Memoirs

Disrupted, by Dan Lyons.

As per usual, I've completely forgotten how I came across the title Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble, by Dan Lyons. I know the variety of ways people track their reading, but does anyone have a way to keep track of how they FIND their reading? I'm never taking notes when I'm requesting my books from the library.

DisruptedSo I requested this book, and got it, and then it was laying around my house, but I didn't particularly feel like reading it, and I can't say the cover did much for me either. But read it I did, and once I started, I just went ahead and read the whole thing. Basically, it's a work memoir, with Lyons describing his experiences after being downsized from his Newsweek journalism job working for tech/marketing company HubSpot. He starts right in in the first chapter with his first day at HubSpot, and how nobody who hired him was there, and nobody knew he was coming, and various other complaints and descriptions of his new workplace, like this one:

"Dogs roam HubSpot's hallways, because like the kindergarten decor, dogs have become de rigueur for tech start-ups. At noon, Zack tells me, a group of bros meets in the lobby on the second floor to do pushups together. Upstairs there is a place where you can drop off your dry cleaning. Sometimes they bring in massage therapists. On the second floor there are shower rooms, which are intended for bike commuters and people who jog at lunchtime, but also have been used as sex cabins when the Friday happy hour gets out of hand. Later I will learn (from Penny, the receptionist, who is a fantastic source of gossip) that at one point things got so out of hand that management had to send out a memo. 'It's the people from sales,' Penny tells me. 'They're disgusting.'" (p. 5.)

It continues on much in that vein for most of the rest of the book.

It wasn't uninteresting, and it was a serviceable inside look at tech companies and their economics (come up with idea, make a company, hire lots of young workers and don't pay them anything but give them perks like "sex cabins" and walls filled with candy dispensers, sell out to bigger company and make big bucks for the founders, venture capitalists, and a few lucky others who were there at the beginning). It's gross, to tell you the truth. And it's somewhat surreal when you consider that this whole book is about a company that sells marketing software (although Lyons is never really sure, it seems, what HubSpot does, or what he is doing there), with a stock price that seemed overvalued at $30 per share at their initial public offering...and now that stock is above $40. For what? Unnerving.

The biggest problem with the book is Lyons himself, who sounds throughout like a thoroughly spoiled and unlikable Baby Boomer, annoyed that he lost his posh journalism job just when he was getting older, had kids, and needed to make some real coin. I'm not going to go through and find the instances in this book where Lyons sounded distinctly whiny, borderline sexist, and unfunny (the littlest CR around here keeps pulling all the bookmarks out of books I have sitting around), but if you're interested, this is the review of this book with which I most agreed, and it lists plenty of those instances for you.

Lyons is primarily known for being the author of the satirical blog The Real Steve Jobs, and for being a writer on the HBO show "Silicon Valley." I've seen one episode of that, and it was quite funny, and another friend who works in tech informs me it's a scarily accurate how as far as the tech culture is concerned (which is, to be perfectly honest with you, I'm not going to watch any more--I just don't have the heart for it). So perhaps you might be better off binge-watching a few episodes of that, rather than having to put up with Lyons's pissy entitled tone throughout this memoir.


I won't be reading "Furiously Happy" just now.

Furiously happyAlthough, actually, I was happily surprised by Jenny Lawson's first bestselling memoir, Let's Pretend This Never Happened, and I actually like her voice.*

This one is less a memoir than a collection of essays and other writings about living with depression. This is how she herself describes the book:

"So I took to my blog and wrote a post that would change the way that I would look at life from then on:

October 2010

All things considered, the last six months have been a goddamn Victorian tragedy. Today my husband, Victor, handed me a letter informing me that another friend had unexpectedly died. You might think that this would push me over the edge into an irreversible downward spiral of Xanax and Regina Spektor songs, but no. It's not. I'm fucking done with sadness, and I don't know what's up the ass of the universe lately but I've HAD IT. I AM GOING TO BE FURIOUSLY HAPPY, OUT OF SHEER SPITE." (p. xvi.)

So this is a book about Lawson's "saying yes to anything ridiculous," all in the name of being furiously happy (and perhaps helping keep her depression and anxiety at bay**). And you know what? I salute her. I really do. I can think of worse ways to face your depression than to decide to be furiously happy. But for some reason this week I just didn't have the energy to read this book, or to feel that saying "yes" to everything is any sort of answer. Most days I just try to reach something like a low-level contentment.

Although I almost did reconsider after reading the bit below. It made me laugh out loud:

"You still have to call the vet though when your cat has eaten a toy consisting of a tinkle bell and a feather and a poof ball all tied together with twine. That actually happened once and it was really the worst because the vet told me that I'd have to ply the cat with laxatives to make the toy pass easily through and that I'd need to inspect the poop to make sure the toy passed because otherwise they'd have to do open-cat surgery. And then it finally did start to pass, but just the first part with the tinkle bell, and the cat was freaked out because he was running away from the tinkle bell hanging out of his butthole and when I called the vet he said to definitely NOT pull on the twine because it would pull out his intestines, which would be the grossest pinata ever ever, and so I just ran after the cat with some scissors to cut off the tinkle bell (which, impressively, was still tinkling after seeing things no tinkle bell should ever see). Probably the cat was running away because of the tinkle bell and because I was chasing it with scissors screaming, "LET ME HELP YOU."" (p. 9.)

*She's about a gazillion times funnier than Jen Lancaster, and I can appreciate that.

**It didn't always work, she notes, and I can appreciate the honesty of that too.


A tale of two nonfiction books: We Took to the Woods, and She Took to the Woods.

When my sister read Louise Dickinson Rich's classic We Took to the Woods, she really, really liked it. So I kept thinking, I have to read that book.*

And so I did. And it was okay. Rich is a lively writer, no doubt about it. It's a memoir about how she lived with her husband (and eventually her son, and then her daughter) in a completely isolated spot in Maine. Each chapter takes as its heading one of the many questions she'd been asked over the years: "But how do you make a living?" "Don't you ever get bored?" You get the idea. So here's how she starts out:

"During most of my adolescence--specifically, between the time when I gave up wanting to be a brakeman on a freight train and the time when I definitely decided to become an English teacher--I said, when asked what I was going to do with my life, that I was going to live alone in a cabin in the Maine woods and write. It seemed to me that this was a romantic notion, and I was insufferably smug over my own originality. Of course, I found out later that everybody is at one time or another going to do something of the sort. It's part of being young. The only difference in my case is that, grown to womanhood, I seem to be living in a cabin in the Maine woods, and I seem to be writing." p. 13.

See? Lively. And here's how she describes where she and her husband, Ralph, live:

"Middle Dam is quite a community. There is the dam itself, a part of the system for water control on the Androscoggin, with the dam-keeper and his family. Renny and Alice Miller and their three children, in year-round residence. Then in summer the hotel is open. We only call it a hotel; it's really a fishing camp. In winter it is closed, but there is a caretaker, Larry Parsons, who stays in with his wife, Al, and a hired man or two. So the permanent population of Middle Dam hovers at around nine, and that is comparative congestion. We get our mail and supplies through Middle, and it is the point of departure for The Outside, so its importance is all out of proportion to its population." (p. 16.)

I read the whole thing, but I was feeling a bit uncomfortable because I was thinking I didn't enjoy it as much as my sister did. For one thing, anyone who enjoys sidewalks and walking a few blocks down the road to the coffee shop to get a treat (and I do enjoy both those things, very much) can't really get too excited about a book where part of the chief attraction is the loneliness and wildness of the landscape. For another, I read it in January, when we were all ill with The Never-Ending Cold**, and I just don't think I could give it the attention that I should have.

But then I heard from my sister that there was also a biography about Rich available, called She Took to the Woods, and I thought, okay, let's do it. And THAT I loved. Here's how that book's author describes Rich's fateful meeting with her husband-to-be, for whom she would literally leave civilization:

"Meanwhile, on the Carry Road, Louise was finding it hard to put one foot in front of the other. With every step, she became increasingly convinced that she had just met her destiny [Ralph Rich] and was walking away from it. She felt bereft, almost frantic. Her intuition said, 'Drop the canoe and run back.' Her intellect said, 'Don't be impulsive; you know it gets you in trouble.' What to do? What to do! Just ahead, Alice's enthusiastic impressions about the encounter, the locale, and the host began to peter out. She cocked her head at Louise: 'Gosh, you're awfully quiet all of a sudden.'" (p. 29.)

What I really loved about reading these two books was how they were both good examples of their nonfiction genres (memoir/humor and biography) and how they gave completely different pictures of the same story. I don't think Rich made things up in her memoir; I think she presented them in a very specific way. For instance: at their isolated home in Maine, the Riches had a hired man/jack of all trades named Gareth. Now, the way Louise talked about him, I assumed he was some old bachelor dude that just lived with them. And then you read the biography and find out that Gareth had a family of his own, who lived elsewhere, including a grown daughter who often helped Louise look after her children.

So between the two books I had a great reading experience, not only enjoying the books themselves, but enjoying the truth that for every nonfiction story, there are at least as many truths as there are people telling the story. Awesome.

*I almost always read the books my sister talks about. Even when we disagree in our tastes it makes for great discussions. She is one of the very few people in my life with whom I always want to talk more, not less.

**Even capping it doesn't do it justice. Holy cow, was January a miserable month this year. Ye gods, THE NEVER-ENDING HORRIFYING COLD. People who don't think reading is a physical activity should try reading (and enjoying reading) while sick. It's not easy. But I try anyway.


Still a sucker for work memoirs: Steve Osborne's The Job.

Some books I'm just predisposed to like. So, even when I come across a not spectacular example of the genre, I still can't help liking it.

A case in point is Steve Osborne's The Job. I was very intrigued to see this title over at Unruly Reader's blog,* so got it right away. And it didn't really disappoint; I really like the look into others' daily routines. Sometimes, though, this author exuded a "streetwise" masculinity that wasn't really to my taste:

"I grew up in a no-nonsense blue-collar neighborhood where toughness was valued as much as, or more than, anything else. And in that neighborhood, the old man reigned as king. You either loved him or feared him, and he really didn't care which it was. He was also the neighborhood problem solver. Once some pervert had flashed one of the neighborhood teenage girls and it was brought to his attention. This was the old days, so not everything was adjudicated with an arrest. When I asked him how he handled it, the only thing he said was 'He'll never do that again.' I'm not quite sure what that meant, but the guy was never seen or heard from in my neighborhood again." (p. 3.)

Now, all of that said, if you're looking for a solid cop memoir with some unbelievable stories (keeping two suspects from stabbing each other right in front of him; buying someone he'd just arrested a hot dog; following someone into a subway tunnel without paying much attention to when the next train was coming) you will not be disappointed here.

Have a great weekend, all. And try not to do anything that will get you arrested--not every cop out there will buy you a hot dog.

*Please go read her review; it's better than this one.


Why do I keep checking out books by Heidi Julavits?

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

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

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

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

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

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


A Thousand Naked Strangers, by Kevin Hazzard.

I really enjoy doing the weekly New Nonfiction list, but it's made my TBR list so long that it is laughable.

I just finished one of the first books that really jumped out at me from one of those lists: Kevin Hazzard's A Thousand Naked Strangers: A Paramedics Wild Ride to the Edge and Back. Of course I had to get this one, as I am a total sucker for Work Memoirs of any kind*.

This one's about Hazzard's decade-long stint as a paramedic in the Atlanta area, and it's a good read. Not a great one, mind you--I've read other memoirs on similar subjects that I've enjoyed far more (Michael Perry's Population 485, about his years living in his Wisconsin hometown and working as an emergency responder, comes to mind, as does Jane Stern's Ambulance Girl: How I Saved Myself by Becoming an EMT), but this one was certainly enlightening in its own way:

"I grab the blood pressure cuff and check Mr. Perry's pressure. If he has one, I can't tell what it is. I've pushed my fingers into his neck to count his thready pulse when, without warning, he opens his mouth and shoots a geyser of dark brown blood straight up into the air.

I scream for help, but Jonathan keeps driving. There's nothing to do but roll Mr. Perry onto his side and let him soak the cabinets, the equipment, the sheets, everything, with partially digested blood. A Stephen King novel has nothing on this." (p. 44.)

And that's in his FIRST week of working. And that anecdote precedes the second one, wherein his partner in the ambulance pays a local homeless guy ten bucks to wash the ambulance down.

It occurs to me now that if you're at all squeamish, this might not be the book for you. I found it interesting, and it was quickly paced, although some of the chapters felt a bit unfinished to me. I think that's my criticism of the entire book: a vivid look behind the scenes of working in an ambulance, without much in the way of reflection or closure.

*And: the blurbs are a rich source of similar work memoirs, yay: Joe Connelly's Bringing Out the Dead, Theresa Brown's Critical Care: A New Nurse Faces Death, Life, and Everything In Between, Judy Melinek's Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner, and Julie Holland's Weekends at Bellevue: Nine Years on the Night Shift at the Psych ER.


But Enough About Me by Burt Reynolds.

Before my truly epic and unbelievably mucus-productive cold hit this January, I was able to blow through Burt Reynolds's autobiography But Enough About Me.

Why, you say? Well, why not? I'm not really any kind of Burt Reynolds fan but a. I did enjoy "Smokey and the Bandit" when I first saw it, and b. as a former film major, I've always felt a bit bad about never having watched the movie "Deliverance," which is, by all accounts, a film classic.*

And you know what? I really enjoyed it. As are most celebrity autobiographies, it was a quick read, and although you learned a bit about some of Reynolds's many friendships and relationships in the business (who knew he dated Dinah Shore, when she was in her fifties and twenty years his senior?), Reynolds and his co-writer Jon Winokur really kept everything pretty light. That said, there were a couple of anecdotes I enjoyed, like the one where he advocated for the casting of Sally Field as his love interest:

"When I told Universal that I wanted Sally Field for 'Smokey and the Bandit,' they said, 'Why would you want the goddamn Flying Nun?'

'Because she has talent,' I said.

'She isn't ready to star in a feature film, and she isn't sexy.'

'You don't understand,' I said. 'Talent is sexy.'" (p. 188.)

And although he married her, he didn't have good things to say about Loni Anderson:

"I didn't see Loni again until a few years later, at an awards gala, after Sally and I had broken up. She asked me to dance and whispered in y ear, 'I want to have your baby.'

'Right here?' I said.

'You know what I mean,' she said.

'Yeah, I know what you mean and I'm flattered, but don't you think we should find out if we like each other first?'

The truth is, I never did like her. We'd be together and she'd be gorgeous, though I always thought she wore too much makeup. It would be nice and all that, but I'd be thinking, 'This is not the person for me. What the hell am I doing with her?'" (p. 203.)

Something about that was just so funny. Like he was just powerless when big intimidating Loni Anderson came around and forced him to marry her. But anyway: I'm not sorry I read it. Particularly because after I did I got a real urge to re-watch "Smokey and the Bandit," which I did, and, since he was still up, LilCR watched it with us, a circumstance about which Mr. CR was conflicted. I said, Dear, if he remembers watching "Smokey and the Bandit" when he starts to drive, and tries to outrun cops, well, then you can yell at me. And LilCR REALLY enjoyed it. The next morning, he said, in his piping LilCR voice: "Watch. Car. Movie. Again?"**

Awesome.

*The one thing that I know about "Deliverance," as does everyone else, is that it includes the depiction of a man being raped by another man. Yeah, I just can't get myself to watch that, even if it's a small part of the picture. I can just barely read about such things, but watching them on film is one of my deal breakers.

**LilCR talks like this, like he's trying each new word for. the. first. time? Ending with the up inflection. It's like living with a diminutive and male Valley Girl.


Deanna Fei's Girl in Glass: Some good stuff here.

Girl in Glass
by Deanna FeiHardcover

Powells.com

Periodically I get emails from authors or publicists asking if I will review certain books here. I keep my review policy pretty simple: I don't accept books for review. I do this for several reasons: 1. I cannot handle the thought of more mail coming into my house that I have to open and try to organize, and 2. I really want to be free to say what I don't like about books, and I am often uncomfortable doing that when someone has sent me a free book. I also really don't like feeling like I "have" to read something, and my local public library is excellent. I never have any problem finding things I want to read and I never have any shortage of reading material.*

That paragraph got away from me a bit, but the point is, sometimes authors or their publicists contact me to read certain books, and that happened with Deanna Fei's Girl in Glass: How My "Distressed Baby" Defied the Odds, Shamed a CEO, and Taught Me the Essence of Love, Heartbreak, and Miracles. When I receive those emails I often do let the author know that I will read the book, if I can get it at the library and if I feel like it, and this was one of those books. It also got quite a bit of press attention when it was published.

And it was okay that it did; it's a fairly interesting book. The glimpse inside a natal intensive care unit, and the feeling of how utterly horrifying it must be to give birth at roughly 5-and-a-half months pregnant, makes it a worthwhile read on any level. (Although I wouldn't recommend it if you're expecting yourself, or have just had a baby and are still worrying about anything that can go horribly wrong at any second.) Sometimes it got a little melodramatic for me (the author is a graduate of the Iowa Writer' Workshop, after all), but one thing I really appreciated was the author's bravery in sharing how she often wondered if it wouldn't be better for her daughter (and easier for her) if her daughter simply didn't make it. That's a horrifying thought, but it's an honest one, and I appreciate the author's willingness to share it.

Where I feel the book struggled a bit was in organization. The first half is about the premature delivery and the author's time with her daughter in the NICU; suddenly the author shifts in tone and narrative to the story of her struggles with their health insurance and her husband's employer's (he worked for AOL and the CEO at the time was Tim Armstrong) blaming of "distressed babies" like hers for running up the costs of health care. Again, this story is told well. But the two halves of the book seemed so distinct and so different, it was like they were different books. Personally I would have preferred a bit more integration of the stories. But perhaps that's not the way it went: I can certainly picture if your baby is in the NICU, that would blot out all other concerns.

Speaking of being all over the shop, I'm sorry for the disjointed nature of this review. I'm disjointed lately. This was an interesting book; do give it a try if you can handle the sometimes gut-wrenching details of helping tiny, tiny little babies live.

*TIME to read, on the other hand, I still find distressingly hard to come by.


Labor Day Reading List: Better Late than Never

Labor Day snuck up on me this year, which is ridiculous, considering that a. Labor Day was at late as it could possibly be this year, and b. Labor Day is my favorite holiday of the year.*

In past years I have been doing some lists of great books about work. This year I thought I'd look over my last year of reading (roughly) and see if any of the books I read had anything to do with work, jobs, labor, etc. Here's what I came up with. Links go to my posts about the books, when available. Must-reads are in bold.

NONFICTION

Catherine Bailey's Black Diamonds: The Downfall of an Aristocratic Dynasty and the Fifty Years that Changed England. About coal mines, the miners, but mostly the people who once got rich off those coal mines.

Michael Gibney's Sous Chef: 24 Hours on the Line

Megan Hustad's More than Conquerors: A Memoir of Lost Arguments Hustad's parents were Christian missionaries.

Sandeep Jauhar's Doctored: The Disillusionment of an American Physician.

Michael Lewis's Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt. Book about finance and flash trading by one of my favorite authors of all time.

Judy Melinek's Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner

Mimi Pond's Over Easy. Graphic novel; waitress/artist memoir.

Ronald Rice's My Bookstore: Writers Celebrate Their Favorite Places to Browse, Read, and Shop

Brigid Schulte's Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time

Gina Sheridan's I Work at a Public Library

Victoria Sweet's God's Hotel. Doctor's memoir.

Lizz Winstead's Lizz Free or Die. Winstead is a comedian and one of the original creators of The Daily Show.

The following titles are about homemaking and parenthood, both of which certainly strike me as work.

Shannon Hayes's Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture

Wednesday Martin's Primates of Park Avenue

Jennifer Senior's All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood

FICTION

Susan Gloss's Vintage. Women's fiction about a woman who owns a vintage clothing shop.

Stuart Rojstaczer's The Mathematician's Shiva. About math, and math professors and theorists. So great. One of my favorite novels of the year.

Julie Schumacher's Dear Committee Members. About academics, written entirely in the form of recommendation letters. A great book; a million times better than I'm making it sound.

Kathryn Stockett's The Help. Oh my God, what a terrible book. Set in the American South during the 1960s; about African American women who worked as "the help" in the homes of white women. I read it when I was reading about civil rights. I was going to say something (at length) about how I thought reading this book actually made me dumber, but I won't. Oops. Just did.

Daphne Uviller's Super in the City. Chick lit set in New York City; about a woman who becomes the super of an apartment building her parents own.

Michelle Wildgen's Bread and Butter. A story of brothers, set in the restaurants they own.

Gabrielle Zevin's The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry. I was not a fan.

TERRIBLE MYSTERIES. REALLY, THEY WERE JUST AWFUL.

Cleo Coyle's On What Grounds. Mystery set in a coffee shop.

Chrystal Fiedler's Scent to Kill: A Natural Remedies Mystery. A crime-solving aromatherapist. (Really.) Honestly, I got these two titles just because I love reading about jobs, so I'm always suckered into these mystery series that focus on specific jobs, and they always turn out to be horrible.

HAPPY LABOR DAY!

*No religious ceremonies, no celebration of war, no enforced family gatherings, heralds fall (the best season of the year). The perfect holiday.


Jacob Slichter's So You Wanna Be a Rock & Roll Star: Reading that's way more fun than actually being a rock star.

For whatever reason, lately I've been rekindling my love affair with the late-90s band Semisonic.* Certain bands just hit you right at the right time in your life, and Semisonic was one of those bands for me.

So somewhere in the foggy mists of my brain I remembered that Semisonic's drummer, Jacob Slichter, actually wrote a memoir about his time with the band, titled So You Wanna Be a Rock & Roll Star. And I thought, why not? Time to read it.

And I enjoyed it so, so much.** Slichter dishes on the entire music business, from signing with a music company, to negotiating contracts, to photo sessions, to video production, to touring--really every aspect of the business you could possibly think of. This book was published in 2004 and the band did most of its recording between 1996 and 2001, so I don't know if any of the information given here is still accurate. But it was a fascinating behind-the-scenes work memoir of what turns out to be a surprisingly horrific and un-lucrative job.

Of course, this book is also a heartbreaker, because Semisonic only recorded three CDs as a band and never quite achieved the megastardom they (and all rock stars, I would guess) really dreamed about. The biggest hit they ever had, Closing Time, was really only lucrative enough to help Slichter upgrade from his old used car to a slightly newer used car. And although Slichter doesn't really focus on personal details, he does discuss how the band (and particularly its lead vocalist, Dan Wilson) dealt with adversity when Wilson's daughter was born extremely prematurely.***

There were so many enjoyable bits here. In this excerpt, Slichter betrays the frustrations of being adored by few but ignored by many:

"When nightfall brought the headline acts onto the stage, I stood in the crowd and watched. Limp Bizkit front man Fred Durst pointed across the throng. 'Link your arms together. Everyone. Link your arms. We're a big family. A big fucking family. No one can take us apart from each other, all right?' Seconds later, tens of thousands of fans unlinked their arms and pumped their fists in the air as they shouted along with Durst, 'I did it all for the nookie!'...

After the show [a different show where they played], a Japanese woman introduced herself and told us she had flown all the way from Tokyo to see us. I was starting to regard such extraordinary expressions of adoration with impatience. Why were our fans a select group of considerate and sweet people who went out of their way to see us and bring us gifts from afar? Why couldn't they be the dull-witted masses who pumped their fists and shouted, 'I did it all for the nookie'?" (pp. 271-272.)

Now, actually, that quote makes Slichter sound like something of a jerk. But he's not. I think anyone who's ever made good art that they're proud of, but would still like to make some money on it (and fails), will get what he's talking about.

I've loved a lot of bands, and I hope to love a lot more. But I don't think I will ever again love a band the way I loved Semisonic. I mean, watch this video.

Could they be any cuter? I'm so grateful to Slichter for showing me another side of their experience.

*CRjr's favorite CD is Dan Wilson's solo release, Free Life; Wilson is one of the founding members of Semisonic. In other hilarious news, if you follow that link, you'll see I talked about Wilson's music the same day I announced we were expecting CRjr. And now it's one of his favorite CDs. WEIRD.

**I also took it along on a trip to my in-laws', and it was lovely to have something good to read while there, because I couldn't sleep. That happened over last Christmas too, when I was lucky enough to have James Cain's fabulous novel Mildred Pierce to keep me company. It sucks to get two hours of sleep while dealing with small children and other family, but having a good book to get you through the lonely hours makes all the difference.

***She weighed 11 ounces at birth. Can you believe that?


Cheryl Strayed's Wild: One of the more interesting books I've hated.

So I finally got around to reading Cheryl Strayed's hugely popular memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (Vintage).

I hated it.

Every night I was reading it I would say something about what I disliked about it to Mr. CR, and every night he would say, "Then why are you still reading it? Please stop.*"

But there's the rub. I did read the whole thing. I did have a strong reaction to it throughout; mostly, dislike, but sometimes interest or understanding or even liking. If nothing else, and for lack of a better word, I had a relationship with this book.

In the book, Strayed looks back on her decision to hike the Pacific Crest Trail in the mid-1990s, when she was in her mid-twenties. The decision was motivated by her desire to change her life; in the aftermath of her mother's much too-early death from cancer, she made some poor personal choices. So off she went to be alone in the wilderness. Without, mind you, doing much in the way of preparation.

So there was my first quibble with the narrative. I actually like being outdoors, but I am not really outdoorsy and I find very little that is "redemptive" or "restorative" about natural landscapes.** I have a farm kid's understanding of (and respect for) Mother Nature: she can fuck you. You can do everything right while growing a crop, but if there's no rain or you get hail or you get flooded (or any one of a million other possibilities), you're screwed. So I've never really understood these people who find comfort in nature. Especially the way Strayed did nature: she didn't even try on her loaded backpack before she went on the trail. And I'm not the only person who was annoyed by that. I was talking with the librarian about this book, and her co-worker overheard us and interjected how much she hated this book. She hated it BECAUSE she was an outdoorsy person; she thought Strayed was unforgivably unprepared to go on a serious mountain hike, and that she had inspired other people to go when they were similarly unprepared.

But that wasn't all. I can certainly understand how losing your mother (and your best friend, which is what Strayed's mother seems to have been to her) would make you go off the deep end. But while I was reading this I also had the involuntary thought that, huh, I'd sure like to read a memoir about emotional distress where the woman doesn't turn to heroin or sex with a lot of different partners. I suppose memoirs about emotional distress where the woman turns to ice cream and wanting just to smack any potential sex partners for being different varieties of moron just don't pack the same punch.

But then? Very brief parts of the book would get past my dislike. And I'd think about them for the rest of the day. In one part of the story, Strayed hitches a ride with a woman (whose name is Lou) and two men, and learns that the woman lost her eight-year-old son in an accident a few years previously. Here's the conversation:

"She took a drag and blew the smoke out in a hard line. 'Anyway, after all that stuff about my son getting killed? After that happened, I died too. Inside." She patted her chest with the hand that held the cigarette. "I look the same, but I'm not the same in here. I mean, life goes on and all that crap, but Luke dying it took it out of me. I try not to act like it, but it did. It took the Lou out of Lou, and I ain't getting it back. You know what I mean?'

'I do,' I said, looking into her hazel eyes." (p. 186.)

I call that the paragraph that made me feel okay about reading a 315-page book I didn't particularly enjoy. And you know what? To remember that story, and to tell it in this way? I had to give Strayed some credit for that.

That is all. Have a good weekend, everyone.

*I think he meant stop reading the book, but you never know with Mr. CR. There's at least a fifty-fifty chance that what he meant was "please stop talking to me about this book."

**Unlike when I first stood on the outside observation deck of the Empire State Building and looked out at New York City. I just couldn't believe it. I looked for hours. Literally. My traveling companion was very tired of the Empire State Building by the time he finally pulled me off that observation deck.


Jonathan Kozol's The Theft of Memory: Read it.

I am a big Jonathan Kozol fan.

So when I saw he had a new memoir out, titled The Theft of Memory: Losing My Father, One Day at a Time, even if I wasn't particularly up to the subject matters of Alzheimer's, aging, and death, I thought I would read it.

And I was not disappointed. What makes this memoir of a dying parent particularly interesting is that Kozol's father was himself a well-known doctor, known for his "special gift for diagnosing interwoven elements of neurological and psychiatric illnesses in highly complicated and creative people." So, in a unique way, Harry Kozol (Jonathan's father) was able to make notes about and track his own decline. This gives the book an additional heartbreaking dimension.

Kozol also examines the many aspects of caring for aging parents, discussing his parents' changing relationships with him, with each other, their nursing home care, dealing with conflicting doctors' reports and inconsistencies, and his methods for finding in-home workers to help his parents stay in their own home until their deaths.

What I like best about Kozol's writing is that he seems to bring a crispness and attention to detail to memoir and "soft" science subjects like education and sociology that reads more like good scientific writing. (Joan Didion does this well too, I always think.) So yes. I think this was a valuable book to read. I will say that sometimes Kozol goes a bit too far off subject, discussing his father Harry's treatment of his famous patients, who included Eugene O'Neill. But those parts of the book are relatively brief (and actually, I skipped a few pages of the section on O'Neill's struggles), and the rest of the story makes it a worthwhile read. Cheerful, it's not. But a loving and detailed look at the challenges of caring for one's parents, combined with an appreciation for those parents' roles in shaping Kozol's own life? That it is.


Jared Stone's Year of the Cow: Skip it.

I'm not sure why I originally requested Jared Stone's memoir Year of the Cow: How 420 Pounds of Beef Built a Better Life for One American Family from the library. I just liked the title, I suppose.

I've been chipping away at this book for what feels like months, but I've only gotten to about page 52. The book is exactly what its title advertises: Stone buys his family a butchered beef steer, and then writes about their year eating it. My only thought after getting through those 50 pages was "Wow, we're really just writing memoirs about ANYTHING now." Along the way he throws in some history of meat animals and cooking; some family vignettes from his busy Los Angeles existence; and some recipes, but at the end of the day? It's a whole memoir about buying a lot of beef and eating it.

I've seen this done in similar ways, but better, and mostly by Steven Rinella (author of The Scavenger's Guide to Haute Cuisine: How I Spent a Year in the American Wild to Re-Create a Feast from the Classic Recipes of French Master Chef Au and Meat Eater: Adventures from the Life of an American Hunter).

Here's your sample, so you can decide for yourself. This is the beginning of chapter 1:

"One cow is approximately one Prius-full of meat.

This is the latest fact I've learned in the past twenty-four hours. It's also the most pressing, as the aforementioned cow has been frozen, packed into eight neat boxes, and stacked into the back of my jet-black Prius. I'm behind the wheel, hell-bent for leather, racing against the cold pouring off the boxes in palpable waves. Due south. Los Angeles by sundown." (p. 7.)


Cole Cohen's Head Case: Oh my God, read it.

Next up in our week of teeny-tiny reviews: Cole Cohen's memoir Head Case: My Brain and Other Wonders.

Oh my God, you just have to read this book. Do I really have to say anything else in this review other than it's a memoir about a woman who, when she was in her twenties, was diagnosed with a HOLE THE SIZE OF A LEMON in her brain?

Just in case I do: This book is a valuable look at a person who struggled with any number of "learning disorder" diagnoses, so if you know anyone going through that sort of thing, it can be a poignant read. It's an interesting look at our health care system, and not only how we as patients hope to be treated, but also our expectations and hopes once given a diagnosis, and what it means when the comfort of having a diagnosis pales before the realization that there is not much to do with the diagnosis. It's a great coming-of-age story of a person coming to terms with her education, her parents, her relationships, and many other issues, all complicated by physical challenges.

It's not a perfect book; I can see where the organization might confuse some readers (it jumps around in time a bit), unless you are reading carefully, but it's only 221 pages long. Read it.

Here's a sample, if you still need convincing:

"I grew up during the height of the learning disability fad, the early 1990s, when ADD was on the cover of Time magazine and lunch hour at middle school brought a buyer's market for prescription Ritalin, often crushed and sniffed with a juice straw cut down to size in the girls' bathroom. Everyone was learning disabled; it's a wonder that administrators didn't just throw up their hands and shut down the public schools to let the kids roam the country with their freshly minted drivers' permits, hopped up on prescription speed and dangerously deficient of any knowledge of basic algebra." (p. 28.)

Read it. Read read read it.


Wednesday Martin's Primates of Park Avenue: Skip it.

I wasn't all that bothered by all of the media pieces accusing Wednesday Martin of playing fast and loose with her facts in her bestselling memoir Primates of Park Avenue: A Memoir. I was more bothered by the fact that it just wasn't that interesting.

Perhaps it's just a subject-matter problem. How interesting can you make stories of parenting and living among extreme wealth on Manhattan's Upper East Side? Doesn't anyone with a TV or any basic cultural knowledge about New York City (or even just extremely wealthy people) know that Alpha Moms and Dads with a lot of money compete viciously among themselves for places for their children in the right preschools and schools, not to mention living in the "right" door-manned buildings and carrying the right Birkin bags? Martin tries to give an anthropological spin to this memoir--throwing in Anthropology Lite tidbits here and there to explain dominance behavior like other women aggressively "charging" her on the sidewalk, or the dangers of "going native"--but nothing is noted, footnoted, or really explored in any real in-depth way to make that tactic any more than a gimmick to sell this book.

The book did periodically give me a chuckle (but not really for the right reasons); I enjoyed this quote, when Martin is talking about trying to sell their townhouse downtown: "I was forever making it look pristine and then rushing out the door so a broker and client could "view" it." (p. 25.)

Now I don't know if we should blame Martin or her editor for that one, but all I could think was, come on, Wednesday. We sell houses in the Midwest too; you don't really have to put "view" in quotes for us.

In one of the final chapters, Martin actually does do some poignant writing about losing a baby while in her second (nearing her third) trimester, and nobody who has ever had a baby or lost a baby will be unaffected by it. But even then she reminds you that the problems of the rich are entirely different from those of the not rich:

"She [the expected third child that they lost] was a burden, in a way, this baby, taxing our space and stealing the older one's crib and requiring private school and college tuition and a renovation and four or five more years of a full-time nanny." (p. 207.)

I'm sorry for her loss, but those aren't really worries [oh, those full-time nannies, they really do cost!] to which I can relate. Skip this one.


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

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

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

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

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

And she concludes that story with:

"And I never criticized my body ever again.

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

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

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


Spinster, by Kate Bolick: Interesting, but depressing in the end?

Now, I don't at all mean that Kate Bolick's new book Spinster* is depressing in the end because Bolick currently remains a "spinster." I'll explain in a minute.

Bolick's a writer and journalist (and contributing editor at The Atlantic) who mixes memoir and literary criticism in this book about the experience of forging a life as a single woman. In addition to exploring her own romantic past (which is anything but dull; Bolick is not a "spinster" who dislikes being with anyone), she also explores her relationships (for lack of a better word) with several women writers who she calls her "awakeners": Maeve Brennan, Neith Boyce, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Edith Wharton, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

Of course not all those women were unmarried. But Bolick does a sound job of looking at how their independence informed their writing, and how their relationships (with everyone; not just their spouses) informed their independence. In fact, although I am a somewhat lazy reader (often preferring the personal, or memoir, accounts, to literary criticism of any kind) I found that her narrative didn't really hit its swing until she focused less on her youth and love affairs and more on her "awakeners" and their writing.

I'm doing a terrible job writing this review. I know it, and as I told Mr. CR the other day, I find it so much harder to write reviews than I used to. Of course this is due partially to the fact that when I started this blog I was married but did not have children. Before we had kids I worked outside of the home, and I have always freelanced, so I am no stranger to having my attention pulled in many directions. But something about trying to keep up with the house, the marriage, the kids, the freelancing, and the reading and having semi-coherent thoughts is really wearing me down lately. And although I love and am so thankful for my life, I can't say there won't always be a part of me that wonders how life would have been if I'd concentrated on enjoying being single, found a nice tiny apartment with hardwood floors, and always stuck with a kitty as my live-in companion.

So I was a bit of a sucker for this book, I'll admit it. I didn't love it, but I found it thoughtful and well-written, and I appreciated reading anyone's take on the subject. I think it would make a good book group title, to be honest with you. Here's how it starts:

"Whom to marry, and when will it happen--these two questions define every woman's existence, regardless of where she was raised or what religion she does or doesn't practice. She may grow up to love women instead of men, or to decide she simply doesn't believe in marriage. No matter. These dual contingencies govern her until they're answered, even if the answers are nobody and never.

Men have their own problems; this isn't one of them." (pp. 1-2.)

So why did I finish the book depressed? Well, it was a good read. But near the end of the book Bolick posits:

"The question now is something else entirely: Are women people yet? By which I mean: Are we finally ready for a young woman to set out on the long road of her life as a human being who inhabits but isn't limited by her gender?...Until the answer is an undeniable yes, a girl actually can't grow up like a boy, free to consider the long scope of her life as her own distinct self." (p. 293.)

And that's the part that bothers me. Why must being independent always look or sound more like being...a man? I find that depressing.

Also: this is a small complaint, but I don't care for the cover. You? I think it is a photo of the author, and it's actually kind of an arresting cover, but I don't like her looking down and away.

*This has nothing to do with the review, but I really need to start a better book journal or make a note on my reading spreadsheet about how I find books. The problem is that books come out, they get a lot of press, I put them on hold at the library, they come in for me about two months later, and by then I've forgotten where I first heard about them or what I heard. Anyway. That is not really that important. But that definitely happened with this book. I know I read an article about it somewhere that made me want to read it, but I can't remember which article it was.


Brian Grazer's A Curious Mind: Disappointing.

I so badly wanted to like Brian Grazer's book A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life.

I don't actually know anything about Brian Grazer (beyond the facts that he is a Hollywood movie producer with big hair who runs Imagine Entertainment with Ron Howard), but this book got a lot of good press and it's based on a rather engaging idea. Grazer has spent much of his adult life engaged in what he calls "curiosity conversations," whereby he just tries to get some time with interesting and/or famous people, and have a chat. About nothing really in particular.

And I loved the first chapter, when Grazer is explaining his idea, and how he got started in work and with this curiosity habit. Very engaging stuff:

"One Thursday afternoon, the summer after I graduated from the University of Southern California (USC), I was sitting in my apartment in Santa Monica with the windows open, thinking about how to get some work until I started law school at USC in the fall.

Suddenly, through the windows, I overheard two guys talking just outside. One said, 'Oh my God, I had the cushiest job at Warner Bros. I got paid for eight hours of work every day, and it was usually just an hour.'

This guy got my attention. I opened the window a little more so I wouldn't miss the rest of the conversation, and I quietly closed the curtain.

The guy went on to say he had been a legal clerk. 'I just quit today. My boss was a man named Peter Knecht.'

I was amazed. Sounded perfect to me.

I went right to the telephone, dialed 411, and asked for the main number at Warner Bros.--I still remember it, 954-6000.

I called the number and asked for Peter Knecht. An assistant in his office answered, and I said to her, 'I'm going to USC law school in the fall, and I'd like to meet with Mr. Knecht about the law clerk job that's open." (p. 2.)

Now that's hilarious. That story is proof that the meek will not inherit the earth, at least not while we're on the earth. I enjoyed the story even more as Grazer talks about how he parlayed it into meeting famous people; the largest part of the job was basically ferrying legal paperwork around, so when he had to deliver papers to people he wanted to meet, like Warren Beatty, he just told their assistants that he had to hand the legal papers to them personally. I just laughed and laughed at the sheer clever ballsiness of this guy. So I was more than ready to continue on the curiosity journey with him.

How disappointing, then, that the rest of the book, ostensibly focusing on the conversations Grazer has had with people over the years*, read more like a business book treatise (and not a particularly compellingly written treatise at that) on the merits of having curiosity. I skimmed through most of the book, but mainly I ended up feeling like the victim of a massive bait-and-switch: Grazer would tease with the name/s of people he spoke with, but he never really shared any concrete details of their conversations. Instead he veers off into a lot of this sort of thing:

"Unlike creativity and innovation, though, curiosity is by its nature more accessible, more democratic, easier to see, and also easier to do." (p. 61.)

Blah blah blah, whatever. Yeah, curiosity is great. I get it. It's not a complicated concept. Now would you just tell me what you and Rufus Wainwright TALKED ABOUT??**

*And he's talked to a LOT of interesting people; he lists his conversational partners at the end of the book, and they include (but are not limited to): Muhammad Ali, Isaac Asimov, Tyra Banks, Jeff Bezos, Vincent Bugliosi, Jim Cramer, Mario Cuomo, David Hockney, Chris Isaak, Wolfgang Puck...

**When I saw Rufus Wainwright on his list of people, I got super excited (because I read the list before reading the book), thinking I would get to hear about his conversation with Wainwright. (Oh, Rufus.) Alas, I found that the book contains only the briefest of anecdotes about his discussions with just a very select few of his interviewees.


One marriage, one family, two books.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


No, thank you.

Yes Please
by Amy Poehler
Powells.com

I'm going to go ahead and file Amy Poehler's memoir Yes, Please, under the "Largely Forgettable Nonfiction" heading.

On the one hand, it was a pretty serviceable comedian's memoir. I've never found Amy Poehler hilarious, but I've also never found her as annoying as Tina Fey. On the other hand, I've read most of it, and even looking at it now, there's very little about it I can remember.

I did have one laugh-out-loud moment: I found Poehler at her best in her chapter about her divorce from Will Arnett, when she lists all the books she wants to write about divorce. One will be titled:

"I Want a Divorce! See You Tomorrow! If you have small children you will understand this book. This book deals with the fact that most people who divorce with small children still need to see each other every day...Chapters include: Fake Smiling, How Important is the Last Word?, Phone Calls on the Way Home from Therapy, and Everyone Needs to Stop Buying Toys." (p. 88.)

Now that's good writing. So yeah, there's moments. I just don't know if they're worth 327 pages to get there (unless you're a huge, huge fan of Parks and Recreation--then it's probably worth it no matter what).