Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies

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Thank you to Atria Books for providing me with an advance copy of Michael Ausiello’s memoir, Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– In his memoir, Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies, entertainment journalist Michael Ausiello writes about his thirteen-year relationship with his husband Kit Cowan and Cowan’s death after an eleven-month battle with a rare form of cancer.

LIKE– I finished Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies two nights ago and I’m still feeling shattered. I feel like I might cry while writing this review. I’ve been a fan of Ausiello’s entertainment writing for many years, but I did not know anything about his personal life. Ausiello has written a true love letter to Kit, who died painfully and tragically in his early forties. I related deeply to Ausiello’s emotions as a caregiver and his fears for Kit. I think this is what hit me the hardest. I still feel emotional over my own role as a caregiver for family members who have since passed.

The best aspect of Ausiello’s memoir is his complete openness to share sensitive topics. He clearly loves and adores Kit, but he also doesn’t refrain from sharing Kit’s infidelity or the problems that they faced in their relationship. It’s raw and honest. Ausiello shares intimate moments that made me feel like I knew both him and Kit personally. What’s more, I really liked both of them. Ausiello has a warm way of bringing the reader into his life; a talent that not all memoirist have and that really makes his story a stand-out. This aspect of his writing is probably what left me feeling utterly crushed in the last quarter of the book, which involved Kit’s decline and death.

I love the title; that Kit is the hero in Ausiello’s life. How perfect and touching.

DISLIKE– Not a single thing.

RECOMMEND– YES!!! Do you like memoirs? Do you like love stories? Are you prepared for an emotional rollercoaster? Ausiello has poured his heart out on paper and it’s a very worthy read. Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies is one of the best memoirs that I’ve ever read. It’s just beautiful.

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.

We Are All Shipwrecks

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Thank you to Sourcebooks for providing me with an advance copy of Kelly Grey Carlisle’s memoir, We Are All Shipwrecks, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– When Kelly Grey Carlisle was just three weeks old, she was left by her mother in a hotel room dresser drawer. Carlisle’s mother was murdered, her body strangled and dumped in an abandoned lot in Los Angeles. Although it was suspected that her murder was the work of the Hillside Strangler, the case was never solved.

Carlisle was told that her father was unknown and she was taken in by her eccentric grandfather and his much younger wife, Marilyn. Her grandfather could be loving and jovial, but he could also be angry and verbally abusive. When she was young, Carlisle was treated to fancy clothes and meals out, through money earned from her grandfather’s pornography store business. Later in her childhood, money would get tight, as her grandfather decided to pour all available funds into his dream of owning a boat. They ended up living on a boat that was primarily docked in a marina with a group of off-beat and fellow down-on-their-luck neighbors.

Although Carlisle lived with her grandfather and Marilyn. she honors several adults who took an active interest in her childhood and who helped raise her. We Are All Shipwrecks is a memoir of discovering ones roots, while acknowledging the impact of how you were raised.

LIKE– Carlisle’s life is fascinating and heartbreaking. I was most struck by the contradictions and confusions in her life. She sees two very different men in her grandfather; the man who is fun-loving and the man who cuts with his words. She loves Marilyn as if Marilyn was her mother, but is heartbroken to discover Marilyn’s alcoholism. She is curious about the porn business, but later realizes that some of the porn that her grandfather sells involves violence towards women. In particular, there are parallels between strangulation porn and her mother dying by strangulation. Carlisle mentions a guilty feeling of knowing that the porn business funded so much of her childhood, such as private schools and material possessions.

I had a very personal connection to Carlisle’s story. Towards the end of her memoir, she talks about being in her twenties and taking the initiative to research her family. She discovers a relative who mentions that Carlisle’s mom died in a car accident. My father died in a scandalous way and when I was a teenager, I learned that all of my distant relatives on my father’s side thought that he had died in a car accident. It’s a misunderstanding that has caused a huge riff amongst my family. I had chills and a burst of anger when I read this part in Carlisle’s memoir. Although I was raised by my mom, I can also relate to her desperate need to find out information about her family. I went through similar motions as she did, looking up newspaper articles and latching on to whatever information that I could find in our family records. Information is so precious. I was crushed to read that photographs of her mom and grandmother were destroyed when their boat got wrecked in a storm.

Beyond having an incredible story, Carlisle’s descriptive and emotional writing kept me glued to We Are All Shipwrecks. Her life is filled with many unusual characters and situations that are completely unfamiliar to me. I can’t imagine living on a boat. I had no idea that there are places in Los Angeles (my hometown) where there are these floating trailer parks. Carlisle is also only a year older than me, so many aspects of her childhood were familiar.

DISLIKE– Not a single thing. Carlisle’s story is unusual and compelling.

RECOMMEND– Yes. I enthusiastically recommend, We Are All Shipwrecks. Carlisle’s story is one that I will not soon forget and I loved her overriding message about it taking a village to raise a child. This is a beautiful tribute to her messy childhood and to the people that she has loved.

Mikey and Me: Life with my Exceptional Sister

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Thank You to She Writes Press for providing me with an advance copy of Teresa Sullivan’s memoir, Mikey and Me: Life with my Exceptional Sister, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT – In her memoir, Mikey and Me: Life with my Exceptional Sister, Teresa Sullivan recounts growing up with her older sister, Micky, who is blind, non-verbal, and has brain damage. Although her entire family loves Mikey immensely and they do everything possible to make Mikey’s life better, caring for Mikey takes a toll on everyone. Sullivan’s memoir explores the impact of Mikey and how having a special needs sibling shaped her life.

LIKE – I couldn’t put Sullivan’s memoir down and I read it in one sitting. The specifics of Sullivan’s story and her willingness to share her life in a raw, honest manner, made her memoir a page-turner. I just kept reading, because I had to know if Mikey and the rest of her family were going to be okay. It’s an intense and uncertain read.

Although they try their best to keep Mikey at home, an incident occurs where the courts get involved and Mikey is placed into a facility against her families wishes. They visit her at every opportunity, including visits where she is allowed to come home for the weekend, but Mikey’s placement in a facility forever changes Sullivan’s family. A piece is missing without Mikey and they all feel guilt in their inability to protect her, especially when they discover that she is being abused in the system. Sullivan turns to drugs and wild behavior in her teen years, her mother gambles and has an affair, and her father turns to alcohol. The entire family dynamic breaks down. It’s heartbreaking, especially the horrific abuse Mikey suffers.

Mikey and Me made me feel shattered. I finished it last week and couldn’t manage to write the review until today, because I’m still deeply affected and upset by what I read.

DISLIKE– Nothing. The subject matter is tough to read, but Sullivan has written a beautiful tribute to her sister. There is so much love that she has for Mikey.

RECOMMEND– Yes. Mikey and Me is a devastating memoir, but also an important one. Although, as a society we have come a long way in understanding and integrating people with special needs ( especially during the 60’s/70’s where a bulk of Sullivan’s memoir takes place), there is much more than should be done. Sullivan shares not only her experiences with her sister, but she speaks for other families with loved ones who have special needs. She speaks to a need for not only showing compassion and protecting, but to also inclusion for vulnerable members of our society. She also speaks for siblings, who often transition into a caregiving role as their parent’s age and pass away. This is an important memoir.

Finding My Badass Self: A Year of Truths and Dares

 

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Thank you to She Writes Press for providing me with an advance copy of Sherry Stanfa-Stanley’s Finding My Badass Self: A Year of Truths and Dares, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– When Sherry Stanfa-Stanley turned fifty-two, she decided to challenge herself by facing fifty-two activities that would take her outside of her comfort zone. Finding My Badass Self: A Year of Truth and Dares documents Stanfa-Stanley’s quest to seek adventure and push her boundaries.

LIKE– Stanfa-Stanley is funny and relatable. It’s easy to root for her as she overcomes personal obstacles, like conquering her fear of heights by going zip lining and riding in a hot air balloon. I think it helps that Stanfa-Stanley is a rather normal person chasing her dreams. She’s middle-aged and not in peak shape, yet she attempts adventures. She doesn’t have a large budget for her ideas and no one is financially backing her, another element that will make readers feel empowered: If Stanfa-Stanley can achieve her goals, so can you. Get off that couch!

My favorite challenge was when Stanfa-Stanley threw a party for strangers. She asked her friends to invite someone that they knew, but someone that she had not previously met to a party that Stanfa-Stanley was hosting. The friends were not invited, only the strangers. This meant that Stanfa-Stanley was hosting a party and didn’t know who was going to knock at her door and none of the other people, knew each other. It was a grand experiment that was a huge success. I absolutely love the idea of a strangers party, especially how it lent itself to diversity in the participants. Although it happened that only women showed up ( men were invited), the women were different ages and from a variety of backgrounds. I think this is a marvelous idea for expanding your social circle. It was heart warming to learn that many of the women stayed in touch,

DISLIKE- Previous to Finding My Badass Self, I had not heard of Stanfa-Stanley. I now know that she has a blog in which readers can follow her adventures. Finding My Badass Self reads like a compilation of blog entries, which I think it might have been. I question the necessity of turning the blog entries into a book. If I was following her blog, it would be delightful to read a few entries at a time and catch up with her life, but as a book, it was tedious. I think a fix would have been to change the format and provide more introspection before moving to the next challenge. There needed to be a bridge between the entries. Not all of the challenges were equally interesting or inspiring, which also contributed to the uneven pacing.

RECOMMEND– Maybe. I’d definitely recommend checking out Stanfa-Stanley’s blog. She’s humorous and you might find the inspiration to chase one of your own dreams. I’m just not sure that Finding My Badass Self is a better recommendation than just checking out her blog.

Beautiful Bodies

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Thank You to Little A for providing me with an advance copy of Kimberly Rae Miller’s memoir, Beautiful Bodies, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– In her memoir, Beautiful Bodies, Kimberly Rae Miller explores her relationship with her own body; the confusion she feels over body image and her never-ceasing diets.

LIKE– I loved Miller’s previous memoir, Coming Clean, about growing up with parents who are hoarders, and I was thrilled to be approved for a galley edition of her latest memoir. Miller is a talented writer who is very open with sharing the intimate details of her life. This openness and vulnerability is what makes her writing so accessible. When I read her books, I feel like I’m being told a story by a close friend. Admittedly, I did not find the subject of body image to be as fascinating as her being raised by parents who are hoarders, however Miller’s writing is so good, that I’d likely pick up any book she writes.

What Miller really hits on is the disturbing problem of very young girls dieting and having negative thoughts about their body. Honestly, I don’t remember personally having these issues, but I see it in elementary-aged girls that I know; the fear of being fat and the obsession with dieting. It’s scary! Along with her personal dieting stories, Miller throws in some dieting history. I love how she blends in the historical perspective, providing some Trivial Pursuit worthy tidbits.

Miller analyzes how her body image has impacted her relationships, including that with her husband, Roy. It is hard for Miller to trust that Roy accepts her body with all of its changes, including pregnancy.

DISLIKE– Nothing. Miller is brutally honest and often very funny.

RECOMMEND- Yes!!! If you are unfamiliar with Miller’s writing, I highly recommend that you read both Coming Clean and Beautiful Bodies. She has a strong voice and unique perspective.

Dirty Rush

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PLOT– Taylor Bell recalls her true story of her time in the Beta Zeta sorority at a college in Delaware. Initially, Bell is reluctant to join the sorority, but as a legacy, she is actively pursued to rush.

LIKE– I picked up Dirty Rush based on positive professional reviews and a fun endorsement from Jen Lancaster. I adore Jen Lancaster. Somehow, I didn’t realize that Dirty Rush was based on a true story until I had started reading, which made everything even more outrageous.

I was never in a sorority and the colleges that I attended didn’t even have them. I don’t think any of my close friends were in sororities or fraternities. Basically, I’m unfamiliar with them, except for what I’ve seen in popular culture. That said, I find the entire set-up fascinating. I just can’t understand who would willingly put themselves through rushing and dealing with all of the drama. Bell does come out of the experience with some close friends, but I’m definitely not convinced of she wouldn’t have made deep connections if a sorority hadn’t been part of her college experience. Her friendships are solidified when the president of the sorority goes after Bell, releasing a doctored sex tape and trying to assassinate Bell’s character while getting her tossed from Beta Zeta, Some of the other sorority members see what is happening and as Bell gathers proof, they stand by her side. There is a surprise twist when we find out about a terrible secret that Bell’s older sister, a former sorority member, has kept hidden from her sister. Bell’s story is truly shocking.

I loved that Bell was able to get Rebecca Martinson ( the sorority president who went viral for her scathing rush instruction email) to write a forward. It sets the tone for the entire book, letting the reader know that Bell has a good sense of humor regarding her experiences. Despite the intense bullying that Bell endures, her memoir has plenty of laughs.

DISLIKE– This is a guilty pleasure read. A few years ago, I would have been embarrassed to admit to reading Dirty Rush. But you know what? I’m going to own it. Sometimes, you need a little trashy reading.

RECOMMENDDirty Rush is certainly not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. It’s shocking and has a scandalous/ TMZ type of vibe. Bell’s humor and the quick pace make this a perfect beach read. I enjoyed the ride.

The Hot One: A Memoir of Friendship, Sex, and Murder

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Thank You to Simon & Schuster for providing me with an advance copy of Carolyn Murnick’s book, The Hot One: A Memoir of Friendship, Sex, and Murder, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– Carolyn Murnick and Ashley Ellerin were childhood best friends growing up in New Jersey during the 1980’s. They were inseparable as children, but when they became adults, their lives went drastically different directions. Murnick moved to New York City and lived in a tiny railroad apartment, while starting a career in journalism. Ellerin moved to Los Angeles and lived in a Hollywood Hills home with the money she earned as a stripper. She went to wild parties and dated celebrity Ashton Kutcher.

The last time Murnick saw her friend, they struggled to regain their connection. They were still friends, but had clearly drifted apart. A year later, Ellerin would be murdered, stabbed forty-seven times in her Hollywood home.

The Hot One: A Memoir of Friendship, Sex, and Murder, is Murnick’s examination of her friendship with Ellerin and her coming to terms with never quite knowing what happened to her best friend. Murnick attends the trial of Michael Gargiulo, the accused murderer, and becomes obsessed with finding out not only why Ellerin was murdered, but who Ellerin had become prior to her death.

LIKEThe Hot One is a compelling blend of memoir and true crime. With so much information readily available on the internet, Murnick falls down a rabbit hole when trying to figure out what happened to Ellerin. I found this quest to be highly relatable. I’ve had my own unsolved life mysteries (none anywhere near as dramatic as a murder!), but issues that no amount of research can resolve, yet ones that are impossible to let go. I felt connected to Murnick’s obsession and with the hold it had on her.

Even though I lived about fifteen minutes from the murder scene, I don’t remember hearing about this case in the news. It’s gruesome and horrific. Murnick does not spare details. I think the most chilling part is when Murnick decides to visit the crime scene and she stands across the street from Ellerin’s house, in a dog park. Gargiulo had a pitbull that he would take to the dog park and from the dog park, there was the perfect vantage point to spy on Ellerin. Murnick mentions that Gargiulo would have been able to see right into her bathroom. He stalked and hunted her. Other creepy patterns from Garguilo, based on all of his victims, is he liked to pose them and he committed the murders when he had a high chance of being caught, for the thrill. One woman managed to fend him off as he was stabbing her and lived, although she couldn’t positively identify him. Garguilo isn’t a random attacker either, he was Ellerin’s handyman and beyond working at her house, he managed to get himself invited over for social events. Murnick really sets the stage by explaining how she imagined Garguilo hunting Ellerin, waiting for the right moment to strike. It gave me the chills.

DISLIKE– Only that the point in which the memoir ends, does not give us resolution with regard to Gargiulo’s trial. I suppose this mirrors Murnick’s inability to have her own questions answered, but it also makes me wonder if she should have waited to tell this story. It was disappointing to not have this resolution.

RECOMMEND– Yes. If you like true crime and memoir, The Hot One is a compelling read.

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.

The Fact of a Body

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Thank you to Flatiron Books for providing me with an advance copy of Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich’s memoir, The Fact of a Body, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– In The Fact of a Body, Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich blends memoir with true crime, exploring the dark secrets of her own family, alongside the 1992 murder of six-year old Jeremy Guillory in Louisiana.

LIKE– Wow. Marzano-Lesnevich has written a book that I’m positive will forever stick with me. It’s surprising, shocking, and wrought with emotion. I can’t remember ever reading a book that blends memoir with an unrelated true crime. It made for an absolutely fascinating read.

Jeremy Guillory was murdered by Ricky Langley, a twenty-six year old man who had a history of molesting children. Guillory was friends with the children that lived in the home where Langley was renting a room, and one afternoon, Guillory showed up while the other children were gone. Langley allowed Guillory to wait inside the house for his friends to return. Langley felt unable to control himself and he strangled Guillory, hiding the child’s body inside his closet, which would not be discovered for three days. Langley would confess to the crime, although he changed the details of his confession several times. Although Langley was never considered mentally incapacitated, he mentioned being overcome by the spirit of his brother, who was decapitated in a car crash before Langley was born. It seems that Langley did molest Guillory, but it wasn’t proven, and he has confessed, although again, not proven, to molesting several other children over the course of many years. There were three trials for Guillory’s death and Langley was put on and subsequently taken off, death row. Guillory’s mother testified on his behalf during the penalty phase, not wishing for him to be executed.

The true crime aspect of The Fact of a Body, would be interesting enough on its own, but Marzano-Lesnevich has taken a more in-depth approach to examining the case. She looks back at Langley’s family and his troubled upbringing, stemming from a car crash before Langley was even born. This crash would kill two of his siblings and give his mother devastating life-long health problems. When she was pregnant with Langley, she was on heavy medication, the effects of which, surely impacted Langley’s development. The family would struggle with poverty and addiction, never able to get their lives back on track.

Marzano-Lesnevich comes from a very different background, but she finds common ground with the Langley’s and Guillory’s. Her family doesn’t discuss her father’s depression or that her grandfather, has been molesting both Marzano-Lesnevich and her sister, for years. These secrets weigh heavy. Marzano-Lesnevich comes across the Guillory story when she is a summer intern during law school and the particulars of the case, make her reflect on her own family history of mental illness and molestation, on anger and forgiveness.

DISLIKE– Not a single thing. The Fact of a Body is a book that I couldn’t put down. However, I will issue a warning that this story has extremely graphic and upsetting details, that might make it too difficult for some readers. Proceed with caution.

RECOMMEND– Yes, you must read this book. Marzano-Lesnevich has masterfully blended memoir with crime to create an unforgettable story. Her writing is poignant and courageous. I’m certain that The Fact of a Body will shoot to the top of the bestsellers list.