Monday, November 24, 2008

I like to laugh at people

While reading The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, Bill Bryson's humorous memoir of his childhood in 1950's Iowa, I realized that I'm a fiend for funny memoirs. Bryson, Sedaris, Burroughs, Notaro--they're all willing to humble themselves by revealing painfully embarrassing stories about themselves, not to mention anger their relatives and friends by sharing their secret, less-than-proud moments with the world, too. In my affection for this genre, I thought I'd mention some of my favorites. I figure its a good time of year, what with seasonal depression and stressful family visits upon us.

I love all of David Sedaris's autobiographical essays, but Me Talk Pretty One Day has to be my favorite collection. Sedaris writes about everything from his time as a child hiding his lisp by avoiding words with S's in them to his time as an adult hiding his ignorance of singular nouns in French by purchasing two of everything when in France, and demonstrates his expertise at bringing out the humor in awkward situations. One particular story recounting experiences from his French immersion class had me crying with laughter. He uses broken English and not quite right vocabulary to simulate the stumbling beginner French of the students. In the story, the class tries to explain Easter to a Muslim student and is unable to create the phrase "died an went to Heaven" in French and arrives at "went upstairs to live with your dad." The only thing better than reading this dialog is hearing Sedaris read it. If you have some time stuck on a roadtrip to see the family coming up, I highly, highly recommend you grab the audiobook version of this.

While I've only read a couple books by Augusten Burroughs, Possible Side Effects is my favorite so far. There's no real theme tying these stories together--it's a jumble of autobiographical essays--but that doesn't affect the quality of the individual stories. One key difference between Burroughs and Sedaris or Bryson is that he often presents himself as unlikable. In this book, we see him as a passenger in a friends car flashing bad drivers with signs featuring pornographic images and driving tips, on an author tour in England unable to do anything but eat junk food and watch television, in a bar providing poor advice to a friend on writing a singles ad, and in a doll-filled bed and breakfast writing creepy notes in the guest book with his partner. The fact that Burroughs manages to make readers laugh while thinking that he is a jerk is a testament to his skill as a humor writer. Possible Side Effects is also available in audio (CD or MP3).

Laurie Notaro is much in the same vein as Sedaris and Burroughs, but with less focus on her childhood. Her first book, The Idiot Girl's Action Adventure Club, reveals her twenty-something self living the fast, hard life. Bad boyfriends, alcohol and nicotine addictions, and dead end jobs feature prominently, and Notaro manages to squeeze humor from these oft-used, rather depressing topics. She eventually settles down and moves away from her native Phoenix with her new husband, and has continued to write about her inner wild child adapting to a cultured domesticity. She's also published a fantastically funny fiction work called There's a Slight Chance I Might be Going to Hell: a Novel of Sewer Pipes, Pageant Queens, and Big Trouble, which is really about a woman trying to fit in in a new community. One suspects this was inspired by real life events. While Idiot Girls is not available in audio, There's a Slight Chance is downloadable.

Getting back to Bill Bryson and his young life as the Thunderbolt Kid, there's a lot less self-deprecation in his story when compared to the others. While he does provide some humorous family anecdotes, he also spends a good deal of time considering how ridiculous things were in 1950s US. It's very different from the other authors presented here, but just as funny. The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid is also available at the library in both audiobook on CD and downloadable MP3 formats.

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