Dear Girls

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Ali Wong
Genres: Memoir, Humour
Pub. date: Oct. 2019 (read Nov. 2019 on Audible)

I don’t think I even knew who Ali Wong was a year ago, but suddenly she is everywhere and she is hilarious. I think I first heard of her when I read this buzzfeed article about how awesome her glasses are and how she finds the frames by converting sunglasses into glasses. I was like, this woman sounds cool, so I watched both her comedy specials on Netflix when I was home sick one day and thought they were hilarious. I made my husband watch Always Be My Maybe with me, and while I had some issues with the movie, I still enjoyed Ali’s acting and comedy.

If you’ve seen her comedy specials, then you’ll probably like this book. She recycles some of the same themes, but it just serves in making you feel like she’s actually a friend of yours. It’s like, “oh yeah, I remember her mentioning that before”, but she’ll take it off on a new tangent and you just feel like you’re getting to know her a little better. Dear Girls is funny, but it’s also meaningful. It’s crafted as a series of letters to her two daughters. It still has Ali’s signature brand of crassness, but overall, its less crass then some of her comedy and she talks about a lot of relevant things.

Some of the book is advice for her daughters on funny things that have happened to her, while other advice is really thoughtful points on comedy and what it means to be a visible female minority. I liked that she talked about how frustrating it is to have your success pinned on your race and gender, but also about how annoying it is to also constantly be asked about it. She will never be “just another comic” and will always be defined and asked about what it’s like to be female and Asian and a comic.

I was dying to request a copy of this from Netgalley, but I decided to hold off so that I could listen to the audiobook instead. The fact that it’s narrated by Ali makes it so much better. She does cycle around a lot of the same ideas though, so I was glad she didn’t overdo it by making the book too long. Personally, I thought she hit a great balance and would definitely recommend both her audiobook and Netflix comedy specials!

Educated

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Tara Westover
Genres: Memoir, Non-Fiction
Pub. date: Feb. 2018 (read Nov. 2019 on Audible)

Educated was our book club pick for November and I really wanted to listen to it on audiobook, but it took me forever to finish my previous audiobook (The Amber Spyglass), so I was a bit late in starting it and had to really rush through it.

Fortunately it had a good narrator and it was a compelling story, so it wasn’t too hard to listen to and push through. I’ve heard nothing but good things about this book since it came out, but I’m not a big non-fiction reader and it sounded a lot like The Glass Castle to me, so I never bothered to pick it up. I was excited to finally read it, but I do have to say that after finishing it, despite some differences, it did still remind me a lot of The Glass Castle.

Don’t get me wrong, I really liked The Glass Castle and I really liked Educated, but it was really hard not to compare the two and at times I definitely got some serious deju-vu from Westover’s story. While Tara Westover and Jeannette Walls did have different stories, there were still a lot of similarities. They both grew up in families with fathers suffering from mental health issues who are very much paranoid about the government and as a result, decide to mostly live off the grid – taking advantage of their families by keeping them isolated and somewhat in the dark to what the outside world is really like.

However, Mormonism plays a very large role in Westover’s story and was one of the more fascinating parts of the book for me. I haven’t had much exposure to the Mormon religion and it was really interesting to learn about Mormon beliefs, how they were interpreted by Tara’s father, and how those beliefs oppressed and impacted Tara throughout her childhood, formative years, and even into adulthood.

Despite the title, Westover’s story was about so much more than just education. In retrospect, her education was probably the part that interested me the least. I like how she examines at the end of the book the role her education played in opening up her eyes and allowing her to escape the cycle of violence in her family, but overall I don’t think most people read this book to learn about her education.

That said, how Tara managed to get into college and obtain a PhD from Cambridge with no formal childhood education is still a mystery to me and something that seemed to be glossed over in the book. I really struggled to believe she would be so successful with so little support (emotional and financial) and I did wonder if we were really getting the full story at times. She says she was bad at math and that she really only ever read the book of Mormon, so its a bit mystifying to me how she managed to get through multiple degrees, much less excel at them. But obviously their family life taught the children something because 3 of the 7 Westover’s went on to earn doctorates.

So while I did like this book and Westover’s writing, I was neither shocked by the content, nor totally convinced of the story. What I do admire though, is that Westover actually wrote and published this account of her family. The entire book really is about her struggle to both emancipate herself from her family, but still be loved and accepted by them. She sacrifices a lot in order to gain an education and even though she recognizes the harmful and destructive tendencies of her family members, she still yearns to be one of them.

It was really interesting to read about the long term impacts that Mormonism had on her life and how long it took her to recognize the ways in which she has been oppressed and ignorant. I say her book is admirable because the very act of committing to paper this story of her family and then sharing it with the world pretty much guarantees her continued exile from her family. The ending is very nebulous because her story really is not over yet and her family story is still unresolved. But I admire her for recognizing the harmful parts of her family’s behaviour and deciding to expose them when her family refused to listen to her or to change. Her father has obvious issues, but her recount of her brother Shawn was much more chilling. Good for her for finally saying, enough is enough, if you won’t change, I will expose you.

I still gave it 4 stars, but I wasn’t quite as enamoured with it as the rest of the world seems to be. It’s well written and thought provoking and it works well as a memoir, I just found it a bit of a challenge to suspend my disbelief when it actually came to her education. That said, Tara was gaslighted by her family for years and as a result her memories have been tampered with and are likely unreliable. But I guess it just makes her story all the more inspirational and like I said, at its heart, I don’t really think this was a book about education. Still a 4 star read for me despite some of these criticisms.

Lands of Lost Borders

Rating:
Author: Kate Harris
Genres: Non-Fiction, Memoir, Travel, Canadian
Pub. date: Jan. 2018 (read Aug. 2019)

This was a really excellent book! It wasn’t really at all what I was expecting, but Kate Harris is a wonderful writer and I ended up really liking it.

Lands of Lost Borders primarily tells the story of Kate’s almost year long bike ride across Central Asia on the “Silk Road” an ancient trade route used by Marco Polo. But Kate also shares a little of her childhood and formative university years with us as well, which surprisingly ended up being some of my favourite chapters of the whole book.

I’m not sure what I was expecting Kate’s character to be like, but so many of these travel-type memoirs are from hippie types, teens on a gap year, or people wealthy enough to be able to go on extended vacations. I don’t want to say Kate’s not a hippie, but I didn’t really think she fell into any of those categories.

Kate is a Rhodes scholar and MIT graduate whose livelong obsession with Mars drove her to become a modern day explorer. She’s incredibly smart and accomplished, but she isn’t driven by fame, money, or accolades. She’s driven by a desire to get out into the unknown and explore. She’s a wonderful writer and she had a good blend of interesting facts, philosophical thoughts, and funny anecdotes. Although I did think the story started out stronger and declined a little bit when she starts writing about the silk road. She does get a bit bogged down sometimes in the historical and scientific facts, when I would have loved a few more stories and anecdotes from her time on the silk road and what it was like day-to-day.

After finishing the book I went to Kate’s website to learn a bit more about her and discovered that she has a ton of albums from the trip on the website. I would say that photos are the one thing missing from this memoir and I wish I’d discovered them earlier because it would have been lovely to look at each country album as I progressed through the book. So if you decide to read this one, I’d recommend following along with the photos on her website.

Overall though, this was a really strong debut novel and I would definitely be interested in reading more about Kate’s adventures. This was definitely a part of the world I haven’t read very much about and I think most travellers tend to pass over the “stans” in favour of other countries like India, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Born a Crime

Rating:
Author: Trevor Noah
Genres: Memoir, Non Fiction
Pub. date: Nov. 2016 (re-read Jul. 2019 on Audible)

I read Born a Crime several weeks ago as an Audiobook. I first read Born a Crime as an e-book with my Book Club in 2017 and absolutely loved it. But I was feeling like a re-read and decided to go with the audiobook this time since it’s narrator by Trevor Noah. Either way, you definitely can’t go wrong with this book, but I’d say the audiobook definitely has an edge over the e-book.

I wasn’t planning to write a review for this book because I thought I’d already written one, but when I went back and checked my goodreads, I’d only written a little blurb that was never posted to my blog, so I’ve decided to write a proper review since I love this book so much.

I recommend this book to people a lot. They always look at me kind of like “really? Trevor Noah? The comedian?”, but I totally stand by my recommendation because this book has so much going for it! It’s hilarious, interesting, and it damn matters. Sure there’s a lot of comedic memoirs out there, but Trevor Noah’s memoir is all about growing up ‘coloured’ in Apartheid and post-Apartheid South Africa.

South Africa’s have been broken down into factions for many years: white, black, and coloured, which is everyone in between. In Trevor’s case, he was considered coloured because he was mixed race – his mom was a black South African and his dad a white Swiss. Trevor was literally “born a crime” and had the interesting experience in his childhood of never really being allowed to be seen with either of his parents. Whites and blacks weren’t allowed to date or marry, but Trevor’s mom wanted to have a baby anyways and largely kept their relationship a secret.

In post-apartheid South Africa (when Trevor was around 10 I believe), they could finally be seen together, but Trevor struggled for years with his identity. He had a decent relationship with his Dad, but they eventually drifted apart, so everyone else in Trevor’s life was black. He is pushed to identify as coloured and for a while tries to access all the different sides of his identity, but eventually comes to the conclusion that while he looks coloured, he is black.

Trevor crams a lot of hilarious stories into this short memoir and it is definitely one of the few books that had me laughing out loud throughout. Even when he gets serious about South African politics and all the shit his mother went through, he still infuses a lot of humour into the story, which makes it a joy to read. His childhood was fascinating, as were his formative years growing up and trying to make it in Johannesburg. If you’re looking for an account of how he became a successful comedian, you won’t find it in this book, but you will find a lot of anecdotes about South African culture and oppression.

But the real hero of this story is Trevor’s mom. I talked about her briefly in my first review, but she is really what made this book for me. It’s hard to believe a poor, coloured boy who was literally born a crime could become so successful, but after learning about his mom, I know exactly how it happened. She is an independent and headstrong woman who is not afraid to go after what she wants, even when the deck is stacked against her. She acts as a wonderful foil to Trevor’s childhood antics, but you can tell everything she does is grounded in a deep love for her children and a deep love for God.

Say what you want about religion. But I absolutely believe in the God that Trevor’s Mom believe’s in. She is a zealous woman, but her faith is inspiring. The final chapter of this book is pretty much the most insane thing I’ve ever read, but it can’t help but make you believe that Patricia Noah knows something that the rest of us don’t about faith and religion.

Ultimately, this is a series of stories from Trevor’s childhood and young adult life. Every story offers a different insight into South African culture, but they all weave together a story of a remarkable mother and son.

Becoming

Rating: 
Author: Michelle Obama
Genres: Memoir, Non-fiction
Pub date: Nov. 2018 (read Jan. 2019 on Audible)
Narrator: Michelle Obama

I admit, I’ve been postponing writing my review on Becoming because I’m at a bit of a loss for what to write. I still don’t really know what I’m going to say, so let’s just go for it and see what comes out (honestly, this is why I like writing reviews because half the time I don’t know how I really feel about a book until I actually sit down and write something about it).

I listened to Becoming as an audiobook – it’s narrated by Michelle so that’s a huge benefit to reading it this way. Like pretty much every other liberal Canadian out there, I love the Obama’s. I’ve always liked Barrack and his policies when he was President, and though I didn’t think too much about Michelle most of the time, I admired her for her attitude. Together I thought they brought something fun and new to the White House and having the Obama’s replaced by the Trump’s has only served to make me miss them more.

I’m not sure what I expected this book to be about. To be honest, I didn’t really know that much about Michelle except that she had nice arms, cared about healthy eating, and always radiated positive thinking in her speeches. I guess I thought this would mostly be about her time as first lady, but it was actually a pretty substantial look at her entire life. It’s broken into three parts; the first part focuses on her childhood and education, the second part on her relationship with Barrack, and the last part on her time as First Lady. Barrack obviously features heavily in the memoir, especially since she essentially had to give up her own career to accommodate his dreams when he became president, but it is really still just about Michelle.

Michelle grew up in Chicago and her memoir takes us through her early years growing up on the south side. Her family wasn’t wealthy, but they weren’t poor either, mostly they were just a family that stuck to their guns. Michelle and her brother were both very smart and are both Princeton graduates. She graduated with a law degree and worked as a lawyer for many years, trying many different things. She worked for a big law firm, which is where she met Barrack, but found this high paced life wasn’t for her, which inspired her to seek out more meaningful work. She is a very successful individual in her own right.

What I liked most about her memoir was how personal it was. She shares her struggles being the wife of a senator and how hard she had to work to maintain her own career and family life. Both her and Barrack had big dreams for their futures and she struggled with the traditional roles that were expected of her as a mother. She always wanted to support Barrack, but it was hard on her and the family when he had so many commitments all over the country. Honestly, I was kind of annoyed for her. Most of the domestic responsibilities fell to her over the years and she’s honest about how difficult it felt to manage that. She says multiple times that she never really wanted Barrack to be in politics.

As a couple, Barrack and Michelle are pretty inspiring themselves. They’re both very ambitious people, but they were able to make it work. Michelle was able to stay out of politics when Barrack was a senator, but when he ran for President, she was essentially forced to give up her job to support him. I think I personally would have really struggled with that if I was in her shoes. I would hate to have to set my own ambitions aside, especially as a woman who hates fitting into traditional gender roles. But people have to make sacrifices in relationships all the time and sometimes you will have to prioritize one career over the other if you want to make your relationship work. So I really admired Michelle for deciding what concessions she was willing to make and for the compromises they made in other areas. As First Lady she had a huge platform from which to work and I think all of her experience in the workforce and as a lawyer really worked to her advantage.

I did struggle with this book at times. I never found it boring and I was always into it while listening to it, but you already know how the story ends, so sometimes I did tune out a little bit. Even though I think Michelle is really honest in this memoir, something about it still felt a little sanitized to me. I think that’s to be expected from someone who had to constantly censor themselves at all times lest she say something that could be construed in a poor light or misinterpreted. It’s too bad, because I think the Obama’s are probably one of the most down to earth couples that have ever been in the White House, but because they are black they are held to a much higher standard and there’s really no room for them to make mistakes or be messy. Being messy is what makes people real, but that privilege will never be conferred on a couple like the Obama’s. Trump can say all the dumb shit he wants (and does) and his supporters will still look the other way. Michelle had to be a role model in every aspect of her life and she did it really well.

Overall I think she offers up a lot of herself in this book. I also think it’s a bit of a chance for her to tell her side of the story- to clear the air on the ways she was misunderstood or misquoted on the campaign trail and during her time as First Lady. Without Barrack, Michelle is still an inspiring individual and it was really interesting to learn about her roots. I have tickets to hear her speak in March and I’m excited to hear what else she has to say!