Monday, May 7, 2012

These American lives

Book: American Lives: A Reader
Author: various
Published: 2010 (University of Nebraska Press)
Pages: 300

These chunks pulled from full-length memoirs made good episodic reading that brought me back to earth.
All of them had the same sheen of quiet honesty, which was great because it pulled me into the humor and gravitas with equal strength. But that same sheen made reading things like multiple excerpts on losing children (in utero and born) less affecting than they would have been standing alone. Some of the excerpts were so short I couldn’t tell why they bothered to use that section instead of another.
My favorite, “Son of Mr.Green Jeans: A Meditation on Missing Fathers,” was set up as a list of dictionary-style definitions mixed with personal connections to the concepts being explained. It nicely spiraled into itself to make its point in the way that a kid with a missing father would piece together his feelings about that as he grew up and slowly learned what it meant. That would’ve been super annoying to read in a whole 300-page book, but as a collected piece itself it was really effective.
None of these memoirs were uncomfortably navel-gazing; they all gave good reasons outside their authors for being written. Latched together, they made a smooth patchwork of the genre.

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