Hilarious and serious; two different summer reads
Novels that make me laugh aloud are rare. Two novels, Confederacy of Dunces and Freddy and Fredericka, brought laughter, and in several of his books, Anthony Burgess had me going. Some essayists have the same effect — here I’m thinking of Chicago columnist Mike Royko, who died almost 20 years ago, but whose columns, depending on the subject, are still funny, mostly because of Royko’s acute sense of the ridiculous in politics and culture.
To this small pantheon I must now add Jenny Lawson. Author of Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, a bestseller I have not read, she recently released Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things (Flatiron Books, $26.99, 329 pages). I read this book while at the beach this past week and am certain passers-by must have looked strangely at the man on my porch laughing, at times uncontrollably, to himself.
In Furiously Happy, the blurb tells us right off the bat that Jenny Lawson here explores her lifelong battle with mental illness. Well, yes and no. She does write about her mental illness, her anxieties, and her physical troubles, but she embraces them and her weird behavior, and shares that group hug with us. And she also writes about other topics as well: stuffed raccoons (her dad is a taxidermist), her many weird arguments with her long-suffering husband Victor, a trip to Australia during which she dressed on occasion as a koala, her cat’s attack on a homemade educational felted vagina given her by a friend.
Every page of this book had me laughing. For purposes of this review, I just flipped my copy open to page 214. (While I’m thinking about it, this is a library book. The next reader may blame me for the grains of sand and the one dog-eared page, but that stain is definitely not from my suntan oil. It was there when I got the book, and I don’t know what it is nor do I want to know.) Anyway, I’m on page 214, which is titled “Things I May Have Found Myself Saying To My Psychiatrist After Brief Awkward Pauses.” Here are a few blips from this section.
• “I hate it when it’s too hot for a blanket because I have this phobia that I’ll float up onto the ceiling without it and then I’ll get chopped up by the ceiling fan. That’s totally normal, right?”
• “How am I feeling? I’m sort of in the mood to feel righteously indignant but I don’t have anything worth feeling indignant about. I guess I’m mad that people aren’t stupider when I need them to be.”
• “I spent last night cleaning up nine-year-old vomit. The vomit of a nine-year-old, that is. Not vomit that’s nine years old. I’m not that bad at housekeeping.”
Near the end of Furiously Happy, Victor and Jenny are meeting with their accountant, Maury. After a confused discussion of finances — at one point Jenny asks whether spiders could ever serve as currency in place of gold — they end their conversation in this way:
“Maury cleared his throat. ‘We can come back to wills later. How about retirement plans?’
“Victor spent the next several minutes speaking in a combination of words and letters that I’m pretty sure meant ‘I have a retirement plan and it’s quite good.’
“Maury looked at me expectantly.
“’I have a drawer I put change into.’
“Victor put his head in his hands.
“’Not quarters though. I use those for gum.’”
Furiously Happy contains frequent obscenities — are we still labeling our tribe of four letter words obscenities? — so if you’re put off by those, then you probably want to skip this one. And I’d go on with this review, but I’d just keep quoting from the book.
Go out and snatch up a copy of Furiously Happy and have a blast.
At the same time I was reading Furiously Happy, I was also knocking back Ted Koppel’s Lights Out: A Cyberattack, A Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath (Crown Publishers, 280 pages, $26). This was another library book, and yes, I confess I am responsible for the wrinkled last five pages. (Seawater, I suspect.)
The alternate reading these two books gave a manic-depressive feel to my week. At one point I’d be hooting and chortling over Furiously Happy, and then two hours later would be hunched over Koppel’s dire warnings about the real possibility of a cyberattack on the electrical infrastructure of the United States and the devastation that would follow in the wake of such an attack.
Actually, a substation near San Jose, California, suffered an attack in 2013, though it was not a cyberattack. As Koppel, a veteran of ABC news who retired in 2005, relates, several saboteurs gained access to AT&T’s fiber-optic telecommunications cables. They cut these cables, then knocked out 17 transformers using AK-47 assault rifles. This was a small attack, but it took workers 27 days to bring the substation back online.
Reading Lights Out should serve as a warning about the vulnerability of our electrical system. The loss of that system would mean the loss of everything from food supplies in cities to the Internet, from key medical care to safe neighborhoods. Lights Out also reminds us that we are even now engaged in low-grade cyber warfare against countries like China and Russia. Some African and Middle Eastern countries are also becoming involved.
Someday we could be in for a very rough ride.