Book–Dr. Tweedy, currently an assistant professor of psychiatry at Duke University, shares his experiences in this roughly chronological memoir that explores his identity as a black man and how it intersects with his identity as a doctor. He explores his discomfort with the fact that, for so many illnesses, simply being black is a major risk factor, and he is one of only a handful of black students in his medical program. He observes half-seriously that “being black can be bad for your health.” To me, the most interesting parts of the book are in the middle, where he tells various anecdotes about his patients’ reactions to him as a doctor during his residency and observes the inequalities in care received by the rich and the poor, who are disproportionately black. During his education, Tweedy briefly serves as a doctor at a pop-up clinic in a poor, rural area, prescribing whatever medicines his patients can afford and doing his best to make notes for whichever doctor will see them next time. He contrasts this type of patient-doctor relationship to that of his more affluent patients with health insurance, who are able to see the same primary care doctor each visit and receive drugs based on efficacy rather than affordability.
Tweedy makes for an engaging and thoughtful narrator. His account is modest and he remains cognizant of his own biases, having grown up in a middle class household shielded from the disadvantages suffered by many of his patients. If you enjoy Black Man in a White Coat, try Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, another examination of what it means to be a black man in America.
Book – Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be a 911 operator, to be on the receiving end of any number of emergencies and daily life struggles, never quite knowing what that next phone call will bring? Needing to respond clearly, quickly, without hesitation. I can’t imagine the pressure and anxiety of worrying whether you helped someone, and especially if your help came too late.
Caroline Burau shares her experiences working as an emergency dispatch operator in Answering 911: Life in the Hot Seat. While weaving in details from her past and personal life, Caroline composes a relatively chronological account of her work as a 911 dispatcher. Reading the memoir, it feels as if we the readers are actually shadowing the author through her daily work. Because of this writing approach, it’s easy to picture the dispatch center’s environment. We see the inner workings of the center, and watch Caroline’s as she first becomes an operator through her decision to leave the job. I appreciated that the author doesn’t try to romanticize her career as a dispatcher. The first thing that comes to my mind when I think about this job is “Wow! That must be really exciting and she must have a lot of crazy stories!” Which isn’t true, as Caroline points out. More often than not it is not emergencies that come through the phones, but day to day struggles, claims of stolen items, neighbor complaints…etc.
Caroline is honest and to the point, detailing the highs and lows of the job, it’s impact on her life, and through it all, her desire to help people. Her writing style is informative, but not really humorous as most memoirists I tend to read. When we are not learning about her career, readers gain insight into Caroline’s own personal thoughts/mind, encountering her inner demons, self-doubt, and desire to make a difference.
Book – Hi Anxiety: Life With a Bad Case of Nerves by Kat Kinsman is an exploration of anxiety and its effect on one woman’s life. In 2014, Kat went public about having General Anxiety Disorder, publishing a blog post on CNN.com titled “Living With Anxiety, Searching For Joy“. The reception following the publication was incredible; she received an overwhelming response from readers overjoyed to hear a voice that resonated so much with their own lives.
I have to mention first how much I love the cover art of this book; I’m always a sucker for cute animals, (especially bunnies) and I snatched this off the shelf without a second thought. It also seems appropriate given the subject matter–rabbits are by nature skittish, nervous bundles of fluff, in my opinion a perfect mascot for anxiety.
Kat Kinsman is a funny, relatable author who does an amazing job showing what life is like for someone living with anxiety. She delves into all aspects of her life in a format that switches between chronological chapters, and sections titled irrational fear. The irrational fear segments detail specific activities and instances that incite anxiety in Kat, including but not limited to: “Seeing the doctor,” “Having No way Out,” and “Driving”. My favorite thing about this book is Kat’s focus on personal relationships–the role anxiety plays in her relationships with others, and specifically its impact on the pursuance of romantic relationships. Embarking on romantic endeavors is difficult enough without anxiety and I found that Kat’s personal narrative of love and loss really resonated with me.
It’s easy to feel a connection to Kat’s words thanks to the intimate and honest nature of her writing. Whether or not a reader struggles with a mental disorder, I think anyone can find a connection with some aspect of Kat’s experiences.
Book – Before reading this memoir, I was only vaguely aware of the existence of Jazz Jennings. I remembered a picture book titled I Am Jazz, featuring a transgender young girl and was intrigued to read a more in depth story of that little girls’ life and experiences growing up.
Being Jazz: My Life As a (Transgender) Teen chronicles author Jazz Jennings experiences growing up as a transgender girl. Jazz’s story was initially featured on 20/20 with Barbara Walters at a time when there was little information or public support for transgender individuals. She would continue to shine in the public spotlight throughout her youth through countless interviews, her personal youtube channel, a reality television show on TLC, a documentary, and a children’s picture book. One of the youngest and most prominent voices in the discussion of gender identity, Jazz shares her trials and tribulations from childhood to young adult in this coming of age memoir about growing up transgender.
Many reviewers were dissatisfied with the writing in this memoir–wanting a more detailed, mature, and eloquent writing style, rather than the words of a fifteen year old teenager. For the most part, I actually found Jazz’s voice to be surprisingly refreshing and well-worded. I felt that her writing was very easy to read, and understandable, especially for the targeted audience: teens and young adults.
As a whole, I really enjoyed this memoir. It was easy to follow, intriguing, and has a unique perspective. It’s remarkable that Jazz was aware of being transgender–before even fully realizing what that word meant–at such a young age and her memoir makes me curious to read the stories of other transgender youth.
To learn more about the experiences of other transgender youth, check out: Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out by Susan Kuklin.
Books – It’s summertime, and what better time to read about people dying alone in the wilderness. Right? No? Just me then. I’m not a camping person, and maybe that’s why I’ve always been fascinated by stories of outdoors adventures going horribly wrong. It’s safely scary: while it’s real, I can be comfortably certain that I will never starve to death in the Alaskan wilderness, because there is no way I would be there in the first place.
But somehow I’d never read Jon Krakauer’s classic Into the Wild, about Chris McCandless, a young man who trekked across the country alone, then survived more than a hundred days in central Alaska, on his own with virtually no supplies other than what he could hunt or gather, before succumbing to the elements (and, Krakauer argues, some toxic potato seeds). I knew I had to read it, though, when I saw that Chris’s sister, Carine McCandless, had written her own memoir, The Wild Truth.
A lot of people, after reading Into the Wild or seeing the movie based on the book, thought of Chris as an irresponsible, immature kid, who never thought about what his disappearance would do to his family. Really, Carine says, their parents were physically and emotionally abusive, and Chris had tried over and over again to reconcile with them before cutting them out of his life completely just before embarking on his fatal trip – a hard, painful separation that Carine herself took decades later. She’d asked Krakauer not to write the truth about their parents in his book, hoping then that her relationship with them could still be saved. The two books together are a powerful story about how our families shape our relationships with ourselves and the rest of the world, and the lengths people will go to when they need to escape that influence.
Movie – Amy Winehouse lived a short life. In the documentary Amy, the director, Asif Kapadia tries to tell a story of someone looking for help but not being able to help herself during good times.
The documentary follows the short life of Amy Winehouse as told through clips of personal home movies, pictures, performances, interviews, and backstage footage at the Grammys. Winehouse was a troubled soul trying to make it through a life that may have been more than she could handle. Her music came from the depths of emotional suffering. Her gift to transfer those emotions into song gave her the break she was looking for into the music scene. It was also the reason she could not continue.
Throughout the film, the director uses interviews with Amy’s parents, husband, and friends to narrate Amy’s story. They paint a picture of someone who was a free spirit, a good singer, and a troubled person looking for some guidance. The director paints her family as people who did not step in when Amy needed them the most. Her parents, mainly her father, did take offense to his portrayal in the film. Her mother did not object to her portrayal.
The film will cause you to analyze Amy’s life and those around her. Questions will arise about the role her loved ones played in her life. Finger pointing will definitely happen. In all the viewer will need to come to their own conclusions on why Amy’s life was cut short. Fans of the singer, and people who enjoy biographies of celebrities will enjoy this film. There is no speculation of who is to blame in the death, only a story being told of someone who was enduring deep sadness and how she coped with it.
Book – Kate Mulgrew, best known for playing the first female Star Trek captain on Voyager and as Red on Netflix’s series Orange is the New Black, has not published a typical celebrity memoir. It has no co-writer, no gossip, and very few references to any costars. She does not dwell on those who helped her, or how lucky she is. The emotional center of Mulgrew’s story is the difficult choice she made at the age of 22, at a crucial stage in her career, to give up a daughter for adoption, and her successful attempt to get in touch with her daughter many years later. Despite having many lovers (sometimes simultaneously), a successful career, and two sons, Mulgrew always felt a regret for this loss that haunted her. Mulgrew’s story ends before the present, just as she has reconnected with her daughter and come to an agreement with the man she (currently) loved, but I hope she will write another chronicling the rest of her career and providing closure that I felt this memoir lacked.
Those reading for insider details of her career on Voyager, as I initially was, will be disappointed, as only a chapter covered this entire time in her life, but fortunately, the details of Mulgrew’s personal life are just as satisfying. Born With Teeth is an entertaining and poignant read even if you’ve never heard of her before.
Book– Munchausen by proxy is a rare form of child abuse characterized by faking or exaggerating symptoms of illness in a child, usually to gain attention from the medical community. Gregory recounts a harrowing childhood spent in hospital rooms, performing illness (or actually being made ill) to satisfy her mother’s craving for attention. Her mother alternates between deliberately starving and abusing her, turning the rest of the family against her, including her helpless father, and cossetting her with attention. Gregory focuses on the strategies she used to survive, such as stealing food from other students’ lunches and from convenience stores.
The writing is at its best when Gregory is understating her situation; like most works of this kind, overly dramatic language can often actually take away from the impact of the story. She includes scans of her own medical records from the time and it is chilling to see how willing some doctors were to believe her mother’s stories. While Gregory obviously escapes her mother’s orbit, as of Gregory’s memoir, there are still children in Gregory’s mother’s care.
Sickened will appeal to fans of memoirs chronicling mental illness, complicated family relationships, and difficult upbringings.
Book – Jeannette Walls recounts her unique and unstable childhood in The Glass Castle: A Memoir. From the outside, life looks like a never-ending adventure for Jeannette and her siblings. On good days, her father Rex’s wild imagination takes his family across the United States, a family of vagabonds high on wanderlust. But then the bad days came; the money ran out and all their dreams seemed to have expired.
Confined to a dismal town, Rex became a constant drunk, stealing the family’s dinner money to feed his need. Meanwhile, Jeannette’s mother, Mary was lost in her own world, an artist obsessed with a need for excitement, such that couldn’t be filled by caring for her young children. It was up to a young Jeannette and her siblings to take care of themselves, learning how to live and survive amid the escalating dysfunction and chaos.
Jeannette recounts her youth in a way that retains her parents’ dignity, as unstable as they were. Readers are able to see her parents as lost souls failing to reach their dreams, forced into a life they didn’t want. This struggle to find fulfillment in life is something we can all relate to.
Jeannette also wrote Half Broke Horses: A True Life Novel, a prequel of sorts to The Glass Castle. The subtitle, A True Life Novel, gives readers a clue as to why the book is noted as fiction. The book was originally intended to be a biography on Jeannette’s grandmother, Lily Casey Smith, but the author was missing too much information for it to be categorized as completely biographical. However the powerful character of Lily Smith comes across just as vividly as the characters in Jeannette’s first memoir.
Book – As a children’s librarian, there is no doubt that I am biased in favor of children’s books, but you don’t need to take my word for it that this one makes a fun read even for grown-ups. Besides the vote of confidence from the Newbery Committee, I have the testimony of my grandparents–neither of whom is a children’s book reader in general but each of whom devoured this one in a day, laughing all the way–to back me up in that claim.
1962 is the summer of eleven-year-old Jack Gantos’ perpetual grounding. With a nose that won’t stop bleeding, on the outs with both his parents and forbidden from playing baseball with his friends, Jack might have a grim few months ahead of him if not for his feisty elderly neighbor. Mrs. Volker, the resident historian of the small town of Norvelt, needs the loan of Jack’s hands to type up obituaries of her fellow orginal Norvelters, the rare task for which Jack is released from house-arrest. But when those obituaries start coming a little too thick and fast, Jack and Mrs. Volker become an unlikely team of sleuths, and fast friends into the bargain.
Part mystery story, part fictionalized memoir, entirely small town slice-of-life, Dead End in Norvelt explores questions of community and memory without ever feeling preachy. Centering as it does on an inter-generational friendship, it’s a great choice to share within families–but even if you don’t have a child, grandchild, niece, nephew or cousin to pass it on to, it’s well worth the rollicking ride.