Weird Al's Word Crimes

I was a latecomer to Weird Al Yankovic; fellow geeks at KansasFest 1999 spoke highly of his Running With Scissors tour, but that high a recommendation didn't prompt me to seek out his work. It wasn't until July 24, 2006, when I got his Poodle Hat and Bad Hair Day albums in a bundle deal with the stuff I actually wanted, that I came to appreciate his parodies and weird sense of humor. (His collaboration with RiffTrax on Jurassic Park certainly didn't hurt.)

Al's latest album, Mandatory Fun, released today and is being promoted with a new music video every day of the week. The first is "Word Crimes", which crams into less than four minutes some of the most annoying, grating, and prevalent abuses of the English language.

I doubt this video will be effective in correcting these common misuses, leaving me to wonder: is Weird Al parodying English abusers… or grammar nazis?

(Hat tip to Javier Moreno via Zach Giordano and Donna Sussman)

UPDATE (May 20, 2016): Weird Al performed this song on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert!


Review: Machine of Death

Machine of Death: A Collection of Stories About People Who Know How They Will Die (Machine of Death #1)Machine of Death: A Collection of Stories About People Who Know How They Will Die, edited by Ryan North

A machine that tells you how you die, in vague yet accurate terms. It is never wrong, and your fate cannot be avoided. This anthology collects individual stories of people who encounter this machine. Although all the tales have the machine's functionality in common, there is no one persistent world: sometimes the machine is dismissed as a novelty; other times, an entire society will remodel itself around the predictions. For one couple, the machine means doom; for another, it brings hope.

I loved the variety of these 33 stories, each starting with an illustration and a prediction that somehow relates to the story, serving as its title. My favorite was "Almond", followed by:

  • Torn Apart and Devoured by Lion
  • Despair
  • Suicide
  • Aneurysm
  • Nothing
  • Miscarriage

and, of course, "HIV Infection from Machine of Death Needle".

There was honestly not a bad story in the lot, but my least favorites were "Not Waving but Drowning", "Improperly Prepared Blowfish", "Love Ad Nauseum", and "Drowning".

Each story left me a degree of chilled. What would I do if faced with such an opportunity? Would I learn of my fate, or leave it unknown? How would I react to knowing how I'd die? Would my actions to avoid the prophecy serve only to fulfill it? Would I take up arms in protest of the machine? I hope I never need to know. I've already picked up from the library the sequel, This Is How You Die, and look forward to absorbing more macabre tales.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Review: Still Foolin' 'Em

Still Foolin' 'Em: Where I've Been, Where I'm Going, and Where the Hell Are My KeysStill Foolin' 'Em: Where I've Been, Where I'm Going, and Where the Hell Are My Keys by Billy Crystal

Billy Crystal seems to be one of the few upright, sincere, and trustworthy celebrities in Hollywood. He had led an incredible life without being sensationalist, as we learn in this biography, from his time on the stand-up comedy circuit to his break into TV and movies and his unlikely friendships with childhood heroes Mickey Mantle and Muhammad Ali. Interspersed are some opinionated tangents on social, political, philosophical, and familial topics, which break up the narrative neatly.

Few books make me literally laugh out loud; Crystal's book did it four times in the first ten pages. Although not every chapter was that concentrated with funny, it was still an enjoyable read that drove me to seek out some of his film works that I've previously missed, like Running Scared and 61*.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Review: The Night Sessions

The Night SessionsThe Night Sessions by Ken MacLeod

I can't remember the last time I bothered finishing a book I liked this little.

Much of my dislike comes from too many or too few details. There were a lot of threads interwoven throughout this police procedural, and although the author tied them all together, the crimes feel more spread out than necessary; it didn't follow that the perpetrator would go from Crime A and Crime B to Crime Z. Other unexplained details include the space elevators and soletas, which cast a shadow over the entire novel, but their function and value are never adequately represented. The religious aspects are adequately explained, but I feel like it requires some significant background knowledge to appreciate them.

Finally, I found it incredibly disruptive that changes in scenes flowed right from one paragraph to the next. There was no break between a character in a bar and another in a police station; or a character suddenly talking to someone who wasn't there a moment ago. I assumed this was a printing error, as what author would be this hostile to his readers? But other reviewers' similar comments on other editions of this book suggest it was in fact intentional.

I'm not a fan of procedurals in general but hoped the sci-fi elements of this book would be enough for me to enjoy it. They weren't.

My rating: 2 of 5 stars


Review: The Gettysburg Address

The Gettysburg Address: A Graphic AdaptationThe Gettysburg Address: A Graphic Adaptation by Jonathan Hennessey & Aaron McConnell

I found this book revelational. Broken down into chapters named after passages of the Gettysburg Address, the book covers much more than the titular speech, from the founding of our country to the motivations and consequences of the Civil War. My education in American history is sorely lacking, and The Gettysburg Address taught me many things that I'd never spent much time thinking about: the discrepancies between the Declaration and the Constitution; why slavery abounded in the South but not the North; how the Battle of Gettysburg was won; how Lincoln's assassination negatively affected the post-war reconciliation between the states. I lack the knowledge to be a critical reader of history and so cannot confidently identify where this book falls short. But I do recommend this graphic novel as an easy and enjoyable way to learn more than what an elementary education taught us.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Review: The Moth

The MothThe Moth edited by Catherine Burns

I'm a big fan of The Moth. Ever since a friend introduced me to the podcast in May 2012, I've listened to every show and attended every local event I could. Despite that, I was originally uninterested in the book — the spoken medium doesn't always translate well to transcription. But a promotion offered two $18 tickets to their next show when preordering the $10 book, so I picked it up as a money-saving move.

The book contains 50 stories that they promise aren't necessarily the best, but are those that lend themselves well to the written word, with only light editing. These stories are taken from the mainstage show and thus are told by the likes of President Clinton's press secretary, astronaut Michael Massimino, rapper Run DMC, and others. Although these stories had at their core values we can all relate to — being alone, being afraid — I still found it a bit hard to penetrate the world of celebrity. (That some of the stories are by Moth staff, and the book has a preface, a forward, and an introduction, further contributes to the self-congratulatory air.)

I'd previously heard 14 of the 50 stories on the audio podcast so skipped those. The ones I did read, I could tell they were originally spoken: plenty of sentences begin with "And", I don't think much would've been lost if these transitions had been eliminated in the editing.

This ain't a bad book — but for the true experience, The Moth should be heard, not seen.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Review: Blackdog

BlackdogBlackdog by K.V. Johansen

I first discovered Blackdog in Charlie Jane Anders' review on io9: "By all the Gods, this standalone epic fantasy novel is a fun ride". The first 50 pages of this book really pulled me in: it starts with a great action sequence and an interesting mythology. But after that, it just plodded. The book is called Blackdog, yet pages 100–200 focus on other characters entirely, none of them interesting. There are four different narrative threads through this book, but they don't begin to weave together until the last 100 pages. And despite everything happening slowly, the author's love of commas makes for some very long, dense sentences, as if everything that can be said must be said.

After seeing the book through to its lengthy end, I expected an exciting, dramatic climax. But the final battle is over in a heartbeat, and the repercussions seem trivial and vague, offering little payoff on my investment. I can't recommend this book.

My rating: 2 of 5 stars


Review: These Days by Jack Cheng

These DaysThese Days by Jack Cheng

I am seldom a reader of fiction that is not rooted in fantasy or science, so books set in our modern world are foreign to me. So I was pleasantly surprised to find how engaging These Days was. Author Jack Cheng has a fluid narrative that is colorful and evocative of New York City and the characters' physical sensations. Reading a book where the events are realistic — two twenty-somethings meet, one who's planning his future, the other who's escaping her past — was actually a refreshing change and gave me ideas for my own life.

The characters were also very relatable, at least on a personal level. I saw much of myself in the protagonist, Connor: makes his living online, connected to the social web, and perhaps a bit naive and needy in relationships. But I also related to his love interest, K, who never carries a cell phone and enjoys her time offline. It was in fact that technological divide between the love interests that led me to originally back Cheng's Kickstarter to self-publish this book.

But this is not "a story about technology", as the crowdfunding video suggested. Connor uses technology to distract himself from the present but capture and relive the past, through photos, videos, tweets, and status updates. K, by contrast, is all about living in the moment but wants desperately to forget her own history. The scene describing her motivation for doing so was so evocative, I cried — I can't remember the last book to have that effect on me. These are the true challenges the characters are facing.

The book takes us through several anecdotes that demonstrate these opposing philosophies, but the narrative never really builds. Connor hates his job, quits, and gets a new one. He doesn't like his new job, thinks about quitting, but decides to stick around. He and K go out to dinner and have a conversation. They ride on the subway and make observations about the other commuters. With the exception of some flashbacks that are occasionally hard to place in the tale's chronology, it's vignette after vignette, without any real momentum.

That's why the novel's ending came as such a shock. And again, it's one I relate to personally, as something nearly identical happened to me, which may color my reception of the book. I look to fiction to vicariously experience situations I've not yet encountered and to get into other people's heads and learn how they feel, that I might better empathize. But These Days offered neither alternative to, nor insight into, reality. I had hoped that the message would be either "Things don't have to be this way" as I find in the unreal fiction I normally gravitate to, or at the very least, "Things are this way, but here's why". I received neither source of closure from this book. It was an abrupt and heartless ending that left me unsure why anything had just happened, what the characters' motivations had been, or what either of them was supposed to learn from this experience or how they were expected to grow from it.

I normally dive right from book to book, but I was preoccupied with These Days for days afterward. Perhaps that's a sign of a good book, that it stays with you and makes you think. But, like Connor, I don't know what just happened, and I don't know that I ever will.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars