Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Memoir & Autobiography (page 1 of 4)

Reading Lolita In Tehran – Azar Nafisi

Reading Lolita In Tehran is a memoir by Iranian academic Azar Nafisi, first published back in 2003. She taught Western literature in Tehran in the mid-90s (a particularly fraught career choice in a notoriously troubled part of the world). After resigning from her university job, she started a book club of her own, with seven of her best and most committed students – all women. In her living room, every Thursday morning, they would meet to discuss great works of Western literature: Gatsby, Huck Finn, and yes, Lolita.

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Let’s start with a bit of a timeline (because the stories related in Reading Lolita In Tehran are a bit wonky). Nafisi returned to Iran, her country of origin, during the revolution of the late ’70s and early ’80s; she’d spent quite a period abroad, studying and living in the U.S. and Europe. She took a job teaching at the University Of Tehran, but left (slash got the sack) after some disputes with administration. In 1981, she took another teaching job, this time at the University of Allameh Tabatabei, around the same time that the Iran-Iraq War really kicked off. She held out as long as she could, but eventually left (slash got the sack) in much the same circumstances as her previous employment.

Nafisi was the Iranian equivalent of a mouthy broad, who didn’t like wearing the veil and didn’t like being told she couldn’t teach her beloved works of English literature, with all their alleged bad influences, to students. This all culminated in her starting a class of her own, effectively a book club with an academic bent, from her living room. It ran for a few years in the mid-90s, before Nafisi and her husband made the difficult decision to leave Tehran and emigrate to the U.S.

She tells her story in four parts, each named for a book or author whose themes resonate with what she covers in that section: Lolita, Gatsby, James, and Austen (though they read much more broadly than that – Nafisi references The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn, Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, Wuthering Heights, and dozens of others over the course of Reading Lolita In Tehran).

In the first section, Lolita, Nafisi’s living room becomes a “place of transgression”, where women remove the veil and talk about books that their leaders have banned them from reading (and, naturally, the conversations spiral in all kinds of subversive directions). Right from the outset, I found the prose flowery, much more so than I was expecting. Nafisi combines genuinely interesting literary insight with wistful (and, at times, annoyingly insubstantial) personal recollection. She introduces each of her students, but I figured she would later provide more detail to flesh them out, so they could become more than names and pretty outfits under their veils.

But in the second section, Gatsby, Nafisi abruptly abandons the book club for a different set of recollections, that of her return to Iran and her time teaching at the University Of Tehran (eleven years before the book club even began). There’s a few very interesting chapters, depicting a mock trial she and her students held for The Great Gatsby in class, but the rest of it was… well, a bit forgettable, to be honest.

The third section, James, focuses on the daily horrors of living under a totalitarian regime, the intense policing of expression punctuated by bombs going off above your head. It’s terrible, of course, but it all kind of blended together. I kept thinking “wait, is this a war memoir, or a literary memoir? What is Nafisi actually trying to DO here? Has she just published her diaries out of order?”.

The last section, Austen, finally returns to the book club and the lives of the women Nafisi chose to teach – so we’re finally back on the timeline that began in the first section. I’d say this is the strongest part of Reading Lolita In Tehran, where we finally get to understand how these books impacted the women who read them, and what their lives looked like in tangible ways (rather than in abstract). They discuss marriages, men, sex, and revolution – like we would at any book club – and the question of whether to stay in Iran, or whether it’s possible to seek their fortunes elsewhere, is at the forefront of it all.

Another constant throughout Reading Lolita In Tehran is the issue of the veil in Iranian society (in various forms, some adopted voluntarily, others imposed by government). Prior to the revolution, women were not required to wear the veil for decades – some women even faced discrimination for doing so. Of course, the revolution and the Iran-Iraq War turned that on its head. I couldn’t help feeling that Nafisi’s seeming obsession with this one facet of life in the Islamic Republic, to the exclusion of so many others, was strange. The veil was not the only way in which the women of Nafisi’s book club were oppressed, and she didn’t go to any great length to explain her focus on it as symbolic or representative of a broader struggle.

I preferred it when Nafisi spoke of the lives of women in ’80s and ’90s Iran as a spectrum, and invited us to understand how literature – and access to literature – became a refuge from tyranny. Books like Lolita and Gatsby represented comfort and safety to Nafisi, and gave opportunity to her students to imagine a different world. That’s what I’d expected when I picked up Reading Lolita In Tehran, but unfortunately I found very little of it.

Naturally, Nafisi copped a lot of criticism – on all sides – when Reading Lolita In Tehran came out. She has been accused of misrepresenting the lives of Iranian people, misrepresenting the intent of the Iranian government, framing Afghan women as “helpless victims”, encouraging Western interventions… basically everything short of seeking to become Ayatollah herself. Nafisi has remained remarkably dignified and, when asked about it, has said only that she’s willing to engage in “serious argument… [but] debate that is polarised isn’t worth my time”.

On the whole, I didn’t enjoy Reading Lolita In Tehran as I read it, but I don’t think that’s the fault of Nafisi or the book. Rather, I think I went in with the wrong set of expectations – perhaps the fault of misleading marketing or inflated reputation. I thought this memoir would revolve solely around the book club, sketching intimate portraits of its participants and their engagement with the forbidden novels. It’s much broader in scope than that, and much more focused on Nafisi’s own experiences and understanding. Read this one, by all means, but perhaps it’s best to adjust your own expectations accordingly.

The Argonauts – Maggie Nelson

The Argonauts is a pillar of the contemporary queer canon, so frequently invoked that it’s practically become cliche. It’s the shiniest jewel in American writer Maggie Nelson’s crown. I’ve previously read her fragmentary homage Bluets (for study) and her verse memoir Jane: A Murder (for fun), so I’m not sure why I haven’t picked this one up before now. According to the blurb, it’s a “timely and genre-bending memoir that offers fresh and fierce reflections on motherhood, desire, identity, and feminism… a rigorous exploration of sexuality, gender, and notions of family,”.

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For such weighty and broad subject matter, The Argonauts is a slim tome – just 180 pages. It’s told in snippets, paragraphs, rather than chapters (clearly the poet coming out in Nelson), but there’s still a narrative thread to follow. It’s a trick that lets her tell a story but also turn on a pin when it comes to subject, sense, and style. Another note on the form: rather than using footnotes or in-text references, Nelson logs her sources in the margins, a feature that makes the reading far more smooth and I would love to see more widely adopted.

Technically speaking, The Argonauts is a work of “autotheory”, combining philosophical/academic ideas with the anecdotal evidence of memoir. Nelson explores all those lofty ideas from the blurb through the story of her romance with Harry (to whom the book is dedicated), their courtship and their making of a family. Two significant paths run parallel: Harry’s transformation as they begin taking testosterone and undergo reconstructive chest surgery, and Nelson’s as she undertakes cycles of IVF and becomes pregnant.

From the marketing and chat around The Argonauts, I’d really expected Harry’s story to get more airtime; this is the queer love story after all, about making a baby with a non-binary/masc partner. But Nelson was overwhelmingly introspective, far more focused on what was going on inside her own body. I’m a bit undecided as to whether this is a good thing or bad.

The Argonauts is not an easy read in the sense that Nelson forces you to think – really think – about everything she’s saying, but it’s full of wonderful insights perfectly expressed, like:

I get why it’s politically maddening, but I’ve also always thought it a little romantic – the romance of letting an individual experience of desire take precedence over a categorical one.

The Argonauts (page 10)

I must admit, I rolled my eyes when she quoted Deluze & Parnet on page eight (page eight! if a bloke in a bar dropped those names that early in a conversation, I’d dump him on the spot), but the saving grace was that Nelson did so in a passage that perfectly depicted the discomfort of asking for pronouns and resorting to friend-assisted internet research of a paramour, to avoid asking. This is what I’m talking about, this is the vibe of The Argonauts.

What concerns me is I felt there was a certain elitism in Nelson’s expression. This isn’t Gender Queer Parenting For Dummies. She seems to assume a level of education, a familiarity with certain writers and academics (ahem-Deluze-ahem!), that readers who might benefit most from her work don’t necessarily have. That’s not to say that they (well, we) don’t or can’t understand The Argonauts, it’s just that it doesn’t feel like we’re being invited to do so.

Of course, we can’t expect every writer to write for every audience, but this isn’t marketed as an academic text. If it had been, I would have gone in with a different set of expectations and perhaps not been so disappointed or confused by the high-falootin’ talk. Still, assuming you are part of Nelson’s (perhaps subconsciously) intended audience, you’ll find The Argonauts a poignant and resonant read.

What really sticks with me, more so than any academic thought or theory, is Nelson’s love for Harry. It shines, on every page. Even when they disagree, even when they’re scared, even when things are awful. Not to be sappy about it, but Nelson’s obvious and obliterating love for Harry and their family was my favourite part of this complex and multi-faceted book, and I would say The Argonauts is worth reading for that alone.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Argonauts:

  • “Maggie Nelson can write. She has some interesting ideas, but whereas some writers make you feel like you want to sit and have coffee with them, Nelson just seems exhausting.” – M. Young
  • “This book is as exhilarating as it is frustrating.” – Mary, Mary, Mary
  • “Five thumbs down” – Betty

Dress Your Family In Corduroy And Denim – David Sedaris

I loved, loved, loved my first adventure with David Sedaris, Me Talk Pretty One Day, so I’m not ashamed to say I came to Dress Your Family In Corduroy And Denim hoping for more of the same. Such an approach would normally invite disappointment, but Sedaris totally delivered. This is the 2004 collection of 22 autobiographical essays, once again focused on the author’s upbringing, family, and his adult life. You’d think that well would run dry eventually, but Sedaris is clearly more than capable of hauling out every last trickle.

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Dress Your Family In Corduroy And Denim – and Sedaris’s whole schtick, more broadly speaking – is best summed up by the blurb on this edition. “Sedaris lifts the corner of ordinary life, revealing the absurdity teeming below the surface,”. He examines the neighbours who didn’t watch television (Us and Them), his own failed attempts to become a hippie (The Change In Me), and what becomes of the estate of the late Aunt Monie (so nicknamed as a portmanteau of “moan” and “money”, another delightful example of Sedaris telling you everything you need to know with one small detail; Monie Changes Everything). There are snort-laughs to be found in every essay, guaranteed.

He mines his family, deep – even so far as to describe their very resentment of his mining them for content. I can understand the ever-present and irresistible temptation, though, because the whole Sedaris clan, as he describes them, are just as sharp and hilarious as he is. Take, for instance, this moment of radical honesty from his black-sheep sister, Tiffany:

We climb the few steps to her porch and she hesitates before pulling the keys from her pocket. ‘I haven’t had a chance to clean,’ she says, but the lie feels uncomfortable, and so she corrects herself. ‘What I meant to say is that I don’t give a fuck what you think of my apartment. I didn’t really want you here in the first place.’

Dress Your family in corduroy and denim (page 198)

He cleans Tiffany’s apartment for her, and in return she dubs him Fairy Poppins, which he says “wouldn’t bother [him] if it weren’t so apt”. I re-read this passage over and over again, until I was crying with laughter.

Nothing is off limits for Sedaris: his family, his neighbours, even strangers he encounters on the street. He doesn’t hesitate to take aim at other countries, other religions, other cultures, a prospect that would normally set the woke reader’s teeth on edge. And yet, Sedaris once again proves himself the master of poking fun, even when he’s poking down (Six To Eight Black Men), because he pokes nobody harder than himself. He lays his own faults and shortcomings bare, without ever once sliding into the “confessional” or the pity-seeking. It’s all done in the name of fun, with maybe a splash of poignancy thrown in for good measure.

I was a little confused, when I got to the end, by the title: Dress Your Family In Corduroy And Denim. There was not one mention of his family’s exploits in textiles. After all, Me Talk Pretty One Day perfectly encapsulated and reflected the content of that book, and was drawn from the title of one of the essays it contained. I was ready to chalk it up to an unsolved mystery, another quirk of Sedaris’s charm, but an answer came to me via an unverified anecdote on the Wikipedia page: “At a public appearance in Cleveland, Ohio on October 12, 2010, Sedaris explained when he was under a deadline for a title and was getting desperate, his boyfriend Hugh had a dream in which he saw someone reading a book entitled, in French, Dress Your Family In Corduroy And Denim. Sedaris knew then that he had his title, even though it had nothing to do with the contents of his book.” So, there you have it!

If you’ve never read Sedaris and you’re wondering where to start, I’d still say Me Talk Pretty One Day is the best option… but I’d recommend having a copy of Dress Your Family In Corduroy In Denim to hand, because you’ll want to pick it up as soon as you’ve converted.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Dress Your Family In Corduroy And Denim:

  • “I believe David Sedaris is a modern day Mark Twain.” – Cheryl
  • “Interesting book. Arrived promptly.” – JJ
  • “Not a book about fashion.
    Which I should have probable guessed because no-one wears corduroy anymore.” – Katie Krackers
  • “Pairs well with: Gordon’s gin and grapefruit juice” – Michele Feltman Strider
  • “I and my friends have never got this type of writing. Maybe we are aliens, or maybe you have to be from New York or something.” – Mark Anthony

Becoming – Michelle Obama

I worry that reviewing Daisy Jones And The Six has put me on a dangerous path. All of a sudden, I find myself tempted to pick up all of the hugely hyped books of the past few years, the ones I thought I’d never bother reading, just to see if they live up. Here’s exhibit B: Becoming. (Does that mean I’ll end up reading A Promised Land, too? We’ll see…)

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I think we can all agree that the market for White House memoirs is well and truly saturated. Even before the Trump era, we were drenched in the recollections of the second undersecretary to the whoever of no-one-cares. It makes me wonder whether it’s even possible to have a single unguarded conversation with anyone who might go within a hundred feet of the U.S. federal government, seeing as they all seem to have notebooks and voice recorders in their pockets…

But there seems to be something special about Becoming, Michelle Obama’s account of her life up to and including her time as the first black First Lady of the United States. It sold 725,000 copies on the first day of release, and 1.4 million in its first week. It set the record for the best-selling book published in the United States in 2018, just fifteen days after it hit the shelves. What’s most remarkable is that its popularity has persisted, past the initial curiosity spike and gossip-hounding; as of November 2020, there are at least 14 million copies in worldwide circulation.

The thing is, there’s nothing about the way the book is written – with its straightforward chronological format, and no-nonsense accessible tone – that seems remarkable at all. Content-wise, it didn’t seem particularly earth-shattering, either. From the preface alone, I got the impression that, while Obama was going to be frank about the ups and downs, she’s an earnestly optimistic person at heart and Becoming was hardly going to be a salacious tell-all.

The first section, Becoming Me, covers Obama’s life growing up on the South Side of Chicago, with loving parents and a stalwart brother in an apartment above her aunt and uncle’s. Thanks to her mother’s advocacy, her own hard work, and a couple of lucky breaks, she received a more-than-decent education that saw her accepted into Princeton University (and, later, Harvard Law School). Obama recounts a fairly charmed-life version of her childhood and adolescence. Her story is not without sadness or difficulty, but it all just seems so wholesome. There was, as she tells it, no more angst than a gnawing sense of self-doubt, and no more misbehaviour than a (very) brief mention of smoking pot and necking with a boy in the backseat of his car. Surely, she’s left the good stuff out.

Becoming Us – as you might guess – covers her courtship and marriage to Barack, whom she met as a young lawyer at a prestigious law firm. Obama is a little more open in this section, about her desire to leave the corporate world, her misgivings about her new husband’s political career, and – most admirably – her miscarriage and troubles conceiving.

That said, sometimes the writing gets a bit repetitive, especially through the first half (we get it, your Aunt Robbie is a hard-arse). There are times where it also feels a little indulgent; some anecdotes had me wondering “Why are you telling me this? What’s it going to add to the story?”. I had to remind myself that Obama is a public figure, not a writer – that’s probably why Becoming is so long, and willfully ignores some of the more creative aspects of memoir writing.

The feminist in me is pushing me to pretend that these early developmental sections – how Obama became Obama – are the most interesting, that Obama’s own career in law and then community advocacy are the best parts of Becoming. They aren’t a snooze fest – it’s interesting and inspiring to see how a young woman persevered to overcome everything that was, on paper, against her – but let’s be real. The reason we read Becoming is for the third and final section, Becoming More – her account of her time as First Lady.

Throughout the election campaign and early days after the vote, it’s clear that Obama had an agenda: to be the change she wanted to see in U.S. government. Even though she, herself, wasn’t in a position to be drafting policy or implementing legislation, she still had a certain sway – especially with the public – and she used it tactically. Her Let’s Move campaign was seeded with her concerns about her own daughters’ nutrition, and by carefully and strategically addressing those concerns and bringing them to a bigger platform, she sowed and reaped tangible changes for childhood nutrition across the U.S.

She also offers some really powerful and touching insights about her own mis-steps and mistakes while her husband was in office: from her naivete to outright ignorance of what her role should be and what it required of her. She’s not quiet about her frustrations with the media and public attacks on her and her family, but she doesn’t seem overly bitter about them, either. Throughout Becoming, her faith seems to lie in her in-person interactions with the public. “When voters got to see me as a person, they understood that the caricatures were untrue,” she says, on page 270. “I’ve learned that it is harder to hate up close.”

I got the distinct impression, from the way Becoming is written and presented, that the Obamas aren’t done with politics and public life. She insists, in the Epilogue, that she herself has no aspiration or interest in pursuing a career in politics, but given the sanitary and affirming tone of the book, I don’t quite believe it.

Publishing her memoir has certainly given Obama a huge platform, perhaps even bigger than the one she held while her husband was in office. Becoming was an Oprah’s Book Club pick – with all the international reach and influence that that entails – and the audiobook even won a Grammy (for Best Spoken Word Album, 2020). If she were to pursue some new line of public life, I’ve no doubt they’d pave the road in gold for her. In the meantime, Becoming wasn’t perfect, but it was a pleasure to read, and I’ve gained some insight into recent U.S. political history that surely won’t go astray.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Becoming:

  • “The title should’ve been more like “Becoming Michelle Obummer”!” – sergio chavez
  • “I wouldn’t wipe my dogs butt with this book.” – virginia g foretich
  • “Great book… I bought two one for my auntie birthday and one for myself, get comfortable with a little greatness in your life and she looks great on my coffee table!” – Sharonda Rudolph-Doe

Julie and Julia – Julie Powell

Julie Powell’s life in the early ’00s was a bit of a bummer. She was working a dead-end secretarial job, fielding the public’s suggestions for a Ground Zero memorial. She was diagnosed with PCOS and, given that she was nearly thirty, the pressure to produce a child (from all corners: familial, professional, and internal) intensified. On the verge of existential crisis, she did what so many of us do: she sought out a Project, and she found it in her mother’s battered copy of Julia Child’s Mastering The Art Of French Cooking. Julie And Julia is her memoir, based on her blog, about her year of cooking dangerously.

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It’s the contemporary domestic equivalent of a herculean feat: 524 recipes, in 365 days. What’s more, Powell only had one tiny apartment kitchen to work in, not to mention an aversion to eggs and no bloody idea where to buy offal or marrow bones. Naturally, mishaps and misadventures ensue.

Powell started the project in August 2002, when blogs were still new, mysterious little rabbit-holes of the internet where one could build a large following relatively quickly if they were doing something no one else was blogging about. Her mother thought she was crazy, and most of her friends did, too – thoughts that Powell doesn’t mind repeating for the reader, and huffing about at length (but after all, as Anne Lamott said, “if people wanted you to write nicely about them, they should have treated you better”). Her only steadfast supporter is Eric, her husband, but even he blanches at some of the more adventurous recipes, and his patience is tested by Powell’s frequent cooking-induced melt-downs.

As she tells her own story, in chronological episodic form (not unlike a blog), Powell weaves in imagined scenes from Julia Child’s life. Drawing on biographies, letters, and photographs, she paints a very rosy picture of Julia’s romance with her husband, Paul, and how she came to love French cooking. These are decorative touches, however; Julie Powell is the meat of the story, Julia Child just the garnish.

In other reviews and articles, a lot has been made of what Julia Child herself thought of Powell’s project (in sum: she wasn’t a fan, really). I’m kind of disappointed that so much focus has been trained on that one aspect of this quite-remarkable story. I find it much more interesting to look at what drew Child to cooking initially, and what parallels can be found in Powell’s experience.

Child, for instance, didn’t learn to cook until the age of 37, and once she’d figured it out (graduating from Le Cordon Bleu cooking school, no less), she set about spreading the word. She published Mastering The Art Of French Cooking in service of teaching the average “servantless” American to cook like a gourmet chef – or, to put it more simply, she made high-falootin’ food accessible.

Isn’t that essentially what Powell has done with Julie And Julia, too? Granted, she’s not teaching us how to cook (she just barely includes a single recipe, it’s not a cook-book after all), but she is making it feel like an achievable goal at least. Before reading Julia And Julia, I would have felt more comfortable skydiving than attempting any fancy-pants French cooking. I’m not one of those can’t-boil-water types, but my idea of a hearty home-cooked meal is more bangers-and-mash than boeuf bourguignon (in fact, I even had to Google how to spell the latter, twice). Seeing that Powell, like me, didn’t have all the tools or know-how when she started off and still she gave it a go… well, “inspirational” is a gross word, but it instilled a little confidence. I even went out and bought a leek.

What’s more: both Julie and Julia are unafraid of admitting their mistakes. Granted, Julie might drop a few more f-bombs, but they both hasten to reassure readers that cock-ups are a natural part of learning to cook. As Julia once said, “If you’re alone in the kitchen, what does it matter – who’s there to see you?”.

I don’t want to mislead you, though: Julie And Julia is just as much about marriage and existential dread as it is cooking. Powell weaves in memories of her childhood and youth, hopes and fears for her future, making the story more comprehensive than just a single year in her life with one ambitious project as its focus. I think that was a good call, on her part, preemptively answering our desire for authenticity in such accounts and saving us from a repetitive cooking procedural (if that’s what you’re after, seriously, go find a recipe book).

Of course, not long after publication, Julie And Julia was adapted to a film of the same name, starring Meryl Streep(!) as Julia Child and Amy Adams as Powell. I watched it once, years ago, and I can’t say I remember much, other than it was good and funny and Meryl Streep was brilliant. I’ll have to watch it again, soon. In doing some Googling for this review, I learned that it was actually the last film written and directed by Nora Ephron before she died, which makes it extra-special.

So, final verdict: I liked it. Sure, Powell’s snarky sense of humour and tendency towards histrionics won’t be to everyone’s taste, but what is? Julie And Julia is a good, quick read that – if you’re anything like me – will inspire you to pick up the tongs instead of ordering UberEats for the fourth night in a row. If it doesn’t sound like it’s up your alley, that’s fine, because I’m going to share with you the single most important take-away of the whole book: put more butter in everything. Seriously. That pat of butter you normally use? Double it.

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