I think that I could probably subsist on a reading diet of first novels. Finding a new writer whose work I love reassures me that the end of storytelling is nowhere near. I felt this way recently when I encountered Jennifer DuBois’s Partial History of Lost Causes on the shelves of my local book store. Two people find their lives intersecting: a former chess prodigy who decides to challenge Vladimir Putin for the Russian presidency and an American woman in her 20s who knows her life is going to be cut short by Huntington’s disease. We are first introduced to Aleksandr Bezetov in 1979, when he arrives in what was then Leningrad to attend a chess academy. We meet Irina Ellison in 2006, shortly after her father’s difficult death from the genetic disease that will likely kill her, too. When she discovers in her father’s papers an old (and apparently unanswered) letter from her father to Bezetov asking him how he copes with those games he knows he’s going to lose, she decides on the spur of the moment to go to Russia and see if she can confront Bezetov and have him answer her father’s question. I can’t remember reading another novel—at least not recently—that’s both incredibly intelligent and also emotionally engaging. I really cared about Irina and Bezetov: their attempts to outrun (or at least accept) their individual fates was both moving and tragically real.
Archive May 2012
I know that the first two letters of “memoir” spell “me,” but the kind of memoir I like best is one that goes beyond being simply a personal account but rather tells a larger story. The Map of My Dead Pilots by Colleen Mondor (Lyons Press, 2012) does exactly that. From 1993 to 1997 the author worked as the dispatch coordinator for an air transport company headquartered in Fairbanks, Alaska. This isn’t a neatly narrated, chronological account with a clean beginning and a clear end. Rather, in lyrical, impressionistic prose she relates the stories she tells of the pilots she knew—some still living and some now dead—to the myth and the reality of Alaska. It’s a story of danger, of loss, of courage of unsavory landing strips and forbidding mountains, of delivering mail and making mercy flights, of adrenaline and prayer, of unpredictably changeable winds and oncoming storms, of snow, of difficult decisions, of good fortune and bad luck, and, always, of the unbelievable cold. But it’s also about why we choose the lives we do, how we rewrite our pasts to make sense of ourselves to the person we’ve become, what we choose to remember and how and why we forget what we do: it’s about mythmaking, storytelling, and memory. Mondor says: “If I remember the stories, then I know the life I lived was true; I know it happened; I know that once upon a time this is was who we were and how we lived.”