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review SPOILER ALERT! 2014-11-24 02:37
A Wolf at the Table - Augusten Burroughs

With A Wolf at the Table, Augusten Burroughs makes a quantum leap into untapped emotional terrain: the radical pendulum swing between love and hate, the unspeakably terrifying relationship between father and son. Told with scorching honesty and penetrating insight, it is a story for anyone who has ever longed for unconditional love from a parent. Though harrowing and brutal, A Wolf at the Table will ultimately leave you buoyed with the profound joy of simply being alive. It’s a memoir of stunning psychological cruelty and the redemptive power of hope.






This was one of my picks for the #AntiBullyReads readathon we've been having this week over on Booktube. Burroughs is one of my favorite non-fiction writers and this memoir seemed like a no-brainer for the subject. 


The tears this one pulled out of me! Burroughs' words brought some of my own memories, intentionally dormant for so long, right up to the surface for me to relive. Though his descriptions weren't scene-for-scene exact to mine (obviously), much of what he shares rang very familiar to me. Even where the experiences were vastly different, I still felt for him and understood his longing to get through to and connect with his father. I could definitely relate when he describes his father as seeming two-faced, nice to the outside world, but something he clicked off once behind closed doors. I was especially touched when Burroughs talks about his "experiment": as a little boy, he walked around with a clipboard tallying up the number of times his father said "Go Away" in comparison to the number of times Augusten heard "Come Here" so he could show his father just how little time they spent together. He also talks about constructing a "fake dad" out of pillows stuffed into some of his father's old clothes, even going so far as to scent the clothes with the smell of his father -- a mixture of pine tar, Old Spice, and Eucerin lotion. 


In Mexico my mother wore thin-soled sandals and looked over her shoulder. She watched me through large, dark sunglasses and said, "We had to get away from your father. He's not safe to be around right now." This is my first clear memory of my father: I am in Mexico, I am five, and he is not safe to be around. I could not fathom what this meant. The things I knew that weren't safe included furious dogs, putting a fork in the toaster, rushing water. How was he like these things?


I also related to Burroughs' experiences with being teased at school. He describes being painfully shy and being teased for having soft facial features that some said made him look feminine (I was sometimes teased for having sharp, more masculine like features for a girl). He also says that he was bullied some for "being odd" but also stood up for others who were being bullied but maybe didn't know how to speak up for themselves. 


I feel like I'm repeating myself a bit with all this relatable stuff, but that's largely what made it such a powerful yet painful read for me. I had to stop a number of times to get through it. For instance, when Burroughs describes how he struggled to have a social life in school -- it wasn't just the kids who steered clear of him, the parents of those children made it worse by saying, in various ways, "yeah that family is bizarre, stay away from them" rather than trying to rise above the rumors and try to get to know people for who they really were, clearly not caring or empathizing for the children who suffered from their immaturity. Burroughs finds a childhood best friend in Greg, but even Greg refuses to step foot inside Augusten's home because even Greg's parents are feeding him with "those people are weird, be careful, stay out of the house". So their friendship exists within the boundaries of school and the woods behind Augusten's house, where they play the exact same games that I and my bestie played out in the woods near where I grew up -- gathering plants and playing "apothecary shop", where they make up cures for ailments, gathering rocks and smashing them open to look for diamonds and gemstones, panning for gold in creeks and rivers, even catching pollywogs! -- those were all the same games we played! Loved that connection!


I was stunned and am still confused as to how his father could have turned the family dog against Augusten and his mother, and was so saddened to hear of the time Augusten's mother confesses to being raped by his drunken father. 

(spoiler show)


So yeah, not an easy read in the least but so moving and one I will always be glad I read, though I may not be able to pick it up again for a number of years yet -- I'll need time for the memories to blur again. 

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review 2014-11-10 06:06
Once Upon a Secret: My Affair with President John F. Kennedy and Its Aftermath - Mimi Alford

In the summer of 1962, nineteen-year-old Mimi Beardsley arrived in Washington, D.C., to begin an internship in the White House press office. After just three days on the job, the privileged but sheltered young woman was presented to the President himself. Almost immediately, the two began an affair that would continue for the next eighteen months. Emotionally unprepared to counter the President’s charisma and power, Mimi was also ill-equipped to handle the feelings of isolation that would follow as she fell into the double life of a college student who was also the secret lover of the most powerful man in the world. After the President’s assassination in Dallas, she grieved alone, locked her secret away, and tried to start a new life, only to be blindsided by her past.
Now, no longer defined by silence or shame, Mimi Alford finally unburdens herself with this unflinchingly honest account of her life and her extremely private moments with a very public man. This paperback edition includes a special Q&A, in which the author reflects on the intense media attention surrounding the book’s initial release. Once Upon a Secret is a moving story of a woman emerging from the shadows to reclaim the truth.





I remember not too long ago seeing this interview with Mimi Alford and found myself intrigued by her story. I remember thinking I'd like to read her memoir to hear more of that story, but it was a book title I quickly forgot in the ridiculously long list that is my TBR. I'd entirely forgotten about it until just recently when it popped up during one of my casual book browsing trips.


I ended up having mixed feelings about this one. If you're one to idolize JFK, this one's likely to put some tarnish on that silver. It's tough, in one respect, to read a book like this because the dead are not around to defend themselves -- and while Alford is completely respectful when discussing Kennedy, her tale does shed some unflattering light on Kennedy. Particularly with her description of the first night the relationship moved past professional, Kennedy's behavior appalled me. Alford insists that he was kind and considerate, but given the circumstances I say that a "kind and considerate" man would have stepped back and been man enough to admit that proceeding on would have been wrong. A man needing to get himself off is no excuse for irrevocably affecting a young girl's life.Then there was Mimi's side. She adamantly says she "has no regrets" in this matter but then goes on to repeatedly recount moments that left her "ashamed" or brought about cringes in remembrance. Seems like that's at least in the vein of regret?


One thing I think Alford's memoir does illustrate really well is just how susceptible a young woman barely in her adulthood can be to the mystique of "the older man". I myself have succumbed to it so in that, I could relate to her descriptions of the heady intoxication of a man's charisma, the confusion of feelings that ultimately come about. It's easy for someone to read her story and think "how could she be so stupid as to fall for that?" but from my personal experiences, I can attest that you can't know that you wouldn't fall for it yourself until it's there in front of you, giving the option to go forward with it. I didn't always agree with or like Alford's reasoning for her actions, but on some level, I could see where she was coming from. After so many years of this tumultuous period of her life haunting her, I was happy for her that she was able to find a silver lining. 

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review 2014-07-26 23:32
Nowhere Near Normal: A Memoir of OCD - Traci Foust

I was really curious about this because of the subject matter, thinking I would find a relatable story, but found myself not really liking the writing style and the OCD seemed to be more of a background element in a story about family tensions (at least it felt that way to me as the reader). The writing was very frenetic but not in a way I found enjoyable and at times it seemed like there was unnecessary shock-value crudeness. I did, however, find the interview at the back of the book somewhat interesting and I like what the author had to say in her afterword, and the fact that she included resources for help for readers who may be suffering from a similar situation. I still say Augusten Burroughs is the best at this kind of writing.

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review 2014-06-07 04:39
Cocktails, Caviar and Diapers - Renee Duke

The title made me pause and smile, and the description -- a woman traveling the world during the jet-setting days of the 1950s-60s -- spoke to my retro-lovin' heart. It was even compared to Mad Men! I was picturing world travel, exotic, lush locales, luxe parties. I don't know what happened, but this thing was Dullsville for me. But again, keep in mind this is coming from a non-mom. I may just be missing a certain shade of life experience to truly enjoy this. If you like the description of this, but end up not enjoying this or if you love this and want something similiar, I highly recommend reading Auntie Mame by Patrick Dennis. 

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review 2014-06-07 04:32
Not Like My Mother: Becoming a Sane Parent After Growing Up in a Crazy Family - Irene Tomkinson

I thought this would be mostly a memoir of a woman who matured past her bizarre upbringing, maybe in the vein of Augusten Burroughs. It does have that, but it turns out it's more of a self-help kind of guide for people who came from unstable backgrounds who don't want to continue the craziness with their own kids. While I mentioned not having kids of my own, I actually did get a lot out of this book. I found myself going highlight happy with my Kindle just because there were so many quotes in here that reached right in me and flashed my childhood right before me. But it wasn't painful! I actually learned new ways to look at old hurts. Healthy ways. So I say to my fellow non-parental readers, if you had a hell of a childhood like me, one filled with WTF moments, at least give this one a once over. You can skip the kid-raising elements if you like, there's still good stuff just about surviving and processing life's hurts in a productive way. Some of my favorite literary smack-upside-the-head moments:


We swore we would not make the same mistakes our parents made -- And for the most part we didn't. We made new ones. 


For the slightest infractions, we received harsh punishments. We came away from our youth with black-and-blue marks all over our self-esteem. 


Crazy families don't communicate. Life in crazy families is black and white. Responses are not appropriate. Problems are ignored or turned into high drama. Either no one is in charge or one person rules like a dictator. Chaos or silence is the norm. There is terminal seriousness. Compulsive behaviors are often used to cover pain. Behaviors such as overeating, overdrinking, overspending, or turning a small situation into a crisis are the rule. Often the boundaries, the limits, are inappropriate. The boundaries are either non-existent or rigid. Kids are left to make sense out of the inconsistencies. Feelings are avoided and not discussed. 


Mom, Dad, and older siblings are the gods in a young child's world. Young children want to please the gods. Children instinctively know that they are completely dependent on their caregivers. It is a matter of survival. Young children strive to make Mom and Dad happy. Consequently, if you are trying to please parents who will not let you have your reality, then your only choice is to change your reality. Crazy families are crazy making. With no explanation, validation, or permission from the adults in your world to feel your feelings, what were your options? You weren't allowed to believe what your "feelings" were telling you. In order to protect yourself, to not rock the boat, you were forced to deny or repress your feelings. You had to convince yourself  that you must be mistaken. Instead of feeling, you had to disconnect.


More than ever, I was determined to make my own rules. No one was going to tell me what to think or how to behave. I did everything but burn my bra; I couldn't afford to.


He was able to leave a temporary imprint on a little girl's face and a permanent mark on her self-esteem. His eyes would never leave the road, or put the car in any kind of danger. He was very agile. My mom, in the front seat holding my little sister Jackie, would remain silent. The back seat of that car was an incubator for my anger, as was our dinner table. 


Buried feelings are what kill, and buried emotional pain passes on from generation to generation. 


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