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A lot of the best comedy comes from darkness. For many of our funniest, the shadows are where they find the biggest laughs. As it turns out, one can mine a lot of jokes from battling with one’s demons.

Comedy connoisseurs are certainly aware of Tom Scharpling. He’s likely best known as the creator of the beloved long-running radio show-turned-podcast “The Best Show,” where he and his partner Jon Wurster have spent some two decades crafting a bizarre and absurdist call-in program that is probably one of your favorite comedian’s favorite things.

And now, he’s written a memoir.

“It Never Ends: A Memoir with Nice Memories!” (Abrams Press, $27) gives readers a window into who Scharpling really is. It’s an exploration of a troubled past rendered with self-deprecating frankness, walking us along the path that brought him to his current place. There’s an earnestness to it all, despite the constant self-awareness – an unwavering honesty, even in the face of clear misgivings about sharing these stories in their entirety.

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Fame can be fleeting. No matter how talented a person, no matter how renowned in their time, oftentimes it comes down to mere chance whether an artist is forever feted or ultimately forgotten.

For the author Rachel Field, the latter was true. Field, best known for her Newbery Award-winning book “Hitty, Her First Hundred Years,” was also a winner of the National Book Award among other accolades. For years, she spent her summers in a house on Sutton Island, a small private island off the southern coast of Mount Desert Island. She was incredibly prolific and generally beloved by both critics and readers.

And I had never heard of her.

Thanks to author Robin Clifford Wood, however, I have been relieved of my ignorance. Wood’s new book is “The Field House: A Writer’s Life Lost and Found on an Island in Maine” (She Writes Press, $16.95), which tells the story of this notable woman of letters who produced celebrated work right up until her untimely passing at the age of just 47.

But this isn’t your typical literary biography. While Wood undeniably digs deep with her research into the life and work of Rachel Field, the book’s strength lies in the author’s connection with the subject matter. Her fascination with Field plays out in many ways throughout the book, binding together Wood’s own story with that of the once celebrated and now obscure writer.

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The personal essay boom of the past decade or so certainly makes sense as part of the ongoing explosion of internet content. The current landscape is ideally conducive to, well … talking about yourself, taking the old adage “Write what you know” to its most extreme logical conclusion.

This isn’t always a good thing. Too often, this sort of writing devolves into solipsism, a kind of self-celebratory navel-gazing that winds up reading equal parts indulgent and disingenuous. But on those occasions that it works, it’s as impactful as any formal autobiography, giving readers a glimpse at the kind of unexpected truth that can only come from someone else’s experience.

The essays in Lauren Hough’s new collection “Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing: Essays” (Vintage, $16.95) work. This selection of 11 stories drawn from Gough’s checkered and fascinating life coalesces in a remarkable way. Through these tales of a unique journey – a childhood spent in a cult leads to a turn in the military followed by a rough-and-tumble awakening of her sexuality, all while simply trying to understand the world in ways many of us take for granted.

Hough’s lacerating wit hits many targets, though none so often or so bitingly as herself. There’s a brutality to her honesty and to her self-deprecation that is compelling as hell to engage with. These alternatingly heartbreaking and hilarious tales stand strong on their own, but as a unit, they form a multi-faceted memoir-in-stories that is a true delight.

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“Life’s a journey, not a destination.” It’s a sentiment that we’ve all heard a million times before, this idea that where we wind up is less important than how we got there. And it’s a true one, albeit a bit of a cliché at this point.

Sometimes, though, we have no idea what someone’s journey actually entails until that person shares their story.

Erin French is known for her celebrated restaurant The Lost Kitchen, based in a renovated grist mill in the tiny Maine town of Freedom. She has received accolades from all over the culinary universe, with big names and big outlets all clamoring to shower her with praise for the amazing dining experience that she has built in her tiny corner of the world.

What you might not now is just how much she went through to get here.

“Finding Freedom: A Cook’s Story; Remaking a Life from Scratch” (Celadon Books, $28) is the story of French’s journey in her own words. It is a story of one woman’s voyage of self-discovery and the many dizzying highs and shattering lows that came along the way. It’s a work of reflection and at-times brutal honesty, dotted with revelations and confessions. There are tears aplenty, but also more than a few laughs as well; it’s a portrait of a sometimes fractured and always full life.

Through it all, the indomitable spirit of Erin French shines through. Even in those moments where she seems to be at her lowest, when her world is crumbling around her, that fortitude is obvious. This is a woman who took every shot that life could throw at her and simply refused to stay down. That resilience is on full display throughout this book, and it is only that resilience that allowed her to become the person that she is today.

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Food as entertainment has become big business in the 21st century. Food-based television programming and celebrity chefs are major parts of the culinary landscape, with their importance spiraling upward as each enhances the other. Food TV makes more famous chefs and famous chefs make more TV.

One of the beneficiaries of this development is David Chang. Founder of the Momofuku restaurant empire and host of Netflix’s “Ugly Delicious,” he could be considered one of the poster children for this new chef culture … though it’s not necessarily a distinction that he ever really wanted.

In his new memoir “Eat a Peach” (Clarkson Potter, $28) – co-written with Gabe Ulla – Chang walks readers through his unusual and checkered journey to the top of his profession. From his early days in a strict and religious Korean-American family to his start in restaurant kitchens to the early uneasiness of his Momofuku endeavors to his ultimate ascendance to the upper echelons of the food world, we’re given insight into how he got to where he is.

But that’s just half the story. We also learn about a life lived in constant fear of failure. Chang is brutally honest and forthcoming about his up-and-down fight against depression and his ongoing struggles with anger management. It’s a success story that features plenty of misfires. The one constant throughout is a deep-seated and genuine love of cooking, both in terms of culinary exploration and cultural storytelling.

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This beloved game show host and television icon has a new book out in which he looks back on a long and storied career.

Who is … Alex Trebek?

The longtime host of “Jeopardy!” has written a memoir, titled “The Answer Is…: Reflections on My Life” (Simon & Schuster, $26). It’s a chance to not just celebrate who Trebek has become, but to remember the earlier parts of the journey that led here – and to do so in his own words.

It’s a gentle voyage, to be sure. In a lot of ways, the book offers up its titular answer in much the spirit of the game show that came to define him – simply, concisely and accurately. The book matches the man, largely genial but with just a hint of remove.

As it should be.

(This is where I remind everybody that I was a contestant on “Jeopardy!” In fact, I was reading this book two years to the day after I got the call that I was going to be on the show. Obviously, this influenced the way that I experienced this book and I’m not going to pretend full objectivity. Nor am I going to ignore an in-context opportunity to mention it. I apologize for nothing.)

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Celebrity memoirs are generally a tough sell for me. The notion that a famous person is going to tell me anything of substance about themselves – particularly in a book – seems unlikely. So often, these books are baldly self-celebratory with nary a hint of genuine introspection.

Colin Jost’s “A Very Punchable Face” (Crown, $27) isn’t the worst celebrity autobiography you’ll find. Jost, a longtime writer and “Weekend Update” host for “Saturday Night Live,” knows how to write and is unafraid to look foolish – a solid combination for someone presenting a book about their own life. While it might not be as thoughtful or reflective as you might like, Jost does pull back the curtain a little bit, particularly when it comes to his family and his Staten Island roots.

Again, it’s not some sort of soul search, but nor is it merely a wad of rehashed “SNL” backstage anecdotes (though it’s closer to the latter). Instead, we get a pleasant, perfectly cromulent memoir – one that focuses largely on the goofy stories, but still leaves room to talk a little bit about the stuff that matters.

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What happens to people when fame is thrust upon them too soon? What if they can’t handle the spotlight, yet neither are they allowed to escape it? And when that shine finally does fade, what if they want to forget? Can they forget?

These are the sorts of questions that writer/illustrator Michael Kupperman asks in his new graphic memoir “All the Answers” (Gallery 13, $25). It’s the story of his father Joel Kupperman, who in the years during and immediately after World War II was one of the most famous figures in the country, thanks to his childhood participation on a wildly popular radio program. It was a past the elder Kupperman fought to forget, but when the specter of dementia loomed, Michael sought to learn more about this time in his father’s life before it was lost to the rapidly-blooming cloud of oblivion.

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There are few bonds as close as those that exist between brothers. And some fraternal bonds transcend even the typical, creating a tight-knit relationship built on an intimacy that no outsider could possibly fully understand.

It’s that latter dynamic that impacts every page of “Like Brothers” (Ballantine, $28) by Mark and Jay Duplass. The Duplass Brothers – patron saints of bootstrap DIY indie filmmaking – have been one of the most fertile and interesting creative partnerships of the 21st century. Their considerable talents in numerous aspects of filmmaking – acting, writing, directing, producing, you name it – helped, of course, but it’s the passion, ambition and determination inherent to their partnership that truly led to their success.

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Wednesday, 04 April 2018 12:37

‘How to American’ humorous and heartfelt

The United States is a nation of immigrants. And every single one of those immigrants has a different and unique American experience.

Comedian Jimmy O. Yang is probably best known for his role as Jian Yang on HBO’s “Silicon Valley.” He’s also an immigrant; he came to this country as a teenager, moving from Hong Kong to Los Angeles with his family at the age of 13. As you can imagine, it was culture shock of a high order.

Yang’s new book “How to American: An Immigrant’s Guide to Disappointing Your Parents” (Da Capo, $27) relates his experience and how he assimilated – sometimes successfully, sometimes not so much – into this strange new home.

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