It’s time for another round of What Are You Reading! I’m sure many of you got something to read – a book, an ebook – for Christmas. Mike gave me the fourth book in the Game of Thrones series – A Feast for Crows. I’m excited to read it, but I already started The Hobbit and feel like I have to finish that. To be honest, it’s boring me a bit, but on the off chance that I actually go see the movie when it comes out (right! like I ever go to the movies anymore), it will be more fun to have recently read the book.
I’m going to be plundering Suburban Prairie‘s book lists to create a reading to-do list via the library. I usually just grab whatever looks interesting in the 2.5 seconds I have to peruse books with a toddler in tow, but I would like to try reading some things that I want to read in the next few months! If you haven’t checked out Kristine’s Twelve Days of Christmas book reviews, you really should. So many good ideas for bookworms.
Here’s what I’ve read in the last month or so:
Favorite Wife: Escape From Polygamy by Susan Ray Schmidt. This memoir of a former polygamist wife was surprisingly complex and fascinating; I was impressed by the writing, which read more like a novel than an autobiography. Not all memoirs can pull off the trick of bringing you into the headspace of the author as they were then and letting you draw out most of the insights and lessons yourself, but Schmidt is incredibly deft at this. She became the 6th wife of Verlan LeBaron, a Mormon fundamentalist living in Mexico in the 60s and 70s, when she was only 15 years old. Raised in the polygamist cult founded by Verlan’s brother Joel, Schmidt takes responsibility for her own role in her life story – she chose Verlan as her spouse – while showing the reader how the adults (especially adult men, of course) in the cult gave young girls the illusion of choice and manipulated them into miserable lives as polygamist wives.
Verlan eventually had 10 wives and 58 children, all of them living in squalor and seeing him only a handful of times a year – just long enough for the wives to get pregnant again – as he gave all his money and time to the church. This is NOT an episode of Big Love; most of the wives were not friends and some did not speak to each other at all. They lived in utter poverty, at times borderline starvation, and were socially isolated in harsh Mexican landscapes without even the barest minimum of modern conveniences. The idea of being pregnant with young children and having to HAUL WATER and use an outhouse makes me shiver. In a crazy twist to this intimate story, Verlan’s other brother Ervil, the EVIL brother, ended up splitting off into a fringe cult that went on a killing spree among Mormons and polygamists in the Southwest in the 70s, eventually getting caught and dying in prison. Another side note: one of Schmidt’s sister wives, Irene Spencer, also wrote a memoir of her polygamist life called Shattered Dreams.
Electroboy: A Memoir of Mania by Andy Behrman. Another random grab at the library, I felt conflicted about this memoir of manic depression all the way through, and many reviews I’ve seen have said exactly what I thought about it – the element of schadenfreude fuels the readability of this book but ultimately leaves you feeling a little icky. Behrman went undiagnosed (or improperly diagnosed as depressed) for many years in which he indulged in risky sex with strangers and prostitutes, binged on drugs and alcohol, cheated and stole during his career as (mostly) a PR rep, committed an art fraud for which he was tried and convicted, and resorted to electroshock therapy but quit when he realized he was addicted to the treatments. All of these insane episodes are recounted in the book, but despite some lip service to the pain his mental illness caused to himself and others, it’s not at all clear that Behrman is capable of any true self-reflection in the end. I have seen a review that remarked on the “flat” aspect of the narration, which is cleverly observed: the happy ending (he now lives a normal life on an ever-changing combo of meds) is strangely hollow and I couldn’t help but feel that Behrman seems to have a “sorry I got caught” attitude about his life story. After all the unethical things he had done in the PR industry – which he turned into a con game more than public relations – he ends up back in PR at the end of his journey (and is now a consultant to people with mental illness, whatever that means!). Without a convincing redemption at the conclusion, I just felt that I had been taken on a voyeuristic ride and a bit conned myself.
How the World Makes Love: and What it Taught a Jilted Groom by Franz Wisner. This memoir was almost the opposite of Electroboy, in that the reading of it was dull beyond belief, but the story was rather nice and heartwarming. Wisner has a previous book called Honeymoon With My Brother, which was about a time he was jilted at the altar and went on his honeymoon anyway, taking his brother with him on an extended world tour. In this one he attempts to play his 15 minutes out a little further by again embarking on a worldwide journey with his brother, this time to investigate how people across the world do love; meanwhile he falls in love with and eventually marries a D list actress back home in LA. There is a bit of interesting information in it about different wedding and marriage customs, but not of it really hangs together, drives the story, or seems terribly meaningful. It all feels a bit amateurish as he neatly but boringly executes this facile structure of Facts About Love! interspersed with Personal Love Story!. Aaand they all lived Happily Ever After, who cares, the end.
The Beginners by Rebecca Wolff. Oh man, I was on a roll of duds this past month, wasn’t I? Here was another book I just didn’t like very much, this one a novel about a teenager (Ginger) who becomes enmeshed in the strange relationship of a young adult couple (the Motherwells) who move to a small town for mysterious purposes. I wanted to like this all the way through, because it is intriguing and the writing at times is beautiful. But it was all very writer’s workshoppy – trying waaayyy too hard to be deep, obscuring its lack of plot or character development with a whole lot of pretty words and evocative scenes. Apparently Wolff is better known as a poet, which makes sense, as she is definitely going for imagery over realism – some of the imagery, though, is heavy handed and a little obvious. Crows? And the crows by themselves aren’t clear enough, you have to later explicitly compare the Motherwells to a pair of crows? While things do actually happen in the course of the story, it all ultimately feels like a dream (which, I’m sure not coincidentally, is a prominent motif) – it’s weird and creepy and makes you want it to mean something but just feels random and kind of pointless.