Case study #1: A white boy grows up a military brat in the rapidly changing, mid-20th-century South. His father, a Marine Corps fighter pilot from Chicago with a hair-trigger temper, regularly beats up on the boy and his mother too. But that mother, a daughter of the South, adores reading. The boy grows up an avid reader as well. He, in fact, takes refuge in it. But for college, he becomes a cadet at the Citadel in Charleston. The boy's chances of becoming a military man like his father or a writer, one of America's most popular, are what?
Case study #2: A black girl grows up in the racially charged, mid-20th-century South. Her father is a minister, athletic coach, guidance counselor, and later university dean; her mother is a public-school teacher and lover of classical music. Both instill in their daughter (and only child) a determination to be twice as good as any child, black or white. The girl's chances of becoming an authority on U.S.-Soviet relations, the provost of Stanford University, and America's 66th secretary of state (and the first black woman to hold that office) are what?
The answers to those questions go without saying if your name is Pat Conroy or Condoleezza Rice, and both of them have new books: Conroy's My Reading Life (Doubleday) and Rice's Extraordinary, Ordinary People: A Memoir of Family (Crown).
"Unwitnesses to our own history": That's how Conroy describes himself and six brothers and sisters after his mother would tell the children that they did not see what their father had just done, which was Donald Conroy backhanding his wife Peg to bring an argument to a close.
Witness to his own history is, however, exactly what Conroy is in the 15 chapters that make up My Reading Life, and those chapters cover more than Conroy's beleaguered early home life. See him, already "word-haunted," entering Gene Norris' high school English class in 1961, just the man and mentor Conroy needed. Watch Conroy's "deliverance" inside a used book shop in Atlanta. And cringe as Norman Berg, a book rep, teaches an innocent Conroy the realities of the book business and gives the young author the time and space to finish his novel The Great Santini (a portrait of that dastardly father, Donald). A first book conference got Conroy booed for being a man (inside a roomful of arch-feminists). The city of Paris taught him how to respond to a guy on the street and, shockingly, in flames. And Thomas Wolfe, Leo Tolstoy, and James Dickey gave Conroy the models to write and live by.
"I have built a city from the books I've read," Conroy writes. My Reading Life makes of that city a heartfelt grand tour.
No need to go into Condoleezza Rice's memoir hunting for scenes of childhood beatings. The one time she received a spanking from her dad, according to Extraordinary, Ordinary People, was the time she ignored her parents' order that she not get to her Halloween costume on the top shelf of a closet. Her parents normally knew better than to resort to physical disciplining. All they had to say to the young Condoleezza was that they were "disappointed" in her, and their daughter was back on track: studying hard and practicing hard, whether it be at the piano (though she admits to a later liking of Led Zeppelin) or figure skating or anything she put her mind to.
What she's made of herself in the past decade, history (and another memoir?) will say. For now, Rice is saying that it was her immediate family and extended family who gave much and expected much from this well-educated daughter of Republican parents and a Republican herself — a daughter who defends affirmative action but who bristles at identity politics, victimhood, and patronizing Democrats. Self-sufficiency: That was the watchword in this household, a household that owed everything to the example set by the author's parents, John and Angelena Rice.
Pat Conroy and Condoleezza Rice will be in Memphis in the coming week for events at Davis-Kidd Booksellers. Conroy will discuss and sign copies of My Reading Life on Tuesday, November 2nd, at 6 p.m.
Rice will discuss and sign copies of Extraordinary, Ordinary People (along with the children's version of her memoir, Condoleezza Rice) on Wednesday, November 3rd. (Line ticket required; ticket issued at time of book purchase.) The signing will begin at approximately 6:40 p.m. But at 6 p.m., be on hand when Memphis mayor A C Wharton and Shelby County mayor Mark Luttrell put some questions to Condoleezza Rice.