December 22, 2010 · 3:14 pm
“I feel like the 1960’s is about to happen. It feels like a period in the future to me, rather than a period in the past.” Paul McCartney, 1994
After the Falls: Coming of Age in the Sixties – A Memoir by Catherine Gildiner (Viking; $25.95; 368 pages)
This is a memoir that I simply didn’t understand, and let me try to explain why. Memoirs – literally, a telling of personal memories – generally fall into one of two categories. In the first, the writer self-examines his or her own life very closely (if not microscopically) and critically. These generally conclude with life lessons and the writer’s unflinching willingness to accept responsibility for the mistakes he or she has made. With the second category, the writer plays it for laughs. Basically, he/she says, “I was young and irresponsible. I know that now, but back then I was such a fool. Oh, well, such is life!”
In After the Falls, Catherine Gildiner refuses to place herself in either category. She writes here about a life filled with errors and omissions but then declines to accept responsibility for her own role in it. (She’s shocked when a crime happens in front of her very eyes; a boyfriend lies to her – actually he simply fails to tell her the truth; she acts hatefully toward her parents, etc.) In a sense she commits one of the worst offenses imaginable in life, which is to be a mere observer of her actions and inactions.
Let me give a specific example of her disclaiming of responsibility. At one point, she writes about observing the gang rape of a presumably underage girl while hiding in the closet of a female friend’s house. The rape is instigated by the friend’s older brother. Does Gildiner report the crime to anyone? No. Does it even make her angry? Apparently not, although she thinks now and then about the girl who was repeatedly violated, but… But she rejects any responsibility on not one, but multiple instances within the pages of After the Falls. This raises a key question that must be asked: If one does not want to accept responsibility for things that happened decades earlier, why write a book that tells the entire world about those actions? (In other words, what is the point of all this?)
I did not read Gildiner’s earlier memoir Too Close to the Falls, but I did notice one person’s comment to the effect that this memoir is darker and more depressing than Too Close. Well, yeah. Frankly, I found it a bit dangerous as well as depressing.
It’s also, sadly, in this reviewer’s eyes a bit of a distortion of what it was like to grow up in the 1960s. There was a lot of excitement about human potential and about the leaders who later fell – beginning with John Kennedy and extending through Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. There was also the Civil Rights Movement (touched upon tangentially in these pages), and great music. But this memoir would lead one to think that the entire decade was, in the words of one notable rock band, “a drag…”, as in “What a drag it is getting up.”
To her credit, Gildiner concludes this unconventional account with an admission of how belatedly she grew to love and appreciate her parents – especially her father who lived for six years with a cancer that eventually turned his brain into “an empty honeycomb.” But it seems to be too little too late.
Missing most of all is a sense of the joyousness of growing up in what was truly a unique and energizing time. We may not be able to go back to those times, but we can certainly treat the decade more kindly that it has been portrayed here. A bit of gratitude might have been in order.
This review was written by Joseph Arellano. A review copy was received from the publisher.
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Tagged as 1960's, A Memoir, After the Falls, autobiography, Canadian authors, Carnaby Street, Catherine Gildiner, Civil Rights Movement, Coming of Age in the Sixties, coming of age tale, crimes, dark account, death, depression, drugs, equality, family, father and daughter, forgiveness, gang rape, Graditude, gratitude, grief, growing up, human potential, JFK, John F. Kennedy, John Lennon, Joseph Arellano, Joseph's Reviews, Kindle Edition, life lessons, Love, Martin Luther King, memoirs, morality, mother and daughter, Mother's Little Helper, mourning, Niagra Falls, nonfiction, nostalgia, one's youth, Oxford College, Paul McCartney, personal responsibility, politics, rape, relationships, retrospective account, Revolver, RFK, Robert F. Kennedy, rock music, teenagers, The Beatles, the best of times, the future, the past, The Rolling Stones, Too Close to the Falls, Viking
May 14, 2010 · 1:15 pm
The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore (Spiegel & Grau)
“The chilling truth is that his story could have been mine. The tragedy is that my story could have been his.”
This uniquely titled nonfiction book was written by Wes Moore, the Rhodes Scholar, U.S. Army paratrooper and White House Fellow. He is the successful Wes Moore. His namesake from the same town on the east coast is serving a life sentence in the Jessup State Correctional Institution. The crime was murder and there is no possibility of parole.
The author’s recent appearance on the Oprah Show gave this reviewer the opportunity to observe him in the spotlight. He came off as poised, charming and amazingly confident. I wondered if this was an act, perhaps a well-polished persona that wins friends and influences people? There are plenty of hucksters who achieve fame. The book would provide the answer.
Within the first couple of chapters it was obvious that Wes Moore is beautifully literate, yet without pretentiousness. What you see is definitely what you get. His unfaltering curiosity about the other Wes Moore has resulted in a book that explores the outcomes for both these men and how they arrived at adulthood.
The story revolves around two young men with all-too-familiar life circumstances that include being an African American male raised by a single parent living in a poor, or declining, urban neighborhood. The narrative is set forth in three major phases concerning their coming of age. The fellows and their life experiences are differentiated as the author uses the first person for himself and the third person for the other Wes Moore.
The story is filled with painful realities – it’s easy to fall into the gang life; defensiveness and alienation are part of each day; and escaping the neighborhood (Baltimore or the Bronx) requires courage, determination and sacrifice. The author began his life with two parents raising him; however, due to a tragic medical condition his father died of a rare but treatable virus. The other Wes Moore only met his father once, accidentally in passing.
Each man encountered challenges as well as opportunities. The opportunities were provided by family and friends. Always there is balance in the presentation of each man’s life including photographs that illustrate the text. They both tried and failed more than once when attempting to change the course of their lives. The difference in the outcome can be characterized by the expectations placed upon the author and his willingness to keep trying regardless of how hard the challenge might be. He was also immensely fortunate to have family who were willing to make financial sacrifices to obtain some of the opportunities.
Wes Moore, the author, has included a comprehensive resource guide at the back of this book. The nationwide listing features organizations focused on assisting youth. Because this list is a point-in-time snapshot of resources, this reviewer was pleasantly surprised to see that a continually updated version is available on the internet.
A reader who is interested in learning more about success and how it can be achieved would be well served to read The Genius in All of Us by David Shenk. Both books explore the impact of environment on personal success and the role hard work plays in achieving it.
The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates will alert a reader to the possibilities for a better future for our youth, especially children who face undeniably tough circumstances. Highly recommended.
The Other Wes Moore was released by Spiegel & Grau on April 27, 2010. A review copy was provided by the publisher.
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