Saturday, July 9, 2011

Magical Thinking by Augusten Burroughs

Augusten Burroughs' fourth book, a collection of stories based on the author's life, grabbed my attention because of Burroughs' hugely popular bestseller, Running with Scissors. Magical Thinking catches up with the author, now in his early thirties and dealing with the consequences of his dysfunctional childhood.

Many years after his parents' divorce and having recovered from alcoholism, Burroughs now lives in Manhattan and has a successful career in advertising. His life may seem good on the surface, but Burroughs is unhappy as he goes through a chain of casual relationships and aspires to be a writer.

He is not afraid to open up about pretty much everything, from his dating, to hooking up with priests, to graduating from the Barbizon School of Modeling at the age of fourteen. The stories' beginning, from the first sentence, brief and to the point, yet bursting with information, takes immediate hold of the reader. After the first sentence it is already to late to stop reading. These are some of my favorites: "The year I snuck an interracial lesbian couple into the background of an American Airlines commercial, I was feeling particularly flush." "The most distracting thing about getting a blow job at a funeral home wasn't the fact that there were three fresh bodies downstairs in the cooler or one dead body twenty feet away from me in a casket across the room." "When I was ten years old, I realized I'd been kidnapped as a toddler."

Although Burroughs' writing may seem superficial at first, he uses superficiality to direct his writing to a more profound level. He may start off talking about trying to get his boyfriend to use a new moisturizer and then lead into a discussion on the dynamics of a long-term relationship. Through mundane, everyday situations, Burroughs opens up on his beliefs, traits, and insecurities.

Monday, June 13, 2011

"An Exclusive Love" by Johanna Adorjan

This is a story of Vera and Istvan, a glamorous, chain-smoking couple, who after fifty years of marriage, surviving the Holocaust, the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, and immigration to Denmark from their native Hungary, decide to end their lives together when Istvan becomes terminally ill.

As Johanna Adorjan tells the story of her grandparents, she also attempts to make sense of their suicide. She travels to their native Budapest where they met and were married, and to Austria, where her grandfather was interned at a concentration camp during World War II. She visits her grandmother's relative in Paris to talk about her life before and during the war, and flies to New York City to retrace a journey her great-grandparents once undertook. Johanna completes her journey in Copenhagen, where, on a crisp and clear autumn day her grandparents committed a carefully planned suicide in a house where they spent the most peaceful years of their lives.

Parallel to her travels, Johanna imagines her grandparents' last day, from their awakening, dropping off their beloved dog with a neighbor, to eating their last meal and taking a lethal dose of medication before going to bed at night. By reconstructing their last day, she attempts to understand and rationalize her grandparents' behavior: her grandmother's fear of being alone and her grandfather's helplessness before his impending death.

Her memoir is not limited to just one family's story, it opens up discussion of a much greater scope: suicide among Holocaust survivors, for taking back the power to decide whether to live or die, and European Jewish identity and assimilation before and after the war. Johanna Adorjan writes with remarkable clarity about a personal and tragic family history, without allowing sentimentality to get in her way.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

"Memoirs of a Geisha" by Arthur Golden

Arthur Golden's fictional account of a geisha's life in 1930s-1940s Kyoto mesmerizes readers not only with a skillfully told story but also with the amazing ability with which Golden, a white, American male born in the second half of the twentieth century, enters the mindset of a Japanese girl and tells her story in a first-person narrative. When telling Nitta Sauyri's story, Golden uses exquisite language to describe the beauty of kimonos, lets us in on the intricacies of a geisha's beauty regiment, and discloses the secrets of entertaining rich and powerful men.

Sauyri's remarkable story, told in a flashback manner, begins in a poor fishing village, where Sauyri catches the attention of a local businessman, who takes her away from her ailing parents, and sells her into an okiya in Kyoto at the tender age of nine. In Gion, Kyoto's prominent geisha district, Sauyri must first endure the hard work of a maid and bear the harsh treatment of Hatsumomo, the geisha of her okiya, before she is allowed to begin her training to become a geisha. Sauyri's striking gray eyes set her apart from the other geisha in Gion and after overcoming many of Hatsumomo's obstacles and arduous schooling in the arts of music and dance, she eventually becomes one of the most popular in Gion, called to entertain Japan's powerful politicians and businessmen.

Memoirs of a Geisha is at once a bittersweet love story, historical fiction, and a lesson in Japanese culture. With the Great Depression and World War II as its backdrop, Memoirs shed light on life in Japan during those difficult times from the perspective of a geisha, safe and well-provided for by men belonging to the elite. Despite her material comfort and glamorous life of bohemian parties, Sauyri is unhappy, as everything is decided for her by the women who run her okiya and the men she must entertain. The women who run Sauyri's okiya, former geisha themselves, exploit her charm and beauty for financial gain, starting with her virginity, which is sold to the highest bidder. She must never decline the offer of a wealthy man who wants Sauyri as his mistress, regardless of his age, looks, or marital status. As she is forced into loveless liaisons, Sauyri's okiya grows wealthy from the men who pay for her company. Despite accomplishing the status of a beautiful and popular geisha, Sauyri struggles to take charge of her destiny and unite with the man she loves.

Although it follows the classic Dickensian formula of a poor orphan overcoming all odds, Memoirs takes a departure from the ordinary in allowing us to vicariously experience the life of a geisha. Well-written and absorbing, Memoirs is a fascinating read.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

"Bury Me Behind the Baseboard" by Pavel Sanaev

The book's narrator is an eight year old boy who lives with his grandparents. Although the book draws a reader in with its humor, as the story progresses, a complicated and sad family history unravels through the eyes of this child. We learn the boy was not abandoned by his mother, as he is repeatedly told on a daily basis, but was actually taken away from her by the forceful grandmother. All of his mother's attempts to reunite with her son are thwarted by the grandmother.

The boy's life is micromanaged by the grandmother, who in her seemingly good intentions, oversteps the boundary into child abuse. Because of her blinding love for the boy, she takes him to see a multitude of doctors, causing him to miss weeks of school. Growing up with no friends and with numerous diseases fabricated by pediatric specialists, his life is filled with gloom and boredom. He never gets to celebrate his birthday, eat ice cream for fear of catching a cold, or go on an amusement park ride for fear of getting hurt. He eats bland food and does not have fun toys.

His boredom is only interrupted by the grandmother's frequent fits of anger that fill him with terror. Her anger can be triggered by any of her grandson's innocent mistakes - a homework error, a shirt stain, or refusal to take his medicine. The grandmother's fits of anger are accompanied by high-pitched monologues that eat away at his self-esteem and leave him feeling worthless.

Despite her pure evil parenting, the grandmother does not create the impression of a villain. Her rants disclose those events of her life that damaged her psychological well-being and turned her into a tyrant toward her family members, especially her daughter, whom she considers to be an unfit mother, and her grandson.

This book is Pavel Sanaev's autobiographical account of his childhood. Although his mother finally succeeded in taking him back, the years of terror he spent at his grandparents' followed him into adulthood. Writing his story in his late 'teens and early twenties became his way of therapy. It was first published in 1996 in a magazine, then re-printed in a book format in 2003, and later made into a movie in 2009.

This story is interesting from many perspectives - psychological, as it raises questions of overprotective parenting and its damaging effects; historical - because of Sanaev's portrait of growing up in 1970s Moscow's Soviet reality; and even cultural, as Sanaev comes from a family of well-known film actors, which contributed to the book's popularity.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

"Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary" by David Sedaris

In his new collection of stories, David Sedaris takes a departure from his usual genre of hilarious essays about his life and lives of people around him and tackles a new theme: animals. These range from cute woodland creatures, such as squirrels and chipmunks, to farm animals, to birds, and even venture into the territory of unicorns. The brevity and events of these stories, in which animals take on anthropomorphic characteristics, often resemble fables, but according to Sedaris, the fact that these stories lack a moral lesson at the end, are anything but fables.

In the stories, animals from different species talk to one another, experience human-like emotions and exhibit human-like behavior. They are often violent and ignorant, traits that lead them into quite graphic, gory situations saturated with black humor. Sedaris's bloody tales of mice devoured by snakes and slaughtered cows remain interesting even to the most squeamish reader, by touching upon issues and attitudes prevalent in our society today.

For instance, in "The Vigilant Rabbit," we read about a rabbit appointed by residents of a forest to keep out outsiders, after finding several animals brutally murdered. The beaver builds a gate and the rabbit stands guard, intent on keeping out anyone who is not a resident of the forest - at all costs. As dead bodies of various outsiders pile up on top of the gates, serving as a warning sign, the list of rules keeps growing on the "No Trespassing" sign. This story draws a clever analogy to terrorism and reactionary politics that instead of increasing security, plant fear into our minds and actions.

Not all stories carry a political undertone. In "The Grieving Owl," a male owl is working through the emotional turmoil that comes with the death of his spouse. The owl combines his natural instinct to hunt with the folk tale theme of a "wise owl" to hunt with the purpose of extracting bits of knowledge from his victims. What ensues is an amusing, bittersweet account of an owl learning random bits of information from mice and chipmunks. The owl's family's inconsequential attempts to set him up on dates and their inability to understand his thirst for knowledge add another human quality to this story.

No matter what the story, however, Sedaris manages to write in a way in which readers relate to these human-like animals. Whether reading about the squirrel and the chipmunk torn apart by the prejudice of the chipmunk's family, or about animals standing in line, complaining about red tape and bureaucracy, every now and then readers are prone to exclaim: "I know exactly what that feels like."

Saturday, December 25, 2010

And The Heart Says Whatever by Emily Gould


The collection of personal essays And The Heart Says Whatever by Emily Gould couldn't be more similar to How Did You Get This Number. Both are non-fictional stories about girls in their twenties who move to New York City from suburban American upper-middle class households to become writers and work in publishing. The writers themselves, however, couldn't be more different. While reading Sloane Crosley feels like talking to a socially-adept, amiable acquaintance at a cocktail party, we never really get through her polished, put-together image to her real self. Her carefully crafted stories with their witty language and intricate sentences are funny and quirky, but always appropriate enough to tell to an older family member, or a co-worker. Sloane's squeaky-clean persona is wrapped in enough mystique and glamor, that we want to be like her, well-traveled, successful, but still likeable. While we look up to her, we can't help but wonder about what her real personal life is like, because she never quite lets the reader behind her closed bedroom door. Perhaps Sloane's stories are good enough without the need to give up her privacy, but in the age of reality shows, our voyeuristic inclination takes the best of us and we request the airing of dirty laundry of everyone who comes our way. Sloane's best story in my opinion, and in the opinion of most critics, “Off the back of the Truck,” stands out because of its authenticity compared with the rest of her stories. We not only get a glimpse into her love life for the first time, but also because she shows us a new side of her, one that is vulnerable and not so well put-together.

The author of And The Heart Says Whatever, Emily Gould, is a stark comparison to Sloane Crosley. If reading Sloane's stories feels like talking to her at a cocktail party, reading Emily's work feels like talking to your roommate while sharing a cigarette on a Brooklyn fire escape. She'll tell you about that time she de-virginized a high school freshman at the end of her senior year, or when she play-wrestled with a butch lesbian and then came into work with a huge bruise on her arm, taken for a mark left by an abusive boyfriend. She is anything but polished and well put-together in her interactions with others, showing up for a job interview at a publishing house in a skirt that is not only too short but also covered in cat hair, and when asked to talk about the last movie that she saw by a potential employer, she compares the film to porn.

Unlike Sloane Crosley, Emily is not afraid to face and discuss those events in her life that show her in an unfavorable light. She admits to making questionable choices, opening herself up be judged. She confesses to cheating on her boyfriend of six years and then embarking on a series of meaningless, sex-based relationships, that instead of filling a void, end up creating one. She is also not afraid to seem vulnerable, when describing her panic attacks, which she started having on a regular basis when moving to New York. She wonders whether they were caused by her habitual pot smoking, which would numb her feelings and render her especially sensitive to the effects of the real world when she was not high.
Emily Gould's most unethical decision, which she fully acknowledges herself, is exactly what makes her book so interesting: her oversharing of private information with perfect strangers. She started her writing career by blogging, revealing things about her personal life, which her boyfriend wanted to keep private, to several hundreds of people. After quitting her publishing job, she went on to write for, where she wrote a gossip column about New York's media industry. In addition to writing about her private life, she now began to disclose the juicy secrets of the rich and famous. The amorality of Emily's writing began to grate away at her relationship with her boyfriend and eventually contributed to its demise.

I think anyone who ever had to end a long-term relationship, go through the indignities of an entry-level job, or tried to make it in the big city, will appreciate the unpretentiousness, humor, and sadness that permeate these stories.
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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Exploring New Territory: Sloane Crosley's How Did You Get This Number

A monument to Columbus, depicting his departure for the New World from Portugal, described in "Show Me on the Doll"

Sloane Crosley's collection of essays invites the readers into her life with authenticity and slightly self-deprecating humor. Her unique, personal experiences reveal universal truths about friends, relationships, and family that we can all relate to. We follow Sloane as she travels to Paris, Lisbon, and Alaska, deals with roommate and apartment woes in Manhattan, and recalls her childhood in the 'burbs.

This is Crosley's second collection of personal essays, following her debut I Was Told There'd Be Cake. In How Did You Get This Number, we meet a slightly older, more worldly Sloane, who is now grappling with the inevitability of turning thirty. To avoid accusations of never having lived in the moment in her twenties, Sloane sets out to prove to herself that her childhood dreams are not dead in “Show Me on the Doll.” Because she wanted to do so as a child, she spins a globe in her apartment, lets her finger arbitrarily point, and travels to Portugal as a result. Because now she is an adult and can do something this ambitiously adventurous and irresponsible. Her trip to Portugal in the wintertime and by herself turns out to be very lonely at first. As she wanders the streets of Lisbon, the readers get a real feel for this cold, ancient city with its tiny unidentified streets and steep slopes. Sloane unenthusiastically tours the Europe's edge and she also discovers the edges of her comfort zone. However, the trip takes a turns for the better when she meets amateur circus clowns.

In “Off the Back of a Truck,” Sloane falls in love and gets her heart broken. As she decorates her first studio apartment with luxurious rugs and doorknobs supplied by her “upholstery guy” at a great discount in shady transactions, another kind of deception takes place in her personal life. Sloane's intense heartbreak is described so well in some sentences, that we visualize several scenes as in a film: her pain is so great that she can't get herself into bed and falls asleep on one of her newly acquired fancy rugs. Humor and sadness interweave, a trait so characteristic for all of her essays.
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