When I Was White, by Sarah Valentine****

Sarah Valentine was raised to believe that she was white, and that her dark complexion was the product of her Greek ancestors. But whereas she does have Greek ancestry in her DNA, Sarah is also of African descent. This strange but compelling, searingly honest memoir came to me courtesy of Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press; it will be available to the public tomorrow, August 6, 2019.

Valentine is an excellent writer, and she spins us back in time to her childhood, spent in a private school, a Catholic upper middle class family, celebrating European cultural events. She is the only African-American or mixed race student at her school, and every now and then, someone there will make a remark that infers she is Black. This puzzles her. Her own mother makes remarks bordering on White Supremacy, assumptions about the habits and character of Black people; of course, none of this should apply to Sarah, in her view, because she insists that Sarah is Greek and Irish, and Irish, and Irish.

Reading of her experiences, I am initially surprised that such culturally clueless, entirely white parents would be permitted to adopt a Black child; but here’s the thing. She isn’t adopted. She is her mother’s biological child, and to talk about who her biological father is, is to recognize that her mother was not always faithful to her father. It’s a keg of dynamite, one that her parents carefully navigate around. Not only have they not spoken about this to Sarah; they have not spoken about it to each other. It is a fiction that holds their marriage together; toss a tablecloth over that keg of TNT there and for goodness sake, don’t bump it.

I came away feeling sorry for her father.

There’s a lot more going on between Sarah and her parents, particularly her mother, a talented but not entirely stable parent who assigns impossible standards to her daughter. Meanwhile, as Sarah grows up and leaves for college, the fiction of her heritage is uncovered, first as a mere suspicion, then later as fact.

This isn’t an easy read or a fun one. It can’t be. Sarah’s pain bleeds through the pages as we see the toxic ingredients and outcomes in her story; her mother’s mental health and her own, as well as eating disorders and the implosion of her parents’ marriage. The particulars of her lifelong struggle make it impossible to draw a larger lesson in terms of civil rights issues; there are some salient points that will speak to women that grew up in the mid-20th century as Sarah’s mother did, and as I did. And here we find one small spark of optimism, the fact that when women are raped, whether at college or elsewhere, we stand a greater chance of being believed than we did in the past. Still, it’s a grim tale overall, and I don’t think there’s any other way Sarah could honestly have told it.

Fifty Things That Aren’t My Fault, by Cathy Guisewite****

Guisewite began publishing the comic strip “Cathy” in 1976, the year that I graduated high school. It was a time of high expectations for women, and the unrealistic suggestion that we would be able to “bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, and never let you forget you’re a man,” as Madison Avenue decreed, was daunting.  Through her sharply perceptive humor, Guisewite let her peers know that it wasn’t just us; we were judging ourselves with an unfair yardstick. She kept it real, and in doing so, kept us sane.

My thanks go to Net Galley and G.P. Putnam for the review copy.

So how does cartooning translate to prose?  Whereas the cute, punchy single-page entries and single sentence proclamations—and the lists—are her most familiar territory, my favorite parts of this memoir are the least cartoonish ones. Yes, I love the way she takes down the women’s fashion industry and the unhealthy way it affects our body images.  She was good at it forty years ago, and she’s good at it now. But the passages that drew me in and let me get lost in her story are the more vulnerable, deeply perceptive parts of the narrative, her fears for her aging parents; the struggle and triumph of raising a daughter, one with special needs, alone; and the failure of her marriage. I am in awe of the fact that she and her ex made each other laugh until the tears came as they planned their divorce. Who does that? And of course, she made me laugh too.

Guisewite stays inside her usual parameters, never veering outside of the middle class Caucasian realm with which she has experience. Younger women won’t get much joy out of this memoir; women that came of age between 1965 and 1985 are right in her sweet spot, and it is to them that I recommend this book. It’s available now.

Nanaville, by Anna Quindlen*****

Author Anna Quindlen is queen of all things warm and wise, and so it’s not surprising that her ode to grandmothering  hits just the right note.  I was lucky and read it free and early, thanks to Random House and Net Galley, but it would have been worth the purchase price had it come down to it. This friendly little book is available to the public now.

Quindlen’s memoir can double as a primer for her peers that are new grandparents also, but that’s not where its greatest strength is found. The most resonant aspect is that common chord, the eloquence with which she gives voice to our common experience. It makes me feel as if she and I are sitting together with our baby pictures—the grandbabies and our children that created them—and as she speaks, I am saying, “I know, right?” I chuckle as she recounts trends in the advice given by experts to new parents:  when our first babies were born, we were told to put them to bed on their stomachs so they wouldn’t spit up and choke to death on it; then later children slept on their sides, which seems like a safe bet either way, but babies don’t stay on their sides very long; and now babies are supposed to be safer on their backs. And she voices so well the pride we feel when an adult that we have parented turns into a wonderful parent in his own right. And I nod in agreement as she says of her toddler grandson, “No one else has sounded that happy to see me in many, many years.”

Quindlen speaks well to the ambivalent moments as well, to the need to hold our tongues when we want to offer advice that hasn’t been requested; at the same time, there’s the relief that comes of not being in charge of all the big decisions.  And I echo the outrage that she feels when some ignorant asshole suggests that our biracial grandchild is not part of our blood and bones. (A jerk in Baby Gap wants to know where she got him; she replies that she found him at Whole Foods.)

Unequivocally joyful is the legacy grandchildren present. “I am building a memory out of spare parts…someday that memory will be all that’s left of me.”

And then, there are the books:

“’In the great green room…’

“’Mouse,’ Arthur says.

“’There is a mouse,’ I say…falling down the well of memory as I speak, other children, other chairs.”

Go ahead. Read it with dry eyes. I dare you.

Quindlen is writing for her peers. If you aren’t a grandparent and don’t expect to become one anytime soon (or perhaps at all,) then this memoir will probably not be a magical experience for you. But the title and book jacket make it clear exactly where she is going, and I am delighted to go with her.

Highly recommended to grandparents, and to those on the cusp.

Southern Lady Code, by Helen Ellis****

Helen Ellis makes me laugh out loud. If you can use some of that, you may want to read this book. Thanks go to Doubleday and Net Galley for the review copy.

Southern Lady Code is a title that carries a code of its own.  Some people use the word “lady” to describe European royalty; some to describe a courteous woman, which is what I anticipated here; and some use it to describe a well-mannered woman with a very comfortable income, which appears to be the author’s operating definition. In terms of the “code,” I thought I’d be reading straight satire, but discovered that she has provided a combination of self-help tips and searing, sometimes raucous humor. It works surprisingly well.

I have never made a cheese log before or wanted one, but Ellis’s recipe sounds so persuasively delicious that I may try it. That said, my favorite essays were short on advice and long on humor. I nearly hurt myself laughing over the construction man she found masturbating in her bedroom—did I mention that she gets a little edgy here?  And “The Ghost Experience” is massively entertaining.  There’s a lot of good material here.  Though at times her outlook is a little more conservative than my own, I like the things she says in support of gay and trans friends.

Ultimately, I suspect that I am not the target audience for Ellis, who in her middle-aged years is dispensing life skills wrapped in bountiful amounts of humorous anecdotes. She is writing to her peers and to those women younger than herself.  I am ten or twenty years older than this woman, but I still came away impressed. So, ladies and women, if you can look past the assumption of a greater-than-average income, you’ll have a good time here, and if you can’t, try to get this collection at the library and read selectively, because more of these essays will resonate than not, for all of us.

I rate this book four giggles, and it will be available to the public tomorrow, April 16, 2019.

Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls, by T. Kira Madden***-****

3.5 rounded up. I received this book free and early thanks to Net Galley and Bloomsbury in exchange for this honest review, and I am sorry to be late providing it. The truth is, I couldn’t decide what to do with it. There was a tremendous amount of buzz in advance, and indeed, Madden is a talented word smith. This is also one of the strangest books I have ever read.

In a series of essays, Madden discusses her childhood and adolescence, growing up as an heir to the Madden shoe empire, provided with every material advantage, but also strangely unwelcome in her own home. It’s the ultimate story of alienation, one in which her father’s primary goal as a parent seems to be to pretend she isn’t there—until he goes to jail, anyway. 

Kids that are ignored by their parents act out to get their attention. This is true across all social classes, though the form of the acting out varies. Kira isn’t invited to accompany her father anywhere, and he doesn’t talk to her when he’s home. He and her mother have frightening drug and alcohol addictions that increase the lack of contact and the dearth of affection their daughter receives. She can’t make friends and bring them home. So here’s this rich girl with money, unlimited time to burn, a house full of drugs and booze, internet access, and a head full of resentment. What could possibly go wrong? 

In many ways, Kira’s writing breaks up stereotypes right and left, and her prose is crystalline and heartbreakingly, brutally frank. There’s so much that is good here. At the same time, I have to say that being neglected while rich is nowhere near as bad as being neglected while poor. It sounds cold, but there it is. 

T. Kira Madden has lit up the literary world with her debut, and it will be interesting to see what comes next. 

Lessons from Lucy, by Dave Barry***-****

3.5 rounded up; thanks go to Net Galley and Simon and Schuster for the review copy.

Dave is seventy, and his dog Lucy is up there in years as well. Unlike most of Barry’s essays and books, this one has a reflective aspect and a bit of advice for those nearing or entering their senior years. There’s still a great deal of humor, but there’s a gently philosophical self-help thrust not present in his earlier work. As a 60-year-old retired reader that loves her dog, I represent his target demographic. And I also have to say—his demographic is clearly Caucasian, and this made me a mite uncomfortable. I’ll get back to that in a minute. I have to, since apparently no other reviewer anywhere is going to address it. *

Dave breaks his advice down into seven suggestions, all of which are in some way inspired by Lucy. None of his points are especially new or profound, but because he is so capable in describing and explaining them, he makes old tired advice seem worthy of my attention. A number of his observations left me nodding my head, and he includes liberal humorous anecdotes that in some cases, made me laugh out loud. And here I will put on my teacher hat and tell you that brain studies reveal that learning is easier when there is positive emotion that goes with it.

Dave wants senior citizens to stop merely being content—which is exactly what I am—and take the occasional trip out of our comfort zones. He describes a family trip to a wildlife preserve in Africa to illustrate his point, and his story is so hysterical that it leaves me gasping for air. I can never imagine myself participating, as Dave has, in a parade involving decorated lawnmowers, but I love reading about it. And he reminds senior men to find their friends and tell them how important they are. A great many men have friends that are very important, and that they haven’t talked to in person or even by phone for years. What are you waiting for? At some point, one of you will be dead, and then the survivor will realize his mistake. Barry argues for seizing the moment. (He also makes me glad I am female. My friends hear from me all the damn time, and when I leave the planet, they will know what they meant to me.)

I began reading Barry’s work in the 1980s, and during the ‘90s and ‘00s, I used one of his columns, “How to Play with a Dog,” to teach middle school students expository writing. Step by step, he told us how to do it, and in the most enjoyable way; and that’s what expository writing is. Kids that didn’t like to write sat up and listened to this. It is a genius piece of work, and because of this, and because of the long period during which I loved each and every thing he wrote, this book receives a favorable rating from me. Because there’s also a big problem with it. Keep reading.

I loved the way Barry skewers the whole ‘mindfulness’ shtick even as he also advocates for some of its better aspects. When he digs into the topic of the diversity workshop, I feel a little hitch in my breathing, a twinge of anxiety. I read Dave Barry Does Japan, and the things he said about the Japanese demonstrated that his understanding of other races and cultures needs an upgrade. Here he tells us that his wife is half Cuban, half Jewish, so we know he’s probably not an alt-right white supremacist, but at the same time, some of the jokes he makes are cringe-worthy at best. When he tells us that if he was ever forced to sit through another diversity workshop (as was required by the Miami Herald,) he would join the Klan and the Black staff members would go with him, I slumped. Aw, shit. Dave, statements like this are why diversity training even exists. If there’s a training and you are invited, run there and get you a real good seat. In fact, there’s a chance that other staffers had to go to a workshop that was mostly aimed at you!

I have had a similar experience with 3 or 4 other books I’ve reviewed, and there’s always someone out there that will leave a comment saying it’s ridiculous to fuss over one little sentence in the book. In anticipation, I have an analogy just for those people, and here it is:

imagine you have been invited to a potluck supper. You hand your contribution, maybe a bowl of potato salad to the host to add to the collection of food, and you grab a plate. There are three long tables, and you move down the row selecting from among the crispy fried chicken, the smoky ribs, watermelon, three-alarm chili, coleslaw, nachos, garden salad, pasta salad, fruit salad, a bowl of human excrement, baked squash with cinnamon, homemade cherry pie, key lime pie, shrimp salad, pesto salad, deviled eggs, and of course, your own contribution, the potato salad. But once you sit down, your appetite has fled, hasn’t it? You came in feeling hungry. You skipped a meal before this thing, cause you knew there’d be a lot of good things to eat. And of course, when you passed that bowl of human poo, you didn’t take any of it, and like everyone else, you politely diverted your eyes away from it once you were satisfied that it was exactly what it looked like. What the hell…? After a glance around the room to see whether a joke is about to be sprung, or at least a conversation had about this inappropriate addition, you edge toward the garbage, where you quietly deposit your uneaten meal, and then you edge toward the door…all because of that one thing.

Why would you toss a plateful of delicious food merely because there was one distasteful thing on the table? Because neither you nor your food could be close to that mess for even a minute.

So that’s how I see the Klan reference. It’s hard to chuckle after a bomb like that has been included, and he even includes a snarky remark after it about the fact that some will be offended, which comes off like an extended middle finger to anyone that doesn’t like a Klan-friendly joke.

And maybe that’s how it rolls with him; he has all the money he needs, and he doesn’t care if there are people that don’t like what he wrote. But I cannot for the life of me understand why someone would write a memoir like this, one intended to provide an excellent philosophy for his aging readers, one which will also be a part of his legacy after he’s gone, and then include something that will hurt some of the people that read it. I just don’t get it.

Do I recommend this book to you? From where I sit, if you want it, don’t pay full price for it. I wouldn’t buy it for anyone I like, but now you have my take on it, so the as always, the decision rests with you.

*Sigh!

Such Good Work, by Johannes Lichtman****

I was invited to read this debut novel by Net Galley and Simon and Schuster, but when I first saw it in my inbox, I recoiled. Another addiction memoir! Another chance to live through someone else’s excruciating nightmare! But then I read a few early reviews—they didn’t bear the numbed courtesy of an obligatory write-up.  And then my own sense of courtesy tipped me over the edge. I was, after all, invited. Did I not want to be invited anymore? Of course I should read it.

The story is Lichtman’s own written as autofiction, and his unusual writing style drew me in. I was surprised to see how quickly I went through it. At the outset, he is teaching creative writing and is crestfallen to find that a student he has championed has plagiarized her work for him, and not only is his anecdote written with great humor, it is immediately familiar to me, and most likely will be to all English teachers.  We want to believe; we want to be supportive. And once in awhile, someone younger than ourselves comes along and manipulates the hell out of us. It is a humbling experience.

Jonas is half American, half Swede, and he finds that to get off of opiates and opiods, he needs to be in Sweden, where street drugs are much harder to procure.  He is enrolled in a graduate program in Malmo, but finds his time is primarily consumed by the refugee crisis as he volunteers to teach in a language school. Young men from the Middle East come by the thousands, and he is proud that Sweden doesn’t close its border, doesn’t set a cap to the number of immigrants it will welcome. At the same time, the Swedish government has some double standards where race is concerned; the Roma people that set up an encampment are quickly swept away. Then the nightclub bombing in Paris provides officials with an excuse to shut it all down; it’s a tremendous blow to the refugees and to those that want to help them.

At times I fear for this writer, because he seems to have no filters with which to protect his own heart as he hurls himself into his volunteer work; he wants to make a difference so desperately.  Many years ago I saw a short film that showed a Bambi-like deer grazing in a forest, and then the massive foot of Godzilla smashes it like a bug, and in his ragged, hungry quest for social justice, the author reminds me of that deer. Social justice work requires sacrifice to be sure, but a little care toward one’s own mental health is also essential. Lichtman’s master’s thesis focuses on a Swedish writer that ultimately succumbs to despair, turning on the car and closing the garage door, and I found myself urging this author to have a care, lest the same happen to him, a danger he refers to himself in the narrative. (From the acknowledgements at the end, I see that he appears to have emerged in one piece, at least so far.)

The stories of the refugee boys are searing ones. A young man told of walking through Iran, followed by Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, Austria, Germany, and Denmark on his way to Sweden. The whole journey was done on foot. So many families were dead that the boys’ tutors learned it was sometimes better not to inquire too deeply about those left behind. At one point, Jonas decides to become a mentor to one person, but things go amiss and he ruefully recalls his own role as that of “clumsy Samaritan.”

Lichtman’s prose is gently philosophical in a style that is slightly reminiscent of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, though in no way derivative. His perceptive commentary regarding the events that unfold around him, along with the lessons he learns about himself, is witty and absorbing. Along the way I picked up a little knowledge about Swedish culture and society that I didn’t have before.

The title has sharp edges.

Recommended to those interested in Swedish culture, the refugee crisis, and addiction issues, as well as to anyone that just enjoys a good memoir.

Spearhead, by Adam Makos*****

I read this historical gem free and early, thanks to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine; it’s among the top ten percent of the military histories I have read, and it’s one of the few that I have recommended to friends and relatives. Makos’s introduction tells us what he has done to lay his groundwork, and it’s impressive:



We traversed the battlefields of the Third Reich—with the men who made history…In 2013. Clarence Smoyer and three other veterans traveled to Germany and allowed us to tag along, to interview them on the grounds where they had once fought. We recorded their stories. We recorded what they remembered saying and hearing others say. Then we verified their accounts with deep research. We drew from four archives in America and one in England. We even traveled to the German Bundesarchiv in the Black Forest in search of answers. And what we found was staggering. Original orders. Rare interviews between our heroes and war reporters, conducted while the battle was raging. Radio logs of our tank commanders’ chatter, allowing us to time their actions to the minute… Is the world ready for a book about tanks? There’s one way to find out. Shut the hatches. Tighten your chin strap. It’s time to roll out.


Spearhead is equal parts memoir and history, and Makos is known for using a “You are there” writing style, though he is new to me. He writes about the most riveting parts of their service there, and though each of these four men starts the war in a different place, at the end they are joined together when they reach Cologne. 

The congenial narrative is enhanced with photographs of the men then and now, along with pictures of other men they served with, some of whom made it out alive as well as many that didn’t, or who survived the war but emerged crippled. There is a great deal of comfort, when reading a tale that must include so much carnage, in knowing from the get-go that Clarence Smoyers, Buck Marsh, Gustav Schaefer, Chuck Miller, and Frank Audifred will survive. There are a lot of names and faces, and here I was grateful to be reading digitally on Kindle, because I could use the “search book” feature to quickly regain the identity of participants I couldn’t recall when they came up again. 

There are some poignant moments; after all, they were really just kids. Sometimes they made it through battle because their commanders made wise decisions; sometimes they lived on in spite of incompetent or negligent commanders; and sometimes they found themselves in command. 

I never knew much about how tanks are operated. I believed that the guy whose head sometimes pokes up out of the hatch was the driver; that’s not so. And I had never given any thought to where the tankers sleep at night, or where they go to the bathroom. And the scandalous lack of safety for the men in Sherman tanks wasn’t clear to me till I read that the British called the Sherman as the “Tommy cooker,” the free Poles named it a “burning grave,” and Americans called it a “crematorium on wheels.” Ultimately this made it into the press when journalist Ann Stringer reprinted the comment that “Our tanks are not worth a drop of water on a hot stove.” The Pershing tank would be a tremendous improvement, and would be largely responsible for keeping our veterans alive to tell about it. 

There are some amazing high-tech photographs and diagrams that were unavailable during this conflict; I went back to them several times as I became more acquainted with the lives of the men inside them. The maps could be better, but then you can’t have everything. 

For those interested in World War II military history, or for those that read war memoirs, Spearhead is hard to beat. You can also visit the author’s website at AdamMakos.com. This book will be available to the public February 12, 2019. Highly recommended.

Best Memoirs 2018

To choose one of these over the other would be unfair. I was tempted to go with the Mandela book because everyone has heard of Westover, but again…fairness. So here. You should read them both, period.

 

Rising Out of Hatred, by Eli Saslow****

RisingOutOfHatredDerek Black was the heir apparent to the White Supremacist throne, godson of David Duke, and the son of the founder of the largest hate site in the U.S. This gripping biography tells the story of his transformation, from racist wunderkind to social justice proponent. Thanks go to Net Galley and Doubleday for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

As a young person bent on following his family’s toxic legacy, Black felt that part of the secret to gaining support was in softening the language that went with it. Rather than spewing angry racist jargon around, he argued, Caucasians should instead point to their own pride in ancestry. Everybody gets to be proud of who they are and where they came from, right? So his people just happened to be proud of being from Northern Europe. And then it follows that of course they would prefer to be surrounded by others like themselves. Thus, the call for a Euro-American homeland was, he argued, a reasonable demand.

Later he would hear some of his own catch-phrases used by members of the Trump cabinet.

Derek had never known anyone that wasn’t white; his parents had seen to that. When he went to the New College of Florida, he escaped the terrarium in which he’d been home-schooled, and he came to know a more diverse set of people. This story tells us not only of his own inner struggle and evolution, but also of the painstaking manner in which his new friends cultivated him and became an undeniable part of his life. They invited him to Shabbat meals regularly, gradually breaking down his resistance. In time he came to see the contradictions between the ideology in which he had been raised, and the reality of the real human beings that were now part of his life.

I am amazed at the patience and perseverance of the young people that changed his thinking. I myself would have beat feet far away from a character like this guy, particularly given the enormous stake he had in remaining exactly who he’d been raised to be. Befriend this person? Why would anyone? But they did it, and they met with success.

Black was inclined to withdraw from public life, to fade into the general population as quickly as possible, but his girlfriend persuaded him that since he had made a difference in the wrong way, he owed it to the world to counter that with a more public repudiation.

Saslow is a Pulitzer winner, and his writing is tight and urgent. I didn’t put this story down often once I had begun it. At the same time, Black’s story is told so intimately that it feels a little strange to suddenly realize that Saslow is in it, and we don’t get much information as to how he got there. I would have liked to see a more natural segue from his development, to his conversations with his biographer. It felt a bit abrupt to me.

This, however, is a small concern. The book is fascinating, and you should get it and read it.