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>Fat Girls in Lawn Chairs

March 30, 2010

>I’ve been stuck at the “guilt” level of the Critical Monkey Contest for a while now, and finally decided it was high time to get on to the “anger” stage, so I picked up a book that struck me as different from the last one that I wouldn’t have ordinarily read and didn’t particularly like (It’s Not That I’m Bitter). This new book, Fat Girls in Lawn Chairs by Cheryl Peck, looked different in almost every way, except that it’s also a collection of autobiographical essays. I figured there’d be none of the moaning about not being a size 6 in this one; in fact the title made it sound like the essays would be the exact opposite of the not-bitter-but-obsessed-with-physical-appearance ones.

Well, it turned out that there wasn’t that much about body size in the book. What there was, instead, was a confusing list of terms for her siblings (the wee, the unwee, the least wee, etc.) and some stories about what they did, not at all in the David Sedaris tradition of “look how weird my family is,” which is what I’d hoped for. I had a hard time figuring out why she talked about her siblings at all. In one essay, her sister tells Cheryl that she used to go into her room and touch her things. The only good part is Cheryl’s response: “Touching my things is no great challenge; I keep them all out in the middle of the floor where I can find and touch them myself.”

Some of the essays are about her cat, who has a silly name (“Babycakes”) and doesn’t do anything particularly amusing, at least not to me–and I’m usually a sucker for cat stories. Others are about what she did when she was young, and these are all pretty banal:
“I was prone to nightmares as a child and it was not uncommon for the bears and the tigers to start crawling out of the top of the wardrobe and vault across the room onto my bed and try to maul me in my sleep. I would wake up in hysterics and my mother would come running into the room to find out why I was crying and even when I pointed out the lions she never once saw one.”

I like only two things in her essays about her relationship. One is that she calls her female partner “my Beloved,” which is a nicer and more dignified term than many others I’ve heard. The other is this passage about her father:
“I have never come out to my father. I am forty-eight and he is seventy….He knows. I know he knows.
We have a covenant of trust, my father and I. I do not present him with emotional, word-intensive problems he cannot solve. He does not make anti-gay remarks in my presence and sometimes he has this–mischievous–almost expectant–little smile on his face when someone else does.
She’ll get ’em–she’s good with words.”

But there isn’t nearly enough evidence of her being “good with words” in this collection of autobiographical essays. Really, if it weren’t for Sedaris and Anne Lamott, I believe I’d be about done with the whole genre right now. Do any other good collections of present-day autobiographical essays even exist?

17 Comments leave one →
  1. March 30, 2010 12:09 pm

    >I'm partial to Adam Gopnik's "Paris to the Moon". Some wonderful scenes of family life. My favorite is the birth of his second child — "le choix du roi!"

  2. March 30, 2010 12:13 pm

    >Funny coincidence – I read your post and your final question, and thought: well, there's always Adam Gopnik's collection of essays from when he and his family lived in Paris, which I loved. How nice of permanentquivive to provide the title so I didn't have to Google it.

  3. March 30, 2010 1:16 pm

    >Huh, well, I have no idea. I do like memoir but don't often read a collection of anything. And this book sounds like a snooze fest.

  4. March 30, 2010 2:59 pm

    >I third the Gopnik recommendation – and agree that there are damned few interesting autobiographical essay writers out there.

  5. March 30, 2010 3:38 pm

    >OK, that makes five of us. Read Gopnik.Doris Kearns Goodwin's memoir "Wait Until Next Year" is probably known to you already.Anthony Rapp "Without You" isn't entirely linear in its approach. His narrative voice has good and bad sections, but I enjoyed it. I'll see that you get my copy. 🙂

  6. March 30, 2010 5:00 pm

    >Perhaps not *exactly* what you were seeking, but give them a look, at least:The Miss Dennis School of Writing: And Other Lessons from a Woman's Life (Alice Steinbach)Manhood for Amateurs (Michael Chabon)Lost in Place: Growing Up Absurd in Suburbia (Mark Salzman)Stet (Diana Athill)Best regards,Melissa (MFS @ M-mv)

  7. March 30, 2010 5:59 pm

    >Stephen King "On Writing" is also good, but not entirely a memoir

  8. March 30, 2010 6:17 pm

    >Haven't read it, but doesn't Michael Chabon have a book of memoirs? Including one about the development in which he grew up in NJ? I heard him read something about that topic at a conference.

  9. March 30, 2010 7:09 pm

    >That's right–Chabon's Manhood for Amateurs does fit into this category pretty well–and I did like it! (see you all for the suggestions. I'd never heard of Adam Gopnik before, or Doris Kearns Goodwin, either, but I'll be looking them up, along with mental multivitamin's suggestions of Steinbach, Salzman and Athill.

  10. March 30, 2010 8:53 pm

    >I second the Salzman.

  11. March 30, 2010 9:22 pm

    >I'm tickled by the name of the author Mark Salzman because one of my brother's friends has the same name.

  12. March 30, 2010 11:25 pm

    >I'm not sure how well it fits in–it's not a collection of essays, but then, neither is _Wait 'Til Next Year_–but I've long loved Annie Dillard's _An American Childhood_.

  13. March 30, 2010 11:49 pm

    >Alice Steinbach is the woman who wrote those two travel/education memoirs that I liked. (You may have them in your stack—I think I passed them on to you.) I haven't read the Miss Dennis school one that was recommended by M-mv, but I really liked Without Reservations and Educating Alice, and I think you would, also.

  14. March 31, 2010 12:15 am

    >Karen, I've heard of that one. Since Pilgrim at Tinker Creek has one of my favorite openings ever, I might have to try it.CSchu, Maybe I should read one of the Steinbach books this weekend during the big chess tournament.

  15. March 31, 2010 5:06 pm

    >Banality. Blech.I was going to say, "No. Sedaris and Lamott are it," then remembered that I enjoyed My Misspent Youth by Meghan Daum (though I don't know if it's good), and THEN I read the comments and remembered I also enjoyed Paris to the Moon. It's one of those books you read, then keep remembering all these little non-Sedaris stories about a guy in France but forgetting where you heard them.

  16. April 7, 2010 4:40 am

    >bill bryson is always good for a laugh–he has one compilation of newspaper essays and the rest of his pieces are travel nonfiction. i also get a chuckle from some jen lancaster stuff…

  17. April 7, 2010 1:05 pm

    >I do like Bill Bryson and have read all his books, which I think of more as travel books, rather than autobiographical. Interesting how those two genres have so much overlap.Jen Lancaster is new to me. I just looked her up and think it's possible I could like her writing, but not too soon after reading Fat Girls in Lawn Chairs…

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