I was delighted to see a post about my book on Book Group Buzz, the Booklist blog, especially since I’ve just been thinking about the qualities that make a memoir appropriate for book discussion groups. For me, it’s the relationship between character and story. If you’ve read This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff, you’ll know what I mean. Wolff writes about his teenage years, when he’s trying on identities, giving in to bad impulses, hanging out with the wrong crowd but also dealing with his divorced mother and the series of wildly unsuitable stand-in fathers she lives with. His mother loves him, but she’s clueless about the appropriate way to bring up a child. His real father is a con artist who’s never on the scene. Wolff learns to define himself in opposition to his stepfather, making bad choices along the way, but he always has a dream, a core of himself that’s inviolate. Somehow he believes that despite his wildness, his acting out, he will escape unscathed into a better place; he’s somehow smarter, better, destined for other things. His memoir is far more than the recounting of abuse and bad choices that fuels so many dysfunctional family memoirs. Wolff’s self-awareness, his ability to make us understand how he fought to invent himself, and the way he uses humor to defuse and describe the most scary and poignant episodes give This Boy’s Life depth and style. It has always intrigued me that Wolff’s next book, Old School, picks up where This Boy’s Life leaves off, but the story continues as fiction. Hmm, now wouldn’t that be interesting for a book group–to read and discuss those books together.
I’ve put together the first of several reading lists of memoirs that I think book groups would enjoy discussing. It’s .pdf so you can print it off and take it with you.