Monday, April 30, 2018

Take Off Your Shoes

By Ben Feder

Radius Book Group     2018
214 pages     Memoir

Ben Feder had had enough. He was the CEO of Take Two, the interactive game company that created Grand Theft Auto. He was gone from home all the time; the atmosphere at work was toxic; and his health was starting to suffer. He says, “This is when it happens. Where husbands and fathers turn into men they never intended to be. They follow their ambitions, their careers, and their deluded views of what it means to succeed.” At his wife’s suggestion, he decided to take a sabbatical from his business to regroup and renew.

The family of six, including children Sam, Oliver, Rita and Nava took off on the adventure of their lifetimes, traveling in Africa and then to Bali in Indonesia, where they spent several months. The children attended a creative and innovative international school, and Ben and his wife Victoria explored yoga, Buddhist spirituality, painting and motor scooters. 

Feder does a great job of relating his renewal process; his struggles with yoga and spirituality, but also his connection with meditation. He found physical strength with yoga and spiritual strength with meditation as the weeks turned into months. He says, “The goal of meditation was not to empty my mind of thoughts—that would be impossible—but to be so aware of them that I could experience fully the space between them.”

The best part of the entire experience was how the family bonded and supported each other. As Feder was decompressing and finding himself once again, his family did the same. Each child found new avenues for growth as they observed their father and mother stretch and grow. The children related better to each other than they had back in New York. The space between them narrowed. Feder’s son Oliver encouraged him to write the book because he thought that people would want to know how to have this type of experience—this sabbatical.

Things, of course, were strange for the family when they returned to New York. Ben had trouble finding another job—hence the book—but in the end the skills he had gained from meditation helped him to negotiate the job market without panicking, and eventually he did find good employment with a Chinese tech company. But as a family, their lives were completely changed for the better.

Last Friday’s Wall Street Journal had an article called, When a 9-to-5 Job Meets Paradise. The article interviewed several families who had moved to vacation spots to work remotely, putting their children into local schools or homeschooling them and spending their spare time on the beach or skiing. This type of living has become more possible because of technology advancements that allow remote work. I thought of Ben and Victoria Feder and their children all the while I read the article.

I loved the subtitle of Take Off Your Shoes. It is “Corporate Takeover, Spiritual Makeover.” Kirkus Reviews calls the book: “A refreshingly pleasant addition to the journals of self-discovery, with a timely focus on ecological stewardship.”

Ben Feder’s website.

The Beauty of Dirty Skin

By Whitney Bowe, MD

Little Brown     2018
278 pages     Health and Wellness
The Shortlist

Dr. Whitney Bowe, a dermatologist, has created an incredible guide to radiant skin that, while not surprising, relies more on what a person puts in her body than what she puts on her face. In The Beauty of Dirty Skin, Dr. Bowe explains what she calls the gut-brain-skin connection and the value of probiotics for skin care. She discusses dietary recommendations, as well as recommendations for exercise, meditation and sleep.

In the third section of the book, Dr. Bowe puts it all together with a three week schedule and plan of action for “smooth, youthful, clear skin.” This section includes recipes for both your insides and your outsides.
This is an excellent book, full of good, practical advice. Dr. Bowe has appeared on a number of television shows over the last few weeks. You can check out a couple:  Good Morning AmericaThe View, and Rachael Ray.

The Beauty of Dirty Skin is easy to read and understand, very practical, and helpful. I especially appreciated the list of recommended supplements and dosage amounts.

Dr. Bowe’s website.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

The Gospel of Trees: A Memoir

By Apricot Irving 

Simon and Schuster     2018
384 pages     Memoir

Apricot Irving looks back at her life as a child of missionaries in Haiti in the 1980s and 1990s in her memoir, The Gospel of Trees.. Her father, Jon, was an agronomist and went to Haiti to reforest the country. Sometimes his efforts were of little help, and his resulting anger and frustration led to a tumultuous family life. 

The family first went to Haiti when the three girls, Apricot, Meadow, and Rose were quite young; Apricot was six. Jon traveled the countryside preaching the gospel of agronomy to reluctant farmers; his wife, Flip, taught school in the Jericho School, which was where the missionary children went to school. 

 Through those years and from behind the walls of the missionary compound, the family experienced the turmoil that was Haiti —both political turmoil and natural turmoil.

This is how Irving describes her book:  It’s a memoir in many voices about a fractured family finding their way back to each other through words. It’s a meditation on beauty in a broken world, loss and privilege, love and failure, trees and why they matter. It bears witness to the defiant beauty of an undefeated country.

Apricot kept a journal of her growing-up years in Haiti as did each of her parents. Her grandmother kept the letters that the family wrote home, and Apricot also had access to the newsletters that were written by the missionaries to the churches back home that sponsored them. When she gained access to this treasure-trove of information as an adult, she discovered that the narratives were not at all the same. The missionary newsletters told of a desperately poor country, in need of financial help, but the letters were always upbeat—changes were happening, progress was being made, lives were being saved at the hospital. Flip’s letters and journals were poignant and lonely. After one tour of duty, she didn’t want to be there anymore. She wanted to go home. Apricot’s narratives grew, as she grew, from eager child to resentful teenager.

She says of the experience: “In church circles, being a missionary was almost as good as being a movie star.” On the other hand, the altruism of the mission director, the other missionaries, including her father, bred a type of hierarchy that could lead to devastation, resentment, and political complicity. Missionaries lived behind high walls. As Irving grew in understanding, she came to be resentful of the zeal that tries to change what can’t be changed. “God was already here.” Also: “Always it was the same: We placed ourselves, like heroes, at the center of the story. As if it was our destiny to save Haiti. What we couldn’t seem to understand was that Haiti needed our respect, not another failed rescue mission.”

Irving returned in 2010 after a devastating earthquake to report for the radio show, “This American Life.” It was this experience that encouraged her to write up her memories, and her understandings, which had grown tremendously over the years. Her parents return time and again to try to help the Haitians solve their problems. Her parents were there yet again when Apricot came to report. Her realistic look at her parents, her father’s “savior” complex, and the difficulties of the life that they lived—along with the moments of grace and beauty—make for compelling reading.  Through her writing, I understood Apricot’s plight as a child and teenager, and  how her understanding grew when she returned. Certainly, she understood the reasons why her family wasn’t the “perfect” missionary family.

As I read The Gospel of Trees, I remembered Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, which, although fiction, has a similar feel to Irving’s book. Recently, as well, I was exposed to a book called Protestants Abroad: How Missionaries Tried to Change the World, but Changed America. David Hollinger, the author, claims that the American opinion of Asia was changed dramatically by the children of the missionaries who served in Asian countries.

Irving makes the missionary experience much more human than divine.

Review in the Wall Street Journal.

Friday, April 6, 2018

The Perfume Burned His Eyes

By Michael Imperioli
Akashic Books     2018
253 pages     Literary

Well, I really goofed on this book. I didn't recognize the author's name, and I didn’t know who Lou Reed was, one of the main characters. Where have I been? If you don’t know either: Michael Imperioli, the author, is an actor, best known as a character on The Sopranos. Lou Reed, was a famous singer from the 70s and 80s, and the title, The Perfume Burned His Eyes, comes from one of his songs. 

The story takes place when the narrator, Matthew, is in his teens, and Lou Reed is at a low point in his life and career. Matthew and his mother move from Queens to an upscale apartment and an upscale school in Manhattan. Lou Reed and his girlfriend live in the same building. In the truest sense, Matthew comes of age as he relates to Lou as well as to a lovely girl from his class, Veronica, who claims to be a witch and who turns tricks for spending money. He becomes acutely aware of the way others relate to the world, and he grows in his own strength and his own wisdom. Matthew’s view of the world is very much aligned with the city, in all its gritty glory. Finally, the world becomes too much for him and he loses touch with reality for a while. The Booklist reviewer calls him “Holden Caulfield without the cynicism.”

Years later, Matthew meets up with Lou Reed again, and as he watches him perform magnificently, he realizes that they both have come far. “It made me see clear the fluid and idiosyncratic possibilities in our lives, or maybe more accurately: the fluidity and idiosyncrasy that is our lives. It made me see that there are escape routes out of hell, and if we are fortunate we can make a clean getaway and survive.”

The Perfume Burned His Eyes is told completely from Matthew’s perspective. His mother is seldom in the picture, although she does help out when Matthew falls apart. We know Lou Reed only through Matthew’s eyes. We also are aware of Matthew’s very real anguish about Veronica.   Matthew is a moral young man, and he knows that he is treading on dangerous ground as he interacts with her and with Lou Reed. 

As I read, I was reminded of another New York coming of age story that I read recently, Neon in Daylight. Inez, one of its main characters is very similar to Veronica. As a matter of fact, sometimes I got the two confused.

Michael Imperioli said in an interview that he wrote the book during a difficult time in his teenage son’s life, and he had been spending  a lot of time thinking about teenage angst. I could relate to much of it—having gotten three kids through adolescence as a single mother, and now watching teenage grandchildren deal with their own anxieties. I believe that he captured the setting, the times, and the coming of age beautifully. It was a compelling read. 

Here is Lou Reed singing Romeo Had Juliette from which the title The Perfume Burned His Eyes came.