Reading Diversely · stuff I read

All You Can Ever Know: A Memoir by Nicole Chung

untitledSummary from Goodreads:
What does it mean to lose your roots—within your culture, within your family—and what happens when you find them?

Nicole Chung was born severely premature, placed for adoption by her Korean parents, and raised by a white family in a sheltered Oregon town. From early childhood, she heard the story of her adoption as a comforting, prepackaged myth. She believed that her biological parents had made the ultimate sacrifice in the hopes of giving her a better life; that forever feeling slightly out of place was simply her fate as a transracial adoptee. But as she grew up—facing prejudice her adoptive family couldn’t see, finding her identity as an Asian American and a writer, becoming ever more curious about where she came from—she wondered if the story she’d been told was the whole truth.

With warmth, candor, and startling insight, Chung tells of her search for the people who gave her up, which coincided with the birth of her own child. All You Can Ever Know is a profound, moving chronicle of surprising connections and the repercussions of unearthing painful family secrets—vital reading for anyone who has ever struggled to figure out where they belong.

I’ve been following Nicole Chung’s work at The Toast (ah, The Toast, loved it) and other places for some time now. When her memoir deal was announced, I (rather) impatiently kept an eyeball on Catapult’s catalogs. When All You Can Ever Know was announced as a BN Discover Fall 2018 selection, I did a little wriggle. And I really savored the galley

Chung opens her memoir about life as an transracial adoptee by juxtaposing “the story of her adoption” with a meeting to talk to a couple in the process of adopting a child. Was she happy? (Well, yes, on the whole, but also it was incredibly lonely.) Was she OK as a Korean child adopted by white parents? (Again, yes, but there was no one else in her town who even looked like her and people can be cruel.) As the book moves forward, she writes about her birth family, her adoptive parents, her birth, and growing up in a small town in Oregon. She experiences overt and covert racism from both children and adults. Her decision to begin searching for her birth family was not an easy one and, to my surprise, weirdly very hard to accomplish (there was an intermediary, which kind of blows my mind). The “story of her adoption” develops layers upon layers as Chung meets each member of her biological family.

This is a beautiful memoir. What I found most poignant was Chung’s writing about learning to be a Korean-American as an adult. What makes one Korean? Knowing the language? The food? The traditions? One’s family? These sections reminded me very much of Tommy Orange’s debut novel, There There, which delves into questions of what connects a person to their Native roots. The questions become more complicated as Chung begins to raise her biracial children.

All You Can Ever Know is definitely one of my “best books” of the year. I loved every sentence. I highly recommend picking this up for basically everyone on the planet.

Incidentally, I started listening to Lisa Ko’s The Leavers on audiobook while reading Chung’s memoir. Sometimes the universe serves up unexpected connections. The two books had an amazing juxtaposition of adoption stories in their similarities and differences, one real story and one imagined.

All You Can Ever Know will be out October 2.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

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Reading Women · stuff I read

Sick: A Memoir by Porochista Khakpour

33026961Summary from Goodreads:
In the tradition of Brain on Fire and Darkness Visible, an honest, beautifully rendered memoir of chronic illness, misdiagnosis, addiction, and the myth of full recovery that details author Porochista Khakpour’s struggles with late-stage Lyme disease.

For as long as writer Porochista Khakpour can remember, she has been sick. For most of that time, she didn’t know why. All of her trips to the ER and her daily anguish, pain, and lethargy only ever resulted in one question: How could any one person be this sick? Several drug addictions, three major hospitalizations, and over $100,000 later, she finally had a diagnosis: late-stage Lyme disease.

Sick is Khakpour’s arduous, emotional journey—as a woman, a writer, and a lifelong sufferer of undiagnosed health problems—through the chronic illness that perpetually left her a victim of anxiety, living a life stymied by an unknown condition.

Divided by settings, Khakpour guides the reader through her illness by way of the locations that changed her course—New York, LA, New Mexico, and Germany—as she meditates on both the physical and psychological impacts of uncertainty, and the eventual challenge of accepting the diagnosis she had searched for over the course of her adult life. With candor and grace, she examines her subsequent struggles with mental illness, her addiction to the benzodiazepines prescribed by her psychiatrists, and her ever-deteriorating physical health.

A story about survival, pain, and transformation, Sick is a candid, illuminating narrative of hope and uncertainty, boldly examining the deep impact of illness on one woman’s life.

I have long been a fan of Porochista Khakpour’s work online and I’ve been waiting for this memoir since it was announced.

Sick is a finely wrought memoir of Khakpour’s battle with Lyme disease and, more broadly, how the early trauma and displacement of her childhood intertwines and muddies the challenge of “putting a name” to the cause of her symptoms. Lyme is an insidious illness, hard to diagnose, hard to treat, and almost impossible, in many cases, I am learning, to determine a fixed time of infection. Was Khakpour infected as a child? An adolescent? A college-student? Her Lyme symptoms cross a time-line where chemical addiction and symptoms of anxiety could have caused or exacerbated those same symptoms. And even once she has a diagnosis, that does not mean she can now pop the right pills and return to her life disease-free. Khakpour generously details how she lives and works and tries to remain a person, not a disease, day by day.  Her writing is beautiful and a privilege to read, from the sentence-level on up.

We talk in the bookish community about how books can provide windows and doors, how reading is a way to step into someone else’s experience and try to understand them. I am a fairly healthy person. I have my share of aches and pains (hello, 33 years of dancing) but I do not experience pain or fatigue so overwhelming that it makes even leaving my bed impossible. I don’t have a medical condition that is questionably or poorly understood. I don’t struggle with mental illness. Reading Khakpour’s words gave me an opportunity to listen to her story and understand how she lives and works and loves. And then sit very uncomfortably with the times I have been ungenerous with my criticism of someone who suffers from poor health.

Sick is out tomorrow, wherever books are sold.

Dear FTC: I received a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss. And then I bought a copy.

Update: Since Sick was published, Khakpour has suffered a severe setback in her health, much of it stemming from mold that infested her apartment from an illegal demolition that occurred in her building. She is receiving treatment but it is very expensive and often not covered by insurance. Please buy a copy of Sick (unfortunately, her previous works of fiction, Sons and Other Flammable Objects and The Last Illusion, are out of print). In addition, a Go Fund Me has been set up for Khakpour to help defray the costs of this round of treatment, if you wish to make a donation.

stuff I read

The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath by Leslie Jamison

35959632Summary from Goodreads:
By the New York Times bestselling author of The Empathy Exams, an exploration of addiction, and the stories we tell about it, that reinvents the traditional recovery memoir.

With its deeply personal and seamless blend of memoir, cultural history, literary criticism, and journalistic reportage, The Recovering turns our understanding of the traditional addiction narrative on its head, demonstrating that the story of recovery can be every bit as electrifying as the train wreck itself. Leslie Jamison deftly excavates the stories we tell about addiction–both her own and others’–and examines what we want these stories to do, and what happens when they fail us.

All the while, she offers a fascinating look at the larger history of the recovery movement, and at the literary and artistic geniuses whose lives and works were shaped by alcoholism and substance dependence, including John Berryman, Jean Rhys, Raymond Carver, Billie Holiday, David Foster Wallace, and Denis Johnson, as well as brilliant figures lost to obscurity but newly illuminated here.

For the power of her striking language and the sharpness of her piercing observations, Jamison has been compared to such iconic writers as Joan Didion and Susan Sontag. Yet her utterly singular voice also offers something new. With enormous empathy and wisdom, Jamison has given us nothing less than the story of addiction and recovery in America writ large, a definitive and revelatory account that will resonate for years to come.

I really enjoyed Leslie Jamison’s memoir/history of alcoholic writers/ideas about “sober genius.” I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I was most interested in all the parts that took place in my town (look, there’s The Foxhead! Java House! I know where that bakery is!). There are a lot of personal stories in this book and I think Jamison does all of them justice.

That said, I do think that Jamison doesn’t quite make her point – that getting sober doesn’t stifle creativity. Her examples, Carver aside since I’ve never really liked Gordon Lish and I’m with Carver on Lish basically rewriting Carver’s stories, are almost all writers who really failed at sobriety or never managed to capture the magic again while sober (Berryman, Rhys, Jackson, etc.). But she doesn’t focus very much on Denis Johnson, also an Iowa alum who not only got famous not only for his writing but for how spectacularly wasted he could get. But he did clean up, and become a writing teacher, and continued to write – he was sober (I think, I’m not solid on timeline) when Tree of Smoke won the NBA and his last collection of stories is stunning. I wonder if she had at all been given an early copy of Denis Johnson’s last story collection since he died last May as he finished that collection and she would have been finishing the final draft of this book. I think it would have helped her thesis that getting sober doesn’t kill genius.

I think also she could have put more of her Author’s Note – where she talks about how AA is not the only way and that medication-aided sobriety is also a good and necessary thing – into the body of the book. Because it comes off a bit as AA is the only way. It’s the focus since AA worked for her, and a lot of the writers she researched did AA, too, but the book maybe needed a broader treatment focus.

Dear FTC: I bought a copy of this book because I super-love Leslie Jamison’s writing.

mini-review · stuff I read

Futureface: A Family Mystery, an Epic Quest, and the Secret to Belonging by Alex Wagner

33931748Summary from Goodreads:
Alex Wagner has always been fascinated by stories of exile and migration. Her father’s ancestors immigrated to the United States from Ireland and Luxembourg. Her mother fled Rangoon in the 1960s, escaping Burma’s military dictatorship. In her professional life, Wagner reported from the Arizona-Mexico border, where agents, drones, cameras, and military hardware guarded the line between two nations. She listened to debates about whether the United States should be a melting pot or a salad bowl. She knew that moving from one land to another–and the accompanying recombination of individual and tribal identities–was the story of America. And she was happy that her own mixed-race ancestry and late twentieth-century education had taught her that identity is mutable and meaningless, a thing we make rather than a thing we are.

When a cousin’s offhand comment threw a mystery into her personal story-introducing the possibility of an exciting new twist in her already complex family history–Wagner was suddenly awakened to her own deep hunger to be something, to belong, to have an identity that mattered, a tribe of her own. Intoxicated by the possibility, she became determined to investigate her genealogy. So she set off on a quest to find the truth about her family history.

The journey takes Wagner from Burma to Luxembourg, from ruined colonial capitals with records written on banana leaves to Mormon databases and high-tech genetic labs. As she gets closer to solving the mystery of her own ancestry, she begins to grapple with a deeper question: Does it matter? Is our enduring obsession with blood and land, race and identity, worth all the trouble it’s caused us?

The answers can be found in this deeply personal account of her search for belonging, a meditation on the things that define us as insiders and outsiders and make us think in terms of “us” and “them.” In this time of conflict over who we are as a country, when so much emphasis is placed on ethnic, religious, and national divisions, Futureface constructs a narrative where we all belong.

I had a little trouble getting into Futureface. I’m not sure if it was the structure or the writing style. When Wagner digs into subjects like the history of Burma/Myanmar and her family’s role in it’s history or the underlying data structure of the 23andMe, etc. genetic ancestry companies the book is really interesting.  But for me, a lot of times it was….just fine, not necessarily compelling. Her dad was originally from Iowa (Allamakee County, specifically) so that was an unexpected connection.

Dear FTC: I read most of this as a digital galley from the publisher via Edelweiss, but it expired with about 30 pages to go so I had to round up a paper copy to borrow.

dies · happy dance · Reading Diversely · stuff I read

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee

35721123Summary from Goodreads:
From the author of The Queen of the Night, an essay collection exploring his education as a man, writer, and activist—and how we form our identities in life and in art. As a novelist, Alexander Chee has been described as “masterful” by Roxane Gay, “incomparable” by Junot Díaz, and “incendiary” by the New York Times. With How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, his first collection of nonfiction, he’s sure to secure his place as one of the finest essayists of his generation as well.

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel is the author’s manifesto on the entangling of life, literature, and politics, and how the lessons learned from a life spent reading and writing fiction have changed him. In these essays, he grows from student to teacher, reader to writer, and reckons with his identities as a son, a gay man, a Korean American, an artist, an activist, a lover, and a friend. He examines some of the most formative experiences of his life and the nation’s history, including his father’s death, the AIDS crisis, 9/11, the jobs that supported his writing—Tarot-reading, bookselling, cater-waiting for William F. Buckley—the writing of his first novel, Edinburgh, and the election of Donald Trump.

By turns commanding, heartbreaking, and wry, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel asks questions about how we create ourselves in life and in art, and how to fight when our dearest truths are under attack.

I will tell you right now that I was in Michael’s buying fancy writing/drawing pens when I got a DM from Rachel Fershleiser (bless you, lovey) asking me if I would like an early galley of Alexander Chee’s new book. Which I had been coveting hardcore. Pretty sure I shrieked out loud in the checkout line.

I have been waiting since DECEMBER to tell y’all about this book.

“To write is to sell a ticket to escape, not from the truth, but into it.” – “On Becoming an American Writer”

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel is a collection of essays – some previously published elsewhere, some brand, spanking new – that outline Chee’s development as a writer and provide a peek into his experience growing up as a queer, biracial kid in Maine. Meditative pieces such as “The Curse” and “The Querent” give way to heart-breaking examinations of identity and lost love in “Girls” – a powerhouse essay anthologized in The Best American Essays 2016 – and “After Peter.” (Note: I will never not weep reading “After Peter,” it is sublime.) Chee then takes us on a tour of the Struggling Writer’s Life: jobbing as a yoga teacher, tarot reader, and cater-waiter (“Mr. and Mrs. B”), getting an MFA (“My Parade”), various living arrangements (“Impostor”), and creating a garden (“The Rosary”). At times, he is wry and cheeky in pieces such as “100 Things About Writing a Novel.” And then, if you have read his previous novels Edinburgh and The Queen of the Night, he quietly turns you inside out with “The Autobiography of My Novel” and “How to Write an Autobiographical Novel.” (Side note: if you haven’t read his novels get on that because you are seriously deprived of amazing sentences.) The order of essays builds over the course of the book to a moving examination of what it means to be an American writer, especially at this present time, in “On Becoming an American Writer.” 

Alexander Chee has a gift – he can write sentences that just stick in the mind like tiny bits of grit, to be worked over and polished and revisited.

“That afternoon, I tried to understand if I had made a choice about what to write. But instead it seemed to me if anyone had made a choice, the novel had, choosing me like I was a door and walking through me out into the world.” – “The Autobiography of My Novel”

These are not complex sentences nor filled with over-flowing description but are complex and beautiful in their simplicity. It is such a privilege to read his words. I could read them forever.

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel is out on Tuesday, April 17. Bravo, Alex. Thank you so much for your beautiful book. I look forward to making as many people as possible buy this book.

ETA: I would like to introduce you to another writer, Brandon Taylor, who stans for Alexander Chee even more than I do and writes far more eloquently and intelligently about Chee’s work than I could ever possibly hope to write. Please read his essay about How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, “Sad Queer Books: When You’re a Queer Person of Color, Writing is Tough Yet Vital,” at Them. Keep an eye on Brandon, by the way. He’s going to blow us all out of the water.

Dear FTC: You know I rubbed this galley all over my eyeballs when I got it.  I’ll be buying a copy whenever Alex manages to get himself to Iowa for a reading so I can be weird and awkward in person and gush all over while he signs it (and the galley, too).

mini-review · Reading Diversely · Reading Women · stuff I read

Heart Berries: A Memoir by Terese Marie Mailhot

35840657Summary from Goodreads:

Selected by Emma Watson as the Our Shared Shelf Book Club Pick for March/April 2018

“Heart Berries by Terese Mailhot is an astounding memoir in essays. Here is a wound. Here is need, naked and unapologetic. Here is a mountain woman, towering in words great and small… What Mailhot has accomplished in this exquisite book is brilliance both raw and refined.” ―Roxane Gay, author of Hunger

Heart Berries is a powerful, poetic memoir of a woman’s coming of age on the Seabird Island Indian Reservation in the Pacific Northwest. Having survived a profoundly dysfunctional upbringing only to find herself hospitalized and facing a dual diagnosis of post traumatic stress disorder and bipolar II disorder; Terese Marie Mailhot is given a notebook and begins to write her way out of trauma. The triumphant result is Heart Berries, a memorial for Mailhot’s mother, a social worker and activist who had a thing for prisoners; a story of reconciliation with her father―an abusive drunk and a brilliant artist―who was murdered under mysterious circumstances; and an elegy on how difficult it is to love someone while dragging the long shadows of shame.

Mailhot trusts the reader to understand that memory isn’t exact, but melded to imagination, pain, and what we can bring ourselves to accept. Her unique and at times unsettling voice graphically illustrates her mental state. As she writes, she discovers her own true voice, seizes control of her story, and, in so doing, reestablishes her connection to her family, to her people, and to her place in the world.

“A sledgehammer. . . . Her experiments with structure and language . . . are in the service of trying to find new ways to think about the past, trauma, repetition and reconciliation, which might be a way of saying a new model for the memoir.” ―Parul Sehgal, The New York Times

“I am quietly reveling in the profundity of Mailhot’s deliberate transgression in Heart Berries and its perfect results. I love her suspicion of words. I have always been terrified and in awe of the power of words – but Mailhot does not let them silence her in Heart Berries. She finds the purest way to say what she needs to say… [T]he writing is so good it’s hard not to temporarily be distracted from the content or narrative by its brilliance…Perhaps, because this author so generously allows us to be her witness, we are somehow able to see ourselves more clearly and become better witnesses to ourselves.” ―Emma Watson, Official March/April selection for Our Shared Shelf

I don’t know what got into Spring 2018 publishing, but Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot is another knock-it-out-of-the-park book. I cannot even begin to tell you how beautiful and heartbreaking this slim memoir actually is (and I mean slim – barely 150 pages). Mailhot’s use of contrasting style and tone is perfection. Her critique of how Native women’s language is taken from them and twisted is breathtaking. An early forerunner for best memoir of the year.

My only critique is that the extra-textual information contained in the flap copy above really does not figure directly into the narrative that Mailhot is working through in this book.  Details flit around the periphery. The reader has to work to piece everything together, right along with Mailhot. And I don’t think the extra-textuals are needed because then we spend the whole book searching for the matching details.

If you are following #metoo, Sherman Alexie did provide an Introduction to this book (not sure if it will stay for future editions/printings). But it really adds nothing to the book. If he bothers you, you can safely skip it, read Mailhot’s writing, and then read the Afterword by Joan Naviyuk Kane, which is a Q&A with Mailhot and amazing.

Dear FTC: I bought my copy of this book because YES.

mini-review · stuff I read

I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes With Death by Maggie O’Farrell

35137915Summary from Goodreads:
I AM, I AM, I AM is a memoir with a difference – the unputdownable story of an extraordinary woman’s life in near-death experiences. Intelligent, insightful, inspirational, it is a book to be read at a sitting, a story you finish newly conscious of life’s fragility, determined to make every heartbeat count.

A childhood illness she was not expected to survive. A teenage yearning to escape that nearly ended in disaster. A terrifying encounter on a remote path. A mismanaged labour in an understaffed hospital. Shocking, electric, unforgettable, this is the extraordinary memoir from Costa Novel-Award winner and Sunday Times bestselling author Maggie O’Farrell.
It is a book to make you question yourself. What would you do if your life was in danger, and what would you stand to lose?

Put this on your to-get list for 2018. O’Farrell has constructed a riveting memoir focused on the seventeen (17!) times she came close to death. Each brush with the “undiscovered country” is a bit different, some less-harrowing (almost leaning too far into the street as a car is passing) and some sensational (she almost runs afoul of a murderer as a teen). The construction of I Am, I Am, I Am is very compelling. The events are told out of sequence, and she seeds in references to the experience as she builds up to the most-significant death-brush: the onset of viral encephalitis as a child that left her with numerous challenges to battle. In addition, the book closes with a chapter about her daughter, born with a life-threatening medical condition, and for whom the book was written (a portion of the book’s proceeds will go to charity).

I Am, I Am, I Am is available February 6 in the US.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

mini-review · movie star drool · Read My Own Damn Books · stuff I read

You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again by Julia Phillips

30555528Summary from Goodreads:
Julia Phillips became a Hollywood player in the freewheeling 1970s, the first woman to win the Best Picture Oscar as co-producer of The Sting. She went on to work with two of the hottest young directorial talents of the era: Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver) and Steven Spielberg (Close Encounters of the Third Kind). Phillips blazed a trail as one of the very few females to break into the upper echelons of a notoriously chauvinistic industry.

But for all her success, Phillips remained an outsider in the all-male Hollywood club. She had a talent for deal-making, hard-balling and wise-cracking, and a considerable appetite for drink, drugs, and sex. But while these predilections were tolerated and even encouraged among ‘the boys’, Phillips found herself gradually ostracized. By the late 1980s, she was ready to burn bridges and name names, and the result was this coruscating memoir of her career.

Julia Phillips died on January 1, 2002, at the age of 57, but her book will stand as one of the classic exposes of La-La-Land in all its excesses and iniquities.

You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again is an interesting look behind the Hollywood glamour by a woman (the first to win an Oscar for producing) booted from the ranks after producing three major movies of the 1970s for two sins: being addicted to freebase cocaine and being female (sometimes it’s hard to tell which is the greater sin). Not one person comes off looking good in this memoir, including the author who, despite getting clean, etc, is extremely fat-phobic and has some trouble avoiding problematic slurs in talking about gay men or non-whites. The other problem with this book is that it veers between third-person past-tense point-of-view for sections set (presumably) in 1989 and first-person present tense point-of-view for all parts set in the past. Which makes it very hard to follow at times – where was the editor? (The front third of the “set in the past” sections are about her childhood, her difficulties with her mother, and the rocky relationship with her husband which, while they provided context for later problems, also slowed the Hollywood narrative which is the main reason people pick up this book.)

I started reading this book as the #metoo movement was gaining momentum and holy cats do “the more things change, the more things stay the same.”

Dear FTC: I read My Own Damn copy of this book.