Mark Kurlansky is one of the primary practitioners of an interesting type of history book in which he takes a specific type of object or group of people and uses it as a lens through which he views history. Kurlansky has recently gained notoriety with three books that followed this sort of historical exploration: Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, Salt: A World History, and The Basque History of the World, all of which are clever and very readable and which, with their success, have spawned a sort of cottage industry (see: The Potato: How the Humble Spud Rescued the Western World by Larry Zuckerman, Tobacco: A Cultural History of How an Exotic Plant Seduced Civilization by Iain Gately, How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe’s Poorest Nation Created Our World & Everything in It by Arthur Herman, and many, many others.) Kurlansky, meanwhile, has a new book coming out that is a new twist on the one subject history book. It’s called 1968: The Year That Rocked the World, and it’s thesis is that 1968 was the year when the world grew up, so to speak. A book like this will probably be pretty fun for a couple of reasons: Kurlansky is a skilled writer and historian, who is sure to produce the sort of engaging history that is always a thrill to read; at the same time, it is always fun to take sides along the way when a writer decides to choose a such a specific thesis, one that will undoubtedly prove difficult to defend against claims of selective inclusion and omission of events in order to prove the point. I’m curious to see if he is able to pull it off.
I got a free cd through work the other day. It's called Stars and it's by Kazufumi Kodama. I've been trying to track down more info on this guy, but so far I haven't uncovered much. The music, though, is wonderful. It has a dub base to it, but it's skeletal with computerized beats and the spare plinking of steel drums and xylophones. Over top of all that is a soaring layer of trumpet. At times it reminds me of the background music to video games back before they had their own soundtracks full of real songs. It is a very interesting listen though. I haven't heard much else like it.
I have returned to the subject of the big televised book clubs a number of times since I started this blog nearly a year ago. I have reacted to them, at times, with shock, confusion, and dismay as when I was startled by the emergence of a new Oprah's Book Club, an event that necessitated placing a splashy red banner bearing Oprah's name across the cover of an American classic. Later on I would mellow out, having observed the profound (and mostly positive) effect that Oprah's new focus on classic literature was having on America's reading habits. And there was, of course, the piece that one time Oprah author Kaye Gibbons wrote emphasizing how important she found the club to be in getting more people to read. For most people who observe the book industry I think that the angst surrounding Oprah and the rest is dissipating, and most folks have come to realize that the good done by these clubs far outweighs the damage. A year ago it was possible to see the occasional angry screed directed against the proliferation of on air reading groups, but now, as Caryn James explains in this New York Times article, the ambivalence is waning. And, in fact, Oprah deserves a good deal of praise for both her selection of the Gabriel Garcia Marquez classic One Hundred Years of Solitude and the depth of the Book Club section of her website (which unfortunately requires you to register if you want to see it). So, the consensus seems to be that these book clubs are mostly good intellectually, but the impact of these clubs on the industry commercially cannot be overestimated. As this interesting roundup of the last ten years of bestsellers in USA Today shows, Oprah's club has become as important as blockbuster news stories and runaway cultural fads when it comes to creating mega-bestsellers. (By the way, how about the amazing five straight "book of the year" titles for the Harry Potter Series.)
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.
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Susan is taking it all in. The stories are more than she had hoped for. She was discovering the tales that I had hidden from her, but disturbingly they were changing my own memories of those events. Uncle was changing what I remembered. In The Cousin, the latest novella from John Calabro, our narrator is a reluctant explorer, bringing his Canadian wife Susan with him to a Sicily shifted in his memories from his childhood. He's detached, reluctant, full of loathing for his Sicilian uncle, and haunted by past events. His wife is more enthusiastic, more engaged, connecting the reader with the setting, while our narrator goes from harboring some hang-ups to dealing with his demons. In the last act, The Cousin turns twisted and surreal, as the narrator takes the astonished reader on a mind-bending journey unlike anything I've read. The Cousin is one of a series of novellas released last fall by Quattro Books, a Toronto outfit which counts Calabro himself as a founding publisher, and which mandated itself to champion the Canadian literary novella. They've even come out with a manifesto outlining six rules that must apply to any novella that they publish. Some of the rules are structural: the qualifying novella must be between 15,000 and 42,000 words long and between 60 and 150 pages. Other rules deal with the time-frame covered within the story, the number of characters, locations, and as Quattro is championing Canadian literary novellas, the author must be Canadian and Canada must factor in the plot or setting or character. The most interesting rule is that there must be either a reversal of fortune or some kind of realization or revelation. From Quattro’s manifesto: It is a narrative that draws heavily on a geographical and cultural landscape, real or imagined, or on the concept of a journey, physical or metaphysical, to carry it. It must be of a form and content that excites and surprises while exploring the underbelly or fringe of civilization where savage instincts and/or extreme otherness lie hidden. These rules are reflected in other novellas released by Quattro last year. In A Pleasant Vertigo, Egidio Coccimiglio tells the story of Gerard, a New York-based artist longing to make a comeback, and suddenly being wooed by rival dealers. The writing style is fast and free-floating, culminating, in the second half, in a dark and comic set-piece along the shores of the Mississippi. Brenda Niskala's Of All The Ways To Die is an inventive ensemble ghost story. A missing girl is the catalyst for Urma to summon (actually invite to dinner) an eccentric group of departed souls, to help shed some light on the whereabouts of the girl, and on life itself. Throughout the dinner, we learn not only their stories, but their connections to Urma. The dinner, by the way, is pot-luck, and each guest shares with the reader a special recipe. Harbour View is Binnie Brennan's lovely and amusing story of a Halifax nursing home. Characters - the residents and workers of the home - bounce off each other, their stories revealed as we briefly see and hear the world through each of them. There's warmth to the wit. Here are Buddy's thoughts on assorted nursing home staff: Sam speaks softly, unlike Muriel and the others who are trained to speak so that the deaf may hear them. Sam's quiet is a relief, like the silence when an aircraft cuts out: you don't really notice the racket until it's over. The novella has always been a favorite literary form, and while writers have never stopped writing short forms of fiction, Quattro is to be commended for giving this literary form some formal shape and focus. And there's plenty of room within the structure for all sorts of tales to be told, and voices to be heard.
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[Ed. Note: Emre is back with another multi-part reading journal. Here's the first installment. Enjoy.]Hello everyone, it has been a long time since I sent a post, but I go in spurts, so here it is. When I last left off, I had just finished reading Walker Percy's The Moviegoer, after which I was thirsty for a piece of non-fiction. What better, then, to turn to Ryzsard Kapuscinski's The Soccer War, which I had knowingly put off in an effort to not finish all his works at once. Upon reading The Soccer War, I understood better why Cem Ozturk, ambassador to Japan, refused to lend me his copy. The Soccer War is Kapuscinski's most romantic work, especially with regards to the unbelievable stories he narrates and the naked truth and language with which it is related to the reader. The straightforward and brief history of the actual Soccer War is so interesting that I ended up going online and researching the event further out of sheer curiosity. Despite the title, Kapuscinski's main focus is, again, Africa, but he also touches on life in Poland and there is a brief chapter on Cyprus after the Turkish invasion. The stories are, as usual, very humane and Kapuscinski's tone and approach to his subjects is awe inspiring. I got the usual urge to go forth with the rest of Kapuscinski's works, but am - probably for the last time - putting that urge aside for later pleasures.Next I turned to Karen Heuler's Journey to Bom Goody. Forbes, the main character, is an ordinary man living in peace and harmony until one day he loses his family. As a result, he takes on a project long contemplated but never dared. When the reader meets Forbes, he is already in Latin America, traveling up the Amazon River to perform his tests. Forbes, however, is an aspiring scientist who lacks the training, and therefore makes rather ignorant and arrogant moves in the name of bold experimenting. Switching to a guide, Ping, who believes to be the love child of his mother and a dolphin and does not speak a word of English, is the first big move Forbes makes. Along the way, Forbes loses his guide and meets a white woman, supposedly doing medicinal research. While the Tina abhors the chummy, helpless white man, Forbes is both loving, and contemptuous of Tina for being comfortable and fluent in such foreign lands. One day, Forbes realizes that his experiments have long been out of control and starts observing the outcomes which weave together him, Tina, local tribes, Ping and the Amazons. Journey to Bom Goody takes a rather trite idea (what if Latin American natives examined us, instead of the opposite) and creates an interesting story around it. The novel is a mix of ordinary characters in unusual circumstances, usual ego wars in unlikely settings, and fresh viewpoints of the society that we live in.See also: Part 2, 3, 4
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