Saturday, August 25, 2012

Recent Reading: My Nonfiction Love Affair

My latest reading 'phase' started in 2010 when I picked up a used copy of Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love.  It was the first nonfiction book I'd ever read by choice, and I loved every page of it.  Before, I had always acquainted "nonfiction" with "boring."  I don't think I'd ever set foot outside the fiction section of my hometown library.  I followed up Eat, Pray, Love with Gilbert's best-selling sequel, Committed.  While I wasn't as impressed with it as I hoped to be, it was still a good read, and it kept me interested in this previously unexplored genre.

And so began my current passion for real, honest-to-goodness, true stories.

Over the past couple years I've powered through a long line up of memoirs, interspersed with the occasional biography and self-help book.  I fell in love with Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken (I recall using words like "sensational" and "magnificent" when I first talked about it last February); drooled over As Always, Julia, a collection of letters between Julia Child and Avis DeVoto; and nodded in agreement through Jacey Eckhart's The Homefront Club, a sort of self-help book for frustrated, overwhelmed military wives everywhere.  I can't seem to get enough of this stuff!  These accounts of personal struggles and triumphs strike a chord within me.  I feel as though each one teaches me a valuable life lesson.

Most recently I finished Pamela Druckerman's controversial parenting book, Bringing up Bebe, closely followed by Wild, Cheryl Strayed's powerful memoir about her adventures and revelations hiking the Pacific Crest Trail.  These were wonderful books, and I found I could relate to both, despite their dissimilarity.

It was a few months back when Laura Harrington (author of Alice Bliss) invited me to a Goodreads discussion group for Druckerman's Bringing Up Bebe, and though the book was already causing quite a kerfuffle among readers, it was the first time I had heard of it.  I downloaded the book to my kindle immediately, but then left it to sit idle for a while.  I am not a parent, and wasn't thrilled at the prospect of a book about child rearing.  However, Bringing Up Bebe resonated with me in unexpected ways.  By the time I turned the last page I felt as though Druckerman had taken thoughts from my own head and wrapped them neatly into this half memoir, half parenting guide.

Bringing Up Bebe is, simply put, the story of what happens when an American woman raises three children in France.  Druckerman's book is filled with charming anecdotes, brutal honesty and a good deal of research.  She illustrates the merits and downfalls of typical parenting among both French and American families, and explores the evolution of her own definition of the "perfect" mother.  When she discusses the average American child-centric family life and it's detriment to mothers, I found myself breathing a sigh of relief.  I was glad someone else had crushed the eggshell I've been unwittingly tiptoeing around for years.

The mantra of most American mothers today is, "My child is my life."  Several of my friends with children say this repeatedly, and my own mother has said it more times than I can count.  I grew up hearing this expression and never questioned its implications.  It was hardwired into my brain that a mother's sole purpose is the raising of her children.  In fact, not long before I moved to Germany, I told my mom that I thought I was too selfish to have kids, because I couldn't imagine giving up my future for a baby.  It wasn't until I finished reading Bringing up Bebe that I realized why saying that didn't sit well with me.

Druckerman writes, "American women typically demonstrate our commitment [to our children] by worrying and by showing how much we're willing to sacrifice, even while pregnant; whereas Frenchwomen signal their commitment by projecting calm and flaunting the fact that they haven't renounced pleasure."  This one sentence was what finally set the proverbial light bulb over my head aglow.  I don't believe the roles of "successful mother" and "successful woman" should be mutually exclusive.  No matter how many times all the mothers in my life assure me that they "didn't even think twice" about the many things they gave up for their children, I can't shake the feeling that they don't need to let so many experiences pass them by in the first place.  At long last, I've realized having a baby doesn't dictate losing your "self."  (Why isn't that common sense?)

Cheryl Strayed's incredible memoir, Wild, recounts the dark days after her mother's death when Strayed's world was ripped apart.  Her marriage was in shambles, her family had scattered, and her spirit had been profoundly shaken.  So, in a moment of desperation, she decided to do the most nonsensical thing imaginable to stitch her life back together:  hike more than a thousand miles on the Pacific Crest Trail.  Solo.  Having had no experience whatsoever.  The resulting story is one of fierce determination and hope in spite of harrowing odds.  Strayed survives countless rattlesnakes, a few bears, and perhaps most impressive of all, "Monster," the enormous backpack she lugged up and down the mountains.  Through it all she retains a dauntless attitude and uplifting sense of humor.  (Even while walking for days in shoes made of duct tape.)

is charming yet gritty, beautiful but terrifying.  It is exquisitely written.  Every last word feels raw and real.  It held my attention so effortlessly that I finished it in two days.  Needless to say, this book is one of my all time favorites.  But the reason I love Wild so much has less to do with wonderful writing than with Strayed's catharsis.  One line in particular speaks to me.   One day, while alone on her journey, she thinks to herself,  "Maybe I was more alone than anyone in the whole wide world.  Maybe that was okay."

I adore this message.  I relate to this message.

My life could not be any more different from Strayed's, and yet this one revelation makes me feel innately bonded to her story.  There have been several times in my life, most of them since moving to Germany, when I have been utterly alone and was suddenly struck with a sense of complete helplessness.  Ten thousand scenarios flash through my mind, and in each one of them I am faced by a problem I cannot solve on my own.  And yet, on most of these "alone" days, I pick myself up and say, "Yes, I can fix that.  I can handle that," as if I can simply will myself through any situation.  I was reminded of this habit when Strayed mentions her mantras, "No one is tougher than me," and "I am not afraid."  She reassures herself with these statements even after facing down two very large bears and countless other obstacles, and somehow this simple chant sees her through every challenge.  It has taken me a long time to be comfortable relying upon myself.  Finding that I am not alone in my coping methods makes me feel as though I am a little less unprepared for whatever comes my way.

As I type, I can see bookmarks jutting from the centers of Appetite for Life, Noel Riley Fitch's biography of Julia Child, and Paris in Love, Eloisa James' memoir chronicling her year-long sabbatical in Paris.  Both are enchanting, but I hasten toward the last pages so I can start in on the next books on my ever growing to-read list.  My taste in books is eclectic for sure, spanning more genres than I can count, but I have a feeling my love affair with nonfiction will last a good while.  I have found too many inspiring stories to ever write nonfiction off as "dull" again.

What are you guys reading these days?
  Have you read any of the books I mention?
  I would love to hear your opinions and recommendations!


  1. i had this same revelation a couple of years ago too. my mom had been trying to get me to read nonfiction for years, but in my head nonfiction meant text books and who would want to plow through one of those? then one day i picked up prozac nation (a memoir centering around depression which happens to run in my family) and it opened my eyes to the fact that i was wrong. after that i read a bunch of memoirs, most of them about women with mental disorders (depression, anorexia, hypochondria, etc).

    i heard about bringing up bebe on another blog, but didn't really think a parenting book would be my cup of tea. i'm thinking of giving it a shot now. and i already added wild to my amazon cart.

    my only problem is that early this summer i bought twelve new books and then found no time to read any of them. now i feel like i can't read anything else until i get through those, and for some reason i can't bring myself to pick up any of them.

    1. Sarah, that happens to me all the time! I have about thirty books I've purchased and can't get in the mood to read. What happens, is I'll buy 2-3 books at a time, read one, and then only want to read things that are similar to that one for a while. I have no doubt I'll eventually read everything I own, but it will take me a while, for sure. I've only been buying one book at a time for a while now to help solve this problem. So far it's working...I've moved a few of my older purchases off the "to be read" list.

  2. I've been on a biography kick this summer, especially reading about Kennedy's lol.

    1. Which biographies? I'll add them on goodreads. :)

  3. I recently just finished reading Eat Pray Love and I loved it!

  4. I love when you write book reviews. So many of the books I read have come from your suggestions, and now I can't wait to get my hands on Bringing up Bebe and Wild.


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