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

The Gilded Razor A Memoir by Sam Lansky book cover from Goodreads

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 book cover from Goodreads

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 Memoir by Gerrard Conley book cover from Goodreads

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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