Posts Tagged With: memoir

Brain on Fire

When asked to name their greatest fear, people can list anything: oblivion, dying alone, failure.  Heights, depths, sharks.  Clowns.  While I’m afraid of some of those things, my greatest fear isn’t so common.  My greatest fear is that I could, through some stroke of misfortune, lose the ability to read.

A lot of terrible things happen to Susannah Cahalan in Brain on Fire, many that are objectively worse but, to me, that was the scariest moment in the book.

Brain on Fire is a unique memoir in many ways.  In writing it, Cahalan documented her “month of madness,” from the minor personality lapses that were the first sign something was wrong to her recover as she fought to get her life back.  Most interestingly, there were long stretches of time where she lacked full consciousness.  With no recollection of her own to draw on, Cahalan instead relies on cryptic journal entries, spotty surveillance tapes, and other people’s partial accounts to piece her story together.  A typical memoir relies on distance in time to give it weight.  Her lack of recall gives Cahalan a different distance, putting her closer to her readers’ level.  This changes the tone: the reader is afraid for her though they know she’s right there.  The suspense gives them a reason to keep reading while the camaraderie gives them the courage to go on.

Her pacing encourages this tone.  The book is subtitled, “My Month of Madness,” but it feels longer as doctor after doctor fails to diagnose her.  Besides the fear of not know what was happening or how to fix it, she also shows frustration, especially as some physicians dismiss her concerns or doubt her answers to questions of drugs and drinking, answers that significantly affect their diagnosis.  Women face problems like this all the time and seeing the effect this can have in the face of a major crisis makes the story more personal.

From the beginning, it is clear to the reader that Susannah must get better.  It’s the only way she could have written the book.  But the journey Cahalan takes us on to get there is terrifying and long, while always allowing the reader hope and a good person to cling to.  Despite its horrors,  Brain on Fire is an enjoyable read and a reminder about all the good things in life.

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Talking as Fast as I Can

Gilmore Girls has been important to me for half of my life.  I’ve always had a soft spot for Rory, but only since seeing the reboot have I realized how much Lorelai has influenced me as well.

In light of this, I was excited about Lauren Graham’s memoir release, Talking as Fast as I Can – what the Gilmore girls are famous for.

Lauren Graham isn’t Lorelai Gilmore, but she’ just as inspirational (if no more so since she’s, you know, a real person).

I was a little concerned about reading it, since my mom (who read it first) was clear that the book wasn’t entirely or even mostly about her experience filming Gilmore Girls.  But it is about following your dreams, and that was enough to make me enjoy it.

Much like Scrappy Little NobodyGraham’s memoir was formatted as a collection of personal essays, each centered on a particular theme.  Graham’s personal essays are also organized chronologically, showing her development as a person and actor in a similar fashion to a novel’s main character.  She starts with her childhood on a houseboat and goes on to describe some of the things she did to further her career and live in New York City before detailing her latest projects, including this book and the Gilmore Girls reboot.

Overall, Graham’s message is to be true to yourself.  She makes it clear when she was happiest and when she was miserable and the difference is whether or not she follows her own gut.  She writes about aging in Hollywood and how she still has to make choices and keep her true self in mind.  And in the  midst of it all, she talks about Gilmore Girls.

Talking as Fast as I Can feels like a conversation, like someone you know has connected you to Lauren Graham and she is trying to mentor you as best as she can, by telling you about her own successes and failures.  If you like Gilmore Girls, you’ll enjoy it.  If you’re struggling to follow your dreams, you’ll love it.  Even if you’re just looking for a comfort read and for someone to tell you everything is going to be okay, this is the book you should read.

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Scrappy Little Nobody

I’ve heard you should never meet your heroes. Those same people would probably tell you not to read their memoirs either.

Fuck that.

It depends on WHO your hero is. Pick the right one, and that shouldn’t be a problem. That being said, I met Anna Kendrick on Monday and have been reading her memoir, Scrappy Little Nobody, ever since, and I love her more than ever.

The event itself was at Bookends in Ridgewood, New Jersey.  They are apparently famous for their author events and were very efficient at getting everyone in and out in a timely manner.  That being said, I wanted to talk to her more.  Don’t get me wrong: she was absolutely funny and charming and she TOLD ME I LOOKED AMAZING AND HUGGED ME AND OH MY GOD GUYS I COULDN’T TAKE IT, but I didn’t get to ask her about Trolls like I wanted to or tell her I’d driven from L.A. or let her know that my lipstick color was called Lady Balls, which I figured she’d appreciate.  I left still feeling like I had a 2D idea of her.

Reading her book filled that gap.  She writes like she talks, and each story is told in a conversational style that makes you feel connected to her as the story-teller.  At one point, she even says that “we’re friends.”  Even though that’s not quite accurate, she manages to speak openly and honestly in a way that shows off her humanity.

There are a lot of “actress finds her way through Hollywood” stories, but it also contains several “young woman finds her way” stories and advice for girls about dating and sex.  She shows some true feminism and calls out some sexist issues with society from a personal level, like the guys who want to have sex with her until she shows she’s “too enthusiastic” about it.

All in all, the book just makes her seem more like a person I want to hang out with and feels like you’re catching up with a friend who happens to be living the “Hollywood life.”  The stories are funny and interesting and she bares her soul enough to ensure her reader is emotionally invested.

If you liked Twilight or Into the Woods, I recommend reading it.  If you want to be an actor and are curious how one moves to L.A. and gets into show business, I recommend reading it.  If you are a girl/young woman who doesn’t know how to be yourself in a world constantly telling you 5000 different people you should be, I recommend reading it.  She has good advice in spots.  In the places she doesn’t, well…she can commiserate enough that you don’t feel quite so alone in your circumstance.  And she’ll make you laugh enough to make you feel better about all of it.

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Walking Through America

I’ve written before about that moment you come across a book that was exactly what you needed at the precise moment you needed it.  I’m sorry if that’s not your relationship with stories, but it is mine, and A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson has been the latest example.

I technically started this book in St. Louis but I didn’t get absorbed in it until Cuba, Missouri.  By Cuba, three “bad things” had happened (all of which have been resolved by now, don’t worry Mom), and I was one horrible thing away from calling the whole trip off and going home.  I was homesick and tired and my money was evaporating faster than I had ever anticipated.  But, amidst all of these things, I found a cozy bed at the Wagon Wheel Motel, and I read A Walk in the Woods.

As soon as I read what Bryson’s cabbie said, about a guy who had dropped out of hiking the AT, I knew I was reading the right book for my own mindset.  “He said it wasn’t what he expected it to be.”  I knew that feeling.  Neither was 66.

“I had never encountered any step so hard, for which I was so ill prepared.”  I felt that, even as Bryson did.  His trip down the Appalachian Trail was nothing like my Route 66 roadtrip…and yet this was the perfect read for that feeling I was having.

For that reason, A Walk in the Woods was inspiring.  For every obstacle Bryson came to, he determined he would move forward.  It was also incredibly amusing.  Between Katz, his primary hiking buddy, and the other interesting characters he met on the Trail, Bryson had one hell of a journey down the mountain.  It is a true memoirist who can convey the exact feelings a person gives you, and Bryson did so expertly, giving us conversations and interactions that didn’t just tell the reader how it happened but truly put them in the scene.

Bryson describes his journey down the Appalachian trail exactly how he experienced it: that is, detailed in places and vaguely running together in others.  The strangest part is that it works.  While some books give specific accounts that are too specific or vague sections that leave a lot to be desired, Bryson gave us the perfect balance to let the reader feel like they are travelling down the Appalachian trail along with him and Katz.  It made me, someone who never hikes-ever- want to do it.

And yet (and here’s a spoiler, if you haven’t read it)…he doesn’t make it.  He doesn’t hike the entire trail.

In another story, this could be disheartening, even maddening.  But the way Bryson tells it, it’s a type of victory.  It’s learning  your limits and the true scope of the challenge before you.  It’s rediscovering your humanity and a connection with those around you, at the cost of what could be the experience of a lifetime.

I am going to make it to California…but I have a car.  I understand why Bryson and Katz stopped.  The beauty of his writing is that, despite the fact that he stopped, it is still a story that inspires one to continue  moving forward.  His encouraging voice, which sees the history and context of every movement he makes, is more than enough to inspire readers and compel them forwards.

If you haven’t read A Walk in the Woods, I wholeheartedly recommend it.  Even if your own journey is more theoretical and metaphysical than his, he has a lot he can teach you.  I know, because his book taught me.

This blog is supported by Patreon.  You can also find me on Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram.

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The Movie Will Probably Be Better (For Once)

You show up late to the party and everyone is already wasted.  They cut up, flirt inappropriately, and tell awful stories, thinking they’re freaking hysterical.  Meanwhile, all you see is a bunch of drunk stupid assholes.

Then someone hands you a beer.  As you drink it, you stoop closer to their level.  Sure, they’re stupid assholes, but…they’re kind of amusing stupid assholes.  You no longer want to punch them; you’re happy to wait for someone else to do it.

Congratulations.  You now know how it feels to read Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates (and 1000 Cocktails) by Mike and Dave Stangle.

The first few chapters include introductions, the titular Craigslist/Wedding Dates story, and Mike’s dating advice for women, and it’s all bad.  I guess you can only have so many “we got really drunk and/or high and did this stupid thing” stories before they all sound alike, so you have to fill the book somehow.

Because the stories aren’t good, neither is the writing.  In the beginning, they overcompensate for their lack of funny with an extra drunk, frat boy tone and manage to prove just how little they know about women.  (Seriously, it’s no wonder they had to resort to Craigslist to find dates, which…is actually the least interesting story in the book.  Why did they base the movie on it?)  To keep reading, I had to keep remind myself how much I love Anna Kendrick and that I couldn’t watch the movie if I didn’t finish.

Overtime though, the stories did become interesting and even genuinely funny…mostly thanks to Dave, if we’re honest.  Mike may not get why he’s their mother’s favorite, but I do.

As the stories improve, so does the prose.  Instead of overpowering the content, it goes back to doing its job of just telling the story.  They still say stupid things (like women don’t have a sex drive and gay guys are more likely to cheat), but you can more or less roll your eyes and repeat “You’re such an idiot” between chuckles.  They’re horrible people, but they don’t really hurt anyone, making it at least 50% better than the last memoir I read specifically because I wanted to see the movie.  Mike and Dave even get their comeuppance once or twice.

By the end, I was ready to be finished but didn’t feel like I’d wasted my time in reading it.  In fact, I’m looking forward to rolling my eyes at the shenanigans their movie versions get into.

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An Open Letter to Malala Yousafzai

Dear Malala:

First, I want to apologize.  Before I read your book, I only knew you by what happened to you.  You should never be reduced to the violence perpetrated against you, so I’m sorry.  Most of your books is from before, and those parts moved and inspired me at least as much as the climax.

Your descriptions of Swat and your day-to-day life there are reminiscent of a love letter to your homeland.  You described the scenery in such beautiful detail that I was instantly drawn in.  When you explained certain aspects of your culture, including its atmosphere of community, I felt your comfort and was at peace.  You more than explained it: you showed it through every interaction you described, with your fellow students, who came across more as sisters than friends, and the inclusion of your extended family, who were so prevalent that the “extended” seemed superfluous.  You did not hide the violence that infiltrated your home, but you managed to shine a light into those dark spots until we could see the beauty all around them.  Every time you mentioned that you still haven’t been able to return, I felt your heartbreak.  Your simple and pure language let the beauty of Swat shine through.

But what really shined through all of it was your heart, Malala.

I was under the misconception that you were attacked simply for trying to go to school and you became an activist in response.  That would have been extraordinary enough, but that was not the case.  When you were shot at 15, you had already been advocating for education for years.  Your passion for it colored your life: you spoke of it to every politician you encountered, risked heavily to use your voice in an anonymous blog, and worked hard in your personal studies to learn as much as you could.  You went to school even when you feared for your life.  Your passion and dedication are admirable.

Those traits impressed me, but I was equally inspired by your compassion and your faith.

When you saw children sifting through rubbish, your heart bled and you compelled your father to take them into his school.  You refused to fight only for yourself and instead fought for girls everywhere.  You never responded with cruelty or vengeance, despite what people have said and done to you.  Even the dedication speaks to your heart for your fellow women.

Equally amazingly, you kept your faith throughout and took control of it.  When you were told girls should not get an education because it went against Islam, you said, “No.  That is not what the Quran says.”  Instead of blaming Allah for the acts of men, you chose to thank Him for what happened next.

You, Malala Yousafzai, are an incredible young woman, and I am grateful I had the opportunity to read your story.

Respectfully yours,
Kari M. Johnson

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Reading Mary Karr’s Cherry was like reuniting with an old friend.  Those who have read The Liar’s Club will recognize the voice and even the main characters (as they seem to be, even though every bit of the story is true).  The situations themselves also feel familiar.  No matter how “mundane” your childhood was, Karr brings you in and lets you live her wild stories with her.

Cherry chronicles a lot of firsts and the journeys they lead her on.  We get to see exactly what she thought at the time but also how growing up has changed her perspective.  For those who loved her first book, it is an epic continuation, which will not disappoint as it is told with the same warmth and humor.  For those who have never read a Mary Karr book, it will bring you into her little world of Leechfield.

Every book she reads feeds into this sense of lostness and wandering.  Her tone injects her stories with a level of suspense, even though it is obvious from the fact that she lived to write it all down that it turned out fine, in the end.

Overall, this book was a great comfort to me, feeling at one time both familiar and like a glimpse into another universe.

I for one am looking forward to reading her book The Art of Memoir, as she appears to have mastered that art by recalling every detail to transport readers to her very consciousness at the time and using such beautiful, poetic language to do it.

(Of course, I may be biased because I’ve had a celebrity crush on her since I met her in college.)

While I doubt I will ever be able to recall my childhood with the detail she has presented hers with, reading her book has encouraged me to give poetry and lyricism another shot.  And as you well know, any work that encourages me to write is a paragon of glory in my book.

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Neil Patrick Harris, Starring…Me!

There are two ways you can read this book: the proper way, or the traditional way.  The traditional way or, “violating this books explicit instructions” is how I decided to do it.

(Similarly, there are two different kinds of people reading this blog: there are those who believe memoirs and autobiographies are the same thing and those who know the difference because they, like me, actually studied it briefly in college.  To the latter type of people saying this doesn’t fulfill the requirement for “memoir,” I say…well, NEIL said it’s a “bizarrely premised memoir.”)

Does the book make sense when read straight from page 1 to 291? Yes.  It certainly makes it feel more like a memoir and less like an autobiography.  Instead of hearing the story of NPH’s life all the way through, it’s more like getting to know him personally, one story at a time, which is how you get to know most of your friends.  We see his personality shine through in the guest-spots from his friends as well as in his own tone when he shows how grateful, how humble, and how good (and sometimes bad) his sense of humor genuinely is.  His love for his craft, as well as for his family is obvious as explains the luck and the work he put in to get to this point.  Plus, occasionally he breaks it up with interviews and recipes.

The format itself was unusual, but it helped the reader see more into Neil’s mind, which is the true purpose of a memoir.  And, metaphysically, it raises all the right questions about fate and who we would be if one tiny thing in our lives had been different.

Besides taking a difficult POV and and an unusual sequencing and making it work, the best thing about Choose Your Own Autobiography with Neil Patrick Harris is that it doesn’t appear to be holding back.  If it is a memoir, the theme is his journey through show business, but mixed in is his sexual self-discovery, his creating a family, and his path to certain friendships that guide his way.  And he doesn’t hold back from any of it.  His sexuality and relationship with David Burtka is by no means the focus of this book, but (as with any married couple) he is a huge part of his life and ingrained in everything else, as his self-discovery is in his young adulthood.  I feel like his showing that he hasn’t always been so open and unafraid is going to be helpful for other kids going through their own self-discovery.  That’s what he says he wants, is to “show by example.”

All in all, the book was genuinely warm and genuinely funny, but also genuinely well written, which is the perfect trifecta of the memoir genre.

My favorite thing about this book:  The magic tricks!  They’re pretty fantastic.

My least favorite thing about this book:  Probably his outing with Harold and Kumar, but that’s just no my humor.

Who I would most like to recommend this book to:  Obviously anyone who is a Neil Patrick Harris fan, but also people who are questioning their identity in ANY sense.

Where I read this book:  Okay, when I added this category, I thought I’d be reading in cool places again, like last year, but now I’m not so sure because every one of these is just “at home” or “at work.” Geez.

Where this book sits on my bookshelf: After From Dead to Worse of the Sookie Stackhouse series and Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter.

Book Challenge

(Just in case you’re interested: Neil Patrick says, “It gets better,” “It’s bigger,” and “It’s not just for gays any more.” …but I’m starting to forget what “it” is.)

(Also, if you’re a HIMYM fan who is about as happy with the series finale as I am, that is to say, not a gorram bit, Neil has some encouraging words for you on page 144.  It’s okay to skip to it.  It’s what Neil would want.)

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Yes Please

I am trying something new today.  Today is going to be the first Book Club Thursday.

Basically, my goal is to read at least a book a week, and then tell you about it.  Although if that doesn’t happen, I may tell you about a book I’ve read before that I love.  This could take several forms: might be a general gushing/ranting about the book, might be a legitimate, critical review, or it might be like the papers I had to do in college, where I talk about symbolism and deeper meanings.

Today’s book is Yes Please by Amy Poehler.  If you don’t know who that is, you can find her IMDB site here.  Personally, I love her in Parks & Rec, and I had seen gifsets on Tumblr of her and Tina Fey being feminist, so I wanted her book as soon as I knew it was a thing.

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Beforehand, it had been a while since I had read a memoir.  I forgot how dense and fluid they can be.  Memoirs don’t tell a story the way a novel has to.  They aren’t always in chronological order.  They’re linked more by ideas and themes than by an actual timeline, and for someone who generally reads novels, it can be a bit of an adjustment.  But Yes Please was entirely worth it.

There are times when Yes Please seems like Amy’s love letter to her life and her friends and family.  As such, it is completely beautiful, but it goes further than that because she shares them and so much more with the reader.  She tells them what mistakes she has made and what mistakes she continues to make.  She shows that she is human and the good and bad things that come with that.  She treats the reader like a younger sibling and uses them as confidant while simultaneously trying to impart her wisdom.

Obviously, this edition of Book Club Thursday was just me gushing about this book I really loved.  This is partially because I don’t like this posts going to far over 400 words, and I had to set up the idea which gave me less space to work with.  Sorry if you’re disappointed.  Maybe next week will be a critical analysis week.  Of course, I’m not sure which of the three books I’m reading will be done by then, so that will greatly affect what you get.  And, for future reference, I will consider recommendations.

My favorite thing about this book:  Probably Amy’s sex advice.

My least favorite thing about this book:  Now I want to go to Chicago and visit UCB.

Who I would most like to recommend this book to:  Parks & Rec fans.  In many ways, Amy IS Leslie Knope.

Where I read this book:  Mostly on the couch at home.

Where this book sits on my bookshelf:  Between Jerry Pinkney’s version of Aesop’s Fables and Addy Learns a Lesson from American Girls.

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