Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson (audio)

I was already a fan of The Bloggess, Jenny Lawson’s blog-alias. And her local connection (she’s Texas, with some time logged in a Houston suburb) didn’t hurt, either. Well, now having listened to her book as an audio read by the lovely Jenny herself, I can even more wholeheartedly recommend her to you.

Jenny has a quirky, crass sense of humor: she is fond of the word “vagina” and curses a fair amount. These things do not bother me, but fair warning. She combines that style, however, with an occasional earnestness that is endearing and captivating. This is her “mostly true memoir” (which I think is a great way to speak of memoir, in general! my impression is this one is as “true” as most), and therefore it’s the story of her childhood, growing up, marriage, and family life with husband Victor and daughter Hailey, including moving around the state. One emphasis is the crazy upbringing she experienced in a tiny tiny Texas town with an eccentric taxidermist father (whose idea of a loving welcome is tossing a baby bobcat at her new boyfriend) and long-suffering mother. Another is the mental illness Jenny suffers from, including generalized anxiety disorder and post-traumatic stress. (Disclaimer: I have no print version of this book at hand and am going by memory. But I am fairly confident in my memory.)

Her handling of these subjects is on the one hand hilarious, outlandish, and obscene, and on the other, as mentioned earlier, serious and thoughtful. For someone who suffers fairly debilitating bouts of depression and mental illness, Jenny is surprisingly positive in her interpretation of her own experiences. Presumably her feelings in the moment are often much less cheery; but in the format of this book, where she got to think it through and get it right, her philosophies are refreshing, graceful, helpful, optimistic. She comes across in the end as damaged, yes, but also hopeful, wise, and fun. I want to be her friend. In other words, I give Jenny, her book, and her website my ringing endorsement! Oh, and do check out the audio version if you can. She reads it herself (and sings all the chapter titles), there’s a blooper reel at the end (really just a bunch of off-color ramblings), and I always like to get things in the author’s own voice if possible – in a memoir most of all. In fact, I will pay her the compliment of putting Let’s Pretend This Never Happened up next to Tina Fey’s Bossypants, also read by the author and also hilarious. Go check out Jenny Lawson because she is unique and bizarre in the best possible way.

Rating: 8 self-reflections.

Turn of Mind by Alice LaPlante

This was a sad and fascinating book. I read it in a day – not unheard of, but fairly rare considering that it was a regular work day. Started on my lunch break and finished before bedtime. It was absorbing and unique. A murder-mystery, yes, but also sort of a psychological thriller. The unique framing element of the book is this:

Dr. Jennifer White is sixty-four, and has dementia. When the book opens, she’s in the early-to-mid stages of the disease, living at home with a full-time, live-in caretaker. Her best friend of several decades, who is also her three-doors-down neighbor and godmother to her daughter, has been murdered, several fingers cleanly amputated. Dr. White (whose specialty was hand surgery, ahem) is a suspect, and doesn’t know herself whether she did it or not. Her story is told in first-person; we read snippets from the notebook she keeps, hear conversations, and listen to her private thoughts as she struggles with the questions. The questions are only rarely about Amanda’s murder. In reading about this book I thought the murder case was the main focus, but it’s not. Dr. White is only occasionally aware of the question of her friend’s death, because she’s only occasionally aware that her friend is dead. Her disease and its progression, her confusion, the attempts by her adult children to shape her future, and her eventual fate are the book’s main concern – because we see through Dr. White’s eyes.

The mystery of who killed Amanda is different from the usual mystery we encounter, because we don’t see a murderer trying to cover his or her tracks. Dr. White’s children, and the lawyer they hire, work to protect her from an investigation that may damage her fragile mental health. At one point it is decided that she did kill her friend, but the legal system of course won’t take its normal course even in that event. (I’m not giving it away; there are still twists and turns.) And again, the mystery is not the primary focus of the book. As Dr. White’s story unfolds – backwards, in snippets, jumping around chronologically, and never reliably – talk about an unreliable narrator – we learn more about her husband, Amanda, Amanda’s husband, and Dr. White’s two children, as well as the hired caretaker and even the primary police investigator. Of course, no one’s story is simple or unblemished.

A fascinating and engrossing mystery is only part of the attraction of this book. It’s an exploration into the head of an Alzheimer’s sufferer, engaging and overwhelming and sad and riveting. Make no mistake: this is a terribly sad story. Being young myself, and having parents in excellent health and with plenty of youth and life left, I hadn’t thought much about nursing homes, but this book’s portrayal terrified me. If you can steel yourself for the tragedy, though, this is a beautiful story, communicated in a unique format, gripping and sensitive. I recommend it highly.

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