Memoirs

Pakistani rape victim Mukhtar Mai in Islamabad, 2005
Pakistani rape victim Mukhtar Mai in Islamabad, 2005 (AP)

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By Juliet Wittman
Sunday, December 17, 2006

Bill Bryson is erudite, irreverent, funny and exuberant, making the temptation to quote endlessly from The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir (Broadway, $25) hard to resist. Bryson interweaves childhood reminiscences seamlessly with observations about 1950s America, evoking a zeitgeist that will be familiar to almost everyone past middle age. Though his memories are for the most part pleasurable, he doesn't evade the darker side of the times: children playing in clouds of DDT, atom bomb experiments, a clip from the Des Moines Register about the death sentence imposed on a "Negro handyman" who stole $1.95 from a white woman.

But Bryson is equally eloquent about the glories of the '50s: the excitement over technology and new home appliances, the national innocence that allowed a "not quite lucid" Mrs. Julia Chase to wander through the White House setting small fires without causing a national crisis. "Happily, we were indestructible," Bryson writes. "We didn't need seat belts, air bags, smoke detectors, bottled water, or the Heimlich maneuver. . . . We didn't have to worry about what we ate because nearly all foods were good for us: sugar gave us energy, red meat made us strong, ice cream gave us healthy bones, coffee kept us alert and purring productively."

This memoir is named for an old sweater that Bryson found in the basement when he was not quite 6. He dubbed it "the Sacred Jersey of Zap" and believed it gave him superhuman powers. Bryson has a wonderfully clear memory of the way a child perceives the world. "I knew what was written on the undersides of tables and what the view was like from the tops of bookcases and wardrobes," he writes. "I knew what was to be found at the back of every closet, which beds had the most dustballs beneath them, which ceilings the most interesting stains, where exactly the patterns in wallpaper repeated. I knew how to cross every room in the house without touching the floor."

Accidental Athlete

Mark Zupan uses fast, effective prose to tell the story of how he became a quadriplegic and ended up a world-class player of full-contact wheelchair rugby -- and star of a documentary about the sport called "Murderball" -- in Gimp: When Life Deals You a Crappy Hand, You Can Fold -- Or You Can Play (HarperCollins, $24.95), co-written with Tim Swanson.

One night when he was in college, a drunken Zupan curled up in the back of his friend Igoe's truck; an equally inebriated Igoe drove off. When Igoe got in an accident that left him unhurt, no one noticed that Zupan had been hurled out of the truck and into a nearby canal, where he floated for 14 hours, barely able to move, as freezing water periodically covered his face.

You have to admire Zupan. He never apologizes for his crazed behavior or snivels about its consequences. He's blisteringly honest about the long-drawn-out period of grief, anger and rehabilitation he suffered, and he displays an astonishing lack of rancor toward Igoe. A smart, fierce adrenalin-addicted athlete, he is also a fascinating character.

Oddly, the last part of the book, which focuses on Zupan's trials and tribulations on the field, is less compelling than the rest, perhaps because it reads more like standard sports writing. But his graphic description of the physical embarrassments and sexual fears he had to overcome after the accident will surely help anyone facing a similar loss, and the humanity of his story should strike home with the rest of us.

Woman Warrior

In June 2002, 28-year-old Mukhtar Mai, from the tiny Pakistani village of Meerwala, was raped by four members of a powerful tribe to avenge her 12-year-old brother's supposed crime of speaking to a young woman. In Pakistan, women have no more rights than livestock, Mai says in her plainly written but important memoir, In the Name of Honor (Atria, $24), co-authored with Marie-Thérèse Cuny and translated by Linda Coverdale. A woman can bring a successful charge of rape only if she has four eyewitnesses (the country's national assembly recently voted to strike down that requirement). Many rape victims simply kill themselves in shame.

Mai would have done the same, but her mother refused to leave her side after the assault: "I can't sleep, and she won't let me die. For several days, I go insane with helplessness. . . . Finally, out of nowhere, a surprising fit of anger saves me from that stupor." Mai learned that the local mullah had condemned the rape and that a journalist was interested in her story. She decided to take her attackers to court.

The case attracted worldwide attention. Six members of the tribe were sentenced to death, but further maneuvering followed, including a retrial that threatened to set five of the six men free to terrorize Mai and her family again. As the book concludes, a final decision is still pending.

Mai used the money she won in the case, along with contributions from international organizations, to create a school for local children -- boys as well as girls, although the sexes are taught separately. "Every day, I hear the girls reciting their lessons," she writes. "In a few years, I hope, these little girls will have enough ideas about education to consider their lives in a new light."

Neighborhood Raconteur

Easter Rising: An Irish American Coming Up From Under (Houghton Mifflin, $24) is the second memoir by Michael Patrick MacDonald -- the first was All Souls-- about growing up in Southie, a tough Irish neighborhood in Boston. The narrative begins as a young MacDonald learns to hop subway turnstiles for a free ride into downtown Boston -- "only three stops but worlds away" -- and ends when he visits Ireland with his garrulous, party-loving, indefatigable mother. There he is astonished by the interconnectedness among people, the strangers who welcome him as family and the realization that while the Irish Americans he grew up with in Southie are intensely racist, the Irish themselves admire and identify with African Americans.

MacDonald is a fine writer, with a terrific ear for dialogue and a gift for creating compelling scenes, as when he wonders what to tell a therapist about the number of brothers and sisters he has. Should he include the four (out of 11) who have died? He doesn't want to upset the therapist, and he's anxious to get to what's really on his mind: the frightening array of physical symptoms he's had since the death of his brother Frank.

In a different vein, he describes a collect call home from Ireland. Due to a technical problem, his mother cannot hear him, but she can hear the Irish operator clearly. The two women engage in a long conversation, during the course of which they discover they are distant cousins. Finally, absurdly: "How's he looking?" his mother asks. "I . . . was floored when the operator actually had a report to give, saying she hadn't seen me herself but that she'd heard from her sister's husband, who'd crossed paths with me on the Carndonagh road two days earlier, that I was 'in good form.' " This is an instructive, lively tale, told in a voice that's well worth hearing.

Brother's Keeper

Kim Powers's memoir, The History of Swimming (Carroll & Graf, $24.95), describes his three-day search -- both physical and metaphorical -- for his twin brother, Tim, who had disappeared from his New York apartment. The two came from a difficult home, with an alcoholic father and a mother whose sudden death when they were in third grade may have been a suicide. Kim, the older of the twins by a few minutes, travels back to Austin College in Texas where both he and his brother had majored in theater. The trip sets off a cascade of memories, and these -- interspersed with extracts from Tim's own letters, which Kim is convinced contain secret clues -- make up much of the book.

Powers's writing, often poetic but sometimes overwrought, clearly owes a debt to Tennessee Williams. Helpful strangers are characterized as angels, and certain catchphrases appear again and again, particularly -- in a nod to "A Streetcar Named Desire" -- "Sometimes there is God, so quickly." Some of the most interesting scenes occur between Powers and an Austin College student he finds rehearsing the role of Stanley Kowalski (naturally) in an empty room. Powers describes this boy with genuine empathy, yet he subjects the poor kid to his own half-hearted and symbolic suicide attempt in which he cries out, "See, Tim? Now I win. I'm bleeding too," before jumping into a nearby river. ยท

Juliet Wittman teaches in the Program for Writing and Rhetoric at the University of Colorado.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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