Wednesday, December 21, 2011

K.'s Rant/Review....Raniew?

I have often been asked what my literary “guilty pleasure” is. Most people have one, I’m sure. Romance novels, detective thrillers, some young adult lit., that sort of thing. Something the reader recognizes as bad writing, but enjoys reading anyways. I couldn’t really say I have a guilty pleasure in that sense, but lately I have been spending time in a genre that isn’t exactly “high literature”. I’ve developed a little fascination with the humorist’s (or humorous) memoir.

The big players in this game are people like David Sedaris, whom I adore, Bill Bryson, Augusten Burroughs, etc.* I have mixed feelings about all of these men, which is why this is turning into a extracurricular review/rant.

The basis of this entire genre can essentially be boiled down to one sentiment: “A funny thing happened to me, let me tell you about it.” or something similar. The quality (and by quality here I mean entertainment quality, different than literary quality) is in the author’s ability to make his or her story interesting to their reader. The minute the recounting ceases to entertain the reader is the minute the book ceases to be valuable. For this reason, I very much enjoyed David Sedaris’ 1997 collection Naked. Out of the seventeen essays, I enjoyed myself thoroughly through all but one.**

Augusten Burroughs follows along a similar idea, but does not split his incidents up into individual essays as Sedaris does. He has written six memoirs to date, more, both to my mind and his, than any 46 year old has any business writing. Of these six, I have read three- Running With Scissors, A Wolf at the Table, and, most recently, Dry, a memoir of his alcoholism treatment. Burroughs is a decidedly darker humor the Sedaris or Bryson. His entire life, as he tells is, is a series of dark incidents, each more disturbing and bizarre than the last. While Mr. Sedaris often seems to be hyperbolizing for the sake of comedic effect, one frequently gets the impression that Burroughs is telling outlandish and frequent lies. I have no doubt that he has had an uncommonly difficult life and has plenty of reasons to be unhappy, but the way he presents much of his material is just not believable.

Aside from the believability issue, Burroughs also crosses over onto the wrong side of the interest line. Running With Scissors can hold a reader well enough simply because the scenario is so bizarre: the child of two mentally ill parents is relinquished into the care of his mother’s ‘psychiatrist’ and his family, a collection of totally neurotic and unhinged people. The rest of his memoirs would be interesting perhaps to Mr. Burrough’s friends and family, but as a reader with no emotional attachment the author, they read pretty dull.

One of the absolute worst offenders to the Reader’s Interest Line rule that I have read lately is Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island. As an Anglophile and fan of Mr. Bryson, I thought this book about his goodbye travels around England, where he had been living for twenty some-odd years, before returning to his native American Midwest, was going to be a real treat. I was very, very wrong. Please understand, dear reader, that normally I adore Bill Bryson. The Mother Tongue: English and How it Got That Way counts among my favorite modern nonfiction books. His “Eminent Lives” series Shakespeare biography is succinct, well-informed, and enjoyable, and his Dictionary of Troublesome Words for Writers has often served me well. That being said, I had absolutely no idea what he was thinking when he wrote Notes from a Small Island.

Normally a witty and pleasant voice, here Bryson read like a tiresome old git. This description of each location he visits is exactly the same: arrive, wander around until settling on what will prove to be a horrid guest house with no cable and bad service, wander around and discover that there are no good restaurants or pubs around, go to bed, get up, wander to the local tourist attraction, discover entrance is a few dollars, and refuse to go in. This, as you can imagine, quickly got boring. He refuses to pay less than one pound to get into a private garden, asking What could a garden possibly need my money for? (Apparently Mr. Bryson has heard neither of landscaping nor lawn maintenance,) and makes some particularly culturally insensitive remarks directed at the Welsh. He states that native Welsh-language place names, (which I personally find mellifluous and enchanting,) sound to him akin to the noise my cat makes whilst being sick on the carpet after someone has accidentally fed him cheese.

All of these elements did not add up to what one could call an interesting read. I found Notes From a Small Island quite disappointing, especially after getting my hopes up as a Bryson fan. That being said, I am definitely going to try another one of his travelogues soon, and hopefully chalk up this reading misadventure to choosing a book from his “Cranky Old Man” period.

One last thing before I let you on your merry way- I know M. mentioned this already, but my condolences to the reading world for our recent loss. Christopher Hitchens, (1949-2011) was a peerless voice and a brilliant writer who had the rare and priceless gift of being able to write intelligently on just about any subject. One of the greatest lights in the thinking world went out last week, and he will be dearly missed.

Thanks for reading, and a very happy holiday to you,

*I also read Russell Brand’s memoir “My Booky Wook”. My mother always told me if I hadn’t anything nice to say, then I shouldn’t say anything at all, so I have nothing to say about Mr. Brand’s first, of hopefully very few, books.
** "The Drama Bug” was my personal favorite. A fresh-faced, earnest young Sedaris decides to speak exclusively in Elizabethan jargon with his friends and family- so hysterically funny that I called M. and read him the whole story aloud.

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