The Dining Room in Carter Library
Last night I hosted Book Club and man was I worried as I set that table — I’d picked Mary Karr’s LIT and I was certain they were either going to (a) hate the book, (b) not bother finishing it, or even worse (c) hate Mary Karr. My god, what was I going to DO if they hated my Mary Karr?!
Like most of my totally irrational fears, this one didn’t pan out. I won’t say everyone loved LIT, but they liked it well enough and pretty much everyone finished — except for one, who’s Kindle died right in the middle of reading — and I was thrilled with the discussion it prompted. I’m not sure we’ve ever discussed a book where so many of us could quote from the book without opening it. How about that mother saying, “I’m a lot of fun to be with.” Or how she was such a “sneaky bitch.” Remember that woman from AA who kept her Vokda in a turkey carcass in the freezer and, when she couldn’t midwife it out one night, just tipped up the whole bird! Or that guy who blew himself up because he needed a cigarette and forgot the stove gas was on from when he tried to kill himself.
Insert ROUSING LAUGHTER all over the place … Funny how funny tragedy can be. My Mary Karr, bless her, does this better than anyone. I worship at her altar.
Since we don’t read many memoirs in this Book Club, I decided to use some of my favorite tell-alls as the table decor. Note THE LIARS CLUB right there in front, and also Kathryn Harrison’s THE KISS (also the topic today over at Betsy’s) to the right of it. THE KISS has been a favorite since the first time I got my hands on it. It’s a small book with big print and the craziest damned story — sparsely and achingly told — the kind of story you read in one sitting. I’ve read it no less than 5 times. I even wrote a paper about in grad school (what a study in structure, voice, the not naming of names, etc…). Harrison’s prose is no less than brilliant. But I can’t for the life of me get anyone to read this book. I tried to sell it again last night but, as usual, no one was buying.
What am I doing wrong? (aside from trying to shove it like a stick of dynamite into everyone’s purse and then hover over them while they read every last word) If you want to read some excellent interviews with Kathryn Harrison, here’s her website. I love her matter-of-fact answers. And in light of James Frey coming back into view with his latest Oprah interview, you might find Kathyrn’s answer to this question worth its weight:
Q: Your 1997 memoir, The Kiss, is a stunning look at father-daughter incest, and feels quite confessional. How do you incorporate translation when writing about your own life?
KH: I teach memoir writing, so I’ll answer as both a writer and as a teacher. We’re very aware right now of writers like James Frey or Augusten Burroughs being accused of fabricating too much to call what they write memoir, and a lot of my students are anxious about how strictly faithful a writer must be to factual truth. My feeling is, if you’re doing your best to tell the truth, it will be evident in your work. I was asked to blurb James Frey’s book, so I read it before all the controversy, but immediately I responded to the book as an exercise in self-mythologizing rather than memoir. Memoir, to me, is anti-narcissistic; it leans towards discomfort; it relies on self-scrutiny. If a writer is engaged in that process he or she is being faithful to the idea of truth and honesty. Truth is not a destination but a direction; it never has a capital T, not if you’re mortal. A lot of how a book reads has to do with the writer’s agenda; if your agenda is to reveal yourself honestly, then your narrative will read that way, no matter if every detail is factually accurate or not. I think text is more transparent than people assume.
Keep reading. I promise not to hover. Much.