Inspired by the recent release of The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, podcaster Len of Jawbone Radio paid a visit to Bill Watterson’s home town, Chagrin Falls, Ohio. He ended up interviewing Watterson’s mom, laying eyes on some original Calvin and Hobbes artwork and sharing some interesting bits of trivia about the beloved strip.
Brandon, who runs the blog antimodal, has created a little application that “handicaps” the great 20th century novels. It allows you to assign scores for different features, like “stream of consciousness,” and themes, like the “Black experience.” The scores enable you to promote or penalize a book based on these different characteristics. Note that you can add additional categories to the ones already listed by pressing the “Add New Category” button at the top of the page. In Brandon’s words, “The book list is still a work in progress. I am not familiar with many of the books there, so if you have information that would help classify a book, let me know.” Check it out.
As anyone with a Gmail account knows, to send or receive an e-mail through Google’s electronic mail service is to have the impression that someone else is reading your mail. Mention the military in an e-mail – even disparagingly – and you will see, in the sidebar, beside the composition window, an ad for GoArmy.com. Mention Premier League football and you’ll get links to a panoply of stores selling Newcastle and Arsenal jerseys. This feeling of being watched and plied with goods and services that someone or something thinks you are likely to desire is rather odd at first (perhaps even creepy in a post-Patriot Act era). But it abates. You become a jaded “old boy” and don’t even notice the sidebar ads attempting to draw you in by ‘reading’ your missives. (Except, perhaps, for the odd time when, in writing to a student about plagiarism, the Google sidebar offers you a variety of online warehouses apparently chock-full of the same sort of stolen merchandise you are attempting to rail against.)At least until recently. A few weeks ago I began sending myself pieces of my dissertation as a means of backing them up. The sidebar’s offerings were unremarkable for several weeks (so unremarkable that I do not remember them and so cannot share them with you so that you too might remark on their unremarkableness).But this past weekend, something changed. As before, I attached the chapter, a Word document named Chapter 2, and wrote “Charke” in the subject line. (“Charke” refers to Charlotte Charke, a notoriously outlandish eighteenth-century actress famous for cross-dressing on and off the stage, whose autobiography is the subject of my chapter.) I pressed send. And suddenly my sidebar was INNUNDATED WITH ALPACAS: “How to get free Alpacas,” “Alpacas for fun & profit,” “Are Alpacas profitable?,” “Enjoy an alpaca lifestyle!”In that moment (a moment that has been repeated now several times – every time, in fact, that I send the Charke chapter to myself again), my whole concept of Gmail changed. I believe that Gmail is trying to tell me something about my future, and that future involves alpacas. What that future seems not to involve is recuperative literary analyses of neglected autobiographies by marginal eighteenth-century actresses.In that moment, I realized that the Gmail sidebar might be much more than we all thought it was. It might, in fact, be just the thing to fill those gaping holes in our post-modern psyches. Like the oracle at Delphi, haruspication, and all of the other delightful methods of divination devised by the Greeks, bibliomancy in the Renaissance and 18th century (aka “Bible dipping” for those of you familiar with Running With Scissors), seances in the 19th, and the Magic 8 Ball in the eighties and nineties, (not to mention tea leaves, crystal balls, Jim’s hairball in Huckleberry Finn…), the Gmail sidebar might just be the medium – I mean the clairvoyant medium – of our age. And it’s so much tidier than haruspication.I’ve got alpacas (free alpacas no less!), how bout you?
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.
Amazon has introduced a new feature that promises to be more useful than the Statistically Improbable Phrases feature that launched a few months ago. The “SIP” feature finds distinctive phrases inside books and then linked users to other books that contained those same distinctive phrases. For example, Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World contains five instances of the distinctive phrase “deer poaching,” which Amazon tells us also appears in several other books, including Deer and Deer Hunting Book 2: Strategies and Tactics for the Advanced Hunter. Amusing, but not terribly useful. Amazon’s new feature, Capitalized Phrases” or “CAPs,” links books by proper names and places, so by clicking on “King Lear” from among the CAPs for Will in the World, you get a list of books that mention “King Lear.” This seems like a potentially very useful research tool – especially if Amazon decides not to limit the results to twenty or so books as they are currently doing. These “phrases” features by Amazon also represent a foray into the relatively new Internet phenomenon of tagging, which sites like del.icio.us use to categorize Web sites. Since the process is external – in the case of del.icio.us, the tags are applied by users – and has a human element to it, sites that employ tagging have the potential to be “smarter” than those that rely on old-fashioned search engines. It will be interesting to see if Amazon begins to allow user submitted tags in addition to its Search Inside a Book data to create a deep and highly intuitive way of organizing its massive inventory.
A debut novel called Poppy Shakespeare is getting rave reviews in England. The book, by Claire Allan, follows the narrator “N” and the eponymous Poppy at the Dorothy Fish, a mental institution, among 25 residents, one for each letter of the alphabet, “the ‘X’ chair is vacant.” Some quotes from the British press: “Allan’s story comes armed with a voyeuristic potency, because she spent 10 years inside the kind of institutions she satirises so well.” – from The Independent. “Her voice is so idiosyncratic in its rhythms and terminology… her habit of exaggeration so surreal and her use of metaphor so extravagant, as to subtly transform the reader’s perspective of the natural order of things.” – from the Telegraph. In the Times (London), a profile of Allan charts her course through mental illness to become a published author. Also, the British cover is way cooler than the American one. An excerpt is available.Set in the fictional Middle Eastern kingdom of Kutar in 1983, Scott Anderson’s Midnight Hotel sounds like a broad satire of America’s travails in that region. Diplomat David Richards first toes the party line, but ends up abandoned in the country watching as American meddling goes awry. An excerpt is available. Scott Anderson is also a war correspondent like his brother Jon Lee Anderson, staff writer for the New Yorker, author of The Fall of Baghdad, and one of my favorite writers.Guillermo Arriaga wrote the screenplays for Amores Perros (which I loved) and 21 Grams (which I hated). The Night Buffalo is his first novel to be published in the U.S, though he originally wrote it 11 years ago. He’s also bringing it to the silver screen (as El Bufalo de la noche). In a profile, the Financial Times compares the novel to Amores Perros, saying that both are steeped in violence, but it sounds to me like 21 Grams, steeped in melodrama. From the jacket: “The Night Buffalo is set in Mexico City, revolving around the mysterious suicide of Gregorio, a charismatic but troubled young man who was betrayed by the two people he trusted most.” Still, I’ll see any movie he writes, so perhaps his novel is worth a try, too.Two-time Booker Prize winner Peter Carey has a new book out, Theft: A Love Story. The big news about this book is the claim that it is a thinly veiled attack on his ex-wife. The Independent has ex-wife Alison Summers’ side of the story: “The phrase ‘alimony whore,’ repeated within the pages of Theft: A Love Story, has left her feeling ‘devastated’ by Carey’s version of events.” Controversy aside, the Sydney Morning Herald sidesteps the drama and says of the book, which is, indeed, about a man who has been divorced and bankrupted by his former wife, “All in all, Carey’s new show contains much that is lively, engaging and teasingly self-referential.” An excerpt is available.