Saturday, June 29, 2013

Book 24 of 52: Drinking: a Love Story by Caroline Knapp

This year, I moved back into the house I bought in 2007. While unpacking my boxes and boxes of books, I came across a smaller box tucked inside a bigger one: my master's degree thesis, which was a short memoir about playing highly competitive softball.

In graduate school, I became enamored with the works of Caroline Knapp, who has appeared quite a few times on this blog before. I set out to write a book in her style, and even sent a proposal to her agent, Colleen Mohyde. She asked for sample chapters, then passed. I can't blame her. I wrote the project when I was 23. I've re-read parts of it in the last 10 years, and it wasn't terribly good. I also don't thing I was mature enough at the time to write a gut dump book. I certainly couldn't have matched Knapp's masterpiece Drinking: A Love Story, which I picked to read again for book 24 of this series.

This is the second alcoholism book of this cycle, and I am always interested in reading books about the topic because an ex of mine had a drinking problem (I hesitate to call him an alcoholic because I think that's for him to declare, and I don't know if he's drinking anymore). I pulled Drinking: A Love Story back off the shelf after the season finale of Mad Men. Don's alcohol consumption has been a part of the series (as has that of other characters, including Duck), but it wasn't really face front until that last episode where Don realized his hands would shake without a drink. The Wall Street Journal just published a story about women and drinking, too. I've been reading a lot of different kinds of first person books to see what's on the market now since I'm working on a proposal for a new book that would require me to be a central character, so why not turn back to the person whose writing started me down that road in the first place?

Drinking: A Love Story is not new. Knapp published it in 1996, and she died in 2002 of lung cancer. She writes that she came of age in the late 1960s and early 1970s, which means she'd have been about the age as Sally Draper: "a little Marilyn Monroe here, a little Mary Tyler Moore there" and with her parents drinking.

To call this a gut dump would do a disservice to Knapp's work. It is a straight forward, blunt recounting of her drinking: why she did it, how she did it, what happened to her when she drank, why she got sober, and how she stayed there. She also includes the stories of other drinkers and alcoholics so that it's not just her story but a drinking store.

She writes about a lot of themes she'd pick up again in Appetites, which was published posthumously in Appetites(Knapp was also anorexic in her 20s): "I am consistently amazed to hear women talk about their multiple relationships and addictions, the way they combine two or three, the way they shift form one to another, so naturally and gracefully you might think they were changing partners in a dance...the dance will begin again, for the music is always there in women's minds, laced with undertones of fear and anger, urging us on into the same sad circles of restraining and abandon, courtship and flight."

I first read this book in my early 20s, but it made a lot more sense to me now at 32. Knapp was 36 when she wrote it, and we're at about the same stage of our lives: what's the next writing move, do we get married, do we have children? A sting of really horrible boyfriends were behind us, and we both had good, solid me in our lives. I had my issues with food in my 20s (and still a bit now but the worst was back then), though I don't have an issue with alcohol except that I have a hard time processing red wine when I'm training for a marathon. I don't even have any booze in my house except a small bottle of vodka that's been in my freezer since April, untouched.

But reading this kind of book is a good thing to do if you know anyone who's struggled with addiction or wonder why someone can't just willpower him or herself out of a problem. Knapp lays out, painfully but clearly, why.

I hate that she died.  That's the only way I could put it. She was such an important writer - not just women's writer, but WRITER - and to lose her at such a young age is rage-inspiring. I wonder what she would have written about the rise of the internet, life in her 40s, even the death of her beloved dog. It just doesn't seems fair, but cigarette smoking was one addiction she just couldn't quit until it was too late.

If you want to read more about Knapp's process of dying, read Let's Take the Long Way Home: A Memoir of Friendshipby her friend Gail Caldwell (which I swore I'd reviewed here before, but I can't find anything). It's about female friendship, but what happens when it ends, far too early.

As for my softball book - I didn't trash it. I've moved it six times and can't let it go. It's a reminder of trying for things that seem too big and large - and I don't think that's a bad thing. I put it in the back of another closet. Maybe I'll be able to revisit someday. Maybe.

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Monday, June 24, 2013

Book 23 of 52: Once Upon a Tower by Eloisa James

Two for two! I have been completely engrossed by my last two selections: Book 22 Tide, Feather, Snow and now Eloisa Jame's Once Upon a TowerThat's not a huge surprise - I've been reading James' work for some time, but I found myself engrossed in Once Upon a Tower. Here, our hero is Gowan Stoughton, Duke of Kinross, a strapping Scottish man who apparently puts the thin lipped Englishman to shame. He instantly falls in love with Lady Edith "Edie" Gilchrist and her calm, even manner - not knowing that the reason she acted that is because she was very ill and could barely keep her head up.

Whenever I read a romance, I wonder one of two things: Either "how will they get past the huge hurdle of being so completely different and at odds?" or "Things are going well...what will the conflict be?" Even after Gowan gets wind of Edie's true character - and that she's an accomplished cello player - they STILL get along and speak all sorts of things of love.

That is, until their wedding night. This might be the most interesting conflict I'd ever read in all my years of reading romance. Gentle hearted, close your ears: his penis is too big.

Yes, really.

At first, I thought that was a ridiculous turn, but Edie doesn't want to make a big deal about it, and their lack of communication about this spills into other parts of their lives and sets them up for what would be certain failure. But of course we know they won't because this is, after all, a romance. I usually read the newspaper at lunch, but I kept reading Once Upon a Tower there - and on the train, and sometimes over dinner. It was just a good, fun read, even if, at first, I thought the big conflict was a silly one.

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Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Book 22 of 52: Tide, Feather, Snow by Miranda Weiss

This review is going to include a little bit about my May trip to Alaska, so there's a warning to you. I tried to write this review without my experience, but that seemed silly. I bought this book in Alaska, because I was in Alaska, so here goes.

Whenever I travel, I try to buy a book set in the place I'm visiting. I think I've said this before - I couldn't find the right book on this year's Tampa trip, though this one is always perfect for a Florida trip - or for anything, really. It's a scream.

The day after I landed in Anchorage, I borrowed my college roommate's car (I stayed with her for the week) and drove to Title Wave Books. Not only is that a fantastic name for a bookstore, but it was a very cool place, selling both new and used titles. Plus, I figured I'd find the right book when they have a section like this:

It went on for rows - history, fishing, birding, novels, Sarah Palin, other assorted Palins. My first choice was Pipelineby Milt Machlin, a novel written in 1976 that fictionalized the building of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System. But I figured if I was going to learn about the pipeline, I'd be better off reading non-fiction, or visiting the exhibit on it at the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center, which is what I did.

Instead, I chose Tide, Feather, Snow: A Life in Alaskaby Miranda Weiss, a memoir about an east coaster who moves to Homer, Alaska with her boyfriend.

What a gorgeous book. And it's not just the setting because, as I learned on my trip, Alaska is stunning beyond words.

But she also managed to wrap her story around the history of state, and of Homer, in such a way that I didn't realize she was doing it until I was half way through the book. This wasn't some rote history. It was the story of a state and one woman trying to find her way in it. She learns to catch salmon, build a kayak, live in total darkness, and live in total light. It's also a memoir by a young woman and a young man without being an "OMG DATING!!!!" book that seems so popular these days. A passage: "It would take a year before those questions became clear, but much longer to realize that it was way too easy to pick up a man's dream, his measure of the world, rather than fashion one of your own." Thud, right to my gut.

While I bought Tide, Feather, Snow in Alaska, I didn't really get into it until I was home, and it was a great book to read after the trip. It also helped me understand a bit of what my college roommate went through when she, a native Floridian, moved to Alaska after she got married. Of course, the experience is not the same, but I can see now why she stayed, not just after my weeklong visit (and yes I plan to go back) but in reading about someone who came, and decided to stay too.

More pictures from my trip? I can do that.

Pizza from the Moose's Tooth

It's always Miller Time, everywhere

There might be bear...novelty items at this roadside cafe

A glacier that is not as big as it used to be

Hello moose

Hello big, scary bear

Hello, Rudolf. I had a reindeer dog a few days later. It was delicious. 

Goodbye, Alaska

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Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Book 21 of 52: Turn Right at Machu Picchu by Mark Adams

Here's the thing about Turn Right at Machu Picchu: Rediscovering the Lost City One Step at a Time: it's just the kind of book I should absolutely love. It's got adventure and travel and a big heaping of memoir as Mark Adams does exactly what the subtitle says: rediscovering Machu Picchu one step by journalist shaky step at a time.

But I had a really hard time not just getting into the book but staying in it. I don't think this is Adam's fault, though. There's a lot going on in my life right now, and it's the kind of stress that would have me diving for a romance novel, not something heavy with history of South America - as fascinating as that history may be.

So we'll call this a bonk - like a race where something went wrong but I can't pinpoint exactly what that is. Nothing anything Adams did wrong. It really was a lovely book, and I can see why it was a New York Times bestseller. Just came across my desk at the wrong time.

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Sunday, June 2, 2013

Book 20 of 52: Sticks and Stones by Emily Bazelon

In October, I'm giving a TED talk in Cape May that deals with, in part, how I was bullied in elementary school. I'd heard about Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathyby Emily Bazelon before, and now seemed like a perfect time to read it as I started research for my talk.

I'm not going to say too much about my story here - I'll save that for October - but a lot of what she described happened to me. That happened to me in the 1980s, and I'm horrified by how social networking, especially Facebook, allows that kind of bullying to happen 24/7. At least in my situation, I could go home, or away from the summer, and get a break. If those girls could start Facebook groups about how much they didn't like me? I don't know how I'd have coped.

The book leans a little toward the academic side at times, which isn't a surprise since Bazelon is an academic as well as a journalist. Still worth the read, especially if you have kids.

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