Humor

Amber Dusick's Parenting: Illustrated with Crappy Pictures

Oh, I really enjoyed Amber Dusick's book Parenting: Illustrated with Crappy Pictures.

The book delivers exactly what it promises.* Dusick dishes on parenting two small boys, and accompanies her stories with stick-figure drawings of her anecdotes. I laughed my way through it one night in about an hour, and when Mr. CR asked what I was laughing at, I handed it off to him, and then he laughed through it too. Mr. CR has a charming but elusive giggle, rarely spotted in captivity, and I was touched that he laughed at many of the same things in this book that I did.

He even laughed at my favorite chapter, which didn't have as much to do with parenting as it did with marriage. One of the obligatory stories in Dusick's book is about how the entire family got the (throwing-up) flu, starting with the kids, moving to Mom, and finishing up with Dad, who gets his flu on the weekend, and gets to spend his time alone in bed (whereas Mom spent her sick time during the week, caring for the kids). So this is what transpires: "I tell him matter-of-factly that he is not dying. He just had the flu.

The same flu, I remind him, that I had while taking care of the kids all week.

This is where he is supposed to have an epiphany of how amazing I am and what a hard week it has been for me and why I'm ever-so-slightly annoyed and jealous that he has been in bed for two days.

Only he doesn't. Instead he says something that is so completely the opposite of what I was expecting that I'm stunned.

[and this bit is is cartoon form] I must have a stronger, mutated version of the virus." (p. 122.)

Tee hee. Good stuff, this.

*And you've got to love a woman who says this, straight up: "I hate well-child doctor visits. Especially once I started noticing that my kids would get sick approximately forty-eight hours after their well-child visits. Every. Damn. Time." (p. 98.)


Moms who drink and swear.

I am firmly on record as not minding swearing in my nonfiction (or fiction, really) books. However, I do think the swearing needs to be warranted. (For instance: I don't mind it when Matt Taibbi swears in his writing. I think most of the topics he covers require some amount of swearing, such as when he perfectly describes Alan Greenspan as a "one in a billion asshole.")

However, one book I leafed through recently contained just too much (unwarranted) swearing to be amusing. The title? Appropriately enough, Moms Who Drink and Swear: True Tales of Loving My Kids While Losing My Mind. It's a collection of short essays, based on the author's blog of the same name,* and it just didn't do much for me. For instance, she includes what she calls "Conversations with Crotchfruit" (the "crotchfruit" being her children? I've never heard that word, personally):

"Zach: Why do you wear underwear that goes straight up your butt?

Me: Thongs? I wear these so underpants lines don't show through my pants, okay?

Zach: And it probably doesn't get stuck in all those dents all over your butt either. I get it.

Me: OH MY GOD! GET OUT!" (p. 49.)

I have several questions about this exchange. Mainly, because this is a woman who also references sometimes suffering from hemorrhoids, what on earth is she doing wearing thong underwear? Let's just say this was a woman to whom I couldn't relate. I read about fifty pages, wondered why I was wasting my time, and took it back to the library.

Here's a sample entry from the blog: "In July, I posted the first of what I hope will be many Fuck You Dinner recipes, a recipe for good goddamn homemade chicken tenders. I promised to share more, but I’ve spent the summer telling dinner to go fuck itself and letting my crothfruit’s shitty dinner requests roll and not cooking much." That's pretty much what the book is like.


"So-so" books: Lizz Free or Die.

Lizz Free or Die: Essays
by Lizz Winstead

Powells.com

How's this for an inspiring series? This week I'll discuss some books I read recently that were, at best, "so-so." (She says, while shrugging apathetically.) Our first title in the series is Lizz Winstead's Lizz Free or Die: Essays.

Wouldn't you think I would have laughed more, reading the essays/memoir of the women who co-created The Daily Show? I don't even remember why I placed this book on hold at the library, but I'm pretty sure I heard about Winstead's role creating and writing that show (although she left it before Jon Stewart came along and made it unmissable). It's kind of a free-ranging collection, from stories of her youth, college, early days in stand-up, to her creation of The Daily Show and later successes. It's not poorly written, and in many ways Lizz herself seems quite likable. An early essay, about the preponderance of babies she came across in her childhood and the many baby-centric social outings her mother dragged her to, did make me laugh:

"There were always babies around--sometimes there were so many, it seemed they came in bulk, like our family was the Costco of procreation...

...The parties were made up of about fifteen women and were a combination of my sisters, aunts, grandma, and cousins. They sat in a big circle on flimsy folding chairs, most of them tryig to balance a baby or toddler of their own on their laps while simultaneously gobbling up plates full of 'the egg dish,' a bready/eggy casserole lathered in cream of mushroom soup. This was the food of choice at every family gathering that started before noon. Cream of mushroom soup, however, was the ingredient of choice for every recipe ever created in the 1960s and 1970s, no matter what time the gathering or what the main dish was. I like to think of it as America's binder. And it's a fitting metaphor for baby shower conversations: thick and bland." (p.8.)

But it never really got any better than that. Periodically I would pick it up and read it and pretty soon I noticed I had read most of it, but here I am only a few weeks later and I can hardly remember any of it. I do remember this: she includes an essay ("All Knocked Up") about an early experience when she became pregnant by her high school boyfriend. It's not so much about the abortion she would end up having, as it was about the way the woman at the clinic where she found out about her pregnancy treated her, but I still found it super depressing. While I was reading this one I had also just started Leslie Jamison's much-lauded essay collection The Empathy Exams, which also includes a personal story about abortion, and it was just too much. I don't want to get into a big long thing here, but it depressed me that all these ostensibly feminist memoirs include abortion stories, when abortion seems to me, frankly, such a passive (or at best, reactive) way to assert the self.

But even before the abortion essay this one just wasn't as funny or as sparkling as I wanted it to be. So-so.


Howyeh, Jimmy?

The Guts
by Roddy Doyle
Powells.com

Oh, Roddy Doyle. Even when you're phoning it in you do nice work.

As mentioned a while ago, I recently blew through Roddy Doyle's new novel The Guts. In it, he revisits characters he first introduced in his novel The Commitments. I've never actually read that book, but I've seen the movie roughly a million times.

A brief interlude here, to describe my relationship with movies: When I love a movie, I LOVE a movie. It is really not hyperbole to say that I have seen The Commitments about a million times. I was obsessed with it in high school and college. I owned both the soundtracks. I pretty much know it by heart, which scares Mr. CR, but not as much as the fact that I also still know Top Gun by heart. (Don't ask. I was YOUNG when I first watched that movie.)

Of course Doyle's books get made into movies, because they are largely written in dialogue and they feature fantastic characters and relationships. Take this conversation between Jimmy and his dad, to open the book, when his dad asks about Facebook:

"His da had a laptop at home. He knew how to google. He'd booked flights online. He'd backed a few horses, although he preferred the walk to the bookie's. He'd bought a second-hand book online, about Dublin During the War of Independence. He'd nearly bought an apartment in Turkey but that had been a bit of an accident...But the point was, his da knew his way around the internet. So Jimmy didn't know why he was pretending to be completely thick.

--Why d'yeh want to know? he asked.

--Ah, for fuck sake, said his da.--Every time I ask a fuckin' question.

--What's wrong with yeh?

--I ask a fuckin' question and some cunt says why d'yeh want to know.

--You're askin' the wrong cunts, said Jimmy." p. 3.

Now that I think of it, you might also want to stay away if you don't like profanity.

Jimmy has grown up: he has a wife, four kids, an online music business (that he founded and sold, but at which he still works), and, as is revealed pretty early on, cancer. So throughout the book he tries to balance all of the above, while going through cancer treatment. But the cancer isn't really the story--Jimmy (and the rest of the characters) are. At one point I was invested enough in him that when he did something that annoyed me in the middle of the book, I felt personally affronted, like Jimmy is someone I actually know.

Other reviewers have not been overly positive* about this book. But I enjoyed it. It was fun to revisit the world of The Commitments. And it was fun to care enough about any character that I wished I could give him a slap upside the head when he was being an idiot.

*By the way, look at this review just to see the UK cover of the book, which is a million times better than the American one.


Skinny Review Week: How They Croaked

Title: How They Croaked: The Awful Ends of the Awfully Famous

What's it all about, briefly? This is a fun, short book (with lots of illustrations) about how a lot of history's most famous people died. The stories here describe the "awful ends of the awfully famous," including Julius Caesar, Elizabeth I, George Washington, Charles Darwin, and many others. This is a book meant for young readers, so the text is simple. I actually got it from my sister, who said her kids loved reading it. She also asked me for suggestions for other such "tweeny" nonfiction reads, which I never got back to her on. (Sorry about that, sis.) For one thing, normally I would have just gone to the shelf of my local library and browsed for her, but that's harder with the two kids; and for another, I have always believed that nonfiction for kids is best found along subject lines more so than author- or writing style-lines. By that I mean there aren't as many big "name" authors of YA or tween nonfiction that I am aware of, and that kids are usually pretty handy at finding nonfiction they want to read based on subjects they are interested in.*

Representative Quote: "On the morning of December 14, 1799, [George] Washington woke up boiling hot and gasping for air. Martha and Tobias Lear, his secretary, immediately sent for the doctor--which was harder than it sounds since they were seventy-five years shy of having a phone and a hundred years short of having a car parked out front. Sending for the doctor meant someone had to hop on a horse and gallop over dirt roads to Alexandria, eight miles away, where Dr. Craik lived." (p. 85.)

The Skinny: A fun read, for kids and adults alike. Always ask what your kids and nieces and nephews are reading--you might find something good for yourself. (Or something helpful for when your library patrons ask for juvenile nonfiction.)

*CRjr is a perfect example of this. Right now he is fascinated with flags, and has a Flags of the World book at home that has kept him occupied for, I'm not kidding, hours. He can't read but we've gone through and said a lot of the country names with him, so now he runs around the house saying "Mali! Guinea! Guinea-Bissau! Liberia!" It's beyond awesome.


March Memoir Madness: Once Upon a Flock

For a long while, I read a ton of memoirs each month.

And then, well, I overdosed on memoirs. Too many were leaving me unsatisfied or just plain uninterested, so I stopped reading them for a while. Just lately, however, I've been finding my way back to a few of them. One that I was able to read very quickly was Lauren Scheuer's lightweight but still very enjoyable title Once Upon a Flock: Life with My Soulful Chickens.

This is another book that I think I found while reading about the New Domesticity, and the current hot hobby of keeping chickens in one's yard.* Mercifully, this wasn't any sort of "back to the land," "gonna grow all my own food" type memoir. I really hate most of those.** This was just a nice story of how one woman faced her coming empty nest (her daughter Sarah was a teenager and wasn't around their home or yard as much) by getting a few new tenants, namely actual chickens, in the nest and coop that she wanted to build for them.

What follows is a very nice, actually borderline touching story of how much the author got to know and love her chickens. It includes numerous illustrations and pictures, and along the way you'll actually learn a little something about chickens as animals (like how eggs are actually produced). And this:

"All birds molt. It's a natural occurrence. Feathers are astoundingly durable, but they do require replacement from time to time. All chickens have their own molting style. Some drop a feather here and there, and it's hardly noticeable. Other hens opt for the speed molt. One day they look voluptuous, and the next day the coop looks like a chicken exploded, feathers absolutely everywhere, and a nearly naked hen cowering in the corner." (p. 176.)

I wish I could show you the picture that goes with that quote; it's pretty cute. And that really sums up the whole book. Not an earth-shatteringly great read, but actually pretty cute. It was a nice fresh read while the winter of 2013-14 just drags on and on and on.

*A few years back when I went to the eye doctor, out of nowhere, she said, "Did you grow up on a farm?" I said, yes, how did you know that? She asked if I'd ever been around chickens, or played near their coop, and I said yes, I did play in an empty building that had been a chicken coop. That's when she explained she saw some scarring on one of my eyes that was the result of being infected by some sort of chicken parasite at some point in my youth. Had I had the scarring in a different place, I would have been blind in that eye. So: no one around here is ever keeping chickens in her yard, thank you very much.

**Having grown up on a farm, and never wanting to go back to a farm, these gung-ho earthy memoirs tend to leave me cold. Do you know how many hours farmers (and other "back to the landers") work? ALL THE TIME. 24/7. Me? I'm not all that fond of working 8/5, to tell you the truth. So, for the most part, you won't catch me reading "I just want to farm and grow my own food and get my hands in dirt" memoirs by choice.


Just in time for April as National Poetry Month.

Just in time for National Poetry Month, I am trying something new. Check it out over at:

http://housewifehaiku.tumblr.com

Yes, I know, just what I need, another blog, when I am not posting enough at this one. But I want to learn about other social media platforms (and God help me, I just don't have the strength to tackle Twitter yet), and I find it's been oddly soothing to fit my daily housewifely crankiness into 17 syllables. Let me know what you think.

In other news, the other night I had a lovely dream about the author John Green*. We went on a fantastic date. And during the dream, I thought, wait a second, John Green is married...or is he? I have to check IMDB.com and see if he's gotten a divorce!! (Very excitedly.) It didn't occur to me until I woke up (dammit) that, oh yeah, I'm married as well. Oh, well. I told Mr. CR about it and he took it like a good sport, although, now that I think about it, he was also happy to move on from the subject. It occurs to me now that I probably should have asked him how many celebrities he's dreamed about.**

*I think it was precipitated by the fact that the day after I posted about Tony Hawks's fantastic book Round Ireland with a Fridge, John Green vlogged about the VERY SAME BOOK and called it underrated. John Green, how I love thee, let me count the ways.

**Mr. CR's policy is that he will tell me stuff, but only if I ask the right questions.


I can't even think of a title for this post.

Really. This is how braindead I've become. I was going to leave it blank and see if I came up with a title after I wrote this review, but I've got to mosey on to bed, so it's going to stay the way it is.

Yes, I know, it's getting even more casual than usual here at Citizen Reader. What can I say? Put on your pyjamas and join the party.

A couple of weeks ago a friend sent me the URL to a website called 27bslash6.com, because she is my go-to friend for funny things on the Internet (and she has impeccable taste--she sent me a post from Drew Magary without even knowing how much I love Drew Magary). I can't say I found the website all that hilarious, but that's mainly because after doing freelance work online I get rather sick of reading on the computer and only looked at it for about thirty-nine seconds. I did see that the author of the website, David Thorne, had a new book out, so I just requested that from the library instead.

The book is titled I'll Go Home Then, It's Warm and Has Chairs. the Unpublished Emails, and has a lovely picture on the front of a kitty cat in a flight suit, holding a snowboard.* And that image nicely sums up what I thought of the book: a third of the stuff in the book made me laugh so hard I actually hurt my throat a little bit (although with our continued subzero temps and dry air, my throat's already a bit tender), a third of it I didn't really understand, and the final third made me really, really glad I don't know, work with, or live near David Thorne.

For the most part, the truly hilarious parts of this book are parts of larger vignettes that are too long to quote. But here's a little flavor of some truly laugh-worthy stuff: "The four seasons in Australia [where Thorne is from] consist of 'fuck it's hot,' 'Can you believe how fucking hot it is?' 'I won't be in today because it is too fucking hot' and 'Yes, the dinner plate size spiders come inside to escape from the heat.'" (p. 23.)

The book also includes photoshopped pictures, some of which include cats wearing 3D classes. This is CRjr's favorite part of the book; the other day he picked it up and said, "Where are the kitty pictures?", so I flipped to a page with some kitty pictures. Not the right ones, though--CRjr threw the book back at me and said, "The kitties with the funny glasses." At 3 and a half, already a discerning customer of humor, I couldn't be more proud.

All in all the funny outweighed the not-so-funny and somewhat-discomfiting (as in when he makes life a living hell for his co-workers, neighbors, salespeople, and generally anyone else who annoys him). Give it a try.

*Sometimes it really is as simple as kitty in a funny outfit=funny.


Another Helene Hanff stunner.

Please note: For all you Helene Hanff fans out there, remember that Stacy Horn (an author I think of as a modern-day Hanff, with her fantastic writing skills, her joy for life, and her residence in New York City) put up a walking tour video of the places Helene lived in New York. It's awesome.

The bad news is, I am all out of "new to me" Helene Hanff books to read.*

The good news is, the book in question, the one I had been saving to read for last, was wonderful.

As you know, I love Helene Hanff. (Actually, I think I am in love WITH her. It's a small distinction but an important one.) After I first read 84, Charing Cross Road and The Duchess of Bloosmbury, I started making my way through her other books, but slowly, so I wouldn't run out of them all at once. But now, having read her memoir Underfoot in Show Business, I am officially out of Hanff treats for myself.

But it was worth it. I checked it out from the library, and the very first thing I enjoyed about it was its delicious old book smell. You know, the slightly sweet, pulpy odor that most books of a certain age, particularly if they've been living around other books, get. And then when I read it, it turned out to be a delightful journey through Helene's early professional life, when she moved from Pennsylvania to New York City to try and become a playwright. This is how it opens:

"You may have noticed that this book was not written by Moss Hart. It's a book about show business, where fame is the stock in trade, and it's written by a name you never heard of and probably can't pronounce. There is a simple explanation for this.

Each year, hundreds of stage-struck youngsters arrive in New York to crash the theatre, firmly convinced they're destined to be famous Broadway stars or playwrights. One in a thousand turns out to be Moss Hart.

This book is about the other 999. By one of them." (p. 11)

Of course, this book is old. It's dated. Frankly, I don't even know who Moss Hart is. But Helene plows right in, in her forthright manner, and tells you how she grew up loving the theatre (as did the rest of her family), how she attended college briefly and then had to drop out to take a job (where she spent a lot of her time writing plays), and how she eventually moved to New York City and tried to make it in the business. And once she's in New York, well, she never slows down. She describes trying to find an agent, how actors and actresses get cast, and all other manner of behind-the-Broadway-scenes action; but perhaps the most enjoyable bits are those in which she and her friend Maxine make their way in the big city, contriving to see Broadway shows for free and trying to find apartments which include some kind of kitchen space or privileges.

This should come as no surprise: I loved it. Even when I didn't get the references, even when I had no idea what she was talking about. I just find Helene so inspiring. Here was this woman who was never rich, was mostly quite poor, as a matter of fact, but she lived life (mostly) where she wanted to live it, in her beloved New York City, and she seemed always, ALWAYS to be having a good time. I'm sure a lot of her life wasn't easy, but you certainly wouldn't know it from her prose. I enjoyed this bit, too, when she described herself, fairly early on in the book:

"I had a dumpy little figure, and the clothes I bought off the sale racks in Wanamaker's basement didn't improve it. I wore glasses, I had straight, stringy, mouse-colored hair which I could afford to have cut or set very often, and I had as much poise as any young girl who's never been anywhere or done anything and most of the time isn't exactly sure who she is." (p. 14.)

She's not describing herself very glamorously, and yet, you get the feeling, even when she was unsure, Helene didn't really mind being Helene. At least that's the impression I get. The other overall impression I always get from her books is one of joy: what joy she brought to life, and what joy she got from it. And what joy she's brought to my life. I wish she'd written at least a hundred more books.

*Well, she wrote a few children's history books too, that I might still track down.


Younger reading: Gorgeous.

Gorgeous
by Paul Rudnick

Powells.com

Either I'm just way more tired than usual, or I wanted to feel like I was flying through books again, but lately I have been reading (and re-reading) YA and kids' books. For the most part the huge boom in YA publishing has left me behind--I only have so much time for reading these days and it mostly still goes to nonfiction--but I have enjoyed big bestsellers like The Hunger Games trilogy and stand-alone titles like Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist. So when I saw that Paul Rudnick had a new novel out, I didn't let the fact that it was being marketed as a YA title stop me.

Rudnick is perhaps best known for writing the screenplay for the Kevin Kline movie In & Out (and as a playwright). However, he is also the author of one of my favorite novels of all time, titled I'll Take It. It's a crazy hilarious book, about a young-ish New York City guy who agrees to drive his mother and his two aunts (he's a good Jewish boy, after all, who can't say no to his mother) on their tour through New England to watch the leaves change. What they get up to along the way will, I think, surprise you. At least it did me, in the best possible way.*

This new title, Gorgeous, is a modern-day take on the Cinderella story. Becky Randle has grown up in a Missouri trailer park with her monstrously obese mother, but when her mother dies, Becky finds a cell phone and a phone number for "Tom Kelly." The same Tom Kelly, it turns out, who is a world-famous fashion (and lifestyle, and fragrance, and etc.) designer. When she calls the number, the person on the other end offers to fly her, first class, to New York City, where she meets Kelly and he makes her a once-in-a-lifetime deal: let him make her three dresses, and those dresses will make her the most beautiful woman in the world.

Becky, who is a really great character, actually stops and thinks about whether or not that's something she'd even want. That is, until her best friend (another great character, named Rocher, yes, after the candy) tells her not to be an idiot and TAKE THE DEAL. She does, and watching Becky's life proceed after she becomes Rebecca Randle, Gorgeous Woman, is fascinating. It's a thoroughly strange and enjoyable little story, and it eventually includes British royalty (another reason for me to love it), but the real pleasure in this book is the characterization and dialogue. That said, I don't know if it's dialogue I would have appreciated as a true YA. Consider this conversation between Becky and Rocher:

"'So you mean if I want to marry the prince I should do what, play hard to get?'

'No, I'm not saying you need to be an A-plus, number one, slap-her-silly cocktease like Shanice Morain [a girl they went to high school with]. Even though that is how she got Cal Malstrup to ask her to prom, she just kept giving him these hand jobs in the equipment shed next to the football field and she kept telling him that sh'ed love to do more but that she was a good Christian girl and that it says in the Bible that good Christians can only have joyful intercourse in the back of a white stretch limo.'" (p. 134.)

Now, I think that is hilarious. But in high school? Or even younger? I just don't know.

Actually, I rather agree with the reviewer who wondered if this was really an adult book being sold as YA**, because it has young characters and because YA is what sells lately. But all of that aside: it certainly wasn't a dull read.

*Just thinking about this book again makes me want to go find it on my shelves and re-read it again, right now.

**Although I actually think this review does a better job of describing the inexplicable appeal of this book.


We interrupt list mania...

...to bring you a Friday funny.

Sent to me by a friend (you know who you are: thank you!), here's a piece by Drew Magary, who I totally love, on hating the Williams-Sonoma catalog. I didn't have to get much further than the intro to fall over laughing:

"I have a house and, like most houses, it's an unfinished work. There are cracks in the paint. There are piles of old clothes and shoes exploding out of the laundry room, which doubles as a storage room because we don't have a storage room. The walls in our bedroom are bare because we haven't had time to hang pictures on them since we moved in 10 years ago. We need a pantry, but don't have one. We just cram cans of food and boxes of pasta into the front hall closet with the coats and shoes because there's nowhere else to put them...But for now, this loving house will do, in all its imperfections. I suspect most houses are like this. There's always some goddamn project that needs to get done and never does."

But then of course I fell down the Internet rabbit hole and read another one of his essays, My Kid's Insane Christmas Wish List, Annotated. And that was even better. Drew Magary: the gift that keeps on giving.

Have a great weekend, all.


I found the funny women!

A quick reminder: please comment on my Stacy Horn giveaway post if you'd like a chance at winning a copy of her latest book, Imperfect Harmony. The deadline is tomorrow (9/13)!

A while back I complained that it seemed Daddy Memoirs were funnier than Mommy Memoirs.

And then, my friends, I found the book Let's Panic about Babies!! Written by two women!

The fact is that this book made me snort with laughter so loudly that I almost woke up my sleeping three-year-old (which the authors of this book would NOT condone) many, many times. It masquerades as a parenting advice manual, but of course it's the best kind of manual: not really meant to be taken seriously, but very very accurate nonetheless. The first half of the book covers pregnancy, and the second half covers "caring" for the baby. And these ladies (Eden Kennedy and Alice Bradley), in a bid to win my heart, are not afraid to swear:

(Seriously, if you don't like swearing, don't read this next quote from the book):

"CHAPTER 8: This Pregnancy Shit Is Getting Old

The eighth month is also known as the Really Goddamn Over This Pregnancy month. You feel like you might explode and you cannot fathom staying like this for another goddamn month. GODDAMMIT. Incidentally, you are now swearing like a dockworker. Even if you were born and raised a plainspoken Mennonite who never so much as used the word 'gosh-'-because everyone knows which Almighty is being blasphemed by that cuss-substitute--you're now a salty-language connoisseur. Every time Baby pummels your ribs at 3 A.M., you let out a stream of expletives that sends your partner scurrying for the village exorcist." (p. 97.)

To say this book is very, VERY amusing would be selling it very short. I'm still laughing every time I turn to the page where the authors have suggested that pregnant ladies make pictures of what they want their birthing experiences to be like--complete with a sketch of a baby flying out of a kneeling lady and heading toward Santa Claus, ready to catch it with a catcher's mitt (I'm describing it badly, but the idea is, of course, to display the birth as mythically wonderful and easy).

Ah, swearing and sarcasm. Now THIS is a Mommy Memoir, even if it's not a memoir as such.


One thing David Sedaris does extremely well.

At first I was worried when I got David Sedaris's new book Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls in at the library--it looked thick! But then I laughed when I remembered I had requested one of the library's large print copies, because the hold list seemed shorter for that than for the regular copies. (Older folks with vision impairment not being Sedaris's target audience, perhaps?) Every now and then I enjoy a large print book--you flip pages at the speed of light, seemingly.

As to the content of the book? Well, Sedaris's essays are always somewhat delightfully surreal, but in this latest volume, I'm starting to feel like he's phoning them in a little bit. They just don't have the tightly constructed feel they used to (or that I feel David Rakoff's essays had, right up to his untimely death). I particularly didn't like his essays written in other personas--from the point of view of a religious fundamentalist, for example--although there weren't many of them. Just when I was thinking I wouldn't finish the collection, though, I came upon the essay titled "Now Hiring Friendly People," about Sedaris's experiences just trying to buy a cup of coffee in a hotel coffee bar, and getting stuck behind a couple taking up lots of the coffee bar worker's time and energy:

"...just as I decided to get a cup of coffee, someone came from around the corner and moved in ahead of me.

I'd later learn that her name was Mrs. Dunston, a towering, dough-colored pyramid of a woman wearing oversize glasses and a short-sleeved linen blazer. Behind her came a man I guessed to be her husband, and after looking up at the menu board, she turned to him. 'A latte,' she said. 'Now is that the thing Barbara likes to get, the one with whipped cream, or is that called something else?'

Oh fuck, I thought." (p. 344, large print edition.) And a bit later in the same encounter:

"The Dunstons' bill came to eight dollars, which, everyone agreed, was a lot to pay for two cups of coffee. But they were large ones, and this was a vacation, sort of. Not like a trip to Florida, but you certainly couldn't do that at the drop of a hat, especially with gas prices the way they are and looking to go even higher.

While talking, Mrs. Dunston rummaged through her tremendous purse. Her wallet was eventually located, but then it seemed that the register was locked, so the best solution was to put the coffees on her bill." (p. 350.)

I laughed so many times during this essay; Sedaris has the mundane conversation and all the details just right, right down to the short-sleeved linen blazer and the tremendous purse. He is very, very good at describing others' conversation, particularly in service situations (which is why his early piece about working as a Christmas elf in a department store was such a tour de force). For me, this one essay really made the whole book.*

So is it his best collection? Not really. Is there still quite a bit of fun, readable stuff here? Absolutely.

*Although I also loved his essay on how he keeps notebooks/journals/diaries and has for a long, long time, and how he uses them in his writing (including indexing key parts of them, which of course totally melts my geeky indexing heart).


Are daddies funnier than mommies?

Be aware, I don't really think that headline is true. I just thought it would be a nice incendiary way to start the week.

I did have this thought, though, as I was reading and enjoying Drew Magary's Daddy Memoir Someone Could Get Hurt: A Memoir of Twenty-First-Century Parenthood. Magary has three kids, and this book consists mainly of quick vignettes of his parenting experience. (He's also a magazine and fiction writer, which means his writing is pretty snappy and very easy to read quickly.) It's not perfect, but I actually laughed out loud at it in several places. I love to laugh, but I am not really a laugh-out-louder while I read, so this book took me by surprise.

Evidently I must be experiencing motherhood from a more male point of view, because so many little things Magary threw in appealed to me:

When his wife wanted to call the doctor to ask if loud music (they were at a concert) would harm the fetus: "'She might get pissed at me for calling.'

'Screw that,' I said. Doctors go to great lengths to guilt-trip every patient into not calling them outside of office hours. They have the whole trap set. They have that voicemail message that tells you to call 911 first. Then it says, 'Well, if you really have to talk to the doctor, leave a message on our answering service.' They give you every opportunity to feel like shit for bothering the poor doctor during dinner. It's a process designed to weed out the faint of heart. I refused to be cowed. 'Don't feel bad about calling her,' I said. 'You pay those people hundreds of dollars every visit. Call the shit out of them.'" (p. 15.)

Tee hee. Of course, you'll notice another part of the appeal of Magary (to me, anyway): He swears a lot. I find this appropriate, as parenting does seem to induce some level of swearing (which you try to keep quiet, sometimes successfully, sometimes not) on a daily basis.

And then there was this bit, which was more serious, but actually made me feel vindicated for some dark thoughts I had when CRjr was tiny and crying in the middle of the night and I was so, so tired:

"She kept on crying and jerking her head around. Eventually, she gave me a full-on head butt and I recoiled in anger. I remember being furious with her, which is insane because how mad can you get at a baby? Oh, but you can. Late at night, when no one is watching, you can get obscenely angry at a baby. You stupid fucking baby. Sometimes you read about babies dying from shaken baby syndrome and you wonder, Why would anyone want to shake a baby? How is this such a widespread problem? And then your child head-butts you in the dead of night and suddenly there's a little voice in your head whispering to you, Go ahead, shake that baby. Maybe shaking it gets all the tears out! You just want the child to snap out of it and calm down, and you're willing to consider anything, even the stupidest idea. You feel like a monster merely for having the thought." (p. 26.)

I give him points for honesty there, and for understanding that terrible feeling in a way my husband never did, because I nursed and was mainly in charge of nighttime care. He was amenable to me waking him up to relieve me, but I don't think he ever experienced that exhauasted, 3 a.m., "you've been fed and changed and rocked and you're still crying, why?" frustration in quite the way I (and evidently Magary) did.

And last but not least, a lighter bit:

"I'm not sure any group of parents has ever been subjected to as much widespread derision as the current generation of American parents. We are told, constantly, how badly we are fucking our kids up. There are scores of books being sold every day that demonstrate how much better parents are in China, and in France, and in the Amazon River Basin. I keep waiting for a New York Times article about how leaders of the Cali drug cartel excel at teaching their children self-reliance." (p. 137.)

I've already gone on too long in this post; a bit more tomorrow on all this. In the meantime, if you're looking for a funny, quick parenting read, you could do a lot worse than this one.


Roll me up and smoke me when I die.

You know, Willie Nelson is just a fun person with whom to spend some time.

And that's exactly what you feel like you're doing when you read Nelson's autobiographical collection Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die: Musings from the Road. The book is truly that--musings--but meatier than you might realize at first. It includes excerpts from Nelson's writings while on the road, interspersed with commentary from family and band members, and friends. Subjects range from Farm Aid to guns to writing music to jokes (of which there are very many good ones here, although some are a bit raunchier than others). I'd quote one here but I think it's more fun to read them in Willie's book.

One of my favorite things to learn about Willie came from his son Micah (whose illustrations are also featured throughout the book): "there has never been any pressure from him to be anything but a decent person" (p. 75.) That seemed about right, and I hope it is something CRjr might be able to say about me some day.

If you enjoy Nelson's music, I think you'll enjoy this book too. (I think you might even enjoy it if you're not a fan of his music--he's just that likable.) Although I guess I would not suggest it to people who are not fans of casual marijuana use. It's also a particularly nice laid-back little read if you are GOING CRAZY FROM CABIN FEVER, which I would guess just about everyone in Wisconsin (and perhaps in other parts? are you having an early or late spring where you are?) is by now.


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.


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
Powells.com

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."


A little bit of perspective goes a long way.

Where I live got more than 18 inches of snow today.

That's right. Just today. Because one of my phobias is driving in snow (and worrying about those I love driving in snow), you can imagine this was a bit upsetting. But a book I'm reading gave me a little perspective.

The book in question is Evelyn Birkby's Always Put in a Recipe and Other Tips for Living from Iowa's Best-Known Homemaker, published by the University of Iowa Press. It's a compilation of newspaper columns written over the past sixty years by Birkby, who is lauded on the cover as "Iowa's best-known homemaker." The columns range in topic from Birkby's marriage to her husband Robert, their years in farming, the raising of their children, their vacations, involvement in boy scouts, and many other subjects. The part that gave me perspective was the chapter in which she discussed living through winters in less-than-cozy homes:

"The small white house was uninsulated, and when the temperature got down to freezing in the winter, frost formed on the inside of the windows...when chill winds blew tenaciously through the walls of the house and up from under the floor boards.

I remember using the playpen to provide a warm place for the children. I put a blanket on the bottom of the pen, which was about four inches above the floor. Then I hung another blanket on three sides. I placed the pen with the fourth side open toward the oil burning stove in the living room -- the only heat source in our house. The children would get inside the playpen to read, color, play with their toys, and stay warm." (p. 66.)

Holy crap. Our sixty-year-old house isn't the warmest thing in the world, but we don't have breezes coming up between the floor boards, for the love of pete.

It's really a pretty interesting book. Birkby is nothing if not upbeat* and the stories range from tragic to mundane to heartwarming. If you know any readers who like "cozier" nonfiction, particularly with a rural bent, they might really enjoy this.**

*For some reason this book tickled me this week--I must have been in the right mood. In real life optimistic and wholesome people who "never say die" tend to make me a bit uneasy.

**Although it's not a perfect book. It would be better if the columns included the date they were first published; sometimes the date can be figured out from the context, but it would be easier if it was just there. I also think it might benefit from an index.


Fiction Interlude: Tepper Isn't Going Out

Well, I said I was probably going to re-read Tepper Isn't Going Out, when Calvin Trillin won the 2012 Thurber Prize for Humor, and I did. This marks the third or fourth time I've read this novel, and it never fails to make me smile.*

Murray Tepper is a simple man**, who asks simply to be left alone as he sits in his parked car and reads the paper. After all, he's in a legal spot and he's put money in the meter. So how does he become a magnet for the city's citizens, who start to show up wanting to discuss their problems and life in general with him? How does he become the target of the city's megalomaniac mayor? It'll only take you 213 pages to find out, and I think you'll enjoy the ride. Do give it a try; here's a quote from the first page to give you the flavor of the thing:

"Murray Tepper looked up from his newspaper to see what was happening. Tepper was sitting behind the wheel of a dark blue Chevrolet Malibu that was parked on the uptown side of Forty-third street, between Fifth and Sixth. Across the street, an argument was going on between an intense young man in a suit and the peddler who set up a stand on Forty-third Street every day to sell apples and bananas and peaches to office workers. Tepper had seen them go at it before. The young man was complaining about the price that the peddler charged for a single banana. The peddler was defending himself in an accent that Tepper couldn't place even by continent." (p. 3.)

This year I'm thankful for great paragraphs like that. And a great many other things besides, including my many friends to converse with here. Happy Thanksgiving, all.

*And also to make me hungry for New York deli food, not to mention hungry to visit New York City again in general. Although I am aware (and sad that) they are having a rough autumn in New York.

**Or is he? Read the book to find out.


How am I supposed to kick my Daily Show habit this way?

The lovely author Jon Ronson of such (funky and completely enjoyably weird, or weirdly enjoyable, whatever) titles The Men Who Stare at Goats and The Psychopath Test: A Journey through the Madness Industry was on The Daily Show last week.* He's adorable, and love that accent:

I have decided I have to stop watching The Daily Show online, I just don't have the time to spend. But it's going to hurt, especially when Stewart hosts authors like Ronson. And also this Lewis Black segment, which is emphatically not suitable for work, but is HILARIOUS.

*I should add Ronson has a new book out, titled Lost at Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries. Can't wait to read it!

Update: Here's another interview with the lovely and talented Jon Ronson, at The Millions.