It's impossible to review Nancy Mairs' "Carnal Acts" without referring to her first book of essays, "Plaintext." I happened upon "Plaintext" a few years ago, bought it and couldn't put it down. I even bought copies for friends. In artful prose, Mairs spoke the cold, harrowing, insightful truth about so many subjects (depression, suicide, infidelity, incontinence, disease, failure, what it means to be a woman). I wanted to reach out to Tucson and talk with her, tell her she was not alone.
I didn't have any trouble deciding how I felt about Nancy Mairs. She was one of those people who shouldn't have survived but somehow did to make people feel less sad, less lonely. "Plaintext" remains the most honest book I've ever read.A few years later, browsing at the King's English, I came across a new book by Mairs, "Remembering the Bone House," and snatched it off the shelf like a mystery buff happening upon the latest Scott Turow. Within minutes I was home, curled up, cherishing my find more as an act of grace than luck. For me, the insights in "Plaintext" were spiritual.
So I read. And read. And instead of feeling filled, I found myself wondering what there was to eat in the kitchen. I returned to the "Bone House" periodically over the coming weeks probably because I am the product of the same puritanical academic training that Mairs describes in "Carnal Acts;' I tend "to read in dogged linear fashion, believing that skipping or skimming somehow constitutes cheating. . . ."
I felt betrayed because I had to rely on that academic training to get me through the book.
So when I recently came across "Carnal Acts," I flipped through, read a few pages, and put it back. I no longer had $20 worth of curiosity. But when I was given the book as a gift, I decided to read it.
"Carnal Acts" has nothing to do with sex but a lot to do with the human body, primarily its premature deterioration. Mairs suffers from multiple sclerosis, and every essay in "Carnal Acts" is colored by the presence of this disease.
I wish that I could write a review of "Carnal Acts" (as I could have "Plaintext) without mentioning MS, but "Carnal Acts" is a book about life with MS, not a book about life. Because I am not "crippled" (which Mairs prefers over such euphemisms as "physically challenged"), I was more interested in the effect of her daughter Anne's Peace Corps experience in Africa on their relationship than I was in provisions Lufthansa makes for the disabled.
But it is OK that I am no longer the primary audience to which Mairs directs her writing. If I feel disappointed, that is not a just cause for criticism.
In one of "Carnal Acts" more compelling essays ("Politeness," originally published as a "Hers" column in the New York Times) she offers rules women must obey in the company of men in order to be accepted:
Rule 3: If you must mention your own concerns, deprecate them prettily. The greatest rudeness in a woman is to appear to take herself seriously. My husband's indictment of feminism, for example, and he's not alone in it, is that feminists "lack a sense of humor."
She concludes that no man should "expect women to crack jokes when they are enraged by the malnutrition, rapes and the battering of their sisters and the system that makes such occurrences inevitable."
Yet, four pages later, she violates her own rule. Comparing the explicitness in her writing to "exposing my own bosom," she adds self-deprecatingly: "if only I had such a thing."
What I fear is that Mairs' isolation has caused her to seek a safer audience. It may have consoled her, but it has left me feeling like I've lost a friend.
- Kent Walgren is a Salt Lake attorney, book dealer and free-lance writer.