Tag Archive | books

Feminist on a Road Trip

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Every time we passed a sign for Des Moines I said it over and over in my head so many times that it started to sound like “Desdemona.” This pleased me.  Thinking about a Shakespearian heroine proved I was smart. A goddman woman of letters.

I suspected that at some point I would write about this word-morphing and “forget” to mention that I had to Google Desdemona to confirm that she was, indeed, Othello’s wife. I wasn’t 100% sure.  When I Googled her, I was disappointed to read that she was not black, as I had remembered her. She was described by Wikipedia as a “Venetian beauty.” Her husband, the Moor, was believed to be black.

These are the thoughts of a well-read person, Google or no, I thought.

We drove past Iowa City.  I waved to Jane Smiley and whatever remains of Ann Patchett’s essence after her graduate school stint at the famed writing program.

Look at me! I’m an enthusiastic celebrant of all things literary! Supporter of women in the arts!

Once Des Moines was in the rear view mirror, I succumbed to uncharitable thoughts about the Iowa State Fair goers who feasted on hunks of livestock impaled on sticks. I myself ate corn kernels with a fork and a roasted turkey wrap on a gluten-free tortilla, ThankYouVeryMuch.  Like a total asshole– I mean, who eats like that at a state fair?  When Jeff asked the pimple-faced vendor for the gluten-free turkey wrap, she stared blankly.  “Do we serve that?” she asked her shift supervisor.  We pointed to the menu; they both looked surprised.

On the final long stretch of the road trip, I fell in love with a book of essays. The pieces were well-written, darkly humorous, and made me feel smart for enjoying them. No beach reads for this woman of the world traveling through exotic Nebraska while a grating narration of Ramona and Beezus filled the mini-van.

By the time I was half way done with the book, I had a definite picture of the author in my head. She’d mentioned that she was blonde three times, so I started there. My imagination gave her blonde-but-stringy hair, an ample bosom, and a no-make-up earthiness that I assumed from her hobbies: antiquing and summering in Maine. I also assumed she was older than me by at least a generation.

Basically, I made her a funky, lovably eccentric Kathy Bates with longer, more Nordic hair.

Jeff exited near Altoona. “Can you drive?” His eye lids sagged; he’d be asleep before I merged back onto the highway. As he put the car in park, I Googled the author of the essays.

Big mistake.

She was most certainly not Kathy fucking Bates. She was Gwyneth Paltrow, but—worse—she was way less vanilla. Her face was more angular; her glasses had that “I live in Manhattan” cool that felt (and was) thousands of miles away. She looked younger than me.  Oh great– she was also a professor at a fancy New York college. She definitely knows all about Desdemona; I doubt this author ever vacationed at the Iowa State Fair.

I hated her. I hated the essays. I hated myself for enjoying them. Why couldn’t she at least be portly? Or old? Or mean? Or not funny? I was so totally jealous of her that it consumed me for miles, across the borders of the flattest states, isolated and hostile to me now, though before the Googling, I thought they were majestic and soul-stirring.

I seethed across Iowa. I seethed into Illinois. I stared at the horizon and begged myself to be, not undone by her beauty, talent, wit, and success, but inspired! vivified! energized!  I prayed for the ability to stuff the image of the real author back through the wireless airwaves so I could have my original back.

Back home, I forced myself to finish the book.  It’s not her fault she’s beautiful and friends with David Eggers.  It’s certainly not her fault my heart is shriveled by jealousy and impotent rage.

It was a really good book.

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The 54 Greatest Books I Read This Year

This is all Stephen King’s fault.  In On Writing, his memoir on writing (“the craft” as he puts it), he mentions that he reads anywhere from 50-70 books a year.  When I read that, I decided I could keep up with Stephen King.  I wasn’t going to let two small children, a full-time job and a part-time therapy habit stop me from keeping up with Stephen Fucking King.

So, I read 54 books this year.  (EDITOR’S NOTE: The year isn’t over so I’ll probably actually read 56.)

Back in July, I told you about the first 22 books I read in 2014. I won’t rehash that here, but you can catch up by clicking here.  I kicked the reading into high gear on the back side of 2014. FN1

What follows is the remainder of the year’s books with my honest appraisals and commentary.

The best of the rest:

MAJOR FAVORITES

1. US by David Nicholls: For the record, I hated his insipid, stunty, first book, One Day, which became a lackluster movie with Anne Hathaway.  Let us never speak of that again.  But Us? I adored this.  Structurally, it’s the best book I read this year as it seamlessly weaves from past to present and back again.  Narrated by a guy whose fears and neuroses feel like a pair of well-worn slippers to me:  I love and recognize them, and they keep me warm. It’s so good I would have sworn it was written by a woman.

2. Goldfinch by Donna Tartt: You can’t be faulted for skipping over this one. It’s approximately 7,000 pages long.  But do you really want to be a lazy piece of shit all your life? If the answer is no, then get on the Tartt train because the Las Vegas scenes of protagonist Theo Decker and his shady friend Boris are some of the most powerful in all of contemporary literature.  It won the Pulitzer for a reason.

3. Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson: Set in rural Montana, this book is a bit of a downer.  Lots of relationships falling apart, people failing the people they love, missed connections.  What does it say about me that I love to read about that? The New York Times says this is a novel about the “moral limits of freedom.”  If you like to contemplate those limits, especially against the backdrop of Reaganomics and the spectacular ruggedness of rural Montana, take this for a spin.
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4. We Are Not Ourselves by Michael Thomas: Chilling portrayal of Alzheimer’s disease.  Just thinking back to some of the passages depicting the fraying of the father’s mind and its effect on his family makes me want to run out and do a couple of brain exercises.  Debut novel that reminds me to have compassion for my deep, complex, often-burdened Irish heart.

5. Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed: I know you’re sick of hearing about Reese, and Wild, and hiking boots.  I get that.  That’s not what this book is.  There’s no REI, no blisters, no mountaineering or would-be rapists here.  What there is is Strayed’s heart on a platter via her immense compassion and brutal honesty for people in pain who’ve reached out for her hand.  That she offers it back along with so much more makes this book bigger than simply a collection of advice columns.  Don’t skip this.  I cried three times while reading this.

6. Men We Reaped by Jessmyn Ward: Speaking of crying, I cried on the bus while reading the last chapter of this book.  It’s a brutal memoir, linking race, poverty, father-less families and systematic injustice on the Mississippi gulf coast.  Ward leads us through the lives she loved and lost.  After reading this book I realized: I’d follow her anywhere.

7. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doer:  Moving.  That’s the word for this book.  Yes, it’s another Holocaust book, and like all good Holocaust books there are scenes of ghastly cruelty and unspeakable horror.  But there’s also this shining light from the two young people who are surviving the war inspite of the starvation, cruelty, death and destruction all around them.  All the chapters are short too, so it feels like you are reading fast.

8. Some Luck by Jane Smiley: Each chapter is another year in the life of this Midwestern family.  Nothing super dramatic really happens, yet I kept turning the page.  It’s the first book in a trilogy, and all of the books will follow the chapter-as-year pattern.  It’s like an unexpected trip to Iowa– it’s relaxing, scenic, and the people are friendly and likeable.

****

This year I also read some really amazing, well done “lighter” books.  These gems are worth your time and money.

Literary Aperitif / LIGHTER FARE

9.  I’m Having So Much Fun Here Without You by Courtney Maum:  This is a light read about a heavy subject: a marriage unraveling.  It’s Maum’s debut novel and I loved the memorable characters and the good sex scenes.  Maum is very funny.  Like Jonathan Tropper funny. Check this one out.

10. I’m Not Myself These Days by Josh Kilmer-Purcell (Memoir): Let’s see…. an alcoholic drag queen falls madly and sincerely in love with a crack-addicted man-whore.   Underneath the glitz of the gay NYC lifestyle bankrolled by male escort money, there’s a story about what it’s like to care about someone who’s in the thrall of addiction.  This book carefully threads the line between glitz and the bottomless darkness that is active drug addiction.  Outrageous, moving and dark– just like I like my books.

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11. The Removers by Andrew Meredith (Memoir):  Meredith is forced into the family business as a “remover,” someone who carts away the bodies of people who expire at home.  While working with his father in these somewhat horrific job, Meredith comes to see his father, who was heretofore disgraced by a sexual misconduct scandal, with compassion and empathy.  Bonus: interesting details about crematoria.

12. Heartburn by Nora Ephron: This was my first Ephron book.  I liked it, though there’s so much gushing over Ephron, especially since her death in 2012, that I was worried my expectations were too high.  They weren’t.  This book reads like her rom-coms (think Sleepless In Seattle), there’s just enough humor, truth, intelligence and wit to make it fun in a breezy, Meg Ryan sort of way.

13. Next Best Thing by Jennifer Weiner: Meh. This portrayal of a woman’s fall into addiction (prescription drugs) was entirely too sanitized for my taste.  It was like going on a date with a really hot guy you’re sure loves REM records and first edition Ezra Pound works, but it turns out he watches Real Housewives and loves Nickelback.

14. Dear American Airlines by Jonathan Miles: Does anyone else think it’s funny that the author’s last name is Miles?  This book, structured as a long complaint letter to American Airlines, is both funny and tragic as the epic fuck-ups of the protagonist’s life come to light in his discursive side bars.  He’s stuck in O’Hare, which has been the sight of more than one of my epic meltdowns.  It’s a must-read for anyone who’s ever been an outraged Davey to the airlines’ Goliath, which is pretty much EVERYONE who’s ever flown anywhere.

INTENSER FARE

15. Symptoms of Withdrawal by Christopher Kennedy Lawford: Confession– I “borrowed” this book from my therapist’s book shelf so I could take it on a trip home. I haven’t returned it. The inside cover has an inscription to him that I’m pretty sure I wasn’t supposed to read. Must amend that ASAP. The book itself might have been good research for Ms. Weiner as it details Lawford’s (nephew of JFK, son of Peter Lawford) mighty struggle with addiction along with his endless grappling with his place in the venerable Kennedy clan (Camelot blah blah blah).  As someone who grew up 5 miles from the grassy knoll, I appreciated the “insider” stories about the Kennedys and all their Hyannis Port, east coast rollicking. Lawford, however, is completely full of himself, which was distracting, especially when he’s telling us how great his recovery/sobriety is. Pretty sure bragging about how humble and sober you are (vis-a-vis your sick-fuck family) violates the humility portion of the recovery program I’m familiar with.

16. Coming Clean by Kimberly Rae Miller: Ya’ll, holy shit.  Hording is no joke.  I’ve laughed at hording and had the show on as “background music” while cleaning the kitchen.  Now, I feel like a giant asshole because this story enlightened me to what a serious disorder/disease/pathology it is that drives people to bury themselves in filth.  Think about it– it’s one of the most un-funny things I can think of.  This book was a portal into the world where your house could be so packed that a homeless person could be living in your attic and you wouldn’t even know it.  Chilling.

17. What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, Nathan Englander: These are short stories and now’s a good time to mention that I don’t like short stories.  I find it jarring to read them when I am used to the cohesion and flow of novels.  I enjoyed Englander’s exploration of Big Questions.  The first one was my favorite so download a sample and see if it’s your thing.

18. Diary of the Fall, Michael Laub & Margaret Jull Costa: This is one of the only experimental novels I read this year.  This book is a mind-blower.  Thematically, it explores how subsequent generations deal with the Holocaust and its aftermath.  It focuses on three generations of men: the youngest is searching for forgiveness for a childhood prank that went horribly awry, the father is descending into Alzheimer’s, and the grandfather survived Auschwitz.  Ultimately the story weaves together survival, forgiveness and memory and shows how the Holocaust fucks with all three of those and will affect generations of survivors.

19. Bear, Claire Cameron: My friends were concerned when I mentioned I was reading this book.  Rightfully so.  It’s told from the perspective of a child who, along with her little brother, has survived a bear attack that killed their parents.  So, there they are, little innocents out in the Canadian woods, and their parents have been mauled TO DEATH and they must get help.  She’s five and her little brother is three.  It’s weird to recommend this book, but I do.  It’s awful to contemplate your kids seeing a bear gnawing in your vitals, and I will never EVER go camping again.  If that’s okay with you, read this.

20. Chasing Daylight, Eugene O’Kelly & Corrine O’Kelly: He’s a bigwig at a global accounting firm– the type of guy who flies to Singapore one day and Sydney the next, all while dealing with a “crisis” in a German sub (-sidiary not marine).  He’s a big fucking deal.  Then he gets an inoperable brain tumor and BAM! he has less than 4 months to live.  He decides to go all accountant-y and chart the best way to live his dwindling days.  He’s Type-A to the complete, pedal-to-the-metal max.  Some of that bugged me, but his quest was urgent and earnest.  How, on his death-bed, he still found time to write this book, I hope I’ll never know.  But his stories of reaching out for closures in relationships was incredibly moving.

21. Summer House With Swimming Pool, Herman Koch:  The protagonist was a compete ass. Someone I would “unfriend” and not socialize with.  And not particularly smart like a Kevin Spacey character (think Frank Underwood).  If one of my friends was married to him, we would never do couple stuff.  The whole thing gave me the creeps, and not in a good way.  I’m told his book The Dinner is the better of the two, so next year I’ll have better things to say about Koch.

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22. An Exact Replica of A Figment of My Imagination, Elizabeth McCracken.  This memoir depicts the stillbirth of McCracken’s first child, a son whom she and her husband affectionately called “Pudding.”  Thank God, she tells us early on that although Pudding didn’t make it, she went on to have another healthy child. Reading this reminds me of how I had to read Lolita— the subject matter is fraught with so much emotion (judgment and fear and disgust– in the case of Lolita, but sadness, terror and grief here) that you have to really sink into the beautiful language to cope with the emotional heft.  McCracken is humorous, compassionate, human and utterly un-self-pitying (how did she do that???) and this book is a beautiful gem.

23. Hannah Delivered, Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew.  This book also concerns births– home births and midwifery.  The character arc of the protagonist who sets out on a journey to become a midwife is realistic and hopeful.   There’s a memorable case of characters– specifically, the gay male midwife who goes off to Mexico to find his birthing-assistance bliss.

24. Boy Kings of Texas, Domingo Martinez. This may have been my favorite book of the year. The voice. The violence. The Texas landscape. The poverty. The border town restlessness and “justice”. The lineage of addiction. The burden of racism.  The generational resentments and the things people do to survive dire circumstances.  I’m gushy about this book, as a reader and a writer.  Martinez often breaks down the Fourth Wall and addresses the reader directly– very Frank Underwood and Shakespearean.  His musical references are perfect.  I can totally picture his British Knight shoes and I can taste the tamales he and his family make on Christmas day.  God.  Please read this book.  It feels important to me that you do.

BOOKS I READ BECAUSE OF PEER PRESSURE

25. Where the Red Fern Grow, Wilson Rawls.  This summer, I ended up on a Facebook discussion loop where this book came up. I made the mistake of saying, “I’ve never read that.”  The chorus of “no way!” “I loved that book!” deafened me.  So I read it.  It’s a great middle-grade story if you like bawling your fucking eyes out over dogs. (I don’t even like animals.)  I’m glad I can cross it off my list of American Classics I Should Read.  If you’re a writer, check out Rawls’ bio– no fancy MFA for him.  Just a life time of enjoying stories.

26. The Third Son, Julie Wu.  Allow me to sum up this book: A Taiwanese boy is not the favorite son. Bad things happen to him.  Then more bad things happen.  Then some really bad things happen in and to his country.  A girl falls for him, but he spends most of his life trying to earn money in American instead of being with her and their son.  Too much of a dream deferred.  Cup of tea, not mine.

27. The Husband’s Secret, Liane Moriarty.  Suddenly everyone I knew was talking about Liane Moriarity.  I saw her books everywhere. I was positive I wouldn’t like it, but you know what, I rather enjoyed large parts of it.  The ending got a little absurd for my taste, and I missed the satisfaction of vengeance.  The opening riff about the Berlin Wall as a way into the story about the woman who finds her husband’s confession on a bookshelf (which she wasn’t supposed to find until he died) worked for me.  That he actually murdered someone and basically gets away with it, didn’t work as well.

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28. Wonder, R. J. Palacio.  The same thing happened with this book.  All over my Facebook feed mothers were extolling the virtues of this book and its message: People who look different should be treated with love and allowed to come into your life as friends.  A fiercely honest friend PM’ed me saying she saw it differently and I decided I had to see for myself.  I liked the multiple viewpoints and thought it captured some of the angst of middle school/high school with some freshness.  My least favorite narrator was the kid who has the facial deformity that functions as the lightening rod in the story.  I had sympathy for him and his plight as a child who gets stared at everywhere he goes, but I thought his level of self-absorption was a turn-off.  I would have liked to see a little bit more nuance around the subject of being an object, being stared at, looking different than everyone else, navigating people’s curiosity.  As it was, I found myself annoyed that he was so obsessed with people staring at him.  Does that make me a bad person? Judging by my Facebook feed, yes.

29. Early Decision, Lacy Crawford.  Because kindergarten and nursery school aren’t stressful enough, I decided to read a “based on real life experience” story about a woman who helps high-achieving (and rich) kids polish their college essays so they can get into their dream schools.  I found the interactions between the college application sherpa and the rich parents who hired her entertaining.  But like The Husband’s Secret, the ending took this absurd turn and involved a coincidence that did not ring remotely plausible so my warm fuzzy feelings soured.

Other Randos

30. Big Brother, Lionel Shriver.  I wanted to like this.  The story: a wildly codependent sister who tries to “save” her morbidly obese/depressed/washed-up brother from himself by leaving her family and going on a crash diet with him.  For me, there wasn’t enough spark here.  And the brother’s vernacular– calling things “hip” and talking like someone from the 70’s was distracting and incredible to me.  There’s also a plot trick at the end, which, as an aspiring novelist struggling with plot structure, infuriated me.  I have a distaste for short cuts or cute tricks.  This book has that, so beware.

31. Defending Jacob, William Landay.  I was 357 pages into this book when I finally realized it was fiction, not a memoir.  After that, I lost steam because the father’s saga of defending his son against murder charges in light of an avalanche of evidence against him seemed much more urgent when it was real.  It’s a great read, but let me be clear: IT IS FICTION.

32. Johnny Carson, Henry Bushkin.  Don’t ask me why I read a 320-page bio of Johnny Carson; I have no good answers.  But it was an enjoyable read.  What I remember about Johnny Carson, whom I only saw when I was allowed to stay up late, was that he was skinny, wry, and had that pencil he was always tapping.  That he was actually a petty, ruthless, tyrannical alcoholic with intimacy issues does not surprise me.  The fact that I liked reading all about it from his personal lawyer’s point of view probably says a lot about me.  None of it very good.

33. Heart of the Matter, Emily Giffin.  I wrote a review here this summer.  I’m still pissed she shafted Willie Nelson in her big old Texas book, but maybe in time I will forgive her. (No I won’t.)

 

Footnote 1: Other stats for the year: I spent $349.00 on books, a number I predict will go down now that I’ve fallen hopelessly in love with the Chicago public library.

Total number of pages read: approx. 13, 549.  That that, illiteracy!

Women, Writing, and Grief: My Imaginary Literature Class

Sometimes I pretend I’m a college professor and it’s my job to write a syllabus for a class. (See how the imagination soars when you give up TV?!) As a pretend professor, my goals are to attract lively, insightful, and curious students to sit around and discuss books I want to talk about.  Also? Gotta screen out anyone suffering from misogyny, small-mindedness, fear of sharing ideas out loud, or general douch-baggery.

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My summer class would be called Writing Grief: Contemporary Women Writers Explore Grief in Memoir.  We’d spend a week on each of the following: Wild by Cheryl Strayed, The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion, Cut Me Loose by Leah Vincent, Splitting the Difference by Tre Miller Rodriquez, Invisible Earthquake by Malika Ndlovu, and Signs of Life by Natalie Taylor.  We’d explore the different ways these process, narrate, cope- and ultimately transcend– the losses they faced.

I’m thinking I could cross-list my class in Women’s Studies, English Literature, and Cultural Studies (Is that a thing or did I just make that up?).

How to get an A in my class:

First of all, you have to take issue with Magical Thinking.  Are you fucking kidding me with Didion’s restrained response to the awful tragedy of her daughter’s coma and her husband dropping dead at the dinner table (after just visiting daughter in the hospital)? Where’s her messy, thrashing, juicy, Steele Magnolia-style grief?  I could barely finish that book because it was all too polished and upper-class-ish for me.  Anyone who fawns unabashedly at this book can’t take home an A.  Maybe not even a B.

I’m pretty sure I’d give an A to any student brave enough to talk about the sexual acting out from Cut Me Loose.  Someone has to start us off because fully 89% of that book depicts the lost and abandoned-by-her-parents Vincent acting out sexually to deal with the grief and trauma of being ousted from her ultra-Orthadox family. How many times did I have to squint at the page because it was so hard to watch her degrade herself over and over with men? Same with Rodriquez’s year following her husband’s sudden death—at one point she called herself a four-letter word for her various sexual exploits as she tried to outrun her grief.  Come to think of it, Ms. Strayed had some wild times following her mother’s death (before she got on the PCT).

God forbid, I ever face similarly tragic circumstances, I pray that I turn to something other than casual sex and cocaine for comfort.

Oh, who am I kidding? I am much more of a curl-up-with-chocolate-and-self-pity kind of person.  I’d never have the wardrobe or the babysitting money to slut it up or snort it up if I was a widow.

If class got slow, I’d asked erudite, open-ended questions like “how did each of the writers understand her own alterity through grief?”  Then, I’d just sit there and beam my intense brown eyes at the students.

At the end of the semester, I’d ask each of the students to bring in a song that best captures the mood of one of the books.  Super extra bonus points for anyone who brings in a Willie Nelson song.  I’m thinking You Were Always On My Mind or Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.  The end of the semester party will take place at Costco.  I’ll buy.

Without that pesky PhD, however, I doubt there’s a college that would hire me (though University of Phoenix sends some promising e-correspondence), so for now college students are safe to take their accounting, computer science, or modern English lit.  But you never know, if they ever let lawyer-Mommy-bloggers take over universities, this is so happening.

I Shared The Books of My Childhood With My Kids, But They Cried and Begged Me to Stop

All whipped up in a froth of nostalgia, I started sharing my favorite childhood things with my kids.  I pictured them embracing their history through the “antique” items that represented my youth.  Because they already know Blue Baby, they were right to be cautious about stuff from Mommy’s childhood.

How can my kids resist the toys from my childhood?

How can my kids resist the toys from my childhood?

But still, they’d come around on Blue Baby, so I assumed they would see beneath the scars of love and overuse to embrace the “new” toys I was introducing them to.

What actually happened is that they not only rejected half of the relics, but some of them actually seemed to distress and traumatize them.  The themes of the books I loved were troubling to their modern sensibilities.  Apparently, my kids don’t like stories about poachers or near-death-by-drowning or the arrogance of “Man” vis-a-vis the animal kingdom.  Where in the world did these radical children come from?  Commies.

It shouldn’t have hurt my feelings, but I confess I felt dissed.  Then I felt ridiculous when I heard myself saying, “Just ignore the part where Babar’s mom was murdered! Wait till you see him get married. It’s the coolest!”

Fine.  Your American Girl dolls are fancier than Blue Baby; your muddled and incomprehensible Dora stories are better than Babar.  I just hope I live long enough to meet my grandchildren and roll out the crap my kids think is so freaking awesome and timeless.  I will have the last laugh here, even if I have to live to 90 to get it.

To read about how my children reacted as we plowed through Babar, Curious George, and other classics from my 1970’s childhood, click here.

Can I Still Be A Gatsby Scholar Even Though I Forgot The Plot?

Image credit: blog.roopevintage.com

Image credit: blog.roopevintage.com

Some people take great pride in their physical appearance– say long silky hair or great calves.  I am not one of those people, but I am not above taking great pride in one attribute I believe I possess.  For years, the spotlight of my pride has been shining on my memory.

I have a killer memory.  I remember what I wore on the first day of every single job I’ve had.  I remember the first question that someone (Steve) fired at me the first morning I went to group therapy (“Are you a top or a bottom?”).  I remember old boyfriends’ dogs’ names and the meal I ate right before I saw E.T.

But just as someone whose good looks are chipped away by the ravages of time, my memory has deteriorated faster than Paula Deen’s reputation.  It would take me a few minutes to remember what I had for breakfast this morning (banana and KIND bar) and an unforgiveable five minutes to remember what I wore last Thursday.

I hardly know myself anymore.

The other night Jeff and I went to see The Great Gatsby, which was one of my favorite books in high school.  My senior quote was the last line of the book: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”  I’ve considered myself something of a Gatsby expert.

The only problem is that I haven’t read the book since junior year.  That’s over *cough* *cough* two decades between me and Mr. Fitzgerald’s tale.  But still. I was smug.  I kept leaning over to Jeff “explaining” what was happening.  “Jeff, that billboard of T.J. Eckleburg symbolizes the loss of spiritual values in America and the growing commercialism of the time.”

I was aglow with self-congratulation that I remembered the themes, the names, and that I was drinking a Diet Coke right before the Gatsby exam in Miss Baker’s honors English class.

But, then, Daisy did that thing where she killed her husband’s mistress accidentally.  Oops! I hadn’t remembered that.  At all. 

I assured myself that it was just a tiny blip in my gray matter. There’d be no more surprises.  But, then, to my everlasting shock, Gatsby got shot.  What the what? I had zero memory of that.  I didn’t even remember that he died in the book.  What kind of a Gatsby scholar forgets that he died?

I decided that Baz Luhrmann must have taken some serious poetic license with his “retelling” of the story. But when I got home and Googled the plot, turns out that Mr. Luhrmann was sticking pretty close to the book.  Or at least, he was closer than I was.

Upon reflection, I believe I had confused the ending of Gatsby with the ending of Our Town, the play by Thornton Wilder, which adds yet another nail to the coffin in my chances of getting tenure as an English professor.

The only upshot, if any, to all this demoralization and loss of identity is that in a few short days, I’m hoping I won’t remember it!

6 Things You Won’t See In My Memoir

I guess I should mention I am not writing a memoir and have no plans to ever pen one.  But that hasn’t (and shouldn’t) stop me from thinking about all the things I won’t be writing about in the book I don’t plan to write.

With me?

Good.

NOT my coffee cup

NOT my coffee cup

Here’s what you won’t be reading in the book I’m not writing:

  1. If Only I Hadn’t Been So Skinny. Have you seen this in memoirs? “I was such a skinny kid…” “I was pretty, but way too skinny.” In my not-oir you are never ever going to see this.  It’s hard for me not to chuck a memoir across the room when I come across the “poor me, I was so skinny” themes.  Because? Cannot relate.
  2. I Had So Much Random Sex With Celebrities. Perhaps I have read one too many books where the author coupled with the likes of Bill Clinton, Norman Mailer, or Baryshnikov.  I should stop reading those because I’ve never had random celebrity sex, but maybe if I had, I would be writing a memoir.
  3. We Were So Poor We Slept In the Car. Again, I have read so many rags-to-riches stories that now I think my humble ranch house in suburban Dallas will make for the most boring story in the world.  While I wasn’t allowed to get Guess jeans in 1985 unless I paid for them myself, that’s not nearly as exciting as living without plumbing or having one of my family members gamble our grocery money way.  Damn middle class upbringing.
  4. I Moved To The Big City All By Myself To Make it Big. While I did move from suburban Dallas to gritty, south side Chicago, I made that move to attend graduate school in Humanities. It doesn’t have quite the same ring as someone who moved from Tallapoosa, Mississippi to New York City to become an actor or a famous televangelist. Also? I don’t think that getting a post-graduate job as an admin assistant counts as “making it big.”
  5. I Went On A Long Spiritual Journey By Myself and Found My Bliss. Nope, this won’t be there either. I did once go to Mexico by myself in December 2004, but I almost went insane watching 24-hour coverage of the tsunami that hit Indonesia. I watched the death toll climb higher and higher, and there was no bliss to be found– a dead cockroach and a stale chocolate wafer, but there was no bliss.
  6. Then I made the winning shot/basket/goal. No. Just no.  There’s so much to love about sports, if only there were no balls or no need to work with other people under time pressure.  Oooh, and there’s all that touching and sweat.  If not for all that, maybe some triumphant Rudy-like passages might exist.  The best sports story I have is that I ran a half marathon while my nipples were bleeding and the guy who had recently dumped me ran right past me (who was gasping for breath about to die of exhaustion), while chatting with his new sporty girlfriend (the kind who could run a half marathon in a tiny sports bra).  Don’t worry: You won’t ever have to read about that incident again, because I am not writing a memoir.

What’s not appearing in your memoir?

2012 Book Review in 140 Characters (Or Less)

I have a piece of unfinished business from last year: my book reviews. It’s like a piece of food left between my teeth from breakfast that I have to get out so I can concentrate more fully on my lunch (which will, undoubtedly, consist of processed cheese product and buttered starches).

But listen: I’m busy; you’re busy.  Who has time to read 25 bloated book reviews from a Mommy blogger? If you have that kind of time you either have insomnia or a trust fund.  Either way, God speed.

But for the rest of you, I am paring down my review to a mere 140 characters as an ode to Twitter, which is rich irony, considering that Twitter is the antithesis of a real, actual book that I hold in my hands and can pass on to another reader. (I’m not a Kindle convert.)

So, without further ado, here are my reviews for the books I read in 2012:

Undress Me In the Temple of Heaven, by Susan Jane Gilman

Read this travelogue about two girls romping through Communist China- one went insane and the other wrote an incredible book of a harrowing journey. (How jealous must the insane girl be today?)

The Paris Wife, by Paula McLain

At one point, she lost all of Hemingway’s drafts, which I think of whenever I lose snippets of my WIP.  This book proves many things we already know (H was an ass), but it’s a masterful read from the view of his first wife.

Everything Changes, by Jonathan Tropper

Bad mood? Read Tropper.  Wanna get inside a thinking man’s head? Read Tropper.  Funny and heartfelt, but still our beloved, irreverent Tropper.

The Magician’s Assistant, by Ann Patchett

Patchett’s first novel– how the hell did she do that? Even the names of her characters are perfect.  I envy her talent and her unforgettable stories, especially this one.

Make Me Into Zeus’ Daughter, by Barbara Robinette Moss

Meh.  Horrible alcoholic family from which emerged an articulate daughter who lives to tell the tale.  Skip this and read Glass Castle.

5Am Fifth Avenue, by Sam Wasson

Light as air, but if you care to learn more about where Breakfast at Tiffany’s fits within the popular imagination, read it.  Stoked my love for Capote, Hepburn, and “old” Hollywood.

Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls

Un-f*cking-believable story.  How Walls survived the mayhem and chaos of her early years is nearly impossible to imagine, but thank God she did, because her writing is truly art.  Put this at the top of your list: memoir at its finest.

Swamplandia, by Karen Russell

Another first novel.  The most original book I have ever read.  Still smarting on its behalf for the snub from the Pulitzer’s.  Seriously– this book is odd and memorable.  Also: disturbing because of the rape scene deep in the Everglades.

Little 15, by Stephanie Saye

Star basketball player has an affair with her coach while she’s still in high school.  Strikes fear in the heart of any mother, and illuminates a story behind headlines we see too often.  An important read.

The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides

No, it’s not Middlesex, but you have to move on.  I loved this story about precocious Ivy Leaguers figuring out love while also meditating on spirituality and semiotics. Made me feel smart to read this.

Truth & Beauty, by Ann Patchett

Read this. Read this. Read this.  Incredible portrait of a long friendship between two writers.  Codependence galore from my favorite Ms. Annie P, but I loved the peeks into her writing process that are woven through the story.

Art & Fear, by David Bayles and Ted Orland

Not gonna lie, this one is a little dry.  Anyone struggling with whether she/he is worthy of creating art or who battles fear of the blank page/canvas/clay, this book puts fear in context and reminds the artist: just do it.

The Kiss, by Kathryn Harrison

The protagonist has a sexual affair with her father.  How, in good conscience, can I recommend this to anyone? Still turns my stomach to think of it.  Don’t know what else to say.

Say When, by Elizabeth Berg

Sweet read about a marriage that falls apart and then falls together.  Didn’t change my life, but also didn’t hurt it.

Fifty Shades of Grey, by E.L. James

Don’t make me review this again.  Just don’t.

Fifty Shades Darker, by E.L. James

Yes, I went back for a second helping.  There were some long days of summer that I had to get through while Jeff was away. Don’t judge.

Drop Dead Healthy, by A.J. Jacobs

Hilarious year-long project recorded by Jacobs, who tried to become healthy in every aspect of his life.  I actually got a lot of health information from this book, which is fascinating.  He taught me to cook on the back burners of the stove because it’s safer.

Bringing In Finn, by Sara Connell

Her mother gave birth to her son.  Think about it, then read this gorgeous tale of healing, family and triumph. Then give it to your mother and see if she freaks out because she thinks you are asking her to carry your baby in her womb.

The Finkler Question, by Howard Jacobson

A humorous meditation on what it means to be Jewish.  As a shiksa married to a Jewish man, I thoroughly enjoyed the questions raised and the answers suggested.  Won’t lie: it’s a little ponderous, but there are some brilliant characters.

Daring Greatly, by Brene Brown

You, and 7 billion people have seen her YouTube videos from TED about shame. So, go read her book.  Unless you’ve never felt shame, in which case, read Arnold Schwarzenegger’s book, because he hasn’t either.

Too Good To Be True, by Benjamin Anastas

Know anyone intimately involved with CoinStar machines because times are tough and he needs milk for his son?  Well, meet Anastas.  He lays out his financial and personal ruin after being an on-the-rise author.  A generous and intimate tale of loss.

Little Red Guard, Wenguang Huang

I would have sucked at being Communist, and this book proves it.  It’s also criminal how little I knew about China’s recent history and the hardships faced by the Chinese people.  This book made me downright patriotic and proud of being American (until that asshat NRA guy gave his speech about “good guys with guns” and I got a little down-on-America again).

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, by Jenny Lawson

Who is this zany Lawson?  Who cares! She’s written a hilarious tale about taxidermy and rural life in Wall, Texas.  All bloggers should read this, because it’s funny and she’s a blogger.

The Middlesteins, by Jami Attenberg

She nailed it here: The tensions between the characters.  The relationships that family members have to addiction (mainly food addiction here) and the stuckness of it all.  I am still stunned by Attenberg’s ability to “show not tell.”

Signs of Life, by Natalie Taylor

I cried reading the first paragraph.  I cried all through this book, but in the end, I appreciated  my life and my husband more than I did before I started.  Natural result of reading about a woman who loses her husband in a freak accident when she’s 5 months pregnant.

* * *

Here’s to more books in 2013– I am already halfway through Gone Girl– It’s going to be a great year for reading.