Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner

Michelle Zauner’s wildly popular memoir, Crying in H Mart, is everything everyone said it would be: devastating and beautifully written. Zauner is a musician who rose to fame with her band Japanese Breakfast with their breakout album Psychopomp which came out in 2016. Her memoir, though, is not about her musical fame, but about her mother’s terminal cancer diagnosis and the months following her death. 

Zauner grew up in Eugene, Oregon, which is the backdrop of her contentious childhood and difficult relationship with her mother. She describes her mother as “not a mommy-mom,” compared to the mothers of her classmates. She was not as warm or affectionate as Michelle thought she ought to have been, but as she grew into adulthood the two became much closer. Her mother’s diagnosis only cemented her filial love, and they ultimately became “innately, intrinsically intertwined.” 

Food fuels the story. The title, for one, references the Asian grocery store chain H Mart, but Korean food is also woven into every aspect of the narrative: The fish covered in gochujang Zauner’s mother makes for her before she leaves for college; the “tender short rib” with “Hard-boiled soy-sauce eggs sliced in half, crunchy bean sprouts flavored with scallions and sesame oil, doenjang jjigae with extra broth, and chonggak kimchi, perfectly soured” she prepares when she comes to visit after the initial cancer diagnosis; the jatjuk (pine nut porridge) Zauner makes for her mother during her final months and continues to make for herself when she is gone; the doenjang jjigae (fermented soybean soup) she makes the day after her funeral.

Perhaps the most powerful element of Zauner’s story is how she ties the living memory of her mother to the Korean food she ate as a child and learns to cook in her mother’s absence. Each dish holds a piece of her mother. Each conversation she stumbles through in Korean grasps at her mother. She found a home in her mother’s culture, thus allowing her to embrace that culture as her own.

Zauner’s memoir is striking in many ways, but one of the most profound is how she brings a humanity to her mother that we sometimes struggle to do with a parent. After her mother’s death, she learns more about her than she ever knew while she was alive. She realized how similarly she and her mother saw the world, how their emotional turmoil was inseparable, and how the memory of her mother would continue with her. Even as just a reader and spectator at the sidelines of Zauner’s relationship with her mother, Crying in H Mart feels like a tether between the two that now lives beyond their physical bodies. It was beautiful to read about and I think Zauner did an excellent job memorializing her mother with this book.

This title is also available in the following formats:

Large Print

Libby eBook

Libby eAudiobook

Cultish by Amanda Montell

Okay, language lovers–You have to add Cultish to your to-read list! Amanda Montell’s explorative work weaves together several interviews and primary accounts of people who have been entrapped by the linguistic power of, yes, cults, but also of organizations like Crossfit or multi-level marketing schemes. With each former cult member and cult-like group that Montell examines, she picks apart the diction that is used to isolate and persuade potential followers–and how saturated our society is with this linguistic phenomenon. 

She begins by discussing the heavily debated difference between religious groups and cults. It turns out that even incredibly well-researched academics cannot narrow down criteria that technically distinguishes one from the other. One difference that has been pointed to, though, is the age of the organization or faith-based group. Christianity, Islam, and Judiasm are ancient and that passage of time grants a respect to organized religions that newer organizations do not have. They do, however, still use language that makes individuals feel special and eventually creates a divide between them and those outside the group. Cults, Montell argues, do this as well and then some. 

What sends cults and cult-like groups into territory that alarms most people in ways religion doesn’t is the way they warp language. A commonality amongst all the groups that Montell examines is how they expand the standard definition of words in the English language to fit their needs. The end result is believing in a shared language that is fundamentally different from the vernacular our society uses to function together, which is ultimately divisive. 

Montell also debunks and demystifies the idea of “brainwashing,” explaining that it is incredibly unlikely for so many minds to be overtaken by buzz-words, mantras, and glossolalia against their will. For one’s mind to become complacent in what we colloquially refer to as “brainwashing” they must already be in a state of mind where they want to be controlled and validated. There is a “charisma” that cults have, Montell argues. They make people feel safe and not alone, which is attractive to most and is the reason why so many people get caught up in cultish groups. 

As someone who loves words and how powerful language is, I hung onto every word of Cultish. There is an incredible variety to Montell’s research, which provides an approachable reading experience that allows you to put it down and pick it back up without disrupting the narrative flow. I could write many more paragraphs about her findings and arguments, but I will leave you all with this sliver of insight into this riveting book. I cannot recommend this enough! 

This title is also available as a Book-on-CD

 

Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer

If you, too, are interested in all things true crime I recommend Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith

In the last couple months, a few television series were released that depict the dangers of extreme and fundamental religious faith, most notably Netflix’s docuseries Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey and Hulu’s adaptation of Under the Banner of Heaven. Amidst my viewing of these revealing and disturbing episodes about Fundamental Latter Day Saints, I felt it necessary to read Krakauer’s narrative exposé of the gruesome murders of a mother and her baby at the hands of her brothers-in-law. Ron and Dan Lafferty, the brothers who committed this evil act, rooted their reasoning in their Mormon Fundamentalist faith, and more specifically in some of the incredibly dark and violent origins of the religion. 

Krakauer situates his book somewhere in-between a history lesson about Latter Day Saints and a journalistic account of this double homicide. His reports are researched and informed by several interviews, notably from Dan Lafferty (one of the murderers). What I found to be particularly captivating about the book are the interviews leading up to the murders of Brenda and Erika Lafferty, and how Krakauer weaves them together with the historical narrative of the Mormon Church. So many of the Lafferty friends and family members knew that the brothers were planning to “remove” Brenda and her baby from this world, but no one stopped them. The “why” to this question is what ultimately fuels Krakauer’s book. 

Though I would not use this book for academic research about the modern LDS church–none of the historical information is explicitly his own, nor is he himself Mormon–Krakauer’s examination of how damaging religious faith can be when it is blind and unrelenting is superbly executed. 

Krakauer proves to be an expert non-fiction writer who can illuminate reality without supplementing fact with fabrications. I highly recommend Under the Banner of Heaven if you are in any way interested in true-crime, or if you are falling down the rabbit hole of religious-extremist media coverage like myself. 

 

Unicorn: The Memoir of a Muslim Drag Queen by Amrou Al-Kadhi

As part of my Pride Month reading this year, I tried to pick up books that would help me learn about the diverse experiences of LGBTQ+ people beyond the margins of white, cisgender America. Amrou Al-Kadhi [they/them] expertly does just so in their memoir, Unicorn: The Memoir of a Muslim Drag Queen. This lavish and raw autobiography renders a refreshing peek into the life of a queer Iraqi-British Muslim drag queen- an intersectional identity that demands the careful and nuanced representation Al-Kadhi offers in their memoir. 

In their beautifully written story, Al-Kadhi, or Glamrou as they are known on stage, is a stunning example of the self-expression and self-exploration drag allows. Raised in a socially-conservative, religious household, Al-Kadhi was instilled early on with a torturously rigid sense of shame and self worth. Their journey outlines the beauty and freedom they experienced as a child, as well as the connection they felt to their mother and the world she created for them. “My mother’s middle east was one I felt safe in,” they lovingly recall. 

As they grew through their adolescence, though, they became painfully aware of the Middle East and Islam’s perspective on homosexuality and gender-noncomformity. It would take years of cultural healing and rediscovery for Al-Kadhi to feel connected to their family, heritage, and religion. While simultaneously mending the pain of the past and celebrating a mergence of femininity and faith, it was ultimately through drag that they finally felt at home in both their queerness and their culture. 

Unicorn is one of the best memoirs I have ever read. Beyond Al-Kadhi’s personal narrative of self-acceptance and perseverance, the story is heavy with complex understanding of how culture and faith belong to a people, not an individual. Al-Kadhi’s revelations of gender, sexuality, and belonging are inspiring and beautifully rendered. 

I would sincerely recommend this to anyone hoping to immerse themselves in a piece of nonfiction, at the heart of which is a story of the human search for acceptance and home.