Tag: comedy

Review: Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops

You know what kind of book this is: the kind of book that’s shelved under “humour” or “novelty” or “gifts”; the kind of book they stack next to the checkouts in case of impulse purchase.

It’s fine. It took me about an hour to read, cover-to-cover. I’m not sure quite what I was expecting, but it wasn’t this, exactly; somehow I thought it might be meatier, or have a more coherent narrative.

Instead, it’s a collection of one-liners and anecdotes about dealing with bookshop customers:

Customer: Do you have that book – I forget what it’s called; it’s about people with large, hairy feet.

Bookseller: Do you mean hobbits? The Lord of the Rings?

Customer: No…erm – The Hairy Bikers.

Some of them are funny; some of them are disturbing (the customer who, on being told that the LGBT+ fiction is shelved with the rest of the fiction, looks suspiciously at the book she’s holding and sidles out); some of them shed light on the troubles independent booksellers are facing (customers asking for recommendations and then buying on line; customers asking for discounts). It’s perhaps a little nose-tapping, especially when it comes to the latter issues: “well, of course that’s ridiculous and I wouldn’t do that,” says the wise reader, but the fact is lots of people are doing that, or these anecdotes wouldn’t exist in the first place.

Anyway. It’s a diverting enough read. Borrow it or give it as a gift; probably not worth buying it for yourself.

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Review: Where’d You Go, Bernadette

My head hurts today, so it’s gonna be a short post.

I liked Where’d You Go, Bernadette, though. Our Heroine is Bee, a high-school student whose mother, the titular Bernadette, disappears after a rapidly-escalating dispute with a parent next door. The story’s told through letters, emails, notes and other found-footage-type paraphernalia, collated by Bee in an attempt to tell her mother’s side of the story.

It’s a good-natured, fun novel which also resists simple solutions. Bernadette has agoraphobia, which reads to the people around her as fecklessness or thoughtlessness; at one point her husband believes she’s a danger to herself, and tries to get her committed. Bee’s project of collecting evidence serves as a reminder that there are many sides to every story – once we have the full picture, Bernadette’s actions look a lot more rational. The novel’s a reminder not to leap to quick judgements, and to treat people with compassion and respect even when they make bad decisions. I’d really like to read more like this: gentle, funny stories that embrace neurodiversity and do some proper thematic work in the meantime.

Review: Narbonic: The Perfect Collection Volume 1

Narbonic was a webcomic that ran daily between 2000 and 2006. I only know this because the Bandersnatch supported a Kickstarter to publish the entire run in two physical volumes, which thus currently reside on our bookshelves. (You can also find Narbonics here, for free, with notes by author Shaenon K. Garrity. This will prove to be a source of distraction and procrastination for me for at least the next week or so. Although I am told it is also a source of spoilers for the second volume, so.)

The strip revolves around the exploits of Helen B. Narbon, mad scientist, and her henchfolk: Dave the computer guy, Mell the evil intern and Artie the genetically engineered superintelligent gerbil.

Actually analysing something like this feels a bit like missing the point. It’s not really…for that? Most of what it’s doing is mashing up our cultural expectations of what mad scientists are and do with Western cultural codes around the workplace. For Humorous Effect, obviously. And it’s a webcomic: I’m not sure how far Garrity planned in advance, but certainly the early strips are an explosive mish-mash of cultural references and themes and general light-hearted internetty fooling around. It’s fun, and it’s possible to enjoy things that are fun, but I’m not sure there’s that much more to say about it.

Review: Crazy Rich Asians

Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians is a tale of extravagant wealth, designer dresses, catty relatives, wonderful food and a lavish wedding.

The obligatory couple at the centre of all this is Rachel Chu and Nick Young of New York. Unbeknownst to economics professor Rachel, Nick is the scion of one of the wealthiest families in Asia – so when he invites her home for the holidays to attend a society wedding in Singapore, it’s something of a shock for her. For their part, Nick’s family isn’t terribly impressed that he’s determined to marry a nobody.

What follows is a not-exactly-revolutionary romantic comedy, as Rachel navigates the convoluted rituals and customs of the society she’s inadvertently stumbled into, facing the contempt of Nick’s family, the jealousy of the women who want him for themselves, and the impossible standards she must now live up to. Will their relationship survive this turmoil?

I enjoyed it primarily as escapism, a glimpse into the kind of lifestyle that is for the overwhelming majority of people utterly out of reach; a chance to live that life vicariously, through fiction. In other words, I experienced it as a comfort read, consolatory and conservative: it never criticises the extraordinary privilege of its characters, or the systems which produce such privilege, and as such, it shores up that privilege, encourages us to admire and aspire to it, protecting the hidden injustices on which it rests.

This conservatism overwhelms the gestures the novel does make towards a more nuanced engagement with its subject. It’s most problematic when it comes to the novel’s ableist title, which signals that we’re meant to read the characters’ wealth as ridiculous while simultaneously propping up a value system that (indirectly) enables their privilege in the first place. And while I appreciated Kwan’s recognition of how deliberately exclusive the rituals of the wealthy are, how calculatedly obfuscatory they are to outsiders, how difficult, in other words, it really is to be Cinderella, the fact remains that this is a world that Rachel inevitably eventually chooses to enter, and so one that’s validated as desirable. It’s the ultimate fantasy: as a woman, you just have to be nice enough, persevere long enough, be romantically interesting enough, to overcome those barriers.

There are good things, of course; most obviously, the fact that this, a novel aimed squarely at a mass-market Western audience, is populated entirely by Asian characters. It’s also, despite/because of its conservatism, a lot of fun to read – the narrative beats come exactly in all the right places, a familiar, comfortable, cosy rhythm. I think it’s okay to enjoy things like that, as long as we can acknowledge their flaws too, and call for better. For now, though – there are two sequels to get stuck into…

Review: Feet of Clay

Feet of Clay is the nineteenth Discworld novel, which (astonishingly, when you think about it) puts it relatively early in the series. It’s the third novel about Ankh-Morpork’s City Watch, a police force which is slowly regaining relevance under Commander Samuel Vimes.

As with all of the Discworld novels, the plot is so encrusted with wordplay and humour and rich vital detail that it’s pretty much vestigial, but it is, more or less, a murder mystery. Someone has been killing old men. Somehow, the golems of the city are involved: giant clay people without voices, who are feared at worst and ignored at best, although they’re highly prized as workers because they don’t need to rest or eat or sleep. There’s also a plot to depose Ankh-Morpork’s supreme ruler Havelock Vetinari, because there’s always a plot to depose Vetinari. And there’s a dwarf who defies convention by openly identifying as female, in what is possibly Discworld’s closest approach to a queer storyline.

There is, in other words, a lot going on. That’s one of the great joys of the Ankh-Morpork novels, though: how full they are of life and incident, of the anarchic and wonderful energies of the archetypal city. (Ankh-Morpork is pretty obviously a mirror of London, with its great curving polluted river, its Isle of Gods, its defunct city gates.)

Much of that energy is generated by the social tensions the novel lays out, conflicts between old and new: the centuries-old vampire who manipulates short-lived humans like pawns on a chessboard comes up against the newly-relevant Watch and its stubbornly working-class Commander Vimes, fast rising to prominence; the brand-new concept of dwarf femininity attracts the opprobrium of much of dwarf-kind; the idea of golems suddenly having rights and thoughts and plans of their own is abhorrent, even terrifying, to Ankh-Morpork’s citizenry. But there’s nothing schematic or straightforward about this broad pattern of tension. Cherry Littlebottom, the lipstick-wearing, skirt-clad dwarf, harbours a commonly-held prejudice against werewolves, which she expresses repeatedly to her friend Constable Angua, who is herself a closeted werewolf. Vetinari, despite being the best ruler the city has ever had, despite being despised by aristocrats and generally on the side of justice, is an unelected tyrant with the capacity for occasional cruelty. The golems aren’t really new, they’re old, much like the Watch: so old they’ve become invisible. It’s this seething complexity, this web of allegiances and relationships, that makes Feet of Clay one of the very best of the Discworld novels: its view on the world is not simple.

But there is an arc, of course, and it is the long arc of justice. Discworld, and especially Ankh-Morpork, is founded on a vaguely Victorian idea of progress: the idea that things are getting better, slowly, by degrees, but inexorably. Things tend to be slightly better for people at the end of a Discworld novel than they do at the beginning.

Which is what makes these novels so comforting to return to, over and over again, in a time when things seem to be going backwards, when civil rights campaigns are appropriated by the interests of capital. That reassurance that things will get better, coupled with that acknowledgement that the world is messy and complex. The energies of a city slowly climbing to the light.

Review: Maskerade

This review contains spoilers.

Maskerade is the eighteenth novel in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, so Wikipedia the Fount of All Knowledge tells me. I tend to think of it as one of my favourites, because there are some habits that are hard to shake: I was distinctly unimpressed with it on my last read over Christmas, but here I am again, going, “Maskerade! That’s a good one!”

To be clear, that’s not because I actually think it’s a good Discworld novel, as Discworld novels go. It sees a pair of formidable witches, Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg, heading down to Ankh-Morpork, the big city, to recover a young woman called Agnes Nitt. Agnes has run away to join the opera, with the help of her literally preternatural vocal abilities: she can sing in harmony with herself. Only, Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg want her to join their coven in the benighted, mountainous country of Lancre.

When this merry cavalcade reaches the Opera House, though, something is amiss: performers and staff alike are being terrorised by a mysterious masked, cloaked figure who makes improbable demands punctuated by far too many exclamation marks. The opera people know him as the Ghost: until recently he’s done nothing worse than demand a box to himself on opening night, but now he’s killing people. And yet: the show must go on…

And go on it does, with Pratchett’s customary humour, wit and humanity.

There’s something very Twelfth Night about this novel: the Opera House is a place where people experiment with their identities, slip into new roles, as it were. Agnes reinvents herself as Perdita X. Nitt (“Perditax”, as Nanny Ogg insists on calling her), a person she feels is more interesting and thinner (more on that later) than Agnes is. Nanny Ogg becomes A Lancre Witch, bestselling author of a cookbook that puts Nigella Lawson’s innuendoes to shame. A painfully shy young man finds confidence and grace when he puts on a mask.

It’s good fun seeing the witches confronted with this chaotic role-play: Pratchett tends to put them in stories about stories anyway, about how stories shape our perceptions of ourselves and others, and how we perform those stories. But I think Maskerade is a weaker example of the type: I’m not convinced that its anarchic performative play has a point beyond itself. It’s just fun. The Opera House, and its particular superstitions and narratives, is important in that it allows for this kind of experimentation, but it is ultimately a closed world, beholden only to itself. When people leave, things go back to normal. Nothing changes, outside in society.

Comedy is at its roots a conservative genre, of course, and Pratchett is a small-c conservative writer: his Discworld novels mostly involve something going wrong in the body politic, and that something becoming redressed by the end. (The Rincewind books are notable exceptions, as is Small Gods.) That conservatism also finds its way out in some slightly, uh, old-fashioned views. In particular, Maskerade has a bunch of fat jokes that haven’t aged well, and like Pratchett’s early writing relies on some humour with subtly sexist undertones.

I still like it, of course. Some habits are hard to shake. Besides, visiting Ankh-Morpork, this wonderful vibrant world of Pratchett’s, pragmatic yet hopeful, is always a joy. Just. Maybe don’t start with this one.

Review: Trigger Warning

If there is one thing I would like to happen in 2019, it is for us all to agree that Neil Gaiman’s work is nowhere near as edgy, dark or interesting as his public persona is.

(Actually, there are a lot of other things I would rather happen in 2019 – sustained action on climate change, the impeachment of Donald Trump, a second Brexit referendum – but, you know. Neil Gaiman’s also quite annoying.)

How did I end up reading Trigger Warning? The marketing for his work promises twisty, thorny fairy tales, urban fantasy from the underbelly of modern life, stories that are fun and yet meaty, and that was what I was hoping for from this collection of “Short Fictions and Disturbances”.

And once again, I found it lacking that indefinable something. Depth. Nuance. Resonance.

To me, the most satisfying fantasy, the best fairy tales, are built on a paradox: they describe something that is indescribable. Through omission or metaphor, they talk about the numinous, the earth-shattering intrusion of the Real into our lives that lie under layers of story and symbol; they are about things that cannot be narrated. They resonate because they contain lacunae.

Perhaps this is why Gaiman’s Sandman series of graphic novels works so much better for me than his novels and short stories do: the images supply that resonance; wordless, they speak the unspeakable. There is nothing in Trigger Warning that does the same.

If you’re looking for an example of the collection’s lack of depth and nuance, look no further than its red-flag-to-a-bull title, based on a deliberate misunderstanding of how the phrase “trigger warning” is actually used. In his introduction to the book, Gaiman muses, with reference to his title:

Are fictions safe places? And then I ask myself, Should they be safe places?

And then, later on, he talks about stories he read as a child:

they…taught me that, if I was going to read fiction, sometimes I would only know what my comfort zone was by leaving it; and now, as an adult, I would not erase the experience of having read them if I could.

This romanticising of story and having grown up through fiction, as so many of us readers did, is of a piece with Gaiman’s authorial persona: the mysterious storyteller/bard warning us that fiction is never just fiction, that it can lead us into the mire and through the dark forests of the night, and that this is, mystically, a good thing. But, you’ll notice, it’s not actually very well-argued. For a start, note how paying heed to a trigger warning becomes conflated with not leaving your “comfort zone”. No. Staying in your comfort zone is, like, never watching anything apart from Doctor Who on TV, or having the same sandwich every day for lunch. Whereas, as I suspect Gaiman very well knows, encountering a trigger unannounced can be for a PTSD sufferer a matter of life and death. Comfort zones are formed by habit, and, mostly, there’s nothing actually unsafe about leaving them. (Although, as a sidenote, what’s wrong with staying in your comfort zone at least some of the time?) Trigger warnings are about not destabilising someone’s entire mental health. Fiction doesn’t need to be a safe place, but neither should it be radically unsafe. There’s a world of difference between the two, and it says nothing for Gaiman’s power as a writer that he misses, skips over, that nuance.

As for the stories themselves: they are mostly quite ordinary. There are sub-Twilight Zone-ish stories with trick endings and nothing much else, like “The Thing about Cassandra” and “Click-Clack the Rattlebag”; very inferior verse offerings like “My Last Landlady”; riffs on other people’s work like “The Case of Death and Honey” (Sherlock Holmes) and “Nothing O’Clock” (Doctor Who). There’s an entire “Calendar of Tales”, all of them very short and very minor.

I’ve written about Gaiman’s squicky fetishisation/aesthetisisation of dead or unconscious female bodies before, and sure enough, it turns out here in force, marring particularly the better stories in the collection. Take “Diamonds and Pearls: A Fairy Tale”, which Gaiman originally wrote to accompany a photograph of a dead woman. (Actually it was his wife pretending to be dead for an art project, which actually makes the whole thing more troubling.) And the dramatic reveal at the end of the otherwise standout “Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains” is founded on the remembered image of a red-haired female skeleton.

I enjoyed “The Return of the Thin White Duke”, which feels like something that’s wandered out of a Mechanisms fanfic, but, once again, its sole female character is aesthetisised for the male gaze (although not dead, so that’s some improvement).

We can probably tie this aesthetisisation of women to Gaiman’s deliberate misuse of the phrase “trigger warning”, which originated in feminist spaces. In too much of his writing, women don’t get to have voices, and they don’t get to have agency: they exist to be looked at, to bear children, to inspire men to revenge or fulfilment. Their images and their words get co-opted by a highly influential white male author – an author whose public persona and reputation in the press exudes progressiveness.

My favourite story in the collection was “Black Dog”, a companion story to Gaiman’s novel American Gods. I’ll probably end up reading that too at some point. And I’ll probably finish it feeling disappointed and a bit angry.