Wednesday, December 23, 2009

CB's Book Reviews In Brief #3: Cheryl Wagner's "Plenty Enough Suck to Go Around"

Plenty Enough Suck to Go Around: A Memoir of Floods, Fires, Parades, and Plywood by Cheryl Wagner (2009, Citadel Press, 242 pp.)

Oddly enough, I finished this book on the exact same day I finished the previous book I reviewed (Benjamin Nugent's American Nerd). However, while I had been reading Nugent's collection of essays for months, a chapter or two here and there, I devoured Wagner's memoir of putting her life back together following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and the post-Katrina flooding of New Orleans in only a couple sittings over a few days.

Part of this difference is due, of course, to the fact that Wagner's book was sitting on my shelf at home, while Nugent's book was always languishing on Cookbook's end table, but another part of it was due to the difference in narrative voices. Nugent poked and prodded his abstract central theme from a distance, only sometimes internalizing the discussion, while Wagner's book did the opposite, the vast majority centered on what was happening in her mind or inside her home or within her family and only sometimes commenting on the broader social forces at work. The immediacy and intimacy of Wagner's approach grabbed my attention and didn't let it go until the last page was turned.

Even with the differences in voice and topic, these two books are more similar than different. Both are written by educated, artistic, and somewhat culturally bohemian writers that also happen to be in the first half of their lives rather than the second. While memoirs authored by relatively young writers are becoming increasingly common, they are still far from the norm, and the intellectual impetus that provokes writers in their twenties and thirties to commence such projects are, I think, pretty universal. As a result, despite the fact that I never played role-playing games or studied martial arts, I could empathize with Nugent's sense of purpose in his book, and similarly while I've never been confronted by a disaster even remotely close to the order of what Wagner recounts in Plenty Enough Suck to Go Around, I could still imagine myself in their situation, simply because the folks in her life seemed so much like the folks in mine. Throughout her book, Wagner talks about the kind of people I find myself talking about, the kind of folks that if they lived in Cleveland, they'd probably be one of my Proper Noun subjects. Her boyfriend plays in indie rock bands, her neighbors are established artists in the local gallery scene and scholars early in their careers. You get the picture. And if you read this book (which you should), you'll probably find yourself doing the same thing as I did, imagining people I know who live in parts of Cleveland similar distances away from the geographical locations discussed in Wagner's book. What would my friends in Tremont (or Lakewood or Cleveland Heights or Beulah Park) be up to? Which of my friends would stay if Cleveland flooded and which would relocate? Who would be "useful" friends and who would be just as lost with the reconstruction tasks needing to be accomplished as I would be? Because the kinds of folks Wagner writes about are just like me and my social network, her memoir makes the tragic events following Katrina not something some other folks in some other place suffered, but rather something I can understand and feel, at least as much as one can understand and feel something of such magnitude that you are only reading about.

The book isn't prefect, of course. There are several moments where it seems like Wagner thought she'd already told you about the subject she's writing about and is cutting out key details she wouldn't have otherwise. And there are times when you see clear contradictions, like when she gets angry about neighbors she doesn't know having a renovation party in one chapter but then goes on about how rebuilding isn't a race in the next. Still, it feels like super-sour grapes to criticize this kind of memoir for those kinds of flaws.

Should you wind up checking this book out, also be sure to spend a minute on iTunes downloading the tracks from this annotated soundtrack compiled by the author and posted originally on Largehearted Boy.

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