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book review: Lopsided

Author: Meredith Norton

Living in Paris sounded romantic. My parents loved answering their friends’ inquiries about me with, “Oh, Meredith is still in Paris.” The fact that I was doing nothing, had no career or plans for a career was irrelevant. Were I in Oakland they’d have had to look away and change the subject, but doing nothing in Paris was bragworthy.

In reality, living in Paris wasn’t romantic; it was highly stressful. Parisians are a stressed population in general, but being an American in France, a country still bristling from its demoted status as world leader, was especially taxing. Rarely a cocktail hour passed without my screaming that I didn’t vote for George Bush, didn’t like George Bush, and didn’t want to talk about George Bush.

What do you do when you live in France, married to a French national and return home to visit your family in California and receive terrible medical news? What do you do when your doctors tell you that your chance of surviving cancer is 40%? What do you do when your son is only 18-months-old and has little concept of what mommy is going through? For Meredith Norton, you face it with intelligence, humor and a strong family support system. Lopsided is a fresh, witty and at times brash memoir about breast cancer. It reminds me a bit of Amy Silverstein’s Sick Girl in that Norton holds little back and is honest and open about everything from the doctors to the pain to the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation to her feelings about friends and family coming out of the woodwork to visit her after hearing about her diagnosis. [The three worst groups of people to tell were the ones that had heard and didn’t know what to say when they saw me, the cancer survivors who expected me to feel some sort of camaraderie, and the pitiers who refused to believe that I wasn’t secretly a hysterical, hopeless, vomiting shell of my former self.]

Norton, the child of a surgeon, grew up in an exclusive neighborhood and attended private school. [My privileged upbringing had instilled in me a sense of entitlement that didn’t need reinforcing. That is really the American dream—not working hard and buying things, but reaching a place where there is no pressure to acknowledge that you already have everything.] She was often one of only a few black girls at her school and has many white friends. There’s one girl, Amy, who accused Norton of stealing money from her on a ski trip even though Amy attended school on scholarship and Norton came from a more wealthy family. The entire thing reeked of racism for Norton and she walked away from Amy forever. A few of the friends she had who have since gone their separate ways contacted her when they heard she had cancer and tried to make amends for their youthful disagreements. She did reconcile with some of these friends and discusses that in Lopsided.

Woven through her experiences as a cancer patient, Norton reminisces about her life experiences. Before she became an expatriate and moved to France and married Thibault, Norton had many occupations. She worked for three years as an inner-city Eighth grade English and U.S. history teacher. She produced a game show in England. For three years, she and her best friend Rebecca ran a design company called Norton Whittaker Inc. that went bankrupt and nearly destroyed their friendship.

Norton chronicles her unilateral mastectomy [What was left of my chest, my lone boob, served no purpose whatsoever but presented plenty of problems. If I wanted to appear presentable, I was forced to wear a falsie.], losing her hair [no stubble, just smooth, rubbery skin stretched tight and waxy. I spent hours caressing it.], chemotherapy [About midway through the chemo my nails started to change color. My fingernails were so sensitive that I found myself lifting things with the heel of my palm and turning pages with my elbows. Slowly, the purple crept higher and higher up my nail bed and the white slowly pulled back to meet it.], hot flashes [they caused her to sweat right through her pillow even when sleeping in her underwear], fear of her mortality [But what the therapist said was true: if I died prematurely Lucas wouldn’t even have any context in which to place me.], and her distain for cancer survivor Lance “Live Well” Armstrong.

There’s a plethora of memoirs in the bookstores these days but I assure you that you will not regret reading Norton’s Lopsided. Whether you have a connection to cancer or not, Lopsided is a scintillating read. Norton is your friend, your former college classmate, that sassy woman you want to join your book club or invite for a cup of coffee. Her sharp, sardonic sense of humor propels this book from page one.

When Rebecca found me in a corner at the Puma Outlet trying on a black wool cap and came at me with open arms it was the first time since skinny-dipping in snow runoff that I welcomed a hug. Since the diagnosis, all the hugs may have been intended to help me, but were really serving the hugger. Suddenly, these embraces were a refuge that I could hide my knobby, gray head behind. I was so ashamed to be contaminated by this ugly disease and have it broadcast so publicly.

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I was a pot dealer at thirteen, a cocaine user at fourteen, a stickup kid and coke dealer at sixteen, a coke smuggler for a Mafia drug trafficker at seventeen, a car-bomber and drive-by shooter at eighteen, the leader of a major narco-trafficking crew and an undercover FBI witness at nineteen, a club owner and accused murderer at twenty, a porn producer at twenty-one. Orange County had never seen the likes of me.

Nothing gets held back in Breakshot as Kenny “Kenji” Gallo provides readers with an unsettling, honest, straight-forward, un-censored version of life in the Mafia. It’s not glorified. It’s not cool. It’s awful. That is exactly what you find throughout the pages—the reader gets the bare bones, stripped down, harsh reality version of the mob lifestyle. This is not the Sopranos. What Gallo chronicles throughout the pages of Breakshot has not received a glossy Hollywood treatment. This mob informant is the real deal. Gallo wants the public to understand what he went through, the mistakes he made, and what he saw by infiltrating mob families in California, Florida and New York. Gallo, an Asian-American middle-class “kid” from Orange County, has a solid memory for his interactions with wise guys on all levels within numerous influential families. He had the charisma and talents to gain the confidence of major players in these different mafia families.

Now that I have been strictly crime-free for nearly five years, there is no other reasonable conclusion: I was a horrible, exploitative monster by choice, because I was happiest inflicting pain, misfortune and humiliation on others. I have no alibi, no excuses—I committed crimes for pleasure.

Breakshot is full of cringe-inducing violence, despicable behavior and attitudes, beyond crude language, and over-the-top racism and sexism. I could not read Breakshot without setting it aside for periods of time. Often, this memoir truly creeped me out. I don’t know what bothered me the most: the disregard for the value of life, the blatant lack of interest in anything but getting laid and making tons of money, the arrogance and bravado, the flagrant disregard for customs and standards, or constantly putting women down. Breakshot is almost a “scared straight” for Mafioso-wannabes. This is not an easy or enviable life. Once in, it is nearly impossible to get out except through prison, witness protection or a body bag. By sharing insight and minutiae of this lifestyle, Breakshot proves in the end that Gallo lost a lot to gain very little.

I spoke with Kenji Gallo by phone from his office in Orange County, Calif.

Amy Steele [AS]: Why did you decide to write the book?

Kenji Gallo [KG]: I just wanted to get my story out. I wanted to tell it like it is. I was tired of watching and reading all these other books and movies. Tired of it. They’re all just crap. People like the Sopranos because they think it’s so real. How would they know it’s so real? It’s not even close to be real.

AS: How do you think [The Sopranos] is not close to real?

KG: Nothing in the show is even close to reality. If they’re sitting in the same place every day, the Feds would already be arresting them. No one would be speaking to a shrink. It just wouldn’t happen. They’d just kill him. No one would listen to him. It’s just phony. I’ve watched like two episodes and I saw some guy beat up another guy at a bagel shop and I said, “This is just not for me.” Women have no say so at all. Not that I have anything against women but it’s a man’s gig. It’s a man’s life.

AS: What do you want readers to take away from Breakshot?

KG: The readers can see what a real criminal thinks like. What a real organized criminal is and how it is today. It’s not just some guy in Brooklyn going to a social club and playing cards. I was a real mobile 21st century criminal. I used computers. I used cell phones. It wasn’t a bunch of old guys dressed in suits. All of my friends are young. They can see that it’s a waste of life. All these music videos, everything that portray “the life,” all those that wannabe like that . . . people die. A lot of my friends are dead. It’s not cool. Hopefully people will see that. I wasted 20 years for no reason.

AS: That sometimes comes across but I had to put the book down a lot. It’s so violent and upsetting that I’d have to read something else and then come back and read a little bit. So I guess you did what you set out to do then.

KG: If you read any other organized crime book, [writer’s note: I have not and there is not one high on my TBR list.] it’s always a guy saying that he really didn’t do that much bad, he had a real bad childhood, he was beat by his dad or stepdad, he grew up in poverty, blah, blah, blah. And they’re all lying. They’re just making an excuse. I don’t make any excuse. Not even one excuse. I just did it because I wanted to do it. That’s it. It’s just right out there for everyone to see. Criminals aren’t nice guys. They aren’t funny. They’re ignorant. It’s a grind being around them. So it is upsetting.

AS: Why do you think the criminal lifestyle did have such an appeal to you when you were this “nice O.C guy”?

KG: I just get bored really easy and it just had this allure to me and I just thought I hadn’t got to the right point yet. I thought, ‘I’m not to where it’s going to be really glamorous.’ And it just never was. It’s not the lifestyle that people think it is.

AS: If you were so smart, you just never wanted to become more educated and go to college?

KG: I did go to college but I didn’t finish college. I also read about three to five books a week, anything I can get my hands on, on any subject. I really like history. In my lifetime, looking back, I really would have loved to have been a history professor or teacher. But I kind of just left home. That’s why I changed my name. My family has nothing to do with my life. Nothing to do with me.

AS: You’re so much nicer to talk to, not what I expected at all. In every chapter you say you are this “smart, clean-cut, well-spoken guy.” Why did you feel like you had to say that? Were you trying to point out the thuggishness of a lot of the other people? I think that’s one of the things I couldn’t take. The treatment of women. There was this one guy who said, “Oh Kenji you just have to treat women like crap, like property. They aren’t worth anything.”

KG: They’re really stupid. At the end, I couldn’t wait to get off the streets. I couldn’t wait for the FBI guy. I was so happy because I couldn’t take being around them anymore. I was never the kind of guy who cheated on his wife or cheated on his girlfriend. I just wasn’t that kind of guy. I’m a nice guy to women. I had a lot of women friends. I had gay friends, I had friends who were black, friends who were Mexican. It’s just not the norm for that kind of lifestyle. I wanted different things and that’s where a lot of the differences were. I wasn’t a big drug addict and drinker like the rest of these guys. I treated women different. And I read all the time. I’d have a book with me all the time and they would make fun of me. I held them in contempt. I kind of looked at the world like I was an anthropologist. I just watched, observed. The thing with me is I actually took notes just for my own purposes back then.

AS: So that’s how you could have such a good recall too to write the book.

KG: Oh yeah, I have a really good memory. I remember details of what we did that day. And I wasn’t high or drunk so it made things a lot easier.

AS: In the beginning though, you were dealing drugs and using them. Isn’t that sort of against the rules?

KG: I didn’t really use them every day. If we went out, I’d use drugs. If I was working, there was no way. My work ethic, everyone knows. Even now, I get up at 4 a.m. I go do cardio. I’m behind my desk by six. I’m working. I’m emailing. I’m doing this book and everything else. At 12, I do jujitsu for three hours. I come back and work for another hour and then I go home. I haven’t missed a day in two years.

AS: You had the top porn star lays list which I did not like. And you had your ex-wife Tabitha at five which I thought was pretty degrading. What was the point of putting that list in the book?

KG: Well, it’s not degrading if you knew my ex-wife. It is what it is. A lot of guys wanted that. I didn’t really care. I didn’t really want it in there but people ask about it all the time. I just put it there because it’s pretty well known the girls I hung out with. [Tabitha]’s really made a mess of herself. I did care about her a lot, honestly. I loved her. I wished I could help her. I still care about her. I don’t want anything bad to happen to her. She was special to me and I wish her the best. They [porn stars] are looking for attention. They are constantly seeking that father figure that they can’t find. Nothing is good enough for them and nothing ever will be until they find happiness within themselves.

AS: So you’re saying that you didn’t treat women that objectively? You can tell this really bothered me. At a lot of points in the book, women are demeaned and described in negative terms.

KG: I’ll clear this up. I was speaking negatively about the porn women because they don’t want to help themselves. They’re selling themselves and their bodies out for a few pennies. They make themselves look as bad as everyone else. That’s the point I’m trying to get at. I would never raise my hand to a woman. I treat every woman with respect as long as she treats herself with respect.

AS: You talked about the mafia code of honor and that you didn’t respect it. What are your thoughts on that?

KG: There is no code of honor and the rules only apply to those who they don’t like. They steal each other’s money. They steal each other’s wives. If a guy goes to prison, they rip off everything that he has. Out of sight out of mind. They don’t take care of anyone. And they all sell drugs and they all do whatever they can to make money. So there is no code of honor.

AS: So you said you were really ready to get out. How difficult was it to flip and work for the FBI?

KG: As soon as they asked me, I thought for like seconds and said, “Yeah, sure.” They said, “You don’t want to talk to a lawyer about it.” I said, “I made my decision. I’m on Team America.” They offered me a new life. I was over it. And I just wanted out. To leave the life, hasn’t been difficult at all. I don’t miss anyone in the business.

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book review: When You Lie About Your Age The Terrorists Win

I believe that a vehicle is for getting from point A to point B, not for making point A and point B.

Let’s face it, feminism just isn’t cool anymore. My friend has a daughter who currently goes to Vassar, and in a women’s studies class the professor asked how many students in the room would call themselves feminists—and—three students raised their hands. At Vassar. (And one of them was a guy. At Vassar.)

[writer’s note: I went to Simmons College, Class of 1991, and certainly considered myself a feminist and hardly anyone ‘dared’ called themselves a feminist for fear of the connotations the word provoked. Very sad that things have not changed in nearly twenty years.]

When comedian/writer Carole Leifer [Seinfeld] turned 50, she decided to write down her thoughts and share them in a book. I’m a good 15 years younger than her, so I could relate to some things and other things I’m not quite there yet. I don’t have children. I’m not gay but I have gay friends. I’m not Jewish but spend a lot of time in Brookline, Mass. [I’m sarcastic and from the East Coast] I’m a vegetarian. I’m a feminist and an animal rights activist. I’m liberal. My point is that a good writer will bring you into her world. Leifer succeeds at times and at other times, I just thought she was treading water or re-visiting familiar territory i.e. “I think you can stop. I’ve heard this one before.”

Leifer addresses: hiding your age; cars as “statements”; how she found out she was gay at 40; her love of animals; body changes as one ages; her breast cancer scare; feminism; things men should know; fake breasts; Judaism; her father; New York; being comfortable; doctors; therapists; class reunions; and numerous other age-related and non- age-related topics.

She delves deepest into her relationship with her father. Although he worked as an optometrist, she explains that her father had always wanted to be a comedian. Leifer had been taking adult b’nai mitzvah classes when he died. She still carries around a list of jokes he carried in his wallet. At another point, she addresses when her doctor thought a lump in her breast might be cancerous. She had just started dating her partner Lori and the panic merely strengthened the fledgling relationship. Finally there are the normal trials and tribulations of being part of a couple. Leifer became a vegan, yet Lori continues to eat meat. Leifer wants to be buried in New York, while Lori envisions eternity in her California family crypt. Leifer adds some comedic moments to these serious elements of her life and there are some hits and some misses as with any comedy routine.

I knew Leifer did stand-up and wrote for Seinfeld , dated Jerry Seinfeld back in the day etal. Other than that I didn’t know much about her. I’ve learned a few things from this book but still do not have a strong grasp of her persona. I’m disappointed. I wanted to laugh more I guess and while I got a few chuckles out of it here and there, When you Lie about your Age, the Terrorists Win is not particularly momentous. It is a fast-paced, light read. Much more effort could have gone into this book. The brief chapters read like monologues for, well, a stand-up comedian.

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book review: Who Do You Think You Are?

A Memoir

I didn’t like my mother, and I certainly didn’t love her. The only time we actually had anything in common was when I had my own daughter—but by then it was too late, since my mother was to die before we really could compare notes.

Happy Mother’s Day.

In honor, here’s a candid, often heartbreaking story about growing up in Queens in the 1960s with a verbally and sometimes physically abusive mother. In Who Do You Think You Are?, Alyse Myers recalls her childhood in Queens with astute descriptions and vivid details. Some moments are purely painful and some are brimming with expectations and (almost) hopefulness. Did Alyse find a way to leave her mother’s tyrannical grasp. Did she manage to avoid the same trappings of her mother (marrying young, not getting a college education, working at jobs she does not particularly enjoy)? Would her mother ever change her ways?

When the book opens, Alyse and her two sisters had gathered at the mother’s apartment to divvy up her things after her funeral. Alyse realized she only wanted one item: a carved wooden box that her father had given her mother as a gift and had been kept from Alyse’s reach and prying eyes. Alyse grabbed the box and brought it back to Manhattan but she didn’t open it.

Growing up, Alyse remembered being very fond of her father who didn’t spend much time at home. Her parents fought, but Alyse adored him because he lavished her with special attention. It turned out that her father cheated on her mother. When she was around 11 years old, Alyse’s father died of cancer. Her mother became more demanding and Elyse no longer had her father as a buffer. She pulled Alyse’s hair so much that it hurt for hours afterwards. She threatened to beat her with her father’s belts if she didn’t immediately clean her room or empty the dishwasher. Without warning her mother kicked her out of the house several times, often giving her mere minutes to pack her things and leave. Elyse confided in her grandfather who turned out to be her only confidante.

Alyse’s mother would often say, “You’re just like your father.” She even made it worse by saying: “You only do what’s good for you.” Through all this turmoil, Alyse managed to get excellent grades in school. She skipped a grade and was accepted at a prestigious high school in Manhattan where she commuted from Queens. When she graduated, she went to a community college and worked two jobs to save money so that she could get her own apartment and move, ultimately, away from her mother.

If you don’t like living her, leave. You’re never here anyway. You come and go as you please and you treat this place like a hotel. You’re just like your father.

I’d rather be like him than you.

Once Alyse was out on her own, her relationship with her mother changed a bit. Her mother’s attitude softened, particularly when Alyse married a man her mother liked and when Alyse had a daughter. The two women now had something in common. Both women wanted what was best for the little girl. Alyse began the process of forgiveness but then her mother was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer.

Alyse finally opens the wooden box 12 years after the death of her mother. Her daughter is 15 years old and they open the box together. The contents will surprise you. I don’t want to spoil it.

Who Do You Think You Are? is a wonderful, bittersweet memoir about endurance, letting go of the past, looking toward the future, and forgiving but not forgetting.


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