February 27, 2014
(+++) WHAT’S SO FUNNY?
Belly Laughs: The Naked Truth about Pregnancy and Childbirth. By Jenny McCarthy. Da Capo. $13.99.
Zombie Apocalypse Survival Guide. By Heather Dakota. Illustrated by Ali Castro. Designed by Bill Henderson, Ali Castro, and Heather Dakota. Scholastic. $10.99.
One way to decide just how truthful, amusing and involving you find a celebrity-written book to be is by imagining it is not written by a celebrity. Would you find everything just as worthwhile if you had no idea who the author was? If the answer is no – as it likely will be, for most readers, in Jenny McCarthy’s Belly Laughs – then you are reading the book because of the celebrity connection, not for the work’s content. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, but don’t delude yourself into thinking you are gaining great insight into something or other – pregnancy, in the case of McCarthy’s book – when what you are really getting is a bunch of thoughts from some celebrity whom you happen to like and whose words (or whose ghostwriter’s words) you are therefore interested in seeing. This 10th anniversary edition of McCarthy’s book is the same as the one originally published in 2004, except for a new introduction. The intro asks readers to sympathize with the “tough” life of the co-host of ABC’s “The View” at the time she wrote the book: everybody to whom her agent sent it rejected it, McCarthy writes, until, “just as I was about to spend my last bit of savings, the phone rang.” And the rest, of course, is history. Readers who believe this and find it heartwarming are definitely the target audience here. Oh – and about that ghostwriting thing – “No one helped me write it. I even typed with one finger so I could hold [son] Evan the entire time.” And now that McCarthy has, as she says, written seven more books, “I love writing so much that I would type with just my pinky toe if that’s all I had left to write with.” So McCarthy fans will have a great time with the book. Will others? Well, the target audience is mothers-to-be who want to read about “the gross and vulnerable side of pregnancy,” and the question is whether potential readers who have no idea who McCarthy is will want that information from her. If you do, this is where you will find out, for example, that “everything in that [grocery] store disgusted me” early in pregnancy, and that “the only healthy [sic; she means “healthful”] thing I ever got down in nine months was an apple. …Health food DISGUSTED me.” You will find out about the ultrasound that revealed “the largest baby penis on the screen that I have ever seen (not that I’ve seen all that many, mind you).” You will learn that “hemorrhoids are no laughing matter” and that if you have them, you should ask your doctor for a stool softener. You will be introduced to “a giant rack of the ugliest, biggest, and most comfortable-looking bras I had ever seen. A MATERNITY BRA! …Surrender to the maternity bra and your world will be transformed.” You will find a suggestion to “carry a little air freshener in your purse” and “invest in some scented candles” for your home because of how gassy pregnant women get. “Obviously, this whole book is devoted to all the strange things that happen to you while pregnant,” writes McCarthy, and if you are interested in reading about those things in deliberately coarse language from a B-movie actress and TV personality, Belly Laughs is a good place to do so. Would you find this information, written in these words and with this attitude, interesting or helpful if you had no idea who wrote it? On that question depends the answer to another: will you find this book refreshingly plainspoken or merely gross and trashy?
Zombie Apocalypse Survival Guide is supposed to be gross, but in the “ewwwww” sense in which kids use the word rather than the way adults do. It is an odd little book, a spiral-bound, nicely designed volume intended to cash in on the current craze for zombies (which have largely replaced vampires and werewolves as the creatures-of-the-moment). Tabbed sections called “The Zombie Virus,” “Zombie Identification Guide” and “Survival Skills” are supposed to lead young readers through the coming zombie invasion – which is actually presented here as a fait accompli. The peculiarity of this book is that its instances of humor are coupled with material designed to be taken very seriously indeed. On the one hand, “Due to decomposition, a zombie is going to smell really bad. …They do breathe, but it is more out of habit than anything.” On the other hand, the book contains accurate (if very brief) discussions of the Black Death, the plague of Justinian, the influenza pandemic of 1918-19, the first cholera pandemic (early 19th century), smallpox and yellow fever and SARS – all genuine, frightening and truly deadly events that the book places in the same category as the nonexistent “zombie virus” and discusses in very similar language. This may be intended to provide a sense of what-if or potential realism to the whole zombie fascination, but it is rather creepy, and not in the sense that the book’s creators intend: it reduces genuine human turmoil, terror and death to the level of something make-believe. Granted, this is not the main part of the book, but the discussions of genuine occurrences are prominent and prolonged enough to give Zombie Apocalypse Survival Guide a bit more of a grossness factor than its creators likely intended. What they really want, of course, is to present sections such as “Zombie Biology 101,” which includes statements including this: “Eventually, a zombie will lose all its teeth because they are not adapted to the force applied by the jaw.” And “how to defend yourself” information that is adapted for various zombie types: fresh, walker, runner, crawler, rambler. And such “helpful” notes as this: “Domestic animals will be your companions or helpers as they alert you to the approach of a zombie horde. However, if food is scarce, they may be looking at you as their next meal.” The book includes warnings to “travel light” and “double knot your shoelaces.” Also: “Avoid heavily populated areas. That’s where the zombies are.” Zombie Apocalypse Survival Guide proffers the contents of a survival kit and contains suggestions for finding water (including accurate information on purifying it – another part of the book that mixes the real with the make-believe); information (again, accurate) on cloud patterns and weather prediction; and material on first aid, knot tying and much more. Then there are distractions: “There is nothing better than setting zombies up for a practical joke,” such as throwing a glow-in-the-dark, super-bouncing ball toward zombies and watching them shamble and shuffle as they try to grab it (this is what passes for humor here). There are even back-of-the-book presentations of a zombie identification quiz and a glossary. Of course, none of this is intended to be taken seriously, and all of it (including the lenticular cover, in which a smiling boy turns into a snarling zombie) is supposed to give readers a few chills and, as noted, a big helping of the “ewwwww” factor. Zombie Apocalypse Survival Guide does all that, but it also mixes reality and unreality in some rather unsavory ways, not all of which seem to have been intended to produce the effects that they do in fact create.