Ugly to Start With by John Michael Cummings
In this gritty coming of age novel, Jason Stevens is a teenager from the wrong side of the tracks in a small town in 1970s West Virginia. He is one of three boys in a family ruled by a tyrannical, eccentric father, but even in this family of misfits, Jason often feels like he doesn’t belong. Short stories follow the thread, much in the same style as Olive Kitteridge, of Jason’s often painful growing up. Along the way, various colorful and edgy characters come and go, and throughout, a grim honesty pervades. Certain parts, like the chapter from which the book takes its title, about the family cat, disturbed me and moved me, and stayed with me long after I moved on to subsequent chapters. Reading this, I was very much reminded of The Glass Castle; told in first-person narrative, I’m actually unsure whether this book is fictional, as it very much feels at least partially autobiographical.
Cummings is a talented writer who manages to paint vivid scenes and characters and evoke a myriad of emotions from his readers. I really enjoyed this short book.
Little Birds by Anais Nin
Apparently, Anais Nin is known for her masterful erotica tales. This was my first foray into Anais Nin literature (I have a couple other books by her), and I have to say that I wasn’t impressed. Maybe I’m just all smutted out, desensitized to it all by reading several racy books in succession . . . I don’t know.
Little Birds is a collection of short stories. I would liken them to what Penthouse Forum letters from early twentieth century might have been like, had there been Penthouse Forum with a better literary style back then. Basically, sex for the sake of sex. Unless I’m missing something. But weird stuff, told in a sort of dreamlike, hazy style. Dirty old man getting off on flashing little school girls (in the title story); strangers meeting up on the beach and going for it; men making love to paintings; lots of impotence and frigidity that is cured only by weirdness.
Didn’t really care for it. Maybe I’ll like Henry & June, which is an excerpt from Anais Nin’s diary, better. If I get to it.
For now, I think I’m going to take a break from smut and change gears.
You Better Not Cry by Augusten Burroughs
I’ve loved Augusten Burroughs ever since I opened the first page of Running With Scissors several years ago. I loved the way he wrote about his terribly dysfunctional life with irreverence, biting humor, and no self-pity or sentimentality. I loved how he presented himself, warts and all, with a take-it-or-leave-it attitude. After Running With Scissors, I quickly made my way through several of his other books: Dry, Sellevision, and Magical Thinking. I was inspired to write my very first fan letter to an author by his writing.
That said, You Better Not Cry is not his best work. A collection of short stories/anecdotes from his life, all in some way pertaining to Christmas memories (from gnawing the face off of a life-sized Santa as a kid and having to go to the ER to have his stomach pumped, to waking up in a suite at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel with a naked Santa in bed beside him who regales Burroughs with tales of their romp the night before, to the love of his life – a man dying of AIDS – abandoning him to instead be with his family for the holidays), I found this book rather brittle, as if Augusten Burroughs was trying too hard to be Augusten Burroughs. Despite the reviews on the back cover promising a “laugh-out-loud” read, I don’t think I even chuckled during the course of this book. It’s more of a dark, sad read, which I guess is fine if that’s what you’re after.
A disappointment; pass it up unless you’re a die-hard Augusten Burroughs fan.