One-Minute Book Reviews

October 16, 2007

Katha Pollitt Steers Into the Skids of Female Experience in Her Elegant Collection of Essays, ‘Learning to Drive’

As if loving a womanizer wasn’t enough, there was the bad food at literary parties

Learning to Drive: And Other Life Stories. By Katha Pollitt. Random House, 207 pp., $22.95

By Janice Harayda

Suppose that the entire female sex were put on trial for all the sins that women are regularly accused of – from taking maternity leaves at inconvenient times to failing to get the right kind of bikini wax (“a discreet triangle, not a landing strip,” Tatler magazine warns). Whom would you want as the defense attorney?

Susan Faludi is focusing on the effects of terrorism. Anna Quindlen has become a novelist and Gloria Steinem the author of a book on self-esteem. Barbara Ehrenreich might turn the trial into a referendum on capitalism, and Maureen Dowd might get cute and refer to women as “Ws.” Ellen Goodman has defended women admirably for years, but her only child left home two decades ago, and she might lack a ready fund of anecdotes on, say, the latest insults inflicted on mothers in Snuglis.

So I’d go with Katha Pollitt, the poet and political columnist for The Nation. Her new Learning to Drive is an elegant and often witty collection of 10 personal essays that, in many ways, resembles Nora Ephron’s I Feel Bad About My Neck. Some of the pieces in both books first appeared in The New Yorker. And Pollitt’s book, like Ephron’s, is about her experiences in her varied roles — wife, mother, girlfriend, daughter, Upper West Sider, psychotherapy dropout, writer.

But Learning to Drive has more bite and depth than I Feel Bad About My Neck, which showed the influence of the magazines and newspapers in which its essays appeared. You had the sense that Ephron, good as she is, was saying only as much as her editors would allow. Pollitt has held onto more of herself. She’s writing to her own standards, not those of an editor, and the result is a more unified book.

Each of Pollitt’s essays deals with a personal experience – her efforts to learn to drive, the birth of her daughter, the death of her father or mother, the realization that the man she lived with had been cheating for almost the whole time. But her writing is never just about her. Her essays always comment on an aspect of female or human experience. When she realizes that her lover has been unfaithful, she reflects:

“They say philanderers are attractive to women because of the thrill of the chase – you want to be the one to capture and tame that wild quarry. But what if a deeper truth is that women fall for such men because they want to be those men? Autonomous, in charge, making their own rules.”

Pollitt structures her essays carefully as short stories, and some people appear in more than one. So Learning to Drive resembles resembles a cycle of stories more than an essay collection. Given the slapdash quality of so many such books, this alone might make the book noteworthy.

But Pollitt, at her best, is also extremely witty. She shows a perverse optimism in the bleakest of situations (which might explain, better than anything in her book, why she stayed with that womanizer). One memorable scene describes a party for a friend who had written a book lionized by critics — an event that should have been joyful. Instead it was edged with gloom. The novelists and short-story writers commiserated about the declining audience for fiction – “even calling readers ‘the audience’ tells you there’s a problem” – and were fed a miserly ration of nuts and cherry tomatoes.

“Soon writers will be consoling themselves that at least they’re not classical musicians,” she writes. “Those people are really screwed.”

Best line: Pollitt laments that there are no good words to describe being over 50: “‘Older’ raises the question of ‘older than whom?’ Midlife is the upbeat new euphemism – there you are, in the thick of it! – but a 55-year-old person is in the middle of his life only if he’s going to live to 110. ‘Middle-aged’ sounds tired and plodding, almost as bad as ‘aging’ – and ‘aging’ is sad and pitiful, an insult even though it’s actually universally applicable. A 50-year-old is aging at the same rate as a baby or a tree or a bottle of wine, exactly one second per second.”

Worst line: On the differences between the sexes: “Women just have more sense, and they are made of more enduring materials, too. More than half the male members of the Donner Party died of cold and starvation, but three quarters of the females survived, saved by that extra layer of fat we spend our lives trying to get rid of.” Leaving aside the we’re-just-better logic, the inexact math of this was confusing: Wouldn’t it make sense to compare the percentage of men who died with the percentage of women who died? Did roughly 51 or 52 percent of the men die and exactly 25 percent of the women? Looking for the precise figures, I went to the Donner Party site for the Oregon-California Trails Association www.utahcrossroads.org and found that its numbers disagreed with Pollitt’s. “Two-thirds of the women survived; two-thirds of the men died,” the site says.

Reading group guide: If you’re reading this on the home page of One-Minute Book Reviews, scroll down one post to find a Totally Authorized Reading Group Guide to Learning to Drive. If you’re reading this on another page on the site or on the Web, click on this link to find the guide: www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/10/16/.

Editor: Daniel Menaker

Cover story: A review of the cover of Learning to Drive will appear tomorrow. I was going to include it here, but my comments would have made this post too long. Sean Lindsay at the terrific site 101 Reasons to Stop Writing www.101reasonstostopwriting.com sent me easy directions for inserting images, so starting tomorrow, you’ll also see some full color here instead of just duotone.

Published: September 2007 www.kathapollitt.blogspot.com and www.randomhouse.com.

Furthermore: Pollitt wrote Virginity or Death! and other books. She has won two National Magazine Awards for essays and criticism and a National Book Critics Circle Award www.bookcritics.org for her poetry collection, Antarctic Traveller.

Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com has been the book critic for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critic Circle. She was not involved in the NBCC award received by Pollitt.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Katha Pollitt’s ‘Learning to Drive’

10 Discussion Questions

Learning to Drive: And Other Life Stories
By Katha Pollitt
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews
http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

 

This guide for reading groups and others was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. It is copyrighted by Janice Harayda and is only for your personal use. Its sale or reproduction is illegal except by public libraries, which may reproduce it for use in their in-house reading programs. Others who wish to use this guide should link to it or check the “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce it.

Katha Pollitt steers into the skids of female experience in Learning to Drive, a collection of 10 elegant and often witty essays about her many roles – wife, mother, daughter, girlfriend, Upper West Sider, psychotherapy dropout, writer. Like Nora Ephron’s I Feel Bad About My Neck, this book deals in part with the ironies and absurdities inherent in cultural expectations of women, particularly those over 50.

Questions for Readers

1. Pollitt says in her first essay that she’s 52 and learning to drive a car because a man she lived with for seven years has left her. At the end of the book, she still doesn’t seem to have passed her road test. But she has learned a few things about life. Which impressed you the most? What did you learn from Learning to Drive?

2. We find out on the second page that Pollitt’s lover was cheating on her almost from the start. From then on, a central question of the book becomes the one posed in different form on page 57, “How could I have been so stupid?” What’s Pollitt’s answer? What’s yours?

3. “They say philanderers are attractive to women because of the thrill of the chase – you want to be the one to capture and tame that wild quarry,” Pollitt writes. “But what if a deeper truth is that women fall for such men because they want to be those men? Autonomous, in charge, making their own rules.” [Page 63] Do you think that women are attracted to philanderers? Or do you think they simply put up with them? If so, why do they tolerate them? In those lines Pollitt deals only with the psychological reasons why women stay with philanders. Might there be other reasons – sexual, financial, social? What are they? How does Pollitt’s view of womanizers differ from those you’ve seen on Sex and the City and in other media?

4. In “After the Men Are Dead” Pollitt reflects on what life will be like for women when they have outlived their husbands and other men. Would it be “restful” not to have to think about “love, romance, sex, pleasing, listening, encouraging, smiling at the old jokes” and all the ways in which women accommodate men’s needs and expectations? [Page 79] Would you find it restful, sad or both?

5. The essay “Beautiful Screamer” deals partly with a paradox of having an infant or young child. As Pollitt sees it, motherhood was “so important, so necessary” that it placed you at the center of life: “At the same time, it marginalized you totally.” [Page 112] Pollitt felt sidelined partly because she faced new physical limits – the post office banned strollers. [Page 114] She also felt excluded in more subtle ways. What were they? If you’re a mother, do you agree that motherhood isolates you? Why?

6. Single or childless people who live in suburbs or small towns that are billed as “family-friendly” might disagree with the views Pollitt expresses in “Beautiful Screamer.” They might say that they feel isolated because so much of the social life revolves around children’s school, sports or other activities. How do the views of the mothers in your group differ from those of the childless members?

7. Pollitt writes about her father in “Good-bye, Lenin” and her mother in “Mrs. Razzmatazz.” Does either parent come off better than the other? Why?

8. Pollitt laments that there are no good words to describe her time of life. “‘Older’ raises the question of ‘older than whom?’ Midlife is the upbeat new euphemism – there you are, in the thick of it! – but a 55-year-old person is in the middle of his life only if he’s going to live to 110. ‘Middle-aged’ sounds tired and plodding, almost as bad as ‘aging’ – and ‘aging’ is sad an pitiful, an insult even though it’s actually universally applicable. A 50-year-old is aging at the same rate as a baby or a tree or a bottle of wine, exactly one second per second.” [Page 196] What effect do these terms have on you? On our society? What word or words would you use for what some people call “the last trimester of life”?

9. A backlash may be growing against those magazine articles with titles like “Fabulous at Fifty.” Pollitt challenges this kind of aggressive cheerleading. So did Nora Ephron in her essays in I Feel Bad About My Neck and Virginia Ironside in her comic novel, No! I Don’t Want to Join a Book Club. Is the backlash overdue or unfair? Which of the books that you’ve read makes the best case for a more nuanced view of life after 50?

10. Pollitt writes from a feminist perspective. This is clearest in lines such as: “Feminism was supposed to be about the things women had in common, and I had always thought of myself as someone who liked women. When someone – usually a woman; in fact, always a woman – said I ‘thought like a man’ I felt insulted for both women and myself; it was as if I was being expelled from the tribe.” [Pages 61-62] What do you think feminism is “about” in 2007? How would you react if someone said that you “thought like a man”?

Vital statistics:
Learning to Drive: And Other Life Stories. By Katha Pollitt. Random House, 207 pp., $22.95. Published: September 2007. A review of Learning to Drive appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Oct. 16, 2007 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/10/16/.

Links: www.kathapollitt.blogspot.com and www.randomhouse.com

Your book group may also want to read:

I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman. By Nora Ephron. Knopf, 137 pp., $19.95. Review: Essays about being over 60 by the author of Heartburn. Ephron covers some of the topics that Pollitt does — faithless men, life on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, the pressure to conform to idealized images of women – and your group might compare their views on these. Review: www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2006/10/14/ms-ephron-regrets/. Reading group guide: www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/03/20/.

Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com is an award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept free books from editors, publishers or authors, and all reviews and guides offer an independent evaluation of books that is not influenced by marketing concerns.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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June 15, 2007

The Five People You Meet on a Golf Course: Billy Mott’s Novel, ‘The Back Nine’

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:56 am
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

An actor and caddy tees off with a tale of a 40-year-old man who, out of the blue, becomes the best player in golf

Finished The Back Nine (Knopf, $24), which I quoted in a post earlier this week. And while I don’t know the author’s golf handicap, his writing handicap is about a 12. Billy Mott is a Los Angeles actor and caddy who deftly evokes the tedium, servility and ruthlessness of the caddy shack at a California golf club. But his novel is otherwise pure escapist fiction: stock characters and a far-fetched plot with lots of golf play-by-play and an overlay of Mitch Albom–style sentimentality about father-son relations. At the age of 40, washed-up Charlie MacLeod returns to a sport that he abandoned years earlier and, out of the blue, becomes the best player in golf while falling into the orbit of a nasty group of high-rollers who bet on matches. Can he maintain his integrity when confronted by people with nicknames like the Czar? What would Mitch Albom say?

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

June 11, 2007

The Bluebird of Unhappiness: ‘The Empty Nest,’ Edited by Karen Stabiner

What happens when the parents are home alone instead of the children?

[Note: This review has been expanded since the original post.]

The Empty Nest: 31 Parents Tell the Truth About Relationships, Love, and Freedom After the Kids Fly the Coop. Edited by Karen Stabiner. Hyperion/Voice, 320 pp., $23.95.

By Janice Harayda

Just last week, a professor of family studies told the Washington Post that the idea of the empty-nest syndrome has been pretty much debunked by scholars. Some parents, she added, feel more regret than others when children leave home. But “it’s not a widespread syndrome” now that e-mail and cell phones make it easier to keep in touch.

Other scholars have found that – contrary to the idea that mothers feel the most pain when the nest empties – men have more problems than women when children leave home. Women expect the departure of children to be difficult, so they plan (and often grieve in advance) for it. Men are less likely to see the event as a major transition, so they don’t prepare as well and express more regrets about lost opportunities to connect with their offspring.

Then why do we need a book that perpetuates some of the ideas scholars have debunked, especially when only seven of 31 contributors are men? Ellen Levine, a former editor-in-chief of Good Housekeeping, says that mothers still have a hard time with separations from their children: “The dads … no problem.” Yet the idea that fathers have “no problem” with separations is exactly what a growing number of scholars – and some men in this book — dispute. If fathers don’t show their grief, all those repressed emotions may catch up with them when the children leave home for good.

A clue to the purpose of The Empty Nest comes from the publisher, which has tagged it “self-help/inspiration.” This is a bizarre label for an essay collection that, with its mix of dread and tears, reads at times like a cross between a Stephen King novel and Paris Hilton’s weepy courtroom outburst on getting sent back to jail.

Editor Karen Stabiner sets the tone when she writes that it will be “intolerable” when her daughter goes to college. Martha Schuur says she sank into “uncontrollable crying” when she dropped her firstborn off at school. Jamie Wolf felt “perpetual despair” when her daughter moved from California to New York. Hilary Mills “dreaded” her son’s “panic-inducing” departure, which became “bleakest day” of her marriage. Fran Visco knows that she could do things like going to Canyon Ranch now that her son’s away, but she’s too “brokenhearted” and lets herself “wallow in the sadness.” An unintentionally comical scene comes from Grace Saltzstein, who began “freaking out” after installing her daughter in an apartment at UCLA. What had unhinged her? Her daughter’s roommates had gotten to the place first … and left her the top bunk! And only one drawer! To judge by survivors’ accounts, many people who went down with the Titanic showed more fortitude as the ship sank than some contributors to The Empty Nest did as they sent their children off to the kind of colleges that provide students with maid service and Asian-fusion meals.

As if to comfort themselves in their trials, an alarming number of writers abandon any qualms they may have had about bragging about their children. Schuur wants you to know that her daughter Kelly is “pure goodness, always there for family and friends.” Glynna Freeman tells us that she has raised “three bright, beautiful, and really nice people.” Annette Duffy reports that if she “mourned” when her son Ben went to school, she was grieving for a child who was “handsome as the day” and “a nationally ranked freestyler.” Fabiola Santiago says that her daughter got into “the top university in our state,” but Susan Crandell one-ups her by pointing out that her child got into “one of the top schools in the country.” Perhaps the most perceptive comment in this book appears in an e-mail Charles “Chip” McGrath got after he wrote a piece for The New Yorker, reprinted in The Empty Nest, about dropping his son off at college. “It’s interesting, and typical, that people who love their children very much approach this moment in their children’s lives with almost total self-absorption,” his correspondent wrote. Almost total?

A striking aspect of many of the women’s stories — more so than in the men’s — is how unwilling their authors are to explore whether anything might be causing their pain except for a child’s departure. Did some women regret having worked so hard and not spending more time with their children? Did they have problems in their marriages and dread spending time alone with a spouse? Did they feel a spiritual void, having made motherhood into a surrogate religion? If so, they aren’t telling. Nor are they telling whether they drank, took Paxil or Prozac or went into therapy, even though some of their symptoms resemble those of clinical depression.

Good statistics on the divorce rate among people over 50 are hard to find, partly because many states don’t record the ages of couples who split up. But experts generally agree that it’s going up, partly because baby boomers’ children are leaving home, and in every generation, many couples wait to separate until the nest empties. Yet not one of the 31 contributors reports that his or her marriage took a serious hit when a child left. Maybe it’s true. Or maybe this is a “feel good about feeling bad book” that legitimizes lesser problems while sweeping bigger ones under the rug.

Stabiner seems to have tried to deflect criticism that this book promotes stereotypes of women by recruiting some feminist firepower. And to a degree, it works. Letty Cottin Pogrebin, Anna Quindlen and Ellen Goodman rise above solipsism in their essays and try put empty nests in a social context. Pogrebin says that her stage of life has advantages: “Not having to worry about where your children are at two in the morning frees you up to worry about global warming.” Quindlen argues, rightly, that her generation has “professionalized” motherhood, but goes around the bend when she concludes that for this reason, “the empty nest is emptier than every before.” No, Anna, your nest will not be “emptier” than that of women like Rochelle Reed’s grandmother, who sent four sons into World War II; one son, Reed writes, “was eaten by sharks after his plane crashed during a South Pacific monsoon.”

Of all the contributors, Goodman grapples most effectively with an issue at the heart of The Empty Nest: Isn’t this book a throwback to the 1950s? Isn’t the departure of children less traumatic now that women have more professional opportunities? Goodman says that she used to think mothers who had rewarding work “might avoid the cliché of an empty-nest syndrome.” But she doubts it now that her daughter has lived away from home for two decades. In her 60s, Goodman hasn’t lost her desire to integrate work and family, so she has revised her juggling act to accommodate a grandchild and stepgrandchild: “Think of it as Juggling Lite.” Her young relations are happy with the arrangement. So the question – for Goodman as for many other parents — has changed. It is no longer “How can I avoid the empty-nest syndrome?” It is, simply, “What empty nest?”

Despite such worthy essays, much of this book remains disheartening. The second wave of feminists fought passionately to show employers and others that women didn’t wallow in emotion but could remain tough and level-headed in the most difficult circumstances. On the evidence of The Empty Nest women are reclaiming their right to wallow. This a book in the Oprah mold, which ascribes more authenticity to experiences the more painful they are. Gloria Steinem used to say that many women were “man junkies.” And like much of our culture as a whole, The Empty Nest leaves the impression that some have become “child junkies” instead. Is it really a step forward to have traded one addiction for another?

Best line: Anna Quindlen’s: “Motherhood has changed from a role into a calling. Our poor kids.” The best overall essays come from McGrath, Goodman and Roxana Robinson.

Worst line: Anna Quindlen’s: “The end result is that the empty nest is emptier than ever before …” Apart from its off-the-wall implication that today’s stay-at-home investment bankers have it worse than parents who saw their children get drafted during the Vietnam War or look for jobs during the Depression, that “end result” is painful, too.

Caveat lector: The review was based on the advance readers’ edition. Some material in the finished book may differ.

Conflict alert: I’ve had encounters with a number of contributors to this book that other critics might or might not see as conflicts. For example, I used to be in a writers’ group with Ellen Goodman’s sister, whom I haven’t seen in nearly 20 years. All the other encounters are all similarly distant.

Reading group guide: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to this book was posted just before this review on June 11 and is archived with the June posts. You can find the publishers’ guide, which is less extensive, at www.everywomansvoice.com.

Editor: Leslie Wells

Published: May 2007

Links: Karen Fingerman, a professor of developmental and family studies at Purdue, spoke about the myth of the empty-nest syndrome in “How to Make the Best of an Empty Nest,” by Jennifer Huget, the Washington Post, June 5, 2007, page HE04. For a discussion of the different effects of the empty nest on men and women, see Rebecca A. Clay’s “An Empty Nest Can Promote Freedom, Improved Relationships” in the American Psychological Association Online, April 2003. To find the article, Google “Rebecca Clay + Empty Nest + APA.”

One-Minute Book Reviews is an independent book review site created by Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com, an award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. It does not accept free books or other materials from editors, publishers or authors. At least 50 percent of the book reviewed on the site are by women. Reviews of books by female authors typically appear on Mondays and Wednesdays and books by male authors on Tuesdays and Thursdays with the other days up for grabs. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides appear frequently but not on a regular schedule.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to ‘The Empty Nest,’ Edited by Karen Stabiner

10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others
The Empty Nest: 31 Parents Tell the Truth About Relationships, Love, and Freedom After the Kids Fly the Coop
Edited by Karen Stabiner

This guide for reading groups and others was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. It is copyrighted by Janice Harayda and is only for your personal use. Its sale or reproduction is illegal except by public libraries, which may reproduce it for use in their in-house reading programs. Other reading groups that wish to use this guide should link to it or check the “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce the guide.

A professor of family studies recently told the Washington Post that the idea of the empty-nest syndrome has been pretty much debunked by scholars. But the departure of children still packed an emotional wallop for many of the 31 parents who describe their experiences in the essay collection The Empty Nest, edited by Karen Stabiner. The contributors to the book include men and women, married and single parents and little-known authors and celebrities such as syndicated columnist Ellen Goodman and novelist and journalist Anna Quindlen.

Hyperion/Voice has posted a brief readers’ guide to The Empty Nest at www.everywomansvoice.com that you may want to use at a starting point for your discussions. But like most publishers’ guides, that guide is part of a publicity campaign designed to sell books. It does not encourage criticism, cite negative reviews or suggest that you compare the novel to others on similar topics. For these reasons, the Hyperion/Voice guide may have less depth or promote a less lively conversation than you or your group would prefer. The following Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide is not intended to be comprehensive but to raise questions not covered by the Hyperion/Voice guide.

Questions for Readers

[Page numbers are based on the advance readers’ edition and may differ in the final version.]

1. Many experts have come to see the empty-nest syndrome as myth. Do you agree or disagree with them? How did the book affect your view of this issue?

2. If you agree with the experts who say that the negative effects of the empty nest were exaggerated, why do you think they were exaggerated?

3. Some researchers have found that effects of the empty nest are actually worse for fathers than for mothers. One reason is that women expect to face big changes when children leave home and start planning – and even grieving – before this happens. Men are less likely to prepare for the loss. So they are more likely to be emotionally blindsided by the departure. How do these findings jibe with your experiences and those of people you know?

4. A reviewer for the New York Times Book Review said that The Empty Nest “probably is an exercise in creative catharsis” for the contributors. What do you think the reviewer meant? Was the comment a criticism or compliment? [“Get Out. No, Wait, Come Back!” By Liesl Schillinger. The New York Times Book Review, April 8, 2007 pp. 9–10.]

5. Anna Quindlen says that the women of her generation “professionalized” mothering – for example, by sometimes “making motherhood into a surrogate work world.” At the same time, she adds, “Motherhood changed from a role into a calling.” What’s your reaction to this? Who saw motherhood as more of a “calling,” you or your mother (or grandmother)?

6. Quindlen also says that because of all the “professionalization” of mothering, “the empty nest is emptier than ever before.” Do you agree or disagree? Which generation had a harder time when children left home, yours or your parents’?

7. Marriages often break up when a nest empties, because some parents “stay together for the sake of the children.” Yet not one marriage in The Empty Next seems to have taken a major hit. Did you find this realistic or true to the experiences of women you know? Or did you get the sense that some writers were “spinning” their stories? Or that Stabiner had looked for a certain kind of person for the book?

8. Ellen Goodman writes that she used to think that mothers who had jobs outside the home “might avoid the cliché of the empty-nest syndrome.” Now that she’s in her 60s, she doubts it. What’s your view of this? How does having a job outside the home affect (or not affect) a parent’s reactions to children’s departures?

9. Ellen Levine said that she once found herself “whining” that her son didn’t call as much to talk to her. Some people might say that a lot of parents in The Empty Nest are whining. How did this affect the book? Would it have been stronger if Stabiner had included more writers who didn’t talk so much about their pain? Or were their comments appropriate?

10. One brave contributor, Jan Constantine, admitted that she was actually relieved when her daughter Elizabeth left for the University of Wisconsin. Or, as she put it: “I don’t know which of the two of us, Elizabeth or I, was more relieved to see the other one leave.” [Page 200] Why do you think more parents didn’t make similar comments? Do you think that they weren’t relieved or just felt they shouldn’t say it?

If you dare:
11. Letty Cottin Pogrebin says that one of the things she learned about the empty nest is: “You lose a kid, you gain a sex life.” True or false?

Extra:
12. Nora Ephron writes briefly about her own empty nest in “Parenting in Three Stages,” an essay in I Feel Bad About My Neck (Knopf, 2006). “If you find yourself nostalgic for the ongoing, day-to-day activities required of the modern parent, there’s a solution: Get a dog,” she says. “I don’t recommend it, because dogs require tremendous commitment, but they definitely give you something to do. Plus they’re very lovable and, more important, uncritical. And they can be trained.” [Page 64] Glib as it might seems to be, this comment makes a subtle point: Sometimes what we feel when children leave home is pure nostalgia. What’s your reaction to this? How does it compare to the tone of The Empty Nest? If you’ve read I Feel Bad About My Neck, which book do you think had more value for empty-nesters?

Vital statistics
The Empty Nest: 31 Parents Tell the Truth About Relationships, Love, and Freedom After the Kids Fly the Coop. Edited by Karen Stabiner. Hyperion/Voice, 320 pp., $23.95.

A review of The Empty Nest appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on June 11, 2007, and is archived with the June posts and in the “Essays and Reviews” category.

Your book group may also want to read:

1. I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman. By Nora Ephron. Knopf, 137 pp., $19.95. In this best-selling essay collection, Ephron writes about her empty nest and related topics in a short piece “Parenting in Three Stages.” I Feel Bad About My Neck was reviewed on One-Minute Book Reviews on Oct. 14, 2006, and is archived with the October posts.

2. No! I Don’t Want to Join a Book Club: Diary of a 60th Year. By Virginia Ironside. Viking, 231 pp., $24.95. This comic novel focuses on Marie Sharp, a divorced 60-year-old London grandmother who becomes a grandmother for the first time and sees her stage of life differently than do most contributors to The Empty Nest. No! I Don’t Want to Join a Book Club was reviewed on One-Minute Book Reviews on May, 2007, and is archived with the May posts:
http://oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/05/29/

Janice Harayda is an award-winning critic has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept free books from editors, publishers or authors, and all reviews and guides offer an independent evaluation of books that is not influenced by marketing concerns. If this guide helped you, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides appear frequently but not on a regular schedule.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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May 17, 2007

Nigel Marsh’s ‘Fat, Forty, and Fired,’ a Memoir of Unemployment

An English advertising executive in Australia discovers that – surprise – caring for his children is harder than he thought

Fat, Forty, and Fired: One Man’s Frank, Funny and Inspiring Account of Leaving His Job and Finding His Life. By Nigel Marsh. Andrews McMeel, 288 pp., $19.95.

By Janice Harayda

A couple of decades ago, American newspapers regularly published articles by men who had decided to stay home with their children and realized – to their amazement – that the work their wives did was actually hard. These gee-whiz accounts became a journalistic cliché fast enough that they have pretty well played themselves out here.

But apparently the trend still has life in Australia, where Nigel Marsh’s memoir of nine months at home with his family earned him spot next to Dan Brown and John Grisham on the bestseller lists. Not that Marsh signed on for the project as willingly as some of those former American “househusbands” who have since been recast as “stay-at-home dads.” Born and raised in England, he was the CEO of an advertising agency when a merger left him jobless. Instead of going right back to work, he decided that he wanted to stop being “a bit player in my own family” and spend more time with his wife, Kate, and four children under the age of 9.

Fat, Forty, and Fired is a breezy account of this experience that reads at times like a book fished out of an American time capsule from the 1980s, or a treatment for an offbeat Australian version of The Simple Life with the author alternately playing the roles of Paris Hilton, Nicole Richie and one of their hosts. Marsh pats himself on the back when his stint as a school cafeteria volunteer goes well, and he’s irritated when his wife doesn’t “thank” him for dressing his twin daughters. Fortunately, Kate sets him straight quickly: “Why should I thank you when you do the basic things that you should be doing anyway?” And his book becomes more interesting as he flings himself other goals – to lose 30 pounds, train for an ocean swimming race, and conquer the alcoholism that he’d been denying even while knocking back six beers a night after work.

By the end of the nine months, Marsh has achieved several of his aims. But his hope of achieving “a more balanced life” is another matter. Recidivism sets in almost as soon as he takes a new job as CEO of Leo Burnett Australia. And he concludes that all the books and articles that tell men how to achieve “work-life balance” are not only misguided but part of the problem, because men can’t “have it all” any more than women can. That may be true, you have the sense that he’s known that all along. So what did he really gain from his experience?

In his time off, he quit drinking, lost weight and had many lyrical moments with his children, who play amusing and at times poignant roles in the book. And such gains, he suggests, were enough. “I may be struggling,” he admits, “but the struggle is slightly more enjoyable less damaging to those around me than it was a year ago.”

Best line: One of the strongest chapters deals with how people reacted after learning that Marsh had quit drinking. One group insisted bizarrely that he’d never had a problem with alcohol: “I was somehow offending these people’s sense of what a ‘real’ drunk’s story should be. I wasn’t a professional drunk – I was merely third division. Pathetic. My life hadn’t gone off the rails enough for them. If only I could have an affair, lose my job, or maim someone in an accident, I’d be a first-class guy. It just didn’t impress these people that I stopped before a dramatic disaster befell me.”

Worst line: Marsh’s treatment of most subjects is skin deep and sinks into psychobabble when he tries to sum up what he learned from his time off. He says the hiatus “started me on a personal journey” and that “I’m basically working on the habit of counting my blessings, not whining about the challenges.”

Reading group guide: A readers’ guide to Fat, Forty, and Fired was posted, before this review, on May 17, 2007, and is archived in the Totally Authorized Reading Group Guides category. This is guide is not just for book clubs but is also for individual readers who would like to learn more about the book.

Caveat lector: This review was based on the advance readers’ edition. Some material in the finished book may differ.

Published: April 2007

Links: www.fatfortyandfired.com

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

November 29, 2006

Judsen Culbreth Tells How, in Her 50s, She Found Love and Marriage on the Internet

A lively guide to finding a mate — or a New Year’s Eve date — online when you can remember watching The Mary Tyler Moore Show on a TV set with knobs

The Boomers’ Guide to Online Dating: Date With Dignity. By Judsen Culbreth. Rodale, 230 pp., $12.95.

Think you’d have a better chance of winning a Pillsbury Bake-Off than lining up a date for New Year’s Eve this year? Feel sure you won’t find love until you lose the crow’s feet or the saddlebags?

Judsen Culbreth disagrees. Divorced at the age of 49, she expected her many friends to fix her up. After two years in the single lane, she’d gone on two blind dates. She had similar luck meeting men on her own, so she decided to try online matchmaking.

“Two days after posting on an Internet dating site and asking for matches within a 50-mile radius of Manhattan, I had 84 responses,” she writes. “Over the next year, I posted my profile on six sites. I screened thousands of men, corresponded with more than 100 of them, and liked 25 well enough to meet in person.” The result? She found and married “the man I prayed for.” And she tells how she did it in The Boomers’ Guide to Online Dating, a lively how-to book for what she calls “the mature woman.”

A former editor-in-chief of Working Mother, Culbreth offers smart and practical advice on topics from the pros and cons of well-known dating sites to getting sexually involved after meeting online. In a chapter on how to write a compelling profile, she tells what doesn’t work along with what does. Among the nonstarters: taglines or other come-ons that are hostile or bleak: “NO HEAD GAMES,”“RU NORMAL?” or “MAKE ME SMILE AGAIN.” Would you want to go out with someone who had forgotten how to smile?

As for that New Year’s Eve date you know you won’t have, Culbreth encourages you not to be so sure. She believes online dating can work even if you keep telling yourself, “I want to get a face-lift first” or “I need to lost 25 pounds.” Waiting until you’re perfect may make you older, but not wiser. “I’m all in favor of self-improvement,” she says, “but your social life can move forward online while the metamorphosis takes place.”

Best line: “Almost every site will ask about your age, children, education, occupation, religion, ethnicity, height, and weight. Be absolutely honest. You can’t recover from misrepresenting yourself.”

Worst line: None. But this book came out before the surge in popularity of a new feature on some sites that lets members post comments about others. I agree that “you don’t have to reply to all the men who contact you,” but I would add that failing to respond could get you slammed on a site by people who expect a reply.

Recommended if … if you’re a woman in her mid-30s or older who wants recharge her social life. This book has useful for information for any female reader of a certain age, not just baby boomers.

Editor: Jennifer Kushnier

Published: August 2005. Author: www.judsenculbreth.com

Conflict alert: Judsen Culbreth is one of my closest friends, I am in her acknowledgments, and I would no sooner give her bad review than I would ask Dick Cheney to be my friend on a social networking site. If I didn’t like a book Judsen had written, I wouldn’t review it. I like this one, and that’s why I’ve reviewed it.

Janice Harayda
© 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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