Bad Motherhood for Amateurs, Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon

Before writing about people writing about parenting, can I say, happy anniversary to my own lovely parents? Happy anniversary, Mumsy & Daddy! Y’all are the best ever!

Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon, who are married and writers, both wrote books of essays about parenting and family. I checked them out of the library together. Waldman’s book, Bad Mother, had eighteen chapters and an introduction, and Chabon’s, Manhood for Amateurs, had thirty-nine chapters. So I would basically read a chapter of Bad Mother and then two chapters of Manhood for Amateurs until I had finished them both. This was very pleasing except that sometimes I would forget whose book I was reading and be like, Good heavens, Ayelet Waldman slept with a thirty-five-year-old woman when she was fifteen?

Can I recommend that you all read both of these books in the same manner that I did? I got such a crush on Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon, even though I didn’t like the one Michael Chabon book I read before this one. It was touching to read their writing about each other and their kids, because it’s plain that they adore the kids and admire each other tremendously. And I am a sucker for couples who admire each other. Like the Brownings. Except the Brownings are still my favorite literary couple. Of course. A time will never come when this is not the case.

When I cried: Waldman’s essays “Rocketship” about having an abortion, and “The Audacity of Hope” about that guy who does that stupid dance all over the world and how parents try to portray the world as kind to their children. (Y’all, I know it’s dorky, but that video makes me tear up.) And also Chabon’s “The Binding of Isaac” about the Obama girls on election night, and “The Hand on My Shoulder” about his ex-father-in-law, and “The Story of Our Story” about telling stories to his brother.

One thing I loved about both books is the awareness of each of the writers of the mythologizing function of family. Chabon writes about this particularly in his essay “The Amateur Family.” It’s about Doctor Who. I’d really rather quote the part where Chabon says something about “the supreme and steady pleasure of watching the dazzling Scottish actor David Tennant go about the business of being the tenth man to embody the time-and-space traveling Doctor”, but instead of doing that, I’ll quote this:

Maybe all families are a kind of fandom, an endlessly elaborated, endlessly disputed, endlessly reconfigured set of commentaries, extrapolations, and variations generated by passionate amateurs on the primal text of the parents’ love for each other. Sometimes the original program is canceled by death or separation; sometimes, as with Doctor Who, it endures and flourishes for decades. And maybe love, mortality, and loss, and all the children and mythologies and sorrows they engender, make passionate amateurs–nerds, geeks, and fanboys–of us all.

As a girl who can easily spend hours arguing with her sisters about the proportional amounts of blame to be assigned each sister the time Social Sister hit me on the head with a tire iron, or discussing how Doctory Matt Smith is compared to David Tennant, I can vouch for the similarity of the two arguments. We are all very fond of Matt Smith. We just like David Tennant, in varying degrees, better. And it wasn’t at all my fault that Social Sister hit me on the head with a tire iron. If Anna hadn’t broken one of her porcelain horses on a previous occasion, she would not have thought I was serious when I was threatening to break the other one and taken preemptive action. Not my fault at all.

Waldman says this, which I also know is true because I swear I have had nearly this exact experience.

And I think, “A person does fall onto the ground screaming when she experiences a hideous, shocking pain. Remember that.” This, alas, is part of what it means to be a writer, someone whose job it is to observe closely enough to convincingly turn what she sees and feels into words. A writer stands at a distance and watches her heart break.

I wrote down so many quotations from these books! Ayelet Waldman on division of labor:

But as marriages progress, you surrender areas of your own competence, often without even knowing it. You do this in part because it’s more efficient for each individual to have his or her own area of expertise, but also as a kind of optimistic gesture. By surrendering certain skills, you are affirming your belief that the other person will remain there to care for you in that way….One of the tragedies of a lost love is the collapse of this system, and the confrontation of the ways we’ve allowed ourselves to become dependent.

Michael Chabon on escaping from life:

When the vision fades and the colored smoke disperses, we are left alone and marooned again in our skulls with nothing but our longing for connection. That longing drives writers and readers to seek the high, small window leading out, to lower the makeshift ropes of knotted bedsheet that stories and literature afford, and make a break for it. When that window can’t be found, or will no longer serve, or when it inevitably turns out to be only paint on the unchanging, impenetrable backdrop of our heads, small wonder if the longing seeks another, surer form of egress.

Maybe I would like Michael Chabon’s books after all. I mean I know all about his family now, and how to pronounce his last name, and the covers of his books are pretty. But I am still gun-shy from reading Kavalier and Clay on the plane a few years ago and finding it disappointing, so I think I’m just going to read Maps and Legends for now.

Reviews of Bad Mother:

Necromancy Never Pays
Rhapsody in Books
A Good Stopping Point
The Book Lady’s Blog (and guest review)
Devourer of Books
In Search of Giants

And reviews of Manhood for Amateurs:

Shelf Love
Stella Matutina
Amy Reads
Necromancy Never Pays
Fizzy Thoughts
The Bluestocking Society
Stuff as Dreams Are Made On with The Written World
The Captive Reader
Book Addiction
The Book Lady’s Blog
Book Dads
Killin’ Time Reading

Let me know if I missed yours!

I’m Looking Through You, Jennifer Finney Boylan


Heeheehee, this RIP Challenge is jolly good fun.  At this rate I will have read way too many spooky books before Halloween.  I should pace myself, except I can’t because The Girl in a Swing just came in at the library and I went and picked it up today and I really really really want to read it.

Jennifer Finney Boylan‘s I’m Looking Through You is all about how Jenny Boylan (Jenny! hooray! More people should be called Jenny!) grew up as a boy in a spooky old house, haunted by ghosts and writing under the wallpaper.  She writes with love (and some regret) about her family, and particularly about her sister Lydia, whom she hasn’t seen since she came out as a trans woman.  This is sadder than you might expect, and I was expecting it to be pretty sad.

It’s a quiet, gentle book (hm, as far as the RIP Challenge goes, I’ve now said “quiet” about two of two books – weird) that slides past the really dramatic moments in the story.  This is good for me, actually, as it lessens my usual concerns about memoir writers telling every detail of the often very sad and private episodes of their families’ lives.  We don’t see the crucial moments, but we do see the scenes that lead up to the crucial moments; it works surprisingly well, conveying a lot of emotion through these small, everyday scenes.  Without laying bare the darkest moments of the lives of each member of the family.  More than many I’ve read, this is a respectful memoir.

The haunted house is not very scary, but it is certainly atmospheric.

[My father] stripped off another swath of damp [wall]paper, then stood for a moment looking at the exposed bare plaster.  “Hey,” he said.  “What do you make of this?”

There on the plaster, at shoulder level, was a line written in fancy cursive script.

In this room in the year 1923 lived Dorothy Cummin, who was not of sound mind, and drowned.

…Next to the closet we found a face with an open mouth, long hair, and eyes filled with tears.  It looked a little like the translucent woman I had seen in the mirror.

My father got out his pack of L&Ms.  He stood there by the sad, knowing face of the girl on the wall for a while, smoking, and did not say a word.

Ms. Boylan’s own skepticism is palpable, even when she brings in a team of “ghostbusters” to check out the paranormal energy there – this is good because otherwise I’d be all, hm, this is v. hokey.  What’s not hokey at all, and indeed is very genuine, is the author’s description of being haunted by her certainty that she was a girl, and the inner ghosts that obviously still haunt her as an adult.

Plus, it’s a funny and enjoyable and readable book.  Like this:

“You know what the problem with kids today is?” my grandmother said all at once.

“What?” I asked.

“They don’t eat enough dirt!”

My sister and I looked at each other.

“Dirt?” asked Lydia.

“I said dirt,” said Gammie.  “When I was a girl, we ate dirt all the time!  Now nobody does!”

“Why would you eat dirt?” I asked.  “Is it good for you?”

Gammie looked amazed by my stupidity.  “Of course it’s not good for you!” she shouted.  “It’s DIRT!”

“Whoop?  Whoop whoop?” said Hilda Watson.  This sound, a kind of startled interjection, was the sound Hilda made when she suspected that a response was required of her, even if she did not necessarily know what had been asked.

“Can you turn up the heat?” said Aunt Nora.  “It’s freezing in here.”

“Did they eat dirt over there in Yorkshire?” my grandmother shouted.

Hilda, who had begun her life in a tiny village in England, near the border with Lancashire, looked astonished.  “We had pudding on some occasions,” she said, her dignity intact.

“I’M NOT TALKING ABOUT PUDDING,” shouted my grandmother.  The Dodge had a strange device that has since gone completely out of fashion – the stick shift on the steering column – and Gammie kicked us up into overdrive as the car sped through Bryn Mawr.  “I’m talking about dirt!”

“Oh dear,” said Nora.  “I’m so, so, so cold!”

“I know what you’re talking about,” said Hilda to my grandmother.  “I don’t wish to discuss it.”

My grandmother shook her head. “You’re a ton of fun, Hilda.”

“I’m so, so, so cold!”

“There’s no reason to be rude,” Hilda observed.

“You think this is rude?” said Gammie. “You wait.”

Tell me if you reviewed this too!  And thanks to Eva for the recommendation!

Her Fearful Symmetry, Audrey Niffenegger


Well, fittingly enough, I read this on the first official day of the RIP IV Challenge.  I got an ARC from the lovely and obliging people at the Regal Literary Agency (thanks, y’all!  I was so, so pleased to have it!) on Monday, and read it all in one go yesterday evening.

In Her Fearful Symmetry, due for proper release at the end of this month, Elspeth Noblin dies and leaves her London flat to her twin nieces, daughters of her own estranged twin Edie.  They can have it on their twenty-first birthday, and must live in it for one year before they can sell it; their parents are not to be allowed in the flat.  Julia and Valentina very sensibly accept this offer (I am mildly hoping that my mother has a rich estranged London twin like this who can conveniently die soon and let me do this exact thing), and take up residence in the flat, which is just outside Highgate Cemetery.  The flat downstairs contains Elspeth’s lover, Robert, who is missing her terribly; the upstairs flat contains Martin, whose crippling OCD has caused his wife to leave; and the twins’ flat contains Elspeth’s possessions.  And her ghost.

For a ghost story, this one isn’t very spooky.  That isn’t a criticism!  It’s just that the aim of a ghost story tends to be to give you spine prickles, but that doesn’t seem to be the goal here.  Remember how Audrey Niffenegger wrote about time travel in a clinical, matter-of-fact sort of way?  Time travel was part of the characters’ lives, and they try to figure out the rules and deal with it as best they can in their everyday lives.  Some people deal with it perfectly sensibly, and other people do not manage quite so well.  The ghosty aspects of Her Fearful Symmetry are handled in a similar fashion – this isn’t what I expected, but I liked it.

I loved the theme of identity, creating yourself as an individual, that runs all through the book.  The central characters are so vivid (apart from Robert – what is Robert all about?  I couldn’t figure him out), and they all struggle to decide who they are apart from the significant people in their lives.  It was completely opposite to The Time Traveler’s Wife, how Henry and Clare create themselves as a couple, but equally intriguing.  I particularly liked the friendship that develops between Julia and Martin, who are both going through the same thing – trying to be healthy and sane as their main life person is tugged away from them.  Martin’s OCD was not quite on, as is often the case when book characters have OCD, but apart from that, Martin was generally a wonderful character.  Maybe my favorite character.

Except, maybe, for the graveyard.  Highgate Cemetery is a character in this novel: the people buried in it and the secrets that it keeps (and Robert knows) are all very much a part of the story.  I love the scenes set in the cemetery, and I wish we could have had a bit more of the cemetery people – maybe that would have helped explain who Robert was.  Highgate feels like a co-conspirator in the – let’s say, in the slightly sketchier events of the novel, and like a haven for the nicer moments.

Her Fearful Symmetry is much more me than The Time Traveler’s Wife – I mean with the ghosts and the graveyard and the sisters – and I thought I might like it better.  Right now I am not sure.  It is a quieter book than Time Traveler’s Wife.   I mean that it doesn’t have that same wrenching emotional pull, and it is more understated about all the things that happen.  They are so different it’s hard to compare.  Which is great!  On with more books by Audrey Niffenegger that will all be individual and different and wonderful!

Hey, and this book mentioned David Tennant!  The twins one time watch that episode of Doctor Who, “The Girl in the Fireplace” (he does have long fingers), with the horse, and the Doctor gets smashed and Rose says, “Oh look at what the cat dragged in – the Oncoming Storm”, and I love that line and I love that episode!  David Tennant, hooray!

I have some very spoilery things to say, but I won’t say them until after the book has been released.  I don’t want to spoil anyone’s fun.  I advise you to trot out and buy this book promptly upon its release, because I enjoyed it a lot and will definitely be rereading it and, I expect, enjoying it more and more with successive rereadings.  I love a ghost story.  I loved this one.

Other reviews: Carl’s non-spoiler review & spoiler review, At Home with Books, Sophisticated Dorkiness, Books on the Brain, the book lady’s blog, Devourer of Books, 5 Minutes for Books, The Literate Housewife, S. Krishna’s Books, Yule Time Reading, let me know if you’ve reviewed this and I will add a link!

On Agate Hill, Lee Smith

A book I acquired in spite of my firm and as-yet-unbroken book-buying ban.  My lovely grandmother (my mum’s mum) sent it to me, all shiny and beautiful and hardback, along with an equally shiny and beautiful and hardback book about Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots not liking each other (I am excited about this as it has been quite some time since I read anything about the Tudors).  My grandmother loves to read.  She inherited booklust from her father, my great-grandfather, who loved Rafael Sabatini and who gave a copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to my grandmother when she turned eight, which has now been passed on to me and I keep it on the special shelf in my bedroom where I keep my most excellent books.

But this is neither here nor there.  I am just feeling sentimental today about how good my family is – very very good, for the interested – extremely large also, I have more first cousins than Nia Vardalos in My Big Fat Greek Wedding.  Roman Catholics FTW.

On Agate Hill is all about a girl called Molly Petree, born on a ruined plantation in North Carolina, where, she says, “I live in a house of ghosts.”  She lives on this plantation, at the mercy of the adults that come and go in her life, until an old friend of her parents’ comes to take her away, to be educated as a lady in a posh school; this doesn’t really take, and she carries on living her wild life and trying to find the things that she wants.  “I am not a lady,” she says, “and now that I have gone through the fire, I believe I can do whatever I want.”

I like On Agate Hill because it is epistolary, and it has different narrators – the idea being that the documents were all found in an old house and given to a history student, and she is sending them on to her professor.  I thought the beginning bits, on the plantation, went on just a smidge too long, but I loved the middle section when she was at school.  This part of the story is told in letters she writes to her friend Mary White, and in diary extracts by her headmistress, a woman who sees in Molly all the freedom that she won’t allow herself, and resents her bitterly for it.  And then later on Molly writes about her impulsive, passionate marriage, and how it ends in tragedy.  All v. fascinating.

Although I do not usually like Southern novels, I became completely absorbed in this one, and I kept putting it down to do other things, and then picking it back up five minutes later because I wanted to know what would happen.  A lot of bad things, it turns out, but it’s okay, because the book is imbued with Molly’s indomitable nature, and whatever happens, you get the feeling Molly will manage it.  She’s a delightful character – a woman of her times, but also a woman of her own making.

Bits I liked:

Later in camp he will write a poem named The Tented Field which will be printed in newspapers all over the country including the Edgefield Examiner then clipped and folded and carefully saved in Mammas lavender silk purse along with those other clippings I have here now in my collection of phenomena.  Papa will be shot through the ear at Pocataligo, wounded in the leg by a minie ball at Hawes Shop, and finally killed at Bentonville where he will be blown to smithereens by a bursting shell then gathered up in pieces and buried beneath a green willow tree as in a ballad.  He would have liked that, Uncle Junius said.  Bloody symbolic fool.

And this, from Molly’s headmistress at the school she attends, is one of the character’s earliest diary entries, and I just thought it captured her so well, and made her strong dislike for Molly sad, rather than detestable.  I think I liked this so much because you have a lot of Evil Headmistresses in literature, but anyway here it is:

But he did not release  [my arm], pulling me toward him & into the house where to my surprise he exercised his Conjugal Rights upon the hall bench in broad daylight.  He seems to be quite worked up, in general, by all that has transpired.  I occupied myself by reciting the beginning of Paradise Lost all the while, finishing about the same time he did….I am locked in a golden chest, I am bound round & round by a silken rope.  Simon Black should not trust me.  Nobody should trust me!  For I am filled with the most base & contradictory impulses, no matter how I struggle to be worthy of God’s love, & do His bidding in this world, & live up to my Responsibilities.

I am glad I am born now.  And not during the Civil War or Reconstruction or even World War II.  And here is what other people thought of this book:

A Life in Books
Booknotes by Lisa
The Magic Lasso

Let me know if I missed yours!

Iran: A People Interrupted, Hamid Dabashi

When I was in high school, and my mum was getting her master’s degree in pastoral theology, she used to read us excerpts from her textbooks.  Sometimes these were interesting, like about Jesus’s genealogy in the Gospel of Matthew and how it’s implying that Mary was sexually suspect.  But mostly she was reading bits aloud to us as an illustration of theologians’ complete inability to express themselves clearly.  I have no patience with writers who can’t make a sensible sentence – read C.S. Lewis, people!  You could all learn a thing or two from the book that is C.S. Lewis!  Judith Butler, for example?  I think her theories are really interesting, but my stars, sometimes I had to fling my textbook across the room to adequately express my frustration with her sentence structure.  Piling adverbs messily on top of fifteen dependent clauses does not improve the sentence.

I felt that way a little bit with Iran: A People Interrupted.  It was one of those books where I could not pick it up and put it down (frustrating!), because if I did that, I would have lost control of the sentences and have to go back and start the paragraph (or section, or chapter) all over.  Boo.  He was so enthusiastic with his modifiers!  I like adjectives as much as the next person, but you have to know when to quit!  Behold one of many sentences in this book for which I can find no excuse:

The social activism of an Iranian woman and the artistic effervescence of a national art form spoke loudly to the textured cosmopolitanism at the creative roots of a society that no Islamic republic could incarcerate in its feudal jurisprudence, and no imperial hubris could denigrate and deny with its wanton disregard for people and their pride of place.

Iran: A People Interrupted is slow going at times (too many modifying words and clauses!), and the author makes no attempt at objectivity, so his prejudices shine through in every chapter.  That wasn’t what I was expecting, but I adjusted.  And when I gave myself time to sit down and read and read, I was completely absorbed.  At times I thought it bogged down while the author told us at length how good Iran was – not that Iran isn’t good, but it often strayed from the story he was telling, and then when we got back to the Iran’s history business, I was all, wait, what?  Where were we?

The book was fascinating, because Iran is fascinating – not so much because the author made the country’s  history fascinating with his words.  Before the election business this year, I knew a bit about Iran, but the election prompted me to read more books, and I think Iran is amazing.  All with the history and the literature and the, just, everything!

My sister saw me reading this book and said “What’s your book about?”, a question I ignored because it says IRAN in really big letters on the cover.  It turns out my fingers were covering up the “I”, and Anna said, “No, seriously, what’s it about?  Transsexuals?  Transvestites?”

Nope.  Iran.

The Tenth Circle, Jodi Picoult

I know, I know.  I know I said I was done with Jodi Picoult.  But I was at my aunt and uncle’s last night, and I had The Charioteer but I am in London, I don’t have loads of books with me, and I didn’t want to use up The Charioteer because I love it so much.  So I read The Tenth Circle, which my aunt and uncle had on their bookshelf.  The issue: date rape.  The court scenes: none – shocking, I know.  However, there is a murder.

As Jodi Picoult’s books go, this is not one of her better ones.  I thought it was silly.  Must everyone in her books behave in this fashion all the time?  I’m sorry, but you can’t just go around killing people.  You just can’t.  It is inappropriate behavior.

Skellig, David Almond

Skellig is about a boy called Michael, who finds an angel in his crappy old broken-down garage.  Or, to be more precise, in his crappy old broken-down garage, he finds a filthy, exhausted, starving, unfriendly man called Skellig with growths on his back that Michael suspects are wings (which proves to be the case).  Michael’s baby sister is very sick, and because he is very worried about her, and can’t help her, he focuses his energies on taking care of Skellig instead.  Mina, the strange, clever girl next door, helps him and teaches him about bones and William Blake (two useful things to know about).

I liked this book because there was a period of time during which some member of my family was always in the hospital.  Every time one member of the family got better enough to go home, someone else got sick.  We spent all this time fretting and crying and reading trashy magazines in ICU waiting rooms, operating waiting rooms, hospital bedrooms, bedrooms in rehab facilities – just all year, it felt like.  (I have a really enormous family, to be fair, scads of aunts and uncles; and counting the people my cousins married and the babies they’ve had, I have close to sixty cousins now.)  So Michael’s family life felt familiar, that thing of always saying how completely all right everything’s going to be, and doing the hospital visits, and the waiting for things to turn out just as all right as you’ve been saying all along they will turn out to be.

I also liked that Skellig is never called an angel.  The exact nature of what he is, is never certain to Michael or Mina – they are just fascinated and awed by him, and determined to do the right thing for him.  They aren’t looking for a reward, although it proves rewarding.  And the whole thing is more spiritual, than religious, which I also like.  I’ll have to check out the ITV film – this will be the first movie I have seen Tim Roth in since my deceitful friends talked me into watching Pulp Fiction by saying Tim Roth is in it even though they knew full well he was only in it for like ten minutes.  Pooh.

Other thoughts on Skellig:

an adventure in reading
Susan Hated Literature