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Category Archive for 'Humor, Satire, Absurdity'

Author Eugen Ruge grew up in East Berlin during the time of the Berlin Wall and lived there till the age of thirty-four, leaving the East for the West a year before the Wall fell, and perhaps it is this background which enables him to create a main character like Peter Handke. Handke is disconnected from those around him, alienated, his profound loss of motivation preventing him from making changes in his own world. Like the author, Handke is also a man from Berlin, one who has just lost his girlfriend and his sense of direction, and he has decided to start over in a new country. Not as young as he seems, he is a former professor of chemical engineering with a well-paid, permanent position, one he has recently resigned in order to become a writer. A novel of absurdity which sometimes borders on the bizarre, Cabo de Gata (“Cape of the Cat”) begins with Peter’s travels from Basel to Barcelona and then on to Andalusia, the southernmost region of Spain. Peter Handke is not a “hero” or even an anti-hero. He is too neutral and uncommunicative to attract the long-term interest of the reader, and his journey is a solitary one, with no antagonist, other than life itself, to fight him. He raises questions but does not come to many conclusions, and those he does draw are often offbeat and darkly comic. The novel ends without a clear resolution, adding to the feeling that this novel defies all the “rules” and presents itself on its own terms. Readers who can be satisfied with letting the novel unfold in its own way will enjoy this unusual and often humorous creation which offers more than mere laughs.

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I have to admit that when I read the premise of this novel, I cringed, thinking that it sounded too “cute”- even effete – to be taken seriously; author Ian McEwan relates this entire novel from the point of view of an unborn baby, nine months in the womb. Describing his “living room” with its cramped quarters within his mother Trudy’s belly, the unborn child points out that he has a surprising amount of control over his life, that he can overhear every conversation involving his mother, that he can participate in every physical act involving her, and that he likes his father, John, a poet, even though his mother has left him for a new lover, his father’s younger brother Claude. In the first pages of the novel, the baby tells us that his mother and Claude are planning a “dreadful event,” but the reader is not told the details of what that event is until after the author has described their characters and laid the groundwork for the action, something to do with “poison.” From this scenario within the first forty pages of the book, all the complications evolve for the remainder of the novel. McEwan’s descriptions, often hilarious, keep the reader completely involved, despite the obvious ironies and absurdities, as the baby-narrator develops a plan for revenge on his uncle and his mother – not for their plans to poison his father but for their betrayal in wanting the baby “placed” after its birth. A light-handed parody of Hamlet which stands on its own as a modern comedy with a tour de force ending.

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The Shoe Tester of Frankfurt by German author Wilhelm Genazino begins as an existential investigation by a self-conscious 46-year-old man into who he is and why he behaves as he does. His hypersensitive observations about the world around him show a man who “hardly thinks at all anymore—I only look round and about.” The unnamed speaker has been working for seven years as a “shoe tester,” a man who walks around Frankfurt testing quality shoes for a manufacturer and then reviewing them. The speaker enjoys this job, as his walking gives him unlimited opportunity to muse about his life, observe people from the past with whom he has had relationships, reminisce about their mutual experiences, and contemplate “the collective peculiarity of all life.” While he walks, he thinks about his childhood, his failed relationship with Lisa, with whom he has lived for several years, and his lack of professional motivation, and the reader observes him as he has an afternoon interlude with his hairdresser, begins a new relationship, meets a friend who is a failed photographer, gets a drastic cut in salary, and begins work as a vendor in a flea market. The author’s dry, tongue-in-cheek humor keeps the novel from imploding under its own weight, while the conclusion offers an upbeat future. Slow to start, the novel evolves into a delightful exploration of one man’s memories and his halting steps toward a new life.

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In this first of two “Dorothy Parker novels” by Ellen Meister, Violet Epps, a thirty-seven-year-old movie critic with a major magazine, is waiting for the maître d’ in the lobby of the Algonquin Hotel in New York City to seat her. When a “Dr. Walker” pushes her aside, claiming in a loud voice that he has a reservation, the best Violet can summon up in outrage is the silent wish that she could channel Dorothy Parker’s caustic wit to put this man in his place. Though she can be astute and clever in her reviews, Violet, in her personal life, constantly shrinks from confrontation, “held captive by her own timidity.” Poet and critic Dorothy Parker (1893 – 1967), who eventually materializes to help Violet, held court at the Algonquin’s Round Table throughout the 1920s and became famous among New York’s literary elite for her ability to puncture the pretensions of the arrogant with ascerbic remarks, puns, and bons mots. The Round Table members, consisting of Robert Benchley, Alexander Woollcott, George S. Kaufman, Robert Sherwood, Percy Coates, and others, were so pointed in their comments that they were once described by fellow member, Edna Ferber, as “The Poison Squad,” adding that “They were actually merciless if they disapproved. I have never encountered a more hard-bitten crew.” When Parker materializes to help Violet, her world changes completely, though not without many complications.

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On his way to Dorinish, the tiny Irish island which he bought ten years before, John Lennon, now thirty-seven, is in the midst of a personal crisis. It is 1978, and the Beatles have not been together for eight years. Lennon has watched his first marriage crumble and his son Julian disappear from his life. Married in 1969 to Yoko Ono, he separated from her for eighteen months, shortly after their marriage. Later reunited, they had a baby, Sean, with whom he now spends most of his time at home in New York, but he is otherwise at loose ends. He has not written any music since 1975, and he feels as if he has lost his way, both musically and personally. Famous, at this point, for his counterculture points of view, he has actively courted attention to publicize his anti-government agenda, and has become involved with drugs, Marxism, the Black Panthers, and behavior which has put him under the surveillance of the FBI, though he has otherwise tried to avoid publicity in his personal life. He now feels that if he can get away and spend time alone for only three days on Dorinish, that he might come to some new conclusions about his life and how to live it.

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