Ms. Millions, who listens to KCRW (LA’s hipster/NPR beacon) while at work, heard somebody mentioning quirky holiday book gifts on the NPR show Day to Day and immediately thought of me. I’m a lucky guy. From a list, which she scrawled in her delicate feminine hand, I’ve gleaned a few books worth mentioning… and I commend the folks at Day to Day for coming up with some quirky books. The Girl Who Played Go is a novel by Shan Sa, a Chinese writer by way of France, who won a number of international awards for her previous novels, including the French heavyweights the Prix Goncourt and the Prix Cazes. This book, her first to appear in English, tells the story of a 16-year-old Manchurian girl and a Japanese soldier who tragically fall in love in the midst of war in the 1930s. From Manchuria to Tuscany: the NPR culture mavens also mentioned a new book by the photographer Joel Meyerowitz, who is pretty well known for landscape photography that is rich in color and clever with light. Tuscany: Inside the Light is a pleasant take on a charming place. And now from Tuscany to….. the bomb shelter? 100 Suns is an eerie collection of photographs of mushroom clouds from atomic bomb testing sites at the height of the cold war. The mushroom cloud is a familiar, iconic symbol, and seeing so many in one place with such a stark presentation is an oddly moving experience. The book was put together by Michael Light, who salvaged and reprinted the photographs. He did the same thing a few years back with NASA’s collection of lunar photography in a book called Full Moon. Thanks to the little lady for giving me some books to talk about
Tomorrow is Frank Wilson’s final day as book editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer. This is notable not just because fragile book sections can ill afford to lose advocates like Wilson and not just because of the boisterous and popular link blog, Books, Inq, that Wilson ran on the side (and has hinted he will continue.) It is notable because as much as anyone in the literary world, Wilson embodies the positive changes that have gone on among both the media and the masses in the discourse surrounding books.About a year ago, in taking stock of book blogs’ place in the world, I noted that “though there has sometimes been an unhealthy ‘us against them’ mentality between bloggers and professional critics, in many ways this friction has melted away as critics have become bloggers themselves and as a number of talented bloggers have begun to invade the book pages, providing a pool of talent and a new voice to book review sections that were shrinking and stultified.”In this last regard, Wilson was key. While some of his colleagues looked upon bloggers warily, concerned that these “enthusiasts” would squeeze them out by doing their work for free, Wilson was prescient enough to recognize the enthusiasm and talent of quite a few bloggers. Though he was not the first to look to the blogs, he was perhaps the most fervent in tapping this new pool of talent, giving people like Ed, Scott, and Levi the wider audiences that they deserved.All of this is also important in the context of what’s going on in the newspaper industry. Wilson has not announced the particulars of his departure – which to this observer seemed sudden – but the Inquirer is as embattled as any newspaper out there. Late last month, Jim Romenesko reported, “Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News chief Brian Tierney told his unions… that there will be ‘a dire situation’ by summer or fall if the company can’t find ways to cut costs by 10%.” However, while many of Wilson’s colleagues across the country rail against the fate of the industry, Wilson tried something new, both with his blog and by reaching outside of the normal circles for writers.Finally, as a fairly recent transplant to Philadelphia (one who has quickly come to love the city), I will feel Wilson’s departure more personally. In a once great newspaper town, Wilson was something to hold onto, even amid the “dire” warnings of the Inquirer and the Daily News. Luckily not everything is so dire. Though Wilson will leave behind his book section, he will continue to be part of a literary conversation that it is as vibrant as it has ever been. Fueled by readers, this conversation has migrated from book club meetings and bookstore aisles out into the open, amongst all the blogs, newspapers, and magazines that choose to take part.
Some news stories that caught my this morning:People come into the bookstore all the time to make lists of books that they want to read. Then they head over to the library to try to find them. Every once in a while a doleful customer will remark that the book that he or she wants to read has an interminable waiting list. From these folks and from personal experience I know that it can be next to impossible to borrow a bestseller from the library. What I didn’t know is that adding your name to those waiting lists inspires libraries to buy more books. As this article describes, a waiting list of 296 people prompted the Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, Michigan library system to buy 96 copies of The Da Vinci Code. So, signing up for library waiting lists is a way to give a boost to the book industry, even if you never spend a buck.Amazon’s UK site has launched an interesting venue called the Authors’ Lounge. The Authors’ Lounge features video clips of authors talking about their books. Right now they’ve got John Le Carre talking about his new book Absolute Friends as well as several other folks.
Very clever of The Morning News to do this whole bracket competition with their Tournament of Books, because here I am writing about it again. I can’t help myself, especially with the palpable frisson of being tied for first. In all seriousness, though, I’ve greatly enjoyed both the write ups by the various judges and the attendant banter by Kevin Guilfoile and John Warner. Today’s installment, pitting Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day against Pride of Baghdad, a graphic novel by Brian K. Vaughn and Niko Henrichon was, as judged by Anthony Doerr, particularly entertaining. The whole exercise has served as reminder, especially in light of recent controversies, that engaging with books in this fun and perhaps silly way can be just as worthwhile as “serious” criticism, especially if one counts among his goals getting more people to read more good books.Regardless of the merits of TMN’s endeavors, though, I am in it to win this thing, and I remain tied with the formidable Condalmo. I fear, however, that I may be peaking early in this contest. The “zombie round” may yet give me new life, but as it stands now, my two finalists, Apex Hides the Hurt and The Echo Maker, are out of the competition.
Here at The Millions we’ve praised Woody Allen’s writing over the years – Andrew discussed Without Feathers in 2005 and I did the same a year later. For fans like us, it’s been a good month.While Allen’s movies have been coming along unabated for decades, there’s been less on offer for fans of Allen’s writing. But this month, for the first time in 25 years, Allen has a new humor collection out. Mere Anarchy collects many of Allen’s recent New Yorker pieces as well as some new material. Supplementing that slim volume is The Insanity Defense, which puts Allen’s three earlier collections under one cover – Without Feathers is joined by Getting Even and Side Effects. Both new books are must haves for Allen fans.
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.
I know that some folks out there are interested in the travels of our friend Cem. But because he is currently somewhere near the border of Thailand and Burma, it has become difficult for him to update as often as he (or we) would like. Therefore I have taken it upon myself to excerpt some of the emails that we have been exchanging. I do this partly because it’s another way to keep track of this wily character but also partly because I always find talk of travels to be a good igniter of interesting discussion. So, lets leave it at that for now. His last email bore some good news for Realistic Records (from halfway around the world no less!!) as well as the sort of scheming that would make Maqroll and Bashur proud ( You should really read this book! Gabriel Garcia Marquez loves it. And frankly, I think it might be the best book I’ve ever read. I gave it to Cem to read while he travels around the world. You can see how it has already attached itself to his psyche):max,couple things.1.a qoute from my friend kevin, a serious music junkie and collector, whose taste in music i respect more than anyone i know. this email was sent to me before i told him to buy your record:”music-wise, soulseek is still saving my life. i’m watching out for the RIAA these days, though. $150,000 a song! http://www.cnn.com/2003/TECH/internet/07/01/download.music.ap/index.htmlmy top 8 albums in 2003 so far: (no particular order)junior senior : d-d-d-don’t stop the beatdelgados : haterecoys : rekoysdat politics : plugs pluspostal service : give uporanges band : all arounderlend oye : unrestbroken social scene : you forgot it in people”thats right fooo! realistic up an runnin![2 is of little interest to you, faithful reader, so let’s move on to 3.]3.i think that ill be following maqroll, thanks very much. as you know and i now fear, this will mean going dead broke and having to figure a way out of it. i have already begun the most basic level of planning for a small import venture involving Burmese laquerware from Mandalay and/or ethnic textiles for sale in small markets and possibly wholesale to shops. i need to speak with Thibault. i am not kidding max – the stuff is beautiful, cheap, pleantiful, and there is noone selling it that i can find in the US. you will hear more on this later – i really think that it might work.. if it aroused your interests, Mr Bashur, we could both perhaps share in the success.all for now,cem.Indie Rockers kan rede 2Cem’s friend Kevin and his fantastic list of this year’s best indie rock reminded me of, what else, a book. If you walk down the music aisle in any bookstore you will see shelves and shelves of books about the Beatles and the Stones and their compatriots in classic rock. There will also be bulging shelves of books on jazz, blues, and even world music. Punk rock, once the vanguard of the antiestablishment even warrants it’s own chunck of shelf space (Please Kill Me by Legs McNeil is by far the best book on punk, by the way). But what about indie rock? Should a fan of this lowly but noble genre of music go without adequate reading material? No longer. A couple of years ago music journalist Michael Azerrad put together a book called Our Band Could Be Your Life that chronicles the rise and fall of thirteen seminal indie rock bands. Detailed chapters on Black Flag, The Minutemen (whose line from Double Nickels on the Dime supplies the title of the book), Mission of Burma, Minor Threat, Husker Du, The Replacements, Sonic Youth, Butthole Surfers, Big Black, Fugazi Mudhoney, and Beat Happening, effectively constitute the history of rock and roll for a generation of music fans.Hey Hey L. A.I’ve been in LA for almost 3 years now, and it long ago lost it’s shiny newness for me, but it’s still a big enough place that it continues to reveal itself to me bit by bit. The other day I was driving home from work and something I heard on the radio reminded me of the way radio stations in other towns that I’ve lived in used to do spoof versions of popular songs to make them refer to something going on in that city; like when I was growing up Washington DC and the morning drive guys were always playing Aerosmith songs that had been turned into spoofs of Mayor (for life) Marion Barry and his crack habit. For a second, whatever I was hearing on the radio made me think that they were playing a goofy made up song about LA. Then I realized that I wasn’t listing to a spoof song, but a real song, probably a song that’s very popular among the kids right now. It just so happened that this song, subconsciously almost, heavily references Los Angeles. The more I thought about this and the more I let it inform my music listening and TV watching and movie viewing, the more I realized that a huge portion of American pop entertainment consciously or, more frequently, subconsciously references Los Angeles in such a way that you could only really be aware of it if you have spent a decent chunk of time in this odd city. The implications of all this are somewhat startling. Many folks get upset that America’s monopoly on popular entertainment results in a monopoly of American values and beliefs. The reality, though, is that America’s popular effluvia is simply the values of Los Angeles and its accompanying entertainment culture masquerading as American culture. It’s possible that because I am simultaineously a Los Angeles insider and a Los Angeles outsider I am particularly apt to find this disturbing. Nonetheless, I can’t shake the feeling that this is not a particularily good thing.A couple more quick notesYesterday when I was out driving, I saw a car with this vanity plate: FAKE TAG. I gave a chuckle and then decided that it’s only funny if the plates really are fake.
Erik Larson has followed up his blockbuster book The Devil in the White City with Thunderstruck, another narrative history that ties together a pair of men one “good” and one “bad.” This time he focuses on “the Nobel Prize-winning inventor of wireless technology (Guglielmo Marconi) and the most notorious British murderer since Jack the Ripper (Hawley Crippen), who dispatched his overbearing wife in ways most foul,” according to a profile of Larson in the Seattle PI. In the PI profile Larson says that he didn’t want to do another history with a parallel structure, but in the end he couldn’t help himself.I found Devil to be an engaging read, but didn’t love it, writing: Despite, or perhaps because of, Larsen’s ability to craft such a readable story, the book does inspire some raised eyebrows at times. A scan through the notes at the end of the book reveals the times when Larsen speculates about his characters in the absence of hard facts. While I don’t necessarily disagree with this practice, these moments in the book tend to feel transparent. Likewise, the structure of the book is a bit flimsy as the three characters within share little but being in the same city during the same period of time, and the strenuous effort put forth by Larsen to connect these three characters tends to detract from the stories themselves, as each character is certainly worthy of his own book (even the poor, bewildered Prendergast). Despite these flaws, the book was still a delight to read.It sounds like Thunderstruck will be a book with similar strengths and weaknesses, but undoubtedly an engaging read.