Book Review: The Heming Way

August 3, 2011

The Heming Way: How to Unleash the Booze-Inhaling, Animal-Slaughtering, War-Glorifying, Hairy-Chested, Retro-Sexual Legend Within… Just Like Papa!

By Marty Beckerman

Published May 27, 2011

Infected Press

90 pp.

ISBN 0-970-06294-X

Reviewed July 31, 2011

In my time as a book critic, I’ve heard a lot of arguments about the dominance of white male authors in the popular culture – and if you had to pick the male-est of those authors, it would without question be Ernest Hemingway. Famous in literary circles for his sparse prose, tragically flawed protagonists and views on the generations lost from the war, Hemingway is also an author repeatedly criticized as overly masculine, misogynistic and homophobic. Still others have accused the Hemingway image as being a construction entirely apart from the man himself, with F. Scott. Fitzgerald biographer Matthew J. Bruccoli declaring the man his own greatest fictional creation.

But is that really such a bad thing? Not according to Marty Beckerman, who leaps to Papa’s defense in his parody/self-help book “The Heming Way.” Compared to the way we live today in our world of wireless Internet connections and malt beverages, the attitudes of Hemingway – a man who drank eight different types of alcohol for breakfast, sought the great adrenaline rush of hunting both beasts and men, and was so proud of his way of life that he was the only one who could end it – seems a marvelous alternative. In mapping these extremes, Beckerman not only delivers a brief and hilarious biography of the author but artfully twists it into a critique on modern society.

Beckerman lays out the case for Hemingway as “a great writer, a great hunter, a great fisherman, a great womanizer, a great drunkard, and a great man – but mostly a great drunkard” by regaling the reader with tales of the author’s exploits. He tells you how to hunt like Hemingway (pick your guns well, cook what you kill, don’t bring women along), how to drink like Hemingway (on safari, in wartime, and with your hungover ten-year-old son) and how to pursue women like Hemingway (marry often, swapping out as their psycho levels rise and they lose their taste for your beard and vomiting friends).

The humor here comes from the extremity of viewpoints presented, as well as how over-the-top Beckerman gets in embracing those viewpoints. He presents Hemingway in his own words and then almost immediately illustrates the flaws in those words with even more quotes, but never dares to question them even as they grow absurd. Of course Hemingway’s drinking burdened him with massive health problems, but how else could he reach such heights as shooting himself in the legs during a fishing trip? And of course Papa’s “outward misogyny” was just an offshoot of the harsh realities of war, not repressed homosexuality! (So what if there are eight or ten quotes to the contrary, the man’s balls overwhelm those!)

It would be easy to dismiss the book as nothing but a list of Hemingway jibes, but Beckerman’s commitment to the format is impressive. Much as he did in the excellent 2008 political dissection “Dumbocracy,” Beckerman backs up his jokes with considerable research, regularly sourcing Hemingway’s own writing as well as a variety of biographies and scholarly studies. The format, reminiscent of a Cracked article, also earns its laughs by inserting some biting comments underneath Hemingway photos periodically inserted into the text. (Particular favorite: Hemingway’s quote “Love is just another dirty lie” followed immediately with his wedding photo and the tip “Do not include the previous quote in your vows.)

And even as parody, there’s a sense that it might be sitting on something deeper. that Particularly as the book heads toward the end, there’s an odd seriousness that emerges from the parody, almost a rant taking over as our modern sense of safety is compared to Hemingway’s style. In fact, in some passages, it almost seems like he’s seriously viewing that style as the lesser of two evils:

“And we’ve become rich in the currency of cowardice. We have so many things and so few experiences. We are desperate to live as long as possible, not as large as possible. We are so afraid to say goodbye to the world that we never say hello. We are numbed in our high-def, wi-fi cocoons, eager for materialistic possessions – the newest, fastest, shiniest gadgets – instead of a fitting end to a life well-lived. If Papa hadn’t killed himself out of despair in 1961, he would kill himself out of disgust today.”

It’s impossible to say what Papa would have thought of this book (though based on history, he’d likely knock the author on his back with one punch) but the end result would probably have involved a laugh and six shared drinks. Beckerman has kicked a breath of fresh air into the Hemingway mythos fifty years after Papa ended his life, and “The Heming Way” should appeal to fans of its source material and anyone looking for a good joke. It’s well-researched, incredibly funny, and just the impetus you’ve been looking for to bring Wild Turkey and six grenades on your next fishing trip.

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Book Review: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

May 4, 2009

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

ppz-cover

By Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith

Published April 1, 2009

Quirk Books

320 pp.

ISBN 1-594-74334-7

Date reviewed: May 4, 2009

It’s hard to imagine a 2009 title more anticipated than “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.” The concept is nothing short of brilliant, combining Jane Austen’s classic novel of society and romance with “ultraviolent zombie mayhem.” The possibilities seemed endless, ranging from half the main characters having their heads cracked open to windows of a manor house cracked open with decaying fists. Indeed, it seemed like something that could go so over the top it would make Austen herself rise from the grave in complaint.

So does it measure up to that promise of madcap zombie fun, or does the gimmick burn out less than half-way through? The answer is neither – but that turns out to be to the book’s benefit. Rather than sacrifice a work of literature to Internet memes, “Zombies” actually spends more time with the original story than expected, reshaping the characters but never excising the plotlines. It’s not what most readers would expect going in, but in many ways it makes for a much better book, regardless of whether you favor Jane Austen or George Romero.

For the uninitiated, the original “Pride and Prejudice” is the story of Elizabeth Bennett, the most willful of a country gentleman’s five daughters. Continually badgered by her mother’s desire to marry her off and the flighty attitudes of her younger sisters, she finds a new target for her ire after the haughty Mr. Darcy dismisses her at a ball. As the two continue to interact, they find their terse reactions might be only a cover, masking an attraction that must overcome pride and social circumstances.

The new version keeps the original narrative, but adds a twist in that the countryside is crawling with the living dead. For the past five decades England has been besieged by hordes of the “unmentionables,” which rise from their graves in tattered suits and gowns to swarm manor houses and crack open the skulls of those within. Elizabeth and Darcy, along with several other characters, are now highly trained warriors who are capable of decapitating their enemies and feel no qualms about setting the bodies ablaze.

What is interesting about this undead invasion is that while they retain many of the more fearful aspects – passing zombie infection through bites, pitiful moaning and feasting on brains – it never becomes the overarching concern of the story. Most of the recent efforts in the genre have focused on the apocalyptic aspect, but the world of “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” still considers social norms and inheritance the greatest of concerns, and Austen’s verbal sparring is supplemented by actual combat rather than replaced.

Keeping the language turns out to be the smartest decision the book could make, as mixing the free indirect speech of the original book with nightmarish threats makes it funnier than any gore-splattered zombie film. The precise verbal patterns see characters encountering the “sorry stricken,” weapons are drawn and they are “promptly dispatched to Hell,” and given “a proper Christian beheading.” A variety of incongruously humorous scenarios ensue, such as when two zombies slaughter an entire staff of servants in the kitchen and the party’s host can only observe “a delightful array of tarts, exotic fruits, and pies, sadly soiled by blood and brains, and thus unusable.

The subtleness of the zombie humor keeps the altered narrative going, but the book’s real strength is in the indirect changes the threat provides. Elizabeth and her sisters have been trained in the deadly arts by Master Liu of China, and are capable of walking on their hands, administering cuts of shame in times of failure and fight with “a razor-sharp dagger with one hand, the other tucked modestly into the small of her back.” They and other characters have grown up with the zombie threat, and as a consequence match breeding with battle skills.

With the characters tooled in this fashion, it enlivens the original’s conflicts considerably. Elizabeth sees Darcy’s slights not merely social but an insult to her warrior honor, and vows to take his head after their first meeting, and when he confesses his lover her first reaction is to kick his head into a fireplace mantel. Lady Catherine, the preeminent noble in the book, is respected as much for her elite guard of ninjas as her extreme wealth, and Darcy’s dispute with Mr. Wickham is less about money and more about severe beatings. The moves seem to make the characters more interesting, as they can act on their feelings rather than just talking.

In the end, the real victor of this parody appears to be Jane Austen herself, as her book has been reanimated in a way not even Keira Knightly could pull off. Fans of the original will be both taken aback and charmed by their beloved characters talking casually about ripping out an enemy’s heart, and those who haven’t read it before will be intrigued as to how the story could work without. “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” has not only had a brilliant idea, but handled it in the most competent fashion.