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October 2007

Top 5 with John Warner

by Susan Henderson on October 31, 2007

John Warner is the editor of the super-popular internet site, McSweeney’s. Recently, he was given his own humor imprint at Writer’s Digest. And today he’s here to play the Top 5 game with you. How does the Top 5 game work? John answers the question first, then you do, and then you check out all of his links!

Okay, here’s John. (I wonder if he knows I’ve blogged about him before?)

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A portrait of the young artist as a smartass. I was probably about 11 years old.

Top 5 Funniest Novels of All-Time (That I’ve Read)

Humor in literature often seems to get a bad rap, but for my money, writing a really funny book is about the hardest thing there is. I’d need several more hands and feet to count the number of books that have made me cry, i.e., Old Yeller; The Road; To Kill a Mockingbird; The George W. Bush Legacy; Scratch ‘n Sniff: Onions! Onions! Onions! and so on.

But really really funny books seem harder to come by, (shameless promotional pitch alert) which was one of my motivations for trying my hand at fostering an imprint for humor writing, Tow Books. Starting a humor imprint might be pretty dumb, but I given the low odds of success for any publishing venture, and for humor specifically, but even I wasn’t dumb enough to try to set out to publish humorous novels, because writing a really funny novel is very very difficult.

Sarah Walker and Jason Roeder

celebrating the release of their books

with shots of Jack Daniels

That said, when I think about my favorite novels of all time, most of them are funny, and they’re the ones I’m most likely to press upon friends or acquaintances or people who come to my door trying to sell grapefruit.

So, here’s my list of the Top 5 Funniest Novels of All-Time (That I’ve Read)

(Please note, these are in no particular order.)

1. The Water Method Man by John Irving

The story of Fred “Bogus” Trumper, translator of Old Low Norse, failed husband, and possessor of a crooked urethra. There’s a couple of set pieces in here, including one of Trumper trying to learn to ski that makes me weep with laughter even after twenty readings. This was Irving’s last novel before The World According to Garp, a funny book in it’s own right, but not as funny as this one.

2. Home Land by Sam Lipsyte

Lewis Miner (known as “Teabag”) writes letters to his high school alumni newsletter. This book almost got me tossed off a flight to New York because I was laughing so hard they thought I was a security risk.

3. Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West

Technically two novellas, but almost always sold in a single volume. It’s really astounding when you read these and realize they were written in the early 1930’s. They feel completely contemporary to this day, maybe more so than ever, particularly Day of the Locust, a satire of Hollywood emptiness.

4. The Columnist By Jeffrey Frank

A satirical “memoir” of Brandon Sladder, a Zelig-like Washington insider and columnist. During his book tours David Sedaris always recommends a book by another writer, and several years ago, he was recommending The Columnist, claiming it had more laughs per page than anything he’d read. He wasn’t wrong.

5. Assorted “campus novels”

As a possessor of a graduate degree, and a teacher of college, I have a serious weakness for the campus satire, and as I brainstormed my list, I realized that I could’ve quite easily filled the entire list with them. Instead, I’ll just list some of my favorites.

Changing Places by David Lodge

Small World by David Lodge

The Lecturer’s Tale by James Hynes

Blue Angel by Francine Prose

Straight Man by Richard Russo

Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis

So, my online friends, what are the funniest novels you’ve ever read?

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John Warner is Chief Creative Czar of Tow Books, a new publishing imprint focusing on funny books for people with good senses of humor. The first titles, Really, You’ve Done Enough: A Parents’ Guide to Stop Parenting Their Adult Child Who Still Needs Their Money But Not Their Advice by Sarah Walker, and Oh, the Humanity: A Gentle Guide to Social Interaction for the Feeble Young Introvert by Jason Roeder were recently released. He is also editor of McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and author of So You Want to Be President? a humorous look at politics and campaigning to be published March 2008. His previous book, Fondling Your Muse: Infallible Advice from a Published Author to the Feeble Young Introvert was an BookSense pick November 2005. He lives in South Carolina.

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Question of the Week: Costume

by Susan Henderson on October 29, 2007

Tell me a funny (and true) story about a Halloween costume. Also, are you dressing up this year?

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mcsweeney's john warner visits litpark header

Because this month has five Wednesdays in it instead of four, we’re going to play Top 5 again – this time with my friend, John Warner, editor of McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. (Here is McSweeney’s, according to Wikipedia.) I admire John so much for his work ethic, his generosity, and the way he never takes himself too seriously. I hope you’ll stop by on Wednesday to play.

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Weekly Wrap: Our Ancestry

by Susan Henderson on October 26, 2007

Before you read my blog today, please go visit Tommy Kane. It’s okay. I always go to his site before I come here, so you can, too.

Did you like it? My favorite thing about my friends is when they don’t filter themselves. I like to see the Id, the stream of consciousness. I like to see my friends in the buff, so to speak.

Um. I was going to do a wrap on ancestry today. I was going to tell a story of when I was in fifth grade and our class was assigned a unit on the family tree. The teacher suggested we talk to an older member of the family to find out our history, so I called one of my grandmothers and asked the first question: “What are your parents’ names?” She got strange and angry and told me never to ask her such a thing again. I must never speak of family trees or ask about any family or history. Nothing. Apparently, you can saw the branches off the tree and never tell anyone why you did it.

I was going to give a warning about bringing Norwegian flatbread to school on international night because your classmates will have a very poor opinion of Norwegians, and of you; and the kid who brings the tacos is the hero.

I was going to agree with the majority of you who commented this week about how a few generations in America is all it takes to lose an immigrant’s cultural traditions. There is nothing about the music, recipes, costumes or ways of celebrating holidays that seems to connect to my Welsh and Norwegian ancestors. And if there is a commonality between the ranchers, teachers, presidents, murderers, geniuses and Dairy Queen employees in my family tree, I can’t guess what it is. Really, except for the trend of liking our meat as hard and black as a hockey puck and the need for extraordinary amounts of space, there’s not a lot to tie the family members to the past.

But I just wasn’t able to think of anything to write about these things. My head’s too full of book edits and looming deadlines. And I needed to see my friend who was in town from China. So, last night, I took a stack of work with me on the train, went to my friend’s reading, and didn’t make it home until after 3 in the morning. And today, instead of talking about ancestry, I’m doing a photo essay (using Kimberly Wetherell‘s cell phone photos) on where I went and the strange things that happened there.

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My favorite readings, hands-down, are at Amanda Stern‘s Happy Ending Reading Series. Here’s Amanda on the left, Martha-the-freelance-editor on the right, and the one Kimberly calls Young Severus Snape in back.

/litparkamandasternhappyending1.jpg bench press

The series is great because Amanda is a natural born comic and because the Happy Ending Lounge is red (which is really important), and because she brings in great writers and indie musicians to open and close the reading. But what this series is best known for is requiring its readers to take a risk – something they’ve never done before in public.

For example… Benjamin Percy had never bench pressed Amanda Stern before. Not in public, anyway.

And then it was my friend, Roy Kesey’s turn to read. Kesey (whom I always call Kesey, never ever Roy) and I have been editing each other’s work for years. It’s the hugest thrill for me to finally see his books in print. (And they are wonderful!)

Roy Kesey. Maybe you’re thinking: The guy whose short story was chosen by Stephen King for inclusion in this year’s Best American Short Stories. The guy who writes that funny McSweeney’s column. The guy who speaks all of those languages. The guy who should quit smoking already before it kills him.

So Kesey goes up to the microphone, reads a very funny (yet creepy) story. And then he calls my name and asks if I’ll come up to assist him with his public risk.

That’s me on the left, and Kesey, down on the ground lifting up one of his pants legs. At this point I have no idea what he has planned and am just enjoying the view.

Then he asks me to get a stool and kind of kneel beside it, and when he sticks his bare leg (with black socks – just like my Dad!) on the stool, I see he’s applied waxing strips.

And I actually get to wax his legs while he’s singing. Whenever he gets to certain parts of the song, he holds the microphone to his leg, and I rip. (I saved these hairy little strips, by the way. I’ve always been such a pack rat.)

I’ve known Kesey a long time, and this is actually not an expression I’ve seen on his face before.

Around midnight, a few of us went out for Vietnamese food, some of which looked like boiled fetuses, so I stuck to the green stuff. All night, Amanda had been carrying around a little Halloween basket – she brought it to the restaurant, too – and that’s where we found the box of waxing strips with Kesey’s instructions written on it (I like: 2 strips per thing). The Halloween basket, by the way, was a trick because every time I reached in, hoping for a Butterfinger, I got Raisinettes. I felt like Charlie Brown.

Look! His leg is mutilated, but we’re still friends!

We ended the night with talk of Gordon Lish and nipple rings and someone’s theory that – if all of us at the restaurant right then were on the show, Survivor, Kesey and I would be the final runners up, but then Kesey would win. Personally, I think laziness, bossiness, and severe crankiness when hungry might get me kicked off a little sooner, but let them think otherwise.

I jumped in a cab at the end of the night and opened the book Kesey gave me to read his inscription. I also noticed he put my name in the acknowledgments section. Sweet.

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Thank you to everyone who answered the Question of the Week, and to The Very Hot Jews, who played Top 5 with us. Special thanks to everyone who linked to LitPark: Storytellers Unplugged, Robin Grantham’s Curious Distractions, Buzz Networker, and The Very Hot Jews. I appreciate those links!

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Top 5 with The Very Hot Jews

by Susan Henderson on October 24, 2007

Give me 5 reasons to be hopeful in these dark times.

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This question is for everyone, but The Very Hot Jews will answer it first today. Who are The Very Hot Jews? I cannot possibly define their comedy, or advice-giving, or where they cross that line of political correctness, or where they take a surprise turn and melt your heart. So after you play Top 5 with them, go have a look at their blog and see for yourself. They’re on MySpace, too. But first, here are Simon and Sera:

litpark simon sera the very hot jews

5 reasons to be hopeful in these dark times

1. Love! Don’t crinkle up your face like that – we’re not going to lay some Age of Aquarius doo-dah on your ass. We’re talking about the transformative power of everyday love. What’s really incredible is that when you look for it, as the theme to The Mary Tyler Moore Show helpfully points out, love is all around. See the way that guy brushed his girlfriend’s arm so tenderly, or the way that lady tousled her child’s hair without seeming to think about it? Witnessing tiny gestures of affection and kindness (as opposed to the idealistic but poorly conceived “random acts” of a thousand mid-90s bumper stickers) is a sterling reminder that we’re defined by goodness, no matter what celebretard-worshipping gossip sites and humiliation-based reality shows would have you believe.

2. The Internet! Not because of aforementioned 24/7 Britneywatch dot coms, or even because you can find a Major Matt Mason action figure mint in box. But because self-publishing is creating a new wave of influential voices who can find their own audiences without begging Knopf, Sony or Bravo for a break. Because citizen activists are increasingly making the shithead pundits of DC completely irrelevant. Because a few keystrokes can put you in touch with communities of people who are just as freaky as you are, and in more or less the same way. Because our moms can read our blog and tell us exactly what they don’t like about it. ¡Viva la revolución!

3. Bacon! So crispy. So chewy. So salty. So divine in color, so succulent in texture, so rapturous in flavor. We are enjoined by religious tradition to eschew the flesh of the pig, but – how to put this delicately? Fuck that. Is it wrong to love a meat so much that you write poems about it? If it is, we don’t want to be right.

4. The Out of Doors! Have you checked it out? Seriously, if you step away from your desk and walk through a door or two, you’ll find yourself in this crazy place where there’s, like, flowers and birds and trees and stuff. Unbelievable! Pretty! Of course, if you have a laptop, you can take it outside and stay safely connected while the sun shines on your face and the wind plays in your hair. Come to think of it, easing yourself in like that could be less overwhelming.

5. Comedy! Look, we know you love to laugh – there’s no need to put that in your Bebo profile, any more than “I love to come” or “I love to be handed large stacks of non-sequential banknotes.” But we’re duty bound to commend the best comics for taking the piss out of pomposity and helping us weather the abounding absurdity, ignominious indignity and dictatorial despair of modern times. Because given the landscape we’re facing right now, you can either curl up and die or laugh and carry on. It’s not exactly a new choice for us Jews, so we already know which way we’re gonna go.

litpark the very hot jews simon and sera

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Simon Glickman is half of the award-seeking blogger team known as Very Hot Jews. The San Fernando Valley native grew up besotted with Groucho Marx, Woody Allen, monster movies, Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles. Tossing his financial future to the winds by majoring in English, he earned a Doctorate from Oxford University (with a dissertation on Herman Melville and fancy-schmancy French theory). He later served as Senior Editor at the music-industry trade magazine/cesspool known as HITS, briefly managed a major-label recording act and worked as a consultant. In 2005 he and his lovely wife, Julia Rubiner, co-founded the copywriting and branding consultancy Editorial Emergency, LLC. Simon is also co-ringleader of The Classic Rock Singalong. He lives in Los Angeles.

Sera Gamble leads the charmed life of a writer in Los Angeles. She is a Writer/Producer for the television show Supernatural and one-half of the internationally known blogging duo the Very Hot Jews. Her fiction was, for two years running, included in The Best American Erotica anthology series; it has also appeared on nerve.com and in literary journals such as Washington Square. Sera especially enjoys hanging out by the beach with her blindingly handsome French bulldog, Mojo.

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Question of the Week: Culture

by Susan Henderson on October 22, 2007

Tell me about your ancestry. Where are your roots, and what cultural traditions have you held on to?

litpark ellis island immigrants photo credited to American Memory collection at the Library of Congress
Ellis Island, 1907. Photo credit: American Memory collections from the Library of Congress.

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Wednesday, The Very Hot Jews will be here. They are a very addictive comedy team who tackle religion, sex, and politics. And besides being hot and funny, they’re both very fine writers in their own right. I hope you’ll be back to meet them!

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P.S. I’ll be in Chinatown on Wednesday evening to see my friend, Roy Kesey, who once let me crash at his place for two weeks and we’re still friends! Hope to see some of you there: Happy Ending, 8pm.

litpark roy kesey kgb bar nyc new york city
Kesey will be reading from his new book, but here he is reading from his last book at that other NYC haunt for literary geeks: KGB. (Photo by Mr. H)

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