Posts tagged ‘book review’

December 9, 2019

#157) Book review: “The Valedictorian of Being Dead” by Heather B. Armstrong

Heather Armstrong is known as the founder and creator of Dooce, one of the first widely read and financially successful blogs. But what happens when a pioneering mommy blogger finds herself so overwhelmed by single parenting that she wonders if her kids would be better off without her?

“The Valedictorian of Being Dead” is Armstrong’s first-hand account of her journey: “The true story of dying ten times to live.” Dying to live may sound like a Zen parable, but in Armstrong’s case, it was rooted in blunt reality. Feeling as if she had run out of options, Armstrong became the third patient ever to undergo a radical treatment for depression, one that had her brought to the brink of brain death and back ten times in a three week period. Developed as an alternative to electroconvulsive therapy, the idea of this treatment was to reboot the brain, not unlike restarting a computer.

How did Heather Armstrong get to the point where she was willing to take that drastic a step? As the youngest child in a family with a history of depression, Armstrong felt pressure to be perfect, especially after her parents’ divorce. This self-pressure led her to accomplish many things, including being valedictorian of her high school, only to still feel inadequate, ultimately leading to a profound burnout. By the time she decided to undergo the treatment, she would regularly go for days without bathing or changing her clothes. Yet once she agreed to the treatment, her old perfectionist impulses were triggered and she resolved to become the valedictorian of being dead.

In telling her story, Armstrong illustrates the difference between the effects of clinical depression and simply feeling exhausted by life’s responsibilities and circumstances. Before her treatment, she writes, “As I’m driving back to the house…I suddenly remember, Oh no! Marlo was supposed to have taken empty milk cartons to school for an art project, and I totally forgot…Someone else would have remembered those milk cartons…someone else would be a better mother. They would be so much better off without me.” Later, when she starts experiencing the effect of the treatments, she writes, “What I was feeling was rooted in urgency, not sadness. I was overwhelmed, yes, but not hopeless.”

The book’s darkest moments are nicely balanced with humor. “The morning routine…was the one I dreaded most. Because it began with waking up and realizing I was alive. Again! Jesus Christ, it just kept happening.” At one point she tells her nurse that it’s been so long since she’s had sex that she should apply to have her virginity reinstated. Armstrong even manages to work in a dig on Trump: part of her treatment including taking the Montreal Cognitive Test about which she says, “[Trump] bragged that he had passed it with flying colors, and good for him. He can recognize the outline of a lion!”

Ultimately,”Valedictorian” is, more than anything, about the importance of asking for help. Armstrong had to ask for help on two fronts: committing to the medical treatment and accepting help from her mother and stepfather with day to day tasks; her mother in turn asked for help through prayer. The book concludes with Armstrong explaining the struggles that people with depression have, not just with the condition but with those who think they can just turn it off at will and asking the reader, “Please believe us.”

May 15, 2017

#129) Book review: “Kasher in the Rye” by Moshe Kasher

You couldn’t make someone like Moshe Kasher up if you tried. Long before he became¬† a standup comic, guest star on “The League” and “Drunk History”, a writer and Mr. Natasha Leggero, he was, to quote his own description of his memoir, “A white boy from Oakland who became a drug addict, criminal, mental patient and then turned 16.” Thankfully, he recovered and not only lived to tell the tale, but did so in a way that is both moving and humorous.

Not surprisingly, the Moshe Kasher of “Kasher in the Rye” is a Holden Caulfield for our times. Add to that the libido of Alex Portnoy, a David Sedaris-esque attraction to depraved characters and two divorced deaf parents on opposite sides of the country and you begin to get a sense of what to expect.

Whether Kasher was one of the few white students at an inner city Oakland school or the only resident of an orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn who didn’t read Yiddish, he was an outsider. “Somewhere along the line, I figured the more I made people laugh, the less of a loser I would be,” he notes. He thrived in the role of class clown until his poor grades caused the school to decide that he had a learning disability. “A fat teacher/clinician combo meal of a woman approached me in class and pulled me aside with the private solemnity of an army officiant charged with delivering the heartbreaking condolences to the next of kin…’You learn differently than other students. Everyone learns differently and there’s nothing wrong with that. Some people learn better with their ears.’ As she talked, she pointed to her ears just in case I wasn’t aware of what an ear was.”

Embarrassed by having to go to “the retarded portable”, Kasher sought recognition by the other school misfits. “I breathed a deep sigh of relief when they took me in. These were the first people in my life who weren’t asking me what was wrong with me. They didn’t give a fuck.” Kasher felt a similar relief the first time he got high: “Before I got high, I had no idea that’s what had been wrong the whole time. It wasn’t that I had deaf parents…that I was fat and retarded or crazy, angry, Jewish or anything else. I just needed to get high…parents and shrinks never tell you that you will forget all the reasons you had to hate yourself. They don’t tell you that shit because then everyone will want to get high.”

The constant search for that high caused Kasher to lie, steal and fight his way to rock bottom, described in a way that is both disturbing and insightful. “Temptation stacked against prudence….temptation conquers. That’s how it should work. How it actually does work is much scarier…when the thought to take a hit, hit, I simply forgot I was planning on quitting. I just forgot…no struggle. How are you supposed to combat that?”

Yet Kasher manages to infuse the story of his downward spiral with a wealth of humor, however dark it may be. “Cisco was for real men. Cisco was my favorite. A lethal sort of synthetic bum wine, it was made out of a combination of distilled Now and Laters, Ajax, and broken dreams. People called it Liquid Crack. I called it dinner.” En route to running up a phone sex bill in the thousands of dollars: “I ejaculated to both Trinidad and Tobago. I brought rivers of cum to drought-addled islands. I e-JAH-culated onto Rastafarian marijuana fields.” On his enrollment in an alternative high school: “Literally, the entire student body…with one notable, adorable, Jewish exception, was straight up retarded…some were just mildly retarded…with enough smarts to make you wonder, ‘Is he or isn’t he?’ and then you’d see them picking their nose in front of a cute girl and you’d think, ‘Ahhh! Of course!'”

“Kasher in the Rye” shares with its namesake the idea that even the most pain-in-the-ass,¬† unsympathetic adolescent male is still human, with emotions, wants and needs. Is it the responsibility of society, family and school to accommodate them or is it up to the individual? Kasher leaves the question open-ended, focusing on what worked for him, declining to speculate about what might work for others. One could argue that this book’s very existence, along with the reclaimed life of its author, shows that investing in troubled youth can pay off, no matter how long the odds may seem.

April 18, 2017

#126) Book review: “House of Nails” by Lenny Dykstra

Some baseball fans remember Lenny Dykstra for his hard-nosed, balls-to-the-wall style of play that earned him the nickname “Nails.” Others remember him for bankruptcy fraud, falsifying documents while leasing a car and writing a bad check to a prostitute. Dykstra’s ups and downs are chronicled in “House of Nails” – a memoir that is part self-reflection, part shit show (if you are offended by the term “shit show” don’t read this book; it contains an amount of cursing that would make a longshoreman uncomfortable.)

Anyone looking for balance, meaningful remorse or nuance in this book will want to keep looking, but that shouldn’t come as a shock. “House of Nails” is written by a die-hard Lenny Dykstra fan and is best read through that filter. Given that, how well does Lenny Dykstra present the awesomeness that is Lenny Dykstra?

Like the New York Mets in the years following their 1986 World Series championship, “House of Nails” is a collection of promising parts that never quite live up to their potential. The pieces are all there – no holds barred accounts of steroid use (by Dykstra and many others); unapologetic descriptions of life on the road with two of baseball’s most notorious teams (the 1986 Mets and the 1993 Philadelphia Phillies); boasts about blackmailing umpires; an insider’s perspective on the real estate crisis of 2008; escapades with Charlie Sheen – but while the anecdotes are by turns entertaining and cringe-worthy, the potential for a bigger whole is never realized. Granted, this is a sports bio, not Shakespeare, but with a little more finesse, “House of Nails” could have been a seminal baseball book of our times: “Ball Four” meets “Scarface.”

A mythological interpretation of the story, to which I don’t think Dykstra would object (he refers to himself as “a Greek fucking statue” in a way that may or may not be tongue in cheek) would see Dykstra as a tragic figure who starts from humble beginnings and achieves greatness but is undone by a desire for the forbidden (steroids, girls, Wayne Gretzky’s house). Our hero then pays his penance and becomes a New Man. However, Dykstra’s repentance is generic and conditional (“Undeniably, I have made some monumental mistakes in my life, some of which, inadvertently, have had a negative impact on my family”) while his accounts of those whom he feel wronged him are given much more detail (“Please note that [my attorney’s] letter is dated February 28th, 2012….eight months after I was incarcerated for grand theft auto.”) Dykstra enjoys playing the tough guy card (“I called him a cunt, and [Dodgers catcher Rick] Dempsey took something that resembled a swing at me”) but also the victim (“I was placed in solitary confinement for leasing a car”) when it suits his narrative.

Dykstra’s grievances have legitimacy. Major League Baseball turned a blind eye to steroids when record-breaking home run races were filling seats and then took the moral high ground when it made them look good (and why exactly did the federal government feel the need to step in anyways?) Dykstra may have been obsessed with buying Wayne Gretzky’s mansion, the prize that would prove to be his undoing, to the point where he irrationally walked into an unsound home loan, but at the height of the real estate bubble, banks weren’t exactly known for doing the right thing either. As for Dykstra’s treatment while incarcerated, the book may only give his side of the story – but misconduct by wardens and other officials in the L.A. County jail system is a matter of record.

Ultimately, “House of Nails” could be seen as a microcosm of Dykstra’s baseball career. Hall of Fame? No. Fun to watch/read? Yes. Considering how many books and baseball players alike come and go without making an impact, one could do worse than Lenny Dykstra did both on the diamond and the printed page.