Dubious Memoirs

March 2, 2010 at 6:49 pm | Posted in Book Blather, Memoir | 4 Comments

What do you do when a contested memoir makes the news?  A few years ago we learned that A Million Little Pieces was partly fabricated.  I just finished listening to A Long Way Gone on audio, and somewhere during the final disk I learned that some of the facts were in dispute.

I’ve written before about problems with memoirs.  Chances are good that at least one person involved in the story will disagree violently with the author’s interpretation of events.  That doesn’t mean the author is wrong.  Other people in the story may have been in an altered state, may be in total denial, might not have been there, may misremember or have very poor recall in general, may misunderstand what the author is trying to say, or may simply have a bone to pick for some reason.  Say someone writes a memoir about being raised by a drunken, abusive child molester, and it’s all true – is the parent going to stand up and say, “Yeah, I did it”?

On the other hand, just where is the line between memoir and fiction?  It’s wrong to present fiction as truth, we all seem to agree on that.  What if you wrote a memoir and presented it as a novel?

News media uphold a certain standard of fact-checking before they will publish a story.  When caught in an error, they will publish a correction.  Book publishers are not held to the same standard.  One suspects that they may regard a controversial memoir with delight, because it can only serve to drive up publicity and thus sales.

I reviewed The Night of the Gun some time ago, and to my mind this is an ideal format for a memoir.  The author realizes his memories of a particular event do not jibe with those of his friends, so he sets out to interview people he knew at that time in his life to try to get the most accurate picture possible.  He was doing a lot of drugs at the time and recognized that his recall might be faulty.  What emerges is an absolutely terrific, mind-blowing book.

The author of A Long Way Gone, Ishmael Beah, seems to be taking the position that he has a photographic memory (he elaborates on this in the book) and that thus everything he wrote has to be true.  The power of his story would not have been reduced if he had presented materials to support his recall of events.  On the contrary, it would have built his case.  If only 5% of his story turned out to be true, it would still be enough to draw attention to the humanitarian crisis of child soldiers.

I think dubious memoirs would not be such a problem if the reading public showed a greater taste for hard-core nonfiction.  As long as we need a memoir or a novel to draw our attention to something newsworthy, we are going to continue to see scandals of accuracy.

The Urban Hermit

July 15, 2009 at 2:49 pm | Posted in Memoir | 3 Comments

Imagine The Tightwad Gazette as written by a morbidly obese Hunter S. Thompson.  That’s the closest I can come to describing The Urban Hermit, by Sam MacDonald.  It’s the singular tale of a young man who stumbles across an orderly life by following a rather bizarre whim.  It might be the funniest thing I’ve read this year.

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My own ascetic leanings attract me to books that might teach me how to do it better and cheaper.  I assumed, when I saw The Urban Hermit, that he would be… well, frankly I assumed he would be a left-winger.  I thought this book would talk about the environment and spiritual seeking.  That’s part of what makes the book such a prize:  MacDonald is not your typical candidate for the eremitical lifestyle.  He’s more like the guy manning the keg at a backyard barbecue.

MacDonald is a born raconteur, the sort who can make any story enjoyable.  But the details!  He decides to get on top of his debt by restricting his diet to 800 calories per day.  This harebrained idea may, unbelievably, turn out to be the best one he ever has. You’ll just have to read it to find out how he tells it.  This is one I would like to hear on audio, narrated by the author.

Two-for-One Review: “Yes Man”

April 21, 2009 at 6:20 pm | Posted in Fiction, Memoir, Two-for-One Review | Leave a comment

When I heard of the book Yes Man, by Danny Wallace, I knew I had to read it.  Shortly after, I heard it was being made into a movie.  I had the chance to watch the film shortly after reading the book, so we’ll do some compare and contrast.

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First, I have to say that I adore Jim Carrey.

Second, I have to say that it would be almost impossible to imagine a book and a movie with less in common than these two.

Third, I was surprised that, this being the case, I enjoyed both.

The book Yes Man is a true story.  The premise is that this guy is a bit depressed and becoming a recluse, and one day he has an epiphany and decides that he has to say Yes to everything.  Complications ensue.  In this sense, the movie is based on the book.

But what did they do?  The book is set in London; the movie is set in LA.  The hero of the book is Danny Wallace; in the movie he’s suddenly Carl Allen.  Danny works as a journalist with a very loose schedule; Carl works at a bank and has to wear a suit, etc.  Danny has a random conversation with a stranger on the bus, leading to his ephiphany; Carl is dragged to a New Age seminar where thousands of other people already follow the Yes philosophy.  Both characters travel, help the homeless, learn new skills, and have to be dogsbody to their friends.  Otherwise almost every single plot point is different.

I loved Yes Man the book.  It made me snort with laughter several times.  I read parts of it out loud to anyone who would listen.  It had a really positive message, but it also included some healthy doses of reality.  I really enjoyed Yes Man the movie, but I suspect I would have enjoyed it more if I’d seen it before I read the book.  It was entertaining – especially the scenes when Zooey Deschanel performs in her band – but it got off to a slow start because Carrey’s character was so mopey.

So my recommendation is, see the movie, then read the book.  And maybe even consider trying to say Yes to everything yourself!  I have to say I’m tempted.


February 10, 2009 at 6:20 pm | Posted in Memoir, Nonfiction | 5 Comments

Melissa Plaut’s book Hack: How I Stopped Worrying about What to Do with My Life and Started Driving a Yellow Cab has everything I love in a book.  It’s an up-close-and-personal look at a job I’ve never done, complete with a sympathetic heroine and all kinds of random stories.  I enjoyed every minute of it.

Taxi cabs have always fascinated me, though I’d never be a cabbie because a) I’m a horrible driver and b) I could get lost in a paper sack.  I am really, really good at swearing, though, not to mention political rants.  So maybe I could get a job sitting next to the cabbie and doing those things for him.  You know, if he was too shy.

Anyway.  One of the best things about Hack is that Melissa Plaut is a lady cabbie, and evidently they’re as rare as you’d expect.  She’s also young and college-educated.  This made the book a tremendous vicarious thrill for me.

I started reading the book on the bus home from the San Francisco Public Library, about a 2.5 hour ride.  By the time I got back to Santa Rosa, the local buses had quit running.  Ordinarily, I would have set off to walk the 4-5 miles home without thinking too much about it.  But there was a cab sitting at the curb outside the bus mall, and I couldn’t miss the opportunity to chat with the driver.  I told him I was reading the book, and it turned out he didn’t know the word Hack in relation to cabs or to writing.  He was interested, so I quizzed him a bit.  We’re a long way from New York City, but he corroborated:

Yes, he’d had people do drugs in his cab, including smoking a crack pipe.  He’d had people ask him to drive them to drug deals.  He’d had people vomit – and if you’re curious, there’s a cleanup fee.  Unlike Plaut, he had had people pee their pants.  He’d also had people bring dogs in the cab, including one lady who spread out a blanket first, though it didn’t help because the dog was in desperate need of a bath.  He’d had more PDA than he cared to see, though I didn’t ask if anyone had actually had sex back there.  In spite of all this, after five years he claimed he still enjoyed driving a cab.  And he should have, after what I tipped him!

“Waiter Rant”

December 19, 2008 at 5:56 pm | Posted in Memoir, Nonfiction | 3 Comments

Waiter Rant is a work memoir by a man who initially kept his identity secret – Steve Dublanica.  He was eventually outed, as was the restaurant where he worked, which he called “The Bistro.”  Why all the secrecy?  Because there are some scandalous things in this book.  That was enough to pique my interest right there.

Waiter Rant is more than just a scandalous work memoir, though.  Sure, you’ll laugh hysterically, you’ll be grossed out occasionally, and I’m guessing you won’t be able to put it down either.  But there’s a certain substance to this book that is not so common.  Dublanica attended seminary for a time, and so the book is full of meditations on life and work, sin and redemption, the corrupt and the humane.  It’s quite brilliant.  Dublanica writes well, and I think he has a novelist’s sensibility.  While he is working on another book now, it’s nonfiction, so only time will tell if he eventually turns his skills to fiction.

There were two sticking points for me, though, that are really trivial but that I feel like mentioning anyway.  They have to do with misuse of language.  On page 47, Dublanica says he is “…especially attenuated to what’s going on around me,” in the context of noticing what his patrons are doing and saying even when his attention is on something else.  Well, ‘attenuated’ means stretched out or reduced in strength or efficacy, as in a medication or radio signal.  It means the opposite of what he meant, and I think the word he was looking for was ‘attuned.’  The other instance was at the end, when he used the phrase ‘shine off’ instead of ‘shine on,’ as in to blow someone off.  Oh, and then he misspelled Aleve and Vicodin in the same sentence.  I know many of these types of errors must be due to the absolute decline in copyediting we have seen in the last decade, but still!  I hope somebody cares about purity of language.

Anyway.  Waiter Rant is one of the all time great compulsively readable books; the sort of book that will forever change the way you regard something you may have taken for granted in the past, in this case the act of dining out.  Read, enjoy, but don’t read it while eating in a restaurant.

“Bar Flower”

November 21, 2008 at 6:29 pm | Posted in Memoir, Nonfiction | 1 Comment

Memoirs!  How I love them!  There’s something addictive about peering into someone else’s life and learning all the grisly details.  It’s even better when a memoirist like Lea Jacobson comes along with a well-written book like Bar Flower: My Decadently Destructive Days and Nights as a Tokyo Nightclub Hostess.  I just could not put this book down.  I took it with me on the bus to San Francisco (where I’d made a special trip mainly so I could get this book) and I read 200 pages in 2 1/2 hours.

Jacobson presents her story with expert pacing.  She begins the book with “where she ended up” and then tracks back, like in Moulin Rouge, where the foreshadowing is intrinsic  to the tone of regret.  Decadent, indeed.

Bar Flower would have been interesting even if it happened in, say, a Las Vegas casino.  Jacobson adds a great detail about life in Japan as a gaijin that, again, would make an interesting book on its own.  She also has a keen feminist take on the culture that I thoroughly enjoyed.  You’ll never look at your laundry basket the same way after reading this book.  Part travelogue, part caution, Bar Flower is a gripping, fascinating look at a sequestered life most of us will never experience.


November 6, 2008 at 4:52 pm | Posted in Memoir, Nonfiction | 2 Comments

Half-Assed: A Weight-Loss Memoir is laugh-out-loud funny.  I knew I had to read it as soon as I saw the cover photo of the author, Jennette Fulda, fitting into one leg of her old pants.  She lost over 200 pounds, which is an impressive accomplishment.  Unlike other weight-loss memoirs I have read, she tells her story without so much as a shred of self-pity.  She has some unconventional thoughts to share about the weight-loss industry, too.  Mostly, though, she tells her story with a great deal of humor.  I hope she goes on to write more.

If you met me, you might wonder why I would read a book like this.  I’ve maintained my own 20-pound weight loss for two years, since before I started my current job and met many of my friends.  They have trouble believing I ever had a weight issue.  I didn’t realize it myself, until one day I ran down the stairs and my back jiggled.  I have the amazing capacity to gain a pound a day (and I do, whenever I go on vacation or visit my family) and then keep it on.  So I read weight-loss books from time to time as motivation.

The truly funny thing about losing weight is that people always want to know how you did it, and when you tell them, they instantly lose interest and don’t want to try it.  It seems like people want to hear about the new all-cranberry diet or how you trained for a triathlon to raise money to pay for someone’s surgery or something.  All I did was join Curves and eat out no more than two meals a week.  Then I switched to walking on a treadmill.  Once I’d burned off my college habit of Pepsi- and Pringles-fueled all night study sessions, my eating habits were good enough that I haven’t gotten into trouble.  I walk or ride my bike a couple miles a day, and that’s it.  That, and read the works of authors like Fulda, who’ve done more than I ever have and lived to laugh about it.

“Little Heathens”

November 5, 2008 at 4:57 pm | Posted in Memoir, Nonfiction | 3 Comments

Considering the economic news of late, it’s possible that Mildred Armstrong Kalish wrote Little Heathens: Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression just in time for those of us who are too young to remember the 1930s.  Any illusions I had that I am a genuine tightwad have been revealed to be just that – illusions.  Anyway, even if you aren’t interested in ways to save money or tales of country living, this is a really fun book to read.  Kalish is a natural storyteller, and there are a few absolute guffaw-inducing stories in this book.

Of course I realize there are a number of people out there who do love to read about country living.  If you do, you’re in for a real treat, because Kalish discusses every little detail.  She even has an entire chapter on outhouses.  She tells about everything from top (haircuts) to toe (darning socks).  There are also recipes here and there, in case you want to learn how to cook with lard and bacon fat.  (Not everything is easy for vegans to read!)  The book is reminiscent of the Little House books in a lot of ways – the hardscrabble lifestyle but also the fun and the family togetherness.

Two-for-One Review: “Manic” and “Madness”

October 16, 2008 at 3:42 pm | Posted in Memoir, Nonfiction, Two-for-One Review | 2 Comments

You know I love to read memoirs.  How can you tell?  Because I read two separate ones about bipolar disorder in the same year, that’s how.  It’s an interesting topic to me because my ex-husband is bipolar.  Maybe you’d rather read just one, though.

Both Terri Cheney’s Manic: A Memoir and Marya Hornbacher’s Madness: A Bipolar Life describe bipolar disorder from the sufferer’s perspective.  Both include binge drinking, promiscuous sex, psychiatrists, hospitalizations, medications, electroshock therapy, and trying to make it as a “normal” person.  Both expose what must have been brutally difficult events in the author’s life.

Manic focuses on Cheney’s complaint that bipolar disorder is not well understood or accepted by society.  She shares her frustration that she is held accountable for things like running up her credit cards and breaking the speed limit, when it is her illness doing these things.  Granted, she has a point, but if I were in those shoes I’d pray someone took away my cards and my car keys.  (The exact reason why I don’t keep breakfast cereal in my house – if I did I’d eat a box every two days, and I know I can’t trust myself with it).  There’s a complete lack of understanding that driving 100 mph can kill other people and that spending so much money that you can’t pay your bills leaves your creditors on the hook.  Cheney goes on to put together her book deal and finds that other people are curious, rather than repelled, by her condition.

Madness is Hornbacher’s second memoir.  Her first, Wasted, discussed her long-term battle with anorexia and bulimia.  It turns out those were the least of her problems, as she was already experiencing symptoms of undiagnosed bipolar disorder.  As it turns out, her life completely fell apart shortly after the celebrated Wasted was published.  Hornbacher sustains her earlier promise as an extremely powerful writer.  The fact that she can still write so beautifully in spite of everything she’s been through is astounding.  She presents herself during her manias and depressions as a truly crazy person.  The moments of lucidity she seems to have experienced are heartbreaking, as she keeps waking up:  literally, on the floor; or figuratively, in a strange room, not understanding how she got there or what’s going on.  She shares her grief at what’s happened to her and what she’s put her friends through, and her faith that she will keep fighting her illness.

Either memoir will give you insight into the life of a mentally ill person.  I recommend reading about this experience rather than marrying into it.

“The Night of the Gun”

October 1, 2008 at 4:03 pm | Posted in Memoir, Nonfiction | Leave a comment

They’re not novels, exactly, but are memoirs nonfiction?  David Carr tackles this conundrum in The Night of the Gun: A Reporter Investigates the Darkest Story of His Life – His Own.  He knows he has an amazing story, and he wants to share it, but he also wants to make sure things really went down the way he remembered them.  As it turns out, his memory isn’t entirely trustworthy, so he goes on an odyssey of interviews of people from his past, determined to get to the truth.  Think My Dark Places meets High Fidelity, with a bit of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas stirred in.

The story itself – man struggles with addiction, stuff happens – has been told by a number of people recently.  None, to my knowledge, have done what Carr does, which is to attempt to document everything, no matter how bad it makes him look.  For instance, he discovers he’s been to rehab and been arrested more times than he had thought.  This is less the story of an addiction than the story of a memory and the cunning little tricks it pulls.  It reminds me of Diogenes, wandering around with a lit lantern in the daytime, looking for an honest man – though in Carr’s case he’s holding a mirror in the other hand.

What impressed me most about The Night of the Gun was that Carr spoke with people regardless of what had transpired in their relationship.  He talked to bosses he had failed, the exes he drove nuts, people who lent him money, the friends and family and colleagues who watched him flail around with his addiction.  He makes a major effort to present these discussions as accurately as possible, even recording them and putting the results up on a website.  If you ever wondered what a fearless moral inventory looks like, this is the book for you.

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