Fever Dreams: On Eleanor Davis’s ‘How to Be Happy’

By Adam Boretz

Because of a high fever, ear infection, and generally delicate constitution — my doctor once told me I have the stored protein levels of “a frail elderly woman” — I ended up reading Eleanor Davis’s How to Be Happy twice.

coverThe first time, I burned through about two-thirds of the book, took my temperature — (100.5) — and then had this somewhat confusing yet characteristic text exchange with the Ryan Joe:

Me: Not Yet. But Dion. I have an ear infection because I am seven years old.
Ryan: Shit man. Feel Better! I liked How to Be Happy quite a bit.
Me: I’m halfway through. Not bad. Colorful.

Then I fell asleep. When I woke up, I couldn’t remember anything I read — How to Be Happy was completely erased from my memory. I also have no idea who Dion is.

The second reading — sans fever and mostly sans ear infection — showed me that my initial reaction to the book — “Not bad. Colorful.” — was a massive understatement. And while I read the book a few weeks ago, I find myself still thinking about many of the stories in How to Be Happy.

The pieces that really resonated with me were Davis’s tales of empty, confused people searching — for emotion (“No Tears, No Sorrow”), for love (“Darling, I’ve Realized I don’t Love You”), and for meaning in everything from meditation and children to gluten-free bread:

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Getting the Most Out of One Woman’s Suffering: On ‘The Case Against Satan’

Let’s fucking hope the Catholic Church is footing the bill for this book.

The Case against Satan is ostensibly about an exorcism. The haunting cover would seem to suggest the book is concerned with the woman who does (or does not) need to be exorcised.  It is concerned with her, as far as how she arrived at her current state, sort of.  It cares about saving her, for sure. But in the simple terms of page-space allotted, the book is concerned with this woman’s suffering almost solely as a call to action for important men to set about solving a problem. That, and to allow important men to have abstract, mostly theological debates — to the point that they take a break from the exorcism,  during which the woman is bound to the bed, thrashing and bleeding – to have the following exchange:

cover‘Oh?’ Gregory turned from the window and sardonically echoed the Bishop’s earlier words: ‘Have things changed that much? Love, hate fear, pity, right and wrong, good and evil? Has God changed?’

The Bishop gently set his cup upon its saucer.

‘Touché, Gregory,’ he said. ‘You win this round.’

In terms of what will happen to these characters (people) in the future, the bishop (our figure of authority) is far more concerned with Father Gregory’s drinking problem than with what will happen to this woman when they are through with her. I’d go as far as to say the book wouldn’t be all that different if it were about about a plague of locusts, especially if the priest and the bishop involved were capable of investing some purely corporeal cause for this. Except it is about a young woman who was almost certainly raped, and has come to them for help.

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Book 15: Mairtin O Cadhain’s ‘The Dirty Dust’

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This week, Football Book Club is reading The Dirty Dust by Máirtín Ó Cadhain — and getting caught up after the holidays with posts about everything from How to Be Happy by Eleanor Davis to River House by Sally Keith.

The Dirty Dust — all the characters of which are dead in their graves — has finally been translated into English thanks to the efforts of Alan Titley, and was called one of “best books to come out of Ireland in the 20th century” by The Independent.

Adam nominated this title for Football Book Club because: “I read this piece at The Millions — which contains this amazing line: ‘What if what awaits us after death is a continuation of the same petty dramas and sordid resentments? What if, after we’re lowered into our graves, we discover that all the other corpses in the cemetery are still chattering away in some kind of eternal bitchfest?’ — and was so excited I immediately ordered a copy of the book.”  

Book 14: Eleanor Davis’s ‘How to Be Happy’

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This week, Football Book Club is reading How to Be Happy by Eleanor Davis and posting about River House by Sally Keith — and maybe Richard McGuire’s Here and Ray Russell’s The Case Against Satan.

How to be Happy is Davis’s first collection of graphic/literary short stories, was named one of NPR’s and Publishers Weekly‘s Best Books of 2014, and was shortlisted for Slate‘s 2014 Cartoonist Studio Prize for Best Print Comic of the Year.

Rob nominated this title for Football Book Club because “As the darkest time of the year approaches, who wouldn’t want to read a book called How to Be Happy? And yet this collection of graphic short stories is no smile-fest. My wife recommended it to me on the basis of its range of styles and its playful power.

The Empty House: On ‘Here’ and ‘The Case Against Satan’

By Adam Boretz

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I was hoping Ryan Joe would deliver the goods in his response to Richard McGuire’s Hereand his post did just that. For me, this was actually a second reading of Here. The first time around — months ago, when I got my hands on a galley — I really liked the book for all the reasons people should (and do) like the book: the spare art; the innovative storytelling; that sense of all we are missing in a single life, which Rob ably pointed out in his post.

coverMy second reading was a very different one due to the death of grandmother. In the months since her passing — which came two years after the death of her husband — our family has done the things that I suppose all families must do. The most recent of which was preparing her home of 60 years for sale. My grandmother’s house was (due to a variety of reasons we won’t get into here) very much my childhood home — the place I grew up; the setting of almost all of my fond early memories; one of my very favorite places.

Thankfully, I have been entirely removed from the process of donating clothes and cookware, selling furniture and valuables, hauling out the detritus of a family’s life. But, I am told by my parents that  — save a distant 20-something cousin who is now “tending to the house” by sleeping on a mattress on the floor and “not cleaning the bathroom very well” — my grandmother’s home is now empty: all the possessions and photos and furniture accumulated over six decades have been removed.

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Background Music to the Story of a Space: On ‘Here’ and Comic Book Storytelling

By Ryan Joe

Richard McGuire’s Here is an impressive feat of choreography, among other things.

One aspect of comic book storytelling I’ve recently become more aware of, in part because of a class I’m taking with the cartoonist Tom Motley, is the way panels and word balloons contribute to the overall design of a page.

That’s really important for Here, which essentially features the same static shot — a specific corner of a specific room — as it existed through centuries. This is one of my favorite layouts.

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The DNA of Place: On Richard McGuire’s ‘Here’

By Rob Casper

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So we’ve reached week 13 in the NFL season — time enough to think of how FBC has changed my life. I’ve read a whole lot of books I never would’ve known of, or otherwise found the time to break open. Which has led me to more reading — right now I’m reading Thunderstruck by Elizabeth McCracken and Kay Ryan’s brand new poetry collection, Erratic Facts (the title alone is a showcase of her genius lyricism). That said, I’m still paying a lot of attention to football. I’ve lamented the crazy downward turn of the Pack, celebrated the Pat’s sole loss of the season, wondered if the Hawkeyes would/could stay unbeaten, etc. It seems as if reading hasn’t replaced football — not like those rebellious college years when I didn’t own a TV, and the Internet didn’t make following football so damned easy.

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Book 13: Sally Keith’s ‘River House’

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This week, Football Book Club is reading River House by Sally Keith and posting about Richard McGuire’s Here and Ray Russell’s The Case Against Satan.

River House is Keith’s fourth collection of poetry and received a starred review from Publishers Weekly, which called the book “heartbreaking and robust” and an exploration of “the complexity of the mind in the midst of grief.”

Rob nominated this title for Football Book Club because “I thought Sally Keith’s River House would make a terrific book for FBC — its linked prose poems re-make the elegy form.”

Two Sides of Being Hyper-Specific: On ‘The Sixth Extinction’

By Dan Bjork

Captain Planet

We are so hyper-specific in our outrage. Never again will we allow Subway to put this specific yoga mat ingredient in their bread. Never again will we let that one venture capitalist jack up the price of that one life-saving drug by 4000 percent.

Upon reading The Sixth Extinction and sitting down to write this, I had a very similar initial reaction as Adam: sheer amazement at human beings’ ability to compartmentalize.

We are so hyper-specific in our outrage. Never again will we allow Subway to put this specific yoga mat ingredient in their bread. Never again will we let that one venture capitalist jack up the price of that one life-saving drug by 4000 percent. And then back to caring about some issue that’s opposition does not have a lobby. The macro of it all gets washed away in all the noise.

coverFor a book about the coming mass extinction of life on our planet, The Sixth Extinction is filled with people. And it’s not that we’re in danger; not yet, not imminently. Yet, for my count, it commits about as much page space to the people around this issue as it does to the animals. Right up front, we are given the history of our civilization’s coming to discover and then accept this as a process that happens. It’s a deft maneuver and a gentle way into such a (needlessly) controversial issue: look at how hard all of these brilliant men fought to discredit that extinction even existed; that a complete catalog of everything currently alive on this planet did not encompass a representative of everything that had ever lived on this planet. And from there we meet some specific animals on the brink, right along with the people fighting for them.

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The Organizing Principle Is No Organizing Principle: On the Bears, the Patriots, ‘Ash vs. Evil Dead,’ and ‘Milk & Filth’

By Adam Boretz

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It’s Year in Reading time over at The Millions, which, for the purposes of FBC, means one thing: I did not have time to write a proper post about Carmen Giménez Smith’s Milk & Filth. Which is why, Gentle Reader, you are reading this piece, which is pretty much entirely lacking in any organizing principle and, in point of fact, more closely resembles a diary entry or random collection thoughts than an actual blog post.

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  1. The Bears — with Jay Cutler at the helm! — beat the Packers at Lambeau Field, something that has, to my knowledge, not happened in like five years. I’m loath the give to much credit Cutler or the Bears — I mean, let’s be honest, the win probably came down to the Ditka Curse. Also: I didn’t watch the game. Or even see the highlights. But nonetheless: Bears Win!
  2. The Patriots lost to the Broncos, ending all that fucking annoying talk about the team having a perfect season. I didn’t watch this game either — but the last time I was this excited about a final scoreline was when West Ham got promoted back in 2012.

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