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Another fine mess

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Please Excuse My Daughter: A Memoir - Julie Klam The author made me laugh in a few short sentences, thrown casually up as comments on a review. Now I figure a book's got to have ... maybe two or three hundred times as many sentences, some of which may be long, some of which were probably even revised, so the word-to-smirk (or even -to-snort) ratio's gotta be huge. Sign me up.

The Review:
Or, wait--that's friggin' arrogant. A review:
There has been talk on this site, and in one instance in regard to this very book, about the rating system for books. The five-star scale has provoked discussion and debate, as some see "stingy" where others see "anti-inflationary standards." I decided to take the time to spell out how my final rating emerges, in a quite quantitative and precise manner, from complex and rigorous calculations.

For instance, I hate memoirs. There are certainly exceptions, examples which counter my vigorous and well-deserved antipathy, but as with country music, Hank Williamses are few and far between. More often, with country music and memoirs, you get achy breaky heart crapola. Memoirs are always trying to teach me valuable lessons, or at the very least impart how someone else learned a valuable lesson, even if at times that lesson emerges only through antithesis (the memoir showing in grim, thorough detail how someone didn't learn any lesson, but instead took too many drugs, had too much sex, hated her- and/or him-self to the point of suicide, etc.). This is a memoir: that's one star.

But thankfully I was taught no lessons, and those that Julie Klam learned were dryly and subtly illustrated, and (even better) of little use to me as object lesson. This is a memoir that is about memories generally funny and sometimes sad and often both, a self-examination painlessly attentive to a generally likable and funny self, a meditation on growing up that (huzzah!) illustrates neither a sermonizing disdain for childishness nor a Lifetime-movie tinged-with-autumnal-regret obedience to the middle-class respect for adulthood. We get doody jokes and a lovely appreciation of motherhood (having one, being one). As memoirs go, for this reader it's far more Hank Williams: that's four stars.

I think it is very hard to be funny. Two stars just for trying. And add a star because funny memoirs are either oxymoronic (my bulimic junkiedom being no laughing matter) or stuck in the shadow of the oft-great Sedaris (who is really, really, really hard to imitate, and I wish people would stop trying)—Klam is funny in her own fashion. In fact, we can find any number of instances where she made me laugh out loud: her mother worried about finding "true love" (i.e., marriage) quickly, else be stuck "with a flying monkey;" an ex's appreciation of a favored CD (Enya) was "discovered . . . on the Crystal Light iced tea commercial;" a throwaway line about Mel Stottlemyre. Hell, just using the words "Mel Stottlemyre" gets you five stars. That is a goodreads rule.

Oh, occasionally, the jokes fall flat. Maybe too reliant upon pop-cultural references, lines can seem less incisive about the person or situation they're revealing and more like shtick. (She refers to her mother's tendency to narrate their travels around their village as "Jewish Eye for the Hick Town," a joke which seems to have a limited shelf-life and was less useful at nailing down her mother than others—like the flying monkey, above.) So, take away two stars.

However, when I made somewhat disappointed reference to (one of my comedy gods) Albert Brooks' last film as "too much shtick," one of my friends whispered "Mike Reynolds hates the Jews!" Besides being funny, even if he borrowed it from Andy Kindler, it made me feel bad. Because I love the Jews. To prove I'm not anti-semitic with that shtick comment, I give the book back a star, or maybe two.

And that made me think some more about comedy: comedy is usually a sharp pointy stick. Poking fun, sometimes aggressively enough to break the skin. Or skewer. But Klam works this amazing magic, throughout. It is comedy that never loses its teeth yet never rips out a throat; her digs reveal her delight in the very people being teased. Further, her comedy embraces the ironic distance of the narrator's perspective without losing any emotional connection. And every now and then, Klam's witty writing attains a perfect poetry at the synchronicity of snipe and snog: after a few fine, funny lines about her mother's ineptitude in the kitchen, she closes the section noting that "[t]he considerable smoke in the kitchen at every meal made us feel like we were eating in a dream." That line is multivalent, man. To be funny and to be moving, biting but never bitter? Good gravy. That's six or seven stars.

So, where are we at? I'm bad with math, but believe me—-my star rating for Klam's really fine book reflects much difficult figuring, extended periods of contemplation. Complex acts of ratiocination. It was much harder work than the book, which was a fast, lovely delight of a read.