Books Are Pretty

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Miss Understanding.

Man, did I get brainwashed by The Devil Wears Prada. For the first quarter of Miss Understanding, the newest book by Stephanie Lessing, I had an extremely difficult time reading the sections involving office life at a high fashion magazine. Where was Anna Wintour Miranda Priestly? Where was Andre Nigel? Where was the detailed minutia of the ins and outs of the fashion world? And why was somebody in Lessing's book eating a doughnut? Why was somebody eating at all, come to think of it?

I actually grumbled at Lessing's ignorance re: working at a fashion magazine until I did a little digging* and discovered that Lessing has just as much experience, if not more, than Devil author Lauren Weisenberg.

Grudgingly, I accept defeat. There can, in fact, be more than one way to view one's experiences working at Vogue.

Weird how firmly some things can get stuck in your head, though.

Clearly then, Miss Understandingis going to be just a little bit different. It even has a self-identified feminist, Zoe Rose, as a protagonist, which is always agreeable to have in a book.

Zoe Rose jumps on board at Issues magazine as the new deputy editor, and she is determined to overhaul the magazine, turning away from a focus on fashion to a focus on feminism. Right away we know the magazine's going to swirl straight down the toilet, and so it does, with the help of two wretched fashion editors, Blaire and Sloane, and the amiable editor Dan's evil mother Anita.

From the beginning of this fish out of water tale, Zoe fights constant battles, both with her staff and with herself, and as much as I love putting some feminist ideology into fashion magazines, it is clear that Zoe really hasn't thought this whole thing through. Elle, Marie Claire, and Vogue put very intelligent, thoughtful, feminism-driven articles in their issues quite often, but they also know it's a very bad idea to take all the fashion out of a fashion magazine.

You'd think Zoe would know that, too, but no - she is under the unbreakable spell of the Bad Childhood Memory, and she is determined to make all the mean girls in the word Cut That Out Right Now. Zoe's definitive, life-changing moment came in second grade, when the popular girls tortured her best friend Ali because she was poor and only had one dress, a frilly pink polka-dotted number that displayed her knobby knees and bony elbows. Zoe became determined to put an end to their destructive behavior once and for all, and uses Issues magazine to get well, pretty carried away, actually.

As zany and non-Devil Wears Prada-like as it is, Miss Understanding was fun. It's nice to read a novel written by someone who is obviously intelligent, and knows how to write jokes for women that involve more than dressing them up and then having them trip over something.** Zoe is smart and witty, which more than makes up for her zealotry.

While the book kind of falls apart at the end, becoming a little meandering and increasingly implausible, there's enough good in Miss Understanding to make it a perfect airplane read - good enough to hope the plane circles the airport a couple of times so you can finish it.

*I read the author's bio in the back of the book. I know, I know, I am rigorous in my research.

**Amanda Bynes does this so often she should be jailed. Where she can trip over the orange jumpsuit she threw on the floor because she thought it made her look fat.

Miss Understanding
by Stephanie Lessing
2006 by HarperCollins
Softcover, 332pp
ISBN: 0-06-113388-4

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Saturday, December 02, 2006

Dr. DeBunko: Debunker of the Supernatural

Here is a comic for the grouchy scientists among you. Chris Wisnia, author of The Lump, has a new compilation of one of his characters, originally featured in his faux yellow rag Tabloia. Dr. DeBunko, sort of a PZ Myers-as-Caine-in-Kung-Fu, a skeptic that walks the earth attempting to disabuse the gullible of their various harmful superstitions.

As Wisnia says, "I think this is a fascinating subject matter, that so many people believe so many different things, and once they believe it, it’s almost impossible to sway their views, even with facts. To each person, their “reality” is how they view their world based on their beliefs. Whether it’s their belief in science, their particular religion, UFOs and aliens, government conspiracies, miracle diets, Santa Claus, or whatever."¹

Indeed. Dr. DeBunko features 11 short comics, and in each the good doctor arrives at the scene at the height of its hysterical pitch, as the citizens are convinced cloven footprints mean Satan is dancing in a field or a burned body in a bed is a case of Spontaneous Human Combustion. Dr. DeBunko slices neatly through the swirl of superstition with logic, science-based explanations, and in each the villagers never really seem to appreciate his no-nonsense explanations.

And that's it. There's no actual plot to any of these stories. Initially meant to be short little blurbs between chapters in comics, Dr. DeBunko is limited to rubes presenting a superstition (sex with Satan is a favorite theme), Dr. DeBunko shoots it down, the crowd clings to its ridiculous beliefs, and Dr. DeBunko manipulates the rubes into channeling their beliefs to a less dangerous conclusion.

As Wisnia, in the voice of his exclamation point-addicted alter ego, faux Tabloia editor Rob Oder, (Rob! Oder!) warns that you may not want to read the entire comic in one sitting.

"...this is just way too much Dr. DeBunko to take in one sitting! So a word of caution...Enjoy these pithy little presumptuous stories the way they're meant to be presented....Swallow them (or gag them down ) in small portions! Otherwise,they're simply just too irritating, and you'll despise him as much as he despises you! They're the perfect length to read while you're on the toilet!"

This is true, and I submit that Dr. DeBunko in the brown wicker magazine holder next to the toilet beats the snot out of old Wireless catalogues.²

Incidentally, as Oder, Wisnia really lets himself go, especially when retorting to fake letters to the editor criticizing the magazine or chastising Oder for debunking their beliefs. Spontaneous combustion seems to be a particular pet peeve with him, and it's great to read his rants against stubborn believers, even the ones he made up.

"Taking a science class, or just using a little common sense, may be quite valuable to you! Here's how science works! You have to come up with a theory that's not imbecilic! Also, the evidence has to support the theory, not contradict it!"

Although it's true that Dr. DeBunko works best in limited doses, you'll still get a certain satisfaction from allowing Dr. DeBunko to occasionally speak for the part of you that is contemptuous and impatient with those who insist on clinging to stupidity.
¹Contino, Jennifer M., "The Dr. DeBunko Is In!", Interview with Chris Wisnia, Comicon Message Boards

²What happened to National Public Radio's gift catalogue? Have you seen it lately? Last time I looked through it, back around '93 or '94, it was devoted to cheesy replicas of Kokopelli. Then I looked at it again this year and it was all "Git R Done" tee shirts and quotes from The Man Show. Seriously, who's their buyer now, Toby Keith?


Buy here.

Dr. DeBunko: Debunker of the Supernatural
First Issue
By Chris Wisnia
November, 2006 by Salt Peter Press
32 pp, Saddle stitched

First posted at the Journal for the Lincoln Heights Literary Society

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