Sunshine State by Sara Gerard

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“Every day. Bob’s parent’s sued people- the city, other motorists, etc.- for a living.”

Essays, memoir, environmental… all these things make up this collection. BFF is a fantastic choice to start the book. It’s a raw, brutal bloodletting on friendship. It’s a give and take, it’s envy and love, it’s everything crazy, young girls are made of- it’s not sugar and spice my friends. Florida grown myself, having left, lived in other countries and traveled, I too have left people behind. The Florida I returned to is never the same one I left. It is a strange world made up of transplants (people) and fierce creatures that are like throwbacks from the prehistoric age. Reading about the cult like spiritual community her parents fell into for a spell, I too scratched my head in wonder as to why they fell for it? But then, why do we fall for anything? I vaguely remember hearing murmurings in my youth about Christian Science, as much as mystery to me then as Scientology is now and how the heck are the two the same and different? My knowledge, both have roots in Clearwater, Florida. Again, you can’t live in Florida and not hear rumors or stories about both. This up close account is enthralling, and people get a high from their beliefs. Everything has something positive, why else do people turn to it?

Then her parents get involved with Amway, and they’re prey to hope, seduced by a better life.  Which got me thinking about a friend of mine and her parents getting involved with some Malacca selling scheme in the late 80’s, but that’s another story. This is one of the strangest collections I’ve read. It’s not that Gerard is strange, just life, particularly here in the Sunshine State. The bad girl high school years, her drug and alcohol didn’t ruin her as it does other kids, which makes warnings sort of fall flat doesn’t it? Some people still come out of the muck of such things unscathed, it seems. Makes those after school specials a bit suspect eh? But friends, it’s not just a Florida thing. Drugs are in all corners of this country.

The part of the book dealing with substance abuse and homelessness is eye-opening. Painfully so. Safe Harbor and the many people waiting for disability bouncing from shelter to shelter is like a nightmare to someone like me, whose never gone hungry nor lived on the streets. Reading about the sort of women that end up in shelters… victims mostly sat with me for sometime. The Sunshine State is about a sanctuary gone awry, as best intentions often do. Ralph seems a strange, fascinating bird himself. How does hoarding come into it? Read on…

Aside from BFF I adored her writing on Rabbit about her grandparents and her husbands own medical struggles. Again the Velveteen Rabbit appears in my reading… it’s beautiful, just the very pacts made. This collection is strange, just as life is. A talent to watch!

Available April 11, 2017

Harper Collins

 

 

The Rules Do Not Apply: A Memoir by Ariel Levy

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“For the first time I can remember, I cannot locate my competent self- one more missing person.”

Ariel Levy tells us people told her all her life she was too much, but what does that mean? And why is a woman ever too much? I was surprised by how much I enjoyed spending time with her thoughts, past, grief, mistakes. We can find common ground in any life, regardless of how they differ from our own, maybe if we did that more often we’d be a hell of a lot more accepting of others. What struck me the hardest was the pain I felt reading about Caster Semenya, because Levy beautifully expressed how devastating it is to be a human being whose most intimate parts are ‘suspect’. For just that moment, I sunk into the shock of such a emotional ‘stoning’, and cannot imagine the humiliation of such accusations made public worldwide on top of all that horror. Levy’s writing in that chapter was visceral for me, I thought about it for days. Writing that can have such an effect on you, that can pull you out of your skin and into another’s is the gifted sort. There was so much to think about, to relate to, for any of us- this gutted me. “But throughout her childhood, her gender had been the subject of suspicion and curiosity wherever she went. ‘It looks like a boy’- that’s the right words,” Sako told me. “They used to say, ‘It looks like a boy.’ The very ideal, the IT, made me sick. Levy’s thoughts on the horrible incident exposes so much about the world and gender.

There was more that made me ache. Life can be beautiful, blessed but you never know what can go wrong, or worse- how you can do such stupid, human things that bring everything you built down around your ears. We hurt those we love, we lie, we get nostalgic or hungry and lose ourselves in a moment of greed and blow it all.  We don’t know what to do with our grief, so we leave it alone, poking at it, letting it fester until it consumes us. Do we carry our families fears, their relationship poison in our DNA? Is that it? Do we pass down the resentment brewing in our bitter hearts to our children, and their children and so on and so forth?

Even Levy’s own parents had a relationship different from the norm. Love is not a box we all live in, well defined and perfectly contained. Just when we have it, so many of us betray our lovers, or ourselves. Why? Why do we sometimes think we must have more? Is it something missing in ourselves? Just when she has everything, she suffers a devastating loss. In our world we’re pushed to brush ourselves off and get over it. (Doesn’t matter if it’s a divorce, a death, a miscarriage) in this vast world you are not the first to suffer and therefore you should move along, perk up, try again. You can just FIX all of it! But life isn’t that pliable. We can’t bring back what’s been lost. Blindness in love is universal. Needing someone there who is absent when we break is akin to falling into a black-hole. It’s so hard to be the rock for yourself when you need nurturing.

This memoir is intimate, tender, beautiful. Your gender doesn’t really matter, nor whether you are in a straight or gay marriage. The struggles are there for all of us, aren’t they? The joy as much as the disappointments. You may be living a grand life and just one event can alter everything you thought was real and true. None of us are safe from nature, nor others actions or worse- our own choices. There is beauty in that, and horror too.  Maybe the horrible things that happen to us, that we do to ourselves and each other have a lesson, maybe it’s all just chaos and chance but it’s the price we pay for being living flesh in this world. Maybe we should stand strong and not rely on another but that isn’t a guarantee from pain either. Either way, Levy’s memoir tells us all we aren’t alone in grief, loss.

Publication Date: March 14, 2017

Random House

Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me by Bill Hayes

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Some days, I feel like Sylvia Plath married to Anne Sexton- or is it Anne Sexton married to Sylvia Plath?- but without the depression or suicides. 

Just poetry.

This is a bitingly beautiful book, a celebration of life, love, loss, New York and the relationship between Bill Hayes and Oliver Sacks. In truth, I fell in love with Oliver myself bathing in the memories Hayes showers on the reader. There seemed to be an infinite childlike curiosity and lust for life in Sacks, and an overflow of genius. How could Bill not be changed by his love for Oliver nor feel such a crippling loss of such a soul in his life? New York might well break your heart, and so will the love and tenderness Bill Hayes shares in this gorgeous memoir.

The connections fired off in Oliver’s brain each day, looking at ordinary things we usually dismiss,warmed me to my toes.  There is something refreshing about Oliver and Hayes love for him shines through the telling. The photography of Bill’s is moving, not everyone can capture a person’s essence in a photograph- Bill Hayes has. There are sweet stories about Bill’s encounters with strangers, and one of my favorite photographs he took is of Ilona Royce Smithkin, the eye artist. There is something endearing about her art, and in the photo of her by a window, she is just as I imagined she would look. It has to be said my favorite part of the book is when they meet with Björk, yes-the singer. I was tickled to learn Oliver wasn’t aware of who she was and the meeting of like minds moved me. They were familiar to each other in spirit, both curious and brilliant in their own right, fame not withstanding.

Oliver isn’t Bill’s only love, nor loss. First was Steve, his partner that passed away from cardiac arrest as he slept deeply beside him. To say he was bereft is minimizing the horror, the crumbling of one’s reality when death steals away our loved ones. In an effort to outrun his grief, he travels but his life eventually begins anew when he starts over in New York. Unlike so many youthful dreamers that head to bustling city, Oliver was nearing 50 years of age. Is it possibly to become a New Yorker when you aren’t as fresh and new? Though he an Oliver had first become acquainted when Sacks wrote Bill a letter, meeting when he visited NY, it wasn’t the catalyst for the move. He needed a change, needed to shed his life in San Francisco- it was time for rebirth. It was a blessing that love blossomed between Oliver as they saw more of each other, no longer on opposite sides of the country, a man 30 years his senior comes to mean so much to his life. You just never know what is waiting for you on the other side of grief, as Bill soon learned. We are lucky to be a part of Hayes’ love affair with New York, strangers, photography and always, Oliver. Though it’s a book that speaks of grief, I found it to be much more a memoir celebrating love and the promise of living, of forging ahead with hope and joy.

Nearing the end of Oliver’s life I felt my heart weighted, for a light was leaving our world. As he lay dying and his friends and lover gathered together and read to him I thought ‘what a tender manner to slip away in your last days.’ To the end Oliver was brave and curious and loved, much loved. A true love story just in time for Valentine’s Day.

Beautiful Memoir with lovely photographs. It was touching in every way.

Publication Date: February 14, 2017

Bloomsbury USA

Abandon Me by Melissa Febos

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“You’re not even hungry! she’d say. You can’t be. But I was hungry. For food, for approval, for secrets, for my legs’ push against the ground, for the ocean, for words. For none of these things at all., but for the brief satisfaction of filling myself with them.”

What do we all have in common when it comes to love, regardless of our sexual preferences? It devours us, picks it’s teeth clean with our bones! It makes fools of us as we wait for returns when abandoned, a god/goddess when adored, vengeful when burned but most of all we are hungry for it, our mouths forever open for more! It isn’t any easier if you’re gay, or young, or rich… what stupid things to say. Love is a wound sometimes too. Melissa Febos opens her soul to the reader, purging emotions and thoughts that we can all relate to. You should read it whether you are male, female, gay, straight, foreign, alien… you get it. Love, this greedy hungry creature, where does it rise from within us, how does our upbringing prepare or damage us for future partners.

This is how one woman makes sense of her upside down heart, her compulsion to both eat and spit out love, you know- that compulsion that drives us all into the arms of someone, hoping to fill, be filled and at the same time emptied out. Love is insane, our childhoods are insane… how the heck do we survive it all? As Melissa writes about her father (The Captain) and her mother’s seperation, his ‘stepping away from them’,  it is poignant how it also her own love story in a sense. We take the beginings of our own story, which starts with our parents, and build a skeleton with it, on which we add our future and what a home it is! She rebels, she experiments, she stumbles and on and on she goes, as we all do.

Beautiful writing dripping with raw emotion, salt in wounds words. Yes, yes… me too! I have felt that, I have done that, it’s me, it’s you! From the quote I shared at the start of this review- “you’re not even hungry” we are always hungry! Our past is never completely behind us, every single person that we love or learn about love from we carry on our backs, we all need to be the adored and to adore. Love shifts, things end, and falling in love is both an ascension to heaven and a sacrifice to some terrifying demon.  As Melisa Febos says “Though a clumsy child, I was a scrupulous keeper of secrets.” And lucky for us that is true, because what are memoirs really but a divulging of secrets, be they thoughts or stories that live inside our minds? Gorgeous.

Publication Date: February 28, 2017

Bloomsbury USA

Land of Enchantment: A Memoir by Leigh Stein

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“These were my own private bruises to poke at.”

Maybe not all young girls and women have a bad man go through them, but it seems to be something most have experienced at some point. That relationship that seems promising, that makes you dizzily sick with love and then somehow it spirals out of your control and somehow into his? This memoir seems to me a purging, Stein carries the bacteria of her doomed love for an abusive Jason with her long after he is out of her life. When she learns of his tragic death in a motorcycle accident, a strange ending for a guy that reminded her so much of rebel without a cause actor James Dean, it is time to ‘poke at those bruises.’ Having to deal with her own mental illness may well have made her susceptible to a damaged boy, but the truth is- even the healthiest of girls have found themselves with someone who breaks them down, turns them into a mewling weak person who they never would have been without said partner. Abuse reminds me so much of how insidious water damage is behind walls. You see a stain but it is so small and don’t realize behind it there is toxic black mold that can do you in. When you are young you fall into love until you are stupid, and every bad thing that is said or done is excused away, because when he’s good, he’s gold. Why do so many women blame themselves for a man’s failings? If you already feel down, it seems you expect the kicks you get, and how much more when you are already full of insecurities and self-hate from an mental illness or not? This story feels young, because she was still wet behind the ears during her time with Jason. It also felt familiar, in a not so distant way. Full grown, some of us have daughters and they too often fall into the ‘save the rebel’ trap.  Why do women stay when they are hit? Because it doesn’t start out that way, does it? Often, a woman wonders ‘how did I get here? How did I become this? When did it happen? And there is a sort of brainwashing process, all the degradation begins slowly until you believe it. It’s the silences, the ugly words and insults, rushing to soothe him in his blow ups and tantrums. It’s that mothering bone so many women have that urges us to fix things. You think it’s not you, because you’re successful, so what if you ‘turn the other eye’ when he has his affairs or silence yourself when he brings up things you feel insecure about, it’s not being hit? There are so many small abuses women endure and don’t even bat an eye. You become used to it.

Stein’s situation is different, having struggled with her illness in her formative years. Can a guy smell it on you, the old wounds? Is that how it happens? Why do some of us lean towards destructive people as a flower leans toward light? How do we cut the cancer of bad love out? You hear so many women say ‘I’d never be that stupid’ and yet… it happens even to the most highly educated, successful women, doesn’t it? Moving, beautiful writing and a touchy subject for many. I am always surprised by how many female friends have ‘been to the bottom of the barrel with a bad man’. One thing is sure, you come out of it altered and often stronger in the broken parts of your soul. Reading this is being there for an awakening, an eye opening journey into recognizing the parts of yourself that you are unkind to as you hitch a ride through Stein’s painful past. I think a lot of young girls fall for that damaged boy, whether you want to blame it on movies that tell us we can ‘change’ a man or on our own mothers quieting their voices to please their demanding husbands or call it a girl’s own weakness, it’s something all women should dissect and try to understand. Going back with Stein through her journey was hard to stomach, because of the raw honesty. So young and foolish, so hopeful for love. Isn’t that most of us when we’re young and shaky, unsure? Some have been there, some never will but that doesn’t mean your own daughters or nieces won’t. Makes me catch my breath just thinking about it.

Out Now

Penguin Group Blue Rider Press & Plume

A House of Sticks by Belinda Vasquez Garcia

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“Mommy regrets only two things in her life- her missing eyebrows and ever marrying Daddy.”

I expected this to be a gloom and doom memoir, it’s not. Listen, bad things happen, there are hungry bellies and hearts, embarrassment, shame, deception, regrets but somehow I was laughing while clutching my warm little gut. Belinda is a kid after my own heart! I felt young again, but with an adult’s wisdom. I was a ghost in the halls of her memories. Her siblings all are living, breathing, spitting, kicking colorful characters! The adults are lunatics but the sort many of us can recognize in our own families, I mean- we all have a little dysfunction climbing about our bent old family tree somewhere right? The style of writing worked beautifully for me, I swear I missed being a kid. How did Garcia get so solidly planted back in the shoes of her youth? Her parents have some secrets, oh boy! But we most loved the damaged ones, don’t we?

From the fear of her Uncle’s visit with a dead body, I remembered the ridiculous nightmares that prey on children. We believe the garbage our older siblings say to scare us, the ‘harmless’ teasing. It was sort of fun though, wasn’t it? All the children have vastly different personalities and I couldn’t help but laugh at the antics each of them got up to. Please know that in the darkest moments, there is love and laughter too. It is sad and disturbing, but I don’t know much about perfect families- so I wasn’t necessarily horrified by her parents. Take the heavy parts, things that happened to Belinda, her reactions are very raw, honest and there are moments you will be disturbed. This is a life, and you have to find the laughter in the storms.

Her writing is lovely, “Once a week, a garbage truck barrels down our street, hitting potholes and farting garbage.” I was born in the mid seventies and grew up in the 80’s but we still played outside and were free to get into all sorts of trouble, something about the sentence with the garbage truck just reminded me of watching the adult-world going about their business  as we children were like street urchins until it was time to go home. It was a time you could feel like a parentless savage, and darn if we didn’t sometimes end up the victim in the schemes of older kids. This memoir is about Belinda’s world when she was young and yet the adults are very much present with so much brewing beneath the surface. Kids understand, and they don’t. It’s a confusing time.

On the one hand, her mother and father have a very bad relationship- he is not completely solid and Belinda’s mother suffers for it. I felt so much pain for what her mother dealt with, and hunger pangs when the kids didn’t have much, and anger that a man can be such a mess. Don’t get me wrong, there is heaviness in their steps- but I honestly spent more time laughing. I think I just fell in love with little Belinda. This is a favorite memoir now, it will be interesting to read what other people feel about it. The horror of that other family her father abandoned … the slow fading of her father who one day just vanishes from her life as well, why is he unable to be still? Why can he not be pinned down? And her mother lives the saying ‘I made my bed, now I must lay in it’.  As Belinda inhales what remains of her father (the Pinocchio man) I am hungry to know what happened after he left.  It will be continued in “After Daddy Left Us” and I can’t wait!  Fantastic!

Available Now

 

 

Ghost Songs: A Memoir by Regina McBride

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“Je reviens,” I imagine him saying. I shall return to you.

This memoir has a disjointed quality that works beautifully. Somehow, this makes the reader feel as if they too are experiencing McBride’s state of mind. I caught my breath thinking of the loss of her parents to the ‘sin’ of suicide. I felt consumed by the beast of grief that was weighing on her soul. Time jumps, and the telling isn’t a clear timeline- which makes the chaos of memory and feeling more vivid. Childhood memories flicker in and out, as they do for most people. We don’t often think in a timely order, and when tragedy strikes we can’t control what we remember of our loved ones. I think of her mother’s ‘upsets’ and how it sits with a child even into adulthood when we shuck off our youth. It’s heavy… love.

Regina is struggling out of an abyss. She is visited by her parent’s ghosts, but aren’t our memories ghosts too?  She is searching but for what? To understand? To find her parents and know they aren’t damned?  Breaking inside, disconnecting from the loved ones that remain, fighting beliefs, trying to make sense of the senseless- it is more than loss. Regina takes not just a physical journey, but an internal one. Who is to blame for what happened? Does it matter when it’s done? I found the many incidents heartbreaking,  imaging the people who are supposed to be your rock losing their grip. Be it illness or circumstance, and I do feel for the parents too, but it’s different for children. It changes you living with unstable parents, and the love, there is still this intense love that is a mass of confusion in the mind. Love, resentment, hurt, shame… we love the damaged sometimes more intensely, because we spend so much time trying to understand. Reading that her father was a dreamer, how did he get from there to such a dark place. It’s all moments, isn’t it? Life. Moments.

It is a hard review to write. This is an emotional memoir, it is heavy and yet somehow promising too. She is absent, but she knows… there is still love, living to be done, a family… she still has a family.

Tin House Books  Publication Date: October 4, 2016