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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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 Feministing.com, 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.

Here We Are: Feminism for the Real World edited by Kelly Jensen

Here We Are: Feminism for the Real WorldHere We Are: Feminism for the Real World by Kelly Jensen
Published by Algonquin Young Readers

This is a really strong collection of feminist writing geared mostly at teenagers and young adults that I really enjoyed. While it is aimed at younger readers newer to feminism, it definitely has universal appeal and the diversity of voices in the collection absolutely gives something for everyone.

I loved so many of the pieces in this collection but I wanted to highlight a few in particular that really stood out to me. “Bad Feminism: Take Two” by Roxane Gay, which I’d previously read in her book, Bad Feminist, is a super inspiring essay about her particular feminism and how certain things that Gay is interested in may make someone label her a “bad” feminist but explaining that everyone’s feminism is different and feminism has room for ALL the different voices that make up the movement. There is a conversation between Laurie Halse Anderson and Courtney Summers titled “A Conversation about Girls’ Stories and Girls’ Voices” about why “rape books” are so important and why it’s so crucial to young women to read stories told from the perspective of girls going through the same things they are going through. “Reading Worthy Women” by Nova Ren Suma, about how she had a college professor who had a syllabus of only male writers, and upon asking him why, he informed her that there are “no worthy women writers” for his students to read, and this one interaction fueled her quest to read as many women writers that she could (and of course, she found plenty of “worthy” women to read). These are just a few of the incredible essays found in this collection, and there are many more.

Here We Are is a fantastic collection that I highly recommend. Highly recommended.

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.

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.