Book Review: Many Love

many loveMany Love: A Memoir of Polyamory and Finding Love(s)
by Sophie Lucido Johnson
Memoir
230 pages
Published June 2018

I always pick up new polyamory books, and this one is excellent. Sophie simply tells the story of her love life, from falling in love with other boys while dating someone as a teen, to consciously deciding to date another couple, as a couple, in her adulthood. She doesn’t pretend it was all roses, though. She hurt people unintentionally when she was younger, and struggled with jealousy in a number of different ways.

I liked that she was so real. She didn’t shy away from talking about her heartbreaks, and the situations she found herself in sound all too likely. I also really liked the illustrations. The cover is a good indication of the style within – almost comic-book like. Rather than going with the story, the illustrations are part OF the story – she asks her boyfriend a question, his answer is in the illustration, and then the story continues in text. There’s a chart of types of jealousy, drawn in the illustration style rather than perfect text boxes. Then you get owls asking each other “Whooooo is your favorite?” It gives the book almost a playful feel.

One thing I really liked is how she talked about friendships and polyamory. In a typical monogamous marriage, (not all!) there are rules about cheating. If you cuddle another person, or spend the night with them, that’s probably cheating, even if it’s platonic. In polyamory, though, there’s a lot more leeway for how relationships can look. Sophie, for a good portion of the book, lives with a couple who are her best friends. She climbs into bed with them for comfort. They have dinner together, and tell each other “I love you.” I really love that she talks about friendships in the context of polyamory; I don’t think that gets discussed often enough. I feel like being polyamorous lets friendships evolve as they will, instead of being constrained by your romantic relationships. If I have a friend who I like to cuddle up on the couch with and watch movies, my husband sees nothing wrong with that.

I plan to buy this book to add to my polyamory shelf. If you’re polyamorous or curious about the relationship style, I highly recommend this book. She also has chapter notes, a bibliography, and an index in the back of the book, so it’s stuffed full of other resources, too.

From the cover of Many Love:

Sophie Lucido Johnson gets a lot of questions when she tells people that she’s polyamorous. Many Love is an intimate look at this often misunderstood practice: its history, its misconceptions, and Sophie’s personal transformation from serial monogamist to proud polyamorist.

After trying for years to emulate her boomer parents’ forty-year-and-still-going-strong marriage, Sophie realized that maybe the love she was looking for was down a road less traveled. In this bold, illustrated memoir, she explores her sexuality, her values, and the versions of love our society accepts and practices. Along the way, she shares what it’s like to play on Tinder side by side with your partner, encounter – and surmount – many types of jealousy, and learn the power of female friendship, along with other amazing things that happened when she stopped looking for “the one.”

In a lot of ways, Many Love is Sophie’s love letter to everyone she has ever cared for. Witty, insightful, and complete with illustrations, this debut provides a memorable glimpse into an unconventional life.

Book Review: Educated

educated memoirEducated: a Memoir
by Tara Westover
Memoir
334 pages
Published 2018

I blurbed this on my Friday 56, but I actually read it a couple weeks ago. I had to take enough time to distance myself from the text before I could formulate my reaction into words. More than once, I had to set this book down and walk away because something hit me so hard I couldn’t continue. A phrase, a quote, or a chapter title would jump out and sucker-punch me.

Tara’s family was much more extremist than mine; though we were homeschooled until 8th grade (with public school after that), we had actual books and tests. Oregon actually has yearly required standardized tests for homeschoolers, so in that respect I was years ahead of Tara. (Though my science and history education were still very poor – I thought dinosaurs and humans existed at the same time until I was in my twenties.) We had birth certificates, and saw doctors regularly. We lived in town. But my family is conservative Christian, and learning that there are viewpoints outside that caused similar emotions to what Tara goes through. Educating myself out of bigotry, at the cost of a relationship with my family – THAT is what I have in common with this author.

Tara had a pretty horrific childhood. There were a lot of severe injuries among her family members that really should have been seen by a doctor, and never were. Her father’s bullheadedness (and undiagnosed bipolar disorder) probably led to several of the family’s injuries. Her father was more neglectful than abusive, though. It was one of Tara’s older brothers that was abusive.

Between her family, her isolation, her lack of education, and her poverty, Tara overcame so many issues to get into university. It’s really astounding. The pushback from her family is sadly unsurprising. What she’s done with her life is something to be proud of, not ashamed of.

And what I really mean by that is that I’m proud of my life and my beliefs, even if my family doesn’t understand them or me.

There are so many parts of this book that speak directly to me, from quotes like

Their voices were forceful, emphatic, absolute. It had never occurred to me that my voice might be as strong as theirs.

to the part where she devours the classic books of feminism in grad school because until that point, feminism had always been a bad thing. I’ve done that. I grew up on Rush Limbaugh yelling about feminazis. To realize that was wrong, and read the books of the first and second wave, is an awakening I know all too intimately.

I checked this book out from the library, but I’m going to buy my own copy. This is a book I need to keep around to remind me that I’m not alone in this journey – someone else has been through it too.

From the cover of Educated:

Tara Westover was seventeen the first time she set foot in a classroom. Born to survivalists in the mountains of Idaho, she prepared for the end of the world by stockpiling home-canned peaches and sleeping with her “head for the hills” bag. In the summer she stewed herbs for her mother, a midwife and healer, and in the winter she salvaged metal in her father’s junkyard.

Her father distrusted the medical establishment, so Tara never saw a doctor or nurse. Gashes and concussions, even burns from explosions, were all treated at home with herbalism. The family was so isolated from mainstream society that there was no one to ensure the children received an education, and no one to intervene when an older brother became violent.

When another brother got himself into college and came back with news of the world beyond the mountain, Tara decided to try a new kind of life. She taught herself enough mathematics, grammar, and science to take the ACT and was admitted to Brigham Young University. There, she studied psychology, politics, philosophy, and history, learning for the first time about pivotal world events like the Holocaust and the Civil Rights Movement. Her quest for knowledge transformed her, taking her over oceans and across continents, to Harvard and to Cambridge University. Only then would she wonder if she’d traveled too far, if there was still a way home.

Educated is an account of the struggle for self-invention. It is a tale of fierce family loyalty, and of the grief that comes from severing ties with those closest to you. With the acute insight that distinguishes all great writers, Westover has crafted a universal coming-of-age story that gets to the heart of what an education is and what it offers: the perspective to see one’s life through new eyes, and the will to change it.

Book Review: Look Me In The Eye

look me in the eye aspergersLook Me In The Eye: My Life with Asperger’s
by John Elder Robison
Memoir
288 pages
Published 2007

I try to make a habit of picking up books written by people on the autism spectrum – it’s part of my effort to read inclusively, but it also has a personal component, since my husband is on the spectrum. (You can see my list of books on this subject here.) Look Me In The Eye is a book about growing up in the 70s, when an autism diagnosis usually meant a kid entirely incapable of most communication – they didn’t really understand the spectrum yet. John Elder Robison was not that child, so he didn’t discover his diagnosis until his 40s. Autistic adults discovering the reason for their quirks is a very common story, though these days it’s more often women who fall through the cracks than men.

It’s always amusing to me spotting the similarities between autistic memoirs and my husband – one of them came very early in the book, when Robison is talking about a book shown to him by his father.

We looked at books together, especially the Boy Scout Woodsman manual. I can still remember the pictures that showed how to make a trap, and the correct way to step over a fallen log.
I dreamed about trapping wolves and bears, but garter snakes and frogs were as close as I got. And I’ve never forgotten the woodsman’s log-crossing techniques that I learned at five.

My husband, similarly, has mentioned a book of survival skills he read as a child, and was particularly fascinated by the traps. (He also still remembers those pages clearly.)

The blurb on the cover says Robison is a natural-born storyteller, which his brother also mentions in the Foreword to the book – and they’re right. This book just flows. Robison has a wonderful writing style. He’s funny but still shows the hardship of growing up with an alcoholic father and a mentally unstable mother. (He called them “Slave” and “Stupid” until he moved out at sixteen.) He maybe be critical of other peoples’ actions in his past, but he also admits to leaving his brother head-down in five-foot deep holes and pulling other “pranks” that probably weren’t as funny to the people around him. (The mannequin he wrapped up and hung from a powerline above a burning pentagram deep in the woods before calling the local police to report it was rather amazing, though. Teenagers, man.)

This was a great look at growing up before a diagnosis existed; struggling to make up for the ways an autistic mind works differently when the world won’t meet you halfway. My favorite kind of books about autism so far have been the memoirs. This is, I think, my fourth. The Journal of Best Practices was written by another man, and Pretending to be Normal and Nerdy, Shy, and Socially Inappropriate by women.

Excellent book.

From the cover of Look Me In The Eye:

Ever since he was small, John Robison had longed to connect with other people, but by the time he was a teenager, his odd habits – an inclination to blurt out non sequiturs, avoid eye contact, dismantle radios, and dig five-foot holes (and stick his younger brother in them) – had earned him the label “social deviant.” No guidance came from his mother, who conversed with light fixtures, or his father, who spent evenings pickling himself in sherry. It was no wonder he gravitated to machines, which could, at least, be counted on.

After fleeing his parents and dropping out of high school, his savant-like ability to visualize electronic circuits landed him a gig with KISS, for whom he created their legendary fire-breathing guitars. Later, he drifted into a “real” job, as an engineer for a major toy company. But the higher Robison rose in the company, the more he had to pretend to be “normal” and do what he simply couldn’t: communicate. It wasn’t worth the paycheck.

It was not until he was forty that an insightful therapist told him he had the form of autism called Asperger’s syndrome. That understanding transformed the way Robison saw himself – and the world.

Look Me In The Eye is the moving, darkly funny story of growing up with Asperger’s at a time when the diagnosis simply didn’t exist. A born storyteller, Robison takes you inside the head of a boy whom teachers and other adults regarded as “defective,” who could not avail himself of KISS’s endless supply of groupies, and who still has a peculiar aversion to using people’s given names (he calls his wife “Unit Two”). He also provides a fascinating reverse angle on the younger brother he left at the mercy of their nutty parents – the boy who would later change his name to Augusten Burroughs and write the bestselling memoir Running With Scissors.

Ultimately, this is the story of Robison’s journey from his world into ours, and his new life as a husband, father, and successful small business owner – repairing his beloved high-end automobiles. It’s a strange, sly, indelible account – sometimes alien, yet always deeply human.

Book Review: My Life with Bob

my life with bobMy Life with Bob – Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues
by Pamela Paul
Memoir
240 pages
Published 2017

I need to read more books about books, because the few that I’ve read, I’ve really enjoyed! Earlier this year I read Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, and loved it. I have holds on Voracious: A Hungry Reader Cooks Her Way Through Great Books and The World Between Two Covers: Reading the Globe. (I also have a hold on The Man Who Loved Books Too Much, but I’m not sure that quite counts.) And, in looking up the links for those books, I just put holds on three more books about reading, since this is a genre I apparently enjoy!

My Life with Bob is about the author’s reading life. Bob is a notebook she uses to keep track of what she’s read. Just title and author, and whether or not she’s finished it. Very simple. But in looking back through what she’s read, she recalls where she was, and what she was doing or going through at the time. So the real story is how her reading choices fit into her life, and how being a bookworm affected her life.

I enjoyed the book, with the slight irritation (in the latter part of the book) of her insistence on calling Young Adult literature, Children’s Lit. Children’s books are picture books and books for young readers, not The Fault in Our Stars and The Hunger Games. Those are Young Adult, and there’s a pretty big difference in my opinion. Maybe not in the professional world; she is the editor of The New York Times Book Review. But it’s frustrating to hear her talk about Kid Lit and lump Harry Potter in with a 36-page autobiography of a teddy bear written for kids under 10.

I was also a little shocked to learn (in the book!) she wrote a book about how porn is destroying the American family, and testified before Congress about it, sponsored by Senators Orrin Hatch and Sam Brownback. I normally don’t have a problem reading Republican authors – I often don’t know the exact political leanings of authors – but I’m reading about her reading choices, and suddenly they are all suspect. (She disliked Ayn Rand, at least, so that’s something.) The book was published in May of last year, so after the last presidential election. Anyone who acknowledges working with the GOP at this point, and isn’t embarrassed by it, immediately gets a black mark in my book.

So ultimately I’m torn on this book. I liked reading it. I dislike the author. (I will never even try to be non-political on this blog. Sorry-not-sorry.)

From the cover of My Life with Bob:

Imagine keeping a record of every book you’ve ever read. What would this reading trajectory say about you? With passion, humor, and insight, the editor of The New York Times Book Review shares how stories have shaped her life.

Pamela Paul has kept a single  book by her side for twenty-eight years – carried throughout high school and college, hauled from Paris to London to Thailand and from job to job, safely packed away and then carefully moved from apartment to house to its current perch on a shelf over her desk. It is reliable if frayed, anonymous looking yet deeply personal. This book has a name: Bob.

Bob is Paul’s Book of Books, a journal that records every book she’s ever read, from Sweet Valley High to Anna Karenina, from Catch-22 to Swimming to Cambodia. It recounts a journey in reading that reflects her inner life – her fantasies and hopes, her mistakes and missteps, her dreams and her ideas, both half-baked and wholehearted. Her life, in turn, influences the books she chooses, whether for solace or escape, information or sheer entertainment. 

But My Life with Bob isn’t really about those books. It’s about the deep and powerful relationship between book and reader. It’s about the way books provide each of us the perspective, courage, companionship, and imperfect self-knowledge to forge our own path. It’s about why we read what we read and how those choices make us who we are. It’s about how we make our own stories.

Book Review: This Will Be My Undoing

this will be my undoingThis Will Be My Undoing: Living at the intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America
by Morgan Jerkins
Memoir/Black Feminism
258 pages
Published 2018

I have a tough time reviewing books about Black Feminism. I enjoy reading them – well, maybe “enjoy” isn’t quite the right word. They can be tough. I am glad to have read them. But how to review them? I’m a white woman, it’s not really my place to critique these works. But it would be remiss of me to not talk about them – denying them the same space on my blog that I give to everything else I read is its own kind of erasure. I’m not sure how best to resolve this, but for this specific book, at least, I can talk about what I learned from it.

What I learned is that some of my childhood was straight-up racist. I always thought of my childhood as pretty idyllic – my parents were high school sweethearts, and to this day still adore each other. We lived in a house my parents owned. (My most formative years were actually spent in the house my mother grew up in; my parents bought it from my grandparents when I was seven.) We got to run around and play on a quiet neighborhood street where we knew all of our neighbors. We had pets of various species, we got technology fairly quickly since my father was a computer geek, we had a garden out back that Mom canned beans out of every year.

But I was homeschooled until eighth grade. (With Bob Jones and Abeka Books, notoriously Christian curriculum. I thought humans lived with dinosaurs well into my twenties.) We went to a conservative Christian church every Sunday. (And Tuesday. And some Fridays.) While my parents taught that I could be anything I wanted to be, the church definitely over rode that with “women should be subservient to men” and “don’t trust your own judgment, ask God/your parents/the elders.”

The incident that Jerkins’ book brought back to mind, though, was a party I went to. I’m pretty sure it was someone’s birthday party, but at a church. Not our church. There were a lot of people, though, so I could be wrong about the birthday party. It was this party where I got the tiny scar in my eyebrow – some kid broke the bat on the pinata and threw it behind him, where it hit me in the face. Before that, though, was the cake walk. There were footprints laid out on the concrete floor, and we paced around them while music played, kind of like musical chairs, I think. (I was younger than ten, my memory is a little fuzzy.) I won the cake! I thought nothing of this until reading This Will Be My Undoing.

“The cakewalk was a dance performed in the late nineteenth century at slave get-togethers. You lean or rear back and kick your feet out left and right or vice versa as you move forward……White people would watch them dance, fascinated by the exoticness of it all. These spectacles were purposeful humiliations. But the cakewalk evolved as slaves’ own form of subversion. While serving at large and fancy parties in the early 1800s, they would watch well-to-do white people perform strict and stiff dances, like cotillions and quadrilles, and mimic them, exaggerating the bowing and small skips and hops and adding some high steps and jumps. In diaries kept by white people in the antebellum South, the cakewalk is not depicted as a form of satire. After all, why would a sweet slave mock his benevolent master? To white people’s eyes, this imitation seemed like flattery. They were delighted that the slaves were attempting their civilized dances. In fact, they would hold competitions and the winning slaves would receive a cake, hence the name. Yet they were being mocked, right in front of their faces.”

WHY WAS THIS BEING HELD AT A CHURCH PARTY? I don’t recall if it was all white kids, but it probably was. My hometown was not very ethnically diverse. The more I learn – academically, politically, socially, secularly – the more I realize my childhood was pretty fucked up in a lot of different ways. I don’t know if it was more or less fucked up than most white kids’ childhoods – white supremacy is insidious. I was an ignorant child at the time, but to realize, decades later, how racist holding a cakewalk is, stopped me in my tracks. (Incidentally, this means that calling something “a cakewalk” has its roots in racism, like so many other things in our language. Cakewalks weren’t easy – but the best dancers made them look that way.)

So that’s what I can say about this book. I learned something about my childhood. Beyond that, all I will offer is that Jerkins is an excellent writer; the book flows well and is an easy read, despite the subject matter not being easy. Read it. It’s important.

From the cover of This Will Be My Undoing:

From one of the fiercest critics writing today, Morgan Jerkins’ highly-anticipated collection of linked essays interweaves her incisive commentary on pop culture, feminism, black history, misogyny, and racism with her own experiences to confront the very real challenges of being a black woman today—perfect for fans of Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist, Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists.

Morgan Jerkins is only in her twenties, but she has already established herself as an insightful, brutally honest writer who isn’t afraid of tackling tough, controversial subjects. In This Will Be My Undoing, she takes on perhaps one of the most provocative contemporary topics: What does it mean to “be”—to live as, to exist as—a black woman today? This is a book about black women, but it’s necessary reading for all Americans.

Doubly disenfranchised by race and gender, often deprived of a place within the mostly white mainstream feminist movement, black women are objectified, silenced, and marginalized with devastating consequences, in ways both obvious and subtle, that are rarely acknowledged in our country’s larger discussion about inequality. In This Will Be My Undoing, Jerkins becomes both narrator and subject to expose the social, cultural, and historical story of black female oppression that influences the black community as well as the white, male-dominated world at large.

Book Review: Well, That Escalated Quickly

well that escalated quicklyWell, That Escalated Quickly: Memoirs and Mistakes of an Accidental Activist
by Franchesca Ramsey
Memoir/Comedy
244 pages
Published May 2018

This is the third comedic memoir I’ve read by a black comedian. I don’t really know what to make of that; I’ve certainly read non-comedic memoirs from African Americans, and comedic memoirs from white people, but three comedic memoirs from African-Americans in the last year seems a little surprising. They’re all fairly new, maybe it’s just what’s been getting published recently? Or maybe it’s just a coincidence and not yet a pattern. Or maybe it’s my way of giving my brain a bit of a break from current events while still trying to read inclusively. That last one might be it.

Anyway. While I didn’t like Ramsey’s book as much as I did Trevor Noah’s or Tiffany Haddish’s books, I did really enjoy it. I didn’t really know who Ramsey was before reading her book, and that might be why I didn’t like it quite as much. This book deal with internet culture a lot more than the other two do; and that pertains to my interests. What I really enjoyed is that she talks about her missteps, how she was criticized for them, and admits that she was wrong and much of the criticism was needed. She explains how she corrected her own behavior in response and strove to be better, and that’s something we don’t see a lot of. We see half-hearted apologies and no change in behavior from a lot of internet celebrities, and Ramsey definitely tries her best to rectify her mistakes. I really liked reading about her experiences with that, as it can be such a touchy issue. No one likes to be called out. But sometimes we need to be so we can learn to be better.

I really enjoyed this one. I wouldn’t say it dealt with racism more than Noah or Haddish’s books did, but it definitely dealt with combatting racism more than they did. It talked about the activist aspect of it, and how to help.

This is the third book I’ve read from my Summer TBR list.

From the cover of Well, That Escalated Quickly:

Franchesca Ramsey didn’t set out to be an activist. Or a commentator on identity, race, and culture, really. But then her YouTube video “What White Girls Say . . . to Black Girls” went viral. Twelve million views viral. Faced with an avalanche of media requests, fan letters, and hate mail, she had to make a choice: Go all in or step back and let others frame the conversation. After a crash course in social justice – and more than a few foot-in-mouth moments – she realized she had a passion for breaking down injustice in ways that could make people listen, laugh, and engage.

Ramsey uses her own experiences as an accidental activist to explore the ways we communicate with one another – from the highs of bridging gaps and making connections to the many pitfalls that accompany talking about race, power, sexuality, and gender in an unpredictable public space . . . the internet.

A sharp and timely collection of personal essays, WELL, THAT ESCALATED QUICKLY includes Ramsey’s advice on dealing with internet trolls and low-key racists, confessions about being a former online hater herself, and her personal hits and misses in activist debates with everyone from bigoted Facebook friends and misguided relatives to mainstream celebrities and YouTube influencers. Alongside useful guides to unfriending and a glossary of “not so simple concepts,” Ramsey shows readers that mistakes are inevitable, but what’s important is how we learn from them to make a better world.