Saturday, July 25, 2009

Why we love memoirs

Frank McCourt, author of Angela's Ashes, 'Tis, and Teacher Man, died last week. I could never bring myself to read Angela's Ashes, but I adored 'Tis and Teacher Man. McCourt's ability to find humor in the worst and best of circumstances is what made both of these books so readable for me.

I'm linking to an interesting New York Times article here on McCourt and his influence on the memoir genre. Following is a quote from Jay Parini about why Americans are wild for the memoir (think Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love or James Frey's A Million Little Pieces):

"We should keep in mind that memoirs have always been the central form of American literature. I mean this. From Governor Bradford’s memoir of the original settlers in Plymouth — “Of Plymouth Plantation” — through Benjamin Franklin’s fabulous autobiography, Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden,” Mary Antin’s “Promised Land” or, say, “Up from Slavery” by Booker T. Washington or any of a thousand wonderful immigrant memoirs from the 19th and 20th centuries, this has been our most essential form.

The reason for this, I suspect, is that the United States has always been about singing one’s self, as Walt Whitman might say. The individual stands in for society. His or her story is rapidly taken as democratic."
~ Jay Parini

I would love to hear about other people's favorite American memoirs, so do write in if any come to mind. I'll just start by listing Ann Patchett's Truth and Beauty...

Friday, July 10, 2009

Summer Reading

Clearly I am not doing enough of it, since I haven't blogged since May. Honestly, I feel like my students probably do. I have "required reading" this summer, and I can personally attest to it being the biggest killjoy. Every day I look over at my copy of Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter and sigh. No offense to Hawthorne's genius, but it is just not where my heart is right now. Instead, here is what I just ordered from Amazon:

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe
The Forever War by Dexter Filkins
The Help by Katherine Stockett

Earlier this summer I did read Loving Frank by Nancy Horan, which I would highly recommend. I knew almost nothing about Frank Lloyd Wright's personal history before reading this book, and it definitely makes for a page-turner. Almost every character in the book is controversial; book clubs should have a heyday with this one.

Oh and I absolutely loved loved loved reading Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz! I'm a little late to the game on this one; it has been out for awhile now. Had me laughing aloud at every other page. Horwitz chronicles his travels throughout the South to find out why folks still obsess about the Civil War. The chapters are divided by state, and I would suggest skipping around rather than reading sequentially. The highlight of Horwitz's journey is meeting Robert Lee Hodge, a superhardcore Civil War reenactor who takes Horwitz under his wing as he travels around to various battlefields. In order to stay true to the time period, Hodge doesn't shower, eats hard tack, and sleeps outside in ditches in order to get as close as possible to real Civil War experience. Horwitz tries in vain to keep up. Incidentally, Hodge - as Horwitz discovers - is famous for the bloat. This means that he can come eerily close to looking like a dead Confederate body lying in the middle of the road. For this special talent he is sought after as an extra in movies and photographs. He also has an uncanny ability of converting reenactors into hardcores and organizing the troops for special reenactments. My favorite of these is Hodge's reenactment of Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg: picture a handful of mock Confederate soldiers charging up a hill with ten times the number of tourists charging after them, wild for a photograph. Horwitz said dodging tourists during the charge was like dodging mines in a field; they were everywhere, cameras flashing.

I mostly read Confederates in the Attic while on airplanes or in airports, and I found it a little uncomfortable. No one asked me about it, but Hodge's picture on the cover is so disturbing that I'm not surprised. However, nothing that can't be solved by a good book jacket.