Monday, August 24, 2009

Review: …PSYCH!

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Mishna Wolff’s memoir I’m Down has all the ingredients for an awkwardly hilarious coming-of-age story. Mishna grew up in the early eighties as a poor white kid in a poor black neighborhood with a white, ex-hippie father who truly believed he was black…and expected his kids to grow up as if they were black, too. 

Mishna’s story begins with a humorous snapshot of her life. We meet her dad, who spends most of his time playing dominoes with four old black men that are all apparently her “uncle.” Her mom, unlike Dad, stayed in the hippie phase, and a divorce was soon inevitable. Mishna and her younger sister Anora live with their dad, John, whose method of child-rearing resembles throwing them out in the ocean so they learn to swim. 
Mishna is a self-defined “honky.” She can’t sing, can’t dance, she has no rhythm or soul or whatever quality her dad and “uncles” think a 6-year-old should possess. But Dad thinks that “your neighborhood is where you live,” therefore Mishna should make friends with the neighborhood kids that you just know are going to put her through hell before accepting her.
She quickly learns that the only way for her to survive is as a tough smartass that isn’t afraid to “cap” (termed as the social art of insult) even the toughest boys with “Your mom” jokes and the “…PSYCH!” tactic. Just as Mishna’s made her place in the neighborhood, Mom drags her out of public school and puts her in an upscale “smart-kids” school where she’s the only one that has ever experienced racial diversity. Suddenly viewed as the poor, stupid kid, Mishna has to find her place all over again in a new environment, much to the resentment of her father who seems to be viewing his daughter more as “the man” than his own child. On top of all this social awkwardness, home life is made even more difficult with Mishna’s younger sister Anora, who seems to always be in their father’s good graces—she has “soul” and possesses every quality Mishna seems to lack.
I’m Down begins with this scenario that just seems so ridiculous, it has to be side-splitting hilarious. But we eventually see a dark side to the story. Mishna’s father quickly becomes a villian of sorts, as he seems to have no sense of compassion. He seems more concerned about how his kids will make him look in the eyes of his peers than their own well-being. And it takes Mishna a long time to realize that her home is a toxic environment. For a good portion of the book, she is constantly seeking her father’s approval. She runs track and joins the swim team, and, most embarrassingly, joins an all-black girls basketball team that seems to resemble an Amazonian tribe. I shuddered a lot during this book as I remembered how terrible it felt to be out-of-place during middle and high school, and I never had it anywhere near as bad as Mishna.
Wolff’s writing style contributed a lot to the story; she uses a voice that seems to say, “Look how ridiculous my life was. I’m just going to look back on it and laugh.” And that makes it very easy and enjoyable for the reader. However, for me, the story kind of lost its charm about halfway in. It started out as a series of anecdotes, and it seemed to turn into more of a narrative. It ended with me wondering what happened after age 14. 
One of the best parts of this book was being able to finish it and find out more about the author and her life growing up. It had such an offbeat premise that I was glad to see Mishna has grown into a successful writer, model, and actor-comedian. I recommend as a comedic look at a life fit for a sitcom.
You can visit the author’s website at www.mishnawolff.com.

1 comment:

Salvatore said…

This definitely sounds like an interesting concept. I'm intrigued, especially since I saw it on a front table at an independent bookstore recently.