keilexandra: Adorable panda with various Chinese overlays. (Default)
Crossing Over: One Woman's Exodus from Amish Life
by Ruth Irene Garrett with Rick Farrant
192 pages (hardcover)
Genre: Nonfiction/Memoir

The pedestrian prose of this semi-ghostwritten memoir with an eye-catching premise does capture Irene's voice; it's only that her voice is not particularly compelling. Thankfully, I can't say the same for her story. This was a quick and enlightening read. I've always been fascinated by the Amish--I've seen buggies go by on the road, when I drive to Lancaster--and their "bubble" of traditional life in such a modern world.
keilexandra: Adorable panda with various Chinese overlays. (Default)
The Glass Castle
by Jeannette Walls
288 pages (hardcover)
Genre: Nonfiction/Memoir

I have unusual issues with the book. I did not sympathize with Jeannette--in fact, my sympathy steadily decreased as the story progressed--due to, I believe, certain personal circumstances and beliefs that are very much not mainstream. My reaction is atypical and despite it, I would recommend this book to most people.

Jeannette Walls, one of four children of Rex and Rose Mary Walls, grew up in a household rich in love and neglect, poor in finances and responsibility. If that description sounds contradictory, it is; yet it is also an accurate description of Jeannette's unusual childhood. I could go on about this heart-warming, inspirational tale of horrific poverty and incredible courage--but while I can see how those accolades could be true, they were emphatically false for this reader.

Walls did offer me a new perspective into poverty, specifically homelessness and parental neglect. I've experienced poverty but with hard-working parents who always managed to provide; in that respect, Walls educated me and I'm glad for that education. However. Oh, the however. As most people know by now, I am atheist--openly and outspokenly atheist. This colors my reading of one scene in particular, on pages 256-7, when Jeannette is confronted by a favorite Barnard professor. Jeannette offers a controversial reasoning for homelessness, one justified by her own experience; yet when Professor Fuches demands, "What do you know about the lives of the underprivileged? What do you know about the hardships and obstacles that the underclass faces?", Jeannette falls back and simply replies, "You have a point." She has a point, but she doesn't have the guts to argue it. She is afraid of the social stigma of her impoverished background and homeless parents. Certainly I acknowledge this stigma, but I also condemn her for selfishness and cowardice. I feel very strongly that if you support a cause--as Jeannette demonstrated by going halfway and saying, "Sometimes, I think, it's neither"--then you should advocate it when given the opportunity. If someone makes a racist remark, I believe it is almost a moral obligation for you to speak out if you consider yourself anti-racist. I would apply this philosophy to all areas of life, with the common-sense exception for emotionally traumatizing experiences. And although I can't directly empathize with Jeannette's hardships, I can empathize with the social stigma that she faces. As a female Asian atheist--or even as an ally to those three causes--I have encountered similar situations and I have acted differently. Yes, it's immensely difficult to speak up against cultural assumptions, norms, and expectations. But Jeannette never acknowledges that she has work to do in that respect, that it is weak to give in the way she does. Walls overcomes her fear by writing this memoir, of course, but I do not critique Walls--I critique Jeannette, the character that Walls presents. If I as a high school student can endure equal or greater social stigma (and if you don't think being an outspoken atheist carries a stigma, go read the part of this article that discusses Presidential polling), then it's not unreasonable to expect college-junior Jeannette to do the same, and to judge her when she fails.

Furthermore, in an irrational gut reaction, I felt that Jeannette was, well, spineless. Extraordinarily resilent, but never resistant. For the same reason that most people will connect with Walls' story, I experienced a complete disconnect. I honestly cannot understand why Jeannette never lost faith in her father until the very end. My own faith would have been long since shattered. Hell, even with a loving and relatively normal childhood, I don't have that kind of faith in my parents. I don't think I will ever, nor that I should have that kind of faith in anyone but myself. Perhaps that's an atheistic viewpoint, now that I consider it. I believe that faith must be earned, and if the trust of faith is broken, then you should stop having faith.

And now that I've finished tearing apart Wall's memoir--which is a well-written, poignant tale of "unconditional love" in a seriously messed-up family--I would still recommend it to anyone (i.e. almost everyone) who disagrees with my opinion as stated above. If you understand such unconditional faith, if you aren't absurdly passionate about advocacy, then you won't have my issues with the tale and you'll probably love it.
keilexandra: Adorable panda with various Chinese overlays. (Default)
Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood
by Marjane Satrapi
153 pages (hardcover)
Genre: Fiction/Graphic Novel/Memoir

My dear friend Alicia, whose LJ username I can't remember, shoved this book at me one day and told me to read it. A quick read, she assured me, easy to skim like manga. Being a veritable expert at skimming manga, I agreed to give it a try. Persepolis, a memoir in comics of a young Satrapi living in revolutionary Iran, does indeed read very fast. The style is emphatically not manga/anime, but I'd argue that's a good thing; Satrapi illustrates more than her life in starkly delinated black-and-white. It's a good book, not the best, but very good. I'll read the sequel if I get a chance.
keilexandra: Adorable panda with various Chinese overlays. (Default)
Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster
by Jon Krakaeur
293 pages (hardcover)
Genre: Nonfiction/Memoir

The first of my three assigned-reading books over the summer. In 1996 Krakaeur summited Everest as research for an article commissioned by Outside magazine. The guided expedition went horribly wrong; less than half of the team made it back down the mountain alive, and all three guides perished. Krakaeur admits straightaway that he wrote the book as a kind of therapy, catharsis; while usually the bane of all writing, I think that it lends his account raw immediacy. The fact that Krakaeur is an experienced writer, not a fumbling amateur, helps too. His excellent prose blends seamlessly into the background, never obtrusive or flashy. I ignored all of the chapter dividers--the design is too busy and conducive to skimming--but the narrative flows well despite time jumps. The beginning is a little slow to get going; the climax, however, flies by so fast that I was surprised when Krakaeur-the-character was helicoptered to safety and the story entered an extended denouement, just like that.

This isn't the type of memoir I usually read, but on its own merits it succeeds admirably. I actually cared a little about mountaineering by the end and I empathized with the lure of such a risky hobby. The latter is a feat because personally (fiscally and morally, NOT politically) I am conservative and I usually sneer with disdain upon crazy people who go around climbing the world's tallest mountain. A good book; I wouldn't say it was great, but YMMV.
keilexandra: Adorable panda with various Chinese overlays. (Default)
Reading Lolita in Tehran
by Azar Nafisi
347 pages (trade paperback)
Genre: Nonfiction/Memoir

A memoir about living in Iran as a woman during the Islamic revolution, and about as depressing as it sounds. I really wanted to like this book, but it failed to meet my expectations. It is a better-than-mediocre memoir, but I've read some much more engaging ones (i.e. All the Fishes Come Home to Roost, by the lovely [personal profile] rachelmanija) and Reading Lolita in Tehran is a typical bestseller in being overrated. The narrative is oddly disjointed, jumping randomly in setting and chronology within each section. Nafisi's story is heartwarming but becomes rather tedious as the book progresses. I did enjoy the gems of literary analysis, which appealed to my English geekiness; comparing Pride and Prejudice to an eighteenth-century dance is aptly appropriate. I liked the themes and concepts of Reading Lolita in Tehran (I even read Lolita as preparation for it, though I'm disappointed that I didn't read Gatsby and Joyce as well for background). However, it feels too much like cathartic writing--too personal. At some inevitable point, its haphazard recollections and persistently wistful tone will bore the reader.

I believe that I would truly enjoy Nafisi's literary analyses, as they were by far my favorite aspect of her memoir. Alas, much as I wish otherwise, I cannot recommend this book.
keilexandra: Adorable panda with various Chinese overlays. (Default)
Notes from a Minor Key: A Memoir of Music, Love, and Healing
by Dawn Bailiff
326 pages (hardcover)
Genre: Nonfiction/Memoir

This is the last time I read something from an inspirational publisher, if I can help it.

Notes from a Minor Key first caught my eye by its title and cover at the library; the inside flap summary said that it was a memoir about living with MS, as well as of a musical prodigy; great, right? Except that the book is really a memoir about unorthodox faith/homeopathic/miracle healing methods, written in amateurish prose and (I'm pretty sure) is disqualified as a memoir because there are sections from another person's POV in first person. I skimmed after the first chapter and did not finish. The entire book is too spiritual for my inner skeptic, too overtly sentimental, and not particularly interesting to boot. I'm greatly disappointed.
keilexandra: Adorable panda with various Chinese overlays. (Default)
No school today due to the snow; I am Happy. Now to catch up on internet-reading, get a good hour or so of clarinet in, read a certain overdue beta manuscript, work on Achaea stuff, and maybe even write some more on the untitled Mongolian-glacier story fragment.

Falling Leaves: The Memoir of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter
by Adeline Yen Mah
278 pages (trade paperback) [Googled; I forgot to note it personally]
Genre: Nonfiction/Memoir

I had a favorable reaction to Chinese Cinderella, so I started reading this with reasonable expectations. However, it quickly became clear that the beginning of this autobiography is essentially identical in content to the former. Chinese Cinderella is tighter and stronger; I only read the last half of Falling Leaves, but my main impression was whiny. And weak--it's unfair to make such a judgment, I know, but I kept wanting to scream at story-Adeline--when she's grown, a certified doctor, married, and still capitulates before her parents--to grow a spine already. I can understand filial piety, but repeated instances of accepting clear emotional abuse from your parents (when one is clearly an adult, not a helpless child) do not a good book make. Not rec'd; Chinese Cinderella still is recommended, however.
keilexandra: Adorable panda with various Chinese overlays. (Default)
Chinese Cinderella: The True Story of an Unwanted Daughter
by Adeline Yen Mah
205 pages (hardcover)
Genre: Nonfiction/Memoir

I never really understood the difference between memoir and autobiography. Dramatization? This slim book reads like YA memoir, but Mah previously wrote the NYT-bestselling autobiography Falling Leaves. According to my friend, much of the same ground is covered.

But in any case, Chinese Cinderella is lovely and poignant, although perhaps not something one would reread over and over as the voice can get whiny. I was crying through at least half of the book. The prose is rough--too many exclamation marks, sometimes unrealistic dialogue, infodumps (p.p. 151-154 is all lecturing by the grandfather). I guessed one of the plot points as soon as it was introduced, too. But as a memoir, it touched me because I find it so hard (and yet so easy) to believe that these things actually happened. That such blatant favoritism was never resolved.

Something to savor in one sitting, and recommended especially to those of Chinese heritage.
keilexandra: Adorable panda with various Chinese overlays. (Default)
Rachel Manija Brown being, [personal profile] rachelmanija.
339 pages (hardcover)
Genre: Nonfiction/Memoir

Since I read Rachel Manija Brown on LJ, I felt kind of guilty about not having read her book. I don't often read (or enjoy) memoir, but this and Infidel both came highly recommended, and I haven't regretted either. I admire Rachel for her ability to infuse humor in such a tragic story, even as she writes about dark moments like contemplating suicide. I can sympathize with her life, too; even as I think fondly on my childhood in Newfoundland, I remember the teasing too, and the alienation of bookish intelligence at an early age.

In literary terms, Rachel's storytelling is superb. With so many bizarre and crazy characters, it can be hard to differentiate them for the casual reader. Prose is deeply descriptive but never multicolored--take this quote, from a page opened at random. "Our new suite had a picture window overlooking a waterfall tumbling into an elfin glen." [139] The image painted in the reader's head is sublime and original, but the line also conveys Rachel-the-protagonist's character. Not many children would plausibly describe a hotel view thus; for a girl who read about Helen Keller in kindergarten, the characterization is perfect.

On top of all that, the cover is gorgeous--a stark, empty bird's nest symbolizes Rachel's childhood and alludes to the title, a backdrop reminiscent of a sunset, a gold border sandwhiched between orange cover and moss green spine making me think inexplicably of India. My only complaint is that the jacket copy hints to a hilarious story and downplays the deep, heartbreaking poignancy of "an American mistfit in India." The rest of us may not have had such weird life experiences, but we can all understand the longing to belong.
keilexandra: Adorable panda with various Chinese overlays. (Default)
Wrote these a while back in one of my many half-used junk notebooks... might as well type it up now.

Pyramids by Terry Pratchett (323 pages, paperback): A-
Genre: Fantasy/Satire
I love Pratchett to pieces for his unfailing ability to make me LOL--laugh out loud. Many times I've picked up one of his books and hesitated after reading the description, but I've never regretted it. This particular Discworld novel is about Teppic, a teenage boy who trains to become an assassin, only to be forced into a powerless role as pharaoh and god of a tiny country obessed with tradition and pyramids. There's the obligatory love interest, of course, but Ptraci is her own person and the ending is quite original. A hilarious satire of the real world--I loved the intimacy of laughing at the inside jokes. Fantasy is also cleverly woven in, mainly concerning the ingenious pyramids. In fact, the only negative aspect of this book is the cover, a cliche magenta-and-cyan mess. I dunno, maybe that's a Brit thing. XD

Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali (353 pages, hardcover): A-
Genre: Nonfiction/Memoir
This book opens with a shocking death and then travels back in time to revisit Ali's brutal childhood and upbringing. I cried at certain parts; it's amazingly poignant. Ali tells her story eloquently, and gives background when needed, from Islamic submission and genital mutilation to politics and feminist movements--she isn't afraid to reveal the painful truth of life in other parts of the world. Highly recommended for anyone who is willing to try non-fiction once in a while. I''ve added her book of essays, The Caged Virgin, to my library to-read list; I don't read a lot of non-fiction, but I don't find it repugnant either. Infidel is a great example of why I still read memoirs.


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January 2011



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