memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: Devotion: A Memoir by Dani Shapiro

Onward with the reading challenges! (Or at least the one I’m most focused on, anyway.) I needed a book with a three-word title for the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge, and, upon searching my TBR, found that my library had an ebook of Devotion: A Memoir by Dani Shapiro (Harper, 2010). This one ended up on my TBR last year after I read her other memoir, Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love, so I was really looking forward to reading her again and ticking off another box on the PopSugar Reading Challenge.

(Side note: Either there aren’t a lot of books with three-word titles, or I am just not drawn to those particular books!)

Ms. Shapiro writes of middle age and the challenges that come along with it. Having almost lost her son as a baby to a seizure disorder has left her with what is most likely some measure of PTSD and her anxiety about him and the rest of life is through the roof. She’s been asking the big questions about the meaning of life and how best to cope, but hasn’t come upon any true answers, and she’s not entirely sure she even knows how to.

Along the way, she discovers yoga and meditation, and those help, as do the lessons she learns from the mentors she seeks out. She also grapples with the Orthodox Judaism with which she was raised and has since abandoned- what parts of it, if any, does she want to retain? How can she pass along to her son a tradition she’s not fully comfortable in or with? There are never any concrete answers, only a sense of becoming comfortable with the questions and discomfort that life causes, and the knowledge that the search, however meandering, is an important part of life.

I liked this. It felt like a poignant read for these times. She occasionally moves back and forth in time, wanders here and there in her memories, but it’s never difficult to follow her train of thought. I understood her anxiety, the kind that wakes you up in the middle of the night (HELLO, THREE AM THIS MORNING!) and makes you unable to enjoy or fully live in this present moment. Worrying about your kids, worrying about the state of the world, that indescribable feeling of dread that pervades every moment of your life and always seems to be hanging out in the background, ready to crank up to eleven at any given moment, Ms. Shapiro does a great job of illustrating what life looks like with this.

Grappling with the religion she was born into is also something I understood, and while our paths differed in that Ms. Shapiro seems to have eventually found a balance with hers, I enjoyed reading the details of her search. At one point, she wrote about finally finding a synagogue that felt like home, and the name of the rabbi rang a bell. I googled, and sure enough, he had appeared on an episode of the Unorthodox podcast (Ms. Shapiro has also appeared on this podcast)! Small world. I love when that happens.

If you’re looking for a memoir with more concrete answers and advice, this may not be the book for you, but Devotion: A Memoir documents well that the journey is important, too; that anxiety, though a constant companion for many of us, can be managed in many different ways; that sometimes what we’re born into needs to be rearranged in order to fit the person we grow into. Two thumbs up for what ended up feeling like a calming read for me during this turbulent time.

Visit Dani Shapiro’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

How to Disappear- Sharon Huss Roat

This book right here? This is why I enjoy reading challenges so much. Without the PopSugar 2020 Reading Challenge prompt for a book about or involving social media, I probably wouldn’t have heard of How to Disappear by Sharon Huss Roat (HarperTeen, 2017), nor would I have been drawn to it via title alone if I had caught a glimpse of it on the shelf while browsing the library shelves. Its title makes it sound a little on the thriller side of things, but this in-depth examination of the devastation anxiety can wreak upon a teenager’s life and the lengths one goes to in order to work around it and feel seen, is in a category of its own. This novel is brilliancy in book form.

Vicky’s on her own. Her lifelong best friend Jenna, the person she used as a cover and her safety in all social situations, has moved away, and as Jenna shows signs, via text and other online conversations, of moving on, Vicky feels as though she’s been thrown to the wolves. She has no other friends, and her terrible social anxiety has her hiding out in the bathroom rather than attend class (it’s that bad). After she overhears a pocket dial phone call where Jenna calls her pathetic, Vicky uses her Photoshop skills to provide photographic evidence that she’s more than just the sad, terrified girl Jenna used to know. But why stop at just one photo? Soon, Vicky’s ‘shop-ing herself into fantastical situations- riding Buckbeak’s back, attending a Foo Fighters concert in the 90’s, dancing with Ellen on the set of her show. And then her Instagram, which she’s named Vicurious, blows up.

People are connecting to Vicurious in an amazing way. Suddenly, Vicky realizes she’s not the only one who feels alone and afraid; even some of her classmates, who don’t realize that Vicky and Vicurious are one and the same, are commenting on her digitally enhanced photographic creations. For once, Vicky feels seen, and she responds by helping others recognize those around them who are hurting as well. Scary new changes are happening for her socially as well, but it’s when tragedy looms that Vicky will grasp her newfound power of Vicurious to save everything and learn that courage doesn’t mean being fearless.

I. Loved. This. Book. I understood Vicky so well. I didn’t make many friends on my own during high school; I never really hung out with anyone on my own whom I didn’t already know from early, early grade school. Yeah, thanks, anxiety. I’m still garbage at making friends, because I can’t get past the voice in my head telling me how awful I am and how not worthy I am of every new situation, but I’ve at least started pushing myself to try new things despite all of this (and it’s STILL scary!). All that’s to say that Sharon Huss Roat writes the struggle and manifestation of anxiety, both generalized and social, exceptionally well. Vicky’s scenes of sitting in the bathroom rather than go to class, fumbling her way through interactions with other students, and panicking over class projects resonated deeply with me, because they’re still all so very real for me.

Vicky losing her best friend to a cross-country move is painful, and their distancing even more so. Her mother tries hard to push her to become more social, and it’s clear from the start that she doesn’t understand anxiety or how it’s affecting her daughter. Her character is also spot-on; my mother, who wasn’t cursed with a terrified brain, acted in similar ways. They both acted from their own place of (mis)understanding and were doing what they thought was best, however frustrating it was for Vicky and me. Their intentions were good! Lipton, the classmate who becomes Vicky’s love interest, is a million forms of adorable. He misses the mark a few times but is accepting and encouraging only in the way that adorable YA love interests can be, and once again, if you’re looking for a swoony, super-sweet sidestory romance, this subplot is a fantastic reason by itself to pick this book up.

The social media aspects of How to Disappear absolutely shine (and made me want to re-download Instagram again! I had to take it off my phone when I was running out of space). Only hoping that Jenna would notice her Vicurious account and rethink who her best friend is, Vicky uses her Instagram not only to help herself feel better, but to reach out to others, to make them feel seen, to make them feel heard and noticed and not so alone. Not only does she start a revolution of kindness, she does so in a way that’s careful of her own mental health, instinctively stepping away when the pressure builds or when her newfound (yet anonymous) massive popularity becomes overwhelming. Never does she let it go to her head; she always maintains a certain distance and the proper perspective about it, and I think that’s an extremely important message in an era when we’re all constantly checking for likes and new followers.

How to Disappear contains talk of anxiety on almost every page, and there’s a frantic scene towards the end that speculates about another character’s potential suicidal ideation, so be careful if these aren’t things you can handle reading about right now.

But if you’re up for it, How to Disappear is an amazing ode to the difficulties and the painfulness of life with anxiety, what it looks like, what it feels like, and how we can exist and even thrive despite it. Take it from me, who has dealt with anxiety my entire life: this book is the real deal, and Sharon Huss Roat gets it. I definitely feel seen. 🙂

Visit Sharon Huss Roat’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

memoir

Going Doolally: An honest tale of anxiety and motherhood- Katie Pickworth

Anxiety and motherhood? Hey, it’s the place where I live!

I can’t say I know anything about life without anxiety; it’s been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. While antidepressants helped me deal with depression, they never quite turned off my constant stream of worst-case-scenario-for-absolutely-every-single-moment that my brain offers up on a daily basis. It’s just become something I’ve learned to live with, or, probably more accurately, live alongside, so when Katie Pickworth offered me a copy of her book, Going Doolally: An honest tale of anxiety and motherhood (independently published, 2019), I accepted, because boy, could I ever relate.

Katie Pickworth’s anxiety started early on in life, affecting both her physical health as a child along with her schooling. As an adult, she found that working in television production on shows like Hell’s Kitchen, EastEnders, and I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here made excellent use of her creative thinking and problem-solving skills, but she still struggled mightily in groups of friends and social situations. And motherhood wasn’t any easier; pre-eclampsia forced her into hospital for an early delivery, and postpartum eclampsia saw that she returned there soon afterwards. She filled the days of her son’s first year with classes and playgroups, making the anxiety-related decision to join a playgroup several towns over as insurance in the event she needed to never see anyone from that group ever again. (I can’t believe I never thought of that!) And then, it was time for baby #2.

Ms. Pickworth writes about her anxiety, motherhood, and all the chaos that accompanies both, with brutal honesty and an incredible amount of self-awareness. Quite a few quotes had me laughing and/or nodding vigorously, including these two:

I didn’t know the sperm stays alive for up to five days. Five days? How is that even possible, or not the most disgusting thing you’ve ever heard?

If this is your first child, just think about [the period of time before you give birth] being very precious, because once the baby comes, the things you used to do without question become the lowest priority, and sometimes that really sucks.

Going Doolally is not without issues: I felt as though it could have been better organized; the writing wanders at times, lacking a strong sense of direction and focus; it ends with a series of Facebook updates from her sons’ first years, which felt out of place and not applicable to what the rest of the book was trying to achieve . But where this memoir shines is Ms. Pickworth’s candor about her struggles, and the authenticity of her voice. So many of the things she said, I could relate to, having dealt with similar situations myself. She writes,

There are some with the opinion that when you have young children, the washing up and such chores can wait. The trouble is, when you’re like me, that’s utter bollocks.

SAME. I’m the farthest thing from a neat freak, but I can’t think straight in a room strewn with toys, or relax when I KNOW there are dishes in the sink and people have left items all over the counters. I will work myself into pain (because I also suffer from chronic pain) in order to complete these chores, because otherwise, my anxiety skyrockets.

Ms. Pickworth may not have all the answers, but she knows what she’s talking about when it comes to living with anxiety, and, at 112 pages, this book would make a quick but informative read for any anxiety-sufferer thinking about becoming a parent OR the spouse or partner of someone with anxiety. Trying to explain what we’re feeling and how deeply we struggle isn’t always easy, but Going Doolally does a fantastic job portraying what parenting looks like when you’re eyebrow-deep in your own brain trying to convince you to worry about and fear every. last. thing.

I know it’s important to never give up. I also know it’s important to pick your anxiety battles.

Excellent advice, advice that I definitely need to incorporate into my life.

Huge thanks to Katie Pickworth for providing me a copy of your book to read and review!