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When Haven Kimmel was a girl, she
was known as Zippy, and her first memoir was A Girl Named Zippy. As the
publisher's description says, "Spunky, strong-willed, and too smart for
her own good, Zippy Jarvis brought readers delight and joy." There's more
conflict in her second memoir, She Got Up Off the Couch, as her mother
gets it together to apply to college, go to her classes, achieve stellar grades,
and then become a high school teacher. She became independent and
self-sufficient, able to earn her own living and manage the rest of the world.
Their world is quite small, since they live in the very small town of Mooreland,
Indiana. They watch a great deal of television, and go to church several times
a week. The book starts when Zippy is about six and ends when she is about
thirteen, and she spends most of her time helping her older newly married
sister and husband with their new baby, and she hangs around the other families
in the town.
I feel like such a curmudgeon when
reviewing books like this, because despite being thoroughly entertained by her
words, there seems so little to her stories. Kimmel writes well, there's no
doubt. In the unabridged audiobook, she reads her own words and they flow well
and sound very natural despite being very distinctive. Her language is full of
cute folksy phrases and the stories are fully of Zippy's spunky but loving
attitude. One woman wears her hair "wrapped around the top of her head
like a sticky bun." When one of her friends says something surprising, it
causes her heart to "skate past a beat." It sounds like she is
describing the lives of a distant past, and it takes a while to realize that
Haven must now be only in her forties. Dragnet, The Beverly Hillbillys
and The Glen Campbell Show are on the TV and the Bee Gees and Motown
hits are on the radio. She describes the day that Elvis died. This is all
quite recent, to me at least, and I'm left wondering who would be moved to
write two memoirs about their pre-adolescent years. Who can even remember much
of their first thirteen years? In her defense, Kimmel has some documentary
evidence: she relates a long family interaction that was captured on tape, and
they talk there just as they do in the rest of the book. So maybe everything
she reports happened just as she says it did. Nevertheless, She Got Up Off
the Couch is an exercise in nostalgia for the recent polyester past.
It is possible that I'd like a
memoir of someone's recent ordinary childhood more if I could identify with it
more: Zippy's childhood is very unlike my own. Probably Kimmel's readers are
people who can put themselves more in her own shoes. Yet it raises the
question, what is the point of a memoir? For the hundreds of available memoirs
of traumatic childhoods and battles with mental illness, the point is clear.
We get a tale of triumph over adversity, a sharing of unusual experience that
can inspire people who have found themselves in similar positions.
Autobiographies of people who have been famous or who have accomplished
something important also make sense, because they help people understand the
qualities that lead to such achievements. I don't understand what there is to learn
from some other person's basically uneventful childhood. Of course, it can be
entertaining, and it can be as much of an escape as reading a thriller or
vampire novel, and so why not?
To be honest, I suspect my
reservations would be less if Kimmel's writing was a little more critical. Publishers
Weekly describes the book as "bittersweet" but "syrupy"
would be more accurate. There are a few moments of alarm and emotional
distress, but they get minimized and avoided. I can even imagine finding the book
a quite different experience if it had been read by Sarah Vowell whose
distinctive voice would heighten the hints of reservation and irony that are
there in the text. The story of Kimmel's mother becoming her own woman is a
powerful one, but we don't really get to see much of her struggles; Kimmel
provides only her child's perspective, which has little insight. Nevertheless,
there are a few moments where we see below the surface with some telling
glances or brief comments, and I wish we got more of them.
© 2006 Christian
Perring. All rights reserved.
Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities Division
and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is
also editor of Metapsychology Online Review. His main research is
on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.
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