Wednesday, August 1, 2012
Nine Good Reads
Looking for a good summer read that's engaging and not vapid? A good beach book for someone who likes a good story? Try these memoirs that have inspired me has I write my own memoir:
One early memoir, Thoreau’s Walden, tells of Thoreau’s reflections on his experiences in a little cabin by a little pond. As a teenager and young adult, I was inspired by Thoreau’s passion for seeking the truth. That passion inspires me still. If you read the book or saw the movie Into tthe Wild, Thoreau's writing inspired McCandless to go into the wilds of Alaska, an inspiration that led to his death and to an excellent sound track by Eddie Veder.
Another early memoir, Elie Wiesel’s powerfully slim volume Night, invited me into the young Wiesel’s central question: Can there be a God of goodness when pain and cruelty hold such sway in this world?
Both texts integrated storytelling with reflection on larger questions; both were about circumstances and the thinking about those circumstances. I hope my book combines storytelling with existential questions. I hope my book is about fear and courage. I hope that it is about doubt and faith.
With my freshmen students in my last year of teaching high school English, I read and studied Luis Rodriguez’s excellent memoir, Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in LA. When Rodriguez was a teenager, he began writing the story of his involvement in gangs and then his separation from gangs. He finished the memoir as an adult when his son began getting involved in gangs, but the story was not powerful enough to keep his son, who is now serving a life sentence for manslaughter, out of prison. A colleague told me of a freshman in her remedial reading class who was reading Always Running, though it was significantly above his reading level. When she asked why, his eyes swelled with tears, “I want to learn how he got out.” Though Rodriguez’s son did not learn this lesson from his father’s story, other children do.
Though I’ve never been involved with gang life, I learned about a life and struggles different than mine when I read Rodriguez’s book. I hope that my memoir, too, will be helpful for others who have had my struggles and will help those who have not had such struggles connect with a story different than their own.
I have also loved Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, especially her reminiscence of a simple moment, patting a puppy, and being present. Dillard’s call to be present has guided many of my adult moments, and I have tried to integrate this call in my life and in my writing.
Patti Smith’s Just Kids, her portrait of the young adult relationship between her and Robert Maplethorpe, the relationship of soul mates, made me cry out of my right eye, an eye that hasn’t otherwise teared in the four years since surgery. I hope that my story of soul mates, of Ann and me, inspires tears, too, though perhaps these tears will be tears of joy.
I love Piper Kerman’s Orange is the New Black, Kerman’s story of a year in federal prison, and I hope that in my memoir I am able to tell stories that connect others to my experience and my vision in the way that she has connected with me.
I probably seemed a little crazy as I laughed my way through David Sedaris’s Me Talk Pretty One Day on a cross-country plane ride. Lots of people make me chuckle, but only David Sedaris makes me hee-haw. Though Sedaris writes personal essays, not officially memoir, he draws on his experiences growing up with an eccentric family in North Carolina, just as I do.
When I was visiting a colleague’s Language Arts classroom one day, the students were reading a Sedaris essay, and I told them that David Sedaris and I had gone to first grade together (In 1970, we went to E.C. Brooks Elementary School in Raleigh, North Carolina, but I don’t remember him, and I doubt he remembers me.) I asked the knot of students that I was talking to, “Do you ever wonder who in your class might turn out to be famous?” One girl opened her eyes wide and whispered, “I think about that all the time.”
My first yoga teacher, Denise, told me that my writing reminds her of Anne Lamott’s writing, so my partner Ann read aloud Lamott’s memoir, Traveling Mercies, for us to share. Though Lamott’s struggles are different from mine, she has a sense of humor about herself and her journey that I admire. Her writing, like mine, combines humor and storytelling with reflection on God and love. She, too, wonders how best to live her life. I am flattered by the comparison.
Now I'm reading Mary Karr's memoir, The Liar's Club, the engaging story of growing up tough with a "Nervous" mom. Mary Karr's older sister argued that young Mary should trade her little dimes for something much larger, and therefore surely more valuable, like pennies. I made the same argument with my Sister Jen when we were young, and I enjoy the number of connections I find in this classic.
From teaching English, I believe that the best writing teachers are the writers who inspire us, and for these mentors I am thankful.
Let's make it a top ten. What do you recommend?