Sunday, February 19, 2012

A rare species in Memoir Land

I'm trudging deeper into Memoir Land, a place I named for one of the first memoirs of family struggle I really enjoyed: Jesus Land by Julia Scheeres.  Despite a few recent gems - including Caitlin Shetterly's personal story of the recession and a unique tale by Piper Kerman about her year in a women's prison - when my sister approached me with a copy of Doron Weber's book Immortal Bird I shook my head.  "No sick kids," I said.  A prolonged, uncreative complaint about a difficult childhood or a family tragedy is my idea of a nightmare memoir.  Of course either subject can turn interesting in the hands of a capable writer, and with a twist in the underlying story.  Immortal Bird benefits from both.

It also benefits from an extraordinarily smart and well-connected dad, whose passion for his work and the intellectual development of his three children shine through even with the difficult subject matter.  Doron Weber's narrative voice may at times come across as plaintive and unremarkable; his family and his fascinating life never do.  Weber, a bigwig at the Sloan Foundation (of NPR sponsorship fame), lives in Brooklyn with his wife and their oldest, Damon, the bird in question, and his two younger siblings Sam and Miranda.

The book begins as Damon develops an illness stemming from his life-saving heart surgery as a toddler.  Born with a congenital defect, he's done well up until this point, but his health declines rapidly and dramatically.  Damon's well-connected parents call in favors from powerful friends in the medical field.  We learn about Damon's particular heart problem and the Fontan procedure that allowed him to grow into a teenager; the difficult navigation of a child's health crisis; and the mismanagement and indecision in America's healthcare system that can culminate in tragic outcomes.  These overarching lessons, however, aren't what makes this book worth reading.  Instead, it's Damon, a kid you will wish you'd had the chance to meet.

Weber supplements his tale of searching for answers and experts with Damon's own blog entries, which make the reader wish Damon himself had written the memoir.  He's mature, funny, insightful, and he retains a good attitude throughout his struggles and eventual heart transplant.  His writing is punctuated by today's teenaged emoticons and abbreviations but nonetheless powerful and evocative.  Damon's talents soar of the page, too.  We get to follow his acting and directing triumphs at an exclusive Brooklyn magnet school and share his joy when he plays a guest role on Deadwood.  If the book at large ever grates on you (as aforementioned, Weber's voice can seem overwrought), remember that Damon will pop in and open the next chapter, reminding us that this isn't the sick kid melodrama I first feared.  Like Jesus Land, Immortal Bird escapes sentimental claptrap because the characters are compelling - Damon most of all - and the story both unique yet possible.  A parent's worst nightmare, this book should be endured anyway, if only to honor Damon and his many loved ones.

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