First in the World Somewhere: The True Adventures of a Scribbler, Siren, Saucepot, and Pioneer

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Thank you to Unbound for providing me with an advance copy of Penny Pepper’s memoir, First in the World Somewhere: The True Adventures of a Scribbler, Siren, Saucepot, and Pioneer, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– Penny Pepper’s life has been shaped by a severe and crippling form of arthritis that she has had since childhood. However, she has not allowed her disability to define her. Coming of age in England during the early 80’s, Pepper became enamored with the punk culture and started a career singing under her alter-ego, Kata Kolbert. In addition to performing, she also became a writer and advocate for disability rights.

LIKE– Pepper is a strong woman and a role model. I love her fighting spirit; the way she continues to fight for her dreams, even when the odds are stacked against her. I admire that she isn’t afraid to share her fears and struggles.

I had never heard of Pepper’s condition; an arthritis that is so severe, that she requires a wheelchair and needs aids to do tasks like going to the bathroom. The bathroom situation is a really big deal, because Pepper does not have funding for a twenty-four hour caregiver and although during parts of her life she is either married or living with a friend, when she is alone in the house, she is very vulnerable. She often does not have the strength for tasks such as using a bathroom without assistance. Pepper’s condition constantly puts her at odds with the basic human desire to be self-sufficient.

The title of the book comes from Pepper finding out that she was the top of the charts for Indie music in Italy and Greece. The title also stands for Pepper’s fight for change. She might not actually be the first disabled person who sings in a punk band or the first disabled person writing about her challenges, but it doesn’t matter. She doesn’t need to be first to be making an important contribution.

I like the open, frank writing that Pepper does regarding her sexuality. It seems like many of the  doctors and other professionals that she encounters do not treat her like a female or someone with sexual desires. At one doctor’s appointment, it is suggested that she have a hysterectomy. She was in her twenties. I don’t think the suggestion is necessarily insulting, but the way that it is suggested, so flippantly, as if this wouldn’t be a sensitive subject for Pepper, is horrific.

Tamsin, Pepper’s best friend and first roommate is another strong force in First in the World Somewhere. Tamsin has a similar disability, and although she tries living on her own with Pepper, the two part ways when Tamsin envisions a different type of care for herself. This was an interesting dynamic, with both women attempting to be independent, but also coming to terms with their individual needs.

DISLIKE– I’m an American married to a Brit and even though I picked up on a lot of the terminology and “Britishness” of the memoir, I wondered how much would have gone over my head without my husband. Pepper is very involved in politics of the time ( mostly 80’s-90’s) and although I knew some of the players, such as Margaret Thatcher, I think being American and also a little younger than Pepper, made me feel lost in these sections.

RECOMMEND– Yes. First in the World Somewhere is a wonderful memoir about empowerment, overcoming obstacles, and following your dreams. Pepper’s story would be an excellent pick for disability advocates and generally, an important read for everyone. Her openness with regard to her challenges will make readers more understanding and compassionate.

The Long Run: A Memoir

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Thank you to Crown Publishing for providing me with an advanced copy of Catriona Menzies-Pike’s memoir, The Long Run, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT – When she was in her early twenties, Catriona Menzies-Pike was dealt a major life-change, when her parents both died in a plane crash. She spent the following decade finishing her education, while dealing with both her profound grief, and the extensive probate process to close her parent’s estate. She had never considered herself very athletic, but when she turned thirty, she decided that she wanted to change her lifestyle and began running. The Long Run chronicles her journey to becoming a marathon runner, including an examination on how running helped her cope with loss and the history of female runners.

LIKE– I’m not a runner. I’ve finished a handful of half-marathons and other athletic events, but I’ve always been more of a slow finisher, mostly walking. I’ve never had the drive to turn myself into a runner. Running is not what drew me to Menzies-Pike’s memoir. Like Menzies-Pike, I also lost my parents at a young age and this is what made me interested in her story.

The Long Run is half a history of running, specifically female runners. I was not expecting her memoir to be so heavy on the history, but I’m glad it was, as it was fascinating. I had recently heard the story of runner Kathrine Switzer, who in 1967 was the first woman to run the Boston Marathon as an official participant. Switzer registered using her first initial, rather than her name, and snuck by in a time when women were not allowed to participate. Famously, a race official tried to physically remove her from the course, but her boyfriend at the time, stepped in and Switzer kept running. The Long Run is filled with stories of other female runners from around the world who helped break down barriers. I may have zero interest in running, but I’m grateful to these women who took risks so that I could have opportunities. It’s amazing to me to think that Switzer’s Boston Marathon run was just ten years before I was born. I feel like I grew up in a world where I could aspire to anything.

Menzies-Pike also writes about the fear that women have, a fear that has been drilled into them, regarding things like running alone or running at night. Until last summer, when I moved to downtown Portland, I’ve never felt unsafe in my environment. Now, I live in a place where I would not walk outside of my building at night without my husband. In the daytime, I even feel nervous. A big part of this, is that we live right next to a pretty park, where unfortunately, bad things have happened. This fear has limited my life. I don’t go to writing events or other things, stuff that I wouldn’t have hesitated to do when we lived in Los Angeles. Fear is powerful and controlling.

DISLIKE– I wish Menzies-Pike had made her memoir more focused on her grieving and transformation. It could have been more introspective. If I was a runner, I think I would have been more interested in the specific details of her major races. As a non-runner, these portions were a little tedious and I found my attention drifting.

RECOMMEND– If you’re a female athlete or interested in the history of marathons, The Long Run would be a great pick.

One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter: Essays

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Thank You to Macmillan- Picador for providing me with an advanced copy of Scaachi Koul’s, One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter: Essays, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– In her essay collection, One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter, Koul explores growing up in Canada as a child of Indian immigrants. She write about her culture, dating, and dealing with sexism and racism, both stemming from societal biases or the kind that is overt, and from a place of hate. Her writing is both funny and gut-wrenching.

LIKE- I immediately fell in love with Koul’s voice. She’s witty, razor sharp, and insightful. She writes with an openness that is rare: sharing with readers intimate details of her life. For example, she writes about body issues as a child, like worrying over her body hair with an obsession that would never have occurred to her fairer, white classmates. The pain of this is acute, when she recalls a male classmate pointing out the hair on her arms. As a woman, thinking back to that age, my heart broke for her. She writes about being roofied in her twenties, and the way young women have mixed messages drilled into them: Drink to be fun, but don’t get sloppy drunk. Drink to be flirtatious, but be on guard that you’re not a tease. Go out and enjoy yourself, but predators are lurking everywhere. Koul nails the frustrations of being a woman.

I was most disturbed regarding a chapter when explained how she was cyber attacked for voicing a controversial opinion. It wasn’t so much that people disagreed, but it was the way in which they disagreed: through hate. She received messages attacking her sex, her race, her body; truly vile messages. It was shocking and stomach churning.

The chapters where she wrote about her family and traveling to India, were my favorite. The title of her collection actually comes from her cousin, who was getting married in India. It is in reference to the arduous and tedious week-long marriage celebration, which includes elaborate ceremonies, strict traditions, and many changes in outfits. Koul explains how no one who has actually attended an Indian wedding, would want to attend an Indian wedding. I enjoyed this glimpse into another culture and hearing about her family. Just like any family, there is a lot of affection and frustration.

DISLIKE– Nothing. This is an poignant, thought-provoking, and frequently humorous collection.

RECOMMEND– Yes!!! Koul has a unique and appealing writer’s voice. I finished, One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter, and was left wanting more. She’s a great writer!

The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness

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Thank You to Perseus Books Group, PublicAffairs Books, and Nation Books; for providing me with an advanced copy of Jill Filipovic’s The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– Can American women truly find happiness? Jill Filipovic explores the issue of happiness and feminism, looking at the history of the United States, statistics, and personal stories.

LIKE– I was raised by a strong, single mom, and from birth, I was always told that I can do/be anything I want. I never felt like being female limited my possibilities. That said, I’m not blind to the fact that things are not equal. I guess I chalked things up to we’ve come a long way, but there is still further to go and it takes time. Rome wasn’t built in a day, et… I’m an optimist. However reading The H-Spot was eye-opening. Filipovic made me realize that maybe I should reconsider my optimism, by showing me ways that the system has been stacked against women.

For example, Filipovic talks about the expectation that women will give up their last names when they marry. I’ve been married twice. The first time, I kept my maiden name and it bothered family members/friends: I got heat for my decision. The second time, I took my husband’s name. I’m proud to have my husband’s last name, but it’s the societal expectation that is troublesome. She explains that the burden is on women alone, and when surveyed, it became clear that most men, would not even entertain the idea of taking their wives last name, and many would be upset if she didn’t take his. To take this further, Filipovic links the last name to identity and power, something that a woman is pressured to give up. This idea of a lost identity is something that I had never given much thought, but in retrospect, I believe it is why I was reluctant to change my name in my first marriage.

Filipovic put it in terms of a power play, men get to keep the power, while women are expected to sacrifice. The same thing happens when it comes to careers and children. Yes, there are stay-at-home dads, but more frequently, the woman is expected to give up her career or take the time away to be at home. The worst of the situation is when there is a lack of support from the community, including other women. The decisions that women make, often pit them against other women: working mothers vs stay at home moms, those who breastfeed and those who don’t, mom’s vs childless women, et…the support system is flawed, making security and happiness hard to come by.

I liked how Filipovic balanced the content of her book, not just relying on history or personal stories, but blending the two. This made her exploration feel more comprehensive. I was most interested in the latter chapters, those dealing with subjects like fertility and body image. I wish that she had included even more interviews and personal stories. As she mentions, it’s impossible to write a book that is exhaustive on this subject, but Filipovic does a solid job at hitting the main points.

DISLIKE– I was unevenly interested in the chapters, especially the early chapters. I’ve taken several college level women’s history courses, so the history was very familiar: I wasn’t learning anything new, it was more of a refresher. However, to someone who hasn’t had the exposure, the history should be enlightening and interesting.

RECOMMEND– Yes. The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness is a must-read for women. Filipovic’s honest exploration of modern feminism is a worthy read.

The Rules Do Not Apply

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Thank You to Random House Publishing Group for providing me with an advanced copy of Ariel Levy’s memoir, The Rules Do Not Apply, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT- In her memoir, The Rules Do Not Apply, journalist Ariel Levy explores love and loss, in her relationships, career, and path to motherhood. She learns the hard truth that life is a series of trade-offs and that the conventional concept of “having it all,” is a myth.

LIKE– I vividly remember the final lecture of a Western Civilization class that I took at Pasadena City College, when I was in my early-twenties: The male professor, an self-proclaimed feminist, who would later be caught in several scandals and removed from his position, gave a piece of advice, that in way I’ve forgotten, was tenuously related to the lecture; he said that time is limited and that fertility did not last forever. He was speaking primarily to the females in the class, urging us, as we focused on our education and careers, to consider that the time frame for fertility is limited. I’m not quite sure what prompted this advice, but I remember the urgency in his tone. He was middle-aged, and in hind-sight, I’m guessing a recent personal predicament influenced his words. I’ve never wanted children, but that advice has stayed with me, especially as I near forty, still not wanting children, but realizing that the window of opportunity may already be shut. This idea is at the forefront of Levy’s memoir.

Levy’s road to motherhood is not clear. She is in an unstable marriage with Lucy, an older woman, who is an alcoholic. As Levy tries to strengthen her marriage, she is tempted through reconnecting with former lovers. Her writing career has always been important, and one that sends her on assignments around the world. Lucy’s alcoholism isn’t the only instability, as Lucy has sunk their savings into starting a solar panel company. Levy is in her late-thirties when she finally decides that she wants to be a mother, and they have a close friend who is happy to not only donate sperm, but to help out financially, and be another adult figure in their child’s life. Levy easily becomes pregnant, and her life seems to be heading towards stability and happiness, until tragedy strikes. Levy delivers her child prematurely, alone in a hotel room, while on assignment in Mongolia. The baby is born alive, but dies about fifteen minutes later, as Levy is rushed to the hospital. It’s crushing, even more so that she had minutes where she held her living child.

The title, The Rules Do Not Apply, are about all of the conventional things that as a child (or even into adulthood), you expect will happen. You expect to graduate from college and land a great job. You expect to fall in love and have a family. You expect that your parents will live long enough to see those grandchildren. You expect that hard work and being a good person should grant these rewards. However, as Levy points out, this has not been the case for her, and it has not been the case for many of her friends. Life simply does not work like that for most people. Conventionality is a myth.

Levy’s thoughts are poignant and her personal story is compelling. She has a knack for phrasing and writes beautifully. She weaves her story with the stories of people that she profiles in her reporting, making her memoir global and expansive. I can’t imagine any reader would be left unaffected by this emotional and thought provoking memoir.

DISLIKE– Nothing. The Rules Do Not Apply is powerful and riveting.

RECOMMEND– Yes! The Rules Do Not Apply is a must-read memoir. I’m certain that Levy’s story will be a bestseller and generate a lot of buzz. Read it and be part of the conversation!