Simon Rich, Little, Brown, 288 pages
Feel the humiliation of the widowed guinea pig, so beaten down he contemplates suicide and questions his Christian faith. See through the eyes of the doting parents, who look past the signs of demonism to find a flawless little boy. Befriend a tortured Christmas elf who is caught in a boy’s sick, sexual exploits. Simon Rich gives us these characters in “Spoiled Brats,” an anthology as endlessly clever as it is hysterical. Rich masterfully assembled absurdist portraits that illuminate the absurd we may overlook in our own lives, taking special aim at hipster New York millennials with a certain agonizing breed of narcissism and entitlement.
That is best displayed in “Sell Out,” about a turn-of-the-20th-century pickle maker who falls in brine, only to be sealed away for a century and then awakens in modern-day Brooklyn. In that story and throughout the book, Rich displays brilliance and hilarity you won’t soon forget. It’s easily the funniest, most original read I’ve found in a while.
Bohemians, Bootleggers, Flappers & Swells: The Best of Early Vanity Fair
Edited by Graydon Carter, Penguin Press, 432 pages
Before Buzzfeed, before Spy, before Rolling Stone and the Paris Review, there was Vanity Fair. The smart-set magazine launched a century ago became famous as a sort of barometer of the Jazz Age and for its murderers’ row of heavy-hitting contributors. Dorothy Parker, Carl Sandburg, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein were just a few who wrote for the magazine.
“Bohemians” collects some of the more interesting and unusual pieces from Vanity Fair’s dawn through 1936. (The magazine was resurrected in 1983.)
Some of the pieces are as stale as a Theda Bara joke. Others give the reader more to chew on, like the takes on jazz in its youth and Henri Matisse. (“Matisse does not care whether or not they call him a charlatan,” we are assured.) And the fun comes from the variety.
Maybe most interesting are the pieces that illustrate how different things looked just a lifetime ago. Clarence Darrow may have been aiming for lightheartedness in his lament about women encroaching on the barbershop, but it makes the great crusading lawyer seem like a crank by contemporary standards.
The most cringe-inducing piece is novelist Theodore Dreiser’s rose-tinted look at the Soviet Union published around the dawn of the Stalin era in 1928. Dreiser assured the reader that the Soviet peasant class is “neither downtrodden nor exploited,” and that their leaders live modestly. Yes, it’s a dictatorship, Dreiser notes, but one aiming to bring “that classless brother-loving society in which no dictatorship will be needed.”
A Vanity Fair editor preceded the piece with a note emphasizing Dreiser was expressing his own opinion, not the magazine’s.