How to Grow Up: A History of Advice Giving Memoirs

I have a confession to make: I like to read self-help books from time to time. Not the kind necessarily that straight up tell you how to live, but the kind that blend memoir with advice. There’s something about that mix that I find indulgent, entertaining and gratifying.

Up front, I’ll tell you that almost every one of the books I’m about to mention has a significant similarity: white women, some who started out with a lot of privilege, some who didn’t, are telling us about their lives. Most are writing from a current place of privilege that most of their readers can’t and won’t ever experience. I need to explain that I don’t necessarily view these books as “guides to life” but somewhat voyeuristic reading experiences that sometimes drop nuggets of wisdom. I am a naturally nosy person and I love to give advice, so I get a little thrill out of reading books like this.

Now that we’ve established that, for me, reading these types of books is something of a guilty pleasure, let me also say that I think reading advice giving nonfiction can be really helpful. In each one of these books I’ve found something that touched me and changed the way I thought about certain important aspects of my life. I’ve also discarded a lot of the problematic and unhelpful (to me) advice and chalked that up to being symptomatic of giving a human being an entire book to talk about their opinions.

So I urge you to take my list with a tiny grain of salt and take this advice (I told you I love to give advice!): reading an advice giving memoir from time to time can be fun and satisfying. Reading how other people think things through and solve problems can be interesting. These have been my favorites over the past few years, in somewhat chronological order:

1089140The Goddess Guide, by Gisele Scanlon. I don’t even know how I found this book, but is by far the most indulgent one on this list. Scanlon is something of a journalist/artist/beauty guru. She’s had about a million experiences none of us will ever have and this book is the gorgeously put together evidence of this. The cover is an experience in itself and the photos and illustrations are lush and gorgeous.

What did I get out of it? Lots of nearly invaluable fashion and beauty advice. Also: lots of longing for stuff I can’t have because it’s insanely expensive. However, I did discover one of my favorite perfumes (For Her, by Narcisco Rodriguez) and learned some valuable stuff about how to develop personal style. I am a super vain person, so this was nice for me.

19501Eat, Pray, Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert. You’ve probably read this book already. I feel like everyone has read this book already and I’m sure you know what it’s about. Gilbert’s experience of leaving her life behind to travel the world and forego work is something most of us can’t afford to do, but this book really spoke to my voyeuristic side.

What did I get out of it? My deep abiding love for the healing and spiritual aspects of yoga and meditation started with this book. I will never be able to fully express how important that has been to me over the years and I’m not as good at either as I would like to be, but both practices are something I always return to. I also got a serious urge to run away from my problems, as I read this book right after my dad died. I didn’t have that option, so I stayed at home and worked things out. It can be done.

6398634The Happiness Project, by Gretchen Rubin. This is probably the most practical book here and I full-on recommend it to just about anyone. Rubin’s experiment is thoroughly researched and she’s not asking you to slap a smile on your face and be happy, which I like. Instead, she takes us through a year of studying myriad ways people in history have found happiness and trying it out. The journey is relatable and I think almost anyone can pick up a few tips on how to boost your contentment from this book.

What did I get out of it? I learned that like Rubin, I am an all or nothing kind of gal when it comes to certain things. Rubin asserts that some people are good at moderation and some aren’t. She herself doesn’t drink at all because she feels “indiscreet” and agitated after even one glass of wine and she doesn’t keep snacks in the house because she tends to eat them. Both of these values have made their way into my life and I’m grateful for it. There are also some valuable lessons about procrastination here that I’m still taking to heart and working on.

401680The Red Book, by Sera J Beak. I am not a religious person. I find organized religion tough to follow, though I completely respect others’ beliefs. Beak talks a lot about how people like me, who feel spiritual, but not religious, can learn valuable lessons from other religions and bring them into their spiritual practice. I realize this is a somewhat controversial frame of thought, especially for folks who are very religious and take an all or nothing approach to their beliefs. I think there’s a fine line between appropriation and applying valuable wisdom to your life. Beak is a lifelong religious scholar and her approach is far from purely academic and her experiences are wide and far reaching.

What did I get out of it? Beak talks a lot about radical self-love and using spirituality to develop that practice in your own life. To be honest, there’s a lot about her approach that’s not for me, but that aspect of honoring your spiritual self (if you belief in that kind of thing) and practicing self-love and self-care really resonated with me. There was a time in my life when I didn’t know how to do that at all and books like this helped me figure it out. It’s a daily battle, so don’t think for a second I’ve got it figured out.

22521549How to Grow Up, by Michelle Tea. I’m reading this right now and I’m about halfway through and so far it’s one of the better books in this genre I’ve read in a long, long while. Tea’s life experiences have been wild, out-of-control and unhealthy, but she’s grown up into a functional, successful and healthy adult. It’s laugh-out-loud funny and Tea’s stories about the wilder times in her life are well told and moving.

What am I getting out of it so far? Lots of things about Tea’s past make sense to me. Her experiences are much, much more intense than my own, but my late teens and the majority of my twenties were times of self-destructive, wild child behavior. I don’t regret most of it and I learned lots from it. I’m not “learning” from Tea thus far so much as identifying with lots of her takeaways from her considerable life experience.

I read so many of these other books when I was at really, really low points in my life and on the arc of coming out of it. I feel like in most ways I’m on the other side of that. It takes a long time to deal with years of self-destructive thinking and behavior. Tea is older than me, so maybe what I’m getting out of this is that it’s a process; you can be on the “other side” and you still have to keep going. We’ll see what I think when I finish the book. Maybe there’s a full recommendation in the future.

So now you know, I’m a deeply flawed human being and I get something out of self-helpish memoirs. Maybe there’s something in this post that might help you, or maybe you’re inspired to find an advice-giving memoir that’s more your style. Either way, here’s to your mental, spiritual and bookish health!

Allison Carr Waechter is almost done with summer school, which is damaging her psyche. If you’ve got ideas about what self-help memoir she can read to keep her going for three more weeks, tweet at her.  


Her Work in Her Words (and pictures)

ALeibovitzAnnie Leibovitz may be known best to some for her fashion, music, and art photography, especially her imaginative, staged shoots for Vogue, Vanity Fair, and Rolling Stone. Remember the John and Yoko cover? Leibovitz’s rightfully storied photography career spans almost fifty years. Though her images of famous people are incredible, at times arresting, and often beautiful, her photojournalism and portraits of family and non-famous people command the same modifiers—incredible, arresting, and often beautiful. My recommendation tonight is Annie Leibovitz at Work, published by Random House in 2008. The book’s publication date marks the approximate forty-year anniversary of Leibovitz’s professional photography career.

My favorite thing about this work besides the career and subject-spanning photographs throughout, of course, has to be the way in which Leibovitz narrates her own life and career in parallel with larger domestic and international events. An artist’s detailing of her own career and life could be masturbatory, self-congratulating, or saccharine; however, Leibovitz’s work tends to read like a series of recollections that parallel an artist’s journey through post-1968 America. We feel the grim reality set in after the “Summer of Love,” we see the rise of New Journalism, the terror of Kent State, and the Nixon-monster all within the prologue and the first chapter. The remaining 208 pages take the reader through some of Leibovitz’s favorite subjects, topics, and themes. The book effortlessly moves through discussions of craft, techniques, and her experiences on shoots.

In “War,” Leibovitz explains her early initiation into photographing people in the armed services. Her family lived at Clark Air Base in the Philippines, and despite her conflicted feelings about the Vietnam War, the young Annie “felt at ease taking their [the soldiers’] pictures.” The chapter also discusses her experiences in 1982 during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and her shock at the way photographic setting were altered to make a better image. So much for objectivity, eh? Most of the chapter details her experiences photographing people during the Bosnian War. Leibovitz writes quite candidly about her own inexperience as a photojournalist before arriving in Sarajevo in 1993. Her account manages to live up to her desire to bear witness as the narrating “I” turns into a report about the lives and deaths of others. The chapter ends, after a brief discussion of her 1994 return to Sarajevo and journey to Rwanda to report on the genocide, “The violence had finally ended a month before I had arrived. There was nothing left to do but record the evidence.”

For those readers who are interested in Leibovitz’s Hollywood, fashion, and staged photography, the book showcases and spins yarns about plenty of that, too. There are also wonderful pieces of writing about Susan Sontag, Patti Smith, and the process of photographing dancers and athletes. Her photographs of Evander Holyfield and Baryshnikov, for example, are rich examples of portraiture. The book has much to offer in its visuals and narration, and the artist makes an excellent guide through her craft and career in her own words.

Annie D’Orazio is so sorry that her CBC post is late today! She hopes that you have enjoyed it and that you will read this book. There are pictures of Burroughs and the Queen of England in it. In one book. For real. You can follow her on twitter. She usually contributes about comic books, but she was compelled to talk about another Annie this week.


Words to Eat By: Laurie Colwin’s Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen

7466947“Unlike some people, who love to go out,” writes Laurie Colwin in her introduction to Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen, “I love to stay home. This may be caused by laziness, anxiety or xenophobia, and in the days when my friends were happily traveling to Bolivia and Nepal, I was ashamed to admit that what I liked best was hanging around the house.” As an unapologetic homebody myself, I thought this collection of food memoirs would have immediate appeal. It didn’t, though — at least, not when I first read the book two years ago. Way back then, the essays left me unmoved, but things change and this time around I fell hard for Colwin and her slim book of wonderfully weird and evocative stories about food. Chalk my new appreciation for Colwin’s work up to my ever-evolving definition of home, if you like, as I’ve recently traded in my home of over a decade for a month-to-month lease on a studio apartment in a new city. I suspect that it was my longing for home and familiarity that made me pick up Home Cooking again, and I’m happy I did.

Home Cooking is a warm, funny, engaging read by writer who deserves more attention than she typically gets, and it often feels like a long conversation over food with a very good friend. The style is light and riddled with tangents and byways, but that’s all part of the fun; Colwin keeps meaning to give us a recipe, but she also can’t resist sharing hilarious stories on the way. This isn’t a primer on cooking or method, or not really; the amount of instruction varies from piece to piece, ranging from a full-on tutorial on bread to a light essay on nursery foods. Interestingly, Colwin doesn’t claim any superior knowledge at all here, though she certainly was an authority on food in her relatively short lifetime (she died at 48 in 1992, four years after Home Cooking was published, and its sequel was published posthumously). Her career had quite a few high points, and she can count many contributions to Gourmet and a James Beard Award among them. Still, it’s a relief to find no macho bluster or know-it-all posturing in these pages. Rather, these are quiet stories that sneak up on you with their humor and depth.

In one one my favorites, “Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant,” Colwin celebrates all the oddities we eat when we only need to feed ourselves. She writes, “Dinner alone is one of life’s pleasures. Certainly cooking for oneself reveals man at his weirdest. People lie when you ask them what they eat when they are alone. A salad, they tell you. But when you persist, they confess to peanut butter and bacon sandwiches deep fried and eaten with hot sauce, or spaghetti with butter and grape jam.” Another standout was “Repulsive Dinners: a Memoir”, in which Colwin celebrates the worst disasters of home cookery: “There is something triumphant about a really disgusting meal. It lingers in the memory with a lurid glow, just as something exalted is remembered with a kind of mellow brilliance.” From learning to cook in her tiny East Village flat, where she “did the dishes in a plastic pan in the bathtub and set the dish drainer over the toilet,” to entertaining friends later in life, Colwin approaches everything with a droll humor and intelligence.

You’ll find a few good tips hidden in here. On the whole, though, this isn’t a book to read for kitchen know-how so much as for the journey through home kitchens that we may recognize in our own. Read it also for the confirmation of the connections that we find on the other side of a home-cooked meal, however lousy the food turns out to be. Colwin writes, “When people enter the kitchen, they often drag their childhood in with them.” Odd and wonderful things happen in her many kitchens, ranging from epic fondue failures where the guests end up eating the dipping sauces with a spoon to good times sharing pots of soup, but each of these experiences is an exploration of memory. This book is unassuming, quiet, and brilliant.

In any case, I’m happy I revisited this book; Home Cooking is an absolute gem, and I’m so glad I was wrong. At fewer than 200 pages, this is a deceptively light read in an easygoing, anecdotal style that nevertheless covers all the deep stuff about homes, kitchens and food. Home Cooking is a book in the tradition of M.F.K. Fisher and other food essayists, but as I read I was reminded too of a few of my favorite food bloggers. Smitten Kitchen’s Deb Perelman (and her book) came to mind, as did My Berlin Kitchen by Luisa Weiss (a.k.a The Wednesday Chef) and David Lebovitz’s wonderful blog and memoir. In fact, if you’ve enjoyed any of these writers or even the essays of the great M.F.K. Fisher, you’ll probably love Home Cooking.

Melissa is writer who lives with her husband and two warring felines in Portland, Oregon. When she isn’t reading, writing, or cooking, there’s a good chance she’s trying to clicker-train her cats.


The Lupivore’s Dilemma: How to Cook a Wolf by M.F.K. Fisher

250693

I recently found a broken cigar box of recipes that used to belong to my grandmother. It was filled to overflowing, with the box’s cover resting on top of a heap of typed index cards, scrawled bank envelopes, and newspaper clippings covering a variety of dietary interests from every decade of my grandmother’s adult life. Somewhere in that box I found a pamphlet called Stretching Meat dating back to World War II and, in keeping with the times, Stretching Meat is full of tips and techniques on how to use your meat ration points to feed your family. It’s a strange, anxious little book chock full of cartoons of tiny-waisted women and forced cheerfulness (“A Hobo Party… for an evening of fun”), but the text itself deals mostly with how to make it through the war without starving.

How to Cook a Wolf, written by Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher in the 1942 atmosphere of fear and belt-tightening, was written as a kind of response to this sort of publication. “Every slick magazine in the country,” she writes early on, “is filled with full-page advertisements suggesting that all Americans ‘try the new thrill of thriftier meat-cuts,’ and home economics editors in the women’s journals are almost incoherent over the exciting discovery that dollars can and should buy more.” How to Cook a Wolf, which many consider to be Fisher’s best work, is part cookbook, part food memoir, and part humor writing.  In this collection of short essays with recipes, Fisher seeks to calm the mounting anxiety of women tasked with making do with very little, and her voice is level, funny and smart as hell.

I’m not sure how it would stand up as a survival guide, but How to Cook a Wolf is food writing at its best. The prose sparkles (“Probably one of the most private things in the world,” she writes, “is an egg before it is broken”), and the work itself goes beyond discussing how merely to subsist. In fact, How to Cook a Wolf works as a philosophy on how to continue to enjoy eating — in essence, how to remain human — in a time of such austerity. “Since we must eat to live,” Fisher writes, “we might as well do it with grace and gusto”; in fact Fisher’s chapters all seem to insist that, in the face of such hard times, we can and should try to continue to eat with pleasure. “How to Boil Water” turns into a primer on delicious soups and chowders, “How to Make a Pigeon Cry” has instructions on the best way to roast a pigeon and prepare small game, “How to be Cheerful Through Starving” is a small essay on foraging, and “How to be Content with a Vegetable Love” covers vegetable cooking, just to name a few examples. There’s even a recipe here (aptly called “Sludge”) for when there’s nearly nothing left in the fuel tank or the bank account, and the main goal is just to survive until tomorrow.

Throughout the book, Fisher insists not just on economy, but also that “man’s need for food is not a grim obsession, repulsive, disturbing, but a dignified and even enjoyable function.” Pleasure, she insists, is as important to survival as learning to use what’s available. Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that her instructions on how to stock your underground bomb shelter in “How Not to Be an Earthworm” involves stashing something inside that’s just a little extra special. Drinking a glass of wine or eating a bit of good chocolate might not keep the bombs from falling, but it might remind you that you are a human being and not an earthworm.

In her foreword of her other classic, The Gastronomical Me, Fisher answers the question of why to write about food when there seem to be so many more pressing concerns in the world: “Why don’t you write about the struggle for power and security, and about love, the way others do? They ask it accusingly, as if I were somehow gross, unfaithful to the honor of my craft. The easiest answer is to say that, like most other humans, I am hungry.” By writing a cookbook that functions as an essay collection about living, Fisher has done something better and deeper than a list of ingredients and a method. Take the final chapter of How to Cook a Wolf, for example, which provides a menu for when it all gets to be too much: “When you think you can stand no more of the wolf’s snuffing under the door and keening softly on cold nights, throw discretion into the laundry bag, put candles on the table, and for your own good, if not the pleasure of an admiring audience make one or another of the recipes in this chapter… Sit back in your chair, then drop a few years from your troubled mind. Let the cupboard of your thoughts fill itself with a hundred ghosts that long ago, in 1939, used to be easy to buy and easy to forget.” The pleasure of the meal, however imaginary, remains not only relevant in Fisher’s world, but an essential ingredient even for survival.

I picked up How to Cook a Wolf because I wanted a change from contemporary food writing. I admire, on one hand, Pollan’s well-argued ethics and, on the other, Bourdain’s smart but often snarky commentary on food, but this time around I had a hankering for something a little different. Fisher did not let me down in this food writing classic: this is a droll, elegant read that levels with us over a cocktail made with homemade vodka about how to deal with that damned wolf snuffing at the door. Pick it up if you’ve enjoyed the work of any contemporary food essayist; Fisher, like Julia Child and James Beard, has likely had some hand in informing their work anyway.

Melissa is writer who lives with her husband and two warring felines in Portland, Oregon. When she isn’t reading, writing, or cooking, there’s a good chance she’s trying to clicker-train her cats.


February Favorites: Dr. Alessia Ricciardi

AfterLDVOver here at Lit Witches, we are big tent kinda gals. We cast a wide net through the ocean of readables, and each of us hauls in her preferred catch to share it with those of you who want to hang out in our big digital tent. (Tents, oceans, books, computers, mixed metaphors—we have it all over here!) And in that spirit, dear readers, I want you to drink deeply from a different part of the cauldron. It’s February favorites, and I’m beginning my month’s posting with my favorite literary studies/cultural studies book I have read thus far in 2015. I read a lot of those because I’m a total egghead.

This week, I am recommending Dr. Alessia Ricciardi’s After La Dolce Vita: A Cultural Prehistory of Berlusconi’s Italy, the winner of the 2013 Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione prize for Italian Studies. This is a very challenging read, to be sure, but more than worthwhile for those interested in politics, literature, film, history, philosophy, Italian culture, and contemporary culture. Ricciardi’s brilliantly and painstakingly researched, bravely argued volume seeks to figure out just exactly what happened to mute and dilute Italy’s formerly active, powerful political left during “the long 1980s.” Why did the land of Antonio Gramsci, Neorealismo, Autonomia Operaia, and a critical public intellectual scene so quickly turn into the land of bunga-bunga, privately held monopolies, preoccupation with the material, and…wait for it… the European nation in which unfettered capitalism, American-style, not only took root but grew like it was on HGH and anabolic steroids?

This book collects and examines a significant portion of the answers. In contrast to much of the work covering the subject, as Ricciardi points out in her introduction, After La Dolce Vita concerns itself with how publicly acceptable Italian leftists collaborated, knowingly or not, in the dramatic shift in Italian intellectual and civic life.

Ricciardi structures After La Dolce Vita along the lines of some pernicious terms that wrap themselves in a deceptively pleasant and non-threatening guise. The philosophies and cultural products grown from “Sweetness,” Lightness,” “Weakness,” and “Softness,”—also the chapter titles—have not only made Italy into a consumable brand, but have also morphed into prevailing principles in leftist-light (pun intended) thought. One of the major strengths of Ricciardi’s volume lies in its total formal and intellectual depth balanced with a coherent and wide reach through the world of media, arts, and philosophy.

At the end of the introduction, Ricciardi writes, “Although the limits of critical analysis may be all too clear, it nevertheless seems to me possible to keep meaningful ideas alive while judging well the questions that demand a cogent response.” It is not the job of the critic to capitulate, but, as Dr. Ricciardi so eloquently states, to feed meaning and judge well.

Annie is a writer, teacher, proofreader, and shy megalomaniac. She is also a PhD candidate at the University of New Mexico where she is currently dissertating about narrative images from medieval manuscripts to contemporary comics. She studies flamenco and puts paint on things, too. You can find her on twitter, and trade red chile or sugo recipes to her for getting you an audience with that shadow you keep seeing in the corner of your eye.