Sunday, February 17, 2013

Reading Journal: Running with Scissors, by Augusten Burroughs (2002)

A creative non-fiction author who came onto the scene alongside the Three Funny Daves - Sedaris, Rakoff and Eggers - the cover of Burroughs's best-known book and several pages inside are plastered with superlative adjectives. I like his comparables, but for the lion's share of this book - about growing up (gay) in your mother's shrink's house, after she determines he'd raise you better than she would - I wasn't enjoying it. It's written in eight-to-ten-page episodes, and some are definitely more memorable than others, but beyond the inherent forward motion of a coming-of-age story, I didn't get behind any of the characters, so it just read like an "and then, and then," kind of list. I did enjoy the final three or four episodes, though, which are separated from each other by more time than successive chapters in the first part, and I think this is what revealed the book's weakness: a failure to select the best material. If Burroughs wanted a narrative, he could have only included those stories that kept us going somewhere - maybe like Eggers in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius - or those that were the absolute funniest, like Sedaris in... well... pretty much everything he's written. I wanted to love Burroughs's work in the same way, but humour's kind of like that - it either strikes you or it doesn't. Wacky, wild upbringing, though; hard to imagine actually going through it.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Reading Journal: Smash Your Head on the Punk Rock, by Matt Bissonette (2007)

A chronicle of four friends in late 70s/early 80s Montreal who grow into and out of punk rock, more as a coping mechanism than for any other reason. The author - Matt Bissonette the Canadian screenwriter, not the Navy SEAL behind the tell-all about killing bin Laden - knows the scene and the fan-child types around it, and the book is full of manic action, always from different points of view, which keeps you reading. In the end some characters grow up and others don't, which is pretty gritty in and of itself, and the pages of sex and drugs and stupid stunts that kept you reading finally bring you to a place where you know that this kind of behaviour has to end... whether it does or not. Particularly successful is Bissonnette's choice to break up the "present" of the action with a road diary from the future from one character who ends up becoming a roadie, which lends a sense of "this too shall pass" to the more-or-less senseless action that we're reading. I found myself looking forward to the ending, perhaps because the immature punk rock life is the same day in and day out, (which was of course the book's point), but the writer took a lot of enjoyable stylistic risks - dream sequences, drug trips and more, rendered in stream-of-consciousness - which made the journey feel more important than the destination.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Reading Journal: Man in the Dark, by Paul Auster (2008)

A bizarre novel in which the narrator, late in life and confronting family secrets at the urging of his grand-daughter, tells of the story he tells himself when trying to fall sleep, a story of an alternate future in which the protagonist must assassinate the author. It's a book that's clever in its use of layers and that's briskly written for the first two thirds, until the dream story ends and we conclude with the long family history that the protagonist was avoiding telling us about, followed by a twee reconciliation, or something, when the family members recognize their adjusted roles. Some people love Auster and others revile him, and I think his "split" approach in writing this novel would be one reason. It's a feat to yoke such disparate stories together, but at the same time it almost felt like he was forcefully joining two aborted novels. I enjoyed it until the surreal dream piece ended, then limped through the last 60 pages to the finish line. I'll likely try something else of his, but this was not an ideal introduction to this prolific author and it felt like a rather disposable work.