Memoirs

Laura Jean Baker's The Motherhood Affidavits.

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

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

I have this problem a lot.

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

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

So what's the problem?

SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT

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

Still here?

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

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

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

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


Labor Day Reading List 2018.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*HA.


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

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

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

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

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

Wait for it...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


Oh, Anthony Bourdain.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Maxine phoned me after the first lesson.

'How was he?' she asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

And what a great memoir this was to read:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Another essayist we should tackle together someday, incidentally.

**Most notably, with my dad.

 


Michael Perry's Montaigne in Barn Boots.

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

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

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

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

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

Montaigne dropped a dump-truck full.

I passed one. Years ago.

And still I pee in fear.

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

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

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

Which I have got.

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

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

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


Trying to figure out doctors: the start of a reading list.

I hate doctors.

I mean I really, REALLY hate doctors. You know those people who have to go to "no-fear dentistry" and "sedation dentistry" because they can't stand going to the dentist?* I'm like that with doctors. I want EVERY appointment I have with a doctor to be "sedation doctoring." Alas: no one seems to offer this.

Because I have often thought of doctors as a foreign species, I tend to read a lot of books about and by them to try and understand them better. So I've read a lot of Atul Gawande, and I read that big memoir by the doctor who was dying (When Breath Becomes Air), and I also like to read investigative works about healthcare. This month I picked up two very different books: What Patients Say, What Doctors Hear,** by Danielle Ofri, and Rachel Arneson's No Apparent Distress: A Doctor's Coming-of-Age on the Front Lines of American Medicine.

The two books were very different: the first was a bit more academic in tone, citing studies on patient-doctor communication (or lack thereof), mixed in with the doctor author's personal experiences. The second was full-on memoir about Pearson's experiences in medical school and her early jobs as a resident and doctor. As such they provided quite different reading experiences. I found the Ofri super-interesting, and enjoyed that the prose was straightforward and that she provided a lot of examples of patients who she knew, had worked with, or interviewed for her book. It was quite dense, though; as a matter of fact, I had to return it to the library because I'd had it for several months and still hadn't finished reading it. (I want to get it back.) There was a lot of information in it about the difficulties doctors sometimes have deciphering what it is patients really want, especially because language is not a perfect tool, and patients often display behavior that is confounding to their doctors...but which usually has a (at least somewhat) logical reason behind it.

The Pearson memoir was actually a very good read, and it reminded me a lot of Victoria Sweet's God's Hotel, in that Pearson is both working to provide good service as a doctor, but also has a talent for explaining the behind-the-scenes education and work of doctoring. It was an easier read and a more narrative one that I enjoyed while reading it, but looking back now, I can already hardly remember any of it. But it was good. A particular point of hers was how much medical students learn by doing--and by doing primarily on the poor and uninsured. Which gave me pause. Not that there's anything wrong with being helped by a medical student, particularly if seeing that student is your only choice (other than seeing nobody at all), but geez, imagine being on the receiving end of the first pelvic exam (or any kind of physical exam, really) that someone has given. Just the idea of that makes me shudder.

They were both quite good books, actually. I'll suggest the Pearson to anyone looking for a good thoughtful memoir, but I'm going to go back and try and read and learn from more from the Ofri.

*Ironically I have no problem going to the dentist. I have been known to fall asleep in the chair while getting my teeth cleaned.

**Please follow this link to the Washington Post review of this book; it's an excellent review. I particularly like the takeaway: "modern medicine could benefit from a better understanding of how human beings like to be treated when they’re at their most vulnerable — sick and confused and naked save for a thin paper gown. If only doctors could bill for listening."


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.