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My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book…

My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues (edition 2017)

by Pamela Paul (Author)

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7922152,477 (4.1)5
Title:My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues
Authors:Pamela Paul (Author)
Info:Henry Holt and Co. (2017), 256 pages
Collections:My Book Reviews

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My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues by Pamela Paul



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Hardcover, 256 pages Pub May 2nd 2017 by Henry Holt and Co. ISBN13: 9781627796316

Coming out at this time of year, Pamela Paul’s memoir is reminiscent of a commencement speech, albeit book-length and one just as interesting for the parents as for the graduates. It is a blast to listen to an obsessive reader share her thoughts on books, her travels and travails. Bob is her lifelong companion and record, her Book of Books, the place she can note what she has read. It gives date of completion, and, because Paul tried to read books about the countries or cities she visits or lives, we deduce a sense of location. It is her book of memories then, a record of where she has been.

Paul was the single daughter born into a family of seven sons. Despite the expected in-house torture and rough-housing, her psyche remained remarkably intact, though her parent’s divorce may have had more effect than discussed here. She did emerge as a reader, an introvert, and from a young age wanted to write. In this book she has boldly decided to write about what she’s read in the context of her life, and astonishingly, it is interesting. We enjoy retracing her faltering steps as a burgeoning adult, in which she recalls with uncommon accuracy the embarrassed and confused feelings of a teen.

France plays a large role in Paul’s life. Although her American Field Service (AFS) experience in a small town in suburban France was not as she imagined, it set the table for her next visit and the one after that. Eventually she found a family in France that became a second home, a family that subsequently attended her weddings and met her children. This kind of close long-term relationship defines Paul, I think. We all have trajectories, but not all of us cultivate the path as we go so that it becomes personal, the impact felt on both sides.

Paul’s decision after college to go directly to Thailand without the usual scramble for underpaid work at home was prescient but daring. She’d not get another chance to see that part of the world with any depth, though the China portion of the trip gave me the screaming heebies. It sounded perfectly horrendous, completely uncomfortable, filled with sickness and incomprehension. The China trip was her father’s idea, and it never became hers. The unmitigated disaster of that trip reminds us that we have to own our journey, start to finish, for us to manage it with any kind of finesse.

There was a marriage that lasted a year. The utter heartbreak Paul experienced does not lacerate us: from the moment she begins to speak of her first husband we are suspicious. She is much too happy much too soon. Love is one thing. Blindness is another. In my mind I modify Thoreau to read: beware all enterprises that require giving up a large, rent-controlled flat in New York City...
"…the minute a subject veered from the fictional world, the private world, the secluded, just-us-on-top-of-the-mountain world, into the greater, grittier territory below, the nonfictional world, my husband and I had serious differences…Even when we each happily read those same books about the perfidy of man, we read them in opposite ways…this kind of book contested my essentially optimistic view of the world rather than overturned it…whereas for him, the world really was that bleak, and the books proved it."
Here you have, folks, a political difference so profound it can break nations in two. Ayn Rand’s work became Paul’s personal standard for judging viewpoints. Paul admits--she who practically worships books--that she threw one of Ayn Rand’s books in the trash after reading it, so that no one else would be polluted by its ideas. I laughed. I did the same thing, though I contemplated burning it before I did. In my tiny garage-turned-apartment in New Mexico, I wrestled with Rand’s horrifying vision of a society of go-getters and decided that to burn her book would invest it with too much significance.

I loved reading about Paul’s poor dating experiences after that. She was inoculated against irrational exuberance after her divorce, but she still wanted intimacy. She manages to share with us chortle-inducing instances of “okay, I’ve had enough of that” with some of the men she met later. My favorite might be the time a boyfriend convinces her that he’d been to the Grand Canyon before and so can show her “the best way to see it.” Har-dee-har-har. This memoir is a great example of smart and funny, gifting us many moments of remembering our own worst histories and reinforcing for younger women coming along that our judgment may be the only thing separating us from a much worse time of it.

Pamela Paul is now books editor of The New York Times and no longer has to struggle to find the coin to buy a new book. She is the best kind of editor for all of us because she is has read widely and acknowledges the draw of genre fiction while communicating her admiration for the range of new nonfiction that helps us cope with our history and our future. She is also an interested and informed consumer of Children’s lit and Young Adult titles, which aids me immeasurably since these are not my specialty and therefore necessitate me seeking assistance from a trusted source.

Access to all there is out there comes with its own set of stresses, but Paul has extended her reach by asking some of the best writers in the country to read and review titles in the NYT Book Review, and to talk about their selections on the Book Review Podcast, available each week from iTunes as an automatic download. Her guests and her own considered opinions help to narrow the field for us.

This is a great vacation read, not at all strenuous, yet it is involving. Imagine the unlikeliness of the concept: an introverted reader and editor writes a book about her life…reading…and it is interesting! Totes amazeballs. It occurs to me that Goodreads is one big Bob. I’m so glad Paul put the effort in to share with us: big mistakes don’t have to be the end of the world. It depends what happens after that. See what I mean about commencement? ( )
  bowedbookshelf | May 26, 2017 |
This isn't bad, but it isn't what I expected, and I was disappointed. Amazon recommended this to me after I read Will Schwalbe's “Books for Living,” which I loved, and I somehow expected that it would, like that book, be fairly focused on the author's thoughts on various books she'd read. Which, actually, the dust jacket doesn't claim.

Paul's book is a memoir in which her identity as a reader is central. She begins keeping her “Book of books” in high school, and over the years faithfully maintains her list of each book she reads. As she explains, the list of the books she reads serves as a chronicle of her ambitions, inquiries, whims, etc. She mentions titles recorded at various times in “Bob,” but generally we don't get much more than than a title. A few times she gives a bit more, as when she describes how she starved herself while traveling in China after reading Jung Chang's “Wild Swans,” and felt like she needed to do some suffering. This, like many of her choices, struck me as... weird. Maybe it's just because I've traveled so little myself, but it seems to me that if a person were on an exotic foreign vacation, particularly one involving a lot of hiking, that would not be the sensible time to choose to go on a starvation diet to test one's ability to endure suffering. Seems like a good way to ruin a trip to me. Actually, Paul does a tremendous lot of globe-trotting in this book – she comes across as impressively adventurous and brave – but she never appears to find much joy or excitement in her travels. She does talk about reading in temples and yurts, but she never conveyed (to me) any passion or enthusiasm for what she saw. The impression I got was that she wanted to be the sort of person who took exotic trips. In a similar vein, after the break-up of her first marriage, which gets a huge lot of space and drama, the greatest source of anguish for her (and there's heaps of it) is her loss of status as a Married Person. This for a marriage which followed a brief courtship and lasted less than one year. And cost her, very traumatically, several pages in her “Bob,” which her ex had noted his own titles on.

Once Paul's narrative reaches her second marriage and, more particularly, her experiences sharing books with her children, I found it much more engaging. Perhaps it's just that that's something I've done myself, while I've never dodged rapists in Vietnam or escaped white slavers in Florence, but also she comes across as less silly, self-absorbed, and petulant in the later chapters. In part this is probably a function of age – lots of people do dumb stuff, waste opportunities, and wallow in drama in their late teens and twenties (I did, certainly) – but unfortunately she devotes most of the book to these unhappy early years, not introducing her second husband until page 175, allowing only 65 pages for bookish aspects of life with a compatible husband and her three children.

While I wasn't wild about this book, it might be of more interest to readers who've enjoyed her earlier books. I'd never heard of her before, but Paul tells readers repeatedly that she is a successful author, and Amazon lists three other books by her, one on pornography, one on failed first marriages, and one on parenting, plus a collection of interviews with famous writers from The New York Times Book Review. I imagine that most devoted readers have, at one time or another, kept book logs, but to have kept a record of every book read from one's teens through mid-forties really is impressive. ( )
  meandmybooks | May 22, 2017 |
Enjoyed this book. BOB is Pamela Paul's Book of Books, a list of her reading selections for the last 26 years, since high school. It is a memoir of sorts and her honesty and humor add a lot to it. Paul has a delightful way with words and reflects on her life through her selection of books, many chosen because of the mile marker of her life. She tended to read books abut the country she was visiting (sometimes in their native language), baby books after becoming pregnant. She talks about divvying up books after the breakup of her marriage and the fact that, for the first time in her life, she couldn't read at all. Through it all, her love of books and sharing books, rating the possibility of a relationship with a person by what/who they read resonated deeply within me. I have kept a log for over 15 years and, like Paul, it is a diary of where I was (physically or emotionally), who I may have shared a book with, and my feelings about each book. I love books about books and this did not disappoint. ( )
  bogopea | May 19, 2017 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
This is my favorite kind of book: a book-about-books.

This is my favorite kind of author: a Reader. (Capital letter intended).

What is not to love? ( )
  debnance | May 15, 2017 |
Keeping track of the books one reads isn't an unusual activity in and of itself; many readers, myself included, use LibraryThing for this purpose. But author Pamela Paul has taken her recordkeeping one step further in My Life with Bob. In this collection of coming-of-age essays, she connects her reading to her life's journey. She goes from being a confused child of divorce, through phases as an Ivy League student and world traveler, to her current incarnation as wife, mother, and editor of the New York Times Book Review. Throughout the collection she highlights the literary works that have influenced her, from Brave New World to Les Misérables, which she reads in the original French.

I would characterize this book as pleasant and mildly engaging, but I wonder how much of it I will remember about it in a week, a month, or a year. ( )
  akblanchard | May 15, 2017 |
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To my family of readers, and in memory of my father
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Like anyone else with a marriage and a home and children and family and work, and more work, I always have something to worry about.
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