BOOK REVIEW: What the Hell Did I Just Read by David Wong

What the Hell Did I Just Read (John Dies at the End, #3)What the Hell Did I Just Read by David Wong
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is the third installment in a trilogy that began with “John Dies at the End.” The series takes place in an undisclosed and rundown Midwestern town that is prone to various catastrophic supernatural shenanigans. It’s a humor-horror cross-genre work that is heavier on the former than the latter by virtue of the fact that the tone is consistently lightened by the duo of doofuses’ jokes and unreliable narration – often in the face of apparently calamitous events.

In the first book, the narrator, David, and the titular character, John, consume a drug (street-named “Soy Sauce”) that gives them the ability to see supernatural phenomena to which the general citizenry are blind. This book continues with that idea, but — given their experience with supernatural happenings, limited as it may be – they’ve become paranormal investigators of sorts (usually unpaid and sometimes without anyone asking for their services.) Also, Amy becomes not only a more firmly established love interest to David, but also a full-fledged member of the team – albeit the one that plays straight-[wo]man to the buffoonery of the other two.

The central event in this story is a child abduction that turns into a chain of abductions, but soon it becomes in doubt whether the children ever existed in the first place – or whether they are mass delusions implanted by a monstrous source. The book unfolds as the story of the trio trying to find the “children,” to find out what their true nature is, and then to figure out what to do about them. The villain’s henchman is capable of shape-shifting and takes several forms throughout the book – including that of David, thus casting suspicion upon him.

The author takes an interesting approach to perspective. The perspective shifts between David, John, and Amy, but only the David parts are written in first person (John and Amy are allotted sections from their perspective, but they are written in third-person limited perspective.) There are section headings to clarify whose perspective is being used and so it’s not hard to follow (even context would provide a great clue.) The shifting perspectives serves three purposes. First, one can see points in time during which David is not present, allowing the team to divide and conquer and for humorous confusion to be exploited. Second, it allows one to see the difference between the various accounts of the same event, which is helpful in building confidence about what actually happened — given the unreliable narration. Third, it allows for unreliable narration to be used for comedic effect. John, in particular, is famous for being especially unreliable among the unreliable narrators, though most of his embellishment is along sexual lines. [Amy is the most reliable in that she isn’t prone to flights of fancy. However, she has no ability to see through the shapeshifters and implanted hallucinations, and so she might – in fact — be the least reliable.]

There is not a strong and satisfying conclusion to the story. In part, this is because it’s not entirely clear what really transpired. We know at the end that there is another version of events out there, an account written by a scholar of the paranormal who is a secondary character in the latter half of the book. However, it also seems that the author tries to end one the lesson that sometimes the best thing to do is to wait and see, and not create problems by one’s need to be active. That is a fine lesson, but it doesn’t make for a satisfying conclusion to the story. There is also a muddled motivation of the “missing children.” I don’t think this lack of a definitive ending is about setting up a fourth entry in the series because the author states only vague intentions to (possibly) continue the series at some undefined point in the future. I also don’t think it’s a matter of having painted himself into a corner, but it maybe that he’s trying to say something about what really happened that I didn’t actually get. That’s a risk with so much going on in a multi-perspective, unreliably-narrated book.

There is a humorous attempt to engage with the challenge of mental illness, with John and Amy encouraging David to get help toward the end of the book. [This is also addressed in the epilogue.]

This is certainly a fun read. It’s humorous throughout. The story isn’t the strongest (or perhaps isn’t the clearest.) If you’ve read the other books, or at least the first one, and enjoyed it, I’d recommend you give this one a look.

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Literally: the Dumbest Poem Ever

He held half-baked ideas in
his twice-baked brain.

He’d grab his umbrella when they
shouted, “Make it rain!”

–the umbrella he should have left for a
friend stuck home under the weather.

But his glasses were bent out of shape, and
he was hell-bent for leather

So, he couldn’t find his coat, nor gloves,
nor ass-less chaps.

And, thus, was running better late
than never — perhaps.

He couldn’t afford to miss the boat
that had sailed, my friend.

He needed his job, ’cause a penny
earned was one he’d spend.

When told he was skating on thin ice,
he maxxed out the AC.

All his blessings were disguised too
well for him to see.

He’d thought he was okay when told
he had stiff competition.

–the nuns taught him to fix that with six
Hail Marys and an Act of Contrition.

But they said his co-workers were
really on the ball.

He’d have gotten a Pilates chair,
but was afraid to fall.

When he heard the new guy was up-and-coming,
he got up and left.

He wanted to be thick as thieves so he
went out for a supply closet theft.

POEM: Rubber Ducky [Day 21 NaPoMo: Lai]

[There isn’t as much agreement about the form of this French style — compared to other styles I’ve done so far (e.g. sonnets, haiku, sestinas, etc.) Adding to the complication, there are similarly named styles with much different forms. Suffice it to say here, the version of Lai that I’m doing is a 9-lined poem with a rhyme scheme of aabaabaab, a meter of 2.5 / 2.5 / 1 feet (i.e. 5 syllables – 5 syllables – 2 syllables,) and a narrative element.]


Mister Rubber Duck,
They say you have luck.
It’s true!
Though you may show pluck,
you taste rubber, Yuck!
So you
won’t be hung up plucked
like that Peking schmuck.
Adieu.

POEM: The Revolution of Donald Duck & the Anchormen

Oh! Cast off these khaki shackles!

Like Don Duck, pants raise my hackles.

I’d chuck my slacks in the river Styx,

show all Hades my bag of tricks.

No more this prison for my loins,

and hear these words that I enjoin:

DOWN WITH PANTS!

DOWN WITH PANTS!

DOWN WITH PANTS!

POEM: Kool-Aid Gets A Bad Rap

I’m told The Kool-Aid Man was seen busting through this wall moments before my arrival, but I can neither confirm nor deny it.

They say, “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid!”

It’s because the 919 people at Jonestown who did so died of cyanide poisoning.

Except they didn’t.

Well, they definitely died, but they didn’t drink Kool-Aid.

They drank “Flavor Aid.”

You see, Jim Jones has been accused of many things,

but not being frugal in the conduct of mass murder isn’t one of them.

Why use the name-brand when everyone is going to keel over by cup’s end?

Now, Ken Kesey did use genuine Kool-Aid in his acid tests —

dubbed “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Tests” by Tom Wolfe —

because he knew the people he was feeding LSD would live,

if, perhaps, zoinked out of their ever-loving Fahrvergnügen,

and he wanted them to have a quality simulated fruit flavor experience.

I’ve been told many times not to drink the Kool-Aid,

but I can’t say that I’ve been given Kool-Aid with anything in it —

well, other than water, a crap-ton of sugar, and whatever Kool-Aid is made of —

which I assume is similar to the non-liquid ingredients in spray paint.

[And no fatalities have ever been proven in building collapses involving The Kool-Aid Man.]

BOOK REVIEW: Candy by Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg

CandyCandy by Terry Southern
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The protagonist of this story, Candy Christian, is a caricature of a flighty, young beauty with daddy issues. Candy’s personality mixes cringe-worthy naivete with an endearing – if unjustified – optimism about the virtue of men. This, combine with her laudable but exploitable desire to render assistance, leads to a chain of events in which her trusting nature is repeatedly manipulated, usually without her ever becoming aware she’s been duped (or, at least, without it being admitted to the reader.)

This book claims to be a satire on Voltaire’s “Candide.” While readers may find varying degrees of commonality between the books, they do share some common ground. Both start with the protagonist being educated by a philosopher. In Candide’s case, it is Pangloss (i.e. “all talk”) who insists that Candide lives in the best of all possible worlds. In Candy’s case, it’s Dr. Mephesto (i.e. presumably derived from the Germanic demon “Mephestopheles” whose name means something like “scatterer of lies,”) and Candy’s philosophy teacher harps on the point that a person must find meaning in service, and to be willing to demonstrate that service as – of course – an attempt to bed Candy.

The books are also both episodic, jumping from location to location with adventures occurring at each locale. However, this episodic nature starts late in “Candy,” with the first two-thirds or so taking place in her hometown (Racine, WI) and – only then going on the move. Despite the availability of air travel, Candy doesn’t get around as much as Candide, though she does finish her journey at a Tibetan monastery. Both books have also been classified as being of the “education of a youth” (i.e. Bildungsroman) variety. However, they both have also been criticized on the basis that there wasn’t much of value learned by the lead. That said, Candide offers a clear moral to end the story, whereas Candy’s takeaway is in a more ambiguous twist ending.

“Candy” (the book) hinges on more than one absurd turn of events, but given that the genre is humor, I had no problem with that. [Even Shakespeare, in works like “The Comedy of Errors,” asks one to suspend disbelief in exchange for a laugh and some solid entertainment.]

I will point out one last similarity between “Candide” and “Candy,” they have both frequently been banned on the basis of moral arguments. Which brings me to to a couple warnings. If it’s not been made clear to this point, this book is sexually graphic, and individuals troubled by that may want to avoid it. The other class of reader who may be offended by the work are those disturbed by the book’s frequent victory of exploitative characters. In some ways, the book shares as much in common with Marquis de Sade’s “Justine” as it does with “Candide.” While the tone isn’t at all dark like Sade’s book, the story does suggest that world order is such that the weak and naïve will repeatedly be exploited by the strong and amoral.

I found the book to be humorous. The story is intriguing and well-developed, and – if one can suspend one’s disbelief regarding a few of the more absurd events – the reader will find it engaging. It’s not always a comforting read, but if you don’t mind (or enjoy) that condition, then you’ll likely to find it a pleasant read.

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BOOK REVIEW: Seven Samurai Swept Away in a River by Jung Young Moon

Seven Samurai Swept Away in a RiverSeven Samurai Swept Away in a River by Jung Young Moon
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Full-disclosure: I enjoy writing that’s quirky and rambling as long as it jettisons pretension and brings in some whimsicality. This book by Jung Young Moon plays into that wheelhouse. If you’re expecting a novel with a story arc and character development, you may not like what you find. Personally, I wouldn’t call this a novel (though the author does,) but it’s one of those books that defies neat categorization. I’d call it creative nonfiction, and – more specifically – an “essay of essays,” which is to distinguish it from an essay collection. [Comparing it to fiction, it would be more like a novel-in-short stories than a collection of stories.] The author’s own words about how the book was composed are more insightful than my own, he called it, “… a mixture of stream of consciousness technique, the paralysis of consciousness technique, and the derangement of consciousness technique…” [As far as I know, the latter two are his own designations.]

Saying the book is rambling (and “pointless” in the best sense of that word) isn’t to suggest that the book lacks a theme. It’s a Korean’s take on things Texan after having spent a substantial amount of time there. But that Korean take on Texas is given an added twist into interesting territory by this particular Korean’s off-beat worldview. So, while many writer’s have considered the psychology, motives, and possible conspiratorial links of Jack Ruby (the assassin of JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald), Jung focuses on the issue of Ruby leaving his dogs in the car while he went to shoot Oswald. The author discusses the book as though it – like the sit-com “Seinfeld” – is about nothing, but I think it’s more about a chain of somethings turned on their heads and viewed through a fun-house mirror.

While the Seven Samurai are referenced in the title and are discussed at various points throughout the book, it’s more as a reminiscence than a throughline. That is, if one is expecting any great insight into Akira Kurosawa’s masterwork – either its story or as a film – that’s not how Jung uses the reference. He does talk in detail about cowboys and cowboy-ness. That may seem like a rough segue, but film fans may see a connection. Kurosawa’s film was famously the basis for the Western, “The Magnificent Seven.” I think there’s a connection in the broad appeal of machismo that both samurai cinema and Texas draw upon. [But maybe it was just some sweet alliteration for use in the title.]

I enjoyed this book immensely and would highly recommend it – except for readers who require order or who insist a book make a point. It’s humorous by way of strange lines of thinking and an alien outlook on a singular culture.

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POEM: Forced Philosophizing

Life makes philosophers of us all.

You’re forced to decide how you will know your truth.

And it is “your truth,” or “my truth.”

We are powerless to determine THE truth, having only a limited capacity to even discern it.

“Your truth” is the concoction of fact and fiction by which you dance through life.

Now, you may say,

“Life may force me to be a liar, a whore, and a scoundrel, but I’ll never stand for it to make me a philosopher!”

Maybe you think you can side-step philosophy by taking answers straight from science, scripture, or lockstep walking with your tribe, but making that decision has still forced you to philosophize.

No matter what default you choose, knowledge of truth will remain limited and sometimes faulty.

I favor holding truths like an intact bird’s egg found fallen out of a nest — careful not to grasp too tightly for fear of either crushing it or having a misidentified velociraptor chick pop out and bite off my thumb.

I can’t say that this is a better approach than those who hold truths in the way of a rodeo rider with a dislocated elbow and shoulder who — never-the-less — stayed his eight.

It’s not just in matters of truth and knowledge that we are forced to philosophize.

One also has to determine what constitutes a virtuous life, and to what degree one finds chasing said path worth the effort. Again, the choice to outsource future thought to a holy book is still an act of philosophizing.

I understand that most people don’t want to be seen as a philosopher anymore than than they would want to be seen as a masochist — a lifestyle which bears something in common with philosophy.

After all, the philosopher is one who insists on engaging in rigorous and tedious thought on subjects that offer no right answers — just a huge slate of equally least-worst options.

If she wanted to engage in such thought AND uncover the right answer, she’d be a scientist.

If he wanted to wax eloquent on his love of living in the dark, he’d study language or literature.

But the philosopher likes his thought like he likes his tragic figures of Greek mythology –Sisyphean.

POEM: Softening a Blow with Poetry

Nothing, these days, sounds mean or terse,
if you put it in metered verse.
Rhymes make a “screw you” whimsical,
not hostile or inimical.

So if you’d like to ride the fence,
and give insults benign pretense,
just rhyme your lines and count your feet,
they’ll think it jest and call it sweet.

[Ex. 1]
Your breath is Death on crack and meth
gone ten days without a shower.
It’d stop a clock and kill the hour.
“What foul winds blow?” It is your breath.

[Ex. 2]
To say you’re dumber than a post
gives the post too much room to boast.
I’d liken your wits more to toast,
but
one day you’ll be sharp as pot roast.

So if you need make libel or slander,
you can do it with the utmost candor,
if you can make the barb zing like a song,
they will drop their riposte and sing along