Tag Archives: memoir

Book Roundup #9

8 Aug

“Half of a Yellow Sun” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Adichie seems to get more famous by the day. First for her amazing novel “Americanah” , then because Beyonce quoted one of her speeches on feminism in her song “Flawless.” The woman is a feminist leader, an icon, but above all, she’s an incredible writer. This is one of her earlier books, set during Nigeria’s civil war in the 1960’s. Her characters are vivid and complex, and every word is strung with beauty.

“This was love: a string of coincidences that gathered significance and became miracles.”

“Slouching Towards Bethlehem” by Joan Didion Another book about the 1960’s. This is a collection of Joan Didion’s essays from that time. Didion spent the 60’s living in California and writing about the hippie movement in San Francisco and about the younger generation. It’s interesting to think that these are the people that are now the older generation and to read a lot of the criticisms about them are similar criticisms about my generation. Lazy and too idealistic. Too caught up in a movement to think about the greater realities of the world. Spoiled American children. How quickly some seem to forget history and their own experiences.

“Dear Leader: Poet, Spy, Escapee-A Look Inside North Korea” by Jang Jin-sung Another memoir of a survivor from North Korea. I can’t get enough of the hermit kingdom. Jang Jin-sung was a high official in the North Korean government under Kim Jong-Il, writing propaganda poems. He was commissioned to write an epic poem and asked to return to his hometown to do some research. When he arrived, he saw how his family and neighbors were starving and suffering. Upon returning to Pyongyang, he lends a ultra-classified book to a friend. His friend loses the book on the subway, and the two decide they have to escape North Korea or else they will be sentenced to life in prison for sharing the book. This memoir differs from the other ones I’ve read in that it takes place mostly in China as Jang Jin-sung and his friend hide from the authorities and depend on other North Korean defectors to help them. Obviously, they make it out and escape to South Korea. But it seems that it was mostly luck, and it’s sad to think about how many don’t have that same luck.

“Hour of the Bees” by Lindsay Eager My librarian sister also studied Children’s Literature while earning her Master’s in Library Science. She has always been a fan of young adult and children’s literature and passes her favorites onto me. I wouldn’t say this is one of her favorites, but we were on vacation together and she lent this to me to read on the plane home. Most readers have the habit of thinking of young adult and children’s literature as dull and puerile. But there is a lot of good, introspective work being produced, and I’m glad my sister can open my eyes to that on a regular basis. This book was about a young girl in New Mexico whose family spends a summer on a ranch with her ailing grandfather. She learns about her past, about her family, and about the value of home. It was a quick read but entertaining nonetheless.

“Marie Antoinette: The Portrait of an Average Woman” by Stefan Zweig I became fascinated with Marie Antoinette a couple of years ago when I was visiting Versailles with a friend, and we both realized that we didn’t actually know the details of her life besides the sensational. “Let them eat cake.” She was beheaded. She wore huge wigs. But what else was there? This is a great biography of her, because (as it suggests in the title), she was an average person. She had nothing inherently special about her, good or bad. She was born into wealth and royalty and was married off for political reasons. She was spoiled as some wealthy people are and had no sympathy for the poor, because it was a part of society she never saw and never understood. This book paints her as a person who was caught up in history, in the changing fortunes of empires, and came to represent what was wrong in a greater political system. It was a great read that delved into the history of the French revolution which never ceases to be interesting.


Drunk Mom by Jowita Bydlowska

4 Nov

Have you ever had a friend confide something somewhat disturbing to you? Maybe they warned you there was something they wanted to talk about. Or maybe they just blurt it out while you’re enjoying your weekly meetup for coffee/drinks. They look you right in the eye while they confess a truth that’s been weighing on their heart. They hush their voice and tell you the unpolished, unaltered secret that they can’t hold onto any longer. You are enraptured in them at that moment. You don’t know whether to condemn them or tell them it’s okay, so you just sit and listen, because that’s probably all they want you to do anyways.

That’s what reading this book was like. Somebody baring the dirty, nasty secrets of their past. I read this book in two days, glued to every word. While getting my hair done, waiting for the subway, eating a bagel and sipping coffee at a diner. I couldn’t turn away. Jowita Bydlowska describes a year of being a relapsed alcoholic while also being a new mother. Her prose is jarring, overloaded with metaphors and missing dialogue and cuts between time. I found it beautiful and felt pulled into what it must be like in the mind of someone completely under the spell of addiction.

I was reading some of the reviews of this book on Goodreads and was shocked to see how many people gave it one or two stars. These reviews always read something along the lines of “Great book/writing, but I can’t give her a good rating, because she was a horrible mother who did deplorable things while caring for her child.” WHAT?! When you rate a book, you aren’t rating the author as a human being. She doesn’t speak highly of the things she did. If anything the book is full of shame, grief, self-loathing and disappointment. I loved the book because of her absolute honesty. Who wants to read a 300-page book about someone being a perfect mother, never making any mistakes? Bigger question: Who wants to read a 300-page book about anyone being a perfect person, skating through life making all the right choices?

Sometimes when I sit down to write personal essay/memoir/blog posts, I hesitate. I think less about the craft of writing and more about who might one day read it. My mom, my friends, ex-boyfriends, future boyfriends. I even worry about possible future children who will think their mother was a moron/shitty person in her younger days. So I censor myself. I tell half the story and shelve the rest. I’m not ready for the world to see the ugly parts of me. It always makes me think of one of my favorite F. Scott Fitzgerald quotes:

“You’ve got to sell your heart, your strongest reactions, not the little minor things that touch you lightly, the little experiences that you might tell at dinner…you only have your emotions to sell.”

And that’s what made me so in awe of this writer and this work. It was the truth, her truth as she felt it and she lived it in what was the darkest year of her life. I thought it was beautiful.

Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan

8 Jan

Because of my dependency on the public library, I don’t get to read a lot of newer books. I usually have to wait 5 months to get ahold of a copy, and I’m an impatient person.

But over the holidays I splurged and bought myself a book…at a bookstore. An extravagance in my life as a poor New Yorker. This book was in the bestseller section which makes me wary. I worry about cheesy romances or over-hyped memoirs. This memoir, though, surprised me.

The book is written by a young journalist from New York. Within a couple of weeks, she goes from being a normal, productive member of society to a paranoid, barely verbal, mental patient in NYU’s epileptic ward. I don’t want to give too much away, because the book is written with such subtle and creeping suspense. I read it in two days. But I will say that her story takes unexpected turns and is a terrifying read.