Short

A fun fiction wintertime read: An Elderly Lady Is Up to No Good.

I'm not sure where I heard about it, but I just picked up Helene Tursten's tiny little An Elderly Lady Is Up To No Good, a collection of linked short stories about feisty octogenarian Maud.

It's dark and the protagonist Maud is mostly unlikable, but, God love her, you're not going to push her around. To tell you any more than that would be to include spoilers, and I'm not going to do that. But if you're looking for a quick, fun fiction read, you might want to try this one.

You can find a more comprehensive review here.


Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth.

Just when I was complaining that nothing I was reading would stick in my head, along came Sarah Smarsh and her book Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth.*

Smarsh grew up in Kansas, the daughter of a teenage mother who was also the daughter of a teenage mother. In her memoir she details her rather chaotic upbringing, which involved parents who, if they hadn't had bad luck where jobs and finances were concerned, wouldn't have had any luck at all. Eventually they divorced, and in addition to moving around a lot Smarsh also had to deal with new family configurations and changing schools. Her extended family and grandparents, although they struggled to maintain healthy relationships of their own, luckily provided some stability for her and another place to live when she needed options.

It's a beautiful book. One of my favorite things about it is that Smarsh often addresses her prose to the baby she never had as a teenager. Sound complicated? It's not. She explains in the very first chapter:

"I heard a voice unlike the ones in my house or on the news that told me my place in the world...You were far more than what a baby is. My connection to you was the deepest kind of knowing--hard to explain because it swooshed around in my mind and took different shapes and meanings over the years. But there was a moment, before I was even old enough to have kids, when I was fretting about the sort of decision that in another household might have gotten help from parents. Those moments usually sent me praying to some God outside myself. Instead, I thought, What would I tell my daughter to do?" (p. 1.)

It's such a beautiful device, and it works well throughout the entire book.

You'll find stories here of joblessness, and losing homes, and the ag crisis, and domestic abuse (not to mention great pride, great warmth, great ingenuity, great--in its own way--love), all the things that go along with discussions of "class" in America. This book is how Smarsh relates the tale of her childhood, spent being poor, in a rich country. Or, as she says:

"How can you talk about the poor child without addressing the country that let her be so? It's a relatively new way of thinking for me. I was raised to put all responsibility on the individual, on the bootstraps which which she ought to pull herself up. But it's the way of things that environment changes outcomes. Or, to put it in my first language: The crop depends on the weather, dudnit? A good seed'll do 'er job 'n' sprout, but come hail 'n' yer plumb outta luck regardless." (pp. 2-3.)

It's a great book. It's about a million times better than Hillbilly Elegy and deserves to sell at least twice as many copies as that one sold, but it won't, because frankly, there's no justice in this world.

*God, do I hate GoodReads. I almost linked to the Heartland page there, because I know a lot of people are GoodReads fans, but I never, ever agree with the majority of reviews there. Ugh. Thank God for the New York Times review, which is the one I linked to above. That one gets it right.


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.


Ann Hood's Morningstar: Growing Up with Books.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tripp & Tyler's Stuff You Should Know About Stuff.

Sometimes you just want a short fluffy nonfiction book.

When that's what you want, consider Tripp & Tyler's (yup, they just go by "Tripp & Tyler") short book Stuff You Should Know About Stuff: How to Properly Behave in Certain Situations. Evidently Tripp and Tyler are a comedy duo who post their sketches on YouTube. I didn't find them there, and frankly, I don't even remember how I found this book.

StuffBut I enjoyed it. They offer sections on how to behave in public situations, situations involving communication, situations involving friends, and "situations we wanted to include in the book but couldn't figure out how to categorize" (among others).

When reading it, I just flipped through it at random and enjoyed it as it came, and here was the first thing I read, in the chapter titled "Recommendations for the next hotel I stay in":

"Please start washing the comforters. We all know that earlier in the day, a naked, sweaty, fat man rested his taint on the comforter while he blow-dried his hair. I know you can neither confirm nor deny this, but the least you could do is have the housekeeper bring a new comforter to my door, shrink-wrapped like an airline blanket." (p. 29.)

Oh, and there's a very funny picture to go along with that.

Another of my favorite chapters was the "Golf Rules for the Rest of Us" one:

"The vast majority of us suck at golf. We need to figure out a way to make the entire experience better; thus, Golf Rules for the Rest of Us:

When you hit a ball into the woods, just find a ball. It doesn't have to be your ball--any white ball will do...

No player should feel guilty for quitting after 14 holes. Everyone knows that is the ideal length of a round of golf." (p. 210.)

So, yeah. Is it great nonfiction literature? Nah. Is it a fun little read that might give you a few laughs? Yes, it is. Oh, and it includes this handy tip: "Get rid of a brain freeze by pressing your tongue against the roof of your mouth." Nice. Fun AND educational.


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.)


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.


Edward McClelland's How to Speak Midwestern.

So here's what I got read in Edward McClelland's book How to Speak Midwestern:

The intro;

the chapter on North Central (arguably my region, although I might also qualify as Inland North accents;

and the "Wisconsin" portion of the glossary.

I should just have read the whole thing (I still might)--it's only 147 pages long.

Speak midwesternI particularly liked the bits where McClelland explained why Midwesterners often think they "don't have an accent,"* although of course they do. And I really, really enjoyed this bit, about how Midwesterners mostly like to do their criticizing passive-aggressively:

"In the Midwest, you're never certain whether you're being complimented or insulted. Midwesterners don't like to sound critical or hurt anyone's feelings, so we've developed code words that allow us to avoid stating an opinion altogether. The most important words to know are 'interesting' and 'different.' If something has merit, but you don't personally care for it, it's 'interesting.'

'What do you think of the Vikings' new stadium?'

'It's interesting.'

(The story is told of a consultant who presented an idea to a group of Minnesotans, and thought it was going over well because they all said it was interesting.)

'What do you think of the mural under the Wilson Avenue viaduct of three dolphins copulating with the Queen of the Nile?'

'It's pretty different.'" (p. 15.)

I've never thought of myself as a particularly passive-aggressive person, but I think I've used both "interesting" and "different" several times in conversation this past week alone.

I didn't read the whole thing, and I don't know that all of it rang true to me, but it's a good solid effort on an interesting topic. Do check it out sometime.

*I know I have an accent because a few years back my college roommate and I got together after not seeing each other for a few years. She had moved to Virginia and was back for a visit, and when we each got out of our cars and I shouted an exuberant greeting, she tipped her head to the side and smiled at me and said, "Oh, the accent..." I do try to sit on the accent sometimes but when I yell exuberantly it tends to come out.

 

 


Joan Didion's South and West.

Friends, I am in a bit of a MOOD.

Do you have times like that? My house is a mess and yet I'm not happy when I'm out of it; I feel overwhelmed by the very few adult responsibilities I have; I kind of wish I weren't feeling like a broken-down heap in my early 40s. I think Mr. CR sensed I'm very close to going off the rails last week when I went on a tirade about CRjr's swimming lessons. I don't swim, I hate pools, I'm annoyed at the pool where we go because they can't decide when they open or when you should be there to get in line to sign up for lessons. Or, as I said to Mr. CR: "Jesus God, if we spent half as much time in this country teaching everyone a second language, as we do teaching them to swim, we'd all be bilingual by now."*

Mr. CR is a smart person and did the nonverbal equivalent of "Yes, dear," and then got the hell out of the room.

South and westSo. Where was I? Oh yes, Joan Didion's new collection of notes (it's literally subtitled "From a Notebook"): South and West. Well, of course I read the whole thing, even though I can't finish anything lately. I finished it because it's short and I love Didion and even Didion not at her best (which she is not here; they're just notes, although Didion's notes are like a million times better than most people's finished product) is always a very intense reading experience for me. These two pieces, on the American South and West, were written in 1970 (for the South) and 1976 (for the West, or, more specifically, during the Patty Hearst trial in California).

You really just have to read the whole thing to get the flavor of it, particularly if you are at all interested in the American South. But here's one of my very favorite tidbits, it just seems so quintessentially Didion:

"NOTE: On being asked for identification when I ordered a drink in the rural South. Before I came south I had not been taken for seventeen in considerable years, but several times in that month I had to prove I was eighteen. It is assumed that grown women will have their hair done, is all I could think." (p. 61.)

I just love that. It made me remember a trip I took to Houston when I was blown away by the hair, make-up, and clothing (all very carefully done for maximum effect) of all the women there.

This isn't really specific to this collection, but my favorite thing about Didion is how she gives you what seems like a lot of personal information and a lot of glimpses into her psyche, and yet you still come away feeling like you don't really know Joan Didion at all. She can surprise you. This is one of my very favorite aspects of my closest interpersonal relationships: when people I know really well surprise me. (And it's not always with good surprises.) But still. I find it oddly thrilling to be surprised. I'm explaining it poorly, but gosh, Joan Didion is interesting. I don't ever have any idea what is going on in her head but I always, ALWAYS want to hear about it. Right down to her pictures: why is the author picture on the back of this book, for instance, of her and her daughter Quintana, when Quintana was only a small girl? Why put that picture here?

See? Interesting.

*Come on. Does the majority of the population ever go swimming again, once they're out of high school? No they don't--until they have to take their kids to water parks and lessons. So then they do that, and after that they never get in the pool again. It's a totally silly system. See? This is the MOOD I'm in.


Michael Finkel's The Stranger in the Woods.

It's been a couple of weeks since I read a book I wasn't able to put down. The last book with which I had that experience was Michael Finkel's investigative/character portrait The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit.

Stranger in the woodsFinkel relates the story of Christopher Knight, who walked away from his job, car, and life in 1986, and did not really reappear among society until he was arrested for multiple thefts in 2013. Where did he go? Well, into the woods in central Maine, but the fascinating part of the story is that he didn't really go very far; there were numerous cabins and people within walking distance:

"...Knight chose to disappear well within the bounds of society. Towns and roads and houses surround his site; he could overhear canoeists' conversations on North Pond. He wasn't so much removed from humanity as sitting on the sidelines. From the nearest cabin to his hiding spot is a three-minute walk, if you know where you're going." (p. 53.)

So how did he survive nearly twenty-seven years sleeping outside in Maine, when he had walked to his campsite carrying nothing? Well, he stole. A lot. His tent, his tarps, his supplies, his food, his clothing, everything came from the cabins and a summer camp facility not far away. He even stole National Geographics and used them (and other magazines) as a sort of floor for his site. He did not hunt or grow any food; that probably would have drawn notice long before his other activities. Nonetheless, the residents of the nearby cabins were more than a bit spooked about break-ins and supplies gone missing over the course of more than twenty-five years.

So what did Knight do? Well, in addition to stealing enough food and other necessaries to eat, he sat by himself and enjoyed the woods. A lot. This is a man who has sheer dedication to living outside, and to living apart from other people. You can see that when you read about how he survived some of the Maine winters:

"It's natural to assume that Knight just slept all the time during the cold season, a human hibernation, but this is wrong. 'It is dangerous to sleep too long in winter,' he said. It was essential for him to know precisely how cold it was, his brain demanded it, so he always kept three thermometers in camp: one mercury, one digital, one spring-loaded. He couldn't trust just a single thermometer, and preferred a consensus.

When frigid weather descended, he went to sleep at seven-thirty p.m. He'd cocoon himself in multiple layers of sleeping bags and cinch a tie-down strap near his feet to prevent the covers from slipping off. If he needed to pee, it was too cumbersome to undo his bedding, so he used a wide-mouthed jug with a good lid. No matter what he tried, he couldn't keep his feet warm. 'Thick socks. Multiple socks. Boot liners. Thin socks, thinking it was better to have my feet together, using the mitten theory. I never found a perfect solution.' Still, he did not lose a toe or a finger to frostbite. Once in bed, he'd sleep six and a half hours, and arise at two a.m.

That way, at the depth of cold, he was awake...The first thing he'd do at two a.m. was light his stove and start melting snow. To get his blood circulating, he'd walk the perimeter of his camp..." (p. 118-119.)

The author, Michael Finkel*, originally made contact with Knight by writing a letter to him in prison (Knight was convicted of several felony burglaries--although it is estimated that he performed more than a thousand break-ins over the course of his self-exile) and was surprised when Knight wrote back and agreed to let Finkel come to Maine to speak with him in jail. It's not a perfect book; at times I found Finkel's voice and persona a bit irritating, and I was never quite sure why Knight was allowing him to tell the story. But overall it was a good read. And I liked that Knight didn't really offer any explanation or justification for what he did (although Finkel tries to tie his story to historical examples of hermits and solitude-seekers); it seems that he really just wanted to sit around by himself, a lot, and that's what he went and did. Anyone looking for greater understanding than that will not really get it from this narrative, because Finkel didn't really get a whole lot of introspective answers from Knight.

I liked it. It's drawing a lot of comparison's to Jon Krakauer's book Into the Wild, but that one was a lot longer and the main character died, so I much preferred this very odd story.

*Finkel admits to Knight and in this book that he has erred in his journalism ways; he was fired by the New York Times for creating a "composite character" based on interviews with numerous individuals.


God, how I do love Jessa Crispin.

I get the distinct feeling that, on many points, I am Jessa Crispin's polar opposite. She is a successful, intellectual author who ran an internationally renowned literary blog, she travels widely, she worked for Planned Parenthood and is vocally pro-choice. I am not successful, not intellectual, I largely stay put, I am living in what most people would term the most traditional and regressive of personal situations (married with children in the suburbs), and I am anti-abortion.

Why i am not a feministBut, I gotta tell you this, and I mean it: I love Jessa Crispin from the bottom of my soul. I just read her new book Why I Am Not a Feminist. It's a great read. Crispin is so smart and such a tidy nonfiction writer that she can showcase her well-read understanding of her subject matter without making you feel like an idiot. That's not easy to do. Rather than name-dropping to scare you with what she knows, or to spin ever more detailed theses, she presents just enough of others' thoughts and works to make YOU want to go read them. (And then she gives you a handy one-page bibliography at the end, no titles, no pub data, just names of authors you should read.) This is also not easy. Her crisp prose, on the other hand, is so easy to read that her chapters are over before you know it. And yet it is filled with such heat that it makes you not want to stop reading chapters until you're all done with the book.

Here's the opening salvo:

"Somewhere along the way toward female liberation, it was decided that the most effective method was for feminism to become universal. But instead of shaping a world and a philosophy that would become attractive to the masses, a world based on fairness and community and exchange, it was feminism itself that would have to be rebranded and remarketed for contemporary men and women.

They forgot that for something to be universally accepted, it must become as banal, as non-threatening and ineffective as possible. Hence the pose. People don't like change, and so feminism must be as close to the status quo--with minor modifications--in order to recruit large numbers.

In other words, it has to become entirely pointless." (p. x-xi.)

Reviews of this book have been mixed. I'm going to tell you to read it. If nothing else, because I know that Crispin is out there living the life she advocates in her nonfiction. I love her the way I love Stacy Horn: both of these women take their work seriously. It is not making them rich.* It is not making their books Oprah books. They are both just extremely talented and hard-working writers. Horn puts a lot of effort into her fact-checking (and sometimes seems to be the last nonfiction author out there who does) and Crispin doesn't say anything that you want to hear just to make you like her.

So, no: we do not always share the same opinions. But I love her because she seems willing to say some things that no one wants to hear: she particularly makes the point that it does not make a woman a feminist just to become rich and successful in our current system. She makes the further point that a lot of times people who are successful at getting ahead in someone else's system are then very good at turning around and oppressing other people. Which is not really the point. Or shouldn't be. Or, as she says, much more eloquently:

"And trust me: people will hate you if you choose freedom over money, if you decide to live a life by your values of compassion, honesty, and integrity. Because you will remind them of their own deficiencies in these areas.

It's lonely outside the system. But we need you out here." (p. 64.)

I'm always a fan of someone saying something that will not make them rich. Read this book.** Or, if you don't have time, check out this interview. Also? Go buy and read some Stacy Horn books, please. Let's start by making some authors arguably not inside the James-Pattersonesque juggernaut system of publishing a little bit more well-off.

*I am particularly touched that Crispin once noted that one of the few ways to make blogging pay was to be an Amazon associate, and she didn't care much for that.

**Back when I wasn't blogging for a while I also read Crispin's travelogue The Dead Ladies Project: Exiles, Expats, and Ex-Countries. I'm sorry I never wrote about it here. There was a lot to think about in that book too, and at least one line/thought that will stay with me for a long time.


Reading notes from February 2017.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Love a good quick nonfiction graphic novel read: Andy Warner's Brief Histories of Everyday Objects.

Every now and then I like to read a good graphic novel (fiction or non, I'm open on graphic novels, for the most part) and Andy Warner's stupendously entertaining Brief Histories of Everyday Objects did not disappoint.

Brief historiesI found this title on some booklist of nonfiction graphic novels that I linked to in a weekly Citizen Reading post a few weeks or months back, leading me to once again say, YAY book lists. You gotta love a good book list, particularly one that is outside your normal reading interests or comfort zone.

In this lighthearted history Warner examines (very briefly, in just a few cartoon panels per story) the histories of some objects that we basically could no longer imagine living without: toothbrushes, kitty litter, silk, tupperware, traffic lights, beer cans, kites, and coffee beans (among many others). The drawings are clean and easy to follow (sometimes I'm too lazy to follow graphic novel layouts when they're too dense or complicated; I remain a word girl, not a picture girl, at heart) and the facts are fun, interesting, and very succinctly written. Also, at the end of each short history, Warner throws in a few panels of "Briefer Histories," with all the tidbits of research he couldn't really fit in anywhere else, like "Ingredients in ancient toothpaste included ox hooves, eggshells, oyster shells, and charcoal. Minty fresh!" (p. 5.)

I also really enjoyed running gags throughout the stories, such as when multiple visionaries/inventors failed to cash in on their inventions. In the first such instance, a briefer history discusses how "Walter Hunt's grave in Brooklyn's Greenwood Cemetery sits in the shadow of the monument of Elias Howe, who got rich manufacturing Hunt's unpatented sewing machine." (With a picture of Hunt saying, "Rub it in, why don't you?") (p. 47.) And by the end of the book Walter Hunt and a bunch of other poor visionaries are grouped together, saying "We've decided to move in together to save on rent." (p. 177.) I'm describing it badly, but it's funny stuff.

In other news, this book has a wonderful bibliography, including many popular micro-histories, and Mr. CR gave it the highest praise he can give a nonfiction book: "Hey, that book you've got in the bathroom right now is pretty good."


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.


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

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

Now THIS is what I'm talking about:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of course he was coming face-up.

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

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

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

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

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


Rivka Galchen's Little Labors.

As previously noted, since having kids I've gone gaga for parenting books.

What's really scary--to me, at least--is that, of the parenting books, I read, I only post about a few of them, which means I am reading way too many parenting books, both of the self-help and memoir/essay varieties. I can't say I really enjoy a ton of them, but yet I keep reading them.

Little laborsSo when I saw that novelist Rivka Galchen had published a little memoir/essay collection titled Little Labors, I thought, well, I'm going to have to read that too. It's definitely one of the more "literary" examples of the genre; here's how The New Republic reviewed it: "Everything one could possibly need is dispensed via dense, tiny, mysterious pellets--a fortified shot of literary enrichment we didn't even know we needed, but that now feels vital and enthralling."

Ostensibly the book is about babies and books. But the books in question are something a somewhat avant-garde novelist would read and comment upon, like Sei Shonagon's The Pillow Book. This is not a book where the author dishes about giving birth and then blabs about all the celebrity memoirs she's reading and what they're making her think about. (And really, weirdly, female comedian memoirs did make me think about gender issues and culture, a lot.) That's the sort of book I would write, low-culture boob that I am. Galchen's is more, what's the word I'm looking for...removed? Here's the first chapter, in its entirety:

"Children's books. Books for young children rarely feature children. They feature animals, or monsters, or, occasionally, children behaving like animals or monsters. Books for adults almost invariably feature adults." (p. 3.)

Well, okay. True enough. But nothing here was as gritty in a motherhood way (read: not violent, but definitely sometimes gory), which is still kind of what I'm searching for in one of these memoirs. You know what I really want to read? I want to read a book of essays in which women share all the details of their birth experiences. Really. I think it would be instructive. Horrifying, but instructive, and perhaps even beautiful. Come on. People write roughly a million horrible war memoirs every year--why is that bloody subject okay, but birth is not?

Anyway. Here's another bit from Galchen's book, just to give you the flavor:

"My life with the very young human resembles those romantic comedies in which two people who don't speak the same language still somehow fall in love. Like say, that movie I saw on an airplane with the wide-eyed Brazilian woman and the doofy American man who end up together, despite not being able to communicate via words...Yes, it was like those comedies, only without the upsetting gender dynamic of the effectively mute female. Though with the same believability. And arguably the dynamic might still be considered upsetting." (p. 31.)

It was okay. But if anyone's got any suggestions for me about that gory book about motherhood, please do let me know.*

*I think this is why I love Rachel Cusk. She's been more honest than anyone else I've seen about what goes on in the immediate aftermath of having a baby, and in marriage.


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.