In case you were wondering, I’m having an especially good summer. My mother, Jeanne Ray (You know her novel, Calling Invisible Women, was published in May, and that it’s very funny, right? We’ve been over this already.) had a shoulder replacement a month ago and she is doing fantastically well, but I didn’t know that she would do so well and so I had cleared my calendar for the entire summer in order to be a good and helpful daughter. What this means is that I’ve been home for a for a long stretch for the first time in I don’t know when. Even when it was 109 degrees outside, I was happy. Here’s the basic formula:
staying home + everyone thinking I’m taking care of my mother + my mother being fine = writing
I may need to insist that my mother have her other shoulder replaced, even though it’s perfectly fine, just to keep this streak going. My mother says that we can just tell everyone she had the other shoulder replaced without her actually having to do it.
I am finishing a book of essays, which I know sounds about as exciting as saying that I’m finishing up a piece of crewel work. Essays are not big ticket items, unless you’re Nora Ephron or Barbara Kingsolver or the Woman in the Washington Zoo. Still, I’m having a great time. Now that I’m nearing the end, I’m thinking this would be a fine place to mention some of the books I’ve loved that people have written about their own lives. If you’re in the market for memoir this summer, here are some to consider:
Just Kids, by Patti Smith. Patti arrives in New York at the age of 21. She is broke, hungry, homeless, and determined to be an artist even if she doesn’t know exactly what that means. The first person she meets in the city is the 21 year old Robert Mapplethorpe, who quickly becomes her best friend and sometimes lover and truest soul mate. When I was young and dreamed of going to New York to be a writer, this was exactly what my vision looked like. I read this book when it was first published, not because I was a big fan of Patti Smith (my knowledge of her did not extend past “Because the Night”) or Robert Mapplethorpe (though I like his pictures of flowers), but because the reviews were such unanimous raves. Everyone I’ve given this book to has thanked me endlessly.
Act One, by Moss Hart. The first time I heard about Act One was on my favorite radio show, “This American Life”. A young woman named Alexa Junge found a copy of the book in her grandfather’s library and became obsessed with it. In fact, she pretty much fell in love with Moss Hart, who had at that point been dead for a very long time. The radio essay was so charming (listen to it in the “This American Life” Archives) that I decided to read the book myself. My only regret is that Alexa Junge beat me to it, because now I am in love with Moss Hart as well. Along with George S. Kaufman, he wrote and directed plays like “You Can’t Take It With You.” He also married Kitty Carlisle, who I once met when I was 17, but that’s another story. Not unlike the situation with Patti Smith, I didn’t love this book because I’m a devotee of American theater, I’m not particularly. But Moss Hart writes like no one else. The charm and wit and elegance he brings to the story of his own miserable upbringing makes you feel like you’ve gone to a fabulous dinner party and been seated next to the loveliest man in the world. The book was published in 1959 and Hart died in 1961. There will never be an Act Two.
There was a time when everyone I knew had read This Boy’s Life, by Tobias Wolff. First published in 1989, it was later a movie starring Robert DeNiro and Leonardo DiCaprio (back when Leo was just a cute kid). It’s worth bringing up again because it is a terrific book, second only to one of my favorite books of all time, The Duke of Deception, that was written by Toby’s older brother, Geoffrey Wolff, in 1979. If you want to impress the socks off your book club someday, suggest that you read and discuss these two books together. Geoffrey and Toby’s parents divorced when the boys were young and the father got Geoffrey and the mother got Toby. They went on to have completely separate lives. Both became astonishing writers, and both wrote books about their childhoods, one with mom (and terrible stepfather) and one with dad (and various stepmothers). In both cases, childhood was a fairly rotten time of life, but both books are full of compassion and comedy. It is a lesson in how good people can come out of bad circumstances.
Brother, I’m Dying, by Edwidge Danticat. I’m a huge fan of Danticat’s fiction, (especially The Dew Breaker) as I am a fan of the Wolff brothers fiction, but this is a book I never got over. When Dandicat was two, her father left Haiti for the U.S., and two years later her mother went as well, leaving her and her brother with their paternal uncle, a fabulous, gentle man who loved his niece and nephew as if they were his own. The Danticat children were reunited with their parents in the states when Edwidge was twelve, but by then she thought of herself as having two fathers, and she had to leave her uncle behind. This book helped me understand a little bit of the political situation in Haiti, but more than that, it gave me insight into what it means to be from two places at once. The things that happen to this family are fairly jaw-dropping, and Danticat is so smart in how she reports the facts without embellishment. A lesser writer would be milking every drop of emotion out of this story, but somehow, magically, Dandicat manages to step aside and watch as it all unfolds.
I’ve got about ten other books in mind but I want to cut myself off before the list becomes overwhelming. An old college friend emailed me a couple of days ago saying it was her turn to pick the book club book and what did I recommend? She said they were open to fiction, nonfiction, hardbacks, paperbacks, classics, and anything that was smart. I sent her such a long list of books in return that I imagine she probably just deleted it and asked someone else.
Before I close, I should say that even though I’m writing nonfiction these days, I’m still a fiction writer at heart, so I want to throw in one novel for good measure – Dave Eggers, A Hologram for a King, which was lovingly reviewed by Pico Iyer on the front page of last Sunday’s book review section in the New York Times. This is a book you want to buy in hardback because, just in terms of its physical self, it’s about the most beautiful book I’ve ever seen. It’s also very good. I read it a couple of weeks ago and I’ve continued to think about the main character, Alan Clay, ever since. He’s a man who is down on his luck and has gone to Saudi Arabia in hopes of recapturing the American dream of invention, or re-invention, and ingenuity. Like Brother, I’m Dying, it is wonderfully straight-forward in its style. You know how a sommelier will talk about a wine being drinkable? Well, these books are readable.
Even in these dog days of summer we’ve had a lot going on at the store: Chris Cleave (Gold, Little Bee) was in this week, and was perhaps the nicest guy I’ve ever met. Deborah Harkness was here with her number one New York Times bestseller, Shadow of Night (people drove down from Michigan to see her). Phil Bredesen, former governor and hero of Tennessee, came in to talk about some of his favorite books for Donna Nicely’s “Let’s Talk Books” series. We’ve had “Jazz By the Book” and story hour, and, as always, free York Peppermint Patties. In short, we’ve got it going on at Parnassus. We are always air conditioned, and we are always glad to see you.
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