Tuesday, December 02, 2008
BooksFirst - November 2008
A Walk In The Woods by Bill Bryson
The Martian Race by Gregory Benford
Under The Banner Of Heaven by Jon Krakauer
Teachers Have It Easy by Daniel Mouthroup, Nanive Clements Calegari and Dave Eggers
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
The Rainbow of Mathematics by Ivor Grattan Guinness
The Comics by Brian Walker
Welcome to the Monkey House by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
Fifty Degrees Below by Kim Stanley Robinson
Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris
Holidays On Ice by David Sedaris
Normally I don’t review the books I've bought but haven't read, but everybody has read some of Welcome to the Monkey House at some point. A staple of high school English classes, the short stories are some of the first exposure people get to Vonnegut's style of deadpan black humor.
It is also the last major Kurt Vonnegut book that I didn’t have a first edition of. We were in New York and just coincidentally happened to park two blocks away from Strand Bookstore which has recently upgraded their motto from “Eight Miles of Books” to “Eighteen Miles of Books” and is probably still understating it. We won’t know until the next milestone, which I guess is eighty miles of books.
Their enormous rare book room is on the third floor. I went up and browsed. They had a book club edition of Player Piano for $45 on display, so I asked if they had more Vonnegut. The clerk shrugged her shoulder and said to check the shelves, which I already had. As I was waiting for the elevator I scanned the locked case by the door and saw the long-elusive WTTMH on the bottom shelf. Sure, it’s a big indulgence, but I checked Alibris this morning and every copy they had listed was more than what I paid. Now I just need a bigger bookcase, because the Vonnegut shelf is already groaning.
In perhaps the weirdest naming strategy I’ve run across, Fifty Degrees Below is the middle book of a trilogy that started with Forty Signs of Rain (reviewed here) and concludes with Sixty Days And Counting. As the middle book in a trilogy, it has all the typical problems of the second book. Something has to happen, but you know not everything is going to get resolved.
In this episode, more focus of the storyline is on Frank Vanderwal, a self-centered researcher shuffling papers at the National Science Foundation. Venal, manipulative, and sexually predatory, he filters all his actions through a rationalization of sociobiology. It's a credit to the storytelling that Frank who was a complete asshole in Forty becomes very sympathetic hero by the end of Fifty.He also finds out why he keeps running across a mysterious woman. Some super-secret agency is tracking top scientists and he is one of them for some reason.
However, the pacing is languorous. The titular freeze doesn't even start until after page 300. And you expect a story like this to have lots of planet saving pleas. The science is cutting edge with all sorts of bold climate change concepts. Now I have to wait for the right time to finish the trilogy and see how the world gets saved.
David Sedaris is a NPR superstar and a lot of it is based on his low-key monotone delivery of his tales of humiliation. Me Talk Pretty One Day starts out with his encounter with a speech therapist with a southern drawl thicker than his lisp. However, the bulk of the book and the title revolves around his life as an ugly American in rural France that either can't or just refuses to learn the language. Way too much of the humor drives from his malaprop prone literal translations into and out of French.
A few stories are poignant, but most just strain with flop sweat. Near the end he resorts to ridiculing American tourists after spending chapters talking about how poorly he himself fits in. His line about Americans showing up in foreign countries looking like they came to mow the lawn is classic, but cheap laughs about bad grammar don't rise to Jerry Lewis levels of hilarity.
This three disc set of Christmas-themed stories called Holidays On Ice seemed like the perfect driving companion to and from the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and it was. The first disc about his time in the trenches as an elf at Macy's is both enlightening and side-splittingly funny. He hits just the right notes of wry observation mixed with self-deprecation.
Less successful are his completely fictional stories that tread a fine line along the boundaries of tastelessness and offensiveness. Portraying a reunited Vietnamese Amerasian war baby as a hot pants wearing me-love-you-long-time slut with incestuous tendencies just isn't funny in any sort of meta-way at all. And his Christmas tale of two neighbors outdoing each other is tedious and telegraphed long before the nausea sets in. But then he returns to the memoir idiom and has a touching tale of rescuing an abused white trash floozy, even if just for one night. It hits all the notes that a Sedaris story should and brings a twisted warmth to the holiday season.