The Bookshelf: Michael Boulerice's "Male Memoir"
The Bookshelf is NHPR's series on authors and books with ties to the Granite State. All Things Considered host Peter Biello features authors, covers literary events and publishing trends, and gets recommendations from each guest on what books listeners might want to add to their own bookshelves.
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This week, The Bookshelf features Michael Boulerice. For many men, childhood is a time to get into trouble—to break things and explore forbidden places. That holds true for Boulerice. The Nottingham author writes about his experiences in a new memoir, The Adventures of Kungfu Mike and the Magic Sunglasses. The essays that make up this collection are funny, sad, cringe-worthy, and sometimes vulgar. Scroll down to read a list of the top five books on Boulerice's bookshelf, listen to his conversation with Peter Biello, or read the transcript.
Michael Boulerice's Top 5 Book Recommendations:
1. The Glass Castle, by Jeanette Walls. "The Glass Castle came into my life at a crucial time. I was struggling with every aspect of my flailing mid-20s existence, and had just moved back home to New Hampshire from Los Angeles. I had pennies to my name, and I was really, really insecure about my writing. I'd developed some notoriety on the Internet, but I wasn't making the kind of headway with my life's stories that I wanted to, and I wasn't happy with the tone of my writing. I remember being with my mother in a little bookstore in Boston (she lived in Beacon Hill at the time, and I was crashing on her couch), and she told me to pick out some books for myself. I found a paperback copy of The Glass Castle on the bestseller's shelf, and everything changed for me. The way Jeanette Walls told her story was beautiful. The simplicity of her storytelling lent a childish honesty to her account of growing up as a member of a homeless family, and I couldn't put the book down until I'd finished it. Reading The Glass Castle taught me that as long as you do the story justice, you can take your own life's events -- no matter how ugly they may be -- and create something beautiful out of them; something that helps people realize their own lives aren't singularly terrible."
2. On Writing by Stephen King. "When aspiring writers ask me to recommend materials that might help them become better writers, I tell them to buy this book. I've probably bought On Writing more than a dozen times, because I'm notorious for giving books to guests at house parties after I've had too many martinis, and if somebody expresses an interest in writing during a conversation, I'm like "STAY RIGHT THERE, YOU NEED TO HAVE THIS." On Writing is easily the most informative and entertaining book on the process of writing I've ever come across, and Mr. King delivers his sermon in a refreshingly accessible, casual way. That's why this book is so special. The majority of volumes on the subject of writing either carry such an arrogant tone that they're almost impossible to digest, or they're cleverly disguised manipulations, published with the sole purpose of conning you into spending your money on useless writing seminars or retreats. King strips it all down to the brass tacks, and leaves the reader feeling inspired and chomping at the bit to get in front of a keyboard."
3. When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris. "I was pretty late to the game when it comes to David Sedaris. I didn't hear about him until his famous reading of 'Stadium Pal' on Letterman. I watched it on YouTube, and subsequently laughed so hard I slid into an asthma attack. I looked him up online, and bought every book he'd written up until that point, including my favorite of his, When You Are Engulfed in Flames. What really reached out to me, aside from the fact that we both love writing essays, is his emotional honesty. Getting the facts right in memoir is one thing, but to be able to lay yourself open and expose that much of your raw feelings on paper is something I really wanted to incorporate into my own writing. I was also impressed with how willing he was to share stories involving his family. My family, barring a few exceptions, has never been thrilled about my decision to chronicle my life, so to see him write about his experiences with other family members so candidly made me think he was really brave. I had a book signed by David Sedaris after attending his reading at the Ogunquit Playhouse last summer, and my wife Jessica asked him how he dealt with his family in regard to how they're portrayed in his essays, to which he responded, 'Are you really having that problem? I mean, why do they care? Why would anybody want to read about themselves?'"
4. The Passage Trilogy by Justin Cronin. "I know this is cheating because I'm listing a trilogy as opposed to a singular piece of work, but I hope you'll let this slide. I also listened to the first two parts of the trilogy while doing lawn work instead of reading a physical copy, so I'm pretty much breaking rules left and right here. That aside, The Passage is an incredible work of fiction. Make no mistake, Justin Cronin single-handedly dragged the vampire genre out of the glittery depths it plunged to during the [even referencing the name makes me furious] period with The Passage and it's follow up, The Twelve. It's graphic, detailed, and guttural in all the right places. The character development rivals the best novels I've ever taken in. I plowed through both of those books so fast, and I've been waiting impatiently for City of Mirrors ever since. I saw that Stephen King tweeted about how it's "an incredibly satisfying conclusion to his vampire trilogy", and I'm just sitting here scratching the days until its release into the wall like a prison inmate."
5. Miss Nelson is Missing! by Harry G. Allard, Jr. "I wanted to include a children's book in this list, because if we're talking about creating a list of your all time favorite works of literature, it should include at least one that helped shape your love of reading, right? My first instinct was to recommend Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz and Stephen Gammell, but if I'm being honest with myself, those books were all about those chilling Gammell illustrations, and not so much the stories. Taking that option off the table, the next book in the list was Miss Nelson is Missing!, and I quickly realized it should have had the top spot all along. For a recommended reading audience of four to seven-year-olds, this book is absolutely terrifying. The students treated their teacher Miss Nelson terribly, and then all of a sudden she's gone; replaced by the repugnant Viola Swamp, who terrorized her captive students into submission. The kids go to the police, but the detective assigned to the case turns out to be a total clod. Then the kids start speculating about how Miss Nelson could have died, and one of them thinks she may have been tattered to bloody ribbons by a shark. Before long, it's revealed that Miss Nelson was masquerading as Viola Swamp in order to get her class to behave, but she never tells the kids that, because that would ruin the haunting effect it had on them. In a nutshell, we have a story where a woman pulls a Gone Girl on her own students, kids learn their local police department can't help them in an emergency, discussion about adults being eaten alive by animals, a "substitute teacher" using Abu Ghraib-esque tactics to churn better behavior and grades out of her classroom -- and this is a book recommended for children between the ages of four and seven. I read this as a five-year-old, and I slept with the lights on that night. What I learned shortly after was that I enjoyed being scared by books, and my tissue thin Troll book order catalogs were scoured for the greatest in YA literature, like Bunnicula, by Deborah and James Howe, and My Teacher is an Alien, by Bruce Coville."
My first question has to do with something you wrote in the acknowledgements. You describe this book as a “male memoir.” What is that?
Well, it’s funny. When I was first putting the book together, I was talking to some literary agent friends of mine. And they were telling me that male memoirs weren’t very hot right now.
But what do they mean by that?
A memoir made by a man.
Nothing to do with the content?
Just a guy’s perspective on his own life. That was a huge issue, and that’s why I decided to self-publish at the end of the day. Everyone was telling me male memoirs were just a shot in the dark.
As opposed to “female memoirs”?
Had I been a woman, maybe it would’ve been a different story. It might have been a little more scandalous for these people, I don’t know, but that’s the feedback I got.
And in any event, you went ahead and self-published—on Amazon, correct?
Yes, on CreateSpace.
And you write about your childhood. What do you find so inspiring about your own childhood?
What would be inspiring about my childhood is that I escaped it intact—somewhat. I think everyone kind of looks back at their childhood with rose-colored lenses, and I certainly do, to some degree, but I mean, there was also a lot of hardship and everything that molded me into the person I am today. So being able to write about that from an older perspective and knowing that I came out okay was the biggest reason why I wrote the book.
Yeah, you’re doing okay for yourself now, you work in social media, but at times in your childhood, things were not great for you and your sister and your mom—your mom was a single mom—and I mean you were flat out broke at times.
Absolutely, yeah. We grew up in Portsmouth, on Broad Street. You know, my mom was able to rent a house for my sister and I. My father was out of the picture at that point. She was struggling as a social worker. And we were, yeah, barely paying the bills at that point in time. And Portsmouth at that time was not the bougie, eclectic social Mecca that it is today. It was, you know, a little more rough around the edges.
We’re talking about the 1990s?
Yeah, right around the time when the Shipyard was about to close, if not already closed. So a lot of people were in fear about what to do for work. A lot of people were taking off from the Seacoast at that time.
And for you as a kid growing up in that environment, with your mother so busy, working as a social worker, you were able to sort of disappear—go off and do what you needed to do as a young boy, explore the world.
I was, and I was able…I mean, I spent a lot of time by myself. My sister was a few years older, and she was doing a lot of stuff on her own. So it was me, just gallivanting around my neighborhood and in town and becoming a little bit introverted because I was by myself a lot.
Yeah, you know, it’s funny. I’m kinda complex that way. So, yeah, I spent a lot of time diving into books and kind of getting really involved in creative stuff like art and whatnot.
And you describe in the book that you didn’t really enjoy writing as a kid, but you seem to now. What’s it like revisiting all these things in your childhood as an adult? Is it painful?
When I’m revisiting something new that I haven’t touched on yet in my writing, it is painful. And I think that’s a good thing, because I’m learning lessons about myself as I’m kind of writing and processing through this old, old pain, you know, sadness—stuff that I might not have processed the same way as a child.
I felt like—and maybe it’s because we’re pretty close in age, and we’re both men, so we like male memoirs—
--according to literary agents, I guess. But I mean, I remember times in my old childhood when I’d hop on my bike and hang out with friends and I’d meet weird people on the street, as you did, so those parts felt very real to me. I can’t say I did as much underage drinking as you did.
Yeah, we were busy in that department.
Yeah. I related to a lot of it, but some of it I had trouble relating to, and the parts of it I had more trouble relating to were the more extreme elements of the behavior you were engaged in. For example, when you dressed up as someone with Down Syndrome for Halloween. That was tough.
It was special needs. We didn’t actually pick a certain disability to go with, but yeah, it was a time in my life when I was scrambling for attention and garnering it any way possible, and at the time I thought it was just a brilliant idea, and as it turns out, as you read in the book, that it’s not so much a great idea.
Do you regret that?
Oh yeah, it’s right in the chapter. I am absolutely miserable at the time, while I’m doing it, going out in Halloween dressed like this. I’m looking at myself and I’m really disgusted with myself for making that decision. And I was in my early twenties, and I have yet to meet a man in his early twenties that has it all together. And I certainly didn’t, and this is one of those stories that kind of illustrates, you know, that fact.
And it makes sense that you would call this book a “confession.”
Yes, I definitely did. As we were putting all the stories together, I’m looking at all the stories and what the subject matter is, and I was like, wow, this is more like I’m interrogating myself than it is, you know, this is a heart-felt casual glance through my life. I’m laying it all out there, almost under duress.
What do you mean by duress?
I go into detail about how regretful I am about some of the things I’ve done, and it’s almost like, as I’m reading through the chapter, I find myself reflecting back on myself and thinking, “Man, that’s a really bad decision.” And you can see me sort of start putting the pieces together that became my adult consciousness where I don’t make those decisions anymore, but you can see me kind of forcibly sweating and embarrassed at the end of some of these stories for the things I’m in the middle of doing or had just finished doing. And that’s what I mean by being “under duress”—I’m being forced to make the decisions that turn you into a responsible adult later on.