Category: Book Reviews

The Valedictorian of Being Dead

The Valedictorian of Being Dead
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Published: April 23, 2019
Blogger Heather B. Armstrong found some level of internet fame when she got fired for something she wrote in her website. She has always been open with her struggles with depression, which has been ongoing from the time she was young, but in 2016 she found herself in a dangerously low point of severe depression. Some spoilers ahead.

I've followed Heather B. Armstrong's (yes, always with the B) blog (dooce.com) for many years, since  before she even had her first child. I loved a lot of things about her early writings in her blog--the photos of her dogs and her family, her hilarious writing style, the template design (at a time when people were only beginning to discover WordPress, she and her then-husband were already making awesome designs on their blog templates)--but the thing I loved best was how she wrote about her family and her depression. In a sea of picture-perfect bloggers, she was among the few I was reading back then who made an effort at some measure of authenticity. At that time, I thought she should write a book. What a gift that she wrote specifically about her depression in this memoir.

The book chronicles in alternating chapters her daily challenges as a person with clinical depression and anxiety, and the highly experimental treatment that she went through in order to get out of that deep valley she couldn't seem to climb out of for almost a year. I think you'll appreciate the things that she wrote in the book if you also followed her  blog, especially in the early years. The title, for example, is a kind of private joke shared with the readers of her blog, where she wrote that she's an overachiever even in the worst things. I can still remember that blog entry about being the valedictorian in constipated bowel movements, that was equal parts hilarious and terrifying.

There were parts of the book about her family, particularly her dad and her ex husband, which I thought must have been very difficult to write, and I applaud her bravery for writing it. The book made it clear that people who do not suffer from depression or anxiety can never really know how it feels, but it doesn't mean that it's impossible to empathize. Heather described the day to day challenge of living with depression, and how familial love played a big part in how she copes with it. The way that she described her depression, even while injected with typical Heather B. Armstrong humor, draws you in and gives you a glimpse of how immensely difficult it must be, and how cruel it is to add more pain to that kind of suffering by not believing it or by being insensitive about it.

Perhaps my favorite part of the book is how she talks about her mother, the Avon World Sales Leader. I wish everyone in the world had a mom like mine, and I guess Heather can also say that about her mom. The  book feels like a tribute to this wonderful woman and underscores the very valuable role of family.

If you suffer from depression and anxiety or have a family member or friend who does, or if you really just want to be a better human being by understanding it from the point of view of someone who lives with it daily, I recommend that you read this book.

An American Marriage

An American Marriage
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Published: February 6, 2018
Roy and Celestial are the embodiment of the American Dream. He's a sales executive and she's an up and coming artist. However, their upwardly mobile life is interrupted by tragic circumstances neither of them ever thought would happen. This review contains some spoilers.

Please note again that this review will contain some spoilers. I'll try to write a short review without revealing significant spoilers but if you don't want to know the plot of the story, please don't read any further.

This  book is part epistolary, part narrative written from the point of view of three major characters in the story. It's about the unraveling of a marriage by the two characters, Roy and Celestial. The story is quite tragic because it also speaks about how the problem of race is an ever-present reality for people, and how being thrown in the system can irrevocably change your life in an instant.

Roy's incarceration shows how a life can be upended by the prospect of spending over a decade in prison. People can start out promising a lot of things to each other, but a 12-year prison sentence puts a full stop on future plans. The letter exchanges between Roy and Celestial show how good intentions often don't survive the reality of being separated physically, of the stigma of having an incarcerated loved one, of the emotional and psychological anguish of the situation. The exchanges show the different kinds of pain for the incarcerated and the one waiting on the outside of prison bars. It shows how tenuous human connections can be, and that the institution of marriage means very little when the bedrock of the relationship is shaken to the core.

The book also shows how difficult it is to reintegrate back to your own family and  back to society after being incarcerated for years, and how displaced people are after being released from prison. It's sad how Roy struggled against feelings of alienation, or not belonging anywhere, of not knowing where to pick up after this major "interruption" happened. He's a free man, but he couldn't go "home" because home is simply nowhere to be found now. The house, the structure, might still be standing, but he has lost his place in it when he lost the love of his wife. The institution of marriage cannot enforce love between husband and wife, and despite emotions coming to a boiling point, Roy eventually realizes that Celestial doesn't love him anymore, and he saw no point in forcing himself on a wife who is now only a wife on paper.

It's an engaging story, and the writer has a beautiful way with words when describing deep emotions and memories. Despite how things turned out for Roy and Celestial, I actually liked the ending. I also liked the first person  narratives because it gives the readers an opportunity to at least see things from the perspective of Roy, Celestial, and (later) Andre. The story shows how a lot of things can really fracture a marriage.

Infidel

Infidel
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Published: 2006
A brilliant, captivating memoir by Ayaan Hirsi Ali recounting her traditional Muslim upbringing in Somalia, then Saudi Arabia, and Kenya. It recounts her intellectual awakening and self-emancipation and the cost of her life's advocacy. (SOME SPOILERS BELOW)

I found this book both hard to put down and hard to read because of the writer's story. I find Ayaan Hirsi Ali very brave to even write this memoir. I am unsure of how I feel about the part of her belief that Islam needs to be reformed because I am unfamiliar with the teachings and texts of the religion. But taking this book as a memoir and basing her arguments on all that she has witnessed and experienced living in different Muslim countries, I find her arguments compelling.

Her story offers a rare look into a window that isn't always open for us to peek into, as outsiders. Her writing is clear, concise and rational. Writing this book came at great personal cost to her, and I respect that a lot. There are many things about her life that one can consider a fortunate turn of events that helped her along her journey to her intellectual awakening--the fact that her father insisted on giving his daughters an education, that he was often away which meant he could not arrange her marriage early in life like what happened to her peers, that she was educated and found access to books, etc. Books became her window to a different culture, one where a woman isn't her father or husband's property, where she has the right to make her own decisions on her body and on other aspects of her life. These books planted seeds of hope and longing for a way to exist for herself instead of for others.

Her arguments against Islam's claim to be a religion of peace are passionate but very clearly laid out and supported by her own experiences and the histories of the countries that she called her home at some points in her life.

The courage to write this book and put her beliefs on paper in order to include the reformation of Islam in political debates is hard won. It must have taken great courage to put her religion, undoubtedly the cornerstone of her life, under scrutiny. It's an eye opening book, and it makes me think about the things that I take for granted in my daily life, living as a woman in my country where I can choose who (and if) I marry, have a career if I want to, go anywhere on my own and assert my right to my own body.

A very compelling read, no matter what your political and religious beliefs may be.

Blankets

Blankets
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Published: July 1, 2003
A coming of age autobiographical graphic novel written and illustrated by Craig Thompson. It's about his childhood memories and traumas, the Evangelical church that shaped much of his childhood and influenced his young adulthood, and his first love.

As far as I can tell, this is the first graphic novel that I ever read, and only because a friend recommended it. There's much about this story that I found I could relate to. The character describes his childhood traumas in such subtle but graphic details, without a lot of words but in a very impactful way nevertheless.

He writes about his relationship with his younger brother, which is equal parts loving and competitive.

He writes about his disillusion with organized religion, particularly his family's religion. As somebody who grew up in Sunday School, I can truly understand what he is trying to describe. Even if you didn't grow up in Sunday School, I suppose you can still understand his message. How his concept of God was rooted more in fear than in love. How church took up a whole lot of family time. How Christians are sometimes out of touch and out of reach, unable to truly connect with people who need them. How church can sometimes be filled with overused platitudes but, again, being unable to truly connect with people who are in pain.

For the writer, this resulted to a break with his relationship with his church, not necessarily with God. As he goes through young adulthood, he had a hard time reconciling his very natural, normal feelings with his Christian faith. My issues with organized religion was not resolved the same way his was, but I can definitely see where he is coming from.

A bulk of the story is also about his first love. It's cute, sweet, heart wrenching, tummy twisting all at the same time. Even the family issues of the girl he likes are described in such beautiful details, albeit without so many words. Going through all the stages of this first love brings back memories.

The illustrations were fascinating. Each page is a work of art that I really enjoyed looking at. It lent the story more emotions, like the writer is showing in both words and drawings the nuances of each moment. I think I enjoyed most the pages that had no words. The author had a way of using "silent" pages to let you breathe and feel for a moment before you move on. It's quite beautiful.

Overall, it's a beautiful book. I appreciated both the story and the artistic effort that went into each page.

Beautiful Boy

Beautiful Boy: A Father's Journey Through His Son's Addiction
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Published: September 4, 2018
A father writes about his son's addiction.

This is such a heart wrenching book to read. From start to end, even in those pages about the very bad moments when it seems all the love should be drained out and emptied because of the hurt and frustration, David's love for his son shines through on the pages. You read a lot about addiction but people forget that the families of addicts and alcoholics go through a lot too, and I appreciate being able to read such a well-written account of what their family went through together.

The tone of the whole book sounds like a parent thinking aloud. Memories go back and forth. You get the sense that the writer is showing his favorite memories of his son, not the big moments but the small moments that show who he was and is. He also falls into cycles of putting his guilt into words and then rationalizing his actions. I can only imagine the debilitating guilt that parents of addicts feel, and how it's hard to recognize where their shortcomings as parents end and their children's personal choice begins.

The author includes a lot of useful information in understanding the insidious nature of addiction in between recollections of Nic's childhood and his cycles of recovery and relapse.

Overall, there are a few things in the  book that I don't particularly like (such as the excessive rationalization of his parenting) but if I take the book as a whole, I really like  it. It reads like a gift because I can understand how difficult it must have been to write and to share with the world. I think it's beautifully written.

I read Nic Sheff's book Tweak after I finished reading this one, where he writes about his addiction, relapses and recoveries from his point of view. I'll write a separate review for that soon.