Posts Tagged ‘humor’
November is upon us and the paperback releases are looking good. This month, keep your eye out for this excellent crop of new books—mostly originals.
The Ballonist by MacDonald Harris with an introduction from Philip Pullman
As in the best of Jules Verne or Albert Sanchez Pinol, “The Balloonist” is a gripping and surreal yarn, chilling and comic by turn, that brilliantly reinvents the Arctic adventure.
It is July 1897, at the northernmost reach of the inhabited world. A Swedish scientist, an American journalist, and a young, French-speaking adventurer climb into a wicker gondola suspended beneath a huge, red-and-white balloon. The ropes are cut, the balloon rises, and the three begin their voyage: an attempt to become the first people to set foot on the North Pole, and return, borne on the wind. Philip Pullman says in his foreword: “Once I open any of MacDonald Harris’s novels I find it almost impossible not to turn and read on, so delightful is the sensation of a sharp intelligence at work.
Kafka in Love by Jacqueline Raoul-Duval
Kafka was an attractive, slender, and elegant man–something of a dandy, who captivated his friends and knew how to charm women. He seemed to have had four important love affairs: Felice, Julie, Milena, and Dora. All of them lived far away, in Berlin or Vienna, and perhaps that’s one of the reasons that he loved them: he chose long-distance relationships so he could have the pleasure of writing to them, without the burden of having to live with them. He was engaged to all four women, and four times he avoided marriage. At the end of each love affair, he threw himself into his writing and produced some of his most famous novels: Amerika, The Trial, and The Castle.
In this charming book, author Jacqueline Raoul-Duval follows the paper trail of Kafka’s ardor. She uses his voice in her own writing, and a third of the book is pulled from Kafka’s journals. It is the perfect introduction to this giant of world literature, and captures his life and romances in a style worthy of his own.
Granta: The Best Young Brazilian Novelists edited by John Freeman
Since Granta’s inaugural list of the Best of Young British Novelists in 1983 – featuring Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro, Martin Amis and Julian Barnes – the Best of Young issues have been some of the magazine’s most influential and best-selling. In 2010, Granta looked beyond the English-speaking world with Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists.
Now, in an issue fully translated in partnership with Granta em Português, the magazine celebrates emerging talent from Brazil, many translated into English for the first time. Authors include Cristhiano Aguiar, Vanessa Barbara, Carol Bensimon, Javier Arancibia Contreras, J.P. Cuenca, Miguel del Castillo, Laura Erber, Emilio Fraia, Julian Fuks, Daniel Galera, Luisa Geisler, Vinicius Jatoba, Michel Laub, Tatiana Salem Levy, Ricardo Lisias, Chico Mattoso, Antonio Prata, Carola Saavendra, Leandro Sarmatz, and Antonio Xerxenesky.
Maidenhair by Mikhail Shishkin
Day after day the Russian asylum-seekers sit across from the interpreter and Peter—the Swiss officers who guard the gates to paradise—and tell of the atrocities they’ve suffered, or that they’ve invented, or heard from someone else. These stories of escape, war, and violence intermingle with the interpreter’s own reading: a history of an ancient Persian war; letters sent to his son “Nebuchadnezzasaurus,” ruler of a distant, imaginary childhood empire; and the diaries of a Russian singer who lived through Russia’s wars and revolutions in the early part of the twentieth century, and eventually saw the Soviet Union’s dissolution.
Mikhail Shishkin’s Maidenhair is an instant classic of Russian literature. It bravely takes on the eternal questions—of truth and fiction, of time and timelessness, of love and war, of Death and the Word—and is a movingly luminescent expression of the pain of life and its uncountable joys.
Hush Hush: Stories by Steven Barthelme
If you’re up $16,000 at the casino and missing dinner with the woman you love, how do you find the strength to drive away? If you give up your career and your beautiful wife and find yourself drinking vodka and fixing cars for a living, is that necessarily a step down? In Hush Hush, Steven Barthelme gives us a simultaneously twisted, heartbreaking, and hilarious account of learning to quit when you’re ahead.
The collection, which includes the Pushcart Prize-winning “Claire,” exposes the surprising dignity in lying on your belly in the pouring rain, in ringing your ex-girlfriend’s doorbell at 4 A.M., in sleeping with your dead wife’s best friend. Co-author with his brother Frederick of the brilliant and devastating casino memoir, Double Down: Reflections on Gambling and Loss, Steven Barthelme seems to cast an eye at his own history and the characters he’s known. These are men and women who are down — but stirringly, not quite out. An unmissable, arresting book from one of the most seminal short story writers of the last twenty years.
The Other Side of the World by Jay Neugeboren
Charlie Eisner is a journeyman whose friend Nick convinces him to move to Singapore, where he falls in love with the vibrant and endangered world of nearby Borneo. One night, at a party in Nick’s Singapore apartment, Nick dies mysteriously, prompting Charlie to return to New England, where he discovers that Seana O’Sullivan has moved in with his father, Max, a retired professor with a beguiling and antic disposition. Seana, one of his father’s former students, is a wildly successful and provocative writer who is equally wild and provocative in life. Together, she and Charlie set out on a road trip, first to pay respects to Nick’s parents, and then on a journey where “weird things happen if you make room for them.”
From the forests of Borneo to the mean streets of Brooklyn and the haunting towns of coastal Maine, The Other Side of the World is a grand, episodic novel and yet another virtuoso performance by one of America’s most revered living writers.
The Writer’s Notebook II: Craft Essays from Tin House with an introduction from Francine Prose
The Writer’s Notebook II continues in the tradition of The Writer’s Notebook, featuring essays based on craft seminars from the Tin House Summer Writer’s Workshop, as well as a variety of craft essays from Tin House magazine contributors and Tin House Books authors. The collection includes essays that not only examine important craft aspects such as humor, suspense, and research but that also explore creating fractured and nonrealist narratives and the role of dream in fiction. An engaging and enlightening read, The Writer’s Notebook II is both a toolkit and an inspiration for any writer.
Moranthology by Caitlin Moran
The follow-up to Caitlin Moran’s breakout hit, How to Be a Woman–A hilarious collection of award-winning columns, available to American readers for the first time ever.
Possibly the only drawback to the bestselling How to Be a Woman was that its author, Caitlin Moran, was limited to pretty much one subject: being a woman. Moranthology is proof that Caitlin can actually be “quite chatty” about many other things, including cultural, social, and political issues that are usually the province of learned professors or hot-shot wonks–and not of a woman who once, as an experiment, put a wasp in a jar and got it stoned. Caitlin ruminates on–and sometimes interviews–subjects as varied as caffeine, Keith Richards, Ghostbusters, Twitter, transsexuals, the welfare state, the royal wedding, Lady Gaga, and her own mortality, to name just a few. With her unique voice, Caitlin brings insight and humor to everything she writes.
Errantry: Strange Stories by Elizabeth Hand
No one is innocent, no one unexamined in Shirley Jackson award-winning author Elizabeth Hand’s new collection of stories. From the mysterious people next door to the odd guy in the next office over, Hand teases apart the dark strangenesses of everyday life to show us the impossibilities, broken dreams, and improbable dreams that surely can never come true.
The Right Way to Do Wrong by Harry Houdini with an introduction from Teller
Originally published in 1906, The Right Way to Do Wrong was a masterclass in subversion conducted by the world’s greatest illusionist. It collected Houdini’s findings, from interviews with criminals and police officers, on the most surefire ways to commit crime and get away with it.
This volume presents the best of those writings alongside little-known articles by Houdini on his own brand of deception: magic. Revealing the secrets of his signature tricks, including handcuff and rope escapes, and debunking the methods of his rivals, he proves himself to be just as clever and nimble a writer as he was a magician—and surprisingly free with trade secrets! All of which makes this unique selection of works both the ultimate anti-etiquette guide and proof that things are not always as they seem.
Anyone familiar with Choose Your Own Adventure books—the stories written in the second person where middle grade readers, after a few paragraphs, are given options as to how they’d like the character to proceed—will take one glance at Love is Not Constantly Wondering If You Are Making the Biggest Mistake of Your Life and wonder if someone is playing a trick on them. Or at least that’s what I thought when I first saw a copy in the bookstore.
The book was placed prominently at the checkout counter and as the bookseller was ringing me up I couldn’t resist. “I used to love these,” I said. As I picked it up and thumbed through I asked, “did you ever read these?” Unfortunately for the bookseller, he hadn’t experienced the wonders of these fantastic little books as a kid; and, unfortunately for me he was of little help when, to my confusion, I noticed a long string of curses on one of the pages. “I think it’s a joke,” he mumbled, or something to that effect. Not sure what to make of it, I put the book back on the display but by then it had already made an impression. The cover, so convincing in its authenticity, juxtaposed with its content, unsettlingly askew, was seared into memory.
It turns out that Love is Not Constantly Wondering isn’t a joke but a parody, a well-crafted and endearing one at that. Self-published anonymously by a 33-year-old Portland transplant, the story is based on the author’s real relationship with his alcoholic girlfriend, a time spanning from August 2002 to November 2006. His anonymity is to protect his parents from the tumultuous parts of his life as well as identity of the hard-drinking girl, Anne.
However, to his friends who will recognize him in those pages, he hopes they will now understand that the years spent with this girl, the years they spent wondering why he was putting himself through such pain, were not all bad, that there were some good moments, too, and, as Slate reported, that there was an “excitement that went hand in hand with the mess.”
To digress with a bit of interesting information, It was that Slate review that gave the book a new life. While in Portland, the Book Review Editor Dan Kois found the book at Powell’s and decided to write about it. The third printing is now being handled by the author’s friend who owns a small press. But back to the book.
I can’t speculate as to why the author decided to include a race of hostile Ant-Warriors, other than it fits with the Choose Your Own Adventure genre—the first book in the (real) series features an adventure trip to the Himalayas where you and a friend go in search of a Yeti. Intentional or not, the alien race adds to the already inhospitable landscape in which the protagonist finds himself. As often comes with addict friends, if you keep them in your life long enough, you’re bound to bear the brunt of their erratic behavior, the consequences of their poor choices, and possibly even get caught up in their legal troubles, depending on your patience and goodwill.
Unlike the series it’s based on, Love is Not Constantly Wondering is best read linearly. These choices at the bottom of the page are more for effect than instruction. They range from being abstractly related to the story to being wildly unrelated. From time to time I would g back and follow a few—“If you jump across the chasm, turn to April 26, 2006; If you decide to turn back and look for another way around, turn to June 29, 2003”—and found that even though it’s a short book, when you bounce back and forth through time, reading the story in this new order gives it an infinite feel.
In a recent interview with The Portland Mercury, the author discussed the importance of creating an authentic replication. “Producing authentic-looking zines and books is incredibly important to me. With Love I spent weeks researching how Choose Your Own Adventure books were constructed: the fonts, the amount of space between lines, the kerning, how the choices are laid out within the books.” There can be little doubt that this meticulous attention to detail pays off; even the illustrations closely mimic the originals.
As mentioned, Choose Your Own Adventure narratives are written in the second-person and so Love is Not Constantly Wondering begins:
It is a beautiful day. You walk up the stairs to the library. There is a girl sitting on the steps, smoking. She is pretty in a Virginia-Woolf-meets-Helena-Bonham-Carter-in-Fight-Club sort of way. You exchange, “I think you look interesting but I’ll be damned if I’m going to make the first move” glances, then pull the doors open and step inside.
While looking at movies you see her staring at you. And again while flipping through a pile of graphic novels. Every time you look up, she looks away. Every time she looks up, you look away. You find excuses not to leave, browsing through sections that hold no interest to you in order to prolong your opportunity to steal glances. Eventually you decide that this is getting ridiculous and you walk up to her and introduce yourself. Here is what you find out:
–Her name is Anne.
–She is 22 years old.
–She just moved here from North Carolina.
–She plays the cello.
–She is a stripper
As odd as it might sound given that the book is something of a replica, Love is Not Constantly Wondering is by far one of the most unique books I’ve read in my life (no hyperbole). It’s charming and fun, and I hope destine to become a cult classic. It’s one of those books you’ll want all your friends to read. When you find a copy (and I suggest you search high and low), buy a few and pass them around to everyone you know. It will not be the biggest mistake of your life.
If you were a teen in the mid 90s and had cable television, most likely you know Michael Ian Black from The State, the sketch comedy show that aired on MTV. His new memoir, You’re Not Doing It Right, is best summed up as an unflinching look at finding love, getting married, becoming a father, and dealing with all the trying moments that inevitably come with that life. Black’s humor makes this a wince-inducing, laugh-out-loud-in-public take on adulthood.
Since the 90s, Black’s been busy acting in films (Wet Hot American Summer), on television (Stella, Ed, Michael and Michael Have Issues), and has even written a few children’s books. Recently, he’s moved into stand-up and can be found talking about food on the podcast Mike and Tom Eat Snacks.
I had a chance to ask Michael about his career in comedy, his thoughts on the industry today, and what his wife thinks about his honesty. You can read the interview in full at The Rumpus. Here are some highlights:
I’ve heard you talk about how seriously you take your comedic career, The State was meant to rival Saturday Night Live, yet anyone who knows your work could easily describe it as “ridiculous”. Your sketch comedy in particular is truly absurd (in that good, over-the-top way). How do you balance these two, seemingly at odds, versions of yourself—both personally and professionally?
Michael Ian Black: To me, the two ideas are not mutually exclusive. From my early work with the sketch group The State until now, I’ve thought a lot about comedy. Probably too much. In some ways, The State was more of an intellectual exercise than a comedic one. What I mean is, we were deliberately attempting to push a new kind of comedy out there. It was a reaction to what we were seeing on shows like SNL and in the observational stand-up that was out there at the time. We wanted to do a more aggressive, edgy, surreal comedy. All of that was very conscious and almost analytical. Of course I don’t know how analytical you can get about fart jokes, but we tried. The point is that silliness can be very serious. Sorry if I come off like a pretentious prick, but comedy is one of those things that, as soon as you start talking about it, you automatically sounds like a pretentious prick. Also: poetry. Also: fashion.
If you were just starting out, how do you think this environment would affect you?
Black: It’s much easier now, particularly if you don’t live in New York or LA. Because you broadcast your work so easily it’s much easier to find an audience. On the other hand, the flood of stuff that’s out there sometimes makes it hard to get noticed. I do believe that the best stuff will always eventually make itself known, though.
Speaking of, in your new book, I was impressed by how strong your voice is. How do you approach your essay writing and how does it differ from when you write sketch and stand-up?
Black: Essay and story writing versus sketch writing. All writing is basically the same: beginning, middle, end. The difference with sketches, and why sketches are actually harder, is that you generally have to establish an entire new world every few minutes with its own rules, get to the joke premise, explore that premise, and then end the thing all within tight time constraints. That’s very hard to do well. Even the best sketch shows generally fall on their faces half the time.
With essays and story-telling it’s a little different. For one thing, my current essay work is all very personal. It’s based on my life and so the world remains consistent. That makes things easier. Also, it’s anecdotal by its nature, so I usually have some idea of how it ends before I start. Finally, I don’t feel the same pressure to be funny when I’m writing anecdotally. The flip of that is that I do feel pressure to actually say something, to make some larger point about something. I don’t feel that pressure when writing sketch comedy.
Go check out the rest. In the meantime, you can buy Michael Ian Black’s memoir, You’re Not Doing it Right, at IndieBound (or find it at your local indie). You can also follow Michael on Twitter at @michaelianblack.
Here are a few things that caught my eyes and ears these past few days.
Rub Out the Words: the Letters of William S Burroughs 1959-1974 ed by Bill Morgan
I’ve always found William Burroughs intriguing — after all, he did kill his common-law wife while playing a game of William Tell, or so the story goes. I read his novel Junky multiple times but could never get into Naked Lunch, the book he is best known for. Now, Ecco has published the second volume of his letters: correspondence that spans the years after the publication of Naked Lunch to the year he left London to return to New York.
Of the collection, The Telegraph writes:
“This second volume of correspondence may not quite dispel this image of Burroughs as American fiction’s resident alien, the lexical bomb-thrower in the body of a government man – but it does offer intriguing glimpses into the personality behind the mask. …
For fans of [his] way-out approach [the cut-up technique], the letters will provide a valuable glimpse into the genesis of his most impenetrable work, the trilogy that comprised The Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded and Nova Express. …
One surprising theme in these letters is Burroughs’s cosmic indifference to the swelling counterculture. Our correspondent remains unmoved as the Sixties progress, beatniks become hippies, and even the parties he attends in Hampstead start to be filled with people ‘turning on’.”
What’s the big idea?
Dostoevsky tackled free will, Tolstoy the meaning of life – but is it still possible to write philosophical novels?
by Jennie Erdal
This past weekend’s Financial Times had an incredible essay on philosophy, literature, and the blending of the two into the philosophical novel.
Jennie Erdal, the author of the essay, begins with philosophy and philosophers: “while [they] were good at asking questions and setting out arguments, their engagement with truth was often woefully abstract, and a world away from the stuff of novels”. She continues, “The analytical style [of philosophy] rigidly separated reason from imagination, precision from imprecision.”
Of novels, she writes, “The more I read at university, the more I felt that fiction was where truth was to be discovered” and that some things “can never be adequately expressed in conventional philosophical prose.” Erdal then makes a case for the hybrid form, “moral philosophy needs the novel for the fullest possible expression of its aims . . . Plato was wrong to think that literature had nothing to offer philosophy . . . It is one thing to study John Stuart Mill’s defence of utilitarianism in ethics; quite another to read the passage in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866), where Raskolnikov tests utilitarianism to its limits by taking an axe and cleaving an old lady’s head in two.”
It’s a brilliant read all the way through. For anyone interested in literary theory and the grander workings of fiction, this is not to be missed.
Orbital / Wonky
It can be scary picking up a new album by a band who has been around for 25 years — especially if that band, up until recently, has been on hiatus — but that’s exactly what’s going on with electronic duo Orbital who just released Wonky, their first album since 2004.
About their music, one half of the group, Paul Hartnoll, told Wired magazine, “Ultimately, it has to move us emotionally…. We can get a great big thunderous beat … but melody is the real icing on the cake for me. If I get a really good melody, I get really excited about thinking about what’s going to come. That’s when I burst into tears, thinking, ‘That’s it!’ The hook’s got you, and you know you’re going to finish that piece.”
Explaining why they’re back together and making music, he says “When you’ve got a background and a history, and a rich idea of what you wanted to do, it was a real shame to give up … It was the live aspect that I missed.”
The article features the video for ‘New France’. Here’s the video for ‘Wonky’. Not sure how I feel about the cats.
A Fantastic Fear of Everything
Simon Pegg’s new comedy, A Fantastic Fear of Everything, looks amazing. Unfortunately, at the time of this post, no US release date has been confirmed. Science fiction and fantasy site io9 quotes the synopsis:
“Jack is a children’s author turned crime novelist whose detailed research into the lives of Victorian serial killers has turned him into a paranoid wreck, persecuted by the irrational fear of being murdered. When Jack is thrown a life-line by his long-suffering agent and a mysterious Hollywood executive takes a sudden and inexplicable interest in his script, what should be his big break rapidly turns into his big breakdown, as Jack is forced to confront his worst demons; among them his love life, his laundry and the origin of all fear.”
They also have the trailer.
The first week in April, on the WTF podcast, Marc Maron spoke with musician and comedian Carrie Brownstein. Carrie was in the Olympia, Washington-based indie band Sleater-Kinney and is currently in Wild Flag; however, these days, she’s best known as co-creator of Portlandia, the sketch show on IFC. On the podcast, Marc and Carrie nerd out about music — and other things. One of my favorite WTFs so far.
On the Nerdist, voiceover actors Rob Paulsen and Maurice LaMarche taught me that voiceover actors are awesome. Rob and Maurice, which I only learned from this podcast, are the creators, and voices, of Pinky and the Brain. Their vocal skills do not end there. These two guys had Chris Hardwick awestruck. A must-listen.
What caught your eyes and ears these past few days? Comments are open.
Imagine that Cinderella’s been murdered, distracted by a bluebird and run over by a truck in New Never City. Now imagine her stepsister calling on Rumpelstiltskin (stripped of his villainy as punishment for rage issues) to investigate. This is the premise of J.A. Kazimer’s Curses!: A F**cked Up Fairy Tale.
Cinderella’s stepsister Asia, believing her sister’s death to be a case of foul play, shows up at what she thinks is Sherlock Holmes’s door. Only, he hasn’t lived there for a while, not since RJ, as Rumpel prefers to be called, stuffed him into the chimney and took over the residence. Asia, much better-looking then the original story had led us to believe, convinces RJ to help, but really he’s just doing it in hopes that she’ll sleep with him.
As the two dig deeper into Cindi’s untimely death, everyone becomes suspect: Prince Charming; the butler; Dru, the second and not-so-pretty stepsister; even Asia.
Blending favorite fairy tale characters with today’s cultural references and sensibilities, Curses! flips the childhood staple on its head to create a wholly adult, and highly entertaining, reading experience.
I spoke with author J.A. Kazimer for The Nervous Breakdown. We talked about reimagining stories and casting secondary characters in lead roles. Here is part of that conversation. I encourage you to read the full interview.
I’d never read a book like Curses! before, a blending of fairy tale with cheeky romance. I’m curious to know how you explain it to people.
Curses! is, as the subtitle subtlety suggests, a f***ed up version of a mesh of fairy tale characters and stories with a few twisted nursery rhymes thrown in. A friend once described it as: ‘Neil Gaiman meets Shrek and they live happily ever after…or NOT’. That kind of says it all.
Your book is fairly bawdy. Why did you choose to write it as a fairy tale?
Why, thank you. I’m a fan of bawdy. To me, fairy tales lend themselves to being told in this manner. Most of us remember our fairy tales via the Disney rose-colored glasses, which is great, but 200 years ago, The Brothers Grimm told a far different tale, filled with violence and bloodshed.
In Curses!, one of the main characters is Cinderella’s stepsister. I love the idea of secondary characters becoming leads. What made you decide to tell the story this way?
Thank you. In so many stories, I wonder, what happens to the minor characters after the hero and heroine ride off into the sunset? After writing Curses! the ugly stepsister has her happily ever after (sort of), and so does her uglier stepsister. Choosing a lesser known character allowed me to create an interesting character without any preconceived ideas about her. Readers think Cinderella’s stepsister, and the only thing that comes to mind is how ugly she is. The rest of her is all mine to craft.
Where can people find you?
“Our mission: . . . humiliate ourselves in the name of art.”
The joy I felt while reading Reverend Jen’s memoir, Elf Girl, can not be expressed in words. Instead, it should be expressed by devoting one’s life to performance art — dignity forsaken, shame stricken from the lexicon. One should stock up on foam core, cardboard, dollar store instruments, hot glue guns, and whatever else it takes to live a life by Rev Jen’s example. This would be the appropriate response after reading Elf Girl. A lesser, although still respectable, response would be to fall absolutely in love with this woman, a woman who played a formative role in shaping the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the 90s.
Elf Girl begins with Jen’s stint as a Christmas elf at Bloomingdale’s. As a longtime fan of elves, often considering herself one, Jen, disappointed by the department store’s idea of what the fantastical creature would wear (“Dresses!”), counteracted the inauthenticity with her own beloved elf ears, which, oddly enough, did not go over well with the management. This incident offers shades of what’s to come: fierce individualism and unintentional anti-social behavior, all at the expense of self-preservation.
Throughout the book you get the sense that Jen isn’t merely “doing” performance art, she is performance art, as if outrageous and absurd are Jen’s default modes.
At an early age Jen was a creative force, starting with her elementary school endeavor, Jen Magazine. Taking her art seriously even then, she recruited classmates to serve on the editorial team. At 15 she was accepted to a free art program. Under the instruction of “the most maniacal art teacher in the western hemisphere,” who taught his students to “sacrifice sleep, sanity, and any semblance of a normal life,” she learned “that being an artist wasn’t a way to coast through life. It required discipline.”
When she later left her hometown in Maryland for the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, living in a Salvation Army run residency on Gramercy Park South, she teamed up with her newfound friend Julia and formed Pop Rox, a band outfitted with a $2 toy guitar and snow-leopard-print unitards. At first they played covers of Guns-n-Roses, Metallica, and Alice Cooper but soon moved onto originals, which included one about their love for Woolworth’s, an inexpensive department store. They played to captive audiences of art students — locking their fellow classmates in a room — and crashed parties where they soldiered on through the jeers.
You would think that at SVA, an art school based in New York City, a quirky girl like Jen would at least be embraced by, if not hoisted on the shoulders of, fellow students. However, Jen was shunned by both the student body and the faculty. Eventually, however, Jen found her place and began to make a name for herself on the Lower East Side.
It was there that she came into contact with open mic nights; in particular, one run by an actor and producer known as “Faceboy”. Together, in the mid 90s, they formed a tongue-in-cheek group called the Art Stars, a term first coined by Andy Warhol. There are thirteen steps to becoming an Art Star, all listed and explained in Elf Girl. Just a few, to give you an idea, are:
1. Eliminate Hobbies: Everything an Art Star does should be done with obsessive/compulsive zeal. . .
3. Avoid self-improvement: . . . Self-improvement is for people with time on their hands, and Art Stars have no time on their hands.
6. Only take jobs that offer no room for advancement: The last thing you want is to get roped into a job that will prohibit you from staying out until four in the morning five nights a week. . .
One of the main components of being an Art Star is aversion to competition. Four years out of art school and turned off by all forms of art criticism, Jen was horrified that artists and performers, would willingly subject themselves to the spectacle of judgement. In direct reaction to an ongoing poetry slam at the time, the Anti-Slam was born — a place where performers could go on stage without leaving with a number pinned to their act.
Around the same time, John Ennis, the director of Toolz of the New School, a show that aired on the cable access station Manhattan Neighborhood Network, contacted Jen to see if he could borrow her elf costume for their Christmas special. Just before filming he asked if she wanted to be in the episode; and so began Jen’s televised career in sketch comedy. Nearly every episode, whether Jen showed up at NYU orientation as a student forced into prostitute in order to pay her tuition or at FAO Schwarz as Doo-Doo, the hard-drinking Teletubby forced into exile, ended with someone threatening to call the cops.
As someone who enjoys quirky social history, especially when it’s about New York City, I found the chapters involving Rudy Giuliani’s mayoral years some of the most interesting. Not only were they hilarious, as he often butted heads with local artists, they served as a reminder of the political climate during that time. In 1994, when Giuliani first assumed the role of mayor of New York City, I wasn’t yet old enough to understand the implications his tactics had on artists in the area. I do, however, remember that he ramped up the police presence as part of an aggressive campaign against crime. Before Giuliani my parents warned me against walking east of 1st avenue while later, in my 20s, I was getting overpriced, chic haircuts on Avenue C. However, it is disputable whether Giuliani had much to do with this decline in violence or whether the city had been part of a coinciding nationwide trend.
One of the more notable offenses was when Giuliani, in 1999, threatened to cut off funding to the Brooklyn Museum if they went ahead with an exhibition featuring controversial British artists. I won’t ruin Jen’s stories for you but one I can’t help mentioning took place in response to Giuliani’s enforcement of the cabaret laws as part of his “quality of life” campaign. The previously unenforced law, one that prohibits dancing in bars and clubs when the owner doesn’t have the proper license, led to a two day closing of friend Robert Prichard’s club, Surf Reality, the home of Faceboy’s open mic. Swiftly, Prichard and Jen formed the Dance Liberation Front and organized a guerrilla-style, agitprop protest: a conga line down Houston Street to Tompkins Square Park on Avenue A. The action, which Jen eloquently called it “social commentary disguised as comedy,” brought hundreds out onto the streets and received write-ups in local newspapers.
Since the start of her time in New York, many of Jen’s cohorts have moved to Los Angeles, but Jen remains a fixture of the Lower East Side, hosting her Anti-Slam every last Wednesday of the month at the Bowery Poetry Club and co-running the Art Star Scene Studios, an independent film production company, and writing a regular column for Artnet. New York is a better place for retaining this elfin wonder and once you read Elf Girl, you’ll think so, too.
Buy Elf Girl at IndieBound
Reverend Jen’s website
Bowery Poetry Club
Diary of an Art Star column at Artnet.com
Jen’s Troll Museum Reviewed in The Village Voice
An interview with friend John Ennis (with photos)
Toolz of the New School videos
Largehearted Lit at WORD
Last Sunday at WORD in Greenpoint, Largehearted Boy hosted his monthly Largehearted Lit series where every month he brings together two authors and a musician to bring fuse his two loves: words and music.
September’s theme, as each reading has a theme, was the modern golden age of young adult fiction. Brooklyn writers Libba Bray and Steve Brezenoff, came out to read their work and discuss music. Steve read from his book The Absolute Value of -1, a coming-of-age love story, and his latest, Brooklyn Burning, “a love letter to Brooklyn, a love letter to music booming from the basement, and most of all, a love letter to every kind of love (but especially the punk rock kind).”
Alicia Jo Rabins, a classically trained violinist of Girls in Trouble, along with bassist Aaron Hartman, played an incredible short set of songs based on stories of women in the Old Testament. They were at once highly original, dark, and whimsical. You can find their music on their Myspace page.
Libba, author of Going Bovine and most recently Beauty Queens, read an original humor essay, an “aural biography,” about growing up in rural Texas, using music as an escape, and the role bands played in the relationship between her and her brother throughout the years. She then ended the night by serenading the crowd with Tom Petty’s American Girl.
As if the authors and music wasn’t enough, Kiesha, “The Brooklyn Baker,” provided amazing cupcakes.
The McSweeney’s Crew at McNally Jackson
John Warner, who was, up until recently, the editor of McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, celebrated the release of his latest novel, The Funny Man, with McSweeney’s writers Ben Greenman, Teddy Wayne, and Sarah Walker at McNally Jackson in SoHo.
Ben Greenman read his hilariously cynical piece called “Blurbs,” a piece comprised entirely of blurbs. For anyone in the book publishing business, anything related to it, or an astute reader, this is an amazingly entertaining exercise. It appeared in his short story collection, Superbad: Stories and Pieces. You can read through his McSweeney’s archive here.
Sara Walker writes an advice column for McSweeney’s called “Sarah Walker Shows You How”. That night she read “How to Cure a Hangover,” a funny piece that may or may not help if have a hangover. She also read the first piece she published in McSweeney’s, “When Dakota Fanning Travels to Spain for a Junior Semester Abroad, She Will Take Full Advantage of the Experience”, a bitingly funny sketch about what Dakota Fanning will do while studying in Spain, which was accepted by John when he was the editor. Her full archive can be found here.
Teddy Wayne is, at that time of this post, the most frequent contributor to McSweeney’s online. He’s also the author of author of Kapitoil, a novel about a young man who comes to New York from Qatar and creates a computer program named Kapitoil that predicts oil futures, earning his company record profits. Soon he begins to question its moral implications.
Teddy read his article from McSweeney’s, “Listmania!: Other Books Useful (or Not), for Americans to Read, Beyond William Blum’s Rogue State, by Osama B. L.,” which was a satricial look at the Amazon bestseller list through the eyes of the notorious terrorist. Some of the suggested books include: The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom, The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks, and The Devil Wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger. You can read his other articles at McSweeney’s.
John closed the night by reading from his new novel which is (surprise, surprise) a satirical look at the comedic novel. A meta-fiction as only a McSweeney’s author can do. Here’s a bit of a description from IndieBound:
The funny man is a middling comic in an unnamed city. By day he takes care of his infant son, by night he performs in small clubs, sandwiched between other aspiring comics. His wife waits tables to support the family. It doesn’t sound like much, but they’re happy, more or less. Until the day he comes up with it. His thing. His gimmick. And everything changes. He’s a headliner, and the venues get bigger fast. Pretty soon it’s Hollywood and a starring role in a blockbuster, all thanks to the gimmick.
What’s on the shelf?
As someone who is perpetually early, even when trying to be late, I wind up with a lot of time to peruse the shelves of bookstores while waiting for readings to begin. Here’s what I came across this week:
The Stranger: The Labyrinth of Echo—Book One by Max Frei
The cover on this one grabbed it. The textured surface, the brown tones with the creepy typeface, and the great illustration that makes you want to know what’s going on with the boy in the picture. It’s billed as “part fantasy, part horror, part philosophy”.
Nobody Move: A Novel by Denis Johnson
I loved the pulpy artwork on the cover of this one and when I read on the back of the book that it was noir, I was sold. Denis Johnson has been getting a ton of attention among the literary crowd, giving him the air of “a safe bet”.
Jimmy Luntz is an innocent man, more or less. He’s just leaving a barbershop chorus contest in Bakersfield, California, thinking about placing a few bets at the track, when he gets picked up by a thug named Gambol and his life takes a calamitous turn. Turns out Jimmy owes Gambol’s boss significant money, and Gambol’s been known to do serious harm to his charges. Soon enough a gun comes out, and Jimmy’s on the run. While in hiding he meets up with a vengeful, often-drunk bombshell named Anita, and the two of them go on the lam together, attracting every kind of trouble.
Pirate Palooza by Erik Craddock
It’s never too early to introduce kids to the wonder of comic books. They show young readers that books can be a lot of fun and in the process maybe inspire them to create their own visual stories. My five-year-old nephew loved the graphic novel B.C. Mambo I picked up for him a few months ago. With his birthday coming up and his unwavering obsession with pirates, Pirate Palooza seemed like the perfect gift.
Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein
I’ve been meaning to read this classic science fiction novel for a while. Heinlein is a staple of the space-based scifi novel and Stranger is possibly his best-known work.
Stranger in a Strange Land, winner of the 1962 Hugo Award, is the story of Valentine Michael Smith, born during, and the only survivor of, the first manned mission to Mars. Michael is raised by Martians, and he arrives on Earth as a true innocent: he has never seen a woman and has no knowledge of Earth’s cultures or religions. But he brings turmoil with him, as he is the legal heir to an enormous financial empire, not to mention de facto owner of the planet Mars. With the irascible popular author Jubal Harshaw to protect him, Michael explores human morality and the meanings of love. He founds his own church, preaching free love and disseminating the psychic talents taught him by the Martians. Ultimately, he confronts the fate reserved for all messiahs.
What’s on your shelf?
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy first aired on the BBC in 1978 as a 12-episode radio series. A year later it was published in book form and fleshed out into a 6-part “trilogy”. Since its inception it’s been billed as a comedic space novel, often featured on lists of “top sci-fi books”, and found in bookstores on the science fiction shelves. With all of this in mind, it might come as a surprise that British author Douglas Adams never set out to write within the genre but claimed he had little choice after blowing up Earth in the first episode.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy begins with Arthur Dent, a 30-year-old human, waking at 8am to find bulldozers outside his house. The city council had sent a demolition crew to make way for a bypass road right where his house stands. The back-and-forth banter between Dent and the foreman, satirizing government bureaucracy, reads like a British comedy, which makes sense once you learn that Adams wrote for the cult TV show Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
After lying down in front of the bulldozer, Dent’s best friend, Ford Perfect, who, other than his choice of name, is an inconspicuous visitor from Betelgeuse, shows up urging Arthur to join him at the bar for a few pints. His big news can’t wait—after all, they only have 12 minutes until the Earth explodes.
Lucky for Arthur, Ford is a roving researcher for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, an immense travel guide to the universe. At the last moment he sticks out his thumb and gets them both a ride aboard the Vogon ship hovering overhead. The Vogons are a disagreeable alien race whose purpose for their visit, in a twisted coincidence, is to destroy Earth to make way for a hyperspace bypass.
Aside from the pleasure of reading a novel that makes you laugh in that snorty sort of way, I found a heady appeal to The Hitchhiker’s Guide in its technological prescience. In interviews as early as 1987 Adams showed himself to be a heavy computer user, stating a preference for Macs over PCs. At one point he mentioned owning five, going on six, simultaneously and that he’d taught himself enough BASIC to create a 3D crossword puzzle.
Still, even with this information it was stunning to witness the foreshadowing of what could be imagined as today’s e-book or tablet. Adams writes:
The contents of Ford Prefect’s satchel were quite interesting in fact and would have made any Earth physicist’s eyes pop out of his head, which is why he always concealed them by keeping a couple of dogeared scripts for plays he pretended he was auditioning for stuffed in the top. Beside the Sub-Etha Sens-O-Matic and the scripts he had on Electronic Thumb—a short squat black rod, smooth and matt with a couple of flat switches and dials at one end; he also had a device that looked rather like a largish electronic calculator. This had about a hundred tiny flat press buttons and a screen about four inches square on which any one of a million “pages” could be summoned at a moment’s notice. It looked insanely complicated, and this was one of the reasons why the snug plastic cover it fitted into had the words DON’T PANIC printed on it in large friendly letters. The other reason was that this device was in fact that most remarkable of all books ever to come out of the great publishing corporations of Ursa Minor—The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The reason why it was published in the form of a micro sub meson electronic component is that if it were printed in normal book form, an interstellar hitchhiker would require several inconveniently large buildings to carry it around in.
Improbable encounters, close calls, and colorful characters—such as Marvin the depressed robot—make up the bulk of this thoroughly amusing book. While I can’t speak to the rest of the series, if you’re looking for pure entertainment The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy will do the trick.
Buy The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy at IndieBound