Nonfiction, What Shannon Read

Old in Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over

37774050Really mixed reviews on Goodreads for Old in Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over by Nell Irvin Painter

But I quite enjoyed it.

This is Painter’s memoir of going to art school to get a BA and then a BFA after a long and successful career as a historian and academic. Seriously, she has honorary doctorates from Yale and company.

I can’t imagine how humbling it must’ve been to start over at the bachelor level.

And her age—she’s in her 60s—is a main theme in the book, as you might expect.

Things I loved:

  • Her quirky style. She refers to professors as Teacher, like, “Teacher Irma told me…” I found it weird at first, but honestly, it’s handy.
  • Her explorations of what, exactly, is considered art. And the economic machinations that determine which artists get shown in galleries and, therefore, museums. Fascinating insight into a world I know nothing about.
  • Her explorations of race in the art world. These are plentiful. Highly recommend you read this if that topic interests you.
  • Painter is also a seasoned writer and it shows. Her knack for setting a scene is delightful throughout. Newark, where Painter is from, plays a big role and she really gives you a sense of what the city is like.

I was going to do a Things I Didn’t Love section, but really, there aren’t any. So, I leave you with an example of my last point from the book:

“Sitting in front of me on Newark light rail one afternoon were a couple of kids—early twenties or so—listening to music, bumping around in their seats, and talking loud, just exuberant. She was beautiful and spirited, he kind of ordinary to look at. He had the music, but he shared an earbud with her, two heads on one iPod. As she danced in her seat, he did something amazing. He played the subway car partition like a conga drum:

DeepDEEP slap stop DeepDEEP slap stop DeepDEEP slap Deep DEEP slap stop DeepDEEP slap stop DeepDEEP slap stop DeepDEEP slap stop DeepDEEP slap stop
DeepDEEP slap stop DeepDEEP slap stop DeepDEEP slap stop
DeepDEEP slap stop DeepDEEP slap stop DeepDEEP slap stop
DeepDEEP slap stop DeepDEEP slap stop DeepDEEP slap stop
DeepDEEP slap stop

He pulsated a salsa rhythm on a vertical plastic divider. Totally awesome! I was ready for all of us passengers to jump up and boogie down the aisle. I wouldn’t have led off dancing, but I definitely would have joined in. What joy in our white and black metal tube of light rail beside Branch Brook Park, a carnival parade on a workday, an outbreak of brotherly love to a salsa beat. Strangers waving their arms and shaking their booties to the music, grinning and singing and looking straight in the eyes of their comrades in commute. But when the pretty girl started clapping her hands to the music, he of the beat shushed her. No dancing in the Newark light rail that afternoon.”

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Audiobooks, Nonfiction, What Shannon Read

Hunger

HungerRoxaneGayAfter listening to Bad Feminist last week, I moved right on to Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay. It was, as I knew it would be, incredibly moving.

As I told a reader friend recently, I don’t have a lot of tolerance for people’s memoirs of their childhoods. But, as I knew it would, Gay’s writing hopped over that personal barrier and pulled me right through her story.

I listened to the audiobook, which Gay narrates herself. While not as adept a reader as Bahni Turpin, who read Bad Feminist, Gay is a good reader and I appreciated hearing her story in her voice.

The memoir is divided into more than 80 sections, which switch back and forth between Gay’s growing up years and her current life as an adult, academic, and writer in her 30s.

The lengths of the sections vary depending on the amount of relevant content. Some tell an entire story. Some seem to be thoughts she wanted to make sure to include, relevant commentary or short scenes that make up part of her story. We get satisfying glimpses into her daily life as she explores the topics of emotional and physical hunger, woven as they are throughout her existence.

As you may know, Gay is an adept cultural critic. In Hunger, she addresses many of the stereotypes around fat people, as well as the way fat people are treated in a society that values thin.

As a person who is, at the time of writing, around 250 pounds overweight, she also uses experiences in her own life to illustrate the effects of extreme obesity, personally— physically, socially, and emotionally.

These personal stories are what really got to me. She relates the experiences of asking for a seatbelt extender on an airplane, fielding her family’s constant grave concern, being heckled on the street, and the impact of her obesity on her health, among other things.

Gay also explores the origin of her obesity, telling, once again, the story of her rape. Gay was gang-raped as a child and she mostly attributes her food addiction and her fatness to her need to protect herself, to make herself larger, and to become undesirable to men.

As anyone who is or has been obese would know, being overweight makes one less visible even as body size increases. Less visible, meaning less attractive and therefore less deserving of attention. If very fat people aren’t being ogled they are often, paradoxically, being ignored. Discounted.

Throughout this intense examination, Gay is exploring how her desire to be thin does or doesn’t fit with her values as a feminist. It’s a struggle when you reject society’s beauty standards but also want to meet them.

She says:

“As a woman, as a fat woman, I am not supposed to take up space. And yet, as a feminist, I am encouraged to believe I can take up space. I live in a contradictory space where I should try to take up space but not too much of it, and not in the wrong way, where the wrong way is any way where my body is concerned.”

Lotta’ ins and outs when you are a critic of the society in which you are also trying to live peaceably.

This is becoming too long a post, but suffice it to say that I, once again, felt “seen” thanks to Roxane Gay’s work. And do let me know your thoughts if you read it.

Thanks for stopping by!

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Audiobooks, Nonfiction, What Shannon Read

Bad Feminist

Cover: Bad Feminist by Roxane GayI have such a hard time writing about books I really love.

Books that make me put my hand over my heart when I set them down. Books that affect me so much that, by the time I finish them and lay them aside, I only feel overwhelming gratitude.

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay falls into that category for me. I realize I’m late to the party on this one. The book was published to much acclaim in 2014. The reason I waited so long to read it is that I suspected I would be required to feel deeply while reading it. I’m not always ready to dig into my emotions so deeply and I sensed this book would require that of me. It did. But in the best ways. And it was worth it.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Bahni Turpin. She is an extremely talented reader. Her voice is excellent, for one, and she seems to get the material. It’s as if she studied it, knows what’s coming, and is fully behind it. Thus, Gay’s voices seems to channel right through her.

This was a powerful reading/listening experience for me. If I took the time to list how many times I felt “seen” by this book, I would end up citing every passage.

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Walking home, listening to an audiobook

A few bullet points on items that struck me:

♦  Much of the book involves Gay’s essays critiquing books, TV shows, and films. She’s known for this. And several of the essays were previously published on their own in various magazines and on websites.

I have a low tolerance for this kind of writing, especially if I haven’t read or watched the book/show/film that’s being discussed. This time, I didn’t care.

Gay’s talent for dissected the cultural background and then implications of these works, from Fifty Shades of Grey to the movie Django, pulled me in to the very end. What a mind this woman has. I wish I were half so intelligent.

♦  If you are a white person who struggles to understand, or who just wants to understand, elements of “the black experience” regarding popular culture—OK, overall culture—this book may help.

I appreciated Gay’s tuteledge on topics ranging from the “magical Negro” trope to Trayvon Martin’s murder. I need someone to help me understand such issues from a perspective that is not mine, namely that of a middle-class, cis, white woman.

♦  If you are fat, as I am, Gay’s essay “Reaching for Catharsis: Getting Fat Right (or Wrong) and Diana Spechler’s Skinny” may help you feel seen, as it did for me.

♦  In “What We Hunger For,” we learn that Gay was gang-raped as a young girl. This essay is brutal and heart-wrenching and all those other words we use when we don’t know how to describe something that terrible. It ripped my guts out. After listening to it on my walk home from work, I had to turn it off, sit very still on the couch in the silent house, and let my feelings wash over me until they settled.

♦  Don’t worry, there is humor and fun in this book! Gay takes on serious and important subjects, no doubt. But her great talent in addressing some of them, when appropriate (not in the cases of rape, murder, or racism, of course), with humor provides relief and inspires commeraderie.

Throughout the book, too, she discusses the ways in which she feels she lets the side down as a feminist. Shaking it to Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” for example. She calls her dad for car advice. She reads Vogue, and not ironically. She loves pink and dresses.

Gay acknowledges that she is not a “perfect” feminist, and then she helps us go even further, dismantling the idea that the perfect feminist even exists:

At some point, I got it into my head that a feminist was a certain kind of woman. I bought into grossly inaccurate myths about who feminists are—militant, perfect in their politics and person, man-hating, humorless. I bought into these myths even though, intellectually, I know better. I’m not proud of this. I don’t want to buy into these myths anymore. I don’t want to cavalierly disavow feminism like far too many other women have done. Bad feminism seems like the only way I can both embrace myself as a feminist and be myself, and so I write. I chatter away on Twitter about everything that makes me angry and all the small things that bring me joy. I write blog posts about the meals I cook as I try to take better care of myself, and with each new entry, I realize that I’m undestroying myself after years of allowing myself to stay damaged. The more I write, the more I put myself out into the world as a bad feminist but, I hope, a good woman—I am being open about who I am and who I was and where I have faltered and who I would like to become.

No matter what issues I have with feminism, I am a feminist. I cannot and will not deny the importance and absolute necessity of feminism. Like most people, I’m full of contradictions, but I also don’t want to be treated like shit for being a woman.

I am a bad feminist. I would rather be a bad feminist than no feminist at all.

Yes! Same!

This was a long post, after all, which wasn’t my intention. I just can’t say enough how much I love this book. If you’ve read this far, thank you! And if you’ve read this book, I’d love to know what you thought.

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Nonfiction, What Shannon Read

Confessions of a Bookseller

Cover: ConfessionsofaBooksellerAnother truly delightful weekend spent with the owner of The Book Shop in Wigtown, Scotland, thanks to Shaun Bythell’s second memoir Confessions of a Bookseller.

This one is set up just like the first, diary style, with the number of online orders listed at the top of each entry, along with the number of orders actually found, and the number of customers and daily till total at the bottom.

In between is an account of activities, conversations, and observations by Bythell. As with his first memoir, they feature recurring characters: him, of course, curmudgeonly and anti-Amazon as always; and shop assistants Nicky, Flo, and a new person, Emanuela from Italy. Plus Bythell’s family, friends, and regular customers, who are as interesting and varied in personality as one would hope the denizens of rural Scotland to be.

Those include Sandy the tattooed pagan, who makes walking sticks for Bythell to sell in exchange for credit in the shop. And there’s the mysterious Mole-Man, who never speaks, but disappears into the stacks for hours at a time, emerging to pay for his many treasures and leaving without a word. Bumbag Dave is also a regular customer—he just wears a lot of fanny packs.

Then there are the shop employees, including longtime employee Nicky, who featured heavily in the first book. She continues to be an endless source of humor. College student Flo helps out in the summer. She’s not above swearing at her boss. And a fun new addition is Emanuela, a young Italian woman whose eccentricities endear her to Bythell and pretty much all of Wigtown by the time her stint in The Book Shop is up.

If you’re as invested as I am, you’ll also be happy to learn more about Bythell’s relationship with Anna, his longtime partner. She’s an American woman who wrote a book about Wigtown and started The Open Book, a shop which tourists pay to stay at a run for weeks at a time.

Of interest to me, always, are the entries detailing which books customers buy. And I’m fascinated by which books are popular sellers. Railroad books and detailed local histories for example. There is also endless entertainment to be found in the examination of customer behavior. I can empathize utterly with Bythell’s disdain for chatterers.

I noticed some disgruntled reviews on Goodreads, where a few readers said things like “My life is more interesting than this guy’s!” But that’s precisely why I appreciate Bythell’s books. I want to see what the daily life of a bookseller is like.

Bythell’s insightful observations on life and the bookselling business, as well as descriptions of his personal life are bonus material to me. Welcome bonus material as Bythell is a charming narrator, but I’m here for the day-in-day-out of a quirky Scottish bookshop. Highly recommend this one if you are too!

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Nonfiction, What Shannon Read

Sorry I’m Late, I Didn’t Want to Come

45459370._SX318_As an avowed introvert, I’m always interested in reading about other introverts. I like to see if their experiences match my own. So I especially enjoyed listening to the audiobook version of Jessica Pan’s Sorry I’m late, I Didn’t Want to Come: One Introvert’s Year of Saying Yes.

The book, which presents as a memoir, but includes interviews with experts, is a fun journey through Pan’s year of taking risks.

A self-described shy introvert or “shintrovert,” as she calls herself, Pan feels lonely living in London, England. She lives with her husband, but has no social life to speak of. Her friends are spread out across the globe and, like many introverts, she finds it difficult to make new friends.

Thus, she embarks on a yearlong project to develop a social life. She pushes herself to try a number of typically extroverted activities that range from talking to strangers on the train to the Bumble BFF app to improv and stand-up comedy. I really enjoyed the chapter on improv. When she tells other people she’s taking an improv class, they cringe, and that was my immediate reaction too.

But improv, along with most of her activities, ends up opening doors to friendship and confidence and Pan even signs up for another round of improv classes after her year is over.

1I liked the book because, as an introvert, I find making friends difficult too. I’m not naturally inclined toward chattiness and I find networking functions terrifyingly awkward (of course, that’s most people, I hear. Even some extroverts find those functions unbearable).

And I sympathized with Pan as she details the anxieties of pushing herself to be the center of attention or takes the risk of being the first one to talk to someone in a silent room.

I celebrated with her when she hosts her first dinner party at the end of the book and invites many of the new friends she’s made throughout the year. And I was a bit jealous. I will be following some of the tips given by experts in the book and feel encourage to take some risks myself.

In fact, the book led me to recognize something about my own socializing. Ben has always been comfortable going, to say, the local watering hole and having a drink and chatting with strangers. He’s an extrovert. He’d not a joiner and doesn’t like planned activities.

But, even though I’ve pushed myself to show up at a bar alone at times, I end up drinking too much out of sheer anxiety. It’s not pretty…That’s just one example, but you see my point. Inserting myself into a social situation and talking to people out of nowhere is not my bag, baby.

Thanks to Pan’s activities, most of which were structured in classroom or group settings, I realized that I need that kind of set-up to help me feel comfortable. I’ll probably be more successful at a planned activity, like a book club, an art class, or some other kind of actual thing you have to sign up for.

I love when books I read lead to personal insights.

Getting back to the book, Pan is an adept writer. Her actual job is freelance editing, so the writing is solid. Sometimes she comes across a bit young though. For example, using a word like “great” to describe someone, rather than digging deeper to give us a sense of the person. But that’s a nitpick. She’s also compassionate, anxious, honest, and slightly Type A, and because I really appreciate authors who are just wholly themselves in their books, I like this. I feel like I got to know her.

I do recommend the audiobook version, but Pan reads it herself, so I’ll warn you that her style won’t be for everyone. Her reading is stilted and she tends to stop for commas like they’re periods, but I got through it fine.

Have you read this one? What did you think?

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Nonfiction, What Shannon Read

I’m on an Augusten Burroughs kick

13167087._SY475_I forgot all about Augusten Burroughs who, I admit, can be an acquired taste, until I saw his book This Is How: Proven Aid in Overcoming Shyness, Molestation, Fatness, Spinsterhood, Grief, Disease, Lushery, Decrepitude & More at the library.

I liked the subtitle very much, and the fact that the book wasn’t written by a known self-help author, so I listened to the audiobook, which Burroughs reads himself.

It’s quite entertaining and, while I found some of the advice a bit reductive, especially when Burroughs himself is opining rather than speaking from experience, I still enjoyed it. I really like his reading voice.

Here’s a sample of some of the wisdom:

Having one’s mother or father or past abuser admit to their crimes or even apologize for them changes nothing–certainly not what they did. Rather, such an apology would give you the psychological permission to “move on” with your life.

But you do not need anybody’s permisson to move on with your life.

It does not matter whether or not those responsible for harming you ever understand what they did, care about what they did, or apologize for it.

It does not matter.

All that matters is your ability to stop fondling the experience with your brain. Which you can do right now.

He’s not wrong. On the other hand, there’s a section where Burroughs tells the story of a woman who raises her hand to ask a question while he’s giving a reading. She tells him that her son died while on a drinking binge and she feels guilty for somehow not being able to save him. Burroughs basically tells her, don’t worry. I used to be a drunk and there’s nothing I loved more than being drunk. Your son essentially died doing what he loved. He probably felt awesome.

I…don’t know about that. I mean, yeah, the mother should not feel guilty over something she couldn’t control—her adult son, drinking himself to death was not within her pervue. Adults have to take care of themselves. And addicts are pretty much impossible to budge unless they actually want to give up their addiction. But that doesn’t mean that as a mother I wouldn’t feel the very same way. You always feel there’s more you can do for your child. But the point is, I think Burrough’s response, while possibly helpful, was reductive. I would have said that woman needs therapy to understand her own feelings and find some peace over her son’s death. Not, don’t worry, he died doing what he loved (drinking).

Perhaps my review is a bit reductive, but I’m just trying to give you a sense of the pros (sage advice) and cons (overstepping his bounds due to inflated confidence, perhaps).

242006._SY475_And yet, this book reminded me how much I enjoy Burroughs and so I re-read, well, listened to, the audiobook version of Running with Scissors. I’d forgotten what a crazy-ass childhood Burroughs had.

In a nutshell, his mother was mentally ill and pawned Burroughs off on her psychiatrist, Dr. Finch, who officially adopted him into his large and very bizarre  family.

Both incredibly sad and funny, Burroughs details the daily life, arguments, hopes, dreams, and overall craziness of the family into which he’s thrown at age 12. Highlights include: the doctor’s “masturbatorium”; a turd that apparently predicts the future; and the kids in the house playing with an old electroshock therapy machine.

The humorous episodes are tempered by sadness: Burrough’s mother’s increasing mental instability; his parents’ divorce; Burrough’s loneliness; and his “love affair” with the pedophile who lived in the barn on the Finches’ property.

It’s an emotional read and I wonder at Burroughs’ drive and success after having grown up in such a nuthouse. Definitely a victory over a bizarre childhood.

32370I followed this memoir with another of Burroughs’ called Dry. As you probably guessed, it is his memoir of alcoholism and getting sober.

Burroughs tells the story of his life as a young ad man in Manhattan. Being in marketing myself, it was fun to hear about some of the ins and outs of his work. Of course, the story centered on his professional failings as his drinking took over his life, but there are some good tidbits in there discussing creative work and client and coworker interactions.

Among other issues caused by his drinking, Burroughs misses a client meeting, which leads to an intervention by his coworker and two bosses, after which Burroughs agrees to go to rehab.

Then follows the story of Burroughs’ attempts to get sober, his experiences in rehab, his stint in AA, and, interwoven is the story of his friendship with a man he calls Pighead, who is dying of AIDs.

I cried listening to this one. The ending is bittersweet as Burroughs finds freedom from booze but suffers a great loss.

And thus ends my Augusten Burroughs kick. I’ve moved on to other things. Tell me what you’re reading right now – would love to hear!

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Nonfiction, What Shannon Read

Gorge: My Journey Up Kilimanjaro at 300 Pounds

Gorge: My Journey Up Kilimanjaro at 300 Pounds by Kara Richardson WhitelyThe thing about being a writer is that, if you are gainfully employed, it’s likely you spend your time writing about other people. I am a “content specialist,” which is the new term for copywriter because it implies I write for both web and print. Which means I spend (some of) my days interviewing and writing about people who do cool things in order to market the organization I work for.

That organization happens to be a major “highly-selective” university, for which I am producing a series of stories and videos about some of our most outstanding first-year students.

And let me tell you, my self-esteem can really plummet in the face of children (because that’s what 18-year-olds are to me now) who are already: published novelists, award-winning activists, award-winning athletes, award-winning Telemundo stars, and the children of semi-famous people—which, while not an accomplishment itself, often offers the means a driven student might use to achieve incredible accomplishments.

I literally come back from every interview and say to my coworkers, “Guys, why am I not doing anything with my life?”

All that unnecessary preamble is to say that I really enjoyed reading Gorge: My Journey Up Kilimanjaro at 300 Pounds by Kara Richardson Whiteley because damn, is she relatable.

Here is a middle-class, underemployed, overweight mother just doing her best to make a living and be a good mom and wife all while wrestling her formidable demons. I relate so hard.

In this memoir, Whiteley tells the story of her third (yeah, third!) climb up Mount Kilimanjaro.

“But, Shannon, I thought you said she was relatable. This super-athlete doesn’t sound very relatable,” you say.

Well, I say to you, remember the subtitle of her book. This athlete weighs 300 pounds!

And, in addition to the difficulty her weight adds to this third climb, Whiteley is actually coming off a disappointing second climb of Kilimanjaro, when she didn’t make it to the top due to altitude sickness. Apparently, that is a very serious thing, which she details in the book. I had heard the term, but as Whiteley and her group ascend throughout the book, it becomes more and more of a factor. You almost start to feel light-headed and nauseous along with the climbers.

Whiteley alternates the tale of the climb with episodes from her past. She talks about her strained relationship with her father, who left when she was little, and how that affected her and her mother and brothers. She also tells the story of being molested by her brother’s friend at the age of 12 and of the backlash she faced from schoolmates after reporting her attacker. She was also bullied because of her weight all through her childhood and adolescence. If you were bullied too, the episodes she describes may bring back those difficult memories. I know they did for me.

As with many people carrying “too much” fat on their bodies, Whiteley is a dieting veteran. She tries everything and, in adulthood, ends up at Weight Watchers. Through the program, she loses 120 pounds and embraces a life of fitness, leading her to climb Kilimanjaro for the first time with her husband.

Unfortunately, a lot of the weight piles back on after she gives birth to her daughter Anna. And a cycle of dieting and bingeing continues. After her failed second Kilimanjaro climb, Whiteley comes home disheartened, feeling sure that her weight played a part in her “failure.” She plans another climb, this time with several friends, and begins to build up the trip in her mind as the possible resolution to her food and weight issues.

Have you ever wildly pinned your hopes on something you thought would save you from your own designated issue? I have. So I get it.

Whiteley has several realizations on the mountain as she’s forced to be alone with her thoughts. She doesn’t resolve her food and eating issues while climbing because, of course, the mountain cannot magically change her relationship with food and her body. Instead, she resolves to continue to work through them. I’m reminded of the annoying adage, “Wherever you go, there you are,” meaning, you can’t run from your problems. You always take them with you. But I think that’s Whiteley’s overarching point. She took her problems to the mountain to wrestle with them under stressful physical conditions that required her to face her body and her feelings about her body.

I had one very judge-y thought while reading. As I got through the first few chapters, I thought, she doesn’t have much of a style. But that’s OK. She’s not a writer practicing the craft of writing. She’s a woman who climbed a mountain telling us the story of how she climbed the mountain. But further reading proved me wrong as Whiteley is actually a writer. Before the period of unemployment she mentions in the book, she was a full-time newspaper reporter. Whoops.

So, there’s my judgement: her writing is pretty basic and straightforward with no real style. Voice for sure. Style, no.

I didn’t care though. This book made me feel like I could climb Mount Kilimanjaro and I think Whiteley would be happy to know that. I’m not a published novelist or an award-winning activist, but if someone like Whiteley can wrestle her demons on the tallest mountain in Africa, surely this overweight Midwestern mom has a chance with her own demons.

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