What I’ve Been Reading (Part 2)

My Books I’ve Read journal reminds me I’ve read four memoirs since late winter, each one wonderful, each worth a 4.5 – 5 star recommendation.

Ordinary Light by Pulitzer winning poet Tracy K. Smith is a remarkable book. It’s a coming-of-age story, and an elegy for her mother, both affectionate and sharp with insight. It’s been described as “a powerful meditation on daughters and mothers.” Informed now by her own motherhood, Smith mines her memories of a 1970s Black middle-class childhood in California and looks for who her mother was before she knew her–a girl growing up in 1950s Alabama. The religious atmosphere of Smith’s childhood felt very familiar to me and I loved how she navigated between what abides for her and what she’s moved away from, into her own understanding of “mysterious presence.”

41FlFCPSJML._SX340_BO1,204,203,200_I found myself jotting quote after resonate quote in my journal. (It was a library book, but I ought to buy it, I think, re-read and mark it!) Just one example, about a child’s assumption of (or longing for) the mother’s singular devotion compared to the reality of that mother in her fuller personhood: 

I had no way of knowing then, as I do now, that when a woman delivers her children to a safe place, even for just a few hours, a part of her becomes free in a way that a child cannot understand, reverting in an almost physical way to the person she was before she had children, as if she is testing to determine whether that person is still there.

Since my daughter and I had planned a trip to Ireland for May (which we postponed on account of my husband’s health), I was looking for Irish writers to read, and thus heard Eleanor Wachtel’s interview with Nuala O’Faolain, and thus read Are You Somebody: The Accidental Memoir of a Dublin Woman. Written in 1996, this memoir provides a splendid and immersive portrait of a family but also, as O’Faolain suggests, Ireland itself — the deep wounds of large families, alcoholism, abuse, but also the way society changed over her lifetime. O’Faolain longs for love but doesn’t find it by book’s end, except for the outpouring of reader love to her truth-telling words.

240188O’Faolain is a great stylist, her writing packed with detail and lovely description. About halfway through the book I googled something about the book and discovered O’Faolain is dead. Because I’d heard her voice in the interview, I imagined her very much alive, which she certainly is in her words. But once I knew she wasn’t, the memoir seemed even sadder.

downloadNext, Apricot Irving’s The Gospel of Trees, a well-written, well-researched account of Haiti and one rather dysfunctional family’s years there as missionaries. (Her father worked in a reforestration project.) Irving balances critique of the missionary enterprise with its paternalistic instincts and recognition of passions that motivated her parents and others. Her “return” to Haiti via memoir seems to provoke healing in her relationship with her father, a man prone to bursts of anger, and demonstrates how much Haiti has taken hold of her.

51zPmVDeIvL._AA218_And then there’s Lands of Lost Borders: Out of Bounds on the Silk Road by Kate Harris, a tale of biking the trading route of Marco Polo by Harris and her companion Mel Yule. The young Canadian had dreamed of space travel as a child, specifically Mars, but, she says, “You set off for Mars and end up–marvellous error!–on the Silk Road, this conjuring of dust and light and desire between Europe and Asia.” There’s lots of information here as well as adventure in heat and cold and astonishing landscape, suffering and soaring alike, but I especially liked her meditations on borders, Earth, quest. Sentences like this: “You are getting closer when you recognize doubt as the heaviest burden on your bike and toss it aside, for when it comes to exploring, any direction will do.”


A theologian’s memoir

In 2001, TIME magazine named Stanley Hauerwas “the best theologian in America.” Hauerwas found the designation absurd, he said, responding that “‘best’ is not a theological category.” But there it was, he was thus named, and he was famous.

Hauerwas’ memoir, Hannah’s Child, which I recently enjoyed, seems an attempt to come to terms with that particular “Stanley Hauerwas.” He puts “the great man”in his place, as it were, by thoroughly reminding us of his unlikely qualifications as low class Southerner and hardworking bricklayer’s son (where he learned the earthy language he only reluctantly dropped many years into his theological career — “I hated the hyprocrisy that niceness cloaks”), and of his impatience yet slowness at knowing “how to be a Christian.”

“I live most of my life as if God does not exist,” he confesses. (Something most of us probably will have to confess as well.)

“[B]y writing I learn to believe,” Hauerwas also says, early on in the book. One feels that he is doing that with the topic of his life as well, picking his way as truthfully as he can, reaching some understanding as he goes about who he is and who he has been.

About his writing (which is prolific) — Hauerwas says, similarly,

My writing is exploratory because I have no idea what I believe until I force myself to say it. For me, writing turns out to be my way of believing. (136)

And another time,

Writing is hard and difficult work because to write is to think. I do not have an idea and then find a way to express it. The expression is the idea. (235)

This awareness of what he’s up to in writing seems a figure of one of Hauerwas’ key contributions as theologian: the expression is the belief. His work, he says, “was to demonstrate the link between the truth of what we say we believe and the shape of the lives we live.” He doesn’t consider “belief” of much value detached from what we do.

For a while, as I read, I jotted down every time I came across a phrase something like “I had no idea” or “I am not sure” or “it never occurred to me” or “I did not understand.” They are frequent, and one might get the impression from them that Hauerwas bumbled through life, knowing very little of anything. Not true, but they do express his sense of being an outsider, of life’s surprises, and of his debt to others for that which he’s been able to learn and teach. He expresses his gratitude easily — for his friends, his son Adam, his second wife Paula. His first marriage, to a woman who was mentally ill, was difficult, and there have been other conflicts along the way. Some of these wounds still seem raw, at least judging by how he nurses them in these pages.

One looks to life writing, however, not for perfection, but for honesty and grace. And there’s plenty of both evident here. I found myself challenged by Hauerwas’ life, and was fascinated by how he works at describing what it means to be him.

What it meant first off, as his mother with her “white-trash energy” informed him, was to be the answer to her prayers. She had married late and like the biblical Hannah, she was desperate for a child. Mrs. Hauerwas prayed a prayer like Hannah’s and was also given a son. He wasn’t thrilled to be told, as a youngster, that he was “destined to be one of God’s dedicated.” It was fine for her to pray the prayer but did she have to tell him about it?

Along the way, of course, being him meant a lot more than that, but in the end, Hauerwas comes back to his mother’s prayer, and himself as its answer.

However, I am quite sure, strange servant of God though I may be, that whatever it means to be Stanley Hauerwas is the result of that prayer. Moreover, given the way I have learned to think, that is the way it should be.

Lit: almost larger than life

Lit: A Memoir, by Mary Karr, moved on to my “must read” list mainly through the high esteem in which blogging colleague Shirley Showalter over at 100 Memoirs holds both the book and its author. (Here, her review, and warm letter to Karr after they’d met.)

I reserved the book at the library, but when I arrived to pick it up, I realized I’d made a mistake in my order. It was the large print edition. I still manage just fine with regular print, so reading it this way wasn’t that comfortable, physically. I had to hold the book somewhere near my knees to get a decent distance from the big type, and sometimes after an extended period of reading, my eyes felt curiously maladjusted. I found myself rubbing them to get the familiar proportions of my environment back.

None of which is important, except that this seemed a kind of metaphor for the experience of the story as well. Lit is powerfully absorbing. Mesmerizing. The life it describes is about as large — in its intensity and visceral impact — as it gets without beginning to feel unreal. But it’s real enough; Karr is known to be scrupulous about writing fairly and accurately.

This book picks up where two earlier memoirs — The Liars’ Club (about her childhood) and Cherry (about her teen years) — leave off, with Karr’s education, marriage, becoming a drunk, getting sober, writing a bestseller, finding God. Karr has a lot to work through because of the damage her dysfunctional parents inflicted, and the damage she’s inflicting on her husband and beloved son Dev.

The plot may sound maudlin, like one of those too common grovel-to-glory accounts, but there’s something different about how Karr handles her material (and I don’t mean just her rather earthy language). I think it’s that she took the advice her friend Tobias Wolff (of This Boy’s Life) gave her:

Don’t approach your history as something to be shaken for its cautionary fruit…Tell your stories, and your story will be revealed…Don’t be afraid of appearing angry, small-minded, obtuse, mean, immoral, amoral, calculating, or anything else. Take no care for your dignity.

Such writing follows much the same path an alcoholic has to take to sobriety — facing, listing, confessing “my sinfulness in all its ugliness.” It’s a stance Karr maintains throughout. Interestingly, by taking no regard for cautionary fruit, she ends up being instructive — an example — anyway. She’s very good at describing growth, conversion, transformation, call it what you will, those small moments (that eventually add up) in which the soul opens a little, or shifts perhaps. Such as when she kneels in front of a toilet in the hospital, after checking herself in following a near suicide attempt:

If you’re God, I say, you know I feel small and needy and inadequate. And tonight I want a drink.

The silence fails to say anything back. I glare at it. It feels like judgment, the silence. And at that silence I give off rage; I start a ranting prayer in my head that goes something like this: Fuck you for making me an alcoholic. For making my baby sick all the time when he was so tiny…. And my daddy withering into that form. What pleasure do you get from… from smiting people?

I feel something stir in me, a small wisp of something in my chest, frail as smoke. It is–strangely–the sweetness of my love for my daddy and my son. It blesses me an instant like incense.

My eyes sting, and I blurt out, Thanks for them.

I feel the stillness around me widen a notch.

Karr’s writing reminds me of Anne Lamott’s, another writer who seems larger than life, raw and revealing, yet not diminished for all her carelessness of personal dignity. It’s an art perhaps, such honesty, and certainly the poetic language is, but it seems a gift as well. At any rate, I recommend the book. Unless you really need large print, read it in regular, however; Lit is quite strong enough without the additional shout of those great big words.