"'Linger' by the Cranberries is probably my favorite song about Prince Charles farting at the 1988 British...moreFunny. Honest. Heartbreaking. Pow. #Fitness
"'Linger' by the Cranberries is probably my favorite song about Prince Charles farting at the 1988 British Open."
Tweets like that have made Rob Delaney the undisputed Twitter king of comedy. Each one is wildly random, most likely profane, and has a very high likelihood that it will make you snort with laughter if you read it in your cubicle at work--prompting weird stares from that guy who sits across from you, who should really just mind his own business anyway. In perhaps his greatest moment, Delaney's comedic tweets about Mitt Romney during the 2012 presidential election reached an even wider audience than Romney's own messages across the media--both traditional and social. Success on Twitter has garnered Delaney comedy international comedy shows and TV appearances. But can he write a book, too?
Well this hurts. I wanted to love this book so much. I adore Alison Bechdel. She's incredibly smart, witty,...more"To be a subject is an act of aggression."
Well this hurts. I wanted to love this book so much. I adore Alison Bechdel. She's incredibly smart, witty, analytical, and heartbreakingly honest--all qualities that have made Fun Home, her first foray into graphic memoir, a modern classic. It's one of my favorite books, not to mention one of my most frequently recommended titles.
Fun Home, if you'll indulge me for a moment, is the story of Bechdel's relationship with her father and her coming out process. Her father was many things: an English teacher, a funeral home director, an antique collector, a vigilant restorer of their family home, and a closet homosexual. Bechdel strongly suspects that his sudden, mysterious death after walking in front of an oncoming truck was suicide. He could be distant, demanding, temperamental, and cold to his family. Writing Fun Home was (I imagine) like a therapy session for Bechdel, who hadn't come to terms with what it was like to grow up in the cold, dark household her father created, and who wanted to understand why her father made the decision to hide his sexuality. It works in large part because there's automatic tension between Bechdel and her father: he being emotionally distant and firmly closeted, she sensitive and determined to live her life out in the open. The emotional journey she undergoes in the process of writing it all out is cathartic--revelatory, poignant, and beautiful.
This is not the case with Are You My Mother? It has been said that the unexamined life is not worth living. Bechdel goes to the opposite extreme as she turns her focus to the relationship she has with her mother, who is still alive and is (understandably) conflicted about Bechdel's public airing of the family laundry. But instead of the tense narrative of Home, Mother reads more like a grad student's psychology paper. We follow her to countless therapy sessions and are subjected to passage upon passage from the works of Donald Winnicott, a celebrated psychoanalyst who was influential in the fields of object relation theory and the concept of the "good-enough mother," as well as Alice Miller's The Drama of the Gifted Child. The relentless introspection feels masturbatory.
Bechdel has a history of obsessive compulsive behavior and relentless self-inspection; she has kept a meticulous diary from a young age and, during a particularly bad period of compulsive behavior, her mother had to take dictation for these diary entries in order to keep Bechdel from writing all night long. "Don't you think," she argues, "that if you write minutely and rigorously enough about your own life you can, you know, transcend your particular self?"
The problem is that all this rigorous attention to detail has the opposite effect: instead of revealing, it obfuscates. There's meat to this story that we never get to savor. Bechdel implies that her mother favored her sons over her only daughter, and her mother agrees, but we never see an example of this. Her mother abruptly stopped kissing her goodnight when she was seven years old, but this highly traumatic event ("I felt almost as if she'd slapped me") is only really used as an anecdote. Bechdel makes a passing remark that when she went off to college she and her mother "hadn't touched in years," but nothing more is said about the matter.
Instead, we get a lengthy explanation of how she wasn't breastfed because, despite efforts, she wasn't getting enough nourishment from her mother's breastmilk. This is treated like a revelation: the catalyst of a relationship defined by disappointment and a lack of intimacy. Even if it's true, Bechdel seems oblivious to the fact that countless people who aren't breastfed grow up to be perfectly fine. My mother was unable to breastfeed any of her children, yet we all grew up to have healthy relationships (despite the stormy marriage our parents had). I know, I'm simplifying the point Bechdel is trying to make, but I think it serves as a perfect example of how her intense scrutiny gets in the way of actual revelation.
There's also a distressing amount of dream analysis--a very Freudian concept to be sure, but also the most specious form of self-introspection in existence for someone as obsessive as Bechdel. In one of Are You My Mother's worst moments, Bechdel dreams that her therapist takes a torn pair of her pants to sew a patch on them. This is also treated as a major revelation. "You were gonna fix the tear, which maybe means tear, too! You're healing me!" Bechdel exclaims to her therapist in their next session.
Throughout, Bechdel's mother remains an enigma--a shadowy figure lurking on the periphery of a book ostensibly about her. There isn't anything to love about her as presented here, but there isn't anything to loathe either. Toward the end we discover that the mother may have perpetuated the same crimes of ambivalence and distance that were committed against her as a child and as a wife, but this all-too-brief moment is the closest we come to any actual understanding. More than anything, she seems to be a prism for other, deeper hurts. Perhaps this book isn't so much about Bechdel's mother as it is about Bechdel's constant quest to find the acceptance she didn't get as a child and to locate a proper (good-enough?) mother figure. She certainly becomes dependent on each of her successive therapists for affirmation, desperately clinging to them as maternal figures. Bechdel even professes to have come to realize that whatever it was she wanted from her mother, she wasn't going to get it. It would also explain why she selected the title of P.D. Eastman's classic childrens book when naming her new memoir.
Even if that is the point, it doesn't make for a good read. Bechdel's dogged reasoning obscures far more than it reveals. It's like when you stare at something for so long that its shape begins to lose focus and all meaning is lost. There were many times in Are You My Mother? that I wanted nothing more than to give Bechdel a good, long hug and tell her that she should try letting herself off the hook every now and then. It must be impossible to enjoy life when you spend every waking minute worriedly questioning everything. Certainly it must feel exhausting. (less)
I had the privilege of attending a book signing with Gail Simmons hosted by Tom Colicchio, and at that event Tom described this b...moreA Love Letter to Food
I had the privilege of attending a book signing with Gail Simmons hosted by Tom Colicchio, and at that event Tom described this book as a "love letter to food" and the culinary industry. I don't think a more succinct, accurate description of this book could possibly be found.
Full disclosure: I am a confirmed Top Chef fanatic, and Gail is probably my favorite judge. She has the best shoes, at any rate (sorry Tom). My partner and I saw her give a cooking demo in Bryant Park before Christmas, and we both eagerly attended the aforementioned signing. So one could make the case that I am biased when it comes to Gail--was, in fact, inclined to enjoy Talking with My Mouth Full no matter what she wrote inside.
To that I would respond that I am not without my criticisms of this book. There's an awkward sentence here and there. She has an overwhelming tendency to list things--at one point spending at least a page and a half going through the ingredients and foods one could encounter at the Aspen Food & Wine Classic (which Gail oversaw for a time).
So she isn't, technically speaking, the best writer in the world, but she IS a fantastic storyteller, and that more than makes up for it in my opinion. Gail has a winning personality and it shines throughout her memoir. Yes, the listing offends the English major in me, but I can see that the reason she indulges in it is that she has such a genuine fondness for it all. Even after all these years working in the culinary industry she is still in awe of it all. Those ingredients and flavors at the F&W Classic make her feel positively giddy. This is a woman who LOVES her job and the industry she works in, and that love is so palpable that the reader can't help but fall under its spell.
I have a profound respect for anyone who pursues a career based on an all-consuming passion, and the story of how Gail found her way is fascinating. I also respect people who are willing to put in the work to make those dreams a reality, and Gail has done that. She wanted to write about food, so she knew she had to learn it inside and out. She went to culinary school and worked in some very prestigious kitchens (including Le Cirque). She worked with Jeffrey Steingarten (the venerable food writer for Vogue and author of the classic The Man Who Ate Everything) and Daniel Bouloud, eventually finding her way to Food & Wine and, in a nice twist of fate, Top Chef. Gail modestly attributes most of her success to luck--being in the right place at the right time--but the truth is that she let her passion lead her and she worked her butt off to get where she is.
Along the way we get enlightening glimpses into Gail's life, the inner workings of restaurants, and behind the scenes information about how Top Chef is made. We hear her first-hand experience of how hard it is to be a female chef in an industry that is overwhelmingly male.
For a grittier look at the inner workings of a restaurant you can look to Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential (a fascinating read), but for a feel-good passion play about the funny things that can happen if you follow your heart (or stomach), Gail Simmons does not disappoint. (less)
“I can’t tell this particular story – I can only edit it.” “Looking back at the late 1940s, it seems to me now that Americans were confronting their...more “I can’t tell this particular story – I can only edit it.” “Looking back at the late 1940s, it seems to me now that Americans were confronting their loneliness for the first time. Loneliness was like the morning after the war, like a great hangover. The war had broken the rhythm of American life, and when we tried to pick it up again, we couldn’t find it – it wasn’t there. It was as if a great bomb, an explosion of consciousness, had gone off in American life, shattering everything.”
Kafka Was the Rage is Anatole Broyard’s poignant, lyrical memoir of transition. It is a deft intermingling of his life story and the creation of modern American society. After World War II, Broyard leaves his family home in Brooklyn to find his place in the world. Settling in Greenwich Village, he finds himself at the heart of a cultural shift – in a time and place where boundaries were being reset and a new intellectualism was born. Broyard navigates the scene, simultaneously trying to fit in with and stand out from the brilliant literati he rubs elbows with (indeed, Broyard would later become a notable critic and columnist, as well as an editor of The New York Times ). For him, it was a time of confusion and exploration; self-discovery is an important factor as well, but never quite settles in. Perhaps this is because the memoir is sadly unfinished – ending abruptly before Broyard can come to a grounded conclusion. You see, as he was writing this Broyard was given a diagnosis of terminal prostate cancer, and as his disease progressed he set this work aside to start the masterful Intoxicated By My Illness instead (another memoir, but about the final stage of his life rather than its movement into adulthood).
For any other writer this lack of resolution would probably be infuriating, but Broyard’s keen intelligence and ability to make pointed statements about both personal and national identities in flux make Kafka Was the Rage more than worthwhile. It even seems somewhat appropriate that Broyard doesn’t get to get to the point where he “came back to earth,” as his wife Alexandra states was his goal in her afterward. America itself was in for a bumpy ride as it moved away from conventional restraints and journeyed headlong into the turbulent 60s and, ultimately, to modern days.
Broyard’s masterful writing is a sharp and intriguing critique of himself and American culture. His critic’s eye examines his own attitudes, the nature of the social movement he was witness to, and the people who partook in it. It seems almost painfully honest and self aware, an attribute that also pops up in Intoxicated By My Illness – a sort of Broyard specialty, if you will (even if many people would rightly point out that Broyard was living a lie by hiding his African American heritage throughout his life).
Twenty years after Broyard’s death, his two memoirs remain as living testaments to a fierce literary mind. Kafka Was the Rage is an ideal read for many audiences because it functions so well on multiple levels; New Yorkers will appreciate its ability to so lovingly capture a neighborhood at a crucial point in its history, literary-minded people will be captivated by Broyard’s writing, and history buffs will appreciate its unique perspective on America at a crossroads.(less)
“Does it take the harsh light of disaster to show a person’s true nature?”
The situation is unimaginable: waking from a coma to find yourself trapped...more “Does it take the harsh light of disaster to show a person’s true nature?”
The situation is unimaginable: waking from a coma to find yourself trapped in your own body, able to think clearly and understand what is going on around you, but unable to partake in any of what transpires. It’s called “locked in syndrome,” and Jean-Dominique Bauby finds himself a victim of it when he awakes from a coma following a serious stroke that damaged his brain stem and left him almost totally paralyzed; he has only limited facial movements, slight control over his neck, and use of only one eye. It is with this single good eye that Bauby is able to communicate with the world, using an excruciatingly slow code of blinking that requires time, energy, and a great deal of attention and patience. And it is also thanks to this one eye that we have this first-hand account, dictated by Bauby from his hospital bed, recounting the details of his life in the wake of tragedy.
Far from being restricted by his condition, Bauby unleashes the full force of his literary capabilities (which were quite estimable, considering that he was the editor of French Elle), leaving us with a wry, touching, and deeply affecting memoir that shines with descriptive flourishes and deep insights. His perspective in the wake of tragedy is awe-inspiring and leaves the reader with a deep respect for his fortitude; truly, this is a man I would have loved to have had an opportunity to have a conversation with, just to try and absorb a small degree of his wisdom and experience. “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” has moments of regret, frustration, sadness and aching loneliness, but curiously absent are anger and self-righteousness. Bauby never curses his misfortune but focuses on getting by with the hand he was dealt. To read his memoir is to get to know a truly extraordinary man whose spirit refused to be crushed and whose mind and imagination allowed him to survive in the most constrained of circumstances. To say that “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” is about the triumph of the human spirit is a sorry understatement, and does little to pay tribute to an amazing man.
“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” is a slight volume, to be sure, but it feels wrong to criticize it for that when one considers the conditions under which it was composed. And considering that Bauby packs a hefty punch in such a short page count, it is well worth the experience.
“Inside every patient there’s a poet trying to get out.”
To be sure, Anatole Broyard was no shrinking violet. When diagnosed with terminal prostate c...more “Inside every patient there’s a poet trying to get out.”
To be sure, Anatole Broyard was no shrinking violet. When diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer in 1989 he did not “go gentle into that good night,” cowed by fear and anger, but rose up and fought to be heard as he struggled to come to terms with the end of his life. “Intoxicated by My Illness” is the result of that fight, a stunningly eloquent and well-reasoned treatise about how to die, how to treat the dying, and, indirectly, how to live.
Broyard takes his sharp critic’s eye and trains it on the process of dying, examining with careful precision what others have said on the subject and how it relates to his actual experience of the situation (Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, for example, is admirable for her “single-minded dedication,” but said devotion often leads her to be “a bit grotesque”). In his final weeks, Broyard seeks to improve our ‘literature of death,’ so that people will have a greater understanding of the process and, perhaps, will be better equipped when life throws a little curveball their way and they find themselves in a similar situation.
While Broyard’s observations are clear-sighted and deeply profound, to be honest I would have liked to hear more of his own personal reflections. The high points of “Intoxicated by My Illness” are its most confessional moments, when Broyard ponders his own circumstance, how he got to this point, and how he feels about it. His critical studies of death are fascinating and insightful, to be sure, but they almost feel like a shield, a crutch – something to help him avoid the reality of his situation rather than embrace it, as he set out to do. He essentially admits to this when he says that he has turned to what he understands and what he is best at (literature and being a critic, respectively) in order to make the un-knowable abyss he faces more palatable, so in the end you cannot fault him for this minor complaint, and instead you must continue to marvel at his remarkable self-awareness.
“It may not be dying we fear so much, but the diminished self,” Broyard ponders at one point, and if this is the case then Broyard needn’t have feared at all; in the decline of his life Broyard blossomed and thrived. “I’m going to say something brilliant when I die,” he promises to himself early on, and with “Intoxicated by My Illness” he certainly achieves this lofty goal.
“A memoir, at its heart, is written in order to figure out who you are."
As lives go, Sean Wilsey’s was destined for a memoir; the life that he was b...more “A memoir, at its heart, is written in order to figure out who you are."
As lives go, Sean Wilsey’s was destined for a memoir; the life that he was born into is just too over-the-top to be ignored. Insane wealth, eccentricity, betrayal, confusion, power, celebrity, depression, and redemption are all present and make for a truly unique life story made better by Wilsey’s perspective. He doesn’t write with anger, bitterness or resentment – even though it would have been very easy for him to lapse into self-righteousness – but with the even-handed tone of a man trying to make sense of his wacky life journey.
It all starts with his parents; Wilsey’s mother, Pat Montandon (who has subsequently penned a memoir of her own in response to her son’s version of events, not so subtly entitled “Oh the Hell of It All”), truly has no shortage of needs to suit her expensive tastes and desire for big-named guests to rub shoulders with. To say that she has an outsized personality, prone to mountain highs and canyon lows, would be a terrible understatement. This is a woman who had a fan club for her San Francisco-based TV show in the 60s; regularly lunched with Gloria Steinem, Alex Haley, Joan Baez and more in a 70s-version of Parisian salons; once tried to talk her son (barely a teenager at the time) into a suicide pact to get back at his cheating father, became an unlikely friend and ally of Mikhail Gorbachev over the course of several peace missions ‘behind the Iron Curtain,’ and much, much more. She reflects such a powerful aura on crowds that meeting her, Wilsey recalls, “is like meeting a celebrity you’ve never heard of.” Then there’s his father, Al Wilsey, a butter magnate whose main loves in life are his helicopter, his name (and how often it appears in San Francisco’s crowded society column), his wealth, and his women (emphasis on the plural). Together, the three of them lead an extraordinary life of privilege, minor celebrity, and seeming bliss. And then Al ends it all by divorcing his wife and marrying her best friend, Dede Traina – a wicked socialite who proves to be the fabled evil stepmother come to diamond-studded life.
Suddenly, young Wilsey is adrift and lost at a mere ten years old. He’s shuttled between his mother’s sterile penthouse (which he calls ‘the marble palace’ because every square inch is covered in either marble or mirrors), where she encloses herself like a bear in hibernation to overcome the profound depression that follows Al and Dede’s betrayal, and Dede’s mansion in Pacific Heights, where he must contend with two seemingly perfect stepbrothers, Dede’s stunning hostility, and his father’s newfound embarrassment of him (Dede’s handiwork, as she maneuvers, Lady Macbeth-style, to have her stepson sent away to boarding school). And so begins Wilsey’s quest – not to find himself, but to find a version of himself that his family will notice, admire, and love. But the more he fails to please them, the more desperate and angry he becomes, leading to drugs, stealing, lying, running away, flunking out of numerous schools, and a serious downward spiral as he gets shipped to school after school, reformatory after reformatory. “I felt as if I was reinventing myself with every new place and every abandoned and replaced friendship. Reinventing myself, almost invariably, as a worse and worse person.”
Of course, as all memoirs go, Wilsey eventually has an epiphany and begins to pick up the pieces of his shattered life, but what makes the resolution of his memoir so much more poignant than other examples is that he is clearly still in search of some resolution, as most people who have been hurt are. He needs answers and closure to a degree that he will never adequately get, and this superb memoir is his big gamble to get it all out, examine it as closely as possible, and try to move on with his life.
Still, as with all memoirs, “Oh the Glory of It All” must be taken with a grain of salt. As Wilsey himself notes at one point: “I am pure emotion and pure manipulation united.” Is his version of events the honest, 100% truth? I don’t rightly know, nor do I pretend to; what I can say is this: Wilsey’s memoir is pure joy to read, and I’ll be feverishly recommending it to others (particularly to fans of “Running with Scissors”).