Category Archives: Humor

Review: I’ll Sell You a Dog by Juan Pablo Villalobos

I am so excited to be participating in Spanish Lit Month again this year hosted by Stu at Winston’s Dad and Richard at Caravana de Recuerdos.  My first contribution this year is a fantastic read from And Other Stories.

My Review:
I'll Sell You A DogThis book is set in an apartment building in Mexico City in which a group of elderly retirees live.  The residents of the building engage in various activities together in order to fend off boredom, including the most popular activity which is the daily gathering and discussion at the literary salon.  Francesca, the building president and leader, is also the head of this salon.  As each new member moves into the building, he or she is given a warm welcome and an invitation to the salon.  The only person who has ever dared to turn down an invitation to the salon is our witty, clever and crabby narrator, a man who goes by the name of Teo.

When Teo moves into the building hilarity ensues because he is not quite so willing to conform to all of the rules set forth by Francesca and her fellow tenants.  Teo also drinks too much and has some interesting visitors over to his apartment, including a Mormon missionary who is constantly trying to preach the Word of the Lord to Teo.  Teo’s days also include frequent visits to the local pub for several beers and visits to the greengrocer where he discusses life and politics over more beers with Juliet the proprietor.  He also spends quite a bit of time recording his thoughts in a notebook and because of this the salon thinks that he is writing a novel.  They seem to know everything that he writes in his journal and he can’t figure out how they are reading his personal thoughts.

The story also flashes back to Teo’s earlier days and we get some background on this roguish, alcoholic, funny old man.  Teo mostly grew up with his mother and his sister and lived with them until he was in his fifties.  Important events in his younger years were oftentimes brought about by the dog his mother happened to dragged home at the time.  The original family dog caused the unraveling of his parents’ marriage and his father moving out.  Like his father before him, Teo fancied himself an artist and when he was younger he attended art school for a year to try and cultivate his talents.  But this all came to an end when the family dog was diagnosed with marijuana poisoning which resulted in his mother finding out what he was really doing with his fellow students.

After his mother forces him to give up attending art school, Teo gets a job with his uncle at his local taco stand which is a very lucrative business.  It is also due to dogs that Teo becomes a local legend with his “Gringo Tacos.”  I did find the story lines with the family dogs rather funny but those who are sensitive might need a warning that the fate of dogs in this book is never good.  All sorts of local politicians and arts patronize his taco stand and have intriguing discussions about art with this astute taco seller.  Teo’s favorite book is Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory and later in the retirement home he uses his cherished copy of this book to fend off the cockroaches.

The fight between Teo and the members of the literary salon reach a fever pitch when they get their hands on and hide his cherished copy of Aesthetic Theory and he,  in turn, steals their copies of In Search of Lost Time.  This is no small feat for Teo because Proust’s masterpiece weighs a ton.  In the end Francesca has to blackmail Teo into returning the salon’s books and the scandalous information that she has on him involves, of course, a dog.

This is one of the funniest books I have read so far this year. It is cleverly written and has characters that manage to be silly but endearing at the same time.   I look forward to reading more of Villalobos’ books.  What is everyone else reading for Spanish Lit Month?

About the Author:
Juan-Pablo-Villalobos-and-pygmy-hippo-6-460x250Juan Pablo Villalobos was born in Guadalajara, Mexico, in 1973. His first novel, Down the Rabbit Hole, was the first translation to be shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award (in 2011). He writes regularly for publications including Granta and translated Rodrigo de Souza Leão’s novel All Dogs are Blue (also published by And Other Stories) into Spanish. His work has been translated into fifteen languages. He lives in Barcelona and has two children.

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Filed under Humor, Spanish Literature, Summer Reading

Review: The Curious Case of Dassoukine’s Trousers by Fouad Laroui

I received an advanced review copy of this title from Deep Vellum via Edelweiss.  This book was published in the original French in 2012 and this English version has been translated by Emma Ramadan.

My Review:
TrousersThis book contains a series of short stories told by a group of men sitting around at café in Morocco.  It appears that they have been friends for quite some time as there is a lot of teasing, interrupting, and jocularity mixed in with their stories.  Their tales range from the funny to the rather serious and I found that the theme of being an outsider in a foreign land pervades the entire collection.

The funniest tale is the title story in which a man is sent to Belgium by the Moroccan government to make a very important deal to import grain to his starving country.  The man checks into a hotel and is very nervous that the fate of his country hangs on his ability to negotiate this most important deal.  Since he is only visiting for one day he packs lightly and brings a single pair of nice trousers.  He is awakened during his first night in his hotel room by a horrible noise and gets out of bed to find that an intruder has come through his window.  At first glance it seems that nothing valuable has been stolen from him; but further inspection by the light of day reveals that his pants, his only pair of nice pants have been taken!

The man absolutely panics and goes does to the front desk of the hotel in his pajamas to ask for help.  The clerk directs the man to a charity shop which has a single pair of pants that are just his size; but the pants are a ridiculous pair of golf pants.  The events of his meeting, while he is wearing these pants, are hilarious but everything does work out for the best for him and for the fate of Morocco.

By contrast, there are two rather serious stories that I would like to describe from the collection.  The first one, entitled “Dislocation,”  is particularly fitting for what is going on in the world as far as refugees seeking asylum and people displaying xenophobia to anyone who seems foreign.  I found his use of repeating the same lines in the story very Homeric but instead of repeating epithets he repeats the entire beginning lines of his story over and over again.  Each time he repeats his story he begins with the phrase, “What would it be like, he asked himself, a world where everything was foreign?”  Each time he repeats these lines he adds more details about his life.  We discover that the man does, in fact, feel like a foreigner because he is a Moroccan who feels more French than Moroccan and is living in The Netherlands.  He is treated as a foreigner, an outsider and his walk home becomes slower and slower as he contemplates his feeling of dislocation.  This story showcases Lauori’s talents as a writer as he uses an array of unique styles throughout this short collection of stories.

The final story I would like to mention is story about a couple who are from different countries and having a long distance relationship.  John is traveling from The Netherlands and Annie is traveling from France and they are on their way to Brussels to spend a long weekend together.  They speak different languages, grew up in different countries with different cultures but for a while they have made their relationship work.  But they have both arrived in Brussels with the intention of breaking up with one another.

The language barriers and cultural differences have taken their toll on the relationship and they both want out.  The best example of their communication issues is described by John who says that Annie never easily gets his dry sense of humor and by the time he has to explain all of his jokes to her they are no longer funny.  This story has a surprise ending which I don’t want to give away.  But I will say that this is one of the best stories in the collection.

Overall this is a unique collection of stories that I can recommend to anyone who wants to experience a wide range of literary styles in a single collection of stories.

About the Author:
LarouiFouad Laroui (born 1958) is a Moroccan economist and writer, born in Oujda, Morocco. Over the past twenty years, Laroui has been consistently building an oeuvre centered around universally contemporary themes: identity in a globalized world, dialogue/confrontation between cultures, the individual vs. the group, etc. With ten novels and five collections of short stories written in French, plus two collections of poems written in Dutch, a play, many essays and scientific papers (written in French or English), his on-going ambitious literary output has been recognized with many awards, including: Prix Albert Camus, Prix Mediterranée, Prix Goncourt de la Nouvelle, Grande médaille de la Francophonie de l’Académie française, Prix du meilleur roman francophone, Premio Francesco Alziator (Italy), Samuel-Pallache-Prijs (The Netherlands), E. du Perron Prijs (The Netherlands)

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Filed under France, Humor, Literature in Translation, Short Stories

Review: Goethe Dies by Thomas Bernhard

I received a review copy of this title from Seagull Books.  This book was published in 2010 in the original German and this English version has been translated by James Reidel.

My Review:
Layout 1This slim volume of four short stories by Bernhard is difficult to describe in a brief review.  I experienced them and reacted to them as I would poetry and as a result my instinct is to analyze just about every line in these stories; but then my review would be the same length as this edition of stories.  One must really read Bernhard for oneself in order to fully grasp what is the Bernhard literary experience.  The stories are dripping with dark satire and are laden with a rebellion against his native home of Austria.  No topic related to his homeland is off limits as he pokes fun at the Austrian government, Catholicism, Austrian literature and even his relationship with his Austrian parents.

The rhetorical devices that Bernhard uses in his prose give a lyrical feeling to the text.  The persistent repetition of words or phrases, for instance, enhances the level of biting satire in the stories.  The incredibly long sentences give the stories a meandering and aimless feel to them;  we are never sure when or if Bernhard is getting to the point of his story.  In the title story, “Goethe Dies”, Goethe is nearing the end of his life and he insists to his aids and secretaries that he must meet Wittgenstein before he slips away.    The idea of this anachronistic meeting is funny in and of itself but the silliness of the meeting is enhanced by the characterization of Goethe who is a cantankerous old man that will not take no for an answer.  Why his secretaries and assistants object to Goethe’s meeting with Wittgenstein is never clearly articulated by any of them.  Bernhard’s use of indirect speech increases the ridicule of this famous German philosopher and his inner circle.

With time Goethe allegedly worked himself up over notion, as Krauter confirmed, of summoning Wittgenstein from England to Weimar under any circumstance and as soon as possible and Krauter would in effect be bringing Wittgenstein to see Goethe oddly enough on this, the twenty-second; the idea of inviting Wittgenstein to Weimar occurred to Goethe at the end of February, thus said Riemer presently, and not at the beginning of March, as Krauter maintained, and it was Krauter who learnt from Eckermann that Eckermann would prevent Wittgenstein from travelling to Weimar to see Goethe at all costs.

The next two stories, “Montaigne: A Story in Twenty-Two Installments” and “Reunion” ruthlessly mock the parent-child relationship.  Bernhard highlights the codependent nature of the family dynamic which oftentimes serves very little purpose other than to make the parents and child miserable.  In Montaigne, the narrator, similar to the philosopher Montaigne, is trying to lock himself up in his tower so that he can finally have peace from his family.  His family is more interested in business and the narrator wants to be left alone to read good books.  What bibliophile would not be able relate to this?  Bernhard begins the tale of “Montaigne” with:

From my family and thus from my tormentors, I found refuge in a corner of the tower and had, without light and thus without the mosquitoes driving me insane, brought with me a book from the library after I had read a few sentences in it, by Montaigne as it turned out, to whom I am related in such a close and truly enlightening way as I am to no one else.

“Reunion” extends this dysfunctional family dynamic by describing the young narrator as he desperately struggles to free himself from his annoying, hateful parents.  The hyperbole that Bernhard employs in this story made it, for me, the funniest narrative in the collection.  The narrator believes that his parents mission in life is to make him miserable and blame him for all of their problems.  He writes:

Essentially everything about our parents was rough, they were rough and ruthless to our whole lives, I said, whenever they should have always been circumspect with us, caring.  Mother slammed the doors behind her all the time, Father trampled through the house in his old climbing boots.

The parents are in constant search of “peace and quiet” and to him, the narrator, his parents are the antithesis of peace and quiet.  Wherever they go, they disrupt and destroy any chance of peace and quiet.  While on vacation in the Alps, the family hikes to a quiet alcove in the mountains and when they reach the quiet peak the parents rupture the “peace and quiet” by playing instruments.  Anyone who has gone on a family vacation in search of rest and relaxation, but instead has come home more aggravated and anxious,  will most certainly laugh uncomfortably at this story.

These four stories were an excellent introduction to the literary style and talent of Bernhard.  I ordered three more of his longer novels after I finished this volume.  I am very eager to experience his unique writing techniques in a full length book.

 

About the Author:
T BernhardThomas Bernhard was an Austrian author, who ranges among the most distinguished German speaking writers of the second half of the 20th century.

Although internationally he’s most acclaimed because of his novels, he was also a prolific playwright. His characters were oftenly working in a lifetime and never-ending major work while they deal with themes such as suicide, madness and obsession and, as Bernhard did, they use to have a love-hate relation with Austria. His prose was tumultuous but sober at the same time, philosophic in the background, with a musical cadency and plenty of black humor.

He started publishing in the year 1963, with the title “Frost”. His last published work, appeared in the year 1986, was “Extinction”. Some of his most well known works include “The loser” (where he ficitionalizes about Glenn Gould), “Correction” and “Woodcutters”.  To read more about his works visit: http://www.thomasbernhard.org/.

 

 

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Filed under German Literature, Humor, Literature in Translation, Seagull Books

Review: Killing Auntie by Andrzej Bursa

I received an advanced review copy of this title from New Vessel Press.  This book was originally written in Polish in 1959 and this English version is translated by Wiesiek Powaga.

My Review:
Killing AuntieJurek is a twenty-year-old college student who lives with his aunt. She is very doting on him and works hard to provide well for him.  So it is rather puzzling when one day she asks him to hang a mirror in their apartment and he turns the hammer he was using for this task on her head.  In two quick and hard whacks to the head auntie is now a corpse.

Jurek’s life, leading up with to this point, is rather mundane and dreary.  He goes to lectures at the university, hangs out with friends, and eats dinners cooked by auntie; there is no real challenge in his life until he is faced with the disposal of auntie’s corpse which is now decomposing in his bathtub.  The humor of the book is very dark, but done brilliant, especially as Jurek tries and fails many times to chop up and hide body parts.

He first takes off a thumb and starts small.  When he tries to flush the finger down the toilet it keeps floating to the surface so he has to fish it out of the commode and try another plan.  He then hacks off a foot and shoves it into the coal stove in his apartment.  All of a sudden there is a massive amount of smoke in his kitchen and an awful stench that draws the attention of his neighbors.  He finally decides to wrap up different body parts and mail them to random people around the city.

Jurek is intent on not getting caught and the anticipation of whether or not his crime will be found out makes this an intriguing read.  Jurek gets very drunk with a group of friends and is picked up by the police on the way home.  He thinks they have found out about his crime and he is ready to confess everything only to learn that they put him in jail for public intoxication.  Jurek also falls in love with a woman he meets on the train and when the relationship with her becomes intimate he confesses everything to her.  For a minute we think that she will tell the police but she suddenly decides to help him dispose of the corpse.  Finally, when another aunt and his grandmother visit they discover the corpse and mistake it for animal meat and bite a chunk out of it.

KILLING AUNTIE is humorous, intense, and in the end, surreal and nightmarish.  The ending is somewhat bizarre but a fantastic and unexpected surprise.  New Vessel Press has given us another brilliant novella in translation that I highly recommend.

 

About The Author:
A BorsaAndrzej Bursa (March 21, 1932 – November 15, 1957) was a Polish poet and writer. Born in Kraków, he studied journalism, then Bulgarian at Jagiellonian University in Kraków.

Bursa published his first poem in 1954. A prolific writer, he published 37 poems and a short story in different magazines during his lifetime. He died of a heart attack in 1957. Shortly thereafter, his first poetry collection was published, an important event in Polish poetry. Presently, there is a poetry prize named after Bursa which many living Polish poets have won (e.g. Ewa Lipska and Stanisław Barańczak).

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Filed under Humor, Literature in Translation

Review: The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield

My Review:
Diary_of_a_Prov_Lady_for_website_1This is another great classic brought to us by the small British publisher, Persephone Books.  The book is a detailed daily journal of a woman who is trying to the best wife, mother, neighbor and friend as possible.  She has two young children, Robin and Vicky, whom despite her best efforts to the contrary she tends to spoil. One of the funniest scenes in the book is that in which Robin talks her into playing the piano, the gramophone, a music box and letting the clock chime all at once; in the midst of this walks an uninvited guest, the aloof and snobby Lady B.  The trials placed on our provincial lady will resonate with all mothers struggling on a daily basis to raise kind and polite children.

There are a plethora of interesting characters that the lady tells us about.  Lady B., her aristocratic and aloof friend is always dropping in on the lady at the most inopportune times and giving the lady ridiculous and useless advice.  Lady B. does not have the same financial restraints or familial duties as the author of the diary, so humorous quips about Lady B. are sprinkled throughout the diary.  The Vicar’s wife is also a frequent visitor; she is one of those people who claims that they are only stopping by for a minute but are still hanging around three hours later.

The lady’s diary also tells the reader of her monosyllabic, disinterested and rather ill-natured husband, Robert.  Robert has very little to do with the children, expect to complain when they are too loud or too messy.  His favorite pastime is to fall asleep while reading the paper.  This edition of the book contains drawings of different characters in the book and there is a great illustration of Robert asleep in his favorite chair.

The diary has several recurring themes which the lady must constantly struggle against: unruly servants, insufficient money, negative remarks about her personal appearance and constant pressure to keep up with the latest trends.  The lady deals with all of these things with remarkable calm and manages to keep any rude or deprecating comments to her diary.

I highly recommend THE DIARY OF A PROVINCIAL LADY as another humorous and entertaining read from Persephone Books.

About The Author:
Edmée Elizabeth Monica Dashwood, née de la Pasture (9 June 1890 – 2 December 1943), commonly known as E. M. Delafield,was a prolific English author who is best-known for her largely autobiographical Diary of a Provincial Lady, which took the form of a journal of the life of an upper-middle class Englishwoman living mostly in a Devon village of the 1930s, and its sequels in which the Provincial Lady buys a flat in London and travels to America. Other sequels of note are her experiences looking for war-work during the Phoney War in 1939, and her experiences as a tourist in the Soviet Union.

 

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Filed under British Literature, Classics, Humor, Persephone Books