I’ll preface this review by admitting I have very little interest in professional, organized sports. Perhaps due to my complete athletic inability, I have no desire to watch or read about sports of any kind. This being the case, Andre Agassi’s Open was probably the best sports memoir for me to read. Despite being written by one of the biggest names in one of the most popular spectator sports, Agassi’s memoir is less about trying to succeed as a professional athlete than it is about trying to survive life in spite of athletic success.
Agassi, as the title would suggest, is utterly candid about both the professional and personal aspects of his life in Open. The most surprising of these revelations is Agassi’s tumultuous and fraught relationship with the sport that made him famous. Forced into tennis from the time he could swing a racket by his demanding, and at times, abusive father who was determined to mold him into the ‘number one tennis player in the world.’ This early conditioning, as well as Agassi’s natural aptitude for the sport, destined him to take on ‘boy wonder’ status. At age 13 he moved from his Las Vegas home to live and practice under famous tennis svengali Nick Bollettieri at his Tennis Academy in Florida. But as he was pushed down the narrow pathway to tennis success, Agassi resisted through rebellious behavior throughout his teen years (this resulted in the rock star look that he would become famous for later in his career). Continue reading
What if you had the ability to peek into the future? To see the course of not only your life, but of the lives of friends and acquaintances? To be able to see the effect time has on you and the people around you? It is this central idea that makes Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer Prize winning book A Visit from the Good Squad so captivating.
Set against the punk rock music scene in New York, the book follows a group of loosely interrelated Gen-Xers from their teen years into adulthood. Each chapter is told from a different character’s perspective, taking up the story of a character mentioned only briefly in a previous chapter. What results is a smattering of stories and timelines, amounting to a collection of individuals broken down by self-destruction, unrealized dreams and unrequited love. Point zero for these stories is Bennie Salazar, an aging punk rock executive who we follow through a series of personal and professional missteps and his kleptomaniac assistant Sasha. From there we are introduced to Lou, a hedonistic rocker with a penchant for teenage girls, Dolly, a shamed public relations guru who becomes a publicist for a genocidal third world general, and Allison, Sasha’s precocious daughter who’s story is told through a series of power point slides. Continue reading
Cover of Just Kids
Although I have listened to Patti Smith’s music in the past, I most closely associated her persona with Gilda Radner’s ‘Candy Slice’ character from SNL. I envisioned Smith as a drug and alcohol addled punk rocker who lived fast and partied hard. I was highly surprised to discover Smith’s life was quite to the contrary while reading her memoir Just Kids.
Smith wrote Just Kids partly as a retelling of her own life, but also as a love letter to her lover and friend, artist Robert Mapplethorpe. The book was written partly as a memoir and partly as a love letter to Mapplethorpe, with whom Smith had the most defining relationship of her young years. Their two lives converged in New York in the summer of 1967, when the city was still a haven for bohemians and starving artists. Smith arrived in New York as a penniless idealist, meeting former altar boy Mapplethorpe in a chance encounter in Central Park. The two began a romantic relationship and began living and working together, eventually taking up residence in the Hotel Chelsea – which housed a virtual who’s who of artists, musicians and writers. Their relationship evolves as Mapplethorpe comes to realize his homosexuality, but the strength of their friendship never wavers. The two remained inextricably linked, supporting each other as Mapplethorpe evolved his visual artistry and as Smith came into her own as a poet and musician. Continue reading
I’m a sucker for memoirs about troubled childhoods. They seem to provide particularly fertile ground for autobiographical writing – magnifying the pain that comes with growing up and the shadow our adolescence casts on our adult psychology. More than that, I admire those who are brave enough to articulate their painful past, exposing themselves so that readers may find some part of themselves in the tortured history of another.
With or Without You joins Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club and Jeneatte Walls’ The Glass Castle as one of the best memoirs on this subject, exploring author Domica Ruta’s particularly tumultuous upbringing in a rough suburb of Boston. It centers on the author’s difficult relationship with her drug addicted, drug dealing, hustling mother, Kathi. In oftentimes harrowing detail, Ruta recalls being raised by the type of woman who spends all their welfare checks on cocaine and takes her young daughter to watch as she smashes an ex-boyfriends car and openly insults her appearance. The same woman who, despite raising her daughter in a decrepit, trash-filled house, wants to raise Domenica’s lot in life by sending her to the fanciest private school in the district. The kind of woman who keeps her daughter home from school so she has a buddy to watch The Godfather with and who invites a slew of other drug dealers and criminals to take up residence in their home. A woman who, at times, displays a fierce love for her daughter, while at others a forceful contempt; as Ruta puts it “she loved me so much she couldn’t help hating me.”(p5)
Considering the kind of mother she had to contend with, it should come as no surprise that Ruta’s adult life is not all roses. Dysfunction becomes a consistent theme as she falls into her own habits of substance addiction in her adult life. Despite moving across the country to Austin, Texas, her Kathi remains an invisible presence in Ruta’s life with her life mimicking that of the woman who raised her.
While Ruta’s childhood circumstances are extraordinary, her story touches on a common ambivalence in all parent-child relationships. “15. Do you know how much I love you? 16. Do you know how much I hate you?” Ruta writes in an unsent list to her mother after they have become estranged. This push-pull dynamic – at once being repelled from yet fiercely drawn to the one that made you – is something that rang true for me as a reader. Ruta’s willingness to lay bare every violent, angry and emotional detail of her past makes the fraught bond between mothers and daughters incredibly lucid.
Ruta writes with a kind of acute self awareness that seems to acknowledge her own flaws as much as those around her. Although the story is at time scattered, it seems to mirror the way memories return to us – bits and pieces out of chronological order that together make up something resembling a mosaic. I can only guess that through the act of remembering and retelling her story for the reader, she was able to undergo a form of healing the wounds caused by a childhood no one should have to endure.
The Game is a book that had floated around my social conscience for years before I buckled down to read it. I was vaguely familiar with the premise and the advice it espoused; a Rosetta stone for young schlepy males looking to pick up women who far outreach them on the attractiveness scale. I was also aware of the books heavy circulation among the bookshelves of the fraternities at my university, and many of my male friends.
As a woman I was curious, yet fearful. While the book is in many ways geared toward young, single men, it’s claim to ‘unlock the secret society of pick-up artists’ appealing to those deficient it the dating department, I suspected that the book would tell me more about men than it would about women. But I also feared unlocking the worst parts of male society – a kind of Tucker Max how-to guide for young guys looking to live fast. I was concerned the book was going to be riddled with a misogynistic and superficial attitude toward women, leaving little space or agency for female decisions in the ‘game’ of love.
While the book does touch on the more unsavory aspects of single male culture, it is much more than a simple ‘how-to’ guide for 20 something’s looking to get an easy lay. Firstly, the book stands as a highly subjective piece of investigative journalism into a particular community of people. A rock-and-roll journalist who wrote for Spin and Rolling Stone, Strauss is first introduced to the ‘pick-up’ community through a $500 workshop with Mystery. A magician-cum-pickup artist from Toronto, Mystery takes Strauss under his wing and imparts his, largely manipulative tactics, for picking up the most desirable woman in a group of friends. Strauss is transformed from Neil into ‘Style’, and is quickly absorbed into a broader community of pick-up artists – know as the ‘Seduction Community’. Neil discovers competing schools of pick-up artistry, and takes lessons on neuro-linguistic programming from Ross Jefferies and the “cocky-funny” technique from David DeAngelo. Strauss details the various – occasionally alarming, often silly- tactics men use with the express goal of bedding a woman – including ‘negging’ or giving her a joking insult to reduce her self-esteem, hypnosis and positive association and magic tricks. As Style, Strauss eventually becomes one of the most revered pick-up artists in the community, getting a huge sexual payoff from his involvement. Continue reading