House of Sticks: A Memoir by Ly Tran

We arrive in the blizzard of 1993, coming from rice paddies, mango trees, and the sun to February in the Empire State.

Ly Tran has written an incredibly moving memoir about her family’s move from war-torn Vietnam to a neighborhood in Queens, New York. The sickness from turbulence and three weeks of travel they endured was a precursor to the culture shock of their new lives in America. At three years old, Ly Tran was “vaguely conscious of the world around me”. As the youngest of four children, her memories of the journey and her homeland are fragmented, gaps filled in by her parents and older siblings alongside flashes of feelings. For her, adjusting to their new reality is easier, the past soon fading. In time, she is torn between two cultures, two worlds. Her family lived along the Mekong river, one can imagine the alien feeling, the rupture of leaving nature and all it’s glorious colors, rhythms for the hustle and bustle of a gritty, gray, American city. Before they are even settled, the family is in debt to their sponsor. With a language barrier alone, despite being a former lieutenant in the South Vietnamese army (and a POW for a decade), jobs that can support their family of six aren’t easy to attain. To ‘make ends meet’, Ly and her siblings help their parents with sewing, forming their own little production line on the living room floor of their two-bedroom railroad apartment. Unlike other American children, there isn’t time for play, delicious candy and tv binging. In the Buddhist tradition, one honors parents and family above all else, but as the years pass and Ly struggles at school, honoring thy father isn’t such an easy faith to follow.

Grateful for their place in this new world, though awake to harsh realities, Ly’s parents cling to their faith and work ethics. They know they will be okay, despite the mountains of obstacles before them. Life tests them, people deceive, take advantage, threaten. Carrying fear in his heart from the horrors he left behind, Ly’s father doesn’t want to make waves, stand out. The children come up with American names for each other, proudly, but is that enough to make roots in this new land? Their father’s fears manifest in strange behaviors and irrational decisions exacerbating Ly’s school struggles. Worse, her parents demands that, like her brothers before her, she leave behind a legacy of academic excellence make her feel anxious. It is not so easy when socially awkward, and struggling with vision issues! When she speaks her truth, that she cannot see well enough in school to learn math, her father’s reaction isn’t the fatherly wisdom she was hoping for. Maybe she really is just stupid, maybe glasses are a government conspiracy, but his truth clashes with her own reality. Despite his rants, she cannot see, it’s a stubborn fact one cannot ignore and here she is meant to swallow her truth. This is just one of many impenetrable walls she will face within her family.

Nothing beats elevating one’s place in life, no matter the hours of toil it takes. Why else did her parents bring their children to this country, if not to earn a full education, the only ladder to that high place in life? But in this land of dreams, for girls, sometimes there are violations. When one learns to endure, sometimes they learn to submit when they should fight. Watching her mother humiliated when working as a manicurist at a Brooklyn salon puts a bitter seed in Ly’s soul. Ly often works beside her, and yet this becomes just another place her mother refuses to stand up for herself, just like in the family home when facing Ly’s irrational father. Love and resentment, her father’s overbearing will makes home hell. Things get worse when a helpful teacher gets involved, threatening their House of Sticks.

Ly’s coming of age is an intimate look at trying to fit in while trapped between two cultures. Her guilt for feeling ashamed and perplexed by her odd father. Feeling abandoned by her larger than life brothers, her mother’s acceptance of the ugly world both infuriating and confusing. Confusing because she longs to protect her. Wanting to just be a normal American girl, not feeling like a failure who can’t live up to her father’s expectations. It is an intimate window into loyalty, faith, family and the inheritance the brutality of war leaves for the next generation. It takes years for Ly to come to terms with her father’s fragility, to understand why her mother more often than not sides with her husband, despite the cost. Becoming American doesn’t erase her father’s years of suffering, imprisonment, labor, indoctrination while forced into a “re-education camp”. From a place of freedom, how can Ly fully comprehend everything her mother and father had been through, had given up to provide their children with a better future? In turn, how can they understand the weight their daughter carries in her heart searching for a place for herself, trying to feel like an American with the traditions of the culture they left behind shadowing her every move? A place where she is a dutiful daughter but also a free person, able to use her voice, speak her truth and create a future that feels right for her?

There are funny moments and harsh ones. It is a heavy duty, one’s heritage. Can she honor the past, and yet build her own future, free of the hooks of familial expectations? An emotional journey and a beautiful memoir. Add it to your summer reading list!

Publication Date: June 1, 2021

Scribner

The Thing about Florida: Exploring a Misunderstood State by Tyler Gillespie

People could say almost anything about the state, and it would be true.

Florida native that I am, there is no denying Florida is a world unto itself and yes, deeply misunderstood. Growing up beneath a sky full of shuttle launches, my father worked at Kennedy Space Center, I saw the first manned shuttle launch of Columbia in 1981 (I’m that old) as well as witnessed the Challenger blowing up with my classmates at school, life can be pretty interesting here and not without its sorrows. Living minutes from the ocean, and less than an hour from all the theme parks it was a magical time to be a kid. I also lived where I had snakes and bobcats in our backyard, so yeah- we are sometimes untamed too! Add the nearby base formerly known as Patrick Air Force now Space Force , where I met and married my future husband, Florida can be pretty serious. It took moving away to England for me to realize just how swampy the air can feel to those who visit. It also tickled me to no end how other people think of us, not just overseas but stateside. After living in England, Japan and North Carolina we returned to my hometown again, which has flourished beyond my imaginings. For a state so many claim to hate and have turned into a long running joke, it certainly isn’t stopping them from making it their home. Naturally, I had to read this book and found myself cringing, nodding my head, and often laughing. It takes another Florida native to really get it! Our experiences can mirror each other and yet be vastly different.

Tyler’s take on our much maligned state is refreshing and just proves the point that Florida is so much more than a punchline. The Atlantic is in my blood, and so is the sunshine. For Florida natives, you take it with you wherever you go, he knows that. Tyler explores the Florida man stories, often not quite what headlines have you believe, surprising facts about the state’s history, the tragic shooting at Pulse Night Club, communities including Miami’s “Little Cuba”, the residents, our laws, the voting system, the wild animals, reptiles and snake farming (including animal smuggling), drag queens, halfway houses, confederate reenactments, conversion therapy, honing in on eclectic “controversial Floridians”- so much more. It is about his time growing up gay and as he says, it’s not meant to ‘defend’ the state but maybe “present a version of Florida other than the caricature so often seen in popular media.” He has done a beautiful job! I was surprised to learn a few things I didn’t even know.

The rest of the country could cut us off all they want, I think we’d still thrive- sure maybe we’re feral but that makes us tough. It’s my belief it’s the hot summers that make us a little wild too. Should our state come with a disclaimer? Nah, we’re not all that bad, people forget what a wild bag of mixed nuts we are. I say that with a grin and a wink. This is a fun read but serious at times too. Well worth your time if you want to know more beyond the ridiculous headlines and unfair assumptions. There really are so many versions of what people experience living here, whether they are natives or transplants. No two stories are alike, and Tyler Gillespie’s words go behind the memes and erase the stereotypes. One thing is a fact, it is always interesting! Yes, read it!!!

Publication Date: April 13, 2021

University Press of Florida

Everything Is Fine: A Memoir by Vince Granata

I imagine Tim’s psychosis, his nocturnal madness, and remember all the hours my mother spent at the piano trying to soothe the raging nightscape that howled in his head.

Vince Granata’s mother was murdered at the hands of his mentally ill brother, this is a brutal fact, but what makes this memoir important for society and keeps it from sensationalizing his family’s tragedy, is the exploration of what brought them to this point. We read the headlines, horrified, make assumptions but most people never go much further than judgement. Claudia Granata was a victim of her son’s psychosis but that doesn’t tell the story of everything that became before and after. That doesn’t inform anyone that Tim, too, was a victim of his own psychosis. Such headlines seem to exist in a manner that erases the dedicated, loving mother who did everything she could to keep her son’s world safe. Yes, Claudia was a highly educated medical doctor, as is her surviving husband Attilio, but even with their means and education their son’s illness couldn’t be managed, and they did try. The day before her death, she spoke to a therapist who warned her to make her son feel safe and ‘be wary’. Their fear was that he would harm himself, as he had threatened to before when the noise in his head became too much to bear. Sadly, she couldn’t have imagined what was coming.

Vince writes about the signs they all neglected to see far earlier than his illness began presenting, and his shame at missed opportunities as a big brother and son. Just as any of us would rake over our own fears of guilt in the aftermath of tragedy, he attempts to pinpoint the pivotal moment when one step in the right direction could have changed the outcome. By sharing his brother Tim’s mental decline, it may well help other families going through similar struggles. The reality is, there is so much we do not understand about mental illness in all its forms, especially schizophrenia, which in Tim’s case went unchecked. What can be done when a patient refuses their meds, because they think they don’t need them, because that’s how the disease presents itself? You think you’re fine, better, cured. What is a person to do who lives each day with a distorted reality? We don’t think about how our perception, yes all of us, creates our world- it’s easier to draw a line from the ‘healthy’ and the ‘ill’ instead of thinking we could ever have any commonalities. All of us base our reality on what our inner voice tells us, what we see with our eyes and hear with our ears, we just happen to have the clear functioning, for the most part, of measuring ourselves against others, which keeps us grounded. How differently would we behave, think, feel if we had voices howling at us that someone has abused us, or were demons? How would we react during hallucinations others don’t see but are real for us? Even if it presents in less threatening ways, the fact remains the such illnesses push the patient further away from others, even distrusting our own devoted, worried mothers. Much of the time others push those coping with mental illness away to the fringes of our world, out of fear or ignorance of the condition. Is it really a shock that isolation feels like the only safe haven? It is often in self isolation that the disease grows stronger, overtaking what grasp on reality still remains. Loved ones best efforts sometimes aren’t enough, it’s truly being between a rock and a hard place if a patient is an adult. You cannot force treatment, and the illness can cause paranoia, distrust of even those who truly have nothing but your best interest at heart. Vince’s memoir is not intended as medical research but aside from the patient themselves, who better than those who have been witness to the slow creep of the disease to give testimony?

Granata knows that mental illness still has a stigma, and that we can’t move forward shaming people who carry the burden of the disease. Why are we kinder to people who have visible illnesses? Why don’t we, as a society, understand that mental illness, though complicated and not fully understood, is not any more shameful than any other disease? Even people with the best resources, medical education are lost at sea in trying to help their loved one learn how to treat and manage their mental illness. With memories and stories of Tim we see him not as the monster his horrific act (while suffering psychosis, we must keep in mind) makes him appear to be but as a beloved son and brother who had athletic gifts and promise of his own. I read this as a mother would, there was never a point Claudia gave up. How do you arrive at justice in such a case, when everyone loses? This is not the future she wanted for her son, nor can anyone imagine she would want to see him demonized for the horrors of that ill fated day. What about the healing, how does Vince’s family and yes, Tim included, move forward from here? How does Vince remember the beautiful woman his mother was without the savagery of her final moments poisoning the past? It’s a question he had to ask himself. He cannot honor his mother’s memory without shedding light on who his brother Tim really is when not in the grips of psychosis because he was her heart as much as Vince and his siblings. I don’t have enough words to describe how much this memoir touched me. I know I drone on in this review, but that’s how moving I found it to be, and very relatable. My own son was diagnosed with autism at a young age and anything that’s ‘different’ changes how people treat you, I saw this first hand, even when people try to fit in. It is a daily struggle for him more than any of us. I also understand the scope of a mother’s love, the reach of her heart, her fears and hopes and that she is willing to sacrifice anything to help her children. I think of how my own grandmother had to navigate her son’s schizophrenia, he never stayed on his meds for long past release from hospitalizations. It affected the entire makeup of the family, it could just as easily be a story that could have happened to them. Today there have been more advances, but not leaps. Family has front row seats to the constant fight, it is a helpless, heartbreaking feeling. Vince’s brother was a collegiate heavyweight wrestler, but his fiercest opponent has been his own mind. Vince’s story does not minimize the enormity of Tim’s act, but it’s not a simple case. This memoir is about family bonds, grief, the realities and struggles of mental health, and tragedy but most of all it about about love and forgiveness. I don’t believe the description of Claudia’s end will be what remains with me, but the vision of a loving mother playing the piano to calm the storm in her son’s mind. Yes read it!

Publication Date: April 27, 2021

Atria Books

Born Under The Gaslight: A Memoir of My Descent Into Borderline Personality Disorder by Cindy Collins

I was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder in my twenties. I never understood the extent to which it ran my life or the degree of dysfunction that it entailed. Only in my forties did I start to work on getting help managing it.

Cindy Collins opens up about her struggle of living with Borderline Personality Disorder, trying to understand and manage it. It is a harrowing experience, particularly throughout her childhood when she had no support and was deemed ‘the crazy one’ within her family. Add the gaslighting (a form of emotional abuse that causes a person to question their every thought, experience, memories and doubt their own sanity) that Cindy was subject to makes for a heartbreaking reality. It’s no mystery that children need structure, basic care, love, nurturing, and guidance but a child who has any challenge (be it physical or mental) requires that much more from their parents. There is, too, the bigger question of what caused her BPD, with all signs pointing to her traumatic childhood and abuse. Cindy Collins had the misfortune of being in a home where the adults were more concerned with selfish endeavors, leaving she and her brother (7 years older) to fend for themselves while they were away on trips. Sometimes they left their lonely children with other family members, who had no business having access to little girls. With no protection, traumatic incidents took place, violations that have left their mark on her body, soul and mind.

Cindy’s relationship with her mother was a toxin pumped daily into her psyche, a woman who invalidated her feelings and smothered her self-confidence leaving no wonder to the reason why she began to revolt. When BPD began to color her thinking, her home life was a sinking ship, leading her to self destruct. Cindy could abandon the wreckage, but being without love and hungry for it, she discovered fast that the damage her parents did had already set in. We can be stripped of every possession and survive, it is when we are stripped of our truths, our very stories that we crumble. To be invalidated by those meant to love and protect you often leads a person to seek out those human needs in anyone willing to give us so much as a crumb. Creating a healthy relationship when you’ve grown up with dysfunction as your ‘norm’ would be nothing short of a miracle and for Cindy her attempts are filled with landmines. Cindy’s journey is about the disharmony of the heart and mind. With a mother whose slogan was “What will the neighbors think”, it’s a hard truth that the only chance Cindy has is to figure out how to rescue herself. Her mother would rather bury her daughter’s trauma, sexual abuse, and mental illness (that she certainly exacerbated if not caused outright) than help her heal. It is nothing less than criminal.

Seeking help is vital, but there is never a guarantee fix, nor a doctor that even understands a particular diagnosis. How is a person meant to corral the extremes of their mental health when the treating physician isn’t fully qualified or worse, when the patient is made to feel like an anomaly rather than a human being? As Cindy tells us, she spends most of her time hitting a wall. The fact is there is no one size fits all to treating trauma, no magical pill no magical thinking that makes everything ‘all better’. We are bombarded by disinformation about mental illness, either made to fear it, minimize it, or dismiss it altogether. Factor in victims of abuse and society politely turns a blind eye. This memoir is for the neighbors that wonder what living in suppression feels like and exposes the truth of what happens behind closed doors. This is what it costs to ‘fit in’, hiding the violations to body and soul, as not to disturb the peace.

Cindy finds light at the end of her tunnel in adulthood with a promising new therapy but if you ever wondered why so many people struggling with mental illness give up on treatment, she provides insight. It takes validation to help her navigate her past and find hope for the future. This is Cindy’s account of what it is like to live with BPD, particularly undiagnosed and in a destructive family. Raw and unflinchingly honest.

Published April 2020

Indomitable Publishing

Between Two Kingdoms: A Memoir of a Life Interrupted by Suleika Jaouad

For under the joy, a storm was gaining speed, a roiling sense of foreboding, some wet, starless savagery unfolding beneath my skin.

Suleika Jaouad had just graduated from college, was living in New York City having scored a summer internship, and dreamed of a career as a foreign correspondent. The internship isn’t supporting her, and her exhaustion has returned, telling her a change in scenery could be the cure. A position for a paralegal at an American law firm in Paris catches her eye one hot summer day and soon she is off to the start of a new career in the beauty of France, escape from drudgery but not before she meets a man named Will.

With her fresh start, romance kicks up when she begins to correspond with Will through text messages, emails and long letters. Soon, he arrives in Paris to be with Suleika and just as love is blossoming, a fog descends, her health spirals out of control. An itch, extreme exhaustion that gets worse and worse, all harbingers of something sinister, easy enough to ignore until “burn out syndrome” isn’t enough to explain away why her red blood cells are dropping. Before she can wake up from this nightmare, she is rushed back home to New York and diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, an extremely aggressive form of cancer. There is a line in this riveting, raw memoir that many women who have suffered illness will relate to, “I wasn’t a hypochondriac, after all, making up symptoms.” Someone could write a book with that title alone and fill it with true horror stories about women and illnesses ignored. With the horror of the diagnosis comes strange relief, to finally have a solid explanation for the symptoms, but this is just the beginning of a long, painful journey. Cancer is indiscriminate, even educated young women with promising futures, careers waiting for them get reeled in by it’s mean hook.

Between Two Kingdoms is an apt title, particularly to those with one foot in the land of the living and the other in the land of the dead (dying). With her revelations on the road of cancer, all the people she meets, the pull and push between her love for Will, her family’s worries, the self-transformations, the grasp for survival and the rewriting of the life she imagined for herself the readers get close to wisdom and suffering. You can never truly know how it feels, not even as a caretaker, until it is your body that has turned against you. To be sick is to live in a world alongside the healthy who sees, at times, to have nothing to do with you. To feel blessed by those willing to stick by your side and resent that you have to feel thankful is beautifully expressed in her fledging, romantic relationship and complicated feelings for Will. Unlike Hollywood movies where the sick glow like saints from their hospital bed, reality is nothing like that. Diagnosis is grave and terrifying for everyone involved but it is the patient that can never put the mantle of their disease down. The failing body will make itself known, and juggling the emotional reaction of others (well intentioned family and friends) is often yet another cross to bear. It is a flood of advice, naturally from people who don’t have medical degrees, advice you didn’t solicit raining down on you like bullets. It’s time no longer being your own, privacy, and humility thrown to the wind. You begin to feel more of a thing, a body pinned under a microscope. It is a suspension of one’s life, with no guarantee it will continue. It is never being out of the woods, not even if you are cured. Illness has a way of cancelling out all the other pressing issues that felt so vital before.

Suleika will watch others, like her, fight and lose their own battles and come close to the edge of death herself. Hope is a demon of it’s own. With her creative mind, Suleika starts a blog that reaches young adults like her, an anchor in the storm of cancer. A blog that lands her an opportunity during her darkest days. In her own words, she expresses the pain of needing people, the pressure of playing the part of patient (how one should suffer, usually with grace), displaced anger, the battle against the clock, mortality, and the horrors of the hospital. Body, mind and life a disaster- this is the ruins of cancer.

What happens when light shines again, when a patient is told they are better but they still feel trapped in the land of the dying? How do you learn to dance with fear without allowing it to lead you? We are all struggling with something, Suleika knows this better than most. This is a gorgeous, biting, brave, honest memoir about a young woman’s life interrupted by cancer and everything that happens in the aftermath. Yes, read it.

Publication Date: February 9, 2021

Random House

Dog Flowers: A Memoir by Danielle Geller

I started to learn how to twist my sorrow into a joke.

Danielle Geller’s Navajo mother, Laureen “Tweety” Lee, spent the last six months of her life homeless in Florida, six months that mother and daughter didn’t speak to each other, and then Danielle was called to her mother’s bedside as she lay dying. How can she confront her emotions, when her mother no longer has breath to answer for the past? So much about her mother’s life is either fiction or a mystery. Geller’s own mind has holes to fall through, too young to remember and the things she does recall are questionable. Her mother’s ill health and death was preventable, but what caused the slow kill? Was every choice hers alone, are others to blame?

Her inheritance is her mother’s lone suitcase and it’s contents. Letters, photographs, some junk, just evidence of ‘entire lives lived apart’ from Danielle and her sister Eileen. Diaries as far back as 1987, confessions and reflections that just make her feel sad for her mother. Trained as a librarian and archivist, it is these skills that will provide Danielle the guidance in tracking her mother’s past. Is she ready for answers to the harder questions?

Family has been both the hope and the hurt in her heart. Growing up taught Danielle to be silent, stoic as the adults couldn’t keep their own lives contained. Shamed by the illogical, cruel behavior of her father, a man who never listened, who told big lies, contradictions, who made others suffer as much as himself with his addiction to alcohol, his violence against women, all of it distorted reality. Humor became the means to twist her sorrow, longing for the mother who abandoned them and was as impossible to hold on to as the wind. “Tweety’s” visits were infrequent surprises, the keeper of their Navajo roots, it was she who could teach her daughters about their origins, about the reservation and family she chose to flee at nineteen. Until her mother’s death, she remembered only visiting the reservation once when she was three. All she has to rely on are her mother’s memories, which aren’t many. Returning as an adult, the partying, drinking, and neglect is a stark reminder of her own mother’s choices. That her mother lived between two worlds, still holding tight to the superstitions and rituals of her people, is easier to dissect once Danielle is among her mother’s tribe. It is enlightening, the rituals, prayers that are a part of their people, things Danielle and her sister barely comprehended in their youth especially with their mother lighting on important things like a butterfly, never present long enough to teach them anything, having another child, going through men, in and out contact. During adolescence, their father goes through women as much as their mother shakes off men, unable to make a relationship last for long, jobs just as fleeting. It’s no wonder Danielle and her sister Eileen’s bond is weak, that as they grew up the distance between them widened, nor is it a mystery that Eileen is just as lost, restless.

With her father and sister both addicts, in and out correctional institutions, their needs are like a violence, and ties she cannot sever. Somehow she is always in the middle, having to chose, love measured by whose side she is on. All this while trying to understand her mother, and heal from the wounds of her own damaging childhood. It’s a painful read about one mother’s slippery past- heartbreaking and honest. Not everyone who runs away from an abusive upbringing escapes, sadly this was Laureen Lee’s truth. Children are always the causalities, it is a vicious cycle. What will Danielle do with everything she learns? At times it’s a disjointed read but in a sense it lends credit to the scattered history Danielle herself must sort through.

Publication Date: January 12, 2021

Random House

One World

Act Like You’re Having a Good Time: Essays by Michele Weldon

I have often been called “difficult”- a frequent damnation of women who speak their minds. “Spirited”, they say now if they are not trying too hard to insult you.

“Act like you’re having a good time” is the sage advice Michele Weldon’s father gave and modeled to Michele and her siblings, advice that has carried Weldon through sixty plus years and counting. You have to show up in life so you may as well enjoy as much of it as you can, because who wants to be around miserable people? Happiness is always in our own hands- at least in the way we react to what fate serves us. Michele writes about her identity and appreciates the privilege she has had, despite any obstacles she has faced, including a difficult marriage, the trials of single motherhood while trying to have a career and the harsh realities of having breast cancer. Mother, wife, friend, daughter, mentor, journalist, author, and emerita faculty at at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Weldon has a lot to reflect on and does so in these tenderly honest essays.

Ambitions and dreams that change as she faces her more mature years, the amount of time left to achieve them is the reality we will all face, if we are lucky. There is a point when a person takes stock of where they have been as well as who; how they have affected people in their life, where they have failed, what has been learned and what there is left to do. It’s not always pretty looking back and it can be scary looking forward. Waiting outside the door of the self is the larger world and what it means to be a woman in it. How beauty is measured, ageism, antiquated ideas, gender, race, class, ethnicity, attempts at fitting into the ever changing landscape, navigating technology that seems to move at the speed of light… it can feel like an uphill battle. Yes, even women of a certain age can feel the pain of comparison to an ideal beauty that is always shining on youth. More so when actresses in their age bracket don’t seem age. It is here, in her third act of life, that she shares what she has learned and what is still missing. All of this in the midst of the disruption COVID-19 has forced on the world.

It is not easy to reshape oneself, but in order to survive, we must. More so as we shed decades of experience, have to alter our thinking and embrace new ways of being. The world right now can leave you disoriented, that is true for the majority of us and it requires clarity to plant yourself where you need to be. Easier said than done. Michele certainly shares her failings with painful honesty, where finding a sunny disposition seemed of her reach. We are human, after-all.

Weldon understands what parents go through and the necessity of constant motion, as she raised sons, how it doesn’t leave much time for ‘pausing’, reflection. It is hard to keep ‘having a good time’ when you are running on fumes, with three boys and a career she certainly faced exhausting days. In these essays, she talks about the many phases of her life, the vulnerability and how it feels now to be arriving in a place where she is often left feeling “unseen”, inconsequential. How aging has changed from her grandmothers day to present time and where she lands in that disparity. Do you attempt being fashionable or let yourself go? Is there anything in between?

The hunger for affirmation has been present throughout her life, and isn’t it what most people have for a career goal, to achieve recognition or at least feel they’ve left their mark, made an impact somewhere before they retire? How much must one accomplish to feel right with themselves?

Michele Weldon examines her past to understand her present and plan for the future, because despite their being more behind her than ahead of her there is still so much living to do. I don’t think you have to be sixty to understand what it means to measure your worth, reflect on your choices, and try to navigate this madly spinning world. None of us age backwards, we’re all moving forward in phases, and wisdom of experience is never a thing to scoff at. At some point we all face similar questions. Yes, read it and I have to give a nod to the adorable book cover!

Publication Date: September 15, 2020

Northwestern University Press

More Than Love: An Intimate Portrait of My Mother, Natalie Wood by Natasha Gregson Wagner

Losing my mother was the defining moment of my life. No other event would ever again so sharply etch its mark upon my soul, or so completely color the way I navigate the world, or leave my heart quite as broken.

More Than Love is a tender, gut-wrenching memoir about life for Natasha Gregson Wagner after her mother’s shocking, tragic death. Natalie Wood, like all celebrities, has seem to become public property after her mysterious drowning death while vacationing on the Splendour, the yacht owned by she and her husband Robert Wagner, it’s namesake an ode to her movie (my favorite) Splendour in the Grass. The fact that remains decades later is no one knows for sure how the beloved actress ended up floating in waters off the coast of Catalina. Rumors, conflicting stories, through it all one thing is true, Wood’s death defined the lives of those who knew and loved her best as much as her life did.

Losing a mother at any age is a shock to the system. For a little girl still learning who she is, what she will become, a daughter whose true privilege in life wasn’t in the surroundings and wealth but the shine of a mother who provided endless comfort, love and happiness, her mother’s death is a devastation. It is a trauma you don’t get over, particularly when the world owns a piece of her. The case gets re-opened, like tearing into a fresh wound that never gets the chance to heal. Here we go again. I cannot imagine the torment, and having remained silent about everything, this memoir is not about taking sides, it’s about telling her own truth, sharing her love and admiration for a mother gone far too soon. It’s about visiting the past, remembering the power of love and family and how Natasha learned to make a life out of the wreckage of bottomless loss.

Natalie Wood was an incredibly talented actress, one who transitioned from a career as a child star into an impressive career as an adult. The world saw Natalie come of age on the big screen. A Russian-American who began acting at the tender age of four and supported her family, behind her sweet beauty lived a woman of strength and keen intelligence. A woman who carried her family on her shoulders at far too young an age and seemed to do so to the very end of her life. Yet when she became a mother, her daughter Natasha was the star in her sky. Despite the failure of her marriage to Natasha’s English father, life would be golden, the bond between mother and daughter impossible to sever. Alike in temperament and looks, from her birth she was doted upon by her mother and soon, by Robert Wagner too. Natalie was soon living with R.J. (Robert Wagner) in Palm Springs, a man who became a second daddy to Natasha. Along came Natalie’s parents too, whom helped care for her little girl, as much as Natalie had always cared for them. The family history is intimate, and naturally with intimacy comes the painfully raw insights. The expectations, demands, the pressure to be a success, the missing childhood, each of these revelations shed a different light on her, allowing Natalie Wood to become someone separate from the characters she played and the persona fans are familiar with. Here, she is a daughter, mother, sister, friend and wife. She is humanized, carrying imperfections, bearing resentment towards her own mother conflicting with the love she feels (robbed of her own childhood) , trying to have a fruitful career as she was a natural at acting, and be a present, loving wife and mother providing her children with the carefree happiness that eluded her own youth. Wood was the head of her family, always.

Then there is Natasha who must navigate a world without her mirror, a mother she started to clash with, as little girls are meant to in staking their own independence. The mommie she suddenly longed to be separate from, creating her own identity, shucking the princess role while at the same time so needy for her. Never could she imagine the fear of not wanting her mother to leave for their trip on the yacht would prove her attachment was a foretelling. Soon, the distance between them would be impossible to breach. Natasha would have to bury the pain, unable to confront even objects her mother left behind, or face being buried herself. This is where being a child of a celebrity feels like a curse. In the aftermath, hyper-vigilance is born, always watching for disaster. The self, shattered, lost. The vultures coming to take, the lies, the rumors… All the years in between, living with the ghost of her mother, the self-esteem issues, the comparisons, the disastrous relationships, the road to acting and always that looming interest from the media, reporters in her mother on every anniversary of her death. In her mid-forties, it was time for Natasha to face her mother’s legacy, now a mother herself, and finally meet her mother with the eyes of her adult self.

This was one of the most beautiful memoirs I have read about a celebrity. I have always had a soft spot for Natalie Wood, her roles in West Side Story and Rebel Without A Cause were wonderful but for me it was always Splendour In The Grass that impressed upon me what a talented actress she was. I feel through her daughter I see her as a beloved mother and wife, more than a persona. She absolutely created a bountiful life, was generous to a fault and wanted so bad to be a good mother. The love between she and R.J. isn’t something easily faked in front of children. I don’t doubt their affection and deep love for each other. I think, for any child, the most painful thing is that one’s mother is seen as a tragedy when her life was anything but. Beautiful memoir.

Available Now

Scribner

Published May 5, 2020

In the Shadow of the Valley: A Memoir by Bobi Conn

52831311._SY475_

Whether we are bound to some bright tomorrow or the failures of yesterday is yet to be seen.

Bobi Conn grew up in a Kentucky Holler in the 1980’s and it was an upbringing full of contradictions.  There was Bobi’s granny, her love as sweet as a sun kissed blackberry, the unparalleled beauty of nature from amphibious creatures to those taking flight, and the exciting tales of her family’s ancestors (moonshiner great grandfather Conn in particular) these are the golden memories.  Then there was the darkness… the foul weather of her father’s temper, his addictions, his angry narrative, her cowering mother who was too busy navigating his flights of rage to be much of a nurturer to Bobi and her brother, and boys whose hands are too curious and cruel for a little girl. There are lessons of obedience as well that get muddled in a young girl’s mind, not quite knowing her own power over her body, life and soul. How is a child to imagine a future that offers her a choice when all around her women have learned to accept chaos and violence as the norm? When even her granny is afraid of her own son?

There are many children who grow up in abusive homes, untoward numbers, but some have the misfortune of being an object of derision in school too- the one place other children can blend in, make friends, seek refuge. Some kids can evade the cloud of unhappiness that dogs their heels when among their peers but a child who can’t afford to look like the rest of their classmates is doomed to endure torment at school that feels as bad as the switches parents take to their flesh at home. If, like Bobi, a child is determined to learn and thrive in an educational environment despite their meager origins they have the added obstacle of not having the money for supplies. Other kids can sniff out the slightest difference in another child and Bobi knows she doesn’t fit in. Nothing upsets the balance more than someone trying to better themselves, other kids don’t make it easy.

Bobi learned how to hide her feelings, it is vital for survival in dangerous environments, but it stunts something in a person. There are many dead ends on her journey to something better, missteps, poor decision making, unhealthy relationships, infidelity and muddied romantic entanglements.  It’s one thing to know your parent’s marriage is one of nuclear fallout and quite another to understand how to avoid the same radioactive choices. Our parents set the stage for our future in a sense, whether they mean to or not, in how the model love, in the way they argue, forgive, begrudge, hoard or share. Often in trying to be the exact opposite of our mother or father, we fall into the same traps. Bobi’s memoir is bare bones about her relationships, parenting- she fails as much as she succeeds. Don’t we all!

Cycles are hard to escape, we take the good with the bad. Our family’s story can be like a brain-worm- devouring any sense we have, do we feed it or kill the parasite? Our pasts truly lay dormant, sometimes the bitterness reveals itself when we ourselves try to navigate parenting, remain calm and not lash out or discipline with the wildness our own parents did. When Bobi escapes through education, she is neither of her new world nor the old and must discover a different way to live. When she is with her family, it’s hard to defend against wanting more than what’s on offer. In her absence, Her father sinks into darker holes within himself, has more children whose lives Bobi doesn’t have the energy nor means to fix. She watches her own brother trapped in the same old story, terrified he will end up just like her father. As Bobi reaches adulthood and the ‘reason’ that comes alongside maturity, she sees her father and his ‘law of the land’ mentality as less justifiable. When she has children, the fears of poverty are always threatening like some wild animal, scratching to get in. She works many jobs and puts herself through graduate school as a single mother, the father’s help sporadic. It’s impossible to ignore the truth of what’s before you, the whole rotten lot of it. This isn’t a memoir where a poor little girl climbs out of her bleak, broken childhood into a perfect, charmed adulthood. Bobi’s life is constantly under construction, just like the rest of us. Her past walks with the present just as it will be beside her in the future but one thing is certain, she will do everything she can to break the cycle that has kept her parent’s down.

Published May 1, 2020

Little A

 

 

Filthy Beasts: A Memoir by Kirkland Hamill

cover180401-medium

Eventually my evolving understanding of the world came into direct conflict with many of the values that I had been taught, spurring an internal awakening, a lifeboat launched from a ship that didn’t know it was already sinking. 

Kirkland Hamill was born to old money, and the elitist snobbery that comes with it.  His father’s family has “secured a seemingly permanent foothold in society’s upper echelons”, living in a family compound, owning Park Avenue apartments, second homes. His father’s relatives with their superior blood are always looking down upon the rest of the world especially those who cater to them, but how is a child to live when there is a fracture in his parent’s marriage and he is meant to navigate his mother’s native Bermuda? Born to a working class family, his beautiful mother married up, her origins a thing that was never discussed, as if the very words “working class” are shameful and  tasteless. His mother’s life and family remain a mystery until he is plunged into her past.

When his father purchases and moves the family to Sky Step Farm in Clinton, Kirkland’s mother is forced out of the New York social set and flounders around the high society of  the ‘quaint’ town. She isn’t the only family member unable to adjust to the drastic change, Kirkland may succeed at school (a clever boy) but he hasn’t any friends and home isn’t any better. The spark is gone, along with the laughter. Too, Kirklands longs for his Jamaican Nanny (his second love, more mother than his own). His siblings, older brother Robin and the youngest Monty aren’t much company, brothers differing in ages and temperaments orbiting their own worlds. Monty, mostly ignored and unwanted by his big brothers and the eldest Robin mean or disinterested. The distance between the siblings grows wider through the years, as they try to escape the dysfunction of their parents.

Their life of privilege disintegrates when they touch ground in Bermuda, feeling like exiles, uprooted from their father. Despite living in a pretty home and attending private school, they are now living beneath the means they were born to. Water for bathing and drinking no longer an endless stream from a tap, their life becomes one of conservation. The beauty and kindness of the natives is a salve, despite racial tension, Bermuda feels far more welcoming than the home they left but inside the family there is dissension. With their mother full circle, back around the family she thought she had escaped, she tries to cling to the vestiges of wealth and privilege she has grown accustomed to in their former life. The stink of unhappiness and disappointment clings to her, no longer the self contained society wife she is unfiltered, a more bitter yet freer version of herself.

Kirkland’s father creates a new life, minus his boys and ex-wife, with another woman. Now that his father is remarried , Kirkland spends time between his father’s horse farm and Bermuda. With Barb  (stepmother) on the scene, there is a new dynamic in place, too time spent with his father is a plunge back into ‘the collective family organism’. His dad is as distant as ever, a wound for any boy looking for affection and guidance, giving birth to a conflicted self.

Back home it’s enthusiastic morning screams of, “Wake up, you filthy beasts!” and “It’s time to face the beauty of a brand-new day.” Despite days spent on the beach, there isn’t enough sunshine to staunch their mother’s enormous depression, nor keep her from sinking into her drinking. Dysfunction that in fiction should bond brothers together in real life only pushes them further apart as it’s every man (or boy) for himself. The consequences of her decline and their father’s fickle attention leads to a lifelong struggle for Kirkland, Robin and Monty.

The truth about poverty is, there are many versions. Pain is pain is pain and certainly it’s a harder struggle coming of age dirt poor, hungry, homeless or abused but certainly it’s no picnic living with any parent who is in a ‘self-imposed exile’ and in a fragile state of mind. There are many poor children who have very present, loving parents- but a lack of love and attention can be a different type of poverty. It truly eats away at the mind, self-esteem. A child of any circumstance, more than fanciful things, longs for love, guidance, structure and acceptance. What a parent can do to their children’s head-space is a powerful thing, there isn’t enough money in the world to fix rejection. How hard is it to escape turning into them, thinking and speaking like they do? A bad childhood, needy self-centered parents can remain with a man or woman to the end of their lives. It’s a bitter seed to swallow, a parent’s neglect. We have a tendency to look at those dandy, “story book perfect” families with envy, never imagining how cold things are backstage.

If only the brothers could have been a support system for one another, maybe things could have been different. I felt so awful for little Monty. I wondered about what his memoir would reveal if he wrote one, because we all live a different story in the same home. This memoir speaks of the struggles of  Kirkland- a conflicted, lonely little boy who comes of age and learns to crawl out of the wreckage of his parent’s marriage and their unraveling. It’s not pretty, but it’s honest. I enjoyed it.

Publication Date: July 14, 2020

Avid Reader Press/ Simon & Schuster