Tag Archives: humor

Once Upon a More Enlightened Time – James Finn Garner

Click for e-version


I had the brilliant idea to rummage through a few boxes of books, yet to be sorted for restocking the shelves or the library donation, to dig out Nora Ephron’s Scribble Scribble. Back in the day, when New York City was 1300 miles north and I spent my time chasing after dictators and dining with network producers on the expense account, Ephron’s witty, funny columns about the media seemed very insider and sort of glamorous to me.

Alas, I recalled in the midst of a dusty mish-mash of philosophy, history and misc. that a few of my Nora Ephron and early Woody Allen books vanished into the carry-on of a disconsolate and highly-paid national correspondent who thought his career was on the rocks because he was chasing jefes in the banana republics instead of presidents in the White House. Never saw those books again. Sayonara, Nora. I doubt media-specific humor from the dark ages would have held up too well anyway. And I did find this lovely collection of politically correct bedtime stories while I was hunting so I read it instead.

Remember politically correct? A nostalgic construct. James Finn Garner hit the bestseller list with his first volume of PC fairytales and the second,  Once Upon a More Enlightened Time, followed in the same vein. It’s mildly funny in 2012, although it dates from 1995. But you have to have been there. For instance, Hansel and Gretel is translated into an environmentally-sensitive and gender-free version that requires real concentration, a good memory for the original and knowledge of treehuggers, rampant capitalism and Julia Butterfly Hill. Here’s a sample from the opening page:

“The family tried to maintain a healthy and conscientious lifestyle, but the demands of the capitalist system, especially its irresponsible energy policies, worked ceaselessly to smother them. Soon they were at a complete economic disadvantage and found themselves unable to live in the style to which they had become accustomed, paltry though it might have been.” 

The father is a”tree butcher by trade”, Hansel leaves a trail of granola into the forest and the witch is actually a friendly Wiccan who is ultimately co-opted by a lumber conglomerate that offers her a Vice Presidency with full medical and dental benefits. “The Princess and the Pea” introduces a channeler who rotates among multiple personalities, one of whom is a princess–but the prince is pretty knocked over by the Viking warrior persona and somewhat charmed by the renunciant St. Giles so he marries her anyway, when she is in princess mode, of course.  

Guess what fairytale “Sleeping Persun of Better-Than-Average Attractiveness” is? Right. And happily ever after–even after 100 years–is not possible when Charming believes the awakened one has attained perfect peace and enlightenment and begs her to be his guru. She, being an old-fashioned, 116-year-old female persun, just wants to get married and get it on. Cursed match.  

It was entertaining. I tend to like fairytales that have been twisted and, wholesome intentions or not, these definitely are. I would read the first book if I could find it in the library. That’s where this one will end up when I finish cleaning out the rest of the books, so you can snag a bargain copy in pristine condition at the next book sale in the St. Agnes library basement. Or just download it for your Kindle.

Once Upon A More Enlightened Time (The Politically Correct Storybook)   James Finn Garner | Macmillan  1995

Liebestod — Leslie Epstein

Liebestod, Opera Buffa with Leib Goldkorn

Liebestod, Opera Buffa with Leib Goldkorn is Leslie Epstein’s ultimate sequel to his risible life of Leib Goldkorn, now a spry 103 and contemplating suicide in the gas oven in his rent-stabilized Upper West Side apartment. I had high hopes for the comic relief of this book—and it came with the promise of humorous treatment of much that Upper West Siders hold dear: whitefish from Barney Greengrass—check; Renee Fleming—check; Luciano and Placido in the same opera—improbable at best but check; Gustav Mahler—check; backstage at the Metropolitan Opera—check; Jimmy Levine conducting said opera—check; enough Yiddishkeit to inspire spontaneous conversion—check.

It was funny, for about fifty or so pages. But then I was over the joke and, clever as the novel is, I plowed through the rest of it. Too insider, maybe. Too much priapic rambling. Lots of current events twisted, and then twisted again, into witty pretzels of repartee. Much ink devoted to the decelerated micturations of extremely old men. Predacious landlords, scheming villagers, misguided politicians and long lost Mahler progeny in miraculous possession of an undiscovered opera by the composer–all of it filtered through the inimitable lens of Leib. Just couldn’t sustain the grins.

I think it is a wonderful book for some readers who will admire its inventiveness and willingly eschew the virtues of moderation. But they are not me. Terrorists taking over an operatic performance worked brilliantly in Bel Canto (which is not a comedy but is absolutely memorable). Not so much here. Epstein has done his prodigious research—he gets every detail of the Met exactly right. He layers on history like nova on a bagel. He maintains an original voice throughout. I was impressed by the writing but, in the end, I didn’t enjoy it.

You should try the whitefish at Barney Greengrass–Amsterdam between 86th and 87th—legendary. But tackle the picaresque adventures of Leib Goldkorn with care. You might love it and chuckle out loud. Or not. I was relieved when the curtain (metaphorically speaking) came down.

Liebestod: Opera Buffa with Leib Goldkorn   Leslie Epstein | W. W. Norton & Company   2012

Bridget Jones’s Diary — Helen Fielding

Click to buy from Amazon


When you read something topical more than a decade past its prime, you miss the frisson of excitement that greeted its debut. Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding drew raves when it was first published. I had no desire to read it then—probably about 15 years ago—because I thought it celebrated women as victims, trapped in some self-critical hell they could never climb out of. Actually, that was a reasonably perceptive evaluation.

I picked up the book at our fabulous St. Agnes library, thinking I could catch up on a dated cultural icon. Then I had to force myself to finish it. Yes, the musings of the overweight, alcoholic, dateless, human chimney with no self confidence who is known as Bridget Jones were amusing at first. Self-deprecating humor and unabashed self-bashing can be funny for about 15 minutes. But unwinding the tangled skein of a life that was going nowhere in a society that didn’t blink about that was just booorrrriinng. Bridget believes in every molecule of her liver-challenged, cholesterol-threatened and nicotine-laden being that she is a complete failure without the affirmation of some man. Really. Some—any—man seems to be it for her. She pursues creeps and cads obsessively, chronicling her failures along with daily calorie counts, cigs smoked, alcohol consumed and weight gained or lost.

Where is her brain? Where is a shred of self-awareness in all the self-criticism? Where is the acknowledgement that we create our own reality and that, as Lao Tzu proclaimed millennia ago, if you continue to do the same things, you will get the same results? Were there really that many women a decade and a half ago who believed they were nothing without a man? Funny became frustrating a dozen diary entries into this book.

In the end, is the fat girl Cinderella? Does the magic of Prince Charming save her? Has she learned her extraordinary self-destructive dumbness from her mother—another woman portrayed as an idiot in the book? Oy. I couldn’t muster appreciation for Bridget’s plight and her triumph just seemed like abject failure-to-thrive to me. Critics described this self-improvement queen as self-aware. Not. Didn’t happen. Mr. Darcy rides in on his white horse to save all the women who have eff’d up their lives big time and we wonder where Elizabeth Bennet wandered off to. Jane Austen could do Pride and Prejudice and deliver a satisfying human narrative with bright, imperfect characters who evolve. Helen Fielding just delivered Lumps and Losers in an endless loop of yo-yo dieting, hangovers and clever quips. It made me tired.  

Bridget Jones’s Diary: A Novel (Penguin Ink) (The Penguin Ink Series)  

Helen Fielding  | Penguin Books  2001

Good Bones and Simple Murders — Margaret Atwood

Kindle-only edition from Amazon


Good Bones and Simple Murders is a collection of Margaret Atwood’s—umm—short bits? Mini-stories? Musings on our twisted society? Whatever it is, it’s amusing, witty, brilliant as the author and, incidentally, illustrated by her, as if you weren’t already impressed with the poetry, fiction and journalism Atwood turns out, seemingly on cue.

The bits hit on many of Atwood’s themes and spare none of the comfortable clichés of literature or life. “The Female Body” explores the fragile imperfect thing a body is, a light-up see-through anatomical model, the culturally determined accessories required for the social display of the female body and, finally, that queen of accessories, the doll herself—giant boobs, teeny waist, pointy little feet, long legs, no cellulite, and bouncy vinyl hair, probably blond. What a small girl can do to a Barbie doll is a sadistic and very satisfying thing. Read all about it.

“Poppies” is a creative writing exercise–she calls it “variations”–that uses the lines from “In Flanders Fields” to inspire a series of anti-war texts. But that oversimplifies. Atwood describes history, aftermath, toy soldiers, male violence, fearful women and an arsenal’s worth of topics that circle around her point before they explode—with those words from the poem italicized in case you failed to catch the clever trick.

“Gertrude Talks Back” gives the queen some centerstage that Shakespeare never scripted. She would have called Hamlet ‘George,” thinks he ought to get himself laid and find a real girlfriend, not the bordeline Ophelia, puts the Prince of Denmark straight about sex, booze and his frigid, abstemious father. Atwood’s Gertrude is drying her nails, not wringing her hands, not the least bit angsty, entirely unapologetic. The angst he must have gotten from his father.   

In “There Was Once,” Atwood deconstructs a fairy tale with some combination of political correctness and obsessive editing until the story becomes untellable. In the title story, she deconstructs bones—the lacy bones of the old, the high cheekbones of the young and a cemetery full of good and bad bones mixed with some thoughts about calcium and mortality. In “Hardball,” she creates a horrible post-apocalyptic world where the rich live on the top deck with access to pink strawberries and pale yellow carrots. Severe shortage of real estate for agriculture, human habitation and corpse disposal but pretty good protein when a baby is born and someone is selected for the meat grinder. Is it recycling or a demented form of composting? We may soon find out.

Good Bones is very entertaining and very brainy and both fun and not-so-funny at the same time. I read it on the subway en route to a client meeting downtown. I read it on the way home, subway again. I changed trains twice going down and once coming back. It’s a good book to read on the subway. Oh, and the illustrations aren’t bad—probably better than you could do.

Good Bones and Simple Murders   Margaret Atwood   Doubleday  1994