Tag Archives: memoir

Review: The Princess Diarist

The Princess DiaristThe Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s hard to know what to write, with Carrie Fisher’s death still so recent in my memory. I didn’t like “Wishful Drinking,” one of her earlier books, though know my scathing feelings towards the book feel sour and wrong somehow, and I have to resist the urge to go back and revise that old opinion. And I know that instinct is wrong, because it goes against my core belief that all books should exist independently of their authors and that, even for a memoir, it’s nothing personal. It’s just the book.

Fortunately, I’m happy to say that I enjoyed “Princess Diarist” much more. It’s a trim little volume at just over 200 pages (and several of those pages are diary excerpts, so it’s even shorter than you might think), but it broaches on a subject that I’ve been eager to read about and was, in my opinion, conspicuously absent in “Wishful Drinking,” which is how Fisher felt/feels about Star Wars. This is a book largely dedicated to that question.

It also has the benefit of having been written post-Episode VII, which saw a return of Leia as a character . . . one that I think Fisher, had she lived, would have been even more proud of. General Organa is an evolution of Princess Leia, an older, wiser, grizzled veteran who’s been fighting wars her entire life, who matured away from the metal bikini sex symbol eye candy role into a tough, capable leader. It’s a good evolution of the character and it’s a profound loss that we’ll never get a follow-up book to hear about that evolution in Fisher’s own writing voice.

So, if you’re wondering, should you read this book? Yes, you should. It’ll give you a lot to think about with Star Wars, character, and fandom, and it was already a great book even before Fisher’s death. Now, it’s a chance to hear her voice one more time and appreciate the insight she’s gleaned over her life and the perspective that she had.

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Review: Being a Beast: Adventures Across the Species Divide

Being a Beast: Adventures Across the Species DivideBeing a Beast: Adventures Across the Species Divide by Charles Foster
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I started off greatly intrigued by the premise, but my expectations for what the book was going to be ended up not panning out. From the author’s forward, what I imagined I would be reading was a series of narrative nonfiction essays told from the perspective of the various beasts. Each beast would be a different character and various things would happen to them; all approximated, of course, because of the whole subjective nature of individual minds, especially human minds trying to approximate nonhuman minds. However, none of those expectations panned out.

Ultimately, we have musings that wander back and forth through various topics while making commentary on eating earthworms, tasting slugs (seriously, don’t ever do that), and rolling around in the woods for a while. While it started out interesting enough, the essay on otters started to lose me, as the author begins to create an emotional understanding of different animals that feels painfully antiquarian. And then, of course, there’s his opinion on cats (he hates them) and that was where I found myself in the weeds with regards to “Being a Beast.” I finished it out of a sense of obligation, having come so far (also I never allow myself to review books that I have not read in their entirety.)

Final verdict: a weird book that starts off with an interesting premise, but meanders and chases its own tail. There are a few interesting anecdotes along the way (such as the discussion with a police officer about how the author is “trying to be a fox”), but they are few and far between. It becomes increasingly difficult to determine when the author is being sincere and when he is being hyperbolic. I came away from the book feeling mostly disappointed by my misunderstanding of the premise. Which might say more about me than the book (it does), but that’s what you get when you read reviews from nonprofessional dilettantes such as myself.

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Review: Lab Girl

Lab GirlLab Girl by Hope Jahren
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Absolutely amazing; the perfect blend of heartfelt, passionate, thoughtful, and scientifically interesting. Although I love trees (having moved to the PNW specifically to be in forests again), I’ve never really thought particularly hard about them, about what they’re doing. Trees are scenery; beautiful scenery, no doubt, but certainly not the most important part of the story, right? Stories are about characters, not backgrounds.

Hope Jahren’s book convinced me how wrong I was to think of trees and plants as mere background. They are active characters engaged in their own lives and their own struggles, and though it doesn’t play out in a timeline that makes sense to most humans, the stories of trees are just as interesting as our own.

Jahren’s book alternates between brief (but fascinating) passages about the lives and science of various plants; how they grow, how they struggle, what they’re doing, and each section is relevant to a bit of the narrative of her own life. Resiliency, love, achievement; each part of Jahren’s own human existence is related and connected to the lives of trees and plants.

This is a hopeful, thoughtful book that invites you into a world you’ve seen every day but likely haven’t stopped to consider. I found myself reading entire passages aloud to my fiancee, eagerly sharing with her the latest fascinating thing I’d just read, even though she’d already agreed to read the book herself when I was finished with my copy. But the feeling of discovery of a new world was so exciting, so marvelous, that I couldn’t help but share whatever I found. In that way, I found myself relating to the author more than I ever thought possible.

If you’re a nature lover, this book deserves to be on your shelf. But even if you’re not, even if you’ve never thought of a tree beyond that time you pressed leaves as a kid in school, let Jahren show you her world. Share her triumphs and obsessions and enjoy her very personal, very deeply moving story of what it’s like to be a woman devoted to science. But most of all, let her show you how interesting it is to think about trees. She and her trees might just surprise you.

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Review: The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story

The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story
The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story by Hyeonseo Lee

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I haven’t picked up a North Korean defector memoir in a while, so I was pleased to see this one getting high marks and a heap of praise from my fiancee before I started. Even though this is my 10th or 11th defection account, it continues to fascinate me how each one, despite having a few similar milestones (crossing the border into China, trying to blend in, and eventually making it to permanent sanctuary) still manage to be as unique and intricate as the people experiencing them.

Hyeonseo’s story is markedly different from the many other accounts of people pushed to such desperation that defection was the only remaining option. One could almost call her an accidental defector, in that she made it to China originally just to see it for a few days before returning home. But once she was there, circumstances made it so that there was no going back and from then on, she had to negotiate the fallout of that decision.

There are three aspects of this book in particular that make it supremely compelling; the first is that Hyeonseo makes no secret that she came from a life of relative privilege compared to many other defectors. (Privilege, of course, being a relative term compared to Western lifestyles). Second, most of the story is focused on what happens to her after crossing the border; her attempts to integrate into China and eventually, her attempts to bring her family across the border as well. It’s fascinating to see what it’s like for those on the other side, who worry and wait and negotiate and risk so much to help those trying to cross.

Finally, Hyeonseo’s writing style is superb. Her story is told with a taut, gripping pace and has enough cliffhanger chapters and twists of fate that you (and I hate using this phrase, but it really is the most applicable) “can’t put this book down.” There’s an energy and pace to this story that crackles like a great thriller novel, but the fact that this isn’t a story, that this all happened to a real person makes it that much more compelling.

I’ve read a lot of North Korea defector memoirs and I’ll doubtless read many more until this humanitarian crisis is resolved (hopefully within my lifetime). Each one is remarkable in its way, but there are a few that stand out as books that I feel everyone should read. I’m happy to say that “the Girl with Seven Names” deserves a place in those ranks. You should read this book.

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