I took French in high school. I took French in college, and my professor was actually French. I love French movies, I have a Paris-themed umbrella, I have a weakness for memoirs in which women drop everything and move to France – Je suis jaloux! – and I hope to be reincarnated as a classy, scarf-wearing Parisian in my next life. I planned the last part of my trip to Europe this past summer around being in Paris for Bastille Day, and I practiced my rusty French religiously for about an hour each night before jetting off. I knew my French would suck, but I at least figured I’d be able to bust out a few phrases without making a fool of myself.
And what happened?
I spoke English (or, in one instance, I panicked and blurted out Spanish…which, mind you, doesn’t even happen back home).
So I could completely relate to William Alexander’s plight: he fantasizes about moving to France and being accepted as one of them, but he can’t even speak the language. He’s determined to learn it, but there are numerous roadblocks. The biggest one is his age; in his late fifties, his far from the ideal age to be learning a new language (about fifty years too far, according to the experts). He throws himself into the language anyway, completing hours upon hours of Rosetta Stone, Pimsleur, language meetups, immersion courses, a French PBS series, and social media encounters with French people, not to mention actual trips to France.
Janet Mock had a recognizable presence on social and mainstream media for a few years now. In 2011, Marie Claire published a profile of her, her first major introduction to the public as a trans woman and activist. A lot of people got to know her for the #girlslikeus hashtag on Twitter, which allows trans women to share their experiences, and she continues to speak out about the issues that trans people — especially trans women of color — face.
Redefining Realness is a memoir about coming of age as a young trans woman in Hawaii. She was the firstborn son of a couple whose relationship was doomed from the beginning; they divorced because of her father’s constant philandering. She and her little brother stayed with their mother, but that arrangement was also short-lived. Her mother was someone who always needed to be in a relationship, and with a new man and a new baby on the way, Mock is sent Oakland (and later, Texas) to live with her father and younger brother. By that time, Mock already knew she was different, but she didn’t know exactly how. Her father also knew she was different, and Mock could never seem to fit the role of firstborn son/big brother that was expected of her.
Part memoir, part journalistic exploration, Ann Dowsett Johnston’s new book, Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol, looks at the rise of alcoholism in girls and women. Just as women caught up to men’s rates of tobacco use a few decades ago, women’s rates of alcohol abuse have also increased at an alarming rate. And just like it did with tobacco, the epidemic is drastically impacting women’s health.
Johnston is frank about how alcoholism affected her own family. Her mother was an alcoholic, her father became an alcoholic later in life, and Johnston herself — even though she knew the signs and was terrified of going down the same path — became an alcoholic as well. Her story mirrors the story of thousands of other women in the United States, and because of alcohol culture and the alcohol industry itself, the prevalence of alcohol abuse among women shows no signs of stopping.
Alcohol has always had a role in popular culture, but once the alcohol industry realized that women were an untapped market, marketing towards women skyrocketed. Unlike beer, the alcoholic beverages marketed to women — from wine coolers to cocktails — tend to have a higher alcohol content. Add this to places where people are particularly vulnerable (college parties, for instance), and you have a recipe for disaster. Women are physiologically more vulnerable to the effects of alcohol, but Johnston considers other risk factors associated with drinking culture as well. Binge drinking is one behavior that by now most people are aware of, but doctors are starting to see the other behaviors at play that come before binge drinking, such as “drunkorexia” (intentionally refraining from eating in order to consume more alcohol) and pre-drinking (getting buzzed or drunk before heading out to the bars, which has the additional effect of people to keeping more alcohol stocked at home).
What’s the difference between “crazy” and “creative”? Is there a difference? And if you take away the “crazy,” will you also be taking away the “creative”?
These are just some of the questions Ellen Forney found herself grappling with right before her 30th birthday, when she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Suddenly, all those manic highs that she’d once thought made her eccentric and endearing and whimsically artistic took on a scary new meaning.
Though it shed light on some of her behaviors, she was also terrified of what it meant in the long run. Medications might help, but there was the chance that they’d dull her senses and take away her artistic abilities. Then again, the other option wasn’t much better: people diagnosed with bipolar disorder were at a high risk of suicide and recurring hospitalizations; not treating her condition could also lead to more extreme manic episodes that might be harder to control. And so, with a lot of uncertainty, Forney began her rollercoaster ride of different treatment plans and medication combinations.
On the morning of December 26, 2004, Sonali Deraniyagala lost her parents, husband, and two young sons in the tsunami that claimed the lives of over 230,000 people. The family had been vacationing in Deraniyagala’s native country of Sri Lanka, enjoying their beachfront hotel. In one horrifying instant that all changed: a massive wave leveled everything in sight, including the hotel the family had always stayed at during their visits. Deraniyagala was separated from her family during their frantic attempt to escape, swept away in the churning water. She miraculously survived, but when she woke up, her world as she knew it had changed forever.
The thing that struck me the most about this book was the detached and brutally honest way Deraniyagala writes about her experience during and after the disaster. She’s not the most “likeable” person; she bluntly recounts many of the thoughts that ran through her mind as she mentally prepared herself to receive confirmation that her family was dead; those thoughts include irritation towards a child crying for his parents in the hours after the tsunami. As her despair sinks deeper, so does her affability. Deraniyagala acts out in ways I’m sure she never could have fathomed before the tsunami.