Born a Crime by Trevor Noah (Memoir)

Tagging along on Trevor Noah’s South African childhood is quite a ride. This series of vignettes are told in Noah’s signature comic style while simultaneously offering real insight about life during and after apartheid in South Africa.

The “illegal” offspring of a black woman and a white man, Trevor is always the outcast — never fitting into any of the official segregated groups (black, white, colored, and Indian). This is the best (to me) kind of memoir — we get the stories as they felt to him as a child, laced with adult commentary on what he later came to realize about the context. I appreciate learning about a place and time through the actual experiences of a single individual living it. While historical and cultural trends are interesting at the macro level, I never feel close to understanding something until I see it through the eyes of people living it.

The adult commentary (with just the right amount of background facts (e.g. the number of official languages in South Africa, the complexities of apartheid, and specific tribal practices) gave me a radically different perspective on apartheid, different systems of oppression, and how context shapes the people who grow up within its confines. The comedy helped me read through experiences that would be too hard to read without. However, it is his insight that makes this book worth reading — insight into how we judge others. Insights such as what makes us think someone is like us or different, what assumptions we make about what people mean when they say or do something, and what really constitutes equal opportunity.

I liked some of the stories better than others, but while discussing at a book group, found that others had almost the exact opposite reaction. That in itself is just as interesting — showing how even a group of people with similar backgrounds processes information in completely different ways.

Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough by Lori Gottlieb (Memoir)

Writing: 4/5 Coverage: 5/5
Lori Gottlieb likes to document her life in a series of simultaneously hysterical and insightful installments. Marry Him is focused on her dating life — at 41 she finds herself an (intentional) single mother, looking for a life partner and having trouble. She brings us along as she consults with friends, matchmakers, a rabbi, and a dating coach with episodes of online and speed dating. There are some valuable insights (which I try to summarize below) and it’s a fun read. My favorite parts were her interactions with the dating coach — Evan Marc Katz. Like therapy sessions you watch him call her out blow-by-blow on the (bad) habits she brings to her search for love. The forced reflection is fascinating.

Some of my favorite insights (** indicates favorite-favorite!):
• People tend to focus on objective and unimportant criteria (height, looks, clothes, shared interests) and not on the important subjective criteria like shared values and goals.
• Stop looking for what’s wrong with people — instead focus on what is right and have compassion for the “not as good.” Make a list of what a partner would have to put up with to be with you and think about how you would like to be considered under those circumstances. **
• Be careful of the assumptions you make — Gottlieb would infer whole (usually incorrect) personalities from tiny little comments or statements in a profile.
• Stop looking for a one-stop shopping life partner — nobody can be everything to you, and it is unfair pressure to apply!
• Be a sufficer rather than a maximizer. A sufficer says “this one is good enough” while a maximizer is always wondering if there is something better out there.
• Looking for instant chemistry — many women give up on a man after one date because “they didn’t feel it” or “there were no sparks.” Katz points out that real intimacy (and sparks) often come later and initial sparks distract you from the red flags until it’s too late to unhook easily.
• Understand the basic rules of biology — a man of similar age may be looking for a younger woman to start a family with. No use being annoyed — it’s just the way it is. (Personally I have always found it interesting that while women thought it fair to date older men during their younger years, leaving the male half of the cohort dateless, they aren’t happy when the tables turn at the other end of the time scale.)

In many ways I felt this book focused on a certain type of woman — New York, Jewish, and neurotic — but the advice / messages are valuable for people of any age or gender who are looking for love. For me there was a little too much repetition and a few too many anecdotes — but I completely enjoyed her writing, clarity, and humor. Much more fun to read (and probably more insightful) than a dry self-help book on the same topic.

Relish by Lucy Knisly

A fun foodie memoir by gastronome cartoonist Lucy Knisly. The story takes us from a childhood in New York City through her parent’s divorce and a move to upstate New York farm country through art school in Chicago — all the while documenting her experiences which primarily seem to revolve around food! I don’t read a lot of graphic novels, but I did enjoy this one. It was more experience oriented than insightful (as compared to Mira Jacob’s “Good Talk”, for example). It was cheerful, made me hungry in a good way, and did a good job of distilling a story into captions and art. An example from a trip to Japan taken with her father: “I ate weirdness and drank strange. Like learning to eat all over again.”

Becoming by Michelle Obama (Memoir)

I loved this memoir — I expected the good writing, but I did not expect it to be so engaging (starting at page one and continuing throughout). I particularly liked the fact that it was a real memoir — very personal, often poignant, and focused on experiences and insight rather than a political agenda (which is what I was expecting).

Obama has a real talent for observation and introspection. She provides just enough detail and commentary to fully describe events without ever belaboring the point (or going off on unrelated tangents). She described race and gender issues from her own experiences without using them to tee up soapbox lectures. Instead, she focused on what she encountered, what impact things had on her, and what she personally tried to do (often successfully, sometimes not) to introduce more fairness in the world. She didn’t belabor the points, and I appreciated that she didn’t appear to stick to a straight party line. For example, she was part of a Gifted and Talented experiment at her elementary school — which was fantastic for her. She pointed out that people have claimed this is an undemocratic approach. With a few short sentences she managed to present both an opposition and an example of a positive personal impact without drawing conclusions or even stating an opinion on the issue.

It was fascinating to be able to share in her experiences: growing up on the South Side of Chicago, falling in love, having children, going through political campaigns, and of course being the First Lady. Never petty, never gossipy, the narrative always felt honest. Obviously, nobody writes a memoir to make themselves look bad, but I found some pretty honest analysis of why she made certain decisions, what she regretted, what she worried about.

For those who are hoping for another Obama presidency, it’s clear after reading this book that it is not to be! Michelle made it very clear that she has ideas and energy around the issues, but not around the politics in which they are embedded. I’m with her 100% on that one.

This book is inspiring and enlightening and intriguing. I’m sorry I put off reading it for so long.

The Escape Artist by Helen Fremont (Memoir)

Very well-written memoir about the author growing up in a dysfunctional family full of mental illness and big-time secrets. Raised as a Catholic, her discovery that her parents and aunt were instead Jewish holocaust survivors was the subject of her first book — After Long Silence (1999).  The Escape Artist starts with the aftermath of the previous work — estrangement from her family and an invitation to her father’s funeral only to find that she had been cut out of his will with the phrase “as if she had predeceased me.” The narrative bounces between 1965 and the present (well-labeled and easy to follow) and follows the wild dynamics of a sister who is alternately her best friend and a foaming-at-the-mouth crazy person vowing to kill her. While the first book uncovers the Catholic / Jewish secret, this book uncovers a second large family secret (which truthfully is not the main purpose of the book and is not over dramatized in any way — it’s just something we find out / figure out near the end). The primary focus is on her relationship with the family, particularly her sister, and her own slow self-discovery of the person she wants to be.

I enjoyed reading this book — it was well-written and the characters were deeply portrayed — intentionally from the author’s perspective. Exactly my kind of memoir where the author makes plain her interior logic, experiences, and even her own doubt as to what actually happened vs what she remembers happening. My only complaint might be that it was a tad too long — I was ready to be done about 40 pages from the end. I admit that there is also something that disturbs me about one person writing a memoir that exposes the secrets of others. There was a good reason her family did not want people to know they were Jewish and I can see being equally unhappy about the family exposure in this book.

Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb (Memoir)

This memoir is as gripping as a good novel.  Hall-of-mirrors style, we experience therapy from the perspective of the therapist with carefully selected stories that highlight both the therapeutic process and the impact on the therapist herself. At the same time, we’re along for the ride as Gottlieb enters her own therapy as the result of a (surprisingly) bad breakup. She has a real talent for insight — into herself and into others — and the training and background to understand that insight. Even better, Gottlieb can write — the prose is clear and succinct and gets to the essence of complex feelings, motivations, and awareness. My favorite one liner: “The nature of life is change and the nature of people is to resist change.”

This memoir is one of the bravest and most honest I’ve read. I never would have had the courage to bare my soul, warts and all, in such a genuine and authentic manner. The narrative embeds her personal story — the path through journalism and medical school to a combined career as therapist and writer — as well as relevant bits of the history of psychology. She references several psychologists — some famous, some new to me, and a few favorites — as she leverages their teachings in her own work. The one that hit me hardest was this quote from Victor Frankl, Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.”

Apropos of nothing, another interesting tidbit: the countries with the most therapists per capita (in order) are: Argentina, Austria, Australia, France, Canada, Switzerland, Iceland, US. Would not have been my guess!

Did this book make me want to enter therapy? She included a definition that I hadn’t heard before — Counseling is for advice whereas therapy is for self-understanding. I’m always interested in self-understanding and working with a *good* therapist who has great skill and insight would be (I’m sure) both interesting and beneficial — but the process is long, expensive, and doesn’t appear to be very efficient — I think I’ll stick to my “self-taught” approach and continue with ongoing internal exploration.

Good Talk by Mira Jacob (Memoir / Graphic Novel)

A memoir in graphic novel form. I had read a great review which never even mentioned that it was a graphic novel — so it was a big surprise to me when I got it from the library! I’m not generally a graphic novel fan — I like language — but I found it to be an excellent medium for this book. Most of the content is in the form of conversations between the author and her son, her husband, her parents, her in-laws, and her friends — punctuated by the occasional “letter” or statement. The artwork provides the context which allow for the content to be more pithy — highlighting the essence in a way that is difficult to do with too many words.

The author is East Indian and is married to a Jewish man. Much (most) of the book is about her experience as a person of color, extending from childhood, through 9/11, and to the current Trump era. The opening chapter features a conversation with her six-year old son about Michael Jackson — whom he loves — and whether Michael is black, brown, or white and which of the three he liked best. A brilliant opening. The closing is a kind of letter to her son about the man she hopes he can become given the current political climate.

For me, her descriptions of bigotry and racism as she struggled to explain them to her curious son were both fascinating and educational. The word “racism” is thrown around a lot these days, and her definition (supplemented by some google searching) helped me understand the difference between them in a way I hadn’t previously. I appreciated the many different examples of stereotyping and the confusion that ensues even when people want to treat others the “right” way. In her life, her own extended family in India found her “too dark” to ever be attractive to a good candidate husband; she stumbles over what to say to the first lesbian she meets; and is given a particular job because the wealthy white woman hiring knows they will have a lot in common because she (the white woman) likes yoga and is spiritual. The author has to explain to her son that sometimes Indian people can be mean to others on the basis of race also, which saddens him because he wanted to be one of the “good guys”.

This is a riveting, well-written exploration of one woman’s experience as a person of color and — due to the graphic format — a pretty fast read!

All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung (Memoir)

Incredibly well-written and insightful memoir about the author’s trans-racial adoption (white family, Korean birth family), eventual reunion with her birth family, and the birth of her first child. I was constantly impressed by her ability to so clearly distill and express complex emotions and experiences. This is a testament both to her writing ability and her capacity for deep introspection and self-awareness.

This is a memoir — a deeply personal and honest account of the way she experienced her life. It is not a treatise on the pros and cons of adoption or the prejudice experienced by a person of color in an all-white community— there is no political agenda here. I absolutely loved her writing — the search for her birth parents and discovery of a sister is superimposed on her own pregnancy and the birth of her child, making sense out of the disparate pieces of her background, decisions, and plans.

Great for fans of Anne Lamott.

Toil and Trouble by Augusten Burroughs (Memoir/Humor)

Thank you to St. Martin’s Press and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on October 1st, 2019.

It’s hard to believe but this is my first Augusten Burroughs book! I’ve heard of Running With Scissors of course but somehow never managed to get to it. My loss. Burroughs is funny, clever, and writes in a wickedly delicious, entre-nous style. In this segment of his ongoing memoirs, he and husband Christopher make the move out of Manhattan. This includes convincing Christopher that he wants to move, searching for houses, and engaging with the “perfect” home once purchased. The heavy thread running over, under, and through it all (as you might have guessed from the title) are his “magick” and witchcraft skills. Regardless of your opinion on witchcraft, this is a compelling and comprehensive story, comprising personal experience, historical references, an analysis of what witchcraft really is, and lots of lots of laugh-inducing stories. I tossed skepticism aside and just ate it all up.

Reading this book (and probably all of the others), it’s hard not to want to want to befriend the guy (whether he’d want to befriend us back is another story). He manages to turn his (self-reported) “spectrum directed mind” and anxiety (his “default emotion”) into pure entertainment for his readers. I’d really like to have him over for dinner.

Pretty much every line is a quotable quote, but here are a few of my favs:

“Once we pull into the driveway, I know right away: this house is a vampire. It will want all our neck blood and then the blood of our unborn parallel universe children.”

“I’ve always been incredibly socially awkward. Autism runs in the family like detached earlobes. I obviously got sprinkled with enough of it to make me come across as a horrible snob. I wish there were more opportunities to turn this to my advantage, but so far, no luck.”

“I feel off atrocious news stores the way most people today consume kale. Nutrition comes from abductions, electrocutions, capsized boats, and freeway pileups.”

“Every sound of dropping signals water penetration. I wish I could be injected with ape tranquilizers.”

“Being plunged into the colonial era is informative. I learn that my mental health and stability is directly proportionate to the mount of charge on my phone.”

“Back in 1990, the internet was made of paper and it wasn’t called the internet, it was called the Village Voice.”

“It is moving day and we are already an episode of Hoarders.”

Small Fry by Lisa Brennan-Jobs (Memoir)

Writing: 5/5 Story: 4/5 Characters: 4.5/5

A surprisingly good memoir — well-written with astute observations, reflections, and analyses. A true memoir in that all other characters — portrayed with the same detail and depth as the author herself — were viewed strictly through the lens of the author at different stages of her life. I frankly expected this would be yet another book capitalizing on someone’s proximity to fame (in this case her father — Steve Jobs), but while Jobs figured prominently in the narrative, he and the other figures (her mother, other relatives, neighbors, and friends) were present primarily to show how they influenced the shape of her life.

It was an excellent portrayal of life in the Palo Alto area in the late 80s and 90s with stark contrasts between life with her struggling, itinerant, arty, mother and time with her father in enormous unfurnished mansions. References to local institutions such as Hidden Villa, Draegers, Nueva School, Tassajara, and general locations are a lot of fun for those of us who are local. This picture of Palo Alto as an affordable haven for hippies and artists is a real kick given the current cost of living index of 613.5 (the US average is 100) and median home price of $3.1 million.

Overall, I read this as a memoir about the way parents can shape a child, for better or worse. The specific descriptions of interactions paired with the corresponding internal feelings and reactions and Lisa’s growth and shifts over time were remarkably well-done and fascinating to read. That some of the influential characters were famous was not nearly as interesting as the insight into the way each individual behaved and interacted with Lisa growing up (very little name dropping which I appreciated — this is not a jealousy inducing book by any means).