I’ve enjoyed listening to Alyssa Mastromonaco when she’s been a guest on any of the Pod Save American podcasts, which I love, and I thought I’d enjoy her book about her experience working as a then-quite-young woman in the Obama White House. There were definitely interesting insights here, like the tale of how she fought for tampon dispensers in the White House washrooms (something that apparently no-one had thought of before, since almost every who worked there were either men, or women past the age of menopause). However, the book was conceived as being geared towards young women considering a career in public service, so I am not really its target audience. And because of that slant, Mastromonaco and her co-author made the decision to organize the book thematically rather than chronologically, which often made it confusing to me, as we were constantly jumping around in the timeline of her story. I would have preferred a more straightforward chronological memoir of how she came to work in Washington and what she experienced there, but this book definitely had a few good anecdotes and insights.
Category Archives: Nonfiction — memoir
Saroo Brierly’s story recently came out as a movie called Lion, which I haven’t seen, but on hearing about it I wanted to read the book. It’s a simple and yet amazing story of a poor boy from India who got separated from his home and family at age five by the simple act of getting on the wrong train. Finding himself in a big city with no idea how to find his way home, Saroo ended up first in an orphanage, then in Australia, adopted by a couple there.
Though he adapted well to his new home and new life, Saroo never ceased to be curious about home. But not even knowing for sure the name of the town he came from, his family name, or many other details, he had no idea how to begin looking. Until, when he was a young man, the internet came along.
The story of how Saroo used Google Earth to match pictures of places with his memories from more than twenty years earlier is incredible and heartwarming. This really is one of those stories of survival that’s so unbelievable, it has to be true, because you couldn’t make it up.
Unlike a lot of Roxane Gay fans (among whom I would definitely count myself), I came to Bad Feminist after reading her more recent book, Hunger, which I thought was amazing. Bad Feminist is a different kind of book: it’s not really a memoir, although it contains elements of memoir and reveals a lot about Gay’s life. It’s not focused on a single issue as Hunger is; despite the title, Bad Feminist is not solely or even mostly about feminism. Feminist thought, and what it means to be a feminist (and why you might sometimes be thought of as a “bad” one) permeates the book, but so do issues around race, literary criticism, critique of TV, movies and other elements of popular culture, and Gay’s trenchant observations on many quirk and foibles of contemporary American life. She is often funny, very often biting and satirical, always thought-provoking. Bad Feminist is a collection of essays rather than a single, compelling story like Hunger is, and nearly all of them are interesting and worthy of sparking a lively discussion. If you’re interested in the intersections of feminism, racism, and popular culture, you will definitely want to read this book.
Many readers probably picked up this book because they’re familiar with Samantha Irby’s blog, but I just saw the description of the book and thought it sounded interesting and funny, so I didn’t know what to expect.
Irby is indeed a very funny writer, of the “my life is actually objectively terrible but I’m writing about it in a funny way” school of humour. She writes about an impoverished and abusive childhood, the death of her parents, chronic illness, and a string of failed relationships — as well as her adoption (and subsequently the death) of an antisocial cat who, like Irby herself, is plagued with medical problems. Sounds like a laugh a minute, doesn’t it? This could just as easily have been a heart-rending memoir (and sometimes it is) but in a humourist’s hands, it’s easy to laugh at the funny side of a life pockmarked by misfortune and failure. (Some things have clearly gone well for her, like a wildly popular blog, a book deal, and the one relationship that didn’t end in disaster, so there’s that, too).
Irby’s humour is sometimes a little too raw and graphic for me in dealing with sex, bodily functions and illness — but I am a noted prude and squeamish-person, so that reflects more on me than on her (but is a warning worth noting for other squeamish prudes). Still, despite a few cringes I found this an enjoyable read.
It’s interesting, by the way, to compare this memoir (or collection of essays — it doesn’t unroll in the continuous flow you’d expect from a memoir) to Roxane Gay’s Hunger, which I also read recently. There are definite similarities between the two writers: both African-American women who write about body image, food, sexuality (including bisexuality), physical and mental illness and disability. Gay is a very serious writer who can at times be quite funny; Irby is a humour writer who brings a sardonic eye and voice to very serious topics. (Apparently Gay and Irby are friends in real life, and this article about Irby begins with a funny anecdote about a reader confusing the two, so it’s clearly not just a case of lily-white me thinking All Big Black Women Who Write About Their Bodies Look Alike).
What is the mysterious alchemy that makes one book an acclaimed literary soon-to-be-classic, and another a fun, commercial read? I’ve always struggled with this question in reading fiction, as I read both popular and literary fiction, and I still can’t pinpoint the difference. It’s there in non-fiction too — I can see that Roxane Gay and Samantha Irby are doing different things with quite similar material, but I can’t quite explain what the difference is, apart from the fact that Irby plays her experience for laughs. But as with popular and literary fiction, both are great reads, as long as you know what you’re getting. If you’re not too squeamish about sex, swearing, and (especially) poop, you’ll enjoy We Are Never Meeting in Real Life.
Everyone I know has been talking about this book lately, largely because an excerpt from it published on The Guardian website was being widely shared and discussed online last weekend. I was intrigued enough to immediately buy and download the book, and read it in less than 24 hours. It’s relatively short, but that’s not why I read it so quickly: Gay’s voice is so compelling that the book is hard to put down.
The book is essentially a memoir about Gay’s lifelong struggle, not only with her weight, but with the fat-shaming and hatred that go along with being extremely overweight. It’s also a memoir about surviving trauma: Gay traces her hatred of her own body to a horrific incident of sexual assault at age 12.
Throughout the book she is brutally honest, both about the way she has mistreated herself and the ways others have mistreated her, and her efforts to care for herself — sometimes successful, sometimes not. At times there’s a wry humour to her writing, but much of it, especially the parts dealing with the aftermath of rape, are painful to read, as well they should be.
If you’re interested in issues of weight, body image, and sexual assault, then you’ll definitely want to read this memoir — but honestly, even if you didn’t think you were deeply interested in any of those subjects but just love to read a powerful, compelling, brilliantly-written memoir, you should still pick up Hunger. Roxane Gay has a voice that will echo in your head long after you put the book down.