Some Humorous Fiction Written in the 2000s

 

Here is a look on the lighter side. A tragic world is no fun to contemplate, so instead here are some humorous or amusing fictional works all written in the 2000s.

‘Less’ by Andrew Sean Greer (2017) – Andrew Less had written a couple of novels that didn’t sell well at all. His publisher stages ‘An Evening with Andrew Less’, and no one shows up. This type of humor is universal, a guy laughing at himself and those around him as they sometimes make utter fools of themselves with their outrageous behavior. Andrew Less doesn’t take himself or his writing too seriously, and that’s what makes this novel so damn funny.

‘The Old Romantic’ by Louise Dean (2011) – “You never imagine your husband will get a thing for an embalmer and an outsize one at that – that’s one thing you don’t imagine.” This novel is a dark wicked joy.

Sellout’ by Paul Beatty (2015) – Our hero in ‘Sellout’ belongs to a group which some of its members show up every other week to argue with other members who show up every other month about what exactly bi-monthly means. ‘The Sellout’ is driven by a quest for the banned most racist episodes of the ‘Our Gang’ series, the ones that have never been shown on television.

‘Firmin’, the Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife by Sam Savage (2006) – This is the tale of a four-legged bookstore rat who was born in a nest made of a shredded copy of Finnegan’s Wake, then learns how to read, and becomes amazingly literary.

The Forensic Records Society’ by Magnus Mills (2017) – I could have mentioned any of Magnus Mills’ novels starting with his first, ‘The Restraint of Beasts’, but all of his deadpan fiction is a laugh fest. ‘The Forensic Records Society’ takes you to a record store back when the current music was hugely important in the 1960s and 1970s.

‘Knots’ by Gunnhild Øyehaug (2012) – There are 26 stories in ‘Knots’, each a comical take on the relations between men and women. These are rude and sometimes crude stories written from a woman’s point of view. In one story the umbilical cord between a mother and her son cannot be cut by any means.

A Horse Walks into a Bar’ by David Grossman (2014) – Here is an entertaining little novel about a stand-up comedian which is also one of the themes of ‘The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’ which I have been watching on the TV.

‘Wittgenstein Jr.’ by Lars Iyer (2014) – The students in a philosophy class call their instructor Wittgenstein Jr. in fun and partial derision. The instructor is a cheerless soul. This is a class of students who are obsessed with their deranged teacher.

‘Mirror, Shoulder, Signal’ by Dorthe Nors (2016) – Sonya is a Danish woman in her forties who lives alone now, and that is just fine with her. ‘Mirror, Shoulder, Signal’ is light and amiable and amusing, a pleasant interlude from all the more vexing problems of today.

‘Honeydew’ by Edith Pearlman (2015) – ‘Honeydew’ is a collection of stories guaranteed to put a smile on your face. The stories were not written with the sole purpose just to be funny, but they will keep you amused.

‘The Amalgamation Polka’ by Stephen Wright (2006) – I am eagerly looking forward to the next novel by Stephen Wright even though he has not published since 2006. I have read all four of his works. His fiction is darkly comic and funny, but, even better, Wright’s outlook makes you think and feel. ‘The Amalgamation Polka’ is a pre-Civil War extravaganza, and like all of Wright’s work, unique.

‘Golden Hill’ by Francis Spufford (2017) – Here is another novel that was not specifically written to be humorous, but is delightfully amusing the entire way. It takes place in colonial New York around 1746.

‘The Tragedy of Arthur’ by Arthur Phillips (2011) – This is a wild and woolly story about how an unknown play about King Arthur written by William Shakespeare shows up in Minneapolis. The entire verbatim play is included which is mighty presumptuous of Arthur Phillips. Of course the fictional Arthur Phillips says of Shakespeare, “If it didn’t have his name on it, half his work would be booed off the stage.”

 

 

 

‘All for Nothing’ by Walter Kempowski – “Now that Everything was going down the Drain”

 

‘All for Nothing’ by Walter Kempowski (2006) – 343 pages Translated from the German by Anthea Bell

 

‘All For Nothing’ is a magnificent atmospheric novel of the last months of World War II from the point of view of the East Prussian Von Globig family, Their estate is peaceful at the start, but they can hear the distant shelling of the Russian infantry advancing farther and farther into Germany. The near-rural setting is almost idyllic but the tension builds gradually as the shelling gets louder and closer each day. The question is: When should they evacuate?

He placed the empty stamp album on top of the logs and watched as the eagle slowly caught fire and then sank into ashes. Watching it disappear, like the Germany of the good old days.”

The once-rich Von Globig family lives in a stately manor house called the Georgenhof. The father Eberhard is away in Italy serving the German army as an officer in supplies. Left in the Georgenhof are his beautiful and winsome wife, Katharina, and their fair-haired, inquisitive twelve-year-old son Peter who plays with his train set and his microscope. Running the household is Auntie, an older woman relative from Silesia. Working under Auntie are two Ukranian maids, Vera and Sonia, and a young Pole Vladimir who does the necessary work outside.

Various travelers stop by the Georgenhof, most from the East fleeing from the Russians. They are welcomed, tell their stories, stay a short time and move on further west. Katharina also secretly listens to BBC broadcasts which tell of the attacks on Germany from the West. She hears the following report on Konigsburg:

Burnt-out granaries, a flight of steps with the banister rail rising from the rubble, and of course the ruins of the cathedral and the castle. The British had done a thorough job, you couldn’t deny that. A lovely city, but finished now.”

The folks at the Georgenhof are mostly apolitical, but their fanatic busybody neighbor Drygalski is an ultra-Nazi who constantly watches them with suspicion. Katherina must always keep a watchful eye out for him. For Drygalski and other Nazis, there was no crime more heinous than sheltering a Jew even for one night.

Later all the folks living at the Georgenhof must leave, joining the mass exodus of German people heading west just in front of the Russian army. It is far from an orderly evacuation with many deaths along the highways and roads.

After devoting many years of his life to documenting and collecting the personal observations of thousands of Germans in regard to World War II, Walter Kempowski wrote this vivid wonderfully constructed final masterpiece of a novel. Here is an excellent summary of the dramatic life of Walter Kempowski.

There is a musical quality to the individual sentences which makes them a pleasure to read. In spite of or because of the frightfulness of the events which are occurring. ‘All for Nothing’ is a powerful work of art that captures, in authentic detail and with compassion, the evacuation nightmare for the German people of those last days of World War II.

 

Grade : A+

 

‘The Long Dry’ by Cynan Jones – Life and Death on the Farm

 

‘The Long Dry’ by Cynan Jones (2017) – 117 pages

This month is the Wales Readathon hosted by Paula Bardell Hedley at Book Jotter. (Twitter hashtag #dewithon and/or #walesreadathon). By a rare coincidence I recently completed ‘The Long Dry’ by Cynan Jones from Wales so I am posting this review as part of the Wales Readathon.

‘The Long Dry’ is a fatalistic Welsh farm novel. Everything about life and death on the farm is a struggle.

I did not realize there were still any heavy-duty farms on the English island, but apparently in Wales there is. The Welsh seem to make it a point of honor that they are nothing like the English.

A typical sad scene is when a cow on the farm tries to give birth to a calf that is in the wrong position for birth, a breech birth. The calf is born dead. No one is sadder than a cow which has lost her calf. However the calf’s twin is born alive and OK. The farmer moves on.

In order to appreciate ‘The Long Dry’, you must slow down your reading to a slow crawl. Otherwise you will not appreciate the loaded meaning that went into each sentence. In that sense this novel is like poetry.

Another cow about to give birth wanders off the farm. The section of the novel named ‘The Sedge’ is told from the cow’s point of view.

Later, the cow got too hot, so she got onto her feet again and she could feel the calf moving inside her. She lifted her tail and let out a long wet pie. Then she went on. By now she was hanging her head when she walked and just ambling.”

A later sad scene is when the veterinarian has a conversation with the young daughter Emily while he put the family’s old dog Curly to final sleep.

It’s a medicine that will make his heart go slower, and slower, and then it will stop.” He didn’t have to say that it wouldn’t hurt the dog because of the way he said this thing..

Like when it stops raining?” she said. Nothing had ever moved him more in his life than the beautiful questions of children.

Yes. Like when it stops raining.”

These lines are beautiful but sad as most of the novel is. More than anything, ‘The Long Dry’ is about death. Reading it is both daunting and exhausting.

‘The Long Dry’ reminded me of my own upbringing on a dairy farm near Sparta, Wisconsin where I spent the first eighteen years of my life. I never amounted to much of anything as a farm boy. Perhaps it was all the work that was to be done on the farm as I was known as a lazy kid. Or perhaps it was the trips to the slaughterhouse in our light blue pickup truck with two young male calves in back. On a dairy farm, most of the young male calves are quickly disposed of as veal meat. I was sensitive. Two things you don’t want to be on a farm are lazy or sensitive.

What is missing from ‘The Long Dry’ is the humor. What I remember most now about my days on the farm are the humorous occasions. There were a good share of light moments mixed in with the pain and strain of living and dying.

Perhaps another novel by Cynan Jones will cover the lighter side of life on the farm.

 

Grade:    B+

 

‘Unquiet’ by Linn Ullmann – Life With Father

 

‘Unquiet’ by Linn Ullmann (2015) – 388 pages                              

        Translated from the Norwegian by Thilo Reinhard

To my mind there is no question that ‘Unquiet’ is a memoir rather than a novel as it has been labeled. It is an account of Linn Ullmann’s memories of her famous father Ingmar Bergman and to a lesser extent her mother actress Liv Ullmann who starred in ten Bergman movies.

I went through a long Ingmar Bergman phase during which I watched many of his movies. I found that each of his movies had a depth that I hungered for. My favorite of his movies is ‘Smiles of a Summer Night’ which was based on Shakespeare’s ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ and which Bergman made fairly early in his career. I watched and was impressed by many other of his movies.

In 1965, Bergman made a movie called ‘Persona’ with a new actress, Liv Ullmann, as one of the stars. Bergman and Liv Ullmann soon began a relationship. Bergman was 48, and Ullmann was 27. Linn Ullmann, born in 1966, was Ingmar Bergman’s ninth and youngest child. The nine children had five different mothers.

Bergman and Liv Ullmann only stayed together unmarried until 1969 at which time they separated. After that the child Linn lived with her mother but stayed at her father’s summer home at Hammars on the island of Faro for one month each summer during her childhood.

“The girl dreads being away from the mother, but looks forward to visiting the father, everything that is this place, the house, the island, her room with its flowery wallpaper, Ingrid’s cooking (Ingmar has a new wife or girlfriend by now), the moons and the stony beach and the ocean stretching green and gray between the father’s island and the Soviet Union.”

All of this factual background is in ‘Unquiet’, and why they call this memoir a fiction I will never know. We get childhood memories of Linn’s visits to the island. Later as Ingmar Bergman gets old, he and Linn decide to record conversations that she and her father have where she asks him questions about his career and his life, and parts of these conversations are transcribed verbatim in ‘Unquiet’.

She: We were talking about girls, about your tremendous fondness for women.

He: I believe that much of my professional life has revolved around my tremendous fondness for women.

She: In what way have women influenced your…

He interrupts her, leans forward.

He: In every conceivable way, my heart.

Ingmar Bergman and Linn Ullmann

Ullmann is quite discreet in her memories, discreet to the point where this memoir is not entirely fascinating. There is no doubt in my mind that Ingmar Bergman was a genius as a film director, but that does not make his pottering around as an old man particularly interesting.

 

Grade :    B-

 

‘Bunner Sisters’ by Edith Wharton – A Bleak Naturalistic Novella of the 1890s

 

‘Bunner Sisters’ by Edith Wharton    (1892,1916) – 95 pages

‘The House of Mirth’, ‘Ethan Frome’, and ‘The Custom of a Country’ were wonderful, but I found ‘Bunner Sisters’ to be a sad excuse for a novella. The emphasis should be on the word ‘Sad’.

There is a reason that ‘Bunner Sisters’ was written in 1892 and several magazines rejected it at that time and it was not published until 1916. Hermoine Lee, in her introduction, mentions “the unflinching grimness” of the work. Yes, I agree.

In the late 1800s, the fiction of Emile Zola had a profound effect on the literary world.  In such novels as ‘L’Assommoir’, ‘Germinal’, and ‘Nana’, he started a new literary genre of extreme realism called naturalism.  With ‘Bunner Sisters’, Wharton wrote her own naturalistic novella suffused with pessimism in regard to the lower classes, especially its single women.

In ‘Bunner Sisters’, the older sister Ann Eliza and the younger sister Evelina live together in a shabby New York City neighborhood in the 1890s. The two sisters are beyond what was usually thought of as marriageable age. They keep a small shop selling artificial flowers and small hand-sewn articles for women, and they barely scratch out a living.

Ann Eliza decides to get Evelina a clock for her birthday with money she has saved, and that is when their real troubles begin. Enter the clock maker Herbert Ramy. He is a German, and he seems quite capable with clocks. Soon he starts coming around to the sisters’ house. At first Ann Eliza thinks he might be interested in her even though Evelina is the one who has had boyfriends before. Then Ann Eliza realizes that Evelina has her eyes and heart set on Mr. Ramy and decides to forgo her own possibilities in favor of her younger sister.

Did I mention that to the sisters Mr. Ramy sometimes looks sick with a dull look in his eyes and in need of care? The sisters figure he’s just a bachelor who doesn’t take good care of himself, but later we find out the real reason Mr. Ramy looks sick.

Things proceed as expected. I won’t divulge any more of the plot.

Edith Wharton usually wrote of the upper classes, but in this case she went slumming. Things were bad enough for poor people without Wharton embellishing their problems. Charles Dickens showed the severe effects of poverty on English youth and families, and here Edith Wharton shows the severe effects of poverty on American adult single females, especially if they let the wrong man take advantage of them. At least Dickens usually had an upbeat ending for his poor souls.

‘Bunner Sisters’ is a bleak read without any redeeming glimmer of hope at the end.

 

Grade:   C-

 

 

‘The Long Take’ by Robin Robertson – A Poetic Noir Novel on Los Angeles after World War II

 

‘The Long Take’ by Robin Robertson (2018) – 227 pages

 

This atmospheric and expressive poem of a novel ”The Long Take’ takes place in Los Angeles and San Francisco in the years 1946 thru 1953. Our man Walker, born and raised in Nova Scotia, went to fight on the European front in World War II. He was one of the soldiers who was in the D-Day landing force and battled the Nazis across France. In other words he saw the very worst fighting. Now he, unlike so many others, has returned physically intact and winds up in Los Angeles where he gets a job as a reporter.

However he is still haunted by his war memories.

Naked soldiers dead on the beach, clothes blown off by an anti-tank mine. I was staring at their crew-cuts washed flat by each wave, then the hairs springing back up.”

After the war Walker travels by train from New York to Los Angeles in search of a job. In Los Angeles, Walker finds a seedy but clean rooming house to board in and heads downtown for the night.

Six blocks of fairground, spilling out on the street: eyes

red as tail-lights, servicemen, longshoremen, oilmen,

Chinese, Japanese, Negroes, Filipinos, Mexicans, Indians,

even Hindus and Sikhs; streetcars, automobiles,

horns going, the panhandlers, streetwalkers, kids rolling drunks,

scuffles down the alleyways,; saloon doors,

swinging open to jukebox music

and a gash of laughter;

police cruisers,; the call of hot dog sellers,

whispers from the pimps and the whores,

the dealers; the cops out on the corners,

the soldiers and sailors, their whistles, shouts,

broken bottles, reefer smoke, beer and sweat

this was the city.“

As you can see, ‘The Long Take’ is a narrative poem with evocative imagery that captures both the horrors of war as well as the crazed free spirit of Los Angeles after the war Alongside the skid rows and the seedy sections of Los Angeles, the movie makers are filming the classic noir movies: ‘Night and the City’, ‘He Walked by Night’, ‘The Big Combo’, etc., etc.

Not only are the movies here noir; the suggestive writing of Robin Robertson is also noir:

“”And he noticed a girl over by the jukebox, dancing

on her hind legs,tipping her toes like a cat

at the end of a rope.”

By 1953, they are tearing down old Los Angeles to put up parking lots.

The blade sign reading MASON – HOME OF MEXICAN FILMS

was being levered off the brick but this was once

the Mason Opera House, where Isadora Duncan danced

in front of fifteen hundred, according to the old guy watching,

and Sarah Bernhardt played – what? – forty, fifty, years ago.

As the sign came free of the wall and fell,

he turned and walked away.”

If a novel is written as a narrative poem and it is not too difficult for me to follow, it usually winds up being one of my favorite novels, combining both the delights of fiction and poetry. That is the case with the Booker shortlisted ‘The Long Take’.

 

Grade:    A

 

 

‘Strike Your Heart’ by Amélie Nothomb – “Home is where it Hurts”

 

Strike Your Heart’ by Amélie Nothomb  (2017) – 135 pages                   Translated from the French by Alison Anderson

 

‘Strike Your Heart’ is a modern-day fable for adults. It is written in the style of a fairy tale, simple and stark and crystalline.

Marie is nineteen and pretty. She is quite sure that the whole world belongs to her. But then Marie gets pregnant and has to get married to the most handsome rich boy in her class Olivier and has a baby Diane. Everyone including Olivier tells Marie what a beautiful baby Diane is, and Marie soon becomes jealous of the baby.

Your mother isn’t cruel, my treasure. She’s just jealous.”

She always has been, that’s just the way it is, there’s nothing you can do about it. Jealous, do you understand that?”

The two-year-old said yes.

Marie, the mother, isn’t unkind or crazy. She just does not show her young little daughter Diane any tenderness. Later Marie has three more babies whom she treats much nicer than Diane.

It would be easy for Diane to see her mother as wicked, but Diane does not see it that way. She is hurt by her mother’s cold attitude toward her, but due to the love and support she receives from the other people around her including her father Olivier she does not turn bitter. She sees her mother Marie as an ice goddess.

‘Strike Your Heart’ is a well-done novel by the prolific Amélie Nothomb who has already written 26 novels and is only 53. She varies her subject and approach each time, and I usually can’t wait to see what she has come up with next. Her novels are usually short and fun to read. Here is an old piece I wrote about her almost ten years ago.

I enjoy stories where the writer treats modern life as an ancient fairy tale. It gives us a simpler plainer perspective on our complicated lives.

I suppose in an ideal world a mother would treat each of her children with the same amount of love and tenderness, but there are so many factors that enter in to family dynamics that there are bound to be differences. The children who get too little love may have it better than the ones who get too much love which may lead to spoiling. A lot depends on how the kid deals with his or her own situation.

This cover which I show above seems to me like a terribly poor choice for such a colorful novel, but ‘Strike Your Heart’ is well worth reading, and I am pretty sure you will enjoy the simple hard-edged prose.

 

Grade :  A-

 

 

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