I used to blame the demands of my profession for robbing me of the ability to read for pleasure, but now that I've screwed myself out of that alibi, it's time to come clean: I'd rather surf the Web and/or watch TV, preferably simultaneously (the wonders of wireless technology).
But now that I no longer have to wake up at a set time every morning, I can stay up to read at night. On that note, I'm suitably chagrined to admit that I finally cracked open the pages of John Hodgman's The Areas of My Expertise, approximately three millennia after everyone else has been buzzing about it.
By now, you may recognize John Hodgman from those annoying Apple commercials (he's the PC who doesn't get the hot Japanese babe), but he's also a regular in all the usual left-wing media conspiracy outlets: he's shown up on The Daily Show fairly often of late, his segments have aired on This American Life, and he was a columnist for mcsweeneys.net. (In fact, the book's page design looks a lot like old McSweeney layouts.) Some time before that, he apparently graduated from Yale and earned a living as a Professional Literary Agent (his emphasis, not mine). Most tragically, he and Jon Brion took part in a show that Heidi and I couldn't get tickets to--though we were in town that very night!
Oh right, the book--as I and nearly every other media outlet have mentioned, hoboes play a large part in the, errrr, well, "narrative" is way too strong a word. So let's just say they play a large part. Actuaries and werewolves show up from time to time, though to my knowledge, no werewolf hobo actuaries are invoked.
But out of context, these glimpses don't do justice to the effectiveness of John Hodgman's hypnotically guileless voice. You know not to believe the hobo stories, but his matter-of-fact yet richly imagined prose makes you want to check the Encyclopedia Britannica and make sure your junior high history teacher didn't lie to you about Secretary of State Hobo Joe Junkpan. If you've seen him on The Daily Show, you probably know what I'm talking about. Maybe those appearances color my reading of his book, but he seems to be able to stay in character throughout, regardless of subject matter.
When I was in college, I desparately wanted to love Mark Leyner's books, if only for the titles (My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist and Et Tu, Babe, particularly) and, perhaps, the cool factor. I tried to read at least three or four of them before I came to the realization that they weren't doing much for me. Sure, I liked the wildly original premises, and I guffawed here and there, but I never got more than 2/3 of the way through any of them.
At the other end of the spectrum might be someone like Kurt Vonnegut, who wrote fairly absurdist stories but who always anchored them with very real, earnest, and straightforward emotions about love, acceptance, and human nature. Just as I'm a pop girl at heart, I'm a plot girl too. Call me zany, but I love being able to relate to characters and stories!
With only one book--thankfully not a thinly veiled semiautobiographical confession--under his belt, John Hodgman's place in this range is hard to tell right now. To his credit, he seems to exhibit more of Vonnegut's humility than Leyner's condescension, and that's a good enough reason to check back on his progress.
Blogger's note: This will be the first in a to-be-determined number of easily fooled book reports when my concert schedule is on the slow side. Check back later for the rawk or the folk or whatever it is I listen to.
» Areas of My Expertise: the blog
» "The (Wacky) World According to John Hodgman," interview from All Things Considered