Foreword Reviews

Write Toward Empathy and Understanding

Diversity

When “diversity” becomes a political catchword, it’s easy to lose sight of whose stories matter and why. As a literary genre, the memoir is an exceptionally powerful tool for presenting new points of view and perspectives, and for ensuring that diversity isn’t a flat prospect but a vibrant tapestry of individual threads and textures. A good memoir can’t be didactic or overly prescriptive. Its truths have to be organic, arising from the transformative act of writing, born of honesty, empathy, and a genuine desire to understand one’s self and experiences. Each memoir here, featured in our Fall 2016 issue, achieves this freshness of perspective. Each voice is unique and authentic, and enlarges the world as we know it.

Choosing the Hero

My Improbable Journey and the Rise of Africa’s First Woman President

Book Cover
K Riva Levinson
Kiwai Media
Softcover $19.95 (200pp)
978-1-937247-03-4
Buy: Local Bookstore (Bookshop), Amazon

Parts of Choosing the Hero, K. Riva Levinson’s new political memoir, read like a riveting geopolitical thriller, which only makes this true-life story of one woman’s triumph over civil war and corruption more compelling.

Levinson is a lobbyist and international consultant based in Washington, DC. The book opens with her traveling in Somalia in 1989, trying to meet with ruthless dictator Siad Barre. The chapter’s well-crafted descriptive language excels at capturing the harsh conditions of the developing world and a psychic atmosphere of fear, desperation, and violence. Soldiers’ AK-47s “dangle as lazily as their cigarettes.” Intense rains cause the country’s crude and fraying electrical lines to drip “like wet, menacing snakes.”

Levinson’s behind-the-scenes insider accounts of Somalia, Liberia, Angola, Iraq, and other countries illuminate the complexities and pitfalls of international politics, the constant swapping of allegiances, and the tug-of-war between rule of law and chaos, between dictatorship and democracy. Yet in Liberian native and aspiring politician Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Levinson finds renewal of her own idealism and a greater sense of moral purpose. Sirleaf is unshakable in her support of democratic reforms for her home country and, risking her own life, mounts a presidential campaign to oust duplicitous warlord Charles Taylor. The book documents the unbreakable friendship that forms between the two women in the face of adversity.

Sirleaf eventually triumphs, becoming the first democratically elected woman president in all of Africa and later winning a Nobel Peace Prize. Her journey is nothing short of inspiring. If the beginning of Choosing the Hero paints a cynical picture of war and displacement, the end leaves a powerful impression of peace and perseverance, even as Liberia struggles through the devastating Ebola outbreak of 2014. Democratic peace is indeed possible, the book demonstrates. There are still heroes among us.

SCOTT NEUFFER (August 26, 2016)

Girl

My Childhood and the Second World War

Book Cover
Alona Frankel
Indiana University Press
Softcover $25.00 (280pp)
978-0-253-02235-6
Buy: Local Bookstore (Bookshop), Amazon

Alona Frankel’s simply titled memoir, Girl, presents World War II and the Holocaust through the eyes and imagination of a young Jewish girl trying to make sense of daily experience and the world being torn apart around her.

Frankel is an internationally renowned children’s author. She was born in Poland, where Girl takes place, to Jewish parents who were also Communists loyal to the Russian revolutionary movement. In stream-of-consciousness fashion, the book jumps from place to place as the narrator recalls the German occupation, the Lvov ghetto, her family’s escape from the ghetto and certain execution, her filthy and cramped “hiding place” during the Red Army’s expulsion of German forces, and her family’s later emigration to Palestine.

Sondra Silverston’s English translation from Hebrew perfectly captures Frankel’s delicate impressionistic prose. Similar to James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the memoir relays events as subjective impressions in a child’s brain, letting memories and associations bleed into each other in vivid, painterly patterns. The red bricks of an orphanage, for example, are “the color of clotted blood.” The striking image is woven throughout subsequent chapters and becomes a haunting refrain, a constant reminder of the mass murder and bloodshed suffered by the Jewish people. Other moments of childhood alienation benefit from more adult abstractions. “I looked like an existential error,” Frankel writes of her shabby appearance. “Like dissonance.”

Reading Girl is an unforgettable experience. The horror of the Holocaust—“the heavy, viscous fear of death”—seeps into every page. Yet, what remains by the book’s end isn’t the horror of human evil but the good of the human heart. It’s young Frankel as a girl who befriends rats and mice while in hiding, who celebrates the miracle of life in unspeakable conditions. It’s a little girl in hiding who ultimately finds “beauty that needs nothing else.”

SCOTT NEUFFER (August 26, 2016)

Truth, Justice, and the American Whore

Book Cover
Siouxsie Q
ThreeL Media
Softcover $18.95 (208pp)
978-0-9905571-5-9
Buy: Local Bookstore (IndieBound), Amazon

It takes a bold free spirit to repurpose the derogatory epithet “whore” in a revolutionary context. That’s what outspoken sex-worker-rights activist Siouxsie Q does in Truth, Justice, and the American Whore, a powerful personal manifesto that wittily blends subversive politics with decadent kink.

Siouxsie is a bi-sex worker and activist-journalist. Selected pieces from her SF Weekly column, “The Whore Next Door,” make up the majority of the book and offer a picaresque, first-person account of Bay Area sex culture. Star Wars fetishes, bondage parties, and smart sex toys fill the pages. Siouxsie’s voice is fresh, fun, and irreverent without ever being forced or boorish.

The same voice wields intellectual heft when addressing politics, displaying a particular talent for cultural critique. The heart of the book is a persistent and impassioned defense of “whores.” Repurposed here, the word describes a smart, sexually confident woman who has no qualms using her body and personality as entrepreneurial tools to gain and redistribute patriarchal concentrations of wealth. A proud advocate of open and legal sex work, Siouxsie finds herself at odds with antiporn feminists, upper-crust yuppies, and even Hollywood royalty. Her brand of feminism rejects stigma of all types and unequivocally supports a woman’s right to do what she wants with her body.

Beyond the polemic and the kinky, Truth, Justice, and the American Whore is a love letter to San Francisco and the freedom and equality it represents. The book’s final sections become elegiac as Siouxsie Q moves across the bay in search of lower rent, mirroring a greater migration of the queer community. These passages, along with beautiful black-and-white photography by Isabel Dresler, add a human layer of yearning and nostalgia to an otherwise fun and forward-looking read. Truth, Justice, and the American Whore is simultaneously provocative and charming.

SCOTT NEUFFER (August 26, 2016)

The Story of Dan Bright

Crime, Corruption, and Injustice in the Crescent City

Book Cover
Dan Bright
Justin Nobel
University of New Orleans Press
Softcover $18.95 (272pp)
978-1-60801-124-7
Buy: Local Bookstore (Bookshop), Amazon

The Story of Dan Bright works on multiple levels. First and foremost, it’s a cage-rattling exposé of the corrupt criminal justice system of New Orleans. It’s also an honest account of criminal life within a major American city. In writing the book, Bright teamed up with Justin Nobel, a prominent magazine journalist. But as the title page makes clear, this is Bright’s story, and Nobel has only a passive listening role as journalist-recorder.

Bright grew up in the projects of New Orleans. By his teen years, he’d become one of the most powerful drug dealers in the city, working directly with a Colombian drug lord in Florida. His criminal enterprises are detailed in a terse, matter-of-fact style, revealing an inner-city economy in which drug dealers do more to reinvest in the community than the government does, taking over the municipal functions of an absent state.

The corruption and malfeasance of that state become apparent in the second half of the story when Bright is framed for murder. He finds himself pitted against crooked cops and prosecutors hell-bent on sending him to death row for a crime he didn’t commit. The chapters set at Louisiana’s infamous Angola prison are harrowing and disturbing and expose the backward state of American prisons.

The Story of Dan Bright is a story of exoneration hard-won against a Machiavellian legal system. But it’s also the story of one man’s moral redemption as he looks back on the mistakes he made—“I was part of a genocide machine that was destroying my own people”—and looks forward to a new way of life, with newfound awareness and appreciation for those on both sides of the legal system fighting injustice every day.

SCOTT NEUFFER (August 26, 2016)

My Son Wears Heels

One Mom’s Journey from Clueless to Kickass

Book Cover
Julie Tarney
University of Wisconsin Press
Hardcover $24.95 (240pp)
978-0-299-31060-8
Buy: Local Bookstore (IndieBound), Amazon

Conscientious parents often wonder if they’re doing a better job than their own parents did. Mother, writer, and activist Julie Tarney takes this concern to heart in her timely and touching memoir, My Son Wears Heels. The book revolves around Tarney’s son Harry, who, from an early age, displays different interests and ideas about gender and tells his parents he feels like a girl inside. The chapters follow Tarney’s evolution from an anxious and protective mother to an openly celebratory and supportive parent.

Tarney writes with the adulation of a proud parent. It’s hard not to smile when she relishes in inimitable moments from Harry’s childhood, like when Harry tells his father he wants to be a “scientist comedian” who makes rocket fuel “out of chips and dip.” Tarney’s skillful prose turns poetic to capture later scenes. In New York City, for example, cherry blossoms cover the street like “pink confetti.”

But as spirited and colorfully optimistic as the memoir is, its most affecting passages stem from a mother’s emotional strain and fear. When Harry is harassed by bullies at school, Tarney struggles with how to proceed. She tries to balance her overprotective side with Harry’s independence and ability to solve problems on his own. The episodes are heart-wrenching and demonstrate that equality is still very much a fight for some. Artfully interspersed between the episodes are flashbacks to Tarney’s own childhood and her domineering mother and abusive father. The flashbacks raise the moral stakes of the memoir by highlighting Tarney’s own personal progress as she distances herself from harmful beliefs and practices of an earlier generation.

With an enlightening introduction by Diane Ehrensaft, an expert on gender development, My Son Wears Heels is a memorable account of one young person’s journey toward self-identity and a valuable parenting guide for a new era of gender awareness and acceptance.

SCOTT NEUFFER (August 26, 2016)

The Home Place

Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature

Book Cover
J. Drew Lanham
Milkweed Editions
Hardcover $24.00 (232pp)
978-1-57131-315-7
Buy: Local Bookstore (Bookshop), Amazon

A deep and abiding connection to the pastures and forests of South Carolina defines J. Drew Lanham’s remarkable, boundary-breaking memoir, The Home Place.

A birder, naturalist, and distinguished professor of wildlife ecology at Clemson University, Lanham recounts his childhood on his family’s pristine multigenerational ranch in Edgefield County, South Carolina. Conservationist greats like Aldo Leopold become his heroes and inspire in him a strong land ethic and sense of place. The flora and fauna of the ranch take shape in his young mind and provide self-identity and emotional harmony.

That Lanham is black—in a scientific profession dominated by whites—makes The Home Place uniquely American and uniquely Southern. Lanham relays his experiences with extant racism in the South. In one troubling episode, rural white men in a pickup truck aggressively tail Lanham and a female colleague as they study birds in the backcountry. In trying to understand what it means to be a black naturalist in modern-day America, Lanham digs deep into his own genealogy and the legacy of slavery that still haunts southern states, even underlying the very academic institution where he teaches. These reflections on racial injustice invoke indignation as well as yearning for reconciliation.

The Home Place is a work of undeniable poetry. Like John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, and other trailblazers before him, Lanham writes rapturously of the natural world, of its majesty, sublimity, and wonder. He writes of being “colored” by the fields and the soil and the water, both in spirit and manifested in the beautiful hue of his skin. By helping to define a land ethic in a region where blacks have been historically dispossessed of their land, Lanham has created a book of monumental social, political, and philosophic importance. He shows that the land sustains life, yes, but also how it heals and nurtures our shared humanity.

SCOTT NEUFFER (August 26, 2016)

Never Can I Write of Damascus

When Syria Became Our Home

Book Cover
Gabe Huck
Theresa Kubasak
Just World Books
Softcover $24.99 (272pp)
978-1-68257-006-7
Buy: Local Bookstore (Bookshop), Amazon

As Islamophobia grips America and Europe, Never Can I Write of Damascus comes like a godsend to banish ignorance and illumine the richness of multiculturalism.

Teacher and activist duo Theresa Kubasak and Gabe Huck recount their years in Iraq and Syria amid the turmoil of the US invasion and civil war engulfing the region. Initially part of a delegation of peace activists, the authors fall in love with the Fertile Crescent and its diverse history and cultures. They eventually land in Damascus and spend seven years there, helping Iraqi refugees gain admission to US colleges.

This is a sweeping, multisourced memoir, integrating history, criticism, and anecdote. The book is highly critical of US policy in Iraq. The toll of American militarism on civilians and refugees is never out of sight. Israel also gets a fair amount of criticism. The book’s polemics could be described as anti-imperialist, though not anti-Christian. The memoir’s invocation of diverse religious experiences is its greatest strength. Among the majestic mosques and cathedrals of Damascus, “peoples of the book” peacefully coexist and worship God together, respecting the interrelatedness of each other’s prophets and spiritual teachings. In this way, the pluralistic cosmopolitan setting of Damascus refutes the Western notion of the Middle East as hate-filled and eternally divided. As protests and state violence break out in Syria in 2011, the interfaith community of Deir Mar Musa initiates a “spiritual jihad” calling for reconciliation and nonviolent reform.

Photographs and breakout texts from notable writers, poets, and students enrich the authors’ own anecdotes and build layers of historical perspective. Both the old city and new city of Damascus come to enchanting life before the authors leave the country in 2012. As beautiful as it is provocative and urgent, Never Can I Write of Damascus is an enlightening travel memoir that packs a powerful moral punch.

SCOTT NEUFFER (August 26, 2016)

Too Far Gone

Book Cover
Todd Blubaugh
Gingko Press
Unknown
978-1-58423-621-4
Buy: Local Bookstore (Bookshop), Amazon

The first picture inside Todd Blubaugh’s gorgeous photographic memoir, Too Far Gone, is a point-of-view shot over the handlebars of his motorcycle—the desert landscape tilting with perspective, the road blurred by speed. The picture sets the tone for what is a starkly beautiful coffee-table book.

Blubaugh grew up in Kansas, in love with art and motorcycles. He got his first motorcycle when he was twelve, financing the purchase by mowing lawns and cutting firewood. As an adult, he ended up on the West Coast working in the arts, specifically photography. Too Far Gone is his personal account of a cross-country journey taken on his hand-built motorbike, The Red Head, after his parents’ sudden death. The open road becomes a source of artistic inspiration, psychological freedom, and spiritual healing.

Blubaugh’s lens gravitates not only toward landscapes and cityscapes but people. The characters of American motorcycle culture are captured in smiling portraits, nude portraits, and in unscripted moments of affection and tenderness. The plein-air aesthetic of the book demonstrates a natural talent for composition as well as an intuitive understanding of the relationship between people and the environment.

Interposed between photographs are letters and vignettes. The assorted texts accentuate the visual narrative with genuine insights. The best entries are lyrical in style and philosophic in scope. “The truth is, the risk makes bikes worth riding,” Blubaugh writes after a terrifying ride through a storm. “The borders of our mortality have always been an alluring road to mankind, and we have yet to build a better vehicle to explore them.”

Too Far Gone unfolds with haunting beauty. It extends one man’s journey of self-discovery across familiar and alien landscapes, finding rare human moments along the way. The book is also a significant record of contemporary motorcycle life in America. In exploring the dynamic intersection of art and travel, it adds a host of fresh perspectives to the revered mythology of the open road.

SCOTT NEUFFER (August 26, 2016)

Scott Neuffer

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