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Crazy

Running With Scissors: A Memoir by Augusten Burroughs (St. Martin’s Paperbacks, $7.99, 352 pages)

Don’t you ever feel like we’re chasing something?   Something bigger.   I don’t know, it’s like something that only you and I can see.   Like we’re running, running, running?   Yeah, I said.   We’re running alright.   Running with scissors.

I was intrigued when my book club chose this memoir, Running With Scissors, as our first nonfiction choice.   Rumored to be both dark and humorous, it did not fit our typical book club culture.   However, our discussion was lively and laden with comments from “disturbing” to “hated it.”  

Those that grew up in the 1960s recognized some of the “character traits” mentioned in the book, while a younger group was left on the edge of their comfort zone.   Yet the discussion was one of the best we’ve had.   We found ourselves discovering the humor as we recalled particular details described within the book.   As a memoir it was, to me, a refreshingly different view of the typical, mostly not-so-interesting portraits of everyday life.

Burroughs describes his eccentric and unconventional upbringing with incredible detail and honesty, yet with a large serving of humor that made it  hard to put down.   He describes his childhood, mostly under the guardianship of Dr. Finch – his mother’s Santa Claus look-a-like psychiatrist, following his mother’s series of mental breakdowns.   This was a home with high energy in which arguments were encouraged to dispense anger and to develop emotional growth.   Within Burroughs’s unpredictable daily life, regular off the wall adventures occurred and conventional standards like rules, discipline and structure were unheard of.

The problem was not having anybody to tell you what to do, I understood, is that there was nobody to tell you what not to do.

Burroughs’s story includes atypical details of his life such as his relationship with a patient of Dr. Finch’s, a man three times Burroughs’s age, and the witnessing of his mother’s psychotic breakdowns.   Many of the details are descriptive, vulgar and somewhat horrifying, yet the story is written in delightful prose with dark humor and such blatant honesty you’ll find yourself continuing to read…  If only to find out what else Augusten could possibly be exposed to, and feeling the need to find out what happens to these real-life characters.   (An update is contained in the Epilogue.)

While I truly enjoyed the tremendous writing skill and recommend Burroughs for sharing his eccentric story, I have to admit that the themes and facts were disturbing enough to impact my enjoyment of the book.   However, good books are created to challenge us with new perspectives.   They can challenge us with new, unique perspectives and force us to think outside of the box and outside of our comfort zones.   This memoir most certainly does that and, therefore, this book is recommended.

Kelly Monson

This book was purchased by the reviewer.   “Running With Scissors is hilarious, freak-deaky, berserk, controlled, transcendent, touching, affectionate, vengeful, all-embracing…  It makes a good run at blowing every other (memoir) out of the water.”   Carolyn See, The Washington Post

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The Power of Love

One Day: A Novel by David Nicholls (Vintage Contemporaries, $14.95, 448 pages)

Twenty years.   Two people.   ONE DAY

“(She was) unable to recall a time when she felt happier.”

“…he is more or less where he wants to be…  Everything will be fine, just as long as nothing ever changes.”

Sometimes we need to wait until the right time to read a particular book.   I received a review copy of this novel, which had already become the #1 bestselling book in England and throughout most of Europe, in early 2010 (it was released in trade paper form in the U.S. on June 15, 2010).   But it didn’t strike me as something that urgently needed to be read…  That is, until I read that Anne Hathaway had agreed to play the female lead in the upcoming film version, with Jim Sturgess as the male lead.   Knowing that Hathaway has a skill for finding great scripts, I felt that the time had come.

This is the story of two people, Emma Morley and Dexter Mayhew, who meet cute on their graduation night (called “university graduation” in England) and spend the entire evening together.   They plan to commence a sexual relationship the next day; a plan which is forsaken due to some unexpected circumstances – something unexplained until the later pages of the story.   So, instead, they vow to be friends.   Dexter is to become Emma’s true male friend, but not boyfriend.

Nicholls tells the story, a very remarkable love story, by having us look in on the happenings of Emma’s and Dexter’s lives on the same date – July 15th – of each year.   The story begins on July 15, 1988, and concludes on July 15, 2007.   No spoiler alert is needed here, as no details will be revealed about what occurs to Emma and Dexter over the decades.   Let’s just say that the reader will be surprised.

I don’t want to play coy, so I will state that this is likely the best pure love story that I have read – it’s a tale that tugs at our heartstrings even while it makes us laugh.   And it will definitely bring tears prior to its dramatic and life-affirming ending.   It’s all the more remarkable that Nicholls, a man, writes with such a huge heart about life and love.

What can be revealed is that Emma and Dexter, despite their class differences (Dexter was born wealthy, Emma lower-middle class), know that they would be perfect for each other…  Maybe.   But each one faces too many temptations in the form of other people, and each thinks that the other wants different things out of life.   So despite their vow to be close forever, they begin to slide away from each other as they encounter life’s often not-so-gentle surprises.

“Everyone likes me.   It’s my curse.”

A few cautions…  Please disregard those who compare One Day to When Harry Met Sally (“Can a man and woman be best friends?”).   One Day is more adult and serious, and English humor is quite distinct from American humor; to me, it is, thankfully, more subtle.   That comparison caused me to hold off on reading this novel, which was unfortunate.   And if Dexter’s personality, early on, sounds a bit like Dudley Moore’s over-the-top character in the film Arthur, don’t worry, it will pass.   Dexter matures with age.

“…I can barely hear the compilation tape you made me which I like a lot incidentally except for that jangly indie stuff because after all I’m not a GIRL.”

There are many references to period music in the telling, which is both positive and not so positive.   (Emma can spend an entire day making the right mix tape.)   References to songs like “Tainted Love” make one smile; however, the numerous references to Madonna’s music wind up becoming painful in their datedness.

This is a novel that is stunning – so much so that on finishing it, I was both eager and fearful of reading it again one day.   (My response was to purchase the unabridged audiobook version, so that it’s there on the shelf if and when the urge strikes me to revisit it.)   This is simply a great story about two people who must decide which is better or worse:  the fear of confronting happiness, or the fear of never actually encountering it.   The message it delivers is a gift.   Please consider taking it.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   “Big, absorbing, smart, fantastically readable.”   Nick Hornby   “A totally brilliant book…  Every reader will fall in love with it.”   Tony Parsons   “A wonderful, wonderful book: wise, funny, perceptive, compassionate…”   The Times (London)

One of the most hilarious and emotionally riveting love stories you’ll ever encounter.”   People

Note:  The film version of One Day will be released on August 19, 2011.

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A Turbulent Flight

There are certain books that begin with a great premise and a great main character but which are simply unable to deliver on the promise of a well-told story.   This is one of those books.   This 303-page tale of a modern airline traveler loses its interest, its energy and its wings at about the 200-page mark.   From then on, the engines are stalled and the story glides awkwardly to a crash landing on a foam-filled runway.

Up in the Air is the story of Ryan Bingham, a so-called Career Transition Counselor, who is hired to help downsizing companies get rid of employees without having them go postal.   Bingham must be part psychologist, part upward mobility trainer and – to a large part – a fraudulent New Age guru who’s supposed to convince the terminated workers that its all for the best.   Of course, Bingham (who views himself as a type of glorified and special purpose accountant) never has to stick around to view the actual damage – the failed marriages, lost homes and suicides.   He convinces himself that he does more good than harm as he flies every day or two on Great West Airlines circa 2001.

As we meet the not-very-likeable and self-absorbed Bingham, he’s submitted his resignation because he is about to accomplish the main goal of his life.   His primary objective is to be the tenth person in the domestic carrier’s history who has flown 1,000,000 miles without leaving the U.S.   Bingham travels so much that he has no home or apartment, he lives in the thin atmosphere land he calls “Airworld.”

There’s a lot of inside baseball talk that frequent flyers and frequent lodging chain sleepers will find entertaining…   For example, there’s much debate about the merits of Hilton-owned Hampton Inns versus Marriott Courtyards.   Which one is the best base for corporate warriors, and why is it that a traveler feels almost invisible at the larger Marriott and Hilton properties?   (And why is it that frequent travelers come to need Sound Soothers to sleep?)   Bingham also has this marvelous machine called the Hand Star, the apparent precursor of today’s BlackBerry smartphone.

The first problem with Air is the realization that Bingham is the only character that is remotely believable or plausible, and even this is a stretch.   The next problem is that the once-serious story turns into a hybrid science fiction-dark satire two-thirds of the way through its telling.   A lot of paranoia emerges among Bingham and those he encounters, which may mean that he’s gone insane…   Worse, it may signal that this tale was a put-on from page one.

I prefer to think that author Walter Kirn came up with a great start but had no finish.   (Nevertheless, he’s received a very large check from George Clooney’s people who are turning this into the star’s next film.)   Not recommended; simply not worth the time or effort required to get through it.   There’s just no payoff on arrival for frequent readers.

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