November Reading List: Dysfunctional Family Stories

November Cover

November is here! (Which is basically Christmas, right?) Time for family dinners and road trips and looking back on all the idyllic memories you’ve shared. Right. In my family, there have definitely been good times but we’ve also had our fair share of hilariously horrible times. Like the year my dad and I got into a giant fight at the Thanksgiving table about who would get to sit in the chair that had arms (I was an ADULT when this fight happened, you guys). Or how about the, um, creative insults my grandmother comes up with (I shave my forehead, apparently). And of course there’s always the one who brings up politics or makes a ridiculously inappropriate joke (um, that’s me. Every time). Every family has their kettle-callers and pot-stirrers. So this month, lets read about families that make ours look perfectly put together (and not, you know, how we normally are).

A book about families who don’t get along | The Violent Bear It Away, Flannery O’Connor: This one has it all: custody battles, sordid histories, religious conflicts, and a fair amount of drinking problems. The novel centers on Francis Tarwater, who’d been raised by his uncle to be a religious prophet. When his uncle dies he goes to live with his cousin, Rayber, who tries to teach Tarwater how to be a logical, educated, not-superstitious member of civilization. Of course this doesn’t go well, and each character battles on with himself and everyone else from start to finish. The novel deals with questions of family, religion, community, and  destiny in a way that’s a little too close to home if you grew up in the South.

A book about families who REALLY don’t get along | August: Osage County, Tracy Letts: This is my favorite play. It centers around Beverly and Violet Weston’s family—their three daughters and Violet’s sister. Beverly has gone missing, and the family comes together under one roof in the aftermath of their father’s disappearance. But between sisters and daughters and mothers and husbands, it isn’t a peaceful house. Old tensions run high, new tensions run higher, and every twisted part of everyone’s life is brought to light. And everyone in this play has something twisted in them. But despite all the family’s darkness, there is a lot of humor in this play, too. It’s definitely worth seeing on the stage.

A book about trying to forget your family, and then remembering them instead | Wild, Cheryl Strayed: This is a book about what happens when you try to walk away from your family, literally. After the death of her mother, Cheryl’s life fell apart around her. In her attempt to make sense of it all and put grieving behind her, she took to the Pacific Crest Trail, with absolutely no experience hiking or being in the wilderness. It’s a travel narrative, a nature piece, and a memoir about self-discovery. It’s a family story, too, and Strayed honestly and simply details her relationship with her brother, ex-husband, and friends. It also is a beautiful examination of the mother-daughter relationship, in all its complicated, fraught, tender glory.

A book about finding family in unexpected places | It’s Kind of a Funny Story, Ned Vizzini: This is a YA novel about anxiety, depression, suicide attempts, and psychiatric wards. Ned is 15 when he attempts suicide, and his is thereafter admitted into a psychiatric hospital. He at first feels he doesn’t belong there, but eventually accepts and is accepted by the other patients in the hospital. From these other patients, he learns about himself and how to cope with his life in a healthier way. The novel is funny and quick to read, reminiscent a little of John Green and Rainbow Rowell. Some might find the novel’s end a little too happily-ever-after, but I’m okay with a novel about teen suicide ending well.

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Review: The Art of Asking, Amanda Palmer

art of asking cover

The Art of Asking is part autobiography, part manifesto, all Amanda Palmer. I came to love Amanda Palmer years ago through a couple of burned CDs of her band, The Dresden Dolls. I wore those Sharpied Memorexes out during college, blasting the music far too loudly.

Much later, in 2013, Palmer gave a TED talk called “The Art of Asking,” and the book follows, loosely, the outline of that speech. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a really good one. Watch it here. Out of college, Palmer worked as a street statue. Dressed as a bride, face painted white, when people put money in her hat, she gave them a flower. Working this job taught her about person-to-person exchange, and she longed to carry this sense of direct relationship into her music. Her earliest gigs were built on the model of “passing the hat,” and her shows today are built in no small part on couchsurfing and requests on Twitter for anything and everything. If you don’t who Amanda Palmer is, you might have heard of her record-breaking Kickstarter project, which raised over 1.2 million dollars to fund an album for her band, Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra. She came under some criticism for this Kickstarter, but Palmer is continuing the “asking” model by funding her projects on Patreon, another crowdfunding site that allows fans to pay artists on a monthly basis or once per “thing” released. She’s sticking with the art of asking.

The message of The Art of Asking is that by learning to ask for things, we open ourselves up to deeper relationships and more beautiful outcomes than ever imagined. It’s less a “how-to” and more of a  story of how it’s worked for her. It feels a lot like Brene Brown’s work on vulnerability, and  Dr. Brown even wrote The Art of Asking’s prologue. To Palmer, asking and art are inseparable. “Asking is, at its core, a collaboration,” writes Palmer,  “Those who can ask without shame are viewing themselves in collaboration with—rather than in competition with—the world.” You can’t be an artist—of any kind—without learning to ask without shame. And even if you don’t consider yourself an artist, chances are your life and relationships can be enriched simply by learning to ask for things.

Asking, for me, is hard. I fear seeming too forward, I fear seeming like I can’t provide for myself. I fear seeming incapable or weak. So when Palmer wrote the following passage, I felt like she was speaking it directly to me (in fact, I wish I could have her read this passage to me on my voicemail so I could play it throughout the day as needed)”: “It isn’t so much the act of asking that paralyzes us—it’s what lies beneath: the fear of being vulnerable, the fear of rejection, the fear of looking needy or weak. The fear of being seen as a burdensome member of the community instead of a productive one. It points, fundamentally, to our separation from one another.” And clearly, we are better as a culture, as a world, when we feel that we belong to each other. In asking we give someone else the opportunity to put their skills or gifts to use; we allow another person to give a part of themselves to us. Later it can be our turn. In the book, Palmer tells of something that would happen sometimes when she was the 8-foot Bride: someone would drop money in the hat, she’d give them a flower. They’d give the flower back, or someone would bring her a bouquet of flowers. There would be so much giving back and forth that it was hard to tell how it had all gotten started or what originally belonged to whom. What a beautiful image—a world so full of asking and giving that it all becomes a beautiful mess of companionship.

As a long-time fan of Amanda Palmer, I really enjoyed the autobiographical nature of her book. She invites you into her friendships and memories, and yes, there’s a fair bit of her husband, Neil Gaiman here also (which of course I loved. How wonderful to follow two artists separately for most of your adult life only to see them come together!). Following Palmer on Twitter isn’t like following any other celebrity—there’s a good chance she’ll tweet you back. If she plays in your city she might sleep on your couch or ask to borrow your amp. She shares her life openly and writes her blog with vulnerability. Even with every bit of criticism thrown her way, she has refused to build a wall between herself and her fans. She shares this same vulnerability in The Art of Asking  when she writes so openly about how she has wrestled with asking for help, struggled with feeling like an imposter, struggled to feel worthy of attention or praise. Even with her husband, she struggled to ask for and accept a gift. This book felt like a letter from a friend, “here. I’ve had the same struggle you’ve had. Let me help you.”

The Art of Asking releases today in paperback.