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text 2017-06-14 04:16
Manic by Terri Cheney
Manic: A Memoir - Terri Cheney

This is an intense memoir by a lawyer with bipolar disorder. Terry Cheney is very smart and successful but also very ill, and this book throws the reader into some awful experiences from page one – where she’s manic, determined to kill herself, and momentarily thwarted in her suicide plan when she’s locked out of her apartment; she unintentionally flirts with the locksmith, who sexually assaults her and then saves her life. Not all events in the book are this extreme, of course, but it is a memoir of how Cheney’s illness shaped her adult life: her most out-of-control highs and suicidal lows, her many attempts at treatment (with varying success), her fraught relationships and struggles to maintain a normal façade at work.

It is a harrowing ride, but the most horrifying episodes are the ones in which the author winds up “in the system,” and in parts of the system with the least excuse for their failings. In one chapter, a traffic stop leads to an arrest and ultimately a beating by police; in another, she overdoses and is briefly committed to a facility where patients receive some of the most dehumanizing treatment imaginable (how this is meant to prevent suicide is unclear). The book doesn’t get into policy arguments, but if this is what happens to someone who carries most privileges that exist in American society (an educated, well-off, gender-conforming, attractive white woman), then somehow either most people in the author’s position must be treated even more abominably or we have conceived the notion that mental illness abrogates one’s humanity. Yikes.

At any rate, Cheney’s writing is clear, direct and compelling, pulling the reader right into her life, and the book is a quick read. The organization is deliberately jumbled, and for the most part this works, creating a sense of immediacy and disorientation. It does have a minor drawback, which is that each chapter needs an independent justification for its inclusion: in a few of them not too much happens, or we see something the author has already shown in a slightly different context. But it is a fairly short book and the chapters do fit together into a larger whole.

(Actually the oddest thing, to me, was that the relationships the author describes in her acknowledgements are so absent from the text. Most jarring was the glowing thanks to her mother, who appears nowhere in the book despite the many personal and family crises depicted. I’d concluded that either she was dead or they were estranged. Maybe this would make more sense if I'd read Cheney’s other book.)

Other readers have pointed out that Cheney is privileged and a snob. This is true and she acknowledges it, in some ways clinging to status symbols as a defense mechanism. But the book isn’t about issues of poverty or race, and I did not find these traits to permeate the writing or otherwise affect my experience of it in the way I expected after reading reviews.

Anyway, this book is well-written and intense and brutally honest; it both draws the reader directly into the author’s experiences and explains those experiences, all while telling a gripping story. I recommend it.

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review 2017-06-12 05:11
Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Infidel - Ayaan Hirsi Ali

This is a fascinating memoir from an impressive author. Ayaan Hirsi Ali was born in Somalia; just a generation before, her family were nomadic herders. She spent her early years in Somalia before her father’s political involvement forced the family to flee; she and her siblings spent their teenage years in Kenya, where the author briefly joined the Muslim Brotherhood while her mother longed for the “pure” Islam of Saudi Arabia. Her family was troubled to say the least, though she doesn’t quite seem to blame either of her parents. As the region became even less stable in the early 90s, her father decided to save her by arranging her an unwanted marriage, at age 22, to a Somali man in Canada seeking a traditional Somali wife. But the author managed to escape and claim asylum in Holland, where she worked, educated herself and went to college for political science. Her intellectual awakening distanced her from Islam, and she eventually became a member of Parliament, promoting rights for Muslim women and a greater integration of immigrants into Dutch society. Proving her point, this outspokenness provoked a violent response.

As a piece of literature, this is quite good. The author writes well; it’s a compelling story and written with the sort of physical and emotional detail that promotes a high level of engagement from the reader. At times it’s downright dramatic. Although the author is political, it never reads like a public relations piece; she’s no angel here, and there are no clear villains. She does portray herself as a victim rather often, but this rarely seems related to any political agenda; her mother is sometimes abusive, but the council of elders convened to determine the legitimacy of her leaving her husband respects her decision. There are some tough scenes in this book – the author and her sister undergo female genital mutilation early on, for instance – but life goes on and people can’t simply suffer all the time; my concern that the book would read as a catalogue of atrocity turned out to be unfounded. The author has a strong viewpoint, yes, but people are complicated and this book shows that, rather than attempting to reduce all of life to a political agenda. You could read this as fiction and come away satisfied.

Nevertheless, the author is a political figure, accounting for much of the polarized reaction to this book; I think much of the negativity comes from information outside its pages, and a brief perusal of her Twitter feed explains why. At the time period covered in this book – when the author is a student and a young politician – she’s wrestling with big questions and fighting for reforms that could make life better for Muslim immigrants in Holland: for instance, by ending funding for religious schools, as Muslim schools tend to focus on memorization and obedience rather than real learning. And she’s frustrated by the way Dutch values of toleration can prevent a response to abuse among Muslim immigrants. She calls for reform in Islam, so that people can question its tenets without being subject to violence.

But the threats she receives (not to mention the brutal murder of a filmmaker with whom she makes a short piece questioning Islam’s demands for submission) and the reluctance of non-Muslims to believe how bad things can get seem to push her toward hatred of Islam as a whole. We see a little of that in the book: her efforts to convince the public of social problems among Muslim immigrants sometimes seem more geared toward proving that Islam is a problem than finding practical solutions. Her public statements now seem even more slanted in that direction (though she is working in the U.S. to increase penalties for FGM, for instance). I respect her strength and dedication, and generally agree with her critiques of the Muslim world. But promoting divisiveness is a terrible idea, and I’m concerned that may be the primary effect of her advocacy. This isn’t a criticism of the book, necessarily; if anything, it shows how honestly the author comes by her opinions.

In summary, then: this is an excellent story, well worth reading. It is not, for the most part, a political book, and I don’t judge it Islamophobic, defining Islamophobia as prejudice toward individual Muslims or a crusade against Islam while knowing little about it. It made me think, and that’s a strength in any book.

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review 2017-06-10 20:26
Speak, Memory, by Vladimir Nabokov
Novels and Memoirs, 1941-1951: The Real Life of Sebastian Knight / Bend Sinister / Speak, Memory (Library of America #87) - Vladimir Nabokov,Brian Boyd

(Review for Speak, Memory only: four stars)

 

It was a pleasure to read Nabokov after so long. I forgot how easy it is to get carried along by the flow and particularities of his prose, sometimes to the point of losing the meaning of what's being expressed. Speak, Memory is a kind of memoir of Nabokov's childhood through his family's exile in Europe following the Russian Revolution. I learned (or was reminded of) a lot that sheds light on his writing, such as the fact that he had synesthesia (syllables and letters had colors). He read and wrote English before Russian but later lamented that his English skills did not match those in Russian (if only I read Russian!). At one point he states that once he used a detail of his life for his fiction, it felt like it was no longer his.

 

If you're familiar with Nabokov, you'll enjoy the passages detailing or referencing his passion for butterfly hunting. In fact my favorite line in the book concerns it: "America has shown even more of this morbid interest in my retiary activities than other countries have--perhaps because I was in my forties when I came there to live, and the older the man, the queerer he looks with a butterfly net in his hand." Lol, indeed.

 

I was less interested in some of the earlier chapters that focus on his extended family, but there were still fascinating stories to be had, and his prose is always worth it.

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review 2017-05-23 18:56
Shakespeare Saved My Life / Laura Bates
Shakespeare Saved My Life: Ten Years in Solitary with the Bard - Laura Bates

Just as Larry Newton, one of the most notorious inmates at Indiana Federal Prison, was trying to break out of jail, Dr. Laura Bates was trying to break in. She had created the world’s first Shakespeare class in supermax – the solitary confinement unit.

Many people told Laura that maximum-security prisoners are “beyond rehabilitation." But Laura wanted to find out for herself. She started with the prison's most notorious inmate: Larry Newton. When he was 17 years old, Larry was indicted for murder and sentenced to life with no possibility of parole. When he met Laura, he had been in isolation for 10 years.

Larry had never heard of Shakespeare. But in the characters he read, he recognized himself.

In this profound illustration of the enduring lessons of Shakespeare through the ten-year relationship of Bates and Newton, an amazing testament to the power of literature emerges. But it's not just the prisoners who are transformed. It is a starkly engaging tale, one that will be embraced by anyone who has ever been changed by a book.

 

My inspiration to read this book was Margaret Atwood’s fiction Hag-Seed (and secondarily The Heart Goes Last), as well as a memoir by former prisoner, Stephen Reid (A Crowbar in the Buddhist Garden). Additionally, I had just finished If We Were Villains, in which Shakespearean plays may have played a role in sending the main character to prison, the very opposite of this memoir.

Now, I am predisposed to enjoy a memoir of the redemptive value of literature, particularly Shakespeare, for whom I have an abiding love. Add to that the fact that I have considered doing literacy work with prisoners (although I have not yet taken the plunge) and I appreciated Laura Bates’ description of the perils and the pluses of doing such work.

This is real-life, not fiction, so I didn’t get exactly the story that I hoped for. There is no ending, really, because Larry Newton will never get out of prison. All projects must come to an end eventually, and the author is no longer teaching Shakespeare to prisoners. Still, it was very readable and inspirational. If nothing else, I am encouraged to study the works of the Bard more closely myself.

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review 2017-05-22 03:37
The Sacred Willow by Duong Van Mai Elliott
The Sacred Willow: Four Generations in the Life of a Vietnamese Family - Duong Van Mai Elliott

This book would make fantastic supplemental reading for a course on Vietnamese history. The author chronicles more than a hundred years of the country’s recent past, using her family’s experiences as a focal point. It begins in the mid 19th century, when several of her male ancestors served as mandarins in a society that revered educational attainments; moves on to French colonialism and Japanese occupation during WWII; then to the Viet Minh struggle for independence, which doesn’t seem to truly divide the family despite their winding up on all sides of the conflict – the author’s father serves as a high-ranking official under the French while her oldest sister and brother-in-law join the rebels in the mountains, and her uncle, a wealthy landowner, puts his resources at the Viet Minh’s disposal. Then it traces the American intervention and the dramatic days of the communists’ takeover of South Vietnam, before ending with Vietnam’s struggles as an independent country.

It’s a lot to pack into 475 pages, and the author balances the story of her family with a broader historical perspective. The history appears well-researched, and based on her bibliography, draws heavily on Vietnamese as well as English-language sources. It also seems balanced; at times, when family members’ paths during the war diverge sharply, we get separate chapters covering the same events from different perspectives, and the author doesn’t seem to be advocating for either one over the other. Though the author’s parents threw in their lot with the French and later South Vietnam, she – like many Vietnamese – seems to respect the communists’ commitment, and while the American intervention was a short-term boon for middle-class families like hers, she ultimately seems to conclude that the communist victory was both inevitable and not as awful as propaganda had led the South Vietnamese to expect.

The book’s biggest weakness is that it is rather dry, much more focused on facts than building a dramatic narrative. Though it is in part a memoir, we learn little about the author herself; she tends to relate the facts of a situation with perhaps a bald statement of her feelings, but without developing any of the emotional detail that might allow readers to experience the story along with her. There are exceptions, though; her account of the dramatic last days before the fall of Saigon (through the eyes of several family members) is downright gripping.

Overall, I’d recommend this book, but more for educational purposes than entertainment. It is a strong answer to the rest of English-language literature about Vietnam, which tends to be from an American perspective and focused exclusively on the war.

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