Free Press; $24/hardcover 2006 has turned out to be the year of the memoir, and not for good reasons. The James Frey debacle has distressed publishers and pundits more than readers, but it has shaken up the genre and perception of the genre like, well, a junkie stumbling around an elementary school. Nobody wants to play with James anymore.
Meanwhile, the memoirs keep coming. The most interesting, most affecting and best-written one I've read one you definitely want on your summer list is Mary-Ann Tirone Smith's Girls of Tender Age, the author's account of growing up in a 1950s Connecticut housing project with a distant mother, an adoring father and an autistic brother, Tyler, who can't bear any kind of noise.
The author's childhood neighborhood becomes ours as we read funny and tough descriptions of Smith's ordinary days, and we watch evil descend. Alternating chapters introduce a serial killer approaching a nearby backyard, where Irene, an innocent neighbor and Smith's classmate at school, becomes his victim.
"I was starting to think about how I could weave the story of the murder into the memoir, when I realized I didn't know anything about the murder," says Smith in a recent telephone interview. "The day it happened, Irene and I were up against each other, becoming friends. Then, the next day, I got the message aloud from my fifth-grade teacher that we were never to speak about what happened to Irene, and the same message silently from everyone else."
The culture of silence that permeated '50s life is one of the book's subtexts, as well as the guiding force that led Smith, as an adult, to learn everything she could about the murder.
"The culture of the '50s was, if you don't talk about your problems, the problems will go away. To whine and complain was a weakness. There was no such thing as angst. You were just expected to soldier on," says Smith.
"Yet I still hear people say, "Yeah, that's true, but what a great time.'"
A novelist with eight other books, including a mystery series, Smith says her foray into nonfiction has been satisfying, and easier than writing fiction.
"I have a friend who says about writing fiction, "You can only work until the beads of blood start forming on your forehead,'" she says, laughing. "But writing this book, I never felt I was digging ditches the way I do when I'm writing fiction.
"I had the facts and put them down, then worked on putting in the kinds of things that make a novel wonderful the narrative voice that puts the reader in your pocket. Physical details. The details are so important."
With precise attention to detail, a shrewd sense of humor, a mystery writer's ability to create suspense, and ample compassion, Smith has succeeded in crafting a memoir that stands out. Girls of Tender Age allows its readers to revisit the silences of their own childhoods while feeling safe in the hands of its accomplished, warm and welcoming host.
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If You Want Me to Stay
By Michael Parker
Algonquin Books, $19.95/hardcover Short stories Joel Dunn Jr., a young teenager, and his little brother Tank run off in their daddy's pickup truck one day, fleeing their hometown of Trent, N.C., in search of their mother, somewhere along the coast. Along the way, they are shuttled from one stranger to another, clinging only to a dream of home that doesn't exist. Novelist Michael Parker tells the story of their quest entirely in Joel's voice, at once idealistic and dreamy, scared, worried and filled with doom. His deeply troubled humanity sticks with the reader long after the book ends. With clear and crisp dialogue and raw and real characters, Parker fashions a rough and wondrous experience.
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Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia
By Elizabeth Gilbert
Viking, $24.95/hardcover Elizabeth Gilbert (The Last American Man) has an infectious, inviting voice that makes her work easy to read. In Eat, Pray, Love, she takes the reader on a one-year journey (financed by the book advance) to Italy, India and Indonesia, where she searches for the missing pieces of her not-quite-shattered but falling- apart post-divorce life. Eating and praying, she maintains a peppy sense of humor and humility that motors the book along until we get stuck in the Balinese mud in the "Love" section, where Elizabeth meets and falls for a guy who sounds a bit too much like Ricardo Montalban. She just can't get over her good luck. Ever listened to someone tell you about their fabulous vacation, then want to smack them when they complain about how hard it was? That's how you feel at the end of this mostly good-hearted but ultimately self-indulgent memoir.