Ten Steps to Nanette (CBR14 #30)

I feel like this is going to be a tough one for me to review, because my relationship with the content that Hannah Gadsby creates is so personal to me and has been frankly crucial to how I am coming to understand myself that it’s a bit difficult to try to take that out of the equation and look at Ten Steps to Nanette on its own. I’ve likely watched Nanette half a dozen times in the past couple of years (and once again in preparing this review) and I have easily watched Douglas, the next special, several dozen times. Partly because its very, very good but also because of how she discusses Autism and neuro-divergency more broadly, both of which are crucial to the story Gadsby writes in Ten Steps to Nanette, and crucial to the knowing of me.

I have been rabid for this book since I discovered it existed. Or would exist. I haunted NetGalley looking for it, put in my request as soon as it was listed, and waited impatiently for the denial I was sure was coming as I heard nothing for nearly three months. And then I got the email, and I did a weird happy dance at work, startling my coworkers. Because my brain works differently.

Which is a very long walk to telling you that there are portions of this book that made me cry, not because of what Gadsby has gone through and survived, but because of the eloquent way she has in describing what can sometimes feel so isolating, and the language she puts to not trusting a diagnosis that feels right because it doesn’t look or feel like you were told it would.  Of not feeling at home in your own skin when out in the world, but when you are in your own quiet home feeling deeply yourself. Of all the times that the world insists on being more than you can process in any given moment, how if you have just the right sorts of presentations or coping mechanisms you will have to fight to be taken seriously that you are not – in fact – doing all that well. That you will have to fight to believe yourself, to not let anyone diminish your own lived experience.

As much as Ten Steps to Nanette is set up in a typical memoir format, it also works differently. Some of it is a bit cheeky, starting with an epilogue and ending with a prologue, but they are also used exactly as they are titled. It isn’t a play on words, Gadsby is intentionally taking the pieces and putting them in the order that best serves her needs. Some chapters (or steps) are very short while others are much longer. Some bounce back and forth from the personal to the national, some are more biographical, others still are written in a more active voice much more like her stage work. But because Gadsby is very good at what she does the tone of this book stays the same: these are the facts, and this is how I felt, but the how of the tone is what changes because each step (and the wilderness years she generally leaves unexplored, this is not tragedy porn) need to be handled in their own way. By allowing her story the space it needs to be told in the manner it needs to be told in she is doing an incredibly important bit of writing as people all over who fall into many of her intersectionalities are struggling to remain safe and seen. She takes her rare bit of luck and her privileges and shines the light where it needs to be shined, without making herself or anyone else the victim of the story. Bad things happen, people are victimized, but that is not where the story ends or lingers.

I tried to take my time, craft an in-depth review as I needed to sit with it a bit longer, give it a good think. Something I think Gadsby would entirely understand as I waited for the words to form, and then come out of my head and into the world. There is so much here, so much truth, so much reflection, so much care spent weaving in actual history with personal history, all leading to something that aims to deliver great meaning (and succeeds). And with legitimately funny footnotes tucked in, a personal favorite (not to diminish the intentionally not funny ones). I’m still not sure I’ve been able to.

I have, for instance, not delved into the structure of Nanette and how it became the thing that Gadsby needed to do, how the renouncement of self-deprecation, the rejection of misogyny, and the moral significance of truth-telling became a thing she could no longer not prioritize for her own well-being. Of how the world in 2017 caught up to her in some ways and the international resurgence of #metoo provided a springboard for Gadsby’s work into a larger sphere. Of how deciding she must be done has meant that she is now continuing in a different but healthier way. Of how so much of this work is about reassessment and reexamination – about queer identity, past trauma, and Autism and of giving the time needed to move away from the mental landscape of “there is something wrong with me and I should feel ashamed” towards “this is how I am made, and that’s enough to be worthy of all the good.”

CW: Assault, molestation, rape, injury, isolation, suicidal ideation, body image or other mental health difficulties (It should be noted that Gadsby put these in the book’s early sections where they belong – and stopped several times in the narrative to level set and remind the reader what they were going to encounter if they kept going. It is the kind of empathy and critical thought which I love and wish more authors did, even while I am putting this near the tail end of my own review.)

5 unabashed neurodivergent stars.

I received an ARC of Ten Steps to Nanette from Ballantine Books via NetGalley. It has not affected the contents of this review, only its timing. The book publishes March 29, 2022.

Little Weirds (CBR14 #9)

Little Weirds

What a delightful, odd, heartfelt book.

I put this one on my to read list following watching Jenny Slate’s Netflix special Stage Fright which is a mix of a stand up and documentary. When I finished Stage Fright I was much more interested in Slate than I had been before. Having now finished Little Weirds which she wrote at about the same time, I feel as though I have had an interesting, if not entirely understandable, view into her mind. If only everyone wrote so honestly.

It is difficult to categorize this one, as Slate’s unique style bounces around. Initially I was put off by it, but by putting my faith in her introduction which she categorizes as a “Guide for Consumption” I settled in and let her wordscapes wash over me I suddenly cared less about trying to figure it out and instead decided to just go with it, to embrace what was on offer. Little Weirds is a personal, introspective look at battling grief, of finding a way through heartache, of attempting to put on a brave face about what is coming next all while trying to make meaning out of this weird, little life we’re given. It is also often incredibly abstract, which does put a bit of distance between reader and author, even when we’re being invited in. Slate seems primarily occupied with finding the ways to be kind to herself and sharing that goal with her reader. But there is a reason I’m not rating this higher and its primarily that while I was pleased to have read each essay, I was often looking for more.

Lakota Woman (CBR13 #70)

Lakota Woman

Like many, my formal education didn’t contain much indigenous history, and certainly almost none about modern indigenous history. Reading Women task 8 was read a memoir by an Indigenous, First Nations, Native, or Aboriginal Woman which helped move Lakota Woman up my TBR (I had added it in 2015 for a similar Read Harder task but I read Rabbit-Proof Fence instead). It certainly didn’t hurt that it was also the Indigenous Reading Circle’s choice for November (the group that inspired the Reading Women task).

Lakota Woman was published in 1990 and discusses Mary Crow Dog’s experiences in the 1970s as a member of the American Indian Movement (AIM). It is a searing autobiography that is at various times audacious, heartfelt, and expressive. It is also a tough read for a variety of reasons. The book opens with Crow Dog’s description of the difficulty of her life as a young Sioux girl, growing up in poverty, suffering at Catholic boarding school, and quitting school to drink, shoplift and rebel. Its at this point that her path crosses AIM’s and she would eventually give birth to a son in 1973 at Wounded Knee while it was under siege by the federal government.

The narrative reminds me of an oral history. The book is written in one person’s lived experiences told in a stream-of-consciousness style and Mary Crow Dog was present at many of the significant events of this civil rights movement in the early 1970s. She writes of AIM’s infiltration by FBI agents and of helping her husband endure prison following his unjust arrest. The book ends with a brief synopsis of events after Leonard was freed and his work on reclaiming the sacred rites and practices of their people.

“I read somewhere in an anthropology book that we Sioux ‘thrive on a culture of excitement.’ During the years from 1973 to 1975 we had more than enough excitement for even the most macho warrior, more than we could handle.” p. 192

All the Young Men (CBR13 #43)

All the Young Men

I read a lot of memoirs; I love listening to someone tell me their story. All the Young Men tells Ruth Coker Burks’ story as a young single mother in Hot Springs, Arkansas, who finds herself driven to the forefront of the AIDS crisis, and becoming an activist in the fight against AIDS.

Coker Burks story starts in the way that I think many of us hope we would respond – while visiting her friend recovering from cancer surgery she notices nurses drawing straws to see who would take care of a patient inside, all of them reluctant to enter the room. Ruth herself enters the quarantined space and immediately begins to care for the young man inside, being with him at the end of his life, offering what comfort she could. The young man inside would be the first in a long line of men Coker Burks would care for, advocate for, and in some cases provide a final resting place for.

In 1986, Aids was a death sentence. There was still no reliable treatment, let alone a cure. The fear, ignorance and stigma were so great that hospitals regularly refused to treat patients, something we see over and over in Coker Burks recounting. Informal networks of care were predominantly centered in the urban areas along the coasts. In the south, people were coming home sick and terrified, hoping for refuge with their families, only to be rejected and die alone. All the Young Men tells the story of Coker Burks work from 1986-1992 to provide care and support otherwise unavailable to the men returning to Hot Springs.

While the underlying story is five stars, the delivery here is average. It doesn’t really rise above what it is: a pretty straightforward by the numbers memoir. She’s honest about who she is, what her experiences are, but she’s not diving any deeper. I was emotionally connected to Coker Burks’ telling but it could’ve been more if it dug deeper into the larger moment. Coker Burks and her co-writer start, but they don’t get all the way there. It should be noted that Coker Burks is a straight white lady recounting the history, but she makes sure to center the men she’s talking about, but I wish she had been able to make sure we really knew all the men as well as we know some.

Somebody’s Daughter (CBR13 #41)

Somebody's Daughter

When we had out August CBR Zoom Check-in I talked about this book and praised it while warning others away. It is still my prevailing view – Somebody’s Daughter is an absolutely fantastic piece of writing where Ashley C. Ford immerses the reader in her childhood, and it is not for the faint of heart or those who may not be in the most stable mental health space.

You might know Ashley C. Ford from her podcasts or writings for outlets such as BuzzFeed, The Guardian, Slate, and The New York Times. I know her primarily from Twitter from where I was introduced to her other writing. Ford uses Somebody’s Daughter to trace her girlhood, the lived experience of life growing up in her mother’s home while her father served time in prison. Ford seeks to answer the question of what it means to be her father’s daughter, but much of the book focuses on what her life was like with her often emotionally detached and physically abusive mother. As the reader comes to learn, the web of Ford’s life is inextricably linked to both.

To me, the strength in Ford’s writing is the empathy she shows when she writes about people specifically those who have harmed her.  Ford possesses the ability to see people for who they are which is always a powerful tool in a writer’s arsenal. What knocks this one down from five to four stars is that while Ford writes vividly about her life the book doesn’t possess a strong enough narrative thread linking the remembrances, or a real reckoning with her trauma and how discovering her father’s exact crime influences that.

CW for absent parent, episodes of physical abuse, sexual assault, rape, toxic relationships

In the Country We Love (CBR13 #13)

In the Country We Love: My Family Divided

I put this book on my to read list back in May of 2016, shortly after its publication. I don’t remember now what spurred me to do so, but at the end of the day its always the same basic reason – there was a story here that I wanted to know more about. In the Country We Love is Guerrero’s story of growing up the daughter of undocumented immigrants, and the course of her life following their deportments. It’s a big, important story.

You might recognize Diane Guerrero from her television work on Orange is the New Black or Jane the Virgin, but what is less known about Guerrero is that at the age of fourteen her parents were arrested and deported while she was at school. Born in the United States, Guerrero was able to remain in the country but to do so she and her family depended on the kindness and support of family friends who housed her and cared for her as she fell through the cracks (probably for the best) of the system. The book traces her life both to that point and from it. We are given a look at her parents’ lives in Colombia and the U.S., at her academic and personal struggles and triumphs.

In the pages of In the Country We Love we are given Guerrero’s story, but what it seems to be after is shining light onto the over 11 million undocumented immigrants, many with citizen children, living in the US, whose lives here are just as uncertain as Guerrero’s once was. The book was written with Michelle Burford, and as a memoir aimed at is YA audience it is does a fine job of taking one individual story and showing how it applies on a larger scale (which aligns with Guerrero’s work with the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, as well as with Mi Familia Vota, an organization that promotes civic involvement. She has been named an Ambassador for Citizenship and Naturalization by the White House). It is also told in the sort of bite sized pieces that I assume the authors thought their audience would prefer, or simply the ones that Guerrero was willing to share. However, the telling was uneven, the tone constantly shifting, and by the end I found myself speed reading and skimming.

Gender Queer: a Memoir (CBR11 #34)

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In March Emmalita read and reviewed Gender Queer: a Memoir by Maia Kobabe and it put this book onto my radar where it previously hadn’t been. I had been quietly on the lookout for Cannonballer reviews of books by or about non-binary people to help fulfill a Read Harder challenge, and while I have only read a few books by transgender authors (that I’m aware of) I had likely read none by non-binary authors (I may have, I’ve not been great about tracking that in the past).

I took my library copy with me on vacation, I was so excited to get my hands on it. I found Kobabe’s deeply introspective journey through reckoning with eir own sense of eir gender to be very relatable and also illuminating. It shouldn’t be the job of our marginalized siblings to explain to those of us who aren’t marginalized in the same way what their lives are like, but without the brave work of someone like Maia who shares what it has been like to experience life in eir shoes the literary landscape would be much more bland.  

Visually I found the work to be beautifully vibrant without being overwhelming. Honestly, its my Goldilocks’ porridge of graphic novels – it was just right for me. I wish I was more conversant in the artistic terminology so I could more accurately describe it to you, but Kobabe achieves such balance in eir work that I was able to slip into the work and devour it in one sitting, which is a rarity for me. Hunt this one down, it is incredibly worth your time and dollars.

Educated (CBR11 #23)

A couple of months ago I read American Like Me and focused my review on how the various contributors wrote and reflected on the way their lives hopped boundaries or existed on the edge of multiple cultures. In Educated Tara Westover is doing a deep dive of her own, very personal, journey of leaving one culture (that of her father) and exploring the cultures of more mainstream Mormonism and mainstream America. It is not a perfect book, and to my mind Westover chose an interesting time in her life to reckon with her lived experience to this degree and this publicly, our early thirties are an interesting time to take stock of life so far but Westover’s is far from typical. It was a beautifully crafted, captivating read that is having a very needed conversation about self-invention and the importance of actual truth and how we see it, even if the author sometimes backs away from her own arguments.

Westover’s experiences growing up were very tightly controlled, and it left her with enormous gaps and misunderstandings of how the rest of the world works which she explores in her memoir. Sometimes these differences in our lived experiences made it difficult for me to relate, but battling with guilt, expectation, and hope did ring very true to me. Her parents are strict survivalists in Idaho and Westover’s father believed (and likely continues to believe) that the coming of the end times was imminent which was very likely fed by an undiagnosed mental illness (I’m not a professional, I can’t weigh in definitively) as well as being  conspiracy theorist. These things directly impacted the kind of childhood Tara had: the children were kept out of school, members of the family rarely sought professional medical care, and virtually no measures were taken to protect anyone from the physical dangers surrounding the way they live their lives and earn their livings.

Educated is Westover’s account of how she went from growing up in that environment with little education and none of it formal, to being a PhD student at Cambridge and how it all comes together to form her life as it is now. But it is also more than a travelogue of joining academia – if it had stayed on that level I probably would only be rating it 3 or 4 stars because it wouldn’t be uncovering universal insights. Instead, Westover weaves her various narratives together to tell the larger story of how she discovered herself and began to trust her own interior voice. At the heart of her story is just what we mean when we say “an education”.

As she moved ever more away from her life in Idaho and her family’s compound on Buck’s Peak and into the world of mainstream Mormonism and the larger American mainstream Westover accumulates several “educations”, that of traditional schooling but also the informal educations we pick up along the way that helps us see ourselves and others. That is what her educations got Westover –  the ability to see her own life through new eyes and the will to change it in ways that honor her newly trusted inner-voice.

American Like Me (CBR11 #17)

Badkittyuno reviewed this one and I immediately put it on my to read, and then picked it up at my first chance from Audible. American Like Me is a collection of 32 stories about what being American, whether they call themselves American enthusiastically, reluctantly, or not at all. Some of the authors have written previously, others have not, but America Ferrera gathered a wide variety of voices to capture a breadth of experiences. This book is full of the stories about life between cultures. The authors are actors, athletes, politicians, and artists. They are also immigrants themselves or the children and grandchildren of immigrants, indigenous people, regardless they are people who grew up with personal connections to more than one culture.

I listened to this quickly, and then reviewed it slowly – I suggest you do the opposite. There is a lot of similarity amongst the stories, not in tone or delivery but in their hearts, and for me some stories blurred together because of it. There were a few stand-outs, that I remember now a month later: Issa Rae and Randall Park especially. They bring both a personal warmth and their natural comedic natures to their chapters, but they also dig deeply into their personal stories even if it doesn’t necessarily feel that way at first glance. Park in particular approaches his in such a light-hearted manner that its more serious undertones take time develop.

The most important part for me in this was that each story had some component that rang true to my own lived experience, my own times along the boundaries of what make me American, and it is always going to come back to the variety of components that make up this life.  

This book was read and (eventually) reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

Scrappy Little Nobody (CBR10 #34)

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I went away this weekend with one of my favorite people and we spent our time looking at gorgeous scenery, visiting museums and historic sites, and eating and drinking local. In doing so we spent a lot of time in the car going from place to place, so my travel buddy suggested we listen to Anna Kendrick’s autobiography because he was sure I would really enjoy it. This is why he’s one of my favorites, perfectly lovely weekend away and happy to re-listen to an audiobook because I would want to read it.

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This book, in turn, was really good for what we were looking for it to be: entertaining and an easy way to keep conversation going (10 hours in and out of a car is a long time, no matter how much you like the person you’re travelling with). Kendrick is a little younger than us, and even though her life has some very different aspects to it (Tony nominated teenager, Oscar nominated young 20 something) there was still plenty of reflections about growing into your adulthood when we did that hit a very truthful note and definitely gave us things to commiserate about, remember, and laugh about.

So if I enjoyed it so much why is it only three stars? Because it doesn’t really rise above what it is, it’s a pretty straightforward memoir that clocks in at about 6 hours of audio (probably more if anyone else narrated it, Kendrick speaks quickly). She’s honest about who she is, what her experiences are, but she’s not diving any deeper. If you like her Twitter presence, you will like this book though; her authorial voice is the same.