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Posts tagged ‘comedy’

Emma

Emma

by: Jane Austen

I love rereading books by listening to the audio books but I often struggle to find books narrated by women.  I don’t know why, but there are times when I strongly prefer to listen to a woman’s voice over a man’s and while I have plenty of podcasts that fit the bill, it’s harder for me to find audiobooks.  But I decided, after listening to Pride and Prejudice, that I should continue with my Austen adventure and downloaded Emma.

Emma, is, of course, a classic novel by Jane Austen. Written in Georgian-Regency times (thanks Wikipedia!), it follows the titular character through the perils of matchmaking, romance, and growing up.  My audiobook was narrated by Juliet Stevenson, who was really excellent. Her voice is elegant and has just the tiniest hint of merriment.

When I first read Emma, I was in early high school.  I only read it the once, so while I knew the plot, I really wasn’t prepared for all the comedy I’d missed the first time around.  I had to stop myself from laughing out loud more than once, and I’m sure that I walked around grinning like a fool while listening.  Austen pokes fun at her characters dryly and deservedly, though kindly.  I missed a lot my first read and I remember thinking the plot dragged a bit.  Now, when I can appreciate the subtle satire and the ridiculousness of the scenes, I didn’t think it dragged at all, even though not much happens in the story.

It’s a cohesive story and solid plot, but what I loved best are the individual scenes that can stand on their own.  My favorite scene involved two rather self-absorbed characters, one quite good-natured, engaged in a conversation where each is determinedly wresting the subject back to their favorite brag every time they speak. I was thoroughly entranced and amused the entire scene – it felt real, funny, and I could definitely think of a few people who it reminded me of!  It could have been taken from the story and read just as a scene and been just as satisfying.

Like all Austen books, some of the references and subtle pokes haven’t aged as well – a very few, but there were times when something was clearly supposed to be obvious and I had no clue what was being referenced.  And, of course, there’s a lot of subtlety and unspoken context going on in the novel, as in any Austen novel.

I will say, the ending did feel like it dragged on a bit and then, when it did end, it felt rather abrupt.  It was particularly noticeable because I was listening to it; I couldn’t start skimming over the last bit after I knew the major problems were resolved.  Austen thoroughly ties up every plot line, perhaps a tad too neatly and leaves the reader completely satisfied.  Her characters are believable and engaging. Overall, despite the more complex language, it’s a great escapism novel.

If you like things to happen in your novel, clear and straightforward writing, or a hot ‘n’ steamy romance, this, unfortunately, is probably not the book for you. If, however, you like old-fashioned and sweet stories, you love absurd but realistic humor, or you’re just looking for a book to read in a garden with a glass of wine, then I strongly encourage you to give Emma a read.

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Fool

Christopher_Moore_Fool_cover_artby: Christopher Moore

More is another comedic/satire writer that I enjoy, though he doesn’t write fantasy. (I would classify him as general fiction with some fantasy elements tossed in occasionally, though perhaps that’s a bit finicky.)

Fool is Moore’s take on Shakespeare.  It’s a retelling of “King Lear” from, of course, the fool’s point of view.  I will admit, I’m not a huge Shakespeare fan – I’ve seen 3 of his plays, and love watching them but have read only “Romeo and Juliet” and parts of “Julius Caesar.” (“Parts” because my English teacher decided we could skip all the boring battle scenes.)  Anyways, that whole aside is to note that there are multiple Shakespeare references, puns, and jokes that I’m sure I completely missed, due to my unfamiliarity with the Bard’s works. Feel free to note any of your favorites in the comments!

Fool is told from Pocket’s, the jester of King Lear, point of view, first person.  Moore’s work in third person often feels a bit disconnected or even impersonal to me; I greatly prefer his first person narratives.

I was rereading this via audiobook and it wasn’t until the second time around that I realized what a complex character Pocket is.  He does have a bit of that “happy outside, sad inside” clown persona going on, though it’s subtly enough done that it doesn’t feel like a cliche.  But he gets joy from his quick wit and job as a fool; he’s intelligent, observant, and rather lucky.  He is kind in a time and place devoid of empathy; he’s aware of how the world works and is willing to work with the tools that he has

The story, of course, retains its tragic elements but nobody could accuse Moore of writing a tragedy.  Rather, it’s riotous humor tempered by grievous and dire events.  Oh, yes, riotous.  This book is vulgar.  Really, truly vulgar.  It is full of, to quote the fools, “heinous fuckery.”  If you’re not a fan of cursing, bawdy humor, coarse, crude, and licentious language and stories, give this one a pass.  If you blush easily, you may not want to read this one in public.  (And if you are listening to the audiobook in front of children, expect a number of awkward questions afterwards.)

I loved the female characters in this novel.  Goneril and Regan, the two elder daughters of King Lear, drive the plot.  They both enjoy sex, sans inhibitions, without becoming one-dimensional characters whose only defining characteristic is being sexy.  They have several, er, predilections in that arena which are traits, not defining characteristics. They control their husbands, manipulate the king, and plot for taking over the kingdom. But they don’t do so through womanly wiles and feminine deceptions.  Rather, they accomplish things through strength of will and intelligence.  They’re practical and not prone to being controlled by their emotions; instead they use their emotions to further their causes. Well. Regan is vaguely sociopathic, so we’re assuming emotions on her part.  Honestly, either of them could have easily been written as a man, even though throughout the  book it is clear that they are women.  (Which is awesome.  Many female characters are so stereotyped that writing them as men would require a major change in personality.)

Cordelia, King Lear’s youngest daughter, is amazing.  She doesn’t actually appear that much in the novel and probably has the fewest lines of any of the main characters, but even though her page time is limited, the reader gets a clear picture of a well-rounded, intelligent, powerful character who goes after what she wants.   (Ah! I want to go on but not at the risk of spoiling the plot.)

The side characters are written sympathetically and nobody comes off as one-dimensional – eh, perhaps the witches do; I can forgive Moore for that.  There are a few good jabs at those in power, monarchies in general, and the abuse of power; some of them are funny and some of them are not.  This is definitely a book with darker humor in it.

If you like Shakespeare, satires, great female characters, or complex, dark comedies, you should try this one.  If you’re a stickler for history (this isn’t accurate by any standards), if you don’t like lewd humor, if you’re not a fan of violence, or if you like your comedies to be light and fluffy, than, sadly, this may not be the book for you.

Small Gods

SmallGods_Coverby: Terry Pratchett

Pratchett is one of my very favorite authors and I decided that a little bit of Pratchett was what I needed to get through an incredibly busy workweek. (I have a very repetitive job that allows me to listen to audiobooks while I work.)  I was scrolling through his backlist when I saw Small Gods, one which I adore but had only read once. I decided it was exactly what I needed.

On the audiobook itself, the narrator, Nigel Planer, talks a tad too fast.  I really loved him but I wish he talked about 25% slower.  It looks like he narrates most of Pratchett’s books (or at least the two I’ve downloaded so far), so I would definitely give him a listen before buying – make sure it’s something you can put up it.

As for the book itself, Small Gods is the story of Brutha, a novice acolyte of Om (the god of Omnia and the Omnian religion, a monotheistic religion that draws heavily from the Catholic Church in particular and Abrahamic religions in general.) In a country run by the church and full of fanatics, Brutha is the last true believer, the only one on the Discworld who can hear the God Om, who was come to visit his believers in his latest godly form – a tortoise, if you please.  (Death be unto eagles!) Brutha has a perfect memory, a unique talent which Vorbis, the head of the Quisition, decides will be of use to him as he strives to rid the world of non-believers.

This is religious satire and religious satire at its best.  I love the way Pratchett deftly separates believing from participating, no matter how fervently, in organized religion.  Don’t worry; he gets in a few well-placed jabs at atheists as well as priests, brothers, and overly religious grandmothers.  The critiques are sometimes aimed at the gods – after all, in the Discworld, gods are much like people – but the majority comes from human interpretation of the god’s will, fair game and always relevant.  Pratchett manages to comically expose how much humans have misinterpreted the gods’ will in general and, using the truthful and steadfast Brutha as a foil, how little the current interpretation of Om’s will has to do with Om’s actual will.  Also, the evolution of Brutha’s faith is fantastically done; Brutha learns so much about Om, about the Prophecies, the Prophets, and how the faith is executed (somewhat literally, there), that one would expect his faith to disappear.  Rather, it changes into a more mature and realistic faith which seeks to meld the realities of the world with idealism that religion promotes.

Pratchett’s work, if you let it, challenges the meanings of faith, religion, and belief and satirizes how things are done or have been done in much of the Abrahamic traditions for most of written history.  Fun and easily digestible, certainly, but easy to find yourself thinking about it seriously as well.  You’ll never feel like he’s forcing a point down your throat; rather you’ll find yourself laughing at an exaggerated point that has described exactly how you felt at one time or another.  It’s a great satire – using humor to both mask and make his point.  If you want only an easy and fun read out of it, you’ll get only that.  If you’d like to read further in, you certainly can.  The best of both worlds!

Sometimes I have a hard time following Pratchett’s plot points – I just read along, certain that at the end everything will come together – but that didn’t happen this time.  Perhaps because I was rereading or perhaps because it was an audiobook, I was relatively sure of what was happening and why the entire time.  If you’re a fan of the Discworld series, you shouldn’t expect the normal cast of characters – Death shows up but not anyone else.

If you like religious satires, this is one of the best ones I’ve read.  If you like Pratchett or comedies, you should give this book a go. If you don’t have much of a sense of humor about religion, or if fantasy really just isn’t your thing, you may want to give this a pass.

 

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

1792by: Douglas Adams

Okay, I know that’s not the actual book cover, but I love Marvin and I love that graphic – so that’s what’s heading this post.   I listened to this instead of reading it – it’s a reread – with Stephen Fry narrating.  It was brilliant.  (With the 2 qualifications: 1) The timing was a little off on some of the chapter changes and 2) Fry pronounces some words very weirdly, probably because he’s British. It was disconcerting for this Texan.)

The first time I read Hitchhiker’s, I liked it a lot but I didn’t fully understand why it was so great.  On rereading it – as an adult rather than a teenager – I found it much funnier.  I’m actually surprised by how much of it is still relevant – and the GooglePlex! How did Adams know?! 

Hearing it narrated was great for the comedy, naturally. Somehow hearing things read aloud makes the comedy easier to understand for me.  I think I laugh more, too – something that I’d read and go, “oh that’s funny” makes me chuckle when I hear it narrated well.

Anyway, for any not in the know out there, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy  is a comedic science fiction that more or less follows the misadventures of Arthur Dent, an ordinary Englishman who finds himself flying off into space in a series of rather unnerving mishaps.  Dent is ordinary and uninteresting, really.  If he were the main character of a modern fiction, it would be a one exposing how our lives are so mundane and ruled by petty concerns; at the end he would die slightly unsatisfied but never understanding why, making the writer’s point about, to quote one of my art professors, “a vulgar 9-5 job.”   Thankfully, it is Adams who wrote about him and Dent is instead a hilarious counterpoint to the wonders of space, aliens, and technology.  And I like the unabashed preference Dent has for his home life.  It’s funny to think of someone, off on the adventure of a lifetime, longing for their ordinary home on in a small town in the English countryside, certainly, but it’s also, I think, a feeling we all have when off adventuring. Comedy usually has more than a grain of truth

Other main characters include the smart and savvy Trillion, whom I loved and wanted to see more of; Ford Prefect, the congenial alien writer; Zaphod Beeblebox, President of the Galaxy; and, of course, Marvin, the bored and depressed robot.  The nicest thing about the characters is that they all balance each other out both character- and comedy-wise.  Nobody’s overdone but the reader’s never kept too long at any one extreme.

Douglas Adams’ gets his humor from the absurd and obvious.  A famous quote of his, and one that I think exemplifies his humor, is, “The ship hung in the air much in the way bricks don’t.”  He’s got a knack for using obvious observations in absurd ways that make you delight in the unexpected juxtaposition of words and images.  Hitchhiker’s spends a good deal of time satirizing bureaucracy and government (can you really talk about one without the other?), and if you haven’t felt the way his characters feel after a bad experience in a government office, you are probably a saint.  His plot is much less complicated than Terry Prachett’s tend to be, though I think Prachett’s characters are more to my taste.  I liked the droll statements and the “say what?” moments that jolt you out of reading mode into laughing mode; these are mostly found in the narration.  I never got thrown out of the story but I was always surprised and delighted to find myself laughing.

In short, Douglas is truly deserving of his status as the king of sci-fi comedy.  If you like comedy or science fiction, you should definitely give him a shot.  I’m going out on a limb here and saying he has nearly universal appeal; I can’t think of a reason someone would dislike him except for not liking the genres he writes in.  (Well.  If your preferred humor is vulgar or obscene, than he’s probably not for you. So I guess there’s that.)

We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy

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by: Yael Kohen

I was browsing through the signed books at the Texas Book Fair and happened upon this one.  I was intrigued by the premise, glanced through the first few pages and decided to buy it.

The first few pages are nothing like the rest of the book.  Kohen uses the first chapter to identify and discuss the prejudices against women in comedy and thus to set up why this book is necessary. The rest of the book is 95% quotes from various comedians and people in the comedy industry, taken from Kohen’s interviews with them, and 5% background information as necessary.  (Apparently the “A Very Oral History” on the front is to be taken quite literally.)

The first time I tried to read the book I was really surprised and turned off by the format, so I put it down for a couple of months.  The second time, I knew what I was getting into, and I ended up thinking it was really good.  It’s more like a written documentary than any common literature style, focusing on comdiennes from the 1950s or so to about 2011.

There’s not any analysis by the author within the book, which I was expecting when I picked it up. .  Certainly there’s enough information in there for the reader to do some extensive thinking and conclusion-reaching of their own. (In fact, you could probably use this book as a basis for some pretty interesting papers.)

It’s loosely arranged in chronological order, by decade rather year. The focus is around star comediennes of each decade; their rise and career path, how others felt about them or women of that decade, their style of comedy and if they had any obstacles either related to gender or from being in comedy.  She interviewed a wide range of people – Whoopi Goldberg, Lisa Kudrow, Roseanne, and Robin Williams are the ones that I remember.  She didn’t have very many interviews with current comedic superstars, like Tina Fey or Sarah Silverman, but she does interview many people who have worked closely with them and are fairly famous in their own rights. A good number of Saturday Night Live staff – former and current – show up, for instance.

Most of the quotes are insightful and natural-sounding.  A few are outright funny, but the people are more focused on thoughtfulness than comedy, which is appropriate for the book.  Because of the lack of narrative or analysis, and despite its appearance, this doesn’t read like a feminist text. Though she doesn’t include anyone with the opinion that women aren’t funny, she does include a variety of views on the challenges facing women in comedy (ranging from “there are no challenges” to “women have it much harder than men”.)

Some of the opinions and stories told are really interesting – there are some really striking stories about comedians who were difficult to work with or, conversely, those went out of their way to support newcomers.  Letting the people speak for themselves, rather than trying to marshal quotes to support a conclusion, lends the book an unusual honesty and leaves the interpretation of the book solely to the reader.  Though the author bias was present in order and selection of quotes, it was refreshing to draw my own conclusions without undue influences or trying to follow and critically analyze the arguments of the author.

In short, I would recommend this book to anyone with an interest in comedy or famous comedians (male or female!), social history, feminism (though, again, it’s not a feminist text), or entertainment in general. If you like your history to come with lots of analysis, if you don’t like interviews or documentaries, or if you’re not big on non-traditional book formats, then, alas, this may not be the book for you.

Year Zero

by: Rob Reid

This book was recommended to me by a friend who works at my local bookstore – I was checking out with another comedic fantasy and he saw it and immediately denounced it as just okay, then proceeded to tell me all about Year Zero, which was better and funnier and which he owned. So I put the novel I was going to buy back and borrowed Year Zero instead.

I read half of it, put it down, and then finished it today, mainly because I had started it.  The premise of the novel is enticingly funny – aliens far advanced in every facet of culture and science except music discover our music – the pop, the rock and roll, the jazz, the oldies! They’re so enamored of our music that they all download the entire collection of Earth’s songs.  This is unfortunate, because, by Earth’s laws, they soon realize they owe the citizens of Earth more than the entire wealth of the known universe.  What is there to do but call upon copyright lawyer Nick Carter?

I actually didn’t much like this book.  I didn’t dislike; it just didn’t connect with me well. Something about Reid’s sense of humor and mine didn’t quite click.  I’m not even quite sure why.  Other people have certainly found it hilarious and I could see the humor; it just didn’t actually amuse me that much.  It could just be that most of it was a little too blatant for me; I do tend to like humor that makes me think (which defeats the purpose of an escapism novel but there ya have it).

The writing itself was fairly good.  The story flows easily and even though the plot gets a little complicated at times, the world building is of sufficient quality that I never got lost or confused enough to have to reference earlier passages, which is nice.  One of the reasons I don’t read much sci-fi is that often I’m overwhelmed by the amount of information introduced. Reid does an excellent job of keeping his new worlds manageable for the reader.  The pacing was just a tad bit off at times but overall the story moves well.  It’s fairly action-based, with lots of travel and excitement and terrible things that are soon to happen!

It was told in first person, from Nick Carter’s point of view. I wish he had been developed a little more at the beginning, as there was little time for character development once the action started happening.  He was eventually likable, but I feel like he was somewhat needlessly shallow through much of the book.   My favorite character was his boss, a savvy women who I would hate to face in a legal battle-she was interesting and fun to read about.  The human characters in general were decently well-developed; the alien characters were not as consistently three-dimensional.  Several of them are given prominent roles, so it would have been nice to see them a little better developed.  Some of them served as parodies, but I think their lack of development takes away from that, at least for me.

So if you’re looking for a sci-fi comedy that pokes fun at the music industry, lawyers, and somewhat at human entertainment in general or if sci-fi comedy is your favorite form of escapism, this is the book for you.  If you’re looking for an introduction in sci-fi/fantasy comedy or if you have a very specific sense of humor, this may not be the book for you.  But if the premise intrigues you, read the first few pages.  They’re indicative enough of the rest of the book that you should be able to tell whether or not you’ll find it funny.