Can Addiction be Dark and Funny? Perhaps, in "How to Murder Your Life: A Memoir", by Cat Marnell - Book Review

What exactly does murdering one’s life entail? Cat Marnell’s biography about her experiences as an alcohol soaked, drug riddled magazine beauty editor give you a front row seat into how she murdered hers.

[BEWARE: SPOILER ALERT AHEAD]

After reading over 300 pages about Marnell’s teeth gritting addictions and accompanying behaviors, I cannot express my level of disappointment to find out, at the end, that she didn’t get sober. Despite her raw exposure of the tortuous life she led, the jobs she lost, the abuse she suffered, the friends she screwed over, the family she manipulated, only to find out that she is still using, was a severe letdown.

To give credit where credit is due, Marnell is a fantastic storyteller and skilled writer. As she’s recounting some of her more harrowing experiences, she manages to do it in such a cavalier, causal way, that only after a few pages do you realize the severity of what she has just disclosed. She also has an acerbic wit. Her banter warms you to her and makes you feel as though she’s just telling you her story. 

Marnell seems to understand the dangers of her addiction. At one point she asks the reader, “is reading this stuff getting repetitive? Welcome to addiction.” The highs she describes do not read as fun. They read as desperate and edgy, painful both physically and mentally. The lows, as one can imagine, are soul crushing.

That is why her ending is so unsatisfying. Why take the time to expose your pain and agony in this shocking regard only to continue on the same path? In her epilogue, she alleges she’s cut out all the “hard stuff” as well as alcohol. I know the latter is not true, though, because I checked out her Twitter page which is rife with photos of booze.

If you’re interested in reading the well-written, harrowing biography of a drug addict who isn’t clean, I recommend How to Murder Your Life fully. If you read these kinds of books to see the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel, skip it.

Perhaps Ms. Marnell is just doing research for her REAL foray into sobriety. For her sake, I hope she finds it.

Published: 2017
Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Elizabeth's rating: Halfway down the middle, 2.5

Surviving a Cult in the Memoir, "The Sound of Gravel", by Ruth Wariner - Book Review

The Sound of Gravel is a memoir from a surviving member of a polygamist Mormon cult and the author’s focus is on how the strain of the cult’s ‘religious’ tenets affected her family.

Set mostly in Mexico, Ruth Wariner recounts her family’s multi-generational membership in the Colonia LeBaron, which was originally founded by her grandfather in 1944. Though the colony started off hopeful and prosperous, by the time Ruth was born, it was in decline both in membership and sustainability.

Ruth was the fourth of her mom Kathy’s ten children. Ruth’s real dad died when Ruth was small so the only father figure in her life was Lane, her step-father. Lane had other wives with other children and despite very limited resources, Kathy and Lane continued having kids. True to her faith, Kathy believed women were on the earth to bear children for God’s kingdom and God would take care of them irrespective of the realities of their circumstances.

The tone of this cult memoir varies from others due to Ruth’s prescience and objectivity from a young age. Early on, Ruth decides she will not follow in the tradition of her mother’s faith once she has the power to make her own choices. As she virtually raises most of her siblings, she recognizes that her mom’s choices are jeopardizing all of their lives. About her mom, in the end she posits, “she wasn’t a monster, she was just another human who’d gone looking for her life and somehow ended up on the wrong path.”

For Wariner, her story ends on a positive note, but it was no thanks to the circumstances in which she grew up. She prevailed over excruciating hardship and terrible tragedy – all of which could have been avoided but for the presence of the cult in her family’s life.

As most all of these books tend to be, it is a renewed reminder that cults, under the definition of “religions that are unorthodox or spurious”, should be treated with disdain and intolerance. Because the detriment to the whole of group is vastly greater than the benefit to the few at the top.  

Published: 2016
Publisher: Flatiron Books

Elizabeth’s rating: 3 stars

Realization of an American Social Crisis in "Hillbilly Elegy", by J.D. Vance - Book Review

These are the people we really don’t talk about. We may drive through their towns on a road trip, but it’s never our destination. We may even roll up the windows as we do, and lock the doors. They live in broken down factory or mining towns, and there doesn’t seem to be a lot to hope for.

J.D. Vance is one of them - a hillbilly. He grew up in Ohio, spent time in Kentucky, but always with his people. There are vast numbers of them that stretch across Appalachia and migrated into other states, following the jobs. Vance’s autobiography and account of the mindset and perspectives of the people living in these regions is not only eye opening, but jarring. I know there are millions of poor and undereducated in the U.S., and sometimes see it on the news or come face to face with it on the street - for a fleeting moment.

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Punk's Not Dead in "Die Young With Me", by Rob Rufus - Book Review

To be honest, I didn’t want to like this book. A book about a punk kid (no, really, he was in a punk band), I feared it would be another sad cancer story that would make me feel bad. It did that, yes, but it cracked into my heart in deep and unexpected ways.

Rufus grew up in Huntington, WV, and was living a single dimensional life until one day he found punk rock music. Then, the technicolored lights turned on. He and his identical twin, Nat, fell in love with the genre and after consuming any and every album they could physically get their hands on, they started their own punk band, Defiance of Authority.

The band was gaining traction, Rob was dating a hot cheerleader, and things were on the upswing for the Rufus twins except for the nagging cough Rob couldn’t shake. Rufus’ experiences with the local ER shed light both on the inadequacies of medical care in smaller locales in the country as well as the prejudices that go beyond the color of one’s skin.  

Once properly diagnosed, Rufus began treatment in Columbus Children’s hospital hours away from home. Rufus tells his cancer story in such a gruesome and heartbreaking manner, the book is simultaneously hard to read and tough to put down.

What sets his story apart, I think, is his age. Rufus was seventeen at the time of diagnosis, so still legally a minor. He was far from a child, though, and his stories of the pediatric cancer ward in Columbus are told from the perspective of a man-boy suffering from teenage angst, but with one foot in the adult world. The one person he truly found common ground with was the janitor who cleaned his room.  

And as Rob underwent the horrific chemo treatments necessary to save his life, his brother and the band headed out on the Warped Tour. As Rufus lost his hair, weight, organs and puked at least a million times, his brother – his identical twin - got buff, honed his music skills, toured with their idols and had girl groupies. Rufus took it in stride. It is hard for me to imagine being that magnanimous NOW if I were in a similar situation much less at the self-centered, self-righteous age of seventeen.

In the end, Rufus got through his trials through his own grit, the staunch love and support of his parents, a close, small network of friends, a caring team of doctors that actually appreciated his ‘punkness’ and that unbreakable, unknowable bond that twins always seem to share. One night when Nat was on the road and Rob was stuck in the hospital, Nat urged Rob to look out at the moon. It is the same moon in both places, Nat said. In other words, I’m with you. Always with you.

This isn’t a literary work of genius, but it doesn’t need to be. It’s the story of a punk rocker who fought his way through the mosh pit of cancer hell and got back up on the stage.   

Published: 2016
Publisher: Touchstone/Simon & Schuster

Elizabeth's rating: 3.5 stars 

Having Fun with "Troublemaker", by Leah Remini - Book Review

Fully understanding the wrath that Scientology brings down on those who speak out against the “church”, Leah Remini comes out swinging in her new book, TroubleMaker, which chronicles her life in the church as well as her departure.

She admits right up front to being a liar, a cheater and a home wrecker. She even airs her family’s dirty laundry in an effort to cut the Church of Scientology off at the pass. In her words, she did it “to save them some money” by not having to undertake a smear campaign to discredit her.

Where Going Clear by Lawrence Wright should be the assigned text for anyone who wants a true look inside the history of L. Ron Hubbard and his “religion”, TroubleMaker is the salacious gossip side of the story. Remini does a fabulous job of describing in detailing the tenets of Scientology, how it works, and what happens when you step out of line in the eyes of the leadership.

She also dishes on what we want to hear about most: Tom Cruise, the most famous Scientologist, his star studded wedding, and, to a lesser degree, other A-listers who are members.

Remini writes like she acts. She’s noisy, a bit crass, and somewhat defensive and insecure. But she is more prophetic in print that I’ve ever considered her to be on screen. While she has very specific personal reasons for striking out at the church, the book isn’t just a rag session.  It digs pretty deep into the soul of Scientology and how it casts a net over its members that can be virtually impossible to escape. The sheer fact that she didn’t leave sooner evidences the vice-like grip the church exercises on its members.

TroubleMaker is a survivor’s story sprinkled with humor and the type of glimpses inside the life of a show biz star that we all relish reading. It is a page-turner if not a work of literary genius. She is brave for telling her story and while I used to actively not like her (probably in large part due to her Scientology beliefs), I came away from the book not only liking her but rooting for her.   

Published: 2015
Publisher:  Ballantine Books

Elizabeth's rating: 3.5 stars

Olympian and High-End Escort Speaks Out in "Fast Girl", by Suzy Favor Hamilton - Book Review

Fast Girl is a riveting story that I consumed in less than 24 hours. Suzy Favor Hamilton tells of how her obsessive personality and undiagnosed bipolar disorder led her from chasing medals in three different Olympics to becoming a high-end escort in Vegas making thousands of dollars a day. She carried on her escorting all the while being married with a small child – and with her husband’s begrudging consent.

Suzy tells of how her competitive nature and desire to win came young and how running became her outlet. On scholarship at Wisconsin, she ran for the Badgers through her college years and met her cute baseball playing husband, Mark. She continued running competitively after college, making a decent living between her sport and accompanying endorsement deals. But eventually her running career waned and she turned to real estate with her husband.

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Brotherhood and Enmity in "We Were Brothers: A Memoir", by Barry Moser - Book Review

Barry Moser grew up the younger of two brothers in small town Chattanooga, Tennessee in the 40’s and 50’s. Barry and Tommy shared a bedroom, friends, and had almost identical experiences growing up. Eventually one did well in business, and the other succeeded in academia. We Were Brothers is Moser’s memoir of growing up in a racist community with a brother he didn’t get along with. In fact, these brothers were adversaries until late in life, and only then, through a series of letters, did they reconcile. But they only had a short time to enjoy their amity, as Tommy died in his 60’s.

We Were Brothers
By Barry Moser

There are no big plot twists and no adventurous journeys. We Were Brothers is simply one man’s story of a dysfunctional family. We are all familiar with them whether in fiction or in our own lives.  However, what stands out here is Moser’s candor, and his publication of actual letters exchanged between the brothers. Neither come out complimentary. Moser is willing to expose not only his brother’s dark underside, but his own. He fully admits that he is telling this version of the story through his eyes, allowing us to consider Tommy’s alternate view. And as with many southern writers, Moser describes the learned prejudices and political sway of white families. The divide with his brother is enhanced when Barry moves north and becomes a “recovering racist”.

Though the book is prosaic throughout, there are moments of grace. It was interesting and a quick read; however, I may stick with Moser’s artwork (which is quite good and for which he is known), instead of his writing in the future.

Published: 2015
Publisher: Algonquin Books

Vickie’s rating: 3 stars 

A Great Sports Memoir in "Slow Getting Up: A Story of NFL Survival from the Bottom of the Pile", by Nate Jackson - Book Review

This is a true football story. Slow Getting Up: A Story of NFL Survival from the Bottom of the Pile is the memoir of a veteran player. I picked this book up after recently seeing the tail end of an interview with author Nate Jackson, and the commentator mentioned the book. I’m a football fan, but as an east-coaster, I’ve never heard of Nate Jackson, tight end for the Denver Broncos for six years, and with the San Francisco 49ers before that. So as we welcome in a new season, I thought I’d give it a shot, expecting little.  I got a lot.

It was a nice surprise that Jackson can write (without a ghost writer). Throughout his career, he took to writing as an outlet. After his NFL career ended, he enrolled in writing classes and pens football-oriented articles for Deadspin and other publications. Lucky for us, out of his articles emerged his memoir and a book deal.

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A Memoir of Heartache and Torment in “Barefoot to Avalon: A Brother’s Story”, by David Payne - Book Review

This book is not for everyone. For me though, it was beautiful. Beautiful in its gutted heart and soul, its raw emotion, its incredibly precise writing, and its palpable heart ache. And its truth, according to David Payne in his recent memoir, Barefoot to Avalon: A Brother’s Story. It’s Payne’s story and his brother’s of growing up with an angry, alcoholic father, of playing favorites, and not being able to speak the truth.  It’s of Payne’s brother, George A., with mental illness, his tragic death, and Payne’s own manic struggle to leave behind, then reconcile his family ties.

The book is dark. This is Payne’s therapeutic release from the guilt he has around his brother - not just his death, but in his life, diagnosed with bipolar disorder and having had several psychotic breakdowns. George A., as Payne describes wins by losing. That is, he gains the affection and attention of his divorced parents; attention Payne feels cheated of. Yet George A. earns this by breaking down. We see the brothers converge at family events and holidays, yet fade from each other’s lives in their separation, becoming two very different individuals - financial broker versus writer; conservative versus liberal; encircled by family versus trying to escape the family he was born into.

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Learning About Myself from "The Odd Woman and the City", by Vivian Gornick - Book Review

There are books I love; that leave their mark. But there are few that are so impactful that I feel the need to reread again and again. I’m not sure what compelled me to select The Odd Woman and the City, as I was not familiar with Vivian Gornick’s work, but I am so happy I did.

Gornick is a New Yorker through and through. She’s lived there all her life and has embraced its darkness, beauty and eccentricities. She has found her own rhythm in a city that hums along with or without you - either you’re on board for an incredible ride or you can’t wait to get off the wheel. In her memoir, which is a series of brief essays, Gornick replays for us conversations she has overheard while walking the streets of New York - some laugh-out-loud funny delivered with quirky banality; though the majority of her essays and musings focuses on her perspective of friendships, lovers and life itself. Gornick is able to dig deep to bring clarity to emotions, and articulate these feelings with such meticulous language I found myself rereading passages just for the enjoyment of the flow. 

I loved this book not only for the clarity of her prose, but for her acute self-awareness and the precision with which I was able to identify with many of the essays. I felt epiphanies throughout; Gornick my analyst as I lay on my own sofa clutching the book and saying, “yes; I see it now!”  Gornick delivers her story with keen observation, often referring to her close relationship with her friend Leonard who helps bring her (and us) to a better understanding of human nature.

Gornick was a journalist with the Village Voice in the 1970’s and has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic and numerous other publications. I’ll be picking up another one of her books soon.

Published: 2015
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Vickie’s rating: 5 stars