Memoirs

Sarah Perry's After the Eclipse: A Mother's Murder, a Daughter's Search.

This?

This is a very, very good book.

After the eclipseI started After the Eclipse thinking it was going to be another pretty standard true crime memoir. I didn't mind; even when true crime is standard I usually learn something when I read it. But after reading parts of The Hot One (which seemed to me to get a lot more press than this book got), I thought, huh, I've got to give the true crime a rest for a while. So I thought I'd skim this one and return it to the library.

So then I read the first 100 pages and it was stupendous. But then I got antsy because this month I had the goal of doing less reading and more writing,* and here I was ignoring everything else to read this book. So I read the last few chapters to see if they caught the murderer of Perry's mother, and then I thought, okay, I can just take this book back now, I got what I need.

And then I promptly just read the rest of it.

And I'm so glad I did. The main story here is Perry's narrative of the night her mother Crystal was killed in their house, when the author was 12 years old and sleeping just down the hall. She also provides details from her mother's childhood, the relationships between her many extended family members, and the subsequent details of how the crime was investigated by the police and spoken about in the community. In a later part of the book she relates the story of the rest of her "growing up"--with whom she had to live, how she fought to keep depression and despair at bay, and a growing realization of how anger and violence make their presence felt in communities and in families (as well as within individuals).

This is also, bar none, the most quietly clearsighted and horrifying take on the unequal power dynamics between men and women that I have read this year. I stuck a bookmark in the book every time the author made an obviously heartfelt and (to my mind) right-on observation about women and men, and when I was done there were a LOT of bookmarks. Here's one part I marked:

"From this distance, I can look back and see, objectively, that Mom was not model-perfect. She was thin, with flaming hair and pretty eyes, but she also had pale eyebrows and crowded teeth. It takes my sharpest concentration to see these imperfections; like many daughters, I will always consider my mother to be the pinnacle of beauty. And she was truly striking. In the small town of Bridgton, many people agreed.

After Mom's death, when the police interviewed Earl Gagnon--a friend of Tom's who worked at the Shop--he said, 'A lot of guys looked at her--pleasing to the eye, you know.' The full record of interviews, and the stories of other townspeople, back him up. There are too many to detail in full, but here is a partial list of men who, in the days and weeks and years following Mom's death, were known by police or rumored by others to have been attracted to her..."

And then there is a list of SIXTEEN men. And this is a partial list. In a small Maine community. Not that there is anything wrong with attraction, really, or finding a person attractive. But the list includes items like this:

"Lloyd Poulin: who mentioned Mom's death from the back of a Bridgton police car after being picked up for drunk and disorderly. He asked the cop, 'How old is her little girl now, sixteen or seventeen? Crystal was a slut, wasn't she? That daughter is a sweet little thing." (pp. 196-197.)

Nice.

But even after immersing herself in this story, in her story, in her mother's story, in that kind of quote, Perry still concludes the book with a gentle touch, and at the same time explains one of the biggest reasons I read true crime (I'm leaving out the name she gives here in case you read the book and would rather not have me tell you the killer's name):

"It would be easier to think he was just a monster, an aberration; it would make us all feel a lot safer, now that he's locked away. But I think it's a lot more likely that [he] was born with a natural tendency to violence, which worsened in a violent home, and easily found a target in a world where many men are trained to exert power over women. Punishing him should not prevent us from trying to understand how he was made. I'm glad [he] is in jail. But I'll be more glad when there are no more [of him]." (p. 327.)

True crime is not about monsters. It is about our communities, our neighbors, our families. I for one am staggered at Sarah Perry's book, and her subtle but very strong call for us to try and start figuring this stuff out.

This is a very good book.

*I use books as an anti-anxiety drug, along with Zebra Cakes, reading them when I'm down and don't feel like doing anything else, although I should really pull my act together and do something else.


Moving on from True Crime.

I was just working on a review of Carolyn Murnick's true crime memoir The Hot One: A Memoir of Friendship, Sex, and Murder, and no matter what I typed, it wasn't coming out right. So here's all I really have to say:

I didn't like it.

There. If you want to know what the book is about (beyond the title), this NPR blurb/interview with the author should tell you what you need to know. But I didn't really enjoy reading it and I don't want to think about it anymore and there you go: we're done here.*

*Sorry; I know this makes for not-very-exciting reading. I feel like DULLSVILLE this week so it makes sense my writing would be DULLSVILLE too.

 


Reading while not paying attention.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Ann Hood's Morningstar: Growing Up with Books.

Every season seems to bring a new crop of "books on books." The ones I've seen mentioned most this summer and early fall are Michelle Kuo's Reading with Patrick: A Teacher, a Student, and a Life-Changing Friendship, Ann Hood's Morningstar: Growing Up with Books, Bruce Handy's Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children's Literature as an Adult, and Dear Fahrenheit 451: Love and Heartbreak in the Stacks by Annie Spence.

MorningstarI currently have Reading with Patrick at home, but I also have Ann Hood's Morningstar, and it's only 185 pages long, so I thought I would start there. This slim book is a look back at the novels from which Hood has learned a number of life lessons (like "How to Dream," "How to Ask Why," and "How to Have Sex," among several others). It was fine, but I was decidedly "meh" on the whole thing. I'll admit I can't get too excited about John Updike's Rabbit, Run as one of anybody's favorite novels, regardless of what kind of lesson it taught (in this case, appropriately enough, "How to Run Away").

I was going to write more about how I didn't find much in Hood's life or reading experiences that resonated with me, but I got bored even typing that statement. So I'll give you a sample of the book, and then I'll move on, hoping that some of this season's other "books on books" will be more to my taste.

"For as long as I can remember, I wanted something big, something I could not name. I did not know what it was, only what it wasn't. It wasn't in my small hometown. It wasn't nine-to-five, or ordinary, or anything I had ever seen before. I would sit on the landing at the top of the stairs at home and look out the little window at Aunt Julia and Uncle Joe's house across the street. Someday I will go beyond there, I would think." (p. 30.)

Actually, it's not a bad book. I'd like to hear what you think about it.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Garret Keizer: Getting Schooled.

I'm having a little love affair this summer with the author Garret Keizer.

Originally I found him when I checked out a small book titled Privacy. I read a lot of that book while watching the CRjrs bike and shove each other around (and sometimes shove each other around on bikes), but then I put it away for a while because I want to read it all the way through, someday when I can fully concentrate on it.

Getting schooledSo then I went looking for something else of his I could read, and found Getting Schooled: The Reeducation of an American Teacher. I hadn't remembered the title, but as soon as I picked the book up at the library, I laughed: I recognized its cover. I'd actually had the book in my house last year when I wanted to write a list of good books to read on education, though I'd never gotten it read.

Well, this time I got it read. And it starts off with a bang:

"In the fall of 2010, after a fourteen-year hiatus from the classroom and at the unpropitious age of fifty-seven, I began a one-year job filling in for a teacher on leave from the same rural Vermont high school that I'd entered as a rookie thirty years before. I signed on mainly because my wife and I needed the health insurance."

Here's what I know about Garret Keizer: he lives in Vermont with his wife and has one daughter. By his own admission he is in his late fifties. Also, I've read enough of his writing now to know that he crafts a beautiful sentence. And his author blurb states that he is the author of several other books, he is a contributing editor at Harper's Magazine, and is a former Guggenheim Fellow. So my only thought upon reading that first paragraph is really? Even contributing editors at Harper's Magazine have to work for the health insurance? This country is MESSED UP.

But I digress. This book is primarily the memoir of a teacher who liked teaching but who quit it because he liked writing more, and what he found when he went back to teaching in a high school. None of it is particularly earth-shattering or even particularly depressing (I find most things written and said about education these days to be depressing), but it is such a nice, thoughtful memoir. He covers such topics as the technology teachers have to use to keep up with student record-keeping; the technology they're expected to use in the classroom; his lesson planning; his outreach to students and his interactions with them; and broader educational trends.

I'll admit my enjoyment of this book was a very personal thing. Primarily because Keizer has a habit of writing out loud things that I am thinking, like this: "Citing statistics from a famous study, the superintendent notes that students from the lower strata of society reach the age of three having heard 30 million fewer words than their middle-class counterparts...In vain I wait for someone to remark that if our students are subject to such appalling inequalities, even before they enter school, then educational reform is a pathetic substitute for social revolution." (p. 39.)

I know from experience that saying anything like that (only less eloquently) around suburban mothers gets some odd looks.

So, Keizer worked his year, and he wrote this memoir, with each chapter given over to one month of the school calendar. It's a wide-ranging, incisive, and yet still strangely gentle look at the education system, our broader culture, and of course the individual high schoolers and courses that he taught. Yeah, I know it's summer vacation. But your homework this summer is to read this book.


Dr. Willie Parker's Life's Work: A Moral Argument for Choice.

Life's workI forget where I first read about Dr. Willie Parker's memoir Life's Work: A Moral Argument for Choice. I think I saw it on a booklist somewhere--but of course now I can't remember where.

Let's be honest here. I don't have much of a belief system anymore. I was much more black and white in my beliefs well into my thirties, than I am now. And you know what? That was comforting. I kind of miss that. Lately, though, I find I am just so tired of all sides of problems that I have much less energy to judge who is in the right or wrong. Like this: yes, criminals need to be punished and go to jail. But have you heard about jails lately? That's not going to solve anything. Yes, Trump sucks. Clinton sucked too.

See?

So pretty much one of the few things left that I really believe in is that you can't kill people. As such, I am still against abortion. (I'm against capital punishment and war, too.) So what was I doing reading this memoir by a doctor who has committed his life to performing abortions, particularly in areas where access to abortions is becoming ever harder to find?

I don't know, really. I kind of just thought I should read it. (And it's only about 200 pages long. I love authors who can make their point in 200 pages or less, and will almost always give them a try.)

And here's what I think: it was a good book. Parker knows his way around a narrative and he is clearly impassioned about his choices and his work. He describes his childhood, spent growing up in poverty in Alabama; his epiphany of being "born again" as a teenager and his life spent proselytizing about religion; his journey through medical school and his decision, eventually, to learn how to perform abortions and to dedicate himself to performing them regardless of the challenges and dangers to himself. He is clearly a thoughtful person and he lays out his entire trajectory of thought and action for the reader here.

"Sometimes women, having absorbed the lessons of Christian churches like the one in which I was raised, call the clinic to wonder aloud to anyone who answers the phone: 'Will God forgive me?' And if I happen to be on the other end, what I say, in substance, is this: I see no reason why a woman should feel herself deserving of a separation from God because of a decision she has to make. The Jesus I love has a nonconformist understanding of his faith. He realizes that the petty rules and laws laid down by the fathers and authorities are meaningless, and that to believe in a loving God is to refuse to stand in judgment of any fellow mortal...Performing abortions, and speaking out on behalf of the women who want abortions, is my calling. It is my life's work, and I dedicate this book to them." (p. 16.)

Probably the most interesting parts of this book for me were reading about Parker's impoverished upbringing and the hard work, good luck, and kindnesses of connections that accompanied his education and medical career. Frankly? This was kind of the book, on that subject, that I wanted Hillbilly Elegy to be. It may seem strange, but I also appreciated Parker's dispassionate descriptions of the abortion procedure itself. Or, I should say, it didn't make me happy to read those descriptions, but I have not had an abortion and have not ever had anyone describe one to me, so I felt that was knowledge I could use.

And here's what else I think: it was a good book for me to read. I thought about it a lot while reading it and I thought about it a lot in the days after I read it, and I really think it helped solidify a few things for me on how I feel about abortion, and that surprised me, since I thought I was already pretty solid in my opinions on the subject. Here's one thing it made me realize: I used to read about the actions of anti-abortion activists, taking steps simply to chip away at access to abortion, rather than trying to get Roe v. Wade overturned completely. And I had to admit that those were probably effective tactics if you simply wanted to try and lessen the numbers of abortions being performed. But those "victories" never really made me very happy. And now I know why: because it's kind of a prick move*. It disproportionately punishes poor and rural women who have fewer options. To me it's a prick move, just like gerrymandering is a prick move to chip away at voting rights. It may be stupid (and simplistic) of me, but I feel it is more honest to either allow abortion to be legal and allow access to it, or call it murder and outlaw it. Either way it should be the same for everyone.

There are a host of other reasons why I personally believe abortion is wrong, and we're not going to get into all that. And I totally understand Parker's narrative, and why he has made the choices he has. Really. I do. I am poor enough and (formerly) rural enough that I know how hard it is to scrape together $500 when you really need it, and how hard it is to get somewhere when your time (and perhaps a mode of transportation) is not your own. I have children and I know what pregnancies and birth do to your body. I GET IT. But on so many levels it keeps coming back to this for me: people are not disposable. Once I give up that thought I truly will have nothing left.

Oh, and then there's this: I cannot get behind abortion because I think it is purely a gift to men, specifically the worst kind of men, the ones who don't think about their actions and never ever have to deal with them. And that's just not right either. I don't have the answer for how to force men to take more responsibility for childbearing in general, I really don't, and that is frustrating. But allowing them abortion as yet another easy out where the woman has to go and do everything (and pay for it herself) makes me want to throw up. I can't help it. That's just the way I feel.

Go read this book. Really. However you think or feel on this subject. I would love to discuss it with someone. I would LOVE to know how this would go down in a library book group situation.

*"Prick move": A tactic or action which may be successful but is nevertheless underhanded; in other words, something a total prick would be really pleased with himself for thinking up. (A personal definition.)


Kate Hennessy's Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved By Beauty.

A week or so before Ash Wednesday I brought home the book Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved By Beauty. I thought I would go all out this year for Lent and read this book during the weeks before Easter.*

Turns out that I started it on Fat Tuesday and finished it on Ash Wednesday.

Dorothy dayIt's a fascinating book, written by the youngest grandchild of Catholic activist Dorothy Day. It is a mix of biography (about Day, and also about Day's only daughter, Tamar), history (of Depression-era America and the Catholic Worker), and memoir (the author seeking to understand her relationship with her own mother, but even more importantly, the relationship between Dorothy and her daughter Tamar).

And really, could she have had a richer subject to explore than Dorothy Day, activist and co-founder of the Catholic Worker newspaper and movement? The stories of Dorothy's early life alone were worth the read:

"Dorothy was not a timid person. One night while working on the Call, she had forgotten her house key, and unwilling to wake the family, she visited police stations trying to find a women's lockup where she could spend the night. Failing that, she took a taxi to find friends and ended up being attacked by the taxi driver in a Jewish cemetery in Yonkers. She fought back, biting him until he bled, and then she demanded he drive her to the train station, which he did while cursing her until she got him to shut up by lecturing him all the way there. But the Night of Terror crushed Dorothy...

Eight of the women who were most brutally treated, including Dorothy, sued the superintendent of prisons for eight hundred thousand dollars in damages. They withdrew the suit in 1920 when wardens of both the DC jail and Occoquan were fired, and when women finally succeeded in getting the vote, a law that Dorothy, in her disinterest in politics and belief that change was more effectively brought about in other ways, would never take advantage of." (pp. 12-13.)

Those paragraphs were about Dorothy's experience picketing in support of the right to vote for women. She went because a friend asked her and because she was kind of a born protestor, even though Hennessy points out at the end that voting wasn't really a hot-button issue for her. I chose those paragraphs because there's so much there I can't believe: She fought off her attacker? And then MADE HIM DRIVE HER BACK TO THE TRAIN STATION? And she was involved in a protest and arrest that was noted for its barbarity? And still went on to live a life where she kept putting herself in dangerous neighborhoods? What a woman.

This book was a very personal story. I thought it was really beautiful, although much of it was very sad (Dorothy's relationship with Forster Batterham, Tamar's father, was a difficult one, and Tamar's relationship with her husband, David Hennessy, and the hardships of raising nine children "on the land" are also tough subjects to see described in clear-eyed prose). But still, very beautiful:

"And isn't this my history also? One of the elements of what makes a person extraordinary, I have come to believe, is when their inner and outer lives are in accord. When what they do in the world is what their innermost being leads them to do. This is why the history of the Catholic Worker is the history of my mother, the history of the relationship between my mother and grandmother, and the history of my family." (p. x.)

I am not doing this book justice. To read about this variety of people (some of the people who came to the Catholic Worker and just stayed and lived and worked there the rest of their lives--those are fascinating stories too) and the lives of work and service and intellectualism and challenging personal relationships they all lived--it was really something. Give it a read, even if you won't have time during Lent.

*As a kid I gave up chocolate. For the whole 40 days. I could never do it now. I'm pathetic.


Reading notes from February 2017.

I read or skim-read a few interesting books last week, but none of them really seemed to warrant their own review. So here we go with a few quick impressions.

Really good dayI got Ayelet Waldman's A Really Good Day: How Microdosing Made a Mega Difference in My Mood, My Marriage, and My Life. I've always kind of gotten a kick out of Ayelet, but there wasn't enough here to keep me reading. Basically she read somewhere about how microdoses of LSD can help with mood disorders (as well as studies about how use of mushrooms, for their psilocybins, increased peoples' sense of well-being), and tried out microdoses for a month. This is her diary of that month. It did improve many factors of her life, but at the end of the day, she had to stop the regimen because LSD is illegal and she only got her original stash from a friend of a friend who had a bit left from running his own experiment. I skim-read the first 100 pages, then skipped to the last couple of chapters and called it good. A few things: not sure a whole book was necessary here. And, as long as she wrote the whole book, it needs an index; it references enough scientific and historical information that an index might have been helpful (and would have been fairly easy and cost-effective to prepare; her book is not long or complex).

I did enjoy her honesty concerning her marriage, her children, her work, and other facets of her life. Particularly noteworthy was her stream-of-consciousness fantasizing about getting divorced, in which she ruminates on how she's priced small apartments in the area so she and her husband could split but simply co-parent ("bird-nesting") while letting the kids stay in the house all the time. Seeing as Ayelet is a woman who's largely famous for declaring that she loves her husband more than she loves her kids, that made me feel better about having similar fantasies.

Our lady of birth controlI also read the graphic novel Our Lady of Birth Control: A Cartoonist's Encounter with Margaret Sanger, by Sabrina Jones. It was all right. It was an interesting book but it is hard for me to get too excited about a book when I am no fan of the book's subject. I get what she was trying to do and I am sympathetic to the desire (particularly in the era when Sanger was working, when women regularly had double digit-numbers of pregnancies, miscarriages, and births) to control one's reproductive destiny, but the simple fact of the matter is that I think Planned Parenthood and the birth control industry still disproportionately place the burden of birth control on women. When Planned Parenthod a.) pushes to develop and market a viable birth control pill for men, and b.) runs a massive campaign to tell men to wear condoms whether they "like to" or not (the poor dears), I will have no time for Planned Parenthood.

I did appreciate that the author of this graphic novel addressed some of the controversies and charges that have sprung up against Sanger in past years, including the fact that she was a proponent of the eugenics movement. I'm not satisfied by Jones's conclusion that a lot of smart people were interested in eugenics, so it wasn't really that bad, but her awareness of some of the complexities of Sanger's legacy was nice to see.

ThreadbareAnother graphic novel that I mainly made it through was Anne Elizabeth Moore's Threadbare: Clothes, Sex, and Trafficking. Mr. CR saw this one laying around the house and said, really? Where do you keep FINDING these depressing books? To which my only defense was, I don't know, they keep finding ME. This was another interesting graphic novel, but it was a collection of comics by different illustrators, which I never like: I find it too jarring to go from one visual style to another.

I think this is an important book and well worth a look--particularly for its early chapters on the links between "fast fashion" and clothing waste and slavery worldwide--but at times the links it made between fashion, the apparel industry, and human trafficking were too complex for me to follow. Right now. I'm scattered even on my best days lately, and last week we all had killer colds in my house, so I definitely wasn't myself while reading this. But take my word for it: you might want to check it out. Also? Shop less. Evidently apparel companies and retail outlets now change their offerings every few weeks, rather than every season--wasting a lot of material and wearing out a lot of workers just so people can "see something new" every time they go to the mall. Uck.

I might just have to find a little something lighter to read for March. Any suggestions?


A serviceable read: Heads in Beds.

Okay, I really need to start writing down what book suggestions I get from where. I know I chose the book Heads in Beds: A Reckless Memoir of Hotels, Hustles, and So-Called Hospitality from someone's blog, but now I can't remember where I found it. Anyone out there remember posting about this?

Heads in bedsIt is exactly what its title promises: a tell-all memoir from a long-time hotel employee, who worked in a variety of positions from valet attendant in a luxury hotel in New Orleans, to housekeeping management in that same establishment, to being front desk staff in a Manhattan hotel that he calls "The Bellevue." It's fairly rough and ready, in story and in tone. Here's how he was welcomed to his daytime shift on the desk by the bellmen, after being promoted from the overnight staff:

"The bellmen were the first to intimidate.

'Listen very closely to me, FNG [Fucking New Guy]. I see you handing guests their own keys, I'll stab you. You don't ask them shit. You call 'front' and hand the keys to a bellman. Let them tell me to my face they can take their own luggage and my baby girl has to starve. I catch you handing them keys, I figure you're the one who wants my baby girl to starve. In which case I will find out what train you take home and collapse your throat as soon as you step into your borough.'

New York pep talk number two! The first, from my roommate in Brooklyn, promising to throw me out if I didn't make rent, seemed like a pillow fight in comparison.'" (p. 103.)

So yeah. It's a lot of stories like that (although you should know that the author eventually became pretty tight with the bellmen, as he became pretty good at handing lodgers over to them with the personal touch, increasing the tipping all around), along with a few tips on how to improve your own hotel stays. I can't say that most of the tips will be that helpful to me, as I don't really want to eat things out of the minibar, even for free (it is important to note, though, that if there are wrong minibar charges on your bill, you should pipe up, as desk staff know nobody can actually tell what you've eaten out of the minibar and will remove the charges fairly easily) and I rarely stay at the types of hotels where upgrades are going to do a whole lot for me.

It was a quick read, somewhat informative, interesting enough to keep me reading the whole thing, but in the end I found it unsatisfying. Perhaps because there was absolutely nothing in the way of deeper thought or reflection here about how weird it is that we all go to hotels, and trust people we don't know to create our key cards, to clean the pillows on which we put our faces and the glasses out of which we drink. Among many other things. And I say this as someone who LOVES staying in hotels. Seriously. I traveled a few times for work and there was nothing I loved better than flopping on a hotel bed and turning the TV on to "Law and Order" (an episode of which is always on, somewhere, sometime), so I'd have been happy to hear any thoughts on the intimacy of helping hundreds of strangers bed down every night. I don't know what I wanted here, really. I just wanted something a little more.

I was also a bit annoyed with this opening statement:

"To protect the guilty and the innocent alike, I have deconstructed all hotels and rebuilt them into personal properties, changed all names, and shredded all personalities and reattached them to shreds from other personalities, creating a book of amalgams that, working together, establish, essentially, a world of truth. I mean, damn, I even change my own name."

And he did. Jacob Tomsky is his name, and he became, throughout this narrative, "little Tommy Jacobs." Why? Anyone else get that?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


J.D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy.

I am decidedly undecided about J.D. Vance's memoir Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.

Hillbilly elegyOn the one hand, it's straightforward, an easy read, and it was tough to put down. What is it about trainwrecks, either culturally or personally, that we can't look away from them? Because Vance describes a childhood that was surrounded by trainwrecks: a mother with substance abuse problems and a willingness to bring any sort of boyfriend or new husband into her house with her children; "hillbilly" grandparents who could be downright scary in their willingness to exact their own brutal vengeance on people they viewed as enemies; a school and culture and economic surroundings that largely did not encourage anyone to try or succeed (why bother, if no jobs were waiting for them at the end of their educations?). So this is a stark, personal, succinct (257 pages) read. Here's how Vance starts, in the introduction:

"I was one of those kids with a grim future. I almost failed out of high school. I nearly gave in to the deep anger and resentment harbored by everyone around me. Today people look at me, at my job and my Ivy League credentials, and assume that I'm some sort of genius, that only a truly extraordinary person could have made it to where I am today. With all due respect to those people, I think that theory is a load of bullshit. Whatever talents I have, I almost squandered until a handful of loving people rescued me." (p. 2)

It is emphatically a memoir; Vance admits early on that it is not an academic or sociological study. And that's fine. As a memoir I think the book worked. So why am I not more enthusiastic?

I don't know why, really. Vance's story is an inspiring one (man from impoverished childhood eventually graduates from Ivy League law school and marries one of his fellow students), but perhaps that's the problem. I'm really not much of a reader for inspiration. And there's something about his tone that just bugs me. You can tell by reading this book that he is no real fan of government programs or social justice laws.* He says a lot of things like this about his hometown of Jackson:

"The truth is hard, and the hardest truths for hill people are the ones they must tell about themselves. Jackson is undoubtedly full of the nicest people in the world; it is also full of drug addicts and at least one man who can find the time to make eight children but can't find the time to support them. It is unquestionably beautiful, but its beauty is obscured by the environmental waste and loose trash that scatters the countryside. Its people are hardworking, except of course for the many food stamp recipients who show little interest in honest work. Jackson, like the Blanton men, is full of contradictions." (p. 21.)

Okay. I know that government programs are not the whole answer. I know that lots of people don't want to work long hours or at physically demanding jobs. But Vance's tone sounds a little too much like "okay, people, pull yourself up by your bootstraps" for me. Just once in this country I'd like to see this argument NOT phrased as either/or: how about we expect people to try a little harder, but still try and implement common-sense government or social or charitable programs that would provide the most help where it is the most needed? Particularly since Vance making this argument seems a bit distasteful, as it does seem that he relied on his grandmother and some other family members for his work ethic and some help. Does he just want to write off everyone who had a troublesome mother, like his own, but who maybe wasn't lucky enough to have a kind and hard-working grandmother? That begins to smack of George W. Bush disease: Born on Third Base, Think You Hit a Triple.**

Anyone else read this one? What did you think? Can't decide if you want to read it? Here's a couple more reviews if you're interested.

*At one point he rails against legislation to try and cut down on payday lenders and their over-the-top interest rates, arguing that for people in poverty sometimes just a little bit of cash can get you through or past big problems. I understand that. I have an appreciation for how a couple of hundred bucks can sometimes make all the difference. But I think what he's missing is that maybe the payday lenders don't have to make a gazillion dollars off someone else's short-term financial need. Again: what about some moderation?

**Although of course George W. Bush was born into a family with a gazillion more dollars than Vance's family had. Still, you get my point.


Glennon Doyle Melton, perspective, and other random thoughts I had while washing the dishes.

All summer my sister kept asking me, what is the deal with this book Love Warrior, by Glennon Doyle Melton, and I said, I don't know, I've been hearing about it but I haven't paid much attention. All the while I was thinking, Glennon Doyle Melton. Glennon. Why do I know that name?

Carry on warriorAnd then it hit me. When she came out with her first book, Carry On, Warrior: Thoughts on Life Unarmed, it became a bestseller, so I'd requested it from the library, even though I'd never seen much at Momastery.com (Melton's blog, on which the book was based) that really set me on fire. I still remember looking it over before I left the library (sitting in the chair next to the train table, where of course CRjr would have been crashing the trains and the second CRjr would still have been gestating), thinking, yeah, I just don't think there's anything here for me. So I turned it back in without even reading it.

That changed this fall. Melton published a new memoir, titled, of course, Love Warrior, which became an Oprah book and was a book about healing her marriage. Which made it all the more awkward when Melton announced, shortly after her new book's publication, that she and her husband would be separating. And then my sister kept asking me about the book. So I thought, well, I don't really want to wait for ages on the hold list for Love Warrior, but maybe I should give Carry On, Warrior, another chance.

And so I did.

I read it, and then I left it around*, and that's how Mr. CR found it and must have read some of it too. So the other day he said to me, "What's up with that Carry On Warrior book?" And I said, "It's terrible." And he said, "Yeah, it is." And we left it at that and just enjoyed (at least I did) a somewhat rare moment of quiet solidarity in our marriage.

And then I left the book on my table, thinking I should blog about it. So tonight I looked at it and realized what the problem is: I no longer have the heart to write negative reviews about books. Which is a shame, because I am a real believer in the well-written negative review, and I used to like writing a good negative review. So no: I don't think Carry On, Warrior was a great book. I didn't particularly enjoy it. Just as I thought that long-ago day in the library, there was really nothing in this book for me. Here's a bit from an early chapter, when Melton talks about her inspiration for writing and blogging, and describes how one day at the playground she just wanted to have an honest conversation with another woman there:

"I shed my armor and I waved my white flag. All of a sudden I heard myself saying the following to Tess:

Listen. I want you to know that I'm a recovering alcohol, drug, and food addict. I've been arrested because of those things. Craig and I got accidentally pregnant and married a year after we started dating. We love each other madly, but I'm secretly terrified that our issues with sex and anger will eventually screw things up. Sometimes I feel sad and worried when good things happen to other people. I snap at customer service people and my kids and husband regularly. I always have rage right beneath my surface..."

Tess stared at me for so long that I wondered if she was going to call our minister or 911. Then I saw some tears dribble down her cheek. We sat there, and she told me everything. Things with her husband were bad, apparently. Really bad. Tess felt scared and alone. But at the playground that day, Tess decided she wanted help and love more than she wanted me to think she was perfect." (p. 4.)

Okay, whatever. It's not bad writing (most of Melton's essays are so neatly put together, as a matter of fact, that I'm thinking I should study them for my own writing), but it's just not an experience or an outcome that speaks to me. With the exception of a slight problem I have with Reese's peanut butter cups, I don't really have an addictive personality. I also don't have the type of personality that really responds deeply to the heavily repeated use of the word "love." It wasn't really fair of me to describe the book to Mr. CR as "terrible"; it's just a book that is fundamentally NOT FOR ME.

On top of all of this I see tonight, on the Interwebs, that Glennon Doyle Melton is now in a relationship with former soccer superstar Abby Wambach.

I really don't care who Melton dates, and it makes no difference whatsoever to me if who she dates is a man or a woman. But it did make me chuckle just a bit, especially after another popular female memoirist's recent announcement that she had divorced her husband and was now dating a woman. Here is the quote all the news stories have been using, as culled from Melton's Facebook announcement:

"They’re lucky kids, to be surrounded by so much love. We have family dinners together — all six of us — and Abby cooks. (She is an AMAZING chef because Jesus loves me). We go to the kids’ school parties together. We are a modern, beautiful family. Our children are loved. So loved. And because of all of that love, they are brave."

You see what I mean? That is a LOT of uses of the word "love" in one paragraph.

Anyway. So tonight I was washing dishes and wondering why I can't get into these "love"y types of books. And then, I thought, well, of course not, you hate everything. Which is true, in one way. I do profess to hate a lot of things, like all doctors and politicians and people who think corporations are people, etc. But then I thought about it some more and thought, well, you know, I don't really HATE all those things. I like to think that I wouldn't actively go out and cause harm to anyone, even someone I hate. (Although I can't be sure, I don't entirely trust even myself.) And then I thought some more (I had a lot of dishes tonight) about how this all related to Trump, and how everyone seems to be going way overboard in one way or another in reaction to his election. But me? For once I'm kind of sanguine about the whole thing. Yeah, he's a pig. But are we really holding up Bill Clinton as the example of how to respect women? What about JFK? Everyone was so busy NOT looking at all his indiscretions, did anyone ever even count the number of women he used for sexual encounters and then just tossed away? And the nuclear weapons stuff? Yeah, one of our presidents has ALREADY USED NUCLEAR WEAPONS and people mostly called him a hero for it. Is Trump gross? Yes. Was Hillary gross? Yes. Are all politicians gross? Yes.

You see the circles my brain runs in?

So here's what I figure. I'm going to skip the negative review on Melton's book. So it's not for me. Maybe next time I'll realize that sooner and use my time to get up and go help someone instead. That's also what I'm going to do about our political situation. Not pay attention, try to save time and energy that I can hopefully devote to maybe visiting someone who could use a visit. Or helping someone who could use some help. Or even just doing a little better job paying attention to my children rather than reading books that I'm not really enjoying while I'm with them. And maybe in four years we can all vote for someone better, although I would guess whoever comes along in four years is also going to be gross.

See? I ended up being negative somehow. But here's the title of the self-help book I want to write: We're All Assholes but Let's Try to Get Along Anyway. I can't imagine it will become an Oprah book anytime soon.


Diana Athill's Alive, Alive Oh!

You know, I really like Diana Athill.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Now THIS is more like it: Mama Tried, by Emily Flake.

Remember a few weeks ago, when I was going on and on about how I'd love to see a parenting book whose author actually shared some of the gory details of childbirth? All I can say after reading Emily Flake's Mama Tried: Dispatches from the Seamy Underbelly of Modern Parenting, is HUZZAH!

Now THIS is what I'm talking about:

Mama tried"Just like in the movies, I was in the back of a cab making little hoo-hoo-hoo sounds and trying to assure the driver I would not have a baby in his car, though I couldn't guarantee I wouldn't crap all over it. Luckily for everyone concerned, the hospital was only a mile away; when I got out of the cab I was holding my belly and bellowing like a sow. I was put in a wheelchair and whisked into an examination room, where I stroked the wall very, very gently and waited for a real doctor (they'd sent in a med student to take my family history; I was impolite to him). A real doctor showed up, took a look at my lady parts, and took out a walkie-talkie. 'Clear a labor room,' she said into it. 'Wait, am I in labor??' I asked. 'You,' she said, clearly biting off the words 'you idiot,' 'are having a baby RIGHT NOW.' She said this because I was 9.5 centimeters dilated. That promise I made to the cabbie could very easily have been false, and I would have had the New Yorkiest of all possible birth stories to tell.

Only one thing saved the cab's upholstery: the baby was coming face-up. This is not nearly as worrisome as a butt-or feet-first baby, nor as awful as that thing where their head gets jammed to the side and they're somehow coming...neck-first? Yikes--but it does make the whole process a bit more difficult. There was an awful lot of pushing. I moaned piteously for ice...

But: back to my face-up baby, stuck in the canal. After a couple of hours we had all had it with the pushing; I asked if maybe they didn't have one of those vacuum thingies handy? They did. Three contractions, a Hoovering, and a big doctor squeezing down on my belly later, out came the baby. The placenta was less eager to make its debut; the cord snapped, and my OB--a...brisk woman--reached on up there with her hand to pluck it out of me. She regarded it quizzically: 'That's a really raggedy old-looking placenta,' she said." (pp. 86-88.)

Well, fucking hell and thank YOU, Emily Flake, THIS is what I'm looking for in a birth narrative, complete with not knowing when you should go to the hospital, birth not quite going the way you thought, doctor-being-a-dickhead moments. AMEN. And of course there's a reason I responded to this story with every fiber of my being...

SPOILER ALERT: PEOPLE WHO ARE SQUEAMISH OR WHO FEEL THEY DON'T KNOW ME WELL ENOUGH TO HEAR A LITTLE BIT OF MY CHILDBIRTH STORY SHOULD LOOK AWAY NOW.

When my second CRjr made his way onto the scene it played out much the same way: I dilated nicely and everyone at the hospital thought he would be popping out shortly after we arrived. Of course that is not what happened. I tried to dilate to the full 10 centimeters for many hours, and then pushed for several hours, before which a nurse actually said to me, "Huh, I hope he's not coming face-up, that can be..." and then she trailed off as she saw me looking at her, "...uncomfortable."

Of course he was coming face-up.

To make a long story short, because you, unlike me, may not be into gory birth stories, the littlest CRjr also made his appearance thanks to one of those "vacuum thingies." But, and here's the part you really may not need to know, I still have some physical issues from the experience. So for the last three years, no kidding, I have been beating myself up, thinking if I had just stayed home a little longer, I could have dilated further, birth could have gone faster, and maybe I could have avoided some problems...

But God bless Emily Flake, now I know that even if I'd arrived at that damn hospital at the full 10 centimeters things may not have gone any better. And I cannot tell you the good that this does for my soul. So maybe that's what I'm looking for in these birth narratives: solidarity with what women go through, and what they come back from.

OKAY, IF YOU LEFT DURING THE BIRTH STORY, YOU CAN COME BACK NOW.

Have I also mentioned that this book is hilarious? Not only is it a quick read, it's illustrated, and Flake's pictures and their captions are really the best parts of the book. Just imagine her pictures and captions for her description of the third trimester: "The Dampening." (Horrifying but hilarious.) At one point the author also asked her sister, a postpartum nurse and lactation consultant, who her least favorite patients were. Her sister's reply? "'Oh, you know, older, professional moms who read too many parenting websites.'" (p. 37.) In other words, patients just like the author. God love modern parenting.

It's a great book. Get it for any new (or newish) mom you know, who doesn't mind a bit of swearing, off-color humor, and a good gory birth story. (Or, even if you don't get this one, consider Let's Panic about Babies!, another hilarious, truthful book about parenting.)


Female Comedian Memoirs: the scorecard.

So earlier this summer Mr. CR asked (begged) me to read some happier nonfiction. Or at least stop bringing home and telling him about sad nonfiction that I was reading. So I thought, okay, I'm going to bring home some memoirs by female comedians. (I decided on this project when I saw that Amy Schumer had a new book coming out this fall, so I thought I'd read some other memoirs this summer, then finish up with that one because it would be a timely topic.) That should have been light reading, right?

Well, kind of. Not really, actually. Taken as a group, I found that this group of books kind of depressed me. On the plus side, they were all pretty quick and easy reads. On the negative side, I didn't find most of them hilarious. And at their worst, they made me horribly sad. So let's do this thing, shall we?

A note: I forget what order I read these in, so they're just presented in the order in which I re-piled the books up on my table, so I could look them over and write about them here before returning them to the library.

BedwetterSarah Silverman, The Bedwetter: Stories of Redemption, Courage, and Pee. I actually don't know a lot about Silverman's comedy, and I've never seen an episode of "The Sarah Silverman Program." But for whatever reason, I think she's kind of funny  (go to :45 on that clip) and she doesn't much bother me. (You know how you form these opinions of celebrities, or entertainers? Like you know them personally or something?) And I'll say this for her book: it didn't make me want to kill myself as much as some of the other books on this list did. The book is primarily personal essays and memoir, with some chapters on how she broke into stand-up and the production of her television show.

And she doesn't waste time: on page ten, she relates the story of the accidental death of her older brother (when he was an infant and she wasn't yet born). Her parents went on a cruise to Bermuda that her mother had won while appearing on a game show, and while they were gone, they left the baby in the care of his paternal grandparents, where he accidentally smothered in his crib. (Is that terrible or what?) So yeah: you can see how this family and person might develop a dark sense of humor. And the title's not really a joke either: Silverman really did have a problem wetting her bed at night, well into later childhood and her teens. Or, as she puts it: "At eight years old, my urine showed no promise of abandoning its nightly march out of my urethra and onto my mattress. New Hampshire was running out of clean sheets." (p. 21.) Some of the funniest things in this book were the separate headings within the chapters; here's one of my favorites, how how she suffered from clinical depression as a teenager: "Another Chronic Condition that Nobody Has Any Fucking Clue How to Treat." (p. 30.) And that was followed immediately by another hilarious, if sad, heading: "An emotionally disturbed teenager is given a bottomless well of insanely addictive drugs as a means to improve her life, and other outstanding achievements for the New Hampshire mental health community." (p. 31.) Grade: Okay. I got some chuckles. (Yeah, no letter grades, no star ratings. I refuse to use quantitative standards when good old ambiguous qualitative standards are available to me.)

Tiny Fey, Bossypants. Actually, this one was a re-read. I don't think I finished it last time and I wanted to see if I'd underestimated it. I stand by my original assessment: Tina Fey is Not Funny. I did finish it this time, though. Grade: Pointless, but at least not appalling (See: Lena Dunham's Not That Kind of Girl).

Not that kind of girlLena Dunham's Not that Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She's "Learned." Another re-read, as I couldn't finish this one the first time I had it either. (I know. I am not a fast learner. But I was so appalled by so many of these "funny" memoirs and by the positive reception of them by other reviewers and readers that I kept thinking, well, I must just be missing something.) This was another book that was primarily a book of not-that-great personal essays with a few chapters thrown in about Dunham's professional life and her seemingly sudden and meteoric rise to fame and omnipresence on the Internet thanks to the popularity of her TV show "Girls." This book made me the most unhappy, because Dunham was the youngest author whose book I read, and all I could think when I was done with this one was, Wow, I'm so sorry for all the young girls out there.

I'll illustrate. Here's a charming story from her chapter titled "Barry," about a man with whom she had an unpleasant (if not illegal, on his part) sexual experience when she was in college: "Barry leads me to the parking lot. I tell him to look away. I pull down my tights to pee, and he jams a few of his fingers inside me, like he's trying to plug me up. I'm not sure whether I can't stop it or I don't want to..."

Okay. In addition to being disturbed by that, it's also where I lose some patience for Dunham. Really? How is this guy even getting in a physical position to make that happen while she's peeing? What part of that don't you want to stop? I'm not trying to be judgmental, really. I literally just don't get it. It continues:

"Now Barry's in my place. Now we're on my floor, doing all the things grown-ups do. I don't know how we got here, but I refuse to believe it's an accident." This continues until: "Before sunrise, I diligently enter the encounter into the Word document I keep, titled 'Intimacy Database.' Barry. Number Four. We fucked. 69'd. It was terribly aggressive. Only once. No one came." (pp. 58-60.)

Nobody in this book, even the author, sounds like they're having any fun, and it's certainly not funny. Grade: I may need some True Crime to cheer up after this.

Amy Poehler, Yes Please. There were some funny bits in Poehler's memoir, but as with Fey's, I didn't find it that interesting, either. Grade: If you must read something by a female SNL alum, choose this one over Fey's.

Mindy Kaling, Is Everyone Hanging Out without Me? (and other concerns). Okay, again, I wouldn't put this one in the class of great literature, but at least I laughed at it throughout and Mindy did not make me feel that being a woman today, putting up with the industry and men (wow, that is a lot to do), is just the worst job ever. These are mostly personal essays too, in sections titled "I Forget Nothing: A Sensitive Kid Looks Back," "I Love New York and It Likes Me Okay," "Hollywood: My Good Friend Who Is Also a Little Embarrassing," "The Best Distraction in the World: Romance and Guys," "My Appearance: The Fun and the Really Not Fun," and "My All-Important Legacy." Her look at her career trajectory is probably the most interesting one among these memoirs; she thoroughly describes her low-level entertainment and TV jobs, her two-woman play "Matt and Ben," writing for The Office, a brief stint at SNL, and her writing process in general.

Mindy also scores as the only writer whose book I recalled pleasurably after reading it. She has this very hilarious, and strange, chapter titled "Why do Men Put on Their Shoes So Slowly?" It's all of one page, and here's most of it: "Why do all the men I know put their shoes on incredibly slowly? When I tie my shoelaces I can do it standing, and I'm out the door in about ten seconds. (Or, more often, I don't even tie my shoelaces. I slip my feet into my sneakers and tighten the laces in the car.) But with men, if they are putting on any kind of shoe (sneaker, Vans, dress shoe), it will take twenty times as long as when a woman does it. It has come to the point where if I know I'm leaving a house with a man, I can factor in a bathroom visit or a phone call or both, and when I'm done, he'll almost be done tying his shoes." (p. 188.) Ever since I read that, I've noticed the many, many times I've waited for Mr. CR to put on his shoes and get out of the house, while I wait in the car. It wouldn't be so funny, except if I'm in the car, it means I've dressed myself, dressed two small boys, packed our going-out bag, and gotten said two small boys strapped into their car seats...all while Mr. CR is still putting on his shoes. Mindy is onto something here.

Grade: If you're going to read one book on this list, make it this one. It's funny, it's interesting, it's personal without being TOO MUCH, and if you're trying to inspire a woman to be a writer and entertainer, this is also probably the most positive book here.

Jessi Klein, You'll Grow Out of It. I reviewed this one not long ago. Grade: Points for some solid laughs, but overall? It left me wondering once again why smart, funny, good-looking women are taking semen shots in the face (that they don't seem all that excited about getting) and trying so hard to be what guys want. Not really Grrl Power, in my opinion.

Last but not least:

Girl with the lower back tattooAnd then we come to Amy Schumer, and her book The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo. I just struggled to get through the first 75 pages of this one. May I illustrate? The first essay is titled "Open Letter to My Vagina," and here's how it starts: "I know I've put you through a lot. I've had hot wax poured on you and the hair ripped from you by strangers. Some of the strangers have burned you even though I told them you have very sensitive skin. But it's on me for going to a shady-looking place in Astoria, Queens, that you thought may have been a drug front. I've been responsible for getting you yeast infections and UTIs and have worn stockings and Spanx for too long, knowing it could cause you problems. And I want to apologize for Lance on the lacrosse team, who treated you like you owed him money with his finger. That sucked, and I'm totally with you in being pissed. But you've also had a lot of nice visitors, right? Huh? You have to admit we've had a lot of fun together. I even fought to be able to call you 'pussy,' which I know you prefer, on television." (p. 3.)

Yeah, I don't know. I'm just not laughing. And this hurts me, as I know Amy Schumer and her writing team are capable of some really funny stuff, as in this clip from her show: Last fuckable day. Overall I much preferred it when she was talking about getting started in stand-up, and writing her show, and learning the business. And I'll admit that I laughed out loud as she describes writing down the first joke she really "wrote":  "This old woman on the subway asked me, 'Have you heard the good news?' She was trying to save me. I said, 'Ma'am, I'm so sorry. My people are Jewish.' She said, 'That's okay, your people just haven't found Jesus yet.' I said, 'No, we found him. Maybe you haven't heard the bad news.'" (p. 153.)

But once again there were too many personal stories that just made me unhappy, thinking of what women put up with. And that's really not how I wanted to feel after my "lighter reading." Grade: Okay, if you're really interested in Amy Schumer. Personally, I'm heading back to some good depressing nonfiction so I can cheer up.

 


A pair of graphic novels I either could have done without, or really needed.

Mary weptLast spring (or thereabouts) I noticed that a graphic novel titled Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus: Prostitution and Religious Obedience in the Bible was getting a lot of press attention. As it was a historical/religion graphic novel, and therefore nonfiction, I thought I would try it. I had read another graphic novel memoir by the same author, Chester Brown, about a million years ago. I couldn't remember it at all, other than its title: I Never Liked You. But I thought, let's try it.

And then I waited for it on hold from the library for so long that I forgot all about what it even was. I kept seeing the title "Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus" on my hold list, and I thought, I wonder what that book's about? And then it came.

How could I forget this one? It's a graphic novel, illustrating the stories of numerous women in the Bible, as well as other well known books/stories. Included here are illustrations of the Cain and Abel story, Ruth's marrying Boaz, the Annunciation of Mary, Bathsheba and David, Tamar, and Rahab (the latter two whose stories I don't know very well, but involved prostitution or sex as an exchange in some way). And what is the theme? Well, I'm vastly simplifying it here, but Brown speculates that the way the stories of these women were told, particularly in the Gospel according to Matthew, means there is some evidence that not only were there many prostitutes in the Bible, but that Mary the mother of God was one of them. Here's Matthew talking to himself while writing his Gospel account:

"All the evidence indicates that Jesus's mother was a whore. Jesus himself said so. But many Christians are against prostitution, and they don't want to hear the truth. Even if I wrote it, it would just be censored when the scribes copy out the book. But I want to acknowledge the truth in some manner. Is there a way of hinting at it without it being censored?" p. 146.

So I finish this thing, copious afterword and notes included, and my one thought, is, Wow, for some reason this guy really needs prostitution to be okay.

So I looked up his earlier books, and find his title Paying for It: A Comic-Strip Memoir about Being a John. And of course, everything makes more sense now. Of course he needs prostitution to be okay, because he goes to prostitutes.

Which is all, at this point, bothering me much less than you would think (or my mother would expect of me). For one thing, as a Catholic of a certain age, I was raised in a religious education environment that didn't really pay a whole lot of attention to the Bible. Sure, we had scripture every week in church, but Catholics doing "Bible study" when I was growing up was pretty much unheard of. In my family we seemed to depend a lot more on certain prayers, saint stories (although yes, I had books of Bible stories too), Catholic catechism (as laid down in the conservative Baltimore catechism series), and a special fondness for Mary.* So you know what? I don't care if Mary was a prostitute. I don't really care if she was a virgin, although that's what I learned and frankly it's just as easy for me to believe she was a virgin as anything else (see earlier: I just don't particularly care). The important thing is Mary IS my mother. I love her as my mother and I ask for her help and her intercession like a mother. She has been my only friend at many dark 3 a.m. hours in my life. The Catholic Church has done many things appallingly wrong in its history. But I am so grateful to Catholicism for giving me Mary as an individual in her own right, and my mother.**

So if Chester Brown wants to think she was a prostitute, and has done a lot of reading and research to back that up, well, okay.*** Evidently a lot of his ideas are based in part on Jane Schaberg's scholarly book The Illegitimacy of Jesus. At this point I wasn't particularly bothered.

But then I had to go and read his memoir Paying for It as well.

And now, friends? Now I'm a bit disturbed.

It's not a complicated book. Brown decided, after his girlfriend (with whom he lived) asked if he minded if she pursued a relationship with another man (while they still lived together), that he really didn't mind, and that in fact he was glad to be rid of the jealous feelings of a monogamous relationship. Things progress until he decides to pursue his two competing desires: "the desire to have sex, versus the desire to NOT have a girlfriend," (p. 16) and soon he responds to an escort ad and begins a series of encounters with paid sex workers. Most of the book thereafter details those encounters, set off by interludes of him and his friends engaging in discussions about whether his behavior is wrong or not.

Well, okay. I read the whole book--once again with copious appendices and notes wherein Brown lays out most of his arguments that prostitution should be decriminalized--and while I was reading it I didn't really have much of a reaction. But then I found I would think about different parts of the book, and Brown's arguments, at random points later in the day. And the more I recounted his experiences and his arguments, the more I reacted.

I'm not going to take each chapter or experience in turn. Instead, I'd like to give you a broad overview of what disturbed me about some of Brown's encounters with sex workers: 1. he often pays for half-hour sessions rather than full-hour sessions, and then depicts himself variously trying to get the prostitutes to move on from oral to full sex, or he shows himself periodically stopping the action to slow down his, ahem, "completion." At least one of the women asks him why he keeps stopping and starting again, informing him, "it's starting to hurt, y'know!" (p. 63.) 2. Periodically he has to question whether the women even understand English, or whether they are really the age they claim to be. 3. At least once he wants to walk away because the prostitute is unattractive, or (gasp) appears to be as old as "in her thirties." 4. After several visits to the same prostitute, he notes afterward that the "dates" are starting to make him feel empty inside. 5. Several prostitutes indicate (to me) they might not be enjoying the work--one says "ow" throughout the entire encounter, another answers Brown's questions about her previous work in a massage parlor and admits that she would rather be back at the massage parlor rather than working as an escort.

So, looking at the above as a whole, the picture I'm drawing of the author is that he's a cheap bastard who so badly wants what he's doing to be okay that he never questions whether women are foreign-born or actually eighteen; who's in his late thirties himself but of course is completely uninterested sexually in women of a comparable age; and although he seems desperate to reassure his friends that he treats these workers kindly (he tips them, lets them use his phone, etc.) he clearly is not put off his stroke when a woman shows clear signs of being in discomfort or pain.

I'm sorry, but there you have it. With that picture in my mind, I simply cannot take most of his arguments for the decriminalization of prostitution seriously. Like the one he relies on a lot: "I believe that, if prostitution is decriminalized, its normalization will happen relatively quickly--within a few generations. When I was born, in 1960, homosexuality was widely seen as 'sick' and disgusting. It was illegal to engage in homosexual activity in this country (and probably all of the other 'western' countries). In 1967, Pierre Trudeau decriminalized homosexuality in Canada...The result, forty-something years later, is that homosexuality has become normalized for most people 'in the west.' It's no longer widely seen as sick or disgusting." (p. 231.) Does anyone else find this argument weak? Are paying for sex with professionals and homosexuality really analogous situations? Also, if activities like pedophilia or necrophilia were "normalized," does that mean they would be okay?

Brown also likes to make the point that prostitutes should have their choice to make their living in the way they choose. Another weak argument, I think. How much money can a woman really make in this line of work if men stop choosing them (as Brown does) the minute they look like they are past their twenties? What is the percentage of women who are really CHOOSING this work? I would suggest you read Robert Kolker's Lost Girls for a look at how someone gets into this work and what happens after they do. It doesn't seem to me that choice often has a lot to do with it.

Anyway. Blah blah blah. I had a lot more thoughts about these two books, but this post is already ridiculously long. I didn't particularly enjoy the experience of interacting with these books, but I do have to admit that I have now given them a lot of thought and even argued with their author in my head. So, paradoxically: A good reading experience. I think the Paying for It book might actually be a good book for all women to read, for its scary insights into one male mind (particularly what Brown describes as the "burden" of his life--"Every time I saw an attractive woman, I wanted to walk up to her and try to initiate some sort of interaction. I usually lacked the confidence to do so...I wasn't even aware that all of that felt like a burden until I walked out of that brothel and saw an attractive woman on the street and realized I felt no inner tension about whether or not I should talk to her. Of course I shouldn't--she was a stranger. Why would I worry that I was missing an opportunity to potentially have sex? Suddenly, sex with beautiful women was easy to get." (p. 263.) I'll tell you this: it obviously takes all kinds.

*Family legend has it that Dad appealed to Mary to intercede and help him find a good wife, and he found our mother. My mother is spectacular, so thanks, Mary!

**And the subject of one of my favorite prayers, a poem by Anne Porter: "Mary, in you/We see the flowering/Of our human beauty/And hear/The songs of God. And in your heart the lost/Rejected and abandoned ones/Are held in honor. Stay with us now/And always."

***This is way off topic, and I never reviewed it here, but this summer I also read a lot of Tom Bissell's really interesting book Apostle: Travels among the Tombs of the Twelve, also about Bible history, and how very little anyone knows about even the Apostles (arguably well-known and often-cited figures that they are). In that book Bissell noted that when he noticed all the inconsistencies and historical fuzziness in the Bible, he lost his verve for his Catholic religion. This does not happen to me. The more I learn about how complex the Bible is, how historically difficult it is to pin anything in it down with certainty, it doesn't make me take my religion less seriously. It makes me take the Bible less seriously. If that makes any sense.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Vivian Swift's "Le Road Trip: A Traveler's Journal of Love and France."

You know that thing that happens when a reader you love gives you a book they love and they want you to love it too?

Le road tripThat's happening to me right now. My favorite reader has given me Vivian Swift's illustrated travel/memoir title Le Road Trip: A Traveler's Journal to Love and France. It's a travelogue in which Swift details her honeymoon trip through France, complete with Swift's watercolors on every page. It is a beautiful book. It's a romantic book. It's a funny book. Each of these attributes is readily apparent: just look at that cover. Now imagine a book chock-full of beautiful watercolor illustrations like that, only many of them include detailed drawings of gorgeous French buildings, the countryside, and various sunsets. (You can also get a better feel for Swift's painting if you visit her excellent blog.)

The romance comes in when Swift describes her new marriage: "It was a rainy Thursday night in Manhattan during a cold Spring, and, at a fine-arts fundraiser/cocktail party, I was looking at a room full of people I didn't know. A distinguished-looking silver-haired gentleman in a tweed jacket asked me if I was alone. 'Yes,' I said.

'So am I,' he told me.

Small talk: he told me about the funeral that he'd been to that afternoon, I told him that I'd stopped off at a record shop on my way to the party to buy a Blow Monkeys CD.

Death and pop music from the 1980s are two of my favorite topics of conversation...

We were married a year later." (p. 9.)

Mercifully, she tempers the romance with her humor, as when she describes what happens when the going gets tough, in love and in travel:

"Wandering with God through the Sinai Desert, His people often grew restless and rebellious of His ever-presence. Their annoyance grew in spite of His miraculous provisions of food and amusements along the way: sweet water and a lo-cal carbohydrate called manna (from Heaven, no less), pillars of fire and cloud. They even tried to ditch him altogether in favor of a golden calf. The whole trip must have worn on God's love, too, because once they all got where they were going He's never taken His people on that kind of journey again." (p. 112.)

I read the whole thing in a couple of days, looked at some of the pictures very carefully (particularly the ones in which I loved the purple-y light of French evenings and nights), and enjoyed it all very much.

So why can't I join my favorite reader in LOVING, no holds barred, this book? I don't know. I think it's just a question of mood. I'm not in a very romantic mood currently, and this is a very romantic book. And although I often really enjoy travel books, I am not really in the mood for travel narratives right now. It's a tricky little bugger, mood. Especially as it pertains to reading.

You ever had a book that someone wanted you to LOVE, right at that moment, and you couldn't match your enthusiasm?*

*Full disclosure: I totally know I've done this to people. When I love a book I won't shut up about it. I try not to tell people they HAVE to read it, and I try not to ask people how they like books I've given them, but it's hard!


Roberto Canessa's I Had to Survive.

One of the best nonfiction books I've ever read is Piers Paul Read's Alive. It's the account of the 1972 plane crash of a team of high school rugby players (and their friends and family) who, while flying from Uruguay to Chile, crashed in the Andes. (That description does not do it justice. Go read this review.)

A while back another book about the crash came out, this one by one of the survivors, Nando Parrado. So I got that too (Miracle in the Andes), and found it to be another interesting perspective on the crash. So when I saw a new book this year, titled I Had to Survive: How a Plane Crash in the Andes Inspired My Calling to Save Lives, by another one of the survivors, Roberto Canessa, I thought, well, I should probably just read it too.

And after a chapter or two of it, I thought I wouldn't continue--after all, I've read about this story before, and Canessa seemed to be taking the book in the direction of inspirational or self-help, exploring how his time on the mountain and his trek to find rescuers with Parrado shaped his life thereafter. After the crash, Canessa continued his education and medical training and eventually became a world-renowned pediatric cardiologist. Much of this book is about his experiences working with the families of babies with heart issues, and many of those stories are told not only by Canessa but also by the individuals in question.

But I stuck with it, and found that I got sucked into the story all over again. Canessa's account of the first few days after the crash, the screams and moans during the nights stuck in the crashed plane fuselage, and the slow dying of their hope that they would of course be rescued, is just as unbelievable as everything else I've read on the subject. Likewise, his story of the trek out, battling subzero temps, snow blindness, weakness, not knowing where they were, and even one night having to sleep while standing up, perched on a nearly vertical ledge, well, again: unbelievable. As Canessa tells his story, eventually he intersperses more stories of his life after the ordeal, and his professional experiences as a doctor, and those parts are interesting too--to see how the crash and trek perhaps changed him (or more likely highlighted certain aspects of a personality and will he already had), provided yet another valuable viewpoint on the whole story and history.

The book is written with (or by? who knows), another author, Pablo Vierci, and also includes chapters told by the families of babies whom Canessa has worked with over the years.These chapters were really a bit more inspirational than I typically like to go, but by then I was 180 pages in and figured I had to finish. One woman who has been his patient for more than twenty years reported that Canessa told her that her "heart condition wasn't a disability but simply a series of life's hurdles to be overcome one at a time." (p. 276.) And you know what? Just for today, I did find that a little inspirational. Don't tell anyone, 'kay?

I can't say it's a great book. It's written with someone and it's a bit odd the way it jumps around in viewpoint. If you haven't read anything on this subject you really shouldn't start here; you should start with Alive. But if you have read that book, and feel interested enough to continue, this was a different take on the subject, and could be worth a read to you.