I thought I'd have all kinds of time to read on our vacation. I did, but I brought the wrong book. It turns out that "beach read" is a real thing. For July, we have short and inspiring, short and funny, and short and mysterious. Like me.
1. Breaking Night: A Memoir of Forgiveness, Survival, and My Journey from Homeless to Harvard by Liz Murray
Liz Murray grew up in a filthy apartment in the Bronx with parents who were addicted to cocaine. Her mother was legally blind and qualified for welfare assistance. When the check came every month, Liz's parents would go get their drugs, then they'd get a few groceries with the left over money. Liz's father would dumpster dive for any extras the family needed. No one really took care of Liz or her sister, Lisa. Liz had head lice in the first grade for about six months.
Liz's father spent time in prison for writing phony prescriptions. While he was gone, Liz's mother (Jeannie) kept the apartment clean, food in the house, and she didn't do drugs. "I learned with some degree of relief, as well as hurt, that all three of us could go an entire month eating dinner each night, and usually with something to eat during the day as well, on that same check that I'd spent years watching Ma and Daddy deplete in only days following its arrival, Had it been possible to feed us this well all along?"
Any time her parents were together, the drugs were back on the table (literally). Jeannie's absences were due to her serious mental illness. She would have psychotic breaks about once a year and she'd spend about six months in a psychiatric hospital. While Jeannie was gone, Liz's father (Ted) held the apartment together well and kept the girls fed. Talk about bringing out the worst in each other - I marveled (usually out loud) at how awful Liz's parents were as a team. They made me feel much better about myself during my post-vacation blah-ness.
When Liz is in junior high, she skips school 30 too many times and is put in a group home. Her father signs the papers giving her up right in front of her. Liz spends a year in the group home, then is released to her mother, who is now living with a boyfriend and Liz's sister in a better neighborhood. Liz tries going to school again and makes friends. Friends who want to skip school with her. She misses most of high school and starts seeing a guy, Carlos, who is supposedly charming but only because Liz says he is - I didn't see it. Surprise, Carlos is a drug dealer. It takes Liz (who has never done drugs after seeing what it did to her parents) too long to figure out that she needs to get away from Carlos. By the time she does, her mother has died of AIDS and her father is in a homeless shelter. Her sister is still living with the Mom's boyfriend, but Liz hates that guy (there must be something left out of that whole situation because she doesn't cut the boyfriend any slack even though he took all three of them in and provided for them for several years) and she refuses to live in the same place. (True, the boyfriend is described as completely disgusting and verbally abusive to Jeannie, but Liz's mother and father let her starve and did drugs right in front of her. I thought that was worse, really.) Liz also doesn't want to be put back into a home, so she starts living with friends or sleeping on the subway or at the top landing of apartment buildings. She finds an alternative high school and decides she is going to finish high school.
I'm glad I stuck with this book. The first two-thirds were so over-the-top I wondered many times if this could possibly be true. Murray's descriptions of the so-called good times with her friends were the worst part of the book. The dialogue between Liz and her friends is painful. Stuff like, "Girl, you be trippin'." Gag. BUT! When the time came for her to graduate and apply for scholarships I was crying like a baby. Liz finished high school in two years and got a New York Times scholarship because of her essay about being homeless while going to high school. (She didn't tell any of the teachers at school she was homeless so they wouldn't take her to a group home. She put it in the essay because by then she was too old to be in the system anymore.) Ms. Murray imagined herself on a track and each time she didn't want to get up in the morning, she'd imagine herself jumping over a hurdle on the track. She knew her goal was a worthy one and that it was the "right track" - anything that got in her way was a hurdle on that track. I really liked that. I also liked that she figured out what she wanted, then made a list of all the things she'd need to do to get what she wanted. One thing at a time, and the goal was accomplished.
The reason Liz Murray wanted to go to high school and get her degree was because she wanted options. Jeannie didn't have options, as she often told her daughter. It's a difficult thing to explain to a young person, but since Liz could see that her mother was so addicted to drugs that she had cut her options down to almost nothing, Liz knew she needed to do everything in her power not to end up in the same situation. This book may turn out to be fiction (it's happened before, right?), but that lesson is decidedly true.
2. Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life by Steve Martin
This book solved two problems for me - I needed to read something quickly and I needed a reason to look forward to working out. I've always liked Steve Martin and this book got some good reviews. Even better were the reviews of the audio version. How can I own an iPod for six months and never listen to a book on it while I'm working out?! Steve Martin is reading the book on the audio version, too. That was the best part - hearing Steve Martin tell me about his life.
More specifically his life in comedy. He recalls some childhood memories that led him to being a performer - the ones with his mother were delightful. Martin's relationship with his father was strained, but it was that relationship that drove Steve to magic, comedy, and art.
Steve Martin worked at Disneyland right when it opened and he was only 10 years old. He learned magic, comic timing, and even roping tricks from the various entertainers at Disneyland. This was a fun section in the book. I could hear the fondness in Martin's voice as he recalled his days at Disneyland and then Knott's Berry Farm. (He emphasized the Berry in Knott's Berry Farm. I noted it every time.)
The years Martin spent as a stand-up comedian were a little sad. He worked on his act constantly and he took it very seriously. He traveled all over and was usually alone. It sounded pretty depressing. Apparently it was depressing.
Between chapters I heard Martin playing the banjo. Seriously - you have to listen to this book to really enjoy it. Toward the end, Martin describes reconciling with his father and spending time with his ailing mother. I was jogging through a cemetery at the time, so that may have made it more poignant than it actually was, but I enjoyed those moments of the book. (I got the photo from The New York Times book review of Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life. The review is insightful, but not very nice, ultimately. I enjoyed it more than the reviewer did. Here it is if you need more information before you buy/read a book.)
In Chapter 8, Martin repeats some of his favorite stuff from his act. Here's my favorite from his favorites: "I learned in comedy never to alienate the audience, otherwise I would be like Dmitri in 'La Condition Humaine'." Hee!
3. Murder on Astor Place by Victoria Thompson
I have always loved mystery novels. I spent most of my grade school years reading Nancy Drew and Trixie Beldon. Kellie and I used to pretend we were Trixie Beldon and her ding-dong blond friend, Honey. We solved the mystery of the hollowed out tree with the beer bottles in it! Super sleuths.
Where was I? Oh, yes! Victoria Thompson has written quite a few mystery novels all set in turn-of-the-century New York City. I guess this is the first one, but hopefully the heroine is the same in all the books, because she's a fun one. Her name is Sarah Brandt and she comes from high society (so many rules!), but instead of following in her family's footsteps, she breaks the mold and becomes a midwife. Sarah is also a widow in her early-thirties.
A young society girl is murdered in a rented room the night after Sarah Brandt helps deliver a baby to the woman who owns the building. Detective Malloy is on the case. Soon Sarah and Detective Malloy are unlikely friends solving the case together, even though the murdered girl's family wants to keep the whole thing under wraps to save their reputation. Dun Dun DUUUUNNNN. :)
The writing can be obvious, but the historical tidbits are fun and the mystery is a good one. Just what I needed.