An Elegy for my Vacation

August 19, 2013 § Leave a comment

I really wish I could say I’m happy to be back here on the world wide web but my recent vacation was just too beautiful.  I spent a glorious week in a cabin on an island in Northeastern Ontario. The weather was a little cooler than a normal August, perfect for shorts and dock shoes during the day and sleeping bags at night, and the only time it rained was the day the roofers were due to make some repairs, so the grey skies were actually a lucky guarantor of peace and quiet for reading. And that’s really all I did for the whole week: laze about in a hammock and read.  On one of the last days, I tried fishing for a few minutes, but quickly found myself back to a book.


View from the Western Window of my Cottage–photo by Jenny McDougal

You know you’re relaxing when fishing seems like too much excitement.

In addition to Rob Bell’s thoughtful Love Wins, I read the following novels: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, Red Moon by Ben Percy, Echolocation by Myfanwy Collins, Broken Harbor by Tana French, and A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers. There wasn’t a bad one in the bunch, but it is A Hologram for the King that I want to blog about today, because its literary use of jokes it pertinent to the mission of this blog.

The novel follows Alan Clay, a salesman from a fast-fading era of American greatness, as he tries to redeem his recent (and continuing) blunders by giving a successful sales pitch to a Saudi Arabian monarch. Concerned with failure and decline—both personal and cultural—this spare novel is sad and beautiful in an elegiac way.

It is, thankfully, also very funny. Many of the laughs come at Alan’s expense as he rushes from one awkard mess to the next (imagine Michael Scott fancying himself Lawrence of Arabia).  But, lost in a foreign land, Alan recognizes that humor is a great bridge between cultures (as we’ve discussed on the blog before). After an awkward silence between he and his local driver, Alan tries to break the ice:

-Okay, Alan said. A woman’s husband has been sick. He’s been slipping in and out of a coma for several months, but she’s been staying by his bedside every single day. When he wakes up, he motions for her to come nearer. She comes over, sits next to him. His voice is weak. He holds her hand. ‘You know what?’ he says. ‘You’ve been with me all through the bad times. When I got fired, you were there to support me. When my business went sour, you were there. When we lost the house, you gave me support.  When my health started failing, you were still by my side… You know what?’ ‘What dear?’ she asks gently. ‘I think you bring me bad luck!’

Yousef snorted, coughed, had to stub out his cigarette.

-That’s good.  I didn’t see that coming. You have more?

Alan was so grateful. He had not told a joke to an appreciative young person in many years.

This joke, obviously doing some thematic work as well, is surrounded by Alan’s recent memories of being shamed by his ex-wife and daughter for telling jokes. These failures are indicative of his crumbling connection to American life, just as his success in the car is a convincing sign of his budding friendship with Yousef. This relationship was one of the least depressing aspects of the book, as well as one of the realest feeling, in part because of the good (and good-bad) jokes Eggers uses in building it. There’s a decent chunk of the book dedicated to lamenting the fact that nothing real is built in America anymore, and in Alan’s world of  telecom holograms and skyscrapers that will never be finished, an unlikely friendship is one of the most concrete commitments  to be found.

With this in mind, I’m afraid to say that this post might have to serve as a sort of elegy for business as usual at The Oldest Jokes in the World: in contrast to the declining might of American manufacture, I’m going to start focusing on producing my own work for a while instead of commenting, theorizing on, and repackaging the rest of the world’s. My serial novel, Slash, is launching in September, so my only posts here for the next month or two will probably be to promote my efforts. I will have plenty of content related to Slash that is both literary and funny, though, so check out the website and the fb group to get your fix. Otherwise, I promise to be back soon with an essay about the history of the “deeez nuts” joke or the importance of flatulence gags.

Leaving you in good hands…

August 6, 2013 § Leave a comment

I’m excited to announce I’m about to head up to Canada for my annual cottage retreat: a whole week with no work, no cars, no computers, no cell-phones—just a hammock and a stack of novels! When I return, I’ll check back in with a list of books I read that (hopefully) use humor to great effect.

In the meantime, though, a great place to get your fix of literary hilarity is at the new and exciting MANDREW’s BLISSENBLOG. Andrew Blissenbach is a great writer and friend of mine (we got our MFA’s together at Hamline University, and he’s currently my dungeon master in an AD&D campaign) who just launched his lovely blog a week ago.

andrew031-Exposure-200x300The blog focuses on creative non-fiction explorations of modern masculinity, and Andrew never misses an opportunity to make fun of our culture’s or his own personal conceptions of manhood to make what it really means to be a man clearer. So far, he’s got great essays up about choosing a doula, getting a hair-cut, and negotiating between a manly-man and a wussy-writer—and I’m sure he’s got more on the way to keep you entertained. Like Andy himself, the writing is not just muscular and energetic, but welcoming and gracious as well. Just click on the picture of him him shooting someone with a banana to check it out…


Trilogy of Dope

July 28, 2013 § 2 Comments

Hey dudes. How’s your summer coming? I trust you’ve been surviving without regular updates to The Oldest Jokes in the World (if you’re having trouble coping, I hear keeping up with the developments at helps). I hope I won’t offend any of you dedicated readers when I reveal that I’ve spent a good part of this summer reading paper books instead of blogging.

It’s been especially bad over the past few weeks because I’ve been consumed by the sort of book that engrosses you until the world (or, at least the internet) seems lifeless in comparison: River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh. The good news is, though, that now that I’ve emerged on the other side of the cover, I want to get out in the world and tell everyone about it.


The second book in Ghosh’s yet to be finished Ibis trilogy, it is the follow-up to 2008’s Sea of Poppies.  That first book of the trilogy is easily one of my favorites of the past ten years. Exploring the effects of the Opium trade on the Asian continent in the first half of the 19th Century, the novel had a huge cast of colorful characters from every country and caste: British sea captains, Hindi widows, disgraced zamindars, Chinese junkies, and mixed-race sailors.

Incredibly, this second book in the series adds even more characters, as we abandon the sea to follow developments in the opium trade in Canton and Hong Kong; the characters from last book remain in the action, but the focus now is on a new set of players, just as lively and believable as those I grew to love in the first part.

This huge cast of characters and cultures allows Ghosh to employ an incredible diversity of craft, as well; these novels really do everything I want a novel to do and more.  As The New Yorker pointed out in their review, the novel is “At once intimate and epic,” able to illuminate huge historical machinations by closely examining the thoughts and emotions of a disparate and dynamic collection of individuals.

Even better, at least as far as this blog is concerned, it is at once smart and funny, high and low brow. With so many cultures coming together in the opium trade, there is a wealth of language in the world being described, as cultures clash against each other with misunderstanding while occasionally merging into new ways of life and pidgin dialects. The amount of detail Ghosh puts into making these distant worlds seem real and sound true is a compelling feat of historical research. Instead of relaying this knowledge with dry sobriety, though, he often uses this massive vocabulary to make dirty jokes.

While Sea of Poppies let loose some of the best fart jokes in literary history, River of Smoke had a great running joke about a French girl offending cooks by saying their kitchen smelled like a creperie. Or consider this dialogue between a group of Opium magnates: Bahram, the novel’s great fallen hero, and the free-trade obsessed Mr. Slade:

This piece of news did nothing to sweeten Mr Slade’s humor. With a quiver of jowls he issued one of his cryptic pronouncements: ‘Well, if our Achilles is to sulk in his tent, I suppose he can not be without his Patroclus.’

‘”Patroclus”?’ Bahram followed in puzzlement. ‘What is “Patroclus”? Some new kind of medicine, is it?’

‘I suppose some would call it that?’

‘But what about Charles King?’ said Bahram. ‘Why is he absent? Is he taking Patroclus also?’

‘That possibility,’ said Mr Slade gravely, ‘cannot be dismissed, certainly. Ab ore maiori discit arare minor.’

‘Baap-re! What does that mean, John?’

‘”From the older ox the younger learns to plow.”‘

‘My goodness!’ said Bahram. ‘It is unbelievable! Time is running away and they are busy ploughing and all?’

If you’re as lost as Bahram, you can learn about Achilles and Patroclus on wikipedia—a luxury no one had when our cultures were first coming together. In watching Mr Slade keep Bahram out of the joke in the scene above, we begin to suspect that he has no real interest in communing with him, sharing cultures and ideas on an equal footing, but is simply using him for further profits and power.

Interestingly, it is through scenes of misunderstanding like the one above that we begin to understand what it must have been like to live in those first explosions of globalization; I’ve written before about how jokes have an ideal listener and can work to help include (or exclude) someone from a conversation. The jokes in these novels made the world and its words—daftars, zamindars, and lascars—seem realer and more vibrant to me than any definition could.  You leave these novels feeling like you’ve not only gained some understanding of the cultures discussed, but what it means for them to confront and enrich each other.

I feel this trilogy is truly the best thing going in literature right now, and am going to start the countdown as soon as a release for the conclusion is announced. If it takes Ghosh the same amount of time to get it out as it did the second, we can hope for it in 2014–which should give you plenty of time to get caught up by then.

Recommendation: One Hundred Philistine Foreskins

June 14, 2013 § Leave a comment

Yo there.

I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to fulfill my promise of bi-weekly posts throughout the summer, as I’ve been working hard on filling out the Slash site over the past weeks, but then I finished a book I’d been making my way through slowly for most of the spring and thought to myself, “Hey, that was actual quite enjoyable and thought provoking—I should recommend it.” It’s a recommendation with qualifications, though, as One Hundred Philistine Foreskins certainly isn’t for everyone.


Let me, first off, go ahead and call it early: Best Title of 2013 goes to this satirical juggernaut by Tova Reich. It was on the strength of the title alone that I gave it a try, but the title also hints at the specific audience of this book.
I was at my neighborhood independent bookstore, the incomparable Common Good Books, special ordering a compendium of New Testament Apocrypha for some research I’m doing for my next prkect. A little surprised I was into biblical scholarship—but well acquainted with my juvenile sense of humor—my friend who works there pointed it out to me as a title to giggle about (and possibly read).

The title refers to the bride price David paid for one of his wives in the Book of Samuel; the novel summarizes:

“And while we’re on the subject of women at windows and all the troubles this position has brought down upon them, let us not neglect to mention King Saul’s daughter, the princess Mikhal, for whom that extravagant show-off David had actually overtipped with two hundred Philistine foreskins though the asking brideprcie for her, true, had been the bargain rate of the mere one hundred at which her value had been assessed. Two hundred Philistines for a yield of two hundred foreskins, think about it, maybe circumcised after they were killed, maybe while they were still alive like Dinah’s rapist Shekhem and all the men of his town, a major bloodletting, a wild scalping, but David liked to do things big, he liked to make a splash, and Mikhal, after all, was a princess, a Jewish princess, worth every foreskin.”

This should give you a pretty good feel for the tone of the novel, which chronicles the life of Ima Temima, a radical feminist rabbi, while continually turning back to the stories of the Torah for deeper understanding and humor. Exploring a woman’s role and worth (100 gentile foreskins) in Jewish society, the humor is dark, cutting, bitter—and often dead on.

But it is also incredibly specific. As I’ve discussed before on the blog, every joke has an ideal listener, and the more chance there is that a joke will be lost on a general audience, the more intimate and powerful it usually is. For a guy who grew up without religion, I feel I’m generally familiar with what I know as the Old Testament, and many of the jokes in this novel hit me really hard, giving deeper insight into stories I thought I’d already understood. But as the novel is firmly couched in Jewish culture, many of the interpretations, much of the vocabulary, and some of the cultural references were lost on me. But then I sort of enjoy that experience of trying to fit the pieces together; it made me feel like I’d worked my way into the point if view by the end of the book.

If you’re a Jewish feminist, I think you’ll find this book hilarious and personally affecting—and if you’re not, you might just find yourself a Jewish feminist by the time you finish it.

Red Birds are Still Chirping Despite Snow

April 9, 2013 § Leave a comment

Sorry world.  I jinxed everything with all the talk of spring in my last post; apparently, I should have stayed in the library working on a longer post for you all, because it didn’t take too long for it to snow once I started playing hooky.  And now it feels like spring will never come.

The good news is that spring is still going strong at Red Bird, so we can all keep ourselves warm with good chapbooks.  As promised Shaun Rouser’s darkly comic “Family Affair” is now available for purchase in our store.  The three stories in this beautiful, hand-bound chapbook explore, with a disturbing exactitude, the convoluted obligations that bring us together as family.  Mr. Rouser has a unique, erudite voice, so please do click on the cover below to check it out in our web store.


In more big news, we’ll have this and other fiction titles available soon in ultra-affordable (though far less lovingly-physical) ebook formats at out Smashwords Store.  I’ll let you know as they become available.

8946430Lastly, I wanted to stress one more time we would love to consider your fiction manuscript for publication as a Red Bird Chapbook. Please, please, please send us your flash fiction or short story collection! Just click the little birdie on the right and he’ll take you to our submission guidelines.  And don’t forget to come back next week for our special 1-year anniversary jokealong extravaganza.

Red Birds are Chirping

April 5, 2013 § Leave a comment

Spring has finally come to Minnesota. Looking out the window of the library I write in, I can see the snow on the hills melting down into the little lake that I watched freeze over almost six months ago now—so I hope you understand why that it’s going to be a short edition of The Oldest Jokes in the World this week.

I do have some exiting news to share with you all after a big Red Bird Chapbooks editor’s meeting we had earlier this week. We’ve been having a great first quarter to 2013, with a burgeoning staff and line of great chapbooks.

I’m especially proud to announce the newest fiction manuscript we’ve accepted: Ivory Children by Joe Baumann. Joe writes striking flash fiction, and the vignettes in this collection range from fantastical and surreal to grounded and understated, but they all contain a concentrated chunk of humanity. Some of the stories included have already been published at various literary journals around the web, so I encourage you to check them out for free in advance of Ivory Children‘s release in a few months:

“Thimbles” at The Dying Goose

“Sally the Imortal” at matchbook

“Porcelian” at Crack the Spine

I also just received a copy of the final product of the first manuscript I worked on at Red Bird, Family Affair by Shaun Rouser. The chapbook is a beautiful home for Mr. Rouser’s darkly comic tales, and I’m anticipating a great swell of pride when it becomes available to the world at large. It should be available for purchase at the Red Bird store any day now, so I’ll keep y’all posted.

8946430Lastly, I wanted to stress that, apart from these two wonderful collections, we have a drought of fiction manuscripts at Red Bird right now. With increased sales and recognition for our beautiful chapbooks, the poetry editors are being inundated with more verse than they can keep up with—which is making us fiction editors lonesome. Please, please, please send us your flash fiction or short story collection because we want to publish it! Just click the little birdie on the right and he’ll take you to our submission guidelines.

Anyhow, I’m going to get the hell out of this stuffy library (the first day of spring is the only day of the year on which I will insult a library), but check back next week: it is the one-year anniversary of the blog, so we’ll have a special birthday jokealong! If you’re wondering what to get me, I like puns.

Where da wenches at?

February 13, 2013 § 1 Comment

Making a quick extra post today to recommend “Practically Human” by Charlie Broderick to all you dear readers.  The story was published last week on Revolver, and is sure to satisfy if you are in need of a heartfelt laugh today.

Revolver - Rowdy Reading

Charlie is a friend of mine and her work is certainly a friend of this blog’s, as she uses humor to draw readers deeper into the trouble of the story instead of to dismiss it.  Among many other deep, searching questions, this piece dares to asks, “Where da wenches at?”

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