I Remember

Hi. I’m sorry I haven’t posted for a while. I was moving, traveling, and generally shifting my life for a month and didn’t have Internet for most of that time. Starting now, I should be back on track!

I Remember by Joe Brainard

publication date: 1975
pages: 144
ISBN: 014024521

In this slim book, Joe Brainard blurs the lines between poetry and memoir. I Remember is composed of disparate statements all starting with the phrase “I remember . . .” These rememberings encompass all of Brainard’s life up to that point, from his young childhood in the 1940s and 50s to living on the East Coast in his thirties. Brainard uses this format to connect with the reader by revealing universal, yet individual, truths.

Some of the passages were very effective. Here are a few:

I remember rubbing my hand under a restaurant table top and feeling all the gum.

I remember when a Negro man asked me to paint a big Christmas picture to hang in his picture window at Christmas and I painted a white madonna and child.

I remember a little boy down the street. Sometimes I would hide one of his toys inside my underwear and make him reach for it.

I remember taking an I.Q. Test and coming out below average. (I’ve never told anybody that before)

I remember those times of not knowing if you feel really happy or really sad. (Wet eyes and a high heart)

He also included several passages about his sexual past and present, including late night fumblings with young women and men. These passages imbued the book with an aura of vulnerability.

Overall, however, I found the book to be dull. There’s only so many times I can read about something banal but universal, like cinnamon toothpicks or movie theaters. It’s possible the book would have been more satisfying if I read it randomly and in short bursts, instead of reading it all the way through like I did. Also, for how relatable the book could be, I didn’t think it was very insightful. Maybe it was because some of Brainard’s statements were just so ordinary that they couldn’t be extrapolated to other lives or experiences. I’m not quite sure.

This book wasn’t bad, but I wouldn’t recommend it unless you have some special interest in it. Like if you are a poetry buff or are going through some of the experiences Brainard did, such as coming out.

3/6: more good than bad

Some other reviews of this book:

she is too fond of books
The Guardian

Life Itself

Life Itself: A Memoir by Roger Ebert

pages: 415
publication date: 2011
ISBN: 978-0-446-58497-5

I was late to learn about the rich and varied life led by film critic Roger Ebert. Of course I was familiar with the thumbs-up/thumbs-down system he created with Gene Siskel to rate movies. But beyond that, I didn’t know much. I didn’t know about his extensive body of written work. I also didn’t know that his bout with cancer in 2006 left him unable to speak, eat, or drink. After he passed away in April of this year, the Internet was brimming with tributes and memorials about Ebert. Many of these contained excerpts from his memoir, Life Itself. The excerpts were always winsome and charming. So I decided to pick up his memoir and read it in full. (By the way, although the subtitle of Life Itself is “A Memoir,” the book reads more like an autobiography than a memoir.)

Although the excerpts I had read were captivating and inviting, the book as a whole fell somewhat flat. First of all, Ebert was an unabashed list-er. He listed everything from the TV shows he watched with his father to people he interviewed and later became friends with. And if Ebert was a consummate lister, I am a consummate list-skimmer. So, whenever a passage contained a list, my mind went on auto-pilot until I noticed that blessed serial comma and focused on Ebert’s writing again. Also, the book contained a lot of material about celebrities and other members of the Hollywood crowd. Many of the people Ebert discussed I had never heard of, but even when I had, I didn’t really care that they drank Heinekens or had mommy issues. These incidental details would give Life Itself a sodden, plodding feel.

The book was at its best during the chapters when Ebert described his own life and feelings. In the first chapter, Ebert is describing his childhood home and running up and down the hallway from the living room to his bedroom. The passage is personal, yet universal. Ebert explains that he returned to his childhood home years later and “saw that the hallway was only a few yards long. I got the feeling I sometimes have when reality realigns itself. It’s a tingling sensation moving like a wave through my body. I know the feeling precisely.” In another similarly satisfying passage, Ebert is discussing the conversations he has with an old friend. Ebert says, “Our conversations all take place in the present tense. We are always meeting for the first time. When you’re young you don’t realize that at every age you are always in the present, and in that sense no older.” The passages like these – the personal, reflective, inquisitive passages – were what gave the book life and wonder.

Life Itself has a lot to offer. Readers who are movie buffs, fans of Ebert, or who enjoy reading about celebrities will find a lot to love in the pages of Life Itself. And Ebert’s prose is often bright and funny. As someone who seemingly lived a life full of travel, melancholy, love, and adventure, Ebert had a lot of wisdom to impart to anyone willing to read his works.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews:

Entertainment Weekly
National Post
npr