Autobiography of a Face, Lucy Grealy

(Finally getting around to reading some of the books I got at the book fair in early March.  Stupid library, distracting me.)

Lucy Grealy was diagnosed with a Ewing’s sarcoma at the age of nine – at one point she reads about it and discovers it has a 5% survival rate.  After ages and ages having this sorted out, she is left with part of her jaw missing.  Later on she receives numerous grafts to sort this out, and these work for a while and then keep getting reabsorbed.  (I believe that’s how it worked – I’m fuzzy on medical things.)  Autobiography of a Face is about her struggles to deal with the cancer and its aftermath, and what they do to her, physically and emotionally.

Sadly, Lucy Grealy died at the age of 39.  Her close friend Ann Patchett, also a novelist, wrote a book about their friendship called Truth and Beauty, after Lucy died; and I’ve been meaning to read Autobiography of a Face ever since I read Truth and Beauty.  I slightly regret not reading them closer together, because I think it would have been more interesting that way.

Autobiography of a Face is beautifully, vividly written.  I know how difficult it is for adults to remember what it was like to be a kid, but Lucy Grealy captures her childhood incredibly well: her problems with organized school sports (ugh, that brought back memories), the feeling of importance she gets for being sick, the way she capitalizes on her sickness to get out of school as much as possible.  I loved the parts she wrote about her long hospital stays, playing games with the other kids in the hospital.  So interesting.  In spite of the fact that the book was about an experience I have never had, there was still a universality to it, the insecurity about her appearance, the fear of being unlovable.

Such a good book.  Highly recommended.

In other news, I was looking up Lucy Grealy on Wikipedia because I couldn’t remember how old she was when she died, and it turns out that her older sister was not best pleased by the publication of Truth and Beauty, because it made it difficult for her and her family to grieve over their sister privately.  As someone deeply troubled by memoirs and what you say about real people in a book, I have been thinking about it a lot.  I still can’t decide what I think about it.  I wonder what people who write memoirs do about this problem.

Walking Through Walls, Philip Smith

I picked this up at the library a little while ago, and realized when I got it home that I had read about it here before checking it out and completely forgotten.  Weird.

You wouldn’t think I’d be able to manage being uninterested in a memoir about someone whose father was a faith healer.  But I just never got interested in this.  For someone with such a colorful life, this guy has written a book that was surprisingly bland (yeah, I mixed that metaphor.  Got a problem?).  Even before I began to suspect that Mr. Smith genuinely believes in his father’s faith healing ways, I was a bit tired of the book.  I didn’t finish it.  Maybe I’ll try again some other time.

Accidentally on Purpose, Mary Pols

Accidentally on Purpose: A One-Night Stand, My Unplanned Parenthood, and Loving the Best Mistake I Ever Made, is a memoir about Mary Pols getting pregnant completely accidentally at the age of 39, from what was meant to be a one-night stand.  I got it off the library display case for New Nonfiction yesterday, and read it that evening.  Because I like memoirs.

Well, I like memoirs but.  I like memoirs, but books like this bring up all my serious, grave concerns about memoirs.  On the one hand, I want them to be honest – I feel so let down when I discover that people have lied in memoirs I really enjoyed.  And on the other hand, I don’t want them to be cruel.  Whenever I read a memoir about someone’s dysfunctional family, I worry and worry and worry that they have made everything worse with their families by writing about them in this way.  I’m sure it’s misplaced.  I’m sure they’re all showing their memoirs to their families, and everyone has a good laugh because it’s all so true, and nobody’s feelings are hurt (much).

Mary Pols appears to be being incredibly honest in this book, my test of honesty being that she tells numerous stories that are not much to her credit.  And parts of it are moving – particularly the scenes where she describes being with her siblings, and watching their parents die.  However, I was fretting throughout most of this book about the way she portrayed her child’s father.  As someone who is hugely influenced by the opinions of her parents, I am concerned for the kid to read this book someday.  Maybe by then her relationship with the father will be completely different, but it will be too late.  She’s already written a book about how he was totally unmotivated and irresponsible and she forced him to eat vegetables.  And that is not what I would want to read about my parents.  In fact it would upset me a lot.

Accidentally on Purpose was not a bad memoir.  But my worries on the above-mentioned subject kept me from enjoying it.  And it didn’t make me laugh out loud at any point, and it didn’t make me feel good at the end, and those are my two criteria for memoirs that I want to keep forever.  (Expecting Adam did both.  I loved Expecting Adam.  Although I read it when I was much younger.)

Murrow: His Life and Times, A.M. Sperber

This is the hugest book ever.  I have been reading it and reading it.  It’s about Edward Murrow as you might have imagined, and I will just tell you now that Edward Murrow was quite a person.  He wasn’t always perfect (of course), but I admire him tremendously.  Everyone I know is now tired of hearing Edward R. Murrow stories.  Like the one about when he went to Buchenwald with the troops, and people there – people who were in Buchenwald – recognized him and asked if he remembered them.  And the one about how someone asked his four-year-old son Casey if he had been to the playground and Casey said, “I have not.  I have spent the day investigating Washington.”

But my favorite story is this story.  Someone Murrow knew had been blacklisted, and had subsequently (of course) had trouble finding work, so this guy was going to sue the blacklist people, and the lawyer fee was $10,000.  Edward Murrow told the guy, no worries, CBS will pay for it, it’s in everyone’s best interests that CBS pay for it; so he went and asked CBS to pay for it, and CBS said no.  So Edward Murrow said to the guy, okay, you pay what you can, and I’ll pay the rest, which was $7500.  He said he didn’t want to be paid back.  He said it was “an investment in America.”  He said he had a son to raise and he wanted this lawsuit to work out because the blacklist was paid.  And eventually the guy won the libel suit and got several million dollars, and still Edward Murrow wouldn’t let him pay him back.

So that is a really nice story.  Edward Murrow was a really good guy.  I admire him, and I enjoyed this book a lot.  It was very sad in many ways because Edward Murrow was often very depressed and felt defeated, and the author conveyed that quite well.  I found it hard to read some of it, how unhappy Edward Murrow must have been.  Like when he said it was a hell of a thing for your eight-year-old son to be called a dirty Communist.  That hurt my heart.  Poor Edward Murrow.

I thought that sometimes the author wasted a lot of time on setting up a story or anecdote that didn’t really lead anywhere; i.e., to understand the story you had to have all this very dull backstory first, and then the story itself wasn’t that interesting to start with.  As well I had the same problem I always have with biographies, which is that I couldn’t keep track of all the characters there were, which was many, many, many.

My other complaint was, not enough Janet Murrow.  I believe that Janet Murrow was a very cool and smart person, and I wanted to hear more about Edward Murrow’s family generally.  Family is important!  I wanted to know more about it!

Still, it was an excellent book.  While I was reading it, I started also watching Good Night and Good Luck, to see how it compared.  I liked it that I knew who all the characters were – aha, Robert Downey Jr. is Wershba!, I said to myself with happiness – but I decided to wait until I finished the book, to watch the movie.  So that I would know what was going to happen in the film, and also so that I could decide how I felt about the way they did all the different things.  I shall watch it tomorrow maybe.

Free for All: Oddballs, Geeks, and Gangstas in the Public Library, Don Borchert

I put a hold on this book in November, after reading about it here, and I almost canceled it the day before it actually came in, because I thought surely the book was lost and would never be returned, and I was just out of luck as far as reading this book went.  Which I thought was too bad because it sounded interesting, and I was curious to know what I missed out on when I dropped out of the library science master’s program.

This book is amusing and entertaining, which is what it’s intended to be.  The stories he tells are funny and engaging, and it does give a good idea of the day-to-day life of a librarian.  But it never got past fun.  I one time read a memoir – I think it was A Charmed Life – where the author showed her book to an agent, or an editor, or something, and the person said that the book didn’t have a clear ‘sentence’; i.e., it wasn’t clear what sort of a book it was, and what it was saying.  That ‘sentence’ is what Free for All just didn’t have.  Each chapter had a sort of structure, but the book as a whole is just a great big collection of amusing/alarming/sad anecdotes.  As I say, it was entertaining, but it didn’t have the unifying structure that could have made it a really good memoir.

I also have to say, without any good explanation, that I wasn’t in love with the way he talked about race.  It’s nothing I could put my finger on – this happens to me sometimes, that someone will be talking about race, and I won’t be able to quote any one thing they’ve said as evidence to support my discomfort, but I will just not feel good about how they are talking.  I was not comfortable with the way the author wrote about racial issues.  It felt not quite right, that’s all I can say.  I enjoyed the book when he wasn’t talking about race.

9 of 1: A Window to the World, Oliver Chin

Meh.  I saw this mentioned on Amazon when I was hunting for something else, so I got it out of the library and read it last night.  I wish I had read my book about Edward Murrow instead when I was falling asleep.  It wasn’t bad at all, I just never connected with it.  There’s nine high school students talking about their backgrounds, and then each of them interviewed someone from a different background about 9/11.  I wasn’t as much in the mood for it as I thought I would be, although it did remind me that I want to read some books about U.S. foreign policy.

Virgin: An Untouched History, Hanne Blank

I’ve been meaning to read this book for ten thousand years.  I saw it at Bongs & Noodles once, when I had a bunch of B&N gift card credit, and thought seriously about getting it, before ultimately deciding on something totally different.  And then I got it out of the library before Christmas last year.  I love the library.  I don’t know how anyone functions without the lovely library.

This book is just what you might imagine, a history of virginity, or really, cultural attitudes towards virginity.  It is completely fascinating.  Really.  I’ve been staying up late the past two or three nights being sucked in by my addiction to this book and all the interesting stories it contained.  Ooo, like this one about a crazy Hungarian baroness (this is true) who thought that she could make herself young and beautiful again by bathing in the blood of virgins.  So she got all these little peasant virgin girls and utterly hung them upside down from their feet and drained their blood, and then she started a finishing school, ho ho ho, for aristocratic girls and did the same thing to them.  I think deep down she wanted to be caught.  What a crazy.

(That reminded me of how Oscar Wilde’s VILE BOYFRIEND, Lord Alfred Douglas, had an ancestor that was crazy and one time killed a scullery boy and roasted him on a spit and ate him.  It is no surprise that horrid Lord Alfred Douglas and his horrid father were so horrid and insane, with the lunatic insanity and the dangerous levels of instability.  I have long suspected that Oscar Wilde was too insecure to go out with anyone he perceived as his equal.  Too bad, because really, Oscar Wilde was great and could have done much better than Lord Alfred “I am batshit insane and so’s my old man” Douglas.)

The book discusses a number of different topics, including views of virginity in the ancient, Christian, and post-Reformation world (and by “world” I pretty much mean “West”), erotic fetishization of virginity; virginity’s apparently declining importance in the modern developed world; AND BUFFY.  Er, which wasn’t really its own chapter or anything.  I just like Buffy.  I was pleased that Hanne Blank liked what Joss Whedon did with Buffy’s story, and that she didn’t think Buffy was being punished for losing her virginity.  Because in fairness, Buffy is going to suffer miserably no matter how well or badly she’s behaving.

For a single book about a massive topic, this book covered a lot of ground, and I really enjoyed it.  There were still tons of things it didn’t get into – there wasn’t much about cultural attitudes towards virginity in the Middle East, Asia, etc., for instance.  I kind of want to read the other one, Anke Bernau’s Virgins: A Cultural History, but my library, alas, hasn’t got it.  I am thinking of donating money to the university library so they will GOD LET ME CHECK OUT BOOKS AGAIN.  Not having access to the university library is the only, only downside to having graduated from college.

Rereading Sex: Battles Over Sexual Knowledge and Suppression in Nineteenth-Century America, Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz

Sexual ethics are fascinating, aren’t they?  But I got tired of this book anyway.  It was all disorganized.  I was pleased to learn about Sylvester Graham, a completely joyless fellow who advocated bland food, invented the graham cracker, and said that if someone didn’t do something to stop little boys from masturbating, they would grow up and become “a living volcano of unclean propensities and passions”.  I swear.  Those were his words.  I suspect they are burned into my brain forever.

But as for the rest, Ms. Horowitz kept teasing me with the promise of a good story, and then not delivering.  She’d be like “And a fascinating trial ensued!” and move on to something else without saying another word about the fascinating trial.  I believe this is because America didn’t keep good records of trials, so okay, it’s not her fault.  I still really wanted to know more.  Nothing I love more than hearing stories about trials relating to sexual ethics.

Oh well.  On to the next.

The Lucifer Effect, Philip Zimbardo

Ick.

Edit to add: Edit to add: Yes, ick.  That’s all I have to say about this book.  It creeped me out and I was loath to finish it but I finished it anyway because I was stuck in the airport and I had nothing else to read except for The Ape Who Guards the Balance, which I had already finished, Jenna Starborn, ditto, and my Norton Anthology of American Literature.

It was all about how people with power over other people become power-mad and psychologically abusive.  It was creepy.  The Stanford Prison Experiment was creepy, creepy, creepy, in addition to being, may I just say, bad science; and I know that the author said he was sorry, but I don’t think he was striking the right tone of total all-encompassing abject remorse.  So I say ick to this book.  It was interesting in a way but mainly I felt icky after I had read it and had to wash it down with Doctor Who, Juno, and part of The Two Towers, all of which were my in-flight entertainment.