Wednesday, October 20, 2010

"Last Night at the Lobster" by Stewart O'Nan

Ever have a job where despite things like lack of a decent wage or work that seemed to make you feel like a slave in some gulag, you couldn't help but enjoy the fact that at least you were surrounded by people you enjoyed (maybe even loved)?  Last Night at the Lobster chronicles one night in the lives of a bunch of people who feel that same way, the only difference is this night in particular is their last together as a team.

We open with Manny DeLeon, the protagonist and our viewpoint through which we experience this story, getting high on a crack pipe in his car before work.  With this introduction, as well as throughout the book, we learn that Manny isn't the best role model in the world outside of his job.  On the job, is another story, as we see Manny marshall the troops and endure walk-outs, no-shows, pushy customers, lingering feelings for a mistress he once had a fling with, and his own musings on just where the Hell this last night leaves him anyway.  Not to mention, he needs to find "the perfect gift" for his pregnant girlfriend and make sure nobody's cleaning the restaurant out of important things like alcohol or food.  As if his problems weren't numerous enough.

While the book is predominantly a somber drama, it does have its slight moments of humor.  For the most part, Last Night at the Lobster is a meditative drama that makes us think about how much of our personalities are because of our job, and vice versa.  Manny has an unshakable sense of duty to "the Lobster", but yet that type of loyalty is lacking in his personal life.  It seems as if he knows how to deal with the people in the Lobster more than he knows how to deal with them outside of it.  Also, the book takes advantage of a more real time approach by using all 160 pages to explore the entire narrative through line from one character's perspective through an entire double shift.  This leads to a more intimate story, and a more personally invested one that leaves you almost sad when the ending comes.  I for one wished the story was longer:  not because I was unsatisfied, but because I wanted to spend more time with Manny.

Last Night at the Lobster is a quick read that hits emotional highs and lows over the course of several hours of work.  It wastes no pages on preliminary exposition, allowing us to pick things up as they are mentioned; which is the Cherry on the story's sundae of organic storytelling.  Overall, it is one of the most reality based books I've ever read.  There are no short cuts, no oversights, and no easy endings.  Everything is earned, and in the end it is more endearing of a story for telling us the sad, somber truth than lying to us with a cookie cutter happy ending.

Monday, October 18, 2010

"Two Gentlemen of Lebowski" by Adam Bertocci

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book from the fine folks at Simon and Schuster, particularly my Publicity point of contact Jessica Abell. I'm not getting paid for this, I just do it out of the enjoyment of reading.

"Fuck it, Dude.  Let's go bowling." - Walter Sobchack

"The Big Lebowski", upon its initial release, was a dud.  For some reason the theatrical audiences of 1998 weren't ready for a "Film Noir meets Stoner Picture" mashup reminiscent of Elmore Leonard.  Considering Get Shorty was mildly successful years prior, one would assume that this could have been a bigger hit.  Both are criminally centered, both feature almost anti hero protagonists, and both had casts that were well equipped to pull off their respective roles.  The only difference was that everything about The Big Lebowski wasn't as big as it is today.  Now, it's an oft quoted work of filmic glory that featured Julianne Moore and Phillip Seymour Hoffman (before they were mostly Indie/Prestige Picture Players), Tara Reid (before she was in rehab), and Jeff Bridges (in a role that probably started the build-up to his comeback that would eventually come to fruition in Crazy Heart)...all before they moved on to bigger, better things.

"A pox upon't, Knave; let us play at ninepins." - Sir Walter of Poland

Archaic translation has been a pretty popular source of Internet Meme based humor as of late, mostly accompanied with the exaggerated visage of French painter Joseph Ducreux.  Much like this work's source material, archaic translation is basically finding humor in something that once existed (and whether the original artists like it or not) and discovering its previously undiscovered comedic weight.  Mostly been used for short form works, archaic translation hasn't really been used to its full comedic potential.  All that has changed thanks to Adam Bertocci's whip-smart work of academic laughter, "Two Gentlemen of Lebowski".

The Genesis of this project is just as interesting as the case of Bonnie Lebowski's disappearance.  "Two Gentlemen of Lebowski: A Most Excellent Comedie and Tragical Romance" hit the Internet and slowly began to build buzz, primarily through Facebook.  Through that, the author became another one of those "Internet Sensations".  Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, and Julianne Moore all had positive things to say about the project, and unlike the original telling of The Dude's Tale, Adam Bertocci's version started heading to bigger and better things right from the off.  (In no small part thanks to the cult following The Coen Brothers' original masterpiece had built.)  Audiences sold out most, if not all, of the limited performances of "Two Gentlemen of Lebowski: A Most Excellent Comedie and Tragical Romance". 

Sadly, after such success, some rights issues came up and forced the play off the Internet and off the stages.  (Nothing says irony like having the rights holders protesting your work of fiction based off of a film which, at first, was a loss leader for a major Hollywood studio.)  After cryptic status updates and teasing from Mr. Bertocci himself, the Knave had his day and Two Gentlemen of Lebowski: A Most Excellent Comedie and Tragical Romance was announced for publication.  After its uphill struggle, its long slog to glory, the world (or at least anyone with a review copy) has the finished product in front of it/them.  Was it worth the time and effort?  The short answer would be, "Yay, and verily!"

Two Gentlemen of Lebowski manages to successfully mash up Shakespearean literature with the Coen Brothers' sense of humor.  More than just a literal translation of the source material, Two Gentlemen transplants the story we've seen before into an era that (surprising to some) actually fits it quite well.  Vengeful thugs, powerful villains, protagonists versed in humor of a more ribald nature, the cold but pursuant love interest to our hero's quest...all done in the works of Shakespeare.  (Bonus Lit Geek Points: The Book is LITTERED with Shakespearean references, direct quotes, and lampoons from all of his "Greatest Hits".)  The basic plot is still the same, but slightly re-staged to fit the time period, which goes the extra mile in exceeding as an individual work instead of just a successful parody.  Even funnier, the book is laid out like the annotated versions of Shakespeare you'd remember from your school days.  Not since "America: The Book" or "I Am America (And So Can You)" have I gained so many laughs out of the footnotes!

This is a rare work that receives no qualms from me at all.  I honestly can't come up with a single thing I don't like about this book, save the fact that it should be openly produced on the stage for all to see.  (Seriously, Broadway...could you imagine the coin you'd bank with this being put on by the film's original cast?!  One show, one night, all the stars!  This is the easiest charity opportunity you've stumbled upon in years!)  It's a breezy read that makes for easy, single serving enjoyment; while at the same time being of deep enough detail that you could actually teach this side by side with actual Shakespeare plays in a Collegiate English course.  All of your favorite lines are here, all of your favorite moments are present...all that's different is it's much more dramatic, with flowery prose and an amped up laugh factor.  Two Gentlemen of Lebowski: A Most Excellent Comedie and Tragical Romance is a tale full of nihilism and apathy, told by a drifter, signifying that The Knave doth indeed abideth.