MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Does a compelling memoir require a life well lived, full of struggle and triumph, or just a really good writer?
Editor and writer Radhika Jones doesn't have the answer, but she does have a list of her three favorite memoirs. It's for our series Three Books, where authors recommend three books on one theme.
Ms. RADHIKA JONES (Editor and Writer): The memoir had a boom in the past couple of decades; now, it's facing a backlash. Whatever happened to the lost art of shutting up, Neil Genzlinger lamented in a recent piece in The New York Times book review.
It's a fair question: The genre that was once reserved for exceptional lives and exceptional writers - think presidents, prime ministers, Mary Karr and Joan Didion - now draws too many ho-hum accounts by people who don't seem to have lived much at all. But the good memoirs can be the next best thing to experiencing another life. Here are three that sustain my faith in the genre:
On the opening page of "Out of Sheer Rage," Geoff Dyer announces his intention of writing a sober, academic study of D.H. Lawrence, but that wouldn't have been much fun. Instead, Dyer makes a book out of all the worst-laid plans and half-baked decisions that keep him from completing his Lawrence opus. The reader acts as audience and enabler - who would want this self-deprecating charmer to waste his time on something so pedestrian as work? "Out of Sheer Rage" is a rambling blend of travelogue, journal, rant and incidental philosophy. The farther off track Dyer goes while pursuing his unorthodox devotion to Lawrence, the more entertaining he becomes. All failures should be this illuminating.
Inspired by a dream of jungle heat, Michael Ondaatje, the author of "The English Patient," travels from Canada to his birthplace, Sri Lanka, to explore his family roots. Happily for us, his forebearers were an irrepressible band of eccentrics, each more outrageous than the next. In set piece after gorgeous set piece, Ondaatje brings his ancestors and their lawless, Jazz Age Ceylon to life. "Running in the Family" is an immersive read. It takes you places you've never been - in geography, in memory - until you're not sure where to draw the line between magical and real. And it has the best memoir title ever.
During her junior year of college, Sarah Manguso caught what she thought was a cold. In fact, it was the beginning of chronic idiopathic demyelinating polyradiculoneuropathy, a recurring autoimmune syndrome that left her paralyzed for weeks at a time, unable to care for herself, unsure of what her future would hold or if she would even have one. In "The Two Kinds of Decay," Manguso describes her condition and its effects in lyrical detail, making prose poems out of blood cleansings and vascular surgery. Her voice is clear-minded and never self-pitying, analytical but always evocative. Memoirs of illness abound, but few stack up to Manguso's spare, wrenching and beautiful book - a poignant example of how physical weakness can be transformed into intellectual and emotional strength.
Read enough bad memoirs - about rotten childhoods or impossible spouses or the wisdom of some guy's pet - and the good ones start to seem even more precious. These are three I loved to relive, almost as if they've become memories of my own.
NORRIS: Radhika Jones is assistant managing editor for Time magazine.
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