Friday, September 9, 2011

New Memoirs

Today I'd like to do a couple of quick reviews of three memoirs. I'm not a REAL critic, but am always on the look-out for memoir material I can share with the classes and workshops I lead.

The first book I have already used at the homeless shelter where I facilitate a creative writing program. The book is I REMEMBER by Joe Brainard. The concept is so simple, you're surprised more people haven't done it. The book first came out in 1970, fell out of print and is now back. It is 170 pages comprised of remembrances that begin I remember. For example I remember Payday candy bars and eating the nuts off first. I remember drawing pictures in church on pledge envelopes and programs. I remember rainy days through picture windows. I remember Peter Pan collars. I remember autumn. Many of the remembrances are banal, quotidian, of no significance--except that they are his. We often think, What do I have in common with others? Also many of us as artists also grew up feeling like weirdos or outsiders. Joe's reflections are unique and universal.We all have something we can remember. Even women living in homelessness. I gave them a list and we wrote down one or two lines for each and had a hoot reading our answers aloud. Even Oksana who refuses to write talked about her first kiss. We couldn't get her off the subject. Long after we were done with that prompt she still wanted to talk about it.

Next I read House of Prayer No. 2, a memoir by Mark Richards.
The book is not a straight forward memoir in the "I" sense as the author chose to write about himself and his circumstances using the "You", second person. This is NOT my most favorite, and was a bit put-off, but after awhile I let it slide as I started to gobble up the story. So you see, I gave it a chance. The author was born with a genetic problem--deformed hips, wasn't always sure as it seemed he got around, but with much effort. As a child he was in and out of charity hospitals and it was these scenes that gave the memoir a unique look into the lives of an invisible other. Also all my friends from the south would agree--there's something Different about a southern writer, and it comes out in Richard's writing. You can hear it--a bit self-deprecating and sardonic. Growing up his mother seemed to have an on and off relationship with the Catholic church. Finally she turned to solace in the pentecostal House of Prayer No. 2. Richards after a youth of sowing wild oats--or maybe he's still at it--but after success in writing for Hollywood decides to help his mother's church get out of the space they are leasing in a strip mall and build their own church. It is a spiritual memoir that draws us into his faith--not a faith that would build a megachurch, but one that picks out lumber and shingles and with much travail eventually gets the job done. BTW, Richard is appearing at next years Festival of Faith & Writing, a biannual conference that I have managed to attend EVERY YEAR since it started.

The third book, also a spiritual memoir is An Unquenchable Thirst by Mary Johnson, one of the co-founders of A Room of Her Own, where myself and ALL the participating writers were given an advance copy of the book. The memoir actually comes out this week--on sale at Amazon  

Over 500 pages long the book begins with  Johnson joining the Sisters of Charity (Mother Teresa's sisterhood). The early days were certainly austere, intentionally so. But, as any decision embarked upon when one is only 18 or 19 year's old, Mary changed and found that the sisterhood wasn't all that she wanted. She wanted more or other things and there wasn't always guidance about how to incorporate those into her calling. It's not exactly a positive look at community/vocational living. And I certainly can identify with many of Mary's struggles. The book outlines a slow unraveling of that early "do or die" faith where it was all or nothing. I find that it is difficult for people to keep that kind of mindset as they mature in their faith. I loved a line from the movie Saved--when one of the characters complains to his youth pastor dad--with you it's all black and white, Dad is dumbfounded, what? The kid tells him it's all gray to me. That's where I live. There are those of us--perhaps Mark Richard--with a nuanced relationship with God, the church, where we can stand BOTH inside and outside of it. Appreciating and yet also shaking our heads.

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