Summer reading recommendations generally take the form of prescriptions for escapism, the literary equivalent of striding around a sunny beach with a Dos Equis, your hairy beer gut hanging over a jaunty, tropical-colored banana warmer. The idea behind such lists is a far cry from Franz Kafka's injunction that "a book must be an ice-axe to break the seas frozen inside our soul." Rather than escapism, six Kansas Citians, present and former, recommend direct engagement with the world via the funniest books they can think of. Because everyone loves hilarity.
Shawn Pavey, co-founder and editor of the North Carolina literary journal The Main Street Rag, is a member of the board of directors at Kansas City's Writers Place and a damned fine poet to boot. He is host of the Main Street Rag poetry readings, a monthly performance of outlaw poets, every third Sunday at the Writers Place.
"I love Without Feathers by Woody Allen. It's a book of short fiction. I came to Woody Allen through his films — Manhattan being my favorite. It's, y'know, Manhattan itself — dealing with the narcissism of the '70s and these people going through actually deep emotional and existential crises. But to the audience looking in, they're flawed, petty, superficial people — folks none of us can stand to be around, yet their problems are so important to them. In Without Feathers, I see how lively the language is and how easily he pokes fun at the intelligentsia, at urban living, while easily embracing the same superficiality and narcissism.
"Second, Jitterbug Perfume — Tom Robbins is incredibly twisted, and he's got a poet's attention to language. When I approach his books, I wonder if he doesn't just collect all his ideas, put them in the Cuisinart and see what happens. He finds five or six different threads and weaves them together into entertainment and existential pondering. Jitterbug Perfume deals with the idea of the quest for immortality and how we get so obsessed with the idea of youth that we stop living. We're wrapped up in the memory of this thing we can never have again. Some people more so than others, but just look at our archetypal stories — Ponce de Leon and the search for the fountain of youth and stories of the gods as immortal eternal beings, at once the best and worst of humanity — it's no more than a bunch of quarreling and petty children."
Ron Megee, a Kansas City-based actor, playwright and director — not to mention the founder of the late, lamented Late Nite Theater — has been a figure in the Kansas City arts scene for more than a decade.
"One of my all-time favorites — I'm reading it for the third time — is The Vesuvius Club by Mark Gatiss. It's about a detective named Lucifer Box in the Edwardian era. He's a bisexual and a dandy, and he solves this mystery that involves the Vesuvius volcano. It's like an Edwardian film noir, but the detective beds both men and women. It's very funny. It's one of the only times I've seen a good gay detective in a book. Lucifer Box would be a great character onstage. It's inspired me to write a murder mystery. I'm writing a book right now because Mark Gatiss inspired me."
Kansas City resident Michelle Rogers, known to Kansas City's blogging community as Well Hell Michelle, works at KU Medical Center's Dykes Library by day; at night she writes, among other things, about her past career as an "archivist" at an adult bookstore, posting her stories at wellhellmichelle.com.
"The Idiot Girls' Action-Adventure Club: True Tales From a Magnificent and Clumsy Life, by Laurie Notaro, is hilarious. It's a memoir, written as short stories about her experiences in college trying to juggle a job with her bar-hopping, drinking, dating. She's so self-deprecating; she'll tell you every little detail about anything embarrassing that happens.