humor · literary fiction · review · satire

The Shakespeare Requirement, by Julie Schumacher

38885815For 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 RequirementJulie 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.

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literary fiction · review · satire

The Queue, by Basma Abdel Aziz

The Queue
The Queue

The government of an unnamed country has come to a complete standstill in Basma Abdel Aziz’s The Queue (skillfully translated by Elisabeth Jacquette). Since the Disgraceful Events a few months prior, new laws and procedures come out daily, requiring citizens to get approval for everything. In the case of Yehya, that means getting approval for surgery to remove a bullet in his abdomen. Yehya was shot during the Disgraceful Events by government soldiers but, officially, that never happened. Now he is stuck in an endless wait at the Gate with thousands of other citizens. The Gate has been closed since the Events. Without approval from the Gate, however, no one can get their required approvals. What can anyone do but wait and hope the Gate reopens? What can Yehya do but hope he will get his approval before the bullet finishes killing him?

The Queue evokes Kafka’s The Trial in more than one way. The bureaucracy rules everything, but no one seems to be in charge. All forward progress has been halted and everyone is an endless waiting game. Over the course of the novel, we see get to know several other citizens who have been caught in the queue at the Gate. Ines is hoping for a Certificate of True Citizenship so that she can get her teaching job back after a student wrote a criticism of the government. Shalaby is there to make sure his cousin’s family gets their pension and have his cousin recognized as a martyr. Um Mabrouk is in the queue to get approval for her daughter’s surgery. Ehab, a journalist, is there to record people’s stories and share news.

As the days pass and the characters settle into their places in the queue, we learn more about how the Gate is rewriting history. It seems that the authorities (whoever they are) don’t want word getting out that its troops shot people during the Disgraceful Events, that unemployment is skyrocketing, that the government-subsidized phones are tapped, or that the Gate might never reopen.Worse, however, are the hints that the Gate is far more technologically sophisticated than one might think. Citizens discover that their conversations are being recorded even when their phones are turned off. A doctor finds that the patient records locked in his office are being updated over night. On top of it all, the government newspaper prints new versions of the recent past so often that some of the characters, like Ines, start to wonder if their own memories can be trusted. I was reminded more than once of the old Soviet joke: there is no pravda [truth] in Pravda [the newspaper].

In the middle of this bureaucratic nightmare is Yehya. He was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time when he was shot. He was not a government supporter or a rebel, but the laws and regulations and requirements have conspired to prevent him from having his surgery. He waits in the queue, slowly dying, while his girlfriend and friends and the doctor who initially treated him try to find a way to help. The hope that someone would succeed kept me reading and I won’t ruin the book by saying here if my hope was satisfied or not.

The Queue, while a little heavy-handed at times, is a brilliant satire on the deadly absurdity of a totalitarian government that wants complete control over information. The citizens in the queue are perfectly ordinary. None of them are dissidents. Yet they are spied on and tied up with so much red tape that they can’t move on with their lives. The tension in the book got me so wound up that I wanted to shout at the characters that it wasn’t worth it, that they should rise up against whoever was in charge. Rebellion is impossible, it seems, when everyone is locked into their own private struggle.

I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 24 May 2016.

 

humor · review · satire · science fiction

Three short epilogues by Jesse Baruffi

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
Requiem for a Twine

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.

humor · review · satire · science fiction

Otto von Trapezoid and the Empress of Thieves, by Jesse Baruffi

Otto von Trapezoid and the Empress of Thieves
Otto von Trapezoid and the Empress of Thieves

After the emotional pummeling I took from Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life, I needed something light and funny. Otto von Trapezoid and the Empress of Thieves, by Jesse Baruffi, was just what the bibliotherapist would have ordered. This supervillain romance has: sentient and not-so-sentient robots, an indestructible super spy, poison, airships, family snark, thefts of entire museums, and much, much more! And, unlike most superhero/villain satires, the one has emotional depth enough to keep the whole lot from collapsing under its own silly weight.

Otto von Trapezoid, who attempts to take over the world from his orbital station the Quadrilateral of Doom, is a socially maladjusted genius who has just met his match. Esmerelda Santa Monica is the eponymous Empress of Thieves. On the day she steals the entire Louvre, Otto has perfected his doomsday weapon. They both hack into the UN’s announcement system to reveal their plans for the world. At the same time. Their squabbling ruins their plans and they each swear revenge on each other. Funny enough, they each independently hatch the same plan to kill the other. Esmerelda plans to seduce Otto and then kill him. Otto dusts off an old dating advice book from the 1930s and pomades his hair to seduce Esmerelda before killing her.

When they actually meet, the realize they have more in common than they realized. Their first date is accompanied by explosions, floods, and a mechanical T-Rex. Otto’s sincerity appeals to Esmerelda’s jaded sensibility. Her emotional savvy is just the thing Otto has been missing in his life. Together, they are the perfect team, if only they can keep Jake Indestructible at bay.

Baruffi pulls out every superhero/villain trope from the playbook and manages to make them all work in this book. I would have marveled, but I was too busy laughing at the antics of Otto, Esmerelda, and their various allies and enemies. I really hope there are sequels.

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. 

classics · review · satire

The Vatican Cellars, by André Gide

The Vatican Cellars
The Vatican Cellars

Why do we behave the way that we do? Psychologists would argue about nature versus nurture, but they rarely go so far as to talk about the ongoing pressures that family and society and law and religion and culture have on us as adults. André Gide’s The Vatican Cellars (translated by Julian Evans), originally published in 1914, is an exploration of that very question. The exploration, however, is the subtext to a strange and funny tale of atheists who find faith, pietists flirting with atheism, con men, nihilism, misguided love—and family.

I picked this book up because the description mentioned a pope being kidnapped and farce. I don’t think I read anything else about The Vatican Cellars on the NetGalley cite before I hit the request button. A casual reader wouldn’t expect anything like this from the first chapters of this brief book. According to the note at the end of the book, Gide didn’t consider The Vatican Cellars a novel. He called it a sotie:

A sotie (or sottie) is a short satirical play common in 15th- and 16th-century in France. The word (compare modern sottise) comes from the sots, “fools”, who appeared as characters in the play. (Wikipedia)

In those first chapters, we are introduced to Anthime and his wife, Véronique, his brother-in-law and sister-in-law. Anthime is a staunch, combative atheist. He drives his wife crazy with his cruel experiments on animals and his constant antagonism towards the rest of the family’s faith. One night, after damaging a statue of the Virgin Mary, Anthime has a vision and wakes up cured of the pain in his leg. Anthime immediately converts, becoming so saint-like that it annoys his family even more than his atheism. After these chapters, Gide detours into the tale of the brother-in-law, Julius de Baraglioul, and Julius’ previously unknown illegitimate half-brother, Lafcladio Wluiki. While Julius is very proper and highly conscientious of his family’s reputation, Lafcadio is almost the prototypical nihilist.

As we learn more of Lafcadio’s debauched youth and his lack of empathy to pretty much everyone in his life, the story shifts again to yet another member of Julius’ tangled family. Julius sister, a comtesse, is taken in by a scam artist. The note at the end of the book reports an actual scam that occurred in 1892 that inspired Gide. Con men would dress as priests and target credulous and deeply devout rich people by asking for money to free the pope, who they said had been kidnapped. If word got out, the con men said, Catholicism would collapse. One of Lafcadio’s childhood friends, Protos, is deeply involved in running the con. There are coincidences everywhere in The Vatican Cellars. They are used to great effect to gaslight some of the characters into believing that there really is a vast conspiracy involving the pope.

I get the impression that The Vatican Cellars would make more sense to someone reading in 1914. The antagonisms hinted at between the Catholic Church and the Freemasons. Lafcadio’s character would probably make more sense before the creation of existentialism, when nihilism and the will to power and traditional values did battle for people’s souls. Still, Gide’s subtle, snarky humor had me very entertained, even though many of the characters do completely depraved things. I understand why Gide was such a controversial author in his time.

 

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. 

mystery · review · satire · science fiction

The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn, by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky

The Dead Mountaineer's Inn
The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn

These days, my favorite genre books are the ones that don’t fit neatly into any genre. Most of the genre-benders I’ve read, however, blend their tropes together and smooth over any friction. Boris and Arkady Strugatsky’s The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn: One More Last Right for the Detective Genre does not do that. Rather, the mystery genre and the science fiction genre seem to be at war with each other. The conflict jars, but it’s supposed to be jarring. It’s jarring to protagonist Inspector Peter Glebsky, who thought he was investigating a closed room mystery only to find himself in the middle of a bizarre science fiction escapade. The really weird thing about this book is that it all works.

Boris and Arkady Strugatsky are not well known outside of Russia, except by connoisseurs of Golden Age science fiction in translation. I only recently found out about the brothers because their books—considered classics in Russia—are being re-translated and re-published in English. Ezra Glinter recently published an essay-cum-review of the Strugatskys and The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn for The Paris Review. Glinter remarks:

The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn departs from anything that either detective or reader could deduce. For the Strugatskys, the deviation was practically involuntary. In his 1999 memoir, Comments on the Way Left Behind, Boris Strugatsky writes that they intended to write a commercial mystery novel along the lines of Erle Stanley Gardner or John le Carré. But they were unable to resist their speculative impulses: in place of a clever solution for the events at the inn, they introduced a bigger mystery.

Jeff VanderMeer—a leading light in the New Weird genre—makes similar comments in his introduction to this edition of The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn. VanderMeer writes, “they strove to create a narrative that, underneath its seeming whimsy, would be “paradoxical,” complete with an unexpected twist” (Introduction*).

This is pretty much what happens with The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn. The novel begins has a (fairly) straightforward mystery. Peter Glebsky, police inspector and bureaucrat, arrives at the eponymous inn in an unnamed country for a two week vacation. He is looking forward to relaxing, being away from all the cares of his job and his family. The other guests of the inn and its owner, unfortunately for Glebsky, are the strangest pack of weirdos and eccentrics he’s ever met. Then there’s an avalanche and a guest turns up with a broken neck in a room locked from the inside.

Although he’d rather wait for the local police to deal with it, Glebsky is pushed into investigating what happened to the goliath Olaf Andvarafors. Like any good inspector, Glebsky begins by establishing timelines and questioning alibis—much to the annoyance of the other guests. Clues abound, but none of them makes sense. Just as Glebsky thinks he knows what happened and why, something else will turn up that doesn’t fit or completely destroys the inspector’s theories. The owner of the inn, who has his own explanations, comments, “You’re following the most natural roads, and for that reason you’ve ended up in unnatural places” (147).

The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn takes place over the course of just a few days. But in the course of those few days, things get incredibly weird. Soon the physicist staying at the hotel confronts Glebsky with his version of events: “Things are quite a bit more complicated than you think, Inspector” (213). When Glebsky objects, the physicist soothes him by saying, “No ghouls. No mumbo-jumbo. Just solid science fiction” (214). And the physicist, against all odds, is correct. Glebsky is not in a mystery story: he’s landed smack in the middle of science fiction. For once, Sherlock Holmes’ maxim about eliminating the impossible is wrong.

Though this synopsis no doubt makes the The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn sound bewildering, it’s a hilarious read (in a Russian kind of way). The humor tends very much towards the absurd and satirical, and I found myself laughing more than once at exchanges like this one after the avalanche. Glebsky is quizzing the inn’s owner about supplies:

“How about fuel? I asked.

“There’s always my perpetual motion machines.”

“Hmm…” I said. “Are they made of wood?” (81)

Towards the end of the novel, as the weirdness finally wears Glebsky down enough to consider the possibility of shape-changing aliens, robots, and gangsters, he comments, “I’m just a police officer. I don’t have clearance to carry on conversations with ghouls and aliens” (222).

The humor in The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn is very different from anything else I’ve encountered in Russian literature outside of Gogol. It is not like the gallows humor that Ian Frazier describes in his essay for The New York Review of Books about Russian absurdist Daniil Kharms. Frazier declares, “Russian humor is to ordinary humor what backwoods fundamentalist poisonous snake handling is to a petting zoo. Russian humor is slapstick, only you actually die.” There’s something delightfully frivolous about the Strugatsky brothers’ work.

I’m grateful to publishing houses like Melville House for rescuing books like The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn from obscurity. This book is as fresh and strange as it was in 1970.


* Quotes from The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn are from the 2015 kindle edition by Melville House, translated from the Russian by Josh Billings.

 

classics · review · satire

The Man Who Was Thursday, by G.K. Chesterton

184419After 107 years, satires are hard to fully understand. A reader might be able to figure out the target of the satire, but the details are harder to pin down. Was this reference to someone’s clothes a shot at some political figure of the time? Was this snatch of Latin a sneer at an academic or clergyman? I felt this way for much of G.K. Chesterton’s twistedly humorous novella, The Man Who Was Thursday. I think I understand it, but I know that a lot of it was lost on me.

Anarchists were the bogeyman of the turn of the twentieth century. Assassinations and assassination attempts were rife. Bombs were being lobbed all over Europe and America—or so it seemed to the middle and upper classes. Our protagonist—not to say hero—is Syme. Syme is the child of radicals and so rebelled by becoming a conformist. He sees disorder and anarchy all around him, but despairs of being able to to anything about it until he meets a policeman who tells him of a special anti-anarchist squad in the police. Syme is immediately recruited and sent off to find some anarchists. He succeeds beyond anyone’s wildest imaginings. After only a few days on the job, he finds himself elected to an international council of anarchists.

Syme sweats bullets at the first meeting of seven leading anarchists, all code-named after days of the week. (Syme is Thursday.) Then the president reveals that one of their number is actually a police spy. Over the course of the novella, more and more of the “anarchists” are also uncovered as police operatives. The Man Who Was Thursday grows increasingly absurd as identities are discovered, operatives chase and duel each other in France, and finally confront Sunday—the man behind it all.

At the end, Chesterton pulls one more twist out of his pen and turns the book on its head. And this is where he lost me. I could believe The Man Who Was Thursday as a satirical take on the overblown fear of anarchists. Chesterton had me laughing out loud at the outrageously polite things his characters would say:

“My God!” said the Colonel, “someone has shot at us.”
“It need not interrupt conversation,” said the gloomy Ratcliffe. (Chapter XII*)

I was reminded of Three Men in a Boat, by Jerome K. Jerome more than once. Syme and his putative allies are hunting anarchists, but that’s no reason to let standards slip.

The end of the book, however, just doesn’t fit. This is the part of the review where I spoil a novel published in 1908. Syme and the gang track Sunday, the president of the anarchists**, to the man’s country house. Monday through Saturday are dressed up in allegorical costumes matching their code-names to the days of creation. Chesterton pulls back the curtain further to reveal that Sunday is a stand-in for god, the police operatives represent the various ways humans seek truth (science, poetry, etc.), and that the only real anarchist in the book is Lucifer in the guise of a Bohemian poet.

As I read the last two chapters of The Man Who Was Thursday, I resented the authorial intrusion in what I was enjoying as a cutting satire of political hysteria. I rolled my eyes more than once as Sunday—sounding an awful lot like Chesterton—drew all the parallels that transformed the story into just one more Christian allegory. Like C.S. Lewis would later on with The Chronicles of Narnia, Chesterton starts to beat his readers about the head with a metaphorical 2×4.

It’s books like The Man Who Was Thursday that make me wish I was in the editorial room before the book was published, so that I could try and talk the author out of ruining their book. Readers, read this book for the first thirteen chapters, then stop. Pretend the last two chapters never happened.


* Quotes from the Project Gutenberg edition of The Man Who Was Thursday.
** Yes, president. The anarchists in this novella are surprisingly regimented and organized.