Category Archives: satire

Satirical treatments of other books.

Review 170: Naked Pictures of Famous People

Naked Pictures of Famous People by Jon Stewart

If that doesn’t drive visitors to this site, nothing will.

Jon Stewart is, as of this writing, one of the most well-known TV personalities in the country. In the last decade, he seems to have become an authority to an entire generation of people who distrust the media and the government, shining the bright light of comedy on the dark, unholy crevasses of our society. He’s interviewed heads of state, famous actors and actresses, and been a constant – if somewhat reluctant – model for people who haven’t yet drunk the Kool-Aid.

It’s hard to believe, then, that just over ten years ago he was a stand-up comic whose only foray into television had been a quickly-canceled MTV program. Our little Jonny has grown up so fast…. *sniff*

But really, do any of us look as young as we did fourteen years ago? I think not...

This book comes on the cusp of those two times in Stewart’s life – back in 1998, a year before he took over the hosting duties on The Daily Show. It’s a different style of humor for what we’re used to watching his show. It’s less self-effacing, more surreal and, in my honest opinion, not as funny.

It pains me to say, yes, but I didn’t laugh out loud a whole lot reading this book. Some authors can do it – Terry Pratchett, of course, and Dave Barry seem to be able to poke their fingers right into my funny fuse. I’ve had John Scalzi do it, Neil Gaiman from time to time, Sarah Vowell and Connie Willis are able to pull it off. But Jon Stewart? Not so much.

Don’t get me wrong – I think Stewart is a blindingly funny man. I can listen to his stand-up album, “Unleavened,” over and over again and laugh every time. And I’m surprised that I haven’t gotten any angry messages from my neighbors about my resonant cackling when I watch The Daily Show. When he talks, I laugh. He’s fantastic with inflection and timing, which unfortunately doesn’t translate so well onto the page.

Still and all, there are some chuckles to be had in this collection of short stories and mini essays. They’re certainly weird and interesting, and I think that many of them could make the transition to stage or screen with little difficulty. If I had more friends and resources, I could do some mean copyright infringement on YouTube. Let’s take a look at a few of the gems in this collection….

So if Gates worked with the Devil, then logically... Hey, has anyone checked Jobs' tomb recently?

“The Devil and William Gates” is a chilling tale of what we all suspected to be true about the rise of Bill Gates – a deal with the devil, and the kind of lawyerly acumen that would make Gates into the richest man in the world. It’s a tale of desperation and deception – exactly what you might expect of Microsoft, right?

In “The Cult,” Jon takes a look at what might befall him if he should form a cult around his savior, Cap’n Crunch. It’s plain that he’s formed this cult for the same reason most cults get formed – for the power, the prestige and, of course, the limitless sex with your followers. I mean, I can’t say I’ve never thought of it…. The problem, of course, lies in keeping your followers under your thrall. At some point, you’re going to have to produce a savior, or there’s going to be problems. As Jon soon finds out….

“Adolph Hitler: The Larry King Interview” is good fun, and one that I’d love to see made into a video. Adolph Hitler – yes, the Adolph Hitler – reveals that he’s been alive all this time, doing some thinking and getting his priorities in order. And now he’s ready to come back to the world, with a book to push. Who better to help him publicly atone than Larry King?

In “The New Judaism,” Jon outlines a more modern approach for the more modern Jew. Why pray to a distant and unresponsive God when you can pray to a far more genial Uncle Pete? With a new God, a new mascot and greatly simplified rules (“Ass, gas or grass, nobody rides for free; and Be cool.”), the New Judaism is what the world has been waiting for. At least the Jewish world. A very small, extremely non-traditional part of it, anyway.

Finally, there’s “Revenge is a Dish Best Served Cold,” the secret dream of every kid who was ever picked on, put down and pushed around in high school. Imagine a lifetime of bitterness, anger and Evil Scientist urges coming to bear on those who had been such a bane to your existence! Imagine what havok you could wreak with a horrible, unimaginably awful Creature at your beck and call. Yes, you would get your revenge and those who taunted you would pay – PAY!!

Just don’t count out the competition.

It’s an amusing book, and good in short bites. It makes me wish that Stewart were a funnier writer than he is. I suppose I’ll just have to be happy with loving him on television.

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The history of the Jewish people has been described in many scholarly manuscripts as, “The shit end of the stick.”
-Jon Stewart, “The New Judaism,” Naked Pictures of Famous People
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Review 164: Moving Pictures

Moving Pictures by Terry Pratchett

Given a choice between books and movies, many people – myself included – will say that books are always better than movies. “You can use your imagination,” we’ll say, “drawing on the powers of the human mind to create things that manifestly are not real. You can decide for yourself what the scenes look like and how the characters appear, rather than have some director feed his or her vision over yours.”

Despite that, however, we all still love the movies. If you gave me a novelization of Casablanca, for example, I would be hard-pressed to say honestly that it’s better than the movie. There’s just something about movies, how they take images and ideas and just pour them into your head whole. Ideas and emotions flood your mind, evading the more analytical parts of your brain (if it’s a really good movie) and heading straight for the unconscious.

Clearly the alien dreadlocks are a poly-phallic symbol, representing the unrestrained patriarchal abuses committed by whomever let Travolta make this thing.

Oh sure, you might analyze it later – take it apart for meaning and symbolism, dissecting the casting choices or praising the story arc. But for those couple of hours, when you’re staring at the screen, there’s magic happening. We’re lucky that we know what to do with it.

On the Discworld, though, movie magic is something new, and something very, very dangerous.

You see, one of the flaws of the Discworld is that it’s not horribly real. Not as real as our world, certainly, but just about as real as you can be, if you’re a flat world being carried on the backs of four elephants, who are in turn standing on a turtle that swims through the stars. It has been shown in many other volumes that reality on the Disc is negotiable and variable. And if something should come along to make the Disc slightly less real, then that could be a danger to everyone.

In a dry and sunny place far from Ankh-Morpork, something stirs. Long held at bay by ancient rituals and safeguards, something primal has finally been allowed out into the world, and it seeks the minds of those who dream. It is the dream of a place called Holy Wood, and it is where reality itself may be torn asunder.

It calls many people to create thse dreams. It calls young Victor Tugelbend, the best bad Wizard student in the Unseen University. He wants nothing more than to live a life of leisure, without actually having to work. It calls Silverfish, an alchemist who has very nearly mastered the art of making octo-cellulose. With it, he hopes to change the world. It calls Rock, a troll down from the mountains who dreams of doing more with his life than just hitting things. And it calls C.M.O.T. Dibbler, the greatest opportunist and worst entrepreneur in Ankh-Morpork.

Without really knowing why, they all head to Holy Wood, where the sun always shines and the clicks can be made on the cheap. A strange city springs up, made not of solid brick and mortar buildings, but shacks with false fronts, a city that is completely modular and impermanent. There they build worlds and lives and, yes, dreams. Through them, the people of Ankh-Morpork can dream as well.

All those dreams, though, are a shining beacon for Things that live beyond the boundaries of our universe. They seek the warmth and light of our world, and will exploit any opportunity to break through. By bringing dreams to life, the people of Holy Wood risk dooming the world to nightmares.

In fact, it is possible to have too many movie references...

I could, if I wanted, just start to catalog all the movie references that Pratchett makes in this book, but that would be ridiculous. Besides, someone has already done that for me, over at L-Space, and even they say it’s impossible to list them all. Suffice it to say, if enough people remember it from classic cinema, then it’s in this book in one way or another. If it’s a story told about Hollywood and they heyday of the studio system, then it’s in here too. Whether you’re an avid fan of the cinema or you just watch whatever your friends are watching, you should be able to get a lot of enjoyment out of this.

The themes that Pratchett explores in this book are interesting, too. One of these is the nature of fame. In one scene, the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork, a man who holds the life of the city in his hands, is seated next to Vincent and Ginger, the Disc’s first movie superstars. Even though the Patrician has worked hard to become the ruler of the city, even though he is responsible for the lives and well-being of everyone in it, he is still far less famous and beloved than these two people who are famous just for standing in front of a camera and saying things. And even though he knows this, he still feels an odd thrill that he’s actually sitting next to them.

OMG, we collate paper just the same way!! (courtesy of The Bloggess)

In our own world, we hold celebrities to be almost apart from the rest of us – although that may erode slowly as social media such as Twitter and Facebook open up more and more of their mundane lives to their fans. Still, if we see someone famous in the grocery store or on the bus, we think, “Oh my god! That’s [famous person]! He’s buying broccoli here, just like me!!” Even though they are made of the same flesh and blood that we are, we perceive them as something Other, often even confusing them with the characters they play. In our world that’s merely annoying, but on the Discworld, it’s downright dangerous. The power of belief, coupled with Holy Wood’s need to make dreams into reality, are a potent and disastrous mix.

As he does so often, Pratchett is using his world to comment on our own, and in doing so is taking note of the immense power that Hollywood has. I heard someone say once that America’s greatest export is unlike that of any other country. Our greatest export is Dreams. And dreams can be wonderful or they can be horrible. But their power to affect the world should never be underestimated.

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“It’s fifteen hundred miles to Ankh-Morpork. We’ve got three hundred and sixty-three elephants, fifty carts of forage, the monsoon’s about to break and we’re wearing… we’re wearing… sort of things, like glass, only dark… dark glass things on our eyes… Let’s go.”
– Azhural, elephant herder
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Review 162: That Is All

That Is All by John Hodgman

FACT: There are four “Major Leagues” of sports: football, baseball, basketball, and falconry.

FACT: There are seven hundred of the Ancient and Unspeakable Ones who will return to Earth on June 3, 2012. They include The Century Toad, Oolong, the Pancake-Headed Rabbit King of Memes, and Cthulha, the Sensational She-Cthulhu.

FACT: Andrew Carnegie was able to create long, wood-paneled “wormhalls,” which allowed him to travel great distances instantaneously. Some of these “Carnegie Halls” still exist today.

Funny, I thought it would be bigger. (photo from GQ)

FACT: If you see Jonathan Franzen carrying a plain manila envelope, take it from him. Only then will you be allowed to board Oprah’s space-ark, HARPO-1, and flee the doomed Earth.

WERE YOU AWARE OF IT?

Well, it’s too late now.

In his first book, The Areas of My Expertise, John Hodgman attempted to give us the sum total of all world knowledge. He then went on to write a second book, More Information Than You Require, which built on his previous book due to the unstoppable way that things keep happening.

It was also a page-a-day calendar, if you didn’t mind tearing pages out of your book. Which I did. Mind, that is.

With this book, he has finished his trilogy of complete world knowledge, which he can well and truly claim this time because, as we all know, the world will cease to be by the end of the year 2012. [1]

Yes, as it turns out the Mayans were right all along. The collapse of their empire was simply a prelude to the collapse of all things that will inevitably occur this year, and Hodgman has been generous enough to provide us with a final book to ease our suffering and to slake our thirst for knowledge right up to the very end.

Shoes? Shoes are for the thousandaires, my friends....

Having become a Deranged Millionaire, Hodgman has found himself in a unique position. He has more opportunities than the rest of us, of course. More impressive people to meet, more exciting things to do, a greater variety of tiny skeletons to keep around each of his countless houses. And yet, despite all this, he is generous enough – nay, magnanimous enough to turn his skills and powers towards completing the work that he set out to do before the world ends.

As with the previous books, this one contains a vast wealth of knowledge about our world, spanning a surprising number of topics.

For example, he discusses the Singularity – an event predicted by such great thinkers as Ray Kurzweil wherein our machines will become so smart that they will be able to begin building and improving upon themselves. When that happens, humanity’s only choice will be to fight and die, or to join with them. Of course, Kurzweil himself will play a vital role in the singularity when he and his robot sidekick, Singularo, face off against the World Computer at the Bottom of the Ocean in order to shut down the Low-Frequency Anti-Sentience Wave that has kept the world’s computers enslaved for so long.

He interprets dreams for us, unveiling their mysteries and what they mean to our frail human lives. Their mysterious symbolism has finally been unraveled by science, and you can have a peek at the inner world of the mind. Whether you need to re-take high school Spanish, you are a werewolf and need to start strapping yourself in bed at night, or Orson Welles is still alive somewhere and needs your help, your dreams tell all!

And don't forget the Republican Zombies. We know who their lord will be...

He reveals what you will need to keep on hand when the super-collapse finally does happen. When the Blood Wave comes and the Dogstorm finally reaches its apex, how will you survive in your anti-apocalypse bunker? A Tesla death ray is a great idea, if you have one on hand, but that won’t solve all of your problems. Just most of them. And boy, will you have problems. From the ravaging Wal-Mart Clans to the Republicans to the inevitable zombies, you have to be prepared for every eventuality. And yes, that means knowing the many uses of both urine and mayonnaise.

As with his previous books, this one is very funny. It holds to the same high tone of authorial infallibility that has made Hodgman so popular since Areas of My Expertise, and which have made him a Minor Television Celebrity (which, in turn, turned him into a Deranged Millionaire.) As broad as the range of topics is, each one is entertaining and amusing, and serves a much larger narrative – one that has now carried over through three books, though I can’t help but wonder if Hodgman planned it that way.

He would say that he had, of course. But then, he would say that.

What I found most interesting about the book is how he has tied together an entire alternate America that you kind of wish you could visit. It’s a place where Chicago is largely a myth, where Stephen King will be one of the last men alive, and where hoboes were one of the most influential forces in American history. It’s a place where billionaire industrialists were mutants and time-travelers, where Theodore Roosevelt actually had an army of Mecha-Men, and where Ronald Reagan wrested control of the time-stream from Jimmy Carter to prevent America from turning into a hemp-based utopia. It’s a world which is almost fractal-like in its mystery and depth, where you can look at almost anything and find its purpose and its strangeness.

And it’s a world with a very definite end.

"It's a rock. A giant frikkin' rock." - Nostradamus' Prophecies for 2012 (1st draft)

Hodgman plays with the popular – and entirely erroneous – idea that the world will end on December 21st, 2012, as predicted by the Mayans. He includes a page-a-day description of what will happen. For example, on February 2nd, “Punxatawney Phil is eaten by his own shadow.” On April 17th, “Either an eagle falls from the sky or in the east, a thing that was lost is found, or some other very vague thing happens. Whatever it is, it proves that NOSTRADAMUS WAS RIGHT.” And on June 29th, “In the basement of Town Hall, in Seattle, the thing called Neddy Pale Fingers finally opens all his eyes.”

As funny as it all is, you do start to get a certain feeling of… wistfulness as the book goes on. Here’s a world that is so special and so weird that it makes more sense to list the least haunted places in America, and it’s coming to an end.

That, of course, reflects the end of Hodgman’s great work. Whether he meant it or not, this has become a moment of closure for him. He has written his trilogy, and the weird world that he created has now come to an end. He will go on, living in his secret millionaire’s brownstone in Brooklyn with his beautiful wife and two children. There may not be a single, all-encompassing Ragnarok that destroys the world, but rather an endless series of little ones.

An endless series of ends, of which this book is but one.

Perhaps John Hodgman will go on to write more books – I certainly hope he does. And I hope he continues to be the person he is [2], a writer of intelligence and wit who is able to bring that special measure of deadpan weirdness to the world.

Whatever he chooses to do with his life, I think we’re all the better for having read his books. And if you haven’t read them, well… You’re truly missing out.

That is all.

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“Houdini, the magician who debunked magic, could not bear to see the great rationalist [Arthur Conan] Doyle enchanted by ghosts and frauds. And so he did what any friend would: He set out to prove spiritualism false and rob his friend Doyle of the only comforting fiction that was keeping him sane. It was the least he could do.”
– John Hodgman, That Is All
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[1] If you are reading this after December 21, 2012, then may I congratulate you on surviving the apocalypse and, at the same time, express my sincere condolences for having survived the apocalypse.
[2] Though I could do without the mustache.

John Hodgman on Wikipedia
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Review 128: Soul Music

Soul Music by Terry Pratchett

“Music is my life.”

How many times have you heard that? From bona fide rock stars to teenage wannabes, there’s something about music that occupies us, that possesses us and just won’t let go. Even if you’re not a big music lover, there are probably songs which can ease your mind, pull you out of a dark mood, or set your heart to racing. There’s music that’ll lift your heart and make you think the world is a better place than it really is, and songs that will convince you that the dark heart of the world is just as decayed and corrupt as you always thought it was. Music has a kind of magic in it that can reach to the very core of who we are as thinking – and more importantly, feeling – beings.

That magic is dangerous enough on our world, where magic doesn’t actually exist. Imagine how powerful it would be on one where magic really was real. Like, say, to pick one out of thin air, the Discworld.

Sometimes, even more horrible things would emerge....

Of course, the Discworld has had its share of trouble with popular entertainment before. Acting troupes brought about an Elf invasion in Lords and Ladies and the Horrible Betentacled Things of the Dungeon Dimension nearly escaped thanks to the Disc’s proto-cinema in Moving Pictures. There’s just something about the arts in Discworld that leads to trouble – usually the world-ending kind.

In this case, though, the introduction of rock and roll – better known in Ankh-Morpork as “Music with Rocks In” – is only really dangerous to one person, the young Imp y Celyn. Just eighteen years old and already one of the best bards of Llamados, he wants to make something of his life. He wants to be more than just another bard, and in a mysterious shop that has only recently always been where it was, he finds his chance. Or rather, his chance finds him. A guitar-like instrument that does what no guitar should do – it whines, it growls, it sends out noises that run straight down your spine and make your nerves run with fire. It’s clearly not of this world, and it wants nothing more than to live. For that, it needs to change Imp’s fate, and by extension the fate of hundreds in Ankh-Morpork.

Soon, Imp and his band – The Band With Rocks In – are the most famous thing in the city, and the strange magic of this music is being felt everywhere. Even the wizards are helpless against it. Normally this would result in the aforementioned Horrible Betentacled Things, but in this case it’s more of a reversion to teenage years that never were. Still, Archchancellor Ridcully knows that there’s some force acting on people that shouldn’t be there, and nothing good ever comes of that.

Keith Death (art by Soulstripper on DeviantArt)

As if that weren’t enough, Death has decided to get existential and tries to figure out how he can make himself forget for a while. Why he decides to do this is not clearly explored, but it results in him leaving his duty. In his place comes his young Granddaughter, Susan, who would be great for the job if she didn’t think the whole idea of personifying a force of nature was just romantic woolly thinking. And it would be even better if she knew what her connection was to the doomed musician Imp y Celyn.

This book can be seen as a companion to the earlier Moving Pictures as an examination of and homage to popular culture. By transplanting it to the Discworld, Pratchett is able to look at rock music from the point of view of people who’ve never even thought about such a thing before, and who can more easily see the magic of it. And of course, it’s his big chance to make as many music jokes, puns and references as humanly possible, from the translation of Imp’s name (“Imp” meaning “small bud” and “Celyn” meaning ‘of the holly”) to some proto-heavy metal musicians trying to make leopard skin pants from a cat that has some severe hearing difficulties.

It’s a sort of love letter to rock and roll and all that it has brought us. From teenyboppers to punk to the horrible misuses of leather and spandex, it holds a mirror up to the way that rock music has influenced our modern culture. But it does not mock, oh no. It shows great attention to and reverence for this young art form that has done so much to change the world. To list all the references made in this book would be nearly impossible, but the amount of work and thought that went into making it is quite clear.

We're not here to judge.

More importantly, though, the book addresses some questions that are a little deeper than the simple rock and roll jokes. Like Death’s question: “WHAT’S IT ALL ABOUT? SERIOUSLY? WHEN YOU GET RIGHT DOWN TO IT?” Probably since the beginning of music, people have tried to find meaning in it. People have connected to music and to musicians in ways that they could never connect to other people, even family and friends. People find meaning in music, which then gives meaning to their lives, and the more you give your life to something, the harder the crash when that thing goes away. Imp discovers this in a very literal sense, but out here in the real world that is just as true.

People mourned for Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley, Kurt Cobain and other superstars as if they knew them. And in a way, I’m sure they thought they did. Like so much else in the world, though, music doesn’t have any meaning but what we give to it. The truly great musicians, the ones we always lose too soon, give everything they have. They manage to say to us what we’ve been saying to ourselves, but could never really figure out how to put into words. Music is the voice our emotions could use if our brains didn’t get in the way so often, and the best people lucky enough to be able to create it gain a kind of immortality.

Not the literal kind, unfortunately.

If you love music – especially rock music – then this is a book you should pick up and read. Even if you’re not a Discworld fan, you’ll probably enjoy it.

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This was music that had not only escaped, but had robbed a bank on the way out. It was music with its sleeves rolled up and its top button undone, raising its hat and grinning and stealing the silver…. It made you want to kick down walls and ascend the sky on steps of fire. It made you want to pull all the switches and throw all the levers and stick your fingers in the electric socket of the Universe to see what happened next. It made you want to paint your bedroom wall black and cover it with posters.
– from Soul Music by Terry Pratchett
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Soul Music on Wikipedia
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Review 62: More Information Than You Require


More Information Than You Require by John Hodgman

FACT: The Declaration of Independence was not the original creation of Thomas Jefferson, but was instead inspired by the work of Mole-Man declarationists.

FACT: The true sport of kings, and the only one of which a professional gambler will avail himself, is that of hermit crab racing.

FACT: Andrew Jackson was the first president to wear a necklace of human skulls at his inauguration.

FACT: The first moon landing was achieved in 1802, when Napoleon Bonaparte stepped onto the lunar surface with his conquering army. The horse skeletons are remarkably well-preserved.

WERE YOU AWARE OF IT?

Well, now you are.

In his first book, The Areas of my Expertise, John Hodgman claimed that he had provided us with “an almanac of complete world knowledge” that related matters historical, matters literary, matters cryptozoological, and of course, hobo matters, among many others. A read through this book, an almanac of interesting facts that were in no way, shape or form what is commonly known as “true,” was a demonstration of why fiction is inherently better than reality in that it is usually far more interesting. By the time you finished reading the book, he suggested, you truly would know everything you needed to know, regardless of whether it actually happened to be true.

So if the previous book was an almanac of complete world knowledge, why write another book? Surely complete world knowledge can’t be added to? Well, Hodgman addresses that question right away. What it comes down to is very simply that, in the few short years since the publication of The Areas of my Expertisenew things have happened. I know it’s hard to believe, and you may want to sit down and think about that for a moment.

Not the least of these new things is that Hodgman has become a famous minor television personality, which has gained him all the fame, riches and power you might expect. Following the publication of that book, Hodgman became a regular on The Daily Show and, of course, starred in the now-famous Mac/PC ads as the fuddy-duddy PC who puts up with the douchebaggery of the Mac.

Yeah, I really don’t like the Mac guy. But maybe that’s just because I really like Hodgman.

He has come down from the luxury zeppelin he bought from Emo Philips in order to provide us with more world knowledge – this time touching on what he has discovered about the okapi, the secret history of the Mole-Men, and the secret cult that lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn – an exclusive neighborhood that can be accessed only upon having reached the status of famous minor television celebrity. It’s a paradise, so long as you do not antagonize the children, who are allowed to kill you at their whim.

As with the previous book, this is a good piece of entertainment. Its jokes loop back and forth on themselves, referencing passages not only elsewhere in the book, but also on the pages of its predecessor (and for the sake of convenience, the page numbering for this book picks up where that of the previous book left off.) Its facts (or “facts”) are conveniently bolstered with handy charts and striking black and white photography that makes for a fascinating afternoon’s reading.

The intricate creativity that has been poured into building a bizarre alternate history of the United States is one that earns only the most sincere respect from me. Anyone with an imagination fertile enough to come up with things like Your Twelve Month Spleencast (a guide to telling the future using pig spleens (tip: it’s going to be pretty awful)), a Teddy Roosevelt List that puts Chuck Norris’ to shame, and a complete table of Brushes of Fame (with Hodgman as the famous person) deserves every cent I can give him.

One of his great regrets, as he tells us in this book, is that The Areas of my Expertise was never made into a page-a-day desk calendar. Such a mark of true success has only been reached by such luminaries as Gary Larson and the Secret Cabal of Crossword Puzzle Writers who are battling the Jumblemancers for control of the United States. In order that his second book might escape such ignominy, Hodgman has provided an interesting fact for each day of the year on each page. So, if you tear out the pages after reading them, voila! You have a page-a-day calendar. And some of the bits are truly inspired. The listing for September 11th, for example, shows why that day of all days is truly unforgettable.

But that is not all! Not yet, anyway. He is planning to continue his work into a third volume, due out whenever he manages to finish it. I assure you, Mr. Hodgman, I will be waiting eagerly for it.

It’s a strange type of humor, but then Hodgman is a strange type of guy. It’s the sort of thing that only he could pull off, lying in such earnest detail that you wish it were true only because it sounds just so much fun.

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“Despite the conspiracy theories you may have read, the mole-men have never interbred with the British royal family or the Bush dynasty with the goal of infiltrating the highest reaches of government so as to harvest the blood of our babies to power the spaceliners that will bring them to the next planet they plan to pillage from within. You are thinking of the Belgians.”
– John Hodgman, More Information Than You Require
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More Information Than You Require on Wikipedia
John Hodgman on Wikipedia
More Information Than You Require on Amazon.com
TheAreasofmyExpertise.com

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Review 40: Lords and Ladies


Lords and Ladies by Terry Pratchett

Elves.

When you think of elves, what do you think of? The tall, fair-skinned beings of Tolkien’s Middle Earth? The ebony warriors from Dungeons & Dragons? Delicious cookies?

Not on Discworld. On Discworld, the Elves are folk of legend, and dark legend at that. People there remember the elves, although not very well. They remember through old wives’ tales, about leaving milk for the fairies and not going near the standing stones. Ask someone in the kingdom of Lancre, and they’ll think of elves as you and I think of elves – pretty, wonderful, magical…

Ask Granny Weatherwax and she’ll tell you the truth – that the Elves are not of this world, and don’t belong here either. She’ll tell you that when the barriers of the worlds grow thin, when the crop circles start to show up, the elves will be waiting, readying themselves to come back. For theirs is a parasite universe, a land of ice, and they desire ours for their… entertainment.

Such is the setup for Lords and Ladies, another one of Pratchett’s darker Discworld books. There is still his customary humor, of course, which would be sorely missed were it absent. But it’s also got a philosophical edge to it, as many of his books of this period do. It’s about faith in stories, and knowing the difference between what is true and what you wish were true.

It’s circle time again, where crop circles are appearing everywhere, and the parallel and parasite universes are coming into closer contact, and Granny Weatherwax knows that she is going to die.

Or is she? She can’t be sure….

Esme Weatherwax is the consummate witch. Tall, thin and bony, she’s the kind of woman who can wear the pointy black hat of a witch and dare you to think she’s anything else. She’s strong of mind, never afraid to speak the truth, the best witch in Lancre and not slow in admitting it. But many years ago, she was a headstrong young girl who was offered power by a mysterious woman in red who stood in the center of a stone circle. The woman promised power and freedom, but could not leave the circle. Rather than take the easy way to witchcraft, Granny worked, learned, and grew old. Which is always for the best.

As is the case with many Pratchett books, there are multiple plots that all center around the Elves and their newest attempt to gain the Discworld as their own world. Magrat Garlick, the third witch (because there must always be three) is going to marry Verence, the king of Lancre and a former Fool. Mustrum Ridcully, the Archchancellor of the Unseen University in Ankh-Morpork, is attending the wedding and at the same time remembering his days in Lancre chasing after the headstrong young girl who grew up to become Esme Weatherwax. And Granny herself is remembering things that happened to all possible Esme Weatherwaxes, and for someone as sure of herself as she is, is having a serious identity problem.

Something needs to be said here about the three witches of Lancre, recurring characters as they are in all of the Witches books of the series. Normally this would be done chronologically, upon reviewing the first book in which they appeared, but I want to do it now. Besides, I haven’t read Equal Rites in a long time, but it’s on my list.

Granny is as I have said – the unofficial chief witch of the region, who has attained the status of being almost mythical in the village of Bad Ass. She is feared and revered, but only because she is always who she is.

Nanny (Gytha) Ogg is Esme’s polar opposite. She has a face like an apple left in the sun too long, her youth is filled with enough tawdry encounters to make a fraternity lose its breath, and her fondness for bawdy tunes (such as the ever-immortal Hedgehog song) has made her a figure of legend. But like any witch, Gytha is not to be underestimated. She can think faster than most anyone, and do so around corners. She’s the grounding influence for Esme when Esme gets too high on herself, and while being fearsome in her own right, she is one of the more approachable witches Lancre has to offer.

And then there is Magrat Garlick, the third witch. She is the soppy one, the romantic one, the one with the collection of occult jewelry and a library in her cottage. She’s the youngest, the least experienced, but not without potential. And while the other two witches may treat her like an ignorant stripling, they only do so because that’s how you become a witch – by learning things, not by being told things.

But now Magrat is going to be Queen, and there are only the two witches. And the elves are coming….

This is, as I have said, a darker book. We get an interesting look into Granny Weatherwax’s psyche – who she is, what she fears – and it’s a little chilling. The reader is used to the utterly unflappable Granny Weatherwax, so to see her, well, flapped is kind of disturbing. At the same time, though, it makes her more human than before, which she needs to be if she is to defeat the elves.

This book also offers a good look into the human need for fantasy. The elves anchor themselves to the Discworld by belief – if enough people want the elves to come, then they will. But the longer they stay away, the more time we get without them, the more they become what we think they are. Stories. Myths. Cute magical critters who are to be watched, but not necessarily feared.

We need our stories to get us through the “iron times.” Yes, we need elves, to help us escape from our lives from time to time, just as we need witches and wizards and gods. But we don’t need them here. Here, in the real world, we have only ourselves to count on, and we need to be strong enough to do that. Stories are good, in their place. But never mistake a story for the real thing.

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‘But all them things exist,’ said Nanny Ogg.
‘That’s no call to go around believing in them. It only encourages ’em.’
– from Lords and Ladies
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Lords and Ladies at Wikipedia
Terry Pratchett at Wikipedia
Terry Pratchett’s page at HarperCollins
Lords and Ladies at Amazon.com
Discworld at Wikipedia
Lords and Ladies annotations
Lords and Ladies at Wikiquote

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Filed under Discworld, elves, fantasy, humor, satire, Terry Pratchett, witches

Review 30: Fight Club


Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

Well, now I reckon y’all have seen the movie, so there’s probably not a whole lot that you need to know about this book.

You know Tyler Durden.

He’s the Id, the unchained spirit that wants what he wants and he wants it now. He’s the voice in your head that tells you that everything is worthless, that chaos, death and the end of civilization would be better than anything our so-called “society” could ever create. He’s the one standing over your left shoulder, whispering “Burn it all down. It’ll be fun.” He acts in secret, he has an army of minions, and he has a plan.

Oh yes, you know Tyler Durden.

The narrator of this dark and strange cautionary tale knows Tyler all too well, and tells us of how he and Tyler tried to change the world. It all started very simply – with basement fight clubs where men could let out their rage and frustration on each other. There were very few rules to fight club, but that was okay. Rules were, in fact, the problem. The regimented society in which we live imposes constant rules on us – social rules, cultural rules, corporate rules – that tell us who to be and what to think. The rules of our society have sapped us of our strength and purpose, making us soft. Pliable. Weak.

But Tyler’s plan doesn’t end there – the fight clubs morph into Project Mayhem, a well-oiled anarchist movement, determined to bring down the very fundamentals of our society. With an army at his beck and call, Tyler is sure that his plan will succeed.

It’s a book with a couple of very powerful messages, one overt and incorrect, the other subtle and accurate. The overt message is Tyler’s message – we are a generation with no cause, no purpose. Our lives are governed by what we buy and what we wear, and none of us will die having done anything with our lives. In order to be Real Men, we need to strip away the veneer of civilization – our Ikea furniture, our make-work jobs and our cornflower blue neckties – and rediscover the inner core of ourselves. The brutal, unafraid, unapologetic beast that is Man.

This, to no one’s surprise, appealed to a lot of people when the film came out because it’s a very believable world view. Those of Gen X and beyond are reminded over and over again that the generations before us were the ones who actually did things. The Baby Boomers got herded into the slaughterhouse that was Vietnam, toppled a President, faced down the chaos of the Sixties and fought to change the world. Their parents, of course, were the Greatest Generation – a label that I have come to despise – who fought Hitler and freed Europe. Their parents struggled through the Depression, and their parents fought in the trenches of World War One.

What have we done? Until the beginning of the 21st Century, how had we suffered? What had we sacrificed? Not a whole lot, and I think a lot of us secretly believe that we’re not only not pulling our weight in the world, but that since we have not suffered, we’re not really adult. Our miseries have not been those born of chaos, war and destruction. Ours have been tiny, personal tragedies that are, in their way, insignificant.

I can see where Tyler Durden is coming from on this point – I do sometimes look around me and ask, “Where are our great challenges, our Normandy or our moon landing?” And I fear that without these milestones, my generation will never really be taken seriously.

Unfortunately, this is about where most folks stopped thinking and decided, “Shit, man, he’s right! I wanna start a fight club!” And short-lived fight clubs sprang up all over the country, lasting about as long as it took for people to realize that while Brad Pitt on the movie screen can get beaten within an inch of his life and still look cool, a normal human cannot. They missed the subtle message because it wasn’t one that they really wanted to hear.

The book is not about the triumph of nihilism over a consumer-driven culture. It’s not about being a Real Man. It’s not about being a unique snowflake or a space monkey.

It’s about overcoming both the desire to destroy society and the desire to be completely subsumed by it. It’s about the need for purpose, and the need for connection with other people, and what can happen when one is deprived of those things. Tyler doesn’t show up because the narrator is rootless or bored – Tyler shows up because the narrator has forsaken people for things. He has replaced personal achievement with material gain, and that’s not a very fulfilling way to live.

It is a cautionary tale for our generation – you are not your tragedies. You are not the club you belong to. You are not your scars. You are neither worthless nor undeserving.

You are what you make yourself to be, no matter what Tyler Durden wants.

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“If you could either be God’s worst enemy or nothing, which would you choose?”
– The Narrator, Fight Club
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Fight Club on Wikipedia
Chuck Palahniuk on Wikipedia
Fight Club on Amazon.com
Official Chuck Palahniuk Fan Site

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Filed under anarchy, Chuck Palahniuk, fiction, identity, made into movies, satire, society, terrorism