Monthly Archives: May 2013

The Art of the Memoir


I have been thinking lately about what makes a successful memoir. This came up because I recently read two memoirs, and they made for an interesting contrast. The two new books I read were Shakespeare Saved My Life: Ten Years in Solitary with the Bard, by Laura Bates; and Turn Around Bright Eyes: The Rituals of Love and Karaoke, by Rob Sheffield. To test my theories, I also re-read Jack Gantos’s Printz-honor winning memoir, Hole in My Life. 

I have thought for years that memoir is a particularly difficult literary form. For one thing, to be effective, a memoir has to have a structure–it can’t just be “I did this, then I did that.” The best memoirs have a theme, and/or focus on only one relatively small part of the author’s life. All three of these books do that, to some extent.

Gantos tells the story of the years when he was about ages 17-20, in which he finished high school living on his own in a welfare motel, then got a job sailing 2000 pounds of hashish from St. Croix to New York, then got arrested and jailed for it, served his time, and started college and his writing career. Sheffield focuses on karaoke and how his love for it helped bring him out of the funk he was in after his first wife died (when they were both 31), and led him to his second wife. He uses a frame device of a night of karaoke to tell his personal story, as well as the story of karaoke and of some of the music involved. Bates is an English professor who spent more than ten years teaching Shakespeare in prisons, including in super-maximum security facilities and focuses on one particular prison and one particular prisoner.

So far, so good. However, even on this initial criterion, Bates stumbles by failing to keep it tightly focused. She can’t quite seem to decide if the story is about herself and her writing/teaching/volunteering, about prisons, about Shakespeare, or about Larry Newton, the prisoner. In fact, the longer the book goes, the more she veers into the story of Newton, and the less interesting it gets, in many ways. I would have been quite happy to have had the whole book be about just the prisoners and Shakespeare–how they interpreted the plays, their discussions, and so on. Although even there, I was a little irritated by her constant assertions that Newton had come up with brand-new, never-before-heard-of interpretations of Shakespeare. Really? After 500 years and thousands upon thousands of Shakespeare scholars, no one has ever discussed that particular aspect? Well, she’s the one with a PhD in Shakespeare studies, so maybe she’s right, but I somehow doubt it.Shakespeare

I have decided that there is another critical component of the well-written memoir: the author has to be able to tell stories  without coming across as completely full of himself/herself. On that score, Gantos soars, Sheffield does pretty well, and Bates flounders. She can’t seem to tell a story without patting herself on the back. Even the stories about mistakes turn into stories about what a great recovery she made.

Gantos, in contrast, has got self-deprecation down to an artform. He is honest, straightforward, and absolutely hilarious. His story about the days after his arrest, when his face broke out in a massive acne attack, and how he squeezed the zits: “This was very satisfying, this cleansing ritual. I’d punish my face as if I were a cop roughing up a suspect for a confession. . . . I figured my face was the landscape of my attitude.” Brilliant! Gross, but funny and very, very true. Hole

The whole book is like that–an unflinching look at himself at one particular time in his life, when he made a whole series of stupid decisions, but somehow managed to land on his feet. Running throughout is his love of literature and his desire to write. I’m glad I re-read this, because it is wonderful, funny, touching, and beautifully written. I’ll be interested to see how it fares when you get to 2003 in your What Should’ve Won series.

Rob Sheffield is cut much more in the Gantos mode than in the Bates mode. I read and loved his first memoir, Love is a Mix Tape, which was the story of his life with his first wife, told through the lens of the mix tapes they made for one another. Sheffield writes for Rolling Stone, and he obviously loves popular music in all its many variations. To some extent, Sheffield can’t quite decide if this is a book about karaoke, or if it’s a story about his life. There were a couple of chapters that, while delightful, didn’t really fit into the overall arc of the story. But he has a way of pulling you along, especially if you know any of the music he’s talking about.

Bright eyesLike Gantos, he can be absolutely unflinching when talking about his own foibles. His chapter about going to a rock and roll fantasy camp is hilarious: he can’t sing, can’t play and instrument, and even has trouble with the tambourine (including massive bruises on his thighs). He can’t even talk to the  rock musicians who are at the camp without feeling stupid. He says:

“Why am I like this? Is it because I want to show off? Is it because I want extra credit for all my extra listening? Is it an ego thing where I’m trying to impress them with obnoxiously knowledgeable insights? Or is it because I want to reassure them their lifetime of music was spent wisely? I really don’t know. But remembering which dude in which band sang which song, or knowing every dusty nook and cranny of their discography–it’s like an obnoxious party trick I can’t stop doing.”

Later in the same section he says, “The possibility that I’m a dick, not for the first time this week, hovers before me.”

I don’t think a memoir has to be funny in order to be good, but I do think that a memoir writer has to have a sense of humor about himself, and acknowledge his failures as well as his successes.

I know you’re not much of a fan of the memoir/biography/autobiography form, but any thoughts on the subject?

– Mom



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What Should’ve Won: Printz 2000


Over on The Cockeyed Caravan, Matt Bird had an excellent series (which I hope he continues) called What Should’ve Won That Could’ve Won, in which he went through the winners of the first several Academy Award for Best Picture and discussed the movies that had a chance and decided what really should have won.  I like this idea so much that I’m going to steal borrow it for this website, except looking, of course, at YA books.

So for my inaugural piece, I’ll look at the very first Printz award in 2000:

Monster-MyersThe Publishing Year: 1999

The Winner: Monster by Walter Dean Myers

The Honor Books: Skellig by David Almond; Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson; and Hard Love by Ellen Wittlinger

Other Books to Consider: The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky; Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis; When Zachary Beaver Came to Town by Kimberly Willis Holt; Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by JK Rowling

What Should Have Won: Speak

I admit that I haven’t read Hard Love or Zachary Beaver (the winner of that year’s National Book Award for Young People’s Literature), but this is really just a two way race between Speak and Monster.  Both books were on the Printz list and the NBA list. Twelve years later, they were in the finals against each other at the 2012 ALA Pre-Conference discussion, which I discussed here. It is incredible that they both came out in that first year of the Printz, as they managed to set a pretty impossible gold standard for YA Literature right out of the gate.

And Monster is, obviously, a tremendous book and a worthy Printz winner. In fact, I might be willing to argue that it is the best book to have won the Printz Award.  Myers’s trenchant examination of American legal system, especially as it functions with respect to poor, young, black, men is (unfortunately) seemingly timeless.  And the way that he intersects the intricacies of legal guilt with the vagaries of moral guilt (while cleverly concealing from the reader key information about Steve’s actions) is nothing short of amazing.  Add to that his formal innovation of having the text consist almost entirely of Steve’s screenplay of his life–a trick which offers an entirely new and interesting take on the unreliable narrator–and you have a really stunning book.

So why shouldn’t Monster have won? Well, mostly just because it happened to be released in the same year as probably the best YA book of all time. But I do have some slight criticisms of the novel as well.  The screenplay style, which is so effective most of the time, does lead to a few pitfalls.  There are two brief flashbacks to Steve’s film class which complement the action in the courtroom–these scenes work perfectly when considered as Myers’s comments on the drama, but when you take them (as the reader is supposed to) as being introduced by Steve himself, they become too cute by half.  The screenplay technique also gives Myers just a little too much of an excuse to load the beginning of the novel with exposition.  Still, these are very minor concerns, and there are very few YA books out there that are better than Monster.

speak-laurie-halse-andersonBut one of those is Speak.  Speak actually shares many of Monster‘s strengths–a subtle look at a difficult social topic (in this case rape), an engaging but somewhat unreliable narrator, the decision to withhold crucial facts from the reader for a time, the contrast between the public and private selves of the protagonist, the theme of art as redemption, and probably more that I’ve missed.  But in my view, Anderson handles these strengths even better than Myers, and adds a few. 

I’ve said many times, that I think the novel’s greatest strength is Melinda’s voice, and I think it is much stronger than Steve’s–most importantly because of her biting humor, which helps to obscure how many pain she is in.  In terms of the “art as redemption” theme, though Myers is more committed to his theme, by allowing Steve’s art to take center stage, I find Anderson’s use of the theme more convincing, for several reasons: 1) because of the flaws in the screenplay technique, described above, 2) because we are able to see Melinda’s growth as an artist and gradual commitment to it, as opposed to Steve’s seemingly already fully formed artistic ambitions, 3) for the much more fully explored relationship between Melinda and her art teacher–as opposed to the underdeveloped character of Steve’s film teacher.

And of course there is Anderson’s prose.  Not to take anything away from Myers, but Anderson is the better stylist. From the well-known first paragraph (“It is my first morning of high school. I have seven new notebooks, a skirt I hate, and a stomachache”) on, Anderson loads her text with sentences that are at once witty, well-formed, and freighted with meaning.

There is much more to be said about both of these novels, but I’ll leave it there for now.  There are many many devoted fans of The Perks of Being a Wallflower–I wonder if anyone wants to make a case for it over Monster and Speak?  Or should I have taken another look at the best book in the Hary Potter series? Or either of the highly touted books from that year that I’ve never read?

– Mark


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Lucy Variations


Finally, a new YA book I can feel genuinely enthusiastic about! I just read Sara Zarr’s new book, The Lucy Variations. It has been getting strong reviews all around,LucyVariations' and rightly so. I always am fascinated by books about teenagers who are particularly talented and/or driven.

In this case, Lucy is talented but not so driven–at least not any more. Eight months before the book’s dramatic opening scene (in which Lucy tries, but fails, to resuscitate  her brother’s music teacher, who has had a stroke), Lucy has walked off the stage at a music competition in Prague. Since then, she has not played a note on the piano.

She is now back in high school, in San Francisco, while her younger brother Gus prepares to take up the family mantle of musical prodigy. Lucy is trying to discover who she might be without music in her life, when her mother and grandfather are the sort of people for whom life without music is nothing at all. She has a crush on her English teacher, Mr. Charles–I loved the part where she chooses to write a paper on Alice Munro’s short stories, because a Google search has informed her that he wrote his thesis on Munro. Lucy is used to being around adults, and to getting her own way with them, and it is interesting to watch her as she realizes that Mr. Charles fully understands his role as teacher, not friend.

A lot of the book centers around Lucy’s relationship with Will, her brother’s new music teacher. Will is an interesting character, and I think Zarr does a great job of presenting him–through Lucy’s eyes–as someone who has a genuine interest in Lucy and in her playing, but who also has some very personal issues tied up in it as well. In some ways, he’s the anti-Mr. Charles. He clearly wants to serve as mentor and friend to Lucy, but he isn’t always completely clear about where the lines should be drawn. He wants to help her, but also he feels compelled to use her in the fulfillment of his own career. 

Just as an aside, the San Francisco locale was done very well, and my absolutely favorite part was when Will and his wife Aruna invite Lucy to a party at their home, and Lucy finds out that they live in Daly City: “Lucy couldn’t picture Will and Aruna in a gray place like Daly City. She’d assumed they lived somewhere hip like Cole Valley or the Haight.” Heh!

So, anyway, I think there is a lot going on in this book, and it could definitely bear re-reading. Lucy’s relationships with her mother, her father, her grandfather, her brother, and her best friend are all drawn beautifully and skillfully. As Lucy learns more about who she is and what she wants to do, those relationships all change, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, but in ways that feel very right.

I hope you read this book so we can discuss it more fully later on.

– Mom


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Bad Covers


Yeah, expectations can be a tricky thing, and are the subject of what I was planning on writing about yesterday morning when I saw your post.  So I’ll just keep to it: bad covers.  We’ve talked about covers before: how to judge a book by its cover and why NBA Winner Goblin Secrets changed its cover while still in hardcover.  But today I want to talk about the truly terrible covers of a couple of books I read over the weekend–terrible both because I think the artwork is atrocious and because I think they give entirely misleading expectations to the prospective reader.

janet frameThe first is a “new” story collection by Janet Frame called Between My Father and the King. I put new in quotations marks because, of course, she’s been dead for a decade, but it is new in the sense that these stories have never been collected before (and many of them never published).  First, take a look at the cover to the right and think about what it might be about.  If you’ve never read Frame before, her writing can be bitingly sarcastic, heartbreakingly moving, and formally inventive.  She writes sharply about her childhood, her time in a mental institution, the hypocricies of small-town life and much, much more.  None of that is even vaguely hinted at by this dreadfully boring photograph of the New Zealand countryside (or at least, I hope it is New Zealand, since Frame is New Zealand’s preeminent writer). 

a-corner-of-whiteThe other book I read over the weekend was Jaclyn Moriarty’s A Corner of White, which was suggested by our friend Beth Fama, though she hasn’t read it yet.  I read the Janet Frame collection because I know she is great and I’ve read one of her novels.  In the case of the Moriarty novel, if I hadn’t been stuck on a plane for five hours on Friday, I wouldn’t have read it at all.  Honestly, I was embarrassed to be reading it.  The novel itself is funny, with a distinct hint of Pratchett, with a nice metafictional conceit–Elliott, who lives in the magical Kingdom of Cello, and Madeleine, who lives in The World (that is, the “real” world) begin to communicate by letter through a crack between the worlds.  But Madeleine is convinced that she is communicating with a fellow real-world teen with an overactive imagination, and quickly begins critiquinig the more cliched aspects of Cello’s fantasy world.  There’s much more to the book, and I quite recommend taking a look at it.  But the point is: that cover!  It looks like it’s advertising a direct-to-DVD Disney movie or something.  The sparklering stars! The flying umbrella! The red rain boots!  None of that has anything to do with the novel, by the way. 

corner of white2As I was looking for a jpg of the cover for the novel, I noticed that there’s another cover out there.  Moriarty is Australian, so presumably this is the original cover.  I’m not terribly crazy about this cover either, but at least 1) the rainbow has something to do with the plot (too complicated to explain), and 2) the photograph is mildly aesthetically pleasing.

Anyway, I don’t particularly want to get into a discussion of the worst covers ever, or anything, but the connection between these books gave me a good excuse to let you know what I’ve been reading, and, as I said, I think it ties into questions of expectations, since in both cases, the intended target audience of the cover art is a very different group from the intended audience of the book.



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I recently read and reviewed (for VOYA) a debut YA novel called The Color of Rain, by Cori McCarthy. It was decently-written (“a not-bad book”) but there was something about it that kept bugging me, and it wasn’t until I finished it and started writing the review that I realized what it was. It had to do with expectations, and that got me thinking about that in a larger context.

First, about the book: it’s a science fiction book, set in some unknown future time in which space travel exists. Rain and her brother Walker live in Earth City (which may or may not be actually on planet Earth). Walker, like many other residents of Earth City, including their dead parents, is “Touched”; that is, his mind is going. It appears to be something like a very early-onset Alzheimer’s. The Touched are, well, untouchables. They are rounded up and taken away, and Rain wants to protect Walker from that at all costs. In fact, Rain wants to get Walker away from Earth City and to the Edge, where there is hope for a cure.ColorofRain

In order to accomplish this, Rain makes a deal with a spaceship runner named Johnny: “whatever you have for whatever you need.” What Rain needs is to get off-planet with Walker. What she has is her body. So that’s the deal she makes with Johnny. She becomes one of Johnny’s girls, bound to him by an electronic bracelet. The girl whose bracelet glows red is Johnny’s favorite; green means elite–they’re offered to Johnny’s hand-picked clients; blue girls trade themselves to the passengers for money; yellow girls are relegated to the crew deck.

Yes, it’s “Prostitutes in Space.” There is, of course, lots more going on. Rain, with the help of one of Johnny’s bodyguards, a sweet “Mec” (mechanically enhanced human) named Ben, discovers that the hold is loaded with Touched that are to be sold, lobotomized, and used as disposable labor units, and she conspires with Ben to release them. Meanwhile, she tries to keep on Johnny’s good side in order to keep Walker alive and healthy. There’s action, intrigue, and some romance. There are some interesting moral questions about how we make decisions. All in all, as I said, a not-bad book.

But here’s the thing: I realized that I was having trouble with the fact that this was a science fiction book in which every single woman character was a sex object, and only a sex object. “Wait a minute,” my brain kept whispering to me, “this is supposed to be the future. Men and women are supposed to be equal in the future. Spaceships are supposed to have female officers and crew, along with the men.”

Yes, I know there’s Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale, and I’m sure there are other books set in the future in which women are objectified and demeaned. But I think there has been a long-standing trend in science fiction to show a different kind of future and a different kind of relationship between men and women. Even Robert Heinlein, who was pretty much a sexist pig (at least in his writing; I know nothing about his personal life) had female sex objects who were smart and clever and had positions of power.

So reading The Color of Rain got me thinking about the expectations we bring to certain genres and types of stories, and what happens when those expectations aren’t met. I know there are people who simply won’t read a book if it thwarts their expectations. I’m kind of inclined to admire McCarthy here for turning a convention on its head, and I’m curious about how and why she came up with this idea.

I may have more to say on this topic, but I’m still mulling it over. How about you? Any examples of books that defied your expectations in a good (or bad) way?

– Mom

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