Review: Furiously Happy, by Jenny Lawson

April 10, 2017
Snumpus

Furiously HappyI think my family are probably glad that I’m done reading Jenny Lawson’s books. They might be able to get more reading of their own done when I’m not interrupting them every five minutes to read out the latest side-splitting passage I can’t keep to myself.

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, Lawson’s first memoir, was fascinating and hilarious, but I think Furiously Happy is in every way its superior. It’s just as funny, with fewer slow bits, but it’s also deeply raw and sometimes dark. Her first book was about her life in general, and since her life has been touched by mental illness then that was a topic she did cover to some degree, but at arm’s length; in this book it takes centre stage.

The title is a reference to a decision she made to be furiously, vehemently, defiantly happy in response to some painful losses and the triggering effect they had on her depression, a decision which started a movement on Twitter among many of her fans who also suffer from mental illness. It’s something that she’s realistic about, acknowledging that it doesn’t mean there aren’t days where it’s bad, too bad to get out of bed; that it’s not a cure, but it is a coping strategy.

It’s perhaps funny to say that in a book where she focuses far more on her mental health issues, she actually seems a lot more together, but I think for a reader who has personal experience with mental health problems then it makes a good deal of sense. Being open about the bad things frees you, somehow, to be more open about the good. I try to be aggressively honest with myself and others about my depression and anxiety disorders and the effects that they have on my experiences, and doing so has improved my communication in many other ways, and I think that’s probably what comes across so strongly in Lawson’s writing here. She doesn’t seem to be trying so hard and just reads as more authentic in her own quirky, hyperbolic way.

And there is good here, and it can be understatedly beautiful. One chapter that stays with me is when she’s having a panic attack and an arthritis flare-up in New York (a combination I can wholeheartedly sympathise with), and then it begins to snow, and she’s outside barefoot and bleeding in the snow, taking in this magical moment that wouldn’t have happened without her illness. I mean, the snow would have happened, because presumably she doesn’t have magical weather control abilities, but not her appreciating it the way that she does. I have my own memories of such moments, albeit with less snow and blood, and there’s a profound peace that comes with the realisation that while the illness is and will always be awful, it is a piece of you that gives you a perspective into things that most people just can’t see, and that’s a feeling that she does a really good job in putting onto the page.

I can also now understand why she and her husband are a good match. (Even if he is a Republican. Eww.) They have a yin-yang sort of relationship it seems, where they balance each other out but there’s a little piece of the other within each. I think sometimes it’s still a little hard to see what they share, but it also stands out less than it did in the first book both because this is less focused on her life story and more on her current-day emotional landscape, and because letting this be a more emotional book seems to have allowed her to capture on the page the underlying affection for Victor that I thought was awkwardly absent from Let’s Pretend This Never Happened.

I do wonder how much this would have held together without any familiarity with her original memoir, especially for readers who aren’t familiar with her blog, so even though this is the better book I would suggest reading Let’s Pretend This Never Happened first to get a feel for how her life up until now has shaped who she is as a person. And for anyone who’s already read that book, I think this is better written and less manic, but if her stream-of-consciousness style of writing bothered you there then it will probably still bother you here.

But I think Furiously Happy may very well deserve a place on my favourites shelf, and particularly for anyone who’s dealt with mental illness or the mental illnesses of loved ones, I think that under all the laughter this will be a poignant read. It’s incredibly cathartic when you come to understand that funny and awful aren’t mutually exclusive, and Lawson offers a charming, awkward, and extremely relatable object lesson in it.

5 stars

Review: Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, by Jenny Lawson

April 6, 2017
Snumpus

Let's Pretend This Never HappenedI’ve never read Jenny Lawson’s blog, and didn’t actually put two and two together and realise that she was ‘The Bloggess’ I’d heard mention of until a couple of months back, but her books have been on my TBR for a while because they are all over Goodreads. What attracted me to them was the mental illness angle. As a sufferer of depression (now quite well managed) and anxiety (sort of well managed except when I do adventurous things like leave the house or talk to people), I appreciate memoirs which have a raw but hilarious look at what it’s like to live with these and similar conditions.

It turns out that the mental illness angle is covered a lot more in her second book, Furiously Happy, but Let’s Pretend This Never Happened is definitely a success on the raw and hilarious fronts.

Lawson had a very strange childhood. I live in a city (actually, I live in a town that so desperately wants to be a city that it’s had City Centre on the buses for years despite being denied city status, but Americans would probably call it a city because it’s too big to be anything else), but my upbringing wasn’t pure yuppy. I was home educated and we had a caravan and no particular need to stay in one place, so a good portion of it was spent in forests and on farms and random bits of scenic coastline. I have tamed wild animals. So my reaction isn’t, you know, ‘Turkeys as pets, what strange country folk!’ But even by the standards of rural life, sticking your hand up a freshly deceased squirrel and then waking your young daughters in the middle of the night for some ghastly puppetry — one of Lawson’s memories of her father — is, shall we say, not recommended parenting. I do kind of approve testing the suitability of your child’s dates by seeing how they handle the bobcat that was just tossed onto them, though.

Not all of the wild animals they lived with were alive (or recently alive and now a hand puppet), either. Her father was very into taxidermy. You would think that childhood experiences like running into the warm open corpse of a deer, and then vomiting inside said deer, might turn someone off of the whole idea of corpses in general — can’t say I’m that fond of them myself and I’ve never been inside a dead anything, a record I’m sincerely hoping I can maintain until the dead thing is me — but adult Jenny goes on to be a collector of taxidermied animals herself, an example of which graces the cover of the American edition of this book but was sadly left off of the British one. Disappointing considering that both editions of Furiously Happy have a very enthusiastic taxidermied raccoon on the cover, and they’d make a nice matching set with which to creep out people on the train.

Once the narrative shifts to her adulthood, it’s a little more sedate and also a little more disjointed, but in terms of the former that’s still not setting a very high? low? bar, since adulthood also brings the effects of her mental illness to the fore. Although it’s something she delves into more deeply in the second book, which I’m reading at the moment, to the extent that she discusses it here she is very candid. It can make her writing seem very manic and unedited but as someone who suffers from similar-ish issues, I could see where she was going with that: It is exactly what it’s like to be in the head of someone who has anxiety, when your thoughts go so fast that they are physically dizzying, and I think giving these sections a more polished tone would also have reduced their honesty.

So when she says that it’s exhausting being her, it will probably sound narcissistic to many readers, but I get it. It’s not necessarily that the thoughts or the worries or the insecurities or any of it are unique to her or to anxiety sufferers as a whole, it’s the fact that they come so fast that they drown out everything else, that they strip away all of the mind’s usual self-defences, and that there’s never any time off for good behaviour.

Her marriage was a bit of a strange topic. Not that I’m particularly interested in judging other people’s relationships from the outside, but it’s a memoir and it is a thing she wrote about, so I have to go by what’s on the page. When she first married Victor I thought that, given she also mentions a present-day husband, she must have divorced and remarried, because she wrote about the marriage in a way that sounded regretful. I was genuinely surprised to find that she is still married to the same guy. Right at the very end I think you can sort of see why they work together, but her tone when writing about the marriage is a strange contrast to the rest of her life because when it comes to things like her decidedly odd father, or her life in the country both as a child and once she moves back there as an adult, or her fears about motherhood, you can really feel the love there even when she’s writing about the parts that are scary, difficult, or frustrating. I don’t get that when she talks about Victor.

On the whole I was just laughing so much that I was constantly stopping to read parts out to my family, sometimes struggling to get the words out past the giggles. Sometimes it does read like she’s trying too hard but people with anxiety are always trying too hard, even in the conversations we only have in our heads. See, I just started to write a sentence about this book reminding me of a wittier and weirder version of the inside of my own head before I self-censor all the parts that never make it to my mouth, and then I started to wonder if liking something because it reminds you of yourself is incredibly narcissistic, and now I’ve sat here in a stupor for five minutes trying to decide how much of this review I’ll have to throw out. And also that I should clarify that I don’t mean the ‘weirder’ part as an insult, just that you know, my dad is an engineer and has never had his hand up a dead squirrel, so I don’t have the same level of childhood emotional scarification.

I will leave you with one of my favourite quotes from the book, which should help you decide if its brand of humour and stream-of-consciousness style are for you:

I’d just run into my gynecologist at Starbucks and she totally looked right past me like she didn’t even know me. And so I stood there wondering whether that’s something she does on purpose to make her clients feel less uncomfortable, or whether she just genuinely didn’t recognize me without my vagina. Either way, it’s very disconcerting when people who’ve been inside your vagina don’t acknowledge your existence. Also, I just want to clarify that I don’t mean “without my vagina” like I didn’t have it with me at the time. I just meant that I wasn’t, you know… displaying it while I was at Starbucks. That’s probably understood, but I thought I should clarify, since it’s the first chapter and you don’t know that much about me. So just to clarify, I always have my vagina with me. It’s like my American Express card. (In that I don’t leave home without it. Not that I use it to buy stuff with.)

4 stars

Review: Towers Fall (Towers Trilogy #3), by Karina Sumner-Smith

April 6, 2017
Snumpus

Towers FallThe Lower City is alive, and its people are reeling in the wake of Rown’s devastating attack. Its heart is a dark mirror of the living Towers above, and into it the Spire has poured its dark magic — and now pours its poison. As the wounded entity seethes, the Spire commands the evacuation of all of the earthbound residents, out into the walker-filled wastes with no shelter and no resources, or they will perish as it scourges the Lower City to put an end to the rival it has created. Right when her city needs her most, Xhea finds her magic bound, and she and Shai must find another way to save everyone and everything they know from the impending clash of titans.

Too often the third book in a trilogy tries to go high-concept, and the author doesn’t really know how to ramp things up to that scale, so it either falls kind of flat and just doesn’t feel anywhere near as colossal as its premise demands, or the pacing gives me whiplash as the author just seems to give up and wrap it in a messy bow as fast as possible. Karina Sumner-Smith once again subverts, if not my expectations — I know she’s damn talented at this point — then my concerns, and delivers a novel that I found to be the perfect balance between the epic and the intimate, with pacing that leaves no fat to be trimmed.

All of the loose threads are neatly woven in by the end, with nothing suffering short shrift. On the personal level, everything from Shai’s relationship with her mother and the way she lost her father, to the origins of Xhea’s abandonment complex, and even secondary characters such as Wen’s closure with his son, are given a fair resolution. Meanwhile the whole city, above and below, shakes itself apart and we get answers about what the dark magic really is and has meant for these people, the atrocities wrought by the Spire, and the true natures of the Towers’ hearts.

And of course, Xhea and Shai’s relationship. Because that’s the only word for it as the subtext of the second book builds into, well, text. There are no deep declarations of love — a quiet ‘Yours, then,’ a small joy amidst the desperation of their world ending around them, is the closest we’ll come — it’s chaste but gently romantic, and after the way they have grown as people, together, it feels very much earned. And it’s a sweetly melancholy thing, when you know there can be no living happily ever after for someone who is not alive.

Sumner-Smith’s prose is, as it has been throughout the trilogy, a clean and evocative experience you can sink into without becoming lost in flowery word choices that would detract from the often urgent tone. I haven’t read any of her short stories and I don’t know much about how prolific she is in that field, so she may well have been honing her skills on short fiction for years, but for a YA author bringing home her first trilogy, she stands out from the pack in technical ability.

I am genuinely surprised that these books aren’t more hyped. They’re a tour de force of so many elements that I often see YA readers lamenting the relative dearth of. I love YA, but in a field currently drowning in love triangles and lazy wish fulfilment for characterisation, I rarely find a YA series I can be so uncritical of. I’d happily buy the author’s next works sight unseen. I can’t imagine a return to this world after its immensely satisfying and complete conclusion, although it might be fun to see how Daye and Torrence became what they are, but hopefully she will deliver on a new premise with the same richness of character.

5 stars

Review: Defiant (Towers Trilogy #2), by Karina Sumner-Smith

April 5, 2017
Snumpus

DefiantStill recovering from the knee injury she suffered at the end of Radiant, Xhea has spent the last couple of months cooped up in Edren, frustrating those around her — especially Shai — with her lack of motivation in doing what she needs to do to heal. When a terrified senseless ghost appears to her with a vague warning, presaging an attack on Edren’s underground defences, Xhea finally gets some of her spark back, only to be snatched away by one of the other earthbound skyscrapers to play a role in a scheme that might change the face of the entire city. The nature of the attack severs her bond with Shai, leaving the bereft ghost convinced that her companion is dead, and without any way to communicate with the people of Edren who are all she has left… and Xhea isn’t the only thing Edren stands to lose.

I love these books. They are so tightly written, well-paced, and beautifully characterised. Defiant manages to take a plot that I usually dislike — that of characters being separated because one of them lacks information the reader is aware of, and of taking most of the book to catch up to what we already know — and makes me really appreciate its implementation. Xhea and Shai’s bond is undoubtedly the best thing about the trilogy, so it’s inevitable that it causes a little slump when they’re apart for so much of the novel, but the closeness of that bond is also why separating them for a bit works to its advantage: They genuinely grow in a way that makes the separation feel uncontrived and the coming back together earned.

Shai is, I think, the more dependent of the two and so being in a situation where she has to stand on her own and help those with whom she’s unable to communicate fosters a lot of growth, and also cements that she loves Xhea for Xhea and not just because Xhea was her avenue to freedom.

Xhea gets some much-needed answers both about the nature of her powers (though there’s still a lot left for the third book) and her family history, and it’s also quite good to see her placed in a moral conundrum without Shai to serve as her moral compass. The exploration of her power and the morality of some of its uses is excellent; the family history is, I think, the one thing I would call out as a weak aspect of the book. I simply don’t buy that they would have been unable to find her if they had put genuine effort into trying, considering that they were aware of her power and would’ve been able to track her down with the same ease as her clients (which, as we saw at the beginning of Radiant, was hardly difficult). We seem to be expected to believe that this was the case though, considering the earnestness of her interactions with her surviving relative and that Xhea does very little emotional wrestling with it before moving on. It doesn’t ring quite true for someone with such an intense abandonment complex and the whole issue feels a bit swept under the carpet, but it serves to tie up the loose thread acceptably enough.

Defiant does for the earthbound skyscrapers what Radiant did for the Towers, bringing alive their culture and rivalries without excessive exposition, and does an impressive job of walking the fine balance of introducing a lot more secondary characters to care about — or feel sorry for — without detracting from the focus on Xhea and Shai. I feel like in this respect it was a little more nuanced than Radiant, where it was largely Xhea and Shai against the world and their opponents weren’t worthy of much sympathy; here the bad guys, insofar as there are any, are more pathetic than consciously cruel even though what they are doing is genuinely horrifying if you think about it deeply. Ieren is just a tool, despite what he can do, but he shines a light on the fact that Xhea is more than just her power, she’s defined by what she chooses to do with it.

Middle entries in trilogies often struggle, the infamous sophomore slump, but this is just such a smooth and powerful transitional book that I remain sincerely impressed that this is Karina Sumner-Smith’s first trilogy, and Defiant only her second novel overall. An epic third book awaits.

4.5 stars

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