Review: The Areas of My Expertise by John Hodgman

Hodgman's fake almanac, The Areas of My Expertise, is a prime example of a relatively new and increasingly popular genre. That genre is not the fictional resource book, which belongs to a long and noble tradition that goes at least as far back as Ambrose Bierce's Devil's Dictionary, released in installments from 1881-1906 and collected in 1911. Rather, what areas is an example of is the comedy of literary-geekdom, a blend of reflexive humor, satire, silliness and surrealism that, if not invented by the McSweeneys' website, is at least exemplified by it.

Why I Hate National Novel Writing Month, and Why You Should Too

Edit: Instead of reading this old thing, why don't you read How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Accept NaNoWriMo?

So November is "National Novel Writing Month", where people are challenged to write a complete 50,000 word novel in one month. The concept owes it's origins to the 24-hour Comics Day, originally thought up by Scott McCloud (of Understanding Comics fame), though the stated purposes of these two challenges could not be more divergent. The 24-Hour comic was invented because Scott McCloud was dismayed at how slowly his friend Steve Bissette was working. "I'll bet he could do a full length comic in a day if he wanted to!" He thought. Doing a comic in a day was an exercise to stir up the creative juices in a comics creator, and the 24 hour comic website includes a "Random story seed" section to help you pick something for your exercise. "Is this really the best way to make a great comic?" asks the FAQ. "Probably not, ... but that's not the real goal. The goal is to have the experience of trying. It's a creative exercise that can teach you a lot about what you're capable of." This is noble and interesting.

Rather than being an exercise for creators, "National Novel Writing Month," instead posits itself as a challenge for non-writers. Quoth the website:

Review: Black Hole by Charles Burns

Charles Burns' Black Hole is the kind of graphic novel that should bring more readers to a medium whose audience is already growing. It is a story of high school alienation and the lurking fear of 'others' that crosses the humor and realism of Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused with the dread and gore of the early EC Horror Comics. Burns has an ear for the dialog of his characters and era, and his vivid black and white illustrations seamlessly blend the surreal with the mundane.

Zap! Pow! Rayguns on Mars!

In 1898, a novel was published that gave us the first example of the ray gun, of the flying car, and consisted of an adventure on Mars that would presage much of the pulp science fiction to come. The book was called Edison's Conquest of Mars, and starred none other than Thomas Edison, rocketing to the red planet with his buddy Lord Kelvin to kill the aliens from H. G. Wells' War of the Worlds. It sounds like a joke, or something Philip José Farmer would come up with in his more delerious moments, but it was a real book "authorized" by Edison himself as a sort of promotional tool— Thomas Edison as product placement. The man was clearly ahead of his time.

For a run down of the book's contents, we turn to Zapato Producations Intradimensional's hilarious blow-by-blow. Apparently the book was not a great work of literature, nor was it ever particularly popular. But as a novelty, you can't beat Thomas Edison and Lord Kelvin rescuing Aryan ur-babes and committing genocide on evil Martians.

Full text online or buy the book.

Reading Versus Watching: Take Out

Why do I love Raina Telgemeier's Take Out mini-comics so much? Could it be that there's more to life than guns, explosions and/or androids?

Criticism on the Web

One conversation going on right now in the Blogosphere is the function of book reviews on the Internet, as per this round-up by Critical Mass. Lev Grossman, critic for Time Magazine, seems to dislike "amateur" book reviews, though he's not explicitly talking about the web, but rather, about non-book-critics writing book reviews in print. Anyway the thread was picked up by blogizens, like Chekov's Mistress, who defends a certain type of "non-critical" book review.

Frankly, I'm not well read enough to be a critic and am quite content not to be (and who, like Art Winslow, can fill reams of notebooks on a book for a review). What's more, I only write about books that I like because - here's a professional differentiation - I don't have time, short of getting paid for it, to finish a book I don't like - and a likeworthy book is not the same as a review-worthy book.

I, however, am more likely to agree with The Reading Experience, who writes:

if I am going to review the book myself (on this blog or elsewhere), I am also interested in fostering a critical discussion of sorts by putting my own analysis/interpretation in the context created by the already existing commentary on the book. ... it seems to me that book reviews, periodical essays, and weblog posts might aspire to more than just the conventional thumbs up/thumbs down, read it/don't read it sort of review and attempt to fill up the critical vacuum left by the withdrawal of academic criticism from the practice of what seems to most people to be actual literary criticism.

"Critical vacuum" being the operative word; Reading Experience is arguing that blogging can compensate for a perceived lack in academic criticism. I would argue that the lack is in the rigor of reviewing practiced by most of today's mainstream reviewers, and further the marginalizing of serious reviewing in organs like the New York Times Book Review. That's the great thing about the web: you can make it into whatever you want. And what I want is intelligent criticism and literary discussion. Anybody else?

Anonymous Comments

As an experiment, we are making it so that people can post comments without having an account. As we mentioned, we've had problems with vandals and spammers in past projects. So if we start to see any of that, anonymous posting goes away again. Otherwise, enjoy.

Note: Like Slashdot, if you do post without registering, your name will come up as Anonymous, so you can put whatever name you want at the bottom of your post. If we see a lot of people doing this, we can modify the code so that it lets you put your own name in there, even if you're posting anonymously. We'll see.

Harm

My walking tour of the southern states got messed up after Texas. I stayed too long in Amarillo with a trucker and got a ride to the border. I waited for an hour and another trucker came along. Next thing I knew I was sitting on a lawn in a hick town somewhere. Everyone who walked by was drunk, or off somehow. Even their shadows were off. One guy walked up to me and said, "You sleep with niggers, don't you?"

Fiction by Sharon Mesmer.

John Hodgmania

John Hodgman, in between being the "PC" in those Apple ads and his work on The Daily Show, is promoting the paperback of his book The Areas of My Expertise, which book I would probably praise, had I read it. To this end, Hodgman has put this video up on Amazon, which is damn funny, and created this magazine ad, which is a parody of this obscure George Plimpton ad for Itellivision from the 80's. The original ad, the fact of the parody and the parody itself are all three quite funny. A little less funny, but more poignant, is this address that Hodgman gave to a literary reading just after 9/11, published on McSweeney's in honor of the fifth anniversary last week.

Bonus: Also from McSweeney's, somewhat surreal new Mac ad ideas. (Remember, John Hodgman is the "PC Guy.")