Monday, June 24, 2013

Trailblazer: An Intimate Biography of Sarah Palin

I read Sarah Palin's memoir, Going Rogue: An American Life before I started writing book reviews for the Mississauga Library System's Nonfiction Book Club. Palin impressed me with her political history, going from city council to mayor to governor to Republican Vice-Presidential nominee. The story of her climb up the political ladder was exciting to read, and I looked forward to a different perspective in Trailblazer: An Intimate Biography of Sarah Palin by Lorenzo Benet.

Benet, an assistant editor at People magazine as well as a coauthor of a number of pop biographies, unfortunately has written a boring book that reveals absolutely nothing about Palin that the public doesn't already know. Trailblazer relies on news articles and televised media stories for its sources, and anyone who has read the newspaper or watched Palin's media appearances will find nothing new here. Benet, to his credit, did interview Palin for People, when the magazine did a story on the then governor shortly after she gave birth to her son Trig, who was born with Down Syndrome. There however mustn't have been a lot of substance to that article as he only touches on his actual meeting and interview with Palin. Benet relies on many quotes from an interview he had with one of Palin's sisters, but the calibre of quotes he culls from her are all fluff, ranging from how good she was at high school basketball to how fabulous she works at juggling her time between her work and family. He also interviews Palin's hairstylist and all that she can say is how she changed Palin's hair colour and that she and Palin love to chitchat about their kids. All the quotes he gets out of people are fluff like this, which makes a very boring read indeed.

Trailblazer, written in 2009, seems out of date already since Palin has lived a lifetime of activity in the four years since the book first came out. Most glaring are the references to the upcoming wedding between Palin's daughter Bristol and future Playgirl model Levi Johnston. Benet speculates about Palin's future and while he could not have known that she would resign as Alaska governor later on in 2009, or that she would star in her own TV show, he was prescient in thinking that she would write her autobiography. For more in-depth information about Palin's rise up the political ladder, read Going Rogue.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Cockeyed: a Memoir

The subject of my latest book cuts close to home: Cockeyed: a Memoir is Ryan Knighton's own story about his gradual loss of vision by retinitis pigmentosa. On a personal note, in 1988 I lost the central vision in my left eye by toxoplasmosis, a diagnosis I still don't understand yet eye specialist after specialist told me the same thing. Twenty-five years ago I was given the dreadful news that I might lose all the sight in my left eye. Since then I have lived my life by the eye doctor's adage "Never take your eyesight for granted". I have also developed a sensitivity towards and activism on behalf of the blind and visually impaired. It was after conducting some on-line research that I discovered Cockeyed.

Knighton received the diagnosis of retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease, on his eighteenth birthday. His memoir, which is laugh-out-loud funny in places, tells the story of his voyage into darkness.

As a mosh-pit dancing punk his limited sight didn't matter; he discovered with pleasure that he didn't even need eyesight while flailing himself into people in dark clubs. Knighton even managed to teach English in South Korea, only to find that the faculty and his students didn't even notice he had very low vision.

Funniest of all was his tale of going to adult "blind camp" with thirty others on an island in western British Columbia. I quote the following passage:

"I expected, of all places in the world, this would be the one where sighted habits were dropped. They weren't. People sat around the breakfast tables and spoke to one another without identifying themselves or whom they meant to address. Cheryl might have asked something like, 'Are you going to glue macaroni owls at the crafts table this afternoon?' Everybody would carry on chewing until somebody said the obligatory, 'Are you talking to me?' All six dining tables sounded like a rehearsal from Taxi Driver. You talking to me? You talking to me? ...
"Likewise, you'd think of all places in the world, this one would have been gesture-free. Nope. Everybody, me included, carried on flagging and pointing, and as you'd expect, none of us followed. We were so used to living with sighted people that we couldn't even be blind with one another."

I had never read an account of a person's loss of sight before. Knighton never gets mad at God or goes on a destructive rampage, however his three car accidents while he had failing eyesight, before he got the RP diagnosis, come close. The one part in the book that will stop your heart and make you cry is how he found out about his younger brother's suicide. It was written with such vivid detail, I felt as though I were in the same room when he got the news.

Knighton did not write about learning Braille, so I am making the conclusion he can still read the printed word, albeit with 1% vision. He did write about learning how to use the white cane, or the "stick", as he calls it. Cockeyed was mostly a fun read, in spite of the subject matter. Near the end of the book Knighton waxes philosophical and seems genuinely at peace with his eventual total blindness.

Monday, June 10, 2013

What Are You Doing Here? A Black Woman's Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal

Laina Dawes is a heavy metal journalist and fan, who also happens to be a black woman. What Are You Doing Here? A Black Woman's Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal is her personal account of dealing with being the only black woman in the concert hall. Dawes also covers the history of black women in rock music from the early days of pre-rock with Bessie Smith and Billie Holliday to Tina Turner and Skin of Skunk Anansie.
For a black person, male or female, one often faces a crisis of identity when drawn to heavy metal music. Dawes and the many women she interviewed for What Are You Doing Here? all revealed that they had to hide their record albums and when they were found out, had to face accusations from friends and family that they were somehow betraying their black heritage by their musical taste. Dawes states:

"As a black girl into metal, I had nobody with whom I could share my adoration for Rob Halford or my crush on the late Steve Clark from Def Leppard. While listening to music and perusing music magazines became a great form of escape, I always felt a bit of residual guilt. After all, black people--real black people--don't listen to metal."

However she was drawn to metal for the same reasons it attracts many of its fans:

"There was a lot of rage around me, and I knew it could be channeled into the positive energy that I found through metal."

How do other black women metal fans reconcile their musical taste with the criticisms they hear because of it? Music journalist Keidra Chaney told Dawes:

"'I didn't fit in,' she says, 'but I wasn't going to fit in anyway, so my loving metal was just another reason to be that weird chick. It wasn't a black identity issue, like me wanting to be like white folks because I grew up around only black folks. It wasn't an issue like I needed to choose. I just happened to be a weird black chick that happened to like weird music.'"


"'It's extremely confusing as a black teenager,' adds singer Camille Atkinson from Empire Beats. 'Who knows who they are as a teenager? You are trying to assert your identity, but at the same time, you feel that you are being separated from your black identity.'"

Dawes deals with the negative reaction to her musical preference expressed by other blacks in the chapter entitled "So You Think You're White?". As a music journalist Dawes is well educated in the history of modern rock. When her critics--people who really ought to know better than to make an issue out of someone else's musical preferences--berate her for liking loud metal music played by white men, her revelation that it was black musicians who invented rock music in the first place always seems to grab their attention and build bridges of understanding.

In the chapter entitled "'The Only One' Syndrome", Dawes shares testimonials from other black women metal fans and their experiences at concerts. It takes an enormous amount of courage for a black woman to attend a metal concert, and some of the women she interviewed simply do not attend live events because of the attention they draw upon themselves simply by being there. Dawes herself often doesn't find support even from other black women concertgoers:

"I have felt the disheartening chill of making eye contact with the only other black girl at a metal show, and receiving a death glare in return that says, 'In no uncertain terms may you even try to talk to me and embarrass me.'"

This reaction reveals to me that the women Dawes sees might themselves be insecure about being at a metal show, and might feel more comfortable trying as hard as they could to be invisible, versus joining another black woman for a chitchat wherein they share their mutual love of metal.

Heavy metal music may have an unfair reputation for being sexist and racist, and Dawes confronts these issues in the chapters entitled "Too Black, Too Metal, and All Woman" and "The Lingering Stench of Racism in Metal". Metal journalist Sameerah Blue sums up both issues with this observation:

"As a black female journalist covering metal myself, sometimes it seems like there are more haters than supporters. 'Just like with most women musicians and fans in metal, you would have to work twice as hard as a guy, that just goes without saying,' says Blue. 'Even if you take color out of the equation, women in metal have to work harder. And if a white woman has to work twice as hard, a black woman is going to have to work four times as hard. You will ultimately get the same acceptance, but you have to work for it.'"

What Are You Doing Here? is perhaps the first book of its kind, giving a voice to black women who love heavy metal. I recommend this book but future printings should see the eyes of an editor. There were many grammatical errors, with repeated words, or repeated infinitives, or often missing words like the "to" when preceding an infinitive. I am led to believe that Dawes typed this at her computer, possessed with intelligent rapid trains of thought. An editor's keen eye, or even her own slow re-read, would have caught these mistakes. Dawes does make the same observations over and over, and at times What Are You Doing Here? seemed frustratingly repetitious. Yet at 206 pages Dawes's work seemed unfortunately too short; it is a sign of a hungry reader and perhaps a wider readership to wish to read more on this topic.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Moab is My Washpot

I had never heard of Stephen Fry before I got this autobiography as a gift over a decade ago. I finally got down to reading Moab is My Washpot, Fry's personal story up until the age of twenty, and it was one of the most enjoyable autobiographies I have ever encountered. Fry grew up in British prep and boarding schools and his tales of all-boy antics and pranks had me laughing aloud, even while reading Moab on the subway. Fry's writing style is stream-of-thought, and although the pages may be at times solid blocks of text, the flow is so rapid, even with elongated tangential clauses (and sometimes even parenthetical asides) that I found that I could read everything in one attempt, not having to go back and reread the passage as I obsessively do in order to make sure I understand everything. 

Fry grew up a lying, pranking, thieving urchin. He stole frequently from his schoolmates, teachers and from strangers, and I won't spoil the end of Moab by revealing what the consequences of his thievery had in store for him in his late teens. His school pranks had me snickering out loud and it is not often that I am vocal while I read. My favourite prankish tale was his readjustment of a church organ's preset buttons, and the on-the-floor uncontrolled hilarity that ensued when Fry and his friends heard the organ "fart out of tune" the following Sunday.

Stephen Fry grew up gay and, except for a brief moment of rebellion in his late teens when he dated and lost his heterosexual virginity to one (and only one) girl, was only interested in boys. He was enraptured by a boy named Matthew (lovingly nicknamed Matteo) and his stories of being unrequitedly in love with him will have bittersweet memories for all of us who have ever had feelings of attraction unreturned. 

Near the end of Moab is My Washpot we learn of Fry's suicide attempt and his successful rehabilitation. Not a long portion of the book is devoted to his suicide attempt, and one is not led to believe that it was forthcoming. Fry's suicide attempt came after a failed academic year and a life of thieving and self-perceived failure. Once he was released from the hospital he didn't turn his life around--not yet anyway. More thievery was in store for Fry, and he had the time of his life doing it too, living a life of luxury until...