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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.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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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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Book Review: Trespasses: A Memoir by Lacy M. Johnson

March 21, 2012 1 comment

Barbed wire traveling through words.Summary:
Lacy grew up in Missouri to a traditional, poor farming family that never bothered to keep track of its European roots.  Through interviews with her family members and a series of personal vignettes, Lacy explores what it is to be white and poor in America, the farming community, and the odd in-between Missouri inhabits as not quite southern and not quite midwestern.

Review:
The concept behind this book is excellent.  The execution is discombobulated with a few gems at best, off-putting to the reader at worst.

I think what is most difficult about this book as a reader is that we jump around through time and situations with no guidance.  Who is Judith?  How is she related to Archie?  For that matter, how is she related to the author?  We have no real idea.  I’m not against the jumps around the family time-line as a method in contrast to the more traditional linear timeline, but the reader needs to know who we are reading about.  I honestly think an intro with a simple, straight-forward family tree would have helped immensely.  Instead we have to wait until later in the book to determine who these women are that the author is speaking about.  It leaves things confused.

Then there’s the narration style.  It jumps from “you are so and so” to third person to first person past to first person present without any real rhyme or reason.  I can appreciate the style of the individual vignettes.  Individually, they are well-written.  But assembled together into one single book where they are all supposed to tell a cohesive story, they are puzzling and off-putting.

The absolute strength of the work is when Lacy puts down her story-telling mantel and simply talks about the history of the terms “white trash, cracker,” what it is to grow up white trash, what it is to change class setting from poor to academic.  These were interesting and relatable.  I believe this is the author’s strong point and would encourage her to pursue this in future works.  It is certainly an experience that she is not alone in having in her lifetime.

Overall although the concept of this memoir is strong and unique, the method of time-jumping vignettes and constantly changing narration styles make for a confusing read.  I would recommend you browse a copy in a library or a bookstore if you are interested in the author’s writing style or one or two particular vignettes, but not venture beyond that.

2 out of 5 stars

Source: NetGalley

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