Category Archives: Memoir

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.

RED SCARF GIRL by Ji-Li Jiang

Our January Mother-Daughter Book Club read was Red Scarf Girl by Ji-Li Jiang. This was probably the most serious and definitely one of the saddest books we have read for book club. It’s a memoir about the author growing up in China in the late 60s during the Cultural Revolution.

Ji-Li’s family had been relatively well-off before the Revolution, especially compared to other families around them. They all lived in one room – Ji-Li, her parents, her grandmother, and her sister and brother. But they employed a housekeeper and had nice things in the house. After the Revolution, they were considered to be a “bad class” because her grandfather had once been a landlord. Red Scarf Girl is a chronicle of the years of anxiety, fear, deprivation and pain that Ji-Li’s family suffered when the Communists targeted them as capitalists who had built a fortune on the backs of working people. Her parents were persecuted, her father was jailed, her grandmother was physically abused, and their apartment was repeatedly ransacked and looted by the Red Guard.

Ji-Li had been an honors student before the Revolution, and when the book opens, she is still trying to remain faithful to the party and obey the directives she is given in school. Over time, however, she becomes aware of the capriciousness and ruthlessness of the Red Guard, and when her loyalty to the Party is tested against her loyalty to her family, she chooses her family. Her disillusionment with authority, exacerbated by her disappointment with her schooling under the new regime, makes for a powerful coming-of-age novel about adherence to political views and the nature of sacrifice for one’s beliefs.

I had feared that the girls wouldn’t enjoy Red Scarf Girl, but I was pleasantly surprised by how many girls had read it and really thought about it. The subject matter was difficult, but it was easy to digest. We had a good discussion about how different characters in the book reacted to the harshness of the Cultural Revolution and what the girls would have done in Ji-Li’s shoes. We admired how brave she was, even as things just kept getting worse and worse. The Epilogue is worth reading, as it talks about how Ji-Li looks back on those years (she now lives in America). Rather than feeling angry at Chairman Mao and his government, she explains how her classmates and the families around her were brainwashed by Mao’s messages and believed that the Cultural Revolution was necessary for China’s survival. Her message – that without laws, a small group or even a single person can take control over an entire country – is just as relevant today, and we talked as a group about how important it is to preserve and retell stories like Ji-Li’s.

Red Scarf Girl was not an uplifting or easy read, but it was an important one. I am glad that we picked it for book club and that my daughters read it.

RARE BIRD: A MEMOIR OF LOVE AND LOSS by Anna Whiston-Donaldson

Anna Whiston-Donaldson and I run loosely in the same DC blogging circles. We’ve never met, but I learned about her and started reading her blog, An Inch of Gray, after her 12 year-old son Jack was killed in a freak drowning accident in September 2011. He was out playing in the rain with friends on a late summer afternoon and got caught in the current in a tiny neighborhood creek that had flooded due to a very unusual strong summer storm.

I soon learned of Jack’s death and started following Whiston-Donaldson’s blog, which quickly reoriented to focus on her family’s loss in the aftermath of that terrible September day. I was always struck by how honest she was about her anger and sadness about Jack’s death, as well as her strong Christian faith and how she could reconcile the two. She published a book this past September, Rare Bird: A Memoir of Love and Loss, which was my first read of 2015.

Rare Bird is an extremely sad book – how could it not be? The loss of this beautiful, sensitive, smart, sweet boy was a tragedy. And to learn about it from his mother’s perspective? Heartbreaking. It’s impossible to read Rare Bird and not put yourself in the author’s shoes, trying to imagine how you’d put one foot in front of other other if it happened to you. But it is not a depressing book, and that is an important difference. It is unflinchingly honest in every respect. Whiston-Donaldson holds nothing back as she relates the days leading up to Jack’s death and the year after. She talks about her marriage, her faith, her thoughts of ending her life, and the importance of staying present and capable for Jack’s younger sister, Margaret. She also talks about her grief and how she eventually emerged from that first, awful year. Perhaps that is why I didn’t find it depressing, even though it brought me to tears on many occasions.

Whiston-Donaldson is also a very good writer. Rare Bird is readable, clear, and even funny at times. Writing is definitely one of her talents, and I am grateful that she took the time to adapt her blog and memories into this longer format.

There is a fair amount in Rare Bird about Whiston-Donaldson’s Christian faith and how Jack’s loss tested it. I am Jewish and therefore couldn’t necessarily relate to some of what she wrote, but I still found it interesting and compelling.

Don’t be afraid to read Rare Bird. I had a hard time putting it down and I am so glad that I read it. I learned a lot from it, and I am grateful for Whiston-Donaldson’s honesty and analytical, challenging mind. I wish her and her family peace in the coming years and will always keep Jack in my mind.

CHOOSE YOUR OWN AUTOBIOGRAPHY by Neil Patrick Harris


Neil Patrick Harris’ autobiography, Choose Your Own Autobiography, is a funny and interesting chronicle of the multi-talented entertainer’s first 40 years. Harris used a unique format to tell his story – the old “choose your own adventure” style, where you are presented with two options at the end of every chapter and get to choose which one you want to pursue. However, I listened to this book on audio, so it was a more linear read for me.

Wow, what a life Neil Patrick Harris has led. He was born in New Mexico to kind, loving parents who cultivated his love for theater and performing from an early age. After some school productions, he was discovered by Hollywood and cast in a few movies. But his big break came as a teenager when he won the role of Doogie Howser, MD. That show – which ran for 5 years – made Harris a household name and really set the rest of his life in motion.

Doogie, coming out, How I Met Your Mother, the Tonys, the Emmys, Hedwig And The Angry Inch... anyone who has followed Harris’ career knows about these highlights and achievements. But hearing it all from his perspective is a lot of fun. Harris is engaging, funny, smart, and often humble, and he makes for a great narrator. He is appreciative of his great fortune in life, and he expresses gratitude for the people he has worked with and the projects he was involved with, but he’s not above a little celebrity dishing and calling out bad behavior when he sees it.

I learned a lot about how things worked behind-the-scenes on his TV series and awards show specials, and what it was like being a child actor and later a closeted gay man starting out as an actor.

There were a few things I didn’t love about the book. First, if you listen to it on audio, it can feel a little choppy and out of order  – and also redundant – because of  its unique format. I felt like he was jumping around and/or doubling back sometimes, because he was. The Choose Your Own Adventure books are meant to throw the reader off and send them on a bit of a ride; picking one up and reading it straight through is not the goal. The book was clearly reoriented for the audio version, but it’s not perfect.

Second, there is a lot of sex in here. It didn’t bother me, but I wouldn’t recommend listening to it with your 10 year-olds unless you have good reflexes and can sit close to the pause button. I got a lot of questions like, “Mommy, what’s he talking about?”

In all, Choose Your Own Autobiography was a very entertaining read. Neil Patrick Harris is a lucky guy (his husband ALONE sounds amazing), but he’s also extremely talented, so you feel good reading about the guy and all of his accolades and successes. He’s also a skilled narrator, and I highly recommend the audio version.

Q&A With Debbie Stier, author of THE PERFECT SCORE PROJECT

I recently reviewed (and loved) Debbie Stier’s The Perfect Score Project, a book about her year spent studying for and taking the SAT seven times. Debbie graciously agreed to do a Q&A on EDIWTB. Here it is:

debbie-stierQ: At what point in the project did you decide that you would write a book about it? 

A: I started poking around the SAT in the summer of 2010 and was instantly hooked. It took a few weeks before I declared on my blog that wanted to try for a perfect score.  At the time, I was thinking I’d take one SAT!

But then a publisher called and said, “that’s a book,” at which point I came up with a “book structure” i.e. taking every test every time it was offered in 2011 (7 times) at different test locations (5, because I had to repeat a few), and trying out 12 different methods of test prep (i.e. 1 per month).

I was going to write a “consumer report” on the SAT and test prep.

Then, my kids rebelled halfway through and an unanticipated layer was added to the story: how to motivate a teenager to care about the SAT.

Q: This must have been a difficult book to organize, considering that you had so many concurrent efforts going at once. How did you keep everything straight so that you could divide up the topics so neatly into chapters?

A: An author told me to have the structure down before starting to write, which I took seriously and spent months figuring out. The story part of the book is written chronologically, which was easy; trying to figure out the point of each chapter took months of sorting through notes.

After the first draft, I pulled out the “hard [SAT] info” and put it into boxes within the narrative, which freed me up and I was able to tell the story more easily.

Q: Was it difficult to isolate the distinct impact that each study method had on your test-taking ability? 

A: Yes, though I always knew the project was an anecdotal experiment, not scientific.

Q: Has your audience been mostly parents, students, or educators/test industry professionals?

A: I wrote the book with parents in mind and have been surprised that many have given it to their kids to read after finishing. I probably wouldn’t have shared all my “secrets,” had I known there would be teenagers reading!

I also get a lot of email and calls from educators and test industry professionals, which is gratifying. From the reader reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, the audience seems to be evenly divided between parents, students, educators and test industry professionals.

Q: Did you take time off from your publishing job to do The Perfect Score Project? 

A: Yes! There is no way I could have written a book and held a job at the same time.  I couldn’t even look at the Internet while writing. It took total and utter focus.

Q: You love the SAT, but for most kids it is a dreaded experience that they are happy to put behind them. Given your perspective on the test, do you think it is a useful barometer for colleges to evaluate achievement, ability, and the likelihood of success?

A: I think the SAT is an accurate barometer one’s mastery of the skills tested: reading, writing and math – at one moment in time.  I’m living proof that you can improve significantly, so it’s definitely a test of ability, which is why I don’t think it’s an accurate predictor of “success in life.”

I read one study that said your high school’s SAT average is a better predictor of success in life than your personal SAT score. That seems more accurate to me.

Q: Any more books on the horizon or are you back to your day job?

A: Not sure!

I’m in the midst of writing another book about educating my daughter Daisy (now home schooled), and, she is writing a novel that I’m in the midst of editing.

My guess is that her book and proposal will be finished before mine.

Q: Did you enjoy recording the audio of The Perfect Score Project?

A: I loved it!  I’d do it again in a heartbeat, though I wish I’d taken diction lessons before I recorded it!

Next time!

THE PERFECT SCORE PROJECT by Debbie Stier

I am a fiction girl who hasn’t taken a standardized test since the LSAT in 1991. My kids are too young for me to be worried about the SAT yet, which they won’t take for another 7 years. But when Debbie Stier’s The Perfect Score Project: Uncovering The Secrets of the SAT arrived in the mail, I knew I wanted to read it, right away. I had met Debbie at a conference a few years ago and learned about the project and its accompanying blog, and was eager to read the book. I was not disappointed.


The Perfect Score Project is about one year (2011) during which Stier, the mother of a then-high school sophomore, decided that in order to help her son prepare for the SAT, she would take the test all 7 times that it was offered and try every variety of test prep/study method/resource/tutor available to her, whether in person or online. She did it all: Princeton Review, Stanley Kaplan, Kumon, the College Board’s own materials, private tutors, message boards, Skype calls with other SAT-obsessed people across the country, study books, and online courses. Stier, who hadn’t taken the SAT seriously when she herself was in high school, dedicated herself completely to the effort. Each month, she tried a different study method, throwing herself into each new discipline or process with enthusiasm and unflagging energy.

There is a lot to like about The Perfect Score Project. Stier makes a huge amount of information manageable to follow and digest. She’s very organized: each chapter deals with a different component of the SAT (scoring methods, testing locations, etc.) or a study method. There are sections interjected throughout the text with bullets of important information and takeaways, like Essay Advice, SAT Grammar, Guessing, and Five Questions to Ask a Potential Tutor.

Stier is also a good storyteller. This topic could be dry or confusing, but Stier makes it clear, compelling, and even funny. As I mentioned, I am a reader of fiction. I rarely read nonfiction, and when I do, I often have trouble sticking with it. But with The Perfect Score Project, I was eager to get back to it. Stier manages to create suspense – will her scores improve over the course of the year? Does test prep actually work? Will her son get on board? – that kept me very interested.

I respect Stier as well for revealing so much about herself – her SAT scores (which are for many people a closely held secret), as well as her struggles with parenting her teenage children and the spectacularly bad summer that brought their issues to a head. She is unflinchingly honest in The Perfect Score Project, whether she’s talking about her poor math skills or her myopia when it came to getting her son motivated to study.

Finally, I learned a lot. I will definitely return to The Perfect Score Project when my daughters are ready to start studying. There is a lot of good information about how the test prep companies differ and the various tutoring styles available. Stier even spends a chapter on how to choose a testing location. (Hint: fancy private schools aren’t necessarily the way to go.)

The Perfect Score Project was a really fun, informative read. I  mostly listened to it on audio, which was narrated by Stier.  I can’t imagine anyone else speaking her words. It’s such a personal book – I felt like she was riding in the car with me. I have always feared that I wouldn’t be able to concentrate on non-fiction on audio, but I had no problem with The Perfect Score Project.

Depressing-o-meter: 2 (it’s not depressing at all, unless you start thinking about how much you’ve forgotten since high school)

Stier has agreed to do a Q&A on EDIWTB in the coming weeks – stay tuned!