Previous month:
January 2013
Next month:
March 2013

February 2013

Have I maxed out on memoirs?

Over the course of the past month I've slowly been munching my way through Rosie Schaap's well-received memoir Drinking with Men: A Memoir.

I never really got to the point where I had to keep reading it, but for a while it seems I haven't been finding much at the library and I couldn't find much other nonfiction around the house I was interested in, so when I needed to read, I'd just go back to it and read another chapter. I don't know why, really. It's not a bad book, and it's certainly not bad as far as memoirs (which can, I find, vary widely in quality) go. Feeling pretty ambivalent about it both during and after reading it has left me with just the one question:

Am I done reading memoirs?

Could be. For a long time I read a lot of them. For a long time a lot of them have been published. But for whatever reasons, it's also been a long time since I found one that really lit me up.

This is all not really fair to Schaap's book. There's nothing earth-shattering here, but the author seems to know her way around a sentence and is also likable enough, although I almost didn't make it past her early chapters, wherein she described dropping out of high school and following the Grateful Dead around.* In later chapters she settles into a nice pattern of describing bars she has loved and the drinking companions (almost exclusively male) whom she has loved within them. Perhaps one reason it left me cold-ish was because her descriptions of the bars themselves are much more vivid and loving than her descriptions, really, of her drinking companions (which even include a man whose friendship affected her life very deeply). I really do think "Bars I've Loved" would have been a more accurate, if not a catchier, title.

There's some insight into her friendships with men, and with bar culture, but it wasn't quite what I was looking for. I have my own history of getting along well with guys**, which is a painful history, because once you become an old married lady with a kid, guy friends are impossible to come by. I miss them and rather thought this memoir would have more to say on the actual dynamics of such friendships, but it didn't. Perhaps when I find a memoir that does that I'll have found one that once again makes me want to read more memoirs.

*Here she is describing her experiences following the Dead around: "We were mostly decent if slightly wayward kids who, for a variety of reasons, needed to leave the people who had raised us and who, many of us felt, had failed to understand us, and make a family of our own...We drank and danced, bartered bootlegs, got high and hung out, lived in vans and slept in cars under piles of stripy Mexican blankets in need of a good washing; we gave one another scabies and sometimes worse, and sometimes money, and often pot, and really whatever we had, sold trinkets and tofu stew, and for the most part, though not always, looked after one another." (p. 29.) It's vivid writing, but just the thought of getting scabies and sleeping in cars with strangers, oh my lord, it is NOT for me.

**A guy friend in high school once told me that gossiping and eating candy with me made him feel like he was back in fifth grade again, in the best possible way (we had a total joke class called "Media Film" together, we just shared candy and talked through the entire semester while ostensibly watching and critiquing movies). I still think it's one of the nicest things anyone's ever said to me.

Almost makes you smell the pool.

Yes, I'm still (slowly) making my way through some books that were considered 2012's best. I continue to be a bit underwhelmed.

Swimming Studies
by Leanne Shapton

The latest such title I brought home was Leanne Shapton's Swimming Studies. Other than it appearing on a lot of the year's best lists, I can honestly say I probably wouldn't have looked at it otherwise--I hate swimming and always have. I learned, a bit, when I was little, but I never did learn to tread water and I never really did get used to the sensation of being in a pool. I forget where I was or if it was during lessons or what, but I clearly remember once trying to do the crawl the length of the pool, and no matter how far to the side I turned my head, I kept getting water in my mouth when I was trying to breathe. And I thought, this is stupid. Why I am making it harder to breathe? I don't think I've been in a pool willingly since.*

Anyway. This is a memoir of sorts, of the time Shapton spent swimming, training, and competing in swim tournaments in her youth and throughout her adulthood, even participating in the Canadian Olympic trials (and finishing respectably, although she did not make the Olympics cut). Interspersed throughout the chapters are samples of Shapton's art--including a series of "swimming studies" paintings; a couple of pages of what looks like paint splotches, which correspond to certain smells; and photos of swimming suits she's owned and for what purposes she's used them. If you like your nonfiction a bit eclectic, and you enjoy highly descriptive writing (and the idea of pools doesn't make you throw up) you might actually enjoy this. To her credit, the fact that she could make me remember how pools smelled and felt, really viscerally, says good things about the power of her writing:

"Here is what it sounds like to lane three at the wall: A low thump as her hands hit the touchpad. Brief cheering at an intake of breath, collapsing into bubbles as her head, aligned and steady, dips back and under again at the turn. This is followed immediately by quiet. There is a rippling during the long stroke of her underwater pullout, a tight, thin sigh of effort, a gruff exhalation of air, a grunt at the dolphin kick." (p. 33.)

Shapton is also the author of the humor book Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry, which I read seemingly a million years ago and wasn't all that fond of. Although she seems like a very nice person (and she's Canadian--my favorite!), Shapton always leaves me feeling that I am not quite smart enough or artistic enough for her. Actually, I'm sure that's true. And it's okay.

In other review news: Mr. CR hated the cover. Mr. CR's been starting to talk up a bit lately with his nonfiction opinions, and I must say it's been lovely to hear them. Even if it's just on the cover art.

*My goddamn high school installed a pool LITERALLY the last year I had to take a gym class. I refused to get in and told my gym teacher I had my period for the four week duration of the unit. By the third week she said, "You do not." And I said, "Are you going to check?" And that was the end of that. I got an F for the unit but it was so, SO worth it. Stupid phys ed.

Comment apologies.

A brief note today to apologize for comment weirdness happening on the site. Recently I've had to add the Captcha verification stuff when people want to comment (which I hate doing) because I was getting hit with hundreds of spam emails that I had to go in and clear manually. And now, for whatever reason, comments that are NOT from spammers are getting dumped in my spam folder. This happened earlier in the week on the Caitlin Moran post, so many comments were delayed. So sorry about that. I'll see what I can do to fix things so when you comment, the comment appears immediately.

In the meantime please do continue to comment--the comments are usually the most informative part of this blog, after all. Thanks!

God bless Matt Taibbi.

Matt Taibbi continues to be the only journalist working in America who I can stand.

Do click on over to read his latest article on drones, and his take on the rest of the media's take on the news about them. I myself was appalled last week when I was listening to public radio and even their supposedly "liberal" guest couldn't get himself to say too much against the use of drones to kill American citizens abroad, even without concrete evidence of their terrorist complicity.

If you don't have time for the entire article, I can give you the takeaway:

"This whole thing is crazy. In our own country, we don't allow the government to torture criminal suspects and/or kill people without trial – because it's wrong. If it's wrong here, it's wrong in Yemen or Iraq or Afghanistan; if it's wrong to do it to an American citizen, it's wrong to do it to a Pakistani. Our failure to recognize that and our increasingly desperate attempts to rationalize or legitimize this hideous program gives the entire world an automatic show of proof of American bigotry and stupidity."

But really. DO read the article. And read the entire editor's note at the bottom: Taibbi has a little something to say on the morality of how we as Americans kill people (and I do mean we--we are all complicit). And he's the only one out there saying it, as far as I can tell.

Being a woman is complicated.

I laid on the couch last week for quite some time and wondered if I should write about Caitlin Moran's How to Be a Woman here.

No fooling. Now, granted, we are in a run of somewhat craptacular February weather here in Wisconsin, and cabin fever and the blahs have set in in a big way, but normally I do have slightly more exciting things to do than lay around on the couch and think about blogging. But there you have it. You'll see why I was giving this one some thought in just a bit.

Moran's a popular columnist and critic in Great Britain, and I know I saw this book on a number of "buzz books"-type lists last year, so I picked it up. It is exactly what the title proclaims it to be--a very handy guide to womanhood punctuated by stories from Moran's own sometimes funny, mostly cringe-worthy journey to adult womanhood. Most of the early chapters ("I Start Bleeding!" "I Become Furry!" "I Don't Know What to Call My Breasts!") in particular focus on her childhood, being raised in a large, poor family. And I don't mean American 1980s poor, where you grew up without cable. I mean poor, where she had to wear her mother's hand-me-down underwear as a teenager.*

How to Be a Woman
by Caitlin Moran

I started the book not too interested, but somewhere in the middle I started getting a real charge out of it. Perhaps it's because she seems so sensible--she'd like to see some porn where the women are actually enjoying themselves, for a change; it's ridiculous to shave off all of your pubic hair because that's the going style and because men (evidently fed by quantities of hair-free porn? I confess my knowledge of porn is not extensive) demand it; spending tens of thousands of dollars on your wedding and expecting it to be the best day of your life are both ridiculous. These are all thoughts I can get behind, and for the most part, she's funny while making these points, such as this one, about pubic hair waxing:

"I can't believe we've got to a point where it's basically costing us money to have a vagina. They're making us pay for maintenance and upkeep of our lulus, like they're a communal garden. It's a stealth tax. Muff excised. This is money we should be spending on THE ELECTRICITY BILL and CHEESE and BERETS." (p. 46.)

The line directly before that one is "Can you imagine if we asked men to put up with this shit? They'd laugh you out the window before you got halfway through the first sentence." I think she's really on to something there.

She even changed my thoughts a bit on strip clubs. Now, for most of my adult life, I have not been all that bothered by strip clubs. I have largely been of the "maybe it's actually an okay-paying job for some women" persuasion. My only really strong feeling about them has been that men should only be allowed in with five-dollar bills (or better yet, tens or twenties) and no change should be given for anything. But with paragraphs like this Moran might start winning me over to her point of view on them:

"Strip clubs let everyone down. Men and women approach their very worst here. There's no self-expression or joy in these joints--no springboard to self-discovery, or adventure, like any decent night out involving men, women, alcohol, and taking your clothes off. Why do so many people have a gut reaction against strip clubs? Because, inside them, no one's having fun.

Instead, people are expressing needs (to earn money, to see a woman's skin) in pretty much the most depressing way possible...

And the men--oh, are you any gentler or happier? You cannot put your hand on your heart and say--as the music starts up, and she moves toward you--that you have kind feelings toward these women. No man who ever cared for or anted to impress a woman made her stand in front of him and take her knickers off to earn cab fare home...Between 60 and 80 percent of strippers come from a background of sexual abuse. This place is a mess, a horrible mess. Every dance, every private booth, is a small unhappiness, an ugly impoliteness: the bastard child of misogyny and commerce." (pp. 163-164.)

By this point in the book I'm thinking, huh, this woman is actually making a lot of sense. On a lot of topics.

So why did I end up laying on the couch wondering if I had the energy to talk about this book? Well, I skipped ahead to the chapter titled "Abortion." And here's the crux of the matter--and a SPOILER. Read on only if you want to find out what happens in that chapter.

Well, Moran has an abortion, to end an unplanned third pregnancy conceived in her marriage. She's pretty matter of fact about it all, explaining that she just could not take on a third child, and then describing the procedure. She concludes the chapter by saying that, for her, it was an action with only good consequences.

And that's where I hit the ground in this book with a big thud. I can't help it. I am and always will be anti-abortion.** I'm not going to get into the whys and wherefores of this, and I'm not going to say I don't empathize with Moran's feelings. Trust me, I only have the one CRjr and I can UNDERSTAND how one or more kids saps your energy. But still. It's just a deal-breaker for me and it always will be.

So where are we left?

With an overly long blog post, I realize. But I thought, what the hell, what good is a book blog if we can't talk about every aspect of how we react to books? I'm not sorry I read this one. Did the last chapter I read ruin some of my enjoyment of the early chapters, during which I was feeling almost frighteningly simpatico with the author? Well, sure. But I'm going to take this as an important reminder about nonfiction specifically (because the author is often telling you exactly how THEY feel, without filtering it through fiction) and books in general: they are a conversation. They don't always end how you think they will. And a lot of times you will feel the shock of recognition, of love, even, with their authors, but then eventually you'll realize, sadly, that this relationship is not for you. Doesn't make either of you bad people. Doesn't mean I won't meet other people who I think will really enjoy this book, and I will tell them about it in positive terms. But it also doesn't mean I'll feel compelled to read her next book, either.

Sorry to unload all of that on you. Next time I face this dilemma of whether or not to bore you with an overlong post on a book I'm conflicted about, I'll decide against, I promise.

*I realize there are still more heinous scales of poverty, but come on. To most of us, having to wear our mother's worn-out hand-me-down underwear would be more than poor enough for us, thank you.

**You can see why I've always been conflicted about voting. Once a co-worker asked me why I don't vote, and I said, "I'm anti-war and anti-abortion. For whom should I vote?" And she said, "Huh. That IS a tough one."

Good work if you can get it.

Sorry for the intermittent posting here, which will continue for a bit longer. I actually have a few freelance jobs going, which always puts the hit on my recreational reading, and makes my eyes too tired to do much other computer work. But, as we say around here, Mama needs a new pair of everything, so I'm just glad to have the work.

In the meantime I am trying not to hate Mr. CR when he starts appropriating the books I want to be reading. (No offense to Mr. CR--he works hard and deserves the break.) He's started Florence Williams's science title Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History. His pithy review? "It's pretty interesting." If I ever get around to reading it I'll try and expand on that!