Category Archives: Memoir

HAPPINESS by Heather Harpham

Vacation read #4 was Heather Harpham’s memoir Happiness, which I grabbed on an impulse from my 2017 Book Expo box the night before we left. Harpham, a writer living in New York, meets and falls in love with an author named Brian. They have a strong, passionate relationship that is leading toward permanence, except for one issue they can’t resolve: Heather wants kids and Brian doesn’t. When they accidentally become pregnant, the decision of what to do – and how it will impact their relationship – becomes too much for them to survive. Heather moves home to California to have the baby, leaving Brian in New York.

Their daughter Gracie is born outside San Francisco, and from the start it’s apparent that she is suffering from a mysterious blood disorder. Within the first few weeks of her life, Gracie received a blood transfusion, a procedure she requires every three to four weeks to help get oxygen to her body. Heather handles Gracie’s condition and treatments solo, with help of her mother and some longtime friends, bearing the emotional and physical burden of caring for a sick infant. Brian finally flies out to California to meet his daughter a few months later, and he slowly backs his way into fatherhood.

Ultimately, Heather and Brian reconcile, and are then faced with the question of whether to have another child who might be a genetic match to provide bone marrow for Gracie. Given their history, this is a complicated question, but one that is quickly answered when Heather becomes unexpectedly pregnant with their son, Gabe. From there they must decide whether to transplant his marrow into Gracie, and where, and how they will get through it, emotionally and professionally.

I enjoyed Happiness. Even though I knew how it would end, I felt the suspense and stress of Gracie’s treatments and procedures and was eager to hear how it all worked out. Harpham does a really good job of letting the reader into the head of the parent of a sick child. She’s honest and genuine, sharing her innermost thoughts while Gracie was hospitalized, including the guilt she felt about neglecting her young son, her ambivalence toward her partner, and the conflicting emotions conjured by watching other parents enduring the same awful experiences in the hospital. I felt great empathy for her and for Gracie.

Happiness was a compelling read and I’m glad I included it on my travels.

CAN’T HELP MYSELF by Meredith Goldstein

I am a sucker for advice columns. I read several on a regular basis – Carolyn Hax, Ask Amy, Dear Prudence – so when I learned that there was a book coming out by Boston Globe advice columnist Meredith Goldstein, author of the “Love Letters” column, I knew I wanted to check it out. (Goldstein also wrote the novel The Singles, which I reviewed here.)

Can’t Help Myself: Lessons & Confessions From A Modern Advice Columnist is about Goldstein’s column: how she started it, the types of letters she gets and her interactions with her readers. But it’s also about Goldstein’s own life – her relationships with men and the people close to her. The “Love Letters” column addresses her readers’ relationship quandaries, covering everything from one night stands and overdue marriage proposals to work spouses and online dating. Goldstein divides the book into themes about love lives while threading her own personal narrative throughout. We learn about the guy who got away, her very close relationship with a colleague, and her mom’s cancer diagnosis.

Can’t Help Myself is a quick and interesting read. Goldstein is funny and deeply honest, so I really got a sense of who she was. I almost always agreed with the advice she gave out to her readers, even while she had trouble following it in her own life. I do wish she had spent more time behind the scenes. I wanted to hear more about how she picked the letters and trends she has noticed in 9 years of writing her column. Goldstein always seemed so sure of her answers; I’d like to have heard about the times when she just didn’t know what to advise. More focus on the role and responsibility of the advice columnist would have given Can’t Help Myself more heft.

I liked the reader letters spread throughout the book, and have, of course, now subscribed to “Love Letters” updates.

This is a fun book if you’re an advice column junkie, but in the end I wanted a little more detail and analysis.

BORN TO RUN by Bruce Springsteen

Born To Run is Bruce Springsteen’s epic, spiritual, meandering memoir, written over six years as a side project to his touring and songwriting. It starts at Bruce’s birth in Freehold, NJ in 1949 and ends in his mid 60s, exploring not only his musical career but also his relationships and his spiritual and emotional journey through life.

Like many of Bruce’s songs, the writing in Born To Run is rich and poetic. Yes, I think the book could have been edited a bit. (But who wants to tell that to The Boss?) Yes, he repeats himself a lot. But the memoir also intensely personal and introspective, and his perspectives on his working class roots and the demons he’s battled throughout his life are quite moving.

Here’s what surprised me from reading Born To Run:

  • Bruce is a lot more insecure than one would think (I mean, he’s Bruce!), and that insecurity fuels him. He says his 3 1/2 hour shows are because he feels like he has to prove something.
  • He also has a big ego and manages the E Street band more like a autocracy than a democracy. He makes the decisions and the other musicians – as accomplished as they are – have to fall in line.
  • He has dealt with depression throughout his adult life, including some crippling bouts in the last decade that left him paralyzed and unable to work.
  • Patti Scialfa, his wife, is intensely private but more interesting (and patient!) than I realized.

If you’re a fan of his music, Bruce talks a lot about his albums and what he was trying to accomplish on each of them, how/where they were recorded and how they fit into his overall musical evolution. He also spends a lot of time on his bandmates, including “The Big Man” Clarence Clemons, Steve Van Zandt and Nils Lofgren. There’s plenty of fodder for those who are well-acquainted with Bruce’s songs and the guys (and woman) he’s had on stage with him over the decades.

The first third of the book is a little slow, as Bruce gets bogged down in endless details about early bands, gigs and roadtrips. I found that Born To Run picked up a fair amount when his career did.

I listened to 2/3 of Born To Run on audio.  It’s narrated by Bruce, which was a thrill. He infuses his narration with emotion and humor in his distinctive, raspy voice. Unfortunately, it was just too long to do the whole thing on audio, so I switched to print for the last third.

Born To Run gave me a much better sense of the complexity behind this great showman. And I liked how, at the end, he expressed his hopes that reading his memoir would encourage others to take some time for the process of self-reflection. If you’re a Bruce fan or you like rock memoirs, pick this one up.

Apropos of nothing, my top 5 Bruce songs of all time:

  1. Thunder Road
  2. Badlands
  3. Tunnel Of Love
  4. The Rising
  5. Born To Run

WHAT HAPPENED by Hillary Rodham Clinton

I don’t read a lot of non-fiction, and rarely political non-fiction, but I made an exception for Hillary Clinton’s new book, What Happened, which is her post-mortem on the 2016 election.

Full disclosure: #I’mWithHer. Have been from the beginning – even the 2008 presidential race. My husband worked for Hillary for four years at the State Department, and I’ve been lucky enough to meet her, as have my kids. So I went into What Happened already a big fan of Hillary’s. And I went into it as someone who was existentially disappointed after the 2016 election and who has been depressed and angry ever since. So that’s the prism through which I read the book.

Even though What Happened got me angry all over again, I really enjoyed it and am glad I read it. There are several sections of the book: some background on her decision to run for president in ’08 and ’16, some chapters about her personal life, a fair amount (too much?) about her policy positions, and, of course, a detailed dissection of the months leading up to Election Day 2016. There is a lot of coverage of Comey and the emails, and a very alarming chapter on Russia’s tampering in the election. But she doesn’t just blame her loss on Bernie and the emails and the Russians. Hillary takes on a lot of responsibility for the way things turned out. She knows there are a lot of people who don’t like her (as hard as that is for her), and she acknowledges missteps she made during the campaign, such as her controversial comment about coal mining. She also offers a lot of theories for why certain groups voted for Trump, why some didn’t vote at all, and how campaign tweaks might have flipped key districts that ended up sealing the deal for Trump.

It’s so clear to me that Hillary was absolutely qualified to be president and that our world would be such a different, safer and better place than it is now, had she won. What Happened confirmed all that, of course, but it also gave me a better sense of who Hillary is as a person, which I appreciated. Her humor shows through in the book, as does her intellect and her passion for public service and making the world a better place, particularly for the disenfranchised and disadvantaged.

Here are some of the criticisms and reservations I’ve heard about this book: “I can’t read it. Too soon.”; “She’s not going to talk about her role in losing the election.”; “Enough from her already.”; “It will make me too upset”. I get it; yes, she did; it’s never enough; and yes, it’s beyond upsetting. But it was oddly reassuring to hear her perspective, and to hear her say that we’ll get through this and that things will get better again. I hope she really believes that, because I am depending on that hope.

I listened to What Happened on audio. It’s narrated by Hillary, and hearing this all in her words and in her voice made for a very powerful experience. I highly recommend the audio on this one. I am not going to go into her narration – you know what Hillary sounds like. (I will confess that I sped it up a little bit because she talks pretty slowly. It’s a long book!)

My guess is you’re either going to read this book or you’re not. I can only say that if you’ve been hesitating because you’re worried you’ll be too upset, give it a try. You may be surprised by how it makes you feel.

REAL AMERICAN by Julie Lythcott-Haims

Julie Lythcott-Haims’ memoir Real American is about the author’s experience growing up biracial in America and how it shaped who she is. Lythcott-Haims, daughter of an African-American father and a white British mother, was born in Africa when her parents were working there, but moved as a young girl to the U.S. She lived in a few different places, some more racially diverse than others, and spent much of her life feeling conflicting about her mixed race. She didn’t have many black friends as a teenager, and in many ways she suppressed that side of herself in order to fit in. She went on to college and law school, eventually moved to California, and in her late 20s she took a job as a dean at Stanford.

It wasn’t until that job at Stanford, and her marriage to a white man, that Lythcott-Haims really started investigating her relationship with race, her roots and the society into which she brought two mixed-race children. Real American is a collection of short, essay-like chapters (some as short as a few paragraphs) in which Lythcott-Haims explores her childhood and the emergence of her black identity.

I really liked Real American. It’s an intensely personal book, written with unflinching honesty and inspired by strong feelings, and it opened a real window for me into what it is like to grow up black or mixed in this country. The author and I attended the same law school and lived for many years in the same place, but our experiences were very different. I honestly think everyone I know should read this book. I dogeared so many pages that moved me, way too many to try to include here. Toward the end of the book, Lythcott-Haims talks about Black Lives Matter and the series of police killings of black men and boys, and she relates her deep fear about her son’s safety as a dark-skinned boy. Really painful to read, especially as a mom of a young son myself.

I could go on and on about this book. I am so glad I read it. It’s not always an easy read, but it is a good one, and surprisingly hard to put down. It comes out on October 3 – look for it then.

 

BEING JAZZ by Jazz Jennings

Our latest mother-daughter book club read was Being Jazz by Jazz Jennings. It’s a memoir by a 15 year-old girl who was born into a boy’s body. Jazz knew at an early age that she was transgender, and with the help of her accepting family, she transitioned by kindergarten. Jazz, who is now the subject of a TLC reality show, has become a well-known activist for transgender issues and has spoken around the country and received many awards.

Sadly, Being Jazz was too superficial for me (and the rest of our book club). There is a lot of talk about her TV appearances and all the good she has done. Jazz is very grateful for all of the opportunities, and she doesn’t come across as entitled or arrogant, but there is just too much of that and not enough soul-baring. I wanted to know more about what it felt like to be in the wrong body. I wanted to understand gender differences from someone who can’t identify with herself physically . I wanted to understand more about how she related to boys and girls differently. Instead, I got a memoir by a teenager about her life as a celebrity.

I don’t mean to knock the book too much, and I respect Jazz for her openness and courage in fighting for transgender rights. And I appreciated her honesty about her depression. But I wanted more of those things and less of the fights she had with her eighth grade friends.

Being Jazz is well-reviewed, so perhaps I am being curmudgeonly. In the end, it was a bit of a trifle. It could have been much more than what it was, maybe with the help of a (different?) ghostwriter.

HILLBILLY ELEGY by J.D. Vance

27161156I am one book away from my reading goal for 2016. Book #51 was Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance, a “personal analysis” of hillbilly culture and how it has shaped the political views, economic conditions and troubled lives of poor, white Americans. I can’t think of a more relevant book to read in the wake of Trump’s victory, as I think it explains a lot about the election’s outcome.

Vance grew up in Middletown, Ohio, but his family’s roots are in Kentucky, which is hillbilly central. His grandparents moved to Ohio to escape their poor Appalachian roots, but as Vance explains throughout the book, they never really left Kentucky behind. His childhood was chaotic and stressful. His mother married five times and fought addiction throughout most of her life. He lived mostly with his grandmother Mamaw, a strong-willed woman who provided stability and encouragement to Vance as he grew up, but who also struggled economically after her husband died. Mamaw raised him with the hillbilly values and views that she herself grew up with, so even though Middletown was more economically successful than “the holler” where Mamaw and Vance’s mom came from, his family history shaped him strongly.

Hillbilly Elegy was an eye-opening and utterly important read. I learned quite a bit about what so many people in America believe and why they are so disillusioned. One chapter describes why so many poor white families have trouble breaking the cycle of downward mobility: their home lives are chaotic; there is drug usage and physical violence at home, in front of small kids; they don’t study and they don’t make their kids study; they don’t work, even when they don’t have jobs. “We talk about the value of hard work but tell ourselves that the reason we’re not working is some perceived unfairness: Obama shut down the coal mines, or all the jobs went to the Chinese. These are the lies we tell ourselves to solve the cognitive dissonance – the broken connection between the world we see and the values we preach.”

I dog-eared so many pages of Hillbilly Elegy that I could create an entire blog post full of quotes. I found a few passages about why poor whites distrust Obama to be especially powerful. They can’t relate to Obama  – not because of his color, but because he’s so foreign to them in every way: his education, his parenting, where he grew up. The modern American meritocracy worked for Obama, but it won’t work for them.

Vance beat the odds and went into the Marines, then to college and on to Yale Law School. The final chapters of Hillbilly Elegy talk about him having his feet in both words and ultimately feeling comfortable in neither, and about how he has reconciled his upbringing and his education. He ends with some ideas about how to help fix the ills of the white poor, based on his own upbringing and the challenges he overcame.

I highly recommend Hillbilly Elegy. It’s readable, compassionate and absolutely crucial to understanding the country we live in today.