Now that I’m done with Bingo, I am determined not to let myself get behind on reviews again. I expect this determination to last AT LEAST 3 days, til I leave town for two trips over two weeks, finish 15 books and fall into a black hole again. But first! Some non-fiction reviews.
(5 stars) Life Among the Savages (Jacksons #1) by Shirley Jackson
Other than a few references (like lighting up cigarette on the way to deliver her third child!), Jackson could have written this collection of stories about her family in the last year, rather than 1953. It’s hysterical, and incredibly relatable. Shirley Jackson trying to keep her two children behaving in a department store by forceful adding the word “dear” to the end of every sentence and making her voice so sweet that it sound threatening? That’s all of us.
“I looked at the clock with the faint unconscious hope common to all mothers that time will somehow have passed magically away and the next time you look it will be bedtime.”
This collection of stories about raising her family in a massive old house in Vermont was one of my favorite things I’ve read this year. Jackson’s voice, which I’ve only ever associated with horror, works just as well with humor. It’s very sly and witty, and her family cracked me up. Her children’s imaginations — one insists on using half a dozen different names for herself, another simply goes by “Tiger”: “Sally at this time gave up any notion of being a co-operative member of a family, named herself “Tiger” and settled down to an unceasing, and seemingly endless, war against clothes, toothbrushes, all green vegetables, and bed.”
It’s such a funny read. The furnace breaks — no one will come fix it, which is fine because Jackson forgot to cash a check and her car broke down so she can’t leave the house. Her daughter catches her stealing pennies from her son’s piggy bank to pay the bill. Her son comes home from school day after day telling stories of a horribly behaved child in class, who of course turns out to be imaginary because HE’S the horrible child. Litters of kitten in the kitchen, a series of dimwitted housekeepers, the scorn of the PTA moms — it’s terribly relatable. Jackson is definitely the mom in pjs with a cold mug of coffee ahead of you in carpool, and she would be a LOT of fun to hang out with on a playdate.
(4 stars) Raising Demons (Jacksons #2) by Shirley Jackson
The moment I finished Life Among the Savages, I placed a hold on Jackson’s follow up: Raising Demons. I made the mistake, in the meantime, of reading up a little bit about Shirley Jackson, which sort of colored my view of this book. Mostly, it made it sadder — Jackson died at age 48, just a few years after Raising Demons was published (which means her kids were still young) and apparently her husband had a series of affairs with his students (which made a couple of funny stories about Jackson’s interactions with these students WAY less funny).
However, I did still really enjoy Raising Demons. The book starts with Jackson and her family losing their rental, so they first move into a summer home, and then into the new home they’ve bought. I love the way Jackson writes about the minutia of daily life: “My husband can turn on the stove and answer the telephone, but it seemed to me that it might help if I arranged to have the children largely out of his way; the baby, of course, had to stay at home, but I called my friend Kay and asked if our Sally could spend Saturday afternoon playing at her house, and perhaps stay for dinner. I explained that I was leaving Saturday noon for a short visit with a friend and returning Sunday night, and she said golly, what a lucky break for me, and since my husband would be a bachelor Saturday night how about he came to their house for dinner? I said that he had to stay home with the baby, and she said well, anyway, Sally could stay overnight with them. I said wonderful, I would do the same for her sometime.”
She repeats this exercise for her two other kids, getting rid of each for the day, and then has to do it all again when the kids object to her selection. I have absolutely arranged the exact damn thing in the exact damn way for my kids — the only difference is, it’s through text message. Similarly, her descriptions of household chores, attempting to pay bills, and dealing with a menagerie of animals had me laughing out loud in sympathy. It’s such a funny read, best enjoyed in small chunks as your children bother you for snacks.
(3 stars) #IMomSoHard by Kristin Hensley, Jen Smedley
And now for another book about motherhood, with a much more modern perspective. I really liked some parts of this book, and other parts I really did not like. I had never heard of these particular women prior to downloading this audiobook, but apparently they have a YouTube channel and a Facebook page that reaches millions of women while discussing motherhood. I do think it’s amazing that they have gotten good and famous for shedding an extremely funny light on the crap that mothers and wives have to deal with everyday.
“No matter what we do, the kids are going to blame us for all the stuff that goes wrong in their lives anyway. Nobody’s ever in therapy in thirty years going, “Hey, by the way, my mother has nothing to do with why I’m here. She’s blameless. Nothing but inspirational.”
I liked best the parts that talked about what no one else is willing to talk about when it comes to motherhood. How inadequate you feel all the time, how hard it is to do everything correctly — especially when all you really want to do is get some damn sleep. These two women are very open about their relationships, their bodies, their sex lives, their career choices. They’re funny and honest and genuinely seem to like each other and their families. A lot of the sections made me want to pour a glass of wine and hang out with them!
But because those parts were so good and did such a great job connecting, I was disappointed that so many other sections came across as lightly or overtly judgmental. I’m a big fan of Amy Poehler’s motto from Yes, Please: “Good for her, not for me”. While I admit that I occasionally do side-eye other moms for certain choices they make for their children, I also do my best not to let those thoughts into my mind. And I definitely hate that I read a bunch of them in this book that was supposed to be about bringing us all together.
(5 stars) Where Am I Now? by Mara Wilson
I loved Mara Wilson as a child actor — Mrs. Doubtfire remains one of my favorite movies, and as a little brunette bookworm, I always connected with Matilda. It’s hard not to think of Mara as an adult, separate from those roles, but reading any of her writing will definitely help you realize that not only did she grow up, but she grew up into funny, intelligent, and sensitive woman. I actually stumbled across her adult writing on Cracked, of all places, a few years back. There she wrote candidly about her struggles with OCD — a topic she brings up multiple times in this work and something that made me connect to her much more than her lispy portrayal of a tiny Natalie Hillard or Matilda.
“Most people have embarrassing videos of themselves as children. Few have theirs copyrighted by Twentieth Century Fox.”
Mara covers multiple topics here. She discusses her experiences as a child actor, namely how the influence of her parents kept her on a straight path (unlike so many others), and how hard it was to continue working when she was no longer “cute”. She tells some stories about her co-stars– sweet little tales about Robin Williams and Danny Devito and Lisa Jakob making her childhood brighter. She also talks about harsh or overly sexual treatment she received from others. The stories about her anxiety disorder, like I said, connected with me the most. She speaks openly about her fears as a child, especially after the death of her mother. She experienced irrational thoughts, convinced if she didn’t perform certain rituals that her family would suffer.
She’s funny (“My tolerance for public displays of affection is inversely proportional to the time it’s been since I engaged in one”) and smart and definitely worth a read.
(4 stars) Little Panic: Dispatches from an Anxious Life by Amanda Stern
I read this book back in May, and it’s been sitting in my to-review pile since. I have reviewed dozens of other books since then, but have not been able to figure out where to place this very well written and touching memoir about anxiety. I couldn’t figure out a bingo square for it but I thought it would go along nicely with Mara Wilson’s memoirs. Amanda Stern grew up in the 1970s, in New York. She had a very different upbringing from Wilson, but I feel like they are kindred spirits.
Stern was always an anxious child — concerned that without the rituals she performed that somehow her world would fall apart. When a little boy goes missing down the street, it only confirms all of her worse fears. Stern talks about her wildly stressful and confusing childhood — living sometimes with her Bohemian mother in a tight-knit neighborhood in Greenwich Village, going to stay with her uptight father at other times. Nothing could convince her not to worry that one day she might return to her mother’s and find her gone, or there but with no memory of Amanda.
Stern does an incredible job of conveying the deep down, endless worry she struggled with for decades. Her descriptions of her anxiety coupled with documents (IQ tests, conversations, notes) from various psychologists and educators she met with over the years provide a picture of a girl with something wrong — something that no one could see or name. It’s a very affecting book, especially to someone who suffers from anxiety as well.