Tag Archives: memoir

CBR9 #9: I’m Just a Person by Tig Notaro

tigWe all have bad days.  Difficult months. Challenging years.  But every once in awhile, it seems like the stars of “fuck you.” align to create something so cruel that it should be fiction and then hands it to someone and walks away.

That’s what happened to Tig in less than one year.  People want to make sense of things, so they say it’s random, or God only gives you what He thinks you can handle, or they wonder what you did in a previous life.  But that’s now how things work.  Things just happen.

In 2012 Tig got sick and misdiagnosed.  She was finally admitted to the hospital with C.diff which could have taken her out.  The pain was intense, she was weak from being unable to eat for so long and if this was the only thing happening in her life, it would have still felt unmanageable at times.

Then her mother died.

A random, bullshit death.  She fell and hit her head.  Her husband checked her out and she said she felt fine, so they went back to watching TV until he went to bed.  He found her the next morning, sitting in her chair, unresponsive.

Tig, still in agony and dealing with C.diff, got on a plane to head to the hospital so she could sit by her mother, counting breaths after taking her off life support, waiting for the last one.

Then she got breast cancer.

Then she went back to work.  She’s a comic.  Work is what she does.

“Good evening. Hello. I have cancer. How are you? Hi, how are you? Is everybody having a good time? I have cancer.”

There was also a breakup, a new relationship that wasn’t awesome, family dynamics, and regular life.

But mostly this book is about Tig’s mother.  And it’s wonderful and confusing and sad and funny.

There will never be a lack of Mother/Daughter topics.  Articles, fiction, nonfiction, television, movies, songs…  All relationships are complicated, and Mothers and Daughters have their own things.  Any adult daughter who pauses to think about her relationship with her mother and forces herself to think of it from her adult perspective and not the perspective of the age she was at the time is probably going to have moments of “Oh.  Fuck.”

Tig had to do it all in the past tense.  She had to remember her mother as a mother, but also think about who she was as a person.

She wasn’t the best mother.  She rarely knew where Tig and her brother were.  She wasn’t interested in getting to things on time or being home or giving up her social life.  She loved her kids, but being a mom wasn’t on her list of things to do.  It infuriated Tig that there were no rules or structure and that she’d have to go wander the neighborhood to find which pool her mom was stretched out next to so she could drag her home.

But she loved her kids and she taught by example that Tig had value.  When a teacher would imply that Tig needed to be controlled or made to fit in, Tig’s mom would lose it and tell Tig’s teachers to go to hell.  Tig was fine.  She was independent.  She knew what was important.  Tig’s mom might not know where she was, but that wasn’t the point.

Years after her mother’s death and her recovery from cancer (but always looking at the percentage of it coming back) Tig tells her life’s story through the events of less than a year.  People kept telling her how brave she was and she wondered if they’d feel the same way knowing she had spent the last two days on the couch, sobbing for her mother and waiting for the cancer to kill her.  She thinks of the difficult relationship she had with her stepfather and watches in amazement as it becomes something new after her mom dies.  Another moment of unfairness that her mom had to die for it to happen.

Through it all, Tig continues to work on her own life.  Like everyone, she analyzes her relationships, thinks about work, decides what’s important and live her life.  But she does it knowing she almost died, she still could die, and she’ll never see her mom again.

I try to get memoirs on audio because I want to hear the words the way the author meant them to be said.  Tig knows where to put the pauses and what beats to hit.  As a comedian, the rhythm is important and I wanted her to tell me the story.  Tig did not disappoint.

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#37: Love Him or Leave Him, But Don’t Get Stuck With the Tab: Hilarious Advice for Real Women by Loni Love

Love Him or Leave HimThis was a really nice way to end 2013.

I discovered Loni Love on Chelsea Lately.  I loved how she doesn’t put up with any of Chelsea’s shit and her stories always make me laugh.  She seems like a hot mess, and yet she totally has it together.  She always comes across as super confident and you can tell that she has too many important things to do than deal with stupid people.  She’s the friend you’d go to when you want to know the truth, not get complimented.

Apparently women approach her all the time like they are BFFs.  There’s something about her that makes people think they know each other.  After standup shows, they wait for her in the bathroom or hang out at the meet and greet and then ask really personal questions.  Lots of TMI.  But they know Love isn’t going to bullshit them, so if they spill the details, she’s going to speak the truth.

When you have this much power, you write a book.

I for real lol’d several times when reading this.  She covers all aspects of dating and love.  First dates to throwing a man out of your house.  Recovering from dating disasters to dealing with his baby momma.  Figuring out how to handle an unexpected hook up to dealing with your man’s stupid friends.  It’s all in here.  The best part is that there are seriously out there questions, like can I sleep with my mom’s ex-husband (No.  Unless you trade her one of your exes.) and then there are things just about all women deal with like what to do when you don’t think you want to get married.  Or do want to get married.

The absolutely best part of this book is that Love has a story for everything.  Either she’s dealt with it herself or has a friend or family member who has been through it.  She details her own disasters and lays everything on the table.  You really do feel like you’re BFFs.  This book feels like you’re hanging out with a hysterical and honest friend.  Yeah, she’s going to tell you to stop fucking around, but she’s going to help you get drunk while you discuss it.  Also, there will probably be pancakes.

If you’re looking for a quick and fun read, grab this book.  If you’re a fan of Loni Love and haven’t read this yet, you will not be disappointed.  Although she had help writing it, it is 100% her voice.  I didn’t need the audio version to feel like she was reading it to me.

I couldn’t be happier with this being the last book I read in 2013!

#35: Self-Inflicted Wounds: Heartwarming Tales of Epic Humiliation by Aisha Tyler

WoundsI like Aisha Tyler.  I liked her on Talk Soup.  I liked when they brought her in to Friends so they could have a black friend.  I like her on Archer, which I don’t watch enough of.  I love love love her podcast, Girl on Guy.  I was super excited when she announced that she’d be hosing the return of Whose Line Is It Anyway?.  She’s super funny, and even better, she’s really smart and geeky.  She’d been talking about her book for a while on Girl on Guy and I was really looking forward to reading it.  I wish I had gotten the audio version though.

Tyler ends Girl on Guy by asking her guest to share a self-inflicted wound.  These are stories of things that are just bad and you have no one to blame but yourself.  Wrecked credit, getting an STD twice from the same girl when you know it’s going to happen the second time, punched in the face by a jealous boyfriend… usually these are super embarrassing stories and the most cringe inducing part is that you can’t blame it on anyone else but yourself.  These are the moments where you look back and wonder “What did I think was going to happen???”  But hopefully they’ve made you a better person.  Or not.  Who cares, as long as it’s a good story.

Tyler turns her question on to herself for this book and creates a memoir of sorts where she retells her own self-inflicted wounds.  Some are hysterical, some are learning experiences, some show her path to success.  It’s a good mix, like anyone’s life should be.  There are some that I sort of flipped through and others that I completely related to and took my time with.  I think most people will find at least one story that they will cringe along with and think “Oh god… me too.  I did this.”

One of my favorite stories is The Time I Almost Seared My Flesh to My Dad’s Motorcycle.  When she was ten, she decided that the best way to distinguish herself from her classmates was to dress like a ballerina all the time.  Not a frilly pink tu-tu’ed ballerina, but a girl who was serious about art.  She decided she needed leotards and tights with ankle length wrap skirts.  Everything had to match.  She decided that brown tones would convey this serious vibe, so there she was: ten years old, draped in shapeless brown.  No matter where she went, this was her outfit.  People had to take her seriously because she was committed.  This was a girl who thought deep thoughts and she had clothing to match.  Of course, she was also a girl who was ten and wanted to be able to walk.  Or play, climb trees, run, and participate in other activities that ten year olds do.  Apparently when you have a skirt wrapped tightly around your legs, you fall down a lot.  But she managed to keep it together until her dad’s motorcycle ended the look.

She loved her dad and loved that he loved motorcycles.  The problem was that when she was on the back she wanted to read or sleep.  Her dad finally figured out a way to strap her in so she wouldn’t pitch backwards into oncoming traffic.  However, there was no way to construct a harness to strap down a ten year old’s mind or skirt.  Paying such serious attention to how her skirt moved and how a true artist must hold her body, she forgot about the exhaust pipe.  Climbing behind her dad, her skirt melted to the pipe and there was immediate burning and freaking-the-fuck out.  Happily, only her skirt was burned, but she realized that maybe ballerina skirts weren’t the best idea.

This story killed me because I remember being in elementary school and wanting to Be Serious.  I was convinced that if you carried a notebook around all the time to write in, people would marvel at how advanced you were.  Surely cameras would show up at some point and you’d find yourself famous with a TV show or a movie career or something.  You don’t see a ten year old with a notebook and think they won’t become famous!  I mean, come on!  That ten year old has a notebook!  There is no commitment like an elementary school kid with something to prove.  Well, until something happens where you realize it’s a total pain in the ass to carry around a notebook and pencil all the damn time and it’s taking way too long for your famous career to kick off.  Or, you know, you almost set yourself on fire on the back of your dad’s bike.

Tyler continues with stories of growing up, dealing with boobs, then starting her standup career.  There was a huge time span in between those two things.  Her college years, while cringe worthy, also show that she was headed for greatness.  This was a woman who was going to create a space for herself, no matter how much it was going to hurt.

Her adult tales are just as good.  She finds herself not feeling funny anymore and questioning her career.  She accidentally spits on an audience member.  She falls asleep at a party.  She’s older, but still self-inflicting.

I will argue that not all of these tales are actual wounds, but the are definitely self-inflicted.  Tyler is someone who makes decisions and follows through, no matter what.  Sometimes there are tragic endings, but overall, she’s had amazing payoffs.  Sure, she’s performed in front of a crowd with her fly down and she once wore a see through dress to an event, but she also was named the 2011 best new comedy podcast on iTunes, she has amazing fans, she’s got a book and a talk show and she gets to perform all over the place.  She get to rock her nerd self while playing video games and greeting fans at various cons.  She swears more than I do.  I totally want to hang out with her.

#31: Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady by Florence King

ConfessionsI love book group.  Not only do I get to hang out with a bunch of people I like and talk about books, I get to read books that I never would have picked up on my own.  Welcome to Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady.  I read a lot of memoirs, but this one never would have stood out for me.  I didn’t know anything about Florence King, so when this was chosen for our September meeting, I was looking forward to something new.  (Yes, September book group.  If you’re also behind on book reviews, let’s hold hands in solidarity.  Or just nod at each other while working on something else that’s not a book review.)

King grew up in an amazing family.  If someone pitched these people for a movie or a sitcom, they’d be thrown out of the room.  Her grandmother is Southern and proud.  She lives for the South.  She worships all things Ladylike and Proper.  She is happiest when grooming young girls to step in to the roles of Southern Ladies, knowing their impeccable breeding and poise will bring honor to the family.  The only thing that will make her happier is if her Southern Lady In Training has women’s problems that incapacitate her.  Cramps so bad that you miss the ambulance that’s there to take you to the insane asylum?  Oh bless, child.  You’re perfect.

King’s mother didn’t stand a chance, or so you’d think.  Turns out Granny lost the Lady Lottery when Louise was born.  King’s mother had no interest in being a lady and spent her time smoking, boxing, drinking and fighting.  The more Granny tried to shove her into dresses, the more badass Mama became.  It’s amazing.

King’s father somehow fell into this family and remained a dignified gentleman.  An Englishman with a lovely accent who rendered Granny helpless with glee.  She would trace his lineage to kings to impress her Southern friends.  Of course these lines weren’t accurate, but who cares?  He’s English!  Herb and Mama married, moved in together, she got pregnant, had nothing in common, and once Granny moved in, it was perfect.  This is a relationship that made no sense, and yet it did.  Granny is worried and ecstatic that Mama might finally have women troubles when she’s pregnant and moves in for just a little while, never to leave.  She and Herb get along so well that people think she’s his mother, not his in-law.

Along comes Florence, and the family is complete.

King is an incredible mix of crazy from all of this.  Her father loved learning and education and she learned and read with him constantly.  Other children were useless to her and when she started school she was quickly moved up to higher grades because she knew so much more than the unformed blobs that were in her way.

Granny was worried that this was going to lead her to spinsterhood, but Mama swore and told her it was fine.

And that’s pretty much how King’s life was.  She’d do her thing, her father supported her, her mother was sometimes indifferent but would fight for her if needed and her grandmother adored and tried to lady-ify her.

I don’t know how she didn’t wind up in the insane asylum.  Sometimes the power of love really does conquer all.

I enjoyed the final third of the book the most, when King leaves home to go to college.  She arrives at school at a time when women are there to catch husbands and earn their Mrs. before a BA and absolutely before an MA.  King is having none of it.  She’s there to learn and work.  She is destroyed when her female professors insist on being called Mrs. and not Professor.  She finds out she can’t major in French.  For the first time in her life, she finds herself restricted because of her gender.  Sure, there’s been times when she’s had to be stubborn, but this is an entire institution determining her self-worth.  It was frustrating and agonizing to read.

She pushes through, takes up with a married professor after realizing she can’t get laid because boys her age are too uptight and finishes her degree.  She winds up in the deep South to get her grad work done.  There, she meets and falls hopelessly in love with Bres.  Bres is a known lesbian and suddenly King realizes she’s one herself.  King is a big fan of sex and loved the boys who put out, and willingly lets Bres overwhelm her.  Why take up with boys when it’s really a girl you want?  Sadly, Bres is not a fantastic girlfriend and the relationship is painful and one sided.  Still, it lets King become who she is.

She returns to Granny at the end of the book.  It’s no surprise that Granny’s life is coming to an end.  While there isn’t a lot of foreshadowing, when a book starts before King is born and spends so much time on Granny’s life, it’s easy for the reader to know that Granny probably isn’t going to make it to the end.  King loves her family completely, and returning to them as a young adult was beautiful and heartbreaking.  It was one of those moments where I was able to relate completely to someone I had so very little in common with.

This was a fun read.  I enjoy reading about Southern life because it’s so at odds with my Yankee self.  Granny was a study in what it means to be a Lady, and it’s always hysterical and sweet to see how strength and Southern manners play out together.  King’s mother is incredible and reminded me of Idgie Threadgoode from Fried Green Tomatoes and I was so happy when she was on the page.  King’s father was unconditional love and delighted in his daughter, even though it meant living and loving a wife and mother-in-law that were completely alien to him.  This story could have been heartbreaking and violent and a cautionary tale about choosing your husband carefully, but it wasn’t, and it’s wonderful and lovely.

#30: Self-Made Man: One Woman’s Journey Into Manhood and Back Again by Norah Vincent

Self-Made Man

I’ve sat down and edited this review several times and almost threw the entire thing out to rewrite it to try and keep it short.  I have accepted that  I have a lot of things to say.  Get comfortable.

I first read Self-Made Man in 2008 and loved it.  I’ve thought about it a lot since then and have become more and more uncomfortable with it.  After several easy book club discussions where we all liked the book, I chose this one for our August meeting (yes, this is how far behind I am in writing reviews) because I knew it would be a lively conversation and would possibly involve angry punches.  Not at each other of course…  Just, you know, in general angry punches at the world.

It could not have gone any better.  Is it weird that I’m really happy I pissed off my entire group?

Norah Vincent decided to spend over a year and a half as a man named Ned, although not 24/7.  She wanted to see firsthand what the male experience was like and chose several male specific situations to infiltrate for her research.  She spent eight months on an all male bowling team.  She went to strip clubs.  She went on dates.  She worked in the testosterone fueled cold-call sales world.  She spent a few weeks in a monastery living with monks.  She joined a men’s movement group and traveled with them on their weekend retreat.  As a lesbian woman, she wanted to experience the male life.  

The idea came from an evening out when she was younger.  She dressed as a man, although she never would have passed if anyone had looked closely, and was shocked at how different it was.  Living in NYC, she never felt invisible.  Men constantly look at you, either to leer or harass or just acknowledge that you are female.  As a man, however, no one paid any attention to her.  “It was astounding, the difference, the respect [the men in her neighborhood] showed me by not looking at me, by purposely not staring.”  That sentence is what hooked me in when I flipped through the book the first time.  I was fascinated by this idea of experiencing the familiar as a man to see how things change.  I wanted to know if this would be a study in sexism and bias or if it would show acceptance and understanding.  I thought Vincent would interact with people first as Ned and then as Nora, or the other way around, to see how she was treated differently.

But that’s not how this book works.

Vincent came to this project with very clear intentions and overwhelming assumptions and bias.  She decided before changing her body and clothes that all the men she interacts with are going to be disgusting caveman pigs.  She is astounded when men show feelings.  My book club wondered if she had any male friends or if she had interacted with any males for any long periods of time.  Two members of my club in particular hated her so much that they had physical reactions.  Since I had loved the book when I first read it (I gave it five stars and labeled it “favorite” on GoodReads), I found myself wanting to defend Vincent, but the more I reread and the more passages I highlighted, the angrier and sadder I got.

I still recommend that people read this because it is fascinating to see her journey, but do know that this isn’t a controlled psychological or scientific study.  This is one woman’s experience and she went into it without examining her own feelings ahead of time or coming up with any sort of thesis.  Really bad things happen, morally and ethically.

At the end she checks herself into a mental institution.

It’s interesting to note how women come across in this book.  When she joins the men’s bowling league, she is astounded that men from her team and competing teams want her to get better.  Ned is the worst bowler in the league.  When she isn’t bowling, several men will offer to work with her in an empty lane.  Her teammates will yell tips and encouragement when it’s her turn to bowl.  When one of the men is getting closer to bowling a perfect game, everyone sits down and silently watches.  She feels like there was some unspoken primal rule that tells men to wait and watch when another man is about to succeed.  She is surprised by this because in her experience, women love to see other women fail.  As a teenager at tennis camp, she was lethal on the court, but wasn’t pretty.  When the coach uses her example for how to properly serve, another girl remarks that she’d rather be pretty and bad at tennis than ugly with a good serve.  Girls don’t care about girls.  You are competition and if you’re better than they are, they will attack your body, personality, morals, whatever and if you are weaker than they are, then they will enjoy your failure.

It gets worse when Ned starts to date.

This is the part of the book that has made me more and more uncomfortable as I’ve thought about it.  Even when reading it the first time, I found myself cringing at both the ethics and her tone.  She comes across as really hating women, which was curious to me because she’s a lesbian.  I wanted to know what Nora’s dating life was like that made her react and compare it to Ned’s.  One of the things I found interesting was that she’s been passing as Ned for at least six months before she starts to date and I wonder if she would have felt differently if she had dated earlier or later as Ned.  [I’m guessing this based on Vincent’s comments at the beginning of the book.  She said she wrote it fairly in time order and the chapter about dating comes two after bowling.  Since bowling lasted eight months and there was overlap with the next chapter, I’m guessing six months.  Total guess.  No proof.]  This was one of those moments where I wished it was a psychological experiment to see how Ned would have felt if this was the first thing he did as a man or the last thing.  Coming off his stint with the bowling league and spending lots of time in strip clubs (more on that later), I have to wonder where his head was.

Ned tries picking girls up in bars.  Nora is shocked at how hard it is and how bad it feels to be rejected again and again and again.  This part was really interesting to me because I don’t know what she was comparing it to.  Vincent is a lesbian, but dated boys in high school.  I don’t know what her own experience is with being hit on by straight men, so it wasn’t clear how she was relating to Ned’s experiences.

Ned is able to go on dates and Nora realizes that she is in a bad place.  She decides that if she has two dates with a woman, she will out herself.  With the rest, she will lie, but will keep their interactions brief so she doesn’t get their hopes up.

Before going into details, she explains that it is “hardly surprising…that in this atmosphere…as a single man dating women, I often felt attacked, judged, on the defensive.  Whereas with the men I met and befriended as Ned there was a presumption of innocence – that is, you’re a good guy until you prove otherwise – with women there was quite often a presumption of guilt: you’re a cad like every other guy until you prove otherwise.”  I don’t think I can’t argue much with this.  She and her dates are in their mid-thirties and a lot of these women have had bad experiences.  In my own life, I’ve seen friends go on and on about how all men are assholes and will often leave for a date with the thought of “Let’s see how fucked up this one is.”  Still… she really found a few women that are horrible representatives of their gender.  I don’t know if it happened by accident or what, but hell… these women are very unpleasant.  She meets a few women, talks about how horrible they are and has sex with one of them.

Throughout the book there were moments where I responded “Yes!  This is what I want to know!  Talk more about this.  Explore this more.”  An example of this is the physical attractiveness and male dominance requirements in dating.  Ned emails a lot of his dates and the women all respond to his writing.  They appreciate his tone and the lengths of his emails.  He is attentive and interested and they are attracted to this person.  And then they meet him.  Ned is not a big guy.  Norah sometimes feels small when she’s dating as Ned.  She thinks these women want a big strong guy who can take charge and throw a punch if needed, but at the same time be that sweet and caring guy from the email.  I totally agree with this.  Men are supposed to be strong, but not violent.  They’re supposed to be in touch with their emotions, but not weak.  They’re only allowed to cry under very specific circumstances.   They are supposed to ask for help, but not appear feeble.  It’s total bullshit, and I’m not a guy.  I don’t know how guys deal with this.

The strip clubs she went to were really depressing.  Again, she doesn’t talk about what her intentions were.  Maybe she wanted to see if she could continue to pass as a man, maybe she liked the idea of being able to see naked women, maybe she wanted to study the men there.  While I personally don’t think strip clubs are super amazing, I felt like she picked the worst one she could find.  She even refers to it as a “hellhole”.  She seems happy that the women are angry and intrigued by one woman who isn’t the prettiest or youngest, but makes a lot of money because she makes you feel like she likes you.  This woman pays attention to Ned and is always putting on a show.  The entire experience fills her with shame and embarrassment as well as guilt that her life didn’t lead her to the pole.  It’s an uncomfortable chapter where neither the men or the women are redeemable.  The men wallow in a helpless cry of having to give into their base desires and explain that it’s not their fault that they need to see tits.  The women aren’t people and interact with the men as little as possible, barely hiding their hostility.  It seems like no one is having fun.

I’m not going to write much about her time with the monks, but interestingly enough, this is where she learned a lot about the rules of what makes a man a man.  Any time she showed the slightest hint of femininity, it was immediately noticed and judged.  These men were adamant about crushing all sense of sexuality, especially homosexuality, while maintaining a sense of pure masculinity.  There was friendship, but there was a lot of distance and distrust.  One thing that was interesting to me personally was how older monks and priests struggled with their relationships because they were taught to put God before anyone else.  Having a friend meant distancing yourself from God.  This completely isolates them and they find it difficult and probably at times intolerable living with others.  This has nothing to do with the book’s experiment, but I found it fascinating.

The final infiltration was the most unethical to me, barely edging out Ned’s dating life.  Ned joins a men’s group.  She is surrounded by different types of men in different stages of fragility and mental anguish.  There are men who appear to be on the edge of a violent rage with each breath.  Other men are desperate for friends, father figures or brother substitutes.

Nora is astonished at how difficult it is for these men to talk about their feelings.  Some of them struggle with the idea that they even have feelings, and watching them try to articulate this is pure amazement to her.

She is also terrified.  This is a group of MEN and she feels that if she will be discovered and outed, this is the group that will do it.  She’s entered into a sanctified world where men are able to first realize they have feelings, acknowledge and articulate the feelings they have about women, and painfully work though the confusion, fear and anger that the women in their lives have caused.  For a woman to lie to them and join their group?  This could cause mental harm beyond repair and I hated Nora for being part of this.  For her, it was an experiment.  Observe the men in a habitat.  Try and stay uninvolved, but also pick them apart to see how they work.  For some of these men, this group was forcing them to do things that defied every instruction they had received in their lives about what it means to be a man.  While some of the men were eager to make changes because they wanted something different and better, others seemed in a panic that they might uncover something too painful to manage.  And here is a woman in disguise watching and making notes.  I hated it.  My book group was furious.

At a weekend retreat, Nora ends up completely caught up in the symbolism and emotions of the group and finds herself having her own psychological crisis.  While she continues to observe these men trying to define themselves, she realizes that she needs to define who she is and how Ned fits in.

The weekend ends, she lets Ned go and soon checks herself into a mental institution.  This leads to her second book Voluntary Madness, a book that filled me with such rage that I almost didn’t finish it.  If you thought she made poor choices in this book, wait until she talks about how people should go off their meds.

Anyway…

I’m glad I read and then reread this book.  There is a lot that happens and she does make many valid points and observations.  The problem is that she assumes Nora’s version of reality is correct and when things don’t mesh, she doesn’t always continue to find out why.  Men are kind to Ned but Nora doesn’t stop to wonder why she thinks men are cruel.  Women are indifferent to Ned, but Nora doesn’t ask herself what kind of women she’s finding for him.  I think this could have been a very different book if she had laid out her intentions and predictions before each experiment.  I understand that she wanted to be Ned and watch what happens, but without untangling her expectations, she doesn’t always come across well.  Again, I wanted to defend her to my book club, but there were too many times when I hated what she had done and they way she wrote about it.

I have to keep remembering that this is a real person who interacted with other real people.  This is her own personal account of what happened.  She experienced and wrote the book she wanted, not what a psychological experiment would have called for.  There are many enlightening and fascinating moments that did make me pause and think about how I define myself as a woman and how I see men.  It’s a thought provoking read and it forces the reader to examine their own thoughts.

If you have a book group, I 100% recommend this as a pick!

#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.

#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.