Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Best of 2015: '74 and Sunny: A Memoir

One of the many items [old and new] enjoyed by Burbank Public Library staff during 2015, recommended for your consideration:

Reviewed by Hubert K.,
Reference Librarian

'74 and Sunny, by A.J. Benza: A Memoir

This was the most enjoyable book I read during this past year. In addition to being an engaging story, it also caused me to reflect about the nature of memoir, how it is constructed and why it remains so popular a genre in our literature. There was an interesting discussion of this in the New York Times Book Review recently by Gregory Cowles in his review of Mary Karr’s new book The Art of Memoir. Cowles notes that memoir is far more about narrative truth than the historical kind, and quotes Ben Yagoda (Memoir: A History) who argues that “There is an inherent and irresolvable conflict between the capabilities of memory and the demands of narrative.” We seem to sense this. As readers we give the author a little latitude for the sake of giving us a well told story that, whatever the “constructed” narrative elements, we come to feel is at least experientially true. The jacket design of ’74 and Sunny seems to reflect the very tension Yagoda notes, a generic photo-stock image on the cover of a man and boy at the shore, and a period photograph from the author’s personal collection of himself, his cousin, and father on the back cover.

I don’t know how a book like ’74 and Sunny finds an audience, and it is a matter of uncertainty as to where a library will place a book like this on its shelves. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to bring it to our readers' attention here. If you are a sports or an entertainment celebrity, then you have a leg up on this problem when writing a memoir: Your book gets cataloged and found on the shelf next to other books about you, or within the subject to which your celebrity is associated. A. J. Benza is a journalist and author with whom some may be familiar, but this book is interesting because of its story, which doesn’t have much to do with the author’s relatively minor celebrity. It is a sweet and bright recollection of family and of the values that hold families together and that, if we are lucky, teach us the things that equip us for life in the world outside our upbringing.

Benza relates the memorable and formative experiences of his summer in 1974 when he was a young teenager living with his family on Long Island. Uncle Larry calls his brother, Al Benza, one night, desperate about his young son Gino. Gino seems to be headed the way of his older brother, who has taken off for San Francisco. Uncle Larry cannot believe his bad luck. It appears that he has the misfortune of having not one but two gay sons, and he is hoping that his hyper-masculine brother Al can head things off at the pass for Gino by taking him under his wing for the summer. A.J., a few years older than his cousin Gino is, a bit unwittingly, also enlisted in this project. He will introduce Gino to his rough-and-tumble friends during the day, while his father is away at work. We certainly come to feel for Gino, and it is interesting to watch A.J.’s evolution, to witness his growing understanding of his young cousin; but the heart of this story is what A.J. comes to understand about the character of his father and about the lessons his father is trying to teach him.

This is a story that surprises our expectations. On first acquaintance, Al Benza is a “type” we might give a wide berth. He is a father steeped in some rough old-world Sicilian values of manhood and honor, a sensitive man quick to take offense, to become angry and resort to violence. He has inflexible opinions about the things he deems of value and the things that are worthless in the world. And yet we come to discover that he is so much more complex than this initial perception--there is an unexpected largeness in his view of the world that is driven by his sense of nature’s bounty and his love for his family. This memoir is, above all else, a loving celebration by A.J. Benza of his father, of what made him unique and exceptional, and the enduring values he passed on to his son. It turns out to be a story not just about the intolerance that Gino must face in the world, but one about stereotypes and the quick judgments we so often make about people.

Benza has written a vivid, often funny, and beautifully constructed portrait of his family, a portrait of a particular time and place in America. It was a summer that brought him joy and enlarged his heart, and he gives us a story that may make us all a little more tolerant of each other.

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