Category Archives: 2009 Memoirs

Explosions

Some of the most compelling memoirs don’t follow the rules–I’m thinking of Nick Flynn’s The Ticking is the Bomb, which I read in one great gulp yesterday. Flynn’s narrative may be episodic, but he leads you straight to the heart of his life and the things that make him tick–and burn.

While Flynn is waiting for his first child to be born, the photos of torture committed at  Abu Ghraib prison are released. The book explores the coexistence of these two events, which define the heaven and hell of human behavior. His daughter Lulu brings redemptive love into his life, a fresh start, a chance for a stable family life to follow from his own shattering history. The Abu Ghraib photos, with their mockery of human interaction bring out a white-hot passion in Flynn. He goes to Istanbul with a group of lawyers and artists who interview Abu Ghraib survivors and collect their testimonies. 

In this riveting memoir, we do learn about Flynn’s childhood, his struggles with drugs, alcohol, and relationships, but those facts are not the point, or, they’re only part of the point. Flynn’s short chapters fly off the page at the reader, forcing us to make connections between the ordinary and the unthinkable.

There are several other unusually good episodic memoirs that I’ve recently read and enjoyed:
Jennifer Brice. Unlearning to Fly University of Nebraska Press, 2007.
Michael Chabon. Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son. Harper, 2009
Michael Greenberg.  Beg, Borrow, Steal: A Writer’s Life. Other Press, 2009.
Floyd Skloot. In the Shadow of Memory. Bison Books, 2004.

A Piece of the Action

Harold Evans’s autobiography My Paper Chase: True Stories of Vanished Times carries the reader along with the velocity of a reporter on deadline, which of course Evans was for most of his career. As the former editor of the London Sunday Times and The Times of London (along with many other accomplishments on both sides of the Atlantic), reporting the news has been his lifeblood. As a child he met survivors of Dunkirk on the beach at Rhyl in North Wales. Their accounts were at odds with what he read in the newspapers and so started a lifelong interest in the role that journalism played in exposing propaganda and special interests. As a boy from a working class family in Manchester, he had to work hard to finesse the English school system in order to get the college education he knew he would need to become a reporter. 
He began working at newspapers in and around Manchester in the late 1940s, at a time when local newspapers competed fiercely for readership. It’s hard to summon up that time when print was the primary source of news; it was important for a paper to have a distinct  “voice” that would drive circulation. Evans was always looking for the scoop, the crusade, the expose, the local advocacy that would distinguish his newspaper from the rest.
Evans tells terrific stories about those scoops and crusades, but what I enjoyed most is his writing about the reporter’s craft and how rough facts and reportage are translated into print by “subs” (copyeditors in the U.S.). Evans himself admits that he is “addicted to print,” by which he means the actual sight of words on a page. In the front of the book is a full-page graphic called “The Vanished Newspaper Office” a wonderful representation of  how a newspaper used to be written and produced in the days of the linotype machine. He loved the pulse and flow of the newsroom, “…a news hub, a big central arena where people could be seen at work to the same clock and you could feel news rippling across the floor, a place for newspaper shoptalk and gossip, a place where directions could be defined, instructions shouted, enthusiasms raised, arguments concentrated, layouts examined, and disputes resolved by crossing a few feet to another desk.”
There’s something fascinating about that frenetic newsroom culture–and its hard-bitten, eccentric, often boozy participants–that’s why we love movies like The Front Page and Citizen Kane. There are several other memoirs about the newspaper business that capture some of that excitement of hunting down the story. Katherine Graham’s Personal History and Ben Bradlee’s A Good Life: Newspapering and Other Adventures are both about the Washington Post and both cover the story of the Pentagon Papers. Bob Green’s Late Edition: A Love Story is another paean to the joys of newspapering as does Edward Kosner’s It’s News to Me: The Making and Unmaking of an Editor.

Sink or Swim Parenting

In Norman Ollestad’s riveting memoir Crazy for the Storm: A Memoir of Survival, you’re not sure if  “survival” refers to the plane crash he walked away from, or the fact that he survived childhood at all. I’m sure the ambiguity is intended, since Ollestad’s parents were spectacularly unconcerned about pushing their son into life-threatening situations to toughen him up.
At age 3, he began surfing off the California coast clinging to his father’s back. His father also pushed him early into competitive skiing with training that took them only on double black diamond trails, or to those slopes that were pristine because no one else was crazy enough to ski them. Ollestad idolized his father and feared his accusations of wimpiness when Ollestad was frightened, frustrated, or expressed his own needs.
His mother appeared unfazed by the extreme challenges, unwilling to interfere with her divorced husband’s adventures with Ollestad, and also unconcerned about the sporadic violence her son suffered at the hands of her alcoholic boyfriend. For most of  his boyhood they all lived in a laid-back California beach community, where surfers were stars and the state of the waves was the most important news of the day. It was a world where a conventional childhood was unlikely.
For me, maybe because I’m a parent, this is a memoir about parenting and the way that children accept what they’re handed, at least when they’re young, too young to know how it could be different. Ollestad believes that his father’s regime of toughness saved his life when their small plane crashed in the snowy mountains. That’s a good thing for Ollestad to help preserve the myth of the charismatic father who only had his son’s interests at heart. The Talmud tells us that one of a parent’s 3 most important responsibilities is to teach a child to swim; but there are many ways to teach survival skills. Ollestad alternates chapters about the crash with chapters about his childhood, a good device that keeps the tension ratcheted up. This is an engrossing addition to the already rich genre of father-son memoirs.
The Three of Us: A Family Story,  by Julia Blackburn looks at frightful family dynamics from a daughter’s point of view. Blackburn’s parents had their own demons and didn’t have a clue how their actions affected their young daughter. Her father, addicted to sodium amytal and alcohol for decades, was a poet, whose non-poetic rages eventually drove her mother away. But as Blackburn says, she wasn’t afraid of her father since he never struck her. It was her mother, an artist, who took in male lodgers for sex and confided in Blackburn like a sister, who did the real damage. In 1966, when one of the lodger-lovers began an affair with the 18-year old Blackburn, it was too much for her mother, who drove her daughter away. Blackburn’s writing is dispassionate, almost clinical.Her words are made all the more effective by illustrations–family pictures that look almost like photos of happy times and her mother’s bleak paintings which reveal the ugly reality under the surface. It’s one of those memoirs that had me studying the author’s picture, trying to see in her face some indication of how she lived through it.

My Favorite Books of 2009

‘Tis the season of best lists, so I’ll chime in with my own. It covers books I read this year, regardless of when they were published. I’ve divided it into fiction and nonfiction and provided publisher and date of publication.

FICTION

Arana, Maria. Cellophane. 2006. (Dial)

Atwood, Margaret. The Year of the Flood. 2009. (Nan A. Talese)

Boyle, T. Coraghessen. The Tortilla Curtain. 1995. (Viking)

Byatt, A.S. The Children’s Book. 2009. (Knopf)

Carleton, Jetta. Moonflower Vine. 2009 reprint of 1962 title. (HarperPerennial)

Grodstein, Lauren. A Friend of the Family. 2009. (Algonquin Books)

Hoffman, Eva. Appassionata. 2009. (Other Press)

Kline, Christina Baker. Bird in Hand. 2009. (Wm. Morrow)

Livesey, Margot. The House on Fortune Street. 2008. (Harper)

Moore, Lorrie. A Gate at the Stairs. 2009. (Knopf)

Strout, Elizabeth. Olive Kittredge. 2008. (Random)

Petterson, Per. Out Stealing Horses. 2007 (Graywolf)

Robinson, Roxana. Cost. 2008. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Walbert, Kate. A Short History of Women. 2009. (Scribner)

NONFICTION 

Alison, Jane. The Sisters Antipodes. 2009. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Austin, Paul. Something for the Pain: One Doctor’s Account of Life and Death in the ER. 2008. (W.W. Norton)

Eggers, Dave. Zeitoun. 2009. (McSweeney’s)

Fiennes, William. The Music Room: A Memoir. 2009. (W.W. Norton)

Grann, David. The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon. 2009. (Doubleday)

Pollan, Michael. The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s Eye View of the World. 2001. (Random House)

Rogers, Douglas. The Last Resort: A Memoir of Zimbabwe. 2009. (Harmony)

Simon, Rachel. Building a Home With My Husband: A Journey Through the Renovation of Love. 2009. (Dutton)

Small, David. Stitches: A Memoir. 2009. (W.W. Norton)

Tamm, Jayanti. Cartwheels in a Sari: A Memoir of Growing Up Cult. 2009. (Harmony)

Umrigar, Thrity. First Darling of the Morning: Selected Memories of an Indian Childhood. 2008 (HarperPerennial)

Warmbrunn, Erika. Where the Pavement Ends: One Woman’s Bicycle Trip Through Mongolia, China & Vietnam. 2001. (Mountaineers Books)

Standing Fast in Zimbabwe

The albino frog on the cover of Douglas Rogers’s book The Last Resort: A Memoir of Zimbabwe is barely keeping his head above water. The same can be said for Rogers’s parents and their friends, who carry on despite constant threats of violence and loss in a country that no longer wants them.
Rogers grew up in Zimbabwe, on various farms his parents owned, but he’s been gone for some time, working as a journalist and travel writer in London and New York. His parents stayed on, living at Drifters, a popular backpackers’ lodge and game farm that they ran successfully for many years. In the current political situation, with the government encouraging blacks to freely appropriate white farmers’ lands, inflation running at thousands of percents daily, and gangs of thugs terrorizing blacks and whites alike, the country is in shambles. It’s clearly unsafe for Ros and Lyn Rogers to remain where they are. It’s also clear that they’re not going to give in–Zimbabwe is their home. Rogers writes about his frequent trips back to Drifters to visit and each time there’s new and fiendish turn in the already-nightmarish situation. The lodge turns into a brothel, then a hangout for illegal diamond dealers; the cottages that used to hold vacationers are now rented to friends who have been dispossessed. Government ministers and spies move into the area with designs on the Rogerses property. Through it all, his parents plan and hope, hatching schemes to carry on and survive. It is, after all, their beautiful home.
Rogers writes about what it was like to grow up in Zimbabwe; he also writes about the current political situation. But the book is is really Rogers’s poignant and funny tribute to his parents and their incredible resilience and optimism, their love of a beautiful place that was once a flourishing community.  The albino frog sits above the coffee pot in his parents’ kitchen, witness to the chaos and a touching symbol of their refusal to be dislodged.
There are many wonderful memoirs written by people who grew up in or spent time in Africa, revealing the incredible diversity of cultures, landscapes, and histories. For an annotated list of titles that I have enjoyed, along with some novels set in Africa, click here.  More about Rogers and his indomitable parents is at www.douglasrogers.org

Weekends at Bellevue

When I was growing up, the name “Bellevue” was shorthand for the hospital that took in the crazies. Reading Julie Holland’s new memoir, Weekends in Bellevue: Nine Years on the Night Shift at the Psych ER I learned that it still has that reputation. It’s the place where the police bring the naked guy who’s barking like a dog in Times Square, along with the bridge jumpers, the violent schizophrenics, and the ones feigning psychosis in order to get a meal and a warm bed. Holland, a psychiatrist, was always drawn to the extreme cases and enjoyed working two fifteen hour shifts each weekend to have the week off with her family. Her cool-girl, tough talking exterior served her well, or so she thought, with patients who were verbally and physically violent until she realized she wasn’t coping with the pain those traits masked. My favorite medical memoirs combine good storytelling with insight about the teller; Holland does both those things well.
I’ve put together a list of additional memoirs by doctors that I think are particularly interesting.

Cartwheels in a Sari: A Memoir of Growing Up Cult by Jayanti Tamm

Jayanti Tamm starts her wonderful memoir with the story about how her parents, total strangers to each other, were married by Guru Sri Chinmoy after a meditation session, agreeing to dedicate their lives to his cult. Tamm, the child of their supposedly celibate Cartwheelsunion, was hailed as the Chosen One, with a coveted relationship with the charismatic Guru. She grew up wearing saris, spending her nights at meditation sessions, competing for Guru’s attention and signs of his approval. Guru controlled the lives of his followers, distorted family relationships, chased after fame for himself, and eagerly sought celebrity converts. As a teenager, Tamm saw the hypocrisy in Guru’s world and desperately tried to separate herself from the cult. With the hard-won insights of a survivor, Tamm tells how she endured the ostracism of friends and family and the anguish of losing the only safe haven she had ever known. This is an unusual and very absorbing coming-of-age memoir.

I heard Jayanti speak about Cartwheels in a Sari, read the book, and was delighted when she agreed to an interview. You can find out more about Jayanti and her memoir at www.jayantitamm.com

Roz: What made you decide to write a memoir at this point in your life? Was it a difficult decision?

Jayanti: When I was banished from the cult in 1995, all of my energies were focused on trying to create a life in the ‘outside’ world. Attending college, forming relationships, and discovering the realms that had been forbidden to me, took all of my energies. I was also too angry and confused to be able to clearly analyze everything that I had gone through. In fact it wasn’t until after my parents were banished from the cult in 2002, that, for the first time, we were able to speak openly about our experiences. Prior to that, as ‘good disciples,’ we had always kept our concerns and feelings about the cult to ourselves. Therefore once my parents left, I felt as though it was safe to explore my past. I began therapy, which was extremely helpful. During that period, I realized that if I was ever going to be able to fully understand and process all that had happened to me, I needed to examine my past. As writing was always something that I had enjoyed—I’ve been keeping diaries since I was five—it seemed that writing my story would be a way to better understand my own life, and to possibly be able to help other people by sharing my story.

Roz: You recall some very personal memories in your book. Would it have been easier for you to fictionalize the names and places and write it as a novel?

Jayanti: I believe the best memoirs are the ones that honestly and openly head directly into the areas that are deemed as the most shameful, personal, and hurtful. It is exactly there, riskily venturing into those hidden and secret memories, that the writer finds the most important lessons.

For me, writing my memoir was part of my own healing, so I knew that trying to hide my truth through fiction would not serve my true purpose.

Roz: Guru discouraged normal family relationships: the most important relationship for you, your parents, and your brother was the one each had with Guru. Once you left Guru, how hard was it for you to understand what a good relationship between parent and child could be?

Jayanti: Since I never had a ‘normal’ family—the guru was the central figure in our lives, the one who made all our decisions—my family never partook in traditional family activities—weddings, birthday parties, and barbeques. It is only now that I have my own family—I’m married and have a baby daughter—that I am learning and testing out what it means to have a family on my own terms.

Roz: How did your parents react when you told them you were going to write a memoir? Have there been any unexpected consequences?

Jayanti: Because my parents had left the cult in 2002, when I told them that I was writing a memoir about growing up in the cult, they were incredibly supportive. Both my mother and father were gracious and generous about sharing their stories with me for my book. I’m so grateful for all of their support. Without their input, it would have been impossible to have fully told the story of my family.

However, not everyone in my family has been supportive. My brother and my aunt are still devout disciples, and they have not spoken to me in years. When the news leaked out that I was writing a memoir, my brother sent my mother an angry email, chastising her for supporting my efforts.

Roz: Has writing your memoir changed your view of that time of your life? Did you learn something new about yourself from writing your memoir?

Jayanti: Writing Cartwheels in a Sari has been a life altering experience. I have gained so much by the entire process, and I feel so humbled to have had my story published and to have received wide-spread critical acclaim. From both writing and later in speaking about my memoir, I have gained an understanding about just how complicated the subject matter truly is—there are no easy answers.

Often at book events, people ask me why a person would decide to join a cult? And why did the leader have such a powerful hold over the followers? In the memoir I explore those questions, and though I offer a series of possible explanations, there isn’t a single, clear answer. Much of what occurs in the memoir has to do with the amorphous issue of faith—when one possesses faith one views the world a certain way, and when that faith suddenly disappears, the world is permanently altered forever, even though, in a sense, nothing has actually changed. It’s truly fascinating.

Roz: Have your childhood experiences as a member of a cult made you skeptical about organized religion in general?

Jayanti: Currently, I have no desire to follow any type of religion. I’m extremely skeptical about placing my trust in any leader or teachings. I’m very happy enjoying the secular world and being my own teacher.

Roz: What was the one area of your memoir that you wondered if you should put in? Are you glad you did?

Jayanti: Every episode that I initially hesitated to use, that filled me with a sense of apprehension, even dread, was what I understood had to be included. A memoir is the last place to withhold and censor truth from the reader. It has to be open and honest, bearing all that has occurred.

Roz: Do you feel that your memoir is strictly faithful to what happened? Does it matter if memoir is not strictly faithful to what happened? Could it ever be?

Jayanti: Memoirs, of course, allow for the author to reconstruct events by splicing memories with emotions. The memoir presents the truth through a personal filter. My memoir is the truth as it happened to me and my family.

Roz: What are you reading now?

Jayanti: Because my new project is a novel, for inspiration, I am delving into novels by talented and prolific storytellers. I just finished reading Anne Tyler’s Digging to America, and now I’m reading Nick Hornby’s About a Boy.