In social situations, I often see myself as the last planet in our solar system. Like the theoretical Planet X, I revolve around the periphery, I take longer than anyone else to get around, and, even if I’m part of their system, no one else knows for certain whether I exist.
It takes three things to make a good memoir: interesting life experiences, deep insight (see above excerpt), and the ability to narrate with eloquence and honesty. In They Only Eat Their Husbands (a reference to a certain species of spider), Cara Lopez Lee gives us all three ingredients of great memoir.
Her early life, marked by parental neglect, abuse and abandonment, was one that few individuals could come through unscathed. In a sense, the memoir had to be written, if for no other reason then for the cathartic relief of getting all that hurt from childhood out and onto a printed page. But Cara Lopez Lee writes her story with such insight, eloquence and honesty that the finished product is a work of art, as well as a brilliant statement about life and love. There is humor in her writing (note the title), there is keen imagery. And ultimately this personal narrative, by an accomplished world-traveling journalist, author and editor, gives us an overriding truth. It’s the truth we need to know about confronting emotional pain and building strength of character upon it. And then getting to the part of life that brings satisfaction and self-acceptance.
“No one can go through the shame and humiliation of the job-hunt without being marked for life. I hated my first experience at it, and have hated every other since. There can be no freedom in the world while men must beg for jobs.”
Perhaps it’s a novel in the very strictest technical sense, but you will find Jews Without Money, by Mike Gold (published 1930), to be pure memoir. And that is fine, because the book is a valuable and unusual piece of memoir that everyone really ought to read, regardless of your religion or ethnic background. The book is not about a particular race or religion. It is about poverty, and all the various immigrant groups that were squeezed onto New York’s Lower East Side shared equally in that tale of misery. In fact, Gold’s overriding philosophy throughout his life as a socialist/Marxist journalist was simply that poverty is the root of all evil, and that its scars never heal. The corollary proven by his book was that money is the root of all poverty. (**My blog entries for April 6, 2014 and January 11, 2015 discuss other fine works of fiction dramatizing the plight of the American working class in the early 1900’s.)
Besides the gritty, unadorned frankness with which Gold told the story of his childhood, all its squalor and heartbreak, there is also artistic value to the book. Gold’s writing style is not just journalistic narrative. He puts things so succinctly and stunningly that his book reminds me more of Walt Whitman than any writer of prose from Gold’s era. Alfred Kazin’s introduction to Jews Without Money admires the book and its effective style greatly, but takes a dim view of Gold’s native intellect, reluctantly calling the author “not very bright”. I disagree: it takes a special type of genius to write something so powerful with such spare language. I think the book was a pioneering achievement, as a piece of history and a literary groundbreaker.