Make Russia Great Again by Christopher Buckley

The bad news is I am back from vacation in Michigan and no longer have access to a lake simply by stepping out of my tent and choosing the form of my water transportation (pontoon boat, row boat, or kayak). The good news is I read another political satire and am here to report back.

First, the basics:

Make Russia Great Again Book Cover
Make Russia Great Again Fiction Simon & Schuster Kindle 288 NetGalley

The award-winning and bestselling author of Thank You for Smoking delivers a hilarious and whipsmart fake memoir by Herb Nutterman—Donald Trump’s seventh chief of staff—who has written the ultimate tell-all about Trump and Russia. Herb Nutterman never intended to become Donald Trump’s White House chief of staff. Herb served the Trump Organization for twenty-seven years, holding jobs in everything from a food and beverage manager at the Trump Magnifica to being the first general manager of the Trump Bloody Run Golf Course. And when his old boss asks “his favorite Jew” to take on the daunting role of chief of staff, Herb, spurred on by loyalty, agrees. But being the chief of staff is a lot different from being a former hospitality expert. Soon, Herb finds himself deeply involved in Russian intrigue, deflecting rumors about Mike Pence’s high school involvement in a Satanic cult, and leading President Trump’s reelection campaign. What Nutterman experiences is outrageous, outlandish, and otherwise unbelievable—therefore making it a deadly accurate account of being the chief of staff during the Trump administration. With hilarious jabs at the biggest world leaders and Washington politics overall, Make Russia Great Again is a timely political satire from “one of the funniest writers in the English language” (Tom Wolfe).

Of the recent political satire books I have read Make Russia Great Again was by far the best.

Christopher Buckley makes the White House activity all too believable and doesn’t go so far over the top as to spoil the humor. The dry humor works with just enough absurdity to add spice. Sure, it is at times sophomoric and crude, but given the subject matter what do you expect?

Why the three stars? I guess there is a fine line between humor that is funny and that which is depressing. So even as I smiled wryly at the humor, I was shaking my head at the reality that makes satire of the Trump era so difficult.

And this is where judging this book becomes difficult. If you WANT to laugh at/with Trump World, Buckley provides the opportunity. But in some ways it seems to normalize the absurdities involved. Ironically, the humor works in important ways because Buckley gets at the absurdity that lies close to any form of politics and celebrity culture and plays it straight. And he highlights how Trump turns this all up to 11. There isn’t a seething anger or a bitterness either.

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The Captain and the Glory by Dave Eggers

I get that it is hard to make satire of our current situation but isn’t that what talented writers are supposed to offer?

This is the question I have been asking myself this summer. OK, perhaps that is an exaggeration. But it is a useful literary device for a blog post…

If you are scoring at home, I am on a quest to read 100 books in a year.  As a result, I am always tempted by short books.  I stumbled on two politically orientated satires this summer which I thought would be both entertaining and present a theme for this on-again off-again blog.

No so much…

First was The Cockroach by Ian McEwan which I found rather sad all things considered.

Next up, The Captain and the Glory by Dave Eggers

The Captain and the Glory Book Cover
The Captain and the Glory Satire Knopf Hardback 114 pages Library

When the decorated Captain of a great ship descends the gangplank for the final time, a new leader, a man with a yellow feather in his hair, vows to step forward. Though he has no experience, no knowledge of nautical navigation or maritime law, and though he has often remarked he doesn’t much like boats, he solemnly swears to shake things up. Together with his band of petty thieves and confidence men known as the Upskirt Boys, the Captain thrills his passengers, writing his dreams and notions on the cafeteria wipe-away board, boasting of his exemplary anatomy, devouring cheeseburgers, and tossing overboard anyone who displeases him. Until one day a famous pirate, long feared by passengers of the Glory but revered by the Captain for how phenomenally masculine he looked without a shirt while riding a horse, appears on the horizon . . . Absurd, hilarious, and all too recognizable, The Captain and the Glory is a wicked farce of contemporary America only Dave Eggers could dream up.

My quick take: it was funny (and depressing) in spots, but just too heavy handed and preachy by the end. Better than its British equivalent, The Cockroach, but that is a low bar.

Perhaps reassuringly, many critics agree with me.

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The Failure of Satire – The Cockroach by Ian McEwan

For the last couple of years I have come very close to reading 100 books in a single year.  This year I decided to commit to actual doing it.  In one of my intermittent attempts to restart this blog, I had the idea of logging each book here not just on Goodreads (see here for #1).

With this in mind, and back when libraries were actually open, I would often look for interesting books that were relatively short in the hopes that I might actually achieve my goal (is this cheating? You be the judge).  In one such visit I stumbled on The Cockroach by Ian McEwan:

The Cockroach Book Cover
The Cockroach Satire Anchor Paperback 112 Library

That morning, Jim Sams, clever but by no means profound, woke from uneasy dreams to find himself transformed into a gigantic creature.

Jim Sams has undergone a metamorphosis. In his previous life he was ignored or loathed, but in his new incarnation he is the most powerful man in Britain – and it is his mission to carry out the will of the people. Nothing must get in his way: not the opposition, nor the dissenters within his own party. Not even the rules of parliamentary democracy.

With trademark intelligence, insight and scabrous humour, Ian McEwan pays tribute to Franz Kafka’s most famous work to engage with a world turned on its head.

 

Political satire inspired by classic literature?  Sounds like my kind of read. Just over 100 pages? Even better!

Except, it left me very much unsatisfied.

My lack of understanding of British politics might be a factor but I was unimpressed by this supposed masterpiece of satire. The concept-a reverse Kafka if you will-is intriguing, hence my picking it up at the library, and in many ways well done. But I think the problem is that if you don’t believe that Brexit is an on its face stupid, disastrous policy then the satire comes off not as comic genius but as another example of the mindset that leads to populist revolts. The satire of politics is amusing but the story is so short that if you don’t buy the concept of Brexit as the equivalent of “reversalism” then there is a low level annoyance running throughout. Maybe my politics got in the way on this one.

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The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck by Sarah Knight

Not really sure why I decided to read The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck by Sarah Knight given my aversion to vulgarity, etc. I take that back, I recall spotting How to Get Sh*t Done at the bookstore and wondering about this approach.  I guess I was interested in seeing how the author pulled off these books within the confines of the obvious Sh*t and F bomb hooks.

I had signed up for a book giveaway for the latest book (S) and decided to check out the first book (F) via the library to get a sense of the author’s approach.

It was OK. Buried under that four letter word, and a humor based on supposedly brutal honesty, is some decent advice on how not to get sucked into pouring your time, money and energy into things that annoy and frustrate you just because you feel guilty.

The concept of balancing honesty and politeness in order to focus on things that matter to you is sound but not sure how much depth is here after you get over the style and language. This is essay/blog posts into book territory IMO. For those who need a system to follow, however, she does walk you through the process of changing you mindset and life choices. On the other hand, it is not much more than making a list of things that matter to you and those that annoy you and make tangible choices to more of the first and less of the second. Oh, and try not to be a jerk about it.

If you have trouble saying no and enjoy liberal use of the F bomb this may be just the book for you. If not, probably not life changing advice.

The Jesus Cow by Michael Perry

I am not sure how I heard about The Jesus Cow by Michael Perry.  If I had to guess, I would say it was Shelf Awareness.  But it was on my To Be Read (TBR) list for a while. Midwestern setting with a religious/faith twist?  Yep, that seems like me.

Rather than purchase it, however, I decided to check out from the library using Overdrive (Sorry, but I have been on a bit of a binge on other books I am afraid).

Life is suddenly full of drama for low-key Harley Jackson: A woman in a big red pickup has stolen his bachelor’s heart, a Hummer-driving predatory developer is threatening to pave the last vestiges of his family farm, and inside his barn is a calf bearing the image of Jesus Christ. His best friend, Billy, a giant of a man who shares his trailer house with a herd of cats and tries to pass off country music lyrics as philosophy, urges him to avoid the woman, fight the developer, and get rich off the calf. But Harley takes the opposite tack, hoping to avoid what his devout, dearly departed mother would have called “a scene.”

Then the secret gets out—right through the barn door, and Harley’s “miracle” goes viral. Within hours pilgrims, grifters, and the media have descended on his quiet patch of Swivel, Wisconsin, looking for a glimpse (and a percentage) of the calf. Does Harley hide the famous, possibly holy calf and risk a riot, or give the people what they want—and raise enough money to keep his land—and, just possibly, win the woman and her big red pickup truck?

Harley goes all in, cutting a deal with a major Hollywood agent that transforms his little farm into an international spiritual theme park—think Lourdes, only with cheese curds and t-shirts. Soon, Harley has lots of money . . . and more trouble than he ever dreamed.

It turned out to be yet another book I was pulled in two directions about.

On one hand, it does a fine job of capturing the character and characteristics of Midwestern life.  The close-knit community that can seem suffocating at times and yet still foster loneliness and a longing to escape.  The petty politics and gossip yet the ability to rally around a cause and make a real impact.

And I really like the internal dialog of the lead character Harley Jackson.  The way he is pulled toward politeness and even piety by the memory of his parents; their faithfulness and fundamental goodness.  The way he feels connected the land and rhythms of his family and community.

But he also feels a pull to escape and be his own man.  He leaves his parents faith, leaves town for college, and expands his horizons.  But he ends up back at home never having graduated, working a factory job and raising beef cows on the side.

He feels the urge to be the bad guy, to be the angry jerk who lashes out, to be the arrogant boss type, but in the end he can’t do it.  He wrestles with his doubts, feels guilty about his angst and worry but can’t stop.  Life seems to just carry him along. So when he decides to cash in on the Jesus Cow you know he is in for a ride.

So far so good.  But after awhile the story doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.  Perry has painted the picture but it starts to feel like a sitcom you might watch if nothing else is on.  Kinda interesting but doesn’t really grab you or shake you.

The characters began to edge toward caricatures.  The setting begins to seem paint by numbers.  The meditations on faith and relationships feel like late night dorm conversations.  And when the plot and emotions climax it seems a little too easy.  Which is compounded by the neatly wrapped up ending.

On balance, however, I lean toward the positive side.  It was an entertaining and easy read full of good-natured humor and thoughtful exploration of the relationships of small town America.  A little too cute and neat? Sure, but not in an overbearing or heavy handed way.  And in he end I liked Harley and he felt real.  In fact, I could very much relate to some of his struggles and angst.

If you enjoy light-handed satire and humor and don’t need a lot of narrative drive or suspense you will enjoy The Jesus Cow. If you have lived in small town middle America you will chuckle at the accurate portrayal of the characters one finds there.

But like the Midwest, it can meander a bit and take its time getting to where it’s going.

The Happiest People in the World by Brock Clarke

I have been a fan of Brock Clarke since I stumbled on his novel The Ordinary White Boy over a decade ago and decided to ask him to participate in a Q&A.  I have read most of his books since, I somehow skipped Exley, and have interviewed him a few times.

So when I saw that he was releasing a new novel, The Happiest People in the World, I figured it was time to catch up with Mr. Clarke.

First, the new novel:

Happiest People in the WorldTake the format of a spy thriller, shape it around real-life incidents involving international terrorism, leaven it with dark, dry humor, toss in a love rectangle, give everybody a gun, and let everything play out in the outer reaches of upstate New York—there you have an idea of Brock Clarke’s new novel, The Happiest People in the World.

Who are “the happiest people in the world”? Theoretically, it’s all the people who live in Denmark, the country that gave the world Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales and the open-face sandwich. But Denmark is also where some political cartoonists got into very unhappy trouble when they attempted to depict Muhammad in their drawings, which prompted protests, arson, and even assassination attempts.

Imagine, then, that one of those cartoonists, given protection through the CIA, is relocated  to a small town in upstate New York where he is given a job as a high school guidance counselor. Once there, he manages to fall in love with the wife of the high school principal, who himself is trying to get over the effects of a misguided love affair with the very CIA agent who sent the cartoonist to him. Imagine also that virtually every other person in this tiny town is a CIA operative.

The result is a darkly funny tale of paranoia and the all-American obsession with security and the conspiracies that threaten it, written in a tone that is simultaneously filled with wonder and anger in almost equal parts.

It took me a bit to get into this satirical and rather melancholy novel. I was reading small chunks before bed and had a hard time finding a rhythm; from the weird start with the Moose camera to the cartoonist’s fateful decision in Denmark it seemed a little disjointed.

But once I was able to settle in and read for longer stretches I enjoyed Clarke’s wry humor and meditations on love and family. I am not sure the espionage aspects really worked all that well, but Clarke is at his best when he is describing the lives of upstate New Yorkers whether high school principals, their bar owner wives, or angst filled, and pot smoking, teenagers.

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William Shakespeare's STAR WARS

Speaking of book trailers, this one is a little different than last night’s example. I will confess I was sorely tempted to pick this little gem up whilst at the book store this evening. But the pile of books I have committed to reading induced guilt and so I demurred. Maybe I will reward myself if I make a dent in my TBR pile …

William Shakespeare’s Star Wars:

Return once more to a galaxy far, far away with this sublime retelling of George Lucas’s epic Star Wars in the style of the immortal Bard of Avon. The saga of a wise (Jedi) knight and an evil (Sith) lord, of a beautiful princess held captive and a young hero coming of age, Star Wars abounds with all the valor and villainy of Shakespeare’s greatest plays. ’Tis a tale told by fretful droids, full of faithful Wookiees and fearstome stormtroopers, signifying…pretty much everything.

Reimagined in glorious iambic pentameter—and complete with twenty gorgeous Elizabethan illustrations–William Shakespeare’s Star Wars will astound and edify Rebels and Imperials alike. Zounds! This is the book you’re looking for.

 

The Messiah Formerly Known as Jesus by Tom Breen

I won The Messiah Formerly Known as Jesus: Dispatches from the Intersection of Christianity and Pop Culture by Tom Breen in a Facebook or Twitter giveaway from the good folks at Baylor Press. I wasn’t sure exactly what to make of it but is sounded interesting and it was a quick read. So I bumped it up the TBR pile.

I am afraid I am going to offer one of my truisms again. What you think of it will have a lot to do with what you expect and the attitudes you bring to it.

Here is Publishers Weekly:

In this entertaining gem of religious satire, Breen, an AP journalist, skewers American Christianity from every imaginable angle. Calling himself the ‘Internet Theologian,’ Breen romps through the Bible, religious history, denominational differences. Halloween, contemporary Christian music and spectator sports, among other topics. Some of the book is pure silliness, but other sections achieve that elusive ‘perfect storm’ where humor is sharpened by raw intelligence and a keen knowledge of history and theology. Even Breen’s glossary of terms is hilarious. Heck, even his endnotes are funny and not to be missed. (One says merely, ‘Seriously. Wasn’t Calvin a nut?’) Readers seeking irreverent, laugh-out-loud musings on the sometimes ludicrous intersections between faith and pop culture will want to read this insouciant guide.

If you want satire, there is plenty of satire. And there is lot of humor that I found quite funny – from laugh out loud to quiet chuckle. But the larger question is whether the satire and humor adds up to something more than entertaining reading.

My take after the jump …

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