Let Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays, and Other Writings, by Shirley Jackson

Let Me Tell YouI often tell people how much I love Shirley Jackson, what with having read and enjoyed The Haunting of Hill House and having read and LOVED We Have Always Lived in the Castle and, of course, The Lottery. Shirley Jackson! She’s so great! She writes the creepiest things!

If you had told me before I started this new collection of her work that the pieces I would enjoy most would be the ones about her everyday life as a parent and housewife, I would have thought you’d had the wrong Shirley Jackson, is what I’m saying.

Not that there aren’t creepy stories. The book opens with a story called “Paranoia”, in which one Mr. Halloran Beresford is just trying to get home, but he keeps running into and being followed by some weird guy in a hat. Another story, called “Mrs. Spencer and the Oberons”, involves a woman who receives a weird letter, ignores it, and then reaps the consequences. Even some of Jackson’s biographical essays have a spooky sort of slant to them.

But primarily the short stories in this collection are teeny vignettes (a page or two at most) of mundane life, brief peeks into a household or a relationship that require the reader to fill in some of the meaning and importance. Many of these I just did not understand, others I could kind of figure out but wasn’t thrilled with.

The humorous essays are where Jackson shines, especially, as I said before, talking about family and home life. “In Praise of Dinner Table Silence”, “Questions I Wish I’d Never Asked”, “How to Enjoy a Family Quarrel”, “The Pleasures and Perils of Dining Out With Children”… these are all stories I could see being written today, except that they’d be gif-filled BuzzFeed lists and not nearly as hilarious.

Second place in the awesome category, behind those essays, is the title story of the collection, which is only in second place because it’s not actually finished. When I saw the editor’s note that it was only a partial story, I was like, uh, okay, but after reading it I completely understand why it was included. It is the start of a longer story, and is much longer than possibly everything else in the book, and it is kind of beautiful. It’s almost unfair to include it in this book because a) it stands out like a sore thumb as a well-developed longer story amongst a sea of super-short stories and b) all that development comes to naught when the story ends abruptly in the middle of some nice exposition. But I still managed to enjoy it immensely, so I guess it works out?

I highly recommend this collection for fans like me, who have read just a couple wonderful things and haven’t gotten the full spectrum of Jackson’s writings, and for Jackson completists. If you’re a Jackson newbie you should probably stick with her previous story collections or We Have Always Lived in the Castle, which is the best ever.

Rating: 8/10

Weekend Shorts: Audiobook Edition

After going through a heavy podcast phase, I did some culling of my playlist and realized that I could probably squeeze in an audiobook in the dead times between my remaining podcasts. Huzzah, more books! But of course, with my podcast-trained ear I am now terrible at listening properly to audiobooks so I can’t really give them full, proper reviews. So here, have some short, improper ones!

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, by William Kamkwamba
The Boy Who Harnessed the WindI knew I needed nonfiction for my first book back in the commute-listening saddle, and it turns out that the library I work for has approximately no nonfiction audiobooks on OverDrive. On the plus side, that made it easy to pick this one, which I had meant to read years ago and which also fits my diversity requirement. I had a bit of trouble with this one as I hadn’t quite worked out the podcast/audiobook balance and ended up listening to it over almost two months.

It was a great listen anyway. What I knew about the book was that it was about a, well, boy who built windmills in Africa. But the windmill-building is actually a very small part of the book. Most of the book detailed William’s life as a kid growing up poor in Malawi, dealing with limited food and money, a year of famine in the country, and his inability to go to school because it required cash and so did buying food.

But William made the best of it, as you do, and spent his time not in school getting science books from the library and scavenging for supplies to build a windmill which not only gave his family electricity to work with, but got him noticed by people on the internet who were able to get him school, funding, and his own TED talk. It’s a great book if you need some inspiration to keep moving, or, alternately, if you need to feel like a failure at life because you are so much older than this kid. Either way!

Yes Please, by Amy Poehler
Yes PleaseUm, yes. Please. This book is delightful and wonderful and kind of amazing. I’ve heard rumblings from people who didn’t like this book because they were expecting this or that, and I think that I loved it because I had basically no expectations. I’ve seen Amy Poehler in things, but I’ve never been an SNL person and I never made it past the first episode of Parks and Recreation, so I didn’t really know what I was getting into.

But, again, it’s amazing. Poehler talks about various pieces of her life, from childhood to the Upright Citizens Brigade to SNL to Parks and Rec to motherhood to divorce, and she does it all with sarcasm and dry humor. And, for the audiobook, she invites other people to come read things for her, including Seth Meyers reading a chapter he wrote for the book but also including Patrick Stewart reading haiku about plastic surgery. As Patrick Stewart does, apparently.

There was plenty that wasn’t really for me, like the chapter extolling the virtues of Poehler’s Parks and Rec co-stars, but regardless it was all fun to listen to and sometimes surprisingly emotional. I highly recommend this book, especially the audio version, for anyone who needs a good, solid, sarcastic laugh.

When Women Were Birds, by Terry Tempest Williams

When Women Were BirdsI picked this book for my book club to read because the internets had told me great things about it, and the conceit as explained to me was fascinating: Williams’s mother died and left Williams all her journals, of which there were many and of which all turned out to be completely blank. That’s crazy, right? Who keeps a bunch of blank journals? I needed to know more.

But it turns out there isn’t anything more to know. Williams has no idea why the journals were blank, and doesn’t really postulate on it at all. Instead, she gives us 54 odd, practically stream-of-consciousness essays on “voice” or lack of it, drawn from her own life and only rarely touching on her mother’s. Which is fine. But it’s not what I thought I was getting into.

To be fair, I can see what Williams is doing with these essays. She’s describing situations where her own voice or general idea of power come into play, times when she was as silent as her mother’s journals and times where she used her voice and power to leave some metaphorical journal entries. Some of the vignettes are completely self-contained, but some require background information that we never get — blank pages in the journal that is this book. All we can really know about a person is what they tell us, and sometimes they tell us nothing.

I get it. But I didn’t like it. I needed more. It felt like reading The Year of Magical Thinking with another book club, where all the people who actually knew who Joan Didion was were like, this book is amazing, and the rest of us were like, so, that happened. I don’t know anything about Williams, but based on the little information I got she sounds like a pretty interesting person, and I bet that if I had known she was a quasi-famous author and environmentalist and especially if I had read her memoir I would have been better placed to read this book.

Sorry, book club. I’ll do better next time.

Recommendation: For people who know anything about Terry Tempest Williams or people who can enjoy the conceit of a book without thinking too hard about the content.

Rating: 4/10

As You Wish, by Cary Elwes

As You WishAt some point in the fairly recent past, I went to see The Princess Bride for the first time… in the theater, that is, as I have watched the movie approximately one zillion times and it is one of my favorite movies of all time. I saw it with a bunch of other people who also love the movie and one person who was actually, literally, truly seeing the movie for the first time, and all of us were more than a little baffled when she was like, “It’s okay, I guess.” Inconceivable!

I’ve also read the book, though only once, way back at the beginning of my blogging career, and I was struck by how it could have been a novelization of the movie and not the other way around, except for the very beginning and a very cool part in the middle that I’m sad wasn’t in the movie.

So I was totally primed for this book, is what I’m saying.

And before I say anything else, I would like it noted that my comments are based on not just an advanced reading copy of the book but a digital advanced copy that had some poor formatting choices when it came to the numerous what I’m guessing are sidebars but ended up just cutting right into the middle of paragraphs and sentences in this version. I can only hope that those formatting issues are taken care of in the final digital version.

Okay, so. I had expected this to be a book about The Princess Bride, which it is, sort of, but it’s more correctly a memoir of Cary Elwes’s experience with The Princess Bride, from casting to filming to the strange cult following that has built up around the film since its release on home video. And that’s cool, for the most part, but there are long stretches of the narrative that are just Elwes (and often the people in the sidebars) having a love-fest for all the other people in or related to the movie, which gets a little boring after a while. It also seems like most of the cute stories that Elwes tells are things I already knew from watching the extras on my DVD copy or from the 25th anniversary coverage a couple years back, and I’m not sure how many people are standing in line for this book that haven’t consumed those other things already.

But there are a few stories that I didn’t know before reading this book, and those stories are totally worth reading the rest of this fairly short book and I’m not going to spoil them for you because I will not do them the justice that Elwes does. And these stories will make you want to go back and watch the movie, which is of course never a bad thing.

I wish that this book had been a little different, with more of more people’s perspectives and some tighter editing on Elwes’s wordy style, but I suppose even Westley can only do so much. And hey, maybe someone else (I’m looking at you, Mandy Patinkin) will decide to do this again around another anniversary?

Recommendation: If you love The Princess Bride, you’re probably already reading this. If you don’t, there is nothing I can do for you.

Rating: 7/10

Orange is the New Black, by Piper Kerman

Orange is the New BlackThis was my first pick of the year for my in-person book club, although technically someone else picked it and then I stole it because I didn’t have any better ideas. You know. I had heard about the Netflix series but not watched it, and I figured reading the book might give me some idea of how interesting the series would be.

I was wrong.

I say this because I found the book to be pretty okay, but everyone in the club who had watched the series first either hated the book or didn’t finish it due to utter boredom or both. So, if you’re thinking about this for your book club, maybe don’t let anyone watch the show first? Or warn them that it’s vastly different?

The book itself is a memoir with a purpose, which is two-for-two in things I am not generally a fan of. But it’s also about the prison system, which is a thing I am happy not to know a lot about, in general, but which is something I am intrigued by, so I was excited to learn new things. The book starts with a quick description of Kerman’s drug-smuggling past and the reasons (or excuses) for why she got involved and how she managed to get out unharmed, until someone told on her to the feds. Then she gets dragged into a painfully slow legal process, and five years later she finally finds herself on her way to a very short (15-month?) stint in minimum security prison.

Right off the bat, Kerman acknowledges that her experiences are not, probably, the average experiences of an inmate even in her own prison. She’s white and upper-class and had a fantastic (and highly-paid) lawyer and has a huge support system of friends who keep her stocked in books and magazines and money for everything she needs. But no matter what her world outside is like, she still has to live in the same cells and eat the same food and do the same work and be denigrated by the same guards as all of her inmate friends and enemies, and so I’m pretty sure her descriptions of those things can be trusted. Some of those descriptions don’t seem so bad: Kerman gets guaranteed meals (though of dubious quality), learns basic electric repair, and has the opportunity to go for runs and do yoga. But the parts where Kerman describes verbal abuse from the guards and other authority figures, or where she talks about having to “squat and cough” to prove she’s not smuggling contraband after a visit from her family or friends, paint a pretty bleak picture. It is clear that the punishment of jail is that you get a place to live for a while, but not a place where you can live. And to imagine doing that for years or decades, as some of Kerman’s neighbors had to? No thank you!

Kerman does describe some terrible prison experiences when she has to transfer from her cushy “camp” to some larger, higher-security prisons in preparation for a court date, but I think that the most horrifying parts of the book are when she describes how her minimum-security friends are prepared for release. These women are given the most cursory of explanations of how to interview for a job or apply for an apartment without learning where they can go to find jobs or homes or what to do while they’re waiting to be accepted to either. They’re taught not by professional social workers or employment specialists but by people who work in the prison, and they are never told how to stop associating with the people who got them in trouble in the first place.

It’s a tough book, and it is certainly not fun or entertaining, but I found it to be really enlightening, and I think most of my book-club-mates did, too, even if they wanted to have watched the show instead. File this under: Memoirs that are Not Terrible.

Recommendation: For people who want to know more about the prison system from a rich white person’s perspective.

Rating: 7/10

Hyperbole and a Half, by Allie Brosh

Hyperbole and a HalfI don’t have a ton of experience with the wonder that is Hyperbole and a Half, but I’m pretty sure it is some sort of comic/diary mashup and I am positive that everything I’ve read on it is awesome. I was introduced to the site via Brosh’s fantastic post about the mystical alot, and later the CLEAN ALL THE THINGS post; more recently Brosh put up two posts about depression that made the rounds of my internets and were actually quite informative though also sad-making.

Those may possibly the only posts I’ve seen on that site itself, so I was excited to read this book and see what I’d been missing — like other blogs to books, it is comprised of posts from the blog as well as some new content, though I could not tell you which might be which.

The book starts (well, after the introduction) with an essay about a time capsule Brosh left for herself at ten and dug up at 27, which contains a letter asking lots of questions about Future Allie, enumerating the kinds of dogs Ten-Year-Old Allie liked, and requesting that Future Allie please write back. Brosh takes this request to heart and writes back to several of her past iterations to give them some useful advice, though if they could have taken the advice we would not have this amusing essay or the rest of this book, so…

Several of the essays recount stories of Brosh’s two adorably mentally challenged puppies (is there any other kind?), and these might be my favorites just because I miss my own puppies and their ridiculous personalities but that is totally valid. Puppies are weird! They make strange noises and try to protect you from things that don’t even exist! These are truths I think anyone can relate to, unless they’ve managed never to have a pet, which is a situation that should be rectified immediately. But maybe not with one of Brosh’s dogs.

Actually, my favorite story might be the one in which Brosh’s mother takes her children for a nice walk in the woods that turns into a more-than-seven-hour attempt to find a way back to civilization. Brosh’s mother does not want to worry the children and sends them off to find all the pine cones while she figures out what to do, but of course she does not know what to do and her children are left wondering why they aren’t allowed to go home anymore. Brosh makes one of my worst nightmares a delightfully comical experience — probably because, spoiler alert, she survives to tell the tale.

Brosh makes a lot of things delightfully comical, whether they start out terrifying or sad or mundane, and her simple drawings make everything just that much better. I really didn’t need more things to read on the internet, but I think Hyperbole and a Half might just make the cut in my RSS reader.

Recommendation: For lovers of truth bombs, dysfunctional childhoods, puppies, and fun.

Rating: 9/10

The Favored Daughter, by Fawzia Koofi

The Favored DaughterAfter nearly a year of reading pretty decent (and sometimes amazing) books for my online book club, I guess it was time for that law of averages to catch up with us…

Strike one against the book was the fact that it is a memoir. I am really bad at caring about people’s personal histories unless they are hilarious or really really well told, and this one is very much neither.

It is super depressing right from the beginning, with Koofi recalling her life as a small child in Afghanistan living with her mother and her father and all of his other wives and all of the assorted children, which is not depressing at all until her father is murdered and those who killed him come after her family, causing Koofi and her immediate family to flee their small town. This is all part of the ongoing struggles and wars in Afghanistan starting in the ’80s, and so Koofi finds herself moving around the country and losing family members more often than anyone really should.

But Koofi tries to put an uplifting spin on it, talking about how even as a lowly girl child she was able to go to school because her mother made sure of it even over the arguments from male relatives — at least until the Taliban came along and ruined everything for the female half of the population. Koofi still had her own personal powers and abilities, but she had to use them through those male relatives. And she did use them, to great advantage to herself, building a family and getting into politics and becoming a member of the Afghan parliament and winning over men who saw women as less than people.

This is the thrust of the book, I think — that even though Afghanistan was forcibly turned into a backwater country by the Taliban the people of Afghanistan are generally better and can be made to see progress and change if progress and change are allowed to happen. By extension, it is a book about how you need to just do the things you want to do or need to do whether people approve of it or not, because once it works out well people will approve of it. And this is a pretty good moral for a story.

But the path to getting there is torturous. I said in my book club meeting that if this were a speech, it would be a fantastic one. Long, but fantastic. However, in book form, the digressions and repetitions and non sequiturs are obvious and tiring. And there are strange narrative gaps — at one point Koofi describes an arduous effort to get her husband out of jail which ends with three neighbors putting up their properties as guarantee that said husband will not leave Kabul and will go to certain meetings whenever called, and then one page later she is packing up her family and leaving the entire country. I really hope something else happened in between these events, but the book does not let me know! I am imagining a poor, tired editor fixing up this book and just giving up in the middle, figuring that if anyone gets that far they’ll just keep going anyway. Not that I ever did that as a newspaper editor, no sir.

Barring more caffeine for the editor, I like the suggestion of another book clubber that this book would have been better as written about Koofi rather than as told by her. She has an interesting story and I hope that someday she becomes president of Afghanistan so I can read a better version of it.

Recommendation: A good read for ladies and those interested in life in Afghanistan, if you’re willing to overlook the terrible writing. (I am not.)

Rating: 5/10

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, by Jenny Lawson

Let's Pretend This Never HappenedOne of the things I like about the 14-hour drive up to my parents and in-laws is that I get to listen to audiobooks along the way! I so rarely listen to them anymore that it’s nice to have some dedicated time where I’m really not going to do anything else.

I picked this particular audiobook to listen to because I highly enjoy the author’s blog, TheBloggess.com, and I’ve subjected my dear husband to a lot of the more ridiculous stories that she tells, usually starting them with, “So you know that crazy chicken lady?”

I haven’t gone back to read the entire site archives, so I don’t know if most of the essays in the book are also on the blog; I only noticed a couple of familiar entries myself, and those were still funny a second time so I’m not sure it really matters.

If you are not familiar with Lawson’s blog, you will probably still be entertained by this book, which includes your usual memoir fare — growing up, making friends, surviving college and marriage and children — but manages to be anything but usual. Lawson’s childhood involved a taxidermist father who would play practical jokes on his children with roadkill, and her adulthood seems largely comprised of trying to understand people whose parents didn’t do things like that.

Even better is Lawson herself reading the book; she knows exactly how weird most of her stories sound, and how sad some of them really are, and you get exactly the impression that Lawson intended when she wrote them.

I’d say the only downside to listening to this in the car is that sometimes you’ll find yourself so distracted by what Lawson is saying and how that could even be possible that you might, say, miss a turn. Or two. Maybe it would be safest to save this for your regular commute. But it’s definitely most entertaining when shared with a similarly humored friend.

Recommendation: For those who like the memoirs of, say, Tina Fey or Mindy Kaling or David Sedaris, and who don’t mind a dirty word or a thousand.

Rating: 9/10

The Whore of Akron, by Scott Raab

Right, so, as I’ve mentioned seemingly a lot lately, I call Cleveland, Ohio, my hometown. I grew up right in the middle of Cleveland and Akron, and I’m just about the same age as LeBron James, so even though I’ve never been a basketball person, I’ve been annoyed with LeBron James seemingly forever.

Not as annoyed as Scott Raab, though. I was promised that this book contained hate and vitriol, and whoever promised me that was absolutely not wrong. I think the title of the book is probably dropped into the text at least two or three times per chapter, and it is not the worst thing that Raab calls James.

What’s interesting and terrible about this book is how much I agree with Raab. Wait, hold on, I’m not talking about that last paragraph when I say that. Nor am I talking about the weird squicky parts of the book when Raab is getting, um, a hand, if you will, from his wife. Yes, that happens multiple times in Raab’s narrative, and no, I have no idea why anyone would write about something like that. But.

But. There is a large part of the book where Raab is simply talking about what it’s like to be a Cleveland fan — not a Cavs fan, not a Browns or Indians fan, definitely not a fan of LeBron James, but a Cleveland fan, and I am right there with him. Raab, with some extra profanity and grossness, paints a picture of what it’s like to root for a city, one that refuses to win a championship in any major sport and therefore win at being a city. It’s depressing and a little pathetic, sure, but it’s not something that can be turned off and it baffles Cleveland fans when people from Cleveland are Yankees fans (like LeBron) or, god forbid, Steelers fans (like my friend Steve). And sometimes it’s nice to be reminded that other people feel the same way I do, and it’s definitely nice to know that there are people who are batshit crazy and that I am not one of them. I think that’s the real takeaway here.

I inflicted this book on my book club, too, and I think everyone felt basically the same way — it was an okay book that suffered from being too much about Raab (it is technically a memoir, as James would obviously not sign off on this book) and not enough about its putative subject. But at the same time, I think I would have gotten sick of the hating on LeBron had there been nothing to dilute it. Meh.

And, just for the record, there’s “exercising free agency” and there’s “being a giant tool about it.”

Recommendation: Read this if you’ve ever been a little obsessed with something that really doesn’t matter, or if you haven’t had enough anger in your life lately.

Rating: 6/10

Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin

Three Cups of TeaI had no intention of ever reading this book. I had some inkling of its popularity after the paperback came out, but I wasn’t really interested in it, and then a few years later when all the controversy started up I was like, well, now I really don’t have to read it.

Darn you, book club!

So, I read it. Barely. I started off by listening to it, but the audiobook narrator’s decision to pronunce it “Packy-stan” meant I didn’t get past the first hour. Ugh. The print version, while weird-pronunciation-free (well, except my weird pronunciations, I guess), had instead an overabundance of metaphor and creepy love for Mortenson and I spent many hours procrastinating this book. I didn’t finish it in time for the club meeting proper, which luckily didn’t affect my discussing ability (a plus of non-fiction), but I convinced myself to power through the rest of it right after.

And… it was okay. It was a little weird reading it and knowing vaguely that it was wrong… I didn’t exactly keep myself apprised of the controversy but I understand that the story of Mortenson finding this tiny village to build a school in is maybe not true, and that people were taking issue with his representations of the people he met. So I read through it taking everything with a grain of salt. Of course, I would have done that anyway, as early on in the book Relin (the narrator and writer) claims that Mortenson nearly went to Case Western University Medical School, which, last I checked, didn’t exist — unless it’s my diploma from Case Western Reserve University that’s wrong. Yeah, it’s a common mistake and not one that a lot of readers are going to catch, but dude, I’m not going to catch any mistakes about Pakistan or mountaineering or non-profit organizations either. Perhaps this slip, and a later reference to Mother Teresa’s death occurring in 2000, are fixed in the paperback edition (I was reading out of the original hardcover), but that doesn’t help shake the feeling that everything else is potentially inaccurate.

And the fawning, my goodness. Relin admits right in the opening that his journalistic integrity skips town when it comes to Mortenson, whom he wants to see succeed and prosper. Relin also outs many other journalists as Mortenson groupies toward the end, and talks about how various people want Mortenson to write a book. Wait, this is a book! Amazing!

Barf.

BUT. I will allow that the provable facts of the book, that Mortenson did actually go to Pakistan and did actually get schools built and did actually help a lot of children get an education, those are interesting and useful. It’s great to read a book about someone doing something good, and it definitely renews my interest in giving money to charity, if not this guy’s particular charity. And as far as the controversy goes, I can understand the urge to exaggerate things a bit, make them sound better than they are, and I can definitely sympathize with a guy getting in way over his head — successfully creating one school in Pakistan does not a Director of the Central Asia Institute make, I don’t think. Mortenson’s story rather reminds me of the one in The Last American Man, in which a guy who just wants to live deliberately in the woods ends up spending most of his time in big cities raising money so that other people can go live in the woods. It’s a tough situation.

Recommendation: This book is a little past its prime, I think. Maybe there’s another book about charity and good works you can read instead?

Rating: 5/10