Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Brief Book Notes

A few short notes on some stuff I've read of late:

:: Last Words: A Memoir is the autobiography of George Carlin. Apparently he collaborated over quite a few years with writer Tony Hendra to write this book; after Carlin's death, Hendra apparently put his notes together and produced this book. I would have liked to quote a few passages -- Carlin's wonderful way with words shines forth in this book -- but I already returned the book to the library, and anyway, I'm not sure which passages I could quote and still keep this blog PG-13. Oh well. In brief, let me just note that this is a great read for anyone who liked Carlin and would like to hear some insight as to the evolution of his comedy over the years. What struck me throughout was the optimistic tone of the book, which stands a bit at odds with more than a little of the content of Carlin's work over the last seven or eight years of his life. To go by what he recorded on his albums and in his HBO specials, Carlin became very bitter and cynical toward the end; but to go by this book, he was not really bitter or cynical at all, or at least he wasn't the cranky persona he had on stage in real life.

It's always a bit strange to read these autobiographies of people who were writing them at the time they died. There's no real sense that they're trying to sum things up; they merely figure that they've lived a good long while and want to get some of it down on paper before they go right on living. Carlin refers to a Broadway project he was starting to think seriously about; he refers to continuing to work and record and revise his material. I was reminded of the memoirs of Sir Georg Solti, which were likewise published shortly after Solti's death; at the end of the book, Solti talks about his plans for years to come and pieces he planned to conduct and the like. Performances that never came to pass.

:: One of the cleverest bits of cover art graces the new book The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History, by John Ortved. The picture is a chalkboard, on which some kid -- presumably Bart -- has had to write, "I will not write an unauthorized, uncensored history of The Simpsons. I will not write an unauthorized, uncensored history of The Simpsons. I will not write...." Pretty funny.

This book is mostly transcribed audio history, told in extended quotes from people who have been intimately involved in the making of The Simpsons over the twenty years the show (and, before the show, the shorts on the Tracey Ullman Show). The book is endlessly fascinating (especially for me, a longtime Simpsons fan), and it's truly amazing to note the sheer number of creative people who have come through the show's writers' room. This is a show that's been around for two decades, so there are a lot of people to talk to.

Interestingly, there isn't that much backstage drama with The Simpsons. Sure, there are clashes of personality and conflicts, but nothing really major. People come, work on a beloved show for a while, and then leave. And if they're on the show during the last bunch of years, they do this while constantly hearing how their work isn't nearly as good as the work of those who were there before.

Readers hoping for lots of comic insight into the show may be disappointed. The book is almost exclusively "Inside Baseball", and mostly only mentions specific episodes in passing. One notable thing that I never knew was that the episode in which there's a delusional character who thinks he's Michael Jackson was actually voiced by Michael Jackson. The story behind how this came to be is the type of thing one finds in this book. It's well worth reading.

:: In a disappointing note, I have to report that I bounced off a fantasy book called Across the Face of the World, by Russell Kirkpatrick. I set it aside after about the 120-page mark. It was shaping up to be your typical Fat Fantasy kind of plot; the book opens in a small village in a distant corner of an ancient kingdom (or set of kingdoms), as word is received of a great malevolence arising off to the East. Our main hero is a kid who, I suspect, turns out to be far more than a farm boy. The characters just weren't grabbing me, unfortunately.

I wanted to like this book, on two bases: first of all, the cover art is terrific. It's offbeat, different from the normal kind of thing one sees on the cover of such a tale. Second, the maps in the book are drawn to very impressive detail, with lots of topographic detail given. If only I'd felt any degree of sympathy or interest for the characters! (But I've often bounced off a book only to come to love it on a re-read years later, so we'll see.)

And that's all for now.

1 comment:

Thee Earl of Obvious said...

Regarding The Simpsons, I would like to know what went on with the writers when they discussed Barney's sobriety, and how they came to the decision to actually kill Maude Flanders.