Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt

By memoirista | August 20, 2008

In every non-celebrity memoir, there is at least one technical element that stands out to a reviewer. In Angela’s Ashes, it is the use of the historical present. I comment further on this technique in; it involves writing in the present tense, consistently or not so consistently.

In my memoir-in-progress, I’ve experimented with maintaining a focus in the historical present–not leaping out of that frame of reference for reflection or comment, yet using present tense for moments of high immediacy, and relaxing into what I call narrative tense for other stuff.

After the first four pages, Angela’s Ashes is in the historical present, even when the POV character, Frank McCourt himself, has not yet been born. It may not be logical; in fact it is not at all logical, but somewhat magical. It is always present tense, and present tense becomes Frank McCourt’s present, and that present tense is strictly maintained throughout.

The effect is that we grow up with Frank McCourt; his perspective on the world in which he lives is consistent with his age progression through that world. We know what it is to be poor and hungry in Limerick, Ireland before, during, and after World War II. We know what it is to live in total childlike belief in Irish Catholicism, to go through the sexual awakening of puberty and work out the inevitable conflicts with priestly teachings, to fear for the soul of a young woman who has died, and to both fear and long for confession, repentance, and absolution.

By this point, McCourt could have been eloquent on the wish to leave Limerick and return to America. Instead, the author constrains his eloquence, and shows, through few obvious large changes, how his life and perspective change considerably.

While I have had the book for quite a while, it is only in the past month that I have hunkered down to read it. It begins with three slow pages of description, to set the stage. Then McCourt goes back to his grandmother’s experience with the birth of his mother, Angela. So what, is that all there is, just a bunch of family tales?

Yes, narrative development in the beginning of this memoir relies on what must be family tales, the tellings that occur at major family events–although there don’t seem to be many such occasions throughout Frank’s life. Gradually, these immediate, historical present tellings of family tales about McCourt’s parents and the young Frank McCourt meld with direct observations from McCourt’s memory.

This is metaphorically a beautiful way to tell us about ourselves, that we know everything about ourselves, the legacy of forbears, the places we lived, the details we and others remember, and our earliest memories that blend with the stew of the past. Then gradually we emerge as individuals, with specific and contradictory memories, knowing that we are not all that we should be or could be, that life is not all that it should be, or could be, just ’tis.

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Angela’s Ashes

By memoirista | August 16, 2008

I’ve returned to this blog, and am currently reading Angela’s Ashes, by Frank McCourt.

While you wait for my review of McCourt’s memoir, check out this review by Jerry Waxler, whose website is “The Memory Writers Network.” Jerry listened to McCourt read his memoir, rather that read it sitting in his favorite armchair. He comments on the difference in the experience, in his review.

Here is the link to Jerry’s review:

McCourt won a Pulitzer prize for the memoir, and the book was made into a movie. From the reviews, I wouldn’t recommend the movie unless the culture and landscape of Ireland are completely apart from your experience and understanding. The movie, apparently, does an excellent job of conveying the despair-inducing atmosphere.

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By memoirista | June 21, 2007

What do I know of Stephen King? That he’s a very very very popular writer of books that have sometimes become movies. One way or another I have seen one full movie–The Green Mile–and parts of three others. These three are Misery, The Shining, and Carrie.

None is to my taste as a reader, though Kathy Bates’s performance in the movie made from Misery is phenomenal. For that role, in honor of her performance, I believe I could manage to read a book of horror fiction, a genre I would otherwise eschew.

The reason for this avoidance is a firm belief that the Dark needs no encouragement in general. In particular, having at one time in my life read my way through everything available on the Holocaust, the Dark needs no encouragement from me.

Stephen King has written two memoirs about fifteen years apart: Danse Macabre, which is structured as material for a course he taught on the literature of horror (not the horror of literature); and more recently, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Since the former quickly gets into material about the Dark, I have not yet overcome my unwillingness to read it.

On the other hand, I can recommend On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft as a reality-based, speak-honestly-to-the-reader, work of (mostly) non-fiction. About half the book is a personal history that takes King from infancy to 1997, in various leaps and bounds. Obviously, we don’t learn about everything, but much that seems fairly well connected to what and how King writes is there, and moves along nicely. Depth of understanding and insight are brought to this telling by the reader, rather than the writer.

King, for example, tells a “just the facts, ma’am” version of his alcoholism and recovery from alcohol abuse, with little insight shown or personal responsibility taken. Where insight comes into play is in King’s delightful ability to show insightful episodes of his growth and development as a writer. For example, he shows, rather than tells, of how a weekly newpaper editor, John Gould, taught him “more than any of them” (56), his teachers in high school and college, through copy editing King’s prose. The anecdote is nicely written, and winds up with a moral to the tale, in Gould’s voice: “When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story,” he said. “When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story” (57).”

What is the story here? How Steve King became Stephen King, an immensely popular novelist of the Dark, and what he wants to tell us about how to write and how he writes? The book is a choppy tale if that is its aim. This choppiness, the shifts in genre from memoir to advice giving to, finally, when we had given up hope, his narrative of his near-fatal accident, had me questioning who put this pastiche together–until I wrote this review.

I could give you chapter and verse as to why I think it’s a pastiche, or tell you and perhaps show you, as King would have me do, how King, throughout his life, scratched and clawed and managed and grew and learned and taught and suffered and became exalted, all for the sake of his craft.

I will tell you that it’s there, not show you how it’s there. Unlike the usual King, you will read this book to the end, and then like a stew that has to blend its flavors, let it simmer at the back of your mind, tasting it again when it has cooled.

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By memoirista | June 21, 2007

The phrase “everything old is new again,” is not meant to apply to the institution of the Harem, I hope. Instead, I am applying it to the sense I got when reading this 1983 account of EVERYDAY LIFE IN THE HAREM, by Babs Rule, that what was then billed as an account, an example of personal reporting diguised by the fiction of letters to various people “back home,” would today be called a memoir.

As memoir, it is the story of the invitation to Babs Rule, an American businesswoman, to visit a Saudi Arabian harem, the home of her daughter and grandson. It was, as she portrays it, a kind invitation to a grandmother isolated from her one-year-old grandson by culture, religion, and most of all sheer distance.

She spent three months in the harem, which as the meaning of the term develops in Rule’s book, is where the sons under ten years old, the daughters, and the wives of Saudi royalty and wealthy traditionalists spend their days and nights. Rule’s daughter has married a Saudi prince she met in the United States, and traveled with him to live in Saudi Arabia, where their son was born.

Rule describes here the expected opulence and unanticipated tedium in the everyday life of the harem. What to me makes it a memoir, although the time covered is less than four months, is the development of understanding and insight by Rule, and the drama of her escape from the harem. The remaining suspense is what will become of her daughter and grandson in the institution of the harem, in Saudi, or in the United States.

While Rule’s book is almost 25 years old, many of her insights into the cultural differences between the conservative Islamic monarchy of Saudi Arabia and the industrialized commercialized liberationist USA are worth pondering today.

And it makes a neat memoir, and a fast and suspenseful book to read.

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Comparing Reviews of GOAT

By memoirista | April 29, 2007

I would like your comments on the differences between the following two reviews of Goat: A Memoir, by Brad Land. Both reviews have some of what I call meta comments, on the craft or process of memoir writing. 

The first review is “Blood Brothers,” by Jamie Berger, and appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle. The second review, Raw ‘Goat’ is hip and harrowing” by Steven J. Lyons, appeared in USA Today. There are obvious differences of length.

What other differences do you notice? Your comments on the issues that show up in the two reviews?

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“I Am Proud to Be a Book Critic”

By memoirista | April 28, 2007

The following words express the integrity of the book reviewer who has written over 800 signed book reviews for newspaper book review sections:

I reach people with my opinions on books.

This doesn’t mean I’m always right. It doesn’t mean that my opinion matters more than anyone else’s. It does mean, though, that I have an obligation as a book reviewer to be honest, objective, fair, and to maintain a sense of integrity and gravity in every review I write.

I am proud to be a book critic.

Clay Reynolds, Comment, Critical Mass, accessed 4/27/07.

Let Reynolds’s words be a pledge of integrity for the online book reviews found on this site, as well.

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NBCC Campaign

By memoirista | April 28, 2007

Please note the sidebar button for the NBCC Campaign to Save Book Reviews. Even the best online reviews do not provide the critical sense of a book that the best of the newspaper-book-section reviews provide. And they do it without clumsy sentences such as the one I just wrote.

 Read all about the campaign at their blog Critical Mass, and then, of course, come back here for more.

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Mixed, by Angela Nissel

By memoirista | April 22, 2007

Not really Swedish, although my name is;
Not Jewish enough, though I’m nothing else but–
That’s me, not Angela Nissel.

Her first book, The Broke Diaries, is a series of entries about her senior year at the University of Pennsylvania, when she lived a hand-to-mouth existence on the line, as she describes it, between broke and poor. She wrote consistently with a comedian’s voice about the experience. Nissel made good use of the diary scheme and the imposed limit of one year’s experience to explore the theme of being broke.

Angela Nissel’s second book takes on the conventional genre of memoir for the exploration of being and identity. Does what you are define who you are? Nissel has a black mother (who was a Black Panther) and a white father, whom she thought was a thug. There is more art to this book than the simple stringing together of diary entries within a time frame, that worked for her first book.

Here we see her life span, and she has told it in terms of black and white. She grew up not really white, and not black enough. Teachers knew her identity as non-white before she did; fellow students teased her for not being black.

We get no clear sense of how, after many schools and generally poor grades, she was admitted to a private school on a scholarship, or, after a final year and a half at a magnet high school in Philadelphia, she applied to and was admitted to the University of Pennsylvania. Angela Nissel hews so closely to her theme–the identy politics of being “mixed”–that this reader found it difficult to get a sense of the transitions in her life.

Is this a mostly chronological arrangement of funny anecdotes about her perceptions of people who take her as different, or her slow search for labels that fit? Or is it a serious examination of identity politics by someone who has no conventional identity?

I think underneath it all her book is an angry screed at people who have to categorize other people, without insight and forgiveness and growth, without any sense that obstacles have been overcome. In her own mind, Nissel is as uncertain today about what she will encounter, and how she will deal with it, as she was in kindergarten.
And couched in humor though it may be, Mixed is still a mixed portrayal of the “black experience” today.

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The Goldfish Went on Vacation, by Patty Dann

By memoirista | April 4, 2007

This is a small, sad book. Dann’s husband, Willem, and the father of their small son, Jake, adopted from Lithuania, developed a swiftly debilitating, swiftly deadly, brain tumor.

As memoir it has great pathos, yet it is oddly crowded with events and people described without detail,. It is as if she had taught her classes in writing so often that they must write with very, very few adjectives, that she did not recognize when a variety of adjectives would be helpful.

I have been in the Netherlands, Willem’s home country, and lived on the Upper West Side in New York City — back before it was so tony. I know the area where she and Jake and Willem lived; I know the bicycle-based lifestyle of the Netherlands, as well. The feeling her writing gives me about these places is “So what?” That is to say, none of their interest and charm is apparent in the book, although Patty Dann and Jake continued to live on in their apartment after Willem had died.

The most fully realized portion of the book, oddly enough, is her recollections of particular writing exercises she had assigned to her students. Those exercises became brief narratives that had the inexplicit power to heal at odd moments.

By starting with Gornick, and continuing with Dann, I am describing in these reviews a genre that is either flat (Gornick) or lacking in detail of place and person (Dann). The common ground is that they are located in New York; because I know Dann’s part of New York better than the parts of the City inhabited and walked over by Vivian Gornick and her mother , I was happier to read the sad story of the Danns than I was to read the sad story described by Vivian Gornick.

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Fierce Attachments, by Vivian Gornick

By memoirista | April 4, 2007

An Observation, and a Brief Book Note–also posted April 2, 2007 on my Publishers Marketplace blog .

Overcoming obstacles

The genre of memoir encompasses diffuse and difficult differences between individual memoirs. So what we want to do first is describe a memoir in terms of its category. The quickest distinction we make is between celebrity memoir and non-celebrity memoir. One way to know that a memoir is a celebrity memoir is the lack of “meta” discussion about the writing of the memoir. That is not necessarily a sure tip that the memoir is a ghost-written celebrity memoir. Nevertheless, some selfconsciousness about writing seems to be a feature of many works in the “other” - other-than-celebrity, that is - memoir.

Another distinction is the characterizing of some memoirs as “the usual overcoming of obstacles.” I thouht about that. It seems to me that memoir as a genre is all about overcoming obstacles, that this is the reason for the widespread appeal of the genre. Everyone has faced obstacles, is currently facing obstacles, and anticipates facing obstacles in the future. Even a “literary memoir” such as Vivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments, if you think about it, is all about overcoming obstacles. Most of them seem ordinary and unremarkable. There is little difference, it appears, between life with obstacle and life with obstacle removed. It is easy to miss the genre-specific plot point of definitive “triumph over an obstacle” in Gornick’s writing. Yet the inner work of both mother and daughter does involve dissolving resistances and resolving hurts and none of it is complete.

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