The Far Side Gallery by Gary Larson

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One of our many, many books in the The Far Side Collection.

Around our house, in nearly every room and next to every comfy reading spot, you are very likely to find one of the many books that make up the collected works of the 1980’s and 1990’s cartoonist, Gary Larson. The one-panel strip is pure, comic genius: conveying in a few short words — often no words at all — an enormous amount about the hilarious absurdities of life or revealing the less desirable parts of ourselves that — when portrayed by Larson — are horrible and hilarious all at once. Despite the fact that the comics in the books are forty years old, the humor remains umdiminished. My family loves the books, we read them on-and-off, all year long. A rainy day, or a stressful week, might find any one of us flipping through one of the books and laughing out loud. Before long, the rest of us are drawn over to see what’s so funny and soon are all laughing.

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The Far Side comic strip had a strong presence in my childhood as well, my family owned the entire The Far Side Gallery books and we were often saying to each other, “wait, wait, read this one!” When my teenage son became obsessed with following funny memes that pop up on social media, it occurred to me that he might enjoy our old copies of The Far Side books. I way, way underestimated how much he — and his brothers — would love discovering Larson’s work. The books now live permanently off the book shelves and on tables and bedsides around the house.

Since the work of Larson speaks for itself, I thought I would post of few panels that I personally love … and let them speak for themselves. Enjoy!

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On Turpentine Lane by Elinor Lipman (2017)

On Turpentine Lane was a sweet, quirky novel with a bit of a “chick-lit” air about it, that I enjoyed on a lazy weekend afternoon. The novel follows Faith Frankel through several months of her unconventional, and at times very funny, life. A former New York City urbanite, Faith has recently moved back to her home town and taken a job at her old high school. Her boyfriend’s selfishness and free-loading nature comes to light after he borrows money and sets of on a cross-country trip to “find himself.” Feeling unsettled in a cramped apartment with a boyfriend gone for an indefinite period, Faith buys a crumbling, ancient cottage in town on a whim.

Almost immediately the house’s past begins to haunt Faith, when rumors of multiple suspicious deaths come to light causing her great unease. When an album with pictures of dead infants in it is found in the attic, Faith asks Nick, a male colleague, to move in so she has a roommate to keep her fears at bay. Soon a romance blossoms between Faith and Nick and the two team up with her wacky family to play amateur detective and learn what really happened in the house and who was to blame.

In the end, a house that had been very, very unlucky for its previous tenants proves to be filled with only good luck for Faith, Nick, and her entire family.

Attachments by Rainbow Rowell (2011)

I spent a windy, icy Sunday afternoon re-reading Attachments by Rainbow Rowell. Upon finishing, I decided that this book is one of my favorite love stories: funny, touching, and romantic in equal measure. I dare you not to fall in love with Beth and Lincoln!

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Originally posted on May 14, 2016:

This is the fifth Rainbow Rowell book I have finished in less than two weeks. I think it is possible that I have moved from a fan of her work to a super-fan; a title I will proudly embrace. Since I have reviewed all of her books on this blog, I am giving her her own tag “Rainbow Rowell” so that other fans of her work can find all of my posts in one place. (Note: I purposely decided not to separate out her adult novels from her young adult novels since — speaking as the mother of a teenager — I believe them to be mild enough for teen audiences.)

Attachments is the story told from the point of view of Lincoln, a twenty-something man in Nebraska living in 1999, who is deeply lonely and unable to find a path to happiness. After weathering a staggering heartbreak in college, Lincoln largely closed off from socializing, choosing to focus on school and work. After finishing grad school, he moved home to live with his mother (a delightfully funny hippie) and slowly let go of the things in life that gave him happiness: friends, dating, sports…in short, fun.

It is only after taking a job at a newspaper office that has just upgraded its staff to computers that Lincoln’s life slowly starts to open up. Night after night, Lincoln comes to work well after the reporters are gone in order to read all of their email and report to the boss who is misusing their work-site internet access. Without having to build relationships with his actual colleagues, Lincoln is able to build fictional ones with them; coming to know them through their emails and web searches.

It is the close relationship between two female employees at the paper that most intrigues Lincoln and, even well past the point of propriety, he finds himself drawn to their email conversations. Lincoln comes to “know” Jennifer and Beth as funny, loving, kind women and he comes to learn of their most intimate moments: loves, losses, and heartbreaks while never once even seeing their faces. He longs to meet them, but feels trapped. Getting to know them after reading their emails for almost a year, he argues to  himself, would be starting out their friendship with a huge lie: like making money “off insider trading tips.” So he witnesses their friendship from afar and soon realizes that he is in love with Beth. And then, the magic starts!

What follows are a beautiful, if nontraditional, love story where the universe (or at least, the Internet) brings two people together who might have otherwise worked side-by-side without ever knowing one another.

Attachments is classified as a romance novel, but I feel that perhaps it is better categorized as a rom-com. Although the book is undoubtedly a love story, one of its most charming characteristics is its delightful sense of humor; and its quirky male narrator, Lincoln. In addition to being distinguished by its humor, the friendship/love story between Beth and Jennifer, which is central to the book, also lends more heartwarming appeal to what is already a unique and lovely novel.

Turbo Twenty-Three by Janet Evanovich (2016)

Book #23 in the Stephanie Plum series (Book #22 reviewed here: http://wp.me/p6N6mT-3x )

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Everyone’s favorite bounty hunter, Stephanie Plum, is back for yet another ridiculous, hilarious, wholly improbable but none-the-less enjoyable caper. She has brought along her entire rag-tag team of companions — including but not limited to: Lulu, Connie, Grandma Mazur, Randy Briggs, Joe Morelli (yum!), and Ranger (yum! yum!) — along as she tries to round up skips and as she goes undercover in order to solve a string of murders.

In this book, Stephanie is helping Ranger piece together a bizarre series of crimes plaguing a local ice cream factory and its employees, including two grisly murders. Going under cover on the factory line, on the loading dock, and even as a clown in the ice cream truck; Stephanie does her best to solve the mystery and (as always) manages to do so in a wild, round-a-bout way.

I have to admit that I whole-heartedly enjoy this series and, even after twenty-three books, I still am happy to send a rainy evening reading about Stephanie and her outrageous exploits. While other series I have been devoted to have fizzled (see my latest review of JD Robb’s latest Eve Dallas book http://wp.me/p6N6mT-19D ) this one remains strong. The reason for this, I believe, that it is Evanovich’s humor and her commitment to absolutely ludicrous story-lines that make no attempt to be realistic. It does not hurt that Stephanie is still, after all these years, engaged in steamy relationships with both Morelli and Ranger.

A series that is well-worth reading, if just for a quick, funny break from the craziness of the holidays. Enjoy!

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg (1967)

This book was a favorite of mine when I was in elementary school. I had a battered paperback copy that I got from a Scholastic book give away at school and one that I read until it almost fell apart. It gave me such a thrill when my older sons both fell in love with the book during their early elementary school years…in fact, they have their very own battered paperback copy. Despite the fact that both boys read (and re-read) From the Mixed-Up Files many times over the years, I had not read it since I was in grade school. I am happy to report that it is still a wonderful read: funny, exciting, filled with tons of delightful insights into the art world…and filled with description’s of the Metropolitan Museum of Art have me dying to make a visit just to see if I can spot any of the treasures mentioned.

The story begins with Claudia Kincaid’s decision that she must run away from home, as she simply cannot bear the indignities of childhood any longer: younger brothers, chores, a lousy allowance, and the endless boredom and lack of sophistication of life in the suburbs of New York City.  So she does what any scrappy, super-smart girls does, she saves her allowance, researches possible locations to “relocate” to, and finally enlists her younger brother’s Jamie’s help with the escape.

The siblings do not run to the woods or to their grandmother’s house, as other kids might, but rather move into New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. After all, Claudia and Jamie need to escape somewhere filled with excitement but do not want to be burdened by life in the outdoors. Claudia is a girl who is drawn to adventure, but also “glamour… elegance and good smells… she loves comfort too much to go on a real adventure.” Being a devoted know-it-all, she prefers to go somewhere she and her brother can learn more about the sophisticated world of art and antiquities. With nary a wrinkle in their plans, the two children move right into the museum, spending their days taking tours and their nights sleeping in a 15th century bed (occasionally sneaking out to do laundry and buy supplies.)

Claudia, a girl drawn to romance and magic, loves being surrounded gowns, jewelry, painting and sculptures. Jamie is more drawn to mystery and risk, he loves the collections (particularly the mummies and armor) but really loves the subterfuge and skill it takes to avoid getting caught.

After a week of their new living arrangement, the children discover a controversy swirling around a new sculpture on display in the Renaissance room, a sculpture that some experts claim was carved Michelangelo; a fact no one has been able to prove. Unable to resist such a mystery, and deciding that no one has better access then they do to the statue and the two begin their own investigation into the origins of the piece.

Soon their search has them scouring libraries, following media coverage surrounding the acquisition, and — eventually — seeking out reclusive art collector, Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, a woman who may hold the key to the mystery of the statue. It is through their interactions with Mrs. Frankweiler that the children come to realize that it was not a new life that they sought but knowledge. The children wanted an understanding of what it was like in the adult world — making their own choices, pursuing adventure, getting by on their wits, and learning things that interested them — and they felt that they could not find that in their childhood home.

They will finally be ready to return home to their frantic parents, they decide, after they have solved the mystery of the sculpture. Claudia in particular feels certain that in order to feel that running away changed her life for the better, she must arrive there with the knowledge of the statue’s origins. The secret of the statue, Claudia realizes, is the knowledge that will change her life forever…”a secret is an adventure that never has to end.”

Children’s literature brings us such a wonderfully refreshing take on storytelling: all action and substance, with a generous dose of excitement, and (at least two) ingenious escapes from danger. Unlike adult novels, children’s literature is not concerned with existentialism or sorrow or much outside the immediate story, but much simpler concerns such as adventure and fun. Indeed, even adult novels that attempt to tell stories of mystery and excitement are somehow polluted by an excess of drama and dense complexity. By comparison, From the Files, does not rely on any of those tropes in order to be a delightful mystery story solved by two wily, super-sleuth siblings. No adults required.

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This is the cover from by beloved childhood copy of the the novel.

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson (1998)

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This week I was faced with hours of errands and chores that needed to get done now that Fall, and the start of the holiday season, has arrived: end-of-summer yard-work, basement clean outs, swapping out the summer clothes and linens for colder weather items, and so on. In order to make the process more pleasant, I decided to download an audio-book onto my phone so listen to while I worked.

At book club on Monday, we had a brief but lively discussion about humorous books and how enjoyable they are to listen to, and Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods was mentioned as a perennial favorite. Knowing that it would be the perfect book to listen to while I completed my chores, I downloaded it immediately.

A Walk in the Woods is a wonderfully funny book chronically the adventures of author Bill Bryson while he attempts to walk from Georgia to Maine, following the Appalachian Trail. Being out of shape and under-prepared does not daunt Bryson, who sets out with a childhood friend (who in even more out of shape and ill-prepared) in early March on Springer Mountain in Georgia, the start of the 2000+ mile long hike.

Immediately things go horribly, hysterically wrong for the two men — bears, food shortages, terrible fellow hikers, snow storms and more — but they continue on their journey, with Bryson dutifully reporting their experiences as they go. I laughed out loud constantly at the hilarious situations the men find them selves in, with the author’s wonderful writing bringing the book  alive with its attention to detail and description.

While the book is, in part, a memoir recording Bryson’s hike, it is so much more than that. Included alongside the stories of his personal experiences are fascinating lessons on history, geology, and biology of the Appalachian Trail. Bryson’s research brings to life the people who inspired the trail’s creation, the people charged with protecting it for future generations, and the people who hike along it (and sometimes those live alongside it).

Overall a gem of a book which really shines with its humor and warmth, one that lends itself perfectly to the audio-book format.

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The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo by Amy Schumer (2016)

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I am well aware that Amy Schumer’s brand of humor is problematic for many women and men, due in large part to her constant willingness to candidly discuss issues related to sex, body image, drinking, dating, success without concern to how uncomfortable her jokes can make audiences. While this does make her stand up and her television show cringe-worthy at times, it also clearly establishes her as a strident feminist who is unwilling to ignore the paradoxes of modern womanhood: be sexy and not slutty; appreciate your body as it is but work tirelessly to change it; stop worrying about pleasing men but make sure that their pleasure is secretly more important than your own; strive for success but be self-depreciating when it is achieved.

That said, if you find her comedy unappealing, you will might not enjoy this book. However, I feel that it is important for readers to remember that Schumer is using her unconventional and purposefully vulgar sense of humor to say important things about being a woman and it is only because of her trademark lack of decorum that her ideas are being heard. Had she stuck with being more ladylike, she might be more palatable but then a lot of the feminist issues she is raising would continue to remain unexplored.

“This book has no self-help info or advice for you. I’m a flawed fuckup and I haven’t figured anything out, so I have no wisdom to offer you. But I can help you with is showing you my mistakes and my pain and my laughter.” From the introduction to The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo.

In her first book of essays, Schumer does not disappoint her fans: she displays the same irreverence for propriety, the same disregard for rules, and she tackles issues (dating, orgasms, rape, abuse ) that women often shy away from discussing. And, of course, she does so while being at times vulgar but always very, very funny.

What may surprise potential readers, as it did me, was the fact that many of her stories are not at all scandalous or obscenity riddled. Many are touching, heartfelt accounts of experiences in her life. She talks candidly about what it is like to be rich after years of barely getting by; she shares the hard truth about her first non-consensual sexual experience and her abusive relationship; she tells of the relentlessness of making it in comedy and the extra work she had to put in because she is a woman; she talks honestly about break ups and illness and her intense need for solitude…all essays are that thought-provoking and powerful without being at all incendiary. But there are some racy essays too, because, let’s face it this is Amy Schumer and raunchy is her bread and butter.

A fun, fast read that made me like and appreciate her even more than I already did.