Funny Strange or Funny Ha-Ha

I’ve always had a weakness for stories that live at the intersection of funny and weird. Straight up hilarious or bizarre is great in a story, but when you combine the two it produces a strange feeling of unease that I find oddly gratifying. If you have ever laughed at a situation or occurrence while reading a story and simultaneously thought ‘why the heck am I laughing at this’ then you know what I mean. Luckily, I’ve recently read three short story collections that are chock full of stories that fit the bill. Some veer a little more toward the strange and others toward the funny, but many of the stories are smack dab at the rarefied intersection of weird and funny. If you enjoy these types of stories as well, or just want to try something new, the short story collections listed below will definitely be worth your limited reading time.

American Housewife by Helen Ellis

americanhousewifeThis collection definitely brings on the funny as the author sets out to wittily skewer contemporary domestic mores and the traditional roles of women in the 21st century. She does so by taking a seemingly ‘normal’ situation and ramping it up to absurd levels with the story veering off into the truly bizarre: ‘The Wainscoting War’ records the email war between two neighbors as they try to claim the right to decorate their shared hallway with deadly results. ‘Hello! Welcome to Book Club’ is the story of the initiation of a new book club member who begins to realize that the book club wants to control more than just what she reads. ‘My Book is Brought to You by the Good People at Tampax’ is a standout and details an author’s subjugation to her book’s sponsor as it takes over every aspect of her life. While these stories are consistently funny, most head toward strange with pleasing results.

Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh

homesickThe stories in this collection are more somber, but still provide some outstanding tales blending the humorous and the strange. The author has a knack for creating characters that are at once obsessive, slightly neurotic, and definitely odd but still sympathetic. You may just end up chuckling at their life situations in spite of yourself: ‘Bettering Myself’ is the story of an alcoholic teacher at a Catholic school who ensures her employment by fudging her student’s test scores. ‘Malibu’ introduces you to an odd nephew and uncle who spend their days in front of the TV, except to go out to find the perfect place to deposit the uncle’s ashes when he dies. ‘The Weirdos’ details a woman’s breakup, sort of, with her truly bizarre aspiring actor boyfriend who is convinced aliens exist and that the local crows are after him. The emphasis is more on the strange in these stories, but the funny is definitely there as well.

Children of the New World by Alexander Weinstein

childrenA near future where technology has taken a disquieting and frighteningly plausible turn is the setting for most of the stories in this work. The author is great at creating a sense of unease, but is also capable of creating a strong sense of sympathy for his characters and their predicaments. While strangeness abounds in this collection, there is definitely a lot humor-but be warned that it is mostly of the dark kind:  ‘Children of the New World’ details an infertile couple’s anxiety at having to delete their virtual children due to a computer virus. ‘The Cartographers’ is the story of a programmer who has developed a program that can beam other people’s memories into his own brain, causing him to not know what is real and what isn’t. ‘Rocket Night’ introduces us to an elementary school where parents gather annually to decide which of their children is least liked and then launch the unfortunate student into space. If you don’t mind your dystopian strangeness mixed with a little dark humor, this is the collection for you.

Enjoy these short story collections and free yourself from having to determine whether they are funny strange or funny ha-ha. Happily they are both.

Brains from the Deep

Everyone seems to have a favorite nominee for ‘smartest animal.’ Many prefer the much-lauded chimpanzee or dolphin, but crows, elephants, parrots, pigs, dogs, cats, rats and many other species all have their supporters. Recently, there have been studies that champion a somewhat less relatable animal: the octopus. Unlike some of the other nominees, the octopus is truly an alien-looking creature that lives for only a few years. How then can it be intelligent? Luckily for those wanting to understand, a few great new books have come out that answer that question and raise even more interesting ones about the nature of intelligence, consciousness and the limits of human understanding.

The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery

soulofoctopusSy Montgomery really loves octopuses. Specifically she develops an admiration and affection for Athena, Octavia, Kali and Karma, the four individual cephalopods she interacts with at the New England Aquarium. She also expands her quest beyond the aquarium and goes out into the wild to encounter more octopuses in their natural habitat. She becomes convinced of their intelligence: An intelligence that goes beyond the scientifically measurable, such as puzzle solving and the like, to also include feelings of playfulness, friendship, happiness and tenderness on their part. While Montgomery’s utter devotion can produce a risk of ascribing human traits to her subjects a little too easily, it is hard to deny that there seems to be some sort of consciousness in the octopus mind after reading this book.

Other Minds: the Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness by Peter Godfrey-Smith

othermindsWhile no less a devotee of the octopus, Godfrey-Smith takes the long view when examining the intelligence of this fascinating creature. As a philosopher of science, he is well placed to delve into the evolutionary history of cephalopods and the octopus in particular. While mammals and birds are closely related on the tree of life, the cephalopods deviated very early on in our evolutionary history, so much so that they are almost a separate evolutionary ‘experiment’ in intelligence. The author isn’t afraid to ask difficult questions: What kind of intelligence do octopuses possess? Is it alien from our own? Can we understand it? While doing this, Godfrey-Smith is no armchair philosopher, however. The book is also full of real world examples of his dives and encounters with these intelligent creatures that drive home his arguments.

Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? By F.B.M. de Waal

smartenoughDe Waal’s goal, in this well written and engaging book, is nothing short of toppling humankind from its lofty, and self-appointed perch at the top of the intelligence and cognition scale. In fact, he argues we shouldn’t think of intelligence as a scale at all, but rather as a bush with cognition taking different forms in each branch, none necessarily higher than the other but always unique. It is an intriguing argument, which he backs up with many observations of the animal world that he has gleaned in his role as an animal behaviorist at Emory University. He is quick to point out the cases of wishful thinking and pure chance (Paul the octopus did not actually know anything about soccer despite his correct predictions during the 2010 World Cup alas) but he does provide convincing examples of animal intelligence using scientific and rational methods.

So is the mysterious and alien looking octopus conscious and intelligent? Based on these excellent books and in the words of the Magic 8-Ball: As I see it, yes.

Titles of Intrigue

Here at the library, we really appreciate a good book title. Whether we are selecting, shelving, weeding or checking them out, we deal with a lot of library items throughout our careers. When you come across a title that you find intriguing, it is hard not to have admiration for its ability to stand out in a very large crowd. This is especially true when it comes to ordering books. While selecting, I scan many lists of books from several sources and have to admit that sometimes it is hard to keep my eyes from glazing over while trying to determine if titles like Algebra I for Dummies are a good fit for the collection.

But thankfully there are exceptions. Here are a number of new and on-order books with titles that might pique your interest as they have mine. While I can’t guarantee they will deliver on the promise of their intriguing titles, they are definitely worth a look. I’ve also taken a page from our Spot-Lit posts and have presented the covers in a slideshow so you can enjoy the titles in all their glory. Simply click on a book cover to view the show. Enjoy!

Unmentionable: the Victorian Lady’s Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners by Therese Oneill

The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate by Peter Wohlleben

The Sick Bag Song by Nick Cave

Against Everything: Essays by Mark Greif

The Aliens Are Coming!: The Extraordinary Science Behind Our Search for Life in the Universe by Ben Miller

Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World by Steven Johnson

The Wasp that Brainwashed the Caterpillar: Evolutions Most Unbelievable Solutions to Life’s Biggest Problems by Matt Simon

Void: The Strange Physics of Nothing by James Weatherall

The Thieves of Threadneedle Street: the Incredible True Story of the American Forgers Who Nearly Broke the Bank of England by Nicholas Booth

Star Wars Propaganda : A History of Persuasive Art in the Galaxy by Pablo Hidalgo

Sad Animal Facts by Brooke Barker

Not Dead Yet: the Memoir by Phil Collins

Murder & Mayhem in Seattle by Teresa Nordheim

Grizzlyshark by Ryan Ottley

Cattail Moonshine & Milkweed Medicine: the Curious Stories of 43 Amazing North American Native Plants by Tammi Hartung

Beethoven’s Skull: Dark, Strange, and Fascinating Tales from the World of Classical Music and Beyond by Tim Rayborn

 

Mind Your Ps & Qs

Is there a little bit of a grumpy old man or woman in you? You know the type. A person prone to saying things like: “In my day we were polite”, “Does no one know how to write a sentence anymore?”, “I would have gotten away with it too if it weren’t for you meddling kids” (o.k. that one is from Scooby Doo, but you get the idea). If your inner grumpy person thinks things like proper etiquette, good grammar and an appreciation for an obscure typeface are a thing of the past, you are in for a surprise. There are actually a large number of new(ish) books that advocate for an appreciation of just these things. Clearly ‘kids today’ are going retro, with a new twist on things, of course. Don’t believe me? Take a gander at these tomes, all available at EPL.

You could be forgiven for thinking that concern about how to ‘act properly’ was reserved for state dinners, debutante dances and the filming of Downton Abbey. Etiquette, however, is making a surprising comeback with new takes on old manners.

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Emily Post’s Etiquette: Manners for a New World
This classic etiquette tome has been adapted for the modern age with advice on texting, tweeting, whether to cover up your tattoo for an interview, and advice on the ever elusive work dress code. If you find yourself walking down the aisle, there is also a new edition of Emily Post’s Wedding Etiquette to shield you from making a dreaded faux pas.

Good Manners for Nice People Who Sometimes Say F*ck by Amy Alkon
Realizing that worrying about which fork to use is not high on many people’s priority list, the author instead addresses many of the conundrums that we currently face: When do you actually phone someone instead of texting or emailing? How do you tactfully tell the person in line to put their cellphone off speaker? And of course, when to friend and unfriend on Facebook.

Works Well with Others by Ross McCammon
This is a guide to successfully navigating workplace etiquette from a unique perspective: Those who feel ill at ease in the workplace to begin with. Drawing on his own experiences, the author gives helpful guidance on key work etiquette issues such as proper eye contact, when to interrupt and how to make successful small talk.

The idea of standard proper grammar is definitely alive and well and if you simply want to correct people, we have several traditional guides that will give you all the ammunition you need. If you want to delve a little deeper though, take a look at these more forgiving takes on grammar and its purpose.

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You’re Saying it Wrong: A Pronunciation Guide to the 150 Most Commonly Mispronounced Words and Their Tangled Histories of Misuse by Ross & Kathryn Petras
From ‘buck naked’ to ‘Uranus’ the authors not only let you know the correct pronunciation of each word or phrase, but they also give a fascinating backstory and context to its use. In addition, there are several funny and useful chapters on faking it like “How to Sound Philosophical” and “How to Sound Like a Fashionista” that can always come in handy.

Accidence Will Happen: A Recovering Pendant’s Guide to English Language and Style by Oliver Kamm
Once a grammar purist, the author persuasively argues that English is a language largely learned by instinct, ever-changing, and not confined to a set of absolutist rules. He cleverly proves his point in the second half of the book with an A to Z guide of ‘Usage Conundrums.’

Founding Grammars: How Early America’s War Over Words Shaped Today’s Language by Rosemarie Ostler
If you really want to get into the nitty-gritty of why we speak as we do in the United States, then this is the book for you. From the revolutionary war to the present, the author chronicles the constant tension between ‘proper’ and ‘common’ English usage in the United States and how that usage is used to define individuals and groups.

Now that you know how to behave and speak properly, it is time to consider the letters you use to express yourself. While it might be surprising to some, there are actually a dedicated number of aficionados who enjoy exploring different typographies. Here at the library we have the books to please them.

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The Evolution of Type by Tony Seddon
Type historian, yes there is such a thing, Seddon examines 100 significant typefaces from Gutenberg all the way up to the latest digital typefaces. Each typeface gets a detailed history including its origins and the new features it introduced. Lots of helpful illustrations and definitions are included to encourage those new to the subject.

Typography: the Annual of the Type Directors Club
Jam packed with examples from books, magazines, logos, posters, web graphics and pretty much anything that is written on, this book presents the winning designs from the Type Directors Club annual competition which seeks out the best graphic design work in a given year. Even if graphic design and typography isn’t your thing, this is a beautiful book to browse through and enjoy.

Grafica della Strada: the Signs of Italy by Louise Fili
Another beautiful book in and of itself, this work brings together the author’s three decade-long project of photographing the unique and stylish signs of Italy. Whether made from stone tiles or gleaming chrome, the signs, advertising everything from restaurants to the way to the bathroom, are mesmerizing and a reflection of the many stylistic changes in the country itself.

So clearly, there is no reason to repress your inner grumpus. Everything old is new again when it comes to minding your Ps and Qs.

Audio for Every Occasion

I’m not sure why, but when it comes to reading vs. listening tastes, I’ve got a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde thing going on. When I look for a good audiobook I always end up choosing one that I probably wouldn’t give a second thought to if I was actually going to read it. It could be the activities I’m doing while listening require more distraction than my usual reading tastes provide. Or maybe I have a repressed desire for space opera, contemporary social issues, and 80s nostalgia that comes bubbling up to the surface when I select an audiobook. In any case, here are a few recent favorites paired with the activity that I’ve found matches them perfectly.

Activity: Yard work, yard work and more yard work
Preferred audio genre: Science fiction adventures

I love science fiction, but I normally watch it rather than read it. That all changes when it comes to selecting audiobook titles for working in the yard.

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Illuminae by Amie Kaufman
This one has a grand plot involving dueling space ships, teen romance, weaponized infectious disease and a rogue AI to boot. The story is ingeniously told through a series of found documents that lends itself well to audio format. A large voice cast brings the characters to life with the female lead Kady and the disturbed but sympathetic AI, AIDAN, being standouts. This is definitely a YA novel, with lots of adolescent angst, but it maintains a great sense of humor and will definitely make the weed pulling pass by quickly.

Alien: Out of the Shadows
Sadly, this one is not available via the library, being an ‘Audible Original Drama’, but I couldn’t resist mentioning it. It is based on a book by Tim LeBron but this version is a radio drama with a full audio cast, including Rutger Hauer no less.  Admittedly this is fan boy stuff, continuing the story of Ellen Ripley after her encounter with the Alien in the first film, but it was really fun and a great listen. So fire up the flame thrower, pay heed to the motion tracker and whatever you do, do not place your face directly over a large leathery egg as it slowly opens.

Activity: Exercise
Preferred audio genre: Social injustice

I usually avoid reading about contemporary political issues like the plague, but I’ve found that the outrage produced by a well-crafted audio book can not only make the time fly by while I exercise, but probably gets my heart pumping faster as my rage increases.

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Ghettoside by Jill Leovy
Ostensibly this work is about the murder of eighteen year old Bryant Tennelle in South Los Angeles and the subsequent police investigation. The author does definitely follow the case, which provides a good narrative structure and drama, but in fact this book is a searing indictment of society’s long indifference to urban enclaves where crimes against primarily African American men are criminally neglected and rarely result in a conviction. The audiobook is expertly narrated by Rebecca Lowman who makes every word count.

Missoula by Jon Krakauer
This work is an impassioned, rage-inducing examination of a disturbingly large number of rapes at the University of Montana in Missoula from 2010 to 2012 and the police’s and university’s response to them. Krakauer meticulously documents the events and creates a great deal of suspense as you follow the individual cases. This is top quality non-fiction that draws you in and keeps your attention even when you want to look away. The narration is expertly done by Mozhan Marno who brings the often disturbing material to life.

Activity: Long car trips
Preferred Audio Genre: 80s entertainment nostalgia

It is probably because my traveling companion is ‘of a certain age’ like me, but memoirs of entertainment figures from the 80s are always a big hit on our long distance road trips.

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As You Wish by Cary Elwes
If you have even the smallest desire to learn more about the creation of the film The Princess Bride, this is the audiobook for you. Written and narrated by Cary Elwes, you get a blow by blow account of the creation, filming and reception of this iconic film. Elwes also enlists an all-star cast, including Robin Wright, Wallace Shawn, Billy Crystal and Mandy Patinkin, who narrate their own accounts of filming. It really is a fun listen, if for no other reason than finding out the origins of all the catch phrases that the movie produced. Inconceivable!

So That Happened by Jon Cryer
Cryer has had some notable hits, including Pretty in Pink and Two and Half Men, but the fun of this audiobook is in how he details some of his less successful projects (Superman IV anyone?). He narrates the audiobook and has great sense of humor about himself and the nature of his work. Best of all, he isn’t afraid to ‘go negative’ at times. Do you want to know what it is actually like to work with both Molly Ringwald and Charlie Sheen? Of course you do.

So I still don’t know why there is such a big difference between what I choose to read and what I choose to listen to. Perhaps it’s just best to accept my dual nature. It worked for Dr. Jekyll right?

Eating History

If you want to live, you gotta eat. A pretty basic truth and one we tend to take for granted. While gourmands argue about what wine to pair with what fish and health gurus debate the merits of protein vs carbs, a lot of the interesting questions about food go unanswered: Why do we eat what we eat? Why do certain peoples and regions eat different things? What the heck is a ‘square meal’ and where did it come from? Luckily, if you want to find answers to these questions and more, the Everett Public Library is the place to be. There are actually a large number of works on the history of food and eating that are fascinating and help you appreciate this seemingly basic human need. Read on for a few choice examples.

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A History of Food in 100 Recipes by William Sitwell
Taking a pleasingly micro approach to the history of food, Sitwell lays out a fascinating chronology, based on actual recipes, that demonstrates the evolution of food preparation and our eating habits. Everything from Ancient Egyptian bread (1958-1913 BCE), Dried Fish (800 AD), Soufflé (1816) and Rice Krispies Treats (1941) are covered. Far from just a collection of eccentric dishes, however, this work is full of interesting insights into why and what we eat.

Consider the Fork: a History of How We Cook and Eat by Bee Wilson
Instead of focusing on the food itself, this work tracks the history of cooking through the technologies used to create the dishes we eat. While we tend to take for granted many seemingly simple kitchen implements (like the knife, the rice cooker and the egg timer) Wilson describes the surprisingly complicated and significant histories behind them.

Sweet Invention: a History of Dessert by Michael Krondl
Whether you believe dessert is the last part of a meal or a meal in itself, this book will prove entertaining and informative reading. Part history and part travelogue, Krondl travels the globe talking with confectioners and examining the dessert traditions of different cultures and countries and how they evolved over time.

British Food: An Extraordinary Thousand Years of History by Colin Spencer
One of the most vilified cuisines deserves an extraordinary and entertaining history; Spencer does not disappoint in this engaging work. The ups, yes there were ups, and downs of Britain’s food reputation are lovingly cataloged. Interestingly, the author charts the most recent downturn to the Victorian period when raw food was frowned upon and every foodstuff imaginable was boiled.

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Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal by Abigail Carroll
More than a history of breakfast, lunch, and dinner in America, Carroll traces the evolution of eating habits in the United States from the colonial era to the present day. As with much U.S. history, the one constant appears to be change itself. The biggest change turns out to be the industrial revolution and its regularization of the workday, leaving dinner as the only time available for a proper sit down meal with the family.

Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Love and Longing by Anya Von Bremzen
A fascinating memoir and history told through classic Soviet dishes. The author was raised in a communal apartment with 18 other people and one kitchen before immigrating to the United States with her mother in the 1970s. Now the author of several international cookbooks, this is the tale of her upbringing and the food so closely associated with it.

Rice, Noodle, Fish: Deep Travels Through Japan’s Food Culture by Matt Goulding
Part travel guide and part food history, this book explores the deep and complicated food culture of Japan. Goulding travels throughout the country visiting the many different restaurants (including ramen, tempura, soba and sushi shops) exploring the food and history of each. The author is also not shy about giving recommendations of which restaurants to go to and which to avoid.

Dining with the Famous and Infamous by Fiona Ross
Taking food history to a personal level, Ross sets out to discover the eating habits of many interesting contemporary and historical figures. From George Orwell to Marilyn Monroe, the individual eating habits of the great and no so great are explored. This collection of food voyeurism is a guilty pleasure but impossible to ignore.

I hope you have enjoyed this small sampling of the many great works available on food, dinning and their history here at the library. Reading might actually burn calories so no need to worry about overindulgence.

Short Story Debuts

There is nothing like that crisp new fiction smell. A debut author finally getting their words into print is always exciting. Sure there is always the possibility that the new author’s style and tone might not translate into great reading for you, but taking a chance is half the fun.  A great way to minimize the risk of getting a dud is to check out debut short story collections. Short stories are (surprise, surprise) brief so it takes less time to find out if one is not to your taste. Also, there is no harm in simply skipping one story in a collection if it isn’t working for you. If you are up to the challenge, here are three debut short story collections that are definitely worth your limited reading time.

Dog Run Moon by Callan Wink

dogrunmoonAll of the tales in this great collection have a strong sense of place, the American West (Montana and Wyoming for the most part), and a quirky sense of humor. Most of the hardscrabble characters have seen better days, but they continue to play the cards life has dealt them in determined and unique ways. Standout stories include: “One More Last Stand” which follows a Little Bighorn reenactor, playing Custer of course, whose marriage is slowly falling apart. “Exotics” the story of a teacher in Montana who takes a summer job working at a cattle ranch in Texas to get away from it all. The best of the bunch “Dog Run Moon” opens with an early morning chase scene involving a nude construction worker, the dog he ‘liberated’, and the vengeful owner on his ATV.

inheriteddisordersInherited Disorders: Stories, Parables & Problems by Adam Ehrlich Sachs

The stories in this collection all share the same topic: the ‘special relationship’ between fathers and sons. Normally I would avoid this type of collection like the plague, worrying that the stories would be schmaltzy and filled with Hallmark card-worthy resolutions, but this book breaks the mold. The stories are all pleasingly short, from a few pages to a paragraph, and are basically hilarious parables. The tone is hard to describe so why not just enjoy this fine example:

Dead Language
Linguists last year were overjoyed to discover two living speakers, a father and son, of a Finnic language long believed to be extinct. The father lived in North Karelia, the son in South Karelia. Both agreed to be flown to Helsinki to have a conversation observed and recorded by a consortium of eighty linguists in the hope of preserving the language. But the conversation was so stilted, so perfunctory, so silence-ridden and self-conscious that afterward the eighty linguists declared the language, for all intents and purposes, extinct. This is said to be the first time a language has ever been declared extinct while there are still people alive who speak it.

If nothing else, you now have the perfect gift for Father’s day.

The Brink by Austin Bunn

thebrinkThe stories in this collection vary widely in topic, setting, and character with the author clearly not afraid to take a chance and experiment. The good news is that the stories do not feel like creative writing exercises. Instead Bunn is a master at capturing a moment in time, no matter how fantastic, and conveying the feeling of it convincingly. And oh what moments in time they are. “How to Win an Unwinnable War” follows a teenager who enthusiastically volunteers to take a summer course on thermonuclear war to get away from being at home and watching his parents’ marriage fall apart. “Griefer” tells the tale of an online role-playing game as is it is about to be shut down, through the eyes of a devotee who can’t seem to let go. “Ledge” finds the crew of a 15th century Spanish galleon discovering the actual end of the earth, and the disturbing fact of what lies over that edge.

So there you have it. Three brand spankin’ new short story collections. Now get out there and read.