Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Confession Is Good for the Soul: The Memoir

I had intended to write today about my weakness for spy/mystery novels. Agatha and Co. will have to wait, however, because I have an uncanny knack for inspiring undesirable personal revelations from total strangers. I know, I know, some girls have all the luck. Just today (indeed, moments ago) I was joined at my coffee shop table by a man whose most noticeable trait (prior to his revelations) were his extraordinarily short, extraordinarily neon running shorts. Let's be clear: I do not carefully select my workout garments. My favorite t-shirt for the gym is one I have owned since college. Nonetheless, these shorts were...
I digress.
My coffee companion - let's call him Jim (as this was his name) - originally joined me because there were no open tables. Quickly, though, his true motivation emerged: to share with me the deeply unsettling tale of his search for a new apartment. Allow me to summarize what was for me an agonizing thirty minutes: his girlfriend (really?) kicked him out of their apartment. Because of the shorts, you might ask? Oh, reader, how I wish this had been the case. For so many reasons. But, no. She kicked him out of their apartment because he possesses not one, but TWO poisonous snakes whom he allows to roam freely about his dwelling (but only at appointed times. Which makes it fine. Because as long as I know I can only be suddenly bitten by a snake in my own home between 6-9 PM, I am totally cool with it.) Now, before you say, "giving one's venomous pets access to a significant others' bed, shoes, dark corners doesn't seem *that* bad. Surely his sleepless, terrified girlfriend could have compromised on this one?" let me tell you a little more about Jim. Jim, you see, is a world-renowned herpetologist. If, by world renowned herpetologist, you mean a dude with 2 POISONOUS SNAKES HIDING IN HIS APARTMENT WHOSE ONLY QUALIFICATION IS EMPLOYMENT AT PETSMART.
Sadly, before I could get Jim's digits, or confirmation that his ex-girlfriend was still alive, he received a text (which I sincerely hope one of his snakes banged out with his fangs. Something like: "Coming home ssssssssoon? I'm under the bed. Maybe.") and had to take his latte to go.

So now, in honor of Jim, his sssssssshorts, and whatever it is about me that gets me into these sorts of conversations, let's talk memoirs.

1. Waiting For Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy, Carlos Eire 
(Full disclosure: Carlos Eire was my professor in grad school. He may or may not have also been very good looking.)
In 1962, Eire was one of the thousands of children airlifted out of Cuba as part of Operation Peter Pan. The CIA organized the airlift and the children brought to Miami were those whose parents opposed the revolution and feared their families were in danger. Eire was 11 when he and his brother left behind home in Havana and their parents. He would not see his mother for three years and he would never see his father again. Eire's father had never intended to follow his sons as their mother planned to do, and his willingness to part with them is something that Eire struggled for years to understand and forgive. Indeed, Eire is his mother's family name -- a name he took in adulthood.
But before the airlift -- before the disappearance of friends as they slipped out of Cuba; before having his favorite movie censored; before Castro's endless speeches and restrictive policies -- Carlos Eire led a fairly charmed life in a paradise: wave surfing and breadfruit fights, birthday parties at beautiful homes, and blasting firecrackers that a boy was allowed to ignite himself.

2. Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son's First Year, Anne Lamott
Anne Lamott is a very talented novelist, but in Operating Instructions she tackles the poignancy, challenge and comedy of her first year as a single mother. She describes her friends and neighbors in northern California, her participation in a local church, her experiences as a recovering addict and her infant son, Sam, born in 1989 against the wishes of his father. She covers maternal emotions from rapturous bliss to bare fury (``In the middle of the colic death marches, I end up looking at the baby with those hooded eyes that were in the old ads for The Boston Strangler '') and she airs her strong political and religious beliefs. When her best friend, Pammy, is diagnosed with terminal cancer, Lamott conveys her anguish with the same depth of feeling and sense of the absurd that characterize her observations about her son, God, recovery, writing, and Republicans. 

3. The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion
Joan Didion's account of the year after her husband's (John Gregory Dunne), death is the most honest, affecting, beautifully written memoir I have ever read. 
John Gregory Dunne died of a sudden heart attack in their Manhattan apartment while Joan Didion prepared dinner. They had been married for nearly forty years. Once the paramedics had been called, once he had been taken to the hospital and once the doctors pronounced him dead, Didion realized that she needed to "discuss this with John...there was nothing I did not discuss with John." That sense of a dead end to all her thoughts, ideas and wishes (whose end had once been John)* is typical of the searing incisiveness of The Year of Magical Thinking. Didion manages to elucidate the complications of love and loss with extraordinary clarity:

"Because we were both writers and both worked at home our days were filled with the sound of each other's voices... I did not always think he was right nor did he always think I was right but we were each the person the other trusted. There was no separation between our investments or interests in any given situation. Many people assumed that we must be, since sometimes one and sometimes the other would get the better review, the bigger advance, in some way 'competitive,' that our private life must be a minefield of professional envies and resentments. This was so far from the case that the general insistence on it came to suggest certain lacunae in the popular understanding of marriage. That had been one more thing we discussed." 

*C.S. Lewis describes the same sense of loss in his account of losing his wife, A Grief Observed

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