The best books that find the funny in an unjust world

Who am I?

As a writer and editor, I spend a lot of time thinking about what prose—especially first-person nonfiction, which is mostly what I edit—does, and how it sets out to accomplish its project. Across forms, I tend to think humor is largely underused! No matter how serious the subject, there’s always a place for it to sharpen the critique. My book engages with topics like systemic discrimination and inequity, but throughout, I always stay attuned to the comic absurdity of my subject—both as a way to give more pleasure to the reader, and as a way to cut to the heart of what I want to express.

I wrote...

Some of My Best Friends: Essays on Lip Service

By Tajja Isen,

Book cover of Some of My Best Friends: Essays on Lip Service

What is my book about?

Some of My Best Friends is a darkly comic essay collection that braids personal narrative and cultural criticism, exploring the absurdity of living in a world that has grown fluent in the language of social justice but doesn’t always follow through.

The book’s nine essays explore the sometimes troubling and often awkward nature of that discord. Some of My Best Friends takes on subjects that include the cartoon industry’s pivot away from colorblind casting, the pursuit of diverse representation in the literary world, the law’s refusal to see inequality, and the cozy fictions of nationalism. Throughout, Tajja Isen deftly examines the quick, cosmetic fixes society makes to address systemic problems and reveals the unexpected ways they can misfire.

The books I picked & why

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Priestdaddy: A Memoir

By Patricia Lockwood,

Book cover of Priestdaddy: A Memoir

Why this book?

Patricia Lockwood’s memoir about growing up as the daughter of a married Catholic priest contains some of the best comic lines I’ve ever read. I still quote it regularly. When Lockwood and her husband move back in with her parents following a medical situation, two improbable things ensue at once: piercing reflections on a religious upbringing in a deeply patriarchal household, and family portraiture rendered in slapstick-funny, laugh-out-loud scenes. Lockwood approaches the world of her parents, and of her childhood, with such a keen perception of every absurdity, no matter how passing or small. Nothing escapes her vision. I want to see the world the way she does. 

Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion

By Jia Tolentino,

Book cover of Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion

Why this book?

Tolentino’s essay collection is already a contemporary classic. In it, she lays bare—with surgical precision—the illusions and compromises of late-capitalist subjectivity, but pairs that existential dread with a sharp eye for the comic absurdity of it all. It explains so much of our contemporary life, and why that contemporary life so often feels bad. It stayed with me for the clarity of its arguments, but also for a truly hilarious scene involving escaped bodily air and a yoga class. 

You've Changed: Fake Accents, Feminism, and Other Comedies from Myanmar

By Pyae Moe Thet War,

Book cover of You've Changed: Fake Accents, Feminism, and Other Comedies from Myanmar

Why this book?

I love the boldness of putting “comedy” right there in the subtitle, and Pyae Moe Thet War absolutely delivers. This memoir-in-essays, about being a millennial woman in Myanmar, has one of the strongest voices I’ve encountered in recent essay collections. She writes back against the expectation that racialized and minoritized writers perform their trauma for the reader, or must be restricted to certain topics and tones. You’ve Changed sets a precedent I know other writers will feel empowered to follow.

One Day We'll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter: Essays

By Scaachi Koul,

Book cover of One Day We'll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter: Essays

Why this book?

Whether in her book or her writing for BuzzFeed, Koul’s voice and humor are always instantly recognizable. Their distinctive tone is right there in the title. In her debut collection, Koul explores growing up as a South Asian woman in Canada, braiding her personal narrative with deft cultural critique. Essay collections rarely have such a strong sense of characters as this one does—Koul’s parents, especially, are deeply felt and sharply rendered figures who appear across the essays as sources of humor, pathos, and exasperation.

Leave the World Behind

By Rumaan Alam,

Book cover of Leave the World Behind

Why this book?

A surprising choice, perhaps, for a book list framed around comedy, as the lingering feeling this book leaves you with is closer to a deep dread. But the family at the center of this book—who are on vacation during what very much seems to be the beginning of the end of the world—exhibit such a specific and well-observed type of wealth and whiteness. The book’s social satire adds some levity amid really dire circumstances. And the language in this novel is just delicious.

5 book lists we think you will like!

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