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Saturday, February 26, 2011

Larry McMurtry and Pat Conroy's brief, enjoyable memoirs about their reading lives

By Hugh Gilmore 

December 22, 2010  

Writers on reading and writing

            Novelists Larry McMurtry and Pat Conroy have both recently published brief, enjoyable memoirs about their reading lives. The book bug, it seems, bit them early and bit them hard and they never got over the fever. For McMurtry, born on a ranch in Texas, and Conroy, born on a Marine base in Georgia, the literary life lifted them from childhoods of hungry, regional isolation to national renown.
           McMurtry's memoir actually comes as a trilogy. "Books: A Memoir" appeared in 2008, followed in 2009 by "Literary Life, A Second Memoir," and in 2010 by "Hollywood: A Third Memoir." Together they reveal what in retrospect seems like an inevitable path from being a bookish boy in Archer City, Texas to being an Academy Award Best Screenplay winner in Hollywood. He's written such works as the "Lonesome Dove" series for TV, and the screenplays for "The Last Picture Show," "Hud," "Brokeback Mountain," and "Terms of Endearment." He also enjoyed several runs on the New York Times Bestseller list along the way. 
            Conroy's recent memoir is titled "My Reading Life." He too has enjoyed time on the New York Times Bestsellers list, and has also known the pleasures and frustrations of seeing his books go from print to movie screen. Among his better known works made into movies have been "The Great Santini," "The Lords of Discipline," "The Prince of Tides," and "Beach Music."
            None of these memoir installments is particularly heavy or philosophical, nor written with much depth. Conroy tries harder, in his determined, gritty way, to lift his story to a level of literary refinement, especially when he writes about the great teachers he had (James Dickey, for one). McMurtry has better name-dropping stories, but writes so casually, almost lazily, the stories feel as they they've been lifted from diaries with scarcely any amplification -- kind of like he's saved Reader's Digest the trouble of condensing his life.
            Oh well, you pays your money and you takes what they give you. I love reading biographies of writers, especially when they talk about the ways in which other writers have affected them. American career paths fascinate me. Why did these two fellows achieve such success when many hundreds of others -- some just as talented -- remain unread and unknown? A topic for another day.

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