Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham (2014)

From the opening paragraphs it is clear that Dunham is not out for laughs: even when she is being funny what it is she wants to communicate to us are the very real, very messy, very imperfectly human events that have helped shape her life so far. I feel that I must add the modifier “so far” because even though she is a young woman who has accomplished a great deal in her life, these essays were published when the author was only twenty-eight. Hanging over the entire book is the sense that had only she waited another decade to write it, it would feel more full-fledged.

The essays that make up the book center on the themes of sex; body image and womanhood; friendship; work; mental health; and family. Dunham shares stories that seem somehow quintessentially millennial: an open, honest exploration of her sexuality; her disgust with the way that looks still somewhat control a woman’s options; frank talk of her mental illness and psychotropic medication; and her commitment to self actualization. Also strikingly millennial are her discussions that seek to casually examine — but truthfully are serious discussions of — drug use, alcohol consumption, ironic clothing, tattoos, lengthy diatribes about her vagina, and slightly pretentious references to obscure cultural phenomena.

That said, she does raise some valid and thoughtful points including:

On relationships…

An overly large percentage of the book focuses on Dunham relationships: romance, love and sex and the varying degrees of success (or, in her case, lack thereof) she has had with all three.The stories cover her childhood, teenage years, and her early twenties and in each of them she tries to work out just how to find meaningful, satisfying, and loving experiences with men. Dunham writes with unflinching feminism that has gotten less popular lately — the harsh, gritty kind of unapologetic “you’re a feminist if you feel it should be illegal for your husband to beat you” view of womanhood — which has been largely thrown over for soft-core feminism that seems deeply concerned that we “can only love being women as long as we no way that diminishes how important men are and we do not stop dressing slutty.”

She does a great job capturing how betrayed she was to learn that honoring her quirky sense of self and her staunch feminism meant that it finding meaningful romantic relationships difficult. She often has to trade some of her self-worth for male attention or stick to her principles and risk rejection. Her discussion of her youthful and largely immature relationships grow a bit tedious by the 25th chapter in which she discusses them, due in large part to the fact that she writes a bit exhaustively about the very few she has managed to have in her young life.

On womanhood and body image…

Thankfully, part of the book which focuses on her relationship to her body and her womanhood begins just when the section on sex and love was wearing thin. Her issues with her weight are painfully catalogued — at one point several chapter consist solely of her excerpting her food journal — and not especially revealing. However, her discussion about her views of nudity as part of her creative work are interesting discussing it as a process she is able to have a professional distance from due in large part to the fact that she is the boss and in control. Even more thoughtful was her very poignant and honest discussion of menstruation in Chapter Thirty. Dunham manages to nicely capture what an indignity it really can be to suffer through one’s period every month — the discomfort, the fatigue, the body-hatred, the wild mood swings, and (of course) to “demoralizing knowledge” that it will happen more than four hundred times from “approximately age thirteen to fifty.”

On friendship…

The author’s writes about her friendships both with women and men from childhood through the present and does a nice job talking about the complex relationships she has with her friends. I enjoyed two particular essays: one in which she talks about those friendships that border on love or lust when woman becomes obsessed with an overly glamorous or deeply troubled friend; and a second essay about those platonic relationships that are rooted in gentle envy in which we become enamored with a woman who already has in life the things we desperately want and hope we can achieve through proximity to her. She also offers essays that tell funny stories about relationships with her parents, sister, her college classmates, and her co-workers and even her therapists.

On work…

One of the more her most stirring essays in the collection is an “Allies who Aren’t”-esque discussion of the myriad of ways that young women in Hollywood are poorly treated by older men. She refers to them as “sunshine stealers” and describes — without naming names, of course — some of the humiliating encounters she and her colleagues have had. Yes, there are the many, many men who proposition her for sex or suggest that they will offer professional favors in return for sexual ones. Equally distressing are the men who try to co-opt her ideas, shame her into taking low paying jobs under their “tutelage,” or even become enraged when she makes creative choices that are not in line with “the agenda” they tried for force upon her. These are essential stories for women to share. Women need to have armed with information about the many ways that men may attempt to manipulate them — inside the bedroom and out — and those women can only be prepared for if other women share their experiences.

On mental health…

Dunham writes at length about her struggles since childhood with anxiety and OCD and she does a wonderful job describing how terrifying these disorders can be for a child and how they can become amplified during adolescence. She recounts therapy sessions, struggles with medications, and how everyday events can become overwhelming when seen through the lens of poor mental health.

Also quite thoughtful is the author’s discussion of her obsession with dying; which she admits may have begun early in life as her parents — active in the arts scene in NYC in the 80’s and 90’s — whose social circle was dramatically impacted by the AIDS pandemic. Also she openly admits that she long thought her obsession with death was a sign her intellectual depth and her ability to see what others deny but now, with maturity and therapy, has come to realize that she has long employed the strategy of musing about dying to keep her day-to-day struggles at arm’s length.

Kissing in America by Margo Rabb (2015)

I was surprised upon checking this book out of the library to find that it is a Young Adult title. I am not opposed to reading Young Adult; some YA books I have sought out to read all on my own (Hunger Games), some I have read at the urging of the teenagers in my life (Twilight, Divergent) and some I have read because my own teenage son has recommended them to me (The Giver, Lord of the Rings, and many Christopher Pike thrillers we share at Halloween.) Generally I stick to adult fiction, but today was a lazy Spring Break morning I lay in the hammock while the kids played and completed this novel, finding it a sweet and thoughtful story.

Our heroine is highschooler Eva, a girl who mourns her dead father and is saddened by her lack of relationship with her cold mother. She is also a romance novel enthusiast and, although she is a savvy New Yorker who should “know better,” she clings to her beloved novels because of the happy endings they provide her. “I loved romance novels because when you opened the first page you knew it would end well. Your heart wouldn’t be broken. Bad things were temporary in those books. In the end the hero and heroine would be ecstatically in love and enormously happy.”

Eva falls in love with a fellow student who shares her grief and uncertainty about life, but shortly into their romance he moves to California. Eva must decide whether to get over it and bury her feelings (as her mother suggests, “move on, don’t be so thin-skinned”); grieve but not too dramatically (as her best friend suggests, “it could be worse”); to run from boys as her aunt suggests (“Men are all beasts. Love is a fantasy;”) or to do as her romance novel heroines would and go after the boy. She, of course, chooses to go after the boy.

What follows is a sweet, funny, roadtrip-meets-coming of age story about a girl who must navigate love with with only two wildly opposite sets of advice: the heady and wild romance novels that believe in love above all else or the serious, adult advice of the women in her life who have been hurt and believe that romance and love are overrated. “[My mother insisted that the idea] that happiness only comes from romantic love is the biggest myth of our society. ‘Your books are selling you a fantasy version of love, It’s dishonest. Misleading. Untrue. Real love of is a mess’.” Eva knows that her mother and her aunt — who are still deeply scarred from their own unhappy experiences with love — have both had forgotten what it was like to believe in real love and feel that your deserve to experience it for yourself.

The author does a great job showing us that enjoying romance novels is about not the content of novels themselves but about how they give us permission to believe in happy endings and that they make it acceptable (at least in private) to have an optimistic view of the future. Two of the very things that some teenagers desperately want to believe in but feel are so far out of their reach. “I loved the fantasy and escape [of my romances] because I needed to believe that love didn’t always end in heartache, that the world isn’t only filled with tragedies and accidents and newspapers filled with horrible news. The were bright against the darkness and I needed them.”

Parts of the book serve as a reminder of all of the ways adults fail teenagers: by not taking them seriously; by demanding that they change who they are or what they like; by trying to dictate to them how they should feel about life; by trying to police and control them rather than cooperate with them; and by demanding that they never make mistakes. How much simpler things would be if we just accepted that from a very early age children are their own people who must make their own way and we — their parents and loved ones — are largely spectators in their lives? Our job is to be the most loving, most cheerful and most helpful spectators as possible; but we cannot live their lives for them and they would never want us to.

Here’s to sometimes risking it all in the name of love, because even though sometimes it goes horribly wrong…other times it works out perfectly.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce (2012)

“The pewter sea lay behind, while ahead of him was all the land that led to Berwick, where once again there would be the sea. He had started; and in doing so Harold already could see the end.”

“On he went, one foot in front of the other. Now that he had accepted the slowness of himself, he took pleasure in the distance he covered. Far ahead the horizon was no more than a blue brushstroke, pale as water, and unbroken…the land and sky had become matching halves on the same thing.”

harold-fry-map

Map of Harold Fry’s pilgrimage across England.

My dear friend Sophia has been recommending this novel to me for years and I have been extraordinarily slow in getting around to reading it, something I am very, very sorry about given what an enjoyable book it turned out to be! What finally had me tracking down a copy to read was when two more women whose opinions I value — both members of my Book Lovers Club (Tricia and Michelle, I am looking at you) — mentioned Harold Fry at our most recent meeting. Thank you to all three of you.

At the start of the story, we meet Harold Fry, a man who we almost immediately recognize as lonely and unhappy. Upon receiving a letter from a long ago friend — informing him that she is dying — he is shaken awake for the first time in a long, long while. Soon our main character is leaving home under-dressed, under-prepared, with no maps or plans, setting out to walk five hundred miles to see his friend before her death. Harold is filled with doubt but every single time he is set to turn back, he receives a sign that he should continue on and, against all odds, he does.  “[The people he had met] believed in him. They had looked at him, and listened to what he said, and they had made a decision in their hearts and minds to ignore the evidence and to imagine something bigger and something infinitely more beautiful than the obvious. Remembering his own doubts, Harold was humbled.”

This story is gentle, slow, a bit tentative and shy like the titular character, but filled with wonderful moment after wonderful moment. Harold, a man who began his journey apologizing for his very presence in the world, walks and while he walks, he quietly discards his fears and uncertainties and finds a new man underneath. “He had started something and he didn’t know what it was, but now that he was doing it, he wasn’t ready to finish.”

Soon, Harold’s narrow life expands exponentially and he welcomes change and complications as he becomes more and more certain that this journey was meant to be. As all of these new experiences happen, Harold is not only reminded of things he has never seen, but also of things he has seen but long forgotten.

Along the way, Harold begins to lighten his load: he gives up possessions to others who need them, he refused offers of better gear, he even mails home all of his money and begins to sleep outdoors and forage for his meals. What he gains is the knowledge that being alone means he must confront his past and relive its most difficult moments; there can be no hiding from the horrors he so long ago suppressed. Out walking, there is nowhere for him to hide from his memories. Harold finds his good but long-forgotten experiences from his past begin re-emerge along with the bad. “In walking he freed the past that he had spent twenty years seeking to avoid, and now it chattered and played through his head with a wild energy that was its own. He no longer saw distance in terms of miles. He measured it with his remembering.”

Harold also gains widespread notoriety and along with that a band of fellow pilgrims who greatly confuse and complicate his journey, but he welcomes them and accepts they each need to walk for their own personal reasons. He sees that everyone he meets — those who help him and who he helps — all are part of the larger story of his walk and he finds solace in that. Soon he is on his own once again and finds his courage and will tested over and over, but he does not stop making his way toward Berwick and his long lost friend.

At times glorious, at others heartbreaking, and always gorgeously written and crafted to keep us enjoying the journey while still longing for its completion. A wonderful , thought-provoking novel and well worth the read.

On a parting note, I feel I must also add that my husband and I have always dreamed of hiking across the UK. We spend an extraordinary amount of time hiking, it is one of our favorite things to do together (alone and with our children). In fact, for our honeymoon more than fifteen years ago we spent more than two months driving across the United States camping and hiking and it was heavenly. Therefore I was not only deeply moved by Harold’s journey — both physical and spiritual — but also deeply envious of the beautiful countryside he was lucky enough to journey through. “Life was so very different when you walked through it. The land rolled up and down, carved into checkered fields and lined with ridges of hedging and trees. He had to stop to look. There were so many shades of green Harold was humbled. How was it that [from the car] Harold had never noticed all of this before?… “Maybe you saw more of than the land when you got out of the car and used your feet.”

kingsbridge

Images of Kingsbridge, UK were Harold began his journey …

Berwick 3

…and of Berwick-Upon-Tweed where he finished.

The Hypnotist’s Love Story by Liane Moriarty (2011)

Australian author Liane Moriarty is famous for her wild, saucy, melodramas that more often than not feature unexpected plot twists, dark secrets uncovered, and surprise (but mostly happy) endings. In short, all her books are great fun to read. This novel was another wonderful book but with a slightly less wild story arc.

The story’s main character, Ellen, has just begun a promising relationship with a widower and father named Patrick. She is full of romantic ideas about love and relationships and desperately hopes that Patrick is “the one” so that she can finally begin to build a family of her own. However, she soon comes to realize that relationships between two adults with full, messy lives are much more complicated than she had fantasized. “She felt panicky whenever she experienced even a moment’s irritation with Patrick. She had to remain vigilant; any cracks in the relationship had to be patched up immediately. That was absolutely vital.”

Ellen and Patrick are not the only ones in their relationship: they must share each other with Patrick’s young son, her family and his, the ever-present memory of his dead wife (and her family), and — shockingly — Patrick’s stalker. Yes, his stalker. Patrick had entered into a relationship too soon after his wife’s death and it had not ended well, causing his ex, Saskia, to go crazy. For more than three years she has been tormenting Patrick and, upon learning about Ellen, begins to stalk her as well. Saskia becomes the novel’s second narrator, giving readers very chilling insight into her unstable mind and just how deep her obsessions run.

As the book progresses, Ellen must really grapple with how different her life is turning out to be from her daydreams and we get wonderful (and at times very funny) access to her musings — about love, marriage, motherhood, work and more. As her life grows messier and messier, Ellen begins to blur the line between her work as a hypnotist and her role as a girlfriend: soon she begins to make “gentle suggestions” to Patrick to improve his flaws and find out what he is really thinking. She so badly wants this relationship to work that she is willing to bend her our ethics code to look inside Patrick’s mind, often, with results that leave her less than satisfied.

The novel does a fantastic job presenting readers with the reality — and at times hilarity — of modern love for people over thirty-five. Even when we see the story through Saskia the Stalker’s eyes, we see just how hard it can to find and lose love and how desperate one can become when striving to hold onto it, even when letting go seems like the obvious choice.

Behave: What to Do When Your Child Won’t by Val Mullally (2015)

“Each child is so unique that if they were to come with an instruction manual it would need to be titled ‘The Never Ending Story.’”

This title is a self-published parenting book written by the friend of one of my fellow Book Lovers Book Club members. She asked if I would be willing to read and review it on Mullally’s behalf. Always happy to help out a fellow writer, I started reading Behave right away.

As the mother of three children, the oldest who is turning thirteen, I have read my fair share of parenting books, in fact I read heaps and heaps of them when my oldest was small. However, while reading Behave I realized that many years have past since I last picked one up and it occurred to me that as parents it is nice to be reminded of some parenting “best practices” now and again. I felt glad that I took the time to read Behave today, it never hurts to brush up.

“The bottom line is it’s not possible to manage anyone else’s behavior. Not even your child’s. The only person’s behavior you can ever manage is your own.”

Some of the earliest, and most influential, parenting advice my husband and I received was in a parenting class when the teacher told us to “make it hard for your child to misbehave.” That bit of wisdom has guided us for more than a decade and I hear reverberations of it throughout Behave. We have made it our goal as parents to keep our kids well-fed, well-rested, well-exercised; we give them our full focus as attention whenever possible and listen to what they have to say about life; and we limit the time they must spend in rigid or overly adult-situations. As a result, when they are expected to behave in a certain way — at school, when we are dealing with a sibling’s needs, or on an airplane — it is easier for them to do so.

As Mullally points out, it is a myth that we can manage our children’s behavior. The truth is that only control we can exert in any parenting situation is over the way we handle our actions and our responses to their misbehavior. If we shout, make demands, rush around, fail to give our kids time and autonomy we will find that our own bad behavior results in their corresponding bad behavior. Mullally advises us to be aware of an overly full “adult agenda.” If we rush them around for hours of errands or outings, we cannot be surprised when they end up squirming and tantruming; fitting in time to run around at the park might slow us down but it might also keep the peace.

Parents also need to keep in mind that we can anticipate misbehavior by monitoring how are children are feeling. After all bad behavior is a form of communication for children, it one way that they can show us that their needs are not being met. “All behavior has a cause and intention.” It could be hunger, boredom, anger, or even exhaustion that they are trying to communicate to us and it is important to train ourselves to look for clues that bad behavior is on the horizon. The more we take their feelings into consideration, the better we can help them make good behavioral decisions.

Another point made in Behave  — one that some parenting books can overlook — is to remind us that if we do not take care of ourselves, we cannot be the best, most attentive and patient parents that we can be. This is another of my own family’s fundamental parenting rules! Our needs — for rest, time alone, adult company, and time with our partners – are every bit as important as our children’s needs. (See two blog posts I wrote months ago about managing our energy here http://wp.me/p6N6mT-1I and here http://wp.me/p6N6mT-1K )

Another wonderful take away from Mullally’s book is how much children want to have value within their families and how much they want to feel that they have a specific and important role to perform. For my younger son, that means being assigned chores to complete while his older brothers do theirs — he hates to feel that he is too much of a baby to contribute. When we assign small tasks — like collecting stuffed animals — he feels an enormous sense of pride and belonging. For our teenager, he needs to feel that his opinions are valid and that he can contribute to discussions and decisions. Lately he has taken to listening to the evening news with us and sharing his thoughts on current events, when we respond to his contributions he feels part of the “grown ups” in the house.

In the course of my thirteen years parenting I have come to believe that a fundamental cornerstone of peaceful, calm family life is that we — as adults — must not allow life to become too hectic for ourselves or for the other people in our family. Rushing around, frantic and ill-prepared — dragging your little ones in and out of car seats; or forcing your older children to sit through hours of errands and meetings — means that we have no emotional reserves left for emergencies. We end up depleted and angry and our children end up bored, frustrated, and brimming with unused energy …and that is a recipe for parenting disasters.

I understand completely that life is full of days in which there are many things to accomplish but my husband and I have found that keeping the number of “must do” items to the bare minimum means we have more time to notice our children and their needs. When we were both working parents, we knew that our evenings and weekends must be as free from volunteer obligations and endless youth sports events as possible or we would all end up miserable and exhausted; only to return to work Monday feelings as it the weekend never happened.

SOME OTHER TIPS and HIGHLIGHTS:

  • The author’s straight-forward reminder that only control we can exert in any parenting situation is over our role in contributing to the bad behaviors (did we let everyone get starving and then insist on one more errand?) and our responses to the misbehavior when it happens (did we scream and shout or calmly get to the bottom of the fight?)
  • Informing parents that bad behavior is a form of communication for children. It is critical to learn the reasons why our child is misbehaving and then formulate ways to prevent it (avoiding hunger, over-tiredness, etc.) whenever possible.
  • In order to be the best parents we can be, we must take care of ourselves as well as our children. Just like little ones, if we are hungry, exhausted and stressed out, we cannot make good choices and maintain calm and patience.
  • Children want to have value within their families and want have their perspectives — referred to Mullally as their “alternate agendas” — recognized. “Kids want to express what they need and be heard” — even if as parents we cannot grant their every wish immediately, we can at least acknowledge what is important to our child. “Being heard and feeling felt affects our sense of well-being.”
  • When your child is upset, attempt to be “approachable:” calm, responsive, and considerate of her perspective.
  • Attempting to control your child will almost certainly backfire. Rather that use shouting, threats, punishments, or ignoring it is best to set clear rules about behavior when everyone is calm and then give your child gentle reminders of expected behavior. (Example given: talk ahead of time about what is expected at a nice restaurant or exactly when homework needs to be completed each day.)
  • Use a simple system to explain to your child what the choices, limitations, and consequences are of a given behavior and let him decide how to proceed. (No running in the house. You can run outside or play quietly inside, what do you choose?) This can “give your child a sense of agency in the outcome.”
  • “Children need adequate opportunity to release play energy.” Make sure you are not asking for stillness and silence from a child who has been cooped up or otherwise restricted from play.
  • “When you give your child even small choices you give him some measure of control over the situation.”

All Fall Down by Jennifer Weiner (2014)

I apologize for the delay in posting to the blog but the weather rose into the 80’s last Monday and it became impossible for me to stay inside to read; the warm weather meant my family and I just had to get outside to hike, ride bikes, and to spent time getting ready for soccer and baseball season.

When I finally curled up last night (which had once again turned chilly and rainy) I read All Fall Down and liked it quite a bit. I cannot say that I have ever read a book by Weiner, or if I have it was so long ago that I do not remember, but I her books are very popular and (as I have learned) popular books are usually, but not always, popular for a reason.

In All Fall Down we meet our main character, Allison Weiss, who is a wife and mother living — miserably — in suburban Philadelphia. Like many stay-at-home mothers (a species I know a great deal about being one myself for the past ten years), Allison is struggling to make honest connections and find meaningful ways to spend her days while surrounded by superficial circumstances.

Soon she is finding it harder and harder to feel close to her husband, who commutes to the city for twelve-hour work days while she and her daughter stay in the suburbs. He unwinds from long hours with even longer hours at the gym, leaving her feeling even more neglected. To make matters worse, he scoffs at her “online  job” blogging for a women’s magazine even as it slowly makes her a minor celebrity.

Allison also hates the silent competition for the “slimmest body” and the “nicest car”that the women in her circles seem to be part of. She finds that she is spending money she does not have to keep up and as a result feels worse and worse about herself in comparison. Compounding these problems are aging parents and a difficult daughter all of whom she must care for without help.

Slowly Allison finds that there is one beautiful, magic way she can stress less, brush off her insecurities, and dull the pain of her failing marriage — pain pills.

It is fast becoming a common story : legitimate pain pills are prescribed, the patient falls in love with the way the pills make them float away from life’s problems, and soon they must have more and more and more pills to keep feeling great.

You will not find any sordid reasons for her addiction to start nor does her story focus on a woman who hits rock bottom before getting sober. (Indeed, like many of her fellow addicts she avoids starting heroin when pills get too hard to find.) Instead, you find an everyday woman — college educated, employed, married, wealthy, loved —  who turns to pills to help her manage her sadness and stress and soon comes to need the pills so much that she is willing to let the rest of her life unravel. Although she never crashes her car or injures her daughter, she veers very, very close to destruction multiple times before her husband and mother step in and insist that she get treatment.

The story covers a complicated topic with a sense of humor and relatability that can be missing in some addiction-to-redemption stories. Any woman could see something of herself in Allison’s story and that makes her descent into addiction seem so terrifying…because it happens so quietly and quickly that it even she does not seem it coming. A good, fast read that makes me think that I will pick up a few other of Weiner’s books.

One Plus One by Jojo Moyes (2014)

After finishing seven gruesome murder mysteries in ten days, I needed an antidote to so much dark material, I needed to read something that was kind, light-hearted, and had a definitively happy ending. I turned to one of my favorite authors, Jojo Moyes, who never fails to deliver a readable, well-written, intensely personal but ultimately lovely stories. (I have reviewed two other books by Moyes here http://wp.me/p6N6mT-1W and here http://wp.me/p6N6mT-3T).

In One Plus One, we meet Jess Thomas a young mother of two children — a son Nicky who is the victim of horrific bullying, and a daughter who is a math-prodigy, Costanza — who is working feverishly to provide her children a good life. Jess works almost around the clock at three jobs to be able to keep the lights on and food on the table. Despite living in a rotten town in a government managed home, despite worrying constantly that her children will beat up at school or her house burglarized, despite round-the-clock worries about money and bills, we find Jess to be a kind and relentlessly optimistic woman. Jess is certain that doing the right thing and working hard will lead her family into a better life…eventually.

In real life, Jess sees everyday that no matter how hard she works to get ahead she always seems to fall further behind. When she takes a night job, she must constantly feel panicked that her children alone at home will be hurt. When her children need to get to the free medical center, it requires emptying her bank account to pay for the cross-town bus. When her daughter gets a scholarship to a private school, but Jess must find hundreds of dollars just to sign her up (not to mention the prohibitively expensive books and uniforms).

Jess does not want to perfect life, or even an easy life: she just wants a good, safe life, one where her children happy and her home safe. Jess is completely content to work very hard, and she is even willing to suffer the indignity of scrubbing toilets and serving booze to drunks, if it brings them all stability and peace of mind.

Throughout the story Jess is tested again and again with mishaps, emergencies, financial hardships, and embarrassments but she perseveres, knowing her kids will be better off for it. Along the way she finds a kind man who just might help ease the loneliness and stress of trying to forge a new life.