December 07, 2017


If My Dogs Were a Pair of Middle-Aged Men. By The Oatmeal (Matthew Inman). Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

How to Be Perfectly Unhappy. By The Oatmeal (Matthew Inman). Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

Foods with Moods: A First Book of Feelings. By Saxton Freymann and Joost Elffers. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $7.99.

     Deep significance is unnecessary when looking for small, pleasant gifts to give at this time of year. And there are books, for adults and children alike, that can be a real joy to give and receive without striving for all-encompassing importance: they are short, enjoyable, easy to read, mildly amusing (sometimes more than mildly), and unusual enough to be the sort of thing that most people would be unlikely to buy for themselves. That is certainly the case with two little gift books from cartoonist Matthew Inman, who goes by the monicker of The Oatmeal. Pretty much anyone with dogs will recognize the behaviors in If My Dogs Were a Pair of Middle-Aged Men, but it takes a twisted sort of humor to imagine those behaviors being performed by very rotund, bug-eyed men, one completely bald and the other with hair and a full-face beard. The full flavor of Inman’s oddball humor is here. The dog owner walks out the door, one dogman wonders if he will ever return, the other says he will not, and the two dogmen know exactly what they must do – one barks incessantly while the other digs frantically into the sofa cushions. The dog owner sneezes, and the dogmen panic, rushing about yelling “emergency” in loud voices and then leaping onto the couch where the owner is sitting to lick and “slorp” his face as messily as possible. One dogman asks to play fetch and promises that “it won’t be like last time,” then runs after the ball without ever bringing it back – leading to a poster that states, “Lost: Middle-Aged Man. Very friendly. Incredibly dumb.” And there is the sequence in which the owner is trying desperately to work while the two dogmen run around with squeaky toys, demanding playtime. The things that happen here will be familiar to dog lovers – and the sheer weirdness of the characters doing them will dislocate a funny bone or two.

     Inman is in a more-verbal mood in How to Be Perfectly Unhappy, in which he explains that he is not a happy person because happiness “implies you completed all the prerequisites. And now you get to sit atop your giant pile of happy forever.” And he shows that giant pile of smiling and laughing beach balls (or something like beach balls), with a person wearing a crown standing joyfully way, way up on top. He then discusses the demotion of Pluto from its previous designation as a planet, explaining (with illustrations, of course) why “our definition of planet wasn’t very good,” and then he notes that he is not “happy” because our definition of “happy” is not very good, either. And then he gets into a disquisition about an alien trying to figure out whether he is “glorkappy” after all the “SlargNacking” he does. And then he explains that “I do things that are meaningful to me, even if they don’t make me ‘happy,’” such as reading “long, complicated books about very smart things” and also “short, silly books about very stupid things.” Apparently How to Be Perfectly Unhappy lies somewhere in the middle. It takes a certain kind of person to give it as a gift – and a certain kind to receive it, if not happily, then with equanimity.

     Maybe happiness, even temporary happiness, requires the sort of amusement found in a new board book, intended for kids but really just as delightful for adults: Foods with Moods, based on a marvelously zany book by Saxton Freymann and Joost Elffers that dates back to 1999 and was published as How Are You Peeling? Using the inherent shapes of fruits and vegetables and a nice selection of googly eyes and a few other props to modify and accentuate the produce, Freymann and Elffers created a whole series of scenes expressing moods – yes, including happiness – through the power of growing things. Here you will find a turtle whose shell is half a cantaloupe; a kiwi fruit with a goofy expression; a large tomato glancing askance and down at a small one that looks sweetly upward; another kiwi with a big yawn; a distinctly angry-looking orange; and more. The text here fits perfectly with the expressions of the fruits and vegetables: “Too excited? Really wired? / That can make you very tired!” “Angry? Had your feelings bruised? / Or do you feel a bit confused?” The youngest children to whom this book is read will find plenty of amusement in the expressions on the fruits and vegetables in Foods with Moods, and parents who do the reading will find the book a great way to explore little ones’ feelings and show kids that they, as adults, have feelings of their own and understand the ones their children express. And the whole book will make adults and kids alike feel, if not permanently happy, at least temporarily joyful – a great way to feel in any season.

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