Category Archives: memoir

Review: The World’s Strongest Librarian by Josh Hanagarne

2nd May 2013

pg1*I received this from the publisher Gotham Books in exchange for an honest review.

Josh Hanagarne needs strength – both literal and figurative. Diagnosed with Tourette Syndrome in high school, Josh battles his ever-increasing tics without success for much of his life. Crediting his dad for getting him to hit the gym, and his mom for the introduction to the library, Hanagarne relates his journey thus far in The World’s Strongest Librarian.

From a young age, Josh appreciated books, eating marigold flowers in an attempt to mimic a hungry gopher in a children’s book. His mother took him to the doctor, explaining:

“A story went to his head,” Mom said….

“He likes books,” she said. “They give him ideas, though.”

“That’s the point, right?” said the doctor.

Once his tics develop, Josh becomes more and more self aware and angry at his uncontrollable body, until discovering strength training and oddly enough, revisiting the library.

Though I tend to approach memoirs with one eyebrow raised significantly, The World’s Strongest Librarian is the best of memoir writing. Hanagarne doesn’t know the answers. In fact, the memoir feels significantly like an exploration of himself instead of an explanation, and Josh tackles his syndrome, his Mormon background, and his experiences at the library in this improbable tale, making this quote from his friend Frankie Faires both apt and intriguing:

“We get better at what we do. If your body is your biography, then you are, at any given time, a perfect representation of all of your resolved and unresolved stresses.”

As much about the strangeness of a library as it is about the strangeness of a life lived with Tourette Syndrome, The World’s Strongest Librarian is one you should add to your Goodreads shelf.

Review: Agorafabulous! by Sara Benincasa

6th August 2012

*I received this book from the publisher William Morrow at BEA.

I subscribe to the notion that if you can laugh at the shittiest moments in your life, you can transcend them. And if other people can laugh at your awful shit as well, then I guess you can officially call yourself a comedian.

I knew when this book opened with a Molly Ivins’ quote that I was likely going to love it. Plus, right off the bat, this chick is funny. Then…Benincasa pulled the rug out from under me, talking about an adolescent crush who “one night in the spring, …walked into his garage, filled a bottle with gasoline, brought it upstairs into the bathroom, locked the door, poured some of the gasoline down his throat, soaked himself in the rest, and lit a match.”

I was shocked and horrified, and it took re-reading it for it to really sink in because in the pages before she’s talked about what an all-around good guy this kid is, someone all the girls love, and then he’s gone. As you can imagine, his death does a number on her, and she ends the introduction with a sort of benediction, saying she feels as though he’s there somewhere, “reminding [her] that clear-cut choices are few and far between.”

But no fear, Benincasa does an excellent job of bringing you to the brink of pain and despair before lightening it up with her characteristic (and dark/obscene/morbid) humor. For example, when she admits to her best friend that she cut herself:

Now that’s awkward enough, but here’s the truly humiliating part, the piece I’ve never admitted to anyone else…it was a butter knife. A fucking butter knife. What the hell kind of half-assed training-wheels shit is that? I’ve given myself deeper cuts while shaving my legs. It was nothing more than an advanced scratch. It wasn’t even a fully realized effort to hurt myself, much less end my own life. It was pretty much the most pussy attempt at self-destruction ever.

Benincasa reaches the point in college where she can’t leave her apartment because she knows she will die if she does. In fact, her fear extends to the bathroom, and she begins urinating in cereal bowls and shoving them under her bed. When her friend realizes the extent of Sara’s problem, she phones her parents, and Sara’s mom races to pick her up. Most of the book focuses on this part, the recovery, and though it’s funny, the depth of intimacy is something that goes away after she admits peeing in bowls. Understandable. In fact, the rest of the book is more a series of personal essays than anything else, but there is an overall arc to them, and more importantly, Benincasa does what Sedaris is so good at: the humor evinces the deeper growth she experiences in each situation.

Agorafabulous! is a brave book and does for mental illness what Sex and the City (the television show) did for sex or Jimmy Choos or cigarettes in the 21st century: brings it out in the open, shows what it is and can be and why we need to be able to discuss it and laugh about it.

Read this: if you are interested in mental illness/love David Sedaris or Sarah Vowell/enjoy off-the-wall memoirs. Check out others’ responses or add it to your shelf on Goodreads.

I Never Promised You a Goodie Bag by Jennifer Gilbert

12th July 2012

*The fabulous Mel from The Feminist Texican [Reads] sent me a copy of this book when she learned I wanted to read it. Thank you!

Jennifer Gilbert is 22 in 1991, happy and carefree, back from a year in Europe, and on her way to visit her friend when the unthinkable happens: a man follows her into her friend’s building and stabs her over 30 times. She survives (I’ll pause to allow that to sink in)….and recovers in an amazingly short amount of time – physically. Mentally, she shuts down, unable to sleep without someone outside her bedroom door, unable to venture out without someone she trusts by her side. I Never Promised You A Goodie Bag is Gilbert’s exploration of this violent attack and her story of survival.

When Mel from The Feminist Texican [Reads] mentioned on Twitter how effective the opening to this memoir is, I knew I had to read it, and indeed, it is gripping. Even though Gilbert isn’t overly graphic in her description of the attack, I was absolutely sickened. I had to put the book down several times and breathe deeply, reminding myself that the woman who was attacked wrote this book, that she is alive, that she made it.

After being released from the hospital, Jennifer is an absolute mess. She can’t sleep. She doesn’t look in the mirror. Her mother, absolutely petrified by what could have happened to her daughter, can’t discuss the attack. Her father doesn’t. When mentions of the attack are on the news, her parents change the channel. No one knows what to say and in trying not to upset her, Jennifer describes it as feeling almost like the attack was a dream, yet she’s fearful her attacker will find her and finish the job.

After initially shutting down, Gilbert describes throwing herself into planning weddings and parties, so focused on a missing petticoat or an upset mother of the bride that she doesn’t have time to face her own crises. She shuts the attack and her fears away and learns that everyone around her is more comfortable not discussing it as well. Twenty years down the road, Gilbert is a successful businesswoman who owns a prestigious event planning company in New York City, and in telling her story, she traces the moments in her life where she’s had to stop, slow down, and work through the attack and its residual effects.

I Never Promised You A Goodie Bag was an intense, personal book for me, though thankfully I’ve never been physically attacked. In one of the passages, Gilbert said something that struck home:

This is what people said to me after the attack:

At least he didn’t get your face.
At least you’re alive.
At least you weren’t raped.

I learned that this is what “at least” means: Move on. Get over it. Let’s not talk about it. It could be worse, so it must be better…I’m sure this was meant to be encouraging. But the message I received was that I should feel lucky to be blessed with such resilience, and that they expected me to bounce back, good as new. Meanwhile, I couldn’t imagine leaving my house without an armed escort.

At least. People mean well, they do. Tell almost anyone something terrible you’ve experienced, and the natural inclination is to make you feel better. That’s where the “at least’s” come out. Or the “I know what you’re going through.” It’s just what people say, right? The problem is that even if you’ve been through the same exact experience as someone else, you don’t and can’t actually know. Gilbert acknowledges this, saying people wanted so badly to relate, and they would tell her about the time they got mugged or how their best friend’s sister was shot.

Unfortunately, these instances reinforced Gilbert’s feeling that the attack was something to be processed and pushed aside. But grief and anger and fear are not linear processes, and these observations affected her so deeply that after a miscarriage, she emails family and friends asking that they leave her to her grief. As she says, after the attack, she “had absorbed the pain that other people felt for me, to the point that I could no longer feel my own.”

Memoirs are tricky for me to read. Often, I read something in a memoir so far out of my own experiences that I cannot relate, but Gilbert writes about her life in such a way that not only did I relate to her pain, but I also nodded my head again and again, agreeing with her observations and sympathizing with her reactions and perceptions of her life.

Judgy McJudgerson

9th February 2012

 

I don’t often read the posts on Book Riot, but today I noticed Amanda from Dead White Guys had a new post up on Book Riot titled “Confessions of a Newbie Independent Bookseller.”

The article discusses quirks of working in such a specialized place and the types of books people come in requesting. She shares one particular confession I loved:

I Don’t Judge Your Taste in Books
When I get a customer who wants a recommendation, I usually ask what the last book was that they loved so I can see what they’re looking for in a book. Sometimes there’s a pause, an embarrassed shifty-eyed gaze to the floor. A mumble of, “well, I read a lot of teen books, like, Hunger Games and stuff…” Independent bookstores can have a reputation for being snobby places where the books are “curated” out the ass- where you won’t find a best seller anywhere, but where you can definitely find the collected works of David Foster Wallace. I’m sorry if you’ve had that experience at other indies, but honestly- I don’t care what you read. If you want to add to your collection of mermaid erotica, I’ll help you. You want to read the next Twilight? I’ll help you. Looking for a how-to on building your own yurt? You’re the coolest! Let’s do this. There’s no judgment.

However, one person in the comments talks about how he or she does judge a person by what he or she reads. Unfortunately, this type of book shaming is not confined to bookstores. Frankly, I experience this all the time, and I’m sure it’s partially because I am so plugged in to the bookish world and bookish people. More often than not, this judgment comes from someone without a literature degree, someone who is very serious about serious literature.

Please understand I am not saying that an individual without a literature degree cannot criticize books. What I am saying is I do have those qualifications, and I still don’t feel the need/desire to lecture people about their reading choices. I have two degrees in English, one undergrad, one grad. I’ve read most of the big guns. I know literary terms many people do not. This does not make me cool; in fact, it puts me in a very low wage-earning category. I can talk a book to death if I want or need. But here’s the truth: that ain’t fun. I know I’m playing fast and loose, using “ain’t” and cliches and telling you this, but come on: Reading should be the least judged thing we do. We’re reading. In 2009, I remember reading that the average American reads one book a year. If you’re here, you’ve probably already hit that number this year. Whether that one book is a Harlequin romance novel, Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, or James Patterson’s newest, it’s better than no books read this year.

I’ll level with you: I read, no, I devoured the Twilight series. Granted, I knew they weren’t quality writing, but I didn’t care. The story drew me in, no matter how ludicrous parts of it were. I mention this because this is the most criticized reading choice for many. You may not like it, but guess what? Those books enticed people who had never read an entire book for fun to read several – several long books, no less.

My best friend reads at least 80% paranormal romance. We were talking about Goodreads the other night, and every single time she mentioned what she had been reading, she explained her choices away. This is an intelligent teacher and mother of three. The fact that she does read with all that going on is impressive to me. I know she isn’t a big fan of mysteries just like I’m not a big fan of paranormal romance. When we do read the same book, it’s that much more fun. We are diversifying our book stock, making us more interesting.

My reading list includes classics, contemporary literary fiction, an occasional chick lit, and tons of mysteries. I love mysteries, and sometimes even if I know it’s not the best mystery I’ll ever read, I keep reading. Why? Because it’s still enjoyable. The act of sitting down with a book is pleasurable and calming to me.

Maybe part of my ire has built up because I have seen non-readers turned into readers using books others might discount. Most of the students who have entered my classroom have told me they hate reading. They don’t dislike it or find it boring. No, they tell me they hate it. I make it my mission to turn at least one of them on to reading. How do I hit that target? I find out what they enjoy, and I give them a book that aligns well with those interests. Nine times out of ten it works, and I love being part of that person’s life in some small way. If that means putting The Hunger Games in the hands of one student and Madame Bovary in the hands of another, I’m perfectly ok with that. For those of us who truly love books and reading, why would we have it any other way?

So my big question is, have you ever felt judged for your reading choices? And WHY are we allowing others to guilt us? I won’t be had. Come look at my bookshelves and judge away. I dare you.

 

Jesus, My Father, the CIA, and Me by Ian Morgan Cron

4th January 2012

*I received this book from a publicist author in exchange for an honest review.

Ah, memoirs. I absolutely have a love-hate relationships with you. Sometimes you are so smart and elucidate universal truths in life. Other times you allow a flow of emotion similar to the effects of watching a Greek tragedy. Yet other times you make me want to swat you, like an errant fly buzzing about the room.

It is also incredibly difficult to review a memoir because you are taking an intensely intimate work and critiquing it. I can imagine it would be difficult for an memoirist to separate critiques of the writing from the self (although arguably, this is always difficult).

So let me set it up for you: Jesus, My Father, the CIA, and Me is about Ian Cron’s life with his alcoholic father…who also happened to work for the CIA for many years. It starts with Cron’s father’s job in movies in London and tracks the family through the highs and lows of his family and his father’s problems. My issue with the book, and I admit up front that this is my own personal hangup, is that Cron talks a lot about not having any money after his father gets fired from his movie job in London. Except that in my book, having a nanny throughout your childhood ain’t poor. Ordinarily I could overlook this, but Cron makes much of this in the first third of the book, and it felt incredibly insensitive to someone who grew up struggling.

For example, this passage drove me crazy:

As my father’s drinking and depression augured downward, my  mother was forced to go to work as a secretary in a publishing company – what was called a “girl Friday” – to pay the bills and keep food on our table. My mother grew up in a wealthy and highly regarded family on Long Island. Only a few years earlier, she had been touted in British tabloids as one of the most beautiful American women on the London social scene. Now she was a personal assistant to a publishing executive.

Say it ain’t so! A personal assistant! How horrid. What must the neighbors think? I mean, I hate to be snarky, but if you grew up without much, Cron’s complaints sound like a whole lot of whining. My parents were both teachers and did their absolute best with the income they had and the many medical bills my mother incurred. We grew up in a very happy household, so I was rich in that way, but there were many times  we struggled quite a lot financially. The author goes on to say,

With some income flowing in, our financial condition began to stabilize, if not inch up. It would be a long time before we could sign “Happy Days Are Here Again,” but one or two green shoots were peeking up through the dirt.

I’m sure leaving the privileged lifestyle he had always known was rough, but overall, the “poor is me” narrative got old. Also, I think Cron has a highly-idealicized picture of family life, and he refers to family sitcoms throughout the book. Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t know many people whose lives would live up to that. It’s not real.

All of that said, and my own personal feelings aside, Cron had some funny moments. They were mostly one-liners, but they worked. As for the alcoholism, I fortunately don’t have those experiences, but the scenarios Cron lays out are scary, and I cannot imagine them as my own kind of “normal.” His own problems with alcohol and drugs are honest and helpful in discussing the cycle of abuse. The publicist who contacted me also indicated that though Jesus is in the title, the religious aspect isn’t overwhelming, and I’d agree with that. Religion and spiritualism are not something Cron comes by naturally, but its importance to him and his sobriety is undeniable.

Though this didn’t work for me, if you like memoirs or personal experiences with alcoholism, you might want to pick this one up.