04 October 2010

"Composed" by Rosanne Cash

Rosanne Cash
Date of Publication: 10 August 2010
Cover Price: $26.95
245 Pages

If you're familiar with my reading habits at all, you know that the memoir is my favorite sub-genre.  I don't care to follow celebrity gossip or anything so vapid.  But when a human being, of any background, really takes the time to put pen to paper and explore the depths of his or her soul--and then courageously offers to share those unflinching reflections--that, to me, is the single most powerful kind of written work there is.

Art is a small world, and I have learned in recent years that you don't even need to be an artist to see how true this statement is.  To wit, earlier this year, I read James Lipton's Inside Inside (review here), in which the famed host of Inside the Actors Studio regales readers with remembrances of Lee Strasburg and "The Work," as well as a nearly parallel book-within-the-book exploration about the loss of a parent.  Rosanne Cash, as I learned from reading Composed, dabbled with "The Work" at the Lee Strasburg Institute herself once and the whole world knows about the nature of her family's losses in recent years.  Just a few nights ago, while failing to fall asleep, I played an audio recording of Anton Chekhov's short story, "The Bet," which apparently Cash's devoted husband John Leventhal read to her during her convalescence following brain surgery.  So even if Rosanne Cash didn't generously respond to more than half of my tweets on a regular basis, I would have felt a more personal connection to Composed than I might otherwise have found.

Her writing style is mostly chronological, though each passage tends to be brought up to the present.  For instance, after concluding a thoroughly engaging account of her early 20s spent in London, we are informed about the most recent status of principle friends mentioned.  (Incidentally, that entire passage would make for a greatly amusing sitcom if she's ever inclined to allow it to be developed.)  Moving back and forth through time is not an issue here; Cash's thoughts are thematic and very well organized; at no point did I feel I needed a flow chart to keep up with her life.

There is a particularly charming passage near the end in which she recounts a winter visit to Falkland in Scotland, to which her lineage can be traced.  I needn't have ever read that to recognize the Scottish heritage; her emotional frailty and the persistence of the Impostor Syndrome are all too familiar to me.  Thankfully, unlike me, she's found the necessary self-confidence to craft an impressive body of work to date.  And, how's this for an added measure of oddity: whilst finishing the final pages a little while ago, she tweeted from a break while taping an episode of The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, himself not only Scottish but the author of another engaging and touching memoir (American on Purpose: The Improbable Adventures of an Unlikely Patriot).

It's strange, to actually write about your own life.  I'm a nobody, and even I've felt that paradoxical feeling of either exploring an almost sacred honesty about oneself and feeling like the whole thing is an exercise in narcissism.  Cash deftly avoids the latter, and when she breaks up transcripts of the eulogies she delivered for her parents and stepmother with descriptions of the outfits she elected to wear to each funeral, it does not reek of Sex and the City-style vanity, but feels instead like what I suspect it was to her at the time: something entirely unrelated to which she could tether herself.  Each of us remembers some of the most trivial details about our most trying experiences, and rather than make Cash appear to be a material girl, it actually further humanizes that heart-breaking passage.

The recurring theme for Cash--aside from music--is the sea.  She discusses numerous key events in her life either beginning or culminating with water.  I couldn't help but remember this past Labor Day weekend, when a teenage boy drowned in our neighborhood lake.  I drove by the lake late that night and it simultaneously incensed and reassured me to see how perfectly calm the lake was at that point.  My own uncle drowned in his teens, years before I was born, and I've seen my family's dysfunctional ways of coping all my life.  Reading Cash's personal connections with the water resonated with me on that level, though I doubt--and in most regards hope--that most readers won't identify so vividly.

Don't come to Composed, or Rosanne Cash herself, looking for titillating anecdotes about the countless names she could drop.  If that's all you seek, then move on and find some other source to feed your craving.  You won't find here the kinds of things that other authors have exploited for ages, but what you will find is something truly special: a writer who has found a way to craft her memoir as a genuine work of art.

[One last note: I know from following the author on Twitter that she has a fierce fondness for libraries.  Owing as much to that as to my being broke, the copy I have read was checked out from my local library branch.  I fully intend to purchase--new--a hardback copy for myself as soon as the budget permits, and in the meantime I hope that it is sufficient that I will have an overdue fee to pay when I return the book tomorrow.]