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]
Revenger, a fast-paced space opera by Alastair Reynolds with strong women as protagonists and few surprises certainly took my mind off things for a bit. Worldbuilding galore takes place in Revenger’s galaxy, a place littered with the detritus of humanity and other species. Kind of steam-punky and certainly the baubles offer a lot of ‘Roadside […]
Dale Maharidge is a journalist and J-school professor who is dear old friends with the muckracking, outstanding political documentarian Laura Poitras. Jessica Bruder (previously) is a a writer and J-school prof who's best friends with Maharidge. When Laura Poitras was contacted by an NSA whistleblower who wanted to send her the leak of the century, she asked Maharidge for help finding a safe address for a postal delivery, and Maharidge gave her Bruder's Brooklyn apartment address. A few weeks later, Bruder came home from a work-trip to discover a box on her doormat with the return address of "B. Manning, 94-1054 Eleu St, Waipau, HI 96797." In it was a hard-drive. The story of what happened next is documented in a beautifully written, gripping new book: Snowden's Box: Trust in the Age of Surveillance.
An appropriate book for this time, Soviet-era dystopian fiction grandmasters Boris and Arkady Strugatski considered Snail On The Slope “the most perfect and the most valuable of their works.” Snail on The Slope is comprised of two separate storylines, taking place in and on the edge of The Forest. Together they paint a vivid picture […]
Even if you don’t miss much else about the office right now, there’s a good chance your home laptop is making you nostalgic for the added efficiency of that pair of monitors on your desk at work to spread out your workflow. There’s no telling how long the new normal may continue to be the […]
If you’re looking to become a software engineer or it’s an idea you’ve tossed around half-seriously, there may be no better time than now to take the leap. It’s one of the fastest-growing, most in-demand roles already. And in the midst of the pandemic, between the extra hours you likely have in your day, and […]
Whether you’re looking to create perfect portraits or amazing artwork, if your medium is digital, you know you absolutely must have Photoshop to do your best making. So if you’ve been putting off really mastering the various techniques, tools, and styles it offers for your craft, now is a great time to make it happen. […]