Tweak

img_4045Book: Tweak by Nic Sheff

Date Read: April 17 to 29, 2020

Rating: 3 (of 5) stars

At its heart, this is a memoir about drug addiction and recovery. There is a ton of good information and perspective here on the subject, including Sheff’s own struggle with the concept of addiction as a disease. The memoir is divided into two parts, the first beginning with a month long drug binge in San Francisco following a previous 18 month stretch of sobriety. After exhausting all options and approaching his “rock bottom” there, Sheff returns home to Los Angeles and begins working toward recovery in Part Two. Sheff shares the roller coaster of this journey through periods of sobriety and relapse, including the influence of relationships with those around him. He seems fairly introspective throughout, and is open with readers about the roots of his issues.

With that solid core to the memoir, I really wish I could have given this more stars, but there were too many places where this fell short for me. Right from the start, the writing felt disjointed, making it hard to read. Most of the first section felt like it was struggling to put out a coherent thought, with long interludes and tangents. While this may partially fit with the first section focused on his drug-addled spiral, and some of this was useful information, it was not presented well. For example, it is certainly relevant to discuss the frequent fighting between his mother and stepfather, and his recognition of the impact of childhood on his adult life; however, is it necessary to point this out every time he witnesses two people arguing or fighting?

Maybe the hardest part of this for me was that Nic is very unlikeable as a character. It is not easy to continue caring about the story of someone that is so difficult to like. He is arrogant, self-serving, and obsessed with the idea of celebrity. Some of these are pointed out to him, and while he does begin to recognize his faults, much of it continues to show in his writing throughout the book. For example, at one point a therapist points out to him that he frequently name-drops the famous people he knows, seemingly as a way to enhance his own importance. He acknowledges this as a negative quality, and talks about making efforts to stop… but then he indirectly does exactly that in his book published years later! Of course for the purpose of the memoir, names were changed in interest of maintaining anonymity of others. However, he often provides enough detail about individuals that it would not be difficult to figure out.

Boris’s Thoughts: “It’s hard for me to follow your thoughts here, since I find almost everyone unlikeable. 2 paws.”

A Wolf at the Table

img_5193Book: A Wolf at the Table by Augusten Burroughs

Date Read: July 1 to 12, 2020

Rating: 4 (of 5) stars

A Wolf at the Table was the pick for July’s Unread Shelf Project prompt: a book voted on by Bookstagram. I wanted to choose two books that had some sort of similarity, and found an interesting pair: two memoirs written by brothers. Unfortunately for John Elder Robison, his younger brother won this one, receiving 100% of the 4 votes cast. I admit that I was hoping for a slightly better voter turnout, but I suppose I will take what I can get!

This is not my first read from Augusten Burroughs, although I believe it is the first time that I have written about him here. This book has been suggested to be a sort of prequel to his more popular Running with Scissors, which primarily focuses on his teenage years, when he was living with his mother’s psychiatrist. The bulk of A Wolf at the Table is about the time before his parents’ divorce, focusing specifically on his relationship with his father while growing up in a tumultuous household.

I think the first thing that needs to be said is that this book was not what I was expecting it to be. While both A Wolf at the Table and Running with Scissors deal with some heavy subject matter at times, this book was much darker and more serious than his debut work. While there is definitely some use of humor in places, we do not get the same level of wit or whimsical absurdity that I have come to expect from Burroughs. This may sound like a criticism, but I do not intend it to be. These are very different stories, and it makes sense that they need to be told differently. I was, however, taken a bit off guard.

Through the book, we get an in depth view of the relationship between Augusten and his father—or at least the view of this relationship from the perspective of the child. For the most part, I felt that the feelings portrayed were written realistically from the child’s perspective, which I think is impressive. We all have childhood memories and feelings associated with them, but it’s difficult to explain these as an adult in the same way that we felt them when we were children. There is so much conflict expressed here: the want of affection coupled with very real fear of a man that seems to be an enigma. Throughout, Burroughs references feelings of anger toward his father, along with his worry that these feelings are manifesting to turn him into his father. The final chapters of the book jump forward into adulthood, partially addressing the impact of his early relationship with his father on later experiences.

In the back of the edition that I have, there is a list of discussion questions. Usually I glance through things like this and move on, but one question here stood out to me. Could the “wolf” of the book’s title be read as a metaphor that extends beyond the father? Can memories become more real and terrifying than the incidents or people that inspire them? Coming from the perspective of a psychologist… Yes. Absolutely. Our memories are certainly a reflection of our experiences, but how we recall those experiences is a major part of what creates our reality. I think this dovetails nicely with one thing that always comes up in discussions of memoirs: accuracy.

This is a memoir written in the form of a novel; there are many conversations included, many of them occurring when the author was quite young. There are many places where he presumes the emotion in others. How much truth is there really in the details? To that, I would pose a counter question: How much does that matter? Regardless of the individual details, there are certain overarching patterns in behavior, clearly marking our subject as a victim of some type of abuse. If this is an accurate reflection of his memory, is the accuracy of each individual word important?

Boris’s Thoughts: “I do not like that man’s relationship with animals. Can I give no paws?”

Unread Shelf Progress for July

  • Books Read: 2
  • Books Acquired: 1
  • Total Unread Books: 260

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings

img_3594Book: I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

Date Read: March 1 to March 18, 2020

Rating: 4 (of 5) stars

For March, the Unread Shelf Project challenged everyone to read the book that has been on your shelf the longest. Technically, I did the same last month, when I chose a book that was gifted to me, but also at the “bottom of my pile.” I suppose now is a perfect time to give that a little more context. I joined Goodreads some time in 2010, but only listed books that I had recently read. On January 1, 2o11, I decided to add my list of books to read, which was already quite hefty at that point in time. I added them all to my online to read list within the next couple days, in approximate alphabetical order. This is the bottom of my stack. I no longer have any idea what order I actually obtained these in, so I do not prioritize further. I try to make a point to choose at least a few books specifically from that group every year. There are currently 45 books still remaining from those that I initially added.

When I browsed through the list, I decided on Maya Angelou for a few different reasons. It seemed appropriate for the time of year, as we are transitioning from Black History Month to Women’s’ History Month. Maya Angelou is an author that I know immediately by name, but one that I had never read up to this point. I also have a peculiar and nostalgic back-story to go along with my particular copy: I quite literally found it in an abandoned building. For several years, my primary friend group consisted of a few photographers and other interesting characters that spent a good amount of our free time in urban exploration. We all lived near Detroit, and visited many sites around the city that were no longer in use: churches, schools, apartments, hotels, hospitals, and of course, the well known Michigan Central Station. While we had a fairly strict policy of making as little impact as possible, we did collect a few treasures along the way (no breaking in, no vandalism, and nothing else that could be considered destructive of the spaces). However, the number of unused and forgotten books found inside the old Cass Tech High School hurt my soul, and I had to give at least a few of them a new home. My soul still aches to think of all that remained inside that school when it was torn down in July 2011.

I know this seems a long introduction with little connection to the book that I am supposed to be writing about. However, something about my memories of that time fit too perfectly with my feelings reading this book, and I could not let the opportunity to share my story pass by. While the overall story of Maya Angelou’s early life is intriguing, this book is about her the journey. Born in California, Maya and her brother were sent to live with their grandmother in rural Arkansas. They were raised there, then brought to St. Louis to live with their mother, returned to Arkansas, and eventually returned again to their mother’s care in California. While the places are not essential, the experiences in each of these locations shaped her character and spirit. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a memoir told in snippets; each chapter captures a memory or a moment in time. While any one of these moments might not seem significant in the grand scheme, each is an important piece of the puzzle that has shaped the life of this woman. The story is told beautifully from the perspective of a child, but tempered with honesty and perspective gained from reflecting as an adult. Angelou’s language is vivid, but not graphic, as she tackles her experiences of discrimination, violence, rape, and others.

Boris’s Thoughts: “So… where is this bird? I’m confused. 2 paws.”

Unread Shelf Progress for March

  • Books Read: 5 (plus 1 started)
  • Books Acquired: 3
  • Total Unread Books: 260

Shout

img_1034Date Read: July 18 to 22, 2019

Rating: 5 (of 5) stars

I went to a small high school. There were two English teachers in the school my freshman year, and by the time I graduated that had only increased to three. We had no library, just the small collection of books each teacher had in their classroom. By my junior year, I had read them all. One of the teachers started bringing in books from home for me to read, and that was when I discovered Laurie Halse Anderson. I was so taken with her story and her writing that I bought up her other novels as soon as I saw them, without even taking the time to read the description on the back cover. It was this practice that led me to scoop up her latest book without realizing what it was—which I am considering serendipitous, as I would have likely passed on this incredible work because I thought it was “not my style.”

Shout is a novel-length memoir, told through a series of poems. Although each poem as its own subject, and there is variety in style, they combine to form a loose narrative. I was impressed with how Anderson was able to convey her troubled childhood without judgment. She acknowledges the hardships of her family life, but does not condemn her family nor ask for sympathy. The poems are divided into three sections, labeled simply: One, Two, and Three. One, which covers more than half of the book, deals with her early life into her early writing career, ending with Speak, her first successful novel (and the book that I had originally discovered back in high school). Two gets more involved in life as an author, and as a speaker. Dealing with the unexpected success, but also the controversy surrounding sexual assault and speaking about it in schools. Three was a bit less organized, but had some reflections and other pieces that did not quite fit into the rest narrative.

Overall, I was really impressed with this book. I usually am not a fan of poetry, but something about these poems really drew me in. The story was captivating and I found myself enjoying it much more than I had expected when I started.

Boris’s thoughts: “I think poetry just goes over my head. It was hard enough to learn to read human, how am I supposed to understand this? 2 paws.”

Educated

img_9128Book: Educated by Tara Westover

Date Read: February 2 to 15, 2019

Rating: 5 (of 5) stars

Educated was my book for February’s prompt from The Unread Shelf Project: a book that was gifted to me. I received this for Christmas from a friend who also works in education. While I had seen the book many times before then, I really did not know much about it. It was described to me as a book by a woman who did not have any formal education until she was 17.

That description hits on the general premise, but there is much more here than I had expected. Although it centers on the theme of education, the scope of this book goes well beyond that. I think what stands out the most here is actually the overcoming of a traumatic and abusive past. It’s interesting to see Tara’s own view of her past, her struggling in how to view her own place in the world– is she part of her family, or is she part of the rest of the world? One of the things that seemed most striking to me, was actually fairly subtle. As Tara reflects back on many of the obviously traumatic ordeals from her childhood, she does not often overtly refer to her experiences as abuse.

Tara does much reflection on the fact of her pursuit of education creating the rift between her and her past. She makes many efforts to minimize the growing distance between her and the remainder of her family. Along the way, she catches herself hanging on to pieces that she really no longer believes– such as when she realizes that even though she is accepting of modern medicine, she has not gone to get her vaccinations. However, I found it interesting that throughout her education, she still hangs on to the original tenants of her Mormonism. While she relaxes some of the extremes in her personal practices, she retains the basis of her religion, and even extends this into her educational pursuits.

Boris’s thoughts: “Long stretches of reading means long stretches of naps for me, so 3 paws here!”