Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Me Talk Pretty One Day

Meh. I bought Me Talk Pretty One Day* because I had heard wonderful things about David Sedaris’ previous work, Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls. The latter, published in 2013, was hot—it stood at the number one spot on the New York Times Bestseller List. The former, published in 2000, was not (in my humble opinion). Truthfully, I had no idea that Sedaris is a humorist; I thought that Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls was genuinely about owl diabetes. Healthcare is confusing, but I figured that owls can have diabetes because they have insulin, which I discerned after a simple Google search—“do owls have insulin?” Spoiler alert: they do.

You can imagine my surprise when I started reading and realized that Me Talk Pretty One Day is a collection of comedic essays. This realization was further delayed by the fact that the essays are not very funny.

 I love collective works (like George Saunders’ Tenth of December and The Best American Short Stories 2013) because they’re easy and fun to navigate. I can finish a short story in one sitting and let that simmer in me for a while before I move on to the next, which is a totally different user-experience than if I was dealing with a novel in its entirety. 

Unfortunately, the bite-sized offerings of Sedaris produce little more than pity laughs. He’s the guy that gets you a notch before laugh-climax but can’t go all the way. I do an inner chuckle, but I recognize it as a cheap joke. Obviously, not everything is going to land, but out of a whole book, I expect at least one LOL.

Sedaris’ life in general is interesting enough to wield comedic potential. He went through a period of methamphetamine addiction, served in a series of jobs that he was highly unqualified for, and moved to France largely unprepared. I found myself more interested in the plot than his attempt at witticism. The truth of the matter is that there are much funnier people out there begging you to read their book. I’m reluctant to throw out a number, because my sense of humor might be different than yours, but I suppose you came here for a reason. Sedaris’ Me Talk Pretty One Day receives two out of five camel humps.

*Sedaris, Dave. Me Talk Pretty One Day. New York: Back Bay Books, 2000. Print.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Sick in the Head

            I like to laugh. Judd Apatow’s work makes me laugh, so I keep seeing his stuff. It’s a really complicated relationship.

            In 2015, Apatow published Sick in the Head*, pledging all profits to Dave Eggers’ tutoring and literacy nonprofit, 826 (Note: Eggers is the author of A HeartbreakingWork of Staggering Genius). Sick in the Head is about funny people, but—although it has its moments—it’s not super funny in its own right. The book consists of interviews with comics to show readers the mechanics behind comedy. What drives a particular comedian, emotionally? How do they go about creating a stand-up routine? How do they define their brand of comedy in relation to others? When did they initially see themselves as funny? Etc.

Apatow is uniquely equipped to author a book like this; he started conducting interviews at the age of fifteen as an ambitious representative for his high school radio station. As a result, this compilation spans an impressive range. In the case of Jerry Seinfeld, we see the trajectory of his career through interviews from 1983 and 2014, pre and post Seinfeld. There are 38 interviewees in all, with some, like Seinfeld, repeat interviews at different time points. Admittedly, I didn’t care for some people, mainly because I hadn’t seen any of their work. However, even the interviews I wasn’t excited about contained some sort of curious or insightful tidbit. For readers who don’t want to tackle all 500 pages, it would be very easy to skip around and only read the interviews of people that interest you.

Here are the interviews that I enjoyed the most: Freaks and Geeks 2013 Oral History (an explanation of how this GOAT show was developed), Harold Ramis (2005), Jeff Garlin (2013), Louis C.K. (2014), Miranda July (2013), Sarah Silverman (2014), Seth Rogan (2009), and Stephen Colbert (2014).

            Overall, Sick in the Head is not some hilarious Nobel Prize masterpiece, but that’s also not its goal. The book in its entirety probably only appeals to a specific demographic: people looking to get into the comedic arena. Portions will still appeal to the general public, especially those that are Apatow fans. The only real issue I had with the book was a consequence of its structure. Because Apatow leads the interviews, we hear his story over and over again. His childhood insecurities and his family issues resurface, which leave me thinking okay, I get it. Fortunately, he’s an incredibly talented person who has worked with so many incredibly talented people; so, an overused story of his is much better than the average person’s. But if you tell me that you used to record SNL with a cassette recorder and then transcribe it all by hand just to get an overview of the process…I only need to hear that once or twice.

            As someone who is intrigued and attracted to the world of comedy, I appreciate Apatow’s probing, which allowed for deeply honest and personal conversations with some of the most fascinating minds. Comics discuss their therapy sessions, how pressures of race and sex affect their acts, and how the arrogance of stepping into the spotlight shapes them as humans. I’m thankful that Apatow started this endeavor at such a young age and gifted it to us. Sick in the Head receives 4 out of 5 camel humps. Here's a gif of my favorite Freaks and Geeks character dancing to brighten your day:
*Apatow, Judd. Sick in the Head. New York: Random House, 2015. Print.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Life of Pi

            “I was alone and orphaned, in the middle of the Pacific, hanging on to an oar, an adult tiger in front of me, sharks beneath me, a storm raging about me” (Martel, 107). Yowza. This quote encapsulates Pi Patel’s struggles in the 2001 novel, Life of Pi*. Suffice to say that I’m not giving away any major plot points, considering the poster of the movie adaptation looks like this:

            Although the movie is very visually appealing, the book takes the cake. Pi’s journey, albeit fictional, is emotional to witness as a reader. Any tale of human resilience in the face of such calamitous odds makes you feel proud to be a part of the race. The story is structured as a first-person account, based on a fictional interview that the author, Yann Martel, has with Pi Patel.  It follows Pi’s life in India >> sea voyage to Canada with animal cargo (his parents are zookeepers) >> abrupt sinking of the ship, which results in Pi and a handful of dangerous animals left on a lifeboat as the only survivors >> 227 brutal days stranded at sea >> eventual rescue. I’m exhausted just typing that.

            There are many things I expect from a castaway book. Pi has a hallucinatory period in which he goes blind, and he believes that he’s able to speak to the tiger, who is talking in a French accent. That’s amusing, but it’s not necessarily shocking, given the circumstances. Additionally, when animals are involved, I presume that I’ll learn at least some basic facts about the species. Martel teaches the reader about numerous animals in a straightforward voice that isn’t too scholarly. He doesn’t go all zoologist on you, and I came away with quite a bit of practical knowledge.

I also anticipate some sort of religious aspect; if I survived such a wild series of events, I’d probably be thanking God too. What I did not anticipate is Pi’s particularly refreshing, unique take on God. Pi has a brilliantly inclusive opinion on religion, evident in the fact that he’s a practicing Hindu, Muslim, and Christian. The prophets and gods of each religion resonate with him in compelling ways, and he focuses on what he considers to be the core of each religion, rather than get caught up in peripheral details that might lead to contradiction between the faiths. His convictions are personal and he presents them without imposition.

Pi’s belief in a higher power sustains him during his suffering, because he feels that both good and bad emanate from a wholeness of the universe beyond his understanding. Religion gives him dignity, which lifts his spirits when his stout vegetarianism is compromised by the inevitabilities of starvation. He warns against human arrogance in the face of something as grand as divinity, and he compares this dynamic to the relationship between him and the beautiful, horrific, powerful beast in his lifeboat. The acknowledgement that he is but a microcosm of the divine provides him a mentality that helps him find peace while persevering. He admits, “I saw my suffering for what it was, finite and insignificant, and I was still” (Martel, 177).

The novel reminds me of The Old Man and the Sea for several reasons. One—the most obvious—is that the sea is pertinent in both novels. We see the main character’s relationship with their fellow creatures and watch how persistence in the face of the elements affects that relationship. Taking a step further, I recognize humility in the face of majesty. Pi and Santiago (the fisherman in Hemingway’s novel) exude a modest reverence for the world around them, which makes us respect and root for them. Neither Hemingway nor Martel force their main characters on readers; they present them fairly unadorned and let us be the judge.

I, for one, find Pi to be an incredible testament to the goodness in humans. While reading, I was continuously inspired by his story (and Martel’s storytelling abilities), such that I had to remind myself that the details didn’t actually occur. Of course, several people in real life have survived being lost at sea, and similarly harrowing feats occur on a regular basis outside of the ocean. But there is something about Martel’s use of an imaginary story that more aptly captures the vibrancy, range, and absurdities of human experience (as fiction typically does, IMO). As such, Life of Pi receives 5 out of 5 camel humps.

*Martel, Yann. Life of Pi. New York: Harcourt Books, 2001. Print.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

White Teeth

           I’m taking an Introduction to Improvisation class, which permeates my life such that I’m constantly (obnoxiously) looking at the world through an improviser lens. One thing the instructor keeps emphasizing: not every scene has to have conflict. We might respond confrontationally on impulse in an improv setting, but for the most part, it’s not enjoyable to watch, and it’s not accurately indicative of what happens in real life. Usually, when someone says, “Honey, I made you dinner”, you don’t respond with, “But I hate dinner, it’s the worst meal of the day!” just to keep the conversation moving.

            This speech has a point, I swear. Zadie Smith’s seminal novel, White Teeth* is a great big melting pot of conflict. Everyone is arguing with each other for 450 pages. The novel provides insight into the difficulties of immigrant families; it explores the tension between desiring assimilation and retaining traditions and identities. There are numerous main characters, because Smith performs the ambitious exploration over multiple generations. Such complex issues inevitably involve struggle, but as a reader, I have a conflict boiling point. I want someone to make nice at least once, and I grow exhausted by never-ending argumentative dialogue.  

            You might be frustrated by the unceasing brawls, but at least you can find refuge in great characters, right? Wrong. Smith has so much ground to cover that she doesn’t spend enough time on one person, so no character gets fully developed. The second we get to know him/her, he/she eludes us. What you end up with are plenty of potentially interesting people who do nothing but quarrel.

            Moreover, the teeth motif seems forced and not very useful. I get it to an extent—having white teeth is the common factor amongst so many diverse backgrounds, and the handy (toothy?) root metaphor is easily accessible, allowing comparisons to the homeland. But it’s a pretty lame motif if you ask me, and it’s not even employed consistently. Smith weaves intricate plot lines that convey her skill, but then she randomly throws in a quip about molars. Personally, I prefer pun memes, like this one:
            Needless to say, I’m not a huge fan of this book. I wanted to like it, mainly because of its notoriety. At the time of publication, it won numerous awards and was received well by critics. It’s even listed on this amazing “100 Essential Novels” scratch off that I got for Christmas (I recommend to all book lovers—the scratching off process is very edifying).  

Zadie Smith wrote White Teeth at age 25, a year that I spent re-watching Breaking Bad and learning how to expand my cooking beyond pasta. Obviously, she’s a talented young woman. Unfortunately, the book didn’t do it for me, and I can’t in good faith advise others to read it. White Teeth receives 2 out of 5 camel humps.

*Smith, Zadie. White TeethNew York: Random House, 2000. Print.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016


            Toni Morrison first landed on my radar when Ta-Nehisi Coates included a quote by her on the cover of Between the World and Me. As an author, Morrison does not shy from slapping you in the face with racial commentary. Her most notable novel, Beloved*, earned her the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature, and she continues to be a booming voice in discussions regarding the disenfranchisement of black America. 

            Beloved tackles the topic of slavery, couched in creative storytelling. The plot is based on a historically famous moment of infanticide. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 stated that slaves who escaped to free states could be seized by their previous masters and returned to captivity. When Kentucky plantation owners apprehended former slave Margaret Garner in Ohio in 1856, Margaret chose to murder her own daughter rather than give her back over to slavery.

            Morrison, inspired by the ferocity of Margaret’s love for her child as well as the moral contentiousness of her actions, adapts the event into a fictional story. In order to effectively hone in on the psychological trauma of slavery, Morrison considers the killing from multiple perspectives, including the mother, the community, the other siblings, and the dead daughter herself in the form of a ghost. The result is a chilling account of a brutal action born of an even more brutal and murderous institution.

            I appreciate Morrison’s thoughtful take on a terrible history that I can’t fully comprehend. Unfortunately, I’m not a fan of her writing style, and I had quite a bit of trouble navigating a sense of place within the novel. She jumps around between past, present, future, death, life, imagination, and spoken word. Additionally, she jumps around between the minds of each main character. I spent most of the time trying to orient myself to the speaker/context, and too little time grasping the intended message.

            Morrison is a gifted poet, and her writing contains a rawness fitting of a population that was forced to remain vulnerable even in their legal “freedom”. When I wasn’t distracted by the jerking back and forth between surrealism, reality, and stream of consciousness, I considered her very talented. After the negatives balance the positives, Beloved levels out at 3 out of 5 camel humps.

*Morrison, Toni. BelovedNew York: Random House, 1987. Print.