Tuesday, February 19, 2013

When Writers Write About Themselves

My recent nonfiction reading has included several memoirs by writers. Not authors whose entire oeuvre consists of autobiographical “sharing” of their abused childhoods, or their victories over addiction, or their struggles to meet year-long challenges pitched to their publishers as worth a book. There are way too many of these and, as Neil Genzlinger said in his trenchant New York Times piece, “The Problem With Memoirs,” “we don’t have that many trees left.” These were memoirs by writers who are known for their fiction or journalism or criticism, who had something to say about subjects other than themselves, and who said it well, before they turned to memoir.

Elsewhere, by Richard Russo

I have read and loved every one of Richard Russo’s eight novels, from The Risk Pool through That Old Cape Magic. All but the last take place in New England towns whose industrial heydays have long passed. All of them feature characters striving to escape those towns in a restless quest for happiness. In Russo’s spare and affecting memoir, Elsewhere, those towns are revealed to be his hometown of Gloversville, N.Y., and those restless seekers to be, perhaps, inspired by his mother, Jean. Russo’s unusually close relationship with his rebellious and often unstable mother, and his gradual understanding of her peculiar devils are the heart and soul of this book. The milestones of his literary career are barely mentioned, his marriage only enough to establish the forbearance of his wife, Barbara. Russo explained these absences in an interview with John Williams of the New York TImes: the writer must decide what fits the narrative arc and what doesn’t. The fact that something actually happened doesn’t mean it should be included. A memoirist isn’t free to invent, but the shape of the story is up to him.” If you are a Russo fan, you will enjoy Elsewhere even as you wish he had included more of himself in the story.

One for the Books, by Joe Queenan

It was through his memoir Closing TIme (2009) that I first met Joe Queenan, a columnist and humorist who writes mostly about sports and American pop culture, currently for the Wall Street Journal. His funny, angry and moving account of growing up in a working class Irish neighborhood in Philadelphia is Angela’s Ashes without the forgiveness. It was as a youth trying to escape the wrath of his abusive and alcoholic father that Queenan discovered reading and what has become his lifelong love of books. It is that love that his new collection of essays, One for the Books, celebrates. In it, he describes his eccentric reading habits (dozens of books at a time), his prejudices (nothing written by a Yankees fan or set in a boarding school), and his reverence for the physical fact of a “book” itself (he owns 1,374). Queenan has strong opinions. He skewers many of my own bêtes-noires (book club discussion questions, Middlemarch), but I am also one of “those people . . . who read Jonathan Franzen and Jonathan Safran Foer and Jonathan Lethem and assorted writers named Cölm.” If you love to read and don’t take yourself too seriously, read this book. Be considerate of those in the room with you: your frequent laughter may annoy.

Winter Journal, by Paul Auster

Alas, not all writers make good memoirists. If it hadn’t been the only book I’d taken with me on a weekend trip, I wouldn’t have read past page ten of Paul Auster’s Winter Journal. Written in the annoying second person, it is a self-indulgent slog through an assortment of stream-of-consciousness memories, ranging from the quotidian (every room, apartment or house he has ever lived in) to the sentimental (grade-school crushes) to the existential (the death of his mother and his own aging). The critic James Wood wrote a scathing essay about Auster for the New Yorker, entitled “Paul Auster’s Shallowness” (included in his new collection, The Fun Stuff). In it he says,“There are things to admire in Auster’s fiction, but the prose is never one of them.” There may also be things to admire in Auster’s nonfiction, but I couldn’t get past the prose to find them.

Mortality, by Christopher Hitchens

Auster’s whining about his various physical ailments contrasts sharply with Christopher Hitchens’s unflinching observations about his experiences in “Tumortown.” The incisive and insightful Mortality, written during the year and a half he was “living dyingly” with esophageal cancer, is hard to read, and harder to put down. Whether you agree with his contrarian views or not, you will be dazzled by the clarity of his intellect and moved by the bravery with which he faced his impending death. “Whatever view one takes of the outcome being affected by morale, it seems certain that the realm of illusion must be escaped before anything else.”

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