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Angela's Ashes : A Memoir () Top 100 Books of the Millenium

    My father and mother should have stayed in New York where they met and married and where I was
    born. Instead, they returned to Ireland when I was four, my brother, Malachy, three, the twins,
    Oliver and Eugene, barely one, and my sister, Margaret, dead and gone.

    When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable
    childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable
    childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.
           -Frank McCourt (Angela's Ashes)

When I was 16 years old and attending caddy camp on Nantucket Island, a VW van full of townie kids swerved and hit me.  Here's what I truly remember of the incident. I was walking back to camp from town one night with two other guys.  We were in the street because there were no sidewalks.  Hearing the van coming, the other guys got between parked cars, but I was right at the middle of a car so I couldn't.  Next thing I knew I collapsed to the ground, though not in much pain.  They took me over to a side street, laid me on the ground and someone called an ambulance.  With a crowd of recently adjourned movie-goers looking on, a doctor cut away some of my shorts and found a deep wound in my hip.  The mongoloids in the van had circled around the block and stopped by to to apologize, saying they just wanted to scare us.  Meanwhile, one of the guys I was with went and looked at the van, found flesh hanging from a door handle and when he touched it the handle fell off.  An ambulance took me to the Hospital where, as the nurses were about to cut the shorts all the way off, I was forced to explain that the black streaks on my underwear where from using them to polish our metal lockers at camp, not from incontinence.  Then I remember having to put the director of the camp on the phone because my Mom wouldn't believe my story.  That's it; that's all that I actually remember and some of that is already a little sketchy.  But ask me about the time I got hit in the butt by a Volkswagen Bus and I'll spin the tale out to an hour or more, in such convincing and minute detail that you'll swear I have total recall and if you hear me tell the story twice, you'll soon swear that you were there too.  Such are the vagaries of memory.

What then are we to make of the recent torrent of memoirs wherein authors recall entire conversations including tones and nuances, scents, sounds, shadows and so forth from when they were mere children?  Obviously we just can not accept them as non-fiction.  There was a time when every young writer was expected to start his career with a thinly veiled autobiographical novel, then, having gotten that out of his system, he could move on to writing genuine fiction, coming back in his dotage to retell the story of his early life in a memoir that was understood to be so far removed from the time of the events that it was inherently untrustworthy.  No one took these memories seriously, but the aged author had earned the right to put his own gloss on the misty past; only petty minds demanded total accuracy from these literary lions.  Now, however, everyone who picks up a pen writes a memoir of some kind or another, recreating their callow youths with such exacting specificity that it is impossible to believe a word they've written.  The only reason for this trend would seem to be the truly frightening level of voyeurism we've sunk to in recent years.  Like the glut of "reality" TV shows, the craze for memoirs appears to be based on the assumption that a story is more interesting if we think it's true.  One would hope that this is not necessarily the case and that in due time authors will return to writing coming of age novels which may leave us guessing what is fact and what is fiction, but have the honesty and the decency not to pretend that fiction is fact.

Which brings us to Frank McCourt's wonderful book, the mega best-selling, prize-winning, Angela's Ashes, a coming of age novel disguised as a memoir.  The reader's credulity is strained early on; here's a passage from when the family first gets to Ireland and is walking to McCourt's grandparents house:

    Dad set the twins on the road and held out his arms to Malachy.  Now the twins started to cry and
    Malachy clung to Mam, sobbing.  The cows mooed, the sheep maaed, the goat ehehed, the birds
    twittered in the trees, and the beep beep of a motor car cut through everything.  A man called from
    the motor car, Good Lord, what are you people doing on this road at this hour of an Easter Sunday

    Dad said, Good morning, Father.

    Father?  I said.  Dad, is that your Father?

    Mam said, Don't ask him any questions.

    Dad said, No, no, this is a priest.

    Malachy said, What's a ----? but Mam put her hand over his mouth.

    The priest had white hair and a white collar.  He said, Where are you going?

    Dad said, Up the road to McCourts of Moneyglass, and the priest took us in his motor car.  He said
    he knew the McCourts, a fine family, good Catholics, some daily communicants, and he hoped he'd
    see us all at Mass, especially the little Yankees who didn't know what a priest was, God help us.

Keeping in mind that he was about four years old at the time this occurred, we can believe that he actually remembers the priest's car, white hair and white collar, the rest is simply not a function of any genuine memory.  This is the thought that comes as you read, and it's unfortunate because the scene itself is charming.

The result though, of this pretending to remember all of the events of the book, and to remember them in such stunning detail, is that the sense of disbelief is omnipresent.  By the time he gets to the grand finale, where he gets the money to go to America by stealing it from the dead money lender who he works for,  we've so little faith in him as a narrator that, even if there's a grain of truth to the story, we're not buying.  Which is too bad, because were it recast as a novel, which would remove this psychic dissonance and allow the reader just to concentrate on the story, it would be a much better book.

McCourt is a terrific storyteller and the language of the book is wonderful.  There are passages you'll want to read aloud and, indeed, I listened to the audio version which he reads and it is absolutely enchanting.  He describes a life of grinding, often degrading, poverty with remarkably little bitterness.  In fact, the tone of the book is one of fond remembrance, even in the face of illness, hunger, homelessness and domestic strife.  It is a remarkable antidote to the continual bitching and moaning of our Oprahfied society.  After reading about McCourt's childhood, you'll think twice before complaining about how hard your own life is.  Here's his description of the myriad uses of an article of clothing:

    ...the shirt I wore to bed is the shirt I wear to school.  I wear it day in day out.  It's the shirt for
    football, for climbing walls, for robbing orchards.  I go to Mass and the Confraternity in that shirt
    and people sniff the air and move away.  If Mam gets a docket for a new one at the St. Vincent de
    Paul the old shirt is promoted to towel and hangs damp on the chair for months or Mam might use
    bits of it to patch other shirts.  She might even cut it up and let Alphie wear it a while before it
    winds up on the floor pushed against the bottom of the door to block the rain from the lane.

Here he describes the unwelcome visitors his brother Michael--who tends to invite bums in for a bite to eat--let into the house:

    One of them left us with the lice and we're plagued.

    The lice are disgusting, worse than rats.  They're in our heads and ears and they sit in the hollows of
    our collarbones.  They dig into our skin.  They get into the seams of our clothes and they're
    everywhere in the coats we use as blankets.    We have to search every inch of Alphie's body because
    he's a baby and helpless.

    The lice are worse than the fleas.  Lice squat and suck and we can see our blood through their skins.
    Fleas jump and bite and they're clean and we prefer them.  Things that jump are cleaner than things
    that squat.

McCourt's light handed treatment of such topics, incorporating a matter of fact style and a touch of humor, keeps the story from ever slipping into self-pity, which it certainly would have done in the hands of many another author.

I recommend the book wholeheartedly, but wish it's Pulitzer had come in the Fiction, rather than the Biography, category.  Presenting the tale as memoir creates an unnecessary and unfortunate distraction from a story that, standing by itself, is memorable, moving and very funny.


Grade: (B+)


Book-related and General Links:
    -BOOKNOTES: Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt (August 31, 1997, CSPAN)
    -BOOK SITE: ANGELA'S ASHES :  A MEMOIR (Simon Says/Simon & Shuster)
    -EXCERPT: Chapter One of Angela's Ashes
    -EXCERPT: From Chapter IV (Simon Says)
    -INTERVIEW: with Frank McCourt (
    -INTERVIEW: (Ann Online)
    -The Club of Angela's Ashes
    -Angela's Ashes Club
    -The Limerick of Angela's Ashes
    -Limerick Life Tribute to Angela's Ashes
    -ESSAY: McCourt's Angela's Ashes and the Portrait of the Other (Abdullahi Osman El-Tom,  Anthropology, NUI, Maynooth, Irish Journal of Anthropology)
    -ESSAY: How Dark? How Stormy? I Can't Recall (Anna Quindlen, NY Times Book Review)
    -Reading Group Guide | ANGELA'S ASHES by Frank McCourt (Book Magazine)
    -STUDY GUIDE: (Written by JLK for her classes at Woodbury Central school)
    -REVIEW: of ANGELA'S ASHES A Memoir. By Frank McCourt (Denis Donoghue, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: I knew Angela: Did Frank McCourt? (Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, Commonweal)
    -REVIEW: (Deirdre Donahue, USA TODAY)
    -REVIEWS & EXCERPT: of Angela's Ashes (Book Reporter)
    -REVIEW: Gifted writer rises from ashes (YVONNE CRITTENDEN,  Toronto Sun)
    -ANNOTATED REVIEW: of Angela's Ashes (Felice Aull, Medical Humanities)
    -REVIEW: of 'TIS A Memoir By Frank McCourt (MICHIKO KAKUTANI, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of 'TIS A Memoir. By Frank McCourt (Maureen Howard, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Tis: Angela's Ashes' success denies Frank  McCourt his new voice (RON ROBINSON, CBC Infoculture)
    -REVIEW: of A MONK SWIMMING A Memoir. By Malachy McCourt (Frank Conroy, NY Times Book Review)

    -OFFICIAL SITE: Angela's Ashes (Presented by Paramount Pictures)
    -REVIEW: (Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times)
    -REVIEW: (Richard Corliss, TIME)
    -REVIEW: (Steve Davis, Weekly Wire)

    -Limerick Life : A Guide to Limerick Ireland
    -The Irish Times
    -Anthropological Association of Ireland
    -Access Ireland