Memoir

Travel as a Political Act by Rick Steves

Date of Publication: 2009, Nation Books

Number of Pages: 205

Synopsis (from back cover): There’s more to travel than good-value hotels, great art, and tasty cuisine. Americans who “travel as a political act” can have the time of their lives and come home smarter–with a better understanding of the interconnectedness of today’s world and just how our nation fits in.

In his new book, acclaimed travel writer Rick Steves explains how to travel more thoughtfully–to any destination. He shares a series of field reports from Europe, Central America, Asia, and the Middle East to show how his travels have shaped his politics and broadened his perspective.

Review: As a long-time fan of Rick Steves’ PBS travel show, “Rick Steves’ Europe”, including his special Iran episode, I was really excited to read this book. I was certainly not disappointed! Steves’ writing is honest, open-minded, thoughtful, and humorous. He challenges his readers to travel with a purpose, to go outside their comfort zones and learn what the world around them is really like. America does not have all the answers to the world problems…in fact, there is no country on Earth that does. What makes Rick Steves unusual is that he is willing to consider solutions from other places. Does universal health care in Europe really work? According to the Danish people, yes it works wonderfully. Does legalizing marijuana really reduce crime? Just ask the Dutch. Is America the only country struggling with immigration? No, just look at England, France, and Germany. Can we learn from their solutions? Yes. And they can also learn from us. There is no anti-Americanism here.

Steves also challenges Americans to look at the effect their country has had on the rest of the world. During three trips to El Salvador, over the course of almost twenty years, Rick Steves saw the effects of the brutal civil war fought between the leftist FMLN forces and the America-backed, right-wing ARENA party and their infamous death squads. The leftist rebels were seeking economic equality, something that went against American corporate interests. Today, the defeated poor of El Salvador still revere the memory of Archbishop Oscar Romero, a Catholic priest who advocated freedom and justice, and who was gunned down in front of his congregation. Although this chapter depressed me and made me feel shame for my country’s leaders, it still didn’t feel unpatriotic, something that many of Steves’ critics have accused him of being. Acknowledging that your country has made grave mistakes and that those in power often have different priorities than the average American, is not hating your country. Throughout this book, Rick Steves strives only for understanding and peace.

This is accomplished not only in war-torn El Salvador, but even in Iran, that great “axis of evil”, as named by our rather thoughtless former president. Probably the most surprising fact about the people of Iran is that they don’t hate America. Yes, our governments do not agree on many things, and most Westerners find the rhetoric of the president of Iran to be, at best, horrific (such as denying the Holocaust, wishing for the elimination of Israel, etc.). But the people of Iran live lives surprisingly similar to ours.

There are many lessons to be learned throughout this book. At the outset, Steves makes clear that he is writing from his own perspective, and he stays true to this through each issue he examines. But even if you disagree with his views, you can still learn how to “travel as a political act”, how to travel with an open mind, ready to learn from those whose lives are different, who tolerate different things, and who value different things, and how to bring those lessons home with you.

Rating: 9/10

Weird Like Us: My Bohemian America by Ann Powers

Date of Publication: 2001, Da Capo Press

Number of Pages: 287

Description: Writer Ann Powers delves into her past and her past relationships to find her bohemia, the one she had always looked for. From Seattle, to San Francisco, to New York City, Powers finds her bohemian America is both likely and unlikely places: record stores, universities, punk clubs, suburban backyards, and pricey New York lofts.

Review: This is a much more personal book than I had anticipated. Ann Powers traces her own bohemianism from her childhood in Seattle to her present life in New York, all the while relating the life stories of friends and acquaintances who have defined their lives by their own versions of bohemia. Some of the ideas presented, like those regarding drugs and drug use, appear to be simply justifications of poor choices and bad behavior: junkies masquerading as bohemians. It’s almost as if one can’t be a bohemian without doing drugs. At the same time, Powers makes allowances for many of the “selling out” behaviors that would normally be scorned by true bohemians, such as working in corporate America.

Powers focuses mainly on her own brand of bohemianism, that of the punk scene of the 1980s. But, she never really delves that deeply into it. After reading this book, I don’t feel like I understand the punk scene any better than before. The punk rockers and bohemians, as presented by Powers, feel superficial and somehow as if they’re trying too hard. Another drawback is how outdated this book is. Powers devotes a whole section to the Speakeasy internet cafe in Seattle, which actually burned down in 2001, the same year my edition was published. Many of the cultural references are old, which some may think is excusable, but in all honesty, a book devoted to any cultural phenomenon or philosophy should be able to transcend time. This book doesn’t do that.

All in all, I enjoyed this book, but there were several aspects of it that disappointed me. But I would still recommend it to anyone interested in counter-culture or music.

Rating: 5/10

Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen

Date of Publication: 1993, Vintage Books

Number of Pages: 169

Synopsis (from back cover): In 1967, after a session with a psychiatrist she’d never seen before, eighteen-year-old Susanna Kaysen was put in a taxi and sent to McLean Hospital. She spent most of the next two years on the ward for teenage girls in a psychiatric hospital as renowned for its famous clientele – Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, James Taylor, and Ray Charles – as for its progressive methods of treating those who could afford its sanctuary.

Kaysen’s memoir encompasses horror and razor-edged perception while providing vivid portraits of her fellow patients and their keepers. It is a brilliant evocation of a “parallel universe” set within the kaleidoscopically shifting landscape of the late sixties. Girl, Interrupted is a clear-sighted, unflinching document that gives lasting and specific dimension to our definitions of sane and insane, mental illness and recovery.

Review: First, be warned: this is nothing like the movie. Some of the characters are the same, but this book does not follow the same linear, safe direction as the film. Most of the events of the movie don’t even take place in the book. This is a memoir of the truest sense, in that the author explores simply her own understandings of her experience, her illness, and her surroundings. Kaysen’s diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder, although not discussed until the final chapters, is the overall theme of this book. Kaysen, like many of her fellow patients, is straddling the line between sanity and insanity, between the world outside the hospital and the world inside. She identifies with both the other patients and the nurses, who each represent the world they inhabit. Even though she feels a kinship with her fellow “insane” patients, she also longs for the sense of normalcy that the nurses bring in from the outside.

Although she is declared “recovered” upon her discharge in 1969, Kaysen freely admits that once you’re insane, that other world never really disappears. It hovers around the edges, and even affects people who have never been inside a hospital, as if she carries a “crazy cloud” around with her. Kaysen explores the difference between insanity of the brain and insanity of the mind, arguing that each need to be treated differently. She also includes actual documents from her medical records from her time at the hospital, which provide an interesting backdrop for the narrative of the so-called “insane” person. This isn’t The Bell Jar. There is no real mental breakdown, no literary examination of one’s own insanity. Although Kaysen does explore her own illness to a degree, this is mostly an exploration of the dual worlds that mentally ill people must inhabit: the world of the sane, and the world of the insane.

Rating: 8/10

The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama

Date of Publication: 2006, Vintage Books

Number of Pages: 427

Synopsis (from back cover): The Audacity of Hope is Barack Obama’s call for a new kind of politics – a politics that builds upon those shared understandings that pull us together as Americans. Lucid in his vision of America’s place in the world, refreshingly candid about his family life and his time in the Senate, Obama here sets out his political convictions and inspires us to trust in the dogged optimism that has long defined us and that is our best hope going forward.

Review: To be fair, I should say up front that I am a very enthusiastic supporter of Barack Obama. This bias of course affected my reaction to this book, so please take that into account when reading this review. First of all, this book is superbly written. Obama has an immense talent for writing and for clearly putting forth his views. There is no more doubt about who the real Barack Obama is…all you have to do is read this book. It’s easy to get a sense of his intelligence, his thoughtfulness, and his idealism, all of which have affected the way he approached politics. He comes across not as a perfect person, but as a real person, someone to whom all Americans can relate.

In this book, Obama explores all aspects of American politics, like race, family, and relations between the two major parties. It’s obvious that he’s a Democrat, but it’s also apparent that he respects Republicans. His approach to politics isn’t one of exclusion and strict party loyalty. He knows that all Americans, no matter their beliefs or political leanings, have worth and he fights for all of them. He doesn’t just represent Demorats…he represents Americans.

All this may sound like an endorsement of Obama’s presidential candidacy (you can take it that way if you want), but this book truly opens one’s eyes to who the real Obama is (a funny, friendly, intelligent, and thoughtful man), what he stands for (liberty, freedom, and opportunity for everyone), and how he thinks politics should be exercised in America (with an open dialogue and a real debate of the issues). If you want to get to know Obama, or if you simply want to be inspired and believe that America is still a great country, then you have to read this book!

Rating: 10/10

Bright Lights, Big Ass: A Self-Indulgent, Surly Ex-Sorority Girl’s Guide to Why it Often Sucks in the City, or Who Are These Idiots and Why Do They All Live Next Door to Me? By Jen Lancaster

Date of Publication: 2007, New American Library

Number of Pages: 380

Synopsis: Jen Lancaster hates to burst your happy little bubble, but life in the big city isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Contrary to what you see on TV and in the movies, most urbanites aren’t party-hopping in slinky dresses and strappy stilettos. But lucky for us, Lancaster knows how to make the life of the lower crust mercilessly funny and infinitely entertaining.

Whether she’s reporting rude neighbors to Homeland Security, harboring a crush on her grocery store, or fighting – and losing – the Battle of the StairMaster, Lancaster explores how silly, strange, and not so fabulous real city living can be. And if anyone doesn’t like it, they can kiss her big, fat, pink, puffy down parka. ~Blurb from back cover

Review: I bought this book based solely on the description you see above. As a person who is unhappy living in the suburbs and fantasizes about moving back to the city, I thought this book would give me an un-romanticized glimpse into city living. I was definitely not disappointed. Jen Lancaster puts city living into perspective, and does so hilariously. I found myself laughing out loud many times while I was reading, much to the discomfort and confusion of my boyfriend, and I think that anyone who has ever lived in an urban environment will do the same. She deals with noisy neighbors (my particular pet peeve), confusing mass transit systems, the soul-crushing search for that perfect apartment, and city vermin of all types. Even the passages that seem to deal with nothing more than her many irrational fears have the ability to make even the most neurotic person feel normal.

There were a few things about the book that bothered me, however. Lancaster is about as foul-mouthed as the most outrageous guest on Jerry Springer, and the constant swearing can get a bit tiring. She’s also a conservative Republican, and her tirades against liberals can be hard for someone as left-winged as I am. But these are really issues of personal taste. Lancaster presents herself undoubtedly as she really is, and to me, that is the most admirable thing about this book. She’s unapologetic and a little crazy, but that’s why her life is interesting enough to be put in books.

Rating: 8.5/10

The Opposite of Fate by Amy Tan

Date of Publication: 2003, Putnam

Number of Pages: 398

Synopsis: Born into a family who believed in fate, Amy Tan has always looked for alternative ways to make sense of the world. And now, in The Opposite of Fate, her first book of nonfiction, she shares her thoughts on how she escaped the expectations and curses of her past, and created her own destiny.

Amy Tan tells of her family, of the ghosts that inhabit her computer, of specters of illness, ski trips, the pliability of memory, rock and roll, and the twinned mysteries of faith and fate. Whether she is remembering arguments with her mother in suburban California, recounting her trips to an outdoor market in Shanghai, or describing her love-hate relationship with the CliffsNotes edition of her first book, The Joy Luck Club, her recollections offer an intimate glimpse of a best-selling writer whose own life story is as magical and hopeful as her fiction.

With the same spirit and humor that characterize her beloved novels, Amy Tan presents a refreshing antidote to the world-weariness and uncertainties we face today, contemplating how things happen – in her life and beyond – but always returning to the question of fate and its opposites: the choices, charms, influences, attitudes, and lucky accidents that shape us all. ~From inside cover of book

Review: I am reviewing this book after reading it for the second time, so it should already be obvious that I enjoyed it. Amy Tan, one of my favorite American writers, finally gives her fans an inside look at what inspires and drives her story-telling. All writers are influenced by their own experiences, but none have a wealth of tragedies and settings in their lives to pull from. Tan has lived through the deaths of her older brother and her father, within a year of each other, and many years later, of her mother. She has lost friends to tragic accidents, illness, and even murder. She has lived in San Francisco, New York (which is where she was on September 11, 2001), and Montreux, Switzerland. She performs in a rock and roll band with Stephen King, Dave Berry, and Barbara Kingslover. She suffers from Lyme disease, which has caused her to experience hallucinations, overwhelming fatigue, and body vibrations. In short, she has not lived a normal life. It has been filled with mysticism and unexplainable coincidences.

Perhaps most valuable to her fans who are also writers, are her thoughts on writing. She describes her experience making the movie of The Joy Luck Club, she talks about reviewers, the students who interpret her writing for term papers, and how she wrote the dreaded Second Book. For fans of Amy Tan, this book is a definite must-read. For those who are interested in reading about the writing process, about a woman’s real relationship with her mother, or just about an interesting life, this book should be perfect.

Rating: 9/10