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Archive for the ‘Dark humor’ Category

lynnExcoriating. Funny. Philosophical. Cynical. Crude. Lyrical. Obnoxious. Charming.  Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk manages to be all of these and more in a powerful story that encompasses about five hours in the life of one nineteen year-old boy/man.

It’s Thanksgiving Day, and in Texas Stadium eight enlisted men are sitting in the freezing rain waiting for the biggest moment of their young lives.  Along with Destiny’s Child, Bravo Squad (which isn’t its real name, but that’s what everyone calls them) are to be featured in the Dallas Cowboys halftime show.  Why this particular group of eight?  Because they were involved in a brief firefight in Iraq, Fox News caught in on videotape, and they are now bona fide All American Heroes, complete with medals pinned on by President Bush himself.  A two-week national tour to build support for the war, a few hours with their families, the halftime show, and Bravo is headed back for the war zone.

It’s hard to think of these men as men – they indulge in the timeless adolescent male hobbies of insults, play wrestling, lusting after women, and eating and drinking everything in sight.  There’s no question that Iraq has changed all of them, but Billy in particular has matured beyond his nineteen years.

A restless, somewhat rebellious and indifferent student, Billy was no star in high school, and when he committed an act of vandalism he was told to join the Army to avoid prosecution.  But whatever it was – training, maturing, innate courage – Billy was a leader in the firefight and was awarded the Silver Star.  But he also lost a friend and mentor, and while the fight itself seems unreal he remembers every detail of Shroom’s death.  Now Billy is questioning everything he sees in his country.

Because there’s no question that Bravo is being used.  Used by politicians looking for a cheap way to bolster their troop-loving images, used by the Cowboys’ owner to prove his patriotism, used by a movie producer looking for a big score, used by a megachurch preacher looking for street cred (this guy? Fountain doesn’t exactly say), used by ordinary people to demonstrate their love of country.  All this, as Billy points out, for a bunch of guys making under $15,000 a year.  It’s hard to tell which is the most insidious, but Bravo rolls with the attention in their best All American Hero fashion, revealing their true selves only in front of each other.

In some ways, Billy’s interior monologue sounds a little too mature, but I doubt he’d be able to articulate the things he’s thinking.  He’s observant and aware, understands that there is much he doesn’t know (like how someone can just up and buy a professional football team), and understands just as well that there’s no way he is ever going to move in the rarefied circles of people who attend state dinners with Prince Charles, own huge corporations, or even those who will pay $700 for a leather jacket with the Cowboys logo on it.  He’s also hungry for relationships that mean as much as the love he carries for Bravo’s dead and wounded, and there’s a remote possibility that he may have found it in Texas Stadium.

Billy is an unforgettable character, partially because he has an uncomfortable way of looking at his fellow Americans and partially because the reader wants so much for him to survive and succeed.  Ben Fountain gives him some wonderful lines (“Somewhere along the way America became a giant mall with a country attached.” And of Texas Stadium, “Give bigness its due, sure, but the place looks like a half-assed backyard job.”).  Fountain also renders the conversation of the people Billy meets in a phonetic shorthand offset from the regular text, just as the flow of cliches must sound to someone who hears them ad nauseum.  The story’s pacing makes it difficult to put down – it’s as fast a read as any thriller – but Fountain’s language deserves close examination, or even multiple readings, to catch his observations and intentions.  One warning for those who might mind: Billy and his comrades are pure id – all those insults and all that lust is as crude as you can imagine.

Check the WRL catalog for Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

It will also be available as a Gab Bag in April 2014.

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soldierIn one life, Mark Helprin is a writer of fantasy; in another, the writer of fiction that alternates between overwrought and stunning. A Soldier of the Great War is a wonderful realization of the latter.

The story of Alessandro Giuliani, a 70-year old veteran of World War I, is told by the old man himself to a much younger companion. Like the Wedding Guest, Nicolo Sambucca finds himself in company with The Ancient Mariner (although through the Mariner’s charity), where he receives an education in Italian history, politics, and the wonderfully indeterminate study of aesthetics. It is Alessandro’s own story, told by him for the first time as the two trudge across the Italian hills to their separate destinations.

The child of privilege, Alessandro took advantage of every opportunity to immerse himself in art and literature in school, while making time for mountain climbing and horsemanship.  From an early age he also took risks, and each risk prepared him to face more difficult challenges. As he enters his young manhood, he also extends that risktaking to courting women, with whom he falls in love easily.

Since the story takes place in the first part of the Twentieth Century, and since the title references The Great War, we know that Alessandro is headed into the maw of World War I. Although he joins the Italian Navy, he winds up serving both in trenches and on mountaintops, and fighting against both the Austro-Hungarians and his fellow Italians. Blown by the winds of fate and battle, he travels from the Mediterranean to Vienna, from lonely outposts to crowded hospitals, and through despair, love, rapture, and loss before finally returning to his beloved Rome.

But Alessandro’s destiny is not always as random as it seems.  Back in Rome, a twisted dwarf named Orfeo Quatta is pulling strings that affect Alessandro’s life and the lives of hundred of thousands of men. The senior clerk in the Giuliani family law firm, he was displaced by the typewriter but wound up at the Ministry of War, where official documents are still executed in skilled penmanship. But Orfeo is the only person who sees the originals, so he changes the texts to suit his whims, and his revised orders extend the war and increase the suffering of soldiers and civilians.

In his travels, Alessandro meets many people, but Helprin succeeds in creating in each a layered character who instructs Alessandro in his search for beauty. Despite the senseless violence, cruelty, and degradation of the war, Alessandro’s search for beauty, and for the God he sees in beauty, continues. Helprin captures Alessandro’s life in an effusion of language rich in imagery and philosophy, layered with drama and irony, creating a love story with a hero in love with life and with being in love.

Check the WRL catalog for A Soldier of the Great War.

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Gone-Away WorldIf you like writers as diverse as Joseph Heller, Neal Stephenson, Douglas Adams, Kurt Vonnegut, or Charles Dickens, you’ll want to run to the novels of John le Carre’s son, Nick Harkaway.  I can get away with that much name dropping in one sentence because Harkaway is that good.

His first novel, The Gone-Away World, takes place in a near future after some kind of event  has left only a narrow band of land habitable, protected by the mysterious chemicals from a pipeline.  In Harkaway’s tour de force first chapter, we discover that this pipeline has been breached and the refinery that fills it is aflame.  A misfit crew of mercenaries, including the unnamed narrator and his lifelong friend Gonzo Lubitsch, is asked by a powerful bureaucrat to fix the problem.

After that, the story alternates between exploring the narrator’s adventures in the present and the past.  Slowly, we discover the twisty story of how the world came to an end, how the narrator was rendered unreal, and how he attempts to recover his life.  This plot is impossible to condense, but the astonishing thing is that although this story is halfway in fantasy, halfway in reality, half serious and half parody, and loaded with characters like pirates, ninjas, and mimes, in the end it all makes a perfectly bizarre kind of sense.  There are plot twists you won’t see coming in a million years, enough eccentrics to populate a small country, and enough madcap but spot-on social observations to make every page an adventure.

This is a dense read.  Expect a challenge.  But whether you enjoy science fiction, literary fiction, or humor, I think you’ll find it truly rewarding, a book that’s worth the effort for vivid style, biting social commentary, audacious metaphors, and imaginative world building.  Don’t expect a standard post-apocalyptic dystopia, expect a weird, bumpy ride through a surreal landscape.  Strap in and enjoy!

Check the WRL catalog for The Gone-Away World

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SeminarI’m the kind of hardcore theater devotee that reads the scripts of plays as pleasure reading.  Sure, I’d rather see a good production, but given the economics of modern theater, if you don’t live in a large city where there is enough demand that theater companies can draw an audience with some new or lesser-known plays, you most likely won’t get to see many of these shows on stage.

Besides, plays make for good reading.  The time limits of the stage mean that a play is a quick read, something one can squeeze into a day if need be.  I enjoy playing the game of imagining which of my favorite actors would be good in the roles as I read them.  Even more fun, reading a play is an invitation to project yourself into the role of actor, even if you’d never go near a stage in real life.  Plays are full of cracking good dialogue, meaty conflict, and even the heavy dramas often contain real belly laughs.

So it is with Seminar, a play headlined first by Alan Rickman then by Jeff Goldblum a couple of years ago on Broadway.  Four aspiring young writers have pooled their money to schedule a private seminar from a literary icon, an event held at one of their homes.  In her preface, playwright Theresa Rebeck notes that part of her pleasure in writing this play was to create a chance for an older actor take some younger actors to school.  The writer Leonard is sour, used up, and manipulative, but one can’t help but stifle a nasty laugh at the way he finds the vanities and insecurities of the pretentious students and dissects them after reading a few sentences of their writing.  He doesn’t have their best interests in mind and uses them in every way imaginable, but in the end, each learns something valuable from the contact.

If you’ve ever shaken your head at some of the blowhards that seem to populate the world of modern literary fiction, I think you’ll enjoy the way that Leonard puts a pin in the pomp of these four young writers while facing his own demons.  Give this Seminar a look.

Check the WRL catalog for Seminar

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Orphan BlackA young grifter unwittingly stumbles upon a dangerous conspiracy in the first season of BBC America’s edgy and mind-bending sci-fi series Orphan Black.

Sarah Manning (Tatiana Maslany) is trying to escape an abusive boyfriend and a criminal past. Following a train ride home, she finds herself alone on the platform with a distraught woman who sets her purse down before taking off a pair of stylish high heels. The woman turns and stares at Sarah, who is struck by the uncanny resemblance between her and the stranger. The woman then walks off the edge of the platform and into the path of an oncoming train. In the aftermath of the stranger’s suicide, Sarah makes a split-second decision that puts her in the center of a mystery. With emergency personnel focused on the stranger, Sarah sees an opportunity for a quick score, and she walks away with the woman’s purse. Sarah learns her doppelgänger’s name is Elizabeth (Beth) Childs. Beth shares an expensive house with her boyfriend. She also has a large sum of money in the bank. Sarah decides to use her resemblance to Beth to her advantage and assume Beth’s identity. Once she has emptied Beth’s bank account, she’ll use the money to start a new life with her daughter, Kira, and foster brother, Felix.

Sarah believes she will be able to pull off the scam and quietly slip out of town; however, Beth’s life is far more complicated than she originally thought. First, there are calls from a man named Art and texts from an unknown number. There is also the matter of a safety deposit box containing copies of the birth certificates and photographs of other women who bear a striking resemblance to both Sarah and Beth. As additional secrets from Beth’s life surface, Sarah learns that the women—Beth, Alison Hendrix, Cosima Niehaus, and Katja Obinger (also Tatiana Maslany)—are all clones and she is a clone as well. This discovery is the gateway to a mystery involving a scientific movement called Neolution, led by the charismatic Dr. Aldous Leekie. Will the women unlock the secret of their connection to this group before they become the next victims of a killer who’s on a mission to eliminate the clones?

Orphan Black is a thoughtful and complex show that deftly balances questions of personal freedom and what it means to be an individual with a delightful streak of dark humor. The acting is first-rate. Tatiana Maslany succeeds at giving each clone her own distinct personality and unique set of characteristics. My favorite clone is Alison Hendrix, a conservative wife and mother whose sense of self is completely upended by the discovery she is a clone. The fine supporting cast includes Kevin Hanchard as Beth’s partner Detective Art Bell; Maria Doyle Kennedy as Sarah’s foster mother Mrs. S; Dylan Bruce as Beth’s boyfriend Paul Dierden; and Jordan Gavaris as Sarah’s foster brother Felix Dawkins. In a clever bit of casting, Dr. Aldous Leekie is played by Matt Frewer, who became famous in the mid-‘80s playing a character named Max Headroom.

Fast-paced and well-plotted, Orphan Black quickly builds momentum and maintains it throughout the season. Now is a good time to catch up with the show—or discover it—before the second season starts in April.

Check the WRL catalog for Orphan Black.

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HorseradishAs a librarian, “Never trust anyone who has not brought a book with them,” may be the best advice I have ever heard. This sterling counsel comes from children’s book author Lemony Snicket. His slim volume of silliness, Horseradish: Bitter Truths you Can’t Avoid, is full of similar useful admonitions. Lemony Snicket (or his alter-ego Daniel Handler) is most famous for his bestselling Series of Unfortunate Events, where his humor is also off beat, and always unexpected. I thought at first that this was a book of quotes from his other works, but he seems to have created original aphorisms, such as, “After you leave home you may find yourself feeling homesick, even if you have a new home that has nicer wallpaper and a more efficient dishwasher than the home in which you grew up.”  As a person who tends to get left with the dishes, I judge my many past homes on the remembered quality of their dishwashers, so I consider this quite germane.

The book is arranged into thirteen chapters of advice pithy or wordy, starting with “Chapter 1: Home” and “Chapter 2: Family” and going on to “Chapter 12: An Overall Feeling of Doom that One Cannot Ever Escape No Matter What One Does.”  There are many truisms to pop in and visit, no matter how you are feeling. The back cover of this book promises that its contents will not help with life’s “turbulent journey” but I beg to differ; life is always helped by laughter and a fresh perspective and Lemony Snicket can be relied upon to provide both. Try Horseradish: Bitter Truths you Can’t Avoid if you are in the mood for some frivolous fun, or you want an axiom that is more apt than usual. And remember, “A library is like an island in a vast sea of ignorance, particularly if the library is very tall and the surrounding area has been flooded.”

Check the WRL catalog for Horseradish: Bitter Truths you Can’t Avoid.

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Caught StealingCharlie Huston is an Elmore Leonard for a new generation. Or you might think of him as a writer like Carl Hiaasen or Tim Dorsey, but with occasional influences from other pulp genres. Like all of these great noir writers, he writes fast-moving, violent stories that make readers laugh at the dark comedy at the same time he makes them understand how regular folks with basically good intentions take a tumble down the moral staircase. I’ve written previously about his Joe Pitt series, in which a fixer works New York City’s streets in an alternate future overrun with vampires. Now let’s turn to his first series of books, the noir trilogy that begins with Caught Stealing.

Hank Thompson is a sympathetic narrator, a former baseball star who felt his whole life change when the weight of a third baseman came down on his ankle during an attempted steal. Now he’s tending bar on the Lower East Side and working on a second career as an alcoholic. Fate isn’t done with Hank though: with a few more bad decisions, he will find himself left with one working kidney, with himself and his loved ones in danger, and on the run from criminals and cops alike. Huston shows how with some small mistakes and some bad luck, a regular guy gets pulled into a life of minor crime, then even murder.

Caught Stealing is a clown car that opens to reveal one eccentric character after another: Tweedle-dum and -dee Russian mobsters, an extravagantly crooked cop, a pair of sadistic but self-improving bank robber brothers, a bevy of low life friends and other thugs, and a cat named Bud who uses up several of his lives during the course of the narrative. Everyone’s in search of a mysterious key, and New York City becomes a pinball machine where all of these crazy characters careen around, slamming into each other until only a few are left on the table.

Hank is both believable and entertaining because in the middle of all the disaster and violence, he can’t help but let normal thoughts intrude: What will his mother think? Will his beloved San Francisco Giants make the playoffs?  Just how cool is this cat?

If you don’t care for language or violence stay away, but if you read this series, I guarantee quick reading and an equal share of laughs and moments when you think about the potential consequences of life’s smallest bad choices. The series finishes with Six Bad Things and A Dangerous Man.

Check the WRL catalog for Caught Stealing

Or try Caught Stealing as an audiobook on CD

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middleIt’s a big debate, no pun intended. When a person goes beyond fat to obese, beyond obese to morbidly obese, beyond morbidly obese to super obese, is it someone’s fault?  Is it genetics, a moral failing, addiction, enabling?  How do people around the morbidly obese see them, and see their own responsibility to them?

That’s the background against which Jami Attenberg sets the Middlestein family.  What could be an ordinary family, living in the middle of the country, in the middle income bracket, middling careers and a middling set of unexpressed ambitions is distinguished by their wife and mother. At 300 pounds and growing, Edie plainly has an eating problem and it has taken its toll. Husband Richard, now in his sixties and presiding over a slowly declining family-run pharmacy, is surprised by his continued sex drive, but his distaste and her festering contempt have destroyed what little intimacy and attraction they ever had. Daughter Robin, who has her own addiction and relationship problems, is confronted with her own distaste and dismay over the surgeries that Edie’s weight now necessitate. Rachelle, their daughter-in-law, thinks that with her husband Benny’s help she can change Edie’s eating patterns.

So when Richard leaves Edie and tentatively starts dating again, all the family problems burst into plain view. Edie dredges up and recites her many grievances against Richard to Robin. Robin’s visceral anger puts her squarely in Edie’s corner.  Benny internalizes the whole thing, stressed by his love for his wife and his obligations to his father to the point that he begins losing his hair. And Rachelle becomes a control freak, forbidding Richard contact with her children on the eve of their b’nai mitzvah ceremony and changing her family’s diet to kale and beets. She also decides that she can create a new diet for Edie, but in one painfully funny scene, she follows Edie from one fast food drive through to another, only to end up at restaurant where she heads in for a full meal.

With all that, you’d think the book is about food, but it isn’t. It’s about the relationships that ebb and flow, that start with sparkle or end with nerves exposed, that surprise everyone and astonish no one. The links among family, friends, and community at large may be built around meals, but they are sustained in between, and those are the times that Attenberg’s real sympathy arises. These aren’t bad people—Richard put himself on the line to found a temple in the new Chicago suburbs; Edie volunteers her time and skills in fundraising and in helping a family keep their restaurant. Robin carries scars and conceals emotions run so deep that they might destroy her if released. Benny is a good man who has found success, and Rachelle is fierce in her love for her family. Sure, they make mistakes, and yes, Edie and Richard probably should never have been together, but that’s the point. These are ordinary people—the middle, if you will—and Attenberg makes them real in every way.

Check the WRL catalog for The Middlesteins

The Middlesteins is also available as a Gab Bag – which you can now reserve up to a year in advance!

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battlepugA destroyed tribe, a talking pug, enslaved elves, a cruel Santa, a murderously evil and monstrously large baby harp seal, and a revenge-filled barbarian. Turning the first pages of Battlepug might make you wonder if the author had taken a list of all the random ideas he had during his entire childhood and created a mad-lib of a graphic novel. In a world of super-intense angst-ridden, save-the-world superheroes, it’s refreshing to have an artist break free and just draw whatever they think is cool and/or amusing.

There is no pretension to this story; it is narrated by a naked (but coyly covered), tattooed woman who is retelling this legend to two dogs: a pug and a French bulldog because one asked for a bedtime story with flaming devil monsters while the other one asked for one with puppies. She promises the dogs it will be both terrifying and sweet to appease both their desired flavors.

A gentle but unnamed boy witnesses the murder of his entire village, including his doting mother, by a smiling and sweet-faced baby seal of Godzilla-like proportions. He is saved by a fateful flick of the monster’s tail and rescued by several elves and taken to their evil master, the King of the Northland Elves (a glaring, thinly veiled Santa Claus) only to be enslaved and sentenced to a cruel life of hardship and toil. The difficult life doesn’t break the child. Rather his hate and need for revenge become magnified and he learns the art of combat, originally for their amusement, eventually for their doom.

The warrior (who seems to be based on Conan the barbarian) seeks the scarred man who let the seal loose on his village, and his travels lead him to a swamp where he first encounters the elephant-sized pug. Despite a bumpy first meeting (and not an insubstantial amount of slobber), the warrior and the rideable dog team up with a crazy old man named Scrabbly to track down his nemesis, Catwulf.

Mike Norton launched Battlepug in February 2011 and in 2012 won an Eisner award for the best Digital Comic. While it could be easy to dismiss this story based on any one of its ludicrous parts, the storytelling is deft and the artwork is solid and amusing without being silly. The pug’s eyes pointing in two different directions and lack of a convincingly ferocious bark play perfectly against the warrior’s grim and unsmiling presence.

A promising start to a unique series, I would recommend this to graphic novel, fantasy, and adventure readers and anyone who has a strong sense of the absurd.

Search the catalog for Battlepug

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amsterdamIt’s a wonder anyone lives in England, given the high murder rate and what must be a tough housing market for both amateur and professional detectives.  And with all those historical figures taking on investigations in the US and UK, it’s a wonder they had time to write, make movies, or run their political careers.  So when I was looking for a good mystery, I decided I’d steer clear of the usual place and time settings and give another location a shot. Outsider in Amsterdam happened to come to the fore.  And what a unique tone and feel the city brings to this mystery.

Amsterdam in 1975 is a unique mix. The Dutch are still fully aware of the cost of the breakup of their empire, but not tolerant of the still-loyal castoffs of their former colonies. They are almost uniformly conformist to the laws that keep the city orderly, but don’t hesitate to cheat on their taxes or hire illegal immigrants. Hard drugs are anathema, but heroin addicts get treatment, including small doses of the real thing.  Cops like Henk Grijpstra and Rinus DeGier spend most of their time handling petty crimes while waiting for more serious crimes to come up.

When Piet Verboom, master of a hybrid Eastern religious movement, is reported dangling from a noose in his office, Grijpstra and DeGier are assigned to investigate. The case appears open-and-shut, but of course small inconsistencies catch their interest–where is the money from the members-only restaurant and bar? Why did Verboom’s wife leave him? Why are all his employees happy to see him gone?  And why is a former high-ranking constable in the Dutch colonial police, a Papuan, living practically rent-free in the building?

The investigation is driven more by their intuition and unwillingness to let even small details go than by strict procedure. When that intuition pays off, they must chase a dangerously clever criminal through Amsterdam’s narrow streets and over canals, and out onto Holland’s Inland Lake, but they net more than they initially bargained for.

As solid as the mystery portion of the story is, van de Wetering introduces solid characters for this first entry in a series. Grijpstra is a rumpled middle-aged family man willing to do almost anything to get away from his wife and (hinted at) children. DeGier is well-dressed, handsome, and a bachelor content with his surly cat, a houseplant on the balcony, and occasional female companionship. In many ways they are fairly innocent–they don’t have the innate wariness that marks most urban cops, and they don’t have so many difficult crimes to investigate that they are jaded.

There’s also some humor in the story, especially surrounding the running of the police budget. What do they do when the last VW is checked out of the police lot? Is it easier to walk to the crime scene or to catch a streetcar and submit for reimbursement? Can DeGier get expenses for a date with a potential witness if he sleeps with her?

Although WRL only has seven of the fourteen books, I’m looking forward to venturing through Amsterdam with van de Wetering as my guide.

Check the WRL catalog for Outsider in Amsterdam

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knightFirst, a series of confessions.  This book isn’t in the library’s collection, so I don’t have a link to it.  I’ve written about Jones’ take on Chaucer before, so I may be replowing the same field.  And, even though my wife doesn’t understand it, Terry Jones makes my heart race.

Like his work with Monty Python’s Flying Circuses, Jones takes a flying leap feet-first into a settled world and turns it on its head.  Chaucer’s Knight was almost universally praised by Chaucerians.  After all, look at how Chaucer begins his description:

A Knyght ther was, and that a worthy man,
That fro the tyme he first bigan
To riden out, he loved chivalrie,
Trouthe and honour, fredom and curteisie.

Along with calling him “a verray, parfit gentil knyght,” there was, in the minds of literature scholars, little else that Chaucer could have done to hold the Knight up as the noble ideal in a journey filled with rogues, moneygrubbers, and climbers.  Not only an ideal of the nobility, but a brave crusader who fought for the Christian faith, and who embarked on his pilgrimage to Canterbury immediately on his return from overseas. Pious, courageous, humble, courteous – except for his long-winded tale, he truly is a role model for the ages. What could Jones possibly object to?

His career, for one. Line by line, Jones goes through the list of places Chaucer and the other travelers hear that the Knight has been–from Egypt to Spain and up to Russia–and shows that it is actually a catalog of atrocities and brutal warfare not at all characteristic of the noble Crusader.  If fact, in some of the places the Knight has been, the fighting was between Christian and Christian; in others he served Muslim rulers during their internal battles. His signature victory at Alexandria was marked by the massacre of innocent civilians, looting of the city, and the immediate retreat of the English knights, leaving their commander to lose the prize to the returning Muslims. His record of jousting violated every norm of that “sport,” in which the death of a combatant was considered a crime. And in a time when England was under near constant threat from France and internally, and in which desperate battles were fought, the Knight was conspicuously absent, even in direct violation of King Edward III’s order that warriors could not travel abroad.

From his career, Jones follows Chaucer’s description of the Knight’s income, his conduct, his retinue, his horse, and his dress.  At every turn, he cites the writers and mores of the time to demonstrate that Chaucer was satirizing the conduct of a man who could only have been a mercenary fighting wherever money was to be made, booty to be seized, or a reputation for upholding his contracts could be made. The problem for modern readers is that the definitions of the words Chaucer uses have changed over the centuries so that we have taken them at face value rather than studying the context Chaucer’s listeners would have implicitly understood. He also digs into that interminable story of Palomon and Arcite the Knight tells, pulling out the details that show the Knight was more comfortable with the language of battle and despotism than the courtly language of love a true nobleman would have used to tell the story.  How many generations of undergraduates would have paid good money to learn that it was a parody designed to be laughed at?

I don’t know how formal Chaucer scholars received the work, except in a few cases where his interpretation was dismissed. As a medieval historian at Oxford, Jones acquired firsthand knowledge of both the work and of the contemporary writers with whom Chaucer would have been familiar, and it seems to me that his view from outside the specialty may give him insight into the work. As a comic writer himself (and I quote a friend of mine who says, “Smart people aren’t always funny, but funny people are always smart”), he has a built-in eye for the fun Chaucer poked at each of the other pilgrims. And although the work is a serious piece of scholarship, it never bogs down.

Last confession: I learned about this book from a professor I had in college, and I dearly wish I could remember his name. The pebbles he dropped in his classroom continue to ripple to this day–that’s the mark of a good teacher.

Sorry, can’t check the WRL catalog for Terry Jones’ Chaucer’s Knight. If you are interested in it, try interlibrary loan.  Any decent university library should have it.

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elmerThis is a book about a talking chicken. Please be warned though, that this is certainly no children’s tale. It is an alternate history of the world, very similar to the one we inhabit right now, except for one teensy incident: all at once, every chicken in the world became sentient.

How this happened is never explained, nor is it really germane to the story, which focuses on the outcome for both species when humans are suddenly confronted with beings that have a consciousness equal to their own, along with the use of language to express themselves. The story is told through the lens of Jake Gallo, a chicken, who is one very angry bird. He simultaneously hates humans and desires to be accepted by them, and his state of constant conflict within himself and with the world further feeds his anger. His sister works side-by-side with humans as a nurse and sees acceptance and collaboration between the two species, but Jake sees only discord. Overhearing youths joking about things “tasting like chicken” and threatening to roast his kind certainly does nothing to dispel his beliefs.

Jake travels back to the family home to visit his ailing father, Elmer. Upon his father’s death, Jake is given the diary that Elmer wrote in throughout his life, starting with his first night of consciousness. Via his father’s diary entries and through conversations with his mother and a longtime family friend, a human farmer named Ben, Jake explores the violence experienced by those first chickens and their struggle for equal rights. And there is plenty of carnage, with both species reacting to the changes with understandable levels of anger and fear. But like most conflicts, there are those who passionately fight for peace and an end to the brutality. Only if society can listen to the voices of amity and silence the voices of discord will the struggle end for both species.

Tragic, thoughtful, and engrossing, Elmer is a remarkable book. It explores pride, lost histories, and the legacy of abuse and violence, counterbalanced by a vein of thoughtful humor. Though images like a chicken wearing a three-piece suit are intentionally amusing, the humor never dips into slap-stick. Gerry Alanguilan somehow manages to make the faces and body language of the chickens display a wide range of emotions that are never cartoonish. Recommended to fantasy and graphic novel readers.

Search the WRL catalog for Elmer.

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leopardsHow much more unreliable can a narrator be than one who doesn’t even tell readers his name?  One who frankly confesses throughout his story that he steals identities, forges work for other people, cheats his best friend, and writes a novel about an unreliable narrator who frankly confesses, etc., etc.

Kristopher Jansma sustains this difficult literary trick throughout his first novel.  Our nameless guide tells us the tale of his thwarted literary career from his first completed story (thrown in the trash by a detective investigating the death of an old man) through his final manuscript.  Along the way he commits a series of petty criminal acts that keep him questionably employed and replete with material he just can’t form into a book.

His life is overshadowed by frustration: there’s the flight attendant mother who leaves him in the care of various shopkeepers on the concourse of the Raleigh airport, a sports career and college opportunities stifled by a lack of resources, a lack of contacts and resources to support himself as he tries to develop his talent.  He has two chief frustrations, though: his best friend/literary competitor Julian McGann, who has everything he lacks, and Julian’s friend Evelyn, a beautiful and talented actress with the world at her feet.  Evelyn toys with his love for her, while Julian drinks himself into a stupor and an endless series of one-night stands with strange men.  When this unlikely triangle collapses, he is thrown out on his own.

Stumbling out into the world he practices his only skill – writing fiction – on other people, taking up and discarding identities to move himself from one tenuous living to another.  Staying barely ahead of his collapsing lies, he travels across the world until destiny seems to take a hand in his affairs.  The novel ends on a high note, bringing the reader right back to an odd message printed in the front material.

Jansma has written a stellar work of metafiction, with enough sleight-of-hand to make the reader wonder if somewhere along the way he has misread some aspect of the events or characters (Was it golf he played, or tennis? What was that person’s real name?).  Some of the settings border on the fantastic, making us wonder if they actually existed.  And there is at least one character we pity, because she is not privy to the truth of the narrator’s world.

That is not to say that the work is some self-conscious experiment in LITERARITUDE.  It is an engaging, often funny, and sometimes tragic story told by a man who is upfront about his dishonesty and lies, but who has no intention of causing harm. Despite his flaws, he rises to the occasion and proves himself heroic in his own small way, and as the book ends, I guarantee that you’ll turn back to the first page.

Check the WRL catalog for The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards

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tomatoHow do some writers create compelling, even heroic, main characters that you wouldn’t want to spend ten minutes with in real life?  It’s a problem for some readers, but I admire the ability, and find that skill translates into forceful storylines.

Tomato Red is the story of four such characters.  Sammy Barlach tells the tale in an uncompromising voice; he does not hide anything from his audience, including his understanding that his whole life he’s been headed for prison or an early grave.  We first meet Sammy when he’s under the influence of crank and breaking into a McMansion to impress a girl. But the high runs out and he wakes to find himself in the company of two seemingly-sophisticated young people who want Sammy to help them with a project.

Turns out Sammy has come into the orbit of Jamalee and Jason Merridew, two of the inhabitants of the lowest life across-the-track neighborhood in West Table, Missouri.  West Table’s chief employer is a dog food factory, and Sammy can’t even keep a job there; Jamalee and Jason have bigger plans to escape West Table and go somewhere where people don’t treat them like the garbage on the bottom of their shoes.  That’s where Sammy comes in.

But there’s trouble with their plan, the kind that can’t be overcome no way nohow.  It seems their only choice is to put themselves into their own places – Jason at the local hair salon, Jamalee waiting tables at the country club, and Sammy doing whatever is left when the dog food factory doesn’t work out.  Even those efforts go awry, and the trio embarks on a cycle of revenge and retribution that destroys their plans once and for all.

The fourth person in the story is Bev Merridew, Jamalee and Jason’s mother.  She’s the kind of woman who learned long ago that for a pretty girl from across the tracks the best solution to life’s steamroller is to lay down.  So she lays down, either with a joint or with a guy who can put some money in her pocket, and lets the rest wash over her.  She even smokes, drinks, and sleeps with Sammy, which throws another sour note into his relationship with Jamalee.  When trouble hits too close to home, though, for once she decides to take action but finds what few assets she has are worth nothing to the important people of the town.

Woodrell’s characters are the very best thing about this book.  Sammy speaks in the cadence and language of a mostly unlettered culture that hasn’t yet succumbed to the uniformity of TV-speak.  Like the forebears who settled in the isolated Ozarks, he has a fierce independence, a fierce loyalty to the people he adopts as his, a fierce temper when crossed.  Jamalee barely contains her rage, knowing deep down that she doesn’t have the wherewithal to leave West Table.  Jason is learning about his sexuality, and it doesn’t look good for him among these rural alpha males.  Bev is earthy, practical, willing, which makes her a favorite among those same men.

I don’t know what it is about this setting, or the people who inhabit it, but it seems that I keep coming back to it, and with Tomato Red, I know I’m in good hands.  The author of the terrific Winter’s Bone (also made into a movie starring Jennifer Lawrence, who was nominated for an Oscar for her portrayal of Ree),  Woodrell’s writing is a reminder that an air of fatalism and a talent for stark storytelling seems to characterize the people of the Ozarks; maybe that’s what brings me back.

Check the WRL catalog for Tomato Red

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guestsHere’s a terrific book for those who can’t get enough of Downton Abbey and want to take that experience into their reading.  Set in Edwardian England, The Uninvited Guests visits some of the same themes of class and deeply held secrets, but adds a touch of strangeness that makes the book feel increasingly Gothic.

Emerald Torrington’s twentieth birthday celebration is overshadowed by circumstances.  Her beloved house, Sterne (ok, it’s no Downton Abbey, but it is home) is under threat of foreclosure, and her stepfather has to leave, hat in hand, to try to borrow money.  While amiable, he doesn’t hold a candle to her real father, dead these three years.  Her mother is shallow and self-centered, frequently absent from family obligations.  Her younger brother is petulant and resentful.  A neighbor and childhood friend may or may not be paying her court.  And the only people invited to the party are also childhood friends thought of with the mild contempt of those who have not seen each other in many years.  Oh, yes, there’s her little sister, everyone’s afterthought.

None of that tops the final indignity.  A train crash on a nearby branch line strands several passengers, who show up on the doorstep.  Third-class passengers, they are poorly dressed, somewhat smelly, and many are definitely odd-looking.  Since they were sent by the railway, Emerald has no choice but to take them in and give them temporary shelter.  She even gives up her birthday meal – not the cake, though – to feed the ever-increasing number of passengers.  She and her guests scrape the larder to meet the passengers’ demands, and in doing so create a fellowship among themselves that ignites new and interesting dynamics.

Then a lone first-class passenger, Charlie Somebody Something (no one can remember his name) arrives and is invited to join the dinner party.  He gradually insinuates himself into the role of host, dominating the younger people and exposing them to dark and worldly knowledge.  His power over the group is such that he convinces them to play a cruel and frightening game that shatters their tenuous bond and reveals a devastating secret.

The novel slowly shifts into a claustrophobic atmosphere in which all kinds of boundaries fall, including the boundary between the solid world and the spiritual realm.  As the night progresses, it seems that all of the young people reach a moment of revelation that forever separates them from innocence and childhood.

And that younger sister, still in the throes of childhood?  Eleven-year old Smudge has the run of the house and takes full advantage of it to pull off what she calls her “Great Undertaking.”  The consequences of that Undertaking will collide with the family’s responsibilities towards the stranded passengers and bring the evening’s events to a bizarre and disquieting close.

Jones is effective at creating an unsettled feel through her descriptions.  Wherever there is a choice of adjectives she chooses the darkest alternative.  She finds ways to describe the smells of cooking and of wet clothing and candles to bring us into an old and crowded house, and picks characteristics of each person that establishes them in the reader’s mind.  In many ways certain plot points are ambiguous, but reading back over the storyline, you discover that she planted seeds that lead to some kind of answer. Our book groups enjoyed dissecting the story, and many of the readers provided the kind of insights that make other members view it in a new light.

Check the WRL catalog for The Uninvited Guests

It will also be available beginning August 2013 as a Gab Bag for book discussion groups.

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Next to NormalHow often do you encounter a musical that makes good reading too? With music by Tom Kitt, and lyrics and book by Brian Yorkey, Next to Normal won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2010. This isn’t typical musical fare with comedy, romance, a few big production numbers, and a happy ending. Next to Normal has most of those but also large doses of family dysfunction and tragedy. The comedy is dark, the romance is somewhat tortured, and the happy ending comes in a minor key: there’s hope, but no guarantee.

The story begins on a note of normalcy: a husband, wife and their teen son and daughter are busily preparing for another day of work and school. But the upbeat music comes to a crashing halt as the mother’s preparation of sandwiches takes a turn that shows she has mental health issues. I won’t give away the plot twists, but viewers or readers will also soon discover that everything is not as it seems in the family, that a tragedy haunts their past and present.Next to Normal staging

The story progresses to reveal a series of inconclusive therapy sessions and drug treatments, a strained marriage, and a daughter whose history of feeling unloved contaminates her potential relationship. It’s rough stuff, but Yorkey’s clever treatment also provides a share of bittersweet laughs along the way. Kitt’s score of rock numbers and ballads provides energy, humor, and a fast pace that keeps the story moving and vital even at its darkest moments. The finish is certainly not the typical happy ending, but it’s hopeful and honest.

By all means catch Next to Normal if it is produced somewhere near you. But if not, stop in at the library and grab the libretto or the CD of the Broadway production, featuring an amazing performance by Alice Ripley as the mother. You’ll be able to picture the story easily as you take in this moving and potent drama with subject matter that is relevant to so many modern lives. If you or your family have struggled with even minor mental health challenges or the difficulties of finding the right prescription or treatment for those problems, you need to experience Next to Normal, where the underlying message is that families who face challenges are in many ways the most normal of all.

Check the availability of the Next to Normal libretto in the WRL catalog

Or get the audio CD of the Broadway production

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lexiconYou aren’t you, you know. You are a type to be identified, evaluated, measured, sorted, and slotted in with everyone else your type. It’s just a way for businesses, political parties, and non-profits of finding the people most responsive to their message, right? But what if that type isn’t the accretion of your life’s experiences, your current situation, your relationships–in other words, you–but a deep-seated biologically programmed identity vulnerable to direct manipulation? And what if there were people dedicated to learning specific words and sounds that turn the key to your identity and make you want to obey them? Enter the poets.

Barry, whose interest in language and manipulation runs through books such as Jennifer Government and Company, takes a direct run at the topic in this complex thriller. He posits an organization dedicated to exploring ways to control the nearly 300 personality types they’ve identified. Potential students are recruited and tested, and those that pass enter a rigorous and disturbingly competitive education program on their way to analyzing personality types, running experiments on them, and providing the sanitized results to those who will use them in some kind of marketplace. Those who rise to the top of this select group become poets, able to utter a series of nonsense syllables that make the hearer suggestible. To what? In the course of the story, to involuntary sex, giving away money and cars, even committing murder and mayhem, with the implication that these are long-standing and frequently used methods that reach to all levels of society. Those poets are themselves rebranded with the names of real poets, which is why Tom Eliot and Virginia Woolf are playing cat-and-mouse from Australia to Washington, DC. Woolf is a rogue poet capable of suborning even the most experienced of the organization, and Eliot wants to stop her before she executes a horrific plan.

Barry structures the story with intertwined past-and-present narratives. We learn about street kid Emily’s recruitment and training into the organization, and the colossal mistake she makes when she’s sent to Broken Hill, Australia as punishment for another major mistake (A word of warning to the actual Broken Hill Chamber of Commerce: Barry makes it sound like the place where they recruit garbage men for the last stop on the road to the back-of-beyond; it sounds like a cool place in real life). In the present storyline, Eliot violently kidnaps an innocent man from the airport and dodges pursuers on a nonstop quest to find out why the man has been targeted by opposing poets. As the storylines begin to merge, we slowly come to understand why the factions have moved into open warfare with each other.

Barry departs from the cynical humor of his earlier work as he creates this speculative look at power and language. The real tension in his ideas is that the ongoing quest to motivate (command?) masses of people may actually succeed by reducing that mass to precisely defined individuals. If there is humor, it is found in occasional side notes from chat room comments on erroneous news stories which come off as conspiracy theories but are closer to the truth than the commenters know. He also takes those ordinary Website quizzes and polls and gives them a more sinister purpose. I’ll certainly look twice at those ‘recruiting for psychology experiments’ posters and ‘take this online quiz to discover your true self’ with a little more skepticism than I have in the past.

Check the WRL catalog for Lexicon

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bullspottingFor one brief shining moment, the Internet showed its possibilities. Then some shark-livered varmints screwed it up. Somewhere along the line some crazy learned HTML and it was off to the races with conspiracy theories (There’s a special place in Internet hell where the souls of people who used spam to spread their conspiracy theories will reside. Dial-up is only the beginning of their torment). A tool meant to disseminate knowledge became a loudspeaker to spout misinformation and shout facts down. What used to be some nutjob on the corner muttering and passing out mimeographed sheets took on the air of authority, and a chorus spread across the land: “I read it on the Internet.”

Based on his own conversion experience, Loren Collins decided to walk out of the mudpit of one particular argument to examine the short supply of critical thinking skills. By looking in detail at a select few Internet memes, he distills the methodology of online “discussions” to illustrate the many paths people take to passionately uphold their beliefs in spite of evidence that they are wrong:

  • Denialism – It didn’t happen because I want it to not have happened.
  • Conspiracy theory – It happened, but not the way everybody else thinks it happened, and only I know the truth.
  • Rumor – It happened!  It really happened!  I know somebody whose sister had a friend…
  • Quotations – This famous person said it perfectly, and it just so happens to apply.
  • Hoaxes – You’re never going to believe what happened!
  • Pseudoscience – It happens, but not when anybody can actually study it.
  • Pseudohistory - This person says it happened, and I believe him even if so-called historians don’t
  • Pseudolaw – I happen to have read the Constitution, and the Supreme Court is wrong.

As a librarian, I like to think of myself as a dispassionate consumer of information with the ability to analyze and spot the kinds of fallacies Collins describes. I am certain that in my professional life I provide patrons with their requests even when I believe those materials are patently poor sources of information. But I utilize selective news and information sources to check when I hear a fact too good to be true or too inflammatory to be tolerated (I hope I’m wary enough to take their information with a grain of salt). And even though it never does any good, I still don’t let my wingnut uncle get away with his stunts over the Thanksgiving turkey. After all, Josh Billings said, “The trouble with people is not that they don’t know but that they know so much that ain’t so.”

Wait a minute.  That was Mark TwainWill Rogers?

Maybe I better stick with “Ignorance is bliss.  Knowledge is power. You’ve got a choice to make.”

Check the WRL catalog for Bullspotting

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