April 12th, 2013
Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead seems to be garnering speed. Of course, Sheryl Sandberg’s in a position to spread the gospel of her book as the current COO of the world’s biggest social media site, Facebook. Her overarching message, that women need to lean in to their work life instead of falling back, resonates without. In a sense, it doesn’t really need to be a whole book–there’s a lot of repetition in terms of message–but I’m choosing to celebrate what it is: a manifesto of how feminism hasn’t quite achieved the equality women need in the workplace.
Manifesto, defined: a piece of work that urges readers/users/doers to carry out the change they wish to see in the world. In a sense, while ‘manifesto’ rings perhaps a bit to the left for Sandberg, it’s how it reads to me. There’s great research in here, both empirical and anecdotal, about how, regardless of the impact of the various waves of feminism over the last fifty years, there is still not equality in the upper levels of the companies that are running the world. How do we change that? Sandberg has very real and actually quite straightforward opinions about how to exact change–and, for once, I’m happy that she’s using the “f” word–feminism.
Those of us who would consider themselves feminists have no issues with the terminology. And I’m consistently surprised at how much we’re still divided by simply using the word. Strong women come from strong women. I’ve been lucky in my life to have role models, whether they worked primarily in the home or outside of it, where women are strong minded, intelligent, and have worked impossibly to build both family and foster their children to unite in a different kind of world. I was shocked that less than 4% of parents that stay home in the US are dads. For the majority of my friends, the women are the breadwinners–and that’s an exciting change. It’s challenging for all of us, because we’re still looking for that balance between work life and home life, and it’s forever changing. But it’s wholly different from my mother’s generation. Anyway, I’m still thinking about this book. I was all fired up at work a couple of weeks ago when I finished it, and now I’m not quite sure where to go next…
January 10th, 2013
Because it’s my book club selection for this month, I picked up How to Be a Woman by Caitlyn Moran with a certain amount of whimsy. Not really knowing what to expect but seeing the book sell like hotcakes over the last few months, I wasn’t sure it was going to be a book for me. It’s funny, irreverent, honest, and ballsy, and there were parts that I earmarked because I found them so compelling (in particular how everyone, man, woman, child, needs to stand on a chair and scream: I AM A STRIDENT FEMINIST; and that the biggest fault of humanity at the moment is that we’re simply just not polite enough full stop), but overall, I have some reservations about the book (I mean, of course I do).
Moran is a natural writer–you feel like her thoughts flow so smoothly from her mind to her fingers, and that they don’t get all caught up in between as mine sometimes do. And she has convincing arguments, namely about the fact that feminism has gotten lost in terms of the idea of equality–or, rather, the perception of the “achievement” of equality, and young women left, right and centre, are declaring themselves “not” feminists primarily because they have absolutely no idea what they’re talking about. She also rails against sexism, the lack of hair on female anatomy, revolutions in music (and then back again), and much, much more. There are obvious holes to her arguments, that come across more like opinions than rational, thought-out perspectives, but that doesn’t make the book any less impactful.
I like smart, sassy women who aren’t afraid to use words that make me blush even thinking about them. I like strong, opinionated women, too. But to say this is a book about ‘feminism’ might just be a bit of a misnomer. It’s a book about Moran’s own brand of feminism, about conclusions she’s drawn, and the hopes and opportunities she has for our gender. Throwing in statistics and quoting the hell out of Germaine Greer doesn’t necessarily a feminist tome make. I laughed out loud in many places, especially during the beginning bits of the book–the fevered pitch of her writing is charming, and her early life’s eccentric enough to make for truly entertaining reading. Yet, as I turned page after page, I kept thinking that Moran’s a woman who knows her own mind extremely well. She’s confident in her decisions, in her thoughts, in her position in the world–it’s a feminist position, absolutely, and as a feminist myself, I appreciate every word she says. Knowing your own mind is one thing, but it’s not a universal thing, and I guess that’s what was missing from this book–feminism as it relates to Moran isn’t necessarily a prescription to fix many of the problems in the world, but it’s most certainly not a bad place to start, either…
May 14th, 2012
Before I read My Life in France, I knew who Julia Child was, but I had never seen her on television — my impression of her was formed by Julie Powell’s admiration of her in Julie & Julia, and Meryl Streep’s performance in the film of the same name. But this book, oh I how fell for this book — my darling Vicious Circle cohorts were far more rigorous in their thoughts; I, however, got swept away. The love affair that I have with Paris, from the three times I’ve been there, isn’t anything new to the people who know me. And I really admired Julia and Paul’s attitude about their foreign service — they tucked right in and immersed themselves in the local food, culture, and got right down to the business of enjoying their lives.
That’s not to say that they didn’t have bumps along the way, but her narrative voice, as interpreted by her nephew, Alex Prud’homme, remain so clear and level-headed, that it’s unnerving. The impression you are left with is that Julia Child suffers no fools, and nor does she give up once she’s left onto a path with a cleaver in one hand and an asbestos baking tile in the other.
For all of us still longing to find our calling, or rather, to fully embrace our calling, her book is a love letter to choosing your pursuits wisely. She’s obviously very happy and very content with her choices — even if the book doesn’t even touch the surface of her life before she married Paul. That they loved one another, there remains little doubt, but the decline of his health was discussed so briefly and so, well, simplistically, I had to wonder if there was an essence of the 1950s stalwart, “Keep Calm & Carry On” attitude wherein she would never betray her real, real feelings.
Book club was at my house, and one of my fellow Vicious Circlers came bearing a gift of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I’ve spent the last few nights just flipping through it, wondering at the sheer magnitude of the project, marvelling at what the three co-authors undertook. I am trying to find the courage to try a few of the recipes this summer — but they all seem so, well, hard. Especially when I’m so pressed for time these days. Yet, I greatly admire the text as a living, breathing document, a testament to how important it is to have a record of how the world once was, and like, The Joy of Cooking, it’s as much a reference book as it is a cookery book. Child makes that point herself in My Year in France, discussing how she wanted to preserve the ways of classic French cuisine before they disappeared. I had never thought of it that way before — that it’s a form of history that truly deserves to be recorded for posterity, for generations, for women like me who can’t live in Paris but who remembers each and every amazing meal she had there all of the times she visited.
It was a marvellous life. I am utterly envious.
Other reading updates: George Orwell’s magnificent Coming Up for Air (poor Hilda! What’s she on about?), which is #41. And I have abandoned many of my Bs: The Children’s Book, Cloudsplitter, and Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood. I will circle back but I was hopelessly stuck and I just needed something simple. I also finished Samantha Bee’s memoir (#42), which I’d consider Tina Fey-light, but it did make me laugh quite a bit, simply because, my goodness, her upbringing was unconventional and full of hilarious anecdotes.
April 27th, 2012
There was a copy of this book lying on a coworker’s desk that I just happened to pick up while waiting for a meeting to start. It intrigued me. Duhigg’s a smart writer — he knows a good hook (as any good journalist does), and The Power of Habit does what any great narrative nonfiction should, presents a case, argues it relentlessly, and gives the reader some food for thought. The book opens with some fascinating science around how the brain builds habits, and what that might look like ‘under the hood’ (so to speak) of someone who had managed to drastically change their life. The point, I think, that Duhigg wants to make is simple: we, as humans, are hard wired to form habits, and that wiring, once it’s there, remains really hard to break.
There’s this lovely trend in nonfiction writing these days, authors like Gladwell, Pollan, etc., whose easy, chatty, often-almost breezy style does well by its subject matter. If this were a dry, annotated, intense look at the physiology of the brain and how it maps habits, etc., I doubt I would have gotten passed the first page. Instead, Duhigg presents a case study of a person we all wish we could be — someone who has taken charge of her life, lost the weight, given up the bad habits, and turned herself around. Everyone, EVERYONE, wants to be that person. Radical change being an impossibility in terms of anyone’s practical life, Duhigg looks at how by changing a few simple habits, making your world slightly different in the moments before your brain recognizes the habit, people can improve just about any facet of their everyday existence.
This was the part of the book that I took most to heart. It’s got me thinking and humming a lot over the last couple weeks. Of course, as I do with everything, I take it to a whole other personal level. Over the last 18 months since having the RRBB, our lives have been in flux, sure he’s got a very habitual schedule, and babies love routines, but his schedule, his habits, were nothing like my own, and it’s been an upward challenge adapting my life to meet his needs, his wants, the way his brain is developing. It’s no wonder we’ve been feeling so out of place — my brain has spent years developing the particular habits, unhealthy or not, and then along comes this adorable, squishable, delightful little creature who throws all of that out of whack. So, like Duhigg suggests, I’m making change easier in my life, which is where that whole small steps, small change “revolution” idea came from (yes; I ripped it off from him!). And while it’s only been a couple of weeks, it’s actually working.
The second part of the book that I was most fascinated by was the business analysis of how Target utilizes customer data; it was so engrossing, and so relevant to those of us in a digital marketplace. It really got me thinking about how lucky companies like Amazon, Kobo, Google, etc., are to have the kind of consumer insight that comes from not only seeing sales figures, but general web traffic, usability, paths through their sites, abandon rates, open rates, all that great stuff. Imagine if they shared it openly with publishers (I know we can pay for access to some of it) — how would that influence how we build covers, what we publish, etc. All in all, it’s really captivating stuff — and I enjoyed this book immensely.
March 10th, 2012
Yes, I know, the photo of the galley of Augusten Burroughs, This is How: Help is for the Self, Proven Aid in Overcoming More, For Young and Old Alike, is slightly skewed, and I think that’s entirely, utterly right. As it happens with most book reviews that I write, I’m going to begin with a digression. There are maybe two self-help-style books that I have truly found, well, helpful in my life. The first, Motherless Daughters, helped me understand the profound loss that I felt at a very difficult moment in my life during the course of living through the empty space my mother’s accident and subsequent hospitalization left in my life. It was entirely the right book for me to read. The other, a classic textbook-like tome about depression, The Feeling Good Handbook, gave me simple tools to understand how your mind alters your mood and the pitfalls of negative thinking, etc. I’m not saying that these books cured what ailed me. But what they did was give me a different perspective about what I was going through, mentally, physically. (more…)
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…)
December 19th, 2011
Over the last few years, instead of sending sympathy cards for friends who have lost loved ones, parents, I’ve sent copies of The Year of Magical Thinking. It’s the one book that helped me on every level deal with the accident/death of my own mother. Didion’s exceptionally precise writing and her own deep, deep loss was both oddly exacting and yet comforting at the same time. It’s the most consistently accurate book about how to think about what the absence of the kind of love that we take for granted every single day does to the human heart, mind, soul that I have ever read. And then, we come to Blue Nights.
After the death of her husband, Didion’s daughter, Quintana Roo, died a complicated death caused by inexplicable but utterly explainable cascading medical situations that seem to define the word tragedy. Blue Nights remains the author’s meditation, for it’s hard to refer to it as a memoir, on the loss of a child. But any discussion of children cannot be separate from that of motherhood, of its failures, of its successes, of its utter inability to define your life outside of it once it’s happened to you. And Didion, balancing the life of a writer with that of mother was never a cause for regret, per se, but of reflection — and the results are brilliant.
Having led a life already defined by the inexplicable kind of tragedy that Didion herself has experienced (and I am not for once “putting myself into her shoes,” I’m just saying that my life has not be easy), it’s impossible for me not to relate on every level to this work. I am happy that this book is free of the platitudes that usually plague books of this kind — that the honesty required of Didion to even write about what happened to her excises any of the typically movie-of-the-week emotions that would feather a lesser book into melodrama. Yet, when Didion describes her own frailty, her wonder at who her emergency contact might be now that both her daughter and husband have died, and the complex relationship she had with her beautiful daughter while alive, there’s an undercurrent of honesty that a lesser writer would simply be unable to achieve. Her writing is direct and simple yet it aches with emotion. The book can write in one sentence what would take me paragraphs. My heart will never be the same after Blue Nights. There are lessons in its pages, and maybe that’s more the point, for me as a reader, that my own words will never come close to being able to explain how profoundly this book affected my consciousness. I have put it back on the shelf — it’s one to keep, to reread, to remember.
July 27th, 2011
When I alphabetized by bookshelves to gain some order over the suburban sprawl of my TBR piles (read: four book shelves), I neglected to include any nonfiction in my overall reading strategy. I see now this was a mistake because I really love narrative nonfiction, especially when it’s well-written and about New York City. The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell, while, yes, might be a bit repetitive and contain perhaps one too many historical recipes that feel like filler, fits the bill. I have never read anything else by Mark Kurlansky but I am ever-curious to read more of his nonfiction after finishing this book.
From the early Dutch settlers to the heyday of the Golden Age, New Yorkers have always consumed copious amounts of oysters. The social-anthropological thesis behind Kurlansky’s narrative fascinated me: human beings, in any situation, will simply ruin a natural, wonderful thing (oysters in the NY and surrounding harbours) by industry, profit and greed. And what’s worse, while the environmental message rings clear in this book, it’s amazing to me that even if they did bring the oysters back, the water at the bottom is so dead (no oxygen) that they wouldn’t survive. Ironically, as many activists point out, oysters are like vacuums cleaning up the waters for us. Annnywaay, that’s my rant about the ruination of our earth.
Back to the more fun things. It’s fascinating to examine the growth of a city through food — how it evolved, how it became an industry, and how said industry changed once the product disappeared for good. I loved how everyone in NYC: rich, poor, tourist, eats oysters — heck, my RRHB and I even took his parents to the beautiful oyster bar in Grand Central Station for dinner — all throughout history. Starting with the native peoples who first traded with the Dutch, through the English colonization and then downfall of their rule, and into the Golden Age, one thing remains constant: an unwaivering appetite for oysters among the inhabitants of one of the world’s greatest cities. (more…)
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).
April 12th, 2011
Should you have ever come to one of my book club meetings, you will have discovered that I am not a fan of the epistolary format. It makes me a bit crazy unless it’s Mary Shelley, actually. Yet, I feel the need to speak to you directly. Perhaps it’s the personal nature of your book or perhaps it’s my own selfish need to write a bit differently today — regardless, here we go, an open letter to you.
An apology to start: I really and truly hated Eat, Pray, Love. I didn’t give it a proper chance, however, and threw the book across the room halfway through India. The voice, the whining, the lack of appreciation for your life’s gifts, it all annoyed me to no end. And then I watched the movie (why oh why does Hollywood insist upon making movies about writers where they never, ever write? Aside from an email or two — to break up with a boyfriend none the less — the Liz Gilbert in the film never picks up a book or a pencil. Annoying. Didn’t that bother you?) and it affirmed my every action in terms of not finishing that book.
Cultural zeitgeist aside, I was weary to read Committed. In fact, I’m not sure why I did — and it took some effort, an extra trip to the library, a hold, actual dedication to read your book while caring for an ever-increasingly needy infant. But am I ever glad that I did. I’m going to say it loud and clear: I’m so very sorry. I was Judgy McJudgerson when it came to EPL, I couldn’t abide by the stories I was hearing of groups of women having themed parties and giving up their own lives for a year of self-journeyment. Maybe I was jealous. Maybe I wanted to be out there too — travelling for year and then writing about it. I mean, it sounds delicious. Yet, something in Committed, maybe it was the word “skeptic” in the book’s subtitle that caught me, or maybe it was the subject matter (being a happily married lady myself but ever-curious about the social and political implications of the institution itself), but I was hooked by the first chapter.
In fact, despite the odd pairing of the more anthropological aspects of the memoir with your own personal experiences, I was somewhat taken in by your obsessive/compulsive need to research just about everything you could possibly about marriage before wearily entering into your own second union. I know Curtis Sittenfeld pointed out that some of the connections between your own research and experiences in limbo while waiting for Felipe’s immigration situation to be sorted stretched thin across your narrative, but I didn’t mind. I enjoyed learning about the people that you met, the marriages you came across, the kind of social history that seems to only be discussed between women but not necessarily written down. Women need to talk more about their differences. Or, rather, women need to be better aware of the social and political implications of marriage around the world — if only to appreciate and understand our own particular wants, needs, and biases.
But what I adored about your book, and what made me feel like a heel for being so judgmental about your first book, was the story about your grandmother. I, too, grew up with a strong natured, extremely intelligent, ridiculously amazing grandmother — a war bride who bravely left her family behind in England to start a new life in Canada with a difficult man, who held her family together tragedy after tragedy, and whom I loved so much that I still think about her every single day. Your grandmother, with her sassy fur coat and her determination, her happiness in that tiny farmhouse with her small kids and everything that she gave up — there’s a richness to her story that I felt was missing from the bits of EPL that I read. Maybe I should have been more patient. Maybe more Maud-like stories would have shown up in the “Love” section of your book. Alas, I didn’t wait around to find out.
I did, however, rip through to the end of this book and was pleased to see that the legalities of your situation worked itself out. That your skepticism still allowed you to take a brave step down the aisle and I could absolutely relate to the idea of wanting to be married but not necessarily needing a “wedding” (we called ours a “non-wedding” for a long time and got married at city hall; it took less than 15 minutes. In fact, the actual “wedding” means so little to either of us that we a) forget our anniversary just about every year and b) neither can remember exactly how long we’ve been married. Some people might think this strange — but for me, and for us, it’s about the relationship, not the piece of paper, about building a life together, not about the institution. In a way, why did we get married at all, one might wonder. But it was important to me to be married and I’m sure it’s exactly as you explore throughout your book — the way I was raised, the example of my parents’ marriage, my grandparents and aunts and uncles.
Also, you have such a grand sense of humour throughout this book that perhaps I missed completely while being so annoyed with EPL? The tone of this book was whip-smart yet still with a questioning when it came to having to do something you were both so against from the beginning of your relationship. Lastly, I can absolutely relate to the obsessive/compulsive way you went about coming to terms with having to get hitched — the research, the restlessness, the ideas of how to still be the “you” that you had discovered after your first failed marriage. And as one who obsesses and has their own compulsive tendencies when it comes to many aspects of my life — it made me feel better to see someone else put it down in writing so eloquently.
So, in short, here’s my apology for being so flippant and, well, cruel. I’m sorry.