The New York Review of Illusory Books

This week: A roundup of recent humorous books, including works by public radio’s Rose-June Schwartz and a rediscovered manuscript from a pioneering 1960’s “insult comedienne.”

Like 9/11 Never Happened

Rose-June Schwartz

Cuspidor Books. Softcover original; $17

In September 2001, Rose-June Schwartz was set to go on a blind date to the Brooklyn Academy of Music with a man she knew only as “Craig from Bushwick.” Then 9/11 happened, and the date never occurred.

In this wry, warm work of speculative fiction (adapted from her 57-part NPR What American Life series), Schwartz imagines what their date, and her life, might have been like had the Twin Towers not collapsed. She traces her imaginary relationship with “Craig” through the first date to engagement, as if 3,000 people did not perish that day, and explores in her wry, warm way what their marriage may have been like had terrorist madmen not flown two jets filled with terrified passengers into the World Trade Center.

By the end, however, her imagined marriage to “Craig” has unraveled, leaving Schwartz to raise three imaginary children on her own, and Schwartz concludes that you can’t undo history — accepting that 9/11 had its place in her life, as well as American history, after all. Wry and warm.

100,000 first printing; marketing on NPR, Jezebel and to book clubs. First serial rights sold to Lena Dunham.

Man for the Job: How I Lost 300 Jobs in a Year Without Really Trying

Marcus Donovon

Parker & Plaster. Softcover original, $20

Fans of David Sedaris and Augusten Burroughs will find this debut collection of essays (most of which originally appeared on slate.com) to be right up their alley. Donovon worked a series of jobs that no one in their right mind would want, from cleaning the gutters of New York after the St. Patrick’s Day parade to changing catheters in a New Jersey old folks’ home that Amnesty International called “a Third World abattoir and an American disgrace.”

There are plenty of laughs along the way, as Donovon tries to put some “Anthony Bourdain-style zazz” into meals served to Death Row inmates in Mississippi, and finds himself conflicted when he draws “the oven shift” at a high-kill animal shelter in West Virginia. “I’m as susceptible to the pleading eyes of Tiger or Fluffy as any boy who grew up in the suburbs,” he quips, “but let’s face it: some animals are just a**holes.” Outrageous and surprisingly touching, Donovon has one of the most unconventional — and sassiest — voices of the year.

Confessions of a Frazzled Mom

Deb Stephenson

Carbuncle Publishing. Hardcover, $27.95

The second book from the popular “Frazzled Mom” mommyblogger is a series of essays on topics familiar to those who enjoyed her first book, Not at the Table! — picky eaters, the politics of birthday parties, rampant peanut allergies and flying with toddlers. But Stephenson goes deeper in some chapters, including one where she finds her adolescent son Christopher has been looking at dirty pictures on her laptop. “It was my first introduction to German ‘scheisse’ porn,” she writes. “Bill [her husband] told me not to overreact, but all I could do is wonder who had to clean up that mess. Melted chocolate on the living room sofa is one thing, but …”

Stephenson will strike a chord with many modern parents when she reveals Christopher planned to shoot up his high school and was arrested before he could carry out the deed. Even then, humor is the best medicine, as she moans, “Some people want their kids to grow up to be Christopher Columbus. Me, I get Christopher Columbine,” but ultimately manages to put a more cheerful face on things: “I always wanted to get out of carpool in the worst way — so be careful what you wish for.” A good gift for the frazzled mom in everyone’s life.

Rachel ’n’ Rachael

Rachel O’Connell-Davies

St. Sebastian Press. Hardcover, $29.95

In this blatant ripoff of Julie & Julia, an Irish immigrant to New York attempts to understand her new country by making every recipe in TV chef Rachael Ray’s cookbook Yum-O: 50 Super-Quik Entrees For On-the-Go Gals (and Guys)!

The result is as depressing as it sounds, with O’Connell-Davies desultorily creating dishes such as 30-Minute Shepherd’s Pie and Super-Easy Sloppy Joe-Sagna for her unimpressed American boyfriend. Long before this tedious tale comes to its conclusion (“Chipotle-Cashew Birthday Chicken Without Tears”), readers will have ordered out — for another, better book. Not recommended.

America’s Worst Ladies

Totie Thomas

Laff-a-Minit. Softcover original, $15.

In 1962, Random House publisher Bennett Cerf canceled the publication of this collection of comic essays about America’s First Ladies by pioneering Borscht Belt “insult comedienne” Totie Thomas, calling it distasteful. Laff-A-Minit Press acquired the manuscript and is presenting it here for the first time.

Modern readers are more likely to be puzzled than shocked, as Thomas tees off on Jacqueline Kennedy and Lady Bird Johnson (“That’s what I call a real Bay of Pigs”) and bad-mouths the first Catholic family in the White House (“If you’re touring the East Wing and you smell fish frying, you know it’s Friday and the Pope’s coming for dinner. What’s next, a President Rabinowitz?”).

Other topics include President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s marriage to the dowdy Mamie (“Ike oughta get some tutti-frutti hairdresser to do something about Mamie’s bangs”) and the dignified Eleanor Roosevelt, whom Thomas calls “Butch.” After the Kennedy assassination, Thomas’ career slowly faded into obscurity, though she made headlines shortly before her death in 1976 in a Hollywood Squares appearance where she answered the question “What do you call a cross between a donkey and a horse?” with the riposte “Rosalynn Carter.” Not recommended except for completists of standup comedy.

Next week: new books inspired by Tama Janowitz, John Steinbeck and classic cereal packaging.

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