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Category Archive for 'Humor, Satire, Absurdity'

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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With an opening story which feels like some bizarre, twisted, and darkly humorous version of Deliverance, O. Henry Award-winner Arthur Bradford turns not just this plot on its head but every other plot in every other story in this collection. These interconnected stories feature a young, naïve speaker, usually identified as “Georgie,” who seems born without a sense of caution, someone who appears to have no ability to predict disasters as he enthusiastically follows his imagination or heart without a glance backward – or forward. Few readers will be able to resist this character, whose heart is in the right place though he lives on a completely different plane from the rest of the world. Even those few main characters who are not specifically identified as “Georgie” might just as well be Georgie in terms of their personality and behavior, acting the way many of us dreamed of behaving in an earlier, simpler world, long before we grew up and learned to “pay attention,” “think of the future,” and “be careful.” It is the tension between our empathy for Georgie and our frustration with him for his gullibility that keeps the reader entertained and involved, though Georgie is guaranteed to make every parent who reads this book cringe.

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One out of Two, an early (1994) novel by award-winning Mexican author Daniel Sada, has just been published in English translation for the first time – a tragicomic classic by an author whom both Roberto Bolano and Carlos Fuentes have highly praised for his “contributions to literature in the Spanish language.” It joins Almost Never (2008) as one of only two books by Sada available in English, to date. Though the book appears, at first, to be a simple morality tale, Sada is an adventurous novelist who endows his main characters with more than the flat, stereotypical behaviors and thoughts which one usually associates with stories written to illustrate a moral lesson. While keeping his style uncomplicated, he shows his characters as they live their ordinary lives and make some remarkable decisions which cause unexpected complications for them. The mood is light and the action often very funny, though equally often, it is ironic or edgy. The cumulative result is farcical rather than pedantic, serious rather than lightweight. The story revolves around a pair of forty-year-old identical twins who are invited to a wedding which only one can attend, and she meets a suitor. What the twins do to meet their joint needs becomes the focus of this farcical but sensitive novella with a surprising ending.

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Set in Russia during the period that begins after the death of Lenin, the earliest stories show the strict Communist Party rule, its control of all aspects of life and thinking, and the country’s economic hardships under Josef Stalin. Later stories make references to Nikita Krushchev, Leonid Brezhnev, and Mikhail Gorbachev, the fall of Communism in the early 1990s, and the rise of Boris Yeltsin and his successor, Vladimir Putin. Marra is not writing a political history, however. Instead, he concentrates on the ordinary people who live in three different parts of the former Soviet Union during this time period, recreating the atmosphere of everyday life during this period, with all its fears and privations. In the later sections of the book, especially in the story “The Grozny Tourist Bureau, his sense of satire and dark humor rise to the fore, showing the absurdities which the main characters themselves recognize as they are determined to rebrand Chechnya, the most devastated city on earth, as “the Dubai of the Caucasus.” Equally important in this story, however, are the stories of some characters whose future the reader comes to care about. Set in Russia during the period that begins after the death of Lenin, the earliest stories show the strict Communist Party rule, its control of all aspects of life and thinking, and the country’s economic hardships under Josef Stalin. Later stories make references to Nikita Krushchev, Leonid Brezhnev, and Mikhail Gorbachev, the fall of Communism in the early 1990s, and the rise of Boris Yeltsin and his successor, Vladimir Putin.

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