Tag Archives: memoir

The Man Within My Head – Pico Iyer

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When I saw that Pico Iyer had written a self-examination of his long fascination with and links to Graham Greene, I knew I’d have to read it. Iyer’s work evokes Greene for me sometimes—the outsider’s adventures in extreme and theatrical cultures are the stuff of movie swashbuckling or gritty documentaries. But the exploits cast another kind of filter over the events that I knew as well. There is a sharp and bitter loneliness in not belonging. There are shadows, a knife-edge of introspection, a heightened awareness of what is—and what you are not. It’s easy to become someone else when you travel beyond your own social boundaries but, paradoxically, it’s impossible to avoid yourself.

The Man Within My Head covers territory not often encountered in travel writing. Iyer digs into his bifurcated childhood as an Indian boy in a British boarding school with regular trips home to Santa Barbara where his parents’ academic lives were immersed in the culture of the 60s and 70s. Pico Iyer’s boyhood public school experiences were similar to those of Greene—and his subsequent wandering around the globe duplicated patterns of Greene’s journeys as well.  Greene became for him a kind of surrogate father, a fictional counterpart to the real father, a distinguished Gandhi scholar, who regaled college students with his brilliant syntheses of East and West, classical and contemporary.

The book is not a linear narrative. Scenes emerge, fade, veer off, double back like hairpin-turn mountain roads—the kind with single lanes, sheer drops and white crosses marking fatalities. Trips to Ethiopia and Bolivia seem foolhardy with explicit danger. In Sri Lanka, an explosion of violence makes leaving the relative safety of a hotel room unappealing. In Cuba, the trips are research for an eventual novel, Cuba and the Night, that is very thinly fictional. Our Man in Havana places Greene in eerily similar circumstances. In fact, Greene’s books ghost through Iyer’s travels from Indo-China to the Caribbean. Greene’s spiritual dilemmas engage Iyer in an enduring argument, even as Iyer turns his back on his world and upbringing, searching for some spare truth in his own peregrinations.

A surprise in the recounting of the life of a writer I have always sought out (Iyer, although I could claim the same thing about Greene), Pico Iyer is a good friend of Bernie Diederich. I knew Bernie and worked with him in Miami—he is the grand old dean of Latin American and Caribbean coverage and has written brilliant books on many of the region’s legendary dictators—but, in all the time I knew him, I never suspected he was close to Iyer. A small world just got much smaller. Made me nostalgic for the days when any bag I carried contained a passport, a reporter’s notebook, a pair of Raybans and some cash for the currency exchange.

Iyer’s trek inside his own mind isn’t an extended essay and it isn’t a memoir—more like the puzzling of a Zen koan or a long meditation on a literary and personal influence. Graham Greene was, and remains, a strong presence for him. The Man Within My Head examines the convergence of their lives and work, pulls out pieces of Iyer’s life and holds them up to the light, reveals as much about the author as it does about the real and fictional fathers who haunt him.

The Man Within My Head   Pico Iyer | Alfred A. Knopf   2012

Related post:  Cuba and the Night

Just Kids – Patti Smith

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Patti Smith’s National Book Award-winning memoir of her twinship with Robert Mapplethorpe, Just Kids, is many things. It is a primer on how to follow an inchoate longing and become an artist out of nothing and nowhere. It is a testament to a bond so unbreakable it survived gut-wrenching poverty, sexual ambivalence, homelessness, hunger, and an assemblage of male lovers—some his, some hers.

The two kids who swanned around Greenwich Village, Coney Island and the Chelsea Hotel in their thrift store costumes fed each other, supported each other, used each other in their art, moved apart and came together from their earliest days in New York City to Mapplethorpe’s death at 43 from AIDS in 1989. Along the journey, Smith discovered how to merge her poetry with rock and roll and Mapplethorpe turned away from his Catholic boyhood into a fascination with hustling, S&M and a singular vision of photography. Her first album, Horses, with an iconic cover photo shot by Mapplethorpe, exploded into public consciousness. His evocative and disturbing photos, collages and drawings established him as a polarizing rebel who inspired love and hate in equal measure.

Smith writes description in poetic riffs that transform memory into dream. She has clear recall of telling moments with the pantheon of musical, literary and artistic greats who hung out at Max’s Kansas City, the Chelsea Hotel, CBGB and Horn & Hardart’s. Allen Ginsburg once supplied the missing dime that allowed a starving Smith to snag a cafeteria sandwich then, ever on the prowl, asked her if she was a boy or a girl. Smith once cut her long hair in the style of Keith Richards and earned instant acceptance from some hard-sell members of Warhol’s crowd. Mapplethorpe saved Smith from a dinner date gone wrong by pretending to be her boyfriend—and then he became her boyfriend. They were silly, naïve, intensely serious about becoming artists, worked on their art day and night, shared a single hot dog, a single museum ticket, a single room with a hotplate, a single vision that filled their empty bellies and warmed their unheated digs.

Just Kids is the “this happened” and “then that happened” and then “this is who was there” formula of celebrity memoirs that capture a rich period in time. But it’s much more. It’s the story of a connection that seems almost mystical to Smith. Mapplethorpe embraced his homosexuality but turned to Smith as his permanent muse. Patti Smith went on to marry and have two children. The last photograph Robert Mapplethorpe took of her includes her infant daughter, reaching out to him from her mother’s arms. When they were young, hungry and just starting out, a tourist urged her husband to take a picture of Smith and Mapplethorpe at Washington Square Arch in the Village, a hangout for colorful types all dressed like impoverished artists. The husband surveyed the two of them, real artists deep in anonymity and still searching to define their art, and said “Nah. They’re just kids.” They were. But he missed a great shot.

Just Kids   Patti Smith | HarperCollins   2010

Blue Nights – Joan Didion

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Blue Nights is more like a poem than a memoir. Joan Didion writes about her daughter Quintana Roo, motherhood, loss, and aging in that succinct prose of hers that works like embroidery stitches—precise, practiced, selected with the impact of the finished piece in mind. She describes a sad journey to a dark place by editing out far more than she reveals and circling back to evocative fragments over and over.

Quintana died less than two years after the sudden death of Didion’s husband, John Gregory Dunne, but she was already gravely ill when he died. She was 39 years old and succumbed to a septic infection that no medical intervention was able to cure, after repeated relapses, induced comas, emergency room visits and hospitalizations in intensive care units. A Year of Magical Thinking chronicles the cardiac arrest that claimed Dunne in their Manhattan apartment after a hospital visit to see Quintana, while Didion was preparing dinner in the kitchen. By the time the hugely popular best seller came out, Quintana, too, was gone and Didion could find no magic to sustain her through her losses.

The book’s title refers to a few weeks around the summer solstice when the evening light just before sunset turns a luminous blue. Didion says this doesn’t happen in southern California, where Quintana Roo was adopted and where she spent her childhood. But the blue light is observable in New York, where the family moved decades ago and where Quintana died. The blue is the same as the spent rods in nuclear reactors or stained glass in a cathedral, Didion notes, and I grant her poetic license because I have been in the spent fuel chambers of a nuclear reactor and seen the eerily beautiful blue light wavering up through the pools of water but I have never seen an evening or a sky like that in the city, or in Central Park.

It is a gentle metaphor, though, for all the sorrow in this slim reflection and there are other colors that pierce Didion’s prose and return again and again to haunt her: the peach-colored cake from Payard at Quintana’s wedding reception when the whole family was alive and together and unaware of what loomed ahead; the iridescent blue and green peacocks on the lawn of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine; the red soles of Quintana’s Christian Louboutin satin shoes visible as she knelt at the altar; the white stephanotis she wove into her braid under her bridal veil. Months later, by the end of that year, Dunne was dead and Quintana was in the first of several comas.

There are other colors and bits and pieces of life picked up, examined, put down and then picked up again. Didion writes of the fear that is born with a child and how it never leaves you—the overwhelming need to make sure she is safe, the worry in advance about all the things that might go wrong, the late-night panic about how wrong you are, how unsuited to the task of shepherding this miraculous creature through childhood and into a fairytale life.

No fairytales, after all, in Blue Nights. Quintana goes to the right schools, travels with mom and dad on movie shoots and publicity tours, is articulate, bright and precocious as you might expect from a child with two successful writers for parents. And Quintana suffers from her own demons, years of therapy for inconclusive diagnoses—manic depression, alcohol abuse, OCD, suicidal ideation, borderline personality disorder. Didion searches her own soul for the blame. Was Quintana insecure because she was adopted? Were her parents too busy with their careers to give her enough attention? Was the child forced to grow up too quickly in a household of sharp minds and quick wits, an adult world? Maybe, as much as the fear, the impulse to self-blame comes with the territory of motherhood. Who is a perfect parent? Who is even a good-enough parent? These are unanswerable questions.

How do we survive after our children? Didion asks. What matters after everyone you loved is lost? What to do with the colors and the memories? How to grow old and frail alone, consigned to the waiting rooms of doctors and the apartment stuffed with mementos that can never bring back the husband, the daughter? It doesn’t seem fair. It isn’t fair—it just is. Didion stares at the bleak years and edits every meticulous word. She misses Quintana. “How could I not still need that child with me?” she asks. Blue Nights is Joan Didion’s poem about the ebb of a life. It is heartbreakingly sad.

Blue Nights  Joan Didion | Alfred A. Knopf  2011

Lucky Child — Luong Ung

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In 1980, a ten-year-old Cambodian refugee stepped off a plane in Vermont with her eldest brother and his wife. All the remaining members of their family who were not already dead were left behind. Luong Ung was the Lucky Child selected to move to America because there was only enough money to save one of the younger siblings and her brother thought she was young enough and feisty enough to adapt to western life and get an education. One of Luong’s last memories of Cambodia was letting go of the fingers of her twelve-year-old sister Chou’s hand.

Lucky Child is the story, told in alternating chapters, of how one young orphan grew up in rural America and one survived in rural Cambodia. Ma and Pa had been killed by the Khmer Rouge. Eldest sister, Keav, and the baby girl, Geak, died of illness and starvation in forced labor camps. A well-off, middle-class, educated Phnom Penh family was ripped apart, brutalized and half-exterminated by the Pol Pot regime. Luong shouldered the heavy baggage of unimaginable loss and nightmares. Chou spent each desperate day in a struggle for survival.

We know about the killing fields, the decimation of the country’s culture and population, the mountains of bones now memorialized in a museum of horror. We hear sometimes about the landmines still buried all over Cambodia that explode under unsuspecting feet. What we seldom note in the news stories and the history texts are the scars on the soul that fill a child with memories so painful she cannot hear the buzz of an alien language in class, cannot claim her own heritage with its wrecked family and stunning terror. Luong Ung’s first memoir, First They Killed My Father, is a vivid recollection of her war-ravaged family. It ends in 1979 with the country, and the Ung family, devastated and in ruins.  But that pause signals the beginning of another story–the story of what happens after the unthinkable, what happens next.

This book does a good job of filling in the picture. What is remembered and can be recounted is hard, sad and almost unendurable. Many people in a new land are kind—just as many are clueless or cruel. Rage has no safe outlet; the simple beauty of an ordinary day or of one’s own face in the mirror is a lie; the sounds and shapes of too many languages still the tongue. Luong’s journey away from her home is uneasy. She is tethered to her old life by memory and loss. A tough little kid will survive but time and the grace of a long-delayed homecoming are the conditions that eventually allow her to thrive.

Luong is the only Cambodian in a sea of blond, carefree, well-fed classmates. While she wrestles with the complexities of trying to attract a high school boyfriend, Chou struggles to avoid an arranged marriage. As Luong makes embarrassing faux pas in her class reports, Chou hauls the youngest child in her aunt’s brood to a one-room school house and then loses her chance for an education forever when the baby’s crying interrupts the class. Luong sleeps in a closet off the dining room of a donated apartment and never gets over being cold in the winter. Chou sleeps on a board bed with all of her girl cousins and hordes of hungry mosquitoes swarming around their net. Luong learns to roller skate and has a bike. Chou hauls water from a distant stream and forages for food. Both of them grow up hungry.

Lucky Child is graceful prose that captures atrocity and misery without self-pity. Luong Ung was the lucky child but her good fortune came at a steep cost. She had to grow up to reclaim her childhood and her family and herself. She had to accept that the darkness and pain in her life would always be part of who she is, but not all of who she is. Her resilience and courage, and that of the sister she left behind, shine from the pages of this book. Luong and her sister have created a valuable historical record that has even more value as a tribute to the redemptive powers of hope and human spirit.

Lucky Child: A Daughter of Cambodia Reunites with the Sister She Left Behind (P.S.)    Luong Ung | HarperCollins  2005