I am almost done reading a very remarkable book. Actually, it’s not really a book, it’s seven novellas about one man, a mysterious character by the name of Maqroll the Gaviero. He is too complex to really describe, but I suppose I might try: he is an adventurer first and formost, preferably by sea, but he is not in it for the excitment. His travels are constant because it is his compulsion. He is a lover of the world and ships and beautiful women. He is an excellent judge of character, though he is often drawn into disregarding his own judgements. He encounters many fascinating characters, and we follow as well the Gaviero’s companions and trusted friends, Abdul Bashur (Dreamer of Ships) and Ilona Rubenstein (the Nymph of Trieste).The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis is, dare I say it, on par with and even surpasses the work of Borges and Garcia Marquez. These novellas span the globe like no book ever has. Maqroll visits every continent and sniffs out schemes and companions in every port. This Maqroll, he is no vain adventurer, no hero. He is tortured by his restlessness. He is at the same time a most exceptional man, well-read and loyal, courteous and brave when bravery is required. And yet he is so fragile. I worry about Maqroll as he is blown about the globe by the whims of a strange fate. I am almost done with the 7th and final novella. I have almost reached the last of the 700 pages, but I am not ready to say good bye. This Maqroll, he can really get ahold of you. I have read some books, and though I am by no means an expert, I can say that this book will have to be a classic. It is just so good.
Recently, it has come to my attention that (1) not everyone is a librarian on Twitter or Tumblr, ergo (2) not everyone is intimately familiar with every action taken, decision made, and word spoken by Neil Gaiman, foremost living member of the National Dudes Who Wear Only Black Hall of Fame. In some respects, your ignorance is enviable — it is possible to know too much about even this leader of men, this King of all Geeks. But in at least one respect, it is a crying shame, because it means too few of you have heard of Gaiman’s greatest idea: All Hallow’s Read, a Gaiman-invented yearly tradition where, throughout the week of Halloween, participants give their friends and loved ones scary books. As someone who models most attempts to spread her personal taste on the Marshall Plan, I am apt to seize any opportunity for book-gifting with fevered delight and am eager for this tradition to catch on.
Though I am loathe to imply that King Neil created this holiday for personal gain, it’s impossible to deny that he has written some deliciously spine-tingling books for children. While Coraline’s button-eyed Other Mother and The Graveyard Book’s villainous Jack have been giving 10-year olds nightmares for years now, Gaiman’s attempts to traumatize younger readers have been tragically overlooked. So, for this column, I wanted to call attention to his picture book The Wolves in the Walls. In this funny-creepy story, Lucy hears clawing, gnawing, nibbling and squabbling in the walls of her creaky old house. Even though her mom, dad, and big brother insist that it’s something mundane — mice or rats or bats — Lucy knows in her tummy that it’s wolves, and her beloved pig-puppet agrees. And if the wolves come out of the wall, it is all over — everyone knows that. But how is Lucy to keep everyone safe when no one else believes her? The dreamy illogic of Gaiman’s story is matched perfectly by Dave McKean’s nightmarish photo-collage paintings, all weird angles and blurry edges, creating a picture book that’s riveting, strange, and — the end — enchantingly goofy.
For the I-Can-Read crowd, eager to get their scares independently, Alvin Schwartz’s classic In a Dark, Dark Room is tough to beat. Speak to any child born around its publication in 1984 and I guarantee that they’ll recall one of Schwartz’s hauntingly retold folktales. Despite their format-required economy of words, these stories and their brilliant details — green ribbons that anchor severed heads, boys who hitch rides after being dead for a year, and dark, dark rooms in dark, dark houses in dark, dark woods — make a lasting impression on the reader. Balanced nicely between challenging-but-not-impossible sentences and Dirk Zimmer’s R. Crumb-like, pencil drawn illustrations, this book will be a delightful change for beginning readers hungry for something a bit more startling than cats in hats.
Often, once children start being able to read independently, parents and teachers stop taking time to read out loud to them — but when perfect read-aloud books like Adam Gidwitz’s A Tale Dark and Grimm exist, why would any parent be so foolish? This hilarious and gore-filled adventure sets out to shake off decades of prim, Disney-proper fairy tale retellings and return Grimm’s stories to their bloody roots. Gidwitz takes his heroes from one well-known Grimm’s tale — Hansel and Gretel — sends them weaving through five lesser-known, deeply-gruesome stories to make one overarching adventure, rife with lopped off limbs, cannibals, and truly rotten parents — just as the Brothers Grimm intended. Two things make this book such a perfect read-aloud: first, the woven-together stories give the book a structure that’s half continuous, half-episodic — like a television season. Natural break points are built in, so that the story can be set aside and revisited without its narrative flow deteriorating. Second, Gidwitz peppers each chapter with hilarious direct addresses, ruminating on subjects as varied as the best way to get a girl to fall in love with you (NOT luring her onto a boat and kidnapping her, apparently) and the Devil’s scalp sensitivity. These asides provide a humorous counterbalance to the resurrected Grimmness, making for a tale that’s surprisingly light-hearted despite its protagonists getting decapitated (and reanimated) in the very first chapter.
For independent readers who prefer that all their gory details be factual, Witches: The Absolutely True Tale of Disaster in Salem by Rosalyn Schanzer is an excellent choice. This skinny little book about one of America’s most fascinating historical moments is both meticulously researched and tremendously engaging. Schanzer uses historical details with savvy to give the story immediacy, allowing readers to feel the muck of flood-drenched roads or exclaim with horror at the true ingredients of a witch cake — rye flour, ashes, and the urine of the witch’s victim. Similarly, rather than situating the reader outside the Puritans’ belief system to judge them and feel superior, she depicts their beliefs with anthropological accuracy. This empathetic depiction forces the reader to truly inhabit the Puritans’ terrible “Invisible World,” where demons could torment you and God’s will was cruel and unknowable. Illustrated by the author with woodcuts in black, white, and red, this book is sure to give your budding historian the creeps.
Finally, no column on scary kids books would be complete without a mention of John Bellairs and his Edward Gorey-illustrated classic, The House with a Clock in Its Walls, my pick for advanced independent readers. Sent to live with his Uncle Jonathan after the death of both his parents, 10-year-old Lewis Barnavelt is initially delighted to learn that both Jonathan and his uncle’s best friend, Mrs. Zimmerman, are witches. But when, in an attempt to win back his only friend, Lewis uses his uncle’s magic books to summon a spirit, he unwittingly resurrects the wicked witch who formerly owned his uncle’s rickety mansion and discovers just how dangerous magic can be. First published in 1973, this book and its companions — The Figure in the Shadows and The Letter, the Witch, and the Ring — are noteworthy for the way they ground the chills of a Gothic mystery in the everyday woes of being a fifth grader. Bellairs dedicates equal time to sinister spirits and chubby, un-athletic Lewis’s struggles to bond with his baseball-obsessed classmates. Rather than undercutting the tension, this commitment to emotional realism renders the book’s magical villainy more vivid by creating a stronger bond between Lewis and the reader.
This set of five books is, of course, only a small sample of the many terrifying options that exist for younger readers. For further suggestions, you can visit the All Hallow’s Read website or — of course — talk to your local children’s librarian or bookseller. I bet you will find their ability to read your child’s mind positively spooky.
Watch out! Vonnegut is definitely habit-forming!
-From a Dell Books Advertisement for Welcome to The Monkey House, 1974
On a recent morning, I boarded a New York subway car, glancing at the riders as I settled into a seat. A homeless man slept in a corner; three skate rats hovered above him, snickering greasily. A few others read tabloids with Manhattan disinterest; an Orthodox wife corralled her squirming kids. Despite the varied scene, I was most interested in the man sitting across from me. He was roughly my age, and was intently reading a book. I looked away—then, with blasé nosiness, went back for the title: Bluebeard, by Kurt Vonnegut. The man was absorbed, no doubt reading it for the first time. I turned away again, mild jealousy creeping in. I wish I could do that, I thought.
I wished this not because Bluebeard is a great book—though it’s close, one of Vonnegut’s best late novels—but because it was a Vonnegut. It’s been years since I’ve read him, and in the weeks since that train ride, I’ve come to see how much his work once meant to me, and how much I miss it now.
I discovered Vonnegut, unoriginally enough, in college. In a small used bookstore, long since vanished, a row of hardcovers caught my eye. I knelt and came up with Breakfast of Champions. The title was written in tiny aqua type; underneath, much larger, was the author’s name, in an appealing Cooper font. The name “Kurt Vonnegut” was both familiar and intrinsically appealing: spiky, ugly, and elegant. As I flipped through, I found crude pen drawings—tombstones, cows, an asshole. In between were passages like this:
Sparky could not wag his tail—because of an automobile accident many years ago, so he had no way of telling other dogs how friendly he was. He had to fight all the time. His ears were in tatters. He was lumpy with scars.
The humanoids told Don that if he went home with a whore, she would cook him a meal of petroleum and coal products at fancy prices.
A dinosaur was a reptile as big as a choo-choo train.
It seemed sad and strange and new. I was in. I gave five dollars to the smiling elderly clerk, walked it home, and, splayed in my beer-stained beanbag chair, flew clean through it. As it turned out, I’d been right: Breakfast of Champions was crushingly sad, thoroughly strange, and unlike anything I’d read. It was anguished by our mindlessness, but laced with knowing glee. Despite its outraged pessimism, it was quite a lot of fun. I needed more.
I returned to the bookstore and made its Vonneguts mine. A different second-hand shop kept their KVs behind the counter, as liquor stores do with their best stuff. The books back there were more expensive, but I didn’t care. Could I have those? I asked. Yes, please. All of them.
Though I read other authors in the months that followed, Vonnegut was the magnetic core of my reading world. I jumped from the brilliant (Cat’s Cradle) to the good (Player Piano) to the blah (Jailbird) to the brilliant (God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater). I was troubled by Mother Night, addled by Slaughterhouse-Five. On a visit home, I found Hocus Pocus on my father’s shelf, and promptly stole it away. Even at their leanest, Vonnegut’s stories worked by wheeling massive concerns—annihilation, fate, the return of Jesus Christ—through bloated cartoon worlds. He hit the pleasure centers with sickening ease; the junk was strong. I read his short stories and essays, interviews and speeches; I painted an elaborate gouache portrait of him. I befriended a collector of “Vonnegut ephemera” who claimed to have been a character in Slapstick. I pushed the books on others, then fretted for their return. I read The Eden Express, his son’s psychosis memoir. And then, within a year or so of finding Breakfast of Champions, I was done. It had been like bingeing on mangoes.
In this way, Vonnegut’s virtuosity was its own detriment: having fallen so hard for his humor-glazed rage, I had no choice but to rip through everything. There are plenty of other authors who I’ve liked just as much—T.C. Boyle, say, or Michael Chabon—but with them, I’ve never felt the completist urge. Riven Rock, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, and the rest have been set aside for the future. But Vonnegut disallowed such patience. Once I began, the existence of more fed a steady, low-grade mania.
It’s a testament to his skill that in the years since, I’ve never become embarrassed by that mania. There’s a tendency to disown one’s teenage enthusiasms, to feel that our supposed refinement has made us somehow wiser. To be sure, I’d rather sand off my nose than read Skinny Legs and All to the strains of Jethro Tull. But Vonnegut, though best-loved in the days of beanbag chairs and Escher prints, is different. Unlike Pirsig or Meddle or Jäger, he transcends the collegiate—too sternly pissed to be relegated to a rash and eager past.
So I’ve resolved to reread the man. I’ve taken my favorite Vonnegut novel, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, down from the shelf. To my surprise, having it so near has made me anxious, as if an ex-girlfriend has returned. Its tattered front cover is taped to the spine; its pages are flaky and tan. The back cover says that “Only recently has the general public become aware of his unique genius.” It’s old and frail, but its words remain pungent, tragic, insane:
“And then they tied me to a stake, burned me alive, and dumped my ashes into the nearest stream. As I say, I haven’t been back since.”
In the Guardian, Tim Adams bemoans the shrinking selection and big budget marketing fees wrought by ongoing consolidation in the British bookselling industry (taking their cues from the American chain stores, it seems.) Behind this trend is the head buyer of Waterstone’s, a man named Scott Pack.(via Using Books Weblog)
Not too many David Mitchell blurbs out there, and some of them are quite brief – cropped for maximum impact by editors, I suspect. Note as well the extremely British use of the term “wrong-footed.”For Strangers by Taichi Yamada: “Highly recommended. A cerebral and haunting ghost story, which completely wrong-footed me.”For The Memory Artists by Jeffrey Moore: “combines smartness and wisdom”For Book of Voices: “A treasures box”For Silence by Shusaku Endo: “One of the finest historical novels written by anyone, anywhere… Flawless”For Maps for Lost Lovers by Nadeem Aslam: “It depicts an extraordinary panorama of life within a Muslim community… Thoughtful, revealing, lushly written and painful, this timely book deserves the widest audience.”See also: Jonathan Safran Foer: The Collected Blurbs
Two new books from Princeton Architectural Press crossed my desk recently. Jason Bitner is one of the guys behind Found Magazine, where bits of discarded ephemera are turned into art or maybe a decontextualized historical record of the present day. Bitner calls it “a show-and-tell project.” When he found over 18,000 studio portraits from the 1950s and 60s in the back of a diner in a small, Midwestern town, they became the star of a new show-and-tell project. La Porte, Indiana is the name of the town where Bitner found the photos and the name of the book he made from them. As Bitner describes it in his introduction to the book, “we rifled through an entire town’s population, as if it were a card catalog, a huge visual archive of Midwestern faces.” As with looking at any of the FOUND crew’s finds, flipping through this book leaves one with odd sensations. We’re not used to seeing stuff like this so lovingly presented, so it makes us look a little harder. As I flip through the book, I enjoy the unintentional artistry of the black and white portraits, but more so I wonder who these people are or were. There’s more about the book at this Web site.A Year in Japan by Kate T. Williamson is an illustrated travelogue. Williamson, an illustrator and filmmaker, spent a year in Japan, filling notebooks with her illustrations and observations. This book is like peering into those notebooks. Williamson’s curly cursive elaborates on her rich, colorful drawings. Most of the illustrations are of details of every day life: foods and clothing, but they are exotic both in being from in Japan and in the care Williamson lavishes upon them, presenting them in close up on the page. But there are also portraits, collages and abstract compositions.