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Archive for the ‘The Collins Library’ Category

SOUNDTRACK: DJANGO DJANGO-“Default” (2012).

This song was featured in a post on NPR’s All Songs Considered site on July 31.  Django Django are a Scottish duo and they sound very retro.  The two guys sing in close harmony that is more of an echo than a harmony.  The music is mostly very old-sounding guitars–big and unprocessed–and yet the rest of the track is quite processed and electronic.

It’s a simple, straightforward song (with some cool effects).  The NPR write up about them says that they are more of an electronic band, although this song doesn’t really suggest that (except in the middle section where the sounds are manipulated in a cool way).  I’m not sure if I’m all that interested in the rest of the album  In fact, after a few listens, I’m not as excited by this song as I initially was.  But it’s still fun.

[READ: July 31, 2012] The Rector and the Rogue

The Collins Library is back!  And since this seems to be the summer of non fiction, I decided to read it now.  I have loved every Paul Collins book so far in the Collins Library (old, out of print and forgotten titles that Collins resurrects) and this one–which I admit seemed questionable–was just as wonderful as the others.  The Rector and the Rogue details a much-forgotten episode of a grand-scale prank–the systematic public abuse of Dr Morgan Dix, Rector of Trinity Church by a trickster known as “Gentleman Joe” in 1880.  Yes, 1880.

Swanberg told the story, eighty years later, as a rather gripping tale.  The afterward explains that he just happened upon some information about the story and needed to know more.  So, he did the research and compiled first an essay and then this (reasonably short) book.

And so he begins his tale without letting the audience know what they are in store for (just like Dix had no idea what he was in store for).  One morning in February 1880, Rev Dix opened the door to see a safe salesman from Acme Safe in downtown Manhattan.  The salesman says that Dix inquired about safes.  Dix had done no such thing and sent the man on his way.  Then a man from a local girls’ school rang the bell and said that Dix’ charge was more than welcome to attend.  Dix had no daughter or interest in the school. The schoolmaster showed him a postcard from Dix which asked for information.  The postcard was not his own (obviously) and was not in his handwriting (obviously).  Then came a man selling two horses, replying to his postcard….  This went on all afternoon.

The afternoon mail was full also of responses to similar inquiries–about wigs, dance lessons, kitchenware, etc.

And so began the botheration of Dr Dix. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: WAVVES-Live at the 9:30 Club (2010).

Wavves opened for Best Coast (what a great double bill).  Wavves play a raucous, rowdy set of bratty punk.  Unlike Best Coast, the lead singer seems like he might be something of a jerk.  But it played pretty well into the personality of the music (sloppy, abrasive).  And I wonder just how many times he said he was drunk?

Personalities aside, the was a really fun set.  I have the newest Wavves album, but I think their live show was more engaging.  For all of their sloppiness, the band was always together, with no missed notes (except when the drummer was apparently not paying attention).

They play 16 songs, including a cover of Black Flag’s “Nervous Breakdown” (which the play very well).  And even if you’re not won over by the singer’s personality (which is kind of funny), you’ll be won over by the simple, punky music.  You can listen here.

[READ: March 29, 2011] The Riddle of the Traveling Skull

This is the 4th book in McSweeney’s Collins Library Series.  It’s the final book in the series that I’ve read and I have to say that once again, Paul Collins has blown me away with this selection.  Collins apparently stopped his library after 6 volumes.  I wondered if there were more coming, but the Collins Library website is rather confusing.  There’s an almanac with updates as recent as March 1st, and yet the Biography of Paul Collins says: Paul Collins is currently on tour in support of his memoir, Sixpence House, which recounts his time spent living in the Welsh town of Hay-on-Wye, known as the “Town of Books.”  But Sixpence House came out in 2003 (and it sounds awesome!).

Anyhow, back to this book, which was my favorite of the bunch.  It is a genuine mystery from 1939.  Indeed, Harry Stephen Keeler was even more prolific than Agatha Christie (they were born in the same year).  The thing about Keeler though is that his stories are, well, crazy.  Many of his stories were just his attempts to meld disparate ideas into one story.  He includes crazy dialect.  He seems to have no concern for conventional storytelling.  Indeed, he has little concern for conventional mystery storytelling (in one of his stories, he introduced the murderer on the last page).

And this story has similar improbable elements.

In sum: Clay Calthorpe, a salesman returning from the Philipines picks up the wrong bag on the trolley.  When he gets home he finds a skull inside it.  The skull has a name plate affixed to it, a bullet inside it and, in the wads of paper that are keeping the bullet from rattling around, he finds the carbon copy of a poem. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: MOGWAI-Young Team (1997).

When Mogwai released Young Team there was quite a bit of buzz around them.  I remember when I bought the album, that I had no idea where they were from.

With the Asian-looking characters on the cover and a picture of Fuji Bank (and no band members names listed) I assumed they were Japanese.  Of course, a closer listen reveals a lot of Scottish voices quietly chatting away during some of the songs (which doesn’t necessarily mean they are Scottish…but indeed, they are).

Young Team is a great debut and Mogwai shows a lot of versatility.  It opens with a spoken word bit about Mogwai (If the stars had a sound it would sound like this).  It’s a slow instrumental, actually quite pretty, with picked guitar and continual bass and even harmonics.   It gets loud by the end, yet even that is restrained.  But just when you think that Mogwai is going to be another post rock instrumental chill out band, they hit you with “Like Herod.”

“Like Herod” is one of the more amazing songs in instrumental rock.  It plays with loud and soft dynamics like nobody’s business.  Opening with a slow rumbling bass, the guitars pick out intricate melodies.  Then at 3 minutes, all hell breaks loose in the form of big guitar chords and screaming guitar notes.  Things slow to a crawl about 6 minutes into the song. But we’re only half way done.  And those quiet notes are once again blown away by those same chords and screaming notes.

You could pretty much end the disc right there and call it a success.  But “Katrien” shows off another side of the band: a spoken word side.  Behind some gorgeous melodies there’s something of a rant.  It’s followed by “Radar Maker,” a 90 second piano-based instrumental.  It’s quite delicate and it leads right into “Tracy” a beautiful 7 minute song with a pretty melody and lovely washes of sound.

The middle of the album has two shot songs: “Summer [Priority Version]” is a condensed version of that quiet/loud dynamic that Mogwai does so well.  And “With Portfolio” plays havoc with a pretty piano song by throwing in washes of noise and sound effects which completely take over by the end.

The unfortunately titled “R U Still In 2 It” belies its bad name with some beautiful quiet guitar work played behind a vocal turn by Aidan Moffat.  There’s even a sung chorus!

“A Cheery Wave from Stranded Youngsters” is a two-minute sort of intro to the final track on the disc, the amazing “Mogwai Fear Satan.”  A 16 minute instrumental that is quite beautiful as it opens: distorted chords that don’t overpower the melody.  They bolster it as it builds and builds until it reaches a moment of silence which is filled by…a flute (!).  The song continues to build with a gorgeous repeating motif.  Then it slows down again to let the flute really sync with the song until it reaches its beautiful end.

It’s a great debut, deserving all of the praise that was heaped on it.

[READ: March 3, 2011] To Ruhleben and Back

This is a true account of one man’s escape from Ruhleben prison in Germany during WWI.  I admit that I had never heard of Ruhleben before (and frankly I’m really surprised I never have, as roughly 4,000 British citizens were interned there from 1914-1918).

This story was published in 1916 as one man’s account of his escape from the prison.  And then it quietly went out of print. McSweeneys’ Collins Library has now (well, in 2002), seen fit to get it reissued once again.

The introduction explains the historical veracity of the book, and also promises a rather ripping yarn.  And indeed, Pyke does not disappoint.

Well, maybe a little in the beginning.  The early parts of the book are a little slow.  It explains who he was and how he wound up in Germany during the war.  The short version is that he was a journalist who was frustrated that he wasn’t hearing proper news from the war, so he volunteered to go to Germany (even though at this point all English men and women were being incarcerated).  He moved there and since he spoke fluent German, he was able to blend in.  Until he was caught. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: All Songs Considered Year End Music Roundup (2010).

Every year, I like to check various sources to see if there were any albums that I missed.  My definition of good resources: allmusic, amazon, pitchfork.  (There’s another fascinating list available here at Best Albums Ever, a site I’ve never seen before, and I have a large portion of the Top 50 albums.  I didn’t buy a lot of music this year, but evidently I chose wisely!).  I don’t necessarily agree with these lists, but if I see the same album on a few lists, I know it’s worth at least listening to.

This year, since I spent so much time on All Songs Considered, I thought I’d see their Best of Lists.  What’s awesome about the site is that you can hear not only selected songs in their entirety, you can also download the audio of the original show…where the DJs talk about their selections and play excerpts from them.   There are many different lists to investigate.

The most obvious one to star with is 50 Favorite Albums of 2010.  This shows the staff’s 50 favorite albums in all genres.  I admit that there’s going to be a lot on this list that I won’t bother exploring (I’m not really that interested in new classical or jazz and I’m not too excited by most pop music, although I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed the Kanye West songs here).

But some albums did stand out that I hadn’t heard, and I will investigate them further in 2011:

Buke And Gass, ‘Riposte’
Deerhunter, ‘Halcyon Digest’ (I know, this is on many best of lists)
The National, ‘High Violet’ (This is also on everyone’s list)

Bob Boilen, All Songs Considered’s most awesome host, picks his Top 9 of the year.  I’m on board with about 1/2 of his list (haven’t heard the other half).  Sufjan Stevens is his #1.

Robin Hilton, Boilen’s partner in crime, has a Top Ten which is remarkably similar to Boilen’s.  It has most of the same albums just appearing in a slightly different order.  Lower Dens is #1. (I’ve never heard of them).

Carrie Brownstein (of beloved Sleater-Kinney and now evidently a permanent member of the NPR team) has a Top Ten (Plus One)–funny that she liked more than ten when Boilen liked less than ten.  I’m really surprised by her selection of albums because her own music is so punk and abrasive, but her top ten features R&B and some folky bands.  Her top album is by Royal Baths, a band I’ve never heard of.

Stephen Thompson also picked his Top Ten.  He has an interesting mix of alt rock and jazz.  His number one is by Jonsi from Sigur Rós. (A great album).

Perhaps the best list comes from 5 Artists You Should Have Known in 2010.  I didn’t know any of the 5.  Sarah bought me two CDs for Christmas (and she was pleased to have gotten me good music that I hadn’t heard of!).  The Head and the Heart hasn’t arrived yet, but The Capstan Shafts is great.  I’m also really excited by Tame Impala.

Another great list is Viking’s Choice: Best Metal and Outer Sound (stay tuned for much more from this list).  It is dominated by black metal, but there are a few surprises in there as well.

Even the All Songs Considered Top 25 Listener’s List was great.  I had most of the list (except for The Black Keys who I simply cannot get into).

Although I enjoyed a lot of new music this year, it’s always nice to see that there is some new (to me) stuff to investigate.  Who knows maybe some day I’ll even have listened to enough new music in a year to make my own Top Ten.

[READ: December 31, 2010] McSweeney’s #36

With McSweeney’s #36, it’s like they made my conceptual ideal.  Its weird packaging is fantastic and the contents are simply wonderful.  But let’s start with the obvious: this issue comes in a box.  And the box is drawn to look like a head.  You open up the man’s head to get to the contents.  Brilliant.  The head is drawn by Matt Furie (with interior from Jules de Balincourt’s Power Flower.

Inside the box are eleven items.  The largest are smallish books (postcard sized) running between 32 and 144 pages.  The smaller items are a 12 page comic strip, a nineteenth century mediation (8 pages) and 4 postcards that create a whole picture.  The final item is a scroll of fortune cookie papers.   The scroll is forty inches long with cut lines for inserting them into your own fortunes (I wonder if they will sell this item separately?)

Aside from the bizarre head/box gimmick (and the fact that there is ample room in the box for more items), the contents are really top-notch.  For while many of the books included are individual titles, there is also an actual “issue” of McSweeney’s (with letter column and shorter stories) as well.  So let’s begin there

ISSUE #36: New Stories and Letters.  The resurrected letters page continues with more nonsense.  I’ve often wondered if these are really written like letters or if they are just short pieces that have no other place to reside.  (Oh, and the back of this booklet contains the bios for everyone in here as well as assorted other folks who don’t have room for a bio on their items).

LETTERS (more…)

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17Many many years ago, I discovered Might magazine.  It was a funny, silly magazine that spoofed everything (but had a serious backbone, too).  (You can order back issues here).  And so, I subscribed around issue 13.  When the magazine folded (with issue 16–and you can read a little bit about that in the intro to Shiny Adidas Track Suits) it somehow morphed into McSweeney‘s, and much of the creative team behind Might went with them.

The early volumes (1-5 are reviewed in these pages, and the rest will come one of these days) are a more literary enterprise than Might was.  There’s still a lot of the same humor (and a lot of silliness), but there are also lengthy non-fiction pieces.  The big difference is that McSweeney’s was bound as a softcover book rather than as a magazine. And, I guess technically it is called Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern as opposed to Timothy McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. (more…)

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spokespokehcSOUNDTRACK: ISLANDS-Arm’s Way (2008).

islandsI enjoyed Islands’ first album (and, in a weirder way, their earlier band The Unicorns).  This album seems to have made a lot of 2008 Top Ten or at least Top Fifty lists. What’s so strange about the whole affair is that I absolutely love the first 8 songs on this disc, and based on those alone, I would put it on my top ten as well.

But after that….

Well, let’s put it this way, the eighth song “In the Rushes” is a wonderfully weird 7 minute song that ends with a direct quote/pseudo-parody of the Who’s “A Quick One, While He’s Away.”  The “tribute” comes in all of a sudden after five or so minutes, and ends with the lyrical change from The Who’s “You Are Forgiven” to their own “You Are Forgotten.”  But musically it’s spot on.  And I’ll tell you, that just feels like the end to me.  “A Quick One” ends The Who Sell Out, and so it should end this too.

And those last four songs, which actually totally about half an hour (!), I just can’t really enjoy for some reason.  Perhaps if they left them as a separate EP…?

But back to the rest of the disc.  The opening salvo of songs is just so fantastic. “The Arm” is catchy and weird with cool breaks and a bitchin’ chorus.  “Pieces of You,” not anything to do with Jewel, is another great catchy song.  The next three tracks are great little rockers with some thrashy parts and more off-kilter aspects.  “Kids Don’t Know Shit” starts mellow but has a cool string-filled chorus.  And then of course, you get to “In the Rushes.”  So these 8 tracks come in at 37 minutes, and I swear I’m just done with the disc.

Those next four songs are good (In fact, listening to samples of them right now, I do like the songs, and “To a Bond” is an especially good song, too). I guess I just feel like the album is done by then.  And when you think an album is done and there’s still 30 minutes to go, well, it’s just daunting.  Too bad, really, because it is a good disc.

[READ: March 17, 2009] English as She is Spoke

I bought the hardcover edition of this book many many years ago as soon as I heard of it…anything with a rave by Mark Twain must be worthwhile, right?  When I was looking for it again recently I couldn’t find it anywhere.  So, I saw that McSweeney’s were having another sale and I picked up the paperback edition.  The text is exactly the same; however, the introduction is slightly different and for that reason alone I’m glad I have the new copy too (I did find the hardcover a few days after I received the paperback, of course).

The paperback edition contains an update to the introduction.  The hardcover was rather popular and one of its readers–a UCLA linguist–wanted to absolve Fonesca of some of the blame for the book.  It appears that Fonesca had written a very good phrase book which Carolino basically used for his own purposes in creating this hilarious enterprise.  Rather than just plagiarizing Fonesca, Carolino gave him full credit, thereby giving him a lifetime of undeserved infamy.  So, thanks Paul Collins for setting the record straight.

As  to the book itself…. (more…)

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wikiI finally decided I had something worthwhile to add to Wikipedia.  Since I have been writing so extensively about McSweeney’s Books, I decided to create a more or less comprehensive list of all of the books that they have published.  (I once asked a McSweeney’s rep if he had a list and he said he didn’t think anyone there did, which was somewhat surprising).  Anyhow, I used my librarian access and knowhow to create the chart on THIS WIKIPEDIA PAGE.  I’ve never felt such POWER!!

If you see any errors, please correct them!

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fox1SOUNDTRACK: THE FLAMING LIPS-In aPriest Driven Ambulance (1990).

priestThis is where the Lips really hit their stride.  While they are still experimenting with sonic noises, the dedication to songcraft takes precedence.  It’s as if they wrote cool songs first and then fiddled with them, rather than using the fiddling as the main focus.  The album is divided into two sides: Smile Side and Brain Side.  Amusingly all songs are listed as being 3:26 long, and yet none of them actually are.

“Shine on Sweet Jesus” is catchy as hell and also features some of the interesting effects that Wayne & co would really play with later (multi layered deep voices, etc).”Unconsciously Screaming” is another simply great thrashy song.

“Rainin’ Babies” seems like it would be a pretty harsh song and yet it isn’t.  Its got a catchy chorus (“this is my present to the world”) and is one of many highlights on the disc.  “Five Stop Mother Superior Rain” has pretty weird lyrics over a nice acoustic bit.  It sounds so innocent and yet it starts: “I was born on the day they shot JFK”.  It slowly builds to a singalong chorus of “You’re fucked if you do and fucked if you don’t.  Five star mother superior rain.”  Whatever that means.

Brain Side doesn’t start out too auspiciously with the rather meandering “Stand in Line.”  But it is quickly redeemed with the epic “God Walks Among Us Now.”  It’s squeals and squalling and distortion and it’s catchy as all get out, and it contains the wonderful chorus:  “Used to be alright then things got strange.”  “There You Are (Jesus Song No. 7)” is a more delicate ballad.  (It’s surprising how much acoustic work there is on the disc).

“Mountain Side” returns us to the rocking noise.  It’s another simple, catchy song with enough distortion to keep it interesting.  “What a Wonderful World” is a cover of the classic song.  It seems so much like a parody, and yet knowing Wayne’s later lyrical work I’d suggest it isn’t.  It’s done  genuinely, despite themselves, and you never get a sense that they’re snickering at all.

The two bonus songs are okay, but they tend to ruin the rather nice ending of the disc.  (But such is the problem with bonus tracks).

[READ: January 17, 2008] Lady into Fox

In the first few pages of this book, as the title implies, a Gentleman’s wife turns into a fox.  The fact that Garnett was able to write 78 pages about this and keep it interesting is pretty remarkable.

Basically, when Mr Tebrick’s wife turns into a fox–more or less before his eyes–he decides that he will bring her home in hopes that this will just wear off.  The story turns into something of a fairy tale, with Mrs Tebrick wearing a house coat and playing cards (although she cannot talk) and with them trying to lead a normal life. (more…)

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curiousSOUNDTRACK: THE FLAMING LIPS-Telepathic Surgery (1989).

telepathicAlthough the overall sound of the Lips on this disc isn’t that much different, the band sounds more accomplished. Rather than just banging out songs in a garage, this one sounds like a bunch of guys banging out songs in a studio and then experimenting the hell out of them.  In fact, the experimentation often takes over the quality of the song itself.  Wikipedia states that this album was originally going to be released as a thirty minute sound collage, although that was modified to what we now have, and that makes some sense.  This experimentation will certainly pay off in later years as the Lips hone their studio skills.

Even though the experiments tend to overshadow the songs, the compositions are more intricate, the playing is more precise (even though it is still somewhat sloppy sounding) and they sound like a real band.

The album is a lot of fun, although the middle two tracks: “Hell’s Angels Cracker Factory” and “UFO Story”could easily be removed and made a separate EP.   (And yes, I realize that “Hell’s Angels” is a bonus track not on the original LP, but it really messes with the flow when dropped in the middle of the disc).

But back to the beginning.  “Right Now” has a great, weird squeaky opening riff and a fantastic chorus that is reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s “Astronomy Domine.” “Chrome Plated Suicide” is a surprisingly poppy song, drenched in distortion to give it anice edge.  “Hari-Krishna Stomp Wagon” is subtitled “(Fuck Led Zeppelin)” which is pretty funny since so many of their earlier songs sound so Led Zeppelinish.

There are two super-short pieces that fill up the disc: “Michael Time to Wake Up” is a thirty second feedback squall and “The Spontaneous Combustion of John” is 53 seconds but is an actual song song, with acoustic guitars.  “UFO Story” is in fact a 6 and a half minute spoken word story about UFOs.  It’s a mellow drony piece with a barely audible (presumably stoned) Wayne relating a tale about seeing the same UFOs on two distinct occasions.  The middle two minutes are basically just  guitar squalling feedback, and the  final the two are a pretty piano melody.  “Miracle on 42 Street” isgentle instrumental, with a lot of cool bass, that opens with some fun radio snippets.

The second “side” of the disc is pretty different from the first. It contains a series of rather short, rather simple songs.  The experimentation has also mellowed somewhat.  It’s not as crazy as the first half and, in fact is a return to the acid rock of the first two albums.  “The Last Drop of Morning Dew” is another short song although it’s not silly.  “Shaved Gorilla” begins with a classical sample (which I cannot place), and then turns into a tidy little rocker.  And the disc ends with the wonderfully titled “Begs and Achin,'” a solid distortion filled rocker.

Two bonus tracks come on the disc “Fryin Up” (on Easter Sunday, blowing off everything off on Monday…hee). Doesn’t sound out of place on the disc at all.And “Hell’s Angels Cracker Factory” is a 23 minute (!) instrumental freak out. It opens with the roar of motorcycles and includes reversed tape loops and distortion, blessed distortion.  As a track it works pretty well, although, as I said, in the middle of a disc it’s a bit of a distraction.  On the reissue Finally, The Punk Rockers Are Taking Acid the song is reduced to 3 minutes, which gives you a taste for it without taking up the bulk of your evening.

Overall, the album is a transitional step, but it’s an important one.  And if you like your music freaky, it’s an enjoyable one, too.

[READ: January 15, 2008] Curious Men

This is a collection of articles originally published in the 1830s.  The subject is, essentially, human oddities.  Buckland was a sort of collector of oddities.  Yet unlike P.T. Barnum, he seems to have befriended, rather than exploited many of the people in question.  In fact, this collection of articles shows him investigating some of these bizarre claims, and seeing if they need to be debunked. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: VAMPIRE WEEKEND-Vampire Weekend (2008).

There’s some hype surrounding this record. And of course, I wouldn’t have heard about it without the hype. But I have to say this is my favorite record in a long, long time. It has everything! It’s got really tight, fun catchy songs…some as short as 2 minutes. It has wonderfully pretentious lyrics, and outrageous instruments, like the mellotron and harpsichord. And yet somehow, it manages to avoid all manner of pretension. Rather, it’s just catchy as all get out.

I can’t even pick a favorite song, as they are all great in their own way. I’ve heard that this album is compared to Paul Simon and that it’s being described as AfroPop. I only see the Simon comparison on one song, and I’m not sure what AfroPop is exactly, so I can’t address that. But I will say that it reminds me of many different genres as the record speeds by. There’s even a retro ska feel to a couple of songs, and I do loves me some ska! No song overstays its welcome, and it all seems so effortless and joyful. I finally got to listen to it in the car on a warm night and it was absolutely perfect.

Yet despite all the simplicity and brevity, the album has a lot going on underneath it. The rhythms are fairly complex, the basslines are fantastic–not show offy, just busy–and yet they perfectly propel the songs along. And, since I love smart lyrics, I love these guys for their great couplets. The songs are smart, without being cute and even though they do boil down to basic love/lost love themes, the words within are original and wonderful.

I absolutely love this album.

[READ: April 10, 2008] The Lunatic at Large

This book is from 1899 and was reissued by McSweeney’s in 2007. I bought this book without knowing…anything about it. I’d certainly never heard of it before. I had put it aside with low expectations.

The introduction indicated that this book is a missing link between the humor of Oscar Wilde and P.G. Wodehouse. That was a promising idea, and I’m delighted to say that it is quite true.

(more…)

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