Review: Maggie & Me: Coming Out and Coming of Age in 1980s Scotland

Maggie & Me: Coming Out and Coming of Age in 1980s Scotland
Maggie & Me: Coming Out and Coming of Age in 1980s Scotland by Damian Barr
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Barr has a knack for storytelling and a very sunny outlook given his upbringing. Divorce, manipulative and dangerous step-parents, unwieldy alcoholic extended families, and poverty. He is very lucky, indeed, to have survived. (Some of his friends and cousins did not.)

Tongue-in-cheek (or seriously?) Barr attributes his success to witnessing several key speeches by Margaret Thatcher. The Thatcher his parents hold responsible for the disappearances of jobs in their neighborhood and milk in the school hallways. Each chapter begins with with a Thatcher quote that both damns Barr’s community and inspires him personally, despite her assertions that all young gay people will get AIDS (and perhaps that they deserve it).

This book follows Damian from young childhood through high school, with a brief glimpse into his adult professional life. So much, I wish he had written the intervening chapters. How did this young gay man from a very rough place escape? How did he manage in college? What skills and bravery did he need to become Damian Barr, celebrated author and host of the Literary Salon? How did he become himself? Young people facing similar hardships know the scary bits of the story personally; I hope Barr will share the inspiring and hopeful bits at some point, too.

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Review: Not Quite Nirvana: A Skeptic’s Journey to Mindfulness

Not Quite Nirvana: A Skeptic's Journey to Mindfulness
Not Quite Nirvana: A Skeptic’s Journey to Mindfulness by Rachel Neumann
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I am reading this primarily in preparation for assisting with a meditation book discussion group; this isn’t so much a review as a storing place for the questions we’re considering. I will say that Neumann is reasonably engaging as a writer. I typically am not drawn to this kind of subject matter and the reading here is not painful.

Possible Discussion Questions for “Not Quite Nirvana”

1. Did you take away anything from this book or change something in your life because of something you read in Not Quite Nirvana?
2. Did you enjoy Neumann’s writing style?
3. Do you think you would enjoy meeting her or spending time with her?
4. Was there anything you were wishing she would address in the book that she didn’t?
5. What was the motivation for writing this book?
6. What part of this book inspired you in some way?
7. Will you read other books by this author? Why or why not?
8. Neumann calls herself a skeptic; how about yourself? What’s your approach to mindfulness? How do you keep yourself open to possibility?
9. What do you think about this quote from Thich Nhat Hanh? “Do not get caught in the form of a teaching, but let the heart of your own understanding guide your path.”
10. What strategies do you use to transform what you read or learn into what Neumann calls “body knowledge?”
11. What did you think of the tool of asking “Are you available?”
12. What did you think of Neumann’s stories of editing writing she didn’t agree with, wanting to soften the tone? Do you think editors and translators insert themselves into the text? Should they?
13. Have any of you tried starting your day by setting out an intention for that day?
14. “My actions are my belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground on which I stand.” (p. 124) 5th of the five remembrances, part of a Buddhist sutra (the Upajhatthana Sutta). Thoughts?
15. What do you think of this statement by Neumann: “If we want to raise the chances of our kids having happier lives, we need to focus on making the world a happier place.” (p. 131)
16. “If justice is love in public, anytime I am in public, I have the opportunity to create justice.” (p.146)
17. We don’t get to choose everyone we come in contact with, which is a good thing. But we do get to choose if and how we want to respond to them.” (p.149)
18. As Rachel’s father asks: “What’s the point of wishing people well if they irritate you?”

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Review: 100 Questions You’d Never Ask Your Parents: Straight Answers to Teens’ Questions About Sex, Sexuality, and Health

100 Questions You'd Never Ask Your Parents: Straight Answers to Teens' Questions About Sex, Sexuality, and Health
100 Questions You’d Never Ask Your Parents: Straight Answers to Teens’ Questions About Sex, Sexuality, and Health by Elisabeth Henderson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Maybe 3.5 stars. Maybe 4.
Henderson was a teacher and these are questions kids hung back after class to ask her.

Excellent qualities of this book: small format, easy to stash unseen in a school bag, brief, one-page answers, emphases on ‘you are normal’ and ‘you do not need to figure these things out alone,’ as well as information regarding where to go to get deeper answers or help.

One drawback — maybe a little fearmongering? Every answer comes around to STDs and life-altering consequences. (Of course, these are real considerations.) Also, too mush repetition of the theme ‘once you’ve given someone your virginity, you can’t get it back.’ It’s a positive thing to encourage thoughtful decision making. But what about the concepts that 1) sex is something you experience for yourself, not something you give away and 2) if you decide afterwards that you really weren’t ready, you don’t have to do it again until you are.

Still and over all, an excellent addition to any library’s YA section. Expect to buy more than one copy because it is definitely too embarrassing to bring this to the check out desk.

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Review: The Boys I Didn’t Kiss And Other Essays

The Boys I Didn't Kiss And Other Essays
The Boys I Didn’t Kiss And Other Essays by Kathleen Rockwell Lawrence
My rating: 0 of 5 stars

I am impressed by the staying power of these very short essays, written in the 1980s. Lawrence’s perspectives on growing up in a large family, choosing to have a small one, marriage career, politics, New York living, and reproductive rights are still pretty spot on, despite the passing of almost 30 years! I’ll agree with those reviewers who found the book jacket praise a bit much, but this one’s worth keeping on the shelves. A few of the pieces feel too short or like she missed making a really powerful point. In most, she expresses herself and smart and interesting, someone I’d enjoy meeting.

(Small note: I find myself shivering a bit. In one essay about how the constant construction and demolition of the city can disrupt your home life, Lawrence off-handedly mentions that her husband works at the World Trade Center. It was written in 1988. Her website is, appropriately, about her writing; I saw no mention of him. I hope he is still alive.)

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Review: The Hippest Trip in America: Soul Train and the Evolution of Culture & Style

The Hippest Trip in America: Soul Train and the Evolution of Culture & Style
The Hippest Trip in America: Soul Train and the Evolution of Culture & Style by Nelson George
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Oh, the mornings in front of the tv with my big sister and a bowl of seventies sugar cereal! I didn’t know why the show was cool but she thought it was and that made it so. Soooooul Train.

Nelson George takes us back to the 1970s, following the evolution of Soul Train as a local Chicago show with regular teenagers dancing to the music they loved to the LA phenomenon with smooth dancers, incredible wardrobes, and already-famous music acts asking to be allowed on.

The first half of the book is more fun, with George putting Soul Train into context as one of the earliest regular opportunities for black Americans to be on television being themselves and being shown in an entirely positive light. He also touches on soul music, disco, and American regional trends in dance styles. The dancer interviews are fun and endearing — Many of Soul Train’s dancers started out young – as young as 14 – and later made careers as dancers and choreographers for music videos, musical theater, and movies.

As the book moves forward in time into the 80s, the focus is more on business successes and losses, bad performances by artists who should have known better, the move in our country towards corporate everything, and the rift between old (soul and funk) school and new (rap, hip hop, and especially sexually or violently explicit songs) school musicians and promoters. Don Cornelius’ testimony in the House of Representatives on the question of a ratings system for music recordings is interesting reading.

I’ll agree with those reviewers who lament the paucity of photographs, and the choice to go with b & w. Fortunately, you can supplement with the internet. Soul Train has a website and you can buy a ‘best of’ DVD compilation, 130 performances on 9 DVDs!

Read it for the memories. Read it for the photographs of fabulous fashion over the last 30 years. Make sure you look up the dance moves and songs on you tube! And, if you need more, Questlove has written his own Soul Train book.

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Review: The Wives of Los Alamos

The Wives of Los Alamos
The Wives of Los Alamos by TaraShea Nesbit
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A very quick and easy read.

Nesbit makes the interesting choice of writing about all the wives at the same time. She tells all of their stories, alike and differing, in each sentence, covering the first conversation with their husbands, in which they are asked to move across the country without being allowed to know where they are going or what their husbands will do there, to settling in, often into not-yet-actually-built houses, to becoming part of this temporary community, to saying goodbye. I liked this choice, at first; it was refreshing, and it made clear all the different ways that the families came to and experienced Los Alamos. Then, I think this writing choice made it much harder for this reader to get involved. I wanted more names. I wanted specific anecdotes about real women. I wanted to know more about the women scientists, and about the wives who could have been scientists but left school once engaged. I would have enjoyed this more as a short story.

This might make a good book group read. There’s plenty of history and politics to discuss, scientific ethics, parenting, changes in marriage expectations. Would you say yes to moving with your husband to an unknown place from which you would not be able to communicate with your extended family?

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Review: Night Sweats: An Unexpected Pregnancy

Night Sweats: An Unexpected Pregnancy
Night Sweats: An Unexpected Pregnancy by Laura Crossett
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In this short and easy book, Crossett chronicles the months between learning she is pregnant and the birth of her son. Originally written as a private blog for a circle of friends, this is a small slice of one person’s experience. As the entries unfold, the reader gets to know Crossett a little — and like her.

Not seeking to get pregnant and an advocate of reproductive choice, Crossett takes time to decide whether to become a parent. The Prologue of this book is smart and thoughtful — She is religious and well-read and interesting. As a nosy reader (and as a thoughtful pro-choice feminist and parent), I wish she had included much more of her thought process that led her to choose to have this child when she previously had not intended to have children.

Crossett is purposely vague about her relationship with ‘the baby’s father.’ They have known each other a long time (12 years), she has loved him, but you can piece together that his heart was elsewhere — multiple children with multiple other women during those 12 years and now, one with her. I cannot understand why such a smart (2 master’s degrees) and talented woman with a real career, close family ties, and reliable circle of friends who is also pretty, would pine for a guy who, though he helps with her car and lawn, clearly is not devoted to her. Of course, it’s none of my business (but she did invite us readers in).

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