Not My Father’s Son by Alan Cumming

Not My Father's SonNot My Father’s Son by Alan Cumming
Published by Dey Street Books

This was an audible recommended book to me based on several others I’ve listened to recently (I’m super into celebrity memoirs if you haven’t noticed), so I chose to listen to it even though I had no idea who Alan Cumming was. Turns out, he’s an actor, who was approached to do a reality TV show about his family’s genealogy, and decided to do the show in the hopes of uncovering the mystery surrounding the disappearance of his maternal grandfather many years ago. This experienced dredged up another long-buried secret that his father, from whom he was long estranged after years of abuse, decided to reveal to Alan. This secret would change the course of Alan’s personal narrative about his own life.

Alan Cumming’s story is one that absolutely needed to be told, and it’s fascinating both as a story itself and in the ways in which his father’s abuse and subsequent “confession” shaped his entire life and perception of himself. The abuse he suffered was really awful, and not just the physical aspect of it, but the way that his father indicated throughout Cumming’s life, in no uncertain terms, that he truly detested Cumming’s very existence. The fact that Cumming had to interpret this in some way as a very young child, and essentially had to tell himself that there must have been something he did wrong, something inherently wrong with him, for his father to hate him this much, is just devastating to think about.

I was less interested in learning about Cumming’s grandfather than I was about the situation with his father, which is a shame because I think that’s the part of the story that he was most happy to be sharing. I just felt that it paled in its poignancy in comparison to the issues with his father, so every time he started talking about the research he was doing about his grandfather I grew bored and restless and wanted him to go back to the other stuff.

I listened to the audio of this one and I really enjoyed hearing Cumming’s story told in his own voice. If you’re looking to pick this up I highly recommend the audio. I’m happy that I chose to listen to this book even though I didn’t have a clue who Alan Cumming was before picking it up. This is a perfect example of the fact that a well-written and interesting story is always a great choice, no matter who or what it’s about. Recommended.

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Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah

Born a Crime: Stories From a South African ChildhoodBorn a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah
Published by Doubleday Canada

The reason that Trevor Noah’s memoir is called Born a Crime is because he was born during apartheid to a white father and black mother, at a time when it was illegal for whites and blacks to be in relationships with each other. So his birth, the proof of his parents’ relationship, was literally a crime in and of itself.

Personally I didn’t know much about Trevor Noah before reading this book. I am not a huge TV watcher and have never seen a full episode of The Daily Show, but I knew that Noah was smart and funny, and I also knew that his book would provide some insight on life in apartheid South Africa, a part of history that I’m just getting to learn more about (my lack of knowledge on this is embarrassing). Now that I’ve read the book, I’m even more interested in South Africa and find Noah’s upbringing and accomplishments fascinating.

The stories that Noah tells in his memoir run the gamut of explaining how apartheid worked, what the restrictions were on black people and “colored” people, what the social structure was like during that time, in addition to a lot of personal stories about how he personally grew up with his mother, distant father, eventual stepfather and younger brother, and a huge network of aunts, uncles, cousins, and other family members who helped raise him. Because he gives the reader a mini-education on apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa in addition to talking about his own life, his memoir is not only engaging and interesting but has a dose of educational as well. While some of what he says in regards to the history of South Africa is based on his own opinions, and other things are clearly tinged with his personal beliefs, the facts that he lays out for the reader about how society worked at that time are undisputed facts. I really appreciated learning not only the facts about this time in South Africa’s history, but about how growing up in this time affected and influenced Noah’s life – he had a lot of unique experiences being what he calls “colored” (not quite black, not quite white).

I listened to Born A Crime on audio and it was the perfect choice. Trevor Noah narrates himself, and he has the perfect inflection in his voice as he tells his own stories. There’s nothing better than having a memoir author read their own memoir to you, and this was the perfect example of how great it can be.

I highly recommend Born A Crime for those both familiar and unfamiliar with Trevor Noah’s work. His story is fascinating and inspiring, and it’s always good to learn more about life in other countries – especially when much should be learned from the history of that country. I absolutely loved this book.

From Cradle to Stage: Stories from the Mothers Who Rocked and Raised Rock Stars by Virginia Hanlon Grohl

From Cradle to Stage: Stories from the Mothers Who Rocked and Raised Rock StarsFrom Cradle to Stage: Stories from the Mothers Who Rocked and Raised Rock Stars by Virginia Hanlon Grohl
Published by Seal Press

Virginia Grohl, mother of Dave Grohl, frontman for the Foo Fighters and former drummer for Nirvana, decided to interview mothers of many famous musicians to see what similarities they all shared and what it was like to raise a rock star child.

I am a big fan of the Foo Fighters, and my boyfriend is a drummer, so when I heard about this book from a friend of mine I decided to give it a try. I actually recommended it to my boyfriend first, and he liked it so I definitely wanted to read it, too. So many of the women Grohl interviews led extremely interesting lives, and it was really fun to hear their stories. I liked that she gave a background on each mother before talking to the women about their sons and daughters – it helped to get a good picture of each musician through their mother’s eyes. It was striking how many similar experiences these women had with one another – most of their children were high-energy, super creative, incredibly smart, talented, even as very young children, and most of the mothers saw something special in them from an extremely young age. So many of the musicians had a moment when they told their mothers that they wanted to pursue music instead of being a doctor, lawyer, teacher, or any other dreams their parents had for them, and it was interesting to see the varied responses the mothers had to their kids’ decision.

One thing that was disappointing about the book was that I listened to the audio and while I thought it was admirable for Grohl to narrate it herself, I wish she would have had someone else do it. She has a nice voice but it is sort of monotone and it was way too easy for me to zone out while she was speaking.

I definitely think mothers of rockstars or rockstar hopefuls should read this book; if nothing else, I’m sure there is a feeling of solidarity that would be inspired by the contents here. I definitely enjoyed the book and it was a unique experience that I wouldn’t have picked up had my friend not recommended it to me. Also, if you listen to the audio there is a conversation between Dave Grohl and his mom at the end that is really cute and interesting to listen to.

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in CrisisHillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance
Published by Harper

Hillbilly Elegy is J.D. Vance’s memoir of growing up in a poor Appalachian town, a book which details his personal experiences growing up and how he escaped the poverty that was a fixture of his childhood. He also muses quite a bit about why he believes people from this area of the country have such a hard time turning their circumstances around and the ways in which politics and inherent beliefs of the area are a detriment to the people from this area.

I hold two separate opinions about this book and while they are at odds with each other, I think it makes sense to feel conflicted about Vance’s memoir. On the one hand, his story is an interesting one and should absolutely be seen as inspirational. He grew up in a poor, rural community with no support from his father, very little support from his sometimes drug-addicted mother, and all odds pointed to the probability that he would skip college, find a dead-end job, and end up in a similar situation for himself as an adult. This did not happen, and Vance credits his own perseverance as well as the emotional, physical, and monetary support he received from his maternal grandparents as the primary reasons he was able to go to college, move to a town with better opportunities, marry a person he truly loved and respected, and find a well-respected, well-paying job. So on the one hand, I liked hearing Vance’s story and it reminded me a bit of my own personal story – I grew up in the Chicago suburbs, not Appalachia, but I, too, grew up without much money and managed to work my own way through college, subsisting on grants and loans and three part-time jobs at the same time, earning a degree and finding a great career. So I related to his struggles in some ways and understood the determination he felt to get himself to a different situation than what his parents were able to provide for him growing up.

On the other hand, he makes a lot of sweeping generalizations about the people in Appalachia that I’m just not sure his personal story gives him the right to make. Yes, he experienced this culture first-hand, so of course he has a unique view and understanding of some elements of it that outsiders can’t possibly understand. However, his experiences are his own, and the links he creates from his own experiences to those of others living in the same part of the country are weak in some places. I’m not saying that he doesn’t have the right to make observations and even draw conclusions about the culture that he grew up in; just that I think some of his generalizations are a bit too general, if that makes sense. What’s true for his family and his life isn’t necessarily true for everyone else around him.

That being said, however, I did really enjoy this memoir and it gave me a lot of food for thought. I would resist drawing too many political or socioeconomic conclusions from its content; however, as I said, this is a book about one person’s experiences and may not translate to everyone who is from the same part of the country.

I listened to the audiobook of Hillbilly Elegy, which is narrated by the author. It was really well done and definitely gave a feel for the author’s thoughts and feelings – as though he was telling the reader his own story, with his own voice and inflections. I would definitely recommend the audio.

Overall, I liked this one a lot but found it had a few problems. Still I would recommend for those who like memoirs.

The Year of Living Danishly by Helen Russell

The Year of Living Danishly: My Twelve Months Unearthing the Secrets of the World's Happiest CountryThe Year of Living Danishly: My Twelve Months Unearthing the Secrets of the World’s Happiest Country by Helen Russell
Published by Icon Books

Helen Russell and her husband decide to move from their home in London, England to Denmark for one year in order for Russell’s husband to take a temporary job at Lego. While there, Helen spends the year trying to figure out what exactly makes the Danish people rank consistently among the happiest people on earth. She makes friends with many Danish people, meets with experts on happiness and well-being, and experiences everything Denmark has to offer in order to get a clear understanding of what exactly makes the Danish so darn happy.

I thought this book was a fun read and found it enjoyable overall. Some of the major things I learned was that the Danish are happy primarily because they spend a lot of time with family, they have very close social ties, their government provides a huge safety net against poverty, food insecurity, etc., and the culture is one in which trust is a tenant of any relationship, business or personal. That’s a very quick summary of what Russell learned but it covers the basics.

There is a lot of discussion in the book about taxes and about the balance between paying more in taxes and being happier. Denmark has one of the highest tax rates in the world with some Danes paying over 50% of their gross income in taxes, yet the Danish people see real impacts on their lives in exchange for the money they pay the government. Here in the US we are not exactly used to trusting the government to do the “right thing” with our tax dollars and most Americans typically want to pay less money in taxes, but the Danish welcome the high tax bill as they expect a safety net and other social programs in exchange for their tax dollars. It is a different way of thinking than what I am personally used to, and I am not sure this model could work in a country as large as the US (Denmark has just over 5 million people, about two-thirds the size of the population of New York City), but it is certainly something to think about.

I listened to the audio of the book, narrated by Lucy Price-Lewis, a new voice to me. She did a nice job with the narration – her light British accent was pleasant to listen to and she had the right inflections in her voice to match the tone of Russell’s writing. I would recommend the audiobook.

The Year of Living Danishly was an enjoyable experience and I thought it was pretty good overall. I’m not sure that the Danish lifestyle is for me – the dark, freezing cold winters alone make me lose interst – but there were certainly a few things I took from the book and I think everyone can learn a little something from a culture that values family and social ties so highly. At the very least, the book made me put a visit to Denmark on my bucket list.

The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are

The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You AreThe Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are by Brene Brown
Published by Hazeldon Publishing

I’d long heard Brene Brown’s name mentioned as a writer similar to Cheryl Strayed or Elizabeth Gilbert (two of my favorites), so I was excited to pick up my first book by Brown and experience her thoughts for myself. Unfortunately, this book wasn’t quite what I was hoping for and I’m sure that’s the fault of my own and not of the writer, for a few reasons.

It’s funny that at the end of the book Brown explains that this wasn’t meant to be a self-help book in the traditional sense, but for me I found that it was a bit too self-help-y, so I almost laughed out loud when I got to the end of the book and heard that part (I listened to the audio, so yes I actually did “hear” it). The basic idea of the book is to give the reader a set of guideposts to learn how to embrace the idea that perfection is not possible or even ideal, and that we should be looking to embrace our true selves instead of being ashamed of our mistakes and shortcomings. This is something I truly need in my life, as I am guilty of trying to please everyone and being extremely hard on myself in just about every scenario one can dream up. However, I just found the book relatively dry and it didn’t do much to enhance my life or my attitude about myself.

Part of the issue, I think, was that I listened to the audio, and it may have been a combination of not loving the narrator and needing to actually see the words on the page, but I don’t think I absorbed much of the guidance Brown was trying to provide here.

Ultimately I’m still interested in reading more from Brene Brown, as I think there were some nuggets of truth within the book, and a few things that I will take away, but unfortunately this one just didn’t work for me.

The Four Tendencies: The Indispensable Personality Profiles That Reveal How to Make Your Life Better (and Other People’s Lives Better, Too) by Gretchen Rubin

The Four Tendencies: The Indispensable Personality Profiles That Reveal How to Make Your Life Better (and Other People's Lives Better, Too)The Four Tendencies: The Indispensable Personality Profiles That Reveal How to Make Your Life Better (and Other People’s Lives Better, Too) by Gretchen Rubin
Published by Harmony

Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project and Better Than Before, habits and happiness guru, is back with another book – this time focusing on the framework that she developed called The Four Tendencies. The basic idea is that these four types of people respond to expectations differently, and figuring out your tendency is a key piece in mastering your ability to create new habits and have a happy, productive life.

I’m not sure that writing a whole book about the four tendencies was Rubin’s best idea. I was interested in this subject when I first read about it in Better Than Before, and it certainly explains a lot about people’s behavior and how different people respond differently to expectations, but this book was a bit overkill for me. I’m just not sure that I need to know every single way each tendency can affect every single other tendency, how to “deal” with each tendency in every area of life, or which tendencies pair the best with others in romantic relationships, friendships, or as coworkers.

I listened to the audio of The Four Tendencies and it was pretty good. Rubin narrates it herself, and having listened to some of her podcast episodes I was familiar with her voice. She is a good speaker and I can see why she has been successful at speaking engagements all across the country.

The Four Tendencies would be a good choice for those who are huge fans of Gretchen Rubin’s work in happiness and habits, and I did find parts of it interesting. However, I felt it was a bit TOO much about these tendencies and I am not sure that writing an entire book about this subject was totally necessary. Recommended for fans of Gretchen Rubin; others, not so much.