My 2021 Reading Stacks #2

Alex Trebek's memoir

Courtesy of our local library, another renowned repository of knowledge, learning, and accumulated experiences.

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:

Welcome once again to our recurring MCC feature in which I scribble capsule reviews of everything I’ve read lately that was published in a physical format over a certain page count with a squarebound spine on it — novels, original graphic novels, trade paperbacks, infrequent nonfiction dalliances, and so on. Due to the way I structure my media-consumption time blocks, the list will always feature more graphic novels than works of prose and pure text, though I do try to diversify my literary diet as time and acquisitions permit.

Occasionally I’ll sneak in a contemporary review if I’ve gone out of my way to buy and read something brand new. Every so often I’ll borrow from my wife or from our local library. But the majority of our spotlighted works are presented years after the rest of the world already finished and moved on from them because I’m drawing from my vast unread pile that presently occupies four oversize shelves comprising thirty-three years of uncontrolled book shopping. I’ve occasionally pruned the pile, but as you can imagine, cut out one unread book and three more take its place.

I’ve previously written why I don’t do eBooks. Perhaps someday I’ll also explain why these capsules are exclusive to MCC and not shared on Amazon, Goodreads, or other sites where their authors might prefer I’d share them. In the meantime, here’s me and my recent reading results…

6. Alex Trebek, The Answer Is…: Reflections on My Life. Among the several billion reasons 2020 sucked was the passing of our iconic Jeopardy! host last November at age 80 after his nearly two-year bout with pancreatic cancer. One of the outnumbered bright spots of Worst Year Ever was Trebek’s antehumous memoir, published in July as a sort of farewell to fans. The son of a Ukrainian chef and a French-Canadian mother, his upbringing was neither harsh nor luxurious. A short-lived young-adult attempt at military service segues into the Canadian entertainment industry, where he learned the ropes in radio and was quickly promoted to TV hosting gigs — news, variety shows, and more. As we know now, no singular nation could contain him and his path would lead across the border to California — thanks in no small part to a fortuitous connection with fellow countryman Alan Thicke — where years of game-show gigs (in varying levels of duration and cheesiness) would lead to his longest-running job and his status as America’s most beloved living-room screen uncle since Walter Cronkite.

Trebek narrates in his renowned congenial and self-effacing demeanor, succinctly in mostly blogpost-sized chapters, naturally titled in the forms of answers and questions. Not one for self-indulgent bloviation, he takes advantage of the format to offer whatever life-story highlights he felt like revisiting and whatever tidbits he thought the audience might want to hear — including, ironically, a chapter about how he handled answering the exact same audience questions over and over again. We’re treated to insights and memories of the show’s origins, the writing and taping processes, the clips everyone’s probably watched most on YouTube (Anne and I saw the infamous football category incident as it aired!), and of course unforgettable contestants (not just Jennings and Holzhauer, though they’re here as well). Yes, he mostly read from the cards or screens or whatever was put in front of him, but he expended enormous effort into conveying all those factoids and trivia and proper names with accuracy and respect, and was as much a curious traveler and eager learner off-camera as he appeared onscreen.

And there was more to him than just the one show. We learn about how things were going with him during the pandemic, the names of his son’s two NYC restaurants (Google confirms they’ve survived the pandemic so far), why his all-time favorite film was the mostly dismissed Best Picture winner How Green Was My Valley (as executive producer Mike Richards shared in a February episode), why he regretted picking up cursing as a bad habit after moving to America, how he and his wife Jean were unusually close to his ex-wife’s family, and more. A few subjects remain closely guarded — faith enters only briefly and vaguely into the picture, while the closest he comes to passionate criticism is in a handful of fed-up, mostly nonpartisan digressions about today’s destructively hyperpartisan politics.

The Answer Is… doesn’t provide all the answers, but it’s an appreciated parting gift that lets us spend a few minutes with Trebek one last time, made all the more bittersweet by the rotating guests hosts who’ve been asked to mind his podium in 2021. Some have tried their best to emulate his defining qualities. All were fans like us. None have been a match for the legend himself.

unrelated graphic novels.

Men and women and the pastimes that bring them joy.

7. Sean Murphy, Off Road. Before he became part of DC Comics’ stable of alt-timeline Batman imagineers and before the internet canceled him several times in 2020, Murphy’s first original graphic novel arrived off-radar in 2005 (my copy is a 2011 IDW reissue), concerning three young-adult dudes who decide to enjoy some mannish bonding on a wild, aimless, reckless, all-terrain drive in one friend’s new Jeep. Our lead male is an ephemerally Goth-ish artiste who wears dark nail polish but who’s quick to conform to his buddies’ retro-macho norms whenever they’re joshing around guy-style, and doubly so when they get their Jeep stuck and tempers flare as they’re powerless to do anything but bellow and blame. He’s even more irritating whenever the subject comes up of the gal who recently dumped him, and of course it wasn’t his fault and it helps that she’s portrayed as pretty awful.

I haven’t regularly hung around average males in person in a very long time and am definitely no longer used to the breed that freely toss around insults I never used even when I was prone to cursing in a former era of my life. Epithets like the P-Word, the R-Word, and the F-Word (no, the other F-Word) are so rare around me nowadays, on- or offline, that they’re jarring to encounter. Murphy draws some dynamic Jeep-drivin’ and crashin’ scenes, and knows how to wring harsh emotions out of every expression, but even if this had been an all-ages tale, I wouldn’t get these “Iron John” pale shadows who come off as a “ten years later” Stand By Me sequel that nobody wanted.

8. Dash Shaw, Cosplayers. Two young ladies with a shared love of cosplay, anime and other adjacent media decide to make their own zero-budget benign-guerrilla-style YouTube channel. Their awkward yet ambitious journey winds through and around conventions, competing wannabe video stars, fans who share some of their wavelengths, and self-proclaimed masters of geek domains who could maybe use a few lessons in how human conduct works in the real-world domain. The duo in this amiable 2016 pop-culture love letter and Easter egg basket have the occasional blind spots that come with young-adulthood, geeky or otherwise, but learn through their cross-hobby creative endeavors that drawbacks in one particular field shouldn’t necessarily ruin their love of others. Enjoy what you enjoy, ditch what you don’t, and leave others to their spheres when they don’t intersect with yours.

On a related note, I’m really missing conventions right now. Remember when we used to attend them and post cosplay pics? That was cool. Sigh.

More to come!

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