When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris (2008)

When you are engulfed
After reading David Sedaris’ most recent book, Calypso (reviewed here https://wp.me/p6N6mT-35I) earlier in the summer, and then recently listening to the author read the audio-book version of this past weekend, I realize what a fantastic treat it is to read funny stories. There’s something delightful about falling asleep still chuckling over a joke or anecdote. Given that I spend a tremendous amount of time reading dark and twisted thrillers, it’s nice to occasionally contemplate of the lighter side of things.

Telling a series of stories that cover a span of time from his early childhood to present day, Sedaris’s collection in When You Are… focus on the places he has called home and the eclectic people (his family included) who have lived along-side him. One story describes a crumbling Victorian boarding house in North Carolina where he lived with in with several mental patients. Another takes place in an NYC studio that sat across the hall from an abusive elderly woman he, if not befriended than inherited. New York, Chicago, Paris, Normandy, Tokyo; dorm rooms, derelict building, country houses, high-tech apartments: Sedaris’s stories are as unique and wacky as the locations where they take place.

This collection is as side-splitting and as it is enlightening. Sedaris has the unique ability to turn us to find humor in a story about grief, or show kindness and understanding towards the most unlovable. More extraordinarily, he is able to take an outrageous tale (say, an internship at a Corners office) and highlight the ordinary that exists alongside the macabre. He’s a keen observer who sees things that others might miss, or simply dismiss, tiny details that transform a small act into a life-long lesson…albeit some more profound than others. David Sedaris is a true American treasure and his books are an absolute delight.

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Calypso by David Sedaris (2018)

calypso

While I understand that his sense of humor and style of writing are not to everyone’s taste, I adore David Sedaris and have since I was a teenager. I find something especially stirring in the way he reflects on the tender, tragic, and funny moments in his life and connects them into these small (sometimes profound, sometimes ludicrous) life lessons. In Calypso, that pattern holds.

As in all of his recent writing, Calypso discusses Sedaris’ home, his partner, his family, his writing, and his travels. This collection of essays focuses heavily on the recent suicide of one of his sisters and its impact on the rest of the family. Heartbreaking, hilarious, and thoughtful, Sedaris’ stories examine the uniqueness of his family, of their relationships (sometimes strained) to one another, and the undeniable strength they draw from their shared experiences. Indeed, in one essay Sedaris admits that his family is crazy, fucked up, full of addicts, but it is a tribe he would rather belong to another than any other. He writes, “though I’ve often lost faith in myself, I’ve never lost faith in my family, in my certainty that we are fundamentally better than everyone else. Ours is the only club I’ve ever wanted to be a member of, the only one I couldn’t imagine quitting.” (29)

The influence his mother and sister had in his life while they were alive — and have had on it after their deaths — factors into almost every essay. As he grows older, Sedaris cannot help but think about the death, about the years his mother and sister lost, and what lies beyond.

Of course, it would not be a David Sedaris book without his awkward, wacky, one-off stories included among the more thoughtful stories. Notably, the titular story about Sedaris, a tumor, a book tour and a turtle. Also noteworthy, is his discussion about how people around the world curse at bad drivers…very funny!

I laughed out loud, I cried often, found myself shocked a time or two by this collection and loved every page of Calypso. So much so that I read it twice in a row before handing it off to my husband to read.

She-ology by Dr. Sherry Ross (2017)

sheology

Dr. Sherry Ross, an OB-GYN practicing for twenty-five years in Los Angeles, has written a comprehensive and super-accessible book for women about all of the wild, weird, and (at times) miserable changes their bodies will go through. Starting with puberty and stretching through menopause and beyond, She-ology covers topics related to the sexual, reproductive, and emotional well-being of women.

The manual is divided into eighteen “V’s,” that is sections that deal with different stages a woman and her vagina might go through. Chapters include: the “Tween-Teen V” for young women and their parents to read and consider what modern girls will face as they begin menstruating and the become sexually active young women; The “Mama V” for pregnant, post-partum women and for those struggling with infertility; “The Pink V” which covers vaginal health for women post-cancer; and the “Mature V” which discussed menopause, divorce, and other issues older women face. Especially noteworthy, in my opinion, was her “Rainbow V” chapter she discusses the sexual, reproductive, and emotional health of lesbian, transgender, and bi-sexual women.

Overall it was an insightful book filled with information that was straight-forward, kind, and often very funny. I was reminded while reading She-ology, that as women our bodies never stop changing and therefore it is our job to never stop learning about ourselves and our vaginas!

Unqualified by Anna Faris (2017)

unqualified

In this short, funny memoir, comedic actress Anna Faris details the major life events that led her to Hollywood and to her movie and TV career. These events are all filtered through her romance relationships; starting with her 3rd grade crush right up through her two, unsuccessful marriages.

Faris assumes that missteps and mistakes made in the name of love (or at least lust) are something that all readers have in common and writes her stories through that lens. While she has achieved a high level of success, she points out that fame does not stop her from making terrible mistakes in the name of love and romance.

Light-hearted and, at times, a bit raunchy, Unqualified takes us through bad relationships which supplied Faris with enough anger to propel her on to bigger and better things, and the good ones that helped her move toward her professional goals. She attempts to make sense of her life of celebrity by reframing her experiences through more everyday events.

Fun and funny, although not exactly profound, Faris is an endearing as a writer as she is on the screen.

Happier at Home by Gretchen Rubin (2012)

In my family of devoted book-worms, there are times in which we all retreat into re-reading our beloved favorites. When things are hectic and time is short, when we feel rushed or harried or mentally drained, we all reach for books we know and love, books which we know will both soothe and entertain us. For my younger sons, it is the easy books from their younger years — ones they know will be quick to re-read and good for a laugh — our battered copies of Big Nate and Diary of a Wimpy Kid (sometimes even Captain Underpants if things seem particularly unsettled).

For my husband and teenage son, it is always the Harry Potter books, which they will read out-of-order and in random snippets here and there, as a way to settle down after days have have demanded a lot from them mentally.

But for me, it is always my worn, signed copies of the non-fiction books by my favorite author — and my happiness guru — Gretchen Rubin. This month has been trying on many levels, with work, family, and community projects demanding unusual amounts of my time, patience, and mental energy. To calm down and refocus myself, I picked up my copy of Happier At Home, and dove back into Rubin’s reflective, thought-provoking discussions of home. This book always engages and excites me, but I found it particularly poignant this month as my husband and I face a move to a new city. What I think of as my “home” and “neighborhood,” may being changing dramatically, but reading about a deeper, more philosophical approach to these ideals was both reassuring and invigorating.

Here is the repost of one of my favorite re-reads, Happier at Home by Gretchen Rubin….

Originally posted September 30 2015 at https://ivejustfinishedreading.wordpress.com/2015/09/30/gretchen-rubin-part-2/

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Happier at Home focuses on the physical spaces we inhabit and the people with whom we inhabit them. Here Rubin looks at her belongings, her relationships, her neighborhood, and her work for ways to enhance happiness for all. (Being kinder and less rushed, holding doors, stopping to say hello: all small ways to strengthen happiness of family and strangers.) Reading along with Rubin, I began to see my small home and its treasures — both living and inanimate — in a whole new light.

Our beloved painting by friend Rachel Zur, covering the entire wall in our living room.

Our beloved painting by friend Rachel Zur, covering the entire wall in our living room.

How can our home be more “ours”…a better reflection of our past and better equipped for our future? The book inspired me to examine the possessions filling the shelves in our rooms. Which items really bring us joy and which ones are taking up physical and mental space in our lives? Out went the boxes of “freebies” (free plastic novelty cups, birthday party gift bag toys) filling two corners of our basement. Also in the donation bag went the dusty knick-knacks and junky souvenirs, freeing up room for collections — such as the rock and shell collection from our month-long honeymoon —  and photos that remind me of loved ones and favorite adventures. As for bringing us joy, the original art we have carefully collected since our wedding tops the list, in particular a gorgeous, wall-sized painting by our one-time neighbor and good friend Rachel Zur.

On a roll, I turned to Happier at Home again! Next up, more carefully creating spaces and sanctuaries in our home to nurture our pastimes and make our time spent at home more pleasurable. We upgraded the broken, minuscule TV in our bedroom to a large one we can actually hear and invested in several scented candles. Suddenly we feel like we are in a hotel room while we watch movies on Friday nights! We also rescued a large hammock from the neighbor’s donation pile, repaired and painted it, and now we all have a shady, relaxing place to read books outside on cool afternoons (perhaps with a glass a wine for the grown ups nearby.)

One of my sons reading in the hammock. He is getting a jump start on the Halloween-themed books we all love in October.

One of my sons reading in the hammock. He is getting a jump start on the Halloween-themed books we all love to read in October.

Determined to focus more attention on the relationships that fill my home with love (or tension), I resolved be more loving toward my husband, so it is easier for him to be more loving towards me. I resolved to offer my kids my full attention, so they can feel that their interests (Pokemon, Ironman, NFL football) are ones I also share and value, even if I have to occasionally fake my enthusiasm. This time of year also brings to mind how much our celebration of holidays — especially Halloween and Christmas — brings us all so much joy and gives us wonderful reasons to spend extra time together. I plan to redouble my efforts and cheerfulness about hanging decorations and watching holiday movies together, something we all agree makes the holidays more meaningful.

Two of my favorite pieces of advice from Happier at Home, however, are the ideas Rubin presents for finding our personal “holy places and private landmarks” and “practicing non-random acts of kindness.” Reading this passage, I literally felt a light-bulb go off! One of my favorite places in the region is a local nature preserve. Several times every week, all year long, we go there: to jog, hike, sled, watch turtles, make iMovies, or just enjoy a few moments of peace and quiet. I am amazed how much more I love the park now that I think of it as one of my personal holy places! Another is the small waterfront restaurant where my husband and I got married by the local clerk of court fifteen years ago. We love to drive past it and remind the kids where it all started!

As for the non-random acts of kindness, I was very moved at Rubin’s call to help people with what they actually need rather than jumping in with “random” acts that might be meaningless or even unhelpful. It means much more, I realized while reading, to offer people specific help with immediate needs — giving my seat on the bus to a pregnant woman or helping an older shopper load bags into her car at Trader Joe’s — in contrast to more random or anonymous acts (paying for the car behind us to cross the bridge). Non-random acts bring me closer my neighbors and allow me to know my help was appreciated. After all, Rubin points out, the man in the car behind us on the bridge could be a millionaire!

The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by John Gottman & Nan Silver (1999)

7+Principles

My husband and I married seventeen years ago, when we were just 22-years-old. We  both have always placed a high value on the quality of our marriage and we never shy away from examining our relationship to find ways to improve it. We still talk with great regularity about the highs and lows of our day-to-day life and seek out advice and ideas — such as those in Seven Principles — for making our marriage even stronger. Although this book is nearly 20 years old, the straight-forward strategies outlined in it are still as insightful and relevant as ever, largely because they are simple but effective.

Gottman & Silver do not argue that marriage should be without conflict, and they do not  think that fighting or complaining is necessarily detrimental to the overall health of a marriage. Rather, they argue, that having and handling conflicts– when they inevitably arise — in healthy ways can prevent long-lasting damage to the relationship.

Over the course of the relationship, the key is to build up the “balance of your emotional bank account…learning to turn toward each other, rather than away, can serve as a cushion when times get rough.” (80) How do couples learn to “lean into” their relationship? How do they make sure their are building a resilient marriage? They treat each other well.

Every day, thousands of times each day, a couple has a chance to strengthen their relationship: by valuing each other’s friendship; by taking an active role in each other’s lives; in setting and striving for common goals; by supporting each other in large and small ways; by recognizing the things that are important to the person you love; and by showing your partner that you value and treasure them.

That advice may seem simple…because it is. Taking care of the best parts of your marriage will “shore you up,” so when life gets challenging — a lost job, a new baby, an illness — your marriage already healthy and strong and able to weather the storm. And by downplaying the bad parts of your marriage (everyone has them) you do not let small resentments and petty grievances distract you from the common goal of having a long and happy relationship.

In the early chapters, the book details the things couples in trouble do and contrasts those with helpful things healthy couples do; to give readers a sense of how any situation can be steered in a positive way, easing the stress it puts on the couple. The latter parts of the book introduce the titular Seven Principles that any couple — faltering or strong — can implement to improve their marriage.

Making an effort to keep your marriage strong is one of the most important investments most of us will ever make in our lifetimes and it is worth a refresher course now and then to keep us on the right track. This book — like my husband — is a absolute gem!

Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage by Dani Shapiro (2017)

It could have happened.
It had to happen.
It happened earlier. Later.
Nearer. Farther off.
It happened, but not to you.
You were saved because you were the first.
You were saved because you were the last.
Alone. With others.
On the right. The left.
Because it was raining. Because of the shade.
Because the day was sunny.

You were in luck — there was a forest.
You were in luck — there were no trees.
You were in luck — a rake, a hook, a beam, a brake,
A jamb, a turn, a quarter-inch, an instant . . .

From “Could Have” by Wislawa Szymborska (quoted on page 18-19)

This beautiful, brief memoir is about marriage: not the heady reckless days of being newlyweds, nor about looking back from a distance at the long years of children and grandchildren, but rather about the middle years of a marriage. The years of a marriage that are marked by mortgages, teenagers, and adult responsibilities; the years when routines speed up time and parents grow frail, the years when a couple must work to recall the wild love of their early days and work to keep their bond strong so they can reach those golden years. Hourglass — told in a Virginia Woolf-inspired style — a is spectacular exploration of the special, fragile time that marks middle marriage and how rewarding and challenging a time it can be for a couple.

Shapiro examines her own marriage with honesty and courage; displaying the things she gets right and the things that go wrong. A deep, almost desperate, vulnerability is required to make a marriage work. Two people bind themselves together when things are the very best, in the hope that things will always be rosy, always go as well. But then life happens — illnesses, lost jobs, deaths, births, near-misses, and lost chances — and you must hope that the strength of your love and your commitment to one another can weather these storms; that you can go on believing in the happy ending even when the future is a complete unknown.

Shapiro also examines the choices she and her husband did and did not make —  each corner not turned, every job not taken — and wonders, would other choices have led to a different me? a different him? a different us? Marriage, she believes, is living with each and every choice you’ve made and knowing that each step has brought you to where you are right now; marriage is having faith that this place is the right place to be.

Upon finishing the book I am struck by how wildly optimistic getting married really is. Two people make a commitment (that no matter how easily made, one that is very difficult to undo) and set out to build a life with no guarantees, with no safety nets. Your marriage requires that everyday — many times each day — you must look upon your relationship as meaningful and worthwhile, something as important and valuable today as it was on your wedding day.

Middle marriage are the years when you hold on to one another tightly, hoping wildly that the best years are still yet to come, and still believing there is no one else you would want beside you than your partner. What a wild leap of faith to take! What a wonderful treasure when you find yourself alongside someone worth taking that risk with.

— To my Husband, S. who I adore now as much as then