Saturday, February 8, 2014

Madame justice

I've been thinking about why memoir/autobiography is not of much interest to me as a reader. Unlike others, Sonia Sotomayor's memoir, My Beloved World, didn't send me in any way. It was in my ears this month because it is the 2014 selection for my library's community reads program, Everybody Reads, and is another in a long line of "inspirational/aspirational" books that I've slogged through as a result. See herehere and here. [The latter book breaks this mold but it was because there was a special grant.]

My Beloved World -- which concludes with Sotomayor's first judicial appointment to the U.S. District Court and not with her ascension to the Supreme Court -- tells a tried-and-true American story: Humble origins (immigrant [debatable depending on whether you believe Puerto Ricans are immigrants] parents, fatherless at eight, Catholic upbringing in the "projects"), self-made success (scholarships and academic achievement at Princeton University and Yale Law School), hard work and creativity (New York District Attorney, private practice), and dream/ambition realized. Sotomayor relates how each experience led to the next and how that careful construction influenced (and continues to influence) her personal and professional beliefs. Her rambunctious family and her extended family of friends and colleagues are lovingly portrayed. Although many are simply names that passed through my ears, a few were memorable and well-worth knowing ... notably her feisty grandmother (who hospital-bed final smoke was hilarious and touching) and her strong-willed mother.

But, in truth, I was bored. Sotomayor's writing isn't very complex and much of what I was hearing felt like a list of accomplishments (humbly presented, of course). I had the same problem when I listened to the Miles Davis autobiography. When she veers into the personal, it's an awkward chapter; but where she tells of her parents' romance I was fascinated. I finally realized that intellectually I care about her story (and I'm very pleased that she is where she is -- except for this!), but ultimately ... I don't know her, I don't really care about the minutia of her life story. One could argue that I don't know fictional characters, so why should I care about their stories ... but somehow I can sense the distinction. Perhaps the memoirist's obligation to not "brag" is something that a fictional person doesn't have to pretend to do. And that humility occasionally feels false, as it occasionally did here.

The actress Rita Moreno narrates most of the book. While I found her too soft-spoken, her rusty voice adds interest to the ordinary writing, infusing the very few moments of suspense/surprise with tension and authority. She keeps the narrative professional, though; I never felt that Moreno was impersonating Sotomayor. The little bits of Spanish are ably presented, not surprising as Moreno shares the author's Puerto Rican roots.

Sotomayor reads her own forward and prologue. She has a similar rusty sound to her voice, with the added piquancy of a distinctive Bronx accent. Her reading is very precise, and although heartfelt, it's as straightforward as her writing. I thank her for not insisting on reading the whole thing.

A little Internet searching tells me that the Justice dictated her memoir and those transcripts were polished by a poet, Zara Houshmand, which goes a long way in explaining the fairly pedestrian prose that resulted. Very few of us speak in swathes of interesting language, and one wonders if the poet had to rein in her innate tendency to metaphor-ize to sustain Sotomayor's voice.

[This photo of Sotomayor with her parents Celina and Juli (Juan Luis) is in her memoir. It was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor
Narrated by the author and Rita Moreno
Random House Audio, 2013.  12:27

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