Relationships

Female Comedian Memoirs: the scorecard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last but not least:

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

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

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

 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.


Blowing the lid off nookie: Much Ado About Loving

Like all boring old married people, Mr. CR and I share certain phrases and words to use as conversational shorthand. One of our most frequently used phrases is "Thanks for blowing the lid off nookie." This in-joke comes from a line uttered by Albert Brooks in the awesome movie Broadcast News, but I am not going to explain its context any further; you'll just have to go watch the movie.* For our purposes here I can explain the phrase as meaning (to us), well, thanks for stating the painfully obvious. I'll illustrate:

CR: Taibbi just wrote another article about Donald Trump loving attention.

Mr. CR: Wow, he really blew the lid off nookie with that one.

This phrase also sums up how I feel about the small essay/correspondence collection Much Ado About Loving, co-written by Jack Murnighan** and Maura Kelly. What the authors did here was look at the subject of romantic relationships by comparing their own experiences with those found in literature. I was so primed to like this book. I like books about books; I like books about relationships; I love collections of correspondence and back-and-forth essays.

I did not really like this book.

I mean, it was okay. And the premise was kind of fun. I enjoyed reading about books (a lot of which I haven't read--classics like The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Light in August, The Magic Mountain, etc.) through the lens of the relationships among their characters. But when it came time to actually glean relationship insights from these books (and from Murnighan and Kelly), I was underwhelmed.

Here's what I learn from Murnighan, by way of Tolstoy's War and Peace and the character of Natasha:

"This is the effet joie de vivre has on the people around you: They share in it, feeling more engaged, more alive and vital, like crocuses rising up to see the sun. When you are joyful, when you say yes to life and have fun and project positivity all around you, you become a sun in the center of every constellation, and people want to be near you...Women like this, women who are really alive, are the most captivating of all; they are making the most out of living, and they help you do it, too." (pp. 85-86.)

And here's Murnighan again, on reading Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer and noting that Miller is "pretty much all about un-repression." He also has this to say, on how everyone can enjoy sex more:

"I suppose it's not surprising that many women don't realize the degree to which the simple fact of loving sex can make the act great for both parties." (p. 110.)***

So, here's what we've learned for relationships, particularly the man's advice to women: Be charming, and have a lot of joie de vivre, and oh yeah, love sex. To which I say: well, thanks, Jack Murnighan. You really blew the lid off nookie with that one.

*I will stop at nothing to get everyone, everywhere, to watch the movie "Broadcast News."

**Of Beowulf on the Beach fame (which I actually liked).

***By the way, women totally realize this (making it happen, always, can be a challenge, especially after having all that joie de vivre, which is exhausting), but thanks for assuming we're all idiots.


Not an Elinor Lipman fan.

Anybody who reads romance, chick lit, or women's lit (and I do read all of those, although mostly I end up disliking women's lit) inevitably comes across the name Elinor Lipman.

Lipman is a novelist with several well-reviewed and (I'm guessing) respectably selling novels to her name. I have always seen her name a lot, offered as a reading suggestion for those who like a bit of humor with their romance, and the interesting thing about Lipman is that she seems popular with both readers and critics. She seems like she would be a sure bet.

But you know what? I just don't get the appeal.

I tried to read her a few years back, and I don't think I got through the novel in question (or it certainly didn't make much of an impression). This time, trying to be fair, I thought I would read one of her older novels, one of her newer ones, and just for good measure, I would throw in her recent essay collection (I Can't Complain).

The Way Men Act, published 1992. Melinda LeBlanc returns to her hometown to be a floral designer and falls in love with the owner of the shop next to hers on Main Street, and then denies it for the course of the entire book.

The View from Penthouse B, published 2013. Two sisters room together in a Manhattan penthouse, although their surroundings belie their circumstance. One sister is a young(ish) widow; the other is a divorced woman who lost her money to Bernie Madoff. (And, oh yes, her husband was a fertility doctor who, ahem, sometimes offered personalized fertilization services to his patients.) They also end up taking in another boarder, an unemployed finance worker who they think is making cupcakes for his dates with women, when really they are dates with men.

God, frankly, I'm bored even typing out those briefest of synopses.

And I didn't find the essays all that scintillating either. They're short, and were published in a variety of sources, from Good Housekeeping to the Boston Globe. They center on a variety of family topics (including the loss of Lipman's own husband at the age of 60), the writing life, and personal foibles. And it's all nice enough stuff:

"My sister and I do solemnly believe--no, we insist--that each of us was, unquestionably, her father's favorite child, the shiniest apple of his eye. The argument goes like this: I was Daddy's favorite child. No, sorry, you're wrong. I was. We smile as we present the evidence of his devotion made visible. Finally, we agree to disagree, recognizing what a sweet and lucky argument ours is." (p. 14.)

But none of it really seems to have any teeth, you know? If I had to describe her succinctly I'd say she reminds me a bit of Nora Ephron, without the anger (and without nearly as much humor), or Susan Minot without the slightly more interesting grit.

Either way: I've given her what I think is a fair try, and I'm done now.


A little bit of love for Aziz Ansari's Modern Romance.

Modern Romance
by Aziz Ansari, Eric KlinenbergHardcover
Powells.com

I enjoyed the hell out of Aziz Ansari's Modern Romance.

Now, don't get me wrong. I didn't really find it uproariously hilarious, and it was definitely on the "social sciences lite" side of psychology. But I very much enjoyed the comedian's combination of personal dating anecdotes, thoughts on love and relationships, and a wide variety of poll findings and sociological data (which are also on display in his new Netflix series). It was a quick and somewhat informative read, and in my current distracted state, I find that's about all I can ask of a book these days.

Aziz moved from a discussion of how we used to date and marry people (we mainly met them where we lived) to how we meet people today, how we ask for dates, how people search for love internationally, when and why people settle down, and what happens when sexting and cheating tear apart relationships. Some of the information was enlightening, and some was funny, but most of what Aziz found horrified me:

"Today, if you own a smartphone, you're carrying a 24-7 singles bar in your pocket." (p. 31.)

That gives me the all-over shudders.

"The issue of calling versus texting generated a wide variety of responses in our focus groups. Generally, younger dudes were fucking terrified of calling someone on a phone." (p. 39.)

That just makes me sad. I don't really like using the phone either, but come on, just to talk to someone? Someone you might like? Overall I am just wowed by men's fragile egos. I had one great male friend who told me he didn't mind rejection a whole lot, because he thought "every no just brought you closer to a yes." Simple and upbeat. Please note that this friend married an unbelievably attractive woman. And they're still married.

"A woman who came to one of our focus groups discussed how she got so fed up with text messaging that she cut off her texting service and could only be reached by phone calls. This woman never went on a date with a man again. No, she actually started dating someone soon afterward. She also claimed the guys who did work up the courage to call her were a better caliber of man and that she was, in effect, able to weed out a lot of the bozos." (p. 40.)

So yeah, I enjoyed this book, even though it made me feel old. Those crazy kids these days.

This just in: Ansari's book won Best Nonfiction in this year's GoodReads Choice Awards.


Rosemary Sullivan's Stalin's Daughter: Now THAT's a biography.

A while back I read a short newspaper article about a woman named Svetlana Alliluyeva, who for many years lived in Spring Green, Wisconsin, which seemed a bit odd to me, because Svetlana Alliluyeva was the daughter of Stalin. So when I saw the cover of Rosemary Sullivan's biography Stalin's Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva, I thought, I want to read that.

But then I got it home, and looked it over, and thought, wow, 623 pages, what are the chances of me getting that read? Turns out: pretty good. I started reading it one night and then I couldn't put it down for the entire next week.

For whatever reason I've always been interested in Russian history, but I think you could enjoy this biography even if a. you weren't that interested in Russian or world history, or b. you don't know anything about Russian history. I actually knew very little about Stalin before reading this book, and I must say I didn't learn a ton about his politics or more reprehensible policies from reading it.* This biography stays fairly firmly rooted in his family life and the experiences of his family members, which are more than varied and terrible enough to fill the 600 pages.

Alliluyeva was an incredible woman who struggled to live as normal a human life as she could, even though it really proved impossible for her to ever really escape her father's shadow. Her triumphs of intellect and will, coupled with her weaknesses and her loneliness make for fascinating reading. This is one of the best books I've read so far this year.

Here's your excerpt:

"She was called unstable. The historian Robert Tucker remarked that 'despite everything, she was, in some sense, like her father.' And yet it's astonishing how little she resembled her father. She did not believe in violence. She had a risk taker's resilience, a commitment to life, and an unexpected optimism, even though her life spanned the brutalities of the twentieth century in the most heartrending of ways, giving her a knowledge of the dark side of human experience, which few people are ever forced to confront. Caught between two worlds in the Cold War power struggles between East and West, she was served well by neither side. She had to slowly learn how the West functioned. The process of her education is fascinating and often sad." (p. xvii.)

*Although this book does illuminate many things about what might be called the Russian character, or culture, particularly of the twentieth century and previously.


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.


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.


Meghan Daum's Shallow, Selfish, and Self-Absorbed: Read it.

If you can believe it, I've actually got a little backlog here of books read and reviews unwritten. So this week I'll try to post some teeny-tiny reviews. Many people tell me smaller doses of me are better for everyone involved anyway, so this should be a great week!

I really enjoyed the essay collection Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids, edited by Meghan Daum. This comes as no surprise, as I am a huge Meghan Daum fan.

I have kids, and they're keepers, but I can certainly understand why a person would choose not to reproduce. So I enjoyed reading these different viewpoints and reasons for not having kids, but what I liked best about this book was the diversity of writing styles present. They were all essays, sure, but each writer here seemed (to me) to showcase a very different writing style and voice. And periodically the book just really made me chuckle, in the best possible way. Consider this paragraph, from Sigrid Nunez's essay "The Most Important Thing":

"I remember a woman, a mentor, who once asked me if I thought I'd make a good mother. When I told her honestly that I didn't know, she was mightily displeased. It was as if I'd confessed to being a bad person. But I am astonished by those who are unfazed by the prospect of child raising. A male friend of mine, childless but confident, once assured me, "You just give them lots and lots of love." Perhaps only a man could believe it is as simple as that." p. 104.

That made me snort again just reading it.

Other authors included in this collection are Lionel Shriver, Geoff Dyer, Courtney Hodell, Laura Kipnis, Kate Christensen, Paul Lisicky, Anna Holmes, Michelle Huneven, Pam Houston, Jeanne Safer, M.G. Lord, Rosemary Mahoney (particularly good), Elliott Holt, Tim Kreider.

It's a great collection. Read it.


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.


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."


I don't want a guy writing my romantic fiction.

The Rosie Project
by Graeme Simsion
Powells.com

A few weeks ago a friend recommended I read the romance The Rosie Project, written by Australian Graeme Simsion. This friend and I actually met when she came into my library and I suggested a Melissa Senate book to her (I think she was asking for chick lit-ish suggestions, if I remember correctly), which she liked, so you can see a big part of our relationship is talking over books.*

So when she suggested The Rosie Project, I went right to the library to get it.

And it was okay. It's set in Australia (a nice change of pace, that), and the main character is Don Tillman, an academic and genetic researcher who is described on the book jacket as "brilliant yet socially challenged," and who may or may not have some Asperger-like tendencies. A case in point? His logical approach to finding a mate: the Wife Project, wherein he asks women to complete a detailed survey to assess their qualifications for the role of his potential life partner. Which is an okay plan, until he meets Rosie, who doesn't really fit any of his Wife Project criteria, but who does bring an interesting genetic quandary to their relationship: she wants to find out who her biological father is (and she's got a small sampling of candidates to test).

So yeah, it was okay, and I finished it, and even enjoyed it in bits--Don's not an unlikable main character and Rosie has her charms--but I wouldn't say it was a great book.** There were never really any moments where I went, "Awww...," and when reading romance or chick lit, I kind of need that "Awww..." moment. And then it struck me that at least part of the problem here was that I don't really care for the protagonists of my chick lit to be male. And I really don't want my romance books to be written by guys either.*** Go ahead and accuse me of reverse discrimination. But I'm trying to think of any love story written by a guy that I've really liked...and right now nothing is coming to me. I certainly didn't enjoy Shotgun Lovesongs, that's for sure.

*Which is just so awesome. It might be close-minded, but I'm at the age now where I'm pretty much looking to only associate with people who read, and who talk about reading.

**In a hilarious turn of events, Mr. CR, who rarely reads books I bring home and never reads romance (the last "romance" I suggested to him that he read was W. Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage), read it, liked it, and seemed disappointed that I wasn't more enthusiastic about it.

***Unless that guy is Norman Maclean, whose novella A River Runs Through It is one of my favorite love stories of all time. But more general love, not dating-relationships-marriage love.


Ann Patchett as essayist.

I have never been a fan of Ann Patchett's fiction.

But when I saw that she had a new collection of essays out, I thought I'd give them a try. For one thing, I am a sucker for a good essay. For another, I was intrigued by the title: This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage.

This is a collection of essays that were previously published in a variety of sources, including Granta and for Audible.com. And, ironically, the title essay turned out to be my least favorite essay in the whole thing. I'm always searching for good essays about relationships, marriage, parenting, etc., and I can't say this one spoke to me in any way. It's about how Patchett, after growing up a child of divorce and living through the break-up of her first marriage, decided she wanted nothing further to do with marriage. This was awkward when she met and dated a man she did love, and who did want to get married. However, they stayed together for many years, until a health scare her partner suffered made her change her mind and get married. So what's the takeaway? Well, here's a story from her time when she was thinking she probably had to get out of her first marriage:

"Standing waist deep in the swimming pool at Yaddo, I received a gift--it was the first decent piece of instruction about marriage I had ever been given in my twenty-five years of life. 'Does your husband make you a better person?' Edra asked.

There I was in that sky-blue pool beneath a bright blue sky, my fingers breaking apart the light on the water, and I had no idea what she was talking about.

'Are you smarter, kinder, more generous, more compassionate, a better writer?' she said, running down her list. 'Does he make you better?'

'That's not the question,' I said. 'It's so much more complicated than that.'

'It's not more complicated than that, she said. 'That's all there is: Does he make you better and do you make him better?'" (p. 249.)

So of course she concludes that her second husband does in fact, make her better. And that it is just that simple.

So why does that bug me? It just does. I don't believe marriage is actually that simple. I think that's a lovely thing you might want to embroider on a pillow or put on a coffee mug, but I think it's entirely wrong.

But there's some other essays here that merit a look. Patchett is best when talking about love, actually, when she talks about the love she has for her grandma (who she spent a lot of time actually physically caring for) and the love she has for a former teacher of hers, a nun from her Catholic school. In the essay "The Mercies," she talks about Sister Nena, and how she got to know and help her later in life. And that essay, I'll admit it, made me cry:*

"So ferocious is my love for Sister Nena that I can scarcely understand it myself, but I try. Hers is the brand of Catholicism I remember from my childhood, a religion of good works and very little discussion.

'I like the Catholic Church,' she says to me sometimes.

'Good thing,' I say, which always makes her laugh. I think that she is everything I have ever loved about our religion distilled down to fit into one person, everything about the faith that is both selfless and responsible: bringing soup to the sick; visiting the widowed husbands of her friends who have died; sticking with the children who are slow to learn and teaching them how to read..." p. 304.

So, uneven, but worth a look. I won't read any more of her fiction, but if she ever comes out with another nonfiction collection, I'll try it.

*Although I've been a crying mess lately in general. Getting older and tireder must also be making my tear ducts more overactive?


I do not understand the appeal of David Shields at all.

Over the last few years a nonfiction author's name I have seen a lot is "David Shields." When I come across his name or his titles, which often appear on many end-of-year "Best" lists, they always sound vaguely interesting. Like his book The Thing about Life Is that One Day You'll Be Dead. Intriguing, right? Also: Reality Hunger: A Manifesto. Even more intriguing, sometimes, is the jacket copy on these books. Here's how Reality Hunger is described:

"With this landmark book, David Shields fast-forwards the discussion of the central artistic issues of our time. Who owns ideas? How clear is the distinction between fiction and nonfiction? Has the velocity of digital culture rendered traditional modes obsolete? Exploring these and related questions, Shields orchestrates a chorus of voices, past and present, to reframe debates about the veracity of memoir and the relevance of the novel. He argues that our culture is obsessed with “reality,” precisely because we experience hardly any, and urgently calls for new forms that embody and convey the fractured nature of contemporary experience."

If you overlook that "landmark book" stuff, what you have there is a book that it seems like I would be interested in reading. So I checked it out, and then I tried for weeks to get past the first few pages. I couldn't do it. Same problem with another of his titles, How Literature Saved My Life. (Yet another title you'd think I would eat up with a spoon.) But I persist in trying to understand this author's appeal, or even, just being able to finish one of his books.

Well, the good news is that I did make it all the way through his new book, I Think You're Totally Wrong: A Quarrel. The bad news is, I still don't understand why this guy is a bestselling nonfiction author. Perhaps the quickest way to show you how I felt about this book would be to suggest some alternate titles for it that occurred to me while I was reading it:

"Two D-Bags Have the World's Most Boring Conversation"*

"Two Guys Find Yet Another Way to Avoid Housework and Family Obligations While They Take a Four-Day Vacation Together"

"We'll Bill This As an Art Vs. Life Conversation, But Really What We Have Here Is Four Days' Worth of Not Very Interesting Male Digressions"

"People Will Obviously Buy Anything with David Shields's Name On It, So Here You Go"

So what is it about? Literally, author David Shields and his former writing student Caleb Powell, one a bestselling author in his fifties, and the other a house-husband and father of three in his forties, take four days to hang out in a friend's cabin together and discuss "everything they can think of in the name of exploring and debating their central question (life and/or art?)." I really did read the whole thing, because at some point I expected them to actually get at something remotely resembling a debate about "life and/or art," but honestly, they never did. They discussed:

Their teacher/student dynamic; their wives and whether or not said wives read and like their work; the "x-factor" each of them need to enjoy stories or TV programs; sports; Powell's interest in violence and true crime and the nature of suffering; at one point they actually include a several-page transcript of the movie "My Dinner with Andre"; Caleb's experience with a transvestite in Samoa and his desire to explore that experience in fiction; a wide variety of authors (although they manage to take all the fun out of that, even, with David saying things like "It's crucial to me that these books rotate outward toward a metaphor"); how many kids they each have; capitalism; their mothers; Caleb's drinking; and then back to their teacher/student dynamic. So, okay, the conversation is wide-ranging. But nowhere does it actually take on the flesh-and-blood feel to me of a real conversation. It certainly didn't answer (or really even raise, in my opinion) the question of "art vs. life."**

A long time ago I went to a church service with my mother-in-law when their regular pastor was on vacation, and they had this little eighteen-year-old boy who was a counselor at the religious summer camp down the road in to give the homily. I don't remember what he talked about, but I do remember it was borderline annoying and I mainly wanted to pat the clueless little dear on the head, and tell him to get down from the podium so my mother-in-law, a woman then in her late fifties, could get up there and tell us a few things about how life actually is. This book gave me that exact same feeling. I think all of us should get four-day vacations wherein we just chew the fat with someone and then publish the results. I'm pretty sure 90% of those efforts would be accidentally more interesting than this one.***

And please note: this book has been adapted into a film by James Franco. God help us.

*I am aware that this is not very nice. I apologize. I can be nice, or I can be honest about how this book made me feel, but I can't be both.

**Other reviewers would disagree with me.

***Except not this book. Evidently two guys talking and annoying the crap out of me is a new mini-genre of nonfiction.


A little trick for "book discoverability."

All the news in bookselling and librarianship the last few years has been about "book discoverability." Not a real complicated concept; basically, how do readers discover books?

Publishers are interested in this topic because, even though they are business people, the business of books is such that you can never be sure which book is going to be the next one to explode. So they want to know how to help people discover books that they want to buy. And of course librarians want to understand the topic for a related, but less mercenary, reason: they want to help people discover books they enjoy, often based on conversations with them about books they enjoyed in the past (and why they enjoyed them). That's what we call "readers' advisory." And of course readers have a vested interest in book discoverability, because all they want to do is constantly discover books that they will love, with no stinkers in the bunch to slow them down.

I love thinking about book discoverability because I can't for the life of me figure out how to stop discovering great books. Right now there are--wait, I'll go check--97 items checked out on my library card. A lot of those are books for the CRjrs, but the vast majority are books for me. They're not all the best books, or books that I'll love, but they're all books that I really want to read, and if I would ever get time to actually read them, would probably enjoy.

But today I'd like to talk about my favorite "trick" for discovering great books, and it is simply this: get to know interesting, smart, kind people...and then ask them what they're reading.

A few weeks ago I went to a birthday gathering for a former colleague. I don't get to see him often, but when I do it's always, always, an enjoyable and educational good time. When I asked him, right before we left (I should have asked earlier; I'm always a bit dithery these days, trying to make sure two young boys are properly dressed for the outside, we have all our toys and supplies, and, oh yes, trying to keep said young boys, who are both very antsy and very fast, in my immediate vicinity until we can make our exit), what he was reading, he told me about a book titled Letters of Note: An Eclectic Collection of Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience.*

So I got it from the library, and it's WONDERFUL. Exactly what the title promises. And it's a thoroughly satisfying book as BOOK--somewhat oversized, but not uncomfortable to hold; heavy, but not too heavy; and it comes with its own ribbon bookmark. It's not actually that text heavy; it's a big book because the letters are often shown in their original form, along with transcripts for easier reading. And they do indeed vary widely: from Queen Elizabeth II to President Eisenhower, including her recipe for drop scones; from a Campbell Soup company executive to Andy Warhol; from a former slave to his previous owner (which is, you've got to read it to believe it, hilarious in the best possible way); Ray Bradbury to a fan; an otherwise un-famous older woman who describes her mastectomy surgery (done in 1855, mind you, without anaesthetic) to her daughter.

A wonderful read; completely engrossing. So a hearty thank you to my friend, for recommending it. Now: get out there this weekend and talk to some good people, and for the love of all that's holy, remember to ask them what they're reading.

*And yes, I think he actually quoted the entire subtitle from memory, so you can see why I love him.


Reading experiences of 2014: Best

So last year I found the literary equivalent of the biggest box of the tastiest bon-bons ever.

Best reading experience of 2014: Hello, Poldark!

Also known as the Poldark Saga, written by Winston Graham (incidentally, I'm not linking to the Wikipedia page on the series because there are spoilers there). The first book, Ross Poldark, was published in 1945, and the last book in the series (#12!), Bella Poldark, was published in 2002. Somewhere in the middle of the series' run, a very popular BBC series, also titled "Poldark," ran from 1975 to 1977.

On the surface of the matter, the Poldark series looks like just another historical fiction saga. Set in Cornwall during the years of 1783 through 1820, it follows the fortunes of one Ross Poldark,* a Cornish squire who returns from the American Revolutionary War (so strange for an American like me to think of British soldiers returning home from that) to find that his father is dead, his ancestral home is in a shambles, and the woman, Elizabeth, to whom he thought he was engaged, is preparing to marry his cousin Francis. Hilarity does not ensue, but an entire Cornish soap opera does: over the course of the series, the relationships between Ross and Francis and Elizabeth, and then Ross and Demelza (a woman about ten years his junior, who he first rescues from a too-rowdy country fair and then employs as a kitchen maid), and then Ross and his family and George Warleggan (a local banker and self-made man, and Poldark's arch-nemesis).

The plot is not really the point. As noted: it's pure soap opera. But the characters are notable: Ross is one of those noble souls who sticks his neck out for the little guy (incidentally, I've noticed this sort of thing usually turns out a lot better in fiction than it does in real life) and inspires both strong loyalty and strong antipathy, and Demelza? Well, Demelza is a revelation. She puts up with too much from Ross but other than that I simply LOVED THE HELL OUT OF HER. Even Graham's female characters who I did not like (Elizabeth chief among them) ended up inspiring something like respect from me. And although their stories were intertwined with the mens', they seemed to have their own inner lives and did not serve primarily to "reveal glimpses" into the souls of the male characters. What a treat that was, for a change.

There's lots of other good stuff in the series; there's a lot in it about mining that I found interesting (and which gave me a lot to think about when I later read the book Blood Diamonds, also about mining in Great Britain), and even the storylines about the poorer characters in the books held my interest.

I'm ashamed to tell you what I all neglected while I plowed through all twelve books in this series.** The house went uncleaned for weeks, I made some horrible ready-made meals, and I let CRjr and CR3 tackle each other until (inevitably) too much ha-ha led to boo-hoo. But oh, it was time deliciously spent. So worth it. Right around Christmas time I realized I had forgotten to request the next book I needed in the series from the library it time to take it along to my in-laws', where we stayed for a couple of days, and I actually felt despair at having to pause in my reading.

It was a thoroughly great reading experience, and I'll always think fondly on 2014 for it.*** I also look forward to waiting a few years and then re-reading the entire run of books. AND, total bonus, soon I'll get to see an updated TV version, thanks to the BBC. Awesome.

*Every time I say his name I follow it with a catchphrase I enjoyed from the otherwise entirely forgettable Ewan McGregor movie "Down with Love": "Ross Poldark: ladies' man, man's man, man about town."

**I almost never read series fiction. I might read the first book in a series just to see what it's about, but very rarely do I make it through ALL the books.

***Incidentally, if you know of readers who enjoyed the cult classic The Cowboy and the Cossack, I think this series, or even just the first book in the series, might be a good readalike for that book.


Each subsequent chapter sadder than the last.

At least, that's sort of the way I felt as I made my way through Catherine Bailey's history book Black Diamonds: The Downfall of an Aristocratic Dynasty and the Fifty Years that Changed England.

All Anglophiles and general history readers should check this one out; it's the story of Great Britain's Fitzwilliam dynasty, based at the [unbelievably huge] Wentworth House estate in the Yorkshire region of England. Starting with the 6th Earl Fitzwilliam, born in 1815, this book traces the family's intrigues, economics, and, above all, its geneaology, although the bulk of it focuses on the 7th and 8th Earls and their lives in the twentieth century.*

The family was immensely wealthy, and their wealth derived from the vast number of coal mines they owned and ran. So in addition to being a history of the very rich, this is also a history of the very, very poor. I read this one over the course of a few weeks, and whenever I did, I went to bed glad that I am not a coal miner. Holy shit. Dangerous job, unhealthy job, very poorly paid job; and often undertaken for rich families that might or might not be decent employers. I will say this for the Earls Fitzwilliam: particularly in the case of the 7th earl, "Billy," he did try to treat his people somewhat decently (enough so that he was remembered fondly in the neighborhood, and most of his workers never voted for strikes against him).

Although: the lives of the rich people don't sound like a whole lot of fun in this book either. Billy himself was the target of a campaign by his aunts to disinherit him; he was born in Canada and it was alleged that his father, who died before his own father and therefore was never an earl himself, took steps to replace the baby girl that was really born to him with a Canadian baby boy (so that he could inherit the title and wealth). Good lord. The whole "only males can inherit" thing has really messed up a lot of lives.

But I digress. It's an interesting book. Not a great one--it skips around some in time and that makes it a bit tough to follow, particularly when you consider that all the earls are named some variation of William something, and it all gets a bit confusing. But it was an engrossing read; if you're in an area of the country where there's still just a bit of winter left, this might be a good thick book to settle in with by the fire until spring really arrives. (Oh: and be glad you didn't have to dig out the coal to light for your fire.)

Other reviews: The Guardian; Kirkus

*And there's even a bit about one of the earls and his love affair with Kathleen "Kick" Kennedy, sister to JFK.