Here are a few memoirs that I’ve read and can’t stop re-reading. Sigrid Nunez: Sempre Susan. OK, I’ve got to quibble with that title, which sounds a bit too much like that Brooke Shields show from the mid-1990s — Suddenly Susan — but the book captivated me completely. I read it twice in one sitting, and you will see, from the book’s admirable svelteness, that this is possible. Not to ruin anything, but the book is a memoir of Susan Sontag — not a biography, not ‘a life of,’ but a memoir in the Vivian Gornick sense, a tale about a point of engagement between two friends/antagonists.
I loved the things that fill this book, those scraps of dialogue, the way Nunez captures Sontag’s entrancing/seductive/condescending/cajoling/encouraging ways with all of the people around her, not just friends and confidantes but total strangers.
I can’t stop talking about Stephen Elliott’s the Adderall Diaries. Let me be clear: there is a lot of tsuris in this book, but I’m convinced that Elliott could have turned around something brilliant even if he had a nice, ordinary, uneventful, yawn-worthy childhood. However, he has a lot of trouble to work with, and he capitalizes on it in ways that you won’t expect. Elliott anchors the book — or is that the metaphor I’m looking for? — with a murder case that illuminates his own life in unexpected ways as the book progresses. The prudish and squeamish — those who shut the book because of the subject matter — are missing out, I think.
I want to mention Frank Kermode’s book Not Entitled again, just because that’s the one you’ve probably never heard of; I’m completely enraptured by it. See below.
Other books? I just started Tupelo Hassman’s Girlchild, and I’m under its spell. Reading it brings back memories of seeing her read from the work in progress in New York City a few years ago, wrapping up her reading with a hypnotic chant: “I am a heaven and hellflower,” repeated several dozen times. The book is helping me to address the mystery of that closing chant. Right now I am under the spell of another iconoclast — Ralph Eugene Meatyard, whose best photos can be found in a newly published volume called Dolls and Masks; some of the most haunting images I’ve ever seen, and with special resonance for anyone in the process of writing a family memoir (as I am.)
I finally had a chance to read Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. I just loved this. After finishing this, I kept thinking about all these potential problems and solutions: how to create a journey for the reader, always situating them physically on the trail, how to convey heartache so a reader can feel it, too, and how to flag the importance of each section and the related dangers (snow, sun, various creatures, and, in this case, the territory of men) while never losing sight of the separate but related larger narrative — the psychic journey, relating to her family, the loss of her mother and her flight from her marriage)
As I read this, I was never anxious for her to cut back to either the trail material or the memoir material. The book kept the momentum going as it followed both threads. She also conveys menace incredibly well, in the bow-hunting scene among others. The book keeps up a headlong pace without sacrificing meaning; we never lose sight of what was going on in her head at that time and what the journey means to her now. Quite an accomplishment; add me to the cheering section. Oh, and this just in: I just read, in a Santa Cruz Sentinel article, that she will be speaking at the Capitola Book Cafe on June 21.
Another great one that I just read: Liz Moore’s Heft. Yes, it’s an act of ventriloquism — a young female writer channeling the voice and physical presence of a housebound morbidly obese former professor and a young neglected student athlete, but Moore goes beyond mere channeling to create a work of beauty and depth; you never think about the channeling, only the lives on the page and the story.
up next: Lsyley Tenorio’s Monstress. Eager to read this. I was a Steinbeck Fellow with him a couple of years ago, along with Peter Malae, whose gripping and vividly written first novel is also now available.
On a totally unrelated note, one of my two eagle-eyed readers just emailed me a link to a Cheryl Strayed interview in which she mentions the Cactus Eaters as part of a hypothetical book display built around Wild. Cool.