Friday, December 6, 2019

Body Leaping Backward: Memoir Of A Delinquent Girlhood by Maureen Stanton

Body Leaping Backward: Memoir of a Delinquent Girlhood by Maureen Stanton
Published July 2019 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher, through TLC Book Tours, in exchange for an honest review

Publisher's Summary:
For Maureen Stanton’s proper Catholic mother, the town’s maximum security prison was a way to keep her seven children in line (“If you don’t behave, I’ll put you in Walpole Prison!”). But as the 1970s brought upheaval to America, and the lines between good and bad blurred, Stanton’s once-solid family lost its way. A promising young girl with a smart mouth, Stanton turns watchful as her parents separate and her now-single mother descends into shoplifting, then grand larceny, anything to keep a toehold in the middle class for her children. No longer scared by threats of Walpole Prison, Stanton too slips into delinquency—vandalism, breaking and entering—all while nearly erasing herself through addiction to angel dust, a homemade form of PCP that swept through her hometown in the wake of Nixon’s “total war” on drugs.

Body Leaping Backward is the haunting and beautifully drawn story of a self-destructive girlhood, of a town and a nation overwhelmed in a time of change, and of how life-altering a glimpse of a world bigger than the one we come from can be.

My Thoughts:
Because just before I started typing this review, I deleted the email Trish, of TLC Book Tours, had sent me asking me about being on the tour, I can't tell you what it was about this book that made her think it was something that would appeal to me. She almost certainly could not have guessed how close to home this book would hit.

Maureen Stanton and I are the same age and, while we grew up in very different parts of the country and very different families, as she talked about growing up, there was a lot that I could relate to. We both grew up in towns that housed the state's penitentiary. She references Malcolm Little (later known as Malcolm X), who was imprisoned nearby the town she grew up in; Malcolm Little was born in Omaha. Like me, she went to see the movie "Oliver" when it was in theaters and read Sacco and Vanzetti from Scholastic (a book I picked out only because I had an aunt with the last name Sacco and which introduced me to true crime books).  Later she writes about her mother making a roast every Sunday and how her mother was always happy to put her husband and children first. Ditto my mom (although, to be fair, I'm not sure that either Stanton or I can be sure that our mothers were happy to do that so much as they felt it was their duty as mothers and wives). And like me, Stanton was a daddy's girl who enjoyed family outings, music, and books and who was close to her siblings.

And, like me, Stanton began experimenting with drugs and drinking while she was in her teens. But Stanton began much younger than I did and got much more heavily into drugs than I did. And just what made the difference? Stanton's parents divorced when she was still in middle school and it damaged Stanton much more deeply than she understood until she was much older. She was never sure, in her teens, if either of them was even paying attention to what was happening with her. On the other hand, my parents are still together and I never doubted for an instant that they were paying attention and cared. The other difference between Stanton and me? She grew up in an area where PCP (angel dust) became an epidemic; inexpensive and easy to get her hands on, Stanton was using dust several times a day at her peak, losing herself entirely. I was certainly aware of PCP but I really don't remember that being any one's drug of choice. But then, maybe that was just because I wasn't hanging around the kinds of people that were heavily into drugs (again, because I always knew I needed to keep up my grades and stay out of trouble).

And here is where the story crosses over into a different place where it hits close to home. While I never remotely reached the level of drug use that Stanton did, my daughter did. My daughter lived in a home where her parents were together, where they were watching her and trying to hold her to certain standards. And it didn't matter. In the end, we were just as clueless as Stanton's parents. She and I have talked a lot about what she went through but there are some things a mom just doesn't want to hear. And then a book like this comes along and makes me wake up to how close we came to losing our daughter. Stanton was lucky. The right people came into her life at the right moments, she finally began to understand that her mother cared, and she became determined to find herself again. Just like my daughter. But Stanton talks at length about the toll drugs took on the people she grew up with in Walpole, the ones who ended up in prison and the ones who died.

So you weren't born in 1960 and can't relate in any way to Stanton's experiences? You will still find this a book worth reading. Stanton draws on her own life experiences to talk about the prison systems in the U. S., the way the war on drugs changed the prison system and targeted minorities, and divorce. I was expecting a memoir so was happy to find that Stanton had things to teach me as well.

I was also really impressed with Stanton's writing, with her style and with her ability to make me see things in a way I hadn't seen them before. Like this explanation of how divorce impacts children:
"The separation was an end to intimacy with my father, an end to seeing him in his pajamas day after day, seeing him as ordinary and vulnerable and human - sleepy, crusty-eyed, unkempt, knowing him in all his moods, watching him in his morning rituals, sit-ups, shaving, coffee, newspaper or Time. I'd hover near him, close enough to smell his coffee-scented breath when I asked for a sip, black and bitter."
This one won't be sitting on a table in your local Barnes and Noble store; you'll have to put some effort into looking for it. It will be an effort well worth making. Thanks to Trish, and TLC Book Tours, for putting this one into my hands. For other opinions about this book, check out the full tour.

About Maureen Stanton

Maureen Stanton is an award-winning nonfiction writer, and author of “Body Leaping Backward: Memoir of a Delinquent Girlhood,” a People Magazine “Best New Books” pick, and “Killer Stuff and Tons of Money,” winner of the 2012 Massachusetts Book Award in nonfiction. Her essays and memoirs have been published in many literary journals, including Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, The Florida Review, New England Review, and River Teeth, among others. She has received the Iowa Review Prize, the American Literary Review Prize, Pushcart Prizes, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and Maine Arts Commission Individual Artist Fellowships. She has an M.F.A. from Ohio State University, and teaches at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.

Find out more about Maureen at her website, and follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

The Grammarians by Cathleen Schine

The Grammarians by Cathleen Schine
Published September 2019
Source: checked out from my local library

Publisher’s Summary:
The Grammarians are Laurel and Daphne Wolfe, identical, inseparable redheaded twins who share an obsession with words. They speak a secret “twin” tongue of their own as toddlers; as adults making their way in 1980s Manhattan, their verbal infatuation continues, but this love, which has always bound them together, begins instead to push them apart. Daphne, copy editor and grammar columnist, devotes herself to preserving the dignity and elegance of Standard English. Laurel, who gives up teaching kindergarten to write poetry, is drawn, instead, to the polymorphous, chameleon nature of the written and spoken word. Their fraying twinship finally shreds completely when the sisters go to war, absurdly but passionately, over custody of their most prized family heirloom: Merriam Webster’s New International Dictionary, Second Edition.

My Thoughts:
When I was in grade school, there were three sets of twins in my grade, one was a set of identical boys, two sets were fraternal twins. I never gave the idea of twins much thought. Because there is a lot of twinning going on in my book club, it comes up a lot in our meetings and it's gotten me thinking about what it's like to be a twin. Just how does growing up your whole life with someone who looks exactly like you feel? And how deeply does the indentical-ness go?

But, let's be honest, the real reason I picked up this book (besides the fact that it was by Schine), was because it was about language. I do so love to geek out on words and language and I really wanted to see how Schine was going to be able to write a novel about language that might interest a wider audience. A word of warning for those who aren't language geeks – there really is a lot of discussion of language in this book and it does play a fairly significant role in the story so you can’t just rush by it. But the book's appeal is not limited.

In The Grammarians, Laurel and Daphne are so alike that it’s not just difficult to tell them apart physically, they also have the same passion for language that molds their identities and initially unites them against all others. They develop their own language, they make lists of their favorite obscure words, they both find themselves in careers that are based on language. But as much as the twins dote on each other and cherish the fact that they have someone who will always know them better than anyone else, they are also keenly aware of their differences. Their lives become a struggle between the need to create their own identities and that bond that will never break. When the twins switch jobs for a day, both believe that they have been a better version of the other one. When Laurel gets a nose job, Daphne takes it as a personal slight. When their mother complains to each of them about the other twin, the girls are quick to defend each other. And yet they will grow to have very little to do with each other and it takes a toll on the rest of the family.

While this is not my favorite Schine book (that honor goes to The Three Weissmanns of Westport), I very much enjoyed it. Schine always writes compelling family stories with humor, intelligence, and a great fondness for her characters.

Monday, December 2, 2019

Life: It Goes On - December 2

A day late and a nasty cold later (well, still working on that part), I'm hoping you all had a wonderful holiday weekend. We were a smaller group than originally planned but when you have a 16-month-old to entertain you, you hardly notice that anyone else is in the room any way! We got in plenty of overeating, our usual Black Friday morning shopping (although only three of us could go this year), and lots of time to talk and laugh together.

This darn cold has me moving slowly, with plenty of rest breaks, so I didn't even finish the Christmas decorating over the weekend. Of course,  it would go faster if I just put things up the same way I had them up last year, but that would be too easy, right?

Last Week I:

Listened To: Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep. Mixed feelings about this one. Tomorrow I'll start The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Watched: Lots and lots of football, some volleyball, the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade (was it just us or was there a whole lot of the announcers and not much of the actual parade this year?), and It's A Wonderful Life, which I haven't caught in years.

Read: I didn't get much reading in over the holiday but did finish Body Leaping Backward by Maureen Stanton (which I'll be reviewing soon) and I'm about half way through Virginia Kantra's Meg and Jo, which is a contemporary retelling of Little Women.

Made: Not a whole lot. My mom let me make a pumpkin pie and a coffee cake for the gathering but we've kept it pretty low key around home and The Big Guy's been a sport and done most of the meals while I'm not feeling well.

Enjoyed: Family. But let's be honest, mostly The Prince. He is a happy, happy little man who clearly felt it was his duty to entertain us all and he did a marvelous job of it.

This Week I’m: 

Planning: On finishing the Christmas decorating, starting on some Christmas gifts that I'm making, and trying to get most of the rest of my shopping done. 

Thinking About: Heading back to the doctor this afternoon. This cold is kicking my butt and I don't have time for it.

Feeling: Eager. Mini-me and Ms. S will be here in less than three weeks. We haven't had Mini-me with us for Christmas in four years and Ms. S has never been with us so I'm making plans to pull out all of the traditions this year.

Looking forward to: I'm so off my game these past few days that I haven't even looked at my calendar for this week. I have no idea what I'm meant to be looking forward to!

Question of the week: What's your go-to when you don't feel good? Comfort food? A special tea? A movie marathon?

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
Read by J D Jackson
Published July 2019 by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Source: audiobook checked out from my local library

Publisher’s Summary:
As the Civil Rights movement begins to reach the black enclave of Frenchtown in segregated Tallahassee, Elwood Curtis takes the words of Dr. Martin Luther King to heart: He is "as good as anyone." Abandoned by his parents, but kept on the straight and narrow by his grandmother, Elwood is about to enroll in the local black college. But for a black boy in the Jim Crow South of the early 1960s, one innocent mistake is enough to destroy the future. Elwood is sentenced to a juvenile reformatory called the Nickel Academy, whose mission statement says it provides "physical, intellectual and moral training" so the delinquent boys in their charge can become "honorable and honest men."

In reality, the Nickel Academy is a grotesque chamber of horrors where the sadistic staff beats and sexually abuses the students, corrupt officials and locals steal food and supplies, and any boy who resists is likely to disappear "out back." Stunned to find himself in such a vicious environment, Elwood tries to hold onto Dr. King's ringing assertion "Throw us in jail and we will still love you." His friend Turner thinks Elwood is worse than naive, that the world is crooked, and that the only way to survive is to scheme and avoid trouble.

The tension between Elwood's ideals and Turner's skepticism leads to a decision whose repercussions will echo down the decades. Formed in the crucible of the evils Jim Crow wrought, the boys' fates will be determined by what they endured at the Nickel Academy.

My Thoughts:
As I sit down to right this review, I find myself at a loss for words. So, instead, I’ll start off by borrowing a few from those who do this much better than I do.

From Frank Rich of The New York Times Book Review: “an epic account of America's penchant for paying lip service to its original sin while failing to face its full horror and its undying legacy of recidivism…He applies a master storyteller's muscle not just to excavating a grievous past but to examining the process by which Americans undermine, distort, hide or "neatly erase" the stories he is driven to tell…”

From Maureen Corrigan, "A masterpiece squared, rooted in history and American mythology and, yet, painfully topical in its visions of justice and mercy erratically denied . . . a great American novel."

Also from NPR: “The understated beauty of his writing, combined with the disquieting subject matter, creates a kind of dissonance that chills the reader. Whitehead has long had a gift for crafting unforgettable characters, and Elwood proves to be one of his best. . . . The final pages of the book are a heartbreaking distillation of the story that preceded them; it's a perfect ending to a perfect novel.”

Elwood arrives at Nickel hoping for the best, that he will still be able to get a decent education and that the lawyer his grandmother has retained will be able to get him cleared. He is pleased to see there are no fences and learn that there are ways to earn an early release. Even after he is brutally beaten for help another boy who was being beaten up by two other boys, even after he learns that there is no real way to know what you need to do to move up in the ranks as you try to get out early, and even after he sees that food meant for the boys is being sold to local businesses, he still has hope and a belief in the words of Dr. King and that his own intelligence will save him. He is a truly wonderful character but this book is filled with unforgettable characters and Whitehead makes sure that readers know their stories as well.

Whitehead has based this book on the Florida’s Dozier School for Boys. In 2012, a group of men who had been sent to the reform school came forward with stories of the abuse they and the other boys at Dozier suffered and to work to find the bodies of 81 boys now known to have died while at Dozier but whose graves have never been found. These men call themselves the White House Boys because much of the violence committed against them was committed in a small building known as the White House.

The White House at Dozier School
Jerry Cooper was one of those boys. He had been hitchhiking when he was picked up by a man driving a stolen vehicle and Cooper was sent to Dozier for having stolen a car and it is that piece of his story that Whitehead uses as the reason Elwood is sent to Nickel. That is not the only part of the story Whitehead has incorporated into this book, including the White House.

Because I am a white woman who grew up in the suburbs of Middle America, I kept believing that, despite all of the horrific things that were happening in this book, that an innocent young boy would be ok. But I forgot that this is Colson Whitehead and he is not about to let readers get away with living in their safe bubbles. You will pay wake up to the atrocities that were committed and you will see the damage that has been done to this country, but in particular to blacks.

Hunger by Roxane Gay

Hunger by Roxane Gay
Read by Roxane Gay
Published June 2017 by HarperCollins Publishers
Source: audiobook checked out from my library

Publisher's Summary:
“I ate and ate and ate in the hopes that if I made myself big, my body would be safe. I buried the girl I was because she ran into all kinds of trouble. I tried to erase every memory of her, but she is still there, somewhere. . . . I was trapped in my body, one that I barely recognized or understood, but at least I was safe.”

In her phenomenally popular essays and long-running Tumblr blog, Roxane Gay has written with intimacy and sensitivity about food and body, using her own emotional and psychological struggles as a means of exploring our shared anxieties over pleasure, consumption, appearance, and health. As a woman who describes her own body as “wildly undisciplined,” Roxane understands the tension between desire and denial, between self-comfort and self-care. In Hunger, she explores her past—including the devastating act of violence that acted as a turning point in her young life—and brings readers along on her journey to understand and ultimately save herself.

With the bracing candor, vulnerability, and power that have made her one of the most admired writers of her generation, Roxane explores what it means to learn to take care of yourself: how to feed your hungers for delicious and satisfying food, a smaller and safer body, and a body that can love and be loved—in a time when the bigger you are, the smaller your world becomes.

My Thoughts:
"It turns out that when a wrenching past is confronted with wisdom and bravery, the outcome can be compassion and enlightenment—both for the reader who has lived through this kind of unimaginable pain, and for the reader who knows nothing of it. Roxane Gay shows us how to be decent to ourselves, and decent to one another. HUNGER is an amazing achievement in more ways than I can count." - Ann Patchett
Yes, Ann Patchett, yes.

This is one of those reviews I struggle with, not because I have have mixed feelings about it but because I have so many feelings about it. "Mom" me wanted to take Gay into my arms to comfort her. "Fat" me could relate with Gay's pain about her body. "Lane Bryant Fat" me was slapped upside the head and told that she had no idea what it was like to be the size Gay is and has been, a size which makes finding clothes that fit almost impossible, even in stores made for heavier women.

A terrible, terrible thing happened to Gay when she was twelve years old. She never told her parents what happened until she began writing about it well into her adult years. She has never fully recovered from it. She began putting on weight to try to feel safe, to make herself unappealing to men who might want to hurt her.  But being fat has hurt her in other ways, from her parents' reaction to her weight gain when she went off to boarding school to the way society looks down at her for her size and her inability to discipline her behaviors.

In her forties, Gay is healing now from the trauma she suffered as a young girl and the many abuses she has suffered since then. She is reconnecting with her family and working on having healthy relationships. But the fact of her "unruly" body and that pain that is never far from the surface make this book a tough read. Gay is brutally honest about her own failings and about the failings of society in dealing with those whose bodies do not fit what we consider "normal."

This book will speak to those who are fat (Gay's preferred word) or who have suffered from sexual abuse and self-image problems. For everyone else, I only hope it will make you more empathetic.