Terese’s Thoughts: Easy Beauty

Easy Beauty by Chloé Cooper Jones

First Lines of the Prologue:

“I am in a bar in Brooklyn listening as two men, my friends, discuss whether or not my life is worth living. Jay is to my left and Colin to my right. Colin, an ethical philosopher trained in my same doctoral program, argues a vision for a better society, one where a body like mine would not exist. The men debate this theory, speaking through me. This is common, both the argument and the way I’m forgotten in it.”

Summary:

Jones is living in Brooklyn when we meet her, earning a PhD (her second) in philosophy. She is a recent mother, although she had always been told by doctors that becoming pregnant was not possible. Her body would not support a life, they said. Jones was born with a rare condition called sacral agenesis, resulting in chronic pain, a shortened stature, and an atypical gait. Throughout her thoughtful memoir, Jones reflects on how this difference has affected how she views herself, how she interacts with the world, and how people respond to her. Jones jumps around in time, taking us back to her childhood in Kansas, where we get to know her loving, hardworking, no-nonsense mother and the father from whom she is now estranged. We also travel alongside Jones as she searches for meaning and escape in Italy, Cambodia, and Los Angeles, including attending a Beyoncé concert and meeting Peter Dinklage. And we meet her husband and child as Jones grapples with seeing her sometimes cynical view of people rub off on her sensitive son.

My Thoughts:

When I heard that Chloé Cooper Jones was a guest on Longform, a podcast I regularly listen to, I thought her name sounded familiar. It sounded like my teacher’s name from a creative writing class I’d taken at the University of Kansas several years back. And it turns out, it was! I was shocked. From listening to her interview, I discovered she had been nominated for a Pulitzer for an article she wrote about tennis. Tennis! How had I missed this? And in the weeks that followed, it seemed I saw news of her upcoming book everywhere I turned. It was getting excellent reviews. Easy Beauty was the first book named in The New York Times Book Review feature “New Memoirs Bristling with Wit, Warmth and Spiky Intelligence.”

The writing course I took with Jones was intimate. We critiqued each other’s writing, we joked and laughed and teased. Some of us were not much younger than Jones so she felt almost like a peer. She was witty and hip. I still remember her chastising us for not looking up a word we didn’t know in an assigned short story. “You guys don’t look up words you don’t know? Always look up words you don’t know.” And now I keep a dictionary on my nightstand. So when I saw that she was, at least in the literary world, famous, I felt proud. And it was also motivating to see how much she had accomplished since I’d seen her last.

I tore through this book. It is so well written, funny, thoughtful, and lovely. It made me take a look at some of my own assumptions and privilege, and that’s always a good thing as far as I’m concerned. It made me do a lot of reflecting on the way I move through the world and how we treat one another, as humans. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

FYI: Here’s the Longform episode featuring Chloé Cooper Jones.

What’s Ashley Reading?: Happy-Go-Lucky

Happy-Go-Lucky by David Sedaris

First line: It was spring, and my sister Lisa and I were in her toy-sized car, riding from the airport in Greensboro, North Carolina, to her house in Winston-Salem.

Summary: In David Sedaris’ latest collection of stories he tackles events like the pandemic, the death of his father and hurricanes at his beach house.

My Thoughts: As with most of his other books I was laughing through much of it. He can bring humor to such serious topics without being too vulgar. But when he talks about his father it just breaks my heart. He had such a difficult relationship with him and he does not hold back when he talks about it. I think through this collection I learned so much more about David than his previous books. It was a very small book and a quick read which I would highly recommend.

FYI: Some language and difficult topics.

In The News: Foreverland

Foreverland: On the Divine Tedium of Marriage by Heather Havrilesky

A couple weeks ago, I was flipping through the Memoir edition of The New York Times Book Review. After reading the first sentences of Walter Kirn’s review of Foreverland by Heather Havrilesky, I had to stop, sit up a little straighter, and start again. Was this a take down? 

First of all, the title of the review is

“Heather Havrilesky Compares Her Husband to a Heap of Laundry.”

Tone set. The review begins by informing the audience that Havrilesky dedicates the book to her husband. In Kirn’s words, she “pays him this brief honor as a prelude to writing endlessly about his flaws.”

In the next paragraph, Kirn describes the relationship between the author and her husband as “a marriage between a neurotic perfectionist and a formidably patient man…” Ouch. Kirn’s criticisms become less personal as he questions the universality of Havrilesky’s sweeping statements about what marriage is and means.  

I was too caught up in the juiciness of the review that I hadn’t yet considered whether these criticisms were fair. It may not be my most endearing trait, but I love a good piece of author gossip. For example, this profile of actor Jeremy Strong that Michael Schulman wrote for The New Yorker and the resulting backlash from celebrities such as Jessica Chastain. And then there was the time food author Alison Roman gave an interview in which she criticized Marie Kondo and Chrissy Teigen and the internet went nuts. (There was a follow-up interview with Roman about a year later in The New Yorker where she had the chance to contextualize her comments.)  

Getting back to Foreverland, a few days after reading the review, I saw Havrilesky was a guest on Longform, a podcast I regularly listen to. To my surprise, she is still married to the heap of laundry from the book. She expressed disappointment and felt her work had been misunderstood. For one thing, she is a published cartoonist and humorist. As Havrilesky points out in the interview, the book is meant to be not only truthful but also funny.

Apparently, the ladies on the TV show The View were also critical of Havrilesky for bad mouthing her husband. The author defended herself by saying that she was trying to present an honest portrait of what marriage looks like—the good bad and ugly. She suggested misogyny was at play in some people’s negative and personal attacks on both her book and her character.  

My Thoughts

I should start by saying, I haven’t yet read the book. I hadn’t initially planned to, but now I feel obligated to. And I want to. 

As I said, I was at first all jazzed about the bad review. I was all “yeah! Take that lady!” But after hearing her speak, I had to reconsider. It is one thing to criticize a person’s writing, but it’s quite another to decide and print in an internationally renowned newspaper that an author is a “neurotic perfectionist,” and to imply that she is a bad person and a bad wife.  

I don’t doubt that misogyny has played a role in the negative reviews of Havrilesky’s book. But I also wonder if some people feel threatened by her freedom to be so honest about her feelings towards her husband and about marriage. The author apparently writes in the book about developing a crush on another man. Some may say it’s cruel to be open with her husband about that. I’m inclined to think it takes a lot of guts. It must feel freeing to have her husband truly know her. I wonder if some people don’t envy that transparency—envy her dedication to being who she is no matter the cost.

As she says in the interview, although her husband was not initially thrilled with her including this chapter in the book, ultimately, the book has brought them closer together. Now, whether Havrilesky’s marriage is something the masses want to read about depends on her writing. I’ll withhold my judgment on that until after I’ve read the book.  

  • Foreverland can be found in the New Books section of the Derby Library.

Terese’s Thoughts: Priestdaddy

Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood

First Line: At nineteen, I ought to have been in college with the rest of my high school class, gaining fifteen pounds of knowledge and bursting the sweatpants of my ignorance.

Summary: Lockwood grew up in a big family in the Midwest. Her father is a Catholic priest, a rarity for a married man with children. Both of Lockwood’s parents have their quirks and we get to know them well. Her father is loud and unfiltered, her mother obsessed with looking up tragic events and warning her children of them, both unquestionably loving despite their occasional parenting missteps. Lockwood marries young, having met her future husband on the internet and bonding over a love of poetry. They move away together, but financial strain pushes them back into the rectory with Lockwood’s parents. Eventually, Lockwood becomes famous for a poem she publishes online and receives a book deal. Along the way, Lockwood generously shares many hilarious stories of her childhood, her siblings, and her parents. Being life, there are of course some darker moments as well. 

My Thoughts: I now search for anything Patricia Lockwood has written for the London Review of Books. She is incredibly talented and inventive. She’s also hilarious. For a while, she lived in Lawrence not far from where I was living at the time. I remember when her poem went viral and she was something of a local celebrity. People were very excited, including my step-dad who wanted every detail when I spotted her at a bar downtown. She even describes this period in the book, calling Lawrence a town of “aspiring radicals.” I still can’t decide if it’s a compliment or an insult.

Reading Lockwood is pure delight. I love the way she plays with language and I can tell she does too. I inhaled this book.

Her debut novel No One is Talking About This, published in 2021, has received all kinds of rave reviews and accolades, including being shortlisted for the Booker Prize and landing on the New York Times’ 10 best books of 2021 list. I haven’t read it yet, but it’s definitely on my reading list.

The Lineup: Parker

Parker’s Lineup

TV Show: The Nanny

The Nanny is a reliable old favorite, perfect for relaxing after a day of non-stop social interaction. Fran Drescher is charming in the title role. The stories get convoluted, often, but you watch it for the humor; and who doesn’t love Niles and C. C.?

I have the DVD, but it is now available on HBO Max and Prime Video.

Movie: Almost Christmas

I saw Almost Christmas for the first time. Gabrielle Union, one of my favorite actresses, portrays perfectly the awkward girl-next-door we all know, Mo’Nique shines in anything, and Danny Glover is substantial as the family patriarch. It’s a good family comedy with some high-key dramatic moments.

Available for streaming on Prime Video and for checkout as a DVD through KanShare Libraries.

Book: You Got Anything Stronger? by Gabrielle Union

I recently read Gabrielle Union’s second memoir You got anything stronger?: Stories. She’s intimate and self-aware, sharing her journey in self-development and overcoming adversity as a black actress in Hollywood, as a mother, and as a woman. I believe it will inspire others to share their stories.

It’s available here at Derby Public Library.

Music: Demon Days by Gorillaz

Demon Days is Gorillaz’ second album and one of my all-time favorites. When it came out, I was in college, going through early-adulthood growing pains, and it spoke to me. “Feel Good Inc.” was the big single, played a lots of nightclubs, but I also like “Dare”, “Dirty Harry”, and “Demon Days. I couldn’t recommend it highly enough. I only recently learned that Damon Albarn from Blur co-created the Gorillaz, with comic book creator Jamie Hewlett, as a satire of the music industry.

Available on iTunes and for checkout as a CD through KanShare Libraries.

Video Game: Sumikko Gurashi

I started playing Sumikko GurashiGonna Make a Garden because I wanted something to do when I need a break from Pokémon Go. Perfect for Kawaii fans and Farmville nostalgics, it combines crop and product management with set-building, as you gain plots of land, facilities, decorations, and increased productivity as you progress. You can also make friends in-game and send them gifts.

Available on the App Store and Google Play.

Xochitl’s Book Thoughts: Greenlights

Greenlights by Matthew McConaughey

First Line: This is not a traditional memoir.

Summary and Thoughts:

A proud Texan and creative personality, Matthew McConaughey’s life is what most people would expect it to be if you know of him. It’s full of wild adventures that never fail to teach him a lesson or two. From wild escapades in the Amazon or a relaxing time in a private Austin, TX neighborhood, McConaughey looks for what he calls “greenlights.” Like actual green lights on the road, they are signals for McConaughey to move forward in life. Even when faced with red or yellow lights, he lets them happen but he never lets them affect him negatively. He waits for them to turn green or he sees the green in the opportunity. McConaughey has never let a bad situation ruin his spirit, and he’s rarely been the one to complain about consequences or victimize himself. He finds the beautiful in the ugly and lives life to the fullest.

This certainly wasn’t traditional memoir by any means. Granted, I do not read a lot of them but an untraditional traditional man wouldn’t write something like everybody else. I liked how within the stories he inserted poems, post-it notes of advice, pictures, and even more tales. His life has rarely had a dull moment. My favorite story of his was him talking about the different types of people he met at this RV park area during his time when he only lived in an RV. It’s nice to see despite him being pretty well known the people who typically meet him know to treat him like any other kind stranger. What I also loved was seeing just how much of a family man he was. He adores his wife (another one of my favorite moments was when they met) and his main goal in life was to become a father, which he has been doing since the birth of his first child. He truly has such a sensitive side; one I admittedly didn’t expect from him. Through this memoir I got to learn what an interesting person Mattew McConaughey is on top of being a great actor, and he’s definitely become one of my favorite actors because of this book.

FYI: This book involves mature language like cursing and sexual talk.

Terese’s Thoughts: Call Me American

Call Me American by Abdi Nor Iftin

First line: “I was born under a Neem tree, probably in 1985.”

I have felt at various times in my life that our country has lost its way. But at her best, I believe the United States can still be a shining example of democratic ideals–a nation that inspires hope of a better life and delivers on it.

Summary: Abdi liked to try out his best Michael Jackson moves for his friends and hung posters of American stars on his bedroom walls, despite his mother’s disapproval. Born in the countryside, Abdi’s family moves to Mogadishu, Somalia after a drought decimates their herds. His father becomes a successful basketball player and takes his sons out on the town. Abdi loves the city life, but soon his city is unrecognizable. Abdi watches as warlords overthrow the government and take control, killing indiscriminately and destroying Mogadishu. Abdi’s family is forced to flee.

Abdi, his brother, and his pregnant mother get separated from his father and eventually return to war-torn Mogadishu, having nowhere else to go. As Abdi says: “I am six years old and learning that nowhere in the world is safe.” The once cosmopolitan city has been reduced to rubble, and dead bodies pollute the roads.

A neighbor starts showing American movies in her garage and kids crowd around the tiny television screen to watch. While others talk through the dialogue, Abdi studies it closely and finds he had a knack for English. He idolizes Arnold Schwarzenegger and the brave Americans he sees on-screen. Thus, he becomes known as Abdi American. So when U.S. troops arrive to restore the freedom he used to know, he cheers them on. Then he watches in horror as the militiamen violently defeat the soldiers and parade their bodies through the streets.

To make matters worse, al-Shabbaab, a radical Islamist group, rises to power. With each passing year, the options for Abdi’s future narrow. Teenage boys are recruited and kidnapped by al-Shabaab, and his only way out is to become a madrassa teacher or flee. In his escape to Kenya, Abdi faces many setbacks. But then a life-changing event: Abdi has a chance encounter with an American journalist and they exchange information.

Life in Kenya is still fraught with danger. With the help of the journalist he met, Abdi risks his life leaving the safety of his apartment to secretly record his story. His account is broadcast on NPR and BBC radio programs for millions to hear. After overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds, and with the help of several dedicated people and a stroke of luck, Abdi American finally makes it to safety in the United States.

My thoughts: Abdi’s memoir offers a glimpse of what life is like in war-torn regions and sheds a light on the limited options available to those who live in them. I take democracy for granted, but Abdi wasn’t lucky enough to. It’s shocking to witness how quickly this modern capital city with restaurants and theaters is destroyed.

On a positive note, it’s refreshing to see the United States viewed through Abdi’s eyes. The idealized version of this country he imagines growing up becomes more complicated once he actually arrives, but I think it’s safe to say Abdi still loves America. And I like to think he’s still practicing those dance moves.

Book Review: Hunger

Hunger by Roxane Gay

First line: Every body has a story and a history.

Summary: A memoir told by Roxane Gay. It is a letter to and about her body. She looks back over her childhood and young adult life to see what led her to love her body. As an overweight woman in a culture that sees beauty in being skinny, she tells her story and how she has coped with the invisibility that is incorporated with it.

Highlights: The author’s writing style is very simple and easy to follow. She is very candid about her life and the tragic events that have happened to her. She is comfortable in who she is and she portrays this in her writing. She is unapologetic and outspoken. The chapters are very short and the book is a quick read but not always and easy one.

Lowlights: Many points that she makes become repetitive. And I had a tough time listening to her read and talk. You feel terrible for her but at the same time applaud her for being true to who she is. I have mixed feelings about this book. I understand being comfortable in your body but at the same time being healthy and taking care of yourself is important too. I liked that she was very upfront about her life and struggles.

FYI: Very open. Some language. All the feels.

Book Review: The Latehomecomer

The Latehomecomer by Kao Kalia Yang

First line: From the day that she was born, she was taught that she was Hmong by the adults around her.

Summary: A memoir by Kao Kalia Yang, an author, activist, and public speaker. She was born in a refugee camp in Thailand. Her family are Hmong. They spent many years running and hiding from Vietnamese soldiers who were hunting the Hmong people. She spent her first years in the camp. When the chance to travel to America became available, her family took it. The first years in Minnesota were hard. They had to learn English, live off welfare checks, and try to feed their expanding family. Over years, her parents got jobs, learned to drive and encouraged their children to better themselves. As a young woman, she now looks back at her life and the strength of her family.

Highlights: I had never heard of the Hmong people. While reading this I was earning a history lesson as well as a social one. Refugees have to be strong to leave their homes and try to start over in a new country. Yang has a great way with words. I was scared for her family. I was happy when they were happy. It surprises me that something this terrible was happening in such modern times. Most of the events happened during my lifetime. This book can open the reader’s eyes to troubles of refugees. It is easy to overlook these people. But many of us are here because of “refugees” even though we call them immigrants. We need to have more sympathy and help for people who have lost everything and are trying to begin again.

Lowlights: I have no complaints about the book. I am just sad I could not go see Yang speak when she was in Wichita.

FYI: Big Read Wichita 2017 book.