What I’ve Been Reading: Lynda Barry’s CRUDDY

Some books about children are for children; Lynda Barry’s Cruddy is definitely not.

First, a warning: this book contains themes, sometimes graphic descriptions, of subjects and events which might be triggering to readers, including suicide, murder, child abuse, child sexual assault, racism, sexism, ableism, mistreatment of people with special needs, drug use, runaways, institutionalization, and animal abuse.

If you still want to give Cruddy a try after all of that… you should. It’s probably the best-written depiction of a troubled child’s life that I’ve ever read. It’s perfect in a lot of ways. It’s hard to read, because it unflinchingly flays open some of the worst things a child can go through, but it’s easy to read, too, because Barry writes clean. Her tone is even throughout; there are no missteps, no awkwardly written passages. You meet Roberta, the 16-year-old narrator, on the first page, and until the book closes, there’s nothing to kick you off the ride.

It’s a hell of a trip, though. Nothing about Roberta’s life is easy or comforting, and even what seems positive for a moment is only in comparison to how crushingly terrible everything else is. But that’s the thing about a life in desolation — little moments of joy that other people, happier people, with more good in their lives, that might never be noticed, instead take on a monumental property. A shared moment can be enough to pin a life on.

Barry makes sense of the little moments and the big ones, weaving them all together so well you barely notice which is which.

I wasn’t surprised by any of it, but I suspect that’s because my childhood was not very different from Roberta’s. Better in some ways, worse in others, with some parts in common, and other parts that didn’t have to be shared because the overall feeling of growing up unwanted, unliked, outside of everyone else: that, I recognize. For other readers, it might be too hard to keep turning the page. That’s okay. But if you can get through it, Cruddy is a masterclass in writing about survival, PTSD, self-harm, suicidal ideation, from the perspective of a child whose parents (and their lack of parenting) made her a perpetual victim.  The story, Robert’as voice, feels real. It’s possible, probable, and tangible, even though we wish it couldn’t be.

Read it because you want to know what life is like for people with worse luck than your own. Read it because you want to know how to write terrible, unimaginable, darkness without losing a grip on the light. Read it because it is beautifully written, in a way that makes it appear simpler than it is, to make even those dark parts easier to digest.

Read it because though almost everything Roberta tells you about her life is bad, Cruddy is perfectly, solidly, good.

What I’ve Been Reading: Rickert, Burstein, Sharma, Tobler

This week’s reading was a collection of stories I randomly discovered online, either because someone recommended it, or because I stumbled it across it while looking for something else.

The Mothers of Voorhisvill”  by Mary Rickert, Tor.com (novella)

5 out of 5 stars

There is a grandeur to Rickert’s work which is almost immediately obvious but not overwhelming. You begin to read the tale she’s written, sentences unfolding simply, with hints of strangeness, until a few paragraphs in you start to see the edges of the world she’s created — and it hits you. It’s never “let me tell you about every aspect of this setting for three pages before anything happens”. It’s not “this happened and then this happened and then this happened”. She understands her characters, where they live and how they move about in that place, so well that when she writes the story, it’s just you (the reader) and them (the fictional characters), having a dialogue.

Reading Rickert is like listening to the chatty neighbors you’d never noticed until they happened to be the most fascinating people you’ve ever met. You’ll find everything you’re looking for by the time it’s done.

The shape of this story is as a series of interviews conducted with various women who’ve, they admit at the beginning, done something terrible, or wonderful, and now they’re explaining why. There’s contrast between the things they’re admitting, the events they’re saying didn’t happen quite that way, and and the moments of “well, sure, it did happen, but she’s completely wrong about the way she describes it”. We read how the women see not only the events of the story but their own worlds so differently from one another. All the pieces of “Mothers”, not disparate but simply not the same, weave together until what you finally have is so large, so monstrous and beautiful and greater than you’d imagined, that “grandeur” is the best word to describe it.

There are definite hints of Witches of Eastwick, and Nightvale, but there are sensual details — the hundred scents, the beauty of light, of women, of creative arts — which swell as the women do, breaking free from other influences. Those details carry on as the story changes, gets darker and more desperate, breathing life into individual moments with the names of board games, the color of jam. It’s real without being weighted down; terrible in the way that it makes perfect sense. I continue to be in awe of Rickert’s ability to tell a complete story, full without going on for too long, like a ripe peach on the last day before it’s plucked and eaten.

Kaddish for the Last Survivor” by Michael A. Burstein, Apex Magazine.

2 out of 5 stars

A SF tale about Holocaust deniers? You might think it would be preachy, pointed, too invested in its message, and Burstein’s story is all of those things. It was also nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula awards in 2001, and it’s worth figuring out why. Continue reading