Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson

For me, a sign of a good book is one that makes me insist on narrating passages to unwilling listeners. I read nearly two full chapters of ‘Let’s Pretend This Never Happened’ out loud to various friends and coworkers, and there were several other sections I wanted to share, but I was too busy not breathing and shredding my abdominal muscles from silent, shuddering laughter.

Best bits? I took personal delight in reading tales of The Bloggess’s adventures working in human resources, and any chapter that detailed exchanges with her husband. Theirs is a bizarre, messy, confrontational relationship and I enjoyed the vicarious snippets she shared; kind of Liz Taylor and Richard Burton with a touch of Bonnie & Clyde.

From a stylistic point of view, her writing is sort of a bastard child of the later works of James Joyce and Hunter S. Thompson. Vast swathes of stream-of-consciousness give you a deeply raw and naked look inside a disturbed mind. Sometimes this is hilarious; other times tedious. One mildly annoying quirk that I wish her editor had dealt with was Lawson’s addiction to adverbs; her text is cluttered with words ending in -ly, when a more elegant solution to the phrasing was often available.

Brilliant use of footnotes, post-scripts and post-its made for an entertaining variety of form and presentation that worked well with the subject matter and how the author relates it. All the flavour of a blog with none of the typos and the added spice of occasional notes to/from the Editor and with a very po-mo awareness of the way book publication and marketing works in today’s literary market.

The chapters where Lawson describes her anxiety disorder and her attempt at making friends with girls grated on me a little, but I suppose she felt that making light of this subject might make her an asshole or something. That’s a fair argument, but was a jarring change of tone in the midst of an otherwise jovial memoir.

While often side-splittingly hilarious, not all of this book is funny. There’s a lengthy chapter about Lawson’s challenges with conception and carrying a baby to term that’s pretty grim, but (spoiler alert) there’s a happy conclusion, plus it was a fairly important lead in to further discussion of her vagina, which is the source of infinite jest in this novel, so all’s well that ends well?

To conclude, this book will not be for everyone, especially given the liberal use of profanity, unrelenting focus on sex organs, proliferation of dead animals, scorpions, fecal matter, animal husbandry, teenage drug use, and taxidermy.

However, if you are one of my friends in the 30-something over-educated urban crowd, with or without children, gay or straight, single or coupled, I suspect it will repay you to check this book out for its ribald humour, gleeful experimentation with the English language and educational information about how HR really works.

Also, I probably already bought you a copy for Christmas. You’re welcome.

If you find Jenny Lawson entertaining, you might also enjoy…

1) David Sedaris’s ‘Me Talk Pretty One Day’

2) Tina Fey’s ‘Bossypants’

3) Anthony Bourdain’s ‘Kitchen Confidential’

4) Graham Roumieu’s ‘In Me Own Words: The Autobiography of Bigfoot’

4 of 5 stars / bookshelves: read, biography, comedy, 318 pages, Publisher: Putnam (2012)
Read from September 10 to 15, 2012

A History of the World in 10½ Chapters by Julian Barnes

I’ve had ‘A History of the World in 10½ Chapters’ on my “to read” list for almost 15 years, but kept putting it off. Now I know why I was dithering. Despite the glowing commendations of university professors and English literature elitists, I simply could not warm to the text, clever though it was.

A loosely connected series of 10 1/2 short stories, art reviews, re-imagined histories, personal ramblings, epistolary travelogues and personal anecdotes; this is the epitome of post-modern fiction. Julian Barnes ties together his mish-mash of tales with the recurrence of woodworm & reindeer, pilgrimage & shipwreck, doubt & faith.

Eclectic. Unorthodox. Not to every taste. Let me say up front, if you like linear plot development, THIS IS NOT FOR YOU.

Settings include Mount Ararat (where the Ark made landfall), the moon, heaven, a jungle, a monastery, and a French courthouse. My main obstacles to enjoyment were the arrogant, foolish and misogynistic male narrators (complemented by the delusional, judgmental female narrators) and the author’s struggles with religious belief and Biblical history.

The voices are mostly male, including: a worm, an academic, a lawyer, an actor, an astronaut and the author himself. The story about the egotistical academic and the psychology of self-interest made me cringe and nearly put down the book altogether. In a similar way, the stories told from Barnes’ own point of view felt highly self-indulgent, like intellectual masturbation.

I did like the piece on Gericault’s “Scene of Shipwreck” which looked at the wreck of the Medusa and told the story of the boat, the survivors, the artist and the process. Nice bit of art analysis. I also thought the concluding story about the difficulties of making Heaven satisfactory was a fun little thought-experiment.

Putting on my feminist glasses, I have to suggest that the women in the book – an insane cat-lady obsessed with her ex-boyfriend, a religious fanatic obsessed with her dead father, a deceitful and narcissistic astronaut’s wife – are all utterly despicable and essentially defined by their relationship to significant men in their lives. Loathsome.

If you want something similar, only better, try the following…

1) Retelling of Noah’s ArkTimothy Findley’s ‘Not Wanted on the Voyage’

2) Funny fake legal trialsIan Frazier’s ‘Coyote V. Acme’

3) Bold, multilingual Victorian-era female explorers who brave exotic landsElizabeth Peters’ ‘Crocodile on the Sandbank’

4) Crazy American astronautsStephen King’s short story “I Am the Doorway” in the collection ‘Night Shift’

2 of 5 stars / bookshelves: read, 320 pages, Publisher: Vintage Canada (1990)
Read from April 2 to April 22, 2012