Not a Model Memoir, But a Darn Good Read

I can’t remember the first thought that led to me deciding to write a memoir, but I remember the first memoir I sought out to read as a model.

I’d been hearing for a long time about Frank McCourt‘s Angela’s Ashes, which was published in 1996. I can’t count how many reviews I’d read, skimmed, or bypassed about the book. The reviews had piqued my curiosity, but I long-delayed reading the book because I was teaching English and all my reading was focused on have-to-read books.

Book reading for pleasure didn’t exist for me any longer. Besides, McCourt’s book sounded so bleak that I didn’t see the point in subjecting myself to a tragedy that had happened decades before.

In 2005, when I retired from teaching and went through a medical ordeal, I began reading again. I read in all different genres, but I particularly caught up on my beloved mystery novels.

Four years later, I took an online memoir writing course because I thought it sounded interesting. I ordered McCourt’s memoir and a memoir written by my first memoir writing instructor, but I read Angela’s Ashes first.

Like a lot of readers, I got caught up in the rhythm of the story, with its repetitive and tragic events. McCourt’s father was a terrible alcoholic, and he put his family through severe neglect and abuse.

Angela’s Ashes won the Pulitzer. It certainly deserved to win major awards; it’s hard to get the story out from under your skin once you let it in. But it was not the right memoir to read when I was trying to learn how memoir works.

My instructor was trying (but I was a slow learner) to teach me the notion of the double eye in memoir–the perspective of the narrator when the events took place, layered over with the reflective eye of the writer who has learned from her experiences.

McCourt doesn’t use the reflective eye much at all. Most of the story is told as a novel is–as if it is happening at the moment. It thrusts the reader right into a momentum that it’s hard to get away from, and one way he does that is by doing away with quotation marks for dialogue.

I learned the hard way that McCourt’s book is not a good model for memoir. Because he omitted reflection throughout most of the book, a lot of burden was placed on the beginning and ending to provide background information.

The writing style wouldn’t work for my memoir, that’s for sure. But it works well for Angela’s Ashes, which puts great emphasis on Irish culture. The style is reminiscent of that of James Joyce, albeit much less difficult.

The best part of this memoir is how it immerses the reader in the life of the little boy Frank. All these years later, I feel as if I lived in Ireland with his tragic family.  I can smell and hear the place still.

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Filed under Book Review, Books, Creative Nonfiction, Essay, Memoir, Nonfiction, Research and prep for writing, Writing

44 responses to “Not a Model Memoir, But a Darn Good Read

  1. Gripping! Thank you for this review, Luanne. Angela’s Ashes is on my TBR list.

  2. I have to admit, I’ve avoided reading this book and likely will continue to do so. Since I’m not a memoirist (?) and a fiction writer instead, I find reading about dysfunctional families extraordinarily bleak. It makes me think about the nature of memoir – is dysfunctionalism always a necessary component? I have to catch up on your other posts on other memoirs, since maybe you’ve covered some without that defining theme.

    • Luanne

      I don’t usually find it bleak, but this book is pretty bleak. It makes up for it by the incredible writing. Is dysfunctionalism a necessary component? No, I think. But conflict is, of course. Michelle, I can’t believe there isn’t any dysfunction in the lives of any of your fictional characters ;). Isn’t that where some of the conflict comes from? Look at the dysfunction in Harry Potter’s world . . . .

      • I much prefer fictional dysfunction to the real misery it causes in real people’s lives, I think. If Mr. McCourt could have turned his father into a wardrobe or have levitated him, I might have read the book!

        • Luanne

          What a hoot! Haha, if only poor little Frank had had an invisibility cloak as he dodged stuff throughout the streets of Limerick and his drunk father at home.

  3. Hey, one I’ve actually read!

  4. I remember feeling depressed as I read this book, but still I had to keep reading. I don’t remember a lot of detail about it all this time later, but I remember that it kept me turning pages and I felt very sorry that any child should have a life like his – and apparently many did and still do.

  5. I enjoyed your post. The two things I liked best about “Angela’s Ashes” were the prose style and that the author treats his parents with sympathy– perhaps because he, too, is an alcoholic.Sometimes it seems that he is too sympathetic or nonjudgmental or lacking in reflection. But he pretty much sticks to that course throughout. It’s horrible, though, to choose to drink rather than feed one’s children–to choose alcohol over their lives.

    • Luanne

      He almost completely lacks reflection, except at the beginning and ending of the book. It makes for a feeling that the reader is there with the boy, experiencing his life, but it also leaves this reader feeling as if nothing has really been learned. In that way it doesn’t really fit a common definition of memoir. Re the alcoholism, shudder.

  6. I haven’t read this one either, Luanne. This series, which I’m loving, is making my TBR pile bigger and bigger!

    • Luanne

      Jill, I ought to be getting a cut of the profits if you’re going to guy the books instead of checking out from the library! 😉 I can’t wait to hear what you think of some of these.

  7. It is a brilliant book. How can misery like that be so moving, hilarious and redeeming all at once.

  8. I enjoyed this memoir and found myself hoping for Frankie and his family~ the brothers and sisters. Their misery was touching. Have you read, Angela and The Baby Jesus? Frank McCourt wrote this Christmas tale from his mother’s perspective. It’s a beautiful love story.

    • Luanne

      I have not! What genre is it?

      • Well, memoir I believe as it is written by Frank McCourt. It is a story retold from his mother’s childhood. It is marketed as a children’s book. “Angela” covets a doll, the family can’t afford one, so she takes the baby Jesus from the church nativity display. The story takes off from there. It is a beautiful read! Compassion is the predominate theme. You must scout out a copy.

        • Luanne

          It sounds lovely! I’m getting interested in that sort of memoir, too–where the writer tells the story of a relative. Like Half Broken Horses or Still Life with Rice. I LOVE those books–the stories of their grandmothers.

          • I enjoyed, Half Broke Horses, Glass Castle. I heard Jeanette Walls speak at, Unique Lives, and she was an entertaining and interesting speaker, I was interested to hear of her mother “now”. I always wondered why her grandmother didn’t step into their lives with more “force” or action. What a childhood!

            • Luanne

              That’s a good question: why didn’t her grandmother step in? What could she do? The parents had legal custody of the children. The parents were wanderers. Do you think Walls thought the grandmother should have done more? What did you think about the grandmother’s death? Do you think it affected her mind?

              • Yes, I believe that Jeanette Walls did hope her grandmother would step in although she doesn’t say that to my knowledge in the book. It was when I heard her speak; you could hear the questions in her voice as she discussed times with her grandmother. The children grew up reasonably “happy” as they appeared to stand together and although Walls states that she was aware of their situation in comparison to others, it didn’t really upset her until later on, which she highlights so well in the opening of her memoir, discovering her mom sorting through bins. It was touching to hear of her compassion toward her mother and their life together now. Walls stated that her mother believes that she was a “good” mother.

              • Luanne

                A good mother? I wonder if they ever got her diagnosed . . .

              • If I was the grandmother, it would have affected my mind. Imagine the nights and days worrying about your grandchildren, were they safe, fed, thriving. It must have been a concern.

              • Luanne

                Oh man, I wouldn’t be able to stand it. I don’t have grandchildren, but I can see it from other situations in my family. It would definitely make me miserable if I couldn’t do anything, and I would keep trying to figure out something.

  9. I agree, totally, with you! I enjoyed, (but wept over) his book and thought he could have used some references and reminders. I am getting too old to search backwards in a book to find a detail. I did enjoy this, I felt it was a wonderful book and a ‘good read!’ I admire how you are reading to discern the best path to writing your own memoir, too! I hope it will include some of your Family of Kalamazoo stories… Interesting reads there, all based on real people. I am fascinated with what I checked out today! Smiles, Robin

    • Luanne

      Yes, exactly! He keeps spinning the reader in circles and then we sort of stop thinking and just feel. At least that’s how I ended up responding.
      Oh, thank you so much about my family history blog! I’m so glad you like it, Robin! Be sure to read the one about the family horror story. It’s my favorite–about my great-great-grandmother. So a search for “horror” and it should show up.

      • I am reading your review of “Angela’s Ashes,” and not seeing a reference to the continuing saga of Frank McCourt’s life. I just thought it would help future readers of this post, to let them know the next one in this series is called ‘Tis. When you put the quotes around it, it is hard to see the ‘. This one is written in 1999 and the next one, in a sort of ‘trilogy,’ is about Frank as an adult, in “Bad Teacher.” I also wanted to add that if anyone likes this style of dramatic reading, Pat Conroy writes in this style, along with his books being put into movie form. (“Conrack” is about his life on an island, as a teacher, “Prince of Tides,” may be about his adult life, but I have not read this one, just have seen the movie, and the last one I did read, of his, was about his irritating and controlling father in “The Great Santini.”) Hope this will help anyone if they enjoy Frank McCourt’s style of writing memoirs!
        I am just (April, ’14) starting the first one, all over again, to get the continuity into the next two in the series.

      • Oh, so sorry I did read this horror story and just commented on it today! I appreciate that you have some interesting parts of your family and the newspaper article about your distant family member was quite detailed and horrific! I could not imagine being so brave to do such a thing! I am so proud of her courage to help prevent the house from burning down, at the expense of her own life! Wow! Glad the cistern was there to dunk under, then that she lived another 17 years… What an exciting part of your family’s saga, Luanne! Thanks for sending me that direction… Smiles, Robin

        • I guess that it is hard to read posts so far back… take care! Robin

          • Luanne

            I’m sorry, Robin. I’ve been beyond slammed at work lately. I can’t “get my head above water.” Yes, wasn’t that an amazing story? I couldn’t believe that something like that was just waiting for me in an old newspaper. It’s sad that even my mother never heard that story about her own great-grandmother. It shows how our stories don’t keep traveling very many generations at all!! Thanks so much for reading it. I’m so proud of her. Gee, maybe I ought to repost it some time over here . . . .

  10. I have to agree with you on this one, Luanne – he brought us to Ireland – some good, some bad, some ugly.

    • Luanne

      Some reallllllll ugly. Sigh. Shel, I can’t get the image out of my mind of them being lined up every time he came home drunk. And that wasn’t the worst thing BY FAR.

  11. I listened to Angela’s Ashes as an audiobook, with Frank McCourt as the narrator. Yes, it’s a very bleak story but somehow McCourt gives the book a lift through his own telling. I think I would have loved to have had him as a teacher 🙂

  12. Pingback: On Reading while Breastfeeding (or My Forgotten Love) | Writing to my Roots

  13. I’m almost done reading this, and I just LOVE it! It’s been a fun read while strapped to breastfeeding…as discussed in my latest blog post, (hope this link is okay). I linked to this post, too! Thanks for these thoughtful reviews!

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