Book Review: The Gilded Razor: A Memoir by Sam Lansky

The Gilded Razor: A MemoirThe Gilded Razor: A Memoir by Sam Lansky
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve been on a tear through a few memoirs this week, and I saved this one for last for two reasons: the subject matter and the reviews that suggested it was funny.

But it’s not funny. Not really.

In terms of subject matter, narratives (books, movies, or TV shows) about drug use make me exceptionally uncomfortable. I generally avoid them but every once in a while I steel myself and dive into one. Lansky’s account of his drug use is riveting but also very upsetting. I cannot read about his experiences, even told using the voice of his past, flippant self, and find anything particularly funny about them. Here’s the thing, though: I don’t think Lansky does either. In my opinion, Lansky is not using humor in any gratuitous way to bring readers into his story. Humor is not the tone of the book, but part of the characterization of past Lansky, and I think the book is stronger for this approach.

The memoir is propulsive, though, and it’s easy to get caught up in the momentum of the rocketship ride that was his youth. By the end it seems miraculous that he survived. Lansky writes with a matter-of-fact tone and attention to detail, and he also uses urban and wilderness settings to great effect as background to his rapidly deteriorating situation and search for help. It’s fascinating to read his memoir and think about what he values in telling his story in comparison to other writers of memoir.

I think that it is potentially quite difficult to find the right ending for a memoir, one that lives up to the situations and emotions in the preceding history. I felt that Lansky’s memoir transitions rather abruptly at the end to what changed for him at age 19 so that he could become sober, but I wasn’t sure exactly what had changed. I would have liked more analysis and contemplation about what happened at this transition point. As it is, however, the rapidness of this transition follows an emotional arc that left me in tears. The final two paragraphs, in my opinion, are too humble; Lansky ends with a universal statement, but what struck me the most about his memoir was how singular his strength was to overcome and manage his demons.

This is a very brave memoir, one in which Lansky allows himself to be extremely vulnerable and open. I feel grateful as a reader to have been offered this glimpse at his turbulent life.

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Book Review: The Rainbow Comes and Goes: A Mother and Son On Life, Love, and Loss by Gloria Vanderbilt and Anderson Cooper

The Rainbow Comes and Goes: A Mother and Son On Life, Love, and LossThe Rainbow Comes and Goes: A Mother and Son On Life, Love, and Loss by Anderson Cooper
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I started Gloria Vanderbilt and Anderson Cooper’s conversation The Rainbow Comes and Goes not expecting to enjoy it much, but by the end of the book I was thoroughly charmed. The first quarter of the book explores Vanderbilt’s childhood, one which found her thrust into the limelight at only eight years old because of a custody hearing between her mom and aunt instigated by her grandmother and nanny. This section describes a life of privilege, money, and fame that is very alien to me, but soon Vanderbilt and Cooper get to shocking revelations and more universal experiences that brought them down to Earth and kept me reading.

Mother and son establish a nice rhythm during their conversation and their honesty and vulnerability comes through in their words. I often found Cooper’s reactions to his mother’s revelations endearing; she was not one to talk about her past, so much of what she told him was brand new to him. This leads him to ask questions during their conversation that help her explore her past and self even more deeply.

My favorite sections in the book include surprising (to me) information about the actors and other famous people Vanderbilt knew, dated and even married, and other allusions to the era like songs and movies. While reading, I listened to songs by The Andrew Sisters and Harry Richman on Apple Music, based on a couple quick references to these singers Vanderbilt mentions. I think one of the reasons why this book works so well is because Vanderbilt really evokes the eras she is recalling.

The last section of the book serves as a contemplative and philosophical wrap-up, and although I found the generalizations and platitudes in this section less engaging, I felt Vanderbilt and Cooper had earned the space for them. Their conversation seems to have been a positive experience for them both, and brought them closer together while allowing them to explore their pasts and shared losses. It’s fascinating to read Cooper discover the ways he is like his mother, after thinking most of his life he was nothing at all like her, and it’s wonderful to read how in opening up her past to her son, Vanderbilt is also able to tell her son how proud of him she is and how much she loves him. She comes across as a wonderfully alive person at age 91 (when they had this conversation) who was often challenged in her past by circumstances beyond her control, but resilient enough to overcome some truly traumatic experiences and heartbreaking losses along the way.

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Book Review: Boy Erased: A Memoir by Garrard Conley

Boy Erased: A MemoirBoy Erased: A Memoir by Garrard Conley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I highly recommend Garrard Conley’s beautifully written and emotional memoir about his religious upbringing, sexuality, rape, and conversion therapy. The book varies in mood between rage and compassion, and Conley grounds these extremes of emotion with a matter-of-fact tone and lovely lyrical language. As his nearly two weeks in conversion therapy marches forward with steadily increasing tension, he takes frequent detours back to the past to describe the events that lead him there. The flashbacks are often fragments, with flashbacks leading into even earlier flashbacks. This technique is effective in showing how fragmented he became after years of stress and suffering until his life essential split into two separate and unsustainable ones while in college.

This is not only an emotional work, but a complexly emotional one that reveals aspects of conversion therapy, his religious upbringing, and the Southern setting that might be unfamiliar and surprising to many readers. For example, the compassion he has toward his parents, religious leaders, and the leaders and workers at Love in Action (LIA), including its leader John Smid, is paired with an undercurrent of rage, suggesting a narrator who is deeply spiritual and forgiving, but nevertheless hurt and angry, all of this at the same time. This powerfully conveys the reality of the trauma he suffered. There is something so horrifying about the bureaucracy of LIA, its application forms, its workbooks, its lesson plans and exercises, that seems both impossible and tragically real at the same time.

Many readers will bring to this book their own stories and experiences and will likely find parallels to their own lives. I certainly did. I’m very thankful to Conley for sharing these experiences in his memoir; this is a brave act, and I hope that the process has been positive and beneficial for his own wellbeing. No one should ever have to go through what Conley went through, but many do, and by being open and vulnerable about his own life, he helps shine a light on injustice, while also inspiring change and healing.

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Praise Him

[Essay #3 for ENGL 215, in the style of Maggie Nelson’s Bluets. We were asked to be vulnerable, whatever that means to us.]

1. Everyone else seems to love huge mirrors in bedrooms.

2. He told me they especially loved the mirror in my bedroom. He told me it was his apartment, too. His wife kept calling, asking me where he was. I lied to her but it was the truth. I didn’t see the waitress when I arrived home from work the next morning. She was a lump in a blanket. His lump was in my throat. She wanted a shower. I went out to my balcony, sat down, and stared. He laughed at me when he found me there. Chided me. Touched me. I was silent. I drove him to work.

3. Family trees don’t list friends.

4. I no longer shared my apartment when I had sex, both times. I didn’t look at the mirror. I looked into his eyes. Even when he was sleeping. I sleep when I’m alone. There’s no reason to be alone otherwise.

4a. My friend’s friend. We were just as surprised. I had no idea about blowjobs. The next morning he boasted he was going to find a threesome at the bars that night. No need for a ride back to my place.

4b. The neighbor’s dog was afraid of men. She ran up to me. She was a dog, not a psychologist. After our first date I grabbed him by the collar when he was leaving. I dragged him back to me. I couldn’t stop kissing him. I didn’t know what to do next. He said we should go to my bedroom. He told me he liked my penis. But his was bigger. I just said “thanks” ungratefully and worried I was doing it wrong. I knew him long enough to pull up my roots. I don’t feel guilty about this; his dog was right.

5. My dad and his children are part of a thick book, the genealogy easy with those branches. My mom? Her children only remember great-grandmothers. Their parents’ parents have no names. I wanted him to bite my blood and tell me.

6. He burned a mix to CD for his wife. I returned the waitress’ blanket to her friend. What I received was “Austin” by Blake Sheldon and fear of friends. Maybe if I had come home from work sick, I could have watched him and the waitress in the mirror. I might still have his body. I think he would have liked that. I wonder if all men look into the mirror and don’t see me.

7. The bloodline won’t branch with me.

Eppure Si Muove

[Essay #2 for ENGL 215, in the style of Lia Purpura.]

Here is what I did with my body one day: I fan-folded, needle in arm. My brain? Kept me breathing, seizing. The entry was massive Mount St. Helens, no longer latent, gray ash excluding outwardly. I was a hot fogged globe, a great silence interrupted, rushing winds, metal tart, pepper before sneezing, the only casualty, the s-wave, confined, silent.

My counselor recently told me about his client suffering from insomnia rippled from a childhood climacteric. He is flying in to retrieve her, to drop her off in a reframed past. She asked her father at the low elevation of her days about after death, and he pointed up to “oblivion.” Her immature cartography wisely mapped destination to nothingness. If she went to sleep and never woke, it would be, she believed, a black place she could fear in.

It is not.

Nothing is. Not me. No body and nobody knows.

The exit was a Pollock, dripping wet until I spied his dry footprints beside the canvas. The p-wave survivors above me with dumb looks as my taking form smarted made sure I didn’t swallow my tongue. “You fainted,” the nurse stated, and I have no idea. In my absence my history belonged to her. I never knew I moved! Such was the entry and the exit that in between I demand a daughter who doesn’t pay seventy-five dollars per hour to be sent back to her elderly father so he can assure her he did not intend her waking detour.

Space Tomatoes

[For essay #5 due October 24, 2013 in ENGL 215 we were required to pay close attention to some of the techniques we have been learning about related to creative nonfiction, as illustrated by the writing of David Foster Wallace. For more information about the SEEDS program, see this article from 1992 or the following YouTube video.]

In 1990, NASA distributed to K-12 schools around the world the 12.5 million tomato seeds stranded in space on board the Long Duration Exposure Facility (LDEF) satellite, as part of the Space Exposed Experiment Developed for Students (SEEDS) program. My biology teacher at James Madison High School in Portland, Oregon handpicked me to participate, and the spotlight prompted an interview with a local news channel. Their features reporter visited me in the biology lab, where I soared against a bench in my cleanest jeans and a solid-colored long-sleeve button-up shirt while his questions expressed my inner teacher and the astronaut and child. It matters, I thought, my heart on my elbow, finding this nervous speaking tremendously exciting, a new nonchalance like the quiet balance of roots and stems uncertain which direction is up, yet eager to grow up. He would be back, the reporter promised, to see how my share of seeds turned out. The local news segment ended with something about “planting seeds in the minds of gifted students.”

Picture this. An upstairs bedroom. A tray of space tomato seeds coordinated within wet dark soil. Next to a window. A small window. With poor lighting. Meager sprouts. Timid sprouts. Shy and tiny sprouts. I am the minor celebrity and they are not growing well. Do you imagine mutated seeds, harmed by space radiation, insides gooed?

“Why didn’t you ask for help,” my dad screamed. He had come up to my bedroom to see failure, so he carried the space tomatoes away in confirmed rage, outside, by the filthy pool ringed by concrete walk ringed by decorative gravel ringed by grassy backyard, and there he overturned my careful grid, that dark green tray, the black soil and white fertilizer granules carrying their pale green celestial shoots easily into careless rocks. He returned to the house. I stood alone, engraved, wrinkled, fucked.

Inside, later: “Why didn’t you pick them up and replant them! Shows how much you care. You don’t give one fuck about anything!”

My non-verbal barely response.

His disgust.

My unuttered justification, seething: I could not find them, among the debris, and even if I could, I couldn’t tell which was which, and the experiment is over, that is all that matters, you goddamn MOTHERFUCKER! Hate.

His ignorance.

Shame.

How do you tell your teacher? How long do you carry the stranger guilt that the reporter won’t need to come back for a follow-up, strange student? When does a father engage with his own son in benevolence and shared interest, guide him and be his friend, and when does the son reconcile these vertical guilts?

With regret. For decades. Never, and many years later. Somewhat.

There were once tomato seeds flown in space. I planted them with blackest thumb, idiot teenager, lazy!, procrastinating, caring more about dreaming than difficult and rigorous science to be carefully documented, and I watered them. Their regretted trajectory from space through my dick father’s hands to confused fall then with the earthbound sticks and weeds to wilt and die was their longest journey finding no great beginning but their very end.

A History of Blogging

[Essay #4 written for ENGL 215 “The Craft of Writing”  at the University of Arizona and turned in on October 22, 2013. The assignment was to write 500 words in the style of David Foster Wallace, and to attempt humor. I attempted.]

My earliest online diary entry appears to be from June 24, 1997 and it is full of angst and includes the word “cybernudism.” When on September 27, 2005 I announced via my blog I was changing its name from “Leis on Life” (and still nobody knew how to pronounce my last name) to “Cybernudism,” I had already exposed not my body but fleshy thoughts and opinions over several earnest years. You want to see growth? Don’t read my blog. About the name change I wrote “Cybernudism is a word I coined that represents that Internet-inspired drive to expose yourself to the world, in more ways than just visually and nakedly.” What drives us to record and broadcast our inner stratigraphy? The website was http://www.cybernudism.com and you probably shouldn’t go there.1

The history of blogging begins with the online diary, a digital naked form that emerged in 1994 from antecedents that when listed against their arrival dates chart the history of the Internet, printing, writing, and the emergence of life on this planet. Wikipedia’s entry on “Online diary” informs us that “The end of 1997 is generally considered the cut-off date for early adopters.” Why this should matter is less important than these personal observations: (1) I take a lemming’s comfort in knowing there were others in that era who kept an online diary, and (2), hell yeah, I got in under the wire!2

Wikipedia’s lengthy entry on “Pornography” recommends that if you are looking for more details on pornography’s history, you should read the lengthy entry “History of erotic depictions.” I’m not bringing this up because “cybernudism” has anything to do with porn but because the history of blogging and the history of erotic depictions are similar in their webby lists of antecedents.3 This model of knowledge and knowledge-seeking has, along with blogging, been distilled to what we now call “liking,” which, like any modern push-button sharing scheme, informs your social graph4 of your wants and desires, with minimal effort, a kind of cybernudism that suggests tiny ants with jaws clamped down on leaves as fungus5 breaches their chitinous heads to drops spores on uninfected ants far below. The sexual analog here is masturbation.6 It is a small mercy that the social networks have so far resisted the masses desire for a “don’t like” button despite its obvious utility as demonstrated in comment sections web-wide. Could I explain the “don’t like” button with a sexual analog? Doubtful.

Where will the meathooks of history take blogging next? I would propose a new definition for “cybernudism” but until there is a Wikipedia entry for the current definition this would just be speculation.

Footnotes

  1. I haven’t owned that domain in years.
  2. This was before wireless.
  3. Wikipedia’s entry on “Antecedent” includes a definition and a list of links to entries about the word in various contexts; this hyperlinked document model of knowledge also works with history.
  4. Not the movie.
  5. You can learn all about Ophiocordyceps unilateralis on Wikipedia, of course.
  6. Not mutual, despite the ability for others to recursively like your like.