three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
42-Sept-Oct-2009
By: 
Mishna Wolff
user_rating: 
0

A Memoir

A-Im DownMishna Wolff, a writer and humorist, grew up in Seattle in the 1970s and 1980s and now lives in New York.

The Topic: Mishna Wolff grew up in a poor black neighborhood in south Seattle, with a single father, "Wolfy"-a white man-who, with his "short perm, a Cosby-esqe sweater, gold chains and a Kangol," believed he was black. He imposed his cultural affinities on his white daughter, who, despite her father's promptings, never quite fit in. Wolff describes her ostracism and slow victories, her mastery of the art of "capping" (hurling insults), her experience on an all-black basketball team, and her transition to a wealthy, elite, and white school-where she found herself too culturally black. In this coming-of-age memoir, Wolff relates how she desperately tried to overcome her rhythm problems (among others) to simply fit in.
St. Martin's. 273 pages. $23.95. ISBN: 9780312378554

Entertainment Weekly 4 of 5 Stars
"Memories about the struggle to fit in can seem like pleas for pity, but Wolff doesn't go there-she explains everything as simply a matter of fact, which is endearing. Down certainly has serious thoughts on its mind (Wolff actually grew up quite poor and hungry), but the tone manages to be light and triumphant because of the hilarious child-goggles Wolff wears while spinning her tales." Tanner Stransky

O, the Oprah Magazine 4 of 5 Stars
"[A] funny-melancholy coming-of-age memoir about a honky manqué. ... Mishna searches for an identity in her broken home, her snobby, mostly white prep school, and-most restrictive of all-her longing heart." Cathleen Medwick

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"The book stops being a comedy about halfway in. After that, it's still funny-Wolff, like Chris Rock, has a way with presenting brutal truths-but there's too much real life, and too little reconciliation between Mishna and her dad for I'm Down to fit neatly into any bookstore's 'humor' section." Andrew Matson

Salon 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Although the book sometimes relies so heavily on wit that it's hard to separate emotional turmoil from comedic setpiece, Wolff's affection for her family and friends-and for the prickly, clueless honky girl she once was-makes I'm Down more than just a joke." Joy Press

Washington Post 2 of 5 Stars
"In her effort to explain what it was like living around blacks, Wolff too often comes close to mimicking a tired TV sitcom. ... Mishna Wolff suffers, like many memoirists of late, from a reluctance to do some old-fashioned reporting to solidify her memory as she steps back into that tricky tunnel of time." Wil Haygood

Critical Summary

In this coming-of-age memoir, Wolff tackles an uncomfortable, even taboo subject: racial tension and a young white girl's attempt to assimilate into black culture. Most critics were greatly affected by Wolff's experiences-many times hilarious and educational, but often quite sad. Wolff nonetheless maintains a light tone throughout as she details her childhood in rich dialogue and detail. A few reviewers commented that parts of her life read like a sitcom, albeit with little drama (or even trauma, the stuff of memoirs). Only the Washington Post diverged from other critics in its assessment that Wolff failed to explain her father's own interesting immersion in black culture. Most readers, however, will embrace both Wolff's and her father's stories.