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.