Tag Archives: memoir

I might be too young for The Receptionist

receptionJanet Groth spent 21 years at the New Yorker starting in 1957, all but six months of them at the reception desk on the 18th floor.  She knew, and was known by, many writers who were the literary luminaries of the time.  Young, beautiful and clever, Janet wanted to be published in the New Yorker herself, but never succeeded.  Although, as she points out, she only submitted four times.   The Receptionist is her memoir of those heady years.

Drawing on her diaries, Groth has many anecdotes to relate about the famous, near-famous, or infamous.  I have to admit, I got a bit of a thrill whens she recounted how she camped out in Bud and Alice Trillin’s house when she was hard-up for housing… I am a giant Calvin (Bud) Trillin fan, and loved his wife as she was portrayed in his early, foodie books.  So much so that I felt a giant pang when I finally realized that she had died several years previously.  (His book, About Alice, is well worth reading.  Keep a hanky handy.)

And perhaps that’s the problem:  I’m just too young for the literary gossip of that era.  If you are familiar with all the New Yorker authors, poets, critics and cartoonists of Mad Men times, The Receptionist will probably be super fun.  Since I’m not – I was a toddler when she started working there –  it wasn’t.   Plus, the style of writing, while clear and engaging, keeps the reader at a distance.   So much so that when Janet becomes a bit of a party girl (or you could even say a bit of a round-heels), I had to read it twice to make sure I understood her.   I found her active love life to be surprisingly boring.

In an interview, Groth indicated that her impetus for writing The Receptionist was to share her life as an example of a young woman in the workplace during that transitional time.  She explained, “I think I felt the urge many people my age experience – to set down (as honestly as I knew how) what it was like to live most of my adult life in the last half of the 20thC. in the USA. I meant it to be a kind of witness to my times.”

At that, she succeeds.

Quinn Cummings, you rock!

Lately I have been seeking the funny.  Pinterest is fertile ground for this.  I have a CD of Garrison Keillor’s humor from Prairie Home Companion, called Pretty Good Jokes, which is excellent.  James Thurber can make me laugh from the grave (or wherever clever, funny people go).  And so when I saw that my boss gave the big thumbs up to a book titled Notes from the Underwire: Adventures from My Awkward and Funny Life, I had to have it.  Plus the author’s name was kind of familiar:  Quinn Cummings.

Quinn is awkward.  And lovely.  And she used to be an actor.  A child actor.  In fact, she was the daughter in one of my favorite movies, The Good-bye Girl, starring Marsha Mason and a ridiculously youthful Richard Dreyfuss.

Now Quinn is a mom and also an author.  Her book is very, very funny.  Not in a joke-telling way, but in that kind of female humor way that reveals a lot about herself and her family.  For example, Quinn is evidently quite a dork.  She has a great vocabulary, she tells an awesome story, but she has a way of causing mayhem – to herself and others – wherever she goes.  Fortunately this just makes more fodder for the book.

Also pretty well-revealed is daughter Alice.  Alice is adorable.  She’s also a smelly soap-stealing terror, prone to repeating whatever she hears to the exact person she shouldn’t repeat it to.  Quinn’s beloved is just known as Consort.  I really like what I hear of Consort, and would like to see a photo.

At any rate, read the book.  USA Today said Quinn is “Erma Bombeck with an edge.”   That assumes A) you know Erma Bombeck (and I do) and B) you don’t think Erma had an edge (she definitely did).   Do you need to be a mom to read the book?  Nope.  But moms’ll love it.

A special gift for those who are trying to place Quinn and keep coming up with the wrong child actress.  Here you go.  Adorkable, right?

Writing is my drink, too

I subscribe to the RSS feed for Writing is My Drink, a blog about – no surprise! – writing.  Theo Pauline Nestor teaches writing at the University of Washington and is the author of popular memoir, How to Sleep Alone in a King-Size Bed.

Nestor has a thought-provoking post on her blog today regarding the importance of identifying the authors who influence/inspire you.  She has her list of 10, from Woody Allen to Lorrie Moore.  You can read her post here.

I don’t have my tribe of ten identified.  The late, great Laurie Colwin is one.  Anne Lamott?  Likely, very likely.  Judging from my bookshelves, I’d have to list Lawrence Block.  That feels right, too.

I’m going to ponder this some more.  Suggestions welcome.

Chickens… de rigueur?

Sunday’s New York Times Magazine had an article about chickens.  Evidently serving your family free-range, organic eggs is not enough… one must now hand-raise the chickens personally.  I skimmed the article quickly, my imagination struck by the concept of four separate women, none of whom know each other, all working diligently in midtown Manhattan to raise chickens.  That’s how strong the New York Times-New York city pairing is in my brain.  But alas, author Peggy Orenstein lives in Berkeley,  California.  Ahh.  This makes much more sense.

Still, it reminded me of a lovely memoir of a tough time:  Still Life With Chickens, Starting Over in a Life by the Sea. Subscribing to my husband’s point of view (do judge a book by its cover), I took the slim volume out from the library, charmed by the chickens. Catherine Goldhammer’s work is a lyrical, funny, heart-touching story of an upscale mom who suddenly found her life in upheaval.  Divorcing, poorer, emotionally a wreck, this newly single mom moves herself and her daughter from their affluent New England suburb to a small town by the sea.  Their new home requires an ungodly amount of work, so of course, she impulsively purchases several tiny chicks.  She and her daughter raise them, first in their bathtub (the only bathtub in the house), then in a chicken coop.  I genuinely feared for the chickens when cold weather set in… the tension was nail-biting.

Renovating her ramshackle home.  Nurturing the chickens.  It’s all a part of self-discovery, recovering, and growth for Goldhammer.  If life is a journey, Still Life with Chickens reminds us that having a focus other than our own plodding footsteps eases the burden and opens our eyes to the world around us.

Headline News: Wife’s Reading Leads to Husband’s Suffering

The fiction/reality overlap strikes again.  Just as a really funny story can put you in a great mood, a sexy romantic scene in a book might make you a little amorous, a book about a no-goodnik husband makes you cast a negative eye toward your generally  fabulous husband.

Such was my reaction to the memoir by Julie Metz, Perfection.  At age 44, after 13 years of marriage, Julie’s husband, Henry, dropped dead on her kitchen floor.  Hundreds attended Henry’s memorial service.

But all was not well in the marriage.  Arguments were common and Henry seemed to go out of his way to be deliberately provoking.  Worse, her circle of friends knew something that Julie did not – that Henry was unfaithful. Even worse, Henry had engaged in a years-long affair with one of Julie’s closest friends.  (In fact, the woman broke down, wailing, at Henry’s memorial service and still Julie did not suspect.)  And the worst came to pass when Julie discovered Henry’s emails to his many lovers.  Reading about Julie’s sick fascination with Henry’s emails was fascinating in itself!  The more I read, the more dastardly Henry was revealed to be.  Men are dogs.

“You’re frowning,” my husband commented.

Silence from me, of course, because I am reading and my husband’s very existence, at that moment, is annoying me.

I went through most of one Saturday irritated with all the men in the world, thanks to Perfection.  What happened to Julie Metz is terrible! Her husband lied to her, manipulated her, let money slip through his hands like water, spent every penny of a book advance on a book he never actually wrote (and went on “research” trips that were just sex-capades).

But then I got irritated with Julie.  The hard part about a memoir, of course, is that it has to be true.  So all the stupid things that you’d never let your heroine do in fiction are included in a memoir, because they really happened.  And all the unlikable things about real people, things that you’d never let Julia Roberts do in the movie version of the story, are described.

So Julie’s quest to hunt down and scream at her husband’s lovers (or at least the five she knows about) is painfully documented in the book.  Her grieving leads to weight loss, but her focus on buying new clothes and satisfaction with her appearance make her seem superficial, smug and self-satisfied.  Her affair with a much younger man (amazingly sexy and a sculptor to boot – so fabulous!) is undertaken deliberately so that her dead husband can make love to her once again (but to do so, he needs “a body”).

Julie Metz is a good writer.  She describes things well, she articulates her feelings, she moves the plot along, alternating her memories of the past with her discoveries in the present.  What she doesn’t do is make you feel her love, her rage, her hope, her joy.   Which is particularly unfortunate, since she’s the focus.  The men in her life, from Henry to her new partner, Will, are the planets.  Julie’s the sun they circle.

Perfection is getting a lot of media play.  Julie Metz works in publishing (she’s a graphic designer and designs book jackets – hers is scrumptious).  It’s been mentioned at least twice in the New York Times.  Once was a feature on summer reading (which led me to purchase it).  The second time was in a news story that included a picture of Henry (not so handsome, in my opinion – my own husband is better looking!).  It’s #16 on the New York Times hardcover nonfiction bestsellers’ list.   Perfection has a great concept – wife discovers husband’s infidelities after he’s dead, questions her memories of their happy life together, hits to the road to confront the truth, then puts the past in the past and makes a new life for herself and her daughter.  I’d like to see Anita Shreve, or Elizabeth Berg, or Ann Packer take that story arc and write a novel that won’t leave me snappish and vaguely dissatisfied.