Review: My Life With Bob by Pamela Paul

“Aren’t we all writers these days? We live through text. With our status updates and our e-mails, many of us spend our days writing down more words than we speak aloud. Anyone can write a book or post a story and find readers. Even those whose book reviews live exclusively on Amazon or Goodreads or in diaries or in the text of e-mails are still active creators of the written word.”

I was ecstatic when I found about this book of books. Similar to the author’s tendency to track every book she’s read over the past 28 years, I’ve been doing the same – granted, for a different length of time – with the subtle addition of writing down the exact time I finished the last page. Looking back, I realize I never really gave it a second thought when I started writing down the books I read, because similar to what Pamela Paul said: “It’s my way of keeping track. Because if I didn’t write it all down, I worry (naturally), I would forget it.”
My Life With Bob 1-- bookspoilsBut what appealed to me in particular with My Life With Bob was the exploration of this next idea talked about in the paragraph below:

“Bob has lasted a lot longer than any of my abandoned teenage journals—I write in it still—and here’s why: diaries contained all kinds of things I wanted to forget—unrequited crushes and falling-outs with friends and angsting over college admissions. Bob contains things I wanted to remember: what I was reading when all that happened.”

What I didn’t anticipate going into this was the memoir-type style of this book, where the author would talk extensively about her own life while focusing on her love for books in the background. But since I love memoirs with a passion, I was more than welcome of this addition. We follow Pamela Paul from her childhood growing up with seven brothers, to her trying to seal a job as a librarian at the ripe age of ten (“Did she not see that I was a book person, different from other, more casual library visitors, that I cared?”), discussing her love for literary heroines, traveling across Asia and Europe fresh out of college (which read a bit like a backpacking travelogue), her journey on becoming a writer and what that meant for her, and moving onto to the present day working as an editor of the The New York Times Book Review, all the while weaving themes of romance, disappointment, marriage, and motherhood into the overall arc.

Also, so many sentiments shared in this book really resonated for me. Like this irrational feeling of jealousy being perfectly captured:

“Like W. H. Auden, who once wrote, “Occasionally, I come across a book which I feel has been written especially for me and for me only,” I considered certain books mine, and the idea that other people liked them and thought of them as theirs felt like an intrusion. (“Like a jealous lover, I don’t want anybody else to hear of it”—Auden, again.) I wanted to be the only one who knew about a book or at least to be the first one there.”

I’ve said these exact words before, so reading someone else expressing the same notion was pivotal. “You know that experience of reading thoughts you haven’t yet articulated to yourself?” This was that.

Plus, I felt like I had so much to say with every turning page. The ideas presented and analyzed in My Life With Bob provided me with “a sense of total and complete identification.”

However, the second half of the book did drag a bit while reading about her fights with her ex-husband over books… It wasn’t exactly what I’d signed up for. I personally preferred reading more about her formative years than the mess of her past relationship.

“The mistake had been thinking I was somehow above fucking up royally, that I was safe. But I had been just as vulnerable and oblivious as anyone else, and reading all the books in the world couldn’t have saved me.”

When the narrative moved on from that point, I breathed a sigh of relief. In particular when the focus shifted on a cherished notion of mine: making your loved ones read your favorite books.

“I didn’t read it,” Roger confessed once the plane reached cruising altitude. “But I meant to.”
I should have known. Except in cases of rare devotion—and even then—trying to make someone read something is like force-feeding a baby. Most people prefer reading what they want to read. This cold fact was particularly upsetting to my father, who viewed reading or watching something he recommended as a demonstration, even a proof, of love. He was obsessed with recommending, cajoling over and over until you submitted. “You have to watch Ballad of a Soldier, he’d insist, strong-arming you into the TV room. “Come in here,” he’d say as soon as I walked into his apartment on the Upper West Side. “I just want to show you one scene from Black Narcissus. Just one scene! Pammy, please!”

I wholeheartedly get the dad in this scenario.

“The prospect of finding someone who takes as much pleasure in the book as I do is often more a reward than the book itself. ”

Another thing I loved about My Life With Bob was the unexpected laugh-out-loud funny scenes, like this confession from the author on why she stayed an extra day in the hospital after giving birth to her third child:

“In truth, I stayed in the hospital because I was in the middle of The Hunger Games. I’d started reading it in early labor, paused so that I could give birth, and then picked it back up to read almost immediately after Teddy was born and latched on, reading as I nursed. It was a genuine page-turner, and for once, with great pleasure, I had time to turn the pages.”

Iconic.

All in all: this being my first nonfiction read purely about books completely satisfied my immediate and all-consuming bookish heart.

4/5 stars

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Review: Note to Self by Connor Franta

I was quite excited going into this because the promise of short essays, original photography, and poetry combined into one sounded right up my alley.

You might recognise Connor Franta from his popular YouTube channel, and in this diary-like look at his life since A Work In Progress, Connor talks about his battles with clinical depression, social anxiety, self-love, and acceptance; his desire to maintain an authentic self in a world that values shares and likes over true connections; his struggles with love and loss; and his renewed efforts to be in the moment—with others and himself.

“Our words, our firsthand experiences, our shared truths can form ladders. And bring hope to others.”

However good the above might sound, in the end, it didn’t live up. And I was disappointed to find Franta’s writing style coming across as quite hollow and privileged. Also, his weird “I’m a special snowflake” complex rubbed me the wrong way multiple times:

“I’ve never been a big fan of attending awards shows. Most are pretentious, and few are truly entertaining. In theory, it sounds fun to witness the glamour and chaos of the red carpet firsthand. But the truth is that once you’re done up, looking fine, and immersed in such superficial gatherings . . . it’s not all that. The novelty soon wears thin.
I don’t know. Maybe that’s just me.”

I couldn’t help but think of this hilarious tweet about Artsy White Boys™:

Then the genericness of Franta’s thoughts and feelings didn’t help his case either. There wasn’t anything compelling enough for me to continue on where the writing’s considered, so I did skim-read a lot towards the end. And another thing I want to point out: the atmosphere. It just felt so cold and standoffish with a lot of telling with little to no show. I mean: “This. Fucking. Sucks. I’ll repeat that until you believe it: This. Fucking. SUCKS.”
Here’s an idea: How about you show me why it fucking sucks instead of repeating it for emphasis…

To be frank, Note to Self felt a lot more fitting for the blog post format than something you’d expect to read in a book. Which leads me to the pretentious Tumblr-esque poems interspersed throughout:

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There’s a lot more where that came from… I’m genuinely rattled that this made it into the final version of the book.

However, to end this review on a much brighter note, I have to mention the vibrant photographs. Not going to lie, they were the only reason I continued on with this book. But I quickly noticed that – save for a few – the pictures weren’t as eye-catching as I’d hoped. (You can just go on Connor Franta’s Instagram for the same effect.)

But still, here are a few of my favorite photos to brighten this ending a bit:

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Review: The Moth Presents All These Wonders by Catherine Burns

Going into this I had no idea what to expect since I wasn’t really familiar with the storytelling phenomenon that is The Moth. But after having read Neil Gaiman’s forward , my curiosity was piqued. And I was surprised to find myself finishing the majority of this collection in one sitting because of how compelling these real life stories were.

All These Wonders features voices both familiar and new. Storytellers include Louis C.K., Tig Notaro, John Turturro, and Meg Wolitzer, as well as a hip hop “one hit wonder,” an astronomer gazing at the surface of Pluto for the first time, and a young female spy risking everything as part of Churchill’s “secret army” during World War II. They share their ventures into uncharted territory—and how their lives were changed forever by what they found there.

I was not prepared for what reading All These Wonders would entail. There were a handful of stories that really managed to infiltrate my everyday thoughts because I couldn’t stop thinking about them. But I think I mainly loved this collection for being able to capture “moments in time caught and gone forever,” to paraphrase what  Tig Notaro wrote in R2, Where Are You?. Without a doubt, the voices I’m about to share next unlocked something in me. (And it’s important to remember that these are all nonfiction tales.)

  • Adam Mansbach, the author of Go the Fuck to Sleep, was featured in here and it was incredible:

“It’s November 2011, and I am the most controversial parent in America by virtue of a short, obscene, fake children’s book by the name of Go the Fuck to Sleep.
It’s fourteen stanzas long—about four hundred words, many of them repeated more than once—and I wrote it in thirty-nine minutes with no pants on.”

  • Josh Bond discovering his next door neighbors and tenants are Catherine Greig & James J. ‘Whitey’ Bulger. And his story is about how he “helped the FBI arrest the most wanted man in the country.”

“So a couple of months later, my family’s a little worried about me, and my friends are taking bets on how much longer I have to live. I get home one day, and there’s a letter in the mail from the Plymouth Correctional Facility. I open it, and I see the same familiar cursive writing, and the same “shoot the shit” dialogue tone that I knew from four years living next to Charlie Gasko.
But in this letter he’s reintroducing himself as Jim Bulger.
And so I wrote him back, and I said, “Look, you know I had something to do with the day of the arrest, and my family’s a little worried. So, uh, you know, just a little note of ‘everything’s good’ would be nice.”
He wrote back and said, “Look, they had me with or without your help; no worries.”
So that made my mom feel better, definitely.
New neighbors eventually moved in, and they seemed like nice people.
But what do I know?”

This was without a doubt one hell of a story.

  • Tomi Reichental’s story was about the Holocaust seen through the eyes of his nine-year-old self, and it absolutely broke me.

“I saw a woman in front of me suddenly take her wedding ring off her finger. She looked around, to see if any of the soldiers were looking at her. And then she threw the wedding ring into the ground, to the dust.
Talking to her friend, she said, “These bastards will not get my gold.”

All my rage toward Nazi Germans was back full force. One of the most hard hitting essays.

  • Auburn Sandstrom’s A Phone Call describes her call out for help while in a dire situation. And my head spun in amazement at this next conversation shared over the phone:

“I said, “No, really. You’re very, very good at this. I mean, you’ve seriously done a big thing for me. How long have you been a Christian counselor?”
There’s a long pause. I hear him shifting. “Auburn, please don’t hang up,” he says. “I’ve been trying not to bring this up.”
“What?” I ask.
“You won’t hang up?”
“No.”
“I’m so afraid to tell you this. But the number you called…” He pauses again. “You got the wrong number.”
Well, I didn’t hang up on him, and we did talk a little longer. I never would get his name or call him back.
But the next day I felt this kind of joy, like I was shining. I think I’ve heard them call it “the peace that passes understanding.” I had gotten to see that there was this completely random love in the universe. That it could be unconditional. And that some of it was for me.”

  • Dori Samadzai Bonner’s A New Home talks about her family’s fight to stay in the country they call home.

“Finally he tells my dad, “You know, we here in the United States do not give citizenship to people that break the law. We can’t, and I won’t.”
And as soon as I translate this to my dad, I put my head down, and I just start praying.
When I open my eyes, I see my dad rising out of his seat. He starts unbuckling his belt, at which point I’m thinking he’s completely losing his mind. I’m not sure what he’s doing.
But he lifts up his shirt on the right side and, in his native language, looks at the judge and says, “This is what the communists did to me.”
He’s pointing to a five-inch knife scar.
Then he pushes down his pants in the back and turns around a little bit, and again says, “This is what the communists did to me,” pointing at three gunshot wounds.
And he takes off his shoes, and takes off his socks, and says, “This is what the communists did to me.”
He’s pointing at his toenails, which they had tried to pull out with pliers.
I remember thinking, I know I’m hearing what I’m hearing. But everything wasn’t registering, because I am translating these horrible things and also learning for the first time about my dad’s whereabouts. All those times years ago that I didn’t know where he was, wondering if he cared about me, he was in prison being tortured.
And in that moment I have never felt more sorrow.”

My heart just dropped. This story on immigration pulled out all kind of emotions out of me.

  • And the story that followed afterwards might be one of the most frightening situations of a man facing the death penalty for a crime he did not commit in As If I Was Not There by Peter Pringle.

“It was the week before Christmas, and I was sitting in the death cell in Portlaoise Prison in County Laois, Ireland. Some weeks previously I had been wrongly convicted and sentenced to death by the Special Criminal Court for a murder I did not commit. The Special Criminal Court is a non-jury court.”

What particularly shook me to my core was reading this hard-hitting article afterwards about Pringle’s life with his wife, Sunny Jacobs, who was also wrongfully convicted.

  • And last but not least, Undercover in North Korea with Its Future Leaders by Suki Kim was another powerful read detailing the journey of a journalist who risks her life posing as a teacher in an elite North Korean school.

“From that point on, like millions of mothers on both sides of Korea, my grandmother waited for her son to come home.
Over seventy years have passed, and that border—which Koreans thought was temporary—is still there. Even though I moved to America when I was thirteen years old, this family history haunted me. Later, as a writer, I became obsessed with North Korea and finding out the truth of what was really going on there.
So I went undercover as a teacher and a missionary.”

Now I feel compelled to read her book Without You, There Is No Us because her writing style is so effervescent and heartbreaking and real.


So while a majority of the tales in here left me awash in tears, there was still a big junk of stories that I did not care for (mainly from those white privileged individuals). But on a much brighter note, the journey this collection took me on is one I won’t be forgetting anytime soon. (Also, bonus points for letting me add two book to my TBR: Tig Notaro’s memoir, along with the aforementioned book by Suki Kim.)

4/5 stars

Note: I’m an Amazon Affiliate. If you’re interested in buying The Moth Presents All These Wonders, just click on the image below to go through my link. I’ll make a small commission!