Category Archives: Memoir

GOOD MORNING, MONSTER by Catherine Gildiner

Therapy books are hot right now (go figure!), and there is a trio of them in particular that have been making the rounds: Maybe You Should Talk To Someone by Lori Gottlieb, Group by Christie Tate and Good Morning, Monster by Catherine Gildiner. I am interested in this niche and just tackled one of them: Good Morning, Monster. This memoir, about five of the toughest cases Dr. Gildiner worked on over her career, is a fascinating look at how she approached these patients with extremely traumatic backgrounds that caused serious long term, negative repercussions in their adult lives.

Why I picked it up: Good Morning, Monster was recommended to me by Katie Bassel, Senior Publicity Manager at St. Martin’s Press, and it was one of the hot books of fall 2020.

To prepare for her book, Gildiner, a Toronto-based author and psychologist, looked back on her career and chose five of the most challenging cases she had ever worked on: Laura, Peter, Danny, Alanna and Madeline. Each of these patients had had unspeakably difficult upbringings: abuse (emotional, physical and sexual), neglect, being forced into adult roles at very young ages. And now, as adults, they had all sorts of issues – inability to love, impotence, fear of abandonment, inability to grieve, irrational fear, on and on. Gildiner describes these five as heroes for what they were able to overcome through therapy, and she’s right.

Each section of the book focuses on one patient. Gildiner takes her readers through the process of getting to know the patient, learning about their families and their past, and then kicking off their therapy. Gildiner approaches each one like a puzzle, trying to uncover their secrets and understand how what happened to them when they were young led to the deep-seated problems they had as adults. She explains her strategy for treatment and how different principles of psychology apply in each individual case. She also admits to mistakes she made while treating these patients, owning up to her own fallibility and acknowledging the often fragile threads that bind therapist and client.

I really liked Good Morning, Monster. I was hooked from the very start, eager to learn about these patients and how Gildiner would approach helping them. There are some very sad and disturbing stories in the book, though. The evil that lurks in some people’s hearts truly knows no bounds. Alanna’s was perhaps the toughest to read, but really, they were all tough. If you don’t know a lot about psychotherapy, or if you’re skeptical of it, Gildiner does a good job of explaining how basic psychological principles applied to her patients’ individual cases and the roles they played in their treatment and recovery.

I listened to Good Morning, Monster on audio. It was narrated by Deborah Burgess, whose voice seemed to match perfectly how I pictured Gildiner in my mind (or was it the other way around?). Her performance was a good blend of clinical and empathetic – just right for this book. I had some long stretches in the car with this audiobook and found myself totally engrossed.

Good Morning Monster was book #1 of 2021. It satisfies the memoir category of the 2021 EDIWTB Reading Challenge.

ALONE TOGETHER: LOVE, GRIEF AND COMFORT IN THE TIME OF COVID-19 by Jennifer Haupt

This year has been something, right?

I am constantly reminded that we are all going through the same experience. While some people have clearly been more negatively impacted by the pandemic than others, and some deal with it more close up than others, we are all dealing with some variation of the same stress and anxiety. And we’re dealing with it in isolation. But one way of connecting, of course, is through art, and it’s no surprise that this pandemic has inspired a spate of writing that, nine months in, underscores the universal nature of the losses brought on by covid-19. One of those books is Alone Together: Love, Grief And Comfort In The Time Of Covid-19, a collection of essays and poetry written by a range of literary voices and edited by Jennifer Haupt.

Why I picked it up: I wanted to hear how people more eloquent than I were dealing with the pandemic. When I was offered a chance to review Alone Together, I gladly took it.

Alone Together‘s essays and poetry are grouped into three main categories: Grieve, Comfort and Connect. They cover the deaths of close relatives, the strain this year has put on relationships, what it’s like to be Black during the pandemic. Essays are short and readable, with something familiar in almost every one of them. I recognized some of the 90 contributors to this collection – Jean Kwok, Pam Houston, Dani Shapiro, Garth Stein, Andrew Dubus III, Caroline Leavitt – but there are many new-to-me writers in here as well. And best of all, the proceeds from the book go to The Book Industry Charitable Foundation, which supports independent booksellers impacted by the pandemic.

Alone Together was this month’s blow-dry book (the book I read, slowly but steadily, while I dry my hair each morning). It was the perfect book to pick up for ten minutes or so and then put down until the next day. I could read an essay or two and immerse myself in that writer’s unique perspective and experience before taking a break and picking the book up again the next day. I recommend Alone Together for anyone feeling isolated and eager to feel part of humanity again. Yes, this situation is awful, but we’re in this together. That sounds trite and clichéd, nine months in, but it’s really true. I’ve found that the best thing to come out of this year has been the feeling of connection I’ve found, often in surprising places, and Alone Together certainly helped reinforce that feeling.

Alone Together was the 62nd book of 2020.

GOOD TALK by Mira Jacob

Books about race got a lot of attention this year, but one that deserves to be included as recommended reading on the topic actually came out in 2018: Mira Jacob’s Good Talk: A Memoir In Conversations. Good Talk, a graphic memoir about conversations Jacob had with her young son about his identity as the son of an Indian mother and Jewish father, packs a lot in. Set in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election, Jacob talks about race from a lot of perspectives: being one of a handful of Indian students in her white Albuquerque high school; her Indian family’s prejudices; being brown in America post-9/11; dating in NYC; marrying into a Jewish family; Black Lives Matter; publishing her first novel; and much more.

Why I picked it up: Nicole and I discussed Good Talk on a recent Readerly podcast, and when I saw it in the window of my local library, I jumped at the chance to check it out.

I love how honest this book was, how Jacob takes complicated questions about race and asks them in such a compelling and simple way. How can her in-laws, who love her and her son so deeply, be comfortable voting for Trump? Why is it OK for men to tell her they want to be with her because she’s exotic? Is her son in danger from police or white people because he’s brown? Is it fair to ask her to change the description of her book to make it more palatable to white people? Jacob doesn’t have the answers to these questions, but at least she’s raising them and having the conversation.

I like the format of graphic memoirs quite a bit – they are often extremely creative in how they are presented. I liked the style of this one a lot. The main characters stay the same – drawn cartoon-like – but the backgrounds, which are real photographs, change to give context for time and place. Having the characters’ images stay the same provides some nice consistency throughout the book.

Good Talk is a quick and thoughtful read, and definitely worth the time.

Good Talk was book #60 of 2020.

HEATING AND COOLING by Beth Ann Fennelly

Beth Ann Fennelly’s moving Heating and Cooling, a collection of “52 micro memoirs”, gives readers little glimpses into the author’s life that, when taken collectively, yield a rich picture of her relationships with her husband and family. The chapters are short – some as short as a few sentences – but each one packs a punch. Fennelly, a poet, conveys deep emotion and meaning in just a few words, making you want to reread each mini-memoir to commit it to memory.

Why I picked it up: I can’t remember where I learned about Heating and Cooling, but as soon I did I went to the library website to request it. It didn’t disappoint.

Fennelly covers a lot of ground in her short book: her mother’s breast cancer, her sister’s surprise and premature death, raising three kids, her deep love for her husband. She also offers tantalizing glimpses of friendships lost, boyfriends kissed, fallible parents and unruly houses. So while Heating And Cooling may not be a long memoir full of detail, it’s beautifully written – poignant, wry, and sometimes very funny. Highly recommended.

Heating and Cooling was book #58 of 2020.

SMACKED by Eilene Zimmerman

Eilene Zimmerman’s memoir Smacked: A Story Of White Collar Ambition, Addiction and Tragedy opens with her going to her ex-husband Peter’s San Diego home, concerned about him because their kids haven’t heard from him and he was ill the last time they saw him. She finds him dead in his bedroom and, shocked and devastated, assumes that he had a heart attack. She is incredulous when the police on the scene tell her that the likely cause of death is a drug overdose, having not suspected that Peter used drugs at all. Smacked is the story of the rise and fall of their relationship and Peter’s secret journey into drug addiction. How did this happen to him, and how could she have missed all the signs?

Why I picked it up: Smacked came highly recommended by Sarah at Sarah’s Bookshelves, and when I found it available on audio on Overdrive, I decided to give it a try.

Peter and Eilene married in their 20s after a mostly happy few years together, and then, after he graduated law school, they moved to San Diego so he could work for a top law firm as an intellectual property lawyer. They had two kids, and Eilene, a journalist, stayed home with the kids while Peter put in long hours at the firm, eventually making partner. Their marriage ultimately fell apart, but it wasn’t until Eilene learned the truth about his addiction that she could fully appreciate what had happened.

Smacked shines a light on a population that many people don’t know about: educated, white collar drug addicts. Looking for a way to relieve stress, or because they are unfulfilled in their jobs, they turn to drugs – prescription or illegal – for relief or to fill a void. They become increasingly dependent on the high to survive, leading to financial ruin and often serious health issues, including death. While Smacked is an intensely personal story, meticulously recorded and related by Zimmerman, it is also a wake-up call about a serious problem. So much of our modern lives can be characterized as addictive – technology, social media, medication – and this phenomenon of white collar addiction should really not be surprising.

Smacked, which is narrated by the author, is well-written and very compelling. I found the impact of Peter’s death on their kids to be the most heartbreaking part of the book. They too had no idea what was wrong with Peter, although they definitely knew something was. Peter went to great lengths to hide his addiction, resorting to increasingly strange and hurtful behavior to accommodate his needs. Zimmerman is understandably angry, regretful and sad, and ultimately sympathetic, which all comes across very clearly in her writing and her performance.

Smacked was Book #50 of 2020.

MY FRIEND ANNA by Rachel DeLoache Williams

My Friend Anna: The True Story Of A Fake Heiress by Rachel DeLoache Williams is a memoir about the author’s experience with a generous but enigmatic friend who treated her to dinners out, personal trainers and a lavish vacation in Morocco and then convinced her to charge tens of thousands of dollars on her credit card with the promise of repayment that never came. It offers a fascinating glimpse into a friendship that, imbalanced from the start, turned into a power game as Rachel tried fruitlessly to be repaid and to figure out who Anna really was.

Why I picked it up: My Friend Anna sounded fascinating! And then my hold on it came in at the library and I read the first 10 pages in the car and was hooked.

Williams was living the twentysomething dream in New York City in the mid 2010s with a group of friends and a job as a photo editor at Vanity Fair. She met Anna Delvey, a German heiress, through some mutual friends and they hit it off. A few months later, Delvey returned to New York after some time away and sought out Williams. Their friendship intensified, with the women hanging out regularly, eating at expensive restaurants, enjoying spa treatments and generally cavorting with a fashionable, trendy crowd. Delvey routinely picked up the bill, which Williams appreciated but didn’t question, given Delvey’s family money and the lack of constraints on her spending. Within a few months, Delvey proposed a vacation in Marrakesh with Williams and Delvey’s personal trainer and a videographer she hired to take footage in Morocco for an upcoming documentary, all on Delvey’s dime.

That’s when things got weird. Delvey, who was chronically disorganized and behind schedule, got Williams to charge the airline tickets on her credit card. Then, after an indulgent week in Morocco, the hotel came after Delvey, saying that her credit card was rejecting the charge. Again, Williams agreed to put the charges on her own credit card – $36k on her own and $17k on her corporate AmEx. In the weeks that followed, the two played a prolonged cat and mouse game with Williams constantly asking Delvey for the money and Delvey stalling, making excuses and shifting the blame for the lack of reimbursement. As Williams grew increasingly desperate to get the money from Delvey, she started to realize that Anna might not be who she says she was and that her finances weren’t what Williams was led to believe. The rest of the book details how their relationship changed as Williams goes to extreme measures to try to get money back from Delvey.

You may be wondering, “Why is this worthy of a memoir?” $60k is a significant amount of money, but books about financial fraud usually deal with a larger scale – more people and bigger sums. My Friend Anna was nonetheless fascinating because it chronicled in great detail the unraveling of this friendship, as months of denial by Williams eventually gave way to her desperation to get to the bottom of Anna and who she really was. Williams saved all of their exchanged texts and painstakingly reconstructed the chronology of their interactions. You can blame Williams for being too complacent with Anna, for taking advantage of her generosity and enjoying a lifestyle she couldn’t afford, but I actually found her pretty sympathetic and relatable.

Reviews of My Friend Anna are all over the place. Some questioned Williams’ I’m-just-a-Southern-girl-with-old-fashioned-values image and call out her white privilege. Others describe it as an addictive read, finding it fascinating that Williams could get into this predicament. I am definitely in the latter camp. I had a hard time putting it down and read it at the beach in a day or two. I really liked it! I’m now looking forward to the Netflix series

My Friend Anna was Book #37 of 2020.

HOWARD STERN COMES AGAIN by Howard Stern

I’ve never been a regular Howard Stern listener. Long before he got to Sirius XM, Stern made his terrestrial home here in DC in the early 80s on DC-101 and I used to listen occasionally, but I rarely tune in to his satellite show. He doesn’t offend me, but for whatever reason, I never got on the bandwagon. I also never watched America’s Got Talent, so I didn’t witness his rebirth as a kind, encouraging judge/coach on that show either. So I came to Stern’s recent book Howard Stern Comes Again, a collection of his most influential interviews, with a mostly blank slate.

Why I picked It up: I was intrigued by Stern’s take on the interviews he’s done, as well as the content of the interviews themselves. I actually paid money for this one in the bookstore!

In the intro to Howard Stern Comes Again, Stern talks about his evolution as a radio personality. He started out as a shock jock, and continued that tradition at Sirius. It wasn’t until later in life that he softened a bit, becoming more introspective and overall kinder to his guests and to himself. Looking back now, he regrets the way he treated some of the people who came on his show and the wasted opportunities to have deeper, more meaningful conversations. The interviews he has collected in Howard Stern Comes Again are all ones in which he felt he made a real connection with the other person, learning about them and himself in the process. The people he interviewed are mostly comedians and actors, like Tracy Morgan, Jimmy Fallon, Chevy Chase, Gwyneth Paltrow, Chris Rock Amy Poehler and Jon Stewart, but he also talks to musicians (Ed Sheeran, Billy Joel) and real estate mogul/reality TV/president types (ugh).

Howard Stern Comes Again was my blow-dry book, the one I read while drying my hair in the morning. It’s the perfect book for that purpose, as I could get through about one interview every day. I enjoyed my mornings with these celebrities, getting to know them a little better. Stern probes his guests on the topics he himself grapples with – perfectionism, depression, mortality – which leads to honest, revealing and often surprising conversations.

My guess is that I am the ideal reader for Howard Stern Comes Again – I hadn’t heard any of these interviews before and I got to experience the new, improved Howard 2.0 fresh, without it dredging up memories of the old version (though some misogyny does sneak into his interviews, and he loves to bring up sex whenever possible). Overall, this was a worthwhile read and I am glad I picked it up. I learned a lot about a lot of people.

Howard Stern Comes Again was Book #34 of 2020.

CRAIGSLIST CONFESSIONAL by Helena Dea Bala

Helena Dea Bala was unhappy in her lobbying job in D.C. and, on a whim, decided to post on Craigslist soliciting confessions from strangers in an attempt to feel connection with other people and bring purpose to her life. To her surprise, the response to her ad was strong and immediate. She soon found herself setting up several meetings a week with respondents who sat down and shared their secrets with her, anonymously of course. Dea Bala eventually quit her job and moved full-time into telling these strangers’ stories on various online platforms. This summer, she released a collection called Craigslist Confessional featuring 40 of the people she has met with over the years.

Why I picked it up: These types of voyeuristic glimpses into others’ lives are right up my alley, and Craigslist Confessional came highly recommended by Sarah of Sarah’s Bookshelves.

Craigslist Confessional is an engrossing read. There are stories of mental illness, bad parenting, secrets, abuse, pain, redemption, regret and much more. The chapters are short – 5-6 pages – so it’s easy to pick up the book, read a few confessions, and put it down. The stories tend to blend together, and I didn’t leave the book with particularly distinct memories of more than a handful of the confessors, but the cumulative swirl of humanity spun by Dea Bala certainly leaves its mark. I don’t know how you could read Craigslist Confessional and not become a more empathetic person. It is a privilege to get a glimpse into people’s heads and hearts and hear them explain their feelings honestly, without fear of judgment.

I listened to Craigslist Confessional on audio and I wouldn’t recommend it. The confessions are narrated by performers, so there’s a remove between the voice and the content. Some of the intimacy of these confessions gets lost when you know, as a listener, that the people talking are not the people who experienced them. I also found some of the narrators a little robotic. So if you’re interested in Craigslist Confessional, go for reading the book over listening on audio.

Memoirs/non-fiction have been working for me during the pandemic, and Craigslist Confessional was no exception. If you’re a fan of PostSecret or advice columns or Humans of New York, you’ll like this one.

Craigslist Confessional was Book #31 of 2020.

UNTAMED by Glennon Doyle

I am new to Glennon Doyle. I never followed her parenting blog, and though I’ve long had an unread ARC of her memoir Love Warrior in the house, I didn’t really know who she was. But when her latest book, Untamed, came out earlier this year, it was hard not to notice the book all over Bookstagram and Book Of The Month and Reese’s Book Club. I was curious, so I swapped for it and read it.

Why I picked it up: Untamed isn’t usually my type of book, but I couldn’t resist the buzz.

Glennon Doyle was raised in Virginia, and during her teenage years developed bulimia and a drinking problem as ways to soothe her anxiety and stave off depression. She married young to a man with whom she partied more than she actually connected with, and amidst her substance abuse found herself pregnant with her first child. She got clean, threw herself into motherhood, and then had two more children with her husband. Doyle’s marriage was tested when her husband confessed to being unfaithful, a challenge she overcame through faith and public pronouncements of her commitment to her marriage. She wrote a book about her experience with addiction and forgiveness – Love Warrior – which was well-received and often held up as Christian guide to working through marital problems.

During the book tour for Love Warrior, though, Doyle met and fell instantly in love with someone else. That someone else – soccer player Abby Wambach – completely turned her world upside down. Could Doyle – now a symbol of the steadfast wife and mother who sacrificed everything for her family’s stability – leave her marriage to pursue her true love? Untamed is Doyle’s memoir of breaking free from expectation and finally being true to herself.

I don’t really like self-help books, and there is a lot of self-help in Untamed. I didn’t love some of the early chapters about “Knowing” and inner selves and sobriety – I found them repetitive and at times too self-centered. But as I read on, later chapters in the book really resonated with me. I liked Doyle’s messages about parenting, such as the importance of both pushing kids out of their comfort zone while also acknowledging that their knowing their limits is a form of bravery. She had some interesting, non-trite things to say about racism and what white women can actually do to help improve the situation. I also liked her wake up call – that we parents spend more time worrying about college admissions than the health of the earth they are inheriting. And her love story with Wambach is very compelling.

In the end, I was glad I read Untamed. Is it worth the hype? Possibly not, but still worth the read.

I listened to Untamed on audio, narrated by Doyle. Like many memoirs, narration by the author made it more personal and felt more genuine. Although there were a few times when I felt my mind wandering, Doyle generally did a good job of keeping me engaged and the book moving along.

Untamed was Book #30 of 2020.

IN THE DREAM HOUSE by Carmen Maria Machado

Carmen Maria Machado’s memoir In The Dream House takes a look at an emotionally abusive relationship between the author and her girlfriend through short chapters about The Dream House, which is really a home of nightmares where Machado spent weekends with her girlfriend. Using references to folk literature and movies, Machado explores the nature of abusive relationships and explains why she stayed.

Why I picked it up: In The Dream House came out last fall, and the reviews were amazing. I’ve had this library copy in the house since the beginning of the pandemic, and now the dropboxes are opening up so I need to return this by the end of the month. Nothing like a deadline to get you to read a book…

I really liked In The Dream House. It’s not an easy read, so be warned. Machado’s girlfriend – loving and magnetic in the beginning, turns jealous, irrational and abusive as their relationship progresses. The author is always anxious, worried about triggering rage in her partner and afraid of the consequences. She sacrifices much of her year in graduate school commuting between Iowa and Indiana to visit the Dream House, using the hours on the trip home to recover and convince herself that the relationship is healthy. The relationship, even when over, leaves Machado scarred and gun-shy, with little perspective about what went wrong. “Clarity is an intoxicating drug, and you spent almost two years without it, believing you were losing your mind, believing you were the monster, and you want something black and white more than you’ve ever wanted anything in this world.” In the next page, she writes, “Trauma has altered my body’s DNA.”

Machado talks a lot about the nature of same-sex partner abuse, which gets less attention and is awarded less legitimacy than heterosexual partner abuse by courts and the media. In The Dream House rebukes the notion that same-sex abuse is easier to escape or avoid in the first place. Just because two partners are women doesn’t mean that one cannot be abusive or difficult to extricate from. She explores dislocation and isolation – two common features that abusers capitalize on – and gaslighting, or convincing someone that they are crazy when they react to abuse.

The Dream House is both the physical location where Machado and her girlfriend spent time together, but it is also a prison, the symbol of their relationship at its worst Each chapter of In The Dream House puts the experience in a different literary or cultural context – Dream House as the Apocalypse, Dream House as Surprise Ending, Dream House as I Love Lucy, etc. This construct gave the book variety and texture, expanding the story well beyond a chronicle of one relationship to a more universal treatise on the nature of partner abuse and its causes and effects.

Memoirs have been my most successful genres for pandemic reading, and In The Dream House did not disappoint. Highly recommended.

In The Dream House was Book #29 of 2020.