"John Philip Hudsmith is a great example of the type of boy—as I am only just now discovering—who will always fall in love with me, the Honors English-type boy who'll go on to college to major in literature and will want to write the Great American Novel without ever learning to write a single Good American Sentence."
So writes Jane Vandenburgh in A Pocket History of Sex in the Twentieth Century, a new memoir that's rife with Good American Sentences—good Californian sentences, to be precise.
You're forgiven for thinking you never need to read another memoir about troubled childhoods and/or Los Angeles (itself the literary equivalent of a troubled childhood). Pocket History, though, is not much like other memoirs. One can't say that Vandenburgh reinvents the genre, but she certainly reclaims 374 pages of it from writers content to repackage their lives as tidy novelistic accounts of growing and learning and overcoming. Pocket History is all over the place, transitions be damned, a highlights reel flickering scenes from Vandenburgh's girlhood: the suicide of her gay father, the institutionalization of her mother, and years spent in the home of an often unsympathetic extended family.
Vandenburgh's writing is incredibly vivid and relentlessly smart, marked by a curatorial eye toward her own past—she writes at times more like an interested observer than one actually participating in the stories being told.
The notion of identity plays an intriguing role here as well, as Vandenburgh's awareness of herself as a Californian is indelibly affected by an awareness of her pioneer foremothers. "They came unaccompanied by their sisters and had no one else to help them with the arduousness of this very terrible life, so some of them came west wearing wedding dresses they'd dyed black to symbolize that even if they made it to Oregon or California, they knew they'd never see their own mothers again, so their lives were essentially over.... Emigrants wrote home words such as these: I wish California had sunk into the ocean before I had heard of it." Oregonians might empathize with that sentiment, but Vandenburgh is right and wise to place her own life so explicitly in the context of what came before.