Vulnerable AF by Tarriona Ball

So you know how operas are transcendent experiences, with the music and the singing and the acting (well, sometimes the acting) coming together to create a wondrous whole that you can’t stop thinking about or humming for days? But then you get it into your head to look up the lyrics you’ve been singing and you’re like “oh no, what is this?” Because the big aria is basically the singer repeating “I am dying! I am dying!” while the hero goes “You are dying! Oh no, you are dying!” and it all suddenly seems so banal in comparison with all the majesty and romance of the production, such so that you’re resolved never to read a libretto again? Well, it can be like that with slam poetry too.

Tarriona Ball is a brilliant performer, whether on her own or with her band Tank And The Bangas. Slam poetry, her forte, is as much about repetition and elocution and performance as opera is, gaining much needed emotional nuance from the choices of the performer as from the words themselves. You can compare the basis for the excellent song Boxes And Squares (the first track in the video I linked to above) with the poem For the Body, for the Heart included in this collection. The poem provides the (ironically prosaic) bones that the brilliant track hangs from, like a hanger that shows off a gorgeous dress. Doesn’t matter whether the hanger is padded or velvet tho, it’s still just a hanger, and nothing compared to what it supports.

And that’s the trouble with this collection, at least in it’s written version: it’s just scaffolding. It’s there. It’s fine. The poems Be Bee and Adam show potential for being silently readable, and the pieces of short prose are engaging, but everything else reads as if it needs more, whether expansion into longer essays or Ms Ball’s inimitable voice to give the words life. Please don’t tell me that all poetry needs to be read aloud to be properly appreciated: I can love words on the page without hearing them said in my ear. But I do think that, if given the chance, you should experience this collection in audiobook form. Ms Ball narrates that, which I’m sure does far more for this poetry than my simple interpretation — guided entirely by what’s on the page, because I am here to read and receive, not to inject my own overtones or fillips — could possibly do.

One advantage the printed book has over the audiobook tho is Shonte Young Williams’ lovely artwork, drawn and colored in neo-pop fashion to perfectly illustrate the contents of this slim volume. Tho for all I know, the art comes in the audiobook jacket as well: I have very little experience with audiobooks and even less interest in expanding same. What I do know is that this book is more of a showcase for Ms Young Williams’ works than for Ms Ball’s words, which is a shame, as both are emerging Black artists who deserve widespread recognition for their talent. As with most singers and performers, tho, I’d much rather watch Ms Ball perform than read her lyrics or poems. This book is great for fans, but I’d strongly recommend becoming one by watching her performances first.

Vulnerable AF by Tarriona Ball was published June 8 2021 by Andrews McMeel Publishing and is available from all good booksellers, including

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Trouble Girls by Julia Lynn Rubin

What if Thelma and Louise were scared teenagers in love with one another? That’s the intriguing premise of this book as best friends Trixie and Lux set out for a quick getaway from their stifling lives in Blue Bottle, West Virginia, only to find themselves on the run after Trixie stabs a guy who tries to rape Lux in a roadside bar.

So here’s the deal, Trixie and Lux are both sympathetic, complicated characters, but they’re also both extremely average teenagers: kinda dumb, and mostly impulsive and self-centered. I suppose there’s an audience who’ll enjoy a narrative where the heroines make increasingly poor choices as they drive west across America to the ocean (conveniently ignoring the fact that a) the Atlantic is closer, and b) the Gulf of Mexico isn’t bad if you’re just looking for a saltwater beach) but I personally found the going as grim as it was depicted, which does not make for the most fun read! The only bright spark in the proceedings plot-wise was Trixie and Lux’s slow-growing best friends to lovers romance which was honestly lovely (oh, and the meeting with the triplets was quite nice too!)

Julia Lynn Rubin does throw in some great feminist commentary with the subplot of the stabbing victim and his connections back in Blue Bottle, as well as the public outcry both in favor of and against his mysterious assailants. I hope, however, that the finished version is a little more clear about the Feminazi bit at the 61% mark being in quotations, as that was quite jarring to read in the ARC format, which made it sound like Trixie was slagging off feminist protesters when she wasn’t. I was also mostly pleased that this novel does not Bury Its Gays, but I did feel that the ending only added to the liminal quality of the entire book. Liminal is fine when the space is used to examine emotions free of the pressures of momentum and time, but the effect here was more one of being trapped in stasis as the girls struggled and failed to process what they’d done. And that’s fine! That’s realistic! They’re teenagers and teenagers can be dumb as hell. But it’s also not interesting, at least not to me. For all the adventures that the girls go through, it all felt very emotionally monotonal, with desperation being the overarching theme.

Maybe I’m just not the target audience for this book. Trouble Girls wasn’t as much of a downer as I’d feared, but I really do think parts of it could have been lopped off in favor of telling us what happens next. Give me aftermath! Oh gosh, it’s as if Vladimir Nabokov had decided to have Lolita end when the road trip did, that’s what this feels like here (and is likely the only time or context in which anyone will ever compare this book to that classic.)

Trouble Girls by Julia Lynn Rubin was published June 1 2021 by Wednesday Books and is available from all good booksellers, including

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The Portrait Of A Mirror by A. Natasha Joukovsky

As someone who cherishes the idea of eventually writing fiction professionally one day, it is 100% infuriating to read books like this, books so elegant, so intelligent, so perfect and modern that it makes any effort I could possibly make feel superfluous. Having a healthy ego, I will get over my sheer envy in days, but the impact otherwise of The Portrait Of A Mirror will last for far, far longer.

TPoaM revolves around four people: Diana Whalen who is married to Wes Range who went to school with Vivien Floris who is engaged to Dale McBride who works with Diana. Gorgeous, intelligent and privileged, if not outright wealthy, the paths of all four cross and re-cross as they fall in and out of love in variations on the myth of Narcissus, with the narrative and themes looping and unfolding in exquisite plays on recursion and pop culture and love. Told in vivid, droll prose reminiscent of (yeah, I’m gonna say it) Jane Austen, interspersed with text message exchanges, corporate memos and other modern communiques, this comedy of manners absolutely slaughters its contemporaries as it dives into the psyches of all four of its main characters, examining their flaws and culpability with an unerring eye that had me shifting uncomfortably in my own seat as I felt seen and judged and, ultimately, forgiven.

And here’s the thing, there are going to be plenty of people who read this book and don’t get it or don’t like it, because it’s a novel about complicated white people who don’t have to worry about much more than their own feelings, but the way A Natasha Joukovsky writes about these people not only plunges us deep into their beings but also calls to the complicated feelings we all have about love and self-love and long-term love and long-lost love. She does this while eschewing cliche in favor of an unvarnished truth, which could make for dire reading, yet leavens it all with a clear-eyed empathy for and kindness to both her characters and readers alike.

But it’s not all just feelings: TPoaM is a novel as astonishingly clever and devastatingly charming as its protagonists, leaping nimbly from deep dives into art history and computer science and classic literature to tell silly jokes at its own expense and make sly references to its plentiful influences and antecedents. It is a deeply intelligent book that is fully connected to life in the 21st century, tho it is cannily set in 2015, a time when America was lulled into believing that grownups ran our politics and that we kept getting better as a people, so could absorb ourselves wholly in our selves. In pursuit of an escape into life pre-45, please do browse the book’s Insta page @IMetOvidsHeirs and listen to the excellent Spotify playlist to immerse yourself even more fully in the world of this wonderful debut.

Anyway, I’m still wildly jealous of her for writing this magnificent novel but also want to be her friend? We all have books that elicit those feelings, I imagine.

The Portrait Of A Mirror by A Natasha Joukovsky was published June 1 2021 by The Overlook Press and is available from all good booksellers, including

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Network Effect by Martha Wells

Since the last time I looked in on Murderbot, it has become more secure in its freedom and found something like a home among the people of the Preservation Alliance. Preservation, as it is known throughout Network Effect, is something of a post-scarcity utopia, an interstellar polity posed as a counterpoint to Murderbot’s area of origin, the Corporation Rim. The good people of Preservation call it SecUnit, short for Security Unit, a less ominous moniker than Murderbot, indicating a more peaceful present.

Not that a reader would see that peace at the beginning of Network Effect. Wells starts out with an incipient hostage situation that shows off SecUnit’s abilities and droll affect, along with the haplessness and helplessness of mere humans, two aspects that amount to much the same thing from SecUnit’s point of view.

“I’ve also had clients who thought they didn’t need any security at all, right up until something ate them. (That’s mostly a metaphor. My uneaten client stat is high.)” (p. 9) “Mostly” and “high” rather than “perfect” are classic SecUnit modifiers, the kind that give the series much of its mordant humor.

A couple of pages later:

“‘You didn’t have to shoot anyone.’ Heat crept into Thiago’s voice. ‘If you needed supplies, we [a Preservation research vessel] would have given them to you’
“Don’t worry, the ‘anyone’ who got shot was me.
“(Thiago, while violating the security protocol everyone agreed to IN ADVANCE, had walked out to the observation deck to greet the strangers on their stupid boat. I followed and pulled him back from the edge, and so Potential Target Leader shot me instead of him. Got me right in the shoulder. I managed to fall off the observation deck and miss the water intake. Yes, I was pissed off.)” (p. 11)

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The Kingdoms by Natasha Pulley

The elevator pitch is essentially Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander meets Diana Wynne Jones’ The Time Of The Ghost, with naval battles galore (any Dianas who write about those? I’d be awfully pleased to know it.) Ofc, The Kingdoms isn’t quite so rapey as Outlander (thank God) nor as suspenseful as TToTG but is a thoughtful look at time travel and lost identity and fighting for a future you can live with.

Joe Tournier steps off a train in turn of the 20th-century London and has no idea who he is or where he’s from. A kindly stranger brings him to a physician, who diagnoses Joe as suffering from an uncommon epileptic affliction which causes sufferers to have such intense and prolonged bouts of deja vu that they’re convinced something is amiss with reality. After several days in the Salpetriere asylum, he is claimed by his grateful French owner, who is eager to bring the slave he raised from a young age back home, there to be reunited with Alice, Joe’s resentful Jamaican bride. Alice had intended to wed Joe’s brother Toby, who died before the formalities could be completed. But since the marriage license was already paid for, and since an unwed Alice would have been stuck in limbo as a slave between households, she married Joe instead, to neither’s liking. Joe has memories of someone named Madeline, and is certain he needs to find a way back to her, but how? A mysterious postcard signed M and stamped almost a century earlier asks him to come home if he remembers, and shows a picture of the Eilean Mor lighthouse far in the inaccessible north.

Years pass and Joe thinks he’s acclimatized to this strange world without Madeline. He’s earned his freedom and become an engineer. He and Alice even have a daughter named Lily, who means the entire world to him. But when given the opportunity to visit the Eilean Mor lighthouse after its keepers disappear and the light fails, he cannot resist the chance to investigate, even if it means running a gauntlet of hostile rebels still loyal to English ideals. The repair job itself is easy but the lighthouse feels like it’s outside of time, almost haunted. And that’s even before Joe rescues a mysterious man from the sea, launching them both into a desperate fight for the future. The question is, which future?

I really liked how Natasha Pulley drew from British legend and history to construct her tale of changing timelines. The amount of care and research is obvious in the depiction of a Napoleonic England where Admiral Nelson lost at Trafalgar, both in the immediate aftermath of the defeat as well as a century later. I greatly appreciated the diversity on display (even if a small part of me wonders whether Jem was actually gentry or just really good at pretending) and loved all the sailing. But overall, I felt that there was a strange unevenness in tone when dealing with characters, particularly Kite and Agatha. It’s hard to root for people who make themselves disagreeable on purpose, and while I get that Kite in particular always felt left out in the cold, self-pity does not sympathy elicit. I’m also still confused as to whether Fred was actually murdered, because if he was, it makes No Damn Sense why. The tonal unevenness extends as well to the mystery of who Joe really is: it was intriguing in the beginning, but by the time he confronted Herault, I didn’t really care because it honestly did not feel like it mattered to the story at all.

So this was a weird one for me because it had so many elements that I love, but I did not overall love this book. I think that better shaping and pacing would have helped a lot with the tone issues, as TK seems to abandon interest in being a mystery in favor of being a romance about three quarters of the way through. Porque no los dos, Ms Pulley? It’s definitely an interesting premise tho, and the historical/speculative/naval stuff is aces.

The Kingdoms by Natasha Pulley was published May 25 2021 by Bloomsbury and is available from all good booksellers, including

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The Loud House Summer Special by The Loud House Creative Team

Gosh, there are about as many creative contributors — writers, artists and letterers — as there are characters in this slender tho thoroughly amusing collection of vignettes revolving around the thirteen human members of the Loud family and their many friends and intimates. I feel a little bad not being able to list all the contributors, but since they go by the collective name The Loud House Creative Team on various shop/marketing pages, I’m not beating myself up too much over it.

It’s actually pretty impressive that such a large team can keep the tonal quality of this book so even (credit to the editor, Jeff Whitman!) tho it helps that the vignettes hopscotch between the diverse family units from one chapter to the next. If anything, the book’s structure is reminiscent of the Archie comics I read as a kid, that I rarely looked at the credits for. It also helps that this book ties into the Emmy-winning Nickelodeon cartoon, and displays all the hallmarks of your standard Nickelodeon show: bright colors, slapstick humor and a refreshing willingness to embrace diversity. The vignette with the picnic food was one of my favorites, in large part due to the delicious diversity of the food on display.

Our main character is Lincoln Loud, who lives with his five older sisters and five younger sisters, along with two parents and an assortment of family pets. An introduction helpfully describes each of these characters, as well as the Santiago-Casagrande families, the Chang family and Par, the produce delivery guy for the Mercado run by the Casagrandes. I was a little worried that I’d have to remember each of these twenty-nine characters in order to enjoy the book, so was pleasantly surprised that that was not the case, as the humorous vignettes definitely give enough context for who’s who and demand only a passing familiarity otherwise in order to get the jokes they’re telling. Perhaps my favorite of the tales was the saga of the grape popsicle, which everyone knows is the best of all the flavors. Apart from being highly relatable, it also showed off most of the Loud family members as the kids competed for the single grape popsicle that comes in the jumbo-sized box.

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Scorpion by Christian Cantrell

What if Christopher Nolan’s Tenet was less in love with itself and the magic of cinematography, and just decided to tell a more interesting story? That’s basically what you have here with Christian Cantrell’s Scorpion, as a CIA analyst discovers that a serial assassin she’s been pursuing might have far stranger motivations than she’d ever dreamed.

Quinn Mitchell is one of American intelligence’s finest minds, but her personal life has gone to hell. After the death of her young daughter and the subsequent implosion of her marriage, her entire life is devoted to work, seeking to protect the world from the nuclear terrorism that, in this novel, wiped out Seoul some years earlier. As is the way with government-funded agencies, her taskforce has become so successful that it’s no longer deemed necessary. Thus Quinn is given a brand new assignment: analyze the data behind a string of bizarre murders worldwide, all differing in method and type of victim but linked by the presence of a 4-digit number marked on each corpse by the killer.

In this she’s aided by her new boss’ main Tech Guy, the brilliant if complicated Henrietta Yi. Henrietta left academia after making a major discovery at the Large Hadron Collider, and joined the CIA out of a desire to use what she found to help prevent more of the disasters that claimed her parents’ lives. But the more she learns about her boss’ designs, the more she wants out, and soon she and Quinn are engaged in a deadly dance through time and space to do what each woman believes will save the world.

This was kind of a weird book that I feel meant well, with great diversity and representation, yet came across to me as deeply unsympathetic to its main characters despite going through the motions of propping them up as Strong Female Characters. Quinn and Henrietta both lean heavily on the sociopathic end of the spectrum — which I usually think makes for great reading! — but Henrietta’s story, at least, petered out in a way that felt more confusing than otherwise, especially since the bit about the tags in Quinn’s breast after her cancer treatment was never fully explained. Despite having so many similar points of interest in common with the main characters — motherhood! Pokemon collecting! being too smart for my own good! — I felt like they were less fully rounded people than collections of quirks in a skin suit. A large part of this may be due to how rushed the ending chapters felt. I still don’t understand Quinn’s change of heart, and am hoping it’s not just because she realized that she really hates her dad.

Time travel narratives are always difficult tho, so if you like a bit of Day Of The Jackal hijinks thrown in to your sci-fi, with the romance levels dialed down to low, then you could do much worse than this intriguing genre mash-up. It’s 100% better a use of your time than watching Tenet, anyway (which I had to do for Hugo voting this year, so thanks for nothing, fellow Hugo nominators.)

Scorpion by Christian Cantrell was published May 25 2021 and is available from all good booksellers, including

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Honeycomb by Joanne M. Harris & Charles Vess

What a sumptuous delight of a novel that greatly satisfied both the craftsman and the girl-in-search-of-the-fantastic living inside me! Joanne M Harris has turned her considerable talents to a mosaic novel crafted as a compendium of fairy tales that are both wildly original yet hearken back to the tales we already know, usually giving the reader a deft twist if not outright sting in the tail. And that’s to be expected from a book featuring bees, which can provide sweetness or pain, as the stories here do too.

It’s kinda hard to explain what the book is about beyond format. The tales are generally centered on the Lacewing King, the aloof, stubborn and often cruel ruler of the Silken Folk, as the fairies of this universe are called. Book 1 sets out his birth and misadventures, including his battle with his great enemy Harlequin. Book 2 puts the Lacewing King on a collision course with the modern world, where he must be rescued by the Barefoot Princess who loves him and who will cheat Death himself in search of reunion. It’s a remarkably clever construct, as if all the fairy tales in the world were really about one cast of characters whose paths intersect and diverge as decades pass and people both meet and move on. Ms Harris does a terrific job of building a golden scaffolding from which to hang her stories, like a honeycomb connecting worlds with worlds, as she herself says in the proceedings.

The only part of the stories that I didn’t understand was who the Hallowe’en King was looking for when he originally went into the domain of Death. Allegedly, he was looking for his lost love, but afaik she was alive and hale the whole time? Someone please feel free to explain this part to me.

Charles Vess’ wonderful line drawings bring the stories to lush, romantic life, as is his specialty. My favorite of the many gorgeous illustrations in this book is probably the one of the Moth Queen and the girl who loved to dance, tho the tale of the out-of-place mermaid comes in a very close second. Mr Vess truly is our modern-day Arthur Rackham, and a literary treasure.

But most of all, I loved how the stories here in Honeycomb managed to capture the whimsy and darkness both of traditional fairy tales while infusing a very modern sensibility to it all. Diverse representation is the norm, with the only misstep I felt — and this is truly minor in the grander scheme of things — being a dig at beautiful women who want to save wolves from extinction. Sure, no one likes being eaten by wolves, and it’s silly to think that wolves are harmless, but there’s definitely a case to be made for keeping ecosystems intact, and that includes not hunting apex predators to extinction. Otherwise, these fairy tales were deeply satisfying both to my intellect and to my psyche, feeling less created by Ms Harris than conveyed, in the manner of all true and epic tales.

Honeycomb by Joanne M. Harris & Charles Vess was published May 25 2021 by Gallery/Saga Press and is available from all good booksellers, including

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The Relentless Moon by Mary Robinette Kowal

The Relentless Moon, the third book in Mary Robinette Kowal’s Lady Astronauts series, changes locales and first-person narrator from the first two books, The Calculating Stars and The Fated Sky. Nicole Wargin is also one of the original astronauts, and in early 1963 as The Relentless Moon opens, she is both an old Moon hand and the wife of the governor of Kansas, the new center of America’s space industry.

Though the lunar settlement is firmly established with flights to and from nearly routine, and the first Mars expedition nearly halfway to its destination, opposition to devoting so much of humanity’s resources to spaceflight — and eventual evacuation of as many people as possible as Earth becomes increasingly uninhabitable — is growing. The book’s first scene is a political reception in Kansas City, the new capital of America, interrupted by gunfire through the windows of the room where the reception is taking place. The militantly anti-space group Earth First soon claims responsibility. Unsettlingly, evidence mounts that Earth First has sympathizers in both the American government and the International Aerospace Coalition (IAC), the global body governing spaceflight.

The overarching structure of the book is a search for the person or persons who could be behind most of the mechanical problems plaguing IAC launches and the American spaceport in Kansas. Kowal does not set up The Relentless Moon as a tightly-crafted whodunit; instead, she tells it as people going through their daily lives, working, striving, hanging on. It’s just that their daily work is in space or on the moon, an environment dangerous enough without someone trying to make it deadlier still while remaining undetected so as to keep doing damage.

In her afterword, Kowal says “When I wrote this book, COVID-19 didn’t exist.” (p. 541) It’s a little uncanny, then, that one of the major complications of The Relentless Moon is that polio gets transmitted to the Moon. In the Lady Astronauts timeline, Jonas Salk and his whole institute were wiped out by the Meteor. A polio vaccine is just coming into use, and people are resisting its use. Polio is contagious and deadly. The measures that the characters have to take on the Moon are familiar: isolation, quarantine, treatment with limited resources and an incomplete understanding of the disease.

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Die Jugendstreiche des Knaben Karl by Karl Valentin

The editors of the Süddeutsche Zeitung began their series of 20 books in or involving Munich with a local icon, Siegfried Sommer. They finished the set with Karl Valentin, who was born in Munich and grew up in the city but went on to become a national icon as a comedic star on stage, in silent films, and in the talkies. He has sometimes been called the Charlie Chaplin of Germany, and he was a formative influence on Bertolt Brecht.

Jugendstreiche des Knaben Karl

In Die Jugendstreiche des Knaben Karl (The Youthful Pranks of the Boy Karl), Valentin recounts 92 pages worth of short anecdotes from his childhood and apprentice years, with just a few towards the end from when he started working on stage in 1902, the year he turned 20. I presume that his stage and screen presence contributed substantially to his comedy because I found very few of the tales in the book to be funny.

Valentin comes close to acknowledging as much at various points in the book. After describing various things that the young terrors did to animals in the neighborhood, or how they used animals to shock, surprise or annoy people, he wonders why kids don’t naturally have more love for animals. (p. 18) Some stories have particularly unhappy endings. He tells of the excitement of skating across thin ice on the river Isar one winter, the kids telling each other not to be a mama’s boy. They barely make it across, but Valentin’s friend Ade says, “Get out of the way, I’m doing it again!” Valentin follows; the ice breaks; Ade goes under. “I break through as well, but I was able to stop, boards were passed to me, I am rescued. My comrade Ade is taken out the next day as a corpse. He’s buried in the East Cemetery. He caught his death and I caught bad asthma that’s with me to this day.” (p. 9)

The anecdotes are all quite short, and may have been among the stories that Valentin told from the stage. Few are more than a page; most pages have two or three items. Valentin groups them thematically, and more generally chronologically. Headings include “Explosive effects,” “The Terrors of the Au” (a Munich neighborhood), “What a Circus,” “School Stories,” and “Smelly Bits.” The section titled “Mother’s Fears” has six anecdotes over three pages. The first is about two-year-old Karl hammering on his mother’s Renaissance furniture. Next comes an item about how he got his head stuck and had to be sawed out by a passing workman. Speaking of saws, the third is about how he tricked his mother into thinking he had been injured by a circular saw as a carpenter’s apprentice. Hilarity does not ensue in the other three either.

Here’s one that I did like, from later in the book when he was already working with his long-time cabaret partner Liesl Karlstadt:

One time my partner bought a pound of plums at the Vittles’ Market [in downtown Munich]. Then we both got on a tram, but acted as if we didn’t know each other. At one point she spoke to me: “Look at this, Mr Neighbor, just now at the market I wanted to buy myself pears. But the lady selling fruit made a mistake and instead of pears she gave me apples.” “Oh no, Miss,” I said, “those are not apples, those are some sort of apricot.” “Ach why,” she said, “I didn’t even ask for apricots.” “You know,” I added, “I don’t really know all that much about fruit, maybe those are pienapples or bananas, although they seem a little bit too short for that.” She answered: “Ach, those are definitely not bananas. Oh, I know it now, they’re gooseberries.” “Nah,” I countered, “gooseberries have geese, and what you have in the bag there are all smooth.” … And so the deliberately very dumb discourse kept going. Suddenly an older woman, definitely a Munich sales lady with a big market basket on her lap, stood up and said, “I have to go now, I can’t stand it any more, I’ve never seen two such cows in all my life, they don’t even know what plums are.” (pp. 88–89)

A film version of the book was made in 1977. Judging from the German Wikipedia description of its plot, it has a better framework and probably a better selection of the actually funny bits.

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