Tag Archives: memoir

Hillbilly Elegy – J.D. Vance

Review (Amazon): From a former marine and Yale Law School graduate, a powerful account of growing up in a poor Rust Belt town that offers a broader, probing look at the struggles of America’s white working class

Hillbilly Elegy is a passionate and personal analysis of a culture in crisis—that of white working-class Americans. The decline of this group, a demographic of our country that has been slowly disintegrating over forty years, has been reported on with growing frequency and alarm, but has never before been written about as searingly from the inside. J. D. Vance tells the true story of what a social, regional, and class decline feels like when you were born with it hung around your neck.

The Vance family story begins hopefully in postwar America. J. D.’s grandparents were “dirt poor and in love,” and moved north from Kentucky’s Appalachia region to Ohio in the hopes of escaping the dreadful poverty around them. They raised a middle-class family, and eventually their grandchild (the author) would graduate from Yale Law School, a conventional marker of their success in achieving generational upward mobility.

But as the family saga of Hillbilly Elegy plays out, we learn that this is only the short, superficial version. Vance’s grandparents, aunt, uncle, sister, and, most of all, his mother, struggled profoundly with the demands of their new middle-class life, and were never able to fully escape the legacy of abuse, alcoholism, poverty, and trauma so characteristic of their part of America. Vance piercingly shows how he himself still carries around the demons of their chaotic family history.

A deeply moving memoir with its share of humor and vividly colorful figures, Hillbilly Elegy is the story of how upward mobility really feels. And it is an urgent and troubling meditation on the loss of the American dream for a large segment of this country.

My Review:

Executive Summary: Interesting

This story is an interesting glimpse into a section of America that not many people know about and even fewer understand. I include myself in that, and I grew up in nearby (to Ohio) Pennsylvania, 7 miles from the closest town whose population was around 1000 people. So you’d think I’d be familiar, but not really. In fact, a guy I work with was born and spent his early years near where I grew up, but he moved to Middletown (where most of the book is set) and spent the rest of his childhood there. He said there was (he’s in his 60s) a huge difference between the folks who emigrated from Kentucky, like the author’s family, and those who didn’t. He mentioned too that they didn’t call them hillbillies; they called them briar hoppers.

J.D.’s family was a bunch of rabble rousers from Jackson, Kentucky. It seems like most people from there were the same rough crowd, although endearing in their own way. Everyone knows everyone and has for a long time so people are friendly and nice to each other, but cross one of them, and they legitimately might kill you. So you can see how moving to Ohio (where not everyone has the “take God into your own hands” attitude) in search of better opportunities can prove challenging.

J.D. made it work though, seemingly partly by accident or luck, but he had some moments where his family made it work. His most constant family were his grandparents, although when they were parents, they were pretty terrible. Due to their alcoholism and fighting, J.D.’s mom was not set up for success. The other two children seemed to be fine enough, but J.D.’s mother never really got it together. Despite being smart enough to get a nursing certificate and at moments of lucidity, to stress to J.D. and his sister how important school was, a series of shitty boyfriends, fights, addictions, and job losses did not put her into a position to be a remotely decent mother.

Between his sister and his recovered grandparents, J.D. manages to graduate high school, and enrolls at Ohio State. However, he can’t bring himself to go. He’s nervous about all of the costs, and leaving his family, and just everything about it. So he decides to do the Marine Corps (still has to leave his family). Mamaw doesn’t think he’s making the right choice, but he does his 4 years in the Marines and comes back to go to Ohio State. (Reading the book, the author does mention advantages of going to the military but when he goes to Ohio State, he’s still doing stupid things like taking out payday loans or showing up for interviews wearing army fatigues). He packs his schedule full of classes and graduates in record time and then starts applying for law school.

He doesn’t initially apply to any top tier schools, but after realizing that law degrees from those sort of schools give you jobs as waitresses, he reconsiders and applies to Yale. He is accepted and even pays less than he would have at a less esteemed school. But it’s a huge culture shock that is entertaining but a little sad to read. Luckily classes there are small and he has fellow students and teachers (specifically one in particular) who helps him find his way. At the end of the day, he graduates, and he and his wife take jobs in Cincinnati. He still has a challenging relationship with his mother, but a good one with those who had continually supported him–his sister and some of his aunts and uncles. Hopefully we see more to come from him in the future.

Verdict: 3.5 Stars

Overall I thought the story was interesting. It was fairly cohesive and provides a glimpse into a life that most of us (thankfully including myself) never experience. I did feel like the story dragged a bit once J.D. goes to the marines and then back to Ohio State, but all in all, the stories of his upbringing and challenges go a long way to explanations. However, I felt like the conclusion was a little weak. Not that I expected the author to “solve the problem”, but I left wanting more of a conclusion. It could have been  “here are ways to help” or more social activism from him (a website which has political candidates to follow or laws/bills to support), but instead, it ended on a little bit of a neutral. Overall though, definitely would recommend.

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Hedy’s Folly – Richard Rhodes

 Summary (Amazon): Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Rhodes delivers a remarkable story of science history: how a ravishing film star and an avant-garde composer invented spread-spectrum radio, the technology that made wireless phones, GPS systems, and many other devices possible.

Beginning at a Hollywood dinner table, Hedy’s Folly tells a wild story of innovation that culminates in U.S. patent number 2,292,387 for a “secret communication system.” Along the way Rhodes weaves together Hollywood’s golden era, the history of Vienna, 1920s Paris, weapons design, music, a tutorial on patent law and a brief treatise on transmission technology. Narrated with the rigor and charisma we’ve come to expect of Rhodes, it is a remarkable narrative adventure about spread-spectrum radio’s genesis and unlikely amateur inventors collaborating to change the world.

My Review:

Executive Summary: zzzzzzz

Holy cow was this book boring. I was really excited about reading this because I’m an engineer myself, and I thought it would be really interesting. Unfortunately, no.

Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil worked together during WW2 to create a patent for a radio frequency hopping torpedo, the technology from which helped form things we use today like GPS and wireless technology. Sounds cool, right? And Hedy Lamarr is a famous movie star, the most beautiful woman in the world. And George Antheil, who you maybe have never heard about (I hadn’t), wrote an autobiography called The Bad Boy of Music so he has to be cool (or at least crazy and therefore interesting). Somehow a Pulitzer Prize winning author managed to turn this story into something less interesting than reading a phone book.

Hedy was born in Austria to progressive parents. She dropped out of school to pursue theater and star in a risque German movie. She married Friedrich Mandl, who was involved in munitions during WWI. He forbade her to continue acting, and eventually she had had enough, left him, and moved to Paris. There she met the head of MGM who encouraged her to move to Hollywood.

Through a mutual friend, Hedy and George meet and begin to realize the joining of their skills could be very useful. George spent many years trying to figure out a way to join player pianos together to create a sort of orchestra. Hedy spent time listening in on munitions secrets of her first husband’s. Together they realize that they can come up with a design for a frequency hopping torpedo which cannot be jammed. They apply for the patent which is filed as secret and is sent to the Navy, who decides not to implement it. In the 1970s, it gets revived and is used to progress computer technology leading to wireless, cellular phones, GPS and more although no money ever trickles down to either original inventor as the patent has expired by that time. In 1997, posthumously for George, they are given an award from the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Verdict: 2.5 stars

As a memoir, also specifically titled to Hedy, you’d expect her to be the star of the book, when in fact, upon finishing, I knew almost the same about her as when I started. Over half the book talks about Antheil, which while fair since he is the co-author of the patent, was not in any way alluded to by the title of the book. And it is strange that the author spent more time talking about Antheil and the patent itself than he did about Hedy. Basically, I expected and wanted this to be a book about a powerful woman inventor, and it spent more time on her male lecherous partner. Fail.

 

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Wild – Cheryl Strayed

IMG_2563Summary (Amazon): At twenty-two, Cheryl Strayed thought she had lost everything. In the wake of her mother’s death, her family scattered and her own marriage was soon destroyed. Four years later, with nothing more to lose, she made the most impulsive decision of her life. With no experience or training, driven only by blind will, she would hike more than a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State—and she would do it alone. Told with suspense and style, sparkling with warmth and humor, Wild powerfully captures the terrors and pleasures of one young woman forging ahead against all odds on a journey that maddened, strengthened, and ultimately healed her.

My Review (Spoilers!!)

Executive Summary:  sad

I started this book 3 months ago. I borrowed the electronic copy from the library and it had approximately 368,274 holds on it. Of course when my name came up in the list, it was the weekend that I was moving houses, and I did not get it finished before it went back to position number 368,275 on the list! I recently acquired it again, and this time, I finished it! I wish I could say it was worth it.

I thought this book was miserable, and I know I’m greatly in the minority. While I thought it was a decent story, I thought it was crippled by it as well. I thought I was going to be reading a story about a strong, independent woman overcoming adversity and grabbing life by the horns along the PCT (Pacific Crest Trail). Instead, what I got was a story about someone fully unable to grow up, deal with life and the grief that comes with it who decides that the way to solve this problem is to hike the PCT despite having never hiked before and doing approximately 0 research in preparation.

I partly liked but also partly disliked the telling of the story–the “present” story of hiking the trail is intertwined with stories from the past. It does help the story flow a little better, but it feels almost as though Cheryl spends no time reflecting in the woods.

Cheryl Strayed is the author of this autobiographical book, and she was 22 in 1991 when her mother passed away from lung cancer. Strayed grew up especially poor, with her mother, stepfather, brother and sister. They lived in extreme rural Minnesota in a home they built themselves. When her mother died, Strayed’s world dissolved. She isolated herself from her family and her husband (who in fairness, and I am not a proponent for young marriage, seemed like the best person). She murders her mother’s horse because she couldn’t really be bothered and was in such grief. (This is 3 years after her mother dies). I’m not sure what the point of this part of the story was, but it came off really psychopathic. And I did grow up in the country and I understand putting animals to sleep. I don’t understand having absolutely no emotion about the animal that your mother loved most.

Strayed then moves to Oregon and gets involved in drugs and the people who use them. Particularly a guy named Joe who she can’t seem to break free from. Her friend Lisa calls her still-husband Paul to try to have him convince Cheryl to get it together, but it is basically completely unsuccessful. He takes her back to Minnesota but she still somehow continues to see Joe and use drugs. And then she finds out that she is pregnant. It’s at this point when she decides that she is going to get an abortion that she also decides that she should hike the PCT. The abortion is so glazed over in this book that it’s like it never happened. And maybe that’s honest. But it seems like the sentence “I got an abortion and learned how to make dehydrated tuna flakes and turkey jerky…” should never go together.

So Strayed decides to pull herself out of her self-made terrible life by divorcing her husband and hiking the PCT. It’s 1995. I remember the Internet in 1995. I was a freshman in high school. It was an email machine, and barely more. However, Strayed doesn’t even seem to try. She overpacks, underplans, and is quite frankly very lucky that she did not end up dead. She tries to sleep with every man she encounters on the trail which doesn’t seem like very great self-reflection. When she finally gets to Oregon, very near to the end of the trail, she does drugs with a man in a van and then goes off to a compound to have sex with a stranger.

At the end of the trail, she eats an ice cream cone, talks to a man in a BMW and then is suddenly “cured” of all her grief and bad ways. Um?

Verdict: 3 stars

I just could not get into this book at all. I really disliked the main character the entire time for being such a heartless megalomaniacal idiot. When she wasn’t nearly dying, she was too busy trying to get laid that she couldn’t see the rattlesnake in front of her. And then she was nearly dying again. It was just such a depressing “woe is me” story that it really overwhelmed any story about hiking. I thought the ending was telling as it didn’t actually say what happened to her. It jumped years and years into the future to say that she was OK and go into a few of the other people she met on the trail. But it suggests to me that she didn’t actually get what she needed out of her journey, and she wasn’t “cured” at the end of it. That it took many more years to get to where she needed.

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Let’s Pretend This Never Happened – Jenny Lawson

photo(13)Book Description (Amazon): When Jenny Lawson was little, all she ever wanted was to fit in. That dream was cut short by her fantastically unbalanced father and a morbidly eccentric childhood. It did, however, open up an opportunity for Lawson to find the humor in the strange shame-spiral that is her life, and we are all the better for it.
In the irreverent Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, Lawson’s long-suffering husband and sweet daughter help her uncover the surprising discovery that the most terribly human moments—the ones we want to pretend never happened—are the very same moments that make us the people we are today. For every intellectual misfit who thought they were the only ones to think the things that Lawson dares to say out loud, this is a poignant and hysterical look at the dark, disturbing, yet wonderful moments of our lives.

My Review (Spoilers!):

Executive Summary: amusing

My best friend lent me this book to read. I was moderately familiar with The Bloggess so I was pretty excited to read it. As we learned from our book club*, funny books are pretty difficult to write, and in general I found this one to be pretty funny.

Jenny Lawson was born in Austin, Texas, but moved to Wall, Texas at age 3. Their high school yearbook was titled “Where’s Wall?” which honestly I can completely relate to because I grew up about 10 miles from town (and that town has a whopping 2000 people). So a lot of the “funny stories about growing up in the middle of nowhere” rang really true to me.

However, let’s be clear. I grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania. We had running water that wasn’t poisonous and basic amenities unless you were Amish, like my neighbors, and chose not to have those. My father didn’t hunt (but basically everyone else I knew did), and he didn’t own a taxidermy shop. So I guess there is some difference between small towns after all.

Jenny recalls a series of exceedingly unique childhood events including running into a partially cleaned deer (gross), having poisonous tap water (terrifying), having pet wild animals (my sister’s friend had a pet raccoon and it was awesome), and having a taxidermist as a father (seems a bit counter-intuitive to the previous point). The two latter points though appear frequently throughout the book.

Like when her dad brought home a dead squirrel that he hid in a Ritz cracker box and used like a puppet to try to convince the girls that it was a magic squirrel.

Or like when her father brought home a bunch of turkeys (but he thought they were quails) that followed the girls to school and pooped in the cafeteria.

The book is really a series of unrelated short stories. Most of them are pretty funny, and at least some of them you can read on her blog (I had read about the metal chicken as well as some of her taxidermy acquisitions on there). The general gist of things is that Jenny is a person with a pretty unusual childhood (especially to most people), a social anxiety disorder, and a marvelously colorful family. Due to basically only those 3 things, she encountered some unusual situations and made the best of them–by creating a blog/writing a book to share the humor of them with others.

I did find it interesting that a few of those embarrassments (growing up in a small town and having a dad for a taxidermist) she later fully embraced. She moved from Houston to a small town to raise her daughter, and as an adult, she started becoming interested in collecting taxidermy (albeit taxidermy wearing funny costumes). There’s probably some sort of psychological explanation there, but I don’t dabble in that. 🙂

Verdict: 3.5 stars

Like I said, the book is funny, and that is a pretty major feat. However, none of the stories are that related to each other (aside from the fact that they all happened to the same person), and often times, they are completely unrelated. Like there was a chapter in which her dog died, and then in the next chapter, he was alive again. (He was not a zombie; the chapters were simply out of order.) She did make a note about it partway through the second chapter, but it was still confusing. To read a book like this is a bit exhausting. Especially in the way that I did which was straight through (I was on a plane). I think if I had read it like I read blogs, one story each day, it wouldn’t have felt so overwhelming. That being said, if you like taxidermy and general peculiarity, certainly check out her blog. It is really funny. (Also I learned that most people believe that cats are immune to scorpions, however, it is probably more likely that cats just can detect and avoid being stung by a scorpion better than people can.)

*Our book club had a comedy/funny category last year (2013) where we read Bossypants. We determined that it was too difficult to find funny books that would appeal to everyone that we axed that category for 2014, substituting literary fiction instead.

 

 

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Lean In – Sheryl Sandberg

photo(10)

Book Description (Amazon): Thirty years after women became 50 percent of the college graduates in the United States, men still hold the vast majority of leadership positions in government and industry. This means that women’s voices are still not heard equally in the decisions that most affect our lives. In Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg examines why women’s progress in achieving leadership roles has stalled, explains the root causes, and offers compelling, commonsense solutions that can empower women to achieve their full potential.

My Review (Spoilers!):

Executive Summary: motivating

I definitely found this book to be worthwhile. I like the candor with which Sandberg writes her stories. I definitely related to nearly all the book—if not directly myself, with others around me in the workplace (or in life). The book is structured so that each chapter is essentially its own topic, so I will sort of go through them one by one.

1. The Leadership Ambition Gap: What Would You Do if You Weren’t Afraid?

This chapter is a discussion into why women (girls too as most children show this propensity) don’t have the ambition to be leaders. There are a lot of possibilities for this which Sandberg alludes to in various anecdotes including that women are always set up for it (Smart like Daddy. Pretty like Mommy.) or that women are afraid of being disliked (don’t want to be called “aggressive” or “bossy”) or that women give up on leadership because it’s too difficult to be a working mother or they have been burnt out from years of inequity. In the end though, Sandberg makes the point that while all of these things contribute to the issues, the real issue is that women often don’t “lean in” and lead because they are too afraid.

2. Sit at the Table

The main point of this chapter was that women are afraid to “sit at the table”. Seems obvious. But women are more likely to sit on the fringe of the meeting than feel justified to sit at the table with the men. This is related to the fact that women are more likely to put down or undermine their accomplishments. They are also less likely to take on new positions (citing that they are not qualified or need more time in their current position), and they are less likely to ask questions in class. I have the tendency to sit on the fringe of meetings—although I would like to think that I only do that when the meetings only sort of relate to me. I did learn as a child to accept my accomplishments. I had a teacher who instilled that into me claiming that most smart students tend to hide their intelligence to “fit in”. She was one of the best teachers I had. I think that everyone (male and female), needs to learn how to graciously accept and promote their accomplishments. Don’t make excuses. Just say thank you when someone compliments you. Take credit for your work and good ideas.  Take an opportunity when it is given to you. Also the “fake it until you make it” is a good suggestion. You can fake confidence, and there are times when you should. (Never did Sandberg go into the situation that I had at work where you never are provided an opportunity but you see it offered to all the men around you…but that’s another story. Perhaps I should write my own book.)

3. Success and Likeability

For the most part, this chapter annoyed me. Maybe it’s because I have a very blasé opinion of being liked. Frankly, I don’t care if people like me or not. I try to be true to myself and not phony and inevitably, there will be others with whom I become friends. I think it’s a skill that more people should have. And really, it’s like that fable of the old man, young man, and the donkey. You can’t please everyone no matter how hard you try. You just need to be true to yourself and be able to justify your actions. However, the research that was provided about Heidi vs. Harold really blew my mind and really made me disappointed in society. In 2003, a Columbia Business School professor gave his class a case about an entrepreneur and the class was to determine how capable and likeable (as a colleague) the entrepreneur would be. However, the twist was that in half the class, the entrepreneur was named Heidi. In the other half, he was Harold. On the positive, both were deemed to be equally competent. However, Harold was much more likeable. Heidi came off as “selfish”. Not cool.

4. It’s a Jungle Gym, Not a Ladder

For the most part, I think this chapter is pretty obvious. You need to be willing to take lateral moves or potentially downward moves to get to the position that you want. The position needs to have a potential for growth and sometimes you reach the top rung of your “ladder” and there is nowhere to go but over. Sometimes there is a better opportunity out there, or sometimes the position that you are in isn’t right for you. It’s ok to change. Change is good. I do like the idea of the 18 month plan. I stopped setting extremely long term goals a while back and started setting goals for about a 5 year plan. That way I am able to work on something to get me to that next position. If I change my mind about what I want to do in 5 years, then I just adjust my path. It works better for me and makes it less overwhelming. The chapter can be summarized by this: taking risks, choosing growth, challenging ourselves, and asking for promotions are important elements in managing a career.

5. Are You My Mentor?

This chapter surprised me in a way that I didn’t expect to be surprised. I have been one to lament the fact that I do not have a mentor at work. Sandberg suggests that many women probably do have mentors but it is not necessary to have someone who is officially “your mentor”. Usually the mentor chooses the mentee and while it is a compliment to ask someone to be your mentor, it puts them in a really uncomfortable position. Perhaps they don’t have the time and then have to turn you down. Luckily I never went so far as to ask someone to be my mentor, but I know now that I at least have a few people who I could count as mentors, even if they don’t know it. I do wish Sandberg had also discussed role models along with this but alas, she did not.

6. Seek and Speak Your Truth

This chapter is kind of a “duh!” chapter in that the main point is that effective communication is a big deal. Well, obviously. However, Sandberg gives some good examples of it and also shows how companies can alter their communication channels to be friendlier to women. For example, many men are reluctant to have “closed door conversations” with women. This is harmful to women’s career growth since in many cases, the higher ups are men. Adjustments need to be made to handle this more fairly so that it stops being the “good old boys’ club”. A few other key points—sometimes effective communication involves more listening than speaking. It’s OK to show emotion at work and talk about the tough issues. You can’t ever fully leave your personal life at home. Your brain doesn’t work that way.

7. Don’t Leave Before You Leave

Basically don’t plan your whole life when you don’t know where it is going to take you. Sandberg reveals story after story of women forgoing fulfilling careers and job opportunities within their own careers because one day, they might have a family. I agree that I have always thought about this in the back of my mind, but recently I have stopped thinking about it at all. I figure if I change my mind and decide to have children, I will worry about it then. And we will figure it out—both my husband and me.

8. Make Your Partner a Real Partner

My husband loved this chapter. Ok he hasn’t read the book (yet) but I sent him the statistic that said “The risk of divorce lessens by half when a wife earns half the income and a husband does half the housework.” He asked me if that was a threat. I then proceeded to tell him that men with mothers who stayed home were less likely to help with the housework. I said I was pulling my end of the bargain. Didn’t he care about our marriage? (I am joking. My husband helps with the chores and the cats and my mental sanity! He’s great.) Basically, Sandberg is encouraging you to have a partner who is also your champion. I think that’s a good goal for anyone.

9. The Myth of Doing It All

Sandberg references the section in Bossy Pants where Tina Fey is constantly asked how she manages it all. Basically Sandberg and Fey come up with the same conclusions. You prioritize and you manage what you want. You may not know the names of every kid in your child’s class, but your children have their homework done and are dressed for school. Stop being a perfectionist. No one has to do it all.

10. Let’s Start Talking About It

Ignoring an issue doesn’t make it go away. We need to be feminists and embrace that word. Feminism isn’t evil. It’s working towards equality for all. A lot of times, these gender issues are so ingrained into peoples’ subconscious that they don’t even realize that they are doing them. It’s important to bring those to people’s attention in a way that will promote change. This may be the (second) most important point in the book, but I think it’s also the most difficult (but I think it still can and needs to be done).

11. Working Together Toward Equality

Yes, yes, a billion times yes!!! Women need to step it up and start enabling each other, and start appreciating our differences. Who cares if you’re a stay at home mom, or a career woman, or both, or something different than any of those. We aren’t all the same, so we shouldn’t be treated the same. What works for me probably doesn’t work for you (and vice versa). And building upon that, when you have the opportunity to help another woman, for goodness sake, do it! Our future depends upon it.

Verdict: 4 stars

I asked for this book for my birthday because the library had about 300 holds on the copies that they have of it. So you know that you’re on to something notable. I think Sandberg did a good job presenting a non-fiction book of a sticky topic that got you excited but not so frustrated (aka she showed examples of inequity alongside examples where women were successful). She is honest and frank about her own shortcomings and successes (although I’m not sure she fully takes her own advice from Ch. 2 on this) which I think makes her relatable. At the same time though, it’s not an epic story with a lot of new information. And there are some questions of her narrowcasting a bit based on her own experience. But the fact that the book is popular and she is getting people talking about these issues easily warrants 4 stars in my book. It definitely gave me some things to think about with regards to my own career. (Also, I loved the story about the working mom forgetting to pack her kids’ lunch and ordering a pizza to be sent to their school. Best.Mom.Ever.)

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Brooklyn, NY: A Grim Retrospective–Jerry Castaldo (A Memoir)

photo(6)Book Description (Amazon):

This explosive autobiographical volume is a gripping account of entertainer Jerry Castaldo growing up on the mean streets of Brooklyn, NY, his agonizing descent into the darkness of the city’s underbelly and his desperate struggle back to normalcy.

Celebrated NY Post columnist, author and playwright Chip Deffaa edited this dark, yet highly inspirational story.

My Review (Spoilers):

Executive Summary: Dark

This book was chosen for our biography/autobiography category. We chose it due to its length, which while I realize sounds a bit silly for a book club. It’s simply just too hard for a lot of people to crank through a 500+ page book in a month. And most biographies or autobiographies are easily that length.

This book has nearly a perfect 5 star rating on Amazon, but yet if you look on wikipedia for the author, there is no article. Nothing of him as a writer or as a performer. The book was a bit of an enigma.

The story begins when Jerry is 16 and goes essentially until he is 31. And then there is a small chapter at the end which is current (2010). Jerry grew up in Brooklyn back when it wasn’t full of hipsters. However for the book being titled “Brooklyn, NY…”, it talks very little about the city itself. I was actually expecting somewhat of a memoir of the city, which I guess indirectly it was. Jerry is a bad kid. He grew up with a disabled, poor mother and a father who was never around. He stopped going to school in the 8th grade and slowly slipped into a live of crime and drugs. (There is a bit of a note at the beginning of the book where the author says that he has always been a good person. He started as one and returned to one but life essentially got in the way.)

He eventually gets too deep into trouble with too many of the wrong people and decides to enlist in the US Army and is shipped off to Germany. I found the thought of smoking joints in the airplane bathroom just absolutely incredible. If you did something like that these days, you’d be in big trouble. When he first arrives, he’s on the straight and narrow but eventually he relapses (a common theme of the book). He totals his car (another common theme) on the Autobahn and is taken to jail. While in jail, he pretends to commit suicide and is taken to a psych hospital. This temporarily helps him with his mental health but most importantly, it means he is not dishonorably discharged so he keeps his VA benefits.

Back in the US, he proceeds with a sine curve of life. He gets a job, he gets some money, he falls back into drugs and alcohol and loses everything. Over and over and over. He’s obviously a very bright individual as he scored well on the entry tests to get into the Army and was placed in a desk job. He at one point is the top flight attendant in his class. He worked on Wall Street. He seems to be an autodidact as it was mentioned a few times about how much he read, especially when he wanted to learn something. I think that the intelligence actually was part of his issue. He thought that he could just out-smart his addiction, and continued to try to “white knuckle” the recovery.

The two jobs that he keeps coming back to are personal training and performing. He meets a wide variety of important people through these jobs from political figures to celebrities, some of whom he initially has great rapport (like Jerry Seinfeld). Inevitably he relapses, and they shun him to protect their own investments. His long term girlfriend Mary Lou eventually left him which might have been part of the catalyst to wake up and smell the roses. After she left him, he took the job as the flight attendant from which he was eventually fired. He then moved to Mexico to work on a resort (could there really be a worse place for a semi-recovering addict). He was sent home from that after a gross story involving diarrhea in a swimming pool (seriously, yuck). He landed on his feet yet once again working as a personal trainer at an exclusive club (Friars Club) for performers.  Like all other jobs, it was straight uphill and straight back down again.

On a somewhat insignificant date, November 1, he decided to go to a place that had been recommended to him by a concerned ER doctor. It was a center for addiction, specifically in Jerry’s case, AA. He began with one meeting and continued for over a year. 20 years later, he is still sober and working as an entertainer. He’s not famous (aka the lack of wikipedia article) but he does have a website and based on that, it seems like he does a lot of smaller events and does OK for himself.

Verdict: 4 stars

Even though this is not a book I would have chosen on my own (best thing about book club, imo), I think that for this type of book, it is by far the best I have read.

I actually really enjoyed the writing style of this book. I felt it suited the story well. Every chapter was titled with the year, how old that he was, and what the #1 song was. I’m not totally sure the relevance of the song, but I enjoyed that addition. The paragraphs were choppy, but in a way that worked. The book, only 200 pages to cover 15 years, was direct and to the point. He never sugar coated the bad things that he did, and the justification that he provided for them was always worded in a way that you knew that he only felt that way at the time (not in hindsight).

I don’t know a lot about addiction. While it runs in my family, it does not run in me at all. I don’t think I have ever been addicted to anything in my entire life (except perhaps sleep). So for me, it was interesting to read about someone who obviously was fully crippled by an addiction and quite candid about it. I found the justification parts specifically to be interesting. Early in the book, he mentions that he does bad things such as stealing because he wants to stick it to the man for making him poor when other people weren’t poor. I think maybe he was just addicted to the high he got from stealing and doing bad things with his friends. (Maybe someone should have Latarian read this book). Later in life, Jerry’s justification had changed probably because his social status had as well. Now it was that he could stop at any time. He had the willpower. He just enjoyed it. He just had a bad day.

I did find it a bit surprising how the book ended. He just woke up one day and decided that it was time to change. There wasn’t any one obvious reason, and it wasn’t as though he had been fired from other jobs many times before. Perhaps it was that one specific job. Perhaps it was a lifetime of accumulation. Who knows. I am glad that he got the help he needed and got back on his feet. Also being 31 myself, it was a little rewarding to think that your life can begin from now and be successful.

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Filed under 4 stars, Book Club, Book Review

Bossypants – Tina Fey

Book Description (Amazon):photo(3)

Before Liz Lemon, before “Weekend Update,” before “Sarah Palin,” Tina Fey was just a young girl with a dream: a recurring stress dream that she was being chased through a local airport by her middle-school gym teacher. She also had a dream that one day she would be a comedian on TV.

She has seen both these dreams come true.

At last, Tina Fey’s story can be told. From her youthful days as a vicious nerd to her tour of duty on Saturday Night Live; from her passionately halfhearted pursuit of physical beauty to her life as a mother eating things off the floor; from her one-sided college romance to her nearly fatal honeymoon — from the beginning of this paragraph to this final sentence.

Tina Fey reveals all, and proves what we’ve all suspected: you’re no one until someone calls you boss.

My Review:
Executive Summary: unexpected (not necessarily in the good way)

We chose this book for the “comedy” category for book club. I was really excited to read it as I had heard a lot of good things. I’m (was) a casual viewer of 30 Rock, and I catch SNL from time to time (but haven’t watched it regularly since the 90s).

The book has an unusual set up and such can feel very disjointed. It wasn’t until about halfway through the book that I really started to get into it. It basically has one chapter on one subject topic followed by a few pages of “humor” and then repeated throughout the book. The chapters aren’t necessarily in chronological order nor are they connected in any way besides having happened to Tina Fey.

I didn’t find the stories about her childhood that entertaining or really that memorable. I was unaware that she had a facial scar (prob due to plastic surgery and photoshop) so that chapter was interesting, but it felt so nonchalant. I actually looked online to verify that it wasn’t just a joke. Even though I’m not a lot younger than Tina, I think that growing up in a more liberal household might have made a lot of difference. I had gay friends in high school, so the chapters about how weird it was hanging out with “the gays” in theater wasn’t something that I really related to. They weren’t weird or different to me. Just other friends.

Another thing that I didn’t enjoy was the discussions about looks. My assumption is that because Tina Fey is an atypical looking female celebrity, she must get asked about it a lot by vapid reporters. I get that she was trying to make the point that looks don’t really matter. But by drawing attention to it, she made it more apparent that they do.

But there were chapters that I enjoyed. I enjoyed the chapter about her dad. That was probably the only chapter in the first section of the book that I found interesting. And it explains a lot about her, I think.

About halfway through the book, the chapters become slightly more connected and start dealing with her life as a “grown up” (in age only perhaps 🙂 ) starting with her job at SNL. This is where I thought it got a lot more interesting. Specifically there were a few stories that I thought were really great that I’m going to summarize.

First, I found the part about the SNL commercials to be really a good story about bias and the importance of communication. Essentially, having one of the faux commercials for SNL is a big honor. They’re not filmed live and are filmed with better quality equipment so they can be kept and reused for future episodes. Apparently this was back when “Coca Cola Classic” (my mother still calls it that despite the fact that you can’t get any other coke except classic now) happened and marketers were trying to make nostalgia trendy again. Tina and Paula Pell (who actually wrote the commercial) were pushing for a throwback maxi-pad commercial showing the old 1960s maxis with the belt and everything poking out from some girls’ low rise jeans. Their commercial kept getting not selected, and finally because they were pushing so much on it, the producers sat them down and were like, “We realize that you think this is funny, so it must be, but we simply just do not understand it.” These men had no idea what maxi pads were like in the 60s and once it was finally explained to them (and the fact that you wouldn’t see blood in the commercial lol), they agreed to make that commercial. Basically sometimes when you think people are just being racist/sexist/biased against you, they might just not understand you. Ah, the power of communication. (Side note, I was explaining this to my husband and he didn’t realize that modern day maxi pads have a sticky side to keep them in place. So it’s pretty good likelihood that men just do not care to know about feminine hygiene products. I cannot say that I blame them.)

I really enjoyed the section where Tina talks about playing Sarah Palin. I found it really fascinating. From the bits about her studying Sarah’s dialect (and avoiding words she couldn’t quite get right) to the discussion of how Tina was berated for making fun of Sarah (although the male actors who played presidential candidates never were). I enjoyed the discussion of the skit that had “Sarah” and “Hillary” juxtaposing two different women off of each other and poking fun at the things that were said about them. No one wants a woman who is powerful and masculine seeming like Hillary, but no one also wants one who is stupid and pretty like Sarah. I actually saw that skit live, and reading about it in the book, I realized that there was a lot more to it than I had realized when I first watched it. I guess that’s the power of comedy. I also felt a little ashamed that I always enjoyed the episodes where the actual character (in this case, the real Sarah Palin) comes onto the show with the fake character. Apparently in comedy they hate that.

The last bit that I really liked was the discussion of breast feeding. Specifically, all women who have at least one child are an expert and if you don’t do it the way they did it, then obviously you aren’t doing it right. I have found this the case with women in general. (I don’t have children and I don’t really intend to so I don’t know about the breast feeding) but women tend to be very judgmental of other women. Not only for their looks but also for their life choices. I am a firm believer in only giving your opinion when you are asked for it. And I am also a firm believer in bringing other women up rather than pushing them down. I work in a very male-heavy industry, and I know that I am not competing against the other women. I am competing against everyone, and since there are more men, and it’s an old school industry, I’m more so competing against men (and “the man”). So it makes no sense for me to sabotage other women to get ahead. I hope they get ahead too, so I have someone to talk about feminine hygiene products with. (JK, that’s a bit gross). I also try very hard to not be judgmental of people who have chosen other paths than I have. It is hard for me sometimes, but I do my best. I think more women should do the same. If we were all the same, wouldn’t the world be boring?

Lastly, I grew up a few miles off of Interstate 80 in western Pennsylvania. So the story about bringing all the country relatives to the big city struck home for me. I’m not sure everyone else appreciated this chapter as much as I did. But my point of reference made that part pretty funny.

Verdict: 3.5 stars
Honestly, I would rank the first part of the book like a 2.5 or 3. I did not really get into it or like it. The last part, I would easily rank a 4. I thought there were interesting stories and good points made in the book. I didn’t know much about Tina Fey before this book (I don’t follow celebrities. I have my own life to worry about.) which I think was good. It made the stories new to me. I do think that reading the book made me appreciate her more, and I am interested to see what her path is now that 30 Rock is over.

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Filed under 3.5 stars, Book Club, Book Review, Books