Heavy by Kiese Laymon

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.  

 

 

 

Untamed by Glennon Doyle

Untamed: Glennon Doyle, Glennon Doyle Melton: 9781984801258: Amazon.com:  Books

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.”

and

“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!)

Waiting to Be Heard: A Memoir by Amanda Knox

Waiting to Be Heard: A Memoir by Amanda Knox

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!

 

 

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nahisi Coates

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.

 

Cork Dork by Bianca Bosker

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!

Becoming Eve by Abby Stein

Born to what was considered a royal Hasidic family —  a descendant of the Baal Shem Tov — Abby Stein was raised as a boy in one of the most gender-segregated societies on earth.  From an early age, she knew she was a girl and when she, at the age of 4 years, expressed this to her mother, she was given the very clear message that this was never to be spoken about again.  Throughout her childhood, she rebelled, against god, against her restrictive society, and against a world that did not allow her to be herself.

This memoir was so detailed and heartfelt – until it wasn’t.  We hear about every moment in Abby’s early life.  Her journey from one yeshiva to the next, from one rebellion to the next.  There are very intimate passages, revealing her first love for a young man who is obviously struggling with his own sexuality.  This episode is quite tenderly written and the reader feels such empathy for these two who cannot pursue their love in the restrictive society in which the two “boys” live.   We hear about the details of the study in which Abby immerses herself, how she advocated to learn about law and ultimately about mysticism.  And some of the details about Hasidic life are quite interesting.  And we hear about her marriage to Fraidy, which is actually quite sweet and hopeful, to some degree.

But suddenly, when she describes Fraidy giving birth to their son, and all of a sudden, it is as if she drops off a cliff and, POOF! she is a woman.  There is little to no mention of how she disengages from her prior life, with the exception of an epilogue, which tells only of how she tells her father she is a woman. We do not hear about her connection with her child, we do not hear about she experiences the transition from her insular world of Hasidism to the outer world, we do not hear about much of anything else.  This I find unbelievably disappointing and a sorely missed opportunity.  After hearing so much detail, the absence of detail is astounding.

I did learn from this book, but I was disappointed by the ending.  On the other hand, I do hope that Abby finds peace with her family and can connect with them.  She obviously loves them dearly and they do her.  I hope they can find a way to see that she is exactly who she always was.

 

 

Funny in Farsi by Firoozeh Dumas

funnyinfarsi

It is hard enough to be a seven year old girl, navigating family, friends, and school.  But in 1972, a little girl named Firoozeh had to navigate a move from Iran to a suburb of LA, where she did not know the language, was not familiar with the food, did not have the extended family around for support, and had to function as her mother’s interpreter as well as find her own way.  Fortunately for her, her intelligence, her family’s support (mostly!), and probably most importantly, her humor, enabled her to adapt and do so very successfully.  This book is essentially a collection of her memories of growing up in this colorful family challenged by the immigrant experience of balancing their own culture and tradition with integrating into the society into which they’ve landed.

First, I have to say that this was a good, light distraction from the other reading I’ve had to do these past 2 weeks!  If you’ve been like me, you’ve done more reading about viruses and epidemiology and how pandemics can be mitigated in the past 2 weeks than you’ve ever had in your life – even if you’re in Public Health.  So I am thankful that I’ve had something like this to alleviate the anxiety that all of that other reading has caused.  I implore you to use this time for more solitary reading — it will be therapeutic for you and it will socially distance you from others, helping to mitigate the spread of this awful coronavirus.

As a memoir, this book was amusing and entertaining to a point, but, I believe, a missed opportunity.  Dumas did enrich her stories with the rich flavors and aromas of Iranian cuisines, ceremonial customs, and, in particular, her father’s often comical and endearing personality quirks.  And we did get a sense of the warm acceptance into the community her family experienced in 1972, which contrasted drastically with the reception she received when they returned just after Iranian Revolution and the American hostage situation. But other vignettes, such as those about her father’s fascination with Denny’s Restaurant or her uncle’s dieting fads were much less engaging.  While an opening into her culture was an opportunity, peeking through a curtain into their family secrets felt almost voyeuristic.

This was less a memoir than a collection of short stories.  As such, it was entertaining enough, but did get a bit old after a bit.

Not a “Must Read” but good for a few chuckles.

 

 

 

Inheritance by Dani Shapiro

Dani Shapiro, an author of both fiction and memoirs, has agreed to her husband’s request to both send off their saliva specimens to Ancestry.com – quite on a lark.  Just a curiosity – something she could have just as easily decided not to do.  The results, however, turned her world upside down.  This is her true story of the fallout from that single decision.

Spoiler alert:  If you don’t want to know anything more and you might read this book, please don’t read on.

What Shapiro learns is that her father is actually not her biological father.  The person she felt closest to, proudest of, particularly with regard to her heritage – as he’d come from a line of well-respected, learned, Orthodox rabbis – was actually not related to her biologically.  On the other hand, the mother with whom she had a strained, even fearful relationship, was.  And this rocked her world.

While I cannot fully relate to the situation, I have to admit that I had a hard time completely sympathizing with the author. Yes, this must have been a shock and yes, it must have thrown her.  But when she repeatedly referred to this as a “trauma,” I could not help feeling as if this was melodramatic.  The word, trauma, I believe, has become so over-used that its potency has become diluted.  Her year of worrying about her son with a near-fatal disease – THAT was traumatic, I’m sure.  This discovery about her father, I do not think rises to the level of trauma.  And while I agree, to live in a family with secrets was not ideal, it was certainly not uncommon at that time.  The 1950’s and 1960’s were fraught with a different philosophy about what was appropriate to discuss with children.  To apply today’s standards to what was standard then is unfair.

I also thought that this story might have been told in a much shorter format – such as an article in the New Yorker, for example.  As a full-length memoir, it was somewhat drawn out and sometimes actually dull. I was waiting for something truly extraordinary to happen and it did not.  What did begin to capture my interest was her discussion about the Farris clinic, the infertility clinic in Philadelphia where her mother was inseminated.  The doctor went rogue, was practicing without a license, and inventing new techniques in infertility treatments.  Some were actual advancements and some were truly unethical and this would have been fascinating to explore further.  Unfortunately, there was only limited exploration of this clinic and details were doled out sparingly.  This is where I was hoping the story would lead.

All in all, I was left somewhat disappointed.  I’m curious to hear what others think…!

 

 

Button Man by Andrew Gross

After tragedy hits the poor, struggling, immigrant Rabishevsky family, the 3 remaining sons struggle to find a way back to normalcy.  Each copes in his own way, but it seems that Morris, the baby, is the one with the most strength.  When challenged, it is Morris who doesn’t back down.   But when all his competition in the garment business is being ensnared by the Jewish mobsters’ union scam, will Morris and Raab Brothers be able to continue to resist? How brave is he really?  And whom will he put at risk if he does?

This novel is not only compelling, but, to my surprise, is based on a true story.  It is beautifully told, building the plot’s suspense as we come to know each of the characters more intimately and then twisting it into knots.  It is full of the unexpected, starting with Jewish strong-armed bodyguards to crazy  action-packed crime scenes. But there are many tender scenes as well.  And my favorite lines during one of these is this:  “When you’re scared, you’re nothing but a prisoner…but the moment you decide to stand up, become brave, you’re free.  Free of everything that holds you back…  You don’t have to think about it anymore.”  This is a brilliant line.  Hard to live by, but I guess something to strive for.

There are a. number of themes that wrap around the main character, Morris, and weigh him down throughout his life., but most dramatically it is the idea of not being able to forgive.  In Morris’s case, it becomes somewhat blinding, and later, when he realizes his error, he is crippled with guilt.  It is a powerful message, that is probably universal.  So many of us – myself included — carry grudges against those who have wronged us or who have wronged someone close to us.  It is extremely hard to let go.  Maybe impossible.  But whom are we harming when we don’t?  This story gives us pause to challenge our own difficult relationships.

I’d love to hear other themes or  that you’ve found in this book.  Please comment and add to this entry!

Thanks for reading!

 

Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig

If you have ever wondered what it feels like to be depressed or to have a panic attack – read this book.  In it, Matt Haig shares his experience with depression and anxiety and invites you straight into his brain.  You sit there with him at the brink of suicide,  you hold your breath as he wrestles with his demons and you ache with his pain. He chronicles his years of experiencing depression and anxiety and actually comes to a sort of peace with it, ultimately, seeming to acknowledge that it has led him to feel things more deeply in both directions, whether toward pain or toward joy.

I think this is an important book to read.  While nothing can ever really give anyone a perfect picture of what it feels like to have depression – and I’m sure it feels different for each individual who experiences it – this does, I believe, give a vivid, repetitive, and detailed description.  There are analogies, lists, comparisons, images, and examples of ways in which the author’s life was impaired by his illness that go beyond what most expect from what we think of depression.  His was particularly severe.

And I think it’s important that we as members of our society, such as it is today, familiarize ourselves as much as possible with the symptoms of depression and anxiety because it is, sadly,  so prevalent.  We need to be aware of how severe it can be, how invisible it can be, and how crippling it can be.  We also must learn how to help someone who is suffering with it.  There are suggestions in this book, which are quite helpful.

On the negative side, I believe this book was not well edited.  I found t grammatically lazy, somewhat repetitive, and missing large chunks of the story.  How does Matt actually get better?  Just time?   When does he get married?  And where do the two kids come in?  What role do his parents play really in his recovery?  There is so much that is glossed over  How has he been able to write through the depression?  What does he write about?

I like the philosophical tangents – there is a great amount of wisdom and helpful advice for others with depression and anxiety and for those who may be around those who suffer.  And I do think this book is an important read.  I wish the actual writing  had been given a bit more attention…