A couple of weeks ago, I was sitting in a Starbucks trying to get some work done when I overheard a man and woman talking about Little Women…presumably about the new film adaptation and its Oscar buzz. The woman was trying to explain “what” Little Women is – as in what it’s about – and was struggling a bit. “Well, it’s about four sisters…” To be fair, even if using the most straightforward way to describe the plot, it sounds a little homespun and maybe even boring: “Little Women follows four sisters as they grow up during the Civil War in the Transcendentalist hotbed Concord, Massachusetts.” And? So after the woman trailed off with the “four sisters” bit, the man replied, “But is it for men?”
I just Googled “fiction versus memoir,” even though I know the difference – and I suspect that you do too. My search results yielded the following top result: “Memoir or Novel? How to Decide.” It’s from a random literary agency that hosts an accompanying blog full of tips for would-be authors, and this was one of its posts. I admit to being a little baffled because I always assume that writers sort of know what genre they want to tackle. Do you want to make up a story or not? Ok, ok, I’ll concede that maybe at the beginning of one’s writing days, a little waffling may present itself. Writer: “I have a message I want to convey, but I’m not sure how.” But otherwise, “fake news” notwithstanding, we have FACT and we have FICTION. They’re different, right?
This summer the New York TimesBook Review published a special section entitled “The 50 Best Memoirs of the Past 50 Years.” When you think about it, 50 years is a long time. (I can get away with saying that because I myself am over 75% of the way to 50.) In fact, I think “50 years” is a particularly long time in memoir-speak because except for the very few, most of the selections on this list were unfamiliar to me or caused me to go, “Oh riiiiiiiight. Forgot about that one.” The majority of memoirs seem to be the flashes-in-the-pan of the literary world.
Let’s take one of 2018 and 2019’s favorite memoirs. Raise your hand if you have read Educated. (Do you see what I did there? Education…school…raising hands…) In the event that you don’t know, Educated is the story of a woman named Tara Westover who extricated herself from a hyper-religious and hyper-survivalist childhood in Idaho, taught herself enough info to do well on the ACT, gained admission to Brigham Young University, and then earned a Masters and doctorate at Cambridge. The epitome of an against-all-odds story, Westover’s memoir chronicles a stratospheric ejection from her unorthodox childhood from every imaginable angle: educational philosophy (she entered BYU not knowing what the Holocaust was), religious philosophy (a hybrid of essential-oil-heavy “naturalism” and Mormonism), and family-relationship philosophy (Westover eventually realizes that “hey, this isn’t normal”). It’s made-for-television (except it’s real), and we read this type of thing slack-jawed. For those who have grown up in an environment like Westover’s – rare, but plausible – the book may provide a blueprint of hope. For those of us who did not grow up like that, it is a fascinating view into someone’s life as well as a reminder to “appreciate all that we have.” I suspect people will remember Westover’s book for a long time – how can one forget? Continue reading “Fact or Fiction: On The Stone Diaries, The Body Papers & Investigating a Life”→
I recently read Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. You know you know this book – it’s everywhere. Target shelf? Check. A selection for Reese Witherspoon’s new “book club” via her nascent media enterprise Hello Sunshine? Why, yes. Set to be made into a movie by same company? Hello (sunshine)! But not at your library because 150 people have holds on it before you? Of course.
Reading rule of thumb: If it’s on the shelf at Target, there’s a very good chance it’s going to be off the shelf at your local library, i.e. 150 holds before your turn. If Reese Witherspoon or Oprah endorses it? Perhaps double that library hold number.
My friend Ashley says that books like Eleanor Oliphant – a quick page-turner about a “quirky,” earnest, and unintentionally hilarious 30-something woman who learns to cope with the real world after a traumatic childhood – “scratch an itch.” These types of books are laugh-out-loud funny (or at least for me this one was) and easy, but nonetheless well-written and clever. Think Maria Semple (Where’d You Go, Bernadette?) or a 20-years-on Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding. Let’s call it chick lit for the woman who normally avoids chick lit.
Regarding Eleanor Oliphant: I laughed, I cried (I really did, but it was while I was on a plane, so I had to hide it), and it was way, way better than what is sometimes on Target’s shelves. (I cheated and downloaded it to my Kindle.) At first glance, it seems that Eleanor is quite sheltered – she doesn’t “know how” to dance, and here is her initial dance-floor observation:
“During the next free-form jiggling section, I started to wonder why the band was singing about, presumably, the Young Men’s Christian Association, but then, from my very limited exposure to popular music, people did seem to sing about umbrellas and fire-starting and Emily Brontë novels, so, I supposed, why not a gender- and faith-based youth organization?”