For a while, we got a lot of students at our library who wanted to write about why a liberal education was or was not worth the cost. So I frequently found myself defending the humanities on the fly by talking about critical thinking, empathy, and other, more intangible benefits. I’m rather proud of myself for being able to do this, because it’s a lot more than the faculty of the beleaguered Payne University can do in The Shakespeare Requirement, Julie Schumacher’s sequel to her uproarious novel Dear Committee Members. (It’s not necessary for readers to read Dear Committee Members to understand The Shakespeare Requirement. Both books are hilariously on-point satires, so I recommend them both.)
Jason Fitger survived a year under siege in the English department at Willard Hall while the upstairs is extensively remodeled by the swimming-in-donations Economics Department. Now, Fitger has to survive being the chair of a notoriously fractious department at a time when they have to justify every penny the Payne University (there are a lot of jokes about the name) spends on them. Being academics, they believe that it’s blindingly obvious why students ought to learn Shakespeare, medieval literature, feminist and postcolonial literature, and celebrate all the Brontë birthdays. To them, the question is not why should anyone study Shakespeare. Their question for everyone else is, why wouldn’t students want to study Shakespeare?
The Shakespeare Requirement bounces from character to character to give us an inside look at a university that houses every academic stereotype we’ve ever heard of. The rapacious Econ chair is attempting to build an empire that resembles a for-profit institution. The administration is bloated with vice and assistant something or others and completely useless when it comes to the in-fighting of the faculty. Most of those faculty are oblivious to anything else but defending their intellectual territory. In fact, most of the book involves Fitger chasing down his English faculty to horse-trade so that they will pass the department’s statement of vision. Plus, there’s the bureaucracy, which could be described as a Kafkaesque nightmare or an unfixable snarl of catch-22s.
I found The Shakespeare Requirement sharply funny. I snorted and chuckled at the jokes and jibes. I loved the tangled plots and the perfect ending. But what really makes this book is the heart that underlies the jokes. The faculty, in spite of their eccentricities and pettiness (and excluding the Econ chair), love their subjects. They want to teach their students the joys of literature and to look at the world with an critical eye. They don’t just want to churn out workers. I find that admirable; I’m in an adjacent line of work and have the same goals. The jokes and satire just help the medicine—the bitter truths about American academia as it exists now—go down.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration.
Of course, yesterday’s post doesn’t mean that I won’t indulge in a literary escape or two now and then. I read P.G. Wodehouse’s delightful Joy in the Morning on Saturday in between frantic sessions on Twitter. Wodehouse’s silliness was the perfect antidote to the news.
Originally published in 1946, Joy in the Morning is another breezy Jeeves and Wooster story. There are near-miss engagements, scheming, unlucky coincidences, shouting from elderly relatives, one burned down house, a hockey stick in the night, and lots and lots of witty language. I already knew from the series that everything always turns out well in the end thanks to the assistance of the ever helpful Jeeves. (This is exactly what I needed after a week of politics.)
The novel is somewhat different from the series. In this book, at any rate, Bertie Wooster is not quite as gormless as Hugh Laurie portrayed him. He is a bit daft, but mostly he’s just unlucky. He’s either in the wrong place and the wrong time or he gets caught up in a series of escalating blunders. His track record with trouble often brings even more trouble, as the more serious characters immediately blame him for things that really aren’t his fault. Jeeves, on the other hand, is much as Stephen Fry played him in the series. Jeeves doesn’t say much. He doesn’t need to. Everyone trusts his wisdom and savvy. As they should, because Jeeves always comes through.
What I loved most about Joy in the Morning is the language. The vocabulary is rich, eclectic, and sings across the page. Wodehouse doesn’t belabor jokes, so the humor ranges from slapstick to subtle wordplay. I really, really enjoyed this little novel.
Russian literature has (deservedly) a reputation for being utterly depressing and heavy—which is why it’s always a delight to find comic writers like Teffi and Isaac Babel. The humor in these authors’ stories and feuilletons is caustic and sharply observed, but still makes me smile and chuckle. This week I read Isaac Babel’s classic collection, Odessa Stories (translated by Boris Dralyuk), about Jewish life in Odessa in the early twentieth century. The collection is night-and-day from his collection Red Cavalry, as one might expect, but it shares similar themes of violence and chaos without being as gutting as Red Cavalry. Odessa Stories is packed with gangsters, tsarist and communist officials, pigeons, and a lot of slapstick.
Most of the stories in this collection center on Benya Krik—Benya the King—and his extended family. Benya is a gangster. He’s twenty pounds of chutzpah in a ten pound sack and gets away with things that should have gotten him shot on the spot. Over the course of the stories, we see Benya rise and the old order fall as the Bolsheviks take control of the country. We see him face off against police and set up protection rackets on intractable rich men. The stories are almost always told secondhand by someone who claims they were present or heard it from a reliable source. The narrators invariably end up telling the story in a loopy, unfocused manner that mirrors the chaos of Benya and his family members’ lives. So, while the stories are ostensibly about Benya, we end up learning a lot about their friends, enemies, and the Jewish community of Odessa and its suburbs.
Odessa Stories also contains a long pair of semi-autobiographical stories about an unnamed boy who is an awful lot like the young Babel. The stories relate how the boy got caught in a pogrom before finding shelter with a friendly family. This story is a stark reminder of how dangerous life could be for Jewish Russians: most of the time, families got along but things could turn deadly in an instant. The other semi-autobiographical story contains my favorite part of the whole collection. The young narrator has been ingratiating himself with the wealthy son of an important family. They’re good friend, but the boy tells all sorts of lies to disguise his origins. Unfortunately, he gets caught up in his lies when he reciprocates an invitation to tea. The boy sends away his embarrassing uncle and grandfather and is praying that they don’t come back before his guest leaves. So, of course they come back. Hilariously, the narrator recites Marc Antony’s eulogy from Julius Caesar to distract his guest (at increasing volumes) while his uncle crows about an amazing deal he got for a huge piece of furniture and his grandfather tortures a violin outside.
Unlike Teffi’s comic stories, the darkness of Russian life is closer to the surface in Babel’s. A person more cynical than I probably would have laughed more at the characters’ antics. I did laugh, but not too much because I could always see how a lucky escape could have easily turned into an ignoble death.
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 15 November 2016.
Wil Morgan lives a boring, miserable life. His landlady lets cats swarm around her house. His bathroom sink constantly rattles. He’s behind on all his rents. He’s failing at being a private detective and the clock in the building next to his office is slowly driving him insane. At least he no longer blows things up, which makes his father happy. But, on the morning that Paul Jenkins’s Curioddity opens, Wil takes a job that will set his life back on the weird, adventurous path it was always supposed to be on.
When Wil meets Mr. Dinsdale, the curator of the Museum of Curioddity (located on a street that probably doesn’t exist), Mr. Dinsdale is bent in half, busily un-seeing everything around him. Wil does his best to argue why he shouldn’t take the job Dinsdale offers, but his careful reasonableness is no match of Dinsdale’s stubborn illogic. Wil is hopelessly caught up in Dinsdale’s apparent nonsense. But, once Wil learns to un-look at the world around him, he comes fully to life for the first time since his delightfully wacky mother died.
Curriodity‘s plot plays out over one hectic week. To summarize the plot further wouldn’t do justice to it, as the story involves several time paradoxes, compound interest, half-magical devices that shouldn’t work, and a lot of Wil just hoping for the best and winging it. This book was the perfect choice to read while waiting at the mechanic’s, though I did get some odd looks as I chortled aloud at Wil and Dinsdale’s antics.
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 30 August 2016.
Almost ten years after the Russian Revolution, Ippolit Matveyevich Vorobryaninov has put his past as an aristocrat behind him. Unlike most of his class, he as managed to avoid the gulag or execution. He works as a low-level bureaucrat in a provincial town. He doesn’t have much to complain about other than his irritating mother-in-law, who lives with him. Ippolit Mateyevich might have gone on, content, if his mother-in-law hadn’t confessed that she’d hidden her jewels in one of twelve chairs from their pre-Revolutionary house. Ilya Ilf and Yevgeny Petrov’s The Twelve Chairs (translated by John H.C. Richardson) quickly becomes an anarchic tale of a trio of men seeking the chairs, conning everyone in sight as well as each other, and general mayhem.
The star of The Twelve Chairs is not Ippolit Matveyevich. (He thinks rather too much of himself, especially at the beginning of the novel.) Rather, Ostap Bender, a con man, completely steals the show. Vorobryaninov meets Bender early in his quest, while Bender is trying to work out whether he wants to become a career bigamist or art forger. Bender wrangles his way into Ippolit Matveyevich’s mission after convincing the former aristocrat that he needs someone wily to help him get the chairs back. Meanwhile, the mother-in-law also told her priest about the jewels in the chair. The priest’s journey ends up going in a completely different direction, but all three men end up traveling all over the Soviet Union looking for the chairs.
Originally published in Russian in 1927, The Twelve Chairs spends as much time (if not more) lampooning citizens high and low. We are treated to brief sketches of the various owners of the chairs (which were reallocated or sold after 1918) before Vorobryaninov and Bender show up. One of the owners lets his family sponge off funds that were supposed to support female pensioners. Another makes his living selling jokes to magazines. Yet another is a woman who can make herself understood with a vocabulary of about thirty words. Just as soon as we get to know them, Bender and Ippolit Matveyevich swoop in to steal or con the chairs.
The Twelve Chairs is not a story to rush through. Even though the premise of the book has its characters racing after treasure, the authors are leisurely as they set up their sketches. I’m sure there are jokes I missed, either because Ilf and Petrov were mocking people and concepts from Russia in 1927 as they do mocking the general human condition. That said, plenty of the characters and situations are ridiculous enough that I was chuckling through most of the book. But if you try to rush, I think you’ll get impatient with Ilf and Petrov. My advice is to just roll with whatever Ilf, Petrov, and The Twelve Chairs come up with.
Lionel Savage married for the worst reason: money. He was out of funds and, in order to continue his decadent lifestyle of reading and writing poetry, he needed a wife. After he found and married a lovely woman, Vivien, he suddenly lost the ability to write. Still, as Lionel tells his story in Forrest Leo’s hilariously madcap novel, The Gentleman, one feels anything but sorry for the man. After all, he’s the one who declares that he sold his wife to the Devil.
The Gentleman takes the form of Lionel retrospectively telling us the story of how he lost his wife, edited and with helpful (and snarky) comments from his cousin-in-law. We meet Lionel six months after his marriage. He thinks his wife is vapid and boring. He still can’t talk to her. The next morning, after one more masked ball, Vivien is gone. Lionel believe that she was taken by a strange man he met that night, a man who stopped by to thank Lionel for defending him to a stranger. The troubling thing is that the only person Lionel defended was the Devil, who a parson had cursed. In Lionel’s feverish mind, this means that he accidentally sold his wife to the Adversary.
None of this summary hints at how funny this novel is. The plot is hectic and silly, the characters more so. Over the course of the next week (or so), Lionel discovers he loves his wife, is browbeaten into a quest to Hell to rescue her, challenged to two duels, makes friends with a mad scientist, and has to deal with his sister’s attempts to demolish social propriety. It’s a wonder he doesn’t crack under the strain.
I had so much fun reading The Gentleman that the book was over far too quickly. It had the kind of loopy, Anglophilic absurdism that I just can’t get enough of. Even though Lionel is a complete twerp and everything that happens to him is entirely his own fault, I had too much fun laughing at him to be annoyed.
I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 16 August 2016.
After I read (and gushed about) Otto von Trapezoid and the Empress of Thieves by Jesse Baruffi, the published sent me copies of the three epilogues that follow the novel and wrap up a some loose ends. While they don’t directly feature the lead, they give us another taste of the bonkers world of villains and dastardly plots and twine that Baruffi created.
Requiem for a Twine: The destruction of the world’s largest ball of twine (created from the previous largest balls of twine) was Otto von Trapezoid’s first salvo in his recent attempt to take over the world. Now the owners of that ball of twine are hosting Twine Aid, to raise money to rebuilt their tourist attraction. Everything is going according to plan until the current owner decides to abscond with the takings. Then everything gets weird. Really weird.
The Talking Skull of Teddy Roosevelt: This epilogue is written in the style of old sponsored adventure stories. The narrative—featuring the actual talking skull of Teddy Roosevelt versus the Mummified Arm of Joseph Stalin—is frequently interrupted to encourage readers to send in cereal box tops and their financial information. This epilogue is pure silliness.
Marooned: This is the longest of the three epilogues and shows us what happened to Otto’s old poker “buddies” after they tried to turn in Otto and Esmerelda for the reward. They’re on their way to a distant planet with no hope of escape. Only the arrival of the ghost of Halloween Girl breaks up the monotony of playing poker for extra rations.
I finished Otto von Trapezoid and the Empress of Thieves with a strong desire for more. The epilogues help (a bit) with that. Write faster, Baruffi.
I received a free copy of these short stories from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.