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.  

 

 

 

Caste by Isabel Wilkerson

Caste (Oprah's Book Club): The Origins of Our Discontents: Wilkerson,  Isabel: 9780593230251: Amazon.com: Books

Written by one of the most impactful writers of our time, this non-fiction masterpiece is a stark comparison of the caste system that we live with here in the U.S. and that which has existed in India for hundreds of years and that which enabled the rise of the Third Reich in Germany during World War II. In order to elevate the white, European (Aryan) male in both the U.S. and Germany, it was necessary to establish a scapegoat, or a group of humans deemed less-than, in order to maintain an identity of being higher than. Likewise, in India, it was necessary to invoke religious inspiration to insist that men are created with certain intrinsic value based on the class they are born into, rather than natural, proven talents/abilities. Those at the top convinced themselves (and are continuing to convince themselves) that those at the bottom were content with their lot – or at least, that this was a god-given right which they enshrined. The myriad historical details and the personal accounts only serve to enrich Wilkerson’s thesis and drive her very painful and compelling point home.

While this book is not an easy one to read, it is one of the most important books that help explain this moment we are living in. It is clear that the presidency of Donald Trump was not a cause but a result of a growing fear of white men of losing their power over all others (including women of all colors, by the way) in this country. The continued efforts of Republicans to gerrymander and inflict restrictive voting laws are clear evidence of their flailing attempts to grasp onto those strangleholds they view as their birthright. And, as Wilkerson so rightly points out, these restrictive and terrifying laws and movements, and the rising of the Alt Right, Neo-Nazi, and white supremacy groups, hurt everyone – including the perpetrators – physically and mentally. We all lose.

We owe Wilkerson a debt of gratitude for her years-long, painstaking research and her gorgeous writing that encapsulates it.

Again, everyone MUST READ this book – if you want to understand not only caste but the fundamental history of our country and what is happening in our country today.

Here All Along by Sarah Hurwitz

Here All Along - National Library Board Singapore - OverDrive

In this book, Sarah Hurwitz, better known for her speechwriting for the Obamas, takes us with her on her spiritual journey, her quest for a deeper understanding of Judaism than her elementary, religious school education had afforded her. After being re-introduced to Judaism through a course at a local JCC, she was inspired to delve deeply into various texts, study with various rabbis and other learned folks, and seek out various religious and spiritual experiences to try to identify what Judaism could mean for her. In doing so, she discovered that there was really no comprehensive book that did this for her, and thus, made it her business to try to create this one for others seeking to possibly do the same.

This is an impressive volume that I feel can help anyone who may be either contemplating becoming a Jew by choice, or really anyone just wishing to learn more about their own Judaism. Even having had the benefit of having studied various texts of the Talmud in my younger days, and have celebrated most of the holidays on a regular basis, there is always more to learn and I feel I did so from this book. She is contemplative and analytical about so many aspects of observance, about belief in God, about the beauty and significance of Shabbat, about the idea of what happens when we die – that there is truly something here for everyone.

I love that the language is accessible and non-judgemental as well. Having been educated in an Orthodox day school, I have experienced a heavy dose of Jewish guilt first-hand and it can be exhausting and alienating. Here, on the other hand, Hurwitz emphasizes the positive – the ethical values and actual responsibilities that Judaism expects of the individual toward those who are marginalized in any way, to animals and to the earth. And while observing the laws and rites and rituals remind us of who we are, the fundamental moral practices keep us grounded in our humanity and are likely what take us to a higher place spiritually.

I suspect this will be a gift I will consider giving to others. You may consider giving it as a gift to yourself!

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!)

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain

Image result for image of quiet by susn cain

Do you ever crave an escape from the noisy world we live in? Do you thrive in quieter settings, when you’re either alone with a good book or just engrossed in deep conversation with one friend? Have you worried there was something wrong with you when you panicked at the thought of having to speak up in a group of co-workers or a study group? If you have, you may actually be an introvert – and that is not a bad thing! While our society seems to prize the extrovert, the one who is the outspoken, confident leader — think Homecoming Queen, for example — it may be the introvert who really is behind so many of our major advancements (think Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple). It is the introvert who may allow for the quiet time during which thoughts can generate and percolate, and who may seek deeper conversation that brings people close. To be clear, it is not that introverts do not seek to be with others, but their connections are generally in smaller groups, on their terms, and more intimate. Nor is there a judgement that being introverted vs extroverted is better or worse – this is just a variation in personality style and a way of relating that can be every bit as effective. This book helps to identify and elevate those who are introverts to allow for all of us to prize introverts for their unique value just as we do extroverts for theirs.

An important impact of how society values extroversion is on our educational system. More and more, classrooms are being set up to promote group activity, with desks moved into circles rather than in the classic rows. This is great for those who function well in groups, the extroverts, but those who learn better with time to themselves, this may be more challenging. It is up to the teachers to appreciate and value both personality types and learning styles and to accommodate both.

I wish I had had the opportunity to read this book years ago. I learned so much about both myself and members of my own family through the pages of this book. I now understand why after caring for patients and interacting with my colleagues all day at work, all I am usually able to do by the end of the day is to get into bed and read. I realize that while I feel privileged to have the interactions I have both with my patients and my colleagues and I do feel passionate about what I do and enjoy it, it does take all of my energy to maintain the level of human interaction that it requires. At the end of the day, I need to refuel. Apparently, I am a true introvert.

This is an important book for so many of us to read. It gives us a much deeper understanding of our family, our colleagues, and our friends and enables us to value each of them for their unique styles of interaction. It may also give us a deeper understanding of ourselves. It certainly did this for me.

I recommend this as a MUST READ!

 

In Harmony: Early Vocal Groups Remembered & Celebrated by Lloyd Kaplan and Tom Shaker

At the onset of the COVID pandemic, most of us were bracing ourselves for a few weeks of solitude. Maybe thinking we’d have a few extra moments to ourselves, maybe some time to finally get to cleaning out those menacing closets we all have, maybe set up a home gym? Now that its been months and I’ve done none of those things, I am truly that much more inspired by my own father, who has taken it upon himself to have written and have published, with the help of his friend, Tom Shaker, an entire book. And here it is!

In this little paperback, available through http://www.consortiumpublishing.com, the authors give the history, backgrounds, and some fun, glossy photos of an assortment of vocal groups starting from the 1920’s and going up to about the 1950’s (although some groups are still performing today). While some groups are likely familiar, such as the Andrews Sisters and the Ink Spots, others are quite obscure; nevertheless, the authors impress upon the reader how even some of the most obscure groups had profound influence on many later vocalists that were more well-known.

What I found most engaging were the stories. The family conflicts, financial hardship, the many who were drafted into the armed forces because of the wars in these years. Many groups of color encountered flagrant racism, performing during the Jim Crow years in the South and being taken advantage of by many recording labels everywhere. Some of these vocal groups bravely paved the way for future performers and established new norms and higher standards in some cases.

Now I’ve got to do my homework – and start to listen to some of these groups. Here’s where the fun really begins!

(Please note, this is an entirely objective opinion, of course! This has NOTHING to do with the fact that the author is my dad…!!)

 

 

 

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!

 

 

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration:  Wilkerson, Isabel: 8580001042800: Amazon.com: Books

Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, and George Swanson Starling never knew each other, nor did they live in the same time or place — yet they all had something in common: they each participated in the Great Migration and for parallel reasons. Through this gritty chronicle of their lives, we earn a deeper appreciation for how the Jim Crow south drove millions of black folks northward and westward, in desperate search of freedom and civil rights.  We also see how they experienced both successes and failures when they arrived.

This impressive work of non-fiction reads like part novel/part PhD thesis, but as a whole, it works. The parts that tell the story of each of these individuals’ lives are profoundly beautiful and what drive the book forward.   The author delivers their stories with such tenderness and detail that she lifts each of them off of the page and brings them into the room with you, bringing with them their hopes and their heartaches.  And interwoven with their stories is the historical context in which they are living.  The author zooms out to portray the larger picture of what is happening — what wars, economic factors, or local social affairs, sometimes graphic, are impacting our 3 protagonists at the time.  This sometimes gets quite dense, but it definitely contributes a great deal to the depth of the story.  

The larger question is this:  Did those who risked their lives, often sneaking out in the middle of the night,  to migrate to the north/west fare better than those who stayed in the south? I believe this is a complex question and one the author was seeking to answer with the writing of this book.  Those who left were desperately seeking a chance to be recognized as individuals who deserved their civil rights under the law, to be seen as equal to everyone else.  When they arrived in the north and/or west, they were allowed to sit anywhere on the bus and to drink at any water fountain.  But they definitely were not treated as equals to everyone else in their their job searches or their housing purchases.   

I’d be very interested to hear your opinion about the conclusions drawn in this book.  It’s an important discussion.  

The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk, MD

Trauma, in its many forms, can impact people in devastating ways, both mentally and physically, especially when untreated. The way this manifests can be incredibly complex and we are only beginning to understand how and why this is. Dr. van der Kolk, a Harvard University psychiatrist who has treated hundreds of patients with trauma and has himself conducted much research in this area, has in these pages compiled a summary of the issues and the research to date in a palatable, accessible narrative.

What is striking is how physical psychological trauma can be. More importantly, as van der Kolk demonstrates, it is often not until one appreciates the physicality of the experience of the particular trauma, and until one actually experiences it again — with the banging of the heartbeat, and the shortness of the breath, and all of the other uncomfortable attendant bodily sensations — in a safe and nurturing environment where one can process it, can one truly overcome the trauma.

There is a lot of repetition in this book. Ir feels as if the author does not trust the reader to believe his conclusions and he therefore has to drive them home again and again. On the other hand, he does pepper his points with many vignettes and personal stories as examples, and these are what make the book so memorable. There are so many dramatic stories of recovery, it is utterly inspiring.

I will also add that for anyone who uses the DSM (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), there is some interesting backstory here. What has come to be used as a basis on which official diagnoses are made (and in turn, billing and insurance coverage), was originally intended as general diagnostic guidance only. In addition, there is a lot of money made from the publication of this book.

I highly recommend this book – you will gain insight into others – and perhaps into yourself.

So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo

Yesterday, I went on a long drive with my son to visit my parents, whom I’d not seen since the outbreak of the pandemic.  We’d planned to visit them outdoors, for a backyard hangout just for a couple of hours.  I knew my son would be up for it, as he loves going for long car rides – any excuse to hang out, relax and listen to music together, and he’s on board.  But I couldn’t help thinking throughout the ride about a personal experience shared by Ijeoma Oluo, here in this book, So You Want to Talk About Race.   She described, in vivid detail, the terror of having been targeted by a police officer for “speeding” – she was driving in a car with her 2 brothers (all are black) going ONE mile per hour – yes, ONE!- over the speed limit.  She described to the reader that she and other black drivers can never relax when driving, never fully experience pleasure when driving, on the highway or anywhere, because of the constant fear that hovers over them.  Lurking behind every corner, behind every tree, could be the next random police stop we all hear about, almost on a daily basis, that have notoriously ended up in unwarranted arrests, violence, and even death, without any repercussion to the police responsible.  I realized, yesterday, how I have taken that right to drive so for granted.

So You Want to Talk About Race is yet another outstanding guide which delves into the difficult topic of race and racism.  In this very accessible, well-thought-out book, Oluo neatly explains a wide variety of relevant and complicated topics such as the one described above. She covers many relevant areas, including intersectionality, the school-to-prison pipeline, cultural appropriation, and the model minority myth, to name a few.   Oluo very generously shares with the reader many deeply personal experiences of racism such as the one described above, which give those of us who don’t walk around in skin of color a window into what that is like.  And while I know I will never know exactly what it feels like, I will continue to try to understand, so that I can be as much of an ally as possible.

One topic that Oluo touches on that I have not seen covered in other books I’ve read is “tone policing.”  This refers to the criticism of the angry tone that folks may take when calling out racism and other acts of hate.  I am sure I have been guilty of this myself and am so appreciative of having been made aware of it.  Of course folks are angry!  Of course they are sick of dealing with this! I do not have the right to complain about my discomfort with that.

Again, I also appreciate that book ended on a positive note.  The final chapter is about what we can do to fight racism, what steps we can take to undermine the structures in our country that have supported white supremacy.  It is one thing to learn and to empathize, but  it is so much more to act.  We must do what we can, even in small steps, to help move society forward.

I thank Oluo for this iconic book.  I am sure it was painful to write, but it is a compelling springboard for deep discussion about this urgent topic.

Let’s all keep talking about race. So that hopefully we won’t have to.