Should memoirs be considered fiction?

DiscussionNEW

 

I remember how it rocked my world when a New Yorker article showed that Madeleine L’Engle’s portrayal of her life and family in her Crosswicks journals was more of a fictional construct. Since then I’m cautious about assigning factual truth to memoirs, but I tend to give the authors some leeway.

Goodness knows, if I had to write the story of my own life, there would be a lot that was not strictly accurate. Our memories are not photographic records, and we do tend to “re-remember” the past as a defense mechanism against painful experiences or to make sense of disconnected incidents.

If this is done unconsciously in the writing of a memoir, it’s understandable and human. If it’s done consciously, with deliberate intent, then such a book seems to depart from the realm of nonfiction. And given that sometimes it’s hard to know what really happened, maybe all memoirs should be assumed to be “fictionalized.” But is there something wrong with that?

There can be different levels of truth, and sometimes the truth of a narrative is not in the bare facts. Some memoirists are able to tread that line gracefully, letting their real selves shine through what will necessarily always be an interpretation, a reordering of lives phenomena.

If too much is concealed or distorted, though, it seems problematic. If it’s an attempt to push some agenda, or present a false persona, the claim to any kind of truth should be discarded.

What do you think? Should memoirs be considered fiction or nonfiction? And does it matter?

Linked in the Book Blog Discussion Challenge hosted by Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction and Shannon @ It Starts at Midnight!

Nonfiction November: Book Pairing

This week’s Nonfiction November topic is Book Pairing (hosted by Julz of Julz Reads): This week, pair up a nonfiction book with a fiction title. It can be a “If you loved this book, read this!” or just two titles that you think would go well together. Maybe it’s a historical novel and you’d like to get the real history by reading a nonfiction version of the story.

 

The obvious combo that springs to mind from this year’s reading is one I’ve mentioned elsewhere: The House of the Spirits and My Invented Country by Isabel Allende. Allende’s debut novel was a magical and sometimes brutal evocation of Chilean history through a family saga that was based on her own. After reading it I was curious to know more about the real story, and so I read one of the author’s several memoirs, a book in which she particularly considers what it means to her to be a writer in exile from her homeland. I enjoyed it even more than the novel; Allende’s sense of humor particularly comes to the fore as she writes about her own thoughts and experiences.

 

In another pairing, as I was reading Home by Julie Andrews, I thought, “This is like a real-life Noel Streatfeild novel” — for example, Dancing Shoes, which I reread this year. Young Julie’s talent brought her to the stage at an early age, just like Streatfeild’s performing children; and like them, she struggled with poverty and family problems. Her story has a bit more grit and realism but also a hopeful trajectory as she becomes a rising star.

 

Another reread was Chime by Franny Billingsley, a dark but beautifully written and moving fantasy that circles around themes of abuse and how it alters our perception of reality. I’d pair this with the new release Inferno by Catherine Cho, which comes out of the author’s experience of postpartum depression and psychosis. It’s also emotionally devastating and beautifully written.

Have you read any other novels that you would pair with a memoir or biography that gets into the reality behind the fiction? Or what other combinations have you discovered?

Nonfiction November: My Year in Nonfiction

Hooray, it’s Nonfiction November! This is a yearly event that a lot of us look forward to.

The topic this week is Your Year in Nonfiction, hosted by Leann of Shelf Aware: Take a look back at your year of nonfiction and reflect on the following questions – What was your favorite nonfiction read of the year? Do you have a particular topic you’ve been attracted to more this year? What nonfiction book have you recommended the most? What are you hoping to get out of participating in Nonfiction November?

I made it a goal this year to read more nonfiction, and I did. I discovered many amazing books and learned so much.

Aside from memoirs, which are always a pull because I love to read people’s stories, I’ve been attracted to medical topics, books about trauma and recovery, and books about people with neurological or sensory differences. The standout was probably An Anthropologist on Mars by Oliver Sacks. I’ll definitely be seeking out more of his books.

I have recommended The Body Keeps the Score to many people, and I will continue to do so because I think it is such an important book. We need to change our thinking about lots of things, and trauma is one thing that severely clouds our thinking. This book shows it is possible to find a way through, using the wisdom of the body to help.

Here is a list of the nonfiction books I’ve read since last November:

  • Daring to Drive by Manal al-Sharif – Memoir, activism
  • Ce n’est pas toi que j’attendais by Fabien Toulmé – Graphic memoir
  • I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou (plus her other memoirs)
  • Born a Crime by Trevor Noah – Memoir
  • The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk – Science (trauma and recovery)
  • The World I Live In by Helen Keller – Essays
  • I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong – Science (microbiology)
  • Good Morning Monster by Catherine Gildiner – Psychology (patient stories)
  • Inferno by Catherine Cho – Memoir of a psychosis
  • Home and Home Work by Julie Andrews – Memoir
  • My Invented Country by Isabel Allende – Memoir
  • The Book of Forgiving by Desmond Tutu and Mpho Tutu – Spirituality
  • In Pursuit of Disobedient Women by Dionne Searcey – Memoir, reporting
  • Rudolf Steiner and Swedenborg by Gary Lachman – Biography
  • An Anthropologist on Mars by Oliver Sacks – Science (neurological case studies)
  • Funny, You Don’t Look Autistic by Michael McCreary – Memoir
  • Haben by Haben Grima – Memoir
  • Lingo by Gaston Dorren – Language
  • For the Benefit of Those Who See by Rosemary Mahoney – Memoir, experiences with the blind
  • Toucher la vie by Thich Nhat Hanh – Spirituality
  • Too Much and Never Enough by Mary L.Trump – family biography, psychology

What do I hope to get out of Nonfiction November? It’s always so interesting to see what others have been reading and to get ideas for my own nonfiction reading for next year. And I hope that others might be inspired by some of what I have to share too.

There is so much to learn and to discover in our world, and this event helps to keep me grounded in that activity when so much is flying out of control. We can always strive to keep our perspective, to see clearly, understand, and put together the disparate pieces of our experience. That’s what I’m trying to do, anyway.

What does Nonfiction November hold for you?

Witch Week: The Graveyard Book

As October turns to November, I hope you’re enjoying Witch Week as hosted by Lizzie Ross – she’s put together a wonderful array of posts on the theme of “Gothick.”

Today’s treat is a discussion of Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. I was so happy to get to participate, along with Lizzie and two of my other favorite blogging friends, Chris of Calmgrove and Jean of Howling Frog Books. We had a long and fascinating discussion over Google Docs, which Lizzie has edited down for your reading pleasure.

In this dark time, Gaiman’s tales of life in the graveyard held a curious kind of reassurance for us. I hope you’ll read more about what we found there.

 

Month in Review: October 2020

This month I went on vacation for two weeks to Crete (see here for pictures on my other blog). It was a most welcome and relaxing break, during which I got into rereading Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries. It started with Gaudy Night, which I’ve been wanting to reread for some time, but then I realized I had to started with the first two Harriet Vane books, and then I couldn’t stop. It was perfect vacation reading, after all.

I could not get on at all with Foundation by Isaac Asimov, though. It’s the start of another series, and some say the later books are better, but I’m not interested in pursuing them. This one was too silly and too boring. Classic science fiction sometimes does have that effect on me.

What books or series have you been captured by this month?

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Reviews

  • In search of something light, I hit on Unmarriageable, an update of Pride and Prejudice to modern Pakistan.

 

Other Books Read

  • The Song of Seven by Tonke Dragt, translated by Laura Watkinson
  • Foundation by Isaac Asimov
  • Strong Poison, Have His Carcase, Gaudy Night, Clouds of Witness, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, The Nine Tailors, and Busman’s Honeymoon by Dorothy Sayers
  • Too Much and Never Enough by Mary L.Trump

 

Other Features and Events

 

On my other blog

 

Shared in the Sunday Post hosted by Caffeinated Book Reviewer and the Monthly Wrap-up Round-up hosted by Feed Your Fiction Addiction

Am I an e-book convert?

DiscussionNEW

 

Many, many years ago, in my eighth grade oral presentation class, one of the few talks I remember giving was one about e-books. They were not even really a thing back then, but for some reason the topic was in the air. I argued against them, saying that paper was more permanent, more aesthetic, and more shareable. E-books seemed so ephemeral and somehow illegitimate.

I still find e-books more ephemeral and uglier than paper books. But I’ve given them a larger and larger share of my reading life. They’re just so convenient and portable. I check out books from the library, or download free classics, because I don’t like spending money on them. I can carry my e-reader around easily everywhere, get books instantly, and not have to wrestle with heavy volumes or awkward positioning.

Since I’ve started to read books in French, the built-in dictionary is a godsend. And the real clincher is that my excellent eyesight has at long last started to fail, and I HATE wearing reading glasses. With an e-book I can enlarge the text so that I don’t have to.

What I like least about e-books is the inability to focus on more than one page at once: to physically grasp the length of a chapter in relation to the whole, to flip back and forth to look at maps, pictures, and footnotes, or to correlate passages with diagrams or with other sections of the book. For these, I definitely prefer paper. And for a total aesthetic experience, with pictures and typography, give me a beautifully printed and bound copy. These still have an important place in my life.

But otherwise, I’ve done a 180 degree turn from my eighth grade position, and embraced e-books.

What about you? Do you have any opinions about your reading habits you thought would never change, but have since converted?

Linked in the Book Blog Discussion Challenge hosted by Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction and Shannon @ It Starts at Midnight!

In search of something light

Looking for a book to lighten my mood, I tried and discarded a number of candidates, from contemporary and historical rom-coms to fantasies to classic mysteries. Nothing held my attention for long: too crude, too contrived, too anachronistic, too dated. Would I ever find something to brighten up my reading life?

A couple of tried and true favorites came to the rescue: Margery Sharp (the appropriately named Something Light) and Barbara Pym (Jane and Prudence). Compared to the plodding and half-literate writing I sometimes come across in popular fiction of today, these two ladies always write with real style and distinction, but not a touch of pretention. Perfect light reading that does not insult the intelligence, if you can look past the mid-century assumptions about gender roles.

I’ve taken a long break from Jane Austen retellings, but I also tried a couple of those — and found  Unmarriageable to be a worthy entry in this overcrowded genre, as well as an addition for my Reading All Around the World project. Soniah Kamal has updated the story of Pride and Prejudice to twenty-first-century Pakistan, a setting that is in some ways very far away from Austen’s and in other ways very close, with a similar pressure on women to marry, rigid social rules and codes, and tension between outer wealth and inner moral worth. The updates of the characters are fun to follow; even their names are entertaining.

Just a few things felt off to me: what was perhaps meant as sardonic wit from Alys, the Lizzie Bennett character, came across as too harsh and angry; the Mr. Collins character was too positively portrayed, being wealthy, successful, and generous instead of a sycophantic creep; and it was beyond the bounds of belief that Alys, a high school English teacher who opens the novel with a lesson on P&P, would not notice that her life has started to uncannily resemble her favorite book.

Otherwise it was a literary romp that also gave a fascinating view into life, and especially marriage customs, in Pakistan. I especially loved how at the end every single female character got her own business or profession at which to shine. That’s the kind of update I like to see!

Have you found any light reading lately to lift your spirits?

Month in Review: September 2020

September was World Kid Lit Month, a new-to-me event that translates diverse, global and translated children’s books. I joined in by reading The Beast Player, by Japanese author Nahoko Uehashi (translated by Cathy Hirano). The imaginary but Japanese-flavored fantasy world about a divided kingdom within which magical beasts live in an uneasy relationship with humans brought up some interesting questions about how we relate to the natural world, and to each other. The sudden, unresolved ending came as a bit of a shock after the more progressive buildup, but a sequel has just come out so I’ll have to read that to find out more about how the story continues.

Have you read any translated children’s lit this month? What do you recommend?

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Reviews

 

Other Books Read

  • Something Light by Margery Sharp
  • The Ogre of Oglefort by Eva Ibbotson
  • Unmarriageable by Soniah Kamal – Around the World (Pakistan)
  • Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym
  • The Beast Player by Nahoko Uehashi
  • The Murderer’s Ape by Jakob Wegelius
  • Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

 

Other Features and Events

 

On my other blog

 

Shared in the Sunday Post hosted by Caffeinated Book Reviewer and the Monthly Wrap-up Round-up hosted by Feed Your Fiction Addiction

Coming through: Recent releases about trauma and recovery

Lately, I’ve read a number of books about trauma, abuse, and the therapies leading to healing and recovery. I find this such a fascinating and important topic, because (as is pointed out in The Body Keeps the Score), even if we are not personally victims of abuse, when it is not properly treated, it ripples through society and causes damage on every level. It affects every one of us, and only through raising our awareness and compassion can it be addressed. The following books, with their personal narratives of difficult experiences, can help with that.

Catherine Cho, Inferno (Henry Holt, August 2020)

I find it amazing that Catherine Cho is able to so eloquently describe such a traumatic experience: her descent into postpartum psychosis, and her involuntary hospitalization when she began to hallucinate and hear voices saying her baby had to die. With remarkable self-awareness, yet conveying powerfully the fragmented state of psychosis, she takes us through this terrifying story, a difficult but necessary one to hear.

Moving back and forth in time, we also learn of her past abuse by her father and a former boyfriend (not her current husband); her suffering through the societally sanctioned abuse of  a medicalized birth; and of how her in-laws continue to burden her with their anxiety, fear, and criticism. Pregnancy and birth is a precarious time, not well carried in our society, and previous unhealed trauma can make it a dangerous one — although, oddly, nobody in this book seems to attempt to look into Catherine’s past, or make a connection between these experiences and her psychosis. Drugs and waiting for time to pass are all they have to offer. I do not know much about this field in particular, but it seems to me there is a large gap in understanding to be filled here.

After her harrowing journey through hell, Catherine comes to a tenuous recovery at the end, but there seems to be more healing needed for her, and I hope she will find it. No story of recovery is ever really over; given the brilliant writing in this book, it would be good to hear more about this one.

Catherine Gildiner, Good Morning, Monster (St. Martin’s Press, September 2020)

This is an inspiring and humbling book — five stories of people who came through childhood neglect and abuse, repairing a damaged sense of self and bravely reconnecting to the world and other people. If I get upset about anything that happens to me, I just have to think of what they endured, and try to emulate their strength and courage. Written by a therapist, this book gives an interesting glimpse into the therapeutic process, including failures and setbacks along the way, and the path to recovery and renewal.

While this can be extremely valuable for those going through similar issues, it also made me a little uncomfortable at times. There is a voyeuristic element in looking through the private window into someone’s life, witnessing such horrible things. We are meant to empathize with them, but there is also a kind of distancing that can be disturbing. How can we truly understand another person’s suffering, how can we possibly treat it with enough reverence and respect? This includes the author’s own abusive upbringing, which she reveals at the end in an oddly naive way, not seeming to fully realize how much it mirrors her own patients’ inability to recognize what they have been subjected to. It made me wonder if she herself needed therapy more than she realized.

That said, this is a fascinating, compulsively readable book which gives a glimpse of true heroism, of the noble side of humanity that lurks in the darkest places. We need such images today.

Julie Andrews Edwards, Home (Hachette, 2008)  and Home Work (2019)

The word “abuse” may not be immediately associated with the name “Julie Andrews” in your mind. Her sunny, joyful soprano voice seems made to banish darkness and pain, not born out of them. Yet her youth was not easy, as she reveals in her first memoir Home. At an early age her parents separated, and she was taken away from her beloved “Dad” to live with her mother and an alcoholic, sexually predatory stepfather. The couple were aspiring performers, and when young Julie’s amazing voice manifested she became part of their act. In fact, her success soon outstripped theirs and as soon as she was legally able to leave school her mother put her to work full time, regardless of her wishes.

Andrews relates all of this with frankness but also without malice or resentment; she seems to have accepted her role of supporting the family, both financially and emotionally. She gives a fascinating picture of her early life and first successes as a performer  — in the shows The Boy Friend, My Fair Lady, and Camelot. For those who are interested in backstage theatre stories, hers are priceless.

The second volume, Home Work, was the one I actually read first, after I glimpsed the new hardcover last year in a bookstore in Gstaad, Switzerland — a place that Andrews fell in love with when she visited it many years ago, and that she has made her home. It’s not as compelling, but still interesting, as it goes into the Hollywood career, the time of Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music, and her second marriage to the mercurial director Blake Edwards. Andrews seems concerned to protect her family here, and one senses there are difficulties that she does not describe. Her hectic rushing to and fro in the way of movie stars is quite painful to read about, and must have been hard on her children.

But one does still get a sense of her as a person of great integrity who has gone through suffering (assisted by therapy, which she credits with saving her life) and brought out of it beautiful art. Not an egoistic prima donna, she is modest about her own abilities and grateful to many who helped her along the way. We can be thankful to her in turn for sharing her story with us.

Inferno and Good Morning Monster were received as e-galleys from the publisher for review consideration through Netgalley. No other compensation was received, and all opinions expressed are my own.

Top Ten Tuesday: Books on my Fall TBR

Top Ten Tuesday is a feature at That Artsy Reader Girl. This week the prompt is Books on my Fall 2020 TBR. And it turns out that THREE of my favorite fantasy authors (two of whom release their books at excruciatingly long intervals) have new titles out this fall, so I had to join in! Plus, there are some other backlist books that I want to read before too many more months have passed.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
Return of the Thief by Megan Whalen Turner
A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik

These are the three. After so many years of silence following Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell and The Ladies of Grace Adieu, I cannot tell you how excited I am for a new book from Clarke. And MWT’s books in the Thief series are always worth waiting for. Naomi Novik is more prolific, but I’m interested to see that she seems to be trying something quite different with this new one.

Anyone else excited for these?

 

The Once and Future Witches by Alix Harrow

Here is a new name in fantasy who is already coming out with her second book. I did not read Harrow’s blockbuster The Ten Thousand Doors of January, but this one — combining witches with the suffragist movement — sounds even more intriguing. I’m putting it on my list and hoping I discover a new favorite.

A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende

I liked the books by Isabel Allende I read earlier this year, so I was pleased when her latest was a book club pick for October. I hope it’s good for discussion.

Germania by Simon Winder

I’ve been reading Danubia, which is the second volume in this “personal history” of Germanic Europe — and it’s interesting enough that I want to go back to the first one. The author’s extremely chatty, slangy style is not for everyone, but I find it quite refreshing. I wouldn’t use it as a history text, but for personal enjoyment, why not?

Foundation by Isaac Asimov

I’m not sure why, except that I’ve never read anything by Asimov and not much SF in general, but I picked this as a title I wanted to read for the Genre Classic category of Back to the Classics. And Emma of Words and Peace said she would read it with me, so we have it slated for October. If anyone wants to join us, let me know.

How We Learn by Benedict Carey

I heard about this on a French language learning podcast I listen to. And I thought it would be good to know more about, well, how we learn, so I bought a copy. Which has sat on my shelf ever since. But when my brain is up to being expanded, I shall have a go at it.

The Mountains Sing by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai

This just sounds so amazing and would be part of my Reading All Around the World project.

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks

I loved the two Sacks books I’ve read so far (Awakenings and An Anthropologist on Mars) so I was pumped to find a copy of this in the thrift store. I brought it home but I haven’t been in the mood to read it yet. Soon, I hope!

 

 

What’s on your fall TBR? Feel free to link your TTT in the comments!