Monday, July 20, 2009

Tribute to Frank McCourt

Sad but true, it took the death of one of my heroes, Frank McCourt, to shake me from my blogging slump.

Frank McCourt, who passed away yesterday, was the patron saint of wannabe writers. After growing up in abject poverty in Ireland, he came to the United States at age 19, and eventually became a high school English teacher. After teaching at Stuyvesant High School for many years he published his first book, Angela's Ashes, at age 66. And won the Pulitzer Prize for it!!

Angela's Ashes is a memoir, written in the voice of a boy, with the perspective of a man who has had years to think of poverty's imprint on his life. He wants to feel empathy for his mother (Angela), yet he must tell her story truthfully. This he does.....alcoholic father, babies dying in infancy, going to bed cold and hungry, begging in the streets, hypocritical clergy and church. The boy wants to believe, in his parents, in God, in ANYTHING, and he is rewarded with nothing. He does, however, begin to believe in himself, and he eventually finds his way.

If you have read Angela's Ashes, you know there is no other book quite like it. Something about the detail, something about the phrasing, something about the choices the storyteller has made, give it power. Perhaps it's because he didn't tell the story right away.....he thought about it for 50 years. He taught kids about writing, he sat in pubs with "real writers", he wondered whether he was actually a writer (or perhaps an imposter).

If you have never read the book, put it on your list and read it. You can thank me after.

Then, there a few other things you will probably do. You will see the movie, but please, only AFTER you read the book. You will read 'Tis, Frank McCourt's second book, which spans the time he came to the United States until he became a teacher, and you will then read Teacher Man, his book about starting out as a teacher. I think you will do these things because you will want to know the man who wrote Angela's Ashes.

A few other related notes:

1. Frank McCourt has been interviewed on TV many times. I suspect some of his interviews will be shown in the upcoming weeks and months. I'll recommend these too. Here's a great interview with Charlie Rose

2. When I was in high school, I used to listen to talk radio late at night. One of my favorite hosts was a part-timer named Malachy McCourt. He's Frank's brother, and is featured prominently in the books.

3. About two years ago, I suggested that Rebecca read Angela's Ashes. I think it was the first "grown-up" book she read. It felt great when she finished it and thanked me.