Short

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.

 


Disrupted, by Dan Lyons.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A Thousand Naked Strangers, by Kevin Hazzard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


But Enough About Me by Burt Reynolds.

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

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

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

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

'Because she has talent,' I said.

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

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

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

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

'Right here?' I said.

'You know what I mean,' she said.

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

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

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

Awesome.

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

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


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.


Holiday Book Buying Guide 2015: For the kid in your life who's read everything else.

You know this kid, right? You give them a three- or five-book series for a birthday or the holidays and they burn through all of them in about a week? It's hard to keep up with kids like that, when buying books for them, but on the other hand? What a great problem to have.

So today I'd like to suggest a nice little series that hasn't been talked about much lately, so maybe it's something the voracious reader you know won't have encountered yet. That series is Lloyd Alexander's Westmark* trilogy.

Now, of course, Lloyd Alexander is fairly well-known as the author of the Chronicles of Prydain series. And those are good books too. But this three-book series offers a bit more for the slightly older reader (maybe 9 or 10 to 12 or 13?) to get their teeth into. In the first book, the kingdom of Westmark is in a bad way: its king is faltering under grief caused by the death of his daughter; his kingdom is effectively being ruled by the evil advisor Cabbarus; law-abiding people are being harrassed for no reason. In this atmosphere the orphan Theo, a printer's apprentice, finds his life turned upside down when his boss's shop is destroyed and Theo is forced to run. While on the run, he takes up with a con artist and his servant/friend, and eventually they chance upon an extremely talented young girl/street urchin named Mickle. Adventures ensue, and all is most definitely not what it seems when it comes to who the characters really are.

There are some fights and, especially in the second book in the trilogy (The Kestrel) some military battles, but nothing is described in horrific detail. Characters die, and tough choices are made, but in such a way that it shouldn't be too much for the younger kids to read. The pace moves right along and there's some humor, so these are even books that an adult could read to a kid or with a kid, and not mind it at all themselves.**

The third book is called The Beggar Queen***. And of course you can't find these books new****, but you can certainly find them online at Powell's Books.

*Although I see that Westmark won a National Book Award. So perhaps it is better known than I think. But, it won the award back in 1982. So maybe not.

**I read the whole series in a couple of days and really, REALLY enjoyed it.

***This is also a great series for girls. Mickle, the main female character, is all kinds of awesome.

****I take it back. I just checked and you can find them new at Amazon. I thought they might be too old.


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.


Mark Schatzker's The Dorito Effect: A food book worth reading.

There are a lot of books being written these days about our food.

I've read a lot of them myself, but somewhere along the way I burned out on them. Partially this was because I worry about my family's diet, but not enough to do the massive amounts of work that are necessary to grow your own food, or even preserve or freeze it.* Partially this was also because I have the world's least sophisticated palate**, so telling me about how healthy food can also taste great is largely a waste of time.

But I must say that I found Mark Schatzker's investigative book The Dorito Effect: The Surprising New Truth about Food and Flavor to be a new take on a very overdone subject. Schatzker examines food from the viewpoint of flavor--most importantly, how the majority of our food doesn't have any, because it has mainly been produced by a huge agricultural system that must sacrifice complex flavor in order to maximize hardiness and yield.

One thing I really appreciated here was Schatzker's lean journalistic writing and emphasis on scientific studies done on the relationships between flavors in foods and their nutritious compounds. Here's your sample of the book, in which the author describes one of the reasons modern chickens taste so bland:

"In the late 1940s, a new and important feed was unleashed upon poultrydom: the 'high-energy diet.' For chickens to grow twice as fast as their recent ancestors, they needed to mainline carbs.

There was. however, a tradeoff that no one thought much about in the 1940s, or today. What the high-energy diet gains in calories, it loses in flavor. The feed is typically a blend of seeds--corn, wheat, millet, soybeans, etc.--and while some seeds (nutmeg, for example) are flavorful, the seeds we feed chicken are not. And, unlike tomatoes, a chicken doesn't make its own flavor. The taste of animal flesh is strongly influenced by what an animal eats." (p. 35.)

It's an interesting read, and even includes an appendix with a few basic suggestions for starting to improve one's diet. Sigh. I should really follow some of those.

*If I seriously gardened or preserved food I'd have even less time to read! Not. Gonna. Happen.

**For nearly ten years after I graduated from college, I ate a S'mores Pop-Tart and coffee for every breakfast, home-made meatloaf for most at-home meals (hamburger is my true medium), and candy and ice cream in massive, massive quantities. Don't tell my mom, okay? The poor woman raised me on milk my father's dairy herd produced, beef and pork my family raised itself and an awe-inspiring amount of homegrown fruits and vegetables. She was kinder to me for my first eighteen years than I have been to myself since.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read it. Read read read it.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

And she concludes that story with:

"And I never criticized my body ever again.

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

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

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


Marie Kondo's The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up: Not really meant for me.

I don't actually know what kind of magic it's going to take to change my life, but sadly, I don't think tidying up alone is going to do it.

Have you heard of Marie Kondo's The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing? It's a bestseller and it's been getting a lot of good press (including some good words from readers I either trust or like or both). So I thought, my house and life are a mess, and this book is only 213 pages long, let's give it a whirl.

It was a fun (and somewhat useful) little read. Kondo's a well-known organization and decluttering expert, and in short and delightfully straightforward chapters she advises you (basically) to touch all your stuff, figure out if it "sparks joy" in you, and if it doesn't, ditch it. There's more to it than that, really, but that's the gist. She also concludes that if you tidy up your surroundings, and more fully appreciate fewer possessions, you will change your life for the better.

Let's get one thing straight: I'm totally on board. For at least the last decade I have had no problem throwing stuff away. Likewise, it is pretty easy to avoid acquiring things when you can only shop for fifteen minutes at a time.* One friend who told me about this book was telling me she didn't know if she agreed with the part of the book where Kondo suggests emptying your purse every time you get home (so as not to accumulate odds and ends, etc.). At that point I emptied my pockets onto the table: card wallet (reinforced-with-tape paper credit card sleeve that I use to carry about 5 important cards), cell phone, keys. I said, "Done!' She laughed but I do suspect she rather thought I should have my Girl Membership revoked.

But the thing where she tells you to ditch anything that doesn't "spark joy"? Well, whatever. If I actually abided by that there would be very few possessions left in my house. I hate my stove, for instance, and disdain its glass-top surface as ridiculous every time something boils over. And that old red short-sleeve sweater? Well, it's the only thing remotely appropriate to wear with my black "funeral skirt" (and you can guess why I keep that around). So you see my difficulty in going along with that one.

But at the end of the day? I did read the whole book and was somewhat charmed by it. I'm not going to start folding my clothes the Marie Kondo way, but the other day I did thank my house for housing me so nicely (she also recommends frequently thanking your possessions for their service) and it was nice. Did it change my life? Not really. Was it a harmless way to express joy and gratitude? Sure.

I'll take it. Have a good weekend, all.

*I ABHOR shopping of all types (except book-) and Mr. CR jokes that we only have fifteen minutes in any given store before I start hyperventilating. This smacks of high maintenance, I know, but it does mean that people you're shopping with start to learn to make their choices quickish.


So You've Been Publicly Shamed, by Jon Ronson: Compulsively readable, but somewhat unsatisfying.

I have always been a big Jon Ronson fan.

So when I heard he had a new book out, titled So You've Been Publicly Shamed*, I of course had to go get it. And I was not disappointed. Or, if I was, a little bit, I wasn't disappointed enough to not enjoy the read.

This time Ronson takes as his subject "shaming," particularly the type that happens online these days. As in, someone might post an ill-advised or just poorly worded joke or comment (or completely innocent, but easily misconstrued) on Twitter or their blog, and pretty soon every troll on the Internet rains down fire and brimstone (not to mention more overt threats of violence). The book is ostensibly his look at "shaming as a form of social control."

I'm not going to describe each chapter, because if I did, I think you'd be totally confused. (And also because I read this a few weeks ago and I've already almost completely forgotten the points and flow of the book--which should indicate to you that this is not the best Jon Ronson book ever.) If you'd like a more thorough review of this book, please consider this one, at the AV Club.

The stories here are wild and weird--Ronson always does a very good job of locating stories and people that make you say, "wait, what?"--but I felt that just as each chapter got interesting, Ronson would end it, never to make any conclusions about it or its subject again. (Hence: "unsatisfying.") And (the AV Club review) points out that Ronson as a journalist does some ever-so-slightly dodgy things to get people to speak with him, which makes me vaguely uncomfortable, even when he lets you know he's doing it.**

The part of the book that really struck me was Ronson's work with Lindsey Stone, who was ostracized when she a photo of her acting disrespectfully behind an Arlington National Cemetery sign that asked for quiet and respect, and who was basically destroyed online and threatened numerous times.*** Ronson enlisted an online reputation repair firm to help Stone "clean up" her search result pages. Learning about how Reputation.com goes about trying to fix your online reputation (which, horrifyingly, keeps showing up forever) was fascinating. At one point the firm suggested she not refer online to her experiences working at Walmart as "soul-suckingly awful." Here's the anecdote:

"'Are you sure you want to say that Walmart was soul-sucking?' Farukh said.

'Oh...what? Really?' Lindsey laughed as if to say, 'Come on! Everyone knows that about Walmart!' But then she hesitated.

The conference call was proving an unexpectedly melancholic experience. It was nothing to do with Farukh. He really felt for Lindsey and wanted to do a good job for her. The sad thing was that Lindsey had incurred the Internet's wrath because she was impudent and playful and foolhardy and outspoken. And now here she was, working with Farukh to reduce herself to safe banalities--to cats and ice cream and Top 40 chart music. We were creating a world where the smartest way to survive is to be bland." (p. 266.)

I'd love to hear what anyone else thinks of this one, frankly, or of Jon Ronson in general.

*And of course I think I first heard about it when Jon Stewart interviewed Ronson on The Daily Show. Where are we going to turn for nonfiction books coverage when Stewart retires? I hope Trevor Noah keeps up the books tradition.

**Ever since I read the superlative True Crime book A Rip in Heaven, and heard about how one of the victims in the story was questioned by the police as though he were a suspect--and how the police lied about certain things to him to try and confuse and trip him up--this sort of thing has made me really, really nervous. I actually have a lot of respect for the police and I'm sure that's how they sometimes have to do their job, but it still gave me the total heebs. In short: read A Rip in Heaven: A Memoir of Murder and Its Aftermath, and always lawyer up.

***Her picture was not really that shocking. It's the equivalent of going behind a fence with a "No Visitors Beyond This Point" sign on it and having someone take a picture of you beyond that point--which I'm pretty sure anyone who has ever been a teenager has done.


Brian Grazer's A Curious Mind: Disappointing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was amazed. Sounded perfect to me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Very British Problems...

as a Twitter account* posting such items as the below was more than enough. I really don't know that it needed to be made into a book.

"'Right, well, anyway, good, I suppose I should really probably soon start to think about maybe making a move" - Translation: Bye" [Note: Evidently, this sort of thing is considered a "very British problem."]

And there you have it. My brevity may not be the soul of much wit, but it is all I have the energy for tonight. Have a great weekend, all.

*p.s. I still don't understand Twitter, and honestly, I think I'm happier that way.


Some new "meh" fiction for your consideration.

Last week was not a real winner for me and fiction.

First off, I read David Duchovny's new novel Holy Cow, and all I can say is, wow, David Duchovny needs some more people around him to tell him when something's a bad idea. It's not the worst novel I've ever read, but I pretty much made it through only because it's a fast read and 206 pages long. It's narrated by a cow who dreams of going to India, where cows are sacred, because she learns by sneaking out of her enclosure and watching TV through her humans' windows that Americans raise and butcher cows in horrible surroundings. This shocks her, and she starts making her plans for exodus. Along the way she picks up a pig who wants to go to Israel (where they don't eat pork, of course), and a turkey who wants to go to Turkey (just because). I'd say, hilarity ensues, but it doesn't, really. Here's your sample bit:

"My ancestors, my great-great-great-great-great-etc.-grandmother came from somewhere in what humans call the Middle East. That's where the Maker made us and first put our hooves on the ground. They called it the land of milk and honey. And guess who provided the milk? Though I'm told that goats also get milked by humans. Are you kidding me? Come on. No offense, but goat's milk does not compare with cow's milk, unless you're a goat kid. Have you ever seen a cow trying to drink milk from a goat? Case closed.

And now I hear stories of humans milking something called an 'almond' and another called a 'soy.' I've never seen a wild almond or a say galloping about in its natural habitat, but cow milk is the best. I'd bet three of my four stomachs on it." (pp. 11-12.)

And there you go. All I know is all week when I was reading other novels and Mr. CR wanted to know how they were, he would phrase the question this way: "Is it better or worse than the Duchovny cow book you've got in the bathroom? Because that thing is terrible."

Your other "meh" choice (although better, I think than the Duchovny cow book in the bathroom) is Ellen Meister's Dorothy Parker Drank Here. Here's the premise: Dorothy Parker, witty member of the Algonquin (Hotel) round table of the 1920s, along with many other authors and luminaries, signed a guest book owned by the hotel's manager. Turns out it was a magic book and if the person so chooses, after death they can "go to the light" or sit around the Algonquin. Dorothy chooses the latter, but is lonely, so she tries to get another author staying in the same hotel to agree to sign the book, so when he passes, she'll have company. Enter a gung-ho TV producer who wants to get that author booked on her talk show, and who learns Dorothy Parker is still hanging out at the Algonquin. I'd say, hilarity ensues, but, well, it doesn't. It's an okay book and actually Dorothy Parker's lines are believably witty, but all the rest of the characters (and most of the story) is serious dullsville.

Back to nonfiction for a while.


Still love The Oatmeal; this book, not so much.

Because I love The Oatmeal, I picked up his latest book, The Terrible and Wonderful Reasons Why I Run Long Distances.

I should have known from the title this would not be the book for me. I don't know where I heard this line, but I've used it many times: I only run if I'm the victim or perpetrator of a crime. The cartoon is still interesting, but not enough to carry the whole book, and most of the other cartoons deal with running as well.

But The Oatmeal is very generous with his cartoons on his website, so you can check them out there and decide for yourself if you want to get any of his books. This week you should totally look at "If My Dogs Were a Pair of Middle-Aged Men." I laughed and laughed.


The search for lighter nonfiction.

I've been cranky as hell the last few weeks.

I was saying something to that effect to Mr. CR the other day (as if he hadn't noticed) and he said, "Well, get some happier reading, would you? Good Lord, the nonfiction you've got around here is depressing me when I just read the titles."

This was a fair point, as I do indeed have a record number of downer nonfiction titles on the go. So I thought I'd try a light memoir/collection of humorous essays that a friend recommended a while back: Mindy Kaling's Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?

And I enjoyed it. I enjoy Mindy Kaling, I enjoy "The Mindy Project" (although where they are going with the pregnancy storyline, I have no idea), and I'm always a fan of some good humorous nonfiction. There's nothing earth-shatteringly hilarious here, but I think Kaling has cemented my affection forever in her chapter titled "Guys Need to Do Almost Nothing to Be Great":

"Here's my incredibly presumptuous guide to being an awesome guy, inside and out...

#6. Avoid asking if someone needs help in a kitchen or at a party, just start helping. Same goes with dishes. (Actually, if you don't want to help, you should ask them if they need help. No self-respecting host or hostess will say yes to that question.)" (p. 164.)

Simple and right on. Kindly but firmly stated. Kaling's my kinda girl.*

So yes, a good light read. However, I was done with it in a couple of hours. Clearly I need a bigger stockpile of chipper nonfiction titles. Suggestions?

*And frankly? She's roughly one million times funnier than Tina Fey.


The title made me want to like it.

With a title like People I Want to Punch In the Throat: Competitive Crafters, Drop-Off Despots, and Other Suburban Scourges, I really wanted to love Jen Mann's book.

It's a short book of humorous essays on parenting, of the sort I've been consuming like bon-bons ever since I had the CRjrs. There's a lot of this sort of thing:

"I love my cleaning lady just a little bit more than I love the Hubs. No, that's not true. I love her a lot more than I love the Hubs, and I'm not afraid to tell her, or him." (p. 32.)

And this:

"I have a confession to make. No, this isn't the part where I reveal that I'm a closet crafter who has a craft room in my basement where I hoard countless dollars' worth of rubber stamps, paint, tulle, ribbon, and glue guns (yes, glue guns, plural, because every good crafter worth her glitter knows you need more than one size). Even though that's all true, I'd rather talk about my even more embarrassing confession: I want a minivan. Baaad." (p. 103.)

Yeah, it's okay. I read the whole thing (it's only about 200 pages long). And it had a few moments. But overall? It just wasn't all that funny. As types in the genre, I'd much more heartily recommend Karen Alpert's I Heart My Little A-Holes, Drew Magary's Someone Could Get Hurt, or even Amber Dusick's Parenting: Illustrated with Crappy Pictures.