Not Always Happy by Kari Wagner-Peck

51sHRGqjqXL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Not Always Happy

by Kari Wagner-Peck

I stopped reading memoirs about raising a child with Down syndrome awhile back mainly, I think, because they all started seeming the same. Most follow a fairly predictable trajectory: a child is born with Down syndrome, there is much grief, then acceptance, and finally celebration. It’s not that there is anything wrong with this storyline (which, if I’m honest, fits my own storyline with regard to having my own child with Down syndrome), it’s just that after a time, I had read enough of them. So when I saw mention of Not Always Happy – probably on Facebook, I can’t really remember for sure – and that it was funny, my interest was piqued.

Continue reading here.

El Deafo by Cece Bell

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by Cece Bell

I’m not usually a fan of graphic novels, and I didn’t realize that this book is a graphic novel – well, actually, memoir – until after I bought it and cracked it open, at which time I groaned a little because it’s just not a format that generally appeals to me.  However, I couldn’t help but scan the first couple of pages, and I was quickly taken in.

Read my review in its entirety here.

From My Mother by Darcy Leech

3d-book-coverFrom My Mother

by Darcy Leech

When Darcy Leech was three years old, her baby brother was born, and the course of her life and that of her family was changed forever. Dustin was diagnosed with congenital myotonic muscular dystrophy – or MMD – inherited from his and Darcy’s mother, who didn’t know that she had the adult onset kind of MMD until then. MMD is terminal – it causes progressive weakening of the muscles and the body until it can no longer support life, and there is no cure.

Read more, including an interview with the author, here.

Lust & Wonder by Augusten Burroughs

2c9fd47333a51211950f6a70670045abLust & Wonder

by Augusten Burroughs

Have I mentioned that Augusten Burroughs was the first author to whom I wrote an actual fan letter?  It’s true.  This was years ago, I think after I read Running With Scissors (or maybe it was Dry; I can’t remember which), and I was so enamored of his writing that I tracked down his email address (which isn’t hard to do, given that most authors have a website with a “Contact” link) and wrote a gushing email to him.  And he actually responded!  So we’re besties now.

Okay, not really.

Anyway, I’ve been a fan of his for quite a while, and am always excited to see another book with his name on it hit the shelves.

Lust & Wonder is another memoir; this one covers a certain period of time in Burroughs’s life after Dry, which recounts his time in rehab for alcoholism.  Lust & Wonder opens with Burroughs falling off the wagon after a prolonged period of sobriety.  What this memoir is mostly about, though, is Burroughs’s misadventures in coupledom.  If you’re at all familiar with Burroughs’s work, then I don’t need to tell you that it is absolutely not sappy or sentimental.  Told with his trademark scorching wit and naked honesty, it does manage to be tender at moments, however.  Burroughs doesn’t pull any punches – he can be mean, but he knows and acknowledges it – and doesn’t defend it.

I really enjoyed this one; it’s not among the best of his work, but it holds its own and is definitely worth reading if you’re a Burroughs fan.  If you’re not yet a fan, I would recommend reading Running With Scissors and Dry first; Lust & Wonder will then make more sense.  The only caveat I would offer is that – like Burroughs’s other work – it contains some pretty graphic stuff and is intended for mature audiences.

12 Years a Slave by Solomon Northup

twelve-years-a-slave-book-cover-0112 Years a Slave

by Solomon Northup

I was not aware of this book until it was mentioned in a section about slavery in a book I’m reading with my kids about U.S. History.  I knew there had been an Academy Award winning  movie by the same name a couple of years ago, which I have not seen, but I wasn’t aware that the movie was based on a slaves narrative about the years he spent in bondage.  I’m not sure what compelled me to read this, except that as an American, and especially as a white American, I do feel a deep sense of responsibility to try to know and understand the brutal reality of slavery in America, and how that ugly past continues to influence and shape the present.

Solomon Northup was born a free black man in the early part of the nineteenth century.  His parents were a freed slave and a black woman who was born free.  Solomon, a carpenter and talented violinist, married Anne, a free black woman, and together they had three children and went about living as hardworking, respectable citizens in Saratoga Springs, New York.  One day, Solomon was approached by two white men and offered temporary work as a fiddler for a circus in Washington D.C.  Believing it would be a short trip, he didn’t bother sending word to his wife, who was away working as a cook in a hotel.  Once in Washington D.C. – the capital of the country that lauded freedom and liberty, which did not escape Solomon – he was drugged, shackled, and sold into slavery, his papers evidencing his status as a free man, stolen.  When he insisted he was a free man, he was beaten almost to death for his efforts.

Sold into the deep south, Solomon Northup spent twelve years as a slave, under three different masters, one benevolent (as much as a person who believes in the institution of slavery can be benevolent), and the other two brutal.  For twelve years, he existed under the mental and physical torture of slavery, always pining for a way back to his wife, children, and his freedom.

That he was eventually rescued is a miracle, as many, many free blacks were kidnapped and sold into slavery, and very, very few of them ever saw freedom again.

This is another raw look at the heinous things human beings are capable of inflicting on other human beings, and the twisted beliefs that make those acts possible.  A must read.

Life in Motion by Misty Copeland

F0039_LifeMotion_D Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina

by Misty Copeland

I had never heard of Misty Copeland until just a few months ago.  As my eleven-year old daughter is becoming more serious about her ballet studies, a friend of mine sent me an article about Misty Copeland, which intrigued me most of all because she’s a local girl, having grown up and discovered ballet in a town not far from us.  I printed the article for my daughter, and she’s been enthralled with Misty Copeland ever since, watching YouTube videos of her dancing and being interviewed, Googling images of her, and reading whatever she can get her hands on, including Copeland’s children’s book, Firebird.  So when I came across Copeland’s memoir, I had to get it.

Life in Motion chronicles Copeland’s chaotic childhood in and around San Pedro, California.  One of six children, Copeland’s mother moved the children often, usually to run from or to different husbands and boyfriends.  (I could relate very much to this, as my own upbringing was very similar.)  Copeland was a people-pleaser and perfectionist by nature, painfully shy and self-conscious.

From early childhood, she found solace in dance, but was not introduced to formal dance until she was thirteen, when her middle school drill team instructor saw something special in her and suggested she check out the ballet class at the Boys and Girls Club Copeland attended after school each day.  Grudgingly, Copeland did check it out, and felt very much a fish out of water.  After that first class, feeling that ballet was not her cup of tea, she avoided the class for a while, until she was coaxed back by the ballet instructor, who also saw something special in Misty.

Long story short, Copeland was in pointe shoes within a matter of months after first being introduced to ballet, and deemed a prodigy.  Not only is it almost unheard of to go en pointe in such a short amount of time, it’s also almost unheard of to get such a late start in ballet.  Most accomplished dancers begin classes when they’re barely out of diapers.

Despite her initial disinterest in ballet, Copeland finds that ballet is, indeed, her passion and destiny.  Over the next few years, ballet consumes her life, and she is sucked into a lot of family drama, including a bitter custody battle between her mother and Cynthia Bradley, her ballet instructor who believes that Misty has a future as a professional ballerina.

At the age of eighteen, within weeks after graduating from high school, Copeland moved to New York to participate in the American Ballet Theater’s summer intensive program, which would launch her on her professional career as a ballerina.  Eventually, Copeland would become the first black soloist with ABT, the most prestigious ballet company in the United States, in twenty years.  At the closing of Life in Motion, Copeland was still dreaming of one day being a principal ballerina with ABT, the highest level that can be reached.  Copeland did achieve that title after the book was published, making history as the first black principal ballerina with ABT.

This is a Cinderella story at its finest.  Having so many obstacles – near poverty, an itinerant and unstable childhood, a late introduction to ballet, and not least of all, being black – and achieving what Copeland has achieved is awe-inspiring.  And hey, if you haven’t seen her dance, go look up some YouTube videos.  She is jaw-droppingly talented.

I love, too, that my (white, privileged) daughter has chosen such a hero and role model.  I gave her Life in Motion after I finished it, and she devoured it in a day and a half.

And she and I are going to see Misty Copeland in ABT’s production of The Nutcracker this week!

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

51WkgRRm22L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic

by Alison Bechdel

I think I waited way too long after reading this book to try to write a review.  I finished it several weeks ago, and honestly a lot of the details have slipped my memory.  And that probably says something right there: this wasn’t a super memorable book for me.

Also, I discovered that I’m not a big fan of graphic novels.  Reading it, I kept feeling like the author was cheating, because there is far less actual writing in a graphic novel than a conventional novel (or memoir, as the case may be).  I realize, however, that that’s not only my own bias (I just prefer words over pictures, I guess), but that it’s totally unfair because it undoubtedly takes an incredible amount of time and effort to create the hundreds of pictures that comprise the book.

So.  Touted by the author as a “family tragicomic,” Fun Home is a memoir spanning Bechdel’s childhood and young adulthood in a very unconventional family.  Her father is a manic-depressive closeted homosexual (and it would seem, possibly a pedophile), who is at times abusive to Alison and her brothers.  Her mother is a distracted and disappointed woman.  Bechdel’s father is the town undertaker and runs the family mortuary – affectionately known within the family as “the fun home” (hence the title of the book).  Through her recounting of her young life, Bechdel explores her very complicated relationship with her father, and her own discovery of being a lesbian.

I don’t know … I know the book has gotten rave reviews, and has even been turned into a Broadway musical, but it didn’t grab me.  While I very much felt the “tragic” part – it’s rather dark and morbid and depressing – I didn’t much get the “comic” part.  I don’t think I laughed or even chuckled once.

It’s an easy enough read, but … eh.  Not really my cup of tea.

Brain On Fire: My Month of Madness by Susanah Cahalan

51RvrsojyaL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness

by Susannah Cahalan

I had seen this book numerous times at Barnes & Noble, and despite that I’m a fan of memoirs, I doubt I would have read this one, except that it was chosen for my book club.

In a nutshell, it’s the author’s harrowing account of “losing her mind” when she descends into a bizarre neurological illness that baffles her family, friends, and even doctors.  Twenty-four years old, happily involved with a newish boyfriend, professionally successful as a tabloid journalist, Cahalan begins developing strange symptoms, and over time exhibits more alarming and strange behavior – from paranoia, to numbness in her limbs, to chronic insomnia, to hallucinations, and finally, seizures.  After months of spiraling more and more out of control, her family knows that her doctor’s pronouncement that Cahalan has just been partying too hard is not what’s at the bottom of her symptoms.  Finally, she is admitted to the epilepsy ward at NYU Medical Center where she ends up strapped to her bed because she repeatedly becomes violent and tries to flee.  After several more weeks, a brilliant and innovative neurologist finally correctly diagnoses her with a brain inflammation caused by a severe autoimmune response.  Once she is correctly diagnosed, she begins a months-long, grueling treatment.  In the end, she recovers, but continues to live with the unsettling knowledge that the condition could recur.

In all honesty, although the story is well-written, and certainly suspenseful, I had trouble connecting with the author.  I probably had some prejudices playing into my perceptions, because as soon as I learned that Cahalan is a tabloid journalist, I kept wondering how much of her own story is embellished and sensationalized.  I was also put off by a sense of  … I don’t know … elitism?  Her family came across like they were above this sort of awful trial, that their daughter was too good to have something like this befall her – and their reaction to any suggestion that Cahalan was impacted by her illness cognitively – I don’t know, it was off-putting to me.  I felt a lack of humility, I guess.  But that very well could have been my own biases.

In any case, it really wasn’t until the last portion of the book that I felt Cahalan came across as a compassionate person concerned about anyone outside of herself.

It’s a good story if medical mysteries intrigue you, and it certainly makes one wonder how many people are misdiagnosed with different forms of mental illness when their illness may actually be pathogen-based.

One Good Year by Laura Brodie

51k9ql9RGhL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ One Good Year: A Mother and Daughter’s Educational Adventure

by Laura Brodie

I was eager to read this memoir about homeschooling, being that I have recently waded into the homeschooling waters myself.

Ten years ago, Laura Brodie decided to pull her ten-year old daughter, Julia, from public school in order to homeschool her.  The decision was made after much contemplation, and was based on Julia’s social, academic, and emotional difficulties with what seemed to be the institutionalized school setting itself.  A free spirit who related to animals better than humans, who bristled at the confinement of school, and whose mind tended to withdraw and wander to such an extent that focusing on schoolwork was a real problem, Laura decided to give her daughter a respite for her fifth grade year.  She hoped that a change of scenery for a year would give Julia a chance to regroup, refuel, and prepare for middle school.

There were certainly things in Brodie’s contemplation of homeschooling that I could relate to.

“Every child has a misery quotient, the line at which mere whining turns into real unhappiness . . . . And there’s nothing like homework to squash a child’s joy.  In Julia’s mind, homework was the shadow haunting every day, the shapeless dread that grew larger with each passing year.”

This very much sums up my decision to pull my own daughter from public school in order to homeschool her; the misery school was causing her wasn’t worth whatever benefits she was supposedly getting from the experience, and I finally decided to take matters into my own hands in the hope that I could turn things around for her.

I didn’t get very far into the book, however, before I found myself irritated with the author.  She scoffs at the propensity of parents to “grasp at straws of genius” in their children, but seems oblivious to her own tendency to do the same.  All three of her daughters are above average, apparently – at least in the author’s eyes.

Clearly, Julia had a unique intelligence churning inside her head . . .”

“I never did worry very much about Rachel, largely because of her intellectual gifts . . .”

And although I can’t locate the quote now, I believe her other daughter, Kathryn, was deemed “bored” with the academic aspect of school because she was so bright.

And, of course, Julia is a better violinist than any of her peers taking violin lessons.

This, too, rankled:

“The thought that in forty-nine states any parent who’d scraped through high school with a D average could then teach high school to their own children struck me as setting the bar very low.”

(As if letter grades are the only – or even the best – indication of ability and intelligence; as if there aren’t a million factors that might play into low grades in high school – from depression, to poverty, to various traumas, to illness, to instability of family life, and the list goes on and on – none of which are indicative of one’s ability to teach one’s own children.  This struck me as appallingly narrow-minded, and even elitist.  The author’s elitism continued to bother me; a Harvard graduate with a Ph.D., she clearly saw herself as more qualified to homeschool than the “average” parent, and had no qualms throwing around terms like “idiot” and “spelling moron,” and even calling her daughter a “dumbass” in a fit of temper – which she admittedly regretted, but, it seemed to me, more because name-calling isn’t nice and not because her terminology is disparaging to certain sectors of the population.  There was also a remark by her husband about the stigma of being held back a grade: “Being held back is one step above wearing a helmet.”)

It seemed to me that trouble started brewing as soon as Brodie and her daughter began that year of homeschooling.  When she describes how, “She and I had agreed that if her sisters were going to attend school from 8:30 to 3:00 every day, she would follow a similar routine . . . For the sake of sibling equality, we would find activities to fill six and a half hours each day,” it struck me how oblivious she seemed to the utter arbitrariness of a six-and-a-half hour school day, and the fact that much of that time is spent on classroom management and paper shuffling in “regular” school, and not on actual learning.  And what about meeting each child’s individual needs?  If she was going to base their school days on “sibling equality,” it seemed to me something important would be lost – namely, the meeting of Julia’s unique needs.

From the very beginning, Brodie sets stringent expectations for Julia, and from almost the beginning, tempers flare and mother and daughter clash again and again.  I wanted so badly to see Brodie just stop and take a deep breath and change tack – and eventually she does, sort of, but not until the spring when their year together is already drawing to a close.

I don’t know . . . I know myself to be an anal-retentive control freak, but Brodie made me feel like a lamb.  In the end, I don’t think that their year of homeschooling was any sort of “respite” for Julia.  Brodie acknowledges this when she says,

“Still, part of my goal in homeschooling had been to reduce Julia’s misery, and it seemed that over the past few months I had only managed to give her misery a new name.  I had granted her a break from traditional schooling, but not a respite from oppressive expectations.”

***

“In the end, our version of homeschooling had not escaped the worst aspects of school: the pressures of daily work, the crush of high expectations.”

Ten years later, I wonder what Julia would say about her homeschooling experience; I wonder how she feels that it benefited her, how it impacted her return to public school through her completion of high school, and how she feels it affected her relationship with her mother.

Brodie knows how to write (she’s an English Professor, after all), and thus her book is very readable, though I didn’t find it very relatable.  She makes a lot of good points:

On conventional school –

“The division of children’s attention into arbitrary time slots is an artifice established for the convenience of schools, and is not designed to match the development of the human brain.”

On motherhood and anger –

“There’s plenty of anger in American society, and some of it might require therapy, but if all moms had to consult a psychologist every time they blew their tops, most U.S. households would be bankrupt . . . Mothers were supposed to be endlessly loving and encouraging.  We were supposed to resemble Carol Brady or Shirley Partridge or June Cleaver, unfailingly good humored in the face of enormous exasperation.  Now, in the new millennium, I find those saccharine maternal stereotypes to be as unhealthy as Barbie’s grotesquely arched and tiptoed body.”

Still, the writing and the author seem to lack a measure of warmth, and that kept me at arm’s length.

Ultimately, I thought the title of this book to be misleading, because it doesn’t seem like their year of homeschooling was good; in the end, I see it as more a cautionary tale than anything else.