memoir

West with the Night

I hadn’t heard of Beryl Markham until a few weeks ago, when her name showed up in an article in conjunction with Hemingway, who was apparently a fan. Her memoir, West with the Night, would have certainly been of topical interest to Papa Hemingway, but the prose styling is also squarely in that mode that has been defined by his work. Markham writes with a directness that is not softened by the touches of aristocracy or privilege that are present in the work. There is little obfuscation or posturing -the only aspect of her writing that might be considered an act of narrative self-preservation is her tendency toward personal understatement. Markham herself is sometimes less revealed than a contemporary reader might wish, but the strength of the other characters populating her life make up for that.

While Markham’s prose lacks ostentation and extravagance as a rule, there is a certain kind of Colonial philosophical authority that grates a bit, especially within our contemporary world of postcolonial theory. The romantic attribution of racial character is much more liberal and evolved than that of her contemporaries, but it still can cause a wince or two. Notably, this sort of thing only really occurs outside of Markham’s personal narrative accounts, and is perhaps best understood as her attempts to ape the conventions of serious men writers, resulting in both the aesthetically weakest and the most culturally and morally problematic writing in the book. Narrative episodes lack these problems almost entirely.

And when Markham is just telling the stories that comprise her life, this book kicks. This is a woman who hunted boar with grown native men as a small girl, killing a leopard to save her beloved and ambitious dog, who bred and trained racehorses, who flew a small bush plane in colonial Africa well before the second world war. The book opens with her delivering an oxygen tank to a sick miner and then sitting with another man dying of malaria, confronting her own irrational phobias regarding g the sickness of others, and after this episode, the story begins to unfold in a rough chronology. Markham is a creature set at a remove, both in her literal human isolation and in her narrative position. This does not prevent incredible scenes from being told with such a sense of involvement and urgency that the book down. West with the Night is another one of those happy intermeshings of lyrical prose chops and amazing events. While the pacing and rhythm of her stories sometimes feel incomplete, the stories themselves are enthralling.

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Blackout, Sarah Hepola, and Addiction Memoir

Sarah Hepola’s memoir Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget is probably the best memoir I read in 2016. It’s not only exceptionally well-written, it’s brutally self-honest and open in a way that is sometimes unflattering but never sinks to the kind of misery-porn wallowing that makes addiction memoirs such a mixed bag. The self-reflexion and self-condemnation are firmly rooted in reality and don’t seek any end other than the narrative itself.

It’s a long-reaching memoir, a directed autobiography. Hepola’s relationship with alcohol is both the narrative focus and the frame of this story, but this doesn’t feel like much of an external imposition on account of the major role that drinking (and selectively, temporarily not drinking) plays throughout her entire life. The voice is conversational and confessional, refraining from any linguistic backflipping, but this restraint serves to emphasize the thoughtful and deliberate simplicity of Hepola’s communication, her skill displayed well at low wattage. It’s easy and enjoyable to read, in spite of the sometimes difficult subject matter.

A well-framed and well-executed memoir is almost always worth reading. There’s certainly no shortage of books detailing some aspect of somebody’s lived experience, but they are far too often either well-written fluff that teeters toward self importance or a fascinating story that’s told adequately at best. It’s nice to not have to settle. This book is up there with Wolff and the like.

If Chins Could Kill -Bruce Campbell

Don’t worry people, I’m still reading lit fic. But sometimes you just need to sit down and hear Bruce Campbell tell a bunch of stories about the ridiculous shit he’s been involved in, because that’s fun. And Campbell has the kind of voice that I don’t mind being around for a few hours. Sure’ you’re not going to get any insights into the nature of humanity, but you’re going to learn some cool shit about mildly interesting things.

I’m a latecomer to the cult movies of Raimi and his ilk, but I certainly enjoy their brand of camp. Campbell’s close association and involvement with the brothers means that this book offers an enjoyable perspective on another kind of good-time media. It’s not the kind of books I want to read all the time, but it’s a fun reprieve from the heavier shit.

Recommendation: Need a palate cleanser? Yeah? Then, yeah.

Just Kids, Patti Smith

Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids is touching and well-written. The account of her life with the visual artist Robert Mapplethorpe is a glimpse into a very isolated and very culturally important moment. Their artistic and aesthetic nascence is recounted well and authentically, communicated a kind of existential striving that put them at odds with much of what was around them. While certain aspects of the book felt a bit performative or pretentious, the vast majority of Smith’s writing seems much more concerned with depicting a reality than with depicting the author in the best possible light.

Different modes of writing are separate enough that I’m usually cautious about narrative books written by good songwriters or good standup comics. While the emotional realities are always there, the translation and communication of those realities often requires a skillset that may not be present. Patti Smith clearly has the narrative chops to pull this kind of thing off, and does it well. There is a lot of intention and reflection being distilled into the narrative, less a reliance on anecdotes or filler storytelling.

While my overall impression of the book remains positive, there is a bit of pretension and preciousness in here that isn’t my favorite, as well as a bit more name-dropping than I care for (although most of the name-drop-heavy antecdotes are pretty essential to the narrative, so handling that well seems like a rather titanic task). It’s a hard bit of criticism to sustain, but it’s enough to keep me from recommending this book completely free of any “well, but” riders.

Mishka Shubaly’s “Beat the Devil” and Amazon Singles

Mishka Shubaly seems to do a bunch of diverse shit. I’d heard him on a podcast a few times before hearing about his whole relationship with Amazon.com as a popular purveyor of their “Kindle singles,” a novellete-length product usually available for around 1.99 and published exclusively as a digital product. I’ve been leery of those kinds of things -with the sometimes-exception of self-published informational ebooks- because as much as people like to talk shit about “the gatekeepers” the traditional publishing model does hold back the flood of self-aggrandizing “personal brand” vanity publishing, badly edited how-tos, and, oh my god, so much fucking supernatural erotica.

While “Beat the Devil” is certainly a cut above that sort of thing, I can’t really say that I’ve changed my mind. It’s fine, but not great. There’s enough to make it worth the two bucks, enough to keep me reading through to the end, there is some pretty bad writing on display. Shubaly can write damn good introspective prose, but his dialog is badly artificial and his need for an external narrative morality skews things to the cliche. I love his oral history, the telling of insane stories that feel real and drive forward with undeniable emotional honesty, but there’s a lot of shit to wade through, and it’s sometimes distractingly bad.

All of this culminates in the mediocre recommendation of “try the sample?” for this particular artifact and a pretty solid “fuck this noise” on the whole “Kindle Singles” thing. I feeling like Shubaly’s work is some of the better writing in this particular medium, and it’s only OK. I’d love to see more small presses and lit mags really push things on the ebook front, but with Amazon’s history of fucking over presses and booksellers, I completely understand the reluctance.

Recommendation: “try the sample?”

bone -Yrsa Daley-Ward

My fiancee found this particular collection on Amazon, and recommended it highly. I’ve been reading a lot more contemporary poetry in the last few years, but it’s still very much unfamiliar ground for me. bone is an independently published collection of poetry, available both in print and at a very attractive price as a Kindle Edition (which is how we read it). Almost all self/”independently”-published poetry collections are very bad, but bone is clearly one of those exceptions that prove the rule.

Yrsa Daley-Ward’s poetry is both lyrical and highly narrative, reminiscent in effect, if not in style, of Raymond Carver’s story-poems. These poems are autobiographical, and together they function not only as verse but as memoir. They are very, very good, and they hit you like something with some serious kinetic density. Much like reading Cormac McCarthy, I had to stop and sit for a while after many of these individual poems, and again after finishing the collections and feeling their collective weight.

While there is no doubt an interesting conversation to be had about Amazon, about publishing in general and the self-publishing of poems in particular, I don’t want to talk about that right now. However this collection made it out into the world, it did, and it’s fantastic -this has become my new all-time favorite collection of contemporary poetry. I tried to contact Yrsa Daley-Ward to express my feelings of admiration and to inquire as to where I could obtain here previously published short story collection, (out of print and unavailable) but she only seems to be available on Twitter. Maybe this means I’ll have to take the plunge and Tweet myself.

Recommendation: Go buy it, go read it! Fucking hell, these poems are good.

https://www.amazon.com/dp/B00MNSONQE/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1

Tina Fey’s Bossypants

Tina Fey’s wonderful show 30 Rock is one of my favorite TV comedies of all time, and her work on Weekend Update is also a favorite. Since her writing chops seem to have a pretty solid connection with my sense of humor, I was pleased to discover that they essay/memoir/nonfiction side of things is also an area she operates well in. Her book Bossypants has been on my radar for a bit, but I hadn’t owned a copy until recently, when it became a featured deal on Kindle. My Kindle gets heavier rotation when I’m doing a lot of backpacking on account of its literal lightness, so I’ve been reading with it a fair bit of late (hopefully I’m not going over-much into the minutia of how the sausage gets made).

Fey’s book is loosely autobiographical, with plenty of worthwhile side trails that grow out of the larger narrative. She plays with form, using lists and other devices to break things up, to keep everything fresh. Her life story is interesting enough, but her framing is the real point to all this. Her observations are well presented and suffused with the kind of humor that made me love 30 Rock so much. Fey does prose well, but again, it’s the funny side of things that makes it all go.

Having read Amy Poehler’s Yes Please within the year, (and not enjoyed it -more details here: https://seanvansickel.com/2015/02/16/reading-log-audiobook-listening-log-amy-poehlers-yes-please/)I’m struck by how similar the two books are. I understand that being offered a book deal as a comedian and a comedy writer is a big deal -these kinds of books have a massive mainstream audience, and need to follow a particular mold, at least to a certain extent. But in spite of Bossypants having come out three years prior, and seeming to have been a model for Poehler’s book, it seems to be not only more novel and unexpected, but just better comedy.

 

Recommendation: Read it! Lots of funnies, some solid insight.