A Severed Head by Iris Murdoch

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Unfortunately, I don’t have a great deal to say about this book, so I’m keeping this review short.

Irish Murdoch is a special lady. She’s got cojones. Like Patricia Highsmith, author of the Tom Ripley novels, Murdoch cuts through the sentimentality of traditional, romantic topics, like love and marriage. She has absolutely no patience for compassionate characters. Everyone who populates A Severed Head is unlikeable, demented, or foolish. Even the title is appropriately violent.

The narrator, who begins the novel in the midst of an affair, comes home from a rendezvous to be told by his (oddly) beloved wife that she is leaving him for another man. What follows is a bizarre game of musical lovers and incest. By the end, everyone has fallen in “love” with someone new at least once, or traded one dysfunctional relationship for another.

Case in point:

• Georgie, who starts off with Martin, ends up (for a moment) with Alexander, and then Palmer Anderson.
• Antonia abandons her husband, Martin, for Palmer, reunites with Martin, and then insists her real love was Alexander all the while.
• Palmer has an affair with Antonia, is secretly having incestuous relations with his sister, Honor Klein, and then ends up with Georgie.
• Martin is married to Antonia, has an affair with Georgie, and stupendously falls in hate/love with Honor Klein.

Is it possible to appreciate a writer’s talent for prose without actually enjoying the story? If so, I may be trapped in this strange limbo, in which I like Murdoch for her economical and unsentimental way with words; at the same time, I didn’t especially like the book. The plot was a touch convoluted and wayward. And I am still gnawing on the ending, and the perplexing behavior of Honor Klein. The blurb on the Penguin edition of my novel calls her “demonic” but I don’t entirely agree with that description. Yes, she’s insane, but so is everyone else in A Severed Head. In the end, it was hard to care about Martin & Co.

Over and out.

“Gentle reader, it didn’t taste good.”

how to save your own life

If the words “cunt,” “clit,” or “cock” make you uncomfortable, you will be utterly desensitized by the end of Erica Jong’s How to Save Your Own Life. I considered counting the number of times “cunt” appeared (perhaps a dozen times per chapter) but I eventually gave up.

About seven years ago, I read Jong’s first novel, Fear of Flying, featuring the feminist and lustful Isadora Wing. It’s a wonderful novel about the sexual lives of women in the sixties, hard-hitting commentary on the politics of marriage and relationships. How to Save Your Own Life is the second installment in the story and, holy crap, what a disappointment. Written in the seventies, with a distinct nostalgia for the sexual freedoms of “bisexual chic” and orgies, we join Isadora once again as she grapples with the ending of her marriage.

Isadora has become truly nauseating, a bourgeois writer with nothing better to do than complain about her husband, have countless affairs, and go on incessantly about the guilt. Most of the characters in the entire book are incredibly difficult to like. And yet, I kept turning the pages. I wanted to see if she could actually “save her own life.” Honestly, I was more curious to know what Erica Jong’s interpretation of the phrase would be than the plot itself.

I’m sad to say that Jong’s idea of saving one’s life means jumping from one dysfunctional relationship to another. For nearly three hundred pages, Isadora laments about her cold and unresponsive husband, Bennett. He doesn’t understand her, or her “art,” her “writing,” or her sexual appetite. Sure, he’s a jackass. I can’t argue there. Indeed, he’s dismissive, patronizing, and surprisingly unfaithful. But, here’s the problem – so is she! Isadora doesn’t see any fault in her own character, which is amazing considering the amount of guilt she experiences. Perhaps it’s a strange brand of virgin guilt, and it’s somehow unattached to destructive behavior. Instead she wallows extensively in her anger, but doesn’t do anything about it. And by the time she actually finds love, her idea of the concept is so fu*ked up, it’s impossible to see Josh, husband number two, as the savior. He’s just another Bennett, in a different form.

Isadora appears to be doomed, sexually and romantically. While the social climate of gender politics certainly comes into play here, and her desire for a fulfilling relationship is a legitimate one, she’s convinced herself that Josh is the soul mate she’s been searching for, the answer to her sporadic prayers. Unfortunately, in the Epilogue, we get a glimpse of their married life and – sweaty, Herculean sex aside – we come to realize there is something wrong with the picture Jong paints in the final pages. Horribly wrong. They play an odd game together, a power struggle of the most masochistic kind.

Perhaps this is simply the environment of marriage, and no matter how many times you escape one demented relationship, your fate is to fall into another. In David Finch’s interpretation of Gone Girl, all relationships are apparently doomed to become a power struggle, a partnership reduced to nothing but mind games between people who used to love each other. Maybe we are hardwired to play these games, or to want to. That could be the case here, but I don’t think so.

The divide between Isadora/Bennett and Isadora/Josh is not nearly as wide as she might think. But, by jumping from one man to the other, she never has to make a decision one way or another. She doesn’t have to worry about being alone, nor does she have to sacrifice her sexuality, which seems to have been so intertwined with her identity that losing it would likely result in losing her mind. Going around in the same circle means she doesn’t have to acknowledge her own behaviour and choices. And she does have choices, way more than most women!

To Jong’s credit, this book made me think. It made me angry, frustrated and outright annoyed… all good signs of a provocative novel. It seems insane and impossible to be one-hundred percent dependent on the experiences of our bodies to keep us happy. Regardless, the prose is painfully honest. Isadora speaks on behalf of the women of a generation who felt trapped by the social expectations of their culture, and shamed by any desire deemed “unladylike,” taught that to want sex was to be unnatural.

However, a book like How to Save Your Own Life doesn’t work very well in 2014. It feels like Jong was trying too hard to connect the dots for us. We didn’t need to be hit over the head with a steel pipe to understand her argument. Throwing around the word “cunt” hundreds of times doesn’t make your reader see the issue more clearly. Even if the word had been “rainbow,” overuse doesn’t do anyone any favours. Maybe Jong was trying to re-appropriate the term from something traditionally offensive into powerful, feminist sexual vocabulary; a noble effort, but ultimately troublesome and completely lost on me.

Amazing, chocolate-covered apricots

Handmade Scandinavian Christmas

It wasn’t my intention to do a full review of Handmade Scandinavian Christmas. After a thorough peruse, I didn’t feel compelled to try very many of the projects and/or recipes. The measurement charts were all in grams, and many of the crafts just didn’t appeal. To be fair, it’s a book more for families with access to sprawling farms than single girls in the city. However, the one recipe that I did try was such a rousing success, that I just had to show you a few pictures. Chocolate-covered apricots. Sounds simple, right? Oh, but it would be a mistake to dismiss this treat as “simple.” First of all, what the recipe title forgets to mention is that all the dried apricots have been soaked in Amaretto liqueur first, then dipped in dark, melted chocolate.

IMG_20141026_144743437Once cooled in the refrigerator, it’s only a matter of minutes before the chocolate sets and you’re free to taste the first batch. These turned out really, really good. Better than good. Delicious! Not to mention, if it’s cold outside, a quick bite of one of these bad boys will warm you right up. The Amaretto fills your throat with a lovely, intense warmth.

IMG_20141026_172026142As you can see, I experimented with how much chocolate to use. The recipe required only a half-dip, but I accidentally dropped a few into the bowl of chocolate, so they were more decadent than the others. Either way, wonderful treats. Something for you to try this Christmas! The rest of the book provides a variety of crafty ideas for advent calendars, wrapping paper and tree decorations, and would certainly work for a big family that can enjoy a sprawling, elaborate advent calendar, or someone with a robust knowledge of knitting, as many of the projects listed are provided with a moderate amount of instruction. Unfortunately, that would not include me.

Looking beyond the cover of a self-help book. (Give Brené Brown a chance.)

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The other day, I googled the following statement: “How to be vulnerable.” Why? I spend a great deal of time trying to be strong and organized, and I rarely allow myself the opportunity to make mistakes, or open myself up to criticism. It’s very important to me that I look like I have my shit together, though I rarely feel that way.

So, like many of us, I turned to the internet for advice. A TED talk by Brené Brown was listed at the top of my search results. I watched and listened thoughtfully. She’s a fantastic speaker, very insightful. When I learned of her book The Gifts of Imperfection and saw it pictured on Amazon, I cringed inwardly. The part of myself that didn’t want to be seen reading a touchy-feely self-help book in public thought: “Why does it have to have a dove and a heart on the cover? It’s so cliché.” But then I took a step back, scolded myself for being dismissive and judgemental, and forced myself to pick up a copy while at the store.

Not surprisingly, the content is incredibly well written. I’m glad I was able to get over my hang-up and read the darn book. She writes as well as she speaks. Her advice is solid and, most importantly, comes from a non-hierarchical place of honesty. Dr. Brown freely admits her own addictions, problems, anxieties, perfectionism, and judgements. None of the usual dialogue: “I am the noble, scholarly doctor. You are the plebe in need of help.” You never feel like an incompetent human being, just a normal one.

Three of Dr. Brown’s most compelling arguments:

1. Being busy and productivity as a status symbol

I struggle with this a lot. A barometer for my mood and sense of accomplishment is usually based on how much I managed to produce on any given day. How much did I write? How much did I read? How much did I learn? If I didn’t do anything “meaningful” during the day, it was all for naught. Dr. Brown believes we need to re-evaluate this tendency.

2. Letting ourselves be playful

When we take life too seriously, we forget about playing. We don’t like the idea of doing something for the hell of it, myself included. I don’t like being purposeless. For me, being playful feels like I’m wasting time, time I could be using more efficiently. Sad but true. Even though my brain knows this isn’t fair, my habit is to always opt for productivity over playfulness. Every dollar, every minute of the day, should be spent with a goal in mind. It’s uncomfortable for me to be silly sometimes for this very reason. I can play within the barometers of my goals, but beyond that, I’m lost. In The Gifts of Imperfection, Dr. Brown thinks we need to adjust the way we attach value to these activities and habits.

3. The value of dance and music

Honestly, I never thought of this, mainly because I never really noticed how little I listen to music. Over the years, music just evaporated from my life. When my MP3 player broke, I never bothered to have it repaired. As an experiment, I popped an old-school David Bowie CD into my computer. Almost immediately, I noticed a difference in my mental and thought “rhythm.” I went home and put all my stored music onto my new SmartPhone, took it to the gym, and proceeded to have the most energetic workout in ages.

Highly recommended, touchy-feely cover and all! If you ever felt compelled to read self-help, this would be a good choice. Why do you think we feel so embarrassed to admit when we’ve read (or want to read) self-help?

I Heart Christmas by Lindsey Kelk

i heart christmas lindsey kelk

As you may have noticed, I’m on a festive-themed reading binge. My brain is simply not in the mood for heavy, serious stuff, so I’ve opted for cheerful, whimsical “chick-lit.” So sue me.

Lindsey Kelk is new to me and her writing is a lot of fun. I was especially impressed with her knack for dialogue, which was super funny and, for the most part, realistic. Kelk is surprisingly good at articulating rapid-fire repartee between friends. The banter between lead characters Angela Clark and Jenny Lopez is quite amusing and refreshing. I loved how they’d make cultural references to current television shows, shopping addictions, procrastination, and the beauty business of glossy magazines. Coincidentally, Angela works at a magazine she helped found called Gloss.

The general premise of the book is straight-forward but endlessly entertaining. Angela is trying to get ready for the holidays, but everyone and everything is getting in the way. Her boss has left her with a ton of responsibility; she’s suddenly saddled with a new employee that makes her nervous; her husband up and buys a house as a surprise for Christmas; and, to top it all off, her parents have decided to visit New York for Christmas. Throw into the mix a friend with marital problems, and another who is obsessed with having a baby. All in all, instead of the relaxing holiday Angela envisioned when she took the week off, she’s more stressed than she thought possible.

For some reason, I’ve had very good luck with British “Chick-lit.” [Why do I keep putting "chick-lit" in quotations? Mainly because I don't really believe in the genre. Writing is writing. And some of it's damn funny writing, too!] In the past, I’ve read and enjoyed Marian Keyes, who has a similar self-deprecating sense of humour, so I thought Kelk might fit the bill. And I was right! I would be totally willing to read more of the I Heart series, or anything else by Lindsey Kelk, who has proven herself rather comedically gifted. She reminds me a little of Tracey Ullman. I learned that Kelk was originally asked to write under a pseudonym because her agent thought her name “sounded like a cat being sick.” Seriously.

Aside from the difficulty of meditation, if there’s anything I’ve learned this year it’s that genre fiction has so much more to offer than we think. The writing is crisp and clear, fun to read, and significantly more emotionally satisfying than we give it credit for. Traditionally, we expect to get the most out of classics and heavier novels, but light doesn’t always have to mean silly. “Chick-lit” can be robust. Even if the plot is a little unrealistic, I appreciate the clarity of contemporary genre writers, something that “literary” writers don’t always have the foresight to employ. Not to mention, sometimes it’s nice to escape to a fantasy-land where the heroine lands the dude, gets the job, and has great shoes. Sure, life’s more complicated than that, there are one too many fashion references, and most people can’t afford Christian Louboutin shoes, but what’s wrong with a happy ending every once and a while? Nothing, that’s what.

In addition to Marian Keyes, I’ve experimented with reading some Elin Hilderbrand and now Lindsey Kelk, all really talented comediennes and storytellers. Seeking a fun read this Christmas? Look no further. Give the I Heart series a go!

 

“There’ll be bits of you stuck to your wife’s fingernails at the end of all this.”

Mrs HemingwayThis book started off well and promising. Naomi Wood’s intentions were, I’m fairly certain, quite honourable. But it lost me. Not sure why, it just did. Mrs. Hemingway is a creative endeavor, a novel that features the four wives of Ernest Hemingway as narrators, as guides into the rumored tortured soul of one of America’s most iconic writers.

After reading A Moveable Feast, I found myself curious about Hadley, Hemingway’s first wife. He expressed such regret over the disintegration of their marriage, and practically immortalized her as an angel of patience and understanding. How could I not wonder? Wood’s interpretation of Hadley is very dignified, perhaps the most likeable of the four wives. She’s human and imperfect, easily intimidated, but perceptive on a soulful level. That, and she wasn’t going to hold on to a man who didn’t want to be kept. She knew when to let go… unlike poor wife number two, Fife, who had the most difficult time going through the divorce process. The lovely and sarcastic quote in my title is attributed to Martha Gellhorn (wifey #3) in reference to Fife, who absolutely refused to release Ernest without a brutal fight.

However, I lost faith in the narrators when we reached Martha. Her voice seemed awkward, which is ridiculous because I knew nothing about her. How the heck should I know whether or not Martha sounded like a real person? All I can offer is an opinion that Wood lost some momentum here. Ernest became a caricature, a ghostly caricature who could only produce esoteric one-liners and propose marriage like a trained monkey. Also, the transition from wife to wife became an odd production once Martha passed the (burnt out) torch to Mary Welsh.

Once we reached the point of Hemingway’s death (a debatable accident vs. suicide, according to Mary) the plot starts to fall apart. Perhaps this is intentional, a literal translation of Ernest-as-glue. Once the man these women love has left the earth, the story loses its foundation and strength. However, if Wood wanted to show how interesting and powerful the four wives were beyond their wifely titles, this feels like a huge gap in narrative judgement. Martha Gellhorn is especially independent. She could never see herself in the wife/mother role from the start. (It is interesting to note that she eventually adopted a child, but biographers argue over her maternal reputation. Some say she never fully embraced the responsibilities of motherhood, while dissenters disagree completely.) Of the four, she matched Ernest ego for ego.

Regardless, what’s most surprising to discover is reading this book did not make me dislike ol’ Nesto, the mushy, romantic dude that he was. Would I ever put up with his crap and machismo? F*#k, no. I don’t care how hot he was. (Google his old passport photos. Seriously. He was handsome as hell.) What girl wants to live with or love a man who constantly has a new girl waiting in the wings? He begged Martha to stay while he’d already begun to woo the married Mary. He was facetious, and boorish no doubt, but one of a kind. In the end, he was a damn fine writer, and he had a unique quality that couldn’t be articulated.

Blackout (Conclusion)

The World Turned Off

A short story by Lydia

Five days later, Gregory Rhodes, PhD, was the first to submit a theory on the Blackout: “I think we’ve reached a peak,” the interview began, “we’ve accomplished too much.”

The reporter, Denis Holloway, who’d landed the exclusive, made a face and scoffed. “We’ve accomplished too much? Please. How else is modern civilization going to progress?”

Dr. Rhodes, a gentleman in his late sixties, smiled patiently. “Of course you’d think so. Every generation thinks so.”

The reporter waved away the response. “Let’s get to the science, okay? How does this explain the global weather shifts, the plane crashes, the blackout?”

“Let me show you a rudimentary experiment, Denis. It may seem a bit basic, but please bear with me. I do have a point to make.” The doctor reached for the water glass next to his chair and then spoke to an off-camera crew member. “Could I get a pitcher of water please?”

There was some shuffling behind-the-scenes before someone, sporting a headset and a cast around his left arm, handed the white haired man a pitcher of water. “Thank you.”

Dr. Rhodes poured the remainder of his own water into the pitcher and held up his empty glass. “This… is the world.”

Barely disguising his frustration, Denis nodded and huffed. “Right. Okay, and?”

“It started off empty, and we slowly filled it. See?” He poured water from the pitcher into the glass. “But what happens when it’s full? It overflows.” Dr. Rhodes purposely poured water to over the sides of the glass. It landed in a puddle on the floor of the television studio. “Where do you expect the water to go when there is no more room?”

Denis sighed, not bothering to remain professional, even for the sake of his audience. “The world is full of what? This is too esoteric. Be tangible, Dr. Rhodes, please. Our viewers need clarity.”

“Ah ha! Good question. Full of what?” He stuck his index finger in the air, as though he were checking the direction of the wind. “Everything. Too much of everything. Our modern footprint is a mess beyond repair. The world may have turned off, as all you tweety birds out there call it, but while we blacked out, something else turned on. Now, it’s up to us to figure out what that something is.”

Shaking his head, no tolerance for Dennis, Dr. Rhodes or his superstitious jibber-jabber, Ben turned away from the airport television. He did not want to dismiss the death and outright chaos he and Kyle experienced last week as an over-simplified glass of water. He took another sip of coffee and stole a glance at the cluster of reporters gathered by the baggage carousel.

The miraculous return of tourists from across the globe, along with their harrowing tales of survival abroad, had been front page news since the bulk of media outlets were revived two days prior. The latest batch, including Emma, was flying through JFK, expected in mere minutes, and he eagerly awaited her arrival.

The sound of her voice on the phone yesterday had sounded like an angel of mercy, an odd comparison for him to make after years of atheism. “Ben? It’s me. I’m coming home. Can you pick me up from the airport tomorrow afternoon?”

“Of course, of course!” he’d agreed, much too loud, clutching the phone in his sweaty hand. There was no mention of what happened before Iceland. The break-up was forgotten. Neither broached the topic of Caitlin. It was just understood.

“Are you okay?”

“I’m fine, just a few bruises,” she’d said, sounding gritty, sultry, still very far away. “I just want to come home. I want to sleep in my own bed.” A sigh sailed through the phone and into his waiting ear.

“Emma…I-” he’d began, not sure what to say.

“It’s okay, Ben. I don’t care anymore. Just pick me up from the airport. Please.”

That was it, the conversation in a nutshell. Now, he waited. The plane from New York, carrying hundreds of tourists who had been trapped in various parts of Europe  and South America during the blackout, landed safely. In just a few moments, they would come down the escalator to a media frenzy of cameras and microphones, but all he cared about was seeing Emma, safe and sound, in one piece.

The baggage carousel came to life and, with a sad thunk, spit out the first three suit cases. They made the rounds for at least five minutes before the full load of damaged duffel bags, guitar cases, and ski bags joined the merry-go-round. He studied the colours and designs but nothing looked familiar. Ben interpreted this as a bad sign. Did she miss the flight?

An announcement sounded: “Passengers from United Airlines flight US2658 from New York, please pick-up your baggage at carousel five.”

The reporters braced themselves for action. Some fixed their hair. Others checked sound and read their notes. Ben, on the other hand, just prepared himself for a reunion with his ex-fiancé, and wasn’t sure what to expect.

The escalator started to glide downward, and the passengers slowly descended, eyes tired and bloodshot, searching for familiar faces. He did the same. The moment his gaze landed on a stranger, he moved on to the next person, scanning until he locked eyes with Emma. She was wearing her hair long, tumbling down her slight, bony shoulders. Her lips were set in a grim, oddly mischievous line. He couldn’t read her expression.

She raised a hand and waved, and it took all of his self-restraint to not run through the crowd at top speed to meet her half-way. All he could do was return the wave, stupidly raising his hand in a casual flash, as though this weren’t a big deal, as if the world hadn’t turned upside down.

As she dodged media and other airline staff, Emma got closer, and Ben was embarrassed to realize he felt light-headed. He was nervous, ashamed. As she approached, he couldn’t help but notice that she looked different. Her eyes were bigger, or wider, or darker. One (or all) of the three. Her stride was longer… or maybe it was more confident? He couldn’t put his finger on the pulse of what made her so… watchful, observant, playful. It was a strange combination of words to think of, but there you go. Tragedy and trauma changes people, right?

“Emma!”

She only smiled and kept walking. No words. (And, no purse, just a plastic bag.) Eventually they were face to face, practically nose to nose. He didn’t think it was right to kiss her, but he wanted to. Her mouth was weirdly red, intensely captivating.

“It’s so good to see you. I’m so glad-” His voice caught, and he turned away. He couldn’t cry. Humiliating. “Are you okay?”

She blinked slowly, took in air through her nose. “Yes, I’m fine. As I said, just a few bruises.” She craned her neck to one side and showed a blue mark across her collar bone. It looked vicious. More brutal than anticipated. He tried to touch it, but she brushed his hand away. “Don’t.”

She opened her mouth to speak, licked her lips with a dark pink tongue. “It’s so good to see you, Ben.” Her voice was more like velvet than he remembered. A luscious whisper.

When Emma leaned in for a hug, he caught a whiff of her breath, winced, and was momentarily filled with fear. Fleeting, yes. For a moment, it was there, and then it was gone. It barely registered in his conscious mind. He shook it away, wondered why it was there at all, and squeezed her tight, pressed her close. “Me too. This has been such a nightmare.”

She laughed, a loose, foreign sound. “You took the words right out of my mouth.” She stepped back and fingered a red mark on her forehead, along her hairline. “Will you take me home now? I want to go to sleep. I‘m so tired.”

He took her face in his hands, intended on looking deeply into her eyes, but was drawn to her open mouth again. Somewhere in the distance, he could hear a camera flashing, immortalizing their reunion for the newspaper. “Absolutely.”

“Are you going to keep me company?” she asked, whispering into his neck.

The warmth caused his skin to come alive with gooseflesh. “Of course. I won’t leave you alone for a second.”

“I just want to fall asleep and know that you’re there, next to me.”

“I’ll be there. I promise.” The universe, he was relieved to discover, was giving him a second chance after all this insanity.

When they moved apart, she looked sad all of a sudden, then angry. Her eyes flickered back and forth between the two a few more times before settling on the first. “You have no idea what I’ve been through, Ben. No idea.” Her voice quivered, drew him in, and broke his heart in two with guilt.

“What? What is it? What happened?” He couldn’t understand why, but he didn’t want her to respond. The unknown answer scared him, made his palms sweat profusely. The question had weight.

She shook her head, then smiled again, closed her eyes. “It doesn’t matter right now.” She weaved an arm through his and pressed her cheek into his shoulder with a long sigh. Her fingers pressed deeply into his skin. Too deep.

To lighten the mood and, hopefully, ease into forgetfulness, he asked, “Hungry?”

“Starving,” she said, and covered his lips with the first of what would be many, many kisses.

The End.

You Better Not Cry by Augusten Burroughs

You better not cry stories for christmas

Although I’ve seen multiple interviews with Augusten Burroughs, and been simultaneously delighted by his hilarious sense of humour and touched by his traumatic childhood memories, I didn’t expect You Better Not Cry, Stories for Christmas, to have the weight it did. Not only was I entertained by this festive collection of holiday-inspired essays, I was completely astounded by the level of honesty. Yes, Burroughs is funny and witty, very sardonic, but below that wit lies some serious sadness and shame.

You Better Not Cry starts off with an amusing recollection of a childhood trying to differentiate between Santa Claus and Jesus Christ. You may wonder how such a confusion could occur but Burroughs explains himself well, and makes up for his misunderstanding with hysterical kid-logic:

Despite all my confusion I managed to make two distinctions: Santa was the one who climbed around on peoples’ roofs then entered their private homes at night as they slept, while Jesus was the one that made surprise visits – mostly to crippled kids and people who were crying. I thought they both might wear a red suit from time to time.

At night when I prayed to Jesus, it was a jolly man in a red suit – with access to the world’s supply of presents – whom I imagined listening to my prayers and taking notes. And when I was afraid or needed serious assistance, I prayed to the skinny hippy Jesus coming down from the North Pole in maybe a VW Bus or on a broom where he could wave his hand over my head and make the problem go away. (8)

When his grandparents from the south come to visit and discover that their grandson doesn’t understand the difference between Santa and Jesus, they take it upon themselves to set him straight. Get ready to laugh, ladies and gents. A gentle warning to you all, the following excerpt may cause you to pee your pants:

Santa Claus, [grandma] explained, did not live in the sky; he flew through it once a year on a sleigh powered by reindeer. He lived at the North Pole with Mrs. Claus and some little people who made toys for him.

“You mean midget slaves?” I asked.

My grandmother sucked in her air. “Goodness gracious, no, I most certainly do not mean midget slaves. Where did you even learn to combine such words? These are little leprechauns he has up there with him and-”

My grandfather blasted in. “Aw now, hell, Carolyn, don’t go twisting the boy back up in knots all over again now that you finally got him straightened out. They aren’t leprechauns, son. They’re elves. Leprechauns are those little drunk motherfuckers from Ireland.” (23-4)

At that point, I just lost it, and started to wheeze with laughter. Not to mention, this particular vignette culminates in little Augusten eating the wax face off a fake Santa, and being rushed to the hospital to have his stomach pumped. It’s ridiculous, but it manages to retain that unmistakable voice of innocence.

Half-way through this little book, however, the comedy starts to wither and transform into self-deprecating shame. Eventually, Augusten grows up, becomes an alcoholic, and frequently experiences blackouts. One essay recounts a one night stand with an old Frenchman, dressed in a ratty Santa Claus outfit, while another is about a Christmas spent with a homeless, immensely talented opera singer, after which the author discovers how little it takes to derail a life, including his own.

I just loved reading this book, and I look forward to reading more by the fabulous Mr. Burroughs. If you’re looking for something festive to read, this is a great choice. The writing is impeccable, and the content is legitimately heartwarming. No clichés here.

Blackout (Part 5)

The World Turned Off

A short story by Lydia

Emma felt hot, crowded. Someone was touching her lips – kissing her – and his breath was flooding her face and nostrils with a chemical, rancid stench. Instinctively, she moved, curled up like a child, and waited for the heaviness of sleep to lift. Waking up was torture.

In a distant part of her mind, she could hear footsteps, and wondered if someone was approaching her on the bench, perhaps a paramedic. Unfortunately, the harder she concentrated on the footsteps, the closer they felt. As if they were directly beneath her. But that wasn’t possible, was it?

It took some time to regain her senses, but Emma slowly came to realize that she was being carried. A solid pair of arms cradled the crook of her knees and the back of her neck. With a shock, she came to understand that her face was currently tucked into the chest of an unknown person, someone who periodically stooped to kiss her on the lips, laugh into the wind, and continue along the path, one foot in front of the other.

As if to illustrate her realization, he did so again. The footsteps slowed, the breath came hot and close again, and a foreign pair of lips descended upon her own. They were dry and unfamiliar, puffy with bruises, attached to an open, red mouth. She gasped, grimaced, and used whatever strength that remained in her floppy, disobedient hands to push him away.

In response, he only smiled, whispered into the air, and kept walking, lumbering up a side-walked hill. With each step, he rocked forward, leaned into the steep, angled hill, and dug his fingers into Emma’s knees, trying to maintain his grip. It was becoming painfully obvious that he wasn’t a paramedic at all, and a fearful, tense ache spread through her thighs and chest.

Unfortunately, Emma couldn’t get her eyes to open and stay open. After only seconds to glance up and out, they withered shut from fatigue, just long enough to take in the fading grey sky, the orange door of a nearby apartment building, and the brown texture of the stranger’s coat. Could any of this be real? She craved that familiar feeling of sharp relief after waking from a nightmare, what she used to get after one of those circular dreams where she found herself permanently lost in an airport.

The topsy-turvy, surreal world around her kept the fatigue from dissipating, causing her to fade into drowsy partial-consciousness. Against her will, she fell into the memory of last week, sitting in her beige office cubicle, staring at her computer screen of bureaucratic emails, desperately pleading for a more adventurous life. She remembered looking around at the felt walls where she’d stupidly pinned a selection of inspirational quotes and a recipe of butternut squash soup, a pathetic attempt at making her surroundings look less square, less abandoned.

The affair had completely unraveled her life, not just her heart, which was broken well enough. Any ambition she had possessed faded into a painful uncertainty. What would she do with herself now? Why did the whole thing make her feel unhinged; a flag, holding on by a thread, flapping in a torrential wind? It was only a matter of time before that thread ripped and she went whipping into the sky, untethered and completely lost. The anger had only intensified when she could only blame Ben. Surely, he wasn’t the author of her entire future, but why did it feel that way? Losing one piece of the puzzle didn’t have to disrupt the whole picture. At least, she didn’t want it to.

She remembered looking down at her feet that day, and sneering at the sensible black pumps she’d been wearing. There was a time when clothes used to matter to her, when she cared how feminine she looked and felt. Somehow, she’d ended up in the wardrobe of a middle-aged politician. This is not me, she’d thought. This can’t be my life.

A squeaky door handle turned, and shocked Emma out of the past and back into the arms of her mysterious carrier. She hesitated on the word it; it seemed too vague, non-committal, supernatural. But, that breath was absolutely rotten. No human being could smell like that and still be alive.

“Where are we going?” She forced the words from her mouth with great effort. “Put me down.” She finished with a weak whimper. For a fleeting, heart-stopping moment she caught clear sight of his red, open mouth as he bent to kiss her once more. It’s like he’d swallowed a tumbler full of blood and coated his tongue slick.

That’s when she decided none of this could be happening. Clearly, this was a nightmare. Yes, a horrible, demented dream and, sooner or later, she would wake up in the bed of her Flagstaff apartment, surrounded by her periwinkle sheets and matching duvet. This nonsensical trip to Iceland was like that time she dreamt she died her hair platinum blonde: a big, fat, mind-fuck. Not real. Far away. An ocean away. There was no blackout. No such thing. A plane certainly had not crashed into the mountain. She must be ill – a fever – to have imagined such an elaborate, apocalyptic scenario. Most importantly, she was absolutely not being carried by a stranger, into a deserted apartment building in Reykjavik.

Desperately ignoring the blood that would surely come, Emma bit into the tender skin of her own cheek and willed herself awake. Instead, she was rewarded with immediate swelling, and yet another kiss from her whispering, vile-smelling, robotic captor, who was now climbing a set of stairs at a slow, methodical pace. She wanted to scream, Stop! Stop kissing me! That smell is going to tear apart my insides. Or maybe… maybe, he had other plans for tearing apart her insides.

Feeling dizzy the moment she raised her head, Emma pressed hard against his chest and croaked, “Put me down!” The echo was deafening, like a two-by-four to the head.

It almost dropped her, and her stomach struggled to stay still. Finally, after some kicking and groping and pushing and shoving, she freed herself from its grip. (Somewhere in the back of her mind, she took notice of the word it this time.)
The stairwell filled with an unintelligible whisper, angry and inarticulate words bouncing off the walls. Mixed with her own gasping breaths and screams of effort, Emma thought she might go insane from the combination. But, even though her head was ready to explode, she pulled herself down the cement stairs, chest first, falling heavily on her chin, breasts and collar bone. Instead of reacting, which would take time she couldn’t afford, she palmed the landing and pushed herself up, grasping at the railing for balance. She blindly aimed her foot backward and connected with what could have been bone or skin. A knee or shin?

A key jingled plainly among the sounds of their scuffle and she could sense another door opening. It’s trying to get me into that room. Without any warning, a hand immersed itself in her hair, became immediately tangled amongst the strands with a grip unlike she’d ever experienced, and pulled until she thought her scalp was going to peel right off.

Emma wanted to scream, but she didn’t have anything left. No voice, no strength, no sanity, no memory of what used to be or the people she used to love. She collapsed onto the stairs and vaguely sensed the vise-like clutch on her arm as she was dragged up the last few stairs, across the apartment threshold and inside.

Gently, the door clicked shut.

Stay tuned for the conclusion of Blackout

On Strike for Christmas by Sheila Roberts

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And so it begins: Christmas themed fare. It’s fun and easy, entertaining and cute, a perfect relaxant at the end of a stupidly busy day. On Strike for Christmas was a completely random selection. I pretty much scanned the shelves of my local library for something festive and picked it up. Generally, it might be considered “chick-lit” or “women’s literature,” whatever that means, but suffice it to say that I enjoyed reading this book, no matter the genre.

A battle of the sexes, all the women of Holly are fed up that their husbands don’t understand the work that goes into preparing for the holidays: the cooking, the cleaning, the driving in bad weather, the family gatherings, pageant costume making, etc. The first to declare a strike is Joy Robertson, who wants to prove to her husband Bob (nicknamed Bob Humbug) that without her effort and hard work, Christmas would be a very dull experience. To prove it, she goes on strike, declares that she will not lift a finger to bake, decorate the tree, or anything else. From there, she unwittingly inspires a movement among her friends, which then builds traction after some publicity in the local paper spreads the word.

Soon, the entire town is either on the side of the “Hassled Husbands” or the “Striking Wives.” The husbands, of course, quickly learn that keeping holiday traditions alive in their family is a lot harder than it looks and, in true happy-ending fashion, the wives eventually realize that their clueless hubbies aren’t so clueless after all. The book follows several couples through until Christmas day, including the reporters who write for the local paper, until each storyline culminates in a moment of recognition on the part of both husband and wife. It’s all very PG-13, but amusing.

In many cases, the dialogue is sickly sweet and, at times, overtly Christian, but I was prepared for that. I simply enjoyed the comedic thread of the story, and the Christmas vibe. The author even provides several recipes at the end, in case you feel compelled to make any of the treats mentioned throughout the book. While reading, I often thought that the story would make a fun made-for-tv movie, and, lo and behold, it did. A little something to get you in the spirit.

For the first time in a couple of years, I’m actually in the mood for Christmas. Last year, I barely put up a tree, and no gifts were purchased (a mutual family decision). This time, I’m willing to get busy in the kitchen, do some baking, and put together a nice holiday. Go figure! Bring on the tinsel and candy canes!