Last night, caught in some sort of TV doldrums, Mrs. Millions and I ended up watching “The National Scrabble Championships” on ESPN2. Two pasty guys hunched over a table doesn’t typically qualify as a sport, but we figured we’d allow ESPN2 this digression from its usual content. Or maybe since the poker shows have been such a hit, they’re trying to introduce more “seated around a table” activities to their lineup. Regardless, since we’re known to whip out the Scrabble board, we watched. It was mildly entertaining. One of the commentators was Stefan Fatsis, sportswriter for the Wall Street Journal and author of Word Freak, a look into the odd world of competitive Scrabble. A couple of years ago I gave the book to Mrs. Millions, and let her know that I’d like to read it when she was done. She ripped through it, and started talking about “bingos” and “combos” and other strange things. She read the book so intently that the it literally fell apart – torn binding, pages scattered everywhere – totally unreadable. So, I’ve never read the book. And she’s beaten me at Scrabble ever since.
Picture this: A thin little girl—freckled, pigtails askew, barefoot—wearing a nightgown, holding a pistol in one hand and brandishing a sword with the other. No, it's not Hit Girl (Chloë Grace Moretz's character in Kick Ass), nor an infant Lisbeth Salander. It's how you first meet Pippi Longstocking, on the title page of Astrid Lindgren's first Pippi Longstocking novel, illustrated by Louis S. Glanzman. Pippi is where Grrrl Power got its start, and if you're interested in the ancestral line of "grrls" like Lisbeth Salander, Hit Girl, The Hunger Games' Katniss Everdeen, or the slew of other gritty girls from the past year in film and fiction, Pippi Longstocking is grandmother of them all. In Lindgren's children's novels, first published in her native Sweden from 1945-48 and the US from 1950-57, and their Swedish film adaptations, starring the superb Inger Nilsson (1969-70), Pippi is a nine-year-old girl with superhuman strength, ingenuity, and self confidence, an endless supply of gold (from her pirate Papa), and a beautiful, shambly house named Villa Villekulla, where she lives by herself with her horse and Mr. Nilsson, a spider monkey (her mother is dead and her pirate father's at sea). Like her most notable descendent, Lisbeth Salander, of Steig Larsson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo franchise, Pippi is most easily recognized by her distinctive personal style: Pippi's hair is the color of a carrot, and usually done in two braids that stick out on either side of her head; she wears patch-worked dresses of her own devising, mismatched stockings, a giant hat, and men's boots twice the length of her feet. And her motto, which promises and delivers a happy ending in all of her adventures, is "I'll always come out on top." In both attitude and fashion sense, Pippi's nearest American relation is the spunky 1980's television character Punky Brewster (same wild pigtails, freckles, animal friends, outlandish clothes; a plucky can-do motto: "Punky Power!"). Lindgren's Pippi lives a child's wonderland life: no school, no rules, no bedtime, animals in the house, as many sweets as she can eat, victorious encounters with bullies, burglars, police, and pirates, homemade aeroplanes and air-balloon beds that actually fly. Pippi is invincible, irrepressible, fearless: What she sets out to do, she achieves. She's generous even in triumphing over the numerous bad men who think they can best her (her preferred method of dealing with the inevitably farcical villains who take her on is hanging them on walls or in trees). And she always wins: even when she—a puny-looking girl—is faced with a man-sized job, rescuing her father from a slew of pirates or wrestling the world's strongest man. If any of this triggers a twinge of familiarity, it may be because Stieg Larsson modeled Lisbeth Salander on Pippi Longstocking. According to Larsson's Swedish publisher, Eva Gedin, Larsson imagined Lisbeth as a grown-up, darker version of Pippi. Of course, there are tonal differences: Though Lindgren's Pippi never quite breaks the laws of physics, she's an impossible creature, a fantasy of empowerment: rich, self-confident, unnaturally strong, perpetually delighted, never compromising, never defeated. Larsson's plots may have their fantastic and implausible qualities--Salander is a fantasy of empowerment too, if a grittier one than Pippi--but Larsson's books do aspire to a certain realism and are particularly interested in the reality that the best and the strongest, the most strong-willed, don't win every battle (even if they win in the end). While Salander is locked in mental hospitals and children's homes against her will, turned over to a monstrous guardian whose abuses she cannot thwart, Pippi informs the police officers who've come to take her as a ward, "You'll have to get kids for your children's home somewhere else. I certainly don't intend to move there," and uses a lively game of tag to strand them on her roof. She then carries the officers out of the yard by their belts, giving them cookies as a no-hard-feelings parting gift. Pippi's endlessly obliging world certainly isn't Salander's; Pippi is a children's book heroine, after all. But Pippi and Salander do share a fundamental character trait: a deep sense of justice and courage in the pursuit of justice—very real, if increasingly rare, human qualities. In one of Pippi's first adventures, she stands up to five boys bullying a younger boy. She interrupts the bullies' taunting of the little boy and brings their taunts on herself. The bullies tease Pippi about her red hair and her clown shoes, but Pippi just smiles her friendliest smile and seems not to hear their taunts. This enrages the ringleader and he shoves her. So, Pippi calmly lifts the bully up and hangs him on a high tree branch, telling him, "I don't think you have a very nice way with the ladies." Pippi is, here and elsewhere, Lisbeth Light (or perhaps the other way round: Lisbeth is Pippi R or X). Both heroines are good at putting dangerous men in their places and both feel a deep sympathy for underdogs and innocents. Pippi's bully-hanging is the child's version of Lisbeth's often much more gruesome acts of justice: Lighting her father on fire in an attempt to protect her mother from him; Taking on the Harriet Vanger case, not for personal gain, but out of a deep hatred of violence against women, a desire to see justice served—and, like Pippi, Lisbeth serves her justice by herself. But with Lindgren's books—if you've got children to read to or if you can still muster a child's delighted sense of limitless possibility—there's a purer, simpler pleasure to be had in Pippi than in Lisbeth. This goes without saying, maybe: There are no atrocities in Pippi Longstocking, no dead and mutilated women, no chance of feeling like a sadistic voyeur or that the book's nominal feminism is actually a slick form of misogyny. But it's more than that: Pippi is a breathtaking vision of boundless, uninhibited possibility, and pretty funny while she's at it (so is the dubbing in the movies: Pippi's friend Annika has a NY/NJ accent that's to die for). Pippi's impossible, yes, a fantasy, but she might help you remember what it was like to believe in possibility, in unlikely powers and triumphs. She might also help you imagine a world yet to come of little girls who aren't Ophelias in need of reviving. "I can," says Pippi, when a circus ringleader asks for a volunteer who thinks he can beat a towering, hulking strongman in a wrestling contest. "Oh, no, you couldn't," Pippi's practical, goody-two-shoes friend Annika tells her, "he's the strongest man in the world." And Pippi cooly replies: "Man, yes, but I am the strongest girl in the world, remember that," and climbs into the ring. Guess who wins.
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Before I worked at a bookstore, books were just things to be read. I never gave much thought to the big glossy volumes that occupy a lot of shelf space in many book stores. But the world of so-called "coffee table books" is surprisingly varied, going way beyond books of art or photographs of faraway places. With impressive production values - and hefty price tags - these books are closer to works of art than literature. I was reminded of this after an article London Review of Books pointed me to a book called Disruptive Pattern Material: An Encyclopaedia Of Camoflage: Nature, Military, Culture. The heft and glossiness of such a volume, despite - or perhaps because of - its esoteric focus, somehow make it inordinately desirable to me. Taschen, the eccentric European publishing house known for its expensive and eclectic selections, also occasionally puts out books that have this affect on me, like the Cabinet of Natural Curiosities. And I'm a sucker for atlases, the bigger and glossier and more stuffed with maps and diagrams and charts the better, like the National Geographic Atlas of the World. I am especially intrigued by atlases devoted to a narrow topic like the Atlas of Contemporary Architecture.
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If you are like me, you are probably getting tired of politics. Politicians, political news, television ads from concerned citizens for this or that, conventions finally almost past, and debates still to come, I'm tired of all of it. Thank god someone decided that it was ok for people to make up big, long stories (or collect little, short ones) and for other people to read those stories. A diversion, if you like. So, what will divert us this month? T. C. Boyle, who has over the years become a bigger and bigger name in American fiction, has a new novel coming out called The Inner Circle. Set in 1940, the book is about a young man who works as an assistant for the sex researcher, Alfred Kinsey (a real historical figure), and quickly becomes embroiled in the sort of bizarreness one might expect from a novel by T. C. Boyle. I hope to read that one soon. If you're the type of person who likes to know about the next big thing, have a look at Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrel. You'll be hearing about this book a lot for the next few months, so you might as well read it. Touted as, what else, Harry Potter for grown ups, this debut novel by Susanna Clarke is set to release simultaneously in the US, Britain, and Germany with a first run of 250,000 copies (astronomical for a debut by an unknown writer). Part of the buzz stems from the subject matter; it's about magic, magicians, and mysticism, and with the success of Potter and Da Vinci Code these topics seem like a sure bet. But, according to many accounts, the book is not just timely, it's a great read. Those looking to avoid the buzz may want to try another debut novel, The Second Life of Samuel Tyne by Esi Edugyan. Tyne is an African immigrant who has raised his family in Canada. Circumstances and yearning for a better life lead him to relocate to Aster, a small town with a utopic history. He finds there a different set of struggles. For readers in the mood for something a little lighter and with a quicker pulse try The Little White Car a speedy little novel from Britain that sounds as energetic as Run, Lola, Run. The book was supposedly written by a new French talent, a young woman named Danuta de Rhodes, but skeptical British critics were quick to announce that de Rhodes is merely the alter ego of Dan Rhodes, known trickster and acclaimed author of Timoleon Vieta Come Home. Finally, those with a hankering for short stories might consider When The Nines Roll Over And Other Stories by David Benioff who previously wrote the novel The 25th Hour (which later was made into a movie by Spike Lee), and also The Secret Goldfish by David Means. Sounds a lot better than politics to me.The Inner Circle by T.C. Boyle -- Boyle's blogJonathan Strange & Mr. Norrel by Susanna Clarke -- previewThe Second Life of Samuel Tyne by Edi Edugyan -- excerptThe Little White Car by Danuta de Rhodes -- the scoop, reviewWhen The Nines Roll Over And Other Stories by David Benioff -- excerptThe Secret Goldfish by David Means -- excerpt, review
A "Minority Opinion" has been posted over at the LBC Blog by the Co-op members who were not fans of the first LBC pick - Case Histories by Kate Atkinson. Some good discussion is already brewing in the comments. As for me, I fall somewhere in between the Minority Opinion and the LBC members who wholeheartedly endorse the book. To me, Case Histories is a worthwhile read, but perhaps not up to par with the big things that many seem to be expecting from the LBC. The most vocal commenters seem to pulling for the Co-op to choose a book that is of impeccable quality, yet has been ignored by big publishing houses and major reviewers. If such a book exists, I hope we can find it for our readers. "Read This" picks aside, I think the LBC may also prove valuable in determining whether or not the Great American (or British, or Chinese, etc.) Novel is in any danger of being ignored or underappreciated.
NY-based readers are invited to "Step Inside the Book" at a reading/party I'm doing this Friday with Alex Rose (The Musical Illusionist) and Alex Itin (Orson Whales). Alex will be working his narrative/surroundsound magic, Other Alex will be screening his multimedia books, and I'll be showing art and reading fiction from A Field Guide to the North American Family. Drinks are on the house, I'm told, so if you're free, stop by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council's Swing Space, at 125 Maiden Lane, between 7 and 9 p.m. We now return to our regularly scheduled programming...