mini-review · stuff I read

Sigh, Gone: A Misfit’s Memoir of Great Books, Punk Rock, and the Fight to Fit In by Phuc Tran

45046838Summary from Goodreads:
For anyone who has ever felt like they don’t belong, Sigh, Gone shares an irreverent, funny, and moving tale of displacement and assimilation woven together with poignant themes from beloved works of classic literature.

In 1975, during the fall of Saigon, Phuc Tran immigrates to America along with his family. By sheer chance they land in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, a small town where the Trans struggle to assimilate into their new life. In this coming-of-age memoir told through the themes of great books such as The Metamorphosis, The Scarlet Letter, The Iliad, and more, Tran navigates the push and pull of finding and accepting himself despite the challenges of immigration, feelings of isolation, and teenage rebellion, all while attempting to meet the rigid expectations set by his immigrant parents.

Appealing to fans of coming-of-age memoirs such as Fresh Off the Boat, Running with Scissors, or tales of assimilation like Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Displaced and The Refugees, Sigh, Gone explores one man’s bewildering experiences of abuse, racism, and tragedy and reveals redemption and connection in books and punk rock. Against the hairspray-and-synthesizer backdrop of the ‘80s, he finds solace and kinship in the wisdom of classic literature, and in the subculture of punk rock, he finds affirmation and echoes of his disaffection. In his journey for self-discovery Tran ultimately finds refuge and inspiration in the art that shapes—and ultimately saves—him.

Sigh, Gone is a solid memoir about how punk music, skate culture, and books helped an immigrant kid from Viet Nam find community in Pennsylvania. It is a little bit hard to read in places since Tran does recount instances of terrifying physical abuse from adults in his family. I also wish he’d gone a bit further in the book and added his college years, since I thought that would have been interesting to see how his reading “curriculum” changed.

Fun fact: I own two editions of The Lifetime Reading Plan, the original and an updated edition edited by Fadiman’s daughter.

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

mini-review · stuff I read

Over the Top: A Raw Journey to Self-Love by Jonathan Van Ness

43386674Summary from Goodreads:
Who gave Jonathan Van Ness permission to be the radiant human he is today? No one, honey.

The truth is, it hasn’t always been gorgeous for this beacon of positivity and joy.

Before he stole our hearts as the grooming and self-care expert on Netflix’s hit show Queer Eye, Jonathan was growing up in a small Midwestern town that didn’t understand why he was so…over the top. From choreographed carpet figure skating routines to the unavoidable fact that he was Just. So. Gay., Jonathan was an easy target and endured years of judgement, ridicule and trauma—yet none of it crushed his uniquely effervescent spirit.

Over the Top uncovers the pain and passion it took to end up becoming the model of self-love and acceptance that Jonathan is today. In this revelatory, raw, and rambunctious memoir, Jonathan shares never-before-told secrets and reveals sides of himself that the public has never seen. JVN fans may think they know the man behind the stiletto heels, the crop tops, and the iconic sayings, but there’s much more to him than meets the Queer Eye.

You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and you’ll come away knowing that no matter how broken or lost you may be, you’re a Kelly Clarkson song, you’re strong, and you’ve got this.

JVN’s Over the Top is about 75% memoir and 25% inspirational/encouragement/personal growth. (It’s 100% JVN for sure, don’t worry.)

There are some really rough moments in this book where he talks about childhood sexual abuse, homophobia, his drug use, sex work, treatment for sex addiction, and finding out that he is HIV+. And bless him for being frank about how those topics are often not discussed or discussed without nuance because those conversations are so necessary to have with young people. You can tell that he’s still a work in progress, using his newfound fame to have a platform to talk about these things and also grappling with some of the problems that being so visible has brought him. And in between the darker moments are sections of pure joy, like when he talks about learning to cut hair, or psychs himself up by thinking about Olympic gymnasts or figure skaters or when he includes his sixth grade project on the Bill Clinton sex scandal for almost no reason except to give us a moment of levity before narrating the darkest moment of this life. He gives almost everyone in his life outside his family Russian names so it’s almost like War and Peace but the Gay of Thrones version.

Dear FTC: I bought my copy of this book back when it came out.

mini-review · stuff I read

Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning by Cathy Park Hong

52845775._SX318_SY475_Summary from Goodreads:
A ruthlessly honest, emotionally charged exploration of the psychological condition of being Asian American, by an award-winning poet and essayist

Asian Americans inhabit a purgatorial status: neither white enough nor black enough, unmentioned in most conversations about racial identity. In the popular imagination, Asian Americans are all high-achieving professionals. But in reality, this is the most economically divided group in the country, a tenuous alliance of people with roots from South Asia to East Asia to the Pacific Islands, from tech millionaires to service industry laborers. How do we speak honestly about the Asian American condition—if such a thing exists?

Poet and essayist Cathy Park Hong fearlessly and provocatively confronts this thorny subject, blending memoir, cultural criticism, and history to expose the truth of racialized consciousness in America. Binding these essays together is Hong’s theory of “minor feelings.” As the daughter of Korean immigrants, Cathy Park Hong grew up steeped in shame, suspicion, and melancholy. She would later understand that these “minor feelings” occur when American optimism contradicts your own reality—when you believe the lies you’re told about your own racial identity.

With sly humor and a poet’s searching mind, Hong uses her own story as a portal into a deeper examination of racial consciousness in America today. This intimate and devastating book traces her relationship to the English language, to shame and depression, to poetry and artmaking, and to family and female friendship. A radically honest work of art, Minor Feelings forms a portrait of one Asian American psyche—and of a writer’s search to both uncover and speak the truth.

I had Minor Feelings on my list of 2020 to-reads but when I saw Alexander Chee raving about it I bumped it up my reading queue. He’d never steer anyone wrong.

Hong’s book is a thought-provoking and provocative collection of essays concentrating on the lived experience of being Asian-American in America. Hong is a Korean-American poet, so much of her life experience centers around being a child of successful Korean immigrants in a majority-white neighborhood and education system (Hong attended Oberlin for her undergrad). Those experiences are her jumping off point to examine microaggressions, language, the pressures of being the “good” immigrants, expectations of gratitude, and a beautiful, haunting essay that walks the line of biography and true crime about artist Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, an author and artist who was murdered in the early 1980s.

A must-read for 2020.

 

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

mini-review · stuff I read

Children of the Land by Marcelo Hernandez Castillo

44890027Summary from Goodreads:
This unforgettable memoir from a prize-winning poet about growing up undocumented in the United States recounts the sorrows and joys of a family torn apart by draconian policies and chronicles one young man’s attempt to build a future in a nation that denies his existence.

“You were not a ghost even though an entire country was scared of you. No one in this story was a ghost. This was not a story.”

When Marcelo Hernandez Castillo was five years old and his family was preparing to cross the border between Mexico and the United States, he suffered temporary, stress-induced blindness. Castillo regained his vision, but quickly understood that he had to move into a threshold of invisibility before settling in California with his parents and siblings. Thus began a new life of hiding in plain sight and of paying extraordinarily careful attention at all times for fear of being truly seen. Before Castillo was one of the most celebrated poets of a generation, he was a boy who perfected his English in the hopes that he might never seem extraordinary.

With beauty, grace, and honesty, Castillo recounts his and his family’s encounters with a system that treats them as criminals for seeking safe, ordinary lives. He writes of the Sunday afternoon when he opened the door to an ICE officer who had one hand on his holster, of the hours he spent making a fake social security card so that he could work to support his family, of his father’s deportation and the decade that he spent waiting to return to his wife and children only to be denied reentry, and of his mother’s heartbreaking decision to leave her children and grandchildren so that she could be reunited with her estranged husband and retire from a life of hard labor.

Children of the Land distills the trauma of displacement, illuminates the human lives behind the headlines and serves as a stunning meditation on what it means to be a man and a citizen.

I was trying to read Children of the Land at the same time I was listening to The Devil’s Highway and had to pause because I was unfortunately mixing up the two books (they aren’t the same at all except for being the stories of migrants to the US, but my brain kept swapping details between them).

It is a very poetic memoir about a poet’s childhood in the US as an undocumented immigrant contrasted with the lives of his parents and grandparents who each crossed the US border several times. There were a few sections where I think the form Castillo used muddied the story he was trying to tell but overall it is a powerful story about a family looking for a better life, the experience of being undocumented (including the experience of graduate school) then given the chance to apply for a green card, and the terror of his mother’s experience in asking for asylum at the US border in 2016. A necessary book for 2020.

Content warning: there are some depictions of domestic violence on the page.

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

mini-review · Reading Diversely · stuff I read

Something That May Shock and Discredit You by Daniel Mallory Ortberg

38592954Summary from Goodreads:
From the writer of Slate’s “Dear Prudence” column comes a witty and clever collection of essays and cultural observations spanning pop culture—from the endearingly popular to the staggeringly obscure.

Sometimes you just have to yell. New York Times bestselling author of Texts from Jane Eyre Daniel M. Lavery publishing as Daniel Mallory Ortberg has mastered the art of “poetic yelling,” a genre surely familiar to fans of his cult-favorite website The Toast.

In this irreverent essay collection, Ortberg expands on this concept with in-depth and hilarious studies of all things pop culture, from the high to low brow. From a thoughtful analysis on the beauty of William Shatner to a sinister reimagining of HGTV’s House Hunters, Something That May Shock and Discredit You is a laugh-out-loud funny and whip-smart collection for those who don’t take anything—including themselves—much too seriously.

Daniel Mallory Ortberg (or Lavery, since he recently got married, so may have another official name transition soon) is well-known as an essayist both sincere (“Dear Prudence“) and tongue-in-cheek (Texts from Jane Eyre). Something That May Shock and Discredit You is a compact essay/memoir/humor collection that focuses on Ortberg’s philosophy of transition – many essays touch on the physical and mental aspects of transitioning from one gender to another, with commentary from Ortberg’s religious upbringing that often references Jacob wrestling with the Angel (apt, since Jacob is physically changed and renamed by the Angel at the end of their match). Interspersed among them are “interludes” that range from rejected chapter titles for this book to rewritten pieces of classical philosophy and poetry (a few of these got a bit over my head at times, particularly the Marcus Aurelius one).

Something That May Shock and Discredit You was released on Tuesday, February 11.

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

mini-review · stuff I read

Unfinished Business: Notes of a Chronic Re-Reader by Vivian Gornick

45892264Summary from Goodreads:
One of our most beloved writers reassess the electrifying works of literature that have shaped her life

I sometimes think I was born reading . . . I can’t remember the time when I didn’t have a book in my hands, my head lost to the world around me.

Unfinished Business: Notes of a Chronic Re-reader is Vivian Gornick’s celebration of passionate reading, of returning again and again to the books that have shaped her at crucial points in her life. In nine essays that traverse literary criticism, memoir, and biography, one of our most celebrated critics writes about the importance of reading–and re-reading–as life progresses. Gornick finds herself in contradictory characters within D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, assesses womanhood in Colette’s The Vagabond and The Shackle, and considers the veracity of memory in Marguerite Duras’s The Lover. She revisits Great War novels by J. L. Carr and Pat Barker, uncovers the psychological complexity of Elizabeth Bowen’s prose, and soaks in Natalia Ginzburg, “a writer whose work has often made me love life more.” After adopting two cats, whose erratic behavior she finds vexing, she discovers Doris Lessing’s Particularly Cats.

Guided by Gornick’s trademark verve and insight, Unfinished Business is a masterful appreciation of literature’s power to illuminate our lives from a peerless writer and thinker who “still read[s] to feel the power of Life with a capital L.”

Unfinished Business is fine. I found it kind of hard to really get into the author’s narration of re-reading the specific books she chose to discuss. I have only read one of them – LJ Carr’s A Month in the Country – and others were very unfamiliar to me. It could be generational. Based on events Gornick talks about in her life she’s approximately my parents’ age. Books that I read and found to be touchstones that I return to are definitely not the same books that they found meaningful for them. I also didn’t get a sense, from this book, the breadth of Gornick’s taste in reading. The writing was quite nice, though, very readable.

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

mini-review · stuff I read

The Undying: Pain, Vulnerability, Mortality, Medicine, Art, Time, Dreams, Data, Exhaustion, Cancer, and Care by Anne Boyer

43565374Summary from Goodreads:
Award-winning poet and essayist Anne Boyer delivers a one-of-a-kind meditation on pain, vulnerability, mortality, medicine, art, time, space, exhaustion, and economics—sharing her true story of coping with cancer, both the illness and the industry, in The Undying.

A week after her forty-first birthday, the acclaimed poet Anne Boyer was diagnosed with highly aggressive triple-negative breast cancer. For a single mother living paycheck to paycheck who had always been the caregiver rather than the one needing care, the catastrophic illness was both a crisis and an initiation into new ideas about mortality and the gendered politics of illness.

A twenty-first-century Illness as Metaphor, as well as a harrowing memoir of survival, The Undying explores the experience of illness as mediated by digital screens, weaving in ancient Roman dream diarists, cancer hoaxers and fetishists, cancer vloggers, corporate lies, John Donne, pro-pain ”dolorists,” the ecological costs of chemotherapy, and the many little murders of capitalism. It excoriates the pharmaceutical industry and the bland hypocrisies of ”pink ribbon culture” while also diving into the long literary line of women writing about their own illnesses and ongoing deaths: Audre Lorde, Kathy Acker, Susan Sontag, and others.

A genre-bending memoir in the tradition of The Argonauts, The Undying will break your heart, make you angry enough to spit, and show you contemporary America as a thing both desperately ill and occasionally, perversely glorious.

A vivid and moving work that defies genre. The Undying isn’t a “cancer memoir,” Boyer isn’t interested in giving a blow-by-blow account of her diagnosis and treatment for triple-negative breast cancer. Instead this is a poet trying to describe the experience of being a patient, experiencing a treatment that is often worse than the disease it’s trying to cure, comment on the utter cruelty of our healthcare system and medical leave policies, and place it within a sociological and literary framework. At one point she even says she did not write this book for people who are well.

I haven’t read Boyer’s poetry but I am interested in picking up one of her collections.

Dear FTC: I borrowed a copy of this book from my store.

mini-review · stuff I read

In the Dream House: A Memoir by Carmen Maria Machado

42188604._SY475_Summary from Goodreads:
A startling, moving, and innovative memoir from the National Book Award Finalist for Fiction.

For years Carmen Maria Machado has struggled to articulate her experiences in an abusive same-sex relationship. In this extraordinarily candid and radically inventive memoir, Machado tackles a dark and difficult subject with wit, inventiveness and an inquiring spirit, as she uses a series of narrative tropes—including classic horror themes—to create an entirely unique piece of work which is destined to become an instant classic.

In the Dream House is a phenomenal work of memoir, both in its unique construction and determination to shatter cultural myths about domestic violence in queer relationships. Machado chose to use second person as a point of view to show how her relationship with her “dream woman” slowly devolved into terror, a choice that both allowed space between herself and the incidents and also invited the reader to make those horrible situations personal, make them universal. In between these short vignettes/chapters are small essays about the recognition of domestic abuse in queer relationships and how, legally and culturally, it is still very hard to contemplate from a cis-het-patriarchal worldview.

I was privileged to hear Machado read over the weekend (and in conversation with Garth Greenwell) and she’s such a wonderful speaker and thinker. In the Dream House is both a quick (lots of white space) and slow (there are some incidents with her “dream woman” that are truly terrifying and give you pause) read but very much worth the time you spend on it.

Dear FTC: I read a galley that I requested from Graywolf Press. Thank you so much, Graywolf, for sending it.