So, I just landed about three hours ago, and it’s good to be back. Travelling is great fun, but it wears you out too. I am looking forward to my own bed and getting rid of my suitcase for a while, plus, I was running out of books. I read a bunch while I was in Ireland, but I didn’t get a chance to post here. (Sorry). Surprisingly, the internet cafes in Ireland all had fast connections and good computers, but I was never able to sit at one for than fifteen minutes. There was too much to see and do. So…. where was I? Before I left Barcelona I read The Lonely Hearts Club by Raul Nunez, which took only about a day. First and formost, the book suffers from a poor translation by a gentleman named Ed Emery. The text is littered with annoying British drivel like “he wondered what colour knickers she wore” and “I’m also very fond of this girl with a squint.” To be more precise, it wasn’t just a regular BBC British but more of an in your face Guy Ritchie movie British. I had to make an effort to keep the British accent from creeping into my head while I was reading, which was annoying because I was trying to relish the experience of reading this little novel set in the sweaty apartments of Barcelona while I was sitting in a sweaty apartment in Barcelona. The whiny British voice in my head just didn’t fit the scene. To be fair, Serpent’s Tail, the publisher, is a British press so I guess they’re just serving their audience. The book itself is very brief and somewhat derivative in a John Fante or Charles Bukowski sort of way in both style and theme. There are especially parallels to Fante’s Ask the Dust. Nunez’s hero, Antonio aka Frankie, shares with Fante’s Arturo Bandini a rooming house lifestyle, girl troubles, and a drinking problem. Bandini, though, is a noble character. He is struggling to be a writer, and he wants to find love. Frankie is just down on his luck, and this little book merely recounts a bizarre episode in his life. With spare prose, Fante manages to go deep into the psyche of his character. Nunez substitutes shock value for depth of character with predictable results. For a book that can be read in an afternoon, though, I’d say it’s worth a look, if only because it is entertaining in an enjoyable voyueristic sort of way. More later….
Last May, I wrote a piece for this site titled “Are Picture Books Leading Our Children Astray?” It was a look at the messages secreted within books for young readers—messages promoting revolution, naïveté, and the unchecked spread of lice. The article drew a strong response, and I was dismayed by resistance to my vigorous quest for truth. One respondent wrote that I “need to relax;” another said, “Subversive plots can be found in anything even a cereal box.” As to that last, I don’t doubt it for a moment. The next time you’re in the supermarket, inspect a box of Alpha-Bits. What you’ll find in that milk-splashed bowl will shake you to your core.
As to the charge that I was too uptight about Ferdinand and its ilk, however, I must forcefully disagree. To the contrary, I don’t believe that I’ve been uptight enough. And in the months since the article ran, my son has amassed more books—books that, as you’ll soon see, want to mold him into an obsessive-compulsive Communist with a mad penchant for nudery. The quest, as always, continues.
Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown
A tale of unbearable emptiness, Goodnight Moon is at once a dusky nightmare and a paean to OCD. A young rabbit, wishing to escape the oppressiveness of its bedroom—a red-and-green Fauvist horror—must, in a brutal twist, neurotically catalogue the very items which torment its waking hours. In a steady incantation, the leveret bids farewell to the burdens of its world: a rancid bowl of mush; a stiff white comb; two cats who wait to pounce. All the while, the creature is menaced by an “old lady” who urges him to “hush,” annoyed by the youngster’s mewling (a bottle of sherry, no doubt, awaits her in the kitchen). Goodnight Moon’s message is unremittingly bleak: psychological escape is hard-won—yet the more necessary it is, the more transitory it becomes. Goodnight, fleeting hope.
If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Joffe Numeroff
Would you like to know what happens when you give a mouse a cookie? In Numeroff’s estimation, the result is relentless exploitation—the mouse will drink your milk, use your crayons, chew your bendy straws. It will sap you, leave you slumped and dirty—whereupon the parasite will demand more milk, keen to restart the cycle.
For the boy in the story, the relationship is presented as soul-eating toil—curious, given how tirelessly the mouse works to repay his kindness. It “sweep[s] every room in the house,” “wash[es] the floors,” draws a Walker Evans portrait of its indigent rural family. The picture lays bare the mouse’s hidden past: in its background we see a rickety shack, its roof held up by a brace of spindly twigs. We recall that when it arrived, the mouse was wearing a knapsack. Its overalls are faded, ill-fitting; its tiny feet are bare. It has found the boy at the end of a trying journey, perhaps parting ways with a coyote just a few short days before.
Yet we are not meant to sympathize. Quite the opposite. If You Give a Mouse a Cookie is a prescient endorsement of today’s anti-immigrant conservatism: though mice may scrub your floors and tidy your house, their presence portends catastrophe: they’ll want milk, straws, schools for their 14th Amendment “anchor babies.” No, best to keep your cookie, refuse the rodent at your front yard’s fence—which, in a perfect world, would feature camera towers, razor wire, and Skoal-dribbling Minutemen.
Mr. Clever by Roger Hargreaves
The orange, bespectacled Mr. Clever lives in “Cleverland,” a place of entrepreneurial bounty. Here, alarm clocks not only ring, but switch on lights, brew tea, and predict the weather. Toothbrushes “[squeeze] toothpaste onto the brush out of the handle”; toasters “spread [toast] with butter and jelly, AND cut off the crusts.” Ingenuity has liberated Cleverland’s citizens, none more than Mr. Clever himself—yet when he strolls into a neighboring town, he finds himself mentally neutered: in this nameless morass, Mr. Happy demands a joke, but Mr. Clever cannot recall one. Mr. Greedy requests a recipe, but Mr. Clever finds that he “doesn’t know any recipes.” And on and on, until Mr. Clever, dazed by confusion and craving intellectual succor, attempts to return home—yet in a final authorial dagger, staggers off in the wrong direction.
Mr. Clever is disdainful of its protagonist’s creativity, revels in the stupidity that eventually swallows him whole. Mr. Clever’s neighbors resist innovation—yet they mock him as a dullard. The book envisions a Maoist utopia in which the masses are freed by fetid thoughtlessness. Better to scoff at free markets than to consider what wonders—tea-making alarm clocks, say—they might confer.
But the story does not end there. As was revealed in a November 1987 International Affairs exposé, “Roger Hargreaves” was a pseudonym for Choe Yong-Nam—the notorious former head of North Korea’s culture ministry. Mr. Clever, indeed.
Once Upon a Potty by Alona Frankel
Once Upon a Potty is often hailed as a toilet-training aid, and perhaps rightly so (my son is still in diapers, so I can’t yet testify to the book’s efficacy). But on a gut level, Potty is plainly disturbing. For one, it features images of a toddler’s anus that, in any other context, would land Frankel on some sort of watch list. And its pages teem with coiled turds: dysentery-ridden waste rendered in loving burnt sienna. But there’s a more pressing issue at hand: after little Joshua—the story’s grinning, crapping hero—learns where to drop his bombs, he does not once wear pants. Empowered, he careens about in a flouncy pink tank-top, eager to showcase his bits. Has his mother been so successful in his toilet-training—which, in the introduction, Frankel says “enhances the child’s confidence and pride”—that she has created an exhibitionist? More troubling: will he ever wear pants again? Once Upon a Potty was first published in 1980, meaning that Joshua would now be in his early 30s. As such, it would be little surprise to soon see a harrowing sequel: Once Upon an Indecent Exposure Conviction.
Nobel Laureate Doris Lessing has delivered her acceptance speech. In it, she discusses her native Zimbabwe, where there is still a thirst for books even amid oppression, inflation, and deprivation. “Having taken a box of books out to a village – and remember there is a terrible shortage of petrol – I can tell you that the box was greeted with tears.” Her speech doesn’t offer specific ways to help, but look at another recent post here for other ways to give back with books.Those in a charitable and literary mindset may also be interested in an auction being held by the Paris Review to benefit the venerable magazine. Contained within, a number of intellectual big ticket items, including lunch with editor Philip Gourevitch. $450 gets you the top bid for that lot. The auction ends on December 13th.
I got a real kick out of this story about Edward P. Jones doing a reading at a Volvo dealership near Washington, DC.The reading at the car dealership may have been one of the stranger marriages of highbrow art and the mass market. Even Jones said afterward that when he got the invitation, he figured that he’d be appearing at a school or in a conference room. “I’ve never been in a car dealership before, not having a car,” he mused. “But I used to pass by here on the bus.” Classic. And, by the way, is this the sort of thing we all talk about when we wish that literary fiction got more exposure? I think maybe it is.
If you read a lot of blogs, you’ve either discovered RSS by now, or you are spending a lot of time visiting your favorite sites each day. If you don’t know what RSS is, this site explains it pretty well. Basically, you can subscribe to the blogs that you like, and when the owner of a blog puts up a new post, it shows up in your “feed reader.” No more checking and rechecking all your favorite blogs to see if anything new has been posted.The really cool thing is that lots of newspaper sites have begun to jump on the RSS bandwagon in recent months, and now you can subscribe to their news feeds, most of which are divided into categories – world news, sports, etc. Why do we care about this at The Millions? Well, a handful of newspapers now have special feeds for their book sections, making it much easier to stay on top of all the reviews and book industry gossip. All the links listed below are to book news feeds. If you are already set up with a feed reader, go ahead and subscribe. If you aren’t set up yet, I recommend using Bloglines or My Yahoo. Here are the feeds I’ve found so far:New York Times > Bookswashingtonpost.com – Book Worldwashingtonpost.com – Jonathan Yardley – The Post gave Yardley his own feed, which I think is pretty cool.Guardian Unlimited BooksChristian Science Monitor | BooksLondon Review of BooksPowell’s Books: Overview – You may have seen Powell’s Review-a-Day where each day they post a book review from places like Salon.com, New Republic, and the CS MonitorSeattle Post-Intelligencer: BooksTelegraph Arts | Booksbaltimoresun.com | books & magsNPR Topics: BooksArts and Letters Daily – ideas, criticism, debate – not strictly book news, but a consistent, daily collection of links to thought-provoking articles many of which happen to be book reviews (not included in the Book News via RSS feature to the right)added 2/16/06: USATODAY.com BooksThere are quite a few publications that don’t yet have book news feeds, but hopefully they will add them soon. If you spot any new book news feeds or know of any that I missed, leave a comment or send an email, and I’ll add them to this post, which as time goes on will become a compendium of all the book news feeds out there. Finally, if you don’t want to bother with setting up your own feed reader but still want to keep up on all the book news, you can go here.Update:I found some tools to aggregate the book news feeds, and now the latest book news shows up in the column to the right. Enjoy!
HarperCollins, which has been more and more active in many facets of the online world, is rolling out a “virtual book tour” with the BlogHer Advertising Network and Community. With hundreds of blogs in the network, BlogHer represents an ample crop of writers and readers for HarperCollins, which is spurred on by BlogHer’s data that among women who read blogs in the network “32 percent spent at least $100 purchasing books online in the past six months.” The idea is that HarperCollins will make review copies of several books available for bloggers in the network to read and review “and participate in book title discussions on their own blogs and on BlogHer.org.”It all seems like a perfectly reasonable plan to build an Oprah-like grass roots phenomenon, but I have two reservations. First, Oprah doesn’t have a special arrangement with any specific publisher, and while there is likely some corporate horse-trading behind the scenes when she makes her picks, at least we know she isn’t limited to only talking about selections from a small subset of all the books out there. Secondly, BlogHer operates an ad network. From the press release, it doesn’t appear as though HarperCollins will be buying ads through the network, but if that does happen, then this initiative will have crossed a line. Obviously, I have no problem with advertising on blogs and/or getting review copies from publishers, but advertising shouldn’t be explicitly tied to an initiative like this.Update: Some of the concerns I raised have been addressed in a followup post.