Tag Archives: memoirs

My Summer So Far, In Reading

My summer has been crazy. I have been on the go so much I’ve hardly had time to think. I actually did the math, and in a span of exactly 30 days, I was in 9 distinct airports and took off and landed no less than 23 times. The novelization of my life might refer to this epic thirty-day-period as “Two Weddings and a Baby Shower”, with an afterword entitled “Four Time Zones Apart: Vacation and Work Travel With 24 Hours Between”.

But on the bright side, with all that airport and airplane time, I read six books!

Before the Air Travel Extravaganza, I was working on a post to let you all know ahead of time the reasons for my absence, but the post was scrapped, mostly because I was afraid that my real and actual joy at being able to do all of these things and go all of these places — for and with people I love — would be overshadowed by my melodramatic dread of the attendant exhaustion (and the huge life changes that each trip represented to me).

And I’m glad I scrapped it. “Kill your darlings” is what people who know say about writing, and in this case my darlings were allusions to Robert Frost poems. Thankfulness is a much better use of my time (when compared to melodramatic dread, not allusions to Robert Frost — poetry is never a waste of time).

Let’s talk instead about those six books: here’s what I read, in no particular order, and typically random!

nfrol_coverNo Fond Return of Love, by Barbara Pym. How I would have loved to have actually known Barbara Pym. I like to think that she and I would have been great friends, if only because I see something of myself in each one of her heroines, who one imagines must each have something of her in them, too. While this particular book of hers was not (in my opinion) quite at the same level as Excellent Women or Jane and Prudence, it still offered such little gems of perfect expression as “the rather perfunctory tone in which social invitations not meant to be accepted are sometimes issued, and to which the only suitable reply is a murmur.” For me, reading one of her books is like reading a long, storied letter from a friend with whom I entirely sympathize.

therook_coverThe Rook, by Daniel O’Malley. A woman wakes up in the rain in a London park, surrounded by dead people, with no recollection of who she is. She soon discovers that she is a high-ranking member of a secret organization in the British government tasked with keeping supernatural forces in check, and that she has extra-special supernatural powers of her own. If you’re not already intrigued, then my raving about wry writing (which reminded me of watching recent Doctor Who) probably won’t convince you to read this super-fun book (first in a planned series). A few hallmarks of a first novel were outweighed by the novel’s being refreshingly without so many of the characteristics that seem to plague so much of recent science fiction/fantasy: there was no annoying romantic triangle (or romance of any kind), and there WAS a confident heroine getting stuff done — on her own, to boot. MORE LIKE THIS PLEASE.

deathofbees_coverThe Death of Bees, by Lisa O’Donnell. The story of two sisters, Marnie and Nelly, opens with Marnie’s confession: “Today is Christmas Eve. Today is my birthday. Today I am fifteen. Today I buried my parents in the backyard. Neither of them were beloved.” Set in urban Glasgow, it’s the story of Marnie and Nelly just trying to get by keeping the secret of their parents’ deaths until Marnie’s next birthday, when she’ll be legally old enough to take care of Nelly herself. Keeping that secret proves harder and harder as neighbors, authorities, and their parents’ drug dealers start asking questions. This is not The Boxcar Children: there is a hefty bit of Glaswegian grit in this story. While it might not be quite urban fiction, it certainly had similar themes and content. Somehow it still managed sweetness, though — if you can get past the grit and you enjoy coming-of-age stories, this book may be for you.

tntysm_coverThe Next Time You See Me, by Holly Goddard Jones. “Lives of quiet desperation” is what springs to mind when I think of this book. The story is told from multiple points of view: a young girl, a loner, finds a dead body in the woods and keeps it a secret; a schoolteacher’s wild older sister has gone missing; an older man works in a local factory; each of their lives and the lives of others in their small Kentucky town will converge as the search for the missing sister escalates. Really more of a slow-burn character study than a true mystery or thriller, each of the characters was finely drawn and even sympathetic — but it doesn’t shy away from or understate their sadness and hopelessness, and while I’m not sorry I read it, I would probably never read it again.

habits_coverHabits of the House, by Fay Weldon. Fay Weldon was the author of the original “Upstairs Downstairs” — and because I love both period dramas and comedies of manners, I confess I had high hopes for this particular book. But I found it disappointing, and I’m having a hard time pinpointing why. At the end of 1899, the Earl of Dilberne and his family stand on the brink of total financial ruin. Their only hope is to secure a lucrative marriage for their son, who is only interested in keeping his mistress happy and his automobile in working order. Maybe I found it dissatisfying because almost every character was portrayed as having few (if any) redeeming virtues; and although I actually rather liked the American heiress the Dilberne family targeted, I could only picture a future of disappointment for her married to the future Earl of Dilberne. It is entirely possible, however, that I was just tired.

never_coverNever Have I Ever: my life (so far) without a date, by Katie Heaney. I decided to read this book after discovering the author’s contributions to The Hairpin, a series called Reading Between The Texts, in which Katie and her friends analyze text message conversations they’ve had with boys (it is seriously one of the funniest things on the Internets and if you’ve been single at all in this century you can probably relate to these conversations). I believe I can say unequivocally that if you enjoy those analyses, you’ll enjoy Ms. Heaney’s book. There were so many times reading the book I laughed out loud and felt like Ms. Heaney and I should be really good friends because we have so much in common, except she’s funnier.

So my list began and ended with an author I should like to call a friend. What about you? Has your summer been as out-of-control crazy as mine? What have you been reading?

Advertisements

One Pair of Hands

I decided to ease my way into nonfiction this year with Monica Dickens’s One Pair of Hands. Reading it was only partially in keeping my with 2013 reading resolutions, but it was something to start me on the nonfiction path (where I would hopefully continue until I found myself reading some piece of narrative nonfiction that my brother-in-law might enjoy).

But before I can even talk to you about the book, I must address the truly terrible cover gracing the US version of this memoir, which is unlikely to entice you to read the book. My sister is a graphic designer and I like to think of myself as having imbibed from her a sense of what is “good design” and so feel that, despite my lack of design embellishment on my own blog, I am qualified to say that this is an unequivocally ugly book cover:

image via Amazon

image via Amazon

So ugly, in fact, that I actually checked the book out over at Amazon UK, and considered getting the UK version instead, because the cover over there is considerably less offensive to my taste and design sensibility. I suppose since the publisher here in the US (Academy Chicago Publishers) has, mystifyingly, classified this book on their website as “Fiction & Poetry” rather than “memoir” or “nonfiction” (or even, given the subject matter, “Food & Cooking” — that’s an available category, too!), the cover only seems to exhibit the same shocking lack of judgment. (Um, #librarianproblems … right?)

screenshot of ACP "Our Books" page

screenshot of ACP “Our Books” page

Upon further investigation, I discovered that Academy Chicago was simply reusing the illustration by Dione Tegner used on the cover of the 1961 Penguin edition. Still, one asks oneself, why that illustration, and why with the orange border? It’s somehow less offensive on the 1961 Penguin.

Well, if ever there were a time not to judge a book by its cover, that time is now. One Pair of Hands tells the story of how, after being expelled from drama school, Monica (a great-granddaughter of Charles Dickens) eschewed the debutante’s life of parties and chose instead, on the sole experience of a few cooking courses, to try her hand at being a cook-general.

The ensuing stories of life in service, Monica’s various failures and successes and the unreasonable demands of many of her employers, are a hilarious glimpse of life below stairs, and rather more Gosford Park than Downton Abbey: you won’t meet a benevolent butler like Carson in these pages.

You will meet one or two fallen soufflés, the rare considerate employer and the more common inconsiderate one, tremendously amusing anecdotes, and one failed actress with considerably more self-confidence than I’ve ever had, who created a role for herself and brazened out the performance to its conclusion, which, all told, makes for highly entertaining reading.

On Memoirs

This week I read an interesting article in New York Magazine about Joan Didion’s newest memoir, Blue Nights. In it, the author, Boris Kachka, talks to Didion about her success with The Year of Magical Thinking and the new memoir. The article is great, if maybe a little sad, and I hope you’ll take a few minutes to read it. Apparently, I’m not alone in saying so; it was one of the most-read “long reads,” according to the magazine’s facebook page:

From facebook.com

There’s so much fodder for discussion in the article:  Kachka quoting Didion from Slouching Towards Bethlehem, that “writers are always selling somebody out”; Didion’s prescience about the hippy movement and the impact it would have on society as a whole (what, as a result, might be “sacrificed…on the altar of universal love and self-fulfillment”); the honest questions Kachka describes Didion as asking of herself in Blue Nights – about being a parent, and being a good parent.

But I wanted to focus this post on something Kachka says in the article, that “Didion has always maintained that she doesn’t know what she’s thinking until she writes it down.” As a person who has kept a journal for the majority of my life, I can relate. For better or worse, I have always written to understand what’s going on in my head – even just to know what’s going on in my head. (I say “for better or worse”, because you make a record like that, of so many years and so many “places” in your life, and it can be ground you loathe to revisit, yet you find yourself somewhat incapable of destroying it at the same time.)

Later in the article, Kachka says:

…sometimes it’s difficult to tell which of her confessions are genuine and which calculated for literary effect, how much to trust her observations as objective and how much to interrogate them as stylistic quirks. Her clinical brand of revelation can sometimes feel like an evasion – as likely to lead the reader away from hard truths as toward them.

Memoirs as a genre have received a lot of scrutiny lately for a certain lack of truthfulness; we probably all remember the teacup-storms related to Augusten Burroughs’ Running with Scissors. I suppose what I find most interesting about Kachka’s comment is that one might come to the memoir expecting either “to trust her observations” or to be led toward hard truths.

It made me think of something I once read by C. Day-Lewis:

We do not write in order to be understood; we write in order to understand.

The subject matter of Didion’s most recent works, the death of her husband, followed two years later by the death of her adopted daughter, is deeply personal. However, her memoir about the death of her husband, The Year of Magical Thinking, was exceedingly popular. Kachka describes this success pushing Didion into the limelight, casting her in the role of mentor in the minds of some readers, a role with which Didion admits she is uncomfortable.

I’m sure we’ve all had that experience of reading something that speaks directly to our own personal experience or to some part of our souls, and being touched by it in a powerfully meaningful way. But when it comes to the memoir – when it comes to the writer’s need, I guess, to understand by exploring her own thoughts, would it be better, perhaps, if we were to approach it, not as the writer seeking to make herself understood, but as the writer seeking to understand?