on February 11, 2012
Pam Houston is a master of both form and content - not an easy feat to say the least. Often the writers who push form sacrifice (many times knowingly) emotion. The journey Houston takes us on - from Madison, WI to Ksar Ouled Soultane, Tunisia and everywhere in between - add up at the end in a satisfying take on what its like to admit your worst fears and insecurities aloud (to yourself and to your friends), invite them on every journey (they're coming with you anyway) and ultimately make them your best traveling companion.
The narrative shifts back, forth and sideways, both in location and time, which felt both fresh and familiar to me and at the end I understood why. Isn't this how we actually live our lives?
I've been a fan since Cowboys and this new book did not disappoint. It feels like Cowboys in a way, something that is going to get people talking about life, love, friendship and truth in interesting ways.
on April 8, 2012
In Contents May Have Shifted, Pam Houston invites the reader into her intimate circle of friends and takes us along on a wild ride to Ireland, Canada, Bhutan, Argentina, many US destinations, home bases of California and Colorado and more. We learn about her (often) difficult relationships with men and the constant support from her (often) wise friends.
This is a book about relationships and support, love and spiritual growth and especially travel. I found Houston's remarks about difficult situations and ever entertaining travel guides (entertaining, whether they mean to be or not) shifting between hilarious and enlightening. I often observed that what she voiced or thought was close to what my own reaction would have been.
Some readers might be disconcerted by Houston's jumps from California to Bhutan to Alaska and back again. But once I found the rhythm, I decided that this is what life is really like. We don't finish every story we tell or live all at once.
Pam Houston has written a marvelous book, both poignant and funny.
by Judith Helburn
for Story Circle Book Reviews
reviewing books by, for, and about women
on February 22, 2012
I eagerly waited for this book to hit the bookshelves, or better yet, my Kindle. I almost wished I would have purchased the actual book, however, because whomever has had the misfortune (or good fortune) to have been near me while reading it, was forced to listen to wherever I happened to be in the book and I wanted to force the book on them, make then take it home and read it, too. Pam Houston is a master at pulling you in and then dragging you all over the planet. Literally. You never know where you are going to end up next and that is the beauty of the book. If you want a book that offers a basic plot and then ties it all up with a neat little bow at the end, then grab a Harlequin (not that there's anything wrong with that). If you want to laugh out loud, feel scared, anxious, excited, sad, elated...whatever...read this book. It runs through the entire gamut of emotions. It will pull you in and you will be disappointed when it ends because even though Pam is finished with us for now, you'll wish she wasn't and you'll be left clamoring for more. If that happens, just read it again!
on December 15, 2013
I have loved Pam Houston since Cowboys Are My Weakness, and had high expectations for Contents May Have Shifted. I really wanted to love this book, bought a hardcover because I expected to keep it. Instead I am disappointed in the self-indulgent narrator and stream-of-consciousness writing style. I loved the format of each chapter taking place in a different location of the world, and when I read the jacket copy that it was originally conceived as "144 reasons not to commit suicide" I understood the disjointed nature of it better. But I didn't feel I learned much about the narrator's story arc, lots of whining about boyfriends and their girl friends or ex-wives, and what feels like boasting about her world travels and the exclusive places she has been. I almost felt like the narrator was looking down her nose at a poor slob like me who only goes to work every day, makes a good wage at a good job, but must live such a boring sheltered life. There were some shining moments, like when the Laotian guide explains why he is so nice to the Americans, "when you do something nice for somebody, it is just like walking around a temple. it is like saying a prayer." And the book finished strong, but it was basically a chore to get through. And that is very disappointing.
on September 20, 2012
I have read and own all books written by Pam Houston and couldn't wait to buy and read this one. Unfortunately, it turns out to be a huge disappointment, at least, for me.
Before the purchase I read the book's reviews here on Amazon and first had a very negative reaction towards the negative review written by wrywreviewer. 'No one was going to talk bad about Pam Houston.' Even though, I do not agree with the review 100%, I was astonished that somewhere in the middle of the book I started realizing that the reviewer was partially right.
Unlike many reviewers, I did not mind what they called "dis-joined" material. Although, the writing is stream-of-consciousness-like, it is not difficult to follow and makes sense. The author's use of paragraphs, to distinguish the current situation or setting from a past situation, action, feeling or opinion that the author thinks about at the current moment, is clear for the most part... As far as the form, this book is interesting to me. It is the content and writing style I do not care for.
I don't know how some reviewers found it to be adventurous, emotional and funny. Just because the narrator travels around the globe it doesn't make for an adventure. To me, this was a mere rambling on about places, situations, relationships without any deeper emotion. There was just a handful of chapters that I thought were well written. A few of them were sort of funny, a few of them seemed like banal story, on the surface, but actually contained some very interesting moment, situation and therefore evoked some kind of an emotion in me. The rest, I went through without them leaving any impact on me. If someone just handed this book to me without a cover, I would have never guessed this is a book by Houston. Her usually extremely witty, fun, edgy, touching voice, sentences that stand out, sentences that are so true and relevant that I want to type them, print them and stick them on my fridge, are not present in this book.
The characters (even the closest ones to the narrator) just exist in this book but the readers never get to know them and it is almost like we wouldn't even want to 'cause they don't seem interesting. The way how she treats the "dysfunctional relationship" and problems arising from it is nothing like in her previous books...It is tedious and ridiculous, almost seems like a "junior-high." Her boyfriend's ex-wife for some reason tends to email the narrator and the narrator then forwards these emails to her friends who will write the narrator back about what they think about the email and its' author. And if its's not an email, than it is a phone call and on and on. What 47 year-old adult lives like this for heaven's sake???
The narrator is somewhat self-indulgent. Which, in my mind, is usually a good thing. I also like to enjoy myself when it comes to many things but I do not talk about it. The narrator continuously brings up little tidbits of information that ultimately carry the same message - I did that!!! I know that!!! I can afford that!!!
I also don't see how some reviewers thought that she was revealing her biggest insecurities and fears. She mentions them, maybe in a couple of sentences, but she actually doesn't reveal anything, she lets the reader speculate about the reasons.
Overall, when I was in the middle of this book, I was really wishing I was at the end. Today, I finally got to the end....for the first and the last time....
on July 31, 2012
Pam, the narrator of this absolutely fantastic book, can't seem to stay in one place. An author and writing instructor with little luck on the romantic front, the one thing she seems to have inherited from her dysfunctional parents is a sincere love of travel and a restlessness to explore.
Contents May Have Shifted follows Pam all over the world, from ranches and spas, to monasteries, religious shrines, hotels, and landmarks, in locations as diverse as the American Southwest, Alaska, Bhutan, Tibet, Laos, Spain, Scotland, Newfoundland, and Australia. Sometimes she travels with friends, sometimes colleagues, sometimes lovers (or ex-lovers), and sometimes she is trying to escape it all. And she has no shortage of flying-related complications, whether on a jet plane or a small turbo prop! Pam's (and Pam Houston's) tremendous appreciation for wherever she is and whomever she is with, no matter the circumstances, is both heartwarming and, at times, heartbreaking, but moving all the same.
While this book hooked me from start to finish, especially since the sphere of my personal travel experiences is so narrow, I give you one warning: this book is not told in a linear way, so as it jumps from place to place, it jumps from time to time. Sometimes she's with one partner, sometimes another, and sometimes she's simply dealing with friends and their issues. I think it's a true testament to Houston's skills as a writer that she's able to present such a full story through short snippets told out of temporal order. If you can suspend your need for order and just give in to this book about the joy of travel and relationships, you will love it as much as I did. And if you want more Pam Houston, I highly recommend her short story collections Cowboys are My Weakness and Waltzing the Cat.
on May 10, 2014
If you like books with no plot, short, disjointed chapters, and a world populated by annoying, pretentious characters, then this book is for you! If not, skip it.
The narrator of the book, Pam, is a writing professor at UC Davis who somehow has the time and money to travel all over the world. She also has a ranch in Colorado. The author's name is Pam, is a writing professor at UC Davis, and has a ranch in Colorado. Not much of a stretch here.
The book is a series of very short chapters (but not a journal) as we drop in on Pam as she hopscotches in and out of places. The exotic locales she visits and their inhabitants would actually have been interesting to read about if the author had spent more than a page describing them, which she doesn't. Inexplicably, despite the fact that the character of Pam is an unlikable, self-absorbed navel-gazer, she has a boyfriend and a zillion friends who willingly accompany her on her travels or send her sage advice via email.
There is no character development whatsoever, so all of the characters seem superficial. But the most annoying aspect of this book to me was that every sentence is presented as some kind of deep philosophical statement. For example, the one-sentence chapter 80 reads, "'Rick [her boyfriend] says, 'Pam, if everyone deserved a down pillow, there wouldn't be any more birds.'"
And appropriate for a navel-gazer, Pam's actual navel is mentioned when one of the New Age characters says, "By the way, there are a bunch of Native Americans hanging around your navel. They want you to think about origins."
This ridiculous drivel is occasionally interrupted by Pam's plane flights, in which something always goes wrong but they manage to land safely. After a while, I found myself rooting for a plane crash, to put all of us (Pam AND readers) out of our misery.
on August 14, 2014
Pam Houston is an incredible writer, and this is one of my favorites among her books. Each chapter takes place in a specific location. She writes with clarity about place - physical location, place among friends/family, stage in life. What's funny is that she is a great outdoors woman - risk-taking, wilderness-loving, danger-seeking - as if to test herself is to break herself to feel deeply. I am the opposite - indoors, risk-averse - although an avid traveler. I don't travel and explore the way she does. But I love her work and stories, even the parts about facing her fears in the middle of nowhere. This book is about so much more than travel. I am left with a sense of wonder at how much of the world we can get to know if we stay open.
on July 7, 2012
This book is terribly, terribly disappointing. It's one part narcissism, one part self-conscious New Ageism, and one part vulgar travelogue. It shifts relentlessly in geography while Houston's narrator either attempts to lose herself or collects material for her next cocktail party conversation. It is astonishing that while the location of each of her chapters keeps changing, neither the narrator nor anyone else, it seems, grows or changes or has anything emotionally real happen to them. There is zero risk, zero ... narrative. This makes for a poor novel.
The writing is choppier than ever, which seems to be less a literary device than the author simply having exhausted the store of anxious, self-conscious disappearance-to-where-the-sun-doesn't-shine that she treated more interestingly in "Cowboys Are My Weakness". All of her narrator's surrounding characters seem to exist as mere sources of one-liners, but we don't get to know them except as the deliverers of pithy zingers. There is something deeply tedious about reporting the terrible thing said to her during her last bad relationship, which reads as distressingly similar to all her other bad relationships. It puts the reader in the position of saying "eww", not so much because someone said something pithily mean to the narrator but because Houston dwells on them so proudly. It's the literary equivalent of cutting, and shyly/proudly showing you the blood. Does she want us to like it?
The writing is also somewhat sloppy, as is the editing. "Parce", "vise versa", the same phrasing when name-dropping Himalayan peaks, as though she grew up in their shadow, within a few paragraphs. Indeed, the entire structural conceit is flawed; she starts out talking about a place and then shifts to several others within a chapterlet. And sometimes the disjointed material just becomes comical, as when she writes about her great friend Fenton:
"Now that twenty years have gone by there will be no way to say for sure whether Fenton and I got to know each other so well in a former life or this one. The grapefruits on the tree in his side yard are the sweetest in the world."
Um, yeah. Gotcha. It's hard to tell what she thinks she's doing with that. Moreover, not only do I not believe that Houston believes in past lives, I don't think she's trying very hard to persuade me that her narrator believes in past lives. Is she making fun of her narrator for this stupid patchwork of beliefs, this stew of lazy-Buddhism-cum-bodywork nonsense? If she is, it's disloyal, and therefore off-putting. If she isn't, it's just... disturbing.
This is the central, moral, flaw of the book. Houston can't commit: not to a belief, or to a home, or to narrative, or to a voice. The ambivalence with which she offers up the New Age tidbits is the same ambivalence with which she treats her relationships. She dismisses her (country) acquaintances who read the Bible, but can't seem to make fly the self-indulgent, vapid nonsense she replaced it with. That, or she is hiding behind her narrator in order to hedge her bets. I'm not advocating Bible study; I'm pointing out that she can't decide who is her tribe. She dismisses academics -- why? She is one. She's an all-too-typical Davis academic: too cool for school, all ironic detachment, unable to stop watching herself watch herself. Oh, and takes *great* vacations.
In fact, the banality of her vacation choices persuade me that she doesn't know what she likes. I don't think she's figured out the role of language in her life, and her inability to do that and a few other things have nearly killed her voice: Only these little choked fragments remain, existing neither here nor there. We can't trust her, because we don't know where she stands. At her age, it's (past) time to step up. Your parents did not do this to you.
If she did pick up the Bible, she might turn to Jeremiah, who says, "Stop wearing out your shoes."
on July 29, 2014
This was a very difficult book for me to read. Very disjointed and too fragmented for my personal taste. Like short stories but did not even enjoy them, did not consider it a novel and actually did not finish it which is very unusual for me.