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Archive for the ‘Dark humor’ Category

good bookIn a recent Gallup survey, 75% of the respondents said that the Bible is the inspired word of God; about half of those said it was literally the word of God.  However, even the most generous estimates are that perhaps 10% of Americans report reading the Bible cover to cover. (I’d be willing to bet that some of those who said they did were violating the Eighth or Ninth Commandment.)

Regardless of your motive, reading the entire Bible (and Plotz, a nonobservant Jew, limited himself to the Old Testament) is a taxing and enlightening project. 26 books filled with the movements of a nomadic people constantly fighting with their neighbors,  begetting generation after generation, and laying down precise rules about who and what could actually approach God can get pretty tiring. Besides, your Sunday School teacher or Hollywood took the important parts and left all the rest behind, right?

One of the first things Plotz discovers is that those stories aren’t quite as straightforward as most people would like to think. Two versions of the creation story? A parade of liars, cheats, dastards and worse as the Lord’s Chosen?  Wrathful and genocidal zealots committing mass murder in His name? And that’s just the first book.

It gets worse as God continually writes and rewrites the Covenant, punishes the innocent and gives passes to the guilty, and accepts child sacrifice in violation of His own law. When the Israelites come into their own in Canaan, the fun really starts. Instead of a land flowing with milk and honey, the Israelites created a land flowing with blood. (That’s according to the Bible – it’s highly unlikely that the area could have supported the hundreds of thousands of Canaanites and Israelites cited in the various stories.)

The best part of the book is that Plotz doesn’t indulge in exegesis. He’s not qualified, as he himself says. Instead, he gives a chapter-by-chapter (OK sometimes he groups chapters together when they’re related) account of the Bible as he’s reading it. His tone varies from flip to bemused to outraged to wonder-filled as he works his way through the stories, poetry, inspiration and contradictions of a book which has provided continuity to the Jewish people and has influenced Western history for 2000 years.  But he also finds that knowing how the stories fit together equips him to continue a tradition of doubting and challenging a world where righteousness is no guarantee of happiness or even survival.

Check the catalog for Good Book

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SystemLooking at the cover of The System, you see a striking image of college football – an enormous stadium filled with cheering crowds awaiting the contest to begin on that emerald green field.  As you zoom in on that field, that crowd, that contest, the reality gets dirtier and dirtier, until it seems that field is the Astroturf covering the edge of an open grave. Benedict and Keteyian have climbed into that grave, and The System is the report they’ve sent back.

Football has long been the hallmark of college education in the United States. It is the rare institution of higher learning that doesn’t field a team. At the top of that pyramid, where iconic names like Notre Dame, Alabama, and Oregon reside, football is a big part of the college experience, and a successful program can seemingly make or break a school. And it shows in enrollments, donations, and construction.

Benedict and Keteyian seemingly had complete access to every aspect of the schools they covered. Meetings between coaches and players, athletic directors and boosters, students and inquisitors, victors and victims are recounted in incredible detail. And every detail seemed to come down to money.

The contrasts are staggering: a booster can give $185 million to support an entire program, but a player can be sanctioned for a $3.07 (yes, that’s three dollars and seven cents) accidental overpayment on a summer job. Coaches are routinely the highest paid state employees (even before the product endorsement deals and speaking engagements) when teachers, cops, and librarians are losing their jobs and pensions.  T-shirts, jerseys, hats, and memorabilia bring millions in revenues, while student athletes supposedly earn nothing. An athlete accused of criminal activity can get legal advice from top-tier law firms, while their victims must rely on poorly paid prosecutors, and face threats and shaming for jeopardizing the program. And over it all is the mantle of the NCAA, which screams about teams offering cream cheese on bagels but misses the flagrant violations of their arcane regulations.

The authors present each chapter as a story in and of itself, but the overall narrative is connected by the story of Mike Leach, the coach who created the stellar program at Texas Tech, but was fired for his tactics in disciplining a weak player. After an extended absence from football, he was hired by Washington State University, where he once again laid the foundations of a successful program, but also underwent another abuse investigation, in which he was exonerated. From the coach recruitment process to the creation of a team, through the discovery and recruitment of players to the relationship with the school administration, readers see Leach in every aspect of his professional life. We even get a glimpse of the difficulties Leach’s wife Sharon faces as a coach’s wife.

Even for people who don’t care anything about football (and I count myself among their number), The System is a penetrating look at a dominant part of American culture. Whatever you feel about the game, you are sure to come away rethinking your position. There’s a lot that needs to be scrapped, some things that can be fixed, and some profound positives that deserve highlighting. Let’s hope real change can come from the discussion The System ought to start.

Check the WRL catalogue for The System

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disappearedWith a life like Allan Karlsson’s, who wouldn’t want to live to be 100 years old? Befriended by Francisco Franco and Robert Oppenheimer, creator of both the American and Soviet atomic bombs, drinking buddies with Harry S. Truman, consultant to Madame Chiang Kai-Shek, and rescuer of Mao Tse-Tung’s wife, smuggled in a Russian submarine, imprisoned in both the Soviet gulag and a North Korean prison, Bali beach bum, translator for an ambassador to France… All this because Allan had that most 20th Century of skills – blowing stuff up.

Now, at the age of 100 (having blown up his home) Allan is in a nursing home. He’s not finished with life, so an hour or so before the local dignitaries are coming to begrudgingly celebrate his centenary, Allan goes AWOL. Not that he has anyplace in particular to go –  although that’s never been a problem – but he doesn’t have any desire to stay.  He first has to get clear of his small town, so he steals an unguarded suitcase, boards a bus, and takes off into the wilderness.

To his surprise, the suitcase is stuffed with cash belonging to a motorcycle gang. The cash greases his way from one haven to the next, usually one step ahead of the bikers, until he winds up with a string of characters, including an elephant, in his wake. One, Detective Chief Inspector Aronsson, begins the case searching for a missing old man; next it appears that the old man has been murdered by bikers, then that the old man may be a murderer himself.  Across the length and breadth of Sweden the ever-increasing cast runs, until they all wind up in the same place.

Interspersed with his modern-day story is Allan’s biography. For no particular reason, at the age of 34 he set off for Spain and was caught up in the Civil War. From there, he was shunted from place to place as wars and rumors of wars made him persona non grata in some places and persona most grata in others.  After all, explosions are the best friends a politician ever had.

But that talent isn’t the only thing that characterizes him. In a world filled with competing -isms, Allan is devoutly apolitical and atheist. He is willing to let others talk endlessly about their beliefs, as long as they don’t try to convert him. He’s scrupulously honest about his indifference, but punctures cant when it conflicts with commonsense objectives, like blowing something up. And he can drink. Whoo, boy, can he drink.

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared is a picaresque novel, a road story in which a relative innocent disrupts the world and creates a satirical take for readers.  Some people compare it to Forrest Gump, but I don’t think that’s an apt comparison. After all, Forrest was a kind of blank slate onto which people wrote their own beliefs. Allan Karlsson is his own man, blowing whichever way events take him but always living true to his code. “Never trust a man who won’t drink with you.” As a philosophy, you could do worse.

Check the WRL catalogue for The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared

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crashedI’ve been looking a long time for someone who approached that special place Travis McGee holds in my heart.  John D. MacDonald’s boat bum blasted his way through 21 colorfully-titled stories, taking down bad guys, healing broken women, and judging the modern world through his uniquely moral lens. Timothy Hallinan’s first Junior Bender mystery raises the faint hope that Travis’ successor is alive and well and living in Los Angeles.

Some differences: Trav, off the grid before anyone else had even heard of the term, only went outside the law on one of his salvage missions. Sex, surprisingly delicately described but still steamy, was a big part of his life, though he managed to hold deeper relationships at arm’s length. And his cases were always capped with detailed, though not graphic, violence. Plus, he lived in Florida.

On the other hand, Junior is a career burglar, proud of his spotless record and skill at breaking into any target. Since he lives on the wrong side of the law, he maintains an extensive network of crooks who can supply him or take things off his hands as needed. There are beautiful women around Junior, but he still longs for his former wife and wants to maintain his close relationship with his young daughter. And while Junior is capable of violence, he does his best to minimize it. Like McGee, Junior lives off the grid, but doesn’t have so much as a boat slip, moving through seedy motels and paying cash for everything. And Los Angeles is his beat.

In Trashed, Junior takes a commission to steal a painting. While the job hardly goes smoothly, it gets worse when he escapes. Junior, it seems, has been set up. He’s got two options: let the high-res video of his activities get to the victim, a man known for feeding enemies to his Rottweilers, or take on a quick undercover job for a Mob kingpin. If he fails, it’s a tossup whether the Mob or the Rottweiler guy gets him first. So he takes on the quick job of investigating the crew of an “adult film” to find the saboteur costing the producers tens of thousands of dollars a day.

Tens of thousands a day for a porn movie? This one has a special twist, because it’s going to star an American sweetheart who has fallen on hard times. Child actress Thistle Downing, whose incredible acting skill made her a fortune, lost it all to litigious family, corrupt accountants and lawyers, and a spectacularly bad business decision. Somewhere along the way, Thistle started snorting, popping, injecting, and swallowing every mood-altering substance she could find. Now, at age 22, she’s unemployable, living in a dump and trying to score day to day. Maybe it was one of those days when the producers got her to sign an ironclad contract to do a trilogy of hardcore movies in exchange for a small advance. But someone is taking increasingly desperate measures to stop her. Will it go as far as murder, or will Junior somehow keep her alive? And for what – the ultimate humiliation and the payday that will put her on a slab?

As in any good mystery, Junior must sort through a variety of supporting characters to find out who is on Thistle’s side, how to protect her, and how keep himself alive at the same time. Hallinan navigates him through the web and to a final resolution that puts both Junior and Thistle in front of a camera. Along the way, Junior covers the city of LA from the depths of Hollywood Boulevard to a surprising site atop Mulholland Drive, observing the range of humanity that peoples the city of a million dreams. If he isn’t quite as philosophical as Travis, it’s because the pacing of this story doesn’t give him quite as much leisure to think. He is more thoughtful than Poke Rafferty, Hallinan’s expat American travel writer, but then Hallinan is more thoughtful than most of the mystery writers who can write this kind of fast-paced story.

Check the WRL catalogue for Crashed

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chewTony Chu is a detective for the Philadelphia Police Department. He’s skinny, but for good reason. Tony is a cibopathic: a person who can see the past of every food he eats. For fruits and vegetables, that’s not so bad, but for meat it is another matter. The only food he can eat without distraction is beets, so he eats a lot of them. In the alternative world he lives in, all poultry products have been banned after bird flu killed over 23 million people. Tony and his partner track down black market chicken distributors and buyers like our police forces go after drug lords.

While trying to do a major bust, Tony accidentally ingests some soup that the chef bled into while cutting the vegetables. His powers make him aware that the chef is actually a serial murderer with thirteen victims. In his quest to find out more information about the murdered girls, Tony is caught chewing on the body of the now dead chef, which understandably leads to his getting fired by the police department. But he gets noticed by agents of the now very powerful FDA, who are very interested in using his gifts to solve murders as part of their Special Crimes Unit.

Here’s the biggest part of the storyline you have to swallow (groan!): Tony must consume parts of the people who have been murdered in order to gain clues. And not all bodies are fresh (or human) either. If you can get past the disturbing nature of this item, the story continues in a lively manner, drawing you in before you realize it. It’s partly absurd comedy, partly cop procedural, partly adventure, partly horror, and all entertainment.

Winner of both Harvey and Eisner awards, this series is bizarre but compelling and enjoyable. It is recommended for readers of horror, humor, and graphic novels.

Search the catalog for CHEW.

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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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