memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: A Better Man: A (Mostly Serious) Letter to My Son by Michael Ian Black

If you’re my age (40) or older, you might remember a sketch comedy show from MTV called The State. With sketches like Barry and Levon, The Jew, the Italian, and the Redhead Gay, Doug, and The Animal Song, The State was irreverent and hilarious, and twelve/thirteen year-old me was utterly obsessed. Quite a few of the cast members have gone on to have flourishing careers in Hollywood, including Ken Marino, Michael Showalter, Thomas Lennon, and, one of my favorites, Michael Ian Black (not gonna lie; tween/early teen me thought he was super cute). So when one of my friends mentioned she was reading his A Better Man: A (Mostly Serious) Letter to My Son (Algonquin Books, 2020), onto my TBR it went. I checked the shelves for it a few times at the library, but it was always checked out, but last time, it was in. Score!

The book begins with some disturbing images of the Sandy Hook school shooting. Black and his wife reside in Connecticut, one town over from Newtown, and were thus tasked explaining the murders to their young children. This sent him down a path of pondering what’s wrong with manhood and masculinity today, since it’s overwhelmingly boys and men that commit these atrocious mass shootings. What are we doing, what are we teaching our boys that far too many of them find solace solely in violence? Why do we shove boys and men into such small boxes, emotionally speaking, and then act shocked that so many of them are emotionally stunted? Why do we act like being emotionally stunted is a good thing? What are we even doing here???

This is a really deep look into how badly we fail our sons and how much our society suffers for it. Some of it is a memoir, of where Black succeeded, where he failed, where he could have done better, and where he was allowed to skate by simply because he’s a white man. Other parts are heartfelt advice to his son: do this; don’t get messed up with that; allow yourself to feel things; don’t fall into the traps of masculinity that society says you must; I’ll keep trying to be a better man, and so should you, because we owe it to ourselves and to the world.

This is a really beautiful book. Time after time, I was blown away by Black’s in-depth thoughts on how toxic we’ve made manhood. (Remember when Fox News flipped out about Obama’s tan suit and his ordering Dijon mustard on his hamburger? That’s part of it. Flavor and style are feminine traits, y’all. Real men eat sawdust and wear barrels with straps *eyeroll*) We can all be better about this; we can all do better with this, and there are so many examples of how in this book. This is a subject about which he obviously cares deeply and has spent a lot of time thinking about, and it shows in his writing (which is smooth, witty, and enjoyable to read). This is a man who loves his kids and isn’t afraid of being tender with them. I hope his son realizes- someday, even if he’s not there yet- what an absolute gift his father has given him by writing this.

Who can benefit from this book? Quite frankly, everyone. Parents of sons. Parents of daughters. Anyone who interacts with men and women. Young men. Young women. People who read. People who don’t read. If you’ve ever wondered what’s wrong with American society, you should definitely read this book. Reading this made me wish I could sit down for a long conversation with Michael Ian Black, because he’s obviously an intelligent man who puts a lot of thought into the things he cares about, and I’d love to hear more from him.

What a wonderful, moving, thought-provoking book. I was sad to reach the end.

Follow Michael Ian Black on Twitter.

nonfiction

Book Review: Man Seeks God: My Flirtations with the Divine by Eric Weiner

It was an episode of the podcast Judaism Unbound that clued me in to the existence of Man Seeks God: My Flirtations with the Divine by Eric Weiner (Twelve, 2011). You may be aware of Eric Weiner’s other books, including The Geography of Bliss (which I read and enjoyed years ago) and The Geography of Genius. I knew about those books and had heard of them in various places; I had never heard of this one before, and I leapt out of bed to tap the Want-to-Read button on Goodreads. I’m always interested in what a widespread spiritual search looks like, and Eric Weiner doesn’t disappoint here.

After a nurse asks him if he’s found his god yet during a hospital trip, Eric Weiner realizes…no, he hasn’t. He’s not even sure what God means. Surely someone out there has this all figured out, right? Plenty of people out there seem happy with where they’ve ended up, spiritually speaking. He makes out a list of places he finds acceptable to look, and off he trots in search of the Divine and what speaks deeply to him of it.

From Kabbalah to Buddhism, from Taoism to the group known as Raëlians, Eric Weiner travels the globe, looking for the sect to which he feels he can connect with the sacred, for a place that feels like home and an endpoint to his spiritual search. Along the way, he’s excited, weirded out, forced to examine what he thinks and feels and knows about what makes something holy. Maybe it’s more than what he previously believed, and maybe it’s not a one-size-fits-all situation, but along the way, he learns that everyone’s ‘god-shaped hole’ looks a little different…and that’s okay.

Combination travelogue and religious seeker’s journal, Man Seeks God is a fun look at some well-known and some more (or incredibly!) obscure religious groups spread far and wide throughout the world. From China to Vegas, from Israel to Nepal, you learn almost as much about the places Mr. Weiner travels to as you do about the religious sect he’s learning about in that place. And that, to me, wasn’t a bad thing. I enjoy travel memoirs, and since we can’t go anywhere these days, this was an interesting literary field trip to learn about things I hadn’t much touched on since the year I took a college Comparative Religions class (seriously the most fascinating class I’ve ever taken). The Raëlians were pretty far out, but not the most unique group I’ve ever learned about (I wish I could remember the name of the American group that wore these burqa-like coverings and wandered in a field for one of their rituals. I had never seen anything like this before and watched it over and over again!). Mr. Weiner goes into each sect with an open mind- probably far more open than I would have been able to; I’m not sure I could get down with the Raëlians, to be honest- but he writes about his experiences in a fun and funny way, all the while being as respectful as possible of the different paths and beliefs…even when most of them prove that they’re not for him.

I enjoyed this. I enjoy Mr. Weiner’s humorous-and-slightly-self-deprecating-but-still-somewhat-serious style and the look into religions that definitely aren’t for me but are still enjoyable to read about. Even when they were something he outright rejected, it was still pretty fascinating to read about the people these practices did work for. My brain doesn’t quite work in a way where Buddhism or Taoism fits me well, but reading about the teachers that Mr. Weiner learned from helped me understand these paths better. And I can’t say I knew too much about the Raëlians before this (just enough to wonder, “They’re into aliens, right?” when I saw whom the chapter covered), but now at least I’m better informed (won’t be signing up, though. Still not my thing. If it’s your thing? Party on!).

Fun fact: as I was writing up this review, I noticed Eric Weiner’s latest book on Goodreads, The Socrates Express: In Search of Life Lessons from Dead Philosophers. I’d never heard of this book before, but thought it sounded interesting, as philosophy is a subject I’ve always thought I should read more about. About twenty minutes after that, I was scrolling through my Facebook feed while eating dinner (I’m the only person in the house who wants to eat dinner at the table; alas, I have been outvoted) and found someone from a podcast group had posted a picture of books in a library display. In that display? The Socrates Express. I love when this stuff happens.

Visit Eric Weiner’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal- Mary Roach

I adore Mary Roach. Reading Stiff set off a fascination about what happens- or can happen, if we so choose- to our remains after we die, and has introduced me to so many other excellent books (such as Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons From the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty, and Death’s Acre: Inside the Legendary Forensic Lab the Body Farm Where the Dead Do Tell Tales by William Bass and Jon Jefferson). Her Bonk was hilarious and made me admire her courage to insert herself into the research process, if you will. I always meant to get to her Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal (W.W. Norton Company, 2013); I may have checked it out of the library once but time got away from me and I had to return it unread. When I saw it as a suggestion for the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge prompt of a book by an author with flora or fauna in their name, I knew Gulp‘s time had come.

Mary Roach is a science writer with a sense of humor, and she’s out to make sense of the world and present her findings in a way that will keep her readers laughing out loud long after they turn the final page. In Gulp, she goes on a quest to look deeper in the system of tubes that makes up the human alimentary canal: its function, its processes, its ability to produce gas so pungent, it could floor an elephant. If you have even the least bit of curiosity about fecal matter (why do we poop so much? How long can we really hold it? Why do some animals eat their own poop?), digestion (what’s the deal with how long it takes? How powerful is stomach acid?), saliva (why do we swallow our own without a second thought but can’t get anyone to swallow their own spit after first having spit it into a cup?), and gas (what’s the volume of a human fart? What exactly makes some farts smell worse than others?), or you have kids who think poop and farts are hilarious and would love to regale them with factual information about these things, you’re going to want this book.

Gulp is filled with so much random trivia about human bodies and nature, most of which is completely inappropriate to talk about in polite company, but which makes me love Mary Roach all the more and think that she must be a fantastic person to hang out with (if you’re a friend of hers, know that I’m deeply jealous). Despite having owned cats for the past fourteen years, I didn’t realize they’re primarily monoguesic, which means they stick to a single type of food. If you have an outdoor cat (which is generally recommended against, for reasons of health and safety; mine are strictly indoors) and they consume outdoor critters, for example, they’ll tend to eat either mice or birds, but not both. One of my housecats will eat canned cat food (though she’s picky about what kind), and will gladly accept offerings of fish or chicken, but she wants nothing to do with anything else. The other cat will eat cat food (his own, the other cat’s), any type of carb, vegetables (like carrots from my salad, or the green bean he stole off my plate and then shot me a filthy look as he consumed it under the piano bench as I yelled, “Hey!”), which makes me wonder whether he’d be a mouser or a birder or more of a junkyard cat who gets his calories ransacking the neighborhood garbage cans.

There are a lot of laughs in here, because Mary Roach really goes whole hog when it comes to research projects, and I deeply admire her for that. Example: after noticing that the facility that prepares human fecal matter for fecal transplants uses Oster brand blenders to blend their fecal samples in order to prepare the material for transplant, she actually emailed Oster for a comment, which they declined to give. (I mean, they could have mentioned that they were proud that their products are being used in exciting new medical technology bound to change lives around the world, but I guess it’s understandable that they don’t necessarily want their product associated with, well, poop.) This was only one of the many places I actually laughed out loud. If you’ve read any other of her books, you know Ms. Roach makes heavy use of asterisked footnotes, which are usually packed full of humorous tidbits, and Gulp is no different in this.

Eventually, I’d like to get to the rest of Ms. Roach’s oeuvre, but I’m entirely swamped with reading material right now and so this will have to be good, for now. Gulp is a joy to read. Heads up if you’re squeamish, though: she doesn’t shy away from much at all, but that’s the mark of an excellent scientist and investigator, I think.

Have you read any of Mary Roach’s books? Do you have a favorite? Stiff was my first and remains my favorite; I don’t know if I’ll get around to Packing for Mars, since anything about space tends to freak me out. Although, with the humorous way Ms. Roach presents things, I might be able to handle it…

Visit Mary Roach’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

humor

Yes Please- Amy Poehler

It’s here! It’s here! It’s finally here! The last task of the Book Riot 2019 Read Harder Challenge! Can you believe it? Aren’t you thrilled? I’ll finally stop mentioning it! (Mostly. Maybe.) I started this challenge close to the end of February, after the librarian that runs my library’s book discussion group mentioned it and I thought, “You know what? I can probably do that.” And after completing the task of reading a humor book, I’ve done it! I’ve had Yes Please by Amy Poehler (Dey Street Books, 2014) sitting on my shelf for probably about a year, so it was long past time to finally read this book.

Yes Please is part autobiography, part straight talk, and part peek behind the curtain of all the projects Ms. Poehler has worked on (Upright Citizen’s Brigade, Saturday Night Live, Parks and Recreation, etc). She recounts her childhood and college years, her move to Chicago to begin her career in comedy (which involved a lot of waitressing at first, like any good career in show business), and how she moved to New York and eventually ended up on SNL. While she doesn’t romanticize her hard work (and the financial help she received from her parents!) and some of the rodent-filled apartments she lived in before finding success as a comedian and actress, her story sounds…kind of awesome. The mid-to-late 90’s sounded like a pretty amazing time to be involved in comedy in Chicago, and I found myself wishing I could’ve been there as well, watching her grow and blossom as a performer.

There are sections of advice in here: drugs not to take, things not to do, things you definitely should do. Although she’s obviously uncomfortable doing it, Amy Poehler isn’t afraid to call herself out for mistakes she’s made in the past. A chapter titled ‘Say Whatever You Want’ discusses a time where Amy should have apologized and didn’t, not until five years had gone by. While the mistake, a fairly ugly joke made at the expense of disabled people, wasn’t entirely her fault, she admits she was wrong to do it and wrong to let her ego get in the way of not apologizing for that long. She could have just as easily left this story out instead of memorializing it for all eternity in the pages of her book, but not only does this further humanize her, it provides a great lesson for all of us: don’t let your pride get in the way of making things right. I really admire her for including this story.

I’ve never watched Parks and Recreation (although reading this made me want to!), so I had a hard time getting into the sections of the book about that, but I was a huge SNL fan during her years on the show, so it was a lot of fun to read stories of her relationship with Tina Fey and Seth Meyers. (Nothing in the book about Mean Girls, though; I would’ve loved to read about her playing Regina George’s mom!) And I remember seeing commercials on Comedy Central back in the day for the Upright Citizen’s Brigade, Amy’s improv/sketch comedy group. I never watched the show, so I hadn’t realized until reading this that Amy Poehler was part of the group. How did I miss that???

While I enjoyed this, I did find that it kind of jumped around and went back and forth in time, to the point where it was kind of jarring. There were definitely funny parts- it’s Amy Poehler, how could there not be?- but though I liked the book, I didn’t really *love* it. I did love, however, the parts where she talked about her sons, pregnancy, and motherhood. She’s very real about everything, talking about how difficult it is, how your love for your children is practically enough to rip your chest open, and how she probably had some postpartum depression after the birth of her second son. We need more of this kind of honesty from women with such huge voices, and I was glad she included these glimpses into her personal life.

Something I deeply admire Ms. Poehler for is her organization, Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls, which helps boost the intelligence, opportunities, and successes of and for young women. I first came across this years ago, when friends of mine liked the org’s posts on Facebook and they showed up in my feed. Holy crap, I like Amy Poehler even more, I thought, and I immediately clicked the ‘like’ button on the page. You can too– they’re also on Twitter!- and you should.

Have you read this? Are you an Amy Poehler fan? I’d love to hear your thoughts!