2010 • 256 pages • Riverhead Books
While I’ve cooled on all but one, my love for advice columns once led me to subscribe to three at once—Dear Sugar, Ask Polly, and Captain Awkward. These days, Dear Sugar has evolved into a podcast (which I don’t have room for on my current podcast rotation, sadly), Ask Polly has moved from the Hairpin to the Cut, and Captain Awkward is still chugging away. I now only subscribe to the good Captain, but I’ll occasionally drop by the Cut to see what Ask Polly author Heather Havrilesky is up to. Like when I dropped by a few weeks ago, and discovered this gorgeous gem that summed up a lot of my interpersonal issues:
What you don’t know when you’re young and single is how personal it feels to live at the whims of someone else’s bad habits.
It’s this kind of writing that really resonated with me, especially given my issues regarding control and agency. So, inevitably, that led me to add Havrilesky’s memoir to my reading list. Disaster Preparedness focuses on key incidents in the young Havrilesky’s life, growing up in the late seventies and early eighties, that highlight the dysfunction of her family. As she grows up and starts to learn that other people don’t operate the same way that her family does, she finds herself running into obstacles between herself and her ability to connect with other people.
Havrilesky writes Disaster Preparedness with the same clear-eyed wit and wisdom as she writes her column. Mostly, she marvels at the ways in which her family have pushed aside the world to cling together as a unit, in ways that damage them personally and publicly. She writes of her family life at a distance of both years and knowledge.
It’s all very well done. Nonetheless, I am left with one question: how do I review a book that pushed me into a dissociative funk for a weekend?
The Book of Margery Kempe
translated by John Skinner
1999 • 343 pages • Book-of-the-Month Club
I am as frankly surprised as you are that my reading has taken on a religious bent these past two weeks. I threw The Girl of Fire and Thorns into my bag yesterday morning, and only remembered once I started it that I had wanted to read it because it was the rare fantasy novel that actively deals with faith. (Verdict so far: yes, good, continue.) I’ve suddenly become dissatisfied with everything I currently have out of the library, so we’ll see if this trend keeps up when I refresh my selections. (I imagine it won’t, because I have Kieron Gillen’s Darth Vader on hold and cannot wait to read it.)
But I originally wanted to read The Book of Margery Kempe because it’s often considered the first autobiography written in English (and by a woman!). Although, of course, autobiography wasn’t really a genre in the fifteenth century—it’s more accurately an autohagiography. Still, it offers particular insight into the life of a middle-class laywoman in medieval England, as Kempe experienced her call to Christ after the birth of her first child.
2005 • 368 pages • Counterpoint
Ever since I watched Jesus Camp as a teenager, church camp has kind of spooked me. And I don’t mean regular, normal church camp. (I assume regular, normal church camp is pretty chill. I would have no idea, as Madame didn’t want me growing up Catholic and ashamed of my everything, but never settled on an alternative beyond “let the poor kid sleep in.”) I mean the camps bordering on indoctrination, the “pray away the gay” camps, the ones that feel like they’re preying on children. I just can’t understand why anyone would put their child through that.
This morbid fascination is why I alighted on Julia Scheeres’ similarly titled Jesus Land, a memoir of her and her brother’s time at Escuela Caribe, a “Christian boot camp” that’s a cross between those camps and the kind of camps that kidnap kids in the middle of the night to “straighten them out.” (These are real and they are horrifying.) It’s been on the Behemoth long enough that I no longer recall who recommended it to me, just that I came across in the little Carnegie library I used to live across from in Denver long afterwards. (Man. I used to live in Denver. Wild.)
My Life in France
by Julia Child with Alex Prud’homme
2006 • 317 pages • Alfred A. Knopf
Oh, did I ever need Julia Child this past week.
For reasons I don’t particularly want to go into, my ever-fluctuating confidence in myself was quite shaken last week, so being able to escape into My Life in France was an absolute godsend in terms of both general stress relief and relieving my anxiety. (I don’t think I’ve ever read myself out of being nauseous from nerves before, so that was a novel experience.) I’ve never been a particularly ambitious woman, which, combined with being a queer introvert who doesn’t want children, sometimes makes me feel disconnected from the usual cultural milestones my culture tells me I should be hitting to qualify as a real person. So spending my commutes reading the words of a woman who found her true, passionate calling late in life, never had children, and pursued her passion in life simply because she enjoyed it? It was heartening on a spiritual level.
While I’ve never read Mastering the Art of French Cooking and have never been an active fan of Julia Child—I’m young enough that I only really know her from pop cultural osmosis and a viewing of Julie and Julia—I’ve long thought of her fondly, to the point that I can summon her voice in my ear despite not having heard her voice in years. (How odd, to put it that way, since she passed away in 2006. Memory is such a weird and wonderful thing.) Anastasia is actually the reason I hunkered down and put My Life in France on my reading list three years ago, and her recommendation was quite successful.
Rock She Wrote
edited by Evelyn McDonnell and Ann Powers
2014 (originally published 1995) • 496 pages • Plexus Publishing
Have I ever mentioned how much I love reading women’s voices in chorus? I always love learning about women in community, especially when it involves women that the powers that be prefer to isolate, such as Jane Austen in the Western canon (did you know Jane Austen was influenced by Fanny Burney?) or Dolly Wilde as a footnote in Oscar Wilde’s history. Anthologies of women’s writing can sound a little dry, but something like Women in Clothes can be so astonishing just by the sheer variety of voices it entails. Feminine experience is multifaceted, varied—we’re so often denied this truth in even supposedly progressive media that to encounter it all at once is a choice experience.
Rock She Wrote fights back against the (white, straight) boys’ club of criticism by presenting a sample of over thirty years’ worth of writing on rock, pop, and rap. Editors Evelyn McDonnell and Ann Powers, in the introduction, describe both the motivation for curating the collection and the treasure hunt of tracking down authors, soliciting recommendations, and hunting for lost fanzines. (As someone who dreams of discovering some secret trove of eighties Star Wars slash zines, I can relate.) And, blissfully, it’s not just a collection of straight white female authors—women of color and queer women also have their voices represented here.
by Amy Poehler
2014 • 329 pages • Dey St.
The best story another person tells about Amy Poehler comes from Tina Fey’s Bossypants: it’s the story where Poehler and her BFF Seth Meyers are doing a bit in the Saturday Night Live writers’ room, and Poehler does something gross as part of the bit. Jimmy Fallon complains that the bit isn’t cute, and Poehler drops the comedy to snarl, “I don’t fucking care if you like it,” before getting back to being hilarious and gross. Fey writes about this incident with a peculiar, admiring radiance, like someone writing about the origin story of a beloved superhero, and uses it to jumpstart some discussion about women in the workplace. (The moral of the story? Be more Amy Poehler. This is a very good moral.)
The best story Amy Poehler tells about herself is as follows: during the promotion blitz for Baby Mama (or as we call that movie at the Church of Bowie, Labor Day), Poehler is having lunch with a non-comedian friend. Her face is plastered across taxis and buses and buildings in New York City and her friend is absolutely amazed. He asks her if she can believe that this happening. Yes, she answers—because she’s been working for a decade to get up to that point.
by Maggie Thrash
2015 • 272 pages • Candlewick Press
I’m always fascinated by stories about the messy process of becoming a person, whether that’s by developing one’s own identity outside of one’s parent, developing a sense of morality, or developing a sense of one’s desires. Chalk it up to a sheltered childhood or a belated coming out, but that process is fresh enough in my own narrative that I’m always hungry to see someone else’s just to compare notes.
Maggie Thrash’s Honor Girl, a graphic memoir about Thrash’s experiences at Camp Bellflower and her first crush on a girl, falls perfectly into that category. Every summer, Maggie (as I’ll call the Thrash in the memoir to avoid confusion with the Maggie who wrote it) has attended the all girls camp as one of the few out-of-towners for years. She loves it, but, one summer, when she’s fifteen, she develops a crush on Erin, a nineteen year old counselor. Confused by both her first all encompassing crush and the fact that it’s on a girl, Maggie tries to make it through the summer like normal—but, of course, she can’t.
Maggie spends the bulk of Honor Girl puzzling out what’s happening to her, in a space that’s meant to be a safe haven for girls. But there are edges and limitations to even that, since it’s not a truly liberated context. Girls excitedly police each other’s gender presentation; Erin fights constantly with a girl named Libby over the ultimate safe space of the firing range; girls ritually tease and humiliate each other about crushes on the male members of staff. Once her crush on Erin becomes known to the main counselor, the counselor tells her that not only is being gay distasteful to talk about, but it’s an active threat to the innocence of the other girls around her. Because, I guess, queer kids aren’t entitled to innocence and safe spaces. Vomit.
The Empathy Exams
by Leslie Jamison
2014 • 256 pages • Graywolf Press
I do hope that all fans of Cheryl Strayed, Dear Sugar, and Tiny Beautiful Things have discovered the existence of Dear Sugar Radio. That’s right, dear readers, Sugar has taken to the airwaves—both of them, in fact, as original Sugar Steve Almond is along for the ride. Together, and usually with the help of a colleague over the phone, they tackle exactly the same kind of letters people sent to Sugar during her original run.
It’s a wonderful podcast and a regular part of my podcast rotation, but I find myself missing the conspiratorial, motherly, and challenging tone of the original (alright, semi-original) Sugar, who shared her hard-earned wisdom with us just as much as she shared the things that she was still struggling with.
In that light, Leslie Jamison, whom you may know from her searing “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” reads like a younger Sugar, one with harder, pricklier edges. (Which makes perfect sense, given that The Empathy Exams were recommended on a recent episode of Dear Sugar Radio.) Jamison’s theme, as you might be able to guess, is pain: the pain of understanding, not understanding, and not being understood, the pain of suffering an illness that doctors dismiss, the voluntary pain of extreme runners, the involuntary pain of the incarcerated and the wounded, and the pain we co-opt for our own purposes and pleasures. And, with the welcome inclusion of “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain” in this volume, how to actively engage with female pain when it has been turned into flattening, dehumanizing metaphor for centuries in media.
Smoke Gets In Your Eyes
by Caitlin Doughty
2014 • 272 pages • W. W. Norton & Company
My entire life, I’ve had what I called “death scares”—existential panic attacks brought on by obsessively thinking about death. (Much like being queer, being what I believe is technically referred to as hellaciously anxious was blindingly obvious to everyone but me throughout my childhood.) I have a very specific memory of having one at the age of twelve, standing in the doorway of my childhood bedroom, staring out into the dark hallway, frozen in fear by the idea that it could all end. As an adult who enjoys her life, they’ve slowed down to maybe two a year (I suspect they’re much more about “WHAT IF I’M WASTING MY LIFE?!” rather than fearing the biological process of death), more if I read too many Cracked articles about unsolved murders.
(By the by, have you ever heard of the 1920s Hinterkaifeck murders? The murderer was probably living in their attic before the murders and definitely living in their house after the murders. Look, if I can’t sleep, you can’t sleep.)
When my anxiety is not in the driver’s seat, though, I have a more holistic approach towards death; after all, contemplating the ramifications of actually living forever renders me near catatonic. Death gives life meaning, to be trite (and quote Hannibal Lecter, that great humanitarian). My mother and I have had long conversations, her enthroned on the structurally compromised orange leather couch that dominates her living room and me lolling on the floor with the dog, about how it’s nothing to be scared of, because it’s a natural part of life and there’s nothing we can do about it. Fear isn’t useful when it comes to death.
Silver Screen Fiend
by Patton Oswalt
2015 • 240 pages • Scribner
I first heard of Silver Screen Fiend when I couldn’t get to my laptop fast enough to keep Hulu from autoplaying the next segment on Late Night with Seth Meyers at full blast at godawful in the morning. (Why was I watching Late Night with Seth Meyers clips at godawful in the morning? Hi, I’m Clare, I find Seth Meyers personally inspiring, nice to meet you.) And there was Patton Oswalt, promoting his new book and explaining that he should have known the film obsession of his youth was an addiction when he made his date walk back to her car alone at three or four in the morning.
I adored the memoir portions of Oswalt’s last book, Zombie Spaceship Wasteland. In that book, he absolutely nails the frustration and lack of cultural resources endemic to American suburbia in such an immediate, identifiable way. While the experimental comedy portions of Zombie Spaceship Wasteland rarely landed for me, the vocabulary he gave me that I could apply to my own suburban childhood was massively useful.
And yet, I’ve cooled on Oswalt as of late. Continue reading