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Friday, January 11, 2008

On Reading Memoirs

I've been thinking lately about my love of reading a good memoir, and how that seems to have transferred into my newfound love of reading a good blog. It got me reflecting on a time in my life when my fascination with reading about other people's lives was at a peak, especially when written in and about other cultures.

I was quite pregnant with Sean-Peter when we moved to Italy, and shortly after arriving John left on a TDY for over two months ... I was lucky: he didn't leave until the day after the movers delivered our stuff, and he got back in time for the delivery of our third child.

Despite my burgeoning belly I pretty much hit the ground running. I ended up forming fast friendships with amazing women that I had met on the rotator (military flight) and at the Lodging Facility on base, friendships that continue to this day despite the various states and continents where we all now live. Such is the military life.

It's so easy to get to know people when you're based overseas: almost everyone has left their established friends and family and routines ... and often the type of Americans who are overseas are there because they requested it, and they're not only open to new people and experiences but are actively seeking them. (There are the "other" types as well, such as the Americans who are miserable every moment of their waking lives they spend on foreign soil, very often for justifiable reasons, very often for not.) (But I digress.)

Like I said, I was quite pregnant and my husband soon abandoned me. Oh, woe me! After I picked myself up off the floor everything seemed to fall into place and I quickly found myself getting involved with the Parent Co-op on base where I could take one-year-old Olivia while I went to my OB appointments and otherwise drove around getting lost, a necessary experience in a country that purposefully arranges road signs to create optimum confusion.

I also used this time to take an Italian class on base, figuring it'd be good to get that out of the way before the baby was born and I hunkered down. Because I hunker down when I have a baby. None of this pushing the baby out then training for a marathon a week later. I took this basic Italian course with an instructor who, poor thing, thought she could teach a bunch of stay-at-home moms who hadn't seen the inside of a classroom in a coon's age beginning conversational Italian through immersion. Heh-heh. We soon showed her.

What I took away from that class was basic Italian pronunciation so I could at least read the road signs that never take you where they say they will; and basic sentence structure (think "Run, Spot, Run") along with a few key vocabulary words so I could respond to Italians' questions about my children. Because Italians love children. Nothing improves the surly Italian countenance like a couple of tots. A newborn baby? You are in.

Si, si, ho tre bambini. Mia figlia ha uno anno e mio bambino ha tre messi. Si, si, e ho un altro bambino e ha nove anni. E studia in scuola italiana! Si, si, molto bene!

Yea. That's about it. Needless to say, I relied heavily on hand gestures. And what's even more pathetic is I just had to call Conner over here to see if I had even written that down right.

I figured that so long as I wasn't going to get out to see the Italy I was living in, I would at least sit at home and read about it. I read every memoir set in Italy that I could get my hands on. Oh! the joys of a tasty memoir! They are my favorite type of reading, when an author looks back on his/her life and writes with a selective memory, only dishing out the juiciest, funniest, most interesting, most poignant parts.

Phil Doran's "The Reluctant Tuscan",> Marlena de Blasi's "A Thousand Days in Venice", Joan Marbles "Notes from an Italian Garden", Lisa St. Aubin de Teran's "A Valley in Italy" .... And, yes, Francis Mayes "Under the Tuscan Sun", which is a bit over-hyped in my humble opinion. Especially since by then I had already read so many other books written by people who actually lived in Italy.

By the way, when I went to look up some of these titles again I came across this site that lists a plethora of novels set in Italy, if you're interested in more of this kind of thing:

I got to thinking about what started my love for memoirs when another blogger encouraged everyone to take a day off from blogging! and read again already. Then share what you read that day on your own blog and we can all, you know, get some great book ideas. Not that I spent yesterday actually reading any of the above titles ... (Oh, and I guess I broke the "rule" of not blogging, too, heh-heh) but I did recently read another great memoir, Amy Tan's "The Opposite of Fate: A Book of Musings" which has gotten me on a kick of reading the rest of her books, which I picked up from the library a couple of days ago.

Currently I am reading Amy Tan's "The Hundred Secret Senses", which I realized immediately after starting that I actually have already read it, several years ago. But in her "Musings" Amy Tan divulged her driving incentives in creating many of her characters, which often are an amalgam of fiction as well as people in her own life about whom she shares in her memoir, which is making me read "Senses" in a whole new light. I didn't actually care too much for "The Joy Luck Club", though I loved the film version. I did, however, thoroughly enjoy "The Kitchen God's Wife", and now that I know it is essentially the "real" story of her mother's life I am enthralled by its telling even more.

What these books do for me, these memoirs, is allow me to experience pieces of someone's life through their own eyes. It broadens my horizons, yes, but it also prepares me for my own experiences and broadens them in a way that couldn't fully be appreciated without the knowledge that I came away with after reading theirs first. Their telling of their lives enhances the experiences of my own.

I did eventually get beyond the "hunker down" mode, of course -- though do not underestimate the exhaustion you will experience when traveling in Europe with wee ones, oh ye of mighty ambition. Take heed, and adjust your goals accordingly. Ahem and Amen.

I noticed things during my time in Italy that I probably would not have noticed had I not spent my hunker-down time with a nursing baby in one arm and a memoir in another. It almost felt like cheating. "Did you know that three-wheeled contraption these old Italians like to drive around and slow everyone down is called an Ape?" I would say to my son and an American friend, both of whom attended Italian school. "Because their motor sounds like a bee, which of course is English for Ape." They would look at me in amazement, like I really knew what I was talking about, this mom they knew spoke only pidgen Italian.

I often miss the trees for the forest, in my own living and traveling and bumbling around. Many, many times I would read something someone else had written and would realize, "Oh, yea, I saw that, too!" I've often thought how I could be such a better writer if I could give careful notice to and mentally catalogue the details of everything I see, the better to vividly record them later for posterity.

And I am getting better with that, with age, and experience, and with this blog. And I think reading memoirs -- some in the form of a blog themselves -- have helped me to pay attention to what is real, and what is important. And sometimes, to what is real important. Besides just being a whole lot of fun to read.


Cherilyn said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Cherilyn said...

This entry summarizes why you are the perfect military wife. Other people's lives intrigue, inspire and energize you! For me, hunkering down energizes me after I have been too long exposed to other people's lives! I agree wholeheartedly that it is easy to miss what is important while lost in the obvious and immediate. I think we all long for our lives to be significant and memoirs and blogs remind us that significance comes in the details, not the destination. Every moment counts.

the dragonfly said...

I had a hard time when we first got to Germany..I wanted to get out and make friends, but I was pregnant and had preterm labor so I was stuck on the couch/in bed. But once the Little Mister was born and I could venture out I made some great friends! They've been a huge help...having my first child far away from family and friends was scary, but we've been doing quite well. :)

I read a lot when I was pregnant too, but I mostly fell back on re-reading old favorites. Sort of like a security blanket.

judy said...

I loved this blog, I'm going to have to re-read a few times but . . .

I think you are saying . . . Live, Look, Learn, Listen, Love and then Write.

Carmen said...

I love your summary "Judy!"

Jolyn said...

Um, yea. You definitely said it better than I did. Since I KINDA ended up rambling, just a tad.

Jerilyn said...

You weren't really rambling, you were memoiring out loud (so to speak). Anyway, I loved it too, and also thought "Judy" did a good summary.