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Twitter mom Kelly Oxford's essays full of wit and charm, but lack heart

Kelly Oxford

Handout/HarperCollins Canada

Everything Is Perfect When You’re a Liar
Kelly Oxford
HarperCollins Canada

Alberta-born writer Kelly Oxford generally causes people to fall into the two standard categories that emerge when evaluating funny, provocative women: those who are titillated and grateful for the coming of a new female clown Christ, a person to say all the things they're too afraid to utter aloud; and those who wonder whether she deserves her success, whether she deserves to be considered an artist at all.

The fact that she's gorgeous and gained popularity on the Internet – to the tune of a half-million Twitter followers – complicates things further. The fact that she honed her chops nearly every day in her 20s by blogging (while staying at home with her three young kids) but only broke as a "legitimate" writer when she was in her mid-30s adds a layer of punk-rock informality to the institutional success she's had in Hollywood as a film and television writer.

No matter which camp you fall into, Oxford's origin story is interesting, and her voice is strong, which is why she now has a memoir called Everything Is Perfect When You're A Liar.

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The book is a collection of vivid, glancing essays that track her life from childhood to motherhood in Calgary and, most recently, her move to California. Oxford has a knack for collapsing the space between self-mythology and self-deprecation, the two extremes required in writing humorous autobiography. Without the latter, you're an indulgent blowhard, but without the former, you're a sad sack with no authority. Oxford commits herself to the high-wire act, and comes out on the other side with some of the demented swagger of early David Sedaris.

Her childhood in 1980s Edmonton is recreated with preternatural awareness, plenty of hyperbole and lots of filthy little details. In the third essay of the collection, she describes the irrevocable effects of striking up a friendship with Kyla, the dangerous, weirdly mature kid we all had in our elementary school classrooms. Together, they sneak over to a neighbour's yard to get a glimpse of his small pet monkey that lives inside the house. They find him nude from the waist down, and rapturously fooling with himself.

Surprise monkey bits aside: Oxford's book is not for those who value a strong sense of propriety. She's a court jester: generously sacrificing herself on the altar of public humiliation for our amusement. At 14, she pees her pants while waiting in a gas station line to illegally buy a pack of smokes, then tries to convince the attendant she has a kidney condition.

She describes her first romantic encounter with her to-be husband, which begins with her getting a haircut that's too short and ends with her having sex with him in a park while being pummelled by rocks. There is a spectacular enema failure and a colourful obsession with how her stomach looks now that she's forced three children out of her body. (Answers: "A shrunken apple." And "Mickey Rooney's face.")

The stories are told with giddiness and charm, but throughout all the manic exposure, I found myself hungry for deeper revelations. She describes herself as a young adventurer, impulsive and outrageous and stoned, flying off to L.A. on a whim when she's in her late teens to try and find Leonardo DiCaprio. Then she's suddenly a young mother whose writer's dream is temporarily supplanted by raising kids.

And then, more than a decade later, she's a glamorous celebrity who is being flown to Las Vegas by David Copperfield to see his show and meet his trained macaws. Those are fascinating transitions that wouldn't have come to pass without Oxford's tenacity and a bit of Internet-incited star-alignment. I would have liked to hear her ruminate on that, to put those turns into context. It was as though the heart of that story was being withheld.

There is no correct way to tell your own story, no formula that can be applied to ascertain what you put in and what you leave out. What this book does well is what the title indicates: It translates the self-conscious nature of social media and applies it to the realm of memoir. The hundreds of thousands of Oxford fans out there will not be disappointed by her first book, and the skeptics who doubt that a Twitter celebrity can make a worthy literary artifact should feel adequately chastened.

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Kathryn Borel is the author of the memoir Corked. She lives in Los Angeles.

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