Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Sober Stick Figure: A Unique and Hilarious Story of Alcoholism and Recovery

(Note: This book review also appears on The Huffington Post Blog site under the same title.)

I'll be totally honest with you. Until a couple of weeks ago, I had no idea who Amber Tozer was. None whatsoever. Then one day on Twitter she tweeted to me and asked, "Would you be interested in reading my book maybe?" I clicked on the link she included in her tweet and it took me to the Amazon.com page for her book Sober Stick Figure: A Memoir.

There I found a picture of the book's bright yellow and blue cover, which included a rudimentary stick figure drawing of a woman passed out next to a bottle. It made me chuckle. Then I read the first part of the book's description and was intrigued.
Sober Stick Figure is a memoir from stand-up comedian Amber Tozer, chronicling her life as an alcoholic and her eventual recovery--starting with her first drink at the age of seven--all told with the help of childlike stick figures.
As a recovery advocate and blogger, I get a lot of requests from authors who want me to read and write about their books. Most of the time, I decline. But every once in a while, if the book seems interesting enough, I'll bite. This is one of those times I'm glad I did.

Sober Stick Figure is effing brilliant.

When the FedEx driver delivered my book, I eagerly ripped open the package it came in and thumbed through the book's pages. Oh. My. God. I was expecting a few stick figure drawings scattered throughout the text, but there were stick figure drawings on every page spread! They were crudely drawn and laugh-out-loud funny. All 269 of them (yes, I later counted the drawings).

Then I sat down with the book and started reading the text. By the time I finished reading the first four sentences, I knew this book was something special:
The first time I ever tasted alcohol was at my grandma Babe’s house. I was seven years old. My uncle Woody let me take a swig of his beer, and I thought it tasted like sour pee. I knew what pee tasted like because I was a fucked-up kid.
Sober Stick Figure is, as Amber Tozer describes it in the front matter, "a dark and funny story about alcoholism." It tells the story of how Tozer fell in love with alcohol, how it took over and complicated her life, and how she eventually came to realize that she had a problem before getting sober more than seven years ago.

Tozer shares hilarious stories and intimate--at times very intimate--details about her life, starting with her days growing up in Pueblo, Colorado, where she is surrounded by alcoholism, both within her family and at the bar/restaurant her mother owns. Working for her mother provides Tozer with security, but she wants more than that. She longs for opportunities and adventures, and that prompts her to make a life-changing solo move to New York City.

The Big Apple is the setting for numerous tales of job hunting, job hopping, love, lust, Tozer's entry into the world of comedy, and, of course, drinking. Lots and lots of drinking. And that drinking fuels some scary--and amusing--incidents.
I went on a six-month drinking binge that lead me to get blackout drunk every night. I don't remember much, but what I do remember is "waking up" also known as "coming to" in random places. One time I woke up on a train in Coney Island. The sun was coming up, and I was the only passenger. I was like, "Holy shit. I’ve always wanted to come here."
Later, Tozer moves to Los Angeles, where more craziness ensues.

Throughout her narrative, Tozer holds nothing back, always being as brutally honest as she can be. (How brutally honest? Five different stories about peeing in inappropriate places should give you some indication.) But that honesty brings humor along with it, too. Like when Tozer describes her fear with this comical analogy and drawing:
I was like a mouse in a factory that made big gigantic ceramic cats, nothing to be afraid of really, but it was still scary. 
Although this book is uproariously funny, it also contains some serious, thought-provoking messages. Like when Tozer declares, "Sobriety doesn't make you automatically smart; it teaches you painful lessons until you become less stupid." Or when she writes:
Alcoholism is such a baffling condition, and I'm sure it's even more confusing to people who aren't addicts. Normal people who say, "Stop drinking and stop using drugs. It's a choice and it's common sense." To you I say, "Ssshhh. You have no idea what you're talking about. Why don't you just enjoy your normal brain and logical reactions to life's troubles while we spin out of control until we find a solution that works for us."
I've read a lot of books about addiction, many of them memoirs. But Sober Stick Figure is in a league of its own. Amber Tozer has a knack for storytelling, and that makes this book very difficult to put down. Tozer's ability to write about her struggles in a self-deprecating and relatable way would make this book a winner even without the dark and childlike stick figure illustrations. But, damn…the drawings are amazing. And they make Sober Stick Figure truly unique.

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