Monday, June 28, 2010

The Bedwetter, by Sarah Silverman

As a girl Sarah Silverman was put on 16 Xanax a day. Then one day she walked into her therapist's waiting room only to have the hypnotist who had unsuccessfully treated her unremitting bedwetting, and shared office space with the therapist, scream hysterically at her. Apparently the hypnotist had just discovered the therapist, who had just committed suicide, hung himself upstairs.

Sarah Silverman has some story to tell, and in "Bedwetter," she tells it in her signature style -- laden with sarcasm, explicit sexuality and a boatload of bathroom jokes. To be honest, I'm not the best person to review any comedian's memoir -- I just don't find most comedians very funny. My husband insists I'm a stick-in-the-mud, that I don't find anything funny, and maybe that's true, but I would rather think of myself as discriminating. At any rate, I would like to think that jokes that feature the word fart, or attempt to evoke laughs through the shock value of let's say, naming genitalia, are the keepsakes of the fraternity set. I don't get Silverman's humor, but then again, I don't get a lot of what passes as funny these days. Still, whatever you think of Silverman's humor, there is something very intriguing and likable about her.
Silverman's potty-mouthed memoir was breezy, giggly fun that left me craving the story behind all the snark and sex. Certainly, even with the little I knew of the Sarah Silverman "brand" at the outset, I realized this would not be a truth telling in the traditional sense; no light would be shone on the childhood sturm and drang that would ultimately give rise to her career as a comedienne. Still, I would have loved to have read that book.
But that's not the book Silverman wrote. "Bedwetter" gives us just a hint of the girl she was -- a petite, hirsute, depressed, anxiety-ridden, bedwetter that managed to somehow make it through childhood -- just barely, it seems -- and come out the other side with the sensibility of a drunken frat boy. In "Bedwetter" Silverman tells of the tough times she survived, and in doing so she garners my respect and admiration (you go,girl!). Did she make me laugh? Not really.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Getting the Pretty Back, by Molly Ringwald

Shoulder pads, over-sized glasses and big hair. That's how I remember Molly Ringwald, poster child of teen angst in the 80s. Come to think of it, that's how I remember me, too.

I don't know what I thought I would be getting when I picked up "Getting the Pretty Back." If I had to pin it down, I suppose I figured the book would tell women of a certain age, of my age, how we might reconnect with the idea we had of ourselves as younger women: as females whose sexiness, desires and desirability had a larger place in the landscape of our lives. And, I also thought about how fascinating it would be to read a book by this former teen star, by someone whose characters so vividly mirrored the angst I felt at attempting to navigate the world as a young adult.

But that is not what Ringwald has written. And if I sound just a teeny bit angry, it's because I am. I just expected so much more. What Molly has written -- and the bff-tone she uses in her book infers that, yes, please call her Molly -- is the lightest bit of fluff, something that might very well be featured in a series of articles in Tiger Beat, or any of the other magazines that put her on the cover about 30 years back. So, if you are dying to know Molly's favorite lipstick shades, what cheeses she recommends for her cheese plates, and her best do's and don't's of parenting, you can get that, and more, in "Getting the Pretty Back." Me? I bristle at being told the right way to do things, especially by someone who pretends she is not judging, but really is. And c'mon, Molly, enough of your perfect family; We all know there's a real story under that stack of Hermes scarves. It's just not in your book. And that's so not pretty.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Devotion, by Dani Shapiro

I was so excited to see a new title out by Dani Shapiro. Years ago I read both her novel, "Family History," and her memoir, "Slow Motion." In the latter, this one-time model and actress (her stage name was Dani York) tells of her Orthodox Jewish upbringing, and her subsequent fall from grace as a young adult. There was an illicit sexual relationship with one of her father's business associates, alcohol and drugs, and the typical falling apart one sees in conjunction with these activities. And then, amidst all this, her parents suffer grave injuries in a car accident. Her father dies, and Shapiro pulls herself together to help nurse her mother -- a difficult person even when well -- back to health.

In "Devotion," we see Dani in a new stage of life, married with a baby. Shapiro is no longer observant, and like many Jews today who were raised in observant households, no longer has any spiritual life. Suddenly, her baby boy contracts a rare, potentially deadly seizure disorder and the turmoil forces Dani to revisit the difficult times of her younger life and its attendant anxiety.

It's refreshing to read a story like this, one that puts on paper a scenario that I don't think is all that uncommon. As we move through life and reach certain milestones, the challenges of the tough times of our younger days naturally resurface. I've seen this happen to friends. It has happened in my own life. In Shapiro's story, her distress pushes her to seek help, and we read about her search as she dabbles in new-age, eastern-flavored approaches (Why does it seem as though all the Buddhists are Jews? Can't we Jews access inner peace through Judaism? What's missing here?), yoga, and meditation. To be fair, she also investigates her own Jewish background, trying to find the meaning it held for her parents and what that means to her.

Shapiro's inner-struggle, and the story of how she works her way through it, makes for a thought provoking read. I related to it as a Jew who also searches to find meaning in her heritage, and I related to it as someone who, like Shapiro, has stumbled while traveling through the personal challenges that come with the roles of wife and mother.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, by Rhoda Janzen

Rhoda Janzen went through a serious rough patch. Her bipolar husband became increasingly abusive and finally (and thankfully) left her. For a guy. A guy named "Bob" he met on Then she incurred severe injuries in a car accident. Still, she survived these travails, with her razor-sharp sense of humor not only intact, but flourishing.
Who are these Mennonites, I always wondered? Are they the ladies with tight little white bonnets covering hair pulled into tight buns? Recently I met a Mennonite woman in a writing class, a lovely secular woman, who shared humorous stories of her tightly-knit people that reminded me, maybe just a little, of the insularity and short-sightedness I sometimes see in my own beloved tightly-knit people, the Jews. In "Mennonite in a Little Black Dress," Janzen tells her story, amidst the backdrop of her Mennonite heritage.
My only complaint about Janzen's memoir -- and is this even a complaint? -- is that sometimes I felt a disconnect, because -- oh my gosh, she went through so much! -- and the contrast between the tragedies that befell Janzen and the glib, deadpan humor she uses to tell her story was, at times, jarring. Still, she is so, so funny. And, when I think about it, maybe humor is the best way to recall the tragedies of our past. After all, if your husband leaves you for a guy named "Bob" from, and, post car accident, you decide to go shopping with a girlfriend while trying to conceal a "pee-bag" under your dress that ends up spilling, maybe the sanest, truest thing to do, is to simply laugh. And reading "Mennonite in a Little Black Dress," I did just that.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Myth of You and Me, by Leah Stewart

Looking for a great summer read? I got lost in "The Myth of You and Me," in that great let-me-just-finish-this-chapter before I make dinner way.

The older I get, the more I see how the meaning of the stories of our lives influences the paths our lives take. In "The Myth of You and Me" Leah Stewart looks at big issues -- forgiveness, love and family -- within the context of the relationship between two girls, and the stories they tell themselves about their lives. Cameron and Sonia meet in high school. Cameron is an army brat, now on her sixth move and still trying to find something that feels like home, and Sonia is a young girl trying to navigate the danger and despair of living with an explosive, mentally ill mother while struggling with a learning disorder that renders all numbers complete gibberish. In the closeness of their bff-type friendship, the girls become each other's life rafts. Until, one day, suddenly they're not and we are left to wonder what happened.
Stewart begins the story near the end, a great story structuring device, with Cameron as a directionless young adult. Her recently deceased elderly employer posthumously instructs her to find her estranged friend, Sonia, and deliver a package. Thus, Stewart sets us up for the suspense of finding out what will happen in the course of Cameron's quest, and what secrets will be revealed along the way.

One of Stewart's strong suits is the development of her characters; they are so layered, so mired in their own sh*t, that they ring true. Within the framework of the story of these girls, and their struggles through life, Stewart guides us through a big, complicated relationship. We see what each girl/woman gets out of her relationship with the other, and what they do to hurt each other along the way. We see why they do what they do, and the stories they tell themselves about what has happened. I loved how Stewart revealed how each of the characters' backgrounds framed how they interpreted these things, and how this interpretation determined the meaning they assigned to the story, and how, ultimately, this determined what they did next.

Honestly, the very end -- and I will not spoil it for you -- felt a teeny bit far-fetched, but Stewart's story was one so lovely and eloquently rendered that I didn't mind.

Book bombs!

It infuriates me when someone nails the perfect idea for a book, but then fails to carry out with the requisite fabulosity the premise set forth. It's an unfulfilled promise, and a huge disappointment. Here are the titles that make up the latest batch of let-downs....

"Cuisines of the Axis of Evil and Other Irritating States: A Dinner Party Approach to International Relations," by Chris Fair, wins my vote for quirkiest, catchy title. Also, the title rocks because it promises to combine the ever-tantalizing motif of food with the ever-tedious realm of global politics, stirring in humor and good cheer along the way. Fair's book immediately piqued my curiosity. Alas, as soon as I opened this tome I saw that I had been duped, had grabbed at the book as if it was shiny jewel when it turned to be nothing but fool's gold. Despite the intriguing title and cover, a flip through the inside reveals an empty promise.

The book is divided into chapters, each exploring one of the countries that make up Fair's axis of evil. Fair begins by describing the country's evil role in the global political arena, then side-winds into a monologue about that country's cuisine, and ends with a few representative recipes. First of all, Fair's prose falls flat, nothing new or creative here. More importantly though, she offends, devoting an entire chapter to poor, beleaguered Israel, sounding like a mindless mouthpiece of the far-left as she tells of Israel's "crimes." Look, let me make this clear: I am no Middle East scholar. Far from it. Through the years I've tried over and over to make sense of the complicated history and politics, to no avail. I still don't know the difference between the Hamas and the Fatah. As a Jew I should know these things, and I'm embarrassed that I don't. I feel guilty, then I assuage my guilt by telling myself I must have missed that narrow window of opportunity when my younger brain was more compliant and agile. But there is one thing I do understand, about the situation in the Middle East, or anywhere else for that matter, and that is no conflict reduces to a neat black and white, good versus bad, scenario as one-sided as Fair presents in her Israel chapter. Adding insult to injury, Fair then goes on to "dis" Israeli cuisine, devaluing it completely because she claims it has co-opted its cuisine from the surrounding Arab countries. As if any country's cuisine develops in a vacuum. I am not usually one to toss out accusatory, paranoid cries of Anti-Semitism, but it makes one wonder....

In "Secrets of a Jewish Mother," by Jill Zarin, Lisa Wexler, and Gloria Kamen, the title's trailer, "Real Advice, Real Stories, Real Love," (the font italicized), should have tipped me off immediately. Still, as an aspiring Jewish mother (my kids would say I no longer need to aspire) I had to check it out. I'll be brief. There are no secrets in this book. "Secrets" is an advice book ala Miss Manners, with the same well-worn, usual suspects trotted out as the seemingly insurmountable problem du jour: How to deal with the (insert the adjective of your choice: overbearing, spineless, cheating, etc.), (insert the person's role in your life here: mother, daughter, gay friend, etc.) You get the idea. It might be less painful to sit down and talk to your own Jewish mother, who no doubt will ask you what you've been reading....

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Future, by Michael J. Fox

A great grad gift!

Michael J. Fox, most famous for his roles as Alex P. Keaton on "Family Ties" and as Marty McFly in "Back to the Future," nailed the persona of a clean cut, and precocious young man, one who comes up a little short on the E.I. (emotional intelligence) scale.

A few years ago, when I listened to the audiobook of Fox's first memoir, "Lucky Man," I was struck by how, as is true with all of us, there was so much that lied beneath the surface of this young, hot shot actor. Here Fox told of his young, and not so innocent days. I was surprised. If I had given it any thought, (and, honestly, although my mind does tend to travel to strange places, I hadn't given any thought to this at all), I would have pegged Fox as a boring, straight as an arrow kind of guy, someone who spent Sunday mornings in church, not hungover in a strange woman's apartment. Fox's isn't the usual hard playing actor falling from grace story, but some of the same elements are there. As a young actor trying to forge a career, there were parties. Drinking. Women.

In this new slip of a book Fox, with wit and wisdom, organizes the story of his life and the lessons he has learned (and he is so "not preachy") to match up with the course catalogue of Hunter College, an institution that awarded him an honorary degree, despite that he was a high school drop out. As an example, under "Economics" Fox tells of his younger and not so wise days scraping together a living, and how, when he finally earned some real money, he ended up losing most of it to handlers.

The most poignant bits of AFTHOTWTTF relate to Fox's struggle with PD, Parkinson's Disease. Like many people who try and make peace with a debilitating illness, Fox says the disease has given him understanding and wisdom, and that those fundamentals would not have come his way without it. Still, acknowledging the reality of the disease -- Fox is not all sunshine and Polyanna -- he calls PD "The disease that keeps on taking."

I'm so glad I stumbled upon this little gem. This is an honest, humorous account of a life, replete with new perspectives gained. How unexpected and interesting to find this well written memoir from the pen of a middle-aged former star of a popular 8Os TV show. Who knew?

And now for more of the unexpected -- a link to a commencement address for kindergartners

Pomp and Happenstance

Women, Food and God, by Geneen Roth

It's never about the food. It's not about the diet or weight. This is not a popular take on our culture's obsession with food, but since I've read Geneen Roth's books, I've believed this.

Even as most of us go through our days dieting, planning meals, and otherwise restricting our intakes, then frantically exercising, trying to corral our impossible cravings and impulses, deep inside I think this is a truth we all know -- it's not about the food itself. Even as our resolve fades, and it always does, and the inevitable overeating and couch potato-ing that serve as our rebounds from the restrictions we've imposed on ourselves, we know there must be something that lies beneath this exasperating cycle.

In Geneen Roth's newest book, "Women, Food and God," she tells us what this something is and how to get there. There's no mystery. It's not magic. What's underneath our struggles with food are our feelings of "less-than-ness," feelings most of us learned by the grace of parents who were simply not up to the task, most likely feeling pretty less-than themselves. We learn to cover up our less-than-ness, to pretend that we are as good as everyone else, (even though pretty much everyone else has their own less-than feelings and covers them up as well). We pretend we do, but we don't truly love ourselves, and we reenact, over and over, classic scenarios that serve to help us cope. As Roth describes it, when we are caught in this way of being, we either impose the control over our eating that we need to feel in our lives, or we distract from and numb our feelings by taking away all controls and stuffing ourselves with a constant flood of food. Or, maybe both.

Geneen Roth is a little "out there." She has come through her own messy life, although she is nothing but honest about it -- her own belief that she was less-than, her anorexia, bingeing, weight problems, her deep loneliness and tendency towards melodrama. She shares what she has learned, that it's not about the food, but about what we are faced with when we push away the plate, and look at what is behind any of the compulsions or addictions that serve to help us escape. This is a book about food, but then again, it's not. Turns out WF&G is self-help-ish, and very new-agey. Honestly, it kind of surprises me that I like Geneen Roth and her message. If there is anybody likely to run away from a message framed this way, it would be me.

I like to call my dad a serial self-helpist. I lived through the 1970s in San Francisco with him, and, believe me (my dad's trademark exclamation) he was busy. If the gurus dreamed it, he came. Here is just a sampling: Subud, EST, The Star Process, Primal Scream (don't even ask me about that last one). Still, now that I have some time and distance on my side, I have to admit that I see something of value in all these programs, something I think all of us secretly search for, and I think what that thing is is a way to get back to our true selves. The selves we were, before we were brainwashed with that less-than voice, the one that for so any of us, continues to sabotage us and keep us from having the lives we want. Now, remembering my dad, not all of us are always up to the task of looking deep inside, (and I don't say this as someone who has achieved this, but as someone who struggles to do the everyday work of living, of someone curious). Sometimes, you just can't always get there from here. My dad always approached each of these programs as if they presented an answer, a set of rules to rigidly follow -- which, if you think about it, was just a new way to layer on control and restrictions and distance him from himself. Because I saw my dad fly from one self-help program to the next, seemingly no better off after completing any one of them, I had no tolerance for hearing about any self-help program and in my younger days I would have dismissed Geneen Roth's message as just a bunch of hoo-ha. But since, at the age of 49, I do have some perspective, I have to admit I've come to the conclusion there is a potential for insight and truth to be found in any of these programs -- but if, like my dad, we're not able to stay open and curious, able to accept others and ourselves, we may not be able to hear it.

My dad's approach to self-help was to sign up, diligently follow instructions, and wait for transformation. I think Geneen Roth's take is more realistic -- to look inside is the work of a lifetime. And, if you're able to hear her message without passing judgment on her Opra-esque self-helpishness, it has the possibility to transform. Taking the time and effort to look at the ways we have been hurt is a lot harder than polishing off that last piece of cherry pie (which I did before I sat down to write this) but, ultimately, promises so much more.

Vanishing Point: Not a Memoir, by Ander Monson

Warning, Will Robinson, warning, warning! Not summer reading!

If, instead of craving the typical plot-driven fare of summer, you're in the mood to mix up your summer reading a bit, try this unusual, thought provoking offering, "Vanishing point: Not a Memoir."

In this loose collection of essays, Monson's "point" is that memoir, as my favorite memoirist Lauren Slater says, is a slippery thing. What are the stories we tell ourselves about our lives? What lies beneath the narrative? And in the space between?

The stories we tell ourselves about our lives is something I've had on my mind lately. For instance, I've told myself, for over a decade now, that there was never a reason for an estranged family member to be upset with me. In the version of our family's story that I told myself, I cast myself as the wrongly scorned good guy. Only recently did it occur to me to shift the kaleidoscope of our family story and look at the narrative from other perspectives, allowing another scenario to enter into the realm of possibilities. Guess what? The story changed completely, and the roles I had assigned us flipped, kind of like a rewriting of the book of our family history. (This new perspective allowed me to take responsibility, apologize, and give the estranged family member an opening to resume contact -- which, happily, he did.)

"Vanishing Point" is not the story of Monson's life, at least not in the traditional sense of memoir. If the first two letters of the word are examined more closely, what is a "ME" moir? What is the story of me? Monson writes, "There's a reason why memoirs tend to be described in ... rapturous ... terms ... : We want to be reminded about ourselves, uplifted and edified through narratives that are really dreams of what we hope our lives could be like."

Monson adds layers of texture and meaning to his text by "decorating" it with glyphs of daggers and asterisks, which refer to the book's footnotes, either on the page or in the book's accompanying website.

My favorite chapter is an essay entitled, "Transtubstantiation," in which Monson riffs on junk food, commercialization, and the slippery meanings we assign to our "stuff." Here he extricates and explores layers of meaning inherent in the pop culture that informs our everyday lives, by detailing his love of Doritos and his exploration into "Doritos The Quest" marketing campaign, one in which consumers are challenged to guess a chip's mystery flavor.

"Vanishing Point" is a challenging book, one that would no doubt yield deeper meaning upon repeated readings. But when reading it, I felt similar to how I imagine my son feels when he eats his required teaspoonful of peas at dinner. He knows the peas are good for him (how many times have I told him that story?), but he is not about to prolong the experience -- he swallows them like pills. For me, reading "Vanishing Point" was thought provoking, but one time was enough -- at least for now.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Spark: The Revolutionary Science of Exercise and the Brain, by John Ratey

Prozac versus running -- which is more effective?

According to Dr. John Ratey a regular practice of aerobic exercise can be just as effective as conventional pharmaceuticals. For those of us predisposed to the blues (sounds less depressing than "depression," doesn't it?) or its evil cousin, anxiety, the information in this book can be life changing.

A year and a half ago my sister-in-law died, ending her valiant and grace-filled battle against cancer. The last few months of her life were pretty gruesome. To say it was a difficult time for her husband and children, who tended to her full-time, making her last days as comfortable as possible, is a gross understatement. For many reasons, though, (and the details are a story for another day), my sister-in-law's impending death shook my equilibrium, even more deeply than one might expect. It tore through my emotional landscape (is that phrase appropriately vague?) so that it became difficult for me to be present day to day.

During this time, every morning after my kids got off to school, I looked down and saw the blurred tread of my treadmill spinning under my feet. I ran furiously every single morning during that period, sprinting until I exhausted myself and slid off the treadmill in a puddle of sweat. Without ever realizing it, my body knew how to help my mind. The exercise really saved me -- pulled me out of a place that was too deep to navigate without help, and I thank God I found running. I'm not sure how I would have managed without it.

John Ratey, a psychiatrist who has also authored books on ADHD, details in "Spark" medical studies and case studies that support this very belief. In fact, not only can exercise ward off emotional turmoil, but it also can help our bodies fight chronic disease, fight the effects of aging, ease the symptoms of menopause (how did I end up old enough to trade hot flash stories?) and help keep off the weight. Ratey tells how exercise builds brain resources, reroutes circuits and improves resilience.

As a pharmacist, and I would never dispute that psychopharmaceuticals can literally give people back their lives, but for those of us who want to go a different route, and approach things from a different angle, the information and guidelines in this book are a godsend. Just as in "Born to Run," (see my post from 2/23) Ratey speaks to the benefits of long-distance running detailed by Bernd Heinrich in his book, "Racing the Antelope: What Animals Can Teach Us about Running and Life." Here, Heinrich tells how our bodies have evolved to be endurance predators -- in other words, to operate optimally when engaged in long-distance running.

I fell off the exercise bandwagon about six months ago and lately I've felt the impact of this easing off. The transition into summer, with its lack of structure and increased time with my family (who I love), brings me face to face with the more squirrelly parts of myself, and that's a challenge. So I've laced up my running shoes again. If you need me, I'll tell you where you can find me: in the relative cool of the morning, walking and jogging along the main drag through my neighborhood.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

A Reliable Wife, by Robert Goolrick

If you're looking for a great summer read, stop right here -- you've found it.
I'm still trying to catch my breath after finishing "A Reliable Wife" today -- yes, it's that good! Robert Goolrick pulls every great trick out of his novelist's hat for this stunning tale, set in early 1900s Wisconsin. His protagonist, Ralph Truitt, posts an ad for "a reliable wife," and the book begins as he anxiously awaits her arrival at the train station.
One of the best things about writing this blog is that it constantly forces me to expand my reading palate. Under normal circumstances I would never pick up a book entitled "A Reliable Wife," (I'm not sure the story is well-served by this title, the word "reliable" just sounds so boring), let alone anything found in the historical romance section. So it's a lovely surprise to discover such exceptional storytelling in an unexpected place. Goolrick gives us the rich historical details, and the evocative descriptions of Wisconsin winters, in what is a fantastic story about forgiveness. This theme weaves through the novel's three main characters' actions as they wrestle with their love and longings. It's a love story with lots of twists, and it's packed with just the right balance of suspense, sex, violence and romance.
Robert Goolrick's prose is so stunning in its descriptions, catching nuance and raw emotion in such a beautiful, almost lyrical way, I could have easily been convinced this novel was written by a woman -- no disrespect to male authors intended. I'm so glad I took a chance on this historical romance -- an unexpected summer pleasure!