Memoirs and memories, remembering and retelling…

Once upon a time you did not write a memoir until you were at least past sixty years old.   Now that rule no longer applies.  People of all ages and experiences share their lives and experiences.  Part of what it means to be human is to tell stories.  And we like to hear stories, especially when it is a story that actually happened.

One of the latest stories to arrive in the library is It’s easier to reach heaven than the end of the street:  a Jerusalem memoir by Emma Williams.  I read as much of this as I could stand.  I did not finish it. Not because it was poorly written but because the author is an excellent writer and does too good a job.  In this memoir of living in Jerusalem during the second intifada, the author does an excellent of conveying just how complex and entrenched “the situation” is; she effectively communicates the creep of suffocation, frustration and despondency of the Palestinians as well as the mixture of fear, hope and hyper-defensiveness of the Israelis. Her sympathies lie with the Palestinians but there are no cartoon villains in this book; just human beings who continue to rage against each other.

If you feel your average American life is staid and boring then these two memoirs of growing up might give you a new appreciation for that staid and boring life. Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs and The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls.  Running with Scissors is bizarre but fortunately Burroughs had the twisted sense of humor necessary to survive such a childhood.  Jeaneatte Walls relates to us her chaotic childhood with her alcoholic and hippie parents with tenderness and searing honesty.  Both of these memoirs can remind the reader that what may make for a good work of fiction or movie is quite different as the reality of your childhood.

A memoir with a literary emphasis is Reading Lolita in Tehran:  a memoir in books by Azar Nafisi.  Intertwined with her accounts of the discussions of various books in American and English literature by her and her students is an account of the revolution in Iran.  Having been steeped in this literature since middle school, it was refreshing and energizing to “see” the works discussed from a new perspective.

There are two memoirs from China, set during the Cultural Revolution, which tells the story of courage in two different ways.  The first is Life and Death in Shanghai by Nien Cheng.  The author was imprisoned for six years in solitary confinement during the Cultural Revolution, maintaining her innocence of the vague crimes that were attributed to her.  The book sneaks up on you.  At first I was not sure how interested I would be in it, but not long after I started reading it, I realized that I was very curious to see what was going to happen, how her release from prison would come about. While Nien Cheng was an adult during the Cultural Revolution, Ji-li Jiang was an eleven year old girl. She tells her story in Red Scarf Girl: a memoir of the Cultural Revolution. Red Scarf Girl is usually classified as a young adult book and here at the Parham Road Library you will find it in the ESL collection but it should not be overlooked.  Its writing is clear, straight forward and the story is a compelling one.

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