Two Literary Memoirs

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Earlier this fall, I read The Reading Promise: My Father and the Books We Shared, by Alice Ozma.

A father promises to read to his daughter every night for 100 nights, and not only do they make it to 100, but they keep going for 8 more years, until the daughter leaves home for college.

Unfortunately, the book didn’t quite live up to my expectations. First, Ozma doesn’t really talk about any of the books she and her father read! She lists them, and mentions one here and there, but there’s little to no discussion of how the books actually impacted her life. The main point seems to be that her dad read to her, night after night, not what they read. That disappointed me, because my favorite part of memoirs about books is hearing how the stories people are drawn to directly speak to their lives. I mean, that’s why I like to read, period!

My second disappointment was that Ozma is only 23 years old, so she’s writing about something that just happened. Generally, I think you need distance from an experience before you can really analyze it. I don’t think young adults can write very good coming-of-age memoirs, because they are still coming of age!

Ozma’s father’s promise to read to her is a response to some very sad things that are going on in her family, and at times I wondered if she even understood just how tragic her story was. Her mother suffers from various problems–mental illness or some addiction and suicidal tendencies–and eventually abandons her family. Her older sister deals with the dysfunction by leaving the country. These incidents are told from a very matter-of-fact, childlike perspective.

This book appears to have been very hurriedly written, and I found myself wishing the author had just waited about 20 years to tell her story.

My Sisters, the Saints: A Spiritual Memoir, by Colleen Carroll Campbell, a Catholic journalist in her early 40s, is a book that succeeds where The Reading Promise does not.

This book is also a coming-of-age memoir, about the author’s struggle to embrace her faith as an adult and accept the limitations of her own and her father’s health. It is a moving tribute to the heritage of faith she received from her parents as well as a literary memoir. Each chapter describes how the writings of a particular female saint moved her closer to God and spoke to the particular issues she was facing at that time.

When Colleen Carroll Campbell was in college, she found herself struggling to reconcile the faith she received as a child with college culture and her own ambitious plans for the future. Shortly before her graduation, her father received a devastating medical diagnosis. For the next 11 years, she has to balance finding her way in the world and starting her own family with saying goodbye to her father as he slowly declines into dementia and eventually dies.

My friends of old will recognize this as hitting pretty close to home for me, as my father got sick during my college years and slowly declined for 11 years as I was beginning my own family and getting to know the Catholic faith. I just flat out cried for a lot of this book.

Perhaps having so many parallels to Campbell’s life (her great success in the journalism world, including a year as a speechwriter for President George W. Bush, obviously not being one of them!) makes me a poor critic of this book, but I thought it was a perfect memoir. Campbell portrayed the cross each member of her family had to carry: her father’s decline in health, her mother’s burden of caring for him while working full-time, and  her own personal struggles, and then wove them all together through discussing how the saints faced adversity with trust in God.

I highly recommend this book, and here is a lovely book trailer to whet your appetite.

Thanks to Blogging for Books for the review copy of My Sisters, the Saints.

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