Book Talk: Memoirs to remember

The best memoirs can tell the truth and reveal as much about the author as the subject at hand.

The truth we seek from fiction is far different from the truth we seek from other literary forms—novels can tell truths but cannot tell the truth. The best memoirs can tell the truth and reveal as much about the author as the subject at hand.

Goodbye to All That (1929) by Robert Graves, the esteemed poet and author of I Claudius and Claudius the God, is a raw, truthful and darkly comic work about his gritty experiences in the trenches of the First World War.

Patriotism did not exist in the trenches—only civilians believed in it. Those on the sharp end regarded patriotism as a remote sentiment at best. The author, commissioned as an officer in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, spent much of his time in the trenches on patrol at night in no-man’s land, on a personal quest to get wounded seriously enough to be sent back home to England.

In 1916 at the Battle of the Somme, Graves, a newly promoted captain, got more than he bargained for when he suffered severe wounds from German shell fragments. The stretcher-bearers gave him up for dead—reportedly he only survived when someone saw him breathing while being carried to burial.

Dispatches from the Sporting Life (2002) by Mordecai Richler is not your typical memoir. But the author’s final work gives us an intimate portrait of the man even while it pays homage to his personal heroes and celebrates a writer’s love of sport.

Richler, one of the best novelists this country ever produced, also wrote brilliantly about ice hockey, baseball, salmon fishing, bodybuilding and wrestling for such publications as The New York Times Magazine, Esquire, GQ , Inside Sports and The New York Review of Books.

The author himself chose the pieces for Dispatches from a Sporting Life and work includes encounters with Pete Rose, Wayne Gretzky and Gordie Howe that are by turns bizarre, poignant and uproarious. There are also remarkable pieces about Ring Lardner, George Plimpton, Hank Greenberg and female umpires, as well as a wonderful essay on his unbridled enthusiasm for the all-inclusive Encyclopedia of Jews in Sports.

Out of Africa (1937) by Isak Dinesen is a classic memoir. It is the true account of the author’s life on her Kenyan coffee plantation between 1914 and 1931.

Dinesen, the pseudonym of Karen von Blixen, writes with lyrical simplicity about the ways of the country and the indigenous people.

She tells us of the beauty of the Ngong Hills and coffee trees in blossom, and her guests, from the Prince of Wales to Knudsen, the old charcoal burner who visited her. The author gracefully writes about primitive festivals, of her big game neighbours such as lions, rhinos, elephants, zebras and buffaloes and Lulu, the small gazelle who came to live with her.

Out of Africa is not only about one woman’s story. It is also a beautiful, unforgettable portrait of Africa at the beginning of the 20th century and the political and environmental influences that affected it and continue to do so today.

These memoirs, and many others, are available at your Okanagan Regional Library,

– Peter Critchley is reference librarian at the Vernon branch of the Okanagan Regional Library, who writes a monthly book column for The Morning Star.