memoir

Gregory Boyle Brings Boundless Compassion In ‘Tattoos on the Heart’

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No daylight to separate us. Only kinship. Inching ourselves closer to creating a community of kinship such that God might recognize it. Soon we imagine, with God, this circle of compassion. Then we imagine no one standing outside of that circle, moving ourselves closer to the margins so that the margins themselves will be erased. We stand there with those whose dignity has been denied. We locate ourselves with the poor and the powerless and the voiceless. At the edges, we join the easily despised and the readily left out. We stand with the demonized so that the demonizing will stop. We situate ourselves right next to the disposable so that the day will come when we stop throwing people away.
― Gregory J. Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion

Some books are not about the stuff of life, but about life itself. Being here on this planet for a brief moment in time, really seeing each other, and then disappearing. Some books are not about the stuff of life, but how to live it. Gregory J. Boyle’s Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion is one of those books.

Boyle, or simply G as he is called by those who know him best, is a Jesuit priest and founder of Homeboy Industries. Homeboy built itself up out of the Dolores Mission in a small area of Los Angeles considered the gang capital of the world. G and Ray Stark, a successful movie producer, bought an old bakery, found an old tortilla machine, and decided to bring rival gang members together in what would be called The Homeboy Bakery.

After a young man arrived with a tattoo of “Fuck the World” across his forehead, asking for assistance in finding a job, they realized they also needed to provide ex-gang members with tattoo removal services.

Homeboy Industries has grown into a thriving resource for ex-gang members seeking employment, tattoo removal, and huge amount of other resources. They offer ex-gang members employment through cafes, a printing company, a bakery, and other avenues.

Tattoos on the Heart is not only G’s story, but the story of the homies. G’s couldn’t tell his story without theirs, as they are totally intertwined. They call him in the middle of the night for a ride home from prison. They shoot up his neighborhood in the afternoon, and he chases them down. These are his kids, and every step of the way he loves them. They live, and they die, under his compassionate guidance.

It is hard to understand how a book can be so funny and so sad all at once. But this is a hilarious, heart-breaking book. It is religious, with G offering teachings from a variety of faiths and spiritual leaders, but never zealous. This is a book about God, but don’t let that scare you. It is also a book about boys with tattoos and baggy pants trying to learn how to be men in a world that has largely forgotten them. It is brief (just over 200 pages), moving, and powerful.

Tattoos on the Heart on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

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Jenny Lawson Makes Us All ‘Furiously Happy’

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Without the dark there isn’t light. Without the pain there is no relief. And I remind myself that I’m lucky to be able to feel such great sorrow, and also such great happiness. I can grab on to each moment of joy and live in those moments because I have seen the bright contrast from dark to light and back again. I am privileged to be able to recognize that the sound of laughter is a blessing and a song, and to realize that the bright hours spent with my family and friends are extraordinary treasures to be saved, because those same moments are a medicine, a balm. Those moments are a promise that life is worth fighting for, and that promise is what pulls me through when depression distorts reality and tries to convince me otherwise.
― Jenny Lawson, Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things

Despite the above quote, which represents the more meaningful aspects of Furiously Happy, Jenny Lawson‘s second memoir is hilarious. She’s hilarious in the same way a person sliding from tipsy into totally wasted is hilarious. She’s funny in the same carefree way a toddler is funny, just wandering way out there past social norms to the unexpected. Lawson is like a wildly manic, taxidermy-loving bus driver taking all her readers on a thrill ride through her emotional landscape, her relationship with her deadpan husband Victor, and her quest for a taxidermied camel.

Lawson writes in a style all her own, a very modern, pulled-from-the-blogosphere stream-of-consciousness. The book is full of her struggles against spellcheck, constant asides, and interjections. Although the effect is jarring at times, it is 100% Lawson. Her personality is quick and jumpy, sliding with ease from a joke into a serious discussion of depression. The momentum of her language matches her message here. The concept of being ‘furiously happy’ as a push back against the suffering of mental illness, a crazy sort of joy that pushes you to do more and feel more because you also experience the dark side of life, comes across in the seemingly endless energy Lawson throws into every joke.

Such a unique style, such a unique person, can take some getting used to. Full confession here, I tried to read Lawson’s first memoir, the much raved about Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, and her writing style bothered me so much I stopped. I was shocked that such a praised book was written in such casual starts and stops, and I didn’t get very far before giving up. But after reading Furiously Happy, I think I understand the spirit behind Lawson’s tone, and I want to go back to Let’s Pretend This Never Happened.

And, second full confession here, without even realizing it, I’ve been living my life the Lawson way. I too am a furiously happy person! I also struggle with anxiety and depression, as well as chronic pain, but drink a ton of coffee and am so chipper I often frighten people with my wide smiles and cheerful hellos. I love to live life big and full, because I’ve seen way down those dark nooks and crannies. So all of Lawson’s philosophies in this book (okay, maybe not the taxidermy stuff as much) had me saying yes, definitely, yes.

If you’ve ever felt like the craziest person in the room, Lawson is here to tell you that she’s felt that way too. And instead of getting upset about it, she’s going to find a taxidermied raccoon, crawl out from under that table, and then get furiously happy.

Furiously Happy on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

Further reading:

Judy Batalion Takes On History, Hoarding, And Family In ‘White Walls’

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In White Walls: A Memoir About Motherhood, Daughterhood, and the Mess In Between, Judy Batalion recounts growing up amidst stuff. Where normal kids cuddled on their mother’s bed for story time, mountains of detritus left no room for little Judy to snuggle up to mom. Tuna fish cans stacked like a great wall through her kitchen; newspapers, free magazines, and library books towered next to the sofa; records overflowed from shelves onto the floor.

Judy’s mother hoards as if fighting off the deprivation of her history, a woman born to Jewish Polish immigrants struggling for survival as they fled the Holocaust, fled the Nazis, leaving behind friends, neighbors, and their homeland. This isn’t inexplicable hoarding, but hoarding grown out of a time of having nothing, starving in camps, standing in breadlines. Judy finds herself, as a third-generation Jewish woman, separated from the Holocaust’s physical hardships but living amidst its emotional aftereffects.

All the dysfunction of Judy’s childhood–her over-anxious and self-absorbed mother, a house filled with so much stuff it had little room for love–bubbles to the surface when Judy, as a successful young woman, finds out she’s pregnant. Although she’s left her home behind, her mother’s mental health is in decline. How can she be there for a mother who has been largely absent? And will Judy, like her mother before her, continue to pass down the trauma she inherited from previous generations? Can she overcome the anxieties of a childhood drowning in unneeded junk, and of a mother (and now grandmother) unlike any other, to her own child?

Judy writes pretty prose, posing questions about her own experiences that she answers through relayed experience without extended navel-gazing. White Walls is funny, as Judy, also a comedian, has a crack-up sense of humor and a gift for one-liners. It is tragic at other times, as Judy, along with her brother and father, seek a court order to hospitalize her mother against her will.

I’ve read books about crazy moms (Chanel Bonfire, Oh The Glory of It All) and books about hoarding (Coming Clean, Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things) but this one explores the heartbreak of mental illness, a struggle to overcome generational trauma, the shame of hoarding, and the anxieties of motherhood all in one free association, full disclosure, flash-back style relay between motherhood and childhood, between then and now.

White Walls on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

Photosensitivity Makes Anna Lyndsey a Girl in the Dark

In 2004, Anna Lyndsey’s face began to burn as she sat in front of her computer. Like the worst sunburn, like a hot torch. This was the beginning of sensitivity to light so severe that Lyndsey, found herself seeking comfort in a blackened room, dressed in thick garments from head to toe.

Jessica Hendry Nelson’s If Only You People Could Follow Directions Is An Intimate Look At One Family’s Struggle With Addiction

A little less lip. A little more faith. A little more higher power. A little more prayer, a little less wine. Cut the crap. Cut the line. Tuck the chin. Look left, right, faster, slower. Pick seven dandelions on the first day of spring. Hate less or more. Work harder. Chew slower. Be better. Look to god, God, GOD. Watch your language. Watch your back. Collect rocks. Lick ’em clean.

Review – The Sanctuary of Illness: A Memoir of Heart Disease by Thomas Larson

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Thomas Larson packs tons of emotion into this tiny memoir, and I went from being repelled by glimpses of his life I didn’t need to know about, to being moved almost to tears as I read while sitting on a very hard stool in a very crowded Apple Store, waiting for my appointment at the Genius Bar. Highlighting almost every paragraph, wondering how socially inappropriate it would be to cry about a memoir to a tech support guy–The Sanctuary of Illness had me like this so many times, but then always took things a little too far, causing me to reel from its total disclosure and turn away from sad, brilliant insight Larson free associates onto the page.

Larson is a man doomed, by that perhaps least onerous but most prevalent condition in the U.S. today. His father died of heart disease at sixty-one, and his older brother died of heart disease at forty-two. The book opens with Larson’s first heart attack, which he realizes is upon him as he’s teaching a class. Anyone who has ever been devastatingly ill in any way, from a panic attack to the stomach flu to a migraine to a heart attack like that which strikes Larson, can relate to his attempts to maintain social norms despite a failing body. What makes Larson’s writing so memorable is that this isn’t memoir filtered, this isn’t someone after the fact trying to put a bright spin on things. He portrays everything, and we’re there with him in the bathroom, we’re there with him as he’s mildly delusional, telling his class he has to leave, somehow driving himself to the hospital, blinking through random glimpses of emergency angioplasty. This isn’t illness, minus the ugly parts, less the endless indignities that might make the reader want to squirm. This is Larson exposed, at his most vulnerable, his heart literally failing as he watches.

This complete openness is also, to be quite unfair, what I disliked about The Sanctuary of Illness, as sometimes I wished for more filter between author and reader. Larson’s concerns about impotence early in the memoir are answered later with vivid glimpses of his sex life, fueled by Viagra, that still haunt me. A few sentences stand out as inappropriately, awkwardly much too pornographic for the rest of the book (disturbing all its reviewers, it seems). His explorations into therapy with his wife illustrate how devastating heart attacks can be for a significant other, and how deep the fear of death really goes in a rift between a couple, but again, this is really intimate stuff. And perhaps that is why we don’t talk about heart disease more in our society, as that leading killer which can strike from nowhere unannounced, lightning in illness form. Heart disease has such a brilliant and clear connection with death, looking at it straight on almost hurts.

But maybe we should. Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States, and Larson’s story is a not only an explanation of the disease itself, and his struggle through it, but also an examination of all the various quirks and curiosities that surround it in our society: why men who feel like they’re dying choose to get in a truck and drive, alone, rather than seek help; the delicate and every-mysterious line, post-diagnosis, between angina and anxiety, heartburn and heart attack; talking about heart disease while eating out at a restaurant with friends, all of them made uncomfortable by what is or isn’t on their plates. The Sanctuary of Illness presents everything about heart disease, whether the reader would like to see it or not. Larson, in all his unglamorous over-exposure, trudges as an explorer, on a path so many of us seem fated to follow but few of us seem able to discuss.

The Sanctuary of Illness by Thomas Larson on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

Review – Girl with Glasses: My Optic History by Marissa Walsh

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Girl with Glasses: My Optic History by Marissa Walsh is the cheeky, charming, light-hearted type of read that only a certain type of young woman can appreciate. Having serious visual impairment myself, with ever-thickening frames and glasses from a young age, I can totally relate to the rites and rituals recounted here. Walsh tells her coming-of-age story through the lenses of each pair of glasses she wore, from her first, to her dalliance with those maddening contact lenses, into the pair she now wears with pride.

When I talk with the non-glasses-wearing crowd, I’m constantly baffled at how the other half lives. Some of my friends have never (!) visited an eye doctor, and are confused by my yearly appointments for vision checks and blurriness-inducing dilation. I still remember, even though I’m not sure how young I was, how much my view of the world changed after I got my first pair of glasses. My mom says I was in kindergarten, but I think surely it has to be more around 3rd grade. Wearing those glasses for the first time on the way home, I gained access to a world far outside what I thought was meant to be viewed by one little person. It seemed like I had these crisp new laser-like eyes, beaming directly to store signs bordering the street as I peered out the car window, causing me to exclaim about every sign I could see. All these new layers of the world I had previously dismissed as a blur of haze and fuzz, now transformed into something speaking just to me.

This is the fun of Girl with Glasses, the ridiculous memories of being coached by an ophthalmologist’s assistant to put in contacts, the frustration of glasses in the rain, the impossibility of trying on a new pair of glasses when you can’t see what they look like on your face because you need your real glasses to see, and other common commiserations only GWG’s can really understand. I could see this being especially appreciated by middle school and teenage girls who are waffling between glasses and contacts, trying to pick between the two.

Those looking for a deep, contemplative memoir should look elsewhere. This isn’t that kind of book. Girl with Glasses is a fast and silly read, full of witty one-liners that aren’t afraid to border on cheesy. A few reviewers complain about the generalizations–as GWG’s, they don’t fit the stereotypes here. I don’t think the author fits all the stereotypes of a GWG either, and I don’t think she’s making a case here for stereotypes being accurate. I think she’s trying to have fun with the stereotypes, and use them to describe herself when she’s able. I see this as a statement about the stereotypes around glasses, rather than a statement about the accuracy of those stereotypes. That being said, I don’t think there’s too much deep stuff here. This is meant to be fun and funny. I suspect Walsh just wanted to talk about this unique aspect of her childhood, which she knew many others out there must be going through as well. And what better way to discuss all the absurdities of life with glasses, then through humor.

If you pick up Girl with Glasses, make sure you grab a printed version. The audiobook narrator is alarmingly overemphatic to the point she sounds like she’s trying to amp up a kindergarten class up for playtime. Great for a quick commercial selling something, but horrible for hours of narration where the cheese becomes tiring.

Girl with Glasses by Marissa Walsh on Amazon.com/Powells.com

Further Reading:

Review – Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape by Jenna Miscavige Hill

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Next, we had to yell at square glass ashtrays at the top of our lungs. The idea was to train ourselves to express absolutely clear intentions, and by mastering this we’d be able to guide our future preclears to successfully confront things. And it didn’t end there. Directing our intentions into particular parts of the ashtray, we’d ask our ashtray very specific questions. The belief was, that whenever you asked a question, you had the intention of getting that question answered, as you should when you had a preclear in session. The ashtray was required to be square. We were to direct questions into each of its four corners.
“Are you an ashtray?”
“Are you a corner?”
“Are you made of glass?”
The same principles that we were trying to learn and understand as auditors were the principles that prevented us from questioning these ridiculous tasks. We’d been trained to follow instructions, just as we were now learning how to make others follow ours. Outlandish as all these tasks were, none of them ever struck me as odd, but remembering the scene now, they were. . . . All these courses were supposed to be about training auditors to be smooth with their communication, and less distracting to preclears in session. But the result is that it made all of us more robotic. It automated our responses, turning everything we said into a script.
-Beyond Belief, Jenna Miscavige Hill

Jenna Miscavige Hill (via)

Jenna Miscavige Hill was raised in an alternate reality, with its own hyper-abbreviated lingo, strict work ethic, and complicated belief system. She was raised as a Scientologist, and amazingly survived her bizarre upbringing of manual labor and indoctrination to leave the church and write a memoir, Beyond Belief. As Scientology is a relatively new development (started in 1952), it seems safe to assume these stories (and memoirs) may become more common as more children are raised in these situations, flee, then report back to the outside world what exactly they experienced inside the secretive church.

Beyond Belief is simply written, as Hill doesn’t spend much time waxing poetic. She documents her experience, and allows the reader to infer from her life what they choose. She repeated L. Ron Hubbard mantras over and over in what was called “Chinese School”; she and other kids did manual labor at the ranch they lived on, after class and on weekends; she saw her parents once or twice a year at times; and when she and others encountered the usual trials and tribulations of adolescence they were interrogated or banished. What seemed like fun and games to Hill as a young child began to cause pain and heartbreak as she aged and thought more independently.

Some of the situations recounted in Beyond Belief seem so ridiculous they are almost comical (Hill is asked to sign a one-billion year contract when she is seven years old), others are painful to read about. Much of Scientology’s power over its members seems to be derived from separating family members, and Hill struggles to communicate with family and loved ones throughout the book.

Certainly one of Hill’s intrigues is her last name. While both her parents held prominent positions in the church, her uncle, David Miscavige, ultimately took over the church and is still its leader today. Those seeking insider information regarding David Miscavige or an overview of the church’s intense and nefarious business dealings may want to look elsewhere before reading Beyond Belief. This is ultimately Jenna’s personal story, as it should be. For a thorough overview of the church, I suggest Inside Scientology: The Story of America’s Most Secretive Religion by Janet Reitman (although I realize there is high praise for Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright I haven’t had a chance to read it yet). Without some background on the Church of Scientology, you may find yourself lost amidst all the practices unique to the church in Hill’s story: abbreviations and talks of preclears and auditing, which are explained briefly in Beyond Belief but examined in more detail elsewhere.

Even after reading other books about Scientology, I was surprised by how extreme Hill’s childhood experience was. She now works with the website Ex-Scientology Kids to provide support to others leaving the church. In this type of situation, where Scientology values its image so much and markets itself as a church, it does seem like one of the most powerful things to do is to make these voices heard.

Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape by Jenna Miscavige Hill on Amazon.com/Indiebound.org

Related links:

Review – Love, Life, and Elephants: An African Love Story by Daphne Sheldrick.

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I’m going to be real, I gave up on this book after dragging myself through 11 hours of the 14 hour long audiobook. My breaking point came when – shocker! – the millionth animal struggling to survive under Daphne’s care, or trying to survive in the wild after leaving her care, dies.

I love animals, and I want to love people’s heart-warming stories of living with animals. I like the idea of these stories. I like my own life, lived with two cats. I worked at the Humane Society and fell under the spell of fluffy unfortunates on the daily. But here’s the deal: I can’t get through these books. The quirky Enslaved by Ducks by Bob Tarte, the kitschily titled book about the PTSD dude with a dog, this dame’s adventures interfering with wildlife after her people (she greatly regrets) fail to colonize Africa. I find these books sweet and mildly irritating and vaguely un-notable. I think Daphne’s descriptions and view of the jungle as enchanting and full of delight is beautifully expressed, and I’d love for her to write a fiction novel that focuses more on people and events in that sort of rare environment – I’d find that intriguing.

I also do find a bit of her cultural belief system the elephant (ha! obvious pun there) in the room. At one point she talks of how she fears a one vote per one person system for an independent Kenya, stating this would give Africans a majority vote over whites. The concept of someone publicly believing Africans should receive less of a vote than white settlers based on skin color is so offensive/racist it made me question if I should have purchased the book at all. On a more debatable thought level than every human being equal to one vote, her husband devotes himself to ending poaching in their area only to be confronted with ideas of overpopulation and arguments for culling. I wonder if this “we know best” attitude of cultural interference is healthy for anyone – the wildlife they have decided needs saving, the indigenous people whose ways of life they have decided to interfere with, etc.

Interestingly enough, when I posted my review of this book on Goodreads and read the other reviews I discovered another reviewer had taken these non-discussed issues, as well as his personal relationship with Daphne Sheldrick, and written a book called, aptly enough, The Elephants in the Room: An Excavation. It was written by Martin Rowe, is launching in September from Lantern Books, and I’m sure it will be an interesting read.

As a final note, this is another book I listened to on audio, and it was read by the author.  This rarely works and always disappoints me.  Daphne Sheldrick is now an older woman, telling the stories of a younger one.  It was harder for me to get over the older voice – like I was being told a bedtime story of a yesteryear, the bygone days that I’m sure Sheldrick pines for.  I think a younger narrator may have suited the story better.

Love, Life, and Elephants on Barnes & Noble.com

Why hello there!

I’m a lover of books. I can’t stop reading them, telling people (who aren’t asking) about them, buying them, selling them, browsing them, adding them to wishlists, checking them off my lists, reading reviews of them, listening to them. I’m creating this little site to share my love with you – the good, the bad, and the ugly.

I mainly read mystery (currently Broken Harbor by Tana French, just finished Red Dragon by Thomas Harris), popular fiction (on my to-read shelf: the first four Game of Thrones novels by George R. R. Martin), literary fiction (trawling through 2666 by Roberto Bolano, just started and then sort of put off Swamplandia! by Karen Russell, listening to The Dinner by Herman Koch), memoir (currently in the middle of In the Body of the World by Eve Ensler), and non-fiction and essays (on the to-read shelf: The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan, and currently in the middle of How to Be Alone by Johnathan Franzen). Oh, and I love a good science fiction or speculative fiction story but for some reason these aren’t in my spotlight right now.

This site will be full of reviews that I won’t insist to be unbiased, chock full of my own opinions. I like to take into account our current cultural climate while considering the medium and the message of the books I read.

All for now.