OUTsider

OUTsider by Ruth Marimo41mh4gjqj7l-_sx321_bo1204203200_

publication date: 2014
pages: 248
ISBN: 978-0-9895868-0-1

This book had two things going for it: a heartfelt and genuine tone and a thought-provoking account of a person not often represented in the media.

OUTsider was the autobiography of Ruth Marimo, a gay, undocumented immigrant activist originally born in Zimbabwe. The book detailed her struggles of being an orphan in Zimbabwe, the confusing events that led to her living in America at nineteen without a status, her abusive marriage, and her self-discovery as a lesbian and an activist.

Marimo was very open about much of her life, including her struggles with her sexuality, her noxious relationship, and her status as an undocumented immigrant. That sincerity and candor was often effective, as in this passage from shortly after Marimo arrived in the States:

At first, I was very alarmed and upset that I had come to this country so ill prepared. I had not been treated well, and I had to work real hard for everything I had.
I was nineteen.
I was a kid.
For the past year, I had fended for myself so far away from home and from any assistance. Now, with my predicament, I simply had to do whatever I could to survive. I shopped for all my clothes at the Goodwill . . . .

The ardent nature of the writing and the important subject matter, especially surviving a physically abusive relationship, was enough to recommend the book. However, the book had some problems.

The writing was self-indulgent, like a journal or diary, as though Marimo was using the writing process to work through her own problems. Obviously, there is nothing wrong with using writing as a tool, but then don’t sell the book to others as something that would interest them.

Also, the writing could be very disorienting. Parts were contradictory, from the smallest lines to entire passages. As just one small example, early in the book, Marimo said she was “really in love” with a young woman named Belinda when she was around 16. Then, only nine sentences later, she said she fell in love with a young man named Masimba at 17, and this “was the first time I was truly in love with someone.” Entire sections contained these kinds of contradictions, which made the book confusing to read and lessened its effectiveness.

Additionally, Marimo did not have a coherent thesis beyond just the importance of her story and stories like hers. That was enough of a thesis for me, but the book seemingly strove for a more actionable thesis, and failed.

The book was a quick read and contained many illuminating passages about Marimo’s life and experience.

4/6: worth reading

Other reviews:

goodreads
Amazon

Bastards of the Reagan Era

Bastards of the Reagan Era by Reginald Dwayne Betts9781935536659

publication date: 2016
pages: 68
ISBN: 978-1-935536-65-9

This poetry collection chronicled Betts’s time in the 1980s and 90s during the “crack epidemic” and as an inmate in prison. He took a direct and nuanced look at the tangles of the drug war in cities at that time. The significance of the title seemed to be two-fold: first, he felt his community was complicit in the explosion of drug use that happened at that time, and the consequences of that complicity:

It take a nation of millions to hold / us back? Well they got that. We got that too. / Hands around our throat. Before you suffocate / your own fool self. Father forgive. . .

The second aspect of the title was the role the government and society at large played:

Death reinvented when red / was the curse of men born black / and lost in a drama Reagan read / as war: crack vials and cash and red / in our eyes and we not still / with a pocket full of stones.

The poems were generally focused on a few major themes: selling drugs, the inner city, and prison life. Many of the poems were labeled as elegies, including “Elegy Where a City Burns,” which contained these lines:

They wake / young & bound by count time & chow call, / burning in purgatory / where there is no rest. / & their lives: music, that same / melody —, / where prison is the imitation of life.

These forceful and repeated themes were present throughout and seemed to be focused around a thesis, possibly summed up in these lines:

We were all running down demons with our / Chests out, fists squeezed to hammers and I was / Like them, unwilling to admit one thing: / On some days I just needed my father.

The language, rhythm, and imagery of the poems was usually striking and rarely fell flat. One of my favorite poems was about a game of street football with these lines:

Touchdowns are as rare as angels / & when the boy turns his body, / the RIP shirt slants against the wind, / & there is a moment when he is not / weighed down by gravity, when / he owns the moment before he crashes / into the other boys’ waiting arms & they / all look like a dozen mannequins, / controlled by the spinning sneaker / strings of the dead boys above them.

These poems focused on a subject matter not often found in published poetry and the author crafted his thought and concepts wonderfully.

5/6: seek this book out

Other reviews:

New York Times
Rhizomatic Ideas
Muzzle Magazine

Disrupted

Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble by Dan Lyons9780316306089

publication date: 2016
pages: 258
ISBN: 978-0-346-30608-9

Currently, the author Dan Lyons writes for the HBO show Silicon Valley. Five years ago Lyons was the technology editor at Newsweek. For a few years in between, Lyons worked at Boston tech start-up HubSpot. Disrupted chronicled that time.

At one point during the book, Lyons stated that the main purpose of Disrupted was to be funny and provide some entertainment for the reader. There were certainly many parts that were funny, especially because this was all presumably an accurate representation of what actually happened to Lyons while he worked at HubSpot. The book was full of so much corporatespeak and other business world gems. For example, here was Lyons’s explanation of the explicit and written “culture code” of HubSpot:

The culture code asks, “What does it mean to be HubSpotty?” and then defines the meaning of that term explaining a concept that Dharmesh [a cofounder] called HEART, an acronym that stands for humble, effective, adaptable, remarkable, and transparent. These are the traits that HubSpotters must possess in order to be successful. The ultimate HubSpotter is someone who can “make magic” while embodying all five traits of HEART.

There was also this example of one of Lyons’s coworkers:

[She] calls herself a member of the management team even though she has no one reporting to her. “I manage a team of one,” she tells us one day in a department meeting, and by one she is referring to herself.

Sometimes the corporatespeak went beyond eccentricity and self-aggrandizement and became sinister. Whenever someone quit or got fired, management at HubSpot always referred to it as “graduation:”

In my first month at HubSpot I’ve witnessed several graduations, just in the marketing department. . . . Somehow [the employee’s] boss will have arranged his disappearance without anyone knowing about it. . . . Nobody ever talks about the people who graduate, and nobody ever mentions how weird it is to call it “graduation.”

Although Lyons’s writing was often entertaining or enlightening, it was obvious that much of the book was written to give Lyons closure and vindication for working at a place he didn’t understand and hated and that sometimes treated him poorly. Many passages in the book contained personal screeds against HubSpot and the people who worked there.

This defensive and judgmental tone pervaded the book. Here were Lyons’s initial impressions of the people he worked for:

Nine months ago I was the technology editor of Newsweek. In that job I did not even notice people like Zack, or Wingman, or even Cranium. They are the kind of people whose calls I would not return, whose emails I deleted without opening. Even [the founders] were such small fry that I probably would not have taken the time to meet them for coffee, and I certainly would not have written about them. And Zack? Good grief. He’s five years out of college . . . .

The book was interesting and informative, but the whole thing was colored by the author’s screechy and judgmental tone.

3/6: more good than bad

other reviews:

Fortune
New York Times
Venture Beat

I Think You’re Totally Wrong

9780385351942I Think You’re Totally Wrong: A Quarrel by David Shields and Caleb Powell

publication date: 2015
pages: 261
ISBN: 978-0-385-35194-2

I Think You’re Totally Wrong was just two dudes arguing. Literally. The book was an edited transcript of Shields and Powell’s discussions on a three-day weekend they took for the explicit purpose of arguing with each other. As Shields said about midway through the book: “It’s an ancient form: two white guys bullshitting.” You might be wondering, as I was, did we really need to rehash this old song and dance again? Well I’ll tell you: I loved it.

I had not read these two authors before, but they obviously followed literary and political news and trends. They also did not shy from being brutally honest with each other and with themselves. This meant that I Think You’re Totally Wrong was a voyeuristic Keeping Up With the Kardashians, but for those of us in the “Oh, I don’t have a TV” faction.

Here’s an example of them not holding anything back from each other, in a typically literary way:

CALEB: There’s something appealing in an artist who turns toward contradictions, a troubled and tormented artist who seeks pain. There’s mystique, validity, even credibility. You may disagree, but one thing I’ve observed in your writing is that you seem like you almost wish you had suffered more than you actually have.
DAVID: Then you’re a really bad reader and know nothing about my life.

ZING.

And then sometimes Caleb would just get drunk and talk nonsense:

CALEB: I’ve gotta good sense of direction because of my Oriental background.
DAVID: You’re “Oriental”?
CALEB: I was born in Taiwan. I can orient. The shadows speak to the sun, the sun speaks to the shadows, and the sun and the shadows speak to you.

This all added up to a book that talked about a lot of important things: suffering, Art v. Life, morality — but was really about the main foundation of life: two people talking to each other. These were two people willing to be vulnerable and say their truth, even if it was contradictory or unpopular. For example:

CALEB: There are inferior and superior cultures.
DAVID: Wow. You’re saying that as a fact?
CALEB: It is a fact.
DAVID: I basically agree, but I don’t think you’re supposed to say that. . . .
CALEB: Asians and Africans are equal, but their cultures can’t be. No cultures are. Cultures evolve; politics changes. In India and China, men outnumber women by large margins in some regions because of gender-selective abortion . . . In some cultures, you’re not a woman until your aunt slices your clit off.

As I mentioned above, some might find this book annoying because of it’s myopic premise, but I thought it was funny, endearing, tense, and real.

5/6: seek this book out

other reviews:

Boston Globe
Huffington Post
The Stranger

The Great Santini

The Great Santini by Pat Conroy9780553381559

publication date: 1976
pages: 487
ISBN: 978-0-553-38155-9

The Great Santini was a detailed study of American military life in the early 1960s. The story focused on the Meecham family: patriarch and Marine Bull Meecham; wife Lillian; and kids Ben, Mary Anne, Matthew, and Karen. It started with Bull returning from a tour and moving his family once again from Atlanta to yet another Marine base. As the kids grappled with a new school, Bull was tasked with commanding a notorious squadron. Against this back drop were the major focuses of the book: the impact the Marines had on Bull and his family and the fraught relationship between Bull and his oldest son, Ben. The book was made into an Oscar-nominated movie starring Robert Duvall.

I have to say, there was not much about this book I enjoyed or cared for. Bull Meecham, who called himself the Great Santini, was abhorrent. The book began with him getting blitzed in Spain at the end of his tour. He was destroying a hotel with other Marines – throwing up and breaking glasses – and when the maitre d’ asked him to stop, this happened: “’Beat it, Pedro,’ Bull said. When I want a tortilla I’ll give you a call.’” That was on page three and that about summed up Bull Meecham. He was an inconsiderate racist jerk who didn’t show much respect or affection for anyone. He sporadically beat his wife and kids and expected anyone and everyone to respond to his every whim. He deliberately ran over turtles. The rest of the characters weren’t that great either, although I suppose they were all tainted by Bull Meecham. Additionally, I think we were supposed to find all of this just a little bit funny or endearing. The back of the book described Bull as an “explosive character – a man you should hate, but a man you will love.” Well, sorry, book blurb, but I just thought he was awful.

Also, there was a lot I simply didn’t get. I’m not a father or a son, or a military brat. So all the talk about the pressure put on the Meecham family, especially Ben, was a little lost on me. I thought that lack of connection fell a little bit on me and a lot on the author. There are a lot of books I read that have no semblance to my life, but the author presented them with a universality that meant I could relate to the characters or the situation or at least find meaning in the whole thing.

With all that being said, I thought this book served a purpose. After reading a bit about Pat Conroy, it seemed this book was more a memoir than straight-up fiction. And, as one man’s experience, the book cannot be criticized for not being “universal” enough. Further, it’s probable that a lot of people experienced what Ben and the other Meechams went through: a volatile relationship with an often absent military man that you both loved and hated. The book also recognized and described a subset of American culture: the roving military family.

However, there were some flaws with the book beyond any personal dislike I had for it. All the black people – there weren’t many – either served white people with peace and composure or were criminals. Most of the women were either loving mothers or pretty people who used their looks to hurt and injure. A woman’s body was described this way: “It had rich curves that invited the secret scholarship of men’s eyes.” Most of the characters employed an undifferentiated, too-clever dialogue. Additionally, the tone was sometimes incoherent and rambling.

No matter how much I didn’t enjoy this book, because I found it unfunny and slow and even a little boring, I could really imagine that others would like it. They would read something that reminded them of their own life or find something funny about the South or really empathize with one or all of the Meechams. Because of that, I’m giving the book:

4/6: worth reading

other reviews:

Sarah’s Book Shelves
Stubborn Things

Yes Please

Yes Please by Amy Poehler

publication date: 2014
pages: 329
ISBN: 978-0-06-226834-1

There was very little joy in this book. There was passion and there were exhortations and exclamation points, but it was as though every paragraph was wrung out of Poehler after much pleading and coaxing. That came across in her writing, and Poehler also admitted as much in her prologue.

That made the book a little hard to read at times. I found myself wondering why she wrote certain passages or why I was reading them. For example, Poehler included a chapter about her divorce, but she prefaced it with:

I don’t want to talk about my divorce because it is too sad and too personal. I also don’t like people knowing my shit. I will say a few things.

If you don’t want to talk about your divorce or other personal things, why write this chapter at all? In fact, why write a memoir?

I also did not always find Poehler likable or relatable. She could be very judgmental and egocentric. This is how she talked about New York City post-9/11:

It was a tough time to join [Saturday Night Live]. It felt like America might not ever smile, never mind laugh, again. . . . I had to attempt to do comedy in a city that was battered and still on fire, while avoiding being killed by the ANTHRAX that had been sent to the floors below us.

Of course, a book, and a narrator, does not have to be likeable or relatable to be good or effective. And Poehler was often effective. The theme of the book was to accept life, experience, and fun as it comes to you and, generally, do what you want. Reading the book made me want to do that. It made me want to follow my dreams, and stand up for myself, and have an Amy Poehler in my friend group. (According to Poehler, “a key element of being [her] friend is being comfortable with [her] forced fun,” which sounds awesome.)

The book contained a lot of sincere advice and beautiful insights. For example, she reminded us that “other people are not medicine.” There’s also this great line that I loved:

People are their most beautiful when they are laughing, crying, dancing, playing, telling the truth, and being chased in a fun way.

The book was also pretty funny. For example, Poehler described her writing style like this:

I have told people that writing this book has been like brushing away dirt from a fossil. What a load of shit. It has been like hacking away at a freezer with a screwdriver.

Poehler wasn’t as good a writer as her contemporaries, like Tina Fey or Mindy Kaling, but her writing, though inconsistent, resonated and often delighted.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews:

New York Times
Boston Globe
Bonjour, Elly

Fever Pitch

Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby

publication date: 1992
pages: 247
ISBN: 0-575-05315-1

As someone who has not watched a lot of soccer (or “football”) and has never watched British football and, in fact, cannot even name a single current football player, I don’t know if I’m the best person to review this book. Fever Pitch was Nick Hornby’s first published book, and it followed his obsession with Arsenal, a British football team, from the late 1960s to the date of the book’s publication, 1992.

There was so much about this book I didn’t understand. The British idioms alone had me frequently checking Google. I’m still not quite sure what a “scouser” is. Additionally, there were elementary football references that I didn’t appreciate. Hornby often mentioned “Hillsborough,” a 1989 disaster wherein an overcrowded football stadium resulted in a crushing mob and the death of 96 people. I kept expecting Hornby to explain the situation but he never really did, presumably because he expected his reader to know what Hillsborough was. I eventually looked it up on Wikipedia after the fifth mention. Finally, there were dozens and dozens of obscure football tidbits that I didn’t even bother to research. Here’s a sample sentence:

I experienced the big things – the pain of loss (Wembley ’68 and ’72), joy (the Double year), thwarted ambition (the European Cup quarter-final against Ajax), love (Charlie George) and ennui (most Saturdays, really) – only at Highbury.

However, there was much about the book I did understand. Hornby was a funny, engaging writer who attempted to impart something about humanity but realized that football could only take him so far. In Hornby’s words, “in some ways, football isn’t a very good metaphor for life at all.” As Hornby reflected on his own life, he was able to discover insights about the modern experience:

The white south of England middle-class Englishman and woman is the most rootless creature on Earth; we would rather belong to any other community in the world. Yorkshiremen, Lancastrians, Scots, the Irish, blacks, the rich, the poor, even Americans and Australians have something they can sit in pubs and bars and weep about, songs to sing, things they can grab for and squeeze hard when they feel like it, but we have nothing, or at least nothing we want. Hence the phenomenon of mock-belonging, whereby pasts and backgrounds are manufactured and massaged in order to provide some kind of acceptable cultural identity.

Hornby also discussed his own conflicted relationship with the object of his obsession and his own past in funny and relatable passages.

One of the most interesting portions of the book was its discussion of the more sordid aspects of football. For example, he discussed some of the apparent racism found in football, such as the first time he went to a game and fans threw bananas on the field:

Those who have seen John Barnes, this beautiful, elegant man, play football, or give an interview, or even simply walk out on to a pitch, and have also stood next to the grunting, overweight, orang-utans who do things like throw bananas and make monkey noises, will appreciate the dazzling irony of all this.

Hornby admittedly had an intense love-hate relationship with football and his frank but decidedly subjective views were interesting.

This book started Hornby’s writing career and was very well-received. I imagine that any Arsenal fan would enjoy it. And maybe anyone who is a fan of anything would enjoy it, too. For all I know, any British person would find it clever and relatable. However, I can only really recommend this to someone who loves sports. And maybe only someone who loves soccer. And maybe only specifically British soccer.

3/6: more good than bad

other reviews of the book:

guthikonda
Dappered
The Sports Book Review