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Book Badger

My life in books.

I always have some mixed feelings about memoir and biographical fiction, probably because at the point in my life when I was most immersed in writing, books, and publishing it seemed that the golden ticket to getting subsequent books published was coming out with a heart-wrenching memoir. Writing such stuff would be a natural tendency for me – publishing such stuff would be impossible for me. So what did I do? I ran from it and tried with everything I wrote to push myself as far out of my realm of personal experience as possible. I could still use my voice, some of my tendencies and traits, but each protagonist must be not-me.

My writing was much more interesting and honest because of it.

Unfortunately I still find myself feeling guilty over reading memoirs unless it’s by a prominent figure or someone dealing with unique and extraordinary circumstances. I have a number of concerns when it comes to reading memoirs.

First, there’s my perception that the author is sort of throwing their family under the bus – and unless your family is ultra-shitty that’s just not cool. Every family is a bit shitty – it’s all just variations in style and degree – so where do you draw the line between normal family chaos and something so beyond the pale that it merits being documented in a book.

Even memoirs that have virtually nothing to do with family, memoirs that focus on a person’s career or life as a public figure, seem to require at least a line or two about a distant mother who was maybe hospitalized for a nervous disorder or about a father who drank too much or lost the family farm.

Then, there are my feelings of guilt for not reading something a little more literary. While it may often be harder to find a narrative arc and concrete themes within one’s own life, part of me still wants my authors to have to do the work of making some stuff up – creating something. I may as well call myself out on this particular hang-up – memoirs run the gamut of literary merit just like novels, short stories, and even non-fiction works.

There is also the memory/memoir conundrum. These books aren’t thoroughly researched histories peppered with references and relying on primary documents – they’re retellings and recollections. The one thing we know about memory is that it is above all else extremely faulty. In any given moment we are taking in information with our senses, but we are not taking in as much as we think we are. That is because our brain prevents itself from getting bogged down by filling in some of the background stuff rather than reprocessing it from moment to moment. It is a built in efficiency of the modern human brain and it is a generally a good thing, but when you stop to think that everything you are seeing in a given moment is not all actually being seen by you and that your brain fills in gaps like that all the time as you make your way in the world around you and then you realize it is really good at filling in those gaps from moment to moment and it is even better at filling in gaps when dealing with memory – well then it becomes a wonder people feel confident writing memoirs at all!

Yep, Dali, it's pretty much like that.

So why do I bring all this up? A friend recently lent me A Wolf at the Table by Augusten Burroughs. It seemed like the perfect thing to read right before a trip up north to visit my family, a way to put my family’s style and degree of shittiness into perspective. My family doesn’t try to use their poops to prognosticate[1], my dad isn’t a scary psoriasis monster, and my mother is actually quite sane as far as mothers go.

I generally find Burroughs to be a fast and entertaining read and so I tried not to worry about the fact that I have probably read more about his life than I could accurately remember from my own. He claims to have the kind of memory that would put a steel trap to shame, which allows him to almost visit his past, playing it back before him like a movie which he simply transcribes to create his memoirs. This technique alternately creates brilliant sensory detail and some fairly sloppy writing.

The movie playback technique sounds an awful lot like Augusten’s adept brain filling in and smoothing out his memories. Indeed, Burrough’s has even said that some of the finer details may have been swapped around or shuffled together, but that the major stuff and the essence of the details are true.

A Wolf at the Table is darker and less humorous than Burroughs’s previous works, perhaps because in his previous 4 memoirs he was able to work through enough of his emotions that he no longer needed humor to protect himself – or maybe he just wanted to write a different kind of book. While his dark humor is probably what I enjoy most about his writing, Wolf was stilled filled with enough excitement and some genuinely touching moments to keep me moving through it. Such as when a young Burroughs tries to work through his confusion about religion and a desire for faith and concludes:

I knew God existed as the Correct Answer inside my chest.

Since I can’t be entirely sure that my memories of the past are accurate maybe I should quit worrying about the accuracy of other people’s memories and their accounts of them. Maybe memoir exists as the Correct Answer on the page.

[1] Although once I did inform my mom over the phone that earlier that day I had pooped an almost perfect question mark. It was an over-share then and unmistakably my biggest and most awful over-share thus far on Book Badger.

Aerynn’s List of Guilt: Books I Own and Still Haven’t Managed to Read Yet

  1. The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide by Douglas Adams
  2. As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
  3. Diary (or any other book) by Chuck Palahniuk
  4. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  5. City of Dreadful Delight by Judith R. Walkowitz
  6. Anarchy, State and Utopia by Robert Nozick
  7. Five Dialogues by Plato
  8. The Elements of Moral Philosophy by James Rachels

I haven't read either of them, but I've read quite a bit between the two and that should count for something.

Aerynn’s List of Excuses: See Previous List

1. It’s 6 Douglas Adams books in one biblical looking tome and was left in my care by a friend who has been checking in for the last five years or so to see if I have read it yet. The answer is *mostly*. I think the first time through I got all the way to So Long and Thanks for All the Fish before life happened and I set it down for too long.

Since I’ve been informed that I really can’t let too much time lapse between one book of the collection and the next I started re-reading it. There are actually multiple bookmarks in it now from my repeated attempts to take in all 6 books in rapid succession.

2. Bought this at a garage sale where I scooped up an armload of books and was then asked if I’d like to buy the small bookcase as well (I did). Everything else I picked up from these folks was fairly fantastic so I really don’t know why I haven’t made a serious attempt at this one yet.

3. I’ve read the first few pages of this book several times and have always set it right back down – sometimes to re-read favorite parts of whatever I had just finished reading before it. I’ve also checked out some of Palahniuk’s other books from the library and returned them unread. I just can’t get into his stuff.

I don’t know what my deal is. Palahniuk has written a number of popular books, had work adapted to the screen, and I still just can’t find a point of interest in the first few pages of any of his books that I’ve picked up.

4. I haven’t read this yet because I always get tremendous pangs of guilt when I pick it up because I completely klepto-ed it from a friend. Wouldn’t the best solution be for me to read it and return it? Yes, but I haven’t yet.

5. A really neat looking social history on sexual violence in late-Victorian London (think Jack the Ripper), this was a Christmas gift a couple of years ago. I set it down due to typos or some such thing in the introduction. The gift giver has read the book and reassured me that it is well worth the read – I just need to skip over the introduction. I’m not very good at skipping anything so this book has just been sitting on my shelf.

6. I stole this from my parents’ bookshelves so I could read it and no longer have to hear my dad say, “What you really need to do is read that book – Anarchy, Sate, and Utopia – because then you’ll start to understand…” I guess I still need to read Anarchy, State, and Utopia.

7. Picked this up from a used bookstore a year or two ago because philosophy is one area in which I am desperately uneducated and I wanted to remedy that. It sits gathering dust on my shelf and I remain a dunce.

8. Yes, it’s just a textbook but when I started reading it in high school it really opened my eyes. I got it for free from a box of books a college professor had culled from office shelves to be discarded. I made it a significant way through the book before some folks from the church I was attending at the time gave me a lot of grief about reading a philosophy book. That’s completely disgusting, I know. After several threats to chuck the book in the lake I set it aside. Now I mostly want to pick it back up again because I am so irate about why I set it down in the first place.

If anyone has thoughts on any of the listed books or advice on how to get through them I would love to hear it. Some are clearly a matter of just making the time and picking my priorities but others seem like real hurdles. Any thoughts on what I should tackle first from this list? Any guilt books beating like a telltale heart on your shelf?

Have you ever had one of those days where you just couldn’t stop thinking about what a useless sack of shit Adam Carolla is? Most likely not as his twitter and podcast presence is much more avoidable than his television and radio presence was.

Normally I would refrain from calling someone a douche but I'm willing to make an exception since Carolla is about as bad for your vagina as douching is.

Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be about his upcoming book In Fifty Years We’ll All Be Chicks. I am a bit surprised he’s coming out with a book since his target demographic doesn’t really seem like the book buying type to me. Oh wait – I sometimes forget that there are folks out there who keep their books on the backs of their toilets instead of on shelves.

Rather than Carolla’s upcoming book this post is going to be about a very good book which I had to pull off of the shelf in an attempt to repair the mental damage I suffered after hearing a few minutes of Carolla’s yammering.

“But Ms. Badger,” you must be asking yourself, “why were you listening to something that involved that waste of resources in the first place?”

Well, because I may just love Dan Savage more than I hate Carolla. I’m a fan of Savage’s column and podcast and although I had skipped over podcast 202 just because it had Carolla in it, I decided to go back to it after I had exhausted the other archived material. Also I will admit I was a little intrigued after having heard podcast #206 introduced as containing “100% less Adam Carolla”. It was pretty obvious that something had gone kind of wrong with his appearance on the show. That’s when I noticed in the description of #202 that Carolla was on the program “For the first and last time…” Clearly I wasn’t the only one who was totally skeeved out.

So what kind of sagacious advice did the former Loveline host have to share with Savage’s listeners? Other than letting us know that you’re suppose to have your fun sex before you get involved with the person you’re going to marry and once your sex life is dead you move on to important stuff like breeding, he also cracked this egg of knowledge on our heads:

Men cheat because they’re horny;

Women cheat because they’re unhappy with the relationship.

Oh thanks for the reminder, because I totally forgot that women never get horny[1]. This seems silly, since I’d be willing to bet a dollar amount tantamount to my massive student loan debt that I have masturbated more times in a single day than Adam Carolla has.

Hey wait, here’s a book that will not only tell us all that women do get horny but that it’s dangerous to pretend that they don’t.

The book I’m talking about is Dilemmas of Desire by Deborah L. Tolman, who as it turns out is a bit more credentialed than Carolla when it comes to talking about these kinds of things.

Tolman extensively interviewed 31 high school girls not to look at pregnancy and abortion rates, the use of contraception, STD rates, or even to focus on sexual violence – she asked them how they felt about sex, about their feelings of desire and how they react to, understand, and deal with those feelings. To put it more poetically, she asked them about being horny.

The teenagers who talked to Tolman come from urban and suburban backgrounds and were selected at random from several school districts. There were girls who were initially selected whose parents would not consent to let their daughters talk to Tolman, and girls who were wary of being interviewed because they assumed Tolman had selected them because she knew something about their sexual activity or reputations. None of the girls interviewed had ever talked to someone about their sexual desire before.

How necessary was this book? Extremely necessary in a culture where we expect girls to be the gatekeepers of teenage sexuality because we assume teenage boys’ desire makes them either utterly irresponsible or a threat, in a culture in which a father can simultaneously be proud of his teenage son’s promiscuity and worried over the potential loss of his teenage daughter’s flower of virginity, in a culture that divides teenage girls into “good girls’ and “bad girls” My god, the heartache and other pain I could have been spared growing up if I had read a book like this. Or heard a Sleater-Kinney album for that matter.

I know what some of you might be thinking; “cultural messages, society, blah blah blah… what does “society” even really mean… are girls really that disconnected from their own feelings of desire? – maybe their desires aren’t just as strong as teenage boys’ desires.”

Let’s clear one thing up right away. Any teenager is going to have quite the hormonal cocktail coursing through his or her body. Any teenager is going to have to find ways to cope with his or her emerging sex drive.

As for teenage girls being disconnected from their own feelings of desire, what the girls self-report in Dilemmas of Desire is very similar to what I experienced and observed when I was in high school. A large number, I would say most, of teenage girls feel conflicted about their own sexual pleasure. While it is assumed that teenage boys masturbate and that it is perfectly healthy and natural for them to do so, the same cannot be said for teenage girls. Even amongst teenage girls who state that masturbation is normal and healthy and natural and would like to engage in masturbation, many find facing their own desire and embracing their own pleasure creates so much anxiety for them that they aren’t able to relax enough to follow through with it.

Sounds like an awful lot of anxiety about something that’s supposed to be natural/normal/healthy, right? One would almost think that a completely different message is coming through instead – such as for women, embracing masturbation can cost you your career.

Tolman covers a lot of ground in Dilemmas of Desire including a rather thorough look at how teenage girls negotiate the minefield of sexuality, how we may be putting teenage girls at greater risk of sexual assault by leaving their desire out of the teenage sexuality discourse, and what can be done to improve that discourse. She does this in a tone that balances academic with approachable, leading readers to trust Tolman’s authority and their own reading of the text.

Maybe if enough people read this book we would find young women better understanding their ‘yeses’ and being more empowered in the delivery of their ‘noes’. Maybe those ‘yeses’ could be real ‘yeses’ instead of just a lack of a ‘no’. Maybe teenage girls will have enough agency in their own sex lives to move beyond ‘it just happened’ – which, by the way, is how more than 1/3 of first born children are brought into the world, they “just happen”.

Maybe you should read this book.

[1] Although I must admit that unless I am extremely horny myself I tend to find the word patently un-erotic. Mildly horny, moderately horny, rather horny, or quite horny and I cannot say or hear the word with a straight face.

I wrapped up The Penelopiad yesterday – the day it was due back at the library. Which means today is the day I discovered that you can’t renew overdue items on the CPL website or over the phone.


My mother always laughed off library fines as a donation to a good cause. She knew that it would have cost her a ton of money to buy all the books she’d checked out from the library over the years.

I’ve been told they’ve recently upped the CPL fines. Whatever. The Penelopiad[1]was well worth it. It’s a retelling of The Iliad and The Odyssey, as well as several other myths. This version is told by Penelope with the twelve maids who were dispatched at the end of The Odyssey serving as the Greek Chorus – a Greek Chorus that chimes in with a ballad and a shanty, a play within a play, and a jump-rope rhyme.

Pineappole and Penelopiad - one is a plant and the other is a book.

I believe it was my junior year of high school in which we read The Odyssey and I think studying The Penelopiad alongside it would have been a tremendous idea. Far from being redundant, the two texts would have gone very nicely together. Because of the shift in perspective there is very little overlap between the two, and Atwood’s work might actually make The Odyssey more accessible to first time readers of Homer’s text. At the very least it provides some additional context for the story by drawing from other myths about some of the characters found in The Odyssey. Not to mention how interesting it might be to compare literary techniques from a text dating back to the advent of western literature and something rather contemporary.

I have a friend who thinks The Odyssey is sort of like Kill Bill Vol. II in that it is the better story of the two installments and can more or less stand on its own. While I’m not saying I disagree, I do remember being in class and thinking, “So what, we don’t have enough time to first read about the battle from which he’s returning?” Don’t get me wrong, I generally prefer a travelogue to a war story – I just don’t like feeling as though I have skipped a step.

In Atwood’s telling, Penelope credits Odysseus with his usual claim to fame of cunning and craftiness and talks up his story telling ability. Atwood gives us a Penelope that is his equal in both wit and narration. Penelope is ‘the smart one’ to her cousin Helen’s ‘the pretty one’. Sure, being ‘the smart one’ might not get you a TV miniseries, but I’d rather be the protagonist of an Atwood book any day.

Much of The Penelopiad focuses on the underworld. Penelope walks us through some of the routines in Hades and we get to see a few afterlife interactions between Penelope and some of the other major players from the story. Even in Hades Penelope and her hottie of a cousin Helen remain in conflict with one another. It is because of Helen that Penelope’s husband was called off to fight and their interactions are filled with backhanded compliments and sharp retorts.

There are those who keep their distance from Penelope in the underworld, like the twelve maids who were hanged by Penelope’s son Telemachus upon Odysseus’s orders to kill them. While they vengefully chase after Odysseus in Hades, they won’t get too close to Penelope who shouts after them with pleas to leave her husband alone. As distraught as she was over the murder of the maids in this telling of the story, she feels Odysseus has done his penance.

Atwood utilizes these maids to explore class issues and sexual violence, as well as bringing up the divine feminine in one of the Greek Chorus interludes which is titled “An Anthropology Lecture”. As difficult as it would be to find oneself in Penelope’s situation of relative isolation and powerlessness, life for the maids was about drudgery, rape, and real powerlessness. Through Penelope’s narration Atwood explores some of what wealthy women’s struggles have in common with the struggles of impoverished women, and through their Greek Chorus segments Atwood uses the maids to shed light on the differences between those struggles.

While familiarity with Greek mythology is not necessary to enjoy this book it is certainly an excellent choice for anyone who tends to nerd-out to myth, fables, and folklore. With a bit of history and myth and a lot of imagination Margaret Atwood has given us yet another wonderful read.

[1] Not to be confused with Pineappole, my pineapple plant. See image above.

At the outset of this blog I decided that I wouldn’t just write book reviews but also explore books as objects. A few days ago a package arrived for me from my mother. She’d packed up a number things belonging to my grandmother, knick-knacks and dooeys, some kitchen items which included a knife which came close to impaling my hand (so thanks, mom, for almost stabbing me from six-hundred miles away), and these two books.

The Bible has an inscription from her confirmation sponsors with the date, occasion, her name and theirs. The hymnal has her simply has her name and appears to be in her handwriting.

It’s a hymnal and a Bible given to my grandmother on her confirmation day, June 26, 1949 and it seemed like a perfect time to write a blog post. I snapped a few quick photos of the books and sat down at my computer to write. Instead of words, what came out of me was tears. I had a good long cry like I haven’t had in years. In my lachrymose state I chalked it all up to being half exhausted and two-thirds drunk; I blamed it on heavyhearted music[1] and hormones; I made it about anything other than being in mourning.

“Grammie” is still alive but over the last few years we as a family have been helpless to do much more than watch with our hearts in our throats as her memory and cognitive function slip away.

Reading became impossible for her a while back and fairly soon language will be completely gone for her. At least her ability to comprehensibly produce it. I will still tell her stories and sing some of her favorite songs to her even when her eyes are the only way she can respond.

After a broken engagement she went on to marry a man who would later become a pastor due to her influence. He went to Sunday morning church service for the first time in years while they were honeymooning in Niagara Falls. He died of a heart attack while still quite young and she has been widowed longer than the two of them were married.

Grammie was my first Sunday school teacher and I actually rather enjoyed the versions of God, Jesus, and faith that she gave me. I often think I would have been quite content with the Christian faith if I had been able to hold on to the version I had as a three-year-old. My experiences with religion became exponentially more complicated as I grew up and my three-year-old’s faith became a memory.

I’ve owned a number of Bibles over the years – a Children’s Picture Bible; an Extreme Teen Bible; Bibles given to me by family, friends, and churches; Bibles of assorted ages and versions; Bibles that sat on the shelf and collected dust and Bibles I carried around with me; and even Bibles that I taught from.

This Bible has the kind of wear and tear of a well loved book – well cared for and often read. It contains a reading schedule for getting through the Bible in one year, reading Old Testament in the morning and New Testament at night.

That is followed by a list of where to find a passage or two on assorted topics in either the Old or New Testament. There’s a mark next to the topic “The one thing we should do” for which it lists the New Testament passage Philippians 3:13-14 “Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.”

Oh, and the text across the top of the page sticking out of the Bible – it reads “THE HOUR OF PRAYER”. One of the prayers given on that page is “For Lengthening Years” and it reads:

O God, help us keep up our courage. May we never lose heart for the things that are eternal. May the lengthening years be kind to us. Strengthen us to go on with courage and hope. In Thy name. Amen.

Lord, hear her prayer.

[1] One of the most important life lessons my mother has taught me, aside from how to stab someone via the postal system, is the significance of selecting the right music to back up one’s drunken crying. She generally prefers the soundtrack to I Am Sam whereas my typical choice is more along the lines of Cat Power’s The Covers Record directly followed by You Are Free.

I think I like this idea better except for the 'how does he eat?' conundrum.

I knew better than to log onto facebook for the first time in months, but after going for a couple of weeks without the internet (thanks, AT&T, for deciding I don’t exist and for having non-existent customer service on weekends) I went on such a gluttonous interwebs binge that I even found myself logging onto the FB. I uploaded some photos, checked to see if my brother was still alive (we have a really tight relationship like that) and took a look at my profile before I was going to log off.

I couldn’t log off though – and this we cannot blame on the addictive quality of books because facebook is not really a book. I could not log off because I happened to catch what was listed in my “Books I’m Reading Now” box on my profile page. It really was more of a “Books I Was Reading over a Year Ago” box.

I decided I needed to fix this immediately because I only log onto facebook somewhere between every three to nine months. These days it generally takes me about five tries or so to figure out how to accomplish whatever it is I am trying to do on FB. Invariably I will get a smidgen distracted and wind up doing at least two other things in the process of doing whatever it was I originally set out to do.

Rather than updating my “Books I’m Reading Now” I wound up adding in a couple of other books I had acquired and read and found myself horribly distracted by some poorly executed reviews which had been written about the books I had just added. I should have known better than to get caught up in the reviews that popped up along with the book’s listing but when an application throws out two little text boxes as examples of a positive and a negative review of Sherman Alexie’s Indian Killer it is hard for me to stifle my inner curious-little-monkey.

I expanded and read both the reviews. I had to expand them, you see, because these were the example reviews because they were “super reviews”. What makes a “super review” you might ask – apparently a two-hundred-fifty word count. My exasperation with both reviews lead me to write a quick review of my own and there was a little countdown of how many words I had to go before it was yet another “super review”.

It just seemed strange to me that the positive review and negative review were so similar. In fact the negative review seemed more positive on the whole than the positive review was. Both were hung up on the violence and adult language in the book. Too bad Alexie didn’t give Indian Killer a title that might warn people that there might be a couple of murders in the book. Oh wait, nm.

Clearly both reviewers had read at least the first fifteen pages of the book but both did such astounding jobs of missing the point. The reviewers wanted more nice (white?) characters they could relate to. More nice characters like the couple that adopted a Native American boy so they wouldn’t have to keep waiting for years to get a white kid. And like all non-white kids adopted by white parents they all live happily ever after – at least in the version that these super-reviewers must have read, but this is all a rant for another time.

After writing my own review I realized I needed to step away from the facebook. I had let myself get so distracted by reviewers missing the point that I had completely wandered away from the point of what I was trying to do on some silly social site’s application.

It’s  Blog About Books Not Badgers

Welcome to Book Badger! Since this blog is about books not badgers I guess that makes me The Badger. It seems a fair enough assessment as I am a short-legged, omnivorous, fierce[1] creature that has been known to become intoxicated on occasion (although real badgers accomplish this by eating rotting fruit as opposed to a well balanced diet of beer, wine, and vodka).

Your bloggers resemblance to a badger may vary. Individual results may vary. Likeness to badger not valid in all states.

As for the book part, that refers to the good old fashioned work of fiction or nonfiction written or printed on sheets of paper which are fastened or bound together between covers. In this case ‘book’ does not refer to a record of bets and I am terribly sorry if anybody has come to this site assuming it has to do with wagering on badger baiting

– might I also add for anyone into badger baiting that you are one sick mothertrucker and I don’t want your cold, beady little eyes reading my blog. There, I said it.

So now that I’ve written an introduction that doesn’t at all clarify what this blog is about why don’t I see if I can’t just go ahead and answer some questions that are bound to come up:

Is this a book review site?

Not exactly. Although I won’t shy away from ever reviewing books on this site I want a lot of the content to also focus on the very object of books and how people experience books. Why do people accumulate books and share books or lug books around with them even if they could afford and e-reader instead? In what ways are books different from other forms of media and in what ways are books different from stories. Books have long held a certain romantic appeal to me and I want to explore that through this blog.

If this site is all about books then why aren’t you a better writer?

Let me guess, you’re one of the folks who was absolutely livid about that Alanis Morissette song “Ironic”. Language wouldn’t be so marvelously dynamic if it wasn’t for some really creative misuse. While just about anybody can throw some creative misuse into their everyday conversations, it takes a real champ to record their phenomenal mistakes in writing.

Really though, this is all just my nerdy excuse for when my proofreading falls off a bit. I’d like to hide behind the excuse of a fifty-hour work week but that just seems so much less glamorous than claiming my boo-boos are for the sake of linguistic diversity within the English language.

So this site isn’t for lit snobs, then?

Hell no, this site is for the person who has a library card or at least has been thinking about getting a library card. This site is for the person who is reading a book on the bus or the El or whatever public conveyance you have in your area (may you be so fortunate as to have decent public transit in your area) rather than playing a DS Lite game – even if that book is just the latest Grisham or Patterson book, something from the Oprah Book Club, or even a Twilight book. This site is for the person who, upon seeing that the hardcover is only two dollars more than the kindle download, will opt to wait for their new book to arrive to them through the mail.

The aim of this site is to find some magical middle ground between some extremely inane book club and an overly punctilious English Lit class. You know, that point where books are interesting and fun.

[1] Not in the Tyra Banks kind of way.