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.


Sex Object by Jessica Valenti

SSex Objectex Object by Jessica Valenti
Published by Dey Street Books

Jessica Valenti, creator of the widely popular feminist blog, has written several books about feminism over the years, but Sex Object is her first memoir about her own personal experiences. The book is not just about growing up in a world in which girls and women are treated as sex objects before anything else, but it’s about her own personal struggles, triumphs, and experiences throughout her lifetime.

I really like Jessica Valenti for many reasons so I had been pretty excited about this book. For the most part, I’m glad I read it, but I hate that I didn’t love it like I had hoped that I would. The parts of the book that I most enjoyed were Valenti’s personal stories, while unfortunately I didn’t enjoy as much the musings on feminism and what it means to be a woman in the world right now and in the 80’s and 90’s when she was growing up.

Part of my issue with Sex Object is that overall I’m not sure what Valenti added to the existing conversation around how women are treated in public spaces – much of what she discussed was how women are treated on public transportation and other places, and I hate to say it but I’ve heard all this before. While it’s important to keep having this discussion, I would have liked something to be added to the conversation around progress (if that’s even a thing) … I don’t know. The best way to say it is that I personally didn’t get anything new from these parts of the book.

The personal stuff, though, I did like. I would have liked even more of it, to be honest, especially as this is a memoir. I like Valenti, I like her politics, I like her writing style, I like her attitude, and I would have liked learning even more about her than what she shared in the book. Although, to be fair, she did share a lot – from her childhood, to her experiences having two abortions, to her issues within her marriage, to being a woman who is working on her own confidence in the world and in her career, to being successful in both of those things, to being pregnant and raising a daughter – and I definitely enjoyed all of these parts of the book.

While I was disappointed about some aspects of Sex Object, overall I did appreciate the book and I’m glad that Valenti chose to write a memoir. I have to remind myself to continue following the work she’s doing now (I think she has a podcast and also writes for The Guardian) because she is one of the many smart voices in feminism right now, someone who is talking about uncomfortable but important topics. I would recommend this book for fans of Valenti who are looking to get to know her on a more personal level.

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.

The Girl With Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story by Hyeonseo Lee

The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector's StoryThe Girl With Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story by Hyeonseo Lee
Published by Harper Collins

This is an extraordinary story of one woman who decided to escape North Korea when she was seventeen years old. The interesting thing about Lee’s story is that when she left North Korea and crossed the border into China, she was hoping to take a day trip just to “see” what China was like. Once she got there, however, she learned that coming back to North Korea would likely result in her being imprisoned or killed, along with the rest of her family. So she decided to stay in China, and after ten harrowing years of having to hide her identity from the Chinese government to avoid being deported back to North Korea, made her way to the South Korean embassy and declared herself a refugee. Several years after that, she made the terrifying trek back through China to the North Korean border to help her mother and brother escape the regime. Her story is terrifying and inspirational all at once.

With all the rhetoric going back and forth right now between the US president and the North Korean dictator, I feel like few Americans really understand just how repressive life in North Korea is for the people who live there. I have read a lot of books about North Korea over the years and am somewhat familiar with the history, but every single time I read about this country I learn more things that shock me. It’s easy as an American citizen to think of North Korea as this backwards place with this crazy dictator at its helm who may or may not bomb us if our president does one more thing to piss him off, but the history of this country and the lives of its people are so much more than that. Lee’s story is one that not only delves into her own history, but explains why it is so difficult for North Korean citizens to escape and charts some of the dangerous paths that are available to them to do so – none of which are safe or legal. She also gets into some of the history of the relationship between North Korea and China and explains that China is a very unfriendly place for North Korean defectors, and shows how next to impossible it is for them to get to the one place where they can get refugee status, South Korea. And even when reaching South Korea, many of the people Lee spoke to along her journey either died upon arrival from months or years of little food and no medical care, or were questioned in such a harsh manner that they desperately regretted their decision and wanted to go back home to North Korea.

This was a really good book that I highly recommend. In fact, especially with tensions between North Korea and the rest of the world being so high these days, I HIGHLY recommend any and all books about North Korea, particularly those from defectors, as they shed some light on the sociology and psychology of living in that country. Imagine knowing that if you left your home country, even for ten minutes, you and your family would all be killed immediately upon your arrival back, and if you don’t come back, your whole family would likely be imprisoned or killed. That’s just the tip of the iceberg for what people in North Korea live with on a daily basis. Please read about this place and about the brave people who have left it and are telling the world their terrifying stories.


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.

Fearless: The Historic Story of One Navy SEAL’s Sacrifice in the Hunt for Osama Bin Laden and the Unwavering Devotion of the Woman Who Loved Him by Eric Blehm

Fearless: The Heroic Story of One Navy SEAL's Sacrifice in the Hunt for Osama Bin Laden and the Unwavering Devotion of the Woman Who Loved HimFearless: The Historic Story of One Navy SEAL’s Sacrifice in the Hunt for Osama Bin Laden and the Unwavering Devotion of the Woman Who Loved Him by Eric Blehm
Published by The Doubleday Religious Publishing Group

Adam Brown had an interesting life, before and during the time he was in the military. He was a member of the SEAL Team Six (the guys who took down Osama Bin Laden) but tragically died about a year before the Bin Laden mission, on another valley at the base of a different mountain in Afghanistan, taking down other terrorists with his team. Brown was a guy who loved his family, friends, God, and his country, a guy who lived life to the extreme and made the most of every minute he had with the people he loved. He lived an exceptional life, although short, and his story is one that needs to be heard.

This was a book club book and to be honest, it’s not really my thing so I probably wouldn’t have read it if not for that reason. However, I found myself pleasantly surprised by how inspiring I found Adam Brown’s story. He was the typical popular kid all throughout school – football player, friends with everyone, you know the deal. After high school, though, he went down a dark path to drugs and became an addict. After attending several rehabs, he found Jesus Christ and that gave him the strength to get sober and look for a different path in life. He met a woman who later became his wife, got involved with his church, and decided to go to the military. During his training to become a SEAL, and while serving in the military, he lost an eye, almost lost his entire hand, and had countless debilitating injuries over the years. In fact, he was offered disability discharge with full retirement benefits about ten separate times but continued to refuse, as he wanted to fight for his country. He truly believed that was what he was put on this earth to do.

Adam Brown died defending his country from the same terrorists who were involved in 9/11, and based on everything I learned about him in this book, that’s exactly how he would have wanted to go. It was inspiring to read about someone so dedicated to something intangible, something outside of himself, and I was also inspired by his wife’s strength in the face of such difficult circumstances to be there for him and raise their children on her own after he died.

The one thing I had difficulty with in this book is the sheer volume of religion that is laced throughout the book. Christianity was a big part of Adam Brown’s life, but it did feel a bit preachy at times and I kept getting the message that if you’re not a believer in Jesus Christ, good luck accomplishing things because that is the secret ingredient to achieving your dreams and finding true happiness. As I don’t necessarily believe that myself, that message was a bit annoying to have to take while reading the book. And I think it bears being honest to say that because I did find this a very valuable story, super inspiring, and one that I think needs to be told. Unfortunately I think the religious aspect of the book will be a turn off for a fair amount of readers, which is a shame.

If you’re into inspiring stories, heroism, especially as it relates to the military, this is a fantastic choice. While I’m not super into military books, I still found Adam Brown’s story really interesting and was inspired by a lot of what I read here. Definitely give the book a chance, and maybe you’ll surprise yourself with genuinely enjoying it, as I did.