Augusten Burroughs' "Toil & Trouble" shows the magical side of the acclaimed author’s colorful life.
Burroughs is well known for his soul-baring, bestselling memoirs, including "Running With Scissors," his vivid portrait of his dysfunctional family life, and "Dry," his powerful account of alcoholism and getting clean. One might think he has few secrets left to divulge, yet in this latest memoir, he reveals a startling new detail: He’s a witch. In fact, the author, who first realized his “gift” as a young boy, comes from a long line of witches, including his mother and grandmother. The loosely constructed narrative initially revolves around the author’s anecdotal “witchy” incidents that occurred as a child and then later as an adult, especially as related to his relationship with his husband, Christopher. Burroughs chronicles how he convinced Christopher to move from their urban Manhattan life and settle in a historic home in rural Connecticut. The author has always displayed a talent for sharing sometimes-grim personal dramas with a keen whimsical flair. Unfortunately, the balance is never quite achieved here; the dramatic moments are softly conceived while his narrative often swings in a broader comedic direction. Though the author’s witch revelation feels authentic, some elements of the story undermine the gravity of his tale. These include such chapter headings as “Adder’s Tongue,” “Snake’s Blood,” “Fairie’s Finger” and “Bat’s Wings” as well as frequent mentions of the 1960s sitcom "Bewitched," in which Burroughs compares his experiences to those of Samantha Stevens. The author delivers intermittently intriguing depictions of the quirky local characters they have encountered in the countryside, including redneck handymen, a flamboyant has-been opera singer neighbor and their real estate agent, who also happens to be a witch. Though we see Burroughs and Christopher struggle through potential hardships, including a tornado and illness, these often feel like contrived plot points allowing for further witty indulgences.
"Toil & Trouble" is an amusing foray into the witchy realms of Burroughs’ life that lacks the depth of previous memoirs.
(Burroughs will speak and sign copies of his book at 7 p.m. Friday at BookPeople, 603 N. Lamar Blvd. Information: bookpeople.com.)
An unflinching recovery project
Sarah M. Broom reassembles her sizable family tree, damaged by time and uprooted by Hurricane Katrina, in "The Yellow House."
As the author suggests in her debut book, her clan’s tempest-tossed experience was practically predetermined. She was raised in New Orleans East, an especially swampy section of the city so poor and distant from the city’s romantic center that it never appeared on tourist maps. In 1961, when Broom’s mother purchased the house of the title, it was hyped as a boomtown “involving men and money and wetlands, dreaming and draining and emergence and fate.” But rapid development covered up a multitude of municipal sins that emerged once the rains came. (The title refers in part to the yellow aluminum siding that cloaked rotting wood beneath.) The youngest of 12 siblings and half-siblings, Broom knew much of her family only via lore and later research (her father died six months after her birth), which gives this book the feel of a heartfelt but unflinching recovery project. In the early portions, the author describes her family’s hard living (her mother was widowed twice) and the region’s fickle economy and institutional racism. Private school gave Broom a means of escape — she lived in New York working for O, the Oprah Magazine, when Katrina struck — but she returned to reckon with “the psychic cost of defining oneself by the place where you are from.” As family members were relocated around the country, she scrambled to locate and assist them, kept tabs on the house and took a well-intentioned but disillusioning job as a speechwriter for controversial New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin, insincerely hyping the city’s progress. Broom’s lyrical style celebrates her family bonds, but a righteous fury runs throughout the narrative at New Orleans’ injustices, from the foundation on up.
"The Yellow House" is a tribute to the multitude of stories one small home can contain, even one bursting with loss.