What Does It Take to Be Better Than Before?

Better Than Before, by Gretchen Rubin

Reviewed by Michelle Richmond

In the warm, practical style that her fans have come to expect, Gretchen Rubin explains why habits matter, and how to make them work for you, in her new book, Better Than Before. Rubin begins by breaking people down into four groups: upholders, obligers, questioners, and rebels, providing checklists to help you decide where you fit in. She then goes on to delve into the psychology of habit formation, peppering her personal narrative and a good dose of self-help with quotations from the likes of St. Augustine and Benjamin Franklin.

Better Than Before is light but inspiring reading for anyone who wants to adopt a few new good habits, or discard some bad ones. If you’re like me, you’ll be very glad to have Rubin’s book in your hands, and equally glad that she isn’t your neighbor or sister, and that she hasn’t set her sights on your dietary habits. While the author often comes off as judgmental or meddling, her keen awareness of these traits in herself makes her more likable than you might expect.

Despite a tendency toward repetition, Rubin’s prose strikes a nice balance between engaging, informative, personal, and practical. Readers who loved to hate the author of Happier at Home–who spent a lot of time yelling at her kids and often came off as stingy with her money and her affection (she doesn’t like buying gifts and had to make an effort to kiss her husband before he left for work)–will likely find more common ground with the voice behind Better Than Before. Here, we get a glimpse of the author as committed friend, sister, and daughter, someone so passionate about exercise that she buys her sister a treadmill desk, and so intent on the benefits of de-cluttering that she spends hours cleaning out a friends apartment, only to realize that clutter doesn’t really bother him much. One gets the feeling that Rubin really likes to help people, and that all that busy-bodyness comes from a genuine mix of passion and compassion.

Readers who started their own happiness projects after reading The Happiness Project are likely to enjoy Rubin’s latest effort. While there is something slightly grating about the author (she hates travel and interesting food, repeatedly refers to her penthouse as an “apartment,” and never misses an opportunity, in any of her books, to remind readers that she once clerked for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor), there is something inspiring about her as well. Although it sounds like a line from a bad romcom, she really does make you want to be a better version of yourself. If it’s any indication of just how practical this book is, I’ve already started keeping track of three new habits, and I’ve even started researching DIY treadmill desks.

Crown. March 17, 2014. ISBN 978-0385348614

Michelle Richmond is the New York Times bestselling author of six books of fiction, including Golden State and The Year of Fog. Visit her at michellerichmond.com.

Virtual Freedom by Chris Ducker

Virtual Freedom: How to Work with Virtual Staff to Buy More Time, Become More Productive, and Build Your Dream Business by Chris Ducker

reviewed by Michelle Richmond

While anyone who has read The 4 Hour Work Week may find this book a bit repetitive, entrepreneurs looking to save more time for themselves by outsourcing will find good information on how to find virtual assistants, how to work productively with them, and how much to pay.

The author interviews several entrepreneurs who have successfully grown their businesses in partnership with virtual assistants. Each of the interviewees offers his or her own favorite resources for things like project management, document sharing, and payroll. Ducker makes a convincing case that the Philippines is the best place abroad to seek virtual assistants. Ducker’s explanations of the roles you can expect each employee to play in your business seem like common sense and possibly filler (a web developer creates your website, an SEO expert optimizers your site for search engines). However, his descriptions of the cultural sensitivities one must have when working with a virtual assistant, and his emphasis on the fact that many virtual assistants in the Philippines are primary breadwinners for their family and thus should be treated as such, could help many online entrepreneurs avoid bad business practices that are harmful to their employees.

A caveat that the author admits to up front: he owns a virtual assistant firm. Naturally, he recommends his own firm to readers. His firm specializes in GVAs (General Virtual Assistants), and the book, unsurprisingly, argues that the most important part of your team is the GVA–the result being that the book feels a bit like an advertisement for his company. And, having read about the way the online entrepreneurs in the book make a living, you’ll be hard pressed not to assume that Ducker simply hired some virtual assistants to research the market and write a book that would bring customers to his business.

Verdict: Helpful and easy to read, with some good insights on navigating the cultural challenges of outsourcing…but because of the advertorial bent, one should take it with a grain of salt

BenBella Books  ISBN 978-1939529749

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The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a Thirteen-Year Old Boy with Autism (Starred Review)

The Reason I Jumpby Naoki Higashida

translated from the Japanese by David Mitchell and K A Yoshida

This slim, poignant, immediately readable journey into the mind of a thirteen-year-old autistic boy is arranged as a series of answers to 39 questions–such as “Why do you line up your toy cars and blocks?” and “Why do you like being in the water?” The book takes its name from one of the more common behaviors of autistic children, a behavior that is often frowned upon.

The Reason I Jump was written by Higashida using an alphabet grid designed by his mother to help him communicate. Much of the book centers on the subject of communication; despite the terrible difficulties he experiences in attempting to communicate with others, Higashida writes, he wants desperately to be understood. Language is difficult for him; forming words is excruciating.

In answer to the question, “Why do you echo questions back at the asker?” Higashida writes”

Firing the question back is a way of sifting through our memories to pick up clues about what the questioner is asking. We understand the question okay, but we can’t answer it until we fish out the right ‘memory picture’ in our heads.

One comes away from this book with an understanding of Higashida’s deep sensitivity, as well as his isolation and desperation. He pleads with parents of autistic children to understand that the greatest pain the child experiences is the knowledge that their caregivers suffer.

I ask you, those of you who are with us all day, not to stress yourselves out because of us. When you do this, it feels as if you’re denying any value at all that our lives may have…The hardest ordeal for us is the idea that we are causing grief for other people. We can put up with our own hardships okay, but the thought that our lives are the source of other people’s unhappiness, that’s plain unbearable.

He asks that teachers and other children be patient with behavior that may seem odd or off-putting. Autistic children do not choose to behave differently, he says. They are hardwired to do so.

As for the question that inspired the title, “What’s the reason you jump?” Higashida offers a multifaceted explanation:

“When I’m jumping, I can feel my body parts really well,” he writes, “and that makes me feel so, so good.” Beyond that, when he experiences intense feelings of happiness or sadness, his body “seizes up as if struck by lightening.” Jumping, he says,  is a way to combat that stifffness, “shaking loose the ropes that are tying up my body.”

While Higashida asks for patience and understanding, he is far from self-pitying. While his autism can be painfully isolating, he also celebrates the extraordinary gifts of autism:

Every single thing has its own beauty. People with autism get to cherish this beauty, as if it’s a kind of blessing given to us. Wherever we go , whatever we do, we can never be completely lonely.

Higashida’s intense experience of the world and his precise, often lyrical observations are a reminder that autistic children have much to offer. This edition includes a forward by co-translator David Mitchell (The Cloud Atlas), who, as the parent of an autistic son, found Higashida’s unique story to be a welcome counterpoint to the growing library of books about autism, most of which are written by parents and psychologists.

Poignant, honest, and highly informative, The Reason I Jump should be required reading not only for parents of children on the autistic spectrum, but also for teachers. Parents could also read this book with non-autistic children in order to foster understanding and compassion for their autistic classmates and peers.

Pub date: August 27, 2013, Random House Publishing Group

ISBN-13: 9780812994865

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Michelle Richmond (reviewer) is the New York Times bestselling author of The Year of Fog, No One You Know, and Dream of the Blue Room. Her new novel, GOLDEN STATE, will be published by Random House Publishing Group in February, 2014.

One and Only: The Freedom of Having an Only Child, and the Joy of Being One

by Lauren Sandler 

Reviewed by Michelle Richmond

Parents of only children can breathe a sigh of relief. Citing decades of comprehensive research, journalist Lauren Sandler sets out to debunk the prevailing myths about only children and their parents. As an only child and the parent of an only, Sandler understands all too well the prejudice faced by parents who choose to stop at one.

Sandler devotes ample attention to the selfishness theory–that singletons are selfish because they don’t have siblings to teach them how to share and how to get along with others. Study after study shows the fallacy of this assumption:

Instead of operating in terms of what’s mine, as siblings tend to do, onlies learn from mothers and fathers how to develop mature and ethical behavior in relationships. Singletons mimic how their parents share and take responsibility, rather than brawl over the remote. From parents’ influence, rather than an immature siblings’, Cacioppo says, You know you can’t exploit other kids, you know you have to attend to other people, and you tend to take a greater responsibility within those relationships.’

Sandler doesn’t set out to convince anyone who wants multiples to stop at one. What she does set out to do is to help parents who want to stop at one feel that doing so is an option. She argues that when parents who would prefer to have one have two or three or four, because that’s what society expects of them, they tend to be less happy as parents, and to pass the stress and unhappiness on to their children. Her findings are encouraging to those of us who choose, for whatever reason, to stop at one:

  • Contrary to popular belief, onlies tend to get along better, not worse, with other children.
  • Onlies tend to score higher on IQ tests
  • Onlies tend to develop a greater vocabulary much earlier–in large part because onlies receive much more language interaction with their parents than do multiples
  • Onlies tend to be high achievers, accounting for disproportionate numbers of, for example, Nobel Laureates
  • Greater access to their parents and greater “parental vigilance” leads to higher confidence in only children, which positively affects happiness and achievement throughout their lives
  • Onlies are more likely to build strong friendships that last throughout their lifetimes
  • Onlies are more likely, as adults, to be happy with solitude
  • Onlies tend to have stronger bonds with their parents

One of the author’s sources, Toni Falbo, has analyzed more than 500 studies, and has used the data from these studies to examine sixteen traits–

leadership, maturity, extraversion, social participation, peer popularity, generosity, cooperativeness, flexibility, emotional stability, and contentment. In each and every one of these categories, only children do just as well as siblings.

There are two gaps in the data–achievement motivation and self-esteem. In these categories, only children scored higher than children with siblings.

One of the more cynical myths about parents of onlies is that they simply don’t like children. Sandler cites an old (1955) but enlightening study surveying 1,455 fertile couples on their choice to have one or more children. The authors of the study, Lois Pratt and P.K. Whipton, found that “nearly half of the parents who planned to stop at one said they liked their child ‘very much’ on a scale of very much, much, some, or little–twice as many as parents of two kids. (Under five percent of parents with three children liked their kids ‘very much.’” The point being that parents of onlies didn’t dislike children, as is so often assumed by parents of multiples. Far from it. The parents of onlies “were usually just happy with the one child they already had.”

Unfortunately, Sandler also spends a lot of time talking about only children in China, where the famous (or infamous) one-child policy has made one-child families the norm. She cites the economic reasons for the embrace of the policy among many parents–they want their children to be able to get ahead. China is a poor comparison model for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that children who grow up in a society where all of their friends are also only children are not facing the stigma that onlies in the U.S. face. Nor are their parents.

Despite the good news for parents of only children, Sandler acknowledges the primary challenge facing singletons: as adults, they will be the sole progeny when their parents are old and ailing. She notes that parents can make this easier by planning well for their elderly years, as her own parents have done. Still, she admits, there is no easy answer for only children who will likely one day survive their parents. That said, she points out that, in most families, it is one child–usually the oldest and nearest daughter–who takes on most of the responsibilities of caring for older parents.

She also notes the importance of a healthy relationship for parents of on lies, a marriage in which each spouse is an equal, individuated partner. When parents fight, it is particularly difficult for only children, who do not have the refuge of siblings. No parents should ever cast children in the role of mediator; this is especially important in one-child families.

In addition to debunking myths about only children, Sandler delves into the patterns of only children. One-child families tend to be more prevalent in times of economic hardship. The more religious you are, the more children you tend to have. Only children are more likely to be the offspring of highly educated, secular parents.

And finally, Sandler notes that, in discussions of the environment, family size rarely comes up; it is, for all intents and purposes, off the table. While she doesn’t suggest that anyone stop at one for the sake of the environment, she notes the hypocrisy of acting as though family size is irrelevant in the environmental debate. The single most effective thing you can do to help the environment is have fewer children. The more children you have, the greater stress on the planet’s resources, no matter how environmentally “friendly” you raise your children to be.

ONE AND ONLY should be required reading for any parent who wants to have only one child but thinks they should have two “for the sake of the children.” It should also be read by parents of multiples who feel that their one-child peers are somehow “less” as parents. As the mother of a well-adjusted only, I found this book illuminating, encouraging, and essential.

ISBN 978-1451626957

Simon & Schuster, June 2013

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Michelle Richmond (reviewer) is the New York Times bestselling author of The Year of Fog, No One You Know, and Dream of the Blue Room. Her new novel, GOLDEN STATE, will be published in March of 2014.




Contagious: Why Things Catch On

Contagious: Why Things Catch On, by Jonah Berger

Reviewed by Michelle Richmond

In this entertaining, enlightening book, Berger explains why certain ideas and products become viral. Using examples as diverse as an As-Seen-on-TV blender, a $100 Philly cheesesteak, and the suddenly cool-again Kit Kat, Berger outlines the STEPPS system for making an idea or product highly sharable:

  • Social Currency – Will people feel cool and in-the-know when they share your product?
  • Triggers – What will remind others to think about and talk about your product?
  • Emotion – “When we care, we share.”
  • Public – How visible is your product or idea?
  • Practical Value – People like to share information that is helpful and practical.
  • Stories – If you package your product or idea in a remarkable, interesting, and relevant story, you increase sharing exponentially.

Despite a fair amount of unnecessary repetition, the book offers clear strategies for breathing life into a campaign.

Bottom Line: Contagious is a tremendously helpful guide for anyone looking to spread brand identity and create buzz on a budget. While the ideas are useful for businesses of any size, small businesses in particular will benefit from the relatively low cost of putting the STEPPS into practice.

Related content: Dan Ariely, a Duke University professor who blurbed the book, offers clear explanations of some of the behavioral patterns described in this book in the Psychology of Money segment of his online coursera course, “A Beginner’s Guide to Irrational Behavior.” For a video lecture explaining prospect theory and diminishing sensitivity, see Ariely’s lecture on money and relativity. 

Simon & Schuster, March 2013


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Reviewed by Michelle Richmond, author of the international bestseller The Year of Fog and the forthcoming novel Golden State. Creator of The Paperclip Method. Follow Richmond’s reviews @michellerichmon










5 Great Books for Grads

Estartupofyoumily Post’s Manners in a Digital World: Living Well Online, by Daniel Post Senning
Because every grad could brush up on his or her manners before heading out into the job market or onto the college scene. The Post Institute’s answer to all things digital, from the etiquette of sharing to the proper way to text, not to mention when it is, and isn’t, okay to pull out your cell phone. Do you know a grad who texts through dinner and posts everything on facebook? Do him a tremendous favor; buy him this book.
Open Road, April 2013, ISBN 978-1453254950

The Start-Up of You: Adapt to the Future, Invest in Yourself, and Transform Your Career, by Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha
A smart guide to thinking of yourself in entrepreneurial terms, by Linked-in co-founder Hoffman. A good eye-opener to the possibilities of forging connections, adapting to the demands of changing economic landscapes, and thinking big in an extremely competitive world.
Crown, Feb. 2012, ISBN 978-0307888907

Daybook: The Journey of an Artist, by Anne Truitt
If they are fortunate and hard-working, students graduate from college with the tools they need to tackle the job market. But do they know how to be true to their own vision as artists and individuals? The antidote to all the business, networking, and social media talk that bombards us at every turn, Daybook is a thought-provoking memoir about living the artistic life. Written over a period of seven years, as the artist sculpts, creates, and watches her own daughter become a mother, Daybook is a call to the quiet life from which some of our best efforts spring.
Scribner, Oct. 2013, ISBN 978-1476740980

Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein – Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists That Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe, by Mario Livio
A brief history of inspired stumbling that shows that some of the biggest advances come from thinking, trying, screwing up, and thinking again. Through the lives of five remarkable scientists, Livio reminds us that the best discoveries do not always come from a plan, and that when we go off track, we can accomplish the extraordinary.
Simon & Schuster, May 2013, ISBN 978-1439192368

A Man in Love, by Karl Ove Knausgaard
A long haul of a book, about ambition, writing, love, parenting, failure, and many other things. Because sometimes we all need to slow down and think. Read an in-depth review of A Man in Love.
Archipelago, May 2013, ISBN 978-1935744825

Review by Michelle Richmond, author of the international bestseller The Year of Fog, the award-winning story collection The Girl in the Fall-Away Dress, and two other books of fiction

A Man in Love by Karl Ove Knausgaard

Book Two of Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-volume memoir, A Man in Loveis a bit of a puzzle. First, there is the controversy of the title. Publishers around the world have tried to find clever ways to deal with the negative associations with Mein Kampf. (The original Norwegian title is Min Kamp.)

Then, there is the question of exactly what has made the series so commercially successful in Europe. While the book seems to go on forever, and very little happens, it is nonetheless compelling.  One is drawn into the everyday rhythms of the life of this man who wants so desperately to write,  whose relationships, even when at their best, are a hindrance to the fulfillment of that desire.

Knausgaard, who says he desired to be liked since the age of seven, is often unlikable. Immediately after the birth of his first child, he disappears for two weeks to write, leaving his long suffering partner, Linda, home alone with their newborn. Later, Linda goes back to school while Knausgaard stays home with the child. Many pages are devoted to the misery of child care. He finds the situation unfair primarily because he is not a mother, but a father. For Knausgaard, the domestic duties are emasculating, symptomatic of a larger crisis in Scandinavian culture–progressive ideals that turn men into house husbands and cast a dull, polite patina over what should be politically charged conversations.

Nonetheless, his vulnerabilities are such that, at times, one finds oneself empathizing. He clearly loves his children, and there are passages in which his tenderness toward them is heartbreaking. He suffers from a burning desire to please everyone. What makes Knausgaard insufferable is also what makes the book itself compelling. You struggle through the self-absorption because there is there is so much very good and thoughtful writing here. Knausgaard writes powerfully about the desperate desire to carve out time to write, an all-consuming desire that anyone struggling to balance parenthood and writing will find familiar. All of us who juggle writing with family know the wrenching feeling of being tied to people and events and everyday activities, when all you want in the world is to be alone in a room with some books and a laptop.

At one point, when he has to give a lecture about his own work, he sits at a cafe waiting for the appointed time, considering what he will say to this roomful of eager listeners:

I was supposed to talk about the two books I had written. I couldn’t do that, so it would have to be about how the books came into being, those years of nothing until something definite began to take shape, how it slowly but surely took over, in such a way that in the end everything came by itself.

Such beauty is everywhere in this book, which is by turns graceful and maddening, wise and self-serving.

Since the publication of the first book in the series, Knausgaard has sold half a million books in Norway. In the U.S., half a million is a respectable showing (for a single book, not necessarily for multiples), but in Norway, that number means you’ve reached one in ten of the population, an unheard of feat. The series has also been a success in Europe and is garnering a good deal of attention from reviewers in the U.S.  It appears that literature has found its new golden boy, and, in keeping with the archetypal literary golden boy, Knausgaard complains frequently in this book that he hates the attention. The accolades sicken him,  the journalists and photographers who want to capture something of his spirit for an admiring audience are objects of ridicule.

The complaint does not feel quite genuine. The internet is swarming with images of Knausgaard gazing soulfully into the camera, or looking off into the distance with a cigarette in hand. It’s not that he is different from other writers in this respect; Knausgaard’s friend Geir admits that everything that Knausgaard has is exactly what Geir wants and can’t achieve. Having taken a page from the Jonathan Franzen playbook, Knausgaard doth protest too much. It’s fine to enjoy the fame. It’s hypocritical to wallow in it while pretending to despise it.

Ah, but the book. The book itself is very good, easy to put down at moments but easy to come back to. Or, perhaps I should say it calls you back. During the period that I was reading it, I kept remembering that it was there, in the other room, that I only need go in there and shut the door and I would be immersed in it again. I wanted to be immersed in it. The book itself has something. It is truly a joy to read. The endless minutia of the writer’s days has a kind of raw intensity. One might be tempted to say “honesty,” but, upon closer inspection, that doesn’t seem to be the case. The book is orchestrated, like all memoirs, to give a certain view of the speaker. Accuracy isn’t the point, perhaps. Knausgaard is a very good writer, and that is why one is so easily drawn into the book.

Incidentally, one has to question whether the exact same book by a woman would be considered high art at all, or merely another domestic memoir filled with nappies, love affairs, friends, and food porn. Knausgaard is very good at food porn. The way that My Struggle has been received seems symptomatic of the larger issue in the literary landscape: men can write about anything and be praised for creating serious art (Knausgaard’s previous book was about angels), while women who tackle the same themes, with equal talent and scope, are marginalized as “women writers” working in the realm of “domestic” fiction or memoir. This disparity has nothing to do with the quality of Knausgaard’s work, which speaks for itself, but rather with the lingering assumption among critics that women who write about certain subjects are not deserving of serious consideration, while men are.

Archipelago Books, May 2013

ISBN-13: 978-1935744825

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Reviewed by Michelle Richmond

Confessions of a Sociopath by M.E. Thomas

Confessions of a Sociopath, by M.E. Thomas

Reviewed by Michelle Richmond

You probably won’t like M.E. Thomas, the pseudonymous author of Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life of Hiding in Plain Sight. That said, you may recognize some of her characteristics in people you know: an ability to turn on the charm when something is to be gained, a lack of conscience, a tendency to orchestrate relationships and to discard friends and acquaintances when they are no longer useful. You may even begin to wonder if you’re a sociopath yourself.

Thomas, a Texas law professor who also happens to teach Sunday School at her Mormon church, details her own journey to diagnosis. She grew up knowing she was different, but not understanding why. At the age of thirty, a psychiatric evaluation revealed that Thomas had “a prototypical psychopathic personality.”

What makes the book initially interesting–the author’s recitation of her own sociopathic character traits and actions–is what makes it ultimately easy to put down. Thomas contends that she, like the majority of other sociopaths, lives successfully in society, undetected. She believes that her sociopathic tendencies make her, in some ways, a more evolved human being, highly capable and very well-liked. She also finds herself to be exceptionally good-looking, stylish, and somewhat brilliant. A sympathetic reader might argue that Thomas be blamed for these narcissistic tendencies, as sociopaths by definition tend to have a very high opinion of themselves, often unsupported by the facts.

The book’s strength is that it may provide some comfort to anyone who suspects they are married to–or perhaps raising–a sociopath. While sociopaths are over-represented in prisons, Thomas contends that many more are living among us, “hiding in plain sight.” She estimates that four percent of the population fit the diagnosis for sociopathy. For sociopaths and those who love them, it should be heartening to know that a diagnosis of sociopathy does not doom a person to a life of crime or loneliness. While Thomas fantasizes about killing, for example, it’s not something she would ever consider acting upon.

Parents of sociopaths may find the book to be a sometimes painful, sometimes comforting insight into the elementary school years.

“I usually had friends despite my perceived oddness,” Thomas writes, “but I experienced periods in which I was avoided or even ostracized by everyone. I could overwhelm people, put them off. I was too aggressive for them, or they could see how deceptive, untrustworthy, and scheming I was.”

She notes, however, that she was “never bullied or picked on,” because her peers were afraid of her. Instead, she was often the one who picked on others, coldly choosing her victims and targeting their vulnerabilities. She also lacked the insecurities that plagued many of her friends, and didn’t care very much what others thought of her.

Just as the sociopaths you know probably begin to wear on your nerves at some point–self-centeredness, in the end, being a friendship-killer–the memoir begins to grow old a few chapters in. The fact that it is interesting but not entirely illuminating should come as no great surprise. The best memoirs work because the author is able to reflect with some degree of honesty and humility on his or her own flaws. While Thomas is honest to a point, it is difficult to trust a voice that confesses to thoughtlessly bending the truth to her own purpose; is she being truthful now? Thomas’s self-congratulatory tone tends to wear after a while. The premise is certainly compelling. But what is missing, ultimately and perhaps unsurprisingly , is the author’s ability to truly connect with her audience.

Crown, May 14, 2013

ISBN 9780307956644

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Michelle Richmond is the author of three novels, including the New York Times bestseller The Year of Fog. Her new novel will be published next year by Bantam, and her new story collection is forthcoming from Fiction Collective 2.

Kayak Morning by Roger Rosenblatt

I first came across the work of Roger Rosenblatt at a local bookstore, where the paperback of his memoir,Making Toast, was on display on the front table. When Rosenblatt’s 38-year-old daughter died suddenly of a heart defect no one knew she had, he and his wife Ginny moved in with their widowed son-in-law to care for their three small grandchildren. Making Toast is a beautiful and deeply painful book, shot through with the author’s raw grief. Kayak Morning: Reflections on Love, Grief, and Small Boats, takes up where Making Toast left off. At the time of its writing, Rosenblatt’s grief has not abated. If anything, it has grown sharper. This book, like the one before it, is stunning. It is associative, like the best long-form essays, meandering from subject to subject, from esoteric fact to watery remembrance.

The book is shot through with meditations on water, solitude, Quogue, and kayaking, as well as surprising revelations (Rosenblatt interviewed several presidents; among them was Nixon, who remarked that Rosenblatt’s tape recorder was “better” than the old tape recorders).

My first thought upon reading this book was that it is the kind of book I would like to have written. But then I realized I was mistaken. Kayak Morning, like Making Toast before it, draws its weight and its beauty, its utterly crystallized emotions and startling sensitivity, from grief. I would like to have the talent to write this book, but I would not like to have the experience that made this book possible. The death of Rosenblatt’s daughter is on every page, it colors everything. His daughter died before him, his daughter whom he remembers with such specificity as his little girl, and he cannot get over it. What father could? What parent could? The book comes from a place no parent wants to go.

In this way it reminds me of Joan Didion’s Blue Nights. Blue Nights, which addresses, among other things, the unexpected death of Didion’s adult daughter, follows the narrative thread of The Year of Magical Thinking, a memoir about the year following the death of Didion’s husband. Both of these two Didion books are incredibly good, but The Year of Magical Thinking is, in my mind, the more masterful one. In Blue Nights, Didion is doing battle with time, with the stark realities of her own aging body and her aging mind; she worries, in fact, that she no longer possesses the powers of narrative that she once had. Beyond that, however, Blue Nights, beautiful as it is, is a book without hope. At the end of The Year of Magical Thinking, her daughter is still alive; at the beginning of Blue Nights, she is not.

Didion’s approach to the narrative of grief is perhaps the more obviously intellectual, Rosenblatt’s the more dreamy. Both are deeply felt, unforgettable. Didion writes Blue Nights, it seems, in the depths of grief and in the absence of hope, while Rosenblatt writes Kayak Morning in the depths of grief but the presence of hope; he has his wife, his two sons. More important, perhaps, is the fact that he still has his daughter’s children, his grandchildren, whom he cares for every day. During the school year he and his wife live in a single room of their son-in-law’s house. He writes in this room while the children are in school, and when they are not, they are always welcome to pile in and pile on. One does not get the sense that Rosenblatt will outlive his grief; and yet, his book’s two-word title includes the word Morning, a sharp contrast to Didion’s two-word title, which includes the word Night.

Ecco, Jan. 2012 ISBN 978-0062084033


Reviewed by Michelle Richmond, author of The Year of Fog, No One You Know, Dream of the Blue Room, and The Girl in the Fall-Away Dress