mini-reviews: vacationland and instant replay

More non-fiction! Here are a couple of great, diverse celebrity memoirs I recently listened to on audiobook:

I’ve wanted to read Instant Replay for years, the diary of inside linebacker Jerry Kramer of his experience of the Green Bay Packers’ historic 1967 season. I’m sure my dad has a copy somewhere but I just hadn’t gotten around to it. When Kramer was recently inaugurated into the NFL Hall of Fame, though, my interest was renewed and I was able to listen on audio. What a great book! It’s definitely for a niche audience; if you’re not familiar with the team, key people involved, or the game of football, you will likely not be interested. Kramer may not have the most eloquent “voice,” but he’s a straight-talker just like Lombardi was, and Kramer’s day-to-day account here of his last season playing, as well as Lombardi’s last season coaching the Packers, is full of great stories from both on and off the field. A must read for any Packers or football fan for sure. [Listened to audiobook in April 2018.]

I listened to John Hodgman‘s Vacationland on audio while flying back to the States from Singapore a couple weeks ago. I enjoy Hodgman’s humor in small doses, so maybe listening in one long sitting wasn’t the best for me, but I’d definitely recommend audio over paper for this one. His sly delivery makes all the difference on many of these stories. Sometimes he meanders off-topic and much of it is navel-gazing white privilege, but at least Hodgman acknowledges this and his self-deprecating humor makes it work. I enjoyed it and it was a good way to pass the time, even if it won’t be very memorable in the long run to me. [Listened to audiobook in June 2018.]

mini-reviews: heart berries and educated

These two striking memoirs were hyped up a lot earlier this year and for the most part, they’re interesting, worthwhile reads that met my expectations.

Terese Marie Mailhot’s Heart Berries is brief, but packs an emotional punch. Through dreamy, poetic essays, she recounts her dysfunctional upbringing on an Indian Reservation in the Pacific Northwest. She has two sons, she reconnects with her abusive father, she has tumultuous love affairs, she ends up hospitalized for PTSD and bipolar disorder. It’s an unsettling read about love, memory, pain, mental illness, abuse, and more. I struggled a little bit with her changes in tone—part of the prose is poetic, part stream-of-consciousness, sometimes affecting, sometimes stoic. This diminished the impact somewhat for me, but I still appreciated the sharp observation she makes here about race and privilege. It’s important for sure, I’m glad she lays it all out here especially as we need more literary voices from the indigenous community. Her writing can be incredible so I wouldn’t write her off in the future, but this memoir didn’t entirely jive for me as a reading experience. [Read ebook in April 2018.]

Educated by Tara Westover also came out in February this year, and it looked right up my alley. I’m always interested in reading about survivalists and off-the-grid living; I find it fascinating. And throw in an underdog story: the author discovers a deep love for learning and gets herself educated, despite the odds? Sign me up. It wasn’t the survivalist story I was expecting—the family has money, TV, phone—but it is an excellent portrayal of familial mental illness and abuse. I was confused as to how and where the family had money, and while her academic achievements are pretty incredible and unusual as I was reading it sort of seemed like she breezed through the traditional education system once she passed one test (ending up with advanced graduate degrees from Harvard and Cambridge). Here again is where memory can be tricky in a memoir. I would have liked more about her struggles adapting and adjusting to the traditional education system after no formal experiences. But maybe the book is actually less about her quest for an education than about growing up in a patriarchal, fundamentalist religious home and dealing with mental illness and abuse in the family. Educated would certainly be a great companion read to The Glass Castle. [Listened to audiobook in April 2018.]

mini-reviews: the recovering and everything is horrible and wonderful

I had planned on reviewing these two later/separately, but they’re related in dealing with addiction, I just finished both so they’re fresh in my mind, and I had very different reactions to them.

The Recovering by Leslie Jamison was getting a lot of attention in the book world before its publication this year, and alcoholism is a subject that effects me, so I was very curious about this one. I was only able to read about half of it as an ebook before my borrowing period expired. I waited a couple weeks before it came through my Libby app on audio and finished it up that way. I agree with reviewers that it’s too long; maybe this is two books in one. I think Jamison’s writing style is excellent and raw—she acknowledges both her demons and her privilege as a white, middle-class, highly educated and acclaimed woman. But it had some repetition during her memoir sections that came across as somewhat indulgent. There’s also a lot going on here aside from recounting her own experience with alcoholism and journey towards sobriety: literary history (stories of famous addicts, mostly writers), socioeconomic and political commentary (addicts viewed/treated as criminals, etc.), vignettes of other “normal” alcoholics’ stories, as well as a history of AA. This is a tough one to review. I wonder if I would have liked it better if it was just her own memoir? If it was just on the topic of creativity and addition? It’s interesting and well written and very readable (if dense). Just know what you’re getting into when you pick this up. [Read ebook/listened to audiobook in April–May 2018.]

In Everything is Horrible and WonderfulStephanie Wachs writes about her younger brother Harris Wittels: their upbringing and relationship, his drug addiction and untimely death at age 30 in 2015, and the aftermath of his death. He was a brilliant comedic mind who achieved notoriety as a writer and producer for Parks and Recreation and Comedy Bang Bang, as well as the person who recognized and coined the term “humblebrag.” This book, you guys. It’s more about a family’s experience with one member’s addiction than a straight-up biography of Harris, though it is a lovely tribute to him and his extraordinary life and accomplishments. I ugly-cried through the final chapters. I don’t think I’ve read anything before that so acutely describes the deep, fierce, singular bond between two close siblings. I completely identified with her feelings for her brother. I wouldn’t know who I am without him—being his sister is a huge part of my identity. I haven’t lost my sibling, but death certainly effects everyone and every family, so I understand the despondency and utter hell people go through when they lose a family member, especially when they are so young (we lost my cousin to a motorcycle accident when she was 19. It was horrible and still hurts.). But my brother… I’d be absolutely gutted. Your sibling is supposed to be your ultimate counterpart, your accomplice, your life-long partner in more ways than a parent, spouse, child, or friend ever could be. I’ve often said to my brother that we have more in common with each other on a molecular level than anyone else on the planet. He’s my soulmate. This book left me gutted. Wachs really takes you through what it feels like to love an addict with your whole being and all the worry, anger, fear, helplessness, and hope that goes along with that love, as well as the particular responsibility an older sister feels for a younger brother. She’s honest about her unrelenting grief and the utter nightmare she and her family have been through. I can’t recommend it enough; I’m sure it’ll be one of my top reads this year. [Read ebook in May 2018.]

darkness visible

I put William Styron’s Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness on hold a long time ago on the library app and it just came through this week. I wasn’t really interested anymore, but it’s so short I decided to go ahead. Edited from Goodreads:

A work of great personal courage and a literary tour de force, this bestseller is Styron’s true account of his descent into a crippling and almost suicidal depression. Styron is perhaps the first writer to convey the full terror of depression’s psychic landscape, as well as the illuminating path to recovery.

I think I probably should have skipped this. It’s not bad per se, and I certainly acknowledge depression as a serious illness, something that is complex and different for everyone who experiences it. However… Styron’s language didn’t really reach me here. It felt too intellectual and not very emotionally raw. He described his illness in rational, cold terms. I just felt kind of alienated from him and what he was going through because his language came off as pretentious to me. I get that perhaps (likely), since depression is different for everyone, there may not be words all the time to adequately describe what one goes through. But Styron’s a writer and doing so here. I don’t know much about Styron’s life or personal beliefs, but—and this is just me how I’m feeling at this moment in history—I’m not sure I needed to hear about the suffering of a privileged white man at this time. I don’t doubt Styron’s depression and I empathize with him. But yeah. When I logged this as “read” on Goodreads, I noticed that Darkness Visible started as a lecture, which makes much more sense than as a full-on memoir, as stated in the subtitle. My interest was piqued with his mention of literary and artistic greats afflicted with depression—I’d be interested in reading more on that. Darkness Visible just wasn’t for me.

Listened to audiobook in April 2018.

i’ll be gone in the dark

I’d been really looking forward to reading I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara since I first heard about it. I’m sure this would have been on my radar anyway even if McNamara hadn’t been married to a celebrity. I bought it the week it was published, and it will definitely be one that I recommend all year to true crime fans. From the book’s jacket:

A masterful true crime account of the Golden State Killer—the elusive serial rapist turned murderer who terrorized California for over a decade—from Michelle McNamara, a gifted journalist who died tragically while still writing and researching her debut book. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark offers a unique snapshot of suburban West Coast America in the 1980s, and a chilling account of the wreckage left behind by a criminal mastermind. It is also a portrait of one woman’s obsession and her unflagging pursuit of the truth, three decades later, in spite of the cost.

I had a little trouble focusing at first on reading this book (my problem at the time, no fault of the author or subject) but I ended up having a cold last week and reading was about all I could concentrate on. I devoured the majority of this one laid up sick in bed in just a couple of days. I have an interest in true crime—read or seen documentaries on Zodiac, Jack the Ripper, etc.—how could I not have heard of this guy before?

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is meticulously researched and completely immersive—one tip or piece of evidence leads to multiple threads to follow, and just when you think “this is the guy, they’ve got him,” he’s eliminated. I had to keep reminding myself he’s still at large (right now, in 2018), is frightening in itself. Is he still alive? Dead? Imprisoned for something else, but hasn’t had his DNA sampled? He’d be in his mid–late 60s right now. Why did he abruptly stop his reign of terror in 1986? I’m just sickened by the depths of his diabolical actions. The victims and their loved ones deserve justice. After reading this book, I’m confident McNamara’s tireless efforts will have played no small part in his capture.

McNamara was not only a relentless researcher but also a gifted, natural writer. She invited you to experience her process, come along on her frequent trips to the crime scenes, and listen in on her conversations with the victims and professional investigators both past and present. I’m impressed and grateful for the dedication of these officers of the law tirelessly investigating this case, no matter how seemingly fruitless the past few decades. McNamara makes sure that every person is real to you, including the GSK. Her incredible skill at suspenseful writing is illustrated in the way she describes the GSK’s horrific crimes without fetishizing or sensationalizing. You absolutely sense her empathy for the victims and their families, even the investigators whose lives have been consumed by the case, and her intense desire for the GSK to be brought to justice. For McNamara, it became personal—less a writing assignment than a mission.

Michelle McNamara was a brilliant, passionate writer and I was totally swept up in the emotional rollercoaster of her hunt for the Golden State Killer. It’s a thrilling, fascinating, and frustrating read, knowing this monster hasn’t been caught, and so tragic that Michelle died midway through writing it, way too young. I teared up reading the end of her husband’s afterword, and her strong sense of resolve and determination rubbed off on me in her own epilogue to the book, “Letter to an Old Man.” I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is just a really excellent piece of narrative true crime journalism. I don’t usually like to predict so early in the year, but this might end up being one of my best reads of 2018.

Read in April 2018.

the making of the godfather

Here’s another I borrowed on a whim from the Libby app! I’m fascinated by Italian-American mafia culture and stories, and The Godfather is one of my favorite movies (and II). I couldn’t pass up the chance for a little bit of the behind-the-scenes in this essay, The Making of the Godfather by Mario Puzo. Edited from Goodreads:

In this entertaining and insightful essay, Mario Puzo chronicles his rise from struggling writer to overnight success after the publication of The Godfather. With equal parts cynicism and humor, Puzo recounts the book deal and his experiences in Hollywood while writing the screenplay for the movie. Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Evans, Peter Bart, Marlon Brando, and Al Pacino all make appearances—as does Frank Sinatra, in his famous and disastrous encounter with Puzo. First published in 1972, the essay is now available as an ebook for the first time. A must-have for every Godfather fan! Featuring a foreword by Ed Falco, author of The Family Corleone.

I was slightly hesitant to even count this since it’s a long-form essay and not a book (not even a novella). But this was so delightful and it’s my blog so whatever. This essay is more like the beginning of getting the movie made (heh) from the book and his feelings on writing the book, not so much about the actual making of the movie(s). I really enjoyed this essay—Puzo had a great sense of humor! I loved his stories about his writing process and family life, as well as casting and signing on Francis Ford Coppola. This is a short review because the essay is so short, I think it was only about an hour and a half on audio. I’m sure there’s a treasure trove of even more stories out there; I only wish this was longer!

Listened to audiobook in March 2018.