60 Books in 2019 #59: The Memoir Club By Laura Kalpakian

I’m no good at contemporary literary fiction. Not writing it, I’ve never tried, God help me, I once got reamed out by a professor in a fiction writing class for being to fanciful and frivolous. (He was not interested in my coming of age story about two preppy teen sisters wandering NYC on the day of their grandmother’s death or my Gothic story of a teen girl who when visiting relatives for a summer fell in love with a ghost. What a loser!) But even reading it, I never learned properly.

This is partially by circumstance, there just wasn’t much opportunity at Scranton for serious contemporary lit. It’s also partly preference, what little there was was taught by professors I disliked. I liked the Romantics and Renaissance and Victorian and Non Fiction professors, so my serious work stayed with them. (I can explicate on a Victorian Novel for days even a shitty one I don’t like very much. Same with Romantic Poetry, or Memoir)

As I try to self teach reading contemporary literary fiction I find myself alienated by fluid story structures and unlikable narrators and prosaic detached characters who refuse to speak to one another like human beings. The Memoir Club is like that, except that it also has a bunch of hallmarks of shitty contemporary fiction, like nonsensical plot twists and serendipity and a character who might have been a ghost or an angel or something.

I don’t mind those kinds of things, I really like them in fact, but when they’re in a book by an author with all kinds of fancy grants in her bio and blurbs from The New Yorker  on the back cover, I have to roll my eyes at the overwrought-ness of it all.

The Memoir Club is about a group of women who join a memoir writing class and when the class ends decide to continue meeting. Nell and Caryn are long time friends who are now doctors together at a women’s clinic. Nell has given her life to Caryn who lost her ex husband and children in a plane crash five years earlier. Francine is an older wife to a celebrated academic tyring to find life after her died. Jill is a thirty three year old who wants to start a business with her partner (I think?), Sarah Jane actually wants to be a writer, to fulfill a promise to her father and Rusty is a divorcee who is processing a traumatic adolescence. Their teacher and leader is Penny. (Spoiler Penny’s the one who might have been a ghost.)

Kalapakian’s women don’t feel real. They feel like bundles of neurosis and secrets and traumas, who smash into one another but don’t connect. As their secrets are exhumed they scream and shout and alienate and reconnect to love ones, but none of it seems to mean anything to any of them. They don’t talk like people, they don’t react like people.

I didn’t like this book. Luckily it was brief but it also wasn’t good.

Up next, we finish where we began. Merrick by Anne Rice. I’ve missed my witches and vampires and silliness. This book in particular reminded me why I like them in the first place.

60 Books in 2019 #48: Karamo: My Story of Embracing Purpose, Healing, and Hope By Karamo Brown

Man I flew through this book, and man is it garbage.

I’ve read a lot of memoirs and many of them by “celebrities.” Some are better than others, but when you find a true turd, like Karamo it’s worth celebrating. I was expecting to at least enjoy reading the book, since I’d liked Karamo since his Real World stint and love what he does on Queer Eye. 

But Karamo is a third memoir, a third essay collection and a third self help book and it all kind of sucks. Which is too bad. Karamo has an interesting story to tell. He’s a gay black man in America, for one thing. He’s a father, husband and television personality. He was a reality TV pioneer. But there’s a weird sort of self sanctifying at work here, Karamo believes he was born to save the world with feelings or whatever and it’s kind of a lot.

Most infuriating of this tendency is his rant about Tan France and his name. Karamo starts the book with the story of his own name, and the power he’s derived from it (His full name is Karama Kerego which means “Educated Rebel” in Swahili which is AWESOME.) which is a great and valid story to tell. Names are powerful signifierers of identity. He then talks about how he and Tan discussed Tan using a shortened Anglicized version of his Pakistani name. Karamo disapproves of this.

BUT IT’S NOT HIS FUCKING NAME OR HIS FUCKING CALL. This is one example of just an overall sense of the book’s preachy tones. I do like his exploration of being a queer Christian though. It’s something I’m still negotiating myself, so I’m open to reading ALL THOSE STORIES I can get my hands on.

Anyway, this one was not what I wanted it to be. Too bad.

Up next is The Stationary Shop by Marjan Kamali. This was literally a “judge a book by it’s cover” situation. It has a very pretty cover.

60 Books In 2019 #30: Sounds Like Me: My Life In Song (So Far) by Sara Bareilles

Sometimes learning about an artist you love distances you from the very visceral way their work hits you. Especially with music.

This was not the case with Sara Bareilles, where learning more about her life just clarified why her music has always spoken to me. Her idyllic childhood spent playing outside with her sisters and cousins. Her obsession with musical theater. (She name checks Chess!) Choosing to change schools for high school because she can’t stand the world she’s been in. (In her case she went the opposite, from Catholic school to public school…) Her battles with depression and anxiety and her search for her voice.

It’s a book of essays, each one centered around a song Bareilles has written, which is one of the more creative ways into a celebrity memoir I’ve seen. (I’ve read a lot of them. Many by people not nearly as notable or talented as Sara Bareilles.)

But that also makes it a hard book to talk about, because the only through line is those songs, which, I was recently reminded of the quote that, “talking about music is like dancing about architecture.” It’s really hard to describe how hard I cried the first time I heard “Many The Miles,” or “Vegas,” or God bless the woman, “She Used To Be Mine.” It’s this deeply cathartic feeling that I wasn’t alone, that someone not only felt the things that I was feeling, but could articulate them.

So we’re halfway there you guys! I think I’m going to do this. I’ve managed to only read 2.5 books by white men! (Crisis On Infinite Earths, Heretics Of Dune and Fosse) I’ve opened myself up to a genre I’d always slighted (Contemporary YA) and found some new writers that I like a lot.

Up next is Let The People See: The Story Of Emmett Till, by Elliot J. Gorn, because I guess the news isn’t upsetting enough these days, and I’ve decided to make myself more upset? Frankly, I’m in a bit of  a non fiction space and I haven’t read enough not by white women books in my mission. I’ve broken out of my white man thing, but I still have some work to do to branch out further.

60 Books in 2019 #16: Molly’s Game By Molly Bloom

Molly Bloom has a fascinating and thrilling story to tell. It’s full of crime, sex, money, fame and the dark corners of the glittery world of the elite that so many people (myself included) are deeply fascinated with.

Here’s the thing though, if Molly’s Game is anything to go by, Molly Bloom herself is not a terribly good story teller. The book is breezy and somewhat easy to read, but it’s also clunky in places, jumps around and doesn’t really delve into any of the fabulous people Molly meets during her years running a high end private poker game.

The film based on the book (written and directed by Aaron Sorkin) does a slightly better job with this, though it’s not quite as dishy, since Sorkin followed Molly’s mandate to change most of the names of those involved.

But this review isn’t of Sorkin’s film. (Which I enjoyed quite a bit.) It’s of Bloom’s book, which is only OK. It’s a quick read, which was nice, and gave my brain that reality reset I’ve been looking for in the past few months.

And those names Sorkin changed? Rick Saloman, Ben Affleck, A-Rod, Leonardo DiCaprio and of course Tobey Maguire.

Man, if even half of what Bloom says about him is true, fuck that guy. What an asshole. This may even ruin Spider-Man 2. (It doesn’t. That movie is incredible.)

While fun, and an interesting curiosity, Molly’s Game is nothing particularly special. It mostly feels like you ran into someone you sort of knew at a party, they gave you a rundown of a crazy year they had, and then you just sort of drifted away again.

Up next is Heretics Of Dune! Are y’all ready to head back into that crazy ass world? I am soooo ready.

30 Books in 2018 #16: Everything Is Terrible And Wonderful: A Tragicomic Memoir of Genius, Heroin, Love And Loss by Stephanie Wittels Wachs

I used to have nightmares about my brother dying.

My older brother dropped out of college in 2004. This was the height of the Iraq and Afgan wars. There was a lot of talk about reinstating the draft. I was in high school, and anxiety ridden anyway. And I had this image that recurred again and again in my dreams of a plain wood coffin, draped in an American flag, and my perfect charismatic beautiful wonderful big brother, dead as a doornail inside of it.

This image was in my mind as I read Stephanie Wittels Wachs heartbreaking and stunningly beautiful memoir about her brother Harris Wittels, who was a comedy world golden boy, an actual genius at his trade, and more importantly, at least to Stephanie, a drug addict.

The memoir is written in broken grief stricken sections. Flashing through the first year after Harris’s death and the two years before that, beginning when Harris confessed to her about his addiction.

There were a lot of horrible and wonderful things in this book. But as I read about how Stephanie worked through my worst my nightmare, I felt uplifted. (I sometimes think I’m too Irish and depressing things uplift me…) Perserverence through grief is incredible, and the rawness that Stephanie displays throughout is breathtaking.

The book is less funny than you might expect. Stephanie is angry so it’s hard for her to display her brilliant brother in all of his comedic glory. By the way, that’s not her job, either. Harris Wittels was prolific in his short life and so much of it is out there for the world to see (or hear, dude was on a lot of podcasts…)

But it’s also possible that reading about someone having to live through what is literally my worst nightmare, losing a sibling, killed the comedy for me. But the book is very good! You should read it.

I’m take a week off from regular reading (WHAT?) because I’m gearing up my research planner brain for a trip to Paris! (It’s not until fall 2019, but I’m a crazy person.) And I want to dig into some guide books. Also I have some writing to do. BUT I may also read some comics collections. (AHHH!!! I’m opening up the void!)

30 Books in 2018 #10: Persepolis: The Story Of A Childhood by Marjane Satrapi

I became seriously interested in stories about the Iranian Islamic Revolution about five years ago when I read Reading Lolita In Tehran. (THAT BOOK IS SO GOOD!) I’m pretty sure I watched the movie of Persepolis in college, but I watched a lot of things in college that I don’t really remember. (SO MUCH CHEAP WINE! And Yuengling.)

Anyway, Persepolis reminded me of Reading Lolita a lot, actually. It’s about the same group of people, the academic class of Iran, and specifically the women in it. Satrapi’s father was an engineer and her parents were staunch communists. The revolution started as something great for them, overthrowing the Shah, and creating a new more equal regime was something they’d work for.

But as fundamentalism took hold this group of people found themselves strangers in their own country. That’s explored much more deepy in Lolita, because Persepolis is about a girl, it’s about Marjane. And it captures the wierdness of being a kid in the best way.

Everytime Marjane gets in trouble or is confused because of adult contradictions, it’s perfectly executed. She doesn’t understand how her parents can be screaming about injustice and forgiveness one moments and then condemning others the next. She talks back to teachers, she loves western music and fashion.

Overall, there are a million little moments in Persepolis that are perfect encapsulation of that weird space in adolescence between childhood and adulthood. You think you know everything and the people around you know nothing. And every day it feels like the world will end.

But for teenagers who are literally living through a reset of their society and a deadly war, their world might actually end, not just figuratively and Marjane’s does, and also begins when her parent’s decide to send her to school in Europe to  give her a shot at a better life.

Seriously, though, one of the best things about reading memoir, particularly memoirs about people who’s lives seem different from yours, is finding the moments of universal intersection.

Up next is, Crazy Rich Asians because two memoirs of horrifying but not childhoods needs to be chased by some romantic comedy and conspicuous consumption.

30 Books In 2018 #9: The Glass Castle By Jeanette Walls

My years at college gave me a lot of things, but the thing that I took away from my studies that crops up unexpectedly is my love of creative non-fiction, more commonly called memoir, as a genre. Over the long five years I spent in Scranton I took courses in reading and writing this strange new world to me.

I’d read a few memoirs before college. I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings obviously, and Our Mother’s Daughters by Cokie Roberts (my mom had been given this as a gift…) but I don’t know when, exactly, but I stumbled into reading incredible memoirs in college, for class and for pleasure, and I still make sure to read a few every year.

All of this prelude is to say, I’m not sure how I didn’t find The Glass Castle before the movie was released, but I missed it somehow and it’s sat on my TBR list for nearly six months now. (To be fair, last year was pretty well consumed by Vonnegut and King…but still.) I grabbed it a few weeks ago when I went to Barnes & Noble to tide myself over until the kindle returned.

Sunday night, I settled in and read the whole thing in four hours. I was absorbed by Jeanette Wells and her extraordinary and impoverished childhood. Her and her siblings escape from the poverty and cycle of addiction and despair is truly special. Walls’s pain at recounting her family’s despair, but also incredible hope is palpable on the page. And I fell into the book in a way I haven’t in so long.

My favorite thing about memoir is the reminder of the power of storytelling. Memoirs aren’t always history. My favorites are when they’re not about extraordinary people at all, but about normal people, every day people who’ve decided that their story is worth sharing. Walls feels like that. While what she and her brother and sister did, pulling themselves free of their parents is amazing, it’s not magical. It’s just true, it’s simply life.

Life is enough sometimes. Those small stories are great. They can be funny, and sad and wonderful and awful. Memoir has a power in that way that fiction doesn’t.

A long quiet weekend means a lot of reading for me. But also, as was sort of the plan with this project, I’m just back in the habit of reading. And, not forseen; I’ve fallen back in love with physical books. I’m still planning on using my kindle, it’s the best for trips, for things like YA series, when I don’t want to buy the books out of embarassment and ease. And I still have space constraints. (Although, I’ve left most of my old books at my moms, I’m building a new library here.)

Up next is Perepolis, which is another memoir I can’t believe I haven’t actually read. Frankly, I’m more shocked at this one. We read a bunch of graphic memoir in college. So much Bechdel. Even more Pekar. I haven’t read anything graphic in ages. (Well, I’ve been reading the Duck Tales comics, but that barely counts.)