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Book Report: Try authors with an edgy twist

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I've been a big fan of female humorists for years, starting from the days when I first read about Dorothy Parker and her antics at the Algonquin Hotel. That's where she parried with the male wits like Alexander Woolcott and Robert Benchley to great acclaim.

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Then I was on to several others of her ilk and most recently Nora Ephron, whom I can't get enough of.

I haven't heard from Ephron lately, so thank heaven for Merrill Markoe, who is out with a new book "Cool, Calm & Contentious" (Villard Books, $24).

Markoe has a very wry sense of humor, and is at her very best when she's talking about her dysfunctional family and her dysfunctional self, as when she attends school in Berkeley and goes to a fellow student's apartment:

"It took a couple of minutes inside Brad's apartment for me to notice an uptick in uncomfortable silences...it made sense that Brad wasn't verbal. He was an artist. Words were not his thing. I couldn't wait to see his paintings. His disrespect for the work of others told me that a door was about to be opened, and I would inhale the icy clean air of pure insight. Which was why I was so surprised that he had only two paintings to show me. And those paintings were...well, I wasn't sure what they were. They were kind of hastily executed knockoffs of ancient Near Eastern erotica onto which Brad had collaged a border of glitter, sequins and plastic doll heads....'They're supposed to be bad,' Brad explained, when I remained silent. 'They're intentionally bad."

Moments later, Markoe loses her virginity to this phony creep and in hindsight wonders why.

"In all of the animal kingdom, only delusional teenage human girls steeped in their own melancholia seem to require no special acrobatic nest-building competitions or intricate mating dances involving red inflatable bladders to be convinced of the worth of a suitor. Why bother with dangerous hormone-driven treks across the Arctic wasteland, like the ones Mother Nature requires of male penguins and moose, when a scowling, anorexic paintbrush-holding guy with an outsize sense of his own importance gets the same results by simply being rude?"

On the regional front, I was happy to see the return of Tom Hegg to the circle of winning Minnesota authors.

Years and years ago, my wife and I spent about one night a week dining at a long-gone Minneapolis watering hole, Jimmy Hegg's, which played host to scores of actors and media types.

Jimmy, whose grandpa lived in my home town, presided over this wonderful landmark putting out huge chunks of cheese for starving actors. His sons tended bar.

One of them also was an actor at the Guthrie Theatre. That would be young Tom.

Tom was also working on a book of poetry, uncommon for a bartender in those days. He shared his progress with us because he knew we were English teachers.

When it finally came out, it was a big hit. It was called "A Cup of Christmas Tea," and when the smoke cleared an astounding one and one half million copies were sold.

It told the story of a young man who goes to see his aunt before Christmas to have a cup of tea.

Well, Tom is no longer young Tom, but now he's middle-aged Tom and he's a master teacher at Breck School.

Every once in a while he returns to the stage. A few years back he played Charles Dickens in one of the Guthrie's endless versions of "A Christmas Carol."

To prepare for the part, he read through the works of Dickens and decided to make use of his newfound knowledge by writing another book of verse, titled "Little Dickens: Droll and Most Extraordinary History," illustrated by one of his former Breck students, Kevin Cannon (Nodin Press, $19.95).

In his new book, Hegg departs from the fuzzily warm sentimentality of his earlier book, as he borrows a passel of characters from Dickens who have a real edge and bawdiness to them.

He opens with a parody from "A Tale of Two Cities:

"It wasn't quite the best of times,

nor was it quite the worst,

But kind of like the 0scars --

overdressed and unrehearsed."

We are introduced to a character like Pip, the erstwhile hero of "Great Expectations" through his dead mother,

"This bloom of grace and character,

whom Life had truly hosed.

What mystery!

How came she to so desperate an end?

Knocked up, with neither

husband by her side, nor even friend..."

Little Dickens (read Pip) is brought up by a "rustic couple." He's in love with the squire's daughter (read Estella, Miss Havisham's daughter), but that won't come to much because

"How often had she ridden by,

Exuding chic allure,

While he'd been mucking out the stalls,

And reeking of manure."

He laments:

"But here I am at seventeen,

in such a randy state,

With zero expectations!

where's the effing Hand of Fate?"

Which turns out to be Marley's Ghost? Scrooge? It doesn't matter because Little Dickens ends up with a bundle of money the ghost has earned in a Ponzi scheme.

And Little Dickens is off to France, where he gets mixed up with the French Revolution, and Madame Ddefarge:

"The fierce virago knitted as

the bloodied blade went up,

Then took a swig of Chateauneuf du Pape

From her tin cup.

Ka-chunk!

A fevered roar arose!

The heads were on a roll.

Another noble noggin topped

another wooden pole."

I'm not going to tell you how this all ends because that would take the fun out of it for you.

Dave Wood is a past vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

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