Sunday, July 19, 2009

Memoirs, in Memory of Frank McCourt

The passing of Frank McCourt, the 78-year-old author of the wildly successful Angela's Ashes, made me think about the memoir — specifically, what good memoirs I have read.

I will give McCourt his props. His memoir was grand, sweeping and one of the most heart-wrenching books I had read to date. It broke my heart to read about children experiencing such abject poverty, hunger, cold and disillusionment. I watched the movie with my friend Carole the first weekend of its release, and neither of us was a terribly happy camper when we left the theater that night.

Here are a few other memoirs (in no particular order) I think are worth reading.

  • If I am Missing or Dead by Janine Latus. A thoughtful and harrowing story of the author's younger sister — but even more so, the story of the author herself. The book jacket starts the story with the disappearance of the younger sister, but the author wisely begins the story at the right place: at her own beginning.
  • The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls. For those of us who did not experience it, parental neglect seems unfathomable. Try cranking it up a notch or 12 with Walls' book. I borrowed Carole's copy, tabs and all, and I was floored at the conditions under which these parents kept the children. The author begins her tale with an anecdote: seeing her mother living as a streetperson in Manhattan. Most authors wouldn't know where to go from there. Walls takes us to the right memories, weaving a story of sadness and disappointment that lingers.
  • I Dreamed of Africa by Kuki Gallmann. Africa takes center stage in this memoir of a European woman who escapes to Africa after tragedies in her life. For her, Africa is home and we experience her life in a very visceral way. I cried more than once as I read her tales of hardship and sadness, loss and despair. It was one of the most beautifully written books I had ever read.
  • How I Lost Five Pounds in Six Years by Tom Arnold. I laughed, I cried. It was a sweet, honest and rare story. The persona Arnold presents to his audience as an actor or a TV writer is much different than the love story he writes to his future children. I laughed at his self-deprecating humor. I appreciated the difference between a joke at his expense and being a joke — and never was he the latter. I loved this book so much I purchased a copy to use as a reference guide when I wrote my own memoir. (I will, however, leave out the meat processing plant job in mine.)
  • Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortensen. It's the story of a hiker who gets lost on his way down from trying to climb Mt. Everest and winds up in a tiny village whose inhabitants tend him back to health. In return, he promises to build them a school. Only he doesn't stop at one school for one village. I mentioned this book to my friend Wayne before his deployment to Afghanistan; he lamented the dove-ish approach of education, reminding me the true responsibility of the military. On his first R&R six months later, he commented that his humanitarian efforts made more difference by far than his military might. I think Greg would have agreed.

What are some memoirs you have enjoyed — or not?

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Read It and Marvel at Their Courage

Have you ever read the Declaration of Independence? It's a surprisingly direct document. (Go here and watch some amazing people read it aloud for you.)

Then think about what we're doing here today: celebrating our freedom from tyranny, the courage of our forebears. It's a miracle that we have today what they conceived, roughly, in 1776. It took a few years to iron out a few of the details, but the single act of sedition did a lot for our nation and our expectations of the world.

It's a fantastic and wonderful gift we have been given. We accept it without a second thought and toss around the word "rights" without contemplation and without giving it the gravitas it deserves.

So, when you're enjoying that barbecue and watching those fireworks, please take a moment to think about what you're celebrating.

Then make sure you do what you can to keep the flame of liberty, human rights and democracy shining as best you can in your corner of the world — and keep an eye on the people we've chosen to do the same on our behalf.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Declaration of Independence

Have you ever read it? I mean, really sat down and read the words that brought about this nation?

It was an insanely seditious thing to do, declare independence from the monarchy.

Everyone was in a monarchy in those days (the "gang" of the 18th century), so the colony that went out on a limb to become its own country would stand alone. Only France, itself on the cusp of revolution, would deign to support its independent brethren.

An even more important question is who among the world's monarchs would not try to quash said revolution? Think about it: if one small upstart colony was successful, how many colonies would try the same thing? Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.

So, please watch this video I view often to remind me what the Declaration of Independence meant back in 1776 when Benjamin Franklin declared, "We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately." And appreciate the risks taken by our forebears who risked much to create the cornerstone of this ever-evolving democratic republic.

Happy Independence Day. Sic semper tyrannis.