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[Monday Reading] #NYRBBookClub Memoirs (Of Sorts)

Memoirs (Sorta) by O'Brien and Mitford.


It's Monday! What Are You Reading

Myra here.

It’s Monday, What are You Reading is a meme hosted by Jen from Teach Mentor Texts and Kellee and Ricki from Unleashing Readers (new host of Monday reading: Kathryn T at Book Date). Since two of our friends, Linda from Teacher Dance and Tara from A Teaching Life have been joining this meme for quite awhile now, we thought of joining this warm and inviting community. 

One of the things that is keeping me sane these days is my active participation in the reading community of Litsy (see my posts here and here). I joined the #NYRBBookClub last year, and here are two novels we discussed early this year – I paired them here, since both have an autobiographical vibe to it, although the first one is supposedly fiction but drawn from the author’s real-life experiences.

A Way Of Life Like Any Other [Amazon | Book Depository]

Written by Darcy O’Brien Introduction by Seamus Heaney
Published by NYRB Classics (2001, first published 1977)
ISBN: 094032279X (ISBN13: 9780940322790). Literary Award: PEN/Hemingway Foundation Award (1978). Bought my own copy. 

Darcy O’Brien, a tenured professor at Pomona College by the time he published this novel, had Hollywood stars as parents; the narrator of this story, a teenage boy called Salty by his father, also had once-famous but considered-has-been movie stars as parents. The story started off with glitz and glamour, and gradually dwindled into the seedy, tiresome paean to a life-once-lived; with practically all the characters trying desperately to relive an existence that is, for all intents and purposes, finished.

Salty had exciting, vain, and self-absorbed parents – the archetype of Hollywood stars. While the story could have ended up with mere caricatures given the scathing, matter-of-fact portraits that O’Brien sketched, there is something terribly real and tragic in all the characters’ superficial connections, with no real intimacy, that inspires both awe and distaste from the reader. Yet, at its very essence perhaps is O’Brien attempting to make sense of his own “life, like any other” peopled with flawed, hurt, irksomely-beautiful beings who have spent their entire lives being actors, that there seems to be nothing authentic left in their personal relationships: everything a performance, a fodder for gossip, or the next best thing. One could even argue that what Salty may have experienced as a child, as awe-inspiring and fantastical as it may appear on the outside, was a form of child abuse: the neglect, the obliviousness of his parents, and how he was essentially left to fend for himself. While I did not find myself connecting at all to any of the characters, this supposedly light hearted novel left me feeling sad.

Hons And Rebels [Amazon | Book Depository]

Written by Jessica Mitford Introduction by Christopher Hitchens
Published by NYRB Classics (2004, first published 1960) ISBN: 1590171101 (ISBN13: 9781590171103). Bought my own copy of the book

I struggled with this memoir in the beginning. Mitford, like O Brien, lived a highly privileged existence. This is blue-blooded narrative, with attempts at self-definition, outright rebellion, and the inevitable rupture of family ties – but done only at one’s convenience, of course – all networks and connections kept intact to be exploited by any means necessary when dire circumstances called for it. Reading this memoir turned out to be fascinating as I slowly began to realize why there is a haughtiness often ascribed to British people – the disdain in the mixing together of social “classes,” and the certainty of innate superiority of a particular bloodline leading Jessica Mitford’s closest sister, Unity, to eventually become one of Hitler’s closest allies (Aryan races rule and all that racist jazz).

Mitford’s self-deprecating, almost-deliberately-naive, storytelling revealed the inner workings of an antiquated caste system that is so pervasive and dogmatically assured of its own righteousness that it leaves little room for science, formal education, and ‘diversity’ a cute little hashtag that can be dabbled with this year, but will need to be replaced with another equally popular term by next year. This quote encapsulates the life that Jessica Mitford was repelled by, leading her to run away from home, and elope with her cousin:

My parents would have been not so much shocked as blankly uncomprehending if anyone had accused them of ‘being snobbish.’ Snobbishness was, surely, by definition a middle class attribute, finding expression in an unhealthy desire to rise above one’s station, to ease oneself in where one wasn’t wanted, and in turn to look down superciliously on those below one in the social scale. My parents would not have dreamed of looking down on anyone; they preferred to look straight ahead, caring not at all if this tended to limit their vision. Neither were they social climbers, for they rather disliked really ‘smart’ society. (p. 59)

Yet, at its very core, this is a love story. There is vulnerability towards the end that I found to be genuine and deeply moving, reminding me to strip off my own personal judgment and bias, allowing me to finally connect with Mitford in the last few pages of the story. I still wouldn’t consider myself a fan, though. I have little patience for the affectations of aristocracy, or the put-on airs of unearned nobility: easily pierced, this bubble.

Myra is a Teacher Educator and a registered clinical psychologist based in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates. Prior to moving to the Middle East, she lived for eleven years in Singapore serving as a teacher educator. She has edited five books on rediscovering children’s literature in Asia (with a focus on the Philippines, Malaysia, India, China, Japan) as part of the proceedings for the Asian Festival of Children’s Content where she served as the Chair of the Programme Committee for the Asian Children’s Writers and Illustrators Conference from 2011 until 2019. While she is an academic by day, she is a closet poet and a book hunter at heart. When she is not reading or writing about books or planning her next reads, she is hoping desperately to smash that shuttlecock to smithereens because Badminton Is Life (still looking for badminton courts here at UAE - suggestions are most welcome).

1 comment on “[Monday Reading] #NYRBBookClub Memoirs (Of Sorts)

  1. I am also grateful for my reading communities. This semester I am finally back to #imwayr (after a month of moving) and I’m teaching a children’s literature course at the college, so I get to chat with other readers pretty regularly. It’s a comfort, especially right now! On your books, at first I thought A Way of Life, Like Any Other was also an autobiography when I began reading the synopsis in Goodreads, so I was initially trying to figure out who the parents were in real life. Oops! In any case, thanks for the shares and I hope you have a fantastic reading week, Myra!


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