Book Review: Around Harvard Square C.J. Farley


Author: C.J. Farley
Title: Around Harvard Square
Publication Info: Brooklyn, NY : Black Sheep / Akashic Books, 2019.
Summary/Review:

I received a free copy of this book through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program.

This novel is narrated by Tosh, an African-American Freshman at Harvard who grew up in a small town in rural Upstate New York and is the first person in his family to go away for college.  He forms a friendship of outcasts with his roommate Lao, a student from China with a fear of robots, and Meera, an androgynous Indian student.  He also is attracted to the mysterious Zippa, a Jamaican student squatting in the trash room of his residence hall.

The trio of Tosh, Lao, and Meera take a philosophy course with an eccentric and provocative professor known as “the Chair.” They also get involved in a competition to get spots on the staff of the university humor magazine, the Harvard Harpoon.  The experience is a lot like rushing a fraternal organization with hazing rituals and cruel pranks.  Zippa appears first as something like a Greek chorus on what Tosh is doing and then later joins the action as a provocateur.

Many names in the novel are changed – like the Harpoon, which is substituted for the Lampoon – as are the names of prominent Harvard alumni, although it’s blatantly obvious who they are.  There’s also a book within the narrative called Around Harvard Square which is said to be a famous novel where all the names were changed, so that’s super-meta, I guess. The book is set in the 90s which is emphasized by each chapter being named for a 90s alternative rock  or hip hop song title.  But the dialogue in the book seems more like it’s from the 2010s.  Also, I may be stretching it here, but I see odd parallels between Tosh, Lao, and Meera with the leads in another school-based book set in the 90s, Harry, Ron, and Hermione.   Only 90s kids will understand.

I really want to love this book, because it is witty and the characters and the premise are a good start.  But unfortunately, the plot just jumps around, there are way too many coincidences, and the dialogue is like people practicing dialectics rather than natural speak.  The idea that privileged white people and the academic institutions that support them need to be taken down a peg is a good one (and super relevant reading this just after the college admissions scandal), but there’s no subtlety in this satire.

Recommended books:

Rating: **

TV Review: BoJack Horseman (2016)


TitleBoJack Horseman
Release Dates: 2016
Season: 3
Number of Episodes: 12
Summary/Review:  This is the third series of the animated Netflix show that is laugh out loud funny, acerbically satirical, emotionally raw, and thoroughly depressing.  Two plots are intertwined through the series: BoJack making the circuit of appearances in hopes of getting an Oscar nomination for the biopic of Secretariat and flashbacks to 2007 when BoJack helped create a tv show that flopped (kind of eerie how the show makes 2007 feel like a long time ago!).  Both plots deal with BoJack’s inability to feel happiness, his capacity for self-sabotage, and his unreliability to friends and colleagues.  Looking back on the season it seems so glum, it’s hard to remember that there was a lot to laugh about, but BoJack Horseman is all about using humor to peel back the most painful wounds.  The highpoint of the season is episode 4, “Fish Out of Water,” where BoJack goes to a film festival in a community under the sea and thus there’s almost no dialogue in the entire episode as the undersea world is brought to life with fantastic visuals, sound effects, and music.  It’s a tour-de-force in what is a really well-done season of television.

Related posts:

Hipsters Go Berserk


With apologies to Sandra Boynton on her birthday, here is a parody of a her classic picture book Hippos Go Berserk that I felt compelled to write.  I originally posted this on Facebook and several of my friends contributed, including: Steve W., Susan L., Christine R., Edward H., Chris D., Debbie W., Sid S., and Carolyn G.  I don’t have the skill to add illustrations to the text, but if you’re interested in drawing it up, have at it.  Just give credit where credit is due.

 

One hipster, all alone, texts two hipsters on an iPhone.

Three hipsters at the door, bring DVDs of mumblecore.

Four hipsters in fedoras sardonically talk about their auras.

Five hipsters with ironic facial hair wear bow ties and rock their flair.

Six hipsters pedal fixies while wearing tweed caps.

Seven hipsters sneak in some Pabst.

Eight hipsters with white girl dreads, proudly display their artisanal breads.

Nine hipsters get down and pretend to twerk.

 

ALL THE HIPSTERS WRYLY SHOUT “LET’S GO BERSERK!”

All through the hipster night, hipsters dance to Times New Viking,
but at the hipster break of day they seek tunes more to their liking.

 

Nine hipsters amble out the door making their way to a vinyl record store.

Eight hipsters then head west to make it to Coachella ahead of the rest.

Seven other hipsters thought it was best to head instead to SXSW.

Leaving behind six hipsters wearing skinny jeans that are quite distressed.

Five hipsters prepare for their northward treks by donning pairs of horn-rimmed specs.

Four hipsters move to a transitional ‘hood, avoiding Wal-Mart like no one else could.

Three hipsters, as was their wont, designed websites in a quirky, homemade font.

Two hipsters get their kicks applying filters to all their pics.

One hipster, alone once more, thinks all those hipsters were such a bore.

Movie Review: The LEGO Movie


Title: The LEGO Movie
Release Date: 7 February 2014
Director: Phil Lord, Christopher Miller
Production Co: Warner Bros. Pictures and Village Roadshow Pictures
Country: United States
Language: English
Genre: Animation | Adventure | Comedy
Rating: ****

You’re reading this correctly.  I’m reviewing a current film that’s in theatrical release right now.  My son and I went to see it yesterday.

The LEGO universe is an Orwellian dystopia, albeit a cheerful one as minifigures go about their days exulting in consumer excess and carefully following written instructions.   Emmett is an ordinary construction man who through a series of misadventures is believed to be the “Special” who will save the world from the evil President Business.  He joins a group of Master Builders – people who can build things using their imagination out of pieces they find around them rather than following the instructions – and heads off on a series of comical adventures.  What The Pirates of Caribbean was able to do for movies based on theme park rides, The Lego Movie does with movies based on toys (of course, it also owes a debt to the Toy Story franchise).  The movie works on several levels: a meta-commentary on LEGO toys and their collectors, a satire of consumer culture, a slapstick comedy, a post-modernist agglomeration of popular culture references, and a family adventure film. It really pieces together a lot of things (see what I did there) to make a movie more complex than it looks on that surface.  Oh and that surface is some really excellent animation of what a world of LEGO bricks would like.

Hollywood probably has boilerplate scripts for the “need to be an individual in a world of conformists” theme as well as the “we can succeed with teamwork” trope, but rarely to you see both of them brought together with nuance.  Another theme of “toys should be played with imaginatively like kids do” rings a bit hollow since LEGO has spent a lot in recent years targeting adult collectors. If I have any other criticisms of this movie is that the relentless pacing of the movie doesn’t ever let it breathe.  The only time it slows down is during the live action segments with The Man Upstairs, and I’ll contradict myself here because that part drags on a bit.  I’ll also sound like a cranky old codger when I say this, but I missed a lot of dialogue because it was drowned out by the music and sound effects.  That being said, these things are not likely to bother most audiences and I think this is an enjoyable film and an instant classic.

Some stray thoughts:

  • Benny the 80s-something space guy is my favorite because I had that set when I was a kid, right on down to the broken chin strap on the helmet.  I built some cool spaceships for him back in the day
  • Every time I see Will Arnett, I’m convinced someone else is doing his voice.  Now I know that it’s a Batman minifig.
  • Shaquille O’Neill, Anthony Daniels, and Billy Dee Williams could voice their own characters, but Harrison Ford could not?  Mark Hamill basically does voice acting for a living now, so maybe they should have found a place for him instead.
  • I want a bunk couch.
  • I expect “commence micromanagement” to become a catchphrase in offices across the nation.
  • Everything is AWESOME!!!  

Seriously can’t get this out of my head.  For a song so deliberately bad, it’s actually pretty good.

Movie Review: In The Loop


TitleIn The Loop
Release Date: 17 April 2009
Director: Armando Iannucci
Production Co: IFC Films,  BBC Films
Country: United Kingdom
Language: English
Genre: Comedy | Satire
Rating: ***

This satirical film depicts mid-level government officials in Britain and the US as they work towards declaring war against an unnamed Middle Eastern country (an obvious parody of the run-up to war with Iraq).  Some of them hope to avert the war due to the obvious holes in the rationale behind the invasion, but most of the characters simply want to do whatever will advance their careers.  Every character in this movie has sharp acerbic wit and insults are hurled left and right.  Kind of  a mix of The West Wing and The Office and Dr. Strangelove.   It is funny with a lot quotable dialogue.  On the other hand, the general mean-spiritedness of the affair leaves a bad feeling in my mouth.  Good performances by Peter Calpadi, Tom Hollander, Anna Chlumsky, James Gandolfini, and others carry the film.

Book Review: The Song of the Quarkbeast by Jasper Fforde


AuthorJasper Fforde
TitleThe Song of the Quarkbeast
Publication Info: Hodder & Stoughton Ltd (2011)
Summary/Review:

The second book in the Kazam series returns to Hereford where dictatorial King Snodd IV is looking to corner the market on magic.  The only person who can stop him appears to be Jennifer Strange, the orphan teenager who manages employment for a house of sorcerers.  In typical Fforde fashion, humorous and quirky events intertwine to bring this story to an entertaining resolution.  I look forward to reading more about Jennifer and her companions in future installments.

Rating: ***

Book Review: The Last Dragonslayer by Jasper Fforde


Author: Jasper Fforde
TitleThe Last Dragonslayer
Publication Info: London : Hodder & Stoughton, 2010.
Summary/Review:

This is the first in a series of books for young adults by the ever-so-brilliant Welsh author Jasper Fforde.  He sets his books in an alternate universe, this time a balkanized Britain the Ununited Kingdom, specifically the Kingdom of Snodd led by a cruel despot of a king.  In this world, magic is real with physical properties, but it has faded leaving many sorcerers near-powerless and only able to perform simple tasks or tricks.  Teenage orphan Jennifer Strange is tasked with finding work for a house of sorcerers called Kazam.  As the novel develops, it is revealed that Jennifer is destined to be The Last Dragonslayer, although she is not magical herself.  The problem is, she does not want to kill the dragons.  A brilliant and creative book from the mind of Fforde, it is a recommended read for teens and adults alike.

Rating: ****

If the Mets Were the Yankees


All eyes in the baseball world this week turn to Flushing, NY where the New York Mets play their final seven games at Shea Stadium.  The historic ballpark has been New York’s home for baseball memories since it opened in 1883 as home of the New York Giants.  Originally named the Polo Grounds, the old ballpark has been home for the Giants of baseball and football, the Mets, the Jets, and even the Yankees from 1912-22 and again in the mid-1970’s.  The Mets arrived in 1962, and after rehabilitation and minor relocation of the playing field in 1964, the Polo Grounds was renamed Shea Stadium after lawyer William Shea who brought National League baseball to New York.

Fans fondly look back on 125 years of Shea Stadium history from the Merkle Boner to the Shot Heard Around the World, from Willie’s basket catch to the Beatles, and from the Miracle Mets of 1969 to Mookie’s dribbler past Buckner.  Mets ownership have been credited with great judgement for keeping this historic landmark functional for so many years, especially after their crosstown rival Yankees demolished their historic Stadium in 1973.  The new Yankee Stadium which opened in 1976 has been described by an architecural critic as “a monstrosity of 70’s-era cookie cutter design.”

Still, the time for the old ballpark has come and the Mets prepare to move to their “new” home, Citifield in 2009.  Citifield, originally known as Ebbets Field was built in 1913 and was home to the Brooklyn Dodgers until 1957 and has remained vacant since then except for some local stickball league games.  Not only is Citifield 30-years younger than the Mets soon-to-be former home, but has been fully renovated with a reoriented playing field for the Mets and their fans.  Mets management look forward to making more history at the same ballpark where Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier.

Movie Review: Network (1976)


In 2019 I found some old Word documents with movie reviews I wrote back before I had a blog. I’m posting each review backdated to the day I wrote it.

Title: Network
Release Date: November 27, 1976
Director: Sidney Lumet
Production Company:  Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Summary/Review:

A movie made in 1976, it is both dated and timely, and at times positively prescient.  Dated because the technology and fashions of 1976 seem woefully inadequate compared to today’s hi-tech glitz.  Timely, because it takes on the issue of whether news is information or entertainment, and whether newscasters are delivering the news or preaching a gospel.  Prescient, because although this movie was made to be a satire, in some ways it could be a documentary on news networks today.  Howard Beale, the “mad prophet of the airwaves” is not too far removed from today’s angry on-air pundits.  A TV show about a left-wing terrorist group’s escapades precedes reality TV by 25 years.  Ned Beatty’s frightening monologue about the Saudis and corporations even summarizes the greater power that country and big companies have in the US political process in recent years.  The first part of the movie showing Howard Beale’s demise and the cynical use of the television network execs to use his madness to boost ratings is the better part of the movie.  The second part of the movie gets bogged down in a subplot about Howard’s friend Max and the program director Diane getting involved in an extramarital affair.  I suppose it’s all supposed to be a comic parody of how Diane scripts everything including her own life, but the scenes are hurt by the overly self-referential dialogue and misogyny. The fact that Faye Dunaway (who plays Diane) can’t act a lick doesn’t help these scenes either. The aforementioned Beatty monologue and a hilarious scene where TV execs and Marxists discuss how they will share the profits of their TV show save the second half of the movie. An interesting footnote, the phrase “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” is Howard Beale’s catchphrase is in wide circulation today, but apparently originated in this film

Rating: ****