Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Book Review: Daring: My Passages

It's no secret that I'm a fan of both nonfiction and strong, smart women, and those two topics featured together into a memoir definitely piqued my interest. I'll read memoirs or biographies by or about people I didn't previously even know existed (it's true--ask me how much I know about Jonas Salk), so the fact that this book was memoir written by someone so famous and trailblazing was definitely a bonus.

The author of Passages, a book that changed millions of lives, now lays bare her own life passages in a captivating memoir that reveals her harrowing and ultimately triumphant path from groundbreaking 1960s “girl” journalist to fearless bestselling author who made a career of excavating cultural taboos—from sex, menopause, and midlife crisis to illness, caregiving, and death. Daring to blaze a trail in a “man’s world,” Gail Sheehy became one of the premier practitioners of New Journalism at the fledgling New York magazine, along with such stellar writers as Tom Wolfe, Gloria Steinem, and Jimmy Breslin. Sheehy dared to walk New York City’s streets with hookers and pimps to expose violent prostitution; to march with civil rights protesters in Northern Ireland as British soldiers opened fire; to seek out Egypt’s president Anwar Sadat when he was targeted for assassination after making peace with Israel; and to break the glass ceiling in a media world fueled by testosterone, competition, and grit.

Daring: My Passages is also the beguiling love story of Sheehy’s tempestuous romance with Clay Felker, the charismatic creator of New York magazine and the mentor who inspired her to become a fearless journalist who won renown for her penetrating character portraits of world leaders, including Hillary Clinton, both Presidents Bush, British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, and Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev, among others.

Sheehy reflects on desire, ambition, and wanting it all—career, love, children, friends, social significance—and coming to terms with waiting until midlife to achieve it all. With candor and humor, she describes her early failures; the pain of betrayal in a first marriage; her struggles as a single mother; the flings of an ardent, liberated young woman; the vertigo of becoming an internationally bestselling author; her adoption of a second daughter from a refugee camp; the poignant account of Clay’s decline; and her ongoing passion for life, work, and love.

Admittedly, prior to reading Daring: My Passages, I didn't know all that much about Gail Sheehy, and I haven't yet read her most famous book (although you can be sure it's now on my library request list), but after I finished this book I feel like we're old friends. Or, more realistically, she's an experienced mentor who is willing to tell it like it is.

The book jumps around a little bit, but basically starts at the beginning and leads you through her life and her experiences in short chapters, from her childhood to (unsuccessfully) attempting to run away from college to elope to becoming a journalist, falling in love with someone who was her boss, and all the crazy situations that come out of living a full life. It's obviously meant as a kind of sequel to her famous Passages, and there were parts of the book where had it not been a good story I would have been annoyingly lost, but Sheehy is a good writer and a great storyteller, and isn't life the greatest story of all? If you agree, or even if you don't but just appreciate a good memoir by an interesting woman, pick up this book.
Disclosure: TLC Book Tours provided me with a complimentary copy of this book to review. The opinions and views are all mine.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Five Things That Make Me Sound Like A Douchebag

Even when I don't mean to, and even though it might only be in my head, here are a few phrases that I think make me sound like a total douchebag without meaning to.

1.  I’m a vegetarian. Often I'm able to avoid saying this, and because I still have a bacon and sushi loophole I'm not a true vegetarian, but sometimes this phrase will pop out of my mouth before I have a chance to stop myself. I'm not judging you and I don't care what you eat, promise!
2.  I brought my own bag. I carry a cloth bag in my purse so that I can avoid taking home plastic bags at all costs, but constantly having to explain to checkers that I brought my own bag never fails to make me feel like a jerk. I usually try to play it off with a joke about saving the environment, which sometimes just makes it worse.
3.  My husband and I...  This is a new one, but sometimes I catch myself using the collective "we" here and there. As in "My husband and I love that restaurant" or "My husband and I are running a marathon." Which brings me to...
4.  I'm training for/running a marathon. I do not want to be one of those people who only talks about running, and I feel like a total douche telling someone that I'm running a marathon. The responses vary, but they're often along the lines of Wow that's crazy/I never run at all/That sounds really hard/You must be in really good shape! I don't have a good answer for any of these, so I usually just laugh it off and change the subject. The saving grace here is that sometimes the person I'm talking to is also a runner, and then we can geek out together over running stuff and I feel like I've found a kindred spirit.
5.  I don’t have any debt. This one doesn't come up as often, but when it does it's usually in the context of other people talking about their various debts (most often student loans), and it makes me kind of uncomfortable to explain that I don't have any debt. This might sound weird, since personal finance is a passion of mine and something I can talk about for hours, but I realized long ago that finance is very personal, and that people don't like unsolicited advice. I also know that although I worked like a maniac to pay off my student loans, this singular pursuit of a goal is not for everyone, and that's totally ok.

So now it's your turn: what makes you irrationally feel like a jerk? Or am I just nuts for worrying about this kind of thing?

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Book Review: Early Decision

I barely remember my college admissions process. I don’t recall giving much thought to my application essay, or touring very many schools, or any other of the numerous ways in which high school students try to prepare themselves for getting into the college of their choice. My parents, although college professors themselves, did not seem all that well-versed (and thus not terribly helpful) in the process. I had a handful of schools I was interested in, threw in a “safety” or two, and then sent off my applications almost haphazardly, knowing that with the top 10% rule in Texas, I’d probably be starting at the University of Texas at Austin in the fall of 2002. This is--spoiler alert--pretty much exactly how it all played out.  

But sometimes I wonder, what if I had gone to a different college, and thus started down a different path. Where would I be living? What would I be doing? My life would probably look almost unrecognizable to current me, even though I’d be the same person living it. The prospect is both scary and exhilarating, and I feel that at 30 I have much more wisdom and prudence to process and discard this thought than 18-year-old Marisa, who blindly chose a college and thus, a future. This future. 

All of this is to say that when I read Early Decision by Lacy Crawford, it left me thinking long after I put it down. I haven’t felt this engrossed in a book in quite some time.

A delightful and salacious novel about the frightful world of high school, SATs, the college essay, and the Common Application—and how getting in is getting in the way of growing up. Anne Arlington is twenty-seven, single, and in demand: she is the independent “college whisperer” whose name is passed from parent to parent like a winning lottery ticket, the only tutor who can make a difference with the Ivy League.

Early Decision follows one application season and the five students Anne guides to their fates: Hunter, the athletic boy who never quite hits his potential, a kind, heavily defended kid who drives his mother mad; Sadie, an heiress who is perfectly controlled but at the expense of her own heart; William, whose intelligence permits him to dodge his father’s cruel conservatism but can’t solve the problem of loneliness; Alexis, a blazing overachiever whose Midwestern parents have never heard of a tiger mom; and Cristina, who could write her ticket out of her enormous, failing high school, if only she knew how. Meanwhile, Anne needs a little coaching herself, having learned that even the best college does not teach a person how to make a life.

In this engrossing, intelligent novel, Lacy Crawford delivers an explosive insider’s guide to the secrets of college admissions at the highest levels. It’s also a deft commentary on modern parenting and how the scramble for Harvard is shaping a generation. Told in part through the students’ essays, this unique and witty book is so closely observed that it has been mistaken for a memoir or a how-to guide. A wise and deeply felt story, Early Decision reveals how getting in is getting in the way of growing up.

Early Decision, which begins at the start of the application season and ends with blurbs about each student describing where they ended up going to college and what they’re doing with their lives, is a fast, interesting read. The book is not as lighthearted or fluffy as it first seems, and you’re quickly drawn into the drama of each of the students Anne is working with during the fall season. At first I was annoyed by the essays that pepper the narrative--I am almost uniformly against intercalary features in books--but this component quickly won me over. The essays give a great glimpse into the personalities of each of the students, and demonstrate how they change and mature over the course of the semester. 

Anne is an interesting main character, and I identified with her struggles more than I thought I would. The A-student who always did the right thing, she churned through undergrad like a woman on a mission and enrolled in a prestigious graduate program, only to falter when she realized that “so much passion should come to nothing.” The fact that Anne was at the University of Chicago only made me love her more. I knew exactly how she felt. What was it all for? Why did it matter that someone was the foremost expert on a book or author that most of the rest of the population had never heard of, much less had the capacity to care about? How does that give enough meaning to your life to push you , to keep you reaching for the next brass ring? Oh Anne. I wanted to reach through the book and hug her, all while fist pumping and saying “Exactly! This is exactly why I did not want to pursue a PhD in English!” Although I already know that many people get pretty far down their chosen path only to realize it’s not what they want to do with their lives (law school, anyone?) it’s still comforting to read about a fictional character going through this same realization and coming out the other side okay, happier, even.

My one qualm with the book was that I think it over-emphasized the importance of the personal essay and the effect it can have on an admission decision. Granted, Lacy fully acknowledges that her job is both to help the students work on their admissions essays and to hold the hands of the helicopter parents through the application process, which is a feat that should not be under-emphasized, because some of the parents in the book are kind of nuts. Other than that, I unabashedly and wholeheartedly recommend this book. I would be a good book for anyone who wants a trip down memory lane to reminisce about their own college applications process, for someone who is preparing to undertake the task themselves, and everyone in between. 
Disclosure: TLC Book Tours provided me with a complimentary copy of this book to review. The opinions and views are all mine.