Friday, August 19, 2011

The List

Here is the list of "Year Of" memoirs and the tentative months in which I plan to read them:

August - Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver

September - Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer

October - A Year In Provence by Peter Mayle

November - Julie and Julia by Julie Powell

December -Howards End is On the Landing by Susan Hill

January - Walden by Henry David Thoreau

February - A Million Little Pieces by James Frey

March - The Year of Living Biblically by A. J. Jacobs

April - Tolstoy and the Purple Chair by Nina Sankovitch

May - Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey

June - A Year of Paying Attention by Katherine Ellison

July - Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

By no means does this list exhaust the "Year Of" genre. There's books like A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson that cover most of a year, Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed, and A Year of Reading Proust, others that edge over into the "Year Of" genre. I'm excited that there's several memoirs about reading, which isn't too surprising since reading and writing are one mobius road writers are always driving down. I picked these twelve somewhat arbitrarily from the possible books, and most have been published recently, reflecting, possibly, a trend in the publishing world.

Sandwiched in between self-help, the travelogue, food writing, and autobiography, the "Year Of" book stretches the bounds of memoir. Of course, when we live in a time when celebrities like Justin Beiber can write a memoir at sixteen, who's to say a memoir about a single year isn't just as valid? Thoreau says he went to live in the woods "to live deliberately, to front the essentials in life," and in his or her own way each "Year Of" author tries to live deliberately and define how to live, what to live for, and by implication what needs correcting, fixing, what's in need of transformation in our lives. It may just be the American Lit. teacher in me, but the "Year Of" book seems in some way tangled up in the American Dream and our need in our increasingly weird and worrysome times for some kind of transformation (insert groans of half-zoned out 5th block high school students here). And now in my best "but really, I'm serious about this guys," teacher voice I will venture to say this may even be a new sub-genre, a book for our times in the way that the instant memoir (just add one year) lets an author shape the everyday into narrative the way a novelist does for her fictional characters. Only perhaps we see ourselves in the author's lives even more since they live in our world and there is a veneer of truth about books labelled memoir, even though as James Frey's book point out, this layer of so-called truth is often cracked, peeling, and sometimes never there to begin with. The books have a self-help quality that can help them sell--Josh Foer's book can be found in the self-help section of many bookstores, but it is my hunch that it is self-help of a kind not usually peddled by experts in the Secret or 7 Habits--a kind of help in putting one's life into a more coherent narrative, reworking the messy, patchy field of everyday events into rows and flower beds. Combined with travel writing, food writing, social critique, even literary theory (Thoreau pioneered all of these combinations) the "Year Of" memoir is not just self-help, but a window into how we create stories, how we see ourselves, and how we wish to be seen.

OK students, end of lecture, you can stop pretending you're actually interested in my half-baked hypothesis. Yes, you in the back, it is mostly conjecture at this point. I'll have to prove it, just like I've told you to do over and over. It's time to hit the books.

Monday, August 15, 2011

The rules

"Year Of" projects by nature are governed by certain rules that go beyond or sometimes contrary to the rules of daily life as organized by work, family, religion, or society. The project itself seems designed for its authors and willing or unwilling spouses to see the effects of forcing themselves to an extreme of just one thing be it eating, reading, travel, or sticking to certain somewhat artificial rules that most of us wouldn't have the desire or stickwithitness to complete.

Right now, how many "Year Of" projects lie half finished in someone's basement, linger on hard drives, yellow on walls of makeshift garage studios, hum to themselves in the pages of notebooks tucked next to checkbooks and phonebooks. But even before I can follow these rules, the first rule must be to keep at it, so that there will be a project, even if it does go no further than an audience of one or two, a few mouse clicks on an anonymous blog in a flood of anonymous blogs.

Which brings me to my conversation with Dr. Sweety (I used to call my wife ‘Sweety,” but since she’s started her PhD program she has been given a new title!). A few days after I proposed the idea to her and started telling all my friends and family of my intentions for my upcoming year, Dr. Sweety asked me, "So you want to blog about these memoirs and eventually turn it into a book. But what is your book really going to be about? It just doesn't seem enough just to read other people's books and write about what they've already done for a whole year, when you're just going to try it for a month."

Originally, I had intended to attempt what each "Year Of" author had done--at least to some degree--each month when I was reading his or her book. When I read Barbara Kingsolver's memoir of eating local foods, I would shop at farm stands and look for restaurants that used local ingredients, even work more in my makeshift all-potted-plants garden. When I read Joshua Foer's book on becoming a memory champion, I would use his techniques to improve my memory. Maybe try to remember more about my childhood and write about what these internal journeys brought me. When reading Julie Powell, of course, I would have to cook recipes from that other Julia's book.

Dr. Sweety could see she had taken a bit of the wind out of my sails. "Well, you can do what you want," she said. "And I can't stop you. But I just wonder if you shouldn't read the 'Year Of' books first and then decide on the topic you'd really like to do."

And she has a point. Am I really the kind of person who goes to the extremes these authors did, even if just for a year? Perhaps not. The rules of the project must have some give--or be ready to be tossed out at a moments notice. But it all comes back to rule number one. So whether I blog every day, try exactly what the authors tried, or just write about thinking about trying it, as long as I follow rule number one--perhaps the most extreme rule of all, I can call my year a success.