Sunday, October 28, 2012

I'M THE ONE THAT I WANT by Margaret Cho

In her brilliant memoir, comedienne  Margaret Cho analyzes her life with the skill of an offbeat poet-philosopher.

I’m The One That I Want is a tiny gem, hard, tough, searing and unrelenting in its honesty.  (It’s that unrelenting honesty that made me feel weary by the end of the book.  But I felt I’d accomplished something.)
Ms.  Cho re-lives a litany of bad relationships with boyfriends she dislikes/hates and can’t wait to dump.  Three men stand out.  Jon and Glenn—the two men she fell in love with—are incapable of reciprocating her love (not to mention the fact they both have girlfriends).  With the third man—Marcel, her fiancĂ©--she almost lives out her “wedding fantasy” even though she is not in love with him.  

The book is, at times, stunning, beautiful, unexpected.  The scenes of Cho being harassed as a child by other Korean children at camp are painful to read.  In her teen years, she was expelled from high school to the deep shame of her conservative/traditional Korean parents.  Later, in Louisiana, college students booed Cho while she was on stage.  Marcel was a chance at conventional happiness.

She writes that “it never occurred to me to break up with him. . . .  I’d also miss all the attention couples who are presumably in love get. . . .  People look at you with admiration.  I’d see the faraway look that some women would get, the envy, delicious and cold.   I was not so willing to give up that privilege, no matter how much it cost me.  Everybody thought I was so lucky.”

One day--once Cho had mentally released her “wedding fantasy”--she scribbled out a list that ended with, “Find the strength to leave Marcel.”  Weeks later, she was still engaged, still unable to release the real Marcel.  “I cried and cried and tried to stop crying as I went into the supermarket.”  As Cho waited in line, an elderly lady glimpsed how distraught Cho was and said, “ ‘We have a while.  Do you want to tell me what’s the matter?’”  Eventually, Cho responded, “ ‘I have to break up with my boyfriend, but I just feel so guilty.’ ”

To which the lady said, “ ’Oh, honey, I felt so guilty, I married him.’ ”

Once she finally released Marcel, “Accepting myself was like getting to know a new friend.”  Cho  produced a CD and wrote and opened her Broadway show, “I’m the One That I Want”—even as she maintained her sobriety and lost weight (alongside her best friend, her dog Ralph).

Toward the end of the book, Cho writes, “Learning how to love myself from within, to make my opinion count the most, knowing that no one and nothing is going to save me except myself—these are the lessons I have been forced to learn.  That is what my life now is all about.”

--Yolanda A.  Reid


Copyright © 2012  by Y.A. Reid


“Whenever I start dating someone new, I just can’t hold back” begins  author Giulia Melucci’s memoir— I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti.  The Brooklyn-born author  goes on to recount her lovelorn days and how she overfed her ex-boyfriends with an array of scrumptious pasta dishes (linguini, pastina, rigatoni, spaghetti, etc.).  This “chick lit” book charts Melucci’s fruitless foray into the dating world:  From Kit, her first love, through Lachlan, the love who inspired her to write this memoir, and all the artfully cooked meals-and-recipes in between.

Each chapter—with titles such as “The Victory Breakfast,” ”The Ethan Binder School of Cooking,” “Marcus Caldwell Ate and Ran,”—de-constructs the relationship with each boyfriend.  Most are writers (if not starving, then frugal) Melucci loved, cooked for, then was dumped by.  In the process, she explores the nexus between gastronomy, appetite, and love.

Toward the end of the book, Melucci explains how she manages a single woman’s existence in a couple’s world.   “My own dinner parties,” she  writes,  “are  full of couples. . . .  And as my guests compliment my cooking, which feels great, I also have to hear them wonder aloud why it is I'm not married, which feels awful.  The person who brings it up is usually a man, a man married to a woman who doesn't cook.”

Melucci is well-educated, erudite, cosmopolitan, witty, employed at the time as an editor/vice-president at Harper’s Magazine.  A rock-music aficionado.  A wine connoisseur.  She knows a soufflĂ© from a sorbet.  She jogs, does Pilates, and summers in the Hamptons.

Sometime after Ethan and before Marcus, I wished Melucci would go back to Ethan—a Rolling Stone Magazine/MTV writer and her true love.  For they had mutual friends, interests, and temperaments, each beloved by the other’s family.  Instead, she allowed herself to be dumped by Mitch, who ended his break-up e-mail with, “. . . I just don’t feel like having a girlfriend right now.”

Then, later, Lachlan–an obscure Scottish novelist when she met him—who uttered these “plenty perceptive” words: ”The only thing wrong with you is that you think something is wrong with you. . . .“  After she managed the herculean feat of getting him an agent, and, ultimately, an enviable book deal, Lachlan “un-friended” her.  He did not marry her.  (To be fair, she seemed to dislike him by the time of their break-up.)

Toward the end of the book, Melucci purchased her dream apartment--whose previous tenant found her husband on  Hopefully, the apartment is blessed by a fairy-techno godmother who grants each single female tenant her ultimate wish.  For we desperately wish the author to find true and lasting love, and to live happily ever after!  (Probably, Melucci needs a therapist, a matchmaker, or both.)

I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti is a witty, insightful, fun read as you sprawl on your couch (or, in warm weather, in your backyard)—in which author Giulia Melucci shares the angst of being a sassy, independent/co-dependent, single woman in a cosmopolitan city.  

–Yolanda A.  Reid


Copyright © 2012  by Y.A. Reid

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

AROUND THE BLOC by Stephanie Elizondo Griest

Around the Bloc: My Life in Moscow, Beijing, and Havana is an exuberant, energetic, informative, and entertaining account of Stephanie Elizondo Griest’s travels:  she spent a year studying in Russia, another year working as a journalist at a Chinese newspaper, and vacationed for a few days in Cuba.

The author’s first book, Around the Bloc is divided into three sections, by country.  We get to peek into the daily lives of Russian students.  We learn that when they party, young Russians consume an astonishing amount of vodka.

We also get to hear this unprocessed world view from Russians themselves.  Nadezhda—the author’s friend, at the time—said, “All Russian women do is try to look good for men.”  An acquaintance said, “Here, it is very difficult to live.”  Karina, a Russian woman, said, “You American feminists are always fighting for the right to work, but we’re sick of it!”

My favorite moment in Russia is Griest’s confrontation with Misha, a twenty-something man she met at a party.  Misha liked U2, the music band—“They are the only American group I can stand”—but he hated America, based on films and TV he’d seen.  He said, “It’s crap, just like everything else from that country.”

Griest valiantly defended the United States:  “I’m the first to criticize my country’s cultural exports, but, somehow, hearing it from him ticked me off. ‘You don’t know s--- about my country!’ ”  She ends this exchange by writing, “Determined to have the last word, I screamed:  ‘And U2 are Irish, not American, you idiot!’ as he headed out the door.”

But if each traveler is a mini-ambassador for his or her country, then Griest was a good one: she was sensitive when necessary (as in China, when the chief editor criticized her at length, she humbly accepted without comment) and feisty, if unduly challenged (as with Misha).   She drank a cocktail of “snake blood” at a farewell banquet in China.  She declined, however,  a Cuban woman’s offer to buy the jeans Griest was wearing.

In China, cultures were at odds.  At times, very subtly.  For example, when the chief editor, Lao Chen, requested that Griest work at the  newspaper on a weekend she had planned to spend on vacation.  Several times, Griest said she’d made other plans.  Several times Lao Chen said, “So think about it, and let me know”—or words to that effect.  She did not realize this was a request she should not refuse.

My guess is that of the three countries, Cuba was the most thought-provoking for the author.  She said as much after Armando, perceptive and self-assured, said:  “So why don’t you speak Spanish if your mother is Mexican?”  This question raised an issue the author has probably wrestled with all of her life.  She explained that her mother had been taunted over her accent while growing up.  Griest’s mother chose to spare her children this embarrassment by speaking to them in English, with little or no Spanish.

The chapters in which the author discussed her family history were, for me, the most compelling, the most moving.

Moreover, with typical American openness, she exposed a couple of her personal issues:  for example, an ex-boyfriend she still carried a torch for.

Anyone interested in life in Russia or China or Cuba—or travel in general—will enjoy reading Around the Bloc.   The author revealed herself with a frankness that might embarrass the cows her ex-boyfriend used to milk in Colombia—which adds to the book’s value.  When she described a cabdriver in Cuba who was happy to remain in his homeland, she did not judge him.

Around the Bloc  is an engaging, fascinating, must-read with just enough historical information so as not to be boring.

--Yolanda A.  Reid


Copyright © 2008-2012  by Y.A. Reid