Perhaps because September rhymes with Remember, because one can feel the light change, and days diminish, and see the petunias, so gaudy all summer, pucker up and die without farewell, it has always seemed to me the most nostalgic month. September presupposes loss and loss always sharpens memory.
Thus, Red Wheelbarrow Writers Book Club—our intrepid band of dedicated readers and writers—always chooses Memoir for September. I write this knowing it is October and I am utterly derelict.
Victoria, a garden writer, brought garden memoirs, beginning with Michael Pollan’s SECOND NATURE, a gardener’s education, linked essays she describes as intellectual history and environmentally opinionated. MRS. WHALEY AND HER CHARLESTON GARDEN by Emily Whaley, an elderly writer graciously opinionated with an engaging voice. EPITAPH FOR A PEACH by David Matsumoto which Victoria loved for its poetic insights and insightful prose. Then there is GREEN THOUGHTS by Eleanor Perenyi, a vintage book, if I’m not mistaken, not Vintage like the publisher, but vintage as in from the past. Victoria termed these essays arranged alphabetically, as acerbically opinionated. Nice to know that garden writers can wield the pen as well as the spade.
Marie brought some of her favorite memoirs of childhood. BONE BLACK by bel hooks, very short chapters, some in first person, some in third, describes the feminist writer’s Alabama childhood. Harry Middleton’s FLY FISHING, TROUT AND A LIFE WITH OLD MEN begins in 1965 in Guam and tells the story of a boy sent to live with two old uncles. Beautifully written and expresses the young boy’s mind and voice. Marie also shared a unique looking graphic novel, Lynda Barry’s ONE HUNDRED DEMONS about a first generation Tagalog family
Frances admired THIS BOY’S LIFE by Tobias Wolff and A BOY’S OWN LIFE by Edmund White, published in the early 80’s before AIDS cut its swath through the gay community. She also touted Gerald Durrell’s MY FAMILY AND OTHER ANIMALS.
Pam brought all three Mary Karr memoirs, THE LIAR’S CLUB about her childhood, CHERRY about her misspent youth, LIT, about her alcoholism that opens with her in a ditch wearing high heels. Overall assessment: the mark of a great writer is to consistently weave tales that keep you anchored to the book. Pam also touted Alicia Abbott’s memoir of her father. Alicia was raised in San Francisco by her father at the height of the AIDS epidemic, and while she was still very young, her father’s friends all began dying.
Jes, a seasoned and dedicated sailor, chose books about boaters: “Bad times of being on the water” from different perspectives. Her first A CURVE IN TIME is the story of a widow in the early 1950’s who took her five kids up through the Inside Strait. These were originally a series of newspaper articles later cast into a book. A wonderful book and required reading for PNW residents. (A boating amigo gave me this book when I was researching EDUCATING WAVERLEY which is set in the San Juan Islands in the 30’s. It became one of my favorite memoirs as well.)
Jes also cited two books in contrast to one another, the first ADRIFT by Stephen Callahan tells a boating story in which the Narrator is “about to die at every moment,” and a great crybaby. Jes wanted to slap him. I wanted to slap him as she talked about the book. Conversely, MAIDEN VOYAGE by Tanya Aebi tells the story of a woman who sailed around the world by herself. She lost her title to this incredible achievement because she stopped to pick up a stranded friend. The Narrative Voice in the book changes from an unsophisticated writer to later, when an editor got hold of the material and enhanced it.
For myself, choosing among the gizillions of memoirs I have loved is always difficult. I brought with me one of my all time favorites, OLEANDER, JACARANDA by the British writer, Penelope Lively which circles round her childhood in Egypt during World War II. Her father was posted in Cairo as part of the diplomatic corps and when, at the war’s outset, British women and children were sent home, she and her mother stayed. There is a great story here of maternal neglect but the charm, the deep fascination of the book is its self-conscious questioning of the past. The narrator asks: do I really remember that? Have I somehow transposed these elements? Lively used the idea of the palimpsest, and Egypt itself, the notion of excavation and restoration in ways that are not merely moving, but provocative. This book, sadly, is out of print now. She had a new memoir out last year, DANCING FISH AND AMMONITES which I promptly bought and eagerly read and found disappointing, a diary more on the order of “My Elderly Days,” and how well I’m doing.