Valencia by James Nulick

Book: Valencia*

Author: James Nulick

Type of Book: Non-fiction, memoir (sort of)

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: It’s written in a style one does not commonly see in memoirs, a style that demands that you read the book twice in order to really understand the whole of it. The truly odd part is that I don’t think you will mind reading it twice in a row.

Availability: Published by Nine Banded Books in 2014, you can get a copy here:

Or you can get a copy directly from the publisher.

Comments: It’s hard to write an American memoir in the year of our Lord, 2016. Modernity has caused most of us to live unremarkable lives. No more surviving small pox or famine. Not a lot of terrain to discover that doesn’t already have several Taco Bell locations within a fifty-mile radius. No invaders from foreign lands, no wars on American soil. No duels, few remaining sexy hippie cults waiting to indoctrinate the young and innocent, and even those who have fled to large cities in order to carve out an interesting career in the arts while living with lots of interesting people in a bohemian slum are more likely to micro-blog about binge watching some fucking show about women having lots of implausible sex in a prison than their latest attempt at creating a mural or a novel or an interesting sculpture. The bulk of lives these day are completely unremarkable but sometimes reading about unremarkable lives can be interesting, if the life in question rings true to the reader, offering muffled catharsis for the quiet depression that is so much a part of modern ennui.

Don’t get me wrong – suburbia has a lot to recommend it but it doesn’t lend itself well to the creation of great memoirs unless we have something really and truly nasty lurking behind the scenes, and those things happen to us rather than being experiences we seek out. Good modern memoirists need at least one crazy or alcoholic parent, one unsettling example of sexual abuse, a slowly developing drug addiction, and maybe, if such a writer is lucky, one of his family members will commit a terrible crime or get killed in the course of a terrible crime and then he’ll be rolling in the life experiences that make up the modern memoir.

But even if one has these qualifiers, so do many others. If one is going to write a memoir about a prosaic life, even one with requisite misery, one needs to be a very good writer because otherwise the readers will be tempted to say, “Shitty parents, stranger touched me, drugs during college, terrible job, why am I reading this when I can clearly write my own memoir because everyone in the benighted Generation X more or less lived the same fucking life.”

Nulick takes his cues from all three categories: he’s lived a life that seems all too common to most Americans; he has catastrophic life experiences that make for interesting reading and a certain prurient rubbernecking; and he is a very good writer, profoundly good at times. We recognize Nulick’s life as our own in some respects, we are appalled at some of the things that happen to Nulick, and we are drawn in and held in by his unique and near-poetic style.

I mentioned this before in an entry closing out 2015, but it bears repeating. The way that Nulick writes reminds me of conversations one has with an old friend. You know this person well, but you haven’t spoken in a while. Your friend mentions an incident or a person in the course of telling a story, thinking that you know all about that incident or person. You don’t know, but you don’t interrupt because your friend is on a roll and you feel certain that in a moment you can either interject and ask a question or your friend will throw you enough clues in the conversation that you can piece it together. Sometimes you realize the information isn’t important enough to interrupt, because the point of the story isn’t about that person or place – it was just mentioned as an aside in the course of a larger topic.

This is how Nulick writes. Sometimes he mentions a name before we know who that person is. The first time this happened I wondered if I had overlooked the person as I read and I almost backtracked in order to find the original mention that I was sure I had missed. It can be a bit odd if you begin reading this book unaware that Nulick writes this way, treating you like an old friend listening to a long conversation about his life, but once you are knowledgeable about this method of story-telling, it feels completely normal, almost comfortable. You feel like you are being drawn into Nulick’s story in a manner that implies that he considers you a trusted friend, and that’s an unusual feeling when reading a memoir. I’ve often felt some commonality with memoirists as I read their works but this takes that feeling of knowing an author in a direction I can’t recall ever having read before. You may want to read this book through once and then read it again a week or so later. That second read cements that feeling of being a friend because you now feel like an insider to Nulick’s story.

That sense of commonality takes you only so far, though. I find it interesting how many books about Gen-X men have come across my radar lately and how I respond to them. In Ann Sterzinger’s NVSQVAM, the protagonist Lester is utterly lost and a complete asshole, but as I mention in my discussion, he’s our asshole, my generation’s asshole. It’s hard to hate your brother even when he’s a prick. It’s irrational to hate a child you may have created but Baby Boomers despair of me and mine, and for some reason we all seem to be poking Millennials with a stick as if we didn’t fucking make the world they were born into, like we didn’t raise them or mold them into the people they are now. Yet Nulick, in as much as this memoir accurately reflects his real life, at times inspired in me the same nose-pinching desire I felt toward Sterzinger’s Lester. I just wanted to smack him as he artistically destroyed his life, almost as if he was modeling his destruction on those who came before him and set the example for the lost, dissolute, addicted writer.

The Man Who Saw His Own Liver by Bradley R. Smith

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: The Man Who Saw His Own Liver

Author: Bradley R. Smith

Type of Book: Short story collection, semi-autobiographical

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Smith, as a writer, has an interesting writing style and Smith, as a man, is a polarizing figure.

Availability: Published by Nine Banded Books in 2007, you can get a copy here:

You can also buy it directly from Nine Banded Books.

Comments: Bradley R. Smith may be the only Holocaust revisionist who writes about topics that have nothing to do with the Holocaust.  And that’s good because while I know just enough about the Holocaust to hold my own in such conversations, I also am not invested in the topic enough to want to read books along the lines of what one expects from David Irving and Ernst Zündel. Admittedly, I haven’t read Smith’s book about his journey into Holocaust criticism, so perhaps then he concentrated exclusively on revisionism to the point of minutia, but I don’t think that’s the case. We’ll see when I read it.

Perhaps he has more to write about because Smith has led a far more interesting life than Irving or Zündel, once you remove the legal drama.  But then again, Smith has had his own share of law troubles, and not the kind you might think.  In 1962, Bradley R. Smith was convicted under California’s obscenity laws for selling a copy of Tropic of Cancer.  In 1963, he appealed the verdict and the higher court sent the case back down to the lower courts in light of the California Supreme Court having determined Tropic of Cancer was not, in fact, obscene. Taking this anti-censorship stance bankrupted Smith.  Regardless of how you feel about Holocaust revisionism, it’s impossible to deny that Smith is more than the one-topic obsessives who are often attracted to Holocaust studies because such topics feed their antisemitism and loathing for institutional intellectual authority.  Smith has suffered financially and socially supporting freedom of speech – even speech liberals respect.  He has gone on record as saying:

I do not believe in thought crimes, in taboos against intellectual freedom.

Perhaps that is what makes this book so odd – Bradley R. Smith is a living intersection of ideas that, on their surface, may seem mutually exclusive.  But people and ideas are never wholly black or white.  This played out vividly for me in terms of Smith’s personal politics because I generally have little patience for most libertarian ideas yet could see at times where Smith was coming from and could sympathize with his point of view.  I think that was because Smith didn’t cloak himself in Randian-superiority.  He mostly just wanted to be done with intrusive influences in his life.  I can respect that.

This book of vignettes was initially conceived as a one-act play.  When you read it as a dramatic piece, it feels much more powerful than a series of remembrances, but the book still carries a lot of power as a series of short stories.  Through a proxy narrator called A.K Swift, Smith discusses his life and his ideas in a manner that is confessional, almost Beat-like in style.  Though Smith does have this proxy narrator, the details in this book closely mirror his own life enough that I am just going to refer to the narrator as Smith, but that choice is also just to make things easier for me because I tried to refer to the narrator as “Swift” initially and ended up calling him “Smith” so often that I just gave up and switched to Smith. 

Swimming Underground by Mary Woronov

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: Swimming Underground: My Years in the Warhol Factory

Author: Mary Woronov

Type of Book:
Non-fiction, memoir

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: There is nothing particularly odd about Andy Warhol, but the majority of the people who made up the Factory are very interesting and quite strange. Add to this that Woronov’s prose is unusual (in a glorious way), and this book just had to be discussed here.

Availability: My copy was published by Journey Editions in 1995. Other editions are available, and you can get a copy here:

Comments: I read Ultra Violet’s Famous For 15 Minutes just after finishing Woronov’s book, and I think the comparison between the two made me understand that Woronov’s book was odd. Ultra Violet was a conventional woman drawn to unusual people, and her memoir, while interesting, makes it clear that her scene was far more interesting than she was. Though if I think about it, I should not be too hard on her – better than anyone else I have read, she seems to understand why Valerie Solanas just needed to shoot Warhol.

Woronov, however, outshines those around her in the Factory. She writes with an icy fire, a remarkable combination that seems to encapsulate who she was at the time (and may well still be – aside from knowing her work as the principal in Rock N’ Roll High School and the female lead in Eating Raoul, I know little about her beyond this book). Her tale is not just a perfect capture of a moment in history, but it is the odd tale of an odd woman with an odd mind. Oh, I have such a girl crush on Woronov now and intend to read everything she has written and see every movie she has been in.

Before I begin, I have to admit that I’m not a Warhol fan. I don’t condemn those who love him, but I find him tiresome. He was an amazing parasite who convinced his hosts that it was beneficial to them that he consume them and give little back. When they finally objected to him leeching them dry, he finished his hosts off and yet people find it easy to remember him fondly. Clearly he must have been very good at it because he attracted such a collection of genuinely talented people while making mass market prints of soup cans. Not to say the man was not a marketing genius but he was no artistic genius, though these days one is hard pressed to tell the difference between the two. In that regard he definitely was a visionary. But let it not go without saying that I am not a fan. I find the people he surrounded himself with infinitely more interesting than the man himself.

Woronov’s tale of her time in the Factory is a sharp slice of a tin-foil covered history. An intense woman, she seemed naively charmless, and that, of course, was her charm. She “whip danced” with Gerard Malanga, performing with the Velvet Underground in the early Warhol presentation called the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. Also, she was in the only movie Warhol made that does not make me fall into a boredom-rage-sleep, Chelsea Girls (though I have to admit I saw it so long ago that I don’t remember much except reacting in surprise that no one stabbed Brigid “Polk” Berlin). She paints a picture of herself as a cold, imperious young woman, sexually aloof even while engaging in provocative dancing with whips, under pulsing lights. But even as beautiful, aloof and talented as she was, she was not immune from the mercurial, nasty nature of Warhol.  In many ways, her story was probably the same story of many of the women involved in the Factory.

The book begins with a young Mary being saved from drowning. During a day at the beach, Mary and her mother swam out too far and hit a riptide. Mary was sure she was going to drown but her mother somehow saved the day. Back on the beach, drained from the experience, Mary has a surprising revelation:

I started shaking. I just couldn’t stop no matter how many blankets they gave me, but Mom, she was happy again, her body glistening white against the fallen night. It was like old times – people fussing over her, me feeling pathetic, worried over nothing. I hated it. Every time she looked back at me huddled in my blankets, that strange smile would curve her lips, her eyes would glitter again, and my gratitude at being alive shriveled. She knew what she was doing all along. She had done it before, swimming out too far, scaring people so they paid attention to her, and now letting me swim into a riptide so she could save me. I hated her.

This isn’t just angst. It’s foreshadowing. I seems a perfect encapsulation of the Warhol experience for many people.

Woronov’s brain is a crispy, knife-edged place and this is a very bestial, feral book.

There is Violet, my dog – my violent temper – the kind of thing you get a reputation for, and I must also confess to being the abused owner of a rage rat. This rodent is a voice in my head that never shuts up. I don’t know how I acquired it. I suppose it was given to me at an early age by some malicious adult, or perhaps every head comes equipped with one – you know, the “rodent included” plan. I’ve already packed these two in their traveling boxes; others are too prehistoric to catch, nobody would want to go into the black waters where they live. And there are also animals I don’t want to catch; rather I’m afraid of them catching me, like coyotes that carry insanity like a plague. I’m afraid they will find out where I’m going and follow me. Every time I find a new animal, like my party squirrel or my comedy crow, I give it a cage and a feeding schedule. And of course there are the rabbits – little habits that I’ve stuffed into every possible space in my suitcase – habits of speed, junk, pills, and any other poison I can get my hands on.

Either this passage grabbed you with both fists and shook you a bit and you need no explanation as to why I found this so amazing, or it meant nothing and any explanations would be meaningless.

Demons in the Age of Light by Whitney Robinson

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: Demons in the Age of Light: A Memoir of Psychosis and Recovery

Author: Whitney Robinson

Type of Book: Non-fiction, memoir, mental illness, psychiatry

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: In a way it is not odd because psychiatric memoirs are thick on the ground these days. But in a sense this book is very odd because being given an invitation to look into the mind of a person actively suffering from schizophrenia is in and of itself a strange, unsettling experience.

Availability: Published by Process Media in 2011, you can get a copy here:

Comments: Just warning you now, dear reader, that this discussion is going to be one of my trademarked Very Long Discussions with Lots of Quotes from the Book, coupled with a very personal reactions to the text. For those who find a 8000 word or so discussion excessive, here is the tl;dr version: This is a very good book written by a very good writer and you should buy it and read it.

I read a lot of mental health and mental illness memoirs and this was the first one I ever considered odd enough to discuss here. I very nearly missed reading it. I had run into a spate of memoirs that left me cold, and had the online acquaintance who recommended the book to me and then sent me a copy offered it two weeks earlier than she did, I would have declined. But just before she discussed the book with me, I had finished a very good, very honest mental illness memoir, Stacy Pershall’s Loud in the House of Myself: Memoir of a Strange Girl. The offer to read the book came at the right time after the right book.

It would have been a shame to have turned down this book because of the often sorry shelf-company it is forced to share. And I don’t mean to demean the genre because people gets all kinds of help in all kinds of ways that I may find less than helpful. It’s just that lately some of the books I have read wore very thin for me. It seemed like the authors, mostly women, had romanticized their illness. To paraphrase Elizabeth Wurtzel, patron saint of fucked up women of a certain age, they had fallen in love with their illness. The devastation the disease wreaked on their bodies, their education, their relationships – it all was a back story to a fabulous disaster narrative.

Also there is a current theme in mental health studies that posits that mental illnesses, or neurodiversity, are a form of genetic selection for arts, letters and speculative science and therefore celebrate the conditions. I can see the logic. Not only is there a long record of acclaimed people who created great art and propelled science, but as a person with mental illness, I like to think that there is a purpose behind my at times terrible brain chemistry. But I am made uneasy by some of it because even though Van Gogh left behind astonishing paintings and Virginia Woolf left behind masterful prose and John Nash was a great boon to speculative physics, would any of us really want to live their lives? It’s all well and good to see the up side of having appalling brain chemistry, but I often fear that people who are suffering will read such examinations and decide that their affliction should not be treated, should not be seen as a disease that needs to be addressed in order for them to live the best life they can live. As much as I adore Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poetry, and I have no real way of knowing how much his deep depression truly affected his writing, thinking about the sorry end of his life makes it just a little harder to enjoy the beauty and truth of his words. Art that comes from a truly suffering person will always have a pall cast over it.

This book does not engage in the sort of celebration and art uber alles justifications for mental illness that I have encountered as of late. Whitney Robinson’s memoir gets everything right. She shows the wreckage. She shows how mental illness swooped down into her life and changed everything. A natural writer with a near-intimidating intelligence, Robinson tells the story of her illness, the demon that came into her brain, and how she came back out the other side. It is an erudite, honest, and at times darkly humorous look at what it feels like to have your brain behave in ways you have no control over. Schizophrenia is one of the hardest mental illnesses for people to truly understand, and Robinson writes a fascinating book that is never once a freak show. It is never an attempt to glorify conditions that can ransack a person’s life. This book is never a voyeuristic peephole into the at times salacious subject matter of mental illness.

It is a rare invitation to understand.

The Adderall Diaries by Stephen Elliott

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: The Adderall Diaries: A Memoir

Author: Stephen Elliott

Type of Book: Memoir, true crime

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: I don’t even know anymore. I finished it months ago and put it in the “Odd – To Be Discussed” pile. It may not be odd but I don’t recommend a normal person with normal interests and a normal constitution read this book, not because it is outre, but because I suspect normal people would have given up within the first few chapters.

Availability: Published by Graywolf Press in 2009, you can get a copy here:

Comments: You know, I’m gonna go ahead and cop to the fact that this is not going to be a favorable discussion of Elliott’s book. But I also want to make it clear that this is not going to be the full-bore assault I think the book likely deserves. You’ve seen what happens when I really loathe a book. But Elliott’s book discussion comes after the mental assault of discussing a mass murderer’s manifesto. I’m pretty sure I would be kindly disposed to even the biggest pile of crap ever to be released in trade paperback after 1500 pages of bigotry and murder blue prints. So just remember my perspective may be favorably skewed even as I skewer the book.

I bought this book because I found it in the True Crime section at BookPeople. The memoir part didn’t alarm me or seem out of place. James St. JamesParty Monster is a drug memoir and is one of the best true crime novels I have read in years. I think that is what I expected when I picked up this memoir about a man with a drug problem who was writing about what the back cover described as a “notorious San Francisco murder trial” and an “electric exploration of the self.” But the back cover gets it very wrong when it asserts that Elliott “seamlessly weaves them together.” Alas, Elliott is no St. James. The murder trial at times doesn’t even seem like a side story in this book. After reading this novel unless I flip through it again I cannot tell you even the most basic details about the murder. But I can tell you a whole lot about Elliott and, frankly, most of it is devoid of emotional meaning and context.

I don’t intend to demean the power of the addiction or sexual discovery narrative, and I don’t want to demean those who may have found something relevant in Elliott’s narrative. And I fully admit that I may have missed something because I have not read any of Elliott’s other works. I wonder if I would have cared more if I had read his other books. But the fact remains that I did not care much about this book. The narrative was flat and uninvolved. The addiction barely registered as being damaging. The bondage and S&M details were seemingly tossed out with no emotion or attempt to lure the reader into a deeper sense of understanding Elliott. It’s a bizarre condemnation of a memoir to say it was self-absorbed, but that was the problem I had with this book.

How can a memoir be self-absorbed? Well, it’s easy, actually. When someone you find interesting goes on and on about him or herself, your interest trumps the self-absorption. It is subjective, to be sure, but a memoir has to contain content that makes the reader care that they are reading a stranger go on and on about him or herself.  Given the proliferation of it, this flat, disengaged writing style must appeal to someone. But I am not that person. ( Which is odd, in a way, because I am fully aware that my book discussions are utterly self-indulgent, written to please myself as much as to entertain and inform.)

The subject matters of this book – addiction, sexual taboos, a murder trial – should all be interesting. But conveyed through Elliott’s numb prose, it is all unexciting. It’s the literary equivalent of tapioca with a dash of tequila. It’s white bread with a dab of mold on it. It’s a boring man telling boring stories to a barely interested audience. I contrast the content of this book with much more taboo writing, like the non-fiction of Peter Sotos, and it becomes clear why Elliott’s writing did not appeal to me. Sotos, in his extremity, forces the reader to think, or to react at the very least. Elliott’s numb tale was like watching a Warhol movie. As I read this book, a quote from Charles Bukowski came to mind often: “Boring damned people. All over the earth.”

And in the course of any sort of discussion I can have about this book, how can I convey how little it interested me? Discussing the plot is hard – Elliott does drugs, has extreme sex, comes to terms with some of feelings about his family and muses about the murder, the discussion of which ostensibly was the focus of this novel. In a way, this is no different than many other memoirs, but when I consider the emotionally numb and at times alienating manner in which Elliott writes, any structure would be lost behind the veil of ennui his words provoke. At times the meta in this book irritated me, but perhaps some will find it delightful. Perhaps some will also report back to me on what it feels like to snort ketamine and take an icepick to their frontal lobes. Perhaps some will find this book so utterly transcendent they will be forced to leave me half-assed, unintelligible comments to show their indie cred. Perhaps some think I should stop typing entirely until I am in a better mood. Perhaps those people are right, but fuck it, I’m sitting here, computer in my lap, so let’s get this over with.

So let me give my examples of why this book was terrible so I can move on to something else.

The Source by Isis and Electricity Aquarian

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: The Source: The Untold Story of Father Yod, Ya Ho Wa 13 and the Source Family

Author: Isis Aquarian with Electricity Aquarian

Type of Book: Non-fiction, memoir, history, religion, counter-culture

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Well, it’s released by Process Media, Adam Parfrey’s newest publishing venture. So that’s a good clue to oddness. And while the topic is compelling, I suspect that this book will be of most interest to people who are vinyl-heads, seeking information about fringe music from the 1970s.

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

Comments: As I mentioned in my entry about the Books I Thought About Most in 2010, when I finished this book I made flippant references to it in my Twitter and my personal blog. Someone directed Isis Aquarian to the entries and she wanted to discuss the fact that I called the Source a Jesus Freak cult and how I was in error. I clarified in detail the reasons I referred to the Source as both but I never heard back from her. Maybe she thought me too dense to deal with. It doesn’t hurt for me to remember that my blog will trigger a Google alert beyond my 200 readers in my personal blog and show my snark to people who don’t know me well enough to understand my snark is generally followed by some measure of sincerity.

But though I will explain myself here on the whole “Jesus Freak cult” comments and how, while they were flippant, they are apt and not necessarily insults, the reason I found this book fascinating is that as a person who is, for the most part, utterly faithless, I found myself deeply interested in the people who created a life as Father Yod’s acolytes. As I read, I felt a strange feeling that I can only assume is akin to longing, a sense that my faithlessness costs me dearly, though ultimately there is not a damn thing I can do about it. I will, however, be brutally honest that I did not listen to the CD that comes with the book. Largely, the music Ya Ho Wa 13 created, as well as the voices of Father Yod’s followers, didn’t interest me that much, but the fact is, this is a very pretty, interactive book, with tons of pictures of intensely attractive people from the early 70s. Those looking for a very immersive experience will find much to love in this book. As I was writing this discussion, Mr. Oddbooks picked up the book and began flipping through it and remarked that it was one of those books that is as much art as it is a conveyance of words and information.

Isis Aquarian, whom Father Yod appointed the record keeper for the Source Family, reconstructs the life of the group from beginning to end, using recollections from members interspersed with her own text to tell the compelling story of a man who was an interesting mixture of father, lover, trickster, and guru and the stories of those who followed him. Make no mistake, as interesting as the Source Family was, this book at its heart discussed a charismatic authoritative sect, and Father Yod was, any trickster tendencies aside, largely a benevolent charismatic authority, and that is why I feel comfortable dissecting the everloving hell out of this book. When charismatic leaders are malignant, there really is no room for discussion. There is no way to talk about charismatic religious authorities like Roch Theriault without talking about the manner in which naive and impressionable people are ripe for the picking by psychopathic and delusional madmen. There is no discussion other than the depths of suffering the followers of such people experience. That is not the case here. There is a tendency to assume all cults are negative and while I feel comfortable discussing the Source Family as a cult, it was not a malignant cult – though there were some alarming signs for me – nor was Father Yod a mirror of the sorts of men the popular imagination thinks of as cult leaders.

And though I definitely loved looking at all of the beautiful people in this book and found some of the stories in this book amusing, Father Yod is why we are here because it seems to me that it is nothing short of astonishing that so many years later, the vast majority of those who were members of the Source Family remember Father Yod with nothing but fondness and love for the lessons he taught them. Yet even as Isis Aquarian told the story of Father Yod and his family, she shows how even though he was their spiritual leader, he had definite feet of clay.

So let’s talk about Father Yod. He began life as Jim Baker in 1922 and even before he became Father Yod, he had an epic life and was sort of a badass. He served in the Marines in WWII, became a martial arts expert and worked for a time as a stuntman in Hollywood. When he died, Father Yod was on his virgin hang gliding mission and in the group, he had many wives who bore his children. In the 1960s he began to follow fellow travelers into a more natural lifestyle, becoming a vegetarian and opened the Source Restaurant on the Sunset Strip, serving vegetarian fare to hippies (and the Source Family emphatically rejects the label of “hippie” for themselves), burnouts and superstars.

Father Yod became interested in many different branches of philosophy and religion, especially the Vedic traditions, combining them into a world view that had a decidedly Christian flavor (for example, Father Yod updated the Ten Commandments for his followers in anticipation of the coming of the new age and many elements of the cult were reactions to the Judeo-Christian ethos). The cult that built up around Father Yod happened almost accidentally. Young women were strongly drawn to him, as were young men, and the reasons varied from person to person. Some felt he was a paternal figure. Some wanted to be his lover (The Source Family was not anti-gay but the few homosexuals who were a part of the group in the early days were on the outside because the group emphasized the natural and mystical power of the male-female union). Some thought that in his presence they had found a man who would help them find the answers they sought. If you are age 40 or younger and look at the cover of this book and immediately think, “Dumbledore!” you are not alone. I suspect there is an archetype we all have of the Magus, a man imbued with strength, mysticism and moral wisdom and Father Yod fit that archetype. Father Yod’s physical appearance was one of strength and comfortingly paternal to me, and to many of the women in the Source Family, he was sexual force, as well (as is Dumbledore, if you read slash fan fiction and really, you shouldn’t…).

As people were ever increasingly drawn to Father Yod, the members of the Source Family developed a communal lifestyle, living in succession in two large mansions in the Los Angeles area, the Mother house and the Father house. At some times, the family swelled to over 100 members, and despite cramped quarters, the members of the group split work, sharing duties running the restaurant, keeping up laundry for all the members, cooking, cleaning and from the descriptions Isis and other members of the commune give, it worked relatively well. In order to achieve some level of privacy, some members created plywood cubbies that sound for all in the world like those compartment Japanese hotel rooms. Despite close quarters, the Source Family came up with creative and labor-intensive means of dealing with needs for privacy and the infrastructure problems so many people sharing one house caused.

Father Yod also maintained an inner circle of 14 women, the council of women, and as an inversion of the idea of Christian submissiveness, the Source Family promoted a female-centric community and women’s liberation. Of course, Father Yod’s word was important but as he evolved his message he took counsel from his council of women. Although, and I will discuss this later, Father Yod at times made it hard for women to remain in monogamy with a chosen man and the sexual rules of the commune had a decidedly uneven effect, women ostensibly chose their own men and had a strong voice in the commune. Women gave birth at home (and I had no idea home births were illegal in California at the time), breast fed their babies at a time when that was outre and children were homeschooled. The Source Family had a close relationship with another Jesus sect but as too often happens in sects led by charismatic leaders, minor differences caused fractures. And despite the fact that the Source Family lived a relatively healthy life, deep troubles began.

Despite being clean people, when you have 100 people in one house, bad things can happen. A staph infection ran through the commune and sickened a baby and when that child was taken for emergency care, the authorities descended up on the family. Because the group was afraid that the authorities were going to take the children, Father Yod decided to beat a retreat to Hawaii, a decision that had he lived longer, might have proved the undoing of the Source Family, as the locals in Hawaii were hostile to the “hippies” to the point of threatened violence, they had little experience doing the fishing and farming they would need to survive and Father Yod sold the Source restaurant when he left LA. That restaurant had been the primary source of income for over 100 people and without it, the cult suffered financial woes. Father Yod smuggled vans to Hawaii that had not been paid for, and he also smuggled the family’s cat. The drugged cat was taken onto a plane, stuffed into the dress of a female member who pretended to be pregnant – the cat was later eaten by a mongoose, which means this book also gets the “Oddbooks List of Books that Feature Dead Cats” tag. The situation degenerated so bad for the family that they ended up descending on the welfare office near them and more or less forcing the Hawaiian infrastructure to pay for them to leave (evidently there was a fund that Hawaii would use to return US citizens to the mainland if they did not have the money but the sheer number of tickets the family would require was problematic).

Some of the family returned to San Francisco for a bit then returned to Hawaii. It was there that Father Yod was killed during his maiden voyage hang gliding at age 53. Actually, he was severely injured and did not seek medical help, as the group largely did not put much faith in medicine, and was taken back to their home and died. There was a minor controversy concerning his death because Father Yod believed the soul took three days to leave the body and specific death rituals needed to be performed over his body. Since he died in an accident, authorities were concerned that his body was not immediately turned over to the coroner. When another member of the Source Family died in a hang gliding accident a year or so later, several members of the Source Family, including Isis, were arrested for failing to immediately turn his body over to authorities. They were later cleared of charges.

It is a testament to Father Yod’s message that the family struggled on after he died, but eventually, without the charisma of their leader to bind them together, members moved on and most of them moved on to have very interesting lives. But as I read this book, I felt a bit uneasy because I consider myself to have been victimized by a dopey religious cult – the Southern Baptist Church – and elements of the way the Source Family lived set off my “oh-no” meter. So let’s discuss that. First, to clarify, Jesus Freak now is a terrible appellation, akin to calling someone a “holy roller” or similar and it may have been a pejorative 40 years ago but I know many Jesus Freaks reclaimed the word and didn’t accept it as an insult. When I think of Jesus Freaks, I think of what the term meant by those who called themselves Jesus Freaks: adherents of the Jesus Movement who espoused a counter-culture lifestyle, with an emphasis on back to the land, social justice, communal living, and rejection of contemporary dogma. Many of these groups had a profound musical element to them. The Source Family was Christian in origin, though they carried cards professing Sikhism and the beliefs of the group had a synthesis of many Eastern religions and Egyptology. However, the core of the group appears to me to be Christian, though not as evangelical as some Jesus Freaks were, and their close association with a Jesus Cult and the way that Father Yod recreated Biblical commandments makes me lean towards thinking the group Jesus Freaks. Mileage varies and my terminology is just my interpretation and should not be read as an assertion of an absolute truth.

However, the cult aspect of it is where I got uneasy. Of course, the word “cult” today has almost without question a negative bias though that is just connotation after years of malignant sects doing grave damage. Objectively, a cult is a group of people whose beliefs and actions seem strange when compared to more mainstream customs. Nothing nefarious or unhealthy in that and the Source Family falls largely within that definition. But the group also exhibited some of the more exploitative and damaging elements of a group built around the theories of one man. Here are some of my observations:

1) The Source Family was centered around a charismatic leader who “love bombed” people, resulting in the center of the religious experience being the leader and not the religion. In fact, even after reading this book so closely that I can quote passages of it, I have a hard time explaining the core mission of the Source Family, the core beliefs but I know a lot about Father Yod. Magus, who left the cult in early days, described a descent from a innocent beginning to an almost “Aleister Crowley type megalomania.”

2) There was an inability to leave with impunity or finality. Some people did indeed leave, but the problems were there. Magus says he was shunned when he left. When Rhythm left, the whole of the group went to fetch him back to show him that they loved him. But the end result was still that his desire to leave was not respected. When Galaxy was returned home to her parents by the police, Father sent an adult man to fetch her back then marry her so that her parents could not interfere.

3) The Source Family showed some disregard for family ties, making Father Yod the only real connection some members often had. For example, fetching back the underage Galaxy from her family using deception interfered directly with the relationship between parents and their minor-age child. Paralda described how Father Yod interfered in her marriage to Omne soon after he married them, pressuring her to have sex with him. Few people lived or worked outside the Source Family, ensuring the primacy of the relationship with Father Yod.

4) The tenets of the Source Family changed to suit the needs of a charismatic leader. One of Father Yod’s commandments was that nothing should come between a man and his woman… until he found women he wanted more than his then wife, Robin/Ahom. Quick evolutions of matters of faith are alarming especially when they seem to revolve around the sexual needs of the leader of the sect (and though Father Yod may not have begun with the idea of having sex with so many women, some of whom were underage, it did happen and many elements of group belief sprang up making Father Yod’s sexual belief a group belief.)

5). Father Yod created new identities for members, often based on his interpretation of their personalities. Not only did everyone get new names, some several times, but Father Yod also would revoke names to tamper with the idea of identity, as when everyone was called a number for a brief period of time. This was one of the fine line reservations with me as I can see both sides of the argument on diminishing the self and of course some religions emphasize selection of a new name, as Catholics select a new name during church rites. But Father Yod picked his acolytes new names and changed them again when he felt like it.

6) The Source Family exercised sexual control over its members. Men were given a very strict manner in which they could have sex – tantric sex – and if a man could not control the need to ejaculate for a specified period of time, he was looked down upon. Men who could “hold their seed” got all the women, entrenching their place in the The Source Family. But even though these rules created a group of men who could not attain a regular lover and helpmate, Father Yod would assign women to service and take care of these pariah men because their labor was needed in the cult and they could not afford for them to leave if they began to feel too alienated. The tension between have and have-not men was always there because the men without lovers felt they needed to work on themselves because the lack of a sexual partner was seen as a spiritual failing.

7) Members seldom had any control over money. Communal living is not that unusual, but when only a handful of people control the bank account for over 100 people, it can be a very negative thing.

8) The group substituted Father Yod’s common sense for their own. Though clean people, close quarters created a staph infection that ran through the group that was not treated medically and led to problems, the most obvious being Anastasia and her baby. Anastasia had a staph infection in her breast yet continued breast feeding, as the group did not approve of bottle feeding. Her infant fell very ill with staph but did not immediately receive medical care because Father Yod taught the rejection of conventional medicine. The child almost died and Anastasia almost lost her breast. Two children died in the cult. One baby who was clearly failing to thrive evidently never received any medical care before she died, or if she did, it wasn’t mentioned in the book. One of Magus’ sons became very ill with an ear infection and the treatment Father Yod recommended was to shine colored lights on the boy and chant for him. On a more ridiculous level, Father Yod told people to stop wearing their glasses in order to build their eye muscles. Father Yod proclaimed the group for a while would only eat fruits and vegetables whose colors reflected the rainbow. To have followed any of this indicates that Father Yod’s magnetism was more important than common sense.

9) The group had to operate in secrecy, though I openly admit that in a climate where home births were illegal and breast feeding was seen as odd, some secrecy was needed. However, this secrecy set up an us versus them mentality that created hardship. When Anastasia’s baby almost died and it looked like child protective services were going to act because the children in The Source Family did not go to school, there were home births that were illegal at the time, overcrowded living, etc., the answer was not to address these issues openly with either a legal stance to change law or an attempt to work with authorities. Rather Father Yod uprooted the group from LA, sold the restaurant that supported the group, and sent people to a remote Hawaiian island with little support because he hoped there would be little interference from the authorities there.

10) Most alarming to me was that towards the end of his life, Father Yod was beginning to trip down the old eschatology lane, positing about the end of the world, how it was coming soon, and how the family needed to be ready to survive and lead the survivors. That… Of all of the sort of wacky, new age bad decisions that came about, this was the most disturbing to me. Whenever any sect begins to assign an approximate date for the end of the world, it ushers in all kinds of problems.

Yet after reading all of this, still having the capacity to be flippant meant that I didn’t feel like I was reading a small scale People’s Temple that got averted by a tragic hang gliding accident. Despite my innate abhorrence for religion and my admittedly bizarre aversion towards spirituality in general, I found myself wishing I had, in my youth, been a part of something like this. I had a similar feeling when I watched the series Big Love, a feeling that being a loner was definitely working against me and that sister wives might be nice. But then I realized how completely unsuited I am for such a life, channeling Charlie from the movie Metropolitan, who, like me, wouldn’t want to live on a farm (or commune or conjoined houses in Utah) with a bunch of other people. Part of it may have been that the Source Family was a group that reveled in natural pleasure and enjoyed beauty and displays of flashiness and only became ascetics when circumstances forced such behavior, but that was not the whole of it because as a near hermit, I don’t care that much for the physical world and other peoples’ involvement in it.

So how come I find myself wishing I could have a talk with Father Yod and hear what he has to say? As a person allergic to authority and spirituality, why did I find him so deeply interesting? I think, at the end of it, I liked Father Yod because he knew he was not god. He may have been a man who had an enormous ego. He might have enjoyed being followed more than leading, and he definitely had all kinds of issues with his libido (and, frankly, I think he introduced tantric sex as a means of controlling himself and to prevent descending into a priapic orgy, and you can take that about as far as you want given my degree in armchair psychology), but even as this book showed how he had feet of clay, I don’t think Father Yod ever lost track of that himself.

This scene from when a group of men from The Source Family arrived in Hawaii, deeply influenced my belief about Father Yod, showing me his humanity in the midst of what could at times be fawning adulation. This passage comes from Zinaru, who arrived at Kauai to be met with a bowl of magic mushrooms:

It was around this time that a lot of discussion on YHVH began, and there was a shift in Father’s deep commitment to spiritual development and observance of natural laws to seeing himself as the Avatar–the actual incarnation of God. I noticed the women around him reinforced this direction in his perceptions, maybe because this God incarnate status for Father stimulated their own egos and reinforced their own special position as “wives of God incarnate.”

Back to our arrival day in Kauai. After about 40 minutes, the effects of the mushrooms were becoming very strong and it was suggested that we all go take a walk. About 20 of us followed a trail through the property and up the closest hill. Some Family members wanted us to observe the “Sleeping Lady,” a description that local Hawaiians had given to a group of gently rolling hills visible from the highest point on our land.

Due to our brisk walk up the long hill and the blood circulating rapidly in our bodies, the power of the mushrooms really began to peak. Father began to speak, and it was obvious that he was very affected psychologically. Father made a comment about the power of nature while we observed the “sleeping lady.” The sun was starting to go down, and we all stood for a moment in silence appreciating the tropical beauty, our surroundings, and the power of nature.

It was then that Father said in a soft voice, “I am not God. I am only a man.” Immediately Makushla [Father Yod’s wife, sort of a first wife among equals] said, “No, no, you are God,” and several women agreed. And he said, “No, I am just a man trying to understand God.” He continued. “I am nothing. I am just a man. I am not sure what to do, really.” Father turned and looked me in the eyes, and I could see he was deeply moved emotionally. I saw his insecurity manifest in his eyes in a way I’d never seen before. He dropped all pretense and was deeply humbled by his augmented state and honest self-perception.

This passage was the most important in the book, I think. It showed me that Father Yod was a guy with some interesting insights who got caught up in an echo chamber and in his moments of extreme clarity, he was under no illusions as to who he really was: a man searching for truth, a man who ended up with many people relying on his judgment, and a man whose responsibilities hung heavily on his shoulders.

And that makes for compelling reading, learning all about this man via the words of others, as well as learning about the people who tell the story. There is a whole lot I can’t really touch on because this discussion is already too long, like the affront Father Yod’s perspective on the name of the creator must pose to Jews, and the band Ya Ho Wa 13 didn’t interest me much. But I hope this discussion shows how deeply interesting this book is. Not only is it quite pretty (the pictures of a time past are amazing — Sunflower bears a striking resemblance to Mr. Oddbooks before he cut off all his hair and I wish more information was given about Snow, the beautiful albino girl who drew my eye in every picture she appeared in), but with the CD, and the participation of so many past members of the Source Family, this book is a well-documented look at a complex man who lived an amazing life during a turbulent time in America. I recommend this muchly.

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.

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.

My Booky Wook by Russell Brand

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Title: My Booky Wook: A Memoir of Sex, Drugs and Stand-Up

Author: Russell Brand

Type of Book: Non-fiction, memoir, drug abuse

Why Did I Read This Book: Because Mr. Everything and I went to see Get Him to the Greek and loved it. Also, someone somewhere told me that given my grudging (borderline psychotic, actually) affection for the late Sebastian Horsley, Brand’s memoir would be up my alley. Then a friend online revealed her mother was reading My Booky Wook when she passed away due to brain cancer (true story). So yeah, I had to read it.

Availability: Published by HarperCollins in 2009, you can get a copy here:

Comments: Increasingly I find myself questioning my decision to review all the books I read. Because I read voraciously and indiscriminately, I often find myself discussing books that were neither amazing enough to praise nor terrible enough to lampoon. Middling books that were entertaining enough when I read them but really meant little other than the entertainment they offered during the moments as I was reading them are hard to discuss. I mean, I guess I could become a reviewer who routinely just tosses 500 words or so out there and calls it a day but why bother. There are hundreds of sites like that already. And my will to go on at length forbids such brevity. But it’s problematic even beyond not knowing what to say because when I can’t find much to discuss, I put off writing and the books stack up. So it’s a quandry. If I don’t review everything, I’ll take it easy on myself and just review when I want to and if I force myself to review everything I procrastinate. Maybe I just need to man up. I don’t know

(I do know I will not review another Stieg Larrson book even though I love them all and want to discuss them. The search strings that led some people to my review of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo filled me with angst and loathing. I almost want to take the review down so that when I check my site stats I don’t have to see how it is that people never stop trying to rake the dead over the coals.)

Anyway, My Booky Wook is not as annoying as Dandy in the Underworld. Brand can turn a phrase very well. At times he is clever. And he does not openly embrace a lack of substance and wallow in nihilism. He doesn’t seem like he is a rip-off of someone else. It doesn’t suck. But overall, it’s a biography about Russell Brand. I mean, he’s entertaining and all, but he’s a comedian who had a drug and sex problem. He likes bosomy women. He did some really terrible things as an addict and owns it in his amusing way. It is what it is. If you find yourself stuck in an airport for a 5-hour layover and this book is for sale at one of news stands, you should definitely buy this before you buy the latest thriller or horror title. Honestly, this isn’t an amazing book but you won’t regret reading it. But if asked to write a substantive review for your online review site, you may find yourself saying very little in a whole lot of words.

Okay, synopsis: Brand is born. His parents separate. His mom has cancer twice. His dad is a cad. He loathes his stepfather. He is an obnoxious kid using obnoxiousness to shield his tender heart and he grows into an obnoxious adult. He flounders in University. He develops drug problems. He has issues with what in the old days was called sexual continence. He gets a job with MTV and goes from obnoxious to insufferable. He goes to rehab. He pulls himself together. The end.

While this book is not going to be a classic memoir – truly, there is no danger of it surpassing the memoirs of Nabokov, Fox, Dickens or Orwell – Brand has a brave capacity of knowing himself and showing himself at his worst. There are moments in the book wherein you finally understand some of what makes Brand an interesting man outside of his appalling hair. He certainly doesn’t pull any punches with what he chooses to present about himself and as a person who is a notorious head case in my own right, I can appreciate this. And at times, he has a startling depth to his words, and I say startling because having listened to interviews with him, he didn’t initially strike me as a man with hidden depths. But he has them and he presents them very well.

For instance, he summarizes the compelling force behind most comedians – that sense of being a complete loser and adopting a clown persona to compensate:

This is… the reason why stand-up comedy is the perfect career for me. Not just because I’m constantly scribbling notes inside my own mind to deal with the embarrassment I perpetually feel, but also because I’m always observing, always outside. It’s a perfectly natural dynamic for me to stand alone in front of thousands of people and tell ’em how I feel. The fact that I’ve managed to make it funny is bloody convenient, because I can’t think how else I would make them listen.

His thoughts on the driving forces behind addiction were also not only surprising coming from a man with such dreadful hair, but were also eloquent and right on the nose.

All of us, I think, have a vague idea that we’re missing something. Some say that thing is God; that all the longing we feel–be it for a lover, or a football team, or a drug–is merely an inappropriate substitute for the longing we’re supposed to feel for God, for oneness, for truth. And what heroin does really successfully is objectify that need…

It makes you feel lovely and warm and cozy. It gives you a great, big, smacky cuddle, and from then on the idea of need is no longer an abstract thing, but a longing in your belly and a kicking in your legs and a shivering in your arms and sweat on your forehead and a dull pallor on your face. At this point you’re no longer under any misapprehension about what it is that you need: you don’t think, “Nice to have a girlfriend, read a poem or ride a bike,” you think, “Fuck, I need heroin.”

Brand’s ability to mix humor into the darkest of his discoveries was nice. In this passage, he is discussing a therapy program while he was in sex rehab:

In the next program, “Wanky-Wanky,” we addressed the subject of sexuality. As the title suggests, this episode was a little more juvenile than its immediate predecessors, but still interesting nonetheless. The question was, “Is your sexuality constructed by environment and experience or is it innate?” I examined this issue by wanking a man off in a toilet. In conclusion, your sexuality is innate.

He then goes on to recount a sexual encounter he engaged in for a television program he was working for at the time – I can’t recall if it was MTV or not. Regardless, he ended up in a bathroom stall with a pretty foul man while the whole awkward, smelly thing was recorded by a camera crew. It was funny, Brand’s description, but it also created a mental parallel for me, however inappropriately, with scenes Peter Sotos described in Selfish, Little. Oh yes, Brand reaches completely different conclusions about jerking off old, fat men in public toilets, but the sense of darkness, degeneracy and a life out of control in the worst sort of way resonated nonetheless.

Brand also understands and explains well why addiction may serve a purpose above and beyond that which degrades us:

For all the damage it had enabled me to do to myself and my career, heroin had also provided a degree of sanctuary. Marianne Faithfull once said that heroin had saved her, because she was suicidal and it kept her alive.

And don’t I ever know that feeling, that as bad as things had become, they could have been so much worse.

I think I’ll leave this review with a quote from the beginning of the book, another stinger in which Brand expresses himself not elegantly but humorously and with a lot of clarity:

…I realized that the outer surface of what I thought was my unique, individual identity was just a set of routines. We all have an essential self, but if you spend every day chopping up meat on a slab, and selling it by the pound, soon you’ll find you’ve become a butcher. And if you don’t want to become a butcher (and why would you?), you’re going to have to cut right through to the bare bones of your own character in the hope of finding out who you really are. Which bloody hurts.

So… All in all, it’s a memoir by Russell Brand, a man who essentially gets paid in movies to behave as he once did, which may require a lot of skill. I don’t know. As I recited back these quotes, I realized that I don’t understand why I am not giving this book an unreserved hurrah. I think you can do a lot worse than read this book. But maybe it’s because I don’t feel a lot of connection to Brand. Maybe you need a closer affinity to the person writing words that offer redemption, even if it is redemption mixed with spitting at hookers, heroin, manic insanity and lots of humor. Maybe that’s it. I just don’t think I feel Brand. That’s not his fault and this is a good book despite my lack of connection.

Also, Russell Brand loved and was inspired by Bill Hicks, and no matter how much of an asshole his drug addiction made him, loving Bill Hicks makes anyone a good egg. Brand is a good but irritating egg. So, I feel okay saying that this is a good book to read and I may read the next book out there by Brand. I’ve read books for worse reasons than that the author liked Bill Hicks. I think we all have.