Fascinating, unexpectedly fresh and funny look at the multiplicity of ways in which cadavers benefit the living.
Author of the “My Planet” column in Reader’s Digest and a regular contributor to Salon.com’s “Health and Body” section, Roach displays here a knack for persuading morticians, scientists, engineers, and others whose work involves corpses to let her watch them at their labors. From the opening chapter, in which 40 severed human heads are prepped for a plastic-surgery seminar, to the final one, in which whole bodies are plastinated with liquid polymers for a museum exhibit, she proves herself a keen observer and unflagging questioner. Roach watches an embalming at a college for morticians and visits a university study of human decomposition. She shows the value of cadavers in car-crash testing, in weapons research by the US Army, in investigations into airline disasters, in studies of the crucifixion and the guillotine. Not only do dead bodies provide organ transplants for fellow humans but they may, Roach reports, soon be transformed into compost—at least in ecologically aware Sweden. As for other exotic uses, a chapter subtitled “Medical Cannibalism and the Case of the Human Dumplings” tells it all. While Roach provides a vivid picture of the macabre activities she witnesses, it’s her offbeat musings, admissions, and reactions that give such life to her tales of the dead. She also provides history, mostly focusing on body-snatchers and the anatomists who used their services. Roach delights in imparting odd information, such as the fact that 18th-century students at certain Scottish medical schools could pay their tuition in corpses rather than cash, and when the curious facts unearthed by her research don’t fit neatly into her narrative, she slips them into droll footnotes.
A warm, frank, and very funny account of family life and pregnancy as Irish writer Doyle (The Commitments, 1989; also see below) continues the saga of the endearing working-class Rabbitte family of Barrytown, Dublin. A playwright as well as novelist, Doyle tells the story of 19-year-old Sharon Rabbitte's surprise pregnancy almost entirely in dialogue. In less gifted hands, the experience would be claustrophobic, but with Doyle the reader becomes the undetected fly on the wall able to relish the unguarded talk as Sharon plucks up courage to relay the news first to her mom and dad (Veronica and Jimmy, Sr.) and her siblings, and then to the toughest group—her girlfriends—who, ribald and skeptical, want to know everything. But Sharon isn't telling who the father of her "snapper" is, which naturally fuels speculation, especially when the father of one of her friends insists he's responsible. Sharon tries to deflect the gossip by claiming that while drunk she'd been seduced by a nameless Spanish sailor, "but she knew this as well: everyone would prefer to believe that she'd got off with Mr. Burgess. It was a bigger piece of scandal and better gas." For a while, Jimmy, Sr., feels his friends at the pub are laughing at him, and he blames Sharon; but Jimmy, a wonderfully complex and good man, realizes he's being unfair and, to make up, concentrates on Sharon's pregnancy in earnest. From library books, he learns as much about sex as pregnancy—information that he shares with his pub pals while keeping close tabs on Sharon's condition: "She was getting really tired of her dad; all his questions—he was becoming a right pain in the neck." There are the usual ups and downs of family life, but when Sharon sees her baby "and about as Spanish-looking as—she didn't care. She was gorgeous. And hers." Life and pregnancy as it really is: scatological, unsentimental, and, in spite of it all, with lots to laugh at. Not a false note anywhere.
An enigmatic British man locks himself indefinitely in a guest room during a party, altering forever the lives of four people who barely know him.
Charming and intelligent, Miles Garth is in many ways a desirable guest. And when he accompanies handsome 60-year-old Mark Palmer to Genevieve and Eric Lee’s annual “alternative” dinner party in Greenwich, it is assumed Miles is the older man’s new lover. He is not, and has in fact just met Mark at a theater performance. Halfway through the meal, Miles heads upstairs ostensibly to use the bathroom, and does not come back down. Sequestered in the Lees’ extra room, he offers no explanation but does pass a note requesting vegetarian meals be sent under the door. At a loss over what to do, Genevieve tracks down Anna Hardie, a Scottish woman who met Miles briefly when they were teenagers. As Anna recalls his kindness to her during a school trip, she begins to come to terms with her own past and uncertain future. Miles has that affect on people. Anna also befriends Brooke, a precocious, lonely 9-year-old neighbor girl who met Miles at the party as well. Meanwhile, news of Miles’ weird sit-in ripples throughout the community, and people begin to think of him as some kind of folk hero with almost mystical powers. That Miles is both more and less than he appears to be is part of the fun in this witty, deconstructed mystery. With its shifting points of view, Smith (The First Person: and Other Stories, 2009, etc.) displays a virtuoso gift for channeling her character's inner voices. Happily, the book manages to wear its profundity lightly. Offbeat exploration of the human need to connect with others.
Rarely does a collaboration produce a graphic novel of such literary and artistic merit.
Ames (Wake Up, Sir!, 2004, etc.) has distinguished himself as both a novelist and an essayist/journalist with a confessional intimacy and self-deprecating humor that sometimes blurs the line between memoir and fiction. He has found his artistic match in Haspiel, who brought a revelatory new dimension to the graphic memoirs of Harvey Pekar (The Quitter, 2006). Here, the whole is even better than the anticipated sum of its parts, with Ames exploring darker depths than he has in previous work, matched by Haspiel’s noir-ish black-and-white illustrations, which make the lacerating, brutally funny story of a lovesick, self-destructive writer come alive on the page. With a protagonist named Jonathan A., the narrative invites the reader to identify the fictional novelist with his creator, though the string of mysteries penned by A. don’t match the literary output of Ames. Yet it matters little what of this is “true” in the factual sense—the drugged-out debauchery, the coming-of-age sexuality, the opening tryst with an elderly woman that launches a series of flashbacks—for the truth of art rather than autobiography provides the richness here. In the wake of September 11, the self-absorbed narrator finds revelation outside himself: “It’s perhaps too apt a metaphor, but collectively man was like a giant alcoholic—he knew better but he couldn’t help but destroy himself and everything around him.” The protagonist’s attempts to come to terms with the tragedy as well as his addictions include cameos by President Bill Clinton and (hilariously) Monica Lewinsky. If the dinner with the latter never happened, it should have. There’s also an orgy instigated by students at the school where the writer attempts to find refuge, and where he discovers that five women can’t help him forget one. And there’s a tender undercurrent throughout of a boyhood friendship complicated by suppressed homosexuality.
Could be the most compelling and provocative work from either collaborator.
Mulgrew (Everything Is Wrong with Me, 2010) returns to his formative years at an exclusive prep school for bright boys and finds a ton of absurdist comedy gold to mine.
As a teen, the author enjoyed growing up in a close-knit, lower-middle-class neighborhood in Philadelphia, where scrapes were common and everybody knew your business. But Mulgrew also pined for the rarified atmosphere of elevated learning offered by Saint Joseph's Preparatory School. The author has a good sense of comic timing, whether he’s relating his introduction to the wonderful world of self-gratification or describing his penchant for wearing a full-length fur cape around school grounds. Mulgrew's cynical run for class vice president serves as the penultimate moment of his often-raucous recollections, but there are plenty of other hilarious vignettes along the way. Luckless in love, the author also garners both compassion and condemnation for his feckless way with women. Characters from Mulgrew's previous memoir, like his two-fisted dad and no-nonsense mom, make return appearances that are both funny and profound. Relentlessly self-deprecating yet unabashedly accepting, the author displays a palpable sense of humanity. Things only slightly slow down and threaten to veer into potentially pretentious territory when Mulgrew runs down his all-time favorite songs. He quickly redeems himself, however, with an emotionally honest story involving his father and a rebuilt motorcycle that the ill-equipped son cannot possibly master.
A young writer finds once more that it isn't too early to look back on his life and laugh out loud.
A delightful, Plimptonesque exercise in immersive journalism exploring the strange world of “self-help.”
Lisick (Everybody into the Pool: True Tales, 2005, etc.) devoted a year to various gurus in an attempt to self-actualize. She endeavored to become a Highly Effective Person under the auspices of Stephen Covey, to fortify her soul with Jack Canfield’s Chicken Soup, to get fit with Richard Simmons on a cruise ship, to straighten out her perilous finances with Suze Orman, to consistently discipline her young son with Thomas Phelan’s 1-2-3 Magic method, to figure out John Gray’s Mars/Venus gender dichotomy, and generally to live a better, happier life. It is to the reader’s great benefit that Lisick is: 1) a mess, 2) cynical and horrified of cheesiness, and C) effortlessly funny. Her visualizations didn’t go right, she didn’t have the right clothes for the ghastly seminars and on Simmons’s cruise she got high and made inappropriate advances to a surly young musician accompanying his mother. Lisick makes keen use of comic detail, as when she charts the deflation of Simmons’s hair over the course of the cruise. She is tough on the well-paid experts, but fair, sincerely laboring to suspend her skepticism and game to put their advice into action. Some of it works: A home-organization expert helps Lisick’s family emerge from their chaotic clutter, and Phelan’s discipline strategy tames her truculent toddler. But of course the book is funniest when things don’t go so well. The author’s revulsion over Gray’s retrograde sexual stereotypes (and disturbingly smooth, buffed appearance) is palpable and highly amusing. Her articulate hatred of the anodyne platitudes in Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way provides a tonic for anyone dismayed by fuzzy New Age smugness. None of that from Lisick, who is sharp, irreverent and endearingly screwed-up. Her experiment may not have solved all of her problems, but she got an enjoyable book out of it.
Funny, perceptive and surprisingly open-hearted under the cynicism.
Esquire editor-at-large Jacobs, who read the entire 2002 Encyclopedia Britannica for The Know-It-All (2004), embarks on his second lofty exploit: a year of living the Bible “as literally as possible.”
Like David confronting Goliath, Jacobs stood before his ex-girlfriend’s Bible and pledged to spend the following 12 months (much of that time in New York City) exploring biblical literalism by living the good book as it was originally intended. The author attempted to follow many infamous biblical dictums—growing a beard (he does), eschewing menstruating women (he tries), accepting Creationism, keeping the Sabbath, praying three times a day, dancing before the Lord (and thus attending “the loudest, rowdiest, most drunken party of my life…with several hundred Hasidic men”), stoning blasphemers (a futile pebble toss at a pot-bellied, Sabbath-breaking Avis employee)—and learned in the process that living the Bible literally is baffling and often impossible. Rules like destroying idols and killing magicians, for example, are federally outlawed. Jacobs paid attention to both the Old and New Testaments, and received help from a board of spiritual advisors, “some conservative, some one four-letter word away from excommunication.” His efforts at this daunting task are impressive and often tremendously amusing—though rarely deep or scholarly. The author’s determination despite constant complications from his modern secular life (wife, job, family, NYC) underscores both the absurdity of his plight and its profundity. While debunking biblical literalism—with dinner party–ready scriptural quotes—Jacobs simultaneously finds his spirituality renewed. He discovers that “you can’t immerse yourself in religion for 12 months and emerge unaffected...I didn’t expect to fondle a pigeon egg…or find solace in prayer.”
A biblical travelogue—and far funnier than your standard King James.
A journalist shares his obsession with books, swinging his machete through the fields of literature.
A national columnist and prolific writer, Queenan (Closing Time: A Memoir, 2009) is crazy about books—literally. Even other bibliophiles will likely consider his reading habits to be on the lunatic fringe: “I cannot remember a single time when I was reading fewer than fifteen books…I am talking about books I am actively reading, books that are right there on my nightstand and are not leaving until I’m done with them. Right now, the number is thirty-two.” The author admits that this is “madness.” Such obsession makes him a promiscuous reader, but also a faithful one, devouring everything he can find from an author he discovers, no matter how obscure or prolific. Since he’s sometimes classified as a humorist, and since much of his humor lies in his outrageous assertions, it’s hard to tell how seriously to take his dismissal of Middlemarch, Ulysses and all of Thomas Hardy, though plainly he takes books and reading very seriously indeed. Yet he doesn’t much care for independent bookstores (“often staffed by condescending prigs who do not approve of people like me. The only writers they like are dead or exotic or Paul Auster”), or book critics (“mostly servile muttonheads, lacking the nerve to call out famous authors for their daft plots and slovenly prose), or book clubs (“I would rather have my eyelids gnawed on by famished gerbils than join a book club”). Queenan also resists the temptation of most book lovers to buy a lot of books, since he figures he won’t live long enough to read (or re-read) the ones he’s vowed to finish before he dies. Most will agree that “reading is intensely personal,” and the author splatters his personality over every page.
An amusing homage to reading that contains something to offend even (especially?) the most ardent book lover.
The author of Fight Club (1996) takes as the hero of his fourth novel an unlovable loser who doesn’t blame Mom.
Victor Mancini always knew she was crazy, but he loves her all the same. Ida’s in a nursing home now, and Victor works two jobs to keep her there. The legit one involves donning breeches and wig to playact at Colonial Dunsboro, a fake 18th-century village. The other consists of pretending to choke in fancy restaurants, which nets him the sympathy of the saps who perform the Heimlich maneuver and then send checks, hoping to perpetuate the warm glow of their momentary heroism. In between choking spells, Victor listens patiently to Ida’s reminiscences of her days as a practicing anarchist, on the road with him when she wasn’t in jail and he wasn’t in foster care. His father? Victor doesn’t know, but he might find out from Ida’s diary—too bad it’s written in Italian. Victor, however, has other things to occupy his mind. There’s always the Internet and his favorite Website featuring photos of an obese man who bends over and lets a trained orangutan put chestnuts up his ass. Victor can protect his stupid slacker pal Denny, usually clapped in the stocks at Dunsboro, or help him lug home the enormous rocks he collects. When all else fails, Victor gets up close and personal with any willing, lust-besotted female from the 12-step sexaholic program he attends. But he does wonder now and then about his dad—until a doctor at the nursing home translates the diary and informs him that he was conceived from the DNA of a sacred relic: the putative foreskin of Jesus Christ. Hey, Victor doesn’t believe it either. Then, finally, his mother tells him the truth.
Palahniuk is a cheerful nihilist with a mordant wit and a taste for scatological humor. Fair warning: some may find his language and imagery offensive.
IEDs, VBIEDs, EODs, G-3 and even CNN contrive a constant Catch-22 as Fobbit Chance Gooding Jr. fights the acronym war in Abrams’ debut novel.
FOB is an acronym, meaning Forward Operating Base. It's 2005 in war-torn Iraq, and a Fobbit is a soldier working within that secured area, never venturing beyond the wire and guard towers to cope with AK-47–toting terrorists and improvised explosive devices. Staff Sgt. Gooding mans a computer in FOB Triumph’s Public Affairs Office. Though he uses no active unit’s designation, the author knows the Army, good and bad. Abrams is a 20-year veteran who served in Iraq as part of a public affairs team. While the narrative generally feeds off Gooding, it is peopled with far more outlandish and intriguing characters. One is Gooding’s immediate superior, Lt. Col. Eustace Harkleroad, timid, overweight, incompetent and subject to stress nosebleeds. Bunkered in a cubicle in one of Saddam’s old palaces, Gooding shoots off cliché-riddled press releases meant to obscure casualty numbers. The doublespeak must earn three chain-of-command initials before they’re ready to be ignored by the media. The tipping point comes when news outlets begin to salivate over killed-in-action numbers reaching 2,000. With notations from Gooding’s diary and woeful, lie-laden emails-to-mother from Harkleroad, the author’s narrative reflects the Fobbit war, the heat and the sand, civilian contractors and guest workers at the FOB’s burger and chicken franchises. Abrams saves his best work for two supporting characters, Lt. Col. Vic Duret, a hard-driving, stressed-out, uber-responsible battalion commander haunted by his brother-in-law’s death in the World Trade Center attack, and the inept and fear-filled Capt. Abe Shrinkle, a West Pointer who bungles his way into shooting an innocent Iraqi civilian on one mission and incinerating another on the next. More a Fobbit’s Jarhead than a Yossarian Catch-22, although one character meets a Kid Sampson-like fate.
Sardonic and poignant. Funny and bitter. Ribald and profane. Confirmation for the anti-war crowd and bile for Bush supporters.