Him Her Him Again The End of Him by Patricia Marx

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Book: Him Her Him Again The End of Him

Author: Patricia Marx

Type of Book: Fiction, literary fiction

Why Did I Read This Book: The title sucked me in. Also the dust jacket popped. Never underestimate the appeal of an orange dust jacket.

Availability: Published by Scribner in 2007, you can get a copy here:

Comments: Can you love unreservedly a book that enthralls you but falls apart in the final pages? I think you can. You can love it the same way you love your cat who continually butt drags on the beige carpet. The cat is loving, adorable, a delight in every way except that terrible surprise waiting for you when you walk downstairs. It irritates you fiercely when it happens but mostly you recall all the times the beast has made you happy. That’s the approach I am taking with this book: the great fun of the book overwhelmed the unhappy surprise at the end.

Marx’s clever yet sympathetic prose coupled with an appreciation for the absurd gives us a heroine we can both root for and wish we could throttle. Her depiction of the villain in this piece may seem heavy-handed but at the same time portrays perfectly the bafflement others must feel observing any relationships women have with such men. I suspect this book will speak to mostly women of a certain age who have made shockingly dumb decisions in love, but anyone with a love of characters full of self-deprecating humor and wit will find much to love in this book.

We begin with the heroine meeting the dreadful Eugene Obello at Cambridge. An American, the heroine is working on a thesis that is never wholly finished and becomes rapt with Eugene very quickly.

“Let N represent the set of natural numbers,” Eugene said.

“If it’s up to me,” I said, “N can be anything it wants.”

She loses her virginity to him, despite the fact that anyone, from her friends to the reader, can tell that Eugene is a tool of the highest order.

I saw Eugene smile faintly, then put on a serious face. “Shall we, my precious abecedarian… proceed?” Eugene said and just as solemnly, I nodded. Talk about proceeding, my suitor had me in the bed before I knew which end was up. But then the proceeding stopped so that he could amorously fold each item of his clothes, taking special care with the trouser creases, and stack one piece on top of the other on the bedside chair, ending with his socks. He laid his watch on one sock, his eyeglasses on the other. I tried to ignore this preliminary activity, in the same way you’re not supposed to see what’s going on backstage before the show.

Yeah, don’t sleep with a man who uses the word abecedarian in reference to your sexual inexperience. I mean, you can almost deal with that level of arrogance in word selection but if he follows this by folding his clothes in an exacting manner, don’t sleep with him. At times it was hard not to shout at the pages, much in the same way I would shout at characters in horror movies when I was in junior high, hollering, “Run! Run away and hide!”

After Eugene tells the heroine, whose name we never learn, that he has been dating a new woman whom he plans to marry and that he is breaking up with her, she decides to invite Eugene and Margaret to her place and she will make them all dinner. Her friends chime in with their opinions, varying from recipe recommendations to condemning Eugene for failing to bring the heroine a gift back from a trip. However, one friend gets it right:

Libby: “You know how everyone is always saying go with your heart, trust your instinct, have the courage of your convictions? My advice is not to listen to those people.”

And of course, because he is a terrible man, Eugene does bring Margaret to dinner at the heroine’s place. Of course, our heroine misinterpreted his motives because her feckless sense of humor is only trumped by her willingness to be deluded.

When one of the heroine’s friends, Obax, finally dumps her cad of a boyfriend after finding out he got another woman pregnant, though even that knowledge was not enough to spur her to immediate action, the heroine muses on the situation with a clarity that can only come at the end of acting as another’s fool:

Why she took action at that point, which wasn’t even the lowest point, I cannot tell you. For that matter, why does anyone wake up one morning and finally clean out the crawlspace or shoot the boss or quit the tuba or propose marriage or throw in the towel or run for alderman or make any other long-intended change? Of course, if philosophers can’t figure out grains of sand, how was I, a mere graduate student, challenged even by the quest for data, supposed to answer for anything?

And while I think everyone can agree with this assessment of the confusing nature of the human condition, it still doesn’t stop the reader from wanting to poke the protagonist in the bottom and have her act in her own best interests. But if she didn’t, we wouldn’t have this book to remind us of all the dumb times we did not act in our best interests, of how we were drawn to the Eugene Obellos in our own lives, captivated by bad energy that others could sense but we blithely overlooked in a Quixotic quest that only time allowed us to see for the godless endeavor it was.

The pitiful behavior continues apace and the narrator does not cut herself any slack. The behavior that draws her to Eugene is in no way made more attractive. After Eugene marries, he calls for the protagonist:

“My singular dodo bird,” Eugene had written on a note-card. “Please do not absquatulate on me. With ardent devotion from your once-again Cantabridgian.” I would have preferred “devoted ardor,” but that’s being greedy. And it did not stop me from getting on a train that was heading to Eugene lickety-split.

Eugene spends the afternoon bragging about an expose he is writing that will devastate Elie Wiesel and dropping hints his wife is pregnant. He also, at the end of the meeting, makes it clear he called our heroine simply to return to her some items she had left behind at his place. When the protagonist runs into an old friend named Oliver at the train station as she returns home, she remembers how he referred to Eugene as her “heinous hypnotist.” Oliver had seen her with Eugene and when he sees her at the station, he wants to ride with her and talk to her but instead of being at least kind, she insults his clothing. Oliver kindly kisses her on the cheek and retreats a wounded exit. It is here that the torment of reading sort of ends, and the reader can watch as the narrator consigns her fate and her youth to the pursuit of a pedantic philandering asshole. She’s not kind and on a very basic level, perhaps she deserves what comes to her, even as she is witty and pitiful in her grovelling.

She returns to New York, begins working for a television show, but when Eugene moves to New York and calls her, she goes to see him and they begin an affair. Her friends are as appalled as I was:

Lisa: “Can I be honest? Something’s wrong with you.”
Deb: “If you’re happy, I’m happy. You shouldn’t be happy, though.”
Meg: “I’ve heard worse, but not much worse.”
Joan: “I hope you won’t take this the wrong way, but it’s clear that Eugene is gay.”
Pearson: “The winner in this story is Margaret. She got a night off from him.”
Buffy: “If I were a better person, this story would turn me into a feminist.”
Phoebe: “Remind me again why you like him? Is it because he’s using you or because he lies to you repeatedly?”

No matter how pathetic, slightly immoral or irrational our behavior is, many of us really want honest feedback from friends, which we then dismiss as we pursue our terrible ends. Our protagonist is no different because specific feedback doesn’t cause her to change course in any manner. One marginally acceptable sex session with Eugene and she’s back in full pursuit again, her dignity and his wife and child be damned.

Later, she meets up again with her friend Obax and their conversation is why, even when I found the protagonist so tiresome that I kept reading. It’s very easy to look at others and never see ourselves, and when we finally see ourselves, we realize how stupid and exhausting we were, and how easy it is to justify our actions.

“I can’t believe you still know him,” Obax said. “He’s a cad and a bore and a sneak and a fake and a narcissist and a braggart and I don’t like his teeth, either.”

“I’m sure you’re right,” I said, “but that’s just one side of him.”

“What about the married thing?” Obax said. “Don’t you feel a little bad for Margaret?”

“What does she have to do with it?” I said, and I meant it. I had met Eugene a long time before Margaret had. “Besides,” I said, “he seems to really like me this time. And he’s so smart. Being with him is getting an A.”

Unless you were born exceptionally self aware and with a sense of morality that trumped wanting what you want and damn the consequences, you’ve been in this position and seeing it presented without an ounce of pity and yet with no small amount of sarcasm will make you either hate or love this book. I myself like seeing glimpses of who I used to be before I hit my 30s and understood the idea that the bad things we do come back to us. (Oh, by the way, I’m still an idiot these days. But were I single, I am confident I would not sleep with anyone else’s husband. As you get older, your stupidity turns from the carnal to the more mundane, it has been my experience.)

And as the narrator spins her wheels, spending her life in thrall to an unethical psychiatrist who is everything Obax says he is and more, she manages to waste even more time when she is away from him.

I was working as an assistant to a celebrity whose name I had better not divulge if that’s okay with you, but I can tell you she’s fat and she’s a lesbian and that that is not as narrow a field as you might think. My job was to buy up supplies of Dr. Nougat candy bars once a week from various stores; eat a bar from each batch; then write up reports about the taste, freshness, crispness, discoloration, if any, and whether the bars were chipped or nicked. My boss wanted only the best. It wasn’t a hard job–a limo took me to each place. But you know how Karl Mark said labor can be alienating? I couldn’t agree with him more.

She’d had a good job working for a terrible television program, a job most of us would have killed for but as a woman who got an A in life because she was sleeping with Eugene, it is no surprise she slunk down to such a place wherein she did such a trivial job and became a little bitter.

And though no one could read what I have written so far about this book without realizing the situation between the narrator and Eugene could not end well, I still don’t want to ruin the ending, even though I hate the ending so very, very much. I will reveal that the narrator found out she was not the only woman Eugene was sleeping with and when she finally stands up and realizes what a cretin he is, it is both funny and sobering. She is confronting him in his office, trying to look like she is not hurt, and he takes a phone call as she struggles to remain composed.

Eugene, meanwhile, was on the telephone. “À bientôt, my only one,” I heard him say. I believe I may have glowered.

If the world can be divided into people who would have signed the Munich Agreement versus those who would have stood firm against Hitler–and who says it can’t–I would definitely have been in the former camp, giving away the Sudetenland with a smile and a cookie. I might even have offered the Fuhrer a signing bonus, for example the mineral rights to South Dakota. As you know, I am not big on making trouble. But that morning, in Eugene’s office, I had not been myself (which in my case, is not generally but sometimes a very good thing not to be). And that is why, after Eugene said à bientôt, I stood up and said, “I think it is time to terminate.”

And you hope that when this happens, it will indeed be over but we do indeed know the protagonist and of course it is not over. It will not be over until the object of her obsession is removed from the picture entirely and the strange and comedic misery continues on for some more pages. But going back to an earlier passage wherein the heroine mused on what it was that made people act, a simple French phrase used often in Britain to give a casual goodbye seems like an unlikely straw to break the camel’s back. But trivial things can often push us over the edge.

The heroine of this story, and make no mistake, as daft and lacking self-awareness as she was, she was a heroine, lays out so clearly what this sort of pointless obsession feels like, and how it trumps honesty, common sense, self-respect, familial relationships, wise career choices, or even the capacity to make the most of an overseas education. But had the book simply been a recount that told me that, it would have been unreadable. Marx adroitly mixes intolerable truths into amusing situations, clever characterization and witty dialogue. I loved this book for its capacity to remind me how being smart was never enough to prevent me from being an idiot and how the desire to be the one and only, even to a despicable man, can become all that matters.

This book is also so very funny that even if you are not a woman who understands bad mistakes and the accumulation of consequences, you can still enjoy the heroine and her friends. I find this to be a very good, intensely readable, clever book, despite how disappointing the ending was.

PS: And as a final complaint, I want to mention this line:

The one full night I did spend with him gave me insight into what it would be like to share a bed with the Gestapo.

Writers of the world, I beseech you, please stop using the Nazis in casual comparisons. Eugene was a dreadful man but I wager being in bed with him was nothing like being interrogated by the Gestapo. I’m decidedly not a stickler for politically correct language or ideas but the older I get the more I find casual hyperbole that relates to Nazis and the Holocaust to be tiresome. How come no one talks about being in bed with the Stasi? How come people don’t make humorous allusions between casual violence and the Khmer Rouge or the Armenian genocide? Maybe because it’s terribly insensitive? Maybe because the Western imagination is so impoverished that we can only remember the German Holocaust and Nazis when it comes to funny references to some of the worst social oppression ever being akin to dating a douchebag? Whatever the reason, I will rejoice when this habit stops entirely.

The passage about dividing the world into two camps of people – those who would have appeased Hitler and those who would not – doesn’t register as horrible as it does not bring into play the torture and murder of millions of people in order to make a comedic point. It’s subtle, but if you are comparing a restless sleeper to being in bed with the Gestapo, it is a far different thing than saying you are so weak you might have been the sort to appease Hitler. One implies a questioner is a torturer on scale with some of the worst torturers in history, and the other implies in the face of moral decisions one is often lacking. I hope I am making the difference clear.

Mutants by Armand Marie Leroi

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Book: Mutants: On Genetic Variety and the Human Body

Author: Armand Marie Leroi

Type of Book: Non-fiction, genetics

Why Did I Read This Book: I initially thought this would be a good fit on my site for odd books because Amazon recommended this book when I purchased a book about carny culture. This book is not about “mutants” in the vulgar parlance wherein the term has come to mean “freaks” and as a result, it really is a better fit for this site. But the reason I read it initially was because I thought it far stranger than it was.

Availability: Published in 2003 by Penguin Books, you can get a copy here:

Comments: I am decidedly a liberal arts kind of woman. I managed to cram enough science into my head to make it (barely) through college and then promptly forgot all of it. Much science seems like magic to me, a sentiment that makes me sound really dumb, but I’m okay with that (though I do need to mention that I understand how magnets work). So it was a little bit of a shock when I realized this was not a book about carny folk and old side-show acts that featured “freaks.” I was intimidated by the book and put off reading it.

When I finally picked this book up and gave it a try, it was a marvel at how accessible this book made biology and genetics to a non-science person like me. Moreover, it was an engrossing book, as well. Biology in the micro is a dramatic thing and as Leroi makes the science clear enough that even I can understand it, he shows the drama that takes place in our genetic code. I wish this book, clear and elegant, had been my college biology text. I sure would have enjoyed the class a lot more.

This book really did lay out for me the logic in genetics, and how it is that genetic mutations help us “reverse-engineer” the body, giving clarity to genetic function that we might lack if the mutations did not exist.

Gain or loss, both kinds of mutations, reveal something about the function of the genes that they affect, and in doing so, reveal a small part of the genetic grammar. Mutations reverse-engineer the body.

Until reading this book, the concept that parts of an embryo develop in stages, that limbs develop at a different time than organs, didn’t really occur to me. And the fact that they do develop at different stages explains how it is a person can have a terrible mutation that affects their legs or arms but have a perfectly healthy heart. This may seem so elementary to others but to me it really was a revelation. Moreover, it was also sobering to realize how many mutations never come to light, as the mutation prevents life. It was quite interesting, seeing it from that perspective, that mutations that seem quite catastrophic to the person who is born without limbs, in terms of genetics are not that profound as they don’t threaten life.

Limbs have an extraordinary knack for going wrong. There are more named congenital disorders that affect our limbs than almost any other part of our bodies. Is it that limbs are particularly delicate, and so prone to register every insult that heredity or the environment imprints upon them? Or is it that they are especially complex? Delicate and complex they are, to be sure, but the more likely reason for the exuberant abundance of their imperfections is simply that they are not needed, at least not for life itself. Children may grow in the womb and be born with extra fingers, a missing tibia, or missing a limb entirely, and yet be otherwise quite healthy. They survive and we see the damage.

Despite what I was expecting from the title, Leroi discusses genetics in a manner that is nothing but respectful. He makes it clear that in a sense we are all mutants.

Who, then, are the mutants? To say that the sequence of a particular gene shows a ‘mutation’, or to call the person who bears such a gene a ‘mutant’, is to make an invidious distinction. It is to imply, at the least, deviation from some ideal of perfection. Yet humans differ from each other in very many ways, and those differences are, at least in part, inherited. Who among us has the genome of genomes, the one by which all other genomes will be judged.

The short answer is that no one does.

He also discusses the social implications of misapplying genetics, a section that was at times hard to read, and I will come back to how hard it was to read in a moment. In the meantime, here’s an example of what Gould would have called the the mismeasure of men:

Ever since Linnaeus divided the world’s people into four races – Asiaticus, Americanus, Europaeus, Afer – skin colour has been misused as a convenient mark of other human attributes. Linnaeus distinguished his four races not only by the colour of their skins but also their temperaments: Asiaticus was ‘stern, haughty, avaricious and ruled by opinions’; Americanus ‘tenacious, contented, choleric and ruled by habit’; Afer, seemingly devoid of any redeeming virtue, was ‘cunning, slow, phlegmatic, careless and ruled by caprice’. What of his own race? Europaeus, Linnaeus thought, was ‘lively, light, inventive and ruled by custom’. This was the beginning of an intellectual tradition that, via the writings of Arthur, Comte de Gobineau, the nineteenth-century theorist of Aryan supremacy, culminated in the most systematic chromatocracy that the world has ever known: apartheid in South Africa.

In amongst all this interesting and amazing (or at least to me) information in this book, there were some chunks of information that kept me thinking long after I stopped reading. One is that there is some belief and evidence that aging is, in fact, the result of genetic mutations that don’t manifest until we age or are, in fact, slow-progressing diseases. This was very interesting to me, the idea that perhaps one day death will seem as much a disease as cystic fibrosis. Also interesting was the idea that the most common trait among women who lived an exceptionally long life was being childless. Having children ensures your genetic code sustains itself in generations to come but giving birth requires much of a woman, so much in fact that the fewer children a woman has appears to lengthen her life (but in my soft science mind, I wonder how much childlessness has to do with increased education and social status, both of which are linked to decreased childbirth rates so bear in mind that it’s hard to show any direct causation). Of course, as a childless woman, this was very relevant to my interests, but I suspect in this book there is something that will be relevant to your interests as most of us have a family member with a condition caused by a genetic mutation, be it a mild or major issue, and we all certainly are getting older.

And almost as fascinating was Leroi’s examination of genetic mutations in history. This part of the book reminded me much of some of Jan Bondeson’s books, a respectful yet entertaining look at the various genetic mutations that affected body hair and skin color. I’ll never get tired of reading about the hirsute family in Burma.

But unexpectedly, there was a section of this book that has haunted me. I would suspect that most geneticists prefer not to think of or mention Josef Mengele, the mad doctor at Auschwitz who performed hideous experiments on Jews, the worst of his obsessions played out on twins, doing things that even then defied science, like changing eye color or trying to graft people together. Leroi recounts a chilling story easily as creepy as anything I have read in a horror novel. The Ovitz family were sent to Auschwitz during WWII. The family were Romanian Jews, but members of the family had a form of dwarfism, which caused normal body size but short limbs. Specifically, they suffered from pseudoachondroplasia, which is a dominant genetic condition.

The family became performers and despite moving around Europe before the war ended up in Auschwitz after German troops occupied Hungary and the family was captured. Because the family were so much smaller, they were housed together away from the other prisoners and while they were given enough to eat, “they paid for survival by being given starring roles in Mengele’s bizarre and frenetic programme of experimental research.”

As Elizabeth Ovitz would write: ‘the most frightful experiments of all [were] the gynaecological experiments. Only the married ones among us had to endure that. They tied us to the table and systematic torture began. They injected things into our uterus, extracted blood, dug into us, pierced us and removed samples. The pain was unbearable.’

Even after the terrible gynecological experiments ended, the Ovitz family still endured inhumane suffering.

‘They extracted fluid from our spinal cord and rinsed out our ears with extremely hot or cold water which made us vomit. Subsequently hair extraction began and when we were ready to collapse, they began painful tests on the brain, nose, mouth and hand regions. All stages of the tests were fully documented with illustrations. It may be noted, ironically, that we were among the only ones in the world whose torture was premeditated and “scientifically” documented for the sake of future generations…’

But as horrible as all of that is, that was not the creepy part.

The Ovitz family walked the the tightrope of Mengele’s obsessions for seven months. Once, when Mengele unexpectedly entered the compound, the youngest of the family, Shimshon, who was only eighteen months old, toddled towards him. Mengele lifted the child into his arms and softly enquired why the child had approached him. ‘He thinks you are his father.’ ‘I am not his father,’ said Mengele, ‘only his uncle’. Yet the child was emaciated from the poor food and incessant blood sampling.

When I read this book the last damn thing I expected to read was a passage wherein Mengele showed a doting affection towards a child he tortured. If anything, that made the man more of a monster, for had he unyielding hatred for the Jews he tormented and tortured, his behavior could in a terrible manner make sense. That he felt fondness and saw himself as a sort of uncle to a Jewish dwarf toddler makes him all the more inexplicable to me.

I think this is one of those books that has a passage that will stay with all readers. You just have to read it and determine what that passage is. I recommend this book and hope others read it and let me know what they think.

2010 in Review

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

In review… Get it? Hahaha.

Anyway, this year I read 102 books, which may seem like a lot to people who have real jobs and kids and active social lives. I have none of those things so I really feel like I could have read more this year. I tell myself that my discussion sites have caused me to slow down and read more carefully but even so, I hope to read at least 125 books in 2011.

I reviewed 75 books between I Read Odd Books and I Read Everything. Having never done this sort of thing before, I’m not sure how much better I could have done, but if this number is low, I take comfort that most of my discussions average around 2,000 words. Many are longer. Had I crapped out 75 one-paragraph reviews, I would definitely think that number too low. But given the depth I try to engage in when the book warrants it, I’m actually surprised I managed to discuss so many books. If I can beat that in 2011, that would be wonderful. Let’s see what happens.

It seems no “year in review” is complete without some sort of list, so here’s my 2010 list: Books I Thought About the Most in 2010. Not the best books I read in 2010 and not the worst – simply books that, for whatever reason, stayed with me. These are books from both I Read Odd Books and I Read Everything and cover a lot of ground.

10. The Membranous Lounge by Hank Kirton
I have yet to discuss this book but it definitely makes the list of books I am still thinking about. I received this in the mail, no explanation or entreaty to review it, and had some trepidation before reading it. I’m very glad I read it because the stories were amazing, both harsh and ethereal, gritty and dreamy. It was a surprise that such a tight, well-written, fascinating collection would come to me so stealthily. Two stories in this book – about a serial killing pair of women and a carny sideshow act who exacts revenge upon men who ill use her – were so shocking, interesting and unexpected that they likely will have resonance with me for a long time. I look forward to reviewing this one when it finally comes up in my queue.

9. How to Eat Fried Furries by Nicole Cushing
This book has the rare distinction of being one of the few books I have ever read that raised the hair on the back of my neck. Literally. There is a scene in this book that is so very eerie that I still don’t know if I can explain its power because the scene is merely a group of women trying to passively coerce another woman into doing something she does not want to do. Don’t be led astray by the title. This book is not about furries as they have come to be portrayed in media, but rather is a reference to society’s attempts to become more comfortable with cannibalism. A pack of demented ferrets fighting crime, the Angel Uriel in a prop plane helping the last few humans in the squirrel armageddon, people choosing to live without skin – this book is grotesque, funny, weird and upsetting. It was also Nicole’s first book with Eraserhead Press, in the New Bizarro Author Series, and is a stunning first effort.

8. The Source: The Untold Story of Father Yod, Ya Ho Wa 13, and The Source Family by Isis Aquarian
I have yet to discuss this book but have still managed to annoy the author as I spoke of it in my personal journal and called it a story of a Jesus Freak cult, a position I defend but one that nevertheless can seem flippant and derogatory as neither word in common parlance today conveys anything positive. But The Source were Jesus Freaks and cultish in the truest definition of these descriptives and the reason this book has stayed with me is because Isis Aquarian, the person who was assigned the role of documentarian for The Source Family, shows a fascinating look at fascinating people during a tumultuous time in American history. But it has also stayed with me because after coming across as a jerk to Aquarian, I looked hard at what makes a cult, what makes a malignant cult, and how it is that a cult can be both benign and malignant in the same ways traditional religious groups can be both. All in all, a deeply interesting book and another one I look forward to discussing in depth.

7. Naive. Super by Erland Loe
I was recommended this book by a clerk at Book People when I asked him to tell me the strangest book he had ever read. And it was strange. Sweetly strange. It was both accessible and unlike anything I have ever read before. I loved the protagonist of this novel, a kind and simple young man who wants to know the meaning of life, and again, this is a book I have yet to discuss and cannot wait to talk about it here.

6. Perversity Think Tank by Supervert
An attempt to determine and define what perversity truly is, this book is an intellectual look at sexual perversion and what separates it from basic human depravity. The book is arranged in a manner that forces the reader to interact with the content in a way that transcends the often passive nature of reading and this arrangement is why I am still thinking of this book as I had to look up the pictures Supervert references and think if my interpretation of them matched Supervert’s. I still find myself from time to time musing on where our interpretations were similar and not at all alike. This is a pretty little book, too. A treasure to own and an interactive experience to read.

5. Pearl by Mary Gordon
I loathed this book for the most part but the reason it still niggles in the back of my brain is because I am still shocked that a literary icon like Gordon wrote a book that by my own objective standards is so bad. The often pointless repetition of words and ideas seemed like Gordon assumed anyone reading the book had suffered a literary lobotomy. But most objective of all, I disliked the rarefied air occupied by all of the characters, which is not my usual response. I can read books about the idle rich without feeling like I want to grab a hammer and a sickle and run through the streets but Pearl aggravated me. Perhaps it is because I read the next book on my list so soon after reading Pearl but this book alienated me and forced me to examine why.

4. Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O’Nan
I read this soon after reading Pearl and the nature of the characters in this book underscored why Pearl irritated me. The leisurely life of Pearl and her high-minded moral struggles seemed ridiculous after reading Last Night at the Lobster, a story of people who work too hard for too little money and yet engage in their own moral struggles while trying to keep food on the table. I think this book proved to me that excessive leisure seldom leads to better thoughts. Reading about work, the kinds of work I have done (though I have never worked in a restaurant, most of my jobs centered around serving people, either by cleaning their toilets or by selling them shoes or books), appealed to me and while I missed rereading this at Yule, I will reread it around this time next year, as this story takes place at Christmas time at a dying mall in a town that is a lot like mine and probably a lot like yours.

3. The Woman Who Walked into Doors by Roddy Doyle
This book broke my heart, telling the story of a lower-middle class Irish woman, Paula, who has been failed by the men in her life. Her father abandoned her emotionally when she was in her teens, her husband beat her relentlessly. Her society failed her too, calling her stupid and putting her into a school where she was tormented by boys and made rough in order to endure their treatment. Part class struggle, part feminist struggle, part addiction story, this book is most notable because it was so well-written and so deeply moving even as it refuses to give the reader a sense that Paula will eventually be okay. When I saw a sale copy of the sequel to this book, Paula Spencer, I grabbed it with delight. I cannot wait to read it and see what became of Paula, to see if there will be true transcendence for her.

2. The Franklin Cover-up: Child Abuse, Satanism and Murder in Nebraska by John W. DeCamp
The details in this book, horrific though they were, did not resonate with me because aside from some of the bad acts of Larry King, the man who committed financial fraud and likely sexually abused children in Omaha, very little in this book had the ring of truth. Yet this book still pings the back of my brain because it generated the most personal e-mail responses I received from any book I discussed on both of my sites. The missives worry me, not because I fear they are right, but because I am concerned that there are so many people who still believe the Satanic Panic was real and that Bush 41 countenanced children being flown around to be defiled by debauched members of the GOP. But mostly this book is still hammering in my brain because of the sheer flood of human misery it has revealed to me. Whether or not I believe in the Satanic Panic, there are clearly people who sincerely do believe. People who believe terrible things happened to them, things that should have killed them by any objective analysis, and that teachers, doctors, politicians, police and preachers are all involved in a nation-wide cabal to beget, rape, murder, sacrifice and eat children. No matter how little I believe in many of the stories I received by people who wanted to counter my lack of belief in this book, the people who wrote me were filled with genuine pain, fear and horror and it is nothing short of heartbreaking.

1. House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski
This book nearly drove me insane reading it, because while in the past I had flirted with the book, I had never sat down and read it carefully word for word. I wonder now if there is a mechanism in the way words and pages are arranged that can make a reader go mad because I really did feel as if my mind was being manipulated as I read this book. It was, beyond a doubt, the most involved book I have ever read and even as I sit here, writing this up, I am going over details in my head, trying to make ends meet, trying to remember which clues led me to places that seemed rational. People either love or hate this book. I fear it because I worry that I will dive in again and go to that strange mental place wherein Johnny, Will and Karen occupy my every thought and each little detail takes off into a place where it has meaning that I come close to deciphering but never quite manage.

So now you know which books still occupy my mind. Please share with me the books that didn’t leave you this year, the maddening, beautiful, frightening, enlightening books that were a cut beyond all the others you read.

Have a lovely New Year’s Eve and may your 2011 be productive, interesting and full of books.

Downtown Owl by Chuck Klosterman

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Book: Downtown Owl

Author: Chuck Klosterman

Type of Book: Fiction, literary fiction

Why Did I Read This Book: I was mentally tired from reading so much bizarro for my other site and needed a break. I had purchased this book when I saw it in a Borders sale bin and grabbed it impulsively. It sat in a to-be-read stack and I read it only when the outrageousness of my odder books left me bleary, searching for something more prosaic.

Availability: Published by Scribner in 2008, you can get a copy here:

Comments: As I said above, I bought this book on impulse because it was on sale and read it because I was overwhelmed after reading a string of bizarro titles. There was no more thought in purchasing it and no more in reading it. Reading this book filled me with a sense of intense dread, a sad realization that I am doomed. Despite my self-admitted bibliophilic tendencies, despite my willingness to buy a book I know nothing about and read it, despite the fact that I am blessed with a relatively demand-free schedule and can read several hours a day, I will one day die without having discovered some amazing authors.

I haven’t recorded the final tally of what I have read for 2010 but it’s around 100 books. 100 books in a year. I admit I now read pretty slowly because of my review sites so maybe I can read more but let’s assume I can’t. Let’s assume two books a week is more or less my expected tally every year. I have maybe 30 years left if I am lucky. That’s 3,000 books before I die and that’s nothing. That’s not even the fiction section at my local Barnes & Noble. How many books like this one will I not read, books I may overlook or not buy on impulse? How can life be this cruel, this ridiculous, allowing so much talent and so little time to enjoy all of it?

Yes, this book was amazing, a revelation, a book so good it forced me to look at my own mortality and wonder if I can find a way to read more and absorb more because if I am only just now reading my first Chuck Klosterman book, what else awaits me? What other gems have I not discovered? What else will I miss before the end inevitably comes? Quite a bit, evidently.

This book is indeed a revelation because I can’t remember the last time I read a book and realized that the author not only got everything right, but also cooked up a novel so smoothly blended that at the end, it doesn’t really register that you have read a slice of small town Americana told with deft humor and clear love for the characters and town, a gentle character-driven yet plot heavy book and a modern naturalist novel with an environment cruelly and randomly shaping the lives of people whose wills should have been enough to sustain them in the end but cannot stand in the face of stronger, impersonal forces that act against them. Yes, I may be wrong as hell on this, but I really do see strong naturalist elements at work in a novel that is also steeped in sentimentality. And this is a very good reason to love this novel because to have pulled this off speaks of a talent that I could kick myself for almost missing.

Set in Owl, North Dakota in 1983-1984, this book discusses all the people in the little town by telling the stories of Julia, a recent college grad who teaches at Owl’s high school, Mitch, a high school football player who loathes pop music, and Horace, an elderly widower whose wife died from fatal familial insomnia and whose life revolves around getting coffee with his friends. While this novel shows Klosterman has a clear affection for Owl and the sorts of people who live there, he doesn’t slip into the role of a fawning admirer of bucolic small towns and the “quirky” people who live there. The pedophilic coach and literature teacher. The anti-government weirdo who lost his mind when his dog got shot. The bartender everyone thinks is too fond of his dog. Cubby Candy and Grendel, two outsiders whom all the teen boys want to fight each other and speculate endlessly about which loser would win in the brawl. The drunks, the cheaters, sadnesses, secrets. We all know everyone in small towns knows everyone else’s business but Klosterman shows the reader the collective mind of Owl.

The notion that there is far more to small towns than meets the eye is nothing new. That they are filled with quirky people, hard-working people, slackers, racists, drunks and high school football stars still basking in their glory days is also nothing new. But Klosterman’s synthesis of all that is obvious about small towns, combined with his gifts for characterization, his finely turned phrases, his insight and ability to capture so accurately a period in time, make the obvious seem utterly worth reading and the mundane new via his clever, precise presentation.

Because this novel is really the look at an entire town mainly via the stories of Julia, Horace and Mitch, it is almost impossible to discuss the plot because all those tiny plot lines and stories culminate in one horrific blizzard, a meteorological anomaly that hits the town and changes everything forever in the last ten pages of the book. It’s almost a punch in the gut, how quietly and determinedly without sentiment this novel ends, how neatly this novel refuses to let the reader believe in a world where death is just or even makes sense. This is when I realized that I had read a book that hinted at a naturalist philosophy. All these characters were shaped by their environment, that is almost too obvious to state, but there is no way that this book could have ended as it did unless Klosterman was detached from the story, letting events happen as they would and crushing the idea that free will plays much into how the lives of people end. The individual in this novel is presented as important and the book revolves around the various interesting natures of the people in Owl, but at the same time, the individual is powerless in the face of certain forces. The will to survive, personal strength or even intelligence means little at the end of it all. This is a book that despite the fun, the wonderful prose, the richness of characters, ultimately shows that life is harsh and the blunt and abrupt end of the novel were naturalistic to me. Of course, this is not a true naturalist novel – but the elements are there.

The real reason to read this book is because Klosterman is a fine writer. Let me present you with three passages about Julia, Mitch, and Horace. Julia, a recent college graduate who is a high school teacher, is befriended by a fellow teacher who is a bit of a barfly and the shy Julia finds herself the belle of the ball for the first time in her life, and she is often a belle with a terrible hangover as she descends into heavy drinking because that’s where all the men are – bellied up at the bar and, in Julia’s mind, clamoring for her drunken attentions. She eventually sobers up a bit and looks like she might be heading toward a real relationship. But before that happens, Klosterman treats us to a soused Julia, a Julia who spends a lot of time sprawled in bar booths and in the backs of cars, having the sorts of conversations immediately recognizable to anyone who has spent time sprawled in bar booths and drunkenly declaring themselves in the backs of cars.

“I want to smooch Vance Druid,” Julia said. “I’m so serious. I want to walk to his house, knock on the door, and just smooch away. I want to enforce the Smoochie Rule. I’m serious. Nobody believes me but I want to smooch him hardcore.”

Julia said this from the backseat of Ted’s car. Ted was behind the wheel and Naomi was in the passenger seat. They had been drinking for seven hours. Ted was trying to drive off his buzz.

“You don’t wanna kiss that guy,” Naomi said in response. “That guy . . . you don’t need that guy. You can do better than that. He’s just a small-town drunk who needs new pants. You deserve a real man. And what the fuck’s the Smoochie Rule?”

“The Smoochie Rule is in effect!”

“You’re a crazy woman, you crazy woman.”

“Don’t tell me who isn’t crazy,” said Julia. “I’ll tell you who the crazy woman isn’t.”

Ted turned onto a gravel road. A fox ran across the path of his Chevy Cavalier, but no one inside the car noticed.

“Kissing is a problem,” slurred Ted. “Smooching, kissing, human relations, whatever you want to call it. It’s complex.”

“What are you talking about?” said Naomi. “You don’t know how to kiss people? Is that why you never kiss me? Because you don’t know how to kiss people? It’s not like driving a speedboat. It’s easy. A child could do it.”

“No, no. Shut your mouth, woman.” Ted drove with his knees while lighting a Camel with the car’s cigarette lighter. He shook the still-glowing lighter and threw it out the window. It was that kind of night. “That’s not what I mean. You don’t even know what I’m talking about. You never listen to me.”

“Then what are you talking about?”

“Here’s what I’m talking about,” said Ted. “I had a kissing problem when I was in college. Before I quit college. It was complicated. I still think about it.”

“What is this regarding?” Naomi demanded. “If you’re homosexual, I’m going to shoot myself. And you. And Jules probably.”

“What the fuck did I do?” screeched Julia.

We get so much in this passage. It may seem like it is just a perfect distillation of what a drunk conversation sounds like but it is so much more. First, we get the nostalgia of a time when three people didn’t think twice about getting into a car, one of them driving hammered. We get the sexual tension between Naomi and Ted. We get the loneliness of Julia and her desire to bag the enigmatic former high school football star. It is subtly and wickedly funny.

Here’s a passage from a Mitch scene. Mitch is in a car with five other teenage boys, all with specifically appropriate nicknames that will make zero sense unless you read the explanations, which is as it should be, and they are discussing the recent bad acts of their football coach and other matters.

“You know what would be cool?” Zebra asked rhetorically. “It would be cool if we could somehow plant cameras all over the school, or maybe even inside random houses. Then we could use the photographs to sexually blackmail people.”

“I heard,” said Curtis-Fritz, “that when Laidlaw’s wife left town for three days to take care of her dying mother, Tina McAndrew stayed at his house for the entire time. She would get up in the morning and make him pancakes.”

“That did not happen,” said Mitch. “There is no way that could have happened. He’s got three kids. Don’t you think the kids would notice that there’s a different woman in the house, having sex with their dad and feeding them pancakes?”

“I don’t know,” said Curtis-Fritz. “Maybe she she stayed in the basement.”

“I think you should get to play more,” Weezie said to Mitch. “I don’t care what Laidlaw thinks. You’re way smarter than Becker or Groff, even if you don’t always throw so good. And if you do play tonight, and if we run Flood Right 64, throw it to me in the flat. I’m always open in that play. Always. Every time. But they never throw it to me.”

The opening riff from “Band on the Run” came over the stereo.

“You see what I fucking mean?” said Zebra. “Q-98 is terrible. Wings? Who are these queers? I don’t like old songs.”

It was at this specific juncture that Ainge’s Oldsmobile passed a 1974 Plymouth Barracuda. The ‘Cuda was clean and the ‘Cuda was yellow. Its driver looked straight ahead, oblivious to the six people staring into his vehicle’s interior.

This was the point where five conversations became one conversation.

“Don’t even start with that shit,” Drug Man said to Curtis-Fritz. “We are not having this argument again. I’m only warning you once.”

“We don’t have to have it,” said Curtis-Fritz. “We don’t need to have an argument, because you know I’m right.”

“Not it’s not because you’re right. It’s because you’re a fucking cum receptacle.”

The one uniting conversation was who would win in a fight between Cubby Candy and an enormous kid named Grendel (which is the name of one of my cats, I feel I need to say). And in this conversation, we again get so much. The bizarre tendency among male teenagers to rename themselves. The chaos that ensues when so many young men are in one car. The obsessive theoretical conversations. The musical snobbery and tendency to see anything older than ten years in the past as old. But the best part is the fact that in this novel wherein some of the kids are interested in the fact that 1984 was around the corner and they had all read Orwell and even in their disturbing musings on what their future held, they still fantasized about a school with cameras everywhere. Now, of course, most schools have cameras and no one gets any sexual blackmail out of it.

Finally, let me share some Horace with you. Horace is gathered with his friends, drinking coffee, complaining about a woman who is running rough-shod over other women in a Bible study group. It degenerates in a manner that is both topical and typical.

“I can’t take it,” he said. “I just cannot take it. It’s like I’m living with the goddamn Ayatollah. From the start of supper until the end of Carson, all she does is rant about how Melba Hereford is a witch who needs to be thrown in the river. I keep telling Vernetta to just quit the goddamn Bible group if it causes her so much suffering, but she refuses. She thinks that’s what Melba wants. As if Melba cares about anyone who isn’t named Melba! The crazy old biddy. That goes for both of them. I don’t know which biddy is loonier. I’d really like to know if my wife is crazier than Melba.”

“If it’s a horse apiece,” said Marvin, “who gives a damn?”

“No shit,” said Gary.

Horace smiled and blew his nose. Marvin Windows knew what he was talking about.

“So, what are our thoughts on Grenada?” asked Horace. “Do we have an opinion on our situation, Marvin?”

“Do I have an opinion on what?”

“On Grenada,” said Horace. “We invaded the island of Grenada yesterday.”

“Where the Sam Hill is Grenada?”

“East of Central America,” said Horace. “They only have twelve hundred men in their entire military. The war is already over. Reagan just made the announcement. We won.”

“Why did we invade Grenada?” asked Marvin.

“We had to rescue some American medical students,” said Horace.

“There was a Marxist coup,” said Gary. “The Marxists are against medical students.”

“Huh,” said Marvin. “Well, I don’t have any opinion on the matter. I didn’t see the newspaper.”

Again, excellent topicality in this conversation but in it, we see that nothing really changes. The boys in the car, if they are lucky, will grow up and bitch and bicker like these old men in the diner. And some of them will be well-versed in current events and some will be clueless and despite their life experiences, they will still seem slightly like boys. And I was sure Mitch would become Horace as he aged, smarter and slightly deeper than his peers. I wonder if anyone else saw the similarities between them.

I think this book will become a part of the few books I re-read periodically. I read this book and the truth of all these people rang true to me from the first page and despite all of the marvelous dialogue, all the point-on descriptions, despite the overall mastery of this book, I think the real reason to read it is because it is so true. I intend to read everything from Klosterman I can get my hands on. I want to see how much more truth he may have to convey to me.

Proof for bibliomania

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Okay, this is why I think I could be considered a legitimate bibliomaniac. In the last week, I have combed a local book sale twice and if I didn’t have a to-the-penny tally on our checking account, I’d probably go back. We bought so much the first time the girls recognized us when we walked in. Anyway, I thought I’d share the books I have purchased over the last week, selected purely on impulse though I did manage to score a few items from my Amazon wish list. I also am often conflicted about buying remaindered books because the writer gets no proceeds from the sale but a good majority of these books are out of print. The rest are titles I would never have read unless the price was so amenable. In a couple of cases, a new copy of the book was 10 times more than the price in front of me and when you are a crazy book person, sometimes you just have to buy a book on sale and be glad your principles stand firm 90% of the time.

Anyway, I like seeing books other people have bought and figure there must be others like me. Enjoy! (Also, this does not include the titles Mr. Everything purchased, mostly books on how to build stuff and piracy on the high seas…)

1. Girl Trouble: The True Saga of Superstar Gloria Trevi and the Secret Teenage Sex Cult That Stunned the World by Christopher McDougall

2. How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World: A Short History of Modern Delusions by Francis Ween

3. Art and Sex in Greenwich Village: A Memoir of Gay Literary Life After Stonewall by Felice Picano

4. Hatred: The Psychological Descent Into Violence by Willard Gaylin, M.D.

5. I, Goldstein: My Screwed Life by Al Goldstein and Josh Alan Friedman

6. Jesus Land: A Memoir by Julia Scheeres

7. Fear: A Cultural History by Joanna Bourke

8. Foreskin’s Lament: A Memoir by Shalom Auslander

9. The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History by Jonanthan Franzen

10. Angel of Vengeance: The "Girl Assassin," the Governor of St. Petersburg, and Russia’s Revolutionary World by Ana Siljak

11. The Miracle Detective: An Investigation of Holy Visions
by Randall Sullivan

12. An Elegant Madness: High Society in Regency England
by Venetia Murray

13. Living at the Movies by Jim Carroll

14. All For Love: The Scandalous Life and Times of Royal Mistress Mary Robinson by Amanda Elyot

15. Bumping Into Geniuses: My Life Inside the Rock and Roll Business by Danny Goldberg

16. Chick Flick Road Kill: A Behind the Scenes Odyssey into Movie-Made America by Alicia Rebensdorf

17. A Shining Affliction: A Story of Harm and Healing in Psychotherapy by Annie G. Rogers, Ph.D

18. Simone Weil by Francine Du Plessix Gray

19. Revenge of the Donut Boys: True Stories of Lust, Fame, Survival and Multiple Personality by Mike Sager

20. When the Husband is the Suspect by F. Lee Bailey and Jean Rabe

21. Outside the Gates of Science: Why It’s Time for the Paranormal to Come in from the Cold by Damien Broderick

22. Shriek: An Afterword by Jeff VanderMeer

23. Rumpole and the Reign of Terror by John Mortimer

24. The Casebook of Forensic Detection: How Science Solved 100 of the World’s Most Baffling Crimes by Colin Evans

25. The Forger: An Extraordinary Story of Survival in Wartime Berlin by Cioma Schonhaus

26. Annie’s Ghosts: A Journey Into a Family Secret by Steve Luxenberg

27. Death Sentences: How Cliches, Weasel Words and Management-Speak Are Strangling Public Language by Don Watson

28. Weight: The Myth of Atlas and Heracles
by Jeanette Winterson

29. The Politics of Psychopharmacology by Timothy Leary

30. The Restless Sleep: Inside New York City’s Cold Case Squad by Stacy Horn

31. Bind, Torture, Kill: The Inside Story of the Serial Killer Next Door by Roy Wenzl, et al

32. Hubert’s Freaks: The Rare-Book Dealer, the Times Square Talker, and the Lost Photos of Diane Arbus by Gregory Gibson

33. Rat Scabies and the Holy Grail: Can a Punk Rock Legend Find What Monty Python Couldn’t? by Christopher Dawes

34. Panic in Level 4: Cannibals, Killer Viruses, and Other Journeys to the Edge of Science by Richard Preston

35. The Mammoth Book of Celebrity Murder: Murder Played Out in the Spotlight of Maximum Publicity by Chris and Julie Ellis

36. Hunger: An Unnatural History by Sharman Apt Russell

37. The Bone Lady: Life as a Forensic Anthropologist by Mary H. Manheim

38. Her Husband: Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath–A Marriage
by Diane Middlebrook

39. Never Mind the Pollacks: A Rock and Roll Novel by Neal Pollack

40. The Templars by Piers Paul Read

41. Charles Fort: The Man Who Invented the Supernatural
by Jim Steinmeyer

42. Muses, Madmen, and Prophets: Rethinking the History, Science, and Meaning of Auditory Hallucination by Daniel B. Smith

43. Loose Girl: A Memoir of Promiscuity by Kerry Cohen

44. Provenance: How a Con Man and a Forger Rewrote the History of Modern Art by Laney Salisbury and Aly Sujo

45. Hoax: Why Americans are Suckered by White House Lies
by Nicholas Von Hoffman

46. Wish I Could Be There: Notes From a Phobic Life
by Allen Shawn

47. Cosmopolis: A Novel by Don DeLillo

48. Transmission by Hari Kunzru

49. Paula Spencer Roddy Doyle

50. Oh, Play That Thing (Volume 2 of The Last Roundup)
by Roddy Doyle

51. The Ten-Year Nap by Meg Wolitzer

52. All the Sad Young Literary Men by Keith Gessen

53. After the Plague: Stories by T.C. Boyle

54. The Mammoth Book of Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘N’ Roll
edited by Jim Driver

55. Consequences by Penelope Lively

56. Rumpole Misbehaves: A Novel by John Mortimer

57. Becoming Eichmann: Rethinking the Life, Crimes, and Trial of a by David Cesarani

You Had Me At Woof by Julie Klam

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Book: You Had Me At Woof: How Dogs Taught Me the Secrets of Happiness

Author: Julie Klam

Type of Book: Non-fiction, memoir, book about animals

Why Did I Read This Book: I saw this book on an endcap at Borders and the dog on the cover just shouted out to me, “Buy this book, buy it now!” Googly-eyed animals suck me in every time. The dog on the cover reminded me of my long lost Daisy (her Christian name was Daisyheadmaisy), a bug-eyed cat who began my love for creatures with bulging eyes.

Availability: Published by Riverhead Books in 2010, you can get a copy here:

Comments: This is going to be one of those insufferable reviews wherein I process my reactions about a book using examples from my own life. In this case, I really can’t help it. While Klam is a dog-woman, I am a cat-lady and generally one would think the two might not have a lot in common. But a rescuer is a rescuer and people who love deeply creatures with googly eyes are cut from the same cloth, and that cloth is one that talks a lot about its experiences. It was fascinating to see the lessons Klam learned rescuing dogs and how they were at times eerily similar to the lessons I have learned, but I think the lesson that is the most universal is that loving animals makes you a better person. Yeah, there’s a lot more to this book than just that sappy reduction, but it just make me feel sort of warm inside to realize that my eventual impression that Klam is a good egg was further reinforced.

Klam rescues Boston terriers (I thought the little dogs were pugs of some variety but no, they are Boston terriers and I sort of want one now…) and in the course of rescuing dogs that were not well cared for, that were abandoned and had behavioral problems, she came to a lot of conclusions about her own life after interacting with the animals she saved.

Like me, Klam got her first real pet relatively later in life. Klam’s first Boston terrier, the love of her dog life named Otto, came into her life when she was 30. Well, Otto didn’t come into her life – she sought him out after a dream and Otto proved to be her animal soul mate. And while Klam says within six months of adopting Otto she grew up, I think rather that adopting Otto proved to her that she was far more capable of selflessness and responsibility than she thought, traits lacking in a lot of adults.

…I had practically restructured my life for Otto, without even realizing it. I didn’t order spicy foods because he couldn’t eat them, and I always ordered enough for two. If he got up during the night, I got up and took him out. If he had an accident on the floor, I gave him Pepto-Bismol. I never resented anything I had to do for him… It took time but my relationship with Otto made me realize that if you love someone, you’re more than willing to compromise to meet their needs–whether it be more nights of roast chicken than you would ordinarily choose, skipping an evening on the town, or not watching a television show with a barking dog.

My first real pet came to me when I was 24. Adolph, the most epic cat who ever lived. I had no idea how to care for him at first and fed him yucky food until he developed crystals in his urine. Even after I put him on a strict premium diet, I would give him small plates of whatever I was eating. I knew he didn’t want any, he knew he didn’t want any, but he needed to know he had the right to decide, and he always refused. I fashioned a bizarre pillow for him out of a half-empty kleenex box, or rather he took over the box when he realized he could set his head into it and nestle neatly into the kleenex. I was not as noble about cleaning his messes as Julie was with Otto as Adolph was a bad cat and frequently did very gross things on purpose – ask me one day why I cannot eat guacamole – but I too learned that if I could share a space with that cat and so quickly adjust my life in ways that seemed absurd, I was less set in my ways than I thought. I also came to understand that I was never likely to be a good mother – I am, in fact, far better with animals than people.

I loved reading Klam’s experiences with pet psychics and her attempts to determine if she could become a psychic herself. It was a thing of humorous beauty, but I admit I approached pet psychics after a rescue. You see, we couldn’t determine if Patchwork Sally’s kittens were still alive out in the nasty field where we found her (she was lactating when we grabbed her). The pet psychics all assured us they were dead but we found them all alive and that was when we really wished we could communicate with animals because that was a trapping mission that redefined frustration. But it was a nice comfort to know that another reasonably sane person wondered if she could indeed walk with the animals, talk with the animals. Klam’s lesson? It’s always a good idea to try new things because in trying to be an animal psychic, she learned she loved telling the stories. My lesson? I will always end up in a field during a Texas rainstorm searching for lost kittens even if verified psychics tell me not to bother.

Sadly, Otto passed away when Klam was pregnant. She later felt that Otto had been looking over her during her pregnancy, and I often felt like Adolph lasted longer than he should have because I descended into the weakest place in my life the last year he was alive. Immobilized by a leg break that exacerbated a prescription pill addiction, my husband and I spent a year in hell as I pulled myself out of the hole, and Adolph was my constant companion the entire time. I came back better and stronger than I could ever have hoped, and I always wondered if Adolph could sense we would be okay, that he didn’t need to stay here as the cord that held us together. Of course, I romanticize him at times, as did Klam with her Otto, as she searched through puppy pictures to see if maybe Otto was reincarnated in another dog. But luckily Julie found dogs who answered her emotions, dogs whose lives she made so much better. I already had rescued hundreds of cats before Adolph died, and had lost precious cats before he died so I guess I had a slight emotional advantage but like Klam and her Otto, I wonder if there will ever be another Adolph. The answer is no, but I still wonder (and hope) anyway.

And while I am not going to touch on all the lessons Klam learned because I think you should buy this book and read it for yourself, her experiences rescuing dogs with a rescue group closely mirrored the nonsense I encountered in my rescues. Owners who didn’t tell the unvarnished truth when surrendering animals, citing the continual “My kid has allergies!” excuse when really it was “I haven’t put an ounce of effort into training this animal/I resent even minimal vet expenses/I found an animal I like better/I procured this animal knowing I would need to change my lifestyle but am too much of an asshole to change/My boyfriend told me to get rid of it.” Oh yes, they promise to help with expenses and then you never hear from them again. Note to all who genuinely need to relinquish an animal for legitimate reasons: Irresponsible pet owners have ruined it for everyone. If you tell a rescue group that you will donate money to the cause, you will be surprised how quickly the group will respond, not out of greed but because I don’t know a single rescuer who has not spent so much money on animals that even a tiny donation given in earnest doesn’t make them feel like their efforts are at least appreciated.

So much of this book was a reminder to me of my own time in rescue: watching as Klam got her dog legs and learned how to negotiate with dogs that needed more help than others; reading as she suffers the heartbreaking loss that we all feel when we feel responsible for not doing enough to prevent harm from coming to our animals even though, as we all know, accidents happen; the deep bonds we develop with animals as we learn about their personalities and they learn about ours.

The part of the book that made me cry the hardest (and I began to cry when I read the dedication Klam makes to her husband because I too am married to a man who would never say no to an animal in need) was the chapter about Dahlia, an older dog for whom life had been very unkind, a dog who was not particularly attractive and whose personality seemed blunted.

There was something about her expression, her eyes, that reminded me of Migrant Mother, Dorthea Lange’s famous portrait of a farm laborer in the dust bowl of the Depression. The woman, Florence Owens Thompson, was thirty-two in the picture, but she looked to be in her mid-fifties. Maybe Dahlia was younger than she looked: maybe she’d been beaten down by life, too.

Yet, as Klam and her husband did not see the magic in Dahlia, their daughter Violet did.

I felt very sorry for Dahlia, but I wasn’t in love with her. But someone in the family was. Violet would sit by Dahlia in her bed, set up tea parties for the two of them, and sing long, made-up songs about Queen Dahlia and the magical fairies of the enchanted wood. She read Dahlia books and selected videos for Dahlia to watch. Paul and I looked on, trying to figure it out. Dahlia was the least charismatic animal either of us had ever come across and yet Violet saw her as the belle of the ball.

Kids are smart like that. But the reason Dahlia’s story resonated with me so well was because I knew what would happen the moment Klam mentioned that Dahlia’s tummy seemed bloated. The vet wanted a sample of Dahlia’s urine because they thought she had Cushing’s Disease. Yeah. The second Klam speculates maybe Dahlia is younger than she appears, we were on the right track, but then with a swollen belly? Oh yeah. You know what’s about to happen if you’ve been in the rescue game any length of time. Cue the puppies. Though when the inevitable started happening, Klam was sure it was Dahlia preparing to die. She woke in the middle of the night with a strong feeling Dahlia had died but instead found two little creatures in Dahlia’s bed. And like all of us who have had this scene go down in our homes, she realized that the vet in question was probably an idiot and that the trite saying that all life is a miracle is true, especially when it is unexpected life. Since Dahlia was an older dog, Klam also ended up doing that marvelous thing every rescuer will end up doing at some point – she bottle fed the puppies until Dahlia’s health was sorted out to the point that she could reliably nurse.

Then Klam did the thing that has most assuredly won her a place in the heaven where happy dogs go – she kept Dahlia together with her two puppies, Wisteria and Fiorello. Dahlia had likely had her babies wrenched from her in all her previous pregnancies yet despite her history and her age, had been a doting mother. The puppies were closely bonded. Klam wanted them to remain a family, an idea that many people dismiss, but having seen what happens when cats who are siblings or parents-offspring are permitted to remain together, often the bond is visible even to people who do not know the cats are related. Dahlia got to stay with her puppies until she died, and passed knowing her puppies were with people who love them. That seems like an extraordinarily sentimental and presumptive thing to say because who really knows what animals think? Except you do know. The instincts that drive humans drive animals too. They don’t want a flat-screen TV or the latest smart phone, but like humans, animals want their offspring safe and happy.

This all reminded me of pretty Sweetness, a cat who surprised us with stealth kittens. She had been a stray in Dallas. My mother fed her and begged me to come and get her when Sweetness showed up with a litter of kittens. So we drove four hours one way in a poorly air conditioned truck in the Texas summer and fetched Sweetness and her kittens (well, four were hers – mom, in her zeal, grabbed a completely unrelated kitten who was at least four weeks younger than Sweetness’ other kittens). Sweetness’s kittens went to the Austin Humane Society and found a home, but since Sweetness had not finished lactating yet, we held onto her for a couple of weeks. We would get her spayed, then take her so she could get a new home, too.

Sweetness was a large, strange girl. She liked humans but loathed all cats, even her own children once they became old enough to qualify as cats. She mostly wanted to be left alone. She over groomed her stomach, she sounded cranky, she looked cranky. We felt she would be happier in a home without other cats. We made the spay appointment with our vet (whom I also later judged to be a moron), but the appointment got screwed up and we brought her home, intact. We rescheduled the appointment in two weeks and before that date came, we noticed Sweetness was resembling a bowling pin. Surely not. Surely we had not transported a pregnant cat across county lines. But we had. She gave birth before the spay appointment came due and gave birth to the most superlative litter of kittens I have ever known. We kept the runt, Clementine, because she seemed fragile and because the Humane Society was up to their eyeballs in black kittens, and the rest went to the Humane Society. I still miss The Goose and Portnoy. But after that litter, Sweetness made it known to us that she wouldn’t mind staying if we would leave her alone, so we did and she would come to see us periodically for attention, then would slink off to her hiding places. She proved to be so nervous that we knew being at a shelter would have made her miserable and would have broken her odd spirit.

Sweetness could be kind to her grown baby but she mostly wanted to be left alone and her reclusiveness made it hard to know when she was ill. She developed renal failure and passed way in 2009. And while she never really liked the other cats, she was a part of their extended family. In fact, it was Tabby-mama, dancing around outside whatever room Sweetness was in, that alerted us to her being ill. Tabby was bereft when Sweetness died. We all were. But we took a certain amount of comfort knowing that all of her babies, including her foster kitten, all went to wonderful homes and that her silly girl Clementine is here reminding us of her, for like her mother, she has no use for other cats and is extremely nervous. But that didn’t stop Tabby-mama from tailing her for days after Sweetness died to make sure Clementine would be okay without her mother.

Also, Sweetness smelled like Fritos, as did Klam’s beloved Otto. One of many little cross-species coincidences. In one scene, Klam describes picking up her dog Moses and singing Cole Porter’s “Cheek to Cheek” as she danced with him. We sing a very bastardized version of this song to Noodle, our most defective cat.

Noodle, you’re my Noodle,
And I love you so much I can hardly speak.
‘Cause you’ve got too many toes on your four feet. (Alternate last line: Even though you have a tendency to leak.

And clearly, like Klam, I like telling the stories from my Island of Misfit Cats.

This was just a great book, pure and simple. I loved as Klam discussed the people she worked with to rescue dogs, the merely whackadoodle and the outright creepy and negligent, yet she never became shrill and overly judgmental. I loved reading as her family negotiated their way around new dogs, and how the dogs reacted to one another. I was especially grateful that Klam didn’t sugar coat the fact that some of the dogs just weren’t… her kind of dogs. But that never stopped her from doing her best for them, and that is how it should be. Klam respected deeply the individual dignity of each dog she encountered, beginning as a neurotic mother to Otto and becoming a source of salvation to Dahlia.

That she very clearly tells stories that will resonate with all animal lovers should be clear from the amount of remembrances she evoked from me. This book, humorous and touching, bordering on sentimental in a way that makes sentimental work without cloying stickiness, was simply amazing. I read it in one sitting. I think you should read this book and then maybe go volunteer at your local SPCA or rescue groups and then tell the stories of the animals you meet. See what lessons you learn and how they correspond to Klam’s. I tend not to read heartwarming books but I am very glad I read this one.

Clown Girl by Monica Drake

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Book: Clown Girl: A Novel

Author: Monica Drake

Type of Book: Fiction, literary fiction

Why Did I Read This Book: I initially purchased this thinking it would be a good idea for my other site devoted to odd books. But while this book has an unusual heroine living in an unusual subculture, it skirts the criteria I use to determine an odd book.

Availability: Published in 2006 by Hawthorne Books, you can get a copy here:

Comments: Nita is a clown. She lives in Baloneytown, waiting for her boyfriend, Rex, to return to her. She is a tenant in a house with a pot-selling burnout and his hostile and clever girlfriend, living in a tiny room with her beloved dog and her clown accoutrements. Nita loses items precious to her and longs to get them back, and dreams of a time when she can combine high art, literature and the profession of being a clown. Also, she meets a policeman who is clearly smitten with her though he has no idea what she looks like under her makeup because she lives her life completely as a clown. In Nita’s tale, Drake manages to tell a very familiar story but employs such unusual elements that one does not wholly realize that Nita could just as easily been named Bridget Jones or might easily have come from Marian Keyes’ Shopaholic series. Nita is feckless, self-absorbed, head in the clouds, in love with a cretin and her job is often in jeopardy. She has a bitchy nemesis, there is a strong, kind man waiting for her in the wings, and it takes her entirely too long to pull herself together, though she manages it after tumbling into one unlikely situation after another.

Drake spins a marvelous tale but the real reason I think I loved this book so much is not only that Nita speaks to me in an almost eerie way, but also because Drake inverts the traditional chick-lit story by stating outright what it is that makes these clumsy, clueless, grandiose, insecure women appealing. She makes it clear from the very title what Nita is. She’s a clown. No mincing words. Nita is a clown and Drake shows how hard it is not to be a clown when hiding behind makeup, clothes, images and pie-in-the-sky ideas is all one has ever known. I’m a clown, though less clownish (I hope) as I get older but if you began as a clown, bumbling your way through life, you will find much to like about Nita and her slapstick life. In Nita, using the raucous background of clowns and her inversion of the modern chick-lit novel, Drake creates a character who tells a story we are familiar with but have not wholly heard before.

Though this book is a riff on familiar plots, I don’t want to give an outline of the book because the fantastic disaster as Nita’s life unspools is one of the reasons I think you should read this book. But I will hit on some plot points as I share some of Drake’s writing and parts of the book that truly resonated with me. The novel begins with Nita collapsing, suffering from the effects of a terrible loss – a miscarriage. She is working as a clown at an outdoor event and the heat and likely the effects of her recent miscarriage cause her to pass out. She is taken to the hospital and the thoughts in her head as she navigates being in a frightening place all alone spoke to me and I immediately felt a kinship with Nita. I have no idea if her paranoia would translate to people who have have had excellent experiences with doctors and nurses, but for me, I could have written Nita’s thoughts (and it wasn’t lost on me as I read many of Nita’s thoughts that often the first letter of my own name is seldom pronounced by my fellow Texans, rendering me a de facto “Nita”).

Don’t tell doctors your dreams, ever. Don’t tell them your menstrual cycle. Don’t say you felt anything in your head, or that you might’ve known. If they ask about street drugs, which they will, say no, no matter what. If you say, I feel anxious all the time, you’ll get Valium. Otherwise you’ll get what they call “mood equalizers,” daily doses of who knows what, a gambler’s crapshoot in tinctures of chemicals.

As a clown on the street, I had to keep my wits. I couldn’t take their chemicals.

Don’t tell doctors anything.

This is a cluebat of sorts. Nita suffered a miscarriage before this trip to the ER, but it is also clear she had some frightening experiences with doctors trying to help her correct her brain, a brain that seems very common to me but might seem to others like the kind of skull space that needs tinctures of chemicals. I also relate to this fear of authority’s power more than I care to admit. Also, in this chick-lit inversion, it is refreshing that Nita does not want the drugs that would have just led to another humiliating escapade for a traditional heroine.

Nita takes being a clown very seriously but through the descriptions of the tools Nita uses in her craft, as well as the way Drake describes Nita’s thoughts about the artistic routines Nita wants to perform, we see the utter ridiculousness of Nita’s life. We don’t need Nita sliding down a fireman’s pole showing her panties or putting eyeshadow on in the place of blusher, all visually very clownish actions, to show Nita’s true inner clown. Take this passage about Nita’s approach to balloon animals, bearing in mind that later in the book she wonders about creating The Last Supper in balloon form and feels there is an important message inherent in such an act.

Swollen Sacred Hearts, shrunken wise men, and bloated angels bobbed at my feet, the fruits of my labor. On the shopworn dedication page of Balloon Tying for Christ it said “With appreciation and gratitude for my wife and six lovely children who have borne with me through twelve long years of deprivations while trying to complete this work.” Such martyrs! Balloon Tying for Christ was maybe all of seventeen pages long, with one blank page at the end. The tricks inside, by corporate accounting, were worth hundreds of dollars, Matey, Crack and me, that’s what we earned when high-end work came in. But work didn’t always come. We had to promote and deliver. That book was my cash cow.

It’s hard to think of anything more ridiculous than a 17 page book about making balloon figures for Jesus and how such a book could become the bread and butter to any person, but Drake shows us. She shows us clearly the absolutely insane pieces that make up the whole of Nita.

Nita above may demonstrate how she understands her profession is one of money but she longs to be an artist, a clown interpreting great art and literature (her final blowup with her despicable boyfriend Rex concerns him pirating her Kafka interpretation as told via a clown), but she resents the fact that she is a comedic act or worse, that she should be sexually appealing in her clowning. When one of two female clowns she occasionally works with spells it out for her, it’s not clear that it really sinks in to Nita. Nita simply wants to be a clown artiste and doesn’t like to think of how what she really does applies to what she really wants to do.

“Pssst,” Matey said, in a stage whisper and knocked a hand against her head. “Here’s a clue: Women wear makeup, right? But a man in face paint, people see aahh-rt. You and me, we top out at birthday gigs, and that hurts more than anything I’m doing now. That’s the meat o’ the matter.” She tipped her Chaplin hat. Was it true? Was there a latex ceiling, made-up makeup finish line?

Despite being a clown, and supporting herself, after a fashion, being a clown for parties and even engaging in sexier acts for corporate parties, Nita bitterly resents the way that money destroys what she considers beauty.

Leonardo da Vinci said water was the most destructive force on the planet. Water corrodes metal and eats through rock. But da Vinci forgot about the corrosive power of cash; when money came into a neighborhood, the buildings toppled. Even people disappeared.

Like any stereotypical artiste type, Nita wants purity. She wants pure love, pure work, pure happiness. Just like her grandiose idea of herself interpreting art as a clown, her ideas about what life can really be are just as grandiose and unhappy about settling for anything less. She says:

In a world of clown whores and virgins, I’d cling to the integrity of art.

That doesn’t happen, but even as she is descending into the world of clown prostitution, Nita still has lofty and near-risible goals.

Traditionally, there’s been no delicacy to balloon art. That’s where I’d revolutionize things. Chiaroscuro, sfumato: I’d find a way to translate da Vinco’s painterly tricks into rubber and air.

Maybe I’d pioneer a line of designer balloon colors in da Vinci’s palette. Why stop there? I could have a van Gogh line, a Gauguin line, Toulouse-Lautrec and Tintoretto.

Nita’s delusions carry her to strange places, to strange actions, to stranger results. She wants to be more than a juggling clown at a kid’s party. She wants to be a performance artist, a portrayer of truth. But she is a clown and she proves it over and over again, that her perspective of being a clown will never match up to her dreams of artistic relevance. And like the heroines in chick-lit, she decides to alter her body but instead of dieting or buying clothes she cannot afford, Nita decides to don a sand-filled fat suit to turn herself into a face-painted voluptuary. And what fine slapstick would be complete if she did not, in fact, juggle fire in such a get-up?

I’d be a sassy, busty clown girl juggling fire. Of course–why not? I’d play to crowds high and low. I’d find the fine line between Crack’s clown whore and my own comic interpretation, work both sides and move easily from the comedy of burlesque to striptease, slapstick to sexy. I’d graduate from Clown Girl to Clown Woman.

Then we go from a padded body suit to the sublimely ridiculous.

I’d do a new silent, sexy version of Kafka: Gregor Samsa wakes up, finds he’s metamorphosed into a woman with an hourglass figure–where every second counts!–and his world’s on fire. I’d do a busty Beef-Brisket Dance, on fire. Two Clowns in a Shower on fire. And Who’s Hogging the Water? –that’d mixed genre, soft porn plus fire. Even an ordinary bodacious bod and the pins on fire would be a new show altogether.

But Nita is still deluded. She can’t make it from being a clown girl to a clown woman as long as she is a clown. As long as she clings to her outrageous ideas, she will never be able to find any real truth. Given what a fabulous disaster she is, it ends about how you sensed it would as soon as you read the word “fire.” Nita sets herself and the yard on fire. And oh yeah, she’s fire juggling in the middle of the night. This is also a very good example of the both extreme and subtle humor Drake wields, making Nita a borderline caricature but never stepping completely into a place where the reader cannot respond to Nita’s plight.

“Crapola! Crapola!” I ran in a circle and threw myself down. I rolled on the grass where the grass wasn’t on fire, but the Pendulous Breasts resisted my momentum, and everywhere I rolled sparks flew. The Pendulous Breasts duck-quacked and chirped a cacophony of party sounds. I was guilty and now I was on fire. Who would’ve known hell was so efficient. A few mistakes and hell came to me faster than room service.

Because she is burned and experiencing heart problems, Nita returns to the hospital, where she again tells a terrible tale from her past. Without telling the reader the reasons for Nita’s paranoia, Drake makes it all too clear what happens to some girls who enter the maw of a hospital when they are alone, weird and full of self-delusion.

Here’s what I know now: never let a misunderstanding go unclarified in a hospital, same as in a school, jail, or prison. Never carry a diary with you, not even a day planner if you write notes in it. Don’t say, “Yes, that’s mine,” to any old scrap of nothing, to what might have been interesting in the free world.

The hospital, it’s a gateway, The path to incarceration.

Your best bet is don’t even write anything down. Ever. Most of all, don’t go near the hospital unless your problem is obvious as a bullet or a broken leg, and don’t go more than once. Otherwise you’ll learn about a two-doctor hold. Doctor Two-Hold, a seventy-two-hour detainment–and seventy-two hours can be longer if it’s late at night or over a weekend.

A deus ex machina in the typical chick-lit form of a man saves Nita from the probable 72-hour psych lock down that awaits her after coming into the ER burned, wearing an exploding fat suit and in full clown regalia.

…Jerrod had seen me inside and out, burned and in the psych ward. And still here he was, beside me. But the blood and the burns were all circumstantial, a string of bad luck, the anomaly. I didn’t want to think that was me–a wreck, a mess, a mortal.

But she is a wreck and a mess. You want to despair of Nita but you can’t, not quite. She periodically shows glimmers of insight that peek out when she is daydreaming about her despicable boyfriend and making an art show out of balloons tied to resemble Renaissance paintings. This scene, for example: Nita has lost her rubber chicken, whom she calls “Plucky” and put up reward posters all over her low-income and crime-infested neighborhood, resulting in dozens of people coming by with various rubber chickens trying to collect the reward.

“Maybe your Plucky jus’ fell in with the wrong crowd, maybe she was looking for love and thought she’d found it…but you can’t trust nobody round here, that’s what Plucky knows now. Uh huh.” The woman’s eyes were flat and dull. She’s quit looking at me. “Plucky maybe learned a few things, and you say, ‘No way, no second chances,’ and jus’ like that, man, turn her ass back out on the street.”

I said, “Who are we talking about here?”

And who were they talking about? The worn down woman at the door or Nita herself? It’s hard to tell here, but later revelations show Nita is far more in tune with herself than even she would like to admit.

I was good at pool. Physics, I understood. I knew all about vectors. That was my original goal in clowning–to create the illusion of defying physics with muscular comedy. I wanted to be able to stand when it looked like I should fall, to spring up when gravity would pull down, and to balance at impossible angles. I wanted to win, or at least stay on my feet, when it looked like I was losing.

Losing is a thing Nita understands so it stands to reason she wants to be able to look good doing it. But she also knows that she is not ever going to be able to make it in a more rarefied world.

One lone lobster beat a claw against the glass wall of a small tank. The lobster’s narrow, empty world was perched over a frozen sea; blue Styrofoam tray after tray of Dungeness crab, leggy purple squid, and bundled smelt rested on chopped ice below. Tick, tick. The lobster knocked, as though to flag down help. Across the aisle what had once been a herd of grass-fed cattle now lay silent in bloody pools of iced New York strip steak, flank steak, ribs, tongues, and burger. Edible flowers bloomed on a small green stand, a miniature field ready for harvest. Tap tap. Tap. Tap tap. A lobster S O S. Get me out of this dead heaven. I knew the feeling.

Yeah, and this inversion of the chick-lit rang the truest to me because unlike her counterparts, Nita can’t just pick the right guy, clean herself up, lose a few pounds, get her credit card debt under control and she’ll suddenly find herself living the good life when the author rewards her feminine will to change with the perfect rich man to pave her way. Nita would feel even more like a clown in a monied world of privilege.

My heart, ready to burst, spoke in the fast Morse code of biology: you’ll die or go crazy, die or go crazy, die or go crazy, die or go crazy... I had seconds to live. My heart was too big for my chest, my head hummed. I couldn’t move fast enough, had to get out of there.

As Nita shows how her damaged heart is telling her what to do, I could not help but think of Sylvia Plath’s Esther, whose heart beat, “I am, I am.” Nita’s heart tells her she has two options, both horrible, and given the hints of diagnosed craziness in her past, this passage was terrible because despite the loony ideas Nita had concerning her work and her art, at the core of her, the heart, so to speak, in times of grave stress her only options seemed to be to go crazy or die.

I like to think Nita’s heart went to such dark places not because she was indeed depressed (though she is definitely desperate) but rather because she knew on a very basic level that her dreams of clown artistry were hogwash, an attempt to cloak herself in dreams so she would not have to look at the real problems in her life. Nita has no family, she lost her baby, and she has no allies.

Emancipated minor? I’d been one for years–emancipated but no longer a minor, and I was ready to have a team, a side, a family. Somebody to back me up. A person shouldn’t be emancipated so long.

Sadly, the person she pins her hopes on, Rex, is not worth her care, even as a clown girl. Here’s a quote from Rex:

Rex laughed then, a mean, sharp snort. “Impossible? You want to talk impossible? This is all bullshit, babe. Youw ant to think you’re not a hooker, just a clown on a private date. Think you’re an artist, working a new car lot? I’ll tell you something–that’s not art. It’s just a story you’re making up. Maybe the same story you’d tell our baby, if we still had a baby. Mommy’s not a hooker, she’s a corporate party girl. No wonder the kid bailed. Christ, maybe the thing’s lucky you dumped it.”

As horrible as this was, as horrible as him rubbing her face in her miscarriage could ever be, he has a point. Nita’s no artist. She tells herself stories to get herself through and had created a fantasy about being a family with Rex as she had about her work. It hits her hard.

A deus ex machina reunited Nita with her rubber chicken and her lost dog, and once she has the dog back, she has to do something to save her dog’s life. Her roommates like to feed the dog pot and to keep the dog from becoming deathly ill, she needs peroxide to induce vomiting. However, she shows up at the convenience store wearing the ragged remains of the fat suit, her clown makeup smeared, and she cannot get anyone to take her seriously. Because she is a clown, she cannot impart upon anyone that she is in the middle of an emergency and she finally begins to see how she is hindering herself by imbuing her odd ideas with a patina artistic endeavor.

There was my face in the aluminum rim of the hot-foods incubator, around jo-jos and chicken, I was reflected in the glass of the Coke cooler and the grease-smeared deli case, all powdery makeup, black liner and big red lips, the face of a clown hooker right out of an old-time jail-time act. My one Caboosey boob hung free.
The only show was my life and it was a bomb. The only routine was the daily one. I’d been in clown costume so long, I wasn’t an artist. I was a freak.

She takes a good look at herself, where she lives and the people she knows and she realizes it’s time to change.

They, my friends, were hucksters, drug dealers, and bullies. But in that world of defeatism, I was the jester, the fall guy, the rubber chicken. I was the one who put on face paint and shades, limping in one big shoe.

And if this was a regular chick-lit novel, there would be another deus ex machina that would help Nita wipe off the clown makeup, would help her find two regular shoes so she could walk tall and proud, a job would magically fall into her lap and the new man who was lurking at her side unnoticed would sweep her off her feet and Nita would realize she could stand on her own two feet again, though she wouldn’t have to since the new guy would be rich and ready to marry her. That doesn’t happen in this chick-lit inversion but the ending is satisfying in its own way.

This book surprised me. I didn’t expect to love it as much as I did. I think it managed to walk down the path of mainstream chick-lit novels to satisfy my occasional need for glurge, but it also did truly invert the real goal of such novels and their well-worn paths by giving us a heroine whose hidden past remained hidden, whose life really was ridiculous, whose world resembled places I am familiar with and whose transformation showed herself she could not remain a clown and achieve any of the goals she wanted in her life as a person. I highly recommend this book and hope Drake is writing new novel. I very much would like to see what she says next.

Beware of God by Shalom Auslander

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Book: Beware of God: Stories

Author: Shalom Auslander

Type of Book: Fiction, short stories

Why Did I Read This Book: I have heard Shalom Auslander on NPR programs and on PRI’s This American Life and found him deeply interesting so I looked up all his books and put them on my Amazon list. And eventually ordered one.

Availability: Published by Simon & Schuster in 2005, you can get a copy here:

Comments:I guess I’ve only ever heard Shalom Auslander speak about serious subjects, like the existential fear he at times experienced when he decided to distance himself from his Orthodox Jewish upbringing. I started reading this book knowing that he was a man steeped in Judaism, but I had no idea how flat out funny he is. He writes with a wry sense of humor, a startling awareness of the human condition and a sharp prose that somehow manages to be both a tiny bit jaded yet steeped in sentimentality. Not an easy feat, to be sure.

This collection has 14 short stories and there is not a clunker in the bunch, so I won’t even have to do the “Here are the ones I loved/Here are the ones that didn’t work” split that I do in so many of my reviews of short story collections. All the stories were worth reading so I get to discuss the the ones I considered the cream of the crop.

“The War of the Bernsteins” discussed a married couple wherein the husband’s excessive need for piety makes his wife nuts and combative. She begins to counter Mr. Bernstein’s every excessive attempt at righteousness but with a mind to her own soul.

The spiritual mathematics consumed her,

On the outside chance that there actually was a World to Come, she certainly didn’t want to sacrifice her own rewards in the next life just to ruin his. Mrs. Bernstein didn’t mind going to the Seventh Level of Hell, so long as she could walk to the edge, look down below and see Mr. Bernstein burning in the Eighth.

After engaging in mental calisthenics and spiritual algorithms, she begins her sin campaign.

She used nonkosher wine for Kiddush. She put milk in his coffee after serving him meat. She put pork in the chulent. She put bacon bits in his salad, and told him they were imitation.

She continues to wage war against him, forcing him into more and more acts of piety, until she finally, very sensibly and quietly, cracks. I am honestly unsure if I know why I love this story so much other than that I think I have known all too well this sort of warfare and rejoice that my own life contains none of it. I think it was simply that clenched-jaw, angry words cloaked under false sweetness, years of resentment disguised as edgy banter that we have all been forced to witness over a tense dinner was placed in a new setting. Sometimes a fresh look at old situations are all a story needs to be wonderful. Well, that and a clever hand, which Auslander has in spades.

“Bobo the Self-Hating Chimp” was also a winner. A bite at the self-hating Jew, of course, but not entirely. There is more at work here than the same old Woody Allen schtick.

At 9:37 in the otherwise ordinary morning of May 25, Bobo, a small male chimpanzee in the Monkey House of the Bronx Zoo, achieved total conscious self-awareness.
Each one dropped like a boulder onto his tiny primitive skull. He grabbed his head in his hands and ran shrieking around the Monkey House…

Bobo quickly learns that no one wants to deal with the psyche of a self-aware chimp, and that he also lacks the capacity to explain himself as his larynx did not evolve with his brain, and finds himself aping, as it were, the behaviors of chimps as he observes them. Their behavior sickens him and he finds himself filled with more self-loathing, and worse, regret.

One day, in a fit of pique, Bobo throws a pile of shit at another chimp, misses and nails the glass enclosure. He likes the results and begins to paint the glass walls with shit.

By the end of his first week of consciousness, Bobo had painted large Expressionist shit murals on every wall of the Monkey House. He began with simple studies: an apple, a monorail, cotton candy. By the end of the first week, he was creating sweeping tableaus which he saw as scathingly satirical attacks on chimpanzee culture and primate mores. His Self-Portrait was a devastating attack on racism, his Unhuman Stain a poignant plea for self-respect and dignity, his Life in the Monkey House a searing assault on political power and corporate gain.

The shit paintings fetch a hefty price on the art market but the zoo finds the expense of replacing the glass too dear so they provide Bobo with paints and canvas but the therapeutic benefits elude the self-aware chimp. A self-aware existence proves too much for Bobo, as it does for many artists who struggle with existential questions. Then another chimp finds himself becoming self-aware and the circle becomes complete.

“Look at us,” Kato thought. “A bunch of fucking monkeys.”

“Somebody Up There Likes You” tells the story of Bloom who escapes the death God had in mind for him because he was driving a Volvo, and he ends up contemplating the idea of whether or not there was indeed someone up there who liked him. The answer is a playful look at the relative omnipotence of godhead and an interaction between God and Lucifer reminiscent of the trials of Job, but rather than testing Bloom, the man becomes a thorn in the side of God and Lucifer.

“Holocaust Tips for Kids” shows how a school’s day-long program for Holocaust Remembrance Day affects deeply a grade-school boy who begins to plan for what he will do if the Nazis ever come back for him. He makes plans to hoard food for his inevitable years spent in an attic, but figures a treehouse would do okay as well as it seems unlikely a Nazi force would search all the treehouses in his neighborhood. As deeply disturbing as this story has the potential to be, the impact of Auslander’s humor prevents it from being a complete exercise in psychological horror. Bruce Lee, Ninjas, The Godfather, the positive attributes of Florida during a Nazi invasion and the necessity of being in good shape when the next Holocaust happens all are a part of the musings of this boy as he contemplates the worst that can happen. It seems horrible to find amusing the following line:

When they put you in a cattle car, try to get a spot near a window.

But how can you not see the humor and how can you not mourn both the loss of innocence that leads to such thoughts as well as celebrate the youthful mind willing to come up with such contingencies to survive. It is a gift to make the truly uncomfortable humorous.

“God Is a Big, Happy Chicken” was my favorite story in the collection. Yankel Morgenstern dies and goes to Heaven and discovers God really is a large chicken who largely does not care about the world of humans.

“Fuck,” said Morgenstern.

“You know,” said Chicken, “that’s the first thing everyone says when they meet me. ‘Fuck.’ How does that make me feel?”

The angel Gabriel tries to explain things to Morgenstern:

“But the Bible–” said Morgenstern.

“Don’t you worry about the Bible,” said Gabe. “We’ve got the joker who wrote that thing down in Hell. Gabe,” he said. extending his hand to Morgenstern as they walked through the Nothingness toward the Nowhere.

“As in Gabriel, right?” asked Morgenstern. “I expected you to be more, I don’t know–”


“I supposed,” answered Morgenstern.

“Asians all think I’d be Asian. Black folks all think I’d be black. It’s a funny world. I’m sort of the head ranch hand around here. I make sure Chicken has enough feed and water, I clean his coop. You know, general maintenance.”

“Couldn’t The Chicken just create his own food?”

“Not ‘The Chicken,’ just ‘Chicken.’ And no, he can’t create his own food. He’s a chicken.”

Morgenstern begs Gabe to let him return to Earth so he can warn his family, but once there, he is faced with a dilemma: better to be right or to live in ignorance and be happy. I feel I can tell you the quandry Morgenstern finds himself in with little angst about spoiling the plot because as much hand-wringing as goes on in these stories, the end is in no way inevitable.

I was surprised at how delightful these stories were. In fact, when I first opened the book I was expecting a memoir collection, snippets from Auslander’s life. That comes with the territory when you order books simply because they grab you in some way, eschewing the toilet of Amazon reviews (the occasional leaving may float to the top but at the end of the day, it’s still a turd), just amassing reading material on a whim. But sometimes that method leaves you with little, unexpected gifts. This book was indeed an unexpected gift and I highly recommend it.

A Mind Apart by Susanne Antonetta

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Book: A Mind Apart: Travels in a Neurodiverse World

Author: Susanne Antonetta

Type of Book: Non-fiction, psychology, genetics, eugenics

Why Did I Read This Book: As a person who buys books with an almost indiscriminate abandon, I often find books on my “to-be-read” shelves and have little memory of buying them so I am unsure what initially drew me to this book. I read it after I found it when I was searching for a completely unrelated book. I tend to like narratives about mental illness so that was likely why I bought this book.

Availability: Published by Penguin Group in 2007, you can get a copy here:

Comments: Sigh… I think my love of books about mental illness and interesting mental states is pretty well established even though I have not been running this particular book site for even a year yet. I tend to cut books on these topics a lot of slack because people who have unique mental states also have a unique approach to writing. Sometimes you have to dig deep to come away with gems in such books, dealing with odd narrative streams or difficult prose, but more often than not gems are there. I suspect that for many Antonetta’s book has some gems, but overall, I found her narrative not worth all the digging. The structure of the book was often disjointed and rambling to the point that I found myself reading out loud in order to force myself to pay attention, and also to give the words some additional clarity. And worse, I often had no idea, even after reading aloud and concentrating deeply, what it was that Antonetta was trying to convey.

None of this should have been a surprise to me, really, because the first paragraph in the preface tells the reader very clearly that this is not a book written with us in mind, that this is a book that simply exists in its own right and it is our duty to make sense of it however we can.

I am asked, What is this book. And I want to say, Books are like children. They are what they are because they are not something else.

I find this to be the worst sort of speciousness. I suspect this may seem overly harsh, but everything is what it is because it is not something else. Evidently, the appallingly ugly light fixture in my dining room is like a child because it is what is is because it is not something else. And I guess I can say a disjointed, unclear book is a disjointed, unclear book because it is not a well-organized, coherent narrative?

Antonetta, a woman self-described with bipolar disorder, finds comfort discussing aspects of her mental illness with friends and those relationships sustain her. This is not a memoir of mental illness, though the approach is intensely personal and often involves a lot about Antonetta and those she knows. Rather, it is a book that makes assertions about the natural selection involved in mental illness, how the mentally ill may be responsible for shaping a surprising amount of the world, and that any genetic attempts to eliminate people who have mental disorders, autism or similar – the neurodiverse minds among us – could be disastrous for the entire world.

Yet despite this being a book with such a specific theme, the personal descriptions and her personal life were a large part of the book and the descriptions of her mind and the minds of her neurodiverse friends bordered on exotica. Though this is definitely, as Antonetta explains, “a book about different kinds of minds,” it is also a book about minds that call out to be understood in a way that eludes this book. I often felt underwater reading, as so much is hurled at the reader without a context outside of the ideas in Antonetta’s head. Little she says helps enable us to put these unique minds she knows in a thoughtful perspective. For example:

I e-mail N’Lili–who’s a many-head, or a man with different people inside him–up to three or four times a day. They are married to my cousin. I write them separately and together: in response they might say THIS IS US OR THIS IS VICKI OR ANNIE ASKED ME TO ASK YOU SOMETHING, LOVE PEG. WE ARE CHILDREN, they say, though they live in an adult male body

Then there is this:

[Discussing an e-mail with a friend who has Asperger’s] We talk like this a lot. Do you feel the number five is brown? Can you hold it when it comes to you, unassuming in its brownness? How does everyone resist the lusciousness of others’ minds, moving around us, with us, all the time, like a gallery of veiled art.

I think that Antonetta’s approach to her neurodiversity and the neurodiversity of others is a lovely trait. She sees neurodiversity as something that is necessary in life, possibly a function of evolution, providing necessary differing mindsets important to the arts and sciences. But part of this makes me nervous because for every person like N’Lili who functions and embraces his or her dissociative disorder as a form of neurodiversity, there is a woman like my roommate in psych lockdown who is jumping from one consciousness to the other, in a state of terror, unable to work, fearing homelessness and further alienation from her family. For every person who wonders if five is brown, there are people for whom mental illness, or neurodiversity, is a nightmare from which they will never wake.

I know Antonetta knows this fact. She has suffered and still does. And I’m glad she came out the other side with this sort of mindset. But I think I resent the idea that mental illness is a “lusciousness” because for many of us, mental illness is not an evolutionary step in natural selection but is a condition that drags us down and keeps us down. I assert that there is no “normal” mind, and we all have to find our own path through mental illness. But for me, mental illness has prevented me from doing what I want in the world, not served as alternative to regular thinking that enhanced the world around me. I suspect most people who have walked this path tell stories similar to mine.

But it is an interesting thought, that neurodiverse people, exhibit a form of natural selection. That people in the autism spectrum may be uniquely suited to the sciences. That bipolars show an amazing tendency toward producing art and literature. In fact, neurodiverse people may have played some key roles in developing the modern world.

Different minds create new memes, as necessary for the freshening of culture as new genetic combinations are vital to the freshening of the species. Bipolars–“restless and unquiet,” as one correspondent put it–may have helped with the spread of human culture, migrating frequently and often into new territories

Not entirely sure if I buy that but I also don’t know enough evolutionary psychology to argue with it. It’s hard to argue with the idea that diverse mental states create excellent art. It’s almost a cliché. But it’s true in a lot of respects, and Antonetta states outright that she sees the gifts as well as the challenges of mental illness and I respect that. But the examples she gives of bipolar artists is mostly a list of the damned.

The painter van Gogh was bipolar, as were Virginia Woolf, Georgia O’Keefe, Sylvia Plath, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Gioacchino Rossini and hundreds of other artists.

“Spring and Fall, to a Young Child” is one of my favorite poems and it contains the line from poetry I quote most often in my life: “It is the blight man was born for, It is Margaret you mourn for.” But would you really have wanted to have lived Hopkins’ life, with his manias that caused him to dehydrate himself to the point of illness, the deep unipolar horrors that he faced most of his short life? Would you really have wanted to live the lives of either Plath or Woolf, with the anorexia, the suicide attempts, the rages, the final desperations? It is a subjective point, to be sure, that such suffering is worth the art it creates, but who really would have wanted to be Sylvia Plath, alone, terrified, angry and willing to die, tucking towels under the door and opening windows in the childrens’ room so they wouldn’t inhale the gas? I am reluctant to grace mental illness with any sort of sanctity because while we get to enjoy the fruit borne from madness, the lives of those whose minds burned them out are often nothing any of us would want. Yes, I wish there was a cure for all mental illness and I know the best most of us can do is cope however we decide to cope, but I am uneasy as hell as seeing the bright side to any of this. “Yay, we got some poems before Plath gassed herself!” is not the way I want to look at this possible form of natural selection. That the world benefited from the sufferings of Ernest Hemingway, Anne Sexton, Abbie Hoffman and Edgar Allan Poe is, for many of us, a cold comfort when we realize we know how much misery they felt.

And this is a side note to this book but as a writer who lost my spark after years of struggle, depression and despair, I can tell you emphatically that being alive is better overall than writing my old brand of disturbing fiction. Perhaps I lacked talent and that is why I do not mourn my lost gifts, but I often fear that people who need treatment and can benefit from it won’t try because there is a party line that to be creative is to suffer and to risk pills means risking the spark to create. I have no idea if madness spawns great art – there have certainly been enough artists who were not mad – but the idea that it does sanctifies what seems like unnecessary suffering.

And as engaging as I found parts of this book, it began to slowly fall apart in subsequent chapters. Points are made over and over in different chapters, the focus of the chapters were at time fuzzy and at other times, Antonetta’s logic made no sense to me at all. For example, Antonetta follows the trial of a teenage neighbor who killed another little boy and we spend a lot of time reading about her reactions to the whole thing – the murdered child’s parents, the absence of support for the defendant and other musings that didn’t really play much into what I thought was the thesis of this book – the positive benefits of natural selection for forms of mental illness and the need to accept the neurodiverse without condemnation.

She relates to the testimony of how unkempt the defendant was, seeing parallels between his lack of self-care and her own. She feels a sense of sadness that the only person the defendant, Kyle, likely loved was his grandfather. But then she hits us with this:

What we had, with my neighbor Kyle’s tucked chin, cartoonish face: a boy who collected enough weapons to power a desert army and rare poisons, who taught himself as a teenager how to do a particular type of autopsy peculiar to the East Coast, studied Nazi killing, all with the intent to kill a child. My child as easily as anyone’s, I imagine, half a mile from his house.

What we had to explain him: ADHD; possibly poor parenting; possibly too little touch; a personality disorder that no doubt hundreds of thousands of people have; evil.

Then we have this:

…Kyle stands as a koan or theological knot unto himself, but he’s like one of those theologies that tell you that trying to understand the nature of the Trinity is like trying to carry the ocean with a small bucket, so I can’t go any farther than this; as Augustine said of evil, “Do not seek to know more than is appropriate.”

It is impossible to have had my mental health history and not read every book on the topic with intensity. So perhaps the average person may not have the incredibly visceral reaction I did to these passages. I try not to use the word evil because it is often a cop-out, an easy way to dismiss the need to understand things that are hard to comprehend. That Antonetta, who wants understanding of the lusciousness of the foreign mind, the mind that is not like others, yet approaches the issue of extreme mental illness and psychopathic fixations that led to murder with the word evil filled me with despair. The complex mind cuts both ways. If we are to accept the art and science that comes from neurodiverse minds, then we must make ourselves understand the destruction that comes from them, too. The madness that creates a body of literary work and the madness that causes one child to murder another are different sides of the same coin and you cannot spend one side without spending the other, and cheap words like evil to comprehend difficult situations do no one any good.

This book is not wholly without redemption. Though I clearly have taken exception to Antonetta’s use of the word luscious when describing chaotic minds, I always love accounts of how people with minds like mine describe what is going on with them. Some of her descriptions of her head resonate with me.

It’s a noisy, busy place in my head, at least most of the time.

Right now my mind’s in a phase of of furiously narrating in a you voice: you’d better put that back in the refrigerator, you need to try to sleep now. It’s kind of irritating, like having a mad mother on the inside of your ear. It doesn’t bother me much, any more than a cat who won’t stop meowing might. Minds, in my experience, are messy, loud places.

The type of discord in her mind is different than mine, but I am familiar with the sort of head that never stops talking to itself.

However, it’s interesting to me the sort of disconnect present in this book. Antonetta’s main theme of this book seems to be to discuss how people who are neurodiverse should be accepted as a positive force by those who find them foreign. Yet she seems shocked when a reviewer on Amazon comments that Dawn, a friend of Antonetta’s who wrote a book about her autism, seems utterly foreign. Antonetta says:

How strange to think of Dawn and me and all of our kin as aliens, as a different kind of human being, as if we’ve branched off like Neanderthals, or the hominids who lived 18,000 years ago and were nicknamed the hobbit people.

Surely Antonetta understands that neurotypical minds see people with autism, bipolar or unipolar disorder, or any kind of mental illness, to be alien. Isn’t discussing the ways that the neurodiverse differ from others one of the main themes in this book. Antonetta goes on tangents like this often, seemingly disingenuous to me. As I read over Antonetta’s tales of her youth, her journals, her reminiscences of the girl she once was, I felt odd with some of her statements in this book because it seems she was hyper aware of every terrible thing that her mind did to her, that she had plenty of language to discuss her turmoil even as a teen, she was completely aware how different she was from others around her, even from her own parents. So why the surprise that she and others like her are misunderstood and seen as the other by those with “normal” brains?

I think I lack a certain depth at times because I am rabidly unconcerned with how I became the person I am. I don’t care if I am this way because I inherited just the wrong genes, because evolution needs people like me, or if I was spoiled environmentally, and this lack of depth is why books like this annoy me more than they should. However, my distaste for investigating my own mental origins aside, this had the potential to be a very interesting book, discussing some thorny and fascinating topics. It just got too garbled in the execution. Antonetta’s presentation is all over the map, with ground already covered being covered again and again in a fragmented manner, with inconsistent conclusions, and far too much time dithering over “whither” when her fears for the future and conclusions seemed faulty to me. Her at times fey writing style was also not to my tastes. I don’t regret reading this book but I don’t think I will ever read it again. It was a lot of work to figure out what Antonetta was driving at, and I was left with a book that did not have much resonance with me when I finished it.

A Wolf at the Table by Augusten Burroughs

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Book: A Wolf at the Table: A Memoir of My Father

Author: Augusten Burroughs

Type of Book: Non-fiction, memoir

Why Did I Read This Book: Because I quite like Augusten Burroughs. Full stop.

Availability: Published by Picador, you can get a copy here:

Comments: I put off reading this book because there was a mild, teeny-tiny literary kerfuffle when A Wolf at the Table was released. Some critics took exception to a scene in the book wherein there is a violent outburst between Burroughs’ father and his older brother. Burroughs remembers bringing his brother a gun and begging him to kill their father. Some people felt this scene was created from whole cloth, and brought up some evidence to back their belief. Evidently, Burroughs exaggerated some scenes from his book Dry. He admits to making up a terminally ill woman who was doing her best to die sober. It raised all the usual thorny subjects about memoirs, the name James Frey was invoked and it was disheartening.

Then Augusten Burrough’s older brother, who wrote his own book about his life with Asperger’s, explained it for everyone. You see, the fight did happen. The conflict was real. And little Augusten did come to him with a gun – a pellet or bb gun, and begged him to shoot their father. In the eyes of a child, it was a life or death conflict and Augusten was telling truth as he understood it as the child who experienced the trauma. Other issues of veracity came up with the book, but all of them are issues I understand and can explain myself, so I am unsure why critics didn’t clue in. Maybe they all had really good childhoods.

I think that the debacles many avid readers experienced with J.T. Leroy and James Frey have caused a lot of people to reject the idea of a subjective truth. We want the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth without remembering that a robotic recitation of objective truth can at some times be impossible and that the subjective truth is often all that matters when you are reading about a person’s life. I hope this desire to force all memoirs to come from a place of universal knowledge and total recall ends soon. Regardless, the brouhaha, even though it was resolved, made me put off reading this book longer than I should have. I guess I feared that there might be some tiny part of the book that would not seem subjectively true to me and I love Augusten Burroughs. I felt it risky to read this book lest I find some egregious fault with him.

That certainly was not the case, as it turned out. This book was utterly true to me even down to the smallest details. Like the rotting deck. The sick animals that never got treatment. The alienation and loneliness punctuated by violent and psychotic melodrama. All of this is true to me because even now, as an adult, I know that things that seemed like a threat when I was a child were probably no more than tense minutes, but the child who perceived it all is still in me and resents the everloving hell out of anyone who dares suggest that it wasn’t that bad or that I am misremembering. I should have read this book and responded to it much sooner.

Because I often respond very personally to the books I discuss here, it probably won’t be a surprise to regular readers if I do it again. I feel very comfortable talking about the time when I went psychotic and had to go to inpatient lockdown. I openly discuss my prescription pill addiction that almost destroyed my marriage and could have cost me my life had I not been very lucky. I talk about my life as an adult with a candor that I worry will hamstring me terribly should I ever again need a day job. But I find it very difficult to speak in detail about my childhood.

Mostly, I have a hard time discussing it because nothing ever changed much and it is a topic that can get boring – human misery is a jail and not much happens in day-to-day life in jail. I also tended to block a lot of things, living in my mind and I can’t recall what it felt like to be a child alone and without recourse the way many writers can. I also think much of my childhood is still humiliating to me so I prefer not to recall it in lots of detail. But mostly, I don’t talk about it because I have some half-brothers out there somewhere. We know we all exist but beyond that we know nothing much about each other, and if they ever Google me and find my book reviews, I don’t want the first things they find out about me to be the graphic details of the depths of my loathing for our late father.

But unless I simply say, “Hey read this book because I say so!” I don’t know if I can discuss this book unless the memory of my own father is invoked because while the details are different, the emotions and reactions Burroughs revealed in this book were dangerously close to some of my own.

Augusten Burroughs’ father John was a college professor who seemed well-liked by his peers. However, his family knew a far different man. He terrorized his wife. He terrorized his son. He treated family pets with a psychopathic disregard for their pain. He didn’t like his son even talking in his presence. He turned his son’s life into a living hell, likely exacerbated the mental illness his wife suffered from, and generally behaved in a predictably unpredictable manner. The only thing one could expect when reading this book was that John would continually do things that seem unthinkable and sickeningly bizarre to people who are unfamiliar with abusive sociopaths.

My father wore the same mask that Augusten Burroughs’ father wore. I recall reading critics who felt that Burroughs was stretching the truth about the description of his father. John had severe psoriasis that caused his skin to be red and flaky, making him bleed through his clothes. He had a mouth full of rotting teeth. His overall appearance to Augusten was repellent and fearsome, but some wondered how it was a man who looked so terrible could hold a job in academia, as if academia doesn’t harbor some very strange physical specimens. I can recall too the extremity of my own father’s appearance and that never once cost him a job or hindered his work life.

Indeed, it seems impossible to anyone who has never known a sociopath that they could be so dreadful in action or even appearance yet thrive and paint a picture of themselves that utterly defies what those close to them understand about them. Burroughs explains this mask very well.

I thought of the few times we’d gone to the university together and how he’d taken me around and introduced me to his colleagues. He’d seemed like such a dad that I’d wondered what was wrong with me to always feel so suspicious of him. I remembered thinking how, in the light of day out in the world, my father was just like anybody’s father. But as soon as I was alone with him again, Dad was gone and dead was there in his place.

Even if Burroughs recalls some of the details of his life with his father through the lenses of a child or an unreliable narrator, this bafflement of a child who wonders why the clerk at the supermarket gets a charming, polite dad but the kid gets a nasty, bitter, cruel dad reads utterly true to me.

Burroughs also conveys very well the shrill, brittle tendency that children emotionally abandoned by parents experience, that horrific need for kindness and concern that, if left unchecked, can result in us becoming pests to those who give us crumbs of kindness.

I was just not accustomed to large, grown people asking me if I wanted to share in what they were doing. The moment had been thrilling. I had to run away, because there existed the very real danger that I would run to him, leap right up into his arms, and smother him with kisses, like some icky girl. Fleeing had been an act of self-preservation, not shyness in this case.

I think, in some ways, this passage explains why I am a hermit. Because even as an adult with a happy marriage, I feel a strange chasm in me that I know will never be filled. I often think I keep people at an arm’s length because I fear I will show too much need or will reveal too much about myself via thoughtless enthusiasm. You can recover from a terrible childhood, but no matter how much therapy you receive, no matter how much you genuinely change, there is a fine web of emotional distress that covers you from head to toe and which shows itself at odd and sometimes embarrassing moments.

This entire book is filled with quotes that were statements full of “aha!” for me because they had kernels of truth to them about my own condition and the contents of my mind.

…I never smiled when I was alone. Why would I?

Very few unhappy children smile much unless they have a parent whom such smiles placated. Nothing annoyed my father worse than the sight of me smiling and I grew into an adult who never smiled much until I began to shake off the emotional detritus my father left behind.

People believe in God because they can’t face being alone. It didn’t scare me to think of being alone in the world. It scared me that I wasn’t.

It was a comfort to read this particular bit. I always wondered why, in a family of believers, I ended up an atheist. I suspect this may be as good an explanation as any. I like being alone, my husband’s company being the main exception. Aloneness suits me. I used to feel sick when my father came home from work as his presence meant walking on eggshells, it meant being unable to make noise, it meant not being able even to chew in a manner that he found acceptable. I spent all my time in my room when I was a child, reading, staying out of the way. It became a habit, all the reading and all the quiet. Now I can be alone with no worries of my mental peace being interrupted. I think God or god or deity of any kind would disturb my hard won solitude.

The prospect of a family vacation created extreme anxiety in Augusten, an anxiety that rings all too familiar to me.

I developed a rank, metallic taste in my mouth, always the precursor to illness. My throat felt raw, like I’d been howling. And my joints ached, skin tender to the touch.

Sickness was how my body responded to anxiety.

Oh god, do I ever know what this means. I came to understand that I am not a hypochondriac, which is what I thought I was for many years. I finally now understand that the crushing anxiety that plagued me as a little girl and which still plagues me now knows more than I do. It knows when I can handle situations and when I cannot. So when I cannot cope, my anxiety thoughtfully makes me sick. Severe headaches, stomach cramps, body aches, general malaise. Anxiety shuts me down. It happens less and less as I get older but as Mr. Everything can attest, it still happens. The force of anxiety cannot be ignored. It can give you fevers. It can make your throat so sore you feel like you have strep. It protects you, in an abusive, sick way. I think once I no longer get sick when I feel upset, I will know the claws of the past no longer are running themselves down my skin.

There is an anger so powerful that the fist must go through the wall. It is not humanly possible to contain or manage this kind of anger.

Yet there is a kind of anger that goes beyond even this. Where you are lifted so high by your fury that for an instant you hover, suspended; the fist does not go through the wall. You hold your breath and wait, you hang, you float. This is where I found myself and I laughed.

And I continued to laugh.

And again, anyone who has seen me collapse laughing when things have gotten as bad as they can get may now know why. Because you get to the point to where not even the catharsis of violence will save you. All you can do is laugh the howling laugh of the damned. That Augusten Burroughs knows this, I think, leaves me with little doubt that he experienced everything in this book, filtered through the eyes of a frightened child, the haze of an alcoholic adult, and the gaze of a man who has hopefully transcended the past.

I think this is a fine book but I have no idea if you should read it or not. If you don’t know what I know, maybe it won’t be worth it to you. Because I think, at its heart, this is less a memoir for me than a book of kinship, a description of what it is like to be small and terrified, held in thrall to a mentally ill and at times despicable parent, to never feel peace, to watch creatures you love die (or in my case disappear entirely without a trace) and have nothing you can do about any of it. I felt a great connection with Burroughs, as if finally there might be a person on this planet who could hear the story of my own life and nod and not pepper me with questions as they tried to understand how a man can be a monster to his family and a kind, a polite family man to strangers.