John Dies at the End and This Book is Full of Spiders

by David Wong

 

My friend recently- ok, a while ago- recommended This Book is Full of Spiders to me, and since I take requests, I picked it up. My inner completist wouldn’t let me read the second book without reading the first, so here we are. Ok, yes, these books are totally discrete and I was totally planning on reviewing them separately. You should know how lazy I am by now, though, so whatever.

David Wong, aka Jason Pargin, is a Cracked writer and blogger who’d apparently begun John Dies at the End as a web serial that eventually morphed into a book and movie. If you don’t know, Cracked is like Buzzfeed for people that can read. (Just kidding Buzzfeed, you know I love you.) John Dies at the EndMy favorite Cracked article of all time, “The 7 Biggest Dick Moves in the History of Online Gaming,” is illustrative of the site’s general style: profane, irreverent, and hilarious. That article wasn’t written by Wong, but I wanted to a) show you the type of content found in Cracked articles and b) explain why I was skeptical of books by a Cracked writer. I’d read several of Wong’s articles and seen his pleas to purchase these books, but I really had no clue what they were about, and I frankly doubted his ability to keep my interest for a full novel. The irony of a blogger eschewing a book simply because it was written by a blogger does not escape me.

It would be utterly pointless to try to describe the plot of John Dies at the End, so I won’t. Alright, I’ll give it a shot. It’s basically Ghostbusters meets Men in Black, but in novel form. Our hero, Wong himself, goes to a party with his best friend John, who ends up taking a drug called Soy Sauce with a bunch of kids who happen to die the next day. Long story short, they end up with a special sensitivity to the supernatural, which works out, because their town is basically the Hellmouth. (Wong, seemingly reluctant to namedrop his hometown, refers to it only as Undisclosed, and describes it as the shittiest midwestern city you can imagine.) They keep having strange adventures and eventually confront Korrock, the extraterrestrial who is presumably behind all of their town’s troubles. Oh, and Dave ends up dating Amy, a former special-ed classmate with only one hand.

While the first book is an origin story that’s broken up into two or three main sections, This Book is Full of Spiders has only one major plot, and yes, spiders are involved. Inter-dimensional spiders, or something like that. Dave’s home is infested with the things, which then ransack the town and force the government to set up a quarantine zone in Undisclosed. Most of the book follows Dave and Co’s desperate attempts to save their city from being firebombed into oblivion.

Despite my skepticism, I gotta say that Wong’s books were good. Really good. I mean, you might have to get used to the B-movie horror stuff- like the Meat Monster, a humanoid demon whose body is made up of various frozen meats. You might need to adjust to the quirky humor- the possessed character with a penchant for punching his enemies in the dick, for example. But once in a while it’s fun to sink into the craziness. And to be honest, if you’re reading these books and didn’t expect an extra helping of insanity, just based off of the titles alone, I don’t know what to tell you.

I think these books work so well because Wong can actually write. Not to harp on the blogger thing, but a novel is really structurally very different from a blog post, and I doubt it’s easy to move from one format to the other. This Book is Full of SpidersWong, however, pulls it off really well. John doesn’t have a typical structure, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing here; the novel’s first half is a roller coaster ride of weirdness and horror, reflecting the experiences of our protagonists. And anyways, I’m guessing that writing a story as a series of blog posts over the course of several years is always going to result in an off-kilter novel.

Here’s my main gripe (and mid-major spoiler): why does it have to be fucking zombies? I’m so sick of the zombie thing. I mean there’s World War Z, Walking Dead, Call of Duty, whatever else people like these days- just, why? In This Book is Full of Spiders the main plot is, yes, driven by the titular spiders- but it’s really zombies! The spiders nest inside people’s skulls and turn them into zombies, which makes me think a more accurate title would’ve been This Book is Full of Fucking Zombies: Because Fuck You. I think Wong had a little bit of fun with it, though, poking holes genre’s tropes and introducing a zombie-obsessed group of college kids for us to mock. So at least he knows it’s been done. Still: fucking zombies, man.

Wong creates his own creepy and hilarious horror aesthetic, and he does it really well. These books kept me riveted and banished my doubts about whether he could actually write novels. Seriously, Wong is a credit to bloggers everywhere.

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The Princess Bride

by William Goldman

 

It might be tough to imagine that the cinematic version of The Princess Bride was an adaptation at all, given how perfectly it worked on the screen. Actually, the book came first, but there’s no way anyone could’ve read this without thinking, “Oh man, they should totally make this into a movie.” As far as I can tell, William Goldman wrote it with the intention of making it into a movie, given his Hollywood career. I mean, the whole thing is just a series of adventures, nominally built around the romance between Westley and Buttercup.

You probably know the story, but here it is: Buttercup and her farm boy Westley fall in love, but he’s killed by the Dread Pirate Roberts. Buttercup, vowing to never fall in love again, reluctantly agrees to marry Prince Humperdinck, though she’s kidnapped prior to the wedding by Vizzini, Inigo and Fezzik. The Princess BrideThey’re pursued by the man in black (and you’ll never guess who he turns out to be). The rest of the book is action and torture and miracles and Rodents of Unusual Size.

In addition to that plot, the book itself contains two other meta-characters, William Goldman and S. Morgenstern. The former claims the entire book to be an abridgment of the latter’s work, and titled the book in full The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern’s Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure. Goldman includes introductory material, an explanation and preview of the upcoming sequel, Buttercup’s Baby, and several asides explaining his various excisions and abridgments. Throughout, he maintains the fiction that S. Morgenstern was a real Florinese author, and that his own father had read him the classic as a young boy.

I think it’s a pretty great concept, actually. According to Goldman, the original text was in large part a satire of Florinese culture, and the ‘good parts’ of the book would often be separated by lengthy descriptions of fashion and politics. Goldman nixes these, claiming that they’re irrelevant to modern audiences, especially Americans. Essentially, he gets away with skipping from action scene to action scene, without getting deeper into setting or exposition than strictly necessary. He marks these ‘excisions’ with explanations for why he made the change, always making the removed passages sound incredibly boring. He also includes a tally of the number of pages he took out, just to remind readers to be grateful for the abridgment.

This means that The Princess Bride is literally all ‘good parts,’ just like Goldman promises. He gets to make up his own countries and his own story, adding anything he wants. He could’ve just written it as a fantasy, taken at face value, but his commentary adds humor and an important dash of self-awareness. For Goldman, I’m guessing that the abridgment premise allowed him to fully embrace the story’s silliness, without worrying about what people might think of the story.

In addition to making all that stuff up, Goldman takes some liberties with his own life as well, rendering the various introductions completely irrelevant and totally hilarious. Rather than providing any insight about the book they precede, these introductions are pretty much complete fabrications, detailing the phony processes that he went through to get the rights to the book. After finishing with the narrative, Goldman then relates the story of his long struggle with the Morgenstern estate, which reluctantly decided on Stephen King for the sequel’s abridgment. (Goldman was, in a word, devastated.)

The Princess Bride is not to be taken seriously. What with the stripped-down adventure novel and the two made-up authors, the book vacillates between action and comedy, generally succeeding with both.

Bossypants

by Tina Fey

 

I kind of wonder what Tina Fey would think of me if we ever meet.

Don’t judge me, it’s not narcissism. Well, maybe it is, but Bossypants seems to entirely consist of Fey’s evaluations of pretty much everybody. Regardless of who you are, Fey is ready to put you down. For the writer of Mean Girls, the message of which seemed to be “Don’t be a mean girl,” she really seems a little bit mean. And I think she might already hate me.

A couple examples struck, perhaps, a little too close to home. When speaking of her college years at UVA, Fey mentions all those ‘Virginia boys’ who were not interested in her because she wasn’t ‘white enough,’ or something like that. They would be interested in ‘whiter’ girls, but would rebel by dating other races, thereby skipping over Fey. Several things bother me about this. First of all, I am a Virginia boy, and not only do I reject the assumption that we’re parochial and bigoted, I resent being judged based on Fey’s opinion of a group of boys that had the misfortune to attend that particular institution. I also find it ridiculous that an attractive white woman from suburban Pennsylvania would be rejected for not being white enough. My guess is that, if she did have problems with boys, it had nothing to do with her looks. Thirdly, it doesn’t seem like she was all that unlucky with her love life. Being awkward and not immediately falling in love with someone who loves you back isn’t necessarily a sign that all the guys around you suck, which is the lesson she seems to have learned.

Second example: Ms. Fey also brings up a scar she got on her face as a child. Careful readers will recall that I’m a big fan of 30 Rock, in which Fey stars, and I’ve never noticed the scar. But apparently it’s noticeable, and Fey boasts that she can tell a lot about you by how you react to this scar. If you ask her about it when you don’t know her that well, you’re an ignorant douchebag. Either that or you’re trying to be ‘brave or sensitive or wonderfully direct.’ Basically, because you want to seem deep. In which case you’re still a douchebag.

Now, I have scars on my face too, as well as scars on my arm. They’re noticeable, if you’re observant, and sometimes people ask about them. If I feel like telling them the full stories, I will, and if I don’t, I won’t. I don’t judge people based on when they ask me about a scar. It seems that Fey’s reaction to these types of questions says more about her than about the questioners. On top of which, she rips people for trying to seem deep, yet brings up this incident and then refuses to talk about it. It kind of seems like she herself is trying to seem mysterious or, dare I say it, deep?

I know it’s a comedy book, and I shouldn’t be taking it seriously, or personally, but that’s kind of the point. This is a comedy book, and I feel like I’m being assaulted. What’s funny about being made to feel like a racist, sexist, ignorant douchebag? I feel like Fey is staring at me through the book and constantly making me feel like trash.

I also am aware that Fey is very self-deprecating. (Remember, she hates her ‘half-German, half-Greek’ looks.) The best comedians can put themselves down and still come out on top. For the record, I think Fey has this quality, and I also think she’s probably a very nice person. But this type of comedy might be too fine a line to walk in a book. She puts herself down, but next to put-downs of just about everyone else, it doesn’t feel genuine.

I’m not gonna lie, the book also feels a little bit like it was written in the 90’s. Fey gives herself a pat on the back for being friends with gays throughout her high school career. It’s a revelation when she realizes they’re not strictly here for her amusement. Really? Big Daddy came out in 1999, for crying out loud. (Or if you prefer the Vice President’s example, Will and Grace came out all the way back in 1998.) I get that she made these realizations in the ’80s, but it doesn’t exactly make her seem forward thinking in 2011. Especially when she continues to make snide comments stereotyping gays.

Again, I realize that she isn’t trying to be a jerk, that she’s just trying to make jokes at everyone’s expense. But it just comes out wrong. It gets tiresome. It really reminded me of that 30 Rock episode in which Jack (played by Alec Baldwin) exclaims, “We’ll trick those race card lovin’ wide-loads into watching your lefty homoerotic propaganda hour yet!”, to which Liz (played by Tina Fey) replies, “You just don’t like anybody, do you?” Yes, it is ironic. Yes, I really do love 30 Rock.

Towards the end, Fey shows some humility and acknowledges the help she’s received in her career. She seems less mean-spirited in the final chapters, in which she gives behind-the-scenes descriptions of SNL and 30 Rock. Unfortunately, this doesn’t nearly make up for the majority of the book. Sorry Tina. I’m still your fan.

Tina Fey is a great writer, but Bossypants is not great.

Fatherhood

by Bill Cosby

 

First off, if you don’t like Bill Cosby, something might be wrong with you. As a comedian he can be funny and insightful while still being family friendly, which is definitely more than you can say for some of his contemporaries. If some of his stuff seems dated, it’s because everyone has pretty much latched onto his style, and still nobody’s really come close to doing it as well. The guy can rock a sweater, and he’s allegedly one of the Black Crusaders. Legendary.

That being said, Cosby is funny in large part because of his stand-up style, and he’s particularly known for his voices; he can perform as an exasperated father, an infuriating child, a meathead football coach, or anybody you could want. This doesn’t always translate well onto the written page. In the case of Fatherhood, it is especially disappointing because I’ve heard so many of the stories on the countless Cosby CD’s that we have, and reading the same stories in print doesn’t really measure up. For example: Bill’s wife makes him get up at the crack of dawn to cook breakfast, and he concludes that chocolate cake is the perfect breakfast, as it contains milk, eggs, and wheat, infinitely pleasing the children until Mom comes down and puts a stop to the party. The stand-up is hilarious as Bill goes from early morning crankiness, to relief at having found a loophole in the system, and back to shame and wonder that he ever thought he would get away with it.

For your viewing pleasure:

Now, in the book, this six minute ode to the heroic father is reduced to 2 pages. There’s nothing wrong with shortening a story, but so much of Cosby’s humor is lost that it seems like a completely different person is telling the story. There are several examples of this throughout the book; anecdotes, that I know are funny because I’ve heard them on the CD or seen them on Youtube, that just don’t have the same punch when written down. It at times seems strangely de-Cosbified, which is a damn shame for a book written by the man himself.

The other thing about this book is that it takes somewhat seriously its mission to be a guide for fathers. Obviously, a lot of Cosby’s stand-up material comes from his experience as a father and husband, and as such is something of an instructional guide: Bill gets in trouble for giving his kids chocolate cake for breakfast, so I will try not to do that. It just seemed to me like the book was half comedy, half advice. I’m not sure why, but the editors apparently felt obligated to add an introduction and afterword by some doctor talking about the changing nature of fatherhood. This guy, Dr. Poussaint, basically talks about how the father’s role is expanding into areas traditionally considered the mother’s domain, and vice versa. There’s nothing wrong with adding a little factual information here and there, but it reminded me a bit of semi-educatiotional kids’ TV shows, like Magic School Bus, in which a few facts would be shoehorned oh-so-subtly into the action. Any adult who would seek genuine advice on being a father from a Cosby book might not be ready to be a father.

On the other hand, Cosby himself doesn’t overdo it on the ‘real’ advice to fathers. Most of his advice is either: A) don’t have kids, or B) try not to kill your kids. Cosby is at his best when he turns the plain truth into an interesting story, and he does that over and over again in this book. Fatherhood is pretty well-structured and won’t take up too much of your time, so while it may not be the best, it’s certainly not shamefully bad. I myself am not a father, thankfully (hopefully..?), so perhaps I’m not the guy who should be reviewing this book for you.

If you come across Fatherhood you might want to check it out, but I wouldn’t necessarily go searching for it. Instead, go on the internet and watch his comedy routines.