Cannonball Read IV

A bunch of Pajibans reading and reviewing and honoring AlabamaPink.

Archive for the tag “satire”

narfna’s #CBR4 Review #59: Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

bernadetteWell, let this be a lesson to those who would open their mouths and spew venom into the world. I once wrote very publicly and loudly in a review that I could never love a satire — don’t even remember which book I was reviewing. The point is, this book has made me eat my words. This fucking book, man. I loved it. It’s my cheese, my oreo cookie, my soft blanket on a cold winter’s night, my let’s pack everything up and head out for an adventure because FUCK YEAH WE’RE ALIVE. I’m so glad I randomly picked this book up at my library. Like, last second, I was checking out and there it was, and I just grabbed it. Best last minute decision ever.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette is a modern day epistolary novel, but not like one of those ones you read as a teenager with like whiny emails and diary entries from lovelorn pimple-faces, it’s like layers and layers of subtle genius. Bee is fifteen and loves her mother, her eccentric and troubled mother, who one day disappears. The book is a meta-compilation supposedly put together by Bee of emails, articles, and other assorted correspondences that tell the story of Bernadette: what made her who she is, and what led up to her disappearance. The first 75% of the book is just a delightful satire, on the wealthy and privileged, on the self-deluded and spiritually empty — but what really makes it are the bits of real emotion that are constantly peeking through. This story genuinely made me feel things, and like I mean that it in all caps, FEEL THINGS. Plus, it’s just wacky. Maria Semple used to work on Arrested Development, if that gives you some idea of what I mean by ‘wacky.’

Now, just to warn you, I’m writing this all high off the ending (which was just fucking lovely), so I might be a bit biased, and you might end up reading it and being like, Ashley, what the fuck? Just keep that in mind. But to put it in frame of reference, I liked this book almost as much as I liked Ready Player One (and I fucking love Ready Player One), but it’s a different kind of love.

I don’t want to say anymore because I just want you to go read the book. I mean it. GO!

Valyruh’s #CBR4 Review #101: Lionel Asbo by Martin Amis

This is a tricky novel to review, as it had elements I both loved and hated. I know it has generated some strong reviews on both sides of the divide, and I would recommend that people read it with a measure of open-mindedness, a sense of humor, patience—and perhaps a dictionary of British slang in hand. And if you are easily offended, this book is not for you.

This is the story of the title character Lionel, an amoral thug from a low-class dystopic London (dubbed Diston in the novel) who rampages his way through the novel causing the reader to cringe at every turn. He makes his living as a “debt collector” with the help of two alcohol-and-Tabasco-fueled pit bulls, earned his anti-social behavior order (ASBO; get it?) at the tender age of 3, and views his regular stints in jail as moments of calm where “at least you know where you are.” Women are an unknowable source of angst, friends can’t be trusted, and the future doesn’t exist for the likes of Lionel. Money is all.

Our anti-hero is the youngest of 7 dysfunctional offspring from a variety of disappearing fathers, whose promiscuous mother Grace finished her baby-making by age 19, and then began a slow slide into dementia. Her daughter Cilla is dead at the start of the novel, and Cilla’s 15-year-old mixed-race son is being “raised” by Uncle Lionel, just six years his senior. The best advice “Uncle Li” can offer his nephew Desmond is to learn to use a knife and to choose porn over sex. However, Des yearns to find true love, to go to college, and is teaching himself languages and philosophy in between driving cabs to help defray costs.

The lonely Des gets seduced into having sex with his 39-year-old “grandmum,” and the rest of the novel is overlaid with his terror over how the murderous Lionel will respond to this when it ultimately comes out. But before that can happen, Lionel hits a lotto jackpot, winning himself a vast fortune which both gives him license to  gratify his every low desire and simultaneously takes away his raison d’etre. Lionel disappears into celebrity nightmare, is captured by a gold-digger smarter than him, and is pursued and mocked at every turn by the sensationalist media. We follow Lionel’s descent into hell—hysterically funny at times and yet painfully sad and often horrific at others—along with the simultaneous evolution of Des’ relationship with his lover Dawn into marriage, and eventual fatherhood.

Amis’ novel has been described by some as a sort of Dickensian commentary on the decline of the social order in which we live, and I found that when I managed to decipher the sometimes unintelligible British slang and get past the sometimes unnecessarily grotesque scenes, there was penetrating satire here definitely worth the slog.

Fofo’s #CBR4 Review #27-28: Divine Comedies by Tom Holt

Target: Tom Holt’s Here Comes the Sun and Odds and Gods

Profile: Comic Fantasy, Absurdist Fiction, Satire

There’s something soothing about British satire.  The formula is simple: take a modern social or political problem; build it into a fantasy or sci-fi setting; ridicule liberally and wrap everything up with a thoughtful look at the original problem.  Only, sometimes there’s nothing to do but accept that the universe seems to be built for the express purpose of driving us all to an earlier grave.  Tom Holt’s satire runs the gamut from meaningful social criticism to unsuccessful exercises in comic absurdism.  I’m particularly fond of his Snow White and the Seven Samurai mashup, but both of the novels in the Divine Comedies omnibus tend toward the absurd end of his spectrum.  Part of the problem is that when you’re talking about the meaning of life, the comic framework of satire undermines the thoughtful conclusion.  The world is pretty nasty and… we’re supposed to keep laughing?

Read the rest of the review…

Samantha’s #CBR4 review #13: The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov

What would happen if Satan came to town? Well, in Moscow, at least, various members of society find themselves either dead or in an insane asylum; a sold out seance at the Variety Theatre exposes the greed and hypocrisy of the upper classes, an entire office finds that they are compelled to break into song every five minutes or so, and there are some exceedingly strange goings-on in a certain apartment building  recently occupied by Mikhail Berlioz, whose death signals the opening strains of the madcap symphony wrought by “Professor Woland” and his merry band, and that’s just for a start. Meanwhile, Ivan Homeless, a poet who is among those committed, meets his neighbor at the asylum, an unnamed “Master” whose life disintegrates after Moscow’s literary critics lambast his opus magnum, a novel about Pontius Pilate. The Master mourns the loss of his beloved mistress, who he believes has forgotten him. She, however, when approached by one of Woland’s henchmen and offered a chance to make her dreams come true, finds herself the hostess at Satan’s ball. If she manages to get through a never-ending night of hobnobbing with a glittering company of evildoers, Margarita will have the opportunity to reunite with her lover. Would you make a deal with the devil for eternal happiness?

Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel, published posthumously in 1966, is a completely fascinating and mind-boggling read. I will admit that I spent the entire first half of the novel asking my husband, who’d read it before, when it would start to make any sense. After a while, though, the beautiful language (apologies for not remembering which translation I read), the entertaining characters, and the wildly imaginative story won me over. In the end, while The Master and Margarita is still slightly confusing, it proves itself to be a incredibly constructed study in the dichotomy of human nature, and a biting critique of Soviet society. The story-within-a-story, about the judgement and execution of Jesus Christ from the perspective of Pontius Pilate, is equally fascinating. Bulgakov paints “Yeshua” as merely a kind of free-thinking hippie who manages to run aground of important people, and Pilate himself as a political pawn. He’d rather have hired Yeshua on as a kind of philosophical advisor, but circumstances beyond his control force him to condemn the man to death.

This notion of Pilate as merely human instead of one of history’s most well-known bad guys exemplifies Bulgakov’s theme of good and evil, but the more fascinating example is Woland himself. Throughout the novel, there is no real instance of him being responsible for any evil-doing; rather, it is his henchman who cause all the trouble. There is a point at which Woland refers to himself as a “department,” suggesting that (much like Pilate) he, and by extension his opposition, are merely doing a job that may or may not reflect on any personal ideal. His treatment of Margarita and her Master, in fact, suggests that he is more a sympathetic soul than anything else. I think that one could persuasively argue that Woland, far from being the villain of the story, is in fact its hero. He and his compatriots come to Moscow to punish the guilty and enact justice for those who have been treated unfairly. That their means are, well, devilish may give the lie to their ends, but that doesn’t necessarily appear to be what Bulgakov wants us to believe. His obvious contempt for the bureaucratic society he is satirizing comes through at every turn. That the novel was heavily censored in Russia upon its original release may serve to prove his point.

Russian novelists, regardless of what century they were writing in, seem to be a wordy bunch. Bulgakov is no exception here, but unlike some of his predecessors, I think the events of The Master and Margarita keep the novel moving along at a good pace. There’s something for everyone here: politics, poetry, romance, humor, drama, sex, violence…  If one can avoiding losing patience with the early chapters, which seem rather disjointed and haphazard,  this is a truly imaginative and fantastical novel; a little confusing, but ultimately worthwhile.



narfna’s #CBR4 Review #52: Redshirts by John Scalzi


Sorry, I couldn’t help myself, and I really couldn’t have picked a better book for my #52. Scalzi is now officially on my list of my favorite authors ever, and not because what he writes is necessarily deep or profound or written in the most complex language, but simply because the guy knows how to write a smart, fun book. I know I’ve compared Scalzi’s books to Mexican food before, but really it’s the best comparison. Reading Scalzi, and Redshirts in particular, is the literary equivalent of eating a really good burrito — it’s not the most nutritious food in the universe, but it fills you up, and damn does it taste good going down.

A redshirt, for those of you who don’t know the term (and where have you been living?) is a character type popularized by the Star Trek franchise. A redshirt exists only to die, a cheap and easy way to up the ante in any given situation, and in the original Star Trek series, they almost always wore the red shirt of a Starfleet security officer. Scalzi takes this concept and runs away with it, making a group of redshirts in a Star Trek spoof universe his main heroes. Instead of Captain Kirk, we have Captain Abernathy. Instead of the USS Enterprise, we have the Universal Union’s flagship, the Intrepid. The new recruits, led by narrator and protagonist Ensign Andrew Dahl, quickly realize there is something horribly wrong aboard the Intrepid — awful, catastrophic things seem to occur on a regular basis, especially on away missions, and while the five most senior officers on the ship always seem to survive, at least one crew member always, always dies. The entire crew lives in fear that they might be next, and none of them understand why.

Redshirts is a tongue-in-cheek, laugh out loud spoof, but it’s also a loving homage to a subject that Scalzi clearly feels affection for. Even if you aren’t that familiar with Star Trek in any of its incarnations, Star Trek itself has had such a huge impact on popular culture that you’re going to get the jokes in this book, because you’ve seen them other places in the forty-five years since Star Trek first aired. It’s part of the zeitgeist. And even if you don’t get the jokes, Redshirts is still a rip-roaring good yarn with likable characters and a zippy, clever, lightning-fast narrative. Redshirts also comes with three codas, each a sort of epilogue to the main narrative that fills out the Redshirts universe and some hanging plot threads that weren’t crucial to the main narrative. All three are fun little vignettes that I’m glad Scalzi included — I like to see authors getting experimental every once in a while.

If you like science fiction at all, run out and get Redshirts right now. You’ll laugh your asses off, and it will remind you of the many reasons you love the genre in the first place. I guess the rest of you can suck it, because WTF? What is wrong with you. Anyway, you might like it, too.

[Cross-posted to Goodreads]

narfna’s #CBR4 Review #51: Lady Susan, The Watsons, Sanditon by Jane Austen

I’ve had this tiny little volume on my shelf for quite some time. I’ve been saving it, you see, because it was my last new Austen. Even though I’ve read a good chunk of the classics for both my graduate and undergraduate degrees, Jane Austen’s books remain the only classic literature that I have ever re-read for pleasure. When I read Sense & Sensibility, Pride & Prejudice, and Persuasion*, I always feel like they were written just for me. It seems monumentally unfair that we should have only six full works by Miss Austen, but wah wah, that’s a battle long over, anyway why don’t I just stop whining and write fanfic like everybody else*. BECAUSE I REFUSE THAT’S WHY. Long after her death, scholars managed to cobble together some of her unpublished writing, and the result is about 211 pages of cruelty — the three surviving fragments in this book end up being more of a tease than anything else.

*I don’t care so much about Emma, Northanger Abbey, or Mansfield Park. Emma herself is kind of a turd even if that whole thing turns out okay anyway, Northanger Abbey is fun but it doesn’t punch my emotional buttons, and Mansfield Park has a weaksauce heroine and is waaay too long.

*To the middle aged ladies who insist on writing dirty novels with all of Jane Austen’s characters, PLEASE STOP. FOR THE LOVE OF GOD.

Lady Susan, The Watsons, and Sanditon are all abandoned or unfinished stories that Jane Austen either never wanted published (in which case, uh, too bad?) or that she never finished (in the case of Sanditon, it was because she died, so that sucks). I wouldn’t recommend reading this book to any but the most hardcore Austen fans or scholars. Lady Susan is the only finished work in the book, and it’s from such an early period in her career that it’s almost unrecognizable as being Austen’s writing. And The Watsons and Sanditon are both unfinished.

The most notable thing about Lady Susan is that it marks a failed experiment on Austen’s part to write in the popular but annoying and much less effective epistolary style of the day. Austen’s cleverness shows through in the first person narration of the letters, but all the subtle witticisms derived from the saucy narration in her other workds are missing, and while there is some fun to be had with the unreliable voices of her characters, the style constricts her more than it helps her. Also notable about Lady Susan is that its main character is actually a villain. The titular Lady Susan is a charming and beautiful widow with high aspirations and an empty soul. While it’s fun to see Austen experimenting with her style, and fun to see her play around with an evil protagonist who ultimately gets her due, the style and story don’t ultimately suit her, which is why I’m sure she never sought to publish the thing. Alas.

The Watsons is much more classic Austen, albeit messy and unfinished. For whatever reason, good old Jane gave up on this story, but I wish she had continued with it. The heroine of The Watsons is Emma Watson (no relation), the youngest daughter of the poor Watson clan, which also includes three older sisters and a brother. Emma is raised away from her family by a wealthy and childless aunt, but when the aunt marries again, Emma is forced to move home and re-acquaint herself with her family and her drooping prospects. But of course this is Austen, so her prospects don’t droop for long. Pretty soon she’s got the rich and handsome Lord Osborne chasing after her, and she couldn’t care less, preferring his less important and rich tutor, Mr. Howard, who acts as if she doesn’t exist. The text of the thing is all over the place in that special way all first drafts have, but I think if she could have gotten over whatever was blocking her and finished it, this could have been great. I would have liked to see Austen do an anti-Cinderella story, the prince courting the peasant.

Of the three fragments, Sanditon is the most well-realized — it was the last thing Austen was working on, even as she was dying. Not coincidentally, a large part of the narrative is devoted to siblings who are hypochondriacs, and the namesake town of Sanditon is a place of healing, even if Austen is poking fun at it the whole time. Her special power of affectionate satire is in full force in Sanditon and the characters are fully formed almost from the get go.

Again, reading this collection was by no means a waste of time, but it’s more of an educational interest sort of reading. You’re not going to get any narrative satisfaction out of it (although apparently many people have tried their hands at finishing The Watsons, which might help you out with the satisfaction thing if you’re so inclined). Ultimately, reading this just made me want to re-read the good stuff all over again.

[Cross-posted to Goodreads]

Robert’s #CBR4 Review #09: Idiot’s Delight by Robert E. Sherwood

The year is 1936. The location is a remote ski lodge in the Italian Alps, formerly the Austrian Alps. An entrepreneur is struggling to keep his hotel in business. Just when his manager tries to tell everyone to clock out early, a group of varied international tourists all show up at once. There’s a British honeymooning couple, an American burlesque troupe, a beautiful Russian femme fatale, a German doctor, a French anarchist, and a rotating band of Italian soldiers. As soon as everyone is settled in, the planes from the Italian military base are heard taking off toward France.

Idiot's Delight

Surely nothing could really go wrong in Idiot’s Delight. Right?

Robert E. Sherwood wrote the play Idiot’s Delight three years before the start of World War I. He was a cautious man convinced that something was going to happen on an unprecedented scale. All of the characters in his play represent the best and the worst of their country’s role in his imagined conflict, yet none believe that another war could ever happen like The Great War. Didn’t we all learn our lesson from that?

Sherwood’s masterful satire accurately predicts so much of what happened in WWII that you’ll get a chill down your spine. Switch Italy for Germany and France for Poland and he gets the order of involvement in the war perfectly. The minor elements he gets wrong are not so far from the truth. His text is so powerful that he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1936 for Drama.

Read more…

faintingviolet’s #CBR4 review #20: Skinny Dip by Carl Hiaasen

I have a fondness for Carl Hiaasen books that is directly linked to the fact that I spent my formative years living in South Florida and that I was raised by two incredibly sarcastic folks. This means that I am hardwired to love this man and his books.

And I do.

I decided that a return trip into the land of Hiaasen was a great way to start the upcoming summer season so over Memorial Day weekend I dove right in (pun intended). Skinny Dip starts off with a woman recounting being tossed into the Atlantic Ocean from a cruise ship by her husband, and trying to puzzle it out while also swimming for shore – which is many, many miles away.  Our fateful heroine ends up fighting a shark, she thinks, but instead ends up holding close to a bale of marijuana to float closer to shore, and he rescuer who lives alone on a small island in Biscayne Bay.

Joey Perrone is our castaway and her rescuer is a former Miami cop, Mick Stranahan. We learn throughout the book about each character’s difficult pasts. She was orphaned at a young age, he’s been married six times. Because this is a Hiaasen book it’s not a romance, but it is a comedy (Joey’s parents die in a plane crash which was most likely caused by a trained bear waking up in the co-pilot’s seat and he has had his boat stolen several times by exes looking to leave the island).

While a good chunk of the story is about Joey and Mick, the larger part of the story is about Joey’s revenge on her husband, Charles ‘Chaz’ Perrone and his reasons for attempting to off Joey in the first place. Chaz, it turns out, is part of Samuel  ‘Red’ Hammernut’s plan to keep polluting the Everglade. Red is a crooked farm tycoon who owns large vegetable fields adjacent to the Everglades, which he pollutes with fertilizer run-off. Chaz is officially employed by the state authorities to test swamp water for pollutants but he is also on Hammernut’s payroll, forging the test results and allowing Hammernut to continue doing as he has always done.  Chaz thinks Joey has found him out, and the only way to keep her from telling the authorities is to kill her. When Joey comes to on Mick’s island she asks him to keep her rescue a secret and allow everyone, including her husband to think that she is indeed dead and launches a plan to exact her revenge and eventually uncover Chaz’s off the books job.

This is just the tip of the iceberg as things devolve into madness. If you’re a Hiaasen fan there are also sightings of favorite Everglades’ hermit Clinton ‘Skink’ Tyree and Twilly Spree. Mick Stranahan is himself a repeat offender in Hiassen’s novels, originating in Skin Tight. I completely loved my time in Hiaasen’s world, and I’m sure I’ll venture back in again before the summer is out since there are a bunch that I haven’t read. For the parent types out there Hiaasen’s Hoot is fantastic.

this review is cross-posted

Robert’s #CBR4 Review #08: Johnny the Homicidal Maniac: Director’s Cut by Jhonen Vasquez

Of all the comic compendiums/graphic novels I own, Johnny the Homicidal Maniac: Director’s Cut by Jhonen Vasquez is easily the one I’ve read the most. I still have the first copy I picked up at a mall Hot Topic in middle school and it’s been through a lot. It’s been attacked by stupid dogs (they were mine and bright is not an appropriate descriptor), thrown in the trash by over zealous Catholic relatives, and defaced by a terrible roommate my first year in college. If none of that could stop me from reading it, what could?

Johnny the Homicidal Maniac

JTHM Director's Cut is a killer collection. Literally. It's in the title.

The answer seems to be nothing. Vasquez’s ultra-violent dark comedy comic series ran all of seven issues before ending with a literal hiatus for the series. Side stories came out–I Feel Sick followed Johnny’s ex-girlfriend and Squee followed Johnny’s traumatized little neighbor–but the original series has not expanded (beyond awful fan fiction, which obviously doesn’t count).

The concept is encapsulated in the title. A man named Johnny is a homicidal maniac. He kills people in horrible ways using an expansive subterranean torture chamber and some on the street ingenuity. Are you supposed to root for the killer? Nope. The victims? Guess again. The survivors? Only one, and she gets her own issue to deconstruct everything that should stop you from reading the series at all.

The key to Johnny the Homicidal Maniac is realizing that it’s an exploration of character, society, pop culture, and storytelling. Read more…

Amanda6′s #CBR4 Review 20: Animal Farm by George Orwell

I decided to re-read Orwell’s allegorical anti-Stalinist satire since I was way too young to understand it the first time I read it. (Aside: an ambitious young reader, I saw the title and must have thought to myself, “Yay, animals!” Alas, these were not the cuddly animals I was accustomed to from the likes of James Herriot.)

So, yeah, this made a lot more sense to me this time — I’m not going to recap in depth because I’m going to assume most people have read this one. Essentially it’s the tale of a revolution gone wrong thanks to government corruption, except here you’ve got pigs = the government, and the rest of the farm = the populace.

It’s a pretty great book, and a short read. Orwell is great at creating a sense of dread and foreboding that carries through the entire novel, and he pulls no punches in sacrificing some of the more prominent and beloved “characters” in order to demonstrate the brutality of the regime. Even today, with communism less of an overt “threat” to the US, there are valuable messages here about power and corruption in the leading/ruling class.

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