If there is a literary genre more fraught with peril for an author than the memoir, I’d be hard pressed to name it. Let’s consider a couple of the varied paths to perdition that lie ahead for anyone who proposes to mine personal experience for subject matter. First and foremost among the traps to avoid is tedium — bogging your narrative down with extraneous details that shed little light on your growth as a person or your heroic overcoming of life’s tremendous obstacles. Just as off-putting is wallowing too long or too unjustifiably in your (alleged) misery. I have tossed books aside with disgust that indulge in what I call the poor, poor, pitiful me syndrome — and I regret to add that two of them were penned by successful women journalists. Both whined at great and boring length about the difficulties of simultaneously having babies and pursuing a career (while pulling down six-figure salaries, I might add, a whit cynically).
So what are the elements that make a memoir a compelling, perhaps even an unforgettable read? Turning to my own bookshelf (mental, that is — my copy is long gone), I recall Robyn Davidson’s “Tracks,” a 1995 book that plunged me headlong into utterly foreign territory I would never have ventured into on my own. The subtitle explains it well: “A Woman’s Solo Trek Across 1700 Miles of Australian Outback.” Her encounters with the dust, the searing heat, the nastiness of spitting camels and the brutish, incredulous and overtly sexist men in Australian bars made for riveting reading. I somehow missed the 2013 movie adaptation starring Mia Wasikowska and Adam Driver, but I surely plan to check it out sometime soon.
Armchair adventuring aside, however, there are other great reasons to take the proverbial trip down memory lane with an author. The late Nuala O’Faolain’s clear-eyed “Are You Somebody? The Accidental Memoir of a Dublin Woman” is an account of her life from childhood — she was one of nine offspring of a philandering father and an alcoholic mother — to a career as a widely respected newspaper columnist. It took Ireland by storm in 1996 and was a huge success in this country as well, scoring for its commemorative U.S. edition a long and praise-filled foreword by that other Irish memoirist, Frank McCourt, of “Angela’s Ashes” fame. What I remember about it was its astonishing, sometimes almost shocking honesty. Here is an excerpt from her own introduction, both a justification for writing her book and an explanation of her chosen title: “I’m fairly well known in Ireland. I’ve been on television a lot, and there’s a photo of me in the paper, on top of my column. But I’m no star. People have to look at me twice or three times to put a name on me. Sometimes … when I’m in the grocery store someone who has just passed me by turns back and comes right up to me and scrutinises my face. ‘Are you somebody?’ they ask. Well, am I somebody? I’m not anybody in terms of the world, but then, who decides what a somebody is? I’ve never done anything remarkable; neither have most people. Yet most people, like me, feel remarkable. That self-importance welled up inside of me. I had the desire to give an account of my life. The furtiveness was gone.” O’Faolain, who died of cancer in 2008, found her book resonated with readers “who were there to welcome me coming out of the shadows, and who wanted to throw off the shadows that obscured their own lives, too.”
So many of us do indeed read memoirs in hopes of finding something of ourselves reflected in them. But perhaps the most compelling reason to devote your precious time to someone else’s life story may be the sheer irresistibility of the narrative and the superb quality of the writing itself. I certainly found that to be the case with Tobias Wolff’s 1989 memoir, “This Boy’s Life,” an account of his rough upbringing in 1950s America with a stepfather who was both contemptuous of him and downright abusive. It was made into a movie in 1993 starring a young Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro that was very well received, but the book, in my opinion, was far superior. It was a coming-of-age drama, often as comic as it was grim, that put many in mind of “Huckleberry Finn” (as there were a lot of tall tales invented by both young protagonists) and so beautifully written that, if it had not been subtitled “A Memoir,” I would have been convinced it was a novel. Wolff, who later went on to become director of the creative writing program at Stanford University, received a National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama in 2015.
Author alerts: Cal Performances, the Lafayette Library and Learning Center and City Arts & Lectures all have writers of note making appearances in the coming weeks. On Monday, April 24 in Zellerbach Hall, Cal Performances and UC Berkeley’s Goldman School for Public Policy honor retiring professor Robert Reich, author, political commentator and adviser to three presidential administrations including his stint as Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Labor. He will be featured in a 5:30 p.m. conversation with author Arlie Hochschild, professor emerita of sociology at the university. Reich’s prodigious literary output amounts to 18 books, including best-sellers such as “The Common Good,” “Saving Capitalism,” “Aftershock” and “The System: Who Rigged It, How We Fix It.” Tickets, $10-$55, are available at calperformances.org and 510-642-9988.
On April 27 at 7 p.m., The Friends of the Lafayette Library and Learning Center, in conjunction with Orinda Books, present Bay Area author Vanessa Hua, who will discuss her novel “Forbidden City” (Ballantine Books, $28, $368 pages) in the library’s Don Tatzin Community Hall. The book’s plot revolves around a young Chinese girl who becomes an acolyte and eventually the lover of Chairman Mao Zedong during the time of the Cultural Revolution. The event will also be available on Zoom. Find more information and links to register at orindabooks.com and llcf.org.
And an early alert is surely in order for the upcoming appearance of first-time novelist and major Hollywood figure Tom Hanks, who comes to the Sydney Goldstein Theater in San Francisco at 7:30 p.m. May 16 on a City Arts & Lectures program to discuss his “The Making of a Major Motion Picture Masterpiece” (Knopf, $32.50, 448 pages). Hanks is already a published author, having delivered the short story collection “Uncommon Type” to widespread acclaim, back in 2017. (An avid typewriter collector himself, Hanks wove one of the machines into each story in the book.) The new work features a World War II veteran whose story inspires his nephew to make him a hero of a comic book that gets turned into a movie. Find tickets, $65 (book copy included), at www.cityarts.net.
Page to screen: Having chuckled my way through both Henry Fielding’s 1749 picaresque masterpiece “Tom Jones” (full title: The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling”) and the 1963 film adaptation starring Albert Finney and Susannah York, I scrounged about a bit for more information on the upcoming four-part Masterpiece Series that will begin airing on PBS on April 30. So I was surprised to discover I apparently missed an adaptation produced by A&E and the BBC that aired five episodes starring Max Beesley and Samantha Morton in 1997. The new series, however, looks quite promising: It stars Solly McLeod (of “The Rising” as young Tom and Sophie Wilde (“You Don’t Know Me”) as his beloved Sophia Western. Even better — it’s Hannah Waddingham (soccer team owner Rebecca in “Ted Lasso”) who plays Lady Bellaston. Check out the preview here: https://www.imdb.com/video/vi2295252249/?ref_=tt_vi_i_1
Hooked on Books is a monthly column by Sue Gilmore on current literary buzz and can’t-miss upcoming book events. Look for it here every last Thursday of the month.