Food: A Love Story by Jim Gaffigan (2014, Crown)
There’s only one question to ask about this book: do you enjoy Jim Gaffigan’s humor? If you do, you’ll like it. If you don’t, you will not. This seems like it’s an obvious statement which could be echoed for most humor books, but that’s inaccurate.
A successful humor book is very difficult to write. People have vastly differing views of what is funny, and the problems of trying to simultaneously appeal to those disparate tastes are magnified by the loss of some of a professional comedian’s weapons of timing, intonation and expression. Celebrities can adapt to those losses by trying to write in the style in which they tell their jokes; readers who are familiar with their material will imagine the comedian telling the stories with the usual pacing and are likely to enjoy the book.
That’s what Gaffigan attempts here, and he is successful. That’s why his fans will like it. The problem is that most of the jokes are variants on the same theme and many of them don’t really work unless the reader is imagining his delivery. This is not common for humor books, and it’s a failing; the work should be entertaining enough on to stand on its own merit. This one doesn’t, which is a shame because it’s a family-friendly work and it’s a treat for his existing fans.
The Doctor Is Sick by Anthony Burgess (Heinemann, 1960)
First, the negative: the book’s language is dated because of terms which have drifted from acceptable and even laudatory to offensive. There, that’s it, that’s the negative.
Next, the positive: the writing is witty; the plot, while thin, is clever; the wordplay is subtle and omnipresent. Burgess uses his expertise as a linguist to enhance the effect of his vocabulary, resulting in a book which is best read with a dictionary at hand but which nevertheless flows far more smoothly than any fiction produced by William F. Buckley, Jr.. His characters speak believably and have distinct motivations, unlike any fiction by Steve Allen.
Upon further consideration, the need for a handy dictionary might well be considered on the negative side of the ledger, depending on one’s point of view.
The book describes a series of escapades by a professional lecturer on the English language following the diagnosis of a brain tumor. He is returned to England, settled in a medical ward, and an operation is arranged. The night before he is to receive surgery, he sneaks off of the ward and into the evening, intending to locate his wife and address his problems with impotence and their open marriage.
It’s a send-up of British culture of the 1950s, it’s a game of language, and it’s generally a lot of fun. The book is short enough to avoid overstaying its welcome, brash and mildly disturbing without being vulgar, and verbally complex without being dense. I needed to pause and research often enough to feel I was learning while not so often that I felt distracted from the story. All of this to say: I enjoyed the book, while recognizing that those with much greater or lesser vocabularies might be alternately bored or maddened by his writing. Potential readers should be strongly encouraged to read a page or two from a few chapters into the book before deciding whether or not to purchase and read it.
Besides, it’s from the man who wrote A Clockwork Orange. That, alone, should encourage some to try it.