I WAS TOLD THERE’D BE CAKE by Sloane Crosley

When there’s a lot of stress in my life, one of my favorite genres to turn to is humorous essays. I’ve consumed nearly all of David Sedaris’s oeuvre, and as repeat readers might know, have recently added Sarah Vowell’s voice to the go-to list. So when I saw a blurb on this cover comparing Crosley to both Sedaris and Vowell, I was immediately intrigued. In I Was Told There’d Be Cake, Crosley turns her sharp wit to her own life, creating a humorous account of one woman’s experiences maneuvering careers, relationships, girlhood, and occasional humiliation. The further I got into this book, the more it became like having coffee with a friend (even if I’m a bit worried about what this friend might be saying about me to our other friends).

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Crosley’s voice is intelligent and sharp. Her essays manage to be light and fun without becoming vapid and uninteresting, even as she writes about seemingly mundane aspects of daily life. The essays span a broad range of experiences, but their unifying theme seems to be exploring the roles that Crosley plays (or fail to play) in her life. Crosley writes without reserve about being a friend, a lover, a career-woman, and sometimes, the girl who has to call the same locksmith twice in one day to let her into her apartment. She sometimes casts a harsh light on the rituals we’ve come to accept as part of existing together, like weddings and dinner parties, but her sharpness is softened by her willingness to make fun of herself, as well. The result is an authentic and often endearing commentary on life in Crosley’s world.

It seems worth nothing that the scope of Crosley’s world is pretty specific. These essays are not about womanhood or young adulthood so much as they are about the young adulthood of a white, East Coast, suburban-turned-New Yorker woman. Crosley is writing humorous anecdotes about her own personal life, and so the scope is going to be inevitably narrower than, say, Eula Biss’s sociopolitical commentary. While I find Biss’s essays more interesting, I don’t disparage Crosley’s work for being what it is. As Nick Lezard noted in his review of this book for The Guardian (for, in my ambivalence, I sought out other opinions), “As I have commented before, it is the job of a good writer to familiarise readers with modes of experience quite alien to them, and I Was Told There’d Be Cake does that. I did not know what it was like to be a young, attractive, intelligent woman living in Manhattan; I might have tried to imagine it once or twice, but been scalded so horribly by envy that I gave up after three seconds.” Many of the essay collections I’ve read combine personal experience with more journalistic or scholarly commentary, but that doesn’t seem to be the intention of this work. I note this not as a criticism, but simply to say that if that’s what you’re looking for, it’s not what you’ll find; rather, as Lezard characterizes, I Was Told There’d Be Cake is a humorous account of what it’s like to be this specific person, in this specific place and time. And Crosley seems to know this, and at times even lampoons the markers of privilege that exist in her world. It all comes together to make a vivid and enjoyable portrait of a life.

I would be lying to say that this book struck quite as much of a chord with me as Sedaris’s or Vowell’s works have done, but I am glad I spent some time with this funny, sharp, smart voice. If you’re as stressed out by the rapid passage of time as I have been, this book might be a good companion, one who’s witty, bold, and warm enough to shake you out of your worries for a while.

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LUMBERJANES VOLUME 1 by Noelle Stevenson, Grace Ellis, Brooke Allen, and Shannon Watters

Between reading Lumberjanes and watching the premiere of the newly re-vamped Powerpuff Girls, my week was filled with monster-fighting girl power, which is exactly how a week should be. In fact, as a subgenre, monster-fighting girl power is one of the main components of my wheelhouse, and I’ve been excited to get my hands on this volume for a long time. I’ve been a fan of Noelle Stevenson’s work ever since I read her graphic novel Nimona last year, and Lumberjanes completely met my expectations.

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Lumberjanes is a young adult graphic novel about five teenage girls at an unusual summer camp (called Miss Quinzella Thiskwin Penniquiqul Thistle Crumpet’s Camp for Hardcore Lady-Types, which tells you pretty much everything you need to know). While the girls try to participate in normal camp activities like canoeing and plant identification, the appearance of some gigantic monster or mysterious tunnel always seems to lead them off course. As the girls work to outsmart and defeat every monster that comes their way, they begin to piece together clues about something mysterious and supernatural happening in their camp; something that, it seems, needs to be solved by a kick-butt group of friends.

Lumberjanes is delightful mostly because of its wholly imaginative and entertaining storytelling. Every element works together so nicely–I mean, what doesn’t sound perfect about a group of teenage girls solving mysteries in a camp filled with monsters? It’s just impossible not to have fun. The dialogue is also fast and funny, and the art style accents that sense of humor perfectly. It’s hard to describe, but the pacing of the story and art style together makes each page feel almost animated. The humor and storylines are fast and entertaining, but it’s also worth it to slow down and really look at the pictures. The book is beautifully illustrated. The monster designs are scary, but also zany and fun, and the outdoor environment is so colorful and alive. The environment of the story is so encompassing as you read, which is so enjoyable.

Another thing that I really like about this book is its approach to presenting gender. You can get an idea from the fact that the camp advertises itself as one for “hardcore lady-types.” The five girls represent a broad spectrum of gender representation, not just along the tomboy/girly-girl divide, but outside of that binary altogether. There are even two characters that seem to be developing feelings for one another, opening up the inclusion of LGBT-themes. Each character is just themselves, full of contradictions and difficult to categorize, but completely unique and identifiable, just like real people are. And they are all so strong, and not just in a generic way involving superhuman abilities and tight spandex clothing. They solve puzzles, use math and science, and figure out how to best work together. They’re sometimes afraid, but that doesn’t negate their ability to rise to the occasion, often relying on each other. It’s a great portrait of female community and strength that’s so wonderful to see, especially in a work aimed towards younger readers.

So, if feminist, LGBT-inclusive, monster-fighting, outdoorsy graphic novels sound like something you’d be into, go find a copy of this book. If it doesn’t, I’m not sure how much you’re getting out of this blog. (Also, a fun note for those in Columbus: Grace Ellis is giving a talk at Ohio State on Wednesday, April 13 at 5:30 p.m. Details here).

SYLLABUS: NOTES FROM AN ACCIDENTAL PROFESSOR by Lynda Barry

I have always had trouble keeping a journal. It’s a practice that comes highly recommended by my favorite writers, from Joan Didion to David Sedaris, but I have never been able to stick with it. My attempts always devolve into a space of anxiety and over-worry; what should be a method of achieving presence and clarity turns into a Petri dish for every negative thought I have. The only time I’ve ever completed a journal cover-to-cover was when I was in elementary school. I was inspired by the Amelia’s Notebook series by Marissa Moss, a series of books written in the form of the fictional diary of the protagonist, Amelia. The notebooks were a combination of writing and drawings, and often they didn’t just depict the events of a day. The Amelia character would use cartoons and charts to explore her interests, tease out ideas she had, and elaborate on her relationships with her friends and family. I modeled a composition book after this idea, and it’s the only time I’ve been able to keep a journal. The book itself is also the most complete record I have of myself from this time; while it’s a tad embarrassing, I’m glad I have it.

I bring up Amelia’s Notebook because I was so reminded of it while reading this book. Syllabus is an account of Lynda Barry’s experience teaching an interdisciplinary college course about the psychology of art-making. The book is also structured as the author’s composition book, though it is actually a combination of Barry’s actual syllabus, notes from the course, and her recollection of teaching the course. Barry is a writer and artist, and she uses a variety of mediums, from drawing to handwriting to collage, to pursue the themes and ideas of the course. It’s been a long time since a book inspired me to create so immediately, but I plan to go out and get a composition book as quickly as possible.

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Syllabus pursues some rather large ideas about what it means to make art. The psychological angle of the work explores the effect that art-making has on our brains and psyche, and its importance in our development and happiness. Why are humans driven to create? And why does this drive dissipate as we age? How can we enhance our lives by rekindling our once-simple pleasure in creating a line, a picture, a story? Barry brings a variety of scholarship and disciplines to these questions, but she also observes as her students tease out their own answers.

While some of the themes of this book can seem a bit grand and abstract, Barry grounds these ideas with practical, step-by-step exercises to get her students (and her readers) started. She includes the assignments she gave to her students; the reader can almost follow along with the course work if they choose. This was the part of the book that I found the most enjoyable. In one example, Barry provides a template for keeping a daily diary of observations, one that includes writing and drawing. She encourages her students to use this format as a way of being more present in the world, of observing more acutely, hoping that this act of observing will feed into the students’ artwork. I am so excited to start keeping a diary in this way.

This book seems determined to help the reader create, no matter their artistic skill level. In fact, Barry is clear to encourage a simplicity of style, of simply using lines and colors to convey an idea quickly, without worrying about how “good” it is. Barry interrogates our understanding of what makes a drawing “good,” encouraging anyone to create simply for the pleasure of it. By breaking down the barriers of accessibility, Barry is able to get across the message that art-making is beneficial to the human experience itself. Not only is creativity accessible to everyone, it is essential. Amidst the current trend of adult coloring books and wine-and-painting events, I think we’re at the perfect place for these themes. If I could, I would hand everyone I know a copy of Syllabus, a blank composition book, and some colored pencils. Go make stuff, dear reader, and find joy in it.