Saturday, January 07, 2006

The Areas of My Expertise (John Hodgman), by Guest Reviewer Jim

This is one of those eccentric books that defies classification; on the cover it bills itself as “An almanac of COMPLETE WORLD KNOWLEDGE compiled with instructive annotation and arranged in useful order by me, JOHN HODGMAN, a PROFESSIONAL WRITER, in THE AREAS OF MY EXPERTISE, WHICH INCLUDE: Matters Historical, Matters Literary, Matters Cryptozoological, Hobo Matters, Food, Drink & Cheese (a Kind of Food), Squirrels & Lobsters & Eels, Haircuts, Utopias, What Will Happen in the Future, and Most Other Subjects,” which is pretty good for starters.

Hodgman, who for those This American Life fans out there was also responsible for the brilliant "Flight vs. Invisibility" piece (available in streaming audio here and on their Crimebusters & Crossed Wires collection), and who also had a pretty funny recent appearance on the Daily Show, has turned out a lunatic and frequently hilarious invented collection of facts, historical essays, advice, predictions, and more (that it’s all made up is “an astonishing innovation that allows each entry to contain many more truths than if it were merely factual”), including entries like the following:

  • The Fifty-Five Dramatic Situations (“Young, handsome cyborg Army officer kills his own family, blames hippies”; “Snakes lie in wait”)
  • When Writing, Please Avoid These Failed Palindromes (“Slow speed: deep owls”)
  • Diversions for the Asthmatic Child Who Cannot Play in the Snow
  • History’s Worst Men’s Haircuts
  • Short Words for Use on Submarines to Preserve Oxygen (“Counsie: The staff Creative Writing Counselor”)
  • Nine Presidents Who Had Hooks for Hands
  • Colonial Jobs Involving Eels (“Once our nation’s rivers were glossy and black with majestic herds of eels, but they proved too tempting a food source, and many found them to be just too spooky to tolerate”)
Elsewhere can be found discussions of lobster-claw vs. pigeon-foot deformities, ninja cons, lycanthropic transformation timetables, methods of predicting the future, extensive elucidation of the Depression-era “hobo wars” (they succeeded only in taking the Secretary of the Treasury), and some of the greatest photos and Zen-like captions ever put to paper. Hodgman has a particular obsession with hoboes (“I am not talking about the unfortunate homeless souls who do not choose that life, but those few willful wanderers and train-riding tricksters who still believe the hobo wars are going on”), and had the sheer insanity or genius or both to include a now-infamous list of 700 hobo names.

You can’t fill 230 pages with this stuff and hit every time, and it slowed a bit chugging into the finish line, but I probably had a higher laugh-out-loud-per-page ratio with this than any book I’ve read in the last five years. And at long last I know how to interpret the ominous portent of a cat consorting with a skunk.

1 comment:

painlaw said...

Jim: I'd heard about this and checked it out on my personal bookstore (audible.com). Boooo... its abridged. Still, its 6 hours plus so it can't be that abridged, right? Does it translate well into sound only? (Books with heavy illustrations, e.g. Grant's Memoirs with all those battlefield maps) leave a lot to the imagination. --Dad
Ps: did you notice that spelling Pa-in-Law the way I did comes out Pain Law? Hmmm...