A Butterfly Net, Not a Story

I had a nightmarish image come to mind today. My gravestone popped up right in front of me. On it was carved:

She never met a memoir she didn’t like.

Although I’ve been selecting memoirs to review by pulling books haphazardly off my shelf, maybe I’ve been drawn to choose my favorites. To keep that gravestone from being carved (in the far distant future) with those words, I’m going to share a book I have mixed feelings about.

June Jordan’s Soldier: A Poet’s Childhood certainly has the subject matter for an enthralling tale. The daughter of Jamaican immigrants, Jordan (1936-2002) learned to love literature from her loving and abusive father. She grew up in New York at a time when her life experience covered some dramatic changes in the lives of African- and Caribbean Americans.  The book was “A Best Book of 2000” by both the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post.

The details of her memories are those of a poet, and therefore rich and evocative. Her story is personal and specific, but also important as an addition to the voices of People of Color in this country.

But the book has no real sense of being a memoir. The very difficult work of memoir is forging all those bits of one’s life into a compelling narrative.  Instead, Jordan catches them like butterflies in a net and lets them flit off each other from one fragment to the next.  While I found her life fascinating, I had to struggle to keep the momentum because there was no urgency or tension or cohesion to the story. Maybe that is an overstatement.  At least, there wasn’t enough of those elements to satisfy this reader.

I did learn from reading this book. It showed me just how much I want to create a thickly textured and urgent story in my own memoir.

The book would be a wonderful source of material for a biographer of Jordan–or for a literary critic who is writing about the poet. But for an engaging nonfiction read, I would choose a different book.

29 Comments

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

29 responses to “A Butterfly Net, Not a Story

  1. I have not read this book. Maybe it would go well with Jordan’s poems?

  2. Writing a memoir is hard work. If you have mixed feeling about this one – why not consider it a poetic remembrance and “She never met a memoir she didn’t like.” still applies.

    • Luanne

      Karen, hahaha, good try! Well, actually, yes. It really isn’t a memoir–not according to what I think a definition of memoir is–which is a darn good story, like a novel, but factual.

  3. I like your frankness when you tell how the book affected you as you were reading it. Some books are not page turners but they still have a certain value. We’ve come to expect page turners – maybe that says something about our lifestyle.

    • Luanne

      Anneli, I’m not sure. I do think there needs to be a certain amount of tension that increases and decreases at the right moments in a book-length read. Otherwise, it’s really a story collection of pieces which can be read individually.

  4. Ellen Morris Prewitt

    I have a poet’s memoir on my shelf at home that I keep meaning to pull out and re-read to see how the author kept my interest using small vignettes rather than a plotted narrative. Unfortunately, I’m not at the house so I can’t give you the name (i’m terrible about this – it was my favorite book for a while!), but this post has renewed my commitment to do so. Thanks so much for this continuing series – it is wonderful.

    • Luanne

      Thanks for staying tuned, Ellen! Definitely check out what book it is and let me know. I think this is my current mission–to discover what full-length stories are good even if they aren’t tension-driven narratives.

  5. Luanne, I like your honesty about this memoir. It trails back to our discussion on the importance of writing and story. Over and over again, I find that the most compelling reads need good writing, but also a narrative that gives us a desire to keep flipping the page.

    • Luanne

      Rudri, that’s what I am really getting from my reaction to this book. Without that urgency to flip the page, why keep moving forward through that book when I have a stack of books on the end table to read?

  6. Memoir writing really is so very difficult and challenging. It must have been even more so for someone who writes poetry!

    • Luanne

      Some of the best memoirs I’ve read have actually been written by poets, people who always write poetry, or lyrically-inclined prose writers. Mary Karr, for instance, is also a poet. That’s just to choose one, but I think there is a connection between writing poetry and writing memoir. But there should also be a connection between writing memoir and writing a novel. Otherwise, the memoir isn’t really a memoir, I don’t think. It’s something else. A meditation?

  7. I appreciate your honest review, Luanne. Yikes, an image of your gravestone…that would freak me out a little. 🙂 Happy Friday!

  8. I am like you, it is hard ‘not to like’ what I read. I think that you have a good point, though, when you mentioned that you choose the ones you probably will like so there is a little bit of pre-planning or foreshadowing your approval of each memoir you have read! I do like the humor in the gravestone and am glad you don’t seem upset or afraid of the dream! I like almost every movie I go to, although I do ‘pan’ a few in my comments to others and don’t focus on them in my posts. I don’t write about ‘bad’ movies, or rarely do! Smiles, Robin

    • Luanne

      That’s the way I tend to be with movies, too. We mostly watch them at home, and my husband will choose something earlier in the day for us to watch that night (he’s a remote freak, plus I am not a TV person, so he’s on it earlier in the day and I am not). Then we start to watch it and he immediately falls asleep. then I keep watching it because in almost every movie I find something to like! xo

      • I am so glad that we share this trait! I was going to check your “Angela’s Ashes,” post but wondered if you had ever seen the movie? Today, (Tues. 4/29) I put it on ‘hold.’ I am going to reread this book, then move to the next one in Frank McCourt’s ‘series,’ the book, “‘Tis.” (‘Tis is written in 1999.) if you cannot see the little ‘. Anyway, I have a guy friend, Mark, at work, that recommended I reread the first then move to the #2 book, and the last one is called, I think, “Bad Teacher.” I just got the first two sitting on the library computer desk. Did you like his #2 Memoir? It is starting with the words, “That’s your dream out now.” He goes on to say, this is what his mother would say when one of their dreams came true… I thought I would ask about the books and see if they are as powerful as the first one! I read it awhile ago! Smiles, Robin

        • Hope this comment wasn’t too long or since not on the correct post, you could delete and edit it, Luanne!

          • Luanne

            No problem, Robin. No, I haven’t seen the movie OR read the other books by McCourt. They are definitely on “my list,” but not up at the top, so it maybe be awhile!

  9. This is a well written post, Luanne. I can not comment on the above book as I have not read it, however, I will attempt to!

    • Luanne

      Oooh, I can’t wait to hear what you think. I wonder if it’s just me, since the book was on those book lists. On the other hand, maybe they thought they should like it since it was written by a famous poet ;).

  10. I laughed within the first lines of this post! Keep those reviews coming. I’ve read Angela’s Ashes and Zippy because of you. Much preferred the former, but the latter was fun, too (not sure “fun” was the right modifier for Angela’s Ashes…). I guess Zippy felt a little random to me…I couldn’t pick out a storyline progressing or really building to anything, but maybe with my scattered “mom mind,” I missed something really brilliant. I didn’t research the author, but by her book bio it looked like she eventually got a religious degree? Is that why she pokes fun at religion so much in the book? The irony?

    • Luanne

      Interesting re Zippy. What I got out of her stuff about religion was the same thing as with the people–she’s madly in love with all of them, but as a kid she didn’t realize she was. That was her form of “rebellion,” a kind of pulling back and seeing things through a cynical eye, but the truth is that she wouldn’t have changed one of those people or the ugly crafts or the religion she was steeped in.

      • Thanks for your take on Zippy; that’s probably a more accurate read than mine. I think I was reading with half attention. If I were to go back and reread, I’m sure I’d see it differently.

        • Luanne

          A friend of mine just posted on Goodreads that she gave Zippy a 3 out of 5. So you’re not alone, but I’ve heard a lot more people loving it than not. Maybe it’s what is going on in our lives at the time that determines what kind of book appeals to us?

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