Tag Archives: books

Twelve Nonfiction Books on Tanzania

In just a few weeks, I’m leaving for Tanzania! Naturally, my mind first turns to books about or from Tanzania. Last week, I listed six novels I’d like to read before/after the trip; this week, I’m focusing on nonfiction titles.

Guides & Wonky Stuff

Personal accounts

Conservation & Culture

Have you read any of these or other nonfiction books on or from Tanzania? What am I missing?

Six Novels on Tanzania

This month, I head out for my next IRP trip: Tanzania! Naturally, my mind first turns to books about or from Tanzania. As I learned on my recent trip to Zambia, there are many fine books that I’m sure I won’t discover until I set foot in the country. But these titles should help me prepare for the trip. Unlike my research for Zambia, I’ve found a ton of interesting books from and about Tanzania.

First, I’m looking at six novels that involve Tanzanian settings, in no particular order. Next week, I’ll list the best nonfiction books from or about Tanzania.

By the SeaBy The Sea by Abdulrazak Gurnah
When Saleh Omar arrives at Gatwick Airport late one afternoon, he has a badly faked passport and exhibits no knowledge of English beyond these two words. He was once a furniture shop owner, a husband, and a father. Now he has arrived in England seeking asylum from his native Zanzibar, using silence and claiming ignorance as his only protection. Meanwhile, Latif Mahmud, a poet and professor, lives quietly alone in his London flat, bitter about the country and family he has left behind and never revisited. When the two men meet in a small English seaside town, there begins the unraveling of a feud from long ago — a story of seduction and deception, of the haphazard displacement of people.

Snows of KilimanjaroThe Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories by Ernest Hemingway
The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories contains ten of Hemingway’s most acclaimed and popular works of short fiction, including “The Killers,” “Fathers and Sons,” “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” and the title story itself, of which Hemingway said: “I put all the true stuff in,” with enough material, he boasted, to fill four novels. Beautiful in their simplicity, startling in their originality, and unsurpassed in their craftsmanship, the stories in this volume highlight one of America’s master storytellers at the top of his form.

Trade WindTrade Wind by M.M. Kaye
The scene is teeming Zanzibar just before the American Civil War, when the Isle of Cloves was a center of African slave trade. To it comes Hero Athena Hollis, a Boston bluestocking filled with self-righteousness and bent on good deeds. Then she meets Rory Frost, a cynical, wicked, shrewd and good-humored trader in slaves. What is Hero to make of him (and of her feelings for him)?

Death in ZanzibarDeath in Zanzibar by M.M. Kaye
Dany Ashton is invited to vacation at her stepfather’s house in Zanzibar, but even before her airplane takes off there is a stolen passport, a midnight intruder–and murder. In Zanzibar, the family house is Kivulimi, the mysterious “House of Shade”, where Dany and the rest of the guests learn that one of them is a desperate killer. The air of freedom and nonchalance that opened the house party fades into growing terror, as the threat of further violence flowers in the scented air of Zanzibar. Richly evocative, Death in Zanzibar will charm long-time fans and introduce new ones to this celebrated writer.

A Girl Called ProblemA Girl Called Problem by Katie Quirk
In 1967 Tanzania, when President Nyerere urges his people to work together as one extended family, the people of Lawanima move to a new village. To some, the new village seems cursed, but it is here that 13-year-old Shida, a healer, and her female cousins are allowed to attend school.

Dar Es SalaamDar Es Salaam by Tara Kai
This is the story of the emotional awakening of a precocious 14-year-old English girl, Tatum, while on vacation with her family in Tanzania. Her story interweaves the heat and sensuousness of Africa into her own growing inner world–one of painful memories of divorce, abuse, and erotic fantasies. Not sure about that last part, but we’ll see how the book is!

I’m eager to arrive in Tanzania and scope out local bookstores to see what I’m missing.

Have you read any of these or other novels on or from Tanzania? What would you recommend before my trip?

Six Authors, Ten Books on Zambia

I am currently traveling in Zambia for work. Before I left, I did what I always do: searched for seminal works of literature about the country or by authors representing the country. I was quite surprised that Zambia remains a relatively unexplored country in literature. (Perhaps the world is waiting for my bestselling thriller about journalists in Zambia!)

But I did find a few titles that are worth sharing, if you’re itching to read about Zambia—either as an armchair traveler, or in preparation for your own journey.

97818416237331. Zambia (Bradt Travel Guide: Fifth Edition) by Chris McIntyre
According to the reviews I read, this is the best guide to Zambia. I’ve only skimmed it, but so far I have learned that Zambia is one of the best destinations in Africa for walking and river safaris, as well as hot springs and waterfalls. According to the publisher, the book “includes advice for the independent traveller: how to bush camp in comfort, survival techniques for canoe encounters with hippos or crocodiles as well as guidance on all-terrain driving.” The country hosts a whopping total of 19 national parks, and recently Travel + Leisure called Zambia “Africa’s next great safari destination.” We won’t be going on any safaris, but praise like this makes me wish I’d extended my trip!

Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight2. Anything by Alexandra Fuller
I’m about halfway through Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, Fuller’s first memoir, and I love it. I’m looking forward to reading her other books: Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, Scribbling the Cat, and Falling: The Story of a Marriage. Fuller grew up in the countries now known as Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Malawi, and her nonfiction explores her identity as a white African, as well as larger themes of family, love, and loss.

97804492152413. Mrs. Pollifax on Safari by Dorothy Gilman
I haven’t read this book, which is apparently the fifth in the Mrs. Pollifax series. According to the publisher: “Mrs. Pollifax has been sent on safari by the C.I.A. and told only to take pictures of all of her companions, in order to find the international assassin whose next target is the president of Zambia. It sounded so simple, but shortly after Mrs. Pollifax started taking pictures, someone stole her film. And right after that she was kidnapped by Rhodesian terrorists. And right after that–well, read for yourself…” As you can probably tell by the reference to Rhodesia, this book is a bit dated; it was first published in 1987. But it’s the only work of fiction about Zambia that I could find—which was surprising enough to make me want to read it.

97803807199904. The Scramble for Africa: The White Man’s Conquest of the Dark Continent from 1876 to 1912 by Thomas Pakenham
If you’re looking for a history of colonialism in Africa, this seems like your book. Publishers Weekly calls is a “dramatic, gripping chronicle.” More on the book itself from PW:

“In scarcely half a generation during the late 1800s, six European powers sliced up Africa like a cake. The pieces went to Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal and Belgium; among them, they acquired 30 new colonies and 110 million subjects. Although African rulers resisted, many battles were one-sided massacres. . . At center stage are a motley band of explorers, politicians, evangelists, mercenaries, journalists and tycoons blinded by romantic nationalism or caught up in the scramble for loot, markets and slaves. In an epilogue Pakenham tells how the former colonial powers still dominate the economies of the African nations, most of which are under one-party or dictatorial rule.”

97806188725035. Secrets of the Savanna and The Eye of the Elephant by Mark and Cordelia Owens
Zoologists and conservationists Mark and Delia Owens were expelled from Botswana after writing Cry of the Kalahari. So they moved to Zambia, where they encountered elephant poachers—the subject of The Eye of the Elephant. In Secrets of the Savanna, they reflect on their experiences with the animals and people of Zambia specifically and Africa more generally. I haven’t read either of these books, so I can’t properly recommend them, but I’m very curious to read them.

97801401882646. North of South: An African Journey by Shiva Naipaul
Shiva Naipaul (brother to V.S. Naipaul) traveled to Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia for several months in the 1970s. According to the publisher, “he aimed to discover what ‘liberation’, ‘revolution’ and ‘socialism’ meant to the ordinary people. His journey of discovery is brilliantly documented in this intimate, comic and controversial portrayal of a continent on the brink of change.” Again, this is one I haven’t read, but it seems important in the very small canon of Zambia books.

In several of these books—the last one especially—I’d like to contrast their experiences with my own (admittedly limited) experience of Zambia. So many changes have swept the continent in the last few decades; I’d love to learn what’s changed and what’s stayed the same.

Have you read any of these or other books on Zambia? What am I missing?

“Let’s Pretend This Never Happened” by Jenny Lawson

Let's Pretend This Never HappenedTitle: Let’s Pretend This Never Happened: A Mostly True Memoir
Author: Jenny Lawson
ISBN: 9780399159015
Pages: 336
Release date: April 17, 2012
Publisher: Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam
Genre: Memoir/Humor
Format: Hardcover
Source: BEA swag
Rating: 5 out of 5

Jenny Lawson, better known as The Bloggess, is kind of a big deal. She has more than 342,000 Twitter followers–including Neil Gaiman–and a popular blog supported by ad revenue; maintaining her site and Twitter feed is a full-time job. After becoming an online superstar, she published Let’s Pretend This Never Happened: A Mostly True Memoir.

That’s why I was surprised by her appearance at Book Expo America (BEA) last year. Not only did she look very different from the picture she uses online, but she was kind of a wreck–hands shaking, clearly nervous, on the point of puking. I kind of expected a bigshot to get up there and tell one joke after another. Instead, she talked about how heavily medicated she had to be in order to speak in public. She talked about how mental illness is stigmatized, and how she has the urge to self-harm, and how sometimes she is too depressed to get out of bed.

She was absolutely, heartbreakingly honest. I was moved to the point of tears, and immediately read her book on the bus ride home.

The point of the book, she writes in a brief note at the beginning, is to trace how the unusual and bizarre events of life make you into the person you are.

From artificially inseminating a cow by hand (or, rather, arm)…
to dropping acid and talking on the phone to a Thundercat…
to accidentally ordering taxidermied animals online….

Lawson has no shortage of bizarre stories. Her book is howl-with-laughter funny (warning: people on the bus will shoot you strange looks, but the upside is, no one will want to sit next to you!)

The book is chronological, going through childhood up until now. She focuses on the funny scenes, only giving enough background to grant context. The scenes from her childhood are funny, but I thought she really got rolling as an adult—when she met and married her husband, Victor, and especially her struggles to conceive and then give birth to her daughter, Hailey. The book could have been about only that. Perhaps my favorite part is when she tries to convince her obstetrician to create a lightning-shaped scar (a la Harry Potter) with the episiotomy. (Sadly, she does not prevail.)

Some of the best parts are when she talks about her mental health issues: anorexia, depression, the urge to self-harm. She is painfully honest but also painfully funny. I dog-eared far too many passages to share here.

As a writer, I was interested in her creative process and the road to publishing a book. At BEA, she addressed the question of turning a blog into a book. She said that, actually, she wrote a book about her family to show her daughter, but it ended up being too personal to publish. So she stashed it and starting blogging, which is where she found her niche and developed her voice. Then this book came about, so she said it was more like a book-to-blog-to-book.

My one criticism has to do with structure. Memoir is different from autobiography in its focus on a certain event or idea. This book doesn’t really have that focus. It seems like she selected scenes just because they were funny–not because they built to some larger narrative. I wonder if this is because of her history as a blogger; sometimes, it’s almost like a collection of printed blog posts–although these chapters are much, much longer than a post. I also thought that the slapstick humor that often works well on a blog gets a little old in a book.

That being said, I really enjoyed Let’s Pretend. Jenny Lawson is uproariously funny while still handling some very difficult topics with grace and honesty. Read it if you like funny, sometimes crude, and always awkward family stories.

Don’t just take my word for it! Buy Let’s Pretend This Never Happened from an independent bookstore or Amazon (Kindle version is available).

I receive a very, very small commission when you purchase the book through the above links. Thank you for helping to support my site–and my book addiction!

“District Lines”: New Literary Journal Devoted to DC

Today, Politics & Prose bookstore announced that they are releasing a new literary journal, District Lines. The publication will be produced on their print-on-demand machine, the unveiling of which I attended back in 2011. It’s a smart marketing move for the store; not only does it position them even more as a literary destination, it also showcases what the POD machine can do for any customer.

Here’s more info about the journal:

District LinesIn a city known for its lobbyists, lawyers, and politicians, Politics & Prose Bookstore is celebrating Washington’s lesser-known side with the release of its inaugural issue of District Lines, an anthology of original work from established and emerging names in the local arts community.

Printed on Politics & Prose’s in-house book-printing machine, District Lines contains essays, short fiction, poems, sketches, and photography on quirky and serious subjects ranging from a sighting of Effi Barry on a Metro bus to an August night on the Q Street Bridge to hotcakes at the Florida Avenue Grill to an ode to the Dupont Circle metro escalator.

Anthology contributors will read at Politics & Prose on Saturday, June 15 at 3:30 p.m. District Lines is $15 and goes on sale on Monday, May 20 at Politics & Prose.

They’re not sure how frequently the journal will be published–probably every year. I’m looking into what the submission guidelines are like, and will update this post when I find them.

“Angelhead” by Greg Bottoms

AngelheadTitle: Angelhead: My Brother’s Descent into Madness
Author: Greg Bottoms
ISBN: 9780226067643
Pages: 227
Release date: April 2005
Publisher: University Of Chicago Press
Genre: Memoir
Format: Hardcover
Source: Personal collection (memoir class)
Rating: 4 out of 5

When Greg Bottoms tackles the demons of his past, he’s being literal. In Angelhead, he writes of his brother’s heartbreaking decline into paranoid schizophrenia, and the terror and grief the entire family suffers.

Greg Bottoms was a young boy when he witnessed his brother’s first psychotic break. From that time on, he and his family suffered through Michael’s increasingly violent and disturbing behavior.

There is a lot in the story that Greg can’t know—like what was going through Michael’s mind—that he supplements with thorough research. When Michael has a psychotic break at school, Greg seems to use observation, research, and guesswork to get into Michael’s head:

One day the world turned white for Michael. Each object—door, floor, table, human—was wrung dry of all its meaning and he was left floating in a stark nothingness. . . . But then Jesus disappeared, and Michael knew it was because he had failed him, failed Christ, failed God, by being so lazy, by failing to learn what needed to be learned. He looked up at the numbers above doorways. They crushed him with their secrets. They whispered. The numbers were real. If he just concentrated on the numbers he’d be okay, he’d find Christ again; he’d learn about numbers, the curves, the lines, what they meant, how they related to things.

I doubt that Michael had the lucidity to describe to Greg what he was thinking, so in scenes like these he has to fill in a lot of blanks. Despite his extensive research, which he references several times in the book, Greg never quotes from books or experts on mental illness (unless it’s a doctor who plays into the story). Instead, he incorporates the dreamlike (sometimes nightmare-like) quality of Michael’s madness into the prose. He relies heavily on poetic license and imagery, as when Michael torches the family home:

He went to the end of our road, about a mile away, and sat at the edge of the black river, where wooden fishing boats were tied to pilings, floating on their own dark reflections. He prayed, pulling hard on his third, then his fourth cigarette. He waited for the blue souls of my family to go flying past, toward the safe, bright stars.

Without the poetic and literary devices Greg employs, he might not have had much of a story. I’m glad he wrote in the introduction that sections like these were based on what he thought happened. If I thought that nonfiction had to be straight-up reporting, I might not like some of his more speculative scenes. But I thought he did a great job conveying what he knew, what he researched, and what he guessed. If something was fact, he’d say so; otherwise, he’d say “might” or “perhaps” – but without losing the momentum of the story.

Bottoms is a vivid, lyrical writer. Like Amy Fusselman—a fellow punk rocker—he uses short, declarative sentences followed by long, emotional run-ons. His rich, gorgeous descriptions that make scenes and characters come alive, like when he remembers his mother’s reaction to Michael’s schizophrenia diagnosis:

I have an image of my mother staring at the dark wood of our kitchen table, saying, I don’t know what we’re going to do, saying this with no inflection, like the undead talking in a late-night movie. It was February. There was cold, sharp light in the room. A pitiful midday sun made geometric shapes the color of stained teeth on the kitchen floor.

The raw, ugly images Bottoms uses—the undead, stained teeth, and others—serve to reinforce the pain he experienced growing up with an acutely mentally ill sibling.

More than an examination of his brother’s decline, Angelhead is an exploration of Greg Bottoms’ guilt and grief—and his attempt to build a life after madness. He writes,

We never talked about Michael, partly because his insane behavior was “normal” to us, partly because it was too much to deal with to put our feelings into words and exchange them. What was there to say? Or rather, there was everything to say, and with that in front of you language becomes daunting, a burden, a pack of lies and false feelings, a trap you set for yourself, sentence by sentence.

Yet this book is his belated attempt to discuss the bewildering and distressing experience of seeing a loved one with schizophrenia. This theme resurfaces when Greg reaches college:

I began reading all the time, endlessly, book after book, always looking to find the grand tragedy rendered with meaning—the more transgressive, the more violent, the better, because by the middle of the book I wanted to see how this mess would be fixed, how a life, even a sad, broken, imaginary life, could be saved. I started to believe—and I still believe—that I could somehow save myself with a story, and even though I couldn’t save anyone else, I could try to understand them, attempt to grant them at least that, and perhaps it is in this, this attempt to understand, that a person is truly saved.

The story he is telling now is his attempt to cleanse and save himself through the story. This is the kind of honest insight I would have liked to see in Rosman’s book! It resonated quite a bit in me; this is how I cope with grief as well.

Greg builds a good deal of suspense in the book. How far will Michael go? Of what violence is he capable? But Greg also builds suspense about what will happen to the family. Greg writes of them from a distance, with a feeling of palpable guilt and regret, and the reader knows that the bonds of the family will be tested and may not hold well in the book.

It was a tough book to read—graphically violent, at times permeated with guilt and regret—and I’m not sure I’d want to re-read it. But Greg relates the story with beauty and respect. He is unflinchingly honest, freely admitting his mistakes and the guilt he still feels for them, and that redeems the book.

Interested? Read it for yourself! Buy Angelhead from an independent bookstore or Amazon (Kindle version is available).

“If You Knew Suzy” by Katherine Rosman

If You Knew SuzyTitle: If You Knew Suzy: A Mother, a Daughter, a Reporter’s Notebook
Author: Katherine Rosman
ISBN: 9780061735240
Pages: 320
Release date: May 2011
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Genre: Memoir
Format: Paperback
Source: Personal collection (memoir class)
Rating: 2 out of 5

After her mother’s death, Katie Rosman is left reeling. Her mother, Suzy, was only 60 years old, and the diagnosis of lung cancer came as a shock to the nonsmoker. After Suzy’s death, Rosman, a journalist, decides to investigate her mother’s life in order to understand how she faced her own death.

She interviews disparate but important people in Suzy’s life: a boutique clothier, a doctor in the ICU, a Pilates instructor, an antique glass collector, a golf player. In so doing, Rosman comes to a fuller understanding of who her mother was and the impact she had on her loved ones.

I liked the idea of this book, but I wasn’t a fan of how it was executed. Rosman’s voice is bubbly and fun, and it was at odds with the seriousness of her subject; she comes off as shallow and immature.

In fact, I was turned off on the first page, when the author recounts stealing her mother’s credit card and going on a shopping spree on the day that Suzy dies. Sure, shopping was a thread that connected mother and daughter, but it still seems insensitive and wrong somehow. My distaste grew as Rosman painted a picture of a sometimes selfish, neurotic woman who was terrified of dying.

She seems uncomfortable in the memoir genre, seeming more comfortable in interviewing others—even including complex details about those she interviews that have nothing to do with Suzy’s story.

Far from feeling closure at the end, I thought there were topics in her life and her mother’s life that Rosman left untouched. She details the thousands of dollars that her mother spent on collectible glass, but she fails to detail—and perhaps she doesn’t have enough information to detail—her mother’s inner life.

While I was intrigued by the idea of turning a reporter’s eye on a loved one, I did not enjoy this book. I wouldn’t have continued reading if it weren’t assigned in class. However, I did learn some tips. Interviewing those you wouldn’t normally think of can offer unexpected insight into a loved one’s life. And I also learned that having a tight, well-thought-out elevator pitch or story arc helps pull together otherwise disparate elements of a story, bringing it into tight control.

Interested? Read it for yourself! Buy If You Knew Suzy from an independent bookstore or Amazon (Kindle version is available).

“This Boy’s Life” by Tobias Wolff

This Boy's LifeTitle: This Boy’s Life
Author: Tobias Wolff
ISBN: 9780802136688
Pages: 304
Release date: 1989
Publisher: Grove Press
Genre: Memoir
Format: Paperback
Source: Personal collection (memoir class)
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Toby Wolff is used to running–driving from Florida to Utah to Seattle to escape his mother’s boyfriend; moving to Concrete, WA, with his stepfather; dreaming of high school in Paris, France. But when he stops to face himself, he finds only scattered shadows of an identity.

Tobias Wolff uses imagery, symbolism, and place to great effect to tell the story of his turbulent boyhood. As a young boy growing up in the fifties, Toby yearns for a stable life and a happy family, and when he doesn’t find it, he sets out on a self-destructive path. Struggling with how to be a man—or how to be a boy—is a central theme in the book.

I love when place is a crucial part of a story, and for Wolff, geography is intricately related to identity. As he moves from Florida to Utah to Seattle to Concrete, WA (and contemplates Paris and the East Coast), his vision of himself changes. Each move is an opportunity to reinvent himself, to try on a new version of who he might be. Yet for all of his reimaginings and reinventions, Wolff remains the same person at his core: insecure and in search of acceptance (particularly from his male peers and father figures).

Each chapter is a story on its own, but they all contribute to the main arc of the book: Wolff’s journey to himself. Despite the somewhat disjointed nature of the anecdotes, which can feel strung together, Wolff manages to keep a tension about who he will become. Observations like “Because I did not know who I was, any image of myself, no matter how grotesque, had power over me” are a common refrain throughout the book.

He uses vivid images of his external environment to reflect his inner turmoil. At the beginning of the book, he sets the stage for the journey he and his mother embark upon, and the cycles of tension and relief that will follow them:

We left Sarasota in the dead of summer, right after my tenth birthday, and headed West under low flickering skies that turned black and exploded and cleared just long enough to leave the air gauzy with steam. (page 4)

The salmon his stepfather shows him in Seattle are symbolic of the slow emotional death Toby felt with the man:

They had come all the way from the ocean to spawn here, Dwight said, and then they would die. They were already dying. The change from salt to fresh water had turned their flesh rotten. Long strips of it hung off their bodies, waving in the current. (page 75)

Throughout his misadventures, Toby oscillates between feelings of overwhelming guilt and carefree indifference. His description of wanting to confess to a priest, but not understanding what he felt guilty for, resonated deeply with me:

I thought about what I wanted to confess, but I could not break my sense of being at fault down to its components. Trying to get a particular sin out of it felt like fishing a swamp, where you feel the tug of something that at first seems promising and then resistant and finally hopeless as you realize that you’ve snagged the bottom, that you have the whole planet on the other end of your line. (page 17)

This is an original and poetic way to describe how Toby feels the weight of the world—the whole planet—on his shoulders. He feels responsible for his mother’s happiness, but he is without a male role model who might show him the way. The closest he gets to a healthy male father figure are the priest to whom he was confessing, and Mr. Howard at the end of the book—who sets Toby on the bumpy path of manhood.

Until then, Toby feels disconnected from who he thinks he should be and the actions he takes. This is on display in the chapter when he steals the family car and it breaks down:

My footsteps were loud on the roadway. I heard them as if they came from somebody else. The movement of my legs began to feel foreign to me, and then the rest of my body, foreign and unconvincing, as if I were only pretending to be someone. I watched this body clomp along. I was outside it, watching it without belief. Its imitation of purpose seemed absurd and frightening. I did not know what it was, or what was watching it so anxiously, from so far away. (page 175)

He also offer excellent descriptions of other people and places, with an astonishing ability to recall detail—as when he describes the home of the man seducing his mother. Wolff easily encapsulates what a person is like—even as he struggles to define himself. This description of a fellow boarder in Seattle is one of my favorites for its simplicity and insight:

Kathy was young and plain and shy. She stayed in her room most of the time. When people addresses her she would look at them with a drowning expression, then softly ask them to repeat what they had said. (page 38)

Indeed, Wolff offers insight and wisdom throughout the book. It is an account of an irrepressible young boy, to be sure, but it is also the story of an older man looking back on his experiences and tracing the thread of his identity. Some of my favorite observations include:
• “Power can be enjoyed only when it is recognized and feared.” (page 25)
• “I recognized no obstacle to miraculous change but the incredulity of others. This was an idea that died hard, if it ever really died at all.” (page 89)
• “Whatever it is that makes closeness possible between people also puts them in the way of hard feelings if that closeness ends.” (page 217)

Ultimately, Wolff does begin to discover who he is, but the road is not easy. Is it ever?

Interested? Read it for yourself! Buy This Boy’s Life from an independent bookstore or Amazon (Kindle version is available).

“I Was Told There’d Be Cake” by Sloane Crosley

I Was Told There'd Be CakeTitle: I Was Told There’d Be Cake
Author: Sloane Crosley
ISBN: 9781594483066
Pages: 240
Release date: April 1, 2008
Publisher: Riverhead
Genre: Nonfiction: essays
Format: Paperback
Source: Personal collection (memoir class)
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Sloane Crosley didn’t grow up in a broken home, or a broken neighborhood. She wasn’t abused and didn’t abuse alcohol or drugs. She has two loving parents and one fun sister, and very few truly bad things seemed to have happened to her.

As a memoirist, she might have mourned her bad luck. Instead she turned lemonade into a gin shandy.

Crosley’s collection of essays, I Was Told There’d Be Cake, finds meaning and hilarity in the mundane. From recovering after painful breakups to memories of summer camp to being locked out of her apartment, Crosley brings wisdom and snark to what seems like a very average life.

In fact, her average life allows the reader easily to imagine herself in those situations—and to think of them with good humor and perhaps a new perspective. Everything about her seems relateable, and she has a consistent (and consistently uproarious) point of view. And this isn’t just her childhood diary splashed down on the page; she thinks carefully about scenes and experiences common to most people that will illustrate her points.

Crosley’s voice is strong, and it really carries the book, uniting an otherwise disparate collection. She uses humor at every turn to engage her audience—like when she discusses changing her name: “It’s like imagining myself with a penis. Sure, I’ve seen them used but I’m not quite sure what I would do with one.” Or, in an unrelated piece:

Unfortunately, after a certain age, it becomes difficult to share any news with your parents that begins with ‘I have something to tell you’ without sensing the hopeful expectation behind their voices: they want me to be a lesbian. That would explain so much for them…

The author is at her best when she lets her imagination run loose, as when she describes alternate histories for herself or her characters—as when she imagines what life would be like being from Europe or somewhere other than the suburbs:

These are places in which people are casually trilingual and everyone knows how to make good coffee and gourmet dinners at home without having to shop for specific ingredients. Everyone has hip European sneakers that effortlessly look like the exact pair you’ve been searching for your whole life. Everything is sweetened with honey and even the generic-brand Q-tips are aesthetically packaged. People die from old age or crimes of passion or because they fall off glaciers.

Or when her bridezilla friend announces she won’t keep her last name–and neither will her new husband:

I had a vision of Boris and Francine with no last names, falling off the grid somewhere in Idaho, living off the fat of the land, forgoing utensils and property tax and having a dog named Bark and a kid named Slipper Bubble.

When she comes back to reality, the truth is even more hilarious and unexpected: In the case of the last example, they’re both changing their last name to Universe.

Crosley is endlessly imaginative and a master of characterization. Yet she is disciplined, reining in her wild ideas before they trample over the narrative.
I like how she adds philosophical meaning to every story—themes that extend beyond the anecdotes she relates. Despite her snark, she’s wise and insightful, like when she wonders, “What am I asking when I ask for a [plastic] pony but to be taken for more unique than I probably am?”

It drives home the point that the quality of writing is what matters, not necessarily the experiences themselves. Sure, it’s great if you have a marvelous/crazy scene from your childhood, but Crosley teaches that you can find good material in anything if you think about it long enough.

Of course, the book may not be for everyone. I can identify with Crosley’s experiences, as an unmarried, college-educated, white, twenty-something woman myself–but I could see how being outside the target audience could be alienating. However, I enjoyed the book, and recommend it if you’re in the mood for something light and fun.

Quote of note: “I think husbands are like tattoos–you should wait until you come across something you want on your body for the rest of your life…”

Interested? Read it for yourself! Buy I Was Told There’d Be Cake from an independent bookstore or Amazon (Kindle version is available).

February Reads

Have you heard about FridayReads?

It began on Twitter with the hashtag #fridayreads, and quickly spread to other social networking sites, including Facebook. The idea is delightfully simple: Tell your friends what you are reading each week, whether it’s a book, magazine, newspaper, report–anything!

While the founders recently came under fire for promoting certain authors’ books through the meme, I can’t stay mad at FridayReads for very long. After all, what can be better than encouraging people to read–and to share their opinions with their friends?

That brings me to my February reading plans. This month, I’ve already begun All There Is, a collection of love stories edited by Dave Isay, and War by Sebastian Junger on audiobook. Next, I’m planning to take on The Lantern by Deborah Lawrenson and The Taker by Alma Katsu. February is a short month, but I’m hoping to round it out with Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin.

In addition, I’m planning to get caught up on my National Geographic Traveler subscription, and begin reading this month’s Esquire–featuring none other than President Bill Clinton.

What about you–what are you reading?

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