Monday, June 24, 2013

Bored of the Rings, by The Harvard Lampoon

It probably goes without saying that writing good parody is very difficult.  How closely do you follow the source material?  Should the humor reference the original, or should the parody be humorous and entertaining on its own merits?  And what's the point anyway?

Bored of the Rings, first published in the late 1960s, takes on one of the most popular and beloved works of fiction in the English language, J.R.R. Tolkein's Lord of the Rings trilogy.  The Harvard Lampoon authors stick close to the original story, compressing it while squeezing in lots of silliness.  I was reminded of the old Mad magazine parodies I used to read (although those were done in comic book format).  The final product is sometimes funny, but comes across as a bit stale and dated.  I think Bored will best be enjoyed by fans of the Tolkein's books and the movies, probably not so much by those readers not familiar with the original story.

Thanks to Edelweiss and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Friday, June 21, 2013

Dark Diversions, by John Ralston Saul

After reading a few chapters John Ralston Saul's new novel Dark Diversions, I finally figured out that this is not really a novel.  At least not in the traditional sense.  It's better viewed as a collection of short stories with a single narrator.  Once I came to that conclusion, my mind was able to relax a bit and enjoy the stories more.

The narrator, and journalist who flits around the world and moves among the richest of the rich (without, apparently, being very rich himself), has a way of being accepted and comfortable with everyone he meets, whether a third-world dictator or a high-flying socialite.  Not only is he accepted, but he becomes people's confessor, comforter, and confidant.  As a result, he paints a revealing picture of political and social life in the late 20th century. 

In the final chapter, Saul finally reveals what he's been up to in the book.  As the narrator describes his life as a writer to a friend, his friend (who calls him scribbler) interrupts.  "Sounds sh---y to me. . . . All those bits and pieces, scribbler, of other people's lives.  You peep at them.  You write down their secrets.  'Sh---y' I think is the word."  The narrator defends his craft: "Look at it this way.  What I have is a sort of ad hoc vision in which I am the alchemist's conductor.  See?  So the sum of the parts, contrary to cliche, magically adds up to some kind of whole."

So Dark Diversions does mix these parts of stories from other people's lives, and it does add up to "some kind of whole" that is sometimes entertaining.  But as anyone who had tried alchemy can tell you, it doesn't add up to gold.

(By the way, I don't know whether to be embarrassed or annoyed by the author's habit of including French dialogue without translation. . . .)

Thanks to Edelweiss and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Rocket Man, by William Elliott Hazelgrove

Dale Hammer has not adjusted well to life in an affluent Chicago suburb.  After living in a trendy urban neighborhood he moved his family to the suburbs for a larger house and more room to roam.  But life in the suburbs is stifling his creativity (he's a novelist who hasn't published in a while, and who can't seem to get his next novel off the ground), pulled his family apart, and nearly driven him crazy.

Most guys, especially middle-aged white guys, will be able to relate to much about Dale's suburban angst.  Hazelgrove takes all the MAWG issues and rolls them up into Dale (poor Dale!).  One after another the problems mount: money problems, job problems, wife problem, kid problems, Boy Scout problems, in-law problems, Dad problems, business on the side problems, house problems, landscaping problems, plumbing problems . . . the list goes on. It's really pretty pathetic.  I almost feel sorry for the guy.  I probably would feel more sorry for him if he weren't such a jerk.  But the fact is--he's a jerk.

As the weight of the problems bears down, Dale starts to feel like giving in to the conformity and bleakness of his suburban surroundings: "The dullard has always been my nemesis, and I feel he is not riding shotgun, waiting to take the wheel."  His one escape is biking.  "Riding has become my religion.  It is the one thing in my new life that is real."  Sometimes I feel that way about running.

Rocket Man is a sometimes funny exploration of all of these issues, with occasional bursts of wisdom.  But that litany of problems is pretty much the extent of the story arc: problem, problem, problem, climax, and denouement in which all the problems are pretty much resolved.  Hazelgrove's writing is enjoyable, Dale's life is uncomfortably realistic, but the flat exposition left me wanting more.

Thanks to the author for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Monday, June 17, 2013

Stupid Sports, by Leland Gregory

Sometimes you can tell a book by the cover.  Leland Gregory continues his habit of collecting the stupid, the little-known, and the amusing in his newest book, Stupid Sports.  Of course he includes some great Yogi Berra quotes, and there may be a few stories you've heard before, but Gregory has gathered silly stories and inanities from around the world of sports that I can guarantee you've never seen.  Funny (intentional and otherwise) quotes, facts and tidbits from sports, and a few memorable anecdotes fill this book.  It's not a reference, not cohesively arranged, not a work of great literature, it's just--stupid sports.  So put this next to your bed, on your coffee table, on in the "reading room" where you spend a few minutes each day, and enjoy the silliness.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Doll, by Taylor Stevens

Vanessa Michael Munroe is back, and now she's a victim!  We first met her in The Informationist, then followed her rescue operation in The Innocent.  Her skills as a hired gun/body guard/person who gets things done have come to the attention of people on the other side of the law.

The Doll opens with Munroe's abduction by some mysteriously skillful, wiley, and well-financed bad dudes.  Her associate (now lover) Bradford tries to track her down, but the bad guys get her to Europe, where they want her to use her skills to smuggle another kidnapped young lady to a buyer in Monaco.  This young lady, a rising Hollywood starlet, was kidnapped by the Doll Maker's people at the request of a client who is paying a tremendous amount of money to add her to his "collection."  What follows is Munroe's attempts to following the Doll Maker's instructions as she drives the girl across Europe (he is holding her best friend hostage as collateral), maybe trying to save the girl, and Bradford's efforts stateside to penetrate the Doll Maker's horrible trafficking organization.

The focus of the novel is Munroe's scheming and planning for escape and revenge, but the undertone of the world of human trafficking is strong and disturbing.  Granted, the kidnapping of a well-known darling of screen and tabloid seemed a bit over-the-top and unbelievable, but Stevens sheds light on the very real problem of sex trafficking.  As Munroe observes, "Were there no market, no buyers, and no men willing to pay for sex, organizations that fed off human misery, and criminals like the Doll Maker who stole and cashed in on the value of the female body, would cease to exist."  (Too bad our government doesn't put more resources toward human trafficking instead of wasting money on the pointless, destructive "War on Drugs.")

So in spite of the hard-to-swallow scenario of a celebrity being kidnapped for sale on the sex slave market, and in spite of the unbelievable seemingly omniscient and omnipotent power of the Doll Maker and his organization, and in spite of Munroe's unrealistic super smarts and super fighting skills (which Stevens' readers have come to expect), The Doll is a fun, gripping read, with unexpected twists and turns and a satisfying, if despairing ending.  It's at least as good as The Informationist, and probably better than The Innocent.  I will look forward to Munroe's next adventure.

(By the way, another book that deals with sex trafficking, but in a more realistic, therefore more disturbing, way is Corban Addison's A Walk Across the Sun.)

Thanks to Edelweiss and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

I'll Seize the Day Tomorrow, by Jonathan Goldstein

Canadian humorist and radio host Jonathan Goldstein, on the verge of turning forty, gives us a window into his last year as a thirty-something.  His account of his life during this year of his life is full of randomly funny stories, occasional bits of wisdom, and even a touching moment or two.  Goldstein describes himself as a "humorist," which, as he explains, "is a comedian who doesn't necessarily make you laugh."  He made me laugh, and I can imagine that his radio show, WireTap, is entertaining.

Goldstein sort of reminded me of a Canadian Jerry Seinfeld.  Goldstein has an inadvertently hilarious dad, some quirky friends, and enough goofy encounters in his days to provide some good material for humor.  His random thoughts reminded me of my co-worker Jesse.  Some examples:

  • "Waking up this morning, it occurs to me that if grade school went on forever, I'd now be in grade thirty-four."
  • "In the midst of showering, I realize I've been using the same bar of soap for about a month now.  From this I conclude that I am either a) in the midst of a Hanukkah-type miracle; or b) simply not scrubbing hard enough."  He later asks his mom, "Who taught me how to shower anyway?  Because I don't think I've been doing it right." 
  • "Whatever happened to those 2001 moon colonies we were promised--a place where we could eat ice cream all day and still bounce around as light as lunar dust?  Sometimes I just can't stand the unbearable fatness of being." 

I like his take on running: "I've recently taken up running, and have been trying to figure out a route that would allow me to run nearly all the way downhill while never having to actually go uphill."  And I agree with him that "jogging is good for the heart, but it can also be good for the soul."

True to his self description, Goldstein made me laugh, but mostly I'll Seize the Day was funny without making me laugh.  Goldstein's humor is low-key, a bit neurotic, sometimes whiny, and even mildly, thoughtfully  depressing ("At thirty-nine, I'm beginning to see that middle age might mean having more failures behind you than triumphs ahead."). 

I'll Seize the Day Tomorrow may not be for everyone, but will be enjoyed by fans of off-beat, deadpan humor who have a couple hours to kill.

Thanks to Edelweiss and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!