Failed Resolutions: Some of Robrt Pela's Favorite Memoirs are Total Busts

Categories: Literary
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In this week's issue of New Times, you'll see our annual Resolution Guide. This year: a collection of writers and contributors resolved to love their city. Some failed and succeeded (read Snapshots of a City, and New-Found Love for a Hometown), and others found reasons to love Phoenix because of its art, food, and nightlife scenes. Below, New Times' Robrt Pela explains the Resolution Guide's inspiration:

Being a failure is -- at least in some publishing circles -- the new success story. 

Following closely on the trend in goofy nerd memoirs (American Nerd: The Story of My People by Benjamin Nugent; The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth by Alexandra Robbins) and in no small way informed by the popular late-20th-century writings of self-proclaimed misfit writers like David Sedaris and malcontent documentarians like Morgan Spurlock, the craze this year and last was for memoirs in which the subject attempted a lifestyle change and either screwed it up or succeeded in changing but had an epiphany and went back to living the cruddy life he or she had been living before.

My favorite example of the former is a book published before the trend really got cooking. In It Takes a Village Idiot, author Jim Mullen -- best known as an Entertainment Weekly columnist -- and his wife buy a country home in upstate New York.

What makes this one brilliant is that Mullen, an embittered city boy, sets out to fail in adapting to weekend country life in order to prove his wife wrong. Instead, he falls in love with rural living, but his elegant writing makes his failure a warm, fuzzy, but never treacly success.

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I also enjoyed The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie, and not just because I was a fan of Laura Ingalls Wilder's novels when I was a kid. Author Wendy McClure, who says she's obsessed with Wilder's stories of American Old West frontier life, retraced Laura's covered-wagon-riding, bonnet-wearing experience as depicted in Little House in the Big Woods and its several sequels. She churns butter in her big-city apartment, spends the night in a replica of Laura's log cabin, and twists hay into kindling in preparation for an apocryphal long prairie winter. 

Seeing Laura and company from the distance of adulthood allows her and her reader to see how maybe frontier life wasn't so quaint and tidy as Wilder (and, eventually, that famous television series starring Melissa Gilbert) made it seem. Finding deep flaws in the charms of bread made from seed wheat and the realities of book series brat Nellie Olsen (whom McClure describes as a "blond Frankenstein assembled from assorted bitch parts"), McClure lets us see that -- New Year's resolutions be damned! -- life in the early 20th century is busting with practical joys.

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McClure's living-life-like-Laura memoir took a page from the religion-themed sub-subgenre of these books, in which an author attempts to pursue a more devout life in hopes of greater happiness. A.J. Jacobs' The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible was the first of these, and milked yuks from Jacobs' attempts at following the Ten Commandments, loving his neighbor, and learning to play a 10-string harp.

The book's success led to several similar titles, among them the pleasant Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University, in which author Kevin Roose tries to get through three months at Jerry Falwell's conservative Baptist school for young evangelicals, and Jana Riess' Flunking Sainthood: A Year of Breaking the Sabbath, Forgetting to Pray, and Still Loving My Neighbor, which I liked best from this subset of life-in-the-trenches books -- maybe because Riess started out her quest for saintliness with an amusing list of lengths to which she wouldn't go ("I will not allow myself to be devoured by lions"; "I refuse to pluck out my own eyes for God"). Or because she's so equal-opportunity in her approach to sainthood, busting up her year-long quest into the pursuit of 12 different spiritual practices (fasting, Sabbath-keeping, centered praying).

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My favorite passage in Riess' book is one in which she tackles the 39 Prohibitions of keeping a Jewish Sabbath. "I'm not likely to flay something anytime soon," she writes, "so I'm in good shape on that score. I also don't regularly tan animal hides on a Sunday. Whew!"

Ultimately, Riess -- in the newly grand tradition of these I-tried-but-couldn't-do-it memoirs, fails. Her resolve, needless to say, isn't shattered -- only her resolutions. From which we can all take a lesson regarding our own, just-made New Year promises.


Other Losers Worth Noting 

1. The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell: Bestselling author and NPR commentator Vowell slices up the Puritans and their journey to America and discovers that the esteemed spiritual and moral ancestors of our country were spiteful, feuding, and wildly litigious. 

2. I'm Not the New Me by Wendy McClure: Its author, already lauded as an insightful humorist in Bust magazine and her websites Pound and Candyboots, reinvented the "fat girls are people, too" genre with this funny, perceptive look at self esteem and body image.

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3. Cabin Fever: A Suburban Father's Search for the Wild by Show More Show Less Tom Montgomery Fate: Life in the Information Age isn't such a bad thing, Fate -- a Chicago suburbanite and college professor -- discovers while splitting his time between the city and a cabin he builds in the Michigan woods. The beauty of this one is that Fate, rather than choosing a winner here, finds what each lifestyle has to say about the other.


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