Lawson (Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, 2012), “The Bloggess,” pokes fun at herself as she addresses the serious nature of her mental and physical illnesses.
“I’ve struggled with many forms of mental illness since I was a kid,” writes the author, “but clinical depression is a semi-regular visitor and anxiety disorder is my long-term abusive boyfriend.” Rather than hiding the facts, she openly divulges, in a darkly humorous way, how she copes with rheumatoid arthritis, depression, panic attacks, anxiety, and the days when she is driven to pull her hair out or cut herself. Along with discussions about taxidermic giraffes and raccoons, whether cats yawn, and mobs of swans attacking her, readers learn the particular ways Lawson has learned to cope with those moments that threaten to overwhelm her—e.g., readings that send her cowering behind the podium or fleeing to the bathroom, passing out during a gynecological exam because she’s afraid of medical coats, or trying to find a solution to her sleep problems by attending a sleep clinic. The details are sometimes graphic—“I always tell gynecologists that if I pass out when they’re in my vagina they should just take that opportunity to get everything out of the way while I’m out”—but always honest and usually funny. Lawson’s goal is not to offend, although that might happen to some readers, but to lay bare the truth about her struggles in life so that others can benefit. She does a solid job exposing the hidden nature of mental illness by putting a direct spotlight on her own issues, thereby illuminating an often taboo subject. Her amusing essays open up a not-so-funny topic: mental illness in its many guises.
Kudos to Lawson for being a flagrant and witty spokesperson for this dark subject matter.
A richly engaging graphic narrative about radio storytelling and storytelling in general.
Though drawing cartoons about radio would seem to be counterintuitive—exploring such an aural medium through visual means—Abel (La Perdida, 2006, etc.) shows what a complementary, multilayered relationship the two can have. This is a narrative about narrative—how it works and why—and the author is its narrator, so it provides insight into her work as well as that of Ira Glass and so many others involved in This American Life and other NPR storytelling programs. “Turns out, I need to read this book in order to write it,” she explains toward the end in an untitled epilogue that finds the artist alone in the wilderness, trying to find a path through the trees. “In the end, that’s kind of what happened. I wrote the book and read it, rewrote it and read it, and drew it and read it.” The results are rewarding for author and reader alike, as the latter will not only discover the keys to narrative radio (along with the laborious work, including months of planning and hours of taping), but also the keys to graphic narrative as well. All are not only “character-driven,” but “the characters change and they grow and they learn something new, and surprising.” “A bunch of anecdotes aren’t enough to make a powerful story,” shares one of the characters in Abel’s book, about the characters in one of the many radio stories illustrated here. “You need the person to undergo a change.” Glass, the primary character and narrator here, other than the author, insists, “radio is a very visual medium.” The illustrations of radio in action, the scenes behind the scenes, underscore that assertion.
A spirited work whose readership should not be limited to those who make radio narrative or love to listen to it.
A high-spirited graphic novel skewers the Twitterati.
Like Roz Chast, Marchetto is known for both her signature cartoons in the New Yorker—she's the one who does rich ladies in sunglasses—and for a deeply affecting graphic memoir (Cancer Vixen, 2006). Her new graphic novel tells the story of Ann Tenna, a shallow, mean-spirited, media-obsessed NYC gossip columnist, founder of a Gawker-like website called Eyemauler. She trash-talks live from Ann Cams embedded in her powder compact and in a baguette on her Fendi bag, and despite/because of how awful she is, she’s constantly beset by a crowd of sycophants: "Kiss! Kiss! Come to my club! There's a 24-carat rose gold jeroboam of pink champagne in the VIP room with your name on it!" After a near-fatal traffic accident, Ann ascends to the astral plane, where she meets Super Ann, her eternal self and spirit guide, who gives her "full body, mind and spiritual, mental, emotional and electromagnetical treatments designed to remove your earthly layers so you can see who you ideally are," and visits with Coco Chanel, Gianni Versace, Jimi Hendrix, and her dead mother. Ann is allowed to return to Earth in order to repudiate her evil media-mongering and become a "transmissionary" of the truth, but her drama draws her right back in. There's her two-faced little stepsister, Farrah, who speaks entirely in text message–ese, written in a phone-type font: "we're sooooo srry 2 hr ur nt doing 2 wll!!!" There's her sleazy celebrity photographer boyfriend, Declan Zimmerman, who is trailed by starlets begging to get "zimmed." There's her webmaster, Mirra, who grabbed the mike herself the minute Ann went down, and the evil media magnate Rolf Fanger, who bought Eyemauler from Ann and now is jockeying to edge her out. Will Ann come to her senses and save the world from its cellphones in time?
Zany with a touch of uplifting. You will be measurably hipper after reading it.
A Pakistani-born comic's account of how he sought salvation in stand-up comedy and then found a new home in Australia.
Growing up in Karachi, a city bloodied by political violence, Shah spent most of his youth “reading, drawing comic books and masturbating.” The first time he left Pakistan was in the late 1990s when he came to the United States to attend college, major in English, and dream of becoming “Pakistan’s answer to Stephen King.” Never especially religious, Shah became a practicing Muslim after 9/11. But when he returned home, he found that the Islam he believed was anything but a religion of peace and promptly turned atheist. “My life would have been a lot easier if I’d just gotten an earring and done some drugs,” he writes. After a stint in advertising that led him to “a deep existential crisis,” Shah found his way into journalism, a career he thought would help him make sense of the “bomb blasts, suicide attacks, gun fights [and] assassinations” that were part of daily life in Pakistan. Witnessing so much bloodshed had the added effect of eventually pushing the author into comedy. He joined an improvisational comedy troupe that earned a devoted following in Karachi and accolades at a Manchester theater festival. Shah later went on to produce, direct, and host a short-lived news satire show called News Weakly. After the show was cut, he left journalism and returned to advertising while continuing to hone his craft. Determined to find a better life, Shah and his wife moved to Australia. There, he not only found the freedom to practice his art, but also became part of the growing national debate about the place of political refugees in Australian society. The narrative is refreshing for its openness about religion, sexuality, and politics, topics that, for the most part, are taboo in the Islamic world. Honest and inspiring, Shah’s book is a reminder of how laughter is not only necessary, but also life-sustaining.
Irreverent, outspoken culture critic Wilson (Caligula for President: Better American Living Through Tyranny, 2008, etc.) charts the “discovery of my own fashion evolution” through an American road trip.
Armed with her unique talent for biting observational wizardry, the author embarked on a cross-country walkabout to gain new perspectives on fashion’s impact “with as little an impression as possible going in.” She approached this journey with the same modest naiveté as when perusing uptight Soho and Madison Avenue boutiques to offer an outsider’s perspective for the New York Times “Critical Shopper” column. Before decrypting the unique couture dress codes throughout America’s “belt regions” (Cotton, Rust, Bible, etc.), Wilson offers background on her formative years growing up in the 1970s on a houseboat in the Bay Area, where her artistic appreciation for the punk scene and the “magic of garments” was born. Fitted into her finest black, monotone clothing, Wilson’s first stops included Washington, D.C., where restrictive, formal business wear and “confrontational cleanliness” rules; high-end consignment shops in modestly draped Salt Lake City; and one of the author’s funniest inspections (aside from a piece relentlessly dehumanizing Los Angeles culture): the mini-monokini versus moneyed white-jeaned aesthetic of Miami Beach, where “the only good iguana is a pink belt.” Midway through, Wilson digresses to address the 2009 fiasco surrounding a painfully honest yet offensively inciting column she wrote criticizing a new J.C. Penney flagship store for manufacturing polyester clothing “five times larger than any large you’ve ever seen.” The article’s backlash seemingly fueled her anxiety about traipsing further into Midwestern states like Iowa and camouflage-heavy Kansas. Ultimately, there’s an undeniable sense that little falling outside of Wilson’s own gothic “crypto-sadist” uniform is deemed passable, with the remaining scraps merely fashion roadkill. Nevertheless, her deliciously snarky ode to American fashion is unceasingly entertaining.
Prime sartorial satire for fashionistas aching for a dose of comic relief. Few write as bitingly about pop culture as Wilson.
What happens when a book lover gets caught up in the tech world?
Alice Pearse is happy with her life as the part-time books editor at You, a glossy women’s magazine, which allows her to commute into Manhattan three days a week wearing semifashionable clothes and still have time to hang out with her kids, go to spin class, and grab coffee with friends. But when her husband, Nicholas, finds out he hasn’t made partner at his law firm—and cements his decision to leave by throwing a laptop across the conference room—she impetuously tells him she’ll get a full-time job. Luckily, she soon hears from Genevieve Andrews, a woman she follows on Twitter, who offers her a position at Scroll, a sort-of Amazon/Starbucks mashup that wants to revolutionize the world of bookselling. Egan’s voice is knowing and funny, and she has a great eye for the minutiae of the modern working mother’s life. Alice picks Legos off the floor, orders her kids’ class pictures, and calls in a renewal of her dog’s Prozac prescription: “His birthday? Honestly, I have no idea….He’s not my son! He’s my dog!” The scenes at the tech company aren’t as sharply satirical as Dave Eggers’ The Circle, but it’s fun to see Alice try to get a handle on the lingo—learning to schedule a 1-to-1 instead of a meeting, for instance—and keep up with the company’s shifting priorities. The book is brimming with relationships and subplots: Alice’s father is dying of cancer but finds time to nag her about her social media profile (“Why no cover photo on your [Facebook] timeline?”); her best friend, an independent bookstore owner, is struggling with her business; Nicholas is drinking too much while trying to get his solo practice off the ground. Egan, herself the books editor at Glamour, packs an incredible amount of humor, observation, and insight into her buoyant debut novel, a sort-of The Way We Live Now for 21st-century moms who grew up loving the bookish heroines of Anne of Green Gables and Betsy-Tacy.
Women may not be able to have it all, but this novel can.
Several years after the events of Keeping the Castle (2012), the Winthrop Hopkins Female Academy has opened in the rainy hamlet of Lesser Hoo. The school’s mission: to ready eight young ladies, ages 12 to 19, for the marriage market.
Given the remote location—coastal Yorkshire—potential grooms are in short supply (there’s one) until a presentable young man walking in the vicinity breaks his leg. Brought into the school to heal, he’s soon joined by friends. Rounding out the male prospects is a mysterious gentleman billeted at the local inn. Though all are single, the road to marital bliss is lined with potholes. Miss Asquith is attractive, delightful, and wealthy, but her father’s business, a low-status gin distillery, is likely to deter eligible mates. Down-to-earth Miss Pffolliott is vexed by a strange man claiming to be her devoted admirer. Closet scientist and would-be astronomer Miss Franklin pursues a man with his own telescope. Intricate subplots with exceptionally vivid characters (Crooked Castle residents among them) add to the fun. Historical novels attempting the Regency comedy of manners can read like leaden, uninspired fan fiction. This affectionate homage to the genre delivers what’s missing: a witty, intelligent plot whose characters—complex, conniving, hypocritical, and hilarious—seek happiness within an ordered world.
This airy soufflé of a tale, garnished with quirky charm, is an unmitigated delight from start to finish.
(Historical fiction. 12-18)
When a middle school teacher’s best friend dies in a one-car accident, her world begins to fall apart.
Isabel Applebaum Moore and Josie Abrams have been inseparable since Izzy’s first day at Rhodes Avenue Middle School, keeping each other sane through the principal’s inane speeches and the younger teachers’ aggressive perkiness—not to mention the students’ hormonal moods. Josie even married Mark, Izzy’s friend since kindergarten, where they were seated next to each other, “two little alphabetized Jews, dark haired and slightly lost in a forest of Midwestern consonant clusters, all those strapping, blond Schultzes and Metzgers and Hrubys and Przybylskis—strapping even in kindergarten, if memory serves.” What happens following Josie’s death isn’t all that unusual: Isabel starts spending most of her time in her ratty old sweatpants, “which Josie used to call a blend of cotton and self-loathing”; her overwhelming sadness deals the fatal blow to her already rocky marriage to the good-hearted Chris; her 11-year-old daughter, Hannah, who also loved Josie, struggles with her changing family; her mother, Helene, a Holocaust survivor, coaxes her into attending a support group for “relationships in transition,” where she tentatively bonds with a good-looking older man named Cal by cracking jokes—just the way she bonded with Josie at their first staff meeting at Rhodes Avenue. Josie pushes Chris away and tries to pull him closer; she does the same with Cal and even with her old friend Mark. She thinks back on her relationship with Josie and gradually reveals the secrets they shared. What makes the book so special is Isabel’s smart, acerbic voice and her way of seeing everything from a sharp angle. Fox (Friends Like Us, 2012, etc.) studs Izzy's narration with surprising metaphors, turning ordinary domestic items into dangerous beasts (“the herd of wild minivans”) and Josie’s fatal accident into something almost domestic (“Her rusty 11-year-old Toyota skidded off the slick road like a can of soup rolling across a supermarket aisle”). Isabel (and Fox) has such an offbeat way of looking at things that you’ll eagerly keep reading just to see what she’s going to say next.
Read it for the magnetic voice and Fox's ever interesting perspective on work, love, friendship, and parenthood—because, really, what else is there?
Kwan (Crazy Rich Asians,2013) returns with an equally good-natured, catty-as-hell sequel to his bestselling roman à clef about China’s new and old money dynasties.
For those not cued in, Kwan’s tone is breakneck and utterly disarming—part Oscar Wilde, part Judith Krantz, part Arthur Frommer—as he reintroduces his jet-setting ensemble of socialites and social climbers. They include: Nick and Rachel (star-crossed Asian-American lovers who are searching for her father while avoiding his meddlesome Singaporean mom); Mrs. Bernard Tai (aka Kitty Pong, former mainland soap-opera star, who must temper her nouveau urges if she hopes to impress members of Hong Kong’s exclusive dining clubs); Astrid Leong (married “beneath” her rank, wears off-the-rack dresses that, on her, pass for designer; her jewelry and class are the real deal, however); plus a circle of spoiled-rich 20-somethings who think they’re re-enacting TheFast and Furious. Whenever a character drops a salty Hokkien, Cantonese, or Mandarin phrase or an unfamiliar reference, Kwan translates in a wry footnote (a device he used to great effect in his previous book). Occasionally the sendups of squillionaire excess fall a little flat: “Look—it’s a koi pond,” gasps Rachel as she absorbs the décor of her Shanghai host’s private jet. “God, you scared me. For a moment I thought something was wrong,” answers her fiance, Nick, who stands to inherit one of China’s great fortunes but prefers teaching undergrads at NYU. “You don’t think anything’s wrong?” Rachel presses. No wonder Nick’s mom, the not-to-be-bested Eleanor Young, tries her utmost to topple their engagement! (Until she stumbles onto the true identity of Rachel’s birth father—and is now using it to reel her son home to face up to his privileged heritage, with unanticipated results.) Most hilarious when he’s parodying uber-rich Chinese aunties who’d “rather camp out six to a room or sleep on the floor than spend money on hotels” and professional image consultants who help clients “take [their] most embarrassing biographical details and turn them into assets,” Kwan keeps more than a few plot resolutions in the air but delivers at least one priceless declaration of love: “The bathroom [renovation] is fully funded….Now please pick out a dress.”
Over-the-top and hard to stop. A third installment is promised.
Insightful, richly entertaining look at a woman who, very late in the game, finds that life remains full of surprises.
It’s not often that a male writer gets inside the head of a female character without botching it somehow; Jim Harrison pulled it off in Dalva and maybe Daniel Defoe in Moll Flanders. Evison joins that short list with a yarn that, like his Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving (2012), seems a bit of a comic detour from his more serious earlier work (West of Here, 2011, etc.). The eponymous lead is wrestling with the fact that her husband of many decades has passed away, though she keeps seeing him; as the book opens, she’s working hard to convince her priest that “Bernard still lingered somehow in the earthly realm,” and certainly Bernard, “five decades of familiarity imprinted on her memory like a phantom limb,” continues to exercise some influence over his wife when she learns that he’s booked an Alaskan cruise for her, seemingly from beyond the grave. Naturally, Bernard haunts the halls of the cruise ship—but then, other unexpected persons turn up there, too, players in a seriocomic series of turns in which she discovers that her life with Bernard had plenty of corners that she never knew about. Harriet’s no patsy, but she has a way of blundering into mishaps, including a memorable run-in with security (“Do I look like a terrorist to you? For heaven’s sake, I’m Episcopalian!”). Evison allows his story to unfold at leisure, darting back and forth across the span of Harriet’s life and sometimes telegraphing what lies ahead: writing of (and to) her at the age of 30, for instance, he says of one to-be-revealed matter, “it will be 48 years before you will confide the information to anyone.” So Harriet, it seems, has secrets of her own.
Evison writes humanely and with good humor of his characters, who, like the rest of us, muddle through, too often without giving ourselves much of a break. A lovely, forgiving character study that’s a pleasure to read.