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Monday, January 14, 2013

Book Talk: HELL IS OTHER PARENTS, by Deborah Copaken Kogan

Hell Is Other Parents: And Other Tales of Maternal Combustion
Deborah Copaken Kogan (Twitter) (Facebook)
Hyperion/Voice (2009), Paperback (ISBN 1401340814 / 9781401340810)
Nonfiction: essays/memoir, 224 pages
Source: Purchased e-book (iBooks: eISBN 9781401394547)
Reason for reading: personal

Opening lines (from the Prologue, “King of the Mountain”):

“‘You’re not going to just leave that tiny girl up there all alone, are you?’ the stranger asks, his tone grave. He’s pointing an accusatory finger up at my daughter, Sasha, who--giggling and triumphant, her hair aglow with the last rays of the evening--has just scaled the summit of a gigantic rock. ‘She’ll fall.’

“I smile politely. I’m used to unsolicited parental advice by now. ‘No, she won’t,’ I say, careful to keep my eyes on Sasha and on her more cautious older brother, Jacob, who’s leaning against the base of the rock, a safe thirty-odd feet below his sister, eating an ice-cream sandwich and pondering the mechanics of subtraction. ‘She loves this rock. Knows every crevice. And she’s older than she looks.’

“Sasha is three. But at two foot nine and twenty-three pounds, she is the size of an average one-year-old.”
Book description, from the publisher’s website:From Deborah Copaken Kogan, the acclaimed author of the national bestseller Shutterbabe, comes this edgy, insightful, and sidesplitting memoir about surviving in the trenches of modern parenting. 
Kogan writes situation comedy in the style of David Sedaris and Spalding Gray with a dash of Erma-Bombeck-on-a-Vespa: wry, acutely observed, and often hilarious true tales, in which the narrator is as culpable as any character. In these eleven linked pieces, Kogan and her husband are almost always broke while working full-time and raising three children in New York City, one of the most expensive and competitive cities in the world. 
Shutterbabe is all grown up and slightly worse for the wear, but her clear-eyed vision while under fire has remained intact.
Comments: Most nonfiction has subtitles for a reason, and it’s a good idea to pay attention to them. In the case of Deborah Copaken Kogan’s personal-essay collection, Hell is Other Parents, you’re going to encounter more “other tales of maternal combustion” than the snarky observations about modern parenting that the title implies. That said, the main title isn’t misleading. There are snarky observations about modern parenting in “Hell is Other Parents,” “La Vie en Explose,” and “The Adolescent Vulcan” (a double entendre of sorts--Kogan’s son Jacob played the young Spock in Star Trek (2009)), but Kogan herself is the object of some of them, and her life as a parent is largely incidental to pieces like “The Big Chills” and “The Graveyard of Old Beaus,” a followup of sorts to Shutterbabe, her earlier memoir of her life as a globe-trotting photojournalist.

Quoted publisher's description aside, I really wasn’t expecting quite so much memoir from this book, but I read and enjoyed Shutterbabe years ago, so I didn’t mind catching up with Kogan. While I’m not sure I’d say I liked her stories better this time around, I did find it easier to relate to the more intimate scale of the conflicts she describes here--working-mother challenges, refereeing kids’ social lives, raising three kids in close quarters--versus those in the international war zones Shutterbabe frequented.

The essays in Hell is Other Parents are linked, but loosely; there’s no overriding central narrative or thematic connection uniting them. That allows them to be read in spurts, which is one reason this book fit well into my recent round of quadruple-booking--the fact that it’s so brief is another. While the book wasn’t quite what I thought it would be, I enjoyed Kogan’s wry humor and sharp observations, and I’d like to see more of them.

Rating: 3.75/5

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