The 40-book batch of reading material I signed out from the library last month is in its final renewal. 20 books to go, 21 days to finish them. Two days into the final renewal period, I have officially finished one, but with a caveat: the selection was a collection of Joe Orton plays, and I had read all but the final piece. So really, I have yet to actually start and finish an entire text so far. But still, I'm one down. Can I possibly finish them all off? Especially with at least 3-4 days out of commission when I'm in Ottawa? It remains to be seen.
In the meantime, the reviews can continue, and where better to start than with The Complete Plays Of Joe Orton. This was, as it so happens, the book I originally went to the library in search of two months ago, and thus the book responsible for my reading orgy. Being something of a free spirit himself, Orton would've appreciated any type of orgy that came from his plays. The text was a collection of seven long and short plays from the British scribe, each of which was at least okay. The clear class of the bunch was Orton's legendary farce "What The Butler Saw," which is the rare play that actually had me laughing throughout just from reading the script. I need to see this performed live before I die. Orton's full-length plays (WTBS, Loot and Entertaining Mr. Sloane) are all much better than his one-act plays, which seem more like a few good lines or a good idea for a scene that are stretched into a full act.
If you're at all a fan of British farce or satire, Orton is definitely your boy. It's intelligent farce, rather than something like Carry On -- What The Butler Saw, in fact, could be seen as a satire of farce, which is rather difficult to pull off. Imagine doing a spoof of, say, the Royal Canadian Air Farce. Apropos of nothing, I saw part of the Air Farce set during a tour of the CBC studios here in Toronto. Fun fact: the doughnuts used in the "A Canadian Moment" sketch (i.e. "You got that right, you betcha, tell me about it, oh yeah oh yeah oh yeah,") are actually real, and only replaced every two years. There's probably a joke in here about the only thing staler than the doughnuts on Air Farce is the comedy, but I'll leave that to the professionals.
From Orton to Elton. Their similarity of names aside, Joe Orton's theatrical satires are much more fully-developed than Ben Elton's Popcorn, a paint-by-numbers pastiche of a novel. I'm willing to accept that I may be reading it too late. When written in 1996, it could've appealed to me as a perfectly timely send-up of the media, violent filmmaking, the Oscars and the like given how it was the golden era of the O.J. trial, Tarantino and Natural Born Killers. Eleven years later, it lacks much bite. The novel hinges on one original idea -- a pair of killers hold a Tarantino-esque director hostage on live TV and threaten to kill him and his family unless he admits that his violent films were responsible for the duo's crime spree, which would thus probably get them off in a court of law. Once the killers' plan is revealed about two-thirds of the way through the book, the rest is anti-climax. Elton short-circuits the tension by revealing three of the main characters' fates at the start of the book, then tells the rest of the story in flashback. It's just not a terribly interesting read. Elton's career arc is interesting, as he began his career as an English comedian writing for shows like Blackadder, but today is hailed as something of a sellout for focusing of musical theatre. He actually wrote the book for the Queen musical currently taking Toronto by "storm." I have another of Elton's novels still to read, so perhaps he can pick things up next time around.
Bill James' The Politics of Glory proclaims itself to be a study of the Baseball Hall of Fame and its history and voting procedures, not a manifesto on who should be in the Hall and who shouldn't. Then, James devotes several chapters to players that he feels should be in the Hall, and some who he feels shouldn't. Uh, huh? James probably broke down because it's just so much fun to debate. I'm one of those who thinks the Hall should be more exclusive, not less. If I had my druthers, the BBWAA would clamp down on who gets baseball's ultimate honor. No borderline guys, no "well, he had good numbers overall, so I guess he's Hall" guys, no guys who had 3-4 spectacular seasons, not the 9-10 I think are necessary to be in the Hall. James makes the good point that eras should be factored into stats, as a 30+ homer, 100+RBI season in the live-ball era of the 20's and 30's is far less impressive than a similar season in the pitching-dominated 1960's. Yet there are loads of players from the 20's and 30's in the Hall who have big numbers, but couldn't really be considered the elite of their time. A similar argument can be made of today's sluggers, whose numbers are pumped up by expansion, steroids and more steroids.
Off the top of my head, here's my list of current players who, if they retired today, would be in the Hall of Fame. Argue at your own risk.
Manny Ramirez, Curt Schilling, Pudge Rodriguez, Vladimir Guerrero, Randy Johnson, John Smoltz, Ken Griffey Jr., Tom Glavine, Pedro Martinez, Jeff Kent, Roger Clemens (grrr.....), Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Alex Rodriguez, Ichiro, Mike Piazza, Sammy Sosa, Frank Thomas, Greg Maddux, Trevor Hoffman and Barry Bonds
Also making it, but guys who I had to think a bit harder about, are Jim Thome, Todd Helton, Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell, Chipper Jones. If I was a real hard-ass, I'd just leave these guys out, so maybe I'm not as super-exclusive as I thought. Also, this isn't to say that guys like Johan Santana, Albert Pujols, David Ortiz, etc. won't or shouldn't be Hall, but they just need a few more years of great numbers to cement themselves.
I can't remember the last time I actually went into a comic book store and purchased a single issue of a single comic. It must be close to a decade. That's right, as much as I post about superhero-related stuff, my actual comic purchases are next to nothing. Once in a while, I drop by the ol' comic shop (or, if I'm in England, the comic shoppe) to pick up a trade paperback, a.k.a. an entire collection of a comic storyline or series. I got turned onto this in first year MIT, when The Dark Knight Returns was provided to us in one nice, easy-to-read single text. God bless a class that makes Batman assigned reading.
Another good outlet for comic book catchup is the novelization, such as Batman: No Man's Land. The "No Man's Land" storyline ran a few years ago across several Batman titles, and Greg Rucka (one of the comic series' writers) collected the whole thing together into a novel. The premise is that Gotham is hit with an earthquake, and the city is so devastated and overrun by crime in its aftermath that the U.S. government declares the city a proverbial no man's land and cuts it off from the United States. Thus, everyone still on the island of Gotham is on their own. Imagine New Orleans in the wake of Katrina, except with more supervillains and slightly less water. The novel is pretty sprawling, as it tries to condense several months' worth of comic books into a 400-page text, but it's overall a pretty good read. Batman fans will enjoy it, though since I didn't read the original series, I don't know how closely Rucka sticks to the original plot. My only quarrel: no Riddler! Dammit! That question mark-suited son of a bitch is one of the few Batman villains that doesn't make an appearance. I blame Jim Carrey.
Listening to one's bad beat poker stories gets really old really quickly, so James McManus' Positively Fifth Street dispenses with much of this and focuses on the more interesting stuff. Not that there are many bad beats to discuss. McManus showed up at the 2000 World Series of Poker to do a story on the rise of female poker players, a sidebar on an ongoing murder trial where the victim was the WSOP's founder's son, and to play in the main event tournament himself. Out of nowhere, he ended up in fifth, and won about 100 grand. Talk about living my dream for a few weeks in Vegas. A book with such liberal amounts of murder and poker is definitely going to grab my attention. McManus has a lot of really good stories and turns his own tale of tournament glory into a Coles Notes history of Vegas, the casinos, the World Series and its stars, and the Binion family. The 2007 WSOP is ongoing as I type this, so does anyone want to front me 20 grand? I promise to pay you back with my winnings. Scout's honor!
Voice of Reason: You weren't in scouts, you were in Cubs. And you spent most of that time thinking up ways to get out of camping trips.
Shut up, Voice of Reason!
From one kind of gaming freak to another. Word Freak is Stephan Fatsis' account of the world of professional Scrabble. Whereas the top poker players vie for seven-figure purses, Fatsis describes a number of people who devote their lives to tournaments that pay out maybe $1000 for first-place, if they're lucky. What this book illustrated was how money clouds perspective. You read this book and think some of these folks are losers for being so single-mindedly devoted to pro Scrabble, and yet people who devote their lives to other kinds of games (poker, sports, taping bum fights and posting them online) are considered acceptable because there is profit in their pursuits. Fatsis' novel is a bit too exhaustive, and could've been a good 50 pages shorter while still getting the point across. Word Freak will also kill any desire you've ever had to play Scrabble. When you read an account of a game that is played almost entirely of obscure two-letter words and even more obscure multi-letter words, the effect is like watching Amadeus and then sitting down to write a symphony. You feel as inadequate as a eunuch at a porn star convention.
It occurred to me while reading Donald E. Westlake's Thieves' Dozen short story collection that I've read nearly all of Westlake's series of novels about Dortmunder, the woebegotten thief. That's probably over a dozen Dortmunder novels I've powered through in my life. Yikes. In that time, my main criticism of the series is that only a few of the novels seem to have a premise that lends itself to a full-length treatment. Imagine Ocean's Eleven except with half as many men who are half as smart and half as lucky, but the film itself is two hours longer. That's the effect of some of the lesser Dortmunder novels.
Thieves' Dozen, however, is a collection of Dortmunder short stories. So the welcome-overstaying is minimal, and the result is a collection with no weak links. The cast is limited to Dortmunder himself and his positive-thinking pal Andy, which means that the extraneous, one-joke members of Dortmunder's gang are thankfully left at home.
So, with no criticism to speak of, I'll just write the word Dortmunder a few times. Dortmunder. Dortmunder Dortmunder Dortmunder. Dortmunder. Dortmunder Dortmunder.
Most mystery writers have one sleuth they use in their novels. Parnell Hall as three. He has anti-detective Stanley Hastings, Cora "Puzzle Lady" Felton, and lawyer Steve Winslow. Hall wrote only two Winslow stories, using the pen name J. P. Hailey for some reason, and The Anonymous Client is the superior of the two and one of the overall best novels Hall has ever written. While the Hastings books are in large part satirical deconstructions of the mystery genre, the Puzzle Lady and Winslow series are both more conventional mysteries. Winslow seems like a template for the later Puzzle Lady character -- a would-be sleuth who usually has mysteries fall into his lap and things get more complicated due to his unconventional tactics.
I think I like Winslow better than Felton or even Hastings, so attention Parnell Hall: resurrect the pen name and bring the character back. Create a different pen name for all I care. You can even take mine: Longfellow Noseworthy. I've used it to write a series of cookbooks and porn reviews for Poontang Monthly.