Category Archives: Memoir and Personal Essays

Istanbul by Orhan Pamuk (DNF)

2004 (Translation copyright). Alfred A. Knopf. Hardcover. 384 pages.

Translated from the Turkish by Maureen Freely.

From: the public library

In a nutshell:

Orhan Pamuk, author of Snow and My Name is Red, writes about the city where he’s lived his whole life: Istanbul. He tells anecdotes about his childhood, and also analyzes the works of other writers and artists who depicted Istanbul.


Although familiar with the name of Orhan Pamuk, I have not read any of his novels. I saw this book at my library and was intrigued by the book jacket’s description: “Blending reminiscence with history; family photographs with portraits of poets and pashas; art criticism, metaphysical musing, and, now and again, a fanciful tale . . .”.

I definitely loved all the photographs and pictures of Istanbul scattered throughout the book. I also liked the window into another life and culture that was provided by Pamuk’s more detailed stories of his childhood and life in Istanbul.

If – as happened once every forty years – my fat grandmother had to go outside or was invited out, the preparations would go on for days; until the last step, when my grandmother would shout for Kamer Hanim, the janitor’s wife, to come up and pull with all her strength on the strings of her corset. I would watch with my hair on end as the corseting progressed behind the screen – with much pushing and pulling and cries of “Easy, girl, easy!”

p. 119

In one chapter, he describes the relationship of Istanbullus to the Bosphorus and the various ship disasters that occur there.

When I told people I was writing about Istanbul, I was surprised at the longing in their voices when the conversation turned to those old Bosphorus disasters. Even as tears formed in their eyes, it was if they were recounting their happiest memories, and there even some who insisted that I include their favorites.

p. 214

Despite these interesting tidbits here and there, Pamuk spent a lot of time discussing a parade of authors (both Turkish and Western) who had Istanbul as their subject. I guess I hadn’t expected such a large chunk of literary criticism. It might have gone down better if I was familiar with the works discussed, or if I had some personal familiarity with Istanbul, but I wasn’t and I had not. Eventually, I realized that reading the book had become a chore with no sure reward at the finish, so I gave up reading at about page 250 or so.

Excerpts of other reviews:

Amy Reads – “It is brilliantly written, full of incredible pictures that show the scenery which he describes. I could see what he was describing and feel it. I felt like I was there, or had been there, or at least that I very much wanted to go there.”

Mirek’s Blog – “The best of this book is in showing the relation between our lives and the places we live in.”


Filed under Memoir and Personal Essays

Making Toast: A Family Story by Roger Rosenblatt

2010. HarperCollins. Hardcover. 166 pages.

 From: the public library

 Recommendation from: Sophisticated Dorkiness

In a nutshell:

In a series of anecdotes, Rosenblatt tells about life after the unexpected death of his adult daughter, Amy. Rosenblatt and his wife Ginny move in with their son-in-law to help care for their three young grandchildren.


I really loved Making Toast in the beginning. I was already thinking ahead to the rave review I was going to give it. And then I started getting a little annoyed with it and by the end, I was decidedly lackluster about it.

Rosenblatt writes about life after loss as a proud husband, father and grandfather. Making Toast is basically a collection of anecdotes and family stories. In these stories, Rosenblatt captures the vibrancy of Amy’s life, the virtues of his other children and their families, the unexpected profundity from his grandchildren, and his wife’s capability in the unexpected responsibilities of caring for Amy’s children.

This was one of my favorite anecdotes from the book:

[Amy] could also poke you gently with her wit. When she was about to graduate from the NYU School of Medicine, her class had asked me to be the speaker. A tradition of the school allows a past graduate to place the hood of the gown on a current graduate. Harris, who had graduated the previous year, was set to “hood” Amy. At dinner the night before the ceremony, a friend remarked, “Amy, isn’t it great? Your dad is giving the graduation speech, and your fiance is doing the hood.” Amy said, “It is. And it’s also pretty great that I’m graduating.”

Rosenblatt also recounts the many gestures of sympathy and support from his friends and his daughter’s friends and acquaintances. The Rosenblatts and Amy’s family are fortunate to be firmly ensconced in a large network of kind, generous people. There is almost always an element of loneliness to grief, but in Making Toast, this is outweighed by the sense of community and family drawing together.

On the one hand, it is somewhat refreshing to see a memoir where the author rarely has anything bad to say about anyone. On the other hand, as I felt that Rosenblatt was only telling the best, and most clever and most funny stories about his family, Making Toast started to seem a little too tidy. I don’t mean tidy in organization, but tidy – and carefully selective – in its depiction of grief. Rosenblatt does include a few stories about his own grieving process, but they still seemed reserved and comprised the least compelling part of the book for me.

Another thing that soured my response to Making Toast was the name-dropping. At first, when Rosenblatt mentioned a famous colleague or friend, I told myself, ‘okay, so he has well-known friends, so what? that’s his life.’ But the more famous names were mentioned, the more I felt uneasy.

Additionally, I felt thrown by his references to certain private schools and other marks of a fairly privileged life. I wasn’t sure how to assess my reaction to these things. What did this say about me that this stuff bothered me? In the end, I settled on this explanation: I don’t begrudge the Rosenblatts any of their connections or privileges, but it did make them less relatable. I think I personally am more moved by stories of people who overcome with fewer resources at their disposal.

I don’t believe Rosenblatt was trying to flaunt his life to readers. One would hope not, anyway. I think in a way Making Toast was his written thank-you to all the people who reached out to him and his family during this time – from the considerate teachers at his grandchildrens’ school to famous journalists and authors. Unfortunately, for me, this approach resulted in an off-putting tinge of insularity.

I know that a number of readers and critics have loved this book. I feel curmudgeonly for criticizing a memoir about someone’s loss, but I’ve tried to unpack my reasons for not loving it, and hopefully they have made sense.

Other reviews:

Book Chatter – “Overall, it’s a touching story but I never really got to know anyone within it, so it sort of left me with an “unfinished” feeling.”

The House of the Seven Tails – “I thought this was a wonderful book as Rosenblatt’s writing makes getting to know his daughter Amy an enjoyable experience and something I didn’t expect in a memoir about death and grief.”

Sophisticated Dorkiness – “Rosenblatt’s writing is clean and purposeful and he writes with such love for every single one of the people in the story that you can’t help get pulled in.”


Filed under Book Review, Memoir and Personal Essays

A Circle of Quiet by Madeleine L’Engle

The Crosswicks Journal – Book 1

1972. Harper SanFrancisco. Paperback. 246 pages.

From: the public library

Recommendation from: a comment left on a post of Rachel Held Evans‘ blog, a comment which I can’t seem to find now.

In a nutshell:

This was the first of four Crosswicks Journals written by Madeleine L’Engle, an author best known for her book A Wrinkle in Time (though Arm of the Starfish is the book I remember her for.) Crosswicks was the name of the New England house where she and her husband lived, sometimes joined by their adult children, or grandchildren, or sundry other relatives and friends.

L’Engle freewheeling journal touches on writing, faith, self, and family.


A Circle of Quiet is a rambling sort of book, befitting its ‘journal’ status, but L’Engle does return to several themes over and over in the book. In the beginning, L’Engle states that she has recently discovered and become enamored with the word ‘ontology’ which she defines in the book as “the word about the essence of things; the word about being.” She calls it her “word-of-the-summer.”

Unfortunately, the word ‘ontology’ did not resonate with me at all. It’s almost a dead word for me in that it conjures no feeling, no revelation, no connotations or associations. So whenever L’Engle revisited this favored word throughout the book, I couldn’t follow along with her enthusiasm about it.

Actually, I didn’t connect well with L’Engle’s book overall. Part of it was the datedness of the book. I liked the time-capsule experience in some respects, to see the early 1970’s through the eyes of someone living it in the present. I loved the references to Flower Children, Hell’s Angels, and Jesus Freaks. However, sometimes L’Engle just seemed very far away, generationally. When she analyzed the ‘young people’ of her time, those ‘young people’ were my parents’ generation. She talks of them benevolently and with a desire to understand them, but I eventually got tired of her pontifications about their passions and rebellions.

Perhaps there was also a personality clash. L’Engle admits that she is very opinionated and stubborn. I have a very calm and diplomatic personality, to a fault sometimes. I found myself sometimes thinking that L’Engle was overreacting or being too serious. I think it’s good to read books by authors with different approaches to life than my own. However, I was hoping that A Circle of Quiet would be a book that spoke to me and it didn’t overall.

So I gleaned for meaning instead – a passage here, an anecdote there. I did find the story of her son’s pet turtle very funny. And then I was unexpectedly brought to tears by the following passage:

I remember quite clearly coming home in the afternoon, putting my school bag down, and thinking, calmly and bitterly, “I am the cripple, the unpopular girl,” leaving my book bag where it lay, and writing a story for myself where the heroine was the kind of girl I would have liked to be.

Warning, parents, teachers, friends: once a child starts to think of himself this way, it’s almost impossible for the “image” – I think that’s the right word here – to be changed . . . I still tend to think of myself in the mirror set up for me in that one school. I was given a self-image there, and not a self, and a self-image imposed on one in youth is impossible to get rid of entirely, no matter how much love and affirmation one is given later.

p. 145

At the time that I was reading A Circle of Quiet, I had been mulling over an ugly thing a classmate had told me when I was twelve. He was a bully and his words deserved no traction, and yet I had to admit they still had some residual power anyway. Thus when I read this passage by L’Engle, I recognized the truth in her words. So, I guess the book did speak to me after all, even if just for that one time.

I think other readers may find this book will be right up their alley. L’Engle talks quite a bit about writing children’s literature, so if you want to read behind-the-scenes observations from a classic children’s author, there is some good stuff to be found in A Circle of Quiet. Click the links to Rebecca Reads’ review or Regular Ruminations’ review below for some more excerpts and quotes.

Others’ reviews:

Lesley’s Book Nook – “Unfortunately, A Circle of Quiet failed to deliver the same emotional insights [as Two-Part Invention, another Crosswicks book] and I wound up skimming the majority of the book.”

Rebecca Reads – “I found this book to be a relaxing, slow read. I would read a few pages, pencil in hand to mark passages that stood out to me.”

Regular Rumination – “This book was like sitting down with Madeleine L’Engle and having a conversation . . . She has an opinion about everything, and I would be lying if I said I agreed with absolutely everything she wrote about.  I don’t, but I never doubt that if I’d had the chance, we could have had a lively debate with no hard feelings.”


Filed under Book Review, Memoir and Personal Essays

The New York Regional Mormons Singles Halloween Dance by Elna Baker

2009. Dutton. Hardcover. 272 pages.

From: the public library

Recommendation from: The Captive Reader

In a nutshell:

Elna Baker is a Mormon and a virgin and a comedian, aspects about herself that influence how her young adulthood plays out in New York City. The book chronicles her tottering love life, weight loss, family relations, and unusual jobs – including a stint as a toy demonstrator at FAO Schwartz.


When I was describing the premise of the book to my roommate, she said “It sounds like that story from the Moth”, referring to the storytelling radio show that we marathon-listened to online for a couple of nights. And my roommate was absolutely correct: Elna Baker has apparently performed on the Moth a couple of times, though we only heard her once. That story – about her brief dating relationship with an atheist – actually appears in the book as well, although I think I liked listening to it better.

I read Baker’s book while on my way to San Francisco. I laughed out loud several times, especially near the beginning of the book. My two favorite stories were the one with her father and the Dilly Bars and her story about working as a toy demonstrator for FAO Schwartz.

Baker’s book (the title is too long to retype) can get too naval-gazing at times, and too intent on discussing her identity crises and her romantic trials. It could have been my own travel-weariness, but by the end of the book, I was tired of Elna Baker.

In thinking about Elna Baker’s book, a scrap of song lyric comes to mind: “the faint aroma of performing seals.” Because Elna Baker is a performer and it’s her job to over-dramatize everything, her life increasingly felt less real as I continued reading. This was especially true about the last section of the book, where she travels far to reconnect with an old flame. At that point, she knew she had a book deal. It was the book deal money that funded the trip. And after that point, I couldn’t shake the feeling that Elna was trying to force a story to happen in her own life. It struck a false emotional note.

The book definitely had me thinking, if not for the first time, about how tricky it is to turn your life story into the basis of your career. What if Elna decides to stop being a Mormon after all? It’s that identity that has undoubtedly won her gigs. And how does it change your life if you are constantly assessing it for possible story material? It sounds exhausting.

If your curiosity has been kindled despite my lack of enthusiasm about the book, I recommend you start by listening to Elna Baker (and others) on the Moth radio program.

Others’ reviews:

Book Nut – “… there was something in her story, in her journey that I found fascinating. Not just because I’m Mormon, though that’s part of it, partially because I can empathize with her inner spiritual life, her doubts and questions. And, yes, partly because Elna’s is an interesting, if pretentious and self-absorbed, journey.”

A Bookworm’s World – “Baker’s zest for life is infectious and it shines through in her storytelling and writing.”

The Captive Reader – “Amusing, thoughtful, and honest, Elna’s story is easy to read and I came out of it both liking and respecting her – an outcome I’m not all that used to when it comes to the coming-of-age memoir.”

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The Unlikely Disciple by Kevin Roose

A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University

2009. Grand Central. Hardcover. 324 pages.

From: the public library

Recommendation from:

It was actually during the job interview process for my current position that this book was first recommended to me, because the person noticed I had gone to a Christian college.

In a nutshell:

In early 2007, Brown University student Kevin Roose spent a semester ‘undercover’ at Liberty University, the Christian institution founded by ultra-conservative preacher and political commentator, Jerry Falwell. Observing the polarized nature of current American society, Roose wanted to cross a cultural divide and see what conservative Christians were really like, up close and personal. Drawing from the notes he took during that semester, this non-fiction account unfolds more or less from the perspective of Kevin as he was living the experience.


When Roose jumps into Liberty University life, he goes all in. It’s really quite impressive.  On top of the regular Bible & theology required courses, he attends the Falwell-founded Thomas Road Baptist Church, goes on a spring break mission trip, and even scores an interview with Jerry Falwell himself.

As a former pastor’s kid and Christian college alumna, I loved seeing Christian culture through the eyes of someone from the outside. For instance, it was funny when Roose thought he needed to use “Golly” and other twee substitutes for swearing, and all the students looked at him like he was nuts.  All the praise songs Roose copied out, the little mnenomic devices for memorizing books of the Bible – it was exciting and fresh-feeling to see it through the eyes of someone for whom these things are foreign.

This is especially true because Roose comes into the experience with an open mind. He has preconceptions about Christians, sure, but he’s willing to have his mind changed.

The book is a page-turner, mostly because of the built-in tension of Roose being undercover. There are several times where he almost gets caught out by other students. Other tensions arise: Roose develops a crush on a Christian girl; he comes into conflict with his homophobic, aggressive roommate; his family, including his lesbian aunts are concerned he will be brainwashed. Roose writes also about his struggle to humanize everyone without making excuses for the championing of narrow-minded viewpoints.

One thing Roose comes back to a number of times is how surprisingly ‘normal’ the students are, and how they struggle to connect faith to real life.

One of Roose’s observations really hit home for me:

The trick to being a rebel at Liberty, I’ve learned, is knowing which parts of the Liberty social code are non-negotiable. For example, Joey and his friends listen to vulgarity-filled secular hip-hop, but you’ll never catch them defending homosexuality . . . And although they might harass the naive pastors’ kids on the hall by stealing their towels from the shower stalls – leaving them naked, wet, and stranded – they’d be the first people to tell you why Mormonism is a false religion. In other words, Liberty’s true social code, the one they don’t put in a forty-six-page manual, has everything to do with being a social and religious conservative and not a whole lot to do with acting in any traditionally virtuous way.

p. 91

In context, this passage was not written judgmentally at all. But I felt that it touched on a core problem I have with Christianity as its usually practiced by conservatives in the faith. Christian culture has emphasized the defense of one’s faith so much that learning how to live faith in a thoughtful and considered manner can sometimes take a backseat.

And this priority is shaped in large part by teaching philosophies such as those used at Liberty:

So far, I’ve gleaned a few dominant themes from my classes – a few things Liberty really, really wants us to know:

– Evolution didn’t happen.

– Abortion is murder.

– Absolute truth exists. At Liberty, unlike many secular schools, professors teach with the view that there is one right answer to every question, that those right answers are found plainly in the Bible, and that their job is to transfer those right answers from their lecture notes to our minds.

p. 87

Let me just go on a personal tangent here: I am in such gratitude that my alma mater did not take this teaching approach at all. The majority of professors encouraged us to question the assumptions in our worldviews, voice doubts, and consider different interpretations. My college’s main themes in chapels and campus-wide events tended toward subjects like social justice and celebrating diversity, environmental stewardship and service-learning. I’m not saying there weren’t and aren’t things to criticize about my alma mater, but by and large I am happy with the education I received there.  Indeed, it is the church pulpit, and not my Christian college, where I have frequently encountered teaching philosophies and priorities similar to that described by Roose in this book.

The Unlikely Disciple is certainly one of my favorite reads of the year so far. It is a lovely picture of someone trying to find common ground and understanding with the ‘other side.’ It’s also an intriguing look at a culture whose members are frequently dismissed out of hand.

I was reading The Unlikely Disciple while on a trip to Vermont back in May. My uncle, whose son (my cousin) went to Liberty, picked it up while I was busy doing something else and we had a bit of steal-the-book-back game going on.

So yeah, if this subject interests you, I highly recommend you pick it up.

Other reviews:

The Captive Reader – “It is a brilliant combination of immersion journalism and spiritual quest, forming one absorbing memoir that seeks to educate, inform, and broaden the reader’s views rather than to condemn or criticize an already much-maligned group.”

Jenny’s Books – “I could not put this book down.  I must read thousands of books that are exactly like this book.  ”

My Friend Amy (a blogger with similar background to myself) – “… it has turned out to be one of the best books I’ve read this year, I didn’t want to put it down, and I’ve managed to find a way to bring it into most conversations this week.”


Filed under Memoir and Personal Essays, Non-Fiction

How to Achieve a Heaven on Earth, Edited by John E. Wade II

2010. Pelican Publishing. Paperback. 347 pages.

I do not get contacted about review copies frequently, and have accepted only a few of those. I was contacted about How to Achieve a Heaven on Earth last year. Motivational non-fiction is generally not a genre that attracts me, so I was on the fence about accepting the book. I decided to give it a try because in my experience of reading books of essays by a range of authors, there are usually some essays that will stand out and be worthwhile.

The book is divided into eleven sections: the ten “essential elements” for creating a heaven on earth, as the editor describes in the introduction, plus one concluding section on individual paths to achieving a heaven on earth. The ten elements include such broad concepts as prosperity, ecological harmony, and moral purpose and meaning. Some essays have been published elsewhere first, such as those by Thomas L. Friedman and Al Gore. The other essays have been clearly written for this collection as they explicitly mention the phrase “heaven on earth.” (An odd result was that the reading experience was sometimes reminiscent of my writing tutor days in college, when I would read multiple papers in a row written in response to the same class prompt.)

For the benefit of those considering this book, I’ll speak more about the essay contributors’ backgrounds. Many contributors approach the question from a Christian perspective, and most from an American perspective. There is also a sizeable New Orleans / Louisiana contingent, not wholly surprising considering the editor and the publisher reside in Louisiana.  In addition, quite a few of the authors have either founded or work extensively in non-profit organizations.  There is nothing wrong with having those perspectives or backgrounds, but as the cover description does not go into detail about the selection, I wanted to let possible readers know more about the book’s scope.

The book’s promotional email had accurately described the essays as being of a 1 to 3 page length, but I guess it had not registered fully until I started reading the book.  True, the brevity of the essays makes this a good nightstand book: you can easily tuck in a couple of essays before you go to bed, for instance.  However, I found that a couple of pages is really not enough space for the ambitious topics undertaken.  There wasn’t enough depth for my tastes.  There was very little said that was new to me and I had heard many of the arguments and positions before.

However, as I had expected would happen, there were some essays that did stand out, including:

– “Liberty and Civility: What Benjamin Franklin and George Washington Taught Us About Religious Peace” by Chris Beneke

– “Ecology Matters” by Adrienne Froelich Sponberg

– “Friends for Life: An Emerging Biology of Emotional Healing” by Daniel Goleman

– “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” by Peter Lovenheim

In the last essay, republished from the New York Times, Lovenheim tries an experiment to get to know his neighbors better.  He asks the people on his street for permission to spend the night at their house and “write about their lives from inside their own houses”.  He published a book last year about that experience, and I’m rather curious about it now.  That is the kind of writer / subject discovery I like to make with books of essays.

Overall, unfortunately, the book was not a good fit for me.

Other reviews:

Book Addiction – “How to Achieve a Heaven on Earth is a delightful, hopeful book that was a joy to read.”

Rundpinne – “I highly recommend How to Achieve Heaven on Earth to anyone looking for an insightful look at many of the major issues facing society today or merely to read some rather brilliant essays.”

Also, here is a link to the book’s website:

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Filed under Book Review, Memoir and Personal Essays, Non-Fiction

Funny in Farsi by Firoozeh Dumas

A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America

2003. Villard. Hardcover. 187 pages.

Dumas’ Laughing Without An Accent caught my attention in the travel writing section of my library.  Scanning that book, I saw that her memoir Funny in Farsi was written first and so I picked up that one and read it instead.  Funny in Farsi consists of short autobiographical essays – from accounts of Firoozeh’s childhood as an Iranian-American living in California to stories from after her marriage to her French husband.

Funny in Farsi certainly has its merits, which I will describe a little further down, but I found it suffered from a “telling not showing” writing style, especially at the end of the essays.  These endings made me think of a parody video online called “Trailer for Every Oscar-Winning Trailer Ever” (I think bookshelves of doom pointed me to it months ago.)  At the end of this fake trailer, one of the actors says, “Explicitly stating the moral of the story and awkwardly working in the movie title.”  This is basically what Dumas does with most of her essays: she either over-explains the emotional significance an event or conversation, or she drops in a somewhat clunky punchline to finish the essay.  Often I found myself wishing she had just let the remembered events speak for themselves and let the poignancy or humor fall more subtly on the reader.

Even though I was disappointed by the writing overall, there were some great moments in Funny in Farsi.  Firoozeh’s family lived in California before the 1979 hostage crisis in Iran.  Most Americans they met didn’t know anything about Iran but extended a friendly welcome and a benign curiosity about their culture.  When more of Firoozeh’s extended family came to the U.S. after 1979, they obviously had a completely different experience.  I like how simply she puts it:

“These Americans felt that they knew all about Iran and its people, and they had no questions, just opinions.”

p. 36

I just like how, in that sentence, she concisely captures the nature of this lost opportunity for connection between Americans and the Iranian newcomers.

Although Dumas uses her essays to point out the discrimination that she and her family have faced because of their ethnicity, she keeps an overall light and good-humored tone.  One of the funniest moments for me occurred in her essay, “Save Me, Mickey.”  In it, Dumas recounts the story of how she got lost in Disneyland as a child.  While waiting for her parents at the ‘lost children’ way-station, another child is brought in screaming and crying.  He cannot speak English, and the staff illogically think that because little Firoozeh is also from another country, she should automatically be able to communicate with the boy.

“Is that boy from your country?” she asked me. “Why, yes,” I wanted to tell her. “In my country, which I own, this is National Lose Your Child at Disneyland Day.”

p. 20

I think some of the best essays involve Dumas’ adult life, including her traditional Persian wedding, a bizarre Caribbean vacation (“Judges Paid Off”), and a story involving an earthquake, bundt cake and a china set from her mother-in-law (“I Feel the Earth Move Under My Feet”).

Because Funny in Farsi was just an okay reading experience for me, I’m not sure if I’ll get around to reading Laughing Without An Accent anytime soon, but if you’ve read it, let me know what you thought of it.

Other reviews:

5 Minutes for Books – ” . . . the best moments of this memoir were her endearing, yet not overly sentimental, tales of the lessons her father imparted.”

Nose in a Book – “While I enjoyed reading this, there were a few times when I felt like saying, “that’s not growing up Iranian, that’s just growing up.”  I have never experienced the racism she has but there were a lot of situations that I could totally relate to.”

Small World Reads – “I loved Dumas’s voice. She is funny and down-to-earth, but beneath her witticisms there is an obvious ache at the hardships of being an Iranian in America.”


Filed under Memoir and Personal Essays

Jack and Rochelle by Jack and Rochelle Sutin

A Holocaust Story of Love and Resistance

Ed. by Lawrence Sutin

1995. 225 pages. Hardcover. Graywolf Press.

From: Public Library, Interlibrary Loan

For: Spotlight Series


Jack and Rochelle Sutin tell their survival story, taking turns recounting all that they endured as Polish Jews during the Holocaust.   They start with a brief account of their family and their lives before the war.  Mere acquaintances before the Nazi occupation, the two met again after escaping the ghettos, hiding with other Jewish partisans in the Belorussian forest called Naliboki.


In December of last year, I read Nechama Tec’s book Defiance, about the Bielski partisans, who took in Jewish ghetto refugees and fought the Germans.  The Bielski otriad (partisan group) was in the Naliboki forest, as were Jack and Rochelle, who joined a different otriad.  The stories told in Defiance were incredible, and I was glad to return to the subject and read another story of the same place and time.

Jack and Rochelle is written with some passages by Rochelle and others by Jack.  They take turns, sometimes interjecting a sentence in the other’s narrative.  In his preface, Lawrence Sutin says:

My parents chose to speak openly of their experiences to us – to my sister Cecilia and myself.  I cannot remember at what age I first began to hear their Holocaust stories.

So it seems fitting that it is written as if they are telling the stories to us, the reader.

Jack and Rochelle are very candid and seem to hold very little back from the reader.  For instance, they openly admit that Rochelle did not trust Jack for a while after they met again in the forest.  He wanted to take care of her, but she thought he just wanted her for sex.  Considering Rochelle and her friend Tanya’s previous experiences with Soviet partisans, her distrust is understandable.

Although I knew of course that Jack and Rochelle survived the Holocaust and made it to America, that did not prevent me from feeling the intensity of their ordeals.  Consider a few quotes from the book:

We didn’t expect to live that long.  We just decided that we didn’t want to be killed the way the Nazis planned – slowly, as it suited their purposes, and after we had worked ourselves to near death.  We could die with some dignity.  We would try to get away, they would shoot us with their machine guns, and that would be it. (p. 73)

Then we realized that these two Germans thought we were Russian partisans.  So we explained the truth to them.  We told them what the Germans had done to our families.  When they heard that their faces turned white and they started to tremble. (p. 141)

For the most part, Jack and Rochelle are in agreement over the events that they jointly experienced.  However, Rochelle would mention several times how she worked to keep Jack from going out on the most dangerous partisan raids.  Jack was always quick to follow with a statement that: though she may have kept him from some raids, most of the time he did fight with the rest of the Zorin otriad fighters.  As a result, I wasn’t sure how much Jack went out on raids.

I definitely appreciate that Jack and Rochelle did not stop their story when the the Germans were ousted from Poland in 1944.  By continuing on, the book covered an aspect of the Holocaust experience of which I knew few details: what happened to the Jews immediately after their liberation from the Nazis.

For indeed, Jack and Rochelle’s troubles did not disappear with the defeat of the Nazis.  When they returned to their hometowns, the couple found that the majority of their Polish neighbors hated them and wished they had not survived.  The Soviets were conscripting the partisan fighters to their army, to fight and likely die on the front.  Jack and Rochelle wanted to live and start a family, so they fled west.

After many, many trials and hardships, the couple and their daughter finally ended up in St. Paul, Minnesota.  They were interviewed for a local paper and a story was published about them in 1949.  I was horrified to read that Jack and Rochelle subsequently received anonymous letters and phone calls “complaining about dirty Jews being let into America when there wasn’t enough to go around for real Americans.”

The afterword by Lawrence Sutin is essential reading after completing Jack and Rochelle’s story.  He has some keen insights about his parents, their stories, and his own experience of being the child of two Holocaust survivors.

Here, of course, lies the value of Holocaust narratives told by the survivors themselves.  These narratives confirm that, within the maelstrom of death, the lives lost or spared were individual lives that cannot be encompassed by the horrific statistic of “six million.” (p. 206)

I read Jack and Rochelle as part of the Spotlight Press Series Graywolf tour.  Check out the other stops here.


Filed under Memoir and Personal Essays

You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up by Annabelle Gurwitch and Jeff Kahn

2010. 261 pages. Hardcover. Crown.

From: the public library

Where I heard about it: I saw this book mentioned briefly a while back on the blog Stuff & Nonsense.

For the challenge: What’s in a Name (plant)

In a nutshell:

Actress / writer Annabelle Gurwitch and television writer Jeff Kahn write about marriage, specifically humorous, warts-and-all stories about their marriage to each other.  It is also a story about raising their son, Ezra, who was born with severe birth defects.


In the introduction to the book, Jeff describes authors of previous marriage self-help books as “the Daniel Boones and Davy Crocketts of the new frontier of marriage.”  He then says, “And if they are Boones and Crocketts, then you should think of Annabelle and me and our book as the Donner Party.”

As that quote indicates, Gurwitch and Kahn do not think of themselves as a model married couple.  Most of the book consists of self-deprecating stories of their courtship, marriage and parenthood.  The book is told in a he says / she says format throughout, where they often (with humor) contest the other’s version of events or perspective.

I definitely laughed aloud several times throughout the book.  My favorite passage was Annabelle’s description of their late-night discussions regarding baby Ezra’s fluid intake, which had to be measured and monitored carefully due to defects.  An excerpt:

If our house had been wiretapped, you might have thought that we were running a meth lab: Male voice: “How many ounces of liquid did you pour in this morning?  I can’t read your handwriting.”  Female: “I can’t remember!”

Though I would characterize the book as mostly humor writing, the authors do get serious on occasion.  This occurs particularly when talking about their son’s health condition and in their concluding chapter when they get down to why they are still married.

Though the book had its funny moments, after the halfway point, I realized that it was failing to charm me overall.  I had been reading the funniest parts out loud to my roommate, but as I told her later, she was getting the “trailer” version of the book.  You know how some movie trailers make the film look wall-to-wall laughs and then you find out the best bits were all in the trailer?  That’s the version she got.  I felt like for every genuinely funny anecdote, there were so many more jokes that fell flat.

For example, I didn’t understand why there had to be quite a few lame jokes about Republicans and right-wingers.  I just think that liberals’ jokes about conservatives, and conservatives’ jokes about liberals have been done to the ground.  There is often such a smugness and laziness to these jokes that I find grating.

You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up was published recently, so I usually understood the various references to pop culture and current news.  However, references to the Rosie O’Donnell / Donald Trump feud, and the careers of Dane Cook and Gretchen Mol, already make the book sound dated, and it’s only going to get worse in future years.

At one point, when Annabelle says that her mother “indoctrinated me in the kind of feminist rhetoric she had been denied,” I suddenly was reminded of Ayelet Waldman who described her mother similarly in her book Bad Mother.  And once that connection was made in my head, I inevitably compared the two books, which cover similar territory (though Waldman’s book is focused more on motherhood than on marriage).  Bad Mother wins out for being more strongly written and more thought-provoking.  I actually intend to read Manhood for Amateurs by Michael Chabon later this year (Waldman’s husband), where he talks about being a father.  Apparently, this is my year for reading husband/wife point and counterpoints.

As for You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up, I found Annabelle and Jeff to be likable, but their book has a certain forgettable quality that prevents me from recommending it in general.

Other reviews:

A Worn Path – who does recommend the book and also has an embedded video of Gurwitch and Kahn discussing their book

Citizen Reader


Filed under Memoir and Personal Essays

Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven by Susan Jane Gilman

2009. 304 pages. (Hardcover)

From: The public library

For the challenge: Memorable Memoir Challenge

Recommendation found at: Sophisticated Dorkiness

In a nutshell:

In 1986, recent Brown university graduates Susie Gilman and Claire Van Houten decide to travel around the world, starting with China.  China only recently had become open to independent backpackers.  They start their journey with naive over-confidence but as their weeks in China progress, cultural disorientation, illness and Claire’s erratic behavior plunge the two women into nightmarish scenarios.


With time made available by the snowstorm in my area, I started and finished this book in one day.  Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven is a gobsmacker of a travel tale, managing to be funny, awe-inspiring and scary all at once.

From the standpoint of nearly twenty years later, Gilman writes with unflinching honesty about the trip.  She does not cover up her younger self’s failures and naivete.  This is not to say that young Susie Gilman is unlikeable in the novel: I enjoyed seeing her discover wells of resourcefulness she didn’t know she had.  Still, I appreciated that Gilman didn’t airbrush out some of the stupid things she said and did during that time.  This perspective can come only with time.

Gilman’s writing is superb, conveying both the sights and sounds and smells of China as well as the inner confused swirl of her emotions and thoughts.  Here’s an excerpt:

Elbowing through the gawking spitters, smokers and farmhands, I ran down the dank hallway after Claire, shouting, “Someone, please. Ni shou ying wen ma?”  My voice broke then; tears dripped down my cheeks.  I couldn’t find Claire; she’d been taken from me.  This was far too much, way out of my league.  “STOP” I yelled hoarsely down the empty corridor to no one, my voice dissolving into the damp vegetable air.  “STOP!”

Despite incidents like that described above, Gilman also writes beautifully of the country’s grandeur, and particularly how she is humbled by the Chinese people’s generosity and kindness.  The helpfulness of strangers – from both Chinese people and from fellow backpackers – is astounding.

Though I never had travel experiences as extreme as Gilman’s, I could identify with some of her struggles.  I once had a travel companion who started feeling inexplicable pain in her knee.  We decided to visit a hospital, where our basic French barely sufficed.  That friend and I also had some interpersonal conflict that reared its ugly head during the trip.  It is a strange thing to feel furious anger while standing at the top of a chateau in the Loire Valley.  (Surprisingly, we actually became better friends after all that.)  The problems between Claire and Susie were much more serious, but at a certain level I understood the conflicting emotions Susie felt toward Claire.

If you are put off by the weird cover (the more common red cover – not the one I have used here) or by the title, don’t be.  The red cover is all wrong for the book.  Also, the title does not refer to some desecrating act at a Chinese landmark as I feared, but rather is a reference to a feverish dream recounted by Gilman.  There is some mild sexual content and strong language, but it’s not as provocative as the book’s packaging suggests.

I hope that my review has stirred up your interest, because this book is an incredible read.  Many thanks to Kim of Sophisticated Dorkiness whose review made me want to run right out and read it.


Filed under Memoir and Personal Essays