Betty Scott

Review: ‘We Are Never Meeting in Real Life’ by Samantha Irby

We Are Never Meeting In Real Life_9781101912195_21754

In her collection of essays We Are Never Meeting in Real Life, Samantha Irby has done the impossible. There are books full of poop jokes. There are books that make salient points about African-American women and mental health. There has never been a book that does both, let alone does both well–until now.*

Even if you have never read Samantha Irby’s excellent blog, Bitches Gotta Eat, you’ll feel like you know this woman on a deep level by the time you finish the second essay, “A Blues for Fred.” It is the moving account of finally finding a man who has both curtains and towels after dating a string of adult children, only to see the relationship end in heartache. It comes right after an essay where Irby describes her large ankles on an imaginary reality show application, but it’s also right before one about a “pig demon from hell.” She later juxtaposes the fact that working class families who lack the ability to invest in turn cannot teach their children about financial planning,  thereby perpetuating a cycle of poverty, with a joke about pooping at parties. In another essay, she paints an intimate portrait of an erotically-charged moment between her and a sexy musician, then graces her readers with a poop joke.

Lest this review sell the book short, it must be said: these are all truly excellent poop jokes. Some of them have somewhat elaborate set-ups, while others catch you by surprise. They puncture the heaviest parts of this book and let out some emotional weight, much like a colon emptying into a toilet. Just when you think the book is about to make you cry, it makes you burst into laughter instead. If you did already start crying, you just sit there cackling with snot dripping off your face, wondering if laughing this hard at someone’s account of being in the emergency room with a heart problem makes you a terrible person. No, it doesn’t make you terrible. It makes Samantha Irby a rare talent.

Saying that We Are Never Meeting in Real Life is full of heavy material without being burdened with pretension or melodrama understates what Irby accomplishes. The realness and candor here aren’t preachy or moralistic–Irby’s dark humor and self-deprecating style charm you into wanting to read more about how the diet industry is full of toxic garbage. Also, Irby has lived a hell of a life. Have you ever wondered about the cliquey old women doing aqua-aerobics at the Y? About the illegal sprinkling of cremains? Do you have questions regarding the wearing of strap-on dildos? This book has answers. You’ll also find some fun linguistic creativity. Won’t someone please get “turtleneckini” into the Oxford English Dictionary?

While it’s not for the prudish or for readers who prefer emotional honesty sweetened like tea for a smooth ride down, We Are Never Meeting in Real Life is a must-read for pretty much everyone else. If you only read one brutally honest book of essays laced with scatalogical humor this year, it should be this one.

*Unless you count her first book, Meaty, but this one is even better than Meaty.


We Are Never Meeting in Real Life by Samantha Irby (Vintage | 9781101912195 | May 30, 2017)

Review: ‘Swimming on Hwy N’ by Mary Troy

Swimming on Hwy N_5824d91c9a337.imageReaders seeking an antidote to the omnipresent New York novel will find it in Mary Troy’s Swimming on Hwy N. Rather than focusing on one or two twenty-somethings (perhaps with too much time and money on their hands) picking up life lessons in the Big Apple, this book features an array of eccentric characters road tripping west of the Mississippi. Beginning in Bourbon, Missouri with a thrice-married woman in her sixties and ending at the US-Canadian border with two young lovers, it winds through a few different states and character arcs in between.

Troy’s novel also avoids another cliché of contemporary reading material–the tendency to depict the “flyover states” as monolithic right-wing strongholds. Rather than choosing sides and painting middle America as either the last bastion of hard-working, common-sense people or a vast reservoir of hateful idiocy, Troy’s Middle America is full of real people with differing ideas and perspectives. While it does seem likely that the author is a bit left of center, each character is nuanced, containing both strength and weakness. A young man who deserts his post during the Iraq War and relies on a network of old hippies to help him evade the authorities is just as flawed as an aged crackpot circulating an Alex Jones-style newsletter to a tiny audience. (One of the novel’s many moments of wry humor occurs when it is revealed that one of the hippies is perhaps the newsletter’s most devoted fan.) Troy allows these characters to both be played for laughs and exposed as vulnerable, regardless of who or where they are in life.

The range of characters and the time in which it is set (the second Bush presidency) allow Troy to draw similarities between the 1960’s, the recent past, and today. The book also has a winding plot that reflects the journey of the characters, veering off course unexpectedly and taking strange turns into the unknown. Peppered into this trip are flashbacks and interior monologues, deepening and thickening the plot. Whether readers enjoy this indirectness will be a matter of taste, but surely nobody will findSwimming on Hwy N typical, predictable, or narrow.


Swimming on Hwy N by Mary Troy (The University of Arkansas Press | 9780913785898 | November 1, 2016)

Review: ‘La Croix Water’ by Russell Jaffe

La Croix WaterTimely. Relevant. Zeitgeisty.

These seem like the best words to describe poet Russell Jaffe’s latest chapbook, La Croix Water. In both form and in theme, it holds a magnifying class to contemporary American culture in a way poetry doesn’t often do. It is a meditation on the feelings surrounding Jaffe’s realization that a beloved object of his childhood is now hugely popular. Longtime Star Wars nerds and comic book aficionados have voiced their feelings on going from mocked and marginalized to seeming to be just another poseur. For Jaffe it’s not a Jabba the Hutt figurine or a Deadpool hoodie that stirs these emotions. It’s a canned beverage.

Whether it’s the recent episode of the Gastropod podcast or the social media hashtags promoted by Sundance Beverage Company’s corporate PR team, there are many examples of how LaCroix water is having a moment. Also of the moment are listicles, BuzzFeed quizzes, and other interactive content. It’s fitting, then, that after Jaffe’s personal testament to his connection to the drink, the book moves on to a list of flavors, offered as a “Which Flavor Are You?” exploration. While it’s anyone’s guess how Jaffe devised these flavor/personality correlations, it’s undeniable that each of these poems is unique. Rich with imagery and varying in form, they both accept the commodification of the personal and reject the shallow nature of this type of marketing. While they’re unified by the listicle style and endings that utilize parenthetical fragments, each poem leaves an impression in the mind as different from the next as Pamplemousse and Cerise-Limón.

Adding to the interactive nature of this collection are the invitations at the end of each section for readers to write their own thoughts on the various flavors, personal connections to the product, and/or stream of consciousness bubble enjoyment.  This reflects the ambition of both Jaffe and his publisher, Damask Press, which is committed to releasing unique artifacts rather than churning out a series of interchangeable poetry chapbooks. Whether you interpret La Croix Water as a statement about late capitalism, a moment frozen as if in amber, one man’s testament to his love of seltzer, or a way for people to meaningfully create and connect through beverage company marketing, this chapbook is as refreshing as a can of Melón-Pomelo.


La Croix Water by Russell Jaffe (Damask Press)

Page and Screen: ‘Grand Hotel’ by Vicki Baum

grandhotel9781590179673_91c23Movie enthusiasts might know Vicki Baum’s 1929 novel Grand Hotel as the source material for the classic film of the same name. Released in 1932 and directed by Edmund Golding, it features greats like Greta Garbo, the Barrymore brothers, and Wallace Beery while often being remembered as Joan Crawford’s breakthrough role. If you loved the movie, or at least had heard about it and were curious enough to look for the book, finding it was somewhat difficult for many years. This summer, however, NYRB published a new edition translated from the original German by Basil Creighton (also known for bringing Hesse’s Steppenwolf into English) and with an introduction from Noah Isenberg, whose book on Weimar cinema demonstrates his expert knowledge of Grand Hotel‘s context.

There are many movies based on books; not all are worth a casual reader’s time. Grand Hotel is one that not only stands on its own merits and is culturally interesting in its own right but also lends a bit of insight into the film. Like the movie, the book features an ensemble cast of characters with well-defined motivations who begin the novel as strangers but soon feature prominently in one another’s lives. The balance between characters and transitions between perspectives are generally flawless; while a few sections run overlong, Baum’s sense of timing feels smooth and natural. These characters develop in interesting ways over the course of only a few days and nights, and it is these changes that draw readers into each personal drama. Whether it’s watching a bland bureaucrat become truly corrupt or seeing people who had been mere performers in their own lives discover genuine feelings, it’s hard to resist being pulled into the separate stories as they become tightly linked.

These characters are, of course, living in Germany just before the rise of the Nazi party. Neither they nor the author could’ve known what would happen to the country (and the world) soon after the events of the novel, and this element of the book–its existence as a sort of cultural time capsule–makes it even more fascinating. Grand Hotel offers a peek at the growing class resentment bubbling beneath the surface of polite German society in the form of a lovable underdog who spends his final days living big, and this awareness of social stratification is explicitly referenced at several other points as well. A character who is a part time typist, part time nude model, part time concubine (partly out of financial necessity and partly out of a desire for new frocks) plays upon social anxieties about the New Woman without becoming a morality play. The perspectives of the hotel workers pepper the narrative, offering a behind the scenes look at the banal day-to-day operations that make it possible for the wealthy playboys to dance to jazz and drink Louisiana Flips and humanizing figures often relegated to the background or treated as human props.

Baum also captures the strange liminality of Weimar milieu through fascinating snapshots of transition and artful tonal shifts. People get stuck between coming and going, and the novel stops to notice when the music has stopped and not yet started again. The old high-class entertainments like ballet are being supplanted by lowbrow pursuits like boxing; those who try to cling to the past find the world they knew is slipping away, but people immersed in this new culture are unfulfilled, lonely in a crowd, and caught between a past that’s not quite gone and a future that has not yet arrived. At The Grand Hotel, the present is an uncomfortable wait in the lobby as the revolving door send people to unknown destinations and brings in new customers from parts equally unknown. There’s always a feeling that “the real thing” is happening somewhere else, or has already happened, or is yet to come. Knowing, as a reader, exactly what is to come for Germany makes this tension even more striking and uncomfortable.

The novel isn’t all uneasy modernity and meditations on mortality, though. The novel’s darkness rests beneath witty banter between hotel guests, charming vignettes, and dashes of light humor. There are passages full of adventure that marvel at the novelties of the age, like airplane flight and the spectacle of flashing neon. While Baum ultimately ends her book with a reminder that even the honeymoon couple faces “an abyss of loneliness,” the moments of meaningful connection between characters and wonder at the small joys in life prevent it from being a dreary read. Playful enough to be fun while serious enough to have substance, Grand Hotel is both an excellent example of fiction from its own time and a timeless classic.


Grand Hotel by Vicki Baum, translated by Basil Creighton, revised by Margot Bettauer Dembo, introduction by Noah Isenberg (NYRB Classics | 9781590179673 | June 7, 2016)

Page & Screen: ‘We Eat Our Own’ by Kea Wilson

WeEatOurOwn_9781501128318_851cbAt a time when postmodernism and nostalgia saturate the cultural landscape, a novel that proudly references beloved genre works of the past and flaunts its literary influences isn’t remarkable. There are probably half a dozen summer titles fitting this description on any bookstore’s shelves right now, and perhaps another half dozen will release this fall. Kea Wilson’s We Eat Our Own separates itself from the pack with effective second-person storytelling, a fascinating setting, wide-ranging research that will satisfy compulsive fact-checkers, and a writing style that’s as varied and unpredictable as the novel’s characters.

The cast includes an American actor desperate for a break (and a break from life’s troubles), his provocative female costar, their slightly deranged Italian director, the members of a South American drug cartel, and a few lackeys from an Amazonian paramilitary organization, among others. A giant anaconda also figures into the plot. This book is about the making of a horror film, but it’s also about the mechanics of fear, which makes it infinitely more interesting than if it were merely a paean to giallo and slasher flicks. The trickiness of verisimilitude between life and art and the struggle to locate personal identity, rather than exist as a passive product of culture, form a dark undercurrent in the story, much like the Amazon River flowing past many of the book’s locales.

Anyone interested in film production, the craft of acting, special effects, or South American politics will find any of those subjects a handy inroad to the complex web of people and events within We Eat Our Own, but you don’t have to be a movie buff or political science major to become lost in this tense tale. The courtroom drama sections similarly enrich without requiring legal knowledge. In fact, it’s these portions of the book that show best how Wilson is herself much like the unhinged director at the heart of the novel. She withholds information from the reader while seeming to share it, leaving crucial pieces of the puzzle for the end of the book, and her awareness of what brutality and violence can do never hinder her willingness to thrust it onto the page. With a quick point of view change, she deepens a character or bends the plot. Stylistic elements like parallel structure and a penchant for posing questions artfully blend form and function.

We Eat Our Own would be easy to sell as a creepy Halloween read, but it’s much more than that. Part mystery, part social novel, part love letter to the dark underbelly of film, it works on so many levels that I ran out of fingers trying to count them all. Holding equal appeal to the cultural theorist and schlock-film junkie, Wilson’s novel slips the bonds of genre to become something uniquely its own.


We Eat Our Own by Kea Wilson (Scribner | 9781501128318 | September 6, 2016)