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Memories of a Catholic Girlhood (1957)
by Mary McCarthy
Female Author (1,053)
Memoirs - Mary Karr (11)
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I got suckered into reading another memoir, this time of a distant relative. It's a set of pieces that McCarthy had published mostly in the New Yorker with commentary in between about what was remembered and what was made up. Sometimes it was a slog, but most times a sad and funny glimpse into the life of a young woman between the wars.
An excellent memoir of a fervidly religious, fiercely intelligent young girl who comes to question her faith (which cannot help but remind me of Simone de Beauvoir's Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter), this book is exactly as its title suggests, recounting (episodes collected from a magazine series) the author's girl/orphan-hood, with a focus on how Catholicism has influenced and shaped her.
My favourite parts of the book are the epilogues of each episode, where the author questions her own memories, corrects certain events, and reasons the liberties that she took. I love when authors do this.* Because after all, what is memory but what we make of it. And by publishing them, the author has ensured that this is now the version that will live on. It's like every time you re-tell a story about yourself. After a while, the story becomes so well-practised or repeated that it eventually has a life of its own beyond you, it's no longer really your memory anymore but a collective memory that lives on through your listeners/readers.
*I particularly love books which deal with memories, collective memories, questions (the importance of) the "truth" of the memories. I think it's because in high school English, we had to do a module on Memory and my mind has not yet grasped the fact that I'm no longer in high school and is still on the lookout for supplementary texts.
This book was 'just okay' for me. McCarthy's MEMORIES OF A CATHOLIC GIRLHOOD has been languishing on my shelf for several years now. Bought it because I remembered reading THE GROUP back in the 60s, when it was a big bestseller and something of a shocker for its time. And actually this one is a bit shocking too at times. McCarthy was just six years old when both her parents died in the influenza epidemic of 1918. She and her three younger brothers (one of whom was actor Kevin McCarthy) were put in the care of McCarthy relatives in Minneapolis who treated them very badly; their story had a Dickensian quality - bad food, patched clothes, no toys, whippings, etc. After five years of this, the boys were put into a private school and Mary was taken to live with her Preston grandparents in Seattle, where she attended a convent school, a public school and a private girls' seminary, until she went away to Vassar at just 17. Her struggles with her Catholic faith and to fit in at these schools are often interesting, but not always. Her stories of sampling Montana moonshine and dating a married man during one summer are amusing, and maybe a little horrifying too, all at the same time. Perhaps least interesting is her attempts at understanding and explaining her Grandmother Preston, who was Jewish. In the end, the woman remained an enigma and a mystery. MEMORIES was only mildly interesting to me, so I'm not sure if I will read the next one, HOW I GREW, which is also on my shelf. But for anyone interested in learning more about Mary McCarthy, I would not hesitate to recommend this book. (three and a half stars)
- Tim Bazzett, author of the memoir, BOOKLOVER
An excellent collection of memoirs, though I would not want to have a relative take her razor-sharp pen thus to my character and ways. That said, the writing is not remorseless and cruel, but thoughtful and insightful, and in the retrospective notes McCarthy is more forgiving than many would be. The first two pieces are painful to read, as they depict the bleak time after her parents' deaths when she lived with relatives who were less comprehending and compassionate than we would hope orphaned children would be blessed with. I enjoyed the book very much all told and her reflections on her Catholic upbringing were illumiinating.
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Wikipedia in English (2)
Blending memories and family myths, Mary McCarthy takes us back to the twenties, when she was orphaned in a world of relations as colourful, potent and mysterious as the Catholic religion. There were her grandmothers- one was a blood-curdling Catholic who combined piousness and pugnacity; the other was Jewish and wore a veil to hide the disastrous effects of a face-lift. There was wicked Uncle Myers who beat her for the good of her soul and Aunt Margaret who laced her orange juice with castor oil and taped her lips at night to prevent unhealthy 'mouth-breathing'. 'Many a time in the course of doing these memoirs, ' Mary McCarthy says, 'I have wished that I were writing fiction. ' But these were the people, along with the ladies of the Sacred Heart convent school, who helped to inspire her devastating sense of the sublime and ridiculous and her witty, novelist's imagination.
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Melvil Decimal System (DDC)818.5 — Literature English (North America) Authors, American and American miscellany 20th Century
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