Today Will be Different

“Smell the soup, cool the soup,” Timby said. “Huh?” “It’s what they teach us in school when we’re upset. Smell the soup.” He took a deep breath in. “Cool the soup.” He blew out.” (Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple)

Though I’ve vowed to never again finish a book I dislike, sometimes it’s more work to stop reading a bad book than to keep up the momentum and get to the end. If you stop, you’ll have to go through all the bother of choosing a new book, searching through your many library systems to see how and when you can get it for free, and potentially even making a trip somewhere (which, with a newborn, is easier said than done). Then, you risk again choosing incorrectly and ending up with a second, third, or even a rut of bad books. And, let’s face it, you’re already filled with motivation-sucking bad-book-blues, so it’s probably easier to just stay seated on the couch and try to eke what little enjoyment you can from your current choice.

That’s right, I’ve said it – and judging by the litany of complementary reviews, I might be the only one – Semple’s new book is bad. If you want to get a bit more creative with your adjectives, you could also go with unremarkable, over-plotted, scattered, too-tidy, absurd, hasty, or nonsensical. Additionally, it bears a startling surface resemblance to Where’d you go Bernadette: both novels feature a crumbling marriage where one partner is temporarily missing; both marriages have one child; both female protagonists have old-timey names; both are set in Seattle, etc, etc. The reader can’t help but wish that Semple’s new book resembled her old one for the sake of its inner qualities – its humor and unique characters – rather than its superficial ones.

Fortunately, with its large typeface, thick pages, and thin spine, you only have to sit with it for a few hours until it’s over.

Recommended Action: BuyBorrow Now – Borrow Sometime Avoid
Length: 272 pages
Ending: not an ending
Incidental Learning: Seattle
Further Reading: If you haven’t, read Where’d you go Bernadette immediately.

Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World

“If I ever get reincarnated, it occurred to me, let me make certain I don’t come back as a paperclip.”
“Death leaves cans of shaving cream half-used.”
(Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami)

Reading fiction is a misnomer. You don’t read books, you see them in your mind’s eye; words just happen to be the vehicle that gets you to that inner visual. Mirukami takes advantage of this fact by playing with light and dark, blinding his readers with flashes of brightness and hours of pitch black. He returns again and again to the eyes, bogging down the middle of the book with a subterranean adventure, leaving us suspended in hope and brightness at the end. He forces us to develop our other reading senses in the absence of our reading sight – we find ourselves not seeing this book so much as smelling, feeling, hearing it.

Hard-Boiled Wonderland is an unexpected humor, one that makes you laugh simply because it is so itself. With a lot of genre fiction, it seems like anyone could have written the book – each instance is interchangeable with another. If you took the cover off a Joe Abercrombie and put it on a Flanagan, only the most dedicated fan would notice. Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, however, from its title to its unnamed characters, is a book that no one else in this world, or any other, could have written.

Recommended Action: Buy – Borrow Now– Borrow Sometime – Avoid
Length: 416
Ending: not expected
Further Reading: Either you’ll want to read all of Murakami, or never read him again. Though I loved this book, I still can’t decide which one I’ll do. I don’t think I could bear it if his other works were similar to this one; in my mind, everything he writes is 100% unique.

Marry Me

Box of Europa EditionsIf I had one wish for you, it would be that you would distractedly pick up this book, preferably from a surprise box full of Europa editions, and read it without first looking at a summary, blurbs, or any other reaction-spoiling reviews. Then, upon seeing its girlish pink cover juxtaposed against the hilarious dark, anti-romance contents, you would fall over with laughter and immediately read aloud each of the ultra-short stories to whomever may be in the room at the time.

Unfortunately, this is not the way recommending books usually works. By the time you’ve given a title, author, and brief description, your recommendee already has a set of expectations in hand. They’ll come to the book hoping for something amusing, savage, and original – and their own reading will be colored by your off-hand adjectives. So here’s what I’ll say to you: there is a book out there well worth reading that you currently know nothing about. It may be the one I unsuspectingly read and so wish for you to stumble upon, or it may be another. The only way you’ll get to it is by randomly selecting un-recommended books with only your wits and intuition to guide you. Whatever your reaction to the book ends up being, it will be unspoiled by the opinions of others, and sweeter because it is all yours.

Recommended Action: Buy  – Borrow Now – Borrow Sometime – Avoid
Length: 160
Ending: Since each story takes up on 1/2 a page, there are about 300 perfectly biting endings
Incidental Learning: The dark corners of Dan Rhode’s mind
Further Reading: You’ll doubtless wonder: where do I get more flash fiction? It is so wonderful, why doesn’t everyone write like this? Unfortunately, I haven’t found the answer to these questions myself, so please comment if you know.

Infinite Jest

“If, by the virtue of charity or the circumstance of desperation, you ever chance to spend a little time around a Substance-recovery halfway facility, like Enfield MA’s state-funded Ennet House, you will acquire many exotic new facts. You will find… that people addicted to a Substance who abruptly stop ingesting the Substance often suffer wicked papular acne, often for months afterward, as the accumulations of a Substance slowly leave the body… That females are capable of being just as vulgar about sexual and eliminatory functions as males… That some people really do look like rodents…” (Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace)

Infinite Jest Cover

Infinite Jest the book is the complete opposite of its subject, Infinite Jest the fatally entertaining film. If the book has a plot, it is that a mysterious entertainment cartridge labeled only with a smiley face is circulating the country; everyone who watches it is so entertained they loose all desire to do anything else with their lives. The book revolves around the family of the man who made the entertainment, the cross-dressing American investigator and wheel-chaired Canadian separatist looking for it, and the hideously deformed/fatally perfect cocaine addict who starred in it. In contrast to the film, reading Infinite Jest is hardly entertaining at all.

The pleasure derived from the work is so far removed from the act of reading it that the pleasure’s origin is hardly recognizable. The reading experience is so unfamiliar, so blocked by extra phrases, pedantic descriptions of drugs and tennis, and laborious endnotes, that your mind is working too hard to grasp its nuances while actually reading. The intense pleasure, the hilarity and brilliance, somehow come after, while your mind is subconsciously sorting through the inanity. You’ll often find that a half-hour session spent reading Infinite Jest will yield only frustration, but later you’ll be struck by an original and perfect thought that you’ll swear came fully formed from your own mind, until you remember that boring book you were reading earlier…

For example, you’ll see a GIF out of the corner of your eye and think ‘Is that Mr. Bouncety Bounce?’ before you realize that Mr. Bouncety Bounce is a disturbing adult dressed like a baby who appears on television only in Infinite Jest.  You’ll make a passing reference to Identification or your Own Personal Daddy and then register that those terms don’t have much meaning to the general populace, but have somehow become part of the way that you think and express yourself. You’ll be reading in a room of crazy people (read: library) who are singing unawares with their headphones on or dancing to no music at all, and you’ll find out that you’re the craziest of them all because you’ve been laughing for three minutes already without even noticing.

The act of reading infinite jest may not be consistently entertaining, it may be a rather poor experience in fact, but you’ll find that your head is a much more interesting, unexpected place to be as a result of the effort. So I can’t make any judgments on the book as a whole now. I am going to wait. I expect my mind will be pulling it together for some time yet.

Recommended Action: I couldn’t say. Read it if you are willing to commit approximately 6 weeks of a reading life to a book that is at once hilarious, disgusting, boring, brilliant, pedantic, and experimental.
Length: 1078  6″x 9.2″ pages in aprox. 10pt font with 100 pages of 6 pt. endnotes.
Ending: So far, outrageously disappointing. Pulls nothing together, resolves nothing, and is, frankly, disgusting. We’ll see how I feel about it tomorrow.
Incidental Learning: You will learn more than you ever needed to know about recreational drugs, half-way houses, AA, Tennis, physical deformities, and modern art films.
Further Reading: This should probably be prior reading. You should be familiar with Hamlet, obviously, but I also found just having read A Clockwork Orange incredibly helpful – there are similar thematic overtones and Wallace borrows a lot from Burgess’s language and style.

Where’d you go, Bernadette?

Where'd you go Bernadette Cover“You’re bored. And I’m going to let you in on a little secret about life. You think it’s boring now? Well, it only gets more boring. The sooner you learn it’s ON YOU to make life interesting, the better off you’ll be.” (Where’d you Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple)
“Its like a hypnotist put everyone from Seattle into a collective trance. “You are getting sleepy, when you wake up you will want to live only in a Craftsman house, the year won’t matter to you, all that will matter is that the walls will be thick, the windows tiny, the rooms dark, the ceilings low, and it will be poorly situated on the lot.”

(Where’d you Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple)

Look at the cover of this book: it will tell you everything you need to know about whether you are the kind of person who will love reading it or not. Do you like the happy, ocean blue cover, the properly punctuated title, the bold graphic design? There is a direct correlation between people who are attracted to blue covers and those who love reading hilarious, flighty books about dysfunctional genius families. There must be.

I love books where the main character is largely absent and unknowable. Bernadette’s story is told through a series of e-mails, faxes, FBI reports, and newspaper clippings collected during the five weeks she disappeared. While a few of the excerpts are her personal correspondences, the reader mostly gets to know Bernadette by the way she determines the actions of those around her, constantly pushing people beyond their normal personalities. She’s the kind of character you wish would live in your neighborhood so you, too, could have someone to speculate endlessly about and who would occasionally throw your life into much-needed disarray.

Recommended Action: Buy BorrowTBRAvoid

Length: 352 pgs

Ending: Satisfying

Further Reading: Try as I might, I can’t think of another book that combines such an interesting form of storytelling with a similar level of humor. There are surface similarities between Bernadette and Gone Girl in that they both use excerpts to tell a story of a missing woman… but they really aren’t in the same league.

Bridget Jones’s Diary

“It struck me as pretty ridiculous to be called Mr. Darcy and to stand on your own looking snooty at a party. It’s like being called Heathcliff and insisting on spending the entire evening in the garden, shouting “Cathy” and banging your head against a tree.” (Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding)

bridget jones's diary coverRecently, I have discovered a new-found love for the 90’s. Think about it: STNG, DS9, X-files, Meg Ryan rom-coms, and Bridget Jones. Somehow, I missed the Bridget Jones phenomena at the time. I was too young to see the movie when it came out and had moved onto my ‘literary snob’ phase by the time I was old enough to indulge.   If you, too, missed the fad because of age or snobbiness, there is only one thing you need to know about Bridget Jones: she is absolutely hilarious.

What stimulated my curiosity some 15 years after its publication was finding it on a list of Jane Austen book adaptations. What I thought I knew about Bridget Jones, which basically stopped at ‘famous 90’s movie’, didn’t add up to anything relating to Pride and Prejudice. But I found out that Bridget Jones isn’t just a P&P adaptation – it is a meta adaptation. Get this: in the book, Bridget Jones ends up with a ‘Mr. Darcy’ in a slightly P&P fashion. The book is set during the initial broadcast of the BBC ’95 P&P, and Collin Firth’s brooding Mr. Darcy is the subject of many an excited phone call. Then the movie of Bridget Jones stars Collin Firth! When I put this all together for the first time, it blew my mind. So essentially the movie is an adaptation with references to another adaptation of an adaptation with references to another adaptation. Whether or not all of that excites your P&P nerdiness, the bottom line is this: if you haven’t yet, read the book.

Recommended Action: BuyBorrowTBRAvoid

Length: 288 pgs

Audiobook quality: Superb – narrator doesn’t just read, but acts.

Ending: irreverently P&P-like

 Further Reading:  If you’d like more P&P adaptations, check out our booklist. If you’re more interested comic chick-lit, you might want to try out Plum Syke’s Bergdorf Blondes.

Cooking with Fernet Branca

“Two acquaintances who tried to make the dish died within the month, one in Buckinghamshire and the other in Somerset… The cleric’s body was found three weeks later, much disfigured. The drama teacher was never seen again. On enquiring I discovered that each had used commercial mayonnaise purchased in a supermarket for this recipe, so there is some justice in this world after all, even if a bit on the lenient side.” (Cooking with Fernet Branca by James Hamilton-Paterson)

Cooking with Fernet Branca CoverSometimes, being so involved with books can bring on a sort of passive cowardice when selecting your next read. I hear something or another about so many books that nearly all of my selections  are pre-planned and, to some extent, a forgone conclusion. Every now and then I think it is healthy for older bookish people (because younger bookish people are always doing this) to just grab something off the shelf, with no idea what to expect, and bring it home without even reading the back cover, last pages, or blurbs. No matter what, do not check the rating on Amazon. In these situations, it is best to put as much emphasis on the cover design as possible. You’ll want to judge the book instantaneously by its color, graphics, fonts, and, if you are in a library, by its condition. You want a nice, healthy looking book, as you would if you were picking out peaches at the grocery store.

Although this method of selection may not always work, it undoubtedly would if you happened to pick up Cooking With Fernet Branca, which you would have to do after seeing its plumb purple cover with a wine bottle as big as the house, and, of course, food-related title. However, if you go and purposely purchase it immediately after hearing about it, I will not fault you. It is quite simply the most devilishly humorous book I’ve read in ages.

Although the charmingly un-self-aware, neighbor-criticizing characters are worth several belly laughs, the real prize comes when the book is punctuated by Gerry’s outlandish recipes. They start out as almost-believable concoctions, and you may amuse yourself by considering whether muscles and chocolate, or otter and lobster, might really go together. But, by the time you start reading about the delicious, tantalizing flavor of smoked cat, be ready to un-suspend your disbelief and ensure you are in a place where people accept noisy readers. I have read several excellent books recently, but this is, no contest, my favorite. It is quite possibly my favorite book this year, and well worth your time if you can find it.

Recommended Action: Buy BorrowTBRAvoid

Length: 281 pages

Ending: Open to interpretation

Further Reading: The way the very British Gerald Stamper continuously refers to himself and his bloodline reminds me very much of Bertie Wooster from P.G. Wodehouse’s classic. I would highly recommend following up this comic work with some good old Jeeves and Wooster – it won’t have the some bite as the more modern Frenet Branca, but I believe it will satisfy your inevitable desire for more dry British humor.