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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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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Nonfiction, What Shannon Read

Hidden Nature

29328188._SY475_I’m really back with fervor this week, I guess. So, hello again, here’s a post about this great book I just read called Hidden Nature: A Voyage of Discovery by Alys Fowler.

It is Fowler’s story of exploring the extensive Birmingham, England, canal system via inflatable raft. I enjoyed it so much, mostly because of Fowler’s talent for describing the composition of a manmade landscape overrun by nature. Canals, a unique part of Birmingham’s built history, seem to exist at a crossroads of the developed and the natural.

I found Fowler adept at describing the convergence:

I lay back in the boat and allowed the grey sky to descend like a blanket. Then I noticed fireweed, or rosebay willowherb. It gained the first name because it likes to colonise burnt-out spaces, and famously turned post-war Britain into a blaze of pink. Its common name refers to the soft grey leaves that look like those of the willow. In late summer it is crowned with bright pink flowers, but in autumn it does something marvellous: it burnishes its fire-loving nature so that it looks like an autumn bonfire as those grey leaves turn red from the outer edge in, like burning embers, a brilliant orange-red, the seed heads wisping up like smoke. Here was a whole uninterrupted bank of colour, burning away. It was beautiful and fiery, unapologetic about its final call. It singed my retinas against all the grey gloom. Like a touch-paper, it lit up the bit of me that lives outside, and I remembered who I was and why I was there.

I mean, that’s why I go outside at all, if we’re going to get deep here—to remind me of who I am.

There are many more descriptions like this. Fowler also gives us some canal history, goes on adventures with a couple of friends, and makes some good entertainment of her foibles as a first-time rafter. The first time she uses the raft, the weather is stormy and it all but blows away. She ends up looking a bit ridiculous as she endeavors to clamber in. How can you not see yourself in that? If you can’t, you’re much more capable than I am and should be congratulated.

 

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Not a canal, but the river near my house.

The part of the book I didn’t care for was an important theme in the book, I’m afraid. Fowler is working out her feelings for another woman. She is married to a man with a progressively debilitating illness and they end up separated after she comes out to him. There are a wealth of feelings to feel and things to work out between them and, to be honest, I found myself skimming these parts.

I don’t quite know why. Is it because I’m a boring straight person who can’t relate? I kind of think it’s because I felt Fowler is better at writing about the nature stuff than the life/feelings stuff. For example, she refers to her husband by an initial “H” and conversations with her new lover, Charlotte, are often described in vague terms rather than actual dialogue given. Because of her nebulous exposition, I don’t really feel I had the chance to familiarize myself with the people in her life, so I can’t really empathize with the issues that develop between them. Does that make sense?

She was actually wonderful at talking about the adventures with her friends, conversations with her mother, and even exchanges with other boaters/paddlers. So I wonder if maybe she was too close to the husband/girlfriend issues to offer much perspective? Or perhaps she was purposefully not revealing much to protect them.

At any rate, I wanted more canal and less “I’m sad about my divorce and don’t know how to navigate my new self.” That sounds harsh and I’m probably being too critical and unfair. Perhaps someone who’s struggled with the same issues would appreciate those sections.

What I personally took from this book was quite valuable, however, as Fowler confirmed for me an idea I have had but couldn’t put words to: It is possible, not to mention totally wonderful, to look for the nature available to you in your city’s landscape (if you live in a city). You can find solace there. You don’t always need a mountain or a forest or an ocean if you don’t have them at hand. It is both possible and OK to find peace in an environment where ivy climbs a bridge wall or where a river runs next to a road. In other words, if you, too, kind of dig the weeds growing between the cracks in the driveway, this book may be for you.

If you’ve read this one, I’d love to know what you think!

And, finally, to prove a point, here are two garden pics I took on a walk around my neighborhood in August showcasing two totally different styles.

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Fiction, Nonfiction, What Shannon Read

And there went all of August and September…

I started this post about four times and couldn’t think what to say…which is exactly the problem! I haven’t had much to say over the course of the last two months. And while I’ve thought about my blog every day during that time, it was only with a vague wistfulness and the thought that I really should maintain it if I expected anyone to read it ever again.

So, here I am, attempting to get back into a bloggy mode and I do, in fact, have a few thoughts about the books I’ve been reading. So here’s a bit of a round-up post.

Books I’ve Read Recently and Also Had Some Thoughts About:

35580277Blood Sisters by Jane Corry: This book is just about completely ridiculous. Especially the last chapter. And the one where the sister with brain damage gets pregnant and marries her boyfriend with Down’s syndrome in her care home, defying logic and good sense. Not because he has Down’s syndrome, but because of the circumstances surrounding the pregnancy and both party’s inability to care for the coming baby, or have a marriage at all, come to think of it. In fact, the whole novel defies good sense throughout. But…I still read it through to the end and if you’re looking for a light thriller-y read, I would actually recommend it. One of my favorite audiobook narrators, Jayne Enwistle reads a part in the audiobook version. Read it and commiserate with me over the ridiculous, slap-dash final chapter.

Fascinating. This is a memoir by one of the best friends of Anna Sorokin (alias Anna Delvey), a young Russian woman who conned New York City’s wealthy out of their pocket money. But DeLoache Williams was a not-so-wealthy close friend of Anna’s who also got conned. Working in the photo department for Conde Nast, DeLoache Williams has some ins to the fashionable City scene. She is so young and trusting and listening to her read her own book via the audiobook version was quite touching. It’s full of millennial speak, including real text message exchanges, and a delightful glimpse into certain New York City hotspots at a very particular moment in history.  Further reading via the New York Times and The Cut will give you all the background you need. But even after reading those articles, I still wanted to read DeLoache Williams’ book and I’m glad I did. I found her to be a capable and charming, if youthful, writer.

17333432Man Repeller: Seeking Love. Finding Overalls. by Leandra Medine: And speaking of New York City fashion, I also read Medine’s book in an afternoon. It’s…OK. I honestly quite enjoy the Man Repeller site and, while I find Medine’s personality somewhat grating, I still wanted to know the story behind it. Come to find out, there isn’t much of a story. Just a young, privileged, though hardworking, New York City woman obsessed with fashion who possessed a unique viewpoint: fashion that makes the male gaze irrelevant. Enough of a stance for me to get behind, but I was surprised at the complete lack of exploration of this viewpoint in the memoir. Instead, we get her childhood, the beginnings of her eating disorder, which is also not well-explored (I imagine because it is ongoing), and only the very start of her blog. Which is fine. Medine is a solid fashion writer and I found myself wishing for more descriptions of clothes and outfits and less about her childhood. I’ll still read the blog.

32819894Restart by Gordon Korman: I really enjoyed this young adult novel, which is the story of a school bully with amnesia that causes him to mend his ways. It’s pretty straightforward with somewhat stock characters and a familiar theme to anyone who’s read A Christmas Carol and the like. But I enjoyed Korman’s writing and the quirks of the various characters in the novel. I thought Chase’s character development was a bit of a stretch given that he was a bully before his accident—even with memory loss, can a bully transform into a compassionate friend and champion of justice? Perhaps so. Would recommend this one.

42270835._SY475_The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead: This novel by the author of bestseller The Underground Railroad has received a lot of acclaim this year. And for good reason. It’s pretty much a Shawshank Redemption set in Jim Crow-era Florida. It’s the story of Elwood Curtis, a nearly college-age black boy sentenced to a juvenile reformatory called The Nickel Academy. Injustices and hardship abound and there is a devastating ending in store. Highly recommend.

 

Have you read any of these? Would love to hear your thoughts!

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Nonfiction, What Shannon Read

The Diary of a Bookseller

In 2004 I wrote a business plan for a store I wanted to call Granola Books. It was to be a used bookstore and its tagline would be “Feed your mind.”

I think about that today, 15 years later, at 38, and wonder how my life might’ve been different if I’d taken the leap and started that bookstore. At that point, Amazon was just revving up. I was selling a lot of books online, dipping my toes in to bookselling, and side hustling before side hustles were cool. That was when you could make money on all but the cheap and plentiful New York Times bestsellers.

It was a big dream and I was a broke recent college graduate with a toddler and $50,000 of student loan debt, still living at home with my dad and siblings.

I wanted it so badly and none of it felt possible. So, instead, I became a secretary and a freelance writer, and worked my way to being the financially sound, debt-free content creator you know today. 😉

In between, I’ve been a magazine editor, worked in a library, and started my own now defunct subscription box  This is the first time since I graduated college that I have not had a side hustle. I quit freelance writing for local magazines last fall. My kid is grown. I am learning to embrace a weird amount of free time.

37457057All this is prelude to saying that when I finished The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell, it felt like a privileged glimpse into a life that could’ve been had I chosen that path…readers will impart their own meaning onto books, won’t they? Honestly, who the fark knows if Granola Books would’ve been successful or not. The trials of indie bookstores in a world ruled by Amazon cannot be underestimated.

But aaanyway, Bythell’s book is a peek into the daily activity of a used bookstore in rural Scotland. It’s a memoir written as a diary, as the title says, with an entry each day for the span of a year. Bythell owns The Book Shop in Wigtown, Scotland, “Scotland’s National Booktown,” where there are many other book shops and a large, popular annual festival, The Wigtown Book Festival.

As of the writing of the book, Bythell employs a handful of odd but wonderful helpers, including Nicky, a taciturn woman who routinely ignores the tasks Bythell assigns her, rearranges the books in the shop to her liking, and brings in dumpster finds for what she names “Foodie Friday.”

Meanwhile, Bythell’s shop is host to a cast of quirky customers worthy of a fake sitcom village. That’s the real treat in this book. In the vein of Jen Campbell’s Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops, but with more narrative context, Bythell offers up gem conversations like this one:

A Northern Irish customer (an old man in a blue tank top) came to the counter with two books and asked, “What can you do for me on those?” The total came to £4.50, so I told him there was no way I could possibly give him a discount on books that were already cheaper than the postage alone on Amazon. He reluctantly conceded, muttering, “Oh well, I hope you’re still here next time I visit.” From his tone it wasn’t entirely clear whether he was suggesting that my refusal to grant a discount on a £4.50 sale would mean that customers would leave in their droves, never to return and the shop would be forced to close, or whether he genuinely meant that he hoped the shop would survive through these difficult times. 

Lots of moments like this to entertain the reader. We also learn about Bythell and his hobbies and friends, and the bookstore’s place in town life. And we begin to understand the daily ins and outs of running a bookshop, dealing with shipping issues, malfunctioning POS systems, and such minutiae as Bythell’s difficulty keeping the shop warm enough in the winter. Hilariously, Nicky wears a full-on ski suit from October to April.

It’s truly enjoyable. You should read it. Whenever I make it to Scotland, some day in the future, I’m totally going to The BookShop to buy books.

Special thanks to Sarah Cords of Citizen Reader for recommending it on her blog, which is how I found out about it.

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Nonfiction, What Shannon Read

Flat Broke with Two Goats

34931315._SY475_This post is about the book Flat Broke with Two Goats by Jennifer McGaha—a.k.a. Much Ado About a Cabin.

It is a very long post and for that I’m sorry. I JUST HAVE A LOT OF FEELINGS.

Allow me to explain.

Jennifer and her husband David used to live in Suburbia. David made a “six figure” salary as a freelance accountant and Jennifer taught about three classes a year as an adjunct English professor, which brought in around $10,000 a year.

They decided to send their three kids to a private middle and high school nearly an hour away from their home because Jennifer and David didn’t have a good experience going through their local public schools as kids and they wanted better for their children.

David’s salary was more than enough, and seemed to be getting better all the time, so when their good friends told the couple that they were selling their beautiful rambling Cape Cod in a gated neighborhood, Jennifer and David opted to buy it. They settled in nicely for the next eight years and, while David continued to handle the bread-winning, Jennifer focused on raising their three kids, now teenagers, volunteering at their schools and organizing their birthday parties, making sure homework got done, etc.

One day in the future, when their two oldest children were off at college and their youngest was in school, a man knocked on the door. Jennifer answered thinking it might be a delivery person, but no, it was a repo man, there to take back her minivan, which hadn’t been paid on in several months.

This, apparently, was the first sign of financial trouble in Jennifer and David’s lives as far as Jennifer was aware. And then, one night, Jennifer realizes David is crying into his pillow. When she questions him, he responds that they owe back taxes. A lot of back taxes. As David was “in charge” of the couple’s finances, Jennifer gave him a talking to and David apologized profusely, saying he would “fix it.”

And this is where I began to question Jennifer and David’s decision-making and general competence. This memoir takes place right after the Great Recession and the burst housing bubble that left so many Americans in terrible debt. So, I do have some empathy here. You bought a big house and sent your kids to expensive schools because you thought you could depend on your high income. Then the market crashes. Happens to a lot of people.

When it became impossible to make mortgage payments, Jennifer and David stopped making payments because when you’re about to be foreclosed on, it doesn’t make sense to shovel your available cash into a sinking ship. Totally understandable and I don’t have any qualms with this.

But then follows a series of terrible choices:

-David floats the idea of moving into a cabin owned by a distant relative, which they can rent for $250 per month and fix up. Because even though they’re broke and in, Jennifer says, $350,000 of debt, they can somehow afford to fix up a house? David is even fantasizing about adding skylights at some point….?!?!

-Watch out, boys. We’ve got a runner. Jennifer half agrees to move into this cabin, but then is so angry at David for ruining their finances that she fantasizes about leaving him and, in fact, applies for, then takes a five-month teaching job in a city 12 hours away. She takes one of their dogs and lives in a rehabbed boxcar while she teaches there. She develops a whole life for herself in this other city, including friends and even a guy she kind of dates. David has to reminder her at the end that she promised to come home even though she doesn’t want to.

-The cabin is in the mountains, next to a picturesque waterfall, which is right out the front door. So that’s cool. But it needs total rehabbing. They can’t even count on hot water for showers. At one point, they’re at Lowe’s trying to decide what kind of new flooring to put in and I’m like, WHERE ARE YOU GETTING THE MONEY FOR THIS SHIT? YOU SHOULD BE COUNTING EVERY FUCKING PENNY NOT DEBATING HARDWOOD AND LINOLEUM. Live with the old, ugly carpet while you get your shit together. God, this is stressful to read about.

-The owners of the Cape Cod move all Jennifer and David’s stuff into the garage of the Cape Cod because it has taken Jennifer and David an unreasonable amount of time to move out and even though Jennifer and David still technically own the house, the sellers, to whom they pay their mortgage payments directly, are apparently sick of waiting for them to move out. So Jennifer and David go over and break into the garage of their old house with a sledgehammer to get their stuff out. I don’t even know what to say about this.

-In addition to his accounting business, which is suffering due to the down economy, David also decides to “take over” a local Chipotle franchise. This is not totally explained in the book. David spends a bunch of time coming up with new menu items and Jennifer suggests craft beer options, so I think the Chipotle was maybe being turned into a different restaurant? Jennifer and David invest money into it but only “break even” and then hand it back over to the actual owner when they can’t make it profitable…This…sounds like a nightmare for a financially sound couple. I have so many questions but the details are murky in the book, so I don’t really know what to think about this episode.

-Next……they buy chickens! WHAT? Why? The IRS is suing you. You have almost no income. You are on the verge of divorce. But, you know what we should make sure to take care of? Our personal preference for farm fresh eggs. What the fuck.

-Next……let’s buy some goats! They do. They buy goats.

These are truly people who, due to an upper-middle-class upbringing, do not understand the value of a dollar. Jennifer acknowledges that their financial incompetence is due to their not being taught how to handle money…but then the couple doesn’t seem to be trying to better their situation by making good decisions and it is so painful to watch them flounder.

Here’s a passage to give you a sense of the privilege from which they come and the general lack of maturity/self-awareness with which they handled their situation throughout the book:

One day, I came home after mountain biking for hours. I was sweaty and muddy, my leg bruised and bloody from where I had grazed a tree. There was nothing I wanted more than a hot shower. When I stripped off all my clothes and hopped in the shower only to find there was no hot water. I was furious. I pulled a towel around me and went downstairs to find David.

“I didn’t choose to live here,” I said. “You did. And if you want me to stay, you will make sure we have hot, running water in this house.”

It wasn’t fair, but I was angry, and I needed someone other than myself to blame for my unhappiness. David looked stunned. He loved living here, could not imagine living in a real house or neighborhood again.

“It’s like Disneyland here,” he told me once. “There is so much fun stuff to do!”

A real house? *Eyeroll* And his comment about Disneyland made me laugh. They are so clearly playing at being poor. To them, being broke is about a cabin in the woods next to a picturesque waterfall. It means raising chickens and planting a garden. It means homesteading.

But, dude, homesteading, if you haven’t inherited a homestead, which maybe your family has worked for generations and held on to despite economic depressions and recessions, not to mention the rise of big agriculture, is fucking expensive. I mean, did they buy plant starters for the garden? Cheap seeds? Fertilizer? Where did they get the tools? These people can only just cover their bills.

But never fear. Here comes Jennifer, bastion of thrift. When she gets back from her teaching stint, Jennifer realizes she has “a lot of time” on her hands. And since she’s an avid cook and has always wanted to learn to make cheese, she decides to try her hand at it.

QUESTION: IF YOU HAVE FREE TIME, WHY DON’T YOU GET A JOB, JENNIFER?

Once, before Jennifer’s out of state teaching stint, she’s lamenting to some friends that there are no good jobs for a writer available to her and her friend suggests that she get a job at their local Belk’s department store. Her response is along the lines of “LOL, have you seen how I dress?” as she looks pointedly at her quirky outfit of mini skirt, cowboy boots, and a necklace made from recycled Coke bottles. Because goddess forbid you sacrifice your personal style for a salary.  No one ever does that.

The fact that there’s a recipe after every chapter and the book blurb lauds Jennifer and David’s “firm foot in the traditions of Appalachia” is kind of galling. I can’t imagine a poor person in Appalachia reading it and doing anything but laughing. When you can’t heat your home in the winter, making your own garden fresh pesto is just not that high on the list. The recipes are, at best, tone deaf.

This couple has a firmer foot in upper-middle-class America and this “embrace our Appalachian heritage to save money” nonsense is just that: nonsense. Instead of homesteading, they needed to read a Dave Ramsey book and go to marriage counseling.

So, Jennifer does go back to teaching part-time and sometimes teaching workshops, but the IRS is garnishing her wages, so the whole situation probably feels impossible. And she does have enough self-awareness to admit that she knows buying goats won’t actually change their lives, but instead will shore up her spirit while she waits for the IRS to settle their debts. You do what you can with what you know.

I don’t know what it’s like to be in that much debt, though I do know what it’s like to be heavily in debt, thanks to my student loans. Frightening. That’s what it’s like.

And some times you just get tired of the constant stress and have to say, fuck it, let’s buy some goats.

But you don’t then take out student loans and enroll in an MFA program. And that’s exactly what Jennifer did.

QUESTION: WHO LET THIS PERSON TAKE OUT STUDENT LOANS?

Then Jennifer’s ailing grandma comes to visit and Jennifer takes that as a sign that her grandmother is trying to reassure Jennifer that she’ll be OK even though her grandmother is dying.

That’s the end of the book.

I just. I can’t even.

Have you read it? Did you have a kinder reaction than I did? Do share!

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Nonfiction, What Shannon Read

Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth

Book cover: Heartland: A Memoir if working hard and being broke in America by Sarah SmarshI’m not sure I can adequately sum up the many wonderful parts of Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth by Sarah Smarsh in a blog post. But I’ll do my best.

Firstly, Smarsh’s story of growing up poor and “country” in Kansas brings a realness and a deeply personal perspective to an examination of being poor and white in the U.S. Through a combination of scenes and vignettes, we are led through a story of one family’s struggle to get by in rural Kansas.

The Goodreads blurb explains the overall concept best, “During Sarah Smarsh’s turbulent childhood in Kansas in the 1980s and 1990s, the forces of cyclical poverty and the country’s changing economic policies solidified her family’s place among the working poor. By telling the story of her life and the lives of the people she loves, Smarsh challenges us to look more closely at the class divide in our country and examine the myths about people thought to be less because they earn less.”

Her narrative set-up is unique. Throughout the book, she speaks directly to “August,” her as yet un-conceived daughter. I thought I would hate that device. And it’s getting a lot of guff on Goodreads, but honestly, I think the way she uses it is kind of brilliant. It sounds airy-fairy, but by the end of the book you come to understand that she is sort of speaking to a version of  herself or even to her Higher Self (as the New Agers say).

The idea that Smarsh would end up a pregnant teen is one that hangs over her as she grows up. She’s the daughter of a teen mom and so is her mom and so was her grandmother. This lineage leads us through a timeline of generational poverty, inherited by the daughters of each subsequent mother, right through to Sarah’s childhood in the 80s and 90s.

An examination of the system that keeps poor people poor is woven throughout. Herbert Hoover, Regan, Bush, and Clinton (the demonizer of the “welfare queen”) are all mentioned and their policies criticized. Sarah also examines the judgement placed on poor people just for being poor in the U.S. Being poor is often seen as a moral failure here and is likely to be blamed on an individual’s choices rather than acknowledged as the result of a systematic problem.

Here’s a quote:

Our struggles forced a question about America that many were not willing to face: If a person could go to work every day and still not be able to pay the bills and the reason wasn’t racism, what less articulated problem was afoot? When I was growing up, the United States had convinced itself that class didn’t exist here. I’m not sure I even encountered the concept until I read some old British novel in high school. This lack of acknowledgment at once invalidated what we were experiencing and shamed us if we tried to express it. Class was not discussed, let alone understood. This meant that, for a child of my disposition—given to prodding every family secret, to sifting through old drawers for clues about the mysterious people I loved—every day had the quiet underpinning of frustration. The defining feeling of my childhood was that of being told there wasn’t a problem when I knew damn well there was.

So this book is much more than a memoir. It tells the story of one woman and one family, but it also provides cultural context for that story.

Finishing this book, I was emotional. I kept thinking, “What can we do? What can we do?” Unchecked capitalism is definitively not working. But what are the answers? How do we fix a broken system, one where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer? It’s modern, Western society’s whole set-up. But it only works for a few of us.

The problem is so big. And I’m not educated or smart enough, let alone powerful enough, to know how to solve any of it. I can only cast my vote in the way I think best and help where I can. I don’t know.

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