Quote from the book I’m reading right now: I have always been suspicious of countries (or subcultures) in which a majority of the men wear mustaches, but Tunisia is a delight.
The New Yorker opened the week in a lather of controversy surrounding the cover of its latest issue. The Barry Blitt illustration is a rather heavy-handed satire of the various smears that have circulated about Barack and Michelle Obama. Essentially, that he is a closet Muslim extremist and she a closet militant. Blitt’s unsubtle drawing portrays them in the garb of these personas.Speaking as a New Yorker fan, I can’t stand these political satire covers. Aside from them not being very funny or interesting to look at, they lower the New Yorker to the level of the fray. The key to the New Yorker’s success, however, has been its ability to place itself above all that.Yes, the New Yorker is quite obviously a left leaning publication, but its journalism strives for even-handedness and the entire enterprise is built on a reverence for the facts, as its legendary fact-checking operation attests. By “the fray” I do not just mean politics, I also mean the “here today, gone tomorrow” jokes and the offhanded irony that seem to permeate most of our culture. The New Yorker, meanwhile, has always been so (justifiably) secure in its status, that neither its contents nor even its ideological leanings require an advertisement on the cover, which historically has been given over instead to a piece of art that exists simply for its own sake.The political covers come across as jarring in this context. A couple of years ago another political cover caused a bit of controversy. The Bush/Cheney cover was a tired Brokeback Mountain rehash that got people riled up, and, as it turned out, it bumped a cover that was more topical and far more meaningful and in the spirit of the magazine.Apparently, I may have been in the minority in this view, as the Mark Ulriksen Brokeback cover, along with a political Blitt cover, won awards.It’s not even the political content of these covers that bugs me – there have occasionally been some good political covers – it’s their heavy-handed unfunniness that paints the magazine’s readers with a very broad brush. I don’t find the Obama cover to be offensive in the least, just easy and dumb.If you feel the same way I do (or even if you think I’ve lost it), dig into the archives and enjoy the hundreds of sublime and clever covers that have graced the New Yorker over the years.
The American press’ characterization of the late Roberto Bolaño as a one-time heroin addict is “stupid,” according to people close the the celebrated Chilean writer. The novelist Enrique Vila-Matas, in a recent El País column, joined European bloggers in suggesting that The New York Times Book Review’s allusion – “Bolaño was a heroin addict in his youth” – was “a biographical error.” Now, apparently, Bolaño’s widow, Carolina López, has written a letter to the Times clarifying the point.The letter, which we’re told will be published soon, will likely reiterate López’ comments after a recent festchrift for Bolaño’s work. At that celebration, the audience was treated to a dramatic reading of the story “La Playa” (“The Beach”), in which the narrator recalls his struggles to kick heroin. Afterward, concerned that there might be some confusion, López reiterated to performer Subal Quinina that “La Playa” was fiction.As we reported last week, “La Playa,” published as a newspaper column several years ago, was the source for Natasha Wimmer’s characterization of Bolaño as a recovering addict in the introduction to the paperback edition of The Savage Detectives. It was also the only specified source for Daniel Zalewski’s earlier mention of a heroin habit in The New Yorker. (Whence, presumably, it made its way onto the Bolaño Wikipedia page). Since then, heroin has become a ubiquitous detail in the American media blitz for 2666, and though the NYTBR may be the most recent example, references can be found in sources from The Buffalo News to Time to The Texas Observer…and The Millions.As we suggested last week, the myth of Bolaño as junkie neither honors nor dishonors the work; the two long novels, over time, will prove unassailable. However, if the heroin story is false, we owe it to the man to correct the record. And perhaps in the future we should all be more careful readers.
My friend Brian read yesterdays musings on libraries and wrote in with a couple of addenda…two things:1) you need to include tam tam books in your links… not only b/c it’s tosh [a co-worker and the founder of Tam Tam Books], but b/c it’s a very idiosyncratic, interesting, eccentric, and different site (much like the man himself…)2) loved the piece about “library angels and book fairies”, and very happy to see mention of borges (one of my all-time favorties), but you must make specific mention of his story “The Library of Babel” which is, without a doubt, the greatest story about a library ever written — the library… as a/the universe. a magical story that when i first read on the NYC subway, on my way downtown from hunter college, caused me to miss many a stop… i found myself in brooklyn, and so caught up in a borgesian daze and full of inspiration was i, that i chose not to go back the other way, but exited the subway in a strange part of town and explored, got myself dinner at a greek restaurant, chatted up a one-eyed drunk, then hopped back on the train and went home late that night, all hopped up on borges… (oh, how i miss the whirlwind that is nyc life!) – anyway, if you haven’t read this story, it’s short and ESSENTIAL. enjoy! [see page 112 of Borges’ Collected Fictions]Heard on the RadioToday while I was running errands, I was pleasantly surprised by some decent mid-day public radio that mentioned a couple of books that sound pretty interesting. First, I caught the end of a show that airs twice a month on KCRW called DnA. It’s devoted to design and architecture issues. Today’s guest was design writer Michael Webb who talked about his new book Brave New Houses: Adventures in Southern California Living. According to Webb, over the course of the last century, cutting edge architects have used the single-family home as a kind of laboratory in which they could try out some of their more avant-garde ideas on a smaller, less risky scale. Since, in comparison to most cities, Los Angeles is a very new place, it is home to many of these houses. RM Schindler, Richard Neutra, and Frank Gehry all built single family homes in L. A., and Webb’s book is a photographic record of this adventurous ground-breaking architecture.After spending a considerable amount of time in the post office, I got back in my car in the middle of an interview with compilers of another interesting-sounding book (I think the show was The World, by the way). Embedded: The Media At War in Iraq is an oral history of the journalistic experience of the war in Iraq. During and after the war, the two writers, Bill Katovsky and Timothy Carlson wandered from Kuwait City to Baghdad to Amman, and interviewed every journalist they crossed paths with. As they tell it, the resulting book inculudes many tales of both danger and poignency, which, taken as a whole, represent a singular record of the journalistic experience on the front lines.
The bad news is that the intensity of my grad school program is forcing me to post links in lieu of more substantial efforts. The good news is that I have really good links to tell you about.Some of you may see yourselves in “Thomas H. Benton” an assistant professor whose book collecting is “more than a gentle madness.”A remarkable collection of the top 100 American speeches of all time. There’s a transcript available for each one, and, in many cases an mp3 of the audio.Do you remember diagramming sentences in elementary school grammar class? I sure do. If only there had been a computer to do it for me. (use “guest” for login and password so you don’t have to register.)As I was mentioning before, grad school is getting to be very time-consuming, and, since I want to keep The Millions viable, I am currently soliciting the services of guest posters. It could be a one time thing or you could be a regular. If you’re interested, email me and we’ll discuss.
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.
Looking for a Ship by John McPhee pulled me straight out of the vertigo that was The Corrections. After I read the review on The Millions, read how journalists interviewed in The New New Journalism discussed McPhee, and found a cheap used copy on Amazon, Looking for a Ship made it to the top of my reading list. I started the book on my way down to a wedding in Virginia and finished it on the way back. Looking for a Ship struck me as a very nostalgic piece, with romantic characters, and a simple, fluid style. For all Maqroll fans out there, Looking for a Ship is a good insight to the way of the sea, as well as the tradition that is the U.S. Merchant Marines. John McPhee discusses the decline of the U.S. Merchant Marine, the shifty economics of commercial shipping, and the hazards and wonders of Latin American ports with a journalist’s matter-of-fact clarity and through the delicate eyes of an aging crew. The personal stories are heartwarming and interesting: sometimes they reflect on a sailor’s love for the sea, at other times on his contempt and wish to be land-bound; they scrape off all romantic ideas of working on a ship and demonstrate the hard tasks – 145 degree engine rooms, being the lookout from 4AM to 8AM, working 16 to 20 hour days, union laws restricting time of employment and the difficulty of finding a ship once allowed to work again, and pirates to state a few; and still it provides hope for the aspiring sailors with stories of finding the route using the constellations when the ship’s power fails – hence annulling the compass and the radar – or of one of the captains not trusting the tug boats, hence docking the ship himself at the risk of great cost and insurance liability if something were to go wrong. Looking for a Ship is one of the books I wished did not end.In the meantime, I also picked up the Collected Short Stories of Roald Dahl which includes stories from Kiss, Kiss, Over to You, Switch Bitch, Someone Like You, and Eight Further Tales of the Unexpected. It was quite entertaining reading the discussions about Harry Potter and the possibility of J.K. Rowling writing adult stories on The Millions the other day. Though I am a Harry Potter fan and will make no excuses about it I have no ideas of how Rowling would do with adult novels, but Roald Dahl surely succeeded in both genres. I remember reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory when I was quite young, but of course, the name of the author never struck with me. So, after reading a couple of stories at random from the Collected Stories, I read Dahl’s biography to my amazement and shock. I have yet to finish the collection, yet I already have my favorites: “The Visitor” and “Bitch” (the Uncle Oswald Stories, oh how I wish all 24 Volumes of Oswald were published), “Madame Rosette,” “Death of an Old Man,” “Vengeance is Mine Inc.,” and “Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life.” I feel that my selections are bound to change as I read on, but for the time being I would strongly suggest keeping a copy by your bed and reading a story each night, starting with the above.See also: Part 1, 2, 3, 4
Millions contributor Kevin has an incisive review of Jon Meacham’s popular new biography American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House in the New York Observer:It’s during the White House years that Mr. Meacham’s story takes hold. We see Andrew Jackson making the hard trip east from Tennessee to Washington where the political permanent class waits in judgment, wary of Jackson’s frontier background and fearful of the source of his power. Jackson’s landslide victory in 1828 marked the first time that a president was elevated entirely on the strength of popular support, and the Founders’ low regard for the common intelligence still percolated through Washington.