Yes Please, Amy Poehler

Welcome to 2016! I’m not going to crack any jokes about making or breaking resolutions a week in as it’s been years since I’ve even considered making some of my own, and honestly, the only other thing I can think of right now is that we’re now officially in Election year, and the whole political circus is going to be amped up to eleven until November. Just thinking about it is making me tired, so instead of dwelling on the questionable success of new starts and uncontrollable windbaggery, let’s break open that bag of emergency marshmallows (what? You don’t have an emergency bag of marshmallows?!) and make some reading-escape appropriate cocoa.

20910157Now, that we’ve settled in, I have to admit I’ve been on a little break from novels the last two months. During November, I was doing my own new-mom adaptation of National Novel Writing Month, where, instead of writing a completely impossible 50,000 words, I was trying to finish the first draft of the cozy mystery started last summer. Spoiler alert: I failed. I did get five chapters written, which was certainly better than nothing, but I had to extend my deadline to December 31 (which fortunately, I was able to meet). 

The whole endeavor was surprisingly difficult even though I was only eight chapters from the end. It was also much harder than any of the years I’ve done a traditional NANO novel, probably because I care more about this book than I do the crazy stories I’ve written in great speed in the past. On top of that, I care more about my son than I do about deadlines, which is both wonderful and challenging. On the one hand, writing makes me feel like a million bucks – on the other, well, I’m not the first parent to struggle with this particular problem.

But I digress. I was talking about my break from novels, not lamenting the existence Hermione Granger’s time-turner. I like to take a break from fiction when I’m doing a lot of my own writing. It clears my head and allows me to focus on working through those ideas rather than procrastinating with another writer’s story. Obviously, I can’t just give up reading though, so I often find myself a little niche to explore. This time around, it has been comediennes. 

Amy Poehler’s book was a recommended read after I finished Mindy Kaling’s, although it was a far different experience. Poehler is a much more serious person than I realized, and her book certainly reflects that. Unlike Tina Fey or Kaling, her focus is less on a laugh out loud read (although I did) than it is a grittier look at her own experiences. She hasn’t sugar-coated her past failures here. She’s done some things that certainly don’t endear her, but her response to those choices, and her perspective as an older comic and woman were powerful and worthy of respect. 

This is a woman who has worked incredibly hard and has lived a fascinating, if challenging life. She hasn’t done everything perfectly, but that’s shaped her comedy and made her, in my opinion, more worthy of her success. It was passages such as this one that touched me deeply and made this book special:

The hardest day in Haiti for me was when we visited a few orphanages. Some of these places were doing the best they could. Others had a long way to go. Jane’s colleague Noah and I saw babies living in cribs that looked like cages. A little boy named Woosley jumped into Noah’s arms and wouldn’t let go. He was desperate for attachment, and men were especially scarce. Woosley held on to Noah like a bramble. We were filled with anxiety because we knew we would have to say good-bye. Noah had to drop him back off at his crowded room, and Woosley hung on and started to get upset. He finally got down and faced a corner as he cried. It was the loneliest thing I have ever seen. A teacher went to him, but it barely comforted him.

Those kids needed so much holding. Kisses and hugs and clothes and parents. They needed everything. The enormity of what they needed was so intense. We ended up talking in the street with Jane, and crying. Jane was agitated and passionate. She talked about all the work left to do and all the small changes that can improve children’s lives. I was once again moved by her ability to steer into the curve. Jane was a big-wave rider. She didn’t make the mistake that most of us make, which is to close our eyes and hope the waves will go away or miss us or hit someone else. She dove in, headfirst. That night, I read the deeply calm and at times sneakily funny Pema Chödrön, one my favorite writers: “There are no promises. Look deeply at joy and sorrow, at laughing and crying, at hoping and fearing, at all that lives and dies. What truly heals is gratitude and tenderness.” Pema reminded me to practice tonglen, which is this meditation breathing exercise where you breathe in all the pain and breathe out nothing but love. It felt like the opposite of what I had been doing for a year. I felt one tiny molecule in the bottom of my heart feel better. (loc 3224)

Godsquad, Heide Goody and Iain Grant

This is going to be my last review pre-baby arrival. Although I’ve discovered already how hard it is to take proper maternity leave as a freelancer, I think it’s important to try and separate from work to enjoy family bonding/spend any sliver of downtime I may have sleeping. The plan is to be back with new reviews beginning on September 17 (slightly more than three months so that I may enjoy traveling to and being in a wedding at the beginning of September), and I look forward to the new perspective motherhood brings to my literary life. While I suspect part of my brain will go numb from board book repetition, I also hope this change will lead me down even more interesting avenues.

That being said, this final book is one written by my colleagues across the pond (and for the record, even though I begged for a pre-release copy, I had to wait and purchase one at the same time as the rest of the world – truly a poor execution of cronyism if I ever saw one!). I read the first book in the series, Clovenhoofbefore I decided to work with Goody and Grant, and it remains a beloved favorite in the vein of Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore or Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. 

Growing up the daughter of a UCC minister, I was privy to an odd perspective on the church, and on religion in general. While I have a deep respect for my own beliefs and those of others, I couldn’t help but see the thread of absurdity that often unravels in congregations. I never took my Sunday School lessons as seriously as my friends in part because I could see what was behind the curtain (the work that went into writing sermons, the vast energy required for counseling people, the patience necessary for handling disagreements over what tablecloth should be used on the communion table…). At a very young age, I determined that church was a place of instilling values and a sense of community, not necessarily having a relationship with God. I was content with that though, because as much as I love structure and routine, faith doesn’t really fit into such strictures. It’s found by those searching for it over some of the roughest courses of life. It lends itself to ridiculous situations, to the impossible, to moments of deep trauma and to great adventure. 

As a result of this flexibility, I’ve always found that the topic makes for some of the very funniest books. Humor is so revealing. We pretend that it protects us, but it often ends up exposing some of the most interesting conversations about the choices we make, the people we follow, and lives we have as a result of those decisions. All three of the books Grant and Goody have written in this series have fallen into that vein. I can’t help but laugh out loud when I read them, but I’ve also found myself quite moved by some of their subtle insights into human nature versus the divine. 

I think the greatest praise I can give them (and this series) can be best understood by a different yardstick though. I’ve never met either Iain or Heide in person, and yet not only did I desperately want to work with them on Circ, I also trusted and respected their talent enough to brutally edit down my own work when they suggested that it was necessary. I doubt writers are the only people who will appreciate what high praise this is – anyone who has put their heart into a project and then had to make major changes will understand such vulnerability. We often have to take feedback from editors, managers, and bosses who we think less of, but when we submit ourselves to the inspection of opinions we respect, it generally results in a combination of nausea and gratification…and, quite frankly, superior results. I know for a fact I’m a better writer having worked with them, and I also know I’m a happier reader knowing I have more of their books to look forward to in the future.

For more about Grant and Goody, head over here

Finn Fancy Necromancy, Randy Henderson

Do you ever buy a book purely for the title? I have to imagine the answer is yes, and the main reason I want to believe this is that I really struggle with titling projects and I want to believe that at the end of the day, all that agony has meant something. I want to know that at least a few people who buy my books are doing so not because they know me or my work or even because they care much for the genre, but purely because it would be too hard to pass up the opportunity to buy something with such a fabulous title! As you can tell, I’ve clearly got my priorities in order.

While I was considering this question, I actually wished I had created an appropriate tag when I started this blog just to mark the books I buy and read for the title. I know I’ve done it more than once, and it seems like it would be fun to go back and compare how those books worked out for me. I feel like if I collected enough empirical evidence on the topic, I might be able to make an educated guess about how reliable it is to judge a book by its cover. (For the record, the cover art for Finn Fancy Necromancy is both amazing and completely nonsensical, and I love it – sheer bonus on top of the title, in my opinion.)

If I had to make a guess without any data (which is, admittedly, how I like to roll), I would say that books I’ve chosen purely for love of the title tend to score a six or a seven out of ten for me, whereas books I pick for the cover art alone tend to score much lower, averaging maybe a four or so. Again, I have no real evidence to back this up other than my memory (which has become, in the last nine months, not so much a sieve as a sucking vacuous black hole). Fortunately, I suspect it would be hard to prove me wrong on this point, and even if it were possible, it would be a tremendously unsatisfying victory. It would take so much work, and for what? To discover that taste is a fleeting concept? That the most enduring stories last regardless of title or cover? That it’s only in this wonderful age of book over-saturation that we even get to contemplate such a curious issue? Our time could be much better spent perusing the library shelves for titles, like this one, that make us giggle. Is Finn Fancy the best book I’ve ever read? No. Was it light and fun and perfect for my wandering brain this close to the end of my pregnancy? Yes. 

Henderson’s style is familiar and friendly, and his characters are people I can imagine befriending over a coffee even though their circumstances don’t seem to allow for many latte breaks. Every morning at the gym, as I battled exercise-induced heartburn (yes, that’s a real thing, and yes, I have it right now), I would read a chapter or two about Finn, returning from exile in a faerie prison world after twenty years, and I would appreciate how challenging it would be to try to pick up life where he left it, as a teenager in the eighties, now far from the cutting edge and pushing forty. 

Since he’s returned, he’s not only the target of the mysterious forces that framed him for his original crime, but he’s also been dumped back into the the fray of his family’s drama and his adolescent love interests. He has no personal memories of the last twenty years, has no idea what technological or political advances have been made, and has had no contact with anyone from his old life. What he does have is a healthy sense of humor (very much under appreciated by the people in his life) appropriate for a kid growing up with the Goonies. I couldn’t help but sympathize for the poor guy. No one should have to go to bed seventeen and wake up middle aged – it’s just not fair. 

When it comes down to it, the reason a book like this often ends up being a good fit for me, even when I do no research on it whatsoever before reading, is that silly wordplay is something I enjoy. While a beautiful cover might inspire or intrigue me, it often has little bearing to what’s on the page. The title, on the other hand, is an author’s wink at the world, a little peek into the particular twist of psyche that has turned a spark into an adventure.

For more about Randy Henderson, head here.

Texts from Jane Eyre: And Other Conversations with Your Favorite Literary Characters, Mallory Ortberg

Last month, I was diligent about my research. I read a lot, but it was almost entirely a fact seeking mission, and quite frankly, it was exhausting. Don’t get me wrong – the books were incredible, and I’m so glad I took the time to read and take notes from them, but I also wish I hadn’t put so much off to the last minute that I was forced into such a rigorous schedule. As it is, we still have plenty to do before this baby arrives, and I don’t have much energy for anything – even reading delicious fiction – but I did find a book (at the beautiful new library that opened a couple of months ago right down the street – am I excited about this? Yes!) that was prefect for all the evenings I was sitting in a line of cars waiting to pick my husband up from the train. 

Mallory Ortberg, in case you don’t know, is the co-editor of an amazing website called The Toast. Her book, Texts from Jane Eyre, is ridiculous and honestly way more brilliant than it has any right to be. I felt downright stupid trying to parse some of the texts because I’m clearly not as well read on some of the classics as I should be.  She, on the other hand, has the kind of inside scoop on quality literature that will make English majors weep with joy. It’s also the perfect book to keep on hand for those three to five minute intervals of downtime we seem to now use exclusively for checking Instagram, Twitter, email, or, of course, texting our own brilliant thoughts to loved ones and frenemies alike. 

I’ve recently reached a saturation point with my phone though. I find that if I check apps too often in a day, I start to feel truly fatigued. Having a book that’s easy to jump into and out of is the best medicine. It gives me a reprieve from whatever stress or boredom I’m trying to combat without raising my blood pressure or making me feel like I’m wasting my life looking at recipes I’m too beat to cook on Pinterest. (For the record, in the past, I have made some of those recipes, and they’ve been delicious, but I’m more in a path of least resistance mood when it comes to food these days, so it just doesn’t make sense to spend time mindlessly clicking.) 

 While the very best long term solutions would probably involve spending more time in the garden, or somehow discovering a way to collect all those brief breaks and turning them into an hour on the couch with a superb novel, having Ortberg’s wonderful sense of humor to keep me company has been a wonderfully workable option. Her book pinpoints that oft-overlooked intersection between pop culture and literary prowess. I feel, in equal parts, that I would happily watch her do standup as I would be in awe of her lectures in a college classroom. Her intelligence is also intimidating to me in the best kind of way; it makes me want to reach out and learn from her because I trust that her sense of the absurd would make the experience utterly delightful. 

This is probably not a book that would strike the same chords for everyone as it does for me. It skews toward a younger audience in its conceit, but an older one in its depth – an interesting combination, and one I hope might encourage interesting conversations about theme and communication between those two groups. Literature is an ever evolving field, and although some elements will always remain at its root, our drive as curious, boundary-challenging humans will also push and stretch it into new shapes in every generation. It’s one of the most beautiful things about books and about studying trends and history of reading habits. We’re always seeking to do what Ortberg has – take the best of the old and transform it into something fresh, fun, and new.

For more about Mallory Ortberg, go here.

Hyperbole and a Half, Allie Brosh

This has been a big year for me exploring books that incorporate art. I’ve found so many that I loved, and this one, a gift from my sister-in-law at Christmas, has been on my “must read” list for a long time. I love Allie Brosh, I’ve followed her career for several years now, and I’m thrilled that her book was as delightful as I had imagined. Much like Fun House, Hyberbole and a Half is a drama dressed up in clown shoes and a squeaky nose. Although much of Brosh’s work makes me giggle uncontrollably, the real meat of it deals with her own struggles with depression and self-worth.

If my life were a movie, the turning point of my depression would have been inspirational and meaningful.  It would have involved wisdom-filled epiphanies about discovering my true self and I would conquer my demons and go on to live the rest of my life in happiness.

Instead, my turning point mostly hinged on the fact that I had rented some movies and then I didn’t return them for too long.

The late fees had reached the point where the injustice of paying any more than I already owed outweighed my apathy. I considered just keeping the movies and never going to the video store again, but then I remembered that I still wanted to re-watch Jumanji.

I put on some clothes, put the movies in my backpack, and biked to the video store. It was the slowest, most resentful bike ride ever.

And when I arrived, I found out they didn’t even have Jumanji in.

Just as I was debating whether I should settle on a movie that wasn’t Jumanji or go home and stare in abject silence, I noticed a woman looking at me weirdly from a couple rows over.

She was probably looking at me that way because I looked really, really depressed and I was dressed like an Eskimo vagrant.

Normally, I would have felt an instant, crushing sense of self-consciousness, but instead, I felt nothing.

I’ve always wanted not to give a fuck. While crying helplessly into my pillow for no good reason, I would often fantasize that maybe someday I could be one of those stoic badasses whose emotions are mostly comprised of rock music and not being afraid of things. And finally – finally – after a lifetime of feelings and anxiety  and more feelings, I didn’t have any feelings left. I had spent my last feeling being disappointed that I couldn’t rent Jumanji

I felt invincible.

And thus began a tiny rebellion.

I swooped out of there like the Batman and biked home in a blaze of defiant glory.

And that’s how my depression got so horrible that it actually broke through to the other side and became a sort of fear-proof exoskeleton. (p 113)

So ends Part One of the two part story about her worst eighteen months of depression. In the second section, she talks about how the feeling of invincibility faded to become a combination of boredom and a sort of horror that she would never experience feelings again. She doesn’t spare any of the journey – the loving but useless help from friends, the struggle with suicidal thoughts, the slow road back from depression to a more balanced mental health – it’s all there. Furthermore, the end is not a rainbow of recovery so much as it is a ray of hope.

A huge part of what makes her story so authentic and appealing is that she’s not fixated on the neat conclusion, but on the space in between the starting line and the finish. Her approach is light but frank and could as easily be a jumping off point for discussing these issues in a classroom or at home as it is an enjoyable coffee table read.Humor has long been used as a technique to de-stigmatize certain behaviors society has deemed off-limits for discussion, and I, for one, am completely in support of this approach. Brosh’s sense of the absurd coupled with her piercing self-examination is unsettling, but also strangely inviting. She’s the guest you invite over who has no filter, the one who manages to be awkward and scrambling and lovable at the same time.

 

To see more of Allie Brosh’s brilliant work, head over here.

C’mon Papa: Dispatches from a Dad in the Dark, Ryan Knighton

I have been wanting to read Ryan Knighton’s memoir about his first year of parenting as a blind man since I heard an interview with him on NPR in 2010. Unfortunately, the book proved hard to find here in the States, and when I put it on my Christmas list this year, I didn’t have high hopes. Consequently, I was amazed and thrilled when my in-laws were able to find it for me, and it ended up in my stack of must-reads for this January.

Admittedly, my memory of the book was limited to its topic, and to the compelling section read on This American Life – a passage about Ryan and his infant daughter, alone in a college campus parking lot early one morning in the moments after the girl utters one of the few words she knows (and that her father knows she knows). That word was bear. Very little could sum up the hysteria and helplessness that plagued much of Knighton’s first year better than that scene, and it stayed with me over the last four years.

His storytelling was in equal parts hilarious and frightening, and when I finally got a chance to read about the rest of his experience, I also found it heart-wrenching. In fact, I cried at least once every chapter. I also cried when I finished the book, and when I considered how many obstacles face parents with disabilities. It’s hard to admit, but I’d never given it much thought before. As a teacher, my mind has always focused on the experience from the child’s perspective – how the child, and his or her abilities, fit into the classroom, the wider family unit, and the world at large. It had never occurred to me just how frustrating and frightening it would be to perform simple tasks with a baby without sight, mobility, hearing. While I have been trained, over many years, to recognize the signs of abuse or neglect, of emotional instability in parent or child, of the challenges that exist for a child with special needs, I haven’t given enough thought to how a condition, such as Knighton’s degenerative blindness, would strain a couple and their new child.

Blindness has taught me to move through space exclusively by memory, even in my own home. Rats navigate this way too. Their movements are patterned, and the patterns are remembered by their muscles, not their minds. If a rat runs along the edge of a particular wall on a feeding route, and that wall is removed, the rat will continue to run along the phantom edge. Rats map the ghosts of bygone buildings. I move likewise through my home, habituated to its different turns and timing. That’s why, if I move too fast, or lose track of my angle, I can actually become disoriented in my own home. I live in a habit, not a space.

This is why, as I bolted through the doorway carrying Tess and her soother, I clipped the threshold with my arm. And with Tess’ little head. The sound was like the strike of a hammer on wood.

At that moment, I was introduced to her pain cry, which I thought I knew, but had actually never been heard before. It may have been her first pain from without. She was inconsolable. Me, too.

The ember in my skull felt at its brightest, and the most searing, and suddenly I saw the fear for what it was. Tess, whom I couldn’t soothe, represented the greatest pain I would ever know, should something happen to her, and worse, should I be to blame. Parents endure a constant, low-grade anxiety, it’s true, but the love that fills us is made of equal parts terror. I wasn’t afraid of Tess, but afraid of my love for her. It could, and will, hurt me one day, and so I’d stood back from it, so wary, so taken by self-preservation. I was in awe of this love. I was also ashamed of how I’d received it.

“I’m so sorry, Papa’s so sorry,” I pleaded as we sat on the couch.

Of course Tess couldn’t tell me she was okay, nor could she forgive me. My own pain cycled through my body, as did hers, unable to find an exit. A sadness clung. I couldn’t shake the thought that I’d hurt her. Didn’t matter that it was an accident – I was the cause. My blindness had shown the smallest example of what it could do to her, and to me as a father.

Knighton, as a man and a father, is not any better or worse than the average first time dad. The difference, though, is how hard he has to work for it. Every task he takes on is more fraught. Every task he can’t do is a greater burden on his wife. He is caught constantly in that struggle, twitching between independence and fear, ability and its natural limitations. His struggles and successes are familiar ones, but they’re painted with a new brush here.

 

For more about Ryan Knighton, head over here.

Neil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Autobiography, Neil Patrick Harris

The biggest problem with going on a three-week vacation in October is that when November rolls around, and I’m once again buried in pre-holiday deadlines and extra NaNoWriMo word count, I don’t feel like I can phone it in. If you look in the archives, November is traditionally my laziest month of reviews because it’s hard to hack a thousand words about someone else’s book when my own projects are keeping me up late every night! And then waking me early! When it’s still dark! It’s almost like the writer in me doesn’t realize that hibernation has officially started…

But here’s the thing – there’s a solution to what I’ve started calling the “November is hell” problem. And that solution is audiobooks. Yes. Audiobooks. Usually the bane of my existence (I have almost zero ability to concentrate auditorily), this month, the audiobook is my saving grace. I can listen while cooking dinner (or cleaning up the kitchen from a week’s worth of dinners). I can have it on while I’m in the shower or running errands or waiting to pick my husband up after work. As an added bonus, I can listen to NPH at double speed and get through his jokes in almost half the time! Seven hour book listened to in four? Win!

I suspect it wouldn’t be easy for me to pull this off with a novel, which is why I almost never listen to them, instead choosing memoirs or biographies that don’t require following a complex plot. Nothing slows down a speed read listen like having to constantly rewind to catch up on what transpired while I was multitasking. I’ve found this is especially effective when listening to books written and read by comedians, like Harris (or Fey or Kaling). I’m so used to the rhythm of his speech from years of watching How I Met Your Mother and Doogie Howser, MD that it’s more like a one-sided conversation with an old friend than a book.

It was surprising too, when I told friends I was reading it, that when they inevitably asked whether it was hilarious, I had to stop and say…well, yes. Sort of. But also, no. Which they then took to mean he didn’t successfully execute his jokes, but which actually meant that his story is set up less for laughs than it could have been. Instead, he’s sincere, and sweet, and somehow both self-deprecating and vain. Harris is witty, but also surprisingly vulnerable.

It’s possible it’s just a side effect of listening to a person’s life story told in their own voice, but it’s hard not to root for Harris, to celebrate the birth of his children with him, and to recoil in anger at the discrimination he’s experienced. The format has an empathetic effect on its listener. The fourth wall comes down, and for a few busy hours, it’s possible to be a part of his world.

 

For more about Neil Patrick Harris, head here.