Saint Young Men

By Hikaru Nakamura

With the premise of Jesus and Buddha taking a “gap year” from their divine existence to share an apartment in modern day Tokyo, I knew I had to check it out!  I was able to get a collected volume of the first 15 chapters at my local library, which has now opened for curbside pickup. According to the forward written by the Curator of Japanese Arts at the British Museum, it has been very popular in Japan for years, but has only been published in English last year. The British Museum was actually instrumental in the translation, and the forward describes the challenge of trying to accurately capture the puns and word plays.

The English edition is bristling with inline notes translating t-shirt slogans and other Japanese text within the illustrations, and post-chapter endnotes giving more extensive context for scenes, often explaining key elements of Christianity, Buddhism, and modern Japanese culture. In the end, it was these ‘translation notes’ that I found the most interesting.

At first description, I had imagined Saint Young Men as a comic book, with a single earthly adventure each issue, but it is more like a collection of comic strips with setups and punch lines every page or two. Which, there’s nothing wrong with that, but the forward was right, that it makes it a lot harder to translate. In addition to the language itself, there are such strong cultural elements to humor that I have to admit that I was often more confused than amused. So, it wasn’t so much the funny pages for me, but really interesting to read a light-hearted take on two religions, one of which I’m a lot more familiar with than the other.

The notes on Christianity tended to be fairly basic elements, almost all of which I already knew (think allusions to ‘loaves and fishes’ and the like), and I have to assume the Buddhist ones are similarly basic, but they were almost entirely new to me (his hair is tightly curled due to his divinity – though some quick research said that at least on some statues, those curls might be snails). About halfway through the book, I wondered if I should be a bit offended that Jesus is a hyperactive, low-attention-span man-child while Buddha is more sober and reflective, but Rebecca proposed that “odd couple” setup might be a manga trope that I’m also just not that familiar with.

All in all, I don’t know that I really ‘got’ the comic the way it is intended, but I did find it a fascinating read, so it is worth it for that, if you are interested in the niche cross-section of religions and manga. When looking for a cover image, I ran across some subtitled animated scenes from the book, which give a pretty good preview of the culture-clash-based humor.

Here For It: Or, How to Save Your Soul in America

By R. Eric Thomas

Here_For_ItWhew, this book! I’m a big fan of R. Eric Thomas’ weekly e-newsletter,* and figured this would be a similar collection of essays: a combination of very funny personal anecdotes and political/social commentary. And it was, but just…even better: deeper, more complex, shockingly poignant. I was in awe of how he balanced humor and gravity, and how artistically he threaded themes through his personal life into reflections of our country as a whole.

One sentence, I’ll be laughing out loud, and the next will stop me short:

“The fact that I sometimes enjoyed dating a boy was, to say the least, discomfirming information for a Christian, black-esque straight person who spent his free time carefully curating an Audra McDonald fan page on the internet. And it didn’t feel like there were two sides of me fighting for dominance; it felt like I was coming apart at some basic level, like I was becoming diffuse, like water becomes mist.”

… “like water becomes mist.” Whew!

Thomas has had hard times, as he struggled with what it meant to be black, gay, and deeply Christian in America, but he finds such reflective truths and ultimate optimism that it was an ideal read right now. In his introduction, Thomas talks about his childhood love for Sesame Street’s The Monster At the End of This Book. It’s a funny, light-hearted critique of a children’s book through the retrospective adult lens. By the end, he ties this all into how difficult life seems now, but how important it is to forge ahead (as a very skilled professional writer, he of course does this much more meaningfully than I can). The title of his book comes from his conclusion that he is “here for it,” it being his life, with all its ups and downs, and that is how you save your soul in America.

*I have to plug his analysis of Governor Cuomo’s covid-themed poster, which had me howling!

You Can’t Touch My Hair

By Phoebe Robinson

You_Can't_Touch_My_HairI decided to take a break from reading serious intellectual books about race and racism, and instead turn to a funny book about race and racism! And honestly, comedian Phoebe Robinson touches on many of the points from So You Want to Talk About Race and White Fragility through humor, pop culture, and personal anecdotes, so I really recommend this to anyone who wants to laugh while they learn some hard truths. Actually, I just recommend this to anyone, since Robinson is a very smart and funny writer on a whole range of topics:

  • Do you want to know which Hall & Oats lyrics summarize the entirety of human history?
  • Do you want detailed advice on how to correctly google yourself?
  • How to avoid being the Black Friend? (or conversely and more importantly, how to avoid tokenizing a friend as your Black Friend)

She kicks the book off right away with her titular hair: how her hair, society’s reactions to it, and the affect those reactions had on her evolved over her youth and young adulthood, culminating in a history of black hair in media which illustrates the decades it took for natural black hair to be even slightly accepted today.

For me, one of the most striking stories she tells is about a director she worked with, which quite literally runs down all the hallmarks of white fragility like a checklist: denial of racist words, reassurance of being a good person, burdensome guilt-ridden apology and request to ‘talk it out further,’ and the final cherry on top of turning to a different black person for absolution. It should seriously be used as the prime example in DiAngelo’s book!

My favorite part of the book, however, was toward the end where she writes a series of letters of ‘advice’ to her “all-time favorite person: my two-and-a-half-year-old biracial niece, Olivia.” As a professional comedian, of course she’s funny, but she really shines when she’s also sincere: “Seeing how you view the world makes me happy. Ah! A comedian expressing a genuine emotion and not following it with a joke. Full disclosure: That was really, really hard for me to do just then.”

In addition to wanting to make sure Olivia doesn’t miss such pop culture gems as DMX singing “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” she tells her how great it is to be black, to be a woman, and even tags in John Hodgman for the difficult task of talking up being white without sounding racist! (You’re going to want to read the story of John taking his friend Wyatt—who I assume is Wyatt Cenac—to a gourmet mayonnaise shop in Brooklyn.)

And finally, in her advice on being sex-positive, she goes on a lengthy tangent about the problematic 2014 movie Kingsman: The Secret Service, which first of all, shocked me about that movie since I’d never seen it, but then made me want to read an entire book of her dissecting what does and does not work in movies and tv shows. This book is so chock full of pop culture references that I finally just had to appreciate the ones that I got and let the rest pass, or I would have been constantly jumping over to google.

The Moral Judgments of Henry David Thoreau

By Kathryn Schulz

ThoreauAs I mentioned previously, I’m struggling with full-length novels, and even short stories seem to require a level of focus I don’t quite have in me right now. However, I ran across this five-year-old take down of Henry David Thoreau, and gleefully read the whole article in a matter of minutes. I’ve already described my love of writers dunking on other writers (and politicians), and this is up there with the best of them.

I’d heard before that Walden was much less remote than Thoreau described and that his ‘isolation’ there is the epitome of invisible women’s labor as his mother brought him food and did his laundry, but Schulz drags him point-by-point in this beautifully comprehensive and funny essay. A few choice excerpts, but I highly recommend the entire thing:

“I cannot idolize anyone who opposes coffee (especially if the objection is that it erodes great civilizations; had the man not heard of the Enlightenment?), but Thoreau never met an appetite too innocuous to denounce.”

“Food was bad, drink was bad, even shelter was suspect, and Thoreau advised keeping it to a minimum.”

Judge_MathisAdditionally, a more low-brow, comfort read during this time is Samantha Irby’s semi-daily recapping of whatever Judge Mathis episode she watched on YouTube the previous day. This is basically exactly my attention span right now, a funny, rambling, mostly kind discourse on low-stakes court-room drama. I look forward to them every day, and they are one of the many little things helping me get through these times.

Medallion Status

By John Hodgman

Medallion_StatusI’ve been listening to a lot of the Judge John Hodgman podcast at work, since it is very soothing. Two funny, smart hosts (Judge John Hodgman and Bailiff Jesse Thorn) adjudicate cases of very little significance. In one of my recent favorites, a husband “sues” his wife to prevent her from getting a worm-based compost bin in their apartment, and it is hilarious, hilariously gross, and charming. In this episode, as per usual, Hodgman charmingly gets at the base issue and finds a solution that leaves both parties extremely pleased, and it is so refreshing.

While mired halfway through Smoke, I put a hold on Medallion Status, figuring it would be the perfect fluffy palette cleanser. And I was 100% correct! While I know Hodgman best from his guest appearances as the deranged billionaire on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, he is most generally well known as the PC in the old Apple ads. He is the first to acknowledge that was the height of his fame, too. With the ads came more regular roles on television shows, and a gold medallion status on his airline of choice.

In Medallion Status, he reflects surprisingly poignantly on the weirdness, seductiveness, and elusiveness of even relatively minor fame. It is also so consistently funny; I was giggling out loud every few minutes in what I’m sure was a very annoying manner. His writing is so deceptively simple that over and over again I would be caught off guard with just how funny it was.

Nice Try: Stories of Best Intentions and Mixed Results

By Josh Gondelman

Nice_TryWhile I’m talking about funny, kind white men, I also have to recommend Josh Gondelman and his collection of personal stories, Nice Try. He is an incredibly funny comedian – his standup album “Physical Whisper” is one of my favorites – and is frequently referred to as the nicest guy in comedy (thus the title of his book). And he is super nice! His comedy is self-deprecating, but also wildly relatable, about trying your best to navigate increasingly complicated life while feeling like you might be missing some key tools.

The book collects stories his written for other publications and additional personal stories. In one chapter, he talks about struggling with his growing awareness of how problematic the NFL is, both physically and socially, with how love for the game was an important way to bond with his family (this also led him to co-create #agoodgame, tying points scored to donations). In another he talks about adopting a dog that may or may not have been stolen from its original owner, and figuring out what to do about that, with the same amount of maturity and savvy as any of the rest of us (i.e., none). It’s all very funny in a way that is laughing with, not at, all of us about how ridiculous life can be sometimes.

My Planet by Mary Roach

myplanetMy Planet: Finding Humor in the Oddest Places
written by Mary Roach
read by Angela Dawe
2013

I’ve loved (and been grossed out by) every book that I’ve read by Mary Roach… except this one. This is quite the departure from the other books since it’s actually a compilation of short anecdotes that she wrote for a regular column in Reader’s Digest. They’re often cute and funny but I didn’t find any of them particularly interesting and by their very nature, they were fairly repetitive when in a collection rather than a serial: her husband Ed gets introduced at the beginning of at least half of them. They’re essentially a cheery little sitcom of a life, with many of the traditional sitcom tropes including both mocking and perpetuating 1950s stereotypes of married life. And I just don’t care for sitcoms.

To summarize: it’s well written for its intended audience, but that audience isn’t really me.

The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine

PrinceOleomargarineThe Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine
by Mark Twain and Philip Stead
illustrated by Erin Stead
2017

I saw this at a library book sale and it was a Mark Twain story that I had never heard of before and had beautiful illustrations so I bought it and then the sale was over so I sat down on one of the library benches and I read it and it is sweet and sharp and funny and pleasing. It also reminded me of The Princess Bride in the way it pulls back from the story periodically to remind the reader that it is a story and that the people telling the story have their own story happening.

And: I need to reiterate this: the illustrations are beautiful and make excellent use of white space.

So while this is a children’s story, it’s also an adult story, and even the children’s fairy tale section has some rather pointed aspects as one would expect from Mark Twain. Plus, the history of the actual book is incorporated into the background of the story in a way to intentionally blur the lines between reality and fiction.

But the history of the book is that Mark Twain wrote down extensive but incomplete notes for this story, and those notes were only relatively recently identified within his his archive, at which point the rights to co-author, finish, and publish the story were licensed out.

Anyway, this is very cute and I definitely recommend it, but I am sufficiently out of touch with children these days that I have no idea what the intended age range for it is.

Love for the Cold-Blooded by Alex Gabriel

coldbloodedLove for the Cold-Blooded: Or: The Part-Time Evil Minion’s Guide to Accidentally Dating a Superhero
by Alex Gabriel
2014

This is such an amazingly delightful and hilarious book! I highly recommend it! It had me chortling to myself. It also had so many scenes that I would have expected to hit my second-hand-embarrassment squick but instead sailed right past it with a derogatory look of: don’t expect these characters to be embarrassed by anything they do or allow anyone else to be embarrassed on their behalf. They are just fine with rolling with the situations.

And as a warning to Anna: it does have graphic sex scenes, that are not only graphic but also involve significant character development and plot progression so they can’t just be skipped.

This is the world of superheroes at it’s best: the superhero world of Saturday morning cartoons where the good guys win but the bad guys get away and no one is ever permanently harmed. The drama is high, the philosophy is pointed, and the aesthetics are amazing.

It also reminds me a bit of The Rest of Us Just Live Here since Pat, our main character who does the occasional part-time duty as a minion to whatever supervillain is currently making a bid for world domination, is mostly a college student who loves his major and has a pretty decent part-time job. He’s just so irrepressible and he loves his mom and dad and his sisters and his studies to be an urban developer and even being a minion is often annoying but sometimes fun and just part of life.

And Nicholas Andersen is the Tony Stark / Bruce Wayne of this world: the billionaire philanthropist tech-genius with awkward social skills who starts out thinking that Pat is the prostitute he requested sent up. (And Pat isn’t about to say “no” to sex with a hot guy who apparently wants to have sex with him.) And then life happens and it is all so ludicrously delightful and I love it!

stillwatersStill Waters
by Alex Gabriel
2015

As soon as I finished “Love for the Cold Blooded” I went to check out the author’s page for more. Sadly, there’s not much else and nothing in the last three years, but this novella is still really good.

It packs a fascinating amount of world-building around a very character-driven fantasy plot. Anyone who has read a lot of urban fantasy knows that it comes in a wide range of styles: from dark/gritty/game-of-thrones-esque to light/fluffy/romcom-esque. Are werewolves vicious slavering creatures going on murderous rampages or are they people who turn into puppies? In this story, they are both! Because the background premise is that there are rips that will occasionally allow people from one world to pass into a different world.

Drakjan, going by Julian, is one such individual. The world he’s from is a dark and dangerous fantasy world in which vicious creatures fight and kill and the world he’s now in is a softer fantasy world in which those same fantasy creatures share borders and have council meetings and are shocked when one of their own is murdered!

One of the great things about this book is Drakjan’s perspective because the whole world is so foreign to him even after  he’s settled in to the periphery of life in the new world, giving up the joy of killing for the pleasure of peace. But he’s still very much an outsider looking in, not quite understanding how (or even why) to fit in with the rest of the society.

The plot happens when someone else comes through another rip. (Two someones actually: a love-interest and a plot-point.) The plot is extremely straight forward but the characters and the world building are amazing and it’s just as well that the plot doesn’t get in the way of that. I would love to read more but it’s also self-contained as is.

Hey Ladies!

By Michelle Markowitz and Caroline Moss

Hey_LadiesAfter all my recent disappointments, I decided to go with a book with zero male voices at all. Hey Ladies! started as a randomly occurring column on the late, lamented Toast.

It was one of my favorites – just a series of emails from the most vapid group of friends trying to plan outrageous outings – but it was also a bit controversial on The Toast, with some commenters feeling like it was too broadly satirizing women in general and tipping over into anti-feminism. For the book, which borrows and expands from the original columns, the authors wrote a forward in which they explicitly write:

We’re not making fun of you or your friends or women in general. We’re making fun of ourselves, and how mass emails to big groups seem to bring out the “OMG SO EXCITED!!!!!!!!!” in all of us.

I have to admit that I was skeptical, because while I always looked forward to a Hey Ladies! column, it was definitely a sharply-pointed satire of a certain class of women. And the beginning of the book was exactly the same seven truly appalling women (and one audience-proxy who mostly doesn’t respond) that entertained me so much before.

But, damn me if by only a quarter through the book, I started getting twinges of sympathy for each character: Nicole who is always mooching off her friends, but is clearly scrabbling to maintain the lifestyle that lets her keep her friends; Ali who railroads everyone into her preferred decisions, but is also just trying to a decision made; Caitlin who is on the edge of success as a social media influencer but also really does honestly want to help everyone around her; etc.

I mean, good satire lures you into some introspection on how you view yourself and others, right?

Homeschool Sex Machine

By Matthew Pierce

Book Cover: Homeschool Sex MachineI don’t even remember what internet rabbit hole led me to Matthew Pierce’s blog, but the entries I read were funny enough that I decided it was worth $2.99 to get them compiled in his kindle book. The author was primarily homeschooled up to 10th grade, and he describes the experience, and that niche community, hilariously and self-deprecatingly. I kept expecting some anger or bitterness, but he writes respectfully, if briefly, about his religiously conservative parents, and ultimately affectionately about his upbringing.

I got a little grumpy about it, actually, and ended up having to face some personal bias against religious conservatism that I would have preferred to ignore in myself. Personal issues aside, though, it was a really interesting and entertaining look a childhood much, much different from my own. He has a sequel about attending a Christian college, which I look forward to reading just as soon as I work up some acceptance for Christian colleges.

In case this review has not already made my religious lack clear, I have tested as being damned to an inner circle of Dantes’ Hell. Rebecca found an online quiz that tells you where you belong in the 9 circles, and it was all fun and games as every other member of my family headed off to limbo to hang out with famous philosophers, and then I was consigned to burn in sepulchers with all the other heretics.

—Anna

The Dante’s Inferno Test has banished you to the Sixth Level of Hell – The City of Dis!
Here is how you matched up against all the levels:

Level Score
Purgatory (Repending Believers) Very Low
Level 1 – Limbo (Virtuous Non-Believers) Moderate
Level 2 (Lustful) Low
Level 3 (Gluttonous) High
Level 4 (Prodigal and Avaricious) Low
Level 5 (Wrathful and Gloomy) Moderate
Level 6 – The City of Dis (Heretics) Very High
Level 7 (Violent) High
Level 8 – The Malebolge (Fraudulent, Malicious, Panderers) Moderate
Level 9 – Cocytus (Treacherous) Moderate

Take the Dante’s Inferno Hell Test