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Legerdemain (thoughts)

September 1, 2008

Legerdemain by James Heaphey(So I just realised the good thing about reading fewer books: I might be able to stop playing catch-up soon. That’d be exciting!)

I read Legerdemain by James Heaphey in July: whoops! But it left me with such mixed feelings that I just kept putting off the actual review. I’m going to say now that Bookfool absolutely loved this one, so definitely go read her review as well. As for me? Well, I’m just not sure memoirs are the best genre for me.

Legerdemain is a memoir of the author’s experience in the Air Force intelligence service immediately after World War II. He was stationed in Morocco and dealing with nukes, spies, double-crossers, and a little bit of romance. So what’s not to love?

Well, I had the same experience I get during a lot of memoirs: a little voice in my head saying “How could he possibly remember all this?”. I mean, it was fifty years ago! But I was willing to swallow my doubts, since that’s pretty much what the whole genre is about. What really bothered me were the occassional ‘insights’ into international relations. They felt much like what I discussed during my international relations classes between 2003 and 2007. But they were insights apparently felt by young Heaphey-he was just twenty-two-in the 1950s. Obviously, this might have been exactly what he felt at the time. But they did snap me out of the story by raising questions in my mind.

Additionally, most of the people (characters? people? see? I don’t even know how to talk about memoirs) felt rather like stereotypes. There was the cynical old British spymaster, the sexy young Moroccan woman longing for more from life, the spunky woman soldier, the suave Frenchman who might be more than he seems, etc. Even Heaphey himself plays a role: the naive American thrown in over his head who relies on brains and guts to get through every situation. So there’s that.

All of that being said, the plot was fun! The book feels more like a series of connected vignettes, and that kind of structure really works. Each of Heaphey’s trips/assignments was interesting and well-told. That being said, after I finished a chapter, I didn’t have a burning desire to rush on to the next one.

Wow: I guess I’m being kind of negative, huh? And I don’t want to be: I want to say that this was the spy book I’ve been looking for my whole life, that it was compelling and witty and fascinating, but unfortunately that’d be a lie. I ended up giving it three stars, because while I wouldn’t say “you have to go read this!” I also wouldn’t say “this is a horrible book, don’t even think about reading it.” It’s more one of those “could’ve been something great” kind of books. But, I want to reiterate, that’s just my opinion: Bookfool and Cheryl both had very positive experiences with it. I would say that if you’re skeptical of the memoir genre in general, or if you were an international relations major in college, this one probably won’t be your cup of tea. :)

Do you enjoy memoirs? Or, like me, do you wonder how the heck an author could remember that much dialogue?

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. September 1, 2008 8:31 am

    I often don’t like memoirs for similar reasons! But I do like autobiographies because they seem less specific but more reflective of an entire life. Autobiographies seem to take in to account that the author knows they don’t remember everything but what they write is their impression of their entire life.

  2. September 1, 2008 10:03 am

    I love reading memoirs. It makes the emotions in the book so much more real. But like you I do wonder about the details in it, but I don’t let it ruin a perfectly good story.

  3. September 1, 2008 12:46 pm

    Congrats on starting grad school, I’m sure it will be keeping you plenty busy! Hopefully all your book reviews won’t be only of textbooks :-)

    You know, I felt that way about dialogue when I was reading “Lluvia de Oro”, this lengthy memoir written by the son of the principle characters. He wasn’t even there for the dialogue! Of course, I started thinking about how as a writer, even if you aren’t completely making things up (James Fry?), you still have to kind of embellish the dialogue, and if the person who you are writing about is still around, try to see what sorts of things they say and base it off that.

    Anyhow, great thoughts on this book!

  4. September 1, 2008 2:13 pm

    I guess I’m ambivalent about memoirs. I used to just say I hated them, but then I ended up reading several review copies of memoirs I really liked. So I guess I’d have to say I like them IF they’re about a specific area I’m interested in. For example, I’d prefer a memoir about someone teaching English in Japan rather than a memoir by someone who just thinks their life was so fascinating they should write about it.

  5. September 1, 2008 3:53 pm

    I always appreciate it when the author lets you know (like in an afterword) how much is fact and what they perhaps embellished a little bit. I do know when I was in high school and partway through college I was obsessive about keeping journals and often wrote down entire conversations. If an author did that, certainly they could remember partly what had been said. I don’t know if any authors of memoirs actually do that, though.

  6. September 1, 2008 7:57 pm

    I TOTALLY wonder how an author could remember that much dialogue. I do read several memoirs a year (I don’t necessarily seek them out, though), but with all of the writers being outted for fictionalizing their memoirs I’ve become more skeptical.

    This one does sound pretty good to me–don’t feel bad about not loving it!

  7. September 2, 2008 9:05 am

    Thank you for the review of my book, “Legerdemain.” Regarding the conversations, I wrote in the “Author’s Note” at the beginning of the book, “I am unable to recreate the conversations word by word. I offer instead, realistic representations.”

    Jim

  8. J.S. Peyton permalink
    September 2, 2008 10:05 am

    For the most part I enjoy memoirs. I usually don’t have a problem with how the authors are able to remember all of the details. I’ve always viewed memoirs as residing in that gray area between fact and fiction, and the best writers are able to combine the two in a way that’s creative yet believable. I don’t believe that David Sedaris remembers half of the things he writes about, but it’s believable, it’s creative, and they’re good stories. Having said that, I don’t read memoirs very often. For good stories, I still generally prefer fiction.

  9. September 2, 2008 11:15 am

    I’ve read very few memoirs in my day, but I guess my general take on them is pretty much like J.S. Peyton just said. Sort of non-fiction in general, but embellished. I guess the ones I do read, I read more for entertainment value than anything else. And since I’m not terribly well-versed on international relations, I think I probably would enjoy this very much. Definitely will be picking this one up one of these days. Thanks once again, for an informative, honest review!

  10. September 2, 2008 7:11 pm

    Yep, I loved it. But, I will say that I’ve written a monthly nonfiction column and I’m well aware of how one goes about making real life into a story. Unless you have a photographic memory, dialogue is never going to be exactly as it happened — it will end up a little more rhythmic and readable than the dialogue of real life. That doesn’t bother me because I understand that memory isn’t perfect and have had to rewrite, tighten and pinch to make a real-life event that didn’t necessarily have a beginning and ending fit into the pattern of the story I wanted to tell, if that makes sense. As long as the events were real, the accuracy of every little word isn’t important, in other words. I was going to say I recall an author’s note to that effect but I see the author dropped by and mentioned that! Very cool!

    Memoir writing only really bothers me when I feel like an author’s telling of his or her own story appears to me to be . . . I don’t know, arrogant or beligerent or dramatically negative. There was a WWII memoir I read earlier this year or last year that gave me that strong negative vibe. Heaphey’s story really fascinated me, but it was also all new information to me. I am truly history stupid and I enjoyed the learning. Sounds like it was a rehash of info you already had learned, so the reading wasn’t as exciting in that way, as well, yes?

  11. September 5, 2008 4:36 pm

    Rebecca, I’m glad I’m not the only one! I do like autobiographies. :)

    Violet, I wish I could just block it out!

    Kim L, hehe: I think that’d be the end of my readership. ;)

    Dew, I agree: I’d never read a general memoir. Or any of the ‘horrible childhood’ genre.

    Jeane, it’s nice when the author puts that in, but that just makes me more skepical! lol

    Trish, I’m glad it still sounds good to you!

    Jim, thanks for stopping by: I definitely wasn’t accusing you of saying you remember things word for word. But I’m sorry if you got the impression.

    J.S. Peyton, I agree-the very best are wonderful. But I think it takes a certain kind of person to pull of a memoir-style book.

    Debi, I think you’ll enjoy it!

    Bookfool, that’s true; I wasn’t saying they make things up. I’m just saying the inherent limitations of memory are always in my mind when I’m read a memoir. I’m so glad you enjoyed Heaphey, though, because then I can just direct everyone to your post! :)

Thank you for commenting! For a long while, my health precluded me replying to everyone. Yet I missed the conversation, so I'm now making an effort to reply again. It might take a few days though, and there will be times when I simply can't. Regardless, I always read and value what you say.

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