One very unconventional coming-of-age. Jul 6, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 41 • By SOPHIE FLACK
With grievance and unspecific anger the major themes of so many contemporary memoirs, Unabrow is a literary breath of fresh air. The book consists of 20 comic essays chronicling Una LaMarche’s difficulty navigating womanhood while looking back at how her awkward formative years—as a single-browed adolescent—shaped her self-image. LaMarche adopts a quasi-cautionary tone, as if to warn the next generation how not to lead their lives, and the result is an absolutely sidesplitting collection.
It’s hard to miss the dust jacket of Unabrow while browsing the new releases. It’s a photograph of LaMarche as a 6-year-old sporting a single bushy eyebrow and an adorable grin. Even though she liberated her eyebrows in the early 1990s, LaMarche still identifies as a freak: “It’s very confusing to define so much of your inner identity by an exterior trait that you no longer possess. (Jennifer Grey, if you’re reading, I know you feel me on this.)”
Born in Texas in 1980, LaMarche and her family moved to Brooklyn when she was 8. New York was fitting for a child who suffered her first “existential panic attack” at the age of 4, beneath the glittering stars of the Rose Planetarium at the Natural History Museum. With a hairy forehead, troll doll earrings, and a hopeless crush on Garrison Keillor, LaMarche may have had a higher-than-average degree of adolescent awkwardness, but she manages to make her suffering seem like hilarious revelations.
But while everything is fodder for comedy—there’s a whole chapter devoted to death, and it’s entirely punchy—LaMarche does shift to a more serious tone when discussing certain heavier topics, such as her eating disorder, postpartum depression, and the loneliness that comes from not fitting in. But she’s quick to make a crack at her own expense, lightening the mood.
LaMarche is so affable as a storyteller because she acknowledges her flaws, yet she does so without self-pity or complaint, and she never bashes herself in the name of comedy. That said, she cops to making terrible decisions: She’s lied about bigger things (losing her virginity) and smaller things (being a no-show at driving lessons, age 25). And in her senior year of high school, she pretended to twist her ankle with exaggerated dramatic flair in order to get out of track practice. She then had to keep up the charade for the remainder of the school year and had difficulty remembering which leg to limp on when she went up to accept an award for team spirit.
Some of these essays were inspired by her popular blog, The Sassy Curmudgeon, and here in print, LaMarche has breathed life into those unfiltered entries while maintaining the vigor and casualness of a blog. Unlike Lena Dunham’s collection, Not That Kind of Girl, LaMarche (who is a decade older than Dunham—a significant age gap, since Dunham is oft criticized for being the product of the navel-gazing millennial generation) appears mature and self-aware. As a writer, her candor and colloquial use of language have a way of making you feel as though she is speaking only to you.
While much of the real estate here is spent retracing her reluctant journey to adulthood, the real strength of Unabrow is how acutely LaMarche depicts what it’s like to be a woman in America these days: e.g., what it’s like to give birth to a child (there’s a hilarious play-by-play of her natural childbirth, written in the form of a live-blog post, followed by a helpful diagram of the “nine circles of hell”), and how her life, work, and marriage were transformed as a result. LaMarche also observes that women in their 30s are misrepresented on television and in movies—especially mothers, who are depicted either as “MILFs” or martyrs. And with so many voices out there telling women how to “have it all” or shaming women into being “better” parents, what makes LaMarche especially appealing is that she writes from the perspective of a woman who happens to be flawed. Doesn’t everyone have their own version of a unibrow that they carry around with them all the time, even if it no longer exists?
Sophie Flack, author of Bunheads, has contributed to the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe, and Ballet Review.
Offscreen and on the battlefield with Audie Murphy. Jul 6, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 41 • By MICHAEL DIRDA
It’s a Saturday afternoon in 1955, and I am sitting with my father in the Palace Theater in Lorain, Ohio. I am 7 years old, and we are waiting for the start of a war movie called To Hell and Back. It is, my dad tells me, a true story, and the hero is a real hero playing himself. His name, I learned that day, was Audie Murphy, the most decorated American soldier of all time.
A major minor master in prose. Jul 6, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 41 • By DANNY HEITMAN
The English writer and artist Max Beerbohm lived between 1872 and 1956, nearly 84 years in all. But early on, he cultivated his career like a man with little time to lose. Fresh from Oxford, he began contributing witty articles to the Yellow Book, a lively quarterly associated with Oscar Wilde and William Butler Yeats.
Celebrity as two-edged sword for presidentsJul 6, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 41 • By TEVI TROY
That the president is an important media figure is an indisputable fact in the modern political landscape. In my own book on presidents and popular culture, I argued that the ways in which presidents interact with the content and various modes of popular culture can provide a valuable insight into their individual psyches. Now, Kenneth T. Walsh has come along and taken the case to a different level, arguing that celebrity is an indispensible part of the modern presidency and that presidents who handle celebrity better are more successful as presidents.
Echoes of Salem across the centuries.
Jul 6, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 41 • By DAVID AIKMAN
Halloween, it seems, never fails to arrive in “Witch City” without a spike in tourism. These tourists have conferred the nickname on Salem, Massachusetts. For the past several decades, the otherwise ordinary Essex County community of 41,000 has been the destination of people with a sometimes-lurid fascination with an episode in American history that is forever associated with the city. Police cruisers bear a witch logo, and one local high school team calls itself “the Witches.”
A liberal makes the conservative case for free speech. Jul 6, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 41 • By CLAUDIA ANDERSON
The term “illiberal left” is one of the useful contributions of this book. Liberals, as Kirsten Powers grew up believing, are committed to tolerance, pluralism, and reasoned debate. Freedom of speech is, to them, a cherished principle. By contrast, she insists, “authoritarian demands for intellectual conformity and the relentless demonizing of people who don’t support [one’s point of view] are inherently illiberal and wrong.”
All the presidents’ spouses in one place. Jul 6, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 41 • By ARAM BAKSHIAN JR.
When it comes to first ladies, one size does not fit all. From Martha Washington to Michelle Obama, presidential spouses have ranged from the brilliant to the batty, the dutiful to the distraught. But then, so have their husbands, so it really isn’t all that surprising. Come the 2016 election, we may even face the prospect of a former first lady and her former presidential spouse engaging in a gender-bending role swap. Or as a roadside sign posted on Twitter the day Hillary Clinton announced her candidacy put it:
The House of Windsor in uniform. Jul 6, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 41 • By DOMINIC GREEN
All royal families are alike; all are unhappy in their own way. Most of their unhappiness is as common as their subjects, but the best of it has the resonance and unworldliness of a fairy tale. Royalty, as the proverb says of the Jews, are like other people, only more so.
Reality and unreality at a Combat Outpost.Jul 6, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 41 • By ANN MARLOWE
The Valley is marketed as a police procedural set in a remote American military outpost in Afghanistan, and it is a page-turner, all 448 of them. It’s also so cunningly constructed that I had to read it twice to be sure I understood everything that was going on—and there are still a few loose ends. But it’s also an ambitious, if reticent, novel about good and evil, friendship and leadership, courage and shame that mainly succeeds.
A pilgrim’s guide to the Algonquin Round Table. Jul 6, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 41 • By AMY HENDERSON
In its heyday in the twenties, the Algonquin Round Table was a headline-grabbing “smart set” that came to fame in a decade when mass media took center stage in American culture. A showcase setting for journalists and theater people, the Round Table’s stars included Dorothy Parker, George S. Kaufman, Robert Benchley, and Franklin Pierce Adams. They were “famous for being famous,” but, as Parker once said, they “were no giants.
At Waterloo, victory pivoted on a farmhouse. Jul 6, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 41 • By STEPHEN G. SMITH
The 378 men of the 2nd Light Battalion King’s German Infantry made up a tiny fraction of Wellington’s force of 68,000 at Waterloo, and they are often forgotten amid Napoleon’s massive frontal assaults against the allied line on the heights of Mont-Saint-Jean. Their fierce defense of a farmhouse called La Haye Sainte is the subject of Brendan Simms’s short but action-packed book. By his reckoning, the five-hour struggle for La Haye Sainte changed the course of the battle.
What we say over here, what they hear over there. Jul 6, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 41 • By MICHAEL M. ROSEN
Like humans and chimpanzees, Americans and Britons share 99 percent of linguistic and cultural DNA, but it’s the 1 percent difference that often seems to define us. Here, Erin Moore ably strives to explain how and why this is so.
Jul 6, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 41 • By SONNY BUNCH
Richard Schickel—the Time critic who has been writing about movies for a living since 1965—estimates in the opening chapter of Keepers that he has seen roughly “22,590 films, or about 294 of them a year. Which means that two out of every three days, for a long time now, I have been at the movies.” Keepers is the distillation of a lifetime of moviegoing knowledge, a collection of must-sees with a few don’t-bothers thrown in to keep things lively.
The documentary version of Dickens’s metropolis. Jun 29, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 40 • By EDWARD SHORT
During 1849-50, the author and journalist Henry Mayhew (1812-1887) set about anatomizing the lives of the London poor in a series of 82 articles for the Morning Chronicle, which would eventually lay the groundwork for the greatest study of the English poor ever written, the four-volume London Labour and the London Poor (1851-65).
Antidotes to the closing of the American mind.Jun 29, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 40 • By THOMAS L. JEFFERS
Readers of a certain age will remember the critical surprise—a mingling of delight and disgust—when, in 1987, a pair of books on our country and our culture, written by obscure university professors, sold like Tom Clancy. Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind and E. D. Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy became, respectively, first and second on the New York Times bestseller chart, and they stayed in the top 10 for half a year.