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review 2018-07-17 02:17
Chortling Towards Bethlehem? or We Are Amusing Ourselves to Death
Planet Funny: How Comedy Took Over Our Culture - Ken Jennings

This is going to be much shorter -- and much more vague --than it should have been, because I was in a rush to get out the door on the day I took this back to the library and therefore forgot to take my notes out of the book. Which is a crying shame because I can't cite some of my favorite lines (on the other hand, I don't have to pick from my favorites). I'm actually pretty annoyed with myself because of this -- I spent time on those notes.

 

I'm going to try to save a little time here and just copy the Publisher's synopsis:

 

From the brilliantly witty and exuberant New York Times bestselling author Ken Jennings, a history of humor—from fart jokes on clay Sumerian tablets all the way up to the latest Twitter gags and Facebook memes—that tells the story of how comedy came to rule the modern world.

 

For millennia of human history, the future belonged to the strong. To the parent who could kill the most animals with sticks and to the child who could survive the winter or the epidemic. When the Industrial Revolution came, masters of business efficiency prospered instead, and after that we placed our hope in scientific visionaries. Today, in a clear sign of evolution totally sliding off the rails, our most coveted trait is not strength or productivity or even innovation, but being funny. Yes, funniness.

 

Consider: presidential candidates now have to prepare funny "zingers" for debates. Newspaper headlines and church marquees, once fairly staid affairs, must now be “clever,” stuffed with puns and winks. Airline safety tutorials—those terrifying laminated cards about the possibilities of fire, explosion, depressurization, and drowning—have been replaced by joke-filled videos with multimillion-dollar budgets and dance routines.

In Planet Funny, Ken Jennings explores this brave new comedic world and what it means—or doesn’t—to be funny in it now. Tracing the evolution of humor from the caveman days to the bawdy middle-class antics of Chaucer to Monty Python’s game-changing silliness to the fast-paced meta-humor of The Simpsons, Jennings explains how we built our humor-saturated modern age, where lots of us get our news from comedy shows and a comic figure can even be elected President of the United States purely on showmanship. Entertaining, astounding, and completely head-scratching, Planet Funny is a full taxonomy of what spawned and defines the modern sense of humor.


In short, Jennings is writing about the way that humor -- the entertainment culture in general, really, but largely through humor -- has taken over the cultural discourse in this country, so much so that you can't make a serious point about anything anymore without injecting a smile or a laugh. This could be subtitled, Neil Postman was right. Jennings looks at this phenomenon through a historical lens (mostly over the last century) and a contemporary lens -- analyzing and commenting on both.

 

The initial chapters on defining humor, the history of humor and academic humor studies are probably the best part of the book -- not just because of their scope and subject matter, but because how Jennings is able to be amusing and insightful while informing. (although the amusing part is problematic given the thesis of the book). I enjoyed learning about the use of humor in the 20th Century -- who doesn't associate the two? I don't remember a time when the best advertisements/commercials weren't the funniest (other than things like the crying Native American anti-litter AdCouncil stuff). But there was actually a time when that was looked down on? Who knew?

 

I also particularly liked the history of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and then pivoting that into a look on the way even entertainment changed in the last few decades because of the funny-ification of all things. Jennings gives a pretty decent defense of Alanis' "Ironic" (while enjoying a few shots at it, too) -- and the ensuing discussion of Irony the cultural waves embracing and shying away from Irony, Enjoying things Ironically, and a need for sincerity was excellent.

 

Politics, obviously, has fallen prey to this comedy-take over as well. From Nixon shocking everyone by showing up on Laugh-In to Clinton (pre-presidential candidate) on The Tonight Show to then-candidate on The Arsenio Hall show to every political player doing Late Night shows. Obama appearing on Maron's podcast and Between Two Ferns (crediting that appearance with saving ObamaCare?) and onto the entire Trump campaign. At this point, the book got derailed -- I think -- by getting too political. If Jennings had kept it to Trump's embracing/exploiting the comedy takeover, I probably would have enjoyed it -- but he spent too much on Trump's politics (while having ignored Nixon's, Clinton's, Obama's), enough to turn off even Never-Trump types.

I'm pretty sure that the book was almost complete about the time that Louis CK's career was felled by allegations of sexual misconduct -- which is a shame, because Jennings had to go back and water-down a lot of insightful comments from Louis CK by saying something about the allegations while quoting the comedian. At the same time, it's good that the book wasn't completed and/or released without the chance to distance the man from the points used -- otherwise I think Jennings would've had to spend too much time defending the use of those quotations.

 

I think Jennings lost his way in the last chapter and a half or so -- and I lost a lot of my appreciation for the book as a whole at that point. On the whole, it's insightful writing, peppered with a good amount of analysis, research, interviews, and laughs -- outside of his weekly trivia newsletters, I haven't read Jennings and he really impressed me here. In short, it's a fun book, a thought-provoking book, and one that should get more attention and discussion than it is. I may quibble a bit with some of the details, but I think on the whole Jennings is on to something here -- and I fear that it's something that not enough people are going to take seriously until it's too late.

 

2018 Library Love Challenge

Source: irresponsiblereader.com/2018/07/16/planet-funny-by-ken-jennings-chortling-towards-bethlehem-or-we-are-amusing-ourselves-to-death
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text 2018-07-01 04:09
Iain M. Banks' Culture books - Question

Can these really be read in any order? I remember looking into this before reading The Player of Games, and the answer seemed to be "yes," but I know that sometimes even series you can jump into at just about any point have their minor exceptions.

 

Here's what I currently own, in what I think is the publication order:

 

Use of Weapons - Iain M. Banks  Excession - Iain M. Banks  Matter - Iain M. Banks  

Surface Detail - Iain M. Banks  The Hydrogen Sonata - Iain M. Banks  

 

I believe it was Tannat who recommended Excession to me. Would it be okay to read that, having only read The Player of Games before, or should I read Use of Weapons first? Or one of the books I don't yet own?

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review 2018-06-23 15:55
Is Death owned by Big Business?
The American Way of Death Revisited - Jessica Mitford

The American Way of Death Revisited by Jessica Mitford blew my freaking mind. There's no other way to say it. I took 4 pages of notes after finishing it and then bought my own copy so that I could reference back to it. As you might have guessed from the title this is another book about death culture and funeral practices in the United States. (Here are 3 more on the topic: Caitlin Doughty 1 & 2 and Bess Lovejoy.) Mitford gives a comprehensive look at the funeral industry in America up to the last update of her book in 1997. (A small portion of the book compares the US outlook on death with the UK and there is a stark difference.) She does not shy away from making her points about the injustices committed by those working in the funeral industry. She discusses the methods employed by everyone from funeral home directors to gravestone manufacturers. This book was a definite eyeopener in terms of what is actually legal when it comes to the handling of the dead. (Spoiler alert: pretty much everything.) 

Alas, poor Yorick! How surprised he would be to see how his counterpart of today is whisked off to a funeral parlor and is in short order sprayed, sliced, pierced, pickled, trussed, trimmed, creamed, waxed, painted, rouged, and neatly dressed - transformed from common corpse into a Beautiful Memory Picture. This process is known in the trade as embalming and restorative art, and is so universally employed in the United States and Canada that for years the funeral director did it routinely, without consulting corpse or kin. He regards as eccentric those few who are hardy enough to suggest that it might be dispensed with yet no law requires embalming, no religious doctrine commends it, nor is it dictated by considerations of health, sanitation, or even of personal daintiness. In no part of the world but in North America is it widely used. The purpose of embalming is to make the corpse presentable for viewing in a suitably costly container; and here too the funeral director routinely, without first consulting the family, prepares the body for public display. - pg 43

I include this lengthy quote (and another in a moment) to illustrate the importance of being educated about what your rights are both as the deceased and as the loved one making the arrangements after death. Mitford includes accounts of deliberate fraud by members of the funeral industry against the grieving. (Many funeral homes even include in their pricing grief counseling!) The frauds range from offering 'package deals' with no options for opting out, non-disclosed fees prior to invoicing, refusal to provide itemized statements for services, or inflation on pre-need arrangements (example: plots purchased well before death). I think this is a book that every single person should read because it discusses in depth a topic which is considered taboo in our country but until it is talked about openly and frankly as Mitford does the funeral industry under its many guises will continue to take advantage of the average consumer. Know your rights, people! 10/10

 

And speaking of rights I'd like to leave you with this bit of advice from the last chapter of Mitford's book:

Send a friend to two or more mortuaries to obtain their general price lists and casket prices. Ask for the cost of direct cremation, including transportation costs and crematory fees. Likewise, for the cost of immediate burial. Pay no money in advance. If death has not yet occurred and you wish to pay in installments, do so by setting up a Totten Trust, naming yourself or a relative or close friend as beneficiary. Remember, above all, that many funeral homes have a "no-walk" policy, which means simply that if and when you start to walk out, the fee will come down, down, down until a level acceptable to you is reached. - pg 274

 

 

What's Up Next: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Annie Barrows & Mary Ann Shaffer

 

What I'm Currently Reading: Condoleezza Rice: A memoir of my extraordinary, ordinary family and me by Condoleezza Rice

Source: readingfortheheckofit.blogspot.com
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review 2018-06-20 06:40
Difficult
Invisible Man - Ralph Ellison

On various fronts. The overarching subject, the sense of hopelessness, helplessness and despair, the long-winded, meandering way the story is told (which is on par with the idea that it is a stream-of-conscience recount), and the purpose way in which this guy's obliviousness is made plain (and cringe-inducing) for the reader (and the teller).

 

Found it brilliant, at points boring and quite maddening.

 

Oh, and I leave it with a feeling akin to what Catcher in the Rye left me.

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review 2018-06-02 23:02
Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture - Roxane Gay
Look, don't let my rating fool you. This is an important book; it should be required reading. I love the inclusion of both LGTB and male voices, and important. 

I just, and this isn't going to sound nice but, I just wish there had more culture, if that makes sense. While the bulk of the collection are personal essays, most of those are about writers who have survived rape. Which is fine, but those personal essays, by and large, are also about coming to the realizations about lack of victim blaming or the effect the attack had on the person later in life. Again fine, but the title mentions culture and that is lacking somewhat. The essays that are the better essays are the ones that connect more strongly to culture - such as those by Union, Stokes, Chen, and xTx.

But this book should be required reading
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