Friday, September 21, 2012

The Critical Mom's Guide to Autobiographies

"Autobiography is irresistible," Oscar Wilde remarked, and explained himself as follows in "The Critic as Artist": 

"When people talk to us about others they are usually dull. When they talk to us about themselves they are nearly always interesting, and if one could shut them up, when they become wearisome, as easily as one can shut up a book of which one has grown wearied, they would be perfect absolutely."   

Now, here are some books I never want to shut:  I open them again and again.  

Mary Antin, The Promised Land (1912) You can read this one online, with pictures.  Werner Sollors, a prominent voice in American Studies, has remarked that Antin "established the genre of the immigrant autobiography," adding that "it's also a great stylistic accomplishment. She's a very good writer, which is remarkable considering the fact that she came here at the age of 13 without knowing a word of English." Arriving in Boston from a Russian Jewish shtetl, Antin asserts that she discards her old self--she is no longer Jewish:  instead, she will be "American."  Her worship of George Washington--which I read as a transfer of her devotions from a religious to a secular sphere--is an interesting comment on how little identity can be changed.

Moustafa Bayoumi, How Does it Feel to Be a Problem?  Being Young and Arab in America (2009) This is not the promised land, but the American nightmare. In the post 9/11 dystopia, Arab-Americans, like Arabs in Europe, are often considered guilty until proven innocent.  The title comes from the question posed by one of the greatest African-American intellectuals of the twentieth century,  W.E.B. Du Bois, who in  in his classic The Souls of Black Folk asked: How does it feel to be a problem?

Augusten Burroughs, Running With Scissors (2002) Memoirs of crazy families abound in the United States, but this one stands out for its wit, wisdom, utter lack of self-pity, and perspective.  No one could invent this dystopic childhood in which his father, possibly an unknown serial killer, nearly murders him, and his mother gives him to her psychiatrist, whose eccentricities include interpreting his own excrement.  Burroughs lived to tell what turns out to be a very funny tale.

Edwidge Danticat, Brother, I'm Dying (2007) A Haitian-American writer with a number of gorgeously written novels and short stories to her credit, Danticat records the agonizing choices made by her father and her uncle, and how the choices to immigrate to America and not to immigrate led them both down difficult paths.  The portrait of her 81-year-old uncle's treatment at the hands of immigration officials, which certainly hastened his death, is a sad comment on American policy.

Philip Roth, Patrimony (1991) The best living American novelist describes the decline of his beloved father, and how he cared for him, experiencing coronary bypass surgery himself: "in my dreams I would live perennially as his little son, with the conscience of a little son, just as he would remain alive there not only as my father but as the father, sitting judgment on whatever I do."

Shalom Auslander, Foreskin's Lament (2008) This hilarious and tragic tale of escaping from a dysfunctional orthodox Jewish family has been described as "channeling Philip Roth" but Auslander (whose name, appropriately enough, means "foreigner" in German) is his own man--just foreign to the culture in which he was raised.  His is a tale of overcoming Stockholm syndrome with wit (when he's not torturing himself).

Helen Fremont, After Long Silence (1999)  Helen Fremont grows up saying the "Our Father" in the European language of her choice, discovering in her thirties that her parents, Jewish holocaust survivors, have tried to erase their past--creating a Catholic identity--in order to protect their children.  Despite superhuman detective work, by the end of it Fremont still does not know her mother's real name--or whether her mother had another child as a result of rape while fleeing Hitler.  Set against an extraordinary backdrop of two world wars and several ingenious, hair-raising escapes, this is one of the best-written and most moving autobiographies that I have ever read.  And one of the best testimonies for exploding secrets that families keep hidden from themselves.  Maxine Hong Kingston begins The Woman Warrior (1975)--yet another great autobiography--with her mother's warning, "You must not tell anyone .  .  ." and these remain the secrets that the best autobiographies both expose and interpret.

Lars Eighner, Travels With Lizbeth: Three Years on the Road and on the Streets (1993) This is a gently humorous description of homelessness, written with an elegance of style that has been compared to that of Thomas Carlyle:  "Long before I began dumpster diving," Eighner writes, "I was impressed with Dumpsters, enough so that I wrote the Merriam-Webster research service to discover what I could about the word Dumpster.  I learned from them that is is a proprietary word belonging to the Dempster Dumpster company."  He'll let you know what's safe to eat from a dumpster, and offers --with the insight of an anthropologist--intriguing speculations on how some of that stuff got there.

Frank McCourt, Teacher Man (2005)  Everybody knows his Angela's Ashes, but don't miss this one.  It should be required reading for all teachers from kindergarten through graduate school, especially the sections detailing  what to do when a student throws a baloney sandwich on your first day of teaching (chapter 1) or how to base a class writing assignment on forged excuse notes of the "Mikey's grandmother fell down the stairs from too much coffee" variety (chapter 6) or how to teach grammar by using a ballpoint pen "as a visual aid" (chapter 9).

David Sedaris, Holidays on Ice (1997).  The one you must read in this collection is "The Santaland Diaries," about his experiences working as an elf during the Christmas season for Macy's Department Store.  Read all of Sedaris, but start with this.  America's funniest writer.

Alexandra Fuller, Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight (2003) In this tale of growing up with white supremacist parents in the former Rhodesia, Alexandra Fuller braves natural dangers and the challenges of her mother's alcoholism and politics.  The sequel, Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness (2011) traces her mother's roots in Scotland and Kenya, arriving at an understanding of her family's brilliant, crazy courage.

Alyse Myers, Who Do You Think You Are? (2008)  This one wasn't all over everyone's radar but it's good--about what it's like to discover, after her death, who your breathtakingly unsympathetic mother really was, and why.

Amy Chua, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (2011).  Everyone loved to hate this but I thought it was great:  a mother describes her extremely high expectations for her daughters, who never got play dates because they had to go home and practice the piano or the violin.  They never attend a sleepover, act in a school play, complain about not being allowed to do so, watch TV or play computer games, or get any grade less than A.  OK, she's a little too tough but OH is it easier to squeeze the toothpaste out than get it back in.  If I'd never let that Wii or those computer games into the house, my kids would have read all of Aristotle by now.

Gina Welch, In the Land of Believers:  An Outsider's Extraordinary Journey into the Heart of the Evangelical Church (2011)  A secular Jew braves baptism to infiltrate the alas ever-growing evangelical church, with his poisonous influence on American politics.  Loathing Falwell's message, she develops a fondness for him, makes many friends, and experiences a conversion that is altogether religious in style, though not content:  coming out as an atheist to her pastor, she decides that she will never lie again about anything to anyone.

Nancy Bachrach, The Center of the Universe (2009) In this hilarious, tragic memoir, Bachrach details what it is like to live with a brilliant and insane mother who is supposedly brain dead after an accident but rises like the phoenix to become crazier than ever.

Daniel Smith, Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety (2012)  Anyone afflicted with what your shrink likes to call "anxiety states" on her bill will love this one.  A charming self-deprecation weaves through this narrative of coping with a mind that just won't calm down.

P.S.  Now that I'm writing a memoir myself, I have two more tips:
 (1) Stay in the present tense.  The farther back the memory is in your actual life, the more you write it in the present tense.  You'll be surprised:  it'll help you remember the whole thing, experience it again, to write "I walk into the room . . ." instead of "I walked . . . "
(2) The more excruciating the experience, the more you should try to make it not funny, but perhaps to see in it the absurdity that lurks everywhere in human life.  Looking back at the agonizing, one often finds, if not the ridiculous, the unbelievably absurd.  It is the unbelievably absurd that you wish to capture.  I love Philip Roth's comment, to the effect that for a writer there are no bad experiences.  Oh, what you can make of the tragedies in your life!  This is especially true of love affairs that occurred twenty years ago.  But I can think of plenty of other examples! 

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