Friday, March 31, 2006


Escape in books

Frank Conroy's Stop-Time won out over Fever Pitch (which I'm starting tonight and will report back on sometime soon), and I finished reading it late last night. Stop-Time reminds me in several ways of journalist Rick Bragg's fine southern memoir All Over but the Shoutin', which I read a few years ago. In both the protagonists recount their early lives, their bizarre and broken family relationships, the struggle to break out of the powerlessness and brutality of childhood and finally escape as adults into the truth of the wider world. Both books use beautiful language to dispassionately describe often ugly life events as they unfold. Both books are so American. Here's a long passage from Stop-Time about the high school:

"The five-minute warning bell had rung. I sat with my ankles on the railing reading a novel about the Second World War. I should have used the time to do my homework, but the appeal of Nazis, French girls, K rations, and sunlight slanting through the forest while men attempted to kill one another was too great. I read four or five hours every night at home, but it was never quite as sweet as in school, when even a snatch read as I climbed the stairs seemed to protect me from my surroundings with an efficacy that bordered on the magical. And if the story dealt with questions of life and death, so much the better. How could I be seriously worried about having nothing to hand in at Math when I was pinned in a shallow foxhole, under a mortar barrage, a dead man across my back and an hysterical young lieutenant weeping for his mother at my side? I could not resist the clarity of the world in books, the incredibly satisfying way in which life became weighty and accessible. Books were reality. I hadn't made up my mind about my own life, a vague, dreamy affair, amorphous and dimly perceived, without beginning or end."

And here's a shorter passage about Frank Conroy's desire to be a writer, I particularly loved this:

"I read very fast, uncritically, and without retention, seeking only to escape from my own life through the imaginative plunge into another.... The real world dissolved and I was free to drift in fantasy, living a thousand lives, each one more powerful, more accessible, and more real than my own. It was around this time that I first thought of becoming a writer. In a cheap novel the hero was asked his profession at a cocktail party. 'I'm a novelist,' he said, and I remember putting the book down and thinking, my God what a beautiful thing to be able to say."

I'll cut this off without quoting Rick Bragg, but I may go back and re-read him soon. I love reading memoirs of childhood, particularly memoirs in which the author escapes or triumphs, no matter what form that escape takes (often success, fame even, or simply self-sufficiency), and I'm so glad I finally read Stop-Time - it's been on my mind for years. Looking at the beginning of Fever Pitch, I can see that I'm in for another such book, in a way.

Sounds like a great book-makes me want to read it:)
It's all part of my evil plan... to recommend books! promote reading! share the love! Mwuahahaha!

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