Year in the Life

A lovely fluffy weekend read.

Last weekend I blew through Freeman Hall's very breezy, very readable, often quite funny memoir Retail Hell: How I Sold My Soul to the Store. It was the nonfiction equivalent of eating a box of Russell Stover (or insert your favorite candy brand there; I'm cheap, so Russell Stover it is) chocolates. Hugely enjoyable and decadent going down, but not real good for you in the long run. But that's okay. Sometimes you need to be a pig with a box of chocolates*, and sometimes you need a good fluffy weekend read.

Retail Hall worked for many years in the handbag (dear God, don't call them purses!) department of a major department store (he refers to it throughout as The Big Fancy, but he's talking about Nordstrom**). As a new arrival and screenwriting hopeful in Los Angeles, Freeman found that he needed a day job and applied at The Big Fancy, hoping for a generous employee discount and the chance to end up in the Men's department measuring men's inseams. (Hall freely admits that as a gay man, he was drawn to the retail world by interests in both fashion and cute men.) Something goes terribly wrong and he ends up in the handbag department.

If you've ever worked retail, you'll be able to guess what ensued. Customers take advantage of return policies. Customers steal. Co-workers do anything to cut you out of a sale and commission (except for a friendly and hilarious group of saleswomen who befriend Hall and show him the handbag ropes). Management is either clueless or evil. And yet? Somewhere in the middle of it all Hall became really good at his job, and I actually found the chapters where he discussed both his most difficult and most lucrative customers to be the most fascinating.

But don't worry: he still ended with a chapter that involves fitting rooms, women's swimsuits, and massive amounts of pooh. Yes, you read that right.

So: the weekend's here. Looking for a way to spend it that would be cheaper than actually going handbag shopping? Consider picking this memoir up instead. (Hall is also the founder of the blog Retail Hell Underground, but that site kind of freaked me out--if you visit it you'll see what I mean--and I much preferred the book.)

*Come to think of it, why didn't I eat a box of chocolates WHILE reading this book? That would have been awesome.

**When I was in college I went to the Mall of America with some friends, and we visited Nordstrom because it was supposed to be so fancy. They had phones in the dressing rooms (I was in college a million years ago, before the advent of cell phones)! This farm girl was out of her league.

Evidently I'm just reading the wrong graphic novels.

Rall I read all of Ted Rall's and Pablo Callejo's graphic novel The Year of Loving Dangerously: A Graphic Memoir, and about the only lasting impression I have of it is that it left me depressed as hell.

And then I thought, every time I read graphic novels I end up depressed as hell. Consider: David Small's Stitches. Alison Bechdel's Fun Home. Art Spiegelman's Maus. Neil Gaiman's first episode of Sandman (Preludes and Nocturnes).* What I can't decide is, do I end up depressed because so many nonfiction graphic novels deal with somber and graphic stories, or do I end up depressed because I either don't understand the book (this is always the case with Gaiman) or because literally picturing things is too intense for me? It's a quandary.

But. Back to Rall's graphic memoir, in which he tells the story, and Callejo provides the drawing. The teaser for this story is "dumped, fired, arrested, expelled, and evicted--Ted Rall lost everything in the summer of 1984. Survival meant breaking all the rules." And that's pretty much it, really. Through no real fault of his own (and due to an unforseen medical emergency), Rall got booted out of Columbia University in the summer of 1984 and didn't have any place to stay in New York City. What he did then, basically, was put together a string of one-night stands and amorous encounters so he usually had a place to stay at night.

Which is resourceful, to say the least. But I still found it depressing. (Mr. CR didn't understand me at all when I was trying to explain my feelings. I think he was just impressed by the chutzpah of the solution.) Maybe it's because the cartoon of Rall on the cover doesn't look all that happy (although the women around him do). Maybe it's because later in that summer he had a slight STD scare, and nothing puts me off the idea of a summer of free lovin' more than the idea of an STD. But all of this is neither here nor there. As an attempt at a graphic memoir, there's nothing wrong with this book. I picked it up primarily because I find Ted Rall to be a very interesting writer, in the same camp as Matt Taibbi,** and I'll always look at anything he writes. But this one just wasn't for me.

*There are exceptions. Brian Fies's Mom's Cancer, although it was really sad, didn't actually leave me depressed, nor did Mat Johnson's Incognegro, which was just such an unbelievable story I didn't know how to feel about it.

**And like Matt Taibbi, he is completely underrated, which is wrong. If you've never heard of Rall, please do look into anything he's written.

Lotsa starties...

...not so many finishies.

In between Book Menaging it up last week (are we ready to use that as a verb yet? Sure, why not?) I started a lot of books that I never really ended up finishing. This happens periodically, and always leaves me feeling a bit cranky, especially when they're okay books. These aren't the type of books I hate or anything; they make me cranky because, if I had infinite time, I probably would have finished them. But I am learning that there are just too many books out there, fiction and nonfiction, to put in time with a book that I'm not particualarly loving. So here they are, last week's losers, in no particular order:

Rouse 1. At Least in the City Someone Would Hear Me Scream: Misadventures in Search of the Simple Life, by Wade Rouse. This is another one of those "I want to live like Thoreau and get back to nature," "city slicker in Rural America" memoirs, and it's not completely unfunny, but I have always found Rouse's writing a little blocky. (Although the part where he and his partner Gary go shopping at Wal-mart, where Rouse admits the locals have probably never before seen a man wearing he-capris "featuring a giant flower on the ass" did get me to giggle at their sheer chutzpah, if nothing else.) I tried to read his earlier memoir, Confessions of a Prep School Mommy Handler, and found that had a similar three-page chapter, somewhat graceless expository style. Consider: "I wanted to live simply, like Thoreau. I wanted peace and serenity. But I think I got rabies instead." Meh.

Cross 2. I Drink for a Reason, by David Cross. This is a collection of humorous pieces that, once again, I'm not really smart enough to find all that funny. I don't even know where to start quoting on this one, so I'm picking at random: in the chapter titled "Involuntary Random Thoughts I've Had Not Always When I was Pooing But Certainly Sometimes When I Was Pooing," you find this bon mot: "Whoever owns clean air is going to be fucking crazy rich soon!" (p. 129.) I guess I'm not really woman enough to start picking on books I don't really even understand, but this one had an initial print run of 100,000? Wow. I'll be interested to hear if 100,000 readers find this funny, or if 99,999 fans of Cross's from his role on the TV show Arrested Development are going to be very disappointed, and one person is going to find this book hilarious.

Zeitoun 3. Zeitoun, by Dave Eggers. I'll admit it, I just don't have the heart to read this one all the way through, primarily because I think I really only enjoy Dave Eggers when he's writing about Dave Eggers. Also, this is a heartbreaking work about a man who stayed in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, and actually helped many people in the city during its aftermath by paddling around in his own canoe, offering supplies and aid. What did he get for his trouble? Thrown into prison, that's what, as he was arrested by the few authorities doing anything in New Orleans on suspicion of looting, and mired in the post-Katrina prison mess. For some reason I was so completely disturbed by the arc of this story and the complete and utter breakdown in the post-Katrina situation that I literally didn't have the stomach to read it. It's actually probably a very good book for anyone to read to get a real feel for the FUBAR mess that was (still is?) post-Katrina New Orleans.

A little memoir with a bit of heart.

I have no idea why I requested Mark Millhone's memoir The Patron Saint of Used Cars and Second Chances; all I know is one day it was there, at the library, waiting for me, so of course I had to bring it home. (Books to me are like puppies or kittens. I want to adopt them ALL.) Once I got it home, I read the dust jacket to see what it was about: a man buys a used BMW online and, after picking it up, roadtrips it back to his home with his father in tow. The twist? The year the author is coming off of has not been a good one: one son spent weeks in intensive care after developing pneumonia at birth; his mother died; his other son was horribly bitten across the nose by the family dog; and his father was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Add a marriage situation that's teetering on the edge, and I think it's fair to say Millhone was under a bit of stress.

Usedcars Enter the car: he thought, if his family could just start over with a new car, new roadtrips, new memories, etc., they'd be able to get on with their lives after their annus horribilis and find more strength in one another.

I won't reveal if the car worked; the memoir's only 192 pages long so if you're interested in finding that out it won't take you long to do so. The memoir's not perfect; after a while, the author's reliance on the details of his horrible year starts to sound a little overdone (hey, it was a really bad year. I get it. But other people have bad years too, and a lot of people across the world have really bad luck all their lives), and there's a couple of incidences in his treatment of the family dogs that made me a bit uncomfortable,* but there were also parts of this memoir that charmed me. For example, when his son sees the jagged line of stitches across his nose for the first time:

"'Why'd this have to happen?! Why?!' he cried, burying his face in my shoulder...

'You're the bravest boy,' I repeated, not knowing what else to say.

'I don't wanna be brave!' he cried.

Me neither, kid. Me neither." (p. 151.)

That's kind of honest, and I couldn't help but be touched by it just a bit. In the end, though...I think I mainly appreciated that it was short. That's a terrible reason to like a book, really, but I can't help it. I appreciate authors who recognize I've got lots of other things to read and who keep their books, accordingly, under 200 pages.

*I won't say too much, but I'll say this: dogs bite, and it's horrible when it happens, and I wouldn't want to think about what I would do to a dog that bit my child, but...kicking a dog in anger just doesn't seem like it's going to help any situation. Animal lovers, consider yourself warned.

Can't talk, gotta read.

Here's a little tip, from me to you: If you're having a busy week, and you have a lot of work yet to do, and your weekend's going to be at least partially shot to hell because you have to attend a bridal shower*, do not, under any circumstances, pick up Michael Perry's new book Coop: A Year of Poultry, Pigs, and Parenting.

Coop I started it last night at 11 p.m., and wow, was that a mistake.** So now I'm tired from reading too late, and behind in my day's work (already!) because I read some more over breakfast. But you know what? It was totally worth it. I'm not done with it yet but am trying to valiantly exert some self-control and get other stuff done so I can go back to it tonight.

I'll say more about it next week (Perry is one of my favorite authors, having written the memoirs Population: 485 and Truck: A Love Story) but suffice it to say that it's awesome. I was reading it last night, totally lost in my own little world (or, more accurately, Perry's own little world) when Mr. CR looked over and said, "Are you all right?" And I started and said "Yes, fine, why?" And he said, "You have a funny little smile. I just wondered." Evidently when I am feeling 100% joy it manifests itself in a funny little smile. Good to know.

*Nothing against the bride. Brides are welcome to have bridal showers. But I don't believe in them personally (and please note, I didn't have one myself, so I never feel bad skipping out on them and sending a check instead; for various reasons, I can't do that this time). As a religion, my Anti-Shower Beliefs rival my Catholic ones in vehemence.

**It was a mistake because it's SO GOOD I didn't want to stop reading. 

Where are you, Lynn Snowden?

One of the problems with nonfiction authors is that they don't often write as many books as popular fiction authors do. Frankly, William Langewiesche couldn't write enough books to keep me happy, although he is starting to put together a lengthier backlist.

On the other hand, I sometimes find authors like Lynn Snowden. I don't know where I heard about it, but something possessed me to request her book Nine Lives: From Stripper to Schoolteacher, My Yearlong Odyssey in the Workplace. I brought it home and perused it slightly, thinking I'd look it over, find out some interesting tidbits about stripping*, and take it back. Before I knew it, I'd read the whole thing by reading a chapter or so every night.

I really enjoyed this book. An early example of "participatory journalism," a la George Plimpton and Barbara Ehrenreich, it's also a surprisingly good one. I loved her chapter on cocktail waitressing in Las Vegas (which turned out to be her hardest job, as well as one of the hardest to get), as well as her chapter on being a housewife, which she also found exhausting. But the chapter on stripping was still my favorite, precisely because she gave a very forthright accounting of her reactions to her customers. I particularly enjoyed this:

"Taking my clothes off in front of strangers turned out to be pretty easy to do. It's walking by a construction site that's a hundred times worse than disrobing in a strip joint. Men are much more cowed and intimidated in front of strippers than they are on the street. They're on our turn in a strip club, and they don't want to do something wrong or they'll be thrown out." (p. 186.)

I really enjoyed the other strippers (in New Orleans) teaching Snowden how to size up the customers for how much money can be had, and for pointing out that therapists make hundreds of dollars an hour (which, they argue, they are, as most guys just want to talk about themselves); I also enjoyed this:

"One guy was smiling at me the whole time I was onstage, but never came up to tip. After I finished I went over to him and asked if he enjoyed the show. 'Yes, I deed,' he says. Oh, shit, he's French, I think. Bad tippers as a rule. 'I like ze girls who smile.'

'If you liked it, you should have given me a tip,' I say.

'Ees zat why you were smiling at me?' he says indignantly. 'To get ze dollar. Eez zat why you are doing zees? For ze money?'

Yes, you fucking moron." (p. 201.)

Finally, finally, a case where women can say, "Boys, she's just not that into you."

My question is: where is Lynn Snowden now? This book was published in 1994, and she published another book, Looking for a Fight, in 2000, but since then...I can't find any other books she's written. Please write another one, Ms. Snowden, even if you don't want to write any more about stripping.

*Between this, Jenna Jameson's How to Make Love Like a Porn Star, and Diablo Cody's Candy Girl, I think I am now done reading about striping.


I didn't think I was going to be, but I ended up being amused by Sam MacDonald's book The Urban Hermit: A Memoir.

Urbanhermit Finding himself overextended in debt and unhealthily drinking his way through every evening at his favorite neighborhood bar, MacDonald decided to save money by becoming an "Urban Hermit" and living on eight dollars a week eating lentils and tuna. He only means to do it for a month, but eventually ends up Hermiting for a full year, during which he goes to Bosnia and Montana on writing assignments, loses more than a hundred pounds, and meets and marries a woman he works with.

I'm not typically overfond of big drinking guys who are the life of the party (I ask you, who can drink twenty Rolling Rocks in one sitting?)--it's a whole culture I don't understand. But I did enjoy some of his stories, like when he and two friends, in a VW bus, are driving across country in a VW van to attend a hippy gathering in Montana. When they run out of gas, they coast into a gas station, where:

"A copper-colored Eagle Talon pulled up to the gas pump next to ours...It had Massachusetts plates. The backseat was full of junk, packed all the way to the ceiling. The driver and the passenger were both white guys, in their late teens or early twenties. Both were wearing sunglasses and long dreadlocks. The windows were shut tight, but we could hear Bob Marley playing at top volume until the driver turned off the ignition and stepped out into the late-night air.

He took one look at us and he smiled.

'You guys headed to the gathering?' he said.

No shit. That's exactly what he said. We were two thousand miles from Dillon, Montana, but this guy could tell. Maybe it was the Bus. Maybe it was the Slim Jims" (p. 147.)

I thought that was kind of funny, as is this memoir, in a strange kind of way. Although I don't know that anyone who travels to both Bosnia and Montana in on year can rightfully call themselves a "hermit." But I'll overlook it.

I love it when writers get sick.

Well, not really. But nobody can write about illness and recovery, like, well, people who write for a living.

A while back I read and enjoyed American journalist Sarah Lyall's book The Anglo Files, about her encounters with British culture. Lyall, it turns out, is married to former editor and publisher Robert McCrum (who is a Brit, and has written a biography of P.G. Wodehouse). When I did some more looking into this couple, I learned that McCrum is also the author of a memoir, titled My Year Off: Recovering Life After a Stroke, and thought, hmm, I'd like to read that.

It's fascinating.

Yearoff I read the book over the course of two nights. At the age of 42, McCrum suffered a severe stroke that left him paralysed (I mean paralyzed; wow, have I been reading a lot of British books lately) on his left side. Only a few months previously he had married Lyall; when he suffered the stroke, she was on a business trip and he laid in his house for an entire day before he could fight his way to a phone. That part of the narrative is scary enough, but the genius of the book is his recounting of his very slow recovery and his growing realization of what it really means to live in a human body (augmented by his and Sarah's diary entries from the time).

If you've had a health scare of any kind, or spent time in any hospitals or recuperating from an illness, this is the book for you. I myself didn't suffer anything like this guy did, I simply went from a lifetime of no doctor visits to a lot of doctor visits, but a lot of his thought processes were very similar to the ones I found myself having.

Take this entry, from his diary about a month after suffering the stroke: "I have developed a concept of the 'good' waiting period and the 'bad' waiting period. A 'good' waiting period is one where you know the outcome, and where you know that you are going to leave when they say you'll leave, or where you will be doing things when they say you'll do things, and a 'bad' waiting period is when you don't know what is going to happening, and you are just hanging about." (p. 113.)

Now, I guess no one really needs to get sick to figure that one out. Somehow, though, you don't, until you get sick, or the unknown is hanging over you.

Sarah's diary is also quite interesting, including her entry from the same day as Robert's, above. "I don't know what it's right to hope for--I have to learn how to hope for the best but prepare myself if it doesn't happen. And so does Robert. He seems sure that it will be okay, but I wonder if he really believes it, and I wonder how realistic he's being, and I wonder if his hopes, too, are going to be dashed in the end. I pray to a God I don't believe in. But I had an absurd thought the other day, that the thing about God is that even if you don't believe in him, he listens to you. Maybe there's some religion in me after all." (p. 114.)

I won't tell you how it ends, but I can say that the book ends on a happier note. It's fantastic. If you know anyone who's had a stroke or you want to understand it better, it's particularly valuable; otherwise, for anyone who's struggled with sickness (and that's pretty much everybody) it's a great, great read.

A trip I'm jealous of.

What I enjoyed most about Mike Walsh's Bowling Across America: 50 States in Rented Shoes was his opening chapter about he and his five siblings' arranging of their father's funeral (their father died suddenly in his mid-sixties):

"We continued to cry aplenty, but the fine emotional line between that release and laughter enabled us to find humor in the grimmest of situations...At the cemetery, the woman helping us select a resting place for Dad (and de facto for Mom, since she would one day be buried alongside him) bore the real brunt of a sarcastic family's grief.

'Now, this plot is nice because it faces south, so it gets a little more sunlight," she said of one site...

'It's nice,' someone replied, 'but could you move the Calvano grave away from it? I don't want my parents to be buried next to any Italians.'

'Yeah, where are all the Irish graves?'

'Where might we find some existing graves where the wife's dead, but the husband's still alive? We're looking for a rich widower for our mother.'

At some point our saleswoman began showing us sites of five graves together, suggesting that some of us might want to make a down payment on our own graves so that we might be buried with our parents. That or she was wishing more of us dead." (p. xvii.)

Bowling That's a lot of quoting, but I found the whole exchange hilarious and perfectly representative of the weird humor that pops out in families (especially big families) in the face of death.

The rest of the book is a travelogue of Walsh's quest to bowl in all fifty states (undertaken after he learned his father had had a similar goal of playing handball in all fifty states, but had died before he could achieve it). The chapters aren't too long and the stories are very enjoyable; it's sort of a Charles Kuralt "on the road" quest for younger readers. And he makes his trip sound like a lot of fun, even though he does, in pursuit of his goal, put more than 25,000 miles (on his mom's car) and inhale a lot of secondhand smoke.

Why make it this hard?

I wanted to enjoy Logan Ward's See You In a Hundred Years: Four Seasons in Forgotten America, but I just couldn't.

I could sympathise with he and his wife's decision to leave behind the rat race and New York City and try to make a go of it living on a farm. But they took it a step further: they decided to literally go back to 1900, not using anything that wasn't widely available after that date (no phone, no computer, no electricity, etc.).

Ward Now that I just don't understand. What, it isn't hard enough to go and try and grow your own food, you had to go and give up indoor plumbing? No way, man. When I read about his wife actually going without modern-day, ahem, sanitary supplies, I was done with this book. And then there were the snake stories:

"Over the next few weeks, as we grind ourselves down preparing to begin our experiment--bickering, fretting, racing to and from town on the single-lane farm roads--the snakes haunt us. I find a snakeskin hanging like a giant condom from a limb outside Luther's second-story window and another poking out of the backyard downspout. I shoo snakes out of the barnyard and the grass encircling the house." (p. xi.)

Ye gods. Paragraphs like that make me want to go join the city rat race instead.