funbruary

I was about to call this the last week of February, but it’s not, and that’s where February gets you: “Oho, 28 days, shorter than the other months.” No. February lasts longer than you expect, even when you get little gift days that are 60 degrees. What happens after that? Snow. It’s like a big meteorological hangover. Fittingly, today in Funbruary, the redoubtable Maud Newton recommends Kingsley Amis’ Everyday Drinking.

The funniest new (to me) book I’ve read in the past year is Kingsley Amis’ Everyday Drinking, a collection of essays and general guidance on one of my favorite pursuits from a great comic writer of the last century. Apart from the recipes, the entertaining historical asides, and the sexist but hilarious dinner party tips – remember, this is the man whose wife wrote on his bare back at the beach, “fat Englishman – I fuck anything” – the most useful part of the book is the famous section on hangover recovery. 

Far more pernicious and unsettling in the long term than the physical effects of a night of drinking, as any self-respecting drunkard knows, are the metaphysical consequences. Amis argues that the metaphysical hangover (M.H.) — “that ineffable compound of depression, sadness (these two are not the same), anxiety, self-hatred, sense of failure and fear for the future” — must be handled with care. An essential part of the recovery is to take either his M.H. Literature Course or M.H. Music Course, or, if necessary, both in succession. “The structure of both Courses … rests on the principle that you must feel worse emotionally before you start to feel better. A good cry is the initial aim.” Read an excerpt if you must, but you’d be better off getting your hands on the whole thing. 

FUNBRUARY: Justin Taylor on Jeremy Schmall

Books that are funny, the month that is the worst: Funbruary! (Previously: Matthew Gallaway, Karen Russell, and our own Douglas.) The latest entry is from Justin Taylor, author of The Gospel of Anarchy, which is just out and great, and the story collection Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever. He’s here tomorrow night.

“Welcome to the age of triage,” writes Jeremy Schmall. “Enjoy the pickles and keep the glass jar / for loose change.” I pulled these lines from somewhere near the middle of this book I love, called Jeremy Schmall and the Cult of Comfort, which is brand-new this Funbruary from X-ing Books. Now before we go any further you may as well know that Schmall’s a close friend, so if you’re the kind of person who gets all worked up about people speaking well of their friends, you might as well stop here. If, however, you believe–as I do–that subjectivity is a valid angle of approach to art (more honest yet than a lot of what passes as objectivity) then let’s talk about this Little Yellow Book with the radioactive smiley face on the cover, and the author’s own name in its title.

Jeremy Schmall and the Cult of Comfort is a dark, weird, smart, raucous, grimly hilarious collection. Not a howl but a growl–maybe from the throat, maybe from the stomach, maybe both. These quick and dirty open-faced poems take the familiar things of life–cubicles and calorie counts; shopping malls and booze–and remind us how strange they are; how strange we are for craving them, for having created them in the first place. “The police don’t want to work today / just as badly as you and your administrator. / The wife that once found me charming / now rarely finds me at all.” Individual poems are untitled but the book is broken into sections with names like “Tumbler full of imitation crab meat” and “Dog in a hot tub.” Schmall makes it safe for us to savor the fundamental obscenity of existence. In his warm arms we are free to laugh until we cry. 

But to end on my carefully confected little blurb-line is hardly in the spirit of The Cult of Comfort, so instead here’s the complete text of a short poem which kind of showcases all the stuff I’ve been talking about, and also contains shout-outs to a perhaps unlikely pair of poetical forebears. One’s John Ashbery. Bonus points if you get the other without googling. 


In the middle distance
a half derelict 
subdivision. The wet pavement.
Overgrowth breeding
condoms beside the street.
Clear bottle filled with urine
beside the vending machine.
Fingernail scars down the face.
Because HIGH SCHOOL CHEARLEADER.
Ex-girlfriend through shattered monocle.
Self-loathing in a convex mirror. 
Five knuckles atop a red onion. 

You know what they say about Funbruary! Or, you know, come to think of it, I just made up Funbruary at the start of the month. I don’t they’ve gotten a chance to mull Funbruary, come up with some pithy consensus. April’s cruel, we all know that. But Funbruary? What is Funbruary? At the very least, we know that on Funbruary 28th, my sister Nina, who has an excellent tumblr about making things and what we make of things, liked Kelly Link.

Kelly Link is two-ways funny. One way is the hahaha way. The other way is the I feel
sort of funny way. She is very good at both.

Her fantastic short story collection Magic for Beginners fuzzes up the boundaries between fantasy, fairy tale, horror, myth, mystery, real, surreal. She writes about devils and cheerleaders, an infestation of watchful rabbits, zombies at the convenience store, a human-blasting cannon, people who live under a hill, the disintegration of marriage, the death of grandmothers, and fumbling teenage crushes. In her stories, things will be weird, weird, weird, not like the world you know, and then she blasts you with something that you’ve known and felt and understand, and that’s when you end up feeling sort of funny.


And then she’ll blast you with lines like: “Batu had spent a lot of time reorganizing the candy aisle according to chewiness and meltiness. The week before, he had arranged it so that if you took the first letter of every candy, reading across from left to right, and then down, it had spelled out the first sentence of To Kill a Mockingbird.”

And: “He asked if I wanted to go see a movie, and I asked if I could bring my grandmother and Natalie and Natasha. He said sure and so all five of us sat and watched Bring It On and every once in a while Zofia dropped a couple of Milk Duds into her purse.”

Which are funny in the other way, hahaha.

And then there are lines like: “Charley looked like someone from a Greek play, Electra, or Cassandra. She looked like someone had just set her favorite city on fire,” which is not so much funny as it is just incredibly awesome.

Funbruary is over. What comes next? Funch! Introducing Funch! Funch is now, Funch is more funny books. Funch is nothing like lunch. Today Ryan Chapman—he of FSG, he of Alex Trebekesqueness—kicks off Funch with Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage.

I was talking to Geoff Dyer’s editor, trying to pinpoint why we liked his fiction, criticism, and essays so much. It came down to envy. We both wanted to be Geoff Dyer. Not because he’s cool–he isn’t, really, in any broad sense. (Bret Easton Ellis is “cooler,” but I wouldn’t want to walk in his Prada loafers for a day.) I envy Dyer because he’s a modern flâneur: jumping from hotspot to hotspot, writing when the mood strikes, lounging in wealthy friends’ guest cottages. And by “modern,” I mean: neurotic. It’s his punishing self-awareness that makes him sympathetic. Ditto the constant failure.

Nowhere does a writer fail more consistently or hilariously than in Out of Sheer Rage. What was supposed to be a study of D.H. Lawrence (d)evolves into a couple hundred pages of epic procrastination.

Over the years I had come across several places that offered the ideal conditions to work. The room in Montepulciano, for example, with the lovely wooden bed and white sheets, the window gazing out over the Tuscan countryside, the terrace formed by what had once been a little bridge connecting our building to the one next door. Or the house in Lauzun with the room overlooking a field of wheat, facing west so that in the evenings the paper on the desk was bathed red. Or my apartment on Rue Popincourt with the floor-to-ceiling window from which you could see right down Rue de la Roquette, as far as the Bastille almost.

What they all had in common, these ideal places for working, was that I never got any work done in them.

I’m not giving anything away by saying he never gets far in his Lawrence scholarship. What’s amusing (for us at least) is his doggedness. The endless fresh starts, the ensuing delays, the Mediterranean torpor. Dyer thinks a change of location, or a new angle of approach will be the breakthrough he needs: this time, goddammit, I’ll succeed. It’s like a “Tom & Jerry” cartoon for grad students.

Dyer’s litany of failure becomes the book’s greatest strength. He seduces us into loving a book about the failure of writing a book. Wish you had thought of that first? Like I said: envy.

If you don’t already see how this is comic gold, I refer you to Mel Brooks: “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die." Out of Sheer Rage may not be the book Dyer set out to write, but it’s certainly the book I want to read. Especially if it means putting off something important.

FUNBRUARY: Emma Straub on George & Martha
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It’s supposed to be 60 degrees (Fahrenheit) on Friday. Could it be because of the warmth-giving joy of Funbruary? Probably. Probably that’s why. You don’t need a meteorologist to know where the funny books are. They’re here. 

Today Emma Straub–author of Other People We Married–picks George & Martha, which is about hippos. She reads for us tomorrow night with Jess Row. 

I have always liked to laugh. Some people seem content to plow their faces deep into dense, humorless books, perhaps with the promise of furthering their education, and some people just want to laugh. For good or ill, I tend to fall into the latter category. My love of humor on the page began as a very small child, and it is one of those early books that came to mind most immediately when I was asked to select a funny book for the month of Funbruary. If George Saunders’ giddy surrealism and Ann Beattie’s love of the quotidian were to somehow get together and make a paper baby, that paper baby would be James Marshall’s George and Martha.

Perhaps you were never a child, and have no joy in your life, and so you are not familiar with these books.

Keep reading

With less than a week left in Funbruary, it’s going to be non-stop fun over here on the McNally Jackson Blog Experience. Usually the fun stops occasionally, but now: now I have lots of Funbruari (that’s the plural) to squeeze in before it’s March 1st and suddenly very warm and everyone is happy again. That’s how it works on March 1st, right? Today Miles Klee–he’s written for the Awl, Salon, the Observer, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency–picks Wigfield.

Three years after the seminal and side-splitting Strangers With Candy went off the air, co-creators Amy Sedaris, Stephen Colbert and Paul Dinello came out with a collage-like novel that pushed that show’s garbled clichés and pitch-black take on Nowhere, America to new and ever more bizarre places. Structured as a series of interviews conducted by hack journalist “Russel Hoakes,” who flails toward his publisher’s 50,000-word minimum with all the tact of a spoiled toddler, Wigfield tells the story of a grotesque shantytown about to be flooded out of existence via the destruction of its quite useless dam. Retarded mayors, violent cops, sad strip clubs and used tire yards–brought to life by Sedaris, Colbert and Dinello in black-and-white photography by American fashion designer Todd Oldham–characterize this open sore just off the highway, and each has a really stupid story to tell. Hokes himself, with his cringey metaphors and shamelessly padded paragraphs, is an execrable specimen as well, no better than the populace he documents and barely pretends to care about. As the citizens of Wigfield, driven to save their filthy hamlet, prove themselves more cunning than he could have imagined, Hokes becomes increasingly ignorant of what he’s meant to observe and desperate to finish his illiterate book. What we’re ultimately left with is not an easy attack on down-and-out nobodies (though it is also savagely, gloriously that), but a gut-punch for the industry of immersive, field-reported nonfiction. What indeed gives a writer the arrogance, you wonder, to claim an understanding of a place to which he remains, essentially, a tourist?

Just when you thought Funch was over, it’s still Funch. Deb Olin Unferth–who reads here tonight at 7 pm with Karen Abbott–funches us in the face with Gertrude Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. She’s reading (Deb, not Gertrude) from Revolution tonight at 7 pm, her great new memoir about running off to Central American to join the revolution. It rules.

This crazy, brilliant book (the conceit alone is worth reading the book for – writing someone else’s autobiography? Who does that?) earns Stein the title of most audacious humorist of her time. I understood nothing about humor writing until I read this book, and by the time I finished it, I’d heard my calling: I certainly could not have written my memoir, Revolution, without Stein as my predecessor.

My favorite chapter is the one titled “The War,” where Stein describes her life as an ambulance driver in WWI France. They procure a car (Alice tries to talk her into taking apart the entire car and putting it back together for practice) and they drive around the countryside delivering medical supplies, forever running out of gas, getting lost, having absurd adventures, and making wry observations.

There is a second layer to this story, of course, because humor doesn’t work unless it is in competition with something else in the text, be it tragedy, pain, adventure, etc. In Stein’s case, it is her touching, fierce patriotism for a country not her own: she weeps when Paris is safe, she laughs beneath a table with Picasso during the zeppelin alarms, and she scolds the French soldiers for unoriginal thinking (“you have had one perfectly good revolution and several not quite so good ones; for an intelligent people it seems to me foolish to be always thinking of repeating yourselves”). The book turns out to be a hilarious, bold, insane love letter to France, America, and, of course, Alice.

Funbruary!: Matthew Gallaway on David Markson
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My new favorite funny book is Wittgenstein’s Mistress by David Markson, which I would recommend to anyone looking to chase away the February blahs. I wasn’t expecting it to be very funny, given that it’s often saddled with the unfortunate (and definitely unfunny) label of “experimental,"  which I guess (besides people feeling compelled to label everything to death) is because it’s written without any dialogue or chapter breaks. It’s basically 250 pages of what you might call "stream-of-consciousness” to the extent that the prose mimics the somewhat jittery and convoluted nature of pretty much everyone’s thoughts (as in how we actually think, not the orderly way it’s generally presented in books), the way we focus on something for a second and then something else (and often, something completely unrelated) for another second before jumping back to the first thing. Or maybe everyone isn’t like this, but the style certainly resonated with me. There’s also the decidedly unfunny “plot” of the book, which involves the narrator (who may or may not be insane, but has definitely suffered bouts of madness – and personal tragedy – in her past) being the last surviving person on earth, a situation that’s presented without any explanation as to how it came to pass. Finally it would be negligent of me not to mention that as a result of this set-up, there’s a pervasive sadness, loneliness, and melancholy to the book, which gets increasingly intense as you approach the end and get more insight into exactly who this woman is and what happened to her, both before and after whatever it was that made her the last person on earth (this situation obviously meant to represent the idea that we are all very much alone in the world, which I guess is probably not too funny when you think about it, but is nevertheless true).

Keep reading

Well. It’s still February. If you’re anything like me, February just makes you want to sleep and sleep and either be drinking coffee or beer–or both–literally all the time. That “cocktail” is known as the Gumption-Reviver. If you’re anything like me, you are also struggling to put together a few sentences to introduce the next day in Funbruary. McNally Jackson’s own Ames chooses Sempé!

Who all out there reads the New Yorker? Raise your hands! Who all out there enjoys the cartoons in the New Yorker? Raise your hands! Then you most certainly have seen Sempé’s comics. They’re great, right? I’ve found that his cartoons can raise spirits like sparkling wine can. Sempé has the ability to explain the peculiarities of everyday life like a modern day shaman. Not a simple feat when throughout the day we’re being bogged down from the mush and the slush, and the feeling of living in a human-occupied zoo. But Sempé is a master surgeon, dissecting life with his fountain pen and black india ink. His method in explaining the everyday is so light and tactful that when the grand twist to the cartoon is revealed the viewer feels powered and refreshed from having had just been explained that things aren’t really that big of a deal. Sometimes Sempé’s cartoons act as reminders in this way to take things slowly and observe more carefully what things truly are. In his book Panic Stations, Sempé takes the stresses of modern life and turns them on their heads and gives them a great spin. I highly recommend this book over anything else that it will lift your spirit high when the winter world around you can feel so low.

FUNBRUARY: Karen Russell on Elisa Albert

Kicking off Funbruary–our series of the funniest books in the worst month–is Karen Russell, who got back to me the fastest of anyone. Which is why she goes first! That and her new book, Swamplandia!, is out today. She chose Elisa Albert’s The Book of Dahlia:

I’m feeling horrifyingly unfunny at the moment, wearing the “free pair” glasses covered by my insurance that make me look like Colin Powell and staring blankly at a huge sea of snow, so I don’t know if I can bring the yuks personally. But here’s who can: Elisa Albert. In The Book of Dahlia, she writes about a twenty-nine year old woman dying of brain cancer, structuring the book around the cheesy aphorisms from a self-help guide, and if that set-up doesn’t sound like an obvious source of comedy, you’ve got to watch Albert at work. Publishers for some reason love the words “searing” and “blazing” (these adjectives they seem to have cadged from the Food Network ), but in Albert’s case they apply–her humor is ablaze with pain and rage, it has a bite to it, a ferocity that acknowledges all the sorrow of loss, the terror and senselessness of death. Her narrator, Dahlia Finger, refuses to go gently into the night or refer to said night as “good.” Her sentences really do tattoo themselves across your eyelids, unforgettable, hilarious, pitch-dark, humane. The line between hilarity and total devastation she walks in The Book of Dahlia is amazing–and then after reading it you, too, can alarm your friends by recommending a book about terminal brain cancer as “totally hilarious.”

Karen Russell is the author of St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves and Swamplandia! which is out today. She was one of the New Yorker’s 20 Under 40, and she reads at McNally Jackson with Kevin Brockmeier on April 6th.

We’re more than halfway through February. Time flies when you’re having Funbruary. Today Michelle Legro of Lapham’s Quarterly funs up our -bruary with Steve Martin’s The Pleasure of My Company.

On this, the least fun day in all of Funbruary [ed. note: When Michelle sent this, it was a horrible, icy suck of a day. That said, every day is the least fun day in Funbruary.], I have an extreme desire to read about Los Angeles, with the possibility that even in all that sunshine, I can still find morose, insular compatriots who share my current blighted view on life. (What is this, ice daggers? Bring it nature!) This means it’s time to reread Steve Martin’s The Pleasure of My Company. (I hear that fellow is big on Twitter or something.)

It’s a slim novella—the man on the cover is hugging himself, which looks pretty nice right about now—about a delightfully addled introvert named Daniel Pecan Cambrdge, who is quite sure of his place in life, so long as that place never extends beyond his apartment. When we meet him, Daniel is in a huff about being rejected from Mensa, in a huff about his neighbors, and in slightly less of a huff about the woman of his dreams ignoring him, despite the fact that she is a real estate agent for the house across the street, and he has barely ventured beyond the houseplant on his windowsill to talk to her: “I saw Elizabeth today. What a pleasure! She didn’t see me, though; she doesn’t know me. But there was a time when Liz Taylor and Richard Burton had never met.”

Once Daniel does get outside, after managing several threatening crosswalks, his adventures begin: he goes to the pharmacy! he meets another girl! they talk non-threateningly! I’m so happy for my misanthropic friend, even though we would likely come to blows in the real world. That’s the thing about a book like this, The Adventures of Milquetoast vs. The World—it’s the only place where people who never leave their house and feel slighted by everyone and everything can come across as thoroughly charming. Because everything that happens to them happens in the one place it matters to a reader—inside their head.