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Archive for the ‘Humor’ Category

The 39 StepsThe 39 Steps is an espionage story that has been through several incarnations. It began as a very popular 1915 book by John Buchan, the first of a series of adventures involving Richard Hannay, a resourceful engineer bored with London society, whose life takes a complete turn when someone is murdered in his London flat. Soon he’s on the run, framed for the crime by a mysterious spy organization, and in pursuit of a feisty love interest who’s attracted to him but not buying his wild story.

The novel was immortalized by suspense master Alfred Hitchcock in a 1935 film. This incarnation of The 39 Steps was one of the first films to show some of Hitch’s trademarks, a hyperdramatic style, mistaken identities, mysterious villains, a dapper hero, cross-country chases, long tracking shots, and dashes of quirky humor.

Playwright Patrick Barlow keeps Hitchcock’s plot, but injects it with a love for old-fashioned humor in the style of English music halls and a nostalgia for theater in the days of greasepaint, melodrama, and hokum. The resulting play merrily employs grand old traditions into a show that contemporary audiences will find new and fresh.

Barlow’s adaptation keeps Hannay as the protagonist, but uses just three actors in all of the other parts. One woman plays both the femme fatale and the love interest drawn into Hannay’s mad flight, while two very busy actors play all of the other characters from the film, often changing so quickly that they can’t even leave the stage. The results is a suspenseful thriller made madcap with tongue-in-cheek humor, a screwball romance, references to your favorite Hitchcock films, acrobatic antics, sinister villains, and playful re-imagining of the conventions and language of classic theater.

While I recommend reading Barlow’s play for sheer enjoyment of the language, this story needs to be seen. Barlow employs a minimal set, using just a few moving set pieces, props, light and sound effects, and pantomime to suggest locations ranging from London flats to Scottish country inns, foggy moors to campaign bandstands, even the perilous heights of a towering bridge and a moving train car. The rapid transformations of two actors into a merry-go-round of quirky bystanders, leering villains, and thick-brogued Highlanders has to be seen and heard to be believed.

The Williamsburg Players will bring The 39 Steps to the stage March 12th through 28th in a production directed by the Emmy-winning Abigail Schumann, and featuring local actors David Stallings as Hannay, Annie Lewis as Annabella and Margaret, and Chris Hull and Jordan Wentland as the two chameleon-like “clowns.” If you can’t make that, try searching for The 39 Steps on YouTube to supplement your reading.

Check the WRL catalog for Patrick Barlow’s adaptation of The 39 Steps

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WhatIfIn the introduction to his unexpected bestseller, author, scientist and web-comic guru Randall Munroe says “They say there are no stupid questions. That’s obviously wrong.” Working in a public library we don’t encounter stupid questions, a more accurate description may be tiring questions. What If’s questions (and answers) turn out to be neither stupid nor tiring, rather they are witty, thought provoking and often very, very funny.

Even the inside of the dust jacket is entertaining (certainly the first time I’ve ever encountered this in a book!). Munroe has drawn a map of the world, but the familiar shapes are not quite right. The key tells us it is “The World: After a portal to Mars opened at the bottom of the Marianas Trench, draining most the Oceans (sorry about that).” After the portal to Mars event there is, of course, a lot less water. There is now a West Atlantic and an East Atlantic, separated by dry land with mountains called (what else?) Atlantis. The mountainous island nation of New Zealand got a lot bigger with an entire new section labeled “Newer Zealand.”

The “Serious Scientific Answers” from the subtitle really are serious. Munroe attempts to answer questions using the best scientific knowledge currently available, and lots of scary looking math. He has a quirky style that he uses to answer some very quirky questions, such as: “How many Lego bricks would it take to build a bridge capable of carrying traffic from London to New York?” This is the sort of question my sons asked all the time growing up, but they didn’t expect (well, I didn’t give) a serious answer. For this question, Munroe gives six pages of Serious Answer, including his famous stick-figure diagrams. (You’ll have to read the book to learn how many Legos you’ll have to acquire to avoid a transatlantic plane fare).

The Absurd Hypothetical Questions can be submitted by anyone through Munroe’s extremely funny, science-based web comic xkcd. I often enjoy the comic, but I admit that some of it goes whoosh straight over my head (these seem to be the ones that my nerdy children laugh hardest at). xkcd are purported to be the only letters in the English language that can’t be pronounced as a word (although I don’t see what’s wrong with saying “Ex, Kay, See, Dee”). Even Munroe finds some of the questions so bizarre that he doesn’t answer them. Some of these get their own sections called “Weird (and Worrying) Questions from the What If? Inbox,” including examples such as, “What is the total nutritional value (calories, fat, vitamins, minerals, etc.) of the average human body?” or “Would it be possible to get your teeth to such a cold temperature that they would shatter upon drinking a hot cup of coffee?” These are not things to try at home. As Munroe says, “I like it when things catch fire and explode, which means I do not have your best interests in mind.”

What If? is a great book for science fans and is fun to browse when you’re feeling like something lighter after plowing through six-hundred page scientific behemoths like The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, by Siddhartha Mukherjee or Spillover by David Quammen. The questions may be absurd as the subtitle claims, but the answers are scientific and who knows, if you buy a copy for the stocking of your family nerd, it may spark (or rekindle) a lifelong interest in science.

Check the WRL catalog for What If? 

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Soliloquy to StormtrooperAlas, poor stormtrooper, I knew ye not,

Yet have I taken both uniform and life

From thee. What manner of man wert thou?

A man of infinite jest or cruelty?

 

I’m not normally a fan of the mashup. The book that started the craze, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, was well done, but in most of these projects, the best joke is in the title. Ian Doescher has created a happy exception, taking the scripts from George Lucas’s Star Wars films and translating them into iambic pentameter, making books worthy of both the Bard and the droids. It’s a fine marriage, with the melodramatic space opera of Star Wars suited perfectly for Elizabethan language.

The success of the project has encouraged Doescher to continue with the series. The Empire Striketh Back and The Jedi Doth Return are already available, and more are in process. If you know your Shakespeare even a little, you’ll catch references to his famous lines throughout the works, as in the Hamlet reference in the quote above or when Han Solo quips, “Nay not that: the day when Jabba taketh my dear ship/Shall be the day you find me a grave man.”William Shakespeares Star Wars

Doescher tackles the challenges of the project with panache. R2D2, for instance, begins speaking in iambic beeps and squawks, but then switches to Shakespearean asides to complain about the “prating tongue” of his pompous golden friend. These extras add extra dimension to the interior world of beloved characters, perhaps even improving on the original. When the action cannot be conveyed by character speeches, Doescher doesn’t fret, he brings in a chorus to inform the audience of necessary plot developments. The book is graced by illustrations in the style of Elizabethan woodcuts.

You know the story, you know the style, but this combination is clever and executed brilliantly. I suspect smart English teachers will be using these books to great effect for years to come, but why leave the fun for the classroom? Take it home yourself and enjoy the experience all over again.

Check the WRL catalog for William Shakespeare’s Star Wars

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hiroWhat exactly makes a hero? Take Johnny Hiro: he works paycheck to paycheck as a busboy/dishwasher in a sushi restaurant, has a strained relationship with his parents, and is being sued by his ex-landlord for damage done to his last apartment by a Godzilla-like monster reptile who was taking revenge for sins perpetrated by the mother of Johnny’s current girlfriend, Mayumi. All pretty typical stressors in the life of a New Yorker.

Mayumi is the bright spot in his life, and Johnny strives not only to make ends meet, but to get ahead for her, much more so than even for himself. After a day spent leaping across rooftops with a stolen lobster, engaging in a high speed chase with a van full of stolen fish, or fighting off 47 samurai, he gets to go home to her peppy optimism. She keeps him grounded, and full of hope, despite his many misadventures.

Several celebrities make cameos throughout the pages, which is sometimes played for laughs (Alton Brown, especially) and sometimes rather random. All together they all read as a fond nod to popular culture, especially the continually quoted hip hop lyrics. This might cause the stories to age badly, but for now they are still relatable.

Fred Chao, who is both the author and artist of this series, provides commentary throughout the story that grounds the often absurd plot into humanistic realities. Some of these comments are little gems, which help elevate situations above their most basic reading. Two of my favorites are “Most of the things that affect us will never be explained. They are simply the trickle-down effects of the unknowing decisions made around us.” And “Those hours…hold the most potential for change. That is if we just look up, instead of simply hoping to make it to the next day.”

Sometimes heroes are just normal people who have something to fight for. “Fortunately or unfortunately, there are few happy or sad endings. Most stories simply go on.”

Recommended for readers who like humor and humanism.

Search the WRL catalog for Johnny Hiro.

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thencameyouI was on the hunt for a book that was light, fun, romantic, and funny. I had seen Jill Shalvis’s books on the shelves and I knew that her books are checked out often but I had never picked one up. On a whim and seeing a cover that conveyed light and fun, I decided to give the book a try, and it was a perfect fit for my mood.

To describe veterinarian Emily Stevens as “Type A” would be a little bit of an understatement. Her whole life is scheduled and organized, and she is extremely driven. She’s completing vet school and keeping food on the table and a roof over her head, but she isn’t finding much joy or satisfaction in her personal life. Even worse, her dream internship at a fancy clinic in Los Angeles has fallen through and she’s on her way to Sunshine, Idaho to complete the terms of her scholarship. Day one in Sunshine and Emily is literally counting down the days until she can hit the highway for L.A. Can we say uptight?

Wyatt Stone loves being a veterinarian at the Belle Haven vet clinic. As a child of foreign diplomats and having been raised in multiple countries, Wyatt has found his home and he’s staying put. Sunshine is everything he’s ever wanted: a home base, a career he loves, and good friends and family. Sometimes he wishes he could find a little distance from his crazy sisters, but on the whole he’s building the life he wants. He’s missing one element of the perfect life—the perfect girl to share it with.

When Emily and Wyatt meet the fireworks fly, but Wyatt is Emily’s new boss and she doesn’t know how she’ll survive the next year. She is crazily attracted to Wyatt and can’t help but let him know it by inserting her foot into her big mouth. After all, how can she resist a man so quietly confident, strong, nice, and funny? Remembering their one-night stand at a vet conference, Emily is reminded that she knows what she is missing.

If you’re looking for something fun to read that will make you smile and laugh, this is the book for you. It has witty banter and a misfit cast of secondary characters. It is the fifth in the Animal Magnetism series, but I didn’t feel like I was missing a thing from the previous books. If you want to know more, check out Melissa’s post on the first book in the series, Animal Magnetism. 

Check the WRL catalog for Then Came You

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LoverWhat are books all about? No, not the plots, but the culture of books and readers. Are the books we choose a shortcut to our identities via our fantasies and fears? Are they instruments to demonstrate our superiority or to hide our inferiority, raise our children by, choose our friends with? If anyone’s qualified to take on these questions, it’s reader / blogger / tech geek / woman-about-town Lauren Leto.

In a series of short essays, Leto writes about testing new romantic prospects by taking them to bookstores, or by starting a conversation, and laments that the growth of e-readers makes it impossible to cover-snoop. (Barry and I used to do that at airports to pick out the librarians. Not for romance, mind you, but to see if 50 Shades of Grey went with the shoes.) Where you read what you read is another clue, as are the books and tchotchkes you’ve got on your bookshelf. And how you handle challenges from readers you don’t know – lie about reading the book? make a snarky comment dismissing the author as a hack? try one-upping the person until one or the other reveals themselves as a reading fraud? – is as important as the literary quality of your actual reading.

Leto’s writing is fresh, funny, and insightful. She is unabashed about her enjoyment of fun books, but maintains focus on the kinds of books that people who talk about books talk about. Along the way, we get some great ideas for our personal reading lists, and quite a few cutting one liners about both literary wunderkind and bestselling popular authors. (The whole book is copyrighted, but if you memorize a few and trot them out at your next dinner party, Leto probably won’t catch you. Any fair use attorneys out there?) There are entries that can make you puff your chest out one second and ponder the hole in your soul the next if you don’t follow Betty Rosenberg’s First Law of Reading, and secretly cheer when you don’t follow Orr’s Corollary to the First Law. Best of all, there’s a clarion call to change the reader’s mascot from the lowly worm to a higher form of life.

Like most collections of comic essays, these are best taken in chunks to maximize the laugh value. Some are short enough that you can read several at one sitting; others long enough that you can read comfortably at one sitting. Either way you take it, Leto’s reading life is mirrored by everyone who comes across this blog. Read it and have a blast.

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FakingArt, theft, and con artists in love are an irresistible combination in this contemporary romance classic. Whip-crack dialogue and lots of old movie quotes evoke the great screwball comedy duos of the screen.

They meet in the closet while burgling a house: Davy Dempsey, a (reformed?) con man introduced in Welcome to Temptation, is trying to steal three million back from a gold-digging ex who has moved on to her next victim, an art collector. Tilda Goodnight is trying to steal back her own painting so that the world won’t learn that the respected Goodnight art gallery has been trafficking in forgeries.

I’d forgotten how crowded this book is when I revisited it on my recent romance binge. On top of the cast of dozens, some have double identities and others have multiple nicknames, depending on which movie they happen to be quoting at the time. Fast-paced and funny, it’s one of those comedy romances in which you never know who will come through the door next— the con man, the hit man, the gold digger, the FBI? “It’s like the clown car at the circus,” someone remarks during the whirlwind conclusion, but it all ends in a happily ever after with character reveals that would make Shakespeare proud.

Crusie’s titles stand out from a crowd of romances because of the truths underneath the silliness: women trying on different roles, trying to be all things to all people, and losing track of which is the “real” self in the end. Tilda, a gifted painter, has been supporting her family with knockoff Impressionist murals for so long, she’s come to hate her art— and Davy can give Tilda her art back, not just in literal paintings, stolen or conned from their original owners, but in the joy of painting again in her own style. And while Davy and Tilda’s hot-and-cold affair is in the spotlight, there are satisfying moments of revelation for all three generations of Goodnight women. Happy endings are not only for the young and cute! Mother Gwen, whose long-repressed anger comes out in subversive cross-stitch and patchwork quilts with teeth motifs, gets a new beginning out of the plot as well.

For other romantic crime capers, Melissa recommends The Spellman Files. Or, there’s the stylish 1960s film, How to Steal a Million, in which Peter O’Toole, Audrey Hepburn, and Hepburn’s Givenchy and Cartier wardrobe also find true love in a closet, while conspiring to steal a forged sculpture. While Dempsey and Goodnight are more down-to-earth than O’Toole and Hepburn— aren’t we all— the aura of witty, screwball fun is the same.

Check the WRL catalog for Faking It.

Go ahead, watch How to Steal a Milliontoo.

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