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Entries in Books (5)

Monday
Nov082010

Bury Me In My Jersey

Bury Me In My Jersey: A Memoir of My Father, Football, and Philly

Tom McAllister

Villard Books, 2010

I used to consider myself a pretty big Eagles fan.  Knowledgeable, passionate, and long-suffering, like so many others who call Philadelphia home.  But after reading Tom McAllister’s Bury Me In My Jersey, I feel like a bandwagoner who needs to be reinitiated.  In his first book, a memoir, McAllister pours fanaticism onto the page like a blitzing Eagles defense.  While detailing the often painful history of the franchise, he also comes to terms with his own pain, interweaving his story of self-discovery with the evolution of the team.  Coping with the loss of his father, who first taught him to love the Eagles, McAllister struggles to make sense of his obsession and how it shaped his identity. 

Bury Me In My Jersey is an honest, thoughtful book that tackles issues of manhood, grief, isolation, and love within the unique context of sports fandom.  While McAllister’s experiences are particular to Philadelphia and the Eagles, the challenges faced and lessons learned reach beyond provincial allegiances.  Anyone who knows the zeal of a true fan or has felt the loss of a loved one can relate to this story. 

As most people who follow the NFL might know, Philadelphia Eagles fans have a certain reputation throughout the country.  And while there is no mention of Santa Claus in Bury Me In My Jersey, there are plenty of scenarios that lend credence to the allegations that Eagles fans can be a rather unruly bunch.  But McAllister writes with such wit and self-awareness that even accounts of some of his more questionable behavior serve as points of insight and enlightenment.  One can’t become a man without making the mistakes of a boy, right? 

One of my favorite aspects of McAllister’s writing is his frequent use of footnotes.  They act as a sort of aside that allows for a deeper glimpse into the author’s thought process, often providing a chuckle along with their extra information.  Funny moments abound in Bury Me In My Jersey, and are helped along with some creative descriptions, my favorite a reference to former Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi as “date rapist smug.”  McAllister crafts some really great sentences, which can either make you laugh out loud, start to tear up, or just nod your head in appreciation as you reread them. 

I’ve read a lot of memoirs, and even studied them as a literature student, but this is the first time I have actually known the author personally.  I was a classmate of McAllister’s for eight years, we are still friends, and there are even a couple oblique references to me in the book.  This fact did allow me to appreciate some of the stories and references in a more personal way, but as a student of the genre, it intrigued me even further to analyze how McAllister recounted certain events with which I was familiar.  It was fun to think about what I would have included, left out, or emphasized if I had been writing about the same event.  The experience reiterated my love of memoir for its inherent subjectivity, and I felt like I was learning about Tom from a completely different angle.

Bury Me In My Jersey is an impressive example of modern memoir, especially for the distinct perspective achieved through the lens of Eagles fandom.  It’s a must-read for any Philadelphia fan, but is absolutely rewarding on many other levels.  The struggle to overcome grief, to learn how to be a man, and to own one’s identity is a journey that transcends football, and can teach each of us something about our own life story. 

Tom McAllister will be reading portions of Bury Me In My Jersey, as well as signing copies, this Wednesday, November 10, on campus at La Salle University.  The event, sponsored by the English Department, will start at 6:00 p.m. in the atrium of the Holroyd building.  

Monday
May032010

Sense Memory: The Smell of Smoke

Have you ever been transported by a smell?  Taken to a different time and place via the aroma of a favorite meal or a whiff of fresh-cut grass?  Then you have experienced sense memory*, a wonderful and powerful association forged between your olfactory senses and your hippocampus. 

The idea of involuntary memory has received plenty of treatment in the field of neuroscience, but it first found popularity in the writing of Marcel Proust, who in his semi-autobiographical opus In Search of Lost Time or Remembrance of Things Past described the experience of being transported to his childhood from the tasting of a madeleine. 

Sense memory has always been an interesting phenomenon for me, because I had experienced it even before I tried to tackle Proust, autobiography, and memory in grad school.  For me, there are a variety of smells that trigger a wave of nostalgia or bring into focus a fuzzy memory.  But by far the strongest is the smell of cigarette smoke.  

Now, the effect is not felt every time I am standing next to a smoker or even when I puff the occasional butt.  In fact, it almost has to happen in a very casual way, a small whiff catching me by surprise as I walk down the street.  It also helps when the weather is that perfect temperature to delicately augment the smell of burnt tobacco. 

When that perfect combination of warm air and exhaled smoke wafts past my nostrils, I immediately think of the boardwalk in Wildwood, New Jersey, where I spent many summer weeks as a child.  A myriad of associations flash through me in that one instant.  I can see the lights of the carnival rides, hear the clack of footsteps on the boards and the soft hiss of the ocean.  I am momentarily in the state of being at the shore. 

Wildwood Boardwalk, NJ Copyright L.RobThose initial sensory associations then give way to broader connections, as a whole stack of memories branch off from that primary moment.  I think about specific times at the boardwalk, like when a $20 bill just blew right onto my feet and I felt like the luckiest boy in the world, or holidays at my uncle's house, where he would always light up an after-meal Marlboro, or maybe an afternoon in high school, where friends would sneak a puff in the parking lot before catching their ride. 

This entire process, both the primary sensory reaction as well as the cascading associated memories, amazes me with its power and unpredictability.  On the whole, I consider my memory to be somewhat poor.  Ask me to recite a quote word-for-word or tell you the exact date of a shared experience, and I falter.  But with this type of sensory stimulus, I experience a clarity of memory unlike anything else. 

I have no doubt that the emotional or nostalgic ties to these sensory memories make them more accessible than if I try to concentrate on hard data.  And that's fine by me.  I'd rather be able to feel the delight of a child on vacation than know exactly when that vacation occurred. 

Have you experienced sense memory in a similar way?  What triggered it? 

*Sense memory is also sometimes called affective memory, and is associated with a school of method acting.

Monday
Apr262010

Michael Chabon: Manhood For Amateurs

Michael Chabon

Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son

Harper

October 6, 2009

Perhaps it was a mistake to approach Michael Chabon’s Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son as an autobiography.  I have a passion for memoirs and autobiographies, and I was excited to read one by an author whose fiction I admire and enjoy.  But in Manhood for Amateurs, Chabon does not depict himself as intimately as he does his characters, instead crafting a world of broad nostalgia, lamenting the death of imagination and the freedom of childhood. 

This problem of personal depth largely stems from the structure of the work.  It is presented in essay format, grouped nicely into ten sections with thematic commonalities.  None of the pieces are more than ten pages, indicative of the fact that all but one of the 39 essays were previously published in various magazines and newspapers.  This type of work does not easily lend itself to introspection. 

But while Manhood for Amateurs sometimes reads like an alternative parenting guide, with essays covering the “drug talk” and the “sex talk,” it also has plenty of insights into what it means to be part of a family.  Chabon’s view of fatherhood is summed up in the opening essay, “The Loser’s Club” – “A father is a man who fails every day.”  I think that is a perfect philosophy for anyone who wants to be a great Dad.  Many of the essays highlight Chabon’s close relationship with his four children, but I would rather hear more about the absent father whose affection is likened to a “tentative abruptness, like someone used to automatic transmission learning how to drive a stick shift.” 

My favorite essay is “The Story of Our Story,” which expertly weaves three episodes of Chabon’s life into an ode to brotherhood.  While recalling the births of his son and his nephew along with two nestled childhood incidents of getting lost, Chabon gets to the heart of what it means to have a brother, saying that the day of his brother’s birth was when his “story truly began.  Until my brother was born, I had no one to tell it to.”  Framing that discovery with the gladness that both his two sons and his brother’s two sons would get to experience that same special bond was really touching, and I called my brother soon after reading that piece. 

So while Manhood for Amateurs does not bloodily filet the personal pain of a man’s life, it gracefully touches on the successes and failures that come with being a man.  There are some good references to Chabon’s fiction writing, some funny passages about being a geeky loner, and a heartfelt longing for a time when “The Wilderness of Childhood” was alive and well.  Chabon might not give us a lens into his soul, but he gives us a long look at the habits and practices of a man who loves his family.

2.5 / 4 Stars

Recommended for: Fans of Chabon, New Fathers

Wednesday
Mar102010

Mary Karr: Lit

Marr Karr

Lit

HarperCollins

November 3, 2009

Mary Karr once again earns her place as one of the preeminent memoirists in the industry today with her recent book Lit.  Having set the world of autobiographical literature on fire with her gritty breakthrough effort The Liars’ Club in 1995, Karr now tackles the demons of alcoholism and a failed marriage.

In Lit, Karr inhabits the role she has been trying to exorcise her entire life, the uncompromising, alcoholic mother who damages her family in spite of every desire to protect them.  She takes the reader through the depths of her dependence on drink, into the struggle to let go and find peace, and eventually into her reluctant conversion to Catholicism.

I have to admit, I was wary when I realized this book could delve into the world of AA meetings and reliance on a higher power, because I wasn’t that interested in a salvation story.  But Karr does such a thorough job depicting the depths of her sins and the strength of her resistance to let anything good into her life, that by the time she is ready to accept a path to peace, so was I. 

She relates the arguments of an intellectual who has had no reason to believe in the power of God or organized religion in a way that is both subtle and realistic, and captures each tiny moment of surrender so that we know what a challenge it was.  For as much as Karr provides a dark chuckle through the repeated screw-ups of a young, emotionally damaged mother, I was happy to see her dragged kicking and screaming into a place of gratitude and understanding. 

As someone who has formally studied autobiographical literature, including The Liars’ Club, I consider Mary Karr a beacon of the genre, especially among women writers.  She avoids what are sometimes called “self-help memoirs” by writing from a deep place inside her that combines authenticity with artistry.  Her equal skill in poetry is evident in her image-driven prose, infused with the pluck of a Texan girl.  Each of the many mini-chapters is framed by a literary epigraph, from Keats to Nabokov, Homer to Hemingway, each passage informing not only the content of her story but her connection to the genre and the litany of authors who came before her.     

Her writing also provides a great example of what I call the “remembered self,” which is characterized by an understanding that memory is a sly mistress, and any attempt at autobiography is inherently subjective.  Karr knows this all too well, as the first line of the book reads, “Any way I tell this story is a lie.”  But the power of her memoir is not in fastidious fact-checking, it is in the ability to capture the transformation of self, from the fractured girl to the mother who is whole, in an honest and captivating way. 

Mary Karr’s Lit is ultimately more rewarding if you have read The Liars’ Club and Cherry, her previous memoirs.  The backstory of Karr’s mother Charlie and her knife-wielding breakdown are not as powerful in this installment, and need to be addressed by an author fifteen years younger.  But Lit is successful as a story of self-inflicted pain, of role fulfillment, and of conversion.

Thursday
Feb182010

Best American Guest Editors Announced

Dave EggersHere's a great way to persuade people in your home or office that you actually read more than US Weekly and What Would Tyler Durden Do.  Pick up one of the Best American anthologies published annually by Houghton Mifflin Harcout. 

Exclusively announced by Entertainment Weekly's Shelf Life yesterday, the list of 2010 Best American guest editors gives exciting insight into the direction this year's anthologies will take. 

Neil Gaiman for Comics?  A nerd's wet dream.  Peter Gammons for Sports Writing?  Classic expertise.  Eggers and Sedaris for Nonrequired Reading?  Two Daves for the price of one! 

The latter is my favorite title in the series, especially because Eggers takes input from his 826 Valencia writing workshop students. All of the titles are easy to love, because most of the selections are short, and can be picked up for a few minutes here or there. 

So make a note to preorder your favorite Best American 2010 anthology.  Keep it in the bathroom or your cubicle, and impress friends and coworkers with your up-to-date appreciation of great literature.