Relationships

Sometimes you're just in the mood: What My Mother and I Don't Talk About.

I've never actually given my relationship with my mother a lot of thought. We were always really close and worked together in a family business and share a lot of the same opinions, so for me it's been a good relationship. When I first went to college I was really homesick for home and for her; I've kept some cards she sent me while I was a couple of hours away and they still make me laugh and tear up a little when I read them. They're not sappy or anything, they're just pure mom. She's kind of a stoic and could never really write I love you or I miss you but I know that she did. On one card she drew a little unhappy face with tears, with this written next to it: "I do this a lot."

But she is aging and I am aging. For my sisters and I, now in our forties and fifties, it seems just a bit like we are having a somewhat-delayed (thirty or forty years delayed; just somewhat) adolescent-hood. As Mom's needs change (and they have, particularly since my Dad died), we are experiencing some difficulties getting along with one another. It's all fine; it's growing pains. But it has been an eye-opening process.

All of which is a very long-winded introduction to the subject of how much I am enjoying the essay collection What My Mother and I Don't Talk About: Fifteen Writers Break the Silence, edited by Michele Filgate (who is also the author of the essay of that title). Just a few years ago I probably would not have been in the right place to read this book. But now I am, and it's knocking me over. The essays are good, and they're just (almost unbearably) honest and (often) sad. But there is a strength in them, and in the writers, and in the humbling realization that we are all human and it is hard to get along, even where there is love. I continue to learn this lesson over and over, just of late. How hard it is to get along even with those you love the most. Reading a book like this makes me look at people and the human condition and just be awestruck, over and over again, that so many people get up out of bed and face each day. To do what humans do--go out and face life every day, over and over and over--with all our weaknesses?* It's incredible.

Anyway. I'm explaining it badly. But it's a good book and an interesting collection and even if you don't have any issues with your mom, you may want to check it out. I'll leave you with one of my favorite paragraphs, from the essay "Thesmophoria," by Melissa Febos:

"There is a difference between the fear of upsetting someone who loves you and the danger of losing them. For a long time, I couldn't separate them. It has taken me some work to discern the difference between the pain of hurting those I love and my fear of what I might lose. Hurting those we love is survivable. It is inevitable. I wish that I could have done less of it. But no matter how much of it I did, I would never have lost her." (p. 56.)

*And constant freaking snow and unrelenting record-setting cold in November? As if it wasn't hard enough to get up and go about your day?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Nothing I'm reading is sticking in my brain.

You ever had this problem?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Well played, 2019.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Men and their heys.

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

Men and their heys.*

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

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


John Hodgman's Vacationland.

Here's my one-line review of John Hodgman's Vacationland: True Stories from Painful Beaches: I read the whole thing, although I'm still not sure why.

VacationlandOkay, I can give you a bit more information. This is a collection of essays by Hodgman, most known for his spots on The Daily Show and his appearance as the "PC" in the very popular Apple ads from a few years back. I suppose this collection would be called humor, although it mixes humor with enough midlife ennui that while some of it makes me (a fellow midlifer) chuckle, some of it also makes me whimper with both recognition and sadness.

As far as I can tell these seem to be the hallmarks of midlife: short bits of very rueful, very hilarious laughter, mixed with lots of whimpering and sadness.

Ostensibly this collection is about Hodgman's two vacation homes (that's right, two--although he admits his family can't really afford to continue ownership of both houses, you can see why one of his friends refers to his stand-up as "the white privilege comedy of John Hodgman") in western Massachusetts and Maine. Really it's about parents, kids, marriage, the challenges of maintaining physical homes, aging, and making your way through the world as a white man who's been on The Daily Show. It was okay, but it's run through my mind like the sands through an hourglass. Wait...I think I can remember something...the chapter on how Hodgman and his wife backed up their garbage disposal and entire septic system made me laugh very hard. Here's what happened after they inherited the western Massachusetts vacation house from Hodgman's mother, and found a bunch of expired food items they wanted to get rid of, but didn't want to haul to the dump, because there is no trash pickup in western Massachusetts:

"My wife wanted to lay claim to this house and clear all this dead food out, and her plan was to disposal every last bit of it. She started opening and grinding, opening and grinding: cans of Stewart's shelled beans and jars of old pickles and capers. It went on for hours. It was a hot Saturday afternoon. I sat at the kitchen table, watching her sweat and open and grind. It was probably the most erotic moment of our marriage.

Eventually she found her way to the back of the cupboard. She dislodged three boxes of Cheerios, yellow and blue. They were five years old. She showed them to me.

'What are you going to do with that, baby?' I said.

'I'm going to disposal all of this,' she said.

'That's fucking right you are,' I said.

She did. It was a terrible idea. Here is some homeowner's advice. Do not put even a single box of stale Cheerios down the garbage disposal, never mind three. Because when you grind up Cheerios into oat powder and shove them into your pipes with a bunch of water behind them, the Cheerios do not slide easily through your pipes to the leach field (maybe?). They absorb the water and swell up. And then you have a Cheerio tumor in your pipes. And then you have to explain that tumor to the plumber you have had to call to cut it out. He will stand in the basement with his hacksaw, tapping at the Cheerio metastasis, the pipe making a solid, grim thunk.

He will look at you and say, 'How did this happen?'

And you will have to say, 'I'm sorry, Pipe Daddy. We were just having a sexy disposal time.'" (pp. 117-118.)

So yes, his white privilege comedy can be funny, particularly as I am a privileged white female.* Mainly I enjoyed that because I have done many idiot things in my house too, but even I know to treat my garbage disposal and my pipes with respect. (Ask Mr. CR. If he ever approaches the sink with anything I screech, "Don't use the disposal! It's for appearances only! Our pipes are not up to code!!")

*By which I mean I have always had enough food and shelter and I am thankful for those things. I do not usually call myself a product of white privilege, though, because if you saw my farm upbringing and how many hours I've spent in my life doing shit jobs (literally: including cleaning the bathrooms at multiple restaurants and stores in the area), you probably wouldn't call it privileged. Hodgman went to Yale without loans or financial aid. So there's privilege, and there's privilege. And Hodgman is a lot less privileged than a lot of Bushes, Trumps, and Zuckerbergs I could name (who are not funny, so they don't even offer that). I don't mind our culture's conversations about privilege but I wish we would approach the subject with just a tad more nuance.


First great read of the new year: Prairie Fires.

I actually read my first great book of 2018 in December of 2017. Let's apply a phrase I believe in and use a lot: "Close enough for guvmint work."*

Prairie firesThe book in question was Caroline Fraser's Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, and WOW, was it fantastic.

It is, of course, basically a biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, whose Little House books continue to loom large in our reading and pop culture. And WHAT a biography. Fraser covers not only the woman's life, but also how her books (largely presented as factual, or autobiographical) were actually very careful amalgamations of fact and fiction and personal philosophies (both Wilder's and her daughter's).

Perhaps the best thing about this book is that it is actually a dual biography: not only are the details of Wilder's life explored, so are the details of her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane's, work and life and loves. And what lives they were. The more I read details of how hard life was on the frontier, trying to build your own house and grow your own crops and stay safe from numerous prairie blizzards, the more I am stunned by how easy life is now. Here I sit in the arctic blast, anxiously listening to my furnace and hoping it continues to kick in. I can't imagine huddling in my little sod or wood homestead, depending on wood I had to cut myself or hay I had to twist myself just to try and keep warm enough to survive. It boggles the mind.

When I first started reading the book, I thought it was a little dry, because when I read biographies I pretty much want all the gritty details. (My main question, of course, involves procreation and parenting, because those are always the details I am interested in: why did Wilder, when she had her first baby in her late teens and her second baby--who, tragically, died shortly after birth--shortly thereafter, never have any more? What was her marriage to Almanzo Wilder really like?) But then I realized Fraser wasn't really holding back, she was just sticking to the facts she knew, which was tricky enough, considering that most of the details about Wilder's life comes from her books, and her books are not actually 100% true nonfiction. And by the time I was done with the whole book, which is excellent and wide-ranging and both clear-eyed and sympathetic, I found that I really had all the details about Laura's, her family's, Almanzo's, and Rose's lives that I needed.

I also had a healthy new appreciation for how great it is to live in this time and place. I spent the next few weeks after reading this book telling the CRjrs, when they went to the bathroom, "Imagine having to go outside to go to the bathroom, to a little wood shack with a hole in a plank. Imagine having to clean that poop pit out yourselves. In this cold weather!" And they both looked at me like I was crazy, but then asked more questions about that whole deal. Because both my own parents used outhouses in their very early years, I was also able to make it personal. "When Grandpa was your age he had to go outside to poop! And go out to care for their animals on these subzero mornings! And grow a lot of his own food!" I probably bored them to death but I certainly reminded myself that my life, filled as it is with indoor plumbing and access to antibiotics, is truly something to be thankful for. Not a bad way to start 2018, actually.

Do read this book. It needs more pictures and it slightly drags in parts but overall--a fantastic and important read.

*A corollary to my overall life motto, as noted earlier, of "Fuck it. Close enough."


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.


Matthew Klam's novel "Who Is Rich?"

Okay, I need some help from you. The next time you see me reference a novel, by a man, that reviewers say does a good job of portraying women, you have to politely remind me NOT TO READ IT, FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT'S HOLY.

Who is richSo all summer I saw positive reviews for Matthew Klam's new novel Who Is Rich? And once again, just as I did for Nickolas Butler's appalling novel Shotgun Lovesongs, I fell for it. Why, I don't know. Am I this needy for a male author who writes literary fiction who a) doesn't lovingly detail masturbation (I'm looking at you, Sam Lipsyte) and b) seems like he might actually like women and want to portray them as actual people? Well, yes, I am.

But I'm going to get over it now. That's where you come in, what with the telling me not to read literary fiction by men anymore.

Here's the story: Forty-something cartoonist/magazine illustrator Rich Fischer leaves his wife and two young children every year to teach at an arts conference. He's in his midlife crisis, of course: he's struggling a bit in his marriage, he's sleep-deprived because he's got young kids, the buzz surrounding his published memoir/graphic novel/comic is long gone and he feels like a has-been at the conference. But this year, he has the anticipation of continuing an affair with one of the conference's students (that began the previous year), a married mother of three who despises her rich husband and yet seems fully at home in her one-percenter lifestyle and philanthropic activities. What's a poor schlub who loves his wife and kids and yet really wants to bang another woman supposed to do?

And that's it. That's literally it. It goes on for 300 pages like that, and yes, I read the whole thing, because I am an idiot, and at first I thought it might get better, and then I just couldn't believe that nothing else was going to happen.* And yes, I did try to skip to the end and just get some closure, but because this is literary fiction, there really wasn't any closure.

I don't want to be too hard on this guy. For one thing, it took him fifteen years to produce this book after getting a lot of press for his first book, so that must have been a bit nerve-wracking. For another, I really had no business reading this book, and I certainly shouldn't have stuck with it as long as I did. (I shouldn't even have started: with blurbs from Curtis Sittenfeld and Lorrie Moore, two of my least favorite female authors ever, I should have known to run screaming.)

As Albert Brooks once said in Broadcast News, I grant you everything. But GIVE ME THIS: stop referring to women characters who exist only as the wronged (or harpy) wife or the new fuck interest as "fully realized, whole, equals." That one's on you, reviewers, not the author.

So anyway. Here's your flavor of the book, just so you can see what I had to put up with:

"It seemed the parts of us were smarter than the whole. Or dumber, much dumber. I felt sorry for those parts, worn and red and working away down there when all we wanted was to cry. I was sad, patient, and careful with her, but very connected, impossibly close, and as I got closer I could hear her breathing with me. This was undeniably an activity in which we both excelled. We came at the same moment, kablammo, which of course I'd read about in dirty magazines as a youth, and had imagined but never in my life experienced until that instant." (pp. 213-214.)

I don't care if it's meant to be funny, or ironic, or what one of the reviewers called writing sex with "such verisimilitude you might think you've slept with him." I think it should be nominated for the Bad Sex in Fiction Award for 2017, myself.

We're done here. But you won't forget your help, will you? Please knock the next novel of this kind out of my hands. Thank you.

*If anyone ever tells me, again, that "nothing really happens" in Anne Tyler novels, I am going to punish them by suggesting they read this novel right away.


David Shields's "Other People: Takes and Mistakes."

You know, a lot of times I'll read a book, and then it just sits around my house for a while until I can figure out what to say about it.

Lately I find that I've left some books go so long that I actually forget what it was I wanted to say about them, or even (gasp) really how I felt about them. In addition to various eye issues and other aging body wonkiness, this a sure sign that I am getting old (or that I am getting old and have two young children, meaning I haven't been able to finish a thought in..."MOM! Can I get a drink?!?!?"...wait, what was I saying?). Oh yeah. Getting old, and distracted. I used to remember everything about the nonfiction I read, and how I felt about it (my recall was never as total for fiction, because I just read fiction too fast). Now I'm lucky if I can remember broad outlines and any strong emotions a book inspires in me.

And so it is with David Shields's essay collection Other People: Takes & Mistakes. I read this book more than two months ago now, and it is time to take it back to the library. Now, because I do not have the wherewithal tonight to formulate in my own words what this book is about, I'm going to crib from the jacket copy:

"an intellectually thrilling and emotionally wrenching investigation of otherness: the need for one person to understand another person completely, the impossibility of any such knowing, and the erotics of this separation...

David Shields gives us a book that is something of a revelation: seventy-plus essays, written over the last thirty-five years, substantially reconceived, recombined, and rewritten to form neither a miscellany nor a memoir but a sustained meditation on otherness."

So there's that. What follows next is a transcript of my thoughts, as near as I can remember them, when I first read this book.

Why am I reading another David Shields? I don't like him.

Do I not like his writing, or do I not like him?

Do I always check out his books just because I'm dying to figure out, once and for all, what it is about him that bugs the shit out of me?

But I never figure it out. Why do I keep trying? Nothing he writes is so interesting that I need to go out of my way to find him if I'm not enjoying it.

So, Shields, you open your book with a section on "Men," which contains five loving essays to and about your dad, a hero-worship piece about your big brother and another one about one of your male creative writing teachers. Your section on "Women" contains pieces on: a female octopus and the genetic imperative for the herd to protect its most fertile females; an interview between Diane Sawyer and a woman in a halfway house who abused her children but wants to get them back; his childhood friend telling him he could hear [Shields's] parents having sex during a sleepover (they weren't); how his journalist mother edited one of his articles (and did not make him happy doing so); a woman whose personal journal he read while he was dating her; and three pieces about "desire" (among, to be fair, several others; he does not stint on quantity in the "Women" section of the book).

Huh.

I don't like something about the way this guy writes about men and women and family members and friends and former lovers but I still can't put my finger on it.

The section on "Athletes" contains an eight-page essay that is nothing but sports phrases like "We just couldn't execute. We weren't able to sustain anything." etc. And this is an "emotionally wrenching" investigation of anything? (See jacket copy, above.)

Who buys David Shields? Why does he get a collection of his old essays put out in hardcover for nearly thirty bucks?

I don't get it. And I'm clearly never going to. And that is all, until David Shields comes out with another book and I will have to go through this process all over again. Do you have any authors like this? Authors you read, for lack of a better phrase, out of spite?


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.)


Sally Bedell Smith's Prince Charles.

Let's be honest. Nobody thought that a biography of Britain's Prince Charles was going to be the most scintillating book on the planet, did they?

Prince charlesSally Bedell Smith may not have chosen the liveliest subject for her biography Prince Charles: The Passions and Paradoxes of an Improbable Life, but she has written a lively biography nonetheless. I don't usually pay a whole lot of attention to the subtitles of biographies, but in this case, I think she's got it about right. Although part of a family known for its stiff reserve and formality, Charles, the Prince of Wales, does indeed seem to have many passions in his life: Camilla Parker Bowles, perhaps, foremost, but also tradition, the environment, and spirituality. Likewise, "paradoxes" is a fair word choice for the duties governing him. Just think about waiting for your "real" career to start as you age into your 70s.

Smith is no stranger to writing biographies about the royal family (her earlier books include Diana in Search of Herself, about Princess Diana, and Elizabeth the Queen, which I've also read, about England's current monarch Elizabeth II), and she is also a former journalist. Her writing's a bit journalistic/gossipy at times:

"Patrick Beresford, a friend for some fifty years, said that whenever Camilla walked in the room, 'your spirits rise, because you know you are going to have a laugh.' For a young prince with downbeat tendencies, that sort of personality was catnip." (p. 67.)

But in all she does a good job of relating the details of Prince Charles's life, and she does it in efficient fashion. This book is 500 pages long, but it only took me a few days to read, and that's largely due to Smith's straightforward expository style, short chapters, and copious quotes from interviews that she did with friends, family members, and former staff members of the royal household.

This review is feeling fairly dry but I can't seem to help it. I enjoyed this book, and I enjoyed learning a little bit more about Charles, but, at the end of the day, he's still a bit of a challenging man to really enjoy spending much time with. By all accounts he feels his beliefs strongly and he's not afraid to let them be known, so that makes me like him. All the same, he also seems to have a self-pitying streak a mile wide, although for that, again, I can't really blame him. His childhood and schooling don't really sound like they were much fun, and just imagine having a telephone call of yours taped in which you confessing to simply wanting to live within your lover's trousers forever (perhaps as her tampon). Having that sort of story blown all over the news might make one, I assume, a bit prickly about ever letting the press know any of your personal details again.

It's a good book. But unless you're a hardcore British royal family fan or Anglophile*, there probably isn't much in it for you. Oh! Except a ton of pictures. Good on Random House for publishing this book complete with two stand-alone color photo sections, plus a photo at the head of every new chapter. Nicely done, Random House. I require my biographies to contain lots of pictures.

*I'm guilty on both counts!


A tale of two novels.

Swimming lessonsI got and read Claire Fuller's novel Swimming Lessons because somewhere I read that it was a good book about a marriage (or, as the jacket copy promises, it explores "the mysterious truths of a passionate and troubled marriage"). I have been burned by this interest before, but I almost always look at novels and nonfiction that are primarily about marriage.

And it was okay. I read the whole thing, and I wondered vaguely about the lives of the characters, but when I finished it I didn't have a real strong feeling about it one way or the other. At points I was unsure what had happened, or what the author meant by some things, and, as I told Mr. CR, "You know, in all of modern literary fiction lately I feel like I am just guessing at what happened or what the author meant." And I do not like that feeling. Sure, I'm a lazy reader, but sometimes I just like to feel like I get the whole story the author is telling.

I was almost off of novels for a while, but then I remembered that I had Jami Attenberg's new novel All Grown Up home from the library. I almost took it back sight unseen, but then I remembered my reading experience that had been her earlier novel, The Middlesteins. I read it during one of my non-blogging periods, but I should have written about it later: I loved it.

So I read the first fifty pages or so of All Grown Up, and I was confused a bit by who was talking and who the names at the heads of the chapters were referring to (see earlier: I am a lazy reader), and I thought, well, it's no The Middlesteins. But I felt I owed it to Jami Attenberg to stick with it.

All grown upAnd somewhere in the middle it did two things: First, it kicked me in the heart. Then, it made me do that thing I do where I don't really sob, but I pause from the text and I put my hand to my face and I look around a bit and I try not to cry.

Look, it's not a big profound novel about love.* It doesn't particularly reveal any truths, passionate or otherwise. But, goddamnit, do I love Jami Attenberg's characters. They're nothing like me, particularly her main female characters, and yet I LOVE them. I love their voices, which sometimes say such simple and heartbreaking things. Because you know what? Life is kind of heartbreaking in its simplicity. It is hard to get along with people. It is hard to care for people with sicknesses. It is hard to not know what you want and have weaknesses and it is very, very hard to get old. It is hard, in short, to be all grown up.

Just read it, okay? How can you not like a main character like Andrea Bern, who has a number of (arguably) unhealthy relationships with men, and yet can say things like this after a tryst with a lover:

"That was two years ago. I haven't seen Alex since, though sometimes we text, and once he asked me to send him a naked picture, and I laughed and laughed, so for that I thank him, because who doesn't need a good laugh? (p. 51.)

Because yes, that should be the response of all women when asked to send a man a naked picture. Laughter.

And here she is, conversing with her therapist:

"ME: My mother is leaving me and moving to New Hampshire.

THERAPIST: And how does that make you feel?

ME: It makes me feel like she doesn't love me.

THERAPIST: Hasn't she proved to you she loves you already?

ME: How?

THERAPIST: By caring for you, nurturing you, supporting you, raising you to be the person you are today.

ME: All of that comprises a rational argument but can I just ask you a question?

THERAPIST: Sure.

ME: Whose side are you on, anyway?" (p. 65.)

So: a tale of two novels. The first made me say "meh" and the second made me re-start it all over again when I had just finished it, and I NEVER do that. Go read something, anything, by Jami Attenberg. Okay? Okay.

*And it's not perfect, but mostly its flaws are tiny and forgivable. Its cover, though, which looks like Chick Lit Covers 101? I hate the cover.


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.


Victoria the Queen.

I really loved the historical biography Victoria the Queen: An Intimate Biography of the Woman Who Ruled an Empire, by Julia Baird.

Victoria the queenIt was the perfect mix of detail and good writing, and Baird did a nice job of touching upon all aspects of Queen Victoria's life, including her relationships with the many Prime Ministers she worked with over her long life; her relationships with Albert, her husband, and their nine children; and her ruling style, opinions, and personal traits. Baird also does a nice job of placing Victoria's reign and Great Britain's influence in the nineteenth century in the broader context of world events. And she does it all in...let me look it up...752 pages?!?

Holy cow. This book read so fast that I really thought it was a lot shorter than that. Rest assured: a good chunk of that total is index and endnotes. And there's a lot of pictures spread through the book too. It was a great read; if you're at all interested in British history you should pick it up. (Particularly if you're watching the period drama Victoria on PBS that's running right now; if you read this, you can feel superior about all the historical details with which the BBC/PBS is playing a little fast and loose).

Just to give you a taste of the text, and for Victoria herself:

"What is most striking about Victoria is that apart from wanting to be taller and thinner, she cared little about her appearance. She knew she was  no beauty and did not dwell on it. She joked about her looks with her half sister, writing that she was 'very happy to hear that the portrait of my ugly face pleased you.' Yet she genuinely took pleasure from the aesthetic appearance of others--both male and female. Her second cousin Charles, the Duke of Brunswick, particularly fascinated her, with his dark mustache and the fur-trimmed coat he wore riding. She greatly admired the way he did his hair, which hung 'wildly about his face.'" p. 43.


Frank: The Voice, and Sinatra: The Chairman--My first big reading experience of 2017.

My reading year 2017 started off with an intense biography experience.

It should also be noted that my first worthwhile reading experience of 2017 actually started in 2016. For some time I had been aware of James Kaplan's definitive two-volume biography of Frank Sinatra, but hadn't yet had the time to tackle either or both books. However, every year we go to my in-laws' house sometime during the Christmas holiday and stay an overnight, and I can never sleep at my in-laws'. They're lovely people, they always welcome us, we get our own room with the boys, and in general it's a pleasant experience. It never matters. Usually I drop off around 4 a.m. and wake up again at 7 a.m. when the boys start stirring. So in recent holidays I have wised up and started taking along books that I know will either require some time or which I anticipate to be lovely reading experiences that I want to savor.* When you're up reading at 2 a.m, wherever you are, you generally are in search of something engrossing, I find. So this year I thought: I'm going to take the first volume in the Sinatra series, Frank: The Voice!

Frank the voiceAnd it was a good choice. Clocking in at 718 pages, this was definitely one that was going to take some time. I started it a bit before Christmas, read a huge chunk of it on Christmas night from midnight to 4 a.m., and then finished it up during the week after New Year's Day. I could put it down, because sometimes when you're dealing with a big brick of a biography like that, you have to put it down, but I was also dedicated to picking it back up and finishing it.

Regardless of how you feel about Sinatra, I must say that there have probably been few entertainers who merit a biography to the tune of 1500 combined pages (which this volume, along with Kaplan's sequel, Sinatra: The Chairman, totals), and Frank Sinatra is totally one of them. In addition to the unbelievable and dominating musical career, you have several other aspects to consider: his personal life, which was complex and filled with first a domineering mother, and then a variety of wives and paramours; his acting career, which included an Oscar-winning performance in the critically acclaimed and popular film "From Here to Eternity," as well as other star turns in "The Man with the Golden Arm," "Pal Joey," and "The Manchurian Candidate"; his business and singing career in Las Vegas; his long-standing associations with mobsters and Mafia connections; and his political work and friendships.** It should come as no surprise that the guy hardly ever slept and, by all accounts, had to keep moving at all times.

Perhaps my favorite part of this first biography was all the discussion surrounding Frank's very challenging rise to stardom, and, later on, the details about the arranging and recording of many of his biggest hits.*** Kaplan also has a fairly lively writing style. I don't know that this will appeal to everyone, but I enjoyed it and thought it suited his subject matter. Consider this sample, in which Frank first performed an arrangement of the song "I've Got the World on a String" by Nelson Riddle, with whom he'd never worked:

"From the moment the nervous-faced guy on the podium signaled the downbeat, Frank knew something was up. Stoller clashed a pair of cymbals; the horns swirled a downward-spiraling cadenza; and then the second Frank sang, 'got the string around my fin-ger,' the brass kicked--BANG!--and the band was cooking. Frank was smiling as he sang, as the seventeen musicians swung along behind him--he even had a smile for the unsmiling guy on the stand, who was waving his arms for all he was worth.

It sure didn't sound like Billy [May] to Frank. It didn't sound like anybody. He loved it.

They did a take, and then another, got it just right. It was golden--but it wasn't Billy May. 'Who wrote that arrangement?' Frank asked Alan Dell.

'This guy,' Dell said, indicating Mr. Serious, who was distractedly leafing through pages of sheet music. 'Nelson Riddle.'

The name registered for the first time. Sinatra made a surprised face. 'Beautiful,' he said.

It was a serious compliment. Frank was generous with gifts and money but extremely stingy when it came to praise. If he said it, he meant it; if he didn't mean it, he didn't say anything.

He looked at Riddle and said it again. 'Beautiful.' And Mr. Serious managed a quick, almost undetectable smile: more like a wince, really." (pp. 615-616.)

I thoroughly enjoyed that. I could just picture the scene. And if you go listen to the song (DO IT) you can just hear the joy. Combine that with the fact that this scene took place at the beginning of his career comeback--perhaps the biggest and best comeback of all time--around 1953/54, after many very bad down years, well, then it takes on even more import. Imagine singing that song, like that, after living through several tough years. THAT is art.

Which is not to say that Sinatra was not a major asshole in many and various ways, all of which Kaplan details. I enjoyed Frank: The Voice so much that I went on to Sinatra: The Chairman, but I did not enjoy that as much, and actually skim-read most of the last 300 pages so I could get some closure. For one thing, I much preferred to read about Sinatra the hustler in his early career years, rather than reading about Sinatra the Rat Pack pig who turned misogyny into an art form in Vegas and beyond. But it was still a great reading experience, and sometime I might revisit it when I can give it more time. Next Christmas at the in-laws', perhaps.

A few technical notes: these biographies have pictures spread throughout the text, which I do not enjoy as much as dedicated picture sections, but which probably allowed them to fit more pictures in, so that was good. Also, these books are exhaustive: volume one covers the years from Sinatra's birth in 1915 through his Oscar win in 1953, while volume two largely covers 1954 to 1971 or so. The nearly twenty last years in Sinatra's life, and his fourth marriage, are dealt with in a less-than-40-page "Coda" at the end (and boy, is that a depressing 40 pages. Getting old, my friends, is not for pussies, even when you are Frank Sinatra).

*And yes, of course, I always take at least two books along so I have options. I'm already dragging an air mattress, pillows, all our clothes and a thermometer and kids' Tylenol (just in case, because I am nuts), so what's a couple more things to drag along?

**I didn't just learn about Frank Sinatra in these books. I can quite honestly say I never realized what a disgusting pig and prick John F. Kennedy was until reading about his dealings with Sinatra and Hollywood (namely: women in Hollywood). Gross.

***Also, please note: Ol' Blue Eyes couldn't read music. How crazy is that? He learned the songs by reading the lyrics and having the songs played to him once or twice.


Ruth Franklin's Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life.

I'm just going to say it: I was disappointed in Ruth Franklin's biography of Shirley Jackson, titled Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life.

Which hurts me to say, because I looked forward to it for so long. I also plowed through the thing in just a few days. It was good; it was readable; it was very obviously thoughtfully compiled and written and impeccably researched and footnoted.

Shirley jacksonBut for some reason it just didn't resonate with me. Perhaps I did it an injustice by reading it shortly after re-reading Jackson's own humorous memoirs of motherhood, titled Life among the Savages and Raising Demons. Those books were just so good, and left me hungry for more family details. And those were just not forthcoming here. Franklin is very good at describing Jackson's childhood, her often contentious relationship with her overbearing mother, the development of her writing and style (this is very much a "literary biography," examining Jackson's works, style, and influences), and even her marriage, although she seemed to focus more on Jackson's husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman, than on the "marriage," per se. But there was really very little about the children, Jackson's relationship with them, or any sort of closure on the lives they went on to lead. And you know? That's all fine. This is a biography of Shirley, not her her children. And maybe they didn't want any of their personal details discussed. But I couldn't help feeling that her children and home life were much bigger parts of Jackson's life than you would know just from reading this biography.

Franklin seems to approach Jackson's interpersonal relationships more for how they affected her work. In the introduction, she says this:

"As a writer and mother myself, I am struck by how contemporary Jackson's dilemmas feel: her devotion to her children coexists uneasily with her fear of losing herself in domesticity. Several generations later, the intersection of life and work continues to be one of the points of most profound anxiety in our society--an anxiety that affects not only women but also their husbands and children." (p. 9.)

It was a good book. It just wasn't quite what I wanted. It actually made me want to re-read an earlier biography of Jackson, Judy Oppenheimer's Private Demons: The Life of Shirley Jackson, which I had found a bit overbearing when I first read it. I wonder how I'd find it now. And, if you're really looking for some good info on Jackson's relationship with at least one of her children, I would definitely check out this NPR interview with her son Laurence. I enjoyed that a lot (as well as the entire program on her).

Happy Christmas, all, and to all a good night. See you sometime next week.


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.


Diana Athill's Alive, Alive Oh!

You know, I really like Diana Athill.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Really? This woman was "not pretty enough"?

If you'd asked me before I read her biography, who is Helen Gurley Brown?, about the only thing I would have been able to tell you was that I thought she was connected to the magazine Cosmopolitan in some way.

And that is correct. Now that I have read her biography, Not Pretty Enough: The Unlikely Triumph of Helen Gurley Brown (by Gerri Hirshey), I know that she was editor-in-chief of that magazine for more than thirty years, from 1965 to 1997. I further know that she published her bestselling book Sex and the Single Girl in 1962, when she was forty years old.

And now I know a good deal many other things about her, both tangible and intangible. I only got this book from the library because it got a lot of press attention this summer; I've never been interested in Brown at all.* I learned she had a really tough childhood, in which her father died when she was only ten years old, and in which she had a close but difficult relationship with her mother. I learned she worked a lot of crappy jobs as she tried to earn enough of a living to lift herself and her family (including a sister who suffered from polio and required medical care and help) out of poverty. I learned how she entered into a late(ish) marriage with David Brown, and how the two of them shared both a professional and working bond as well as a loving one. I learned she could be a difficult woman; an extremely driven woman; a painfully frugal woman (even when she had way more than enough money); a stubborn woman.

In short I learned that Helen Gurley Brown was a lot more interesting person than I ever would have thought, if I'd continued only to think of her in terms of her Cosmopolitan legacy. I found it rather hard to put this biography down (although I think I liked the subject matter better than the biographer's writing style), and you know? I kind of ended up liking old Helen.

One of my favorite stories from the book was one about how Nora Ephron interviewed and wrote about her for Esquire:

"Nora Ephron's Esquire article was titled 'If You're a Little Mouseburger, Come with Me. I was a Mouseburger and I Will Help You,' and it stands as the smartest comic/simpatico distillation of HGB's maddening complexities to date...Ephron was a seasoned journalist by then, but she was not prepared for HGB's insistent candor. Helen gave Ephron the name and phone number of a married ad executive she had an affair with during her single years. Ephron interviewed the man, who was still married and was perplexed that Helene would identify him. She judged it too awkward to use in the article.

'I can't believe you gave me his name,'" Ephron told Helen later.

'Oh. Well. Yes.'

Unbidden, Helene also announced to a startled Ephron that she was very good in bed and she liked sex, very much. Ephron served it all up with both glee and deadpan reserve; she had the canny and humane instinct to merely quote Helen at length, and meticulously..." (p. 322.)

I kind of got a kick that she named the married man, and that he was "perplexed" by that. I'll bet!

This is a big and a comprehensive biography, and for the most part it's very readable. But sometimes I found Hirshey's voice a bit overwhelming, as when she told this story about Beverly Johnson's cover shoot:

"And for the models? Beverly Johnson would like to explain how her first Cosmopolitan cover made her a woman. No lie. Listen." (p. 340.) So then the story goes on that the head of Johnson's modeling agency didn't think Cosmo was a good career move, and then you have this: "Johnson, a skinny, brainy African American girl from Buffalo, New York, politely but resolutely got up in Mrs. Ford's business. 'Why not?'" (p. 341.)

"No lie. Listen."? A bit familiar, that. Also: "got up in Mrs. Ford's business"? I don't know. That's all just a bit more casual than I really want my biography writing to be.

But overall? A good story and a singular woman. It's worth a read, if you've got the time (it's nearly 500 pages long, although it's got quite a few pages of notes and index.)

(Oh, and regarding the title of this post? Evidently the title of the book is how Brown thought of herself. Really? She seemed quite attractive; she had a good head for business and advertising; by her own account she loved sex. If this woman isn't "pretty enough" none of the rest of us stand a chance.)

*In fact, the few times I ever read a Cosmo magazine, mainly in high school, I found it boring and actually not as titillating as its cover headlines always seemed to promise.