Book review: Hell is Other Parents

by DaniGirl on September 2, 2009 · 8 comments

in Books, Reviews, promotions and giveaways

Okay, I’d admit it, the title of this one sucked me in. It made you look, too, didn’t it? When the rep from Hyperion/Voice offered me this book to review, she pitched it as a series of funny non-fiction essays from a New York City mother of three navigating the new world of helicopter parenting. Seeing myself as a free-range-parenting kind of girl, it caught my attention enough that I said “Yes please!” to the offer of a free review copy.

Despite my interest being piqued, I was somehow prepared to dislike this book. Would it be yet another snide, snippy book written by a Lululemon-wearing yoga mom, aching for her lost figure and trying too hard to be hip? Turns out, not at all… despite my first impressions.

The author and I have a lot in common — we both have three kids and, erm… *sound of crickets* …yeah, well, I guess that’s all we have in common. She’s a Vespa-riding apartment-dwelling resident of New York City, a stage mother to the kid who played “Young Spock” in the latest Star Trek movie and who turned down a small role for her son on Lost because it would be too disruptive to the family, and a former Emmy-award-winning TV producer and war photographer. No, really! And I am — none of those things, although I do like to take pictures and watch Lost religiously.

Anyway, despite my initial misgivings and the lack of shared life experiences, it’s a testament to Deborah Copaken Kogan’s lively writing style that she totally sucked me in, and I ended up hooked on the loosely linked vignettes that form the chapters in Hell is Other Parents, And Other Tales of Maternal Combustion. From the very first essay, where she tells the story of her youngest son’s birth and sharing a hospital room with a teenaged new mother with a potty mouth, I was endeared. Writing with equal parts humour and pathos, Kogan has an easy and amiable intimacy in her style that makes reading her essays feel a lot like reading some of my favourite bloggers.

The pitch from Hyperion/Voice was a little off the mark, though, in my opinion. The book shares its title with the second essay, and does paint a picture of mothering in Manhattan that bears no resemblance whatsoever to mothering in suburban Ottawa. She writes:

I read No Exit, Sartre’s famous existentialist play, in my early twenties, and I remember thinking at the time that it was interesting on a conceptual level but not a literal one. Hell might very well be other people, okay, sure, but under what far-fetched conditions would anyone every actually be trapped forever in the company of strangers with no sleep or means of escape.

Then I became a parent.

And I realized that anyone who defines hell as being stuck for eternity with an adulterous deserter, a lesbian sadist, and a narcissistic baby-murderer has never spend an hour at a Mommy and Me class. Or killed a Saturday afternoon in the children’s shoe store in my neighbourhood, with its sign-up sheet thirty kids deep and shoe projectiles flying across the aisles. Or been forced into any seemingly innocuous but secretly agenda-laden interaction with the parent of your child’s peer.

And she goes on to enumerate some truly wretched interactions with other parents, including one mother who is aghast at the mention of Cookie Monster in her toddler’s presence, “yell-whispering, ‘Sam has never eaten a cookie!'” while slapping her hands over her son’s ears. So, despite an early connection to Kogan’s writing, I found it hard to relate to her on an level of shared experience. The other parents I know in real life seem to be, for the most part, as perplexed by parenting as I am, but generally willing to share the journey amiably.

It was this paragraph, buried deep in another essay called “La Vie en Explose” that made me realize that even though she was dancing on the edge of celebrity, leading a life I could only imagine in terms of movies I’ve seen, maybe Deborah Copaken Kogan and I weren’t so different after all. Stuck in a hospital ER for hours with undiagnosed appendicitis, an editorial deadline overdue and no backup childcare, she writes:

Here in the United States… where our social safety net seems limited to the guarantee of a Starbucks on every corner, family life can often feel as if it’s stacked like a house of cards, with one small gust of air — an absent babysitter, another day off from school, a medical emergency — knocking the whole structure to the ground. One can plan theoretical contingencies in the event of each occurrence, but life doesn’t always offer a single gust at a time. Sometimes the perfect storm blows into town, and then your left, in triage limbo, with a bum appendix, a dying man at your feet, three kids scattered to the four winds, your sitter in Manila, and only your wits and whatever karma you’ve accumulated back on earth to save you.

I think that line about “social safety net limited to the guarantee of a Starbucks on every corner” is just about perfect, don’t you? And the rest of the paragraph just gets better from there.

I have to say, my only caveat about this book is that occasionally, it seemed less like real life and more like reading what would happen if Carrie from Sex and the City grew up, got married and had three kids — but in a good way. Reading about Kogan’s life is like reading science fiction, a world that bears little resemblance to ours at first glance, but where parallels become clear in the details. In the end, I thoroughly enjoyed this book, so much so that I’m going to search out a copy of her first book, Shutterbabe, a memoir about her years as a war photographer.

Stay tuned, and later this week you can have a chance to win my very own slightly worn but well appreciated copy as part of another giveaway!

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

1 colleen September 2, 2009 at 3:37 pm

You could totally write a better book….and it would be Canadian.

2 kate September 2, 2009 at 5:07 pm

Ooh, I own Shutterbabe! I’d offer to swap if your copy of her current memoir wasn’t already spoken for. Shutterbabe also has moments that feel unreal, but I love her candour.

3 susan September 2, 2009 at 7:24 pm

Sounds like an interesting book!

4 Judy September 2, 2009 at 7:33 pm

Sounds like a good read. Sometimes a book is just good to put yours and other peoples experiences in persepctive.

I may have to add it and Shutterbabe to my reading list. (random pieces of paper scattered around the computer for instances like this!)

5 Deborah Copaken Kogan September 4, 2009 at 3:47 pm

Dear Dani,
This is one of the nicest–and funniest–reviews of any of my books I’ve ever read. Thank you so much for posting it. And don’t underestimate how much our lives are similar. Most days? I wake up, walk the dog, get the 3 kids up, dressed, fed, and off to school, then I sit down in front of my computer to work. Then the kids come home, and all hell breaks loose, and by 7 I’m cursing the refrigerator for being out of beer. Then I clean up dinner and wave to my husband from across the room (hi! remember me?) and respond to email and pass out with my face on the computer. Rinse, repeat.
Love your website. Thanks again.
All the best, Deborah

6 Jen September 4, 2009 at 4:27 pm

Shutterbabe is great!! I love the honesty! I need to get this one too!

I also really liked “Bad Mother:A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace” by Ayelet Waldman.
Another woman who is honest, straight-forward, funny, and knows how to craft the perfect sentiment into a perfect sentence.

7 Loukia September 8, 2009 at 2:35 pm

This was a great book review, Dani! So well written!

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