Our Short History

I bought this book because Ann Garvin read it and loved it.  She’s an amazing author, and I’d just come from a writing class where she passed along a whole stack of helpful information, so when she said this book was amazing, I figured she would know.  It’s not a book I would have purchased because the cover doesn’t include any of the colors I always gravitate to, and there’s no food to override the color issue.  I would have passed it by in the store, but here it was on the way to my mailbox, because Ann said so.  And Ann knows.

I hadn’t explored what the book was about, didn’t really know what I was in for.  By the end of the first page I started to catch on.  A few more pages in and I realized what this book was about.  I picked up “Our Short History: A Novel” by Lauren Grodstein without realizing that the premise is an author speaking directly to the reader, and there is a specific reader in mind, her adult son, Jake, who happens to currently be six years old.  Oh, and by the way, she’s two years into the estimated four years of life expectancy given to her by her medical team.  She has ovarian cancer and she is officially no longer in remission.  She’s explaining her life to her young son for him to read when he’s reached the appropriate age. She tells the story of meeting his father and the complex (complex!!) relationship they share.  And yes, it packs every bit of the wallop you immediately expect, and some extra I didn’t see coming.

Here’s the thing.  You’re going to want to take this with you on your vacation to the Dismal Swamp that you’re planning for yourself and your little melon collie named Lennie.  You’re going to want this and a book on quicksand.  Kidding.  You’d think this would be the most depressing thing ever, a young boy is so close to losing his Mum.  However.  The quality of the storytelling made this book nearly impossible to put down.  There is much more than the sheer weight of mortality that made the book incredibly engaging.  One expects the heartbreak in a story like this.  What one doesn’t expect is the sly wit of the author.  Cancel your reservations for the Dismal Swamp, this book will be a pleasure to read.

Laura is enjoying the company of her gentlemen friend and he’s explaining that he doesn’t want children.  She looks around at his vast collection of Star Wars Toys.  “‘But Dave,’ I said quietly, ‘You have so many toys.'” at which point I laughed and surprised my sleeping beagle-blend dog who gave me a reproachful look and went to find a more peaceful spot to sleep.  The text is garnished with this sort of unexpected humor that takes the overwhelming weight of the story and makes it real, delightfully snarky, and infinitely palatable. 

I remember discovering the work of Tig Notaro while taking a creative writing class at Stanford University.  I remember being so blown away by her work that I spent three whole days reading and watching everything I could find by her or about her.  The voice of Lauren Grodstein is very different than Notaro, but there is also a quality that these women have in common.  The ability to share the travails of life and to do so with humor is pretty incredible.  In fact, the class I took was called “I Laughed so Hard I Cried: Writing Tragedy and Comedy with Rachel Smith” and let me tell you, the class was awesome.  Of everything I’ve read since, this is probably the best example of the things we were learning in that class.  The humor comes in observations and the absurdity of life and sometimes in delightful snark.

Laura suspects that a $2,000 wig that gives her Hollywood hair is so vibrant and full of life that she looks deathly in comparison.  I can see how the too-vibrant dead thing would be vexing to a living woman, can’t you?

“The convenient woman winning a trip to France for thirty-two hours of fromage and fucking.”  Ah, there’s that delightful snark again, plus the politician who is far less than the ideal client.

She thinks some delightfully snarky thoughts about a reptile named “Friendly” and wondered if he might finally rid the world of one troublesome hamster.

And this one line that (even out of context) will still show the delicious snark that this author dishes at every turn, “Better than a pool house full of snakes.”  

I loved it that she’s managing a campaign for a man she doesn’t like against a candidate she does like.  The twists and turns in the story bring her face to face with her mortality, as if they weren’t already on speaking terms.

I loved the wonderful, complex, and snarky details.  The idea of young Jake growing up without his Mum was heartbreaking, but in the end it wasn’t so much about that.  The book is about faith, and letting go.  No, not some Disney princess kind of letting go, and there is no pixie dust.  This book is about the sacrificial sort of letting go that gives up control, that puts another person’s needs and desires before your own.  The last handkerchief sopping pages of this book involve an honest-to-goodness heroic act of undeserved grace that goes against every last fiber of Karen’s heart.  Without offering any spoilers, Karen makes a decision in physical weakness, but with all her mental and emotional power.  In the end this book is about the raging inferno and gentle caress of loving someone handsomely. 

(BTW, I realize I’ve now used the work “snark” umpteen million times.  I consulted a Thesaurus for some alternatives and there don’t seem to be any.  So there you have it.)

I picked up this book and read late into the night.  Then suddenly it was Easter.  We got home after a lovely morning and afternoon of celebration and I dove directly back into this book.  I cried and cried.  I cried so much our tiny house on wheels floated away and now we live one county over, next to a pond.  

Of course I checked out the photograph of the author in the back sleeve just to make sure she didn’t look like she was wearing a Hollywood wig.  Thankfully she looks vibrant and healthy, so I’m going to assume she has a vivid imagination rather than a death sentence of a medical condition.  I hope I hope.  Lauren Grodstein?  You ok?  Seriously though, how does anyone write so convincingly of cancer?!  This book is an impressive work from beginning to end.  It reminds me of the power of craft and vibrant vulnerability.  I cried and cried and cried, and then I laughed some more.

Go buy this book.  While you’re at it, stock up on handkerchiefs (save the planet ya know).  I read this book because Ann said so.  Ann knows.  Anybody who reads this book and then shoves it at you with wordless emphatic urgency is right in doing so.  It’s so much “…better than a pool house full of snakes.” 

Leave me a comment and Stay Tuned,

2 thoughts on “Our Short History

  1. Lauren says:

    Carmen, this is the most glorious review I could imagine. Thank you so much for your enthusiasm and your thoughtfulness and your sense of humor and your totally gorgeous weaving!


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