Category Archives: Memoir

REAL AMERICAN by Julie Lythcott-Haims

Julie Lythcott-Haims’ memoir Real American is about the author’s experience growing up biracial in America and how it shaped who she is. Lythcott-Haims, daughter of an African-American father and a white British mother, was born in Africa when her parents were working there, but moved as a young girl to the U.S. She lived in a few different places, some more racially diverse than others, and spent much of her life feeling conflicting about her mixed race. She didn’t have many black friends as a teenager, and in many ways she suppressed that side of herself in order to fit in. She went on to college and law school, eventually moved to California, and in her late 20s she took a job as a dean at Stanford.

It wasn’t until that job at Stanford, and her marriage to a white man, that Lythcott-Haims really started investigating her relationship with race, her roots and the society into which she brought two mixed-race children. Real American is a collection of short, essay-like chapters (some as short as a few paragraphs) in which Lythcott-Haims explores her childhood and the emergence of her black identity.

I really liked Real American. It’s an intensely personal book, written with unflinching honesty and inspired by strong feelings, and it opened a real window for me into what it is like to grow up black or mixed in this country. The author and I attended the same law school and lived for many years in the same place, but our experiences were very different. I honestly think everyone I know should read this book. I dogeared so many pages that moved me, way too many to try to include here. Toward the end of the book, Lythcott-Haims talks about Black Lives Matter and the series of police killings of black men and boys, and she relates her deep fear about her son’s safety as a dark-skinned boy. Really painful to read, especially as a mom of a young son myself.

I could go on and on about this book. I am so glad I read it. It’s not always an easy read, but it is a good one, and surprisingly hard to put down. It comes out on October 3 – look for it then.

 

BEING JAZZ by Jazz Jennings

Our latest mother-daughter book club read was Being Jazz by Jazz Jennings. It’s a memoir by a 15 year-old girl who was born into a boy’s body. Jazz knew at an early age that she was transgender, and with the help of her accepting family, she transitioned by kindergarten. Jazz, who is now the subject of a TLC reality show, has become a well-known activist for transgender issues and has spoken around the country and received many awards.

Sadly, Being Jazz was too superficial for me (and the rest of our book club). There is a lot of talk about her TV appearances and all the good she has done. Jazz is very grateful for all of the opportunities, and she doesn’t come across as entitled or arrogant, but there is just too much of that and not enough soul-baring. I wanted to know more about what it felt like to be in the wrong body. I wanted to understand gender differences from someone who can’t identify with herself physically . I wanted to understand more about how she related to boys and girls differently. Instead, I got a memoir by a teenager about her life as a celebrity.

I don’t mean to knock the book too much, and I respect Jazz for her openness and courage in fighting for transgender rights. And I appreciated her honesty about her depression. But I wanted more of those things and less of the fights she had with her eighth grade friends.

Being Jazz is well-reviewed, so perhaps I am being curmudgeonly. In the end, it was a bit of a trifle. It could have been much more than what it was, maybe with the help of a (different?) ghostwriter.

HILLBILLY ELEGY by J.D. Vance

27161156I am one book away from my reading goal for 2016. Book #51 was Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance, a “personal analysis” of hillbilly culture and how it has shaped the political views, economic conditions and troubled lives of poor, white Americans. I can’t think of a more relevant book to read in the wake of Trump’s victory, as I think it explains a lot about the election’s outcome.

Vance grew up in Middletown, Ohio, but his family’s roots are in Kentucky, which is hillbilly central. His grandparents moved to Ohio to escape their poor Appalachian roots, but as Vance explains throughout the book, they never really left Kentucky behind. His childhood was chaotic and stressful. His mother married five times and fought addiction throughout most of her life. He lived mostly with his grandmother Mamaw, a strong-willed woman who provided stability and encouragement to Vance as he grew up, but who also struggled economically after her husband died. Mamaw raised him with the hillbilly values and views that she herself grew up with, so even though Middletown was more economically successful than “the holler” where Mamaw and Vance’s mom came from, his family history shaped him strongly.

Hillbilly Elegy was an eye-opening and utterly important read. I learned quite a bit about what so many people in America believe and why they are so disillusioned. One chapter describes why so many poor white families have trouble breaking the cycle of downward mobility: their home lives are chaotic; there is drug usage and physical violence at home, in front of small kids; they don’t study and they don’t make their kids study; they don’t work, even when they don’t have jobs. “We talk about the value of hard work but tell ourselves that the reason we’re not working is some perceived unfairness: Obama shut down the coal mines, or all the jobs went to the Chinese. These are the lies we tell ourselves to solve the cognitive dissonance – the broken connection between the world we see and the values we preach.”

I dog-eared so many pages of Hillbilly Elegy that I could create an entire blog post full of quotes. I found a few passages about why poor whites distrust Obama to be especially powerful. They can’t relate to Obama  – not because of his color, but because he’s so foreign to them in every way: his education, his parenting, where he grew up. The modern American meritocracy worked for Obama, but it won’t work for them.

Vance beat the odds and went into the Marines, then to college and on to Yale Law School. The final chapters of Hillbilly Elegy talk about him having his feet in both words and ultimately feeling comfortable in neither, and about how he has reconciled his upbringing and his education. He ends with some ideas about how to help fix the ills of the white poor, based on his own upbringing and the challenges he overcame.

I highly recommend Hillbilly Elegy. It’s readable, compassionate and absolutely crucial to understanding the country we live in today.

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.