In today's New York Times, famously-scurrilous book critic Michiko Kakutani gives a rave review to Her Last Death, Susanna Sonnenberg's debut memoir about her totally batshit mother, "Daphne." While Sonnenberg's mom "possessed a magical charm and a contagious, manic enthusiasm, especially in...her 'Let's-Take-Over-Central Park' moods," Kakutani explains, Demerol addict Daphne was also prone to "falling-down, passing-out drug binges and [she had a] relentless obsession with sex, which she shockingly shared with her young daughter." Daphne made Susanna read aloud from Penthouse Letters at age ten and told her about orgasms when she was eight. Though Daphne's mother-of-the-year antics are terrible, she joins a robust literary pantheon of bad mommies: Christina Crawford's juicy Joan Crawford takedown Mommie Dearest, and probably the best book about living with a mentally ill parent, Mary Karr's unparalleled The Liar's Club.
For those who haven't read it (and you should!) Karr's Liars Club paints a beautifully-grueling picture of her childhood in East Texas, growing up with a pair of mostly well-meaning alcoholic parents. During the course of the book, Mary's creative and charming (though not exactly warm and fuzzy) mother Charlie suffers two nervous breakdowns, and ends up leaving Mary and her sister Lecia alone in Colorado for weeks at a time while she runs off to Mexico, gets addicted to diet pills, and drinks thousands of Mason jars full of rot gut vodka.
Perhaps the most moving part of The Liar's Club is when Mary and Lecia watch their mother set fire to most of their worldly possessions in a makeshift driveway pyre. Included in the detritus is Mary's rocking horse.
That's my horse getting doused by the upended gas can. I knot my arms in front of my chest and think how I wanted to keep that horse for bouncing. It's supposed to be a baby toy, but some days when Lecia's out, I ride it with springs screeching and close my eyes and picture myself galloping across a wide prairie. Now that horse looks at me blank-eyed and tired. I scan around for a rock or a two-by-four to conk mother on the head with. But Lecia's hands won't let go my shoulders. She could be watching the weather on TV for all the feeling her face shows. I tell her that's my horse Mother's messing with. But she's bored with this complaint. So I let it go. Bye-bye, old Paint, I think to myself, I'm a-leaving Cheyenne
The best thing about the The Liar's Club is Karr's exquisite ability to mix comedy with pathos. Hopefully, Sonnenberg's book can do the same, since nearly 300 pages about a miserable childhood will be a pretty tough slog if there's no gallows humor. If you have some downtime over the holidays and you're looking to comfort yourself with the knowledge that at least someone's childhood was more miserable than yours was, The Liar's Club is the perfect book to curl up with. That, or, you know, Island of the Blue Dolphins.