Vacationland - A Review by Erin Wade

Vacationland: True Stories from Painful Beaches

You know who John Hodgman is. I know that you think you do not, but you do.

You’ve seen him in those "I’m a Mac..." commercials as the PC. You’ve seen him as the Resident Expert and the Deranged Millionaire (or Billionaire) on The Daily Show with John Stewart. You’ve heard him doing pieces on This American Life. He’s appeared on TV in Parks and Rec and Community and ever-so-briefly on Battlestar Galactica. You know him.

But you don’t. Not really.

For much of his entertainment career, John Hodgman has been playing characters. Over the course of the past decade or so he has written three books which purport to comprise the sum of all (fake) world knowledge. They are:

These books are delightful pieces, functionally presenting as almanacs with extensive bits of information that are entirely fabricated (though sometimes one wonders - perhaps the city of Chicago is, in fact, mythical). These aren’t just lists of made-up facts, though there is some of that, to be sure; in many cases, the concepts are woven into tiny short stories that can take on a life of their own, and presented convincingly enough that you may find yourself questioning what you think you know.

Because the theme is similar across the three - fake trivia and all - one might be forgiven for assuming that the second and third books are sequels, and more of the same. One might be forgiven, because one would be wrong - the books lay out more as a trilogy, reflecting a progression in the type of information, and in the character Hodgman plays as he writes it. It is not a spoiler (as it is on the covers of the books) to note In the first he comes to you as "a professional writer", and then as a "famous minor television personality" (the second book coming, as it did, after gaining the role as The PC). By the third book he has evolved (devolved?) into a deranged millionaire, the book coming just ahead of the Mayan predicted end of the world.

Ultimately, it’s a good bet that, if you enjoy Monty Python, you will enjoy these books (and perhaps not coincidentally, Hodgman interviewed John Cleese not too long ago).

They are made all the more enjoyable if one listens to them as Audiobooks, as this adds multiple guest appearances, including Jonathan Coulton, John Roderick), Paul Rudd, Sarah Vowell, Rickey Gervais, Brooke Shields, and others, (including Dick Cavett).

And now that I’ve provided you with this background, I have to let you know that this information isn’t a good preparation for his latest work:

Vacationland: True Stories from Painful Beaches

With Vacationland, Hodgman sets aside the fake trivia and gets real. Literally.

Vacationland is a series of essays that centers around his experiences while away with his family in rural western Massachusetts and in Maine. This is too simple an explanation, of course, because on that journey he also delves into the struggles of raising children, of finding one’s way in life, and of losing a parent, among other things.

To be clear, Vacationland, like his previous work, is funny - Hodgman has a way of finding little bits of pleasure and joy in even the most mundane of topics. For example, on growing facial hair:

And I grew my second mustache for the same reason all your weird dads grew theirs: it is an evolutionary signal that says "I’m all done." A mustache sends a visual message to the mating population of Earth that says, "No thank you. I have procreated. My DNA is out in the world, so I no longer deserve physical affection."

It is funny, but it is also wry, very candid, self-deprecating, and emotional. Like his previous works, Vacationland made me laugh, but unlike those, it also made me think and, at one particular point, literally made me cry. I can not recommend it highly enough.

This is work that is similar in vein to essayists like Tom Bodett and David Sedaris; and like David Sedaris, again made better still if you listen to the audiobook, which is read by John Hodgman himself. If you have friends who like to read (or listen) to authors like Bodett and Sedaris, this book would make an excellent gift for the holidays, or for whenever. And when they say "John Hodgman?" You can say:

"You know who John Hodgman is. I know that you think you do not, but you do..."

Looking for New News by Erin Wade

I sincerely miss The Diane Rehm Show's Friday News Roundup.

I became a news junkie when I was in college. The first Gulf War happened during my time in undergrad. I discovered CNN during that event and, probably more importantly, CNN's Headline News channel. There was a large projection TV in the student union that happened to be in the seating area of the fast food restaurant at which I worked. Once the Gulf War started Headline News was running on that TV much of the time. When I was away from work I found myself turning it on at home as well.

The Gulf War eventually ended, of course, but my attention to news events carried on. In addition to TV I listened to early talk radio - mostly WLS in Chicago) when it rode the wave of conversion from Rock to Talk that seemed to be started by Don Wade (no relation) - and read magazines. As time went on I discovered NPR and found that between Morning Edition, Talk of the Nation, and All Things Considered one could keep the news spigot flowing throughout the day. Radio ultimately won out over TV because I could do other things while listening.

Keeping that spigot flowing every day is something one can do, but it doesn't mean that one necessarily should - it is possible to get drowned in all of that news. While it can be somewhat interesting to be that person who knows who the US Representative is for the third district of a state one has never visited simply because that person is involved in a news story one has heard, it also follows you throughout each day, and can reach the point where it is hard to escape. It's good to be informed, but it's not good when you are wondering about the fate of the McCain-Feingold bill in your spare time.

Probably the only truly useful thing I took from The Four Hour Work Week was the idea of scaling back one's news consumption by getting information from weekly news summaries rather than trying to catch it all over the course of the week. This approach ensures that one remains informed without being washed away in details that may or may not ultimately turn out to be relevant. Ultimately, learning how to do this made me a happier, more relaxed person.

The Diane Rehm Show's Friday News Roundup was, for me, the perfect way to manage that. Diane (or her guest host) would review the week's stories with a panel of journalists. The group had clearly done their homework, and could speak in detail on the topics at hand. Sometimes the group would include a bit of spice as well, such as when David Corn would join and argue with, well... almost everyone. And, as luck would have it, Diane's show was available as a podcast, which removed the need to be listening at a specific time.

Diane Rehm retired at the end of 2016, and with her the Friday News Roundup as well. This left me in a news drought, and this during a time which, arguably, being informed is extremely important.

What I needed, then, was a news program that was fairly objective, came out as a podcast, and offered a perodic (preferably weekly) summary of the news. This turned out to be a harder hill to climb than I expected. There are plenty of news podcasts, of course, but something that offers a summary of the actual news, as opposed to an array of pundits providing their opinions about said news, well - that's more difficult.

For now, I've landed with On Point with Tom Ashbrook. It has a somewhat different format than The Diane Rehm Show - more clips and cuts from the week past. Still, three weeks in I'm finding that it meets many of the same needs for gaining the week's information. Perhaps because it's NPR I'm finding that some of the panelists are the same - this week's show included Susan Page from USA Today, for example.

I'm still evaluating and looking, but for now this seems like home.