After my pre-ordered copy of Furiously Happy arrived in the mail last week, I went looking for my copy of Let’s Pretend This Never Happened. I wanteAfter my pre-ordered copy of Furiously Happy arrived in the mail last week, I went looking for my copy of Let’s Pretend This Never Happened. I wanted to tweet a photo of the two books together—Jenny Lawson now has a running theme of taxidermied animals on her book covers; I think she should stick with it. The copy of her first book was not on my bookshelf under “L.” I briefly pondered if I had lent it to someone, as I am wont to do with books I love (I keep meaning to start some kind of spreadsheet, but laziness, am I right?). No, I hadn’t lent it to anyone.
Turns out I don’t actually own a copy of Let’s Pretend This Never Happened. I have bought it several times over—but as a gift. It’s one of those books I just keep giving (to different people, not the same person, because that would be weird) because I know a lot of people who would appreciate the Bloggess’ humour, even if they don’t realize it themselves. And because that metal chicken will cut you.
Ordering Furiously Happy the moment I learned Lawson had another book on the way was a no-brainer. I actually ordered two, knowing I’d give the second copy to a friend. Whereas her first book is mostly a collection of blog posts and assorted musings, with particular focus, as a memoir might, on Lawson’s childhood and upbrining, Furiously Happy focuses more on living with mental illness. It features both direct and indirect confrontations with this demon—there are many stories about Lawson’s visits to therapists, arguments with her long-suffering husband Victor, and the difficulties that her depression, anxiety, etc., create in her daily life. However, there are also more meandering stories. She talks about her trip to Australia, where she stood next to a koala while dressed as a koala. She talks about her experience as a parent. This is a book about living with mental illness, yes, but it would be just as accurate to say that this is a book about living in general.
Because the truth that we are only now starting to acknowledge is that mental illness is more common than we want to think. Those who have it don’t always want to talk about it, because those who don’t shame them, blame them, or otherwise refuse to offer empathy when a cold shoulder will do. In the work-obsessed American society, mental illness is more synonymous with laziness and malingering than actual disease. Lawson demonstrates the harmfulness of this idea very early in the book (she actually quotes her own blog post that inspired the title of this book):
When cancer sufferers fight, recover, and go into remission we laud their bravery. We call them survivors. Because they are.
When depression sufferers fight, recover and go into remission we seldom even know, simply because so many suffer in the dark…ashamed to admit something they see as a personal weakness…afraid that people will worry, and more afraid that they won’t. We find ourselves unable to do anything but cling to the couch and force ourselves to breathe.
She returns to the cancer analogy later when she discusses her complicated relationship with medication:
Lots of concerned friends and family felt that the first medication’s failure was a clear sign that drugs were not the answer; if they were I would have been fixed. Clearly I wasn’t as sick as I said I was if the medication didn’t work for me. And that sort of makes sense, because when you have cancer the doctor gives you the best medicine and if it doesn’t shrink the tumor immediately then that’s a pretty clear sign you were just faking it for attention. I mean, cancer is a serious, often fatal disease we’ve spent billions of dollars studying and treating so obviously a patient would never have to try multiple drugs, surgeries, radiation, etc., to find what will work specifically for them. And once the cancer sufferer is in remission they’re set for life because once they’ve learned how to not have cancer they should be good. And if they let themselves get cancer again they can just do whatever they did last time. Once you find the right cancer medication you’re pretty much immune from that disease forever. And if you get it again it’s probably just a reaction to too much gluten or not praying correctly. Right?
Leaving aside the bizarre and scary fact that many people apply precisely this logic to cancer treatment (Chemo not working? Let’s try homeopathy! And prayer! Ummmm…), I love the way Lawson frames the issue here. I have not yet experienced mental illness in my life. I’m thankful for that. And I like to think I’m generally open and capable of empathy for people who do struggle with mental illness. But because I don’t really know what it’s like, and because I live in a culture that stigmatizes mental illness and those who suffer from it, I have a lot of internalized crap to deal with. It’s much the same as how, not being a woman and living in a sexist culture, I’ve internalized a lot of sexist views even if I consider myself an ally. Because I don’t, all my idiosyncrasies and distaste for certain social niceties aside, exhibit “craziness,” I have privilege. And that blinds me sometimes.
As I read Lawson’s metaphorical explanation of the common attitude towards medicating mental illness, I started to realize this was one of my blind spots. I had fallen into the trap of believing the binary narrative that drugs either work or don’t work, that we just over-medicate because it’s easier and more profitable for pharmaceutical companies. As with most things in life, the issue is just not that simple. It’s true that pharmaceutical companies don’t play fair. And it’s true that drugs alone can’t “fix” someone suffering from mental illness. But Lawson reminds us what we already understand: our brains are our most complicated organ, so the idea that we might treat their ailments in a simplistic way is facile.
So I appreciate the perspective that Furiously Happy offers me. As Lawson points out early in the book, her experience is not every person’s experience with mental illness. I get that. But whereas many of her fans are drawn to her through a kindred feeling of “getting it,” I’m drawn to her for two reasons. Firstly, she is hella funny. She’s a great writer, a great storyteller, and exhibits a keen sense of whimsy. Secondly, she is willing to share her story. Some people aren’t. Wanting to be more understanding of how people deal with mental illness doesn’t give one the freedom to pry into someone’s life—I do have friends who struggle with mental illness, and some are open about it while others aren’t. Wanting to be sympathetic doesn’t mean I can demand raw details from them. So I am grateful for people like Lawson who have the ability and desire to speak out about their struggles.
It’s natural to want to compare Furiously Happy with Let’s Pretend This Never Happened and rank them. For the sake of discussion I’ll say that I liked the first book better, in that I laughed out loud more often at more of her stories. I don’t necessarily think that means the first book is a better book, if that makes any sense. If you like either book you’ll like the other one, and you can also read them in either order. As far as I’m concerned, more Bloggess writing in the world is just better.
In the spirit of the Bloggess, here are some blurbs I might offer up about this book. You are welcome to use any of these in future printings, Ms. Lawson!
“Delightful, poignant, brave.”
“Inspirational, memorable, jaw-breakingly funny.”
“It was difficult to read this in public. People kept coming up to me and high-fiving the raccoon on the cover.”
“My lungs exploded with laughter. Literally. I’m typing this in the hospital, where I’m on a ventilator. I’m not letting them pull the plug until I finish the book.”
“Now that Amazon uses drones to deliver orders, does that mean I could bomb ISIS-controlled areas with this book? Because that might be more effective.”
“Worst fanfiction ever. There was hardly any street-racing, and since when was Dominic a raccoon? Zero stars.”
(Some of the blurbs may not be factually accurate.)
Seriously, not even sure why you’re still reading my review. Just read this book instead.
Probably should have put that last paragraph at the start of my review. Oh well, you live and learn.
I’m very ambivalent about this book. Skinny Legs and All is a dense, intricate spiral of a story with funny characters but serious messages. However,I’m very ambivalent about this book. Skinny Legs and All is a dense, intricate spiral of a story with funny characters but serious messages. However, Tom Robbins’ style grates on me a little bit. There’s nothing egregious about it, but maybe I’m just getting less patient with purpler prose as I approach the ripe old age of 26. In any event, I appreciate and respect this book, but I didn’t enjoy it as much as I wanted to.
Skinny Legs and All follows Ellen Cherry Charles, a small-town Virginian woman, as she grows older and wiser in New York City. Owing to her crazy fundamentalist uncle and estranged art-nouveau husband, not to mention her employment at a restaurant owned by an Arab and a Jew, Ellen finds herself adjacent to all sorts of events related to the tension in the Middle East between Israel and Palestine.
It’s also about a Dirty Sock, Can of Beans, and Dessert Spoon who join up with an ancient Painted Stick and Conch Shell to make their way to Jerusalem and await the coming of the Third Temple.
There’s a great deal of allusion here, Biblical and otherwise, and it’s easy to get lost down the rabbithole. The plot doesn’t move forwards so much as spiral around and around the drain. The main focus seems to be on Ellen’s struggle to redefine herself after separating from Boomer. She was supposed to be the artist, the hip and trendy participant in New York’s cultural scenes. Then Boomer, the welder who couldn’t see the point in art, suddenly finds himself caught in the maelstrom, while Ellen watches from the sidelines and finds her own inspiration and direction drying up.
Meanwhile, the anthropomorphized household articles are on a quest of their own, in a sideplot that is so bizarre I can’t do it justice. Ultimately I’m not sure it ever really comes to fruition—it’s fun, I guess, but it never held my attention for too long. I feel like Robbins is just having fun riffing off these characters he created, while also playing around in the sandbox of Middle Eastern history and mythology. And if that’s what he wanted to do, fair enough.
As far as the commentary on the Middle East goes: this novel predates September 11, 2001. I couldn’t help but fixate on this fact and wonder how it would be different if Robbins had written it ten years later. There is an atmosphere of optimism even amidst all the strange and sometimes upsetting things that happen, as if Robbins believes that humanity might possibly just manage to muddle through this all. The Middle East is an appropriate focal point for exploring our species’ foibles because of how it is the birthplace both of Abrahamic religions and so much strife in the contemporary world—how can a place named for peace be the centre of so much conflict? This contradiction proves to drive the most interesting moments of the book.
Yet for all its intensive soul-searching and intriguing commentary on religion, Skinny Legs and All strikes me as ultimately a disappointing and empty book. It’s nearly five-hundred pages of rumination on why humans band together with common beliefs and then proceed to be massive dicks to the rest of humanity. And none of what Robbins says about religion is really all that original or thoughtful—he says it very well, of course, but if you’ve read any critiques of or apologies for organized religion, you’re already going to be familiar with these themes.
What redeems the book, if anything, is Ellen. I enjoyed reading about her, sympathizing with her, and even being annoyed with her sometimes. Robbins gives Ellen sexual agency in a way that many male authors fail to do with their women characters—Ellen has a healthy internal and external sex life. The sexuality of women and the way our society and religions police it is one of the pillars of Robbins’ critique of organized religion, of course—hence the allusions to Jezebel and Salome and the veil dance that comprises the entire structure of the narrative. Whereas I wasn’t that impressed by the overall commentary on religions, I did appreciate this facet.
This is the third in a trio of books lent to me by a friend (Gould’s Book of Fish and Sweet and Vicious being the other two). I think I enjoyed the ride that was Sweet and Vicious most, but Skinny Legs and All is probably the best book of the three. Although it took too long to read for what little reward I got from it, I can still appreciate. For me this book is an example of how literature is like art—sometimes you know something is important, even though it doesn’t really speak to you on an emotional level. It’s intellectually satisfying, even though viscerally you’re left wanting something else, something different. This won’t be everyone’s reaction, of course, and I’m sure there are plenty of Robbins fans out there who love this book to pieces. I’m just not one of them.
… the characterization of the two protagonists is much improved. The other characters? Not so much….
Fridging women is not OK. Joking about fridging dead whores is also not OK.
Yes, this entire book is a sitcom about moving to the apartment down the block.
And now, the conclusion…
Well, I did it. I read Bite Me, because I am a sucker (gaaaaaah, vampire puns again) for punishment. And also I like my trilogies like I like my modifiers: undangling.
So, we pick up with Thomas and Jody bronzed and Abby as our viewpoint protagonist for much of the book. Eventually Thomas and Jody escape, or get released accidentally, and the book follows them for a bit too. So it alternates between Abby’s annoying first-person narration (I love Abby, hate her narrative voice) and a third-person narrator.
This book is actually the best of the trilogy.
Better yet, I can tell you why.
With the convergent plots of Chet the Vampire Cat and Elijah’s child vampires cleaning up this mess in San Francisco, Christopher Moore doesn’t have as much time to make stupid, unfunny jokes at the expense of women and minorities. They are still present, but their quantity is greatly reduced, and they tend to be sandwiched in between more important bits. This is a sharp contrast to the previous two books, which seemed mostly to comprise such jokes strung together with the remnants of what once was a plot.
Bite Me’s story is actually good and, in some parts, fairly intense. Elijah’s children want to eliminate anyone who knows about vampires. That’s basically the entire cast from the previous two books. Meanwhile, Steve discovers that people turned by anyone other than Elijah (the “prime” vampire) don’t last long. This is bad news for Abby, who turns herself into a vampire by injecting blood from a rat (you don’t want to know how the rat became a vampire).
So it’s pretty much chaos in San Francisco, and there is a lot going on, and it gets very confusing at times. Nevertheless, I enjoyed a good deal of it. The characters always have something to do—and because they have something to do, Moore can’t spend pages reflecting on how Jody’s vampiric state will impact her continual disappointment of her mother or her need to lose five pounds. It’s win–win.
I only wish Moore had introduced Elijah’s children in the first book. We get hints that there are other vampires in the world, and then of course they show up at the very end of You Suck. But there is a rich backstory to this world that Moore doesn’t reveal; I can’t help but wonder if it is more interesting than what we get in these three books.
This has been a long journey, and it’s not one I would want to take again or recommend someone retrace. Bite Me might tickle vampire fans. In general, though, these are not the Moore books that I want people reading. Their humour does not work for me. Moore relies on stereotypes, clichés, and generally very lazy types of humour. The result is occasionally, almost accidentally, funny, in the style of the brain-dead sitcoms of network television. But it lacks the literary comedy that I so value in some of Moore’s other work.
I find Jody’s characterization hugely problematic…. I just wish Moore hadn’t ruined what might have been a great thing by falling back on clichéd jokes, like, “I could stand to lose five pounds.” We get it: women are obsessed with their weight! Hah-hah, very funny. I’ll pencil in a laugh sometime next week.
I’m going to try the next book, because Moore has earned a lot of credit with me. But if Thomas pulls anything like that again, I’m out of here. I have better things to do with my time than watch an insecure guy try to stop his vampire ladyfriend from leaving her in progressively creepier and rapier ways.
And now, the continuation…
You Suck picks up almost literally where Bloodsucking Fiends left off: C. Thomas Flood is a vampire, having been bitten by his vampiric girlfriend Jody. Once her daylight minion, now they have to find a new minion for the both of them. But the heat is on in San Francisco, because they have savvy detectives, an Emperor, and a Safeway night shift crew breathing down their pale necks.
I have to say, this book starts off with much more promise than Bloodsucking Fiends. Tommy and Jody’s relationship dynamic has changed. I wouldn’t say they are on “equal” footing now, but they are both vampires, at least. Jody herself is definitely more confident here, and Moore explicitly shows how much she delights in flaunting her sexuality for herself, because she no longer fears walking alone at night. That’s all well and good.
Indeed, I’ll go ahead and say that the characterization of the two protagonists is much improved. The other characters? Not so much. Every remaining character falls back into one or more stereotypes in Moore’s attempt to wring as much clichéd humour from this book as possible. I started to tune out and skim when he introduced Blue, the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold (and blue skin), and almost entirely checked out when dead whores started showing up.
Right, Moore, look … I don’t care whether your book has a “strong female protagonist.” I don’t care if your book has two female protagonists who show interesting and different sides to living as a woman in San Francisco. (I love Abby’s gothy teenage geekiness!) Fridging women is not OK. Joking about fridging dead whores is also not OK. The former does not, will never, excuse the latter. Similarly, the fact that Blue comes back—out of the blue—as a vampire doesn’t make up for the tasteless jokes at her expense.
Any enjoyment I was getting from You Suck was sucked out of me—pun intended—by these missteps.
At least Bloodsucking Fiends had stakes. (No, I mean plot stakes, not wooden stakes—gah. Why is this happening?!) The elusive and mysterious Elijah was a credible antagonist in the first book. Now he’s just a nuisance, and most of the conflict comes from Tommy and Jody running around trying to train Abby and move. Yes, this entire book is a sitcom about moving to the apartment down the block.
Towards the very end, the book shifts more and more into Abby’s first-person diary perspective. Now, I love Abby, and I loved her diary entries when they were intermittent. The more frequently they appeared, the more they grated in tone, though. The sudden appearance of Steve as a vampire hunter/love interest for Abby at the eleventh hour is almost as unsatisfactory as the wimpiness of the new vampires on the block.
I didn’t even realize how worked up I was about this until I wrote this review, and now I just can’t even.
Do I read the third book? It’s on my shelf, checked out the same time I borrowed this one. They are quick—I read this at a ball game, so I could read book three in less than an afternoon. But is it worth it? The cover copy seems to promise that it foregrounds Abby and includes a vampire cat.
But is it worth it?
I have since read the third book. It was worth it. Kind of. Review forthcoming!
**spoiler alert** Shall we start by agreeing that Christopher Moore is a literary comedic genius? I’ve had some good times with him. Both Fool and **spoiler alert** Shall we start by agreeing that Christopher Moore is a literary comedic genius? I’ve had some good times with him. Both Fool and Sacré Bleu: A Comedy d’Art are amazing, laugh-out-loud funny. Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal is hilarious and irreverent and the perfect gift to give your atheist or agnostic friends (or your theist friends, if they have the right sense of humour!). Everyone once in a while, though I hit on a Fluke….
That’s the problem with comedy: it’s really tough, and even comedic geniuses don’t get it right all the time.
Bloodsucking Fiends has a lot going for it. I considered, for a while, giving this book one star—but I can’t do that, ultimately, because there was definitely a time where I was enjoying this book, maybe more than I should have. (For those who have read it: the scenes with the Emperor are all priceless, and the scene where the Safeway crew boards the vampire’s boat and start blowing shit up is high-octane of a calibre I was not expecting in a book like this.) In particular, if you were looking for a more humorous take on the whole “becoming a vampire” plot, then Moore has you covered here.
Jody and Thomas. I can’t even.
This is subtitled A Love Story, as are the sequels to this book (which I also have out from the library). The idea is that Jody, after becoming a vampire, looks for a man to cohabit with (and have sex with, if convenient) who can go out during the day, when she is asleep, and run errands. A sex-Renfield, if you will. (Oh God, now I’m envisioning all the Dracula/Renfield slash-fic I am not going to search for after finishing this review….)
Mr. C. Thomas Flood from Indiana has just moved to San Francisco to become the next Great American Writer. He hooks up with Jody by chance, sticks with her even after she confesses that she is a vampire, and quickly falls in love with her.
But I don’t really buy it, you know?
I can buy that Thomas thinks he’s in love with Jody, and that Jody feels co-dependent with Thomas. Moore paints Jody as the type of woman who feels that she “needs” a man, having lived with ten in the past five years. And I love that Moore doesn’t make this a head-over-heels, hit-by-Cupid’s-arrow type of romance—Jody and Thomas fight and argue and call each other names, and it’s all very realistic. (Except for the whole vampire thing, obviously.)
I find Jody’s characterization hugely problematic, though. There is nothing wrong, a priori, with portraying a woman who serially enters dysfunctional relationships. That’s all part of diverse portrayals of women in fiction. Unfortunately, that only works if you have diverse portrayals of women in your story (I think there are three named women characters in this book, and it only technically passes the Bechdel Test because Jody talks to her mom). And it only works if your characters are multi-dimensional.
I was hoping that, amid the standard Moore silliness of the plot, Bloodsucking Fiends would be a story about Jody’s personal growth. Moore starts off by showing us a woman who doesn’t have a lot going for her, who has a really bad day by being assaulted and transformed into a vampire, and who subsequently decides to make lemons out of lemonade. And on one level, this does actually happen. The ending of the story affirms Jody’s desire to embrace her newfound vampiric powers, to learn more about them, and to make the most of this life.
So I just wish Moore hadn’t ruined what might have been a great thing by falling back on clichéd jokes, like, “I could stand to lose five pounds.” We get it: women are obsessed with their weight! Hah-hah, very funny. I’ll pencil in a laugh sometime next week.
This sense of cliché looms ominously over most of the book. Jody is a walking cliché. Thomas’ situation—growing up in Indiana and being suspected of homosexuality because he has intellectual tendencies—is so cliché. It’s as if Moore assembled a checklist of the most overused tropes, then proceeded to work his way down the list—maybe alphabetically? Boy, those Asian people—aren’t they funny? And people who can’t read and hide it—hilarious! What about sales clerks—they sure are jerks, right? This might be comedy, but it is lazy comedy, thoughtless comedy—in other words, bad comedy.
I know Moore is capable of, well, more. You can’t write two novels parodying Shakespeare to the level that Moore has without actually reading and understanding Shakespeare. And while Moore’s portrayal of women doesn’t receive highest marks, I’ve seen him do better than how he does in Bloodsucking Fiends.
Oh, but the whole part where Thomas literally fridges Jody? Then does it again by bronzing her? That’s not funny, Moore, and it’s not endearing. It’s terrifying and sick, and it doesn’t show that Thomas “loves” Jody, just that he’s obsessed with her and willing to imprison her rather than let her go. We have names and prisons for those sorts of people.
I’m going to try the next book, because Moore has earned a lot of credit with me. But if Thomas pulls anything like that again, I’m out of here. I have better things to do with my time than watch an insecure guy try to stop his vampire ladyfriend from leaving her in progressively creepier and rapier ways.
Mindy Kaling is absolutely right: men do take too long to put on their shoes. At least, I do, and I don’t know what’s wrong with me. Send help!
It’s saMindy Kaling is absolutely right: men do take too long to put on their shoes. At least, I do, and I don’t know what’s wrong with me. Send help!
It’s safe to say I probably wouldn’t have read this book if my friend Rebecca had not literally put it in my hands. (As Goodreads friend Megan remarked recently, this is the one way to ensure I will actually read a book you recommend to me this century.) I see in retrospect that many of my Goodreads friends have read this, but even that might not have been enough. I’m vaguely aware of Mindy Kaling is, in that “I think she was a guest on The Colbert Report once?” kind of way, but I’ll address the elephant in the room, and if you feel like I’m less of a person and never want to read any of my reviews ever again, I’ll understand.
I didn’t watch The Office.
And I don’t mean I made a point of not watching. It’s not that I was opposed on principle to the show. That, at least, would be defensible. No, I simply had no interest in The Office, and strangely, managed to avoid watching anything more than about half an episode. I had no idea that Kaling was a writer for or actor on The Office. Indeed, on a broader level, I’ve largely managed to avoid modern comedy—aside from dipping in and out of SNL here or there, I don’t watch stand-up or sitcoms.
So I feel like I lacked a crucial frame of reference when reading Is Everybody Hanging Out Without Me?. Kaling alludes to recent social phenomena with which I have very little familiarity, even through the vicarious medium of TV. Aside from Monty Python, I barely recognize, let alone have watched, most of the shows she mentions as inspirations or topical in her formative years. Hence, my overall bemusement: I really enjoyed Kaling’s writing style, to the point where she makes me laugh out loud. But I couldn’t connect with a lot of the essays about the entertainment industry. Is this, I wonder, how other people feel about reading books about math and physics??
With this in mind, I can see how it is tempting to dismiss or marginalize Kaling’s book as just “yet another attempt at a funny semi-memoir.” The chapters where Kaling attempts to lampoon her childhood experiences fall flat, because she does it by way of winking at and nudging the reader, lazily relying on the comedian’s shorthand: “Childhood—parents sure are funny, eh? Look at my wacky haircut and lack of fashion!” I wish there were more substance to these stories, that Kaling had gone a bit deeper. When she does get real, as in the chapter where she talks about her “secret friend” from high school, Marcia, and how that friendship blossomed while her friends from middle school went their separate ways, then Kaling’s stories immediately become more interesting.
My favourite chapter, as I alluded to above, is the extremely short meditation on how long it takes men to put on their shoes. It sounds facetious, but it is a serious matter that affects millions of men every day, and I’m glad someone like Kaling is finally taking a stand. Yet my enjoyment of that chapter surprises me. It is the most stand-up–iest of all the chapters here in a book that is very much an attempt at literary stand-up comedy. And I hate stand-up comedy with the fiery passion of a thousand white-hot stars. But maybe I wouldn’t hate it quite so much if more of it were like Kaling’s writing.
Kaling manages to capture how difficult comedy is, not just as an industry but as a genre for creation. Comedians have it hard, because unlike the rest of us people who are just happy to consume the funny, they have to dissect it in their comedy labs. They have to put on sterile clean-suits and cut into their beloved sitcoms and stand-up routines and ask, “Why is this funny? How does this work? How can I riff on this?” You can spend a lot of time on this, crafting what you think is the best, funniest thing ever—only for it to fall completely flat. Sometimes the flop isn’t even your fault: it could be a matter of timing, of current events making your joke insensitive or unfunny; or maybe you’re just before the wrong audience. But when your comedy goes awry, there is nothing left. It’s not like tragedy, where if you fail or ham it up too much, then it’s funny—that is kind of the intention of comedy. “So bad it’s good” is inaccurate: if your comedy is “so bad it’s good,” then either it’s just bad but some people are laughing anyway because they feel sorry, or it’s good because you are clever enough to pull off a deconstructive, self-referential routine (and you are Monty Python).
I was fascinated by Kaling’s story of how she went from amateur funny person to professional comedy writer. She and her best friend from college wrote and starred in a play called Matt & Ben, inspired by the apparent inseparability of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. But when she ended up in LA, she ran up against the wall most would-be writers encounter in that city, until she caught her “break” and got the chance to show her funny to the world again.
She also deserves respect for the self-deprecating way she mocks her own gradual envelopment by Hollywood television culture. From moving to LA to her involvement in The Office, Kaling has worked her way from being “outside” onto the “inside.” She is now part of the shallow, celebrity-obsessed machine she used to mock and continues to mock, but she knows her position in that machine has changed. It’s always heartening when celebrities maintain that self-awareness.
This self-awareness stems from a related sense of humility that Kaling masks with facetious self-importance. Unlike, say, a white and male comedian, Kaling is very much aware of and willing to acknowledge the role that luck and timing played in providing opportunities for her talents to shine on a wider audience. Beneath the offhand comments and the flippant voice she puts on, Kaling makes it clear
This is why it would be a mistake to dismiss a thin, outwardly-light book like Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?. Just because it aims to be funny, or because it’s a memoir written by someone on the younger side of 50, doesn’t make it any less interesting, sympathetic, or true. I don’t share Kaling’s love of stand-up or all of her tastes in humour (but we do share that love of Monty Python). But I appreciate reading her perspective and hearing about her particular vector into comedy and celebrity. Above all else, I appreciate the question Kaling implicitly asks with her humour: why, as a society, is it so important for our social cohesion to tear people down so we can build ourselves up? Why have we made it so difficult to differentiate between critique and criticism and nastiness? It’s possible to love something and critique it, not like something without judging it harshly.
The title says it all. We walk a fine a line between “being ourselves” (whatever that means) and being the people it’s easiest to be to fit in and not make waves so we can slide through our lives unhassled. We all compromise. We all yearn to express ourselves. We all do each of these things; what differs only is the relative degrees to which we place value on each action. We worry about everyone hanging out without us—but how far can we countenance changing ourselves, just so people hang out with us? There is no single answer that works for everyone. This book is just Mindy Kaling’s personal journey trying to answer that question.
**spoiler alert** Yes, it’s another review of Saga, this time of Volume Three, the last of three volumes I bought for a friend. It’s hard to think of**spoiler alert** Yes, it’s another review of Saga, this time of Volume Three, the last of three volumes I bought for a friend. It’s hard to think of original things to say, having read and reviewed the first two in quick succession. So let’s look at the journey Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples are taking us on after nearly twenty issues of this incredibly story.
I’m impressed at the complexity of the supporting cast. Kiara, Marko’s mother, spends much of this volume processing her husband’s death. It’s a significant subplot that affects how she related to the others present in Heist’s lighthouse, including the ornery pacifist author himself. Through these multi-generational moments, Vaughan justifies the somewhat generic name for Saga here. Kiara is walking around with a whole lot of prejudices. But she wants what is best for her child and her grandchild, and a good part of this volume concerns her need to reconcile her prejudices with Alana and Marko’s relationship. (I enjoyed the moment where she is watching them out the window of the lighthouse and asks, “What is Alana doing? Is she prayiny—no, no she is not.”)
Likewise, the Will and Gwendolyn really undergo a huge transition in this volume. At the beginning they are nearly at each other’s throats, and by the end, Gwendolyn is forced to tell Marko that “the man I love” is dying. She is forced to confront her hypocrisy of falling in love with a man from another species even as she hunts Marko for much the same “crime.” I admit I was a little sceptical about Gwendolyn falling for the Will so quickly. One of the limitations of graphic novels, however, unlike its wordier sibling, is that it is more expensive to devote time to flashbacks and other backstory exposition. So there is a lot we don’t know about Gwendolyn (or the Will, for that matter, although there are some interesting revelations concerning his family life towards the end of this volume) that might come up in future issues.
If I thought Volume Two ended with an excellent cliffhanger, then Volume Three is not a disappointment either. Vaughan allows some time to pass. Hazel foreshadows that the antagonists and our heroes are going their separate ways for “a very long time.” I still think Prince Robot IV is a dick, but I kind of like Gwendolyn and the Will, and I really want the best for them. So, you know, stupid Vaughan and Staples for making me care about people who want our heroes captured or killed! I shake my fist at you.
This is not the place to jump in if you haven’t read Saga before. Do yourself a favour and pick up the first two volumes. But as far as I’m concerned as a days-old fan of the series, it just keeps getting better.
Randall Munroe is the much-beloved writer and illustrator of the much-beloved webcomic xkcd. He puts his phI don’t really need to review this, do I?
Randall Munroe is the much-beloved writer and illustrator of the much-beloved webcomic xkcd. He puts his physics and robotics background to good use creating humorous situations based on science, mathematics, and nerd culture. He has since branched out with What If?, a weekly blog in which Munroe answers over-the-top questions by following the facts to whatever consequences they might lead.
This is the book of the blog.
(That’s like the book of the movie, only it’s a blog, not a movie. Savvy?)
So if you’re curious about what this book is like, just go read the blog. You can do that for free. Many of the chapters in the book are reprints from the blog—though some posts have been revised, expanded, or mutated through exposure to gamma radiation. Some of the chapters are new, and just as hilarious.
That’s the defining characteristic of What If? for me: it’s a wonderful demonstration of how asking—and answering—questions is fun, and that really should be the backbone of any science education effort.
Now, much like Republican politicians, I am not a scientist. I don’t even play one on TV. But I am a mathematician (which is kind of like a scientist, only cooler), and I’m an educator. Math and science share a lot of the bum rap when it comes to which subjects kids enjoy in school, and most of it is bad PR on the part of parents, policy-makers, and teachers. And this makes me angry, because science is wonderful and fascinating and awesome, and I want kids to love it just like I want kids to love math. Even if they don’t particularly want to grow up working in a field that requires a working knowledge of particle physics or a penchant for solving partial differential equations, I want them to dip their toes with joy and abandon into the oceans of inquiry and problem-solving—and not feel pressured or shamed by the fallout from standardized tests that label them with numbers and letters and predictors of success.
Munroe is one of a cadre of Internet peoples who is leading the charge in a glorious vanguard of new science education. He gets it. He has that golden spark of talent that puts him in the sweet spot of both knowing the science behind these issues as well as being able to write about them in a humorous, entertaining way. What If? is like an armchair version of MythBusters and no less amazing for it.
I’m not exaggerating when I’m saying that I enjoyed every single chapter in this book. I laughed out loud frequently. Even the less interesting ones, or the ones I read before on the blog, are nice to revisit. This is a great coffeetable book for geeks: you can dip in and out of it at will.
My favourite chapter has to be “Periodic Wall of Elements,” in which Munroe explains the consequences of trying to construct a periodic table wherein each entry is a sample of the element in question. (Spoiler alert: it doesn’t end well, for you, or your lab, or the city around it.) He just has such a dry style of writing:
Sometimes this kind of panic over scary chemicals is disproportionate; there are trace amounts of natural arsenic in all our food and water, and we handle those fine. This is not one of those times.
And then slightly later, describing the effects of building the sixth row of the periodic table:
The radiation levels would be incredibly high. Given that it takes a few hundred milliseconds to blink, you would literally get a lethal dose of radiation in the blink of an eye.
You would die from what we might call “extremely acute radiation poisoning”—that is, you would be cooked.
The seventh row would be much worse.
This tendency for understatement combines with a keen sense of meta-fictional absurdity that Munroe regularly demonstrates in his webcomic. Indeed, as if his delightful prose is not enough on its own, every answer comes complete with several xkcd-style illustrations that have the same cheeky humour of the comic.
What If? is awesome. Full stop. If you are not convinced of this and want to be convinced, go read the blog and the comic. Then buy the book. Then enjoy the hours of entertainment and education you will receive. Share it with kids, and make them love science. Even if it kills them.*
*Please science responsibly, especially if kids are involved. Do not blow things up unless you are a trained professional and have taken appropriate safety measures. Don’t try anything in this book at home. At worst it is very dangerous and would likely destroy the planet; at best, it is extremely impractical and would cost a fortune in electricity....more
At first I thought I wouldn’t be able to write a very deep review of Simon’s Cat vs The World. After all, what can one say about something that is, ulAt first I thought I wouldn’t be able to write a very deep review of Simon’s Cat vs The World. After all, what can one say about something that is, ultimately, an all-ages picture book? I thought, I’m going to review this just because I know I’m already going to miss my reading goal for this year, but damned if I’m not going to use a picture book to get me that much closer. Then I realized Ben the Literature Snob was rearing his ugly head once again: how dare I be so biased? This isn’t a picture book. It’s a satirical graphic novella about the relationship between an owner and his very independent, very spirited feline! It deserves serious review and critique!
Let’s do this.
Simon’s Cat vs The World opens with the usual shenanigans: Simon’s cat tries to get at birds, climbs too high on a stack of boxes, tears a hole in Simon’s tent, etc. We have the usual reluctance to go for walks, go to the vet, or basically do anything we want the cat to do. As the story progresses, the cat manifests multiple schemes against other anthropomorphized animals—dogs and doves, hedgehogs and rabbits and mice. Sometimes these animals are allies, sometimes they are foes who lay their own traps for the cat, and sometimes they are neutral, disinterested parties. Truly, Tofield captures the ever-shifting nature of animal relationships. Left alone, they might be predators and prey—but in the face of human intervention, they can work together to achieve interesting results.
The adage that cats have nine lives springs to mind when reading this book, for Simon’s cat invariably gets into precarious positions that would diminish or even extinguish lesser pets. It just goes to show the incredible resilience of cats, and their propensity for prevailing even against a preponderance of odds. Ultimately, Tofield lends credence to those who theorize that cats are the superior life-form, that they are the masters and we, the pets.
With this in mind, then, it’s important to note that Simon’s cat is far from invincible. Though he often depicts his cat as outsmarting the various inventions that a human uses to curtail cat activities, Simon’s cat is equally as likely to be bested by objects, both animate and inanimate, or even simple hubris (perhaps the most dangerous cat vice). I think it would be accurate to describe Simon’s cat less as a hero and more as an antihero; rather than following the monomyth, the cat instead traces a loose arc from nuisance and menace to an endearing but mischievous friend. The cat is chaotic neutral at best.
Of course, it’s impossible to critique any graphical depiction of cat lifestyles without talking about the ur-example of the genre: Garfield. This comic strip cemented the stereotype of the lazy, entitled feline whose only motivators were a love for lasagna and a distaste for younger, more energetic cats. Garfield is a funny character, but the dominance of his comic strip on cat-lit for the past few decades means that it’s always refreshing to see authors who take this genre in a different direction. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Tofield subverts many of the tropes of cat-lit, but he definitely executes them in ways that belie the Garfield stereotype. While Simon often appears as frazzled as John might, he is clearly less pessimistic. It’s an open question whether this is because of, in spite of, or the reason for his cat’s energetic antics. Much like nature versus nurture, the complex feedback loop between cat and human will likely never be resolved.
As the book is more a series of single-page vignettes than a coherent plot, it’s difficult to review Simon’s Cat vs The World as a story. It’s more of a carousel of characterization. The art is lovely and the situations both diverse and highly risible. Children and adults alike will derive a good fifteen to thirty minutes of enjoyment from the initial reading of this book. And, as they continue to mull over the complex interplay of its subtext about the relationship between cats and humans, they will come to appreciate Tofield’s insights into the myriad ways in which cats manifest their intelligence and perspicacity in getting their own way. Any cat owner is bound to see their cat in Simon’s cat. As for those who aren’t cat lovers? Well … I guess you can always go read Tintin or something.
Here we are at the end of the To Hell and Back trilogy. As I said in my Dreams of Gods and Monsters review, a trilogy works best for me if each succesHere we are at the end of the To Hell and Back trilogy. As I said in my Dreams of Gods and Monsters review, a trilogy works best for me if each successive book raises the stakes and widens the scope of its world. By these criteria, Matthew Hughes has succeeded. The first book introduces Chesney Arnstruther, a high-functioning autistic man whose world is mostly numbers until he accidentally summons a demon, incites a strike in Hell, and becomes the Actionary, a superhero. The second book offers insights into the relationship between Heaven and Hell and hints that the universe is a book God is writing. The third book expands on these ideas, discarding some and fleshing out others. As Chesney adjusts to Joshua’s healing of his autism, Hell flounders about while Satan is AWOL, and it becomes apparent that something is going on.
Hell to Pay is a lot of fun for someone who has read the first two books. Those were entertaining but not great; in particular, they tended to suffer from flatter characters than I like. While the characterization hasn’t improved dramatically here, it has improved, which helps. Chesney and Melda’s relationship feels more like that of a real couple, with cracks and cuddles alike. Perhaps most surprisingly of all, Xaphan gets a more expanded viewpoint in this novel, something I really enjoyed.
But where this book excels as a conclusion to the series is the way that Hughes deploys a considerable amount of foreshadowing to build towards a final, moving climax. Using the plot device that demons and angels only know exactly what Satan or God needs them to know, Hughes starts to drop hints that something is happening—that God is pulling strings at a frightfully alarming rate. Billy Hardacre’s conjecture that the world is a book proves not to be entirely accurate; worse still, it appears that Chesney’s meddling from the very beginning of the series has done more serious damage than we initially thought. All of this is a bad thing for our heroes, who find themselves going the way of the Chikkichakk. What, you’ve never heard of the Chikkichakk? Hmm … maybe there’s a reason for that.
In short, I loved how we learn more about the mechanics of this universe in Hell to Pay. It’s just so fascinating. Hughes has clearly put thought into how this works, what angels and demons actually are as beings, and how they differ from regular old people. For those who have read the first two books in the series, then, this book provides a lot of answers. And while it’s a little heavy on the exposition, I wouldn’t say that Hughes gives these answers at the expense of a plot. This book is much more “big picture” than the first two, which a much-reduced emphasis on Chesney’s actions on Earth or his role as the Actionary. However, there is still plenty of conflict happening. Blowdell is back, raised by the Archduke Adramaleka, who is starting to entertain usurping notions during Satan’s extended absence.
Hughes manages all this with a kind of dry tone that others are comparing to Christopher Moore or Terry Pratchett, and I’d agree. Some authors are great and portraying demon stories as dark, gritty, horrific. Others tend towards a balance of light and dark, the humour offsetting the tragedy. Hughes’ take is almost entirely comic—and in this case, it works splendidly. It’s a Good Omens–like look at Heaven and Hell.
Chesney’s evolution as a character continues. He’s much less sure of himself in this book, now that his pools of light have been replaced by a wider understanding of human emotions and signals. I’m not all that satisfied by the ending—without going into spoilers, let’s just say that I’m sceptical Melda would find it an acceptable way to resolve their relationship troubles—but I can sympathize with the struggle Chesney undergoes. He’s starting to understand the profound consequences of being a hero, of attempting to fight the bad guys, and of the collateral damage that inevitably occurs. The underlying theme of morality, of what it means to strive towards being a moral person, is present mostly in Chesney’s self-examination. Should he kill? Is that justified? Should he help someone torture for revenge? It’s not all puppy dogs and rainbows.
After two books that steadily improved, Hell to Pay continues this trajectory. It’s a satisfying conclusion to the series, answering questions and offering a tense standoff to be resolved only through clever wrangling. Hughes has his characters face-off essentially against God and, if not exactly win, then draw. (I’m not sure what happens to Denby.) If you haven’t read the first two books, then I’d recommend them on the strength of this one. The Damned Busters is a lukewarm experience, but it’s still entertaining and well worth the read to what proves to be an original and enjoyable series.
Rick Mercer is a national treasure, and if his show hasn’t convinced you of this, then you need to get this book and re-read some of his rants from yeRick Mercer is a national treasure, and if his show hasn’t convinced you of this, then you need to get this book and re-read some of his rants from years gone by. Having been living in the UK for the past year and a half, my opportunities to watch The Rick Mercer Report have been reduced (I could probably get it, but it would require time and effort I don’t really have right now). I bought this book at the airport on my way back to the UK in the new year, because I was worried I would finish the book I was currently reading. That didn’t happen, but now I’m glad I have this little slice of Canada with me in Britain.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with The Rick Mercer Report, it’s like a little window into life in Canada. There are two major highlights to the show: the Rant, and Mercer’s visit to some place across Canada.
In the Rant, Mercer delivers a minute or minute-and-a-half satirical speech about some topic in current events, usually politics. He speaks directly into the camera while he and a very skilled cameraperson navigate the aggressively urban backdrop of an alley with heavy graffiti. As the name implies, the Rant is an emotionally, if finally honed, invective and invocation. Mercer scathingly criticizes and calls out behaviour he doesn’t like, whether it’s by politicians of any party or just people on the street, and he implores the audience or members of the public to do something about it. The result are often bitingly hilarious, but they can also come off as very pessimistic or cynical.
Reading these rants is a slightly different experience from watching them on TV. Mercer’s choice of words becomes more important, and of course you have to imagine the tone instead of hear it. For me, although I was entertained, I also felt a little ashamed of my country. The book has a selection of rants from September 2008 to March 2013. It was interesting to revisit the politics of my country through Mercer’s eyes. I once again experienced the rise of the Harper Conservative majority. I shared in Mercer’s cynicism regarding the leadership races of the Liberals and the NDP—demonstrating that, when it comes to calling out the bullshit, he is quite happy to take aim at the left as well as the right. And, as the years go by and Harper’s mark on Canada becomes more visible, the rants seem to become increasingly critical. Sometimes it seems like things are going from bad to worse.
But then you have the other half of the show, in which Mercer visits somewhere in Canada—and it could be literally anywhere, with any one. He has been to the Royal Canadian Mint (and tried to "steal" some gold bars). He has bungee-jumped off a bridge with wheelchair-using Rick Hansen. He visits university campuses across the country, parks, restaurants, etc., often accompanied by a politician, athlete, or some other celebrity. These segments are always fun: Mercer is like a kid in a candy shop; it’s as if every day is his first day on the job after being handed a TV show and told to "go do it". At the same time, Mercer graciously and infectiously highlights everything great about our country. He compliments the pancakes at the Hoito (which are great, but, you know, I’ve had better) and gets into all sorts of shenanigans with some of the least likely accomplices. It seems like Mercer will go anywhere and try anything, and the result is great TV and great moments where he shows the audience the diversity of our country.
Of course, these segments aren’t present in this book. Which is why I’m glad that instead it offers "Encounters and Exploits", photos of Mercer’s adventures with his various guests. They are nice breaks between the rants and reminders of this other essential part of Mercer’s show.
Because that’s what makes Rick Mercer such a valuable national asset. He simultaneously manages to shame and reassure. His Rants remind us that we are flawed; we are a country of problems that need to be fixed, and they aren’t going to be fixed as long as we stay silent about them. His excursions, on the other hand, showcase the best this country has to offer on the grandest or most modest levels. They evince the title of this book: Canada is indeed A Nation Worth Ranting About, and Mercer is never going to let us forget it.
So thank you, Rick Mercer, for bringing a passion and joy to your job and doing it so well.
I don’t often read novels set in my favourite television or cinematic universe any more. I have fond memories of when I was much younger, and I had thI don’t often read novels set in my favourite television or cinematic universe any more. I have fond memories of when I was much younger, and I had the time and freedom to virtually camp out in the library, of borrowing whatever Star Trek novels they happened to have available that day. After I became more comfortable with original SF and fantasy, I started to shy away from media tie-in novels. As I grew up and started to follow those television series with more interest, I found it difficult to enjoy the books, because I couldn’t visualize the actors from the show doing and saying what the characters in the books did and said. And for me, the actors are an integral part of realizing those characters. It’s the same reason I’ve eschewed the Buffy, Angel, and Firefly spin-off comics.
In the case of Doctor Who: Shada, I bought this for my roommate’s birthday, knowing she would enjoy it. This is a curious novel, because it is technically a novelization, but owing to industrial action and other production issues, the script itself never finished shooting. So this novel is all we really have of a story that was originally created for television. It’s set in the era of the Fourth Doctor, as portrayed by Tom Baker, with Romana II and K-9 still gallivanting around the galaxy, ostensibly on the run from the Time Lords and the Black Guardian. I’ve seen a few stories from the Tom Baker era, and maybe this unfamiliarity with the characters helped me get over my apprehension of tie-in books. It also helps that Shada was originally written by Douglas Adams, one of my favourite authors. And until I get to watch the Doctor Who stories he wrote, this is the closest I get to seeing Adams’ Doctor Who.
Shada is unmistakably Adamsian in its humour and plotting. Gareth Roberts has done a fantastic job assembling a cogent story from a script, preserving the flavour of Adams’ humour while expanding the plot and characters into something approaching a novel. The Doctor and Romana arrive on Earth in the early 1980s in response to a distress call from a fellow Time Lord, the ancient and befuddled Professor Chronotis (groan at the name), who has retired to Earth and been living at Cambridge University for the past few centuries. Chronotis took a book with him from Gallifrey, a powerful book that could be very dangerous in the wrong hands—which, apparently, is what will happen if the Doctor and Romana don’t act fast. But the book has already found its way into the possession of a young physics graduate student, who is unaware of its alien origins or the fact that a megalomaniacal villain is on his way to steal the book at any cost.
As the plot unfolds, Roberts jumps from character to character, sometimes following the Doctor, Romana, Chris Parsons, etc. Much like in the show, it soon becomes apparent that the Doctor always seems to be teetering between not having a plan and having an incredibly brilliant, complicated plan that will most likely go horribly wrong. It seems like he himself is continuously surprised by his ability to get into (and out of) trouble. The Fourth Doctor is definitely the right Doctor for Douglas Adams, because Tom Baker’s mad, scarf-toting Doctor sounds like something straight out of Hitchhiker’s. They were made for each other, as this story showcases.
Shada also provides some interesting tidbits and insight into Time Lord history and society that might not always be apparent from the TV show. Romana, as another Time Lord, is a very interesting companion and a departure from the Doctor’s previous, human companions. In Shada, it sometimes seems like there are Time Lords running around all over the place. But it was nice to see the Doctor, Romana, and Professor Chronotis discussing and arguing about Gallifreyan history and its relevance to their particular problem. As a fan who came to the show through new Who, and hence as someone who hasn’t spent much time on Gallifrey, I really enjoyed this aspect of the book.
The story itself is lovely. The villain is not so much over-the-top as he is capable to the point of absurdity. In fact, aside from his delusions of God-like grandeur, I’d argue Skagra doesn’t truly tip over the brink of insanity until he tangles with the Doctor. It’s not until the Doctor starts undermining Skagra’s vision by taunting him about getting “that mad gleam in your eye” that Skagra finds his atavistic desires to crush the Doctor too strong to resist. That the Doctor proves rather difficult to kill only exacerbates this problem, eventually pushing Skagra over the edge from cool customer to James Bond–like supervillain.
If you like Doctor Who and have some familiarity with the older show, I’d recommend this without reservation. It is, essentially, a “lost”, unmade episode from the Tom Baker era. If you like the show but haven’t seen the Fourth Doctor, haven’t met Romana or K-9 or learned much about the wider world of the Time Lords, then I’d be more hesitant to point you in the direction of Shada. You might like it, but there is also much in here that would be confusing to the newcomer.
I’m not going to be rushing out to buy more Doctor Who novelizations or even original stories; I’ll stick with my DVDs for now. As far as tie-in novels go, though, Shada is an example of how to do it right. Roberts does justice to Adams’ particular brand of storytelling genius, and both of them do a fine job of delivering yet another exciting adventure with the Doctor.
I say this knowing that Douglas Coupland is as much an artist as he is a writer. It shows in his novels. His works very delThis book is a work of art.
I say this knowing that Douglas Coupland is as much an artist as he is a writer. It shows in his novels. His works very deliberately play with the same themes and variations across the decades. Having read, and enjoyed, the majority of his novels, it’s hard not to see all the recurring character types, set pieces, and plot elements. Microserfs and JPod riff on the cognitive dissonance of the software industry, while Generation A, Girlfriend in a Coma, and Player One toss unlikely groups of people together to ride out visions of apocalypse. Now, with Worst. Person. Ever., Coupland takes aim at this familiar territory, setting out once again to shock and awe.
That’s what I mean when I call Worst. Person. Ever. a work of art: it is an offensive and perhaps shocking book, but deliberately so. As the title and cover copy promise, Raymond Gunt is a terrible person. And the profanity! It’s not just your everyday, run-of-the-mill profanity of F-bombs and the like; no, Coupland delivers crude imagery on the order of “the universe delivered unto me a searing hot kebab of vasectomy leftovers drizzled in donkey jizz”. (That’s from the second page, by the way. He’s up front about what this book is like.) Thanks a lot, Coupland.
So for me, reading Worst. Person. Ever. was like staring at those types of photos or paintings that you know are trying to provoke you. I spent six years working at an art gallery—which provides me with exactly nothing in the way of qualification or expertise to discuss art. But I saw a good many exhibitions come and go along the way, and while visual art does not push my buttons the way literature does, I have some sense of how and why artists use visual media to provoke the audience. For these artists, art must go beyond the aesthetic, must be about more than form and function and beauty. Art can offend to educate and to inculcate a desire to question and learn.
Some people just won’t get it. They’ll look at the donkey jizz kebab of page two (and really, page two only goes downhill from there—the words “leathery cumdump” also make an appearance), and if that doesn’t make them hit the eject button, then the coke-tinged, profanity-laced conversation between Raymond and his ex-wife, Fiona, that comprises the remainder of the chapter would definitely set them running. These are the people who see offensive art only for its offensive qualities and don’t stop to question why it’s trying to be offensive. Worst. Person. Ever. is not for them.
The journey of Raymond Gunt is an incredibly unlikely, even nonsensical one. It involves twists of fate and reversals that would please the playwrights of the sixteenth century, and the sudden introduction or redaction of characters at a speed that would make soap opera writers’ heads spin. Raymond makes it to ground zero of an atomic bomb detonation, which very nearly touches off another one of Coupland’s apocalypses. When he makes it back to "civilization"—an island in Kiribati where they are filming a reality TV show—he finds himself stuck in a drama that should be a reality TV show.
The situations in which Coupland’s characters find themselves are almost always implausible, no matter the novel. His writing is always on the precipice of the surreal. It’s in this liminal space that Coupland excels at mirroring and critiquing contemporary culture. Replete with pop culture references, his novels are always steeped in the present.
This is problematic from a posterity point of view. Topical novels always run the risk of burning brightly in their era before fading swiftly. I’m not sure we should be so quick to judge, however, simply because there are plenty of now-classic books that were probably considered (or still are considered) topical for their times and that have their own, albeit more subtle, types of pop culture reference. Reading a book from a previous era will always be, in some ways, an exercise in cultural anthropology. In this sense, I don’t think Coupland is much worse off than another writer. Worst. Person. Ever. also ameliorates the situation through periodic asides that explain, in the form of asides that mimic the most sardonic of Wikipedia articles. These certainly helped me, since some of the references date to before I was born.
Coupland seems interested in probing the transition zone between fake and genuine in our culture. What makes people “fake” to one another rather than genuine? Are we ever really genuine, or do we always put on some kind of act to get what we want, whether it’s sex, a job, or simply a piece of red plastic?
Raymond is particularly critical of the disposable and processed artifacts of our culture. With faux-British snobbery, he and Neal pan the preservative-laden food they find in American airports. They don’t actually eat a healthy meal for most of the novel, subsisting mainly on packages of macadamia nuts (to which Raymond is violently allergic). Similarly, Raymond laments the seemingly-arbitrary rules imposed by travel and federal authorities with regards to alcohol consumption—rules that never seem to bother or inconvenience others, just him.
Neal, on the other hand, never seems inconvenienced by anything. Plucked from a life on the streets by Raymond to be his personal assistant (read: slave), Neal soon proves to be irresistible to women and far more successful than Raymond. Unlike our cameraman protagonist, Neal is unassuming and equanimous. He takes life as it comes, and it seems that “going with the flow” leaves him happier and better-adjusted than Raymond, who is more like a cat—unwilling to do anything that someone else wants it to do, even if it would like that thing.
Witnessing the story unfold is rather like watching a cartoon through a series of increasingly funky funhouse mirrors. It starts off innocently enough, with Raymond landing the job on the reality TV show. Before the halfway point, whether he and Neal will ever get to Kiribati starts looking like a dubious proposition.
You would think that, with his penchant for poking at pop culture, Coupland would ride the reality TV trope hard. He only indulges once or twice, though. There’s a memorable scene where Fiona and Neal choose replacement cast members for the show based on their attractiveness and ability to fulfil stereotypical roles; and there’s a parody of the sadistic qualities of these shows in the form of a contest to eat plates of live, wriggling insects. For the most part, however, Coupland avoids the low-hanging fruit of satirizing reality television in favour of satirizing reality itself (which is, let’s face it, disappointingly unrealistic most of the time).
Although I laughed out loud at a few points throughout the book, I wouldn’t say that Worst. Person. Ever. is hilarious in the same vein that I found JPod. Then again, neither is most of Coupland’s work. There’s a solemnity to some of his absurdism that reminds me more of Kurt Vonnegut than Douglas Adams. These authors, too, wrote books that I would consider deliberately offensive, albeit not quite to the crude extent that Coupland presents here. Then again, they weren’t living in the time of the MTV Video Music Awards, of Robin Thicke and Miley Cyrus. It’s not necessarily harder to be offensive these days, but the signal-to-noise ratio is much lower.
This isn’t the meditative masterpiece that I consider Player One, which I’m teaching to my sixth form students this year, to be. It isn’t as emotionally touching as Eleanor Rigby or Girlfriend in a Coma. It is, however, characteristically Coupland. You can like it or you can hate it (it is, as Coupland comments on reality TV itself, binary); it is not fair to say, however, that it’s just “more of the same”. Coupland is an author who manages to play with the same ideas over and over yet always reinvent himself along the way. Worst. Person. Ever. is the latest iteration, brave and bold and in-your-face and not necessarily to everyone’s liking. So kudos to him for not playing it safe, and for giving me an entertaining weekend read.
This is my second P.G. Wodehouse experience following Cocktail Time, which was not a Jeeves and Wooster novel. I enjoyed Cocktail Time and was lookiThis is my second P.G. Wodehouse experience following Cocktail Time, which was not a Jeeves and Wooster novel. I enjoyed Cocktail Time and was looking forward to Carry on, Jeeves, which I didn’t actually realize was an anthology. This proved to be even better than a novel as an introduction to Jeeves and Wooster. It gave me a nice sense of their relationship through the ages. And with each story nice and short and self-contained, I could read one, pause, and then dip into another. I could easily have done this for several days, but I was having so much fun that I finished the book in just one.
Jeeves is a “gentleman’s personal gentleman”, or a valet as we might call him, to Bertram “Bertie” Wooster. Bertie is the stereotypical young, carefree aristocratic detritus of the 1920s: old money combined with a youthful entitlement and sense of invincibility. Jeeves is a scarily-competent valet who is not just skilled at managing Bertie’s attire and household but, indeed, at managing Bertie himself. Jeeves has the ability to come up with schemes and plans to rescue Bertie—and, quite often, Bertie’s friends—from the embarrassing upper-class mistakes that might affect their social standing, if not exactly their lives or livelihood. Sometimes these schemes are so clever that they go off without a hitch. Other times, they seem to backfire and have the opposite intended effect, yet they still work out anyway—making you wonder if, just maybe, Jeeves knew what was going to happen all along. All in all, the stories remind of the saying: you don’t always get what you want, but sometimes, you get what you need.
The stories are, for the most part, rather formulaic. Bertie begins by complaining about some opinion Jeeves has asserted about part of his wardrobe, whether it’s a necktie or a shirt or even Bertie’s most unfortunate moustache. Then, either Bertie or one of his friends gets into a scrape, most often involving the need to deceive an overbearing aunt or uncle, lest that person cut off their allowance (gasp!). Bertie turn to Jeeves for a plan, Jeeves furnishes said plan, and hilarious hijinks ensue as the plan falls to pieces, only to reveal that it all works out anyway.
(Is that a spoiler? Did I just spoil every single Jeeves and Wooster story by outlining the formula?)
As with many comedic pairings, Carry on, Jeeves lives and dies by the relationship between Jeeves and Bertie. The latter narrates all but the last story in this collection. Bertie is little more than a child, in many ways, unable to form lasting meaningful relationships with women and generally persisting in a permanent state of bachelor-induced immaturity. Jeeves is not just his valet but his keeper, something that Bertie freely admits in the first story, "Jeeves Takes Charge". As Jeeves reveals in the last story, which he narrates, he often feels compelled to orchestrate circumstances that influence Bertie’s moods and desires. On this note, it’s interesting to ponder how much of Jeeves’ actions are truly done for the service of Bertie and how much are self-interest (and how often do these two ends conflict?). Jeeves confesses in "Bertie Changes His Mind" that he doesn’t want Bertie to get married because that would likely mean an end to his employment under Bertie. What if Bertie met a woman whom he truly loved and who was truly good for him? Would Jeeves scheme to dispose of her anyway?
Wodehouse doesn’t really address such a moral dilemma. Similarly, he never really examines the morality behind the various deceptions Jeeves and Bertie undertake (thought it’s all very satirical). The greatness of these stories lies in their pitch-perfect dialogue, description, and timing. I ploughed through this book so quickly because I was chortling every few minutes at the latest scheme or the latest conversation between Jeeves and Bertie. The formula of the stories quickly becomes familiar, comfortable, and you start expecting certain things, like Jeeves appearing as if from nowhere and Bertie remarking upon that fact. This is my first Jeeves and Wooster experience, yet I already feel like we are old friends.
I don’t regret reading Cocktail Time first, but there’s no question which of the two works I prefer. That was a fun novel, but this is something more. This collection has an amazing pair of characters. Whereas Cocktail Time was an amusing diversion, Carry on, Jeeves leaves me wanting more of Jeeves and Wooster, despite being subjected to ten straight short stories so recently. If the novel piqued my interest in Wodehouse and confirmed what others had been telling me in their recommendations, this book has cemented my admiration for Wodehouse as a writer and a storyteller.
Many people have recommended P.G. Wodehouse to me many times, and now I have finally read one of his books. I had no particular reason for choosing CoMany people have recommended P.G. Wodehouse to me many times, and now I have finally read one of his books. I had no particular reason for choosing Cocktail Time as my first Wodehouse experience. I went to a used bookstore for the first time here in my new town, and at the back of the shop was a small bookcase full of very new-looking Wodehouse books. With no idea where to begin, I looked to the proprietor for some advice. He was the very idea of a used bookstore proprietor: older, with a somewhat detached air that made it seem like he was always slightly surprised I was still around—and, of course, he only accepted cash. My plea fell on deaf ears, though. He rebuked me, “I never give recommendations,” and proceeded to give a semi-helpful lecture on the different strands of Wodehouse’s oeuvre.
So I shrugged and took Cocktail Time and Carry On, Jeeves. At least in the case of the former, this decision proved fruitful. Wodehouse might not have jumped to the top of my list of favourite humorous authors, but I can definitely appreciate his sharp satire and keen enthusiasm for creating zany characters and silly situations.
Fred, Lord Ickenham, has a youth that belies his older appearance. He’s the kind of person who looks at a situation and then asks, “How can I possibly make this more interesting?” Never content to leave things simply to develop on their own, Lord Ickenham always has to stir the pot a little more. The plot gets going when Ickenham’s influence causes his brother-in-law, Raymond “Beefy” Bastable, to write a novel—also called Cocktail Time. Beefy has a beef with today’s youth, because one of them knocked off his top hat with a catapulted Brazil nut. The real culprit, of course, is Ickenham, who at the time had no idea it would turn Beefy into the secret author of a bestseller.
Events continue to spiral out of control as more of Ickenham’s social circle becomes involved—and that’s just how he likes it. The action culminates in Dovetail Hammer with a tense auction for a fake walnut cabinet, an incriminating letter, and Ickenham’s hand in matchmaking several couples. It’s all masterfully executed in such a way that I never felt like I need to look behind the curtain and spoil my disbelief. The happy ending is almost assured by the novel’s light tone, but I enjoyed watching Wodehouse pull all the threads neatly into place.
And the characters themselves are wonderfully uncomplicated—there are villains and rogues and schemers and senile old men. They’re all types, allowing Wodehouse to explore the variations within British society (and particularly within the wealthy and well-to-do). But as circumstances shift, the characters have to change too—Cosimo goes from wanting to reveal the real author to wanting to keep the charade of his authorship alive after Cocktail Time lands a multi-hundred-thousand-dollar movie deal. Several times, Ickenham’s own schemes go awry, and he is forced to improvise swiftly and skilfully.
Wodehouse’s style is twofold. First, he is a master of what I would call whimisical description. He always knows the perfect thing to say—often a simile or, if no such simple beast is available, he springs for a metaphor—to elevate any description from mundane to amusing. And then there are paragraphs like this, which opens Chapter 12:
OLd Howard Saxby was seated at his desk in his room at the Edgar Saxby literary agency when Cosmo arrived there. He was knitting a sock. He knitted a good deal, he would tell you if you asked him, to keep himself from smoking, adding that he also smoked a good deal to keep himself from knitting.
The paragraph goes on to invoke comparisons to Stilton cheese and ghostly ectoplasm. Wodehouse’s vocabulary and diction are both dazzling, aided by the relative simplicity of the plot, which allows one to sink into the story and just enjoy the writing.
Wodehouse’s second element of style is the snappy dialogue he writes for his characters. It reads like a comedy sketch, with short sentences and plenty of interruption as one character plays off another’s words. The omniscient narrator reveals what everyone is thinking, contributing even further to the sense of irony that practically saturates this thin volume.
I don’t have much else to say about Wodehouse or Cocktail Time. It was a nice novel to spend a couple of days reading, and now I have a firmer idea of what Wodehouse has to offer. I’ll read the next one sometime in the next few months, and we’ll see how the relationship goes from there—I don’t like to take things too fast, after all. Beefy certainly waited a long time, and it worked out all right for him.
It’s been a long time since I read The Colour Magic. I’ve read a few other Discworld novels but am now kind of trying to read them in order. Terry PraIt’s been a long time since I read The Colour Magic. I’ve read a few other Discworld novels but am now kind of trying to read them in order. Terry Pratchett is a writer whose sense of humour aligns exactly with the type of humourous fiction I want to read: dry and absurd. From Discworld to Good Omens, Pratchett always delivers, and The Light Fantastic is no exception.
I read the first half of this book with a sense of dragging anticipation. I was waiting for the book to begin. It took me a while to realize what The Light Fantastic reminds me of and, in so doing, allow me to change my mindset and enjoy it more. This book is very much like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. There is a core group of characters—Rincewind, Twoflower, Cohen, Bethan, and of course, the Luggage—with occasional scenes featuring the antagonist or supporting cast. And this core group doesn’t so much do things as react to the various things that happen to them. Much like how Arthur Dent goes from lying in front of a bulldozer in his housecoat to tromping about the galaxy in a ship powered by an infinite improbability drive, Rincewind isn’t so much following a plan as trying to cope with the latest set of unfortunate circumstances in which he finds himself.
Once I came to terms with this, The Light Fantastic became a lot more fun. I mean, that’s the point of Discworld: everything is just totally bonkers, from the elephants perched on the turtle’s back to the immense forces of magic. I think the word “romp” might have been invented solely to describe Discworld adventures.
If I had to express any kind of disappointment about this book, it would simply be that there isn’t enough of it. It’s a slim volume. And there were segments where I wished Pratchett had delved more deeply into what was happening. For example, Death is present in this book, but in a more tangential capacity. Rincewind and Twoflower pay a visit to his hall but don’t stay very long, quickly showing themselves out. That’s understandable—I wouldn’t overstay my welcome at Death’s place either. But The Light Fantastic is very much a road comedy, and while that gives Pratchett plenty of opportunities for funny sequences, it also makes some of those sequences very fast, drive-by affairs.
The calculus here is rather simple. Reading Discworld? Read it. If you haven’t read any Discworld novel, I probably wouldn’t start with this one. It’s a loose sequel to The Colour Magic, which I think was probably a stronger book (not that I remember all that much about it). So I would start there—or with another book later in the series, since this is one of those things where order doesn’t necessarily matter (combinations, not permutations!).
Let’s Pretend This Never Happened is funny, at least to my own humour schema. I’m aware that some people wilOne of the best books I’ve read this year.
Let’s Pretend This Never Happened is funny, at least to my own humour schema. I’m aware that some people will not find this book funny, and that their reactions will vary from a grumpy, “Hmph” to wide-eyed sense of shock to “I’m grabbing my torch and pitchfork to burn this”. I’m the one writing this review, though, and unlike DVD commentary, the views and opinions expressed herein entirely reflect my views.
I first started following the Bloggess on Twitter last year, after someone linked to her post about Beyoncé the Metal Chicken. (That post is a chapter in the book, so congratulations on the free sample. Seriously though, read that post and some of her blog; it will give you a good idea whether this book is for you.) Anyone who asks Wil Wheaton for a picture of him collating papers is someone whose writing I need to read. The Bloggess is a constant source of humour, whimsy, and improbable anecdotes. So when I heard she had a “mostly true memoir” coming out, I knew I would need to buy at least one copy.
I ended up buying two, because in my infinite wisdom I knew this book would be my Mother’s Day gift this year.
Normally I can read somewhat inconspicuously in a crowd or in a social situation where people don’t normally read, such as at lunch or a small party. This was difficult to do with Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, because I laughed out loud at almost every single page. I have a very loud, distinctive laugh. I inhale when I laugh instead of exhale, so I sound like a hyperventilating howler monkey. Or a very upset dog. My laughter usually results in other people laughing (with me and at me), so I think that’s a good thing. But in this case it meant I stopped reading after page 4 on Wednesday evening because I didn’t want to wake my dad. I had to restrain myself as much as I could on Thursday while reading this during my dinner break at work, for the walls between the kitchen and the front desk are not that thick.
In fact, I was so taken by this book that I did something I almost never do and inflicted it on groups of my friends on two separate occasions. Because, honestly, who doesn’t want to hear a man read aloud, deadpan, sentences like, “If someone asked me to pick out my own vagina’s mug shot out of a lineup of vaginas, I’d be helpless. And probably concerned about what exactly my vagina had been doing that constituted a need for its own mug shot”? I’m not just endorsing this book; I’m evangelizing it. This is a book my friends need to read, and I am more than happy to read it to them.
Being funny is difficult. I know this because people have told me, on occasion, I am funny, and it’s usually in response to something I said spontaneously rather than something I said with the intention of being witty. There is a fine line between sounding witty and sounding stupid, just as there is a fine line between genius and madness. Nothing is worse than reading a “humourous” book that is trying too hard. For every Let’s Pretend This Never Happened there are hundreds of memoirs that try to be funny and just aren’t. (But this review is not about them.)
I don’t know why Let’s Pretend This Never Happened escapes that fate. If I did, then I suspect I would use this knowledge to make a lot of money. As it stands, I think there’s just something that feels natural about the way Lawson writes. Although, as the subtitle notes, some of these accounts are fictionalized or adjusted for truthiness, they are ultimately drawn from the best source of inspiration for absurdity: real life. While I do not envy Lawson’s circumstances or experiences, some of which sound pretty inconvenient rather than enviable, I do admire the unadulterated joy, the uncut enthusiasm for living, that suffuses her accounts of those experiences. If you get your arm stuck up a cow’s vagina in high school, then you will be traumatized for life, but at least you can turn it into a funny story.
That’s probably why this book speaks to me. I try my best to be whimsical. That is to say, I try to do random or absurd things that we tend to be trained out of doing as we enter adulthood. It’s part of my essential philosophy of being who I want to be instead of who others think I should be; there’s nothing wrong with being responsible, safe, and mature … but that doesn’t mean you have to be boring. Decorum be damned, I have snowball fights in the winter and wear socks and sandals in the summer! And I will keep doing these things, at least until global warming causes snow to go extinct here.
So it’s heartening to encounter someone else who follows such a philosophy, albeit to an even more public and more spectacular degree. Let’s Pretend This Never Happened inspires, variously, feelings of elation, apprehension, terror, relief, and incredulity. Lawson grew up confronted by a menagerie of animals bobcats, “jumbo quail” (actually turkeys), and raccoons. Those are just the living ones and don’t include the taxidermied creations of her father, such as Stanley the Magical Squirrel. From this … charmed … childhood to her fifteen years in human resources to her fifteen years of marriage (poor Victor), Lawson has an abundance of incredible episodes to share. As she notes throughout the book, some of the stories that sound the least believable are the most factual (TVTropes). (The book has photos to prove it.) Humour books can sometimes feel like too much dessert. This book, however, is a full meal: interspersed with her humour, Lawson includes some fairly serious and significant events in her life. Sharing these stories takes courage too. The Internet can be a harsh, judgemental environment.
The overwhelming emotion I’m feeling, though, is joy. Joy mixed with a helping of satisfaction. It’s as simple as that: Let’s Pretend This Never Happened is just really fun to read. My laughter is testament enough to that fact. If you like the sound of the Bloggess’ humour, do yourself a favour and read this book. Or I just might put a giant metal chicken on your doorstep.
It would be tempting to say that Joe Spork lived a quiet, unremarkable life until he was pulled into an attempt to stop a mad South Asian dictator froIt would be tempting to say that Joe Spork lived a quiet, unremarkable life until he was pulled into an attempt to stop a mad South Asian dictator from unleashing a 1950s clockwork doomsday device by a retired octogenarian super-spy named Edie Banister. Tempting, but not quite accurate, since Joe is the son of the infamous Matthew “Tommy Gun” Spork, who kept fashionable crime and the honourable lifestyle of the gangster alive long after it should have faded into obscurity. Joe has turned his back on his father’s life of crime and taken up his grandfather’s trade—watchmaking—but it’s not enough to keep him from becoming involved in much larger, more bizarre affairs.
Angelmaker is a chimera of a novel. The core of the story is a spy thriller, with homages to the golden era of James Bond and daring international espionage on behalf of queen and country. It’s a race against time to prevent a megalomaniacal supervillain from destroying not just the world but life everywhere in the universe! Yet rather than playing it straight, Nick Harkaway injects that sort of dry, very British humour that isn’t afraid to verge upon—and venture into—the absurd. It’s why I loved The Gone-Away World, and it’s why I love Angelmaker. Harkaway writes with a voice that makes me laugh out loud, whether it’s at his descriptions, dialogue, or characterization.
Despite its careful callbacks to the 1920s gangster lifestyle and the 1950s Cold War spy genre, Angelmaker is very much a post-9/11 novel. The heightened response to domestic terrorism is a counterpoint to those more removed and romanticized elements. Various levels of civil service decide (and quite accurately, alas) that Joe Spork had something to do with the activation of this doomsday machine, and they aren’t afraid to subcontract someone to do a little enhanced interrogation. In this climate, Joe no longer has the right to remain silent—he has very few rights at all. It’s significant that Joe’s first encounter with an antagonist is not the dreaded Shem Shem Tsien but with Rodney Titwhistle and Arvin Cummerbund, who are not afraid to do whatever’s necessary to safeguard their country. This tension between Joe and certain representatives of government authority is what ultimately catapults the novel towards its climax and Joe’s transformation into a man of action.
See, the first part of Angelmaker is enjoyable, but in a slow and very reflective way. We meet Joe, learn about his connections to the London underworld, hear a good yarn about what it’s like to be initiated as an undertaker, and then we meet Edie. As rumblings of a doomsday scenario gather on the horizon, Joe sort of stumbles from scene to scene without too much of a plan in mind. Aside from his unwitting involvement in activating the doomsday device, he is more of a spectator in the consequences than a participant—that is, until the government decides to turn him into a wanted man.
Joe’s status as a fugitive forces him to confront a crisis of identity foreshadowed since the beginning of the book. He has spent the past decades of his adult life actively trying not to turn out like his father and avoiding, as much as possible, associations with the criminal element. His status as “the Crown Prince of the Night Market” nips at his heels like an unwanted insurance salesman, but Joe is determined to survive on the straight and narrow. Except it increasingly seems that, if Joe wants to get out of this alive—not to mention save the day and get the girl—he will have to step up and become not Joe Spork, the grandson of Daniel Spork, but Joe Spork, son of Matthew “Tommy Gun” Spork. This inevitable transformation is almost an apotheosis of its own, albeit not in quite as grand a way as Shem Shem Tsien would like for himself. From there, the novel switches gears and becomes a wild ride from “crazy” to “insane” as Joe and his allies concoct a crazy plan to save the world.
And the girl? Her name is Polly, or maybe Mary Angelica, a onetime childhood friend and sister to Joe’s lawyer, Mercer. (The firm Noblewhite & Cradle, with its suspiciously ultra-competent staff, is another highlight of this book. They can, in Mercer’s own words, “sue anything”.) Polly is awesome, because despite being a love interest in a book with a male protagonist, she’s her own woman. When Joe has the audacity to treat her like a sidekick, she sticks an oyster knife under his eye and retorts, “Can we be very clear … that I am not your booby sidekick or your Bond girl? That I am an independent supervillain in my own right?” Later, after Joe has been kidnapped by the aforementioned team of Titwhistle & Cummerbund, Polly pays the latter a visit and clarifies her feelings about Joe:
I do not know, at this point, whether Joshua Joseph Spork is the man of my life. He could be. I have given it considerable thought. The jury is still out. The issue between you and me is that you wish to deprive me of the opportunity to find out. Joe Spork is not yours to give or to withhold from me, Mr. Cummerbund. He is mine, until I decide otherwise. You have caused him grief, sullied his name, and you have hurt him. If anyone is going to make him weep, or lie about him, or even do bad things to him, it is me.
From this and other comments and actions Polly makes, you get the sense that she might be a little bit mad. (Then again, maybe everyone in this book is.) Psychology aside, this is one woman I want on my side.
Finally, I can’t continue praising this book without talking about Edie, the common denominator throughout the rest of this plot. She knew Joe’s grandfather and grandmother. She is, in a sense, the last surviving member of a cabal who created this doomsday machine, which did not start out its life as a doomsday machine but, like all good inventions of mad scientists, has the capacity for mayhem as well as miracles. The Edie of the 1950s is a cocky, over-confident spy whose hubris almost gets her and others killed. The Edie of 2012 is … a cocky, over-confident retired spy whose hubris almost gets her and others killed. At over eighty years old, Edie deals with assassins sent to kill her by calling them amateurs and shooting two of them with a gun concealed in her underwear drawer. (She chastises the third one in her best old woman voice and then sends him packing to his mum in Doncaster.) Like Joe, Edie is this perfect combination of heroic awesomeness and flawed humanity. So even though Angelmaker has characters and events who are larger than life, we can still identify with the protagonists, because for all their skill they are still kind of just muddling through the whole mess.
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that it is one of the most original and unique books I’ve read in a long time. Lots of authors can ride the tides of traditional fantasy, urban fantasy, or science fiction and create vivid, imaginative stories. Harkaway, however, goes beyond that to create a story that really is different from anything else on offer right now. To label this as steampunk simply because of its clockwork components would be grossly mistaken. To call this a spy thriller simply because of its subplots of espionage and intrigue would be a massive oversight. And while, thanks to Harkaway’s style, this book is definitely comedic and entertaining, it also has an edge and a sense of constant, present danger—not to mention very real and permanent sacrifices from some.
In short, Angelmaker hits a sweet spot for me. Every moment spent reading was a moment I could bask in Harkaway’s sprawling scenery and characterization. The story is just scene after scene of slow but constant development toward total mayhem, with a diversity of characters along for the read. Many books are entertaining and many are moving; Angelmaker is both of these things, and it is also a supremely satisfying read.
I first heard of A.J. Jacobs when he appeared on The Colbert Report in 2009. He talked, among other things, about the year he spent “living BiblicallyI first heard of A.J. Jacobs when he appeared on The Colbert Report in 2009. He talked, among other things, about the year he spent “living Biblically”. This intrigued me, so I decided to read the book he was pushing at the time. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, because I didn’t know what types of experiments Jacobs had performed. But the book is short, and his writing, if sometimes overbearing, is usually entertaining too. The Guinea Pig Diaries is genuinely interesting and enjoyable.
This is a compilation of articles that appeared, in one form or another, in Esquire. I considered talking about each chapter briefly, but with nine chapters, the detail I would like to devote to each experiment would make this review long and frightfully boring. I loved some chapters and didn’t like others. So I’ll give you the highlights.
The first chapter, “My Life as a Beautiful Woman” was one of my favourites. I spend a lot of time online. When I was younger, I was (probably wisely) relatively anonymous. Gradually I allowed that anonymity to evaporate, and now I use my real name everywhere. This is important to me, because I do not want to create a dichotomy of online/offline personae; I want to be me, whether I am on the Web or in person. But for other people, anonymity is a necessity or a desire. It’s a chance to escape, to gain voice, to explore an alternative identity. The fact remains that despite some legislators’ brutal attempts to curtail the fundamental openness of the Internet, it is very difficult to verify someone’s true identity.
In the case of Michelle’s online dating profile, Michelle was actually the user and participated on the site … but she had Jacobs ghostwriting for her. I loved Jacobs’ account of how this experience changed the way he saw some of these men and, in turn, what he thought about dating and dating sites in general. He expresses his disappointment when dates he has arranged for Michelle don’t go well. He exhorts men to be prudent in their selection of usernames: “topnotchlover” sends a very specific message…. I found myself wishing for more of this chapter, just because the story of this partnership between Jacobs and Michelle to navigate the waters of online dating was so intriguing!
Fortunately, “My Outsourced Life” also proved interesting. The idea of outsourcing one’s entire life sounds like—and usually is—a joke. Jacobs plays it up this way at first, making light of how he hired two different Indian companies to attend to his business and personal tasks, respectively. His assistants, Honey and Asha, did research for him, composed emails, placed delivery orders, etc. Jacobs has his assistants write emails to his boss, write apology notes to his wife, and even conduct a phone call with his parents! It’s all right-out-of-the-textbook hilarious. But as the chapter progresses, a theme emerges:
When I open Honey’s file, I have this reaction: America is screwed. There are charts. There are section headers. There is a well-organized breakdown of her pets, measurements, and favorite foods (e.g., swordfish). If all Bangalorians are like Honey, I pity Americans about to graduate college. They’re up against a hungry, polite, Excel-proficient Indian army.
It is a small and subtle observation of the culture of entitlement and complacency that belies the myth of the American dream that one can pull oneself up by the bootstraps. Other countries are trying that tactic too, and they are reaping the benefits of getting Bootstrap v2.0.
“The Truth About Nakedness” is a slightly underwhelming chapter. It is not, as the title and risqué photo that precedes the chapter might suggest, about Jacobs’ year of living nude. No, instead he discusses how Mary Louise Parker agreed to pose nude for an article she was writing for Esquire about what it feels like to pose nude. Parker said yes, but she wanted Jacobs, as her editor, to pose nude as well. And of course, being the human guinea pig that he is, he acquiesced. I was not that interested in his account of the details of the photoshoot and his feelings at the time. However, the coda to this chapter is a strong voice for critiquing media:
I can never look at a nude picture in the same way. I can still admire a nude photo, but I can no longer separate it from the context in which it was created. I can’t forget, as Mary-Louise put it, the loss of control and possible objectification.
Photography has this amazing power to capture a moment and keep it suspended with infinite potential: what is happening, and what will happen? The right photograph at the right time can be evocative and inspiring. Yet photography can also reduce a human subject to an object, something to be admired or lusted after. For a photograph to be inspiring and empowering, there needs to be that human connection. Jacobs underscores the idea that every photograph has a story, and when we look at a photo, we should wonder about that story.
There are other chapters that are well worth reading: he spends a month doing everything his wife asks; he spends time trying to act completely rationally; he spends a month dressed as George Washington. With each chapter, Jacobs mixes witticisms with genuine reflection, and he always manages to dig down to some kind of profound, albeit not earth-shattering, truth. Despite Jacobs’ engaging tone and the book’s short length, The Guinea Pig Diaries is not a light, fluffy bagatelle. Sometimes that tone bothered me—Jacobs writes with the smugness of someone who is being funny and knows it, and that sardonic self-awareness irked me. His writing has that feel of being smooth, practised, and edited, with the perfect parenthetical inserts and the oh-so-well-timed asides. But this is a minor complaint for what is otherwise a solidly entertaining book.
The subtitle of this book is My Life as an Experiment. I hope that most people’s lives are experiments of one sort or another. I don’t ghostwrite for women’s online dating profiles or live by the personal code of conduct of one of America’s Founding Fathers … but I like to think that even as an introvert, I manage my own little experiments quite well. You don’t have to be audacious and ostentatious in your experimentation if you don’t want to … although, who knows, maybe it means you have a book deal in your future!
**spoiler alert** Jane Austen and I have had a rocky relationship. I respect her as a writer and believe she deserves a place in the canon of great En**spoiler alert** Jane Austen and I have had a rocky relationship. I respect her as a writer and believe she deserves a place in the canon of great English authors, but I sometimes wonder if she is overhyped. When it comes to Sense and Sensibility, it has a lot of Austen's trademark wit, but as a first novel it also has the immaturity and inexperience of a writer learning the craft. So with Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, Ben H. Winters has an opportunity to take a promising tale of two sisters and ameliorate it with his marine menaces. Indeed, this is probably the intention, but as I'm going to emphasize over and over again, it did not work out that way.
Before I launch into my main criticism, I want to note two errors that jumped out at me while I read. The first is excusable, or at least explainable. The second, not so much. Both are good examples of the carelessness that plagues this book.
The first error is in the first paragraph of Chapter 9. The Dashwoods have arrived at Pestilence Isle and are settling into their new home. As part of these activities, "they had strung the encircling fence with garlands of dried kelp and lamb's blood, which Sir John Middleton had proscribed as the surest method to ward off" sea monsters. Rather than proscribed, which means forbidden, I think the word Winters intends is prescribed. The two words are antonyms in meaning but only one letter apart. Hence, this is probably just a rather unfortunate typo. Copy editors are human too. (Well, most of them.)
I cannot quite as easily dismiss the second error. Later in the book (Chapter 46), Marianne is planning her new life without Willoughby: "I shall learn engineering; I shall study hydrology and biology and aeronautics; I shall endeavour to understand Mendel's principles and comparative zoology." Managing that last resolution would be quite an accomplishment, because Gregor Mendel, an Austrian monk known for his experiments with heredity and generally credited for discovering genetics, won't be born until five years after Austen dies. So the Marianne of Sense and Sensibility wouldn't know about Mendel. To be fair, Winters never specifies when this book takes place. Maybe it takes place in a later part of the nineteenth century, after Mendel starts his experiments. Yet this explanation is unsatisfactory for two reasons: firstly, Mendel's work didn't garner much attention until the early twentieth century; secondly, even if the Alteration changed that and led to an earlier realization of genetics, moving the time period forward even by fifty years would place Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters into the Victorian era. And I think that would make for a different tone of book. No, the easiest explanation seems to be that Mendel's mention is an anachronism. It only took me a few seconds to check Mendel's birth date on Wikipedia. What is Winters' excuse?
That question, while pertinent, probably will not bear much fruit. Instead, let's consider two complementary questions. Does the sea monsters story need Sense and Sensibility or could it have worked on its own? Conversely, is Sense and Sensibility helped or improved in any way by the addition of sea monsters? Spoiler alert: the answer to both questions is "no."
Prior to reading this book, I was under the impression that the eponymous sea monsters were anomalies. They are actually much more than that. Some time prior to the story's start, the Earth's oceans experienced an "Alteration," and all marine life became hostile toward humankind. Ocean voyages now hold great peril; even living near a lake is dangerous. Forget Sense and Sensibility for a moment: the Alteration is a great starting point for an alternate history novel set in Regency England! Considering Britain's status as a naval power, a far-flung empire, and an island, there would be plenty of interesting developments as a result of the Alteration. So many questions to explore, characters to create . . .
. . . and it's all wasted on Jane Austen. No offense meant to Austen, of course. But in trying—and I do emphasize that word, trying—to graft the plot and characters of Sense and Sensibility onto his Altered England, Winters misses the mark. Instead of creating a story truly worthy of such a fantastic setting, he tries to stretch a story that wasn't made to fit this canvas—and oh, how it shows.
Take, for example, the cause of the Alteration. Winters throws out some half-hearted speculation. Henry Dashwood dies pursuing the source of a poison stream he believes the cause. Sir John Middleton believes the Alteration is a curse upon England by one of the victims of British imperialism; he has devoted his life to finding the primitive tribe responsible, with no success. Edward Ferrars favours a theory that blames Henry VIII's split with Catholicism. All these sound interesting, but under scrutiny they all fall apart. The Alteration's name (indeed, the very fact that it has a Name) suggests that the oceans were not always like this. So there should be a simple way to test, say, Edward's theory about Henry VIII: what do written records say about ocean voyages prior to Henry's reign? Surely a calamity as great as the Alteration would be recorded: "June 7, waters calm. June 8, the dolphins killed my first mate. God help us all!" I find it very difficult to believe no one knows when the Alteration began. The poison stream and tribal curse theories are also rather silly, but slightly less so, and I suppose the latter works well as a background for Sir John. It just galls me that Winters takes such an off-handed approach to what may be the most important question in his universe.
There's also something suspect about the number of people who spend their time near or on the ocean, considering its dangers. Let's start with Pestilence Isle. Sir John lives on an archipelago off of Devonshire, specifically on Deadwind Island, and he lets a cottage on Pestilence Isle to the Dashwood women. It makes sense that Sir John would live on a tiny island. He's an adventurer, and he likes danger. But why would he put women needlessly in danger by giving them a cottage on a smaller island where he doesn't live? Why would the Dashwoods ever agree to live there? As the frequent sea monster attacks show, the decision is practically suicidal. And don't get me started—yet—about what happens to Margaret.
Moving on: Sub-Marine Station Beta. Actually, I kind of see how this one makes sense. It may be—nay, it is—stupid to build a gigantic dome habitation at the bottom of the ocean off the British coast and then invite all the upper class people to spend the winter there. If this were a James Bond movie, Sub-Marine Station Beta would be part of a trap by the villain. (It would also feature an awesome underwater fight scene, in which Bond dispatches several baddies and a couple of sharks. But I digress.) However, Sub-Marine Station Beta is consistent with the British attitude of stalwart arrogance in the face of adversity. In a time of war, which this is, the British keep those upper lips stiff and like to show that they remain steadfast. How better to show that you do not fear the enemy than building a stronghold in the middle of his or her territory? Sub-Marine Station Beta is an exercise in nationalism and a display of bravado. It's also rather stupid.
The icing on the implausibility cake, however, are the pirates. Are we supposed to believe that there are outlaws who subsist by taking some of the few ships that survive sea monster attacks? And that these ships themselves somehow avoid succumbing to those same attacks? I love reading about pirates, but they are the most obvious example of something included in this book because it's cool instead of its potential contributions to the plot.
No, when I look at it this way, it is a shame that Winters had even to try to follow an outline of Sense and Sensibility in writing this book. It is a waste of a world that could have been so much more. And all of these flaws read like they are the result of carelessness, of unintentional neglect caused by starting with the idea of "it's Sense and Sensibility, but with sea monsters" and then throwing everything at the book to see what sticks. I kind of feel sorry for the setting.
Having determined that the sea monsters suffer at the hands of Sense and Sensibility, can we say the same in reverse? Yes, indubitably. Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters does not merely besmirch its source material's good name; it follows Sense and Sensibility down a dark alleyway, beats it senseless, and then slinks away to commit more crimes against Austen's oeuvre.
Harsh much? I thought so too, at first. I wanted to find this book amusing. I wanted to chuckle at how Winters cleverly transposes the class humour and familial squabbles of Austen's characters into this Altered England. The more I read, however, the more I realized that Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters does not just fail to live up to its source. I could handle that. But no, it's much worse. This book actively dismantles everything that makes Sense and Sensibility great English literature.
Nineteenth-century English society holds our interest in part because its class system is very different from the way contemporary society is stratified. But it's not enough merely to mock or to belittle this difference. To successfully satirize Regency England, one must deconstruct its customs and culture and examine why our contemporary society finds it humorous. Otherwise, all you're doing is pointing and laughing; on a scale of sophistication, that is barely above toilet humour.
As its title specifies, Sense and Sensibility is about the balance between reason and emotionalism. Elinor, with her calculating and practical ways, embodies sense; Marianne, the emotional and impulsive one, sensibility. Winters pays lip service to these differences as he develops the plot along the same lines as the original novel. While the developments in relations between characters, sea monster attacks aside, are the same, the emotional and thematic significance of these relationships are mangled in translation. For instance, I never feel the angst of Elinor's realization that Edward, whatever their feelings for one another, is unavailable. Winters develops this, cashes in on the irony, and even makes Lucy Steele a sea-witch. But all the window dressing gets in the way of the nuances at play among Elinor, Edward, and Lucy. Similarly, Marianne's obsession with Colonel Brandon's face adds nothing to the character's obsession in the original novel with his age.
The revelation of Lucy's identity as a sea-witch also bothered me. Specifically, Sir John explains why sea-witches must take human form:
. . . the only certain way for a sea witch to prolong its foul existence is by consuming human bone marrow, which is therefore, to them, the most precious of elixirs. Hence their occasional appearance, in the guise of attractive human women, among the terrestrial world—where they make love to an unknowing man, marry him unawares, and then, when the opportunity presents itself, kill him and suck out his marrow.
It is the last sentence that presents a problem: why bother marrying the man before feeding upon him? Surely it would be more effective to jump his bones (literally) and skip the tiresome courtship. In fact, why bother with a man at all? Why not just subdue some children and feed off of them? It might seem like I'm nitpicking, but I think these are reasonable questions about something that involves the motivations and actions of an important character.
At about the point where the situation at Sub-Marine Station Beta becomes dire, it dawned on me that the scope of Winters' narrative is entirely unsuited to Austen's original story. Sense and Sensibility is, like all of Austen's work, an intimate novel that uses a few families to portray all of English society in microcosm. Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters is about a couple of girls crying about guys, kicking sea monster ass, escaping a doomed underwater city, and then witnessing the rise of an apocalyptic Leviathan. The plot has suddenly become much bigger than the original story, dwarfing the characters and their problems, which are supposed to be centre stage.
And . . . Margaret. What the hell? I have no idea what Winters was trying to do with Margaret's—I can only call it a "seduction" by the island. The whole subplot of Margaret discovering an entire species of subhumans who have existed "since the dawn of time" and worship the Leviathan is unnecessary and, frankly, uninteresting. Once again, like Lucy the sea-witch and the cause of the Alteration, Winters has included something that probably seemed like a good idea but, taken together with the entire work, just adds clutter and confusion.
Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters promises that it "blends Jane Austen's biting social commentary with ultraviolent depictions of sea monsters biting." An examination of this very blend belies this claim. I do not doubt the sincerity of the claim; it's clear that Winters and Quirks Classics have tried very hard to do justice to Austen's novel. In some ways, it would be better for everyone if this were some pernicious attempt to mock the source material—as it is, I feel a little pity for Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. Its mistakes are made in a labour of love, but they are born from carelessness that could easily have been avoided.
Sometimes having a good idea just isn’t enough. This might hurt, but it’s the truth. For whatever reason, sometimes writers have amazing ideas that doSometimes having a good idea just isn’t enough. This might hurt, but it’s the truth. For whatever reason, sometimes writers have amazing ideas that don’t pan out. And when those ideas stall mid-story, they take the entire book down with them.
In Brains: A Zombie Memoir, Jack Barnes is an English professor who gets bitten during the zombie apocalypse. After transforming, he discovers that he can still think and still feels like himself—aside from a craving for brains and human flesh. Also, he can still write (not too shabby for a decaying corpse), though he can’t speak. So Jack travels across the United States, gradually finding other “smart zombies” like himself, looking for the scientist who unwittingly unleashed the zombie virus on the world.
When I put it that way, Brains sounds downright intriguing. Who doesn’t want to hear about the zombie apocalypse from the zombie’s perspective? Much to my disappointment, Brains isn’t just bad; it’s terrible. It falls flat in almost every respect: characterization, plotting, and humour are all gruesomely murdered and resurrected as zombie versions of themselves. It’s been a while since I read a book as bad as this. I considered not finishing it, but at only 168 pages, I decided to stick it out until the bitter end.
The length alone is an early indication that the Robin Becker lacks enough story for a good story. After all, her premise is sound and exciting. But after Jack has been transformed and starts wandering across the country, Brains suddenly loses all sense of direction or even progress. So what that he’s going to find Howard Stein? So what that they’ve made it to Chicago? The book drags on and on, describing Jack’s newly found affinity for brains and how he’s drooling over Eve, the hot-but-stupid zombie, and I’m just waiting for something really interesting to happen or for real conflict to break out. Finally, with the pages rapidly running out, we reach a climax of sorts as Jack confronts his creator. But it’s actually very anticlimactic, because the end is not difficult to predict. To Becker’s credit, she tries to include revelations and ruminations that are deep and meaningful … but that doesn’t change the fact that I don’t really care whether Jack or his new zombie-friends survive.
I don’t read (or watch) much zombie fiction. Like the larger horror genre in general, it is not my cup of tea. I don’t find zombies very interesting as monsters. Whether they are the traditional shamblers or the new-school runners, zombies don’t impress me. Zombie stories tend to deliver two interconnected moral dilemmas: the cost of survival and the fate of a main character who has been bitten. It’s certainly possible to write excellent, creative zombie stories—still, most of the zombie stories I like tend to be the ones that parody or deconstruct the genre instead of playing it straight: Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland (although it played the genre straight to some extent) … Fido was really weird but had its moments. I enjoyed Feed and found it problematic in equal doses. (I notice now that I have a similar genre-generalizing paragraph in that review. Good to know I’m being consistent in my opinion of zombie fiction!) So a zombie book has to work harder to impress me, perhaps, than someone who is more invested and more forgiving of this genre. But Brains hardly seems to work at all.
This is mostly Jack’s fault. He’s an asshole, and he admits it. He claims dying has changed him for the better, but I disagree. I don’t think he’s any closer to having a soul now (if souls existed) or being a better person as a zombie: he goes around eating brains, biting people to turn them into zombies at a whim, and dropping pop culture references in an attempt to sound erudite and hip at the same time. His diction, I gather, is supposed to have a similar effect, and I suppose I can’t fault Becker for her ability to establish a voice for Jack. It’s just not a voice I like very much, and regardless of Becker’s intentions in this matter, it adversely affected my enjoyment of the book. Frankly, I had no emotional investment in zombie Jack or his great plans for his smart-zombie gang. The only zombie I cared about was Guts, because Becker managed to make him cute and endearing, but even that was only a surface affection on my part.
It is possible that I could have found it in myself to overlook Jack’s unsympathetic nature if Brains had a more compelling plot. Without going into too much detail, however, nothing interesting happens here. Brains is just … boring. With no reason to care about the main character and little interest in the thin plot, I had a difficult time making it through this short book. That’s a shame. There’s a reason we describe books as page-turners or non-stop action thrill-rides; we yearn for books that draw us into a wider universe beyond the story on the pages and make us salivate for knowledge of that universe. Described in such a florid way, perhaps it sounds like a tall order for a book that might claim to be some “light zombie fun”. I don’t think it is, which is why I’m being so hard on this book. Not only is Brains pointless, but it could be much better. I really like the main idea and wish it were better executed.
I’m not so convinced this is all Brains’ fault. The blurbs on the back of this book, which have no doubt been carefully selected to give an impression of agreement, all praise it along the same line. Using adjectives like “smart”, “snarky”, “witty”, and “clever”, these reviewers cast Brains as a “smart” book that taps into popular culture. This idea, that pop culture allusions and a sarcastic narrator are sufficient ingredients for a “smart” book, seems to be a literary myth of sorts. It conflates style with substance and rewards an empty feeling of currency over true depth and emotional impact. That’s not to say that all books that feel current or have lots of pop culture allusions are bad—but these alone do not a good story make. So Brains might be a “smart” book, but it’s a stupid story. If your decaying corpse is lusting after some ripe zombie fiction, look elsewhere—this feast is far from fresh.
My dad gave me this book Christmas 2009, and I prior to reading it last week, I had not experienced Calvin and Hobbes. Well, that isn't completely truMy dad gave me this book Christmas 2009, and I prior to reading it last week, I had not experienced Calvin and Hobbes. Well, that isn't completely true. I had read one or two strips, I suppose. Seen other people reading it. But I hadn't experienced it. I had not sat down with a thick, luscious book full of Calvin and Hobbes strips, full of wonderful, pinpoint and intelligent humour.
When I did finally sit down, I fell in love. So to all my friends out there: how dare you not kidnap me and force-feed me Calvin and Hobbes? For shame!
I fell in love with the way Bill Watterson portrays the truth and beauty of the universe through the cheeky eyes of a young boy. Children, lacking the filters that most adults come to acquire, often say the darnednest things, and Calvin says a lot that falls into that category. Calvin refuses to eat something on his plate, observing wryly that "you know you won't like it when they won't tell you what it is." Calvin, ever street-smart, sneaks out of bed late at night, then phones his house from a pay phone (remember those?) to say, "Hello, Dad! It is now three in the morning. Do you know where I am?" Precocious, clever, and self-aware, Calvin embodies that spark, dare I say that joie de vivre, that we all seek to retain from childhood.
I speak with the perspective of a 21-year-old who never wanted to grow up, but in spite of my best efforts, managed to do it anyway. Maturity sneaked up on me, stalked me, and played a game of cat-and-mouse through my adolescent years. Eventually, fortunately or unfortunately, it won. Which is not to say that I have entirely abandoned my childhood glee, my sense of wonder—I do, after all, read science fiction; in November I got involved in an awesome snowball fight with my coworkers. And I know now what I did not know as a child: it is tough to keep your child-like enthusiasm when the world expects you, requires you to be an adult.
So I think a child, an adolescent, or an older adult are all going to get something different from Calvin and Hobbes than I will. We all might find the strips funny, but our core enjoyment is going to come from an identification that is different for each of us. Calvin and Hobbes has a broad appeal, but it is not the same appeal to everyone. For me, it is a nostalgic retrospective on the days I have left behind. Not that I was ever a trouble-maker like Calvin, oh no. I did not launch wagons into lakes or trees. I was not a terror of babysitters, and as far as I know, I never flooded the bathroom while struggling against a shark in the bathtub. Nevertheless, there is something universal to the childhood experience about Calvin's exuberance. And now here I am, in my third decade, trying to reconnect with that aspect of my life.
The brilliance of these comic strips go deeper than just nostalgia. There is something profound about Calvin and Hobbes. At the same time that these two are cooking up a scheme straight out of—well, the comic books—and we are laughing right along with them, suddenly Hobbes will spring a Big Question on us:
Calvin: do you believe in Fate? Hobbes: You mean, that our lives are predestined? Calvin: Yeah ... that the things we do are inevitable. Hobbes: What a scary thought.
Hobbes says this last part as the wagon they are in goes careening off a dock into a lake, possibly as part of a crazy Calvin venture to jump across the lake in their wagon.
There is just such a broad range of humour and tone to these strips. Watterson takes us from the fantastical Spaceman Spiff sketches to the hilarious and intelligent insults Calvin hurls at his crush, Susie: "I hope you suffer a debilitating brain aneurysm, you freak!" (Which, if an adult uttered this, would be horrible; and in the real world, let's face it, a child might get soap mouthwash. But for me reading Calvin, it's just adorable.) And from these strips, Watterson takes us even further, to ponder those Big Questions of the universe—fun, yes, and funny, but those strips tend to end with a question mark hovering above them.
Reading Calvin and Hobbes also affirms my opinion that comics are a sublime form of literature, and those snobs who look down their noses at this form as somehow "childish" or "immature" are poopyheads. Maybe you don't like Calvin and Hobbes—or perhaps, like me, you've merely never experienced it. Still, Calvin and Hobbes demonstrates the power of the comic form, that essential marriage of witty wordplay with evocative pictures, to convey both humourous and serious subjects. This is a medium that can tell amazing stories, stories both vast and magnificent in scope yet intimate and human in significance. From superheroes to supervillains to ordinary, everday kids, comic strips are awesome. They connect us to our imagination in a way few literary forms can manage. Don't get me wrong; I love novels with a white-hot passion. But there is something just so basic—and I think it is this primal element that snobs confuse with immaturity—to the comic form that makes it so versatile and powerful.
There are some great moments in this book, moments worthy of quotation. There is tea; there are gods; there is Vogon bureaucracy and Vogon poetry. AndThere are some great moments in this book, moments worthy of quotation. There is tea; there are gods; there is Vogon bureaucracy and Vogon poetry. And Another Thing... sublimely embraces the h2g2 universe by grabbing hold of it by the scruff of its neck and shaking it vigorously until more characters and random plot events fall out.
And I didn't like it.
See, h2g2's humorous nexus of improbable events with zany characters is the icing on an already delicious cake. My attraction to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and its sequels revolves entirely around Arthur Dent and his plight as one of the last two surviving humans in the universe. The book is successful because Douglas Adams juxtaposes his profound, dry, British wit with the tragedy of Arthur's situation, both the loss of Earth and his doomed love story with Trillian, then Fenchurch. It makes you laugh, because if you do not, then you will cry.
And Another Thing... is not an anomaly among the other books in this regard. Though it has been years since I've read it, Mostly Harmless also has a problem balancing story with humour, which is why I like my omnibus of the first four books just the way it is. And Another Thing..., picking up as it does just after Mostly Harmless, emulates its immediate predecessor too much for my liking. It is, sadly, a shell of an h2g2 novel.
The personalities of most of the characters were grating. I did not like the appearance of Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged, nor did I particularly enjoy the animosity between Trillian and Random. Even Arthur, poor, lovable Arthur, can't manage to put much enthusiasm into being upset about the state of affairs. He is much too jaded now; no longer the uninitiated last man from Earth, Arthur has reached the same point I have in this series. We both just want it to stop, even though we know it won't.
As I mentioned above, there are some great moments. Some of them are funny, such as when Zaphod's second head—which now controls the Heart of Gold's computer in lieu of Eddie—chides Arthur's drinking habits:
"I don't suppose this computer has learned to make tea?"
A red light flashed on Left Brain's dome. "Stop talking now, Earthman. The word 'tea' has been flagged. The last time you asked for 'tea', you backed up the entire system during an alert."
This is a hilarious reference to the last time Arthur asked for a cup of tea from Eddie the computer and froze all of Eddie's logic circuits. Unfortunately, references to the halcyon days of h2g2 are about all this book can muster. And Another Thing... just tries too hard, something demonstrated aptly by the excerpts from the Guide.
I'm not about to accuse any part of this book of being particularly inspired, but the excerpts from the Guide are even more forced than the rest of the book. They attempt to replicate that atmosphere of randomness, that sense of tangents and digressions, that is characteristic of earlier h2g2 books. And they fail at that attempt, because the entries are often too unrelated to what's going on. They seem present only because they are an expected part of the h2g2 novel form, not because they actually work at that juncture. The beauty of h2g2 books is that, despite their disparate elements and interruptions, I always want to keep on reading. I had no such impetus here.
Hopefully you will have noticed that, until now, I have refrained from comparing Colfer to Adams. I have my reasons for this; while I'm ambivalent about this series being continued by another author, I'm not opposed to it in principle. Furthermore, h2g2 has always had a tradition of transformation. So I am willing to keep an open mind. Colfer's style is quite different from that of Adams, and I think that is part of the reason this book does not resonate as an "h2g2 book" like the others do. Nevertheless, I cannot blame solely Colfer for And Another Thing...'s problems. The series was in decline with Mostly Harmless, if not before that.
And Another Thing... is probably described best by its title: this is a postscript, a footnote to the rest of the series, and something I will probably leave forgotten. When I need my h2g2 fix, I'll grab my omnibus from the shelf and read one of the first four books. For all you hoopy froods out there, my recommendation is to read this one—for you should form your own opinion—but do not expect greatness, or even adequacy. For the rest of you, don't bother with this book (at least not yet). Besides, you probably don't know where your towel is, do you? That's what I thought.
I first approached How I Became a Famous Novelist with some trepidation. Like many other humourous books, this one is very committed to its humour inI first approached How I Became a Famous Novelist with some trepidation. Like many other humourous books, this one is very committed to its humour in a very meta-fictional way. Everything from the back cover to the epigraphs is part of the commentary the book and author Steve Hely are making on the state of writing and publishing in contemporary North American society. The book and its main character are extremely self-aware and self-possessed. Books like this tend either to impress me or to get on my nerves. How I Became a Famous Novelist averaged out: the book impressed me, but Pete Tarnslaw got on my nerves.
Hely's style and the meta-fictional nature of the book remind me a lot of Douglas Coupland. And as a general rule, I consider Coupland a god among men when it comes to witty insights into this postmodern melodrama we call life, so by garnering such a comparison, Hely has both earned implicit praised and set the bar quite high for the rest of the book. Unfortunately, How I Became a Famous Novelist never quite reaches the highs of my favourite Coupland-esque scenes and schemes; for that I blame mostly Pete Tarnslaw, because he got on my nerves.
I love the premise of this book. It's simple, and to some extent it feels true (isn't that ironic?). Pete is a disaffected twenty-something, and when he learns his ex-girlfriend is getting married, he vows to become a famous novelist so he can show her up at her own wedding. Having watched a vapid interview with a bestselling author, Pete decides he has figured out the "rules" to writing a bestseller. And he succeeds, for a little while. Then he gets on my nerves.
Pete is just insufferably whiny and entitled. And I think that is intentional; when we sympathize with Pete, it's not because he's a nice guy, or even because he's an underdog. Rather, the source of our sympathy comes from Pete's chosen target: the publishing industry. Pete sets out to game the system in a very deliberate, cynical way. In so doing, Hely pokes fun at both the industry, the types of writers Pete is emulating, and the types of writers who emulate Pete. Yet I have a very difficult time enjoying Pete's enjoyment of his success. I have an even more difficult time enjoying Pete's discomfort as Hely subverts his con game to foist upon Pete an epiphany about writing and the meaning of literature. As much as I like Pete's snarky comments and the caricature secondary characters floating around each chapter, very little of this book actually sticks.
For regular readers, for book reviewers, and for writers (I am all three), I think this book has a special resonance beyond what the general public may feel. Pete has unkind words for all three categories of individual (more on that later), and of course, all three of these types of people have good reason to be interested in the health and attitude of the publishing industry. How I Became a Famous Novelist really works, especially for this audience, because it is embedded in its time. That is not in and of itself bad—many well-regarded classics benefit from a knowledge of their contemporary period—but it does amplify that transitory quality. Nevertheless, I think this book will remain relevant for a long time, because the Dan Browns and James Pattersons of publishing are not going away any time soon. And wherever you find a thriller writer, you'll find Pete Tarnslaw and Steve Hely, pulling back the curtain.
As a voracious reader, who is also a bit of literary snob, and who has made it his mission to review every book he reads for Goodreads, I loved Pete's invective toward book readers. It really captures how good Hely is at representing the ecosystem around book publishing in a Dilbertine way:
I try not to hate anybody. "Hate is a four-letter word," like the bumper sticker says. But I hate book reviewers.
Book reviewers are the most despicable, loathsome order of swine that ever rooted about the earth. They are sniveling, revolting creatures who feed their own appetites for bile by gnawing apart other people's work. They are human garbage. They all deserve to be struck down by awful diseases described in the most obscure dermatology journals.
Book reviewers live in tiny studios that stink of mothballs and rotting paper. Their breath reeks of stale coffee. From time to time they put on too-tight shirts and pants with buckles and shuffle out of their lairs to shove heaping mayonnaise-laden sandwiches into their faces, which are worn in to permanent snarls. Then they go back to their computers and with fat stubby fingers they hammer out "reviews." Periodically they are halted as they burst into porcine squeals, gleefully rejoicing in their cruelty.
Even when being "kindly," book reviewers reveal their true nature as condescending jerks. "We look forward to hearing more from the author," a book reviewer might say. The prissy tones sound like a second-grade piano teacher, offering you a piece of years-old strawberry hard candy and telling you to practice more.
But a bad book review is just disgusting.
Ask yourself: of all the jobs available to literate people, what monster chooses the job of "telling people how bad different books are"? What twisted fetishist chooses such a life?
The above picture, unfortunately, is not at all accurate: I hate mayonnaise. Yet we reviewers often require authors to develop thick skins, so isn't turnabout fair play?
Beneath all the jibes and jests, Hely is raising a serious question; this is where the "meta" part of the book comes into play. Firstly, he observes that the way we, collectively, value books is very arbitrary. The books that sell well in their day do not necessarily become literary classics; the converse is also often true. Pete likes to cite Moby-Dick as an example. He also has an interesting conversation later in the book with a professor hired to teach at his old college; the professor is an advocate of judging books based on their "free-market" value, so he only teaches bestsellers of the day.
So that is the paradox that readers, writers, and publishers all face: we can't really know what makes a book "good," nor can we predict how long a book will be revered or scorned by the public before the tide turns. This problem appears any time quality is entirely subjective, whether we are talking about books, music, or art. And the reason why this is a big deal is simple: it scares us.
This paradox runs counter to the entire individualist philosophy that has permeated the twentieth century. It tells us that we have no power in determining our legacy or the legacy of our culture. Furthermore, this is not just a matter of time, but of individual versus society. Although some individual future critics might shape future public opinion, for the most part that opinion will shift collectively. And because our minds don't have the capability to comprehend such numbers, we don't really understand how our individual preferences contribute to that collective change. It is a little boggling, and thus a little scary.
So sometimes it is easier to believe in a conspiracy, to believe that writing is a racket and there are easy rules to follow. Or, equivalently, to believe that the general reading public are predictable sheep who will buy the same formulaic drivel over and over. On some days, days when I see pyramids of Dan Brown novels with "#1 bestseller" stickers plastered over their covers, I truly believe that is the case. But that is the cynic in me rearing his head; I do know better. Or at least, I am smarter than Pete, because this his hamartia: he calls the public ignorant to its face, and the public doesn't like that. We see this during the climactic conversation with Preston Brooks, where Brooks harnesses that discontent with the way Pete baldly insults his audience's intelligence. It is OK to believe the collective is stupid; just don't say it aloud. Or don't say it too loudly; the Internets can hear you!
It all works out for Pete in the end, of course, because controversy is great for driving sales. And that's all that Pete wants; he just wants to be a "famous novelist." He has lost his faith in the integrity of literature as anything more than a money-making business. As Preston Brooks put it: "You're always looking for falseness in everything. You're used to falseness. You grew up with that lie machine, the television." While I don't agree with all of Preston's, "Yarr, your generation has never had it so hard; I'm an old man but I believe in writing!" speech that wins over the crowd and hands Pete his ass on a platter, I do like that one line. Just look at the so-called "reality television" on the schedule grid—do you remember the days when TLC was actually "The Learning Channel"? Fundamentally, I don't think the masses have changed all that much through the generations—we are wired, evolutionarily, for spectacle. But television has just made it so easy to deliver spectacle, cheap spectacle, to those masses. And the novel, as a much more ponderous medium, is having a hard time competing.
I don't really think it should compete in that sense, and I could digress into a rant about how we should probably be raising our kids as readers if we want them to read more. Or I could talk about how all good things come to an end, and maybe it's true that the novel, as a literary form, has reached its expiration date. But I think it's time we return to the book.
How I Became a Famous Novelist is rather funny, very clever, and definitely entertaining if you like reading books about people writing books. The main character got on my nerves, and for that reason alone, this book never quite reaches the heights it could have. Still, I have to admit this book was better than I expected it to be, and Hely's criticism of the publishing industry is both humourous and accurate. The finale is touching, if a little trite, and overall this book made me think more about reading, how I read, and how I write reviews. So not too shabby, Hely.
This is my second Christopher Moore novel, the first being Fool. I'm still getting a handle on Moore's style and how to gauge him, but I don't thinkThis is my second Christopher Moore novel, the first being Fool. I'm still getting a handle on Moore's style and how to gauge him, but I don't think I'm off when I say that Fluke is not one of his better works. Sure, it has that distinctive sense of zaniness that any Moore fan comes to expect; you won't be disappointed if you read this book. Yet neither the story nor the characters are as entertaining as Fool's. The jokes are there, but they're less cohesive; they're funny moments that fail to form up into a single, hilarious book.
Not sure how to review this one. It's not as deliciously quotable as Fool was, so I can't just string together a bunch of quotations, call them witty, and try to pass that off as a review. Nope, I actually have to talk about the plot. You have been warned.
The plot of Fluke develops slowly, giving you time to grow accustomed to the persnickety research team and its supporting cast. It doesn't really jumpstart until Nate gets swallowed by a whale (literally), at which point the whale semen hits the Zodiac raft and the story goes into overdrive. There's a definite need for suspension of disbelief, as Moore strays over the boundary of improbable to implausible. But it's hard not to be seduced by the mystery Moore manifests. Who built the whale ships? Are the whale-men a result of natural evolution, or were they created by someone or something? What's up with the requests for pastrami on rye? Will Nate hook up with Amy?
The actual answers to most of those questions didn't live up to my expectations. Nate's life post-swallowing is confusing, ill-explained, and not all that funny. There are some interesting ideas thrown about relating to genes, memes, and evolution, but even these are far from well-developed. The quality of Fluke is heavily weighted to the beginning of the book, for it's there that Moore creates a very real (if not realistic), well-established world of characters and relationships.
The latter part of the book is still funny, but everything feels underdeveloped, rushed toward an artificial ending. For instance, Nate and Amy develop a relationship but face an obstacle in their relative ages and Amy's unique condition. Normally, starcrossed lovers is a tragedy . . . but I didn't really care. The blasé, lackadaisical attitude that makes Moore such a good humourist doesn't, in this case, lend itself well to character development and pathos. Nate just resorts to drinking or the casual nihilistic embrace of sleep once too often for me to care about what happens to him.
I'm not sure what it takes to wake up one day and decide to write a novel about cetacean biology. Fluke's premise is somewhat inspired and original. There are certainly predictable aspects of this book (I figured out what Amy's role was long before it's revealed), but the plot has enough twists to keep you guessing. Pastrami sandwiches that seem like throwaway lines become pivotal. Big mysteries turn out to have small answers. It may be a cliché, but nothing is what it seems in Fluke, and there is much hilarity to be had....more
I did it again. I walked smack into the middle of a series. And I have only myself to blame. Had I been more careful in examining this book, I would hI did it again. I walked smack into the middle of a series. And I have only myself to blame. Had I been more careful in examining this book, I would have noticed it's part of a series—I would also have noted its epistolary format, another feature that ordinarily gives me pause. However, I did not notice these things, and even once I did, I read this book anyway. Now I have to write this review—me, a neophyte to the Adrian Mole saga, a doubter of epistolary works! This can only end in tears.
Adrian Mole, at this point in his life, is the single father of two boys (by different mothers), living in housing, and struggling to make a career for himself as a writer. We're supposed to identify with Adrian on some level, I guess, and find humour in his insane experiences with crazy relatives, random elderly people, and the head of comedy at the BBC. So you'll have to forgive me, fans of Adrian Mole, when I say that I think Adrian is an idiot.
I don't really want to identify with someone as deluded and irresponsible as Adrian. Sure, the people in his life use him quite a bit and seldom show him much respect. I sympathize. I don't empathize, however, because on top of all those hardships, Adrian creates more in a ceaseless fashion that is a neurosis all to itself. He's paranoid, obsessive, and bland. There's very little to like about Adrian. Usually, when faced with a main character like this, I take it as a sign that the story is one of gradual redemption as the character shoulders responsibility after responsibility. I didn't expect Adrian to become a world-renowned humanitarian or even to find love (in fact, I was sure the probability of the latter was zero). Yet Townsend manages to restrain Adrian from any sort of character development; in fact, I think he might actually un-develop, if such a thing is possible.
The back of my edition has quotations from various publications. The Evening Standard suggests that rather than (or perhaps in addition to) identifying with Adrian, he's a useful creation because "no matter what your troubles may be, Adrian Mole is sure to make you feel better." I get that; part of the appeal of comedy is finding humour in the tribulations of other people. My point, however, is that there is little humour to be found in Adrian's situation. Most of it is of his own invention, and thus unavoidable. It would have been better if Adrian were less of an idiot, a more redeeming man faced with the burden of overbearing, maritally-confused parents and step-parents while trying to raise two kids. As it is, I feel better knowing I'm no longer reading about Adrian Mole!
According to The Times, "Adrian Mole really is a brilliant comic creation . . . every sentence is witty and well thought out. . . ." That is pure-grade blurb hyperbole. The majority of sentences in this book are dull or, at best, mildly amusing. I did appreciate Townsend's intentional, subtle use of grammatical errors to create a more authentic epistolary experience.
As an aside, I'd also like to give a shout-out to the New Statesman. Apparently their regular blurb-writer was out sick, because someone in the office decided it was appropriate to string-together several adjectives: "poignant, hilarious, heart-rending, devastating" and call it a blurb (I kid you not; that is the entire quotation).
The Lost Diaries of Adrian Mole is a perfect example of someone trying to create an exception to the rule and failing miserably. It contains the sort of random plot developments and incredible acts that, if done well, make a humourous novel awesome by definition. By the same token, however, it's very difficult to do it well. There's no middle ground, and if it doesn't work, it plunges the book into mediocrity. I always think of Douglas Coupland when considering this phenomenon. Coupland's books are rife with insane plot developments (my favourites are usually in JPod, which Coupland then leveraged into a hilarious TV series for the CBC). He does it so well that his books, at least in my opinion, are exactly what The Lost Diaries of Adrian Mole attempts to be. Yet Coupland does occasionally slip up, and when he does, it markedly detracts from the quality of his book. Poor humour is worse than no humour.
My comparison to Coupland will continue as I examine the next gimmick that Townsend employs: like Coupland, she writes herself into the book! Like Coupland, this fictional Townsend is a caricature, portrayed as a hack and a jerk. Unlike Coupland, who plays a large and direct role in JPod, Townsend doesn't actually appear in person; she's just mentioned by several characters, including Adrian himself. Unfortunately, this reduced role feels like the rest of the book's gimmicks do: throw-aways without which the book would have been better.
Epistolary novels, in general, are harder for me to appreciate than the more conventional contemporary novel format. Even Coupland's The Gum Thief didn't persuade me to join the dark side. Now, like any story, the success of an epistolary work depends more on its writer than the fact that it's written as a series of letters. Douglas Coupland executed his novel well, which earned it a respectable 3 of 5 stars. Sue Townsend, on the other hand, has written a series of one-off joke snippets with reusable characters and combined them to create a novel-length work. And that's my main objection to contemporary epistolary novels; it's just so easy to be lazy with the actual letters or diary entries themselves. Since any epistolary work will naturally feel somewhat jumbled after it has been assembled, owing to the discrete nature of each entry, it's harder to detect this overall lesser quality than it is in a novel with a more unified narrative.
Are there funny parts in The Lost Diaries of Adrian Mole? Certainly, but they are few and far between, and once used, Townsend tends to parade them around time and again until they have long overstayed their welcome. That's true of the book itself as well....more
So you invent a time machine, and what’s the first thing you do? You go back in time and kill Hitler, of course! Except you can’t (TVTropes), becauseSo you invent a time machine, and what’s the first thing you do? You go back in time and kill Hitler, of course! Except you can’t (TVTropes), because either it doesn’t work or it screws up the timeline even more. Thus resolving one of the burning questions surrounding time travel: if it’s possible, why do we still have Hitler? Stephen Fry tackles this in a best-of-all-possible worlds way in Making History, where his protagonist succeeds in averting Hitler’s birth only for someone more charismatic and cunning to rise to power in his place.
I didn’t like this novel at first. I’m a fan of Fry as a TV personality, but the opening pages of Making History didn’t endear themselves to me. Michael Young is such an unsympathetic character. But he kind of needs to be a jerk. One requires a certain level of hubris to think that one should be responsible for changing history, and Michael certainly has that. Of course, a story where one kills Hitler with no unintended consequences would be boring. So things go wrong, and that’s where it gets really interesting.
When reality adjusts to Hitler’s absence, Michael finds himself not in Cambridge but Princeton, where he is supposed have an American accent. But with Hitler out of the picture, a more charismatic German rose to power. He reins in the anti-semitism, and as a result, Germany develops the atomic bomb first. World War II doesn’t happen, and America exists in a tenuous state of non-aggression with a Fascist/Communist Europe. In many respects this world seems more advanced—it’s 1996 and everyone has mobile phones and tablets—but culturally, civil liberties didn’t happen. Racism and homophobia are normal; a climate of McCarthyism is the country’s response to Germany’s power. And the Jews? Well, in Europe, they got shuffled into a supposed “free state” but haven’t been heard from since.
Making History is a fantastic example of alternate history. I particularly enjoyed how Fry shows the same scene, set during World War I, twice, once from the original timeline and once from the timeline after Michael erases Hitler. It’s an “oh shit” moment as the reader realizes the magnitude of what Michael has done. It’s a foregone conclusion that the new world is going to be somehow less preferable to the old one, but it’s not immediately obvious how that’s the case. Fry reveals more about the new timeline gradually, giving the reader time to acclimatize alongside Michael, who must pretend like everything is cool to throw off some suspicious G-men even while he secretly freaks out and wants to find a way to restore the original timeline.
This is a subject understandably close to Fry’s heart, because he has family who died at Auschwitz. And the Holocaust in any light is a serious subject. So it seems like it would be difficult to poke fun at it … and Fry doesn’t try. The humour in Making History is entirely at Michael’s expense (another reason he is an unlikable protagonist). On one level, the narrative just seems to take umbrage at Michael’s ego and conviction that he can make history better. It mocks him for believing that merely removing Hitler from the picture will somehow defuse the anti-semitism and fascist ideologies throughout Europe in the early twentieth century. Fry makes a serious point here, in that often the vilification of Hitler seems to eclipse the more important underlying issues. But he does it with a lighthearted, humorous tone with regards to Michael’s actions and feelings.
The way that Fry balances the serious nature of the subject with his trademark wit is the most stunning aspect of Making History, and the most rewarding. This is far more than just another what-if story of counterfactual fiction: it moves both through pathos and humour. I wanted to strangle Michael sometimes, but by the end I was starting to sympathize with him. And while he’s still a jerk at the end of the story, he has definitely changed and learned from his rather major mistakes. In this way Fry reaffirms what is most important: the close, personal relationship between two human beings, and the reminder that we are responsible for making a better world.
What a seriously impressive and original young adult fantasy novel. The name alone, Flora Segunda of Crackpot Hall, promises a whimsical adventure. BuWhat a seriously impressive and original young adult fantasy novel. The name alone, Flora Segunda of Crackpot Hall, promises a whimsical adventure. But it’s hard to describe just how quickly Ysabeau Wilce pulls the rug from beneath the reader, removing any possibility of normality and dragging us into a fantastic world where anything can happen—but that doesn’t mean it will.
Flora’s world is one where magic is real and a part of daily life, but it’s rather unfashionable. She lives in a house—Crackpot Hall—made of magic. Its rooms rearrange themselves, and indeed, seem to go on without end. This alone is a cool enough concept around which to base an entire book, so it surprised me that Wilce actually ignores this for the majority of the book and sends Flora off on adventures that take her all around the city (and even a little beyond it). But before we get to that, let’s talk about Crackpot Hall.
I love Doctor Who, and one of my favourite things about the show is the TARDIS and its limitless potential. Imagine stepping through those police box doors and discovering that vast world to explore—let alone all of the places the TARDIS can travel! Crackpot Hall is kind of like that. It’s a house of limitless potential—albeit much reduced and rundown since Flora’s mother abrogated the house’s ghostly butler, who is responsible for maintaining the house in all senses.
So Flora, who is a bit of a rebel, decides one day to use the Elevator to retrieve an overdue book in her rush to school. Instead she emerges on an unfamiliar floor, stumbles into a massive library, and meets the banished butler, Valefor. Gradually he persuades her to help restore him—and hence the grandeur of Crackpot Hall. It’s an idea that thirteen-going-on-fourteen-year-old Flora, steeped in adventure stories of the late Ranger Nini Mo, can’t resist. She’s tired of feeling like her family has been reduced to second-rate hasbeens. And she doesn’t want to go to the Barracks like every Fryrdraaca before her.
What ensues can essentially be characterized as “Flora makes things more complicated.” She gets into a boundless, fluid adventure—with her best friend Udo as her sidekick. At every turn, she comes up with brilliant plans. Amazingly, they seldom work.
Yeah, this is a young adult book where the protagonist regularly and spectacularly fails.
Flora’s plans often work partially, then backfire, and as she comes up with a new and intricate Ranger-inspired idea, events conspire to sweep her up and force her to reconsider yet again. I love this. I love that Wilce walks us through Flora’s thought process even as she makes Flora’s adventures more difficult and—despite the magical setting—more realistic. For example, at one point Flora and Udo determine they need to rescue the Dainty Pirate—an actual criminal who is nevertheless a very romantic inspiration to Udo. They hatch and begin to implement a daring plan to free the Dainty Pirate prior to his execution. This is two thirteen-year-olds posing as soldiers, with a forged transfer order for a prisoner, in order to rescue a pirate. Wilce couches the adventure in the vocabulary and polish expected for a whimsical children’s tale, but it’s actually quite a serious experience … and it all goes pear-shaped. Because, you know, rescuing a pirate prisoner is actually quite difficult, and Flora and Udo just don’t manage to pull it off very well.
I loved the character of Flora. She is adventurous and brave but also thoughtful and obvious interested in reading and learning. Alas, her parents have not been the best to her: her father mopes around in his den, suffering from intense PTSD, and her mother is a workaholic. Speaking of which, Flora Segunda does gender right: Califan society appears to have fantastic gender equity. Flora’s mother is a general in the Califan army, in command of a regiment, and consumed by her job. No one ever questions her ability to command or fight because she’s a woman; no one looks askance at the idea that Flora would, as a Fyrdraaca, naturally be joining the Barracks after she turns fourteen. Oh, and Califan fashion is for everyone—men and women—to wear kilts.
So Flora Segunda is a story of how the titular character realizes that life is not, in fact, a Ranger adventure novel with her as the protagonist. And in fact, towards the end, the book suddenly takes on a much darker, Coraline-esque tone. Because during all of Flora’s adventuring and mucking about with magic, she has actually managed to place herself in grave existential danger. And her only recourse is an enemy of her mother’s. When she seeks him out, he upbraids her rather harshly—but it’s totally deserved. Flora has been running amok, behind her mother’s back, shirking her duties and responsibilities in order to learn forbidden magic and spring a pirate. That’s not to say that this is a book that condemns fun. But it certainly puts such adventures in a neat perspective.
It’s a rollicking and wonderful adventure that nevertheless has a sense of responsibility at its core. Although it’s pitched for a much younger audience than I normally read—younger, I suspect, than the targets of, say, The Hunger Games—I still enjoy how … earnest it is. The protagonist is slightly plump, not jaw-droppingly pretty. She doesn’t have two men—supernatural or otherwise—chasing after her. She isn’t fighting back against the government (even though, by all accounts, it doesn’t seem to be a very good one).
I guess I’m trying to say that it’s just so nice to read a book for children that is entertaining, well-written, and full of positive depictions of people, professions, and even pirates. Moreover, Wilce genuinely manages to surprise and delight in the way in which she develops the plot, enough to keep me guessing and make me want to learn more.
If children’s literature is your fare, then by all means, dare. I highly recommend it.
I couldn’t remember why I had added Something Missing to my to-read list, so I was somewhat sceptical going into it. Matthew Dicks’ writing style didnI couldn’t remember why I had added Something Missing to my to-read list, so I was somewhat sceptical going into it. Matthew Dicks’ writing style didn’t improve my opinion at first. Something about Marin, a burglar who only robs select “clients” and only takes items that won’t be missed, changed my mind. Somewhere along the way, Dicks made me care, not just about Martin but about the proposition that he could help the people he is otherwise stealing from.
I can even point to when my opinion began to shift. Dicks telegraphs the change at the beginning of Chapter 3: “Some people can point to a specific day in their lives when everything changed. For Martin, that day was a Wednesday in October.” Yeah, not exactly subtle or inspirational. Dicks’ writing is flat, unassuming, with all the painstaking attention to describing details one might expect of a schoolchild who has received more than one gentle rebuke from a teacher on a scene assignment. The lack of dialogue, at least for the first part of the novel, compounds this issue: we spend most of our time inhabiting Martin’s head, from a third-person perspective. So while Martin’s almost obsessive-compulsive attention to detail, the reason why he is so successful at burgling houses unnoticed, justifies Dicks’ style, it doesn’t make the style any easier to read. And I admit that well into the book, even after I had begun to heartily enjoy it, I still struggled to derive a lot of pleasure from the writing itself.
So Something Missing is not a modern love letter to the English language and modern prose. But it is a quirky story about a sympathetic burglar. I love stories that take advantage of the moral ambiguity of the sympathetic criminal, and this book succeeded for me where The Hitman Diairies did not. Now, Martin is quite different from the main character of that book: he is about as sympathetic as one can make a career thief. He abhors violence. He goes to painstaking lengths to ensure that he only takes that which his clients won’t miss, whether it’s a roll of toilet paper or a diamond earring. Martin is about as close to an “honest criminal” as one can get, and it’s exactly by riding this paradox that Dicks succeeds in creating a boring character captivating enough to carry a novel on his shoulders.
See, the entire setup of Martin robbing select couples, whom he calls his clients rather affectionately, is hilarious and ripe for situation comedy. Indeed, it seems like that’s the direction in which Dicks is set to go in that fateful third chapter, when he finally stops introducing Martin’s career and relates an incident in which Martin is trapped in a client’s house when they come home. Oh no, Martin has to hide behind a sofa until he can escape undetected! But the husband is watching TV instead of taking a shower like his wife nagged him to! (Canned laughter here.) But Dicks understands that such a setup is limited to only a few good jokes before it become stale. He isn’t afraid to have Martin change and grow as the story progresses, something essential for any novel.
Martin begins Something Missing as someone who, well, is missing a lot in terms of personality. He has even less of a social life than I do. He hasn’t talked to his father in years. His career and fencing the proceeds of his career takes up most of his time. But he comes across as somewhat empty. So it’s nice to see that Martin cares enough about other people to take a risk to help the Claytons—and then to take an even bigger risk, a few chapters later, to help the Ashleys. He doesn’t have to do either of these things; he risks discovery by anonymously encouraging Alan Clayton to be a little more romantic or alerting Justine Ashley that her friend Laura has almost ruined her husband’s surprise birthday party. And when this has more profound consequences for him on a personal level, I kept worrying he would screw things up.
Then for the last act, Dicks raises the stakes again. Martin has the opportunity to jump from guardian angel to straight-up guardian when he discovers that one of his clients is in danger of being attacked and raped in her own home. He is faced with the dilemma of how to avert this without revealing his own illegal activities, either to her or to the police. Once again we’re confronting with the human contradiction: that which is legal is not necessarily that which is right. Martin is indubitably a criminal in the eyes of the law, yet does he really harm these couples by taking things they don’t notice are missing? And if he had never taken on this client, he would never have discovered the impending attack and been able to do something about it.
I admire the way that Dicks continually raises the stakes and the risks he takes in mixing such serious elements into what is otherwise a comedic novel. Something Missing does not stand out as a brilliant work of art. Nevertheless, it’s an entertaining character sketch that avoids a lot of mistakes and pitfalls so easy for novels of its kind to fall into. I was getting good thrill out of this, and in the last few chapters where Martin truly has to step up, it became almost a thriller instead of an easy comedic read.
As I go to review this, I realize I never got around to putting it on my "currently reading" shelf. Weird.
I love Bible stories and parodies of Bible sAs I go to review this, I realize I never got around to putting it on my "currently reading" shelf. Weird.
I love Bible stories and parodies of Bible stories, and Lamb is no exception. From the first page, Moore greets me with the snappy dialogue that endeared me to him in Fool. Lamb also reminds me of Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bible!, by Jonathan Goldstein. Both books take a tongue-in-cheek, anachronistic approach to chronicling the relationship between humanity and God, and both employ a liberal amount of physical humour. As I said in my review of Fool, this is not usually the comedy that impresses me, but once again, Moore manages to persuade me to make an exception. His dialogue, characterization, and simple storytelling ability all contribute to make Lamb more than just a series of flatulence, sex, and bacon jokes (although there are plenty of all three).
This book is a great example of where a frame story works well. Biff, our narrator, is a "forgotten disciple" of Jesus. An angel, Raziel, whom we're given to understand is not all that bright (he wants to be Spider-Man), resurrects Biff on twenty-first-century Earth on the orders of Heaven: Biff is going to write his own gospel, and he's going to tell the story of Jesus' childhood. The four canonical gospels tend to omit this part of Christ's life, focusing more on the birth and his "ministry" from when he was thirty until that whole Crucifixion deal. Biff manages to find a Bible in the hotel room where he and Raziel are staying, and he hides it in the bathroom to read where the angel won't interfere. He's understandably unimpressed with the writings of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and eager to set the record straight. Thanks to the gift of tongues, Biff gets to do this in colloquial English, which makes it much more entertaining.
So while the main action happens two thousand years prior, we do get interjections from Biff as he is writing. Mostly, they're hilarious, as this early passage from when Biff is still acclimating to the new world order:
There were fifteen of us—well, fourteen after I hung Judas—so why me? Joshua always told me not to be afraid, for he would always be with me. Where are you, my friend? Why have you forsaken me? You wouldn't be afraid here. The towers and machines and the shine and stink of this would not daunt you. Come now, I'll order a pizza from room service. You would like pizza. The servant who brings it is named Jesus. And he's not even a Jew. You always liked irony. Come, Joshua, the angel says you are yet with us, you can hold him down while I pound him, then we will rejoice in pizza.
In addition to the humour, however, there's a note of apprehension, and that's one reason Lamb is more than just a cheap attempt at Biblical humour. Biff has the tough job of being Joshua's Fifth Business, the Dunstan Ramsay of the Bible:
"… And Mother yammering on always about how Joshua did this, and Joshua did that, and what great things Joshua would do when he returned. And all the while I'm the one looking out for my brothers and sisters, taking care of them when Father got sick, taking care of my own family. Still, was there any thanks? A kind word? No, I was doing nothing more than paving Joshua's road. You have no idea what it's like to always be second to Joshua."
That's Joshua's brother James, remarking privately to Biff after Biff and Joshua have returned from their decades-long journey to the Far East. Biff, of course, knows all about being second to Joshua; he has practically been the man's shadow for his entire life. As Joshua learns wisdom and enlightenment from the Three Wise Men who attended his birth, Biff tries to seek his own form of wisdom (such as the Kama Sutra) while also looking out for his all-too-honest and good friend. Furthermore, Biff and Joshua are both hopelessly in love with Mary Magdalene, who loves both of them back—but she would choose Joshua in a heartbeat, if he weren't obligated to remain celibate. So Biff knows all about being "the other guy," all about having to take care of Joshua so Joshua can take care of the rest of humanity.
The night before Mary's unwilling wedding to the villainous Jakan, Biff and Joshua leave Galilee to seek Joshua's destiny. To lend the story some structure, Moore has Joshua find the Three Wise Men who attended his birth. From them, Joshua hopes to learn how to be the Messiah. Of course, it doesn't quite work out that way. They confront demons, play a con game to rescue children from a sacrifice to Kali, and even become Buddhist monks and learn kung fu. But Joshua doesn't learn to become the Messiah because, in the words of the final wise man, Melchior, "Your dharma is not to learn, Joshua, but to teach."
There are plenty of exhibitions of Joshua's supernatural powers, mostly healing, but Joshua is very rarely frightening or unhuman. (There is a notable exception when, in an uncharacteristic moment of anger, he strikes blind an archer for killing a bandit.) According to Biff, Joshua is always certain that he is the Son of God but is less certain of how to handle being the Messiah. Thus, it is interesting to observe the change that both characters undergo after they return to Galilee and Joshua begins his ministry: Joshua becomes more and more sure of his path, which includes the Crucifixion; Biff becomes more and more desperate to save his friend from himself.
Moore has essentially retold Jesus' story as a buddy road movie, and I mean that in the best possible way. And I'm focusing on this aspect rather than the humour, because I think that most people who have heard of Christopher Moore have heard of him as a humourist. Extolling Lamb because of its comedy is all well and good, but the comedy is just another way in which Moore tells a much deeper story. Biff's gospel is a lot more intimate and humanizing than the canonical Biblical gospels, and Biff's closeness to Joshua brings us closer to him as well.
In many ways, I think I like Lamb for the same reasons I love Fool: it's a hilarious parody of a great work of literature, one that had me laughing out loud literally from the first page. It has wonderful major and minor characters, great episodic situations, and a story that works both on the level of comedy and as a deeper, coming-of-age tale. It worries me that, of the three Moore books I have read, the two I liked were both, in a sense, parodies of stories already told. I was less impressed with Fluke,and I hope it proves to be an anomaly rather than the rule for Moore's original stories.
And I hope Raziel gets to be Spider-Man. Poor angel deserves break. We'll see how he fares trying to grant wishes in The Stupidest Angel, but honestly, he's probably better off just watching television.