacDonald’s acerbic wit is irreverent and hysterical. Rhythmically, it carries you along with anthropomorisms which stretch from feisty Stove to the white bearded mountains. Her tongue becomes so bitter that two lawsuits for slander (including one by the famous Kettles of the Kettle movies) were brought against her. Chapters concerning Native Americans offend. If I believed in banning books, I’d ban a chapter or two.
But, Betty spins a terrific yarn as she describes how much more useful classes in chicken raising would have been than ballet, how reading is considered a lazy man’s work, and how lonely she becomes hidden away in the foothills of the Olympic mountains. I laughed at her high brow tone from beginning to end.
Curious, I googled Betty MacDonald. She lived on the farm just four years, moved to Seattle, and then to Vashon Island. She died at the age of forty-nine. Her first husband, the one with whom she lived in The Egg and I, was stabbed in a fight over a woman in California some years later. This ending seemed especially sad after laughing through 287 pages of her sharp tongued wit.
Another book I’d heard of came to mind when I read at my writing class from my manuscript about goat herding in France. Every night my classmates chirped in unison, “High on hillside…the lonely goatherd…” First annoyed, then embarrassed, I lightened up and wondered about the real story behind “The Sound of Music.”
The Trapp Family Singers surprised me. A tale of survival and ingenuity, Singers is astounding, especially after the family arrives in the United States, penniless. Written by Maria Von Trapp, the tale is woven with humor, history, and a deep spirituality. Written as half-memoir, half-biography, here’s a secret: THERE IS NO GOATHERD!
- We Came to Say edited by Theo Nestor
- Just Kids by Patti Smith
- Poser by Claire Dederer
- The Egg and I by Betty MacDonald
- Blackbird by Jennifer Lauck
- Fat Girl by Judith Moore
- From Our House by Lee Marvin
- The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin
- My Dyslexia by Phillip Schultz
- Out of Sheer Rage by Geoffrey Dyer
- About Alice by Calvin Trillin
- When memoirists emphasize their childhood suffering (Lit, Glass Castle, Running with Scissors, and so on), we cheer as narrators extricate themselves from unimaginably gruesome settings. Poignant, profound, truthful, these memoirs make fascinating reads.
But, it was a relief to read an equally honest story from a narrator who was neither abused nor neglected, and in fact, lived a relatively normal life. I felt a sense of ease as I read Poser by Claire Dederer
Two dear friends – Kristine, from Seattle, and Connie, from the San Juan Islands, each came to me and said, “You must read this book!” Kristine loved Poser because, as a Seattle Mom, she could relate so well to it. Connie, who’d read my recent interview with Claire’s husband Bruce Barcott in The Writers Connection, http://www.elizabethcorcoranmurray.com, said she loved, “the humor and lightheartedness of it.” Connie went on to say, “She addressed my favorite subjects, child raising and yoga. I loved how she approached yoga…how she tangled and then untangled it, finding out much more about yoga and herself.”
When I read Poser –which, by the way, I couldn’t put down –my stack of dishes grew, my cupboards emptied, and still I turned the pages. Yet, when I finished, I honestly couldn’t say what the book was about. So, here’s Connie again, “I think it was about life, about trying to be ‘good’, inside and outside, judging ourselves, and others, and then using all of it as the backdrop, to who we really are. I had a couple people tell me that they were worried in the beginning, both of them using the word, ‘privileged.’ I never felt that…Her critiquing of life did not seem finger pointing to me, but instead she used herself as the reference point, honest and funny. I loved it! So there you are.”
As a writer, my reasons for liking the book were more basic. “Why can’t I put this down?” I asked myself. It’s impressive to have a “page turner” when nothing extraordinary is happening. Is it just that I like her, the narrator? I also loved her use feminine metaphors and similes – references to sewing, fabric, ribbons, cooking, dough. A breath of fresh air. Ease.
- Falling into Manholes
- True North by Jill Kerr
- Me Speak Pretty Some Day by David Sedaris
- Born to Run by Christopher McDougal
- Wear Denim and Corduroy by David Sedaris
- The Kids Are Alright by Len Welch
- The Longest Trip Home by John Grogan
- A Girl’s Guide to Getting Lost by Rachel Friedman
- Nothing to Declare by Mary Morris
- Bossypants by Tina Fey
- Living in a Foreign Language by Michael Tucker
Who’s not intrigued by Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe? Their struggles in New York during the late sixties and early seventies, as portrayed in Just Kids, bring to life a critical era of American art. Name dropping –Andy Warhol, William Burroughs, Todd Rundgren, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix— threads throughout the book. History unfolds as I turn the pages.
Yet, Just Kids as a piece of literature? No. As a work of art, the book is inordinately disappointing. I wish Patti Smith had hired a ghost writer. But, how could a poet summon the courage to hire a ghost writer? I wish the best for Patti—her music, her poetry, her life. I appreciate her opening this private world to us. I am disappointed to say, however, that I can only recommend Just Kids for its historical value.
My mentor, Theo Nestor, author of How to Sleep Alone in a King Sized Bed, says memoirs of famous people should not be considered the same genre as pensive, reflective books of virtually unknown writers. That may be true. Do we need call them “Memoirs F” (for famous people) and “Memoirs T” (for thoughtful works)? And yet, I’m including memoirs of famous people in my blog, if only for relief.
I have the amazing good fortune to live on a beautiful island where the sun rises over the Puget Sound, often rises over Mt Rainier, and deer roam, eating my few roses. I love my family. Like most Americans, I struggle to pay my bills, but if life were more perfect, I would tailspin into worry. I prefer to maintain this pleasant state of mind. Which is why, at times, I crave a respite from the gut wrenching memoirs. Tina Fey provides just such relief. Bossypants offers laughs where Map (see below) offers tears. While I’m riveted by Meredith Hall’s journey in the Middle East, I’m fascinated by how Tine Fey came be Sarah Palin.
Bossypants is not superbly written. It slides into preachy at times when discussing how women have historically been screwed as comedians and how gays deserve their rights. (Both are points I agree with, by the way.) But if you, like I, seek moments of surfacey fun, pick up Bossypants and enjoy.
- The Duke of Deception by Geoffrey Wolfe
- In a Sunburnt Country by Bill Bryson
- One for the Road by Tony Horowitz
- Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff
- Riding in Cars with Boys by Beverly Donofrio
- Roads by Ted Conover
- Breaking Clean by Judy Blunt
- Under the Tuscan Sun by Francis K
- Goat Song Brad Kessler
- The Year of the Goat by Margaret Hathaway
- The Road to Coorain by Jill Kerr