February 4th, 2012
After rearranging all of my books in alphabetical order, I was disheartened to have to start at the “As” again — but it meant that I am finally getting to some of the nonfiction that has been collecting dust bunnies for more years than I’d care to count, and hence: The Spiral Staircase by Karen Armstrong. A friend of mine, Deborah Birkett, who used to run a terrific website called Chicklit, had mentioned Armstrong either in passing or in something she had written or in some conversation she may have moderated. I am pretty sure that’s how this book ended up on my shelves — through her recommendation.
Armstrong, a failed nun, a failed post-doc, a failed teacher and a failed television presenter (yes, I’m being harsh but bear with me), finally finds her calling when she, after a long struggle with real life, comes to writing about comparative religion. It’s funny, I finished The Night Circus, a whimsical novel about real magic only to come to a very real memoir about a woman who loses her faith so colossally that she fears she’ll never find her place in the real world, the magic in her ideas about God and religion, so to speak, lost for the foreseeable future. In so many ways, Armstrong’s struggles to find her right place in the world are so powerful that it’s impossible not to cheer for her every single time life churns her out in a direction she never imagined for herself. (more…)
July 27th, 2011
Summer reading generally means three things to me: extremely popular bestsellers, chunky classics that I never get around to finishing, and chicklit. I know I shouldn’t consider Bossypants chicklit, but, in a way, to me, it was. I am not downplaying Tina Fey’s obvious feminism or her ability to spin a good yarn — but it’s more the sense of where her comedy comes from, a deeply funny, incredibly awesome redefinition of girlie. She’s confident without being boastful, extremely thankful of all of her hard-won opportunities, but also wickedly aware of her own limitations, and the limitations of a “Hollywood” life. Maybe I’m reading too much into it — because it’s really more of a series of vignettes than narrative nonfiction, which made for incredibly easy reading. Perfect for a week at the cottage by yourself with an infant.
I laughed out loud and I found so much of Fey’s self-deprecating humour, her voice, and her ability to find a positive message for women in just about every situation that it’s hard to remember what a force for change she remains in the “industry” (I say that like I am actually “in” any “industry”). I never found the read tedious like so many celebrity “memoirs” (and yes, it deserves air quotes, come on, you know it does). It doesn’t feel ghostwritten or contain any deep-seeded confessions that turn my stomach a little even though I’m dying to read them anyway, ahem, Ashley Judd (let me tell you, when I was a tween, bedtime reading was Mommie Dearest; I know, it says a lot about me. In fact, Mommie Dearest coupled with Sweet Valley High, Louisa-May Alcott and Anne of Green Gables — not much has changed all these years later).
May 8th, 2011
Antonia Fraser’s memoir of her life with Harold Pinter could not have been more delightful had it actually been delivered to my door as ice cream, toffee and chocolate sauce. Sweet, but not saccarine, sharp but not severe, it’s simply an account of two people who met, fell in love, and then spent the rest of their lives together. Fraser, well known for her biographies of Mary, Queen of Scots, all of Henry’s wives, among other writings, met Pinter, the infamous playwright, while both were ensconced in other long-term marriage (each had been with their spouses for eighteen years). Neither expected to leave their marraige. Neither expected to fall so deliciously in love with one another — but that’s exactly what happened.
Fraser’s elegy to her late husband opens with the explanation of the book’s title — Fraser, having met Pinter in passing, was about to leave a party, when she stepped over to say goodbye, he said, “Must you go?” She didn’t, and they spent the rest of the night and a good part of the next morning talking. Thus setting the tone for not only their relationship but for how the two would build an exceptionally happy marriage. Taken almost exclusively from her Diary writings, the book’s construction remains remarkably linear, a story told from beginning, to the middle, and to the end, which might feel tedious in the hands of a lesser writer. Even Fraser’s everyday notations are fascinatingly witty, endearing and utterly full of heart. The entire book has a sweetness to it but, at the same time, it’s also an incredible glimpse into the private lives of two very famous writers. How they work seems almost secondary to the everyday goings on — the lunches, the friendships, the travelling, their children — and the creative process is never discussed in any depth, simply mentioned in passing as a part of the rest of their lives.
Diary entries seem so private. And I’m sure a solid amount of sculpting and editing has gone into shaping them so that they make sense in a more public way. This isn’t a traditional memoir, and even though it’s so very different stylistically, it’s just as moving as Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. Yet where Didion almost collapses under the weight of her loss, Fraser seems to be more intent upon writing a celebration of their lives. I’m certain that Fraser deeply mourned the loss of the love of her life but she’s got a wonderful attitude towards life — always enjoying the experience, always looking for the next bit of history to capture her attention, always celebrating her immensely happy marriage — that’s infectious. It’s a great book to be reading when your own life isn’t necessarily going in the up and up, especially health-wise, especially to see that Pinter was still acting, still writing (but not necessarily new plays; more poems and short pieces), and still incredibly active politically even when he was suffering from cancer, yet another disease, and then the painful side effects of all the medication.
I’m consistently amazed at the amount of true work that they both managed to accomplish, especially in the middle years of their lives, what with seven kids (Fraser had six; Pinter, one) to raise and plenty of drama (Pinter’s ex-wife had a hard time accepting that he had left and refused on numerous occasions to grant him a divorce). In the truest sense of the word, for me, this was a book that proves that love triumphs, that a good attitude can battle any adversity, that it’s worth standing up for your politics, for your love, for your life, and that visiting dead writers’s graves always makes for an excellent photo opp. I had a library copy, which I had to return, or else I would have quoted from the book directly — but what I would have loved, as well, is a bibliography of everything that Fraser and/or Pinter read over the years, an addendum to their writing lives — what a fascinating study that would have made as well. Regardless, it’s an excellent read, and one that I’m so happy I found.
Also, Must You Go? REALLY makes you want to keep a daily diary, but knowing my life isn’t remotely as exciting as the Pinter/Fraser household, perhaps I’ll refrain and just steady on here as I’ve been doing the last few years.
March 24th, 2011
Yes, I am skipping #28, Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, because I’m not particularly inclined to write and entire post about it. It was interesting, as everything he writes is, but not really book-length fascinating. And I certainly didn’t find it as impactful as The Tipping Point. In a way, the book seemed a bit contradictory — the thesis was all about trusting your first instincts, but the arguments and/or examples were all people who had massive amounts of experience in a particular area that gave them the freedom to trust their first impressions (if that makes any sense). I mean, I realize it’s also about unpacking prejudice and other social innuendos (I found the section on marriage and reading faces particularly interesting), but overall, I don’t know if this book changed my perspective on, well, life and business etc. the way his first book did. Regardless, I am now going to put Outliers on my library holds list because I do like his writing so very much.
So, Blink is my trailer — now for the feature, Julie Powell’s Cleaving. I read and adored Julie & Julia, and came to this book with the same wide-eyed wonder of yet another deserving blogger becoming a published writer — expanding and solidifying their skills on the written vs. the virtual page. But, not all books can contain the wonder of first books when they are particularly successful, and Cleaving suffers a little from the sophomore slump.
The first half of the book deals specifically with Powell’s apprenticeship with a butcher shop in rural New York. She writes passionate and obviously well-learned passages about her experiences, and I found these sections of the book the most intriguing. They were riveting — bones cracking, wrists aching — and you can immediately tell the passion she feels toward the art of butchery, a profession that few women enter. But where the book falls down are the “life is messy” bits in between. Her marriage, oft-described as ‘like breathing’ or something equally life-sustaining, has, well, lost its oxygen — both she and her husband are having affairs; Julie first, then Eric in retribution, perhaps. And yet, despite hurting each other to the core, they stay together, they love each other, even if, at that moment, it means a lot of anger and trial separations. Powell’s lover, referred to for most of the book as “D,” is passionate, dirty, and a little rough, which is what she needs. In a way, it fulfills some sense of anger (or I’m totally reading into it) and self-destructive behavior that Powell feels deep down.
Yet, the narrative itself, the Julie Powell contained within the book’s story, doesn’t actively analyze her behaviour — sure, she over-“metaphorizes” it (there are only so many meat metaphors one book should contains). She flails around drinking too much, and somewhat laughing off claims of alcoholism, sex addiction (not really but she does participate in SOME dangerous activities in certain parts of the novel), and actively tries to stalk “D” once he tells her he can no longer see or speak to her. In a way, it’s the same obsessive behavior that made her dedication to the Julie & Julia project work, and you can’t fault Powell for her extremely open, balls on the table, writing style. In a way, though, I did wish she came closer to finding out some answers — or at least looking deeper at the roots of the problems.
The constant comparison between her husband, the meat, and her lover grew tiresome, and then she lost me completely in the second half of the book when she leaves Eric (the husband) to take numerous trips to explore meat culture around the world. Not saying that self-discovery is wrong, or that her experiences don’t sound magnificent, but the whole book felt smacked together in a way that didn’t necessarily work from a narrative point of view. The sinews, forgive my own meat metaphor, grew far too thin between the first part and the second.
In a way, it’s impressive that Powell writes so openly and honestly about her experiences. And I’m not even claiming it’s “TMI” as some of the other criticisms I read around the internet claimed — it’s more that there’s a lack of style to the project, the style was there in her first book, this one feels rushed, repetitive and kind of “shock for shock value.” There’s no denying she’s a talented writer of memoirs (memoirist?) but, on the whole, I wanted there to be a central focus, sometimes, that wasn’t Powell, her actions, her feelings, or her explosive.
Not to make a comparison, but I’ve started Elizabeth Gilbert’s Committed (another library book!) and, while I hated Eat, Pray, Love (threw it across the room half-way through “Pray”), I’m rather taken with it so far. Gilbert sets out, upon learning that she’ll have to marry her lover (so he can live in America, with her), whom she promised never to marry (they both had spectacularly awful divorces), to learn everything she can about the institution to see if she can uncover her preconceived notions and move forward. That’s what Cleaving is missing — context — something beyond the vivid descriptions of butchery (which, I’ll repeat, are excellent) that grounds the memoir in something other than Powell’s own heaving emotions.
That said, the package is fantastic — I adore the cover; think the title is brilliant, it brings up all kinds of great word associations; and ripped through the first part in an afternoon. So, I’m on the fence when it comes to the book as a whole, but felt spectacularly sorry for her husband, her lover and Powell herself, the emotional train wreckage they all went through was so messy — it can’t have been easy to relive it on the page. And sometimes, the rawness of it all comes through so clearly that I’m surprised Powell had the gumption not to edit herself, even if the book suffers for it.
I read this great opinion piece on NPR’s MonkeySee blog about the book. And agree, too, with the Globe’s review. In case anyone was thinking of reading this book, too.
November 12th, 2009
When the US presented this book at conference a world and a half ago, I was totally taken with the cover. The idea that the son of Jack Canfield, the author of those (ridiculous?) Chicken Soup for the Soul books, became a heroin addict and lived to tell the tale was intriguing. I did two things I never do: 1) judged a book by its cover and 2) picked up the book solely based on the fact that its blurb intrigued me. And trust me when I say I’ve got some issues with a book blurb. So much so that I rarely read them and almost never pick up the book because of them.
Annnywaaay. Oran Canfield’s roughly my age but we’ve had two very different lives. First of all, he grew up with a fiercely intelligent mother (that’s not so different from me) who pretty much kept him outside of your typical societal norms. He was raised by libertarians, went to an anarchist boarding school, joined the circus for a while (and competed as a juggler), and was often left with individuals who had questionable parenting skills yet nonetheless took part in forming him as he grew older. Secondly, his father left the family when he was very young and before his brother, Kyle, was born. Lastly, there’s that whole heroin addict situation. Oh, and then there’s the whole his dad became a multi-millionaire thingy too.
His memoir, Long Past Stopping, not unlike Dry by Augusten Burroughs, presents addiction in a harrowing yet utterly matter-of-fact way which makes it impossible not to get pulled into his story. There’s irony in how addictive these kinds of memoirs are — how easy it is to just keep reading as the hero (or heroine) moves from fix to fix. Gets themselves deeper and deeper into the black hole when they’d much rather be with that great girl that’s finally showing them the time of day. Also, it might just be me, but it’s so much easier to read addiction stories than it is to watch them (like say Intervention). There’s a level of separateness once you know the author’s gone through it and come out the other side. Also, Canfield’s a survivor. He doesn’t set out to get hooked on heroin. In fact, his introduction to the drug seems innocent rather than ominous, and the practical nature of how he starts shooting (he’s simply wasting too much of the drug by smoking it) seems almost blase when you read it.
The tone of this book is consistently infused with his infectious, intelligent sense of humour. And while the writing might not be Nobel-prize worthy (I have to admit I felt the dialogue was particularly weak), it’s impossible not to be interested in this book from start to finish. I’m willing to forgive things that I don’t normally (like weak dialogue) when it comes to this book (because, let’s face it, I’m a snob) primarily because the story itself, his life, is just so damn fascinating. And I’m willing to bet anyone else who picks up this book will end up with a Totally Inappropriate Crush on its author too. Just try it and see if you can put it down after browsing a few chapters. The structure of the book is smart too — it vacillates between his childhood and his adulthood in a way that breaks up the more dramatic, traumatic moments, and it’s certainly a relief when he finally finds his way off the junk.
Never say I don’t use my power for good. Here’s a quirky and fun road trip guest blog post he wrote for us over on The Savvy Reader. And to get a sense of his sense of humour, watch this video.
March 29th, 2009
Diana Athill‘s inspiring memoir about old age was like a balm these past few days. Tears, anger, emotional eruption, and the fine realization that the prednisone crazies have probably conquered all my good thoughts (despite almost being off the drug), all combined to leave me feeling quite exhausted. Luckily, then, I had this slight memoir to keep me occupied. Athill, who worked in publishing until she retired at age 75 (I don’t know how she did it), has written brilliant little book in Somewhere Towards the End.
Narratively, the memoir has echoes of Jean Rhys (who was a friend), Joan Didion, and a touch of Isak Dinesen, and it’s sharp, unwavering voice remains focussed and clearly meditative throughout. The book opens with a number of clearly practical observations about age, moves through more traditional memoir-type content (the life and death of her sex life; the important men in her life), and then passes quickly over the idea of regret. Independent and fiercely individual, Athill’s words are nothing but inspiring. There are sentences, paragraphs, entire sections to be marked as one reads, which gives one pause to examine one’s own life. To imagine the spec of dust one’s own ninety-odd years will have left on humanity as a whole.
The parts that I liked best were about death and dying — the business of it, as such, and how lucky Athill has been in all of her years not to experience too much of it. The idea of luck persists throughout the book and it’s not as if Athill is bragging, her stoic, almost upright British self would never stand for such, no, she’s simply stating a fact. To have lived her life as she has done meant that she was both incredibly lucky and incredibly hard working. Some advice: avoid television, read a lot, take up gardening, never worry if your life falls somewhat outside of the norm, and experience life moment by moment if you can, taking pleasure out of what brings you happiness.
Now, my fingers are sore to the bone, and my arms and legs ache from lugging pounds of soil, so I am going to sign off by saying prestigious awards or not (the memoir won the Costa Biography Award in 2008), I adored every single inch of this little gem of a book.