Monday, December 8, 2014

Stephanie Dowrick suggests memorable memoirs

Any fine memoirs among them?

 Book Club co-host and writer Stephanie Dowrick suggests some memoir reading: perfect gifts, but perfect also to be bought at any time for your own or others' reading pleasure.

Frankly, and after decades of intense writing over several genres, I'm in awe of writers brave enough to tackle "memoir" as their chosen literary form. When it's well done, the outcome will be as gripping and rich as any novel could be. Perhaps more so, because rather than creating an imagined "real world", the writer is sharing one. Complications arise, though, because that "real world" - that continuing, dynamic, ever-changing world - is invariably shared with others and while the writer is absolutely entitled to his or her memories and interpretations, these won't always be pleasing to others. We each experience what we call "the world" in an emotionally-driven and highly subjective way: the singularity of that is amply demonstrated by memoir writers. We read similarly, too, judging other people's lives, insights, interpretations through the filter of our own lives. When we are jolted to reconsider some of our assumptions in a deep or lasting way, that's a good thing. It brings us more deeply into the human family, with all that we share and in all the ways that we differ. It can also alert us to our own presumptions and prejudices. It can give us a new sense of proportion about what we ourselves, perhaps quite unselfconsciously, over- or under-value. And, not least, isn't there something marvelous about entering someone's life and experience in the depth that only excellent writing allows? We get to share secrets, intimacies, heart-breaks and heart-mending in ways that even closest conversations can rarely express. Memoir is sustained conversation: deep, observant, intimate. And when it works, that is exhilarating. Here are my picks of this year's memoirs. I do hope you will seek out these books, enjoy them, give them, request them from your library and make them better known. The books deserve that. So do the writers.

David Leser, To Begin to Know: Walking in the Shadow of My Father
This is is a memoir by a brilliantly talented journalist and interviewer. The project - more than a book - has had a most fascinating history in that it began as an intimate biography of David Leser's father, the distinguished German-born, international publisher Bernard Leser (of Conde Nast fame). However, as the project grew – and stalled –  over an entire decade David discovered that this was perhaps meant to be a book about himself as a son of Bernard, but no less about his emerging, changing, developing, complex "self": himself as writer, husband, father, unconventional Jew, and genuine investigator of the often-troubling, often-magnificent human condition. And investigate he does. I was interviewed some years ago by David.
It was a memorable experience and, in my case, wholly positive. So I know him at first-hand to be a deeply curious writer in a profession where that essential quality is often lacking. The central question of what we, as readers, have a right to know (or believe that we can know) about other people, either through the eyes of a journalist/biographer or through a writer's own eyes, is ceaselessly fascinating. Leser allows that question to emerge as part of his memoir. (Leser means, in German, “reader”. But the English echo of “laser” is just as apt. Here, Leser spares himself even less than he did in his many famous written portraits.) On virtually every page, he is exceptionally frank. But it felt very much to me as though he was in search of truth, on his own behalf certainly, but also for readers' sake. He is also exceptionally intelligent: willing to change his mind and to have his mind changed. The intensity of this memoir is very nicely relieved by a sense of humour that hovers even in his least-confident, darkest times. And let me rush to assure you that this allows for greater insight and truth, rather than the more usual use of humour as a sidestepping of deep and real feeling. Heart and mind are fully present in this book.  As the humane and appropriately rich portrait of an adult son in and emerging from "the shadow" of a much-loved, greatly talented father, it is totally successful. Playwright David Williamson called it "revelatory". I found it absolutely absorbing.

Mandy Sayer is a successful novelist but has made memoir her primary form of writing. This is where she truly has created a "place of her own". She is quite exceptionally gifted in her vividly detailed, highly sensual recall of events and the emotions that accompanied them, as well as in her expression - and containment - of those memories. Her latest book is called The Poet’s Wife:A Memoir of a Marriage and in it she herself demonstrates a highly poetic, subtle and insightful sensibility, as well as a strong command of story-telling. This is in so many ways an immensely accomplished book. It is as gripping as any novel could be but its subject matter - revealing Sayer's vulnerability - must surely have taken every ounce of her skill and tenacity. What Sayer is recording here is a complex marriage to an extremely complex man: American poet, Pulitzer prize-winning Yusef Komunyakaa. When  the two met Yusuf was almost twice Mandy's age. He was and is black; she was and is white. The differences between them were so many – race, age, nationality and culture just the most obvious. But what they shared, and what emerges most hopefully through this book, is that each was in the process of becoming the writer they needed to be. Each had also emerged from incredibly demanding, unpromising beginnings. 
But this is not primarily a tale of literary triumph. What emerges here is the raw emotional abuse experienced by Mandy as her husband repeatedly withdrew his love, fidelity, even his affection. We may wonder why she tolerated this for what seems to be far too long. But her life had always been one of great uncertainty, demanding matching courage, and the intimacy of a memoir as rich as this one brings into question all kinds of presumptions. Reading it though, it felt good to me to know that this highly intelligent woman who has led such a courageous and unpredictable life is now living in far happier circumstances then those she describes here. And I certainly don't want you to have the impression that this book is entirely bleak. Far from it. There are many richly loving moments and certainly great evidence of a commitment to writing and to all that writing can bring and allow that is dynamic and encouraging.
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