Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Road Trip Listening: Fiction and Nonfiction

With my twenty-five-minute drive each way during the school year, I get a little crazy without an audiobook. When I have a long drive during the summer, it's even more imperative. On my recently trip to Alabama to visit family, I had two quite dissimilar books.  First, I listened to Lily Koppel's The Astronaut Wives Club, a most interesting story of the wives of the first set of astronauts--Shepard, Grissom, Glenn and more, and a couple of the generations that followed.

I've always been interested in the space programs, especially since I grew up a hour from Huntsville.  I loved Michener's Space, and I have watched the movie version of Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff more times than I can count.  Much of what I learned in Koppel's book goes beyond those stories.  My favorite line from The Right Stuff was Grissom's wife calling him a "squirming hatch blower," a detail I use in comp class when we discuss "loaded language."  The incident--which cost Mrs. Grissom a visit to the white house and one-on-one with Jackie Kennedy was interesting from her perspective.

I wasn't totally surprised to learn how much pressure these women endured to keep up a front of the perfect family--even though the powers-that-be turned their heads when many of the astronauts were carrying on with the "Cape Cookies," as the astronaut groupies were called.

Even though the author tells so many different stories, she clearly differentiates between the women. She reveals the friendships and rivalries, as well as the fears they endured. This far removed from the early days of space flight, it's easy to forget that these astronauts were going into untested waters--basically sitting on top of explosives.

The glimpse into the way presidential politics played in the space race was also interesting to me.  LBJ, by the way, did not get a very favorable depiction. Jackie Kennedy came across as more human than usual.

By contrast, Diane Setterfield's novel Bellman and Black is a dark story, almost Faustian in tone.  Setterfield, the author of the bestseller The Thirteenth Tale, weaves a fascinating story of William Bellman, who inherits his uncle's textile manufacturing mill, despite his questionable birthright. Young Will shows an early interest and ability, while the rightful heir, his uncle's son, chooses to live in Paris, trying to live an artist's life.

The novel opens when the boy, his cousin and two friends--at nine or ten are playing in the woods and Will shoots and kills a rook.  Throughout the novel, between the story itself, the narrator gives mythical and historical information about rooks, particularly some of the collective nouns used to describe them. Although Will builds a successful industry, he loses close friends and family members, and at each funeral he catches a glimpse of a man in black that no one else seems to notice.

When tragedy strikes a hard blow to Bellman's own family, he encounters the mysterious man during his grief and they end up striking some sort of bargain.  While Will doesn't exactly remember the details of any agreement they must have reached, he goes on to tackle another hugely successful venture, all the while losing touch with his prior life and self.  The book serves as almost a parable, but the author is never so heavy handed as to spell out the lesson explicitly for the reader--or even for Bellman himself.

By the end of the ride--and the final CD, I'd explored everywhere from the English countryside to the surface of the moon, and I was ready to see where books would take me next.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Memoir and Truthiness

This summer, I've been taking a flash memoir writing class online, so as I am writing and reading about writing memoir, I become more aware of all the memoirs I encounter in my reading.

As much as I've enjoyed Sherman Alexie's writing, I'd never read all the way through The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven until this summer.  I've taught one of the stories "This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona" in English 113.  When I completed my National Boards certification back in 1999, a suggested reading, viewing, and listening list was provided, and Smoke Signals, the movie based in part on this book.

I guess I'm glad I waited because I ended up with the 25th anniversary edition of the book, with an introductory interview of the author by Jess Walters, author of Beautiful Ruins and The Financial Lives of Poets, both books I enjoyed immensely.  I learned that Walters grew up close to the reservation where Alexie lived, and the two have known each other for years. Alexie also adds his own introduction in which he addresses the idea of memoir.

When Alexie spoke at Lenoir-Rhyne University this spring, he referred to one event in his sort-of-memoir, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.  In the real event, he became angry when he realized how old his new math book was (It had his mother's name in it.) and threw it at the chalkboard.

"In the book," he told the audience, I hit my teacher with it, which was much more satisfying."

Memoir and autobiography don't even claim to be the same thing, but authors have choices to make about what to include, what to omit, when to take license to make a story complete--or interesting--without misleading.  Memoirists--unless living their entire lives on a deserted island--must also consider the reactions and responses of other people in their lives.  Even without intentionally distorting the truth, one writer's account will vary from someone else's, even though both may have been present and paying attention.  Jane Hertenstein, the author of Freeze Frame: How to Write Flash Memoir, cited a story I had heard recently about a professor at Emory who asked college sophomores to write down the details of the Space Shuttle explosion right after it occurred.  Two years later, when he asked the same students to provide details on this incident, he found their accounts varied greatly from their early narratives.

This only confirms what most of us know if we pay attention:  our memories operate through a filter. While we probably can't recall every detail--and especially every conversation--the challenge is to tell our own stories in a way that attempts to make sense out of the biggest details of our lives.  Alexie never pretends to provide a flawless factual account, but he certainly writes the truth.