Sunday, December 30, 2012

BooksFirst May-December 2012

Books Bought
The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury
American Gods 10th Anniversary Edition by Neil Gaiman (Kindle edition)
The Old Man And The Sea by Ernest Hemingway
To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey
Casino Royale by Ian Fleming
The Picture of Dorain Gray by Oscar Wilde

Books Read
J Is For Judgment by Sue Grafton
Blackout by Connie Willis
All Clear by Connie Willis

Books Heard
Man Made by Joel Stein
Girl In A Bar by Rachel Dratz
You're Not Doing It Right by Michael Ian Black

Riding out my NaJuReMoNoMo resolution to catch up on my Kinsey Millhone novels, I read the (counting on my fingers) tenth installment J Is For Judgment. In this one, Kinsey is sent to investigate a man who has possibly faked his own death to run off with the proceeds from his rapidly failing real estate investments. This results in a very funny scene with her hopping from balcony to balcony in a Mexican resort hotel. complicating the investigation is the putatively dead man's new mistress and the legal troubles of one of his abandoned sons.

The more interesting story arc in this book is learning of Millhone's long-lost relatives in the area. This gets into some backstory of how she came to be raised by her aunt but never told of the rest of her family. 

Blackout/All Clear is a massive two-part novel which takes part in the award-winning time travel series written by Connie Willis. It is World War II and historians have been sent to Blitz in London, the Dunkirk evacuation, and the D-Day preparations. But then things go Horribly Wrong as they tend to do in time travel stories, particularly when told by Willis.

At over 1400 pages, the combined novel is just an enormous doorstop and basically brought my reading to a standstill for several months. The various narrative threads are very hard to keep track of despite the time stamp at the start of each chapter. Since the historians adopt aliases while working undercover, they go by their real names and their cover names adding even more confusion.

The books are clearly the result of meticulous research border on an almost Michneresque level of detail only without the broad scope. The centerpiece of the story involves an air raid which nearly burns down St. Paul's cathedral but this happens about halfway through the story. It is not until the last 200 hundred pages or so that the various subplots start to tie together. And they do all tie together very well but there are still way too many. This book could and should have been cut by at least a third.

Joel Stein is writer whose journalism, if it can be called that, is something I have laughed at for years. He often self-deprecatingly ridicules his geekiness and lack of masculinity as well as his penchant for pornography. He has rolled all of this up into his book Man Made. In this book-length bit of stunt-journalism he resolves to man-up to be the man he needs to be to father his forthcoming son. To this end, he undergoes basic training, goes hunting, and becomes an ultimate fighter. The book is in parts hilarious but the schtick starts to wear thin soon. There are only so many macho yet sensitive men he can feel inferior to.

And as a piece of stunt-journalism, a genre which has come increasingly popular, it is particularly unfocused. There seems to be no real deadline or goal. The narrative goes on well past the birth of his son and just devolves into random events. Sometimes extremely funny writers have a hard time keeping the laughs going over long pieces and this is one such case.

Rachel Dratch was one of the more overlooked and typecast Saturday Night Live regulars. The most notable point on her post-SNL career is being cut from 30 Rock early in the first season. She dispatches her version of the story very early in Girl Walks Into A Bar... and she seems genuinely unbitter over it. The first half of the book is typical comedian biography (I am becoming a little too familiar with this genre) but then the story picks-up. As a 40-something single woman she finds herself unexpectedly pregnant. How she copes with this extremely life changing event is both funny and touching.

I've mentioned before that I prefer comedians read their own books and this one is a great example of why. The way she makes the word "Universe" ring every time she goes into Oprah-esque mysticism adds just the right touch. If you've loved Tina Fey's Bossypants reviewed here), this is the near-perfect companion book.

Another entry in the very crowded field of audiobooks written and read by comedians is You're Not Doing It Right by Michael Ian Black. Like Bill Engvall (reviewed here), the major event in his life seems to be meeting and marrying his wife. Unlike Engvall, this book is a little more idiosyncratic and the self-deprecation (an important common element in all books by comedians) is more honest and revealing. He really is a dick a lot of times.

Some of the stories are just hilarious. He and his wife getting stoned in a Amsterdam coffee shop is pants-splittingly funny. Unfortunately, a lot of his stories follow a fairly defined formula. He says "I would never do {blank}." And then a few sentences later he says "I did {blank}." It's funny the first several times but then it gets tiresome. And like the memoir by Mindy Kaling (reviewed here), he never seems to have encountered any real career setbacks to speak of.

There is a very serious section about how he deals with depression which is just raw. He gets a lot of credit for honesty but the execution is just a little weak.

BooksFirst February-April 2012

Books Bought  
Hammerhead Ranch by Tim Dorsey
Orange Crush by Tim Dorsey

Books Read 
 Hammerhead Ranch Motel by Tim Dorsey
Too Close To Miss by John Perich
Travels With Charley by John Steinbeck
Books Heard 
Just A Guy by Bob Engvall


 Tim Dorsey continues his satirical look at the dark underbelly of Florida in Hammerhead Ranch Motel, the second book of his series without a real title. And by 'satirical', I mean 'totally realistic'. The scary part about such a rambling over-the-top mess is how little is really fictional. Sure, Dorsey changes the name of Bubba The Lovesponge to Boris the Hateful Piece Of Shit ( a not very subtle dig), but it's enough of the same person to be libelous if not true. In this installment, the macguffin from Florida Roadkill is now in the greater Tampa area and a oddball assortment of sociopaths, drug dealers, gangsters, and other Florida fauna are chasing after it.

I read this book while on vacation at Rocky Point and the geography of the Pinellas County and greater Tampa is stunning accurate. Most of the action in the book takes place in and around the titular motel which is haven to a scam artist drug dealer and several itinerant parties involved in what loosely could be described as a plot. Coherent narratives do not seem to be the strong suit of Dorsey but the characters are fresh and memorable.

John Perich is a contributing editor to the Overthinking It website and podcast. In addition to his duties on that site, he has written Too Close To Miss, a thriller novel set in his adopted town of Boston. Now Boston is no stranger to mystery writers with both Robert Parker and Dennis Lehane walking that side of the street already. To compete in a crowded thinking space, Perich has attempted to subvert a few cliches of the genre. For one, the heroine is the mistress. When a prominent politician's wife is brutally murdered, newspaper photographer Mara Cunningham becomes the prime suspect and she has to clear her name.

I'm fond of mysteries with a little intellectual heft behind them, the books by John D. MacDonald and Sue Grafton come to mind, and this book fits well in that niche. It's not too spoilery to say that there are suspicious land deals involved, a staple of the Travis McGee series. Like all thriller heroes, Mara is just perhaps a little too hyper-competent. For one, she teaches martial arts on the side, a skill that comes in handy when the baddies start stalking her.

What is perhaps notable about this book is that Perich has decided to self-publish in as a Kindle-only format. And despite the sketchiness of the self-published novel, this book stands as a peer with anything published by a major house.

I first read anything by John Steinbeck when my son read The Pearl in high school. To close this major blindspot I decided to give Travels With Charley a try. This an atypical book from Steinbeck in that it is a travelogue rather than a novel with the titular co-travel being his aging poodle. The two take off in a pick-up truck and do a lap of the United States. It does seem to take them an inordinate amount of time to get out of New England.

It surprised me that the book was written in the early 1960s as I tend to associate Steinbeck with the Great Depression. This becomes a factor when he makes his way to segregation era Texas and the Deep South. At that point the story becomes a little more reportorial as he spends a good time discussing the opposition to school integration in a small town. As with the rest of the book, he lets the people he meets talk without a lot of authorial editorial, but the people encounters here don't always show their best side.

I greatly appreciated the nuance and charm that Steinbeck brought to the book. It's nostalgic without being maudlin, introspective without being navel-gazing.

My go-to choice for audio books to listen to on road trips has become books written and read by comedians. There is something about having it read in their own voice that brings an immediacy to the story. Bob Engvall is one of the Blue Collar Comics, not as funny as John Foxworthy, but not nearly as cringingly bad as Larry The Cable Guy.

Presumably the book title Just A Guy is one of his catch phrases which he repeats a few times in the book but not to the point of annoyance. Mostly the book is about his early days as a stand-up comedian and the wooing of his wife Gail. Based on his self-deprecating stories, she is a saint for putting up with him, a judgment I could concur with. Towards the end of the book the schmaltz gets amped up to ten but that is a minor annoyance.

Much like Engvall himself, this book is good middle-of-the-road entertainment with few major revelations but a couple of clever insights.

BooksFirst - January 2012 (NaJuReMoNoMo)

Books Bought
Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (Kindle)

Books Read
F is For Fugitive by Sue Grafton  
H Is For Homocide by Sue Grafton
I Is For Innocent by Sue Grafton  
Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins


I'm a collector of Sue Grafton's Kinsey Milhone novels. Sadly, I buy many more than I read, so as part of National Just Read More Novels Month, I resolved to careen through the backlog. As you can see by the Books Read list, I fell woefully short. This does nor reflect poorly on Ms. Grafton, quite the contrary. Her books are well-crafted and require a fair amount of attention to be paid. I know for a fact that I have read the first four of her novels but my memory on the fifth was a bit hazy so I decided to jump to the sixth, F is For Fugitive, just for safe measure. The titular fugitive is a guy who was convicted of a murder and then escapes from prison only to go on the lam again. His relatives hire Kinsey to clear his name but things go awry when new crimes go haywire. For this book, Milhone decamps from her native Santa Teresa to Floral Beach, a small beach town with a lot of dark secrets. Within this Peyton Place-ish enclave there is a lot of history some people would just prefer stayed hidden. Part of the strength of this book and Grafton's novels in general is that all the characters are interesting and complex. They all interact in ways that tie the history of the town together but still make finding the final culprit a challenge and a surprise.

 More linear is H Is For Homocide where Kinsey goes undercover to get the goods on the sociopathic ringleader of an insurance fraud ring. She spends most of the novel just trying to keep from being discovered as she walks a narrow path between keeping her cover and protecting her life. More action oriented than some of the other mysteries, it also seems more prone to random set-ups. Kinsey gets involved when a meeting with a fraud suspect also involves an old school friend and the evening ends in a shoot-out. For there things go even further off the rails. There is also at least one unjustified final twist. I don't know whether it was meant to set up future storylines, but it just seems random.

 For a writer, a series character can be quite restrictive so a little playing with the form is good, but in this case it doesn't really pay-off. In I Is For Innocent, Kinsey is back on her home turf of Santa Teresa investigating an acquitted murder suspect trying to get his dead wife's money. As usually happens there is more than meets the eye and the private investigator Milhone is following up on died under mysterious circumstances as well. The word 'innocent' is used rather ironically because the cast of characters is a little more blue-blooded than usual but still rather despicable. Normally I find the scenes about Kinsey's neighbors and her home life to be boring filler, but this one had a good subplot. Her friend and octogenarian landlord's brother shows up only to start carrying on with the Hungarian diner owner. It's funny and endearing.

Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins is the latest phenomenon. I've been seeing it and its sequels in bookstores for years and have been dismissing it as some sort of cousin to the sexy vampire genre. Needing a quick read on my Kindle for a plane trip, I bit and bought it. It turned out to be many things that were not tropes in the Twilight-ish world I dreaded. It was fast paced. The romance was underplayed, indeed subverted. And the heroine was genuinely an agent of her own destiny.

It was far from flawless though. There are huge plot holes and tons of inconsistencies. The one item which just nagged at me was a nitpick I have with a lot of dystopian fiction and science fiction in general aimed at teenage readers and even older readers. That is that the economics of the post-apocalyptic world make no sense whatsoever. The Capital is this huge post-modern marvel with mind-boggling technology. But its all based on what seems to be a very small base of the outer districts. District 12 doesn't seem like it would support a decent suburb's energy needs let alone an entire country. And what are they doing still mining coal anyways?

There is also way too much lead-up to the Games themselves. It's well over half the book before kids start killing each other. Oddly, the premise of teenagers battling each other to the death is one of the least of my problems. As a plot device and a metaphor I think it works very well. I am totally unfamiliar with the sources people claim it resembles such as The Running Man and Battle Royale, but this sort of set-up goes at least as far back as The Biggest Game and Lord Of The Flies, so there is plenty of prior art to lean on.

I understand that the sequels delve deeper into the politics of the world and I'm a little hesitant to continue on since this was what I found least satisfying.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

An Open Letter To Gene Weingarten


I am highly flattered that in your latest column you still find the four-year-old post from my lightly-read now-dormant blog such a supreme irritant, although you seem to have missed my retraction of your ass-hatted-ness. I do find the claim that I am obsessed with you a bit overwrought. In 877 posts I managed to mention you perhaps a dozen times, in about half of them just parenthetically. They can all be found here.

Despite your delusion that harassing customer service representatives is in the least bit humorous, you were one of the most talented writers at the Washington Post. While I don't begrudge you either of your Pulitzers, I found your article about the Alaskan fishing village one of the most poignant and moving stories I have ever read and far more award worthy than a buskering stunt or a profile of a birthday party performer with a (SPOILER ALERT) gambling problem. I'm sorry you no longer write those excellent long form pieces and choose instead to spend your dodderage writing doggerel.

WeingartenFrankly, I rarely get around to the Sunday WaPoMag now that it is thinner than the accompanying Parade insert unless I remember to read Dilbert. In my time as a boodler at the Achenblog I have declared that there is no level of celebrity too low to not have a cult of personality and with your newfound rivalry with FishbowlDC, you exemplify that principle (Not that I take their side. Taking weekly potshots at a Pulitzer-winning columnist past their prime is pretty low hanging fruit.).

While I don't throw virtual panties like the rest of your now defunct Yahoo fan group, I don't begrudge you your fame. Just learn to take the downside a little more graciously. Not everyone will always lavish praise just as some blogs will start a rap star beef with your Shalitesque face. But I am honored to remain your bĂȘte noire and I wish you many more oddly colored bowel movements to tweet about.

Your father-son bonding experience of a comic strip is occasionally funny. Just don't let that smart-mouthed moppet grow up too fast. You would hate to break the rules of comic strip temporal dynamics.

Monday, June 11, 2012

BooksFirst November-December 2011

Books Bought  
Reamde by Neal Stephenson
Travels With Charley by John Steinbeck (Kindle)
American Gods: Tenth Anniversary Edition by Neil Gaiman (Kindle)  

Books Read  
Reamde by Neal Stephenson  

Books Heard  
Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling  
The New New Rules: A Funny Look at How Everybody but Me Has Their Head Up Their Ass by Bill Maher


Just when I think I have finally caught up with the thousands of pages of Neal Stephenson novels out there, he goes out and publishes another book. The press meme on Reamde is that it is 'light' Stephenson because it doesn't do the deep philosophical tangents endemic in Anathem. But at over 1000 pages, it is hardly light. Perhaps 'contemporary' is the better word. The plot revolves around an internet millionaire and his next generation World of Warcraft-like game where goldfarming is not only allowed but encouraged. Form there it goes literally all over the globe and includes Islamic terrorists, British undercover agents, Christian fundamentalists and more.

And while it focuses on current events, the level of detail is Clancy-esque. But more so, the story is masterfully plotted. Every time I thought some string had been dropped or some tangent was just a red herring, it came together at some point later. Everybody has a role and it's a lot of fun watching Stephenson moving the pieces together. All the characters have a role to play and Checkov's Rule is lavishly followed as no detail early in the book fails to be significant later.

In some ways it feels like Stephenson is slumming by saying that he could write a Ludlum level thiller at will. And the characters are much more real than he usually manages even if they do tend towards Heinleinian hyper-competency. The book is fast-paced and literally a page turner. Over a thousand of them, each of them a gem.

Mindy Kaling plays the ditzy guy-crazy Indian-American on The Office. What many people don't realize is that she is also one of the writers and a producer on the show. This book is very much in the vein of Bossypants by Tina Fey in that it is a roughly chronological biography of her entry into the comedy world.

It's tough to create any tension out of being a reasonably successful if slightly sheltered Ivy League graduate who is pretty much an overnight success. She first hit the radar of the comedy world with her off-off-Broadway two woman show based on a completely fictional version of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. Her behind the scenes anecdotes are charming and self-deprecating. The book is full of all sorts of funny one-liners and clever observations.

It's the personal stuff  where she seems to be really pulling punches. While she admits to failed relationships and awkward dates, she never really lets loose enough to get a good feel for her as a person. Another aspect which should have been fascinating, the cross-cultural life as the Amercanized child of immigrant parents, is also given short shrift. She does focus a good bit on struggles with weight and body issues in a way that is both humorous and enlightening. I just wish she had pulled fewer punches.

Bill Maher is one of my comedy heroes.While I do not agree with all his politics (and nobody right of Che Guevara could), I find the way he presents them convincing and hilarious.

This book is a very obvious cut and past job from the past several years of the New Rules segment of his HBO series. As such, a lot of the topical humor has not aged well. On the other hand, how prescient some of the observations were is a bit frightening. But there are plenty of places where you will shoot soda out of your nose in laughter at his outrageousness.

Maher's profane sense of humor is not for everybody, but if you like his take on the world, this collection of greatest hits is well worth it.

2012 Tony Recap

It was a lackluster year for Broadway, especially musicals. It's years like this that Big River or The Mystery of Edwin Drood get to tour with all sorts of 'Tony-award winning' hype in their ads. There was nothing that made me fire up the ticket ordering website like Spring Awakening (reviewed here) or Jersey Boys has done to me in the past. The one that intrigued me the most was Sheryl Crow's off-hand remark about an adaptation of Diner, but that may just be the Baltimoron in me.

 Based on some some reviews and live blogs this morning and the consensus was that Best Original Score was emblematic of malaise since two of the four nominees were actually plays. Perhaps I'm getting more jaded since (humblebrag alert) the only shows I bothered to see this year were the deservedly lauded Death of a Salesman and Book of Mormon for a second time. Here are some pics of the cast (Phillip Seymour Hoffman slipped out away from the backstage door):

Andrew "The Next Spider-Man" Garfield

Remy "Son of Odo" Auberjonois

Between the Gershwin shows and Weber-Rice revivals, I couldn't tell whether it was 1932 or 1979. And it may have been the aspect ratio on my TV but Matthew Broderick is going to start giving Harvey Fierstein a run for his money in a few years.

I really have nothing against the concept of Once as musical even though I didn't particularly care for the movie, and it was one of the better numbers on the show. The worst was the ten-minute Royal Caribbean commercial featuring the world's skinniest Tracey (who must also understudy for Penny) and sets which would embarrass a high school production. I saw Hairspray at Toby's Dinner Theater in Columbia recently and it can be done well on a shoestring.

 I was very, very glad to see Washington Shakespeare Company get a special award since I have been going to an inordinate number of their productions this year. Good for DC!

 And as always, NPH knocked it out of the house. There is nothing he can't do.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Ray Bradbury, RIP

Ray Bradbury was the least sciencey of the ABC (Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke) science fiction writers. His stories were gossamer fables not hard-edged puzzles. The Martian Chronicles were not so much a tale about traveling to Mars as they were about trips to a Mars. One that didn't exist so he had to invent it. It was a wistful lonely Mars, not a place of adventure and discovery. Bradbury brought poetry and beauty to a genre prone to Hemingwayesque simplicity. He bridged science fiction and fantasy and horror in ways no later writer has managed to successfully meld.

His legacy is permanent as Fahrenheit 451, along with 1984 and Brave New World, is one of the most important dystopian novels of the 20th century. It's a book that is more true and more real and more frightening than when it was first published.
Bradbury brought literature into science fiction and vice versa. He transcended the genre. As Kurt Vonnegut once said, the problem with being put in a drawer called science fiction is that too many critics mistake it for a urinal. Bradbury escaped that pigeonhole and taught the world that science fiction could be lyrical.
He inspired inquiry and passion. None more so than in this video:

I even forgive the video its (literal) slap at Kurt Vonnegut. While the video is a joke, it rings true because Bradbury was a staple of high school reading lists kids actually enjoy. And his writing crosses gender lines in popularity. He was a pioneer and a guiding light and he will be missed but not forgotten.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Zack and Zonker

Recently a newspaper comic strip took on a hot button political issue in a provocative stand in a week-long series which ignited controversy and outrage:

I kid. Zack Hill is a minor comic and this series of strips went practically unnoticed. The story line for the comic seems to be based on this real news story about a preschooler who had her lunch confiscated because it was not well-balanced enough for the person checking lunches, whoever that may have been. For a week or so this became a cause celebre with all sorts of people decrying rampant Nanny State-ism. The primary complaint seemed to be over-reach into the personal decisions of a parent to determine what is an adequate meal.

This week the more high-profile comics and/or editorial page stalwart Doonesbury also took on a topical issue with this strip summing up the tone:

(click image for a more legible version)
As widely reported, this series of strips satirizes the trend in states such as Texas and Virginia to require women seeking an abortion to have an invasive sonogram as a prerequisite to the procedure. It also tackles the issue as one of government over-reach and excessive Nanny State-ism. Feel free to draw your own additional parallels.

Friday, February 24, 2012

A Tale of Two Stadiums

At the Democratic National Convention in 2008, demand to watch Barack Obama give his acceptance speech was so large that they moved the event to Denver's Mile High Stadium.

Today Mitt Romney held a major campaign speech at Ford Field in Detroit, Michigan and had trouble papering the event to fill 1200 seats.

Draw your own conclusions.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

When Ted Met Sally

This week in Sally Forth, Francesco Marciuliano is exploring what would have happen if Ted and Sally had never met. He is also exploring other counterfactuals on his Francesco Explains It All blog.

But some things are fate. They just might not have happened as we imagined them. Here is my version of When Ted Met Sally.

Without Sally, Ted would have been drawn deeper and deeper into his neuroses.

And without a stabilizing influence, Sally's business instincts would have had no limits.

But somethings are meant to be, no matter how dark and twisted.

And they lived happily ever after.