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?


Richard Goodman said...

I haven't really read many memoirs, at least not by non-famous people. I have a Katherine Hepburn memoir sitting on my shelf waiting to read, along with ones by Steve Martin, Juliana Hatfield and Sinbad. I plan to eventually get to A Staggering Work Of Monumental Genius. The only non-celeb memoir I can recall reading is The Liar's Club by Mary Karr. It was quite good.

Chris said...

Oooh, Sinbad wrote his memoir? I will have to read it.

I also have A Staggering Work onmy shelf. It has been said to be good, so I hope it lives up to the hype.