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Archive for the ‘Satire’ Category

tarloffWhat is it about higher education that makes it such a fat and funny target for skewering?  Is it the seemingly arbitrary power professors have over their students? The increasing definition of a specialty, so that to earn a PhD you have to know everything about nothing at all  (“In/Signification and Dys/Lexicography: A (Mis)Reading of Nabokov’s Ada“)? The cloistered atmosphere, where according to Sayre’s Law, “Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low”?  I don’t know, but take all those elements, stir them into a small town Baptist college, throw in an identity crisis and pornography, and you’ve got The Man Who Wrote the Book.

Ezra Gordon is the hapless hero of the tale, a poet without the means to make his ends meet.  He hasn’t written in years, much less published; he was charged in a sexual harassment action and had to answer to his girlfriend, the college’s attorney, who also happens to be the daughter of a college trustee who really doesn’t like Ezra.  With most of the students, the department chair, his tenure committee, his landlady, maybe even his girlfriend – wherever Ezra goes, he’s the most unpopular guy in the room.

He does have one friend, Isaac Schwimmer, who lives in LA, so Ezra goes to stay with him for spring break.  Isaac left the world of academia for the considerably lower-stress world of publishing, even breaking in with his own imprint.  Ezra, of course, has no idea what Isaac publishes, and when he walks into Isaac’s high rise “lives of the rich and famous” condo, meets his beautiful, brainy, and willing neighbors, and crashes in a guest bedroom bigger than his apartment, he gets curious.

It turns out that there has to be someone who publishes pornographic novels, and Isaac happens to be one of the most successful in the crowd.  That success has also given Isaac tons of self-confidence, which he generously tries to share with the beaten-down Ezra.  He also makes Ezra a business proposition – write me a porn book and I’ll pay you $10,000.  To his own surprise, Ezra accepts, and returns to campus with a little secret and a great big grin. (Did I mention the willing neighbor?)

The secret of writing a throwaway piece of smut fires Ezra’s imagination, and before he knows it the manuscript for Every Inch a Lady is in the mail, and the book is in print.  To Ezra’s (and Isaac’s) surprise, it takes off in ways neither can imagine.  Plus, finishing it gives Ezra the nerve to tell off his old girlfriend, show off his new one, tick off an FBI agent investigating cybercrime, help a student find his way, and finally, contemplate writing his own novel under his own name.  Ezra’s journey becomes a comic take on the erotic journey of his heroine, picking up momentum along the way.

Tarloff also wrote for M*A*S*H, All in the Family, and The Bob Newhart Show, and still writes for Slate, The Atlantic, and The American Prospect. He’s married to economist Laura D’Andrea Tyson, which is where I guess he got his exposure to academic politics.  In The Man Who Wrote the Book, he scores with vicious and illuminating satire (is that a tautology?), and makes Ezra’s growth from immature schlub to confident adult fun. The lone downside of the book is its relationship to technology – does anyone even publish porn on paper anymore? Would many readers remember the days of computer access limited to dial-up campus networks? The upside is, well, everything else.

Check the WRL catalog for The Man Who Wrote the Book

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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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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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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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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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A 2013 Alex Award winner (meaning its a book in the adult section found to be highly appealing to teen readers), Where’d You Go, Bernadette is a laughable and adventurous satire packed with hilarious characterization and witty dialogue mostly in the epistolary fashion using email correspondence, letters, police reports, report cards, and other documents.  Modest readers might find some strong language offensive yet very in-character when utilized.

You’ll find hilarious characters, some to love, some to hate, and some to drive everyone crazy!  Semple pokes fun at Seattle’s subcultures of anti-fashionable, pro-geek, tech-talking, community-oriented, hyper-diverse, ultra-green, alternative-lifestyle embracing citizens.  Semple herself is a transplant to the Seattle region from Los Angeles, as is the character Bernadette, where she wrote screenplays for “Beverly Hills, 90210,” “Ellen,” “Mad About You” and “Arrested Development.”

Caution, spoilers (because the events are revealed asynchronously and non-chronologically): Bernadette Fox has escaped her failed career as a genius architect by isolating herself in a crumbling fortress of a home where she can’t sleep and torments herself with self-pity.  She’s become so anti-social that she’s hired a virtual assistant to handle even the most mundane logistics of her life.  For years, her precious 15-year old daughter Bee has been Bernadette’s only reason for living.  Bee’s been promised this trip to Antarctica as an award for her perfect report card (Her Microsoft-guru dad can afford it).  Now, she’s having a panic attack brought on by the prospect of accompanying Bee through the sea-sickening Drake passage, “the roughest and most feared water in the world,”  and this leads to a series of outrageous circumstances that culminate in a final resolution that just might restore Bernadette’s artistic passion.

The narration, and actual singing, by actress Kathleen Wilhoite, is extraordinarily energetic and adds much to the listening experience of the audiobook version, which I was whizzed through completely enraptured with joyous laughter.  When hearing her voicing the hysterics of the ‘gnats’ (aka the condescending moms of Bee’s classmates at Galer Street School), I was reminded of Tea Leoni’s over-the-top character in the movie Spanglish.

Check the WRL catalog for the print or large print versions, too.

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onionIt’s about time.  The world has long awaited the 183rd Imperial Edition of the 27-volume magnum opus of knowledge known to mankind.  Generously sponsored by the Friedrich Siegfried Zweibel Center for Knowledge Studies (coming soon to a town near you!), the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on subject experts have come to fruition in this classically bound beautiful work of reference that is far too difficult for the likes of you, even in this abridged one-volume form.  The fact that its introduction was written by T. Herman Zweibel from the iron lung that has kept him alive since 1868 is enough to demonstrate its worth.  That he transmitted it from his spaceship should be proof that this superior product ought not be used by mere mortals.

Therefore, I, as one of the uniquely qualified superhumans capable of synthesizing the pangorgian content, will give some clues as to the knowledge to be found in this book in order to encourage you to strive to meet this task:

  • What is the most dangerous object known to man?  (Essential information if you are to survive as long as the Great Man himself, which is unlikely)
  • Why Franklin Pierce is the most important and precedent-setting President of the United States (is the proximity of his death to the birth of T. Herman Zweibel coincidental?  The editors don’t say, but I have my suspicions)
  • Which aspect of human life peaks at birth and steadily declines thereafter (except in T. Herman Zweibel’s case)
  • Who Hop Sing was, and when he bought it (T. Herman Zweibel has an alibi: he was unconscious due to a near-overdose of Crawford’s Soothing Syrup given to him by his robot butler)

What makes the 183rd Imperial Edition stand out is the extreme care with which the editors have precisely defined each entry’s numerical value to the eighth significant digit to ensure absolute accuracy in ordering.  That care has been extended to the calculation of page enumeration, which is guided by a rigorous mathematical formula necessary for lesser users to comprehend their exact location in the tome.  Between the two, the user is precisely guided directly to the entries of interest, which will then fill a gap in his or her pathetic life.

Unfortunately, those lesser users will have a price to pay to obtain this known knowledge, and not only in dedicating their lives to the study of language, medicine, theology, marketing, and the laws concerning statutory rape.  While the Zweibel Center has underwritten the research costs, the actual production of the book carries additional burdens which the reader rightfully, according to the immutable laws of capitalism, ought to bear himself.  If not, taxpayer-sponsored law enforcement will be used to collect it. To streamline the process, I am personally collecting the required 15,664.43  Seychellois rupees ($1,200.00) per copy, and forwarding the amount due to the Zweibel Center.

LATE BREAKING UPDATE: I have just been informed that despite my formidabulary achievements, the Zweibel Center has withdrawn my eligibility to own this piece of junk due to my Irish heritage.  Hey Zweibel: I hope you run out of Crawford’s Soothing Syrup before you reach Mars!

In spite of everything, you can check the WRL catalog for The Onion Book of Known Knowledge 

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Set four years after the events of Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, Jeffrey Brown’s Darth Vader and Son gives us a comic version of “Episode Three and a Half” depicting an alternate Star Wars timeline in which Darth Vader raises young Luke Skywalker.

Four-year-old Luke is just as precocious as you might think, and Vader’s exasperation is palpable. Much of Vader’s dialog comes directly from the Star Wars films, but it takes on an entirely new meaning as the context changes. Brown’s illustrations are vibrant and colorful with a touch of whimsy. Drawn with what appears to be markers and an inkpen, Brown has great precision and is skilled at coloring and shading.

As funny and inspired as the scenes are in Darth Vader and Son, true fans will find even more enjoyment in the background illustrations and in-jokes featured throughout the book. Nearly every significant Star Wars character is featured, many as child sized versions of their adult selves.

I have only one issue with this book, and it is a very small one. Why not feature Leia more prominently? I realize that this is Darth Vader and Son, and perhaps Brown intends to follow this up with Darth Vader and Daughter, but it would have been even harder on Vader to raise twins than to just have Luke underfoot. Leia is featured in only one comic and there could have been so much more. Vader at a tea party, Vader playing dress-up, Vader putting on makeup – think of the possibilities!

Check the WRL catalog for Darth Vader and Son.

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Today Janet from Outreach Services reviews an unusual novel that book groups may want to consider:

From the author of Little Children comes The Leftovers, a contemporary tale that explores the chilling effect grief has on those left behind in a community in the wake of an unexplainable, rapture-like event.

The novel is set in a post-apocalyptic world in a suburban town in the Unites States.  Three years have passed since millions of random souls instantly disappeared from the earth in what is called the Sudden Departure.  In a puff, millions of random adults and children, believers and non-believers, all vanished without warning and without reason.  Left behind are citizens of Mapleton, residents who move through their daily lives burdened by an overwhelming sense of loss after the disappearance of their loved ones, friends, co-workers, and neighbors.

The central characters are members of two families, the Garveys and the Dursts.  Kevin and Laurie Garvey, their teenage daughter Jill, and college-age son Tom are alive but the family unit is fractured. Kevin, Mapleton’s mayor, bravely moves forward with his public duties while struggling to run a household that no longer exists.  Laurie seeks peace and purpose by moving out of the family home to join a religious cult whose members find meaning in wearing white, chain smoking cigarettes, and shunning all human relationships.   Tom and Jill seek explanation and love in quirky and often self-destructive ways.  Nora Durst, a young mother, wife, and only remaining member of her family, lives with the memory of their sudden disappearance from her dining room table. Nora goes through the motions of daily living haunted by feelings of loss and guilt.  These and other characters try to cope using a variety of techniques, including indifference, avoidance, depression, acting out, and alienation.

A great book club title, The Leftovers compels you to talk about big questions involving love and loss, grief, moving forward in life, and community.  Not all members of my book group were  drawn to the characters, but the themes of the books—and the jarring ending—kept us talking.

Check the WRL catalog for The Leftovers

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Confession time?  I never read anything by Salman Rushdie until I picked up Step Across This Line: Collected Nonfiction 1992-2002.  I found his essays on everything from “Being Photographed” to “Going to Electoral College” to be funny, pointed, and written in approachable, engaging language.  So what was holding me back?  Perhaps it was that intimidating glare, which makes him look as if you’re going to disappoint him no matter how hard you try.  (Of course, looking for the picture I was thinking of yielded only photos of a smiling, avuncular wiseman.  Strange.)

On a whim, I picked up Haroun and the Sea of Stories and began reading it aloud to my wife.  It quickly became a standing date–9pm each night we’d sit down and I’d dive into The Sea.  Rushdie’s enchanting story drew us along right to the wonderfully satisfying end.  It practically defines what I love to see in totally escapist reading, but with a punch that few writers can pull off.

Haroun is the son of Rashid, a famous storyteller who lives in his own imagination and sometimes visits the “real” world to perform the pieces he finds in his fancy.  Haroun’s mother Soraya sometimes frets over money, but is largely happy until a nasty neighbor poisons her image of Rashid, and the two run off together.  Haroun rejects his father’s fantastic view of the world, and Rashid loses his storytelling facility.

Unfortunately, it’s election time in the country Alifbay, where Rashid has been hired to enchant voters so the politicians can tell equally large whoppers to earn votes.  Without his skill Rashid cannot perform, and only professional pride makes him go to his last gig in the isolated Valley of K to entertain provincial voters.  Haroun talks them onto a wild bus ride with a driver named Butt, who delivers them to their putative employer Snooty Buttoo and his fantastic houseboat.  But aboard the houseboat, Haroun finds himself flown away to an invisible moon that houses the Sea of Stories.  An immense ocean whose currents of standard storylines flow together to create new tales, the Sea is also being poisoned by “popular romances” which have turned into “long lists of shopping expeditions, and “talking helicopter anecdotes” that are spoiling the rich imaginative source that has nourished both tellers and listeners for all of human history.  The poison leads back to the enemy of storytelling, “Prince of Silence and the Foe of Speech” Khattam-Shud, whose name means “The End.”

With Haroun’s assistance, the good Guppees, the Plentimaw fish, and the people of P2C2E (Processes Too Complicated to Explain) defeat Khattam-Shud and his Chupwalas, and balance returns to the moon.  With the Sea of Stories saved, the world undergoes a transformation that ensures the defeat of the colorless and the victory of the whimsical.

Haroun and the Sea of Stories is called a children’s story, but it would be an exceptional child (indeed an exceptional reader of any age) to catch all the puns, literary allusions, political caricature, and meaningful verbal tics Rushdie gives his magical characters.  Haroun is a marvelous stand-in for readers living in the dull world.  His sudden gift of a wildly psychedelic experience reminds of what we set aside as we “grow up.”  It must have been a Chupwala who decided it belonged outside the realm of those who need it most.

Check the WRL catalog for Haroun and the Sea of Stories

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Psychologists call it “family of origin“.  Really, they’re the people on whom you imprinted: those who gave you your adult world view or against whom you rebelled.  But if you believe there’s such a thing as a “happy family“, you were born in a test tube and raised in a cave by wolves.  Some families are less weird than others, that’s all.

Setting aside all physically abusive families, the Fang family is perhaps the weirdest one I’ve ever read about.  Caleb and Camille are artists, MacArthur Geniuses, grant winners, gallery darlings.  Their medium? Human confusion and anger.  Their canvas–any place they can set people against one another or cause distress.  Like Sasha Baron-Cohen, they find the outer limit of what people will tolerate, then push them past it.  Unfortunately, they decide to use their children to create the chaos they engender.

Annie and Buster, or “Child A” and “Child B” as they were known in the art world, are now grown.  Annie is a successful actor on the verge of her breakthrough into Oscar contention when a director calls for an unexpected topless scene.  Annie’s response puts her on the Web and into the tabloids, and her response to that causes her to flee Hollywood.  Buster is an unsuccessful novelist working as a freelance writer.  When he’s severely injured in the course of writing an article, he reverts to a Fang-style escape and runs for cover.  Both wind up at their parents’ home, the one place they swore they’d never return.  But.

Well, Camille and Caleb have a project on their calendar, so they take off to the big city.  And on the way they…disappear.  Their bloodstained car is found at a rest area, but no sign of them.  Bitter and suspicious, Annie spots it as another panic-inducing art piece.  Buster wavers between Annie’s view and believing that Camille and Caleb are dead,  Together, brother and sister grope their way through the following days, uncertain how to continue their own lives.

Interspersed in the current-day stories are titled pieces from the Fang family’s career, giving the reader a picture of their methods and results.  The projects become stranger the deeper the story goes, and as A and B become more integral to the work, the projects become more manipulative of them, to the point that Caleb and Camille become passive bystanders in the situations they force the children into.  With each revelation, Annie’s fierce independence and Buster’s uncertainty become more understandable.

Kevin Wilson is scarily creative when it comes to envisioning the Fang art, perhaps even more so in developing his storyline.  He also raises a lot of questions that make excellent fodder for contemplation and discussion.  What is Art?  What is an Artist?  What is a family?  What is child abuse?  At what point can a person be described as “grown up”?  So much packed into a beautifully written, imaginative book that it’s no wonder it made so many “Best Book of the Year” lists.

Check the WRL catalog for The Family Fang

Or place a reservation for the Gab Bag for reading groups

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Author of Gone Tomorrow and the stories that inspired the films Dog Day Afternoon and Eddie and the Cruisers, P. F. Kluge really knows the places that he writes about. In The Master Blaster, Kluge brings us to Saipan, the newest addition to the United States of America. The island was taken from the Japanese during WWII and administered by the US Navy until becoming part of a US Commonwealth in 1978. Since then, very few Statesiders have ventured to the island 4800 miles further west than Hawaii.

When visiting a tropical island, tourists rarely see beyond the veil of rain forests, beaches, resorts, boutiques, and night clubs. On the other side are poverty, corruption, racism, and crime. In this book an anonymous cynic known as the Master Blaster has dedicated his blog to reveal the harsh reality of life on the little known US-owned island of Saipan. He has worked hard to ensure that his site shows up in the front page of all search engines–much to the frustration of the local government, tourism board, and proud islanders.

The story follows four new arrivals to the island who meet while waiting in the baggage claim area of the airport.  An educator leaving a failed relationship, a businessman, a down-on-his-luck travel writer, and a foreign laborer all have high expectations and visions of personal success. Each one is convinced they will stay longer than the others. As the story unfolds they each become painfully aware of the Master Blaster’s truths. As they deal with their disillusionment it becomes a contest to see who will stay on the island the longest, challenging themselves to stick it out longer than they might have otherwise. Each character narrates his or her story and since they continue to interact in the tight-knit community, we hear multiple perspectives of the same events.

Having been residents for 17 years on Saipan, my husband and I felt transported right back to our Saipan lifestyle while reading The Master Blaster. I can attest that it accurately depicts life familiar to most Saipan residents, whether transplants from other places or local. Many new residents of Saipan go through the same painful adjustment period that these characters did and either hate life on the island until their employment contracts end (if they even last that long) or persevere to the point of loving the island despite its shortcomings and making it their home.

Check the WRL catalog for The Master Blaster

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Humor is hard to do.  It probably ties with horror as the hardest type of story to develop and sustain through the end of the book.  Thankfully, both God and amanuensis David Javerbaum, a veteran of The Daily Show, are able to pull it off.  For one thing, God is aware (as one would expect from an omni-omni being) of his own sense of humor, although he occasionally suspects that it may border on the sociopathic.

So now we have, from his own lips, the truth of the stories collected in the Book that has the highest sales in the history of the world, even though the royalties don’t quite match the revenues.  We learn the truth about Creation – yes, it was Adam and Steve – the zing that’s going to greet new arrivals at the Golden Throne, and the greatest Broadway show of all time.  And hey, God does have favorite sports figures, with drastic repercussions for The Second Coming.

In the midst of this tell-all confession, God opens up about his relationship with his children.  Yes, plural.  Jesus is the middle child.  His older brother Zach is nicknamed The Holy Ghost for his favorite trick, sneaking up his brother and yelling, “Boo!”  His younger sister is Kathy, whose envy of Jesus’ sacrifice led her to beg her Father to allow her to do the same.  (You’ll have to read the Book to find out how they accomplished it.)  But Jesus is not only His favorite, he’s the only one who can overcome His Father with The Look.

The big issue, though, is the one that is fast approaching.  Although they don’t buy into Him, God is really impressed with the vigor with which the Mayans worship, so He’s decided to go with their calendar.  Humanity: October 28, 4004 BCDecember 21, 2012.  RIP.  And just to prove that he’s not fooling around, he’s given us day-by-day warning signs.  (My favorite is August 11 – “Reenactors at Colonial Williamsburg declare independence from management, asserting their inalienable rights to “life, liberty, and employee discounts at Busch Gardens”.  Since CW employees already have discounts, we can check that one off as already accomplished.)

OK, so you’re not supposed to take it seriously.  There’s no doubt about that, even though God takes pains to tell us on several occasions.  The Last Testament is a parody that explores the gap between people’s interpretation of the Bible, and their actual knowledge of the Book, interpreted through the lens of a writer familiar with history, theology, exegesis, psychology, and current events.  And if you decide to take it any other way, check out Againesis 19:4.  With tongue firmly in cheek, David Javerbaum has delivered a funny book that succeeds in making the reader look at the world from a new angle.  And that’s why humor is hard to do.

Check the WRL catalog for The Last Testament

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Mandy Malone from Circulation Services provides this review:

The year is 1982. The members of the British heavy metal band Spinal Tap–Nigel Tufnel, David St. Hubbins and Derek Smalls–have reunited and recorded a comeback album titled ‘Smell the Glove’. Marty DiBergi, a television commercial director and longtime Spinal Tap fan, is on hand to film the events surrounding the album’s release and accompanying tour for the documentary, or ‘rockumentary’ as DiBergi calls it, This is Spinal Tap.

At this point in my review, I should issue a message of caution: music fans who have never heard of Spinal Tap shouldn’t rush out and scour the WRL catalog for the album. It doesn’t exist. Originally released in 1984, This is Spinal Tap is in reality a brilliant and hilarious parody of the heavy metal genre starring Christopher Guest as Nigel Tufnel, Michael McKean as David St. Hubbins and Harry Shearer as Derek Smalls. Marty DiBergi is played by Rob Reiner, who also directed the film.

In true documentary style, DiBergi follows Spinal Tap from England to America as he offers a no-holds-barred look at the history of the band and their promotional work for the new album. In candid interviews, the band members discuss Tufnel and St. Hubbins’ childhood friendship, early incarnations of the band called the Originals and the Thamesmen, and the untimely deaths of all their drummers. Along the way, Spinal Tap’s comeback is met with several potential setbacks: their record company hates the album’s cover art; at one venue, the band members get lost backstage; and a Stonehenge-themed performance goes awry when the key prop fails to measure up to expectations. Throughout the film, the band’s indefatigable optimism remains intact, even when it looks like the comeback is in danger of falling apart.

This is Spinal Tap does a great job of spoofing the pretensions and excesses of the heavy metal genre without being mean-spirited. Much of the credit for this goes to the stars of the film. They are also responsible for developing the concept of the film and writing the screenplay, and I think they created a group of memorable, well-developed characters. The members of Spinal Tap are so likable and sincere, if a little misguided at times, that you can’t help but root for them to succeed in their quixotic quest to reclaim their former glory.

In the years since the release of This is Spinal Tap, Christopher Guest has gone on to write and direct several other successful documentary-style parodies including Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show and A Mighty Wind.

Check the WRL catalog for This is Spinal Tap

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“We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.”

To really get into the spirit of this hopeless, funny, angry, sarcastic book, I would need to get multi-media. While you read this post, you would be seeing banner ads for other hopeless, funny, angry sarcastic books, banner ads crowding one another for space and bleating tinny audio jingles.

Titus, the nearly-inarticulate narrator of this young adult dystopia, has a futuristic equivalent of the Internet jacked directly into his nervous system. Mental Google… subvocal IM chatting with friends… digital memory recording and replay… the ability to buy things just by thinking about them! Of course, if you spend any amount of time at all on the Internet, you can imagine what comes along with the Feed’s educational and infotainment resources: Spam. SpIM. Banner ads. Audio banner ads. Audio banner ads customized for products that you’ve been thinking about! This is your brain… and this is your brain with unlimited commercial interruption.

When a rogue hacker cuts Titus off from FeedNet, he spends a few scary days trapped in the silence of his own head, sharing the experience with a young woman he’s just met on the moon. Violet hasn’t been on FeedNet as long as the other kids in his circle, and she asks questions about things that Titus takes for granted. When they get back online, everything is back to normal for Titus… but not so much for his new girlfriend.

Titus and Violet live in a throwaway society of devoted consumers and slaves to trends. (Girls run off to the bathroom en masse whenever they’re notified that hairstyles have changed.) Hints of planetary political unrest and environmental devastation bleed through, but never the whole picture, because Titus isn’t really paying attention to the news, and his life is almost completely divorced from the natural environment. On the other hand, he can tell you all about the plotlines of his favorite feedcast, “Oh? Wow! Thing!”

This look into the abyss future feels scarily like the present, possibly because M.T. Anderson cribbed a lot of the dialogue by following people around in shopping malls and writing down the inane things they shouted into their cell phones. (Nothing is scarier than people.) I have to recommend the audio version of Feed, in which the sound bites, news mcnuggets, and advertising jingles interspersed between chapters are brought to horrifying life. Audio is the next best thing to experiencing the “voices in his head” that Titus lives with.

One of the drawbacks to being stuck in Titus’s head is that he is, after all is said and done, a self-centered jerk. He’s almost completely unable to express complex thoughts, and when he tries, it’s in phrases he’s picked up from commercials or movie trailers—language that the corporations have supplied him with.

I’d like to hope that somewhere in the world of Feed are the teenagers who leverage their built-in technology for the powers of good. In some ways, Feed would make an interesting compare-and-contrast with Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, in which teenagers network their X-boxes to fight for democracy. It’s also a good bet for fans of Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series (although without as much action). Note that while Anderson has invented most of the slang, the F-word is still going strong in this future.

Check the WRL catalog for Feed.

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7:54 a.m., September 27th, 1974. Classes are about to start at the Ben Turpin School (grades K-8), and Mr. Elber is finishing up a disappointing extra-credit bio lab, in which he and two students failed to reanimate a deceased fetal pig. Not only did the experiment flop, but now there’s a weird purple smoke wafting up from all the chemicals. It smells really bad, and soon it has drifted outside the classroom and into the rest of the school. Before long, all the adults and most of the children are feeling unwell: symptoms include upset tummies, blanched complexions, drooling, and a ravenous urge to eat other people.

On the bright side, this zombie contagion only affects people who’ve hit puberty. The fourth-grade heroes of the story are hormonally immune to zombiefication. On the other hand, they’ve still got to defend themselves against being eaten alive—and the doors to the school are locked! Who will save them?

Fourth-grader Bob Fingerman, that’s who! Coincidentally sharing a name with the author, young Bob leads his classmates in a desperate plan to break free. Armed with épées, hockey sticks, and baseball bats from the gym, the children wage battle against their undead elders, with only their wits and their crude weapons to preserve them. (And a deus ex machina. The armored truck filled with weapons helps the situation considerably when it crashes through the wall.)

This is campy, silly, gory fun. The pictures are gross, not horrific, with over-the-top violence depicted in ookey splendor on the pages of the graphic novel, again and again and again to the point of absurdity (“Odd how something so terrifying can become redundant so soon,” quips one of the sidekicks). The one-liners are abundant and the humor is sophomoric. Because of the excessive violence, we’ve got this shelved in the adult section of the graphic novels, and my official party line is that this book is appropriate for mature readers, though privately I think it’s perfect for thirteen-year-old boys, or for any adult who never bothered to grow up.

Check the WRL catalog for Recess Pieces

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Once upon a time there was a marzipan castle where a young princess lived all alone. She had to cook for herself and keep the castle tidy, but when the chores were done, she would go adventuring, her teddy bear Mr. Whiffle at her side. They went hunting for treasure, and they staged mock battles against their pretend enemies, and they comforted one another when the Thing Beneath the Bed scared them.

At this point in our discussion I should emphasize that this is not a children’s book. It bears repeating, with italics: this is not a children’s book.

It is a picture book. The hero is an adorable little orphan girl. She plays with stuffed animals. The story is winsome and whimsical and precious, right up till the point where it becomes the most seriously twisted bit of illustrated storytelling since Edward Gorey put ink to paper.

Apparently Patrick Rothfuss, when not busy writing critically-acclaimed debut fantasy novels, spends his time thinking of ways to be cunning and wicked. Rarely have I encountered a story so morally corrupt. (I have already forked over the $25 for a personal copy.)

Rothfuss is aided and abetted in his deviltry by Nate Taylor, whose black-and-white illustrations are just marvelous. I cannot say enough good things about them. I found myself lingering over the pages, enchanted and delighted by the subtle little details and jokes hidden in the pictures.

This is a very quick read, even counting for the time you’ll spend looking at the artwork. Though it does not have sequential panels, we’ve decided to catalog this as a graphic novel, because we can’t very well put a story this disturbing in the children’s picture book section.

Check the WRL catalog for The Adventures of the Princess and Mr. Whiffle, if you dare.

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There’s a scene in this collection of short stories, just a few pages from the end, where an owl and his date discuss mammalian breastfeeding and its bearing on sexual orientation. I wish I could reproduce it here, as it is very, very funny, but unfortunately I can’t because it is completely inappropriate for general audiences.

That is David Sedaris in a nutshell: very funny, and very inappropriate. His past efforts have mostly tended toward memoir, but this time the book is exclusively fictional, featuring sixteen animal stories that are in no way suitable for children. For instance, there is the story of the two lab rats: the cheerful one is convinced that physical ailments are a symptom of negative thinking, while the gloomy one thinks his cancer might have an external cause. And there is the story of the Vietnamese Potbellied Pig who must grapple with racism and weight prejudice when he becomes director of an art museum. For a small investment of time—90 minutes, maybe?—you’ll get a gratifying dose of irony, satire, and acerbic social commentary.

Best of all? This book is not merely a collection of David Sedaris short stories. This book is a collection of David Sedaris short stories that is illustrated by Ian Falconer! Ian Falconer is the author and illustrator of the Olivia picture books. They star a pig named Olivia, and they are read by young children. Learning that Ian Falconer was the illustrator of a David Sedaris book was like discovering that Shel Silverstein wrote for Playboy.  The artist behind the good clean fun of Olivia, it transpires, is uniquely suited to drawing rabbits with weapons and minks without pelts. Sedaris and Falconer together are brilliant. It’s Aesop on acid.

Check the WRL catalog for Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk

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