Monday, 4 June 2018

Reading Challenge Week 22 - A Memoir or Journal

Memoirs, journals and diaries - they're all true stories, told from the perspective of the person who lived through those events. A memoir looks back at those events from older eyes, but a journal or a diary was probably written right in the thick of it, so the formats provide different perspectives.

Autobiographies are a step removed again. They tend to tell the story in the bigger picture of a person's whole life, while memoirs are sharply focused on a particular part of that life, or on particular events that happened. Depending, of course, on who wrote them, they can all be thoroughly fascinating to read.

Which is why we hope you found something fascinating for this week's Reading Challenge. We did.

Brenda Carter read The illustrated Pepys: Extracts from the diary, by Samuel Pepys (edited by Robert Latham).

These days memoirs are usually written for public consumption, but Samuel Pepys wrote only for himself.  Written between 1660 and 1669, The illustrated Pepys: Extracts from the diary edited by Robert Latham (942.066092 PEP/LAT) offers a rich account of everyday life, with a personal and uncensored perspective on royal, government and social affairs. 

The Great Fire and Plague of London, as well as the return of Charles II, are described in vivid and compassionate detail. Although the progression of Pepys’ career as a civil servant in the Admiralty features strongly throughout, Pepys is primarily an observer of people – his family, friends and the personalities of the day. He wrote in shorthand for privacy, and took extra precautions when writing about his sexual adventures, adding elements from different languages.

It is uncertain why Pepys wrote the diary. He stopped due to problems with his eyesight (probably astigmatism), fearing that too much writing would send him blind. One editor has described him as “obsessively and compulsively systematic”, with “a passion for order” and a “concern for arranging his books in size”. Is it any wonder he appears on this blog? 

He also left an impressive library of over 3000 volumes. Pepys’ optimism, spontaneity and curiosity shine through. He was what one would call a ‘cultivated man’, with an interest in books, music, the theatre and science. This collection of selected entries (obviously translated) is an enjoyable and somewhat voyeuristic read, complemented by prints from the period.

Sharon Bryan read Persepolis 2, by Marjane Sartrapi.

When I reviewed Persepolis back in Week 19, I mentioned that the book fit into multiple categories in our Reading Challenge - including "Memoir". I had wondered if I should save it for this week, because it's not very often you get to review a graphic memoir ("graphic" as in "illustrated", not as in "graphic violence" and/or " graphic sex"), but then I remembered there was a sequel, so now I get to review both books!

In the first Persepolis, we followed Marjane's life as a pre-teen girl in Iran during the cultural revolution and the war with Iraq. At the end of that book, when she was 14 years old, her parents shipped her off to Austria to try to keep her out of trouble, because they didn't want her to be less feisty, but they knew her feistiness could get her killed. Persepolis 2 (955.054 SAT) picks up with the 14 year old Satrapi in Austria, as she struggles with finding a secure place to stay and a stable environment to grow up in - not a good situation for a young girl going through a formative period of her life.

After a series of misadventures and failed relationships sends her into a spiral, Marjane returns to her family in Iran. There she discovers that society has become even more oppressive than it was when she left. She grows older, she grows up a bit more and she eventually comes to realise that she doesn't really belong in Iran any more (at least, not the way the country has become), and by the end of the book she realises she has to leave again - but this time on more sure footing.

It is a more "grown up" story than the one we found in the first Persepolis - because it has to be. The first book was told through the eyes of a child who was growing into a teenager. The second through the eyes of a teenager who was growing into a young woman. It's a different world, in it's own way, but I can't imagine reading the first book and not following through to the second.

Nathan Miller read The tears of strangers: A memoir by Stan Grant.

Stan Grant is a journalist. He has worked internationally for networks like CNN. He is articulate and poised. Stan Grant is also from a rural and poor background, like many of our students, and he was the first in his family to go to university. He is also an Aboriginal person.

I like Stan Grant for a variety of reasons. I agree with much of what he says - not all - but the thing I greatly admire is he is happy to have an open debate and reveal his weaknesses, his moral traps and binds, his own personal conflicts that create his understanding. In essence, I enjoy the honesty of his opinions and the way he grounds them, even when I disagree.

I read Stan Grant’s memoir (which can be found at 305.89915 GRA) partially as my family and friends (mainly other Aboriginal people) always held up Stan Grant, and his wife at the time, Karla Grant (another Aboriginal journalist), as role models of successful Aboriginal professionals. There is often an idea that some people, because of their racial background and modest beginnings, are not able to be successful, but Stan and Karla disproved this.

The first few pages of the memoir blew me away with Stan clearly pointing out the ambiguities inherent in being a successful Aboriginal Australian. The later pages resonated both with successful survival of his family, hard personal decisions made, but in the end choices that make the difference between struggle and comfort, and the acknowledgement of his white ancestry. He didn’t steer away from noting when his personal choice was a reason for bad outcomes. Other issues, like lateral violence and identity politics, are also touched on. 

It is a great read because it touches frequently on the questions from both other Aboriginal people and other Australians: Why do you say you are Aboriginal? Why are you successful but other people aren’t? Why do you look the way you do? What do you think?  Where are you from? Stan Grant not only has an interesting life and family story, but as a professional fact based story teller - a journalist - he keeps you interested, enlightens you, but stays frankly truthful.

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