The Pop-Culture Memoir: 'The Big Rewind' And 'Notes From The Underwire' : Monkey See Nathan Rabin's The Big Rewind and Quinn Cummings' Notes From The Underwire are both funny, involving stories that both are and are not about pop culture.
NPR logo The Pop-Culture Memoir: 'The Big Rewind' And 'Notes From The Underwire'

The Pop-Culture Memoir: 'The Big Rewind' And 'Notes From The Underwire'

Two books that both are and are not about pop culture: Nathan Rabin's The Big Rewind and Quinn Cummings' Notes From The Underwire. hide caption

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It's admittedly a little unfair to refer to Nathan Rabin's The Big Rewind and Quinn Cummings' Notes From The Underwire: Adventures From My Awkward And Lovely Life as pop-culture memoirs, because neither is really about popular culture, though both are swimming in it.

Rabin is the head writer for The Onion A.V. Club, and Cummings is a one-time child actress (as much as you'd like to not mention that, and as much as you sense she'd like you not to, she's an Academy Award nominee for her performance in The Goodbye Girl, which is a hard thing to overlook). Their books are very different — Rabin's sense of humor is substantially darker (...than anyone's), and Cummings offers more a series of essays than a real memoir. (She's a longtime blogger, so she's familiar with the format.)

But what they have in common is the rarest and most precious quality of people writing about their own lives, which is the ability to talk in a way that's genuinely warm and funny about both good things and bad things, so that stories that often involve a lot of pain don't devolve into either vein-opening agony feasts or self-aggrandizing Here's-To-Me volumes that might as well be subtitled "The Many Ways In Which, If You Think About It, I Am Kind Of A Hero." You know the ones.

Writing with a lot of drums, whimsy, paisley, and the surprising rarity of a good cat story, after the jump...

The Big Rewind seems to pick up Rabin's life somewhere around junior high — around the time where he started getting set upon by bullies with some frequency. A variety of colliding circumstances landed him in a mental hospital and with a foster family and then in a group home.

And then there was a fateful meeting at Blockbuster that led to what is now a very successful writing career. This is sometimes what having a good life means, of course. You just stay alive, until you meet a guy at Blockbuster. Rabin frames the stories around various pop-culture influences — how much, for instance, he wanted to get out of the mental hospital and watch a Steven Seagal movie.

It's never really the story that makes a book like this, because a lot of people survive various wretched circumstances — survival stories aren't all that rare. What's more unusual is the tone, which has been sandblasted of self-pity and emerged as a kind of brutal truth-telling that leads Rabin to get at least half of the big laughs at his own expense, because you can be both the hero and the doofus in your own life, and that's a very valuable lesson indeed. The writing is enormously vibrant and forceful — if this were music, there would be a lot of drums, in the best way.

The Cummings book is much lighter in tone, despite the fact that emerging from child stardom — including her miserable appearance with Johnny Carson in which her drive to be an adequately adorable wiseacre became a humiliation it clearly took a long time to get over — provided plenty of fodder to keep anyone's therapist busy.

But in reality, this is mostly a book about a woman who has a daughter and pets and a tendency to bump into things — your average eminently relatable blogger who is spectacularly good at finding what's funny and strange about just getting from Point A to Point B. A piece about how her cat lapsed into insanity after whiffing too much of an accidentally catnip-infused blanket is the kind of thing that exists all over the Internet in theory but in very few places in fact.

Have you ever had the experience of reading a single line and realizing that a book has just won you? That you and the book are now friends, you are on the same side, and you are taking the book with you everywhere until you finish it? Cummings won me on page 16 with this:

At the height of the dot-com frenzy, I took a job in San Francisco. After several weeks of dead ends, I left Los Angeles without having a place to live in San Francisco. I figured I'd get there, stay in a hotel for a few days, find a sublet, and move in. That seemed like the kind of whimsical thing people I knew did all the time, and it always worked out fabulously for them. I had forgotten that whimsy, like paisley, is incredibly unflattering on me.

I read and reread "whimsy, like paisley," rolled it around in my mouth, and gulped the rest of the book. It's a delightful and genuine mishmash in the best way — a little mom stuff, a little showbiz, a little about how everyone feels cooler at the farmer's market. Again, it's not so much the story you're telling as the way you tell it.