Sunday, May 15, 2011

30 Day Book Challenge: Day Twenty-Eight

So Many Books, So Little Time is hosting the 30 Day Book Challenge. Each day for 30 days I'll be answering one question about books.

Day Twenty-Eight: Your favorite autobiographical book

I really like fictionalized autobiographical books, those books that aren't really memoirs but are still too factual to be completely fiction. Like:

Anyone who has read Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five will know that one of the book's most haunting aspects is the frequent intrusions by the narrator (Vonnegut himself). The anecdotes he relays in the midst of Billy Pilgrim's story are based on Vonnegut's own experiences in World War II, specifically POW camps and the fire-bombing of Dresden, which killed many more people and did significantly more damage (arguably) than the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. While Slaughterhouse Five is essentially a fictional narrative, the autobiographical bits of the book are what made it really stick out in my mind.

Another somewhat autobiographical novel that I love (although, it's really metafiction more than anything else) is:

Tim O'Brien is an incredible storyteller, one who weaves fact, fiction, and pseudo-fiction together in order to expose the horrors of war and the triumphs of the human spirit. He is such an under-read author and I think that one of the downfalls of making this novel required reading for high school students is that they are less likely to pick up another one of his books in the future. There isn't enough historical context given for students to appreciate his works. I, for one, didn't fully enjoy his novels until I took a class on the Vietnam War my junior year of college. The professor assigned this book:

If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home was even more poignant and stirring because of what I was learning in that class. My father is a Vietnam Vet but when he was around I would have been too young to understand if he had talked about it (which he didn't) and by the time I had developed an interest in history he had been long gone for years. This book and the class I read it for gave me a better understanding of the problems my father had and the reasons why it was better for all involved that he wasn't a part of our lives.

So, Vonnegut and O'Brien tie for my favorite "autobiographical" book.



  1. Interesting take on the topic! I love, love, love Slaughterhouse Five, it completely blew my mind the first (and second and third...) time I read it

  2. I've heard great things about The Things They Carried. We had to read an excerpt and write about it in college. I think I may add it to my to-read list.

  3. If you liked The Things They Carried (as I very much did), there's an O'Brien-inspired autobiography from the Iraq War called The Last True Story I'll Ever Tell (by John Crawford). Not as meta, but it still tweaks the concepts of truth in fiction/nonfiction to a thoughtful effect.

  4. Kayleigh: Thanks. The real issue is that even as a historian I'm not much for biographies, auto or not. If there was a confessional for history geeks, I'd have to do, like, a million Hail Marys a week just to make up for how much I dislike reading books like that.

    Slaughterhouse Five is indeed an incredible book, although it wasn't until I read Breakfast of Champions that I really started to love Vonnegut.

    Dorothy A: It's definitely a good read although it's also at times a difficult one. Despite being ostensibly fiction you can tell that O'Brien was there and that he saw things that no man should ever see. The descriptions are so vivid and shocking.

    Doug: I've never heard of that book but I just looked it up on Amazon and I'm adding it to my TBR pile. Even as someone who considers himself a pacifist, I am intrigued by books about war. I think a lot of guys are, to be honest. Regardless, thank you for the suggestion.