14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on January 26, 2011
Ah, the 1970s! That glorious time before seat belt laws and bicycle helmets. In the 1970s we stayed out, unsupervised in our neighborhoods, past dark and ate sugary cereals every day for breakfast. We wore knee socks and rainbow shirts. And then came the boom of the '80s. America was rich and powerful, and we all felt the same way. The music was happy and the television decadent. But of course, growing up in the '70s and '80s wasn't always so wonderful. Even as the country prospered and we partied at discos, families were struggling in ways they always have: with anxiety, frustration and misunderstandings threatening to bury the love.
In her new memoir, DISASTER PREPAREDNESS, Heather Havrilesky examines family life against the cultural backdrop of the late '70s and the '80s in suburban America. There is both the self-created, internal disasters of a young woman coming of age and the painful disasters of a family breaking apart. All of it is written in a compelling and provocative way.
DISASTER PREPAREDNESS is more precisely a collection of 15 autobiographical essays than a chronological memoir. Each stands alone just fine, though altogether they paint an interesting and personal family portrait. In the first chapter, "Cousins," Havrilesky begins by recalling how she and her siblings made up an "alternative version" of the board game "Clue," where instead of trying to solve a murder they are trying to commit one. It is an odd but endearing picture of the children as they use pieces from the game "Sorry!" to act as witnesses to their crimes, creating a new set of rules for the macabre but funny version of the classic game.
But suddenly, readers are told, "around the same time my parents stopped making the slightest effort to hide their distaste for each other, we started taking long family vacations in the car each summer." This jarring switch in tone and topic is typical of the book, and though it sometimes feels frantic and unfinished because the segues are lacking, more often than not it serves Havrilesky well as she pulls readers in to the uncertainties and tensions of her family. When her parents finally do divorce, she begins to understand them as individuals, not just as two sides of a bad relationship. It is the moments when she examines her parents as people, apart from each other, that DISASTER PREPAREDNESS is at its best.
Havrilesky's mother was a faculty wife who married Havrilesky's mercurial father young. When Havrilesky was nine years old, her mother moved out of the family home into a studio apartment. The tale of the divorce is peppered with cultural nostalgia (the Bumble Bee brand tuna jingle, bookshelves lined with John Updike novels, etc.), but her levity cannot mask the seriousness of the subject. Again, it is her use of contrast that makes the book so interesting and occasionally frustrating. Her father, a bombastic and clever professor, often steals the show. And perhaps it is because, as we learn, he died of a heart attack at the young age of 56, that her focus on him is so raw, tender and forgiving. He is at once a bully and a hero in Havrilesky's honest and conflicted portrait. He, more than anyone, is the figure we want to know more about, to fully understand. But with his death, Havrilesky and her readers must attempt to understand him only through the deeds and words already done.
As the book progresses, it moves closer and closer to the image of her father Havrilesky is wrestling with, and that is its most compelling element. Despite all the other themes --- religion, sibling relationships, the break-up of marriages, and the forging of adolescent identity --- it's the examination of the father-daughter relationship that makes DISASTER PREPAREDNESS worth reading. It's also the poignancy of Havrilesky's memoir that makes you wish it was all pulled together just a bit tighter.
--- Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman
14 of 17 people found the following review helpful
Heather Havrilesky's memoir of growing up in the 70s and 80s is a delight. Is it screamingly funny? Not, not really. But it is poignant, witty, real, topical, touching, reflective, insolent, feisty, and utterly like life.
Each chapter, arranged quasi-chronologically, could stand alone as a general look at one phase of life: childhood, dealing with intra-family squabbles, the tension and divorce of her parents, trying out for cheerleading, who you pick and who picks you as friends, losing one's virginity, the death of a parent, finding love at last, and just discarding fairy tales and coming to terms with what real life is - everything is here. It's told against a soundtrack of 80s music, high school rivalries, a rotating cast of ever younger girlfriends entertained by her father, etc.
Havrilensky's writing style brings all of these inherently tense and anxiety-fraught situations home with honesty, clear vision, a knack for the ironic and the sardonic, and something of a gimlet eye towards life. The funny and the weird, bad jobs, loser boyfriends, vignettes of childhood - she remembers it all, and the reader will recognize his or her own stories in the mix as well.
It's good stuff.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
Heather Havrilesky is a typical child of the 70s, worried about the Shah in Iran, World War III, and her parents' rocky marriage. The only problem is, she doesn't have any adults around to help her gain a sense of equilibrium and safety. In fact, most of the grownups in her life -- including her Catholic teachers and her parents -- seem to enjoy making dire predictions of their own. As a result, Havrilesky grows up with a feeling of impending doom awaiting her around every corner. Whether it's a crazed hippie river guide or a house fire, Havrilesky spends her days coming up with ways to deal with the inevitable disaster awaiting her.
This book is a collection of essays, starting with her early days and coming forward into adulthood. Her earlier memories are humorous, yes, but blackly so, with an undercurrent of fear and uncertainty. But as she matures, she seems to grow stronger, and her essays about her adult years are threaded with an inner strength and confidence that gives me hope that she will, indeed be able to survive, despite the inevitable challenges we all face.
6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on December 19, 2010
Ms. Havrilesky is a sharply hilarious writer who turns a clear and ultimately forgiving eye on the war zone of her childhood and the woman who emerged from it. Each chapter functions alone, but relates to the others. The story of her parents' divorce provides background for a description of how an ill-timed loss of virginity eroded not just her self-esteem but her ability to bond with friends. And both of those chapters are better explained by a chapter that discusses the impact of her troubled and charismatic father on her entire life. But each chapter stands alone as a thoughtful, bitterly funny take on life, survival and growth.
As she struggles through her own layers of damage and compensation, she delivers paragraphs like these:
But was my personality as a child--honest, open, full of wonder, prone to weeping at the slightest provocation--somehow more authentic than the pessimistic, spiteful cad I'd become? Was it really fair to claim innocence and purity as my true self, or to throw away years of meticulously constructed defense mechanisms, many of them awesomely complex and imaginatively designed, the psychological equivalent of the internal-combustion engine?
For me, that's just about a perfect paragraph, and it should tell you if Havrilesky's style appeals to you. This is definitely a memoir of overcoming, but it is not a memoir about the attainment of spiritual or emotional perfection. If your taste runs to "Half Empty" or "This Boy's Life," you will be mighty pleased with "Disaster Preparedness."
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
It's a commonplace that the literary world is now littered with way too many memoirs, and it's difficult to find one distinctive enough to reward the time we must take away from other pursuits. I liked Heather Havrilesky's TV reviews in Salon, where she was witty and perceptive and a bit off-beat, but what works in a short magazine piece doesn't necessarily carry through a longer work. While the writing is often amusing, the experience isn't particularly deep or daring, and doesn't really rise above situation comedy. The angst in this memoir falls largely in the realm of "first world problems."
6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
Disaster Preparedness is a memoir structured of loosely connecting stories along an equally unstructured timeline. The early chapters focus on the writer's unconventional childhood and search for resilience during the breakdown of her parent's marriage.
There are many funny family situations, including a family road trip where her mother refuses to get back into the car and her father's attempt to teach his children to emulate Muhammad Ali. Interspersed with family life are the author's school experiences, including encounters with bullies, cheerleading, and finding friends.
The stories mature with the author, following her way into college, jobs, and relationships while still dealing with her divorced parents and terminally ill grandmother. After some missteps, the author marries, starts a family, and grapples with the death of her father.
Disaster Preparedness is a smooth mix of family craziness and frustration, based on a strong foundation of understanding, empathy, and love. I admire how Heather Havrilesky was able to write wry, amusing stories about her family, friends, and herself without ever resorting to meanness or ridicule. I recommend Disaster Preparedness to anyone that enjoys humorous memoirs or has a family!
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Heather Havrilevsky's writing is accomplished, evocative and honest; it can also be a bit self-absorbed. This book is quirky and often endearing. Still, I don't think I'd recommend it(I really struggled between 3 and 4 stars). Early on, Havrilesky says she doesn't want to portray herself as a victim - the classic warning signal that someone's about to tell us about her victimhood. And tell us she does...at length. Self-disclosure is important for a writer but honestly, I don't need to know that much about ANYONE's therapy sessions. Written by a reclusive genius whose work I'd always admired, a sentence like, "...I would emerge [from therapy] with a more genuine flavor of confidence, a far cry from the hollow swagger I'd adopted out of desperation, under the bewildering circumstances of my emotionally unpredictable household" would have been fascinating. From a writer whose work is new to me, tales of unsupportive parents, unspectacular boyfriends, and the stress of parenting two small children without central air conditioning didn't elicit all that much empathy. The story was just too mundane to be worthy of the truly excellent writing. Havrilevsky alludes to depressive episodes, and it is fascinating to watch a self-aware, talented mind struggle with an innate inclination to interpret life negatively. She comes off as an intelligent, likable person who wants to encourage other frazzled woman to accept themselves, but I'm not sure this book does that. It was a bit like listening to a good friend vent after a bad day, but without the margaritas.
18 of 26 people found the following review helpful
When reading a memoir by someone who's still fairly young and hasn't set the world on fire, the obvious question arises: Why did someone think their story was worth telling enough to publish? Perhaps they have a child with special needs, or they've battled bulimia, or they've climbed Mount Everest with only a cat for a companion. In any of these cases, the "hook" is solid enough to interest a wider audience. It doesn't make a true story automatically interesting for the author to have some kind of problem to overcome or battle to win, but it helps. Of course, you also need a writing style that either piques the reader's interest or at least, doesn't get in the way of the narrative. Both are easier said than done.
"Disaster Preparedness" relates blogger/writer Heather Havrilesky's youth in the seventies and eighties, with a few final scenes in the present, when she's become a wife and mother herself. It starts out promisingly, as she describes her somewhat "dysfunctional" family, but states that her purpose is not to come off as a victim. Very admirable. She also describes in hilarious detail, the fearmongering of a grade school teacher who invents crises to horrify her class when real life happens to fail her. Her subsequent adventures are often engaging and well written. She makes insightful parallels between the past and the present.
So then why the low rating?
There's not enough material. Or rather her experiences are simply not intriguing enough to stand on their own. Though this takes place in the seventies and eighties, there are too few details supplied that remind the reader of this. Many chapters could be anyone's youth. The author establishes the kind of atmosphere kids back then experienced, but she doesn't manage to sustain it. Her problems and fears are believable, but there's no one major issue for the book to shape itself around and provide a satisfying conclusion.
Also, the author states that some of the characters' names and personal details have been changed for privacy reasons. This is fair, yet this also seems to apply to her family. And while nothing is wrong with giving your family privacy, it doesn't make for a very intriguing memoir. Out of all her family, I only felt I got to know her mom, and even then, not that well. If you read the book, the reasons for this are clear, but again, it doesn't make for a very absorbing book.
Sometimes reviewers who don't shower a book with praise get accused of having personal vendettas against the author or being part of a nefarious conspiracy. Neither is true here. I'm sure the author is a perfectly nice person, and I've enjoyed her writing on Salon.com. I just don't think there was enough material for a memoir, at least not that she was willing to publicly share.
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
The problem with seeing everything through the filter of "Disaster Preparedness," is that disaster follows. (You know, build the field and "they" will come?) This makes for a depressed tone in your writing
and a skewed vision that diminishes your wisdom. Thus does Heather Havrilesky shoot herself in her proverbial foot by her single-minded, depth-lacking point of view.
However, many of her stories are fun to read and her writing, while somewhat repetitive, tends to be very good. (An aside: why is it that so many critics and reviewers these days comment that the author needed a good editor? And yet every book seems to have a line in it which praises to the skies "my brilliant editor"? Just a thought.)
Here is Havrilesky reminding us of those torturous family trips:
"After a week or so on the road together, the cranks and pulleys of our already creaky machine ground to a halt. All of the unspoken resentments and nagging hurts we'd accumulated over the years would lodge in the gears, throwing sparks and smoke." Sound familiar? And that's the problem. Is this her life or ours? What makes hers different?
I'm not sure what tone the author is going for, but it's not upbeat, nor complaining, neither bright-eyed innocent nor angry. Perhaps she needs to do more aging, more processing. She hits most of the
"growing up" cliches with little newness to the experience. As the book now stands, it is not as individualistic, or personal as it needs to be. But nonetheless, you will recognize parts of your own childhood in it and if you are a laid-back sophisticated cynic, you may well be beguiled enough by the writing to enjoy the tale.
5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
I agree with the other reviewer who said Disaster Preparedness doesn't offer enough story to make a good memoir. It starts off slow for the first few chapters, picks up in the middle, and the last few chapters fail completely.
Heather Havrilesky grew up in the 70's - 80's and led a safe, average life. She had typical low self-esteem and changed friendships throughout school. Some of the better chapters, in my opinion, focused on the junior high/high school period of her growth. Some parts were quite amusing.
The book focuses on many things, and nothing in particular. We learn about her parents and their eventual divorce, and the author devotes an entire chapter near the end to losing her dad, and how painful it was to lose him at the young age of 54. She has siblings, but we don't hear much about them. Havrilesky devoted portions of the book to friendships she had while in junior high, and people she dated in college, and some of those passages were funny. But near the end of the book, when she is married and has two daughters, there's very little meat. It's obvious she is trying to finish the book and has no plan; the last several chapters ramble on about this and that, and the final chapter is just one long unconvincing rant.
I read the book, beginning to end, one or two chapters at a time, each night at bedtime and it was enjoyable enough. Funny in places, but overall, not very memorable.