Book Log #15 – Funny Planet

Funny Planet – How Comedy Ruined Everything by Ken Jennings [Duke University Bookstore]

This book is amazing. Unsurprising for a many multiple time Jeopardy winner, this book is packed full of comedy history, facts, anecdotes, scientific studies and insightful commentary.

I picked it up when my son was doing a summer camp at Duke last year. I read a chapter or two, then for the next year wasn’t in the mood to hear how my last refuge from the state of the world was *also* terrible. With polls trending my way a bit and in the throes of a pleasantly escapist beach vacation, I summoned the will to dive into it again.

And man, was I glad I did. it is easily one of the best books I’ve read in the past few years, despite the rather dire thesis that the current saturation level of comedy permeating our every hour has led to many ills, including our current president.

There is so much to take from this book, both hopeful and disappointing, that I hardly know how to thimbalize it for this post.

One important bit is the evidence that mocking or making light of serious societal dangers, even with the best intentions of raising awareness or opposing them, can have the unintended consequences of dulling our perception of the importance. The Colbert Report in its attempt to point out the foibles of flawed conservative thinking may have helped enable it. John Stewart’s delight at the comedy cornucopia of Trump’s candidacy may have helped obscure the dangers therein. To say nothing of the comedy arms race on Twitter.

Everyone with an interest in comedy should read this book. I’ll loan you my copy.

Book Log #14 – Exhalation: Stories

Exhalation: Stories by Ted Chiang [Little Shop of Stories?]

I don’t remember when I read this. I assume I picked it up at Little Shop of Stories as an impulse purchase, there’s no record I purchased it at Amazon or had it on my wishlist. Additional evidence is that this was one of the best books I’ve ever read, and that more often comes from the curated selection at LSOS.

I talked about this book to anyone who would listen, and there are only a handful of books I can say that about. And what’s amazing is I didn’t write about it here. So I’m rectifying that mistake.

I can’t find my copy, but that is almost certainly because I forced someone to borrow it.

This is an amazing collection of literary science fiction stories. The writing is smooth and flawless and the ideas are fun and clever.

The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate is one of the best time travel stories I’ve ever read — the problem of suspense in time travel narratives is difficult to come by, but this story’s convention works perfectly for that. The setting is also unique, almost reading like an Aesop’s Fable.

Exhalation, from which the book’s title is taken, is an amazing bit of hard science world building.

It’s been a while, but I don’t remember there being a weak one in the bunch. Funny, poignant, interesting… this book’s got it all.

Go read it. Now.

Book Log #13: The Ocean at the End of the Lane

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman, Illustrated by Elise Hurst [Free, Gift]

This book is very Neil Gaiman-y, with perhaps a touch of the Terry Pratchetesque thrown in. Not too much Terry Pratchett, but perhaps some echoes of Granny Weatherwax here.

This is not a book I would read repeatedly, but it was an enjoyable distraction in the downtime between tournament softball games one Saturday.

What I have is a signed, hardback edition gifted to me by a co-worker, who had three signed copies, which was two more than he needed. (His wife likes Gaiman, he is indifferent). How does one accidentally end up with three signed copies? Well, he is an Englishman. So I assume they are given out as part of their socialist hellscape healthcare system, or something like that.

I will heap praise on the illustrations of this edition. Elise Hurst’s pen and ink work is haunting, and adds to the experience greatly. I felt a little self conscious as some of the pages are borderline picture book status, but no one at the softball tournament noticed, I don’t think.

Book Log #12 – The Bookish Life of Nina Hill

The Bookish Life of Nina Hill by Abbi Waxman [Little Shop of Stories]

There is an issue I have with some narration that I struggle to articulate. I want my third person narrator to be… Consistent? Clear as to what it is?

There is a line that (I feel) shouldn’t be crossed tentatively. Either the third person narrator is a character, or it is a neutral conduit for information. It throws me out of the story when the narration suddenly has a personality for the sake of making a joke, and then doesn’t.

The narration of Hill does that a couple times, and it bothers me more than it probably should. All in all, this is an okay slice of life novel about a single young woman in LA.

Perhaps the characters were not as outlandish as the book seemed to think they are. Maybe not a lot happens here. But for some reason I ploughed through the novel, and I have no regrets.

Perhaps a nice low impact story with a happy ending is want I was looking for these days.

As a side note, I feel like I’ve read a disproportionate number of books lately with characters who love books so much. Maybe that’s always been the way with books– authors usually like books, and write what you know, right?

Book Log #11 – The Toll (Book 3 of Arc of Scythe Series)

The Toll (Arc of a Scythe) by Neal Shusterman

This is one of the the few series that both my son and I have read. Shockingly, to me, we don’t have much in common in specific books. Though, on the face, we should.

Neither of my kids read as much as I envisioned when they were little, as I read to them every night, for probably a decade. They both have a love of story, there is no doubt. But picking up a book is rarer than I’d like.

Their counter-argument is that they read *all the time*, by which they mean social media. And they’re not… wrong. And maybe my way of thinking is old-fashioned. Of course, I know there was disappointment in some quarters when I didn’t immediately dive into a Christmas-gifted edition of Tom Sawyer when I was 9 or 10. So perhaps we all fail to live up to elder expectations.

But it makes having a series in common all the more rewarding when it happens.

The Arc of Scythe series is good, though it requires me to do quite a bit if disbelief suspending in its very premise. Society has become “post-mortal” due to nannites in the blood that repair the body, and rejuvination processes that can rebuild a body if the brain has not been destroyed. People are generally “deadish” instead of “dead”. So that’s fine.

There is also an ubercomputer that manages everything for everyone. It has the sum of human knowledge at it’s disposal, and runs simulations on actions and outcomes to determine the best possible path. That’s fine, a common sci-fi trope. It’s a benevolent entity that is firmly grounded in Asimov’s laws-like principles.

But– now we have an overpopulation problem. To solve that overpopulation problem, they decide that some humans will become “Scythes”, an organization outside of the uber-computer’s control that are tasked with killing a certain percentage of the population.

Why not branch out to other planets? Settle the moon or Mars? Well, they tried that, and everyone died in explosions.

Why not keep trying, if the alternative is people getting randomly killed on Earth? I DON’T KNOW.

Well, there’s a bit of a reason, and it relates to the ending of The Good Place. [SPOILERS AHEAD]

It boils down to infinity being just too much. In order to live with purpose, time has to matter. If you have all the time in the world, a lack of motivation settles in and everything goes to crap. If you don’t know how much time you have… well, best get to livin’!

If you accept that premise that death gives life purpose, then this is a pretty satisfying series all around.

Myself, I’d prefer to give infinity a whirl.

Book Log #10 – A Tree Grows In Brooklyn

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

A friend of the family send this book to us for Scout to read, adding that it was her very favorite book. This is no small praise coming from a person as well-read as she.

It sat on our counter for several months before I took pity on the poor book and decided to give it a try. I knew nothing about the novel, which I think is really the best way to read something.

It is a tremendous book that, had it been described to me, I would never have sought out on my own. In short, it is a coming-of-age novel of a young impoverished girl in Brooklyn in the 1910’s. Sounds depressing, right? I’m not too in to depressing books. I’m looking for escapism; if I want to be sad, I can pick up a newspaper.

But the world our heroine inhabits is fascinating and foreign. It’s I-had-to-walk-uphill-through-the-snow-both-ways but told deftly and with humor and insight.

The writing is well done, and I’ll highlight something that should have bothered me, but didn’t– when a character’s thought processes were being described, they were written in a very matter of fact and stilted way that just… worked, for some reason. I don’t know why, and I never would have tried it myself.

When I was done with the book, I wondered how accurate it could possibly be– where did the author get this incredible detail of Brooklyn life of this time? Even my grandmothers wouldn’t have been old enough to experience it firsthand.

But of course, the answer is that this book is fairly old, written in 1943. I would have known that had I bothered to pay any attention to the cover, with the words “75th Anniversary Edition” printed across the top.

So, in summary, it’s nice the human race writes things down so we can learn about them 100 years later.

Highly recommended.

Book Log #9: Such a Fun Age

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid [Kindle, $13.99]

I made a note of this book after seeing an interview with Kiley Reid by Trevor Noah. Trevor endorsed her book, and I figure he knows good books.

Interestingly, it’s centers around a black babysitter taking care of a white child in a supermarket, where she is accosted by store security on suspician of kidnapping.

i started reading it before the most recent momentum from the Black Lives Matter movement kicked in; it turned out to be serendipitious reading material.

And interesting, and entertaining. Trevor didn’t let me down.

Book Log #7: Everything Scrabble

Everything Scrabble by Edley, Joe, Williams, John, Gallery Books

At the beginning of the pandemic, I tried playing Scrabble online with folks. I got stomped. Just crushed.

I’m not a Scrabble officianado. I enjoy the game, but I haven’t played in decades, and I had no idea what a “bingo” was.

So I read up, started practicing, and now I can confidently say I am no better, but now I know what a “bingo” is.

Book Log #6: The Glass Hotel

The Glass Hotel By Emily St. John Mandel

By the author of Station 11, which was fantastic.

This was a fine read. It had a story, but felt more like a collection of character sketches. I don’t mean that in necessarily a bad way, I stayed engaged throughout. The ending got a bit supernatural for my taste, in what was otherwise a very grounded novel.

The plot involves a Madoff-like Ponzi scheme and an isolated hotel, and the characters that inhabit both.

Worth a read, but try Station 11 first.

I liked it well enough to try some of her other works.