John Hodgman's Vacationland: a masterpiece of humor that means something
If you -- like me -- are a loyal listener to the Judge John Hodgman podcast, then you have a sense of what makes Hodgman a treasure: it's his combination of understated, low-key wit; his quick self-deprecation; and his deep compassion, which is what makes his comedic "fake internet courtoom" into more than a quick gag, turning it into reliable source of thought-provoking insight into how to be a better person. If that's your thing, then you will love his latest book, a memoir called Vacationland: True Stories from Painful Beaches, which isn't just funny... it's also sneaky as hell.
I was raised on collections of dry, weird comedic essays like Steve Martin's Cruel Shoes and Groucho Marx's Memoirs Of A Mangy Lover, books that became touchstones for me and my little crowd of weird, smart, not-very-social dudes, and we memorized them and photocopied them and stuck them on our doors and so on.
My first impression of Vacationland was that I'd found a modern version of these much-loved books. Hodgman is so very witty, and as he sets up his memoir -- the story of how he was a weird kid raised by loving but largely unconcerned parents -- he has so many tinder-dry asides and beautifully turned sentences and jokes with long fuses that unexpectedly detonate paragraphs later that I was really getting ready to relive my own childhood.
But this is a sneaky book.
There's a useful literary criticism term, "bathos," that the Turkey City Lexicon defines as a "Sudden change in level of diction. 'The massive hound barked in stentorian voice then made wee-wee on the carpet.'" Bathos is that whipsaw you get when something funny turns serious, or vice-versa, and the mismatch in moods keeps anything useful from gelling out of the exercise.
But all literary rules are made to be broken. "Bathos" is what we call mood-switches when they fail. When they work, we call them genius (see, e.g. Neal Brennan's justly celebrated "3 Mics").
Right as I was getting comfortably settled into Vacationland, I discovered that Hodgman had smoothly transitioned me into some really profound emotional truth -- it's where he starts talking about his mother's untimely death and how he reacted to her terminal illness -- and then back into that dry, comedic mode, slipping the knife in and pulling it out so smoothly that I hadn't even noticed until the blood started to drip. That kind of maneuver requires both a steady hand a very sharp knife, and Hodgman has both.
This sneaky book pulls that move over and over, using comedy and narrative confidence to make important points about privilege, self-delusion, parenting, death, birth, cities, alienation, love -- the whole gamut.
All without ever losing the comedy, which is funny stuff, and it's not a spoonful of sugar that helps all that serious medicine go down, it's perfectly blended into those serious themes.
This isn't a book like Cruel Shoes: it's the book Cruel Shoes gets to be when it grows up.
Vacationland: True Stories from Painful Beaches [John Hodgman/Viking]
Crowdfunding to help science fiction great Mike Resnick pay off the medical bills from a near-death experience
Mitch Wagner writes, "Talented and prolific science fiction writer and editor Mike Resnick, who has written extensively over the course of a long career about colonialism and its legacies, with a particular focus and love for Africa, has had a near-death experience and started a GoFundMe to pay off his medical expenses. I'm a huge […]
Thanks to an article about why science fiction great John M Ford's books are out of print, they're coming back
John M Ford -- AKA Mike Ford -- (previously) was a spectacular and varied science fiction writer who performed brilliantly across a wide range of genres and formats, from RPGs (GURPS, Paranoia) to licensed Star Trek fiction (his "How Much for Just the Planet" effectively created Klingon fandom) to fantasy novels like The Dragon Waiting, […]
Why are we still treating economics as if it were an empirical science that makes reliable predictions?
Robert Skidelsky is an eccentric British economist: trained at Oxford, author of a definitive three-volume biography of Keynes, a Lord who sat with the Tories as their economics critic during the Blair regime, who now sits as an independent who is aligned with Labour's left wing. Back in September, Yale University Press published Skidelsky's latest […]
WordPress is a fantastic tool for building web pages – if you know how to use it. Even with all the accessibility, a lot of the deeper features of WordPress are lost in translation to the average user. Enter WP Page Builder, a tool that not only makes WordPress site design easy but also more […]
In this age of ever-shrinking gadgets, it bears reminding that sometimes bigger is actually better. And if you care about audio quality, we can’t think of a better example of this principle than these TREBLAB Z2 Bluetooth 5.0 Noise-Cancelling Headphones. We know tiny Bluetooth earbuds are all the rage right now. But their battery life […]
In this Instagram age, pictures aren’t just worth a thousand words; they can be worth a pretty penny, too, which makes graphic designers a highly sought-after profession. But being a graphic artist takes more than just the ability to draw a picture, and certainly more than the ability to navigate through Photoshop. The School of […]