Sunday, December 25, 2011

Chicago Memoirs

Long time no blog!  I've been so busy getting ready for Christmas, that my heart just hasn't been into reading, let alone writing about reading.  Now that the gifts are unwrapped, but before the wrapping paper is thrown away, I'm back.

A couple of weeks ago, I finished listening to A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers.  I didn't immediately write about it, because although I was listening to it on CD, I also owned the book, and I realized that the book included an extra segment not read on the disc.  This segment is called Mistakes We Knew We Were Making, and is almost 50 pages long.  In this section, Dave attempts to make right anything that he got wrong in the first edition.  While most "memoir" writers would find this unnecessary given that half of their so-called memoirs are fiction, his efforts to make everything exactly correct make the reader feel closer to Dave and his brother, Toph.

Heartbreaking Work is the story of Dave Eggers raising Toph after their parents die of cancer within months of each other.  At the time that Dave became a quasi parent, he was 21, and his brother was 8.  Dave has another brother and a sister, both who are older than him, but for some reason, the family decided (against the terms of their parents' wills) that Dave would raise Toph.   The story in Heartbreaking Work starts with Dave caring for his mother while she dies, and then moves to California with all of the siblings after the parents are gone.  We flash and travel back to Lake Forest, IL, just outside of Chicago, where the family home was, and where Dave feels a need to return.

Dave is a pretty amazing faux father for Toph, despite his obvious and honestly reported flaws.  They cook tacos using spaghetti sauce, on purpose.  They run late for open houses at school.  Dave sleeps in each morning while Toph manages to get himself to school on a bike he can't pedal, and instead rides like a scooter.  But at the end of the day, they make it work.

In reading about Heartbreaking Work, I learned that Eggers is 12 days younger than me.  This is extremely disappointing.  I have read and appreciated other works that he has written and created, and would like to think of him as being much older than me, as an explanation for why my accomplishments are so lacking in comparison.  However, our small difference in age also helped me to appreciate the effort that he was making while raising Toph. When I was 21, my parents were paying my rent, and my time was spent working in the mall between classes and planning "progressive" drinking parties in my apartment complex.  I have no doubt that I would have raised Toph differently than Eggers,  but I can't say that I would have done better.

Meanwhile, back in the Hills of Beverly, I have been reading Bitter is the New Black by Jen Lancaster.  Bitter is the story of Lancaster and her husband both losing their jobs, their standard of living, and their self respect, but then finding themselves again.  Lancaster and her husband were victims of the dot com bust, reminding me of the characters in The Cookbook Collector.  The first two thirds of the memoir is Lancaster going on and on about the things that she used to have, and scheming up ways to get them back.  The last third of the book is where she puts on her big girl panties and pulls her life back into shape.  In fact, that sounds just like something Lancaster would have said herself.  Lancaster has a sassy and funny way of telling a story.  She is also quick to point out her flaws, although she usually offsets them by naming 4 or 5 of her strengths for each weakness.

Lancaster's preferred Chicago neighborhood, where she once lived in her "dot com palace", is Bucktown.  When Lancaster is somehow lacking in adventures in her own life to relay, she reports on those around her, like her neighbors.  Coincidentally, my sister has just bought a house in Bucktown, where she'll be moving soon.  My fingers are crossed that Lancaster lives next door.  I feel like I know the neighbors who Lancaster wrote about in Bitter, and in her later book, Bright Lights, Big Ass, and it would be fun to read about my sister through the eyes of the self proclaimed "condescending, egomaniacal, self-centered, smart-ass" herself.

So what can Eggers and Lancaster have in common?  Probably a mutual loathing of each other, but other than that, I was surprised to find some coincidences.  Obviously, much of both memoirs takes place in Chicago.  Thematically, they both face challenges they never expected, and were unprepared to face.  Strangely, Dave auditions for "Real World San Francisco" and Jen watches a rerun of the show while she prepares for her wedding.  But really what Heartbreaking Work  and Bitter have in common is that they are each their author's first foray in memoir writing, and both authors hone their skills while telling great stories.

In other news:  Today's Christmas!  And my life is changing. . . my kids bought me a Kindle for Christmas, and my husband loaded The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides on it for my first e-reading adventure.  Although I am pretty much a book purist, and to be honest, a used or library book reader, I have to admit that there have been a couple of times this year when I have wished for a Kindle.  I have a feeling that I will take to it like a fish to water.  I also got a number of other books as gifts, including The London Train by Tessa Hadley, Cloud Atlas and Black Swan Green by David Mitchell, and three great cookbooks!  One of the cookbooks is The Pioneer Woman Cooks by Ree Drummond, which is absolutely amazing.  Her spaghetti and meatballs recipe is already one of my favorites, and I can't wait to cook more. There are tons of photos in the book, with the obvious food photos, but also lots of Drummond, her family, her animals and her friends.  I think this is just enough to get me to add her memoir, Black Heels to Tractor Wheels to my TBR list.

Next Up On Paper:  Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami.  I requested this in audio form from Michigan's inter-library loan system 3 weeks ago, and still haven't received it.  I gave up and requested it in paper form, which I got in a week.  Hope it's worth the wait!

Next up on CD:  Empire Falls by Richard Russo

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