Friday, May 25, 2012

Speculative Review of the Week: Before the World Intrudes by Michele Rosenthal

As a reviewer, I'm constantly receiving emails from all over the place with requests to review a variety of books...and I've noticed a trend:  the vast majority of the requests I get are to review the most tragic looking memoirs. 

Now, I love me a well-written memoir, where the memoirist has experienced something unique or has something compelling to share.  Examples of awesome memoirs:


1.  Dry by Augusten Burroughs
2. Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs
3. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby
4. The Two Kinds of Decay by Sarah Manguso
5.  Sickened: The Memoir of a Munchausen by Proxy Childhood by Julie Gregory 
6. Oh The Glory Of It All by Sean Wilsey
7.  Oh The Hell Of It All by Pat Montadon 
(I haven't had a chance to read this one yet, but I'm looking forward to Wilsey's mother's rebuttal to Wilsey's version of his childhood!)

I've noticed a trend in the many press releases that flood my inbox.  I like to call this trend "shock and schlock." The adversity faced by the memoirist is pitched as "shocking" and "tragic," and the contents of the press release are thoroughly schlocky, relying too heavily on cheap emotional pandering.   So I've decided to go out on a limb and write a speculative review of some of the memoirs sent my way based on cover art and pitch letters.

Title:  +1 (for the subtitle) and -1 (for use of the phrase "conquering the past." Ick.)  

Cover art: +10.  Well played.  I like beaches.  I like zebras.  I'm confused as to why the zebra is on the beach, and what that has to do with the title (is the beach the world and the zebra the symbolic intrusion? or am I over-thinking this?) but that would make me stop in a bookstore and pick up the book to read the summary, which is half the battle in the over-saturated memoir market.  

Writerly chops/street cred:  -5.  Also the author of, I shit you not, Rock Rules! The Ultimate Rock Band Book.  (Korn?!?  Seriously?!?) That, understandably, was not highlighted in the press release. This, unfortunately, negates the points I was going to award for her having an MFA in Poetry from Vermont College.

Shock: How adverse the adversity?  +9.5. On an adversity scale with one being occasional eczema and a ten being HOW ARE YOU NOT DEAD?!?!?, Rosenthal scores a solid 9.5.  From the press release: 

"In 1981 Michele Rosenthal was given a popular antibiotic to cure a common infection. What happened next was anything but common: due to an undiscovered allergy Michele developed Toxic Epidermal Necrolysis Syndrome (TENS), an illness that essentially turned her into a full-body burn victim. Michele lost 100% of her epidermis. Unable to face or integrate the memories of her illness, Michele embarked on a journey to move into the future and forget about her past. Instead, she found herself plagued by anxiety, fear, nightmares, intrusive thoughts, insomnia, post-traumatic stress and frequent health problems."

Rosenthal lost her skin.  LOST. HER. SKIN.  AH! The only way she could have possibly earned more points was if she managed to write the memoir while still skinless a la Jean-Dominique Bauby penning his memoir by BLINKING HIS LEFT EYE, but she was thirteen at the time. skin.  None.   That's some adverse adversity.  

Schlock: How triumphal the triumph?   +8.  Rosenthal has recovered from her PTSD (and, spoiler alert, judging by her author photo, her skin has grown back) and is now, predictably, a post-trauma coach, motivational key-note speaker, poet and radio show host, helping others, and I quote, "make the transition from powerless to powerful."  A bit emotionally loaded in terms of language (smacks of self-help-y rhetoric and as a poet, I would hope she could find a better way of expressing such trite sentiment), but you know what?  If I was given an antibiotic and my SKIN BURNED OFF, I can only imagine I'd develop post-traumatic stress disorder, too.  I think the situation calls for a little self-help-y rhetoric.

God factor: -.5 for only one light religious referencing of healing her soul (Just a matter of personal taste, I like my memoirs light on the preaching and relatively Jesus free).  

Alternate title:  Thank Goodness for Therapy and Cellular Regeneration: One Woman's Triumph over LOSING ALL HER SKIN.

Highly scientific speculative tolerablility rating: 22

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