Category: Humour

How to Build a Girl

Cover image for How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moranby Caitlin Moran

ISBN 978-0-06-233597-5

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book at ALA Annual 2014. All quotes are based on an uncorrected text.

“Because what you are, as a teenager, is a small, silver, empty rocket. And you use loud music as fuel, and then the information in books as maps and coordinates, to tell you where you’re going.”

After humiliating herself on local television, fourteen-year-old Johanna Morrigan decides it is time to reinvent herself. She is desperate to move to London, and gain some distance from the poverty of her childhood growing up in a council house with four siblings, and an alcoholic father on disability payments. Borrowing CDs from the library at 20p a shot, Johanna begins reshaping herself through popular culture. Taking up the pen name Dolly Wilde, she leaves school at the age of sixteen to become a music critic for D&ME magazine, trying to make her way in an industry where her older, male colleagues generally regard teenage girls as “fannish.” As the enfant terrible of D&ME, she pens scathing, bitchy reviews, writing only about bands she hates lest she herself be deemed fannish. But no matter how hard she works to build Dolly Wilde, Johanna keeps finding flaws in her new persona.

Caitlin Moran would like you to know that How to Build a Girl is not autobiographical. The copyright page reads:

This is a work of fiction. Real musicians and real places appear from time to time, but everything else, the characters, what they do and what they say, are the products of my imagination. Like Johanna, I come from a large family, grew up in a council house in Wolverhampton, and started my career as a music journalist as a teenager. But Johanna is not me. Her family, colleagues, the people she meets, and her experiences are not my family, my colleagues, the people I met, or my experiences. This is a novel and it is all fictitious.

Additionally, the dedication reads: “To my mother and father, who thankfully are nothing like the parents in this book, and let me build my girl how I wanted.”  Nevertheless, How to Build a Girl will be familiar to anyone who has read How to Be a Woman; even the titles are similar. But while the story and the themes may be a bit familiar, Moran is nevertheless on the money about what it feels like to be a teen who tackles adulthood with a fake-it-until-you-make-it attitude. Her candour and humour carry the day.

Although featuring a teenage protagonist, How to Build a Girl is, in some respects, more for adults than teens. In the introduction to the advance reader’s edition, Moran, rather than hoping the reader likes the book, writes “I hope more that you remember it, all over again.” Indeed, How to Build a Girl feels very retrospective, and not just because it is set in the 1990s. There is a ruefulness in Johanna’s narrative voice as she recounts her teenage escapades, an embarrassment that occasionally verges on shame. It is not condescending, but neither does it reflect the typical way teens see themselves, and thus may appeal more to Moran’s adult fans than teenage readers. However, there is plenty here that we could do to see more of in YA, from a poor, overweight protagonist, a gay brother, and sex seen through a feminist lens. Moran’s cheerful honesty about sex and masturbation, and Johanna’s rage against sexist double standards regarding her “swashfuckling” status as a Lady Sex Adventurer are both refreshing and welcome.

How to Build a Girl has all of Moran’s signature humour, but retreads familiar territory given the striking parallels to Moran’s own life. However, fictionalization also gives Moran latitude to explore social and feminist issues beyond the bounds of her own autobiography.

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Cover image for Moranthology by Caitlin MoranAlso by Caitlin Moran: Moranthology

Listen to the Squawking Chicken

Cover image for Listen to the Squawking Chicken by Elaine Lui by Elaine Lui

ISBN 978-0-399-16679-2

“I am the Squawking Chicken’s only daughter and her only true friend. It can be a burden, sure. But mostly it is my life’s honor.”

Elaine Lui is better known as Lainey, author of the popular celebrity smut website Lainey Gossip, and one of the hosts of CTV’s Etalk. But the real star of her memoir is her mother, who bears the unenviable Chinese nickname Tsiahng Gai, or Squawking Chicken. Born to a poor family in Hong Kong, where she acquired her unflattering nickname for being loud and assertive in a culture that expected women to be dainty and shy, Lui’s mother immigrated to Canada after she married. With a combination of Feng Shui blackmail and large helpings of shame, she raised her daughter in Toronto, where her parenting style was very much at odds with prevailing culture.

Feng Shui plays a prominent role in the Squawking Chicken’s efforts to shape her daughter’s behaviour. For her part, Lui sometimes finds practical lessons in her mother’s unusual stories and supernatural beliefs. When Lui’s uncle berates his daughter to “walk like a lady,” the Squawking Chicken casually bats down his sexism by saying “my grandfather always told me to walk like an elephant. It scares away the ghosts. Ah Leuy [my daughter], you should always walk like an elephant. A real woman doesn’t creep into a room.” On another occasion, Lui found a bracelet on the subway and wanted desperately to keep it. Her mother flatly refused, telling the story of a pair of ghosts that hitch hiked into a house on an umbrella picked up on the street. From this Lui draws a lesson about not coveting other people’s possessions.

Just as often, however, Lui simply buys into her mother’s supernatural beliefs in a way that makes her story very unsatisfying for the skeptical reader. Lui likens the belief in Feng Shui to a religion, a not inaccurate comparison, in that she simply has to have faith since her mother frequently refuses to tell her why she must submit to certain Feng Shui practices. Lui has been eating a papaya every day for years, despite the fact that she doesn’t like papayas, because her mother said she should, but refuses to say why. Nevertheless, Lui is constantly looking for evidence in her life to confirm these beliefs, even though she knows that her mother will say a certain coloured dress is bad Feng Shui when she doesn’t like the cut, and approve a different style of dress in the same colour a week later. These baffling inconsistencies in Lui’s attitudes towards Feng Shui go unexplained. Lui is certainly capable of being critical of her mother, but that criticism is selective.

Lui’s tale is told with humour, and the willingness to embarrass herself as much as the Squawking Chicken, as she lays bare the unique relationship between an immigrant mother and her first-generation-Canadian daughter. Lui writes well and pulls no punches, but their unique mother-daughter bond has off-putting aspects that humour cannot hide. Certainly, many Westerners will be discomfited by the Squawking Chicken’s unorthodox parenting, but what killed this memoir for me was that such a large part of it was not really about listening to your mother, who has lived longer and wants what’s best for you; so much of it was not about the wisdom or practicality of her mother’s advice, but rather amounted to submitting unthinkingly to astrology and superstition.

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Cover image for Coming Clean by Kimberly Rae MillerYou might also like Coming Clean by Kimberly Rae Miller.

Attachments

by Cover image for Attachments by Rainbow Rowell Rainbow Rowell

ISBN 978-0-452-29754-8

“What did he have to mope about, really? What more did he want?…Love. Purpose. Those are the things that you can’t plan for. Those are the things that just happen. And what if they don’t happen? Do you spend your whole life pining for them? Waiting to be happy?”

The Courier newspaper is being dragged kicking and screaming into the new millennium as Y2K creeps closer. The management would rather their employees didn’t have access to the internet, or email, but that really isn’t an option anymore. Enter Lincoln, over-educated, and under-achieving, still living at home and not sure what he wants to do with his life. Lincoln is hired to work the night shift on the newspaper IT desk, where his job primarily consists of reading the emails flagged by the computer software that monitors every interaction. Mostly, he issues the occasional warning about pornography or web gambling. Courier reporters Beth and Jennifer theoretically know that someone is monitoring their email, but they don’t seem to care. And although Lincoln knows they’re technically violating the rules by using their work email for personal communications, he can’t quite bring himself to issue a warning. But he can’t seem to stop reading their conversations, either. Before he knows it, he realizes he has fallen for Beth, but how can he possibly introduce himself to someone whose email he’s been reading?

Rainbow Rowell’s first novel, before her breakout success with Eleanor & Park, Attachments is told in alternating chapters, one from Lincoln’s POV, followed by a chapter of made up of email exchanges between Beth and Jennifer. This necessitates a lot of written revelations that most people wouldn’t dare make on their work email today. I could accept that the conceit of the book allowed us to see Jennifer and Beth only as they appeared in their email, but I wanted more from Lincoln’s POV chapters. I wanted to understand how and why Lincoln’s life went astray, aside from breaking up with his first girlfriend, Sam, nine years before, which is a good precipitating incident, but not a complete explanation. The many flashbacks and emails make for a relatively slow start, so that the conclusion seems very abrupt by comparison.

Despite some issues with structure and pacing, Rowell has a great knack for creating wonderful romantic moments out of mundane details. You can see early glimmers of Rowell’s talent for YA romance in Lincoln’s memories of Sam, and Beth’s description of how she met her boyfriend, Chris. Despite these moments of picture-perfect romance, Rowell also writes relationships with realistic complexities. Beth and Chris live together, but her hours as reporter are at odds with his schedule as an aspiring musician. Jennifer and her husband, Mitch, are mostly happy, but Mitch has baby-fever, while Jennifer isn’t sure she really wants kids at all. There are so many different kinds of love in this book, from Lincoln’s first love with Sam, to Beth’s story of falling in love with someone who always left her wanting more, to Lincoln’s friends, Dave and Christine, who are married with kids, but still host Dungeons and Dragons every weekend. And beyond romantic love, there is friendship and family, from Beth and Jennifer’s supportive bond, to Lincoln’s difficult relationship with his mother and sister.

Quirky and charming, Attachments lacks the polish of Rowell’s more recent work, but has enough of Rowell’s signature wit and humour to satisfy fans.

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fangirlYou might also like Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

Cover image for Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloanby Robin Sloan

ISBN 978-1-250-03775-6

The shelves were packed close together, and it felt like I was standing at the border of a forest–not a friendly Californian forest, either, but an old Transylvanian forest, a forest full of wolves and witches and dagger-wielding bandits all waiting just beyond moonlight’s reach.”

After college, Clay Jannon worked as a designer for a San Francisco start up that aimed to create the mathematically perfect bagel. But when the recession drives NewBagel out of business, Clay finds himself out of work. Wandering the streets of San Francisco, he discovers a peculiar, three-storey tall bookshop that is open 24 hours a days, and accepts the position of night clerk at this unconventional establishment. The main qualification for this new job is the ability to climb a ladder. The customers on the ten-to-six shift are few and far between, and those that do come in are exceedingly peculiar. Mr. Penumbra, the owner of the book shop, keeps a special collection of books, which Clay is forbidden to look into, which are not sold, but rather loaned to these special patrons, and recorded in detail in a log book. Bored and curious, Clay designs a 3D model of the store that tracks the loans, and in doing so, accidentally discovers the centuries-old secret of the Unbroken Spine. With the help of his Googler girlfriend, Kat, and his tech-genius best friend, Neel, Clay turns the power of the digital age on a mystery that has puzzled scholars for centuries.

Imagine accidentally solving the Da Vinci code with a computer program and a sense of humour. Clay’s efforts to entertain himself on the night shift cause him to stumble over a secret society right under his nose, complete with coded manuscripts, and a mysterious founder who supposedly achieved immortality. If that sounds a little bit cheesy, it is because, to some extent this book is a parody of the fantasy quest, or the code-breaking mystery; Clay makes many joking references to wizards, rogues, and warriors, and is skeptical of the mystery of the Unbroken Spine, even as he finds himself obsessed with it. Robin Sloan includes and uses much of the modern technology that can make mysteries a little too easily solved, from cell phones to Google, and riffs on that simplicity. “Stuff that used to be hard just isn’t hard anymore,” when you have things like Hadoop and Mechanical Turk at your fingertips. Expecting this comedic aspect of the story is important, because otherwise it might seem a bit light and fluffy for a mystery or thriller.

Set in an independent book shop in Silicon Valley, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore embodies many of society’s current anxieties about the role of books and reading in the digital age. But rather than pitting the e-book against the codex, and flogging that dead horse some more, Sloan shows digital and manual technologies working alongside one another, one picking up where the other falls short. Although Clay might never have cracked the case on his own, he is at the epicentre of a group of people who have the varied knowledge and skills needed to solve the peculiar puzzle of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.

The current and specific technological references to Google, Apple, Twitter and more may give this book a limited shelf life, but it is a perfect read here and now, and one with the unusual potential to delight computer nerds and book lovers alike.

MWF Seeking BFF: My Yearlong Search for a New Best Friend

Cover image for MWF Seeking BFF by Rachel Bertscheby Rachel Bertsche

ISBN 978-0-345-52495-9

“In your late twenties, friend-making is not the natural process it once was. In fact, as it turns out, I’ve completely forgotten how to do it.”

Rachel Bertsche is from New York, and her new husband, Matt, is from Boston. Neither wants to live in the other’s hometown, so they compromise on Chicago, since they met at Northwestern University. Two years after moving to Chicago, Bertsche finds herself still missing her New York friends, and unsatisfied with her Chicago social life. She has friendly co-workers, and lots of local family, but no one to compare to her New York best friends, Sara and Callie. Armed with piles of research showing that people with friends are happier and healthier than those who are lonely and socially unconnected, she vows to go on one friend-date a week for a year in order to expand her social circle, and hopefully find a local best friend.

It takes guts to admit you’re lonely and that you want more friends. While it is socially acceptable to be openly seeking a romantic partner, actively looking for friends is just pathetic, right? If your first instinct is to judge Bertsche for her honesty, this may not be the book for you. She is upfront about her feelings, and willing to share her insecurities, along with a good dose of humour. As a relative new-comer to the city I currently live in, I’ve been having many of these experiences first-hand, and I’m kind of sad to see how many reviews of this book cynically claim that Bertsche probably did this just to get a book deal. If you don’t like the blog-turned-memoir genre, take a pass.

While most of Bertche’s efforts are the typical ways one might try to make friends, like taking a yoga class, and asking out friends of friends, she also tries to keep an open mind. Some of the funniest stories come from trying out more unconventional ways of meeting people, from a Friend match maker, to Speed Friending (like speed dating but for gal pals), to Meetup.com and GirlfriendCircles.com, right up to actually paying to hang out with a friend through RentaFriend.com. These alternative methods have mixed results, and by the end of the year, most of her new pals are friends of friends, or people she met by publishing a personal essay about her friend search, but I appreciated Bertsche’s willingness to try out these services in the name of journalism.

The year of friend-making is not without insights both about herself and about the process of making friends as an adult. Bertsche has plenty of tips for those looking to make more friends, from “Say Yes” to invitations whenever possible, to “Make the First Move” and ask a potential friend out rather than waiting for them to do it. Equally important is “Follow Up,” and make the second move, too, if you want to see a new friend again. Obviously it can’t be a one-way street forever, but don’t be afraid to put in the initial effort. Signing up for classes and activities, or asking for friend set-ups definitely help, but they won’t do much good if you aren’t willing to put in the effort to turn new acquaintances into friends. As for herself, Bertsche recognizes, and breaks, some of her bad friend habits, such as interrupting, and revises her idea of what she wants from an adult best friend. By the end of the year, she writes, “I wanted a best friend like I had when I was 6 or10 or 15. Twelve months later, I realize how naïve that was. I don’t know that I believe in the idea of the attached-at-the-hip BFF anymore.”

This blog-turned-memoir is written in the first person, present tense, so while it is now in book form, it is almost like reading a long on Bertsche’s blog through the original journey. The downside of this choice is that it’s hard to separate Bertsche’s feelings at the time of each event from any retrospective thoughts she may have added while writing the book. The book concludes with Bertsche and her husband ringing in the New Year, only days after her last friend date. I was a little disappointed that there was no update about how she was doing, say, one year after the project ended, since, as Bertsche herself realizes, best friends are made in a year, but her blog archives continue on past the last date. Nevertheless, anyone who has ever found themselves in Bertsche’s situation will be able to relate to this funny and genuine memoir.

Drinking My Way Through 14 Dating Websites

Cover image for Drinking My Way Through 14 Dating Websites by Tiffany Peonby Tiffany Peón

ASIN B00CHB86ZQ

Waking up hungover on a weekday solidifies for a few brief moments the deep-seated fear that I will never be a functioning adult.”

In 2011, recently single and having trouble getting over her ex, 26 year old Tiffany Peón decided she needed to do something to help her move on. Inspiration struck, and she decided to start a new project on her blog, chronicling her adventures trying out fourteen of the web’s best (OK Cupid/Match.com) worst (Darwin Dating) and weirdest (Atlasphere) dating sites. Drinking My Way Through 14 Dating Websites is the Kindle Single that summarizes that adventure.

I have a confession, fellow readers. I am a complete sucker for non-fiction gimmicks. Are you going to follow all the edicts of the Bible to the letter for a year? I will read that.  Will you spend a year applying the latest research about the psychology of happiness to your own life? I’m in. Did you start a multi-year project to read and blog about every book on the Times 100? I will eat up every step of that journey. So when I was looking for some short fiction and non-fiction to review this month, I couldn’t resist finding out what sort of hilarity was going to ensue from this adventure into the brave, terrifying world of meeting people from the internet.

I thought that the short form would be a good fit for Peón’s experiment, as I might not have been willing to commit to a full-length book about dating websites. However, 70 pages of shenanigans sounded like a bit of light reading that would be right up my alley. Surprisingly then, a lot of the stories felt rushed and abbreviated, and might have benefited from a few more details. Understandably, Peón has removed most of the original posts from her blog, so I wasn’t able to do much in the way of comparison to see how much she had to edit down her original material for this short. The well-fleshed out anecdotes are humourous, but others come across as cursory summaries, just covering the bases of some of the sites. Of course, sometimes it’s just that real life doesn’t work out like a fictional comedy. Her date from Atlasphere, the Randian/Objectivist site, turns out to be completely normal and nice. And then Peón gets back together with her ex part way through the experiment, though she decides to carry on, sapping some of the tension from the narrative. Ultimately, this is one of the cases where the potential for a humourous outcome was greater than what the writer actually experience. She wrings some decent laughs out of it, but I was hoping for more.

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Required Reading was recently featured on Book Bloggers International. If you missed it, you can find the profile here. 

Fortunately, the Milk

Cover images for Fortunately the Milk by Neil Gaiman Author: Neil Gaiman

Illustrator: Skottie Young (US) / Chris Riddell (UK)

ISBN 978-0-06-2224077-1 (US) / 978-1-4088-4176-1 (UK)

I think there should have been some nice wumpires,” said my sister wistfully. “Nice, handsome, misunderstood wumpires.”

“There were not,” said my father.

Mum has gone off to a conference to present a paper on lizards, and Dad is left alone with his two kids. He thinks he has the situation under control, but after making tea and hot chocolate, there’s no milk left for breakfast cereal, or worse, for that essential morning cup of tea. Dad goes out for milk, and returns much later, spinning a wild tale about being kidnapped by aliens, held captive by pirates, traveling through space and time with a stegosaurus, and nearly being eaten by wumpires before finally making it home. Or possibly he got caught up talking with Mr. Ronson from over the road. But whatever happened, fortunately, the milk made it home, too.

Playfully told by Neil Gaiman and comically illustrated by Skottie Young (US edition) or Chris Riddell (UK edition), Fortunately the Milk is an imaginative lark through space and time. Dad’s adventure is filled with shameless exaggeration and matter-of-fact ridiculousness. Parents will appreciate the lengths to which Dad will go to spin his story, and kids will delight in the way his children try their best to catch him out. The plot has a slightly Whovian feel, albeit the sort that you might find from a Dad telling his kids a story about the legend of the Doctor, as opposed to an episode of the show itself.

The American edition is illustrated by Skottie Young, whose exaggerated art style lends itself excellently to Gaiman’s over-the-top narrative. Look especially for Sister’s imagining of “nice, handsome, misunderstood wumpires.” Young also wins extra points for depicting bottled milk, while Riddell opts for a carton.

The Dad of Chris Riddell’s book is reminiscent of Gaiman himself, although the hair isn’t nearly wild enough. If you are reading the UK edition, don’t skip the afterword on the artist; keep a special eye out here for the wumpire Pale and Interesting Edvard. There is also a fantastic fold out page in the middle of the book, featuring Splod, the “god of people with short, funny names.”

The good news is that no matter where you live and which edition you will be getting as a result, Fortunately, the Milk is an excellent tongue-in-cheek adventure. Though different, both artists bring their own sense of humour to bear to complement Gaiman’s writing.

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Also by Neil Gaiman:

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Chu’s Day

The Graveyard Book

Sandman Volume 1

Click-Clack the Rattlebag 

Bossypants

Cover image for Bossypants by Tina Feyby Tina Fey

ISBN 9780316056878

I made [my husband] fly once before we married because he was offered a free trip to Vienna, Austria, to direct a sketch comedy show for an English-language theatre. If you know anything about Vienna, you know that they love Chicago-style sketch comedy!*

*The Viennese do not enjoy American sketch comedy.”

In Bossypants, Tina Fey blends comedy and memoir, hopping chronologically through her childhood—how did she get her scar, and what do peoples’ reactions to it reveal about them?—to her time working on Saturday Night Live, and eventually creating her own show, 30 Rock. She recounts her mixed feelings about her famous role imitating Sarah Palin on SNL, derides sexism in the comedy business, and shares the bizarre experience of participating in magazine cover photo shoot. Unfortunately, her popular film, Mean Girls, receives only passing mentions.

Bossypants was recommended to me repeatedly by friends who knew I had enjoyed How To Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran. While both are humourous memoirs by women, I didn’t otherwise find the two books to be terribly similar. The rub comes down to this: like the Viennese (see quote above) I don’t actually find American sketch comedy to be all that funny most of the time, and The Washington Post has aptly described Bossypants as “sketch narrative.” When I laughed on page 173, and it dawned on me that this was the first time that I had laughed out loud at the book, I knew I was in trouble. Still wanting to give the book the benefit of the doubt, I decided to switch to the audio version. After all, certain brands of humour are meant to be performed, not read (which isn’t to say that writing can’t be funny). The audio book was a definite improvement over reading the book, and Fey does a good job of bringing the material life. However, the humour still didn’t really do it for me.

Humour aside, though, Bossypants is still an interesting read. Fey was on the front lines of a generation of women making career breakthroughs in comedy, and her observations about sexism are astute. There are a number of revealing chapters dealing with women’s physical appearances, including “Origin Story,” “Remembrances of Being Very Very Skinny,” “Remembrances of Being a Little Bit Fat,” and “Amazing, Gorgeous, Not Like That.” For me, Fey is at her best when she is tackling these issues with humour, grace, and pointed sarcasm. It’s also interesting to get a glimpse of the lifestyle and work that goes into being a profession comedian. Bossypants stood out more as a memoir than as a work of humour, but I have no doubt that others with a different sense of humour will disagree.