Sunday, March 14, 2010

Wendy Werris' Alphabetical Life

An Alphabetical Life: Living It Up in the World of Books by Wendy Werris was interesting enough to hold my attention because it is fun to read about the book business -- and a part of the book business beyond the retail world with which I am familiar -- but more than once, the author's style was off putting enough to make me want to put the book down and not pick it up again.  She is a bit of a drama queen and comes across as rather self absorbed and narcissistic even for a memoir, which is by nature pretty much I, I, I from beginning to end.

Once I reached chapter five in which the author chronicles the heartbreaking story of her friend and colleague's battle with kidney failure, however, I felt better about devoting time to reading this woman's story.

Chapter five is brilliant, but until that point the rest read like a gossipy, name dropping, guilty confession in which the author doesn't get around to confessing her most egregious sins, even though she is clearly dying to talk about them -- most notably her substance abuse, which gets mentioned and referred to but not detailed because -- as her editor or agent probably told her, or as she told herself, this is a memoir about the book business rather than dependence on one or more psychotropic substances.

There are moments when she sounds like an egomaniacal loon (to the point that it makes me wonder if she might have been high or stoned while she was writing the book).

She makes all sorts of references which I don't understand, so I am not sure if they are literary or cultural or both.  Some of them don't even register as references until I am well into the next paragraph, or at all.  Is it just another form of name dropping or trying to prove her depth of knowledge of ... I'm not sure what since I don't understand the references in the first place and don't don't find them intriguing enough to research.  It's tempting to have somone else or even several someone elses read the book for me and tell me what I am missing and whether or not it adds anything to the story she is telling or the picture she is trying to paint.

Perhaps because of these references, I found myself wishing for clearer cultural, social and historical context, but instead she assumes that her readers were there too and have a lot of the same shared context that she does.  The problem with that situation is that if I lived her life in her time, I might not have any interest in reading her story.

She mentions smoking pot several times, and maybe I am naive in letting myself think that meant that the smoking was also occasional, rather than an ingrained and regular habit -- like the smoking of tobacco cigaretts as everyone in the book seems to do.  When she finds the Book of Mormon in the drawer of her night stand in search of a place to stash her pot, I found the drug reference almost superfluous, as if she felt the need to work it in somewhere, when I didn't think that she needed to mention it at all in the midst of her discussion of religious ambivalence in a Salt Lake City hotel.

Her mention of a "fondness" for cocaine was surprising, almost startling, but again it's at most a passing reference used to explain why she was able to bond with a co-worker who had participated in an addiction recovery program.  She doens't go anywhere with it or do anything with it.  It doesn't provide context or add to the story.  She just brings up this major issue in her life and then drops it.  She would have been better off to say something along the lines of "We bonded over mutual addiction recovery stories."

She has a reverence for books -- don't use dust jackets as book marks, don't put the book face down -- and a flagrant disregard for the treatment of her own body.

All that is missing is for her to tell me what books she read and what literary luminaries she met at Betty Ford or whatever rehab center or program she chose.

By contrast, the story about her friend and colleague's battle with kidney failure didn't have any more to do with her career or the book business, but it was treated in depth and added to the overall story.  She's brilliant when she isn't talking about herself.

She doesn't seem interested in telling a whole lot of success stories about herself.  The embarrassments and humiliations and self doubts, meanwhile, are chronicled in excruciating detail.  She barely gives herself any credit for being a success in a male dominated industry when they were all male dominated.

"I didn't see the sense in hating men and never would. ... I could deal with the 'chauvinism' of those early days in my career, perhaps because I had the good fortune to not take it personally. ...  So I acquiesced to all of these gender-specific regulations, be they innuendos or direct instructions, and rarely felt that by doing so I was chipping away at my own soul.  It was fairly easy for me to distinguish between what was business and what wasn't."  (Page 99)

On the one hand, I love her self assurance, but on the other, I wanted her to recognize more clearly that she was helping shatter glass ceilings in her own way.

She has so many potentially fascinating things to say and stories to tell, and she keeps talking about drugs and alcohol (and cigarettes).  I know.  First I complained that she didn't talk about the drugs and alcohol enough, and now I am saying that it is too much.  That's my point -- all or nothing.  Pick what you really want to talk about, what story you really want to tell, and write it.  Don't keep jumping around and telling parts and pieces of different stories.

The book lacks a central theme or cohesive timeline.  If it had one or the other, I could forgive or understand the otherwise fractured nature of the memoir.  Realizing that it is a story built on memory, however, I wonder how realistic an expectation is cohesion.  Life, after all, tends to not happen in an orderly fashion, no matter how organized the participants, and recalling events from memory only encourages the chaos.

If the book becomes a bit less coherent towards the end as far as choice of material, it becomes better as far as the quality of writing and story telling.  She writes about her parents, her move toward representing (I can't bring myself to take seriously a word like "repping" which she insists on using as her job description.) university presses rather than more mainstream publishing houses.  Her story about the publication and promotion of The World According to Garp makes me want to read it.  Her profiles of the booksellers she worked with and got to know personally over the years make me want to meet these people.

"We never know what may happen when we pick up a book to read.  The turning of a page might actually change the course of our existence.  There is something miraculous about this.  Truth strikes at the very heart of books and the readers who turn themselves over with great trust to finding the essence of themselves." (Page 237-238)

Amen, sister.

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