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Memoir: A History Paperback – Bargain Price, October 5, 2010
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Yagoda, biographer of Will Rogers, presents a spirited account of a form of writing that since its inception has been one of the most contested and most popular. Without dwelling too heavily on the genre's most recent scandals, Yagoda begins with the fifth-century Confessions of Saint Augustine, still cited as a prime example. Autobiography, Yagoda says, helped give rise to the invention of the novel in 1719 when Daniel Defoe published Robinson Crusoe, written by himself. While this fictional memoir helped usher in real accounts of, among other things, adventures on the high seas and capture by hostile Indians, it is memoir's fraught relationship with the truth—which implicated both readers (who took Robinson Crusoe to be a true tale) and writers (embellishing or inventing particularly sordid episodes in their lives)—that explains the memoir's longevity, popularity and breadth, says Yagoda. In a fascinating break from his chronological study, Yagoda explores the fluid definition of truth and whether, given memory's malleability, it's possible to achieve it in any memoir. With its mixture of literary criticism, cultural history and just enough trivia, Yagoda's survey is sure to appeal to scholars and bibliophiles alike. (Nov.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
The number of memoirs published over the last four years increased 400 percent, and literary and cultural critic Yagoda wanted to know why. His quest resulted in an astute and entertaining history of autobiography, the most maligned, exploited, downright scandalous, yet irresistible of genres. Yagoda ponders the vagaries of memory and the difference between inner truths and hard facts. He traces the tradition back to the fifth-century classic The Confessions of Saint Augustine; designates Renaissance sculptor Benvenuto Cellini’s as the first “utterly modern” memoir; and praises the autobiographies of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Frederick Douglass. On the contemporary front, Yagoda identifies categories ridiculous and sublime, including misery, addiction, canine, eccentric-mother, outlaw, and redemption memoirs. Fake memoirs, including James Frey’s, get fresh treatment, as does the indictment of memoirs as merely narcissistic and whiny. Yagoda is at his peppery best as he resurrects overlooked memoirs and chronicles the profound impact courageous memoirs about race, religion, sexuality, mental illness, abuse, and many other sensitive, once taboo subjects have had on our collective social conscience, inspiring and sustaining positive change. --Donna Seaman --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
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Top Customer Reviews
This is unfortunate because, when Professor Yagoda does engage in analysis, his comments are astute. His insights about the fallibility of memory and different degrees of misrepresentation in memoir are smart, interesting, and to the point. These were the most interesting sections of the book.
Other chapters read more like an extended catalog, a listing of titles and authors, with insufficient commentary to liven up the reading experience. The organization of the book is a little eccentric; chapter headings are loosely thematic, but the underlying logic is unclear at times. I still can't figure out how Ulysses S. Grant, P.T. Barnum, and Mark Twain migrated from Chapter 4 (The United States of Autobiography) to Chapter 6 (Eminent Victorian Autobiography), or why Yagoda felt it necessary to split his exploration of truth and the fallibility of memory into two separate chapters. Actually, there is a plausible explanation for this, which is that Chapter 5 ("Interlude: Truth, Memory and Autobiography") was inserted as a kind of lollipop for the reader, to break up what would otherwise have been a pretty lengthy dry stretch.
The first chapter considers memoirs published over the past 30 years, providing a comprehensive and brilliant taxonomy. Yagoda reminds us that there is nothing new under the sun - each of the subgenres that he catalogs as part of the recent spate of memoirs has its historical antecedent. Before there was Augusten Burrowes there was Edmund Gosse; the embarrassing narrative liberties taken by Rigoberta Menchu had parallels in the fake slave narratives published in the early 19th century, works like "My Left Foot" and "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" were foreshadowed by the story of Hellen Keller.
I would have enjoyed the book more if it had sacrificed comprehensiveness in favor of more analysis - ultimately Professor Yagoda's take on the facts was more interesting than the raw undigested facts, and his writing is clear and engaging.
The centerpiece of Ben Yagoda's MEMOIR: A HISTORY is indeed the recent "memoir boom", with particular emphasis on how it has been bloated by the memoirs of victims, narcissists, and celebrity-wannabes. Yagoda reviews many of the entries that have marked this boom, and he offers some insights into why it has occurred, but he never really explains it (that probably would require a tome of cultural psychology that might well be impossible, at least while the phenomenon remains in full bloom).
The book reflects a considerable amount of background reading and/or research. By and large, it is engagingly written and presented. However, the discussion in Chapters 2 and 3 of the historical roots of autobiography and memoir (going back to Caesar and Saint Augustine) is rather boring, so much so that I came close to giving up on the book. (I seriously recommend to any casual reader that she/he simply skip those two chapters.)
As Yagoda reviews the history of memoirs, time and again the discussion returns to inaccuracies or distortions in memoirs. These seem to be of three sorts: (i) errors of memory; (ii) embellishment for purposes of a more entertaining story (or to satisfy the ego of the author); and (iii) wholesale fabrication and outright lies. Yagoda mentions dozens of notable books that fall within the last category, including "Awful Disclosures of the Hotel Dieu Convent of Montreal, or the Secrets of Black Nunnery Revealed" from 1836 (proof that this is not just a modern phenomenon). In that exposé, the author Maria Monk told all there was to tell about the convent from which she had escaped, where nuns were forced to have sex with priests and where the babes from those couplings were tossed into a lime pit in the basement. The book became a bestseller before it was discovered to be a complete fraud (Maria Monk had never even been in a convent; she died in jail).
Yagoda's discussion of the problems of memory, while not academic in nature, is solid. He then goes on to explore the ramifications for memoirs. For example: "[T]here is an inherent and irresolvable conflict between the capabilities of memory and the demands of narrative. The latter demands specifics; the former is really bad at them. * * * So the reality is: Once you begin to write the true story of your life in a form that anyone would possibly want to read, you start to make compromises with the truth."
Yagoda's style is relatively informal, and it can be barbed. When he mentions that Maya Angelou's total of memoirs has now reached eight, he adds, "That may or may not be a record, depending on how one classifies the books Shirley MacLaine has written chronicling her past, present, and future lives." All in all the book is engaging and informative, though not quite top shelf.