Category Archives: Memoir

NOT DEAD YET by Phil Collins

phil-collins-not-dead-yet-photoPhil Collins came out with his memoir, Not Dead Yet, this fall, joining a crop of rock bios that have been getting a lot of attention recently. I was a big Genesis/Phil Collins fan back in the 80s, so I was excited to get my hands on the audio version of Not Dead Yet.

Collins narrates the audio version, which enhances the sense of intimacy the listener feels with him throughout the book. It opens with his early days in suburban London and tracks his family life and his childhood/early adulthood obsession with music. From there, the juggernaut of Collins’ career kicks in: joining Genesis, touring larger and larger venues, taking over frontman status from Peter Gabriel, more Genesis albums, his explosive solo career, more Genesis albums, Disney soundtracks, hit movie songs, and on and on. There is a reason Phil Collins seemed ubiquitous in the 80s and 90s – he was. He was also a workaholic who couldn’t say no to any opportunity – to sing, to compose, to produce, to collaborate. He would travel the globe while on world tours, and then return to his home base where he would jump immediately into the next project without stopping.

This lifestyle took a toll on his personal life, which Collins does not gloss over. Three marriages, three divorces, long distance relationships with his five kids – these all weigh on Collins, and he perseverates on them throughout the book. He takes the blame for the failure of his marriages, though he manages to make himself look OK at the same time. Collins was criticized by the media when all of this was going on, particularly his delivering his request for a divorce from wife #2 via fax, and his affair with a woman half his age while on tour. Collins takes the blows here, for sure, but it’s clear that he is relieved to finally be telling his story.

He also shines a light on some other personal stuff, like his obsession with the Alamo and the physical ailments that plagued his later career, like an ear stroke that caused him to lose his hearing in one ear and the hand and back issues that put an end to his prolific drumming. The toughest section comes at the end, when Collins describes in painstaking detail his slide into alcoholism in the early 2010s and the terrible toll it took on his body and his family.

I thoroughly enjoyed Not Dead Yet, especially the behind-the-scenes look at the music, the bands and the touring. On many occasions, I paused the audio to call up a song on Spotify or a video on YouTube, which definitely enhanced my enjoyment of the book. I am addicted to 80s nostalgia, and Not Dead Yet did not disappoint. If you were even a casual Genesis or Phil fan, I think you’ll enjoy this book.

Collins is apologetic about his ubiquity – almost overly so. He suggests that his transatlantic dual performances on Live Aid in 1985 were almost accidental, and he distances himself from the coincidence of having hit songs with two bands on the charts at the same time. He basically says, “I get it – I was sick of me too.” (Sometimes this is a little too much.)

Collins is clearly an emotional, complicated guy, and Not Dead Yet shows him in the most flattering light possible. I’m sure there are other sides to a lot of his stories (and in fact I heard a few of them at Thanksgiving dinner from someone who knows him), but I liked hearing (and believing) Phil’s version for 10 hours. I mean, that’s the point of a rock memoir, right? To clean up the reputation?

Collins’ albums have all been recently remastered, and if you listen to them on Spotify you get a new cover, a closeup of Phil’s sixtysomething face instead of the thirtysomething faces I remembered from the original covers. It’s kind of creepy, but it’s reality – our rock gods are aging. Not Dead Yet at least gave me glimpses of that younger guy, and for that I am grateful.

(And yes, I found out what “In The Air Tonight” is about. Not this:)

MY PICTURE PERFECT FAMILY by Marguerite Elisofon

5146laoj58l-_sx331_bo1204203200_Marguerite Elisofon and her husband Howard had boy-girl twins named Samantha and Matthew in 1990. The twins were premature, but Matthew developed normally while Samantha started lagging behind from an early age. After many rounds of testing, Samantha was diagnosed on the autism spectrum, which changed the Elisofons’ lives in every possible way.

My Picture Perfect Family is a painstaking account of how the Elisofons – and particularly Marguerite – learned to accept that Samantha would never be the “picture perfect” daughter they had hoped for, and how they worked tirelessly to enroll her in programs and schools that would allow her to learn and even thrive. Marguerite’s patience and persistence saw Samantha through several New York City schools until she finally ended up at one that was committed to her intellectual growth. There are many ups and downs along the way: schools that decided that Samantha was too much for them, endless tantrums and disastrous family vacations, punctuated by small steps forward, unexpected breakthroughs and some surprisingly positive playdates. Through it all, Elisofon never gave up hope that her daughter would find a place that would encourage her and allow her to pursue the activities she loved – acting and singing.

As a mother of twins myself, I was particularly interested in how Samantha and Matthew related to each other over the years, and how Elisofon navigated balancing of attention between the two, even when one twin needed so much more intervention and involvement. She includes family photographs along the way, along with the backstory of what was happening that the camera didn’t capture.

My Picture Perfect Family is a dense, engrossing read. While it is quite detailed, it is never tedious. Elisofon is a skilled writer, laying out the complications in Samantha’s condition and treatment. And it ends on a hopeful note. Samantha graduates from high school and, like her brother, goes on to college. The book ends as she leaves for college, with only a brief epilogue talking about the years that followed.

I am glad I read My Picture Perfect Family. It’s a very poignant and powerful look at the challenges of raising an autistic child and the power of a stubborn, persistent parent who wants nothing more than her daughter to be happy and challenged.

 

YES PLEASE by Amy Poehler

513gpyqm6bl-_sx324_bo1204203200_My family has been been on a Parks and Recreation binge over the last few months, so I’ve been watching a lot of Amy Poehler. I received an ARC of Yes Please when it came out last fall, but hadn’t gotten to it yet, so I decided to listen to it on audio a few weeks ago. Many hours of Amy Poehler in the car!

Yes Please is Poehler’s memoir about her childhood, her early years in comedy in Chicago, her time on SNL and (thankfully) her experience on Parks and Recreation. Along the way, Poehler shares her insights on being a working mom, her divorce (a little), her children, and some celebrity gossip from SNL and various awards shows. Yes Please is well-written and, if not chronological, at least loosely organized around themes and phases of Poehler’s life.

I read Tina Fey’s Bossypants 5 years ago (review here), and I just re-read my review of it. On the surface it sounds an awful lot like Yes Please. But I liked Poehler’s book better. I think there’s more substance, and more to take away from it. Maybe I identify more with Poehler, with her 80s childhood and her pop culture influences. Maybe it’s because it was narrated for me by Poehler. Regardless, I think it hangs together better as a book. Poehler is relatable and funny and imperfect. She is generous to others and grateful for their roles in her life. And part of her is Leslie Knope, and who doesn’t love Leslie Knope?

I could have done without all the whining about how hard it is to write a book.

Yes Please isn’t the deepest or most satisfying book I’ve read recently, but it was a lot of fun and certainly made my commute go by faster. As for the audio narration – it’s really fun to hear it all in Poehler’s voice. She has a few guest narrators – Seth Meyers, her parents, the creator of Parks and Recreation – but I like her solo sections the best.

I WILL ALWAYS WRITE BACK by Martin Ganda and Caitlyn Alifirenka

Our March mother-daughter book club read was I Will Always Write Back by Martin Ganda and Caitlyn Alifirenka. It was a rare non-fiction pick for the group, but I think it was one of the most-liked books so far this year.

When Caitlin Stoicsitz was 7th grader in suburban Pennsylvania, she was assigned a pen pal in Zimbabwe to correspond with named Martin Ganda. This random assignment turned out to be life-changing for both Caitlyn and Matin. Their correspondence, at first rather sporadic, grew increasingly more substantive, as Martin gradually revealed to Caitlyn just how poor his family was. He eventually explained that he was forced to drop out of school because his family couldn’t afford the fees, and shared some details about the home in which he lived (two adults and four children in one room, with only one bed and no shoes). Caitlyn, a typical self-absorbed and relatively spoiled American teenager, was shocked by what she heard from Martin, and started sending him her babysitting money in the form of $20 bills.

Well, those $20 bills were frequently enough to pay Martin’s fees and make a serious difference for Martin’s family. Caitlyn and Martin grew to care a lot about each other, and Caitlyn got her family involved after confessing that she had been sending him cash through the mail. Meanwhile, Martin’s family situation got more desperate as Zimbabwe’s economy deteriorated and his father lost his job.

I Will Always Write Back is about the difference that Caitlyn and her family made in Martin’s life, ultimately paving the way for him to go to college in America. It’s also about the importance of understanding different cultures and having your eyes open about how other people live. Caitlyn was continually amazed by the hardships and deprivations suffered by Martin’s family, while he was amazed by Caitlyn’s American lifestyle.

I Will Always Write Back is a great book for middle schoolers. The writing is pretty simple, and kids have a lot to learn from Martin and his drive to learn and succeed. The book also prompted a good conversation among the girls about what they would have done in Caitlyn’s shoes. How much would they have done for Martin? Did they think their parents would have helped the way Caitlyn’s did? Is it better to help one person, or try to contribute to a school or another cause in Africa?

This was perspective-broadening book that put global income disparity into sharp relief for kids. Our book club is now looking into ways to raise funds to similarly situated kids in Africa, and I’ve already had a few conversations with my daughters about ways that they can help. Readers might be a little bored by the repetition in the letters (and frustrated with some of Caitlyn’s letters about parties and fights with friends), but I Will Always Write Back was overall a very worthwhile read.

SOME ASSEMBLY REQUIRED by Anne Lamott

Writer Anne Lamott had a son, Sam, when she was 35-years old, and wrote a memoir of Sam’s first year of life called Operating Instructions: A Journal Of My Son’s First Year. When Sam turned 19, his girlfriend Amy got pregnant, and they decided to keep and raise the baby. Some Assembly Required: A Journal Of My Son’s First Son is Lamott’s memoir of Sam’s son Jax’s first year of life. I just finished Some Assembly Required on audio, my first foray into Lamott territory.

Lamott is clearly in love with her grandson, Jax. Despite her concerns about the situation before he was born, she becomes utterly besotted upon his arrival. But at the same time, she seems to forget that other people in the world have had babies and grandbabies, and that Jax’s learning to roll over and make sounds is something that pretty much all babies eventually do. After a while, her repeated descriptions of Jax as the most advanced, good-natured baby in the world get a little old.

Lamott can be funny and self-deprecating, but she’s also very self-absorbed. While she acknowledges that it’s unreasonable for her to expect to be the center of the universe, she does expect to be the center of the universe. She has a hard time putting herself into other people’s shoes and understanding their point of view. She understands in theory that Jax’s mother Amy is far from home and the people she loves, but she just cannot accept Amy’s moving away as a rational, defensible position. She frequently mentions her generosity toward Sam and Amy, such as buying them groceries and clothes or babysitting Jax, but she is also fairly critical of their relationship and Amy’s refusal to get a job.

There are also long forays when Lamott goes to India and Europe which are initially interesting but then tend to drag on. I also got a little bored with the sections about religion and Lamott’s church and the ashram she attended with her son.

In the end, Some Assembly Required was sort of a drag. Touching and funny at times, but also tedious and frustrating.

Lamott herself narrated the audio version, with her son Sam narrating his own portions. Neither is a good narrator. They both recite the words with little expression. I feel like they were each sort of bored with the whole thing before they got to the audio.

Some Assembly Required was disappointing in the end. Should I try any other Anne Lamott books?

A TENDER STRUGGLE by Krista Bremer

A Tender Struggle: Story of A Marriage (previously published as An Accidental Jihad), by Krista Bremer, is about a non-spiritual Christian who meets Ismail, a Muslim Libyan man 15 years her senior while on a running path in North Carolina. Despite their vast cultural differences, she ends up marrying him and having two children with him. A Tender Struggle is a memoir about Bremer’s journey to understand him and his faith.

I have mixed feelings about this book.

On the plus side: Bremer is a beautiful writer. Her memoir is clear, eloquent and totally honest. I don’t think she held back at all in writing this book. She shares great detail about her visit to Libya to meet Ismail’s family and the isolation, boredom, and frustration she felt during that visit, when she couldn’t speak the language and was usually relegated to sitting silently with women she couldn’t understand. She is frustrated by her husband’s otherness – his need to bargain, even at the mall; his impatience with Christmas; his stubborn insistence on getting their son circumcised. But she’s also honest about her attraction and devotion to him, and the completeness with which she gives herself over to their relationship.

On the minus side: I found it strange how little Bremer tried to understand her husband’s faith until the end of the book (several years into their marriage). How could she have married him and had so little curiosity about why he believed what he did? How could they as a couple have communicated so little about how they were going to merge their lives and accommodate both of their traditions? I know that Bremer loved Ismail deeply, but I didn’t feel that I knew him well at the end of the book. (Did she?) All I really knew was that he was very different from her and made living the life she had expected to live close to impossible. On her trip to Libya: while her feelings were understandable, she made little effort to connect with her husband’s family, or to express to him her desire to be integrated.

Some people have criticized Bremer as whiny or self-centered. I didn’t find her whiny; I found her pretty relatable. I just found the book a little unrealistic in its depiction of the marriage. Perhaps it is the pacing or organization of the book, but how could it have taken so long for her to take an interest in Islam? When she finally did, it felt rushed and a little insincere. As a reader, I never really caught up with her.

I will say this: Bremer totally nailed the reason why I don’t like listening to NPR: “Ismail always listened to public radio in the car, and I usually objected to its litany of bad news, its droning analysis of the same intractable problems”. Yes, that.

So a mixed review from me on this one. I loved the writing but felt a little bereft at the end. I wanted to know more.

GRADUATES IN WONDERLAND: THE MISADVENTURES OF TWO (ALMOST) ADULTS by Jessica Pan and Rachel Kapelke-Dale

I have taken an unplanned blogging break this month. I was strong going into the new year, with 3 books finished in the first 10 days of January. And then… nothing. No posts and minimal reading. I blame a combination of work, snow, sick kids, ballet rehearsals and travel. But I am back, with a review. Thanks for bearing with me!

I just finished a book that I learned about in my college alumni magazine: Graduates in Wonderland by Jessica Pan and Rachel Kapelke-Dale. It is a modern day epistolary memoir consisting of email correspondence back and forth between Jess and Rachel, recent Brown graduates who are many thousands of miles apart but keeping their friendship alive and well online. Jess moves to China after graduation, somewhat impulsively, where she hangs out in the Beijing expat scene with another Brown classmate and finds work at a magazine. Rachel moves to NY, like many others from her class, and works in a gallery for a self-absorbed boss who causes her so much anxiety that she needs therapy.

Over the next few years, we follow Jess and Rachel’s professional and personal adventures. Rachel moves to Paris to pursue a master’s in film. Jess leaves a promising editing career to follow a boyfriend – again impulsively – to Australia. But the constant through all of this change is the honest, supportive relationship that Jess and Rachel maintain over email. They make reference to phone calls, but all the good stuff makes it into the emails.

There’s classic twentysomething fare here – the sense that everyone else has a life, but you don’t; the paralyzing fear of making the wrong career choice; wondering if you’ve found The One, and if you’re ready for that; and the feeling of being adrift without a geographic home base. Add in the language barriers and physical distance inherent in living abroad, and it’s easy to see why Rachel and Jess’ friendship was so important to them. They were living similar lives, only many, many time zones apart.

I enjoyed Graduates in Wonderland. There wasn’t much Brown in the book – they had already graduated, of course – but the book really brought me back to my early 20s, when I was dealing with some of the same issues. A friend of mine recently presented me with a letter (!) I had written him in 1993 when he was living abroad after graduation. It was not dissimilar to the emails in Graduates in Wonderland. I just wish I had more of those letters – email was not widespread in the early 90s!

I recommend Graduates in Wonderland to fans of epistolary memoirs and anyone who can relate to – and wants to re-experience – the uncertainty and excitement of starting out in the world.