In this memoir, Lindy West shares her alternatingly traumatic and triumphant experiences as a feminist writer venturing into online journalism. Because she is also fat (her self-description), she also becomes a target in our fat-phobic, one-size-fits-all-definition-of-beauty society and is branded by trolls with repulsive vitriol. When she tries to stand up, for example, against comedians who use rape as a topic for jokes (which is about as funny to most women as I imagine Putin is to most Ukrainians right now), she gets accosted online by the most offensive trolls imaginable, with comments liked by some of her friends. (It is pathetic how quick people are to take sides against those who are perceived as vulnerable.) Lucky for women, she is a strong, smart, and good-hearted person who rises above and sees the forest for the trees, speaking out for all of us. She proceeds to make history in her accomplishments, one troll at a time.
This book is replete with paradoxes. West is vulnerable yet powerful. She puts herself out there, stands up and stands out in a public forum, knowing she’ll open herself up to criticism – and omg, does she – but yet she stands up again and defends herself so strongly that she silences others to a screeching halt. She hears the noise, feels it, but does not allow the noise to infect the clarity of her argument. Despite feeling isolated, she thinks about women in general and not just herself as a woman. She also sees herself as others see her, yet she will not bend to their perception of who she is.
Some may find her story stirring, even jarring. We are not used to hearing women with loud voices. We are not used to hearing women be comfortable and secure in larger bodies. We are not used to hearing women stand up for themselves when they have strong opinions and strong minds, especially when they go against the (male) grain. But I know it’s about time we got used to hearing and appreciating them!
Born in Hyesan, North Korea, Hyeonseo Lee was raised, as all of her peers were, to believe that her country was the “Greatest Nation on Earth.” Indoctrinated from the time she was born to worship the leaders of her country above all else, she witnessed at the age of 7 what happened when one opposed the regime: public execution. But even while she felt the pressure to blend in and follow the party line, she noted that there were, in truth, stark differences in how people lived. While the communists sang about equality among the people, how their government provided for its people, Hyeonseo observed that a family’s social status determined just how much that government actually provided. In reality, it was far from an equal distribution. And while she was privileged to some degree, this privilege did not protect her family from political danger. In this memoir, she shares her utterly harrowing story of her years-long journey toward freedom.
If you’ve followed this blog, you will note that I have been reading quite a bit about various refugee experiences. All of them are impossibly harrowing, but none has read more like a suspense novel than this one. At every turn, this young woman and her family encountered unimaginable peril, always being on the verge of disaster and often experiencing heart-wrenching disappointment and suffering. They were constantly at the mercy of others, usually being preyed upon by corrupt officers and traffickers alike, rarely reaping the courageous generosity of others, even strangers. Most profoundly, once they finally did achieve freedom, they actually had to be taught that humans deserved fundamental human rights in order to understand how deeply their own had been violated.
The bravery and dedication to family demonstrated by this heroine is infinite. She is an inspiration to all of us, particularly in this moment when we are seeing so many fleeing their homes in search of safety. It reminds us that no one chooses to leave their home. One leaves only when there is no other choice.
I’d like to depart from my usual post and add a poem which I found deeply moving (shared with me by an inspirational leader for whom I am so grateful):
Home by Warsan Shire
no one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark you only run for the border when you see the whole city running as well
your neighbors running faster than you breath bloody in their throats the boy you went to school with who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory is holding a gun bigger than his body you only leave home when home won’t let you stay.
no one leaves home unless home chases you fire under feet hot blood in your belly it’s not something you ever thought of doing until the blade burnt threats into your neck and even then you carried the anthem under your breath only tearing up your passport in an airport toilet sobbing as each mouthful of paper made it clear that you wouldn’t be going back.
you have to understand, that no one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land no one burns their palms under trains beneath carriages no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled means something more than journey. no one crawls under fences no one wants to be beaten pitied
no one chooses refugee camps or strip searches where your body is left aching or prison, because prison is safer than a city of fire and one prison guard in the night is better than a truckload of men who look like your father no one could take it no one could stomach it no one skin would be tough enough
the go home blacks refugees dirty immigrants asylum seekers sucking our country dry niggers with their hands out they smell strange savage messed up their country and now they want to mess ours up how do the words the dirty looks roll off your backs maybe because the blow is softer than a limb torn off
or the words are more tender than fourteen men between your legs or the insults are easier to swallow than rubble than bone than your child’s body in pieces. i want to go home, but home is the mouth of a shark home is the barrel of the gun and no one would leave home unless home chased you to the shore unless home told you to quicken your legs leave your clothes behind crawl through the desert wade through the oceans drown save be hunger beg forget pride your survival is more important
no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear saying — leave, run away from me now i dont know what i’ve become but i know that anywhere is safer than here
In this tender memoir, Trevor Noah shares his experience growing up during the final edge of apartheid in South Africa. Through vividly narrated vignettes, we learn about his complicated relationship with his mother, who is fiercely devoted to him and yet is independent, stubborn and vulnerable. We learn of his early struggles to find himself, and how he must battle against the vicious cycle of poverty that apartheid has inflicted upon his people.
It was suggested to me to listen to the audio version of this book – and this was excellent advice. Hearing Trevor Noah narrate his own story, in his own beautiful, South African accent and fluidly modulating to his family and friends’ voices and accents, is just a gift to yourself.
Noah is a brilliant storyteller. He shares his experiences with such warmth and humor, as if he is sitting with you in your living room, over a cup of your favorite hot tea – but as if he’s sharing his deepest, darkest memories, only with you. He describes in colorful detail some of the most outrageous adventures and unbelievable experiences. But even as he shares his joy and his pain, it is as if he is flickering a smile at you, as if to say, we can still laugh, even as we hurt. This is how we cope.
You will be engrossed and amazed — you will gasp and you will laugh out loud. Don’t just read this one – listen to it!
It’s a “MUST READ” but more than that, it’s a “MUST LISTEN!”
Laura was no stranger to the streets of Manhattan in the mid-1980’s, but something made her stop and turn around after passing a small, skinny, Black boy asking for money on one fateful Monday afternoon. His name was Maurice, and he was half-starved, and when she invited him for lunch at McDonald’s, he accepted. Laura was careful not to pry too far, but could see that Maurice was fending largely for himself, and she was unsure if she’d ever even see him again or how that would happen. To her amazement, though, she did, every Monday from then on. From this bloomed an unlikely friendship that became a blessing for both Laura and Maurice.
This is a true story that is told from Laura’s perspective, but gives a great deal of background from Maurice’s family experience as well. Both of them have experienced a great deal of family trauma, although Maurice’s is quite dire, with most of his family falling victim to the devastating crack epidemic of the 1980’s. While Maurice is clearly loved by his family, particularly his mother and grandmother, they are both usually too ill to properly care for him and he is often left to his own, skillful, but youthful devices. When Laura meets him, he is living in a crowded single room with many drug-addicted relatives where there is no routine, no structure, and never any food in the fridge. Laura is the first person to ask him what he might consider being when he grows up, giving him a first glimpse of the possibility of a real future for himself, besides what he sees in his family.
On one hand, this story is inspiring. Laura speaks freely about how she has gained as much from the relationship as she has given. While she truly has given, whether in lunches made in brown paper bags – signifying to Maurice a show of love and care for him – or clothing, or just a periodic respite from his tumultuous family life, she has also received. She has not had relationships where she was able to have children, and I believe Maurice was sort of like a son to her. She was able to lavish attention, occasional gifts and intermittently share her wisdom with him, the way she might with a son, and she felt gratification in this. And certainly, Maurice was given something of a lifeline, in that he was shown a different possibility for how his life might be – that he did not have to follow the path of his family and that he could choose a steadier, healthier, and safer path for himself. And he did.
On the other hand, the story being written as it was also feels a bit self-congratulatory and almost cringe-worthy. We’re here again, with another white woman “saving'” a Black boy – and it just feels a bit uncomfortable to read about this. Laura is truly generous and giving – but why does she have to write about it? While “a portion” of the proceeds from the book are destined for the No Kid Hungry non-profit group, it still feels a bit strange.
I’d be very curious to hear what others feel about this book and this issue. I invite your comments! I am truly torn over this one!
Gifty is striving to complete her final doctoral thesis in neuroscience on addictive behaviors. She knows she’s obsessing over her data, and that she needs to move on to the writing of the final paper, but her past has come back to haunt her and she is stuck. It may be that the visit from her mother, drowning in her own pain, will nudge her forward. Or will it be her sifting through her old journals from her youth? Somehow, Gifty works through a resolution and confronts the deeply painful religious, emotional and philosophical issues that are holding her back.
This memoir is a recounting of a second generation immigrant from Ghana who suffers multiple layers of trauma during her childhood, while seeking and finding little community support in her small town, Southern evangelical church. Needless to say, her struggle is complicated.
One recurrent theme is the conflict she feels between religion and science. Having memorized large swaths of scripture for her mother’s approval and having limited experience outside her small, Bible belt town in Alabama until college, she has a deeply ingrained emotional connection to her religion and to a traditional belief in God. On the other hand, her more cerebral side has rejected much of the dogma the church espouses; whether the narrow views on sexuality, the scorning of evolutionary theory, or the criticism of science in general. So when a fellow student criticizes those who are religious, she is not quite sure what to feel, but she is simultaneously insulted and embarrassed. She identifies with those being criticized but also sees why they are being so.
The other inescapable message here is the devastation that occurs when a family member has an addiction. Not only does the addict suffer, but everyone around him suffers as well. When Nana, Gifty’s brother disappears, she and her mother spend hours searching for him to try to bring him home to safety. When he is not functioning, the whole family is not able to function. And the cycling and unpredictability has devastating effects on everyone for years to come.
This very real story hits hard and is a hard read. We are very fortunate that the author has chosen to share her experience with us.
Through this deeply moving memoir, Kiese Laymon shares his experience having grown up as a black male in a larger body in the deep South. He shares his earlier traumas, his fonder memories, and how he has learned to cope with both the times his mother was absent and the times she was present.
This is a such a gritty, revealing memoir that reading it feels almost voyeuristic. Writing it as a letter to his mother, Laymon is so deeply introspective and revelatory that we peer into his private window, we peek inside his heart. We experience his profound sense of pain and powerlessness as he watches the women in his life become victimized by other men. His anger is, sadly, directed inward – as it so often is. It manifests first as binge eating and later as restriction and overexercising. This coping strategy works for him, however, until it doesn’t. Meanwhile, he is able to be as resilient as possible, forging relationships, excelling academically and achieving goals on his terms.
As a side note, I so appreciate that Laymon has come forward with this memoir, because it defiles so many stereotypes of who struggles with eating disorders. As he acknowledges himself, eating disorders are thought to exist only in upper class, white women – and this is just not true. Folks of all genders, races, and socioeconomic strata utilize these behaviors to cope with their lives and one can never assume anyone is free or “protected” because of who they are or appear to be. These are secretive behaviors and cannot be diagnosed by someone’s appearance. And they can be very painful, distracting, and most importantly, life-threatening – never to be taken lightly.
This is also an important memoir from the perspective of understanding racial issues and racism. Laymon shares his encounters with racism and digests them with us, his readers. Both he and his mother, in spite of their obvious intelligence and academic accomplishments, are underpaid and frequently disrespected. But, again, he also places his experiences into context. He understands that even when he’s been treated as less than, he is still not at the bottom of the totem pole, being a male as opposed to a female person of color. His compassionate view of the women in his life enables him to see their utter vulnerability to the forces of bias and power imbalance.
I deeply appreciate this memoir, for all its raw and painful honesty. This is a hard read but well worth the work of it.
Just as a cheetah in a zoo is caged and trained to repeatedly chase after what she perceives as prey, so too are women caged in by society’s expectations and rules. We live and breathe in the norms around us — the standard of the thin, beautiful, smart, soft, modest, quiet, unassuming, and all-giving idea of the perfect woman — and cannot avoid striving for this, even when we are not even aware that we are doing so. This is what Glennon Doyle becomes aware of as she watches this caged cheetah pace back and forth and sees that she is not much different from this animal. It’s just a bit more complicated for her to work her way out of her cage, as it involves more than just her own life – it involves the lives of her husband and children as well.
In this memoir, Doyle reflects, through tiny moments and vignettes, about her metamorphosis as she moves from inside the cage to outside. She reflects back through her journey through recovery from bulimia and substance use, disentangling from a dishonest marriage, and tiptoeing through tightrope-like moments of parenting. Unlike many of us who struggle with similar issues, she also had to do this while living as a public figure, so had to also contend with answering to the public about this deeply personal process. What she learns, however, is to use her anger and her pain for good. She learns that rather than trying to escape these feelings, sinking into them actually can make her stronger.and push her into constructive action.
This is a powerful book that has many lines of wisdom contained within. Here are 2 of my favorite lines:
“If you are uncomfortable – in deep pain, angry, yearning, confused — you don’t have a problem, you have a life… You will never change the fact that being human is hard, so you must change your idea that it was ever supposed to be easy.”
“Maybe Eve [from the bible] was never meant to be our warning. Maybe she was meant to be our model. Own your wanting. Eat the apple. Let it burn.”
This is an enriching read for both women and men. It will open your mind and your heart and force you to look both inward and outward.
Another MUST READ! (This list is growing so long!)
In the fall of 2007, Amanda Knox joined the many college juniors who left their campuses to study abroad, Amanda choosing a small town, Perugia, in Italy for her experience. Because her chosen university did not have a dorm for her to live in, she felt fortunate when she stumbled upon an apartment she would ultimately share with 3 other women. Life with the others began quite peacefully, and she formed a comfortable relationship with each of them. What she never imagined was that one of them would be brutally murdered by a stranger, and that she, Amanda, would be wrongfully accused of being the twisted ringleader of this murder.
I felt compelled to read this story, as I’d felt compelled, years before, to listen to this story every time it came on the news, in each of its permutations. When it first was announced in the media, the story was quite bizarre, filled with seedy details of sex and drugs that sounded questionable even back then. And the more it was discussed, the more bizarre and unlikely it sounded.
Reading the actual story was much more painful, however. It was no longer someone far away – it was now someone I was getting to know and empathize with. I hadn’t remembered so many of the actual details of the story – or probably never was given the true ones — nor learned about her personal life before the murder or during the trials. I also didn’t know how much time she served in prison, before she was finally found to be fully innocent. And I also didn’t how the prosecution obtained their evidence and how willfully they pursued a feeble motive/explanation for the events against the weight of the evidence for the defense. It was truly like watching a car wreck – you can’t look at it and at the same time, you can’t look away.
And honestly, even though I knew the ending, there was still a great degree of suspense. The ups and downs were wildly intense and I felt the ride right along with her. When she was trapped inside those walls of the prison, I felt almost as if I was inside there with her. It was almost hard to breathe. At the same time, she showed a courage and hopefulness I’m not sure I would have had.
This was a very quick read that I’d definitely recommend!
This work by Ta-Nehisi Coates, written in the form of a letter to his adolescent son, Samori, is a treatise on his experience as a Black man in America. What Coates is doing here is what so many Black parents in America have needed to do: encourage their children to be cautious in order to preserve the sanctity and safety of their Black bodies. As he states on page 129-130, “When I was eleven my highest priority was the simple security of my body. … already you have expectations,… survival and safety are not enough.” And “What I am saying is that it does not all belong to you, that the beauty in you is not strictly yours and is largely the result of enjoying an abnormal amount of security in your black body.” He is sharing his own past struggles as well as those around him, in order to communicate his concern for his son’s safety, while also communicating generally the plight of living in a body of color in this country.
Unless you have been living under a proverbial rock over the last few months, you have to be aware of the uncovering of the ongoing racism that we have been seeing in our country. I say uncovering because the racism is not new – no, it has been going on since White men arrived on these lands– but it’s once again being exposed for what it is on a national level. While I rarely quote in this blog, I find that Coates’ words are far more poetic and useful than my own here. He says, on page 17, for example, “To be black… was to be naked before the elements of the world… the nakedness is the correct and intended result of the policy, the predictable upshot of people forced for centuries to live under fear.” This, I believe, says it all. This is the institutionalized, ratified, codified racist structure upon which our country was built. It began with the enslavement of a people, evolved into a Jim Crow structure and now exists in the form of a criminal “justice” system that is an entirely purposeful perpetration of a racist segregation of people based on the color of their skin. It’s all the same thing.
And it is our obligation to blow this apart.
I’m still struggling with how we, as individuals can make a difference, but the very first step is understanding how deeply entrenched the problem is. This takes looking both inward at our own implicit biases, which we all have, and examining the structural racism upon which our country has been erected. Understanding the deeply rooted fear of a child for his own bodily security, and then as he grows, for the safety of his peers and then for the safety of his children, as Coates relays here, gives an up-close-and-personal view of what it is like to live in his skin. We feel his terror and we feel his rage over having to feel that terror. This is where we start.
The more I read, the more I understand how little I know.
What would it be like to quit your job and spend a year studying wine? No, I mean, really studying it – not just drinking it. Learning how to appreciate the various aromas, textures, degrees of alcohol, tannins, and acidity and be able to blind taste them and name the grape, the label and the year it was made without peeking at the label! What might it be like to hang with the sommeliers of New York’s finest restaurants to learn what is considered important in the service of these wines? Or to research where all these crazy, lofty ways of describing wines came from. Well, Bianca Bosker has done this and she’s been kind enough to share her journey with us in the pages of Cork Dork.
In her quest to become a sommelier, Bosker smells everything in her kitchen in her home and in her city. She insinuates herself in the world of the sommelier by befriending a top somm who brings her to blind tastings and allows her to witness the training that each somm puts themself through. Trailing other waiters, working in a wine cellar in a restaurant, getting to taste a vast quantity of fancy and less than fancy wines, Bosker widens her scope of experience very quickly. She travels around the country and around the world in this quest, visiting restaurants, vineyards, and scientists who help her understand how she can best go about understanding and perfecting her art.
What makes a good wine good? What makes a good sommelier good? What makes a good wine description good? These are questions she seeks to answer during the course of the book and she seeks out answers from many different sources. Throughout the whole time, she is studying and practicing and honing her tasting and olfactory skills, trying to prep for the certification exam. And while she learns, so do we, as she sketches out for us her findings.
I do have to confess, that I do think some of the descriptions are bullshit, as she even cops to; however, I do respect the devotion and the obsession that the sommelier does have to go through to become certified in this field. And now I have a newfound appreciation of exactly what that entails!