An unusual, humorous look back to a volatile time.

LAUGHTER ON THE RIVERS OF DEATH

ONE SAILOR'S HUMOROUS EXPERIENCES IN VIETNAM

A sailor recalls his river boat experiences in Vietnam.

Laughter is the best medicine, as they say, and Navy-veteran Bill Ferguson applies that approach when recalling his duty to seek out enemy weapons in Vietnam’s waterways. The casual onlooker probably sees very little to no humor in recollecting that relatively recent turbulence; Ferguson, however, disagrees. He had already been enlisted for 10 years when he wondered if he had what it took to be a boat captain. He daydreamed about kicking some VC ass, and then fairly quickly began to question why he’d volunteered for such an assignment. The first half of the account discusses his switching jobs as a machinist mate, to quickly learning various arms, boat maneuverability and the subtleties of detecting ambushes. The second half applies that training, but not quite in the typical way. It’s made clear that the writing’s purpose is not to tell war stories or tales of heroism because much of that has already been done. Rather, “This book chronicles events that evoked laughter,” Ferguson says. That humor seems to operate on two levels: first, the recollections of people who share the same experiences, like fellow vets chuckling about the gun representing a phallic symbol or the hijacking of an army truck, which might only evoke a polite smile from the uninitiated reader; second, Ferguson’s dry humor, an affect the reader can better appreciate. The frequently referenced military slang of “pucker factor” is expressed more comically in a drawing depicting the sphincter muscle in a stressful position. Other incongruous illustrations delve into seemingly surreal experiences but are no less comical, or at least uniquely odd. Politics of war are not discussed, nor is there much analysis or broad context. The story seems part purge, part philosophy; a reader could conceivably connect that ambivalence to the author’s feeling on the war. The overall chronological and military detail is impressive, although the writing is formless at times, especially with the confusing use of italics and changes of thought within chapters.

An unusual, humorous look back to a volatile time.

Pub Date: Aug. 3, 2007

ISBN: 978-1434316783

Page Count: 164

Publisher: AuthorHouse

Review Posted Online: April 2, 2013

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A sweet-and-sour set of pieces on loss, absurdity, and places they intersect.

HAPPY-GO-LUCKY

Sedaris remains stubbornly irreverent even in the face of pandemic lockdowns and social upheaval.

In his previous collection of original essays, Calypso (2018), the author was unusually downbeat, fixated on aging and the deaths of his mother and sister. There’s bad news in this book, too—most notably, the death of his problematic and seemingly indestructible father at 96—but Sedaris generally carries himself more lightly. On a trip to a gun range, he’s puzzled by boxer shorts with a holster feature, which he wishes were called “gunderpants.” He plays along with nursing-home staffers who, hearing a funnyman named David is on the premises, think he’s Dave Chappelle. He’s bemused by his sister Amy’s landing a new apartment to escape her territorial pet rabbit. On tour, he collects sheaves of off-color jokes and tales of sexual self-gratification gone wrong. His relationship with his partner, Hugh, remains contentious, but it’s mellowing. (“After thirty years, sleeping is the new having sex.”) Even more serious stuff rolls off him. Of Covid-19, he writes that “more than eight hundred thousand people have died to date, and I didn’t get to choose a one of them.” The author’s support of Black Lives Matter is tempered by his interest in the earnest conscientiousness of organizers ensuring everyone is fed and hydrated. (He refers to one such person as a “snacktivist.”) Such impolitic material, though, puts serious essays in sharper, more powerful relief. He recalls fending off the flirtations of a 12-year-old boy in France, frustrated by the language barrier and other factors that kept him from supporting a young gay man. His father’s death unlocks a crushing piece about dad’s inappropriate, sexualizing treatment of his children. For years—chronicled in many books—Sedaris labored to elude his father’s criticism. Even in death, though, it proves hard to escape or laugh off.

A sweet-and-sour set of pieces on loss, absurdity, and places they intersect.

Pub Date: May 31, 2022

ISBN: 978-0-316-39245-7

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: March 11, 2022

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2022

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If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

THE 48 LAWS OF POWER

The authors have created a sort of anti-Book of Virtues in this encyclopedic compendium of the ways and means of power.

Everyone wants power and everyone is in a constant duplicitous game to gain more power at the expense of others, according to Greene, a screenwriter and former editor at Esquire (Elffers, a book packager, designed the volume, with its attractive marginalia). We live today as courtiers once did in royal courts: we must appear civil while attempting to crush all those around us. This power game can be played well or poorly, and in these 48 laws culled from the history and wisdom of the world’s greatest power players are the rules that must be followed to win. These laws boil down to being as ruthless, selfish, manipulative, and deceitful as possible. Each law, however, gets its own chapter: “Conceal Your Intentions,” “Always Say Less Than Necessary,” “Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy,” and so on. Each chapter is conveniently broken down into sections on what happened to those who transgressed or observed the particular law, the key elements in this law, and ways to defensively reverse this law when it’s used against you. Quotations in the margins amplify the lesson being taught. While compelling in the way an auto accident might be, the book is simply nonsense. Rules often contradict each other. We are told, for instance, to “be conspicuous at all cost,” then told to “behave like others.” More seriously, Greene never really defines “power,” and he merely asserts, rather than offers evidence for, the Hobbesian world of all against all in which he insists we live. The world may be like this at times, but often it isn’t. To ask why this is so would be a far more useful project.

If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-670-88146-5

Page Count: 430

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1998

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