• The Case of the Man who Died Laughing by Tarquin Hall *** (of 4)

    The second in the series of Tarquin Hall mysteries taking place in contemporary New Delhi.  In this one our food-loving detective, Vish Puri, whose assistants he has nicknamed Tubelight, Handbrake, and Facepaint, go after the murderer of Dr. Jha, an Indian Guru-buster.  Jha, fed up with India’s surplus of money-hoarding Gurus and Swamis makes his living unmasking fraudulent healers until he dies mysteriously while attending a meeting of an Indian laughing club.  He perishes during a particularly hysterical knock-knock joke and Puri suspects foul play.   Good, bad, funny, pathetic, wild, contradictory, modern, and ancient India are all lovingly displayed in a mystery that seems rather secondary to the main character:  India at the crossroads from the 18th to 21st century.

  • Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman **** (of 4)

    It takes equal parts chutzpah and talent to write a fairy tale for adults, but Gaiman has the skill to have you open the cover and not close it until the last page.  This is a variation on the African myths of Anansi the spider whose cleverness and hijinks make him the subject of countless stories.  In this one, Mr. Nancy (the senior Anansi) dies in a bar while flirting with much younger women to the great embarrassment of his son, Charles “Fat Charly” Nancy.  Fat Charly attends the funeral, learns he has a brother he never knew of, called Spider, finds himself caught up in an uninspiring marriage engagement, a dead-end job, under the nosy influence of four aging (hysterically funny) Caribbean grandmothers, and ultimately a murder mystery.  The protagonists are well-meaning, but trapped by forces, some overwhelmingly real, others phantasmagorical, who do their best to muddle through.  Never really scary, but nearly always quite funny, if you have any chance to listen to the reading narrated by Lenny Henry, by all means do so.  His voice impersonations of the senior Mrs. Callyanne Higler, the cool, hip Spider, and the slimy Grahame Coats will bring life to characters you will recall with a smile for weeks after you are done.

  • The Frozen Rabbi by Steve Stern *** (of 4)

    A Chasidic Rabbi from the olden country goes out to meditate on the meaning of God, falls into a trance, and then a lake that freezes over him, where he lies, smiling, encased in ice before being discovered and chipped out by Yossl King of Cholera.  His frozen body is preserved for more than a century before thawing out during a 1999 power failure in the Memphis freezer of a discount furniture salesman.  The Rabbi wakes, learns English and channels a southern revivalist, kabbalistic preacher. while we, the readers,  While the Rabbi becomes a huge business success, we, the readers, simultaneously follow his frozen journey through the generations of Jews that protected for this Yiddisher ice cube from shtetl to Tennessee. Often, laugh out loud funny — the more Yiddish or Borscht belt humor you know, the funnier — and occasionally too obtuse.  There are deeper messages in this text about spirituality, God, Kabalah, and family, but I’m afraid they were just far enough below the surface I couldn’t quite bring them to focus.

  • Squirrel seeks Chipmunk by David Sedaris *** (of 4)

    A very deft interplay of human characteristics and foibles overlain upon our stereotypes of animals.  Thus, we meet with mice who taken in homeless animals they really shouldn’t, rodents who fall madly in cross-species love and then run out of things to say to one another once the sex has become mundane, annoying stork adolescents who receive their comeuppance, and so forth.  The book is hard to put down because each story is so short and tasty, but it is best when read one story at a time with long intervals in between.  Treat it like a box of chocolates.  The illustrations by Ian Falconer are wonderful.

  • Still Life by Louise Penny *** (of 4)

    An aging, blue-haired, naif artist with a secret is killed by an arrow in a small, eccentric village outside Montreal.  An elegant Francophone detective interviews towns people who include among their numbers a flamboyant gay couple running a bistro, a black female psychologist prone to the preparation of flower arrangements with kielbasas at their centers, a belligerent but lovable biddy, and quirky artists.  Together they form a believable community of outsiders entrapped in a much better than average mystery.

  • Double Whammy by Carl Hiassen *** (of 4)

    Vintage Hiassen. The murderers and bad guys are Florida tele-evangelists and unscrupulous land developers, assisted by rednecks with brains the size of ‘possums. The good guys are a black cop, a cuban detective, an anti-development woodsman with a log cabin full of great books who lives on roasted roadkill animals, and a photographer with a bad temper, but a good heart. It’s like many of Hiassen’s other books. Wonderful parody of Florida’s hucksters. In the end bad things happen to bad people and the reader cares a little bit more about the environment and the victims of racism, sexism, or classism. He’ll make you laugh aloud. October 2006.

  • Foreskin’s Lament by Shalom Auslander **** (of 4)

    Auslander carries all of Woody Allen’s neuroses into the 21st Century and does it with panache. This autobiography is a therapeutic disgorging of growing up under the thumb of an abusive father and overbearing God in an orthodox Jewish home in Monsey, five minutes from my boyhood town. While, in my opinion, he hasn’t yet distinguished his parents’ mishegas from his Yeshiva’s he acts out his youthful frustration by alternately worrying God is going to kill him for going to the Naunuet Mall on Shabbat and giving God the finger for messing with his life. I laughed aloud at scenes such as God’s testing the young Auslander by placing porn magazines behind a stone (not unlike Moses’ stone on Mount Sinai) in a test of faithfulness. My parents thought it was a whiny kvetch book. I loved it. You decide. November 2007

  • The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir by Bill Bryson **** (of 4)

    Bryson recounts his Iowa childhood of the 1950s writing scenes so effectively that I could see every lincoln log (he peed on), smell the pages of each comic book he read (11 times), knew personally every one of his childhood friends (the fat one, the sneaky one, the moron, the best friend), and recalled the stickiness of a Rambler’s vinyl seats. In fact, he so perfectly recaptures childhood that his stories take on a universality that extends to readers who did not grow up in the 1950s. July 2007.

  • To Hate Like This is to be Happy Forever by Will Blythe *** (of 4)

    One of the great first chapters in literature. Blythe’s book is a rant about basketball, specifically Duke vs. North Carolina. At the book’s opening he draws upon Greek Myth, Shakespeare, the Civil War, class conflict in America, Democrats vs. Republicans, Uma Thurman, Ichabod Crane, Mr. Rogers, Brideshead Revisited, and most of all how much he hates Duke because he is a fan of North Carolina. Remarkably, Blythe keeps up his hatred and his seriously educated investigation of philosophy and religion for the whole book. All the while talking about college B-ball. A rant this long, however, grows shrill. Make the book seventy pages shorter and it could have been a masterpiece. January 2008.