Probably won’t be able to post for the next day or two since I’ll be in New York at the Kingsland Tavern celebrating the Realistic Records release of the Recoys album. Have I mentioned this? Should be a blast. But don’t worry, I’ll be back with many more books to talk about, and hopefully some added features for this little blog of mine. Bye for now.
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.
And just like that, my Los Angeles chapter has been brought to a quick and frenzied close. After a marathon of packing and a lot of time spent trying to make all of the junk we acquired over the last few years disappear, Ms. Millions and I set off east through the desert, nine and a half hours behind schedule but determined to make up the time. Unlike four years ago when we spent three weeks driving five thousand miles, pausing often, here and there, when we found a place that held our interest, this trip was a delirium of driving, hundreds of miles between stops, trying to keep the needle of the speedometer above 90 as we traversed desolate stretches of highway in New Mexico and Texas. But now I am in Washington, DC, which will be my base of sorts for the summer, leading up to and beyond my wedding until it is time to move to Chicago. I no longer have a fantastic book store at my disposal, but I am hoping to offer some insight, now purely as a reader, even though my bookselling days are behind me. Another thing I would like to do this summer, between wedding planning and hopefully a little traveling, is work. If anyone out there knows of or can offer me an internship for the summer, preferably in journalism, let me know. I don't need to be paid much or at all, really; just looking for some experience and for something to do. Email me if you can help. But enough of that, on to some books.While on the road, I received an email from Steve from Virginia containing a couple of recommendations. First, noting my interest in the books of the British war historian, John Keegan, he suggested that I endeavor to read The Mask of Command as it is, in his opinion, Keegan's best. Also of note: Keegan's latest, The Iraq War, will be released soon. It will be interesting to see how a man of Keegan's expertise analyses such a modern and non-traditional conflict. Steve also wrote in suggesting that I take a look at Nicholas Rankin's Telegram from Guernica, a book about George Steer, the South African war correspondent who broke the story of the firebombing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. Thanks for the recommendations, Steve!As I was packing up to go, I heard on the radio an interview with the author of a new book called, Hideous Absinthe: A History of the Devil in a Bottle. Jad Adams, the British journalist behind this book, wanted to explore the curious hold that this beverage had on generations of artists and writers who were looking for inspiration.Finally, I caught this amusing little story about the intersection of fiction, marketing, and copywrites. The cover of Tom Perotta's Little Children will be switched from goldfish to cookies sometime soon.
10. Angstrom and Zuckerman Fistfight in Heaven, by John Updike, as told to Philip Roth"World-weary Lieutenant Nathan Zuckerman's got one day left until retirement. But when the district commander pairs him with hot-headed rookie Rabbit Angstrom, s--t gets bananas.."9. Moms are Not Nice, by Christopher Hitchens"The next in this droll Englishman's series of fearless attempts to speak truth to power. To be followed in 2009 by Your Furniture is Ugly."8. War & Peace Redux: The Official Restored Director's Cut (with Deleted Scenes and Commentary)"Finally, experience this great novel as the author intended it! 3,000 pages of previously unreleased material flesh out Prince Andrew's sordid backstory, and introduce us to one of Tolstoy's greatest creations, 'Crazy Uncle Louie.'"7. Cookin' with the Franz, by Jonathan Franzen"Learn how to cook, the Jonathan Franzen way!"6. Tammy O'Shanter and the Curse of the Missing Cowpoke, by Michael Chabon"Once again, the award-winning novelist puts his unique stamp on our favorite fictional genres: in this case, Horror, Western, and Leprechaun."5. Bigger Than You and You are Not Me or Him and Her, by Miranda July"Envelope-pushing first novel."4. How We Became You and What It May Mean, Someday, Someday, Never by Dave Eggers"Envelope-pushing story collection."3. Ten Days Later in the Hills, by Jane Smiley"A group of chatty and libidinous zombies retreat to the Hollywood Hills for a week of stimulating politico-philosophical dialogue and sexual athleticism. That's right: zombies."2. A Perfectly Fine Generation, by Tom Brokaw"Just in time for Father's Day, Brokaw brings Baby Boomers a much-needed reminder that, hey, they're just fine."1. Finite Jest, by David Foster Wallace"The expurgated version (180 pp)."[*Editor's Note: Not Actual Books]