memoir

Heavy: An American Memoir by Kiese Laymon

 

The word is out about Heavy. Currently there are 41 Holds on the library’s 15 copies, and we have ordered more. Glowing reviews in the New York Times, LA Times, Entertainment Weekly and on NPR have spread the word. This one is not to be missed.

Heavy is about a young black man growing up mostly in Jackson, Mississippi, shaped by his brilliant yet punitive mother’s powerful presence like a blacksmith shapes a sword. What is it like to be the steel, beaten and heated and tested? Kiese Laymon shapes the readers’ experience with utmost skill, letting us feel both his brilliance and his painful, relentless search for answers.

Laymon’s use of second person, speaking to his mother throughout the narrative, creates a profound intimacy. He seems to be working within his own circle, questioning how and why his complex relationship with his mother, and through her, with the rest of his loved ones and the world, made him struggle into becoming himself.

My life shares some aspects of Kiese Laymon’s experiences: our large size at an early age, our tough maternal grandmothers, our reliance on reading and writing more than others. We both went to local prestigious private colleges where we felt like fish out of water, and from which neither of us graduated. We both floundered, and both eventually left home.

These experiences were a bridge for me to Laymon's other truths that I can’t pretend to really understand.  Laymon eventually becomes a college professor and writer, while supporting family back in Mississippi and compulsively gambling the rest of his money away. He leaves behind his large body, but not the obsession with size.  His relationships suffer, and he breaks ties with his mother for years. Their eventual reunion is not a Hollywood ending.

There is no way to untangle the personal influences of family and community with the greater societal realities of being black in America, in the South, and in academia.  There is no way to separate a body, whether big and getting bigger, or thin and getting ever thinner, from the world in which it operates. There is no way to understand what is known, what is hidden, what is truth and what is lies, in a shifting time-stream that reveals and hides as it flows.  All we can do is continue to listen, continue to speak.

The craft and courage with which Kiese Laymon explores his truths, the awe-inspiring use of precise language and poetic repetition, is a gift to his readers.  Heavy: an American Memoir offers an opportunity to listen and to be known.

The Name is Yuknavitch

Lidia Yuknavitch.  That’s her name. 

I was racking my brain yesterday to recall the author of an emotionally intense memoir to recommend to someone, and tried every variation from Yanowitz to Yonavich. I tried to do a search on “amazing women authors from Oregon with Ken Kesey as writing teacher” but Google failed me.  I finally had to look in my list of books read since 2011. (Yes, I keep a list- I’m a librarian.) The title is The Chronology of Water: A memoir.  It was captivating, unforgettable, as was my impression of the author.

 

Yuknavitch. Yuk- like nuke, like the dropping of nuclear-strength honesty, and -vitch like… what women who fight ferociously for their expression and existence get called too often. Her memoir left me wishing I actually knew her, despite feeling not quite audacious enough. I love that magic of memoir - the intimacy it can grant between strangers.

In a satisfying bit of synchronicity, today I found that name on the cover of the latest Poets and Writers magazine (Amy Gall’s interview with Lidia Yuknavitch: The Other Side of Burning). Yuknavitch has a new book called The Book of Joan (not to be confused with Melissa Rivers’ 2015 biography of her mother).  Kirkus Reviews calls it “A retelling of the Joan of Arc story set in a terrifying near future of environmental and political chaos.”

Yuknavitch says that despite the dystopian theme, eerily prescient of recent history, The Book of Joan does inspire hope. “Part of this hope includes remaking our myths and our archetypes and taking the stories different places than they have been, because all our mighty myths lead to war and destruction.  And the hero’s journey doesn’t fit all of our bodies; it just fits the white male body. And that’s where Joan comes in.” (Yuknavitch in Poets and Writers, May/June 2017)

 

Lidia Yuknavitch’s novel The Small Backs of Children won the 2016 Oregon Book Award’s Ken Kesey Award for Fiction, as well as the Readers' Choice Award (her memoir was Readers' Choice in 2012).  She has also written Dora: A Head Case, 3 story collections, a book of criticism, and her TED talk will soon be a book: The Misfit’s Manifesto.

The Book of Joan is currently in processing and will soon be on the shelf at OPL.  There are already 6 Hold requests for the 2 copies; I am number 7. Get in line.

Memoir or Fiction: Exploring Queer Lives

A beautiful young man pursues sex, love and a modeling career in the exhilarating and heartbreaking gay circles of New York City circa the 1970s and 1980s. Fiction or memoir? Why not both? The authors are celebrated writers in the LGBTQ community known for their achievements in the fields of literature, memoir and biography: Edmund White and Brad Gooch.

Our Young Man by Edmund White, clearly a modern take on The Picture of Dorian Gray, paints a rather bland portrait of Guy, a French model who does not seem to age as he partakes in the gay whirl of New York, Fire Island, and Paris. Guy is remote, almost untouchable; failing as a boy-toy, trying again as the trophy partner of a wealthy older man, and playing the fool for a young ne’er-do-well who ends up in prison.  While surrounded by beauty, money, desire and success, Guy seems to be a stereotype of the shallow model, never really rising above a vaguely misanthropic irritability.  All around him AIDS rages, and he finds himself caring for his dying older partner, and then entangled with a younger one. Despite having all the right ingredients for a moving and exciting tale, the novel portrays a man who seems bloodless, his beautiful exterior a passport into a world he can’t fully feel. Perhaps a stunned survivor of these decades would require a measured distance to tell such a tale. 

Smash Cut : a Memoir of Howard & Art & the '70s & the '80s by Brad Gooch details his real-life love story with Howard Brookner, a film maker, in the artistic crucible of New York in the 70’s and 80’s. It is more than lust at first sight. The two pursue their creative endeavors in a shared life full of art, parties, sex, drugs, and long letters to each other; hobnobbing with notables like William Burroughs, Andy Warhol, Robert Mapplethorpe and Madonna. The bittersweet wisdom of hindsight permeates Brad’s memories. He casts his own successful modeling career as the villain that comes between the lovers, with a minor role for Howard’s drug use. Like most great love stories, this is a tragedy. Howard contracts HIV; Brad doesn’t. In this confessional yet crafted tale, I found the juice that seemed missing from Our Young Man. I felt like I knew the author by the end of this book, or at least the Brad Gooch that stood at his lover’s graveside and wept, and I shed a tear with him.

Have you ever read a novel that led you into the biography section of the library, or visa versa? Leave us a comment or recommendation.

(Note: Smash cut is available through Link+ until a copy is received for OPL's collection.)

Photo of Brad Gooch from NYTimes Review April 2015