Overdue Books

5 classics I’ve never read, and what I’ve heard they’re about


  • The Iliad by Homer. Achilles and Agamemnon duke it out during the Trojan War, and blood-soaked hijinks ensue. This ancient Greek epic poem is written in dactylic hexameter, the symptoms of which include a red, scaly rash.
  • Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. Inscrutable social mores, lush country estates, and endless petticoats. The landed gentry are different from you and me. Except for their willingness to marry for money, apparently.
  • Moby-Dick by Herman Melville. A metaphor on the destructive nature of obsession, this novel chronicles Captain Ahab’s life-consuming search for the other other white meat. It’s like a trip to Sea World, only without the commemorative mug.
  • Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. A gruesome crime and one man’s struggle to justify it. Is murder ever appropriate? Are killers redeemable through love and penance? Can a surname have too many syllables?
  • War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. How the 1812 French invasion impacted — and ultimately reshaped — czarist Russia, as told through the lives of several prominent families. Wait. The French invaded somebody? I know, right?

[This piece originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books.]

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Down with Homework!

Homework-MignanelliHomework: bad idea or really bad idea?

That’s a trick question. Homework is an awful idea.

Not only have take-home assignments been proven useless (here’s where I’d cite the appropriate studies if I weren’t in Rolling Stone mode), they’re contributing to the breakdown of the family. At least of my family.

Get within a five-mile radius of our place on most weeknights and listen for an indignant howl. That’s the sound of our eighth-grader railing against his teachers and the American education system in general. (His weekend rants center more on The Man.)

“They’re not in there!” he’ll yell, flinging his history textbook on the couch and slamming his spiral closed. “None of the words are in the book! This is so stupid!” Crumpled alongside him, invariably, is a handout entitled “Terms You Absolutely, Positively WILL Find in the Book.”

My son has a wee bit of trouble focusing. But still. He makes a valid point. This is stupid.

Parents have a tacit understanding with the school system: You keep our kids out of our hair for eight hours a day, and we won’t ask any questions. Common Core? Sure, whatever. Standardized testing? As long as my children don’t come home early.

Reams of meaningless activities designed to “reinforce skills” that must be completed once we’ve all clocked out for the evening? J’accuse, Frederick County Public Schools. J’accuse!

Now, if you’re one of those lucky moms or dads with kids who love all things classroom-related so much that they actually play school, move along. There’s nothing to see here.

If, on the other hand, you birthed the Omen, you understand.

When 9 p.m. rolls around, the only place I want to be is on the couch with a book. In a perfect world, the kids would be in bed asleep. In my world, at least one of them is frantically Googling the noble gases while shrieking about the tyranny of middle school.

It’s usually a minute or two later that he mentions the foam board and stencils required to complete the assignment. (By this point, I’m keying “retroactive birth control” into Bing.)

Now, some experts still insist that homework plays a vital role—that it compels students to take what they’ve learned in the classroom and apply it to tasks done outside of school; that it nudges them toward a deeper understanding of the material being taught and promotes self-reliance.

There’s a reason nobody invites experts to dinner.

There’s also a reason why the concept of homework is fundamentally flawed. Think about it. Do waiters practice reciting the day’s specials after they punch out? Do actuaries spend their free hours handicapping the neighbors’ chances of being eaten by Pomeranians? Methinks not.

So give kids a break. (And by “give kids a break,” I mean, “give parents a break.”) Abolish the worksheets. Just say no to mind-numbing, off-duty tasks.

And if you hear anything about that retroactive birth control? You know where to find me.

[Illustration by Matt Mignanelli.]

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Oh, the Injustice

Gorilla-Wine-MattOf all life’s unanswerable questions—how many stars in the sky; how much beta-carotene in a serving of John Boehner—none is as perplexing as this: Why can’t Marylanders buy beer and wine in the damn grocery store?

Did we defeat communism just to have Free-Staters forced into making multiple stops on their way home from work?


I’m from Ohio, and say what you will about the Buckeye State’s shortcomings—our casserole-based economy; the Cleveland Browns—we know that hardworking people deserve to buy their pinot and Pringles in the same place. (And presumably serve them at the same meal.)

It’s in the Constitution. Or so I assume.

But here in Maryland? That’s another story.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for the idea of wandering into the neighborhood wine shop—here’s looking at you, Viniferous—and chatting up the owner about the perfect Riesling to accompany tonight’s wilted greens and goat cheese salad. But that’s hardly how most of us do things.

If you’re a parent like me, your evenings go something like this. It’s a Tuesday night, and you’re having Froot Loops for dinner. Again. And you’re out of cat litter. Again. You can’t not go to the store (see “out of cat litter”), but you also can’t not get a bottle of wine to make life more bearable (see “Froot Loops”).

And you know what else you can’t do? Take care of it all in one place.

It’s like the terrorists have already won.

If Maryland’s lawmakers want to give back to us, the poor, over-taxed citizenry, all it needs to do is take its antiquated liquor-purchasing laws, slip them a roofie, and put them on a train back to the 19th century where they belong.

Speaking of the 1800s, many years ago my husband, Ben, our preschooler, and I went to Deep Creek Lake for a spur-of-the-moment overnight. Our tactical error? Going on a Sunday. Because of Garrett County’s draconian blue laws, the Sabbath-day sale of alcohol was verboten.

During what can only be described as a despondent meal at our hotel, the waiter explained the horrifying situation to us, and then proceeded to set up a booze-buying scheme worthy of “The Wire.”

“There’s an old phone booth down the road about a block away from here,” he explained under his breath, his eyes darting nervously. “If you give me some money, I can take a six-pack from the bar and leave it for you under the seat inside.”

Ben and I looked at each other, wondering at what point our impromptu getaway had turned into a drug buy.

Skeptical, but wary of spending a beer-free night holed up in a cramped room with our feral 3-year-old, we gave the waiter 10 bucks and then quickly exited before the feds descended.

An hour later, Ben walked to the appointed drop spot, and there was the stash. Er, Heineken. It was even chilled. He looked around before heading back to our hotel, half expecting to spot Stringer Bell in the shadows.

Which brings me back to today. The year 2015. Are we any closer to enjoying basic beer-and-wine-shopping conveniences here in the Free State?


See that ad for Two-Buck Chuck at Trader Joe’s or that pallet of pinot on sale at Costco? Not here you don’t. In Maryland, we buy our drinks the old-fashioned way: by driving all over town and stopping at whichever liquor store doesn’t have our bad checks taped to the register.

Either that, or by flagging down a waiter from the Barksdale crew who can hook us up.

[This piece originally appeared in the Frederick Gorilla; illustration by Matt Mignanelli.]

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“The Serpent of Venice” by Christopher Moore


Remember that renowned Shakespearean work where Othello, Desdemona, Jessica, and King Lear’s fool team up to foil Iago, Lorenzo, and Antonio — all with a little input from Shylock, Emilia, Portia, a snarky Greek chorus, and a horny sea monster named Viv? (I know what you’re thinking, but it’s a myth that sea monsters are frigid.)

Probably not, because the Bard never wrote it. Imagine how much more fun AP Lit would’ve been if he had. Instead, this brilliant mash-up of the Merchant of Venice and Othello — with some King Lear and Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” thrown in for giggles — comes courtesy of Christopher Moore, whose The Serpent of Venice reads like something Shakespeare could’ve written, if only he’d had a proper IV-drug habit.

Set in Venice “a long, long time ago,” the story starts with Pocket of Dog Snogging (a.k.a. Lear’s fool and star of Moore’s hysterical earlier novel Fool) being plied with glass upon glass of a wine “which tastes a bit of pitch” by Iago, Antonio, and Montressor Brabantio, a band of villains determined to drag the city into a fabricated holy war while seizing control of its wealth and the Venetian Senate in the process.

The trio sees Pocket, still mourning the loss of his beloved Cordelia, as an irritating speed bump on their road to victory and decide he must be dispatched. Soon knocked out, walled up, and left for dead in the dank dungeon of Brabantio’s palazzo, the fool awakens to discover he’s not alone. Somewhere in the serpent_of_venice_review_314_475blackness, a dagger-clawed undersea minx emerges and proceeds to have her way with him. Repeatedly.

CHORUS: And so, chained in the dark, naked and bedeviled by a hellish creature unknown, after five changings of the tide, the fool went mad.
I am not mad!
CHORUS: Fear did twist the jester’s tiny mind — stretch it past the limits of sanity until it snapped — and shivering and pale, he went mad.
I am not mad!
CHORUS: Stark, raving mad. Bonkers. Drooling, frothing, barking mad.
I am not bloody mad, you berk!
CHORUS: You’re shouting at a disembodied voice in the dark.
Oh, fuckstockings. Good point.

Happily for Pocket, Viv turns out to be a scaly whore with a heart of gold (at least in her dealings with him). And before he can say, “I’ve just been rogered six ways to Sunday by a Gorgon,” Pocket finds himself released from bondage and washed ashore on La Giudecca, a small island separated from Venice by a wide waterway, where Shylock’s daughter, Jessica, takes pity on the half-drowned harlequin and helps him recover.

What follows is an exquisitely raunchy, occasionally bloody series of twists and turns in which Pocket seeks to avenge Cordelia; Jessica plots to sneak off with Lorenzo; Iago conspires to topple Othello; Shylock demands his pound of flesh; Antonio secretly pines for Bassanio (who openly pines for Portia); Marco Polo (Marco Polo?) hopes to escape a Genoan prison cell; and Viv just wants to be held.

(If you’re rolling your eyes at the absurdity of all this and can’t loosen up enough to enjoy the ride, take a moment to consider why nobody ever sits with you at lunch.)

It gives nothing away to reveal that, as in Moore’s other laugh-out-loud-funny novels — the superb Lamb, A Dirty Job, and the aforementioned Fool among them — the good guys in The Serpent of Venice mostly triumph, the bad guys mostly don’t, and almost everyone ends up bedding somebody (or something). The beauty of this latest work is that it doesn’t just throw Shakespeare’s plotlines into the scrum. It throws his characters in, too.

In other words, don’t assume each player will stay true to form. Is Othello still a jealousy-fueled murderer? Is Shylock obsessed with revenge? Does Antonio conduct business honorably? Will Desdemona remain loyal to the Moor? Are Portia and Nerissa still heavy into cross-dressing? You’ll have to read the book to find out.

“Iago rose and went to Bassanio, offered his hand. ‘Then you’re the one we need to speak with.’ He led Bassanio to the table as if leading a lady to the dance floor. Over his shoulder, he said, ‘The rest of you can fuck off now.’”

Okay, so that’s a tiny spoiler. Iago is still a wanker.


This piece originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books.

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Welcome Back to Snake-Handling Preschool!


Dear Parents,

It’s September again, and you know what that means—back-to-school time! We’re so pleased that you’ve entrusted the education of your little one to the Church of God the Redeemer Preschool. As the only fully accredited snake-handling worship center in the tri-state area, we here at CGR understand our unique role in nourishing your child’s mind and spirit.

While most school policies are outlined in our brochure, “There are No Small Sins, Only Small Sinners” (check your mailbox), please keep the following in mind as we prepare for what’s sure to be an uplifting year:

• Drop off time is 9:30 a.m., with pickup at 2:00 p.m. sharp. Remember: God loathes the habitually tardy!

• Dress code: children are required to wear collared shirts, clean slacks or skirts, and reinforced, knee-high leather boots (no sandals!).

• In addition to safety scissors, Elmer’s Glue, and a 64-count box of crayons, please make sure your child’s knapsack contains at least one pediatric tourniquet, available at most medical supply stores and the I-34 Walmart.

• We ask that all students bring Kleenex for the classroom. Additionally, children whose last names begin with A-M should bring a 64-ounce bottle of Bactine, while those with names N-Z are asked to furnish gauze.

• The Lord loves volunteers, so sign up early! Our fall fiesta is just around the corner, so we expect all you moms and dads to bring in lots of cupcakes, fruit punch, and cookies. Also, anti-venom.

• As announced, we’re taking a broader approach to language arts this year. In addition to discussing The Little Golden Book of Sodom and Gomorrah, youngsters will be encouraged to “think outside the box” by making freeform Play-Doh sculptures of Hell.

• Finally, nothing matters as much to CGR as your child’s eternal soul. Through interactive Bible teaching, dramatic play, and the regular taking up of serpents, we intend to nurture God’s tiniest henchmen. And if the unworthy walk among us—as they surely do—don’t worry. We’ll find them. Anaphylaxis doesn’t lie.

So let’s make this the best school year ever. Get your youngsters to bed early, make sure they drink plenty of milk, and have those liability waivers notarized!

Tetanus boosters couldn’t hurt, either.

See you next week!

Yours in Him,

Donna Magdalene

Director, Toddler Program

This piece originally appeared in the White Shoe Irregular.

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