Bookstore memoir sections are odd places, filled with stories that usually have little in common. If asked whether I read memoir, I would say no. Call those titles narrative nonfiction--maybe with a big ocean storm and a shipwreck as a hook, or a famous chef and her secret recipes, or a city family who has moved to the country and the hilarious calamities that ensue (ahem)--and they will find an audience. I want to lobby for moving memoir into the sections related to the stories they tell. Memoir in nature lit, or memoir in travel lit, etc., because if asked whether I read memoir, the answer is no, but bring up a specific title or a category and the answer can change fast.
Abigail Thomas, the brilliant author the New York Times called a serial memoirist, is a terrific example. Three Dog Life is probably her most famous title. Thomas's husband suffered a brain injury when he was hit by a car in their New York City neighborhood and she lets us step into a life where tragedy colored everything, but where humor and courage, irony and compassion still held the stage. On one level, it's about an imposed mid-life correction, but it's really about grace and beauty. It's the kind of gorgeous insightful prose that begs rereading. Not too long ago she published What Comes Next and How to Like It, written in small vignettes that together form a glorious whole. This ostensibly focused on her nearly lifelong relationship with her almost lover and best friend Chuck Verrill. Or maybe it's about aging, or a mother-daughter relationship where the daughter has a romantic relationship with her mom's best friend. Abby Thomas begs to be read and savored on a long rainy Sunday afternoon.
Then there's Julia Reed, who Jay McInerney described as "Mississippi's answer to Dorothy Parker, gifted with a biting wit, a fierce intellect, and a generous spirit of hospitality." That just about sums her up--she was one of my dearest friends, so I am biased. Her books include my favorite Ham Biscuits and Hostess Gowns and the unforgettable Queen of the Turtle Derby. She serves up delicious gossip and divine recipes in equal measure. Julia loved the South, and her keen observations and unparalleled vocabulary create a loving and ironic Southern gothic where the final resting place of Tammy Wynette stands toe to toe with Dixie politics and gun violence. Recently Julia's longtime editor, Michael Flamini at Macmillan, published a posthumous collection of her columns called Dispatches from the Golden Age, which include a couple I had not read. In "Fountain of Youth," a fanciful trip to Europe for cosmetic treatments (made famous by a host of international celebrities, including Margaret Thatcher) goes sideways. I'd heard Julia firsthand on the filth and bugs, but here she clinches the story with a line about Thatcher: "The secret of youth lies in being elected prime minister--and staying there." In Julia's obituary, her old pal Jon Meacham said, "If we'd tried to invent a character like Julia, nobody would have believed it." Now let's make sure a whole new generation of readers get to know her too. --Ellen Stimson