Memories in Ink: Diaries, Journals and Letters
There's something tantalizing about the idea of reading another person’s diary or personal correspondence. Of course, most of us would be stopped short by our ethics. But what if you had permission? It’s no wonder books in the forms of diaries, journals and letters are popular. They allow you to snoop into another's private life and still go to sleep at night with a clear conscience.
Author Helen Fielding has used her lead character's diary to keep readers involved and laughing along with Bridget Jones from the days of her life as a 30ish single in “Bridget Jones's Diary” (Picador, 1996) to her struggles as a 51-year-old widow with children in the new volume, “Mad About the Boy” (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013). In the latest installment, Bridget finds herself ruminating once again about dating and diet, but now motherhood and aging are in the mix, the last concern even more pronounced due to the youth of her boyfriend — he’s 29.
In contrast, Marie Sharp embraces the term “old.” Virginia Ironside's novel “No, I Don’t Want to Join a Book Club” (Viking, 2007) relates a year in the life of a 60-year-old Londoner, as detailed in her diary. Marie has no desire to sky dive, join a book club or recapture her young years. She's done the youth thing – in the 1960s, when it really counted – and is ready to move on. She wants senior discounts. She doesn’t want to worry about romance. And she's thrilled to take on her new role as grandmother. Her senior status is not all roses, however. Friends are dying and she feels vulnerable in her increasingly sketchy neighborhood. Through the joyous and the grim, she keeps a sense of humor.
“Some Assembly Required” (Riverhead Books, 2012) is a generational sequel to “Operating Instructions” (Ballantine Books, 1994), Anne Lamott's journal of her son’s first year of life. Now she has teamed up with her son to record his son’s first year. Lamott is smitten with her grandbaby Jax, and not shy about saying so. She recounts her struggles with “tiny” control issues, balanced by her recognition of the need for Jax's parents to make the big decisions. She describes grandparents as something akin to “barnacles with credit cards” in the way they attach to their grandkids.
Set in the deep south of the early 20th century, Alice Walker's classic novel, “The Color Purple” (Harcourt, 1982) features more troublesome family relations, but also speaks to the power of love. Celie pours out her cares in letters to God, when she is abused first by her father, and later by the man he arranges for her to marry. After a number of years, she discovers her husband has hidden a cache of letters from the sister she'd presumed dead. Now she has someone else with whom to correspond. As the book progresses, all of the characters grow and change, especially Celie, whose letters show increasing independence and complexity of thought.
“The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” (Dial Press, 2008) by Mary Ann Shafer is another epistolary novel. In post-WWII London, writer Juliet Ashton is searching for a subject for her next book when a letter arrives from a man in Guernsey who has come into possession of a used book with her name and address in it. Soon letters are flying in all directions – between Juliet and various members of the Guernsey book club, Juliet and her best friend, Juliet and her new beau (or is he?), Juliet and her editor, the club members and Juliet’s editor... It's easier to track than it might sound. During the war, the Channel Island of Guernsey was occupied by Germany and cut off from contact with the rest of Britain, and this allows for some historical exposition. When Juliet eventually travels to Guernsey, she becomes less an author doing research and more a member of the community.
“Tell My Sons” (Ballantine Books, 2013) is a non fiction collection of letters from a father to his three boys. At age 38, Lt. Col. Mark Weber was about to report for his new assignment as a military advisor to the Afghan parliament when a routine physical revealed advanced intestinal cancer. The prognosis was dire. Perhaps it was his military career that cultivated the discipline necessary for him to compress into just a few months the telling of all of the stories and lessons he thought he'd have a lifetime to share with his sons.
Isabel Allende uses fiction to blend the personal with the political in “Maya's Notebook” (Harper, 2013). Maya is a 20-year-old California girl who has traveled to rural Chile to stay with Manuel, an old friend of her grandmother's. She's there to escape both an organized crime ring and her own addictions. In her notebook, she chronicles her life on the island, and her memories of what led to her move. During her sojourn, she learns about the lives of her grandparents during the political upheavals of 1970s Chile, events that decades later still cause Manuel to scream out in his sleep. Maya intuits what feeds the human compulsion to express our deepest thoughts and feelings in ink when she writes “On this blessed island nothing feeds my bad memories, but I make an effort to write them down in this notebook so I won’t have to go through what happens to Manuel.”