Posts Tagged essays

book review: In the Margins

In the Margins: On the Pleasures of Reading and Writing by Elena Ferrante

Europa Editions | $20.00 | Hardback | 9781609457372 | 176 pages | March 15, 2022

If you are a fan of Elena Ferrante, this is the book for you. If you’re wondering about the Ferrante hype, this is also the book for you. In the Margins originated as a series of lectures Ferrante gave at the University of Bologna. She discusses her work as a writer, including her technique, her influences and her struggles. Writers will be inspired by these essays. Writing is hard work, it can be frustrating but it’s worth the struggles in the end. Writing has an inherent power to connect, to educate, to comfort. You’ll want to spend time absorbing these essays.

I might be the only reader who hasn’t yet read all of the “Neapolitan novels.” I liked My Brilliant Friend but wasn’t blown away at the time. I do want to circle back to the others. I have become a fan through her other works. I quite liked The Lost Daughter. It’s a dark, honest and thoughtful novel about the challenges of being a mother. In anticipation of this essay collection, I recently read Incidental Inventions, essays Elena Ferrante wrote as a  columnist for The Guardian. The topics covered include feminism, friendship, motherhood, writing, insomnia, addictions, nationalism, death and the recent film adaptation of The Lost Daughter—“I’m attached to that book in a particular way. I know that, with it, I ventured into dangerous waters without a life preserver.”

Like many successful writers, Ferrante is an avid reader and she started writing at a young age. She amasses journals filled with her stories and thoughts. Discussing her youth, she said: “I read a lot, but what I liked was almost never written by women. It seemed to me that the voice of men came from the pages and that voice preoccupied me, I tried in every way to imitate it.” She discusses the writing of Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein and Dante, among others.

In her writing, Ferrante doesn’t hesitate to show the underbelly of humanity, the darkness. That makes her writing so strong and appealing. She explains: “Anyone who has literary ambitions knows that the motivations, both great and small, that impel the hand to write come from “real life”: the yearning to describe the pain of love, the pain of living, the anguish of death; the need to straighten the world that is all crooked; the search for a new morality that will reshape us; the urgency to give voice to the humble, to strip away power and its atrocities; the need to prophesy disasters but also to design happy worlds to come from there.” She said: “Beautiful writing becomes beautiful when it loses its harmony and has the desperate power of the ugly.  And characters? I feel they are false when they exhibit clear coherence and I become passionate about them and do the opposite.” 

Thank you to Europa for sending a copy. 

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book review: When You Find Out the World Is Against You


When You Find Out the World is Against You by Kelly Oxford. Dey St.| April 2017| 310 pages | $26.99| (ISBN13: 9780062322777

RATING: ***/5*

Kelly Oxford is described as “the famed blogger, named one of Rolling Stone’s Funniest People on Twitter… one of the most followed and beloved Twitter celebrities.” Sometimes tweets can transfer to writing essays but often the short, pithy style at which one excels on Twitter can’t be transformed into a detailed essay. This collection is definitely hit or miss. It’s an easy quick read and sometimes an essay collection is cool as you can skip around and pick it up here and there to read an essay. Most of these type essays aren’t for me. I’m not one that finds humor in every situation. The essays on parenting definitely didn’t appeal to me and it’s not that I don’t read about parents. I do. it needs to be a well-written and compelling piece. The essays on anxiety are pretty good and I wish there were more of those. I think maybe she tackled too many subjects here.  I prefer intellectual/existential essays.

I’d tangentially heard of Kelly Oxford but I don’t think I follow her on twitter. I’m aware of the #NotOkay hashtag campaign. creating a trending hashtag seems the pinnacle of online social media success. If your tweets, Instagram pics or Facebook posts don’t go viral then what’s the point to even post them? It seems that way at least. I respect and appreciate that Kelly Oxford created this hashtag which allowed women to feel safe in reporting their stories of sexual abuse after the Donald Trump/Billy Bush tape. She wrote: “I immediately open my Twitter account and see everyone tweeting about this. This is huge. This leaked tape is demanding a response.” Then: “My tweet is instantly being retweeted, but I feel like what I wrote isn’t as clear as I want it to be. So I tweet again.” Later she tweets another and says: “If no one responds, I’ll delete that tweet.” So if nobody immediately responds it’s not worth tweeting? this mindset I don’t comprehend. I tweet a lot. I’m sure my tweets get seen but they’re not always liked or RTed. That’s the way it goes. On people’s bios you see them say that they started such and such hashtag. I’m not jealous of this.

Here are a few good quotes:

on her father: “Whisker burn was his nice way, with skin abrasion, of telling me it was time to get up. I put up with it, because I worried this could be my only interaction with him for the day.”

being a hypochondriac and frequent visitor to doctors: “When I was eight, I’d stolen several thousand of those long Q-Tip strep-throat things from under that sink, you  know, to practice swabbing my throat at home, to rid myself of the gag it caused.” (useful in many ways)

on anxiety: “When I reached the top of the stairs, I instantly felt panic. Like from the very pit of my soul I felt I was worthless and everyone knew it and I would never every climb out and feel better. That even if I did climb out, it would still be as terrible as it felt right at that moment. I felt like I was jailed inside by own sick body and my body was definitely going to kill me.”

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from William Morrow.

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book review: De Facto Feminism


De Facto Feminism: Essays Straight Outta Oakland by Judy Juanita. EquiDistance Press| October 2016| 233 pages | $19.99| ISBN: 0-9716352-1-0

RATING: ****/5*

Essential feminist reading, these provocative, contemplative essays cover feminism, sexuality, spirituality and race with clarity and depth. In her outstanding debut novel, Virgin Soul, author/activist/teacher Judy Juanita details a young woman’s transformation and radicalization when she joins the Black Panther Party. I admire Judy Juanita and how she experienced so much and remains open to new experiences. She’s open and caring and understands both the realities and limitations and joy in a following creative endeavors and passionate causes.  Several months ago I received an email informing me that this essay collection would be released in the fall and asking if I’d like to review it. I soon received the review copy along with a lovely hand-written note. In the introduction author Judy Juanita writes: “Though exploration and unintentional trespass I’ve crossed boundaries of art, sexuality, spirituality and feminism at the margins of society, where sexual-racial bullying is most intense. Freedom fighters, word warriors and pushy heroines have informed the public of this dilemma, this discomfort borne of alienation, classism, sexism and racism. I stand among them.” Being a white female feminist I won’t proclaim to understand her detailed essays on race such as “Black Womanhood #1” but I’m glad to be both an ally to the Black Lives Matter movement and removed from White Racist America. This essay collection thrives as an insightful meditation on the connection between black women and current events in this society. Most essays first appeared in The Weeklings where Judy Juanita is a contributing editor. Readers will glean new information, empathetic moments and enlightenment.

“Cleaning Other People’s Houses” proves to be an interesting contemplative piece because so many educated women find themselves under-employed at various times of their lives (nearly my entire adulthood). There’s something to be learned in every experience. She learned through the clients for whom she worked as well as in the work itself. Juanita offers: “Whenever I ran into problems, cleaning or otherwise, I feel back on the great rhetorical ‘Why am I here?’ Testing my strength against that of my ancestors? Tackling a horrific job that one should ever have to do? I knew it was temporary, and it wasn’t horrific, just tedious and inglorious.” Two essays tackle writing:  “A Playwright-in-progress” and “Putting the Funny in the Novel.” The first essay explains what she learned about her process and her needs as a writer. In the other when her agent tells her to add more humor to her novel, Juanita embarks on stand-up comedy. She decides that her novel doesn’t need to be funny. In “The N-word: Let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater,” she reflects: “Used with the threat and/or act of murder, discrimination, prejudice, or brutality, of course the N-word is an abominable travesty. Used with affection between friends, in the height of lovemaking (yeah ,people get freaky with it), when making an emphatic  point in dialogue between podnahs, e.g. at a barbershop, on a street corner, at a family dinner with o.g.’s in the family a little toasted, the N-word is appropriate.” Black Lives Matter, the author’s personal Black Panther Party experience, gun-obsessed America and mass shootings powerfully evoked and reflected upon in “The Gun as Ultimate Performance Poem.” There’s a plethora of cultural and historical references in the thorough and provocative “De Facto Feminism.” She writes: “The blur of legality, morality and practicality at the heart of de facto activity has been a feature of African-American life since the first Africans arrived on these shores–and a part of immigrant life. Making it in America means going from the margin to the mainstream, not so easy in one generation. The stigma that black people carry as pigment forces them to be what others would term illegal, immoral but not impractical. The dividing line between feminism and black independence is necessity.”

–review by Amy Steele

 FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from the author.

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book review: Bukowksi in a Sundress

bukowski in a sundress

Bukowski in a Sundress by Kim Addonizio. Penguin Original| June 21, 2016| 205 pages | $16.00| ISBN: 978-0-14-312846-5

 RATING: ****/5*

“How to Succeed in the Po Biz,” she writes: “Humans who are writers are a devastation. Writers plunder, excavate, and strip-mine without regard for the consequences to others. They suck their loved ones dry of vital fluids, revealing their deepest fears and yearnings. They expose the most precious secrets of their friends and families, then take all the credit and get all the applause.”  –Kim Addonizio, “How to Succeed in Po Biz”

Reading this wonderful essay collection from poet/author Kim Addonizio I realized I’d not read any of her work and I’m remedying that tout suite. I want to read more modern poets and this essay collection suggests I’ll relate to much of her material. She titled this essay collection Bukowski in a Sundress because that’s how a judge for the National Book Critics Award once described her and it wasn’t a compliment. She explains: “Given the level of regard Bukowski enjoys in prestigious literary circles, it’s hard to believe this was meant as a compliment.” She’s bold and audacious in this memoir where she writes about a range of subjects including binge drinking, one-night stands, family caretaking, men, dating, writing and the artist life and all it entails. What more could one want in an essay collection? She’s smart, candid and a strong writer. Whether she’s writing about men in “Penis by Penis” or writing in “The Process,” Addonizio presents an honest account.  If you’re over 40 and dating you’ll particularly appreciate this essay collection. If you’re a writer you’ll appreciate Addonizio’s dexterous ability to express herself. In “Plan B,” she writes: “I find it’s important to have a plan, to keep some sense of control, some belief that even if there’s no order to the universe, even if it’s all chaos and darkness, you can navigate your way through it with some existential dignity.” In the essay “The Process,” she offers thoughtful advice including this beautifully worded gem: “Have an uncomfortable mind; be strange. Be disturbed: by what is happening on the planet, and to it; by the cruelty and stupidity humanity is capable of.; by the unbearable beauty of certain music, and the mysteries and failures of love, and the brief, confusing, exhilarating hour of your own life.”

–review by Amy Steele

 FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Penguin.

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book review: Me, My Hair, and I

me my hair and i<em>Me, My Hair and I: Twenty-seven Women Untangle an Obsession</em> edited by Elizabeth Benedict. Algonquin| September 2015| 336 pages | $16.95| ISBN: 978-1-61620-411-2

<strong>RATING: 3.5/5*</strong>

I’m somewhat amused by hashtags such as #bighairdontcare #messyhairdontcare because women care a lot about hair. One #badhairday can set the tone for one excruciating day because when our hair doesn’t look good we feel less confident. Hair is generally one of the first things someone notices. Women spend a lot of time on coloring and weaving and treating and styling. In August I colored my hair bright red. I got many compliments from a surly teen on the streets of Boston to a gray haired man in the office building where I see my therapist. Now it’s a bit less bright as I used a color lift on it but it’s a kaleidoscope of reds and blondes. I think it’s cool for now but will go back to the deep burgundy I generally color my hair. I’m a natural blonde. I had blonde hair all through grad school. It’s not me. It does not suit me. My hair is also naturally wavy which I fought throughout high school and college. Now I embrace my semi-wild rocker hair. Although EVERY time I get my hair cut, the stylist wants to blow dry my hair straight which just doesn’t work and doesn’t suit my personality. I think my hair is one of my best features. My minimalist style approach works for me which doesn’t mean I don’t want my hair to look good. I just don’t want perfect hair.

In the introduction, editor Elizabeth Benedict writes: “While it’s easy to make light of our obsession with our hair, very few of the writers in these pages do that. We get that hair is serious. It’s our glory, our nemesis, our history, our sexuality, our religion, our vanity, our joy, and our mortality. It’s true that there are many things in life that matter more than hair, but few that matter in quite these complicated, energizing, and interconnected ways. As near as I can tell, that’s the long and short of it.”

Benedict asked 27 women to contribute to this anthology. Writers include: Anne Lamott; Adriana Trigiani; Myra Goldberg; Jane Smiley; Hallie Ephron; Suleika Jaouad; Patricia Volk; Siri Hustvedt and more. There’s a mix of races and cultures represented. There isn’t a wide age range or economical range represented. Most of these writers are in their 50s and 60s and well off that they can afford to spend much money on their hair.

Suleika Jaouad writes about losing her hair to chemotherapy treatments in “Hair, Interrupted:” “My disease has taught me that I can far more effectively take control of my look by embracing it and having fun with it, rather than forcibly trying to make something it is not.” In “My Black Hair,” Marita Golden writes: “I feel narrow minded and judgmental when all I really want is a world where Black women are healthy and have healthy hair that does not put them in the poorhouse, cause health problems, or reinforce the idea that they have to look White to be valued. And this does not mean that I want a world of Black women who have hair that only looks like mine.” Anne Lamott writes a wonderful essay that describes the moment she decides to get dreadlocks. Of her look she writes: “Dreadlocks make people wonder if you’re trying to be rebellious. It’s not as garbling and stapled as a tongue stud, say or as snaky as tattoos, but dreadlocks make you look a little like Medusa, because they writhe and appear to have a life of their own, and that’s scary.” Then she writes: “Dreadlocks would be a way of saying I was no longer going to play with the rules of mainstream white beauty.” Patricia Volk shares the list of expensive products she uses in “Frizzball” including a Moroccan oil intense curl cream ($45) and Coppola color care shampoo ($15). She writes: “I am one miniscule reason why the hair care industry, according to Goldman Sachs, is worth $38 billion a year in products alone.”

In quite an amusing essay “And Be Sure to Tell Your Mother,” Alex Kuczynski gets a full wax to her vaginal area in Turkey. “I arrived back at the hotel, and my boyfriend remarked that I looked like an enormous eight-year-old,” she writes. Good boyfriend. Many guys seem to like “no hair down there.” She notes: “I would learn that in Islam, pubic and underarm hair is considered unclean for both sexes and is routinely shaved or waxed.” Bharati Mukherjee explains Hindu hair rituals in “Romance and Ritual.” She writes: “Unmarried girls and wives take guiltless pride in their long lustrous hair. But Hindu Bengali tradition requires widows to keep their heads permanently shaved as one of many gestures of penance.” Adriana Trigiani beautifully explains what we all know—society prefers straight hair to curly or wavy. In “Oh Capello” she writes: “I realize that this straight-hair-over-curly thing is real; they want curls banned. I’m a rebel—well, not exactly. I just do what’s easy—and easy translated from the Italian means curly (and if it doesn’t it should).” In “Much Ado about Hairdos,” Suri Hustvedt explains: “A never-combed head of hair may announce that its owner lives outside human society altogether—is a wild child, a hermit, or an insane person. It may also signify beliefs and political or cultural marginality.”

The essays are humorous, contemplative, provocative and honest. These women write about embracing the hair on their head. They develop styles to empower them. They generally do what makes them happy and do not conform to societal standards. Perhaps that’s why there are no twentysomething writers in this group. Twentysomethings are still figuring themselves out. Not that anyone figures everything out by any particular age; we just become a bit more comfortable in our skin and with our hair.

<em>FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Algonquin. </em>

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purchase at Amazon: Me, My Hair, and I: Twenty-seven Women Untangle an Obsession

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book review: reflecting on life’s unconventional choices in Spinster and Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed


Spinster By Kate Bolick.
Crown| April 21, 2015|308 pages |$26.00| ISBN: 978-0-385-34714-3

Rating: ****/5*

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Penguin Random House.

Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids Edited by Meghan Daum.
Picador| March 2015|288 pages |$26.00| ISBN: 978-1-250-05293-3

Rating: ****/5*

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I won an ARC on Goodreads.

“After all, artists—especially writers—need more alone time than regular people. They crave solitude whereas many people fear it. They resign themselves to financial uncertainty whereas most people do anything they can to avoid it. Moreover, if an artist is lucky, her work becomes her legacy, thus theoretically lessening the burden of producing a child to carry it out.” –Meghan Daum

Being 45 never married and childfree I could write an essay on both these books. I have written essays on these topics. At an early age, I knew I never really wanted to marry or have children. It wasn’t something I sought out in relationships i.e. a guy I would end up marrying. I never wanted to own a house. I never felt any maternal urges. I didn’t play with dolls or fantasize about weddings. I rode horses. I wrote poems.

Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed approaches the topic with fresh voices. Much superior to No Kidding: Women Writers on Bypassing Parenthood. It’s not the usual “I’m too busy/my career got in the way and I forgot about children” argument that many people use. Many people feel plenty fulfilled with pets, careers, volunteer work, hobbies, partners, lovers and yeah, just being alone. This idea of being single or being a spinster is exactly what Kate Bolick investigates in Spinster. It’s much more acceptable to be single and over 35 these days. However there remain misconceptions and stereotypes [crazy cat lady anyone?]. In fact there are 158.3 million women in the United States and 105 million are single. Sometimes it doesn’t seem that way surrounded by wedding rings and couples.

Bolick explains: “Not until colonial America did spinster become synonymous with the British old maid, a disparagement that cruelly invokes maiden (a fertile virgin girl) to signify that this matured version has never outgrown her virginal state, and is so far past her prime that she never will. If a woman wasn’t married by twenty-three she became a ‘spinster.’ If she was still unwed at twenty-six, she was written off as a hopeless ‘thornback,’ a species of flat, spiny fish—a discouraging start to America’s long evolution in getting comfortable with the idea of autonomous women.” Bolick mixes her personal experiences and thoughts with research on literary inspirations—Edna St. Vincent Millay; Maeve Brennan; Edith Wharton; Neith Boyce and Charlotte Perkins Gilman to examine the idea of pursuing not just a room of one’s own but a life of one’s own choosing.

Danielle Henderson [“Save Yourself”] writes: “But to me, the lack of desire to have a child is innate. It exists outside of my control. It is simply who I am and I can take neither credit nor blame for all that it may or may not signify.” Geoff Dyer [“Over and Out”] admits: “It’s not just that I’ve never wanted to have children. I’ve always wanted to not have them.” He continues: “Of all the arguments for having children, the suggestion that it gives life ‘meaning’ is the one to which I am most hostile—apart from all the others. The assumption that life needs a meaning or purpose! I’m totally cool with the idea of life being utterly meaningless and devoid of purpose.”

Laura Kipnis [“Maternal Instincts”] states: “It’s only modern technology’s role in overriding nature—lowering the maternal death rate, inventing decent birth control methods—that’s offered women some modicum of self-determination.” She adds: “Though no one exactly says it, women are voting with their ovaries, and the reason is simple. There are too few social supports, especially given the fact that the majority of women are no longer just mothers now, they’re mother-workers.”

Unfortunately due to societal expectations and pressures it does make one feel a bit of a freak, an outsider that one doesn’t have a ring on one’s finger. That one isn’t coupled up. That one doesn’t have children. For a while you get the “you might change your mind” or “it’s not too late” or “you just haven’t met the right guy yet” when someone hears of your supposed dilemma. At 29 I had to have a laparoscopy and wanted tubal ligation but my gynecologist refused because I might change my mind I was young. Then a few months later I turned on The Today Show and see a 20something guy talking about his choice to get a vasectomy. Just because I have a vagina doesn’t mean I want to breed. I’m happy solo. I’d be a great aunt but no one wants to forge that relationship probably due to my mental illness.

Oh, that’s another thing who would want to inflict mental illness knowingly on a child. I belong to DBSA [Depression Bipolar Support Alliance] and in groups I hear person after person talking about their own children being diagnosed with a mental illness. They themselves are here in a group because they struggle with mental illness every day. Someone once said that her babies were what made her get out of bed because of her depression. Yeah, get a cat. That’s a lot of pressure for a child to be your reason to get up in the morning and not kill yourself. As Lionel Shriver writes [“Be Here Now Means Be Gone Later”]: “The odds of children making you happier are surely no better than fifty-fifty.” Elliott Holt discusses her depression and mental breakdowns in “Just An Aunt.” She writes: “I offer my three nieces an entirely different female model: a career-focused artist, with no financial security, who will probably never own a house.”

Both my brothers married college girlfriends at age 23. My older brother had all three daughters before he turned thirty. His daughter married at 21 before even graduating from college. Who knows who one is or wants to be or is a fully formed individual until age 30? Sometimes it takes a while to figure ourselves out both professionally and personally. Anna Holmes [“Mommy Fearest”] writes: “These days, as I enter my forties, I find that I am now beginning to feel comfortable in my own skin, to find the wherewithal to respect my own needs as much as others’, to know what my emotional and physical limits are, and to confidently, yet kindly, tell others no.” Kate Bolick notes: “Austen never married, Wharton didn’t fully come into her own as a writer until she’d divorced her husband, and Mary Eleanor Wilkins—a wildly successful fiction writer in her day; who like Maine’s never-married Sarah Orne Jewett before her, often chose spinsters as her subjects—did in fact produce her best work before she married at age fifty.”

An ex once told me that marriage and having children was “the thing to do.” Another high school friend said that she and her boyfriend thought about whether they wanted to be the type of couple who had children or the type who didn’t. Sounded weird. Think of first time fathers Jeff Goldblum at 60 and Steve Martin at 70. Having a child can be just as selfish an act as not having a child—- to pass on your genes; to keep your lineage flourishing; to have someone to love unconditionally.

We’ve all seen those couples who work out together or those who call each other from the grocery store to consult on what they need. Then there are those people who cannot see films alone or go to a concert. They miss out on so much for fear to go alone. Bolick, who doesn’t go much longer than a few months without a boyfriend, writes: “though marriage was no longer compulsory, the way it had been in the 1950s, we continued to organize our lives around it, unchallenged.” However on the flip side: “Having nobody to go home to at night had always seemed a sad and lonesome fate; now I saw that being forced to leave the house for human contact encourages a person to live more fully in the world.”

If you’re feeling the need for kinship, both Spinster and Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed are compelling reads. If you don’t understand how someone could choose to be single or choose not to have a child, then you need to read them also. If you’re a feminist [and if you’re reading one of my reviews you should be], these are required reading.

Kate Bolick will be at Harvard Book Store tonight, April 23 at 7pm.

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purchase at Amazon:

Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own

Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids

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book review: How to Grow Up

how to grow up

How to Grow Up By Michelle Tea.
Plume| January 2015.| 304 pages |$16.00| ISBN: 978-0142181195

Rating: 3.5/5*

“If your path into so-called adulthood has been more meandering and counterintuitive than fast-tracked, then this is the book for all of you, my darlings.”

“Those ten years living below poverty level would likely be unacceptable to someone reared in a wealthier environment, but I always expected I’d be poor. I hadn’t expected to be able to build a life around being creative, and I really hadn’t expected to ever make a living at it.”

The Chelsea, Massachusetts native writes about her prolonged move into what many deem adulthood—the societal check-list sort—buying a home, having a successful career, not living paycheck to paycheck and being in a stable adult marriage that maybe includes marriage and a family. As a fellow GenXer I understand the protracted route. Not knowing exactly what you want to do or where you want to be. Not knowing how to become who you want or how to be who you are and make money. All real worries. Plus roadblocks both mental and actual. In her youth, Tea worked lots of odd jobs. Some places fired her and some she quit. She learned from it: “I realized that having a job to fund your life’s purpose was every bit as important as being ready to quit your job when it got in the way of your life’s purpose.”

How to Grow Up is a series of essays that connects Tea from her childhood in working-class Chelsea to her happy marriage in San Francisco. She discusses meditation, Buddhism, healthy eating, feminism, writing, working out, being a creative type and finding love. Tea writes: “At forty-three years old, I think I’ve finally arrived, but my path has been via many dark alleys and bumpy back roads.”

In “You Deserve This” she writes of her awful apartment experiences–places chosen for locations and cheap rent. Most of us urban dwellers have had relatable experiences. I’ve moved annually. I could probably write a book about it. She writes: “It was as if each new apartment would elicit from us the harmony we lacked, each new house key a metaphorical key, too, the elusive key to making this thing work.” Also this wise statement: “By the end, I knew one thing for sure. Whatever relationship you are in right now, that is the relationship you’re in. You’re not in the future awesome relationship that may never happen. You’re not in the possibility of it, you’re in the reality of it.” So live in the moment. Get out if it’s bad. Seek therapy if you can.

Redefining feminism I understand. I had a millennial tell me that she felt guilty getting a pedicure and felt it was an anti-feminist thing. Tea explores Botox, anti-aging creams and other beauty products in “I’m So Vain.” She states: “When feminism felt like it was bumming out my reality, it was time to redefine what a feminist was.” At the base level feminism means equal rights for women in all aspects of society. Of course after Patricia Arquette’s wonderful speech about pay inequity at this year’s Academy Awards, she’s been called out for not being inclusive enough, overlooking that fact that she brought up the subject at all. It’s become that this white woman cannot speak for all of us. I would like women to just support other women.

Her relationship with veganism, being a Buddhist and eating healthy carries complicated explanations. In “My $1,100 Birthday Apartment” she said: “There was not a moment of hesitation about which purse I desire. It consisted of the slashed, long-haired pelt of some poor animal I hoped had died a natural death, not that I thought too much about it.” So she knows that likely that animal did not die a peaceful death for your designer bag. That dichotomy. Eating animals does hurt the animals and the environment and one’s health. All things that at various times, Tea says she cares about. She writes in “WWYMD: What Would Young Michelle Do?”: “I still wonder about my ability to love and emphasize with animals and yet eat them. It seems a disconnect must be in place, a kind of denial, but the more I probe, the more I believe it’s not denial but acceptance. I am a feeling, loving human who lives off the meat of other feeling, loving animals.” And then: “But somewhere along my stumble to adulthood I began to realize that, while it was important, food tasting good was only part of it. It should also be good for you, and maybe even be produced in a way that doesn’t harm working people or the planet itself.”

She starts to loosely practice Buddhism like most Americans who practice Buddhism. Buddhists are vegan. Not many Americans have the willpower to be vegan. One of the tenements is not to kill anything. She finds that meditation helps her greatly: “So Buddhism didn’t get me high, and it didn’t make me stop hating my ex. What it did do is show me exactly where the problem was located: in my mind. Which was great, because my mind, unlike my ex, was something I had some control over.”

Tea chooses not to be involved with anyone with depression and that’s her prerogative. Many people want to stay away from the crazy of mental illness. It takes a truly compassionate person to date someone with mental illness. Of course no one can prevent being mentally ill. Tea says in “Beware of Sex and Other Rules for Love:” “One standard that took me a while to wake up to was, no depression people. It was tricky in many ways, the deepest being that depressed people were my type, and for a long time, I didn’t even know it. Depression is like a haze, a cloud or an aura that surrounds certain people.” She meets a woman who complements her personality and loves her as is. They marry. Of Dashiell she writes: “As someone who likes to say yes to lots of things, especially odd clothes and home décor sourced from dusty thrift shops, I have been blessed to be with someone like Dashiell, whose dial is set to no.”

Although slow to start in which I had my doubts I ultimately truly liked my first Michelle Tea experience. I will seek out another of her memoirs. Some essays are more interesting and stronger than others but ultimately How to Grow Up is worth reading.

–review by Amy Steele
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Plume.

purchase the book: How to Grow Up: A Memoir

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Sister Mother Husband Dog (etc.): book review

sister mother husband dog

Sister Mother Husband Dog (etc.) by Delia Ephron. Publisher: Blue Rider Press (September 17, 2013). Essay/Memoir. Hardcover. 224 pages. ISBN 978-0-399-16655-6.

“No question, I had an inbred arrogance about the culture I was raised in, about the worship of books, theater, writing and brains. My mother often said proudly, ‘We have books in every room.’ Yes, floor-to-ceiling shelves galore crammed with books. There were not artfully placed objets on our shelves. Every ounce of space was for the written word.”
From “Am I Jewish Enough?”

When Delia Ephron’s essay collection arrived at my door I was just finishing up her sister Hallie’s latest thriller. Talented sisters from a talented family. Set aside a few hours because once you start reading, you won’t want to stop. Delia tackles the profound to the superficial with wit, perception and charm. She maintains a steady wisdom-filled tone. She’s a woman who’s experienced plenty and shares mistakes, some secrets and reflects upon life lessons with those willing to listen.

I knew the Ephrons grew up in Los Angeles but didn’t know that Nora, Hallie, Delia and Amy’s parents wrote screenplays such as There’s No Business Like Show Business, The Jackpot, Carousel and Desk Set. But as Delia writes in “Why I Can’t Write About My Mother,” their mother was also a fierce alcoholic. One of those working alcoholics. Delia writes: “I believe having an alcoholic parent is not only something to write about, but that there is an obligation to do it. Growing up as that child is lonely, isolating, confusing, and damaging. There are lots of us. If I have the power by telling a story to make an isolated person less alone, that is a good thing. Besides, I don’t believe in protecting parents who drink—sympathizing, forgiving, but not protecting.”

In the heartbreaking and reminiscent essay “Losing Nora,” Ephron writes about her writing collaboration [You’ve Got Mail, This is My Life] with her competition older sister Nora who died from cancer last year. “Our lives were in some ways entirely separate and unknown to each other, in other ways like vines twisted together. Invading her privacy is not something I want to do.” In other words, the essay’s about their working relationship, their sisterly bonds. You’ll read nothing about Nora’s battle with cancer. That, Delia explains is not her story to tell. “Blame It On the Movies” quaintly chronicles Delia’s introduction to romantic comedies and how she’d compare everything relationship going forward to a movie. She writes: “So there was this problem in my first marriage along with many others. I was actually in love with a city, not a person. No movie prepared me for city love.” [Well said, Delia, well said and completely understandable.]

“Am I Jewish Enough?” allows Delia to delve into the religious question when she’s asked to speak at an exclusive book club to promote her latest novel. She’s never been very strict about her religion and now questions whether she’s welcome into the fold, so to speak. It’s provocative and immensely contemplative. One of the best essays in the collection. “I felt the oppression of religion. Of any organization that gathers us because we’re one religion and not another. Because what I really think is that there is too much religion these days. Too much ‘I’m this and you’re that.’ Fanatics are everywhere.”

The essay “Bakeries” turns into a brilliant mediation on having it all. As women, whether we choose to marry or not. Whether we choose to have children or not. We still get caught in the debate how far to lean in or not. Whether we’re too bitchy or too much of push-overs. Delia writes: “One of the most revolting parts of the American female version–and there are many revolting parts—is that having it all defines “all” in one way: marriage, children, career. It assumes all women want the same thing. Success rests on achieving three goals (life viewed not as a continuum, but an endpoint), and these goals, as it happens, are exactly the ones that will declare you a success at your high school reunion.” Absolutely. This is why I generally avoid Facebook and get super depressed at high school reunions.

Delia and I are Twitter friends (at least in MY mind—bonding with #TheHairReport) so reading her essay collection just brought us closer.

RATING: *****/5

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Blue Rider Press.

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I Can’t Complain: book review

can't complain

I Can’t Complain by Elinor Lipman. Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (April 16, 2013). Essay/nonfiction. Hardcover. ISBN 978-0-547-57620-6.

“Will I blurb a book because its editor implores me charmingly? No. Will I take a stab at it? Yes. When do I decide? I read until something stops me: Clunky sentences. No life. No story. Too much story. Too many italics. Too earnest or pretentious or writerly.”
–“Confessions of a Blurb Slut” from I Can’t Complain by Elinor Lipman

Elinor Lipman writes wryly humorous and astutely observant novels. Previous published in The Boston Globe [“I Married a Gourmet,” “The Best Man,” “Ego Boundaries”], Good Housekeeping [“Good Grudgekeeping”], The New York Times [“Confessions of a Blurb Slut”] and various other periodicals and anthologies, this collection of essays provides insight into her personal life– family, marriage, friendships, writing career and her husband’s death.

She debates the complexities to RSVPing in “No Thank You, I Think”—“I have a companion quirk to the saying of no: I must explain why I’m turning down an invitation, lest the potential host guess the truth, that I simply don’t want to go. I always RSVP with an excellent reason and ask the same in return, a little emoting and a lot of regret.” Describes growing up the sole Jewish family amid Irish in a Lowell neighborhood with a St. Patrick’s Day column titled “A Tip of the Hat to the Old Block”—“I still don’t know why Father Shanley regularly joined us for corned beef and cabbage, but it might have been his preference for deli-style over rectory-style boiled meat.”

In a section of essays, Lipman contemplates being a writer and the publishing business from naming characters [“Which One is He Again?”] to the expectations for blurbing books [“Confessions of a Blurb Slut”] to the long journey from novel to the screen [“My Book the Movie”]. Then there’s tackling more serious issues in “I Touch a Nerve”– “Sometimes I add this, hoping to broaden the topic and get me off the hot seat: A novel about a Jewish family is a Jewish novel. (I name a few.) One cannot bring forth an American novel about the Everyman Family and name them the Shapiros unless the author is making a point. Ethnicity, religion, and race can’t be dropped casually into a novel as if casting a television commercial with a multicultural aim.”

She’s quite witty and endearing. Lipman writes in a conversational tone that makes you want to befriend her, confide in her, drink tea and chat for hours. You can savor the essays over time or enjoy in one sitting and return to them frequently and share them.

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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