Monday, September 14, 2015

Why I Liked Jill Talbot's Memoir and You Might Too

When a book is forthcoming from an essayist whose work I've admired, I'm all in. I'll probably buy it and read it within the first few weeks it's available. That doesn't always mean I'll love it or even like it (even books that contain essays I've already read and liked don't always make the finest books), but in this case, I did. I do.

If you nose around the world of creative nonfiction, and especially if your favorite sandbox is the personal or narrative essay, you've either read or at least know of Jill Talbot's work. If not, you probably should (though I really hate using "should" when it comes to reading, so let's say I highly recommend her!).

Talbot's book, The Way We Weren't: A Memoir (published this summer), is now the handiest way to find so much of her fine writing all together. Here are a few things I found inside those covers that kept me interested. First, to my mind, it's a coherent collection of strongly linked, narrative essays that work both independently and as a whole, and together create an arc. And yet, there's an elliptical feel to it as well. A few chapters are in the third person—hard to pull off well in memoir, but effective here. All are positives in my list of reading and likes.

Next, several chapters are in borrowed forms— loneliness and longing expressed as a literature course syllabus; redacted legal letters concerning child support; courtroom transcript; addiction progression as wine list. Other chapters are segmented; I love the white space, the separations that strongly invite connection, the sense of seeing and understanding difficult parts of life in smaller increments, which to me is closer to how memory, reflection, and long-lens perspective actually work.

Finally, what grabbed me most was the voice and sensibility of the narrator; her willingness to be the multiply flawed human she is (we all are) on the page is both gripping and at the same time, smartly circumspect. Unlike some memoirists whose dysfunctional pasts seem to beg for (all the book's) attention on no other merits than that they happened, Talbot is able to weave a narrative that includes her mistakes as part of the wider story of a fuller life.

Did I also mention the writing is just terrific? Did I mention it was a book I read in two days, and not because I had the time? I only "know" Jill Talbot a tiny bit via friendly social media exchanges, and I know very well that reading someone's memoir doesn't mean you know that person. But the person who rises from these pages? She's someone I'd invite in for coffee. 


Ryder Ziebarth said...

I love Jill's essay work. And I have been anxious to read this book, as I have followed her via social media as well, catching her essay's whenever she posts them or places them in a literary magazine. I read her last memoir last year. Your review is exceptional, Lisa; "Flawed," yet "smartly circumspect," and "including her mistakes as part of a fuller life,"--is my kind of memoir, and only you could have reviewed this book so astutley. I'll read it this week.

marilee said...

Love your review, Lisa! Got caught up immediately and after finishing your review, I'm ordering Jill's book. I'm thinking your review reads like her memoir....well done. I'm going tot recommend it to my writing group which isn't writing at the moment, but we could read together. I'll keep you posted. Thanks for this.