The Books of My Numberless Dreams

Archive for the ‘Humour’ Category

This won’t be the most edifying post you’ve ever read here but I saw a similar bit at Sterne and decided I’d share some Amazon one/two star reviews on some of the books I read this year. It’s less about the book in question than the reason the book got trashed…

Persuasion by Jane Austen

2.0 out of 5 stars Such a huge disappointment., January 16, 2008

When I saw Masterpiece Theater was doing a series on Jane Austen and her novels, I decided to read them in the order the shows would air–starting with Persuasion. It was the first and last of Austen’s that I will read. She may well have captured the mores and social rules of the time, but she didn’t create characters I could really care about. I stuck with it to the end and found the revelations about Mr. Elliot to come out of nowhere and the ending romance to be something we could see coming from the very start. I’ll take Edith Wharton over Austen any day.

The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence

1.0 out of 5 stars Superlatives apply., April 10, 2001

What I mean by this is that affixing the title of “Worst book ever” to The Stone Angel is not a stretch. I have read some truly bad novels in my time, but The Stone Angel is simply horrifying. Never has there been a more repulsive character than Hagar, a neurotic, arrogant, despicable old woman. The book is told in a series of intermittent flashbacks that seem pointless in conjunction with Hagar’s current situation (which is that her family wants to put her in a nursing home).At first I was mildly interested by the florid writing style, but the book soon made me numb (it actually caused me physical pain). The reason for this is that the main character of The Stone Angel’s story is the most repulsive fictional creation I’ve ever beheld. Hagar’s bloated idiocy renders her ineffably repellent after just a few chapters. Being 90 years old, her thoughts and dialogue are completely separated from reason, destroying any interest a person could have in the progress of the story. Her flashbacks further reinforce her overweening nature. I suppose this book has merit if you wish to enter the mind of a 90-year old arrogant woman whose logical faculties have been shattered, but who really wants to read about that? Sure it’s believable (for which some reviews have credited it), but why on earth does anyone care about a cantankerous old hag with bowel problems? Talk about the ultimate anti-hero!


V for Vendetta by Alan Moore & David Lloyd.

2.0 out of 5 stars Very well done … but somehow lacking, September 29, 2005

Let me first say that it’s a well-written, fascinating, literate piece of work. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

Then again, afterwards you’re left with a sort of empty feeling. Because where did those horrors Moore alludes to come from? And the answer is: from the beliefs that Moore espouses!

Yes, ladies and gentlemen. In the scene where he broadcasts a message via a TV station, he plainly states that we are just animals, fresh off the tree. And this was the exact view that Hitler, for one, used to justify his campaign of killing the unwanted: the old, the infirm, the mentally ill, gays, Jews. As Bethell writes:

“During the period of American neutrality in World War I, Kellogg was posted to the headquarters of the German general staff and was shocked to find German military leaders, sometimes with the Kaiser present, supporting the war with an “evolutionary rationale.” They did so with “a particularly crude form of natural selection, defined as inexorable, bloody battle. …
“You like Darwin?” The German intellectuals were saying. “We’ll give you Darwin.” (end quote)

*I’ve been watching all of Extras these days.

Eventually her father comes back, but Elsie is all awkward and shy with him, so he thinks she’s scared of him. Also, he secretly dislikes her. But he wants to be a good father to her, so he takes over every aspect of her life, particularly breakfast: she’s not allowed to drink coffee, eat meat or hot bread, and she won’t be allowed to taste butter until she’s, like, twelve. According to one of the pieces in The Girl’s Own, a collection of essays edited by Claudia Nelson and Lynn Vallone, some mid-nineteenth century doctors thought hot bread and coffee led to premature sexual development in young girls. Personally, I think avoiding her father’s friend Mr. Travilla would be as much help to Elsie on that front as giving up coffee. He’s creepy.

Anyway, Mr. Dinsmore grows to love Elsie, and of course she adores him, so they get along pretty well, so long as she’s completely obedient, which she always is, provided he doesn’t tell her to do anything fun on a Sunday. The one time he does, Elsie falls off a piano stool and hits her head, almost being killed.

Melody on Elsie Dinsmore written by Martha Finley

Maybe I’ll get a post up on that Moravia novel some time today. Maybe not. I have the first Elsie book opened in a different tab and a pile of books I need to go through and I haven’t had lunch.

In the beginning of the last chapter, I inform’d you exactly when I was born; — but I did not inform you, how. No; that particular was reserved entirely for a chapter by itself; — besides, Sir, as you and I are in a manner perfect strangers to each other, it would not have been proper to have let you into too many circumstances relating to myself all at once. — You must have a little patience. I have undertaken, you see, to write not only my life, but my opinions also; hoping and expecting that your knowledge of my character, and of what kind of mortal I am, by the one, would give you a better relish for the other: As you proceed further with me, the slight acquaintance which is now beginning betwixt us, will grow into familiarity; and that, unless one of us is in fault, will terminate in friendship. —- ¹O diem præclarum! —- then nothing which has touched me will be thought trifling in its nature, or tedious in its telling. Therefore, my dear friend and companion, if you should think me somewhat sparing of my narrative on my first setting out, — bear with me, — and let me go on, and tell my story my own way: —- or if I should seem now and then to trifle upon the road, —- or should sometimes put on a fool’s cap with a bell to it, for a moment or two as we pass along, — don’t fly off, — but rather courteously give me credit for a little more wisdom than appears upon my outside: — and as we jog on, either laugh with me or, or at me, or in short, do anything, — only keep your temper.

¹”O glorious day.” A stock phrase from Cicero’s De Senectus (On Old Age).

From The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne. Footnote by Ian Watt. 

Stephen King sent me straight to Sorrentino for help. I tried to get back the Goldberg: Variations but it wasn’t working. A good shot of Gilbert Sorrentino’s protagonist, the hilariously awful Anthony Lamont, is just what I needed to provide a quick recovery.

It turns out that there are a few similarities between Mulligan Stew and The People of Paper, the biggest being that both have writers who have characters in their stories-in-progress who have lives of their own and try to rebel against their creators in different ways. (Sadly, I’ve seen a glimmer of the “self-indulgence” that A.V. Club reviewer mentioned in reference to Plascencia’s novel. I tend to dislike books in which the author makes an appearance and I’m not sure whether Plascencia has justified the move to me yet. But I still think well of everything else so we’ll see.)

I want to post another excerpt from Sorrentino’s novel because a recent bit seemed too good to keep to myself. You’re lucky enough to get a glimpse into Anthony Lamont’s novel-in-progress, which aspires to be some kind of literary Dashiell Hammett imitation. Here the unreliable narrator, Martin Halpin, of the story is fantasising about the virgin/whore Daisy who was married but cheating with Halpin’s friend and business partner, Ned (who he maybe murdered, but isn’t sure because he can’t remember!).

Forgetting for a moment, forgetting — as if I could forget! — to set down here for my delight and the envy of posterity that they did never know her, I hasten to amend this oversight, I mean, the magic that her voice worked upon my poor, my yearning soul. Have you ever heard mission bells ringing? What music doth the bard’s thousand twangling instruments convey to the imagination? Or the yingle yingle of a pair of fine-wrought Swedish campanellas? None of them at best could ever match the thrilling tenor of this lady’s sweet vibrato, the trim sophistication of her yells. O husky huffs and puffs! In gardens soft and dark as midnight-blue velour, I place her avocado ones, her tonsils tremulous. Those decibels I fleshed in desirous tossing on my lonely cot set my brain to singing and all my skin to ache. To hear the trombone of her sighs, the oboe of her muttering! I wish that I might be a pair of ears. Her coughs were violin sonatas and love words drifting on her breath the song of Solomon Viola. When she laughed my mind was filled with images of silken legs and thighs close-hugged by lace-edged garters. And her singing was a brace of shining heels. Thus did I vex myself, her voice so protean, invading my imagination. Her creamy sighs chinchilla, her chats raw silk — in her mouth the dullest argot turned pistachio and peach and French vanilla. A gelati, a spumoni, a cannoli, a tortoni! In my dreams I sucked the sweetness of her tongue. I woke to the all alone blues, that empty bed, big eight-wheeler rollin’ down the track, far hoot of whistle, vague sounds or memories of sounds, softly slipping out the window. A moment of self-abuse and I could face my coffee, hoping that the percolator’s pops would not throw up to me the maddening delight of hearing Daisy belching quietly. There was no noise that she could make, real or imagined, too crude for sly List’nin’ Tom. Brp! Frt! Hlp! Znp! Sht! Wrf! Bch! Onf! Upf! I reveled in them all! Tell me then, I whisper to the walls, why this pus-bitter fall of solitude? I want her close to me forever, one enormous never-ending female noise. Oh joys! Toys for the lonely eardrum. So I mumbled to intolerable privacy.

From Mulligan Stew by Gilbert Sorrentino

Sometimes I think Lamont’s to pull a “modernist style” on the reader, other times I’m concerned for his health.

You’re used to my excerpts of Paris Review writer interviews. This time around the source is Mulligan Stew and the “interview/essay” was found in one of Anthony Lamont’s character’s lit mags. This excerpt is not library safe. (Or it could be, because, you know, you might not find it funny at all and just think me very odd.) The interviewer was a Mr. Richard Schiller, and I got some cheap amusement from imagining this was the sort of thing Richard Shickel would praise the print literati for producing.

Rheum gathers in his weary eyes from the harsh sun and motor exhaust. He slowly, patiently wipes it away and smears it, with his curious, blunt, laborer’s thumbs, onto his lavender (“Lavender? You’ll find it’s amethyst,” he says gruffly.) sport shirt. He wipes and smears, wipes and smears, but the rheum continues to well up in the magical old eyes, his shirt is streaked.

McCoy sips his warm bourbon and ginger ale. Or Bronx. Or brandy and soda. Not scotch. Why is he not drinking Scotch?

We are alone in the billiard room next to the bar at the Hotel Splendide. He had Hattie, his devoted wife, make their home at this splendid old baroque hotel, in the winter and summer, and in the fall and spring as well. “It is our adventure,” he smiles. The Splendide is somewhat disconcertingly eerie, particularly in the off-season, when almost all the rooms seem to be occupied by nobody save the strange creatures of McCoy’s celebrated imagination. In the vast dining room (which, McCoy remarks, “reminds one of those preposterous American gymnasiums where people indulge in, what is it called? baskets ball?”), on some bitter January evenings there are “three old rouged catamites and a doddering priestess of Lesbos,” says McCoy.


When he travels, which is rare (“One stays at the Splendide because one does not like to be too far from France — but one does not actually wish to be in it!”), McCoy complains that the concierges often misspell messages, both from and to him. He cannot bear this because his compulsively nagging irritation with it puts him off his work.


Italy is an impossible country, he insists. He is always outraged by the wild, fruitless gesturing of the people and the continual noise. And the unbelievable food! Nobody can spell anywhere in Italy, he decides, except at the Hotel Melanzana. “Not even Dante — a ridiculously overrated author — could spell. I’ve been thinking of writing a letter about my researches into this to The New York Review, but one hesitates for fear of becoming embroiled in a literary feud with outraged Italians. That city is chockablock with greaseballs.” He is wryly amused at his sally.


Q: How do you prepare each day to face the day?
A: I look at my bankbooks.


Q: What literary complexities do you find most interesting? That is, what do you like most to “solve”, so to speak, as a novelist?
A: One wishes to create characters who will speak directly to the minds of comparative literature professors and intelligent book reviewers.


Before Hattie’s attack — which McCoy has magically and facetiously transformed into “Hattie’s Horrible Hives” — the couple had gone to a new hotel at Asse, a small city noted for its scrupulous typists. Here, in this quiet place, he began his new novel, of which he has finished sixty pages.

He calls it The Mounted. “You might think of the title in relation to taxidermy,” he says. “That sort of life in death — or death in life,” he says. “One does not wish to convey anything of the sexual, you see. Sex is something for the cinema people.


Q: What do you feel have been your literary failings, if any? How would you defend these failings, if such there be?
A: My only literary “failing,” as you so drolly put it, has been in my reticence to attack that greatest of literary frauds, James Joyce, or Shame’s Voice, as I have somewhere justly called him. Have you ever read those letters of his? Good God! They are the letters of a man with a grocer’s assistant’s mind. They are concerned only with getting help, or love, or money. To defend this “failing” of mine, I would simply say that one has a responsibility to refrain from kicking at a mere drudge of the Muse.

From Mulligan’s Stew by Gilbert Sorrentino.

September is over and I finished an armful of books, including Emma by Jane Austen which I finished in an all-day Sunday marathon. It’s made me more skeptical, if not in outright opposition, with critics (perhaps film directors and writers more pertinently?) who insist that Austen is a moral feminist before her time. I’ve now read all of her novels except Persuasion and all have her supporting the status quo in gender, class and value. Certainly she’s not the first novelist to portray intelligent female characters, if that’s what all the fuss is about, right? Her skill and style set her ahead of the pack, I can agree with that, but I could not help cringing at how Harriet Smith was eventually put in her place and prospects with Mr. Martin. Austen near shudders at the thought of people reaching too far beyond their social ken. (You can’t use Pride and Prejudice as an example because, as Elizabeth Bennett proudly asserted to Lady Catherine de Borough, she is a “gentleman’s daughter”.) So matters of finance can be breached but illegitimate children must be trundled off with kindly farmers. (I know that’s not the only reason she wasn’t suited for Elton, Churchill or Knightley but it was certainly a significant one.)

I did enjoy it though, more than I expected because it seems to be the novel after Mansfield Park that can go either way for readers. It was a refreshing change to read of an Austen protagonist allowed to be less perfect in significant ways than the usual. The writer of the introduction babbled on at length about the numerous switching in narrative voices or something like that, but I didn’t notice a thing, swept along in a cadence that feels as comfortable as Louise Bennet’s writings in Jamaican patois. It gave me chills.

One thing that puzzles me is how Mr. Knightley ever managed to become a romantic favourite among some Austen fans. I could understand Emma’s ardour, for she had lived with him her whole life and so gained a more complete experience with him. The reader, however, is only privileged to his tiresome lectures and moral observations over and over and over…I mean if that’s your type that’s fine but I don’t get it. I cheered loudly when during his proposal to Emma he said, “I have blamed you, and lectured you, and you have borne it as no other woman in England would have borne it.” Truer words were never spoken! (I don’t lust after any of the Austen heroes, although I do find Mr. Bingley charming.)

I started Mulligan Stew by Gilbert Sorrentino, a novel I’ve mentioned here with dread in the past as one of those intimidating “experimental” novels. As usual, with these kind of books, I started out more or less sure that I’d understand nothing and it would all fly over my head. To the contrary! First of all it’s the funniest thing I’ve read in ages. Any one familiar with the contemporary “literary fiction” scene and academic criticism, with literary magazines, will be falling off whatever piece of furniture you’re sitting on regularly.

The main character is Anthony Lamont, a published writer blind to his own works’ faults and pretensions to a magnificent degree. It’s the only word for it. The novel opens with some of the most laughable, painful writing I’ve come across (painful because I recognised its kind before and it wasn’t a parody). I think it must take considerable skill and control for a novelist to produce pages and pages of horrid writing and have it show to your benefit and your character’s detriment. Anyway it was painfully obvious that Lamont was trying to write some kind of literary hard-boiled mystery. (Oh Hammett, I weep for your sake. Coincidentally I read a laughable bit of criticism in the Guardian that was trying to mimic that “hard-boiled” aesthetic. Or something. Just read it and tell me you didn’t laugh derisively. I couldn’t finish the damn thing it was so painful.) Unfortunate readers are treated to this work-in-progress, as well as entries in Lamont’s writing diary, letters to his sister. ex-girlfriend, and an English professor in which Lamont writes, with no shame, that “I have been giving a great deal of thought to and taking copious notes of my novels, and stories as well, to enable me to make up a kind of “source” essay that you might draw on for assistance”, and journal entries from the characters in his latest draft, who moan at the torture he puts them under, make feeble plans for escape, and through observations reveal more simple flaws in Lamont’s writing.

It’s too good, it’s really too good. Like Josipovici he tests the fiction reader’s expectations and tolerance for divergences that depart from traditional narrative style and content. In Goldberg: Variations it’s the narrative structure and styles, dialogue, exposition, descriptive, straight character biographical sketches, encyclopaedic titbits etc. that keep one engaged and excited. In Mulligan Stew, for me, it’s the humour more than anything else. Yes, I’m intrigued and tickled by the metafictional characteristics, the inclusion of letters and journals that really make the book something of a throwback, but a chapter in which five pages are comprised of lists and lists of book and journal titles…that isn’t, in and of itself, very interesting. But the titles…. Martin Halpin, the hapless, hackneyed unreliable narrator in Anthony Lamont’s draft, and his companion Ned Beaumont, are walking around in a house, the owner of which is unknown. The only thing they could discover was that he or she must be a “renaissance” man, otherwise the number and range of books he it could not be credibly owned “by any one person”. Some of my favourites were

1. The Truth About Vegetables by Harry Krishna-Rama (Reminded me of Kingslover’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life for no reason)

2. So You Want to be Jewish? by Saul Bernard Roth (self-explanatory)

3. Whores: Are they Human? by M.C. Puerco (Same)

4. Vaginal Imagery in the Later Poems of Thumbull Stickney by Lillie Bullero

5. From Burgers to Billions: The Saga of MacDonald’s by E. Coli

6. Fire Pail by Vladimir Papilion

7. Bitter and Vicious: A Study of the Later Writings of Gilles de Sorentain by H. Poloie

8. Repairing your Tree’s Crotch by Henry Thoreau

9. Hiroshima: An Act of Christian Charity by Rich Buckley

10. New York is Really Swell! by Ronald Paloma

11. Lesbianism in Western Ireland, 1886 – 1891 by Olive d’Oyly and Winnie Carr

I shan’t bother you with any more , though I defy you to choose a favourite journal title from Huh?, Zonk!, Nu? and The Review Review.

The only problem I have with it so far is that I can’t read as much as I like in one go because I’ll get a stomach ache from laughing so much. Anyway it must be read to be believed.

Next week I’ll probably take a break from Averno and write up on that Salkey novel I keep referring to. Also keep a look out for an interview I did with the indefatigable Geoffrey Philp who thought I was fascinating enough to feature in his series on “authors, book lovers, and interesting people in and from South Florida and the Caribbean.” His latest one is with Tobias S. Buckell, a SF writer. Chapters, the Canadian chain bookstore, sent me a press release about something, so if you’re interested you should probably visit their website and look for some reader community excitement online club…thing.


You have an extensive reputation as a wit. Has this interfered, do you think, with your acceptance as a serious writer?



I don’t want to be classed as a humorist. It makes me feel guilty. I’ve never read a good tough quotable female humorist and I never was one myself. I couldn’t do it. A “smart cracker” they called me, and that makes me sick and unhappy. There’s a helluva distance between wise-cracking and wit. Wit has truth in it; wise-cracking is simply callisthenics [sic] with words. I didn’t mind so much when they were good but for a long time anything that was called a crack was attributed to me…and then they got the shaggy dogs.



How about satire?



Ah, satire. That’s another matter. They’re the big boys. If I’d been called a satirist there’d be no living with me. But by satirist I mean those boys in other centuries. The people we call satirists now are those who make cracks at topical topics and consider themselves satirists — creatures like George S. Kaufman and such who don’t even know what satire is. Lord knows, a writer should show his times, but not show them in wisecracks. Their stuff is not satire; it’s as dull as yesterday’s newspaper. Successful satire has got to be pretty good the day after tomorrow.


From “The Art of Fiction” No. 13 interview with Dorothy Parker, the Paris Review,  Summer 1956 

Funniest review of the year. I read Ed’s parody of it before the original and it’s ten times funnier now. Wtf, NYTBR? Wtf.

For more fluff here’s a meme created by Sylvia at the Classical Bookworm. Then read her post on the Permanence of Parchment compared to our meagre forms of record keeping now. It’s something I worry about every time I read about libraries depending more and more on digital information.


I’ve read it
I want to read it
I’ve seen the movie*
I’m indifferent
I have it on DVD
I want to marry the leading man/lady!

The list:

1 Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë, 1847

2 Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen, 1813*

3 Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare, 1597*

4 Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë, 1847*

5 Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell, 1936*

6 The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje, 1992

7 Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier, 1938

8 Doctor Zhivago, Boris Pasternak, 1957

9 Lady Chatterley’s Lover, DH Lawrence, 1928

10 Far from The Madding Crowd, Thomas Hardy, 1874

11 = My Fair Lady, Alan Jay Lerner, 1956*

The African Queen, CS Forester, 1935*

13 The Great Gatsby, F Scott Fitzgerald, 1925

14 Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen, 1811*

15 = The Way We Were, Arthur Laurents, 1972

War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy, 1865

17 Frenchman’s Creek, Daphne du Maurier, 1942

18 Persuasion, Jane Austen, 1818

19 Take a Girl Like You, Kingsley Amis, 1960

20 Daniel Deronda, George Eliot, 1876


Maurice, E.M. Forester, 1971 (posth.)

The Good Solider: A Tale of Passion, Ford Madox Ford, 1915 (If Wuthering Heights can be called a “great love story”….)

Tag, you’re it!

I’ve occasionally come across news articles or blog posts in which classic authors, traditionally seen as humorous, are deemed not so. Or the person may find the author funny, but not literally, laugh out loud, slap your knee funny. The two who get this more than others (that I’ve seen) are Oscar Wilde and Jane Austen.

The question: am I the only person who finds these two literally, laugh out loud, slap your knee funny? They don’t write slapstick it’s true but come on, who can do the mock-and-take-down more neatly than Austen? Whose characters can be as outrageous and arch and ridiculous as Wilde’s? Let me know I’m not the only one who throws her head back and cackles at the dead fogeys. (Other authors to consider: Blaise Cendrars (for Moravagine anyway), Miguel de Cervantes, Mark Twain (A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court).)

It turns out that the boring, mysterious Premier Classics line published my Random House and difficult to find on any site except Chapters is not the celebrated line destined to bite Penguin Classics in the butt. It’s these.


Ron at the GalleyCat posted the news and linked to Première de Couverture which has more pictures of the books that are being launched. A few look good and just right like Alice in Wonderland but most look like they’re trying too hard and the Austen covers are plain boring to me. (I get the contrast of the different motifs but it’s still plumb boring.) Three cheers for the book jacket focus group though that said the Penguin Red covers were patronising.

I’m not sure how these are going to work in my town since the local chain store has been hitting us over the head with Premier. I’m guessing the indie will have better luck at selling them. Update: Or it might not get them at all. Thomas of Premiere de Couverture wrote in comments, “I wouldn’t dismiss those Premier Classics (a Chapters exclusive!) just yet, as there’s been no confirmation that Random House will even bother to release the new Vintage Classics in Canada. As I mentioned in my post, the local Random House rep in Montreal isn’t even aware of their existence…”.

That would suck. I don’t see myself buying books like Gulliver’s Travels or Moby-Dick, two of the few intriguing covers, without introductions or endnotes, but I would dearly prefer to pass by those books on the shelves rather than the insipid stuff they chose for the poorly made Premiers. (I can’t think that Canadians would respond better to these in comparison. Who would?)


The Conversational Reading has a generous offering of interviews, reviews and commentary on translation for your browsing pleasure. I really enjoyed Esposito’s Queneau reviews and interviews with Chad Post, programme manager of Reading the World, and Karen S. Kingsbury, translator of Eileen Chang’s Love in a Fallen City.

Which leads nicely to an informative interview the great people at Litminds had with Edwin Frank, editor of the NYRB classics series. He gives the background on how the series started, the idea behind its mission and what the word “classic” means for the imprint. One of the first authors whose work they printed was Ivy Compton-Burnett! You see? You have to read her now. 🙂 (via A Different Stripe)

At A Different Stripe I also read about a new book in the series The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy which sounds smashing. Oddly enough this particular edition can’t be found on the national chain store’s website nor on; it has the Viragao Modern Classics edition but it’s only available from third party sellers. Isn’t that strange?

I’ll end with the funny. The Smart Bitches and their readers have been having a lot of photoshop fun recently with romance covers. There’s the LOLHunks:


And an inspirational romance cover design contest based on the creepy figures at that wacko Creationist Museum.