Call them buttonhole books, the ones you urge passionately on friends, colleagues and passersby. All readers have them — and so do writers. This week, All Things Considered is talking with authors about their favorite buttonhole books. And the series continues all summer long on NPR.org.
To produce a memoir worth reading, a person needs to have either writing talent or else juicy material. Sean Wilsey has both in abundance, and that's what makes Oh the Glory of It All so extraordinary. It's a tale of over-the-top people and places described with such precision that they come explosively and thrillingly alive. This is a book that's many things at once, among them an indictment of parental selfishness, a genealogical research project, a personal catharsis, a love letter to San Francisco, a peek into a world of lavish privilege, and an exposé of American boarding schools. But above all, it's just a really good story that's really well told.
In 1979, when Sean Wilsey was nine years old, his outrageously wealthy parents divorced, and local and national media covered the proceedings. His father soon remarried his mother's former best friend, an alternately charming and cruel woman named Dede. Dede is perhaps the most manipulative person I've ever encountered, either in life or on the page, which is to say she makes for riveting reading. Wilsey's mother, meanwhile, is equally fascinating and complex: Raised by evangelical ministers in rural Texas, she becomes a San Francisco writer and socialite. After the divorce, when she's not hiding out in bed and discussing her suicidal fantasies with her 11-year-old son, she's traveling around the world leading an organization called Children as Teachers of Peace. As part of his mother's delegation, Sean himself meets the Pope and gets drunk off vodka in Russia with other 12-year-olds.
As he bounces around among his parents, stepmother, and jerky stepbrothers, Sean is increasingly seen as a troublemaker. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy after he's shipped off to, and then kicked out of, a series of boarding schools. He starts at prestigious St. Mark's in Massachusetts but before long finds himself at a locked-down school of last resort in the California wilderness. The boarding school section of the book confirms what a terrific writer Wilsey is. At this point in the book, Wilsey's story could become less interesting because he is apart from the family members who are, literally and figuratively, such rich characters. Instead, it becomes more so. Wilsey is so funny and observant that he's able to show the weirdness and idiosyncrasies not just of those who are inherently colorful but of everyone. Also during this time, he catches a case of crab lice recounted with such disgusting hilarity that just reading about it will make you itchy.
Yet, impressively, Wilsey doesn't rely only on his own memories. He researches the history of both the city of San Francisco and his own family, and he conducts interviews with relatives and acquaintances who are still living. By relying on these sources, Wilsey strengthens the book's credibility, making it clear that he's less intent on seeking revenge than on trying, like an anthropologist, to understand why his family turned out the way it did. And he's as unstintingly honest about himself as he is about everyone else.
Oh the Glory of It All is a compulsively readable book, and it seems as if there must have been some compulsion in the writing of it, too. Propelled by love, anger, and a manic eye for detail, it feels like a book Wilsey simply had to write.
NPR's Ellen Silva produced and edited this story.