Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Deep thoughts and celebrity memoirs

I've been listening to Nora Ephron's works on audiobook. If you're like me, the name 'Nora Ephron' sounds familiar but you can't quite place it. She's a columnist from the seventies and eighties and she wrote about people. Just people--that's enough.  I started with her personal account of growing older, I Feel Bad About My Neck, and graduated on to Crazy Salad and Scribble Scribble: Some Things About Women and Notes on Media. Sometimes she's a feminist, sometimes a humorist, oftentimes a political observer--but she is always, always smart.  She seems to be completely intolerant of stupidity in all its societal manifestations.

Most recently I read her review of a book written by a transsexual person who underwent a sex change operation. Her book reviews aren't just book reviews--she does a good bit of outside research on her subjects, the times in which they lived, and the opinions of their peers. Her major criticism of this particular book is the writing style that the author adopts as a woman--the trite descriptions and overuse of the adjective "blush" in silly ways--but then she hits on the point of it all: the person's shallow understanding of what the female life he has undertaken really means. Jan Morris describes how good she feels when the men in her life feed on her helplessness, patronize her and then give her extra trading stamps, or smile approvingly at her in the streets; she feels absurdly elated and knows that she is becoming a true woman. She says she knows it is nonsense, but can't help it.

Ms Ephron writes this:
The truth of course, is that Jan Morris does not know it is nonsense. She thinks that is what it is about.  And I wonder about all this.  Wonder how anyone in this day and age can really think this is what being a woman is about. And as I wonder, I find myself thinking a harsh, feminist thought: it would be a man, I think. Well it would, wouldn't it?

 I apologize if this looks like I've given away the punch line of the author's best joke--I haven't. She's got a whole lot more.

I've learned something important from Ms. Ephron--when I decided to stop saying anything bad in my book reviews, I stopped being honest. Awhile back I was criticized for something I wrote, and it made me rethink why I was writing at all. What I had written wasn't mean or dishonest, it was simply shallow. I hadn't thought things through and I was embarrassed at having written it. My writing was negative, however, and that's why the person pointed it out to me.  If I'd written a shallow but positive comment, no one would have bothered.

So I decided that if I couldn't write something good about a book, I'd write nothing at all. I didn't want to disparage another person's feelings; I didn't want to criticize anyone's life decisions or dismiss their experiences just because I wouldn't have done things quite the same way.  But--and this is the big Nora Ephron but--that doesn't mean I have to pretend to be stupid and swallow any tripe people feed me.

And all those deep thoughts lead to celebrity memoirs. Enough with the celebrity memoirs!
A memoir can be funny--do you know Pat McManus and his best friend Retch Sweeny, his wife Bun and his favorite old man Rancid Crabtree? If not, you should introduce yourself.

A memoir can be chatty and reveal all the daily doings on a movie set, like Cary Elwes' As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales From the Making of The Princess Bride.  Great fun! Highly recommended.

But if it's neither funny or chatty, it needs to be deep...or I'm not reading it. I will say only this--

Amy Poehler's Yes Please is a celebrity memoir. If you're a diehard fan of all things SNL, you may want to read it. Don't expect too much.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Needed a little inspiration this week

My Marathon: Reflections on a Gold Medal Life
Frank Shorter

America's last male Olympic marathon gold medalist tells us how the medal came to happen and much more, from unhappy childhood through life after championships, when he founded and chaired the Anti-Doping Agency and became an advocate for abused children. It's an admirable autobiography with lots of running.

His father was a kindly, devoted family doctor by day and a sadist by night. His wife and kids suffered misery that no human being deserves to suffer. Frank escaped the cycle by somehow recognizing that this wasn't right--that he didn't deserve this and it wasn't his fault. So many victims of abusers grow up confused and self-hating, but he did not--and that was only one of the miracles that was Frank Shorter.

I understand his unwillingness to involve his siblings in this highly personal memoir, but I wish he had spoken of them more and of his mother. I believe they were still alive at the time of writing. But that didn't mean he had to completely suppress what he thought about them--the most he told was that as he grew older he tried to distract his father from the 'punishments'; to keep the man happy so he wouldn't stomp upstairs full of rage at the alleged misdeeds of his chosen victim. Mr. Shorter documents this in flat, unemotional prose, this but doesn't go into his feelings at the time. I wonder if he feels guilty about being able to escape and leaving his brothers and sisters behind--he mentions that and is sorry about it, but doesn't dwell on it. He doesn't dwell on anything--he's the most positive person I ever read about! (Hurray!)

And the running, running and more running made the book for me. I could have enjoyed more running, but I wasn't disappointed. A great man who never gave up--that's all the inspiration I can ask.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Not for me

by Dave Brandstetter

All kinds of potential and a pretty involved mystery, but I didn't click. I'm kind of mad at myself for that, so I won't rate it. I honestly don't know if it's a four-star or a two; I only know I finished it because it was short and I wanted to know who done it. And when I did, I didn't really care all that much. Too bad.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Rollercoaster road

The Things TheyCcarried
by Tim O'Brien

Oh, wow, oh, woe!  Early on I was decidedly in love--so much as you can be in love with a realistic book about a horrible war. His numbing recitation of the things segued over into what their Lieutenant was carrying--his love for a girl he hardly knew and a desperate attempt to hold onto the life he craved. After that we learned what a war story really is. I had to skip the story of the baby water buffalo but I heard enough to know that if I'd held out, I would have understood something worthwhile--something you can only understand when very young boys are placed into scenes of impossible unreality. The story of Tim's struggle with his fate after being drafted was eerily familiar even though my own life had never met such a challenge.

But I began to lose it when he got to "the mud field" and then "the revenge on the green medic." The mud field was rehashed from different angles--which would be okay--but then rehashed all over again from the same point of view. I was--to put in plainly--tired of it. Simple repetitions of words and phrases bring rhythm and ritual to a story. They bring it alive in a way the simple linear recitation of facts cannot, because they let the listener participate, in a longer listening but remembering. It implants the memories and then revives them--for me, I was there--and I hated it and loved it as much as he did.

But when he started to tell "the mud field" episode all over again, I was ready for it to be over. Which isn't the same as saying I was glad it was over. I was tired of it--and sated--and sorry I started.  But then again, wars are awfully boring.

Saturday, August 6, 2016 leave the mess!

Natural Gardening for Birds

Very informative in all manner of ways. I now know the best seeds to look for in a bird seed mix, the best flowering plants for my area, and the importance of brush piles.  The supreme importance of brush piles.  No problem for me--out here in the boonies, brush piles just happen. When you least expect them. They're quick to come; slow to haul away.

I'd already noticed how much the birds seem to like fallen trees and loosely piled branches. Wrens especially, but I've seen native sparrows sheltering there. One thing the book didn't think to mention was that green grass in winter delights most every wild bird. I have a bird-friendly septic system.

In addition to endorsing our poor landscape maintenance, the book had little insets of birder anecdotes every page or two.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Too much healthy--too little funny

Drop Dead Healthy:
One Man's Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection
by A. J. Jacobs

If you've read the encyclopedia book and the Bible book, then you pretty much know what to expect. This one didn't disappoint me, although I liked the Bible one best. And this wasn't nearly as funny as the others--don't know why. There so much one can make fun of in the pursuit of perfect health--juicing and sprouting; raw meat and hand sanitizers; fit bits worn 24x7--I'm surprised he didn't recalibrate his fit-bit to measure the aerobic intensity of sex.  That's the sort of zania I expect from a.j. Jacobs.  

Maybe the problem was he didn't overdo things as much as he's done in other year-long quests. He did finish a triathlon by the end--and without injury to life, limb, or marital happiness. Kind of disappointing, don't you think?

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

but mainly I feel bad about never reading her before now

I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman
by Nora Ephron

I enjoyed every word. I'd gotten the impression it was going to be outrageously funny but I didn't find it so, however, chuckles were induced; along with smirks, giggles, and explosive grins. As a martini, this collection is perfectly dry.

Funny or not, it was delicious! As a woman getting on in years, I identified with every word. But that doesn't mean you have to be a middle-aged woman to love this stuff. Maybe I don't "feel bad about my neck" just yet, but I definitely feel bad about my ears--I swear they're bigger than they used to be. And my nose that sprouts hairs like a chia pet. And my upper lip has a permanent five-o-clock shadow.

A bit of the book isn't about aging at all. There's a funny story about working in the White House during the Kennedy years and another one about how she fell in and out of love with Bill Clinton.

I can't wait to get my hands on another book of her stories. I even bookmarked a search in the Huffington Post online. She's addictive.