Karen Russell, “Looking for Home”
Karen Russell, “Looking for Home”
First, let's get the Trigger/Content Warnings out of the way:
Descriptions of Child Sexual Abuse
Descriptions of Domestic Violence
Descriptions of Physical Child Abuse
Gaslighting/Mental and Emotional Abuse
Religious Cultism (Jehovah Witness)
Descriptions of Suicide
Mental Illness (undiagnosed and untreated)
And that was just the first 50 pages
The book begins with Brianna giving the readers a run down on her family history with both mental illness and being in the Christian sect known as Jehovah's Witnesses. When she is born in early 1986, the family tree looks more like Jackson Pollack painting, just a hot mess of bad decisions and religious dogma. Her sister Molly was born two years later.
Brianna's and Molly's parents were just the cream of the crop of shitty parents. Their mother was beginning her journey into Bipolar Disorder and their father was a shiftless womanizer who liked to use his wife as a punching bag. They divorced when Brianna was two years old. Her dad had visitation rights, and when he exercised those rights, he used Brianna as a stand-in for an intimate partner until he started dating/ending up marrying Charlie and having two more kids before divorcing her.
Brianna never knew about her half-sisters or saw her dad ever again after he decided to give up on family number 1 to work on family number two. So as a now 22 year old Brianna is at a Jamba Juice, trying to get her dickhead of a current boyfriend to stay with her and end the affair with his co-star, we get a glimpse of a broken child. More flashbacks of her mother beating her to the point of scaring and irreparable damage, and the unstable life of living with her mother, her sister (who is hella into the JW lifestyle), and their step-dad (a spineless asshole). It was at this Jamba Juice that Brianna gets a call from the LA county coroner's office, with news that her father committed suicide and she was the sole next of kin and executor of his will. There are descriptions of both the suicide, what the victim looked like dead, and the scene of the incident. After divvying up most of her father's possessions between the four sisters, she walks away with the truck (1999 Dodge Ram) and a thirty foot Fan Coach travel trailer.
Which is a good thing, because this being the last days of 2008/early days of 2009, there is a global recession going on and Brianna loses her job as an executive assistant at Kelly Blue Book. She can't make rent, so she moves back in with her mother and step-father; issues arose and she is kicked out of the house, leaving her with the only shelter she can afford - the truck and trailer. She parks the trailer at the edge of the Wal-Mart parking lot (many of the stores have such policies in place because the creator of Wal-Mart/Asada, Sam Walton, was a big fan of RV-ing) and joins the fast-growing homeless population of Southern California.
Again this is just the first 50 pages.
The next 25 pages or so describes how she is living on unemployment and how she is managing to live with her big-ass dog (a Neo-Mastiff named Fezzik). She starts a blog (title of the book is the same title as the blog) and works hard to save what little she could and look for jobs. Here is where I think the book does the most good - shining a light on what it really means to be homeless or even just the working poor in America. She talks about why it is important to hold onto her laptop and cellphone, as that is how prospective employers can find her and contact her (for example, loading a resume onto Monster.com). She doesn't put a donate button on her blog because she doesn't want to be seen as a charity case or as someone who is e-panhandling. The only assistance she applies for is unemployment; she feels others are in more need of food stamps and shelters.
The rest of the book deals with her toxic relationship with a Scottish dude named Matt. Matt is a "homeless activist" who is living in a council flat and receiving disability benefits due to a having emotional and mental breakdown after his first wife divorced him. Matt was finally diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder and needed medication to keep him healthy. Matt also had a blog about homelessness, and they met while networking among the homeless activist community online.
Before I go on any further, here is a second list of Trigger/Content Warnings:
Intimate Partner Abuse
Mental Illness (untreated)
So after a few months of talking and falling in love online and on the phone, resourceful Brianna turns into Dumbass Brianna. This would be the time to let you know the publisher of this crap book is Harlequin - yep that one. This had to be the shittiest Presents line book ever, except it actually happened (well, maybe happened - some of this stuff had to be made up, nobody is THAT unlucky in life).
Dumbass Brianna finally gets a job, but it doesn't pay much over unemployment. She uses the last of her unemployment money to buy Matt a plane ticket so he can come to California for "sex and getting to know you in person" stage of the relationship. Just before he comes out to see her, his ex-girlfriend (Lori) tells him she is pregnant and he is the father. Dumbass Brianna buys a second plane ticket so that Matt can go back to Scotland for an ultrasound and then comes back to California. Brianna and Matt spend time living in the trailer, and sometimes staying at motels/hotels (on Brianna's limited dime). By this time, Brianna is also paying for her dog to be boarded at a kennel because the California summer heat inside her trailer is too dangerous for a dog to stay in while she is at work. Come to find out, Brianna makes a surprise trip to visit Fez at the kennel and he is looking sickly and abused - turns out Brianna didn't read the fine print on her contract and the dog is only getting one cup of kibble a day and no exercise - a healthy Neo Mastiff needs about 8-10 cups a day. Each additional cup is $1, plus there is an exercise charge. Brianna finds someone to foster Fez so she can get him out of the kennel.
Brianna hopes that talking to Matt about formalizing custody arrangements prior to the baby's birth would get things settle so that Brianna and Matt can work on their future together - yep, marriage and kids were already being planned! Matt doesn't like to talk about Lori or the baby or anything uncomfortable - shades of her step-father ALL OVER AGAIN, but Dumbass Brianna is so blindly in love, she doesn't see it and decides to drop any topic Matt finds uncomfortable. Brianna was all set to marry Matt (even buying her own engagement ring), and Matt really wanted kids with Brianna RIGHT AWAY. Brianna doesn't think this is a good idea since they don't have a steady place to live, so she goes to Planned Parenthood for a copper IUD (aka Paraguard). See Brianna can't do hormonal birth control because she gets to hella bitchy on it; however, the IUD she got was designed for women who had at least been pregnant before - it is not for those who have never been pregnant, due to the changes that come with pregnancy. An IUD can come dislodged in women who have never been pregnant.
Matt returns to Scotland for the birth of his daughter. Lori really doesn't want to take care of the baby (baby was just a way to get Matt back into her life), so Matt (now off his medication because he was in California and didn't know how to go about getting more after running out) is a full-time SAHD with a newborn. Dumbass Brianna, who already lost her new job, decides to borrow money from a friend to buy herself a plane ticket to Scotland and surprise Matt for Christmas! She also decides to spend some unemployment money on expensive gifts for the baby and Matt. The best gift, one she has known about for some time but doesn't want to tell Matt via email or phone, is that Brianna is pregnant! Turns out that IUD was not the best choice in birth control. Dumbass Brianna can't wait to tell Matt in person that they are going to be parents.
We all know where this is going, don't we?
Brianna shows up in cold, snowy Scotland, on Matt's council flat and who does she find hanging out with Matt and his daughter? Why it's Lori, and she is none too happy to see Brianna. Lori is quite the loser in the character and morals department, so I'm not taking sides. Matt tells Brianna to find a hotel (on Christmas Eve in a foreign country that takes the winter holidays seriously) to stay in for the night and he will sort all this out.....
Needless to say, conversations are had and promises made, leaving Brianna alone in Huntly, Scotland with little money and a bun in the oven. There is a plan to meet at the train station, but Matt never shows up (and doesn't call) and Brianna ends up getting hyperthermia and is found by a local, who calls the cops. Cops rescue Brianna and looks for Matt, who fled the city and is nowhere to be found. Brianna is staying at the inn again, and it is New Year's Eve; she decides to drink five or six shots of Scottish whiskey. Soon she doesn't feel so good; she makes her way up to her room and into the bathroom in time to miscarry. She holds her dead son in her palm for a while, then begins to clean up and shower some of the blood off. She doesn't have enough money to buy sanitary napkins or tampons, so she is using towels and toilet paper. The next day Brianna wraps her son in a blue scarf, walks down to the river, says her goodbyes, and places him in the river. Then goes back to the hotel as if nothing happened.
Another homeless activist contacts her and tells her to come to London and stay with her. Brianna is very vulnerable mentally and emotionally as her body recovers from the pregnancy. No one in their social circle online can find Matt; however, the News of the World paper (a British tabloid owned by Rupert Murdoch and akin to the US Enquirer) runs a story on Matt and Lori's beautiful relationship and their family. Because Brianna was getting national and international press attention for her blog, there were statements from "sources" that painted Brianna in a bad light. Thanks News of the World, but Brianna can do bad all by herself.
Brianna went home to California, got a job with a theater company, and is doing promo for the book/blog, and is continuing with being an activist for the homeless community. There are people who are/were close to her family and Matt who don't quite see things the same way as Brianna - some have come out publicly against Brianna. Many within the homeless activist circle, however, side with Brianna and have severed all ties with Matt.
Harlequin has truly jumped the shark with this book. The soap opera-level drama and piss poor decisions were way over the top. The book was supposed to be about homelessness, and shattering preconceptions - not someone's bad Live Journal post. I feel bad for my library, as this was one of my "rescues" from the weeded out pile and now the library is stuck with this book for two more years. Stay away.
This month I am focusing mostly on my physical TBR and library borrows. Some of the library borrows were books I "rescued" - they were about to be pulled from the shelves, deleted from the system, and boxed up for return. By borrowing these books, I extended their shelf life another 2 years.
1. Polio: An American Story by David Oshinksy (Pop Sugar prompt - On the TBR a long time)
2. 3 Fearful Days: San Francisco Memoirs of the 1906 Earthquake and Fire by Malcolm E. Barker (Diseases and Disasters; Pop Sugar prompt - Subtitle)
3. The Girl's Guide to Homelessness: A Memoir by Brianna Karp (Pop Sugar prompt - Difficult Topic) (Library Love Challenge)
4. Battlefield Angels: Saving Lives Under Enemy Fire from Valley Forge to Afghanistan by Scott McGaugh (Pop Sugar prompt - set in wartime) (Library Love Challenge)
5. Major Conflict: One Gay Man's Life in the Don't - Ask - Don't - Tell Military by Jeffrey McGowan (Library Love Challenge)
6. The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade by Ann Fessler (Library Love Challenge)
7. Cat Trick (A Magical Cats Mystery) by Sofie Kelly (Pop Sugar prompt - Cat on the cover) (Library Love Challenge)
8. Elegy for a Disease: A Personal and Cultural History of Polio by Anne Finger (Pop Sugar prompt - Disability) (Library Love Challenge)
9. In the Midst of Life by Jennifer Worth (Pop Sugar prompt - Interesting Woman)
10. Travel is a Political Act by Rick Steves (Pop Sugar prompt - Involves Travel) (Library Love Challenge)
11. The Idle Parent by Tom Hodgkinson (Pop Sugar prompt - Career Advice) (Library Love Challenge)
12. Sleigh Bells in the Snow by Sarah Morgan (Pop Sugar prompt - Set in a Hotel)
13. Echoes in Death (...In Death #44) by J.D. Robb (Pop Sugar prompt - published in 2017) (Library Love Challenge)
14. Moneyball by Michael Lewis (Library Love Challenge)
My first exposure to Neverwhere was via the book. I read it ages ago, but I remember enjoying it quite a bit. Sometime after that I watched the TV series, and I've been wanting to listen to the radio drama since I first heard it existed. I bit the bullet and picked it up during a recent Audible sale.
Neverwhere stars Richard Mayhew, an ordinary man whose life is turned upside down when he helps an injured young woman named Door. Soon after Door leaves his life, Richard discovers that he seems to have become invisible. His apartment is rented out to someone else without anyone asking him for permission, and his coworkers and girlfriend no longer remember who he is or that he ever even existed. Richard's quest to get his life back takes him to London Below, where he joins up with Door, who is trying to find out why her entire family was killed and why their murderers, Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar, are after her.
Although I had read the book and seen the TV series, I'd done both so long ago that I'd forgotten most of what happened. I remembered the fantastical setting, which I both enjoyed and felt somewhat uncomfortable about, because its efforts to highlight homeless people seemed to erase them instead. I also remembered a few story events and that at least one of the characters couldn't be trusted. That was about it. When Door and Richard were able to find the angel Islington fairly easily, I was surprised, because I had vague memories of that taking much longer. Instead, it was the end of a tiny quest and the beginning of a larger one, as Islington sent them after an item that he (it?) wanted.
There was dialogue, sound effects, and nothing else – no unnamed narrator describing things the listener couldn't see. I adapted to that fairly well, but it's one of the reasons why I wouldn't necessarily recommend this as a person's first exposure to the story. You can't really get a good feel for the setting.
Plus, the radio drama format resulted in some odd bits. The fight scenes never seemed to work for me. Either the sound effects were kind of goofy, or the way the dialogue was worked in didn't sound natural. For example, Hunter, Door's bodyguard, was able to talk at length while supposedly in a battle for her life. I know Hunter was supposed to be incredibly skilled, but her opponent wasn't exactly a newbie either. Fighting him should have required more of her attention.
I can't remember how much of the original story was left out, but I do know that several parts felt rushed. Richard and Door's relationship barely had time to develop, and the ending was such a jumble of revelations and sound effects that it was a little hard to follow. I felt that the extended ending (included as part of a series of bloopers and extended scenes) was a bit clearer.
That said, one of the benefits of this format was the voice acting, which was really good. The casting decisions were fabulous. I particularly liked James McAvoy as Richard, David Harewood as the Marquis de Carabas, Sophie Okonedo as Hunter, and Romola Garai as Jessica.
I'm glad I got this, and I'm sure I'll listen to it again, although I'd like to reread the novel first.
At the end there's about half an hour's worth of bloopers and extended scenes. I wish that 1) this section had been announced as such and 2) that the bloopers and extended scenes had been separated into two distinct parts.
(Original review posted on A Library Girl's Familiar Diversions.)