I often read about people who spend their Sundays on their overstuffed couches or in bed with many thick pillows reading fat newspapers, like the New York Times or the Washington Post. They read news, opinion, and features, and always mention the book reviews. Their knowledge of books and literature is dazzling.
Here it is Tuesday and I am just now finding time to look at the Sunday March 27 issue of Chicago Tribune Books. On page 3, I have found “A Foundation for Telling Life Stories,” an interesting essay about the recent history of the memoir by Alan Cheuse, who comments on books for National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.”
Cheuse describes his own path to writing Fall Out of Heaven, “a mutt of a book – part memoir, part history, part travel book.” In this book he mixed a draft of a memoir from his father who was a pilot in the early days of the Russian Air Force with a trip he and his son took across the Soviet Union to discover his father’s past. It was a book that he wrote for love that he never expressed while his father lived.
In his essay, Cheuse briefly chronicles the history of the memoir from 1967 to the present. The best memoirs of the period were written by novelists, including Frank Conroy, Frederick Exley, Eudora Welty, and Tobias Wolf. Cheuse contends they all wrote to express their love of the people they knew and appreciation of the hard times they experienced. These authors could “imbue the life with the shape and portentousness of fiction without ever giving over to the lie by which fiction lives.”
Recently, some time soon after the success of Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt, young writers decided to try writing memoirs before attempting fiction. While a few have succeeded in writing good books, Cheuse contends that many have suffered from having not first tested their imaginations through fiction writing. The majority rely on the misery of their lives to carry their stories. He equates their books with reality TV. He implies that both these memoirs and the bad TV will eventually pass.
The bottom half of page 3 of the Chicago Tribune Books are reviews by Kera Bolonik of four recent memoirs, only one of which sounds to me to be worth reading, supporting Cheuse’s thoughts. He may be right overall, but I believe there are good memoirs available. I have read numerous memoirs in the past year that I enjoyed, some of which I have reviewed. Check my archives.