A Year of Themed Reviews – June: Pride Month: I Know My Own Heart: The Diaries of Anne Lister ed. by Helena Whitbread

I Know My Own Heart: The Diaries, 1791-1840I Know My Own Heart: The Diaries, 1791-1840 by Anne Lister
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

*This is not the exact edition I read. My edition was 360 pages and only included 6 years of Anne’s diary.

Actually, let’s start off with that. Including the years of Anne’s birth and death suggested (to me) that this book was going to include the entirety of her diaries. I heard about Anne Lister from an episode of the wonderful Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast, which referenced I Know My Own Heart and made me determined to include it in June’s reviews honoring Pride month. Anne lived in early 1800’s England, helping her aunt and uncle run Shibden Hall and assuming its management entirely after their deaths in the 1820s. She was well-educated, flirtatious, and sassy. Anne wrote frankly about being attracted exclusively to women – she doesn’t use the word lesbian and I believe her diaries predate the inclusion of that word in the lexicon – and had many romantic and sexual relationships. In her later years she, and the lifelong companion she finally found, travelled extensively until Anne’s death from fever at the foot of the Caucasian Mountains. The travel portion of her life especially piqued my interest. I was decidedly non-plussed to discover the edition I had borrowed ended before she was able to indulge her wanderlust. There’s even a note saying the diaries from that part of her life “are beyond the scope of this book.” WHY? ARE YOU PUBLISHING A SEQUEL?? (Apparently not?) Furthermore, language has evolved somewhat since the 1800’s. Anne’s word choices and sentence structure are often baffling. There aren’t really enough footnotes to make her writing completely accessible to a modern reader. Though Anne’s handwriting is often unintelligible when she’s not writing in code so I can only imagine what the editors went through to make even a small portion of her diaries readable. For which they have my gratitude. This was an interesting snap shot into the minutiae of an interesting woman’s life, but if you are going to pick it up see if you can find a copy that includes a larger portion of her life and has more foot notes.

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A Year of Themed Reviews – March: Women’s History: The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston

The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among GhostsThe Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts by Maxine Hong Kingston
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Not just a memoir, The Woman Warrior combines fiction and biographical elements too. Hong Kingston writes partly of her childhood in America; she’s never been to China; partly of her mother’s childhood in China and later years in America, and partly of fables her mother shared while they were growing up. It is utterly un-nostalgic. She writes honestly of the myriad griefs of growing up too American for Chinese parents, and too Chinese for the surrounding American culture. And writes honestly of her own failings in some disturbing accounts of bullying her schoolmates – the classmate who refused to speak, the boy with mental disabilities who spent his spare time sitting silently at her family’s laundry while they steamed and washed and pressed in tropics-like conditions. She is not exactly remorseful. Nor is remorse evident in the first chapter, No Name Woman, which recounts a mob raiding and trashing the house of Hong Kingston’s aunt. Animals are slaughtered and stores strewn into the mud as punishment for the aunt’s adulterous pregnancy, her husband having gone overseas years ago to make money during a time of extended scarcity. The aunt is expelled from her family and her name is deliberately forgotten. She dies soon after. She doesn’t name the man who impregnated her. He doesn’t come forward and remains unpunished. It’s a dark way to start off a book even if it is followed by a fictionalized tale of the author leaving home in her youth and training in marital arts for 15 years with an elderly couple living alone on a mountain. She returns to her family, raises an army, and sets about avenging the wrongs done to her village by wealthy barons and a government concerned only with its own wealth, eventually putting a new emperor on the throne. She is hailed as a hero everywhere. Valued and powerful. And a cutting, polar opposite to the rest of the book. To her real life.

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A Year of Themed Book Reviews – February: Black History: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

I Know Why the Caged Bird SingsI Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Angelou’s famous autobiography reveals a childhood that is at once both classic and heart-crushing. She and her brother Bailey are sent to live with their paternal grandmother for large parts of their youths and spend their days playing outside in the Depression era south, when they aren’t helping at the family store or faithfully pursuing their studies or attending the local church. At one point the inseparable duo are sent to live with their mother and father in St. Louis and it is there that Maya is attacked. While justice for her attacker is reasonably swift, some of the circumstances surrounding it only exacerbate the confusion and conflict her young mind is swamped by; the damage and mental trauma she endures linger on long after the physical wounds have healed. Despite this and other jaw-dropping incidents, Angelou grows into a warm-hearted, courageous woman. Her ability to see into the deep motivations of not just the people around her but her own heart makes this book an enduring classic and a movie-clear portrait of life as a black child in the pre-World War II era southern states.

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A Year of Themed Book Reviews – Belated January: Personal Growth: How I Stayed Alive When My Brain was Trying to Kill Me: One Person’s Guide to Suicide Prevention by Susan Rose Blauner

How I Stayed Alive When My Brain Was Trying to Kill Me: One Person's Guide to Suicide PreventionHow I Stayed Alive When My Brain Was Trying to Kill Me: One Person’s Guide to Suicide Prevention by Susan Rose Blauner
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you are in crisis dial 911 or see this website for a list of help lines in your area https://suicideprevention.ca/need-help/ (in Canada)
http://www.yourlifecounts.org/need-he… (worldwide list of crisis hotlines)
In the States call 1-800-273-8255

“I wish I could make your suicidal thoughts disappear, but I can’t. What I can do is teach you how to get through those excruciating moments when every cell in your brain and body is screaming, ‘I want to die!’ By surviving those moments unharmed and learning new ways of coping, you will gradually create a set of tools that can make life more manageable.” (3)

I had never heard of this book until I passed it on a library shelf in a period of random wanderings. It is exactly what it says, a collection of what Blauner refers to as “Tricks of the Trade” that allowed her – with the guidance and assistance of regular therapy, and the stabilizing effect of medication – to cope with and gradually disarm the suicidal thoughts that for 18 years ruled her days, hospitalized her three times, and nearly ended her life. It is at times a very challenging book, aside from teaching readers how to reformat their brains and keep themselves alive, Blauner includes discussions of her prior suicidal gestures that at times go from frank and open right into graphic. She recommends reading this book in small, manageable chunks, remaining aware of your body while you do, and if you get distressed take a break and do something nice for yourself. Excellent advice that can be applied in a variety of situations. And then there’s the crisis plans, meditations, exercises in identifying your feelings and breaking habit loops. It’s a very thorough book. I hope everyone who needs a copy will find it.

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Persepolis & Maus I

Persepolis: The Story of a ChildhoodPersepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi

Maus: A Survivor's Tale : My Father Bleeds History (Maus, #1)Maus: A Survivor’s Tale : My Father Bleeds History by Art Spiegelman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read Persepolis immediately following Maus and now the two are tied together in my brain. These two graphic novels have a lot in common. Both are done entirely in black and white, not even grey shading. Both cover very heavy topics: Maus I covers the Second World War as seen through the eyes of the author’s Jewish father Vladek, and Persepolis, which guides us through the overthrow of the Shah in Iran, the Islamic Revolution, and the war with Iraq via Satrapi’s childhood memories. Death and propaganda saturate the pages. If it’s not posters in the streets it’s lies in the classrooms. As if the government wasn’t cruel enough all on its own, your neighbours would turn you in. An old woman in an upstairs apartment screaming for the police as a young married couple crosses the courtyard – she thinks they are Jewish. A mother accosted on the street by men who think she should be wearing a veil. It’s terrifying and baffling. As if there wasn’t enough grief in the world that some people would seek to add more. They are heavy books to start a year off with, and very difficult to put down. They don’t offer any answers, or ask many questions. They just present history. So that we don’t forget it.

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Wishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher

Wishful DrinkingWishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Raunchy and scattered. That’s my two word review of Carrie Fisher’s Wishful Drinking, feel free to stop there or read on for a slightly longer one. By this time it’s official; Carrie Fisher’s writing is just not my cup of tea. Her book reads as though she was having a conversation about her alcoholism and pill addictions and it got published after she accidentally transcribed the whole thing using voice-to-text and messaged it to her editor. Colloquial in the extreme. And so short! It’s an excellent gateway book for people who aren’t big readers, just get them hooked with short easy pieces like this one and in a few months they’ll be begging to borrow your copy of War and Peace. There’s not much about the making of Star Wars in this one, so your local Star Wars fanatic may not appreciate this book as much as The Princess Diarist, which is almost entirely Star Wars. But Wishful Drinking is chock full of celebrities from what I presume is that golden era of Hollywood. The visages of Eddie Fisher, Debbie Reynolds, and Elizabeth Taylor all grace these few pages. Mostly unlabelled, so I had to guess who was who but if you’re all about Hollywood gossip rags this book will be right up your alley. Other than that, well, if you have to read this at least it’s short.

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Lands of Lost Borders by Kate Harris

Lands of Lost Borders: Out of Bounds on the Silk RoadLands of Lost Borders: Out of Bounds on the Silk Road by Kate Harris
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book was phenomenal. Filled with imagery that transports you across continents and historical knowledge that flings you through time, Harris’ delightful – if saddle sore – journey through Asia’s ancient Silk Road will make you swear to take your own trip. And swear off it on the next page. Freezing weather, rain, snow, terrifying traffic, washboard roads (when there were roads at all), an eternity of living on instant noodles, instant coffee, and instant oatmeal. Harris manages to communicate her deep joy and gratitude for this experience, for every bleak vista she cycles by, while not holding back her about exhaustion, aching muscles, illnesses, and fear of detention travelling through countries with restrictive and byzantine tourism policies. In every line her brilliant writing and lyrical imagery shines through, carrying you along with her on the back of her bicycle. I feel truly privileged to have gotten a chance to read this book pre-release, having won it in a draw, and I highly recommend it to any fans of travel writing looking for new lands to explore. Coming to a bookstore near you in January 2018.

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What the Mouth Wants by Monica Meneghetti

What the Mouth WantsWhat the Mouth Wants by Monica Meneghetti
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A luscious, succulent memoir filled with sex and food that will have you craving fresh pasta, grieving lost loves, and probably wishing you were Italian. Meneghetti shares her memories, her family history, and some of her favourite recipes in this complex and layered piece. The layout reminded me of Like Water for Chocolate; most chapters were molded around a specific recipe or ingredient. Both books have abusive parents. In Like Water for Chocolate it is the matriarch, but in What the Mouth Wants the father is the toxic one. Meneghetti struggles against his restrictions. His hostility and judgement whenever she bypasses conventional social norms. She also touches on learning to accept her identity as a queer woman. Growing up in a small town in the era before gay marriage was legalized adds another layer of difficulty to the process of self-discovery we all do as we age, and Meneghetti traces her revelations bravely here. Her writing drifts gently between straightforward recounting and more poetic, almost dream-like sequences. She muses on the nature of memory and recollection the same way she muses on the qualities of the perfect risotto. It’s all very delicate. Almost baroque. If you’re in the mood for something rich and complex, this could be the book for you.

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Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

Born a Crime: Stories From a South African ChildhoodBorn a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What an incredible piece of writing this book is. Noah has filled Born a Crime with stories which are almost surreal (to a white first-worlder). As if that wasn’t enough, he lards his writing with insightful observations on racism, poverty, classism, sexism, and human nature. As if it wasn’t enough of a miracle that he exists, he rises above the circumstances of his poverty-stricken childhood to become an intelligent, well-known, and (hopefully) wealthy television personality. He stomped that cycle into the ground.

Noah gives credit where credit is due, however. He didn’t achieve all this by his own will. His mother, Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah, is a powerhouse of a woman who refuses to let anything stop her from achieving what she wants. She molds Trevor into a decent human being out of willpower and…well, beatings. Noah explains and excuses it, and has a wonderful relationship with his mother, but child abuse is a thing in this story. As is spousal abuse, gun violence, sexism, and the consistent abuse of power by the police. Apartheid is so much more horrifying than I could have guessed, and it left a legacy that influenced every person in the country. Noah keeps the book upbeat even while relating stories of being arrested, hustling pirated CDs, and navigating the discriminatory culture he was being raised in. Until the end of the book. The third segment gets progressively darker, chronicling his time in jail and his stepfather’s abuse of Noah’s mother, until it will be a wonder if you are not in tears. There’s a happy ending, but trust me when I say you’ve got to walk across some hot coals to get to it. In my humble opinion, it was worth it. I’m glad I read this book.

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Sh*t My Dad Says by Justin Halpern

Sh*t My Dad SaysSh*t My Dad Says by Justin Halpern
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Definitely not a book I would have expected my devout, church-going mother to hand me. But that’s what happened, and now you’ve got a book review to read. Life is full of surprises.
As you might expect from the title this book is chock full of cursing. At least on any page where the elder Mr. Halpern speaks. Which is most pages. If pressed I could go back and probably pick out the one or two f-bomb free sentences. Really the only thing about the cursing that phased me was knowing he was talking to his young children this way. But by chapter two, the surprisingly compassionate, no-nonsense life advice he imparts to those impressionable tots handily outshines the swearing. I was not expecting this to be a parenting primer. Now I want to give it as a shower gift to all my pregnant friends. This is a great read when you want something light and funny to brighten your day. It’s short, sweet, and simple.

You may wish to do some censoring if you read it aloud, though. Just a suggestion.

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