Book review: ‘Half a Life’ by Darin Strauss

Anyone with a vivid imagination and a something-ton vehicle who has ever cruised alongside a wobbly bicyclist has probably mentally played out this scene: Biker veers left into the path of the car, defies gravity by skirting up the hood, face pressed into the windshield, body tossed like a limp towel to the shoulder of the road, the thump of flesh bags dropped into gravel, the glint of a reflector and the crush of metal.

In the case of Darin Strauss, this is exactly what happened toward the end of his senior year of high school. His Oldsmobile-load of friends en route to a mini golf course; the victim was the athletic younger schoolmate, Celine Zilke.

“Half a life ago, I killed a girl,” Strauss writes in his memoir Half a Life, the story of 18 years of living with the proverbial blood on his fender, an accident that was ruled an accident by witnesses and authorities. Still, it happened during those years when a teenager already feels the harsh and judge-y gaze of peers — all the more penetrating because it involves a dead girl.

“How do I keep the accident from being the main thing about me forever,” he wonders.

After graduation, Strauss tries to shed this distinction. He goes away to college and holds the story captive in his own head. He replays Zilke’s mother’s funeral-side curse to live for two as he works his way into adulthood. He thinks of the girl when he reaches for a can of soda and realizes she will never get to reach for another soda. Occasionally, he gets to the point in relationships where he feels that he has to tell a girlfriend — and these moments are met with mixed responses: awkward comforting gazes, phone calls that aren’t returned, a sharing of a personal tragic experience, anger. Finally, 18 years after it happened, married with two children, the writer who is known as a novelist shares his most-consuming story.

Half a Life is honest in a way that had to be hard to write: A moment at the scene of the accident when some pretty girls wander over and ask what happens and he purposefully and self-consciously morphs himself into the portrait of a grieving man. The assertion that maybe young Celine was suicidal, holding fast to a journal entry she had penned the day of her death in which she reveals that she has finally realized that she is going to die. (Someday? Or within a few hours? Hard to decipher the emo intents of a high school girl with a journal). Sometimes he feels Celine with him; Sometimes he feels like he should feel Celine with him. And the numbness.

This story is, obviously, gripping. But Strauss doesn’t let that keep him from applying word-magic in the way he tells it.

“I’ve come to see our central nervous system as a kind of vintage switchboard, all thick foam wires and old-fashioned plugs. The circuitry isn’t properly equipped; after a surplus of emotional information the system overloads, the circuit breaks, the board runs dark. That’s what shock is.”

Review: ‘Sempre Susan’ by Sigrid Nunez

In mid-May Bob Dylan, then nearly to his 70th birthday, wrote something a little snarky on his website:

“Everybody knows by now that there’s a gazillion books on me either out or coming out in the near future. So I’m encouraging anybody who’s ever met me, heard me or even seen me, to get in on the action and scribble their own book. You never know, somebody might have a great book in them.”

I couldn’t stop thinking about this as I read one writer’s memoir, using life with another writer as a trigger. Sigrid Nunez’s short-shorty Sempre Susan is a memoir about essayist, feminist, prickly personality Susan Sontag. Nunez, herself a decently accomplished writer, has as much reason as anyone to write about Sontag: In 1976, when Nunez was in her mid-20s and recently graduated from Columbia’s MFA program, she dated Sontag’s son David Reiff. The three of them ended up living together for about a year, a scenario that had the lit community speculating about some twisted threesomes between the trio Sontag referred to as “the duke and duchess and duckling of Riverside Drive.”

Nunez had signed on to help Sontag catch up with her work after Sontag’s first go-round with cancer. Ultimately, Sontag played matchmaker between Nunez and Reiff, who was very shy.

Nunez paints Sontag as a lover of travel, who was always up for anything — including a Bruce Springsteen concert amid an audience of much younger fans. She didn’t work every day, but when she did it was at a drug-addled feverish pace. In the past, she’d had David assist her by lighting up cigarettes for her as she wrote. She hated to be alone and after a night on the town would wander into the room shared by Nunez and Reiff to deconstruct her evening. She took cabs everywhere and humiliated waitstaff. She was hugely complimentary of people, but also harsh about them. She couldn’t keep a secret. She loved men and women. She hated makeup and did not carry a purse and made fun of Nunez for slipping a handful of tampons into her purse. She made diluted Cream of Mushroom soup from a can the first time she and Nunez worked together.

Nunez writes this story at as a sort of stream of consciousness. As if she just plopped down in front of a computer and started writing and digressing and writing more. It hops from past to further past to recent past and back again. While it is really not at all about Nunez, occasionally something a bit biographical — perhaps about her own parents — will fall into the piece in a way that seems like maybe the material hadn’t been sifted well enough. It is a sort of journalistic take on Sontag that shows plenty of sides to the woman, including this interesting character who was a good ally, and the parts that would make her a terrifying person to spend time with. It’s heavier on the latter, which is consistent with most reports about Sontag. But sometimes it’s hard to find evidence to support that this was a mentor or any sort of inspiration to Nunez — who concedes that while Sontag’s essays are awesome, her fiction is meh.

This review was originally posted on June 22, 2011 on Minnesota Reads.

Review: ‘Your Voice in my Head’ by Emma Forrest

My boyfriend had a writing professor in college who said: “Don’t write about your dead grandma because I don’t want to give you a D on a story about your dead grandma.”

I should maybe alter that to: “Don’t read memoirs with mentally ill protagonists because I don’t want to give someone a D on a story about suicide attempts, cutting and bulimia.” Especially not someone who has already been pummeled with toxic internet sludge by Colin Ferrell fanatics who found her too fat, too ugly to be the actor’s girlfriend in the latter part of the 2000s.

Emma Forrest’s memoir Your Voice in my Head is billed as a love letter to Dr. R, the therapist who, for the most part, kept her off the ledge and helped her cope with life-long demons that were pushing her to end it all. It is also about those demons. But mostly it is about her relationship with a character she calls GH (“Gypsy Husband”), who is, according to the giant decoder ring in the sky, that easy-on-the-eyes, hard-on-the-heart actor Colin Ferrell — with whom she was in a relationship for somewhere between six months and a year. Dr. R dies in a way that is sudden to his patients — he hadn’t told them about the lung cancer — right around the same time that GH tells Emma he needs space and that, oh yeah, the baby they had planned on making, Pearl, is going to be a no-go.

Emma Forrest’s story starts with Ophelia, the painting she regularly visits at the Tate in London. She’s a teenaged girl sitting in front of it weeping. Scanning the background of the painting by Millais for a super secret man in the bushes who will emerge and save the woman in the water. This is an easy metaphor: Our protagonist will spend the rest of the book looking for a dude in the bushes to save her.

She’s young, but already a rock journalist and novelist, when she moves to New York City, which seems to pull her issues to surface level in a way that her mother likens to a fever breaking. There is bulimia and there are instances of cutting that are coaxed along by a boyfriend who shares this predilection and spends time with her in the bathroom and in bed carving into her flesh. She lands in Dr. R’s care, which is immediately followed by a suicide attempt which is followed by a more earnest attempt at healing.

The second half of the book is GH-heavy. This long distance, text heavy relationship that had Mr. H sending her gifts from location, including a worn T-shirt with a poem written on it. They are talking through the building of a life together, despite the negative online critiques she is receiving from the kind of people who post anonymous comments on celeb gossip websites.

The writing is nice. Sometimes even funny. The story is interesting in that way that all stories about being one fistful of pills and a warm bath from a funeral dirge are interesting — but also quite similar to everything that is shelved around it.

The protagonist, however, is a little hard to take. She never misses a moment to point out a chance meeting with an unnamed famous writer, a named famous former White House intern, or the story about the time she told Brad Pitt before interviewing him that her boyfriend was way hotter than him.

During a session with Dr. R, Forrest mentions the band Coldplay.

“OK. Fine. You’re seeing one of them?” He asks.
“Hell NO! Jesus, Dr. R! Why do you assume that?”
“Track record.”

(Barf). I’ve spent a lot of time this past week thinking about what it is about namedropping that is so insufferable and have come up with this: It isn’t, per se. It is when there is a feeling that the namedropper is using the roster of Page Sixers to somehow validate her story. In post-publication interviews Forrest has said things like: It’s not necessarily Colin Ferrell that I’m writing about. I date a lot of movie stars. Sheesh.

Forrest is a good writer, descriptive and thoughtful. Sometimes even funny. At one point she writes about a random man she is diddling:

“The cat rescuer comes back for me, once, twice. We don’t know each other’s number, he just appears. Each time I am caught unawares and wearing something more schlumpy, bizarre and unflattering than the last. Like I have on a poncho and worms are coming out of my eyes and one of my arms is made out of Dudley Moore.”

Dudley Moore. But she shoots herself in the foot by leaning too hard on the tell-all side of the story. The I’m hanging out with a famous writer and we are writing together in this cabin and he’s downstairs and I’m downstairs and he’s famous and I’m singing and he comes upstairs and tells me to stop singing so loudly … moments that she can’t resist finding a way to drop into her story. I’d love to see something written by her — and maybe this exists, but I doubt it — that doesn’t include a lick of her own life.

This review was originally posted on June 19, 2011 on Minnesota Reads.

‘The Chronology of Water’ by Lidia Yuknavitch

Sitting on my couch. Listening to noninvasive, lyric-less music with headphones. Reading Lidia Yuknavitch’s memoir The Chronology of Water. I stop. Check the time. Two hours have passed since I last came up for air. Whoa. She just drugged me. Plopped me in front of a psychedelic screen saver and had her way with my brain when I wasn’t looking.

My friend sent me an email first telling me that she’d had a dream that she told me we don’t like the same books. We don’t in real life, this is true, she acknowledged in the letter. Except Haruki Murakami. Still, she tells me, read this book. But first she tells me that it starts with a dead baby and then segues into incest, heavy drug use and sex.

It does start with a dead baby. It does have heavy drug use. There is, indeed, sex. And there is this unconventional sentence structure, poetic snippets, soul-squeezing scenes that left me dizzy. This is not my style of reading at all. Prosey-prose, heavy with metaphor. The kind of writing that sounds like it should be read aloud to a room full of people who will later deconstruct it like they are putting puzzle pieces back into a box. In the hands of a lesser writer, which is to say almost any other writer, this would be too written-y and self-conscious. But damn Yuknavitch has a way with words. She knows how to write a word like “bloodsong” and not have it sound like a workshop cliche.

Consider the chapter at about dead center where she writes the story of falling in love with the man who becomes her second husband. It is about five pages heavy on activity and light on periods that reads like fast-forwarding through video footage of a relationship from beers and bars and bikes to the part where he meets someone else and Lidia loses a bunch of grief weight and everyone tells her how pretty she looks. It is pitch perfect.

It starts:

“Year one we drink Guinness mostly all the time and we ride Mountain bikes around Eugene at night and we go to the Vet’s Club we go to the Vet’s Club we go to the Vet’s club we go to the High Street Cafe hey I’ll give you my student load wad of $700 if you kiss the guy who joined us for a drink he does we laugh we drink we fuck.”

She is a swimmer, from birth, probably until death. And everything in her life comes back to water. She trades her strong back and wicked stroke for full ride scholarship to get out of Florida and away from her sexually abusive father and her alcoholic, limping mother. She goes wild in Lubbock, Texas. Falls in love with a James Taylor-sort. Marries him even. But they are separated when she leaves for Oregon to live with her sister, bulging with baby, and he follows her and moves into a place across town. The baby is born dead. Her ashes are spilled into water.

So this book is really something. The scenes painted in a fantastic way and the stories are edited to a sexy, sometimes shocking, truth: Lidia, drunk, sitting on a statue of Buddy Holly. Getting into a fight with her boyfriend. Screaming at him as he drunk drives them home, passing out before they get there. She opens the car door and runs off into the night; Lidia and her best friend picked up by a boyish-looking classmate, a woman who whisks them away for a free love weekend at a hotel; Lidia having a manic laughing fit, waist-deep in water, while trying to get rid of the ashes of the daughter that was stillborn.

This book made me want to go swimming. Me. A non-swimmer. A person who hates to get her face wet. She made me want to jump into the deep end, feet first and sit on the floor of a pool, watching people float over me. She’s that good.

I will concede that I can only read sentences referencing how wet underwear/panties/the seat became after this or that happened without tiring of it. She uses it literally, she uses it metaphorically. It loses its energy. And every once in awhile Yuknavitch turns to face her audience and address the reader, which is distracting. Other than that, big ups.

This review was originally published April 25, 2011 on Minnesota Reads.

‘Bossypants’ by Tina Fey

At about the mid-point of Tina Fey’s memoir Bossypants I lost that dewy baby chicken fluff of naivety and had a realization: It must be very easy for a celebrity to write her own story. Before Tina Fey pounded her first space bar on the old typewriter, she knew that she had an audience of teetering primetimers who would be satisfied with a few chuckles, a childhood photo featuring a shag haircut and couple of anecdotes starring Alec Baldwin that were exclusive to this flavor of book glue.

Let me preface this by saying that Bossypants is a riot. I wasn’t going to buy it. I was going to sit in a bookstore and steal the words with my eyeballs. But I cracked up one too many times to put it back on the shelf. This made the man in stained sweatpants who brought his own blanket to the store look at me like I was crazy.

Fey’s memoir is a bit of a variety show, a mix of personal anecdotes, lists, re-imagined Q&As between a gaggle of besties dishing on menarche and a satirical prayer written for her daughter with tips about not laying with drummers or being damaged in a way that attracts creepy older males — a prayer that by now at least one of your Facebook friends has brought to the newsfeed nearest to you.

She talks about growing up, working at a theater camp, working at the YMCA. She talks Second City and SNL and chats up “30 Rock.” She lists skills to master for the next time you’re in a magazine photo shoot. She has bits from skits she has written, or her colleagues have written. She lists how to celebrate “Me Time” in a life that includes a child.

The biggest thing she reveals in the writing of this is that she is probably the funniest person in the world.

From some helpful instructions about a photo shoot, she suggests the correct response to when a photographer asks what music you want to have playing.

“Remember that whatever you choose will be blasted through the loft and heard by an entire crew of people who are all so cool that the Board of Ed. officially closed.

Just murmur “Hip-hop,” or make up the name of a hipster-sounding band and then act superior when they’ve never heard of it. “Do you guys have any Asphalt of Pinking? [disappointed] Really? [shrug] Whatever you want then.”

Sometimes they ask if you want to hook up your iPod for background msuic. Do not do this. It’s a trap. They’ll put it on shuffle, and no matter how much Beastie Boys or Velvet Underground you have on there, the following four tracks will play in a row:  ‘We’d Like to Thank You Herbert Hoover’ (from ‘Annie’), ‘Hold on’ by Wilson Phillips, ‘That’s What Friends are For’ (various artists_, and ‘We’d Like to Thank you Herbert Hoover’ from ‘Annie.’”

And from when she talks about her struggle putting in contacts to audition for “Weekend Update”:

“If you’ve never had to do it, I’d say it’s not quite as quease-making as when you lose your tampon string, but equally queasish to a self-breast exam. If you are male, I would liken it to touching your own eyeball, and thank you for buying this book.”

Obviously I wasn’t expecting the Dalai Lama or Haruki Murakami with this book. What I expected is exactly what I got. But it kind of feels like someone just told Tina Fey to find a way to fill 250 pages, make it funny, and then had a good chuckle about how people just want to read something by her, a little something-something. So she stitched together some stories, some satire, some alternative formats for storytelling and added some of her kickiest punchlines.

That is to say it is a little hollow with hilarious frosting.

This review was originally posted on Minnesota Reads on May 1, 2011.

‘A Widow’s Story’ by Joyce Carol Oates

I think I handled the grieving process better when John Dunne died than when Raymond Smith did.

Something about Joyce Carol Oates’ memoir A Widow’s Story, chronicling the aftermath of her forever husband’s sudden death, had me weeping before appointments, at Subway, and especially in bed. I don’t remember Joan Didion’s version, which proceeded this one by about five years and included a sick daughter, making me feel like someone broke my heart in half and dropped the pieces into a garbage disposal.

The world’s most prolific writer*, a woman who seemingly emits better-than-decent novels like they are mere finger belches, spent almost a year in silence unable to make enough words or the right words to cure the ache of losing her life partner. But when she finally does get down to the business of recording this place in time, she does it with sentences that are fits and bursts. Little poetic blurts, sentences riddled with long dashes that seem perfectly in line with the brain broken in sorrow.

Oates opens her memoir with a time both she and her husband should have died. A year earlier they had been in an accident that triggered the car’s airbags and left them bruised — but giddy with how alive they still were. Then when it wasn’t expected months and months and months later, Ray developed pneumonia, was hospitalized, and got a fatal infection in the hospital. Oates received the terrible phone call — he was still alive, though — rushed to the hospital, but got there too late. She imagines the way he died surrounded by strangers late at night. The paragraphs where she collects his things, his glasses, his papers is one massive soul suck.

From there things get a little repetitious. The minutia and the legalities involved with having a dead spouse, the inability to sleep paired with the unwillingness to take sleeping pills, the avoidance of certain rooms in the house they shared. Ghost images. The fear of learning something about her husband that will change the way he is remembered.

Friends invite her to dinner. She exchanges emails with Richard Ford and Edmund White. She considers her cache of drugs and imagines how easy it would be to kill herself and then later, how much she doesn’t want to do that.

There are some really magical scenes where she brings Raymond back to life by virtue of talking about their past. They met in a lecture hall. They spent a wretched year in Texas, which was worse than the years in Detroit. Raymond loved his garden. And the weirdest fact from the book: Raymond didn’t read her fiction.

JCO marries again less than a year after Raymond’s death. The romance isn’t featured in these pages, but husband No. 2 gets the briefest of brief mentions in the final page of the book. After 400 plus pages, it doesn’t do much to bandage the ache of the previous pages, but it is a little bit of cheer.

*This has not been proven by science.

‘The Chronology of Water’ by Lidia Yuknavitch

Sitting on my couch. Listening to noninvasive, lyric-less music with headphones. Reading Lidia Yuknavitch’s memoir The Chronology of Water. I stop. Check the time. Two hours have passed since I last came up for air. Whoa. She just drugged me. Plopped me in front of a psychedelic screen saver and had her way with my brain when I wasn’t looking.

My friend sent me an email first telling me that she’d had a dream that she told me we don’t like the same books. We don’t in real life, this is true, she acknowledged in the letter. Except Haruki Murakami. Still, she tells me, read this book. But first she tells me that it starts with a dead baby and then segues into incest, heavy drug use and sex.

It does start with a dead baby. It does have heavy drug use. There is, indeed, sex. And there is this unconventional sentence structure, poetic snippets, soul-squeezing scenes that left me dizzy. This is not my style of reading at all. Prosey-prose, heavy with metaphor. The kind of writing that sounds like it should be read aloud to a room full of people who will later deconstruct it like they are putting puzzle pieces back into a box. In the hands of a lesser writer, which is to say almost any other writer, this would be too written-y and self-conscious. But damn Yuknavitch has a way with words. She knows how to write a word like “bloodsong” and not have it sound like a workshop cliche.

Consider the chapter at about dead center where she writes the story of falling in love with the man who becomes her second husband. It is about five pages heavy on activity and light on periods that reads like fast-forwarding through video footage of a relationship from beers and bars and bikes to the part where he meets someone else and Lidia loses a bunch of grief weight and everyone tells her how pretty she looks. It is pitch perfect.

It starts:

“Year one we drink Guinness mostly all the time and we ride Mountain bikes around Eugene at night and we go to the Vet’s Club we go to the Vet’s Club we go to the Vet’s club we go to the High Street Cafe hey I’ll give you my student load wad of $700 if you kiss the guy who joined us for a drink he does we laugh we drink we fuck.”

She is a swimmer, from birth, probably until death. And everything in her life comes back to water. She trades her strong back and wicked stroke for full ride scholarship to get out of Florida and away from her sexually abusive father and her alcoholic, limping mother. She goes wild in Lubbock, Texas. Falls in love with a James Taylor-sort. Marries him even. But they are separated when she leaves for Oregon to live with her sister, bulging with baby, and he follows her and moves into a place across town. The baby is born dead. Her ashes are spilled into water.

So this book is really something. The scenes painted in a fantastic way and the stories are edited to a sexy, sometimes shocking, truth: Lidia, drunk, sitting on a statue of Buddy Holly. Getting into a fight with her boyfriend. Screaming at him as he drunk drives them home, passing out before they get there. She opens the car door and runs off into the night; Lidia and her best friend picked up by a boyish-looking classmate, a woman who whisks them away for a free love weekend at a hotel; Lidia having a manic laughing fit, waist-deep in water, while trying to get rid of the ashes of the daughter that was stillborn.

This book made me want to go swimming. Me. A non-swimmer. A person who hates to get her face wet. She made me want to jump into the deep end, feet first and sit on the floor of a pool, watching people float over me. She’s that good.

I will concede that I can only read sentences referencing how wet underwear/panties/the seat became after this or that happened without tiring of it. She uses it literally, she uses it metaphorically. It loses its energy. And every once in awhile Yuknavitch turns to face her audience and address the reader, which is distracting. Other than that, big ups.