Book Review: My Own Devices by Dessa
Goodreads Description: Dessa defies category--she is an academic with an international rap career; a lyrical writer fascinated by behavioral science; and a funny, charismatic performer dogged by blue moods and a perseverant case of heartache. In "The Fool That Bets Against Me," Dessa wonders if the romantic anguish that's helped her write so many sad songs might be an insurable professional asset. To find out, she applies to Geico for coverage. "A Ringing in the Ears" tells the story of her father building an airplane in their backyard garage--a task that took him almost seven years. The essay titled "Congratulations" reflects on recording a song for The Hamilton Mixtape in a Minneapolis basement, straining for a high note and hoping for a break. The last piece in the collection, "Call off Your Ghost," relays the fascinating project Dessa undertook with a team of neuroscientists that employed fMRI technology and neurofeedback to try to clinically excise her romantic feelings for an old flame.
Her onstage and backstage stories are offset by her varied fascinations--she studies sign language, algebra, neuroanatomy--and this collection is a prism of her intellectual life. Her writing is infused with fascinating bits of science and sociology, philosophical insights, and an abiding tenderness for the people she tours with and the people she leaves behind to do it.
My Review: "But I didn't want to conceptualize myself as a quicksand pit of changing variables. I wanted something permanent, stolid-- a cinder block of self. Would I be the same me if I couldn't sing? Yes, I think so. But what if I forgot how to read, forgot my name, forgot that I like whiskey, forgot that red is my favorite color? What am I subtracting from? Is there some part that can't be ruined by violence, or time, or fatigue? Is there an apple core at the center that stays fixed?"
Rapper Dessa's first book, My Own Devices, is a series of nonfiction essays about life, love, music, science, and family. Through 17 different essays, Dessa gives us a glimpse of her life, from how she ended up as a rapper touring with a crew of guys, to recording a song for the creator of Hamilton, to writing to Geico to try and insure her broken heart. All the essays stand alone as well as build towards a greater story where Dessa takes on a project with neuroscientists to attempt to make herself fall out of love with her longstanding ex, referred to as X.
At it's core, My Own Devices is a love story, beginning with how Dessa falls in love with X as well as rap, detailing their on-agains and off-agains, and ultimately leading her to attempt to 'reprogram' her brain to fall out of love. Throughout the book are stories of life on the road, family-- both blood and bandmates-- as well as science, philosophy, and a bit of dry humour to keep the pages crackling. Dessa has a wisdom to share that she presents quite eloquently. Any attempt I make to try and explain how beautifully written this book is fails in comparison next to the real thing. Dessa infuses just enough scientific tidbits and philosophical wonderings into her real life observations to make the book feel both deeply personal while it asks some big questions.
The truly fascinating part of the book (IMHO) is the project Dessa takes on with a team of scientists to reprogram her brain to fall out of love with X, the man sprinkled throughout her life and essays. If you want to know the results, I highly suggest you read the book (spoilers!), but I will say the results may surprise you. Dessa isn't afraid to dig her talons into science and math to find real answers, but also writes science in a way that's enjoyable, engaging, and even funny at times. Her perspective on the intersection of science and art is also fascinating, and all of it is delivered in lyrical, easy to read prose.
TL;DR: 5/5 stars. Eloquently written essays on life, science, family, music, and love infused with dry wit and sharp observations.