September 4, 2008

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Free-Range Chickens, by Simon Rich (2008, Random House, 130 pages)
By Amy Diaz news@hippopress.com

I read Free-Range Chickens from start to finish in a little less than an hour. This is not, I’m thinking, how you’re supposed to read this book.

At $17 in its hardcover version, Free-Range Chickens does not exactly offer you value if you read it all the way through in one sitting. Where Free-Range Chickens, and Rich’s earlier book Ant Farm, becomes a real value purchase is when you read it a little bit at a time, enjoying just a shot of it the way you would expensive scotch or old port.

The book is written in these single-serving chunks. A piece called “Actor’s nightmare” fills up maybe a third of one page and is only six lines long (a rather funny, spare joke about a bad night at Ford’s Theater). One of the longer pieces (“What I imagined the people around me were saying when I was …”) is three pages long and divided into sections such as “Fifteen” (“— Hey, look, that kid is reading Howl by Allen Ginsberg. — Wow. He must be some kind of rebel genius.”). Each one is digestible in a minute or so, most are jokes built on dialogue (one quickie gives us the chicken perspective on Herbert Hoover’s promise of a chicken in every pot; several deal with the rather whimsical approach God has toward meddling in human affairs). These are not necessarily snort-out-loud jokes but most of them are rather funny, enough to make you smile as you sneak a few moments to read them from the desk drawer at work or the counter at home. It’s the kind of humor that can jolt you out of a lousy mood into at least a neutral one.

The back flap tells us that Rich is a writer for Saturday Night Live and the humor here works like the very best skit on that show. For the most part, Free-Range Chickens gives you a short, sweet joke that leaves you feeling just a bit lighter after you’ve read it. B+Amy Diaz