Needing a break from a very long historical novel I was listening to on audiobook, I decided to go with something breezy and funny so I picked up TinaNeeding a break from a very long historical novel I was listening to on audiobook, I decided to go with something breezy and funny so I picked up Tina Fey's Bossypants, which I've been meaning to read since before it came out. In a way, I shouldn't be surprised with how I felt about it; it basically boils down to the same way I feel about 30 Rock. To wit, I appreciate what she's doing, I acknowledge that Fey is clever and funny, but her humor strikes me as visibly effortful. Which is to say, to me it feels like she's always trying very, very hard to make people laugh and it shows. It's not that it doesn't work sometimes, because it does. It's just, when I compare to other books (say… Jenny Lawson's Let's Pretend This Never Happened), I can see other funny people who don't let the seams show quite as much and I laugh more. Simple as that.
Of course, there are other things that Fey's book offers besides labored amusement. She meanders through a pseudo-memoir that also includes some wry observations, she discusses her work/life balance in a candid and I think illuminating way, and she gives a lot of interesting insight into the behind-the-scenes of Chicago's Second City, Saturday Night Live, and 30 Rock. And here's the thing: I like that she does all these things with a witty slant which frequently made me smirk and occasionally made me laugh. Had that been the entirety of the book, I'd say I really liked it. But then she digresses into unfunny and pointless asides like the part where she replies to internet commenters. It's supposed to be self-effacting and showcasing her acerbic wit but I dunno, especially in light of a part later on where she says she can't bother trying to please everyone or respond to her critics it feels like really sour grapes. And, as I said, it's also not really funny in the process so I wonder where her editor was with that. There are other examples like the overlong recount of her honeymoon fiasco and some stuff about her Greek neighborhood. It's not a very long book to begin with and to have significant sections of it that kind of fall flat gives it a sense to me of a typical mid-series episode of 30 Rock: a few gems nestled between long stretches of off-beat circus antics that result in a fidgety audience.
Maybe that makes it sound like I don't like Bossypants or 30 Rock or Tina Fey's comedy, none of which is actually true. It's just, I think, that I feel like I should like all of them a little bit more than I ever actually seem to....more
There is a lot of territory one could cover when discussing David Wong's John Dies At The End. You could talk about the identity of David Wong, or aboThere is a lot of territory one could cover when discussing David Wong's John Dies At The End. You could talk about the identity of David Wong, or about the self-insertion narrator/protagonist angle of the book, or the structure of the book and its prologue and epilogue, or the kitchen sink approach to novel writing. You could dissect the genre of the book, trying to determine if it is a humor book with elements of horror and social satire or a satirical horror book that dips into gross-out humor. Or, one might adopt the attitude of titular character John and just say, like, whatever.
Instead let me step back and tell you in general terms what I thought of the book as a reading (note: I listened to the audiobook) experience. Because the thing is, John Dies At The End had me. I was in, I was invested, I was loving the ride, even willing to overlook the regrettable overuse of the word "retarded" as an invective. I was laughing, I was delighted by the absurdity and the supernatural conspiracy angle (which I have to confess a particular fondness for). And then, around the last quarter of the book, Wong started to lose me.
The humor in the book is what carried me through, ultimately. This is an unsophisticated kind of satirical humor, the type that relies as much on fart gags as on witty insights because, bearing both, the scatological giggles protect and frame the genuine wit. It's kind of like hearing Sir Patrick Stewart repeating Beavis and Butt-Head jokes: funnier from the contrast. So yeah, it's amusing and occasionally insightful in its nihilistic wryness and I ended up pretty much loving John (particularly Stephen R. Thorne's languid stoner-slur characterization).
But there are some problems with the book as well, and they don't really coagulate into anything distasteful (provided you go with it from the outset) until you're pretty much committed to the book. For one thing, it's too long. After a while Wong's repeated encounters with the unseen evil forces behind the veil of the world get repetitive, especially because practically the first half of the book is an extended prologue into the real arc of the narrative, at least from a character point of view. There's something problematic when we don't start to get any sense of our narrator and protagonist (and, I suppose, author persona) until about 250 pages in. And then we have to start realizing that our kind of hapless loser primary is actually pretty dark and has serious personality conflicts that weren't all that obvious up front so the whole misadventure from the beginning needs to be re-examined in light of this, only it isn't (I guess the exercise is left to the reader).
All of which is a fault, I suppose, of a big idea and the difficulty in bringing that idea and its attendant details to life while also crafting a character who is at the same time a pseudonym and… let's just say I think Wong might have been a bit over-ambitious. But then you have the other factor to this which is that somehow in spite of the book being wonderfully weird a lot of the time, there's something incredibly constrained about the imagination on display here. Every monster Wong dreams up, for example, is pretty much a zany hybrid of two or three improbably matched real-world animals. Or a variation of an insect. Or both. And often Wong handwaves the sort of lazy conjuring away with phrases I detest in fiction like, "I don't know how else to describe it," or "beyond description." Sorry authors, but, yeah…
And these are aspects of the book that didn't work all that well for me but I think I might have been able to get over them if I felt like there was a payoff at the end. But as the extended and poorly demarcated epilogue rolls around, it becomes clear that a lot of the twisting and mired threads of plot scattered through the novel up until that point—including, it bears noting, the title—just aren't going to snap together into a cohesive apex. Maybe it's cliché at this point but I love when these kinds of stories work around to hinting or, most effectively, convincing of their own validity. John Dies At The End doesn't do this, and as far as I can tell, doesn't even try.
Which is the biggest complaint that I have with the book's flawed—though perhaps not fatal—finale: it feels like the book stops trying.
I do lightly recommend this book. I had a simple, fun time reading it (or listening to it in this case), which is something I find necessary every so often. If you can tolerate the mild disappointment of the ending and deal with the sophomoric humor, this is a silly, scary good read....more
Jenny Lawson is a recent discovery for me. I came to be aware of her website, The Bloggess, following the Beyoncé (the giant metal chicken) post. As aJenny Lawson is a recent discovery for me. I came to be aware of her website, The Bloggess, following the Beyoncé (the giant metal chicken) post. As a result, I don't know for sure how much of what appears in Let's Pretend This Never Happened is lifted directly from her blog, how much is expanded or condensed from other blog posts and how much is new material. I say this because the Beyoncé entry appears late in the book, verbatim from the blog as near as I can tell. That's not really a complaint because the original post was awesome and deserves to be included. What I mean, really, is that it's possible that if you're a longtime reader of her blog, some or most of this won't be fresh material.
For me, that doesn't really matter because like I said, there was only one brief chapter (worth re-reading anyway) that was familiar. And, I suppose, if you were a longtime fan of Lawson's blog, you might be the kind of person to pick up this book just to have it, or just to support her career. So I'll assume for the sake of the argument that you're like me and un- or passingly-familiar with The Bloggess.
The main thing to be said up front is that Lawson is hilarious. I mean, really, really, hilarious. It's hard to remember the last time I laughed out loud at a book as frequently or as uncontrollably as I did reading Let's Pretend. It got downright embarrassing at points to be reading this book on the train/shuttle combo I take to work, because I'd be sitting there, shoulders shaking with laughter, tears and snot running down my face, side aching and trying desperately to convince my fellow commuters that I wasn't having some sort of attack. Which of course I couldn't, because I was laughing too hard to breathe or speak. I'm really surprised no one called an ambulance.
What surprised me a little is how touching the book can be as well. It's not really a see-saw kind of thing that plays with your emotions, but there are nuggets of sweet truths peppered throughout, just enough to make you understand that this isn't simply a stand-up routine in prose. Lawson is brutally (I actually want to use the word "ruthlessly" here) honest, over-sharing almost on every page, but to perfection. I really can't think of anyone else who can make a chapter about three miscarriages and the resulting mental breakdown that understandably accompanied them snort-beverage-through-your-nose funny, but Lawson manages it.
I will say that, in case you didn't catch the implication from the above, Lawson's humor is raw, no-holds-barred and totally inappropriate. Which is the same as saying it's not for everyone. I assume, anyway; maybe there aren't any people out there who dislike jokes about taxidermy and OD'ing on laxatives. What do I know? I do know that there are people I can think of to whom I wouldn't necessarily give this book as a gift, so maybe that's all I'm really saying. But for me, this was just a funny, funny book from cover to cover.
I must be really weird about comedy, though. Because my inclination is to give this book four stars, even though I loved it. Somehow something that makes me laugh feels like... I'm not sure. Easy, maybe? But then I just got through saying that I couldn't think of a book that had made me laugh as much as this. I guess something makes me think of humor as sort of disposable, as if it could only ever reach a certain plateau if it also contained a riveting plot or something. But then I have to remember that this is a memoir, and plot isn't really the point. Then I start to think, "Yeah, but does this book really belong up there with my all-time favorites?" Perhaps not. But then again, I can't think of a single reason for anyone not to read this book unless you're the kind of person who doesn't find Lawson's brand of warped, irreverent, neurotic writing funny. At which point I decide to stop being stingy with my ratings just to be a grump and give it my highest praise.
Occasionally my forays into young adult or children's books turn up gems like The Island Of The Blue Dolphin, which transcend their target audience anOccasionally my forays into young adult or children's books turn up gems like The Island Of The Blue Dolphin, which transcend their target audience and manage universal appeal. Then there are those like Lemony Snicket's Series Of Unfortunate Events which are clearly, perhaps almost painfully, for kids. This isn't, I suppose, as harsh of an indictment of The Bad Beginning as it sounds, since it's only doing what it was designed to do. But the frequent vocabulary lessons—in this case meaning in-prose definitions of words that may not be familiar to young readers—can be pretty distracting for an older audience.
Additionally, this is a wisp of a book in which not terribly much happens: The Baudelaire children—Violent, Klaus and baby Sunny—lose their parents in a fire, are put under the care of their evil uncle, Count Olaf, and try to thwart a plot by Olaf to steal their inheritance. There are a couple of other minor characters here and there, but that's basically the gist of it. Granted, there are twelve other volumes to the series so between them all I suspect there may be a small handful of more complete novels, but The Bad Beginning seems particularly glib, almost unfinished.
I will say that Snicket surprised me with the resolution of the central conflict and the characters of the children are all likable and egaging. Plus the gentle dark humor strikes a tone that my ten year-old self would have really enjoyed so overall I can say that it was enough to make me think that at some point I might like to finish the whole series. However, they strike me as the kind of books that one might find in a family bookcase while housesitting for some friends or borrowing a cabin and read through in a sitting on a slow weekend afternoon. They don't feel like something I want to dedicate a lot of time to tracking down and acquiring....more
I guess the benefit of having your heroine be a bounty hunter and not a private detective or an amateur sleuth is that the traditional whodunnit mysteI guess the benefit of having your heroine be a bounty hunter and not a private detective or an amateur sleuth is that the traditional whodunnit mystery format doesn't necessarily have to apply. After two of Janet Evanovich's numbered Stephanie Plum novels, it's pretty clear the star of the show isn't the corpse du jour and the method by which the perpetrator is discovered, the star is Plum herself and the revolving cast of colorful, over-the-top supporting characters.
The plot here isn't even really that interesting: A cousin of Plum's antagonistic sort of half-crush, vice cop Joe Morelli, skipped bail on an assault charge for shooting a friend in the knee. After Plum misses a chance at an apprehension, the friend ends up dead and the chase is on. What is interesting is Plum's falling-with-style approach to her job, where she ineptly channels her uncommon luck/unluck into a sort of passable career. That, and Evanovich's knack for writing memorable characters.
One For The Money was pretty good, but this one showcases where Evanovich is going with the character and the stories, which is into a breezy, funny, quick read territory. The plot of the first novel was better than this one, but the humor and characterization are superior in this follow up which means they're about a wash in comparison. I'm tempted to boost the final rating of this one just because of the laugh-out-loud ludicrousness of Grandma Mazur, who steals the show in this book. I'll refrain though because Grandma is the kind of Fonzi/Urkel-esque character who can easily crowd the spotlight, so I hope Evanovich doesn't feature her to this degree in every subsequent book. Still, she may be the un-quantifiably best elderly character I've yet encountered in fiction.
These books are empty literary calories, and there's nothing wrong with a little mindless fun. I'm certainly putting Three To Get Deadly on my to-read list and I'm not even feeling guilty about it. I do hope as the series goes on the plotting gets a bit stronger while the zany tone and witty dialogue stay consistent, but even at the current quality level, I'm game for a half dozen or so, no problem....more
Mindy Kaling's witty and honest pseudo-memoir, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns), is a light read that I enjoyed quite a bit. KMindy Kaling's witty and honest pseudo-memoir, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns), is a light read that I enjoyed quite a bit. Kaling has a knack for striking a harmonious balance between sarcasm and sincerity, setting her conversational tone as the witty pal you wish you had, able to lampoon others and herself with equal grace.
The book reads kind of like a "best of" selections from perhaps a well-known blogger: intimate, revealing, scatterbrained, prone to random asides and brief chapters about pop culture or wry observations before picking up on the disjointed narrative about her life so far. In a way, the book is revealing in the sort of organic fashion; one gets the sense that they know Kaling pretty well by the end and they've learned about her the way they might over a lengthy conversation in a Starbucks somewhere, watching the shifts change at least twice.
Of course, there isn't much to tell in a memoir for someone who is in her very early thirties, so the appeal here is going to be Kaling's humor and this is a funny book. I found myself laughing out loud a number of times. For example:
...[I]t was surprising that I killed it as a babysitter. Er, maybe "killed it" is a wrong and potentially troubling way to express what I'm trying to say. The point is, I was an excellent babysitter.
Toward the end, Kaling runs out of official memoir material and the last quarter of the book consists entirely of random essays and tidbits of self-indulgence which aren't bad necessarily, just sort of frivolous. The sum total is very light, both in tone, gravity and actual content, as the book weighs in at a generously whitespaced 222 pages, if you also include the Acknowledgements section. On one hand, it's breezy and fun and amusing so it's not like it isn't worth a read or anything. But for a $25.00 hardcover?
I waited on a hold list and checked the copy I read out from the library. I felt like this was a good way to go, because I have to say that I think I would have been disappointed if I'd spent cover price for it, or even a discounted $15 or so. I don't want to get into the valuation for entertainment discussion here, but I finished the book in a very short amount of time and while I liked it an awful lot, I just can't seem to reconcile the enjoyment I gleaned with the MSRP.
Which is no real detriment to the content. Stripping the value proposition away, this is a recommended book, whether or not you're a fan of The Office. It's funny, endearing, and revealing; it's perfect for chasing away a low mood on a rainy evening....more
This review of the Scott Pilgrim series covers the entire sequence from Volume 1 through 6.
Scott Pilgrim's saga of love and conflict against his sweetThis review of the Scott Pilgrim series covers the entire sequence from Volume 1 through 6.
Scott Pilgrim's saga of love and conflict against his sweetheart Ramona Flowers' Seven Evil Exes is charming, funny, exhilarating, peculiar, meandering and indicative of the kind of unruly and inspirationally creative storytelling that comics or graphic novels can achieve. At the core Scott Pilgrim is about a regular, semi-jerky guy in his early twenties. He just wants to play video games, be in a band and enjoy his precious little life. Then he encounters Ramona, the dream girl with a mysteriously checkered past and enough baggage to fill six volumes as Scott finds himself needing to defeat her past flames in mortal combat. The good news is that Scott's pretty good at fighting. The bad news is that Ramona isn't very good at knowing what she wants leaving the audience to wonder if it's even worth Scott's time and effort to defeat all these evil exes.
O'Malley's script rambles over the course of about a year and a half, chronicling a dozen major characters and a bevy of minor ones. Scott Pilgrim's world is a fascinating swirl of Playstation science fiction lunacy with Street Fighter combat, robots, experience points and subspace handbags blended smoothly with a light slice-of-life realism in which young post-collegiate people mope, date, discuss each other and the rent, commiserate over beers and sleep in too late. There is a remarkable sense of normality to which all the characters view the supernatural happenings that go on around them, at one point casually carrying on a conversation on a balcony while Scott rumbles with a bloodthirsty robot inside the apartment while other party-goers look on. The result is that some of the obvious pseudo-metaphors that are poorly concealed within the surrealist sequences (such as Knives Chau's dad ninja-stalking Scott) work really well in conveying both the absurdity of human behavior as well as the exaggerated significance that all youth applies to even the most mundane events.
The best thing about Scott Pilgrim, both the series and the character, is the lack of simplicity in the characterization. Scott is both a colossal tool as well as a pretty decent guy; Ramona is simultaneously sincere, manipulative, loyal, flighty, confused, cocksure, despicable and lovable. Few characters are cardboard cutouts and most evolve over the course of the series. The books are themed on the concepts central to people of this age: Change, acceptance, maturation. Framed as they are in absurdist comedy that also happens to hit incredibly close to home, O'Malley has constructed an epic that parodies but also pays great tribute to the baffling period of early adulthood and manages to be relentlessly entertaining along the way.
Now, there are a few minor quibbles here and there. O'Malley's art is gorgeous but his style struggles to effectively differentiate several key characters making it somewhat frustrating (especially in the earlier volumes) to follow along with who is saying or doing what. This issue is exacerbated with a troublingly long list of B-grade characters who drift in and out of the story and the title placards inserted sporadically for comedic effect don't always do a sufficient job at clearing up the who's who of periphery cameos. It's rarely so confusing as to actually confound the reader and something as simple as colorizing the books would probably solve the problem quickly, but given the current format it does get annoying.
Additionally, several of the Evil Exes' individual arcs are somewhat convoluted and under-developed. Obviously these are not meant to be richly characterized additions to the already bloated cast but having some of the resolutions (which typically synchronize with the ends of the volumes) be a little more satisfying would help each book feel less like simply a chapter and more like a standalone work.
By itself, the collective that is Scott Pilgrim volumes one through six constitute a wonderful if mildly flawed series of graphic novels. With the release of the film based on these books, though, it's maybe worth noting there are some notable differences between the two and I presume there will be plenty of people who will see the movie on the strength of the series or (like me) seek out the series after enjoying the movie. Contrasting the two, I think the film is, overall, a bit stronger. Granted, the absurd nature of the story and the fantasy-laced fisticuffs feels more original in celluloid format than in a manga-style graphic novel since there is so little else to compare Scott Pilgrim (the film) to in the rest of Hollywood, where in comics there are at least a number of wild crossover worlds to cite as contemporaries. But far more significant than that I think many of the issues the graphic novels suffer from (excess of peripheral characters, unsatisfying Evil Exes flights, a couple of fairly drab sub-plots such as Steven Stills' obsession with recording a 17-minute demo for Sex Bob-Omb, and so on) are corrected in the screenplay.
Other, more sweeping changes are for the better as well: Knives Chau's role in the final battle against Gideon is much more satisfying than the conclusion of her arc in volume 6, the confrontation between Envy Adams, Todd and Scott is streamlined and much more effective in the film, and the reduced importance of subspace (especially in terms of Ramona's development) is for the better. That isn't to say the film is superior in all respects: The band fight that results in the defeat of the Twins is much weaker than the two-versus-one fight in volume five (aided by the fact that it sets up a lot of the development of Kim's character, which I loved) and the movie's glossed-over confrontation with Lucas Lee is much better explained in volume 2. Somewhere between the two there is a "definitive" Scott Pilgrim story, but I kind of like that experiencing both feels a bit like hearing two different accounts of the same tale from different people, each privy to more or less of the truth, such that there are enough common elements to get the gist but the differing details make you wonder just which version is more accurate.
One other trivial note: When I watched the movie I thought the casting of Michael Cera was a bit odd since he always plays "the Michael Cera character," and his Scott Pilgrim is no exception. After reading the graphic novels, I totally get it. O'Malley writes Pilgrim as if he were speaking Cera-ese. It's uncanny.
Overall, I highly recommend Scott Pilgrim. Anyone who has played a video game, been in love, found themselves feeling like the weight of someone else's problems rests on them, likes comic book action, enjoys snappy dialogue, wants a gentle introduction to manga or has been (or knows someone who is) in their early twenties ought to enjoy these stories....more