Saturday, December 20, 2014

Finding Me: A Decade of Darkness, a Life Reclaimed: A Memoir of the Cleveland Kidnappings by Michelle Knight

Bad hings happen to people. Sometimes these things are so bad that all you can do is just stare blankly into space while your mind does a little skip, while you think, "How the fuck could someone survive something so utterly horrible?"

Michelle Knight is one of those people.

A lot of these kidnapping/abuse memoirs tend to have an idyllic "before" to contrast against the "after." I know Elizabeth Smart's memoir was like that, and so was Jaycee Dugard's. Not so with Michelle Knight. Her "before" was also miserable -- it just happened that the "after" was, in some ways, worse.

She grew up poor in an ambivalent family. They were semi-homeless when she was a little girl and then moved into a bigger house, which was then filled with transient relatives. One of these relatives decided to first molest, and then rape and abuse Michelle for years. Eventually, she decided to run away from home. She lived under a bridge for several weeks until a church member found her and took her to a homeless shelter. Shortly after that, she got recruited to be a runner for a man who sold weed. For a while, she lived with the dealer, and his other, male runner, but then her family found her and brought her back and the rapes continued.

The kidnapper, Ariel Castro, was actually the father of one of Michelle's friends. Police say that when bad things happen to women, the perpetrator is often someone the victim knows. There's a lot of victim-blaming when things like these happen to women. "Oh, well she shouldn't have stopped to talk to him," or, "oh, she shouldn't have gotten into the car." But Ariel Castro was someone Michelle knew -- or thought she knew. And we don't usually assume our acquaintances are psychopaths.

In an attempt to dissociate -- or maybe to dehumanize -- or both -- Michelle refers to Castro as "the dude" in her narrative. The dude kidnapped her and tied her up to a pole in the basement, putting on a heavy motorcycle helmet to muffle her screams. He raped her so badly that she was injured, and then wouldn't let her bathe for eight months. Michelle got pregnant five times while in captivity, and each time, the dude would beat her until she miscarried. By the end of the fifth, her body was so damaged that she would never be able to bear a child the natural way again. At one point, the dude starves her until she is so hungry, she consumes a mustard-covered hot dog -- and she's allergic to mustard. Even when she went into anaphylactic shock, the dude refused to take her to the hospital, instead giving her some over-the-counter medicine, and leaving his other two victims to take care of her.

That's right -- the dude kidnapped two other women, as well: Gina DeJesus and Amanda Berry. They were raped and abused, as well, and Amanda eventually got pregnant and bore a child named Jocelyn. The dude never beat them as often as he did Michelle. He kept them separate, so Michelle points out that it is difficult to know what, exactly, happened to the other women, but the dude did seem to disproportionately beat and mistreat Michelle. He called her ugly, and mocked her because unlike Amanda and Gina, nobody was looking for her. Not even the cops. He said that this was because nobody loved or cared about her, and that this was why he hated her the most.

Michelle says in the memoir that the only thing that got her through her ordeal was the desire to see her son again. When in high school, she slept with a boy she liked. The boy turned out to be using her, but Michelle kept the child. He was taken away from her because her mother's boyfriend broke the little boy's leg, and CPS decided that Michelle's home was an unsafe environment. On the day that she was kidnapped, Michelle was desperately trying to get an appointment to visit her son in order to regain custody.

After she was kidnapped, her son, Joey, was adopted out to a foster family. Because of what happened to Michelle, she may never see her child again because what happened to her would be so traumatic and unsettling for a child to understand. She did receive a photograph album of her boy from the family, which was kind of them -- they didn't have to write back -- but I can't imagine what it must be like, to lose your child, surmount this incredible obstacle, and then lose your child again.

FINDING ME was an interesting memoir. Captor/captive romances are vogue these days, but I think it's important to remember the gritty reality of the situation, too. Chiefly that people who do such things in real life are sick fucks. A lot of fiction doesn't really capture (ha -- capture) that. One thing I found interesting was how childlike Michelle Knight's narrative voice was. In a way, it made the situation that much more horrific, because it sounded like it was being written by a small scared child. Which, when you think about it, kind of makes sense. Regression can be a survival tactic.

I found this an interesting read. It was imperfect, but authentic -- and that's important.

4 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Trash: An Innocent Girl. A Shocking Story of Squalor and Neglect by Britney Fuller

TRASH is one of the most disturbing memoirs in a while, and is a perfect example of how reading memoirs -- especially personal ones -- can sometimes feel voyeuristic. One Goodreads user, whose name I cannot remember at the moment sadly, refers to these types of books as "misery memoirs." They are memoirs of abuse or squalor, and the sole purpose of the books seems to be to shock (even if that isn't the actual purpose). In TRASH, Britney Fuller describes what her life was like living with a semi-abusive hoarder.

Having finished the book, all I can say is: holy fucking shit.

The hoarding that went on in the Fuller household is truly disgusting. What makes it even more disgusting is that Britney's mother was a chef -- considering her mother's personal habits, she shouldn't have been allowed anywhere near food being prepared for the public's consumption.

What, exactly, happened in this book? Welllllll...

Britney's mother was obese and had a lot of sores from the unsanitary conditions of the house. She got naked the moment she got home from work and sat around and wandered around in the nude. Even when she was on her period (and no, she didn't use pads or tampons). When Britney was "bad", Britney's mother made her scrub her period blood from the floor and the bathroom.

Britney's mother also didn't feel the need to get up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom. She would pee her bed, rather than get up. She did this so often that the sheets were soaked with urine every day, which she then made her daughter wash. Her mattress actually had an indent from all the peeing. When Britney fractured her hip at one point, the pee-divot was deep enough that when Britney lay on her mother's bed, it actually elevated her leg. (Shudder.)

Rats and mice lived in the house, and also birds at one point. There was so much mold that Britney had bacterial bronchitis six times while living with her mother, coughing up bloody phlegm and actually throwing up and passing out several times.

Britney's mother also filled her car with trash. She volunteered at a church, and fed the kids in the church snacks which she kept in this same car. Ew! At one point, Britney has to borrow the car for work, and cleans it out with the help of her boyfriend. They find rotting food and fruit flies that have been living in the car for so long, in the darkness, that they have become albino. (Fruit flies have short lifespans and breed quickly, so genetic mutations so up quickly, making them ideal for study.)

It was Britney's job to clean up after her mother, and if she didn't do a satisfactory job, she was punished. I think her mother had a lot of issues that weren't really touched upon in this book. I would guess she had OCD (hoarding is a type of OCD -- it's also the hardest variety to treat), and at least one type of mood disorder, just based on the symptoms, but it's hard to tell because this is only Britney's side of the story and she's obviously (and understandably) not unbiased.

I devoured this book in just under a day. Britney's life was so awful that it was like a train wreck, I couldn't look away -- I had to find out what was going to happen next, and how she was going to get out of this mess (would she get out of this mess?). The squalor was awful, and so was her mother's abuse, but Britney was also having a lot of trouble fitting in at school, and as someone who was bullied, I could really relate to her sense of loneliness and isolation.

One thing that did upset me was how much pressure Britney put on her boyfriend, Adam. She decided that he was going to be her knight in shining armor, to the point where she wouldn't let him go to Utah to pursue his dreams because it was his job to spirit her away from her mother. They had a big fight, with Britney pressuring him to call off his trip and stay with her. I hate to say it, but this really made me angry. Considering how fucked up her family was, it's pretty amazing that Adam didn't just turn and run. Boxing him into a corner like that seemed really wrong. I mean, I get that she was desperate and didn't have a lot of options, and I can't even put myself into her shoes and imagine what it would be like to be afraid to come home, but I could understand what it would be like to have someone decide that you're meant to be their saving grace (because this has happened to me), and I just cringed all over. Because love cannot be one's salvation, contrary to what the new adult books these days would have you believe. Only you can fix your problems. Sometimes you need the help of others, but you have to take the initiative to get the help, however possible. Other people can't make you feel whole if you're broken inside, and using love -- or attraction -- as a cure is tantamount to sticking a broken vase back together with Scotch tape.

Apart with this one issue, I really enjoyed this book. Well...enjoyed is probably the wrong word. I found this book fascinating. Even if it was a misery memoir, and even if my main reaction after reading it was, "Thank God I don't have to put up with this shit -- literally!" (No, seriously, literally.)

4 out of 5 stars.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Lovely Wild by Megan Hart

I tend to be leery of women's fiction. They always seem to be marketed as the book equivalent of Lifetime movies. In Megan Hart's case, this is a pretty apt comparison -- there is nothing particularly intellectually stimulating about Hart's books; they are the literary equivalent of snarfing down a bag of chocolates. Unlike 99.9% of the crap out there, however, Megan Hart is actually a good writer. I received a copy of one of her newer books, FLYING, from Netgalley, and quite enjoyed it! The character depth and cracktastic storyline made a very tired cliche exciting. When another Megan Hart book appeared on Netgalley, I applied for it immediately. Surely, this one would be even better!

Now, I understood from the get-go that the books were going to be totally different in tone. FLYING was erotica with drama. LOVELY WILD is -- *shudder* -- women's fiction; fiction with pseudo-literary aspirations, but too chick-litty to be mainstream, basically. Think Jodi Picoult on her period.

LOVELY WILD is about the Calder family. Ryan is a psychologist. Mari is a stay-at-home mom. They have two children, Kendra and Ethan. Just your typical, run-of-the-mill perfect family. Except not really. Because Mari was a feral child who suffered extreme abuse and neglect; for a while, she couldn't even speak, and she fought dogs for food. Calder's father adopted Mari into his household, which made it really awk when he and Mari started hooking up. Calder's (now-ex)-wife never forgave Mari for tearing the family apart, and thinks there's something ungodly about hooking up with your step-sister-slash-father's-patient, and on this, I think that she is probably not wrong.

Anyway, lots of unethical things happen in this book. Because Ryan sleeps with one of his patients, and then she commits suicide. Now he's facing a huge malpractice suit, and will probably lose his license. But it's okay, because he has an idea of how to make big bucks -- by selling his wife's story without her knowledge. Ryan thinks that this is totally okay, because silence, to him, is the same thing as tacit agreement, even if he fails to enlighten her on the subject. And while he does tell her that he's facing a malpractice suit and money is tight, he doesn't bother educating her on the severity of their financial situation, nor does he tell her that he's losing his job because he couldn't keep his ween in his pants. Ryan also takes money from his wife's accounts (ladies, this is why you shouldn't tell the hubs your pin) because he figures she'd totally be cool with it, after all, what is money?

I spent 90% of the book wanting something terrible to happen to Ryan. He is a terrible excuse for a human being and I don't really understand why the author made him so horrible, because he doesn't suffer any real consequences for his actions. I mean, Good God! When he buys and then moves the family into the house where his wife was abused as a child, he is surprised and annoyed when his wife starts suffering trigger attacks. No wonder the yutz is losing his medical license. FFS.

There is a mystery about Mari's origins, and it's a total mindfuck...sort of. The thing is, it takes so long to get to the grand reveal that I'm not entirely sure that it's worth it. Most of the book is Ryan being a douche, Mari hoarding and eating Hostess snack cakes, Kendra having teen drama, and constant hinting on Megan Hart's part that Something is going to happen Soon...but she never really shows when it's going to happen. I don't really like the carrot and the stick trick. It seems cheap.

The feral child angle really made this book unique. I learned about feral children in my developmental psychology classes (Jeannie is the most famous, I think. There's also the boy who was raised as a dog, and the wild boy of Aveyron). It's fascinating and terrible what happens when the normal process of psychological development in children is disrupted by a lack of nuturance. Hart obviously did her research because this part of the book could have been extremely painful, but I thought it was executed rather well.

Ironically, it's the emotional stuff and the relationships that really made me dislike LOVELY WILD. I didn't care for Mari, or her kids, or Ryan. I mean, I despised Ryan, but Mari annoyed me enough in her own way that I found it hard to feel sorry for her, she just wasn't an empathetic character. The ending was pretty anticlimactic, too. So after all that, you're just going to pretend to be Joe Normal? Really? That doesn't seem like a very realistic reaction to what they learned about their family...

1.5 to 2 out of 5 stars.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

I Was a Child: A Memoir by Bruce Eric Kaplan

A year ago, I was approved for HYPERBOLE AND A HALF on Netgalley. It was one of the best, most honest memoirs that I have ever read. There was so much I could relate to. Allie Brosh has such a raw and honest style of writing, made better by her simple yet hilarious cartoons, and to this date, I think that her famous depression comic is the most accurate portrayal of the disorder.

When I saw Bruce Kaplan's memoir, I WAS A CHILD, on Netgalley, almost a year later, my first thought was, "Oh, here it comes, the copycats begin." Because I WAS A CHILD looked like a blatant attempt to piggyback on the success of Allie Brosh's memoir. But sometimes I have been pleasantly surprised by books, and HYPERBOLE was so good that I was left in a book funk for a while after finishing it, so I read this with hope.

I WAS A CHILD was a terrible book. The cover is misleading; it makes you think that this is going to be a graphic novel. It isn't. Kaplan opens each section with a few sentences and then has one doodle accompanying it. The doodles are about as elaborate as what you would see in a Shel Silverstein poem except considerably less charming and detailed. I really didn't care for them.

Kaplan's memoir itself reads like a guy on a first date trying to make his mundane and trivial life sound epic and interesting. He's eloquent, I guess, but that's the only thing he has going for him. Towards the end, when Kaplan writes about growing up in the fifties, the memoir gets a little better, but I wasn't won over. Even at the end, when he talks about his parents both succumbing to cancer, Kaplan sounded so detached. Maybe that was grief, but even so, he wasn't someone I could relate to. Everything about this just seemed so calculated and impersonal.

Plus, I hate to say it, but he seems like a strange and not very nice person.

Here are some quotes:

 We had a hamster who we named Hampy. One day, she somehow gave birth to baby hamsters and we clamored around her tank, looking at them. Then we watched in horror as Hampy ate all her babies. My mother told us it was because we scared Hampy.

I felt we were too much for Hampy, just as we were too much for her (20).

That is literally the exact same thing, only restated. I think he meant to say, "just as she was too much for us."

Everything in our house was repaired with Scotch tape. If a paint chip was coming off, it was taped down. If there was a tear in the lamp shade, a piece of tape was put on it.I felt held together by Scotch tape, and still do (33).

Oh, please. What is this, 2005? Go listen to some Smile Empty Soul.

I loved crawlspaces under people's houses, and still do. I wish I could crawl under your house right now (96).

That's very creepy.

I just read this quote to my dad, and he said, "We have a slab. Good luck with that."

There was an annual school fair at Tuscan. Every year, I won a goldfish. It was always very exciting to carry it home in its bag and then very sad when you flushed it down the toilet a few weeks later (156).

How many times do you have to kill something before you realize you're not fit to take care of it?

This book was a pretty big fail, in my opinion.

1 to 1.5 out of 5 stars.

Friday, December 12, 2014

The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

With 163,915 ratings on Goodreads and an average of 3.24, it seems pretty safe to say that THE CASUAL VACANCY is not a book people like. Far from it, in most cases.

I told myself that I was going to write this review without mentioning Harry Potter, but that's going to be pretty hard to do because the author of this book is J.K. Rowling, international superstar, who became famous by wowing everyone with her tales of witchcraft and wizardry and a boy who lived...

I was privileged in the sense that Harry Potter book #1 came out when I was ten years old. Every year, another book would follow, so I was always the same age as Harry and his friends. It really felt like I was growing up with the characters, which made them more relatable and more beloved.

A lot of my friends were fanatics, and felt the need not only to show their love for the books but to preach it and impose it on others, as if it were a religion. Ironically, I was never really a fangirl. I loved the books, and they will always hold a special place in my heart, but they did not become one of my reasons to even. I was sad when the series ended, but happy that Rowling didn't see the need to stretch it out for another ten years to milk the cash cow. Instead, she did the good thing -- the right thing -- and sent her to pasture.

So when I found out that Rowling was writing a new book that had nothing to do with witches or wizards, I was wary but excited. I don't think writers should be confined to one genre. I was surprised by the number of fans who were whining about how this wasn't fantasy. That, to me, seemed very hurtful. It says (to me) "You are a one-trick pony, and I am not going to watch if you attempt to do a different trick because I like what is predictable and familiar to me." A good writer should want to expand her horizons. Harry Potter was good, but it is YA, which comprises a very specific niche of the book market. It seemed understandable to me that Rowling would want to write for other audiences, to mature her career, and another one of those amazing coincidences because I had grown from a romantic child into a jaded and often pessimistic adult. THE CASUAL VACANCY, with its promises of portraying humanity at its worst, seemed right up my Diagon Alley.

And it was.

(In fact, I think the response to CASUAL VACANCY is part of the reason Rowling wrote CUCKOO's CALLING under a pseudonym. I think she wanted to see if her books would get a different reception without the Rowling name attached -- and they did. People who wanted books in that genre picked them up, and enjoyed them because they had no preconceived notions or expectations. I was very upset when I found out that Rowling's books were leaked, even though it did end up introducing me to another (two now) book by one of my favorite authors. Authors have very fragile egos, even successful ones, and I imagine it was probably very frustrating for Rowling to see people trashing her book just because it dealt with reality over fantasy, and didn't have wizards).

Because most of the negative reviews seem to have come from Harry Potter fans who picked up this book expecting it to somehow have some sort of relationship to Harry Potter. Some of them are from people who were annoyed by the fact that this book is almost entirely without plot (it is) and mostly character-driven (yup). Even more were put off by the fact that there were no redeeming characters (I'm going to disagree here, but that's my personal opinion), and that CASUAL VACANCY deals with unsavory topics such as rape, pedophilia, mental illness, cheating, drug use, underage sex, prostitution, and more. Which it does. In spades. Many uncomfortable spades.

But I liked THE CASUAL VACANCY. In many ways, it reminded me of Dave Barry's work. Here, you have a very likable author who has a dark sense of humor and a knack for portraying humanity at its idiosyncratic worst. The plot of TCV is basically that the mayor of a town in England has died, and this town is in danger of splitting into two because nobody likes the poor part or the fact that they have a small population that require the use of a methadone clinic. Obviously, people start jockeying for his place, there are power struggles and, because this is a small town, malicious gossip. The teens in this town sleep around, and do nasty things to their parents, and the parents do nasty things to each other. People cheat, or covet what isn't theirs, or beat their kids. Or they do drugs and enable rape, or they take pleasure in other people's pain. Sometimes they do good things too, though. Like they might try to save a methadone clinic, or help a poorer family get back on track.

THE CASUAL VACANCY was a long book but I devoured it in just under three days. It was the kind of book that I thought about long after I had to put it aside, calculating when I could pick it up next. I was reading it through my lunch and my breaks, and then I took it home from work and read it while I ate my dinner, and then took it to my bedroom and read it some more after I'd changed into my pajamas. Yes, the characters are awful, but they're human, and one of the most interesting things about humans is that they can be complete and utter douchebags and they can also do wonderful things -- and sometimes the people responsible for these two states affairs are one and the same.

Rowling was always really good at character development and fleshing out unique and interesting characters. That was clear in Harry Potter and it's clearer in THE CASUAL VACANCY, which is an excellent character study of small town English life. I work in retail, so I often see people at their worst and at their best, and a lot of the things that happened in this book had me nodding along, going, "Yup." We might not like it, but we're far from perfect. But that doesn't necessarily make us evil. The ending was a bit of a downer, but I've been in a bit of a mood lately, so a happy ending probably would have raised my eyebrows anyway. As it was, I thought it served this book quite well.

4 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Pop: The Genius of Andy Warhol by Tony Scherman

First off: I am not dead. I am just working about 40-50 hours a week. I haven't been reading or writing, and life is just really stressful right now. Really stressful.

Disclaimer: I have never found the 60s inspirational, nostalgic, or fascinating. I think hippies are stupid. I think 60s music is overhyped, discordant, and, for the most part, terrible. And, with very few exceptions, I am not a fan of the art. Andy Warhol is (sort of) one of those exceptions. To me, though, Warhol is less a genius than the embodiment of tasteless kitsch. Like, I would happily hang a print of a Campbells soup can in my kitchen, for example, because it (to me) has a country kitchen vibe to it. But I would not pay $1,000,000 for his work. No, no, I would not.

(My favorite pop artist is actually Wesselman.)

But Andy Warhol's designs are pretty cool. They definitely have an appeal that spreads from the lowest common denominator to the self-professed highbrows. So I guess in that sense maybe he is a genius. A marketing genius. I may hate E.L. James, for example, but nobody can argue that the woman fails at being a pimp for her wares. The success of FSoG continues to baffle me--especially since it started out as fanfiction. And in that sense, she and Warhol are also similar because most of his designs were ripped from other things--brands, silk screens, photographs. He didn't even do most of his silk-screening himself.

But, like I said, he's an interesting guy. I had no idea he had so many health problems, and his homosexuality in an unforgiving era--especially with disfigurements that made him an outcast among men looking for arm candy--made him a more sympathetic figure than he otherwise might have been. So I stuck it out, hoping that I would learn something, and maybe even become touched. But I've been reading POP at work for several weeks now and about 100 pages from the end (it's a long book) I decided to call it quits.

POP is a biography of Andy Warhol but, like most biographies, it is not content to confine itself to the life of the person it is about. Rather, POP aspires to be a sweeping portrait of the zeitgeist of the late 50s to the mid-60s. At this, I have to say it fails. The tone is uneven -- sometimes it reads like a trashy gossip mag; at others, like a dry and incredibly dull history textbook.

Another thing that irritated me is the color plates in the center of the book. I was really excited to see reproductions of Mr. Warhol's art, but no. Only a few of the plates are actually of his work. Most of them are artists who were inspired by Warhol, or contemporaries of Warhol. They were very stingy with the artwork in my opinion. I don't know if that's because they couldn't get the rights to it, or if they just decided to cheap out, but it really damaged the value of this book to me, because now I can't say, "Well, the book was terrible, but at least it had great art."

It takes a lot of talent to make a book about an influential figure unreadable, so I guess in that sense the people who edited and wrote this book are geniuses as well.

Perhaps being a genius is overrated.

1 out of 5 stars.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Genius and Heroin: The Illustrated Catalogue of Creativity, Obsession, and Reckless Abandon Through the Ages by Michael Largo

The title--and the cover--of this book made me think that GENIUS AND HEROIN was going to be an in-depth analysis of famous, brilliant heroin (and other drug) users throughout history that researched some of the links between brilliance and mental illness. On this note, the book is highly misleading.

Yes, GENIUS AND HEROIN does feature famous people who died of drug overdose who also happened to be brilliant... and yet, it also features people who died of heart attacks, in car accidents, or even by suicide or murder. The people featured in this morbid encyclopedia range in profession to regent, writer, and obscure silent film star.

Part of the problem with GENIUS AND HEROIN is that it is packaged as something it is not. The misleading title is one thing; but it extends to the content, too. The illustrations often have nothing (or little) to do with the text they're placed alongside. The quotes are anachronistic and sometimes irrelevant, as well -- for example, you might find a quote from Voltaire in Ivan the Terrible's passage, or Christopher Morley in Diogene's (in fact, that's exactly what happens).

Each famous person ("genius," I guess) has 1-2 pages (often less) outlining what they were known for and how they died. It gets very tedious after a while. I suppose this is one of those books that isn't meant to be read in an entire sitting, but I don't have a lot of time to read anymore, and when I read a book, I want something that I can devour greedily, not choke on with only tons of effort.

How serious are these problems? If this were an article written by a prestigious newsgroup, people would be accusing them of resorting to click-bait, and questioning whether they have moved out of their golden age and into a slow decline.

1 out of 5 stars.