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 show can be the next best thing to experiencing another life. Here are three that sustain my faith in the genre: These books prove that memoirs can do and be anything, just as long as they're memorable.
Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D.H. Lawrence
By Geoff Dyer, paperback, 256 pages, Picador, List price: $15
On the opening page, Dyer announces his intention of writing a "...sober, academic study of D.H. Lawrence..." 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.
Running in the Family
By Michael Ondaatje, paperback, 208 pages, Vintage, List price: $14.95
Inspired by a dream of jungle heat, the author of The English Patient travels from Canada to his birthplace, Sri Lanka, to explore his family roots. Happily for us, his forebears 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. Ondaatje is also a poet, and his impressionistic style is perfectly suited for family stories that transcend facts to reach the status of legend. Running in the Family is an immersive read; it takes you places you've never been — in geography and in memory—until you're not sure where to draw the line between magical and real. And it has the best memoir title ever.
The Two Kinds of Decay: A Memoir
By Sarah Manguso, paperback, 192 pages, Picador, List price: $14
During her junior year of college, 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. 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.
Radhika Jones is an assistant managing editor, supervising culture and society coverage for Time magazine.
Three Books... is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with production assistance from Rose Friedman and Lacey Mason.