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Wrote to Recovery

The transition from underground spoken-word goddess to New York Times best-selling memoirist may sound a bit dramatic, but Beth Lisick made it look effortless and graceful with her 2005 book, Everybody Into the Pool.

A collection of autobiographical stories set in the San Francisco Bay Area, Pool placed Lisick at the forefront of her generation's humorists, giving more established writers like David Sedaris a run for their proverbial money. (Of course, it didn't hurt that Entertainment Weekly listed her book among the "Top 10 Nonfiction Books" of that year.) Whether she's writing about dressing up in a bright yellow banana costume to make extra bucks, or experimenting--badly--with then-chic college lesbianism, Lisick can make you laugh when you least expect it, and her open-minded, open-hearted take on the world around her is refreshing.

Three years later, Lisick is back with Helping Me Help Myself: One Skeptic, Ten Self-Help Gurus and a Year on the Brink of the Comfort Zone. Instead of a gathering of sketches, her new book is an intense, yet still funny exploration of an industry that seeks to transform all of us into shiny, happy people, largely through the purchasing of their many books, DVDs, devices, consultations and regimens. While Lisick may skimp on some of the premiere luxury packages--she is a flat-broke hipster wife and mom, after all--she is generous and even-handed when it comes to appraising the biggest, most popular and most successful self-help icons of our time.

"I made a concerted effort to be even-handed, to think about these gurus as if they were my neighbors or parents at my kid's school, to purposefully try not to 'take them down' as if I were some serious investigative journalist," Lisick says during a recent interview with the Tucson Weekly. "They're just people, after all."

The only guru who may have slightly creeped her out was John Gray, of Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus fame. Clearly, she didn't enjoy his book, yet thought if she went to hear him speak in person, she would be more sympathetic. It didn't work out so well. Though he truly believes he's helping people, and there are tons of people who would step forward and say that he has, she didn't get it. At all.

"His performance was like an unfortunate stand-up comedy routine influenced by the Hallmark greeting-card company and early 'Lockhorns' comic strips as performed by an egomaniacal yogini who drank too much kombucha," she says, laughing at her own combination of words. "I felt seriously damaged when I walked out of there. Like I'd experienced a carnival midway as co-directed by Christopher Guest and Wes Craven."

Her kindest words are reserved for Stephen Covey (The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People), who encourages people to demonstrate strong character and try not to be weasel-like and inconsistent.

"I liked Covey's book a lot," she reveals. "It basically takes the great ideas from the Bible, Emerson, Franklin and Thoreau, and then synthesizes them."

Lisick's self-help adventures also lead her to give readers a real peek into the home of a practicing-artist couple in the Bay Area. While most young couples would be afraid that sharing photos of their house could invite the wrath of child-protective services, Lisick dives in with the Internet and phone assistance of organizing expert Julie Morgenstern.

"I just tried to write from my experience and pray that it didn't sound too weird to most people reading it," she says. "Even though we had a mold outbreak in our bedroom and a flannel sheet duct-taped to our window for a curtain, I hoped that people could see that, essentially, we're just a regular family trying to figure things out. But when I started detailing our situation to the organizing professionals in their Manhattan offices, it sounded like we were slightly insane or negligent. I'd never put my life under such a microscope. And I say that as someone who has written a memoir, so, sheesh."

Throughout the entirety of Helping Me Help Myself, Lisick nails so many descriptions--from Richard Simmons' wondrous tan and hair to the smell of a house with kids living in it. Does Lisick laugh out loud when she writes this stuff?

"I try to make myself laugh when I'm writing funny stuff. Or I just try to accurately describe something and hope other people think it's as funny as I do. Or I think of the people who make me laugh. Or I just wing it and hope it comes out all right."

Her life may be organized now, but where would Lisick file Helping Me Help Myself if she worked at a bookstore like Antigone, where she makes an appearance this week?

"I would file it under 'Things a Lady Tried Once,' or 'Kind of Embarrassing.' Or 'Mad Libs.'"

Beth Lisick signs copies of Helping Me Help Myself at 7 p.m., next Thursday, March 27, at Antigone Books, 411 N. Fourth Ave. Admission is free. Call 792-3715 for more information.

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