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ORDINARY PEOPLE
THE SPATE OF PUBLISHED MEMOIRS PROVES THEY'RE NOT JUST FOR CELEBRITIES ANYMORE

What does it say about the status of the American memoir that "Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life" is printed by a major company like Crown Publishers?

That the memoir is taking new forms? Or, that the memoir is doomed?

"Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life" is just what the title indicates: an A to Z list of the life of author Amy Krouse Rosenthal who, it seems, hasn't done much of anything.

"Rosenthal warns readers that her life has not been extraordinary in the least -- she hasn't 'survived against all odds,' recovered from any addictions or been a genius, misunderstood or otherwise," said the Publishers Weekly review.

"Not only does she consider her life 'ordinary,' but her preoccupations are with the entirely mundane: breaking appliances, leaving messages on answering machines, loading dishwashers, loving Q-Tips."

Some people think this is a clever idea. What it is not is a memoir written by an extraordinary person who did extraordinary things, or at least lived during extraordinary times (which is a "classic," if old-fashioned definition of memoir).

On a recent New York Times nonfiction hardcover best-seller list, these titles passed for memoirs: "Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith" by Anne Lamott (described as a meditation on personal and political matters and the spiritual life); "Juiced" by Jose Canseco (memories of baseball and steroid use); and "Smashed" (a young woman's recollections of her excessive drinking in high school and college).

At No. 15 was "Taking Heat" by Ari Fleischer, who recalled his days as President Bush's press secretary.

Of those titles, Fleischer's book seems to be the only memoir that fits the classic definition.

'Real' people wanted

Many in the book world point to the 1996 publication of "Angela's Ashes" by Frank McCourt as the engine that ignited the current memoir explosion.

The story of McCourt's impoverished boyhood in Ireland, which won the Pulitzer Prize, apparently sent the message that "you, too, can write and publish your story."

"Computer keyboards and typewriters from Albany to Ethiopia have been clacking ever since," said a piece titled "Memoir Mania" written for the New York State Writers Institute.

"Memoirs were once for presidents, retired generals and Cher. But in recent years, baby boomers have decided that their stories are at least as interesting as those of politicians. The first-person genre is perfectly suited to a generation that has grown up talking about itself and expecting the world to listen."

Alice van Straalen, an editor at Vintage and Anchor Books, agrees that "once there is a commercial success, everyone wants to follow."

But, Van Straalen sees value in the personal story. As as an editor and a reader, she says that good memoirs are often inspiring, but what makes them great is the quality of the writing.

In an interview from her New York City office, Van Straalen outlined several types of memoir:

Ones written for voyeuristic reasons.

Ones in which the truth is stranger than fiction. ("You wouldn't believe it if it were a novel," she explained, citing Augusten Burroughs' "Running with Scissors" as an example.)

Personal memories that explain history in an interesting way.

And, the memoirs that give insight into a human condition. ("An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness" by Kay Redfield Jamison is, according to Van Straalen, "just about the most fascinating way possible to approach this subject.")

Evolving styles

Do you confuse autobiography with memoir? Not to worry, you aren't the only one.

An autobiography, according to Van Straalen, tends to be written "by someone known in public life -- accounting most of their lives." But the memoir is "a more personal look at a personal experience."

Isabel Allende takes the memoir a step further in "My Invented Country," The News' April Book Club selection, by writing what her publisher calls, "a personal, heartfelt and idiosyncratic meditation on her native land."

"Plan B," Anne Lamott's latest "memoir," is actually a book of essays originally published in other versions on Salon.com.

Harriet McBryde Johnson's memoir, "Too Late to Die Young," hits bookstores Friday, and is "a collection of stories" about her life as a lawyer, a disabled activist, a writer and a telethon protester.

"I've been telling stories orally for years," Johnson said from her law office in Charleston, S.C. "Southerners tell each other stories 100 percent of the time."

Like Lamott, parts of Johnson's book have been published elsewhere, but her agent advised that the book should be memoirlike, so Johnson had the challenge of selecting the material, reframing and reorganizing it into a narrative.

"It's not as personal as some memoirs in a weird way," said Johnson. "It's not as introspective.

"There's lots about me I will never tell."

Coming to bookstores

In a provocative essay published late last month in the New York Times, William Grimes makes the point that "the genre has become so inclusive that it's almost impossible to imagine which life experiences do not qualify as memoir material."

He reinforces the point by listing a few new memoir titles:

" 'All in My Head,' by Paula Kamen. It's about a headache the author has been carrying around for more than a decade," Grimes wrote. " 'Fat Girl,' by Judith Moore, a memoir of growing up fat and female, which in turn will compete with another fat-girl memoir, 'I'm Not the New Me' by Wendy McClure.

"Then there's 'House' by Michael Ruhlman. It's about a house. Is there not something to be said for the unexamined life?"

Apparently not, hence the memoir glut.

But at least one book tries to make memoir reading a bit more convenient.

"Modern American Memoirs" is a collection of samples of 35 memoirs written by the likes of Margaret Mead, Malcolm X and Frank Conroy. At only 464 pages (paperback), that's a lot of personal information in relatively few pages.

What could be next -- lists?

e-mail: slotempio@buffnews.com