By Kate Clinton
In a year when Oprah had blown a righteous gasket at being pretexted by James Frey, I waded cautiously into the memoir genre. But the following memoirs invite such deep experiential reading, all caution is gone with the wind.
If the Creek Don't Rise: My Life Out West with the Last Black Widow of the Civil War, by Rita Williams, is her story of being orphaned at four and being raised by her resentful Aunt Daisy in the Colorado Rockies. The long lunacy of slavery fuels Rita's story of extended family, legacy, and ambition in the 1960s and '70s. Williams is a great storyteller, and at excruciatingly personal moments, layered with adolescent angst and racial isolation, I hoped she was lying, but knew she wasn't.
Insecure at Last: Losing It in Our Security-Obsessed World, by Eve Ensler, is a mix of personal history and reportage. She candidly reveals the terror beneath her secure-seeming childhood and connects that with the terror told to her by women in Mexico, Afghanistan, Bosnia, and America in the age of 9/11 and Katrina. Ensler's voice is of a practical and spirited spirituality. I kept thinking of Mae West's devastating, "Most men want to protect me; can't figure out from what."
Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, by Alison Bechdel, lacks the long clarifying subtitle that is apparently mandated in publishing law, but it is a stunning and poignant memoir. And you thought Jim McGreevey's memoir was graphic. This is a memoir that keeps on giving. I reread it. I stared at individual pages. Through nearly obsessive, perfectly rendered detail and spare prose, Bechdel documents her coming of age as a woman and lesbian in the context of her relationship with her closeted father.
Somewhere the poet Muriel Rukeyser, who asked, "What would happen if one woman told the truth of her life?" and answered, "The world would split open," must be smiling.
Kate Clinton is a humorist.
By Ruth Conniff
In Prisoners: A Muslim and a Jew Across the Middle East Divide, I was surprised to learn that Jeffrey Goldberg was so personally involved in the Israeli-Palestinian struggle. A funny, observant writer with incredible contacts in Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and the governments of Israel and Palestine, Goldberg has written unforgettable pieces for The New Yorker. In one, after having the naive temerity to penetrate a radical madrassa in Afghanistan, he described a teacher who gave a particularly chilling rant about the scourge of the Jews. Goldberg piped up, cheerfully informing his hosts, "I'm Jewish."
It turns out that Goldberg is not just the engaging reporter familiar to New Yorker readers. He is also a former immigrant to Israel. In his twenties, he lived on a kibbutz, studied Hebrew, then did his mandatory military service at the notorious Ketziot prison. Goldberg sets up the drama of the book around this revelation.
His cover is blown during a reporting trip to Palestine. He is arrested, and a Palestinian security officer informs him, "We know you were in Ketziot." The bulk of the book, after this dramatic moment, is a flashback to his experience as a prison guard, and all that followed.
Goldberg grew up in a secular, socialist family on Long Island. His ardor for Israel was sparked at hippie Zionist/socialist summer camp, and by the anti-Semitic schoolyard bullies in his largely Catholic, working-class neighborhood.
His utopian image of Israel is shattered, though, first by the cranky kibbutzniks, then by his rather brutal experiences in military training and as a prison guard. "I'd always wanted to be a Freedom Rider. Now I felt like Bull Connor," he writes about his guard duty.
Through it all, Goldberg retains his self-deprecating sense of humor and humanity. He searches for common ground with his prisoners, and is roundly derided by prison officials. He calls himself a "moral coward" for not reporting abuses, but also refuses to carry out orders for collective punishment, provoking sneers when he invokes the Geneva Conventions.
Progressive readers may be turned off by Goldberg's centrist, pro-Israel take on Middle East politics. "Though I've come to realize my Americanness is unconquerable, Zionism is no worm-eaten ideology to me," he writes. "I am still susceptible to the demands of blood and tribe." But his focus on the dangers of Islamic fundamentalism, and his careful parsing of the topic, is more compelling than ever. So is his quest for peace.
One of Goldberg's former prisoners, Rafiq Hijazi, becomes a graduate student in statistics at American University. Long after their friendship begins at Ketziot, the author and Rafiq continue to argue about religion, war, and peace, in a Washington, D.C., coffee shop, in Gaza, and at each other's homes. The ups and downs of their friendship, swaying between conciliation and polarization, cover the ground from the first Intifada to Oslo to 9/11 and beyond. In the end there is tenuous, doubtful, fluttering hope.
Ruth Conniff is the political editor of The Progressive.
By Anne-Marie Cusac
Allen Ginsberg's Collected Poems: 1947-1997 is an antidote to a culture determined to stifle.
The new collection shows off the poet's diversity--something not always associated with Ginsberg. In some poems, he sounds bitterly wise:
The weight of the world is love. Under the burden of solitude, under the burden of dissatisfaction the weight, the weight we carry is love. A few pages away, in his famous poems, he blasts conventions against explicit homosexual subject matter: "Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! / The world is holy! The soul is holy! The skin is holy! The nose is holy! The tongue and cock and hand and asshole holy!"