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A Single Year
by Sally Parsone

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By Dawn Mueller. $15.99; DM Publishing; 262 pages

Why do we read memoirs? To get the inside dish from a well-known personality ( Steven Tyler's newest, Judi Dench's, for example ) . Or to explore a landscape foreign to us, such as an insider's view of the food industry ( Medium Raw by Bourdain ) , or growing up in a nonconformist family of nomads ( The Glass Castle by Walls ) . To our surprise, we often learn something about ourselves as well. This is especially true when the author is describing his or her emotional and psychological terrain.

Dawn Mueller delivers, in A Single Year, on two of the above hooks. She's not a celebrity, but her struggle to understand her own sexual and intimacy needs makes a fascinating read. At times, it is touching, as when she reveals that, with each new woman she meets, if she can get that person to like her, maybe Mueller will begin to like herself again.

There's plenty of self-revelation for the reader to identify with—the need for someone to care about and love you, the need to love oneself, the need to " … find balance between running around like crazy and sitting comfortably in my own skin."

Mueller is someone many Windy City Times readers may have brushed shoulders with or actually know. She is a Chicagoan ( North Side ) and the year's journey she recounts ( circa 2005 ) takes place on the local scene, a bonus for the reader. In these pages, you will find her at Early to Bed and Cupid's Treasure, a Capricorn party, at Circuit, Sidetrack, T's, and a Mountain Moving concert, among other popular venues. While Mueller has changed the names of the people she encounters, you may still recognize some from the context.

There's Corbin, her confidante, who steadies her as she traverses her sexual/emotional terrain; Vann, with whom the sexual spark burns long and easy; Neal and Mimi, the couple with whom she forges an unbalanced sexual threesome; Jamie, the patient pursuer; and the ever-faithful Mousse, her chocolate lab retriever.

A Single Year recounts Mueller's sexual odyssey the year following the breakup of a nine-year relationship. Given that she's an alcoholic ( in recovery since July 1995 ) , this peek into her year is fraught with glimpses of awkward moments and avoidance of meetings with her AA mentor that depict the delicate balance recovering alcoholics struggle to maintain.

Mueller tries to spark her dormant passion to write by following the exercises in Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way. Alas, as she attests, the affirmations Cameron urges her readers to practice seem to stimulate in Mueller a desire to explore her sexuality more than to write. She checks out the ads in The Reader's X-Matches and—well, adventure ensues. One good thing, Mueller does faithfully journal everyday, providing her copious notes for this book.

Mueller is a rule breaker. As she prepares to meet her hookup couple for the first time, she wonders if the adventure is more about breaking rules than sex—her mom's rules, those of AA, society, and her own. Mueller has keen insights about herself, not that she necessarily changes any self-proclaimed troubling behavior immediately.

She gains confidence in herself through the triad she creates with Neal and Mimi and that's part of why she continues the association. She keeps going back "… at least until I can find another source to tap, or ( heaven forbid ) find a way to tap into myself." By the end of our ride with her, she's begun to do just that.

Mueller is an excellent writer. She describes her adventures in great detail and the reader witnesses the pain, rawness, loneliness and intimacy of her escapades with parts fascination, revulsion, and ( for this reader ) empathy. She also elicits a smile here and there when a turn of phrase brings out the humor with which she infuses some of her encounters.

Caution: Mueller portrays herself as an outsider. This means she's tough on the Chicago lesbian community at times. Humorously: "If you wrong the wrong person or someone finds out you've lied about your love for folk music, you're out." Resentfully: "The lesbian community here is very insular and closed. If you don't fit a certain number of requirements, you don't fit in. Period."

Even though this type of comment may raise hackles among some readers, there's still plenty of reason to read the book—a nostalgic romp through events and venues ( some no longer with us ) , sexual titillation, and following someone's struggle for identity. Most will still cheer her on because her journey is universal and we can learn from her experiences and insights. She is honest about herself and one has to admire her spunk.

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