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This week, we look at a new … um … oh, wow, I totally forgot what I was gonna say …
An author once asked me, apparently with genuine curiosity, why I was devoting a considered review to his book, which he characterized as ”an Urban Outfitters bathroom reader.” (I don’t want to call him out here, but you can find the review in question quite easily in the Kirkus Reviews archives.) While obviously tongue-in-cheek, it still seemed like a disingenuous question to me. If you’re going to spend months — or even days — writing a book, and other people are going to put up good money to pay you to do it, and then to market it afterward, is it really so unlikely for someone like me to spend a few hours reading it and formulating a thoughtful response? I don’t mean taking cheap shots at low-hanging fruit (to mix a metaphor), but rather to do the job if criticism; to look for meaning even in humble things.
You’re over-thinking it, an author might say. It’s just a joke. But jokes mean something, too. Why go to the trouble of making something, even a joke, if not for other people to think about it — even if they’re thinking about it while sitting on the can?
I mention this now because I’ve just read a book that seems calculated, from its very premise, to resist any attempt to take it seriously, to repel any standard of critical discourse as a duck repels water. It’s called How To Be, and it’s by Tracie Egan Morrissey and Rich Juzwiak. It’s an outgrowth of their Web video series ”Pot Psychology,” which appears at Jezebel — Egan Morrissey helped found the site, while Juzwiak has a regular gig at Gawker — and it’s billed as ”lowbrow advice from high people.”
And seriously, that’s the shtick. Rich and Tracie are two best friends who get blazed regularly and dispense life advice. In the Web videos, they’re responding to letters from readers, because even a couple of potheads know better than to give advice unasked. In the translation from Web to print, however, the reader’s-choice conceit is mostly dropped. We see only one emailed question — although, to be fair, it’s a dilly; it starts with ”I’m interested in your advice for a girl with a penis, in two scenarios…” and gets better from there.
In the absence of such, um, idiosyncratic inquiries, though, the book must stand or fall on the author’s voices and choices. Juzwiak and Egan Morrissey stick to some general topics in How To Be. True to the ”lowbrow” label, they lean towards the juvenile and gross in these micro-essays: along with smart and sensitive pieces on the perils of workplace etiquette and proper courtesy to the disabled, we get pieces on ”How to Be Around Whores,” ”How to Be Gassy in Public,” ”How to Be Covert When Scratching Your Crotch,” ”How to Be Polite about Someone Else’s Booger,” and the like.
The funny thing is — and it’s considerably funnier than most of the book — is that by being so determinedly quote-unquote ”outrageous,” Juzwiak and Egan Morrissey are actually playing it safe…
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