Life is a Circus Run by a Platypus by Allison Hawn

platypusHere is an interesting book that I both loved and hated—and now that I’m finished with it I really couldn’t tell you how I felt about it overall.  So let me attempt to parse through it.

The Concept:  B-
Basically, it’s a collection of short stories.  They purport to be based on the Allison Hawn’s own experiences, but I think it’s safe to say that they’re somewhat exaggerated.  Not the fisherman’s tale kind of exaggeration, though.  It’s more the kind of hyperbole you use when you tell a friend about a hilarious incident at work and you feel the need to embellish the details for the sake of a good story…and just in case the truth isn’t as funny to everyone else as it is to you.  But it really doesn’t matter whether these often outlandish tales are true or not, because they’re short, they’re amusing, and they always end with a handy little moral-of-the-story section.  This conclusion is often introduced with a variably clever riff on “what can we learn from this?”  One of my favorites was:  “What kernels of knowledge can be picked from the cob of my experience?”

It’s kind of a cute format for a short story collection, and some of the funniest little truisms emerge in these kernels of knowledge, such as:  “Even the simplest task can turn into a fireball” and “If the soup tastes funny, it is appropriate to ask in which decade it was made.”

The Execution:  C-
The same format kind of dragged after a while:  Introductory background information, followed by the setup, followed by the crux of the wacky hijinks, followed by the usually tongue-in-cheek moral of the story.  There are forty-one of these.  Individually, probably all of them are funny as hell, but the rhythm gets to be monotonous.  At least the author does the reader a courtesy by jumping around a lot—there are several stories about her work with the homeless in her city, for example, but they’re scattered throughout the pages of her book, lest any one of us gets bogged down by too much Spokane.

The relentless structure to these vignettes made it difficult for me to stomach reading the book in large chunks.  But I guess, overall, it served to—and I say this with utmost respect—make this book a truly outstanding bathroom read.  The stories are short and designed to be standalone, so you can pick this up at any time and after any length of absence and not have to backtrack thirty pages until you remember what’s going on.  It’s instantly accessible and instantly entertaining.

The Writer’s Voice:  B-
This was initially a huge problem for me.  Half a dozen stories in, I started to get really really frustrated with Ms. Hawn’s narrow source material for her metaphors.  It felt like every story was basically coming down to this:

And there I was, as embarrassed as a [insert physical handicap] [insert rodent] and struggling to get out of the situation with as much grace as a herd of drunken [insert animal with silly name] trying to operate a [insert complicated piece of machinery].

For the record, that is neither a direct quote, nor is it fair at all.  I’m exaggerating.  But a quick search of the ebook shows that, while there are only two uses of the word “drunken,” and they’re both on page 83.  There’s a reference to drunken Schnauzers driving dump drunks and a reference to Charlie Sheen being “about as insane as a troupe of drunken mimes.”  Mind you, the imagery is usually hilarious, but when you run out of silly-sounding animals and start reusing them, it may be time to add another alpaca to your herd of bizarre metaphors.  (That sounded weird coming from me.  I’m definitely not as gifted in this category as Ms. Hawn.)

But…what vexed me at the outset soon faded, and with the ludicrous mammalian similes reduced to non-toxic levels through the second half of the book, I found her writing much more enjoyable.  It had a bit of a Dave Barry feel to it.  I think maybe a redistribution of the book’s animal population would have solved my biggest problem with it.

The X-Factor:  A
When I was frustrated with the similes, I wanted to hate this book and I almost gave up on it.  Even after I calmed down and climbed off my high horse, I didn’t feel like I loved it.  But there’s something very sincere and engaging and funny about the writing that makes me feel like I liked it more than I thought I liked it.

Yeah, that doesn’t make a lot of sense.  I’m aware.  But it’s just that kind of book.  Whatever secret ingredient or extra pizzazz it needed in order to make things work it managed to get from…somewhere.  It’s a very light, very easy read and a couple of the crazier moments caught me off-guard enough to make me literally lol.

Let’s See if I Can Summarize Coherently
I rated it three stars on Amazon and Goodreads and while I’m writing this I’m considering going back and bumping it up to four.  Or maybe down to two. Or maybe back up to five.  I don’t know.  But anyway, the book is funny and charming and occasionally even wise, so it’s worth checking out.

What shavings of enlightenment can we sweep away from the mangled sculpture that is this review?

  1.  Allison Hawn’s book Life is a Circus Run by a Platypus certainly has a way of messing with my head.
  2. No, I cannot summarize coherently after all.  Well…maybe.
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