Snot. Prodigious amounts of snot, buckets of it, really. Honestly, I can’t ever remember needing to purchase an accessory for reading, but this book was different, and boxes of tissue – boxes, not one box, were de rigueur. Members of my family could tell where I had been reading. No matter the location, bed, chair, or sofa, living room or family room, many telltale piles of used, crumpled up tissues would start springing up, like little mountains of white fluffy muck. It was unprecedented. All from reading a book – all from reading this particular book.
At this point you are confused, aren’t you? You look down and to the right, and you see an image of a book with the word, well, an approximation of the word sh!t in it. Then the opening paragraph is all about snot. What the h-e-double hockey sticks is going on?! This is a faith inspired blog, isn’t it? Well, the Catholic faith is deeply incarnational, meaning things like sh!t and snot are unavoidable. Sorry. Tune out if you wish, but take note – you will be missing out if you do. And who wants to miss out on sh!t like this?
Figuring Sh!t Out: Love, Laughter, Suicide, and Survival, by Amy Biancolli (Behler Publications, 245 pp, $15.95, also available on Kindle) is a highly unusual book. You’ve got to figure that a book title that not only includes the aforementioned sh!t, but also suicide, is going to be… well, different. It is different – in the very best sort of way. Well, the best sort of way considering that suicide is sadly part of it.
So back to the snot, which actually goes with the sh!t. This book elicited two nearly immediate reactions in me as I read along. Either I was crying my eyes out, which left my face red and puffy, and leaving puffy pink orbs where those eyes were supposed to be – or I was laughing. And when I say laughing, I don’t mean a mere chuckle or chortle, I am talking about deep-down-in-the-belly coughing-inducing laughter, the kind that brings on tears and a touch of asthma. Either way, this book turned out to be a royal snotfest of the highest order. And that, my friends, is indeed a compliment.
Why the laughing and the crying? Let’s start with the word suicide, in the book’s subtitle. The author’s husband, now of blessed memory, one Christopher Ringwald made a fateful decision. You see, he woke up one day, left the house, and decided to step off of a local parking garage – resulting in his own death. This act left Biancolli with her three children, a sh!tload of grief, (sorry, but how else could you describe it?) and the need to keep on living. And there would be only one path to living… and that would be to figure sh!t out.
The book chronicles that very figuring. From the most immediately pressing, from telling her eldest daughter, who was in Ecuador, what happened and arranging for her to come home, to buying a jar for Chris’ cremated remains, and working with the funeral director – who was not crazy about her jar choice. And then then there is everything else. And that everything is a lot. It is in fact, a major sh!tload of a lot.
Deftly weaving her way between grief, joy, and the impetus of her own life that causes her to press on, Biancolli’s words flow in a seemingly effortless way across the page. Just as your eyes and mind – plus your heart – will flow with them as you read it. For example, after shopping with friends and buying a jar for Chris at Pier One, Biancolli writes:
“In the parking lot, we laugh and hug and go our separate ways, and I head home with the jar on the floor behind me. Already, I’ve lived two days my husband didn’t, laughed at jokes he never heard, made decisions without his input. This makes no sense. It never will. And yet, I know to my cores, with the irrational cellular conviction of a living organism at loose in the world, that I can and will and must propel inexorably forward.”
No matter how deeply awash in her sorrow the author wields her trusty sense of humor and irony like a shield. That shield, and an enduring sense of love, passion, and a gift for the appreciation for the absurd. And most importantly, her kids – she never forgets how important it is to stay alive, for her children.
Naked, raw, and unsparing in its fierceness, this book, like her life, does – to use Biancolli’s own words, “propel inexorably forward.” She writes powerfully about her history, already marked with death and suicide, about her family, both by blood and by choice. We read about how she meets her husband, how they court, and the family they have, the life they live.
She never leaves out the hard parts, which reminds me of how life is big snotball of joy, grief, relief, guilt, love, sorrow, and happiness. In fact, the reminder that the good and the not-so-good are all parts of a recipe for living large is clearly stated. If we try to ignore the not-so-tasty bits the goodness can never be savored, and this is made clear over and over again.
Full of tart and NSFW language, Biancolli’s style of writing possesses an immediacy and freshness that is hard to resist. Well, it was hard for me to resist. More often than not, I felt like I was reading a letter from a dear friend – albeit one I have never met.
Along those lines, in full disclosure, while we live probably no more than 10 miles apart, I have never met Amy Biancolli, unless you count Facebook. That said, her husband Christopher Ringwald, who I only met a handful of times, was a great source of encouragement of my work as a writer. And now she herself becomes an encourager, encouraging me to live, and I think you may feel the same way.
When I think of Amy I am reminded of images found in the aftermath of a devastating forest fire. No matter what, it seems some green sprouts persistently push their way up out of the literally scorched earth. Here is a woman dealt a severe blow, with all the devastation of her own personal forest fire, the one in her heart. Yet she finds her way, persistently pushing new life into the devastated areas. Plus she is hysterically funny, and then she writes about it.
I’m talking in circles at this point, so before I sound like I am full of sh… well, you know, let me draw to a close. It is my hope that you do a few things after you read this review. Go buy a book, buy many boxes of tissues to go with it. You might also want to start reading Amy’s hilarious blog, with the same title as the book. And then prepare to cheer Amy on, because she has figured more than a little sh!t out.
Ok, dear heart, so now I’m just going to direct everyone to your review because I will NEVER be able to write anything this wonderful about Amy’s new book. My copy arrives Friday, so I’ll plan to spend next weekend sinking in a sea of snot generated by sobbing. And the laughter? Counting on it. I laugh-snort my way through many of her blog posts.
As for you, fine writing in this post/review. And I’ll be forever grateful that you called me when Chris died. I think about him often with great affection and sadness. His book, A Day Apart, is within sight line of my desk. I’m trusting that he is finally resting in peace.
OK, Fran, I ordered it on Kindle. Not sure I can read it, but your review is fabulous so I’ll give it a try.
Robin, I am not sure how this will be for you… Your experiences and Amy’s are so different. But it might be worth a try. The book made a huge impression on me, as you can tell – and I truly was laughing and crying in powerful and equal measure.
I liked your comment regarding that “SHIT & SNOT are incarnational”. It reminds me of a conversation I had with my pastor when I was in my 20’s. We were discussing how the saints could help us today, when most of their lives (or at least their writing) was spent in the loftier reflections of God. I remember that he brought up the life of Julian of Norwich, an anchorite of the early centuries of Christianity. He discussed (in rather graphic terms) how Julian praised God for even allowing her to “… take a crap!” This was an “awe-haw” moment for me in that it made me for the first time realize all that we are and do begins with & hopefully continues & ends with God. The things (SHIT or SNOT) sometimes has a clouded meaning until later reflection… sometimes with a more enlightened friend or mentor, or sage.
Peace and All Good,
bro. Augustine Rohde, OFM Cap.
Bro. Augustine, thank you for reading and commenting! And I will definitely show the author of your book the comment. Without the incarnational we are nothing… And I should note a funny coincidence is that I had a similar conversation with someone about Julian of Norwich last week! God is so good, and quite crafty, too!