James Acaster’s Guide to Quitting Social Media, by James Acaster

I’d definitely only recommend this book to someone who was already a fan of comedian James Acaster, but even then, I think I would ask you, “Which James Acaster are you a fan of?” Do you like his quirky, far-fetched stories that begin by sounding like they might be drawn from real life but quickly spin off into absurdist humour, as in his book James Acaster’s Classic Scrapes (2017) and his Netflix series Repertoire (2018)? Or did you prefer the tragicomic searing honesty of his book Perfect Sound Whatever and his stand-up show Cold Lasagne Hate Myself 1999 (both 2019), in which he turned his own very real struggles with mental health into revealing comedy and biting satire? Because your expectations of what you’re getting in a James Acaster book are going to depend a lot on your answers to that question.

Having enjoyed all of Acaster’s previous work, I definitely enjoyed the more recent stand-up special the most and felt like he was on a trajectory from the whimsical absurdity of his early work to the darker, more autobiographical material in his later work. I knew he actually had quit most if not all social media within the past few years, and with book I was expecting — yes, some quirky absurdist humour in the form of a self-help book, for sure, but threaded through with material drawn from the comedian’s real life experiences of being on, and then off, social media. It felt like writing about social media in 2022 would be a natural continuation from talking about having a mental breakdown in 2019, and I was expecting this book to be funny and twisted but also dark and revealing, a further step into the territory explored in Cold Lasagne.

This … is not that.

It’s also not a genuine self-help book about how to quit social media, although honestly, if that part wasn’t obvious from the title, the cover, and everything about the book, you probably are not prepared for James Acaster’s comedy and you should just back away slowly and go find something that’s more your style (comedy being so wildly subjective and all).

James Acaster’s Guide to Quitting Social Media returns to the wacky, offbeat spirit of the Netflix specials, in which Acaster writes in first person as a character who is … well, named James Acaster, but a sort of parallel-universe James Acaster. who deals with his addiction to social media by painting over the screens of all his devices with tar and leaving them in a storage locker in a small town in Wales, then returns to London to live in a castle with a bizarre band of misfits who are similarly devoted to the internet-free lifestyle. It’s absolutely bonkers, and lots of fun, as long as you weren’t relying on this book to actually teach you anything about quitting social media.

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An Embarrassment of Critch’s, by Mark Critch

Comedian Mark Critch had a tough act to follow with his debut memoir Son of a Critch, the funniest thing I’ve ever listened to on audiobook and such a hit that it’s currently being made into a TV series. The first book had better material to work with: adulthood is never as funny as childhood, and the two outstanding characters in Son of a Critch were Mark’s parents, vividly brought to life by Mark in the audio version. However, this second book of (as the subtitle tells us) “Immature Stories from my Grown-Up Life” is still very funny and full of insights into what it means to “make it” in the comedy business in this country.

From Critch’s earliest days as a young actor in the Trinity pageant, starring alongside out-of-work fishermen being trained for a new kind of stage, through hair-raising advetures with the troops in Afghanistan, to eventual stardom on This Hour Has 22 Minutes, Mark Critch does a great job of telling us about the highs and lows (but mostly lows, because they’re funnier) of Canadian show business. It might not get made into a TV show (after all, much of it is about a TV show, which might be a bit too meta), but An Embarrassment of Critch’s is a worthy follow-up to Son of a Critch, and as with the first book, you really have to listen to the author performing it to get the full value.

Did Ye Hear Mammy Died? by Seamus O’Reilly

This is one of those books that’s so perfect I want to buy a paper copy now that I’ve listened to the audio book, just so I can have it on my shelf, and possibly also several other paper copies to give as gifts. I laughed more (literally LOL’d) while listening to the audio of Did Ye Hear Mammy Died? than I have at any book in a very long time. And that’s not bad for a book that is essentially about losing your mother at age 5.’

If you don’t know who Irish writer Seamas O’Reilly is, you probably don’t waste as much time online as I do. He’s the guy who got famous on Twitter for writing a hilarious thread about being called in to work at an entertainment venue while he was high on (recreational) ketamine, and having to serve drinks to the president of Ireland in that state. As O’Reilly admits himself in the book’s Acknowledgements, it’s an unlikely path that this particular story led to him writing a heartwarming memoir about his family, but what the ketamine story displayed was his ability to write about absolutely anything in the most hilarious way.

In Did Ye Hear Mammy Died? O’Reilly turns that skill not to college-age drug experimentation but to the earlier stage of his life when his mother died of breast cancer, leaving behind a bereaved husband with eleven children ranging in age from 2 to 17. (It’s worth noting, as the author does, that this was not in the 1950s when such families might have been relatively common among Irish Catholics, but in the early 1990s. Even in Derry where they lived, the O’Reillys excited quite a bit of comment as they drove around in a 13-passenger minibus).

This book manages to be both a touching exploration of grief and loss, a heartfelt tribute to a father who kept his family together, cared for, and loved in tragic circumstances, and also one of the most watch-you-don’t-drive-off-the-road-while-listening-to-it funny books I have read/heard in a very long time. It’s certainly the funniest book I’ve read since Mark Critch’s Son of a Critch, and like that other memoir of Catholic childhood, also lends itself brilliantly to the audiobook format. I cannot recommend this book highly enough; if you like a good laugh, you will almost certainly love this.

Broken (in the Best Possible Way), by Jenny Lawson

Broken continues Jenny Lawson’s tradition, begun in her earlier books Furiously Happy and Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, of juxtaposing wildly improbable (yet apparently true!) mishaps featuring a bizarre menagerie of creatures, with oh-so-relatable socially awkward mishaps and misunderstandings, with absolutely heart-wrenching descriptions of what it’s like to live with severe depression. Lawson’s style is, as always, breezy and hilarious, sometimes even when she’s writing about very dark things. This is the first book of hers that I listened to on audiobook and, like many memoirs, it works very well in the author’s own voice. Also, I want to give props to the fact that Lawson has the best names for her pets you could possibly imagine — a dog named Dorothy Barker, a cat named Hunter S. Tomcat, and (not really a pet, I guess) a snake that lives in her yard that she calls Hisstopher Columbus because “he keeps trying to discover our house even though we’re already living there.”

It Ended Badly, by Jennifer Wright

I obviously made an impulsive decision to buy this book a couple of years ago based on — what? I don’t know. I follow the author on Twitter so many I saw a reference to it there, or somewhere. Anyway, I bought the e-book and promptly forgot I had it, until I was going through my Kobo app looking for unread books and saw it was there and I had never read it! So, I read it, and it was a bit of light, fluffy fun for a history buff who does not  get uptight about history being treated in a breezy, casual way.

The book takes examples of thirteen historical relationships that, as the title suggests, ended badly — beginning, chronologically, with Nero and Poppaea, and continuing through a couple of Henry VIII’s wives and some other likely suspects, telling each story with a little patter to make it relevant to modern relationship problems (admittedly, some are a stretch, as Wright confesses). If you’re a stickler for everything in your history being accurate, balanced, and footnoted, you’re not going to love this — it skates across the top of each of these stories, but it’s not pretending to go deeper. I had a few good laughs and learned about a few twisted historical relationships I didn’t already know about, and that was good enough for me at a time when I was looking for a fun, light read.

Solutions and Other Problems, by Allie Brosh

If you’re a fan of Allie Brosh/Hyperbole and a Half, then you know everything you need to know about her new book finally being out after seven years. If you don’t, it may be hard to explain how these cartoons with Brosh’s intentionally amateur drawings (one of which has become one of the internet’s oldest and most durable memes) can move readers to hysterical laughter and empathetic tears in the same sitting.

Brosh’s life has changed since her blog became a hit and her first book was published. She has been divorced and remarried, experienced her sister’s death, moved across the country, had some severe physical health problems, and continues to live with the mental health issues that she writes about both poignantly and hilariously. Whether the topic is dogs, drugs, or depression, Allie Brosh’s deceptively simple drawings strike surprisingly close to home.

 

Wow, No Thank You, by Samantha Irby

wownothankyouIf you’ve read Sam Irby’s We Are Never Meeting in Real Life (or apparently her earlier essay collection Meaty, but I didn’t read that one) you probably know what to expect — self-deprecating, sweary, often-kinda-gross humour about Sam Irby’s life. She’s at a different place in her life than she was in We Are Never Meeting — she’s married (to a white woman), living in small-town midwestern America rather than in Chicago, step-parenting her wife’s kids, and being a successful humour writer rather than the receptionist in a veterinary office. She gets plenty of laughs out of all these experiences, as well as out of her own physical and mental illnesses, and, as I said about the last book, if you’re not too prudish or squeamish, you’ll probably get a good laugh out of them too. Her humour’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but then, humour is like that.

We Are Never Meeting in Real Life, by Samantha Irby

wearenevermeetingMany readers probably picked up this book because they’re familiar with Samantha Irby’s blog, but I just saw the description of the book and thought it sounded interesting and funny, so I didn’t know what to expect.

Irby is indeed a very funny writer, of the “my life is actually objectively terrible but I’m writing about it in a funny way” school of humour. She writes about an impoverished and abusive childhood, the death of her parents, chronic illness, and a string of failed relationships — as well as her adoption (and subsequently the death) of an antisocial cat who, like Irby herself, is plagued with medical problems. Sounds like a laugh a minute, doesn’t it? This could just as easily have been a heart-rending memoir (and sometimes it is) but in a humourist’s hands, it’s easy to laugh at the funny side of a life pockmarked by misfortune and failure. (Some things have clearly gone well for her, like a wildly popular blog, a book deal, and the one relationship that didn’t end in disaster, so there’s that, too).

Irby’s humour is sometimes a little too raw and graphic for me in dealing with sex, bodily functions and illness — but I am a noted prude and squeamish-person, so that reflects more on me than on her (but is a warning worth noting for other squeamish prudes). Still, despite a few cringes I found this an enjoyable read.

It’s interesting, by the way, to compare this memoir (or collection of essays — it doesn’t unroll in the continuous flow you’d expect from a memoir) to Roxane Gay’s Hunger, which I also read recently. There are definite similarities between the two writers: both African-American women who write about body image, food, sexuality (including bisexuality), physical and mental illness and disability. Gay is a very serious writer who can at times be quite funny; Irby is a humour writer who brings a sardonic eye and voice to very serious topics. (Apparently Gay and Irby are friends in real life, and this article about Irby begins with a funny anecdote about a reader confusing the two, so it’s clearly not just a case of lily-white me thinking All Big Black Women Who Write About Their Bodies Look Alike).

What is the mysterious alchemy that makes one book an acclaimed literary soon-to-be-classic, and another a fun, commercial read? I’ve always struggled with this question in reading fiction, as I read both popular and literary fiction, and I still can’t pinpoint the difference. It’s there in non-fiction too — I can see that Roxane Gay and Samantha Irby are doing different things with quite similar material, but I can’t quite explain what the difference is, apart from the fact that Irby plays her experience for laughs. But as with popular and literary fiction, both are great reads, as long as you know what you’re getting. If you’re not too squeamish about sex, swearing, and (especially) poop, you’ll enjoy We Are Never Meeting in Real Life.

The Money Shot, by Glenn Deir

Layout 1The Money Shot is one of several novels coming out in the next few months or so that I have some insider knowledge of: it was one of the strongest entries in an unpublished-novel contest that I had the honour of judging a couple of years back. Glenn Deir’s tale (although I didn’t know it was Glenn Deir’s then, as the contest was blind-judged) of an unscrupulous, back-stabbing local news reporter was a wickedly fun romp from start to finish. When I found out that the author was someone who had considerable experience in that world of local journalism, I knew that even if The Money Shot is not a roman a clef about the local CBC station (and you kind of hope it’s not, because you’d hate to think your evening news is being brought to you by anyone as awful as Deir’s antihero, Sebastian Hunter), still, there’s got to be some kernels of truth there.

The Money Shot is a scathing, funny, wicked look at the world of local TV news: more cut-throat than you might think. It’s a page-turner and a thoroughly enjoyable read from start to finish.

Furiously Happy, by Jenny Lawson

furiouslyhappyIf you’re planning to pick up the latest book by Jenny Lawson aka The Bloggess, you should expect more of what you get on her blog, or what you got in her first book, Let’s Pretend this Never Happened. That is to say, you’ll get laugh-out-loud funny tales of situations so bizarre, painful and twisted that you almost feel guilty laughing at them. It is, as the subtitle says, “A Funny Book About Horrible Things,” so don’t say you weren’t warned. This is almost certainly the funniest book ever written about living with mental illness (or at least, it’s on a par with Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half), so if you want to laugh at the things we don’t usually talk openly about, this is the book for you.