Tag Archives: Michael Chabon

Between the covers: reading in 2010

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By Bob Hicks

Just a year ago, in this post about his reading adventures in 2009, Mr. Scatter confessed that he is a lousy keeper of lists, and therefore couldn’t report with any certainty on what he’d read in the previous twelve months. Some books, he was sure, had simply slipped in and out of his mind without leaving much of an impression. Others might have left a deep impression, but by the end of the year he couldn’t recall whether they’d made that impression in the previous calendar year or in, say, 1994.

If this seems odd, bear in mind that most of Mr. Scatter’s reading tends to be not from publishers’ current lists but from that great deep river of bookmaking that extends back through the centuries, constantly refreshing itself when anyone dips in. Books are like that. At some point they’re new, but after a certain point the good ones are simply current — or in the current. If someone reads, for instance, The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini for the first time in the year 2011, the experience throws that person into parallel universes: It is both 450 years old and current events. With that sort of time-traveling, no wonder Mr. Scatter gets a little scattered.

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The weekend: “We scattered til our head hurt”

Mercy, mercy, did we scatter this weekend! We scattered til our head hurt, we scattered til Michael Chabon uttered the last sentences of his lecture Sunday night, we scattered back in time as we watched Mary Oslund’s Bete Perdue, we even scattered at the now-only-newish Bond flick Quantum of Solace. The latter was hard. How many words were actually in that script, anyway? 500 or so? If that? Dear reader, we scattered anyway. We were scattering fools.

The return of Bete Perdue: I went to opening night of the re-dance of Mary Oslund’s spring show. I’m in favor of re-dances, by the way. For those who haven’t seen the choreography, which let’s face it, is 99.999 percent of the metro area, it’s a chance to come in from the cold. Those of us who have seen it get another look — and memory being what it is (a miracle, sure, but so totally unreliable), we need it.

I posted on Bete Perdue before, so I’ll just add a few thoughts: 1) I thought Oslund had changed it some, eliminating some longer solos, replacing them with more group dancing. The eagle-eyed Martha Ullman West said it was longer by 10 minutes, but I didn’t clock it. 2) Friday night it might have been danced more crisply. My operant theory: Go to the last night of a local dance performance, and you will miss opening night jitters/mishaps and second night emotional troughs. 3) I noticed the Obo Addy-Katie Griesar music more than I had before, and I mean that in a good way. I understood it as an organizing principle of the dance, and enjoyed its subtlety and rhythms (Obo!). 4) Individual dancers didn’t respond directly to those rhythms, but the dance as a whole did. Oslund moved our eyes around the stage more or less quickly by the rhythm of her animation of groupings of dancers. A very sophisticated effect. 5) The two amuse-bouche that opened the program were captivating — funny, quick, then deeply felt. Made me want a meal of small plates. Here’s the Catherine Thomas review on OregonLive.
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Bunny dies laughing; mom does slow burn

So, this dyslexic guy walks into a bra …

Funny? Cruel? Crude? Pointless?

Yeah, probably.

Humor has a way of picking at scabs,
and it loves taboo territory: The shock factor of transgression is liberating. So, George Carlin‘s seven dirty words. The flip-flopped race-baiting of Melvin Van Peebles‘ movie satire The Watermelon Man. The rank exploits of a supervillain chunk of flying excrement in Dav Pilkey‘s juvenile Captain Underpants comic books.

Humor can be rough when it deals with the “other” — the resented and ridiculed Micks and Wops and Yids and dumb Swedes, all butts of the joke of an emerging nation trying crudely to make sense of its own sprawling immigrant variety. And it can be every bit as tough when it looks inward: I just finished reading Michael Chabon‘s dark detective comedy The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, and its feverishly over-the-top depiction of religious and cultural Jewishness (and, for good measure, Christian fundamentalist extremism) is hilarious and could only have been written by a Jew. In the annals of comic history, the seriously dimwitted — whether actually dumb or only considered dumb, for mocking purposes, by a core culture that thinks it needs an outcast — has always had a special role to play. Shakespeare had his Dogberrys and Aguecheeks. Sheridan had his Mrs. Malaprop. Texas has its village idiot. How many humorless pedants does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

Until this morning I’d never heard of Andy Riley or his cartoon book The Book of Bunny Suicides. Then, there they were, both of them, on the front page of The Oregonian, in this story by Joseph Rose. The idiot bunnies and their creator are the focus of a book-snatching in the town of Halsey, between Corvallis and Eugene in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. A 13-year-old boy brought the book home from the high school library, which also serves middle school students. His mom looked at it. She was horrified and disgusted — and now she’s holding it for ransom.

Not ransom, actually. True, she’s filed an official complaint to have the book removed from the library shelves. In the meantime, though, she’s not giving it back. She says she’s going to burn it instead. Which is funny, in a perverse sort of way. Braised rabbit is a favorite fall dish in Oregon country.

Let me suggest that Riley’s bunnies are extreme dimwits, in a clever sort of way.
As such, they’re a lot like the rest of us — and that’s what makes them funny.

I’m not about to anoint Riley with a crown of comic genius, at least not on the small sampling of his work that I’ve perused. It’s pretty juvenile — but then, it’s for juveniles, and a lot of humor gets its verve and sting from its immature prankishness, which allows it to view the careful concealments of adult convention and pull its pants down at it. I happen to be the father of boys 14 and almost 11, and every day I wince at some sort of boy crudeness or another. I try to herd them, rein them in, get them to understand the limits of civilized speech and behavior, for crying out loud, and I’m sure they’re thoroughly sick of all the nagging (they tell me so, regularly). But I’d also worry if they weren’t poking at the edges. Life is a scary thing, and if you can’t laugh at it, how are you going to bear it?
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