Category Archives: relationships

All of This: A Memoir of Death and Desire by Rebecca Woolf

First, here are my unsolicited blurbs for this book:
“Please option this for a film asap.”
“Woolf is a modern day Nora Ephron.” (Possibly influenced by the fact that I just finished Heartburn, but still!)
“This book is the true LA Story.”

After following her work online for years (as one of the thousands of people whose fingers hold her up in this cosmic game of light as a feather, stiff as a board), I have been eagerly awaiting my chance to read All of This: A Memoir of Death and Desire by Rebecca Woolf.

The first half+ of this book is a gripping narrative. Later, the book becomes less plot driven and slows, and I think that’s because the “after” is not/could not be a linear trajectory.

Woolf wrestles with what it means to be a feminist, or to become a feminist, and puts a magnifying glass to some of the common dynamics of life, relationships, particularly heterosexual relationships that are, to say the least, problematic. I was with her for these points because I also wrestle with many of the same questions. I differ though. Unlike Woolf, I was less tied down in my early adult life, and more so now, even though still not very “tied down” by comparison, and that is by design. I had my children later, but a decade ago, I was also reading about her life online. To be reading this book now, as I have little ones of my own feels very full circle, which she would enjoy.

Here are some lines I loved or identified with and/or that gave me pause:

First, as a fan of her writing, I loved seeing her include her numbered lists with numbers that get longer and insaner each time.

“I will not shrink myself nor prioritize people’s pleasure over my own.” Simple, true. It can be hard to recognize when it’s happening.

“Then the 2016 election happened.” This changed me forever too, and I am still not over it.

“WHAT IF IT DID NOT TURN OUT TO BE CHILL?” Just, lol, yes, this is what it is like to be a parent, mother, woman in life.

“I soon realize that it’s a lot faster for me to pack four lunches on my own.” This is just simply true and a lot of people don’t know it.

“My daughters. They are only mine now.”

“The bravest women I know are not widows. They are divorced.”

“And there is nothing I can do but let it go and drive him home. This is the moment I became a single mother.”

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Heartburn by Nora Ephron

I had to set aside Heartburn by Nora Ephron shortly after I started because, after reading some of the other seemingly deeper, more “artful” books, I found the content to be a little too silly or irreverent. When I returned to it though, I was ready, and it is an excellent book.

Published in 1983, it really captures an interesting period of time (aren’t they all?) for women. The book is simultaneously feminist and sexist. There is truly some insightful feminist though. There’s also some internalized, unselfconscious sexism too though. There are definitely some dated jokes that would not fly today. The book perfectly captures the culture of the 1980s, especially When Harry Met Sally, which I should watch again (have I ever seen it in it’s entirety?), which is a film that was also written by Ephron. For example, I could easily image Diane Keaton playing the read role.

I loved the portrayal of motherhood in this novel. Probably due in no small part to the amount of wealth and therefore help that these characters have, motherhood in the early ’80s seems lovely, enriching, rewarding, sometimes hard. These women have time to also be themselves and explore their interests (frivolous though they may seem). I think this is next to impossible in motherhood today, where women are expected to/have few other options than to do so much, everything, constantly, every second, for their children.

Still, though it may at times seem frivolous, Ephron packs a surprising amount of insights about the human condition into every single sentence. It’s a good book. There is some really good humor in it too, and I don’t say that lightly.

The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante

I read Elena Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter immediately after finishing My Brilliant Friend. This is another excellent, although perhaps more literary, piece than the first book of the Neopalitan Quartet series.

The Lost Daughter, also referenced in the Mother’s book, is about the darker side of motherhood, in a way that I found entirely relatable. Too often, critical books on motherhood are too critical, too negative–children are too exhausting, it’s not worth it, end of story. However, I truly appreciate Ferrante’s more nuanced approach. In The Lost Daughter, she turns a magnifying glass on the difficulties, violences, and burden of motherhood, the complete selfless turning over of the self that is required of the job, an ask that is far too demanding and made worse by societal constructs around motherhood and a general lack of support.

However, instead of dismissing the mothering journey altogether, as too exhausting, too violent, Ferrante acknowledges the duality of the role, the positive life changing aspects of it–the more complicated relationship it can foster in the self in regards to love, compassion, nurturance, service, and ambition. The little girl in The Lost Daughter is depicted as both angelic and beautiful from a distance, but up close is whiny, snot-nosed, crusty-eyed, and clawing, swatting, and pinching at adults around her. This is the reality of living with and loving a child. They are, each and every one of them all at once both transcendently perfect and also demanding, selfish, and incidentally cruel. To be a mother is to live within this duality constantly throughout the day. It’s complicated and beautiful and ugly too.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

I discovered Elena Ferrante from Mothers by Jacqueline Rose, which I read recently. I started with Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, the first in a long series, and I loved it! The writing is excellent. The content is thought-provoking, and it also has the long sense of story found in easier, longer reads–not a common combination. Although it is long, I flew through it.

While I highly recommend the book, I will warn that I found the conclusion to be somewhat disappointing. I wanted a strong wrap up for this particular book, but instead found myself needing to read more of the series in order to get that. It will probably require reading all four books.

I ended the book somewhat exhausted and unwilling to continue with the series. Maybe I’ll return to them someday. They’re certainly worth it, but, and I can’t believe I’m writing this, I really don’t have the energy to give them at this point in my life.

I’m glad these books are out there. Sometimes I just need a good book, a good story, and I now know I can turn to Ferrante to get that.

I am also inexplicably obsessed with the cover art:

James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl

I found a copy of James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl in a Little Free Library and read it to the boys this summer. While there’s no doubt that Dahl is an excellent writer with great control on the sentence level and wonderful descriptions, I was struck by the antiquated fatphobic language and some other negativity in the book that you don’t see in new children’s publications and that, honestly, I do not miss. The plot is fine, but I found myself hoping for some deeper meaning and purpose in the adventure, some deeper symbolism in it all. I found very little. Instead, Dahl takes readers on a simple, uncomplicated adventure, but one with plenty of antics, wordplay, and vivid description. It’s worth the read for those alone. I also see that there’s a 2010 movie, so maybe we’ll check that out this summer too.

Our “used” copy, now even more tattered.

Reader, as you know by now, James and the Giant Peach is “not my genre,” but it is a classic, and I’m glad we read it. I might try it again in a few years when the boys are older and have a better understanding, but likely there will be many other favorites old and new to read. The littlest one lost interest several times this time around. However, it is the longest book we’ve read so far, and, overall, the boys tolerated it well. I am hopeful for our journey into longer (still illustrated) chapter books. Reading books to the boys is one of my greatest daily joys in parenting. It’s something we all truly enjoy and can share, and I look forward to reading many more classics together!

What Remains by Carole Radziwill

What a beautiful book! What Remains by Carole Radziwill is a completely unique book, taking the reader locations you’ve never been—could never go—but also to fully human and universally recognizable places.

It’s no secret that the Real Housewives series are a guilty pleasure, and I always found Carole to be a fun, tell-it-like-it-is, type of “character,” so I thought this book might be decent, but it’s better than that!

A Memoir of Fate, Friendship, and Love

The book takes the reader to the poor gravel roads and streams of New York state, to the haphazard suburbs, to a chaotic, but close family life, to the rush of a bold new career in a city, to war zones, to falling in love (without cliché), and forging deep friendships with “America’s royalty.” Readers see that we all ache, love, suffer, and feel the joy of the sun on our skin and the wind in our hair universally. The life she lives once she’s seriously dating and married to her husband Anthony is (emotionally) much like other everyday relationships, except with better food, clothing, apartments, travel, and lovely places to stay. The reader might be surprised to find that this group of “elites” are thoughtful, frugal, playful, stressed, sometimes uncertain. Aren’t we all?

Radziwill has lived an extraordinary life, and so while this is a memoir, and a genre with which readers might be familiar, it’s is so completely unique in the extraordinary events and circumstances she’s survived. She loses her three closest people in the span of three weeks. Maybe she has survivor’s guilt, but I hope she doesn’t. I hope she is exploring what to do with this big, bold, beautiful life she gets to live. While there is a tight and lovely metaphor about fortune threaded throughout, which works on several levels, the reader leaves the book thinking, “Anything is possible. Anything can happen. Now, what am I going to do with this big bold, beautiful life?”

I read every word and, almost to prove a point, she thanks her bff and sister-in-law, Teresa, who–get this–is from my very own La Grande, Oregon! I am reminded that it truly is a very teeny tiny microscopic world, and anything is possible.

A Lover’s Discourse by Xiaolu Guo

I am blown away by the slow burn called A Lover’s Discourse by Xiaolu Guo. The first and majority of the book is a quiet, steady dialogue between the main character and her “lover.” As you know, I am not a theory hound, but this book was one of few that has made me want to turn steadily back to some of the theories presented in this book, and in grad programs across the world, including my own, and see if I can now find a different way in to them, more my own, perhaps feminine, a more first gen, working-class, creative, put two ideas next to each other to see the new, true, and also beautifully enigmatic knowing that emerges.

I love some of her snarky responses to the rote theories her partner espouses. I found the book to be an incredibly bold and feminist and completely empowering that she takes on subjects that are often, almost always (always?), interpreted through a male lens. She even uses Barthes’ exact same title. So bold! How might I do more of this myself? The book ends with both the theory and physicality of reproduction.

Often I find modern literature to be too cold and unemotional. This book had some of those qualities, but I still felt deeply and identified with many of the main character’s experiences. New motherhood is depicted in almost entirely negative terms, but much of the book is.

In new motherhood, I, too, started to think of mothers in response to every act of killing I heard on the news. These mothers have worked so hard to raise of their children, up until the very moment that their lives are taken. Guo has this exact same insight. We are all one, I suppose.

Finally, the relationship–I’ve felt nearly every one of the feelings or loneliness, isolation, desire, and confusion. I have yelled for him to “Bring wipes” as the baby’s mess grows, only to have him emerge too late, confused and groggy. “When have you had time to listen to music?” The changing home, the changing dynamic, described so uniquely and so true, perhaps especially for the creative woman.

Through it we are two people, changed, and in discourse with each other—lovers.

The Lais of Marie de France

The Lais of Marie de France are real bodice rippers, so to speak. You can see how these stories of ancient romance have influenced everything from Shakespeare to Rom Coms since. There is a strong sense of love and loyalty in each story. The same intensity of life and death love stories, like Romeo and Juliet, are played out repeatedly throughout the lais.

the library’s copy

I read through these relatively quickly, after learning about them from a dear one’s scholarship. First, I was looking for significance in fabrics and cloth. I also frequently thought about the fabrics having just read A Short History of the World According to Sheep and learning more about the wool and processes (and abuses) that went in to making these fabrics.

Eventually, I just got caught up in each story–the excitement and intensity of the love, the suffering, and the joy. (Though, as with most romance, the “ever after” is short changed, and I think most of us are left wondering how that part’s supposed to work.)

The lais capture an intensity that is unique to human love and courtship, and honestly, I think it’s a really intense thing worthy of our focus. The main characters aren’t being cool or dealing with their baggage. They’re just strong and perfect knights, who win all of their tournaments, and fair and beautiful women, who are kind and loving and good, so much so that a knight would sacrifice his life to her, a life that many other knights had tried taking many times before. That they are already married to someone else or in some way betraying someone else is a liner note.

These lais are over the top, sometimes to the point of being ridiculous, but they are entertaining. And, they have literary merit too, not only because of their rich history and staying power, but because, as I read them, I was also inspired, for the first time in a long time, to write a few poems myself!

Iep Jāltok: Poems from a Marshallese Daughter by Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner

Iep Jāltok: Poems from a Marshallese Daughter is a beautiful book of poetry by Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner. I don’t usually read a lot of poetry, but this one drew me in and held me there.

The place where I work has a relatively large population of Micronesian students. In fact, a summer program for work put this book on my radar, and I’m so glad it did. I find myself wanting to learn more about this population. From the book I read about the indigenous connection to place, language, racism, climate change, climate refugees, refugees from US nuclear testing, food, love, religion, womanhood, family, and more.

I found myself searching for plane tickets. Just how far away are the Marshall Islands?

Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams

If you’ll recall, in December 2019, I was part of a book gift exchange with a group of women who also had babies that year. I was gifted two books by one woman. The first I read and wrote about here: https://sherewin.com/2020/03/09/severance-by-ling-ma/. The second was Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams. Both were shockingly timely to 2020. Severance was about a global pandemic and Queenie is about, in part, race and racial injustice.

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So, here’s my take on the book. The story immediately drew me in. It starts with some relationship drama, and I am always happy to be a fly on the wall to any and all relationship drama.

But, as the book progressed, I grew weary of Queenie’s antics, and I didn’t always have enough emotional connection to the story to be patient with her as she navigated her failed relationship, her abusive/borderline abusive sexual escapades, and sabotaged her career. Certainly there were reasons, and certainly we would grow to understand them, but I sometimes grew weary in the waiting. (This happens more and more with me when reading works of fiction.)

While her relationships with friends didn’t always resonate with me (which probably says more about my relationship to “friends” than about her depiction), her relationship with her family became the most interesting aspect of the book to me. Fortunately, that narrative builds and builds throughout the story to a nice conclusion. (Not nice as in happy or resolved per se, but nice as in well done.)

Overall, this piece has literary merit, is well done, if a bit too long. I hate to make the comparison, but it really does allude to the Bridget Jones’s Diary story. It’s a workplace romance starring woman who is a mess. It’s a hallmark of British Literature, and Carty-Williams carries it on and makes it her own in Queenie. The author artfully integrates trauma and politics, specifically the #BLM movement. I am glad I read it, and I think you will be too.