Memoirs

Doing Time Like a Spy by John Kiriakou.

Doing time like a spyI really should not have read John Kiriakou's memoir Doing Time Like a Spy: How the CIA Taught Me to Survive and Thrive in Prison.

The minute I saw the word "prison" in this book's subtitle, I should have known to return it, unread, to the library. I have a wide variety of fears, and a fear of prison or anyone I know going to prison is one of them.* Although I am a voracious True Crime reader and have watched a lot of British detective and crime programs, I cannot read or watch anything that involves a prison storyline. I only checked out this book because John Kiriakou is a famous whistleblower, and I am fascinated by whistleblowers.

Kiriakou is a former CIA intelligence officer who, in 2007, became the first (former) CIA employee to confirm in a news interview that the United States was using torture on terrorism suspects like Abu Zubaydah, who was waterboarded. This really pissed off a lot of people, and in a truly breathtaking display of pricktastic and vengeful behavior, the FBI and the Justice Department investigated Kiriakou until they felt, in 2012, that they could punish him by charging him with "a.) three counts under the Espionage Act of 1917, an obscure World War I-era law aimed at prosecuting spies, b.) one count of violating the Intelligence Identities Protection Act (IIPA), a 1982 law aimed at thwarting radical publications that intentionally tried to out covert agents, under which only one person had been convicted since the law’s passage, and c.) one count of making false statements."

Keep in mind, please, that John Kiriakou did not torture prisoners (and yes, torture is supposedly still illegal under the Geneva Conventions), and in fact, when he was an active officer, he turned down an offer to be trained in "enhanced interrogation techniques"--national security-speak for torture. And yet, for telling the truth about prisoners who were being tortured, HE was the one sent to jail for 30 months.

That paragraph, to me, is everything that's wrong with America right now.

But I digress. Although Kiriakou gives a quick rundown of his case in the first chapter of this book, it is mostly about his experience being incarcerated for thirty months. And the Feds didn't fool around; although he thought he would be serving his time in a minimum-security work camp, the second chapter is about how he instead got assigned to the Federal Correctional Institution in Loretto, Pennsylvania. (More payback, evidently.)

What follows is an entirely unsettling account of how Kiriakou used tenets he learned in the CIA (like "admit nothing" and "blend in with your environment" and "if stability is not to your benefit, chaos is your friend") to survive his prison experiment.** Jesus. Even a "low-security" prison sounds HORRIFYING. I commend Kiriakou for making it through, but his descriptions of deciding which table to sit at (segregation is the order of the day), the crimes and mental problems of his fellow inmates, and the machinations of both prisoners and prison guards to survive and even profit where they can was almost more than I can read (and it's certainly more than I can stomach rehashing to tell you about here).

In short: Why anyone in this world still chooses to become a whistleblower is absolutely beyond me.

If you'd like a flavor of the book before trying it, it is actually based in part on a series of letters Kiriakou sent to the media while in prison: Letters from Loretto. You could preview those.

It's a good book. I certainly didn't get any dumber reading it. But can I recommend that you read it? Not really. Too scary by half.

*Me--or you--or anyone--going to prison is not as far-fetched an idea as you might think. Kiriakou tells you why: "Harvard Law School professor Harvey Silverglate argues in his book Three Felonies a Day that the US is so overlegislated and daily life is so over-criminalized that the average American going about his normal business on the average day commits three felonies." (p. 206.) I try not to think about this too much or I'll never sleep again.

**Please note: as he expounds upon these rules and how he survived, Kiriakou actually sounds like a bit of a prick sometimes. But the man refused to learn "enhanced interrogation techniques," and he went to jail because he wanted to tell the truth, so overall I still find him interesting.


My vote for President.

Here's my stance on Election 2020: I will only vote for President if Edward Snowden is on the ballot.

That's awkward, considering that Snowden is living in exile in Russia and if he ever sets foot in America he'll be prosecuted to the full extent of the law for treason, but hey, I figure, everyone who can is already working from home. Snowden could work from home in his Moscow apartment and be President of the U.S., surely, it's not like he doesn't know how to work tech.

Permanent RecordAs a fan of privacy, I am of course of the opinion that Edward Snowden is a whistleblower who tried to highlight illegal activities of the government and the NSA as they spied on American citizens and collected all of the data from their phones and devices (as opposed to a leaker who committed treason). Nothing I read or see about Snowden indicates to me that he is anything other than an intelligent, thinking person, who is perhaps less motivated by money than he is by other motivations. I say that because I don't actually know what motivates Edward Snowden, even after reading several books about (and now one by) him.

You know what motivates me, and I'm guessing, about 95% of most Americans, or whatever percentage of Americans who still have jobs that they are clinging to? HEALTH INSURANCE HEALTH INSURANCE HEALTH INSURANCE. This is a constant drumbeat in my head. This is the drumbeat that would make it impossible for me to work as a freelancer if I didn't have a spouse who had HEALTH INSURANCE. This is the drumbeat that was in my head when I was a young kid, fresh off the farm, knowing I would have to go to college and get some sort of career that would provide HEALTH INSURANCE HEALTH INSURANCE HEALTH INSURANCE.

You see how the all caps is distracting? It is. It's a never-ending fear-inducing back-of-mind-awareness anxiety that is always with me. Last fall, when Mr. CR had a fairly serious health crisis? Yeah, I shit bricks. Mainly because he's my buddy and I would miss him and I don't want to even think about what the CRjrs would do without him, but also because, there it was again, without Mr. CR and his job how in fuck would I get HEALTH INSURANCE HEALTH INSURANCE HEALTH INSURANCE?

You know who I think gets that? And what a problem it is? Edward Snowden, that's who. I just saw the interview (below) with him, and this is what he says, a whole 3 minutes into it:

"And the thing that I find grotesque about this situation is that now, the people who are being asked to sacrifice the most, are the people who are in the most precarious positions, who have the least to give."

He also says this: "Where are our resources? When our hospitals say they need ventilators, where is all this great technology that is being used to surveil everybody down to the tiniest toenail, when we need it to create things that actually save lives?"

Those two statements, friends, are two of the most sensible questions I've heard asked about the pandemic, or America, so far.

This post has a book point, I promise.

Recently I read Snowden's memoir, Permanent Record.* It was entirely strange, because I think Snowden is an entirely strange person. It's not a feel good, "get to know Snowden better personally", type memoir. It's a pretty straightforward recounting of his youth, his different school experiences, his work for the government, his procedure for whistleblowing, and what happened to him in Hong Kong (as well as to his girlfriend Lindsay Mills, in this country).

It was a fascinating read, in its own weird way, and I would highly recommend it. If nothing else, it felt like I was spending time in the company of Edward Snowden, and I enjoyed that. I think a lot about Snowden, and about whistleblowers in general, because I can't believe anyone actually blows the whistle on anything. Which brings us right back to HEALTH INSURANCE HEALTH INSURANCE HEALTH INSURANCE. Personally, I can't believe anyone endangers their own access to health insurance and care, no matter what they're blowing the whistle on. And that is wrong. We already tell creative types and freelancers and everyone in the overrated ridiculous "Gig Economy" (just another way of letting our Corporate Overlords keep more of their own cash, after all) that their work is invalid because it is not linked to a corporation or an institution, and that they don't deserve to live because they have little access to affordable HEALTH INSURANCE. Now we also tell whistleblowers, basically (or our government does, when it prosecutes whistleblowers for various infractions) that yes, they should tell us what bad and illegal things are going on, but they should be prepared to lose their jobs.

Which also means, of course, that they lose their HEALTH INSURANCE HEALTH INSURANCE HEALTH INSURANCE.

So why on earth would anyone tell the truth about all the stupid crap going on everywhere, at all times? Yeah, I don't know either.

My hope for all of you is that you have health insurance and you are currently healthy and you have the time to read Permanent Record by Edward Snowden.

*This is neither here nor there, but I hate the cover of Snowden's book. Wonder who picked the picture, and why.


Henry Marsh's "Admissions."

Okay, the copy I have is overdue from the library, so here's your extremely short review: I liked Henry Marsh's memoir Admissions: Life as a Brain Surgeon. His work is fascinating, his take on the bureaucracy of the British medical system is also fascinating, and even when I don't like Marsh very much (mainly because I don't like doctors) I find most of his honesty refreshing. I could have done without his advocating for euthanasia, because (as previously stated), I just don't think we have the right to kill ourselves or others, but that mostly comes in the last chapter so it's easy to skip it if you're so inclined.

So yeah: a good book. Not as good as his first book, Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery, but still a good book.


I don't like this back-to-the-lander either.

It's official: I really need to stop reading "back to the land" memoirs.

This week I started Kristin Kimball's The Dirty Life: On Farming, Food, and Love. I'm stopping this one at page 97. I figure this means I'm being twice as efficient this week as I was last week. Lookit me! I can learn!

So this is the memoir of a woman who fell in love with a man who wanted to farm, and I mean old-style Farm with a capital "F." So much so that by the time I quit the book, on page 97, they were getting their own farm in shape, buying draft horses, and looking for equipment to use with those horses to break and plant sod on the land they were renting. I have zero interest in horses, so that seemed like a good place to stop.

You know, to each their own. I can respect Kimball and her (eventual) husband, and their desire to grow their own food. But this author had all the earmarks of a certain type of person/personality that I just don't get. First, there was this, when Kimball went to interview her husband-to-be for a magazine article and first met him:

"He introduced himself, shook my hand, and then he was abruptly gone, off on some urgent farm business, the screen door banging shut behind him, promising over his shoulder to give me an interview when he got back that evening. Meantime, I could hoe the broccoli with his assistant, Keena. I recorded two impressions in my notebook later on: First, this is a man. All the men I knew were cerebral. This one lived in his body. Second, I can't believe I drove all this way to hoe broccoli for this dude." (p. 10.)

Yeah, I can't believe it either. I grew up on a farm where the work always came first and everything else came second. It's not charming. It's brutal, and it grinds you down, particularly if you don't really enjoy working 20 hours out of every day. Secondly, fuck this "this is a man" shit just because he does some physical work. I really do believe all people should do some physical work, whether it be cleaning their own home or doing a garden or something, but quite frankly I like a good cerebral man. When I watch Mr. CR work Excel like a champ, which is a skill that has taken time and brains and a lot of patience to develop, I get turned on. Doesn't mean I run around telling people, "Wow, Mr. CR is a man." Thirdly, why are you hoeing the man's broccoli? You don't have your own work to do? You can't find a man who maybe recognizes that you scheduled this time for an interview and he could abide by that appointment if he respected what you do?

And then there's this, when Kimball went back to see/date Mark and hunted for deer with him. They ended up eating the deer's liver with herbs, white wine, and cream:

"The texture reminded me of wild mushrooms, firm but tender, and the flavor was distinct but not overpowering, the wildness balanced between the civilized and familiar pairing of cream and wine. And there was something else about it, something more primal, a kind of craving, my body yelling, EAT THAT, I NEED IT. That was my first hint that there's a wisdom to the appetite, that if you clear out the white noise of processed food and listen, health and delicious are actually allies. We are animals, after all, hardwired to like what's good for us...That might have been the same deep part of me that first told me to love Mark. Don't be an idiot, it said. The man hunts, he grows, he's strapping and healthy and tall. He'll feed you, and his genes might improve the shrimpiness of your line. LOVE HIM." (p. 28.)

Ugh. Where do I start with this? At the beginning, I guess. I grew up on unprocessed farm food (we butchered our own meat, milked our own cows, etc.) and you know the only time my body has ever screamed EAT THAT I NEED IT at me? The first time I drank coffee and ate S'mores Pop Tarts. I've eaten healthy and I've eaten for shit and honestly I can't tell you that I've FELT a lot different either way. I can grant you that I can see the effects of healthier eating in less weight gain, but other than that? I'm certainly not feeling any epiphany when I bite into local meat vs. whatever the hell it is Costco sells. I feel about this "your body will melt with orgasmic thrills if you just feed it better food" crap the way I felt at the farm market once when I overheard a woman telling the vendor that her kids won't touch any processed stuff since they'd had farm market food. I wanted to clock her. My children have had farm market food since birth and they would gladly give it all up for a steady supply of Welch's fruit snacks (or kiddie crack, as we call them around here).

And don't even get me started on the lack of information about how one gets health insurance or sees the doctor when both parts of a couple freelance/farm. Kimball and her husband have two kids now, I think, so obviously someone saw a doctor at some point. I'm curious how they paid for that? I hate it when farm/freelance/work memoirs leave out the scariest part of our current economy: what you do without health insurance.

I guess maybe I'm just bitter that I'm obviously not hardwired to love real strapping MEN or organic meat. Either way, back to the library with this one.


I'm not going to finish "A Farm Dies Once a Year."

So I got to page 200 of Arlo Crawford's memoir A Farm Dies Once a Year before I admitted to myself that I just don't like this Arlo kid or his book, and I'm going to stop reading it now.

I know. I really have to get both more efficient and honest with myself and stop reading things that I dislike before, you know, I get 200 pages in. On the other hand, I feel like I have read enough of this book to say, yeah, don't bother.

Crawford grew up on a vegetable/farm marketing farm in Pennsylvania. His parents had moved to the farm in their late twenties/early thirties and made a going concern of it, and the actual descriptions of the farm and the marketing work are vivid and interesting enough.

But overall, although Crawford admits he enjoyed his upbringing and is proud of what his parents have achieved, he wants to do something else with his life. He wants to do something artsy or literary or whatever else it is well-educated and good-looking urban millennials do with their lives these days. And that's okay. But, if I'm telling the absolute truth, I was a little annoyed that an agent was able to sell a publisher on this not terribly interesting, not really back to the land memoir, in hardcover no less.

Here's another review of it if you'd like more of the nuts and bolts of the story, or if you feel I'm being unfair.

Have a good weekend, all.


Labor Day work books: Just a few more.

Right after I finished compiling the list of books about work and jobs that I read last year, I realized that this week I've kept fairly busy reading more books about jobs, so here's the Labor Day List part two!

Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe, by Roger McNamee. Okay, I didn't actually get this one read, but I started it a number of times. It's written by a former Facebook insider, and details all the horrible stuff Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg, et. al. are doing to destroy our sanity, our lives, and our democracy. I couldn't get into it because I don't care a whole lot about how Facebook influences elections, because I think politics is a waste of time. But I do care that Facebook and tech in general are destroying our lives and how everyone seems mostly happy to let our lives be destroyed. (Please note: All the big money tech execs out in Silicon Valley are now paying to send their kids to "tech free" schools. What does that tell you?) Still: this book was too dense for me and I already know Zuckerberg and Sandberg are jerks. Moving on.

Prince of the City: The True Story of a Cop Who Knew Too Much, by Robert Daley. Okay, this one's a classic, first published back in 1978. I'm on a cop kick lately (it all started with Serpico), and this title did not disappoint. It's the story of a detective named Robert Leuci who decided he could no longer go along with some of the corruption that was happening at the time in the New York police force, as well as in other levels of government and the criminal justice system. Unfortunately, Leuci thought he was going to inform only on corrupt people who weren't connected to him--but of course he ended up informing on friends, cop partners, and family members, because that's just how it goes when you get started unpeeling the onion (you know, like how you go to the doctor's office for one little thing and pretty soon you've got 18 follow-up appointments that you really don't want but now feel like you have to go to). An okay read, but it's very hard to understand what Leuci's real motivation was throughout the story.

My absolute favorite anecdote in it is the one where drug enforcement officers were trying to tap the phone line of a convenience store owner who they believed was involved in the drug trade. So then follow this chain of events: the mob called the convenience store owner and told him they were storing 300 (illegally procured) TVs in his store whether they wanted him to or not, and he needed to close for a few days. So he did, and the mob stacked his store with 300 TVs. An off-duty cop walked by, noticed the TVs, and called it in to the local precinct, at which point a whole bunch of other cops came over, took a TV, and then CALLED FRIENDS AND FAMILY MEMBERS ON THE TAPPED PHONE to come and get a TV for themselves. So then the drug cops had to get involved and tell them to put the TVs back, and for god's sake to stop calling their friends on the tapped phone. Good stuff.

Gaining Ground: A Story of Farmers' Markets, Local Food, and Saving the Family Farm, by Forrest Pritchard. This one is a memoir by a guy who grew up with a farm in his family (his grandparents lived on it, and his parents tried to keep it going with managers and workers while they worked full-time jobs) but didn't really plan on becoming a farmer. Eventually he decided to go all in and try to make the farm a paying concern--from selling firewood to raising grass-fed beef, to starting a pasta company with his wife. I liked this one because it was a bit less holier-than-thou than many "back to the land" memoirs are--Pritchard has a nice straightforward way of writing and isn't afraid to list his many missteps, like when he made a couple grand selling firewood but also caused $4600 worth of damage to his truck by hauling it around.

There you go! More books to read rather than doing your own work. You're welcome.

 

 


Happy Labor Day! 2019 Edition.

Well, if you know me at all, you know Labor Day is one of my very favorite holidays. No relatives, no big meals, no celebrating war...just a day off (if you're that lucky) to celebrate working.

Personally, not working is one of my very favorite things, but I can also appreciate a good book about the working life. Each year I try to do a wrap-up of the labor-related books I've read, and here they are all to date: 2018. 2017. 2016. 2015. 2014. 2009.

So what did 2019 look like? Well, it looked like a lot of not reading. My difficulties with sleeping and my wonky eye continued, meaning that I can't regularly pound through hundreds of pages of nonfiction (interspersed with hundreds of pages of fiction reading as a palate cleanser) the way I used to. I also ran for my local city council, which was a super funny experience (well, funny sad, in that I lost, but also funny ha ha, in that I learned a lot about myself and the larger political process and also about how smart my son is: early on he saw my opponent's fancy yard signs and said "I think you're going to lose, Mom." In short, I wasn't my regular reading self. But I still found the time for some good books about work:

The Diary of a Bookseller, by Shaun Bythell. Bythell is the proprietor of The Book Shop in Scotland, and WOW, is this book fantastic. A highly detailed but unbelievably engaging read about trying to make it in the used-book business, as well as his marketing activities and his appreciation of his Scottish hometown. One of the best books I read all year, and Vivian Swift liked it too. Even if I hadn't liked it, I'd have to respect it, because it is not easy to earn Vivian's love (just check out her comment at that post about a book by Mr. Bythell's love interest).

The Woman Who Smashed Codes, by Jason Fagone. Another superlative book about World War II (and earlier) codebreaking married couple Elizebeth Smith and William Friedman. A great history of codebreaking, a complex love story, and a well-done biography of a singular woman.

Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery, by Henry Marsh. I think all doctors are jerks, and yet I can't stop reading their books. I read this book by Brit author/surgeon Marsh right before my mom had a stroke last spring* and, honest to god, I actually felt I had a slightly better understanding of what her doctors were telling us about her brain because I had just read this book. Marsh is an interesting personality and although this book is detailed and sometimes frightening, it is nonetheless fascinating to consider that there are actually people out there who can hack into other people's heads and brains for their paycheck. That is amazing to me.

Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth, by Sarah Smarsh. The best book I read all year. Just go read the review, and then read the book, because I can't do it justice in a sentence here.

Huh. Every year lately I think, I didn't get to read many books about work/jobs this year. And it turned out again that I had read more than I thought I had. I definitely like reading about working more than I actually like working.

Happy Labor Day all, and happy September to you as well.

*She's doing quite well now, thanks for asking, but let me tell you this: aging is not for pussies.

 


Read "The Diary of a Bookseller" today!

BooksellerTo everyone who told me to read Shaun Bythell's memoir The Diary of a Bookseller: You were so right!

I loved this book. It's just that simple. I read it in a couple of days, and then I turned back to the front page and read it all over again. Then for another month I read different pages of it while I ate my old-lady breakfast of Fiber One cereal* and coffee.

What surprised me most about this book was how dense it was. A lot of times when you get bookish or reading memoirs, or even retail memoirs, they're rather light on text. This book is a solid 300+ pages and the type is surprisingly small. Bythell is the owner and proprietor of The Book Shop in Wigtown (designated the National Book Town of Scotland), and this is the diary of a year in his life running the used bookstore, getting along (kind of) with his employees, his life in the community and among his friends, and taking part in the town's annual Wigtown Book Festival. He begins each entry by noting how many of the store's books were ordered that day through various online channels, and ends each one by noting how many customers were in that day and what the "till total" was.

All the highlights of the used book trade are here--people thinking they own very valuable first editions when they want to sell them, and thinking all used books should be cheap when they want to buy them; dealing with eccentric help when you're a bit eccentric yourself; driving hither and yon to assess and buy book collections in all manner of conditions. Bythell also clearly enjoys his environment, both the shop and the natural one; he includes entries about the difficulties of heating the shop and trying to keep the rain out, as well as about the sunny and not-so-sunny days when he ducks out to do a little trout fishing.

This should give you an idea about Bythell's tone, which I thoroughly enjoyed:

"Opened the shop five minutes late because the key jammed. The first customer of the day brought two Rider Haggard first editions to the counter, 8.50 each. At the same moment the thought 'Those are seriously underpriced' entered my head, he asked, 'Will you do them for 13?' When I refused to knock anything off them, he replied, 'Well, you've got to ask, haven't you?' so I told him that no, you do not have to ask." (p. 115.)

What a great read. It took me right back to my job in a used bookstore, which I loved and loved and loved, and would be doing still if I hadn't needed health insurance and if the owners hadn't eventually closed the store and taken other jobs because they needed health insurance too. If you have sold books or love books, read this one. I don't think you'll be disappointed.

*Don't get me wrong. I love my Fiber One honey flakes cereal. It makes my life better. But it doesn't really make for the most exciting breakfast eating ever, which is why it's so nice to put them together with a very strong cup of coffee and a lovely book.


On "Fist Stick Knife Gun" and "Charm City."

I've been in a reading mood where I'm re-reading a lot of nonfiction that really knocked me over the first time I read it, so last week I re-read Geoffrey Canada's memoir/call to action Fist Stick Knife Gun: A Personal History of Violence. I first read this book back in 2011, and here's what I have to say about that: I can't believe I've been blogging this long, and I can't believe how clearly how much of that book stayed with me.

Geoffrey Canada is the president and former CEO of an organization called the Harlem Children's Zone. He grew up in a violent neighborhood and he has spent his life trying to help children (and adults) better their surroundings. He has also spent his life advocating for better gun policies in America, mainly because he saw firsthand the shift from fist and knife violence on the streets to gun violence. He also makes no secret that he owned a knife and he owned a gun, and the writing in his book on how weapons both make you powerful and vulnerable makes the entire thing worth reading. For my money, I wish a lot more communities would pick this book for their "community reads."

So while I was thinking this book over I noticed that a documentary called Charm City (about Baltimore) was showing on my PBS channel. It's stupendous. And by that I mean it's heartbreaking and scary and overwhelming and yet oddly life-affirming. It's well worth a watch.

I don't actually know what to do with all the thoughts I've had about re-reading this book, and watching this movie, and doing them both within the week. I want to say something here. But I don't know what it is. Go read the book and watch the movie and then come back and tell me what you're thinking, will you? I can't think about these alone.


Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery, by Henry Marsh.

Have I ever talked in this space about how much I hate doctors and everything about the medical establishment?

Oh, wait. Yes I have. Quite a lot, actually.

So anyway. I don't like doctors. But then there's surgeons. Mostly I don't hate surgeons as much as I hate other doctors. Perhaps it's because I've had good luck with surgeons, if by "good luck" I mean they have pretty much solved the problems I went to see them for (although at least one did not shine in the department of helping me recover after surgery), and I can appreciate that.

So when I saw a review of a book by a neurosurgeon, Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery,* by Henry Marsh, I thought, yeah, I'm going to read that.

And it was FASCINATING. No kidding. Imagine just being a new doctor, not particularly enjoying it, when someone asks you to come along and help prepare a patient for neurosurgery, and after watching that surgery, you decide, boom, that's it, you're going to be a brain surgeon. This is basically what happened to Marsh.

I found this book endlessly fascinating. I can't say I liked the author, because he seems like the sort of doctor/surgeon/person I wouldn't much like if I met him (although if I needed him to fix a brain tumor, aneurysm, or other brain or spine problem I would be glad to see him). But I did enjoy his voice. I enjoyed his brisk descriptions, like this one, about how he hardly ever took a science class during his "private and privileged English education in a famous school," and eventually left Oxford to work as a hospital porter in the north of England, where he discovered he wanted to be a surgeon:

"Having spent six moths watching surgeons operating I decided that this was what I should do. I found its controlled and altruistic violence deeply appealing." (p. 76.)

I loved that. If there's any better description of surgery than "altruistic violence" I don't know what it is. It also makes it crystal clear to me why there are still more male surgeons than female ones.

There's some thrilling stories here, when everything went right during Marsh's surgeries on patients for an appalling number of different types of tumors, aneurysms, and other horrifying brain problems, and there's also a lot of heartbreak, when things just don't go right or (and it happens) something goes wrong due to surgeon error. Imagine having to tell someone you paralyzed them while you were trying to save them. Imagine telling a family that a patient bled to death on the operating table because you couldn't get the aneurysm clipped in the right way. I can't. I can't believe anyone can. So this book was a good reminder to me that, I may not like them, but thank goodness some people out there have the required personality to be able to cut into someone's head (and other parts), and they have terrible days. You really just have to hope you're never in a situation where their terrible day becomes YOUR terrible day.

I also liked that Marsh is a British surgeon and he had a lot to say about what goes on in the National Health Service and behind the scenes in hospitals generally.

Read it. But don't read it if you're scheduled to go into any kind of surgery any time soon.

*I love this review so much. God love The Guardian.


Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth.

Just when I was complaining that nothing I was reading would stick in my head, along came Sarah Smarsh and her book Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth.*

Smarsh grew up in Kansas, the daughter of a teenage mother who was also the daughter of a teenage mother. In her memoir she details her rather chaotic upbringing, which involved parents who, if they hadn't had bad luck where jobs and finances were concerned, wouldn't have had any luck at all. Eventually they divorced, and in addition to moving around a lot Smarsh also had to deal with new family configurations and changing schools. Her extended family and grandparents, although they struggled to maintain healthy relationships of their own, luckily provided some stability for her and another place to live when she needed options.

It's a beautiful book. One of my favorite things about it is that Smarsh often addresses her prose to the baby she never had as a teenager. Sound complicated? It's not. She explains in the very first chapter:

"I heard a voice unlike the ones in my house or on the news that told me my place in the world...You were far more than what a baby is. My connection to you was the deepest kind of knowing--hard to explain because it swooshed around in my mind and took different shapes and meanings over the years. But there was a moment, before I was even old enough to have kids, when I was fretting about the sort of decision that in another household might have gotten help from parents. Those moments usually sent me praying to some God outside myself. Instead, I thought, What would I tell my daughter to do?" (p. 1.)

It's such a beautiful device, and it works well throughout the entire book.

You'll find stories here of joblessness, and losing homes, and the ag crisis, and domestic abuse (not to mention great pride, great warmth, great ingenuity, great--in its own way--love), all the things that go along with discussions of "class" in America. This book is how Smarsh relates the tale of her childhood, spent being poor, in a rich country. Or, as she says:

"How can you talk about the poor child without addressing the country that let her be so? It's a relatively new way of thinking for me. I was raised to put all responsibility on the individual, on the bootstraps which which she ought to pull herself up. But it's the way of things that environment changes outcomes. Or, to put it in my first language: The crop depends on the weather, dudnit? A good seed'll do 'er job 'n' sprout, but come hail 'n' yer plumb outta luck regardless." (pp. 2-3.)

It's a great book. It's about a million times better than Hillbilly Elegy and deserves to sell at least twice as many copies as that one sold, but it won't, because frankly, there's no justice in this world.

*God, do I hate GoodReads. I almost linked to the Heartland page there, because I know a lot of people are GoodReads fans, but I never, ever agree with the majority of reviews there. Ugh. Thank God for the New York Times review, which is the one I linked to above. That one gets it right.


Nothing I'm reading is sticking in my brain.

You ever had this problem?

At last, over the last few months of 2018, my eye/face fatigue problems* seemed to right themselves, and I actually got through quite a few books. The problem is, even though I read them and I'm pretty sure I found parts of them interesting, they mostly just didn't stand out or leave anything stuck in my brain that I just had to write about. So now I could either worry about my brain fuzziness, or I could just put it down to "reading while distracted" and move on. That's the course I'm choosing.

So what books did I read a month or two ago that I already can't remember?

Safekeeping, a memoir by Abigail Thomas. It's a memoir of a lifetime of Thomas's memories, primarily about her life as a "young, lost mother, [who had] four children, three marriages, and grandchildren." I think I maybe read something about it at The Millions that made me want to get it? Anyway, there were parts of it I enjoyed, and if you look up Abigail Thomas, wow, she's had quite a life, but overall I didn't find much in her experiences that spoke to me or provided me with insight. I think mainly I was impressed that anyone could stand being married three times, and also I was mainly just jealous that she had the energy (and started young enough) to have four kids. That's about it. Anyone else read this one and had more coherent thoughts about it?

I also read a short memoir titled Heating and Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs, which I'm pretty sure I read about on Unruly's blog (yup, here it is). It was okay, but again, not really much I related to, and although I love me a good short book, this one was too short and its chapters too choppy, too unrelated. I just couldn't get into it.

I also tried an essay collection by Heather Havrilesky, titled What If This Were Enough?, that I really wanted to enjoy, but couldn't get past the first thirty pages of. I think her idea was okay, but I don't like to see my real thoughtful or "questioning the culture" essays anchored primarily by talk about TV shows (in one chapter she goes on for quite some time about Mad Men, and true to form here, I'm forgetting what point she was actually trying to make there). Don't get me wrong--I LOVE TV. TV and me is a true love story for the ages. But when I want quietly compelling essays, I kind of want them based on other things than TV. I kind of just want Wendell Berry, I'll admit it.

I did make it all the way through Like a Mother: A Feminist Journey through the Culture and Science of Pregnancy, by Angela Garbes but again, although it was interesting, it just felt slight. Yes, yes, yes, it's a real pain to give up drinking during pregnancy, and is it really necessary? I guess I just don't care about that argument anymore. For some reason I thought this book should feel bigger--the author handled the research nicely and shared her birth story with the level of detail I expect (a lot--don't bother telling me your birth story unless you are prepared to dish the nitty AND the gritty), but it just didn't set me on fire. It was no Labor Day, or even Pushed.

Somebody, for the love of all that's holy, recommend a book I can read and actually remember 3 days later? Thanks.

*Don't ask me, had it checked out to try and make sure it wasn't previously diagnosed eye problem getting worse or, you know, sinus or brain cancer. Everything came up healthy, so I'm just marking it down to facial/eye muscle fatigue, because that seems like the sort of dumb thing I'd have. My muscles and I have never quite operated on the same wavelength.


Well played, 2019.

I'm pleased to note that 2019 is off to a strong start for me, at least reading-wise. And the reading part of my life is one of the few parts of it that I take very seriously, so this is good news.

No one tells you thisLast week I got Glynnis Macnicol's memoir No One Tells You This from the library; how I found it and why I requested it, I of course don't remember. I really have to get back to my reading notebook and start tracking where I read about the things I request. Or, I can become more comfortable with just forgetting why I do any of the things I do. Yeah. That'll probably be easier.

There's nothing all that outstanding about this book; it's basically a forty-year-old woman's working out, on the page, what she's made of her life so far and what it means to make a woman's life without marriage and children in it (which is still the prevailing narrative for most women). It's also the story of her mother's decline and eventual death due to Parkinson's Disease, and what it looks like to try and help with caregiving when you live in a different city than your parents and other family members. Here's what the jacket copy has to say about the book:

"...single women and those without children are often seen as objects of pity, relegated to the sidelines, or indulgent spoiled creatures who think only of themselves. Glynnis refused to be cast into either of those roles and yet the question remained: What now? There was no good blueprint for how to be a woman alone in the world. She concluded it was time to create one."

More and more lately I find myself basing my judgment and enjoyment of memoirs less on their subjects and execution than on, quite simply, how much I like the author. What does this oh-so-scientific process look like? I read about twenty to fifty pages of a book, and if I feel, meh, I just stop reading (even when I think something is well-written). On the other hand, if, in those first fifty pages (which, because I skip around a lot when I read: beginning, last chapter, bits of the beginnings of chapters in between, can really come anywhere in the book), I have a moment when I read something the author has written and I think, "HA...I like you," well, then, I just decide I will enjoy the book and read the whole thing.

So that's what happened here. And here's the point where I decided I just like Glynnis, even when I don't agree with everything she's saying or doing:

"If there had been a soundtrack to my life in recent years it was the buzz of my phone. If there was one thing I wanted to leave behind in my thirties, it was my phone. It felt like a narcotic...the device itself was not entirely the problem, so much as the fact that it held incontrovertible evidence of the series of bad relationship decisions I'd made over the past few years. It was like carrying around a court transcript of my personal crimes and misdemeanors, proof of a person I didn't want to be but had been...repeatedly.

She was always waiting for me. If I scrolled up (and up and up) I'd eventually reach that first innocuous hey that had unleashed her. Men and their heys. I'd come to see them as a 'dead end' road sign: nowhere to go past this point." (pp. 35-36.)

Men and their heys.

I didn't even laugh. I just snorted and felt how deeply I knew all the weariness in that one statement. I have a very small dating history and am obviously one of the few women in my (or any) generation who has never gotten or taken a lot of shit from men, if the sheer number of stories out there is any indication, and even I instantly recognized the universal truth of those four little words. How many times did I get excited when some man gave me a "hey"? How many times did I analyze what a "hey" or any other little innocuous sentence meant? How frustrating is it that an entire generation of men now thinks that's an acceptable way to contact women on social media or in texts (and evidently you just have to count yourself lucky if that's all the more clueless or aggressive they are)?

Men and their heys.*

I like you, Glynnis. I liked your book. I appreciated opening 2019 with it. Go write some more and I'll read it. Until then I'll just think "men and their heys" in my internal voice dripping with derision and feel solidarity with you, even though I'm a married woman with kids living a narrative more recognizable to society. You never know what we've all got in common, do you? That makes me happy.

*Although men are really pretty incidental in the book. Mainly Macnicol is just doing her own thing. And I liked that too.


Laura Jean Baker's The Motherhood Affidavits.

So last week I said I had read Laura Jean Baker's memoir The Motherhood Affidavits, and I didn't quite know how I felt about it.

That is not completely true. I know how I feel about it. What I don't know how to do is write about how I feel about it without being unkind, or too harsh.

I have this problem a lot.

Let's get the basic details out of the way. The book is a new memoir by a woman who lives in Oshkosh (WI), has five kids, and is married to a criminal defense attorney. Interspersed with her stories of family life and the oxytocin lift that being pregnant and having babies gave her (which is one reason she sought to have multiple kids), are stories of her husband's law practice and the types of drug, family abuse, theft, and animal cruelty (among others) charges from which he defends his clients.

It's an interesting book, and although I live in Wisconsin and am passably familiar with Oshkosh, it's always eye-opening to read what is all going on in what you might otherwise think are peaceful small towns. Baker also does a pretty good job of describing the chaos of pregnancy and family life, as well as the logistic challenges of packing a family into a small house (which is the biggest house they can afford).

So what's the problem?

SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT

Okay, if you missed that, please understand that if you want to read this memoir fresh, you should stop reading this review now, because I'm going to tell you about the last chapter.

Still here?

In the last chapter Baker shares how she starts to realize that, for the sake of her health and the family's finances, it's probably time to stop having babies (after five). Then she further shares how they meant to get her husband a vasectomy, and just didn't get it done; so then she relied on the rhythm method (poorly; by not tracking her period and for having a weekend away with her husband and without her kids, in the middle of her fertile period) to not get pregnant; and she got pregnant. So then she had an abortion.

I was so sad to read a whole book that was weirdly affirming of life even in the depth of chaos and community crime, only to have the last chapter end with a death.

And don't tell me abortion isn't death for someone. I am too tired to have that fight; you know how I feel on this issue. I'm not dumb; I know the many reasons women (and men--abortion makes a lot of problems go away for men too, never forget) might need abortions, and I really do understand. But in this case? Just because a woman couldn't be bothered to figure out when her fertile period is or to ask her husband to wear a condom? Brother.

I'm really sorry it ruined the whole book for me. But it did. I'd be interested to hear what you think about it.


Labor Day Reading List 2018.

Good morning! If you'll remember, Labor Day is one of my absolute favorite holidays. I am determined to enjoy it today, although for some reason I cannot sleep at all lately and so stumble around all day like a zombie. Also, it is dark out there (I live in a new monsoon zone where it is constantly dark and rainy) and we will probably not be able to play much outside; major bummer.

So every year at this time I compile a list of books that I've read that have to do with jobs and work. (Here's the prior links: 2017. 2016. 2015. 2014. 2009.) This is a category of nonfiction I really enjoy, so normally this is a long list, but not this year. I've read a lot less this year, so apologies for this short list. Better luck next year, right? I hear you just feel better and get lots more time to indulge in your favorite activities as you age*, so here's looking forward to 2018-2019.

Helene Hanff, Underfoot in Show Business. A re-read, but God, this book is so awesome. About trying to make it in theatah and i New York City in general.

Michael Perry, Population 485. Another re-read, about being a writer, volunteer EMT and firefighter, and all-around decent guy.

Brian Alexander, Glass House: The 1% Economy and the Shattering of an All-American Town. An investigative book about Ohio's Anchor Hocking Glass company, and how finance types and business people raped it for all the profit they could get, helping destroy its hometown in the process. In bold because it's one of the best books I read this year. READ IT, even if some of the financial fine print gets a bit dense and you have to skip parts of it.

Peter Maas, Serpico. About being a cop, and a whistleblower. Unbelievably great read.

Caroline Fraser, Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder. About Wilder's life as a farmer and author. Fantastic. Very important in these days when Wilder's reputation is taking a hit. Yes, the settlers were not nice to Native Americans. Maybe we should read about that and discuss why it was wrong rather than pretend it never happened. At least that's the way I feel about it.

Annie Spence, Dear Fahrenheit 451: Love and Heartbreak in the Stacks. About books, reading, and being a librarian.

Rachel Arneson, No Apparent Distress: A Doctor's Coming-of-Age on the Front Lines of American Medicine. About becoming and being a doctor. It didn't set me on fire but was an interesting read.

NOW: Go forth, and have a Happy Labor Day. I wish you a good day celebrating work by not doing any.

*HA.


Teeny Tiny Review: And Now We Have Everything, by Meaghan O'Connell.

I was underwhelmed by Meaghan O'Connell's memoir And Now We Have Everything: On Motherhood Before I was Ready, which was disappointing, because it got a lot of good press.

Let's first consider how the author got pregnant at age 29 (or 28; she had the baby at 29), shall we? Here we go:

"'I still haven't gotten my period,' I had said to Dustin that morning when we were getting dressed.

'You say this every month, though,' he'd said. He wasn't wrong. I was one of those women who managed to be caught off guard every single month when their periods came. I never had a tampon on me when I needed one." (pp. 4-5.)

Wait for it...

[After she gets engaged:] "How good it was to have something I was scared to want but wanted all the same. When we had sex that night--we had to; how could we not?--I told him it was fine, he didn't need to pull out, my period had just ended, don't worry about it." (p. 8.)

I'm sorry, "pulls out"? Are you telling me that in 2018, people are still considering "pulling out" a valid contraceptive method? And a woman who is relying on "pulling out" has no idea what her cycle is doing?

So of course she ends up pregnant, and when discussing options, her boyfriend clearly thinks they aren't ready to be parents, and this is what he says:

"Come on. We can have this baby again in a couple of years." (p. 29.)

I'm sorry, are you telling me that in 2018 men still don't know that if you abort one baby, the next one will probably not be a carbon copy? (Yes, I get it, he means they can just have a baby, any baby, in a couple of years when they're more ready. But that statement seems to me a crystal example of men JUST NEVER THINKING ABOUT IT, NOT REALLY.)

To her credit, O'Connell came back to that statement with the only logical answer:

"Dustin,' I said. 'That's literally what it won't be, this particular baby.'" (pp. 29-30.)

Yeah, I could say more, but I won't. I just didn't like it. I'd like to re-title it, as a matter of fact: "Millennial and Annoying Millennial Fiance/Husband Discover Pregnancy and Parenting Is Hard." 

I will conclude by saying the jacket copy calls this book "a brutally honest, agenda-free reckoning with the emotional and existential impact of motherhood," and I didn't think it was all that honest or emotional. If you want that I would highly suggest you read Labor Day, which mostly deals with the actual delivery of babies, but also gets at the "existential impact of motherhood," which, I have found, is mainly "You will control absolutely fucking nothing from now on...good luck with that."

 


Oh, Anthony Bourdain.

If you did not see the news, chef/author/TV host/world traveler Anthony Bourdain died on Saturday, in Paris.

There is no shortage of tributes to Bourdain. But I would just like to say, I really loved reading Anthony Bourdain. I put his memoir Kitchen Confidential on my list of best Memoirs, the man could even write a must-read essay about the state of New Jersey, and even when I was wondering if he had jumped the shark, I still loved him.

Also: no one could swear like Anthony Bourdain. No one. I'm so sorry for your loss, world, of Anthony Bourdain.*

*And what a loss it is. Anyone who would say this about Henry Kissinger and stand by it is an American hero.


Nobody Puts Nonfiction in a Corner: Helene Hanff's Underfoot in Show Business.

We all know Helene Hanff, of 84, Charing Cross Road fame, right?

Okay, well, if you don't, go get it and read it RIGHT NOW. I was always a little appalled that I've been a book person my whole life and still, nobody told me about 84, Charing Cross Road until I was in my early 30s.

So yes, that book's awesome. And a classic that should, by all rights, be the Helene Hanff book that makes it on to my list of educational/seminal/take-to-a-desert-island Nobody Puts Nonfiction in a Corner nonfiction book.

But, surprise! I'm going to choose her memoir Underfoot in Show Business instead.

I realize we're pretty far down the rabbit hole here. But stick with me.

Before Hanff wrote all her letters to the bookseller Frank Doel at Marks & Co., at 84 Charing Cross Road, and long before she became famous for publishing a book-length collection of that correspondence, she was a struggling writer living in New York City. And before she was a struggling writer, she was a struggling playwright. And before that, she was a young girl growing up in Philadelphia in a family who loved theater. So, after having to drop out of college after one year, because it was the Depression and nobody had any money, Helene found a job in Philadelphia to try and finance her move to New York City to try and become a playwright. Her career started off with a bang: she won a playwriting contest sponsored by the Theatre Guild (then a prestigious theatah institution), and was awarded a $1500 fellowship and participation in a playwriting seminar.

From that first flush of early success everything takes a most appropriate dramatic turn: in her first paragraph, Helene lays out what she calls Flanagan's Law:

"We'll begin with the law that governs the life of everyone one of the 999 [aspiring theatrical types] from the day he or she first arrives in New York, which was first explained to me by a stage manager named Bill Flanagan. Flanagan's law of the theatre is:

No matter what happens to you, it's unexpected." (p. 7.)

So, of course, you read the entire memoir, and you learn that Hanff never became a famous playwright. And to a large extent you don't care, because you know (which Helene didn't, at this point, Underfoot was her first book and 84, Charing Cross Road was far in her future) she'll become famous for writing half of the world's best book-related epistolary collections ever. But also you don't care because this memoir is so fresh, so hopeful, so beautiful, so life-affirming*, that you'll find yourself smiling after you read every chapter.

Take, for example, this paragraph, in which she describes how she had to go to New York to meet the Broadway producer who was partially responsible for her winning the fellowship. She had nothing to wear, but:

"On Monday night, my father triumphantly brought home for me a new green rayon suit which he had got wholesale from a friend. The suit was a brighter green than I would have chosen, and not precisely my size, but my mother took it in at the waist and let it out at the hips and cut off the row of threads that hung from the hem, and we decided it looked great." (p. 10.)

Everything about that short paragraph is so hilarious. How her parents (who loved the theater themselves) supported her; her gentle but still to-the-point admission that the dress is a little too green and it doesn't fit quite right; and how they all decided it looked great anyway.

Dear readers, she is like that about everything, and that is why this book is so awesome. Just recently I re-read it, and, just as it had been on the first read, one of my favorite chapters was about how she and her actress friend Maxine learned how to get all their entertainment and education for free in New York City. At one point Helene tells Maxine she wants to learn Greek and Latin (God I love her) and this is how she and Maxine solve that problem:

"'Why don't you run an ad in the Personals column of the Saturday Review?' Maxine asked.

'The problem isn't finding a tutor,' I said. 'It's finding the money to pay him!'

'Oh, that's all right,' said Maxine reasonably. 'Just mention in the ad that you can't pay anything.'

And if you think I got no response to an ad that read: 'Wish to study Latin and Greek. Can't pay anything.' you underestimate the readers of the Saturday Review..."

She ended up being tutored for free by a young man (Maxine suggested she choose him, as he was Harvard-educated and young and "might be cute"). And this is how that encounter ends:

"Maxine phoned me after the first lesson.

'How was he?' she asked.

'Oh, he's great!' I said.

'I told you to stick to Harvard,' she said. 'Taking somebody second-rate would be like sneaking into theatre and sitting in the balcony, or borrowing clothes from Gimbel's instead of Saks. If you're getting things for nothing, it's just as easy to get the best.'

We always got the best." (p. 57.)

My favorite thing about Helene in this memoir (and in her subsequent books) is that she refuses to be beat. For years while she ordered books from the store in London on Charing Cross Road, she dreamed of saving up enough money to visit England, and every time that she almost had enough saved, something else came up: she needed a mouthful of crowns, or she got evicted and had to move into a more expensive apartment. During one eighteen-month period she moved eleven times, so you can imagine her joy when she finally got a tiny place of her own:

"I moved in forthwith and plunged into the job of furnishing and decorating. I furnished the room in what New Yorkers called Early Orange Crate. The super helped me make a bookcase out of wooden planks he found in the cellar, and a dressing table for the bathroom out of an orange crate. One of my brothers donated a dresser his little girls had outgrown, and I bought a secondhand dropleaf table and chairs and a secondhand studio bed. Add white enamel paint to cover everything, my old white rug, and yards of red burlap which Maxine draped across the top of the window and down over the rusty living-room pipes in an opulent swag--and in our objective opinion the room was simply stunning." (p. 86.)

Oh, I love her. She never fails to cheer me up. When I went into the hospital to give birth to the CRjrs do you know what I packed? A nightgown, FiberOne granola bars, and Helene Hanff's 84, Charing Cross Road and its sequel The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street. And do you know why I didn't take Underfoot in Show Business? Because I hadn't read it yet at that point. If I had you can bet I would have unpacked the nightgown (they give you a hospital gown anyway) to make room to take it along.

Don't make that mistake. Read all the Helene Hanff, you can, RIGHT NOW.

*And you know me. I DO NOT USE bullshit words like "life-affirming." Except when I am describing Helene Hanff's books.


Nobody Puts Nonfiction in a Corner: Michael Perry's Population: 485.

So when you're starting to put together a list of nonfiction books that have been seminal to your adulthood and your continuing evolution as a person, all the nonfiction books, in short, that you'd want to take with you to a desert island, where do you start?

Well, I'm starting with Michael Perry's memoir Population: 485, Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time.

I first read this book right around the time it came out (2003), at a time when I was really just starting to read a lot of nonfiction. That also coincided with a time in publishing when memoirs were all the rage, so there were a lot of them about and I used them as a sort of gateway drug into nonfiction. I wonder how many people find themselves reading nonfiction that way, incidentally. Novels, novels, novels, one memoir, POOF: nonfiction reader.

And what a great memoir this was to read:

"There is a road below, a slim strip of county two-lane, where the faded blacktop runs east-west, then bends--at Jabowski's Corner--like an elbow. In the crook of the elbow, right in the space where you would cradle a baby, is a clot of people. My mother is there, and my sister, and several volunteer firefighters, and I have just joined them, and we are all on our knees, kneeling in a ring around a young girl who has been horribly injured in a car wreck. She is crying out, and we are doing what we can, but she feels death pressing at her chest. She tells us this, and we deny it, tell her no, no, help is on the way." (p. 2.)

It's Michael Perry's story of returning to his rural Wisconsin hometown to write and rejoin his first community, not least as one of its volunteer first responders. Not only was it an example of a near-perfect memoir, but it was also a perfect time for me to be reading it. I live about fifteen minutes away from the house where I grew up, which was on a farm, and although now I live in the city (or I should say, a suburban outpost of a nearby city), I recognize the rural surroundings Perry describes. What is harder for me to understand is his desire to re-integrate with his former community in a very visceral way: as a person who shows up to help when any kind of distress call goes out. It's not that I don't want to be of help. I try very hard to be of help to family members and people I know well. But I have never been very good at being part of a community. I never fit in my farm community, really, and I don't fit in my city community, either, although I love my neighborhood with its 1950s houses and its unfussy vibe. 

So here's Perry, offering to show up in the area of New Auburn, Wisconsin, and to try in his role as a member of the volunteer Fire Department to help anyone who calls, in any location:

"'Get out of bed!' my high school science teacher used to say. 'People die in bed!' Truth be told, ambulance calls have taught me otherwise. People tend to die in the bathroom. They tip over while groping the medicine cabinet for Maalox, or straining on the pot just enough to blow a leaking abdominal aneurysm. Rare is the EMT who hasn't performed CPR between the tub and the toilet." (p. 133.)

If that doesn't get straight to the point, I don't know what does. I have to respect someone who is willing to answer those calls. So: Writing style? Top-notch. Detailed personal details? Check. A truly kind and generous heart behind the stories? All here. It is, full stop, a great memoir.

But here's another reason I love Michael Perry and his books, and it's more personal.

I was a lot younger when I read this memoir, and I was charmed to think of Perry out there in small-town Wisconsin, living in an old house in New Auburn, and writing and drinking coffee at all hours of the night and day. It seemed like an appealing lifestyle, and I was glad he was living it. And then he wrote another memoir about falling in love (and fixing up an old truck), titled, appropriately, Truck, and then he got married and wrote yet another memoir about being married and having and raising kids (titled Coop, as in chicken). And I read all these books as he wrote them, as well as others that he wrote along the way, including a novel (The Jesus Cow), a YA novel (The Scavengers), and another nonfiction book about the pleasures of reading Montaigne.* And although I was already married when I first found Perry, I kind of grew up with him, and enjoyed reading about his parallel experiences of love, marriage, and adulthood. 

But here's the real kicker. Now when I go back and read Population: 485, I'm almost saddened at the picture that it presents because I know it is no longer accurate. He's not living in New Auburn anymore. His life, although he still lives in rural America and writes for a living, is much different than it was when he was writing this book. I feel nostalgia for Michael Perry's life, as written in this memoir, the same way I feel nostalgia when I go through picture books of when the CRjrs were the tiniest of babies.

That sounds so stupid. I'm well aware. It's a sad feeling, but it's a really good feeling. It's like I know Michael, and his family, and the people he writes about. I feel connected to him, as a reader feels connected to a writer, to another human with whom they can feel some sort of communion. And, because I have given this book to other people, and talked about this book with other people, through it, I have also felt communion with other readers.** This is a book that made me realize that I'm never going to fit in with the majority of the communities in which I have to function on a daily basis, but it's okay. Because there is a community out there that love and feel a part of, and that is the amorphous community of READERS.

Oh, I love this book. It's so sad and beautiful and joyful and funny and although I have enjoyed all the rest of Perry's books, I really feel that he put everything into this book and made it a perfect little jewel of literature, akin to Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through It. It's just good prose:

"Life is a preservation project. Our instinct for preservation plays out in everything from the depth of our breaths to an affection for bricks. Even as we flail and cling, trying to bottle time, to save it, we live only through its expenditure. Memory is a means of possession, but eventually, the greatest grace is found in letting go." (p. 178.)

I'm never going to let go of my love for Michael Perry and his perfect memoir Population: 485.

*Another essayist we should tackle together someday, incidentally.

**Most notably, with my dad.

 


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.