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Book Reviews: Winter Nonfiction

June 1, 2015 2 comments

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Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar (2012)

This is a collection of columns Cheryl Strayed (of Wild fame) wrote anonymously for Dear Sugar between 2010 and 2012. What’s so great for me about Strayed’s writing—this is present in Wild (both book and movie) as well as saturating all the responses she gave in the Dear Sugar column—is her intense, humane feminism.

In one letter to Sugar, a man writes in about being torn between a “crazy” ex and her best friend, and the weird romantic triangle that has sprung up amongst them. (Looking at its placement online, the question appears to be the first one that Strayed answered, taking over for the original Sugar.) In her response, Strayed lays out the situation for him as things he knows, things he knows he doesn’t know, and things he doesn’t know he doesn’t know, the most important of which is that neither of these women are the right choice for him at this time. But she also diverges briefly to interrogate his description of his ex:

How can it be that so many people’s ex-girlfriends are crazy? What happens to these women? Do they eventually go on to birth babies and care for their elderly parents and scramble up gigantic pans of eggs on Sunday mornings for oodles of lounge-abouts who later have the nerve to inquire about what’s for dinner or is there some corporate Rest Home for Crazy Bitches chain in cities across the land that I am unaware of that houses all these women who used to love men who later claim they were actually crazy bitches?

However, she also ends by promising the letter’s writer, “You are loved.” The crazy ex-girlfriends interlude is a scolding, but not a mean-spirited one. She wants everyone to learn. If you believe what she has written (I do), Strayed has seen in her life more than her own share of horrors, but she has made peace and wants others to make theirs. If she is a bit precious about the way she expresses this, I’m OK with that.

Because she can also write like a motherfucker.

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Scoot Over, Skinny: The Fat Nonfiction Anthology (2005)

A collection of nonfiction essays about being fat and the attendant issues: self-esteem, politics, health, sex, etc. I’m a comfortable fatty myself, and I picked it up warily, but I found it to be mostly a good read overall.

Here’s what you need to know: in one of the earliest essays—I believe it’s Natalie Kusz’s “On Being Invisible”—the author recalls a group of women having a meal together and a thin woman declaring that she’d eaten too much, that her midsection was growing out of control (pinching it between her fingers to demonstrate), and that no man would ever want her if she continued. A much larger woman was part of the group and asked, reasonably, “so I guess no man wants me, either?” The thin woman deflected, saying she didn’t know her friend was looking to date. This is one of the many illustrative stories included in this collection that demonstrate the ways that fat people are minimized by others; they are treated as though they are failing, lacking, unfinished, unworthy people, people who don’t have (couldn’t possibly have) other struggles, other thoughts, other priorities in their lives that take precedence over their weight and their appearance.

If that anecdote, or my reading of it, doesn’t resonate with you—if it seems petty or self-indulgent—I would not recommend picking up this book, because everything this book wants to say is detailed in incidences like this one.

The ones that meant the least to me were the ones about the nagging of hunger and the shock of crash diets, about the shame cycle of losing and gaining. That has never been what we might call my personal fat experience. I liked the ones about people who were striving to meet emotional, intellectual, and even physical goals that had nothing to do with weight or size; the people who have accepted themselves as large people and live appropriately large lives. Pam Houston’s “Out of Habit, I Start Apologizing” was lovely and well-written. Cheryl Peck’s “Queen of the Gym” described a similar revelation I had at the gym one day: if I’m the fattest person here, I’m doing something right. I’m also fine with the ones where a fat person attempts to be cool with themselves, such as editor Donna Jarrell’s selection “Fat Lady Nuding,” in which she reluctantly attends a nudist New Year’s Eve party. They are all stories about how we can be interesting, multi-faceted men and women, but most people, when they look at us, think they know something fundamental about us: that person hates themselves and wants to lose weight. But then sometimes they are not thinking that; sometimes we are thinking that they think that. It’s all very complicated.

Those are the best stories from inside the fat cave. Some others come at it from different angles: journalistic, medical, psychological. Sarah Fenske’s selection is fairly outrageous: a journalist, she meets with some men who habitually pick up fat women in bars to sleep with them and then compare notes about who bagged the biggest hog and talk about how gross it was. She successfully walks the fine line between showing how absolutely odious they are, but also how pathetic they are, and how damaged in their own ways.

Atul Gawande, a major name in the medical humanities, is always worth reading; here, he profiles a man who has surgery to correct his morbid obesity, and Gawande shows the continuing battle beyond the surgery. A book about fatness cannot not include a story about the damage that can be wrought upon a body by it, and Gawande is one of the most impartial observers we have to write about it. From another angle—a fundamentally judgmental one—there is Irvin Yalom’s “Fat Lady,” about a shrink who struggles with the fact that he hates his overweight patient. And I hated him at first, for this, but over time, as his patient labors to lose weight, and he labors to connect with her, something pretty moving comes out of it.

The biggest names in the collection are David Sedaris and Anne Lamott, but both of their selections are forgettable. I knew from them being public figures that neither is an overweight person. Lamott’s essay suggests that she has grappled with bulimia, and is beautifully-written, as she does, but not particularly incisive about the trials of fatness.

 

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Silver Screen Fiend: Learning About Life from an Addiction to Film (2015)

A memoir/book of personal essays by comedian Patton Oswalt, Silver Screen Fiend traces Oswalt’s rise as a young comedian and his filmic education in the independent moviehouses of L.A. I enjoyed the book, but I have to quibble with a major component of it: the characterization of Oswalt’s compulsive moviegoing as an “addiction”—and he uses the word literally, and not flippantly—is really not an apt one, at least as far as he dissects it. He lives a functional life while it is going on. He claims that relationships are damaged—he describes losing at least one girlfriend—but if there are any substantive personal losses that he incurred, he does not share that. His career thrives during this period, whether or not he feels he is working at the height of his creative powers. And when he decides he needs to “get out of the dark” (figuratively and literally), he just does.

I see movies compulsively, the way Oswalt details in the book. His era was the 1990s, so he was checking off titles of the movies he’d seen in books, while I’ve used the internet. I download lists of movies to see (the AFIs, Roger Ebert’s Great Movies, etc.) and track my progress in painstakingly nerdy spreadsheets. [True story: my boyfriend Mike has a movie room, which is to say a room in his apartment that is entirely filled up with shelves, boxes, and crates of DVDs, videos, and Blu-rays. He feels vaguely embarrassed about this and joked often with me at the start of our relationship that when I saw the manifestation of his obsession I would be disturbed and probably run away. I responded by showing him my movie-tracking spreadsheets.]

To wit:

movies to see spreadsheet image

Anyway, my point is that you can want to check things off lists and still be OK. Certainly, we should not compare ourselves to people who agonize, wither, and sometimes die over real addictions.

Looking past that, it was really a great read. The book is funny-ish, but not typical of your average comedian memoir because Oswalt has got grander ambitions, and strives for poignancy first. He also has a grander vocabulary than most comedians and shows it off grandly. This bothered me more at the beginning than later, so either it started out somewhat overwritten and then settled down, or I just got used to it.

The behind-the-scenes of the entertainment world is quite satisfying in some places and less so in others. He does not write much at all about King of Queens, which is fine with me as I do not care about it, but if that’s what you’re looking for, take note. He also tells some unflattering stories about famous people but gallantly refuses to identify them, which irritated me every time. Maybe I wanted him not to draw attention to the fact that he is not identifying them—or maybe to just go ahead and identify them, because one bad story in a Patton Oswalt memoir is not going to ruin anyone’s career, and probably everyone on the internet already knows anyway.

On the positive side, the establishment of the Largo as an alt-comedy mecca is given a lot of ink, and is one of the best parts of the book. He writes about it with reverence for its place in the field, with nostalgia, with warmth. The story of Oswalt staging live readings of The Day the Clown Cried is also a terrific little anecdote about trying something creative to launch a career (and also as a process tale about entertainment and copyright infringement). And personally I loved the entire Down Periscope section, both as an insider’s account of how that particular flop came to be, and also for Oswalt’s unembarrassed observations about his own naive aspirations. I read a celebrity memoir for just that kind of thing.