Monday, June 30, 2008

Juli's Review: A Piece of Cake

Author: Cupcake Brown

Pages: 470

Genre: Non-Fiction/Autobiography

Personal Rating: 5/5

From the back cover:
There are shelves of memoirs about overcoming the death of a parent, childhood abuse, rape, drug addiction, miscarriage, alcoholism, hustling, gangbanging, near-death injuries, drug dealing, prostitution, or homelessness.

Cupcake Brown survived all these things before she’d even turned twenty.

And that’s when things got interesting….

You have in your hands the strange, heart-wrenching, and exhilarating tale of a woman named Cupcake. It begins as the story of a girl orphaned twice over, once by the death of her mother and then again by a child welfare system that separated her from her stepfather and put her into the hands of an epically sadistic foster parent. But there comes a point in her preteen years—maybe it’s the night she first tries to run away and is exposed to drugs, alcohol, and sex all at once—when Cupcake’s story shifts from a tear-jerking tragedy to a dark comic blues opera. As Cupcake’s troubles grow, so do her voice and spirit. Her gut-punch sense of humor and eye for the absurd, along with her outsized will, carry her through a fateful series of events that could easily have left her dead.

Young Cupcake learned to survive by turning tricks, downing hard liquor, partying like a rock star, and ingesting every drug she could find while hitchhiking up and down the California coast. She stumbled into gangbanging, drug dealing, hustling, prostitution, theft, and, eventually, the best scam of all: a series of 9-to-5 jobs. But Cupcake’s unlikely tour through the cubicle world was paralleled by a quickening descent into the nightmare of crack cocaine use, till she eventually found herself living behind a Dumpster.

Astonishingly, she turned it around. With the help of a cobbled together family of eccentric fellow addicts and “angels”—a series of friends and strangers who came to her aid at pivotal moments—she slowly transformed her life from the inside out.

A Piece of Cake is unlike any memoir you’ll ever read. Moving and almost transgressive in its frankness, it is a relentlessly gripping tale of a resilient spirit who took on the worst of contemporary urban life and survived it with a furious wit and unyielding determination. Cupcake Brown is a dynamic and utterly original storyteller who will guide you on the most satisfying, startlingly funny, and genuinely affecting tour through hell you’ll ever take.
I couldn't believe this was a true story by the time it I was finished. It was simply too horrific at times to have actually happened. This girl should be dead, she should be imprisoned...but she isn't...she is a lawyer and a functional member of society!

This is one eye opening look into our failing foster care system and how easy it for children and simply people in general to fall between the cracks. At the same time however, it is also a story about "making it" and picking yourself up and being somebody.

This book gave me perspective and what it really means to have hard times and be down. It also refocused me on what CAN be accomplished with hard work, dedication and determination.

I have never done this before but I am going to contact Cupcake Brown and just let her know what an impact her book had on me.

Sometimes I (we) think we have it bad, and sometimes we do. Usually we don't. This book really allowed me to set my priorities straight and appreciate how good I really do have it, even with the problems I do have.

I believe that this is such a good book that I would like to give it to someone. If you are interested in this book please come over to my blog HERE and leave me a comment. I'll randomly pick someone in one week to mail it to.

The Complete Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

The two volume omnibus edition of Marjane Satrapi's graphic memoirs and Bildungsroman of growing up in and away from Iran. I actually did not know about the French edition until too late. As is the case sometimes, I regret not having found the original French version to read especially since I perpetually need to brush up my linguistic abilities. I did see the movie in French. Overall, I found this read immensely enjoyable and wonderful. I love it as much as I love The Complete Maus by Art Spielgman, another identity searching and family history memoirs of conflict. Persepolis was moving, tragic, beautifully drawn, funny, painful, and honest. It is beautiful memoirs of childhood and finding one's own identity with change and upheaval. I liked all the characters; I could feel for them. I liked young Marji's spirituality, faith, and religion, and while it was difficult to watch her go through her teen years, I could relate to her in a way I have not for a character in a long time. While I did not live through the political and violent times of war and revolutionnary torn Iran, we have similar family dynamics and other things such as the scene with Marji as waitress that hit home.

The film is wonderfully done as well, and while it is a condensed version, it still has the same simple yet affective black and white imagery. It has a couple of things the graphic novel does not, and it is nicely voice acted all around. It is harder to find a more truer to the novel adaptation than with Strapi as the co-writer and co-director of the film. Both are recommended.

Abridged from

Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Faith of a Writer by Joyce Carol Oates

The Faith of a Writer
By Joyce Carol Oates
Completed June 29, 2008

Joyce Carol Oates explored the craft of writing in her collection of essays, The Faith of a Writer. I was expecting an autobiographical passage through JCO’s evolution as a writer, but that was not quite what she delivered in this slim book. Instead, she talked about how other writers – namely Emily Dickinson, Ernest Hemingway, Herman Melville and a host of others – became great writers.

Several themes emerged from JCO’s essays. First, writers are their own worst critics but have high opinions of their writing genius. Secondly, many of a writers’ early works were raw, hard to read and commercially unsuccessful, but without these first attempts, the greater works would not have existed. Finally, writers live in an alternate universe: always thinking about their stories, how to revise them and how to advance the story or the characters. This usually resulted in insomnia, social isolation and blank stares.

Probably, these essays are examined in great depth by college students whose professors want to explain the psyche of a writer. If you are looking for a book about the personal writing process, this is not the book for you. I would recommend Stephen King’s On Writing for that type of book. The Faith of a Writer is better suited for readers who love writers – the famous ones – and want a better understanding on how they perfected their craft. ( )

Friday, June 27, 2008

#10 Maus II: A Survivor's Tale (Spiegelman)

Not a beat was missed between Maus I and Maus II. The heart-wrenching tale continues with Art recording the details of his father's Holocaust experience.

Wow. This was an outstanding account of Vladek during the horror of Hitler. The story was told in cartoon pictures and the sentences were in choppy English, but that only enhanced my experience. Even with the animals representing people, I was able to engage and feel the story. This was without a doubt an extremely powerful and enlightening book. I was completely immersed and learned many new things about the Holocaust and the legacy it has left behind.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

Reading this book ended up being a somewhat mixed experience. I read the book twice, once in February or so and once last week. I don't really know why I picked it up again, I guess somehow "I wasn't done with the book" yet. This is probably also why I didn't manage to write a review after the first time. I started writing a review, but never finished it. This review you are reading now, uses parts of the original, half-finished one, but they have all been rewritten and added to.

When I finished the book the first time, I somehow couldn't get to grips with it. I finished it at the time, but I also felt that maybe it just wasn't the right time to read it. You know, how sometimes you are not enjoying a book, but you feel that you would probably like it better if you read it at some other time when your mood is different or you have less other things on your mind? That's how I felt when I first read Reading Lolita. I think it had something to do with not having time to read in larger sittings. For most of the book I only had time for a few pages at a time. I thoroughly enjoyed the few parts I managed to read in one larger sitting.

For me the weakest part of the book was the first part, both times I read the book. The first time I started the book, I read the first part (about 80 pages in my edition) in short stretches, a chapter at a time. This obviously didn't work, because I didn't get into the story. Even the second time around, being already familiar with the story, for me the first chapter was the weakest part of the book, it was too much all over the place. Only when I read a larger part in one sitting, did I like the book. For example, the first time I read the book I read the second part in one sitting and loved it. This second part ended up being my favorite part of the book, both times around.

As you can probably already guess, I am not one of those people who is gushing over Reading Lolita in Tehran. In fact, I have mixed feelings about the book. That is why this review might come across as a bit unstructured. I enjoyed the book, the first time probably more so than the second, but more on a rational level than an emotional level. If that makes sense. Rationally, I can definitely agree with all the praise that this is indeed a good book, one that gives a very good picture of life in contemporary Iran. I very much liked Nafisi's way with words, especially in portraying a person or showing a situation. Also, in the writing I could feel that Nafisi cares about the people she writes about. I actually enjoyed reading the book, more so the first time than the second time around.

Reading Lolita in Tehran is divided into four parts, each part centered around an author and one or a few of his/her works, Vladimir Nabokov, F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby), Henry James, and Jane Austen. I haven't read any of the books and authors that form the core of the book, except for some of Jane Austen's work, but not being familiar with them didn't really hinder me. Though I think it does add to the experience of Reading Lolita in Tehran if you are familiar with the authors and books discussed. And it does make me for one more inclined to pick up works from the authors discussed when I will come across them.

Each part of the book also covers a central theme or period in Azar Nafisi's own life branching out to cover the stories of the seven female students that Nafisi chooses for a special literature class she teaches every Thursday at her house. One of my problems with the book is that I had a problem keeping most of the girls in the reading class and their histories separate. Somehow they blended into each other in a way, even though their stories and backgrounds were very different. The one that stood out most and became the most individual to me, was Yassi.

Something that started to bug me the second time around, was the question: "If this is a memoir, then how much of it is true and how much of it is made up?" The Author's Note at the beginning of the book says:

Aspects of characters and events in this story have been changed mainly to protect individuals, not just from the eye of the censor but also from those who read such narratives to discover who's who and who did what to whom[...]. The facts in this story are true insofar as any memory is ever truthful, but I have made every effort to protect friends and students, baptizing them with new names and disguising them perhaps even from themselves, changing and interchanging facts of their lives so that their secrets are safe.

I am perfectly okay with changing things to keep people's identities safe, no problem with that at all. The phrase that bothers me more, is "The facts in this story are true insofar as any memory is ever truthful", especially because in the story Nafisi mentions several times that her memory is not that great, implying there may be things she doesn't remember correctly. After coming across similar remarks a few times, I started thinking to what extent this is still a memoir and to what extent is it no longer. And if not, what is it then? Fiction? Semi-fiction? (Did I just invent a new word and genre?) How much of the book is based on real events and how do we know that? Don't get me wrong, I do not intend to discredit Nafisi or the book. It just got me thinking.

I think that a review written after the first time I read the book, would have been a lot more enthusiastic about Reading Lolita than the one you are reading now. I think that the first time around, despite my difficulties keeping the characters apart, I felt more strongly about the people in the book. Maybe, I shouldn't have read the book a second time, I don't know.

Still, despite this less than glowing review and the questions the book raised with me, I do recommend Reading Lolita in Tehran. I think the problems I have with it are more connected to me than to the book itself. It is a good book, well written, informative, giving a good picture of life in Iran (or at least of the intelligentsia in Tehran), though it needs time to get going. I have the feeling that it is also one of those books you need to take time for, it is best read in larger sessions I think (Sunday afternoons on the porch maybe or rainy days). For me, it is not one of those books you take with you to read in a few stolen minutes while waiting somewhere.

Crossposted at The Armenian Odar Reads.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

At Her Majesty's Request by Walter Dean Myers

Walter Dean Myers in the introduction explains beautifully why I love old books and ephemera. I don't have the time or budget for the dedication that Myers. Therefore I am grateful that he was able to buy Sarah Forbes Bonetta's letters and bring her to life again in this short but fascinating biography, At Her Majesty's Request: An African Princess in Victorian England.

Sarah Forbes Bonetta was the daughter of the slain Egbabo leader as far as accounts go though there is no mention of Sarah's recollection of the first few years of her life. She was slated for ritual execution by her Dahomian raiders but saved as a "gift" for Queen Victoria by some quick thinking on Frederick Forbes's part. He was there attempting to stop the slave trade driven raids.

Frederick Forbes renamed the girl he had rescued to Sarah Forbes (his last name) Bonetta (his ship). The letters and other ephemera that track Sarah's life from her rescue show that she became friends with Queen Victoria. Her friendship though ended up being a major controlling factor in the events of her life.

Myers interjects his own thoughts and feelings on the events of Sarah's life as he understands them. Given how spotty her timeline is, Myers's text helps to segue between the facts. He also includes many of the photographs in the collection that he bought. The photographs though didn't print all that clearly on the paperback I have. They often times aren't much clearer than a black and white photocopy. I would have liked to see more detail on them.

This review is crossposted from my blog.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Laura's List

I've been looking forward to this challenge. Sometimes I need a little help to read non-fiction, and I've chosen 6 books for this challenge:

  1. Dreams from my Father, by Barack Obama (completed 1/11/08 - review)
  2. Stolen Lives, by Malika Oufkir (completed 3/7/08 - review)
  3. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, by Barbara Kingsolver (completed 4/13/2008 - review)
  4. Infidel, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali (completed 6/21/2008 - review)
  5. Brother, I'm Dying, by Edwidge Danticat (completed 7/23/2008 - review)
  6. Paula, by Isabel Allende (completed 8/7/2008 - review)

Laura's Review - Infidel

Ayaan Hirsi Ali
352 pages

It was Friday, July 24, 1992, when I stepped on the train. Every year I think of it. I see it as my real birthday: the birth of me as a person, making decisions about my life on my own. (p. 188)

This fascinating memoir recounts Ali's life story and her journey from a devout Muslim childhood to an adulthood as a controversial political leader in the Netherlands. Ali is unflinchingly candid about her childhood experiences as a refugee in Kenya, her family relationships, and her intense faith. As she approached adulthood she began to question the society in which she was raised, and the tenets of Muslim living, particularly the associated oppression of women. She risked all she held dear for her own independence.

The strength which enabled Ali to strike out on her own carried her from refugee centers to independent living and, eventually, to membership in the Dutch Parliament. She is an activist for women's rights, particularly in the Muslim community: I decided that if I were to become a member of the Dutch Parliament, it would become my holy mission to have these statistics registered. I wanted someone, somewhere, to take note every time a man in Holland murdered his child simply because she had a boyfriend. I wanted someone to register domestic violence by ethnic background ... and to investigate the number of excisions of little girls that took place every year on Dutch kitchen tables. ... The excuse that nobody knew would be removed. (p. 296)

Her candor has caused considerable controversy and sparked acts of extreme violence. She has remained strong through it all. Ayaan Hirsi Ali is an amazing woman who is sure to have a continued impact on the world. ( )

My original review can be found here.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Ecology of a Cracker Childhood by Janisse Ray

Ecology of a Cracker Childhood
By Janisse Ray
Completed June 18, 2008

Janisse Ray carefully intertwined two distinct themes in her autobiographical book, Ecology of a Cracker Childhood. First, there was the theme of her family - an interesting tapestry of men (mostly) and women who made up her genetic landscape. Second, there was the ecological theme - chapters about the deforestation of south Georgia. Ray loved, admired and respected her family and her forest, and this tenderness made her memoir charming and memorable.

Wrapped in the sweet cadence of her language, I especially enjoyed reading about Ray's family. That was a colorful bunch. Most of the men suffered from mental illness, which Ray depicted with dignity. But they were also resourceful - living off the land and inventing machines from scraps. I could hear their drawl in every page.

All in all, I enjoyed this short book about this beautiful region of our country, their Southern ways and Ray's determination to protect and preserve the land that she loves. ( )

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Song of Survival: women interned

First Sentence: "Near the east coast of the big island of Borneo in Southeast Asia lies a fleck of an island called Tarakan."

Last Sentence: "Survivors of the South Sumatra camp find the task is made easier by the knowledge that out of our ugly place came beautiful music that now brings joy and solace to other singers and listeners around the world."

This prisoner of war memoir was a beautiful testament to the courage and strength of the women interned in Southeast Asia for nearly 4 years. They find beauty in the small things during this ugly time, in an ugly camp. The vocal orchestra performed classical orchestral music with scores written out by an amazing woman, Margaret Dryburgh, from memory. This book truly shows how strong the will to live can be. I have read many WWII memoirs and I always find myself wondering how I would have reacted in similar circumstances. Would I have had the strength to hang on and survive or would I have given up? I would like to think I would have survived.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Iran Awakening by Shirin Ebadi

Iran Awakening by Shirin Ebadi

I have gone off on a little Iran-reading spree recently. It started with Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, Iran Awakening was number two and this weekend I started Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi.

Shirin Ebadi is a human rights lawyer and activist who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003. She is a woman I have enormous respect for. Iran Awakening is her memoir. I loved the book. It is well written; journalist and writer Azadeh Moaveni co-wrote the book (the link goes to her blog). The writing is not difficult to read and the book could make for a fast read. Still, I feel it is a book that needs to be read with attention, because every single sentence is packed with information, even if it is only three words long.

About her youth, Ebadi writes:
It was not until I was much older that I realized how gender equality was impressed on me first and foremost at home, by example. It was only when I surveyed my own sense of place in the world from an adult perspective that I saw how my upbringing spared me from the low self-esteem and learned dependence that I observed in women reared in more traditional homes. My father's championing of my independence, from the play yard to my later decision to become a judge, instilled a confidence in me that I never felt consciously, but later came to regard as my most valued inheritance.(p. 12)
I think this was my favorite passage from the entire book. The part about learned dependence and low self-esteem struck me, but also what it says about how children learn by example.

Ebadi studies law and starts out as a judge in 1970, at the age of twenty-three. Initially, she supports the Islamic Revolution in 1979, not really grasping yet what this will mean for her as a woman. This changes however, when first she is forced to wear a veil covering her hair and later when she is demoted to some clerical position, because a female judge on the bench is not exactly the image the new regime wants to display.

The following, rather long passage is about the changes in the status and the rights of women in Iran after the Islamic Revolution and about how far-reaching the effect of that is:
I prepared myself for all the possible ways the imposition of Islamic law could affect my life. I thought of all the ways it would make a difference: the courtrooms in which I could no longer preside, the ministry it would fill with clerics, the religious books I would now use as legal references. But in all my anxious speculation, I never imagined that fear of a new legal regime, albeit a catastrophic one, would follow me into my living room, into my marriage. Yet there was no use denying it. Ever since I'd read about the new penal code in the newspaper, I'd been behaving differently with Javad [Ebadi's husband]. It was as though I was wearing my skin inside out. The smallest perceived slight or off-tone remark set me on the war path or, as the Persian expression goes, guarding my front. I couldn't help it.

The day Javad and I married each other, we joined our lives together as two equal individuals. But under these laws, he stayed a person and I became a chattel. They permitted him to divorce me at whim, take custody of our future children, acquire three wives and stick them in the house with me. Although I knew rationally that inside Javad lurked no such potential monster, just waiting to break out and steal our hypothetical children and marry up a storm, I still felt oppressed. A couple of weeks into the new sullen, defensive person I had become, I decided that Javad and I should have a talk.

"Listen, I just can't deal with this anymore," I told him.

"We don't have any problems," he said. And he was right. Before all of this, our biggest disagreement had been over household chores.

"I know," I responded, "but the law has made problems for us. We used to be equals, and now you've been promoted above me, and I just can;t stand it. I really, really can't."

"So what do you want me to do?" he asked, throwing his hands up.

And then inspiration struck. I knew what he could do! He could sign a postnuptial agreement, granting me the right to divorce him, as well as primary custody of our future children, in the event of separation.(p52-53)
Eventually, in the mid-eighties Ebadi resigns from her work at the Ministry of Justice. She resumes her career in 1992 when the Iranian regime allows women to practice law again. This time, though, Ebadi stands on the other side of the bench: She starts working as a lawyer taking on mostly pro bono cases and cases that show how the Islamic Regime's discrimination against women is enshrined in the country's laws. In this way, she starts making a name for herself, both inside the country and abroad, and that name keeps growing and growing.
When I watched that broadcast [an interview Ebadi gave on CNN], aware that it was being beamed around the world, I also realized for the first time that I had become what you might call famous. Prominence is something that accrues gradually. You work and speak, write articles and lecture, meet with clients and defended them, day after day, night after night, and then you wake up one day and notice that there is a long trail behind you that constitutes a reputation. That's how it happened for me, anyway. How unimportant it was to me as a person, but how useful it became to my work. It meant journalists would listen if I approached them with a case and would help publicize it both inside the country and abroad. It meant that human rights observers around the world knew and trusted me, and launched swift appeals for urgent cases I brought to their attention, It meant there was now a face and a name attached to the abstract term "human rights" in Iran, and that finally millions of women who could not articulate their frustrations and desires had someone to speak on their behalf. I would never assume such a role for myself, but in the Islamic Republic, we have a problem with representation. Our diplomats around the world are, naturally, loyal to the regime, and the regime's credibility is not such that it reflects the true opinions of the people. The responsibility falls, then, on unofficial ambassadors to relate Iranians' perceptions and hopes to the world.(p.126-127)
The final chapter relates how Ebadi found out she had won the Nobel Peace Prize while she was in Paris and how she was received by tens of thousands of people, mostly women, at the airport upon her arrival in Iran. This chapter is very moving.

The chapters about Ebadi's human rights work were among the most interesting for me, but also among the most disappointing parts of the book. She mainly covers her human rights work by picking out a few notable cases she was involved in, but other than that, she doesn't write much about her work and her life during that period. The cases she uses are worth recounting. I also understand that there are probably large parts of her work that she probably cannot talk about because it would be too sensitive or possibly endanger people's lives inside Iran one way or another. I can also understand that she might not want to share a lot of her private life. But still, I would be interested in how her human rights work developed over time, how that influenced her position in Iran, how she goes around setting up her cases, getting information, things like that.

Despite this minor flaw (which is more my personal opinion, than really a flaw I would say), I enjoyed Iran Awakening very much and my respect for Shirin Ebadi has only increased. Together with Persepolis and Reading Lolita in Tehran, Iran Awakening is one of the books I recommend to anyone who wants to read and learn about Iran and about the position of women in that country.

A common theme in all three books is that they are all about women trying to cope with the restrictive regime after the Islamic Revolution in 1979. The three women all come from families that were well-connected, well-educated and (reasonably) well-off before the Islamic Revolution: Ebadi's father was at one point a deputy minister, Nafisi's father was mayor of Tehran at one point and one of Satrapi's family members (I think her grandfather or great-grandfather) was prime-minister under the Shah or the Shah's father (I couldn't find the passage back to check). Also, they are all ethnic Iranian, none of them belongs to any of the many minorities in Iran and are all from the capital Tehran. So in a way, all three books do present a picture of Iran that to a certain extent is limited, because all three women write from the same background. On the other hand, I am not sure in how much this really distorts the general picture they give of life in contemporary Iran or to what extent their stories are only representative for a certain section of Iranian society. All three books, especially Reading Lolita in Tehran and Iran Awakening, do give glimpses of life in other segments of Iranian society as well.

This post is crossposted at my own blog The Armenian Odar Reads.