Polyphonist’s #CBR5 Review #39: Let’s Pretend This Never Happened (A Mostly True Memoir) by Jenny Lawson

lets-pretend-this-never-happenedThis review is bittersweet for me. Some have said that they like hearing the back story about how one came to read a particular book, so here goes. This book is the last gift my ex-husband and ex-wife ever gave me. We were in a poly marriage where I was legally married to him for four out of the close to thirteen years he and I were together. We were with our wife for the latter ten years of those thirteen and had a private, (non legally binding) wedding ceremony (yes. it was a wedding ceremony. I don’t care who the hell disagrees with me) for the three of us. They essentially left me for each other. Our relationship had been having trouble for years and it was and is clear that they were much better suited for each other than the three of us were for each other. There were some very difficult times throughout our relationship, but we had all said that we wanted to stay friends after the separation and divorce last year. And for the most part, we tried. Last Christmas, I bought and sent them Christmas presents and sent them out and they also sent me Christmas presents, this book being one of them. Let’s review the title again, shall we? Let’s Pretend This Never Happened. Some would consider it cruel, but I unwrapped it and laughed. It was exactly the dark humor we all shared. When something was painful, laughing at it as soon as possible made everything better. And it was on my wishlist, so it’s not that it just came out of left field. All things considered, it was an incredibly thoughtful gift on many levels…that took me nearly a year to read, though, both because I had a hard time with the origin of the book and if you’ve never read Jenny Lawson (aka The Bloggess), let’s just say she has both a very distinctive voice and opinions that some people love and some hate (another fun fact: my ex-husband is in the latter camp).

So that’s how it came to be mine. And a few weeks ago, I finally was in a place where I could appreciate her unapologetically irreverent and brash awesomeness. Holy hell, I’m so glad I did! From the amusing and slightly horrified recounting of various family members’ body parts stuck up inside both living and dead animals (her dad’s a taxidermist…which only partially explains it) to the endearing (yet kinda crazy…in the best possible way) portrait of her marriage and family, this book was unlike any I’d ever read. (Save for Freak Show by James St. James…and that’s not to say it was like that, but that’s the only other book I’ve ever read that was wholly unlike any other. And actually, the Bloggess and the narrator of Freak Show do have a similar hyperbolic voice on occasion…but that’s where the similarities end between a woman raised in Texas with an offbeat taxidermy-laden childhood and a teenage drag queen trying to navigate the world of a private high school in Florida end.)

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened starts with Lawson talking about she was a three year old arsonist (kinda) and the next chapter highlights exactly how her childhood is probably way different than most people’s:

1. Most people have never stood inside a dead animal.
2. Most people don’t have poisonous tap water in their house.
3. Most people have running water.
4. Most people don’t have a cistern or even know what a cistern is.
5. Most people don’t have live raccoons in the house.

I can definitely say that I fall into the category of “most people” in all five instances and the story behind all of them are awesome. Of course, I didn’t have to live it…I think the only story in the book that I have actually lived through was the debate over whether Jesus is a zombie or not. Well, it wasn’t much of a debate. To the best of my memory, my exes agreed that Jesus is definitely a zombie.

The most hysterical story in the book is called “And That’s Why You Should Learn To Pick Your Battles” and starts with an argument between Lawson and her husband about not buying new bath towels. This, of course, led to her buying a six foot metal chicken named Beyonce. True story. Also a true story: that story was the first real introduction I had to The Bloggess, from her blog, before the book came out. So once, when driving through Kentucky last year, my ex-girlfriend and I came across a distillery and winery that also sold giant metal chickens. I remember screaming “Beyonce!” and then laughing hysterically until I cried. We stopped and had apple pie moonshine samples and a very good time. If I could’ve afforded a Beyonce of my very own, I totally would’ve. It was not in the cards (or my wallet, however.)

On the flip side, one of the sweetest and my favorite parts of the book, was when she and her husband went back to her childhood home for a visit. She was feeling nostalgic for the past:

I just wanted to go back to my life from my childhood, just to visit it, and to touch it, and to convince myself that yes, it had been real. Victor could tell I was upset, but I couldn’t find a way to describe it without sounding ridiculous. ”It’s nothing,” I said. ”It’s just that…Have you ever been homesick for someplace that doesn’t actually exist anymore? Someplace that exists only in your mind?”

He rocked with me on the front porch in silence, not knowing how to answer, and eventually he put his arm around me and told me everything would be alright, and then he went inside to get some sleep. He found me the next morning, still outside in the same rocking chair, and stared at me worriedly. He asked me gently, “Are you gonna be ready to go home this morning?”

I rocked in silence, and realized for the first time that “home” wasn’t this place anymore. It was where Victor was. It was both a terrifying and an enlightening realization, and I took a deep breath and thought carefully before answering.

“Yes. I’m ready to go home.”

It’s weird. Sometimes I get homesick for the family that I…we’d spent so long creating. But that’s not my home anymore. I have a new home in my new husband and they have a new home in each other. I miss them a lot, but they’ve made it clear that they don’t want to be friends, so I can’t make them. Which means I doubt I’ll be getting any other awesomely macabre gifts from them but I’m incredibly grateful for all the gifts I’ve been given, such as this fantastic book.

Advertisements

Polyphonist’s #CBR5 Review #33: Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, & Me – a graphic memoir by Ellen Forney

marbles-ellen-forney
With a subtitle like Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, & Me, you know this isn’t going to be your typical graphic novel. But then again, if you’ve read any of Ellen Forney’s other work, you’d know she’s not your typical graphic novelist/cartoonist. She’s also a teacher, cartoonist, columnist, and all around artist of life. She also is incredibly sex and body positive; early on in the book, she talks about the project she felt she was universally given: to help the women of the world to see themselves as beautiful and sexy, complete with adorable/sexy/awesome cartoon versions of the photo shoots she staged to help her with these projects.

Her work, as is the work and lives of other creative people throughout history who’ve dealt with mental illness in some way, is the focal point of this brilliant, personal, sometimes hard-to-take book. And while it was sometimes hard to take, I’m glad she created this book and I’m also grateful to have read it, since I’m also a creative person who’s had personal experience with various forms of mental illness. However, I’ve never been diagnosed with bi-polar disorder, I do have friends who have been, so the insight into that was enlightening. Forney meticulously charts her life from diagnosis to trying to figure out various treatments and medications to a place where she’s fairly stable and the illness is controlled.

Sometimes, the severe highs and lows she documents can be a bit too much just from reading so I can only imagine what she felt actually living through them, but overall, it was incredibly inspiring and educational. The research she does into the lives of prominent artists, writers, directors and other creative famous people is staggering and the questions she asks related to her findings are things that I still find myself curious about. For example, there are a few pages about Van Gogh, since, as she said, he “was truly the ultimate crazy tortured genius artist.” He dealt with hallucinations, suicide attempts, voices, mental hospitals, sever anxiety, seizures, violent rages, euphoria, depression. She included quotes from him such as “I have forsaken my pencil in discouragement,” “I shall always be cracked,” “Ideas come to me in swarms….I go on a painting, like a steam engine.”

And Forney wonders:

What would his art have been like if he hadn’t been “cracked”? Was it his demons that gave his art so much life? Or did he work in spite of them? What if he’s been stabilized on meds? Who knows?

In the last four years of his life, in and out of mental institutions, Van Gogh painted more than forty self-portraits. Was he trying to pin down the confusing swirls inside his head, to bring them outside?

Painting his self-portraits, did he find a sense of calm? Focus? Relief? …like I did? I like to think so. I hope so.

This wasn’t just a novel about one person’s struggle with mental illness, it was also a record of how it affected her family, friends, and work, how she fought to find meaning and art in it and relate to others from the past who maybe tried to do the same thing dealing with similar issues. It was educational about limits of power medical professionals have, but how much they can help if you find a good one. And even then, how slow the help can be as you adjust to the medication, the different types of therapy, or as you unwittingly sabotage your own recovery with poor choices and fear. It’s also a feast of Forney’s various art styles, including her take on famous pieces by other great artistis like Van Gogh, Munch, Alfred Stieglitz, and O’Keeffe, which is fitting because I think this subject especially can get dry, one note, terrifying, and easily misunderstood if you’re only ready words. The visual element helped bring home the vast highs and horrific lows in a way that words can’t always do.

Polyphonist’s #CBR5 Review #32: Friends With Boys by Faith Erin Hicks

Friends With Boys by Faith Erin Hicks
This was a great read; I loved the art, I adored the main characters, and the pacing was good. However, by the end, I was kind of confused about why it’s called Friends With Boys because the story seemed to center around the main character, Maggie, and her making friends with a boy and a girl. Granted, she does have three brothers that she learns better how to relate to over the course of the book, and I guess that could be considered becoming friends with them, but I was just expecting something other than the sweet coming-of-age tale of a teenager who’s mother used to home school her and her brothers but mysteriously ran off one day.

Another thing I wasn’t expecting? That Maggie is haunted. This storyline was interesting in many ways because it never really went into why she’s haunted and it wasn’t something that got resolved. Lots of times in stories, a ghost is still around because of “unfinished business” and while they did explore that a little, ultimately, that wound up not being resolved, which I appreciated. It also served to be a neat detail of interest for Maggie’s new friend, Lucy. The girl is punk, but not sterotypically so. She’s obsessed with maritime lore and legend, really bouncy, and slightly socially awkward, and I LOVE that about her. I greatly appreciate stories with strong, unique female characters like Maggie and Lucy.

The guys in the story were pretty varied, too, which was awesome. One of Maggie’s brother’s, Daniel, is a theater geek and a little on the large side (and constantly made me cast Jack Black in the role whenever his character made an appearance) while her other two older brothers, Zander and Lloyd, were more involved in this weird twin sibling kill-each-other thing. But it was obvious that they cared a lot about their little sister and each other. It was a realistically drawn broken but functioning family with some great friends to boot, and as such I highly recommend this graphic novel.

Polyphonist’s #CBR5 Review #28: Legacy of the Heart: The Spiritual Advantages of a Painful Childhood by Wayne Muller

legacyoftheheartlrg
My minister recommended I read this after I found out my husband cheated on me. Well, after I told him about that and he asked me to tell him about my life growing up and some of my other relationships. And I told him about my alcoholic and workaholic father, my mother with her host of problems, the familial strife and secrets, the arrested development I had until I was, oh, I don’t know…well into my 20’s more than likely. I hit the library, ordered a copy and started reading…and it hurt how close to home it hit. I don’t think I made it past the first two or three chapters the first time before returning it. Other books were easier. I was ready for them.

About a month ago, I decided to give it another try. Many things were changing in my life and I needed to take a serious look at some patterns that kept cropping up, see if the past I thought I had “dealt” with was really playing more into my present day than I thought.

And holy hell, I saw myself and my family (and my husband) in so much of this. Patterns of behavior, explanations to those patterns. And throughout the whole book, a gentle, uplifting message. That you can change and transcend those bad roots. And it gives you specific things to meditate about, clear ways to think about things in a new way, to examine why you do certain things and how to improve them.

I was partially afraid it would be a “blame your parents for all the shit that’s wrong with you and take no responsibility yourself” kind of book but it wasn’t. It acknowledges that there are some really fucked up things that parents or family members can do, but that you are the one who needs to make peace with that and move forward. It reminds you that you are not a powerless child anymore. That most likely you are an adult in charge of your own food, clothing, shelter, love, relationships, transportation. There is power in that. There is power in changing your thinking and seeking better from yourself and others in your life. And there is comforting power in this book.

Polyphonist’s #CBR5 Review #27: The Return of the Dapper Men by Jim McCann & Janet Lee

Return-of-the-Dapper-Men-HC_lo-res-259x300

I adored this book. Seriously, straight up adored. First, it’s visually stunning. It’s a graphic novel that’s done by decoupage by the skilled hand of Janet Lee. Second, Jim McCann’s writing style is crystal clear, yet packs a mysterious punch…like you got to peek in on a conversation with Willy Wonka.

The story centers on Ayden, a human boy, and his close relationship with the robot Zoe. Zoe doesn’t talk in any way that the reader can directly see, but Ayden hears her and responds to her in such a way that lets us all know what she’s saying. Plus, she’s very expressive. They live in a world that is without time. It lost the tick long ago, and without the tick, there can be no tock. And without the tock and the tick, there’s no time. And for some reason, this resulted in a world of 11 year olds and sentient machines that act like adults. The kids were supposed to live above in house, the machines below in gearland, or something. But when the tick and the tock were lost, things kind of got turned upside down and the kids went to live and create below the surface and the machines moved above. And so it went, day after day.

But see, there’s this clockwork angel that’s falling apart. And she communicates with Zoe. But someone else in town wants to make the clockwork angel his own, because (I think) he’s in love with her. And he wants to use Zoe in implied nefarious ways to get to his clockwork angel, who’s just out of his reach. She’s like a steampunk Statue of Liberty, just far enough away that no one can reach her. The little subplot of the evil guy was annoying and distracting to me, but luckily it couldn’t detract from how awesome and enigmatic the dapper men were in their pin-striped suits and bowler hats. They came to help make things grow again. To restore the tick and tock, and dawn and dusk, and to help usher in a new era of clocks that work.

Seriously, this is an enchanting book if you like Willy Wonka and Alice in Wonderland, then it’s very likely you’ll like this one. Also, it has a foreword by Tim Gunn, because awesome.

This is my favorite quote from the book, which gives a good idea of the tone:

Ayden: So that’s it then?
Dapper Man 41: Far from it!
Ayden: Then why did you stop talking?
DM 41: My mouth is tired. And words are tedious sometimes.
Ayden: But I still have so many questions.
DM 41: I know! Isn’t that wonderful?

Polyphonist’s #CBR5 Review #21: It’s Called a Breakup Because It’s Broken by Greg Behrendt & Amiira Ruotola-Behrendt

Its-Called-A-Breakup-Because-Its-Broken-Greg-Behrendt-Amiira-Ruotola-Behrendt
It’s rough to write about this one because of the breakup that necessitated reading it…again. That’s right, I originally read this one last year at the recommendation of a friend when my marriage ended after 10-13 years (Yes, you read that right. I’d explain, but it’s far more complicated and off-topic than I feel I should be.) However, since then, due to a relationship not going the way I planned, I had occasion to read it again. Because this is definitely a book to be reread when needed. In fact, I’ll endorse it like this:

I had a bunch of my stuff packed due to life shifts over the past year. This book, since I had read it last year and thought I’d found myself a glorious, lasting, wonderful relationship, was packed away. In one of my many book boxes. In a closet. Behind my nieces rack of clothes. Past the other random assortment of boxes. In a sloped ceiling closet, because it’s situated under the stairs to the next floor. So when I found out I was cheated on, I left. And knew I HAD to read this book again to help me through the horrible time I knew was coming. So I systematically took the clothes in bunches from the closet, laying them neatly on my bed, and then climbed past the makeshift hanging rack and stepped into the only space that would hold my foot. One foot. I lightly knelt on a stack of boxes beside me in the closet that is about three feet wide. So on one foot, I bent and started moving around boxes to get to my book boxes. That were buried all the way at the back. The space was so cramped that by the time I got to the last box, I had boxes stacked under me that I was bending over (still perched on one foot, btw), straining to reach and look through the very last of my book boxes. And there, at the bottom of the box, was this book. I almost started reading it right there, I was so relieved. Then I remembered I looked like a freaky ballerina, one foot on the ground, the other kicked up behind me resting on a stack of boxes, and me bent over yet another stack of boxes. I was sweaty, my calf hurt like hell, and I still had to put it all back and also extricate myself. All of this is, of course, not a review of the book, but a testament to how good I think it is. I went through over an hour in a cramped, warm closet searching for this book because of how good I remember it being. And I wasn’t disappointed the second time through.

I will say that sometimes it can seem like it’s trying too hard. There’re only so many times I can be referred to as a Superfox, Saucy Girl, and Smart, Happening Lady before it gets a little too cheeky. But the balance is right on the line, so overall I’m good. And it still packs a nice little punch for being contemporary:

“The first rule of the smart girl’s breakup is NO CALLING…the same goes for text messaging, instant messaging, BlackBerrying, blueberrying, or any other form of communication. “

It’s also chock full of good advice and things to think about:

“Putting down that pint of ice cream may not FEEL like the right thing to do, but if you change your behavior first, your feelings will follow.
“When a marriage or any significant relationship collapse, the sadness and grief can be overwhelming. In the midst of all this heartache and pain, you have to comprehend and adjust to the idea that your whole universe has been upended, even when you know it’s the right thing. Going through a breakup is awful. It’s a full-body experience. Every nerve ending feels it constantly, and every second feels like an eternity in your head.”
“Actions speak louder than words and his actions have led him to have a naked party with someone else.”
“Try shooting for feeling ‘different’ instead of ‘amazing,’ or ‘less depressed’ instead of ‘all better’.”
“How can it be over? Because it is.”
“Take off your victim pants.”
“When you feel the urge to crawl into bed, you need to call a friend and make a plan that forces you to get out of the house. Instead of sitting around feeling sad and broken, you want to be doing something that makes you feel strong and resilient.”
“It doesn’t take that much self-control to set boundaries for your grieving process that are as simple as ‘I’m not going to lose my shit in public today and I’m going to wear something that makes me look good’.”

If you don’t like a fairly hefty dose of snarky humor, facing some hard truths about yourself and your relationship, and some epic stories of really bad breakups to make your look tame by comparison, then this book isn’t for you. But if those things appeal to you, and you or someone you know is going through a breakup, check this one out. There are workbook exercises, really good step-by-step advice on how to get through the pain of a breakup, and also some much needed, self-esteem boosting, all with a playful yet “hey, we’ve been there, too” tone. Which is one of the things I liked best about the book. The authors both share their crazy, not-too-proud post-breakup experiences, making it seem all the more real and accessible. Reading this book was kind of like sitting around with friends and a few bottles of wine, bitching about breakups but tempered with seeing your therapist the next day. It may not be the breakup book for everyone, but it definitely was for me. I just really hope I don’t need it anymore.

Polyphonist’s #CBR5 Review #20: Broken Open by Elizabeth Lesser

Image
Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow came across my path just at the right time. I had just left my husband after finding out he’d cheated on me and I felt…well, broken open was a pretty good description. If there was one thing I didn’t want to do, it was wallow in the grief and confusion I had. So, naturally, I turned to books. And thankfully, Lesser wrote a fantastic book for anyone coping with a staggering loss or pain.

One of the things I loved most about this book was Lesser’s infinite human-ness. She shares personal stories about things she’s done that she’s not proud of and fully owns up to them. One of the most painful chapters for me was called “The Shaman Lover” in which she talks of how she had an affair, and why. She takes responsibility for it and talks about how it fits into an archetype she’s seen other people experience, too:

You will know you are on a journey with a Shaman Lover if you feel a sudden loss of control, a fearsome sense of abandon, and especially an air of foreignness. The Shaman Lover is not the one you thought could turn the large ship of your life around. If you thought you would be attracted to someone with money, he is broke; if you wanted respectability, she’s a gypsy; if you longed for a sweet romance, he’s mean; if you wanted deep peace, she’s trouble.

While I still don’t fully understand cheating, I do know that it happens and there are many different reasons. And I know that it’s not the worst thing in the world and that difficult times can, indeed, help us grow. This book helped me take a hard look at my life,the choices I made that led me to where I was, how to better go through my own “phoenix process”, and come out of the ashes stronger and happier. Lesser is a compassionate, giving author who gently helps you explore places that hurt, types of grief that people find especially difficult to talk about, and incorporates all manner of spiritual teachings to help guide and support her writing.