The Book of the Week is “Cavalcade of the 1920s and 1930s” edited by Cleveland Amory and Frederic Bradlee, published in 1960. This compilation of Vanity Fair magazine articles showcases two decades of literary luminaries; some of whom were discovered by Frank Crowninshield, the magazine’s editor. Currently, those names, such as P.G. Wodehouse, Gertrude Stein, Dorothy Parker, Amy Lowell, Robert C. Benchley and many others, are fading in the public’s memory. However, they were witty, humorous and entertaining for their era. A perusal of this book today indicates that certain aspects of American life never change. Wodehouse wrote of monies going to the government in an article on family involvement in completing tax returns (which during WWI, were due in March), “…I can only hope that they will not spend it on foolishness and nut sundaes and the movies– but apparently, they needed a few billion dollars, and you and I had to pay for it.”
The Book of the Week is “Sesame Street Unpaved” by David Borgenicht, published in 1998. This book commemorates (almost) thirty years of the scripts, stories, secrets and songs of “Sesame Street,” an award-winning American educational television show for very young children. It went on the air November 10, 1969. It features dialogues between human and combination-marionette/puppet characters, animated segments and music/video snippets.
There have been countless humorous features, such as the recurring early-episode bits when Big Bird kept flubbing the name of human store owner Mr. Hooper, calling him Mr. Looper, Mr. Blooper, Mr. Duper, Mr. Snooper, Mr. Pooper, Mr. Scooper, etc. In one of many memorable skits involving puppets Ernie and Bert, the latter asks the former whether he’s aware that he has a banana in his ear. Ernie asks him to repeat that. Bert starts yelling. Ernie yells back, “I’m sorry– You’ll have to speak a little louder, Bert! I can’t hear you! I have a banana in my ear!”
“Kermit the Frog” came into being around 1955, and in previous shows, his appearance evolved through the years. For the sake of neatness, the puppet character “Cookie Monster” usually ate painted rice cakes rather than real cookies on-screen. Another early, (but short-lived) popular character included Roosevelt Franklin. A purple puppet featured in a classroom, he was booted off the air because some of the show’s creators felt he portrayed a “negative cultural stereotype” in that he was a smart-alecky, paper-throwing disruptive kid, and he appeared to be African American.
A host of celebrities have also visited the show, and have usually sung songs. When Ralph Nader visited, he insisted on correcting a grammatical error in the song “People in Your Neighborhood” by changing a line to “…the people WHOM you meet each day.”
On one occasion, the Boston Pops accompanied the show’s cast in playing the song, “Rubber Duckie” but a union rule considered squeezing a rubber duckie (so it would squeak) to be an instrument additional to that each musician was already playing– requiring that extra wages be paid. The rule was skirted by having only the percussionists play rubber duckies.
Sesame Street has garnered wide international appeal through the decades, airing in Kuwait, Turkey and Mexico, among many other nations.
The Book of the Week is “Square Dancing In the Ice Age” by Abbie Hoffman, published in 1982.
This book is a compilation of essays from the most famous American Hippie of the 1960’s. Hoffman’s name was best known because he engineered attention-getting stunts and advised his followers to engage in acts of protest that would infuriate law enforcement. He also revealed the secrets to obtaining free merchandise and the details behind irreverent behavior.
In one essay, he pointed out instances of code language for cocaine in movies, such as the words “snow” and “blow.” He also wrote that frequent visits to the dentist among people in Hollywood indicated that they were cocaine addicts. They would have the drug rubbed in their gums for a faster high.
In another essay, Hoffman gloated about a prank he and his girlfriend pulled on 54 prestigious restaurants in Europe for six months between 1977 and 1978; some several times. He wrote a well-crafted referral letter, forging the signature of Playboy Magazine’s Articles Editor, while purporting to be a restaurant critic for the magazine. He showed the letter to the head chef in each restaurant, and was treated to thousands of dollars of fancy food, free of charge. In the book, he reprinted the letter, a list of the ten restaurants he thought best, and Playboy’s reaction upon learning of the ruse. Read the book to find these out.
The Book of the Week is “The Merry Baker of Riga” by Boris Zemtzov, published in 2004. This book described the difficulties of operating a bakery in Riga, Latvia in the 1990’s (just after the fall of Communism).
Latvia used to be a Soviet territory. The half-American author was a businessman and part-owner of said bakery. Latvian culture was largely to blame for the poor profitability of the capitalist venture, which lasted only a few years. Language and sanitation were among the myriad problems Zemtzov encountered.
Whenever an employee had a birthday or there was an excuse for a celebratory social gathering (which was often), the consumption of alcohol ensured that nothing got done the whole afternoon. Alcohol consumption also played a part in a bad experience Zemtzov had with a contractor who was supposed to complete a renovation job in his home.
Nevertheless, Zemtzov described an aspect of Latvian culture that this American blogger found to be quite funny: on one’s birthday, one is woken up at the crack of dawn by his or her loved ones, is wished a happy birthday, and has a birthday gift shoved in his or her face.
In sum, this was an entertaining tale.
The Book of the Week is “God Is My Broker” by Brother Ty, with Christopher Buckley and John Tierney. It is a very funny satire. The story starts with a man who made sufficient money on “Wall Street” to retire at a young age. However, a mid-life crisis caused him to try the lifestyle of a Trappist Monk.
While swearing off material possessions at the monastery, “Brother Ty” still had the urge to gamble. So he let a line of text in a religious tract dictate his course of action in the stock market. The way Brother Ty interpreted the text turned out to be contrarian to most other traders’ advice and actions, but turned out to be extremely lucrative for him.
The humor of this book emerges when the monastery and the monastery’s abbot are revealed to be just as dishonest as Wall Street. The monastery raised money through selling wine that was falsely advertised, and the abbot built himself an entertainment center with the ill-gotten gains. Read the book to vicariously experience the hilarity that ensues.
The Book of the Week is “Confessions of A Raving, Unconfined Nut: Misadventures in Counter-Culture” by Paul Krassner, published in 1994. Paul Krassner was a radical in the 1960’s, in Abbie Hoffman’s crowd. He wrote that when radicals are bored, they start a magazine. Hence, at the end of the 1950’s, he founded the publication “The Realist,” consisting of “social-political-religious criticism and satire.”
True to the title of his book, he was also quite the irreverent smartass. On one occasion, when his significant other hid a marijuana cigarette in a bodily orifice of hers so as not to be charged with possession in a police raid, he could not resist remarking, “What’s a nice joint like that doing in a girl like you?”
Krassner confesses that his divorce was due to his unfaithfulness. He describes an episode of “quality time” with his 15-year old daughter in South America, where they participated in a drug trip they perceived to be mind-enhancing, in a controlled environment with a group.
Krassner discusses his and other counter-culture members’ anti-war activities, including burning (illegal) photocopies of his draft card at numerous protests on college campuses across the nation.
This book provides an entertaining, informative introduction to the societal outliers of the 1960’s.
The Book of the Week is “Oral Sadism and the Vegetarian Personality” by Glenn C. Ellenbogen, published in 1987. This book contains a series of satirical/humorous articles and features on psychology. One feature is “A Comprehensive Exam for Students in Introductory Psychology.”
The third question is, “Based on your knowledge of RNA and DNA, create human life. Then clone 40 sets of identical twins and conduct a behavioral genetics experiment that puts the nature versus nurture question to rest, once and for all.”
The sixth question is, “Estimate the statistical problems which might accompany the end of the world. Construct an experiment to test your theory. Use the .05 level of significance.”
Even though this book was written by a PhD, it is good comic relief for laypeople.
The Book of the Week is “60s!”– a book of pop cultural trivia, compiled by John and Gordon Javna, published in 1983. Mostly happy topics are covered, such as American hobbies, cars, entertainment, and a bit of politics and drugs. The book is visually appealing because it has plenty of black and white photos that show the youthful, revolutionary spirit of the era. Interesting bits of trivia are interspersed with lists of things you didn’t know, and the decade’s “top tens” of each year.
In 1969, the 56-year old Richard Nixon received a father’s day gift of an inscribed surfboard from his daughters. He never used it.
Ford Motor Company had an electric car in the works, as car pollution was a concern.
Americans were wild about outer space, beauty contests, TV dinners, TV, secret agents, spies, comic books, The Beatles, rock and roll, monsters and trading cards.
New products included disposable diapers, fast typewriters, ready-to-eat cereals and prepared foods.
The Kennedy family was all the rage. John aroused a national interest in reading, physical fitness, idealism, intellectualism, sex, youth, rocking chairs and antiques. He and Jackie were stylish, rich and glamorous.
One 60’s-era relic we consider ridiculous today– fallout shelters.
Some concepts became obsolete, such as the milkman and the rotary dial phone.
The 2000’s have ushered in a whole new slew of youthful, revolutionary pop cultural icons and sources of amusement. Three decades from now, the current teenage generation will laugh at them. Time will have rewritten every line.
The Book of the Week is “Walking on Walnuts” by Nancy Ring, published in 1997. This book is the career memoir of a pastry chef in New York City. Ms. Ring discusses the uncertainty surrounding the fiercely competitive restaurant business in New York, and thus the attendant job insecurity of a pastry chef. She discusses the details of the job– long hours, difficult bosses, hard work, and a hilarious episode in which The Fig Tree restaurant personnel were tipped off that a very influential restaurant reviewer, one Bette Brown, was to visit one night.
A woman fitting the reviewer’s description entered the eatery with her entourage. She proceeded to complain about a draft at her table, then when moved, about being too close to the waiter’s station. The bread basket caught fire from a candle on the table… You can see where this is going– a long series of further mishaps, complaint-fodder for the fussy diner, “… who sarcastically asked Liz [the waitress] if she had graduated from high school.” Ms. Ring, who was also a waitress there at the time, witnessed Liz’s feisty temper flare as she finally told off the customer.
The supposed Ms. Brown confronted Carl, the restaurant owner, who, at the bar, was “… busy crying into his fourth double bourbon.” With the ‘don’t-you-know-who-I-am’ speech, she told off Carl, telling him her name. It was not Bette Brown. Carl was extremely relieved. A good dining experience was had by the actual Bette Brown, who had been there earlier that evening.
This book contains not only entertaining anecdotes, but recipes, too.
The Book of the Week is “Guilty Pleasures” by Donald Barthelme, published in 1974; publisher – Farrar Straus and Giroux. This is a collection of humorous essays.
In one essay, the author presents a whimsical scenario in which Amanda encounters her friend Hector playing all manner of board games simultaneously. He says, “…On the floor. It was my move. When I play alone, it is always my move. That is reasonable.” He tells Amanda that everyone is playing these games, including businessmen, military men and scientists. Amanda says she is tired of playing games.
Hector renews her enthusiasm by musing on various hypothetical games such as Contretemps, the Game of Social Embarrassment, and Hubris. He engages her in the verbal Game of Deathbed Utterances. She thinks the games are “marvelous… because they are so meaningless and boring, and trivial. These qualities, once regarded as less than desirable, are now everywhere enthroned as the key elements in our psychological lives, as reflected in the art of the period… ”
Then comes the title of this essay, “Games Are the Enemies of Beauty, Truth, and Sleep, Amanda Said.” Hector describes one last game, that of Ennui. It requires “… No rules, no boards, no equipment… the absence of games… the modern world at its most vulnerable.”