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."