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Friday, December 11, 2015

The Books I Read: September - October 2015


James & the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl

This wasn't as fun as I remember. I remembered a whimsical Dahl-esque adventure with weird stuff happening and memorable characters. But on the re-read, it becomes evident that this is Dahl's first attempt at children's literature. Everything up to when he gets into the peach is fine, but then I started going "get on with it". The other characters don't have any real arcs. Instead, they all just bicker with each other while minor obstacles appear and then are solved (usually by running away). I think the movie is better.


Al Jaffee's Mad Life by Mary-Lou Weisman

Al Jaffee was one of my favorite cartoonists growing up, next to Charles Schulz and Jim Davis. But unlike those Americans, Al Jaffee was a bit of a mystery. I knew he was foreign, but his comics were so "American-style" with the thick, closed black lines and frequent curves. Not to mention, besides the drawing talent, was the writing talent that was incredibly inventive. So I wanted to find out where that talent came from.

Jaffee had some messed up parents. Who migrates BACK to Eastern Europe in the middle of World War II? But that's what his mother did, leaving his father (who wasn't a bad guy, but the most lazy, do-nothing guy I've ever seen; and his mom was psycho). So most of the book is about growing up in "Fiddler on the Roof". It reminded me of Kate McKinnon's "Olya Povlatsky" character on Weekend Update -- the one who lives in abject Siberian poverty.


And strangely enough, he loves it better than America. He has the freedom to explore and create and invent there, even though he doesn't know where he'll get his next crayons.

The highlight of the book is Jaffee's own drawings the show his life. But if you're looking for information about his life as Mad Magazine, that section is woefully short. So if you're looking for William Gaines dish, you won't find it here. You're better off reading Completely Mad. But for anyone interested in Eastern Europe during WWII and immigration, this is recommended.


Press Start to Play edited by John Joseph Adams

I hate reviewing short story anthologies, because there's no way to give a unified critique when the whole work is a composite of other authors. I will say that this is the best fiction book under the subject of video games that I've read. And there are some superstars here -- Cory Doctorow, Seanan McGuire, Austin Grossman, Andy Weir. As a gamer, I felt like all the stories fell under three categories: MMORPG's, virtual reality, and text adventures. Way too many text adventures -- a niche-within-a-niche that's been long relegated to hipsters and retropunks. It's as if those are the only ways to depict character interactions with video games as a central theme. What about playing two-player Nintendo with your friends at a sleepover? What about programmer stories? What about glitches and competitions and arcade groupies?

I know all the authors here know video games. But I felt like they wrote with the mindset of "writer-first, video game-second". Most tend toward that grim, cold tone that stories about computers always have, like no one can write a happy story about robots. But I'm still waiting for that one novel that truly embraces the gaming lifestyle. "I, Video Game".


Matilda by Roald Dahl

Another re-read and another case of "not as fun as I remember". I remember an awesome story where a girl who lives with dummies develops telepathic powers. But this reminded me more of "The Twits".


Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling

A comedy memoir along the lines of "Bossypants" and "Yes, Please". I really don't know much about Mindy Kaling. My first exposure to her was that bit part in "The 40-Year Old Virgin". I never watched The Office, but I can appreciate the talent it takes to become writer and producer of one of those types of shows. I know she's mentioned alongside Tina Fey and Amy Schumer but Mindy Kaling's just not my kind of girl. Too many things bother me about her like the shopping fixation, romance & guys, appearance. Not that any of those are bad things, but they don't appeal to me. I would have liked to know more about growing up as an Indian-American and how that led to comedy. Or stories about working on The Office.

If you liked "Bossypants" and "Yes, Please", you will probably enjoy this book. It's so close it's not in the same vein, it's in the same capillary (and those suckers are only one cell wide).


The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

My third attempt, and this time I made it through, thanks to Crash Course, Thug Notes and the Baz Luhrman movie. I don't know how to review a book that's the frontrunner for the Great American Novel. It's always in the top ten "must read before you die" lists, so I feel like if you're going to read it, you're going to read it, reviews aside. Even though it's an allegory for the downfall of America pre-depression, a lot of it applies today too (like the 1%, communication issues, possessive men, vapid women). But I think Citizen Kane does it just as well. In both cases, a guy becomes rich and famous, but he just wants his Rosebud. Maybe it's the sort of book you read for the writing than the content. And I'm not into that.
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