Archives for posts with tag: humour

Banana+GirlI never would have read Banana Girl if a friend hadn’t lent it to me. I almost never read memoirs, especially of people I’ve never heard of.

Michele Lee is a Melbourne-based playwright, about to embark on a six-month trip to Laos. Australian-born but the daughter of Hmong immigrants, Michele is a self-proclaimed ‘banana’.

Michele has a lot of sex, mostly of the detached, non-relationship kind. She details her meetings with guys like Mr Mercedes, who she has afternoon sex with in buildings he manages. She’s had a handful of serious relationships, the stories of their beginnings and endings floating through her tales of the present. Michele seems to still be friends with all of them to a certain degree, the implication being that once they break up she’s never so devastated that she can’t stay in touch. Yet, her memoir begins with her dalliance with New Zealander Jackie Winchester. Michele visits him in New Zealand and seems to fall for him rather quickly and completely. But it’s complicated.

All of Michele’s ex-boyfriends are given pseudonymic nicknames (I’m assuming to protect their identities while also being knowingly cutesy). Among them is the Cub (a much younger casual liaison), Husband (ex-serious-boyfriend, who she still works with, as well as being neighbours and friends), and Four Track (her second boyfriend from when she lived in Canberra).

I was a bit disappointed at the level of introspection. Deep down Michele knows that she often handles her significant relationships (including friendships) poorly, the conversations she includes that point the finger at her self-centred behaviour show that. She has a conversation with the Cub about her relationship history. Michele has just deleted the Backpacker (an ex living in London) from Facebook. The Cub says, ‘Don’t you think that’s, well, passive? Passive-aggressive?’ and, ‘So why would you delete him?’ She has no real response, just ‘But I was aiming for being assertive’ (despite being well aware that the Backpacker doesn’t know he’s been deleted) and, ‘I suppose I could just email the Backpacker and ask him what’s going on.’ (She hasn’t even tried the direct approach).

Michele also writes very funny imaginary letters from her fifteen year-old self; essentially the voice of her conscience, the voice of judgement – ‘You have sex with strange guys in empty buildings. What if he’s a rapist?’ Michele, through young Michele, knows the accusations that her friends and family are probably telepathically, if not actually, bombarding her with. So when accused, why doesn’t she defend herself. Because she has no idea why she behaves the way she does?

It would’ve been interesting to know why Michele thought she pursued all of these casual sexual relationships. Yes, it’s clear she enjoys sex but that’s not a real reason to have sex with three different guys in a week. I’m curious about the why. It seems strange, and possibly completely unfair, to be writing this about a real person, someone living right now. Maybe it’s the conversational tone, like a friend is telling you secrets, but sometimes you just want to shake said friend, to get them out of themselves, to get them to question their actions. And then other times you just sit and nod, allowing them to have their moment of self-pity, unencumbered by self-doubt or judgement.

I’m focusing too much on the sex, of which there is undoubtedly much. There’s also a bit thrown in about a previous trip to Laos. And the humorous side to the pain of being an artist – a sex farce play Michele writes that reviewers just don’t get, being a young playwright but only actually seeing plays that she can scrounge free tickets to. It was cool to read about Melbourne. Normally I like to read about people and places that have nothing to do with my own life but, living in Melbourne myself, it was enjoyable and kind of soothing to read about a life that has some sort of kinship with my own.

On the whole, Banana Girl is breezy and witty, yet I found it quite melancholy. The story of Michele in year eight feeling inadequate because her best friend, Pretty Polly, had lost her virginity the year before, leading to her downing kirsch on a ‘Friday night under the willow trees in Woden to try to accelerate [her] loss of virginity’ left me quite forlorn.

Michele Lee is undoubtedly funny and genuine. But despite the confessional style of the stories she tells (she bares the facts of her life for all to see) there’s a distance there. I hope she writes more books (I’m not really one for plays) because I can see her growing more comfortable and letting herself truly get close to her material.

Where'd you go BernadetteBernadette is a genius. She’s a renowned architect who, about twenty years ago, suddenly stopped working. Infamously reclusive, she lives in a rundown former school for wayward girls in Seattle with her husband, Elgie, and daughter, Bee. Elgie is a genius too. He works for Microsoft as a top programmer and has the fourth most watched TED talk ever. As a present for getting into Choate boarding school Bee requests that the family take a cruise to Antarctica. As the trip draws closer Bernadette’s anxiety threatens to overwhelm her, circumstances conspire, everything comes to a head and Bernadette disappears, probably somewhere in Antarctica.

Bernadette’s story is told through a series of letters, emails, articles and reports, strung together by Bee’s narrative. Bee has fastidiously pieced together her mother’s life in the lead-up to her disappearance in the hopes it will point to where her mother went and why she’s gone.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette could just as easily be titled ‘first world problems’, that ubiquitous, snide catchcry used to downplay any complaints privileged people have about life. Normally I say, well that’s the only kind of problem I can have. Am I not allowed to complain about anything? But Bernadette takes it to a new level. She has an unflinchingly negative attitude towards everything, hates all people (except Bee and Elgie) and rants endlessly about the same pet peeves. Bernadette’s most violent rants are directed towards Seattle – the people are unfailingly nice and bland (but not quite as bad as Canadians) and too preoccupied with upward mobility and social niceties, and the city is full of five-way intersections.

Maria Semple went to Choate Rosemary Hall (which she also lampoons), and currently lives in Seattle. She admits to having hated Seattle when she first moved there, but she loves it now. So I suppose she knows what she’s making fun of. My only reference point for Seattle is from watching Frasier. I think it’s an interesting choice to so heavily mine the negatives of one particular city for comedy. If you haven’t been there it’s hard to understand how it could really be that bad.

Bernadette is witheringly elitist. To be resentful of the smallness of other people’s lives seems crazy, how does it hurt you? Maybe that’s what being an eccentric genius feels like. To a certain degree Bernadette is clearly suffering from mental illness so I couldn’t really blame her. And seen through Bee’s eyes Maria Semple manages to create sympathy for the irrepressible Bernadette. I don’t know that I liked Bernadette but I liked that her daughter loved her unconditionally. Also, the mothers at Bee’s school that Bernadette so hates (referring to them as gnats) are genuinely annoying. They’re morally superior, chastising anyone who is different or doesn’t volunteer for the school or keep their garden immaculate. In one very satisfying moment, Bee slaps chief gnat Audrey Griffen for insulting her mother.

Bee’s defence of Bernadette is valiant but it’s unhealthy. Bee gets tarnished by Bernadette’s negativity and disgust for people – when travelling through Santiago Bee sees kids playing in trash and people washing their clothes among the trash. Her response – ‘It was totally annoying, like, Would one of you just pick up the trash?’ So sad.

Semple really nails the bureaucratic bullshit of private schools – simpering parents trying to attract rich families to their school in order to, by association, awkwardly crawl their way to the top of Seattle’s social hierarchy. The Galer Street parents enlist the help of guru Ollie O., whose school rebranding letters are wonderfully obnoxious, full of cheesy catch phrases and slick jargon – he refers to the targeted rich parents as ‘Mercedes parents’. Not that anyone acting on behalf of a private school would ever be allowed to send letters out that were so honest.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette worked best when I forgot it’s supposed to be funny. I was occasionally amused but I didn’t think it was terribly funny. It is a good story though. I always wanted to know what happened next. Maybe I found it all a bit too real. I often joke that I don’t know how Julie Bowen (who plays stay-at-home mother of three Claire Dunphy on Modern Family) gets nominated for Emmys in the comedy category. Her portrayal of an uptight yet loving suburban mum is painfully true – it’s not funny, it’s deadly serious reality. I’m exaggerating slightly but still… Maybe I’m having the same reaction to Bernadette.

Psychopath TestJon Ronson is a gonzo-style journalist known for his funny take on the bizarre. In Them Ronson details his experiences with extremists – an Islamic activist, a Ku Klux Klan leader. The Men Who Stare at Goats deals with the New Age unit of the United States Army that attempts to train soldiers to walk through walls and kill goats with their minds. The Psychopath Test is, strangely enough, about psychopaths.

After becoming fascinated with the idea that perhaps psychopaths, not rational thinkers, really do ‘make the world go round’, Jon Ronson’s psychopath investigation kicks off with an encounter with Scientologists. Scientologists don’t believe in psychiatry, there’s even an entire branch of the organisation dedicated to discrediting psychiatrists – Tom Cruise’s tirade against antidepressants has made their stance quite infamous.

The Scientologists lead Ronson to Broadmoor Psychiatric Hospital and a man named Tony. Tony faked mental illness to get out of a prison sentence for grievous bodily harm, and landed himself in Broadmoor instead. Now they won’t let him out. After realising that Tony did indeed fake his way in, his psychiatrists believe he suffers from psychopathy. Tony ends up in a weird Catch-22 scenario – if he acts sane they say the treatment is working and he needs to stay, if Tony says he faked insanity then that kind of manipulative behaviour is a classic indicator of psychopathy, thereby making him insane. And how do you prove sanity anyway? Is Tony actually a psychopath?

The absurdly frightening ambiguity of Tony’s case leads Ronson to the Bob Hare psychopath checklist. The Hare Checklist is a list of traits that are indicative of psychopathy, like ‘glibness/superficial charm’ and ‘cunning/manipulative’. Score highly on the checklist and you’re a psychopath. After attending Hare’s seminar Jon Ronson decides to do some of his own psychopath-spotting using his new found skills.

Ronson interviews suspected psychopaths from various walks of life – war criminals, executives, conspiracy theorists. Each interview is a link in the chain, one clue leading to the next, creating a relatively cohesive structure. Kind of like a deranged treasure hunt.

Are corporate CEOs all psychopaths? The Psychopath Test isn’t the first place I’d heard that idea. So interviewing a ruthless corporate bigwig to test for psychopathy is an obvious choice. But if at least some are, then do they have the capacity to be dangerous? What’s the difference between a psychopathic serial killer and a psychopathic business executive? Ronson doesn’t really find any answers but his interview with ex-Sunbeam executive Al Dunlap is entertaining and makes you wonder…

Ronson takes a look at the conspiracy theorist as psychopath. Deniers of the London tube bombings in 2005 believe the accident was the result of a power surge and the terrorist story was a vast government cover up, despite eyewitness accounts to the contrary. The victim bullying that occurred in order to get witnesses to agree with the conspiracy theorists’ take on events showed a complete lack of empathy for the people who were actually there, in order to satisfy their own unfounded beliefs. Classic psychopath.

The Psychopath Test is not generally laugh out loud funny but it’s never dull. Ronson is wry and incisive. He hunts down the ridiculous and presents it in all its glory. Sometimes the humour simply comes from what he uncovers or from the responses his interviewees give, but Ronson’s straightforward interview and writing style is perfect for teasing out the gems. Asking Al Dunlap if he is a psychopath, he goes through the checklist with him:

‘Grandiose sense of self-worth?’ I asked.

This would have been a hard one for him to deny, standing as he was below a giant oil painting of himself.

No one is safe from Ronson’s eye for the ludicrous. He digs at psychiatry (using the DSM-IV – the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – to diagnose himself with psychiatric conditions he doesn’t actually have) and at its arch-nemesis Scientology in equal measure.

Ronson has a self-deprecating charm (he complains of anxiety and worries that he might be a psychopath himself) that makes The Psychopath Test effortlessly informative, fun and smart. I always like a book that tangles with the weird and bizarre – my kind of choice for a great holiday book.