Four Great Memoirs

2011 is a year that will begin "memoirably," at least here at Square Books.   In the New Year's first quarter we will see at Square Books four excellent memoirs -- and, on various book-signing dates, the people who have written them.  In lieu of the sort of discussion here that mere mention of the memoir genre always invites, I recommend for those who wish to ruminate on this subject the excellent January 25, 2010, New Yorker article, "But Enough About Me," by Daniel Mendelsohn,  who recognizes that "memoir, for much of its modern history, has been the black sheep of the literary family," and that "confessional memoirs have been irresistible to both writers and readers for a very long time, and, pretty much from the beginning, people have been complaining about the shallowness, the opportunism, the lying, the betrayals, the narcissim."  For now, just leave it that memoirs may be -- as is the case in the hard-earned, shocking, and illuminating truths of these four books -- legitimate and very welcome literary accomplishments.  Here they are, in order of publication date:

Chinaberry Sidewalks, by Rodney Crowell (Knopf, January 18, 2011)
Rodney Crowell is the well-known, Grammy-winning singer and songwriter who now has written a superb account of his early life in Houston, Texas, the only child of a hard-drinking, honky-tonk father and holy-roller mom.   The constants of his childhood were alcoholism, violence, dire financial straits, and music, and Crowell vividly illustrates the events and surroundings of his Jacinto City neighborhood where "scrub brush stood higher than most rooftops" and "life under these prairie skies had a settling-for-less quality that my parents found reassuring."   The stories of neighborhood antics are often very funny, and Crowell's awakening to his inner musician is told in a surprising and compelling way.   Crowell's hardscrabble young life often seems desperate, "Yet Crowell's love for his family," said Mary Karr, "finds humor and redemption in every riveting scene."

House of Prayer No. 2, by Mark Richard (Nan Talese, 23.95, February 15, 2011)
Richard's memoir is unusual and excellent in many ways.   Stylistically, it relies on a second-person and occasionally third-person voice, initially awkward but quickly very effective.   The author was born to Cajun parents and grew up in Virginia with a hip defect that required surgery and lengthy residence in charity hospitals, where he was a "special child" and at one point classified as mentally retarded.  (Richard fans will recall the hospital setting from his remarkable short story, The Birds at Christmas.)    Mark's youth as an only child is a struggle, then marked by a series of jobs as a disc jockey, shrimp-boat mariner, private investigator, and bartender, and he finds his calling and success as a writer early, all the while dealing with a spiritual calling, as well.   Amy Hempel said that "Mark Richard says important things about finding one's way, about love in action, about being a father, and he does so with the precision and grace of an artisan from another time," adding that "this is some of the finest writing you will ever read."

Townie, by Andre Dubus III (Norton, 25.95, February, 2011)
Andre Dubus III has achieved some fame as a writer, through his books, House of Sand and Fog and The Garden of Last Days.   The son and namesake of a famous writer (not to mention a cousin of James Lee Burke), one might think he grew up in the sort of intellectual and mannerly household where it would be natural, even expected, to grow up as a writer.   We find in Townie, however, that young Dubus' father was in absentia, and his mother had to work and scrimp to put food on the table for her four children.   They lived in an impoverished neighborhood of a Massachusetts mill town where young Andre, as the older boy of the family, soon learned that the only way to protect himself and his family was through violence.   Fight after fight (some reviewer will count them specifically) are described in detail here, and gave Andre what he eventually recognizes as "a hangover of the spirit, as if all those punches and kicks had pushed you into a gray and treeless landscape where love and forgiveness were hard to find."   How Andre and his family make their way into the world is a stunning and remarkable journey -- for them and for his readers.

Every Day by the Sun: A Memoir of the Faulkners of Mississippi, by Dean Faulkner Wells (Crown, 25.00 March 22, 2011)
Dean Faulkner Wells is the sole surviving family member of the generation that followed that of William Faulkner, Dean's uncle who was always "Pappy" to her, as Dean's father, Dean Swift Faulkner, died in a plane crash shortly before his only child was born.   There is no one in the family left to dispute or complain about or be embarrassed by what Dean Faulkner Wells might say; so, praise the Lord, she says it all.   And she says it well.   There have been other Faulkner family memoirs: brother John's My Brother Bill, nephew Jimmy's Across the Creek, brother Murry's The Falkners of Mississippi, stepson Malcolm's Bitterweeds; and books by friends and lovers and mere acquaintances, Ben Wasson's book, Meta Carpenter Wilde's book, Herman Taylor's book, Jim Webb and Wigfall Green's book; and even books about Faulkner's friends and family, Phil Stone of Oxford, and so on.   But none of these gets the reader quite as close to what feels like the real thing as Dean Faulkner Wells, and it is due to this writer's combination of honesty and artful prose.   Given Dean Wells' candor about her own life in this book, her insight into the lives of others has great verity.   We get a credible glimpse of the lives of Jill, Vicki, and Cho Cho; of Dean's mother and father and stepfather; of other family members, friends, and, indeed, Faulkner's lovers; and, of course, of Pappy.   Because what Dean Wells writes is so well crafted and fascinating, in one sense you don't really care who these people are, or whether they were famous or important.   Every Day by the Sun provides a beautiful rendition a girl's coming of age among an unusual family, and is highly entertaining and interesting, a must for Faulknerphiles, for Oxonians, and for readers everywhere who enjoy fine books.

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