Essays

Oh my God, it's May.

Remember last month when I all cheerily posted a schedule for our essay readings for the rest of the year, and I wrote that we'd start in May, because that seemed a million days away?

OH MY GOD IT'S MAY.

So, do you all have your copies of Nick Hornby's essay collection The Polysyllabic Spree? Have you read it? Let's do this. Let's meet back here next week, Monday the 7, when I'll post some general opening questions about the book and the reading experience and we'll go crazy in the comments. Then if you want to ask questions, post them in the comments and we'll discuss those the following Monday.*

Or some such. Let's just figure this out as we go. I can't wait!

Now if you'll excuse me I've got to go pay some bills and do some other stuff because I am losing track of time and OH MY GOD IT'S MAY.

*If anyone would like to make any suggestions for how we could discuss these titles differently, at least during one month or session, just let me know. I'm not very good with all the fancy social media stuff. But maybe Google Chat or something?


Michael Perry's Montaigne in Barn Boots.

Michael Perry is just one of those authors I enjoy pretty much no matter what he writes.

My favorite book of his, I think, will always be his first memoir, Population: 485, just because it was such a perfect little jewel of a memoir, it was set in my native Wisconsin, and my Dad really liked it too, so I will always feel fondly of it. Since then Perry has produced multiple memoirs, essay collections, newspaper columns, even YA and adult novels. I always like him because he is trying to support his family as a full-time writer, and in this day of rampant medical and insurance costs, that is not so easy. I enjoy that he doesn't make it LOOK easy. Every time I read his stories about traveling around for literally hundreds of days in a year, giving talks and selling books in person and just generally doing the really hard slog of writing and selling books, I cringe a bit at how hard it can be to make an artistic living. Luckily he grew up on a farm, so he's no stranger to hard work.

MontaigneWhich brings us to his latest offering, titled Montaigne in Barn Boots: An Amateur Ambles Through Philosophy. Although it still has the flavor of a memoir, this is more a series of essays about his reading of the philosopher/essayist Michel Montaigne, and how Montaigne's writings have added meaning and knowledge to his life. I love essays, and generally I am positive about Montaigne, although I don't really know much about him, so this was a pleasant and fast read. It doesn't really get into the philosophy aspect very deeply, but that's okay with me. I often find that the more philosophy is explained to me the less I understand it.

What I particularly appreciate about Perry is that, while he is not overly detailed or gritty, he is also not afraid to share the personal (and potentially embarrassing) details, which is what I demand in my favorite memoir reads. Here he offers an entire chapter on how Montaigne's health challenges (most notably numerous and horrible kidney stone attacks) informed his writing, or, as another essayist that Perry quotes has it, "Montaigne's kidney stones are his path to humble brilliance through the vulnerability of describing illness" (Perry is quoting a writer named Sonya Huber). I am in overall good health, but I am drawn to writing about the vulnerability of the body, because I've had enough health blips that I totally understand the vulnerability of the body. Here's what Perry writes, about his own vulnerabilities:

"I believe I can match Montaigne mood swing for mood swing, but when it comes to kidney stones, I have a shameful admission.

Montaigne dropped a dump-truck full.

I passed one. Years ago.

And still I pee in fear.

But I'll tell you want Montaigne didn't have: Proctalgia fugax.

And if he did, he wasn't brave enough to write about it, despite all his protestations about utter self-revelation.

Remember a few chapters back I plucked up my courage and perhaps ran off half my readership by invoking masturbation? Well, that was spring geraniums compared to Proctalgia fugax.

Which I have got.

It first struck one night in my early twenties. I'd been asleep for just a short time when I awoke to an indescribable pain that I will describe anyway as amateur proctology performed with a red-hot and poorly grounded curling iron. I mean, we are talking a bullet-sweat, bubble-eyed, liver-quivering, bust-out-the-smelling-salts situation...

It's like you can wait to faint." (pp. 171-172.)

It is Perry's particular genius that he can write about his butt pain and make me simultaneously weep in empathy for him and laugh until I cry. I enjoyed the book, and it gave me the desire to read more about Montaigne (or maybe even read some actual Montaigne). Good stuff all around.


John Hodgman's Vacationland.

Here's my one-line review of John Hodgman's Vacationland: True Stories from Painful Beaches: I read the whole thing, although I'm still not sure why.

VacationlandOkay, I can give you a bit more information. This is a collection of essays by Hodgman, most known for his spots on The Daily Show and his appearance as the "PC" in the very popular Apple ads from a few years back. I suppose this collection would be called humor, although it mixes humor with enough midlife ennui that while some of it makes me (a fellow midlifer) chuckle, some of it also makes me whimper with both recognition and sadness.

As far as I can tell these seem to be the hallmarks of midlife: short bits of very rueful, very hilarious laughter, mixed with lots of whimpering and sadness.

Ostensibly this collection is about Hodgman's two vacation homes (that's right, two--although he admits his family can't really afford to continue ownership of both houses, you can see why one of his friends refers to his stand-up as "the white privilege comedy of John Hodgman") in western Massachusetts and Maine. Really it's about parents, kids, marriage, the challenges of maintaining physical homes, aging, and making your way through the world as a white man who's been on The Daily Show. It was okay, but it's run through my mind like the sands through an hourglass. Wait...I think I can remember something...the chapter on how Hodgman and his wife backed up their garbage disposal and entire septic system made me laugh very hard. Here's what happened after they inherited the western Massachusetts vacation house from Hodgman's mother, and found a bunch of expired food items they wanted to get rid of, but didn't want to haul to the dump, because there is no trash pickup in western Massachusetts:

"My wife wanted to lay claim to this house and clear all this dead food out, and her plan was to disposal every last bit of it. She started opening and grinding, opening and grinding: cans of Stewart's shelled beans and jars of old pickles and capers. It went on for hours. It was a hot Saturday afternoon. I sat at the kitchen table, watching her sweat and open and grind. It was probably the most erotic moment of our marriage.

Eventually she found her way to the back of the cupboard. She dislodged three boxes of Cheerios, yellow and blue. They were five years old. She showed them to me.

'What are you going to do with that, baby?' I said.

'I'm going to disposal all of this,' she said.

'That's fucking right you are,' I said.

She did. It was a terrible idea. Here is some homeowner's advice. Do not put even a single box of stale Cheerios down the garbage disposal, never mind three. Because when you grind up Cheerios into oat powder and shove them into your pipes with a bunch of water behind them, the Cheerios do not slide easily through your pipes to the leach field (maybe?). They absorb the water and swell up. And then you have a Cheerio tumor in your pipes. And then you have to explain that tumor to the plumber you have had to call to cut it out. He will stand in the basement with his hacksaw, tapping at the Cheerio metastasis, the pipe making a solid, grim thunk.

He will look at you and say, 'How did this happen?'

And you will have to say, 'I'm sorry, Pipe Daddy. We were just having a sexy disposal time.'" (pp. 117-118.)

So yes, his white privilege comedy can be funny, particularly as I am a privileged white female.* Mainly I enjoyed that because I have done many idiot things in my house too, but even I know to treat my garbage disposal and my pipes with respect. (Ask Mr. CR. If he ever approaches the sink with anything I screech, "Don't use the disposal! It's for appearances only! Our pipes are not up to code!!")

*By which I mean I have always had enough food and shelter and I am thankful for those things. I do not usually call myself a product of white privilege, though, because if you saw my farm upbringing and how many hours I've spent in my life doing shit jobs (literally: including cleaning the bathrooms at multiple restaurants and stores in the area), you probably wouldn't call it privileged. Hodgman went to Yale without loans or financial aid. So there's privilege, and there's privilege. And Hodgman is a lot less privileged than a lot of Bushes, Trumps, and Zuckerbergs I could name (who are not funny, so they don't even offer that). I don't mind our culture's conversations about privilege but I wish we would approach the subject with just a tad more nuance.


Environmental writing is the scariest writing out there.

All through the month of September I read one True Crime book after another. Finally Mr. CR said, you have got to stop reading this stuff. (I think the subtext was: "you're freaking me out," but who knows? I've never been very good with subtext which is, let's face it, one of the reasons I prefer reading nonfiction.)

So then I took a little break and read the 2016 edition of The Best American Science and Nature Writing, edited by Amy Stewart (a writer who I love, and whose book Flower Confidential I once raved about at Bookslut).

And it was a really great collection. (As promised.) But I kept finding little tidbits like this, about the retreat of Arctic ice and other climatic changes:

"We talked about future scenarios of what we began to call, simply, bad weather. Parts of the world will get much hotter, with no rain or snow at all. In western North America, trees will keep dying from insect and fungal invasions, uncovering more land that in turn will soak up more heat...the Arctic is shouldering the wounds of the world, wounds that aren't healing." (pp. 41-42.)

And this, about the possibility of a massive earthquake in the Pacific Northwest:

"The shaking from the Cascadia quake will set off landslides throughout the region--up to 30,000 of them in Seattle alone, the city's emergency-management office estimates. It will also induce a process called liquefaction, whereby seemingly solid ground starts behaving like a liquid, to the detriment  of anything on top of it...Then the wave will arrive, and the real destruction will begin.

Among natural disasters, tsunamis may be the closest to being completely unsurvivable. The only likely way to outlive one is not to be there when it happens: to steer clear of the vulnerable area in the first place, or get yourself to high ground as fast as possible. For the 71,000 people who live in Cascadia's inundation zone, that will mean evacuating in the narrow window after one disaster ends and before another begins..." (p. 254.)

Holy crap. Everyone's keeping that pretty quiet. I had never heard of the Cascadia subduction zone.

Now, all is not doom and gloom here. There is a wide variety of topics and styles, from straightforward reporting to memoir and even some humor. By all means you should read this collection--I count it among my best reads of the year.*

*Mr. CR read it and enjoyed it too, and that's saying something.


Reading while not paying attention.

I'm having a very odd autumn. I'm reading a lot, but I can't say I'm enjoying a whole lot of what I'm reading, or paying too much attention to it. I feel like I'm skimming a lot of books, and my feeling while reading them is, "yeah yeah, been there, done that."

IrbyTake Samantha Irby's essay collection We Are Never Meeting in Real Life. Irby blogs at bitches gotta eat, and I've been seeing her book (and its eye-catching cover) get a lot of attention. I did read the whole thing (it's a quick read) and laughed in parts, but after a while I thought, yeah, okay, LOL, I don't mind all the caps, but I GET IT NOW SO THAT'S ENOUGH KTHANKS. I will give her this: she'll tell you anything, and I like memoirists who do that. Take this scene, when she tries to spread her father's cremains in Nashville, on a trip with her girlfriend:

"As the better part of the cremains shook loose from where they had settled, a huge gust of wind came from the east. OF FUCKING COURSE.

Mavis's face was like Munch's Scream painting, all horrified wide eyes and open mouth, as I turned toward her with my dead father's charred bones and fingernails splattered across my face and crackling between my teeth. It was like coming home from a day at the beach, except replace 'sand' with 'gritty Sam Irby [her father] penis and entrails' lining my nostrils and in between my toes." (p. 183.)

And then there was the very different Homing Instincts: Early Motherhood on a Midwestern Farm, by Sarah Menkedick. This is a memoir about a woman who spent most of her life traveling, until she settled down on her parents' land in Ohio and became pregnant with her first child. Normally I eat that sort of thing up with a spoon (being interested in both farms and pregnancy) but this one didn't do much for me, even as I kept reading it:

"In my twenties, I flung myself into the world. I leapfrogged across continents, hungering for experience and proof of my own wildness. I taught English to recalcitrant teenagers on Reunion Island, picked grapes in France, witnessed a revolution in Mexico. To be aware was to be outside, under Mongolian skies and in bantam seaside bars, far-flung places where every conversation and scent prickled with exceptionality." (p. 4.)

The writing is fine and the subject is fine but while I was reading all I could think was "blah blah blah you travel it's all very exotic and now you're going to have a baby and connect with the Earth uh huh..."

I know. I'm a terrible person. You're really not going to like this next story.

BookshopLast week I also read a lovely light little novel titled How to Find Love in a Bookshop, by Veronica Henry. It's a nice little chick lit-ish romance, it's set in a bookshop, it's further set in Great Britain, and it's got several love stories that get happy resolutions. All of those things should have meant I should have been purring with happiness as I read it. And yet I wasn't. In fact part of me was distinctly thinking, as I said to Mr. CR, "Oh brother, go live your happy little love lives, bleah." Part of it was jealousy that the main character owned a bookshop and made it a profitable concern by the end of the book. I'm very jealous of that.

So there you have it. Don't send any cheerful, nice, gentle, earth-mothery, or lovey books my way this autumn. I won't be fair to them.


D. Watkins's The Beast Side: Living and Dying While Black in America.

I wasn't going to write about this book. But I can't NOT write about this book. I first heard about it in 2015 when it was published and became a New York Times bestseller, but didn't think about reading it. Then I read Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, about Baltimore in the 1990s (and from the cops' perspective, for the most part). I thought that reading this book, from a resident's perspective of Baltimore in the 1990s and 2000s, would be a valuable read on the other side.

Beast sideI don't know what to think about The Beast Side: Living and Dying While Black in America.

On the one hand, it certainly describes a place that is unknown to me:

"I wanted to go to an out-of-state college. But my plans were derailed when, months before my high school graduation in 2000, my brother Bip and my close friend DI were murdered. I became severely depressed and rejected the idea of school.

Most of my family and friends came around in an effort to get me back on track. My best friend, Hurk, hit my crib every day.

I met Hurk way back in the 1990s. His mom sucked dick for crack until she became too hideous to touch. Her gums were bare, her skin peeled like dried glue, chap lived on her lips, and she always smelled like trash-juice. Then she caught AIDS and died.

Hurk's my age. His family was a billion dollars below the poverty line. He had so many holes in his shoes that his feet were bruised. I started giving him clothes that I didn't want, and he stayed with us most nights. We became brothers." (p. 6.)

Watkins himself worked as a drug dealer and makes no bones about that fact. He also does a very good job of describing segregated Baltimore, as when he is invited to talk at something called the "Stoop Storytelling Series" (after an essay of his, "Too Poor for Pop Culture," drew a lot of attention):

"That's when I realized. This is one of those events. By "those events" I mean a segregated Baltimore show that blacks don't even know about. I walked through a universe of white faces, and I wondered, how is this even possible? How could we be in the middle of Baltimore, a predominantly black city where African Americans make up more than 60 percent of the population, at a sold-out event, with no black people--except for me and the friends I brought?" (p. 4.)

I don't know what I was looking for in this book, but overall it mainly made me very sad. Sad that it was so sad, in parts (see above). Sad that it seems lately we are farther away than ever from being able to discuss and address the issues Watkins raises in this book. Sad that there is so much anger in this book--and there is anger--which I understand. And I suppose this is going to sound like something a privileged person would say (which I am, because I have never known hunger, and which I laughably am not, as I have had to work all my life to try and put a living wage together), but I don't know where the anger is going to get us. At one point Watkins lovingly describes what he would like to have happen, in prison, to a cop who has killed a black man, and it is disturbing. And all it does is leave me with the questions that violent action and reaction always leave me with: will retribution bring the victim back? Will it solve anything?

I think you should read this book. I don't know how on earth we're all going to talk about it, but I think you should read it.


Officially off the reading rails.

The other day I tried to pick up my holds at the library and was stopped at the self-checkout when it informed me that I had 100 items checked out and couldn't take any more. This was a problem, as I still had three holds to check out.

So I moseyed to the checkout desk (what's odd was that I almost NEVER use self-checkout; I loathe and despise self-help machines, but I was just ducking in by myself and thought, well, I can try self-check this one time--see how that worked out for me?) and they very nicely let me take out the three additional books. Yay for human workers! Our machine overlords clearly were not going to override the system for me, but the librarians did.

Wild krattsBut the point is: 103 items (plus a few on Mr. CR's card). And my house looks it. There are picture books, kids' sports books, novels, adult nonfiction books, and DVDs on every single surface around here. Ever since my eye has felt a little better I have just been pounding through any kind of reading material I can find. Add to that the two little boys demanding I order and pick up more books and DVDs for them ("Mom! More basketball books! Mom! More car books! Mom! Wild Kratts DVDs, STAT!"), and the fact that I'm taking Spanish language lessons and am now checking out Spanish CDs and kids' books, and it all adds up to one full library card.

Of course the obvious answer is to get CRjr his own card, but frankly, I don't have the energy to monitor two cards' worth of materials. So we will just have to streamline a bit.

What's also weird in this reading bacchanalia is that I don't really have one book I want to review today. In the past week I've skimmed a book on Dr. Who (Dr. Who the Doctor: His Life and Times), two books on reading lists and suggestions (Book Lust and The Novel Cure), a book on race that I really don't want to talk about because it's just too depressing and I can't figure out a way to talk about it without someone yelling at me for something, because that is how we don't talk about race in this country (The Beast Side: Living and Dying While Black in America), a frothy romance (The Royal We), and listened to several intro Spanish CDs ("Hola. Que tal?" "Hello. What's happening?"). Oh, and did I mention I'm binging on British TV? Have you seen this series Line of Duty? It is UNBELIEVABLE.

Okay. I will try to be more focused next week. Really.


Scaachi Koul's One Day We'll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter.

Let's look at the entire experience surrounding my reading of Scaachi Koul's essay collection One Day We'll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter, shall we?

One day we'll all be deadWell, first of all, I only got it because I saw it mentioned somewhere while doing the weekly links round-up, I love reading essays, and I really enjoyed the title.

So then I brought it home, and I started reading the first few pages, and I wasn't loving it, so I started skipping around in it. I got as far as page 139, to the essay titled "A Good Egg." And here's how it begins:

"'DID I TELL YOU,' I bellowed into the yawning chasm of existence, on the first day of a new month of a new year, of renewed body and refreshed mind, 'THAT I AM DOING A CLEANSE?'

Before Hamhock [her boyfriend] and I left for our trip to Thailand and Vietnam, I knew that my body would be taking a beating because I have no self-control. We were going to a part of the world where beers cost a few bucks and you can still smoke indoors, so I figured I'd give my liver a head start by avoiding alcohol for the month of January. Dry January, they call it, an attempt to start the year off right, to cure your body of what you did over the winter holidays, to be a better person...My trip would be self-indulgent enough, complete with what the locals call a Bucket of Joy: ice, Red Bull, Sprite, and rum or whisky. It's a death wish served in a frosty pail, and I was going to drink all of them." (pp. 139-140.)

And my immediate thought was, God help me, I can't read essay collections by people in their twenties anymore. And I stopped reading it, but left it in my bedroom.

That was two weeks ago. And I've not touched the book since. But tonight was a particularly trying night in the household, as the juniorest CRjr has taken to not wanting to go to bed and makes the stereotypical 800 preschooler demands at bedtime: tuck me in. I need more milk. I heard a scary noise. You didn't tuck me in. And so on and so forth. So finally, because I was about to lose my temper, I left Mr. CR to corral Jr. (I'm a giving spouse like that) and went to our bedroom and shut the door. And then didn't have anything to do. So I picked up Koul's book again.

And this time, for whatever weird reason, I picked the book up almost exactly where I had left off. And the rest of that essay is about Koul going to college, and drinking, and the friends she made who were also drinking. And sometime later in the essay there's this. Please forgive me if I quote at length, but I don't want to truncate it:

"But girls don't actually get to drink like boys because boys do things to girls when they drink. When I was a teenager, the world told me that a girl is responsible for her own body if she's raped or assaulted when she's drunk: that's her fault, it's on her to not get so drunk she stops being fun and starts being a liability. My parents always told me drinking was risky, that it opened up the recesses of a man's brain and made him primal and territorial. Of course that's bad, we were told, but it's up to you to keep yourself safe. For the first few weeks at the hotel [where she stayed in improvised university housing], when I was invited to different parties in different dorm rooms, when older students offered to buy drinks for me, I attended reluctantly, in bulky clothes and with unbrushed hair. I refused to let anyone touch my drink, no one could open a beer for me, no one was allowed to offer me a cup, even an empty one--I'd bring my own. I was learning how to be fun, sure, but the threat loomed: one of the guys here can take it away from you in a heartbeat, and it'll be your fault." (pp. 143-144.)

And I thought, oh, God, I guess I have to read essay collections by twenty-somethings.

The rest of the essay just struck me as so sad. I won't tell you more about it, other than to say everything I read about being a woman these days (especially a young woman) just makes me feel really bad for both young women AND men. So: downer. But I still may read the rest of the collection.*

*If nothing else, I will have to read her essay about women and online trolling, that is discussed in this review. Sigh. Another reason to feel sad.


David Shields's "Other People: Takes and Mistakes."

You know, a lot of times I'll read a book, and then it just sits around my house for a while until I can figure out what to say about it.

Lately I find that I've left some books go so long that I actually forget what it was I wanted to say about them, or even (gasp) really how I felt about them. In addition to various eye issues and other aging body wonkiness, this a sure sign that I am getting old (or that I am getting old and have two young children, meaning I haven't been able to finish a thought in..."MOM! Can I get a drink?!?!?"...wait, what was I saying?). Oh yeah. Getting old, and distracted. I used to remember everything about the nonfiction I read, and how I felt about it (my recall was never as total for fiction, because I just read fiction too fast). Now I'm lucky if I can remember broad outlines and any strong emotions a book inspires in me.

And so it is with David Shields's essay collection Other People: Takes & Mistakes. I read this book more than two months ago now, and it is time to take it back to the library. Now, because I do not have the wherewithal tonight to formulate in my own words what this book is about, I'm going to crib from the jacket copy:

"an intellectually thrilling and emotionally wrenching investigation of otherness: the need for one person to understand another person completely, the impossibility of any such knowing, and the erotics of this separation...

David Shields gives us a book that is something of a revelation: seventy-plus essays, written over the last thirty-five years, substantially reconceived, recombined, and rewritten to form neither a miscellany nor a memoir but a sustained meditation on otherness."

So there's that. What follows next is a transcript of my thoughts, as near as I can remember them, when I first read this book.

Why am I reading another David Shields? I don't like him.

Do I not like his writing, or do I not like him?

Do I always check out his books just because I'm dying to figure out, once and for all, what it is about him that bugs the shit out of me?

But I never figure it out. Why do I keep trying? Nothing he writes is so interesting that I need to go out of my way to find him if I'm not enjoying it.

So, Shields, you open your book with a section on "Men," which contains five loving essays to and about your dad, a hero-worship piece about your big brother and another one about one of your male creative writing teachers. Your section on "Women" contains pieces on: a female octopus and the genetic imperative for the herd to protect its most fertile females; an interview between Diane Sawyer and a woman in a halfway house who abused her children but wants to get them back; his childhood friend telling him he could hear [Shields's] parents having sex during a sleepover (they weren't); how his journalist mother edited one of his articles (and did not make him happy doing so); a woman whose personal journal he read while he was dating her; and three pieces about "desire" (among, to be fair, several others; he does not stint on quantity in the "Women" section of the book).

Huh.

I don't like something about the way this guy writes about men and women and family members and friends and former lovers but I still can't put my finger on it.

The section on "Athletes" contains an eight-page essay that is nothing but sports phrases like "We just couldn't execute. We weren't able to sustain anything." etc. And this is an "emotionally wrenching" investigation of anything? (See jacket copy, above.)

Who buys David Shields? Why does he get a collection of his old essays put out in hardcover for nearly thirty bucks?

I don't get it. And I'm clearly never going to. And that is all, until David Shields comes out with another book and I will have to go through this process all over again. Do you have any authors like this? Authors you read, for lack of a better phrase, out of spite?


Joan Didion's South and West.

Friends, I am in a bit of a MOOD.

Do you have times like that? My house is a mess and yet I'm not happy when I'm out of it; I feel overwhelmed by the very few adult responsibilities I have; I kind of wish I weren't feeling like a broken-down heap in my early 40s. I think Mr. CR sensed I'm very close to going off the rails last week when I went on a tirade about CRjr's swimming lessons. I don't swim, I hate pools, I'm annoyed at the pool where we go because they can't decide when they open or when you should be there to get in line to sign up for lessons. Or, as I said to Mr. CR: "Jesus God, if we spent half as much time in this country teaching everyone a second language, as we do teaching them to swim, we'd all be bilingual by now."*

Mr. CR is a smart person and did the nonverbal equivalent of "Yes, dear," and then got the hell out of the room.

South and westSo. Where was I? Oh yes, Joan Didion's new collection of notes (it's literally subtitled "From a Notebook"): South and West. Well, of course I read the whole thing, even though I can't finish anything lately. I finished it because it's short and I love Didion and even Didion not at her best (which she is not here; they're just notes, although Didion's notes are like a million times better than most people's finished product) is always a very intense reading experience for me. These two pieces, on the American South and West, were written in 1970 (for the South) and 1976 (for the West, or, more specifically, during the Patty Hearst trial in California).

You really just have to read the whole thing to get the flavor of it, particularly if you are at all interested in the American South. But here's one of my very favorite tidbits, it just seems so quintessentially Didion:

"NOTE: On being asked for identification when I ordered a drink in the rural South. Before I came south I had not been taken for seventeen in considerable years, but several times in that month I had to prove I was eighteen. It is assumed that grown women will have their hair done, is all I could think." (p. 61.)

I just love that. It made me remember a trip I took to Houston when I was blown away by the hair, make-up, and clothing (all very carefully done for maximum effect) of all the women there.

This isn't really specific to this collection, but my favorite thing about Didion is how she gives you what seems like a lot of personal information and a lot of glimpses into her psyche, and yet you still come away feeling like you don't really know Joan Didion at all. She can surprise you. This is one of my very favorite aspects of my closest interpersonal relationships: when people I know really well surprise me. (And it's not always with good surprises.) But still. I find it oddly thrilling to be surprised. I'm explaining it poorly, but gosh, Joan Didion is interesting. I don't ever have any idea what is going on in her head but I always, ALWAYS want to hear about it. Right down to her pictures: why is the author picture on the back of this book, for instance, of her and her daughter Quintana, when Quintana was only a small girl? Why put that picture here?

See? Interesting.

*Come on. Does the majority of the population ever go swimming again, once they're out of high school? No they don't--until they have to take their kids to water parks and lessons. So then they do that, and after that they never get in the pool again. It's a totally silly system. See? This is the MOOD I'm in.


God, how I do love Jessa Crispin.

I get the distinct feeling that, on many points, I am Jessa Crispin's polar opposite. She is a successful, intellectual author who ran an internationally renowned literary blog, she travels widely, she worked for Planned Parenthood and is vocally pro-choice. I am not successful, not intellectual, I largely stay put, I am living in what most people would term the most traditional and regressive of personal situations (married with children in the suburbs), and I am anti-abortion.

Why i am not a feministBut, I gotta tell you this, and I mean it: I love Jessa Crispin from the bottom of my soul. I just read her new book Why I Am Not a Feminist. It's a great read. Crispin is so smart and such a tidy nonfiction writer that she can showcase her well-read understanding of her subject matter without making you feel like an idiot. That's not easy to do. Rather than name-dropping to scare you with what she knows, or to spin ever more detailed theses, she presents just enough of others' thoughts and works to make YOU want to go read them. (And then she gives you a handy one-page bibliography at the end, no titles, no pub data, just names of authors you should read.) This is also not easy. Her crisp prose, on the other hand, is so easy to read that her chapters are over before you know it. And yet it is filled with such heat that it makes you not want to stop reading chapters until you're all done with the book.

Here's the opening salvo:

"Somewhere along the way toward female liberation, it was decided that the most effective method was for feminism to become universal. But instead of shaping a world and a philosophy that would become attractive to the masses, a world based on fairness and community and exchange, it was feminism itself that would have to be rebranded and remarketed for contemporary men and women.

They forgot that for something to be universally accepted, it must become as banal, as non-threatening and ineffective as possible. Hence the pose. People don't like change, and so feminism must be as close to the status quo--with minor modifications--in order to recruit large numbers.

In other words, it has to become entirely pointless." (p. x-xi.)

Reviews of this book have been mixed. I'm going to tell you to read it. If nothing else, because I know that Crispin is out there living the life she advocates in her nonfiction. I love her the way I love Stacy Horn: both of these women take their work seriously. It is not making them rich.* It is not making their books Oprah books. They are both just extremely talented and hard-working writers. Horn puts a lot of effort into her fact-checking (and sometimes seems to be the last nonfiction author out there who does) and Crispin doesn't say anything that you want to hear just to make you like her.

So, no: we do not always share the same opinions. But I love her because she seems willing to say some things that no one wants to hear: she particularly makes the point that it does not make a woman a feminist just to become rich and successful in our current system. She makes the further point that a lot of times people who are successful at getting ahead in someone else's system are then very good at turning around and oppressing other people. Which is not really the point. Or shouldn't be. Or, as she says, much more eloquently:

"And trust me: people will hate you if you choose freedom over money, if you decide to live a life by your values of compassion, honesty, and integrity. Because you will remind them of their own deficiencies in these areas.

It's lonely outside the system. But we need you out here." (p. 64.)

I'm always a fan of someone saying something that will not make them rich. Read this book.** Or, if you don't have time, check out this interview. Also? Go buy and read some Stacy Horn books, please. Let's start by making some authors arguably not inside the James-Pattersonesque juggernaut system of publishing a little bit more well-off.

*I am particularly touched that Crispin once noted that one of the few ways to make blogging pay was to be an Amazon associate, and she didn't care much for that.

**Back when I wasn't blogging for a while I also read Crispin's travelogue The Dead Ladies Project: Exiles, Expats, and Ex-Countries. I'm sorry I never wrote about it here. There was a lot to think about in that book too, and at least one line/thought that will stay with me for a long time.


I really need to stop reading books about women getting pregnant (or not).

I never really used to be interested in children, babies, or pregnancy in any way. I'm not a very girly girl, I'm only Earth Mothery in the sense that I'm too cheap and lazy to buy and use makeup (which is really not very Earth Mothery at all), and, frankly, I've hung out with a lot of guys in my life, and guys are emphatically not interested in those things either.

But since having the CRjrs I find I am just addicted to all things pregnancy and parenting. Weird. I also am finding it weird lately how very little actual pregnancy, childbirth, and child care is found in fiction. There's fiction about families, sure. Fiction about "women's issues." Relationship fiction. But more nitty-gritty narratives actually describing childbirth and its aftermath? (With the exception of Joanna Kavenna's excellent The Birth of Love and Elisa Albert's angry but also excellent After Birth.) Rare.* So of course I have turned to nonfiction on the subject.

Art of waitingOne book getting a lot of press this fall was Belle Boggs's The Art of Waiting: On Fertility, Medicine, and Motherhood. I read it in fits and starts, and as seems to be happening with a lot of my reading lately, I can't recall many specifics about it. Taken as a whole, I certainly wouldn't say it was one of my favorite books of the year, but on the other hand, I did finish it, and that says something. (It is my reading habit just to scatter-shot consider a lot of books. For every book I finish, I'd estimate that I start and discard about five others.) One aspect of the book that actually slowed me down was the fact that the author writes in a style I think of as "literary":

"It's spring when I realize that I may never have children, and around that time the thirteen-year cicadas return, tunneling out of neat, round holes in the ground to shed their larval shells, sprout wings, and fly to the treetops, filling the air with the sound of their singular purpose: reproduction. In the woods where I live, an area mostly protected from habitat destruction, the males' mating song, a vibrating, whooshing, endless hum, a sound at once faraway and up close, makes me feel as though I am living inside a seashell." (p. 3.)

It's not overly fancy, but it's just got a tone, you know? And in the rest of her introduction she proceeds to talk about the journals at her reproductive endocrinologist's office (including a scholarly one focusing on the fertility of monkeys), the North Carolina Zoo where a female gorilla is experiencing a miracle pregnancy, and more about nature in the form of cicadas and marmosets. Somewhere along the way she neglects to mention many of the actual details of going to the reproductive endocrinologist, which is actually what I'm more interested in.

However, there are enough moments to keep you going. I thought this observation was interesting:

"I'm always surprised when my students, boys and girls alike, from kindergarteners to high school seniors, talk about the children they will have someday. 'My kids won't act like that,' they say, eyeing an unruly class on a field trip. Or, worriedly, 'I bet I'll have all boys. What will I do with all boys?' It seems far more common for them to imagine the children they might have than they jobs they might do or the places they might live." (p. 12.)

That's a nice detail, told well. But overall it reads like what it is: a collection of essays, several of which were previously published elsewhere, rather than a cohesive whole.

AvalancheAustralian novelist Julia Leigh's memoir Avalanche: A Love Story, on the other hand? This book is like a scream. A long and anguished and personal scream packed in an amazingly compact narrative. I liked it a lot. (And, p.s., look at that cover. Wow.) This is how it opens:

"For a great many nights I injected myself with an artificial hormone produced in a line of genetically modified Chinese hamster ovary cells. I did this knowing that no matter how hard I hoped, no matter what I tried, chances were I'd never have a child." (p. 7.)

In 133 succinct pages, Leigh explores her relationship with her husband Paul (with whom she fell in love as a young woman, but didn't marry until she was in her later 30s; in the intervening years, he had married, had a child with, and divorced someone else), their attempts to use IUI and IVF to conceive using his sperm and her eggs; the disintegration of their relationship; her attempts to get pregnant using a friend's donor sperm; and her growing acceptance that no matter how much she wants it, biological motherhood might not be in her future. She spares no details, which I found very sad, but also very satisfying. Thank you, Julia Leigh, for just spelling it out: the procedures, the odds, the horrible circular questions-and-answers with doctors ("So you're giving me strong advice? Nothing wishy-washy? A: I can only advise you. It's up to you to do what you want. JL: But I have no medical experience.")

But most of all I thank Julia Leigh because she's saying out loud all the things I hear the voice in my head saying:

"I became very interested in what age a woman had her first child. Just as I used to try to figure out when an author had published their first novel, now I sought to compare myself with new mothers. The point of comparison was not to do better but to get a feel for the lay of the land. To gauge what was not impossible. Again, the persuasive illogic: if she could do it at age 38, 39, 40, 41, 42, 43, 44, then so could I." (p. 27.)

I can't tell you how much time I have spent on the Internet just offhandedly looking up when celebrities had their babies. Savannah Guthrie, anyone?

So. I don't know if you're interested in these topics at all. Even if you're not, I'd say DO read the Julia Leigh. It won't take you long and a woman this honest deserves for someone to read her book. Hopefully lots of someones.

*Masturbation, on the other hand? I've largely had to stop reading literary fiction by guys because I've just read enough about masturbation now.


Diana Athill's Alive, Alive Oh!

You know, I really like Diana Athill.

AliveOr, I should say, I like Diana Athill on the page. I rather suspect we would not have a good rapport in person. Athill seems like a real "lust for life" personality (which is lucky, as she is currently in her 90s), whereas I am decidedly not a lust for life person. I am grateful for my life and I really enjoy my life, but anyone watching my daily routine, I don't think, would say I have a real "lust" for living.

But there is something inspiring about Athill's enthusiasm for life and all its experiences. In this slim collection, Alive, Alive Oh!, she has put together a few more essays, following up her earlier memoirs/essay collections Stet, Instead of a Letter, and Somewhere Towards the End (as well as several other NF books and novels). One of the most interest to me in this book was the one from which the book took its title, "Alive, Alive Oh!":

"In my early forties I thought of myself as a rational woman, but while I could sleep alone in an empty house for night after night without worrying, there were other nights when my nerves twitched like a rabbit's at the least sound, regardless of what I had been reading or talking about. On the many good nights and the few bad the chances of a burglar breaking in were exactly the same: the difference was within myself and signified nothing which I could identify. And I had always been like that over the possibility of pregnancy." (p. 63.)

She goes on to describe becoming pregnant at age 43, by a man who was her lover but who was married to someone else and was nine years her junior. She also describes being pregnant two times previously, and how she had "overruled" what might have been any subconscious desire of her body by having abortions:

"I had overruled it twice before and had felt no ill effects. 'All right, so you want a baby. Who doesn't? But as things are you can't have one--I'm sorry but there it is, too bad for you.' Neither time had it put up any fight. It had accepted its frustration placidly--and placidly it had resumed its scheming." (p. 65.)*

But, at 43, she decides to have the baby and is happy with her decision (and you have to read this essay just to see how her boss, Andre Deutsch, responds to news of her pregnancy, and what it might mean for her work in their publishing firm. It's enough to make you love all mankind, or just Deutsch specifically), and her description of her early pregnancy is one of the most interesting (and happiest) I've read:

"Those weeks of April and May were the only ones in my life when spring was wholly, fully beautiful. All other springs carried with them regret at their passing. If I thought, 'Today the white double cherries are at their most perfect,' it summoned up the simultaneous awareness: 'Tomorrow the edges of their petals will begin to turn brown.' This time a particularly ebullient, sun-drenched spring simply existed for me. It was as though, instead of being a stationary object past which a current was flowing, I was flowing with it, in it, at the same rate. It was a happiness new to me, but it felt very ancient, and complete." (p. 76-77.)

If you are familiar with Athill's life and works you probably know how this story turned out; if not, you will simply have to read the book. I may not always agree with or even particularly like her, but she has a beautiful way with words and I always find her interesting. Also of particular note in this collection is an essay about how she chose to move to a slightly nicer and more independent version of what must be a British nursing home; once again her continuing interest in life and her pragmatism to get what she can out of every experience (even at age 98!) is truly something to behold. Alive, alive, oh! Indeed.

*This is one issue on which Athill and I would disagree. I continue to be anti-abortion and find her to be rather too coldly practical on this issue for me.


Rivka Galchen's Little Labors.

As previously noted, since having kids I've gone gaga for parenting books.

What's really scary--to me, at least--is that, of the parenting books, I read, I only post about a few of them, which means I am reading way too many parenting books, both of the self-help and memoir/essay varieties. I can't say I really enjoy a ton of them, but yet I keep reading them.

Little laborsSo when I saw that novelist Rivka Galchen had published a little memoir/essay collection titled Little Labors, I thought, well, I'm going to have to read that too. It's definitely one of the more "literary" examples of the genre; here's how The New Republic reviewed it: "Everything one could possibly need is dispensed via dense, tiny, mysterious pellets--a fortified shot of literary enrichment we didn't even know we needed, but that now feels vital and enthralling."

Ostensibly the book is about babies and books. But the books in question are something a somewhat avant-garde novelist would read and comment upon, like Sei Shonagon's The Pillow Book. This is not a book where the author dishes about giving birth and then blabs about all the celebrity memoirs she's reading and what they're making her think about. (And really, weirdly, female comedian memoirs did make me think about gender issues and culture, a lot.) That's the sort of book I would write, low-culture boob that I am. Galchen's is more, what's the word I'm looking for...removed? Here's the first chapter, in its entirety:

"Children's books. Books for young children rarely feature children. They feature animals, or monsters, or, occasionally, children behaving like animals or monsters. Books for adults almost invariably feature adults." (p. 3.)

Well, okay. True enough. But nothing here was as gritty in a motherhood way (read: not violent, but definitely sometimes gory), which is still kind of what I'm searching for in one of these memoirs. You know what I really want to read? I want to read a book of essays in which women share all the details of their birth experiences. Really. I think it would be instructive. Horrifying, but instructive, and perhaps even beautiful. Come on. People write roughly a million horrible war memoirs every year--why is that bloody subject okay, but birth is not?

Anyway. Here's another bit from Galchen's book, just to give you the flavor:

"My life with the very young human resembles those romantic comedies in which two people who don't speak the same language still somehow fall in love. Like say, that movie I saw on an airplane with the wide-eyed Brazilian woman and the doofy American man who end up together, despite not being able to communicate via words...Yes, it was like those comedies, only without the upsetting gender dynamic of the effectively mute female. Though with the same believability. And arguably the dynamic might still be considered upsetting." (p. 31.)

It was okay. But if anyone's got any suggestions for me about that gory book about motherhood, please do let me know.*

*I think this is why I love Rachel Cusk. She's been more honest than anyone else I've seen about what goes on in the immediate aftermath of having a baby, and in marriage.


Jessi Klein's "You'll Grow Out of It."

Oh, I was so on board to enjoy this book by Jessi Klein*.

Jessi kleinFirst, there's this excerpt on the back of the book: "Everyone is charmed by a little tomboy. A scrappy little girl in overalls with a ponytail and scraped knees, who loves soccer and baseball and comic books and dirt. But what are we charmed by? It's not just that she's cute. It's that she so innocently thinks she's going to stay this way forever. But we all know she won't. And why is that?

Because as much as we like a tomboy, nobody likes a tom man."

Tee hee. And then there was this, about "learning the secrets of being a woman":

"Being a woman usually means you are born with a vagina and after that you'll probably grow boobs and most likely pretty soon after that you'll have long hair because it's no secret that men are pretty non-negotiable about that, except for the times when some Frenchwoman with an insanely long neck pulls it off and a certain segment of men who are open to being a little different go fucking bananas for her." (p. 14.)

Oh, I laughed at that. Laughed and laughed and laughed, the way only a short-haired girl who does not have an insanely long neck and has relied on that (tiny) segment of men who are open to being a little different for my dating and marriage action can laugh. So I was totally on board. But then, later, there was this, in the essay titled "Long Day's Journey Into Porn":

"What I was not prepared for was sex in the age of Internet porn, and how interested Harrison was in ejaculating on my body, and then, gradually, when I didn't flee or register protest over that act, my face. I was unhappily surprised by it, but I was so timid about my lack of experience at the advanced age of twenty-seven that I didn't want to ask any of my plentiful follow-up questions, among which were: 1. Why did you want to come on my face? 2. How do you think I feel about you coming on my face? 3. Is this A Thing everyone is doing? 4. What gave you the idea to do this?

The answer to #4, of course, was Internet porn. I didn't know this yet. I was at the very beginning of this new trend where masses of young men learn how to have sex from watching porn..." (p. 179.)

And the essay ends with Klein using porn herself as an "assist in pleasuring myself." One night she takes care of business while completing the gift registry for her expected son, and this is how the essay ends:

"They finish. I finish. I close out of the window with the x's and by default I am back on my last webpage, face-to-face with the elephant humidifier. At first it feels like the proximity of these two tabs is a bit profane--these things shouldn't have been so close to each other. But then I think, Well, isn't all this part of life. Birth and sex and porn. Exciting and horrible and great and disgusting and joyful." (p. 186.)

I don't know. She's keeping upbeat but the whole thing just depressed the hell out of me. Seemed like a lot of compromising for a tom man. But maybe that's just me.

Want a more complete review? Try this one at Paste Magazine or this much more comprehensive one at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.

*Perhaps best known as head writer on the series "Inside Amy Schumer."


Why do I keep checking out books by Heidi Julavits?

I have never been a Heidi Julavits fan, starting with her infamous essay when she started The Believer literary magazine, about how they wouldn't be engaging in snark. That essay made me want to be snarkier than ever. And it's so long. It's just so very long.

The Folded Clock: A Diary
by Heidi JulavitsHardcover
Powells.com

But, as previously noted, I am a sucker for diaries. So when I saw she had published a new book called The Folded Clock: A Diary, I thought, oh well, I'll check it out. And here's what I got:

"Today my friend is arriving from London to help me pack. I am in Italy, I have been in Italy for a month, working at an art colony, and together she and I are going to a different part of Italy (also work). I am often anxious about traveling alone, so she has been requested to keep me company and prevent me, in theory, from being anxious. What I forget is that she often makes me anxious when I am with her. She has a hunger for adventure so extreme that my usual hunger for adventure becomes, due to reactionary prudence, squelched." (p. 73.)

Getting to work in Italy? Having friends who can come "help you travel"? Hunger for adventure? Clearly this woman and I have nothing in common.* I will not be finishing this book.

*Mr. CR's opinion? "That diary book you've got in the bathroom is brutal."


Blowing the lid off nookie: Much Ado About Loving

Like all boring old married people, Mr. CR and I share certain phrases and words to use as conversational shorthand. One of our most frequently used phrases is "Thanks for blowing the lid off nookie." This in-joke comes from a line uttered by Albert Brooks in the awesome movie Broadcast News, but I am not going to explain its context any further; you'll just have to go watch the movie.* For our purposes here I can explain the phrase as meaning (to us), well, thanks for stating the painfully obvious. I'll illustrate:

CR: Taibbi just wrote another article about Donald Trump loving attention.

Mr. CR: Wow, he really blew the lid off nookie with that one.

This phrase also sums up how I feel about the small essay/correspondence collection Much Ado About Loving, co-written by Jack Murnighan** and Maura Kelly. What the authors did here was look at the subject of romantic relationships by comparing their own experiences with those found in literature. I was so primed to like this book. I like books about books; I like books about relationships; I love collections of correspondence and back-and-forth essays.

I did not really like this book.

I mean, it was okay. And the premise was kind of fun. I enjoyed reading about books (a lot of which I haven't read--classics like The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Light in August, The Magic Mountain, etc.) through the lens of the relationships among their characters. But when it came time to actually glean relationship insights from these books (and from Murnighan and Kelly), I was underwhelmed.

Here's what I learn from Murnighan, by way of Tolstoy's War and Peace and the character of Natasha:

"This is the effet joie de vivre has on the people around you: They share in it, feeling more engaged, more alive and vital, like crocuses rising up to see the sun. When you are joyful, when you say yes to life and have fun and project positivity all around you, you become a sun in the center of every constellation, and people want to be near you...Women like this, women who are really alive, are the most captivating of all; they are making the most out of living, and they help you do it, too." (pp. 85-86.)

And here's Murnighan again, on reading Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer and noting that Miller is "pretty much all about un-repression." He also has this to say, on how everyone can enjoy sex more:

"I suppose it's not surprising that many women don't realize the degree to which the simple fact of loving sex can make the act great for both parties." (p. 110.)***

So, here's what we've learned for relationships, particularly the man's advice to women: Be charming, and have a lot of joie de vivre, and oh yeah, love sex. To which I say: well, thanks, Jack Murnighan. You really blew the lid off nookie with that one.

*I will stop at nothing to get everyone, everywhere, to watch the movie "Broadcast News."

**Of Beowulf on the Beach fame (which I actually liked).

***By the way, women totally realize this (making it happen, always, can be a challenge, especially after having all that joie de vivre, which is exhausting), but thanks for assuming we're all idiots.


Meghan Daum's Shallow, Selfish, and Self-Absorbed: Read it.

If you can believe it, I've actually got a little backlog here of books read and reviews unwritten. So this week I'll try to post some teeny-tiny reviews. Many people tell me smaller doses of me are better for everyone involved anyway, so this should be a great week!

I really enjoyed the essay collection Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids, edited by Meghan Daum. This comes as no surprise, as I am a huge Meghan Daum fan.

I have kids, and they're keepers, but I can certainly understand why a person would choose not to reproduce. So I enjoyed reading these different viewpoints and reasons for not having kids, but what I liked best about this book was the diversity of writing styles present. They were all essays, sure, but each writer here seemed (to me) to showcase a very different writing style and voice. And periodically the book just really made me chuckle, in the best possible way. Consider this paragraph, from Sigrid Nunez's essay "The Most Important Thing":

"I remember a woman, a mentor, who once asked me if I thought I'd make a good mother. When I told her honestly that I didn't know, she was mightily displeased. It was as if I'd confessed to being a bad person. But I am astonished by those who are unfazed by the prospect of child raising. A male friend of mine, childless but confident, once assured me, "You just give them lots and lots of love." Perhaps only a man could believe it is as simple as that." p. 104.

That made me snort again just reading it.

Other authors included in this collection are Lionel Shriver, Geoff Dyer, Courtney Hodell, Laura Kipnis, Kate Christensen, Paul Lisicky, Anna Holmes, Michelle Huneven, Pam Houston, Jeanne Safer, M.G. Lord, Rosemary Mahoney (particularly good), Elliott Holt, Tim Kreider.

It's a great collection. Read it.


Unabrow: Misadventures of a Late Bloomer--funny stuff.

I struggle to find humorous writing that I really enjoy. Everyone does, I think. For some reason, quality humor writing seems hard to find, and individual readers' tastes in humor can vary widely.

So it was a pleasure to find and read Unabrow: Misadventures of a Late Bloomer, which honestly, I think I chose based on its cover alone (although I can't remember where I would have seen it). The author, Una Lamarche, blogs at The Sassy Curmudgeon, and also apparently writes YA novels. She also writes very, very funny essays.

I particularly liked her essays about childbirth and parenting. In one essay, on the stages a woman goes through in her lifetime with her body, here is how she describes childbirth:

"By the time you've lived in your body for thirty years or so, there's not much it can do to surprise you anymore. All its sounds and smells and unsightly bulges have been cataloged and then either frantically hidden or hopelessly ignored. Which makes it all the more shocking when your body up and does something you never thought possible. Which, in my case, was to make a cuter, littler body inside of mind...Since I am lucky enough never to have suffered a major illness or been forced to run more than fifty feet in my adult life, I'm here to talk about the transformative experience of baby making."

And she concludes that story with:

"And I never criticized my body ever again.

Hahahahaha. Lies. Of course I do. But it has gotten a lot better, with the exception of my vagina, which I choose no longer to look at, since the last time I did, it resembled an appliance that you try to shove back in its original box, but it won't fit, and there are cords and polystyrene peanuts hanging out. It was depressing, so we just email now." (pp. 31-33.)

There's nothing earth-shattering here. But the whole book was a really enjoyable read, and I came away from it really just liking Una.* Give this one a try if you're looking for a good light nonfiction summer read.

*Yes, of course I know I don't really know Una. But I do know how she feels about her vagina.


One marriage, one family, two books.

Somewhere along the way I saw Michael Chabon's essay collection Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son discussed somewhere, so I thought I would give it a try.

There are a lot of modern novelists I can't stand, and Chabon is one of them. I have tried several times to get into The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, and I just don't understand the appeal (or the story). So I did what I usually do: wait for said novelists to write an essay collection, and then I get them.

Chabon's greater theme is indeed "manhood," as far as it pertains to coming of age, fatherhood, past and present relationships, and work. There are some good essays here, with some humorous moments; in one, Chabon talks about taking his son grocery shopping, where another customer tells him he is a "good dad." He accepts that, but goes on to say:

"I don't know what a woman needs to do to impel a perfect stranger to inform her in the grocery store that she is a really good mom. Perhaps perform an emergency tracheotomy with a Bic pen on her eldest child while simultaneously nursing her infant and buying two weeks' worth of healthy but appealing breakfast snacks for the entire cast of Lion King, Jr. In a grocery store, no mother is good or bad; she is just a mother, shopping for her family. If she wipes her kid's nose of tear-stained cheeks, if she holds her kid tight, entertains her kid's nonsensical claims,buys her kid the organic non-GMO whole-grain version of Honey Nut Cheerios, it adds no useful data to our assessment of her...Good mothering is a long-term pattern, a lifelong trend of behaviors most of which go unobserved at the time by anyone, least of all the mother herself." (p. 12.)

I liked that. Very much, in fact. His chapters about being a father were my favorite, actually; other than that I could pretty much take him or leave him (which seemed about right, considering how I feel about his fiction).

As I was reading Chabon's book, I got the urge to read Ayelet Waldman's essay collection Bad Mother. I had read bits of it years ago, but never the whole thing, and I thought now might be a good time to revisit it, as Waldman is actually married to Chabon (and they have four kids). So then I re-read the Waldman.

What did I find in these two takes on the same married, with kids, writing lives? Well, I enjoyed them both, although bits of the Chabon felt a little like a slog sometimes (I was prepared to prefer the Waldman on length alone--her book is 208 pages to Chabon's 306, and I do like me a short book). But in the end? I would choose the Waldman as the more interesting and pertinent read (at least for my own reading preferences). I can sum up the difference in how they handle one story in particular.

At one point, Chabon alludes to the fact that he and his wife have been through both pregnancies and terminations, and leaves it at that, while Waldman devotes an entire chapter to their experience of having a pregnancy tested for genetic anomalies, finding evidence of one, and making the choice to terminate. I did not enjoy this chapter--I can certainly understand their choice but it makes me unhappy anyway--but at least Waldman spells it out for you. She engages with the unpalatable in a way that Chabon never really does. And that, if you must know, is how I see a lot of marriage, parenthood, relationships, what have you--staring the unpalatable in the face and then having the guts to tell the whole story afterwards. This is why I never mind when other women tell me their childbirth stories, horrific or otherwise. At least it seems honest. I never quite trust people who gloss over the big stuff, by saying things like "we've been through pregnancies and terminations."