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One of the biggest things I’ve missed about blogging is being able to share my favorite books with you.
This week I am proud to say that I have completed 3 books! Yeah, I know that’s kind of a lot, but 2 were audiobooks and I drive a lot. The other was an ebook, which I read before bed each night.
All 3 were nonfiction books written by women, and all 3 were excellent in their own unique ways.
I feel good when I read great books, so this week, I got a lot of literary satisfaction that I’m hoping to pass down to you.
Gross Anatomy is a collection of hilarious and well-researched essays all about the disgusting things women’s bodies do. I have thoroughly related to Altman’s struggles with bodily hair, PMS, and BO. She is shameless and liberating. We are all human beings – stinking, insecure animals in bodies that do strange things against our wills and none of us can escape that fact. After reading this book, I felt a kinship with her and every other woman who just wants to not be gross anymore. But you know what? Not gonna happen. We’re repulsive creatures.
Besides the fact that Gross Anatomy is funny, I liked how detailed Altman’s writing is. She consults with lots of experts and finds out the answers to the questions we’ve always wondered about why our bodies insistently do the things they do. I also learned far more than I ever knew I wanted to know about lice (my favorite chapter by the way). When Altman has a question, she digs deep, and as a very lazy researcher, I really admire this quality. Her writing though, is deeply personal, scarily honest, yet lighthearted enough to make this a truly entertaining, fun book. You’ll feel good after reading it, even about your errant nipple hairs. If you’ve ever wondered why sometimes you have to poop but then it goes away, the mystery has been solved and it’s explained in the book.
Last week, my husband recommended Mary Laura Philpott’s book of essays I Miss You When I Blink, which ended up being the most pleasant, charming surprise read I’ve had in forever. It was not what I’d expected. I thought it was going to be a harrowing anxiety memoir, which I am definitely always down for, but I was actually glad when this turned out to be anything but.
I Miss You When I Blink is a gently, warmly funny and sincere gathering of thoughts, ideas, and experiences from the life of a woman who, like the rest of us, has too much to do and does not have time to listen to your banal blather about what’s in this chicken salad.
Philpott made good choices. I envied this. She was a good girl, type A, respectable and driven, yet wonderfully normal, wholesome even, at least by my standards. She did everything right, so why did she feel so..dissatisfied? She had a mother who pushed her to succeed, but also made her homemade banana pudding, not the boxed kind. Her life resembled the American Dream, but she found herself restless and wanting more from life than event planning at her kids’ school and then feeling guilty for wanting more, because her life was undeniably pretty great. Several times as I reveled in her narrative, I found myself envious of how lovely her life sounded. She lived in Atlanta with her husband, children and dogs. She had enough of everything. She had the life that I’d once dreamed of many years ago when I too lived in Atlanta. Yet she wasn’t totally thrilled with it, and I probably wouldn’t have been either. I get it.
I was also envious of Philpott’s writing. She’s good. If I simply give you a few plot points – she has fertility issues, she’s a perfectionist, they moved to Ireland and it was dreary and grey, they moved back, she was not happy with some of her jobs, she took some time alone in Nashville and decided to move there – well, this sounds entirely unremarkable. What makes these essays magical is the light and life that Philpott infuses into her words. She is witty, funny and insightful and her ideas are so wonderfully crafted that it just felt good to listen to them. It literally made me feel good to listen to this book. I liked being in Philpott’s world and hearing about life from her perspective. Much is often made about a writer’s “voice” and I found Philpott’s writing voice (not her actual voice, which is nice too) really comforting.
I hate when people judge a piece of writing by its relatability. I don’t think you need to be able to relate to everything to enjoy a piece of literature or to be able to empathize with those with a different story, but dammit, I’m gonna say it. I could totally relate to a lot of what Philpott writes about, and many of you will too. But even if I couldn’t, I’d still like this book, so there.
The last book of the week was Heather Armstrong’s The Valedictorian of Being Dead, a memoir of her battle with severe anxiety and depression and how she took part in a study and underwent a new procedure wherein she was flatlined with propofol ten times in order to “reset” her brain and restore it to factory settings.
This one was the harrowing anxiety memoir and it needs a trigger warning. I’m warning you right now. If you suffer from depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, eating disorders, phobias of needles and medical procedures, or if you have maybe recently lost someone to depression, please use caution in deciding to read this book. It’s tough, but it’s real and it’s important and I freaking loved it. This book consumed me this week. I told my therapist about it. I’ve told everyone about it.
I’ve been waiting for what seems like an eternity to read this book and I’m going to disappoint you right off the bat. Armstrong does not have any near death experiences. There is no going into any lights with deceased loved ones. I have to say, I was kinda hoping there was because I selfishly would like someone I trust who seems reasonably as cynical as me to tell me what happens when you die, but no. The way she describes her ten deaths is like falling asleep suddenly and then waking back up a little disoriented thinking it’s 1979. That’s not what’s important about this book, however.
There’s a lot to unpack regarding The Valedictorian of Being Dead, and it has to be framed in reference to Armstrong’s having been at least somewhat of a well-known public figure for quite a while, so I don’t know where to start here. I feel like I could write a full-on conference paper about this memoir.
I’d planned to buy the ebook, but long story short I didn’t have any money, but I had Audible credits, so I used the Audible credit to get it so I wouldn’t have to wait to get paid to read it. This proved a wise decision because Armstrong reads her own book and I feel like I got more out of it having her read it to me in her own voice as she intended her words to be heard. I could hear her emotions, her voice cracking, her unbearable pain, in a way that my own reading wouldn’t have conveyed and it added another layer of compassion in me as the reader.
I have no negative judgments of this woman whatsoever. None. She is kind to a fault, brave, vulnerable, selfless and funny. And she has suffered so much.
Some of her suffering from mental illness is purely a terrible genetic glitch, but in reading between the lines of Armstrong’s words, I had to wonder, how much of her anxiety and depression was also, well, society’s fault? The Internet’s fault? Toxic masculinity’s fault?
This woman has been relentlessly, viciously, endlessly trashed on the Internet by total strangers for decades now. How can that not have a devastating effect on one’s mental health? Seriously, how? I believe my own struggle with panic disorder has some roots in writing publicly and being subjected to the often cruel judgment, comments and blogs of people who are a. assholes, b. sick in the head c. don’t know anything about me. The cyber-bullying Heather Armstrong has endured has been hundreds of times worse than what I’ve experienced. I know that there will be people who will attack her for this book and she’ll have to continue to endure this kind of unfair treatment, and I’m sad about that.
Armstrong’s memoir should be part of several ongoing and important conversations we’re having as a society - how we treat people online for sure, and also how our online lives affect our mental health. Why do we expect so much of women? She didn’t address this in the book, but I still felt it was there.
Another thing Armstrong does not outright state, but which was glaringly obvious to me, was that she was suffering from an eating disorder. Truthfully, I had always wondered this about her. I mean, how can you be on that many meds and not blow up? I gain 25 pounds if I so much as look at a Zoloft, and I found Armstrong’s discussion of her obsessive exercise routine and strict diet extremely triggering. You will too if you have disordered eating. As an author and a public figure I don’t think she’s obligated to share anything she doesn’t want to, especially when it comes to eating disorders, however, I still wanted her to in spite of myself. I felt like it was the elephant in the book. I kept wanting to jump into its pages and tell her doctors to treat her for anorexia, and I have to ask, how much of her 18 month depressive episode could have been caused by malnutrition? When you exercise to the degree that she did, while eating a strict, gluten-free vegan diet how can you possibly fuel your brain properly? I’m not asking this to criticize Armstrong at all. I’m asking this because she is every woman that I know, exercising and starving and obsessing over fad diets that we swear are healthy, and then feeling devastated by anxiety and depression and still having men tell us we eat too much. Maybe part (obviously not all) of the problem is that we are hungry. What are we doing to ourselves? What damage are we doing to our brains and therefore our mental health by stopping at nothing to be thin?
And why do we do this to ourselves? Toxic masculinity, partly. As much as I wanted to jump into the book and talk to her team of physicians, I also wanted to jump in the book and cuss out every single man she interacted with in her personal life. I’m warning you now, there’s a man in Cancun who needs a very serious Come to Jesus talk, and I hope one day he finds a woman who will tell him in no uncertain terms that he is an abusive asshole. In the book, she is single and dating and the way these men treat her, the way they treat every single woman I know in real life, is unacceptable. It causes very real trauma and it needs to stop. Men need to be held accountable for the things they say to and about women, and I think we should acknowledge that some of Armstrong’s mental illness was brought on by how she was treated by men. One cannot be abused so much, so repeatedly and remain unscathed.
Armstrong really is the valedictorian of everything. She has accomplished and overachieved so much. She has truly lived this life to its absolute fullest. Dear god, she ran a marathon around the base of Kilimanjaro. She was successful at everything and she really had it all – beauty, skinniness, wealth, a writing career, fame, a big house, cute dogs, beautiful children, amazing clothes, impeccable taste and style. It’s impossible not to envy her. For many years, as a reader of her books and website, I have compared myself to her, never measuring up, never coming even remotely near anything she’s done. I even got rejected by her literary agent. So many times over the years I’ve wondered what she has that I don’t and where she got that drive. I’ve compared myself to her and berated myself over it. I said, if she can do it, why can’t I? But what I never understood was that she was destroying herself in order to succeed. She was achieving at her own expense and all that achieving that we’re told will finally make us happy, made her the opposite of happy. And isn’t she the exact embodiment of what society tells us all that we should be? The woman who is and has and does EVERYTHING? She did it, she was that perfect woman, and it nearly killed her, and she had to die ten times to come back to life.
I could go on and on. The book brought up so much for me. I am so grateful to have read it. Thank you, Heather. In some ways I felt like it was a sort of cautionary tale for women. We need to stop holding ourselves to this insane standard. We need to stop this. I cannot stop thinking about it, and I am sincerely happy that she is well now and with a man who loves her. I was thrilled to see her with a bowl of non-vegan, full of gluten, ramen on her Instagram story the other day. I hope she actually ate it and didn’t just take pictures of it. I know that trick, girl.
I can’t wait until her next book. I was rooting for her so much throughout this memoir, and I still am.
Here’s to happy endings.
Next week’s book:
This Week’s Books