Revenge of the Librarians by Tom Gauld

This is a completely delightful collection of cartoons by Tom Gauld, originally published in The Guardian. All have a literary theme and a dry sense of humor, poking fun mostly at bibliophiles, book collectors and writers, and exalting librarians (a safe move!). I am just absolutely charmed & won over, and inclined to just share a few of my favorite strips here in place of review…

At 180 pages, this is very much the sort of thing you can read cover to cover (I did in two sittings) or leave on a side table for joyful browsing in between other activities. For the book lover in your life? This is pretty much a must-have. Consider it for a holiday gift. I loved it.


Rating: 9 stacks.

Changing Places by David Lodge

This book was a gift to me from a family friend who has had a lengthy career in college-level teaching, when I was one semester in to that job, three years ago now. I’m sorry I waited so long; it was hysterical! I ate it up in just over a day. Thank you, David!

Further confession: I have been using this opening sentence for class writing prompts for a few semesters and never reading beyond it.

High, high above the North Pole, on the first day of 1969, two professors of English Literature approached each other at a combined velocity of 1200 miles per hour.

Changing Places is a bit of a situation comedy, in which two universities exchange professors, who then experience culture shock, joy, and eye-opening changes. The setting in time is significant: 1969 offers women’s liberation, the sexual revolution, experimentation with pot, and other fun. The settings in place are significant, too. Rummidge is a mid-sized, industrial, English city without much to recommend it, and the University of Rummidge is not particularly well-regarded. The American state of Euphoria is located on the west coast, between Northern and Southern California; this state, and the State University of Euphoria, are known to be gorgeous, scenic, climactically sublime, rarified, and filled with protests and strife in this spring of ’69. Similarly, Rummidge’s professor Philip Swallow is mild, retiring, unambitious, and a bit bumbling, while Euphoria’s Morris Zapp is accomplished, arrogant, and considers himself entitled to both accolades and undergraduates’ sexual favors. This last is why he’s willing to take the stepdown to Rummidge for six months: his wife, finally fed up, has asked him to vacate, and a posting to Europe (however disappointing a version thereof Rummidge may be) seems the least undignified option. Swallow, on the other hand, is honored, if uneasy about leaving his own wife and children behind for half a year. (His department chair wants him far away while a junior faculty member receives a promotion.)

There’s the situation, then. Zapp is taken down a peg, and nonplussed by the failures of England to make a big deal of him. (Also the lack of heat and entertainment.) He will eventually find opportunities in the absence of structure in Rummidge’s English department, however. Swallow is blown back by Euphoria’s gusto and apparently limitless, all-color chances to get into every kind of trouble (sex, drugs and political protests being just the beginning). He will eventually begin to ‘find himself’ therein. Even the unlikeable Zapp achieves growth and a note of redemption at some point (still unlikeable, though). The wives (and other women) are less central and less developed, but actually deep, complex, realistic character development isn’t the point here. And the women have some ass-kicking attitude that I appreciate. No, this is a novel of caricature and satire, poking fun at English departments, at academia, at the changing cultures of 1969, and at types – centrally, the mild-and-retiring professor and the arrogant, womanizing one, although there are certainly others. Originally published in 1975, this does not count as historical fiction but contemporary (in relation to its authorship), and one might fear stereotypes that would offend today’s readers, but I didn’t find it problematic in that way at all. Just good, solid fun.

We end with a scene (written as a screenplay, unlike the rest of the novel) in a New York hotel room, with both professors and their wives gathered to try and sort out their futures. Lodge finishes with a thorough cliffhanger, which I frankly appreciate, even if the lack of answers hurts a bit. This is the first in a trilogy, so there’s that.

David, solid gift. Thank you.


Rating: 7 chicken dinners.

Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead by Emily Austin

This strangely delightful debut novel, with its charming, anxious, bumbling hero, crackles with warmth.

Emily Austin’s spellbinding and unforgettable first novel, Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead, stars an unusual hero: Gilda is so profoundly socially awkward, anxious and depressed as to be practically nonfunctioning as an adult. She is perhaps too kind for her own good.

The story begins with a car wreck, when Gilda, who narrates, is struck from behind by a beige van. When she arrives at the emergency room (having driven herself, with a broken arm, because “I do not like to be a spectacle”), she is told, “You are a lot calmer than you usually are when you come in here.” Readers begin to understand that Gilda is a little odd.

From this misfortune, she follows an ad for free counseling and is dismayed to find that it is being offered at a Catholic church (Gilda is an atheist). She is too polite to disappoint the priest who thinks she’s there for a job interview, and finds herself working as the church’s new receptionist–therefore living a double life, posing as a Catholic and sort-of-dating a parishioner’s abhorrent brother-in-law (Gilda is a lesbian). While keeping up this increasingly complicated act she also finds time to worry about her brother (drinking too much) and a missing neighborhood cat, among countless other stressors; topping that list may be the fate of the church’s previous receptionist, Grace, who died under suspicious circumstances. Gilda is obsessed with death, her mind on an endless loop: hit by a bus, choke on a piece of bread, clogged arteries, cancer, apartment fire, malaria, carbon monoxide, lightning strike. Almost without meaning to, Gilda begins investigating Grace’s death, and because she doesn’t have the heart to break bad news, posing as Grace in e-mails to the woman’s old friend. What could go wrong?

Gilda’s anxiety and social ineptitude could hardly be overstated, and she bumbles through life with such painful clumsiness that her story should be hard to read. But somehow, Austin’s remarkable narrative is engaging and snappily paced even when its first-person narrator is lying in a dry, empty bathtub without the will to move. Gilda’s voice is frequently extremely funny, with gut-laugh punchlines made more effective because they are so surprising.

Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead is disarmingly sweet even in its grimness. Gilda is a singularly memorable character. She ponders big questions–“I feel simultaneously intensely insignificant and hyperaware of how important everyone is”–and remains open to all possibilities, sometimes even the good ones.


This review originally ran in the June 7, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 pots of macaroni.

Rabbit Cake by Annie Hartnett

Thanks to blog reader Annie Long for the excellent recommendation.

This is a sad, sweet book with an accurately written first-person child protagonist struggling with loss and grief, and with a decidedly odd view of the world, possibly reflecting neurodivergence. (Someone at school calls her ‘retarded.’) If this sounds a lot like the mad originality of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, I thought so too. That earlier novel was so unprecedented it blew readers’ minds; and while this one has a lot in common with that one, I don’t think that makes it a bit unoriginal. It’s still a pretty wild (and wildly unusual) model; there’s plenty of room for more surprises in this area.

“On my tenth birthday, six months before she sleepwalked into the river, Mom burned the rabbit cake.” It was one of the wonderful things about her mother Eva that she made rabbit cakes for all occasions – believed in celebrating all the small events of life. Elvis is ten-and-a-half when her mother dies, and she has questions. For one thing, how could such a good swimmer have drowned? Her mother was a frequent if not constant sleepwalker, and “she was an excellent swimmer in her sleep.” Her mother was a gifted scientist. And besides, her mother’s psychic had always been very clear that Eva would die by suicide.

Elvis is clearly a young person who craves control, and so she sets out to take care of things around the house, because her father surely isn’t; he’s taken to wearing Eva’s lipstick and her bathrobe around the house, and mostly ignoring his daughters. Elvis’s fifteen-year-old sister Lizzie has moved on from beer drinking and breaking her best friend’s jaw (in three places) to a particularly self-destructive sort of sleepwalking (although no sleepswimming). Elvis dutifully sees the counselor at school once a week during recess, until she says something especially disturbing and gets upgraded to daily sessions. Ms. Bernstein instructs her that the grieving process generally takes eighteen months, and so dutiful Elvis marks her chart counting down the days until she will not grieve her mother any more. She also works on finishing her mother’s massive book (working title: The Sleep Habits of Animals and What They Tell Us about Our Own Slumber). Elvis knows a lot about animals – enough to annoy everyone around her, until she gets a volunteer posting at the zoo. She comes across an entry in The Reference Guide to Porcupine Anatomy and Behavior in the zoo’s library that mistakenly relates the echidna to the porcupine when it is closer to the platypus. She makes a note to write to the publisher.

You get the picture: this is a child precocious in some areas and a bit hopeless in others. She indulges in magical thinking, but what child doesn’t? and for that matter, who in the throes of grief? Despite Elvis’s story being completely heartbreaking at every turn (warning, friends: this family also has an old dog. Will it never cease? Don’t ask what happens to the giraffe), it’s also frequently hilarious. There is a strong current of absurdism running through it. Lizzie the sleepwalker and breaker of jaws is institutionalized, and returns home with a pathological liar who the distant and negligent father allows to move in. Lizzie decides what she needs is to set the Guinness World Record for most number of rabbit cakes baked. Most, but not all of them, will need to be decorated. Elvis is driven mad by the delicious smell of baking cakes – which she associates with happy memories of their mother – but she is not allowed to eat any of the cakes, which Lizzie must preserve for her world record. I won’t even tell you about the troubles Elvis gets into at the zoo. Or what she discovers about her mother’s sex life.

Delightful, absurdist, ridiculous, heartbreaking; laugh-out-loud funny in the most morbid ways, if you’re into that sort of thing. (Case in point: the reason Elvis’s school counseling gets upped to daily sessions.) I was frequently quite angry at the adults in this child’s life who consistently, near-criminally fail her; I usually keep my cool with fictional characters better than this. In other words, it’s a deeply involving story, with some very wise points to make about grief in the end. That ending is surprisingly upbeat – or maybe it’s not surprising at all.

I’ll be thinking about Elvis for a long time, and about this singular, weird, troubled, endearing little family. I’m remembering Have You Seen Marie?, another gorgeous meditation on grief in fictional form. Cisneros said about that book that she did not conceive of it as being for children. And even though Rabbit Cake‘s star is a child, I don’t think this is a children’s or YA book, except to the extent that any book is right for the reader who’s ready for it. (Tin House, who does not publish children’s books, has marketed it as simply fiction. Although these labels may be worth less than we think they are.) It’s quite a deep-thinking novel, with nuances to satisfy readers of all levels of maturity, especially those who may need to laugh and cry in the same sitting.


Rating: 9 librarians aptly named Reasoner.

Solutions and Other Problems by Allie Brosh

I used to follow Allie Brosh’s blog, Hyperbole and a Half. (I always loved that name.) I did not read her first book, by the same name, but I love the blog. This is her second.

Solutions and Other Problems is brilliant. Brosh is so vulnerable, honest, willing to share, and hilarious. Her openness is disarming and I think healthy both for her and for her readers who are comforted by knowing that they’re not alone in their struggles. And some of what she has to share is raw and painful. But also, she makes me laugh harder than almost anything, ever. I mean I laughed until I cried, gasping, couldn’t breathe, peed on myself. I was oxygen-deprived; she nearly killed me, I laughed so hard. (The funniest bits, for me, are anything about pets, and the chapter about the car stereo system and the smartphone trying to boss her around.) I would love to be able to spend a few minutes every day laughing this hard. I guess I need to re-follow her blog.

This is a graphic work – as in graphic novel, but nonfiction. A graphic memoir-in-essays, if you will; it’s not linear, but a sampling of experiences that have been especially funny or painful or moving. Because she jumps around so much and generally gets a little silly (in all the best ways), I thought it was neatly appropriate that (as noted by a brief “Explanation” following chapter 1) Brosh’s chapters are numbered but there is no chapter four. “Because sometimes things don’t go like they should,” she explains, and because she’s exercising a little power here, and we should be grateful she didn’t take it further than she did. It’s a random little bit of ridiculousness; but it’s also expressive of the kind of fun and angst I think she excels at.

Brosh’s illustrations are also a little ridiculous, fanciful, hilarious, and distinctive. I love them. She explains the world as she experiences it, in part, through fictional monsters and fantasies. Her drawings capture the mystery and awkwardness of life in a way that feels precisely right. (And I think she has dogs down pat.) (The Oatmeal‘s pretty good at this too.)

At one point she notes,

Experiencing real loneliness for the first time is like realizing the only thing you’ve ever loved is your home planet after migrating to the moon.

and I think that’s just perfect. I recognize this feeling. I had to migrate to the moon to find out just how place mattered to me.

I find Allie Brosh’s work comforting, as well as so funny that it leaves me a little breathless and wrung out. I recommend her so strongly, and I guess I need to go back and find the first book now too. Thanks, Liz, for the recommendation.


Rating: 9 sneakponies.

National Theatre Live at Home presents One Man, Two Guvnors (2011)

PSA: The amount of arts & culture that has become available online, in our homes, for free during this pandemic is glorious and frankly, overwhelming. (The pandemic is a horror, but let’s still recognize a boon when it occurs. And let’s please note the clear importance of the arts, and keep that lesson in mind ever after. Fund the arts! Support artists!) I am impressed and humbled and glad; also overwhelmed. But for me at least, the best thing to come along yet is this: National Theatre Live At Home. Every Thursday night for at least the next several weeks (and, I’d imagine, to continue beyond that), they’ll show one of their greatest productions on YouTube, free to stream until the following Thursday night. That means that the first free production, reviewed here, will stay available at this link until this Thursday night when we get a new one. Oh joy! Do take advantage. (And if you’re able, you might consider making a donation to support NT Live, too.)

One Man, Two Guvnors premiered at the National Theatre’s Lyttelton Theatre in 2011. The play is an adaptation of the commedia dell’arte Servant of Two Masters, resetting the plot in 1960s Brighton, England. It has many classic elements of comedic theatre, not to say Shakespeare: a woman disguises herself as her own twin brother (gender-bending); mistaken identities lead to heartbreak (love triangles and squares); abundant slapstick/physical humor; and the servant with two masters, which is reminiscent of the twin bosses and twin servants of The Comedy of Errors. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: it all brings me back around to Shakespeare. There’s also an actor playing a character who wants to be an actor (and thereby making fun of actors), and I’m always tickled by meta-humor like that.

Quick plot run-down: Francis Henshall has taken on two jobs at once, gofer for both gangster Roscoe Crabbe and upper-crusty Stanley Stubbers, and he has to keep them both unawares. Except Roscoe is really Rachel disguised as her twin, who is dead, murdered by Rachel’s boyfriend, who is Stanley. Roscoe is gay, but engaged to the daughter of another criminal type, Mr. Duck, even though said daughter would rather marry a (terrible) aspiring actor. Francis attempts to court Mr. Duck’s bookkeeper, but his chief concern is food: the chubby “man with two guvnors” hasn’t eaten all day and he’s famished. Key scenes include the one in which he must act as waiter to both “Roscoe” and Mr. Duck (in one room) and Stanley (in the other). This one involves a geriatric waiter-in-training and Francis’s scheme to waylay as much food as possible for himself. There’s another in which Francis’s good and bad angels (if you will) get into an altercation, so that he flails and rolls around the stage, a one-man fistfight. The ending I’ll just say is also typical of Shakespeare.

While I’ll confess this play started off a little slowly for me, it soon had me laughing so hard I cried, and at one point snorted beer on a sleeping dog who was most displeased. The acting was excellent: James Corden deserves the accolades he’s received for the role of Francis, which he fully embodies. Musical acts between scenes add to the period feel, in the style of early Beatles (whom Francis claims to have assisted in their founding); the musicians are joined by various cast members.

It’s also worth nothing that, not without its problems, this play engages in the odd bit of racism and plenty of sexism and even a rape joke – that last I would take right out. We make certain allowances for period drama, but I don’t think there’s any excuse for rape jokes.

One of the most remarkable elements of this play is that the fourth wall is thoroughly broken down; actors look to the audience for effect and pause mid-dialogue for laughter, which only increases it. Most importantly, there are several points at which audience members are solicited for sandwiches or dragged onstage to participate in the action. One such participant, “Christine Patterson,” gets quite deeply involved, and winds up, well, the brunt of some physical humor herself, shall we say. (I’m quite sure she was a plant, but the others, I’m unclear.) This was perhaps the best and cleverest bit of the whole thing. It was the Christine sequence that had me snorting beer.

I had a massively fun time watching Corden’s antics and the quite silly but thoroughly amusing plot of One Man, Two Guvnors. And for free! Thoroughly recommended (although future productions will be just fine without the rape joke).


Rating: 8 soup tureens.

in a surprising departure: television

This post is long overdue, I guess, but it occurred to me rather late in the game to tell you about television series. During the van trip, strangely, I got into watching TV series that I could get through Amazon Prime.

This blog began, back in 2011, as a way for me to keep track of my reading for my own sake. I’m deeply grateful that other people read it and appreciate it, too. But on some level it remains a record I keep for myself, and so here we are. I wanted to remember what shows I’ve watched, and which ones I’ve especially liked.

Bones

The one that got me completely hooked is Bones, a mystery-per-episode (or often several) crime-solving drama series based in the fictional Jeffersonian Institute and starring a world-famous forensic anthropologist. It’s fairly silly, and relies too heavily on the sexual tension of a certain couple that we wait way too many seasons to see actually hook up. But I was thoroughly, entirely taken in; I watched all 246 episodes with relish and and someday, if laid up for months with nothing to do, I may watch them again. It’s goofy but I love it. (Based on the Temperance Brennan series of novels by Kathy Reichs, which I have not read, so there’s another project.)

Mystery series based on book series: you will note a theme. Also, lots of Brits.

I was quite impressed by Bosch, based on Michael Connelly‘s novels starring LAPD Detective Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch, which I have loved since I was a teenager. They’ve done a good job of capturing the title character, and the soundtrack (based on Harry’s love of jazz) is quite good. I’ll be on the lookout for future seasons; well done, Amazon.

Jackson Brodie of Case Histories

Case Histories is based on the novels of Kate Atkinson which star Jackson Brodie. Set and filmed in Edinburgh, this series features an excellent soundtrack of female country singer-songwriters (seriously, I would follow this show just for the music); Edinburgh itself is compelling and beautiful, but it’s also easy to fall for Jackson himself, who is a runner as well as a detective whose life is filled with ill-conceived sexual liaisons, a delightfully salty assistant, and the cutest, most precocious, wittiest young daughter imaginable, as well as interesting cases. Give me more Case Histories! And these are books I’ll need to read, obviously. (It’s always nice to get a two-for-one like that.)

Unforgotten is a modern London-set series which I appreciate for its two lead detectives, DCI Cassie Stuart and DI Sunny Khan. They are a likeable pair whose lives feel realistically imperfect, something not always true of our stars. Not everyone on this show is supermodel-beautiful, which again, is nice for reality’s sake. The narrative structure of each episode is interesting and a bit unusual: we switch around between the lives of various characters, including Cassie and Sunny but also including a number of others who at first have no apparent connection to the case at hand – although, of course, they will. I’ll keep watching this one.

Seattle PD’s Sarah Linden and Stephen Holder of The Killing

The Killing is based on a Danish series; this one is set in Seattle. It may seem formulaic at this point that there our two lead detectives are a man and a woman with perhaps a hint of sexual tension? but it still feels original here; I like these two and would continue with them, given the chance.

DCI Banks is another British mystery series, set in the more-or-less present, and one that kept me occupied for a time, but my rating would be only so-so. I found the characters I was meant to identify with only mildly appealing; I was often frustrated with them, and (slight spoiler) killing off one of them only served to engage me less. Meh. (Maybe it was just the one guy’s voice as he plaintively cries “Annie!” over and over that got to me.)

The ABC Murders is based on Agatha Christie’s novel of the same name, and stars John Malkovich as Hercule Poirot. I’m sure he did a fine job, but I was raised on David Suchet’s Poirot and it is too late for me to convert to a new version. While I suspect I would still enjoy reading Christie (a theory I should test!), this onscreen version dragged on. It felt dated by unusually slow pacing, but was made in 2018. Another series that was okay but not one I’m wild about.

DC Endeavor Morse and DCI Fred Thursday of Endeavor

Set in 1960s Oxford, Endeavor has my heart. I’m just in the middle of this one now, and I’m devoted to the title character, DC Morse (first name Endeavor. Which is weird, but not as weird as Hieronymus Bosch). This serves as a prequel to the long-running 1980s-90s series Inspector Morse; I have not seen that one. DC Morse is a prodigy within the department, but his odd methods, failure to bow to authority, and general nerdiness don’t play well with his superintendent. He does have a good relationship with DI Fred Thursday, and that relationship’s development seems to be part of the arc of the series overall. I’m having a good time with this one.

A few outliers are not mysteries.

Catastrophe is a comedy about a several-night stand between a visiting American businessman and an Irish primary school teacher living in London which results in a pregnancy and, surprisingly, marriage. A second child follows the first as the couple turns out to quite like each other, but (yes) catastrophes follow one upon another. Silly but good fun.

My Mother and Other Strangers caught me with its name, and this Masterpiece Theatre production has a charming, evocative, specific setting in a small Irish village during World War II. American soldiers are stationed in a village that does not appreciate their presence. The series is narrated (minimally) by an old man, years after the fact; he is the small son of the mother in question, and this is the story of his family (mom, dad, two kids) firstly, and of the village. I love the details of time and place, the sense of a small specific setting and its place in much larger historic events. The backward-looking perspective has elements of elegy and of nostalgia, and that mystery of the mother–she is present, but enigmatic–is compelling.

The Durrells in Corfu

And then The Durrells in Corfu, an absolutely addictive series based on three memoirs by Gerald Durrell: My Family and Other Animals, Birds, Beasts, and Relatives, and The Garden of the Gods. (More books to read! If they’re half as loveable as this series, I’m in.) British widow Louisa Durrell decides all of a sudden to move her four children from Bournemouth to the Greek island of Corfu, where the financially strained family will have a better chance of scraping by. Antics ensue. Corfu has no electricity, there are animals everywhere, and the Greeks vary in their willingness to accept strangers. But delightful characters abound. The four Durrell kids (ranging from teens to early twenties) are a hoot; the youngest (Gerald himself) adopts every creature he can put his hands on. I would follow this series anywhere.

Old news, but in the interest of completeness: I am up to date on The Walking Dead which I have long loved, although yes, they frustrate me more every season. I think I’m in to the end, but the producers seem determined to test the bounds of my love. And I’ve seen all of Breaking Bad, but had mixed feelings. I found Walter White a little less ambiguous than I think he was intended to be – I didn’t like him enough (even within the bounds of ambivalence, and I do love ambivalence) to be entirely patient with the extended length of his torture of the more-loveable Jesse.

What excellent series am I missing that would fit into this list?

Good News by Edward Abbey

It has been too long since I got into some Ed Abbey. Good News follows The Brave Cowboy, in that it spends a little more time with old Jack Burns. This novel takes place in and around Phoenix, in a near future when political, economic, and other social systems have collapsed, leaving bands of people and individuals to fend for themselves. In “the city,” that takes the form of an army run by a nasty fascist leader known as The Chief. Guess how Jack Burns and his friends feel about this.

In the opening pages, Burns is accompanied by a Harvard-educated Hopi shaman named Sam. They will join up with a young man named Art, angry over the murder of his family and theft of their land (a la Fire on the Mountain), and eventually a beautiful barmaid. In the city, a small band of guerrilla resistance fighters, apparently largely made up of liberals from the university in town, harasses The Chief’s forces. It’s a very good-versus-evil story, without much interest in nuance. In classic Abbey style, the good guys indulge in a little fun sex and lots of good-natured shit-talking.

Some have called this a science-fiction novel, but I don’t agree. It’s set in the future (call it a not-too-distant future when this book was published in 1980; it feels quite like near future now, to some of us), but that does not sci-fi make. There’s no made-up technology to speak of. No, I’d call this a wacky Abbey satirical Western, maybe a bit picaresque. It speaks in absolutes. I was especially captivated by a four-and-a-half-page monologue by a Captain in The Chief’s army, rhapsodizing the past world she calls “the golden age.” Electricity, cars, neon signs, travel, sports, traffic, food, wine, a pill for everything, gadgets and televisions everywhere you looked… “You could drive your car anywhere. Anywhere! We had drive-in movies, drive-in banks, drive-in liquor stores, drive-in eateries, yes, my dear, eateries, charming term, we had eateries galore, people were always eating, eating, eating, oh it was gorgeous… the quickie marriage and the quickie divorce… there was always another partner waiting, by the pool, back at the condominium.” I can just imagine what fun Abbey had writing these pages.

Critics and readers generally agree that this is one of Abbey’s lesser novels. Kirkus panned it, cutely calling it “very small beer.” And I do find it to be a little less thrilling than some of the other very fine work he’s done, but that’s not the same as saying this is not a good book. I was at every point entertained; the pages kept turning; and for those of us who love and laugh along with Abbey, this is classic stuff, easily appreciated. Maybe that reviewer’s feeling that “[Abbey]’s farcical skills show considerable signs of wear and tear” and “the 1960s-ish attitudes have become shufflingly automatic” were sentiments of the moment; and, more likely, that reviewer was not among Abbey’s audience, not a sympathizer. Fair enough. Everything is not for everyone. I did find one reviewer who calls this book his favorite of Abbey’s. To each her own.

For those of us grinning at Abbey’s strange and curmudgeonly values and sense of humor, Good News is a worthwhile piece of the corpus. I was reminded of The Stand, The Walking Dead, and the Dark Tower series (especially as The Chief operates from a Tower that dominates the landscape and serves as symbolic). There’s also a little Escape From New York in the fantastical zaniness. Again, if you’ve bought into Abbey’s world, I absolutely recommend this one – for one thing, don’t you want to know what becomes of Jack Burns?? If you haven’t, give this a try; just don’t take it too seriously. Or maybe take it deathly seriously as a glimpse at our future. Eye of the beholder…


Rating: 7 piano tunes.

movie: Wonder Boys (2000)

Quick review here… as I got ready to start my new teaching job, a friend said I should watch this movie I’d never heard of. There were a few moments that were silly enough that I rolled my eyes briefly, but overall I have to say, this was hilarious and moving and yes, recognizable. I’m pleased I spent an evening this way.

Great cast with Michael Douglas as the maybe-slightly-washed-up writing professor, Tobey Maguire as weirdo student, Katie Holmes as higher-achieving student who wants to sleep with her professor, Frances McDormand as chancellor who really is sleeping with the professor, Robert Downey Jr. as his editor, and more. (I had to double-check my memory but yes, Tobey Maguire was Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby movie. The two roles echo each other a bit.) The plot has it all: an admired novelist struggling to complete his second novel; jealousy of a talented student; academic office politics; sex and betrayal; industry and professional bullshit; a louche Robert Downey Jr. Like I said, there was a bit of silliness, but there were a lot of laughs. Several times I scared my little dog with sudden loud belly laughs. I was as surprised as he was.

Oh, and it’s marketed as a rom-com… I was less taken with the love story than that, but there was so much to hear to admire.

And no, to answer Barrett’s question, I do not intend to be this close with my students. More boundaries, please.


Rating: 7 dogs.

Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs? Big Questions from Tiny Mortals About Death by Caitlin Doughty

The heavy questions about death and dead bodies are answered with honesty and hilarity by the creator of the webseries “Ask a Mortician,” for children and adults.

Caitlin Doughty wrote Smoke Gets in Your Eyes to share what she’s learned about the mortuary business and, more importantly, about death, with adult readers. Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs?: Big Questions from Tiny Mortals About Death is a delightful follow-up and expansion on that project, aimed at younger readers but absolutely for adults as well. Doughty’s continuing experience in the business (from crematory operator to mortuary owner, with a degree in mortuary science) means her expertise has grown. Her sense of humor and fun when approaching topics often considered morbid, however, is her most valuable contribution.

“Every question in this book is 100 percent ethically sourced (free range organic) from a real live child.” And children do ask “the most distinctive, delightful questions”: We eat dead chickens, why not dead people? Can we give Grandma a Viking funeral? What would happen if you died on a plane?

Doughty’s answers are as delightful and distinctive as the questions. She blends humor with respect for the dead, joking around but repeatedly reminding her readers that it’s never okay to do something with a person’s remains that they wouldn’t have liked. (“Did Grandma want a Viking funeral?”) Her investigations of ritual, custom, law and science are thorough, and she doesn’t shy from naming the parts of Grandma’s body that might leak after she is gone. She uses big words sometimes, but explains what they mean; she keeps her explanations simple enough for younger readers, but there are asides for grown-ups, too, including references to Justin Timberlake and vinyl records that she winkingly tells the kids to ignore.

Can I preserve my dead body in amber like a prehistoric insect? First of all, Doughty is on to us: she knows this is really a question about being brought back to life, √† la Jurassic Park, and she informs the reader that a second species will be required to graft that DNA onto. “Hybrid panther humans of the future! (This is made up, it’s not going to happen–don’t listen to me, I’m just a mortician.)” As for the title question, Doughty begins: “No, your cat won’t eat your eyeballs. Not right away, at least.” (Spoiler alert: “Snickers is more likely to go for the tongue,” but only out of necessity, or maybe because he’s trying to wake you up.) Will I poop when I die? “You might poop when you die. Fun, right?” This irreverent voice is winning, and pitch-perfect for her younger audience, but, honestly, adults need a little humor as well when considering “postmortem poo.”

Diann√© Ruz’s accompanying images keep the same tone of playful but plainspoken discussion. “Don’t let anyone tell you your curiosity about death is ‘morbid’ or ‘weird,’ ” Doughty reminds readers. If they try to say so, “it’s likely they’re scared of the topic themselves.” This informative, forthright, comical guide to bodies after death is just the antidote–and surprisingly great fun as well.


This review originally ran in the August 12, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 gallons of unpopped popcorn.
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