After I signed up for Iceland Writers Retreat, it occurred to me that I should probably be familiar with the writing of the featured authors who will be leading the workshops. That probably should have occurred to me before I committed, but if stories needn’t be linear, why should life be? At first I wasn’t going to blog about them, because if it’s awkward critiquing your friend’s book on the internet, how much worse would it be to criticize a future teacher? But I can’t read critically unless I know I’m going to have to type those thoughts later, so here goes.
The last book I read was Leonora Carrington’s The Hearing Trumpet, a surrealist novel whose protagonist is a 92-year-old woman. So when I saw that featured author Iain Reid’s latest book, The Truth About Luck: What I Learned on My Road Trip with Grandma, was a travel memoir of a vacation with his 92-year-old grandmother, I knew where I had to start.
For the first time ever, Seattle Public Library didn’t have what I was looking for, so I bought the e-book. It was a short, quick read, written in a casual, almost bloggy style. The advertised road trip turned out to be more of a staycation, so the anticipated adventures with Grandma (what was I expecting, Hoodwinked?) was a little more Tuesdays with Morrie.
Confession: I haven’t actually read Tuesdays with Morrie, but I think the approach is similar, as Reid’s book is one with very little action and a lot of interesting conversation.
Memoir, especially in the casual language that Reid uses, could easily fall victim to the kind of navel gazing to which bloggers like me are prone. The greatest strength of the book is the way that Reid’s memoir isn’t really about him. It’s pretty daring to try to stretch a whole book out of a week’s worth of chatting with your grandma, but his focus on the life and wisdom of a really interesting woman gives it substance. Sometimes in the middle of relating a bland conversation in which no one is particular about what to do next and everyone agrees about the weather (is it the patronizing way that young people and old people humor each other or just Canadian politeness?) Reid’s grandmother will launch into a story from her early life. These stories always have the immersive feeling of movie flashbacks. I hope he goes on to write a novel based on his grandmother’s experience in WWII and the novel gets made into a movie, just so that I can watch the reunion in Italy scene on the big screen.
Reid also avoids the trap of making himself too perfect. In fact, he was so up front about his flaws that sometimes I started to wonder why I was supposed to care about him. (The answer, of course, is that I’m not really supposed to – this book is about his grandmother.) His self-deprecation shared the same kind of humor as Augusten Burroughs; but Burroughs’ crazy life justifies a bundle of neuroses as big as Woody Allen’s, while Reid claims to have a relatively normal life. I know that if I promised someone a road trip and ended setting them up in the spare bed at my apartment for a week, I would be ashamed to tell anyone, let alone confess it in a book. I would have to frame the story as a “visit” if I had the nerve to tell it at all – although I don’t blame him in the least for freaking out about the house centipede. Maybe Reid chose to exaggerate his hang ups to create a contrast to his grandmother’s fearless zest for life. An offhand reference to his last trip to Iceland hints that he isn’t really as much of a shut-in as he paints himself.
When I was little, I loved sitting on the bed listening to my mom and my grandma tell old family stories. The most mundane events of decades ago were as interesting for the way people stay the same as they were for showing how things have changed. Even though my grandma was married with four kids when his was landing on Italian beaches with soldiers, Reid’s memoir was a lot like those childhood evenings soaking up family history.
We seldom think of our own lives as being particularly interesting; but really, all history is family history. Careful observation and good storytelling unearth gems in even the most mundane events, which are never far removed from the big events. You don’t need snakes on a plane to create tension; with craft, a bug in an apartment will do. Still, waking up next to a landmine doesn’t hurt.