Posts Tagged ‘memoir’

Book Review: When you Learn the Alphabet by Kendra Allen

When You Learn the AlphabetWhen You Learn the Alphabet by Kendra Allen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Kendra Allen’s essay collection When You Learn the Alphabet is an important collection of essays on race in America. Allen writes in several forms, ranging from memoir, to lyric essay, to poetry. What I admire most about these essays is Allen’s willingness to examine her own humanity rather than analyzing society from an objective distance. In the essay “Polar Bear Express,”the narrator reveals that she lies to an old man on the bus to avoid a conversation and later regrets the missed opportunity. I’ve ridden Chicago busses and ignored this kind of conversation, so I can relate and find the honesty refreshing. Allen is often angry at the systematic injustices and microagressions (or just plain aggression) she witnesses in society, yet she also examines the roots of her anger, both in facing ever-present racism and in growing up in a family plagued by addiction (Aunt A), divorce, violence, and PTSD. There are no easy answers, and though I sometimes might disagree, Allen’s essays are always challenging and engaging. For instance, after reading her essay about a creative writing workshop, I would love to rshow Allen Anna Leahy’s Power and Identity in the Creative Writing Classroom: The Authority Project and question the instructor’s practice of reading student work aloud to the class. But I am also moved by Allen’s account of her reaction to hearing her white male instructor read the n-word aloud, rather than having her black male classmate read his own piece. Whether I ultimately agree about the politics of who can read this word, I gain by learning how Allen and her classmate experience this situation. The fact Allen exposes her own vulnerabilities allows this kind dialogue between narrator and reader and shows a level of maturity that is rare in a first collection.

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Book Review: Heavy by Kiese Laymon

Heavy: An American MemoirHeavy: An American Memoir by Kiese Laymon

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Kiese Laymon’s memoir is an important book for our time and a great read! It is immediately more personal than many since he addresses each chapter to his mother. Understanding that relationship is the lens through which Laymon examines race, gender, sexuality, and abuse in his own life and through his experiences in Mississippi and across the nation. It is a story of growth and maturity, in which Laymon does not shy away from his own complicity in oppressive social structures. As a young man, he commits petty crimes and witnesses gang rape. He also recounts his own experience of sexual abuse as well as ‘discipline’ that might now be considered child abuse, but was accepted at the time. Yet Laymon’s goal seems to be to understand the deep sources of this abuse and how these experiences have shaped him and those around him. He also does not shy away from the troubles in his own relationships or his issues with gambling. For all the difficult subject matter Laymon takes on, this remains a memoir steeped in the optimism of “black abundance,” and it speaks to all Americans, regardless of gender or race. You owe it to yourself to read this book.

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Book Review: Approaching the Magic Hour by Anges Grinstead Anderson

Approaching the Magic Hour: Memories of Walter AndersonApproaching the Magic Hour: Memories of Walter Anderson by Agnes Grinstead Anderson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A fascinating memoir for fans of Walter Anderson’s art from the perspective of his wife, this book tells the story of their marriage, his struggles with mental illness, and the times and places that inform his paintings, drawings, and pottery. Though clearly a loving and sympathetic portrayal, this account does not shy away from discussing the challenges they faced together.

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Book Review: Fear and What Follows

Fear and What Follows: The Violent Education of a Christian Racist, A MemoirFear and What Follows: The Violent Education of a Christian Racist, A Memoir by Tim Parrish

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Fear and What Follows, takes a chilling and at times difficult, even challenging look at America of the 1970’s, specifically the city of Baton Rouge and the school and neighborhood where Parrish grew up. It was the time of the Vietnam War and Watergate. Tim’s brother was a Vietnam vet suffering from PTSD before it even had a name. It was a time of integration of schools and neighborhoods, and of the white flight that resulted. And it was time of racial violence and unrest, in which young Tim is willfully engulfed. The book is an attempt to understand the choices that were made and the forces that drove him to make those choices. Yet it is not an apologia where we end up feeling sorry for and defending the main character. Instead, I think we are asked to put ourselves in his place, but also in the places of the even tougher kids whose violence goes unchecked and the Black kids who are both victims and violent themselves. We are asked to understand and confront the causes of violence and racism in ourselves. I don’t think I have read a more brutally honest account that is so beautifully written. It has the credibility of lived truth, yet the narrative is as engaging as any thriller.

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