Bad Vibes Only by Nora McInerney (Memoir)

McInerney’s memoir-in-essays takes us from her largely technology-free childhood through to the reality-TV and social media reshares infused present. A cross between Anne Lamott, Florence King, and Nora Ephron, the book is both insightful and hysterically laugh-out-loud funny. Or is it? This woman is self professedly neurotic and an incredibly intuitive writer. What I found both instructive and a little depressing is how closely some of my own neuroses match hers — reading her descriptions made me realize how incredibly neurotic (in just these TINY little ways) I really am — and maybe those aren’t quite as funny as the rest. Still, I totally laughed my way through.

McInerney is the creator / host of the podcast “Terrible, Thanks for Asking.” I haven’t listened to it (because podcasts don’t unreel as fast as I can read) but I bet it’s great.

Some great quotes:

“Memory loss was a problem for future me, and I trusted she’d be able to deal with the consequences of my actions. That trust was entirely misplaced, because I’m not even forty yet and on a good day I’ll walk into a room and ask Matthew, ‘What was I about to say?’ as if he’s a searchable database with a Bluetooth connection to my brain.”

“ ‘Good Vibes Only’ makes a cute saying for a mug, but a pretty ominous interpersonal standard.”

“It doesn’t take a psychology degree to understand that some things are just more pleasant than others, and that as comfort-seeking mammals with disposable income we are attracted to the pleasant, the easy. And yes, we know that ‘life is hard’, but we also really want it to be hard in ways that are manageable and more inconvenient than difficult.”

“Because no, this is not what happens on my version of the internet, where opinions are either inconsequential (what does your coffee mug really say about you?) or authoritative, loud and devoid of all nuance.”

“I hate to describe critical thinking as a privilege, but take a look around: life is hard, and people are tired, and the small doses of camaraderie and dopamine we get from clicking “reshare” on a hot take will always be easier and more satisfying than reading a well-researched piece of reporting and thinking aloud to yourself, ‘Well, it certainly seems like a complex issue.’ “

“Our children — God willing — will grow up and move out, will establish their own lives shrinking and shifting so that we are no longer the sun but some outer planet that upon further inspection actually may just be a defunct satellite stuck in their orbit.”

“At nine she had realized that our memories are the only things keeping us here; a weak Velcro preventing us from being ripped from the history of time. We want to remember because we too fear existential obliteration, shudder at the thought of being lost to an endless sea of unforgettable moments long forgotten.”

Thank you to Atria Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on October 11th, 2022.

My Seven Black Fathers by Will Jawando (Memoir)

Montgomery County Councilman Will Jawando’s memoir of growing up with an absent Black Nigerian father and a white mother is well-written, measured and thoughtful, with constant fresh insights along the way. I loved the overall theme of the book — rather than considering himself a boy raised without a father, he considers himself as having seven fathers — Black men who took the time to teach him how to be a man by mentoring him, serving as role models, and generally giving him the love, attention, and advice he needed. Eventually, this even led to a loving reconciliation with his biological father.

He honestly made me see mentoring in a new light — how mentoring can literally help someone by exposing them to aspects of life that many of us take for granted. How else can a fatherless boy learn to be a man (or a motherless girl learn to be a woman, or an immigrant learn how to be a citizen of a new country, etc.)? I’ve read a number of books recently about children growing up in some of the more gang ridden areas of the country, with very few fathers present. Why wouldn’t they grow up modeling on the adult men available to them — gang members?

Jawando speaks intelligently about issues — not in slogans — and while racism is a factor in the story, it is just one factor of his experience, not the lens through which the whole story is filtered. He did occasionally make unsubstantiated generalizations based on his interpretation of personal experiences, but not very often, and more often referenced studies showing the broader sociological impact of various things he personally saw or experienced on a personal scale.

It would be hard not to immediately think of Obama’s first book — Dreams from My Father — while reading this. There are many parallels between them (both had African fathers, white mothers from Kansas, and wives named Michel(l)e and in fact, Obama is one of Jawando’s “fathers” based on the time Jawando worked on his staff.

Interesting, inspiring, accessible, and with real depth — definitely worth reading.

Thank you to Farrar, Straus and Giroux and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on May 3rd, 2022.

Three Girls from Bronzeville: A Uniquely American Memoir of Race, Fate, and Sisterhood by Dawn Turner (Memoir)

Incredibly well-written memoir by prize winning journalist Dawn Turner. I listened to this on audio books, and the reader — Janina Edwards — was fabulous. I’m not an audio book fan, but it’s hard for me to imagine this book without her voice.

The memoir covers Turner’s life from her earliest memories (late sixties) to the present. Her experiences shaped her lifelong passion for exploring and understanding how people manage to change their lives — a theme that pervaded her journalistic career. The titular “three girls” refers to herself, her younger sister Kim, and her childhood best friend, Deborah, who lived in the apartment literally right above her. While Turner stuck to the straight and narrow path of good behavior, education, and vocation, Kim and Deborah made a different set of life decisions leading one to an unnecessary early grave and the other to a long prison sentence. But while this could be seen as a morality tale, that is not Turner’s intention or focus. She is far more focused on who gets second chances and who is able to make the most of them. Some of the stories she tells in her columns are both inspiring and helped me have a better understanding of the different individuals who find themselves (due to whatever set of circumstances and bad choices) at rock bottom and what some manage to do about it. I was a little disappointed that the book did not address why some people make bad choices when presented with the same opportunities as those who don’t — all three of our Bronzeville girls grew up with strong and supportive families and educational opportunities — what happened? However, Turner’s focus is on the other side — once someone is far off their chosen path, what can they do to redeem themselves and get back onto a more positive track — regardless of how impossible it may seem.

This book was full of exquisitely written and deeply meaningful quotes — I wish I had been able to capture and share them, but unfortunately that is one downside of listening to, rather than, reading a good book! Not easy to highlight!

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah (Memoir) — 5 stars

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!