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!

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.

The Manga Artist’s Workbook by Christopher Hart: A-

artistworkbookUsing artwork and text from Hart’s book Manga for the Beginner: Everything You Need to Start Drawing Right Away (Watson-Guptill Publications, ISBN 978-0-307-46270-01), The Manga Artist’s Workbook (subtitled Easy-to-Follow Lessons for Creating Your Own Characters) takes readers step-by-step through the process of creating a character and provides ample opportunities to try out the advice using the tracing and drawing paper included in the book.

The book is divided into sections focusing on different anatomical and sartorial aspects of a character: the head, the eyes, the hands, clothing and costumes, creating natural and action poses, et cetera. The importance of using guidelines to achieve proper proportion and perspective is stressed and the approach is overall a technical one that will require some patience.

That isn’t to say it’s without immediate satisfaction, though. Because of the focus on one element at a time, aspiring artists (or relatively hopeless manga reviewers) can concentrate on adding just one thing to a mostly completed drawing. In the image below, all I did was shade in the eyes and add some hair and it almost looks like I can actually draw!

Unlike some how-to books on drawing manga that I’ve seen, the art in The Manga Artist’s Workbook genuinely looks like manga art. Its lessons are primarily applicable to shojo style, however, which might be an enticement for some and a turn-off for others. Also, as the subtitle suggests, the lessons are all about creating a character; no advice concerning paneling or backgrounds is given. Still, if you’re a shojo artist looking for some hands-on practice, you might want to check this one out.

Review copy provided by the publisher. Review originally published at Manga Recon.

The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey: A

daughtertimeFrom the back cover:
Confined to a hospital bed, Scotland Yard’s Inspector Grant is engrossed with a portrait of Richard III. How is it possible, he wonders, that such a sensitive-appearing soul could have been the odious villain, the Wicked Uncle responsible for the murder of his own nephews to secure the British crown for himself? Grant reconsiders 500-year-old evidence and brilliantly arrives at a compelling new answer to one of the most intriguing mysteries in history: who really murdered the Princes in the Tower.

“For truth is rightly named the daughter of time, not of authority.” – Sir Francis Bacon

After an embarrassing accident, Inspector Grant faces an extended convalescence in a hospital bed. Helpfully minded friends have dropped off some novels, but they hold no appeal. It’s only when Grant’s friend Marta, knowing his interest in faces, brings by a selection of historical portraits that the irksome prickles of boredom begin to fade. Particularly captivating is the portrait of Richard III, whose sensitive expression speaks more of illness and suffering than the villainy for which he is chiefly remembered. His police instincts roused, and together with a research assistant (also supplied by Marta) to do the necessary leg work, Grant sets about proving whether Richard III really did murder his nephews as history claims.

Ever since reading Sharon Kay Penman’s The Sunne in Splendour, I’ve had an interest in Richard III and, if pressed, would count myself among those who believe in his innocence. The Daughter of Time comes to the same conclusion, eschewing the hearsay accounts that fill the history books—often penned by historians from the Tudor years who did not like to write too favorably about the Plantagenets—in favor of contemporary sources and, when that isn’t available, a basic understanding of human nature. Taking it one step further, Grant examines the question of who had the most to gain by the princes’ deaths, and ends up making the case that Henry VII was ultimately responsible.

The wealth of historical information required to make these points is presented in a way that’s anything but dry; on the contrary, I found it fascinating. What makes The Daughter of Time so great, though, is that the storyline in the present is also fun. In what other novel does the protagonist spend the whole of the book confined to bed, his mind challenged and engaged but his body immobile? Anyone who ventures into Grant’s room is liable to be subjected to questioning on the topic of Richard III, and indeed, it’s a member of the hospital staff whose change in opinion regarding the much-maligned monarch is the first triumph of the inspector’s efforts.

Now that I’ve read something so pro-Richard, I feel the need to achieve a balanced view by reading an account that casts him as the murderer. Look, therefore, for a review of Alison Weir’s The Princes in the Tower in the near future.

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.

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.

Underfoot in Show Business by Helene Hanff: A

underfootFrom the front flap:
“Each year, hundreds of stagestruck kids arrive in New York determined to crash the theatre… One in a thousand turns out to be Noel Coward. This book is about life among the other 999. By one of them.”
– Helene Hanff

In her spirited, witty and vastly entertaining memoir, Helene Hanff recalls her ingenuous attempts to crash Broadway in the early forties as one of “the other 999.”

From the joys of summer theatre and furnished rooms to being Seen at Sardi’s and weathering one more Theatre Guild flop, Miss Hanff recalls the rigors of crashing Broadway with warmth and generous humor. Her exuberant account of a misspent youth will hearten theatre hopefuls and entertain the large, devoted readership she has acquired through her subsequent works.

Helene Hanff’s memoir of her attempts to break into the threatre spans decades from the early ’40s to the early ’60s. Conforming to Flanagan’s Law, a theory advanced by a friend of hers that states, “If you can predict it, it doesn’t happen. In the theatre, no matter what happens to you, it’s unexpected,” Hanff’s career does not go as planned. It starts off well, with Hanff taking top prize in a contest, but soon sputters. Though she wants to be a playwright, and can create excellent characters and settings, she’s never been a fiction fan so her plots are always weak and her plays never sell. To make ends meet she takes a variety of part-time jobs, and eventually ends up writing for television. Just as she accepts that it’s time to give up on plays and focus on TV, all of the writing jobs for that medium move off to the West Coast and she’s left unemployed once again.

Hanff tells the story of her career trajectory with warmth and wit and, though I just used this adjective the other day and am hesitant to do so again, the result is nothing short of delightful. Interspersed with tales of her various odd jobs—including a memorable episode where she and an assistant have to alter 10,000 mimeographed press releases for Oklahoma! by hand when its creators decide it needs an exclamation point—are stories about the places she used to live (garrets with a communal kitchen and colorful neighbors), the free entertainment she and a friend used to enjoy (courtesy of a nifty trick of mingling in with the crowd at intermission), and snippets of wisdom gleaned from so many years in the business.

Toward the end, the narrative overlaps a little with 84, Charing Cross Road, probably the best known of Hanff’s works. At least one story shared with her English penpals is recounted in this book, too—about a dramatization of the life of Aesop and Rhodope—but it’s not tiresome by any means. It’s more like your friend telling you an amusing story and not quite remembering they’ve told you already, but it’s fun and you like them, so you play along and don’t interrupt.

And speaking of not interrupting, this book is so captivating that I very nearly read it in one sitting and would have if not for the pesky necessity of going to bed at a reasonable hour. A special thanks to MJ for the recommendation!

The Happiest Days of Our Lives by Wil Wheaton: B+

happiest-daysFrom the back cover:
Readers of Wil Wheaton’s website know that he is a masterful teller of elegant stories about his life. Building on the critical success of Dancing Barefoot and Just a Geek, he has collected more of his own favorite stories in his third book, The Happiest Days of Our Lives. These are the stories Wil loves to tell, because they are the closest to his heart: stories about being a huge geek, passing his geeky hobbies and values along to his own children, and painting, as vividly as possible, what it meant to grow up in the ’70s and come of age in the ’80s as part of the video game/D&D/BBS/Star Wars figures generation.

In all of these tales, Wheaton brings the reader into the raw heart of the story, holding nothing back, and you are invited to join him on a journey through The Happiest Days of Our Lives.

The Happiest Days of Our Lives, a collection of stories by actor, writer, and blogger Wil Wheaton, focuses primarily on childhood and adolescent memories as viewed through the nostalgic lens of an adult and experienced parent. In “Blue Light Special,” for example, Wil tells the amusing story of how he ended up with a Lando Calrissian action figure. “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Geek” charts his entry into the world of gaming. And in “The Butterfly Tree,” he recounts the story of how he got in trouble at school for the first time, and manages to perfectly capture the painful moment when a child first discovers the fallibility of adults, as his teacher punishes him unfairly and his parents fail to defend him. Having had a similar experience myself once (though, happily, with much parental defense), I thought he nailed the feeling precisely.

I’m not a regular reader of Wil’s blog, so nearly all of this material was new to me. Sometimes this worked to my detriment, though, as there were references to other stories—one about a homemade Star Wars toy and the other an in-joke shared between Wil and Jonathan Frakes—that I just didn’t get. Still, growing up in the ’80s myself, there was much with which I identified, like watching Poltergeist and being scared silly (“Close Your Eyes and Then It’s Past”) or forever being tempted to equate raspberry sorbet with a certain song by Prince (“Exactly What I Wanted”).

I also enjoyed stories like “Suddenly It’s Tomorrow,” which is about Wil’s desire need to spend more time with his family. The story that resonated with me the most, though, was “Let Go – A Requiem for Felix the Bear.” This story, about the efforts of Wil and his wife to prolong the life of a sick and beloved kitty, had me in tears. It also made me love Wil quite a lot, not only for the efforts he made to help Felix, but for how profoundly affected he was by his death.

There’s not much negative to say about the collection. A couple of the stories aren’t really stories, but are more just snapshots of recollections, like “Beyond the Rim of the Starlight,” which is about Wil’s experiences attending Star Trek conventions, and “My Mind is Filled with Silvery Star,” in which Wil puts the ’80s music on his iPod on shuffle and writes about the memories that each song conjures up. While I preferred the tales with linear narratives, I still found both pieces to be entertaining. The only real sour note is the final story, “Lying in Odessa,” which has nothing to do with being a geek or being a parent. Instead, Wil writes about an illegal poker tournament that he participated in. Since I am not a poker aficionado, there were many terms that I didn’t understand and I questioned the choice to end with this story and not one of the warm and fuzzy “family togetherness” ones.

I’m not sure the experience of reading The Happiest Days of Our Lives will convert me into a faithful blog-reader, but it has at least sparked an interest in reading Wil’s other books one of these days.

Additional reviews of The Happiest Days of Our Lives can be found at Triple Take.

Sayonara, Mr. Fatty!: A Geek’s Diet Memoir by Toshio Okada: B

sayonara125When Toshio Okada, co-founder of Gainax (Neon Genesis Evangelion, among others) and Japanese pop culture expert, began to wonder exactly why he was so overweight, he decided to analyze his eating patterns in the hopes of discovering an explanation. What he found was that the simple act of recording what he ate helped him to lose weight. This revelation led to the development of his own method, which he calls the Recording Diet. In Sayonara, Mr. Fatty!, Okada describes the six stages of the Recording Diet while incorporating advice and anecdotes from his personal weight loss journey.

Just to be clear about things, even though this book is written by a renowned otaku, it is still 99.99% about his experiences losing 110 pounds in a year. The references to Japanese pop culture are scant and confined to sentences like, “If I had the time to exercise, I’d rather use it to read manga and watch anime.” For the most part, it’s a lot like any other self-help book. There are some sections that tell you things you already know (“It can be a mistake to follow a celebrity’s style without considering whether it suits you”) and others devoted to proving why the Recording Diet is superior to various other ways to achieve weight loss. Okada tries to make his method sound fun and easy, touting its applicability for “people who are not good at exercise, who are sedentary and fond of reading books and thinking deeply.”

As a geek who has dieted off and on for years, I did indeed find some of Okada’s insights useful—I particularly like how he differentiates between people who eat because the brain desires the experience (D-types) and those who eat only when the body needs sustenance (N-types)—and can see myself recalling them in future. Some of his advice was a bit confusing, however. At one point he says, “Don’t exercise while you’re losing weight!” only to later write, “Exercise is another recommendation.” I think the difference depends on what stage of the diet one happens to be in at the time, but these boundaries are not always clearly delineated. One might think one is in the final stage (Orbit), for example, but upon testing one’s ability to quit eating a favorite dish when the body signals fullness, find that one is actually still a couple of stages back (Cruising).

The bottom line: if you’re a geek who’s looking for a self-help diet book to which you might relate, then Sayonara, Mr. Fatty! may be for you. If you just want to read about a guy who helped introduce the world to Shinji Ikari and Nerv, however, you’ll probably be disappointed.

Review copy provided by the publisher. Review originally published at Manga Recon.

84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff: B+

84charingFrom the back cover:
This charming classic, first published in 1970, brings together twenty years of correspondence between Helene Hanff, a freelance writer living in New York City, and a used-book dealer in London. Through the years, though never meeting and separated both geographically and culturally, they share a winsome, sentimental friendship based on their common love for books. Their relationship, captured so acutely in these letters, is one that will grab your heart and not let go.

As promised, 84, Charing Cross Road is indeed a completely charming collection of letters, selected from twenty years’ worth of correspondence between Helene Hanff and Frank Doel. It all begins in October 1949, when Helene writes to Marks and Co., Booksellers—located in London—to inquire whether some out-of-print items on her wishlist might be located. Her letter is answered by an employee who signs his replies “FPD.” While Helene is personable from the start, and definitely quirky, her correspondent takes some time to warm up. After she hears of the rationing going on in England, however, and arranges for a package of rare food items to be delivered to the shop (a practice she will continue for several years), he writes to thank her for her kindness and reveals that his name is Frank Doel.

Helene can sometimes come across as rude in her letters, though even complaints about delays or unsuitable editions typically have a postscript inquiring about what kind of eggs the staff at Marks and Co. would like her to send (fresh eggs being extremely hard to come by in the postwar years) or something along that line. Part of this can be attributed to her attempt to “puncture that proper British reserve,” and in time, the letters from England do grow quite warm and friendly. When Frank first addresses her as Helene, I actually got a bit verklempt! Eventually, she begins to correspond with Frank’s wife as well as a few other employees of the shop. Through the years, Helene is urged many times to come visit. Though she makes several attempts to save money, life always intervenes, in the form of dental bills, new home expenses, or a lack of work as a TV writer. At the time that the book was published (1970), she had not made it there yet.

I consumed this little volume—its brevity is my chief complaint!—in unabridged audio format. Many thanks to Erica Friedman who recommended this particular edition. What’s so lovely about it is that each letter writer has their own narrator. Helene is given voice by the talented Barbara Rosenblat and Frank by John Franklyn-Robbins, with many other notable Recorded Books regulars making an appearance. It’s lovely to hear the increasing affection in each voice and it makes one particularly amusing part—during which Frank is dismayed that a “thank you” letter for the latest package hasn’t been sent to Helene when in fact several people from the shop have surreptitiously written to her already—work even better than it would in written format.

For a period of correspondence spanning twenty years, 84, Charing Cross Road does seem to go by awfully fast. But if you’re looking for a cozy read one afternoon—or a cozy listen while you toil away at some harried task—then I definitely recommend it.

Firehouse by David Halberstam: B+

firehouseFrom the back cover:
“In the firehouse the men not only live and eat with each other, they play sports together, go off to drink together, help repair one another’s houses and, most importantly, share terrifying risks; their loyalties to each other must, by the demands of the dangers they face, be instinctive and absolute.” So writes David Halberstam in this stunning book about Engine 40, Ladder 35—one of the firehouses hardest hit in the aftermath of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Towers. On the morning of September 11, 2001, two rigs carrying thirteen men set out from this firehouse, located on the west side of Manhattan near Lincoln Center; twelve of the men would never return.

Firehouse, by David Halberstam, is nothing if not a tribute to the men who gave their lives on September 11, 2001. In this short but effective book he attempts to depict the special camaraderie between firefighters, evoke the fraternal atmosphere of the firehouse, and paint a portrait of each of the men from Engine 40, Ladder 35 who lost their lives that day.

Though many of the men have things in common—working class backgrounds, coming from a family of firemen, or pride in their culinary abilities—Halberstam provides enough anecdotes about each to render them as a distinct person. Instead of mere names in a list, they become people: Steve Mercado the mimic, Jimmy Giberson with the enormous feet, or Vincent Morello who so wanted to be a firefighter that he took nearly a 50% pay cut to achieve his dream. We learn about their families and the reactions of their loved ones to their eventual fates. Some of the stories are quite moving, and I’d be lying if I said I never got sniffly.

Halberstam paints a rosy picture of life as a fireman, as befits a book with the chief purpose of commemorating the actions of heroic men. Having grown up as the daughter of a fireman, however, I’ve heard many complaints about the job, too, especially regarding the interference of bureaucracy, which is touched on in Firehouse but not elaborated upon. I’m not saying Halberstam ought to have dwelled on the negatives, but his relentlessly positive depiction of the job as one loved by all was a sour note in an otherwise moving tribute.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt: B+

From the back cover:
Shots rang out in Savannah’s grandest mansion in the misty, early morning hours of May 2, 1981. Was it murder or self defense? The question captivated the city’s Society, high and low, for over a decade.

John Berendt, a veteran New York magazine writer and editor, traveled to Savannah and, having become enchanted by this isolated remnant of the Old South, made it his second home. Over a period of eight years, he encountered the city’s eccentric characters, became involved in bizarre adventures, and closely followed the unpredictable twists and turns of a landmark murder case.

A literary account of a crime + old houses + the South = a book with my name all over it.

It’s kind of hard to categorize Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, since it’s not a straight-up account of a murder. Instead, Berendt takes his time in bringing the “beguiling” city of Savannah to life, from its high society—the rich businessmen and who belong to the yacht club, the well-bred married ladies who gather to play cards every month, et cetera—to those who society would disdain, like a drag queen with massive attitude and a practitioner of black magic. Fully the first half of the book is the author getting introduced to various colorful characters and hearing tales about crazy parties and ancient yet salacious scandals that haven’t been forgotten. It’s all very interesting to read about—reads like fiction, really—but the picture Berendt paints makes me glad I don’t live there or know any of these people!

The crime part comes in when Jim Williams, a man who wasn’t born into wealth but earned it through his own savvy for antiques, shoots and kills his violent-tempered lover. He claims it’s a case of self-defense, though there are certain pieces of evidence that would indicate otherwise. Williams ends up getting tried for the crime four separate times on account of various errors and hung juries, and in desperation ends up turning to a black magic practitioner, Minerva, for help. It’s from an expedition to a graveyard with Minerva that the book derives its title.

I found it interesting that at first, Williams comes across as very urbane and polished and when he first consults Minerva, he’s pretty dismissive about what she’s doing. As time wears on and he grows more desperate, he begins to believe in things like curses and ghosts bearing grudges more and more. It’s like you’re seeing him come a bit unhinged before your eyes. I shan’t spoil the outcome because, really, the book reads rather like a mystery. We know who did it and how, but the mystery is whether he’ll eventually be acquitted and allowed to return to his posh life or if he’ll finally go to prison for good.

I might’ve rated the book more highly if there weren’t so many characters (or, I suppose, residents) who rubbed me the wrong way, but ultimately, I found it to be both well written and entertaining.