The Fall + Winter 2008 issue of Memoir fluctuates from brilliant, precise, and unbelievably apt to sentimental, predictable, and disappointing. Reading this issue from cover to cover feels like a wild rollercoaster ride; while the peaks are so incredibly steep they are totally worth the purchase price of this issue on their own, the valleys are a dull and thrill-less place whose only attribute is the promise of an upcoming incline.
Beginning at the ending, I cannot heap enough praise on Kelly Clancy’s award winning Best Graphic Memoir “Silence.” Depicting, I believe, her experience working with the Peace Corps in Turkmenistan, Clancy’s memoir confronts the meaninglessness of religiosity for an illiterate and impoverished people living under a totalitarian regime. Her presentation of this topic is fresh and powerful and her frame by frame drawings, black and white, slightly reminiscent of Marjani Satrapi, but then, again, uniquely not, are expressive, animated, beautifully rendered, and brilliantly orchestrated in their movement from frame to frame. I was truly stunned by Clancy’s work and more than pleased that Memoir has recognized and rewarded her vision.
In contrast, I was disappointed by Grand Prize Winner Rafael Torch’s creative non-fiction piece “The Naming of Frank Torch.” Maybe it’s just me, but I found Torch’s piece lacked that special something that would transform it from the generic Italian immigrant story to the specific Italian immigrant story. This seemed to me to be Torch’s primary task; a task I feel hasn’t yet been fully accomplished.
But back to the peaks. I loved Kathy Chetkovich’s prose piece “How I See It,” both for the fact that she has let me see it the way she sees it, but also for its clever play on the nature of writing memoir itself. Throughout Chetkovich’s piece she repeatedly questions memory, how she remembers, how he remembers, and how we manipulate desire into memory and then begin to forget which is which. I also loved Robert Weinberger’s “The Year of Living Nervously,” about his adolescent self and the year his not-yet-two-year-old brother was diagnosed with leukemia. Sentence by sentence, Weinberger’s tone and details are right on and the movement from beginning to end is complete and totally satisfying. And Will George’s very short memoir “A Glass of Water,” about a botched adolescent suicide attempt is so beautifully quiet, so precisely stated, that although it teeters more on the prose side it has the air of a perfect prose poem.
Among the poets, Lianne Spidel’s “Lea at Ninety-Five,” was a true treasure, with lines like “Her only child came as a surprise / she made the best of,” and later, after the death of Lea’s sister, “Her father lived afterward / in a black Scottish mood, / refused to keep Christmas again.” And Rochelle Jewel Shapiro’s “Barbara Just Home from the Ashram,” was also wonderful and poignantly sad.