Posts Tagged memoir

book review: Men We Reaped


Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward. Publisher: Bloomsbury (2013). Memoir. Hardcover. 272 pages. ISBN 9781608195213

“From 2000 to 2004, five Black young men I grew up with died, all violently, in seemingly unrelated deaths. The first was my brother, Joshua, in October 2000. The second was Ronald in December 2002. The third was C.J. in January 2004. The fourth was Desmond in February 2004. The last was Roger in June 2004. That’s a brutal list in its immediacy and its relentlessness, and it’s a list that silences people. It silenced me for a long time.”

A heartbreaking, honest and gripping memoir in which Jesmyn Ward describes growing up poor and black in Louisiana and its impact on both the deaths of these five black young men as well as on her writing and her life. statistically these black young men have little chance to succeed—to make it much beyond high school, to college, to age 21, to age 25 and beyond, to get past a life of drugs, poverty and living paycheck to paycheck. Ward illuminates the broadening gap between race and class in our country. These struggles and prejudices have long existed in the south for young black man for which this memoir’s a distressing reminder.

Ward’s mother never went to college and worked cleaning houses to take care of her four children—Jesmyn, her brother Joshua and two sisters Charine and Nerissa. My mom didn’t go to college either but secretarial school. My parents also divorced when I was in elementary school. My mom did re-marry, Never did I doubt my future educational path: college and graduate school. White-privilege. I get it. I understand I have it. I was born in Massachusetts. Grew up middle-class in Connecticut and Massachusetts, now live in Boston and that’s my point of reference. Though I’m unemployed, don’t receive unemployment benefits, SSDI or a paycheck, I’ll likely never know the poverty that these men and Ward herself knew growing up in Louisiana.

Ward’s parents didn’t divorce right away but her father wasn’t around often and wasn’t faithful to her mother. A drifter and dreamer, her father moved out. [“He was forever in love with the promise of the horizon: the girls he cheated with, fell in love with, one after another, all corporeal telescopes to another reality.”]

Ward writes: “His leaving felt like a repudiation of the child I was and the young woman I was growing into. I looked at myself and saw a walking embodiment of everything the world around me seemed to despise: an unattractive, poor, Black woman. Undervalued by society regarding her labor and her beauty.” She didn’t have the best grades at school but she fell in love with books and reading. As for many girls, literature proved to be somewhere to escape for Ward. She could engulf herself between the pages and discover new worlds and literary role models “. . . I found girls who were strong and smart and creative and foolish enough to fight dragons, to run away from home and live in museums, to become child spies, to make new friends and build secret gardens.”

At some point, her mom worked for a wealthy and generous lawyer, a Harvard alumnus, who practiced in New Orleans and offered to pay to send Jesmyn to private school—of course an amazing opportunity for her—allowing her a chance to attend college which she does. She writes: “I knew there was much to hate about home, the racism and inequality and poverty, which is why I’d left, yet I loved it.” Ward earned her undergraduate degree from Stanford and her M.F.A. from the University of Michigan. When her brother died she was working in New York at a publishing company.

“Perhaps my father taught my brother what it meant to be a Black man in the South too well: unsteady work, one dead-end job after another, institutions that systematically undervalue him as a work, a citizen, a human being.”

RATING: *****/5

also on my Best Books of 2013 List

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Bloomsbury.

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Sister Mother Husband Dog (etc.): book review

sister mother husband dog

Sister Mother Husband Dog (etc.) by Delia Ephron. Publisher: Blue Rider Press (September 17, 2013). Essay/Memoir. Hardcover. 224 pages. ISBN 978-0-399-16655-6.

“No question, I had an inbred arrogance about the culture I was raised in, about the worship of books, theater, writing and brains. My mother often said proudly, ‘We have books in every room.’ Yes, floor-to-ceiling shelves galore crammed with books. There were not artfully placed objets on our shelves. Every ounce of space was for the written word.”
From “Am I Jewish Enough?”

When Delia Ephron’s essay collection arrived at my door I was just finishing up her sister Hallie’s latest thriller. Talented sisters from a talented family. Set aside a few hours because once you start reading, you won’t want to stop. Delia tackles the profound to the superficial with wit, perception and charm. She maintains a steady wisdom-filled tone. She’s a woman who’s experienced plenty and shares mistakes, some secrets and reflects upon life lessons with those willing to listen.

I knew the Ephrons grew up in Los Angeles but didn’t know that Nora, Hallie, Delia and Amy’s parents wrote screenplays such as There’s No Business Like Show Business, The Jackpot, Carousel and Desk Set. But as Delia writes in “Why I Can’t Write About My Mother,” their mother was also a fierce alcoholic. One of those working alcoholics. Delia writes: “I believe having an alcoholic parent is not only something to write about, but that there is an obligation to do it. Growing up as that child is lonely, isolating, confusing, and damaging. There are lots of us. If I have the power by telling a story to make an isolated person less alone, that is a good thing. Besides, I don’t believe in protecting parents who drink—sympathizing, forgiving, but not protecting.”

In the heartbreaking and reminiscent essay “Losing Nora,” Ephron writes about her writing collaboration [You’ve Got Mail, This is My Life] with her competition older sister Nora who died from cancer last year. “Our lives were in some ways entirely separate and unknown to each other, in other ways like vines twisted together. Invading her privacy is not something I want to do.” In other words, the essay’s about their working relationship, their sisterly bonds. You’ll read nothing about Nora’s battle with cancer. That, Delia explains is not her story to tell. “Blame It On the Movies” quaintly chronicles Delia’s introduction to romantic comedies and how she’d compare everything relationship going forward to a movie. She writes: “So there was this problem in my first marriage along with many others. I was actually in love with a city, not a person. No movie prepared me for city love.” [Well said, Delia, well said and completely understandable.]

“Am I Jewish Enough?” allows Delia to delve into the religious question when she’s asked to speak at an exclusive book club to promote her latest novel. She’s never been very strict about her religion and now questions whether she’s welcome into the fold, so to speak. It’s provocative and immensely contemplative. One of the best essays in the collection. “I felt the oppression of religion. Of any organization that gathers us because we’re one religion and not another. Because what I really think is that there is too much religion these days. Too much ‘I’m this and you’re that.’ Fanatics are everywhere.”

The essay “Bakeries” turns into a brilliant mediation on having it all. As women, whether we choose to marry or not. Whether we choose to have children or not. We still get caught in the debate how far to lean in or not. Whether we’re too bitchy or too much of push-overs. Delia writes: “One of the most revolting parts of the American female version–and there are many revolting parts—is that having it all defines “all” in one way: marriage, children, career. It assumes all women want the same thing. Success rests on achieving three goals (life viewed not as a continuum, but an endpoint), and these goals, as it happens, are exactly the ones that will declare you a success at your high school reunion.” Absolutely. This is why I generally avoid Facebook and get super depressed at high school reunions.

Delia and I are Twitter friends (at least in MY mind—bonding with #TheHairReport) so reading her essay collection just brought us closer.

RATING: *****/5

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Blue Rider Press.

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Elsewhere: book review


Elsewhere: A Memoir by Richard Russo. Publisher: Knopf (December 2012). Memoir. Hardcover. 243 pages. ISBN: 978-0-307-95953-9.

Richard Russo doesn’t write particularly empathetic female characters. Writers write what they know and any psychiatrist might extrapolate the relationship with his mother from his novels. In Elsewhere, Russo describes a mother so dependent on her son that she follows him constantly, across the country from New York to Arizona and back to Maine. She suffers various afflictions and anxieties though never seeks any medicinal or therapeutic help. Russo’s a fantastic writer but there’s an arrogance to this. He writes, “From the time I was a boy I understood that my mother’s health, her well-being, was in my hands.” Just how much does he resent his mother?

“My mother’s ‘condition.’ This was something the whole family seemed aware of, but no one talked about it. One word, nerves, was evidently deemed sufficient to describe, categorize, stigmatize, and dismiss it.”

Russo left the factory town of Gloverstown, New York in 1967. He writes of it often—Empire Falls, Nobody’s Fool, The Whore’s Child—but he’s never been back. When Russo enters the University of Arizona, his mother tells him she’s left her well-paying job and will move to Arizona as well. She needs a fresh start too, after all. This continues. He finds apartment after apartment for his mother wherever he’s living. While exhibiting a snobby outward appearance she’s becoming increasingly shaky and unsure of herself. She claims independence and feigns disdain when Russo offers assistance.

She can’t understand why her son, an accomplished scholar, a PhD, continues to write about their mired hometown. She’s never satisfied. Russo says one kind thing about his mother and that’s her accumulation of books and her establishment of some sort of library—“If a stranger came into her apartment, a quick scan of her books would give him a pretty good idea of who she was, whereas all he could say about ours was, Boy, these people sure have a lot of books.” When his daughter gets diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder [OCD], Russo ponders his mother through a diagnostic lens. Mental illness can skip a generation. Elsewhere is quite stark yet enthralling, honest. This memoir now becomes part of my library.

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from the publisher.

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loose diamonds: book review

loose diamonds by Amy Ephron. Publisher: William Morrow Paperback (September 2012). Memoir. Paperback. 166 pages. ISBN: 978-0-06-195878-6.

Certainly the Ephron family grew up unlike many other families but also like many families in Hollywood. Creative. Eccentric. Domestic help. Private schools. When Amy Ephron had her own family she also had help raising her children and sent them off to various private schools. Amy wrote two charming historical novels that I recommend as often as possible, A Cup of Tea and One Sunday Morning.

In this delightful collection of essays, Amy Ephron shares her deft observations about a multitude of subjects including her childhood, her mother, giving birth, fancy shoes, shopping (particularly at Saks), affairs, flying, her first marriage, divorce and her second marriage. She loses things—sometimes objects, sometimes relationships, sometimes emotional states– and through heartfelt, witty, insightful and clever means, she explains to the reader how she’s learned from those losses. It’s a sparkling memoir.

A burglar steals jewelry from Ephron’s home in “Loose Diamonds.” Much of it irreplaceable antiques. Ephron admits she doesn’t wear it often but had maybe planned to pass some along to her children. Since she kept it locked in a safe and rarely wore the pieces, she re-evaluates its necessity. The startling premature birth of her daughter Maia centers the sweet, darling essay “Labor Day” – “I looked at Maia in her little wicker basket in our little house in Laurel Canyon and I realized that I couldn’t leave. . . I realized I wasn’t going to be able to leave for something like the next 21 years, not in any substantive way anyway.”

Can you imagine separating from your husband and he proceeds to sleep with most of the mothers in your son’s elementary school class? This happened to Ephron and she tells-all in “Musical Chairs.” She’s tipped off when a strangely jealous mom rear-ends her at pick-up time. Two years after her divorce she remarried and writes honestly in “Post-Modern Life” how “families meld, change, grow, have spats, meltdowns, blowups, periods of time when they don’t speak and periods when they’re incredibly cozy, envy morphs into support or vice versa (particularly if the siblings are close in age).” My favorite might be the apropos newest essay added to the paperback edition “The Best Kept Secrets” in which Ephron ponders secrets and whether affairs must become public knowledge or not. Can a kiss be just a kiss?

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from the publisher.

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book review: Who I Am

Who I Am by Pete Townshend. Publisher: Harper Collins (October 8, 2012). Memoir. Hardcover. 544 pages. ISBN: 978-0062127242

“My characteristic stance on stage—the leaping, the windmilling and wrecking of guitars—was by now a purely physical display of macho swagger, yet at a psychic level the Angry Yobbo, or hooligan, had seared himself into my soul, and I was still no wiser about where all that energy came from.”

Whenever I listen to The Who’s Greatest Hits while power-walking, I windmill during “My Generation” and “Who Are You.” Doesn’t everyone? It’s addictive to picture yourself onstage like guitarist Pete Townshend shredding away. On this website, Entertainment Realm, I mostly review music and books. This memoir seemed the perfect thing. Growing up after The Who achieved notoriety I wasn’t an avid fan and didn’t appreciate them until much more recently. I like The Who now. I’m not a fan of a lot of classic bands.

If you expect rampant tales of sex, drugs and rock and roll in this memoir you’ll be disappointed. It’s tame compared to other rocker memoirs. Townshend used this more as a meditation on his years with the band. In this memoir, Townshend focuses on how he developed as a musician, how he helped shape The Who into the powerhouse legendary band it became and how drugs and alcohol nearly made him lose everything. Keith Moon’s death only garners a sentence in the book. Of course he’s talented and wrote many memorable songs for The Who. He’s also immensely arrogant.

He includes details about his numerous side projects including developing a company to build home studios, working at a publishing company and writing for a music magazine. He ponders his difficult childhood and its effect on his adulthood [including a sting that got him arrested in a child pornography ring]. Who I Am will mostly appeal to die-hard The Who fans. It’s slow, tempered and not terribly juicy.

On Being a Londoner:

“I am British. I am a Londoner. I was born in West London just as the devastating World War came to a close.”

On abandonment:

“Denny’s feelings for me seemed vengeful, as did Mum’s abandonment. The deaths or disappearances of the beloved men in my life—my absent father and the recently departed George VI—seemed vengeful too. At the age of seven, love and leadership both felt bankrupt.”

Post-war creativity:

“For me these feelings coalesced in a conviction that amid the aftermath of war had to be confronted and expressed in all popular art—not just literature, poetry or Picasso’s Guernica. Music too. All good art cannot help but confront denial on its way to the truth.”

Creating songs:

“One notion kept coming into my head: I can’t explain. I can’t explain. This would be the title of my second song, and I was already doing something I would often do in the future: writing songs about music.”

“‘Happy Jack,’ a nonsense song I wrote about a village idiot from the Isle of Man. This is Paul McCartney’s favourite Who song—tellingly, because it was partly inspired by ‘Eleanor Rigby,’ which I thought was a small masterpiece.”

“One of the important documents I referred to while writing Tommy was a diagram I had sketched of the beginning and end of seven journeys involving rebirth.”

On Mick Jagger:

“Mick is the only man I’ve ever seriously wanted to fuck. He was wearing loose pyjama-style pants without underwear; as he leaned back I couldn’t help noticing the lines of his cock laying against the inside of his leg, long and plump. Mick was clearly very well-endowed.”

Personal issues:

“Years later I would discover that I really was struggling with some psychological anger that had always needed management, perhaps treatment.”

“Drinking was now necessary every day there was a show, but I knew when I got back to my family I could knuckle down and behave.”

Fan mail:

“If men sent photos they tended to be family-oriented, fathers and sons, or groups of men at rock shows or baseball games. Women’s photos were almost always solo, intended to trigger a connection.”

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from the publisher.

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This is How: book review

This is How by Augusten Burroughs. Publisher: St. Martin’s Press (2012). Self-help/memoir. Hardcover. 230 pages. 978-0312563554.

Being an unhappy person does not mean you must be sad or dark. You can be interested instead of happy. You can be fascinated instead of happy.

The rare writer who transforms dark thoughts and memories into cleverly worded stories about love, loss and learning, Augusten Burroughs has never been someone I consider to be a humorous writer but a memoir writer with a sense of humor and a dry wit. I’ll smirk here and there. I appreciate its honesty, bizarreness, rawness. He is willing to share intimate moments and thoughts. Of course, that makes or breaks a good memoir. apparently he’s decided that his years as an alcoholic and his experiences with a lover dying of AIDs as well as being fat, rejected, insecure, suicidal, among other things makes him the perfect person to write a how-to book. And I have to agree. Why not? Everyone has one out there– Bethenny of Real Housewives fame, Taxi’s Marilu Henner, [insert pop star name here].

A Wolf at the Table remains my favorite by Augusten. Sure Running with Scissors really went deep and was so implausible that people couldn’t help but laugh at Augusten’s situation. I think a lot of people lump him in with David Sedaris because they’re both gay and a bit off-beat. Gay is the only commonality between the two. Although, for the record, I don’t really think Sedaris is that funny. Augusten would be my friend if we ever met. I’d make him be. This is How has chapters on how to commit suicide, how to be with a dying lover, how to be fat, how to be thin, how to succeed, how to find love, how to be confident and much more from someone who hasn’t researched the best way for you to do these things. No. He’s giving the reader advice based on own painful trials and tribulations.

A few gems I’d like to share:

How to Find Love:

Personal ads and dating websites work. Anything that hurls your ass into the orbit of other living people can work. But there’s still a mistrust of the Internet.

You are exactly everything enough to the person who thinks you are.

How to Be Confident:

To allow yourself to be ‘yourself’ when you are with others, you don’t need to have years of therapy-polished love for yourself—merely tolerance.

How to End Your Life:

If you hate life, you haven’t seen enough of it. If you hate your life, it’s because your life is too small and doesn’t fit you. However big you think your life is, it’s nothing compared to what’s out there.

How to Identify Love By Knowing What It’s Not:
[This was one of the most enlightening and comforting chapters for me]

Love Doesn’t Use a fist.
Love never calls you fat or lazy or ugly.
Love does not ask or even want you to change. But if you change, Love is as excited about this change as you are, if not more so.
Love does not maintain a list of your flaws and weaknesses.
Love believes you.

An abusive partner is controlling. They are manipulative. They might make a special point of coyly sharing information that they actually know will upset you. They might supply reasonable arguments as to why they and not you should make important decisions.

Emotional abuse is the process of breaking the spirit or shattering the confidence of another for one’s own purpose.

Abusive people never change.

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purchase at Amazon: This Is How: Proven Aid in Overcoming Shyness, Molestation, Fatness, Spinsterhood, Grief, Disease, Lushery, Decrepitude & More. For Young and Old Alike.

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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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