Category Archives: Memoir

About Time I Read It: The Best American Essays 2015

A few months ago I started craving longform journalism. Luckily for me, I have a huge stack of cast-off New Yorker magazines I’ve managed to accumulate over the last couple of years so I have no shortage of available reading material. But as I began exploring this cache I found myself craving longform stuff in book form, preferable curated by a capable editor. Fortunately for me, my public library has a number of essay collections and last week I borrowed two, one of which happened to be The Best American Essays 2015. I burned through it quickly, which is always a good sign. It also left me wanting to read more essays, which also a good sign.

Within the pages of The Best American Essays 2015 I found stuff by familiar authors like Malcolm Gladwell, Anthony Doerr and David Sedaris but the rest of the contributors were new to me. New Yorker staff writer Ariel Levy served as the guest editor for 2015’s edition and a good chunk of the pieces she selected dealt with the personal: aging, mortality, family and marriage. Had I known this was the case, I might not of decided to read her collection, fearing the essays were too sentimental or self-centered. Kudos to Levy though, there’s not a stinker in the bunch. (Although Zadie Smith’s “Find Your Beach” might not have been up to my liking.) Of these Justin Cronin’s “My Daughter and God” in which he recalls in detail the existential crises and religious quest resulting from his wife and daughter’s brush with death was a favorite of mine as was John Reed’s edgy piece “My Grandma, the Poisoner” about a dear grandmother who, in all likelihood was a serial poisoner. Kelly Sunderberg’s “It Will Look Like a Sunset” is probably the best account I’ve read on the complexity and pain of spousal abuse.

As for other memorable contributions in this collection, hats off to Philip Kennicott for his piece “Smuggler” on the perils and pitfalls of gay literature. Even as a non-gay male I found his essay fascinating and smart as hell without being dry and pretentious. As a cat lover, how could I not enjoy Tim Kreider’s “A Man and His Cat” about what it’s like to adopt (or perhaps more accurately, be adopted by) a stray cat. Lastly, Isiah Berlin’s “A Message to the Twenty-First Century” on the evils of totalitarianism was another of my favorites. Originally written in 1994 it wasn’t published until a decade later. Sadly, in this age of Internet-enabled bigotry and Donald Trump, Berlin’s warnings are sorely needed.

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Filed under Christianity, Current Affairs, Memoir, Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction

2018 In Review: My Favorite Nonfiction

Yikes, the year is almost over and I haven’t done My Favorite Nonfiction of 2018 post. I better get cracking because 2019 is mere hours away. And to make matters worse, 2018 was a strong year for nonfiction and I read a ton of great books. Therefore, limiting my list to just 12 is going to be going to be hard. After a lot of thought I’ve narrowed it down to these outstanding works of nonfiction. Of course, it doesn’t matter when the books were published; all that matters is they’re excellent. As always, they’re listed in no particular order.

As you can see, this list reflects my reading interests. It’s heavy on history, especially that of World War II and the Holocaust. I’m happy to report eight of these books came from the public library, with four of those complete unknowns until I spotted them on the shelf. Three books on this list I purchased years ago. One, Fascism: A Warning, I borrowed from a friend.

As difficult as it was to choose the year’s 12 best, harder still was selecting an overall favorite. For months I went back and forth between Lawrence O’Donnell’s Playing with Fire and Gal Beckerman’s When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone. After much thought I’ve decided to break with tradition and declare a tie. These two books will share the honor of being my favorite nonfiction book of 2018.

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Filed under Agnostic/Atheist/Skeptic, Area Studies/International Relations, China, Christianity, Current Affairs, East Asia, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, History, Israel, Japan, Judaica, Latin America/Caribbean, Memoir, Science, Turkey

About Time I Read It: Seminary Boy by John Cornwell

A million years ago (OK, maybe not THAT long ago although it kinda feels like it) I read a memoir entitled Seminary: A Search in which the author Paul Hendrickson recalled the years his spent as a seminarian, following with a short stint as a Catholic priest and eventually his departure from the priesthood. Perhaps because I was an impressionable young man when I read Seminary: A Search it remains one of my favorite memoirs to this day. With that in mind, I found it hard to resist John Cornwell’s 2006 memoir Seminary Boy when I spotted a copy at my public library. As I took it to the check-out desk I wondered if I’d enjoy  Cornwell’s memoir as much as I did Hendrickson’s.

Growing up in England in the 1950s John Cornwell had a pretty rough childhood. Raised Catholic, his family was poor, his mom was abusive and ne’er-do-well father was never around. After being sexually abused by a random stranger, young John retreated inwardly to the religion of his upbringing. At the tender age of 13 he entered Cotton College, a junior seminary for teen boys desiring to enter the priesthood. Overwhelmed and struggling to keep up academically Cornwell chafed under the College’s strict monastic regimen. Making all of this worse, he and his fellow young seminarians had to navigate the potential relationship risks and pitfalls that frequently materialize when groups of young males and their elders are sequestered together while being told to avoid any “special friendships” with each other. Fortunately, one of the more avuncular and intellectual of the priests took Cornwell under his wing, exposing him to a wider world of high culture and sophisticated ideas. Unfortunately though in the end, as Norah Vincent wrote in her 2006 New York Times review of Seminary Boy “[t]here is nothing surprising or enlightening here — just run-of-the-mill Catholic misery.”

Looking back, I thought Seminary Boy was OK, but nothing exceptional. Because so much time has elapsed it seems unfair to measure it against Hendrickson’s Seminary: A Search so I won’t. And it certainly won’t stop me from reading other seminary memoirs in the future.

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About Time I Read It: Lost in the Meritocracy by Walter Kirn

Even though it’s a 30 minute drive to my nearest public library, I don’t mind much because it’s well-stocked with tons of attractive backlist stuff. While some of these like Thomas Cahill’s Desire of the Everlasting Hills and Lauren Drain and Lisa Pulitzer’s Banished I’ve been wanting to read for a long time others like Francis Wheen’s Strange Days Indeed and Benjamin Weiser’s A Secret Life were complete unknowns to me. Time and time again during my Saturday library visits I’ve found myself grabbing one or two of these older books to read. One such book that caught my eye was Walter Kirn’s 2009 memoir Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever. Something about the slim memoir intrigued me so I scooped it up along with a few other books and headed to the checkout desk. Weighing in at 224 pages it took me no time to finish it and when I did, I wasn’t disappointed.

Growing up on a farm in rural Minnesota Kirn was one of those high school students who excelled academically not because he was industrious, scholarly, or intellectually gifted but because he knew how to game the system. Charming, articulate, able to think fast on his feet and a decent debater he pleased his teachers and outshined his peers in any classroom setting, Most importantly, he was a whiz when it came to standardized tests and after he aced his SAT he found himself courted by colleges and universities across the country. One of those schools, Macalester College welcomed him with open arms. He would spend just a year at the highly respected liberal arts college because to Kirn Macalester was just a stepping stone to something greater. Kirn wanted to follow in the footsteps of the novelist F. Scott Key Fitzgerald, another native Minnesotan and attend Princeton.

To say Kirn’s time at Princeton was eye-opening would be an understatement. Princeton might proudly advertise to the world it accepts only the best and the brightest the majority of the students Kirn encountered resembled characters from some New York-set 80s post-modern novel. With a few exceptions (most notably a Pakistani majoring in philosophy) his fellow Princeton students were shallow, entitled, substance-abusing wealthy scions only there to party, have meaningless sex and make connections to be used once they left college and entered the business world.

Academically, things weren’t much better. Kirn had the bad luck to attend Princeton during an era when post-modern deconstructionist theories of everything were en vogue. Instead of reading, let alone learning from the assigned texts, in order to please their professors Kirn and his fellow students merely parroted back the wordy but meaningless gobbledygook served up in class. Like some strange religious cult the ultimate purpose was forced conformity, not enlightenment.

But no matter cynical Kirn’s Princeton experience might have made him, in the end he survived, graduated and just like many Ivy League grads went on to do great things. (His 2001 novel Up in the Air would be made into a film of the same name starring George Clooney.) One can only guess the time he spent at Princeton for good, bad or otherwise helped make him the person he is today.

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About Time I Read It: Banished by Lauren Drain and Lisa Pulitzer

I’m sure all of you know by now I have a huge fondness for memoirs from authors who’ve left their religious communities, whether they be Catholic, Protestant evangelical, Jehovah’s Witness, Muslim or Jewish. (A good friend of mine pointed out just this morning it’s interesting with few exceptions they’re all by women. Why this is the case might make for a fascination future discussion.) I just can’t get enough of these kind of books and whenever I come across one at the public library it’s hard for me to pass them up. One such memoir I would see on the shelves was Banished: Surviving My Years in the Westboro Baptist Church by Lauren Drain and Lisa Pulitzer. A few years back I borrowed a copy only to return it before I’d had a chance to begin reading it. However, it was always on my list to read someday, I just couldn’t exactly decide when that’d be. For whatever reason, last week I decided to download an e-book version through my public library. I’m pleased to say I burned through Banished in no time. And whenever that happens it’s never a bad thing.

I guess like anyone who’s been following the news for a while I already knew a few things about the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) prior to reading Drain’s 2013 memoir. They’re rabidly homophobic, infamously known for picketing funerals, especially those for fallen servicemen, loudly proclaiming God is punishing America for its acceptance of homosexuality. WBC isn’t affiliated with any particular Baptist denomination, or for that matter any other church. Instead it’s a cult almost entirely populated by the Phelps family from Topeka, Kansas.

I learned from Banished even though the WBC acts like a bunch of hateful crazies, they ain’t stupid. For years the Phelps family has driven its children to perform academically. Instead of being homeschooled like in many ultra-religious households, the Phelps children attend public school where academically they outpace their non-coreligionists in all subjects. Drilled by their parents and mentors in the importance of closely following current events, as well as speaking confidently and with authority, the Phelps teens not only earn the grudging respect of teacher and student alike, their ability to answer tough questions and deftly handle counter-protesters make them an army of capable public relations officials. 11 out the 13 children of the late WBC founder Fred Phelps are attorneys, providing the cult with its own law firm, a handy thing if you’re partaking in unpopular civil disobedience on a grand scale. One of the Phelps is even a published author of several college textbooks. Lastly, far from being clan of backwoods technological Luddites the WBC boasts a content-rich website and actively engages in email correspondence, even with its strongest detractors.

Just how Lauren Drain got mixed up with the strange group is almost an unbelievable story in itself. It all began when her father, a secular-minded, rock and roll playing atheist and aspiring film-maker flew to Topeka to make a documentary about the WBC. After doing extensive interviews and filming their protests, he found himself admiring the cult. Before long he was acting like a misogynistic religious zealot, eventually forcing Lauren, her mom and young sister to move cross-country to take up residence in one of the WBC’s rental homes. (With few exceptions the WBC members live on the same street near the church building, in essence a kind of religious compound.) Despite this all of this, Lauren embraced the WBC, its theology and odd sense of mission. But no matter how deep she believed or how strongly she protested at venues across the nation, after the better part of a decade she was cast out of both the WBC and her own family.

Once again, this is yet another book that exceeded my modest expectations. The writing duo of Drain and Pulitzer has produced an excellent memoir that easily holds its own when compared to other fine memoirs by those who’ve left their long-time faith.

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About Time I Read It: Fleeing Fundamentalism by Carlene Cross

For years whenever I’d haunt the shelfs at my local public library I’d seen Carlene Cross’ 2006 memoir Fleeing Fundamentalism: A Minister’s Wife Examines Faith sitting on the shelf, but never borrowed it despite how promising it looked. Finally, one day at the library my curiosity got the better of me. While grabbing books right and left I added hers to the growing stack of books clutched in my arms and headed to the check-out desk. It was a wise move because Fleeing Fundamentalism is an outstanding memoir.

In her 2006 memoir, she recalls her life beginning with her childhood in rural Montana, college days at an unaccredited Bible college, an evangelical minister’s wife, implosion of her troubled marriage, successful attempts to obtain a degree from a bona fide university while raising a household of young children, and finally her departure from the evangelical fold.

As a former evangelical myself, much of what she wrote resonated with me. Just like me, she wasn’t raised in a fundamentalist Christian household but embraced the faith as a young child one summer in a Vacation Bible School (VBS). (On one hand one wonders if it’s ethical for religious groups to proselytize among children. On the other hand, as a civil liberation I’m not sure I’m comfortable with the state prohibiting groups from doing so.) Later, as a young adult just like Cross I also experienced the religious zeal exhibited by many youthful converts. (Besides attending Bible college in Montana, she also spent a summer in Europe ministering to her co-religionists behind the then Iron Curtain.) Finally, perhaps more than anything it was our college experiences, academic and otherwise that were instrumental in guiding us away from evangelical Christianity.

Like so many other lives, one wonders to what degree a fateful decision here or there would have profoundly changed her life, For example, had she not attended VBS one summer, would she still have embraced fundamentalist Christianity? If she did not date and later marry her boyfriend from Bible college, would she have married a stable, loving yet Christian man instead of the troubled, self-destructive one who years later she needed to divorce and prompting her to obtain a quality education in order to support her family?

Fleeing Fundamentalism is more than one of those “I left the faith” books I’m so fond of reading. She’s a superb writer and once I started her memoir I couldn’t put it down. Just like the subject of my previous post Devil’s Game, Fleeing Fundamentalism is a surprisingly good book, so good it could end up making my year-end Best Nonfiction list. Therefore, I can recommend this fine memoir without hesitation.

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Among the Living and the Dead by Inara Verzemnieks

Latvia is a small country. Nevertheless, over the last few years I’ve still managed to read a couple of books set in this tiny Baltic nation. For instance, last year I read Henning Mankell’s The Dogs of Riga and back in 2013 it was Agate Nesaule’s ward-winnng memoir A Woman in Amber: Healing the Trauma of War and Exile

Last September I came across a review in the New York Times of a recently published memoir by Latvian-American Pulitzer Prize-finalist and nonfiction writing professor Inara Verzemnieks. Intrigued by David Bezmozgis’ review, I placed a hold on Verzemnieks’ memoir with my public library and before I knew it, a copy became available. I’m happy to report I breezed through Among the Living and the Dead: A Tale of Exile and Homecoming on the War Roads of Europe in no time. Which of course based on my experience usually means I’d chosen a good book to read.

Like many children unlucky to be born to a pair of broken parents Verzemnieks was raised by her grandparents, both active members of a tight-knit community of Latvian émigrés in Tacoma, Washington. While growing up Verzemnieks took part in numerous activities like special summer camps, Latvian-langauge church services and folk dancing all meant to keep alive the culture and spirit of her relatives’ former homeland. Years later, she traveled to Latvia to interview those blood relations who stayed behind. Among the Living and the Dead is a beautifully written and fast-paced account of their lives, especially the hardships they endured living under not one, but two brutal regimes as well as suffering the ravages of war.

History has not been kind to Latvia. With the exception of the interwar period of 1918 to 1940 when the country briefly existed as an independent nation it’s been dominated by larger and mightier European powers. Only relatively recently with the collapse of the USSR has Latvia been able reclaim its independence. While the country as a whole was ruled by Russia (be it imperial or Soviet) individual Latvians, especially those in rural areas lived as serfs, laboring for their Germanic overlords. World War II brought immense suffering to the Latvians. Starting in 1940 the Soviet Union invaded and annexed Latvia, imposing Communist rule and with it forced collectivization, murder and deportation. (Verzemnieks’ great aunt Ausma was sent to Siberia.) The following summer the country would be invaded once more, this time by the Germans. After spending three years living under German occupation Latvia was invaded and annexed a third and final time by the Soviets.

In addition to invasion and annexation, depopulation is another recurring theme. Under the Soviets thousand of Latvians were either exiled to Siberia or sentenced to years of hard labor in the Gulag. Even after breaking free from the former Soviet Union, according to Verzemnieks thousands of Latvians have left and continue to leave in search of greener pastures in Western Europe and America.

The strength of this memoir is its writing. As I mentioned earlier Verzemnieks writes beautifully. Therefore, I have no hesitation recommending Among the Living and the Dead to anyone, especially readers interested in one the more overlooked countries of Europe.

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Filed under Area Studies/International Relations, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, History, Memoir