Reading back through my notes, I notice that I was hard on these books: this is a fabulous crop of memoirs, and my nitpicking is more about noticing the things that I’m watching for in my own writing than big faults in theirs. I would recommend any of them to a reader interested in the subject despite all my criticism. There are multiple spoilers/reveals mentioned below, so skip my notes if you mean to read the book and don’t want to know how it all turns out.
Lit by Mary Karr
I love Mary Karr. I want to make her dinner or take her to dinner. I want to listen to podcasts of her speaking and swearing all day long. I want to go back in time and talk to her editor because this book is 6% off of perfect and that kills me. Every thirty pages there is an off metaphor, the book is a few dozen pages too long, and she needs to commit to her passion without caring about me as a reader in the last third. Okay, done with that. I love Mary Karr.
Somehow, she’s kept her drunk wreck of a mother in her life, and despite all her anger and introspection, is on the slick path toward being the same mess with her own son, Dev. After meeting her dashing but constrained husband Warren in grad school (she had a bumpy but mentor-blessed road through college, studded with lucky run-ins the caliber of which makes me want to bite my desk in envy), she tries to fit in with his productive blue-blood academic life. His family is a rich-folk horrorshow. She falls into a medium-bad case of alcoholism, peaking when her kid is still little, and finally cops to the disaster of her life when she nearly wrecks the car. In the course of AA and a stint in the McLean mental hospital (hospital to the literary stars of crazy), she gets around to god, and settles on Catholicism and literal knees-on-tile prayer. Along the way, she doesn’t write, then does, as she gets better, and more of that combo of mentors and luck and incredible skill get her into print and awards and jobs. Along with the alcohol, Warren gets left behind (as does DFW, who only shows up for a few scenes, but it’s him, it’s him, just like you could have guessed he’d be). She’s so compelling on religion that I started to feel bad for not having any. I love her. What does she have left to write memoirs about? I can’t wait to find out.
“For all the schisms in my upbringing, the most savage scars didn’t come from pain. Pain has belief in it. Pain is required, Patti likes to say; suffering is optional. What used to hurt was the vast and wondering doubt that could spread inside me like a desert, the niggling suspicion that none of the hard parts even happened. So the characters that so vividly inhabited me where phantasms, any residual hurt my own warped concoction.”
Secret Life by Michael Ryan
This was mentioned in Susan Cheever’s Desire (coming up in one of the nonfiction entries), and then days after I started it, it was mentioned in a recently released audio interview with DFW. I adore book coincidences like that. A very promising and deeply honest starting chapter, but then Ryan spends far too much time on parts of his childhood. Those sections (sports, Catholic school, friends and loss of them) are well written and interesting, but I’m in the book for a reason: I want to know about Ryan as a sex addict, what it drove him to do, how he extricated himself. He’s aces on the backstory of how he got there, but then flies at hyper-speed through the adult part. To the point, actually, that I wondered while reading if it wasn’t too soon for him to be tackling a memoir—too fresh, the shame still there in a way he didn’t want to write about, and him still fighting like mad to stay “clean.” Again again, the Steve Almond thing: slow down where it hurts, and while Ryan did a great job of that in the early years, he rushes over the more recent, and more relevant, later activities. It’s too long for a follow-up, but I hope there is one anyway, when he’s old, a layer of insight about where he was when he wrote this book over what he learned afterward. A warning to my sensitive reader friends: some bad things happen to animals.
“Yet since my appetite was infinite, I wasn’t nearly powerful enough either. I never got what I really wanted, and I hated myself for that, and hated life, and hated myself again for caring about sex more than anything or anybody, including the people I loved. Then I hated myself for loving so badly. It was like living inside a spin dryer. Finally, what I cared about was me, and not even me but the addict-me, this no-I driving me to be with no one, to be no one.”
Love Junkie by Rachel Resnick
This was the lightest memoir I read last year, the one that felt the most like there could have been another draft or another few years of experience before writing. However, I tore through it in a day and was more emotionally invested than I thought I would be. The problems are the same ones that I have with many addiction memoirs: not enough space from the behavior yet (so the regret doesn’t seem quite sincere enough—I feel more upset about some things than the writing suggests she is), glamorizing some of the worst incidents (I don’t mind the glamor, but it works against the claim of the regret), and the sense that the parts of her that are the most upsetting to other people are not to her—and she doesn’t recognize it. Resnick was a mess in relationships, the sort of crazy girlfriend it’s good for others to have so you can hear their stories and feel grateful. She’d write literally dozens of emails a day (clingy, whoa), all flowery and overwrought, be thrown into a tailspin by small relationship dramas, and picked horrific men to be with. It’s one of the accomplishments of the book that despite all that, I found myself pulling for her and understanding her hurt and helplessness. At the end she’s with a woman, and not only does it sound a bit too sedate, it sounds like Resnick isn’t attracted to her at all, as though that is the flip side of her crazy interactions with men. After an incredibly fucked-up and tough early life, I don’t know that there is an accessible calm space for her, but I was left hoping she will be able to find a way to embrace her crazy without all the attendant destructiveness.
The Addict by Michael Stein
Another fast compelling read—Stein, a doctor, lets us follow along as he treats an opiate addict for a year. At the same time, he reflects on treatment options, other addicts he’s worked with, and what is happening in his head and life while he does this work. It raised some interesting questions: if someone feels the same (depressed/desperate/anxious/etc.) even if her external circumstances have changed for what others consider the better, is the change a success? How far into talk therapy methods (hour-long history-intense sessions) can a medical doctor (who requires the talking to prescribe the addiction-breaking drugs) successfully go? Given that the drugs he gives do work for a good number of patients, where does that leave the traditional willpower models of sobriety? Despite being a quick read, it was a little long for itself, and I had some issues along the way. I think the patient he picked to highlight was problematic (even if typical). Frequently I felt irritation about a significant self-congratulatory doctor-god vibe coming from him, even if he does temper it by being self-aware, non-condemnatory, and invested in his patients.
“Addiction is the disease of wanting more. More is always better; more becomes necessary. The ‘more’ disease is about impending deprivation. It combines a fear of being without with the sense of never having enough.”
The Possessed by Elif Batuman
A gift from Ian. The chapters covering her travels to conferences and the study-abroad in Samarkand are fabulous, hilarious, ridiculous. I was a teenager when I had my phase with big Russian novels, but having forgotten most of the details was not a hindrance to enjoying this book. Many reviews have noted that it’s uneven, and I agree, but it’s not so uneven to be a problem. It took me a while to get into the book, and a while after that to figure out why: in the beginning, I didn’t trust Batuman’s writing about herself, which meant that I didn’t trust her about others (and others—people and places—come in for constant criticism). She’s very hard on herself early on, painting a picture of someone indecisive and unmotivated and possibly not very bright. Then she settles (settles!) for grad school at Stanford, and has in the few years since published this book along with many mean and clever essays in all the best places. I understand the need to set herself up as not-an-insider in order to have believable distance to mock the establishment she’s firmly ensconced in, but it came off like a supermodel complaining about her enormous ass. That tone fades over the first few chapters and isn’t worth ditching the book over. I have no idea why this is the only quote I copied out of the book (must have been a rough week):
“In the 1960s, Girard introduced his widely influential theory of mimetic desire, formulated in opposition to the Nietzschean notion of autonomy as the key to human self-fulfillment. According to Girard, there is in fact no such thing as human autonomy or authenticity. All of the desires that direct our actions in life are learned or imitated from some Other, to whom we mistakenly ascribe the autonomy lacking in ourselves.”
Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself by David Lipsky
It’s so nice to have a few more hours with David Foster Wallace’s voice, to really miss the person I never knew, even if only in this slightly off book. The offness comes from Lipsky trying too hard, I think, but I can’t identify what he’s trying too hard to do: to make himself look worse as a young over-eager too-pushy interviewer (and not then, but now, in the editing of his question and bracketed asides)? to make those small added details seem more significant or more full of gravity? or to make himself seem both more flawed and more chummy? I don’t entirely trust his representation of himself, which makes for discomfort if I want to trust his picture of DFW. All that aside, I did appreciate the essays in the front (and read the afterword last, as though there could be any spoilers at this point), particularly the quotes and remembrances from his friends. It was good timing to read this so soon before Franzen’s Freedom: I had both DFW’s voice (some of which Franzen has absorbed) and Franzen’s commitment to David (as a friend and fellow artist) still running around in my head. The best part of the book is the little details: DFW’s terrible taste in music (Bush), his strange crushes (Thatcher, Morrissette), his interactions with his bad dogs Jeeves and Drone. Much sadness in how frequently he uses suicide imagery and phrases. He lies about the chemical basis of his depression, and pushes back, after honesty, on Lipsky’s questions about his drug history. I was unsure about reading this but ended up liking it enough that I’ll buy a copy at some point.
“What writers have is a license and also the freedom to sit—to sit, clench their fists, and make themselves so excruciatingly aware of the stuff that we’re mostly aware of only on a certain level. And that if the writer does his job right, what he basically does is remind the reader of how smart the reader is. Is to wake the reader up to stuff that the reader’s been aware of all the time. And it’s not a question of the writer having more capacity than the average person. It’s that the writer is willing I think to cut off, cut himself off from certain stuff, and develop . . . and just, and think really hard. Which not everybody has the luxury to do.
But I gotta tell you, I just think to look across the room and automatically assume that somebody else is less aware than me, or that somehow their interior life is less rich, and complicated, and acutely perceived than mine, makes me not as good a writer. Because that means I’m going to be performing for a faceless audience, instead of trying to have a conversation with a person.”
Out of Sheer Rage by Geoff Dyer
Reread: as good as the first time. It feels like the perfect thing to read this book in order to procrastinate on writing projects. You could make a gift basket out of that idea: a copy of this, a set of index cards with reminders of mundane distracting things (“hey, shouldn’t you clean the kitchen before you start that paragraph?”), a few DVDs of the author’s favorite series, and a sleep mask for that desperately needed power-nap right before cracking down on the next round of edits, I swear.
“I resign myself to things: this is my own warped version of amor fati: regretting everything but resigning myself to this regret. However things turn out I am bound to wish they had turned out differently. I am resigned to that.
Take this book which is intermittently about Lawrence. Right now I profoundly regret ever having started it. I wish I hadn’t bothered. But if I hadn’t started it I would have regretted not having done so. I knew this and so I got on with it and now that I have got on with it I regret that I got on with it in the way I did. I regret that it will not turn out to be the sober, academic study of Lawrence that I had hoped to write but I accept this because I know that, in the future, when it is finished, I won’t want it to be any different. I’ll be glad that this little book turned out how it did because I will see that what was intended to be a sober, academic study of D. H. Lawrence had to become a case history. Not a history of how I recovered from a breakdown but of how breaking down became a means of continuing. Anyone can have a breakdown, anyone. The trick is to have a breakdown and take it in one’s stride. Ideally one would get to the stage where one had a total nervous breakdown and didn’t even notice.”
Mentor by Tom Grimes
Grimes’s memoir about his life as a writer, and more specifically, his life as a writer in the orbit of Frank Conroy, who moved from being an idol to a teacher to a friend to a father figure. Reading it in a couple of days highlighted the problems: unnecessary repetitions, forced or too blatant connections/echoes, a certain thudding rhythm to the language in parts. And the end, which is a reprint of Grimes’s eulogy for Conroy, didn’t entirely work for me. But, all that accounted for, I was so into this—the inside scoop, the tales of back-breaking labor (20 hours a week, even if only a sentence came out of each hour) and self-hatred and anxiety at the desk, Grimes’s wound-up paranoia, the tension and disaster of publishing attempts. Reading it wasn’t a grand love affair, everything perfection and awe, but more like kicking it with a good, flawed friend after a long absence. It knew what I needed.
“I am uncomfortable writing, and I know a number of writers (although I won’t mention them) who feel the same way. The isolation, self-doubt, perfectionism and other idiosyncratic impediments to action—some completely irrational, almost like superstitions—mix in various ways in various people to create something close to dread at the sinister urgency of the blank page. For myself, once I’m up and moving, if not running, through the lines, I zip back and forth between feeling okay and feeling terrified. Once in a while I am exhilarated, but more often it is as if my inner self, my sense of myself, is at risk. Something like the tension one might feel watching the ivory ball circumnavigate the roulette wheel after having made a large, foolish, impulsive bet.” –Frank Conroy
Half a Life by Darin Strauss
Strauss, at 17, accidentally killed a girl he vaguely knew from high school. He was in his car, she was on her bike, and she swerved into traffic immediately in front of him. While everyone from the police to the parents of the girl rushed to assure him that it wasn’t his fault, Strauss spent years waiting for someone to see that even if the accident wasn’t on him, his reactions made him a bad person, worthy of blame. He tore at himself for his selfish thoughts, his lack of approved grief reactions, his clumsy attempts to do the right thing with her parents (who later sued him, throwing his life into an extended waiting nightmare of litigation). This is a beautifully designed book with a clever half jacket, but it’s really an extended essay on grief and chance and the acceptance of self-interest and self-forgiveness. It was great as an essay in that way, but a little flat as an entire book (a few more threads would have fleshed it out). Lots of telling, but it worked.
“I think we all build superstructures in our heads, catwalks and trestles that lead us from the acceptance of our own responsibility to the cool mechanics of the factory, where things are an interlocking mess, where everybody’s pretty much unaccountable. To be alive is to find a way to blame someone else.”
Final Analysis by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson
(Note: Masson was one of the coincidence-thick threads that ran through my reading last year. I started 2010 having no idea who he is, and I’ve now read books about, by, and possibly inspired by him. He just kept showing up, not only in books but in anecdotes—a story about Berkeley, a bunny, and a pack of dogs that I’m sure I’ll share in the next few weeks. I’m both fascinated and appalled by him.)
Man oh man do I wish I had taken notes on this when I finished it, not a month and three weeks later. Masson is at full Masson here, blazing a light on all the incredibly fucked-up things analysts did during his own analysis and training. As always, he’s the innocent wide-eyed reporter, constantly shocked and confused when his dramatic efforts to upset the apple cart are received as such. It’s a good read, however, because there were batshit analysts out there, and Masson ends up being supervised and surrounded by them. They are also constantly dazzled and enamored of him, of course. The age of the book works against it: those type of analysts just aren’t around much anymore, and some of the things he had major problems with have been addressed. I wish he’d write a whole-life memoir—I’d read that big conceited song and dance in a sitting, with pleasure.
“But it did not really sink in to me, when I first read it, that Freud really meant what he said: Misery is unbearable, misfortune is bearable. Misery is self-created, the misfortune comes from without. Freud is not offering to help a person by altering external circumstances, but only be getting that person to reconsider his or her life. It is the essence of psychotherapy: Look inward. Freud is asking us to shift the direction of our attention, from the external to the internal.”
“Every patient whose memory of abuse was treated as nothing more than wishful thinking will have to be recalled.” (oh hello, little quote that may have been the seed of Irvin Yalom’s Lying on the Couch, which will show up during the fiction round-up. It was a delight to run across this sentence after reading the novel.)
Darkness Visible by William Styron
I’d meant to read this forever but kept putting it off because when I think Styron I think density, and when I think depression memoir I think grim. Grim density. Watch me avoid that for a decade. What a surprise to pick it up and find that it’s an essay, not even 100 pages, and although grim, not dense at all. An elegant, unsentimental, and brisk take on despair.
The Ticking Is the Bomb by Nick Flynn
A nicely shuffled blend of thought lines: Flynn’s relationships with two women, Anna and Inez; journalistic tracking of torture and Abu Ghraib; more thoughts on his father’s dissolution and mother’s suicide; and his impending fatherhood and the hunt for the men who functioned, even briefly, as his stepfather when he was a child. Even with all that heavy lifting, it sometimes felt slight, a result of very short chapters, a focus on dream sequences, and a delicacy about details that didn’t always work for me. I never had a real sense of Anna, and it didn’t feel like he made a choice there—she left, so the big conflict about choosing between women never rang true. Flynn feels like a gentle soul, and the most fascinating parts, to my surprise, were the little autobiographical details: his swimming, living in a barn or docked boat, having Christmas with friends.
“Whatever else I might say about my time with Anna, when I was with her I felt known, perhaps for the first time. Known? What that meant to me, if I had to define it, was that when we were together it seemed I could drag some part of my shadow into the light, especially the part that was uncertain about the next breath. Those rooms we shared became a space in which to reveal a darkness I carried inside me, a heaviness that needed to be dragged into the light, or it would sink me. Trouble was—maybe—that we shared the same dark impulses (here eros, here thanatos). In the end, maybe, our knowing lacked perspective, so in the end we risked merely sinking each other.”
Dog Years by Mark Doty
Beau and Arden, Doty’s dogs, live their lives and die against the backdrop of Doty losing a partner (Wally), falling in love with the writer Paul Lisicky, traveling all over the place to teach and write, and 9/11. The chapters alternate with all-italics Entr’actes, brief meditations on subjects mostly related to grief and loss. The writing is poetic and slow, the descriptions of the dogs loving and appropriate and self-aware, and the chapter with 9/11 perhaps the best nonfiction writing I’ve read about it—devastatingly present and just good. I teared up several times, my own old dog merrily kicking away at himself on the bed a few feet away.
“The public revelation of grief is unseemly, an embarrassment of self-involvement. Or at least that’s how it seems on the surface. The truth is probably that we want grief to remain invisible because we can’t do anything about it, and because it invariably reminds us of the losses we’ll all suffer someday, the ineluctable approach of sorrow.
For someone grieving for animals, the problem’s compounded.
You can’t tell most people about the death of your dog, not quite; there is an expectation that you shouldn’t overreact, shouldn’t place too much weight on this loss. In the scheme of things, shouldn’t this be a smaller matter? It’s just a dog; get another one.
One of the unspoken truths of American life is how deeply people grieve over the animals who live and die with them, how real that emptiness is, how profound the silence is these creatures leave in their wake. Our culture expects us not only to bear these losses alone, but to be ashamed of how deeply we feel them.”
next time: nonfiction grab-bag, with dramatic lesbians, meth, and her amazingness, Janet Malcolm.