Tag Archives: humor

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.

——————————————————————–
“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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Filed under culture, fantasy, humor, movies, satire

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
That Is All on Wikipedia
That Is All on Amazon.com
areasofmyexpertise.com

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Filed under almanac, alternate history, apocalypse, disaster, fiction, finitude, humor, John Hodgman, satire

Review 156: Dave Barry’s Complete Guide to Guys

Dave Barry’s Complete Guide to Guys by Dave Barry

If you’re reading this, and there’s a good chance that you are, you probably know a guy. You may even be a guy, though the way Barry talks about them, you wouldn’t think that guys would be into book reviews. If you know a guy, then this book is for you – it will illuminate some classic guy behaviors and shine some lights into the dark corners that your rational mind has been unable to penetrate. If you are a guy, then this book is also for you. Guys aren’t famous for their introspection, but perhaps it will allow you to understand why it is your wife and/or girlfriend get so frustrated with you from time to time (hint: it’s not her, it’s you).

This book is a tribute to guys (not men – those people have enough advocates as it is) and the ways in which they live. It’s like a documentary in print, really, giving us a rare glimpse into the lifestyle and habits of the modern guy.

So, what exactly is a guy, then? Well, you’re lucky – Barry has included a self-analysis quiz in the first chapter. For example:

As you grow older, what lost quality of your youthful life do you miss the most?
a. Innocence
b. Idealism
c. Cherry bombs

Complete this sentence: A funeral is a good time to…
a. … remember the deceased and console his loved ones
b. … reflect upon the fleeting transience of earthly life
c. … tell the joke about the guy who has Alzheimer’s disease and cancer.

What is the human race’s single greatest achievement?
a. Democracy
b. Religion
c. Remote control

I think you can guess which answers reveal your guyness.

Being a guy means more than just being a man, and in fact there is a very definite difference between men and guys. Men are people we of the male persuasion wish we could be – Superman, Edward R. Murrow, George Clooney. Guys are who most of us turn out to be – Homer Simpson, Bill O’Reilly, Tom Arnold. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with this. It’s just that as long as we assume that guys will act like men, we’re bound to be disappointed. Guys are terribly misunderstood in modern society despite the very important role they play.

Definitely a guy. (photo by John B. Carnett)

For example: without guys, we wouldn’t have a space program. Don’t believe it? What other type of person would deliberately design a rocket, watch it shoot up and then say, “I wonder if we can make a bigger one?” Guys, that’s who. The Saturn V is a tribute to guyness, as is the space shuttle – an endlessly tinkerable machine that almost never blows up.

Without guys, there would be no professional sports, to say nothing of the parasitic fan industry that has sprung up around sports like a remora. Guys have an undying and unyielding attachment to sports teams – you might see a guy leave his wife of twenty years and the children they raised together, but I’d be willing to bet that he would sooner die than switch his team allegiance from, say, Red Sox to Yankees. The unshakable, irrational dedication of these guys is what keeps modern sports afloat despite scandal and disappointment. Now I’m not a sports fan, I’ll admit, but I can certainly relate – I’ll support NASA until the last breath leaves my body, and no force on earth will ever get me to switch from DC Comics to Marvel, no matter how badly DC messes with the characters that I’ve always loved, the bastards.

I also don’t get to play a part in the endlessly frustrating relationship that exists between guys and women, seeing as how I’m, well, into guys. As a side note, The Boyfriend is also a guy, but less than I am – he cleans, for example. And I don’t mean that he cleans the way a real guy cleans – spray a little, wipe a bit and say, “Good enough.” He actually cleans. Like, every day. I know – weird, isn’t it?

Her: "I wonder what he's thinking about right now...?" Him: "Juuuuust sit right back and you'll hear a tale / a tale of a fateful ship..."

Women and guys will always frustrate each other, you see. Women love to read meaning into every nuance of conversation, every raised eyebrow or dropped word. Women want to know what the guy in their life is thinking. The answer is that he probably isn’t thinking. At least, not about what she would want him to think about – her and the relationship they share. In fact, as Barry takes pains to point out, he may not, technically, be aware that he’s in a relationship at all. You ladies have a lot of work to do if you’re hooked up with a guy.

But before you go thinking that the life of a guy is sweet ignorant bliss, think again. You ladies will never know the pain of the Urinal Dilemma, or the feeling of knowing that, no matter how hard you try, you’ll never be able to fix anything in your own home – your wife will have to call a man (probably named Steve) for that. Guys’ minds aren’t terribly complex, but they do run on certain rules. Know these, and your relationship with the guy in your life will go much more smoothly.

It is true that the man/woman divide is an old one, and it’s a place that nearly every comedian has gone to once or twice. Or three times. Or they’ve just staked a claim right there on the joke and built an entire career out of it. But here, Barry isn’t so much talking about the difference between men and women as much as he’s talking about men and guys, which is a fascinating idea.

He's just so disappointed in you...

As I said before, those of us with XY chromosomes and little dangly bits generally want to be Men (with the exception, of course, of those who don’t), and what’s more are expected to be Men. We’re told as youths to “be a man” or be the man of the house. Our role models are Men, our cultural icons are Men. Even in our commercials, we have the Old Spice Man and the Most Interesting Man in the World.

But most of us are fated to be Guys. And deep down, we know that we’ve somehow missed the mark.

Fortunately, we don’t do introspection really well, so it doesn’t bother us all that much.

This is really one of Barry’s classics, a book that everyone can easily enjoy. Whether you are a guy or just know a guy, there are laughs to be had here.

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“To understand guys, it’s essential to remember that, deep down inside, they are biological creature, like jellyfish or trees, only less likely to clean the bathroom.”
– Dave Barry, Dave Barry’s Complete Guide to Guys
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Dave Barry on Wikipedia
Dave Barry’s website
Dave Barry’s Complete Guide to Guys on Amazon.com

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Filed under Dave Barry, gender, gender roles, humor, jokes, parody, society

Review 148: Carpe Jugulum

Carpe Jugulum by Terry Pratchett

In this book, we return to the small Ramtop country of Lancre, home to Granny Weatherwax, Gytha Ogg and Magrat Garlick. Picking up from where we left off, which is actually in Maskerade, which I haven’t reviewed here yet, Magrat is Queen now, with no time for witching. So the new Third Witch is Agnes Nitt (also known as Perdita, but only by her), a girl who is sensible, levelheaded and thinks quickly in a crisis. She is also a rather, shall we say, substantial girl (and lest you think I’m trying not to be mean, believe me – Agnes is meaner about her self than I can be), and as we all know there is inside every fat girl a thin girl and lots of chocolate. Well, Perdita is the thin girl, and Agnes is the chocolate.

But that’s not the main point of this tale. The main point is that vampyres have come to Lancre, invited by King Verence to attend the naming of his and Magrat’s daughter, Esmerelda Note Spelling of Lancre (well, when your grandmother managed to name your mother “Magrat” due to an uncertainty in consonant placement, one doesn’t take chances.) But what’s done is done. No doubt we will see little Spelly in future Discworld books.

I'd still rather see this than Twilight.

Once you have invited a vampire in, you are subject to its power. Of course, vampires know this. There are a lot of things that vampires know…. These vampyres have studied, they have prepared. They do not intend to make the mistakes their forefathers did – keeping lots of knick-knacks about that could be turned into holy symbols, leaving up flimsy, easily pulled-aside drapes, that sort of thing. These are modern vampyres, ones who know their place in the food chain – on top of it. They’re ready, and they have every intention of taking over Lancre.

They don’t want a killing floor, though. Indeed not, they simply want a herd. An… arrangement.

But there are the witches to contend with, especially Esme Weatherwax. And everyone knows about Granny Weatherwax….

If you read Lords and Ladies, or even my review of it, you can see there are some similarities. Evil, inhuman force comes to Lancre, wants to subjugate its subjects, and in the end are foiled by the indomitable Granny Weatherwax. And yes, there are similarities. But the differences are worth reading it for.

First of all, we get a better look at Perdita / Agnes Nitt. Yes, she’s the Third Witch, but she’s more at home being a witch than Magrat ever was. Perdita is two witches in one, and they don’t like each other very much – a volatile combination. And as the newcomer, Agnes has the unenviable role of being the stand-in for the reader. She gets a lot of explanation that seems redundant to loyal followers of the Discworld series, but I guess new readers have to come in somewhere.

Art by Zenzzen on DeiantArt

Secondly, we get to play around inside Granny Weatherwax’s head again, which is always fun. We see a reference to her sister, Lily Weatherwax whom we last saw in Witches Abroad, and her grandmother, Alison. It is implied that the Weatherwaxes have a definite dark streak to them, against which Granny must contend constantly. What bugged me about this book is that Granny isn’t quite herself – though I suppose it can be argued that she wasn’t meant to be. Confronted with immensely powerful vampyres in her country, and insulted by seeming not to have been invited to the young princess’ naming ceremony, Granny Weatherwax just… gives up. She believes she can’t beat them, and she doesn’t think anyone wants her around. This is a side of Granny that we haven’t really seen before, and it’s not a nice one.

She does recover, of course – that’s what Granny Weatherwax does. There’s no point in being a witch, really, if you can’t make the grand entrance and pop up just when everyone thinks you’re down.

Another really neat thing about this book is that we finally get to revisit the Omnians, who were introduced as a fanatical theocratic people in Small Gods. Time has tempered the Omnians, who are now the Discworld equivalent of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. An Omnian missionary has come to Lancre, and he gets caught up in the battle against the vampires as well, and it turns out that, well, the Omnians aren’t that bad anymore. Since the Prophet Brutha gave them permission to think for themselves, the Church has schismed so many times that it finally comes down to a schism in one member, Brother Oats. Like Agnes, he’s of two minds about the world, and neither of them really get along.

So yes, there’s not a whole lot that’s really new in this book, but since I’m a hard-core Pratchett addict, I have to recommend it.

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“There’s no greys, only white that’s got grubby. I’m surprised you don’t know that. And sin, young man, is when you treat people as things. Including yourself. That’s what sin is.”
– Granny Weatherwax, Carpe Jugulum
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Terry Pratchett on Wikipedia
Carpe Jugulum on Wikipedia
Carpe Jugulum on Amazon.com
Terry Pratchett’s webpage
L-Space Web

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Filed under Discworld, family, fantasy, humor, Terry Pratchett, vampires, witches

Review 122: Anansi Boys

Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

When I started in on this book, I knew there were certain things I could expect from Neil Gaiman – insight, clever twists on literary assumptions, a good perspective on the nature of our reality. And, I must say, he delivered in full. This story draws from some of the most ancient of human tales and reflects on the most ancient of human needs – the need to have a story of one’s own. It’s a book about purpose and destiny, and other very deep subjects.

Yes - this man is hilarious.

What I didn’t expect was to spend most of the book laughing out loud and disturbing the people around me.

Seriously, there were some times when the other teachers in the staff room would stop whatever conversation they were having because they’d been interrupted by my cackling. Or the staff would come over and ask what was so funny, and I’d try to explain – which doesn’t really work when you’re trying to cross languages and literary traditions. People in Japan don’t really laugh out loud at their books, and can’t quite understand why I do. But I laugh. I snicker, I giggle, I cackle, and I never expected that from Neil Gaiman.

The book was, needless to say, wonderful. While by no means a sequel to Gaiman’s previous bestseller American Gods, it inhabits the same universe. This is a world where the gods exist – they’ve been called into existence by us and, in turn, shape our lives.

The book follows the unfortunately nicknamed Fat Charlie, whose life has been ruined by his father’s death across the Atlantic. This wasn’t the first time his father had ruined his life – it had happened many times before in many terrible ways. For Fat Charlie, however, dying in the middle of a karaoke hall just seems to be a final slap in Fat Charlie’s face.

Fat Charlie isn’t his real name, of course – his real name is Charlie Nancy, which isn’t much better. Fat Charlie is only a nickname given to him by his father. He tried to shake it in his life, asking people to call him Charlie or Charles or Chaz, and he wasn’t even fat – just a little soft around the edges. But his father gave names that stuck like gum to the underside of a school desk, and no matter where he went, Charlie Nancy inevitably became Fat Charlie.

You would think this would raise eyebrows in the delivery room....

The reason for this phenomenon, of course, is that Fat Charlie’s father is a god. He is Anansi, the Spider, a trickster god who managed to steal all the stories from Tiger back when humanity was young, and who managed to trick, deceive, swindle and humiliate nearly every other god and spirit there ever was. He was good at it, and there was nothing he wanted that he couldn’t get.

Fat Charlie was, in very many ways, a disappointment. Where his father was debonair, Fat Charlie was a klutz. Where his father could command the respect of men and women, Fat Charlie was a doormat. Where his father was the embodiment of confidence, Fat Charlie was a crumbly mess. I suppose it’s normal, really, being the child of a god, and not really his fault, even if he didn’t know it until his father was dead.

He didn’t know about his brother, either. His brother is Spider, a young man who is so cool that he can convince an entire L.A. party that they can walk on water. He can do real magic, step in and out of the world with ease, and carries his own bedroom with him. When Spider comes into the picture, everything goes horribly, horribly wrong. Think The Odd Couple, except that Oscar Madison has divine powers and absolutely no sense of consequence.

The story is a lot more than two brothers who don’t know how to get along. It’s a story – about stories. In the stories of Anansi and Tiger that are laced throughout the book, we learn that once, long ago, all stories were Tiger’s stories, and they were stories of fear and blood and hunger. When Anansi took them, the stories became about cleverness and trickery and resourcefulness. So in a way, the victory of Anansi over Tiger is the story of humankind’s emergence from barbarism.

Speaking of someone whose story has been re-written over and over. Anansi would like Spidey, though....

It’s about personal stories as well, and that’s a theme that’s far more important to us as individuals. We are the stories we tell about ourselves. Fat Charlie didn’t need to be the tightly-wrapped ball of embarrassment that he was. But that’s who he told himself he was, and, so, that’s who he became. Once he starts to accept his heritage and his responsibility to his family, once he starts to re-tell his own story, he changes himself. The same is true for Spider – he’s written his own story as a rake and a charmer, but he finds that that story is lacking. It’s a story that needs some editing, and he’s better off for it.

This is a funny, funny book that reminds me in places of Dave Barry, though that might be a side effect of the Florida settings. There’s also a few footnote jokes, so I suspect that Neil has been hanging out with Terry Pratchett recently. Despite the laugh-out-loud general tone of the book, there’s a lot of Meaning to be found as well – the meaning of story and song, of family, and why you should always be nice to spiders. And birds. Definitely be nice to birds.

The ultimate message of the book, though, is that you can always re-write your story. The weak little spider can become a conquering hero, and the fearsome tiger can be a timid coward. No story is set forever. So if you don’t like the way your story is turning out, get out your red pen and start editing. Anansi would approve.

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“People respond to the stories. They tell them themselves. The stories spread, and as people tell them, the stories change the tellers.”
Anansi, Anansi Boys

Neil Gaiman on Wikipedia
Anansi Boys on Wikipedia
Anansi Boys on Amazon.com
Neil Gaiman’s homepage

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Filed under brothers, childhood, coming of age, death, family, fantasy, fathers, gods, humor, identity, Neil Gaiman, quest, sons, spiders, story

Review 115: A is for Armageddon

A is for Armageddon by Richard Horne

You should know by now that if there’s one thing I’m really looking forward to it’s the end of the world.

At least, I was, up until about two weeks ago when an Earthquake of Unreasonable Size hit northeastern Japan, unleashing a massive tsunami which in turn led to an ongoing disaster at a nuclear power plant in Fukushima. Ever since then, the TV has been nothing but tales of survivors huddled in relief shelters and people all over the country scrambling to help – or to get out. In addition, there is the very real probability that more than ten thousand people have died, their bodies washed out to sea.

It’s one thing to read about the end of the world in a book or a comic, but to see it unfold on live TV is something else entirely. So right now, I’m not all that gung-ho about end of the world stories. Give me time, though, and I’m sure I’ll come back to them.

Like this, but without the leather and the anti-Semitism

I don’t know why, really. Maybe it’s for that feeling that all bets are off, all bonds are broken and you can remake yourself in any image you want. Maybe I really believe that I’ll be one of the heroes of the story, who make it through the End Times not only alive but victorious. Maybe I just long to see the world scythed clean of humanity and restarted so the squid can have a go at running things, I have no idea.

For whatever reason, I have a soft spot for armageddon stories. Whether it’s Good Omens, The Stand, Swan Song, Crisis on Infinite Earths, or any other story that promises the destruction of a world, I’m all over it. I can’t know if they’re good, but I’ll at least be willing to give them a shot. So when I saw this, I thought to myself, “I must have this book.”

The book is based on an organizational system that has gained some popularity in recent years: The Periodic Table of X, wherein X is whatever topic you want to focus on. It was originally designed to accommodate the natural elements, but if you have a hundred or so items, you can probably make your own periodic table to sort through them. You’ve got the Periodic Table of Typefaces, the Periodic Table of Beer Styles, the Periodic Table of Superheroes, and even – prepare to have your mind blown – the Periodic Table of Periodic Tables of Things.

You never had it so good, Mendeleev….

This book is based on the Periodic Catastrophic, a listing of the many, many ways that the world can end. As with the “real” periodic table, this one is well-organized to keep the apocalypses in line. There are the Acts of God, Don’t Mess With Nature, Universally Doomed, and It Was Like That When I Got Here, among other distinctions. Each disaster gets a couple of pages with a succinct explanation and an interesting or humorous illustration. Some of my favorites include:

The End of the World will be accompanied by a speed metal soundtrack

Four Horsemen Motto: Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough. Direct from the Bible, the Four Horsemen of Conquest, War, Famine and Death will one day roll across the Earth, bringing down everyone in their paths. “Everyone,” of course meaning everyone. You don’t know when they’ll come, but you’ll sure know when they get here. Make sure you have your bags packed.

Ecosystem, if only for the picture of the panda strapped to a knife-throwing target. Those pandas have had a free ride for long enough, if you ask me….

You have no idea how important bees are. Seriously.

Food Chain Collapse – this is one that I find pretty plausible, as far as some of these entries go. We all get mushy and sentimental about the whales and the dolphins, but what about the krill and shrimp and sardines? Without them, we run the very great risk of destroying an entire food chain just to have something to snack on during brunch.

The Gulf Stream Collapse is another one that kind of worries me, and it’s my favorite card to play whenever someone comes out with, “Look at all this snow! So much for global warming!” canard. In a nutshell: The gulf stream brings warm water up from the Caribbean to the North Atlantic, which results in a rise in temperature for most of Europe. As polar freshwater ice caps and glaciers melt, all that cold fresh water will mix with the salt water, which could have the effect of pushing the upper end of the gulf stream south. This would mean a substantial temperature drop in Europe, and a general planetwide climate crisis up to and including a new mini-ice age.

For a brief and shining moment, we will all be T-1000s

Grey Goo is always fun, too. If we manage to build self-replicating nanomachines, which use the atoms around them to build copies of themselves, what’s to stop them from just ripping apart every solid object they see? If they don’t know when to stop eating and replicating, they could devour most of the world in pretty short order. Nasty, huh?

And of course there are sure-fire world-enders like The Death of the Universe, Sun (the death of) and the Collapse of Causality, the inevitable result of the invention of time travel.

It’s an amusing book, with some educational points to make. Strictly speaking, not every one of the scenarios that it depicts has to do with the end of the world. Some of them, like volcanoes, earthquakes, and pandemics, are just natural disasters rather than planet-killers. Others, like obesity and an aging society, are more aimed at problems facing the human race that may inconvenience us, but probably won’t destroy us.

Look, it landed on Bruce Willis! How ironic...

And then there are the ones that I suspect were put in just to fill space – in The Solar System , Horne suggests that Jupiter could one day turn itself into a second sun, with disastrous consequences. But that won’t happen – Jupiter is much too small to initiate fusion in its core. The same with Supernova – he suggests that Betelgeuse could go up (and it will), bathing us in gamma rays after “crossing millions of light years” to get to us. But Betelgeuse is only 640 light years away – much closer than “millions,” but much too far to hurt us when it goes. So it’s not so much that the scenarios are implausible – like Alien Invasion or Paradox or Satan, but that they’re inaccurately implausible. It makes me wonder what other facts he fudged or guessed on just for the sake of making something sound scarier than it is.

Can't go wrong with a black hole....

It’s got some good tongue-in-cheek humor, and is a clever reminder of all the ways that things can go wrong in this big world of ours. The pictures are very nice, often funny, and good companions to the text, which features helpful hints for surviving each scenario, as well as a guess as to when you should start to panic. All too many of them are labeled “too late.”

An interesting note: there is a lot of British English in the book that may surprise readers of American English, such as myself. I had never encountered the adjective moreish (meaning so tasty that you want more of it) until I read this book and am forced to assume it’s a British coinage. Also, some of the puns only work if you know the British pronunciation of words. Unlike the editors of Harry Potter, though, these guys did not bow to our American prejudices and re-edit the book. Kudos to them.

So, these are the ways the world ends. Now you know.

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“The only thing worse than a vengeful God is a fickle one.”
Richard Horne, A is for Armageddon

A is for Armageddon official website
A is for Armageddon on Amazon.com

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Filed under apocalypse, death, disaster, humor, Richard Horne, science

Review 110: Johnny the Homicidal Manic & SQUEE!

Johnny the Homicidal Maniac and SQUEE’S Big Giant Book of Unspeakable Horrors by Jhonen Vasquez

I’m putting these two together, because they really do form one larger piece – the craft of an artistic mastermind. Although perhaps “mastermind” isn’t the best word to use here. What do you call the person that they lock up when they’re about fifteen because they keep saying things to their teachers like, “The human body has ten thousand miles of blood vessels in it and I can feel my hate for you coursing through every one?” Or the guy who buys a dog, takes care of it, feeds it, loves it, and then one day realizes that the dog has been spying on him for the CIA for years and buries it in his backyard? Or the angry hobo who lurches up to your car as you wait at the stop light, a bucket of dirty, grey water in one hand and a rotten squeegee in the other and proceeds to molest himself with it, afterwards demanding that you gave him change, quote, “For the show.”

You thought I was kidding about the dog....

That kind of guy. What would you call him?

Whatever it is, welcome to the world of Jhonen Vasquez. Strap yourself in.

Johnny the Homicidal Maniac is the story of Johnny C., known to his very few friends simply as Nny. Nny is rail-thin, yet something of a fashion plate, and lives in a broken-down house with two evil Styrofoam doughboys, a dead bunny nailed to a wall, and a gateway to a creature of infinite evil somewhere in one of the many basements of the house.

In his free time, Johnny kills people in horrible and graphically interesting ways.

Not because he’s a bad person, necessarily. He does have the wall to feed, after all – a wall that has to be continually painted with fresh blood, lest the Evil come out of it. But he is, by his own admission, “quite horrendously insane.” He murders for many reasons, the Evil Wall aside. He murders the people who feel superior to others (while at the same time feeling that he is superior to them). The kills the smug and the self-possessed, the materialistic and the bored, the lowbrows and the posers and the jerks who seem to infest every corner of his world. And while he does kill with great glee and abandon, he occasionally takes the time to wonder if what he’s doing is worth it. If murder is all that his life has become. If maybe it would be better off to just end it all and kill himself.

Fortunately – or not – he has The Doughboys to keep him company. Two Styrofoam figures, painted by Nny, which talk to him constantly. One urges him to live and kill to his heart’s content. The other presses him to commit suicide and leave this world behind. Whichever wins will be freed from his plastic prison and reunited with his evil master. As a balance to them is Nailbunny, which is pretty much just what it sounds like – a bunny rabbit that Johnny bought from the pet store and then one day nailed to the wall. Nailbunny (or at least its floating head) is the voice of reason in Johnny’s life, urging him to be suspicious of the Doughboys and all they want. Despite his nihilistic view of the world, Johnny discovers that he does indeed have a purpose in life. Just not a very good one.

Yes, Nny, show us "wacky"

Johnny is, naturally, hard to sympathize with. Part of that comes from his almost cavalier attitude towards killing, but more than that, he’s rather adolescent in his view of the world and how it works. Like so many teenagers, he has yet to grow a buffer between himself and the world, and cannot differentiate malicious acts from merely thoughtless ones. He feels every barb and every sting like hooks in his flesh, and the only way he is able to deal with it is through murderous rage. Reading it as an adult who remembers his teen years, I can certainly see where Johnny is coming from, but at the same time I wish he’d just grow up and learn to live in the world like the rest of us.

Which is a statement for which Johnny would no doubt gleefully murder me.

One of the major themes of these comics is conformity and humanity’s need to follow each other into the abyss. Hypocritical characters dressed in all the latest fashions snub people who are slaves to public opinion. One of the worst offenders, a recurring character named Anne Gwish, embodies the modern Goth poser who shuns everyone while despairing that no one talks to her. Johnny’s world is filled with these people and they all need killing. Even people who don’t deserve death might end up falling to Johnny. In one of my favorite stories, “Goblins,” a man who was chosen at random is strapped to a truly terrible machine, and faces his impending death with enviable conviction.

Johnny the Homicidal Maniac reads like an extended teenage revenge fantasy, if a highly philosophical and entertaining one. Eventually you figure out that, as Vasquez himself says, “He’s not a loser, he’s simply lost.”

No. Don't do it. Life is too... oh, go ahead.

Themes of identity and social connection continue in the book SQUEE’S Big Giant Book of Unspeakable Horrors. Young Squee (whose real name is Todd) is Johnny’s neighbor and is featured in the very first JtHM story. Squee is a pitiful child, with parents who resent his very existence and a school that is constantly trying to crush the spirit out of him. Squee lives a life of unending terror as he’s beset by nightmares, aliens, his cannibalistic grandfather, openly hateful parents, and a world that never seems to make sense. It is his young burden to have to live in a world created by Jhonen Vasquez.

Somehow, though, little Squee manages. Manages to get himself locked into an insane asylum, yes, but manages nonetheless.

The second half of the book features Vasquez’s filler strips – one or two-page stories of pain, heartbreak and horror. Poor Wobbly-Headed Bob tries to convince the rest of the world to accept that he’s smarter than they are, and can’t understand why they want to kill him. True Tales of Human Drama are just that – dramatic, probably human and god I hope they’re not true. Happy Noodle Boy is a free-form anarchistic story, allegedly drawn by Johnny himself, and I can never manage to finish one. My favorite filler strips are the Meanwhile…. strips, one of which features two elementary-school crossing guard children enacting the final battle between two entities of pure evil. Another depicts a first date gone horribly, horribly awry as a case of gastrointestinal distress engenders one of the best attempts to save face I’ve ever seen. A horrible, lying vampire, the revenge of the pinatas, and a case of childhood attachment issues gone horribly wrong, these are some of my favorite works in the whole series.

Good old Ludwig van B. Perfect for any occasion - even mass murder.

The work of Jhonen Vasquez certainly isn’t for everyone. Even his famous animated program, Invader Zim, is a little weirder than most people are willing to accept for a children’s show. It rewards patient reading and careful attention to the artwork. Which, I might add, is distinctive and disturbing and wonderful. Vasquez has created a style that’s cartoonish and yet horrible, in which childlike glee can be rendered next to heart-stopping horror, and we can perfectly believe that they exist in the same world.

It’s strange, horrible and funny all at the same time. If you’re interested in something out of the ordinary, I can definitely recommend this.

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“I suggest you seek some alternate source of sympathy, Nny. You tried to kill that girl. She liked you, and you tried to kill her. That was impolite.”
– Nailbunny, Johnny the Homicidal Maniac

Johnny the Homicidal Maniac on Wikipedia
Squee! on Wikipedia
Jhonen Vasquez on Wikipedia
Jhonen Vasquez’s website
Johnny the Homicidal Maniac on Amazon.com
SQUEE’S Big Giant Book of Unspeakable Horrors on Amazon.com

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Filed under afterlife, childhood, comic books, death, demons, existentialism, good and evil, graphic novel, horror, humor, Jhonen Vasquez, madness, morality, murder, philosophy, sins