Posts Tagged memoir

book review: Life As I Blow It

Life As I Blow It , by Sarah Colonna. Publisher: Villard Books (February 2012). memoir. 978-0-345-52837-7. Trade paperback, 256 pages.

There’s a romantic me that has always wanted to be swept off her feet, but the realistic and ambitious me doesn’t believe in the fantasy .

If you’ve watched Chelsea Lately then you know staff writer/ roundtable regular Sarah Colonna. She always stood out for me as one of the roundtable comedians. Perhaps due to her honest and self-effacing manner. Or the petite wavy-haired blonde’s confidence. She wouldn’t have the job she does if she weren’t funny and clever. She’s also over 35 and single, still a novelty these days for some strange reason.

I’m thirty-six years old, but I don’t feel like it. Some days I feel like I’m twenty-one, some days I feel like I’m pushing sixty.

So, another comedian writes a book/ memoir. Sarah tells terrific stories and her path from small-town Arkansas dreamer to Hollywood success story is in-arguably remarkable. Sarah didn’t arrive in Los Angeles and flash a smile and boobs. She worked and struggled as a stand-up comic and actor while making money as a waitress or bartender.

The things I had loved most about Nick were that he had similar interests as me, and had aspects of being responsible, but was still fun. I’ve found throughout my life that that is a hard combination to find.

Sarah recalls dates, boyfriends, drinking, working at restaurants and her path to becoming a steadily working comic. All the while Sarah struggles to balance her sensible side with her fun side. There’s a ton of drinking in this book and plenty of sexual encounters. Sarah clearly likes drinking and sex—dates, one-night-stands and relationships. For me, intelligent humor and edgy humor is the best and that’s what Sarah Colonna brings to Life As I Blow It.

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book review: Agorafabulous! Dispatches from My Bedroom

Agorafabulous! , by Sara Benincasa. Publisher: William Morrow (February 14, 2012). Memoir.

Having suffered through agoraphobia and panic attacks since I was 16, this memoir definitely interested me. Particularly as I’m not that (intentionally) funny and I’ve started to write down my own rough and painful experiences. Agorafabulous! is an honest and heartfelt recollection of writer Sara Benincasa’s experiences with a debilitating illness. She writes of her horrendous rock bottom moment that traps her in a Boston bedroom while attending Emerson College. She also details another major panic attack while teaching in Texas. Despite her agoraphobia and anxiety, New Jersey-native Benincasa works on a farm in Pennsylvania, transfers to a college in North Carolina and then teaches for a year in Texas for AmeriCorps before moving to New York for graduate school.

Benincasa writes about her recovery and maintenance through meds, therapy, meditation and a support system of friends and family. It does seem Prozac became her cure-all. Perhaps I’m jealous that I’ve tried every SSRI and have been in therapy for twenty years and I’m still dealing with many of the same issues that I had when I was 19. She makes herself a mix-tape to take the train into Manhattan. She intersperses Liz Phair songs with encouraging messages such as: “This is fucking awesome! Look, you’re on the train! Look around. You’re safe. You took your medicine today.” Pretty rad idea. Sometimes that inner voice needs to be really hyped so as not to be ignored. Agorafabulous! provides more comical observations than mental illness moments. For the most part, Benincasa provides relatable circumstances while addressing serious mental health concerns with flair and compassion.

Some superb points:

I wondered how it had taken me so long to realize that I was broken beyond repair and that I didn’t belong on this planet with all of the real humans. I imagined my future as one of dependence, fear, and disability. I would always be a burden on the sander individuals charged with my care. I would always be different, in a bad way. I might kill myself, if only I could summon the courage to choose death.

There are a few items that should never be left near a person in a state of nervous breakdown, including but not limited to: knives, guns, drugs, babies, credit cards, and scissors.

I accidentally stumbled upon actually helpful information in the form of a book about Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD’s work at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. I credit Full Catastrophe Living and the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program with adding speed and sense to my recovery.

To my enormous surprise, I found the strange manic pace of life in New York oddly soothing. Perhaps my anxiety was not only crowded out by my daily obligations but by the wild quirks of my fellow New Yorkers.

What I do remember is sitting on the toilet and rifling furiously through my purse, looking for the bottle of Xanax. I always carried it with me, like a talisman. I used it so rarely that the bottle expired months before I emptied it, but I liked knowing it was always there.

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purchase at Amazon: Agorafabulous!: Dispatches from My Bedroom

Sara’s website

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The Orchard: book review

The Orchard , by Theresa Weir. Publisher: Grand Central Publishing (September, 2011). Memoir. Hardcover, 240 pages.

In the salesroom, apples were sliced and offered as samples, but workers weren’t allowed to wash the apples before cutting them. That might taint the warm, fuzzy feel of a trip to the orchard. Nobody wanted to be reminded of why their apples didn’t have spots on the skin, or worms inside. They just wanted an unblemished and beautiful apple.

The Orchard is a harsh, dark, and honest memoir. It provides an environmental cautionary tale of the effects of pesticides on a family. In the 1970s and 1980s few people knew about the detrimental effects when using pesticides extensively on their farms. Particularly in the Midwest, farmers were slower to embrace organic farming or other less destructive means to harvest the perfect fruits and vegetables. Profits and competition drove the methodology. In The Orchard , Theresa Weir eloquently addresses the chemicals used in this Midwestern apple orchard and the effect on farm workers and a family in a rather unsentimental and effective manner.

Maybe I was looking for romance, but I wasn’t a romantic person. That might be because I’d witnessed the men who’d come and gone in my mother’s life, and, even as a little kid, I’d known love wasn’t a good thing.

Independent at an early age, Theresa’s working in her uncle’s bar when she meets Aidan, a local farmer. Three months later the two marry. Aidan lives with his domineering, idealistic parents on the farm. Theresa soon finds out that he’s really working for them not for the family farm. The farm comes before Theresa. No one believes that Theresa will last, that she’s strong enough for farm living. She proves many wrong including herself. The Orchard pulls you in right away. Containing fairy tale elements of a poisoned apple, a princess and prince, a wicked mother-in-law, and a sweet grandmother, The Orchard is fantastic.

That’s what happened when you lived smack dab in the middle of bleak. Pretty soon everybody and everything became normal. Pretty soon it didn’t seem bleak. People adapt. But that bit of self-preservation could turn on you when you took it too far. Pretty soon you started thinking everything was fine and you lost all desire to do anything but sit around and shoot the shit with people like Larry.

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purchase at Amazon: The Orchard: A Memoir

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A Tiger in the Kitchen: book review

A Tiger in the Kitchen , by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan. Publisher: Voice; Original edition (February 8, 2011) Memoir. Paperback, 304 pages.

Watching my sister, my mother, my auntie Alice, and my grandmother gathered around the kitchen counter, wrapping popiah, I couldn’t remember the last time we had all spend an entire afternoon together.

Food has never held a major significance for me. I don’t relate food to family because I don’t have a family and I’m also a vegetarian and no one ever wants to invite a vegetarian to a holiday meal when he or she’s cooking a slab of dead flesh. A Tiger in the Kitchen disappoints as it’s too long, too dragged out and doesn’t get to the truly interesting aspects of the author’s journey until more than midway through. The inconsistent writing style and slow doesn’t inspire someone to keep turning the pages. Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, a New York-based Singaporean, one day decides that she wants to cook authentic Singaporean dishes and to do so she reconnects with her family. She spends the next year taking extended trips home to Singapore.

Home, rather, is rooted in the kitchen and the foods of my Singaporean girlhood—the intoxicating fog of turmeric and lemongrass seeping the air as bright orange slabs of otak . . .

While cooking, she learns about her aunts and her grandmothers. That part is okay but being so enthralled with food is something to which I cannot related. Particularly a lot of duck and other meat dishes as I’m a vegan. And also not surprisingly, Lu-Lien Tan remains oblivious to what she’s eating until she actually sees the full duck or pig that she’s supposed to prepare to eat. So many people eat meat without really thinking about where it comes from and all the whys and hows. At least I can give Lu-Lien Tan a bit of credit for discovering that aspect of the food she so desperately wants to be able to cook. A Tiger in the Kitchen will appeal to a small group of readers, mostly foodies, specialty chefs and those interested in Asian culture.

purchase at Amazon: A Tiger in the Kitchen: A Memoir of Food and FamilyPacific Rim Cooking, Food & Wine Books)

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STEELE INTERVIEWS: author Darin Strauss

Darin Strauss [Chang and Eng, More Than It Hurts You] wrote Half A Life about a tragic car accident that occurred when he was 18 years old. A sophomore swerved out in front of his car on her bike. She died. it was not Strauss’s fault. For many years Strauss repressed it and avoided any thoughts or conversations about it. In Half A Life, Strauss examines his feelings related to the girl who died as well as the accident and its aftermath. Strauss writes honestly, exquisitely and provides a thorough examination of this profoundly personal experience. Half A Life is a provocative, intense read.

I interviewed Darin for More Than It Hurts You and I contacted him when I heard he had this memoir out. He’s a talented, erudite writer and a genuinely kind guy. I’ll interview him anytime.

Darin: You said you were writing a memoir?

Amy: I Have ideas but I’m afraid to actually start anything.

Darin: Well, the first draft was pretty bad. The hardest part is getting it on the page. There were a lot of things that were terrible that I cut out.

Amy: After writing several novels, what were the challenges in writing a memoir?

Darin: Every bit of training I’d had was how to make stories more interesting so I kept reminding myself, ‘you have to stay true to the facts and you have to let the story play out the way it played out in real life.’ If this had been a novel, the trial would have been more dramatic. I’m not really a journalist so I was just trying to remember what had happened and be respectful of what happened and not stray from the facts at all.

Amy: Did you go back to do any research for it?

Darin: Yeah. I looked and found that article that was written about me to get the exact quote where the police officer said I wasn’t to blame. that was actually a nice surprise because I didn’t remember him saying it in such a clear cut way that I was not at fault. It was like he was sending a message to my future self. And I went back with my family to see what the street looked like. I talked to my friends to see what they would remember but it was sort of what I remembered and how it affected me.

Amy: Why did you feel the need to finally write about the accident you had at 18?

Darin: I thought it was going to be a secret. I thought I’d never tell anybody and most of my friends do now need to know about it. I think it was the fact that my kids were born and I started to think of how hard it would be to have lost a child. I had a new understanding. My wife got pregnant and I was 36 and the accident happened 18 years before.

Amy: The perfect title. Half A Life.

Darin: Thanks. It happened naturally. I thought, ‘I’m never going to write about it’ and turned 36 and found myself doing it.

Amy: How did you think that writing would affect your thoughts about that day and its aftermath?

Darin: I think I just wanted to see how I thought about it because I had put it out of my mind and I had forgotten a lot of it. I think the fact that I had the thought that she wasn’t committing suicide at all was an idea I had when I started writing it. I had pretty much convinced myself that she was definitely committing suicide. And then that a girl would write in her journal at 16, “Today I’m going to die,” doesn’t necessarily mean she had planned to commit suicide. Although I did just hear this week from a friend of hers, who I had never known but had read the book, and she told me that the girl on the bike had started talking about death a lot. The realization was whether she did or didn’t did not affect my story. She did what she did and I did what I did to avoid her and that’s really I could control.

Amy: You said if you had never had this accident that killed Celine, you would have never have become a writer. Why?

Darin: That’s probably true. I thought I’d go to law school but after the accident I became more introspective and the lawyer thing stopped because their lawyer in the lawsuit was such a scumbag.

Amy: How scary is that? You’re going off to college up to Tufts and you get this summons?

Darin: The last I heard when I went to school was that her parents would always support me. It was a terrible shock. It was scary emotionally. It was a total drag. I thought these people were supporting me and then found out they were suing me for millions of dollars. That’s pretty scary.

Amy: During the funeral, you made a point of writing that when people remember lives or want to remember lives, they want the person to be extraordinary even if that person wasn’t so.

Darin: The local newspaper seemed to think it would only be a worthwhile story if the person who died was somehow the most popular person in school or the prettiest girl in the class which was really weird. It seemed like they had to make it sadder for the general reader.

I just wanted to be honest about everything. The book had to be more nuanced than that article I wanted to preserve her memory from that stupid notion that you had to be Prom Queen for it to be said. I wanted to be honest about the way that she was. Misrepresenting her was not the way I wanted to write the book.

Amy: In writing this memoir, what have you learned about yourself and your relationship to Celine and the accident?

Darin: It’s difficult to deny that things don’t change you and it’s very unhealthy not to realize that you’ve changed. Acknowledging that this had happened to me was important but I wouldn’t let it dictate the rest of my life.

Amy: Although you moved past high school and your hometown, you say that Celine was always with you. Her mother even told you that you know had to live for two people.

Darin: I have twins now. My first novel Chang and Eng was about conjoined twins. So it was really embedded in my brain.

Amy: It’s always been with you so how did you cope with it?

Darin: I don’t like the word closure. It’s silly. You never close the book on anything or every fully get over it. You have to learn to live with it. You realize that these things can happen to you and not let it ruin you. It hurts. Most people who’ve email me have been glad to read this because I don’t think there’s that much out there in terms of books about someone facing something. I don’t think we ever get closure so it’s more realistic to see what you did in the certain moment that it was the best you could do, and try to live with it.

Amy: Isn’t the power of the mind over the body amazing when you repress things and don’t realize the extent to which you are until your body just revolts?

Darin: At 28 I had stomach surgery and started to get gray hair and all these things that don’t usually happen to 27-year-olds so I think it was my body telling my mind ‘you can’t pretend this isn’t happening and avoid any consequence.’ I didn’t put it together with the accident until later. Medication and surgery and I didn’t think of the psychological aspect of it.

Amy: You said: “My accident was the deepest part of my life, and the second-deepest was hiding it.”

Darin: I just didn’t tell people. I have a lot of friends who just found out about it with the book or with the excerpt of the book that aired on NPR on “This American Life.” So it was strange for my close friends. I just really wasn’t ready to talk about it to people. I did keep my friends separate (new friends from his Long Island friends).

Amy: Now that Half A Life is out there, how do you feel?

Darin: I feel that I’m in a much better place than ever about it now that I’ve written the book. It never goes away. It’s been 20 years now and I thought as I wrote the book I was pretty healthy about all this stuff. But when the book was about to come out I thought I should write the parents a letter to let them know. I wanted to warn them that it was coming out. Just the act of googling them and writing the letter was harder than writing the book.

Darin Strauss reads from Half A Life at Brookline Booksmith Monday, October 18 at 7pm

buy at Amazon: Half a Life

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book review: What I Thought I Knew

Title: What I Thought I Knew
Author: Alice Even Cohen
Publisher: Penguin (Non-Classics); 1 edition (May 25, 2010)
Paperback: 208 pages
Genre: memoir
Rating: B+

What would you do if you found out you were six months pregnant? That’s right and this isn’t a story of a teenager in denial. What I Thought I Knew is the remarkable memoir by Alice Eve Cohen. At 44, the divorced mother of an adopted daughter finds herself quite satisfied with her theatrical one-woman-show career and the new love in her life.

In the spring of 1999, I indulge in the pleasurable delusion of eternal youth. Michael, my fiancé, is ten years younger. I’m forty-four. He’s thirty-four, but he looks like a college kid, with wayward curly hair, earnest blue eyes, baggy jeans and thread-bare T-shirt, cradling his guitar and singing the song he wrote last night instead of sleeping.

But something doesn’t feel quite right. She visits her gynecologist who doesn’t even realize she’s pregnant. Her insurance isn’t quite top notch and she visits several other doctors in New York. After pulling in a few favors, she gets a CAT scan when a doctor is positive she has an ovarian tumor. She finds out she’s pregnant. She also knows that her body is not equipped to carry a baby past six months. This pregnancy puts her and this baby in jeopardy. She considers getting a late term abortion in Wichita, Kansas [the only place to go]. She considers adoption. Alice has some extremely difficult decisions to make.

What I Thought I Knew follows Alice through this surprising time. Cohen possesses a crackling, sardonic sense of humor and a realistic outlook on what she wants of her family and her career. Once you start reading her story, you’ll easily become engulfed in her journey. It packs all the suspense and drama of the most twisted mystery. But it’s her real life. Will this unexpected pregnancy derail all her idyllic plans for contentment?

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STEELE INTERVIEWS: author Sloane Crosley

Title: How Did You Get This Number?
Author: Sloane Crosley
ISBN: 978-1594487590
Hardcover: 288 pages
Publisher: Riverhead Hardcover (June 15, 2010)
Category: personal essays
Review source: publisher
Rating: 5/5

How Did You Get This Number? is an often laugh-out-loud, witty and observant collection of essays.

Amy Steele [AS]: How did you start writing personal essays?

Sloane Crosley [SC]: I fell backwards into it, writing on occasion for The Village Voice when they’d let me. Then I started writing for other venues and then, really, for myself. That’s when I truly got comfortable enough to write what I wanted to write.

AS: What do you like best about this writing format?

SC: It forces you to find the artistic frame around every experience, no matter how common or how extraordinary.

AS: When did you decide to be writer?

SC: Have I? I think I just have the best relationship with the medium. I love it, I’m frustrated with it, I can express what I want to express best through it. But if I had to choose, I think I’d be a rock star with stellar stage banter.

AS: I would like to do this kind of writing but have no idea where to begin. How do you write/ what kind of schedule do you have?

SC: I don’t have a very rigid schedule. I think the beauty of writing essays is that there’s generally an end in sight. In How Did You Get This Number, the essays are longer and darker – and hopefully often funnier – than they were in I Was Told There’d Be Cake. So unless you have a book deadline for a whole string of them, you can always start one when you have time, get half way through, realize it’s not turning out how you’d like and toss it. That’s not a great feeling but it’s also not the same thing as scratching 200 pages of a novel.

AS: How many drafts do you write before the final version?

SC: It varies per essay but between two and five.

AS: When you write, how conscious are you about the amount of humor and amount of seriousness in each piece? In “Light Pollution,” you are able to point out some of the ridiculous aspects of Alaska while simultaneously having deference to its majestic nature.

SC: I think I write like my grandmother used to cook. When you’d ask her how much sugar or salt should be added to a dish, she’d often say “you know when your heart tells you.” That said, if she really took a wrong turn, she’d consult a recipe book. So I like to do whatever comes naturally, adding humor or pathos when it feels right. But if the rhythm is off when I edit or if it’s just not working, I will insert or remove jokes.

AS: In “If you Sprinkle,” you talk about silly pre-teen games like Girl Talk and then also the unrealistic influences for one’s early twenties. How does the media affect one’s expectations?

SC: Perhaps it’s that expectations and desires for how to be a woman or even just how to be a grownup seep in while we’re not looking. It becomes difficult to pinpoint how we came to want the things we do.

AS: You say you’d never be “asked back” to Paris in the essay “Le Paris!” Why do you feel that you don’t belong there?

SC: I manage to break their rules without even trying. Which is a shame.Because I have a profound affection for their macaroons.

AS: How do you remember things so well?

SC: I think most people have very good memories. It’s how they choose to use them. And it is a muscle that can be worked. Once you know you want to put down an experience in writing, you try to find every entry point back into that experience. If it’s worth writing about, you probably won’t get stumped.

AS: What is your worst New York apartment or roommate situation?

SC: I had a roommate I write about in the essay called “Take A Stab At It.” She borrowed my things without asking to a ridiculous degree and yet labeled her food. Mostly we just were very different people who didn’t get along. But she never sacrificed a chicken in my bedroom or anything like that. So I suppose I’ve had it pretty good.

AS: What is the greatest challenge in traveling alone especially when you went to Portugal?

SC: Creating your own schedule. It can be tough to have a traveling companion with a traveling style and set of priorities that differ from your own. But if you go it alone, you perversely miss that.

AS: How does working in publishing affect your writing and vice-versa?

SC: I am lucky in that I work with writers who are infinitely more talented and famous and usually both —so it can be intimidating. But it’s also very motivating to work with your heroes and get paid to do it.

AS: What do you like best about writing?

SC: You can read it more easily than you can read a block of cheese.

Bostonians — Sloane Crosley will be reading at Brookline Booksmith on Friday, July 25 at 7p.


Friday, June 18
Los Angeles
Book Soup
8818 Sunset Blvd.
7 PM

Saturday, June 19
Bay Area
Rakestraw Books
Danville, CA
12 PM

Saturday, June 19
Bay Area
Book Passage
51 Tamal Vista Blvd
Corte Madera, CA
7 PM

Monday, June 21
1005 W. Burnside
7:30 PM

Tuesday, June 22
Sorrento Hotel
900 Madison Street
(sponsored by Elliott Bay Book Co)
7 PM

Wednesday, June 23
University Books
7 PM

Thursday, June 24
Tattered Cover – Colfax Store
2526 East Colfax Avenue
7:30 PM

Friday, June 25
Brookline Booksmith
279 Harvard Street
7 PM

Monday, June 28
New York City
McNally Jackson
50 Prince Street
7 PM

Monday, July 21
New York City
Bryant Park
“Writers on Writing” event with Larry Doyle, Josh Kilmer-Purcell and Simon Rich

Thursday, July 22
Philadelphia Free Library
7:30 PM

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How Did You Get This Number

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book review: A Ticket to the Circus: A Memoir

Title: A Ticket to the Circus: a memoir
Author: Norris Church Mailer
ISBN: 978-1400067947
Hardcover: 432 pages
Publisher: Random House (April 6, 2010)
Category: memoir
Review source: publisher
Rating: B

Norris Church Mailer is a lot of things: a daughter, a mother, a wife, a student, a teacher, an artist, a model, a writer, a scenester, a cancer survivor. In her candid, revealing memoir A Ticket to the Circus, Norris reflects on her youth in Arkansas, her marriage at age 20 and then meeting and marrying writer Norman Mailer at age 26. Young Norris [then Barbara] dreamed a lot and knew that she wouldn’t stay in Arkansas forever although she enjoyed being close to her family and loved the state. Norris ached to get out and travel and see the world. Norris also knew that there were challenges beyond any she could find in Arkansas that she needed to discover on her own.

She attended college and took to art classes and ended up teaching art at a high school for several years. Norris invited herself to a party after Norman’s book reading and he immediately became smitten with the red-haired enigmatic and confident young woman. Not long after, Norris moved to New York to be close to Norman and she immediately fell in love with the city.

Clod or angel, there are many reasons we lasted for thirty-three years, aside from the physical passion, which was as intense decades into the marriage as it was at the beginning, if not as frequent. As trite as it sounds, I think we stayed together because we really loved each other, we loved our kids, we loved our life, and we were comfortable together. We had each found someone whose quirks and habits we could live with, like a key in a lock. Besides, if I had left him, as I seriously considered only once, I would have always wondered what he was up to, and would have been miserable in my curiosity.

Nearly twice her age, Mailer complemented Norris and the two remained married for thirty years. Norris became Mailer’s sixth and final wife. The most appealing aspect of Mailer’s memoir is its friendly, conversational tone and her ability to weave a wonderful story. She recalls mostly good times with Norman but there were struggles that many couples go through as well. Norris came into Norman’s life as his mistress but it still shocked her to find out that he’d been having affairs about 15 years into their marriage. Norris provides insight into living with a famous and talented man as well as making the social scene around New York. There are glamorous parties, celebrity friendships and also the real day-to-day ins and out of a marriage. There’s that certain ennui which couples often face. There’s the inherent conflict between two creative, career-driven types and also for two people with close family ties. Fortunately for Norris and Norman, this worked to their advantage.

A Ticket to the Circus is an autobiography about a strong, determined woman with an immense capacity to love, to care for others and to create beautiful things. It’s also an intense love story about a seemingly mismatched but ultimately perfectly paired couple. This is one memoir not to be missed.

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Buy at Amazon: A Ticket to the Circus: A Memoir

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book review: Orange is the New Black

Title: Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison
Author: Piper Kerman
ISBN: 978-0385523387
Hardcover: 320 pages
Publisher: Spiegel & Grau (April 6, 2010)
Category: memoir
Review source: publisher
Rating: 5/5

In such a harsh, corrupt and contradictory environment, one walks a delicate balance between the prison’s demands and your own softness and sense of balance and sense of your own humanity. Sometimes at a visit with Larry I would be overwhelmed, suddenly overcome with a sadness about my life at the moment. Could our relationship weather this insanity? I worried.

Not that long ago, I got cuffed COPS-style and it completely freaked me out—my wrists ended up bloodied and bruised. I grew up in a WASPy middle-class environment in a suburb in Massachusetts. In 1991, I graduated from Simmons College, a small women’s college in Boston. Piper Kerman graduated from one of the Seven Sisters– Smith College– at around the same time. That’s where the similarities between my life and Piper’s life end. In 1992, I drove across the United States with a friend from my days as a competitive equestrian. While I visited San Diego, Las Vegas and Bryce Canyon, Piper hung out in Bali with drug runners and carried drug money to Brussels.

Indonesia offered what seemed like a limitless range of experience, but there was a murky, threatening edge to it. I’d never seen such stark poverty as what was on display in Jakarta, or such naked capitalism at work in the enormous factories and the Texas drawls coming from across the hotel lobby where the oil company executives were drinking.

A decade later, Piper’s criminal past, which she had long left behind, caught up with her. The blonde-haired, blue-eyed, well-educated Piper found herself in lock-up for a felony. Sentenced to 14 months in the women’s correctional facility in Danbury, Conn. Piper chronicles every detail in Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison, a candid and reflective memoir.

Only 30 pages in, when Piper surrenders to the women’s prison in Danbury, Conn., I find my own heart racing as she describes the process so vividly. I would have had a major panic attack and passed out. Piper remains relatively composed as her fiancé dropped her at the door. Piper decides from the get-go that she needed to be brave, even if she just puts on a brave face. If she didn’t remain in that state of mind she felt that she’d be doomed to harassment and not getting through her sentence unscathed both emotionally and physically.

I had only the most tenuous idea of what might happen next, but I knew that I would have to be brave. Not foolhardy, not in love with risk and danger, not making ridiculous exhibitions of myself to prove that I wasn’t terrified—really, genuinely brave. Brave enough to be quiet when quiet was called for, brave enough to observe before flinging myself into something, brave enough to not abandon my true self when someone else wanted to seduce me or force me in a direction I didn’t want to go, brave enough to stand my own ground quietly. I waited an unquantifiable amount of time while I tried to be brave.

When Piper first arrives she immediately notices the tribal system where many women tend to “stick” to their own—blacks with blacks; Latinos with Latinos; whites with whites and so-forth. Over time, Piper has friends of every color and more importantly, these women accept her. [It was all very West Side Story—stick to your own kind, Maria!] Piper ends up in B Dorm aka “The Ghetto.”

Single-sex living has certain constraints, whether it’s upscale or down and dirty. At Smith College the pervasive obsession with food was expressed at candlelight dinners and at Friday-afternoon faculty teas; in Danbury it was via microwave cooking and stolen food. In many ways I was more prepared to live in close quarters with a bunch of women than some of my fellow prisoners, who were driven crazy by communal female living.

In Orange is the New Black, Piper provides the real scoop on good prison guards vs. bad. She details earning various privileges like using the phone and procuring special items from the commissary. Then there’s smuggling choice food from the cafeteria in the front of one’s underwear for cooking up later. There’s a plethora of protocols and methods to avoid trouble or privileges revoked. Piper recalls work duties. First she works in the electrical area and learns many tricks. Then she moves on to construction which allows her a bit more freedom and some fresh air. A true respite for her. Then there are a few prisoners who make passes at Piper which she manages to ward off, avoiding any insults.

It’s not all completely terrible despite being locked up. Piper slowly makes a close posse of friends on the inside. She reads a ton and has so many books that she lends them out to various inmates. To avoid stress, Piper runs on an outside track six miles a day and longer on the weekends. She also starts yoga classes with a vegetarian known as Yoga Janet. Piper gets hooked and finds it’s a great stress-reducer and a chance for personal reflection. Things also aren’t all rosy. There are many times when Piper falls into despair and retreats to her bunk to read or runs around and around and around the track to escape into NPR or a college radio station.

Piper touches on several controversial subjects including incarceration of non-violent drug offenders. I agree with her on this one. It’s similar to arresting the prostitutes by not the johns. Or pimps for that matter. One Dominican lady in her 70s was in for four years for a “wire charge”: she took phone messages for her drug-dealing relative.

Long mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses are the primary reason that the U.S. prison population has ballooned since the 1980s to over 2.5 million people, a nearly 300 percent increase. We now lock up one out of every hundred adults, far more than any other country in the world.

She discusses restorative justice as a result of reflecting on what she had done and some of the women she befriended in prison– But our current criminal justice system has no provision for restorative justice, in which an offender confronts the damage they have done and tries to make it right to the people they have harmed. Many who itch to return to the streets go right back to the drugs that got them locked up. The Bureau of Prisons [BOP] lacks the basic ability, funding and time to rehabilitate the incarcerated and thus the recidivism to commit the same crimes once released remains real. Some women turn to bad behavior as a coping mechanism against their poverty, lack of family support, abusive spouse and boyfriends and general hopelessness. She also talks candidly about her shock that very little is done for the women who’ve completed sentences and have no resources for release: reuniting with children and family members, finding housing and finding employment.

Piper’s story is at times upsetting and at other times amusing. She’s a courageous woman and Orange is the New Black is a gift to readers and an inspiration. Its truth will open your eyes to unfair treatment, lack of rehabilitation and repeated frustrations within the U.S. prison system. Orange is the New Black is at turns daunting, authentic, provocative and spellbinding. The best part is that it’s about women from all different backgrounds bonding to endure a miserable situation.

Reading/ Book Signing with Piper Kerman: Tuesday, May 11 at Brookline Booksmith

Piper’s website and twitter

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Buy at Amazon: Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison

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book review: mennonite in a little black dress

Title: mennonite in a little black dress
Author: Rhoda Janzen
ISBN: 978-0805089257
Pages: 256
Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.; 1 edition (October 13, 2009)
Category: memoir
Review source: publisher
Rating: 3.5/5

Don’t know a Mennonite from an Amish person? Author Rhoda Janzen says that the Amish actually are less strict and broke off from the Mennonites. My only issue with this memoir is that I read it never understanding anything about the Mennonites or their culture. Sure a bit about the dress, the food, some of the strictness and lack of education but I could never describe what a Mennonite is to someone after reading this book. So why feature it so prominently in the title. I realized Janzen left the Mennonites and went off on her own. That could be it. And ha, ha. A Mennonite (people know it’s some old-fashioned religious group) in a black dress! How droll. But I wish she explains a bit more while retaining her conversational tone. Her Mennonite relatives come from Russia, particularly Ukraine. Rhoda Janzen grew up as a Mennonite in California but she lucked out with a liberal family who traveled and believed in education. She’s a professor and at the beginning of her memoir she finds out that she needs a hysterectomy. She and her husband move to a beautiful lakefront home and he leaves her for Bob, who he met on Then she gets hit head on in the first snowstorm of the season in Chicago and ends up with two broken ribs, a fractured clavicle and cracked patella. Ouch!

Nick was gone. My marriage was over. Under circumstances like these, what was a forty-three-year-old gal to do?

I’ll tell you what I did. I went home to the Mennonites. Oh, I had been back to California for the occasional holiday, and I had flown in for my father’s enormous retirement bash five years earlier. But in twenty-five years I had not spent any real time in the Mennonite community in which I’d been raised.

mennnonite in a little black dress is a wonderfully candid and heartfelt memoir. Rhoda Janzen holds nothing back. She gives it all to the reader: her feelings on growing up mennonite, details about her on-off marriage, modified mennonite cooking [a bit TOO much on this], dating again after many years, her career as a professor, and her feelings about her parents and siblings. mennonite in a little black dress is genuine and a truly unique story unlike any other I’ve read.

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