Books Are Pretty

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Things I’ve Learned From Women Who’ve Dumped Me.

Judging from all the pre-release publicity I got in my inbox about this book, I can only conclude that the publicist for this humor anthology from Ben Karlin, Emmy winning producer of The Daily Show and former editor of The Onion, was completely beside herself with excitement about its release. Most of the email correspondence I receive from publicists go something like:

Them: Do you want to read this?

Me: Okay.

Them: Cool.

But this fanfare was second only to the publicist getting her hot little hands on a new Salinger manuscript. I'd like very much to say cool it, it's not even close to being worth all that excitement, but now I know the object was to whip me up into a blind frenzy so I would quickly churn out a frothing review. And evidently it worked, too, because rather than publishing my review three months after the book has come out, which is my usual style, here is my review only three weeks late.

Let's all pretend it's right before Valentine's Day, then, and think of what would be most pleasing to read during that time period. If you said, "A collection of humorous, yet slightly sour reminisces from men who got dumped by the women in their lives," then by golly, are you in luck!

Karlin assembled a collection of essays from a wide-ish variety of men, from high school age to retirement age, of different races and religions who still seem to fit neatly into a tiny, tiny circle of guys connected in some way to McSweeney’s or The Onion.

With a title like this and connections like that, page after page of self-deprecating humor with a bite of bitterness is exactly what you'd expect. And you would be right, to a certain extent. However, a good many of the writers reached a little deeper and pulled up some genuinely creative stuff.

In “Nine Years Is the Exact Amount of Time to Be In A Bad Relationship,” Bob Odenkirk presents his essay as a seminar, selling the public on letting a relationship dwindle down into a long, lingering death spiral, and in “She Wasn’t the One,” Academy-Award nominee Bruce Jay Friedman, the oldest contributor, offers up a hard-boiled, if slightly dated, work of fiction, where a successful screenwriter is contacted by an old flame, who meets up with him in a bar and is “all furs and pearls and white skin and fragrance” - she’s clearly turned out to be one classy broad indeed.*

Other writers took the more traditional path, dutifully calling up the ghosts of girlfriends past. Comedian Patton Oswalt knocks it out of the park, as usual, with his essay, “Dating a Stripper Is An Exercise In Perspective,” contrasting and comparing the worst behavior of his wife against the best behavior of his stripper ex-girlfriend, Chivas. SNL cast member Will Forte contributes “Beware of Math Tutors Who Ride Motorcycles,” a look back on a college girlfriend who left him for another man.

And still others focus on less traditional experiences with relationships gone sour. Larry Wilmore writes of his rocky relationship with his new baby, Lauren, in “Women Are Never Too Young to Mess With Your Head,“ while Neal Pollack has a hilarious essay** regarding an unwholesome incident with a pet, the obliquely titled “Don‘t Come on Your Cat.”

The vast majority of the contributions are generous and lighthearted, even when recalling incidents, such as Forte’s, that must have been painful at the time. Forte comes across particularly well, both chivalrous and charming, and focusing more on his ability to grow from the experience.

This can’t really be said for some of the others, who use the opportunity to grind their axes and end up looking less like someone who’s learned a thing of two and more like someone doomed to make the same mistakes over and over again. In “A Grudge Can Be Art,” Andy Selsberg painstakingly recounts the weekend-long relationship with a teenager eleven years his junior, who told him upfront that she wasn’t faithful. He then proceeds to glowingly recount his efforts to hurt her feelings when she cheats on him with his roommates, and continues to insult her in the essay, years after the relationship*** ended.

Equally classy is Jason Nash, who wonders, in “Don’t Enter a Karaoke Contest Near Smith College; You Will Lose to Lesbians,” why his ex-model girlfriend never really liked him and continues to avoid his company to this day. It could be because of his insistence on referring to her as “fine pussy,” but maybe she likes having boyfriends that don’t view her as a human being, who knows?

And still others insult the reader rather than the woman, such as Rodney Rothman, who lazily transcribed a phone conversation with an ex-girlfriend, and, I’m very sorry to say, every thinking girl’s fantasy boyfriend Stephen Colbert, who wrote an essay called “The Heart Is a Choking Hazard,” and then blacked out most of it, CIA-style.

For the most part, Karlin has managed to pull together an enjoyable, funny collection that both men and women will enjoy. The only real thing missing from the book is a contribution by a lesbian. There’s even an amusing contribution by Dan Savage called “I Am A Gay Man,” but no corresponding tale of hearts broken at a summer womyn’s music festival. A lesbian did make it into the book, it is true, but since it is an introduction written by Karlin’s mother, who begins with “My son is a real catch and shame on any girl who’s ever thought otherwise,” I think we can all agree she may be working a different angle here.


Things I’ve Learned From Women Who’ve Dumped Me
By Ben Karlin
Hardcover, 240 pp
Published February, 2008 by Grand Central Publishing
ISBN: 0446580694

*That was a really long run-on sentence, even for me.

**Disclosure: Although it is true that Neal’s essay and Patton Oswalt’s essay were the only two in the anthology that made me laugh out loud, I do need to mention that I write a blog for Neal at his parenting website, Offsprung. I will freely admit this in my review of this book, unlike the writers over at Jezebel, who slagged on Neal for things in the essay that simply aren’t there, while neglecting to mention that Jezebel is a blog owned by Gawker, and all Gawker employees must sign a contract requiring them to unfairly dump on Neal at least once every six weeks or so.

***for lack of a better word.

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Wednesday, February 20, 2008

To Follow The Water.

In To Follow the Water, Dallas Murphy sets about explaining how the ocean controls climate. Which seems straightforward enough, until you start to unpack it and realize it's sort of an infinitely deep, Mary Poppins kind of suitcase, where you start pulling out pajamas and toothbrushes and medicine, and then keep reaching in and out comes floor lamps and aardvarks and five members of the WuTang Clan and you think, shit, now I have to explain how all this got in here.

Which he does, very patiently and methodically. To Follow the Water begins by doing exactly that, allowing the reader to examine small South American beans as they travel on the Gulf Stream, floating along from Costa Rica to the Irish coast, like little Kerouaks in a nautical On the Road. Once currants, the major players in patterns of global climate, are introduced, he backs up to include a brief history of how the ocean was studied* and takes it right up to the present day, which is where all the aardvarks and defunct hip hop groups start popping out of the suitcase. There are an endless number of variables that effect the ocean currents, and these all have to be factored in before any one current can be tracked, measured, and thoroughly studied.

In order to do this, you have to start with an empty suitcase, a perfectly shaped, symmetrical ocean, with no landmasses to disrupt, no variation in the depth of the water, no organisms, no revolving planet, no wind, no sun. And then these variables are slowly added, bit by bit by bit, noting on the way how patterns and currents and eddys emerge until at last, Murphy tells us well, the suitcase is still filled with things we haven't pulled out yet.

The study of oceans is suitably deep and complex as the ocean itself, if, ironically, a bit dry in spots. But what Murphy does so very well in this book, particularly in the last chapter, is explain the importance of science in helping to protect the environment, in particular, of course, oceanography, because if the ocean goes, so goes the climate, and so goes us.

To Follow the Ocean, while not a book that can be read while keeping one eye on the kids, is a great layman's book for understanding the ocean, a book that makes the reader feel slightly smarter for having read it.

*And includes, in Chapter 2, what Julia Sweeney refers to as a "red herring story," a humorous look on her mother's habit of dropping incredibly interesting tidbits into an otherwise ordinary story ("Julie, I took your car to the grocery store to buy potatoes for potato salad, and, well, I had a bit of trouble getting out because there was a man lying in your driveway, but when I got there I couldn't decide if you wanted Yukon potatoes or red potatoes." "Wait, what? There was a man lying in my driveway?" "Yes, yes, but which potatoes do you want?)

Murphy does the same thing when talking about explorers. "In 1513...a conquistador psychopath named Vasco Balboa had sighted [the Pacific Ocean] from a peak on the Isthmus of Panama. Like everyone at the time, he asssumed it was a sound or a big bay. Magellan sailed confidently northwest..."

Wait! Psychopath? I'm not in fifth grade anymore, I don't remember my explorers very well! Tell me why he was a psychopath! Was he the one lying in Julia Sweeney's driveway?! Tell me!**

**That was a really long footnote for just one word.


To Follow the Water
by Dallas Murphy
2007 by Basic Books
Hardcover, 256pp
ISBN: 1-58243-350-x

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