20 November 2011

"The Bedwetter," "Health," "Where Men Win Glory," "A Complete Guide to Heralrdy," and "Fast Food Nation."

The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption, and Pee, Sarah Silverman
Health: Five Lay Sermons for Working-People, John Brown
Where Men Win Glory, Jon Krakauer
A Complete Guide to Heraldry, A.C. Fox-Davies
Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser

The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption, and Pee, Sarah Silverman

Modern autobiographies tend to be pretty bad, let's face it.  The days of Burton's Piligrimage and Nabokov's Speak, Memory are in the past, and most autobiographies are written by celebrities like Tucker Max, Chelsea Handler, Bear Grylls, or one of the other famous autobiographers I've slammed lately.  This is not the fault of the genre per se, as Frank Abagnale's Catch Me If You Can and other decent books demonstrate, but rather a reflection of celebrity's corrosive effects: publishers will churn out any old crap as long as they can put a famous name on it.  Big names sell books.

Thankfully, while her celebrity as a comedian might have gotten her the deal, Silverman's book is not too terrible.  (It's not too great, either.)

You might be familiar with Silverman's work, either from her special Jesus Is Magic, her three-season television series The Sarah Silverman Program, or her appearances on MTV awards shows or Jimmy Kimmel Live.  She's famous for her level of offensiveness; the character she plays will say wildly inappropriate things, completely oblivious to her own racism or sexism.

Everybody blames the Jews for killing Christ, and then the Jews try to pass it off on the Romans. I'm one of the few people that believe it was the blacks.
The Bedwetter's central revelation is that Silverman wet the bed regularly until her late teens, and in fact still occasionally does so.  And that revelation comprises the entirety of this book's soul.  Once Silverman has told all of the interesting stories about it from her childhood, and moved into her time as a comedian and her difficulties working on her television show, her account loses most of its appeal and becomes a tepid series of justifications and hit-and-miss anecdotes.  The whole spine of the text is in her childhood difficulties and her struggles to adapt - they give her story pathos and humor and heart, and when she squirms out of moist sheets and onto her stage career, the book flops bonelessly.

It's not often you can look at a book and understand how to completely fix it, but The Bedwetter is that rare text that can be transformed from mediocre to amazing in a single stroke.  Take the first half of the book and edit it down slightly.  Instantly, you have a superb essay.  It would be funny, interesting, and full of passion.  Instead, The Bedwetter reads like... well, like a superb essay spun out too long.

The latter half gives tributes to comedians who influenced her, discusses her time on Saturday Night Live, and describes working on her own show.  There are still some interesting stories, but they are few and far between.  Perhaps the best is her account of how she lost her job as a writer on SNL:

From thought to action, what happened was that, seemingly out of nowhere, I just turned and, boom, stabbed Al Franken square in the temple. He responded with a horrifying scream--his eyes wide in angry, mystified shock (like, say, a man who'd just been stabbed in the head by the person sitting next to him). I wanted so much to account for my actions but I couldn't. Besides it being a sort of challenging scenario to explain, I also couldn't explain, as I was literally breathless from laughing--like, hysterically laughing. I was a mad-woman crazy-person with tears pouring down my face. I can imagine how it must have looked. Even the explanation, had I had the breath to clarify, let's face it, was weirdo weird.

I'll never know for sure the exact reason, but that August my agent got a fax asking me not to return for a second season.
There was one thing that was inexplicable about the book: she makes a great deal of fuss in the last few chapters about how dedicated she was to producing her show at the peak of quality, and how they refused to compromise to budget cuts.  She and her staff take a bold stand and won't bow to pressure to rush out the episodes, half-assing it and churning out sub-par work.  But here's the thing: The Sarah Silverman Program was terrible.  It seemed like all three seasons of the show, now mercifully canceled, were rushed out over a long weekend.  Inexplicable, although it does call into question what the show would have been like if they hadn't been doing their best.

While The Bedwetter is a short book, and won't consume much of your time, I can't really recommend it.  It is not challenging and somewhat entertaining, though, and so I won't condemn it, either.  It has some good parts, and might serve to fill a few lazy hours.

Health: Five Lay Sermons to Working-People, John Brown

This little 1877 book, written by a Scottish physician, is a set of five lectures to the common man on health.  Brown advises his audience on the role of a doctor, how they should behave with one, how to raise children, and a set of general medical tips.  Much of the advice is still sage, like his advice to mothers not to drink whiskey while nursing and not to give laudanum to a child to make it sleep.  But I have to say that time has taken its toll on some of the medical knowledge.  Dr. Brown doesn't much go in for dentistry, for example.

I can't say I am a great advocate for the common people going in for tooth-brushes.  No, they are necessary in full health.  The healthy man's teeth clean themselves. 
The book is thick with religious imagery and the tone of a preacher, as indicated by the subtitle (Five Sermons on Health).  It is also pleasant in its admonitions, and communicates with humble metaphors some of his excellent advice.

Short, quaint, and interesting, this little book is worth a glance out of curiosity, if only to read the final few pages, which include warm thanks to the author's neighbors and friends.

And good night to you all, you women-folks. Marion Graham the milkwoman; Tibbie Meek the single servant; Jenny Muir the sempstress; Mother Johnston the howdie, thou consequential Mrs. Gamp, presiding at the gates of life; and you in the corner there, Nancy Cairns, gray-haired, meek and old, with your crimped mutch as white as snow; the shepherd's widow, the now childless mother, you are stepping home to your bein and lonely room, where your cat is now ravelling a' her thrums, wondering where "she" is.

Where Men Win Glory, Jon Krakauer 

Pat Tillman, a star safety in the NFL, left his comfortable life and prosperous future in order to enlist in the Army.  He was shot and killed during deployment in Afganistan, the victim of friendly fire.  Jon Krakauer (Into the Wild, Under the Banner of Heaven) describes Tillman's life, death, the war, and the ideology at work in this marvelous book.  Let me say, right off the bat, that you should read this.

The writing is good, broken up into chunks by rapid shifts in place and time as Krakauer relates how Tillman grew up, his football career at college and in the NFL, cutting back and forth at the same time to the history of Afghanistan, the scene of his death.  Tillman's personal history and the construction of his character is undertaken with consummate care and an objective eye: Krakauer avoids the twin traps of adulation and cynicism, telling a well-rounded story of a happy, hearty wunderkind who puts his ideals before his interests.  Tillman was shaped by a cultural heritage that revered the noble warrior.  His aspiration to embody that ideal carried him into a foreign land, and into tragedy.

Where Men Win Glory is a work of superb journalism, like Krakauer's other books: vivid descriptions and little imagery.  Of all of his books that I have read, this is the best.  The subject material is compelling, especially when crimes of such scope - the theft of the presidency in 2000 and the deceitful incompetence of the wars - are related in terse summary.  The real-life hero who plunges into the resultant mess, Tillman, is given whole life and real character.  The climax of the book is masterfully done, relating Tillman's betrayal by the system and by the evil actions of malicious men.

This is a marvelous book, if not an artful one, and you should read it immediately.

A Complete Guide to Heraldry, A.C. Fox-Davies

I was about halfway through this book when I recognized some of the specific turns of phrase in the chapter on charges and realized I'd already read excerpts.  Not surprising, I suppose, since Fox-Davies' book is legendary.  The whole thing was deserving of a second look, so I don't consider my time wasted.

Heraldry, the study of coats of arms, is a fascinating subject.  It arose from the needs of combat, when it was necessary to separate friend from foe for reasons both practical and glorious.  Accordingly, the rudiments of the art came from the ancient world, as with the late Roman legions that had individualized standards.  But true heraldry, Fox-Davies tells us, began with the Crusades.  The kings of the First Crusade adopted different versions of the Cross, and they and their men tied on armbands of red-and-white or the like.  This articulated a slowly developing articulation of emblemization, and when the kings and their lords returned from the Holy Land, the process began in earnest.

A coat of arms - more properly called an achievement, can have many components.  At its simplest, it is a simple shield with a distinctive design, meant to identify the bearer.  This design is codified in a specific way in a descriptive sentence called a blazon, using language that is both archaic and heavily French.  For my own arms, depicted to the left, the blazon is "vert, upon a saltire argent a chessknight sable" ("on a green field, a white cross with a black chessknight.")

There are a lot of rules for creating these designs.  I am not a master of them all, so my arms were created with help from the Kingdom of Talossa's College of Arms.  Additional help has always been necessary, which is why there were once professional heralds to develop and interpret achievements.  A few professional heralds remain in countries that still practice grants of arms, such as the U.K.'s College of Arms.  But the field is also swamped with simple enthusiasts, especially in America, a country without armigerous nobility.

While dated by the century since its publication, A Complete Guide to Heraldry is a decent book on the subject.  A newcomer to the art should probably look elsewhere, to something more readable and contemporary.  But for a refresher to those already familiar with heraldry, there isn't a better book.

Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser

It is absolutely clear that no one should eat fast food.  From first to last, this is the powerful message of Schlosser's Fast Food Nation.  The author explores all of the impacts of a fast food culture on our life, revealing a powerful institution whose ever-grasping tentacles are strangling some of America's most important values.  The fast food world's commitment to cranking out cheap and delicious food is not inherently wrong.  After all, that's what many restaurants try to do.  But the soulless, factory-based approach and sheer size of the fast food industry has made a McDonald's little more than a family-friendly drug dealer.  The poor and disadvantaged are cranked in and out of its ranks, reduced as near to slavery as possible.  They serve up food that has been processed out of all recognition, churning out trays of raw material that's been mashed and treated and reflavored with chemicals into wads of fat and sugar that only superficially resemble a real meal.  That raw material is obtained by a feudal system of high science and extraordinary corporate manipulation.

The fast food culture is crushing the working poor, the health of the nation, and a living food culture that's drowning under a flood of 99¢ lumps of beef tallow.  Schlosser relates the story of this world of degradation in an interesting and well-paced manner.  I almost dreaded to begin this book, since I assumed it would be a slog through an acre of depressing and dense facts.  But instead it deeply engages with its material, lightening the procession of woeful destruction with brief looks into the lives of the people involved.  The resulting book is well-written, informative, and shocking.  And whether or not you read it (and you should), please stop eating fast food!

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