Monthly Archives: September 2013

#27: Fairyland: A Memoir of My Father by Alysia Abbott

FairylandThe title of this caught my eye because I thought it was about fairy tale faeries.  Then I learned it was about THE GAYS!!! and read the blurb and decided it sounded interesting.  I didn’t know anything about Alysia Abbott or her father Steve and was interested to learn more about growing up in the heart of the gay scene in San Francisco in the 70s and 80s.  I like memoirs because it’s interesting to see what you have in common with a person and how you relate to them even if their story is completely different than yours.

Alysia Abbott’s story is extra completely different than mine, but of course  I still found lots to relate with.  After her father died, she read through his massive  collection of journals and created a beautiful work.  This is her story, but she has her father’s words to fill in parts she doesn’t remember, as well as being able to get his side of the story for what she does remember.  It feels like the two of them are writing the book together, and it’s beautiful.

Alysia’s parents (Steve and Barbara) met in 1968 at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.  Steve told Barbara he was bisexual and she thought it was great.  The two of them moved in together and later decided to get married so they could furnish the apartment with wedding gifts and get cash from her parents.  They continued their open relationship and Steve found that he was empowered by having a wife.  He could be openly gay and people were sort of OK with it because clearly he liked women enough to marry and have sex with one.  And Barbara wasn’t bothered by the boyfriends, even if friends thought she was crazy.

Barbara gets pregnant with Alysia and wants the baby while Steve is panicked and doesn’t think it’s a good idea.  By this time in their relationship Barbara was jealous of Steve’s younger boyfriend and was going to have the baby with or without him around.  She does, and by the time Alysia is three, Barbara is in a relationship with a drug addict named Wolf.  She begins using heavily and Steve slowly finds himself as the only safe caretaker for his daughter.  Wolf is arrested out of state, Barbara goes to bail him out and on the way home she is killed in a car accident.

Steve is suddenly completely alone with a toddler.  He doesn’t fit in with his in-laws and his boyfriend has left him, unable to deal with the seriousness of the situation.  Less than a year after Barbara’s death, Steve packs the car and drives to San Francisco to build a life for himself and his daughter.

Once he gets to San Francisco, he is fully out as a gay man.  He already did come out while in Atlanta, but now he felt fully free to be who he was and to be able to work creatively in his own world.  He was part of the gay art scene and in places created it.  He was a writer and an artist and he surrounded himself with creative people.  The Castro was coming into power and Harvey Milk was starting his campaigns.  It was where Steve needed to be.

But he also needed to be a father and he struggled with this constantly.  He wanted to be a better person, to be healthy and clean and calm so he could be the best father for Alysia, but he was also lonely and wanted someone to love him.  It’s heartbreaking to read the longing in his own words, wanting desperately for someone to share his life with him and Alysia.  He seems to be constantly falling in love, but over and over he picks young men who aren’t interested in relationships, and especially aren’t interested in becoming a father.  He seems himself as a mentor to these young men and surrounds himself with other artists, hoping to guide them and help them find their own voices.  As an editor and creator of his own magazine, he does help them.  He goes on to run workshops and weekend retreats and poetry readings and much more with other artists, many of them gay, but the whole time he’s searching and longing for a partner.  I wanted him to find someone his own age who maybe had similar experiences, but that wasn’t the scene in the Castro District.  He was surrounded by young men, even referring to them as boys sometimes.  These were the men who he was falling in love with, and it wasn’t going to work, no matter how hard he tried.

Alysia also struggles with this.  She isn’t like anyone her age.  She doesn’t have a mother, which is challenging enough, but she also has to keep her dad’s sexuality a secret.  She’s already tormented at school and knows if her classmates find out about her dad, the results will be cruel and immediate.  There aren’t parenting groups at this time and she feels completely isolated.  She doesn’t know any kids with gay parents.  She doesn’t know other kids who are brought to poetry readings or left home alone while their father goes out clubbing, hoping to bring a man home with him.

She knows from her peers that being gay is being gross.  She internalizes this and when bad things happen, it’s because she’s gross.  If something breaks, it’s her fault.  She doesn’t deserve nice things because she isn’t nice inside because even though she’s not gay, her father is.  She is lonely and confused.

Again, Steve’s journals have moments that feel like a kick in the stomach.  He wants so much to be a good father, but he also wants to be fulfilled as a person.  Like any parent, there are times he wants to walk away from being Dad so he can just be him and have his own needs met.  He’s completely honest in his journals and having Alysia share her memories partnered with her father’s words and drawings, it’s at times brutal.  Their life would have been a challenge under the best of circumstances after Barbara died, and they did not have the best of circumstances.

I related a lot to teenage Alysia.  She is embarrassed by her dad, as all teenagers are, while still worrying that people are going to know he’s gay.  She goes through her own rebellion and the two of them fight constantly.  He’s never approached their relationship as an authoritarian.  To him, it’s always been a partnership and he realizes he can’t tell her to come home early when there are some nights when he doesn’t come home at all.  At this point he is sober and practicing daily meditation to keep himself healthy and has to trust that while Alysia experiments, she won’t let it get out of control.

While this normal teenage girl stuff is happening, Alysia is also watching the morality movement try and destroy what little rights the gay community has.  She sees people on TV telling the country that her father and friends are sinners and deserve to be targets of violence and discrimination.  Men are being attacked in their own neighborhoods by teenagers coming in to look for fags.

It’s interesting to read someone’s story knowing where and when they lived it.

Grateful Dead Haight Ashbury

Their house in Ashbury can be seen in this picture of the Grateful Dead.  It’s the pointy one to the right of the sign.  For most of us, this a place where people go to have their picture taken, not a place where people grew up, especially not straight girls.  I was really caught by this.  I connected to Alysia’s story and struggles, but at the same time it was like reading a political history.  These streets are where much of the gay rights movement started and it’s jarring to also remember that parents were raising their kids in the same place.  There are certain areas that I think of in terms of importance and it’s easy to forget that while great things happen, people are there living their lives.  I’m sure other readers would think I’m weird for not connecting humans to iconic places.

As Alysia gets older she falls into the familiar pattern of not wanting to be defined as a daughter while at the same time refusing to let her parent be anything but a father.  While she leaves home as a young adult, she wants to be her own person, but she struggles with the idea that her dad isn’t always a dad.

And then he gets sick.

Alysia leaves San Francisco for a few years to go to school, at one point leaving the country to live in France.  When she returns, things are different.  The beautiful young men who filled the coffee shops and bookstores are now bundled up in sweaters and knit caps, their faces gaunt and bruised.  There’s also a lot less of them.  Places that used to be filled with fun and laughter are quiet and when she asks around to try and find familiar faces she learns again and again that these vibrant young men have wasted away until they’ve died, their bodies shutting down from complications due to full blown AIDS.

She watches her community, her father’s people, struggling to care for each other.  The country again turns on them and politicians call for laws to brand infected men with tattoos to keep the rest of the country safe.  All the while Alysia prays and prays that her father won’t get AIDS.  Somehow it will skip him.

When he does get sick, she is in denial of what is happening.  She honestly doesn’t even remember him telling her or the first time she said it out loud to someone else.  He’s sick, then he’s really sick, then he’s dying.  It happens fast.

I connected to this strongly because I could understand the different levels of horrible.  Alysia is a young woman and wants her own life.  She wants to be able to completely leave home and be her own person.  She also wants a dad who doesn’t need a daughter to help him die.  She resents being the caretaker.  She finds herself yelling at him to shut up when he’s in an uncontrollable coughing fit.  Where once her father resented having to care for her, she now resents having to care for him.  I haven’t experienced this, but I could see each side so clearly.  The guilt and the resentment.  Having to be both the daughter and the adult.  She’s not even twenty two years old.

Her home isn’t home anymore.  The streets are different.  The faces of people she knows are different.  There are far too many empty places.  Soon she will be without a father.  This part of the book hit hard and it moved fast.  Alysia did a masterful job of matching the pace of the AIDS epidemic in her book, although I don’t know if it was intentional.  The language felt like it was creeping in.  There are a few hints here and there that something is happening.  Then suddenly it’s obvious and it’s too late to do anything.  And then it’s in Alysia’s life and becomes her reality.  She is twenty two and both her parents are gone.  Again, I think of the pictures of young men sick in bed with lesions, surrounded by their male friends.  I’ve never thought about daughters.  Parents and siblings, yes, but not about children.

Her father wanted a complete and full life and didn’t ever quite find it.  Even parts of his creative community turned on him when AIDS was first happening.  People he wrote and published with were now publishing works of their own about the gay cancer and how it was their own fault that they were dying.  Alysia couldn’t read about the epidemic in an unattached, curious way.  These were her people as well, even if she didn’t feel like she was part of the story.

Like I said at the start of this review, Alysia Abbott’s story is extra completely different than mine but I was able to relate and connect with her.  I’m not sure why this book caught my eye. I’m guessing I saw a review somewhere and the title pulled me in.  I’m glad it did because this is an important story.  It can be read simply as a story, but it represents much more than that.  It’s the universal story of growing up, but like Alysia says in the Epilogue, “This queer history is my queer history.  This queer history is our queer history.”

My two major complaints for this book are simple.  One, I kept losing track of how old Alysia was.  Every once in awhile she’d refer to her age, but not often.  There were years listed at times, but for me it wasn’t enough to keep track in my head.  I didn’t know if she was in first grade or fifth.  I couldn’t remember how long they had been in the Castro.  I wasn’t sure how old her friends were.

The second complaint is unforgivable.  Steve Abbot was an artist and some of his drawings are included in the book.  Many are printed so small that they are almost completely unreadable.  I imagine Alysia Abbot chose the illustrations to include and many of them are referenced in her writing, but the way they are printed in the book, it’s a waste of ink.  It really pissed me off.  I cringe to think what it will be like in the smaller paperback version.  There is no reason they weren’t enlarged or broken up over two pages.  I found it insulting that they tried to cram his work in to a smaller space.

Overlooking these two things, I’m really glad I picked this up.  It wasn’t a quick read at all, but it was worth every page.

#26: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews

A NOTE FROM GREG GAINES, AUTHOR OF THIS BOOK

I have no idea how to write this stupid book.

Can I just be honest with you for one second?  This is the literal truth.  When I first started writing this book, I tried to start it with the sentence “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.”  I genuinely thought that I could start this book that way.  I just figured, it’s a classic book-starting sentence.  But then I couldn’t even figure out how you were supposed to follow that up.  I started at the computer for an hour and it was all I could do not to have a colossal freak-out.  In desperation I tried messing with the punctuation and italicization like:

It was the best of times?  And it was the worst of times?!!

What the hell does that even mean?  Why would you even think to do that?  You wouldn’t, unless you had a fungus eating your brain, which I guess I probably have.

Me Earl and the Dying GirlThis is how long it took me to realize I was going to have to force myself not to stay up all night and read this book in one go.  I mean, come on.  This voice?  I didn’t even know who Greg was, but I was in.  Honestly, I was probably in at “I have no idea how to write this stupid book.”  So many questions!  Why is he writing it then?  Is he being forced to?  What happened that was so important or awesome or scary or whatever that he decided to sit down in front of a computer and force himself to think of words while at the same time acknowledging that he might have a brain fungus?

And then I got to page 2.

I do actually want to say one other thing before we get started with this horrifyingly inane book.  You may have already figured out that it’s about  girl who had cancer.  So there’s a chance you’re thinking “Awesome!  This is going to be a wise and insightful story about love and death and growing up.  It’s probably going to make me cry literally the entire time.  I am so fired up right now.”  If that is an accurate representation of your thoughts, you should probably try to smush this book into a garbage disposal and then run away.  Because here’s the thing: I learned absolutely nothing from Rachel’s leukemia.  In fact, I probably became stupider about life because of the whole thing.

Again, I don’t know who Greg is, but I’m in.

Turns out Greg is a high school senior who has perfected the art of invisibility.  He realized early on in his educational journey that he had nothing to offer the social structure of school and rather than get the snot knocked out of him on a daily basis, he became a master of blending in and disappearing.  It’s quite brilliant.  He maintains a friendly and neutral relationship with all groups at school.  No one is really sure where he belongs, figures he’s accepted by all, so they pretty much ignore him.  He’ll pop in to laugh at a joke and then fade away.  If no group can fully claim you, then no group can ostracize and destroy you.

He’s got one friend, but they don’t interact with each other at school.  Greg thinks of him more as a co-worker.  They met in kindergarten and bonded over video games.  This then led to an understanding of movies that no one their age understood or even wanted to understand.  When you’re in elementary school, subtitles aren’t interesting.  Greg and Earl realize they can make movies, and they go crazy.  They then quickly realize that when they do make a movie, they must never, ever show it to anyone.  Greg’s parents will ooh and ahh and tell them how proud they are even though it’s clear to everyone that what they just watched was a waste of time for everyone on the planet.  No, the movies are just for Greg and Earl and the making is more important than the watching.

Greg’s life is going just the way he wants, until Rachel gets cancer.  But don’t worry, he doesn’t learn anything from it.

One of the things I really liked about this book was the way Greg tells it.  We know right away that he’s writing this after everything has happened.  We know Rachel dies.  We know that something happens during this that has made him sit down to write the book.  He tells the story in a way that makes sense for him – sometimes it’s linear, sometimes not so much.  He’s a filmmaker, so sometimes we get scripts.

For the entire book we get the confusion that is the high school boy brain.  Even worse, he knows how stupid he is, but he can’t stop himself.  His inner monologue is brilliant.  As he finds himself going off on a tangent of being sexually attracted to pillows he sort of sits back, horrified at what is happening while at the same time being fascinated at the effect of it on Rachel.  Might as well get even more and more disgusting about masterbation if it’s making a dying girl laugh, right?

Clearly what I loved the most about this book is Greg’s voice.  Andrews created a character who is fully developed from the first page.  Yeah, we don’t know who he is or what he’s about, but we know this is a character that could exist off the page.

He continues to tell his story and watching everything unfold, you start to get more and more uncomfortable.  You know Rachel dies.  Greg tells us on page two!  And yet you want it to be different.  You also get to see Greg making amazingly bad decisions and you want to grab him and, if not shake him, at least turn him around and shove him down the hallway so he can think about what he’s going to do before doing it.  There are a lot of cringe inducing moments in these pages.

I also wanted everything to work out for Earl, but I knew it wasn’t going to happen.  Earl got dealt a bad hand.  His homelife sucks and statistically you know he’s not going to have a super great ending.  Still, you want him to have that moment of discovery, but don’t forget… Greg told you that this isn’t a story of love and redemption and learning and growing.

This book made me laugh out loud more than once, which is always awesome.  There were parts that reminded me of my own stupid high school moments, which aren’t awesome, but it is awesome when an author can capture reality.  I liked Greg and I wanted him to come out on top.  Getting to the end of the book, I felt so bad for him and wondered what this one year of school had done to him and if he would be able to recover.  The start of the book isn’t coming from a place of “I am awesome and let me tell you how I got to this amazing life.”  I wasn’t sure where he even was when writing.  Is he in jail?  A psych ward?  In some random hotel room in the middle of no where?  What happened?

I really needed him to be OK.

This is one of my favorite books I’ve read so far this year.  I could have easily read the whole thing in one sitting because of how Andrews wrote it.  I loved the structure and Greg’s voice.  The setup of the chapters is fantastic with lists and reviews, as well as screenplays coming in.  It’s original and it works.

#25: Beautifully Unique Sparkleponies: On Myths, Morons, Free Speech, Football, and Assorted Absurdities by Chris Kluwe

Beautifully Unique Sparkleponies

I didn’t know who Chris Kluwe was until his wrote his amazing piece for Deadspin that many know as Lustful Cockmonsters.  Maryland state delegate Emmett C. Burns Jr. wrote an open letter to Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti asking him to force his players to shut up about civil rights.  Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo spoke out in favor of gay marriage and Burns decided he should use his position to try and silence free speech.  It was disgusting.

Kluwe’s response was beautiful.  Click that title up there and read it if you haven’t.  I respect a man who uses “Holy fucking shitballs” when making an informed argument.

As his response exploded all over the internet, I found his twitter account (@ChrisWarcraft) and found out he was in a band AND was a gamer.  Holy shit, this guy was awesome.  NFL punter AND a nerd?  Fuck yeah.

When I found out he was writing a book I was super excited.  Here’s a guy who is smart, loves to read, plays games, and has a realistic understanding of how an NFL career works.  I heard him on a few podcasts and he’s really funny and clearly does his research about things that are important to him.  I especially like his attitude about the NFL and how it doesn’t last forever and you better have backup plans.

I really wanted to love this book, but it was just a solid OK.  He chose a few pieces that had already been published and I agreed with those choices.  For a few of them he added commentary or quick notes about things that have changed since the original publication.

Like all collections, there are going to be some parts that you like more than others.  For me, the fiction all fell flat.  Kluwe is incredibly smart and well read and unfortunately it didn’t come across in his fiction.  There were too many times I felt like he was trying too hard.  It felt like he was jumping up and down and waving his arms while yelling “Look!  Look what I did here!  Do you see how clever it is?  Right here?  Look at how clever I am being!  Wink wink, nudge nudge!”  It bummed me out because he really is clever.  I can listen to him on a podcast or giving an interview and it’s great, but when it comes to his fiction, it fell apart.  (Check him out on The Colbert Report.  It’s worth the internet time.)

My favorite chapters were the ones about football and I think it’s because he’s got such a great attitude about it.  He understands the limitations of the job and knows that it will end.  For him, it is a job, not his entire life.  He has a family to spend time with and books to read and video games to play and band practice to get to.  Yes, he loves the sport, but his life isn’t going to stop when he’s no longer playing.  This is a good attitude to have, especially since he was released by the Vikings in May and was then released be the Raiders a few weeks ago.  For some people, they’d be done.  For Kluwe, he knows this is how things work.

Overall I was disappointed with the book.  I’m not sure what I was expecting, but this wasn’t it.  I know he will continue to fight hate and ignorance and I’m glad he’s out there.  Right now he’s probably 15 hours in to GTA:V but at some point he’ll put the controller down, go to sleep, and then reemerge to fight the good fight.

PS:  Lollygagger wrote a great review of this book on the Cannonball Read blog.  I agree with it and wanted to steal it for my own.

#24: I Can Barely Take Care of Myself: Tales from a Happy Life Without Kids by Jen Kirkman

I Can Barely Take Care of Myself

Jen Kirkman and I don’t want kids.

Happily for me, that’s pretty much all I ever have to say about this fact.  Kirkman, on the other hand, has enough experience with being told that she’s going to change her mind that she was able to write an entire book about it.  I don’t understand how she hasn’t slapped anyone.

I became a fan of Kirkman from watching Chelsea Lately.  My husband got into her stand up after hearing her phone calls with Paul F. Tompkins on The Pod F. Tompkast.  I then saw her episodes of Drunk History and decided that yeah, she’s really fantastic.  She was so sincere and wanted to be sure that Oney Judge is honored and that she was wearing pants when talking about Frederick Douglass.  What’s not to love?

Her book is her memoir, based on the theme of not wanting kids and how there are a lot of people in this world that just cannot comprehend this.

I’m lucky that I don’t have to deal with this same pressure.  My mom and mother-in-law aren’t baby crazy and are fine not having grandchildren.  A lot of my friends don’t have kids, so it’s not a big deal.  I’ve never been in a situation where I felt like I was being attacked because my husband and I aren’t having kids.  It’s just not a thing.

Kirkman, on the other hand… holy shit!  I never realized that people could be so vicious about another human being deciding that having a kid isn’t something that’s going to happen.

She tells stories of growing up with anxiety and knowing from an early age that she had no control over the world and what happened in it.  She found herself completely unprepared when kids she’d babysit would ask her Big Questions and knew this wasn’t something she wanted to do full time.

Her life is comedy, but for many people, that’s just something she’s going to do until she has kids.  Many of these people are complete strangers.  A woman approached her in the bathroom to tell her that she was really funny, but things would be different once she gave up “all this” to have kids and presumably start her real life.  She’s been told that she’s selfish for not wanting kids.  People assume that she’s judging them because they have kids.  It really sucks.

Happily, Kirkman knows who she is and what she wants.  Even though there are times when people have reduced her to tears, she knows she’s not going to be a mom and she is really happy with her life.  I laughed out loud several times while listening to her read and related to so many of her stories.

I listened to the audio version of this about two months ago and am just now writing my review.   I should apologize to Jen Kirkman because I can’t remember all the stuff I wanted to say about her.It would be great if I had written this review sooner so I could be more specific.

I’m going to go ahead and award myself the Worst Review Written in 2013.  I am so, so sorry.  I really liked the book and did have a lot to say about it, but my procrastination has wrecked it.