It’s been more than three months since I’ve posted, but I’ve been reading. And I’ve begun to lose faith in my ability to choose readable books.
This summer I read some serious crap. With a few exceptions, everything I have read since I posted on June 10 about “Peyton Place,” (and was pleasantly surprise that it wasn’t crap) has been on the crap spectrum.
I read novels that were highly praised and were crap-like, but not complete turds; novels that sounded good in theory but were crap-ish; good stories ruined by crappy writing; crappy stories told crappily and one of the worst books I’ve ever been encouraged to read. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Here, in short form, are reviews of four memoirs I read that all could have been much better.
Now I love NPR’s Scott Simon. I listen to him regularly and he has always seemed to me like someone I’d love to have as a neighbor. He’s quick to laugh, a good storyteller, intelligent as all hell, willing to challenge you in a friendly way that encourages you to think and express yourself. I also think he’s someone who could probably suck down a few whiskeys around my fire pit on a Saturday evening.
But I just couldn’t get behind “Unforgettable: A Son, a Mother and the Lessons of a Lifetime.” The book springs from the time he sat vigil in the hospital as his mother died. He tweeted her bon mots and it became a Twitter sensation, more than a million people following every turn of the end of his mother’s life. I suppose when it was playing out in real time, it might have had more urgency, but today, long after her death, it left me hoping Scott Simon never moved next door to me because his stories aren’t all that interesting and he’d probably come over and share them when I wanted to sit quietly at my fire pit with a glass of whiskey.
Simon’s mother—who he presents as tough, brave, fun and wise to the ways of the world—raised him alone and they had a special bond the way a struggling single mother and her only child can have. It’s not a book about death, but rather a celebration of life and there are a lot of funny and touching stories about what they had to do to make the best of being alone and poor. But I found his insights on life and death a little too pat, and his storytelling too manipulative. And, as life can sometimes do, the book went on too long. If I were a star-giver, I’d give it a weak three out of five stars.
Simon, coincidentally enough, turned me on to the second memoir I read that should have been more than it was. One Saturday morning during “Weekend Edition,” Simon interviewed former National Review reporter Ron Fournier, who had just published a book called “Love That Boy: What Two Presidents, Eight Road Trips and My Son Taught Me About a Parent’s Expectations.”
In a nutshell, the television show “Parenthood” led Fournier and his wife to realize all was not exactly right with their young son. A child on that show was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome and he displayed many of the same traits as Fournier’s son, Tyler. The boy did not socialize well, couldn’t pick up behavioral clues, didn’t seem interested in things most boys did. When Tyler was diagnosed with Asperger’s, Fournier’s wife said, essentially, “Look, you’ve been a big-shot reporter for a long time, traveling around the world and working far to many hours, now you have to step back and focus on your family for a while.” Fournier did.
He devised a series of road trips for him and his son to presidential homes, because the two shared a love of history. Fournier writes about the trips and interviews he did with other parents, and came to realize that parents, understandably, put too many expectations on their children. Yes, you have to push your children, but you don’t have to shove them. And, usually, if you just let your kids know you love them, they’ll do OK.
So I didn’t like this book because Fournier, too, found the answers too easily, and he had to keep learning them over and over. Most of the lessons came at the hands of his particularly insightful and self-aware son, Tyler. He schools his dad on common sense, chuckling at his father’s inability to see the forest for the trees. And by chuckling, I mean Fournier uses that word constantly. I’d give it a solid two-and-a-half stars.
You may not know this from reading this blog, but I love books about gardening. One of my favorite books ever is Mirabel Osler’s “A Gentle Plea for Chaos,” in which she recounts her attempt with her husband to turn some land into a paradise. If you like gardening or just straight up great writing, check it out.
It’s what I was expecting from Carol Wall’s “Mister Owita’s Guide to Gardening: How I Learned the Unexpected Joy of a Green Thumb and an Open Heart.” I may never read another garden book again, this was so bad.
I expected long musings on the beauty of a peony. An appreciation for the simplicity of the marigold. Maybe even a witty set piece about her futile war against slugs.
I got none of that. What I got were the whines of a fairly wealthy woman who, frankly, didn’t know how good she has it. Wall was the embarrassment of her street—haphazard landscaping with no interest in making the effort, until she just got tired of having the least attractive yard in the neighborhood. So she hires Mr. Owita, a Kenyan, who was recommended to her by a friend who owns a nursery.
Together, and painfully slowly, Wall and Owita transform her yard and along the way become friends. What I could not stand about this book was the way Wall has of making Mr. Owita the Noble Savage. Every sentence about Mr. Owita has the subtext of “Wow, this black immigrant from a far strange land has a special connection to the earth, and that’s why he can make my garden grow. I didn’t think I, a well-educated white woman, could learn from someone like him. But he taught me. He taught me.”
Wall is better at describing her battle with cancer, which was happening at the same time as her landscaping project, but it’s hard to feel sorry for someone so smugly liberal. I’m liberal, but she drove me crazy. Maybe a star and a half, but only because I’ve had a glass of wine.
And since we’re talking about cancer, I also read Paul Kalanithi’s “When Breath Becomes Air.”
Kalanithi was a newly married intern, having spent his whole life preparing to be a doctor, when the severe pain he had been ignoring for a long time and chalking up to stress, turned out to be a particularly virulent form of cancer.
As someone who had always wanted to write a book, this showoff spent time recovering from his cancer treatment to write about what goes through your mind as you face death, then hope, then relapse then death. It’s surprisingly dull, though well-written. Even the closing chapter, written by his widow, is written beautifully, but there’s not a whole lot of depth.
And that’s what made me saddest of all: Precious little time, and I’ve spent too much of it reading caca. I’ll say two stars, but remember, I’ve been drinking, and the guy did die, so…