Sunday, May 10, 2015

Chatterbooks: Recipes for a Beautiful Life by Rebecca Barry

—Meet Rebecca Barry: mother, writer, wife, self-distracting procrastinator who makes clay cats and mermaids instead of working on her novel. Meet Rebecca and Tommy, a charming, witty couple who love, fight, kiss-and-make-up, and then start yelling at their toddler sons to stop peeing on each other. Meet Rebecca Barry–she’ll make you laugh on one page and maybe get a little misty-eyed on the next with this new “memoir in stories” which is full of hilarious dialogue, recipes for things like “Angry Mommy Tea,” and tips on how to fool your kids into picking up their toys (scare them with stories about a green-toothed fairy named Gladys who steals un-picked-up toys at night). Normally, I’m allergic to how-to books. And those allergens always flare up when I’m in the Self-Help sections of bookstores—sneezing fine mists all over the most seemingly sincere manuals encouraging me to keep my garage organized and to be a better pet owner—and I must quickly evacuate the area. So why didn’t I a-choo! all over Recipes for a Beautiful Life: A Memoir in Stories, with its many chapters all beginning with “How to” (“How to Lose Your Baby Weight,” “How to Manage Sleep Deprivation,” “How to Talk to Your Children About Santa,” et al)? Oh, that last one, yes, yes! I sneezed a true LOL all over that chapter as I read about Rebecca’s vain attempts to prepare her children, Liam and Dawson, for the realities of Old St. Nick (“I have ambivalent feelings about the myth of Santa. On the one hand I don’t like the way it indoctrinates children at such an early age with the idea that Christmas is all about getting presents. On the other hand, to say that Santa’s not coming make a pretty good threat.”). After making a snowman, the ever-rowdy Liam and Dawson decide to climb a tree in the backyard while Rebecca is trying to get them ready for a Christmas party.
      “Time to go in!” I said. “Time for a bath!”
      “No bath!” Dawson said.
      “Come inside,” I said.
      “No, Mommy!” Liam cried.
      This went on for a while until finally I shouted, “Liam and Dawson, get down from that tree or I’m going to call Santa and tell him not to come to our house forever.
      Which was when a fire truck pulled up in front of our house and a tall man dressed as Santa got off the back of it. “Ho ho ho!” he said.
I totally LOL’ed over that one—and I am not, I repeat, am NOT an LOL’er. Barry’s timing is so spectacular in that passage, and many other passages all throughout the book; that’s just the one that springs immediately to mind. Speaking of timing, that’s really what Recipes for a Beautiful Life is all about. As I mentioned earlier here at the blog, I have been waiting for this book for nigh on seven years now, ever since I first read Barry’s debut, Later, at the Bar: A Novel in Stories, in which I rhapsodically enthused: “Later, at the Bar is less about inebriation than it is grasping at second, third and even fourth chances for better lives. This is inspiring fiction which just happens to be set in a room filled with smoke, sad songs and slurred words.” But that was seven years ago, and though I try to be a patient fanboy, I did often wonder what the hell was going on with Ms. Barry. Had she given up writing? Had she had a Life-Changing Experience (everything from cancer to lottery-winning sprang to mind) and given up writing? Had she been working on the sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird and making devious plans to pass it off as a “new book by Harper Lee”? As it turns out, two of those three were fairly accurate. Motherhood and quitting secure, well-paying jobs in the city and moving to upstate New York and buying an old fixer-upper (“a big, square, brick Italiante built in 1865”) and Motherhood Part 2 and struggling to write a follow-up novel to Later, at the Bar and yelling herself hoarse when bedtime for the boys rolled around—well, it all added up to a “Calgon, take me away” interstate pileup of stresses which Barry writes about with seeming effortless grace and humor in the pages of this new book. I say “effortless,” but it’s apparent when reading Recipes for a Beautiful Life that nothing comes without struggle—in her life and in ours (which is her point: “all we thought we wanted was a simple, beautiful life, but what we ended up with was a rich, messy life”). As I wrote elseweb: Recipes for a Beautiful Life is the book Rebecca Barry wrote while she was on her way to write another book–and, frankly, I think it’s the most beautiful thing that could have happened to all of us. There is more I could write about this “accidental” book—so much more, like: disastrous family vacations to the Caribbean, heartwarming family Thanksgiving dinners, helpful recipes for overworked parents (“Just-Eat-Your-!@#$!-Dinner Kale Chips”), quips about drinking (“Third snow day in a row. I need ten thousand margaritas.”), believing in yourself even when your dreams are shattering, and that breath-catching heart-stopping moment when you look out to the back porch and see your perpetual-motion son quietly eating blueberries from a cup while he watches the rain fall into the yard—and there is just no way I could pack everything I love about Barry’s book into this small space, so I’ll just say—with firmness and a little catch of emotion in my voice—you need to go discover her writing for yourself. Don’t make me reach through the internet, grab you by the collar and drag you down to a bookstore to buy Recipes for a Beautiful Life, because you know I’m currently reading a how-to manual on how to do just that very thing —

Chatterbooks is a stream-of-consciousness, pop-eyed, one-sided conversation about books I’m reading (or have just completed). Less of a review, and more like David Foster Wallace tossing back shots of espresso, or a mental patient pacing his rubber-walled room, or a horse spitting out its bridle and halter and galloping free across the meadow and over the horizon.

1 comment:

  1. Best. Mother's. Day. Present. Ever.

    Thank you so much!