Though I greatly enjoyed the essays in In Praise of Messy Lives, I found some of the subject matter...well, though I may have a few things in common with single mothers living on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, I don't have enough to keep my attention through several essays. So when I got to the essay "Whose School Is It Anyway?" I simply had to put the book down and walk away. I'd already made it through the "Perfect Parent." Can't we move on to another topic?
Otherwise, I loved the Books section. Roiphe's essay on Susan Sontag was moving! "The Naked and the Conflicted" was a big YES! And I couldn't agree more with her essay on E.L. James's 50 Shades of Grey "The Fantasy Life of the American Working Woman":
In fact, if I were a member of the Christian right, sitting on my front porch decrying the decadent morals of American working women, what would be most alarming to me about the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon, what gives it its true edge of desperation and end-of-the-world ambience [sic], is that millions of otherwise intelligent women are willing to tolerate prose on this level.
And now looking through the table of contents I may have to read the Internet section: there's an essay called "Gawker Is Big Immature Baby"! But if I read one more mention of a house being built or picking out strollers or schools, I may have to scream. (Yes, I know there is a bigger picture to these essays, but it got old. Quickly.) So, I guess my point is...be ready to skip around.
My favorite essay was the one on Susan Sontag's Reborn: Journals & Notebooks, 1947-1963:
And yet the innumerable tiny details that preoccupy Sontag over the years, the moments when she does describe her relation to the physical world, are revealing. There are a surprising number of entries in which she resolves to bathe more frequently. "Take a bath every day," she writes over and over, which somehow one doesn't imagine reading in the journals of an adult. But bathing is difficult for her; it involves a confrontation with the physical body she finds distressing. She tells us she sometimes falls asleep in her clothes. There is something endearing in this self-portrait: the arrogant command of her authorial voice somehow belied by a sweet image of the unworldly woman writer, so uncomfortable with the basic physical demands of life, so flustered by soap and water.
If there was any doubt, the notebooks confirm that the uncompromising intelligence, the unsparing honesty Sontag shows in her work is not a post or affectation. Her entries give evidence that she is to her core as unrelenting, unironic a critic in life as she is in her work. The harshness and purity and impossibility of her writing carry through into her days. All weakness she fears in herself, the baroque and excessive self-contempt she feels, is marshaled for the highest cause: she wills herself into a strength of vision and ambition of voice unrivaled in a woman thinker. She writes, "The writer is in love with himself," and so she labors to create a self she can love, to reflect that perfect, arrogant writer's confidence, that necessary narcissism. In his rather beautiful and tormented introduction, [David] Rieff wonders whether he should have published these journals at all, as his mother never made her wishes clear before she died. But the reader, at least, is grateful that he did. The notebooks are invaluable for anyone interested in how the serious and flamboyant intellectual dreamed up her greatest project: herself. (120-121)
Image of the author via the NYT's Arts Beat