Book Review: Lust & Wonder By Augusten Burroughs

Humble brag/disclaimer: I was sent an advance reader’s copy of Lust & Wonder by Augusten Burroughs’s publicist. I received no payment for this post, but I am now so cool I won’t even hang out with me anymore.


I’ve been emotionally shadowing Augusten Burroughs since Running with Scissors was published in 2002. A chronicle of Burroughs’s harrowing, chaotic childhood, Running with Scissors made my formative years seem positively normal by comparrison. I may have had a secret grandpa, an absent narcissistic father, an emotionally inscrutable mother, a compulsion to peel the skin off my hands and feet, and the habit of telling elaborate lies — but no one ever sent me to live with a lunatic psychiatrist in a squalid house or told me being molested by a pedophile was good therapy. Sure, I was deeply insecure, lonely as hell, and scared all the time, but I was for sure less fucked up than Augusten Burroughs!

Dry, released in 2003, is a chronicle of Burroughs’s twentysomething years, which he spent working in advertising, drinking himself near to death, going to rehab, trying to figure out how to live sober while dating a crack addict, and watching his former lover and best friend die of AIDS. I spent my 20s marrying the wrong man, getting divorced from him, screwing a long line of one-night stands, visiting an alarming number of psychics, and reading a lot in the bathtub. I was a soaking wet hot mess, make no mistake, but still less fucked up than Augusten Burroughs!

With Lust & Wonder, Burroughs has come back into my life at a gentler time. For one thing, I no longer feel the need to judge myself on a continuum of fucked upedness on which I am way more fucked up than Anna Quindlen, far less fucked up than Kathryn Harrison, and equally fucked up as Cheryl Strayed. I’m a good man’s wife. Mother to a gentle, generous, funny girl. The daughter of retired Florida condo dwellers. I am what I guess you’d call content and settled, a state of grace that once seemed utterly unattainable. It seems remarkable to me sometimes, the love and goodness that have become my everyday life.

Love is the territory Burroughs charts in Lust & Wonder, chronicling his adult romantic relationships with the keenly observed humor and brutal intimacy that makes him such a rich pleasure to read, even as he’s showing you horrors. There’s Mitch, the “deeply odd” published author. George (the “Pighead” character from Dry), whose death sends Burroughs into a drunken spiral. “Normal and stable” Dennis, with whom Burroughs has a long-term relationship that’s perfect on paper and broken in reality. And finally, there is Christopher, who is all wrong — he’s short, HIV positive, and just happens to be Burroughs’s literary agent. They’re friends for 10 years before Burroughs finally admits his feelings. It’s impossible. It’s ludicrous.

Reader, he married him.

It seems the stuff of rom-coms, of fairy tales, the lost child turned self-destructive adult transformed by love and granted entry into the dreamed of “normal life.” But I feel the heft of the mythological at work here. The years on a stormy sea, the conquests, the challenges to be faced and monsters to slay, and the final return home where you are welcomed and known, loved not in spite of your damage and your secrets but because of them, because they are part of you and in this safe harbor there is nothing to be ashamed of at last.



My Life in Books

I was flattered and delighted when We Wanted to be Writers asked me to contribute to their Books by the Bed series. I was also immediately thrown into all my old insecurities about not being good enough or smart enough or educated enough for this task, since We Wanted to be Writers has its genesis in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, a place that seems nearly mythical to me, like Camelot, and deals in fancy authors with impressive degrees and publications.

This particular demon, the one that tells me they made a mistake when they asked me to write for them, that I am unworthy, a hack, a pretender and a loser and no one is interested in anything I have to say, is named ‘Broken Childhood SUNY Bachelors Degree’ and it is an old friend by now. I have learned to ignore it, to tell it to hush and send it on its way.

One of the ways I learned to do this, to not snuggle with the demon and instead do the next good (scary) thing, was reading. Books have been my solace, my escape, my education, the father I needed, the adventure I craved, my ticket to the world. Over and over, I have been transformed and sustained by books. I do not exaggerate when I say Wally Lamb saved my life, Anne Lamott set me free, Atticus Finch showed me what a man is, Jennifer Weiner was the friend I needed.

Books have been my constant companion, they are how I lived my life. They are also how I remember it. And so, I shushed the demon and wrote a love poem to the stack by the side of my bed, that ever-changing tower of inspiration and friendship, grief and care.

Demons be damned.

My Books by the Bed post:

Reader Roundup (2010 edition, file this under “better late than never”)

The first day of Summer 2011 is June 21, so I figure I should post my thoughts on last year’s summer reading list before I get going on this year’s.

“I’m Down” by Mishna Wolff.  According to the Publisher’s Weekly review on Amazon:

Wolff details her childhood growing up in an all-black Seattle neighborhood with a white father who wanted to be black in this amusing memoir. Wolff never quite fit in with the neighborhood kids, despite her father’s urgings that she make friends with the sisters on the block.

I did in fact read this book, but memory fails. I do recall that it made me sad and angry, as memoirs about unhappy childhoods tend to. I know these kinds of stories are supposed to be uplifting (eventually), but it’s sort of like this ongoing argument my husband and I have about the movie Barton Fink, where he says it’s a comedy and I keep insisting that not only is it NOT FUNNY it’s actually a horror movie because, seriously, the NY playwright suffers crippling writer’s block and literally ends up in hell, writing scripts no one will ever read. Jonathan thinks this is HILARIOUS (and by the way — he’s a screenwriter) but I think it’s a nightmare. I felt the same way about Angela’s Ashes. Everyone was all, “Oh, it’s so wonderful and life affirming!!” but when baby number 3 died? I threw that book out the window.

Reading this book was like that.

“The Passage” by Justin Cronin.

I read this book before I got my Kindle and mostly what I remember is that it was very heavy. I needed a whole other bag to cart this doorstop around. And then I found out it was the first in a trilogy, which kind of astounded me because, really, what else is there to say after a bajillion pages? Even The Stand wound things up after 1,000 plus pages. But OK, I really loved a lot of it, particularly the parts about the night watch in the post-apocalypse city. And I’ll read the next one, due in 2012.

“Fly Away Home” by Jennifer Weiner.

Jennifer Weiner wrote this book, hence, I loved it. I love her. I think she is my friend, although she most certainly is not as we have never met. We are connected on Twitter, however, and I hope against hope that somehow this will blossom into an actual friendship IRL where we shop for shoes together. This book was great, by the way, and quite sexy, which was unexpected and made me feel sort of the way I did when I read Forever for the first time (in the Jurassic period) — that is, naughty and squirmy.

“Overexposed” by Susan Shapiro.

One of my favorite teachers wrote this novel, so I was prepared to love it. This book is so New York, so Jewish, so full of family and food and angst. It was the literary equivalent of eating a great big pastrami sandwich with a side of well-done salty fries and a Diet Coke. Yum.

“The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Yeah, didn’t read it. If I’m not mistaken, I got my hands on the sequel to Waiting to Exhale instead, and that was that. Which, by the way,  pissed me off, because seriously, I know you lost your reclaimed groove, Terry McMillan, but did we need to do that to Gloria? And to Savannah? No, we did not.

Update, in which I am seduced by abundance and an apple green cover

the magical souless kindle

Not so long ago I wrote a post about why I’ll never give up actual, physical books.

Today, my Kindle arrived.

It’s lovely, truly. It’s everything everyone says it is : Easy to read, even in bright sunlight! Genuinely easy to use! Immediate access to all the books ever written, plus dictionaries for looking up words you don’t know and would otherwise probably just ignore because the dictionary is way over on the other side of the room and you are so comfy on the couch!

It’s also a bit like having great sex with someone you don’t much care about, which is to say, it feels temporary and lacks intimacy. The thing has no soul, no whimsy.

And then there’s this delightful apple green cover I bought for it.

One of the things I treasure about physical books is the way they announce themselves when you hold them — hardcover or soft, the jacket design, the shape and heft. A book has personality. With Kindle, all the books look and feel the same — they all have the same shape, and they all have this same cover.

Still, the treasure is inside, and so I’m giving it a whirl. Maybe I’ll learn to love it, like a one-night stand that surprises and becomes something enduring.

But for now, we’re keeping it casual.

Summertime, and the reading is easy

Summer arrives this year on June 21, and with it comes my annual juicy-as-a-peach Solstice Book List. Here’s what you’ll catch me reading on the subway during the next couple of months:

“I’m Down” by Mishna Wolff.  According to the Publisher’s Weekly review on Amazon:

Wolff details her childhood growing up in an all-black Seattle neighborhood with a white father who wanted to be black in this amusing memoir. Wolff never quite fit in with the neighborhood kids, despite her father’s urgings that she make friends with the sisters on the block. Her father was raised in a similar neighborhood and—after a brief stint as a hippie in Vermont—returned to Seattle and settled into life as a self-proclaimed black man. Wolff and her younger, more outgoing sister, Anora, are taught to embrace all things black, just like their father and his string of black girlfriends. Just as Wolff finds her footing in the local elementary school (after having mastered the art of capping: think yo mama jokes), her mother, recently divorced from her father and living as a Buddhist, decides to enroll Wolff in the Individual Progress Program, a school for gifted children. Once again, Wolff finds herself the outcast among the wealthy white kids who own horses and take lavish vacations.

I lived in the Bronx, in a mostly black and Puerto Rican neighborhood, from the time I was 6 until I was 14 (from the mid-1970s through the early 1980s). I was one of about 7 white Jewish kids at PS 96 elementary school. There were fewer of us at PS 135 junior high. My mom married my step-dad when I was 12, and we moved to upper Westchester, NY — where in-ground backyard swimming pools and BMWs in the high school parking lot were commonplace — when I finished junior high. I’m curious to see how my experiences compare to Wolff’s.

“The Passage” by Justin Cronin. Are you fed up with sparkly, emotionally controlling, vegetarian, pseudo-religious, celibate, bad-Southern-accent talking, lame ass vampires? Do you want some government-experiment-gone-awry created, predatory, apocalyptic, scary ass vampires? “Hells yes!!!” you say? Here you go (from the Random House site):

“It happened fast. Thirty-two minutes for one world to die, another to be born.”

First, the unthinkable: a security breach at a secret U.S. government facility unleashes the monstrous product of a chilling military experiment. Then, the unspeakable: a night of chaos and carnage gives way to sunrise on a nation, and ultimately a world, forever altered. All that remains for the stunned survivors is the long fight ahead and a future ruled by fear—of darkness, of death, of a fate far worse.

As civilization swiftly crumbles into a primal landscape of predators and prey, two people flee in search of sanctuary. FBI agent Brad Wolgast is a good man haunted by what he’s done in the line of duty. Six-year-old orphan Amy Harper Bellafonte is a refugee from the doomed scientific project that has triggered apocalypse. He is determined to protect her from the horror set loose by her captors. But for Amy, escaping the bloody fallout is only the beginning of a much longer odyssey—spanning miles and decades—towards the time and place where she must finish what should never have begun.

With The Passage, award-winning author Justin Cronin has written both a relentlessly suspenseful adventure and an epic chronicle of human endurance in the face of unprecedented catastrophe and unimaginable danger. Its inventive storytelling, masterful prose, and depth of human insight mark it as a crucial and transcendent work of modern fiction.

“Fly Away Home” by Jennifer Weiner. This is a book by Jennifer Weiner, which means reviewers will call it delicious, hilarious, wise, irresistible, and witty, and I will consume it in one sitting and then want to throw it out the window because I didn’t write it. Weiner is the author of “Good in Bed” and its sequel “Certain Girls,” “In Her Shoes,” “Little Earthquakes,” “Goodnight Nobody,” “The Guy Not Taken,” and “Best Friends Forever.” I have no idea what this book is about, but I love Jennifer Weiner (I have never met her, mind you) and all her characters with my entire Jewish, chubby, funny, quick-witted soul, so I will read it and you should too. You should also follow her on Twitter, because she is a force of wonderful in this world. (This ends my fangirl rant.)

“Overexposed” by Susan Shapiro.  Susan Shapiro is brilliant, funny, generous, and my favorite writing teacher. Her books are edgy, biting and poignant — she makes you laugh while you’re crying and shows you the razor edge in laughter. Her new book, which comes out on August 3, is about two women who switch lives. From the Macmillan site:

Eager to finally stand on her own two feet, New York photographer Rachel Solomon finally escapes the clutches of her crazy Midwestern Jewish family, and the twisted machinations of her kooky best friend, Elizabeth. All is well until Elizabeth marries her brother, moves to her hometown, and becomes the daughter Rachel’s mother always wanted: popping out babies named after her crazy dead Jewish relatives.

In this comic novel, readers who delighted in Speed Shrinking will find amusement in Rachel’s desperate actions to prove herself worthy in the eyes of her traditional family—and navigate the precious waters between best friends.

“The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I was recently contacted by a love from long ago (damn you Facebook, you are such a double-edged sword). Hearing from this old boyfriend led — inevitably, inexorably, irresistibly — to thoughts of Jay Gatsby, to his beautiful shirts and the green light on Daisy’s dock. I haven’t read this book since I was a teenager, so I’m eager to experience it as an adult, a married woman, and a mother. I’m actually reading this as part of a vacation mini-book club with my best friend, Lisa, and her cousin Dara (with whom I’m extremely close), and I expect our discussion will include quite a bit of drunken exclaiming and long-lost love pining (which already makes it better than reading it in high school).

And there’s the preliminary list! I usually add to it as the summer progresses, so I’ll keep you updated on any new titles. Meanwhile, check back for my reviews of these summertime goodies, and leave a comment and let me know what you’re reading this summer.