Category Archives: Cannonball Read 4
This is a very, very bad bus book – for the first few chapters, there is almost no respite from the funny. It does, however, read more like a blog entry than a book. I love a good swear frenzy as much as the next person, but even I had had enough of “fuck” by book’s end.
You don’t have to be a fan of The Bloggess to enjoy her memoir – I only started reading the blog after I’d finished this book. And it’s an excellent read, full of lo-embarrassingly-l moments. It’s not perfect; her life is interesting and unique, but the emotions behind them aren’t exactly original – I don’t need to be constantly told how amazingly crazy her life is, I can judge it for myself. And, like most of these comedy memoirs, it starts out strong, but peters out a bit near the end. But it’s not really aiming to be the next great American novel, so why complain?
You may have noticed that I’ve been reading a lot of memoirs lately, including Holocaust memoirs, sad Irish memoirs, drug addiction memoirs, and being women in comedy memoirs, and I started thinking about why the authors feel all these different stories need to be told. For McCourt, his prose is the standout. Most Holocaust memoirs serve to inform, warn, and give dignity and respect to the victims. The women in comedy memoirs are either written forms of their standup acts, or sort of “you can do it, too” women-power screeds. The Bloggess may not be a professional comedian (and that’s debatable), but the purpose of this memoir is definitely entertainment. This paragraph doesn’t have a conclusion or anything, I just thought it was interesting to think about.
Also, how bizarre to read this almost immediately after Bossypants – an odd childhood with an eccentric father, both were stabbed in the face as kids, chapters on the hilarity and eww-yness of motherhood and jobs. I dunno, I was getting an odd sense of deja vu there.
Cannonball Read: 39/52
(Cannonball Read IV: 11/27)
I haven’t seen very much of 30 Rock (don’t worry, it’s on my long long list of TV shows to watch, and I know about the Rural Juror and Kenneth the Page, so relax), but I like what I’ve seen of Tina Fey, and I heard great things about the memoir, plus, you know, Chapter’s gift card. And anyway, her description of a character from the only episode of my aborted attempt to watch the 1st season that I remember – Jenna has a short-lived romance with an Austrian prince, pg 192 – makes me want to give the show another try, although it is possible I may find reading about the show funnier than actually watching it.
It was a very pleasurable read, not groundbreaking or anything. I breezed right through it. Fey is very good at scene-setting and description. I would also like to personally think her for “blorft” (pg 173), a very valuable and expressive new word.
My favourite portions of the book were her Windy City and Rules for Improv (which might as well be rules for life), and “A Childhood Dream Realized.” Essentially, I love reading about her improvising experiences. It’s so divorced from the world I know – the one filled with hermit hibernation and taking 3 years to complete a 1 year CBR because every review might not be a perfect masterpiece of criticism and entertainment, changing the literary landscape as we know it (in case it wasn’t obvious, I have totally let go of this goal) – this idea of seeing what pops out of our mouths without worrying about how it will come across. What an alien and foreign concept.
I loved her take on women’s comedy (“I don’t like Chinese food, but I don’t write articles trying to prove it doesn’t exist” – remember that you are not the arbiter of good taste), mothering (“me time”!), and anything that praised Amy Poehler. In fact, her chapter on juggling work and motherhood chapter was, literally, “refreshingly” honest, incredibly personal, and deeply relatable; I seriously, felt cleansed after reading it.
And, guess who else doesn’t have a driver’s license! HA!
[Note: When I finished Bossypants, I looked at the disaster table that currently holds Stuff I’m In The Middle Of, and saw Caitlin Moran’s book “How to be a Woman,” and thought, “I can’t read that yet, I’m not ready to be inspired into doing something that reading two memoirs about awesome women in a row might spur me to do.” It is now several months later, I have just finished “How to be a Woman,” and I am feeling merely semi-inspired. I wasn’t a TV presenter at 18, dammit!]
Cannonball Read: 38/52
(Cannonball Read IV: 10/27)
The organisation I currently work for accepts manuscripts from Holocaust survivors, and edits, publishes, and distributes the resultant memoirs through schools, book fairs, and other avenues. Although I don’t work the publication side of things (I’m in good old Communications, of course), but I’ve been working my way through the 20 authors they’ve published so far. These people come from all over the world and have experienced anything from convents to concentration camps. I don’t feel comfortable rating these books – they’re personal and historical documents, not intentional works of literature, so I’m temporarily shelving my star system for now. However, I did want to review them, because I think they deserve to be read, thought about, and remembered.
Felix Opatowski’s Gatehouse to Hell was the first of the memoirs I read. It was a grim page-turner, difficult to put down, horrifying, yet told with a bit of clinical detachment.
Willie Sterner’s The Shadows Behind Me was direct, heart-breaking, and told in simple language that managed to reveal an astonishing depth of feeling. Sterner’s book was also interesting to me as someone who has been fascinated by Oskar Schindler since seeing the movie in middle school. Sterner worked in Schindler’s factory as a painter during the war, and he describes the man, and their relationship.
John Freund’s Springs End is written in the most writerly style of the memoirs I’ve read. Most survivors do not speak English as a first, or even second language, but Freund is comfortable with English, storytelling, and atmosphere. The others so far have been written in a more matter-of-fact, point-by-point, this-is-what-happened-to-me style. Freund is more metaphorical, even lyrical with his theme of the changing seasons, and he philosophically explores his emotions as a survivor.
“How did I survive when so many died? The easiest way to answer would be to say that God was with me, though I cannot accept this explanation because it raises more questions than it answers. […] More than forty million people died in camps, battlefields and bombed cities. Where was God? […] Rabbi Rudolph Ferda believed that we Jews were punished for leaving our religion and the moral teachings of the Torah. Perhaps there is some truth in this, but would a just God punish so severely and unmercifully? […] Even though I cannot believe that God selected me to live, I am grateful that I survived.” ~ pg 71-72
We read along as he grapples with these impossible questions, and describes his well thought-out, ambiguous, and ambivalent answers to them.
Tommy Dick’s Getting Out Alive was dry, terse, pointed, and, in my opinion, darkly amusing. He also slyly gave voice to a question that has always, frankly, annoyed and infuriated me:
“By the spring of 1944, the Germans were fighting for their survival, and yet they began to arrest […] Jews [in Hungary]. One wonders if they did not have strategically more important tasks.” ~ pg 6
Dick’s was also the first memoir I read that really touched on the nihilistically defiant mental view of “screw it, we’re gonna die anyway.” Most have discussed the emotions of fear, anger, and confusion, and the actions of smuggling and hiding. This is the first I’ve read (though not the first to experience, I’m sure) that mentions casual sex as a way to pass the horrible time pleasurably, for example.
Each memoir is unique and fascinating, and each has a worthy and important story to tell. On the one hand, this is so obvious as to become trite (everyone has a story to tell! everyone is important!), but on the other hand, it is an important reminder that we can never know the full story of any situation, and there are as many sides to the same story as there are people to tell it.
Cannonball Read III: 34/52
(Cannonball Read IV: 6/27)
How do you feel about The Pun? Do you love the irreverence it stands for? Loathe the feeble predictability of the thing? Read this book and possibly change your perspective, or at least wrestle with your ambiguous feelings toward the little nuisance while gaining some interesting insights into history, language, culture, and the mind.
Like so many male parental units, my dad is an avid and persistent punster – the automatic groaner that is a “dad joke” often takes the form of a pun, and my dad rarely dabbles in any other kind. I have spent my life groaning and eye-rolling at what I considered terrible puns, and as revenge, or perhaps merely a counter-argument, my parents brought this book home, smirking as they placed it on the table in front of me.
The Pun Also Rises is a short and light read, full of fun facts about language and punnery that are not widely known (well, to me, anyway; for instance, did you know that the first documented pun was a visual pun – a drawing of a woman that not all that surprisingly, when turned sideways, also looked like an erect penis). The author, John Pollack, has a fun and engaging writing style, and I always enjoy reading about different aspects of language – it helps remind me to appreciate the complex history, simplified (relatively) grammar, ridiculous evolution, inclusiveness, and infinite possibilities of my mother tongue. Pollack ends with an interesting and uplifting discussion on the nature of humour and creativity, and some fascinating insights into the evolutionary point of humour.
The book is divided into five chapters, loosely organised around the pun as viewed through different disciplines (such as linguistics, neuroscience, and history), and subdivided somewhat arbitrarily by punning headers. But despite this, Pollack digresses a lot, changing topics and following various trains of thought a bit randomly. In addition, even after acknowledging the lack of agreement over the definition of a pun, he neglected to actually define what he was considering a pun for the purposes of this book, giving the narrative a somewhat unfinished feeling.
This is definitely not a work of journalistic impartiality, either (although that’s not necessarily a bad thing). The Pun Also Rises has a lot of facts in it, but it’s also a 200+ page defence of the pun and its place in our lives. It definitely pulls you out of the reading flow when you are told in no uncertain terms that here is an example of a Good Pun which you find dull and predictable. As in all forms of humour, you can’t tell me that this or that pun is objectively funny or good. At one point, Pollack asks the reader:
Do people typically groan at all the puns that pepper reruns of The Flinstones, Gilligan’s Island, James Bond movies or the 1980 slapstick classic Airplane? Surely not.
Uh, yes. Yes we do. We groan because we’ve heard it one billion times before and it’s not. funny.
And John, let me tell you this: children not groaning at puns is n0t necessarily a point in your favour. Children also like listening to One Direction and eating poo. There is a reason the word “juvenile” isn’t synonymous with “good taste.”
I also take umbrage at the suggestion that the only reason my inadequate brain doesn’t grasp the splendor of the pun is due to my lack of creativity and genius.
Inevitably, some people will never like punning because it fogs up the lens of clarity through which they view the world and impose order, or at least the illusion of order. But if puns seem, at times, to confuse, they actually enlighten us through both laughter and insight.
Excuse me, my friend, but my frustration with puns has sweet NOTHING to do with craving order in language. There is a very interesting discussion to be had about clarity in language and the place of jargon* but I will not have it until we have cleared some things up.
I would call myself a pun skeptic, but not an absolutist. A pun agnostic, if you will. I’m still laughing at the racing horse named Marscaponi. But I know exactly where and when I lost my patience for puns, and it was the second time I looked at a newspaper.
The punning headline is, in my opinion, the hackiest, easiest, and most predictable way out of having to actually think of a catchy title. During my time studying journalism and Carleton University (a program I thoroughly enjoyed and am thrilled I’ve completed), one of the things that annoyed me most was the way we were instructed to write a lede (the first sentence in a news article). Insert Who, insert What, insert When, insert Where. What Pollack calls the “art” of “trying to pack as much meaning as possible into just a few words,” I call the quick and cheap placeholder so you don’t have to bother thinking up anything new or interesting. I’m not saying all headline puns are bad. I’m just saying so, so many of them are terrible.
The 24 hour news cycle and the stories that populate it are filled with the same paint-by-numbers journalism, where you might as well plug the plain facts into a computer program and have it spit out a script for all the originality and variation you get from so many journalists. I find this headline puns the equivalent of listening to The Doors – despite having never heard the song or read the article before, I know exactly what’s coming next because the first rhyme or pun that you came up with is also the first one that I did, so put a little bit more effort in, guys, COME ON.
In the section describing the pun’s “comeback,” Pollack actually highlights what bugs me most about the pun.
Meanwhile, if one needs a haircut, a pedicure or even just a soothing oatmeal bath, there are now nearly two thousand salons in the United States named A Cut Above, Shear Magic or Mane Event to meet that need.
Exactly. There are thousands of stores called the exact same thing because PEOPLE ARE LAZY. And personally, I think that is where the pun’s bad reputation comes from – even the legitimately good ones are tarnished by the sheer number of awful, trite, common, and horrendously overused ones.
But all my vitriol towards certain manifestations of the pun pales in comparison to that of some famous and influential pun critics throughout history, and Pollack doesn’t shy away from these hilariously vicious detractors. Samuel Johnson, the creator of the first English dictionary no less, describes puns as “the last refuge of the witless.” Joseph Addison wrote of his preferred method of humour infliction that he “would rather [suffer] from the paw of the lion than from the hoof of an ass” (the paw of the lion being the “manly strokes” of wit and satire, the hoof of an ass being, of course, the pun). Of course, in critiquing the pun, Addison himself made a pun out of the double meaning of “ass,” where presumably none was intended or even wanted, thus underscoring the joyful flexibility of language and the unexpected serendipity of it all working out anyway.
Well, what started off as a book review may have turned into a discussion on the merits of puns, and then morphed into a long-simmering rant about the current state of journalism. So back on topic: The Pun Also Rises is not perfect, but it is worth a read, especially if you’re looking for something light, but not unsubstantial.
Cannonball Read III: 30/52
(Cannonball Read IV: 2/21)
* The book itself even touches on this in the section on the rise and fall of the pun throughout history, bringing up excellent thought-nuggets such as the scientist’s desire to simplify language into one word = one meaning during the age of rationality and the stabilizing of spelling and grammar with the creation of the printing press, and alternatively, the unique thought processes that allow symbols and sounds to become so much more than the sum of their parts.
Just another interesting conversation starter…
I tend to groan for three main reasons:
1. because I reluctantly found it vaguely amusing (or, as Pollack describes it, “grudging admiration”)
2. frustration that the punner couldn’t resist going there
3. to attempt to discourage the waste of time
Do you groan at puns? If so, why?
Alright, fine, I read it, everyone. Next is The Hunger Games. Like I don’t have enough to do.
When I was a kid I thought my mom was the most beautiful person in the word, and couldn’t understand why she didn’t realise it. It is clear that Emma Donoghue has kids, and an excellent imagination, because she is very good at telling the behind-the-scenes thought processes for the gibberish that comes out of kids’ mouths.
Room, for those few who don’t know, is about a kidnapped and imprisoned woman, and the child she raises in captivity for 5 years, told from the perspective of the child, Jack. It is split into 5 parts, but the story is easily divided into before the escape, and after. According to Donoghue, Room was inspired (or “triggered” in her words) by the true story of Felix and Elisabeth Fritzl.
Five-year-old Jack’s voice lends itself well to much of the narrative, especially the tense scenes – techniques such as minimal punctuation, run on sentences, and jumping from action to action, scene to scene, match well to the vivid, immediate, and blunt communication style of children. But choosing to stick with Jack’s voice for the whole novel also lead to some unfortunate limitation. I wish we got to know a bit more about Ma and Old Nick, for example, although I understand the choice not to tell us – at 5 children don’t see their parents as people, they see them as “Ma” (and “Pa”). There were also some inconsistencies that it seemed like it would have been easy to fix; substituting “bad” for “terrible” when Jack describes how he’s feeling wouldn’t lose anything regarding the impact of the narrative, and it also wouldn’t jar us out of the illusion that we’re seeing through a 5-year-old’s eyes. You can’t have the kid unable to properly structure a simple sentence in one paragraph, and suddenly able to form complex phrases in the next.
Another criticism: All of the above (or the notes for it, anyway) was written about 3/5 of the way through the book. Everything that happened next, while perfectly entertaining and equally as well-written as the rest of the book, was really just re-establishing themes, thoughts, and ideas that had already been expressed before. It reminded me a bit of Wall-E or Up (or a short story called “I, Fly” I wrote many years ago) – the beginning is this perfect kernel of an idea, beautifully formed and expressed, and the rest is just padding, or at least not as effective. The entire speech-less part of Wall-E is one of the best things I have ever seen. The rest of the movie is solid and entertaining. Up has this phenomenal love story in the first, what, 10 minutes of the movie, and the rest of it has talking dogs and a bird named Kevin. It’s fun, it’s well-done. Room started out claustrophobic and fascinating. Then there was the rest. And it was fine.
I also don’t know what to do about references to current popular culture. Donoghue name drops Dora and Twilight and facebook – it’s not a bad thing, we all understand what she means, but how is the book going to read 50 years from now? I’m trying to think back on other classics, and note the pop culture they reference. I guess there’s quite a bit in Shakespeare, which is why so many editions of his plays tend to come with explanatory footnotes? I don’t know. I think it’s an interesting discussion.
One thing I hated that was totally not the book’s fault: when I read a book or author intently for any period of time longer than a day, I start to think in their phrasing, just for a little while. After I finished Pride and Prejudice, I started thinking in older English. After finishing Catch-22, I started thinking in run-on sentences. After finishing P.G. Wodehouse, I started thinking in humourously posh sentences. And after finishing Room, I started thinking like Emma Donoghue’s version of a 5 year old. “Damn, I forgot to wash Pot this morning. I MEAN THE POT. THE.”
But I don’t want anyone to get the impression that I wouldn’t thoroughly recommend this book to anyone who can take the subject matter. Also, fair warning: as a journalism graduate with a brother in law school, I have to admit journalists and lawyers do not come across well here.
So in summation, it didn’t change my life or anything, but it was exactly what I’ve been looking for in a book these days – Room is new (by which I mean the subject matter hasn’t been done to death), engrossing, and easy, but not simple.
Cannonball Read III: 29/52
(Cannonball Read IV: 1/21)
- The Oresteia (Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides) – Aeschylus, trans Richmond Lattimore (-)
- Fight Club – Chuck Palahniuk (****)
- Room – Emma Donoghue (****)
- Three Theban Plays (Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone) – Sophocles, trans David Grene (-)
- The Hunger Games (****)
- Catching Fire (***3/4)
- 5 Roman Comedies (****)
- Thank You, Jeeves (***1/2)
- Survivor in Death (**1/2)
- Aristotle and Poetic Justice (***)
- The Graveyard Book (****1/2)
- Stardust (*****)
- Smoke and Mirrors (***)
- Bossypants (****)
- The Pun Also Rises – John Pollack (****)
- Angela’s Ashes (****1/2)
- Gatehouse to Hell – Felix Opatowski (-)
- The Shadows Behind Me – Willie Sterner (-)
- Let’s Pretend This Never Happened: (A Mostly True Memoir) (****)
- Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) (****)
- Maus I (****)
- Maus II (*****)
- Spring’s End – John Freund (-)
- MetaMaus (****)
- Getting Out Alive – Tommy Dick (-)
- The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared (****)
- Fragile Things (***1/2)
* = irredeemably awful
** = middling
*** = decent; has value (of some sort)
**** = very good
***** = amazingly fantastic
****** = almost never used; the perfect book