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review 2018-06-10 12:46
The Recovering: Addiction & Its Aftermath
The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath - Leslie Jamison
nb. I am a recovering heroin addict with decades clean. I lived through it when some medical professionals thought I wasn't worth the effort anymore. (That still upsets me - nobody should ever give up on an addict, especially medical professionals!) My addiction is private, but it's worth a mention here since it affects how I consume recovery literature.
 

I normally stay far away from recovery memoirs, having lived one myself and heard thousands more through the years. This book, though, promised to turn "the traditional addiction narrative on its head, demonstrating that the story of recovery can be every bit as electrifying as the train wreck itself." My ears perked up and I took note. The blurb goes on to say (from the publisher):

All the while, she offers a fascinating look at the larger history of the recovery movement, and at the literary and artistic geniuses whose lives and works were shaped by alcoholism and substance dependence, including John Berryman, Jean Rhys, Raymond Carver, Billie Holiday, David Foster Wallace, and Denis Johnson, as well as brilliant figures lost to obscurity but newly illuminated here.

That interested me tremendously. I find it endlessly interesting that so many artists are sure their art is linked with their particular dysfunction -- be it mental illness, substance abuse or misogyny. And I know of some writers and other artists who have done their best work only after clearing away the wreckage of addiction (Denis Johnson, Mary Karr, David Foster Wallace, Raymond Carver to name just a few...) Jamison's theory and examples seemed (from the blurbs) to be about how the stories we tell ourselves about addiction and recovery are, in fact, part of both solution and problem. I've read enough about the hard-drinking writer. I wanted to hear about the writers who got clean and sober and continued or gone on to great success. I didn't want another quit-lit book. I wanted something deeper and more interesting. What I got was mostly (but not all) another literary drunkalog, and this ain't Tender Is The Night, Where I'm Calling From, A Moveable Feast or any of the other rather brilliant drunkalogs we have to choose from.

Jamison has been compared to such iconic writers as Joan Didion and Susan Sontag. Yet her utterly singular voice also offers something new. With enormous empathy and wisdom, Jamison has given us nothing less than the story of addiction and recovery in America writ large, a definitive and revelatory account that will resonate for years to come.

Lofty, eh? It promises not just another quit-lit recovery memoir, but something that will alter the landscape.

 

So I was mighty upset when, for the entire first half of the 544-page book, we get precious little that differs from any number of other recovery memoirs, even while she explicitly states in the text that she will not be writing "just another recovery memoir." The language in this part is practically caressed, not just massaged. Every bartender's eyes or hair rates several adjectives, every drink is served with multiple metaphors. Everything is so damned beautiful. It felt -- a lot -- like the glorification of alcoholism and the behavior that comes with it. Eventually, on her own because it seems nobody else really noticed her problem, she will get sober, relapse and start over. It's here that the tone begins to change, but we're more than halfway through 544 pages at that point. In other words, she devoted a massive amount of pages to the glorious drunken Leslie and her oh-so-uniquely artistic pain.

 

At one point she says outright that she has trouble writing without putting herself in the story, and that's clear. She makes mention of the famous writers at Iowa with her, but only in passing because we're busy learning what she likes to drink, how much of it, when and how... Once she decides to get sober, she will fail and there will be a bit more longing for drinking/scheming etc, but the shine has gone, as anyone who has relapsed could tell you in far fewer words. It's after this point that the book starts to be unique. She is an excellent journalist, and I wish she'd excised her own story from this book entirely.

 

Her drinking is written in far greater detail than her recovery. She seems to take an emotional step back the minute she gets sober. I could feel fear at her vulnerability and recovery the minute it stopped being a drunkalog. Once sobriety starts, Jamison introduces journalism, statistics and experts, so we get no "other side of the coin" to the first half of the tome -- there is no honest portrayal of Jamison sober. It's obscured by her fact-finding missions and critical readings. This is where the other writers step in to give an assist.

 

Honestly it felt a bit like she used their stories of relapse and recovery to mask her own fear that she isn't qualified to write about her own recovery. Perhaps, like any smart addict, she has a fear of relapse. If you write a book called "The Recovering" you probably hope not to have to start counting days sober again after the publication date. Instead of saying that outright, though, she shows us other writers who did exactly that. The irony is that her sponsor tells her at one point that this is her problem in life -- it seems to also be a problem in her writing.

 

Jamison leads a charmed life, drunk or not. She is in prestigious writing programs and residences throughout the entire time chronicled in this book, and she's publishing too. High-functioning isn't even close to the right word. That doesn't change her pain or disqualify her sobriety, but it's worth a mention. She says nada about insurance or paying for medical care. When she does make mention of money, it's to do things most of us will only dream of - travel, foreign research, time just to write in exotic or beautiful locales. One could imagine she saw this note coming, since she shields herself from her privilege by mentioning it a few times. 

 

But between all of that extraneous and rather privileged "just another recovery memoir," there are very interesting themes and excellent journalism. She has a great hypothesis that's buried a bit deeply, but it goes something like we are all subject to being seduced by the stories we tell ourselves and it might be good, if scary and different, to tell ourselves healthy stories rather than unhealthy ones. Artists don't have to write with their own blood, and if they do, they'll eventually bleed out. She has an excellent critical eye for reading others' writing and pulling support for her story out of their words. Those parts are extremely compelling, and I really wish that the majority of the massive amount of pages had gone to that.

 

One final thing. While she makes mention of the big names who were known to drink, some of these writers also seem to have suffered from comorbid disorders, and that is never discussed. I can't say, nor can Leslie Jamison or for that matter, her relative, author and psychologist, Kay Redfield Jamison, whether many of these suicides were caused by one specific illness - be it alcoholism or an affective disorder. I do wish these rather large topics weren't skipped. They're important, even if they don't fit neatly within the narrative built here.

 

What I would hope is that the personal story be completely excised next time and the researching, critical eye step in. Her best work is when she empathizes with the writing of others and explains it from the standpoint of one who has felt those feelings and lived to tell.

 

 

 

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review 2018-06-07 04:33
The Fever by Megan Abbott - Mass Hysteria is a real problem in the internet age
The Fever: A Novel - Megan Abbott

At one point I considered throwing this a la Dorothy Parker. It seemed like it was heading to be way more misogynistic than it eventually turned out to be. It also turned out to be less of a thriller than it first seemed. I suppose if I'm forced to choose, I'd rather a modern woman write an unimpressive book than a misogynistic one, so OK. Onward --

 

 

I wanted to read something by Megan Abbott, and this was on Kindle sale. Turns out to be a bad way to pick an author's book. I'll give her another try with a more highly praised book. I didn't look at reviews beyond goodreads until after I was halfway through. The NYTimes really beat her up on this one, and I think they were unfair. They seem to think she just wants to tell a morality tale about staying away from sex IF you're a girl. Here's a quote or two:

 

this book’s punitive view of female sexuality is worth noting for its kinship with nonfiction writers like Caitlin Flanagan, Wendy Shalit and Laura Sessions Stepp, who argue that young women should protect themselves from the complications of sex by treating their sexuality as merely a minor component of monogamy. 

 

perhaps the difficulty many young women have in navigating their sexual choices stems in part from the ­pervasive depiction of lustful girls as hysterical and self-destructive, and ­lustful boys as simply normal; the assumption that sexual responsibility is solely up to women; and the confusing portrayals of vulnerability in girls as both dangerous (“a havoc upon his sweet daughter’s small, graceful little body”) and sexy (“She kept laughing and covering her face,” a boy recalls of the beautiful Lise. “She was so . . . young”), while vulnerability in boys is rarely acknowledged at all.

 

The problem with the Times' take is that this story REALLY happened. Not once, but many times and as the internet has grown in influence and availability, we're seeing more and more of these "outbreaks" of what can only be called female hysteria (technically MPI or Mass Psychogenic Illness.) It doesn't seem to affect boys and men nearly as much as it does adolescent girls. There are some important reasons (all are society-based and stem from gender expectations and conformity. MPI is "caused" by stress, and they aren't faking - these are real symptoms and it's scary. It "spreads" by one person seeing another getting sick, then they "get sick" too and on it goes. As the internet offers teens a ton of ways to communicate and share without anyone knowing, this is becoming more - not less - prevalent.)

 

So, I'd already read this story -- in the form of the multitude of breathless news reports from the 2012 NY events on which this book is based, followed and augmented by medical assessments and papers on that and similar 2002, 2001, 1998, 1992... events (and countless other similar events dating back to the Salem Witch Trials -- mass hysteria ain't nuttin new. BTW, those outbreaks are just the ones I remember.)

 

So, now onto the book and it's very connected. It is the same story with a crime tossed in for good measure.

"Eli couldn't figure out what it all meant, but he knew it meant something."

Dumb character alert! Eli may be the sharpest knife in this drawer, and that's his level of insight and observation.

 

With the addition of one little crime (OK, a bad crime, but it got only a couple paragraphs) that went entirely unexplained or examined, this was another female writer who wrote flat female characters with pale beautiful inner thighs and fragile bodies, but their brains can't hold more than one idea at a time. THANK GOD for the strong silent brother and the father full of vindictive divorce angst who can hold it in while playing father of the year and worrying about his fragile and small girl while seemingly having nothing at all to do with his son except when his daughter demands they take a ride. Oh, and there's a "slutty" mother who I'm pretty sure only exists to scream one of the silliest lines ever about "men and your sperm" through a phone. The whole book was Troy NY played out again in novel form. Instead of writing an ending, we got a page of "news report" that didn't explain anything beyond "a crime took place" - oh, and everyone is now fine.

 

Megan Abbott wrote a very good general interest piece for the Huffington Post on the Troy MPI outbreak, so I'm absolutely sure I'd have preferred to read a nonfiction account that didn't involve stick figure characters and tricks that even *I* know not to use in a thriller: 

It's all a case of mistaken identity that causes a jealous teenaged girl to poison another teenaged girl, then they all start dropping

(spoiler show)

 - that's it, but we get it only from a pagelong "news report." There is nothing much that follows that. Apparently they all just go back to the way things were previously (the book ends, so I don't know.) It would have been nice to read about how on earth this town of panicked kids with insanely panicked parents ended up this way or got back to normal, but much like the mass media - once the crazy stops, nobody waits around to see about the aftermath.

 

I was very disappointed for more than one reason, but I am actively looking for suggestions about Megan Abbott's books that aren't this one.

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review 2018-06-04 15:08
Rereading Junot Díaz in light of recent events - the cycle of abuse harms us all
This Is How You Lose Her - Junot Díaz

Men may feel they get the upper hand by treating women poorly, but long before "me too" Yunior told us otherwise in these stories and in the novel.

 

Reread these after recent revelations by both Junot Díaz & women who were victimized by him. I was interested to see how this would affect the reading.

 

If you've missed the fireworks, a quick rundown:

  1. Junot Díaz publishes a personal essay in the New Yorker (The Silence: The Legacy of Childhood Trauma) revealing that he was the victim of repeated childhood sexual abuse by a man in his neighborhood, that he's paid dearly for it, can no longer write and has mistreated women tremendously while trying to hide behind a mask of machismo.
  2. Fairly quickly he is confronted by a number of women, notably women of color, other writers of sexual misconduct and verbal abuse.
  3. He decides (with the full blessing of the committee) not to take his place as Chair of the Pulitzer committee.
  4. Bookstores decide to remove his books from the shelves, others keep him on, nobody knows what the right thing to do is, and everyone picks a side.

 

All of this led to discussions - hell, thousands of discussions - around me, with women, with other survivors, with everyone but writers. I don't know any writers or I'm sure they'd have talked to me too. EVERYONE in the trauma community was afire with this discussion. Eventually some of us got around to his writing, and my response was that I hoped I'd still be able to read it, since I really have been a fan, and it made me sad to read in the NYer that he could no longer write. Then I grabbed these short stories off my shelf and read them. This is where I landed:

 

I loved these the first time I read them. I was just as uncomfortable with the over-flexing of what we now call toxic masculinity then as I was this time. In fact, I think my reaction was pretty much the same: the narrator's toxicity harms him and everyone else in his life, including his great love - but in the end, he's hurt himself badly (some great female writer might want to take the feminine perspective someday.) If only we could get people in real life to own up to how harmful toxic masculinity actually is for everyone.

 

The character in these stories is clear on how he's harmed himself, and while he may use bravado to try and mask his torment, it clearly doesn't work. Everything, including his body, breaks down.

 

Explanations are not Excuses. 

 

This is not to say that these fictional stories should be taken as an indicator of real life, but misogyny is a problem for everyone, and the pain in the voice of these stories spells that out. In fact, I think these stories might be used as an example of how badly misogynistic bullshit works out for everyone. Men may feel they get the upper hand by treating women poorly, but long before "me too" Yunior told us otherwise in these stories and in the novel.

 

As a person who has lived through some stuff, I'm glad to have read these stories the first time and again now. They are excellent, and the message is probably more clear now than it was the first time I read it, though my history hasn't changed at all. I still react badly to the mind games, abuses of power and name calling, AND I appreciate the stories. They have a moral dimension I now see even more clearly, and it's about far more than diversity or a "unique voice." Yunor spells out how harmful his misogynistic buddies and lifestyle are to both the women and the men in his life.

 

Sexual abuse begets pain, anger, confusion, acting out and abuse - sometimes even more sexual abuse. The issue is not on whose side will we fight - we should all be on the side of protecting children and getting everyone (including rapists and child molestors) help before this cycle begins in yet another person. Otherwise we are doomed to an assembly line of horrors. I'd bet that if you spoke to the man who abused Junot Díaz, he'd probably have some horror tales to share about his life. None of this excuses anyone. It does show how harmful it all is for everyone, be it the abused person, the perpetrator or the many people who have relationships with either of them through lifetimes. Abuse is poison. It harms souls. It murders a part of us that we can never regain.

 

When we have no tools for coping with this existential terroristic threat, we often cope in tremendously harmful ways - both to ourselves and those we love. Interpersonal relationships are forever changed, and we're all the victim - everyone in society.

 

This is why "rape culture" and "toxic masculinity" must end. It's killing as many men as it is women. It's a way of acting out, and it's unacceptable, if understandable. It will reach us all eventually, and nobody comes through unscathed.

 

As for the stories, the final line "sometimes a start is all we ever get" rings just as poignantly as it did before I knew so much about Junot Díaz.

 

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review 2018-05-11 17:04
After Birth, by Elisa Albert
After Birth - Elisa Albert

As we approach Mother's Day in the U.S., pop culture has lately been reassuring me that my decision to never have children is a good one.

 

Most recently, I went to see the movie Tully, in which a woman who's just had her third child struggles to sleep and care for herself until finally she relents and accepts her brother's gift of a night nanny. Life for her improves markedly, perhaps magically (for a reason).

 

Inspired by Tully, I consciously chose to read After Birth. Might as well ride this wave of mother-related trauma, I thought. The novel follows Ari, a first time mother, over the course of three months, her son just turning one. It flashes back to when she was pregnant, endured what she feels was a needless C-section, and when what is likely to be post-partum depression ensues.

 

In its bitterness, its sometimes funny rants and ambivalence about Jewish identity, After Birth felt of a piece with Albert's first novel, The Book of Dahlia, which I read last year. I admired that book for its stubbornly unforgiving protagonist, dying of brain cancer. Similarly, Ari's often caustic, volatile voice, her resentment at modern birth practices and various mothering cliques, as well as the unnecessary isolation of motherhood, was often refreshing to read. Sometimes, however, it became a bit much for me.

 

Ari wrestles with her past, doomed relationships with other women, including her mean mother, who died of cancer when she was young, former friends, roommates, lovers. In the present, she befriends and helps a new mom who was in a seminal feminist band. This relationship enables Ari to "grow up," to perhaps become less judgmental or bitter about the women in her life, and those who may become a part of her life.

 

Like everything else, motherhood in the U.S. has become commodified, both as an inextricable part of the health care industry and as a way to sell "stuff" that mothers have done without for ages. The most valuable, engaging aspect of After Birth is the insistence that, however individual birth plans and approaches to mothering may be, women are not meant to raise children on their own (whether there's a man or not); we're meant to help each other.

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review 2018-05-09 23:29
Review: The Astonishing Color of After
The Astonishing Color of After - Emily X.R. Pan

I received a copy from Netgalley.

 

Another case of really good book but I’m not all that sure I really liked the main character much. The novel is about dealing with deep depression, and grief after the suicide of a parent and learning about said parent’s cultural heritage. 

 

One thing I really loved about the book was the look into Taiwanese culture, something I know nothing about. Main character Leigh is half white on her dad’s side and Taiwanese on her mother’s side. She’s never known her mother’s parents who live in Taiwan, when her mother left to marry her father it caused a big split in the family.

 

Leigh has a huge crush on her best friend Axel, over time her feelings for him have developed and she’s super jealous of Axel’s girlfriend. (This was really annoying. There weren’t many females Leigh’s age mentioned in the novel other than Leigh’s one other friend Caro and anyone girl who wasn’t Caro Leigh doesn’t seem to like, from what I remember, it got annoying fast.)

 

Leigh is an artist, she loves drawing and sees the world and her emotions in color. She and Axel have a thing where something is happening and Axel will ask her “what color?” and she will respond with whatever shade she sees at that particular moment. I don’t think it was synesthesia just her way of looking at the world. Initially this came across as kind of pretentious. I very nearly DNFed this book several times at the beginning. It felt very long winded and over written, and maybe there was something about it I just wasn’t getting. 

 

The description for the book hinted and magical realism which is one of my favorite things, so I stuck it out to see where it would come in. 

 

Leigh’s world changes, starting with a defining moment with Axel to the sudden shock of her mother’s suicide. She’s completely numb and devastated. Her emotions are all over the place and it’s completely understandable. While I could empathize with Leigh and could understand the massive trauma and shock such a horrific thing can do to a person, as a character I found her flat and hard to connect with. 

 

She finds herself heading to Taiwan to meet grandparents from her mother’s side she never knew while her dad throws himself into his work for the summer. The grandparents don’t speak much English and Leigh doesn’t speak much Mandarin though she is learning. There’s a lot of foreign language spoken in the book which sometimes can be very jarring when you don’t speak the other language (or can be for me which sounds terrible and very white privilege, I know) though in this book it just fit in the narrative and was really interesting to learn some new words and phrases. 

 

Leigh has an experience before heading to Taiwan where she thinks she sees her mother in the body of a red bird and becomes convinced she has to find the bird and the bird has now turned up in Taiwan with her. There is a cultural legend revolving around the reasons why.

 

A young lady called Feng, a friend of the grandparents shows up to help with the cultural differences and language barriers. Leigh learns about Spirit Week and some of the festivals taking place at the time she is visiting. While thanks to her mom’s influences Leigh is fairly well versed Taiwanese cooking, but there’s a whole host more to learn when she’s there. The descriptions of the food sound absolutely divine.

 

The narrative is in a then and now format - what happened with Axel and Caro before and what’s happening in the present. This also ties in the magical realism aspect when Leigh starts accessing her memories of her mom and not just her memories. There’s a really fascinating element where she can see her mom’s past memories as well. Leigh learns some things she never knew about, and has to come to terms with some things she did but couldn’t really bring herself to accept. 

 

There’s a wonderful family dynamic as hard as it can be for one family, when she meets her friend Caro, Caro’s family is so different and vibrant from Leigh’s own more sombre one. The difference is kind of heart breaking but interesting at the same time. 

 

Leigh and her family visit all her mom’s favorite places in Taiwan. Which again is completely absorbing. It’s beautifully described and beautifully written. Though Leigh can be quite a bitch to Feng who’s only trying to be nice and help. Feng has a really unexpected back story and there’s a twist to her character as well.

 

The other focus of the novel is Leigh’s plans for college and her future. She desperately wants to follow art but her dad is pressuring her to find something more practical. Leigh has to figure out whether she wants to do something that’s right or follow her heart to find something in the field that she really loves. 

 

And then there’s her relationship with Axel. (Kind of predictable and bit eye rolling) but did make me smile at the end. 

 

Despite a rocky start, I’m glad I stuck with the novel as it really did get better and by the end I loved it, and it made me quite teary in places. While sad in some respects, there were some uplifting moments. An honest and believable novel, at times hard and unflinchingly difficult in the narrative. But definitely worth a read. And most certainly an author that is going on my auto buy list. I loved this so much by the end I did buy a finished copy.

 

Thank you to Netalley and Hatchette Children’s Books for the review copy. 

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