I read Diane Johnson's novel L'Divorce about fourteen years ago, shortly after I'd moved to New York. I have always been a fan of "chick lit" but I li...moreI read Diane Johnson's novel L'Divorce about fourteen years ago, shortly after I'd moved to New York. I have always been a fan of "chick lit" but I like the variety that is more intelligent, with real problems and a slightly older, more mature protagonist and this book fit the bill. But I never read any of her other books. I knew she had written two follow-ups. I had no idea that she's published a dozen or so books, many of them non-fiction, some academic in nature, and is also an accomplished screenwriter, who wrote the screenplay for The Shining for Stanley Kubrick. Color me impressed.
What I really loved about this memoir thought wasn't the more traditional memoir parts of it, but instead when she dug into her family's past. See, Ms. Johnson lives part-time in Paris, and some French friends made a comment about how can Americans be expected to understand international politics, when we don't even know our own histories. And she admitted that was true. She didn't even know where her family was from. So she returned to the American Midwest, where she grew up in rural Illinois, to investigate who she came from and how those ancestors helped to forge the woman she became. She found old memoirs and letters in Great Aunt's attics and as she retold these stories, history came alive! After her ancestors came over from France (!), they settled in Canada and Michigan and lived in what she could only nicely call shacks, in the middle of no where with no neighbors, no family nearby, no medical help when needed, and sometimes no food. But they survived and eventually they settled in Illinois and Iowa where Diane grew up.
About ten years older than the Baby Boomers, she remembers WWII and her father fought in WWI. She grew up in an idyllic 1940s community where everyone knew everyone, no one locked their doors, and no one judged. The community took care of its less-capable and knew each others' dirty laundry, but kept that information to themselves. Diane ended up thirty, divorced, with four children, in England, trying to write a book (and trying to hide her divorce from her landlord who wouldn't rent to a divorcee.) She led an interesting life, with a happy remarriage and bi-continental living, but it was all the past generations looking down on her from their hard-scrabble lives that I found utterly fascinating. With the popularity of people looking back to find out our families' stories before they disappear, this book should have a broad readership. I loved it.(less)
I never know what to call these books. People refer to them as "graphic novels" even though it isn't a novel - it's nonfiction. I think I will go with...moreI never know what to call these books. People refer to them as "graphic novels" even though it isn't a novel - it's nonfiction. I think I will go with graphic memoir. But it has a lot more straight text than other graphic memoirs I've read.
I have seen Ms. Brosh's blog, but I was never a regular follower. I know I saw a couple of the posts about her dogs, one that is very dumb and the other that is borderline psychotic. (And to the meanies out there who claim she's just incompetent at training them, I lived with a very dumb and very sweet dog for about ten years - she belonged to my sister - and when a dog can't successfully learn her name or be 100% paper trained in the house, you really have no hope at things like "sit" and "heel" or even "no.") And the post about her eating her grandfather's birthday cake. But they were just as good the second time around.
I loved the book. I just kept picking it up in spare moments and read it in just a few hours. I laughed out loud several times, and was very sad/worried in others. And that was also my biggest problem with the book - the tone of the essays varied wildly. I felt I was ricocheting off of walls. I wish the overall tone has been more consistent. Other personal essayists that I read do manage it (David Sedaris for one, although he is such a master it's perhaps an unfair comparison. But he does manage to have both essays about weddings and his mother's death in the same book that flow seamlessly, thanks to his unrelenting snarkiness.) I think perhaps some transitional language between the essays might have helped, or maybe grouping them by theme. Instead they seemed randomly sorted.
That said, it was my only complaint. I loved the impression of the different-colored paper (I'm pretty sure it was just full-colored white paper but I loved it). Her illustrations are just so batty and winsome. It's amazing how her picture of herself, which is so odd and simple and childlike, can give off such expression and emotion with just eyes and a mouth. And then you see in her illustrations of her dogs and occasional other things/people that she truly does have drawing ability and her simplistic child-like portrayal of herself is purposeful.
If you already love Allie Brosh, you will like this a lot (there's no new material though so it will be retreads for you) and if you just have seen her around ("CLEAN ALL THE THINGS!"), you will love it. If you have no idea who she is, but think this sounds amusing, you must go for it. But be warned there is a large section about her depression and another section where she figures out how shitty she really is, that aren't funny. But most of the rest of the book is.(less)
I just got married in August so a memoir about being a newlywed was right up my alley. I also read Ms. Chupack's previous book about being single, and...moreI just got married in August so a memoir about being a newlywed was right up my alley. I also read Ms. Chupack's previous book about being single, and I've enjoyed her writing on various TV shows (Sex and the City, Modern Family) very much. In fact, I did feel like, in a couple of chapters, I saw where certain episodes of SatC came from.
After a short, failed first marriage (turns out he was gay), Cindy was somewhat resigned to staying single. But then she met a "bad boy" who didn't want to be committed, let alone get married. She thought he sounded like fun. He turned out to be the one and proposed on an actual horse. She then had to adjust to living with him, and his dog, and then there were more adjustments when they decided they wanted to have a kid. And when they had troubles having a kid, that meant even more adjustments.
Each chapter read as a short self-contained essay. In fact the one about the snow machine I know I've read before. But they do progress pretty much linearly. She keeps things light with a good dose of humor, even when the material is less than light. She has a very easy style to read, and the book isn't long. I could have read it in just a few hours but I was enjoying it, so I spread it over a few days. It's a perfect gift for an older newlywed (Ms. Chupack was forty when she married Ian.) or an older singleton who still believes in love.(less)
I was overjoyed to get this book unexpectedly in the mail, after the publisher saw I had noted it as a book I was eagerly waiting for. As it is not on...moreI was overjoyed to get this book unexpectedly in the mail, after the publisher saw I had noted it as a book I was eagerly waiting for. As it is not only a memoir (my favorite genre) but a faux-farming memoir (one of my favorite sub-genres), I jumped on it right away. And Ms. Stimson didn't disappoint. It read like Jen Lancaster had moved to the Beekman Mansion of The Bucolic Plague. Ellen and her family of five had lived in and near St. Louis all their lives but traveled extensively. One day, one of the kids asked, do we have to live here? And Ellen and her husband thought about it and decided no. Ellen had wanted to sell her half of her business anyway, and after having successfully started multiple businesses, she figured she could do it again elsewhere, so why not? After much exploring and thinking, they decided on Vermont.
Throughout this book of "flatlanders" trying to fit in, in a place where third-generation families aren't considered "Vermonters" yet as they're too new, images from Newhart and Baby Boom continually floated through my mind. I have spent a little time in Vermont myself. My family went up for two weeks every summer when I was a kid, and when I traveled New England selling books, it was a favorite state, particularly the next town over from Ellen's town, Manchester, home of the awesome Northshire Bookstore. But I shook my head and closed my eyes at the very obvious mistake they made in buying the town general store, and thinking they could improve it by bringing in a dozen varietals of balsamic. I knew they were in over their heads and wondered if they had ever spoken to an actual Vermonter. But they were well-intentioned if naive and foolish (who personally guarantees a business loan!? No!!!)
I have also experienced the horror that is mud season (and as a sales rep, I did it in heels and a skirt, crazy as that might have made me seem to my customers), although I have not driven into a snowbank or had a fish fall on the roof of my car, thankfully. Ellen certainly experienced the full gamut of Vermont experiences, from the gorgeous landscapes and brisk hikes, to seeing her breath in her kitchen and chasing after an errant goat. It is a good cautionary tale for any of us who think a change of scenery is both a cure and an easy thing to accomplish. I do wish she'd given us an update about how things were going now, as the events in the book were several years ago, especially as she did give us an update on which of her beloved animals had passed away since the writing. But overall it was a fun, fast read. Ms. Stimson launches into things headlong, cares passionately, and is willing to make the mistakes so we don't have to. I appreciate her honesty and humor, and it was a great breath of fresh air. Now I want to visit Vermont again, but I think two weeks is probably long enough.(less)
Julia Sweeney, while one of the funniest cast members ever of SNL in my opinion, always struck me as deeper and more real than some of her fellow funn...moreJulia Sweeney, while one of the funniest cast members ever of SNL in my opinion, always struck me as deeper and more real than some of her fellow funny-men. I particularly was intrigued by her guest star role on an episode of Sex and the City where she played a nun with cancer, who was sitting next to Samantha at a doctor's office day after day, trying to get in to see a superb specialist. I'd heard that her monologues were great and wished I lived in a city where I could go see them. She was also on an episode of Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me last year and I've been sad she hasn't returned. So when I read good reviews of her new book and heard her interviewed, I just had to get it. As usual with a memoir, I got the audio, and it was so much better than reading a print book because she does a few impressions (most hilariously of her daughter), and you can hear in her intonation when she thought something or someone was particularly funny or exasperating in a way you cannot in print.
The book is structured to take place over a four week period when she has her house to herself. Her daughter, Mulan, is away at camp, and her husband Michael is on a series of business trips. So the book is in four parts, corresponding to the four weeks. Initially she's talking about failed relationships (all her exes are referred to as "Joe" which I love and think I will adopt myself), adopting her daughter, and then meting and marrying her husband (yes, in that order). But unexpectedly in week three, her brother dies of addiction-related issues. As a lifelong addict, his death on one level wasn't a surprise, but as he had rallied from bad places so many times before, it still was, and Julia was alone and very sad. I was already loving the book, but this added dimension of depth and reality made the book even better.
It's not a comedy routine by any means, although Julia's humor does shine through throughout. I particularly loved the conversation she had explaining sex to her daughter ("But where to the legs go!?") And it was structured nicely without many of the short digressions one often finds in a memoir like this. She does have one though, with her mother-in-law, which is a recording of a conversation they had that ended up being their personal stories about abortion, which was powerful and in the mother-in-law's case, quite horrifying since that was in pre-Roe days. She also lets her daughter read a very short essay which was quite unintentionally funny. These are segments I think that are more powerful on an audio than in print.
It was perfect for a long drive and I didn't want it to end. I think I will now try to hunt down some of her monologues and see if there's a way for me to listen to them. Loved it.(less)
I loved Rhoda Morgenstern when I was in my early 20s. Initially, I was drawn to Mary Richards, but eventually I came to identify less with Mary's perf...moreI loved Rhoda Morgenstern when I was in my early 20s. Initially, I was drawn to Mary Richards, but eventually I came to identify less with Mary's perfect job, perfect hair, perfect boyfriends, and perfect apartment, and more with Rhoda's messy life, okay job, terrible boyfriends, tiny apartment, and weight worries. So I was eager to find out more about Valerie Harper, the actress who embodied her. I listened to this book on audio as Ms. Harper read it herself. It was a little sad that her "Rhoda" Bronx accent was not in evidence, but I got used to it quickly.
Her childhood was great for a child wanting a life on the stage. Her parents were unusually supportive, including allowing Valerie to stay in New York at a housing facility for "working girls" (working in the entertainment industry, not prostitutes!) when her mother and siblings moved back to the West Coast. She was always a dancer and after years of performing in everything from Broadway shows to Radio City Music Hall to industry shows, she and her husband moved to California and a casting director saw her in a play and wanted her to come read for Mary Tyler Moore's new show. Playing Rhoda was her very first role in TV or movies, and the cast and crew and producers were so supportive and familial, it was a dream job. But the dream came to a jarring end years later when starring in her own show, "Valerie," she discovered what life was like when the producers and writers did not even talk to the cast, let alone get along with them. She ended up getting fired, and suing to get her name back. She then divorced, remarried, acted in a lot of made-for-TV-movies, and got back into stage plays, eventually starring in a couple of one-woman shows and playing Golda Meir and Tallulah Bankhead and being nominated for a Tony. Eventually she, like her mother and step-mother, was diagnosed with lung cancer despite never smoking, but she battled that too with her characteristic positive attitude.
I could have skipped the part about EST and their end hunger campaign. Although I liked the parts about when she was fighting for the ERA, so maybe the political parts I didn't like were the ones I disagreed with or wasn't interested in. But that was my only real quibble in the book. Valerie was very positive throughout, talking about her love of her new step-mother, the joys of step-parenting herself, the congenial divorce from her first husband with no drama, and how she adopted her daughter. She has a lot of life-long friends and while there certainly was some name-dropping, that's inevitable for a book on someone in the entertainment industry. (My favorite was when a young man came to do some carpentry work for Valerie, and after he injured himself, she advised him to focus on his acting. Yep, it was Harrison Ford.)
Overall the book was sweet and nice. Not a tearjerker, not a gossip, not much drama or trauma (and this from a woman currently suffering from incurable brain cancer! Although that diagnosis came after the book was released.) It was just a good story well told about a woman who lived an interesting life and met some interesting people along the way. If you're a fan, you'll enjoy it.(less)