Yet another use for books (other than reading them): pile them up and use them as a bar.
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.
Two British papers have put out their “best books” lists for the year. The Guardian asked some literary luminaries to pick their favorites, while The Independent compiled a mega-review that amounts to the story of 2004 in books. If you like year-end “best of” lists about any and all things, check out Fimoculous, who is collecting them.Bookspotting: spotted on the el: Best New American Voices 2005. Everyone says the short story is dead, so it’s nice to see people reading a collection while they’re out and about.
I got a real kick out of this story about Edward P. Jones doing a reading at a Volvo dealership near Washington, DC.The reading at the car dealership may have been one of the stranger marriages of highbrow art and the mass market. Even Jones said afterward that when he got the invitation, he figured that he’d be appearing at a school or in a conference room. “I’ve never been in a car dealership before, not having a car,” he mused. “But I used to pass by here on the bus.” Classic. And, by the way, is this the sort of thing we all talk about when we wish that literary fiction got more exposure? I think maybe it is.
It can only be with mixed feelings that we reiterate what you’ve probably already heard: David Foster Wallace was indeed well into a new novel at the time of his death last fall. At The New Yorker, D.T. Max’s long fact piece (accompanied by an excerpt) reports that the novel was to be called The Pale King and concerned the I.R.S., as we had speculated last year. “Good People,” which appeared in The New Yorker, and “The Compliance Branch” (whose publication in Harper’s triggered those speculations) were both parts of the novel-in-progress.The Howling Fantods (the preeminent website for Wallace readers) lists a couple of other fragments that may or may not have been linked to this longer work. Of the uncollected Wallace fiction I’ve read, “Three fragments from a longer thing” and especially the “Peoria” pieces from TriQuarterly (which I don’t think anyone has connected to the longer manuscript) strike me as remarkable, and thematically of a piece. That the “Three fragments” are no longer available online suggests they are part of the incomplete Pale King manuscript, which Little, Brown will publish next year. The resulting book will probably be more like The Arcades Project than 2666 – a blueprint, rather than a raised edifice. The fact that Wallace was already reading and publishing from it may allay some of the queasiness associated with posthumous publication. Still, as of this writing, that seems at best a complicated kind form consolation.See also: David Foster Wallace 1962 – 2008
I dropped my buddy Cem off at the airport today. I’m a little jealous because he is embarking on a world tour that is sure to be remarkable. He is starting out with a brief stop in Australia, followed by extended stays in Thailand and Vietnam. After this, he intends to live in Cairo for a few months with jaunts to Turkey and possibly some other Middle Eastern locations… maybe even Baghdad if the cards fall a certain way. He has assured me that he will be keeping track of his wanderings via his brand new blog, complete with a title inspired by Maqroll which I gave him to read. It’s the ultimate book for any traveller.