By Danielle C. Malka

Arizona Summer Wildcat

Some bestsellers take weeks to read; some can take months, as anyone who has hoisted a typical James Michener novel can tell you.

But it takes just minutes to read the offbeat parody, "Sheldon & Mrs. Levine; An Excruciating Correspondence," by Julie Stein, a 1985 graduate of the UA, and television writer Sam Bobrick.

"Sheldon" is based on Nick Bantock's 1991 book "Griffin & Sabine," about an artist (Griffin) and the admirer who writes him letters about his work although she has never seen it (Sabine).

At first glance, "Sheldon & Mrs. Levine" looks like a children's book brightly- colored illustrations, cute little postcards, folded letters reminiscent of pop-up books, and no more than 40 pages in length.

The unique format, a compilation of letters written back and forth between a man and his mother, is just enough to draw the reader's attention. What keeps the attention is a biting sarcasm rarely found in popular literature. It is an "excruciating correspondence," no doubt.

The characters are extremes, but have familiar characteristics. Mrs. Levine is forever complaining of some ache or pain and seems to be a master of the guilt trip. For example, she signs one letter, "Love, your Mother, who risked her life bringing you into this world and don't you forget it."

Sheldon is the typical unappreciative son, but with good reason. Not only is his mother a constant annoyance, but she has ruined his life by paying his wife (now ex-wife) to leave him. He treats her with such cruelty that one has to wonder whether he has any feelings at all.

Sheldon writes his mother a familiar poem one day, with a new twist: "Roses are red, violets are blue/ I get sick just thinking of you."

The most interesting thing about this love-hate relationship, and what makes this bitter interplay so fascinating, is that even in the midst of dealing with huge disagreements, the pair cannot get beyond the fact that they are, after all, mother and son.

But what begins as a cute interaction between two amusing characters soon evolves into something much more complex and the reader has to wonder just where reality ends and fantasy begins.

While at first it seems as if the only thing that makes this a parody of "Griffin & Sabine" is its identical format, the element of fantasy is taken directly from Bantock's book.

In "Griffin & Sabine," Sabine has a psychic ability to see Griffin's artwork in her mind, even though the two have never met. In "Sheldon & Mrs. Levine," Mrs. Levine suddenly develops a "gift" which allows her to see Sheldon despite the fact that he is on the opposite side of the country.

"I can see your every move," Mrs. Levine writes her son at one point. "Besides visions of you, I also get HBO. By the way, you look lousy with that beard."

Also like its predecessor, "Sheldon & Mrs. Levine" uses illustrations to complement the plot. As the tone of the piece changes, so do the pictures. They are directly symbolic of the feelings and emotions of the characters.

In the beginning of the story, Mrs. Levine's letters are decorated with flowers and hearts, but after she develops her psychic "gift" of seeing Sheldon, the illustrations become celestial and astrological, featuring stars, birds, planets and moons. Meanwhile, Sheldon's drawings go from evil to childlike as he feels his mother drifting away.

Both books end without an ending, leaving the reader on a precipice, unsure of what to think, where to go and how to feel. Mrs. Levine disappears at the end of the book, leaving Sheldon mystified and not a little bit frightened: "I haven't heard from you in 3 weeks. What's wrong?" he writes.

Where did Mrs. Levine go? Is she dead? Did she ever exist? It's the perfect cliffhanger for a sequel and quite convenient since, like Bantock's book, it is the first in a series.

All in all, "Sheldon & Mrs. Levine" is the ideal coffee table book; entertaining, hilarious, outrageous and puzzling. Read Next Article