Reading for Me

The Books I Have Read…..Just for Me

#1: Karamo: My Story of Embracing Purpose, Healing and Hope (Karamo Brown)

Here it is….the first review of 2020! Not surprisingly, the first book that I completed this year was an audio book.

Karamo: My Story is the memoir of Karamo Brown, life coach on Netflix’s reboot of Queer Eye. For those of us who grew up with MTV’s The Real World, we first met Karamo there. Things have definitely changed since our first encounter with the author all those years ago.

As I listened to the book, I was immediately struck by Karamo’s honesty and openness. He shares details about his childhood, his early relationship with organized religion, and his struggles with addiction that are startling in their frankness. Yet, it quickly becomes clear that Karamo is sharing these stories in order to help others learn from his experiences. I especially found his discussion of the intersection between faith and his sexuality to be thought-provoking and timely. Quite simply, Karamo sums up his feelings on the subject with three words: “God is Love.” Whether you are interested in the rest of this memoir, this single chapter is worth reading. (I think it was chapter 3…)

As Karamo speaks of his sons and his husband, it is easy to hear his love for them. The level of commitment that he expresses for his marriage is one that many couples in traditional marriages could benefit from. I don’t care what you think about this hot-button topic, Karamo’s proposal story will make anyone believe in romance.

I first began listening to this audiobook simply out of curiosity. Did this man that I watched on television many years ago have anything substantial to say? What I found was a gracious man who is passionate about life and helping others to live theirs in the most honest, fulfilling way possible.

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Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood (Trevor Noah)

The book’s title sat on my TBR list for several years after a colleague’s recommendation. With a long drive back to west Texas in front of me and a free subscription to Audible, I decided it was time to download Trevor Noah’s memoir and see what all the fuss was about. I am certainly glad I did.

Born a Crime brilliantly shares heart-wrenching stories from Noah’s childhood during the final days of apartheid. But the book is about so much more than racial prejudice. It’s about the challenges and laughter that result from growing up in a deeply religious home. It’s about the bond between a mother and son. It’s a tale of the horrors of domestic abuse and the struggle to come to freedom. It’s about life in the face of opposition and seemingly insurmountable challenges.

From his early revelation that his mother was shot in the head by his step-father, Noah pulls us into his childhood and begins to unravel his story with an obvious gift for storytelling. We are brought into a world where a child’s only crime is that he was born to a black woman and a white man. Not finding a welcome place in either racial community, Trevor struggles to be included and is the victim of bullying. He watches as his mother begins to innocently flirt with the handsome mechanic who will ultimately become his stepfather. Trevor explains why everything changes when a son is born to his mother and her new husband….and how the abuse quickly escalates.

Born a Crime is an excellent read filled with moments of thought-provoking asides about life as we know it. Noah explores the power of language as a unifying force and challenges our thoughts about race, freedom, and power. I enjoyed listening to the book, but I fully intend to pick up a copy of the written work as well so I can continue to digest the beautiful language and the insightful commentary. This is one book that you don’t want to miss!

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Ballplayer (Chipper Jones)

I’m not an athlete by any stretch of the imagination. I was never on a team during school. Hell, I would only go to sporting events once I got to college because of the social aspect of the games. But there was one game that I always enjoyed watching — baseball.

My love for the American pastime probably has its roots in early childhood evenings watching my brother play for the local community team. My interest waned as my brother served the military and my personal focus turned to music. When the Pepperdine Waves won the college World Series in the early 1990s, my interest was piqued again and I began to enjoy professional ball.  Of course, I had a lot of fun watching the Dodgers since I was in town, but most of my loyalty was rooted in my southern heritage. I fell in love with the Atlanta Braves and Chipper Jones became one of my heroes. I always wanted a crisp white #10 jersey and never got one.

During the 1990s, I spent many weekends in front of the television with my eyes glued to TBS to cheer on my Braves. When I saw Ballplayer in the digital library, I knew I wanted to read the memoir of my favorite player. I enjoyed reading about Chipper’s accomplishments from his perspective and seeing that even the best players struggle with relationships, criticism, and self doubt. It was a refreshing read and one that I’m very glad I took the time to explore.

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Educated (Tara Westover)

It should come as no surprise to those that know me personally that this memoir immediately caught my attention when I saw it on the bookstore shelf. I have always been passionate about the individual pursuit of personal education in the face of challenging situations. While Westover’s memoir does grapple with this important issue, Educated is a book about much more than this.

Tara Westover was a young woman raised in an ultra-religious Mormon home in Idaho. Because of her father’s belief that government institutions were not to be trusted, the family’s five children were “home-schooled” (if her limited education can truly be called that) and medical attention was limited to what could be provided through Mother’s homeopathic remedies. Tara, however, wanted more for her life and sought to experience higher education despite her limited education. To further compound Westover’s challenges, she experienced incredibly violent abuse at the hands of an older brother while her parents watched. Through tremendous perseverance and personal growth, Tara successfully attends BYU in Utah before culminating her studies at Harvard and Cambridge.

Tara’s story as recounted in Educated was profoundly moving to me and has caused me to think about my own struggles in life. Like Tara, I was also raised in a fundamentalist Christian movement that seemed to fear conventional education. Also like Tara, I experienced abuse — although my abuse was primarily verbal and mental — in my childhood home while my parents were seemingly unaware of what was truly going on. I identified with Tara’s feelings of inadequacy as she struggled through the first years of collegiate study. I vividly remember the first time that I recognized that the home life I had experienced as a child was not the norm — and, in fact, not emotionally or mentally healthy. I am currently in the process of coming to the realization that the place where I was raised is no longer “home” because I am no longer the child that silently suffered there for so many years.

Tara Westover’s book has certainly been a life-changing read for me. I took comfort in identifying with the emotions of another person who had escaped. Like Tara, I don’t know that I consider my departure from my abuser’s influence an escape or a harrowing experience. I think I finally came to the point that I was able to realize that they no longer had any influence over me and that I would no longer allow their voice to pierce the quietness of my mind. Like Westover, I too have been Educated and I am forever thankful for it.

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#27: My Glory Was I Had Such Friends: A Memoir (Amy Silverstein)

My personal reading slowed down during the month of December as I faced the end of a busy semester. The book I selected from my TBR list (that stands for “To Be Read” in case you aren’t familiar with the acronym) was Amy Silverstein’s My Glory Was I Had Such Friends. I had first heard of the memoir late in the summer and I thought it would be a celebration of friendship — something to read as I was going into the holidays. I did not expect that I would respond so emotionally to the book and experience moments where I didn’t know if I would be able to finish or not.

Amy Silverstein is a heart-transplant survivor. She first faced life as a transplant patient as a 25-year-old woman. Given a life expectancy of 10 years, Amy has defied the odds as she has made a successful life for herself. Now at the age of 50, Amy and her husband Scott face the reality that her time with her heart is running out and Amy needs a second transplant. The couple leaves their NYC home and head for Los Angeles to be treated at Cedars Hospital. 

Amy’s girlfriends cannot bear the thought that Amy and Scott will have to face this challenge alone. So they create a spreadsheet calendar and begin signing up for when they will join the couple in California and offer moral support and encouragement. These visits are the heart of My Glory Was That I Had Such Friends.

Amy’s love for her friends is apparent as each pair remembers the happy times they have spent together — raising children, falling in love with their husbands, and simply living life. As Amy’s health declines and the chances for a second transplant diminish, each friend finds herself at a difficult crossroads:  Does she allow her personal desire to keep Amy alive as long as possible outweigh her friend’s right to determine for herself when “enough is enough”? It is a moral and ethical dilemma that each woman must confront and figure out how to deal with the ultimate choice between life and death.

Silverstein’s descriptions of her illness are jarring throughout the memoir. With each biopsy, burning injection, and firing of her newly inserted pacemaker, the reader experiences the pain firsthand. Living in a family where heart complications have been par for the course recently, I found these passages especially difficult to read. I wept in sympathy with Amy’s friends as she finally reached the decision that she would give up the fight of her life when her 30 days on the highest-need transplant list came to an end. I rejoiced around Amy’s bed as she and her friends received the news that a matching heart had been found and was en route from Nevada. I wrung my hands with them as they waited for updates of the procedure’s progress.

My Glory Was I Had Such Friends will not be a great read for everyone. At times difficult to think about, at times heartwarming, and at times heartbreaking, the memoir is one that reminds us of the importance of surrounding ourselves with friends that can weather good times and bad. For those who choose to read Silverstein’s words, they will be a reminder of the importance to always be thankful for the friends that fill your life and treasure each moment with them.

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#15: Hillbilly Elegy (J.D. Vance)

I first heard about J.D. Vance’s memoir while watching a news magazine interview. I was intrigued by the topic and the exploration of the Appalachian peoples. When I saw the full title, I knew I would have to read the work. It’s called Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.

Much of Vance’s memoir is about his own troubled family and childhood. He was born to an addicted mother and his biological father was no where to be found. This began a constant revolving door of “father figures” into the lives of both him and his sister, Lindsey. As circumstances grew increasingly worse, Vance was finally cared for by his grandparents that he lovingly referred to as Mamaw and Papaw. Family members find themselves strained financially and have to follow the prospect of a stable job, leaving their home and family in rural Kentucky for the “greener pastures” of Middletown, Ohio.

Vance’s family are not the only ones to migrate to Ohio. He finds that the hillbilly culture that was finally escaped by leaving Kentucky has followed him to his new home. Surrounded by poverty and poor education, children are convinced that there is no hope for a better life. The situation constantly moves from desperate to hopeless. Yet somehow, J.D. manages to escape the cycle and attends both Ohio State and Yale Law.

Hillbilly Elegy is an honest glimpse into the lives of a large sector of the American society. While the book focuses on Kentucky hillbillies, I saw similarities to my own experience on each page. It truly became clear that Vance’s “culture in crisis” is not an overstatement of reality. The book should not be read by the timid. Vance’s use of vulgarity can be shocking at moments, but often is necessary in order to adequately convey the gravity of the situation. Neither should the book be read by those who think the problems addressed are solely due to the quality of the nation’s educational system or government involvement (or lack thereof). Vance clearly states that the enormous problem does not have a single cause that we can “fix” quickly. The solution lies within the mindset of the people that are most effected — and that is the greatest challenge to overcoming the cultural crisis we now face.

This memoir was certainly a departure from my normal reading fare. However, it is a work that caused me to think deeply about important issues facing America while exploring my own experiences with poverty, class warfare, and the overall sense of hopelessness that plagues much of rural America’s youth. Hillbilly Elegy is definitely a worthy read for all who care for the youth of America.

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Books #9 and #10

When finals hit this week, I felt as though I finally had more of my own time back. What did that mean? READING! Here’s a quick summary of the two books that I finished this week.

#9: Lit-Up: One Reporter. Three Schools. Twenty-Four Books That Can Change Lives (David Denby). I started reading this fascinating book while in Albuquerque over Easter break. Denby explores sophomore English classes at three schools in New England to discover how they encourage students to become lifelong readers. Much of the focus is spent with Sean Leon’s class in New York City’s Beacon School. By departing from the traditional reading lists (with the blessings of his administrators), Leon challenges students to discuss important issues while realizing that literature continues to speak to our modern situations regardless of how “old” the story might actually be. Students read the expected authors — Hawthorne, Huxley, Orwell, and Faulkner. What is surprising is the inclusion of Plath, Hesse, Vonnegut, Dostoevsky, and Sartre among others. Mr. Leon’s students didn’t just “read” these works either; they struggled with the themes and entered into the settings and wrestled with the authors’ messages for contemporary society.

I found Lit-Up fascinating. When I first began my academic journey, I seriously considered pursuing a career as a high school English teacher. Looking back, I realize that the decision was triggered by my conflict with music professors who I refused to allow to have the death grip they were maintaining over my life. Thankfully, I saw the light and found my way back into the music field. However, my passion for literature and literacy remains. Do I think this model would work for every student? Probably not. However, I do think that Lit-Up reveals the impact a gifted, passionate educator can have on a group of students when they are given the academic freedom to follow the unscripted path that is dictated by the class’ interest and understanding. I’m tired of hearing about teachers being forced to “teach to the test.” Our students do not fit a nicely-formatted pattern; neither should their curriculum.

 

#10: The 9th Judgment (James Patterson). As the end of the week rolled around, I realized that I needed a physical book to hold in my hands, but it also needed to be a novel that I could finish before returning to Arkansas for the summer. I made a impromptu trip to the Unger Library and decided to return to my reading of the Women’s Murder Club series. I flew through this episode because I simply could not put the book down. This installment of Patterson’s series focuses on the Lipstick Killer that is haunting San Francisco with his mysterious messages of FWC and the realization that his targets are mothers and their young children. Claire, our strong medical examiner, recommends that the women of the city arm themselves in order to assure their safety while Lindsey finds herself as the only member of the police force that the lunatic serial killer will communicate with. This page-turner will keep you on the edge of your seat throughout the read and ends with a cliff hanger that will force the audience to quickly dive into the next book in the series. (I’m already planning a trip to the library as soon as I get home…..because I’ve got to know what happens next for Lindsey!)

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#17: The Shelf: Adventures in Extreme Reading (Phyllis Rose)

Phyllis Rose is an avid reader. During a trip to the New York Society Library to pick up a book recommended by a friend, she realized that the proposed novel was not going to work for her at this time. Now, Rose faced the daunting and overwhelming task of selecting her next book. Rose decided to embark on an expedition of “off-road” reading; she would read her way through a randomly selected shelf of the library.

As she browsed the plethora of shelves, Rose established a few guidelines for her project. The shelf had to include at least one classic novel she had intended to read but had not yet experienced. The shelf had to include multiple authors, with only one author having more than five books represented. Rose would commit to read only three of this author’s works. The shelf that was finally selected was LEQ to LES and contained 30 volumes. The Shelf is a memoir of the books Ms. Rose encountered in her adventure as well as her reflections about writing and all things publishing.

I was first drawn to this memoir because I found the premise so interesting. So much of our reading is influenced by reviews and academia. What wonderful novels have we missed out on simply because they have not been deemed worthy by the elite? What gems might be discovered by daring to venture into uncharted territory?

I especially enjoyed Phyllis Rose’s thoughts on why so few women are considered major literary figures in our society. In the chapter “Women and Fiction: A Question of Privilege,” Rose explores the topic through both contemporary and classic examples. “Libraries: Making Space” revealed much about a book’s life on the shelf. . .and its inevitable removal. In the profound closing chapter, the author explores the qualities a book must exhibit to gain “Immortality.”

The Shelf has inspired me to do some off-road reading myself. I plan to replicate Rose’s experiment after finishing the books on my bedside table. I’m excited to see where this adventure leads in the months ahead.

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#16: Ghost Waltz (Ingeborg Day)

After many weeks, I finally finished reading Ghost Waltz. This family memoir traces one family’s history in 1940s Austria. Central to the story is Ingeborg’s feelings about her father and his transition from police officer to SS officer. Did her father agree with Nazi ideologies? Did he work for the SS simply to provide for his family and avoid trouble in a turbulent time?

A secondary issue of Ingeborg’s feelings about all things Jewish is also examined. She considers herself an anti-Semite, despite her revulsion of the prejudice. Ingeborg cannot ascertain if her thoughts about Yiddish phrases, yarmulkes, and greedy Jews were taught to her in early childhood or are a genetic predisposition. Unfortunately, the memoir does not provide a clear answer to this question.

Those who have followed my reading adventures know that I am fascinated with the World War II era. While I found it interesting to examine an Austrian family who did not necessarily want to align themselves with Nazism, I found Ghost Waltz to be a bit pedantic. The writing was stilted and failed to draw the reader into the author’s world. This was definitely a book I finished reading simply because I had started it. I wouldn’t recommend it to other readers.

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#39: My Nine Lives – A Memoir of Many Careers in Music (Leon Fleisher)

In addition to determining to learn more about composers, I have also begun to venture into biographies about performers. I was immediately attracted to the memoir of Leon Fleisher because of my personal interest in music related injuries. I was aware of his many years as the left-handed pianist due to focal dystonia and his legendary teaching at the Curtis Institute. I quickly learned that this marvelous musician was a man who epitomizes perseverance and passion for his craft.

I especially enjoyed reading Fleisher’s finely crafted descriptions of performances and lessons. His words made me thirst to hear the sounds that he produced. His insights encouraged me to revisit familiar pieces that hold special places in my heart. I cannot wait to finally hear his legendary recording of the Brahms’ D Minor concerto. I greatly appreciated the author’s open discussions about his various obstacles, failures, fears, and relational difficulties. I suppose we all face the same challenges to some degree; it’s comforting to hear a stellar musician sharing situations with which I can identify. I suppose it gives me hope for overcoming them in my own life as well.

I’m glad I read the memoir. I look forward to listening to Fleisher’s recordings. I trust that I will return to My Nine Lives again in the future.

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