What I've Been Reading...
I'm Perfect, You're Doomed: Tales From a Jehovah's Witness Upbringing by Kyria Abrahams
If I were unimaginative enough to rate books and movies in terms of “grades” (“duh, guess this one gets a D...”), I'd probably give I'm Perfect, You're Doomed a B-, an A for effort, and in the top margin I'd scrawl a note in red ink: “Definitely engrossing, but should be funnier. Keep writing!” But I'm sure Kyria Abrahams doesn't need my encouragement to keep writing, and she knows more about being funny than I do, (she's now a stand-up comedian, after all). That said, I liked this, although with a title as awesome as I'm Perfect, You're Doomed, I was expecting more.
I did learn a lot about the Jehovah's Witnesses, a fundamentalist sect of Christianity that boasts followers like Michael Jackson and Prince. The basic gist of the religion is this: theirs is the one true religion, and Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and everyone else (including followers of other branches of Christianity like Catholics, Mormons, Episcopalians, etc.) are all poseurs and are going be wiped out in the Armageddon. Only Jehovah's Witnesses will be spared and get to live on in a world free of atheists and other icky sinners. The Armageddon could happen tomorrow, it could happen twelve years from now, it could and will happen basically at the whim of Jehovah, so you'd better watch out, you'd better convert, and you'd better not miss any meetings at the Kingdom Hall. Oh, and celebrating any kind of holiday—Christmas, Thanksgiving, Halloween, Easter, and even birthdays, is strictly verboten.
It's disturbing, but also quite hilarious when told through the eyes of Abrahams, a typical eighties child who loves Ricky Schroeder of Silver Spoons fame, even though her mother tells her that he “doesn't seem like a very nice boy.” From the age of eight, when Kyria is considered old enough to attend the Fellowship School, she is locked in an internal battle between adhering to the Witnesses' strict religious code and engaging in sinful activities such as attending the birthday parties of “worldly” friends and collecting Smurf figurines. Smurfs are demons, apparently, and there are stories circulating throughout Kyria's congregation about a Smurf doll that spontaneously came to life—right in the middle of the Kingdom Hall—screamed “Oh, shit!” and then burst into flames (because, y'know, Smurfs are evil and they hate Jehovah). Kyria becomes even more conflicted when she hits puberty, starts listening to ungodly bands like The Cure, and develops crushes on worldly boys (in Jehovah's Witness-speak, “worldly” is not a compliment). She longs to follow her heart and her hormones, but still wants to be a good Jehovah's Witness; the possibility of getting caught breaking the rules and thus being “disfellowshipped” is constantly hanging over her addled head.
When Kyria turns eighteen she marries a fellow Jehovah's Witness—a twenty-four-year-old part-time math professor and “stinky nerd” named Alan. She can barely stand him to be in the same room with him, but she is desperate to escape her warring parents and be able to have “legal” sex. At this point in the book things become murkier. Kyria becomes increasingly unsympathetic and downright nasty; treating her new husband horribly and trying to have sex with his friends. You almost want to give her a good shoe in the ass and tell her to grow up. On the other hand, such behavior seems understandable coming from the child of a dysfunctional home, a girl who grew up learning not to get too comfortable in “this” world, since any day now Jehovah would wipe out all the bad stuff so that the real believers could live a better life in “The New System of Things.”
By the end, Kyria thankfully grows up a little, gets gently knocked around by life and those fearsome “worldly” people, and is able to find her place among the sinners. I'm Perfect, You're Doomed isn't the best memoir I've ever read, but it is eye-opening, often humorous, and smartly written. And it's a good thing that Kyria turns out to be far from perfect, thank God—er, Jehovah—because who'd want to read about someone who is?
Candy Girl: A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper by Diablo Cody
I was reluctant to pick up this book, mostly because I didn't love Juno, the film based on Cody's Oscar-winning screenplay. While it was a great story (not to mention wonderfully cast and well-acted), I found the hipster dialogue distracting, and the wink-wink cleverness rather annoying. I had heard good things about Cody's stripper memoir Candy Girl, but I wasn't keen to slog through more suffocatingly cool prose that her fans love so much.
Thankfully, the book isn't plagued by the same issues that caused Juno to crash in on itself. Candy Girl turned out to be a funny and very well-written account of Cody's stint as an exotic dancer, a year she spent in the employ of various Minneapolis strip clubs while settling into a new relationship with her musician boyfriend. Her writing is wry and sharply observed, and she doesn't skimp on dishing the juicy details while examining the bizarre quirks of an industry that is paradoxically exploitative and empowering (both for the dancers and the spectators, it seems).
Cody is determined to wring as much from the stripper experience as possible. She dances at all kinds of clubs, from the classiest to the seediest and everywhere in between. One is a cabaret-style bar with delusions of intellectual grandeur: the patrons puff expensive cigars and the walls are lined with shelves holding leather-bound books that no one reads. Another club is a gaudy neon nightmare that routinely holds “panty auctions” where a dancer prances across the stage wearing panties bearing the club's logo as the customers bid on the chance to prize a pair of undies straight from a stripper's body. One club, Dreamgirls, is staffed by such a ragtag crew of mohawked dancers and verbally abusive managers that Cody hilariously dubs the venue “Night Terror Girls.”
One thing I didn't need was the book's second-to-last chapter, “A Stripper Was Born,” a sort of denouement wherein Cody attempts to explain away her decision to pursue a brief career as a dancer. The chapter's placement is odd, and I think it would have served her story better had it been included at the beginning of the book—if it needed to be there at all. It seems superfluous for Cody to justify her choices, since it's pretty clear at the outset that she is a free-spirited nonconformist who is comfortable with her body. Plus, she's a writer, first and foremost. She got a great story out of it. That seems as good a reason as any to climb up on the pole and give it a whirl.