Mini-Reviews: So Sad Today by Melissa Broder and Sick by Porochista Khakpour

I read two very similar and very different memoirs last month. Both are written by women and focus their own lives in the way I just adore (if you have read my blog for any length of time you know how much I love memoirs written by women), but I only loved one of them and thought the other fell a bit flat.

So Sad Today by Melissa Broder29213247

Verdict: I think I might be in love.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Genre: Memoir; Creative Non-Fiction

Published by Scribe, 2016

Find it on Goodreads.

I love the way Melissa Broder writes. There is something mesmerizing in the way she structures her sentences and her essays. I read her debut novel The Pisces earlier this year and fell so much in love that I more or less immediately went out and bought this one. And I am so very glad I did.

My favourite essay in this collection is “I want to be a whole person but really thin” – it’s repeating sentences and sentence structures hammered home a point so painful and real that all the other essays that followed could not quite keep up with. Broder unflinchingly looks into her own eating disorder and the way it impacts her life and does so stylistically brillaint.

In general, So Sad Today is painfully honest in a lyrical way that made reading it a total joy while also giving me whiplash. Melissa Broder does not shy away from the uglier parts of her life and her personality. She centers herself in her art in that unapologetic way that I just adore.

32600407Sick by Porochista Khakpour

Verdict: Disappointing.

My rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Genre: Memoir

Published by HarperPerennial, June 2018

Find it on Goodreads.

This might be my biggest reading disappointment of the year so far. I have been looking forward to this book for ages and when it finally arrived I jumped straight into reading it. I find the story Porochista Khakpour tells – of illness that went years without a diagnosis, about racism and sexism in medicine, about addiction and losing oneself – so very very important and relevant, but the execution just did not work for me. I found the structure of the book unhelpful, the jumping back and forth, sometimes within the same paragraph difficult to follow and frustrating, even though I can see how that could have worked wonderfully.

She says in the acknowledgments that she stripped her memoir of everything but herself – and maybe she was a bit too successful in that aim. I left the book not even quite knowing what Lyme Disease does to her, or what symptoms she had. Her encounters with medical doctor after medical doctor felt undefined and somehow left me confused – because I know she wanted me to see how godawful the doctors were (and I am sure they were) but I could only ever see her. I think some grounding in the reality of Lyme would have worked better for me.

My biggest problem was the prose, on a sentence-by-sentence level. I found it weirdly clumsy in parts, while sometimes being very profound. There were sentences however that I had to read multiple times to get to their meanings and I am not sure that was intentional.

 

Review: Not That Bad edited by Roxane Gay

35068524Verdict: Brilliant. Needed.

My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Published my HarperPerennial, May 1st, 2018

Genre: Non-Fiction, Essay Anthology, Political Non-Fiction

Find it on Goodreads.

In this valuable and revealing anthology, cultural critic and bestselling author Roxane Gay collects original and previously published pieces that address what it means to live in a world where women have to measure the harassment, violence, and aggression they face, and where they are “routinely second-guessed, blown off, discredited, denigrated, besmirched, belittled, patronized, mocked, shamed, gaslit, insulted, bullied” for speaking out. Contributions include essays from established and up-and-coming writers, performers, and critics, including actors Ally Sheedy and Gabrielle Union and writers Amy Jo Burns, Lyz Lenz, and Claire Schwartz. Covering a wide range of topics and experiences, from an exploration of the rape epidemic embedded in the refugee crisis to first-person accounts of child molestation, this collection is often deeply personal and is always unflinchingly honest. Like Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me, Not That Bad will resonate with every reader, saying “something in totality that we cannot say alone.”

Searing and heartbreakingly candid, this provocative collection both reflects the world we live in and offers a call to arms insisting that “not that bad” must no longer be good enough.

Sometimes, when a book speaks deeply to me, I have problems putting into words what my thoughts are. This is one of those cases. Roxane Gay has built an anthology so strong, both in subject matter and in style, that I am feeling inadequate talking about it. I will try though, so bear with me while I work through my feelings.

It comes as no surprise that Roxane Gay is my hero. When this anthology arrived on my doorstep (I had preordered it months ago), I could not wait to start reading it. And I read it breathlessly, taking breaks in-between when the essays became too much, but adoring every minute of it.

The essays are not grouped together but rather all stand on their own while building a crescendo of voices. Because they are not thematically grouped together they always met me unawares. Every single voice is needed, every single voice adds something to the conversation. I have not read an anthology that I found this strong, ever. The essays are all perfectly structured and wonderfully realized. There is not a single weak essay in here but there were some that spoke to me even more than the rest did.

The anthology starts of beyond strong with Aubrey Hirsch’s Fragments and Jill Christman’s Slaughterhouse Island. Both essays different in tone and style but each beyond accomplished. My personal favourites of the book were Lyz Lenz’ All the Angry Women and Samhita Mukhopadhyay’s Knowing Better spoke to me in a way that I cannot just yet put into words; especially not in a forum that is by design public.

Do you do that thing were you need to take a break from a book but clutch it to your heart because it is so important and brilliant? I did that here, multiple times. Do read this.

Review: An Abbreviated Life by Ariel Leve

26889911Verdict: I am conflicted.

My rating: 2,5 out of 5 stars

Genre: Memoir

Published by Harper Perennial, 2016

Find it on Goodreads.

A beautiful, startling, and candid memoir about growing up without boundaries, in which Ariel Leve recalls with candor and sensitivity the turbulent time she endured as the only child of an unstable poet for a mother and a beloved but largely absent father, and explores the consequences of a psychologically harrowing childhood as she seeks refuge from the past and recovers what was lost.

Ariel Leve grew up in Manhattan with an eccentric mother she describes as “a poet, an artist, a self-appointed troublemaker and attention seeker.” Leve learned to become her own parent, taking care of herself and her mother’s needs. There would be uncontrolled, impulsive rages followed with denial, disavowed responsibility, and then extreme outpourings of affection. How does a child learn to feel safe in this topsy-turvy world of conditional love?

Leve captures the chaos and lasting impact of a child’s life under siege and explores how the coping mechanisms she developed to survive later incapacitated her as an adult. There were material comforts, but no emotional safety, except for summer visits to her father’s home in South East Asia—an escape that was terminated after he attempted to gain custody. Following the death of a loving caretaker, a succession of replacements raised Leve—relationships which resulted in intense attachment and loss. It was not until decades later, when Leve moved to other side of the world, that she could begin to emancipate herself from the past. In a relationship with a man who has children, caring for them yields clarity of what was missing.

In telling her haunting story, Leve seeks to understand the effects of chronic psychological maltreatment on a child’s developing brain, and to discover how to build a life for herself that she never dreamed possible: An unabbreviated life.

I don’t quite know how to write about this book in a way that is respectful to the author and the genre. This is always a problem I run into when I don’t quite enjoy a memoir. This is somebody’s life I am talking about and who am I to tell them how to tell their story? But I struggled with this.

Ariel Leve tells of her difficult relationship with her emotionally (and maybe physically) abusive mother and how this has influenced who she became. It is not until her forties that she realizes what long-reaching consequences her childhood had. I am in awe of Leve’s bravery of confronting her inner demons and of trying to find closure.

The thing that hit me the strongest was the realisation that Ariel Leve is still not sure anybody will believe her account of her relationship with her mother. The gaslighting cut so deep that even years, even decades later, while writing her memoir, she needs outside perspectives, the assurance that others have seen it too, to be able to tell this story. Which is why she quotes letters written by people close to her, her therapist, and even her father; she feels the need to prove beyond doubt that she had a horrible childhood. This was by far the most successful part of the book for me – and something I am not so sure was intentional on the author’s part.

The book is loosely structured and told in short paragraphs jumping through time; a technique I am usually particularly fond of. Here I found the framing (a story of her falling in love with a quiet man who never talks about his feelings and of starting to act as a mother to his twin daughters) a bit tedious. She never examines her relationship in a meaningful way and moreover seems to think that because Mario does not talk much he must be more truthful and more worthy than other people. A conclusion I cannot agree with – I mean, I love that she found happiness, but equating quietness with honesty seems a bit shortsighted.

Leve seems unable to look outside her own trauma while pretending to do just that (I am notoriously glad when women unapologetically center their art around themselves, but they do have to own it). She sometimes sounds dismissive of other people’s trauma to a point that made it difficult to read (example: “My emotionally imparied beliefs have a source. This information is comforting because it is a real, scientific explanation. Feeling grounded in an uncertain world is not a matter of willpower or getting over it in the way one might get over a breakup, a lost job, a death, or an outrage.” p. 138). When talking to a neuroscientist specialising in trauma she realises the myriad ways in which her trauma has fundamentally altered her – but she never extends that line of thinking to her mother who supposedly also suffered trauma. And now, I don’t mean to say that she has to take her abuser’s feelings into account when writing about her own story, but it does not seem to fit into the overall narrative voice that she doesn’t find these parallels and draws on them. Especially because she herself works to provide the twins with the childhood stability she had wished for herself. That this inability to give proper room to the outside world might be directly influenced by her mothers gaslighting is something I would have loved to have seen explored.

The book is well-written and competently told. It just does not even come close to some of the brilliant memoirs I have read the last couple of years. And it is a shame because I was so very sure this would be amazing.

 

Review: The Wrong Way To Save Your Life – Megan Stielstra

32600746Verdict: Just go and read this.

My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Date read: December 13th, 2017

Published by HarperPerennial, 2017

Find it on Goodreads.

From an important new American writer comes this powerful collection of personal essays on fear, creativity, art, faith, academia, the Internet, and justice.

In this poignant and inciting collection of literary essays, Megan Stielstra tells stories to ward off fears both personal and universal as she grapples toward a better way to live. In her titular piece “The Wrong Way To Save Your Life,” she answers the question of what has value in our lives—a question no longer rhetorical when the apartment above her family’s goes up in flames. “Here is My Heart” sheds light on Megan’s close relationship with her father, whose continued insistence on climbing mountains despite a series of heart attacks leads the author to dissect deer hearts in a poetic attempt to interrogate her own feelings about mortality.

Whether she’s imagining the implications of open-carry laws on college campuses, recounting the story of going underwater on the mortgage of her first home, or revealing the unexpected pains and joys of marriage and motherhood, Stielstra’s work informs, impels, enlightens, and embraces us all. The result is something beautiful—this story, her courage, and, potentially, our own.

Intellectually fierce and viscerally intimate, Megan Stielstra’s voice is witty, wise, warm, and above all, achingly human.

This book snuck up on me: I was enjoying it and then suddenly I was loving it. I am so very glad that this was the 100th book I finished this year.

Megan Stielstra writes about a variety of topics: academia, feminism, her pregnancy and marriage, her struggle with postpartum depression, the story of her mortgage drowning her, gun control, and many more things. The essays are loosely structured around themes of fear but are so much more than that. It is fearless and honest and stylistically wonderful. It is unflinching – but also ultimately hopeful. I love how she holds herself accountable and how she wants to make the world a better place, one action at a time. This is needed; I needed to hear this.

I love the way Megan Stielstra’s language flows and how her essays are structured, both the individual pieces and the collection as a whole. Her sentences pack such a punch that I had to reread lengthy passages just to be sure I appreciate them as they should be appreciated (and then she says this: “I am not a good enough writer yet to explain what that did to my heart.” – if she thinks there is room for improvement then I cannot wait to read what she does next. It will blow my mind.).

I am having difficulties explaining my love for this book, so let me end by saying this: I had to rewrite my “Favourite Books of the Year”-post for this. It made me cry, it made me smile, I could not stop thinking about this (and thus missed sleep), and I have already bought Megan Stielstra’s other essay collection. Go and read this.