I can't watch scary movies, thanks to an embarrassing susceptibility to even the cheapest jump scare, but my faintheartedness doesn't typically extend to books. That being said, there were several moments where I found myself putting down Portlander Martha Grover's One More for the People to take deep, stabilizing breaths. This harmless-seeming local release collects eight years of autobiographical writing Grover did for her zine Somnambulist, and it begins innocuously enough: with a few brainy little pieces about cheese.
Grover writes of working in the cheese department of a fancy grocery store, where she spends her time slicing and wrapping cheese, and answering the questions of the cheese-hungry masses. The reflections she shares here are the stuff of underemployment: When smart people work stupid jobs all day, they wind up thinking smart things about stupid subjects. And Grover knows it, as she considers a customer who has just asked her for an "entry-level goat cheese," his "face impatient, eager to suckle at the teat of [her] vast cheese knowledge." From cheese, Grover moves on to stories about her family and a childhood passed in a trailer in Corbett, Oregon, with six siblings and parents whose general attitude combined 'having fun' with 'God's will' finished off with a touch of 'who gives a shit,'" as far as Grover and her siblings were concerned.
All this family talk, all this cheese talk—it's fine. It's delightful. It acquaints the reader with an observant writer, a sensibility both warm and astute. Which perhaps accounts for how deeply upsetting it is when, about 100 pages in, we join Grover on a trip to the endocrinologist, where the doctor asks her why she doesn't have any scars. Grover transmits her anxiety about this question plainly to the reader: "Sitting on the examination table, fa- cing these questions, the fact that I don't have any scars seems strange to me. Why don't I have any scars? ... I have worked in a kitchen since I was 15 and have had my fair share of cuts and burns. I stare down at my hands—they're pristine. Do I have some superhuman healing ability I'm unaware of?"
It turns out that "minimal scarring" is one of the 81 symptoms of Cushing's Disease, a rare disorder characterized by an excess of the body's stress hormone. The next chapter lists those symptoms in full, a litany that reads like a parody of a pharmaceutical ad, listing possible side effects of the worst drug you can imagine, from "low resistance to infections" to "spreading of the teeth," "electric shock sensation under the skin" to a "hump of fat at the back of the neck," plus anxiety, depression, memory lapse, and a whole host of others. The rest of One More is anchored by Grover's illness, as she struggles with her weight, with chronic fatigue, with regular visits to OHSU and a test-drug regiment that requires transporting vials of her own urine through airport security. And some of it—like an account of Grover seeking out a cheap Thai massage after several brain surgeries and the removal of her gall bladder—is just really damn disturbing.
But it's never self-pitying, and it provides a totally fascinating window into what it's like to be young and sick. One section of the book is devoted entirely to minutes of family meetings Grover attended after she moved back in with her parents. There, her disease is only one item on a family agenda more often dominated by whose turn it is to clean the bathroom. This chapter, "The Grover Family Meeting Minutes," ingeniously captures how even illness can become routine—and so the focus of the book eventually shifts away from pain and symptoms and toward the life Grover is still living.