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…!

 

 

Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb

For anyone who is in therapy, has contemplated therapy, knows someone in therapy, or should be in therapy – and yes, that’s everyone! — this is a great book!

Lori Gottlieb, a therapist who has come to being so by way of having been a screenwriter, a medical student and a journalist, gives a thoughtful account of her experience of going through a sudden, devastating breakup which rocks her world.  Feeling like she’s been blindsided, she seeks out the comfort of a therapist, Wendell (not his real name) whom she expects will join her in her rage against “Boyfriend” who has deserted her after seeming to be committed to their relationship for the past 2 years.  What she receives instead surprises her and gives her space to peer inside and in fact,  find genuine growth and much deeper comfort and understanding than she’d imagined.

A number of people recommended this book to me and I began it reluctantly.  Because of what I do everyday, I thought it might not be the escape that I love books to be.  To my surprise, though, it was exactly that.   Gottlieb is a gifted storyteller and weaves her own story with those of some of her clients.  As she begins to unveil her own journey, she also draws parallels with those of a few of her clients and we come to know and appreciate each of them as they too peel off the layers of their own defenses. We learn some of the terms of the trade, and how therapy works, in a sense — how she gives and takes, as a therapist who is in therapy, and how even if she is a therapist, it is hard to see your own defenses at play.    And she does all of this with kindness and humor.

This is an extremely engaging read – a true story that reads like a novel.  Be ready to laugh and to cry and to seriously think about going into therapy if you aren’t in therapy already!

 

The Rosie Result by Graeme Simsion

This is the third in this delightful series about the exploits of Don Tillman, who has found the love of his life – Rosie – married her, and is now raising their “result,” Hudson.  As Rosie has now been offered a position in their native Australia, they have uprooted 11-year-old Hudson and are trying to help him adjust to the transition.  Because Hudson is definitely a creature of habit, he is not very happy with the change and he is letting Don and Rosie know it.  And so are his teachers.  And the school principal.  As a professional crisis for Don leads him to change his work schedule and focus, he opts to spend more time with Hudson to support him with the adjustment.  This process leads both Don and Hudson down a road to self-discovery that is truly life-changing for both of them.

I love the writing for its voice.  The author creates the most endearing character in Don, even as Don verbalizes little directly of his own emotions.  Don’s utter honesty and kindness are reflected in the things he says and does for those around him and the reactions he elicits are often surprise and wonder., even as people see him as different.  He struggles to fit in with those who are “neurotypical” (not autistic) and wants his son to fit in as well in order to avoid the difficulties Don has had to contend with. In this and many other ways, he demonstrates that he deeply feels compassion and empathy, even if he misses other more subtle social cues.

Clearly, the author,  with the assistance of his wife (a psychologist), has made a statement here in this novel in support of those in the autism community.  Apparently there are differing opinions on how to approach children with autism –whether to teach them skills to integrate more into the neurotypical community or to allow them to be as they are (and obviously to reach out to the general public and educate us more on acceptance, which should be happening anyway).  I imagine this must be a painfully difficult decision for some parents, who want to spare a child’s suffering (these children are often bullied because they are different) but also allow a child to see that they are loved for who they are, no matter what.  I believe this book gives a lot of insight into both the challenges and the capabilities of those with autism and one turns the final pages feeling strongly allied with this community.

I also love the not-so-subtle shout out in support of vaccinations.  There is a very strong statement countering the absolutely unsubstantiated idea that vaccines cause autism.  This idea was started by an unethical researcher in England years ago who was later found to have fudged his data in order to be published.  But the damage was done.  He’s created a community of people who believe in conspiracy theories about vaccines that are just untrue.  Vaccines save lives.  Period.

I love all of the Rosie books – and this one is another great one!  Definitely read it!

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…

Body Kindness by Rebecca Scritchfield AND Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole

These two complementary books are revolutionary in their importance.  Dieting and dieting culture has overtaken most developed countries and has become a billion dollar industry.  Most importantly, however, it has probably been what has contributed most to what is known today as the “obesity epidemic” among health care providers, and yet, what do most health care providers prescribe as an antidote?  More diets!

The newest and best science is pointing toward the fact that diets cause more harm than good, and just about every diet counts.  Whenever you tell someone not to eat something, what does that person then, instinctively crave?  Whatever it is you’ve forbidden them, of course!  And after restricting whatever it is you’re restricting – calories, carbs, fat – it doesn’t really matter – after losing weight, the body seeks to regain the weight, by doing whatever it takes.  So people tend to regain the weight, plus!  And yo-yoing is worse for you than just being a bit overweight, in terms of causing more inflammation and heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, and the unwanted health consequences of the overweight in the first place.

Because let’s face it, if we’d just accept ourselves in the less-than-“Twiggy”-as-ideal-bodies, we’d not have to worry about the dieting.  Our priority should really be about health.  And if it’s really and truly about health, then we’d throw away the scales and talk about fruits and vegetables and whole foods and exercise and that would be that.  We’d not be supporting Weight Watchers, and NutriSystem, and Jenny Craig and all the others who are making millions and preying on those of us who have fallen for these very smart business models.

So what do these books say?  Basically, that we were born with the internal cues that tell us when we’re hungry and when we’re full and we have to try to reach back in to find those signals and respond again to them.  To do this, we must trust that our bodies are really good at this and it’s ok to respond to them, even if they sometimes tell us that it’s ok to have a slice of cake because it looks delicious and we love this kind of cake and even if they tell us not to finish everything on our plate because we’re actually full.  The books also encourage movement of any kind, not just punishing workouts at a gym and give guidance on how to avoid emotional eating which many find quite challenging.  And they also encourage one to dig deep and find a way to care for oneself – that is, to carve out time to really see to one’s own needs that are being superficially cared for by food but that if tended to more deeply, then food won’t need to serve as a pacifier.

I think that almost every woman I’ve met has dieted at some point in her life.  So many would find either of these interesting and helpful.

Let’s try to move our conversations away from how we look to what we can achieve!!

My Name is Mahtob by Mahtob Mahmoody

my-name-is-mahtob

Many years ago, I watched a movie called Not Without My Daughter, with Sally Field.  Have you seen it?

It was a true story about an American woman married to an Iranian man and together they had a 5 year old daughter named Mahtob.  They lived in Michigan and were happily married, until he suggested they take a 2-week vacation to visit his relatives in Iran.  This was just after the Iranian revolution during which the Ayatolah Khomeini overthrew the Shah.  Once they were in Iran, it became clear that Sayyed, the father, had no intention of taking his family back to America.  He embraced the law of the land, which claimed that women and children were the property of the man of the family, and he held them hostage, watching their every move and threatening them with their lives if they disobeyed him.  They lived like this for almost 18 months, until Betty, Mahtob’s mother, was able to earn his trust enough to be allowed to go shopping in the market and make secret contact with an underground network of people who were able to help her and Mahtob finally and miraculously escape.

I remember having had nightmares about this movie for months after seeing it.  And now here is the epilogue…

This is the story from Mahtob, the daughter, herself.  She recounts her story, as the daughter of these two very different parents.  She shares her early memories of America, in a very loving home, with tender memories of her father at the start.  She recalls a subtle shift in his attitude toward his culture and religion just before their leaving for Iran.  But the change in his attitude was like a tidal wave once they landed in Iran, and the loving father that she knew essentially disappeared, replaced by a monster, in her eyes – one who beat up her beloved mother, who threatened her mother, and who separated Mahtob from her mother for days at a time.  And that’s when she learned to hate.

What I did not realized was that the story did not end with their escape from Iran.  This mother and child had to endure years of terror, fearing a kidnapping by her father – or worse! – their whole lives.  And the impact spread to everyone around them.

Betty Mahmoody coped by using their experience  to advocate for others in this situation.  She fought for federal laws that protected children against international parental kidnapping, which President Clinton passed.  And she travelled around the country and around the world, personally supporting  many families who were in the same situation that she had been in.

This is a very, very hard book to read emotionally but it is an important one, I believe.  It serves as a portrait of the convergence of mental illness and religious fanaticism, which is a  terrifying combination.

It  brought it all back for me, but it also brought closure as well.  It seemed to have done so for Mahtob herself.

Black Girl/White Girl by Joyce Carol Oates

black girl:white girl

Generva Meade has come from a family who assisted with the Underground Railroad and who is deeply entrenched in the Civil Rights movement, and she is currently assigned, her freshman year, to live with a conservative, religious black roommate at the prestigious Schuyler College where her family has donated founding money.  She is very excited to get to know her roommate, Minette, and is sorely disappointed when she sees that her roommate does not reciprocate this enthusiasm.  In fact, her roommate, she finds, is sullen, angry, and a fierce loner – scorning white and black girls in their dorm alike.  Generva is undaunted, however, and pursues the friendship in spite of the coldness with which every attempt at kindness is greeted.  When Minette becomes the target of hate pranks, Generva is her staunchest protector, even as Minette ignores her help.  And as the year progresses, and Minette’s situation worsens, Generva is also confronting her own family distress, with her mother’s unraveling as her father’s past transgressions are catching up to him (as is the FBI).  The final incident of Minette’s tragedy pushes Generva to face her own past as her family faces theirs.

I rarely listen to books on tape, but this was the result of a very long car ride – and I’m not sure if that tainted my view on this book or not.  It is a difficult story, both emotionally and technically.  There are many tangents, that are later significant but that are sometimes hard to follow.  The story is also steeped in history, shameful and bleak, and had many references to the attempts on the part of many whites who tried to help, but who expect more appreciation than they are deserving of.

The character of Minette is a tragic one.  She is trapped between the world of her conservative, Christian, independent and proud Black heritage and the more modern, socially-focused black girls in her dorm.  She refused to socialize with the other black girls just because they were black like she was, but this left her alone and deeply depressed.  She also refused any help with her studies, even as she was struggling academically, which further plummeted her self-esteem.  As she became the target of racial incidents, it became more and more heartbreaking to see how alone she was.  Generva could not comprehend why Minette would continue to repel her kindness.  It is not entirely clear if Minette’s ignoring of Generva is from a resentment of white privilege or just from her own self-absorption from depression – or perhaps both.

This story had the potential to be excellent, however, it feels like it tries a bit too hard.  The nagging earnestness on the part of Generva that is borne of her own family history and connections and her own wish to rid herself of that white guilt becomes cloying,  At least this reader/listener shouted more than once, “Just leave her alone!”  It is unclear why she would continue to try, when repelled so many times, when she would have had other friends in other groups.  Why did she need to befriend only this one girl?  Was it the challenge?  Was it because she was black?  Was it because her family was so disconnected from her as she was growing up and that gave her so little self-esteem? Was it her own sense of guilt from her family’s activities?

If you are psychologically inclined, you might be interested in reading this, as there is a lot of depth here.  But if you are looking for a quick, entertaining, light read, this is not the book for you!