I'm Down by Mishna Wolff
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Mishna Wolff's father is white - but he acts like he's black, and he wants his awkward daughter to be just as cool as he is.
Mishna's ill-matched parents divorced when she was young, and her father took custody of her and her younger sister, Anora. The 6'4" former athlete loves his kids but is hopelessly immature, neglecting them to play dominoes with his buddies and making Mishna take over the hard work of looking after her sister. He's chronically unemployed, which often leaves their house without food or phone - though his ambitious renovation project does leave them with an interesting front door arrangement.
Mishna tells the story of her struggles to fit in, first with the kids in her mostly black Seattle neighborhood, and then with the wealthy white kids at a private school she is sent to later. The initial story of her summer at "Government Sponsored Charity Club", where she learns the fine art of "cappin'", or trading outrageous insults, is the highlight of the book.
Throughout the story her desire to please everyone puts her in painful situations. Her father doesn't understand her desire to educate herself to leave behind the poverty they live in - he thinks it's disrespectful for a child to know more than an adult, and he frequently accuses Mishna of selfishness. Then he remarries, and the dynamic worsens with the addition of Mishna's stepmother Yvonne, whose idea of femininity, respect, and duty are occasionally appalling.
In the end, it's clear that this book isn't primarily about race: it's about class. The biggest differences between the people in Mishna's neighborhood and the people at her school are because of money and education, not race. It's a funny and a touching story that doesn't preach.
I listened to an audiobook version read by Wolff, whose slight lisp and way of talking as though she has a mouth full of dental work is oddly endearing, as is the way she delivers her father's speeches, which frequently begin with an impatient "Mishna". (Here's an author interview at NPR so you can hear what I mean.) Her voice work reminded me strongly of David Sedaris' audio versions of his various memoirs, particularly Me Talk Pretty One Day. Her humor is less outrageous than Sedaris', and more clued into the complexity of family dynamics, but she uses a unique voice to bring a lot of humor to her experiences.
For another funny memoir that touches on father/daughter relationships, check out Let's Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson. And for more awkward childhoods, humorously retold, try Stephanie Klein's Moose: A Memoir of Fat Camp.
FYI: The cover showing Mishna with an epic fro, which initially drew me to the book, is sadly PhotoShopped. Still a funny picture.