Thursday, August 23, 2012

Bringing up Bebe, by Pamela Druckerman

When Ms. Druckerman moved across the pond with her husband, she was a bride, her heart set on beginning a family. "Bringing Up Bebe" begins here, with Druckerman ambivalently navigating foreign soil and infertility treatments. Luckily, children were in the cards, and it wasn't long before the we see the author, still living Paris, raising two small children.

A journalist, Druckerman couldn't help but notice subtle, yet pervasive, differences between American-style parenting and the way French parents relate to their charges. While the overriding sentiment behind much of American parenting seems to be anxiety, the French--perhaps due, in part, to the availability of subsidized childcare--take a more relaxed approach. Druckerman writes about the Pause, the French way of waiting for a moment or two before responding to a child's cries. Using this simple, common sense technique allows for the possibility of self-regulation by the child. But whether discussing sleeping through the night or dining with children in restaurants, Druckerman purports that the French are better at communicating that they have clear expectations for their children. When teaching them how to behave, the French don't flinch in the face of tantrums. When a child shows his or her unhappiness, the French don't rush to make the child happy, but react with restraint.

A book like this can't help but paint parents on either side of the Atlantic with broad strokes---how else to make its point? Druckerman's stereotypes didn't bother me. After all, I WAS the stereotypical nervous mother. What did become wearying was the extent to which the author paraded her roster of experts, the myriad doctors and caregivers whose proclamations supported her thesis. Still, "Bringing Up Bebe" is a fun, thought provoking read that won't keep you from sleeping through the night.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Let's Pretend This Never Happened, by Jenny Lawson

Very few things make me laugh out loud. My family accuses me of having no sense of humor. That may be true, but I prefer to think of myself as discriminating. Last semester my classmate, Ashley, clued me in on Jenny Lawson, aka The Bloggess. "Susan, you MUST read her blog. And she's coming out with a memoir!" I gave Ashley my head tilt of agreement, and said "Uh-huh," but even as those syllables came out of my mouth, I was thinking Ashley's "super-funny" could very well be my "meh."

And that's why I almost hate to admit this, but today, while I listened to the audiotape of LPTNH, I heard a noise I almost didn't recognize. It took me a second or two for it to sink in. It was me, laughing.

In a cyber-world where it seems as though everyone blogs, Lawson has done something pretty remarkable. She parlayed her achievements as a blogger into a successful vault into the literary zeitgeist. What are the odds?

Lawson grew up in a small town in Texas, the daughter of a taxidermist who often brought his work home. Lawson writes about the strange episodes of her childhood, most of which involve the feral animals -- some alive, some dead -- her father brought into their home. Writing about her adult life, Lawson fesses up to struggling with a disease that left her ability to sustain a pregnancy questionable, a whooping anxiety disorder and rheumatoid arthritis. She manages to transform her tragedy and suffering with humor and a keen eye for ironic detail. No, dead babies are not funny, but Lawson, caught in a situation that would drive anyone mad, holds our hands and takes us to a place where we can laugh at the sheer absurdity of her situation.

Sure, read the book. But if you can, listen to the audiobook, which Lawson reads herself. Her delivery is spot-on, pee-in-your-pants funny. But don't fool yourself into thinking you can get away with listening while your kids are around. Lawson loves profanity, and is particularly fond of tossing out the F-bomb. Occasionally I thought Lawson went a little too far, that the humor, instead of clever, became silly. For instance, at the end of the audiotape she talks about how the word "vagina" is funny, and in this riff she repeats the word at least 25 times. Enough already. But pushing aside a few minor complaints, I think Jenny Lawson is amazing and smart and twisted and really, really funny. LPTNH is witty and tender and profane. And hysterical, just like Ashley said.

P.S. Lawson's success coming on the heels of her blog made me remember an interview with Anne Lamott, one of my all-time fave authors, from a few years back. In this interview, which I think appeared in Salon, she opined that she saw no purpose in blogging, and that she wants to write books. This, despite my undying love and admiration for Lamott, pissed me off. (Sorry, I'm getting all Jenny Lawson-cursey on you, aren't I?) I thought Lamott's remark was myopic, especially for someone who writes heartfelt, underdog memoir. Recently, though, through her Facebook fan page, Lamott has started posting kick-ass mini-essays (there I go again with the cursing), blog-style. Which just goes to show you, don't underestimate the power of words, even if they appear on the screen instead of the page.

Which reminds me, it's about time I reviewed Lamott's new book.

Until then,

Sunday, August 5, 2012

This is How, by Augusten Burroughs

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about honesty, how keeping secrets can really be a form of lying. I've been thinking about how much of what we tell other in everyday life isn't really direct and honest discourse, but so much bullshit -- untruths, half-truths, stories with key parts omitted. Lies are the mother's milk of our culture, don't you think? I've often had the experience of dogpaddling through the muddy waters of a certain situation, only to discover, years later, that the shiny surface of the story is covering a bare, naked kernel of truth that doesn't in any way resemble the story I've always told myself.

Which is why "This is How," a kind of new-style self-help manual, is one of my favorite books of ALL TIME. (I won't even demean the previous sentence by capping it with the ubiquitous exclamation point.) Burroughs, edgy and blunt, may not be everyone's cup of tea. After surviving an unusual and tragic childhood, he then survived the fallout: years of alcoholism. This is something I know about personally, not the alcoholism part, but the existing at the fringe of society part, about holding onto life by the proverbial thread. Going through life this way does one of two things to a person: it either destroys him or her, or it leaves the hanger-on-er clear-headed, able to see past the inanities of polite society in order to get to what's really important. Like Love. Compassion. And Truth--even though those truths might sometimes seem cruel. Truths can be hard to hear, can expose the dark underbellies of our shame. In writing this I don't mean to hold myself up as any sort of better-than-thou truth teller. I do believe, however, that my life experiences have often positioned me nose-to-nose with unsavory truths, without the luxury of being able to turn away -- whether those truths were about others or myself.

Here's a random sampling of Burroughs topics: How to be thin; How to feel like shit; How to be fat; How to feel less regret; How to live unhappily ever after. Sure to be the most controversial of Burroughs' offerings, "This is How" comes out against AA, recommends (in certain circumstances) one kick an anorexic child out of the house, and purports that overweight people aren't heavy because they can't lose weight, but because they haven't committed to losing weight, and that they should stop whining and embrace their muffin tops.

Burroughs' childhood (crazy mother and unstable home life which featured a constant parade of wacky and dangerous characters) may seem outrageous to most, but because it's not that different from my own experience, I feel an odd sort of comradeship with him. The drama and trauma of unstable early years exacts a high price, but I think that if you can survive them, they have the potential to transform you into someone who can cut through the ubiquitous bullshit of everyday life.

Truth, for me, is kind of like pornography -- it's hard to define, but I know it when I see it. And when I see or hear something that captures a truth, I experience a visceral reaction as it resonates through my body. Remembering Burroughs' book has me shivering all over again.