Now I want to read all of the Shirley Jackson

Let Me Tell You is a compilation of essays and short stories by Shirley Jackson, who you may know best as the author of “The Lottery”, a story about a stoning that takes place in what otherwise seems to be contemporary America. (In one of the essays, she talks about the genesis of that story. She’d been reading a book about human sacrifice, and, whilst walking her kids to school, started thinking about how such a thing would work in the small town in which she lived.)

It was deeply entertaining – some of the stories were better than the others – but the best part of a good book were her essays. One of the best was when she was describing the old house she and her family lived in, and its ghosts which were sometimes friendly and sometimes not, but by and large seemed to approve of them living there. The whole book was smart and entertaining.

Highly recommended.

Media Studies in the Ancient World

Confronting the Classics by Mary Beard

What’s it about?
Confronting the Classics is a series of book reviews written for the London Review of Books, the New York Review of Books, or the Times Literary Supplement over the years by the author. Mary Beard is a famous classicist (if there is such a thing as a famous classicist), and her reviews are all trying to answer the question: why does this particular book she’s reviewing matter to you, a non-classicist?

Why should you read it?
I loved it for a few reasons.

  1. I have a not-so-secret fondness for Ancient Rome. Mary Beard has a great skeptical eye through which to take a second look at some books I’ve read.
  2. Not to mention suggestions for all kinds of new books to read. Seriously, this one made my to-read list grow.
  3. She asks the serious question: why is Asterix so funny? Why do so many people (including me) love Asterix?
  4. I like her approach to book reviewing – asking why a particular book matters to someone who isn’t a classicist allows her to explore all kinds of questions. What was the woman’s voice in Ancient Greece (about Sappho)? What did the ancients find funny? Why do we still find most of those jokes funny?
  5. So much of what we know about the ancient world is because of what’s been written down. That’s biased in certain ways, with certain people wanting to influence how someone else was perceived. (e.g. Augustus burning anything about Cleopatra that didn’t fit how he wanted Roman society to see her). She takes a critical eye that reminded me a lot of modern media studies – there’s a thread in common with, say, Anne Helen Petersen.

Overall, I enjoyed it. You might too.

Of an era

White Album

 

What’s it about?
The White Album is a famous set of essays by Joan Didion about the various aspects of living in California in the 1960s and 1970s. She covers weird neighbors, the California governor’s mansion, how to pack, migraines, depression/anxiety, and a wide range of other topics. It is a window on a particular time in a particular place.

Why should you read it?
Well, if for no other reason that it allowed me to start describing my own kitchen as “for snackers, not for cooks.” (We’ve moved in the last few months. Our new kitchen isn’t set up for even semi-serious cooking.) There may be a bon mot for you too.

But it also is a window on an era: it’s a very specific slice of American history, when the baby boomers were protesting Vietnam, when the idealism of the 1960s  moved into the hedonism of the 1970s, and what it was like to be a young adult during that time. Now we’ve moved so far away from that to the-market-and-capitalism-will-fix-everything… It can be jarring to think of the world like that. Part of why we moved on is because of criticism like Didion’s. She didn’t give the era a warm, happy glow. She points out its flaws, and does it well.

It’s a critical eye looking at a time that was often romanticized (at least when/were I grew up). For that, I am grateful.

Thoughtful feeling

the empathy exams

 

What’s it about?
The Empathy Exams is a series of personal essays – if they were strung into one, this would be a memoir. The first one is titled The Empathy Exams, and it’s about her job at a medical school. She’s required to portray different patients with different ailments and symptoms and willingnesses to talk about those symptoms. The medical students are required to talk to her to gather information to diagnose her, but also to improve their bedside manner. After the interviews, she has to grade them on, among other things, their empathy. Did the students make her feel like they felt her pain? She also gains a lot of insight into what empathy is. The rest of the essays in the book are about her putting herself into situations (or situations she’s already been in) and empathizing with the people around her. What can she learn about humanity?

Why should you read it?
Because learning about people and sympathizing with people is a good thing. Seriously, The Empathy Exams is an eloquent exploration of what it means to be a person. The author does a good job at making you feel her apprehension at getting an abortion. She communicates the horror of living in a world where drug lords are fighting for territory. But it’s never too heavy. It’s thoughtful. I enjoyed it.

Girl Power!

Not That Kind of Girl

 

What’s it about?
Not That Kind of Girl is about Lena Dunham’s life. I’d say it was a memoir, but it wasn’t. It was a series of essays, grouped by themes like “Love & Sex” or “Work.” She’s entertaining and kind of messed up in a punk-ish way. But she’s also clearly got a serious work ethic, and I suspect is less messed up than she portrays herself as.

Why should you read it?
Maybe if I watched Girls I’d’ve like it more. Not That Kind of Girl is a fine book, it just didn’t grab me in the way I thought it would. I like that it’s supportive of women and girl culture. I like that she shows herself and her flaws and that that’s ok. I like that she is ambitious as hell. I hate that she feels the need to downplay that ambition. But I don’t identify with her – that’s what I was missing. I’m not as punk or trendy or young, and I didn’t grow up with hippy parents in NYC. But I do think that Lena Dunham is a pretty good role model, and I’m happy she’s out there for people to look up to.