Hate Book Club: The Overton Window

It’s time for a new installment of Hate Book Club! If you need a refresher, Patricia Ladd and I are reading books we think we will hate, and then reviewing them. Each post has to include a graph, a summarizing GIF, and at least some positive comments (sarcasm is allowed). I’m also doing little report cards at the end. Here’s a link to her write-up.

This month’s Hate Book:

The Overton Window

The Overton Window: A Thriller, by Glenn Beck

“If Molly was right, then a cute but quirky mailroom temp had identified a grand, unified, liberty-crushing conspiracy that had been hatched in the conference room of a PR agency.” (p. 141)

Few books can be easily summarized in one of their own sentences, but The Overton Window can. That quote has everything, starting with a free admission that the book sounds ridiculous. Part of the challenge of Glenn Beck’s novel is figuring out when he knows he’s being silly, and when he doesn’t know.

The best example is Molly, the “cute but quirky mailroom temp.” She’s introduced as perfection itself, and she’s the only major female character in the book. She’s naturally beautiful, a free spirit, a Tea Partier, talks sassily back to boys, has tight blue jeans that hug her butt, and, of course, “she hardly wore any makeup, it seemed, nothing needed concealment or embellishment.” [sic] (p. 11) And then, despite all that wild child behavior, it takes her about fifteen minutes to fall in love with our hero.

Plot twist! Glenn Beck knows that’s ridiculous! It turns out Molly is a cunning double agent whose goal was to seduce our hero from the start, and she’d carefully researched all the right traits to appeal to him (he likes bad girls with no makeup). So it was all too good to be true, and the joke’s on stupid Noah Gardner for thinking otherwise.

Except, of course, at the end it turns out she really is a hero and she really did fall in love with him. That’s The Overton Window in a nutshell.

By the way, about our stupid protagonist Noah Gardner: he’s another example of that classic cliche, the Inexperienced and/or Dumb White Guy Whom Circumstances Force to Become a Hero. He’s like a hornier Luke Skywalker, joining the right wing fringe to chase Molly and then basically doing whatever she says in an effort to get in her pants. Every character in the novel has an Anglo/Irish last name, by the way: Gardner, Ross, Churchill, Bailey, Kearns, Landers, Nelan, Halliday. No racial minorities or even continental European types here!

Although The Overton Window is a thriller, it takes politics more seriously than thrilling you. There are extensive political speeches and conversations throughout; most memorably, Noah and Molly kiss for the first time, then immediately begin debating reforms to the IRS tax code. Beck extensively quotes a lot of thinkers who’d be surprised to find themselves quoted here: Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Rudyard Kipling, Woodrow Wilson, Shakespeare, Dale Carnegie, Saul Alinsky, Andre Gide, and, most perversely, Martin Luther King Jr.

Handy chart

Handy chart

But the funniest invocation is Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, in a two-chapter cliffhanger where Molly disguises herself as Natalie Portman. Why Natalie Portman? Well, as Noah says, “She’s an A-lister but she’s done mostly art-house films, so the average Joe probably couldn’t pick her out of a lineup.” (p. 229) It makes perfect sense! The book was released in 2010, when the average Joe had definitely not seen Natalie Portman in Heat, Star Wars I-III, Zoolander, Cold Mountain, Garden State, The Other Boleyn Girl, or V for Vendetta.

I digress. Here’s the plot of the thriller. Noah is a dumb horndog who attends a right-wing fringe rally because cute girl Molly tells him to go. The rally is perfectly diverse: “there seemed to be no clear exclusions based on race, or class, or any of the other traditional media-fed American cultural divides. It was a total cross section, a mix of everyone” (pp. 50-51). The rally is also infiltrated by bad guys who start a riot, getting Noah and Molly arrested. (At first it seems the bad guys are NYPD cops, and Glenn Beck distrusts the police, but nope, by the end we find out that the NYPD is all good guys.) Later, Noah and Molly discover the vast conspiracy to destroy America, which was indeed created by a PR agency, which involves dropping a nuclear bomb on Senator Harry Reid’s office, and which is clearly explained to Noah and Molly via a PowerPoint presentation. Yes, they spend crucial chapters sitting in a room clicking through slides.

Needless to say, the evil conspirators are the government, because the government is big and evil. Their plan is to blame the terrorist attack on right-wing extremists, arrest everyone in the Tea Party, and then destroy the Second Amendment en route to a dictatorship. At the end of the book, the Harry Reid assassination attempt has been thwarted, but everything else is still on. I think Beck wants us to get excited for a sequel where the real showdown happens, since there’s no climactic showdown at all in this book. In fact, there’s barely any action at all: one shootout, one woman getting poisoned, and some breaking-and-entering.

As much as it pains me to say this, Glenn Beck has some political views that I like. He’s angry about our surveillance state (and would later, correctly, call Edward Snowden a hero and a patriot), he objects to police having military equipment, and he shares our outrage about some of America’s dumber experiments in imperialism (like destroying Guatemalan democracy in the 1950s). But, just when you think he’s being a little enlightened, he randomly complains that vaccinations are terrible, or one of his characters eats “an Al Sharpton”: “fried chicken and waffles.” (Molly, despite being from the south, has “never heard of chicken and waffles.” [p. 103] What??? Also, fyi, the Al Sharpton is a real thing on a real menu, so Beck is giving us a restaurant recommendation, and is not being racist. Well, maybe a little.)

So there are positives to the book. It’s humorous, sometimes on purpose. Like a broken clock, Glenn Beck’s views are right sometimes. And Noah and Molly’s “witty” “flirtatious” “banter” achieves a weird hideous transcendence, like George-Michael and Ann:

But the best part is the cover. The back cover is littered with hilarious bullshit quotes from actual thriller novel writers. Brad Thor (which is a real person’s name) says “Glenn Beck has just shattered the thriller barrier.” Vince Flynn: “A visionary work of fiction.” James Rollins: “This Hitchcockian thriller will have you turning pages well into the night.”

Uh, you guys write thrillers for a living, right? You know there should be way more shootouts, car chases, cold-blooded assassins, and Russian submarines in this book, right? Instead of all the scenes where Noah and Molly fill out crossword puzzles and reminisce about taking penmanship classes as kids? How many of your books have chapters where the characters use PowerPoint?

And then there’s the front cover. Did you notice that on this book, the Statue of Liberty is a muscular dude with a beard??? What?!??!?!

"Enhance. Enhance." - CSI: Glenn Beck's Warped Reality

“Enhance. Enhance.” – CSI: Glenn Beck’s Warped Reality

Conclusion (and link to Patricia’s review)
I can think of no better way to end this review than to inform you that the book contains this conversation:

She ran her hands through her hair and stretched again, wriggled herself under the covers, and rolled onto her side with one arm across him, the long, cool silkiness of her bare legs against his skin.

“Now see?” Noah said. “That’s what I just asked you not to do.”

“I’m only getting comfortable.” Her voice was already sleepy, and she shivered a bit. “My feet are cold.”

“Suit yourself, lady. I’m telling you right now, you made the rules, but you’re playing with fire here. I’ve got some rules, too, and rule number one is, don’t tease the panther.” (p. 114)

The GIF That Summarizes My Overall Reaction

Hate Book Club Report Card
(all scores on scale of 1-10, with 10 being most)

Hateability of message: 8
Hateability of writing style: 4
Pleasure derived from hating book: 9

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The Spirit of North Carolina

When I visited my friend Patricia in North Carolina, her assignment was for me to “find the True Meaning of North Carolina”. So I guess this is turning in my homework assignment!

Clue #1: Having Lots of Trees Everywhere

Suburban North Carolina is forested and rural-feeling. It’s strange, after spending so much time in Texas, to see rolling hills covered in trees, rather than parking lots. Cary, NC has 150,000 people, but it feels like it has maybe 30,000. And North Carolina is serious about preserving the greenery in state parks, even right smack in the middle of town.

Cary, NC

Just a city park in Cary.

Clue #2: Tricking You into Drinking Cherry Soda by Pretending It’s Wine, and Then It’s Awesome Anyways

That’s what Cheerwine is for! “Cheerwine,” you say. “That sounds like a terrible $5 wine.” Nope, it’s cherry soda, and it’s way too delicious.

But not to fear: North Carolina’s temperance-movement heritage (Cary was named after a prohibitionist [boo, hiss]) has recently been compromised by its craft beer movement. Full Steam Brewery, based in Durham, is a pioneer of an unlikely and very expensive drink: persimmon ale. A surprisingly strong beer with a fascinating taste (I’ve never had persimmons before), the persimmon ale is unlike anything else, and utterly delicious.

Persimmon ale absolutely makes up for the fact that you couldn’t even have a good rant about Cheerwine, once you discovered Cheerwine was good.

Clue #3: Respect for History as Proven by Chocolate

Escazu

The historically-informed chocolate drinks at Escazu.

After a scavenger hunt at the state history museum in Raleigh, Patricia, Steven, and I adjourned to another kind of historical adventure: hot chocolate from Escazu. Steven tried cocoa from pre-Columbian Central America, a fiery concoction as jolting as Starbucks coffee. Patricia and I opted for the Spanish blend, a spicy, sweet, savory, creamy blend of delicious perfection. And then Steven one-upped us by getting a dessert hot chocolate after his main course hot chocolate: the French mix, the sweetest and most immediately charming of all.

It is really hard for me to accept that I can’t drink stuff like this in Texas. Really, really hard. I might spend a month obsessively experimenting, because those hot cocoas can ruin the whole rest of the genre for you.

Another historical thing North Carolina likes is Abraham Lincoln. When we visited the Art-O-Matic vending machine, a vending machine which dispenses art, Patricia got two pencil drawings of Abraham Lincoln. And neither of them was even hunting vampires!

Clue #4: Not Laughing When They Say They’re Buying Groceries at a Store Named Harris Teeter

“Oh, you live next to a Harris Teeter!” I said.
“Yeah,” Patricia said.
“Tee hee,” I said.
“It’s pretty nice,” Patricia said, and then she said some more serious things about her shopping and I realized North Carolinians do not snicker when they say “Harris Teeter”. Harris Teeter, Harris Teeter, Harris Teeter.

Clue #5: Let’s Be Honest, People, Your Average North Carolina Barbecue Is Better Than Your Average Texas Barbecue

Hey, North Carolina BBQ isn’t Lockhart Smokehouse, or Pecan Lodge, or Franklin’s. But your average Texas BBQ joint isn’t either. Chains like Dickie’s or even Rudy’s are minor league baseball players compared to the likes of Pecan Lodge. But they’re also minor leaguers compared to the stuff in east Carolina, for one simple reason: the sauce.

Texas has tang; it’s all about tomatoes, spices, and a hint of sweetness. North Carolina barbecue sauce combines vinegar, bright acids, and hot peppers, which makes the meat just hum with exciting flavors. Light, clean, and slightly harder to stuff yourself silly with (okay, not that much harder), Carolina barbecue’s hot-and-sour kick is pretty terrific.

And we can all agree on one thing: barbecue from Kansas City is garbage!

Conclusion: The True Meaning of North Carolina

The true meaning of North Carolina is best understood shortly after stuffing yourself silly with pork, black-eyed peas, and a fried grit cake. Sit in a copse of trees, pull the tab on a Cheerwine, drink a toast to your ancestors, and then sit back and relax. That satisfaction you’re feeling? That’s the true meaning of North Carolina. Now start planning how you’ll spend the evening: maybe you’ll have some tea and put local honey on a hot biscuit, then whittle a stick into the face of Abraham Lincoln. You need to stop and get the biscuits at Harris Teeter. That last part doesn’t make you giggle.

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2014 Books of the Year

In 2014 I read 80 books, just shy of last year’s 85. Here’s a quick list of all but the top ten, sorted. Afterward we’ll cover my ten favorites.

Special Harry Stephen Keeler Category for So-Bad-It’s-Good-ness

The Mystery of the Fiddling Cracksman (Harry Stephen Keeler); I, Chameleon (Harry Stephen Keeler); Mad Men on the Couch (Stephanie Newman); Fancy Pants (Susan Elizabeth Phillips)

For the first time ever, Harry Stephen Keeler isn’t the only author in the so-bad-it’s-good category! He’s joined by Stephanie Newman, a Freudian psychoanalyst whose entertaining book marries unsurprising, fluffy analysis of the Mad Men characters’ mental issues to a constant and unrelenting insistence that everybody would benefit from Freudian psychoanalysis. It’s just fun enough you can forgive how shamelessly self-promoting it is. Also: most book adaptations are movies, but this book has been turned into a cake.

Mad Men cake

The book is not really that thick.

The other so-bad-it’s-good book is the most entertaining entry so far in the ongoing Hate Book Club series, where my friend Patricia and I read terrible books so you don’t have to. And speaking of Hate Book Club…

Continue reading

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Hate Book Club: Fancy Pants

Hate Book Club

It’s time for a new installment of Hate Book Club! If you need a refresher, Patricia Ladd and I are reading books we think we will hate, and then reviewing them. Each post has to include a graph, a summarizing GIF, and at least some positive comments (sarcasm is allowed). I’m also doing little report cards at the end.

Fancy Pants, by Susan Elizabeth Phillips, is a harrowing, even traumatic indictment of sexism in modern America. The men in the book are almost all abusive, shrill, selfish, and violent, while the independent women are warned about the dangers of being too feminist.

Dallas Beaudine, the main man, is a professional golf player who forces women to have sex and even dance against their will. He hits women, regularly fights other men, kidnaps a child, grabs a woman and drags her to a secret lair (where, helpless and isolated, she gives in to his lust), and throws people into swimming pools when they don’t submit to his will. As a teenager, he harasses passing females, even shoving one against a wall and groping her. Another male character in the book repeatedly rapes his niece. In fact, I count at least three rape victims in the book, plus a cast of teenage prostitutes and sex slaves so large that only one is ever given a name.

Another man dumps a woman out of a car in the middle of the desert, stealing her cash and her passport. The women in the novel are valued for only two things: their beauty and their ability to bear children. One of those women, confronted by a delusional man who has just committed a multitude of federal crimes, endangered his own life, and made a mockery of her on national television, is informed that he is her only chance at bearing children: so she marries him.

In other words, Fancy Pants is profoundly depressing, a veritable catalog of the harassment, assault, trivialization, objectification, belittlement, and hatred women are subjected to every day in this country. It’s also a demonstration of the primitive, even hateful mentality of anti-feminists. The characters are loathsome, self-centered cretins who spend almost every page shouting at each other.

Trouble is, Fancy Pants is actually a syrupy romance novel.

There’s also a cover with a relaxing cowboy, and another one with a giant cupcake. I don’t know why. None of the characters eat cupcakes.

For this month’s installment of Hate Book Club, my friend Patricia issued a challenge: find and read a trashy romance novel set in your home state. She went and found one for North Carolina called Grinding in Greenville (click for her review!), and I had to read one from Texas. (To give you an idea of Patricia’s definition of “trashy,” she rejected the NC-based Nicholas Sparks as too literary.)

I asked my librarian friend Elisa if she had any recommendations, and boy did she ever. Fancy Pants, by Susan Elizabeth Phillips. “Fancy Pants is, as I recall, fairly absurd/formulaic,” Elisa wrote, and then later told me, “I know you’ll hate it.”

I do, but not for the reasons she thought. The book is actually well-written. Phillips ladles in absurd amounts of detail for the weirdest things: she’ll tell you exactly what every character eats for dinner, what designer label all the women are wearing, which golfer is in the lead after every day of a tournament, and what childhood incident explains every character’s psychoses. You’ll even find out how and when a main character’s mother lost her virginity.

But the detail mostly fleshes out the story and characters, making them plausible (though still disgusting). And Phillips writes with wit, casual silliness (“crying like a dumb old bunch of babies”), and a lot of references to authors like Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and Salinger. Too bad the steamier scenes, in theory pretty terrific, are let down by a reliance on cliche (every time a woman takes off her clothes, she “reveals herself”). Well, and also rape.

In fact, the book is scarily stupid about sex. One character says, “I don’t want you to get pregnant. I’ll just put it in a little bit.” (She gets pregnant.) Another character is so afraid of AIDS that she decides to go celibate. And most of the sex in the book is non-consensual. Phillips knows some of the rape is rape, but she thinks some of it is hot and desirable. It’s like a vanilla, Texas-based version of 50 Shades written by a funny person.

And I haven’t even mentioned Francesca Day, the heroine, who’s carefully designed so that the audience will cheer on male characters who call her a bitch and throw her in swimming pools. She’s stupid, mean, spoiled, ignorant, loud, irritating, and entitled, until page 279, which is the exact moment when she stunningly reverses into a strong, independent, smart, capable woman. (Albeit a woman who still gets turned on by being assaulted.) Magical character transformations occur throughout, because Phillips is convinced that people are easily changeable.

I hope that's how you spell likeability

Handy graph of character transformations, likeability, and romantic success. Click to expand

Conclusion
Fancy pants is a good phrase to describe French deconstructionist literary critics who thought that we can’t judge a book by its author’s intent. But we should, and this book is a great proof.

If Susan Elizabeth Phillips intended to create a heartwarming, sappy tale of love conquering obstacles, she failed. If she intended to create a depressing catalog of women’s struggles to be given the respect they deserve, she succeeded. If she intended to make us hate the loathsome main characters, and think that they belong together because they are abusive assholes, she succeeded.

Unfortunately, her website has the slogan “Because Life’s Too Short to Read Depressing Books.”

So yeah, she failed. Life’s too short to read Fancy Pants.

The Worst Thing
Either the scene where a woman confronts the man who kidnapped her small child, but is so distracted by his good looks that she lets him have sex with her instead, or the scene where the novel’s alleged protagonist shoves a teenage girl he barely knows up against a wall and feels her up. Or the fact that that girl decides to marry him. Or the whole uncle-rape sequence.

Or this puke-worthy bit of dialogue:

“Great game, Dallie,” [Jack] Nicklaus said, putting his arm over Dallie’s shoulders. “You’re a real champion.”

The Best Thing
I actually smiled and/or chuckled fairly frequently while reading this. Mostly in the first 100 pages, however. My favorite part is probably the trashy vampire movie director who takes himself too seriously, and the smart, fair, reasonable, down-to-earth director’s assistant, Sally. After a couple pages, I thought, “Oh, this novel ends with Sally getting the man she deserves because she’s so wonderful!” Ha, nope.

The GIF That Summarizes My Overall Reaction
Well, I read this book on public transportation, so…

…should have tried this.

Hate Book Club Report Card
(all scores on scale of 1-10, with 10 being most)

Hateability of message: 6
Hateability of writing style: 1
Pleasure derived from hating book: 6

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Hate Book Club: Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus

Hate Book Club

It’s time for a new installment of Hate Book Club! If you need a refresher, Patricia Ladd and I are reading books we think we will hate, and then reviewing them. Each post has to include a graph, a summarizing GIF, and at least some positive comments (sarcasm is allowed). I’m also doing little report cards at the end. Go read Patricia’s review too!

This month we focus on one of the sacred texts of the 1950s 1990s: Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, by John Gray, Ph.D.

Mars Venus cover

In case you have somehow never seen this book before.

First of all: about John Gray, Ph.D. According to Wikipedia, “He received a bachelors and masters degree in the Science of Creative Intelligence” from Maharishi schools, and then an “unaccredited” Ph.D. “by correspondence” from a university which was later shut down by court order. This “educational background” might explain the handy chart I’ve created below.

Chart

Please do click to expand this to full size. There is a wealth of hidden detail.

That’s important. John Gray pulled this entire book out of his capacious Martian ass. It’s a catalog of stereotypes. I was expecting this to be at least interestingly bad, but it’s not. It’s boring stereotypes nonstop. Men get lost while driving because they won’t ask for directions (Gray insists that women should never complain about this). Women are emotionally needy. Men don’t listen, nor do they know how to say things like “mm-hmm” to indicate they are listening. Women, but never men, get annoyed by messiness. Men, but never women, just want to watch TV. All women love shopping. Men are ambitious at work, while women want to make friends with everybody. “You Are Never Upset for the Reason You Think.”

In an early chapter, I learned that, based on “values”, I am a woman.

In a later chapter, I learned that, based on tactics for addressing potential fights, I am still a woman.

I also learned that, without love from the opposite sex, everyone is constantly depressed. “When the first Martian discovered the Venusians,” he was “stuck in his cave and unable to find the source of his depression.” “From just one glimpse his life had new meaning. His depression lifted.” Same goes for women: “She dreamed that a fleet of spaceships from the heavens would land and a race of strong and caring Martians would emerge….Other Venusians had similar dreams and instantly came out of their depressions.”

All women crave a spaceknight in shining space-armor to rescue them from depression. This is convenient because, just as “every” woman has “a scared little girl” inside her, “every” man has “a knight in shining armor” inside him.

Now, some stereotypes are true, of course. John Gray works on the Nostradamus principle: if he’s vague enough, and broad enough, everybody will have a few “Aha!” moments. Sometimes he would describe me, and my fears, successfully, whether he was describing me as male or female. But at other times the stereotyping veers off the rails, like the chapter about Love Letters. Love Letters are complaint letters written in this format:

“Dear Jane, I am frustrated about XYZ problem in our relationship. It makes me sad that we have this problem. I am afraid we might drift apart. I regret XYZ thing. I love you and appreciate you for doing some other nice thing that this letter is not about. Love, Bob”

“Start with anger, then sadness, then fear, then regret, and then love,” Gray commands. “Include all five sections in your letter.” Not often you hear someone say anger is mandatory. But the place where the stereotype kicks in is this: men have no idea what women want, and men can’t possibly understand women, so if you are a woman writing a letter to a man, you need to write his reply for him. This will make him happy, since he doesn’t have to use any brain cells figuring out how to reply.

So how does a book claiming all men are Ray Barone and all women are Betty Draper, with no evidence, sell millions of copies and become a cultural icon? By being full of common sense and basic decency. At heart, John Gray’s message is simple:

  1. Be respectful.
  2. Communicate honestly and openly.
  3. Listen without getting angry.
  4. Be aware that other people don’t work the same way you do.
  5. If you love somebody, let them know, by words or deeds or any mode of expression they appreciate. (He doesn’t mention food, but I assume that counts.)

Which is a great list! Those are great things! And we should all follow them. The problem with this book is that the good stuff is not presented differently from the bullshit.

Only on one topic does Gray veer from amiably doltish to genuinely harmful: “Most physical diseases are now widely accepted as being directly related to our unresolved emotional pain.” “Women who have learned successfully to deal with their feelings have felt their PMS symptoms disappear.”

Not a real doctor

Friendly reminder

Conclusion
The most noteworthy thing about Mars/Venus: it’s really boring. I’m amazed at how boring the book is. The only reason I finished it is because I was curious to find out if Gray ever mentions same-sex relationships. (No. Gay people do not exist in Mars/Venus.)

This book’s success makes me cynical. Its best advice is something people won’t buy from their parents, or coworkers, or religious leaders. The reason they bought it from John Gray is a stupid, misleading metaphor which “proves” that men and women can be collapsed into opposite, and conflicting, cheesy stereotypes.

Have you read Patricia’s review yet? Here’s another link.

The Worst Thing
Is it even close? “Women who have learned successfully to deal with their feelings have felt their PMS symptoms disappear.” The other top candidate is right on the first page, when Gray admits that just days after his wife had a baby, he was storming out of the house whenever she complained about being stressed. The guy’s a doofus.

The Best Thing
At least after that storming-out story, he admitted he was wrong. He admits he’s wrong with disarming frequency.

The GIF That Summarizes My Overall Reaction

Hate Book Club Report Card
(all scores on scale of 1-10, with 10 being most)

Hateability of message: 7
Hateability of writing style: 7
Pleasure derived from hating book: 2

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Hot Pepper Kit Kat

Exciting culinary news! My friend Elaine gave me a Japanese hot-pepper-flavored Kit Kat bar.

Hot pepper Kit Kat

Hooray!

The chocolate is slightly darker and subtler than an American Kit Kat, so around the classic wafer crunch you get a bit less of an aggressive sugary kick.

There is hot pepper in here – probably cayenne. It appears halfway through your bite and leaves a pleasant afterburn when you swallow. Not too spicy, not as bad as, say, American “cinnamon” hard candies. All in all, very pleasant. Tasty! I would absolutely eat hot pepper Kit Kat bars again.

Elaine informs me that Amazon stocks a variety 18-pack of mini Kit Kats for $30. You also get wasabi, rum raisin, purple potato, and “pumkin pudding”, among other flavors. If you want, you can also get 12-packs of the hot pepper, wasabi, purple potato, and other flavors. (Purple potato is only available in the southernmost regions of Japan: “Okinawa and Kyushu Area Limited Flavor”. Cool.)

Elaine also pointed me to a website where you can get a crate of wacky Japanese candies delivered to your door for $12 per month. Every month you get a “mystery box” that might include lychee gummies, “chocolate mushrooms,” little koala-shaped crackers with chocolate filling, or let’s be honest, it could be anything.

Of course, as my friends and coworkers well know, my favorite Japanese candy is Every Burger, the little chocolate cookies lovingly shaped to look like cheeseburgers.

Every Burger

Complete with fake sesame seeds.

Oh, Japan, how are you skinny?

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Reading Keeler: I, Chameleon

It’s been a long time since I last updated my Reading Keeler series. Quick refresher: Harry Stephen Keeler is one of the most bizarre writers of all time, a pulp thriller author whose books drive past odd, and past bad, and past perverse, into a land where no adjective can describe them. I’ve previously described him has having “a stupendous imagination and a total lack of good judgment.” Others have described him as the “Ed Wood/Tommy Wiseau of world literature” or “the worst writer ever.” Which is unfair: there’s a fine line between genius and insanity, and Harry Stephen Keeler is sprawled across it like a big weird starfish.

So this time around the book is a two-volume epic called I, Chameleon.

The Chameleon

Original 1937 book cover to Part II of the epic

I, Chameleon is not for the beginner, or for the faint of heart. It is, frankly, bewildering. I can’t pretend to understand many of the subplot details, in particular a baffling murder mystery case in which the victim was actually somebody else, and the murderer pretended he murdered the wrong man, or something. Who knows?

The concept is a daring experiment: our narrator pretends to be somebody he’s not. In every chapter. And it’s always somebody different. The narrator is a chameleon, working through over 30 fake identities in 306 pages. What’s especially baffling is he often tells his victims. At the end of the chapter, he’ll say something like, “By the way, my name’s not really McAllister Y. Thane! I made that up! Haha!” and then just leave.

The narrator is pathologically obsessed with his fakery. At one point, he stumbles on an opportunity to steal a famous philosophy professor’s identity. So he goes to a fictional version of the University of Chicago and delivers a whole philosophy lecture to the students. Wait, that doesn’t make clear just how ridiculous this is. He takes a couple hours to give a philosophy lecture disguised as a professor, while in a race against time to turn in a criminal by midnight in exchange for a cash reward.

Yeah. The plot is this: our lying friend met a dude named Sandringham. Later he found out that Sandringham was a homicidal maniac, escaped from an insane asylum, with a $100,000 reward on his head. (In today’s money, $1.6M.) But the reward was expiring that very night!–because Sandringham was presumed dead! So the chameleon narrator must use his 30 identities to track down Sandringham and lure him back to the nuthouse.

It is in that framework that the narrator takes time off to teach a philosophy class. You have to admire his confidence. He also spends a good amount of time getting a doctor to demonstrate an operation, for wholly unrelated reasons. He also causes that same doctor to commit suicide. And causes another guy to commit suicide. And kisses a nun. And blows up a safe. And writes a humor column for the local magazine.

It’s a strange book.

Because the plot leaves you in a perpetual state of bewilderment, this is not anywhere near top-shelf Keeler. Bold, yes. Silly, yes. But it lacks the nutty appeal and easy merriment of some of the other books.

There are still interesting things. You’ll learn interesting 1930s slang words, like this list of slang for “money”: “kale, scratch, mazuma or dough.” Kale? And there’s this classic line: “I don’t need to read it! It’s graven in neatly etched letters of immortal fire upon my quivering cerebellum.” My favorite moments were when our dear author turns self-aware: at one point, as he often does in his books, he has a character say that the events unfolding are “like a dime-store novel.” Plus: “It was plain, now, that mystery-novelists were painstaking artists after all–and looked up their stuff most accurately. If only, I reflected ironically, the readers thereof knew that what they were reading was, in most instances, fact–and not fiction!”

Sure. We believe you, Harry.

I, Chameleon may not be one of the medal-winners, but I’m going to keep reading Keeler’s wacky, woeful, wonderful novels–and paying for them with my hard-earned kale.

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