My Man Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse: B-

Book description:
My Man Jeeves, first published in 1919, introduced the world to affable, indolent Bertie Wooster and his precise, capable valet, Jeeves. Some of the finest examples of humorous writing found in English literature are woven around the relationship between these two men of very different classes and temperaments. Where Bertie is impetuous and feeble, Jeeves is cool-headed and poised. This collection, the first book of Jeeves and Wooster stories, includes “Leave it to Jeeves,” “Jeeves and the Unbidden Guest,” “Jeeves and the Hard-Boiled Egg,” “Absent Treatment,” “Helping Freddie,” “Rallying Round Old George,” “Doing Clarence a Bit of Good,” and “The Aunt and the Sluggard.”

Review:
It grieves me to award a relatively low grade to My Man Jeeves, because I truly did want to like it, but the trouble is, if I may be allowed to borrow Bertie’s manner of speech for a moment, that the stories it contains are “dashed repetitive, don’t you know?” In fact, you too can write a story just like the ones in this book! Make a selection at each parenthetical prompt and you’re halfway there!

A friend of (Reggie Pepper/Bertie Wooster) is having trouble with a (rich aunt or uncle/woman) and is despondent because said person has threated to (cut off his allowance/break off their engagement). (Reggie/Jeeves) comes up with a kooky idea to achieve the friend’s desired result and hijinks ensue.

The outcomes of the stories are all different, of course, and usually at least somewhat amusing. The story that varies the most from the formula above is “Doing Clarence a Bit of Good,” in which Reggie is summoned to the home of his former sweetheart, who has manipulated him thither with tales of an excellent golf course nearby but who really wants him to steal an ugly painting by her husband’s father. I probably should’ve seen the end result coming, but didn’t.

The relationship between Jeeves and Wooster is also enjoyable, with Wooster being terribly impressed by the “devilish brainy” Jeeves and occasionally rewarding him for his achievements by casting off ties, hats, or mustaches that have offended Jeeves’s delicate sensibilities. I’m a little sad that Jeeves’s intellect is used primarily for schemes of deception, though, and hope that won’t always be the case. There are a couple of occasions where he quietly works a solution of his own while Bertie is away, and I found those better examples of his cleverness than simply advising someone to pretend to have written a book on birds in order to appeal to a rich uncle with an ornithological bent.

There’s actually one story featuring Bertie and Jeeves that is even older than those collected here. “Extricating Young Gussie,” first published in 1915 and collected into The Man with Two Left Feet in 1917, finds Bertie tasked with preventing the marriage of his cousin to a chorus girl. I had thought it was safe to save this ’til later, since Jeeves’s part is extremely small, but Bertie mentioned it a couple of times here so I’ll probably go ahead and tackle that one next.

Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris: B-

holidaysFrom the front flap:
Holidays on Ice collects six of David Sedaris’s most profound Christmas stories into one slender volume perfect for use as an emergency coaster or ice scraper. This drinking man’s companion can be enjoyed by the warmth of a raging fire, in the glow of a brilliantly decorated tree, or even in the backseat of a van or police car. It should be read with your eyes, felt with your heart, and heard only when spoken to. It should, in short, behave much like a book. And oh, what a book it is!

Review:
I’m not usually one for holiday-themed entertainment: I don’t voluntarily listen to Christmas music and, beloved classic or not, the thought of watching Ralphie pine yet again for his Red Ryder BB gun fills me with despair. And yet, who could resist the allure of a piece entitled “Dinah, the Christmas Whore”? Not me, surely!

Holidays on Ice collects six short works, three of which ( “SantaLand Diaries,” “Season’s Greetings to Our Friends and Family!!!,” and “Dinah, the Christmas Whore”) have been published before and three of which ( “Based Upon a True Story,” “Front Row Center with Thaddeus Bristol,” and “Christmas Means Giving”) have not. Both “SantaLand” and “Dinah” take the form of nonfiction (see note) essays while the others are clearly fiction.

I’ve never actually read anything by Sedaris before, though I’ve heard him on NPR a time or two. Perhaps, then, it was a newbie’s mistake that I expected that these stories would be funny. Instead, most feature unpleasant people doing unpleasant things. I realize that sort of humor is popular with many, but it’s not something I personally find amusing. The worst offenders in this regard are the fiction works, like “Season’s Greetings,” in which the shrill narrator’s shrieking at her slutty new Vietnamese stepdaughter goes on interminably, or “Christmas Means Giving,” in which competitive and outrageously rich neighbors attempt to outdo each other in extravagant generosity. Some unpleasant types turn up in “SantaLand” and “Dinah,” though their stays are brief and much more tolerable.

That isn’t to say there are no laughs to be had at all. At his best, Sedaris possesses a talent for noting absurdity that jives nicely with my own sense of humor. I particularly like his self-deprecating account of his own youthful pretensions in “Dinah,” like how he thought that by wearing black in protest of others’ holiday consumption he could somehow cause them to rethink their ways.

My very avoidance would set me apart and cause these people to question themselves in ways that would surely pain them. “Who are we?” they’d ask, plucking the ornaments off their trees. “What have we become? And why can’t we be more like that somber fellow who washes dishes down at the Piccadilly Cafeteria?”

Of the fiction works, my favorite is “Front Row Center with Thaddeus Bristol,” in which a theatre critic savagely reviews several elementary school Christmas pageants. Here, rather than feeling like the extended rant of an unlikable person, it feels like the joke is on Thaddeus, who clearly is missing the point of these performances. This impression is aided by Sedaris’ expert imitation of a know-it-all columnist’s style; if this story were excerpted and anonymously posted somewhere I bet it’d fool many into believing it genuine.

While these six stories were hit or miss with me, I’m given to understand that this collection is not considered to be Sedaris’ best. I own a few more of his books, and will surely read them eventually. I’m sure I’ll encounter a few things to make me smile and a few observations to make me nod in recognition of a truth well stated, but I’m also confident there’ll be more of those unpleasant people whom I just simply don’t enjoy reading about. And that rather puts a damper on my enthusiasm.

Note: While I’m in partial agreement with the argument that Sedaris exaggerates too much for his essays to be rightly classified as nonfiction, I nonetheless think they’re nonfiction enough to merit inclusion in that category here. I only hope that the made-up bits are obvious enough that I never embarrassingly ascribe too much significance to them.

More Information Than You Require by John Hodgman: B-

more-informationFrom the front flap:
When John Hodgman first embarked on his project to assemble, tabulate, and completely make up a comprehensive survey of COMPLETE WORLD KNOWLEDGE, he was but a former professional literary agent and occasional scribbler of fake trivia—in short, A NOBODY. But during an interview on The Daily Show with John Stewart, an incredible transformation occurred—he became A FAMOUS MINOR TELEVISION PERSONALITY. Hodgman realized from this unique vantage point that he understood better than ever that THERE IS SOME WORLD KNOWLEDGE YET TO BE DOCUMENTED. And so he has returned, crashing his Kansas farmhouse down upon the wicked witch of IGNORANCE to bring you MORE INFORMATION THAN YOU REQUIRE.

Review:
I’m aware that I have a rather particular sense of humor. And so it’s really not a surprise that I didn’t find More Information Than You Require to be all that funny. I’m more apt to giggle at a silly comment than I am to laugh at a lengthy essay full of clever falsehoods, of which this book is primarily comprised. That isn’t to say that the book is entirely lacking in funny lines—my favorite is “First, get a pig’s spleen. They are often just lying around.”—but that they are few and far between.

Most of the material is at least somewhat amusing, eliciting a snerk here or there, but I don’t think I smiled even once while reading the absolutely ponderous chapter on mole-men near the end; references to Fraggle Rock couldn’t even endear it to me. I didn’t care for the recurring jokes about harm befalling cats, the occasional vulgarity, or the little page-a-day calendar blurbs that disrupted one’s flow of reading and which Hodgman himself seemed to acknowledge as annoying, saying, “You can’t avoid [reading them] forever.”

However! There are also some very nice stories buried in here, those with a more personal feel that seem to be at least marginally grounded in reality. The chapter on being famous, for example, is terrific, and I loved reading Hodgman’s perspective of being recognized. There’s also a really sweet story about vacationing in Portugal as a younger man, waiting for his girlfriend (now wife) to return from a solo journey she’d made, which includes the surprisingly touching line, “And even now, a decade and a half later, when she is out of my sight, I never stop looking for her.”

Alas, I think campaigning for more stories like that would be asking Hodgman to abandon… well, being Hodgman. I still wish the fellow well, but I don’t think I’ll be reading any more of his books. They’re just not my kind of humor.

Additional reviews of More Information Than You Require can be found at Triple Take.

Interior Desecrations by James Lileks: B+

From the back cover:
Warning! This book is not to be used in any way, shape, or form as a design manual. Rather, like the documentary about youth crime Scared Straight, it is meant as a caution of sorts, a warning against any lingering nostalgia we may have for the 1970s, a breathtakingly ugly period when even the rats parted their hair down the middle.

What does this have to do with furniture? Nothing. Everything. The kind of interior design you’ll see in these pages is what happens when an entire culture becomes so besotted with the New, the Hip, the With-It Styles that they cannot object to orange wallpaper—because they fear they’ll look square.

Please not that the author and publisher are not responsible for the results of viewing these pictures.

Review:
Lileks is the brains behind The Gallery of Regrettable Food and his site, The Institute of Official Cheer, hosts several other regular features that “humiliate the defenseless past.” I don’t always find his stuff funny, but sometimes it does amuse me, so when I found this book for $1.98, I knew it had to be mine.

The contents of the book are organized by type of room and follow the general format of a full-page color photo on one side and a few paragraphs of snark on the opposite page. It’s an easy read, and would probably be ideal bathroom material for those who like that sort of thing. As usual, I didn’t find everything funny. There were lots of drug references and some occasional crude humor that didn’t appeal to me. Every now and then, though, some particular turn of phrase or visual fancy would strike me in the right way and crack me up.

The designs were indeed genuinely horrible—inducing numerous headshakes, “wows,” and “holy craps”—and Lileks has a knack for picking out something one missed on first glance and finding something amusing to say about it. Probably the most insane room in the entire collection is the bathroom straight out of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It has silver lamé bolster pillows and two toilets.

There was one, though, that I quite liked. The furnishings were crap, but the architecture of the room was really neat. It was high-ceilinged and had an entertainment unit along a wall (boasting a state-of-the-art reel-to-reel player!) and then a ladder built into the adjoining wall that one could climb to access a library loft above. How cool is that?! I want one! Then again, I actually like the wall o’ walnut paneling in my living room, so perhaps my taste is suspect, too.

Born Standing Up by Steve Martin: A-

From the inside flap:
In the midseventies, Steve Martin exploded onto the comedy scene. By 1978 he was the biggest concert draw in the history of stand-up. In 1981 he quit forever. This book is, in his own words, the story of “why I did stand-up and why I walked away.”

Review:
Having heard that Steve Martin is somewhat of a difficult person, I had some trepidations going into this book. I really needn’t have worried. This memoir of his stand-up years is affectionate above all else, with liberal sprinklings of self-mockery scattered throughout.

There are some personal details in the book, about his family or certain romantic milestones (never sordid), but the majority of the book deals with the influences on and refinement of his stand-up act. I thought he did a really great job in chronicling its evolution from the early days, when it was just magic tricks cobbled together with one-liners gleaned from various sources, through the middle period, by which time he wrote all his own material and had completely eschewed the traditional “jokes must have punchlines” approach, until its final days, where the ability to experiment was lost and everything felt like it was on automatic pilot.

It probably wouldn’t even be necessary to be a fan of his stand-up act to find this description of the process fascinating. And, for what it’s worth, if I had experienced some of the instances where he was treated more like a product than a person, I’d probably be rather difficult myself.

Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) by Jerome K. Jerome: B+

From the back cover:
“There were four of us—George, and William Samuel Harris, and myself, and Montmorency.”

Three men, and a dog, in a boat on one of the prettiest waterways in the world—the Thames—in summer. Idyllic, wouldn’t you say? Perhaps, if George hadn’t insisted on camping, and if someone had remembered the can-opener, and if… well, maybe not idyllic, but certainly hilarious, as you’ll discover when you take the trip yourself with three men and their dog.

Review:
Typically, things deemed “hilarious” rouse in me only a smile, but this book really did elicit a large quantity of giggles and one all-out cackle. This last, however, was the result of a bit of creative license taken by the fabulous narrator, John Rainer (who sounded like a cross between Sylvester McCoy and Ringo Starr—a compliment, I assure you!), where he added some panting sound effects to a bit of doggy dialogue. I seriously rewound it, like, 6 times and made other people listen to it, too. His performance was responsible for making this book even funnier than it ordinarily would have been.

The premise of the book was simple: believing themselves to be generally ill, overworked, and in need of rest, a trio of friends decided it would be beneficial to their health to have a jaunt up the Thames. What followed was a mix of travelogue, silly mishaps and escapades, random and tangential musings, and the occasional rhapsodic ode to nature. The majority of the time, these were entertaining—I particularly liked the segments on “delights of early morning bathing” and “disadvantages of living in same house with pair of lovers”—but occasionally, especially in the case of the rhapsodic odes, it got rather dull. It seemed the end was especially laden with these episodes and so, in consequence, dragged.

I was a fan of British humor to begin with, but I definitely enjoyed this book more than I’d expected to. I’ve heard the sequel, Three Men on the Bummel, isn’t quite as amusing, but I’ll probably check it out all the same. Rainer doesn’t appear to’ve recorded it, alas.