What's a Common Reader -- and what is Uncommon Reading?

Virginia Woolf defined a common reader as someone who is not a scholar; not a critic. A common reader "reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole." By that definition, I'm definitely a common reader -- reading an uncommonly large and diverse collection of books.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Delicate Art of the Memoir

Ask anyone who knows me, and they'll tell you I'm an outspoken foe of most memoirs. It sometimes feels as if everyone who has endured some kind of trauma in their life has channeled it into a writing project as a form of therapy, and then sought readers. And they find them, in the same way that daytime television and reality television find viewers -- millions and millions of them. But the problem many memoir writers have is that they forget -- like a lot of non-writers do -- that while they may be the central figure in their own melodrama, to most of the rest of us they are at best walk-on characters of marginal interest. So, for a memoir to be interesting enough for me to even contemplate reading -- much less finish -- it needs to be exceptional in some way -- the subject matter, the writing, the narrative arc, etc. etc. The reason I feel rather jaundiced about this is that relatively few books manage to leap these hurdles, and I'm left wishing the author had simply decided to channel their experiences into a novel.

I've just finished reading two books that, while they had their merits, left me wishing for more. (One probably didn't set out to be a memoir, but ended up feeling enough like a family story for me to lump it in this 'group' review.) But before I tackle them, I thought I'd give a shout-out to one book that I thought almost perfectly captured what a memoir can become, in the right hands. The book, Losing my Cool, is one that I got a copy of when I participated in a Media Bistro group reading last summer; the author, Thomas Chatterton Williams, and I were among five people reading from newly-published books. When I first spotted it, I made a little face (to myself!) and said "oh no, not another memoir..." When Williams began to read an excerpt (about his first time in a really up-market grocery, like Dean & DeLuca, when his white friend tells him to get a baguette, and he decides that must be a small kind of bag...) I began changing my mind. A few months later, I picked up the book and read it cover to in a single evening, captivated. Sure, the message was important -- Chatterton wrote about his realization that emulating hip hop culture might make him accepted among his peers, but wasn't going to satisfy any of his other goals, and how the intensive education his father had given him was something he could draw on in an effort to become his own person. But Chatterton wrote with wit, verve and flair -- and a degree of wry self-knowledge that was irresistible. I felt as if I was being taken into the world he inhabited growing up, and sharing his efforts to build an identity among the noise of inner-city New Jersey. The result: a five-star book that just happened to be a memoir; one of my best reads of last year.

This month I picked up a copy of Read My Hips by Kimberly Brittingham (another Media Bistro alum; she and I took some classes together and were part of a small writer's group that met after the class expired.) I knew what to expect from her work: she has a remarkably vivid style and a way of telling stories about her life that pulls the reader into her work. And the book she chose to write (not the project she was working on at the time of our Media Bistro classes) is a book on a mission -- to persuade/remind the world that folks who are overweight or obese are interesting, engaging, active and even sexy individuals and deserve to be seen as individuals rather than just a number on a scale. Now, anyone making that case for a group such as the disabled -- even those left disabled because they took foolish risks bungee-jumping or skiing -- would get a sympathetic hearing, and a nod of understanding an acceptance; a kind of "of course, and what a fascinating tale." But as anyone who has ever been overweight knows all too well, that's not the case with weight -- enough people see them as no more than the sum total of their surplus pounds, judge them and then proceed to make it very clear that they have been judged -- for it to affect their self-esteem. In many ways, what Brittingham does in this booked is aimed squarely at her peers -- those who have been the target of disgusted or even angry comments from strangers, and who have struggled to accept themselves. And on that level, the book works brilliantly -- learn how to strut when you walk; learn that people accept you at your own valuation of yourself; be comfortable with who you are as a person; all great lessons to learn.

What doesn't quite click, despite the author's knack with anecdotes and all her wit, is anything broader. The book is a collection of short, episodic sketches (one of the most hilarious being her experiences riding a Manhattan bus with a fake book cover bearing the title "Fat is Contagious") that are linked together only loosely. Too often, I was brought back to the message at the expense of a coherent narrative of the author's own life. That left me with gaps that I wanted to fill, and a narrative that didn't satisfy me as a reader. Don't get me wrong; I was entertained, amused and made to think even more about these issues. But the book could have transcended that and become more deeply personal, the story of one woman's voyage. True, the reader gets glimpses, but it's in the context of Brittingham's discovery of the joys of fresh vegetables or bicycling, rather than as part of a coherent narrative arc. The result was a book that read like a collection of memoirish essays instead of a memoir that might have drawn in an audience that didn't think they cared about the topic but found on reading the first pages that because they care about the narrator, they end up sharing her vision. So this was a 3.5 star book for me.

Of these three, the book that has the best potential (it will be published next week) to reach the broadest audience is Precious Objects: A Story of Diamonds, Family and a Way of Life by Alicia Oltuski. It's probably not exactly a memoir, but was originally intended as something broader, a work of narrative non-fiction about the secretive world of the diamond trade. That's what grabbed my attention and made me eager to read the galleys of the book; I love a well-executed "who knew???" book of any kind, even on unlikely subjects like the codfish. (Mark Kurlansky, stand up and take a bow...) The problem is that this wasn't that well executed: Oltuski's subject matter may sparkle brilliantly, but her prose doesn't. I'll refrain from details until I know whether some of the more egregious malapropisms and cumbersome turns of phrase have been excised from the final book, but I felt as if I was slogging through a series of terribly earnest and well-intentioned magazine articles, not being caught up in a narrative. Because there really is no narrative arc here; no story -- just a series of vignettes about the diamond trade, its personalities and the players. But Oltuski relies so heavily on banal quotes from her interview subjects when as a reader I cried out for more detail, that at times I just had to put this down and go and read something by Tony Horwitz to remind myself that it's possible to turn out something fascinating about even unlikely subjects (like Confederate re-enactors -- see Confederates in the Attic.)

Narrative arc. It's a phrase tossed around a lot among writers, but it means more than having a beginning, middle and an end. It means that the author wants you to accompany them on a journey of discovery and perhaps of self-discovery, and each chapter should add to that process, not simply be another facet of the same basic tale. I learned about artificial diamonds, about women in the diamond industry, about technology and the diamond industry -- but I never learned what Oltuski wanted me to take away from this; the 'elevator pitch' that went beyond taking me behind closed doors in the diamond district. Don't get me wrong: that was fun, but that wasn't enough to save this from being a deeply mediocre book. Hey, read it if you've always wanted to know what goes on on 47th Street, but it's probably safe to skim pages here and there, especially given the caliber of the writing. I yearned for this book to grab me at some point along the way, but ended up concluding that the high point was actually in the first few pages, when the narrator straps on a carrying pouch to transport her father's jewelry safely within the diamond district. This was a 2.9 star book for me; the reason I couldn't give it a higher rating is that even while I reading I was constantly checking to see how many more pages I had left. Not the hallmark of a must-read book -- especially one that is essentially a family memoir, with so much potential.

Some other memoirs I've read and like, against the odds, include the following:
  • The Memory Palace by Mira Bartok: A lot of buzz about this at the 2010 BEA (BookExpo) and it was well-founded; the story of a woman's struggle to recover from neurological trauma and her childhood as the daughter of a schizophrenic mother.
  • Objects of Our Affection by Lisa Tracy: By taking the reader through her family's objects, collected over centuries and each with their own independent and family history, as she decides what to keep and what to sell, Tracy has imposed a fabulous structure on a family narrative and made it appealing to a broader audience. A fave book of 2011.
  • The Music Room by William Fiennes: Fiennes alternates his memories of growing up in an ancient English home with a neurologically-damaged brother with a history of psycho-surgery. 
  • Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett: The novelist tells the story of her closest friend, which is also the story of the demands friends make on each other. Brilliant; the book that convinced me not to shun memoirs outright.


  1. I'm a big fan of memoirs, although not so much of the trauma stories (unless they are very well done). The first two you reviewed piqued my interest. I also really want to read The Memory Palace.

    By the way, isn't the Ann Patchett memoir called Truth and Beauty? That's one of my favourites!

  2. Gahhh, yes, how on earth did I muddle that up?! Have fixed it... Shameful, really, as the Patchett book would have to be on a top 100 books list if I ever drew one up!

  3. I hate memoirs too, and I hate the fact that they are so popular. The only thing that's worse than some of them are the novels of Jodi Picoult.

  4. I wouldn't mind Jodi Picout as much if she didn't seem to be trying so hard all the time to be "literary". I'm a big fan of fluff reads; they fill a niche for me. But books that take themselves too seriously, whether novels or memoir, just get on my last nerve. That's actually one of the things I liked most about "Losing My Cool"; the author had a real sense of what he was and wasn't trying to do, and never thought of himself as speaking for a generation or a group. Which just made his narrative voice all the stronger...

  5. I find memoirs very hit or miss. I worked in a bookshop during the big "tragic life story" boom (now of course replaced by paranormal romance!) and it did seem that everyone who had anything bad happen to them was writing a book about it and getting published.

    I would really like to read The Memory Palace.