Kurshan’s If All The Seas Were Ink

If All the Seas Were Ink: A Memoir

 Ilana Kurshan

This book has been making the rounds among many of my friends and family and people’s reactions are so stark, and so diametrically opposed. There are those who love this book, who relate to its extreme bookishness, to the authors attempts to come to grips with her life through a deep reading of, centrally, the Talmud, but also through her reading of other, non-religious texts.

Then there are others who see the book as emotionally distant, the work of a someone unable, or unwilling, to address her emotional life head on, and who rather mediates all her relationships through text.

I fall into the first camp.

If all the Seas Were Ink is a memoir of the years Ilana Kurshan spent as part of Daf Yomi, the “largest book club in the world’ in which thousand of (mostly) Jews read single page of the Talmud, every day, for a little more than seven years. Kurshan’s reading of the Talmud is the through line in the book, while around it she struggles with a divorce, dating, meeting a new man, and having children. She contemplates love, Judaism and motherhood all the through the prism of Torah and literature.

To some people (i.e. ME) this is irresistible. To others, it’s all perhaps a bit much. You probably won’t know what camp you fall into until you read it yourself.


Review: Gay’s Hunger A Memoir of (My) Body

Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body

Roxanne Gay

A gut punch, a wake up call, a deeply effecting book about race, sexual assault, food, immigration, class, writing, love and America. Really a must read.

I’m someone who cares deeply about health and fitness.  I struggle to make the right food choices, and hit the gym, but my personal issues are put into stark relief as the cloying bullshit problems of a privileged white dude when held against Gays heartrending and inspiring story.

This is a story of growing up the child of immigrants, of suffering horrible sexual assault, and struggling with that, and more. Its about coping with lives horrors with food, both for comfort and protection.

It’s also the story of a powerful writer finding her voice through years of work and struggle and missteps and luck.

It is near perfectly written in Gay’s direct to the jugular style.

I couldn’t put it down.

You might not think of yourself as the kind of person who would read a memoir that is, at least ostensibly, about weight problems, but really it is about so much more. And you are the kind of person who reads important, powerful, books and you should read this one.


Ahmed, My Old Bodega Guy

I was inspired by last night’s demonstration by Brooklyn’s Yemeni bodega owners and thought I’d share a little about my local guy, Ahmed from New Dubai Mart.

Ahmed and his brother left Yemen more than a decade ago, first working as laborers in Dubai to save up enough money to make the trip to the U.S. Sometime after getting here, they opened New Dubai Mart on my block (and eventually another store, in Crown Heights). They worked twelve hour shifts, Ahmed during the day, his brother at night. They sold what all bodegas sell. Sandwiches and toilet paper, beer and coffee.

They never closed.

One year, during a blizzard, when the governor had declared a state of emergency, I asked Ahmed what they were going to do. He looked at my confused. “We’ll be open,” he said, “My brother lives upstairs. If you need anything, just call. We’ll bring it over.”

That’s how it was.

Later, when my daughter was in the hospital, I told Ahmed what was going on, and he assured me it would all be alright. “We’re praying for her and your wife at the mosque”, he said, and I almost cried.

My parents were down a lot in those days and my dad struck up a friendship of sorts with Ahmed. Shooting the shit about basketball, kids, and life in Dubai.

That’s how he was, he’d talk to anyone.

To my son, he was “Mr. Ahmed”, always ready with a banana and a high five. Ahmed kept an eye out for him, reporting back to me when he’d seen him with our nanny. It calmed me to know that there was always someone on the block making sure things were ok.

But things are changing fast in Brooklyn, and gentrification caught up with Ahmed. His landlord (ironically also Yemeni) doubled his rent and they just couldn’t make a go of it. They still have the crown heights store, but they had to let go of the one on my block.

I was devastated.

When he was closing up his store, in the days before the inauguration, I gave Ahmed my business card, and told him if he needed anything, he could call. He hasn’t and I hope he won’t have to. But he was there for my family, and I’ll be there for his.

Now we go to another Bodega, a little farther away, run by another Yemini family. They don’t know my kids yet, and they haven’t met my parents, but they will.

I’ve given them my card already.

Review: Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis

J.D. Vance

The book all your Brooklyn bearded buddies and khaki clad D.C. contacts were talking about. Billed as your guide (from a Yale Law grad no less!) to what the hell is happening in the white working class of the rust belt, this is much closer to the standard memoir of kid from rough neighborhood who makes it out through smarts and determination.

Still, it’s an interesting read.

Vance takes his story of growing up with a drug addicted mother, and a caring, but flawed, extended family, and tries to extrapolates some lessons as to why he succeeded where others failed.

His answers aren’t clear. Loving grandparents, luck, the military and the grit it instilled all play a role, but much of his success seems mysterious.

His critiques of the white working class however, are very clear. You’ve heard them before, but usually used to critique urban poor communities: culture of poverty, difficulty with sustained hard work, drugs abuse, lack of social capital. I’m not gonna lie, it’s refreshing to see the judgmental gaze placed on someone other than a single black mom in East New York. But it’s interesting to see that here the need for personally responsibility is placed in the context of collapsing industry, untreated drug addiction, and a fraying social safety net. While critiques the urban poor are often solely focused on their failings.

This dichotomy isn’t Vance’s fault per se. He isn’t writing about the urban poor – he’s writing about his family and friends. And while at times he can come off as a bit full of himself, he treats the people he writes about with real love and dignity. Its makes for an interesting, if not complete, investigation.


Fathers and Sons: Some Thoughts on Coates’s The Beautiful Struggle

The Beautiful Struggle

Ta-Neshi Coates


The first book by one of America’s greatest public intellectuals. The Beautiful Struggle is a coming of age memoir, set in Baltimore and focusing primarily on Coates relationship with his fascinating, complicated father.


If you’re interested in what Coates has to say, (and you should be) then you should be interested in his father: a former black panther, with seven kids by numerous women, who runs a important black publishing house, while also working at Howard university and all the while protecting his kids from the ravages of Baltimore in the 1980s.


He’s a fascinating, challenging guy – an intellectual unafraid to get his hands dirty. A fiercely protective father who punishes his children violently. Coates relationship with him mirrors my own with my father – full of admiration, love, profound confrontation, mirroring some behaviors, while violently rejecting others.


In some ways this is the memoir of many fathers and sons. In other ways, it stands alone.


Coates and I are exact contemporaries. His cultural references are mine. Same comics, same hip hop acts, same wrestlers. Yet (and I realize this is obvious) race is a chasm that profoundly separates our experiences. I and many other men fought horribly with our father’s growing up. And there are scores of memoirs out there charting those relationships. But I wasn’t surrounded by the crack epidemic, or the confusion of being an inner city Black kid moved to the burbs. I did not have to worry about police violence, or gun violence in my neighborhood. I fought in school, but it wasn’t as weighted with life and death consequences as it was in Coates’s world.


It’s a fascinating, challenging book that gives real insight into both a time and place, and the formative years of an important thinker. But the writing can also be a bit much. Coates clearly spent hours and hour on each sentence and sometimes it comes across as too polished, too perfect. The turns of phrase can bea little too alliterative, or clever. But complaining that a writer spent too much time polishing a work is kind of a bullshit criticism. This is well worth reading.



Coates and his father, Paul Coates. (Patrice Lamumba mural in the background feel fitting)

Review: Itzler’s Living with a Seal

Living with a Seal: 30 Days of Training with the Toughest Man On The Planet

Jesse Itzler


Rich New Yorker hires famed navy seal and ultra-endurance athlete David Goggins to come live with him for a month and train him. Goggins agrees with the condition that Itzler agrees to follow his every instruction, no questions asked. Hilarity and a lot of very serious work outs ensue.

The book is largely written for laughs, with Itzler trying to keep up with the demands of the world’s hardest drill sergeant, but there are a couple nuggets of wisdom in here. The most quoted is Goggin’s pronouncement that when you think you’re done, you’re only forty percent done. This is surely motivating (if unlikely to be actually true).

For me, the biggest lesson to take out of this arises when Itzler’s wife questions the purpose of some of the more ridiculous workouts and Goggins responds that there is no purpose.  There is no, real, purpose to any of this.

It does nothing and no one cares.

Athletic nihilism. My jam.

Goggins is a fascinating character (and someone I’ve written about before) he’s inspiring, for sure, but there’s also something dark in how driven he is. I enjoyed Itzler’s portrayal of him here (though Itzinger’s stories about himself, I could have done without). Still, I’d be more interested in a more in-depth look into who Goggins is, and how he got that way. Hopefully with all the publicity surrounding this book, someone will write that piece.

Recommended for the Enthusiast.

hey, I also made this quick page of bodyweight workouts inspired by the book. 


Review: Harris’s Ten Percent Happier

10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works–A True Story

Dan Harris

This one is on one hand a pretty no-nonsense introduction to “mindfulness” practice and on the other a slightly annoying memoir from a television anchor. I find it a bit ironic that this was the book that finally got me to take meditation seriously. But here we are.

There is something about Harris no bullshit approach, his general skepticism about the whole endeavor, and his clear reportage style that resonated with me. He became interested in meditation because he was struggling, and needed to find grounding somewhere. Then he kept at it because it worked. He struggles with how to stay competitive in his professional life with pursuing a sense of non-attachment. He grapples with what, exactly, Buddhists means when they speak of enlightenment.  And he takes the advice of western hippies and the Dali Lama interrogates it, and takes a real, honest, stab at figuring out if it is bullshit or not. I appreciated the forthrightness, if not always the tone.

I listened to the book mainly while walking back and forth from the hospital where my wife was cooped up, trying to stave off a premature pregnancy. It was a stressful time and this book, and what it taught me, helped. I am sure there are better books out there on mediation and mindfulness, and I intend to find them. But this is the first one I read (at least since a short teenage dalliance with Zen) and for better or worse, it resonated with me. Harris’s can be grating at times, especially when speaking of his reportage coups, or his days as a cub reporter tutored by Peter Jennings, but his struggles with what it means to live mindfully in as unmindful a place as New York City, in as un-reflective a world as TV journalism spoke to this middle age white dude looking for a little peace of mind.

Your mileage may vary.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

Review: Chopra’s Shapeshifter

Shapeshifter: The Evolution of a Cricket Fan

(awaiting publication)
Samir Chopra

For many sports fans, myself included, our personal lives are intertwined with the fortunes of millionaires we have never met. I remember watching, with my father, when Brett Favre threw for four hundred yards the night after his own father died. I remember the fights I got into with my relatives around the coded racism of the country’s hatred for Barry Bonds, and I remember the joy and anger I felt, holding my infant son, when I watched Shabbazz Napier win the national championship and talk about how he’d gone hungry while leading UCONN to a multi-million dollar pay day.

This is what it means to be a sports fan – to have your personal history tied up in the history of sports teams. A critique can be made of caring this much about sports, but I’m not the one to make it. Just before writing this review, I checked the chances of the Giants making the post season. It’s not looking good.

Shapeshifter, by my friend, the philosopher Samir Chopra, is a memoir of a sports fan. A cricket fan, specifically, and the ways that he and his cricket fandom changed over the years. As Samir moves from a boy in Delhi to a man in New York City, his thoughts on the game, and his team allegiances change. In part, these changes are due to his changed circumstances, but also because of the changing nature of the teams themselves and geo-political upheavals. Its difficult to parse out how these things happen, but Samir focuses closely on his own feelings and rationalizations and paints a compelling picture of how our taste for the game effects our lives, and our lives our taste for the game. Along the way, Chopra pulls for Australia, Pakistan and India while also losing loved ones, immigrating, falling in and out of love, and wrestling with what it means to be a Indian-American, a husband, and a father.

There’s a lot of cricket in this book, and (like the stereotype Samir calls out) I do not understand cricket. That didn’t stop me from loving this book. While much of the cricket talk went right over my head, I could still appreciate the voice of a fan, explaining the sport he loves, and how that fandom reflected and informed everything else Though Samir’s sports and life story are different, I see a lot of myself in this work. I imagine other sports fan will as well.


Review: Ayer’s The Long Race

The Longest Race: A Lifelong Runner, An Iconic Ultramarathon, and the Case for Human Endurance
Ed Ayers

A lifelong runner uses his training, and running, of the JFK 50 miler as a way to ruminate on the nature of running, both as an activity and as a metaphor for political action. Ayers has been running competitively since the 1970s and his ruminations on the glory days of the 70s running boom, and on what it means for an elite amateur to grow old are wonderful. He is also a political activist, deeply invested in environmental issues and other progressive causes. While I agree with Ayers on just about every political issue, I found these sections of the book tedious and preachy. I’d have like to hear more of his life on the roads and less about his thoughts on political issues.

Still Ayers has had a unique view on over forty years of running. This is worth checking out if running memoirs are your thing.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

Review: Sheridan’s A Fighter’s Heart

A Fighter’s Heart: One Man’s Journey Through the World of Fighting
Sam Sheridan

Sam Sheridan had the early adulthood of someone who is building a life in preparation for a memoir. After graduating from high school, he worked as a merchant marine. He left the merchant marines for Harvard and after graduating from Harvard, crewed on an antique yacht as it crossed the globe. Getting off in Australia, he got deeply into Muay Thai (Thai kick boxing) and that is where this memoir/meditation on fighting begins.

Sheridan takes us from a training camp in Thailand, where he is one of a few crazy foreigners, through the mixed martial arts gyms of the Midwest, then to Brazil for Brazilian Jui Jitsu, on to Oakland for traditional boxing, then a detour into the world of dog fighting until we end up back where we started, in Thailand, where the world of Muay Thai has changed, and foreigners are everywhere.

This is a remarkably smart book. We see Sheridan’s understanding of the nature of fighting change as he ages and becomes more aware of not only the glamour, but the price paid for physical combat. The early sections on Thailand and the MMA gyms in the Midwest have the sort of gallant devil may care attitude that only the young can afford. But latter scenes, including a haunting interview with a fighter who killed someone in the ring and has never gotten over it show you the dark side to all that violence.

I found the chapter on dog fighting out of place and a little too detached in a professional journalism way. Dog fighting is disgusting. Sheridan should have said so in a more straightforward way. That said, the rest of the book is really top notch with honest portrayals of Sheridan and the fighters he meets. If you’re interested in the world of fighting, and what it means to be a fighter, either professionally or in the amateur arena, I highly recommend checking this one out.
Recommended for the enthusiast.