Sh** Happens in Kramer’s ‘These Things Happen’

Richard Kramer's 'These Things Happen.'

Richard Kramer’s ‘These Things Happen.’

In his first novel, Richard Kramer, a writer better known for his work on television shows such as “Thirstysomething,” “My So-Called Life” and “Once and Again,” bores into the separate minds of a 21st century family: a divorced couple, their bright-beyond-his-years son and the respective partners of the parents.

Wesley’s mother is an enlightened, liberal New Yorker and his older stepfather is equally egalitarian; the boy’s father is a well-known and oft-quoted gay attorney and activist who’s been in a 10-year relationship with an actor-cum-restaurateur. When Wesley’s best friend embraces his homosexuality, raising a lot of questions for both teenagers, the adults begin to wrestle with their own feelings on the subject revealing that even the most progressive and accepting members of society can harbor homophobia.

Gay and straight characters alike introspectively examine how society has determined how they look at themselves and others. One older gay man, for example, refrains from lavishing too much attention, affection and love on Wesley for fear of how it might be misinterpreted — not by the boy, but by the adults around him. As might be expected, Kramer’s dialogue can read like a screenplay and is used heavily to define his characters. When he goes inside their heads, however, to reveal their inner thoughts, the results can be choppy and confusing.

Ultimately, the book is a worthwhile read with poignant moments that highlight generational changes in attitudes toward gays.

Richard Kramer

Richard Kramer

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Grimsley’s ‘Winter Birds’ is a Harrowing Work of Fiction and Prequel to ‘Comfort and Joy’

Jim Grimsley's 'Winter Birds.'

Jim Grimsley’s ‘Winter Birds.’

“Winter Birds” is perhaps the most devastating novel I have ever read. The monster Grimsley creates is more horrifying than anything Shelley or Stoker ever dreamed. The story grips you by the throat and punches you in the gut. Unlike “Comfort & Joy,” I just wanted it to be over, but was no less satisfied when I turned the last page.

Augusten Burroughs Tells Us How to Get Over Anything

Augusten Burroughs' 'This is How...'

Augusten Burroughs’ ‘This is How…’

In the opening pages of his this book, Augusten Burroughs feels trapped in an elevator with an ostensibly chirpy and optimistic woman — the kind of person who starts every morning by repeating positive affirmations to her reflection in the mirror and who doesn’t mind sharing secrets of her perky disposition with others. Any reader familiar with Burroughs’ best-selling memoirs (“Running with Scissors,” “Dry”) might imagine that his between-floors encounter, though it lasts a mere 35 seconds, becomes fodder for sardonic remarks about acceptable social intercourse and proper elevator etiquette.

So begins “This is How: Proven Aid in Overcoming Shyness, Molestation, Fatness, Spinsterhood, Grief, Disease, Lushery, Decrepitude & More. For Young and Old Alike.” That’s right; Burroughs has an answer for everything, having created a self-help guide that is unlike any other on the bookshelf. With his own brand of caustic wit and second-to-none sarcasm, he offers up a new kind of reverse psychology based on his own truths, which he offers as an alternative to what he calls “side-of-the-cereal-box psychology.”

For example, when the elevator lady, whom he instantly nicknames Lipstickmouth, encourages him to smile and think positively rather than wear his unhappiness on his sleeve, he writes: “My first thought was, ‘It’s leaking out of me? People can see it?’ My second thought was, ‘Die, bitch.’ ” He goes on to present his own case for allowing people to wallow in their woes when they need to, citing Canadian research that says repeating positive mantras about themselves can actually make people with low self-esteem feel worse.

Augusten Burroughs

Augusten Burroughs

Drawing from his own experiences as a recovering alcoholic, a victim of childhood molestation, a neuroses-ridden gay New Yorker, and a former advertising copywriter, Burroughs dispenses “how-to” advice on dealing with everything from addiction and suicidal tendencies to cancer and yo-yo dieting. Every chapter is a life lesson that is sometimes practical (how to ace a job interview) sometimes philosophical (how to see the truth behind the truth) and much of the time hilarious (how to feel like shit). His gift for outrageous analogies and original metaphors, used so skillfully in his previous books, continues to bear fruit in “This is How.”

In his attempt to describe the miracle of human life he offers this gem: “Think of the actual physical elements that compose our bodies: we are 98 percent hydrogen and oxygen and carbon. That’s table sugar. You are made of the same stuff as table sugar. Just a couple of tiny differences here and there and look what happened to the sugar: it can stand upright and send tweets.”

Then there’s his take on shattering shame: “It just doesn’t seem likely that shame will be the next cupcakes. It may be destined to remain terminally uncool, relegated forever to the distant corner of the past we’d rather forget, right there along with clogs.”

For all of its humor, however, “This is How” has a surprisingly upbeat tone compared to Burroughs’ earlier books. Beneath the dark commentary is a semi-serious and sincere voice that comes from years of therapy and rehab. While he can sound at times like the Anti-Oprah, punching holes in platitudes and clichés, he can also be as profound as Norman Vincent Peale when he writes movingly on the topics of love and death. His observations are offered in an honest, plain-spoken manner with an earnest attempt to keep it real and even be inspirational.

“Life tucks its rarest, largest and most D-flawless diamonds deep, deep inside the folds of the greatest loss,” he writes. “You do not know they are even there, glittering in the dark, right beside you.”

There is a lot that readers can take away from this book; the author’s ultimate message is to live in the moment and be truthful to yourself. And Burroughs attempts to show you how.

Lammys Awarded Tonight: A Review of Last Year’s Gay Fiction Winner

 Benjamin Alire Saenz's 'Everything Begins & Ends at the Kentucky Club.'

Benjamin Alire Saenz’s ‘Everything Begins & Ends at the Kentucky Club.’

A devastatingly beautiful work of fiction that won a 2013 Lambda Literary Award. Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s collection of stories are linked by their setting — the border towns of El Paso, Texas and Juarez, Mexico — and by themes of love and hate, poverty and prosperity, anger and angst. Sáenz writes in plain language that evokes powerful emotions as his characters, mostly young Hispanics, recount lives touched by loss, addiction, prejudice and lack of parental love or guidance. Writing in the first person, the author creates an intimate connection often created by a memoir. One story, “Chasing the Dragon,” about two orphans, is heartrending enough to elicit a physical reaction in the reader. But each of the seven stories holds its own surprise and power to manipulate the reader’s emotions. This is the first book I’ve read by Sáenz, but I hope to read many more.