Recommended memoir titles from the Literary Review of Canada

Three recommended memoir book titles, from the Literary Review of Canada: The Year of Finding Memory, by Judy Fong Bates, Random House; Alice Street, by Richard Valeriote, NcGill-Queen’s University Press; and The Geography of Arrival, by George Sipos, Gaspereau Press. These three memoirs chronicle immigrant life outside the big city, writes reviewer Joseph Kertes.

So many wonderful memoirs to read….

Tony Blair’s memoirs: filed under crime fiction

Always something fun to talk about in the world of memoirs! Tony Blair’s memoir, A Journey,  is causing all sorts of fuss and fuming in Britain and beyond. Check out this link for more details:

Journalist Gwynne Dyer has a few choice words of his own about Blair’s memoir and his seeming attempt to re-write larger history as well as his own:

Sometimes the idea that My Version is Truth, just doesn’t work out for memoirists….too many long(er) memories and dissenting opinions.

Country Roads – Memoirs of Rural Canada

My husband Don sent along this link to Country Roads: Memoirs of Rural Canada, edited by Pam Chamberlain.  The list of contributors is wonderful.  I’d love to read it! One thing I love about memoirs, is that so often you see a title and think Well yes, of course there should be a memoir or a collection of memoir essays about that! And yet until a particular subject has been zeroed in on – i.e., rural life in Canada – the stories remain oral, offered to small groups of friends and family, or they are lost altogether….!/pages/Country-Roads-Memoirs-from-Rural-Canada/235509376524

Reality Hunger

I just unearthed from my messy desk, a clipping from the Globe and Mail from February 2010. I have no idea if I have already made note of this on my blog! I just re-read it, and feel it’s important enough to write about briefly. If I have already done this, so be it.

Reality Hunger, A Manifesto, by David Shields, sounds like a must-read for me and my memoir studies.  From the article:  “So, Shields wants the freedom to appropriate and create a recombinant literature out of others’ words, which gain new meaning in their new relations to each other. He also wants a literature that makes explicit the struggle between ‘literary form and lived life,’ one that revels in the hybrid, gestures emphatically toward the documentary while reserving the freedom to make things up. There’s a new movement afoot, he declares, that favours the deliberately unarty and yanks in larger and larger chunks of  ‘reality’ – yet, crucially, remains conscious of and up-front about what it’s up to. Shield’s ideal literature must stay ‘true,’ you might say, to the problems of representing anything. Maybe he’d also echo the words of Germany’s new 17-year-old writing sensation, Helene Hegemann, who, when caught lifting whole pages from another in her bestselling, possibly autobiographical, novel, shrugged off the controversy by declaring, ‘There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity.’  As in: If it feels authentic, then it is?

“At its best, Reality Hunger is a suggestive, opinionated dictionary of the moment. Even when Shields plays author-arranger, the force of his arguments comes through…. Shields and his collaborators are asking crucial questions, questions that anyone who cares about the future of literature must wrestle with….Practices of writing, and reading, are shifting. None of us should take current modes of expression for granted. “

“Thoughts on Autobiography…” – by Janet Malcolm

A friend gave me a copy of an article from The New York Review of Books. The article is titled “Thoughts on Autobiography from an Abandoned Autobiography” and is written by journalist Janet Malcolm. Herein I quote one paragraph that was just too good not to share:

“Memory is not a journalist’s tool. Memory glimmers and hints, but shows nothing sharply or clearly. Memory does not narrate or render character. Memory has no regard for the reader. If an autobiography is to be even minimally readable, the autobiographer must step in and subdue what you could call memory’s autism, its passion for the tedious. He must not be afraid to invent. Above all he must invent himself [bolding mine]. Like Rousseau, who wrote (at the beginning of his novelistic Confessions) that “I am not made like anyone I have ever been acquainted with, perhaps like no one in existence,” he must sustain, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, the illusion of his preternatural extraordinariness.”

A London Child of the 1870s, by Molly Hughes

I just finished reading A London Child of the 1870s, by Molly Hughes, which my friend KJ from Vancouver was kind enough to give me.  In the gift card that accompanied the book K wrote: “I really enjoyed this memoir – found it fascinating on a number of levels. Wanted you to have it for your collection.”

Lucky me! This is a gem of a book. It is the first in a trilogy, too, so I have reading pleasures in my future, should I choose to return to this unexpectedly warm Victorian world.

Warm, yes, but complex as well. Hughes’ memoir could easily have been written as a dirge for her lost family members, but this was not how she chose to remember her childhood. The work is mostly  a matter of imagination over reality – and a triumph of the former.  In brief, read the book. It is beautifully written and gives such a rich picture of the times.

Two points I wanted to mention:

One: In the preface, writer Adam Gopnik says: “There is also, I think, in the relative neglect of Molly’s writing, and its significance, a just detectable prejudice against urban memoir as opposed to pastoral one. At least, it seems to me that say, Lark Rise to Candleford keeps a higher reputation than Molly’s memoir because it takes place in the country. One of the things that makes Molly so moving is the intensity of her recreation of Victorian London, on terms that Chesterton would have embraced and italicized, as a place of adventure, folly, and romance.”

Note to self: discuss differences between urban and pastoral memoirs; these categories are new to me. Also: read Lark Rise to Candleford! What a delicious title – and so very British!

Two: I absolutely loved Gopnik’s concluding paragraph and would like to use it for an epigraph in my thesis:  “It is, I suppose, possible to see something unreal, or Quixotic, in Molly’s choosing to avoid all and every truth. But no realism can encompass all that is real [boldings mine]. Death and pain are enough pain to season any sunny memoir. If there is something evasive about her celebration, there is, in its minute detailing of a life gone already by the time she wrote it, something beautiful and permanent, too – happiness not merely recorded, but wrought, from a time and circumstances more iron and resistant than she is prepared to allow. Realism, like Parnassus, has many mansions, and a mantelpiece is as real as a marriage bed. The heroism of children, seeking happiness in the midst of their parents’ anxieties, is a kind of heroism, too. Molly’s book seems to me more painful now than it did when I first read it, but still finer as writing. Here is an ordinary life rendered truly, and joyfully, with a voice at once so self-abnegating yet so gay and funny and precise, that we are reminded, in the end, of the one truth worth remembering, that there are no ordinary lives.” Adam Gopnik, New York, 1987/2005 copyright: the author and The New Yorker

Journal-keeping and memoirs

This comment from a friend of mine, who wrote in a recent letter to me: “I’ve been reading Christopher Pratt’s memoir titled Ordinary Things. It’s very good. Apparently he kept journals and diaries throughout his life and he has put the best of them together in this engaging book. I dream of doing the same sort of thing myself since I, too, have kept journals for nearly 50 years.”

I’ve included below  a  link to a review in The Chronicle Herald, at the top of the year. This, along with my friend’s recommendation, makes me want to read Ordinary Things.

Was the first serious graphic narrative a memoir?

George Elliot Clarke, Nova-Scotian born author, poet and academic, who now teaches literature at the University of Toronto, wrote about graphic novels (narratives) in his March 21st column in The NovaScotian (The Sunday Herald). He describes these narratives as “…illustrations that are themselves stories, plus plot-and-character-developing words that spell out what the pictures alone cannot….”  I’ve only seen a few of these graphic novels, and that was recently, too. Didn’t know they existed before January of this year! I love the idea of them – while mostly  seem to be impervious to their popular charms.

That said, I am interested in the book that Clarke mentions, Maus (1986), by Art Spiegelman, “a Pulitzer-prize winning memoir of the author’s parents’ survival of Nazi Europe….” Clarke says this memoir “is often considered the first serious graphic narrative.” But in fact, he continues, “there was an earlier work: Dino Buzzati’s Poem Strip…a bizarre concoction…[and] Essentially a rewrite of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice…[where] we see Orfi – a rock star – descend into the subterranean hell of Milan, in search of Eura, his beloved. They meet but just as the myth insists, they also part.” Etcetera! Not so sure about this one, but the Speigelmen memoir, definitely.

Running with Scissors – Augusten Burroughs

Augusten Burroughs, some critics like to say, “goes where other memoirists fear to tread.”

I am not sure if this is exactly true – but god knows he is a brave writer. I just finished reading Running with Scissors, which I made myself read from a psychological distance – because otherwise, I might have vomited, and any number of times.

From Buroughs’ website: “Augusten’s second book [Running with Scissors] was a memoir. It was also a publishing phenomenon that helped to ignite a kind of memoir fever in America and abroad. Running with Scissors was released in 2001 to virtually unanimous critical acclaim. The memoir would ultimately remain on the New York Times bestseller list for over four consecutive years, eight months of which were spent in the #1 position….”

This is wonderful achievement. And if even half of what Burroughs writes is true (I believe it is: it had “the ring”), I say god bless him and long may his success last. But beyond this, I find it hard to write about him in a sustained manner. As directed, I’ve read the book and today, all I really want to do is push that experience and all its yucky lingering feelings away from me, as far as possible.  I agree that his sense of humour is original and keen. I also think his memoir(s) is a culmination of the “horror memoirs” that might have begun with Christina Crawford’s memoir, Mummy Dearest. (Not really sure when these “tell-alls” by adult children of famous parents began; must check.)  I think Burroughs is a fine writer and he needed these memoirs of his the way we all need air. And water, shelter and love. How some people survive and then defy their childhoods, remains a mystery to me….

So again, this latest reading venture is over and done with, and perhaps I can discuss the book more critically and in depth, another time.

One last interesting note: Burroughs counts among his dear friends the author Haven Kimmel, who wrote A Girl Named Zippy. Now that memoir I enjoyed, for all that it was odd and occasionally gut-dicing. I wonder how Kimmel and Burroughs came to be friends?