Book Reviews for March: Memoirs
Teacher Man, Frank McCourt (2005)
Everything you want to get from Frank McCourt’s memoir Teacher Man is in the first chapter: a funny, poignant, true-to-life anecdote of McCourt’s first day in an English classroom in inner-city New York, when, not knowing what else to do, he ate a kid’s sandwich. He has his reasons for doing this, and ultimately it seems to work in his favor. Incidentally, he describes the sandwich and it sounds delectable. (Of course, anyone who has read Angela’s Ashes knows that Frank spent the majority of his childhood on the edge of starvation, and a fetishization of food seems to have resulted.) I had never heard of anybody putting olive oil on a cold sandwich, but I tried it afterwards (and yum!).
I have a couple years’ worth of teaching experience and McCourt hits many familiar notes. The disappointment that the message is not getting through; that fear that kid after kid passes through your doorway not knowing one damn thing worth knowing, not one more than when he passed through it to begin with. Those class periods where you let the discussion derail from the topic into something unrelated just because it’s such a relief to hear the kids talking.
But also those days when you’re in the groove, and you happen upon the exact right way to define something and you can see in the kids’ faces that you’ve put a pin in place for them. You Have Taught Something and They Have Learned Something. How magical that can feel; how much the handful of times that actually happens will sustain you through all those other days.
There’s other stuff here that is less interesting: McCourt’s marriage, which was rocky, although his wife barely registers as a character. His attempt to remove himself from the teaching life (or at least elevate himself within it) by (futilely) seeking a PhD at Trinity. This book doesn’t touch as raw and emotional a place as Angela’s Ashes did, but you should already know that going in based on the fact that in this book nobody is starving or dying of preventable illnesses.
McCourt is a master storyteller and every minute of the book is funny and relatable, a word that is overused but really applies here. Some authors are technically proficient and write beautiful prose, but the worlds they create are unrecognizable. McCourt’s world is a mirror image of a contradictory reality—funny but sad but warm but harsh but boring but redemptive and so on. I think that all of us in this life—teaching, writing, literary academia—look at Frank McCourt as the success story we could all still maybe achieve. The majority of his life was built on frustration and dissatisfaction and then, finally, in his old age, he began to create, to write about his life with enormously successful results. He was 66 when his first book was published—67 when it won the Pulitzer Prize. The way McCourt paints himself, it’s clear he never imagined that he would eventually end up there, and probably no one else in his life believed he would, either.
Night, Elie Wiesel (1960)
This book, a first-person account of author Elie Wiesel’s experience in a concentration camp during World War II, was first published in the 60s, to little fanfare. It struggled along, taking years to run through its first printing, languished for a few decades, won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, picked up some steam in the 90s, and then in 2006 got picked for Oprah’s Book Club. It hit the big time then, tripling the sales of the previous decades in a couple of years. For that reason (particularly for the Oprah reason) I expected a positive-skewing “Being in the camp taught me to embrace humanity,” kind of story. I was surprised to discover that that’s not the case at all.
This book—which is very short, novella-length although it’s a memoir, not a novel—passes by like a dream, or rather, a nightmare. Elie the boy (he was a child when his family was taken) doesn’t spend a lot of time trying to pinpoint what the war means for people or society. He’s not got the time of an Anne Frank, who before she was taken to the camps spent a lot of time in hiding with nothing much to do but read and write in her diary and thus had a lot of unique insights on the thing. Elie the boy just worked. Worked. Starved. Feared. Slept when possible. And watched his father, much older and not in peak physical condition, waste away under the strain.
The part that continues to stand out for me now is the run. The men in Wiesel’s camp need to be moved to another camp several miles away. There are too many of them to be transported by vehicle—not that they would have been, probably, because as far as their captors are concerned they are lesser than human and not worth any concern—and so the men are led there in formation, not walking but running. Running beyond the capabilities of their starved, tortured bodies. Running beyond the capacity for pain, like zombies. Trampling those who fall.
Maybe this part stuck out for me because I am physically pretty weak. I do a lot of walking, in general, but I run never. And reading this kind of book, you are forced to imagine yourself in these surroundings. A story of survival never fails to cause me to question how I would have fared in the same situation. Having guns trained on you is surely a psychological incentive to do a lot of things that seem impossible. But there is something more in the run, in this entire book, really, something that extends beyond fear, a source of motivation to live. And it’s not faith; Wiesel is damn straight about that. Like I said above, this is not a work of catharsis or triumph of humanity. He has lost his faith, he writes, and that is where it happened, in the camp. And years of safety and security in America, family, success, have none of them turned that tide for him. What is it, then, that kept him moving? That kept him living?
I wish I could say I figured out what it was, but I did not. There are two sequels of sorts, Dawn and Day, which I did not read, and maybe the trilogy puts a cap on that story. Those titles do suggest as much.
Lucky, Alice Sebold (1999)
Rape, among all crimes, carries with it a unique shame response in the victim. The trauma plays itself upon the conscious and subconscious of the victim causing them to think they deserved it, or that their own actions caused it to happen.
Lucky, a memoir by Alice Sebold about a sexual assault she survived while in college, goes many interesting places. The narrative opens with the rape, no preamble; Sebold lets her protagonist self introduce herself in and amidst the assault. The attacker is a stranger, someone who jumped out of the shadows and took her down as she walked home through a park. According to RAINN, so-called stranger rapes account for just 1/3 of all reported assaults. Still, it is stranger rape that women fear, for which they are counseled to be constantly on their guard.
We get every small detail of the aftermath—she finds her way home, tries to wake her roommate and can’t (drunk) and then kind of wildly asks for help from a resident advisor or someone on desk duty or whatever. At the hospital, she is subjected to invasive bodily searching, medical exams, and grilled by the police. The story continues: after an unhappy hiatus at home, Sebold returns to college and is just starting to feel normal again when she sees her attacker on the street. He is arrested, and then prosecuted.
Afterschool Specials and Lifetime movies have taught us that the rape story ends with the trial and conviction of the rapist. This story doesn’t, of course, because it’s really not about a rape, but about Alice, a girl, a character, a real person who takes longer than a month or a year or time encapsulated in a 120 minute movie to rebound, psychologically, from this. Her nightmare continues. She feels broken, she feels scared. She feels scarred. Like this blotch on her cosmic record will never be erased, will follow her everywhere, has ruined her chances for living a normal or happy life. The book is well-paced and emotionally intimate. Alice the girl is a likeable protagonist, one we can continue to wish good things for, though very few good things happen to her within the covers of this book.
Sebold followed up this memoir with a fictionalization of a rape, The Lovely Bones (2002).