Nonfiction, What Shannon Read

Help Me! One Woman’s Quest to Find Out if Self-help Really Can Change Your Life


HelpMebookHelp Me! by Marianne Power
was a fun little romp. I’ve said recently that if I am going to read and enjoy a memoir (or essays), I have to like the author’s voice. And Power has a very distinct voice. She’s Irish, living in London, and her style is sort of Bridget Jones or, as one Goodreads reviewer put it “this memoir reminded me of a Sophie Kinsella novel.”

I’ve only read the first Shopaholic book, but I totally get it.

Anyway, Help Me! is Power’s memoir about one year in her life in which she attempts to actually take the advice given in her favorite, or just well-known, self-help books. She’s a self-help book addict, so to speak, and though she’d read it for years before writing the book, she noticed that she moved from one book to the other without ever really applying what she’d read.

One of the things I liked about this book is that it gives a view of the self-help industry, and it is a billion dollar industry, from the view of someone who buys in to the various popular gurus’ advice while possessing enough self-awareness to criticize it thoughtfully. Though, as you’ll see, Power gets deeper into the world of self-help and starts to lose her perspective.

Power is funny and endearing throughout. She had me from this paragraph:

“So why did I read self-help if it didn’t, well, help? Like eating chocolate cake or watching old episodes of Friends, I read self-help for comfort. These books acknowledged the insecurities and anxieties I felt but was always too ashamed to talk about. They made my personal angst seem like a normal part of being human. Reading them made me feel less alone.”

That is exactly why I read self-help. I have a few shelves devoted to it myself (though it’s mixed in with some other general spirituality/philosophy/psychology stuff):

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I mean, I also read it so I can use some of the advice, but, admittedly, follow-through is not my strong suit. But it keeps me inspired. I’m not looking for a fix, let alone a quick fix, for any of my problems at this point. I’m just looking for ways to continue working on myself.

Anyway, if you read self-help, I think you’ll really enjoy the books Power chooses, her methods of applying the advice given, and the consequences that play out in her personal life. As a self-help reader, I felt like an insider. I recognized every book and author and much of the advice.

I also appreciated Power’s critique of gurus and methods, though she doesn’t approach this with the intention of an exposé. She’s sincere about her interest and her attempts to find advice to apply to her own life. Still, I found the chapter on Tony Robbins especially poignant. Power attends a three-day event of his and the whole thing reminds me of one of those kooky mega-churches with Christian rock music and a pastor with trendy facial hair. It’s fascinating.

Anyway, whether you like self-help or not, I’d recommend this one. I enjoyed Power’s personality and insights; plus, she’s a journalist, which means her writing is particularly adept. That can be hard to find with funny writing. I so often read books where the author is funny but a bit clumsy.

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Nonfiction, What Shannon Read

Madame Lalaurie

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Not the mansion in question because it was dark by the end of the tour, but this is something that’s haunted – I forget why and how…

God I love New Orleans. Ben and I went there recently when I had the opportunity to travel for a work conference. I went to sessions during the day and the night was ours. It was so much fun. It’s pretty much Ben’s favorite city and he says that it’s one of the only places he’s been to in the U.S. that truly feels different to him.

While there, we went on one of those hokey ghost tours and it was super fun. You get more legend than history with that kind of thing, but it still gets you into the spirit of the place. Especially in New Orleans.

One of the stops on the tour was the Lalaurie mansion, originally home to Delphine Lalaurie, the inspiration for Kathy Bates’ character in American Horror Story: Coven. After hearing the legend of Madame Lalaurie, in which she tortures and kills her slaves and possibly (it was strongly implied by our tour guide) murders her husbands, I had to research the real history of Delphine and the ill-fated mansion (later owned by Nicolas Cage, incidentally).

MadamLalaurieAfter reading some reviews online, I turned to Madame Lalaurie, Mistress of the Haunted House by Carolyn Morrow Long. Despite is sensational title, this is an exhaustively researched biography that endeavors to tell the real story of Delphine’s life, and her alleged crimes, based on original sources, along with an examination of the legends. I was delighted that the book also provides a good history of the city from its founding and life during the Civil War era.

I love to read both true crime and well-researched biographies of historically significant women and this book definitely fits the bill there—but knowing that Delphine was about to torture/kill her slaves, knowing that she “owned” people at all, was creepy and the whole biography has a depressing mood. If you read it, I recommend a palate cleanser afterwards or, if you read books simultaneously, opt something more light-hearted in between chapters.

At any rate, Morrow Long provides a 3D view of Delphine. We see her grow up in the upper echelons of New Orleans society. Her family history is interwoven with the history of the city as her grandfather brought the (MacCarthy) family there from Ireland during the French colonial era.

We hear about Delphine’s childhood and her three marriages, as well as what’s known about her family, friends, and of course, her slaves, or what’s known of them based on record and rumor.

If you don’t know the history, I won’t ruin it for you. I will say that the major plot points were covered by our ghost tour guide but at the end, she very mysteriously declared “…and Delphine was never seen or heard from again…” Lol. That’s not what happened. If you don’t want to read the book, check wikipedia.

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Nonfiction, What Shannon Read

This is Where You Belong

 

ThisisWhereYouBelongbookI listened to this audiobook version of This Is Where You Belong: The Art and Science of Loving the Place You Live by Melody Warnick on my walks home from work in the past couple of weeks, which made for some delightful synchronicity.

This book is part memoir, part self-help, part reporting. Warnick tells the story of her family’s propensity to move to new cities, rather than staying put, and the process of deciding where to move and why. Through her “Love Where You Live Project,” she then conducts experiments in how one can intentionally cultivate a feeling of “place attachment” where it doesn’t exists.

Warnick conducts interviews with experts and plain old residents like herself in various cities across the country. But she focuses on Blacksburg, Virginia, where her family moved due to her husband’s job (Go Hokies?).

River

I take a bridge over the river on my walks home. It’s especially pretty in the springtime, though behind me is a super busy street.

Throughout each chapter, she lays out Love Where You Live “principles,” like “If you want to love your town, act like someone who loves your town would act.” In little ways and small ways. For example, you see some trash on the ground in the park: would a person who loved your town pick it up? Probably. So get to it. Cultivate a sense of ownership over the space.

Each chapter also ends with a Love Where You Live Checklist based on the strategies discussed, offering practical advice for creating positive feeling/attachment to the city you live in. Some of these were unique and helpful and some, I thought, were common sense.

But maybe that’s because I’m already place attached. For example, patronize businesses you don’t want to go away. If you like that you have an independent bookstore in your town, spend money there to ensure its future. Etc., etc.

I enjoyed listening to the audiobook, especially while I was walking home from work through a few different “landmark” areas in my city. It genuinely made me appreciate where I live a little more.

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Nonfiction, What Shannon Read

The Elephant in the Room: One Fat Man’s Quest to Get Smaller in a Growing America

40415813Have you ever had trouble losing weight? I sure have. If you follow me on Insta—and I suspect you don’t because I’m not exactly a major influencer— you know that I am on my own weight loss journey. It is slow going and any weight loss I achieve is the product of dedication, determination, and weeks and weeks of pure mind-fucking.

Weight loss is hard.

So I appreciated journalist Tommy Tomlinson’s exploration of his own journey  in The Elephant in the the Room: One Fat Man’s Quest to Get Smaller in a Growing America as he works his way down from 460 pounds. This is not your typical weight loss memoir. Tommy goes down a couple of clothing sizes by the end of the book, but that’s not the point. The point is that he continually works his way up toward health from a deep physical and emotional well that he has dug himself. Understanding why you got where you are, and motivating yourself to change is the crux of the battle.

Here’s a particularly poignant passage on addiction:

This is the cruel trick of most addictions. They’re so good at short-term comfort. I’m hungry, I’m lonely, I need to feel a part of the world. Other people soothe those pains with the bottle or the needle. I soothe them with burgers and fries. It pushes the hurt down the road a little bit, like paying the minimum on your credit card bill every month. The debt never gets settled. Those little moments of comfort are also moments of avoiding the discomfort behind it. In that small instant when the salt and grease get into my veins, it’s a release. But then, when I look up and out and back, my life is measured not in days or years or heartbeats but in an unbroken string of takeout bags.

This man leads the examined life and is straight proof that fat people aren’t “lazy,” not mentally and not physically. There are a million reasons why someone gets fat. Among them are behavioral conditioning, hormones, and genetics. And for most of us, getting out of the hole we’ve dug, requires, yeah, a whole lot dedication, determination, and mind-fucking.

Even if you don’t struggle with food or your weight, I recommend this memoir. Tommy is an adept writer and just so damn relatable. You’ll find intelligence and humor in these pages, whether you’re interested in the topic or not.

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Nonfiction, What Shannon Read

Seasonal Associate

39655234A reviewer on Goodreads described Seasonal Associate by Heike Geissler as “dreamy” and that’s pretty much the size of it. A memoir of Geissler’s stint working for Amazon Germany, this book wraps you up in a fog of, well, dreamlike narrative. You can see a few steps ahead of you, but perspective is tough to come by until Geissler hits you with a sudden zoom out.

What I was hoping for when I started it was a poignant statement on the nature of  modern work (to which I do not take automatically, myself), and what I got was a stomach-churning slog through the drudgery of dismal, repetitive labor where each day is much the same, where the pay is low, the managers are (often sexist) asshats, and the narrator gets swallowed up inside the mind-numbing work of receiving massive product shipments…which, of course, is itself a statement on the nature of work.

So I guess the book did, in fact, meet my expectations there. It also spurred these thoughts:

  • When professional creatives can’t support themselves based solely on the income from their creative work (Geissler is a published novelist, writer, and translator), they often turn to menial labor. Think of all the wait staff/actors, stockists, cashiers. There’s a certain amount of chagrin or shame around this at times. I know I’ve felt it. And yet, all these people are trying to do is pay the rent. Whether they’re able to do that through writing, acting, singing, or taking a job at McDonald’s, there shouldn’t be any shame in it the type of labor required to support yourself in the society you live in (e.g., We live in a society that requires fast food. So there shouldn’t be any shame in being a fast food worker.)
  • There’s a certain amount of freedom in taking a job that requires general labor but no real mental or emotional buy-in. This isn’t your real career, so you don’t feel overly invested, evidenced in this memoir by the casual attitude of Geissler’s new work friend who, in response to her boss demanding she be more productive, basically says [I’m paraphrasing], “What do I care about my productivity?” and puts in her headphones while her manager is berating her. Get it, girl.
  • Dear god, why is the work required by our society to make it function so effing boring? I mean, sure, some people love their jobs, and some people pursue their passions and make good money doing it. But then there are the people out here entering data and answering phones just trying to pay their rent, hoping for good healthcare, praying to earn enough to send their kids to college…There can’t be dream jobs for all of us, clearly. But I wish the jobs that were available were less mind-numbing. Or if they have to be boring, maybe we could do less of them? Is this making any sense? Maybe I’m just bitching to no effect.

Anyway, all of this builds toward an inevitable end, which I won’t give away here. But the way Geissler leaves Amazon is pretty delightful and the conclusion is poetic justice.

A warning: I had trouble from the beginning with the second-person perspective. You do this. You do that. I get that it’s a device that’s used to put the reader in the position of the narrator, but I found it irritating all the way through.

There is this hilarious moment that results where you’re, as she hopes, picturing yourself as her and Geissler is saying “You do this. You go here. You talk to your boss in this shitty way and really give him the business.” And then she says, “I want to do what you’re doing, but I can’t because I’m not brave enough.” And then she goes back to talking about what she did that day. It’s kind of great.

But most of the time I felt like the second-person perspective either didn’t work as intended or the poignancy got lost in translation (it was written in German and I read the English translation).

Whatever the result, it was fascinating to read a worker’s impressions of a giant like Amazon. I’d love to read a version from a U.S. worker.

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Nonfiction, What Shannon Read

Upstream by Mary Oliver

UpstreamWhat would we do without Mary Oliver? Honestly. Her words, whether prose or poetry, speak to me, like, on a deep level, man.

And that’s how poetic I’m feeling today. 😉 I know she’s one of the more accessible poets out there right now and so some feel her poetry isn’t, I don’t know, as high-brow as some others’. But who the hell cares?

Anyway, I picked up her recent collection of essays, Upstream, from the library and was totally delighted, though not surprised, to find myself at turns reading at break-neck pace, then turning back to previous pages to re-read, then slapping the book down on the mattress to repose in some combination of awe and I don’t know what else… Mary Oliver does this to me. I’m sure you have writers that get you straight in the feels too. I’m struck. I read a passage like the one below and I feel stricken. With, I guess, awe and some feeling of being heard, or included, or just the feeling that the words on the page somehow reflect me or understand me…

“Sometimes the desire to be lost again, as long ago, comes over me like a vapor. With growth into adulthood, responsibilities claimed me, so many heavy coats. I didn’t choose them, I don’t fault them, but it took time to reject them. Now in the spring I kneel, I put my face into the packets of violets, the dampness, the freshness, the sense of ever-ness. Something is wrong, I know it, if I don’t keep my attention on eternity. May I be the tiniest nail in the house of the universe, tiny but useful. May I stay forever in the stream. May I look down upon the windflower and the bull thistle and the coreopsis with the greatest respect.”

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Just a recent view of the river on my walk home from work. You’d never know that this is one of the most urban sections of my walk.

I ask you.

The book is heavy with imagery, especially in the beginning, where each paragraph almost seemed to me like its own poem. Like so:

Sometimes the desire to be lost again, as long ago, comes over me like a vapor. With growth into adulthood, responsibilities claimed me, so many heavy coats. I didn’t choose them, I don’t fault them, but it took time to reject them. Now in the spring I kneel, I put my face into the packets of violets, the dampness, the freshness, the sense of ever-ness. Something is wrong, I know it, if I don’t keep my attention on eternity. May I be the tiniest nail in the house of the universe, tiny but useful. May I stay forever in the stream. May I look down upon the windflower and the bull thistle and the coreopsis with the greatest respect.

I generally prefer a quick pace when I’m reading but Mary Oliver is one of the few writers whose work demands that I slow down, dammit. This book definitely follows my current theme—I’ve been reading so many things lately that remind me to pay attention.  I’m doing my best to answer the call.

There are also sections of the book that are guided by narrative, including a tale about happening upon the breeding ground of snapping turtles, the ending of which totally surprised me. I won’t say any more.

Oliver also includes several reflections on those she calls “mentors,” writers who’ve gone before, who’ve paved the way. They include Emerson, Whitman, and Poe, all of whom get a brief bio and so  I learned something new about literary titans I’ve not paid much attention to as they’re not required reading for adults – did you know there’s no required reading for adults? You can, like, read whatever you want whenever you want. Honestly, that’s one of the great joys of my grown-ass life.

This was a long, meandering post, but I think Oliver would be OK with that. I’ll leave you with this gut punch about poetry:

“But first and foremost, I learned from Whitman that the poem is a temple—or a green field—a place to enter, and in which to feel. Only in a secondary way is it an intellectual thing—an artifact, a moment of seemly and robust wordiness—wonderful as that part of it is. I learned that the poem was made not just to exist, but to speak—to be company.”

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Nonfiction, What Shannon Read

Big Surprise: Steve Jobs was a Jerk to His Daughter

39218044In case you were wondering whether Steve Jobs was a jerk to the people in his family as well as his colleagues, um, yes. The answer is yes.

I have no real interest in Jobs himself or the tech industry as a whole, honestly, but I do love a good memoir and this one, Small Fry, was written by Jobs’ daughter Lisa Brennan-Jobs and gives us a window into the infamous personality of Steve Jobs.

I am personally having feelings about people in positions of power (whether they’re the heads of companies or, you know, countries) who are jerks:
-Why do we put jerks in charge? (Even jerks who are super smart…)
-Why do we let some people act like jerks and not others?
-Why must we suffer the terrible personalities of some people in charge when we could put other, more capable, and more thoughtful people in charge?

I guess I’m a bit world-weary right now. But all that is to say that I really wanted the dirt on Jobs and his personal interactions. I mean, we’ve heard he was a jerk to people he worked with, but what about his family?

A capable writer, Brennan-Jobs details her early life with her mother, artist Chrisann Brennan, and father Steve. She mostly lives with her mother, growing up in the Bay area in and around Silicon Valley, and paints a picture of a young girl very much relying on her parents to tell her who she is, if that makes sense, in the way that we all do. Except that her father is somewhat famous. Certainly everyone knows him in Silicon Valley. So, much of the story is centered on whether Jobs was, at any given moment, acknowledging her as his daughter.

And, all in all, I got the sense that he was kind of a tyrant. Mercurial, irrational, needy, overly generous one moment and painfully withholding the next. A narcissist with boundary issues. Unfortunately, he was most miserly with his love. Brennan-Jobs’ portrayal reminded me of all the books I’ve read about Henry VIII.

Back to my above questions: why do we let some people act the way they do? If it’s because we think we have to let geniuses act like jerks in order to be geniuses, well, that’s a bummer.  And I’m not implying that Lisa could have ousted her father in some way. She was just a child. But I am really just interested in the power dynamics at play in her life. Her mother often depends on him for financial support. Jobs’ wife (Lisa’s step mother) certainly depends on him and she and his other love interests enable his bad behavior in order to curry favor on their own behalf. But what if we stopped catering to jerks? What if these women had stood up to him more often? What if Lisa’s mom had sued for child support (before the state did that on her behalf)?

Of course, maybe that’s un-feminist of me. Maybe these women didn’t feel like they could stand up for themselves?

This is the passage that most explains what I’m driving at:

“When people speak and write about my father’s meanness, they sometimes assume that meanness is linked to genius. That to have one is to get closer to the other. But the way I saw him create was the best part of him: sensitive, collaborative, fun. The friends he worked with got to see this more than I did. Maybe the meanness protected the part that created—so that acting mean to approximate genius is as foolish as trying to be successful by copying his lisp or his walk or the way he turned around and wagged his hands around his back and moaned to pretend he was making out.”

So, I guess, anyone out there acting like a tyrant and posturing that they are, let’s say, a very stable genius, come off it. I have much more respect for people who are confident, kind, self-aware leaders. And I love it when narcissistic jerks get put in their place. We need to do more of that.

This post got messy, but hopefully something about my point came across. Anyway, if you just like reading well-written memoirs and don’t give a fig for Steve Jobs, I’d still recommend this one. Lisa Brennan-Jobs is a talented writer.

 

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