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Book Review: This is How

Augusten Burroughs is back with a new book after four years of soul searching

Photos courtesy of St. Martin's Press; Christopher Schelling

May 3, 2012 | 12:00 a.m. CST

Augusten Burroughs has an uncanny ability to put to words the sometimes pathetic ways people live and feel. His writing style is remarkably introspective. He is blunt, relatable, heartbreaking and hilarious. He translates his thoughts to words in a way others envy; that is, those who cannot so clearly express their pain or excitement.

Fans are excited for his new book, This is How, a kind of parody of self-help, which will be released May 8 and has already received a glowing review from Publishers Weekly and was featured on Goodreads’ list of Most Anticipated Reads for 2012.

People like Burroughs because there is something comforting about his troubling past. Those who have suffered from childhood trauma, depression, addiction or even just a relationship that ends in disappointment can relate, at least in part, to the darkness in Burroughs’ mind and text.

Primarily a memoirist, Burroughs’ most popular book is Running With Scissors, which was made into a movie starring Annette Bening and Alec Baldwin in 2006. It follows Burroughs’ childhood and adolescence after his mother abandoned him at her therapist’s home, which ended up being just as harmfully unorthodox as his mother’s. The story of his unusual and jarring childhood and the insight into his own internal dialogue at the time was the first in a string of memoirs.

With chapter names such as “How to Fail” and “How to be Fat,” Burroughs offers readers some unlikely advice in his latest book, the first after a four-year-long-soul-searching mission. He writes about how he screwed up his life, which is why he feels “equipped to write this book and tell you how to live.”

Another chapter, “How to End Your Life” is graphic and unpredictable. He shares his own suicidal experience as a teenager when he realized mid-act that he didn’t really want to kill himself but instead start a new one. Instead of glamorously (his words) bleeding out in the bathtub like he fantasized, he decided that to save his life, he’d have to start all over. So, he changed his name from Chris Robison to Augusten Burroughs and moved to Manhattan.

Reading anything from Burroughs feels like going into the attic, finding something dirty and shameful locked away in a trunk and then polishing it and displaying it downstairs where someone can admire it.

Fittingly, This is How is difficult to categorize. His experiences and self-deprecating insights make up short chapters of half-serious advice written almost in a protective tone that is from one nut job to the other. This book is different. His previous memoirs describe a man with no answers, just astute observations about those around him. This is How seems to be a symbol of the culmination of knowledge that comes from an individual’s incredibly strange life and struggle with mental illness.

Burroughs turns the self-help genre upside down in This is How. It will take readers to a reflective place, full of “A-ha” moments and laughter, but also to a place of visceral uneasiness. He knows us — the thoughts of other people — too well.

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