Stranger than Fiction November 23, 2009Posted by pupfiction in Book Reviews.
Tags: books, memoirs
Having written Monday’s Book review on memoirs on Saturday, imagine my surprise when I opened the New York Times Sunday Book Review to find a review of Memoir: a History by Ben Yagoda by Judith Shulevitz. While I had set out to explain why I personally found memoirs so enthralling, Shulevitz suggests that Yagoda believes they “justify a life appealingly.” In his book, Yagoda traces the history of memoirs, the ebb and flow of memoir “crazes” and the ever-present attacks on their veracity.
What stood out most to me was Shulevitz’s exploration of our love of memoirs. She asks, “Does our passion for everyone else’s most intimate experiences prove that we’re voyeurs? If so, maybe there’s something to be said for voyeurism. We are social creatures, after all, and memoirizing is a social act”–an argument that one could easily have about social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace. Does this perhaps mean that our rampant love of social networking is a form of memoirizing, that we in fact are the generation most intrigued by the life stories of others?
Perhaps this explains my recent discovery of the wonders of memoirs, as I am a notorious Facebook-er. Never having been a fan of non-fiction, biographies, autobiographies, etc., I was astounded to find myself tearing through The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls, after my mother forced it upon me, comparing it to her own wacky and chaotic childhood. The very next week my friend pressed me into reading Sleeping Arrangements by Laura Shaine Cunningham, a woman she had met through writing workshops. A few weeks later I found myself browsing the very limited section of audiobooks at my public library and picking up a title that sounded familiar — Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs. All three works were some of the most entertaining, interesting, unbelievable page-turners that I had read in a very long time.
Quick summaries of each:
The Glass Castle: the story of an eccentric family headed by an alcoholic father and a mother who generally refuses to do anything more than work on her art. This memoir chronicles the family’s “adventures” across the nation landing them in poor, rural West Virginia where they live in a dilapidated house barely scraping by.
Sleeping Arrangements: chronicles the city life of Laura, from her wacky, sexually obsessed girlhood friends, to her life after her mother passes away, as she is raised by her two unique and very loving bachelor uncles as well as her slightly senile grandmother who shares her bedroom.
Running with Scissors: tells the story of Augusten’s childhood and teen years as he shuffles between the house of his mentally unstable mother and her girlfriends and the squalid, chaotic manor of her shrink and his sizable family. In this unstable environment, Augusten struggles to find love, attention, and stability.
What is it that makes these memoirs so entertaining?
While Yagoda argues (as stated above) that memoirs “justify a life appealingly,” and Shulevitz believes they are voyeuristic, I believe that readers find comfort in comparing their own upbringing to that of the memoirist; often finding that their family members weren’t, in fact, “weird” (or at least not comparatively). But in my experience, it’s just the opposite. My family was so normal, and my upbringing was so standard that I find these memoirs nearly incredible (and sometimes even envy-inducing). My parents never gave us celestial bodies for Christmas. My parents never let me paint the house in pink and orange stripes. My parents never let me skip school for weeks on end. BUT, my parents also never let me go without food for days, choosing “scientific” pursuits over a paying job. I also never had to know the pain of losing my mother at a young age, or never knowing my father. And I, thank God, never had to examine my mother’s psychiatrist’s feces for answers to the future.
Whether you find your life similar to the lives of Walls, Cunningham and Burroughs or categorically different, all autobiographical works have the same undercurrent: the struggle to understand ourselves and our lives, and to find our place in the world. We face the same struggles regardless of circumstance. It doesn’t matter if your upbringing was crazy-chaotic-psychotic, or boring, blessed, and privileged. In the end, we are all human.