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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[StoryADay May prompt: “The Power of Three“, but really I brought together anecdotal and some autobiographical material and mixed them together in unsettled fiction that left me a little unsatisfied, because I’m not exactly sure what I’m trying to say.]

What else to do but leave it alone, the lizard in my bathroom. It stared up at me, I imagine, because it was mortified by such awkward heights. Not lofty, only frightening, like a looming predatory bird backlit by the sun, either hungry or falling, and either way, too huge to mean safety.

But safety did I mean. There are certain critters I don’t want in my bathroom, most of them insects. A solitary little lizard? It could have at it. I prefer not to be scared by sudden appearances, but if it kept to its corners and I kept to mine, then I thought we would be just fine.

Only that is not what the lizard needed. What the lizard needed for me to do is to accept its fright, lift it carefully, and carry it outside where it belongs. In the morning I found it in the same spot between the bathtub and the toilet. I peed. It did not move. I was compelled to watch it move. It did not. I rolled out a length of toilet paper, tore it off, and approached slowly, hoping to scare it back into a corner. It did not move.

Possibilities played in my head. A heart attack. I had given it a heart attack at last night’s meeting. It’s wee heart had seized right then and there. Except I remembered it had moved away when I stepped too near. Then I must have crushed it in the night. Waking up to pee one of several times I must have stepped in the dark and crushed it beneath my foot. Even so little, though, I was certain no matter how groggy I was I would have felt that on the sole of my foot. Starvation, then. Unable to find its way out of the clean room bathroom environment I keep, it must have starved. What exactly was there to eat in a clean bathroom? I normally carried critters out, if I saw them. Hadn’t spotted any in days, not until the lizard. Maybe it lacked an easy source of water and died of thirst. In a room of water, the drops were contained in bowls and sinks, behind faucets, and mopped up with a towel as soon as I spilled any. Thirsty and starving, the lizard had made it back to the spot where I had spotted it, to let me know that this was my fauilt.

I had left it here to die.

I picked up the lizard with the tissue, half expecting it to move. It was solidly limp. I dropped it in the trash. Perhaps it would have been better to drop it outside, for another creature to snack on it.

I have no idea about such things. I have no idea how to take care of all the possible creatures that might enter my home.

The man is following me too closely.

It was a good day, just me and my friend. We met in Scottsdale, Arizona, a two-hour drive for me, a three-hour flight for him. In Scottsdale I could show him how the other half lives, since I don’t live there, will never have the means to, and still there are places I’ve been to there he hasn’t ever been. That makes me the two-hour drive resident expert.

The clothing-optional “resort” for men is not in Scottsdale. It’s in the dry heart of Phoenix on one of the major roads leading east, eventually, to Scottsdale. When we arrived, we rang at the gate, were allowed in, and were passionately flirted with by the owner. The resort cannot possibly be a sex club, though men usually only come for an hour or two and not to stay four nights and five days.

At the pool I kept my swim trunks on. No one was there the first day except the blinds that moved in the window of a room on the second floor above the pool.Checked to see that I had not yet removed my trunks. Or that my friend hadn’t removed his. He didn’t either. Who cares.

And then two older guys flopped out for a swim and after saying hello we kept rotating around each other in the pool like the other pair was a reflection. I thought about how their dicks were in the water and how mine was, too, but hidden, and all of us being rinsed, and, well, I got out of the pool and tried to tan, but it was too hot and I was too flustered and it was a lot cooler in my room…

Day two, and we went to Scottsdale. First stop: a fashion mall and neither of us with money or a reason to buy anything. I did get stopped by a beautiful young woman who told me I was a handsome man and she had products that would keep wrinkles at bay and rejuvenate my skin. I sat through her entire demo, including her hands on my hands, the gritty application, the revelation about how much dirt was in my pores, and the smooth and clean skin she left behind. There was not enough product to wash away the rage on her face when I thanked her and said no thank you.

“I mean, I don’t usually do things like that, but I’m on vacation, and I was curious, but I wasn’t going to buy anything.”

My friend laughed at me.

We had enough high fashion and I was hungry, so we headed to the Dos Gringos. Maybe the other half comes here. I don’t know. I just know I liked their patio, seafood tacos, and margaritas. It’s also the only restaurant I’d ever been to in Scottsdale, back when I used to live in Phoenix with a different friend, a married straight friend, and I was following wherever he wanted me to go like a puppy interested in more than just the best fish tacos in Scottsdale, but eating them over unrequited hopes anyway. Anyway, I was the Scottsdale expert, I remembered how to get there, and so I found a place to park and when me and my friend were seated under palm trees, I liked the old memories for a change.

Maybe the other half doesn’t bar hop. Maybe all the parts of Scottsdale it is easy to reach are all the places where my half come to pretend we had any idea at all about the rich and their activities. Maybe there is a wall somewhere. I’ve never been in Scottsdale long enough to find it, to try to cross it, to be rebuked. Come play in Scottsdale; don’t stay.

Gay bars, straight bars, every bar, streets of them easy to walk and that’s how we spent our second night.

And there’s a man following me too closely.

He’s down on his luck. We saw him a few bars back, asking someone for change. Imagine that: a man who seems drunk, among hundreds of drunk men and women, and the only difference is, he doesn’t seem to be having any fun.

And he’s dirty and his clothes are ragged and never were fashionable. Somehow he ended up behind me when I walked out of a bar. We keep walking. My friend nudges me. I point across the street. Say something loud like “Oh, I don’t think we’ve checked the bars on the other side of the street.” He’s right behind me. We dive through the door of the first bar we reach. Turns out it’s a restaurant. That’s fine. I’m hungry again. That’s fine. He doesn’t follow us in. He stops by the outside tables and chairs packed with outside patrons. Leans against the short stucco wall separating them from the sidewalk.

We talk about what we should do. I look around for another exit. Unless we find a way out the back, we’ll have to hope he eventually gets bored and moves on. He doesn’t seem to be looking for us. He looks lost, but I realize he might be following currents, and I just happened to be a current he got caught up in.

I think we tell each other about how we shouldn’t give money. Read that somewhere. Don’t give them money, because you don’t know how they will spend it. I also read that you should buy them something to eat. While we’re debating whether or not we should do that, we order food for ourselves. While we’re eating he’s still out there.

The waitress walks up to him and I’m certain she is telling him he needs to move on, find another place to stay. She puts a hand on his shoulder. I find that touching. A nice gesture. Now move along. But he doesn’t move, and she comes back into the restaurant and corresponds with a bartender. Asking for help, I think. The bartender pulls out a mug from beneath the counter, fills it was coffee, sets it down on a round tray, rummages below the counter again, and brings out a small container of dairy half and half, which he also places on the tray. The waitress picks it up, carries it outside, and I think she is taking it to a customer, but instead she walks up to the homeless man and offers the mug to him.

He nods. He says words I cannot hear through the window. He reaches for the half and half, attempts to pour some into the mug on the tray she is holding, but his hands shake and the half and half splatters. He looks frustrated. She nods her head, balances the tray on the stucco wall, and helps him pour, her hands on his hands, guiding him.

He drinks, still shaking, but carefully. A table opens up a few feet away and she guides him to it, encourages him to sit down while she starts gathering the empty glasses and dishes to clear a spot for his mug of coffee.

The waitress acts with compassion I would never have considered. I don’t know where that leaves me, but it leaves me in a dangerous, precarious place that finds me sober and quiet and driving us back to the resort where there are plenty of men now and the raw nudity of it all leaves me exhausted and quick to bed while my friend engages with them like the extrovert he is. Hours later he asks what happened to me. What happened to me was there’s a waitress in Scottsdale who did more in a few minutes than I will ever do in my entire life.

She’s shy, but so are all of us. It’s the first day of writing workshop.

We introduce ourselves. She says her name and how her kids paid for her registration as a gift. She’s never been to a workshop, she says, and she’s never written poetry before, and she hopes she doesn’t embarrass herself.

She sits in her seat at the table where we have gathered as if she’s embarrassed by what she’s wearing, by her weight, by her age. I guess she’s in her fifties. She mentions the children are grown. She doesn’t talk very long at all, but it was long enough to apologize for imposing on the rest of us her inexperience.

The teacher says soothing things. I smile at the woman, but she doesn’t look up much. What I think as the rest of the group introduces themselves is that too many of them are saying uncaring things about themselves. Isn’t this, I want to ask out loud, the place you go to begin? How can this be a beginning when you are so certain you have already failed? When it is my turn, I mention that I’m looking forward to everyone’s feedback to help my own work, and I’m looking forward to help in anyway I can. It sounds like I’m bragging, so I keep it really short.

Even though it is our first day, the teacher wanted us to bring in a page of our writing to share with everyone else. Someone will read our page outloud, and then we will jump into critiques. We pass out our pages, resulting in a stack of eleven, and the teacher randomly picks the first one to read.

The woman looks mortified. The teacher asks her what the experience was like writing her page, what she felt good about and what she didn’t, and what kind of feedback she was looking for from the rest of us. She cannot tell us any of these things, however. Instead, she bemoans her amateur status. “I really shouldn’t be here.”

It’s a cry for help and I don’t find it irritating. I say unprompted “We all have to start somewhere,” I look at the teacher, “and this is a safe place for us, right?”

The teacher agrees wholeheartedly. She lectures about it for awhile, about why the workshop is open to everyone of any writing ability, or none at all, and when we offer our critiques we should keep that in mind. She tells us what she wants to hear from our critiques: not personal attacks, not likes or dislikes, but elements of the writing that are working, and suggestions for how to make the writing even better. And because this is the first meeting, she will jump in frequently to gently nudge critiques toward helpful statements.

What I like about the woman’s poetry is the way it is grounded in what may or may not be objects in her own life. No, I think to myself, I don’t find her poems particularly well written, but what I do find, if she’s telling the truth about never having dabbled in poetry before, is how many bad elements of bad poetry she is avoiding. So when it is my turn to offer her my thoughts about her poetry, I focus on just that: how as a reader I feel like I am in the narrator’s space, how I can reach out and touch the objects the narrator mentions, and how it would be great to see even more of these objects, and how they interact with the scene, the narrator, each other.

“Really lovely work,” I finish. We all chime in with similar thoughts. It’s all very supportive. I think I am going to love this workshop. I wish my undergraduate workshops had been so helpful and team-oriented.

Our teacher seems struck by the way we critique each others poetry that first session. At the end of workshop, she praises us. The best and most supportive first day of workshop she has ever taught. We got it. Keep it up!

The woman new to poetry seems, in my opinion, to be much more relaxed by the end of workshop. Just before I leave, I say to her that I’m looking forward to reading more of her poetry.

The woman never comes back again. We finish the ten-week session and someone brings up her name as we are parting. The teacher mentions she never heard from her. No refund request. No apology. Someone dares to speculate that something might have happened to her.

I don’t mention how I saw her yesterday. At the grocery store. How I started to walk toward her, but instead went down a different aisle.

Poetry is in the mystery of it all. The moments of mystery especially. How we hold onto the hope that we might still glean something: an image, an idea, a fleeting sensation. I wanted to ask her if she was fine, if she was still writing, if she thought she might try a later session. Some mysteries, though, are better left unresolved.

By people as uncaring as me.

StoryADay May 2016 Day 30

Rewrite: Fallen Tree

[For StoryADay May today I rewrote the exercise I’m submitting to The Writers Studio workshop tonight. Original version. It also works with the StoryADay May prompt: “An Emotional Rollercoaster“]

Simon in his hometown to visit his sister and her family
arrived in time for their emergency backyard situation:
after heavy spring rains had worked the soil under it into putty,
a tree had cracked and fallen. Dad, she said, was happy

to share his chainsaw, his time, and his pickup to truck away
the arboreal detritus. Simon said he was fine, and really, there was work
to be done and a tree out of comfortable height to hide behind.
They yanked and clipped what they could, and when dad arrived

and the family wandered around front to greet him, Simon
took his place, shook the man’s hand, and thought
about how the desert had trees, too, brought in by founders and
developers and migrating masses to intrude among the cactus

and shrubs tall pieces of former greener homes. The weather
in the Pacific Northwest was cooler and they worked
under cooling mists of occasional drizzle, with enough cool sun
to work the gray away and dazzle out all of nature’s

colors. The chainsaw under blue smoke progressed toward
the snapped black trunk. Sawdust made the air fragrant
and sneezable. Simon snipped the larger fragments down
into carriable arm cargo that stacked nicely in the back

of dad’s truck. This isn’t a race, dad advised. The tree grew
backward, looming shader to slim shaded, its twigs disconnected
among leaves and logs and Simon’s sense of time that couldn’t be
put back together again. When they were done, his sister made breakfast.

They gathered beside dad’s truck. Simon said goodbye and stood back
to let his sister and her family carry out much longer goodbyes.
The stump would need removal, but for now it was, in the children’s
playing, a table in a clearing with plenty of seats for everyone.

StoryADay May 2016 Day 26

Fallen Tree

[StoryADay May Prompt: “Finding Your Voice” (and also my response to The Writers Studio exercise this week.)]

Simon arrived in his hometown to visit
his sister and her family, but the emergency backyard
situation required more than just this demolition crew;
the fallen tree required a chainsaw, and dad was happy

to share his, his pickup to truck away the debris,
and his time. Simon said he was fine, and besides,
there was work to be done, his sister and brother-in-law
and their children as buffers, and a tree to hide behind, its querying

branches tangled in the trees and bushes around it,
pointing through them at the house as if to say Retrieve me,
I’ve fallen out of comfortable height. They began clipping
and pulling at what they could, and when dad arrived

and the family wandered round front to greet him, Simon
took his place, shook the man’s hand, and thought about
how the desert had trees, too, brought in by founders and
developers and migrating masses to intrude among the cactus

and shrubs tall pieces of former greener homes. The weather
in the Pacific Northwest was much cooler and they worked
under the cooling mists of occasional drizzle, with enough sun
to work the gray away and dazzle out all of nature’s

colors. They piled the branches on the thick green lawn
in the backyard. They stacked thicker brown logs for burning as the chainsaw
under blue smoke made progress back toward the sharply bent and shattered
stump that deemed it time to break after a month

of heavy spring rains worked the soil under the tree into putty,
as if calling upon golem to rise and dance to avoid whipping
tree branches settling for the ground instead of the sky.
Sawdust made the air fragrant and sneezable. Simon worked

to breakdown the larger fragments into carriable cargo
that would fit nicely in the back of dad’s truck. Dad
suggested Simon not take on more than he could handle.
This isn’t a race. The tree grew backward, from majestic

shader to twiggy shaded, a hundred twigs, hundreds,
among the logs and leaves and sawdust and Simon’s sense
of time. It was easy to be clumsy and complex again
in a pile once removed from the site of the tree and

then twice removed as it was shifted round the front
of the house and into dad’s truck. The birds would have wanted
to play in the pile had there been no one around to fear. The squirrels, too.
They kept their distance but didn’t give up their sounds,

so that they would be there when the chainsaw finished,
the rest of the shuffling racket, and the sound of the
truck’s engine pulling away after Simon said goodbye
and stood back to let his sister and her family

carry out their much longer goodbyes and plans
to meet dad for breakfast in a few days. In the backyard,
the stump would need removal, but for now it was, in the children’s
playing, a table, and they found plenty of items to place on top.

StoryADay May 2016 Day 22

100-Word Glances at Men and Memoir

[Trigger warning: not all these men were nice, some of them were abusive, perhaps abused, and little good came out of knowing most of them except experience. And stories. Some NSFW.]

[StoryADay May prompt: “Write A Drabble Today“]

The pictures on the wall, in the albums, on her phone replace those that wouldn’t have been taken, the ones in which your father, in the cluttered garage, is chasing you and punching you in the stomach because you don’t have any friends, because you brought him the wrong screwdriver (Phillips!), because you stacked the woodpile and when he pushed, it toppled over. The photographs of him screaming with a scarlet face that if you don’t stop crying I’ll give you something to cry about! Bruises, gashes, and in your scalp, stitches then scars.

“Oh, remember this one,” mom beams.

That’s when you learn how to love.

He glances at you through glass. He’s busy, transparent, almost done, always with someone. This is where he wants you but you have places to be: bed, in pieces, under the weight of him and your walking away. Keep walking to your car, to your apartment, to shatter. There are now places he and his wife and children won’t ever be where there’s room for you. You ignore his phone calls. You move a year later. On the other side of the glass, your reflection can be awake, alone, learn to love.


He arrived with my friend for a summer visit. The unexpectedness of him: the bluntness and good humor, the casual claiming of my bed for his bed, too, the best blow job I ever had, the easy way we came together.

Later, at the country-western bar, he told me about the teenage boy who turned to him for money, alcohol, and listening. Confrontations with the boy’s father. With care, what he wanted from two decades between them.

He left for a threesome and me sick with a full drink in hand thinking my lack of experience flagged me underage enough.

One summer night arriving home dark in the dark brought forward a dog walking eager to introduce me to her man. In his meet-cute opening she only felt comfortable with women, or gay men. I would follow that type of dog anywhere. He led me to his apartment where we talked, only talking without asking more making greeting nicer, kinder, lower pressure.

We developed, he in ways that found hidden vines climbing me like a tree and when two weeks in he said he was considering suicide I talked him down, set him safely home, never saw his dog again.

StoryADay May 2016 Day 3