Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Book Review: How To Be Happy: A Memoir of Love, Sex, and Teenage Confusion

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Rating: 4/5 

I received a digital copy of this book through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Happiness is complicated. For some, it comes easy, almost naturally. For many others, it's something they spend their whole lives chasing after, struggling to obtain. And happiness is never truly constant.  It can come and fade through different stages in our lives. In his book How To Be Happy, David Burton shows how sometimes it takes living through many moments of unhappiness first before ultimately getting to a place of happiness. As he takes the reader through his life, he reveals the many obstacles he has faced, from finding his place in high school to the challenges of growing up with two brothers with Asperger's to exploring his sexuality and more. Through his ups and his downs, Burton tells it all so candidly yet also with some humor mixed in, making him a truly gifted storyteller. 

I really enjoyed reading this book. As someone who has struggled with my own happiness in my life, and who also deeply enjoys personal stories, I was really interested in reading David's book. Sure enough, his story immediately drew me in as he dove into different stories through his high school years and introduced me to the various people who came into his life, from a cheese-loving, socially awkward nerd to a teacher who would come to be his mentor for years to come. With this, I also appreciated the fact that there was a lot of subject matter that David confronted head-on as he narrated through the different phases of his life, mostly in terms of gender and sexuality, and wrestling with how those both fit with his own identity.  Throughout the book, David questions whether he may be gay, and what that would mean if he was. Did that mean he had to suddenly be flamboyant, like all the gay people he saw in pop culture? When he had questions about sexuality, he would turn to porn, making sure that he masturbated right while also trying to grapple with wanting to be a family man yet seeing a completely different, sexually aggressive version of masculinity in mainstream heterosexual porn. There are many questions that he finds himself asking regarding his own identity, including what exactly his identity is and whether or not he should be filling a certain mold.

There were very few things I disliked about this book, but they were there nonetheless. One of these critiques relates to early on in the book when David delves into a friendship he had with a girl named Mary, who David later learned was self-harming. Mary had also developed a crush on David, and when David let her down gently, it's revealed that Mary had sometimes cut herself because of him. This moment in the story was actually very moving, as it was David's first real encounter with depression, manifested in a startlingly physical form. As signs of her self-harming became more and more evident, this caused him great stress as he tried his best to be there for his friend, until it became too much that he had no choice but to go to a school counselor and get Mary the help she needed. 

This wasn't what bothered me but it was later on in the story when David encounters another girl, Tiff, who also self-harmed. This was where David started to turn self-harm into light humor as he wrote, "What would happen if a girl said yes, and suddenly I was in a Tiff situation again? I would stuff it up and destroy the poor girl's heart. I felt as though I should come with a warning sign around my neck: 'Loving me will almost certainly result in wrist-cutting.' To me, this came across as pretty insensitive, and not only that but also carrying a sort of, I make every girl I meet want to kill herself...What a blow to my ego, har-har sort of vibe, which also isn't cool and is honestly really self-centered. Like, these girls are obviously going through a really hard period in their lives, yet you somehow spin it around to be about yourself and how, woe-as-you, you can't get a girlfriend? Hm...

The other critique I have about this book is a lot less harsh and more about my own questions that I have about David that I didn't feel were completely answered. A recurring theme throughout David's book is his questioning his own sexuality and whether he may be gay. He even comes out to his parents and friends. Yet as his story goes on, he continues to obsess over the hype of being kissed and being in a relationship, which gets pretty old after a while. And while he experimented with being gay, it felt that he immediately just reverted back to his high school ways of wanting a girlfriend just for the sake of it. He would date a girl simply because she seemed cool and they got on well, not necessarily because he was in love with her or felt anything significant beyond that. And he questions this himself (just as much as I did) before ultimately deciding for himself that sexuality is fluid and can change over time. While I do get this, I still wasn't completely convinced, nor did I feel he was truly convincing himself. Even by the end, he never fully confronts this question, and it's sort of just left up in the air. I know this is more on me and my own personal hopes and that this question doesn't necessarily need to be answered, but I personally think it would've added a lot to have David at least address this one final time by the book's end.
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All in all, I really enjoyed David's book. I felt privileged that he took me through his life--his ups and his downs, his insecurities, and his many questions as he navigated through different phases and identities. Unlike what the title suggests, this book is not a quick path to finding happiness. On the contrary, what David's book illustrates is that finding happiness is a lifelong journey. I loved the way that David told his story from beginning to end. His voice is so strong and commands all of your attention, whether his sentences are full of humor or weighty with seriousness. I commend him for opening up in this book to reveal the many struggles he's faced along the way, from sexuality to personal identity to finding his place and his purpose.

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