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Book Review: Made in China: A Memoir of Love and Labor by Anna Qu

August 10, 2021 5 comments
Image of a digital bookcover. A yellow background with scissor open to cut three threads over it. The title of the book is in black. The author's name is in blue.

Summary:
When Anna Qu was in high school, she had her guidance counselor call child protective services because her mother was making her work without pay in the family sweatshop. In her memoir, she explores how her life went from living with her grandparents in China while her widowed mother pursued success in America to the level of division and problems with her mother that led to calling CPS. An exploration of sweatshops, immigration, and difficult relationships with family of origin.

Review:
I was immediately intrigued by this book because I thought – wow, what kind of mother brings her child to the US only to turn around and force her to work in a sweatshop? I could wrap my head around a mother owning and running a sweatshop. I could even imagine having your child work in a sweatshop in a different cultural context (due to need, due to cultural expectations, etc…). But the usual immigration story is a desire for your child to have a better life than your own. How does that compute if your own life is owning the sweatshop? I had to find out.

Anna deftly uses this moment in her teen years as the way into telling her life story that is also simultaneously the story of her family, of immigration, of sweatshops, and of what happens when a family member is seemingly randomly selected as the one to be ostracized. Anna felt loved and wanted by her grandparents, but that all changed when she came to the US to join her mother, new stepfather, and two new half-siblings. But this is real life, not a fairy tale, so the change wasn’t instantaneous. To me, one of the most painful scenes of the book is the party the family threw when she arrived from China. Being able to bring a loved one over from China you had to leave behind was a real status marker and cause to be celebrated. How that party went awry and how the relationship with her mother started to fall apart was painful but eloquently told.

Of course because this is a memoir we never truly get to know Anna’s mother’s motivations. But we do get some of her perspective revealed through the case worker, case documents, and what Anna’s grandmother has to say about it. Anna is willing to explore the impact of intergenerational trauma on her mother, without excusing her mother’s actions.

Anna also explores the importance of belonging, and how that being denied outside of the family is even more important when it’s being denied inside of the family. Anna describes her role in her family as:

I was a ghost haunting a family that wanted nothing to do with me, and the loneliness left a tightness in my chest.

location 392

Yet she also explores being othered outside of her family as well. At school she’s different because she spends some time away attending a different school. (Her mother briefly sends her to boarding school in China). She also experiences being different when she goes away to college without any familial support. The fact that she has to advocate for herself, get herself declared independent from her family, that she has to struggle to find a place to go on winter breaks and more, these all serve to show how she doesn’t fit in. I thought this was a great example of ways that society should strive to be more inclusive, as we never know what people’s home lives are like.

Beyond exploring her family trauma, Anna also examines the two-pronged issue of sweatshop labor and workaholism as seen in many immigrant families. From her perspective, this starts out as a necessity and then becomes a way of being even when it’s not a necessity anymore. With regards to sweatshop labor, Anna points out how interesting it is that she could get out because of laws about child labor but somehow this same labor was acceptable among adults. She also talks about how much worse it is for those with no legal recourse, such as those working under the table. What are the societal issues that lead to someone working under the table and how can those be addressed?

There are no easy answers to the difficult questions and problematic situations described in this book. I think a strength of this book is how Anna points out abuse has to be really bad to be resolved in our country – whether talking about home abuse or work abuse – but there’s lot of other abuses that are still abusive that still hurt people’s souls that just keep happening with very little to no intervention. What makes people, workplaces, and cultures abuse some and not others is a central exploration of this book with no easy answers.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 224 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: Netgalley

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Book Review: Homesick: Why I Live in a Shed by Catrina Davies

Cover of the book Homesick: Why I Live in a Shed

Summary:
Catrina was 31 and very tired of never quite being sure if she could even make the rent on her box-room in a home she shared with four adult roommates (plus one child). With the cost of housing in the UK, she knew the odds were stacked against her to both be able to afford better housing and to have time for her artistic pursuits. So she decided to opt out by taking up residence in her father’s abandoned shed in Cornwall. She doesn’t have a toilet but she does have time to surf, write, and make music. This memoir both chronicles her decision and beginnings in the shed, as well as gives deep consideration to the housing crisis, consumerism, and finding the time to truly live.

Review:
I was immediately intrigued by the name of this book. It’s not why I live in a tiny house. It very explicitly calls it a shed. When I saw this was set in the UK, I was even more intrigued. As an American, my pre-existing understanding was that the UK has a robust system for caring for the poor, thinking specifically of the dole and council housing. It seemed to me that this must have been a choice to live in a shed, and I wanted to know more about this counter-cultural choice. This is indeed a beautiful counter-cultural memoir that surprised me by illuminating how much I didn’t know about the realities of the UK’s housing situation currently.

Catrina artfully weaves in both facts about housing in the UK and her own thoughts on modern culture within the story of her moving to and setting up the shed. (I would call it her first year in the shed, but the author’s note is that she actually condensed several years into one to make it more of a story). For example, while she asks her father for permission to live in his old small business’s shed, we find out that the shed is not zoned for housing, so, while she has the owner’s permission, what she is doing is still technically illegal. I also learned a lot about lords and how much of her area of Cornwall is actually owned by a lord with a castle on an island who will randomly make decisions like to charge for parking when previously people just parked for free to enjoy the ocean. Obviously a lord has no need for this money. I am still jarred by the idea of an actual lord running most of the show in a town. This is just one of the many examples of the inequities that remain in the UK that I had not previously known about.

When not discussing housing, Catrina explores gardening, surfing, making music, and writing. She discusses how living in the shed rent-free enables her to take low-paying jobs that leave her with enough time and energy to enjoy these pursuits. Living in the shed puts her closer to nature, and she becomes a bit obsessed with Walden (as a New Englander, I really wanted to enlighten her about how Walden Pond isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and how many moneyed connections, including in his own family, Thoreau actually had, partially thanks to having graduated from Harvard). While this may seem like a digression, it actually leads me quite smoothly into my main critique of the book, which is that I do wish the author demonstrated a bit more insight into her own privilege. She only can live in the shed because her father bought and paid for it. There is intergenerational assistance and provision here, even if she doesn’t recognize it as such. I’m not saying that it’s the same thing as having a trust fund handed to you, but it’s also not the same thing as her friends who squat in sheds of their own making on public land. Similarly, she, for example, showers at the homes of the people who she gardens for (often with their permission, but not always). She couldn’t take these moments of comfort she loves so much if those people hadn’t bought into the housing game. She may feel she’s opted out of society, but has she really?

Those who enjoy memoir as a way to gain insight into a different type of life than their own will not be disappointed by this book. This book made me think about what I am doing in my life because I want to versus what I am doing just because my culture pointed me here, and I appreciate that. I also enjoyed getting to vicariously surf in Cornwall.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 256 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: Purchased

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Book Review: Free Cyntoia: My Search for Redemption in the American Prison System by Cyntoia Brown-Long and Bethany Mauger

book coverSummary:
Cyntoia Brown was sentenced to life in prison for a murder she committed at the age of sixteen. Her case became national news when celebrities and activists made the hashtag #FreeCyntoia go viral in 2017. She was granted full clemency after having served fifteen years, walking out a free woman on August 7, 2019.

This is her story, in her own words.

Review:
I think how people will respond to this memoir will depend a lot on what they believe justice to be. Do certain levels of crime deserve never-ending punishment? Can people change or be redeemed? Then there’s another level of do teenagers, people who are still growing and whose brains have not fully developed (brains do not complete developing until approximately age 25), deserve to spend the rest of their lives being punished for an act committed at this age? This memoir aims to be proof that people can be redeemed and, indeed, if we want people to change, they need to have hope that an end could be in sight for them.

The fact of the matter is that no one but Cyntoia, God, and Johnny Michael Allen know what truly happened that night. Cyntoia has never denied killing Johnny but has maintained it was in self-defense. The only facts that we know are that she, a sixteen-year-old who had been being sold for sex by her pimp, was picked up by Johnny Allen, a 43-year-old, and brought home with him, and they were alone in his bedroom together. Both potential stories told by each side are possible. It’s possible he brought her home for sex, like Cyntoia says. It’s possible he brought her home in an attempt to take care of a teenager he found living on the street, like Johnny Allen’s family says. Regardless, Cyntoia ended up killing him. The memoir dances around exactly what happened, with Cyntoia describing him picking her up and bringing her home but then describing the night as a red haze with no details. Was that to protect a guilty conscience or to protect details that would hurt Johnny Allens’ family that no one really needs to know? It’s very hard to say. But in a way I think this is appropriate because Cyntoia admits that she killed him, and the true point of the story is first, how did this girl end up here and second, can she be redeemed?

How she got here contains two of the more interesting aspects of the memoir. First, the school to prison pipeline is painfully obvious in Cyntoia’s story. She originally was placed in a gifted class, acted up some (didn’t get along with the teacher) and was downgraded. She started to be told over and over again she was bad. It was all downhill from there with her hanging out with the crowd of kids who were always in trouble and being constantly told she was bad and not listened to. The police were even called on her at school for her not wanting to give the teacher her purse in detention. If we want our children to rise to their potential, having school tied to prison in the way that it is is not the solution, and treating children like they’re “bad” when they’re just children who mess up sometimes is sending them a clear message that many children will just accept or fail to.

The other issue that came up during one of Cyntoia’s trials is that her birth mother admits to drinking alcohol while she was pregnant, and some doctors have diagnosed her as having fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. This is relevant, because fetal alcohol spectrum disorder can cause poor judgment, hyperactivity, poor reasoning, and problems in school. It seems, given both doctors’ testimonies her birth mother’s admission, and Cyntoia’s own perspective that this sad tale is likely, therefore, partially entwined with alcohol abuse. Cyntoia herself states multiple times that she doesn’t know why she has tended to act so impulsively. This could partially help explain it and be another of the many tentacles of how alcohol impacts our society with poor outcomes and violence.

Cyntoia ultimately chooses to have faith that she could possibly be redeemed and decides, even if she can’t be, she doesn’t want to waste her life. She goes to a unique program available in her prison that allows her to go to college. She pursues self-improvement and mentorship of others, and she works to help young girls who have also been trafficked like she was. (It is not a question that Cyntoia was trafficked as she was underage and had a pimp). Cyntoia attests much of her self-improvement to her new-found faith that she solidified after meeting her now-husband via letters in jail. (He felt called to write to her). A spiritual practice is important for anyone to have a well-rounded recovery, and I think it is also significant that the school that offered the college program inside the prison was also a religious school. I am glad for her that she has found comfort and faith, but I also hope it’s not too entwined with her husband and is her own source of strength. While healthy relationships are important, and it’s nice to share a faith, it’s also important for that strength to come from oneself and not from relying upon another fallible human being.

Overall, I think this shows a personal look at the school to prison pipeline, the potential impact of alcohol on a child’s life, and how redemption could look. It’s important to come into this book with an open mind and a willingness to not crave more than Cyntoia is willing to share, nor to think that this book will reveal all the truth or all the answers.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 320 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: Purchased

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Book Review: The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom

17339177Summary:
Corrie Ten Boom and her family of watchmakers (she was the first licensed woman watchmaker in the Netherlands) are known for their work in the Dutch underground, both hiding Jewish people and doing organizing work for the underground. She and her sister Betsie did this work with their father. She and Betsie were in their 50s during this work. All three of them were ultimately arrested, and Corrie and Betsie were ultimately sent to the infamous Ravensbrück concentration camp. Corrie survived and started a home to help people refind their footing after the War.

Review:
This was one of my favorite books as a little girl. I had a fascination with WWII (still do) and was utterly enamored with Corrie. I distinctly remember that the paperback book I read was borrowed, but am uncertain if I borrowed it from my grandmother or from the church library. In any case, I decided it was high time I re-read this favored book as an adult and see if it withstood my now adult sensibilities. It certainly did.

The Ten Boom’s family commitment to not only do what is right but also to discern what that right thing might be is incredible. Corrie’s ability to be peaceful and not embittered after the War and everything she went through is also amazing. She is honest about who it was more difficult to forgive than others, and how she found the ability to. I believe any reader will be fascinated by the beginning of the book, which details how her family lived as watchmakers in Amsterdam, how they began hiding Jewish people, and how they came to largely run parts of the underground in Amsterdam. The sections about her capture and imprisonment are remarkable for their combination of honesty about the suffering combined with clear forgiveness and lack of bitterness for her captors.

When He [God] tells us to love our enemies, He gives, along with the command, the love itself. (86% into the digital edition”

Corrie also demonstrates a viewpoint of both the body and soul needing to be cared for in order for the human being to be completely well and whole. She notes both when a German captor is clearly well cared-for but wanting in soul care and when a prisoner is happy in the soul but wretched in the body, noting neither is as God intended.

Corrie’s commitment to peace is also seen following the war when she establishes and runs a home to help all people (no matter which side they were on) find their way again after the war. Truly an inspiration in peace work. It’s also inspiring that she didn’t find this labor until she was in her 50s. An indicator that our calling may not fully come until later in life.

5 out of 5 stars

Length: 273 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: Library

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Book Review: Something Spectacular: The True Story of One Rockette’s Battle with Bulimia by Greta Gleissner (Audiobook narrated by Dina Pearlman)

January 24, 2014 2 comments

Line of dancers in white papercut against a bronze background.Summary:
Greta Gleissner finally achieved her lifelong dream of making a living just from her professional dancing. She landed the prestigious job of being a Rockette in the New York City show.  She hoped that this newfound stability and prestige would cure her of her bulimia. What was there to binge and purge about when she was living her dream? But her eating disorder she’d had since a young age won’t just disappear because of her newfound success.  Soon, her bulimia is putting her job–and her life–at risk.

Review:
I was immediately intrigued by the elements of this eating disorder memoir that make it different from the, sadly, so many others that exist.  Greta’s eating disorder peaks in her 20s, not her teens.  She was a Rockette, and she’s a lesbian.  An eating disorder memoir about someone in their 20s in the dance industry who is also queer was very appealing to me.  What I found was a memoir that gives insight to having an eating disorder, the impact of homophobia, and an inside look at the professional dance world told in a non-linear, honest, and engaging manner.

Greta tells her memoir in the framework of a play. There are scenes, acts, overtures, etc… This lets her address the story in a non-linear way that still makes sense.  The overture, for instance, shows a dramatic moment when her eating disorder was at full tilt and destroying her life.  Then she backs up to the few months before she became a Rockette.  The time of auditioning then being a Rockette is interspersed with flashbacks to help us better understand her life.  Finally, she enters an inpatient clinic, where we get flashbacks in the context of her therapy.  It’s a creative storytelling technique that brings a freshness to her memoir.

Honesty without cruelty to herself or others is a key part of her narrative voice.  Greta is straightforward, sometimes grotesquely so, about her bulimia and what it does to her.  The eating disorder is not glamorized. Greta takes us down into the nitty-gritty of the illness.  In fact, it’s the first bulimia memoir I’ve read that was so vivid and straightforward in its depictions of what the illness is and what it does.  In some ways, it made me see bulimia as a bit of a mix between an addiction and body image issues.  Greta was able to show both how something that was helping you cope can spiral out of control, as well as how poor self-esteem and body image led her to purging her food.

Greta also is unafraid to tell us about what goes on inside her own mind, and where she sees herself as having mistreated people in the past.  I never doubted her honesty.  Similarly, although Greta’s parents definitely did some things wrong in how they raised her, Greta strives to both acknowledge the wounds and accept her parents as flawed and wounded in their own ways.  You can hear her recovery in how she talks about both them and her childhood.  She has clearly done the work to heal past wounds.

The memoir honestly made me grateful the dancing I did as a child never went the professional route.  It’s disturbing how pervasive body policing and addictions in general are in the dance world, at least as depicted by Greta.  Similarly, it eloquently demonstrates how parents’ issues get passed down to the children, and sometimes even exacerbated.  Greta’s mother was a non-professional dancer who was constantly dieting.  Greta also loved dancing but her mother’s body image issues got passed down to her as well.  Food was never just food in her household.

One shortcoming of the memoir is that Greta never fully addresses her internalized homophobia or how she ultimately overcomes it and marries her wife.  The book stops rather abruptly when Greta is leaving the halfway house she lived in right after her time in the inpatient clinic.  There is an epilogue where she briefly touches on the time after the halfway house, mentions relapse, and states that she ultimately overcame her internalized homophobia and met her now wife.  However, for the duration of her time in the clinic and the halfway house, she herself admits she wasn’t yet ready to address her sexuality or deal with her internalized homophobia.  It was clear to me reading the book that at least part of her self-hatred that led to her bulimia was due to her issues with her sexuality.  Leaving out how she dealt with that and healed felt like leaving out a huge chunk of the story I was very interested in.  Perhaps it’s just too painful of a topic for her to discuss, but it did feel as if the memoir gave glimpses and teasers of it, discussing how she would only make out with women when very drunk for instance, but then the issue is never fully addressed in the memoir.

Similarly, leaving out the time after the halfway house was disappointing.  I wanted to see her finish overcoming and succeeding. I wanted to hear the honesty of her relapses that she admits she had and how she overcome that. I wanted to hear about her dating and meeting her wife and embracing her sexuality.  Hearing about the growth and strength past the initial part in the clinic and halfway house is just as interesting and engaging as and more inspiring than her darker times.  I wish she had told that part of the story too.

The audiobook narrator, Dina Pearlman, was a great choice for the memoir. Her voice reads as gritty feminine, which is perfect for the story.  She also handles some of the asides and internal diatribes present in mental illness memoirs with great finesse.

Overall, this is a unique entry in the eating disorder memoir canon.  It gives the nitty gritty details of bulimia from the perspective of a lesbian suffering from homophobia within the framework of the dance world.  Those who might be triggered should be aware that specific height and weight numbers are given, as well as details on binge foods and purging episodes.  It also, unfortunately, doesn’t fully address how the author healed from the wounds of homophobia.  However, her voice as a queer person is definitely present in the memoir.  Recommended to those with an interest in bulimia in adults, in the dance world, or among GLBTQ people.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Book Review: A Queer and Pleasant Danger: The True Story of a Nice Jewish Boy Who Joins the Church of Scientology and Leaves Twelve Years Later to Become the Lovely Lady She is Today by Kate Bornstein (Audiobook narrated by Alice Rosengard)

June 27, 2013 1 comment

Red lettering on a yellow background stating "A Queer and Pleasant Danger" black lettering around the edge says the subtitle of the novel, "The true story of a nice Jewish boy who joins the Church of Scientology, and leaves twelve years later to become the lovely lady she is today"Summary:
Kate Bornstein is a playwright, gender theorist, and queer activist.  She chose to write a memoir as a way to reach out to her daughter, Jessica, who is still in the Church of Scientology, and thus, must not speak to her.  Her memoir talks about growing up Jewish in the 1950s, feeling like a girl inside a boy’s body.  It then talks about why and how she joined Scientology (still identifying as a man, Al), climbing Scientology’s ladder, marrying, fathering Jessica, and finally getting kicked out of Scientology and becoming disillusioned.  From there the memoir explains to Jessica how and why Al decided to become Kate and talks about the person behind the queer theory, trying to explain who the incredibly unique parent she has truly is.

Review:
I was feeling bad about how far behind I’ve fallen in writing up reviews for the books I’ve finished reading, but with the historic DOMA ruling in the US yesterday (giving official federal support to marriage equality), I’m really glad I had a GLBTQ book in the queue ready to be reviewed.  And not just any GLBTQ book. An amazing one!  You can’t read that title and not be intrigued. It’s impossible.  I spotted it on tumblr and instantly knew I had to read it.  A memoir about a transwoman who was a member of Scientology?! It’s the intersection of three topics I find fascinating.

Kate is unabashedly honest about the fact that this book exists as a letter to her daughter, Jessica.  The prologue explains that this memoir came about as a way for Kate to reach out to Jessica and her children, even after Kate has passed away.  This lends a tone to the book of an elderly neighbor sitting down to tell you their life story, and you finding out gradually that your elderly neighbor is, in fact, a bad ass, and age has nothing to do with how cool a person still is to this day.  And Kate doesn’t hold back because of this perspective.  If anything, she is more brutally honest than she might otherwise be.  She wants Jessica to have a whole, clear picture of who she is.  Flaws and all.  One technique that I thought was brilliant for a memoir and helped establish trust in truth between the reader and the author was the fact that Kate would tell a family story she heard growing up and then say, well, that was a lie.  I thought it was true, but it turns out what people told me was a lie.  Given that, how can we ever know what really is true? Just because we think something is true doesn’t mean it is.  It’s an excellent grain of salt to be given in a memoir.

After the prologue, Kate tells her story chronologically.  Her story can be roughly summarized as the following sections: growing up a gender queer person, joining Scientology, break-down after getting kicked out of Scientology and coming to terms with her queerness, transitioning, life as a lesbian trans activist, finding BDSM, and overcoming depression and suicidal thoughts.  It’s an emotional rollercoaster ride, and one cannot help but feel empathy for this person just struggling to find a place in the world.  Personally, I think Kate’s life story is an excellent argument for breaking down the binary gender divide.  A lot of Kate’s struggles come from the rigid gender norms and expectations placed upon her by others.  It would have been much simpler for people to have let her be gender fluid, and indeed, Kate in more recent years has come to be an activist for gender fluidity and queerness (as is evidenced by her book Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women and the Rest of Us).  This memoir of course explores trans issues, but it also is an amazing gender queer memoir.

The Scientology section was surprisingly mundane compared to what I thought actually happens in Scientology.  Yes, there was abuse and lies and many other things going on that demonstrate the fallacies of L. Ron Hubbard, but honestly none of it was that much worse than religious extremists of any religion.  Scientology expects its followers to cut themselves off from people deemed poisonous and to proselytize non-stop.  It takes over the lives of the people in the upper-echelons, controlling every aspect of their lives.  We can see all of this in Kate’s years in Scientology, and while it was interesting, none of it is shocking to anyone moderately informed on Scientology.  I actually was more interested in how Kate wound up joining Scientology.  Scientology teaches the the soul is genderless, and you also reincarnate.  Everyone has been in both male and female bodies.  Kate (then Al) found this incredibly comforting.  It’s possible that his soul was just more frequently in female bodies, and so that’s why he felt like a girl inside.  What an appealing concept to a confused, unsupported trans or gender queer young adult.  I think this part of the book demonstrates clearly why it’s important for families and loved ones to be supportive of their glbtq teens and young people.  You don’t want a harmful group of people snapping them up with promises of understanding and caring and information that sounds more supportive than the people they live with.

Interestingly, the much more shocking section was the one in which Kate discusses discovering BDSM and getting pleasure from pain.  Kate was part of a BDSM triad for quite some time, and this is addressed.  It does, however, come with a warning for Jessica and readers who might not want to hear the details so they can easily skip over it and still get the most important information without getting all the details.  I thought that was a nice touch from Kate, showing her maturity and openness.  Of course, I read that section, and I will say that Kate had a more intense BDSM relationship than you tend to see in literature, and it was interesting to read about.

It’s also interesting to note that from the prologue Kate is honest with the reader about being diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder years ago.  This is not something I knew coming into the book, and I don’t think Kate’s mental illness played very much into the book.  I certainly think she would have had a better time coping with her mental health issues if she had had a supportive environment for her queerness.  Even within the GLBTQ community, she was ostracized for some of her less mainstream beliefs within that community.  It’s sad that even a community of people ostracized by the larger society, people can still be unaccepting and unloving.  In spite of the fact that the book talks a lot about depression, self-injury, and other mental health issues, I am hesitant to label it as counting for my Mental Illness Advocacy Reading Challenge.  I don’t want the casual reader to think that I’m equating being queer with having a mental illness.  However, the fact remains that Kate herself states she was diagnosed with BPD, and trans and queer people certainly can have mental illnesses.  One does not cause the other, although certainly I think lack of acceptance and loving increases symptoms of mental illnesses.  In any case, for this reason, I am counting this read for the challenge, but I want to be crystal clear that this is due to Kate’s BPD and NOT her queer/trans orientation.

The narration of the audiobook was perfect.  Thankfully, they chose to use a female narrator throughout, which fits perfectly with the image of an older Kate Bornstein telling her life story to her daughter.  Alice Rosengard was a perfect narrator.  She became Kate in my mind, and there’s not a better complement you can pay a narrator than that.

I feel like I’ve rambled a lot about this book.  It’s hard to succinctly discuss a memoir as unique as this one, let alone a book you love as much as I loved this one.  It’s amazing. It’s unique.  It does exactly what a memoir should do. It tells a unique life story in an engaging way that forces the reader to put herself into someone else’s shoes and feel empathy and maybe even come out of it with a changed worldview, however slightly.  I strongly recommend this book to everyone, really, but especially anyone with an interest in GLBTQ history/theory/studies or an interest in the first few decades of Scientology.  I will definitely be reading more of Kate’s works, myself, and want to thank her for being a pioneer, in spite of everything.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Book Review: January First: A Child’s Descent into Madness and Her Father’s Struggle to Save Her by Michael Schofield

August 8, 2012 2 comments

Blonde girl running with the words "January First" imposed over her.

Edit, April 22, 2021:
In light of the recent news about the Schofield family, I have made the decision to remove my usual purchase links from this page. I am leaving the review up as it accurately reflects how I understood the memoir at the time it came out. It is not entirely clear what is going on in this family, but what is clear is that DCFS removed January and her brother from their home with their mother. Their father was no longer living with them but rather with his new wife and baby in the midwest (the baby was being born the night the children were removed). January has recently turned 18. Whether she chooses to tell her story one day or find privacy with her adulthood, I hope she finds peace.
End of Edit.

Summary:
Michael and Susan thought their daughter, January’s, high energy levels and vivid imagination were the result of her high IQ, but when she turned five her imaginary friends started to tell her to do bad things like hit her baby brother or throw herself out of windows.  Soon it became apparent that her imaginary friends were actually hallucinations.  What followed was a harrowing struggle to get their daughter diagnosed and treated.

Review:
It’s rare to see a memoir by a father.  There are a ton of memoirs by mothers but not a lot by fathers, particularly not by fathers of daughters.  Put this together with the fact that Jani (her parents’ nickname for her) has childhood-onset schizophrenia, and you have one unique book.

This is an excellently told memoir.  It opens with Michael speaking about having his daughter’s diagnosis now and struggling with all the barriers toward a normal life presented not just by her illness but by the world we live in.  He talks about how some people argue that it’s impossible to diagnose a child with a mental illness, let alone schizophrenia, and of course some people even suggest that Jani is possessed by demons.  He gets the denial.  It’s scary to see a child consumed by an illness that is completely arbitrary in choosing its victims.  But he says,

Denial is not going to help Jani or any of the other mentally ill and schizophrenic children I have come to know. What they need is acceptance. What they need is for us to be telling them “your illness does not define you.” We cannot go inside their minds and “fix” them. But we can fix the world so they can live in it.  (location 90)

That speaks very strongly toward the whole reason I created the Mental Illness Advocacy Reading Challenge, and I knew then that this was going to be not just a unique read, but a challenging and good one.

After the introduction, Michael tells the story in a linear fashion.  He does a good job remembering how he felt in the early days.  His immense pride at his daughter’s high IQ and creative mind coupled with a determination to help her succeed and be herself.  It’s fascinating to see, as an outsider, how early there were warning signs that something was not quite right with Jani but that Michael and Susan (her mother) attributed to a positive cause.  I think that’s typical of parents and indeed of anyone who loves someone.  They were looking for the best.  Believing in the best for their daughter.  They may be that moderately annoying couple on the play date who just insist their daughter with inappropriate behavior is gifted, but seeing it from Michael’s perspective makes that make sense.  Most people (with the exception of parents with Munchausen by Proxy Syndrome) don’t want to believe that their child is sick.  So of course you exhaust every other option first.

This of course makes Jani’s move toward violent behavior at the age of five that much more heart-breaking to read.  I’ve heard and read stories and documentaries of how difficult it is for parents of young adults who become schizophrenic but at least they are adults.  To have this happening to your five year old is completely terrifying.  How do you control a child for whom no punishments seem to work?  Who is more concerned with appeasing her hallucinations than with obeying her parents?

I certainly don’t agree with all the parenting choices the Schofields made in the first five years of her life (and for the record, neither do all of the psychiatrists), but none of their choices would create schizophrenia.  Being overly lenient with your kids won’t make them hallucinate and become this violent at the age of five.  This is one of those occasions where you don’t always agree with the choices the memoirist made, but you’re also not right in the heat of the battle.  It’s far easier to say, “oh, you should have done this,” when it’s not your child who’s being lost to a mental illness right before your eyes.

That’s the thing about this memoir.  Michael is so obviously completely honest.  He tells things that happened that don’t present him in the best light.  He is completely forthcoming in his own shortcomings, but he reiterates over and over how much he loves his daughter and wants to keep his family together.  This combination does for this memoir what a lot of memoirs don’t have: it lends a complete sense of validity to the story as a whole.  Michael is so honest about the emotional struggle of it all that even though you may not like him as a person, you respect him as a father.

This level of honesty combined with his writing ability make this memoir a strong call.  A call to parents of children who are other-abled (whether mentally or physically) that they are not alone.  It’s also a call to the rest of us who are not one of these parents to take a moment to think how difficult it must be and go easier on the parents and the child.  I know I for one might think the next time I see a kid throwing an epic tantrum, “Maybe that child has an illness” instead of “Sheesh, do a better job, parents.”

Overall, this is a well-written memoir presenting the unique perspective of a father caring for a daughter with a mental illness.  It also provides one of the few accounts of childhood-onset schizophrenia.  Highly recommended to parents with special needs children, as well as to anyone who enjoys memoirs and the different perspectives reading them can bring.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Netgalley

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Counts For:
Mental Illness Advocacy Reading Challenge

Book Review: The Bedwetter by Sarah Silerman (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

Sarah Silverman in a uniform.Summary:
Sarah Silverman is a petite, Jewish comedienne from New Hampshire who has written for SNL and has her own show The Sarah Silverman Program. This is her memoir.

Review:
This review needs a bit of backstory.

Once upon a time, I was dating a guy who is now so universally loathed by myself and my friends that we usually just refer to him as The Douche. Sometimes The Dickwad.  One of his all-time favorite comics was (is?) Sarah Silverman, I’m not sure if that’s because A) he finds her funny B) she’s from NH and Jewish and he’s from NH and Jewish or C) he secretly wants to bang her. It is possible it is all three.

Sarah Silverman's signatureIn any case, I am not a fan of Sarah Silverman myself, but when I saw that she was coming to Brookline Booksmith to do a live reading and signing of her new book, I bought tickets for us to surprise him with. Because I am seriously that awesome of a girlfriend. I kid you not.  In any case, I did also buy myself a book to have signed because who goes to a book signing and reading doesn’t get a copy signed?

When I say that I’m not a fan of Sarah Silverman I don’t mean oh I don’t really know I never watched or heard or blah de blah. That’s not how my relationship with my ex (The Douche) worked. He liked her, ergo I wound up watching basically everything she ever did. I don’t dislike the woman, but honestly her sense of humor is not my style. It doesn’t offend me, but it also doesn’t make me laugh. The most she might get is a snort.

You can see how non-plussed I was by the whole event from this Friday Fun! post I did about it. (You may notice that post doesn’t mention my ex at all. Painting on the wall, Amanda. But I digress).  In fact, the main things that stood out to me at the event were A) how poor Sarah seemed like an introvert who really just needed to be given a cup of tea and sent away from this huge crowd and B) how mortified I was by my ex trying desperately to be all “Hey I’m from NH too!” during the book signing. Dear Sarah, if you are reading this, I was the girl cringing next in line while you somehow managed to not be like “Wow another Jew in Brookline who has been to NH. I am shocked.” Also, we compared signatures later and my name got an exclamation point and a heart, which his did not. I told him that meant you liked me better. Possibly not true, but it was fun to use during fights, so.  Brownie points to you, girlfriend.

In any case!  Oddly, I still had this book, unread, on my shelf, signed by Sarah, over a year after my relationship with the ex dissolved. If that doesn’t say Bottom of TBR Pile I don’t know what does.  But, I think it’s important to know the backstory of I’m not a fan and I got this book going to a book signing with my douchey ex who embarrassed me in front of a celebrity and I couldn’t pick it up for over a year due to a combination of first missing my ex while simultaneously loathing him then after that faded to just not being a fan so why would I pick up a book I would probably find not funny anyway?

Because I’m ocd about my tbr pile that’s why.

So. Knowing all of this, you will understand why my review you are about to read is more like “hey I’m a librarian so who might want to read this and what would they think” as opposed to “omg I love Sarah Silverman and here’s what I think of her book.” Capiche?

This is a memoir that says a lot without actually saying all that much.  Sarah tells us some things about her childhood and adult life without actually getting into the nitty gritty real details of who Sarah is.  The deeper moments we get are the best in the book–when she talks about struggling with depression in her pre and early teens and about being a long-term bedwetter.  Beyond that, we don’t really get to know Sarah. What makes Sarah tick. How does she feel about being an agnostic while her sister is a rabbi on a kibbutz, for instance? Or how did it feel to have a relationship so abundantly in the public eye? (Hers with Jimmy Kimmel. Side-note: I’m Fucking Matt Damon is the only thing she’s done that I find uproariously funny).

Ok, I get it, some people aren’t comfortable talking about more personal stuff (even though that’s what people want in a memoir).  But she’s a celebrity. She’s got unique experiences that can’t be all *that* personal.  Like maybe she could talk a bit more about what being backstage at the MTV VMAs was like. But all we get is “oh the comics don’t get to see the act right before them.”  Kind of disappointing.

There’s also the fact that the memoir is not particularly linear.  It kind of swoops around in an ADD manner.  Some readers might enjoy that. Others might be turned off. Again, that could be the sense of humor that I just don’t get.

Overall, it’s not a bad memoir. It’s not like it was torturesome to read.  It just falls short of the level of information that people kind of expect from a celebrity memoir.  It’s possible that it’s an uproariously funny piece of writing, but you’d have to be a fan of Sarah Silverman’s sense of humor to be able to determine that, which I am not.

Recommended for fans of Sarah Silverman with the understanding that it’s more a piece of comedic work than a revealing memoir.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Brookline Booksmith

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Book Review: To a Mountain in Tibet by Colin Thubron (Audiobook narrated by Steven Crossley)

Building in front of a mountain.Summary:
After the death of his mother, who also was his last living family member, Colin set out on a journey to the mountain of Kailas in Tibet.  The mountain is holy to both Hindus and Buddhists and is closely associated with the process of dying and crossing over.  Through his eyes we see the people of Tibet and his emotional journey.

Review:
I am not sure if words can describe what an epic miss this book was for me.  The combination of British western eyes othering Tibetans, an entire chapter dedicated to his father’s big game hunting, a surprising lack of emotional processing of death, and the *shudders* British accented narrator imitating Indian and Tibetan accents…..oh god.  It was painful.

I see nothing wrong with a Western person traveling and appreciating something revered in another culture.  If it is done right, it can be a beautiful thing. A lesson in how we are all different and yet the same.  Yet through Colin’s eyes I felt as if I was very uncomfortably inhabiting the shoes of a colonizing douchebag.  Perhaps part of it was the narration style of Crossley, but it felt as if Colin was judging and caricaturing all of the Tibetans and Indians he met.  There was so little empathy from someone supposedly on this journey to deal with death of loved ones.  You’d expect more from him.  I could accept this perspective more if either Colin learned over the course of the trip or this was an older memoir, but neither is true!  This is a recent memoir, and Colin is the exact same self-centered prick he was when he went in.

Similarly, Colin when he is not othering the Tibetans and Indians is either reminiscing joyfully on his father’s exploits as a big game hunter and basically colonizing douche in India or giving us a history lesson in Hinduism and Buddhism.  Ok?  But he’s not an expert in these religions and also that was not the point of the book?  A few explanations here and there, sure, but if I wanted to learn about Buddhism or Hinduism, I sure wouldn’t be getting it from a travel memoir from an old British dude.  I’m just saying.

Overall, this is an incredibly odd book.  It is a book out of time that feels as if it should have been written by an understandably backward gentleman traveler in the early 1900s, not by a modern man.  I honestly cannot recommend it to anyone.

2 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Book Review: A Dog Named Slugger by Leigh Brill

April 4, 2012 1 comment

Face of golden retriever.Summary:
Leigh Brill recounts in her memoir her life before, during, and after her first service dog, Slugger, a golden retriever with a heart just as golden.  Leigh had no idea her cerebral palsy could even possibly qualify her for a service dog until a similarly disabled fellow graduate student gave her some information.  Her touching memoir tracks her journey, as well as the life of Slugger.

Review:
This was my first book borrowed from the kindle lending library, and it was such a great experience!  I know people were skeptical that maybe only low-quality books would be available, but this one is absolutely stunning.  I sort of wish I had bought it, just to support Leigh’s service dog efforts.

It’s difficult for me to describe what a pleasure this book was to read.  It covers three areas that are a passion of mine–animals as beings worthy of rights, the experience of any type of disability and the extra difficulties that come with that, and the need for universal rights.  Top this off with the fact that this is a memoir, a beautifully written one, and I was left nearly speechless.  Leigh’s descriptions of learning to communicate with Slugger, Slugger’s unconditional love healing her heart, and the discrimination she faced in public areas with a service dog, they all left me feeling so connected to her.  It’s impossible not to be touched by a story of how an animal changes a person’s life.  But how an animal changes a disabled person’s life, a person with a disability that is less obvious than others, a person who other people have laughed at and neglected to help.  It’s just yet another example of how powerful the human/animal connection can be when we let it.

Of course, this gorgeous experience wouldn’t be possible without talented writing on the part of Leigh.  She manages clear, chronological story-telling without missing the opportunity to reflect on how various experiences affected and changed her.  She strikes an eloquent balance between reflecting on her relationship with Slugger and talking about her experiences as a disabled person.

Overall, this is a beautiful memoir that eloquently discusses the companionship of animals, as well as the experiences of a woman with cerebral palsy.  I highly recommend it to all, but especially to those with an interest in memoirs and disability studies.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Kindle Lending Library

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