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This post was originally published on the blog of BookPeople, where I am a bookseller.
April is the month of the feast day of Saint George. In celebration of the life of the third century Roman military martyr, our booksellers have been honoring a centuries old tradition of offering a rose and a book. In fact, all this month, we have been recommending books from the catalogue of our friends at Random House. (You can find my selection, North Toward Home, and other picks from my fellow booksellers on our Saint George’s Day display in our store at the front of the staircase.)
Willie Morris’ North Toward Home is a book that evokes both passion and nostalgia in me. I discovered it about a decade ago when I was a student at UT, and a reporter for The Daily Texan. I learned that Morris was a legendary editor of UT’s decorated student newspaper in the 50s. His editorials against segregation and the university’s ties with oil and business interests earned him the enmity of UT administration. He earned a Rhodes Scholarship, and went on to become the youngest editor of Harper’s Magazine in 1967, the same year he published his seminal memoir.
As a writer, I most admire Morris for his ability to evoke the nuances of culture in his prose. His work is striking for how firmly he is able to establish a sense of place. In one of my favorite passages from North Toward Home, Morris has just left his home in Mississippi as a boy of seventeen. It is 1953. He arrives in Austin on a Greyhound and describes stepping onto the University of Texas campus for the first time as an awestruck freshman:
“It was early fall, with that crispness in the air that awakened one’s senses and seemed to make everything wondrously alive. My first days I wandered above that enormous campus, mingling silently with its thousands of nameless students. I walked past the fraternity and sorority houses, which were like palaces to me with their broad porches and columns and patios, and down “The Drag” with its bookstores and restaurants, a perfectly contained little city of its own. On a slight rise dominating the place was a thirty-story skyscraper called the “Tower,” topped with an edifice that was a mock Greek temple; the words carved on white sandstone said, “Ye Shall Know the Truth and the Truth Shall Make You Free,” causing me to catch my breath in wonder and bafflement. That first morning I took the elevator to the top and looked out on those majestic purple hills to the west, changing to lighter shades of blue or a deeper purple as wisps of autumn clouds drifted around the sun; this, they would tell me, was the great Balconies Divide, where the South ended and the West began, with its stark, severe landscape so different from any I had known before…”
There are other reminisces of Austin and UT in this book that are unforgettable. As Morris voyages north to New York, where he breaks into the world of American letters, and then makes a restless and nostalgic return back home, we are given a portrait of a country in transition, entering the civil rights era. Morris was clearly influenced by Richard Wright’s Black Boy, published a generation earlier, and his journey reflects a country still struggling to define itself. He achieves a singular grace with his effort. As Walter Percy put it, North Toward Home is the story of “one man’s pilgrimage.” Fifty years after its release, it stands as one of the great American autobiographies.
This Saint George’s Day, I am happy to share North Toward Home with you. Buy a copy for yourself; buy a copy for a UT student or alumnus, or for someone else in your life who will appreciate it for its mesmerizing beauty, its fierce intelligence, and for Morris’ deeply felt and resonant reflections on the American south and the meaning of home.
This post was originally published on the blog of BookPeople, the best bookstore in Texas.
Last fall, I reported on seeing Mary Karr at our store when she came to talk to us about her latest book, The Art of Memoir. Karr’s book had me thinking deeply about the memoir form, particularly those books written by women.
In 2014, I audited a course on women’s autobiographical writing at UT. That experience set the foundation for a lifetime of thoughtful examination of women’s voices, both classic and contemporary. (If you have an opportunity to, I highly recommend you seek out a similar classroom course or reading group.)
What distinguishes a great memoir for me is a book that provides a powerful emotional experience. Adversity is at the forefront of an author’s story. There are usually strands in the author’s story that match my own. There is always a searching for things that have been lost — for absent parents, for family and community. Most of all, I find that there is an exceptional woman behind each book, one whose voice captures and compels, whose story has a greater resonance for readers, and is relevant to our national conversations.
I have compiled my picks of memoirs by women, and they are all books that I have read within the last year. These are books I hope you will look at next time that you are in our store. At the end of this post, I encourage you to share your own picks for memoirs.
Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward
National Book Award winning novelist Jesmyn Ward has recently given us a remarkable memoir about the people she loves in her hometown in rural Mississippi. Ward lost four men in her life, including her younger brother, Joshou, within a period of four years when she was a young adult. They died by accident, violence and suicide. Ward went searching for the threads that connected their lives and deaths. In alternating chapters, she tells the story of her own growing up, and the stories of the men, and she comes to a sorrowful conclusion about what it means to be born poor and black in America. When I heard Ward give a talk at the Michener Center for Writers at UT, she revealed that some of the family members of those whom she had written about felt angry at the portrayals of their loved ones. They were uglier than what they wanted to hear. But Ward felt it would be cowardly to tell a different story. “I had to tell the truth, because I think the story can do some good, and I’m not normally an optimist,” she said. “But as far as Men We Reaped is concerned, I believe that that book can be part of the conversation that is happening right now about the value of black lives in America.”
My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor
Six years ago when Sonia Sotomayor became the first Hispanic justice on the Supreme Court, I was, like many Americans, enthralled by her life story. The child of first generation Puerto Rican immigrants, she grew up in the Bronx, lost her father at the age of nine, and battled juvenile diabetes. She drew from the resources of strength she found in family and in school, and went on to attend Princeton University, where she graduated summa cum laude. When President Obama announced his nomination of Sotomayor for the Court back in 2009, he remarked on her qualifications: “Experience being tested by obstacles and barriers, by hardship and misfortune; experience insisting, persisting, and ultimately overcoming those barriers. It is experience that can give a person a common touch and a sense of compassion; an understanding of how the world works and how ordinary people live.” The experience of reading Sotomayor’s My Beloved World is to be uplifted by a remarkable woman’s American story. Beautifully written and a page-turner, it is a powerful work about self-discovery that will endure in our American literary canon.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
This is the first and most well-known in a series of autobiographies that Maya Angelou wrote over the course of her remarkable life. Angelou addresses the social conditions of poverty in the South in the 1930 and 1940s, and the perennial challenge of race in America. As she does so, Maya recounts the experience of emotional abandonment by her parents, and the bonds between siblings. Simply put, it is a story about overcoming. Of the tragedies she documents is the experience of being silenced for years, unwilling to speak, after a brutal sexual assault. There is so much depth and poignancy to each aspect of her story that I know this is a work I will be returning to. It is a book that transcends racial and social barriers, and this is one reason it continues to inspire so many readers across the world.
There are a number of recently published memoirs by women that are on my reading list, including Joyce Carol Oates’ The Lost Landscape: A Writer’s Coming of Age, Margo Jefferson’s Negroland, and Mary Anna King’s Bastards.
What are your picks for memoirs by women?
This post was originally published on the blog of BookPeople, the best bookstore in Texas.
Over the last few years, I have been to a number of events at BookPeople, where I come to grow in my journey as a reader and a writer. Now, as I bookseller, I am thrilled to be even more a part of this community, and a part of the discussions brought to us by acclaimed authors.
I was delighted last week to see Mary Karr, who came to talk about her latest book, The Art of Memoir.
It was a packed floor of about 300 people, many of whom have a deep affection for her bestselling and critically acclaimed memoirs (such as The Liars Club, Cherry, and Lit). I also found many writers in the audience, who, like me, aspire to write a memoir one day.
I imagine it was the next best thing to taking Karr’s coveted seminar course on memoir writing at Syracuse University. She clearly cares about fostering other writers. She also hopes that through her latest work, her fans will become better readers of literature.
The talk offered valuable lessons about the craft of writing memoir, but also laughter, and practical advice about self-care and the value she finds in daily prayer and meditation.
I was touched by the authenticity of the evening. We heard from Karr about her chaotic family life as a child, about the first boy that she kissed, and stories from sessions with her therapist.
These topics became the subjects of her memoirs: over the years, she’s written about discovering her womanhood, her recovery from alcoholism, and the salvation she found in Catholicism.
What draws Karr to the memoir form is the possibility for self-invention. After all, we become ourselves by telling our stories, she said. For Karr, stories have been a way to bond with people as she’s gone through life.
I told Karr her talk was especially valuable to me because of where I am in my own journey: I recently found that helping others tell their stories was a step in freeing my own writing voice (my first book is a collection of essays from people who stutter.)
Voice is critical to the memoir form, according to Karr. It took her 20 years to develop the voice that she would use in her first memoir, The Liar’s Club. She expects that readers and writers all have “things that have happened in this life that we are trying to make sense of.”
“I think the most privileged person in this room or any room suffers from the torments of the damned,” Karr said. “There is no way to be alive and not have your heart broken.”
A strength of memoir is that it allows for self-improvement.
“The most heartbreaking things for me have not been the bad things that have been done to me, but the bad things I’ve done to other people,” she said. “Those are the things that haunt us, right?”
And these are the things that keep her writing.
I was intrigued by Karr’s response when an audience member asked her if she will ever try her hand at fiction.
It’s not her nature, she said. She believes whatever gifts God has given her, they gravitate toward the nonfiction form. And, she pointed out, very few of the great nonfiction writers she admires are also great fiction writers.
Memoir gets a bad wrap, often overlooked as “the province of weirdos and film stars,” she said. But there are great memoirs by many of her heroes–writers such as Maya Angelou and Elie Wiesel–that endure as literature; these are the kind of books she hopes to see more of as a result of her new book.
A woman stood up during the question-and-answer portion and said she grew up in the same southeast Texas town as Karr. Karr confirmed the stories that were told about her. She missed 81 days of school in the sixth-grade; she was usually at home reading. At other times, reading was “socially sanctioned dissociation” from what was going on in her surroundings.
Another audience member asked Karr if a formal education is necessary to achieve the success she has.
“I don’t have one,” Karr reminded the audience. “I never finished college. I’m uncredentialed.”
She then added, “I think you need a heart.”