humor2023

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In Will Schwalbe’s memoir We Should Not Be Friends: The Story of a Friendship, the wry writer of books-about-books (see The End of Your Life Book Club and Books for Living) turns his attention to an unexpected friendship that originated in a secret society at Yale. Unlike any secret society I’ve heard of, this one aimed at connecting very different folks in a purposeful community during their senior year of college. And members Schwalbe and Chris Maxey could hardly have been more different.

Early in the memoir, Schwalbe differentiates between nerds and jocks, positioning himself (theater kid, gay, literature major) in the former category and Maxey (wrestler, scuba diver, avid motorcyclist) in the latter. When the two met, they repelled each other like misaligned magnets; something about Maxey’s boisterous masculinity put Schwalbe on edge. But they began to listen to each other, due in part to the rituals of the society, and an unlikely trust began to form.

We Should Not Be Friends then veers from this nostalgic origin story into the rushing sweep of adulthood. Early dreams and uncertain beginnings gather momentum and fling the two friends through various adventures and, as time unfolds, into the stressful compression tunnel of middle age. Health concerns, financial concerns, marital concerns, dreams realized and abandoned, open communication and years of silence: All of it unfolds here, controlled through Schwalbe’s careful narration as he effectively shows how an fragile alliance in college yielded years of rewards.

As Schwalbe and Maxey share their lives, it’s obvious how much they support and even change each other, in part because of how different they are. “Had it not been for Maxey, the me that is here today wouldn’t be me,” Schwalbe writes, and he goes on to illustrate the peculiar familiarity that emerges between long-haul friends who have known each other across life stages, geographies and decades. If you are someone who appreciates the people in your life, especially those whose presence seems serendipitous, this book will feel at once fresh and familiar.

Will Schwalbe’s memoir captures the peculiar familiarity that emerges between long-haul friends who have known each other across life stages, geographies and decades.
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Imagine if Elizabeth Cady Stanton had been distracted from her suffrage efforts because she fell in love, Hallmark movie-style, with a local Seneca Falls man. Or if Emily Dickinson contacted tech support but could only communicate in her trademark poetic style. Or if the Gettysburg Address had been written by “The West Wing” creator Aaron Sorkin.

Alexandra Petri has long entertained Washington Post readers with her absurdist columns on the latest political and pop culture news. In her dazzling book of historical humor, Alexandra Petri’s US History: Important American Documents (I Made Up), she shows again why legendary humor writer Dave Barry called her “the funniest person in Washington.” Petri’s seemingly effortless ability to reimagine American history in the most bizarre ways makes this one of the most entertaining books you’ll read this year.

In an essay titled “Why the National Parks Were Set Aside,” Petri records the reasons she assumes some of our most famous landmarks were preserved: “Yellowstone: GEYSER SQUIRTS HUGE AMOUNTS OF WATER INTO AIR WITHOUT WARNING. . . . Zion: Seems steep. . . . Grand Canyon: Big hole in the ground without proper signage. Leave it as it is.” And in “John and Abigail Adams Try Sexting,” Petri imagines the Founding Father and his wife writing a series of racy (for the 1700s) letters while he is in Paris. “I am attired in a woolen gown and a cap of a stiff linen material, as well as five petticoats, my bustle, and my customary stays. I was wearing stockings, but I am not wearing them any longer,” Abigail writes. “I hope that soon you shall be wearing merely four!” John replies.

Hot stuff!

Petri’s previous book of essays, the excellent Nothing Is Wrong and Here Is Why, focused on current topics such as QAnon conspiracies and the Trump administration. This new collection feels somewhat sweeter and gentler, albeit still side-splittingly funny. It’s a satirical salve at a time when we need humor more than ever.

Alexandra Petri’s seemingly effortless ability to reimagine American history in the most bizarre ways makes this one of the most entertaining books you’ll read this year.

Jamie Loftus is a comedian, podcaster, animator, Emmy-nominated TV writer and performance artist. She’s joined MENSA as a joke, has seen Shrek the Musical 10-plus times and, in 2017, ate a copy of Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.

Now, with the release of Raw Dog: The Naked Truth About Hot Dogs, the prolific creator and debut author takes readers on a cross-country road trip that is by turns eye-opening and gut-clenching, hilarious and poignant, scatological and existential.

In the summer of 2021—aka “Hot Dog Summer”—Loftus, her boyfriend and their dog and cat left their home in Los Angeles and set off to eat and critique a ton of hot dogs. Along the way, she interrogates our national affection for the iconic tubed meat, noting that hot dogs are “high culture, they’re low culture, they’re sports food and they’re hangover food and they’re deeply American for reasons that few people can explain.”   

Loftus digs into those mixed messages with sharp wit and righteous anger. After all, hot dogs are served at festive events but have long been made in places rife with animal abuse and worker exploitation. And while they’re the gleaming centerpiece of the annual Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest, she explains that the celebrated competition is actually tainted by “jingoistic marketing” and entrenched sexism.

As for the hot dogs themselves, dozens of vendors are duly visited, sampled and reported on—from Costco and Home Depot to independent hot dog joints and even a few ballparks. She traveled to Albuquerque, New Mexico, “to get diarrhea at ten in the morning at all costs” and therefore ordered a hot dog topped with onion rings and Spaghetti-Os. In Baltimore, she “deep-throat[ed] a Maryland hot dog swaddled in deep-fried bologna,” and in Chicago, she reveled in a filet mignon steak dog. All this while pursuing with alacrity the answer to an urgent question: “Are the people on the Wienermobile fucking?”

Raw Dog is a wonderfully weird and wild mashup of history, social commentary, personal revelation and food journalism. The author’s passion for her work shines through as she makes a compelling case for more informed hot dog consumption while maintaining her love for the quintessential cookout food.

Comedian Jamie Loftus takes readers on a hot dog-sampling road trip that is by turns eye-opening and gut-clenching, hilarious and poignant, scatological and existential.

Geniuses seem to inhabit a world apart from mere mortals like us. But they don’t, as the irreverent and entertaining Edison’s Ghosts makes clear. Debut author and science writer Katie Spalding has mined history, biography and psychology to turn the cult of genius on its head, shining a sassy light on the idiosyncrasies of some of history’s greatest minds. People traditionally held up as geniuses, she demonstrates, still fit under the heading of “everyone is an idiot.” Although, “Maybe it’s just the apparent contrast between what we expect from these figures and what we get.”

Take Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, for example, whom Spalding compares to a modern child star with an extremely pushy stage dad. After a childhood under his father’s thumb, Mozart turned out to be “kind of a handful.” Spalding unearths unusual bits of trivia about the musical prodigy, including the fact that Mozart apparently never outgrew a juvenile sense of bathroom humor, and that he believed babies should be fed on water. (Only two of his six children survived to adulthood.)

As for the title essay, “Thomas Edison’s Lesser-Known Invention: Dial-a-Ghost,” it turns out the prolific inventor had a formidable PR presence. “Basically, you can think of Edison as a sort of proto-Elon Musk,” Spalding writes. But unlike the Tesla, the rubber never met the road on Edison’s “Spirit Phone” for communicating with the dead. That didn’t keep Edison from claiming that the device would operate solely by scientific methods, however. And while he was ridiculed during his life for this idea, and biographers later claimed he couldn’t have been serious, Spalding unearthed a French version of a book of Edison’s writings that includes actual sketches for his design. 

Edison’s Ghosts can certainly be read from front to back, but you may find yourself so intrigued by some of the chapter titles that you decide to skip around. For what burgeoning philosopher can resist plunging right into “Confucius Was an Ugly Nerd With Low Self-Esteem”? Likewise, biology enthusiasts will hardly be able to resist turning first to “Charles Darwin: Glutton; Worm Dad; Murderer?”

Spalding includes chapters (and hilarious footnotes) about many other historical figures, including Leonardo da Vinci, Ada Lovelace, Marie Curie, Benjamin Franklin, Arthur Conan Doyle and Sigmund Freud. While the essays are tongue-in-cheek, they’re also well researched, informative and absolutely fun. Edison’s Ghosts will delight any science or history lover with a sense of humor.

Edison’s Ghosts will delight any science or history lover as it illuminates all the stupid things that famously smart people have done throughout history.
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Every collection of Samantha Irby essays—this is her fourth, following 2020’s Wow, No Thank You.—is a masterclass in situating pitch-perfect comedy and deep sincerity side by side. Irby’s appeal, at least to this reader, has always been how she’s found humor in some of life’s most difficult experiences, including losing both parents when she was a teenager and living with chronic illness.

In Irby’s new book, Quietly Hostile, she’s still sharing her delightfully bizarre opinions—like in the essay “Dave Matthews’ Greatest Romantic Hits,” which ranks 14 of the musician’s tenderest songs in an attempt to convince people that her love for him is not a bit. Irby also hits readers right in the feels with essays about complicated families, like “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” about reconnecting with her older brother after 25 years. And as always, there are numerous gross-but-mostly-funny pieces about bodily fluids, including but not limited to diarrhea, peeing her pants and peeing on a sexual partner.

Yet Irby’s rising profile as a bestselling author and cult favorite television producer has had an impact on her Everywoman relatability. Quietly Hostile contains classic Irby humor, but her well-deserved success means the subjects she applies that humor to have irrevocably changed. For example, a handful of the essays are about writing for TV, including for Aidy Bryant’s Hulu comedy “Shrill” and HBO’s “Sex and the City” reboot. In this context, the otherwise on-brand diarrhea jokes (“During my interview I said ‘Can I give Carrie diarrhea?’ and I was hired immediately”) feel somewhat awkward. There is a dissonance between her self-deprecation and the reality that “Sex and the City” creator Michael Patrick King specifically reached out to Irby’s agent to ask if she’d be interested in writing for the new show.

This dissonance aside, Quietly Hostile is still very much worth a read. Irby is a truly hilarious writer and mines laughs from the wildest situations (even a trip to the emergency room for anaphylactic shock). And as a 40-something Black woman, a Midwesterner and a stepmother, she brings a unique and underrepresented perspective to the humor shelf of your local bookstore. This newest version of Irby’s unhinged yet subtly complex humor may not quite capture the magic of previous iterations, but she’s still someone who can (and did) write hundreds of words about what to do if you clog a public toilet—and you’ve got to admit, that’s pretty special.

Samantha Irby’s fourth essay collection plays the hits, offering readers a masterclass in situating pitch-perfect comedy and deep sincerity side by side.

Leg

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When Greg Marshall and his childhood friend, Gretchen, ran for president and vice president of their high school class, they were something of an unconventional pair. Both were non-Mormons, making them a minority in Salt Lake City, Utah. Marshall had a pronounced limp and had yet to tell anyone he was gay, while Gretchen had a pacemaker “and a bone spur hanging off one foot like a sixth toe.” Marshall writes that their winning campaign strategy “was simple, and that was to make fun of ourselves.” Marshall takes that same winning approach in his stunning debut, Leg: The Story of a Limb and the Boy Who Grew From It

Marshall’s limp in his right leg caused weakness and spasms throughout his life and required surgeries from time to time. He had actually been diagnosed with cerebral palsy at 18 months—but his parents never disclosed this fact, telling him instead that he had “tight tendons” and encouraging their son and other four children to simply rely on the mantra, “NEVER, NEVER, NEVER GIVE UP.” Marshall didn’t discover the true origin of his mobility limitations until 2014, by accident, when applying for health insurance. “Every day growing up was like an ABC Afterschool Special in which no lessons were learned, no wisdom gleaned,” he writes.

In different hands, this memoir might have become a tragic family story, overshadowed by a mother who was diagnosed with cancer and required decades of treatment for that and other conditions, and a kindhearted, dad-joking father who died from Lou Gehrig’s disease when Marshall was 22. Instead, Marshall has written a riotously funny book that will grab your attention and steal your heart from the very first page. His writing brings to mind early David Sedaris, with its bitingly funny caricatures and descriptions, bathed in blistering commentary, deep-seated opinions, wit, intellect and, above all else, fierce family love. Additionally, Marshall details several of his sexual experiences—not to be salacious but to illuminate his ongoing quest for identity and relationships, despite his long-standing fear of contracting HIV. “As a gay man and a person with a disability, I come out every day,” he writes.

The Marshalls’ lives are full of twists, turns and surprises that will leave readers yearning for more, and this memoir serves as a love letter to all of them, especially Marshall’s late father. Rare is the book that makes me both laugh out loud and shed actual tears, but Leg made me do both.

Bitingly funny and full of blistering commentary and fierce familial love, Greg Marshall's memoir is a winning debut.

Are lesbian bars endangered places? Down from a high of 206 bars recorded in 1987, there are currently only 20+ of these beloved, sticky, red-painted bars left in the U.S. Moby Dyke, the chronicle of Krista Burton’s obsessive quest to visit each of these remaining bars, offers readers a hilarious and affectionate investigation into the past and future of queer gathering spots.

Traveling from San Francisco to New York City, from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, to Mobile, Alabama, Burton visits both historic neighborhood bars and newer nightclubs, talking to owners and patrons about why they love these bars and who is welcome there. Virtually every bar Burton visited is lesbian-owned but welcomes everyone, including the full range of queer identities: trans men and women, nonbinary folks and the emerging generation of gender-diverse young queers. Burton also asks why so many gay bars for cisgender men continue to thrive as exclusive spaces, while lesbian bars thrive on inclusion.

An accomplished and very funny journalist, Burton is able to track serious issues around queer belonging in a fresh and lively voice. The personal narrative underlying her pursuit of lesbian bars—including her marriage to Davin, a trans man, and coming out to her conservative Mormon family—is as topical and good-humored as the interviews and reportage contained here. 

Burton’s road trip was also shaped by COVID-19, and her experiences reveal how the isolation of the pandemic stoked a real hunger for the joy of being with others in crowded, sweaty rooms, singing karaoke, partaking in dildo races and people-watching (after showing a vaccination card, of course). Even the details about the economics of Burton’s quest (such as how to fund a road trip on a book advance while still working a day job) offer a fascinating glimpse into the reality of a writer’s life. 

Burton’s portrait of the evolution of lesbian bars into communal spaces offers a timely and engaging snapshot of queer life in America.

Krista Burton’s obsessive quest to visit each lesbian bar in the U.S. offers a hilarious and affectionate investigation into the past and future of queer gathering spots.

In his third memoir, the hilarious and heartbreaking How to Stay Married: The Most Insane Love Story Ever Told, author Harrison Scott Key quips, “Men never talk about being betrayed. I want to. I feel I must. I have many deep convictions, and one of them is that suffering can and should be monetized.”

Key has done an excellent job thus far, with his debut The World’s Largest Man, winner of the 2016 Thurber Prize for American Humor, and 2018’s Congratulations, Who Are You Again? Fans know that his books are a potent mix of sharp, poignant and funny, thanks to the author’s penchant for openly talking about his baser instincts and his ability to take small, meaningful moments and extrapolate them out to large, cleverly expressed truths.

“Even if nobody bought it, even if my agent hated it, I had to get this mf-ing book out of my brain and my heart.” Read our interview with Harrison Scott Key.

In How to Stay Married, an onslaught of truths began with a devastating 2017 revelation: Lauren, Key’s wife since 2002, had been having an affair for five years. Her affair partner, called “Chad” in the book, was a married neighbor with a family that often spent time with Key’s own. The shock was deep and destabilizing, sending the author on an urgent journey of discovery (When did it go wrong? How did he miss the signs? How will their three daughters react? Should he buy a truck?) and a deep exploration of his Christian faith.

With wit and anger, humility and warmth, Key chronicles the myriad ways he has strived to understand how a couple with a lovely origin story could have grown so far apart. A chapter called “The Little Lawn Boy Learns His ABCs” is a tour de force of alphabetized self-examination (and, sometimes, self-flagellation), and a chapter by Lauren called “A Whore in Church” offers plain-spoken insight into the pain of her past and her choices in the present.

As the couple worked to figure out, together and separately, what the future might hold, Key found himself wondering, “What if, in some cosmically weird way, escaping a hard marriage is not how you change? What if staying married is?” How to Stay Married makes a strong case for that approach to romantic partnership, while offering plentiful food for thought about faith, humor, courage and love.

Humorist Harrison Scott Key’s memoir of the fallout following his wife’s affair offers plentiful food for thought about faith, humor, courage and love.

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