Review: The Fact of a Body by Alex Marzano-Lesnevich

Title: The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir
Author: Alex Marzano-Lesnevich
Rating: ★★★★
Summary: Before Alex Marzano-Lesnevich began working at a law firm, they thought they were staunchly anti-death penalty. But once they heard convicted murderer Ricky Langley speak on his crimes, they realized they wanted him to die. Shocked by the reaction, they dug into the case, finding Langley’s story unsettlingly and uncannily familiar. An intellectual and emotional thriller as well as a murder mystery, The Fact of a Body explores the intersection of violent crime with personal history. It tackles the nature of forgiveness and if a single narrative can ever really contain the truth. It shows how the law is more personal than we like to believe—and the truth more complicated and powerful than we can imagine.

Note: Alex Marzano-Lesnevich identifies as genderqueer and goes by they-them pronouns but didn’t when the book was published.

I thought I knew the plot of this book before I read it. From the summary, I guessed that the murder in question was of Alex Marzano-Lesnevich’s relative—an aunt, perhaps—referenced in passing enough that they knew she had died but not really how. And so when they hear the “unsettingly, uncannily familiar” confession of Ricky Langley, it sparks a memory which they follow, learning more about the crime from both the murderer’s perspective as well as their family’s.

But that’s not what happens. Uncovered slowly through dual perspective, The Fact of a Body unfurls both Marzano-Lesnevich’s childhood as a sexual abuse survivor with that of Langley, a sexual abuser. For obvious reasons, it’s a hard story to read, but Marzano-Lesnevich is a brilliant writer, and the story flows easily from the murder and its aftermath to their adolescence, from before Langley was born through his childhood to the internship they accept which ultimately introduces them to Langley’s case.

The Fact of a Body flew under the radar when it was published, most likely because neither Ricky Langley nor his crime is well-known, but I hope more people read it. It reminded me very much of I’ll Be Gone in the Dark in that each book focuses on both a crime and the person pursuing that crime and, for both, I wanted to know just as much about the criminal act as I did the person trying to understand the criminal. Marzano-Lesnevich so plainly lays bare their pain and anger that you feel it, too. But they also make room for Langley, for the messy “un-neatness of everything that happened” to him and because of him.

Marzano-Lesnevich opens the book with “a note on source material,” in which they state that The Fact of a Body is “my interpretation of the facts, my rendering, my attempt to piece together this story. As such, this is a book about what happened, yes, but it is also about what we do with what happened.” In an attempt to ask what, the book gives space to both why and how, and we come away better for it.

Review: Ask Me About My Uterus by Abby Norman

Title: Ask Me About My Uterus: A Quest to Make Doctors Believe in Women’s Pain
Author: Abby Norman
Rating: ★★★★
Summary: In the fall of 2010, Abby Norman was repeatedly hospitalized in excruciating pain, but doctors insisted it was a urinary tract infection and sent her home with antibiotics. Norman ultimately dropped out of college and embarked on what would become a years-long journey to discover what was wrong with her, and it wasn’t until she took matters into her own hands that she found an accurate diagnosis of endometriosis. Putting her own trials into a broader historical, sociocultural, and political context, Norman shows that women’s bodies have long been the battleground of a never-ending war for power, control, medical knowledge, and truth. It’s time to refute the belief that being a woman is a preexisting condition.

Abby Norman’s Ask Me About My Uterus: A Quest to Make Doctors Believe in Women’s Pain is, in part, a look back at the years she was in excruciating, chronic pelvic pain – and the many years that followed before she obtained an endometriosis diagnosis. Although expanding outward from her first sign of ill-health, Norman also spends a good chunk of the book looking backward at her turbulent and neglectful childhood, which only serves to make her ultimate (and permanent) leave of absence from Sarah Lawrence College that much more heartbreaking. She might sound too matter-of-fact for some readers, but I enjoyed her candor. This is what I went through, she muses. This is how I’m strong. This is why I matter. Norman is a terrific writer, though, and even if her recollections come off as laissez-faire, they only serve to highlight the ways in which women and children are vulnerable, how often they and their experiences are overlooked.

The book is also an attempt to quantify the centuries women and their pain have been ignored and under-diagnosed by the medical community. It’s not an easy read, but why would it be? The term hysteric dates back to the mid 17th century (400 years!!!) and literally means “suffering in the womb”. Greeks believed that hysteria was peculiar to women and caused by disturbances in the uterus, and this belief has only doubled down in the intervening years. (Have you ever heard of Freud??) states that 10% of individuals suffer from endometriosis, and that sometimes a diagnosis can happen after twelve years of symptoms (12!!).* I took long sighs while reading, my heart sinking at some of Norman’s experiences, my pelvis wincing in camaraderie.

Ask Me About My Uterus is more than just a memoir. It’s a rallying cry to believe women when they say they are in pain. A demand to receive better medical care – more empathetic, more prompt – that doesn’t force the patient to do their own research. A request to listen. Everyone should read it.

Note: Goodreads has a great list of books which detail sexism in science (of which Ask Me About My Uterus is just one of many), and for those looking for more endo memoirs, there’s Giving Up the Ghost by Hilary Mantel and Love, Loss, and What We Ate by Padma Lakshmi.

* Did you know that those who menstruate can potentially do so for forty years (or more). Or that that’s about 400-500 week-long cycles in pain and bleeding? Which can amount to almost ten years of pain?? Because I didn’t.

Review: What Happened by Hillary Clinton

Title: What Happened
Author: Hillary Clinton
Rating: ★★★★
Summary: For the first time, Hillary Rodham Clinton reveals what she was thinking and feeling during one of the most controversial and unpredictable presidential elections in history – the intense personal experience of becoming the first woman nominated for president by a major party in an election marked by rage, sexism, exhilarating highs and infuriating lows, stranger-than-fiction twists, Russian interference, and an opponent who broke all the rules. This is her most personal memoir yet.

What Happened is exactly what its title implies: Hillary Clinton’s effort to, in her words, “try to explain how I understand what happened [during the 2016 presidential election], both the unexpected interventions that swung the race at the end, and the structural challenges that made it close to begin with.” It’s a long book – clocking in at just under 500 pages – but worth a read if you supported her candidacy or were disappointed with the election results. (Let’s be clear here: this book is not partisan.) What Happened revisits Clinton’s loss as the Democratic nominee in 2008, the four years she spent as Secretary of State, and then her eventual loss in 2016 – interspersed with observations and a critical eye toward how she’s portrayed in the media and in politics. When I read the book in 2017 – just under a year from Trump’s win – I still felt raw with missed opportunities (let’s be clear here, too, I am not partisan). But I believe that What Happened was Clinton’s attempt to process her own campaign loss, and it helped me in the same way. She is unflinchingly honest about her own shortcomings but also deservedly proud of her accomplishments – and one hell of a writer.

Buy Borrow Bypass: On Grief

Book Riot does this great feature called “Buy, Borrow, Bypass” and I like it, so I’m going to do that here.

A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy by Sue Klebold

Sue Klebold is best known as the mother of Columbine shooter Dylan Klebold – and she knows it. Although her memoir twists around April 20th, 1999 (both the Before and the After), it’s not really about Columbine or even Dylan. Instead, A Mother’s Reckoning is an open-ended exploration into all of the small and large decisions she made as Dylan’s parent and also all the ramifications of those decisions – both in 1999 and 2016. Each memory has the benefit of hindsight, but also Klebold’s many years working to prevent suicide and murder-suicides. I enjoyed the biographical sections and self-reflections more than the psychology and push for mental health awareness, and readers looking for a biography of either Dylan or Columbine should best look elsewhere.

Verdict: BORROW

Rosalie Lightning by Tom Hart

Honestly, I thought Rosalie Lightning was just okay. I wanted to like it, to come out of the  100ish pages that comprise Tom Hart’s graphic memoir after the death of his daughter Rosalie with some kind of reaction other than ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. Unfortunately, grief is too messy for that. It’s too abstract and it takes too many forms to be universally understood in any one medium. And perhaps I was looking at Rosalie Lightning as the tribute that it could have been, the celebration of a child’s brief life in color and abstract form. Instead, Hart uses drawing to climb out of the hole she left behind. And, in experiencing that grief with him, I felt that maybe I wasn’t supposed to be a part of the process at all.

Verdict: BYPASS

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

This posthumous memoir is a gut puncher. You know that its author, Paul Kalanithi, ultimately died at thirty-six from metastasized stage IV lung cancer before you start reading. It’s there: in the small blurb on the back cover, in Kalanithi’s author bio, in Abraham Verghese’s forward, in every piece of publicity the book acquired since it was published in January. Kalanithi’s death permeates the text, hanging over our reading experience as it must have for Kalanithi himself. Except that, I don’t think he would want us to dwell. For Kalanithi, death was just another facet of life – a question to be answered, yes, but not something to be feared or avoided. He explains for us (and possibly his daughter) how and why he became a doctor, and it is in that meditative reflection in exacting prose that we are forced to confront our own fears and anxieties about death and the unlived life. Just reading his memoir makes me hope that I can accomplish in my lifetime what Kalanithi did in his.

Verdict: BUY

Buy Borrow Bypass: Kickass Ladies Edition

Book Riot does this great feature called “Buy, Borrow, Bypass” and I like it, so I’m going to do that here.

You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) by Felicia Day

Don’t recognize the name Felicia Day? Don’t worry – you’re not alone. You might be familiar with her face from such Joss Whedon-helmed projects like Buffy, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, or Dollhouse, though. Or maybe you remember her red hair in seasons seven, eight, and nine of Supernatural? Or somehow you’re really into MMORPG and watched The Guild??? (Didn’t think so.) If Day’s name or face doesn’t ring any bells, it’s safe to assume you probably won’t be into her debut, You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost), either. The book functions as a timeline of Day’s life, but feels less autobiographical and more like a play-by-play of her spectacularly odd adolescence, amounting to the origin story for the mythos that’s sprouted up around her. Is this because pop culture looks at Day as some kind of online creation and not as an actress who just happened to make it big by becoming Internet Famous™? Or maybe because it’s easy to get confused between real-life Day as Codex playing World of Warcraft and The Guild Day as… Codex… playing a fictional World of Warcraft??? I didn’t go into the book expecting much, but it was still kind of disappointing.

Verdict: BYPASS


Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) / Why Not Me? by Mindy Kaling

I’m smooshing Mindy Kaling’s two biographies – 2011’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) and 2015’s Why Not Me? – into one review because I have the same feelings about both of them, i.e., they’re awesome. Kaling is someone about whom I’ve learned great things via GIFs on Tumblr, and her memoirs (basically Parts I and II) really only exaggerate her cool factor. (Is that still a thing? Let’s make it a thing.) Instead of writing about her life linearly from point A to B, she structures both books as a collection of essays and anecdotes about making a living as a female comedian in Hollywood, first as a writer on The Office and then as showrunner for The Mindy Project. Through her writing, Kaling comes off as a person who knows how to 1) successfully navigate the male-dominated film industry, 2) do so with both grace and humility, and 3) be funny as hell in the process. She’s definitely worth a read if, like me, you haven’t had the chance to officially meet via a television screen.

Verdict: BORROW unless you’re already a fan and then BUY


We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

If you aren’t already feminist-leaning, Adichie’s print adaptation of her 2013 TEDx Talk might not convince you why you should be – but you should read it anyway. In 52 pages, Adichie succinctly explains what the word feminist means to her and why she considers herself one. Although her speech’s title definitely comes off as click-bait (if you’re feeling brave, just scroll through the video’s comments), the words themselves don’t. Adichie makes it easy to nod along and feel empowered to create change, just by acknowledging one’s own privilege in gender, race, or economic class. At its core, feminism isn’t a complex theory that one needs an advanced degree to understand; hopefully, if enough people read We Should All Be Feminists, maybe it won’t feel like one.

Verdict: BUY

Review: What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding by Kristin Newman

WhatIWasDoingWhileYouWereBreedingTitle: What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding
Author: Kristin Newman
Rating: ★★★★
Summary: Kristin Newman spent much of her twenties and thirties buying dresses to wear to her friends’ weddings and baby showers. Not ready to settle down and in need of an escape from her fast-paced job as a sitcom writer, Kristin instead traveled the world, often alone, for several weeks each year. In addition to falling madly in love with the planet, Kristin fell for many attractive locals, men who could provide the emotional connection she wanted without costing her the freedom she desperately needed.
Kristin introduces readers to the Israeli bartenders, Finnish poker players, sexy Bedouins, and Argentinean priests who helped her transform into “Kristin-Adjacent” on the road – a slower, softer, and, yes, sluttier version of herself at home. Equal parts laugh-out-loud storytelling, candid reflection, and wanderlust-inspiring travel tales, What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding is a compelling debut that will have readers rushing to renew their passports.

I find it annoying (and unfortunate) that I had no idea who Kristin Newman was before reading her memoir – ’cause she is one funny broad. What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding is pretty much exactly what you think it is – a travelogue detailing exactly what (and whom) Newman was doing while all her twenty-something (and then thirty-something) friends and colleagues were settling down and having children. It’s honest and graphic and refreshing and fun – and I really, really liked it.

The set up is simple: in between the end of one television season and the beginning of another (or during the winter hiatus – essentially the summer and winter breaks of writers working in Hollywood), Newman embarks on extended vacations around the globe. Her memoir is broken down by trip, with a rotating cast of characters and hilarious recollections of how a single twenty-something parties it up in a foreign country “doing the thing you’re supposed to do in the place you’re supposed to do it” (which, side note, is a freaking great philosophy to have about life). I think what makes me really enjoy this book is that Newman says yes to new experiences. For her, travelling alone to a foreign country is not terrifying but exhilarating: she gets on a plane with barely a sketch of an itinerary and says, “Hell yeah let’s do this.” And, in the process, you root for her, cringe with her, and get those warm fuzzies when things go the way you both want them to.

It’s not that Newman doesn’t want kids, either, it’s that she doesn’t want them when society says she should want them. And that might seem radical, but to Newman, it’s life. And since I can’t really think of anything more intelligent to say other than, “UGH. JUST GO READ IT ALREADY,” here’s a quote:

My friends who met their spouses young have often told me they live vicariously through my adventures. That they sometimes think about the oats they never got a chance to sow. There is a trade-off for both their choice and mine. I used to beat my head over Vito, when he was struggling for years over how he wanted to be with me, but also wanted a life that wasn’t compatible with my life. He couldn’t believe that he couldn’t have everything, and so just wouldn’t choose. And I would tell him, so full of twentysomething wisdom, that life is almost never about choosing between one thing you really want and another thing you don’t want at all. If you’re lucky… life is an endless series of choosing between two things you want almost equally. And you have to evaluate and determine which awesome thing you want infinitesimally more, and then give up that other awesome thing you want almost exactly as much. You have to trade awesome for awesome.

Now go be awesome and do the thing you’re suppose to do in the place you’re suppose to do it.

Review: Yes Please by Amy Poehler

YesPleaseTitle: Yes Please
Author: Amy Poehler
Rating: ★★★★
Summary: A collection of stories, thoughts, ideas, lists, and haiku from the mind of one of our most beloved entertainers, Yes Please offers Amy Poehler’s thoughts on everything from her “too safe” childhood outside of Boston to her early days in New York City, her ideas about Hollywood and “the biz,” the demon that looks back at all of us in the mirror, and her joy at being told she has a “face for wigs.” Yes Please is a chock-full of words and wisdom to live by.

Amy Poehler is a funny lady (and if you don’t think so, maybe this blog isn’t for you). She’s smart and talented and unafraid to speak her mind or stand up for herself. And, boy, I did not know that I admired her until I started reading this book.

I mean, I think that it’s tough for anyone to write an interesting memoir, let alone someone who’s not only known for being funny, but also predominantly associated with sketch comedy, a medium which encourages the performer to use more than just his or her voice. So, Poehler isn’t just funny because of what she says, she’s funny because of the way she says it, or how her body moves while she says it, or the look she gives just after she finishes saying it. And that kind of humor is so totally hard to get across in print. (So, yeah, I’m a fan.)

Although Yes Please is technically a memoir, it doesn’t really feel like one. Poehler weaves past experiences into her most recent accomplishments, telling a thematic story instead of a linear one – interpreting her life instead of just regurgitating it. Her book is divided into loose essay-ish narratives punctuated by huge two-page quotes and hilarious photos while her writing is thoughtful, and brash, and foul, and frank, and, yes, funny. I want to be Poehler’s best friend and laugh at all her crude jokes. I want to let her know that she inspires me to be bolder, more honest, and, most importantly, less critical (of both myself and of others). She gives me courage to say the truth, even when that means admitting that I’ve fucked up. Her memoir isn’t just her story so far – it’s everything she’s learned while living that story, a story I really hope means another book will pop up someday down the road, complete with even funnier pictures and even dirtier humor.

In short, remember the titular directive: be polite and ask for what you want. (Yes please indeed.)