Toil & Trouble: A Memoir by Augusten Burroughs

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It takes extreme horror for me to feel better about my own life. Which, now that I think about it, is what people are always telling me that I do for them, so screw it.

Augusten Burroughs has a innate cynicism that always makes me laugh or cringe and nod along with, yes- someone gets it. You don’t have to be a fan of witches,  broomsticks and cauldrons bubbling to enjoy this memoir. You can be a fan of love or disaster, old beautiful houses that ‘want your blood’, and look haunted. Maybe it’s not ghosts, maybe it’s old trees that is a looming threat or repairs and gruff old handymen. There are a million things that can haunt our lives that are scarier than monsters and ghosts but sometimes the very things that make up our chaotic little lives get us to the place Augusten has arrived. But it’s been a journey. So carrying a secret love of witches or not, most of us can relate to the struggle of just being alive.

A witch, you say? Let him explain to you what he means before you get a knee jerk reaction of laughter or disbelief. Let him tell you about his family, and strange occurrences that feel like so much more than happenstance. Whose life isn’t full of the strange… the unexplained… and hell- why not? It’s hard to be taken seriously when you try to explain the weird patterns, the ‘coming into things’ that you foresaw, or conjured in your mind, heart. Aren’t mothers sometimes uncannily wicked in their predictions, about the future of their children, why not his mother before her illness consumed her? Lucky for you if it’s good stuff, the reverse can be true (trust me) for most people it’s a combination of both. I long to say, “you’re mad!” but in a good way, with a fat smile on my face. Maybe more than anything, he pays attention to the details of his life where so many people never see the synchronicity in their own.

Much of the novel is about the home he bought with his beloved, “We have purchased a mystery” and anyone who goes gaga for old houses will get a kick out of the reality making a home of one can be. It makes for funny and exasperating shared moments, all this talk of dreaming the home into being. Why not? If we can think it, we can create it, it’s how great works of art come into being, inventions, movements, revolutions- why not our own wants and desires?

I think this memoir is about Augusten Burroughs being Augusten Burroughs, this is me- take it or leave it. It’s intimate, honest, and peculiar, just like him. He seems to be at a point in his life where he has a solid grasp on who he is and want he wants, and sure life still presents moments where anxiety overwhelms him, he still confronts mental health fears with his family history, but you know what a great stabilizer is? Someone who loves you and grounds you, someone who takes you seriously when they need to and doesn’t always think ‘it is your crazy talking’ when you are adamant about a looming threat, even if it’s as ridiculous as a monster tree… when you know that tree is an evil force out to kill the two of you! Because maybe it actually is, maybe there is something to this natural instinct that has guided Augusten throughout the chaos of his life. Who are we to laugh at that? Who are we to demand proof of the things that pull someone through this ridiculous little journey we call life?

Whether you believe in magic or don’t, it’s still a fun read. It felt like sitting and talking with an old friend, someone I can tell spooky stories with beside candlelight or share the eerie, inexplicable things that have happened in my life (that others would call downright nonsense) stuff requiring a person to suspend disbelief, and have them say “No way, me too!” or “Get outta here, really?” Be it reading about a retired opera singer “The Soprano in the Woods” who is a little too close for comfort, or his response to PETA when it comes to Beavers (have you watched them attack), I was fully engaged. In fact, I am glad my husband and I never did find that beaver we were hoping to see in New Hampshire many summers ago- violent little creatures (cute though), who knew?

Take it with a grain of salt, or a circle of salt around your witchy self, your choice. Yes, read it!

Publication Date: October 1, 2019

St. Martin’s Press

 

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Coming of Age in a Hardscrabble World: A Memoir Anthology by Nancy C Atwood (Editor), Roger Atwood (Editor)

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They will tell you that the depth of that meanness often depends on what life has done to a person, on the impressions left by brushes with people different from you, on those rare times when the parallel universes came close enough to touch. -Rick Bragg from All Over but the Shouting 

Growing up in working class America takes the spotlight in this non-fiction collection of excerpts from memoirs written in the 1980’s to 2014. The many voices within encompass more differences than their ethnicity, each life experience despite location is it’s own microcosm. The readers themselves are brushing up against parallel universes here. Some grew up with parents who were immigrants, wanting desperately to gain an education, no matter how limited their options. “I only know she’s clever, she deserves an education, and she’s going to get one. This is America. The girls are not cows in the field only waiting for a bull to mate with.” This from Vivian Gornick’s memoir Fierce Attachments: A Memoir.  For so many immigrants their limited language skills in their new country has them working jobs far beneath their skill and education level, naturally children growing up in such homes have to help their family out, to stay afloat even working as young as nine as Luis J. Rodriguez did. Child labor wasn’t new to the Rodriguez family, his own mother a cotton picker. Maya Angelou herself wandered the streets, living in an empty car in a junkyard for days. There lies a pulsing heart full of determination, at such a tender age. Something about struggle lends wisdom, feeds talent, some gain strength from adversity they face but there wasn’t really a choice, not where living in poverty is concerned. You do what you have to do.

We talk about race and inequality, but reading about it from another’s perspective is a different experience entirely. This excerpt from Joe Queenan’s Closing Time: A Memoir, speaks volumes about how sheltered our world views often are when we are young and surrounded only by what we are taught and experience in our own environment. “Until our paths crossed, I had no idea that people with dark skins were even allowed to be Brides of Christ.” Poverty and abuse too, it is inspiring to read about the mountains others have traversed, that even when it seems fate is against them, they pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and fought their way to what they wanted, a better life. It’s not enough to be smart, conformity is often the beast one had to embrace, danger, racism, and discrimination. Class, coming from nothing you have to learn how to fit into those grand, distinguished places you find yourself in, places others navigate with ease, born to it. It’s not enough to ‘make it’, you have to survive and figure out where you fit and how. It’s rebelling when you need too, conceding when you have to. We like to think we’re above class in the Western World but it’s just as alive here as anywhere else. Maybe you don’t enter places where your social standing is tested, your education, your wealth or maybe such doors are closed to you, but they exist all the same.

Alcoholism and how children grow up in the midst of it, the fighting over money and lack thereof. The things mothers and fathers keep from each other, a game children are not yet well versed in and the disastrous consequences as shared in an excerpt from Mary Karr’s memoir (and a personal favorite of mine) The Liar’s Club. Mothers of divorce who get lonely and try on a man and his family, blended families not quite mixing. Salvation that is almost as bad as loneliness, trying to become a part of a new family like Tobias Wolff. Hanging with kids on the city streets, all rough and tumble. Friendships with boys whose homes become refuges where some mothers play piano and fathers have excellent libraries, an eye into different worlds. Homes where bigotry is just as natural as breathing, where mother’s get beatings and crying “Don’t hurt my teeth”, is her only defense as her son watches on afraid momma will be killed. (Rick Bragg,  All Over but the Shoutin’).

This collection is varied and wonderful, even in the darkest corners there is light. It offers up meaningful moments in some of the most ‘hardscrabble lives’ as told through memoirs that will likely inspire readers to read the full books.

Available Now

University of Georgia Press

 

The Organs of Sense: A Novel by Adam Ehrlich Sachs

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But he could not stop. He felt he had a “compulsion to look,” to look closer and closer, “a looking-closer-and-closer compulsion.” What (he wondered) would it take to stop looking, “to look this closely, and no closer? Through such and such a magnification, and no higher?”

Certainly the strangest book I’ve read this year, and in fact last year. We are told that G. W. Leibniz, who was throughout his life “an assiduous inquirer into miracles and other aberrations of nature” is on a mission. It seems fitting he would want to uncover the truth behind an astronomer’s peculiar prediction. The German philosopher, mathematician, and logician, is on a quest to reveal whether or not a blind astronomer could possibly be able to study the stars so accurately as to have predicted an eclipse at noon and on the last day of 1666, that will leave all of Europe in complete and total darkness. This man’s prediction is made more shocking by the fact that he has empty sockets where his eyes should be, can you get any blinder? Sure, he has been ‘rumored’ to have built the most power telescope of the times but powerful or not, one still needs eyes to peer into telescopes, no?

Leibniz intends to remain at the observatory long enough to test the man’s reason (sanity) and if the eclipse happens he is certainly an astronomer if it doesn’t it means nothing because astronomers can be wrong. So begins the stories the old shriveled man tells Leibniz, and he discusses how one must “truly see”, what could a man with empty eye sockets know about seeing? Well, with his trusty instrument (the telescope) he has seen a lot! A lot, I tell you! And he demands of Leibniz that he “prove that I cannot see what I claim to see”, we have a conundrum tangled in philosophy and history. How did the old man lose his eyes anyway? What is truth? How do you get into someone’s head to determine what they are experiencing, what their truth is? Words, can words reveal what is in another’s head? Mere words?

Can one go through life without the ‘belief in other people?’ The astronomer tells Leibniz that what he means will become clear, I think most readers will try to grasp at the silliness and science but clarity may not be easy! Maybe a lot of readers are more like the astronomer’s father who wasn’t interested in the sky, and cannot be tangled in knots because they just don’t care to ponder. The play on faith as what we devote our existence to is evident in the astronomer’s father’s inventions…a box is just a box is a box, no matter how we decorate it, it will not open the cosmos to us. Be you a surface dweller or a plunger of depths, does it matter where we put our faith? Does madness await us all either way, what is sanitized madness? How does an Emperor, art , or an automaton head lead to the astronomer losing his eyes so that he can truly see?

This was a dizzying book. It takes a ‘discerning mind’  if you’re going to be a thinker and one must lose the eyes that deceive us even if that’s a straight plunge into ‘philosophical torment.’ This is meant to be amusing, I think it’s more scientific/philosopher’s humor and it is easy to get lost. What do we really understand about our the world or each other, whether we’re filled with genius or disinterested in anything beyond the surface? It’s okay if you can’t engage with the witty humor and philosophy within, you can always gaze at the cool book cover with your actual eyes!

Publication Date: May 21, 2019

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

 

Talent: A Novel by Juliet Lapidos

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But the alternative is to let your talent lie fallow and rot.

Anna Brisker is a graduate student at Collegiate University trapped under the heavy weight of her incomplete dissertation that is “very nearly finished”, lacking enthusiasm, feeling uninspired writing about the ” intellectual history of inspiration”. Inspiration, in her mind, isn’t simply floating around like blessed golden confetti thrown by some  benevolent being, landing on the chosen. Great works of art and literature take blood, sweat, tears, and talent, of course. She would know, as her own drive has fled. A far cry from the brilliant future everything in her youth promised, a young girl who was valedictorian at her high school and burned as bright at an elite college. How did she get here, feckless and without either the self-control or the divine touch necessary to continue blazing along on her trail of accomplishments. Most says she’d rather stuff a pop tart in her mouth. Her advisor is exasperated by her lack of progress thinking she has lost her focus, her parents think she is lazy, spending her days wandering aimlessly doing nothing to establish herself , they may be right.

Then she meets Helen Langley, niece of Frederick Langley, who for Anna was the introduction to literary culture during her middle school years. A  wildly talented writer who burned bright on the scene with his own following, wowing people, producing a book every so many years only to suddenly cease publishing. Perplexed that a man who was said to have ‘found writing easy’ could just one day decide to cease all creativity and live his life closed off, makes what Helen has to say something to put her faith in. Anna she is giddy again with the possibility that something big could come out of this. As she becomes closer to Helen, she discovers that the talented author did not stop writing. In fact, there are notebooks he penned at Collegiate’s Elston Library, hidden. This is exactly the spark of hope Anna needs to feed her passion once again. Helen is the way Anna can get to know Freddy, she is her stroke of luck! Who knew that a chance encounter, a small debt at the grocery store could turn her life around?

Though an antiquarian, Helen isn’t as ‘intellectual’ as Anna but she knows full well the worth of her uncles notebooks. With a promise to her uncle long ago she had sworn to be the keeper of his work but there was a tangle, the school has them, but Helen approves who gets to see them. So begins the plan.  Helen is far more bohemian than Anna who lives with means beyond your average struggling student. Everything about Helen is vibrant and full, overly generous maybe messy and a little too free spirited but at least there is no shame in her ‘degeneracy’. Anna intends to help her new friend.  So maybe Helen is a little wayward and her talent is in forgery, she does what she must for her survival so what, she grabs life by the throat and certainly doesn’t judge Anna for caving to her own pleasures. More than ones intellectual weight, social status,  nor the heft of promise in one’s future this is a story about how we chase the “then what” of life. I sort of felt like saying, what the hell does it matter in the end? Any of it. One woman has family money but can’t seem to get her hands on the life she has envisioned for herself, another wants her own inheritance and comfort and both think Freddy is the means to their end. The two meet in the middle and if things take a bit of a criminal turn, so be it. What will it mean for Anna, and will her dissertation ever get finished?

Clever. Juliet Lapidos points out the snobbery of academia and the mistakes people make by putting all their faith in philosophy too. Talent as accidental, or indiscriminate blessing/curse vs talent as choice, work. Maybe it is just all BS, according to Anna anyway.

Publication date: January 22, 2019

Little, Brown and Company

The Book of Help: A Memoir in Remedies by Megan Griswold

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It’s said when doing anything, a nearly alchemical  event happens right around the ten- thousand- hour mark- you become an expert of sorts. So I suppose, in an unintentional way, I will declare myself an expert searcher.

There is no doubt in my mind that Megan Griswold is an expert in searching for remedies of body, mind, soul and heart. This isn’t your usual run of the mill self-help book eater, nor a woman suddenly entering some spiritual awakening. Megan was born to it, with parents who were Christian Scientists who called their practitioners for ‘treatments’, not doctors over their ailments. Her father David was born to the religion, her mother Joyce a ‘newbie’ and believer, attributing curing her ulcerative colitis to Christian Science. Little did they know their daughter would spend her life doing her own searching, spiritual and mental work. Not all things are transcendental, want to be holier than thou, the universe will test you! Test her it does, especially when it comes to her husband. Let’s not jump ahead, but then again she did attend the About Sex seminar at the age of 14, before she had even kissed a boy. Is it so surprising when she falls in love with Tim, her ‘well-meaning, well–mannered puzzle’? Someone she can probe, explore, dissect?

Is Megan stripped physically and emotionally digging through all the muck of her being sometimes? Sure. Does she ingest weird or toxic substances for spiritual practice? Well, do you consider gulping Hoasca risky? It’s tea, okay? Sure, she may purge her insides and as she says ‘imagine what it would be like to completely fall apart’ and there is your glimpse into the tea’s spiritual enlightening.  She may be eager to try any religious/spiritual experience on for size but certainly Megan doesn’t ‘dabble’ in therapies, not like so many other people. She doesn’t half-ass anything!

This memoir isn’t all hilarity, in fact there are some very serious family and relationship issues here within. These are not the usual ‘wow my spouse leaves the toilet dispenser empty’ issues either, these are spiritual dilemmas. Her own father can sometimes downright infuriate the reader with his arrogant spiritual blindness. “If I don’t see it, it’s not real.” Oh, if only life were like that… There is a tenderness towards the end of the novel, everything that happens with her mother’s health. I felt myself getting weepy. Yes, Megan therapist shops, and is game for any spiritual practice, training, self-help geared towards evolvement but truly it’s not just about getting to know herself. Somehow she comes away with a better understanding of those she loves. Maybe her search slows, but let’s face it, there will always be room for improvement.

It gets messy, and admittedly embarrassingly ugly but whether methods are tried and true or a complete fraud, she gives it her all and we get to ride her karmic bus as tourists. Add this to your memoir list, out 2019!

Publication Date: January 22, 2019

Crown Publishing

 

Little Me: My life from A-Z by Matt Lucas

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I was born a berk. I probably even stubbed my toe on the way out.

Many Americans recognize Matt Lucas as Rebel Wilson’s brother in the movie Bridesmaids (wildly funny), I personally loved him in Little Britain and Little Britain USA when I still lived in the UK myself. This book isn’t all laughs, it’s an intimate autobiography about Matt’s struggles through his awkward childhood, memories of his family, revelations about his love life (including his coming out gay) and his rise to fame. People like to think comedians are all laughs, but they’re not. They suffer and struggle just like so many of us, and guess what, fame isn’t the key to eternal happiness and perfection.

Though in A to Z order, don’t expect too much structure, which may bother some people. For me, memories are devious and don’t play by the rules in our own heads, one minute you’re 12 then the next minute a stray thought intrudes and off you go, 25 now. Matt goes back and forth between youth and the present, from his humbling incidents such as with wigs, to his deep sorrows over his father’s imprisonment, and death. There had been love too, and the devastation of watching his beloved self-destruct. This book is both humorous and sad.

He is confident and self-deprecating, insecure and courageous. In fact, some of his less than stellar confessions just make him all the more relatable, human. Who knows why we do the crappy things we do to hide our own shame? Not everyone admits to that side though, do they? While his homosexuality shouldn’t be a ‘theme’ of course he touches on it, what it meant to be gay when he was coming up, the shame of it. I am old enough at 42 to know that when I was growing up being called gay was the ‘worst thing’ you could call someone. Imagine how that felt for people who actually were (are) gay, it’s not like it is today, there weren’t a ton of stars ‘out’, not yet. Sure, there were rumours but most adamantly denied it. Add that to his wild allergies, alopecia and you know his childhood had to come with a lot of insecurities and harassment without facing his burgeoning sexuality and yearnings. With a child that suffered through hellish skin struggles (trust me it’s not just about appearance, it is painful) my heart sinks with his. Autoimmune diseases are horrid!

Many of the stories are a chronicle of his journey on the road to comedy. It is  a reminder that nothing is easy, that behind every star who seems to suddenly get famous overnight, there are years of climbing up the ladder, all behind the scenes. Whether one is lucky enough to have support and mentors or not, it requires perfecting your craft, many failures as much as successes. Matt was acting and living for comedy in his youth, he worked hard for every success he attained. Don’t expect any rotten gossip about other celebrities, he isn’t trying to sell the book that way. This is like sitting with your friend over drinks in a cozy setting and talking about life, confessing your best moments and your worst. On a side note, I really enjoyed learning how some of the characters were created, like Bitty! My husband, kids and I quote Little Britain all the time! You either get it, or you don’t.

USA Publication Date: Out tomorrow  October 12, 2018

Canongate Books US

Single and Looking Daisy: A Funny Laugh Out Loud Feel Good Summer Read (Secret Lives of Sisters Book 1) by Belinda Austin

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The cat swayed slightly on his paws. “I had a pint me dear. I imbibe now and then because you cut off me love buds.” 

Daisy is approaching her 40th birthday, and of course there is nothing her sisters (the Estrogen Squad as Shakespeare the kitty calls them) want more for her than to be married off. Daisy’s adopted cat Shakespeare is another story, when he isn’t imbibing or making money with his business he is helping her land a man. Sober Shakespeare is less easy to manage, telling her how to dress (certainly not ho-ishly), quoting William Shakespear when the situation takes his fancy. It’s time, he tells her, to let her sisters take the reins and help her find a man!

Daisy keeps a list, one not too demanding. Is it asking too much of the universe to send her man who isn’t, say, a peeping tom? It’s not like she is asking for outrageous qualities! Just a solid, sane man! Her sisters all take a shot at it, beginning with the youngest, 21-year-old Doll. Joey… Joey Cuervo is the first. Will he be as deliciously smooth as Tequilla? What about Dove’s man, chosen for her big sister, one Harvey Wallbanger?

Men aside, the fun is all with Shakespeare’s antics. With his ‘catty’ comments and spot on advice “You look like a witch with a wart on your chin!”, it’s a novel spent in feline head space. Trust a talking cat to tell it like it is when no other will! This whip-smart cat even helps her remove her dreaded first gray hair with his sharp little claws, earning any and all kitty treats. Who wouldn’t love this sassy fuzzball, be he a drunkard or not? You gotta be cruel to be kind!

I needed this book right now in my life, it’s been a tough year full of illness and the loss of a beloved aunt, whom might I add was a cat lover.  Books find us, I promise you that. I was a giggling nuisance in bed while reading Austin’s story. Sometimes we just need something fun and wacky to escape from the drudgery of life.  “Hell is empty and all the devils are here.”  I’m sure kitty Shakespeare would growl that in my ear right now. This really is a fun, silly book. Maybe some of the men she’d have been better off just downing their namesake and skipping a date altogether!

Will Daisy find love, will she survive her sisters’ disastrous choices? Will Shakespeare ever get over losing his love buds (no, no he will not)? A fun, light summer read!

Publication Date: August 24, 2018

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