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

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

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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Nonfiction

I’m still reading about how French women do it better

Despite coming across the astute reporting in this 2017 Racked piece with the great title How to Sell a Billion Dollar Myth Like a French Girl, I’m still reading about how French women do it better.

I realize that no woman is perfect, but somehow, as I told Ben last week, the idea that there is a whole class of women out there who eat what they like and don’t get fat, enjoy wine, always look elegant, and wear only matching lingerie somehow gives me hope for myself.

FrenchThe first book I finished last week was All You Need to Be Impossibly French: A Witty Investigation into the Lives, Lusts, and Little Secrets of French Women by Helena Frith Powell. This book was great for prying open the myth of the perfect French woman. Frith Powell interviews a dozen or so French women, most known for their contributions to the world of fashion, business, or politics, and runs through their opinions and tips on a slew of style-related topics, from workouts to botox.

The women Frith Powell describes are mostly “pencil thin” and always “well turned out.” Normally, reading things like this would be an opportunity for me to give myself a hard time for my distinct lack of elegance, penchant for junk food, and myriad other sins. But to be completely honest, I felt inspired. It seems like Frith Powell was too. Her writing about these women is part tribute, part exposé with a tone along the lines of “You can’t be the perfect woman all the time…but tell me your secrets just in case!”

And, of course, the book raised my feminist hackles. Are these women really wearing matching lingerie for themselves? Are they really staying stick thin for themselves? Or is this just the patriarchy (apparently alive and well in France) doing some of its best work? Frith Powell gives the impression that it’s some of column A and some of column B.

ParisInLoveAnother woman worshiping with me at the altar of French style is academic and romance writer Eloisa James. I listened to the audiobook version of her memoir Paris in Love last week.

After her breast cancer went into remission, James and her husband, also a professor and originally from Italy, take a teaching sabbatical and move with their two kids to Paris.

James warns us that the memoir began as a series of Facebook posts on her personal account, which she used to keep her family up to date on their lives in Paris. But her observations are so interesting and humorous that they ended up forming a memoir. James is an adept writer with a knack for imagery and creating a narrative in both the short, post-style entries and the longer, more essay-like parts. I found I liked them both but wished some of the short pieces delved deeper into the topics at hand.

Instead, the memoir is a simple but enjoyable reflection on the Parisian lifestyle and her family’s forays into and foibles within it. James covers the usual ground: French parenting, style, weight loss, food, smoking, and romance, among the chief explorations. But she also talks about her children, whom she admits provide most of the humor in the story, as they navigate the local Italian school at different levels.

All in all, two good reads in which to indulge my obsession and I’ll be looking at reading books by both authors in the future.

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Nonfiction, What Shannon Read

Alive, Alive Oh!: And Other Things That Matter

30231738I know it’s early goings yet, but this book is a definite contender for my favorite book of the year (it wasn’t published this year, but I read it this year).

Alive, Alive Oh!: And Other Things That Matter by Diana Athill is a collection of essays and memories written and published by the author/retired editor in her 90s.

If you haven’t read anything by Athill, I highly recommend you do so. She’s a distinct personality and that comes through in her writing, which, I know it’s cliche to say, is both poignant and humorous and most of the time humorously poignant.

Each chapter covers a specific memory or topic. Or memories as the vehicle for addressing big topics that include but are not limited to Athill’s miscarriage, aging, her childhood in Norfolk, fashion, WWII, colonialism in the Caribbean, her various love affairs, and her preference for being the “other woman.”

She writes it all in matter-of-fact prose with acknowledgement of her own “prosaic” tendencies. And yet, she does cover beauty, writing a passage on “looking” that, I’ll admit, gave me permission to enjoy a pastime I couldn’t have put a name to, which is looking, observing, really seeing something that interests you.

“Looking at things is never time wasted. If your children want to stand and stare, let them. When I was marvelling at the beauty of a painting or enjoying a great view it did not occur to me that the experience, however intense, would be of value many years later. But there it has remained, tucked away in hidden bits of my mind, and now out it comes, shouldering aside even the most passionate love affairs and the most satisfying achievements, to make a very old woman’s idle days pleasant instead of boring. And giving me this book, of memories, thoughts and reflections, which does – roughly – add up to being a report on what living for ninety-seven years has taught one rather lucky old woman.”

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 A pic I took on my phone to remember the moment

Personally, I think of wandering the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston where I went for the first time last summer. I was in a state of bliss, content to stand in front of the Sargent portraits til my eyeballs fell out. Now I know that looking is a thing, I’m going to spend more time doing it.

I also found out that I am not alone in how I have grown to perceive poetry and its place in my reading life over time.

“However, when someone asks me for my favourite poem and I answer Lear’s ‘ The Owl and the Pussy Cat ’, I am not being facetious. I really do prefer poems which tell a story to those that plumb the depths of experience, and those that depend largely on associations hooked up into a poet’s mind by words and images are lost to me. I read to see something, not to decipher codes.”

This was so validating for me. I got the impression that living life in your 90s is very freeing in the sense that you don’t worry about what people think of you (which Athill confirms for herself in the last chapter of the book). Wouldn’t it be great if I could give myself permission to live like that now?

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Nonfiction, What Shannon Read

My guilty pleasure reading: Cathy Glass

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Where I recuperated with my faithful companion

When I wrote the recap of my 2017 reading, I failed to mention my guilty pleasure reading. In October, I had a hysterectomy. That required three weeks off of work and lots of reading and Netflix. Honestly, despite the pain and immobility, it was a glorious boost to my reading productivity.

Years ago, I became fascinated with the idea of fostering children and with how we, individually as parents and guardians and as a society, deal with neglected children or children with special needs.

I think it had something to do with being the mother of a young child and feeling like it was really, really hard. And wanting to know how in the hell people deal with kids who have serious problems when I felt, at times, so inept in parenting my own perfectly healthy and generally well-care-for kid.

Another Place at the TableI came across Another Place at the Table, Kathy Harrison’s memoir of fostering and the many kids who share her home. It’s an honest, sometimes wrenching book that talks frankly about these kids and how caring for them affected all involved: the foster kids, Cathy, and Cathy’s own biological children. In my opinion, it sets the bar for the genre (the fostering/working with “tough” kids memoir genre, if that can be considered a thing).

It’s a great read for anyone who appreciates a smart narrator and a strong voice, and who also shares my voyeuristic interest in tragic childhoods. I chalk that propensity up to a desire for an adult perspective on the abuse memoir.*

From Cathy Harrison, I went on to Torey Hayden, who wrote slightly more sensationalist, but no less smart, memoirs about being a special needs teacher who works with some very neglected children.

Ghost GirlAll that is to say that I have an interest in books like this, but it’s been a number of years since I’ve found a smart writer with a good body of work about fostering/teaching “tough” kids.

Enter my surgery and my library’s responsiveness to patron interest. It was there I stumbled upon Nobody’s Son by Cathy Glass. I read it in one day and quickly worked my way through nine more of Glass’ books.

Things I Liked

Everything happens from Cathy’s perspective. She’s articulate and clearly has a knack for parenting and for fostering. She also gives a bird’s eye view of each fostering experience, sometimes noting her own foibles, which I appreciate. It makes her seem like a reliable narrator.

Mummy Told Me Not to Tell

Jesus.

I always enjoy meeting the kids and learning their stories. These are always riddled with drug-addicted parents and the like, but that, of course, appeals to the SVU fan in me.

Also, if you read enough of these, you’ll learn that Cathy’s husband leaves her for another woman and she zings him in, like, every other book. It’s kind of great.

Things I Didn’t Like

Cathy has been fostering a long time and writing these memoirs for a long time. Her books are formulaic and the titles—talk about sensationalist. Here’s a taste: The Saddest Girl in the World; Daddy’s Little Princess (ewww); Damaged: The Heartbreaking True Story of a Forgotten Child. 

Oh lordy.

Why I’m Kind of Embarrassed

The Girl in the MirrorThis is total guilty pleasure reading. These books are not literature with a capital “L.” I read them for the same reason I imagine some people read romance novels or any other deep genre fiction.

Also, the subjects of the stories are real people (most of the children are grown up now) who’ve suffered real tragedies. I guess the reassuring thing is that, from Glass’ house each kid moves on to a better situation. Either they go home to rehabilitated parents or move on to be adopted or to a facility that provides the mental health care they need. Glass is a compassionate stepping stone on their way to better lives.

So, guilty pleasure? Absolutely. But there’s some meat in there too.

*Somewhat related to the “Pelzer” effect, based on books written by David Pelzer about his childhood with a terribly abusive mother. When I worked at a public library, patrons requested these all the time. And abuse memoirs are super popular. I even indulge myself sometimes.

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