Tag Archives: Memoir

The Drive: Searching for Lost Memories on the Pan-American Highway by Teresa Bruce ~ Book Review

Pages:  320

Published:  June 13, 2017

Format:  E-book care of Netgalley

 

 

 

 

“It isn’t practical, my quest to find my rolling childhood home and say a thirty-years-too-late goodbye to a four-year-old-boy.”

This is a memoir of Teresa Bruce who travels the Pan-American Highway in an avion camper with her husband Gary shortly after marriage.  This trip mirrors the trip that Teresa went on as a young girl in 1974 with her parents and her sister 2 years after the death of her younger brother.  The ultimate goal of the trip is to find the camper that her family had travelled in and eventually sold before heading home.   Ulterior motives include recollecting memories, exploring South America, reconnecting with people whose paths they crossed 30 years prior, understanding her parents better, and coming to terms with her brother’s death.  She seems particularly interested in learning about her parents’ motives and grieving process during this journey.  She does not recollect her parents talking about the death of her brother or even mentioning his name.  It is obvious when meeting people along this journey that her mother spoke to others very much about her dead brother, a realization that surprises the author.

To me, this journey felt very foolish.  Both trips contained near death experiences.  The travelers were pitted against corrupt police demanding bribes.  The travelers made poor choices.  For instance, Teresa brings a gun along, which haunts her the entire trip. They are continuously embarrassed by their apparent flaunting of wealth in their Avion with American plates as they drive through poverty stricken regions.  The writing is disjointed, the characters are coming undone…  So, for me, it was a tedious unenjoyable read.

The journey begins after a visit to Teresa’s home and parents.  What I couldn’t understand was why Teresa never engaged her parents in conversation about the past rather than decide to relive this journey, that for her, didn’t seem enjoyable the first time.  I took a chance on this book from netgalley knowing that I needed to read a travel memoir as part of the BookRiot 2017 reading challenge.  I almost gave up so many times.  I’m surprised that I actually read to the end.  The writing felt disjointed.  It read like diary entries that had been slightly reworked with some facts and tidbits thrown in about the history & geography of the area that didn’t necessary fit with the driving themes of the book.


Map of the Pan-American Highway from Brilliant Maps

 

 

 

 

 

Photo of Teresa Bruce, her husband Gary, and her dog, Wipeout, who accompanies them on the trip until her death in front of the Avion.  Picture taken from the Facebook page for “The Drive.”

 

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

Pages:  272

Published:  June 28th, 2016

Awards:  Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Memoir and Autobiography;  New York Times #1 Bestseller; Named by The Times as “One of six books to help understand Trump’s win”

Format:  E-book

 

This is a memoir from the point of view of a “hillbilly”  growing up in the Rust Belt of America.  He is an anomaly of sorts in that he was able to escape the circumstances of  his past and become such a success story.  His mother was an addict and abusive.  He, as a child, was a victim of her abuse.  She had a rotation of husbands and boyfriends continuously entering and leaving their lives.  Despite this, he was able to move on.  After high school, he joined the marines and served in Iraq.  Then, he went on to Ohio State and Yale Law School.  His story drew me in right away.  He tells his story through this lens:  “…for those of us lucky enough to live the American Dream, the demons of the life we left behind continue to chase us.”

He tells his own life story alongside statistics and study data of the area, its people and culture at large.  I found this a fascinating read from a voice in a corner of the world we do not often hear from.  It provides certain insights and offers plenty of discussion points.  It is incredible that he had the resilience of character combined with the alignment of certain factors that gave him the will and drive to succeed as he did.  He comes across with great humility attributing his success to these factors that did align in the right way for him.  He could have just as easily, perhaps more easily fallen into a life of addiction and poverty.

Mamaw is a crucial supporter for J.D. Vance and a relentless voice encouraging him to be more, to think bigger for himself.  Mamaw and Papaw had moved to Ohio for factory jobs from southeastern Kentucky alongside so many others.  There is a reference to Dwight Yokam’s song “Reading, Rightin’, Rt. 23” and how relatable this was to Mamaw as well as much of Appalachia at that time.  When J.D.’s mother and aunt were growing up, Papaw was an alcoholic and the relationship between the parents was stormy, even violent at times.  Mamaw eventually kicked Papaw out and becomes a guiding force and bright light for J.D. as well as for many other of her grandchildren and great grandchildren, even though this stability was not provided for her own children. Papaw serves as her sidekick, still living in his separate house, sober now.

There is a fair amount of discussion within the book about how Appalachia and the South went from firmly Democratic to firmly Republican in less than a generation.   According to this book, there was a perceived unfairness to unemployment checks, whereby those not working would seem to actually have more luxuries, like cell phones, than those who were working hard.  Also, in the realm of housing, people could live in Section 8 housing with help from the government and be neighbors to others who are paying their full share.  Obama was apparantly unpalatable to the hillbilly people because he was so educated and spoke so differently from them.  They did not feel they could relate to him.  Oh, and maybe there was some racism involved too (but this point was strangely mentioned almost as an afterthought.)  This is a class of people, strongly united in their identity, but left feeling hopeless and disenfranchised with the loss of industry where they were previously employed.

This culture of blue collar worker with their tight knit community has higher than average levels of drug and alcohol dependence, divorce, and poverty.  The children of this community are less likely to go on to college.  The men are more likely not to work.  Those that do go off to college are unlikely to come back to their home towns.  Thus, there occurs a  phenomenon referred to as “brain drain.”  This cycle is self perpetuating and reinforcing.  It is “a culture of social decay” as J.D. Vance puts it.  There is also a “learned helplessness, ” in other words, a feeling that there is nothing these people can do to change their own circumstances.

Politically, this book is very interesting.  J.D. Vance blames the hillbilly culture for their own situation.  He believes in hard work and personal responsibility despite hardships.  His views are very conservative.

J.D. Vance is a venture capitalist in Ohio hoping to give back to the community he came from.  I will be very interested in seeing how he does give back, especially after painting such a bleak outlook for the potentiality of a solution to the problems faced by these people.  He does say that the one thing he’d most like to change about the white working class is “the feeling that our choices don’t matter.”  With his law background, it will be interesting to see if he decides to jump into politics at some point.  He certainly seems interested in public policy, although skeptical of the magic bandaid.  This is an interesting, thought provoking book providing insight into a region, a class of people, as well as a pivotal period in history.

J.D. & Mamaw                               J.D. Vance

 

 

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Do you feel that you learned more about the culture of Appalacia through this novel?  Do you feel it was accurately portrayed?  Why might some people in Appalacia take issue with this novel?
  2. Discuss the guiding forces in J.D. Vance’s life that allowed him to succeed.  Discuss the role of the military in shaping his perspective and work ethic.
  3. Discuss the psychological effects of J.D.’s background on his current personal life.
  4. Why is social capital important?  How does this change for the author through his life?
  5. How would you describe J.D. Vance’s political views?  If he were a politician, who policy changes would he lobby for?
  6. Explain this “learned helplessness” that J.D. Vance talks about.
  7. Why would Donald Trump as a presidential candidate appeal to this group of people?  What do you think they hope from him?
  8. Discuss Vance’s feeling of dislocation upon graduating from Yale. How does he come to terms with them or does he?
  9. Towards the end of the book, Vance asks himself, “How much is Mom’s life her own fault?  Where does blame stop and sympathy begin?”  What are your thoughts?
  10. Do you think this book would have received so much attention had it not been an election year?  … had Trump not been a candidate?
  11. What does this book say about the American Dream?  Where and for whom is this dream alive?  Where has it died?
  12. Did you feel that that J.D. Vance was blaming the victim as many of his critics have complained?

 

 

Review by Jennifer Senior in the NY Times

Review by Joshua Rothman in The New Yorker

Discussion Questions by LitLovers

Ron Dreher’s interview with J.D. Vance in The American Conservative

 

 

 

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

Pages:  224

Published:  November 15, 2016

Format:  E-book

 

 

 

 

 

“In any society built on institutionalized racism, race-mixing doesn’t merely challenge the system as unjust it reveals the system as unsustainable and incoherent.  Race-mixing proves that races can mix – and in a lot of cases, want to mix.  Because a mixed person embodies that rebuke to the logic of the system, race-mixing becomes a crime worse than treason.”

There is so much to love about this collection of essays by Trevor Noah about his life growing up in South Africa.  He was born during the era of apartheid to a black mother and a Swiss-German father at a time when it was illegal for blacks and whites to mix.  He had tremendous strength of character in a world in which he did not have a place.  He did not feel like he truly belonged with the whites, the coloreds, or the blacks.  Most other children born to parents of mixed races fled the country, so the parents did not have to hide their “crime.”

Trevor’s essays shed insight and understanding on and about South Africa’s diverse African cultural population (a country with 12 official languages), life under apartheid, and the aftermath of conditions once apartheid ended.  They are full of humor, grit, love and incredible good fortune or luck.

Trevor was raised by his mother who was a very resourceful, independent, strong woman who devoted her life to religion and instilling strong morals into her son.  She would whip him for misbehaving.  They would have long dialogues over what was right and wrong, and when she felt that he could think up arguments faster than she, she agreed only to argue in writing.  Letters back and forth would ensue, sometimes friendly and other times more aggressive.   She very much shaped who he was, what he became, made him a strong thinker, a fast runner, and who he is today.  Interestingly, he also helped to shape his mother.  She parented his younger brother differently from how she parented Trevor, because of what he had taught her.

This book is so small, yet so expansive.  It is full of wisdom, insight, depth, humility and love.  To cover topics including apartheid, poverty, religion, domestic abuse, relationships, police corruption and do it all so well is an incredible feat.    I highly recommend this book to everyone!  

 

 

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Discuss the role of religion in Trevor’s family’s life.  Why did he and his mother attend so many services and what did they get from each?  How do Trevor and his mother view the importance of religion?
  2. How and why does Trevor’s mother change her parenting style with Trevor’s younger brother?
  3. How does witchcraft figure into South African society and belief systems?
  4. Trevor compares apartheid with Catholic school, both authoritarian and ruthless.  In what ways is this true in the book?
  5. How does Patricia, Trevor’s mom, challenge Trevor to think for himself and stand up for himself?
  6. How is Trevor like a chameleon?  Why does he do this?
  7. Discuss Trevor’s relationship with his father.  Does Trevor feel good about it?
  8. How is Trevor’s step-father abusive?  Why won’t the police take a report about it?
  9. Discuss the role of the police in South Africa and this book.
  10. What lessons in love does Trevor learn in this book?
  11. This book speaks a lot about Trevor’s relationship with his mother.  How would you express the way Trevor feels about her?
  12. How does Trevor Noah’s background make his commentary on America so meaningful?
  13. Why do you think Trevor Noah has been so successful as a comedian, writer and on the Daily Show?

 

Michiko Kakutani review in the NY Times

Trevor Noah’s Utube clips

Review by Fellow Blogger, “The Paperback Princess”

 

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

 

Published: September 28, 2015Smoke Gets in Your Eyes PBK mech.indd

Literary Awards:  Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Memoir & Autobiography

Pages: 272

Format: E-book

 

 

 

“What does not kill me makes me stronger.”  – Nietzsche

I was thoroughly impressed by this memoir and social commentary on death and dying written by such a young woman.  Caitlin Doughty, at the age of 23, has produced an impressive, well researched commentary on how we as a society perceive death, talk (or not talk) about death, and view the body and what happens post-mortem.  She brings the death industry to light as well as the options available for burial or cremation.  She speaks frankly and does not gloss over details that some may find distasteful.  This is a book written by someone who has spent a lot of time ruminating over what makes a good death and what should happen with the body.  She has worked in various facets of the death industry, most notably a crematory and has attended mortuary school.

Admittedly, I approached this book with some level of apprehension, presupposing that a book about cremation would be awfully dull.  Yet, I was pleasantly surprised at the level of wit and humor sprinkled within such a dark and morbid topic.  The author is wise well beyond her years.  The fact that she can discuss these topics and make them so riveting, compelling, and in some cases, downright laughable make this book not only a super important read, but a highly enjoyable one.

I am an emergency medicine physician.  I see dead people often.  One of the greatest gifts I can give a patient and family, is a death with dignity.  Too often, patients come through the ER, without a hope of surviving a tragic accident or disease, yet everything is done to try.  The more humane option in my opinion is to speak to the family about the prognosis and how much they want done .  These conversations can lead to a much more peaceful end of life, and lead to a much more gratifying experience by all involved (nurses, physicians, family & loved ones).  Caitlin speaks to the increasingly ever-aging population; the increasing physician-shortage, especially in the area of geriatrics; and the increasing need for care-givers for the elderly.  These are critically important topics where increased awareness and discussion need to be held on many levels.

Caitlin speaks about the need for people to think about their own mortality and what they would like to happen with their bodies after their death.  It is a huge burden to families and loved ones, emotionally and financially, to know what to do these circumstances when the wishes of the deceased are unknown.  This is a book that everyone should read.  It is a book that will hopefully change misconceptions about death and encourage more conversations.  Death should not be such a mysterious process.images-2

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Discussion Questions:

  1.  What do you think constitutes a good death?
  2. What would you like done with your body after you die?  Did reading this book change your answer to this?
  3. Are you afraid of death?  What could you do to lessen your fear of death?
  4. Why do you think that society at large hides death and it is spoken of very little?
  5. What kind of celebration/remembrance would you like there to be for you after you die?
  6. Natural burial (being buried with embalming and without a casket) is presented as the most ecologically sound burial.  What are your thoughts on this?
  7. Should there be a manual on the “art of dying?”
  8. Discuss some traditional ways of celebrating death honored by different eras and cultures.
  9. How do books like “Younger Next Year” and the “Fountain of Age” affect our conception of mortality?
  10. Have you discussed your wishes about your manner of death and post-mortem handling with your family and loved ones?

Caitlin Doughty’s Blog: The Order of a Good Death

Review by Rachel Lubitz that appeared in the Washington Post

Interview with the author published in Kansas City Star

When Breath becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

 

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Published: January 12, 2016

Pages:228

Format:  E-book

 

 

 

This brief memoir is interposed between a foreword by Abraham Verghese, the brilliant author of Cutting for Stone and an epilogue by author’s wife, Lucy Kalanithi.  It is a beautiful, heartrending, deeply philosophical piece by an accomplished young man who dedicated heart and mind to his work and study in neurosurgery.  He discovers that he has terminal lung cancer at the age of 36, just before completing his grueling neurosurgical residency and embarking on the career he has worked so hard to attain.   The book is very thoughtful and reflective in nature, especially upon the meaning of life.  It made me wonder if the author was truly always so interested in finding the meaning of life, or if only when told of this terminal diagnosis, that reflection back on  his life made this search so apparent.  As one nears death, what is most important, becomes glaringly more obvious, and Paul Kalanithi describes this so well.

Abraham Verghese speaks in the foreword of how he had met Paul in person several times before his death, but it was not until he read his book that he felt  he really knew him.  I too, felt like I got to know Paul through this book.  He is very open and honest about himself, his sickness, his relationships, and struggles and triumphs throughout the process of dealing with cancer.

I find it interesting that Paul did not always think he wanted to be a physician, but rather thought he might be a writer.  He may not have realized his full potential as neurosurgeon and professor, but he surely achieved his goal to be a writer.  He has left behind a beautiful book that will be read for many years to come.  It will be of great interest to those with life-threatening disease, their family members, and really everyone, because we will all be in those shoes at some point.  He has also left behind a wonderful gift of himself to his daughter.  She will not remember her time with him, but she will be able to know him through this book and well as through the memories that I’m sure his close relations will share with her.  Aside from writing and even delving back into neurosurgery residency at one point, he spent the last years of his life following his diagnosis, building closer bonds with his family, and the love there was overflowing.

Aside from being an important read for anyone facing a life-threatening illness themselves or loving someone who is, I think it is a very important read for all medical professionals.  It puts a face behind a patient, who is clearly able to articulate the thoughts and feelings of being a patient in our medical system.  It emphasizes and highlights the importance of the physician-patient relationship.

I give this memoir images for it’s thought provoking, beautiful prose, as well as for writing it’s way through a death with utmost dignity.  He strengthens his belief systems, forges stronger relationships with family and loved ones, and finds greater meaning in life once he is given this terminal diagnosis.

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Stanford University neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi savors a moment with his daughter, Cady, earlier this year. Kalanithi, who had never smoked, was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2013. He died March 9 at the age of 37. Illustrates SURGEON-ESSAY (category l), by Paul Kalanithi , special to The Washington Post. Moved Friday, March 13, 2015. (MUST CREDIT: By Mark Hanlon/ Stanford University)
(MUST CREDIT: By Mark Hanlon/ Stanford University)

Discussion Questions:

  1.  What do you think is the meaning of life?  What makes life meaningful?  Are these two questions different?
  2. Paul says in his book, Darwin and Nietzsche agree that the defining characteristic of live is striving.  Do you agree?
  3. Why do think doctors sometimes lose sight of the doctor-patient relationship?
  4. How does terminal illness change Paul’s identity?
  5. If you were to die tomorrow, what meaning would your life have?
  6. Jeff kills himself because of a bad outcome.  Do you think we put too much responsibility upon physicians?
  7. Do you think the long hours that residents work is a good thing?  How does it affect the doctor-patient relationship and the quality of care?
  8. How do you think physicians are treated differently when treated for illnesses than people unknown to physicians?  Do you think there is a difference in the care they would receive?
  9. Lucy asks Paul at one point, “What are you most afraid of?”  He answers that it is leaving her.  What would you be most afraid of?
  10. How did you feel about Paul and Lucy’s decision to have a baby?
  11. What does “death with integrity” mean to you?

Paul Kalanithi’s website

New York Times Review

Discussion Questions by Random House