Give me books, fruit, french wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors. --John Keats

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

"Running with Scissors: A Memoir" by Augusten Burroughs

I have a miniscule memory of reading a review of this book several years ago, which extends only to the idea that this memoir involves the boyhood abandonment of the author (evoking a horrifying youth like that in The Glass Castle--although Jeannette Walls was never abandoned, she may as well have been) with a dark humor in the style of David Sedaris. This was confirmed when I read the "additional praise" quotes just inside the front cover and several compared Burroughs to Sedaris.

Before reading, I was slightly ambivalent about the book, and the aforementioned quotes didn't really help. One of them made the book sound great: "It's gross, it's shocking and its humor is blacker than a thousand midnights . . . " but the very next quote negated the previous one for me: "Brutal, disturbing . . . unfathomable heartache and dysfunction." (That's not the whole quote, but those are the parts that stood out to me). But I was resigned to discovering whether Burroughs was able to put the "fun" in dysfunction.

Well. My goodness. This memoir is a train wreck if I ever saw one. You know how I label some books as "not suitable for my mom"? I think this book was not suitable for me. It should have had a subtitle of "Adults Who Should Have Known Better But Didn't." (If you are a tender sweet young thing and you can't handle reading words like "penis," please close your eyes, skip to the next paragraph, and then open your eyes to continue reading again.) It was bad enough when I read about the six year old boy giggling as his dog licked his erect penis (not that I blame the boy, but there were adults in his life who should have taught him that this is Not Right), but it was awfully icky to read about 33-year-old Bookman, erm, forcibly receiving oral sex from thirteen-year-old Augusten. All weird sexual fetishes aside, pedophilia is never cool. The whole thing is made all the more horrible by the knowledge that this is not a work of fiction.

Yeah, about this being a true story. Even some of the not-so-horrible-but-just-gross parts rather defied belief. I mean, turd fortune-telling? I guess whoever said truth is stranger than fiction was right. And how funny that the turd fortune-telling chapter ended with Natalie telling Augusten he should write all this stuff down, and then Augusten saying, "Even if I did, nobody would believe it." How did he know? Honestly, though, I'm not questioning the veracity of the memoir, because this book was first published in 2002; if Burroughs had made this stuff up, there would have been a James-Frey-style uproar by now. (Interestingly enough, there was an uproar of another kind when the real "Finch" family brought a lawsuit against Burroughs for defamation of character). True, exaggerated, or false, I just can't help but wonder, how did so much crazy crap happen to one poor kid? I had to laugh (albeit in a slightly bewildered way) when, during one of his mother's periods of psychosis, Augusten wonders "how anything would ever be normal again." My bewilderment stemmed from his use of the word "again," of course.

I must admit that the book was engrossing (emphasis on "gross", but still). On Monday I didn't think I'd been absorbed in the book for too long, but during "not too long," my three-year-old managed to unspool two full rolls of toilet paper, soak the bathroom floor with water, and smear a glue stick on her belly. I'm so glad she's going to be four soon. It will make a difference, right?? I guess I should look on the bright side: at least she didn't poop under the piano.

If you like David Sedaris and can imagine still liking him multiplied by ten, you might want to read this book. Otherwise, just take my word for it that Augusten Burroughs had a horrible childhood and is very lucky that he can make light of it now. In fact, it amazes me that Burroughs never asks for the reader's pity, and the book ends on such a note of hope.

Have I told you before how glad I am that I am NORMAL?? After reading this book I feel exceedingly lucky that, as a child, all my adults Knew Better.


Kathy said...

I meant to ask, but forgot--have any of you seen this movie? I don't think I want to, but I haven't heard a thing about it and was curious.

Marce said...

What a truly great review. I hear this is his best one. I read the Christmas memoir and that is when I decided I have to read his work, that sarcasm with such dark memories.

I love reading about dysfunction, think I will enjoy it.

I have a 3 year old also. The 2's were not bad but OMG please let the 4's be better :-)

Emidy said...

Wow, that definitely isn't suitable for everyone! I'm not a huge fan of memoirs, but I liked The Glass Castle so I might give this a try.

Jessica said...

good review, this has been on my TBR list forever but I keep waiting until Im in the right mood to read it. Whatever that may be!

Book Quoter said...

Great review, and I will have to check it out too.

If you like music, I highly recommend his audio book-Wolf at the table which is the memoir of his father. He read it himself and he commissioned 5 new songs specifically for the book. It is very moving.

Greg Zimmerman said...

Wow - beyond gross (which I can handle), this just sounds annoying! But I laughed out loud several times reading your review. Very nicely done!

I haven't seen the movie either - lukewarm reviews scared me off.

Hey - great blog. I just found you from your post on the Book Blogs site. Following now and looking forward to reading about, well, whatever suits your fancy.

Kathy said...

OK, all you people who plan to check out this book--don't say I didn't warn you! ;)

Marce, I'm right there with you on wishing the fours will be better--reckon it will be just like flipping a switch? Hey, don't burst my bubble! I'm trying to block out the voices in my head that keep repeating, "Once a stinker, always a stinker."

Emidy, be prepared for a foray into the ridiculous compared to The Glass Castle. (If my review hasn't already prepared you, that is.) BTW, I don't know if you've read my post about that one (my very first post! From almost exactly a year ago!!) but I'm going to recommend to you another book that I mentioned in the comments on that post: Me & Emma by Elizabeth Flock. I think anyone who liked The Glass Castle would also like that one. Times two.

Jessica, maybe the right mood for this book is one in which you are exasperated by your family and you need some perspective--when you need to see that it could be worse. Very, very much worse.

Dork (can I call you Dork? Somehow it seems rather rude of me), I am glad that you found me. I have been enjoying your posts for a long time (like, the entire month of May). I think I found you through the Ape, but you know how it all kind of blurs together. I should comment more instead of just silently lurking around.

Kathy said...

Gah, sorry, Book Quoter, I didn't mean to ignore you!! I LUURV music but haven't gotten into audio books yet. I'm not sure I could concentrate on them (just judging by the way my mind wanders in church). But I am curious about the music in the audio book you mentioned. Are we talking instrumental, rock'n'roll, or what? Thanks for the tip!

L said...

I like his stuff, I have read most of it, I think that this one is the most gruesome if my memory serves. I love his dark humor and the fact that he survived his childhood. :)

Janna said...

Hey, awesome review, thought-provoking and funny. This book has been on my TBR pile for absolutely ages. I've read his book "Dry" which was disturbing but un-put-downable. I'll give this one a read soon.

Amanda said...

It surprised me how many people want to read this after your review. Well it was on the best seller's list and that is why I read it years ago, but everyone else I know that started it, put it down. So kudos to you Kathy for finishing it. (By the way, the movie tanked.)
I found it disturbing and reading your review just reminded me of a few of those cringe moments. I did finish it, only because I rarely ever stop reading a book once I start unless it is painfully boring.