On Being 40(ish) ed. by Lindsey Mead

These collected essays about the milestone 4-0 remind readers to laugh, cry and hope.

In On Being 40(ish), 15 women muse on what being 40 years old–give or take–means in their lives. This anthology, edited by freelance writer Lindsey Mead, offers diverse viewpoints and concerns but as a whole aims to inspire. As Mead writes in her introduction, “These are not reflections on the dying of the light, but rather a full-throated celebration of what it means to be an adult woman at this moment in history.”

The contents are varied, including celebrations, uncertainties and elegies. Some writers mourn losses, some rejoice at new beginnings; some are concerned with the existential, some more lightheartedly concerned with changing appearances. Lee Woodruff writes about her mother’s 40th birthday, her own and what she hopes to pass down to her own daughters. Taffy Brodesser-Akner writes about time, which “happens no matter what you’re doing with it.” The quickness with which years pass is a theme across these essays, as is the victory involved in aging: “by forty, we know who we are,” Jill Kargman writes. “When we are young, we are diluted versions of ourselves. We become balsamic reductions as we age–our very best parts distilled and clarified.”

Allison Winn Scotch writes about accepting the unexpected when a devastating injury interrupts plans for a trip to Mexico. She closes: “I worried that my injury would upend everything. It turns out that it did.” And that’s a happy ending.

On Being 40(ish) is mostly about happy endings; or the ongoingness of life–its not ending at all, not yet. This is an anthology for women of all ages and all perspectives.


This review originally ran in the March 19, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 6 rainbow suspenders.

What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About: Fifteen Writers Break the Silence ed. by Michele Filgate

Diverse writers answer the title’s prompt with essays that are cutting, furious, delicate, generous and everything in between.

Literary Hub contributing editor Michele Filgate thought she was writing an essay about her stepfather’s abuse, but it turned out she was really writing about the relationship with her mother that allowed such abuse to continue. After years of work, her essay was eventually published by Longreads under the title “What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About.” Readers and writers responded strongly, and Filgate’s piece now leads this astonishing anthology.

What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About: Fifteen Writers Break the Silence follows that essay with a breathtaking range of responses. Filgate writes, “Mothers are idealized as protectors: a person who is caring and giving and who builds a person up rather than knocking them down. But very few of us can say that our mothers check all of these boxes. In many ways, a mother is set up to fail.” And while many of the essayists featured here reproach mothers who have hurt them, there are also apologies, confessions and unsolved mysteries. These essays bring many perspectives and deal in self-awareness, too.

In “Thesmophoria,” Melissa Febos considers her close relationship with her psychotherapist mother by recalling myths, chiefly that of Persephone and Demeter. “We often love the things that abduct us.” Brandon Taylor wrestles with the pain his mother has caused: “It’s strange, really, that to grasp that which has hurt you, you must trust it not to hurt you when you let it inhabit you”–or when you write about it.

Alexander Chee hides the abuse he’s suffered from his mother because of the tragedy they’ve endured together: “This is how we got each other through.” Dylan Landis seeks to understand her mother better through an old apartment building, and a possible former lover. Amid the layered traumas of race, nation and gender, Kiese Laymon asks his mother: “Can we please get better at loving each other in America?” Carmen Maria Machado finds her own conflicted feelings about parenthood linked to her mother’s harsh treatment. And AndrĂ© Aciman considers his deaf mother’s language, separate from words, and what it taught him.

Leslie Jamison closes the anthology with an essay exploring her mother through the eyes of an outsider to the family unit: her mother’s first husband’s unpublished novel about their marriage. It is a fitting conclusion, with that surprise perspective and a careful, loving attention to the woman who came before the mother.

These collected essays are variously rich, tender, angry, despairing and clinical. The result, greater than the sum of parts, is part paean and part denunciation, intelligent, heartfelt and wise. What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About is a shrewd, glinting collection of beauty and pain: a gift for mothers and their children.


This review originally ran in the March 19, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 myths.

The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles by Steven Pressfield

Recommended by a few friends. I find this one holds a few solid truths, but maybe didn’t need to be book-length.

Good lessons: Steven Pressfield (author of The Legend of Bagger Vance, Gates of Fire, Tides of War, and many more) argues that anyone trying to do a good or great thing, whether it’s art, activism, or entrepreneurship, faces Resistance. (His capitalization.) Resistance can be a guide: when we feel Resistance, it means we should push in that direction; that’s where we’re meant to go, where we want on some level to go. (He points out that where there is Resistance, there is love – meaning our love or passion for the pursuit in question.) Fear is a sign of Resistance. We must undertake that which we fear. That’s Book One.

Book Two covers how to combat Resistance: by Turning Pro. This means treating our art, or whatever it is, as our day job. Treating it as our day job. (He is chiefly concerned with art, as his title suggests, and most chiefly with writing, because that’s what he knows.) In other words: take your work seriously (butt in chair, no excuses, etc.).

Book Three is concerned with what Pressfield calls angels, or we might call the Muse, or inspiration. It argues that certain strategies may be undertaken to make way for the Muse, to invite her in and make her feel comfortable. He quotes that common line from Somerset Maugham (?): “I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.” Actually he quotes this line in Book Two, but I think it fits in Book Three just as well. They build on each other, being, you know, all one book.

These are all good points, but even at just 165 pages and loads of white space, I think they could have been made a bit more succinctly. There are some instructive anecdotes: the Maugham quotation (which is likely misattributed), the winds of Aeolus (lesson about not stopping before the finish line), Henry Fonda’s fear (lesson: we all have it always), and a fun one about how great Lance Armstrong is (this book was published before his accomplishments were so besmirched). But there are also some instances of what I’ll call cuteness. “The professional endures adversity. He lets the birdshit splash down on his slicker, remembering that it comes clean with a heavy-duty hosing.” “If you’re in Calcutta working with the Mother Theresa Foundation and you’re thinking of bolting to launch a career in telemarketing…” I don’t know. There’s a thin line, perhaps, between useful examples and cutesiness. Personally, I feel it’s crossed here.

If this all sounds a little self-helpy, it did to me too. And the back cover’s a dead giveaway.

In the best self-helpy traditions, Pressfield calls upon God to back him up. “If you believe in God (and I do) you must declare Resistance evil, for it prevents us from achieving the life God intended when He endowed each of us with our own unique genius.” Again as a purely personal reaction, no thank you to the God stuff.

To be clear, I found myself turning Resistant to this book as early as Book One. Pressfield asks that we banish “trouble” from our lives, which seems to include the troubles of others (there’s a separate heading for self-dramatization, but they are clearly linked), which feels a little like cutting off the loved ones who need our support now and again; he’s against support, too. He allows that depression and anxiety “may” be real, but the other disorders were created by a marketing department. This is not a man you need in your personal life, friends. He “may” be a bit toxic.

There are good points here, to be sure. But the packaging was not precisely to my taste. Your mileage may vary.


Rating: 5 troubles to be avoided.

The Way Home: Tales from a Life Without Technology by Mark Boyle

This memoir about living off the grid and tech-free in County Galway will inspire, connect and slow down the most impatient of readers, and that is a very good thing.

Mark Boyle was The Moneyless Man in his memoir of that title, about the first of three years he spent living without money. The Way Home: Tales from a Life Without Technology covers another first year: Boyle has now made the shift to a life without modern technology in County Galway, Ireland. What is modern technology? Obviously, definitions are complicated, but for Boyle his new way of living means hauling his own water; fishing, foraging and gardening for his food; making his own beer and wine; and traveling by bicycle, by hitchhiking and on foot. (He beats himself up about monofilament fishing line but, within the book’s timeline, has not yet found an alternative.)

Organized as the diary of a year in its four seasons, The Way Home is a thoughtful study, often wise but always questioning and seeking. With frequent references to Edward Abbey, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Robert Macfarlane, Wendell Berry, Henry David Thoreau and others, Boyle places himself in a grand tradition of intellectual naturalists and thinkers. He also makes repeated forays (both literally and in imagination and research) to Great Blasket Island, an unusually literary place where a technology-free lifestyle only recently ended. He aims to query every decision, investigate its outcomes: while writing this book using a pencil, he stops to consider the making of that tool–its wood and graphite and paint, the extraction of these materials and the transportation of the workers who made it. Boyle, stymied by the ecological impact of such a simple technology as a pencil, is a former vegan who now eats fish and venison. He is a man willing to rethink his outlook.

Boyle has a sense of humor as well as a deep sensitivity to the needs of people as well as the planet and its ecosystems. “Rome,” he reflects, “wasn’t demolished in a day,” as he gardens with the (plastic) tools available and plans for the future. His writing style is pensive and unhurried. His lifestyle is in many ways “slow,” as in slow food and slow transportation, and he observes that writing by hand after a longtime addiction to computers has slowed his thought processes, for the better. “Just as carpenters always recommend measuring twice and cutting once, I’ve begun thinking twice and writing once.”

The result is a deeply appealing examination of nearly all aspects of modern human life, by a thorough, careful, concerned narrator. Readers already considering various forms of disconnection from modern technologies–in favor of a reconnection with local plants, animals, soil and people–will be goaded and inspired. Those less attracted to composting their own feces will nonetheless be entranced by Boyle’s unusual lifestyle, and perhaps moved a little closer to the earth.


This review originally ran in the March 5, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 scythe blades.

Shipping Container by Craig Martin

Another in the Object Lessons series, and I was rather excited about this one, because boxes and containerization are among my obsessions. But alas, Shipping Container let me down.

It starts out with promise: Craig Martin sits writing in a shipping container, “looking out over the dramatic landscape of Loch Long” in Scotland. I was pleased to encounter, on page 5, Donald Judd’s box-inspired and boxlike artwork (having just recently seen some Judd out in the West Texas desert) – somehow this coincidence felt both surprising and nearly inevitable. I was charmed to consider the statement that “things control our behavior, mediating how we travel from A to B, or open a door for example.” When Martin muses about the container as building component, its crossover uses, and its wide-reaching implications for shipping, globalization, and economics, I lean forward with interest.

Unfortunately, he quickly leaves dramatic landscapes and crossovers behind in favor of research, acronyms, and jargon-heavy theory (economic, strategic, logistical, tactical, and yawn). For this reader, there’s nothing wrong with research or acronyms, and not much wrong with theory, as long as it’s leavened with some of that dramatic landscape… or personality… or narrative. I kept reading, hoping that Martin would shift gears and reward me with something interesting, some whimsy, some surprise. But no.

He has a tendency to use 40 words where ten would do, as when he describes some of the finer points of smuggling: “Crucially, it is the ability to conceal such practices that is paramount. As described earlier, the use of false floors in containers is intended to make the container appear absolutely normal, should it ever be opened by Customs or security officials. Evidence of tampering is decisive, particularly the attempts by smugglers to conceal evidence of interference with containers themselves.” In other words, smugglers like to hide the fact that they are smuggling. I got impatient.

An overlong chapter on smuggling and security ends with the observation: “the ISO shipping container is an incredibly convenient box in which to move things, be they legal or not.” I spared you the first 28 words of that sentence, and look how neatly it concludes. Those 19 words, in fact, could sum up not only the chapter but the book.

You can see I got a bit prickly about Shipping Container. What I loved most about Sock and Souvenir was how widely they ranged over their subjects, how they let the simple sock or souvenir mean so many different things – how they surprised me. Here, I found a dry discussion of the shipping industry over time, with a few tantalizing tidbits at the very end about “cargotecture,” or shipping containers as building material again. (Me, I’ve seen container homes; drank beer in a container brewery; and used to race at a velodrome that stored its track bikes in containers onsite. This is not a new or surprising use of shipping containers. The surprise, if anything, was that this phenomenon didn’t receive more coverage.) I’m sorry to be so negative, but I haven’t much good to say. I wish I’d put this one down without finishing it, as I did Matthew Battles’s Tree. Not every Object Lesson is for me. Your mileage may vary.


Rating: 3 internecine discussions.

The Absent Hand: Reimagining Our American Landscape by Suzannah Lessard

This broad social-historical consideration of American landscapes will satisfy and challenge the most serious reader.

Suzannah Lessard (The Architect of Desire) offers a broad cultural examination of place in The Absent Hand: Reimagining Our American Landscape. The result is a work of great scope that’s grounded by an interest in landscapes, the forces that shape them and how they in turn reshape us. Lessard chases big mysteries. “Always behind my readings of landscapes are the questions, Where are we…? and What is our relationship to our surroundings now?”

Lessard begins with a close description of “the village” where she lives near Albany, N.Y. She then travels outward, to visit a nearby friend and consider suburbophobia, and therefore the history of the suburbs–as foil to the city, as military defense concept, as commercial center, as “edge city.” Having considered terms like sprawl, metropolitan area, edgeless or stealth city and more, Lessard uses “atopia” to refer to landscapes “where contemporary development, directly expressing contemporary times, was unrestrained.” She is also quite interested in “online” as a place, from its origins in Cold War strategy through the option it provides as escape from real places.

Lessard is at her best when handling the ways place and people interact (Disney’s attempt to build a history theme park just south of Washington, D.C.), and on shakier ground when handling larger issues (market forces versus governmental powers). One of her finest chapters considers a mall in King of Prussia, Pa., and the tensions and challenges facing shopping malls across the country.

As Lessard shows, Cold War policy, the Depression, the legacy of slavery, racist housing policies, nuclear armament and more have all played roles in the development of the suburb and the contemporary landscape. Mixed in with these references, Lessard often cites works of art–Van Gogh, Shakespeare, Han vases–as means to understand place.

Lessard can speak from a place of economic comfort that may grate some readers, but the value of her decades of research is undeniable. The Absent Hand is often dense, as Lessard draws upon centuries of human history to make her arguments. In this ambitious work, place is examined, deconstructed and incrementally illuminated, even as our landscape changes anew.


This review originally ran in the February 19, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 5 paintings.

Vulture: The Private Life of an Unloved Bird by Katie Fallon

Disclosure: Katie Fallon was my first semester advisor at WVWC, and is a friend.


I have been looking forward to reading Vulture for years! I read Katie’s Cerulean Blues first, because Vulture was still awaiting publication; but if I’m honest, the bigger bird is the one I’m more naturally drawn to, and I know the turkey vulture was Ed Abbey’s favorite bird and all. I was really looking forward to this one.

And it had all the pleasant notes offered by familiarity, because by now I’ve heard Katie read from it a few times, so certain passages felt like old friends; and the personal content was familiar as well, because I know Katie personally (the names of her three daughters, for example, although only the first two come along within the timeline of this book). Reading this therefore felt a little like coming home, and you know how I like to feel at home in a book.

This is a book about vultures: the world over, but in particular the turkey vulture, which is Katie’s own favorite. It is also a personal memoir, about the author’s own life and coming-to-terms. As she considers the vulture’s place in mythology and historical relationships – often including associations with women and with motherhood – and observes vulture mothers caring for their young, she experiences her own much-desired first pregnancy. The places she goes in her own life, both geographically and emotionally, mirror the places she takes her reader in relationship to her subject. Along with her husband Jesse (a veterinarian specializing in birds), she travels to real-world locations in search of vultures: Hinckley, Ohio, for their “Return of the Buzzards” celebration; Pennsylvania’s Meadowcroft Rockshelter and Hawk Mountain Sanctuary; the Grand Canyon; India’s Hill of the Sacred Eagles; Gettysburg; and more. She also visits with an impressive array of vulture experts worldwide. This may be a beginner’s or introductory version of the vulture’s story, but it is also an authoritative and detailed one.

The book hits what I feel is a perfect balance between personal content (Katie’s life, family, and personal reasons for vulture adoration) and scientific. I remember Katie telling the story of (gulp) reading online reviews, the user-generated kind on Amazon and Goodreads and whatnot, and being bemused to see that everyone with negative feedback either found it had too much science or too much personal: in other words, they wanted an absolute, a commitment to one side or the other of that spectrum. This was funny to me because I thought her balancing of these two elements was perhaps the book’s most graceful accomplishment. Can’t please them all, can we.

For a final element, she adds a touch of speculation about the vulture’s inner life. Each chapter opens with a brief, italicized (and illustrated) paragraph featuring an imagined vulture at the center of the book. I found these so lovely, and a beautiful contribution. (Somewhere out there another reviewer is complaining that they ruined everything, I’m sure.) Katie occasionally anthropomorphizes within her chapters, too, but always with self-awareness and some hesitation: here is what she might be feeling, Katie might muse, even while acknowledging that birds are not people and this speculation is perhaps silly – but also natural, I think. Don’t we all anthropomorphize the animals we love best?

I’d like to close this review with a snippet of the final italicized from-a-vulture’s-eyes section.

She knew the seasons in her bones. She felt the length of days, the sun’s movements, the changes in the winds. Knew the smells of mud, gasoline, fish, rot. Knew palms, aspens, oceans, deserts. All were reborn in her, all connected. She held the whole world in her eyes.

Recommended.


Rating: 7 backpacks.

Little personal crossover: I’ve been keeping notes on a few birds over at my van-travel blog.

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