Wednesday, May 10, 2017

A May of Memoirs

In May, the world springs full of flowers, budding trees, and drooping bushes, laden with a riot of color and noise. The natural world comes to life again, striding confidently around winter’s corner and declaring, “I’m back! Do you want to hear some new stories?” And most of us say yes; yes we do. In the natural world, it’s blossoms and bees; in the literary world, it’s memoirs.

Memoirs seem to be making a comeback - or maybe they never went away? - but I feel like they are everywhere, with their juicy inclusiveness and alluringly long lashes: “You are in my life now. I’m ready if you are. Here’s my story.” Isn’t everyone you’ve ever heard of, and not heard of, writing their life story? This isn’t a criticism, but a recognition of the natural impulse to share. A venerable pastime is literary voyeurism, allowing us to peek in on a memoirist’s desires and dreams. A healthy indulgence, all because we can.

Book cover for Seven Commentaries on the Gallic War by Julius Casesar
The impulse to tell others our stories in the form of a memoir is not new. Julius Caesar’s memoir of the Gallic Wars he fought, entitled Commentaries on the Gallic Wars, describes the nine years of battles and intrigues fought against the Germanic and Celtic peoples in Gaul who opposed him. Interestingly, he directed his memoir to the plebeians to bolster his tenuous position with the Senate. He was propagandizing to the masses using memoir as his messenger.

Book cover for Walden by David Thoreau
Henry David Thoreau’s famous 1854 memoir entitled Walden, or  Life in the Woods, was written about the two years of his life spent at Walden Pond. There, Thoreau records his thoughts on living simply and communing with nature. He also addresses how very personal the personal narrative is. “I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well. Unfortunately, I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience.” Thoreau said he saw Walden as an opportunity to answer questions others had about his seclusion - what did he eat, did he get lonely - but he was also well aware that the reader would “accept such portions as apply to him.” And here, I would venture, is the key to a memoir’s success: recognition of one’s self in another’s story. Recommending memoirs is a challenge because if you cannot relate to the author’s point of view, then there are not many other “characters” to whom you can flee for narrative comfort.

Memoirs also exude what I’d call “memoirishness,” a mixture of a well-made memory’s buttery softness with its sandpapery self-protectiveness: “I love telling you all about me, but I can and will keep you at arm’s length if I want. So there!” Memoirishness includes a certain “noirishness,” a connection to its racy film cousin with its lightness and darkness, its mirrored reflections and smoky shadows, a chiaroscuro of revelation and obfuscation. What are we allowed to see? What do we infer? What is still left in the dark? Perhaps we’ll never know, but shall we admit that we are curious?

Well, I will admit that I am very curious. Other people’s lives can be fascinating. People we (mostly) don’t know and are (presumably) curious about enthusiastically and openly share private stuff. So here are some memoirs that have accomplished what many memoirists set out to do: grab our attention, shake things up, and wait to hear what we think:

Comedienne Amy Schumer’s very candid memoir The Girl With the Lower Back Tattoo about growing up on Long Island and becoming funny and famous.

Novelist Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty, about her lifelong friendship with fellow writer and Sarah Lawrence classmate Lucy Grealy.

Goldie Hawn’s A Lotus Grows from the Mud, about her youth spent in Takoma Park, Maryland and subsequent success in show business.

Faith Salie’s Approval Junkieabout the NPR’s “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!” and CBS News Sunday Morning journalist’s life, marriage, and inveterate approval seeking.

Patricia Gucci’s In the Name of Gucci, about the heir to the Gucci fashion business and love child of its founder Aldo Gucci.

Joan Didion’s Blue Nights, about the loss of her daughter.

If you put the word memoirs in our catalog search, you will get titles galore. Here are a just few on order that caught my eye, but there are many more, so don’t be shy:

Gone: a Girl, a Violin, a Life Unstrung by Min Kym; My Mother’s Kitchen by Peter Gethers; Nevertheless: a memoir by Alec Baldwin; You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie; This is Just My Face: Try Not to Stare by Gabourey Sidibe; Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy by Sheryl Sandberg (Lean In).

“Let me tell you some stories. My stories. Maybe your stories too.” So says the memoir. And I think I shall, because I like being invited in, even if, when I get to the last page, I have to let go. I will remember you.


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