Jenny Lawson (aka the Bloggess) is someone who has come into my world fairly recently. Last month I read a review of this book in the library publication Booklist, and thought it sounded intriguing. Since it had not yet been published I hunted down her first book: Let’s Pretend This Never Happened. I read it on vacation and came to two conculsions.
The first is that Jenny Lawson is a total wingnut, swears like a truck driver with Tourrette’s, and has a family that rivals the Adams Family when it comes to weirdness.
The second is that Jenny Lawson is completely and unequivocally hysterical.
There are some misguided people in this world who are easily offended by cursing, and I feel deeply sorry for these people. I believe the time one spends taking offense is inversely proportional to the amount of fun one has. I also know that trying to explain this to someone easily offended is like trying to convince a conspiracy theorist that no, McDonald’s is not own by Satanists.
The title Furiously Happy is rather poignant. Jenny Lawson has made her writing career talking frankly about dealing with mental illness. She suffers from depression and anxiety and a host of taggers-on. She has good days and really terrible days. Her theory is that on her good days she needs to live them to the fullest–the craziest, brilliant, most memorable times she can conjure. Then, when the bad days return she will have those memories and be able to tell herself they will come again.
To quote Furiously Happy:
“When cancer sufferers fight, recover, and go into remission we laud their bravery. We wear ribbons to celebrate their fight. We call them survivors. Because they are.
When depression sufferers fight, recover, and go into remission we seldom even know, simply because so many suffer in the dark… ashamed to admit something they see as a personal weakness… afraid that people will worry, and more afraid that they won’t. We find ourselves unable to do anything but cling to the couch and force ourselves to breathe.”
I will admit that I have suffered from anxiety and depression. That’s not an easy thing to admit, especially when the whole purpose of this blog is to demonstrate my talents as a writer, and showcase my brilliant wit and sparkling humor. But I need to be true to who I am. Yes, I have struggled with anxiety and depression, but I would guess 99% of the people who have ever met me would never know it. I can speak in front of huge groups of people and not blink an eye. I give every impression of being warm, funny, and completely well-adjusted.
I have to say that being married has done wonders for my state of mind. My husband, who is a self-proclaimed “happy jackass,” is the best medicine. He makes me laugh every day and really helps to keep me on an even keel. True, I may get tired more easily than the average person, I may need more downtime to recuperate after social events, but I am proud of the progress I have made in the last 20 years. If you would have told me when I was 21 that I would one day be married and not be the drama queen in the relationship I would have laughed and laughed. Funny how things turn out.
I do warm to Jenny’s idea of living furiously happy when the opportunity presents itself. I already know that traveling has made the best memories I keep and I want to do as much of it with my happy jackass as I can in this lifetime.
The happiest I have been while not on the road is when I am writing, and creating stories. The worlds I create are so real to me that my husband and I speak of my characters like they live and breathe out there in the world somewhere. My greatest wish is to be able to do that as a full-time job instead of being a librarian. Don’t get me wrong, librarians are terribly important. But learn from my mistake and don’t ever expect to find fulfillment in a career you chose mostly because you needed a paycheck.
To all of you out there who are like me and have struggled with anxiety and depression, I salute you. Keeping going when all you want to do is hide in your bed is no small feat, even if compared to the rest of the world it seems small. We are working with a serious disadvantage and have to toil much harder to stay even with the rest of the pack.
I highly recommend Furiously Happy to anyone who suffers with mental illness or anyone who lives with one. It will make you understand things on a new level, give validation that you aren’t alone, and make you snort coffee out your nose.
Which is why I don’t recommend reading it with a beverage. That really hurts.
I don’t even really know where to begin with this book review. I have so many emotions upon finishing this novel, and most of them are complex and not easy to articulate.
Good grief, am I writer or not? Like any good book review (or book report, because let’s face it, Mrs. Dietrich, my second grade teacher got me started down this road), I’ll tell you a little about the plot.
Plum Kettle is awkward, shy, and really just wants to be invisible. This is especially hard since she weighs over 300 pounds. She works for a glossy teen magazine, answering the Dear Kitty advice letters sent to the editor-in-chief. Plum works from her laptop at her neighborhood cafe and barely socializes with anyone. She has scheduled a gastric bypass operation and is living a half-life waiting for the thin woman inside to emerge.
A few months before the surgery takes place she notices she’s being followed. An odd girl with bright colored tights and black boots begins to turn up everywhere Plum goes. It’s unnerving for Plum, who only understands that attention=ridicule. The mysterious girl leads her down the proverbial rabbit hole and everything Plum assumes about herself and the world is challenged. At the same time a shadowy force named Jennifer begins a worldwide assault on men who objectify and degrade women.
This last bit had me feeling more than a little euphoric (and a bit guilty about it). I see every day the way the world still belongs to men and how women still fight for equality. I hate that feminist is seen as a dirty word. In my opinion it feminist means that I want to be seen as a human being and not a pair of tits. Obviously the author was not suggesting we wage a guerrilla war on men–she is making a point.
Sarai Walker really puts the inequalities in your face, from fashion magazines to pornography. She is unflinching and unapologetic of her descriptions of their graphic, brutal nature. But in being so blunt, she offers this about sexual objectification of women: “You need to face it… too many women look away… they close their eyes.”
This is a valid point. While women have made tremendous strides towards equality we still aren’t truly free. Sure we can vote, join the military, and pretty much work in any field we choose. (At least in this country.) But there is a billion dollar beauty industry that has women sold on what we need to wear, how we should look, and what is appropriate behavior. Men and women hold women to a higher standard–it is much less acceptable for a woman to be fat, hairy, or god forbid, bald. And if she expresses an opinion that isn’t popular? Good heavens, we need to crucify the bitch. True, these standards have been ubiquitous since the dawn of patriarchal society, but it’s the pink, bedazzled elephant in the corner wearing the stilettos and g-string that no one mentions.
And yet I am conflicted because humans also gravitate towards beauty. Is it wrong to take delight in something that pleases the eye? Am I a bad feminist because I love my Kate Spade sunglasses and getting pedicures? I think the point here is that we put too much value on the beautiful and the current ideal and not enough on people as human beings. According to the nearest fashion magazine I am not nearly thin enough, I don’t wear enough makeup or heels, and I am not hairless as a Barbie doll.
But how do we separate the two? Beauty is one of the things that makes life worth living, but focusing on one specific kind of beauty sets us up to fail. It’s easy to end with platitudes like “be kind to others,” and “look beyond the surface.” I certainly don’t follow those every day. I make unfair judgments all too often. Perhaps being mindful as we move forward is the key.
I know I don’t address all the points Sarai Walker articulates so beautifully in her book. I apologize if my thoughts are scattered or disjointed. It’s too complex an issue and wrapped in so many conflicting thoughts and feelings.
But that is exactly what a good book is supposed to do–make you think.
The most lovely thing about living in this part of the world is the beach. In Southwest Florida, the beaches are spectacular, and I wager they are nicer than any other beach in the country. The Gulf of Mexico is warm, calm, and stunning in its ability to change from tourmaline to turquoise to azure and back again. I go to the beach at least once a week, and specifically, every Tuesday morning. My husband and I share one car between us and on Tuesdays he has to be to work at 8 a.m., while I don’t have to be there until 10. So I drop him off and scuttle off like a hermit crab.
Not only is my beach beautiful, it is one of the best shelling beaches in the country. These are shells I found myself–two lightning whelks and a calico scallop so vividly orange it seems to glow. Every time I visit the beach I see something new and wonderful, whether it’s a beautiful shell, dolphins swimming down the coast, or an osprey hunting for lunch. I am constantly awed by the beauty of this place and can’t tell you how much the sounds of the surf, the feeling of the sand in my toes and the salty tang of the breeze calms me, centers me, and returns me to earth. For someone who lives entirely too much in her own head, this is a gift.
The wildlife is incredible. My husband and I came across this baby octopus one afternoon at low tide. There are tons of birds: pelicans, terns, sandpipers, plovers, seagulls, herons, egrets, and ibis abound up and down the shore. But we have also seen dolphins, stingrays, jellyfish, Portoguese man o’ wars, and even once a manatee. He was slowly moving his way north up the beach, a few yards out, quivering, whiskered nose breaking the surface.
And of course, the sunsets are other-worldly. Living on the west coast of Florida, we get the spectacular light shows when the sun goes down. It is a very popular tourist thing to walk down to the beach to watch the sunset, but I laugh when everyone turns around and leaves the second the last smidge of it descends below the horizon. I’ve found the best part of the show comes after, and my husband and I are usually alone on the sand to see it.
Yep, I love my beach. It has never failed to soothe me when I’m anxious, ground me when I’m untethered, or delight me with something new. Every Tuesday morning I dip my toes in the water, do a little meditating and look for shells. It’s where I remember how to breathe. Inhale with me… two… three. And exhale, two… three.
I’ve always had music running through my head, regardless of whether the radio was on or not. I never realized that some people (probably the majority of the sane ones) don’t have this problem. It finally dawned on me when I was in my late 20’s. For some reason I kept asking the same friend, “What song do you have stuck in your head?” To which the reply would come, “I don’t. Freak.” Actually, she didn’t call me a freak. But it was totally implied in her tone.
It was a stunning revelation to me. What do you hear in your head then? Surely not SILENCE? That would be…well holy cow, that would be refreshing.
But this, sadly, will never be. My brain is wired to have a constant soundtrack running from the moment I wake up until the moment I sleep again. Sometimes it even carries over into my dreams. Sounds exhausting, doesn’t it? Sometimes it is, but to be honest I mostly don’t even notice it. Usually I can tune my inner DJ to what I like. But there are a few special songs (and by “special” I mean “from hell”) that can make me weep because they just won’t leave me alone.
The Top Ten Worst Songs to Ever Be Stuck in My Head
And I hope you appreciate the considerable risk I am taking with my sanity by listing them all here together for you. I also hope you appreciate what a dinosaur I am by hardly listing any music from this century. Here they are in no particular order:
1. Any of the Music from Les Miserables
When I was 20 I went on a study abroad tour. While in London my friends and I saw the stage production of the musical Les Miserables. I bought the double disc original cast recording and listened to it a lot over the next few years. It was especially good for that three and a half hour drive between college and home. I could listen to the whole thing without interruptions, and really belt it out in what I am sure was a total crackballs voice. I was in concert choir in high school but I have one of those voices that is good in a group but should never ever solo. Ever.
A few years ago when the movie version of the musical came out I took my mother to see it, and the music all came back to me. And then it lived in my head for, I kid you not, a fucking month and a half. There was so much of it that my brain could jump around from song to song, motif to motif, and never, never, ever stop. And the volume and intensity kept gaining over that month and a half until I was sure everyone could hear it blasting through my brain case at top volume. In Spinal Tap terms I was at 11.
2. “Alcohol” by Barenaked Ladies
The Barenaked Ladies are true bubblegum – poppy, quirky, and often humorous. But every band writes a clunker once in awhile, and this one was a massive, steaming dump left in the middle of their album Stunt. When you think about it, it is really difficult to write a terrible song. Mediocre is easy, but to truly descend into song hell you have to strive for it. Mission accomplished: it has that perfect balance of an inane, repetitive tune paired with banal lyrics about drunks. Yippee. Let’s get that one on the hamster wheel, shall we?
3. “Dead Horse” by Guns ‘N’ Roses
Sometimes (sometimes???) my brain does a funny thing: It will take the musical bridge in a song and then segues into what it considers a similar bridge so the earworm is segmented. (Like an earthworm, but more disgusting.) It starts you out with one song and then seamlessly blends into another, so you don’t even realize you began with Barenaked Ladies “Alcohol,” and end up with Guns N’ Roses “Dead Horse.” Sound impossibly incongruous to you? Not for this wing nut.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m beating a dead horse,
And I don’t know why you’ve been bringing me down…”
4. “Santeria” by Sublime
This one has truly driven me to the brink. I wasn’t all that fond of it when I first heard it back in my college days, and when it started to burrow, I realized I grew anxious listening to the radio, as even the first few notes of the intro could embed itself, boring holes in my gray matter until I was a screaming, frothing wreck. The worst part is that I can’t even understand what the song is about. Bradley Nowell, (who died of a heroin overdose in 1997) wrote the lyrics deliberately cryptic. I fucking hate cryptic. Just say what mean, asshat. It doesn’t make you deep, or clever, or mysterious, or sexy, or more interesting when I can’t understand you. It just makes you an asshat.
Don’t do heroin, kids.
5. The Mexican Hat Dance
Da-DUM, Da-DUM, Da-DUM… such a simple little tune, just a few notes. Sometimes these are the worst because they are so perceptively small. The tiniest of earworms, no bigger than a dust mite when it goes into your head, and feeds on your sanity until there is nothing left in your skull but an engorged, twenty-foot long behemoth that weighs forty pounds and burps wetly as it digests what was once your brain. Soon to be worm poo.
6. “You’re the Inspiration” by Chicago
Anyone who knows me understands that I loathe bloodless music. Sappy lyrics, trite sentiment, and wimpy orchestration leaves me wanting to slit my wrists. During Desert Storm they blasted Poison over loudspeakers at the enemy to drive them crazy. Chicago, John Tesh, or Air Supply would make me surrender unconditionally just to Make. It. Stop.
I wasn’t even sure what the trigger was at first, but I knew I had it in my head after every phone conversation. What the hell was that about? Then it hit me: my ringtone! Ringtones, as you can imagine are the bane of my existence – a soundbite of music on repeat, a ready-made device of torture. I thought I had circumvented that problem by not using actual music for my ringtone: wind chimes. Great idea, right? But what if the first six random notes struck by those chimes sound almost exactly like the guitar intro to “You’re the Inspiration”? One wouldn’t necessarily notice, given the different mediums (chimes vs. guitar) or the key change. I’m still looking for a non-obnoxious, non-musical ringtone. If you have any suggestions, please let me know, but for God’s sake, text me, will you?
7. “Hey Ya” by Outkast
I don’t even have to explain this one.
8. “The Hook” by Blues Traveler
One interesting thing about me (I’ll tell you the other one at a later date) is that I married a man eighteen years my senior. We are disgustingly compatible except in two areas: politics and music. As far as music is concerned he is a snob that only listens to Classical. I admit this has been a very good thing for me–I have become acquainted with Brahms, Bizet, Smetana, Elgar, St. Saens, just to name a few favorites. But when it comes to me sharing music with him, he is totally uninterested. I can probably count on one hand the times he has actually listened to a song that I chose.
One of these instances happened just last week on vacation. We were talking about writing and the art of hooking a reader in the first few pages. This made me think of pop songs and the hook all the successful (earworms) have. Which obviously, brings me to Blues Traveler. Their song is ironic and funny, and goddammit, I haven’t been able to shake it since.
The worst part is that I don’t actually know all the words and my brain is making up placeholders. For example, in the middle of this particular song is the line:
“I’ll do as I’ll decide and let it ride till until I’ve died”
which I can’t quite seem to remember and my brain makes it:
“I’ll do and I’ll sigh and let it rot until I die.”
And then, the HOOK BRINGS ME BACK. I ain’t tellin’ you no lie.
9. “Spiderwebs” by No Doubt
I don’t mind No Doubt or Gwen Stefani all that much. But this song in particular is one that can be stuck for days, and usually not the lyrics… just the peppy little ska intro. Just that little bit. On continuous loop. All my waking hours. For days on end. Kill me.
10. “Telstar” by the Tornados
And finally, a completely instrumental song. The Tornados recorded Telstar in 1962. I must have been in elementary school when I first heard it, and I thought it was about the coolest thing ever. It sounded like a Disney-fied version of what outer space should be.
To be honest, I forgot about it for decades. And then… my husband and I were binge watching Mad Men, and one of the episodes (Season 2, Episode 10, “The Inheritence”) closes with this song. While I still totally dig this song, after being set on repeat for, oh, 500 hours, it wears a little thin. Still, I’d take it over any of these others.
So there you have it. You now have the ultimate power to send me to the loony bin if you choose. There are some less than kind people out there who find my earworm affliction entertaining. I have actually had people try to plant things in my head for their own amusement. Those people are now dead.
Let me start with this: Dear Committee Members has the best flap copy ever:
“Finally, a novel that puts the ‘pissed’ back in epistolary.”
I hadn’t been aware it had ever been there. Regardless, this book had me laughing out loud from beginning to end, and squirming at the places in between.
Jay Fitger (who shall be referred to hereafter as Mr. Crankypants) is a Creative Writing professor at a small Midwest college. He is middle-aged, burnt-out, and disillusioned. The English Department is (as per usual) getting the shaft when it comes to funding and office space while the Economics Department is feted royally. His star grad student’s brilliance is being ignored, and his love life is in shambles. Sadly, these last two are the direct result of Mr. Crankypants’ antisocial behavior. It isn’t a coincidence that a porcupine’s ass graces the cover of this book.
The familiarity of the subject matter is given a fresh look through it’s delivery–the entire thing is written in the format of letters of recommendation (LOR). Anyone who has spent time in higher education (whether as professor or student) is aware of the ubiquitous nature of the LOR. Julie wrote a sassy article about it for the Chronicle of Higher Education. In this article she demonstrates the declining usefulness of these letters, even pointing out that she has on more than one occasion received and opened a LOR she herself had written.
Julie quite remarkably uses a series of LORs to give a view into the frustrations and absurdities of Mr. Crankypants’ life in academia. If it weren’t so funny it would be quite sad. Especially considering that most of the time (I suspect) LORs often go unread. They are a requirement for grad school and often first jobs, but the formulaic nature of such things leaves little room for creativity or imagination. At least that is what one would expect. Mr. Crankypants puts forth evidence to the contrary.
Julie Schumacher is a Creative Writing professor at the University of Minnesota. She was also my Creative Writing professor way back in 199-none-of-your-business. She dedicated this book to her students, which makes me feel a little better since I am 99% sure she wrote me a letter of recommendation once. Hence, all the squirming.
Now that I think about it, this whole review is an LOR of sorts, isn’t it?
I admit freely that I am a nerd, but a special kind of nerd. I’m not into video games, superheroes, anime, science, math, or any of the other typical kinds of nerdery you are used to hearing about.
I like history. And ridiculous trivia (which is an oxymoron in itself, but there you go), and knitting. And I love puzzles.
Which is why the best part of a trip to IKEA is coming home and being faced with this:
God, Isn’t that beautiful? There is something so pure about all those pieces that need to be fitted together into a shape that resembles furniture.
I can’t say that I have ever met anyone else who actually enjoys assembling furniture. My dad is certainly good at it, I did learn from the Master, after all. But I’ve never asked him if he derives pleasure from such an experience.
So as soon as I have all the lovely pieces unboxed and lined up on the walls, I then take out the hardware and do this:
Sick, aren’t I? I am nothing, if not a walking contradiction. My clean laundry is at this moment lying in a heap on my bed and the cats have been burrowing tunnels in it. But by all means, let’s lay out the dowels and screws in perfect order.
I am also a fan of following directions. It’s a good thing one of us in this marriage is. And no, this is not a dig about men never following directions. My aforementioned master-assembler father is a primo example of a man who reads and follows directions. I don’t think it is a sex-oriented trait. I think it has more to do with logic and intuition. I have logic, my husband has intuition. Which do you suppose should be assembling furniture?
And here we are in process. It is a bookcase that matches the others in my home office. Because let me tell you, a librarian can never have too many bookcases. You might think I borrow all my books but you would be sadly mistaken. I buy a lot from the book sale shelves of donations we receive every week. It’s a nasty habit, but I suspect it’s kept me from cocaine. Librarians are nothing but a bunch of hopheads, you know. Well, not really, but let me have the joke.
So I watched/listened to Project Runway while I assembled, pausing to watch the runway shows and always failing to understand what the judges were looking for. Another thing about librarians is that we are hopeless in fashion. It’s all the cocaine. (Sorry, also not true. I know some very badass librarians with a razor’s edge sense of fashion. Just not me, sadly. I’ll never be that cool.)
And here is the finished product. Quite nice don’t you think? And of course, there is Fingers the cat posing for you. He’s such a camera whore.
I was just thinking about what it would be like to assemble an entire house of furniture like this.
My little hummingbird heart would burst from the excitement.
And that my friends, is why you shouldn’t do drugs.
It’s been a crazy day already. One of the cats got himself stuck on the ledge above the shower in the bathroom. His stupid brother led him up there and deserted him, leaving him to yowl in distress. <Insert eyeroll here.> They’re fine:
They’re lucky they are cute.
Please stop by from time to time. I’m a widely read librarian and I like to write about the books I’ve read. And I’m funny too. I swear. Just ask my Mom.