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.
"I love Post Office, by Charles Bukowski. It's about Bukowski's alter ego, Henry. My favorite part is when he's delivering mail in the rain and his truck gets stuck in the middle of the street, in a huge puddle. So he abandons his truck, goes to a bar and gets drunk."
Rogers also recommends Chelsea Handler's My Horizontal Life: A Collection of One-Night Stands. "She's a comedian, and she has absolutely no shame. I'm sure a lot of her stories are exaggerated, but still hilarious. She tries to pick up a midget at a party who's wearing a sombrero filled with chips and salsa. She takes him home, discovers how big he is and says, 'Hell, no!' It's a book you end up lending out because you want everyone to read it. She lies to get out of bad dates, makes up lies to leave after a one-night stand. It's an easy summer read because they're short stories. You're not actually committing yourself to a novel."
Harold Sipe graduated from the Kansas City Art Institute in 2000 and develops global applications for Andrews McMeel — things such as software comic book readers for mobile devices. Speaking of which, Image recently published Sipe's first comic book, Screamland, illustrated by Kansas City's Hector Casanova. Sipe spoke to The Pitch about one of his favorite funny graphic novels.
"The first would be Buddy Does Seattle, by Peter Bagge. It captures a lot of that 20-something experience. It's still relevant and funny. Peter Bagge has a very sharp wit, and it has a sarcastic tone, which, while it can be crass, it's easy to relate to. A lot of books try that sort of tone, and it's too abrasive. Somehow Bagge's found that sweet spot that allows him to make those observations and completely pull it off.
"The main character, Buddy Bradley, leaves home, tries to figure himself out — it was very timely for me. And it's interesting — he moved to Seattle during the whole grunge deal. It's got this bizarre sort of documentary quality to it now. This is gonna sound really terrible, but there's a running gag about Buddy and his girlfriend having abortions. It's how the book ended — she didn't want to have another abortion, so they decided to have a kid. It wasn't just a throwaway gag. It was a really big deal to the characters."
An unexpectedly funny freelance technology writer, former KC resident Joel Johnson left town five years ago and got famous, blogging for Gawker Media at Kotaku.com and Gizmodo.com. He's now one of the newest Boing Boing Happy Mutants, editing Boing Boing Gadgets at boingboing.gadgets.net.
He recommends The Modern Man's Guide to Life by Denis Boyles, Alan Wellikoff and Alan Rose. "It's a collection of essays. It's out of print, but you can still find it on Amazon. The conceit is that it's asking various guys their opinions on things — it's not that the individual responses from the men are so funny but how resolutely a man can express an opinion and then, in the next paragraph, express an equally strong opinion on the other side of the argument. The sections on women, dating and relationships are especially good. Asked about sex, they'll say, 'Pay attention to your partner — it's all about her,' and in the very next line, they say, 'Sex is a time to be completely selfish!' I got a copy when I was 12. It covers everything from how to tie a tie to how to buy a used car. All very important for a 12-year old.
"If you're asking for all-time greats, one that continues to completely affect my senses of humor and propriety is the Transmetropolitan comic series by Warren Ellis. In my field — science and tech journalism — you can always tell that tech writers sometimes think they're Spider Jerusalem. As a person who has built up a bit of a reputation as a cranky bastard myself, there's definitely an appeal in the vitriol and hate of his subject. I think it presaged a lot of the tone on the Internet and blogging specifically — it's clearly a Hunter S. Thompson shtick. It's gonzo. But Transmet updated the bowel-centric humor, which defines a lot of contemporary insult humor — really smart and incisive attacks punctuated by the grossest gross-out humor you can think of."
Matt Fraction, who writes Marvel Comics' Invincible Iron Man, Punisher War Journal and his own Casanova, has two-fisted love for author Kurt Vonnegut. He recommended Breakfast of Champions for our 2007 Summer Reading Guide; through a haze of baby-induced sleeplessness, he tried to do so a second time this year, but we forced him to come up with alternatives.
"Anything Mark Twain's ever written. His autobiography is hilarious. It's the man's own story, as if he actually became his own story. I'd put the book down every couple of pages and say, 'Fantastic!' It covers his time in the Confederate army. He and some friends join the army at the outset of the war. They all show up, and the first time they hear gun shots they run. They immediately flee the Confederate army.
"Joseph Mitchell's Up in the Old Hotel — it's from 1964. He wrote color pieces for the New Yorker. Mitchell would meet eccentric New York people and write about them. Not setup-punch-line-ha-ha funny; he describes these strange eccentrics in a way that makes you wonder if they're still wandering around New York. Strange, wonderful people. He met a guy named Joe Gould and became obsessed with his story — Gould told Mitchell he was writing an oral history of New York, documented in all these notebooks hidden with benefactors around the city, and he was basically a con man living off the largesse of these benefactors. Gould is blocked, and his writer's block transfers to Mitchell, and ultimately, he never writes again — he shows up at the New Yorker in a shirt and tie, people hear him typing, but he never publishes again."