On Self-Inflicted Wounds

I’m crazy for all things Aisha right now. I first knew Aisha Tyler (as many people did) as Ross’ black girlfriend on the sitcom Friends. Little did I know back then, Ms. Tyler is a lady of very many talents (podcaster, comedian, writer, actress, TV host, writer), vast intelligence, and unparalleled quirkiness. My husband recently got me into her excellent interview podcast, Girl on Guy, on which she speaks with mostly male comedians and entertainers about their origin stories and always finishes up with a tale of their worst self-inflicted wound (Chris Rock’s is pretty epic and can be heard here). I’ve even gone so far as to make my husband suffer through rampant applause breaks and painfully shallow gossip during the 2:00 hour on snow days by watching The Talk, the panel-style afternoon talk show that Ms. Tyler co-hosts along with Cheryl Underwood, Sharon Osbourne, Julie Chen, and Sarah Gilbert. I just can’t get enough of this lady.

So I also picked up her second book entitled Self-Inflicted Wounds” Heartwarming Tales of Epic Humiliation. Not truly a memoir, nor really an essay collection, the book defies any kind of classification. Ms. Tyler first explains the concept of the self-inflicted wound, essentially an event of supreme pain, humiliation, shame, failure, etc. for which you have no one to blame but yourself. She then goes on to recount a series of said wounds experienced in her own life, from childhood up to now. The stories are humorous, well-told, and surprisingly (well maybe not too surprisingly because after all my girl did go to Dartmouth) ripe with wisdom and intelligence. They run the gamut from literal wounds, broken bones, and physical scars to emotional and psychological injuries. Unlike most of us, Aisha owns these shameful incidents with pride, never afraid to make fun of herself, point out her flaws, and pass on a good lesson learned. She fuses the funny with the sage, always coming up with some insight from each tale, no matter how silly and impractical or universal and true. This book even brings in the motivational/self-help genre, as Aisha pushes her readers and fans (as she loving refers to them, her army) to pursue their dreams and be okay with failing in an effort to achieve success (like she did). Really this book couldn’t challenge the boundaries of any single literary category more and that made me like it all the more.

Aisha’s playful idioms kept me smiling and her prodigious footnotes kept me in stitches – and I rarely, if ever, laugh aloud while reading. Since she’s a comedian for a living, I expected the book to be humorous but it takes a lot of smart to be this funny. And Aisha won’t let you forget her wit and wisdom, for as soon as she talks about doing something as stupid as lighting her own kitchen on fire or breaking her arm and then snowboarding down a mountain three more times before seeking medical attention, she turns around and composes a heartfelt, well considered essay about the homeless community of San Francisco or references a quote from a brilliant philosopher to remind you that there is some substance behind the wackiness. Tangents and asides are ripe in this one, but whenever Aisha gets off track, she comes back around to draw connections between the various topics knotted up in one little essay that are at once logical and hilarious. Highly pedantic, Aisha resorts to the type of vocabulary and references that prove her intellectual prowess more than a few times, although she never alienates readers with her smarts because it’s all in the service of humor. The girl can write and she does so with great care and personality and pizzazz.

On Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived In That House

Meghan Daum’s pseudo-memoir “Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived In That House” is an account of her life told in zip codes, outrageous home prices, swoon-worthy woodwork, disastrous architectural layouts, and soul-crushing house hunting failures. I worried that I would quickly grow weary of a 245-page book about the trials and tribulations of real estate, despite my love of all things interior design and HGTV which, like Daum, I can wholeheartedly attribute to my mother’s influence. But “Life Would Be Perfect” is far more engrossing than even a final reveal episode of Rehab Addict. Via her constant search for the perfect home, Daum takes readers on a deep and entertaining exploration of her life story and the seemingly-innate desire for homeownership. Our author is a fascinating and intelligent personality in her own rite which makes her book so readable; Daum writes brilliantly, with great wit and an expansive vocabulary, but also frankly, exposing her flaws, pretensions, and ridiculousness to readers with no holds barred.

By meditating on her history of homes, and a very robust history it is as she tried on dorms, apartments, and houses with more fervor than most brides search for the perfect gown, Daum explores the way our abodes cradle not just our daily lives but also our very precious identities. We follow Daum in her exhausting efforts to fulfill her childhood dream of renting a sprawling and elegantly bohemian New York apartment to her more adult (but still childlike) desire for a Laura Ingalls Wilder-style prairie farmhouse, farm included notwithstanding the fact that Daum has really only ever lived in suburbia or New York City.

Over each incarnation of Daum’s elusive, imagined perfect home, she explores what longings were at the heart of her search – the desire to be among the New York literary elite, living in a home filled with the warmth of worn Oriental rugs, the sound of intellectual conversation, and the subtle essence of effortless wealth; a display of rugged individualism and the pull of a vast landscape in her own little house on the prairie; the appearance of self-possession, confidence, and excellent taste conveyed via careful interior design as a prerequisite for introducing one’s home, and thus one’s very self, to a new suitor. This theme of home being mixed up with imagined identities and real hope is perfectly captured in the very title of Daum’s book, playing upon the equal parts ridiculous and rational belief that our homes define us, that our houses can make or break or alter our lives, that the places we live are of profound significance, that our decor has meaning all its own.

Though this is a story of housing dreams and disasters, it also encourages readers to engage with Daum, at once a frustratingly impulsive and entirely relatable narrator. As she signs yet another lease or completes the paperwork to purchase a home in Lincoln, Nebraska the very same day she first saw it, readers will at turns cringe, be consumed with jealousy, wonder at the cost of all those damn movers, cheer her on, and wish to see these homes, both the gorgeous and the ramshackle ones, in the flesh. I reveled in descriptions of her beloved New York City apartment on 100th St between West End Avenue and Riverside Drive, pursed my lips in disgust at her search for a home in the smog- and traffic-laden, over-priced hills of Los Angeles, and envisioned what my own prairie farm home would entail. I wished I could try on homes for size just as much as Daum, then gently reminded myself how much I deplore the reality of moving. But my shuffling thoughts were always followed by a wistfully envious phase, envy of Daum’s freedom both financial and geographical, her bold search for a perfect place to call home.

Balanced by the reality that our homes, like ourselves, are imperfect and impermanent spaces, “Life Would Be Perfect” inspired dreams of my own ideal forever home and sparked reflections upon the places I have lived, been defined by, missed out on, and hope yet to find. Unlike the cookie-cutter perfection of interior design and home-buying shows that leave me bereft, covetous, and unsatisfied with my own slightly grubby, hand-me-down rental, Daum’s indulgent meditation on her housing history made me more fond of my own space and all its reflections of me (not including its grubbiness though). Culling wisdom from years of attending open houses, making more moves than I could keep track of, and renovating to perfection, Meghan Daum considers why home is so important to us, how the physical and aesthetic concerns begin to override the true function of a house, and the true measure of a perfect home.

On Being Flynn

Though I have yet to come across a Paul Dano film I didn’t enjoy, I sadly can’t say the same for Robert De Niro. The latter’s latest effort in Being Flynn, however, surely pleased (and hopefully signals more satisfying performances to come). The two acting powerhouses play opposite one another in Being Flynn, a recently-released indie film based on Nick Flynn’s memoir entitled Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. I was intrigued enough by the book’s title when I came across it years ago to buy a copy for myself, but it was only recently that I actually sat down and read the thing. Though I enjoyed Flynn’s memoir, this was one of those very rare cases (if not the only case) in which I enjoyed the film version better than the book.

Dano as Nick Flynn and De Niro as Nick’s father Jonathan deliver performances that carry this movie along, as I imagine it would have dragged a bit if headed by less talented actors. The story is of a family far beyond dysfunctional, entering the territory of defunct. Though Jonathan was largely absent for the majority of his son’s life, Nick knew of his father’s delusions of being one of the nation’s most brilliant novelists from a very young age. With this knowledge in the back of his mind, Nick hesitantly followed is his father’s wayward footsteps, pursuing the craft of writing himself.

Though Nick’s path is not quite as turbulent and disarrayed as his father’s, the younger Flynn inherits plenty of baggage from his parents’ nonexistent relationship, being raised in a home headed by a single mother, and the constant rotation of father figures that entered and quickly exited his life. Nick stumbles upon work at a Boston homeless shelter while between jobs and soon finds himself stationed in gainful employment. When Jonathan shows up in line at the shelter one winter night, the small semblance of stability Nick has forged is quickly thrown off balance and his father’s delusions of literary grandeur become impossible to ignore.

I appreciated Flynn’s memoir for the story he had to tell; it was only his narrative style that left me less than satisfied. I entered the theater with less than high hopes for the film version, not sure how Nick’s complicated story would play out on screen. But I was very much pleased by the cinematic storytelling, the pacing of the movie, and the performances delivered. Though there is yet to be an exceedingly positive consensus from the critics (according to Rotten Tomatoes), I definitely think Being Flynn is worth a shot. I left the theatre feeling good, pleased by the $7.50 investment I made in the matinee showing. Despite my misgivings with the written version of Flynn’s story, the film portrayal was much more satisfying and capitalized on the potential provided by Flynn’s life story and excellent casting.

On First They Killed My Father

Like Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, Loung Ung’s memoir First They Killed My Father is the kind of book that leaves an indelible mark on each and every one of its readers, a book which contains a story too horrific to believe but too terrible to be a product of mere imagination. I first learned of Loung Ung when Mary Pipher made note of Ung’s other book, Lucky Child, which my library did not have in stock. I’m so glad that I decided to give Ung’s other work a try, for as difficult as First They Killed My Father was to read, it is a story that, as the San Francisco Chronicle says, “those who have suffered cannot afford to forget and those who have been spared cannot afford to ignore.”

Ung’s story is of Pol Pot’s takeover of Cambodia which initiated a brutal genocide from 1975 through the end of the decade. When Pot’s Khmer Rouge army invaded Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital and the Ung family’s city of of residence, Luoung, her six siblings, and her parents were forced to flee to the country’s rural villages. The Ung family was initially lucky; though Luong’s Pa was a high ranking official of the Lon Nol government, he saved his life by successfully lying about his prior position with the government that the Khmer Rouge had overthrown. Their luck didn’t last for long, however, as the family was soon sent to work fourteen hour days at a labor camp, living in near-starvation and laboring under hostile conditions and brutal heat. Things only grew worse from there as the various members of the Ung family were separated, sent to other camps, and some were never seen again.

The Ung family struggle is not atypical of that suffered by the vast majority of Cambodians during the mid to late 1970s. What is incredibly remarkable about Luong’s story in particular, however, is that she was a mere six years old when the Khmer Rouge forced her family to flee the city. All of the suffering, the horrific scenes she witnessed, and the brutality she experienced are expressed in her book with impressive clarity and extraordinary detail through the eyes of a young girl. Luong’s decision to share her story from the perspective of her younger self makes this story truly riveting. As Luong details the violence and murders to which she bore witness, it is impossible to forget just how young she was – a mere child – when all of these experiences took place. Though the horrors of the Khmer Rouge are affecting no matter what age their victims, these events became exponentially more harrowing when seen through a child’s eyes.

Luong’s story is one that needs to be shared and, fortunately, is incredibly captivating from the first page. As she introduces you to her beloved Pa, her graceful Ma, and the wide array of personalities belonging to each of her six siblings, it is easy to imagine the privileged childhood she would have otherwise led. Luong came from a rowdy but loving home, one whose memories she cherishes all the more for how brief her time in its warmth and joy. Luong’s fondness for her Phnom Penh childhood is easily impressed upon readers, as is the devastation she felt when she realized she would never seen her old home in her native city again.

Ung’s book is also a rarity in that she outlines the political conflicts underlying the Khmer Rouge takeover with great clarity and simplicity. Luong offers enough background to provide readers with an understanding of how the Khmer Rouge came to power without causing undue confusion or offering excessive detail. After all, her story isn’t about the politics behind this episode of Cambodian brutality but the way in which it was experienced by the people, the deep mark it left on the families, communities, and individuals of a country torn by unbelievable violence, devastation, and genocide.

And though I don’t believe Luong attempts to do so, she paints herself as quite a remarkable and uniquely heroic child. Her demonstrations of bravery and courage, traits that are barely formative in most six-year-old children, force readers to play out their own hypothetical reactions to the multiple situations in which Luong finds herself. From stealing away to visit her family after she is relocated to a new camp to independently traveling to a jail with the express purpose of watching a Khmer Rouge soldier’s murder after the army’s downfall, it is hard to imagine most children of her age making the kinds of decisions which Luong chooses again and again. Her narrative is equally marked by a constant childlike hopefulness, for Luong places deep faith in the strength of her family’s love to carry each of them through this genocide so they can be together when it’s all over. The unique character of the story’s narrator is one of the book’s most compelling assets and, I’m convinced, one of the reasons why Luong was able to endure.

First They Killed My Father is easily one of the most important books I ever have and ever will read. Ung shares a tragedy that far too few people know about, a story of Cambodian genocide that eradicated 20% of an entire nation’s population. Over 2 million individuals, out of a population of 7 million, lost their lives at the hands of the Khmer Rouge army. Luong sheds light on the forces that created such a horrific episode in Cambodia’s history as well as the daily reality of a Cambodian living during this time. Her story is hard to tear yourself away from, impossible to ignore, and undeniably difficult to endure. While I don’t know that I have ever cried as much while reading a single book, no amount of sadness is worth skipping Ung’s First They Killed My Father. Luong’s book tells a remarkably hopeful story in the face of absolutely harrowing circumstances, a story that desperately needs to be shared and never to be ignored.