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).

Spies of No Country by Matti Friedman

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Algonquin Books through NetGalley. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own. The book will be published on March 5, 2019.
This is the story of Israel’s 1948 War of Independence told from the perspective of four spies from Israel’s “Arab Section” — a precursor of what would eventually become Mossad. Although the book includes a lot of background about the Middle East and the War itself, it is primarily a personal account of the experiences — both internal and external — of the spies.

The spies were Jewish men of Arab descent who wanted to be pioneers in the new, experimental (Zionist, socialist, and paradisical) country. Instead they were asked to “live like an Arab” — far from family and friends and amidst people with completely antithetical views (such as “Death to all Jews”). They were given false Arab / Muslim identities and sent out to gather intelligence and sometimes engage in sabotage. When they were finally able to come back to Israel two years later, it was to a completely different place — the reality of the country was a stark contrast to the ideal which they had held. Drawn from interviews, personal writings, and historical reports, the book did a good job of detailing the time and place as well as the attitudes and activities of the spies and those upon whom they spied.

The writing is uneven with an irregular structure resulting from the mashing together of personal accounts, historical documentation, and the author’s occasionally inserted opinions. A little more synthesis and coherence would have been very welcome. However, I did learn a great deal and appreciated the way the many details brought the time and place to life for me.

While I’ve known the rough history of Israel for a long time, I had either forgotten or never had known many of the specifics that I picked up from the book. At the time Israel declared independence in May 1948, 90% of its Jews were European — and looked down on the “black” Jews of Middle Eastern descent. The creation of Israel was a solution to a European, not Middle Eastern, problem. The declaration of Independence caused a massive influx of Jews from the surrounding Middle Eastern countries — not because they were enamored with the idea of a Jewish state but because they were fleeing a sudden and drastic increase in persecution in their home countries. As an example, according to the book Baghdad was 1/3 Jewish prior to 1948 (pretty much 0% now). So the solution to a European problem resulted in a much more widespread and amplified problem for the same target population in the broader Middle East.

Middle Eastern history is long and complicated and this book did not dissuade me from my largely pro-Israel stance. However, it certainly gave me a deeper comprehension of the experiences of the every-day people of the time on both sides of the fluid borders.