30 January 2012

The Code of the Woosters (P.G. Wodehouse)

Wodehouse at last! Now I compare writers to him like crazy.

I'd actually seen the events that take place in The Code of the Woosters in television form, as the first two episodes of season 2 of the beyond-brilliant BBC adaption starring Hugh Laurie as dissolute, ditzy aristocrat Bertie Wooster and comic partner Stephen Fry as his unflappable and erudite butler Jeeves. Here are some adjectives which describe Wodehouse's glorious plotting: madcap, absurdist, zany, convoluted, farcical. Also: LOL, ROFL, and LMFAO! This is giggling-uncontrollably-on-the-subway stuff.

And here is a partial summary of said plot: Bertie, with Jeeves in tow, is summoned to the country house of Totleigh Towers by a boyhood friend--timid newt-fancier Gussie Fink-Nottle--to rescue the latter's engagement with Madeline Basset. Conveniently, Bertie's formidable Aunt Dahlia also wants him there, for a more nefarious purpose: to steal a silver cow-creamer that Madeline's father, Sir Watkyn Basset--a former magistrate who once fined Bertie five pounds for stealing a policeman's helmet--bought out from under Dahlia's collector husband. But Sir Watkyn being suspicious from the first, how is Bertie to carry out his aged relative's request? And how to keep himself from being once again accidentally engaged to Madeline herself?

More than the plot, though, the joy of Wodehouse is his breezy, idiosyncratic prose. I was struck by the modernity, the Internetiness of it: the needless abbreviation ("I mopped the b.," "That's the situash") and, conversely, using far too many words to say something simple ("I had seen this man before only in the decent habiliments suitable to the metropolis, and I confess that even in the predicament in which I found myself I was able to shudder at the spectacle he presented in the country"). It's delicious to read. And the best part? Since Wodehouse wrote 90+ books, I shall never run out!

29 January 2012

Picture book roundup!!!

So in the almost-three years of this blog, I have terribly remiss in talking about picture books. I do read them all the dang time, and love many of them; I'm trying to get better at actually recording that I do so. Part of it, of course, is that they take so little time to read, and I generally can't generate more than a few sentences about them. From now on, though, I'm just going to periodically subject you to posts like this one, in which I post a plethora of clumsily-aligned covers and exult a bit over the charmingness of these nine stellar titles.

Dog Loves Books, Louise Yates: The eponymous canine loves reading so much he opens a bookstore . . . and then fields requests for cups of tea and directions from people who don't even notice what a wonderful place they're in. Particularly precious for booksellers and librarians!

It's a Book, Lane Smith: Another title custom-built to be an analog-bookseller favorite, featuring a bookish ape and a donkey who just doesn't get it--"How do you scroll down?" A great Christmas gift from my little brother's awesome girlfriend! (Oh, and there's now a board book version, It's a Little Book, which leans more towards the more basic "books are not for eating" lesson.)

I'd Really Like to Eat a Child, Sylviane Donnio: An adorable, petulant baby alligator does not want to eat any more bananas, thank you--today a kid is on the menu! Provided he can find one. Spoiler: children turn out to be much, much bigger than baby alligators, who should probably nosh bananas until they're big and strong.

I Want My Hat Back, Jon Klassen: I tell you what, I tried to handsell this book to every single person who came in looking for a picture book this past holiday season! Totally my new favorite. It's a simple tale of a bear looking for his missing red chapeau--and kids will adore solving the mystery before the characters do! (Oh, and the ending, in which maaaaaaybe the bear eats the culprit? I don't think a kid too young to think it's hilarious will even get it, so there.)

Children Make Terrible Pets, Peter Brown: I just love Brown's blocky, half-saturated illustrations for this funny book and its possibly even funnier sequel, YOU WILL BE MY FRIEND! Both feature an enthusiastic young bear, Lucy, who (in CMTP) finds a little boy in the woods, brings him home and names him Squeaker, over her mother's wise protestations that children aren't suited for pethood. In YWBMF!, Lucy decides she needs more friends, and adopts the not-particularly-successful tactic of simply going up to various woodland critters and announcing their new BFFness in loud, uncertain terms.

Gator, Randy Cecil: A much-appreciated surprise gift from my friend Shiraz, this is the sweet, sweet story of a carousel alligator who gets lonely when fewer and fewer people come to visit the amusement park where he lives, and sets off on adventure to find friendship and happiness--predictable but poignant.

A Penguin Story, Antoinette Portis: Edna the little penguin has only ever seen three colors--black night, white ice, blue sea--but she's sure there must be more out there! So she packs a lunch (a nice dead fish) and sets off to find another color. Great use of a minimal palette! Also check out Portis's great first book about imaginative play, Not a Box.

Red Sled, Lita Judge: An almost-wordless (but for spot-on sound effects) tale of what happens when a bunch of woodland creatures take a joyride on a little girl's sled. (And how come kids in picture books always get to live by woods full of friendly creatures? Hmpfh.)

Stop Bugging Me: That's What Friends are For, Daniel Cleary: Cleary's bare-bones illustrations are smudges and squiggles on a notebook-paper background, but they're still incredibly expressive! I loved this little story of grumpy Smudge's attempts to run a secret errand that keeps being interrupted by a coterie of friends who will not take GRUMP for an answer. (N.B. the book description claims Smudge is a dog, but he/she is clearly a cat I had growing up. Ol' Smudge-y. That cat hated everybody.)

28 January 2012

Hedy's Folly (Richard Rhodes), plus a personal failure

I can't remember where I first heard about the connection between bombshell actress Hedy Lamarr and the invention of spread-spectrum radio (blah blah blah science, but anyway without it cell phones wouldn't be possible)--I had thought it was on the listifying website Cracked, but I can't for the life of me find it. Anyway, having read the story in capsule form, I was excited to read Richard Rhodes' latest book, Hedy's Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World--and also to introduce myself to Rhodes, author of some heavy-hitting histories, including The Making of the Atomic Bomb.

It is, no doubt about it, a fascinating story. Austrian-born actress Hedwig Kiesler ("oh, of course that's what Hedy is short for!") fled an unhappy marriage to an arms dealer to take Hollywood by storm in the late 30s. She was, though, as whip-smart and inventive as she was pretty, and somewhat bitter about being known only for the latter--once saying "Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid." During the now-unimaginable celebrity fervor to support the war effort during WWII, she teamed up with avant-garde composer George Antheil, whose compositions often depended on synchronized player pianos (for research, I looked up and listened to his most famous piece, Ballet méchanique, which sounds to my philistine ears like a rolling suitcase full of spoons being pulled over a broken sidewalk. With an air-raid siren in the background). Together, they developed a communication system to make the signals guiding radio torpedoes more difficult to jam. While they patented the idea and submitted it to the Navy, the military demurred . . . until they realized in the 60s it was immensely useful. Conveniently after the patent rights had expired. In fact, Lamarr didn't get credit for what turned out to be a world-changing invention, the basis for wi-fi and cell phone technologies, until 1997. Antheil had died in 1959.

The only problem with the book is that it's not a book-length story--more of a long article. So even though Hedy's Folly is already slim (272 pages, with a heckuva lot of notes), it feels padded, especially Rhodes' digressions into how an inventor differs from a scientist or how to write a patent properly. In that sense, it's not a successful book. But it does bring this weird little slice of history to a larger audience, and that's a worthy endeavor.

As for that personal failure? Well, with apologies to my friend M. Sullivan, I could not for the life of me get through the first volume of Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series, Master and Commander. It was actually the meticulously researched historical accuracy that did me in, I'm afraid--I appreciate the intricate knowledge of how Napoleonic-era sailing ships worked and all, but I don't really . . . care about the names of the different sails and bits of rigging? For me, at least, there was too much of that and too little of the people. Whether it swings towards the latter later on, I will never know.

21 January 2012

The Leftovers (Tom Perrotta)

Tom Perrotta's sneaky The Leftovers is the February read for Freebird Books' Post-Apocalyptic Book Club--while I never make it down to Red Hook for the meetings, I'm trying this year to keep up on the books. (Yes, I know it's January. But while I Really Really want to read Colson Whitehead's Zone One, I'm like #35 on the list at the library.)

I call it "sneaky" because it is, at heart, the kind of straightforward domestic literary novel I almost never read. Except for the looming sfnal premise that drew me in: three years before the main action takes place, millions of people all over the world just . . . disappeared. It wasn't a proper Rapture at all, as the remaining premillenial Christians point out sourly--heathens, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and all manner of sinners vanished as well as true believers. Perrotta never tries to explain what happened; instead, he simply explores a world that's suffered such a drastic and mysterious loss, both people who are forever changed and those struggling to recreate normalcy in the face of what becomes known as the Sudden Departure.

At the heart of the narrative are the Garveys: Laurie, who has abandoned her husband and children to join a cult called the Guilty Remnant, whose faith includes a vow of silence and constant cigarette smoking; Kevin, mayor of their small suburban town, tentatively starting a relationship with a melancholy woman whose entire family Departed; son Tom, who dropped out of college to follow Holy Wayne, a self-styled prophet with a predilection for teenage Asian girls; and seventeen-year-old Jill, a former A student fallen in with the worst crowd that will have her.

The Leftovers is largely a meditation on grief, what it does to individuals, families, and society. Which isn't to say that it isn't also funny in places, sweet in others. While it's only tangentially a post-apocalyptic novel, it's still a good one, I think in the very realistic-novel sense that would have made me shy away from the book without the improbable hook: the characters are fully, recognizably human, and their attempts to rebuild their lives wholly believable. I feel a little humbled by my liking it: perhaps this genre of "literary fiction" has some gems after all.

15 January 2012


My Christmas present to myself this year was oh-so-cheap and deeply appreciated: the guilt-over-taking-my-finger-off-the-pulse-free rereading of three wonderful books.

First, an upscale airplane read (which carried me through all my holiday-trip flights): Foucault's Pendulum (Umberto Eco), the labyrinthine, loopy tale of three editors who set out to create the ultimate conspiracy theory and succeed behind their wildest dreams. (Wow, is that the blurbiest sentence I've ever written?) It's a thriller by way of Rupert Giles' library, and the source of everything I know about kabbalah, the Templars, the Rosicrucians, folk religions of South America, etc., etc. for gobs of medievalist esoterica. And it's erudite in the way only the most formidable erudition can be, in that it's glorying goofily in the whole enterprise, playing fast and loose with logic in the name of narrative. So much fun!!

Then, brought down the room with Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth. Good grief, this book is a punch to the gut, but such a beautiful, elegant, necessary one, an indictment of a whole society by an insider. If you haven't read it--and you should, and you should also watch the movie with Gillian Anderson, because she nails it--it follows lovely Lily Bart, brought up to crave opulence and to live beyond her means, through her slow downward spiral out of society and into failure. She's an amazing, conflicted character. There's this core to her that wants something--anything--more than what the turn-of-the-twentieth-century New York deems appropriate for a beautiful woman. She longs for love yet can't accept a marriage without money, knowing her luxurious tastes would cause her to resent a man who couldn't indulge them. A part of her, though, chafes at the idea of marriage without love. Trapped between the two, she can only flounder, and a series of poor decisions ruins her chances for even a comfortable life. Her gradual failure is heartbreaking, because she's so likeable--and yet when she realizes she's a "useless person," she's absolutely right. She has no skills, no real talents. She is merely decorative--and once she ceases to serve that purpose, she's thrown out like a Christmas tree after New Year's. (For the other side of the coin, read Wharton's uproarious The Custom of the Country, which chronicles the meteoric rise in the same social milieu of scheming-to-the-point-of-sociopathic Undine Spragg. Ooh, look, come March you can get both with The Age of Innocence in a sexily-illustrated omnibus edition! Penguin Classics, I love you.)

And even though I first read it less than a year and a half ago, I fell madly in love with Skippy Dies all over again. Like I wrote previously, it "hits the sweet spot for me between bleak and hilarious, between epic and hopelessly mundane." Paul Murray evokes both pubescent coming-of-age and the modern second attempt at maturity that (in a First World-y way) occurs in our late twenties with such pathos, such brutal precision, it would be unbearable if he weren't also so freakin' funny. I'd forgotten the variety of narration he uses, sometimes subtle ones, as when conversation is sometimes set off with quotation marks and sometimes only with commas--and second person present, the trickiest, weirdest POV, makes frequent and effective appearances. His sentences swell and ebb expertly, punchily short following protracted ones, comma-strewn but carefully constructed. Oh, and this time I actually marked a few particularly gorgeous passages, so you don't have to just trust me when I enthuse about the glory of the prose! Here ya go:
  • "[An elderly priest] in his black raiment looking like a single downward stroke of the pen, a peremptory, unforgiving slash through the error-strewn copybook that is the world."
  • "[Ruprecht] gently lowers Optimus Prime into a kind of metallic crib [part of a machine intended to bridge eleven-dimensional space]. And there, for a moment, on his knees by the foil-lined pod, he bides--like Moses's mother, perhaps, with her bulrush basket on the banks of the Nile--gazing reflectively at the robot's painted eyes, thinking that to do anything, epic or mundane, bound for glory or doomed to failure, is in its way to say goodbye to a world; that the greatest victories are therefore never without the shadow of loss; that every path you take, no matter how lofty or effulgent, aches not only with the memory of what you left behind, but with the ghosts of all the untaken paths, now never to be taken, running parallel . . . "
  • "You know, you spend your childhood watching TV, assuming that at some point in the future everything you see there will one day happen to you: that you too will win a Formula One race, hop a train, foil a group of terrorists, tell someone 'Give me the gun', etc. . . . Gradually the awful truth dawns on you: that Santa Claus was just the tip of the iceberg--that your future will not be the rollercoaster ride you'd imagined, that the world occupied by your parents, the world of washing the dishes, going to the dentist, weekend trips to the DIY superstore to buy floor-tiles, is actually largely what people mean when they speak of  'life'. Now, with every day that passes, another door seems to close, the one marked PROFESSIONAL STUNTMAN, or FIGHT EVIL ROBOT, until as the weeks go by and the doors--GET BITTEN BY SNAKE, SAVE WORLD FROM ASTEROID, DISMANTLE BOMB WITH SECONDS TO SPARE--keep closing, you begin to hear the sound as a good thing, and start closing some yourself, even ones that didn't necessarily need to be closed . . ."

I really can't wait to read everything Murray writes for the rest of his career--I won't be able to think of Irish literature without calling up his name.

07 January 2012

Fletcher Hanks: comics weirdo

I admit to being both ignorant of and fascinated by superhero comics--never read 'em as a kid, and am utterly daunted by the DC/Marvel decades of shifting mythology, but gosh they can be fun (and yeah, I prefer "fun" to "gritty." Which is why I prefer Superman to Batman. And the Flash to either). They can also be weird as all get-out, particularly in the embryonic early days (late 1930s-early 1940s). And I have it on good authority that no one was weirder than Fletcher Hanks, whose complete works can be found in the Fantagraphics volumes I Shall Destroy all the Civilized Planets! and You Shall Die By Your Own Evil Creation!.

Hanks wrote and drew for two years, 1939 to 1941, and then disappeared--apparently to a life of itinerant alcoholism--but he left behind comics which are stupefying in their brutal simplicity. Here's the usual plot: villain up to no good (alien, rogue scientist, fifth column) manages to put his evil plan into motion for long enough to kill quite a lot of innocent people before one of Hanks' bizarre heroes shows up and puts a poetic-justice stop to it. His two favorite good guys are Stardust, a space wizard who's also a crimefighter, and Fantomah, an ostensibly beautiful damsel and protector of the jungle who, uh, turns into a skull when she's angry. But then there's also several stories featuring Big Red McClane, who's just a logger who punches people a lot, kind of a bulkier Mark Trail without any pretense of loving nature.

The most confounding thing about Hanks' comics is how completely unappealing they are. The art is clunky, the characters deformed, the colors are garish, the writing strewn with deus ex machina (usually in the form of "rays"--disintegrating, anti-gravity, oxygen-destroying, etc.). And yet, I kept reading, and  I don't think comics historians are wrong for calling him a genius and a visionary. What's there, I think, is a mind totally uncluttered by influence--an unsophisticated, kitchen-sink kind of mind, playing with a sort of frantic delight with this new medium, just throwing things at the panels to see if they stick. Even the way he draws people--just barely recognizable as human through our brain's awesome trick of pareidolia--grows on you, especially the corrugated masks of his villains (at first, with my Old-Timey Media goggles on, I'm like, "Is this racist somehow?" but I think it's more misanthropic) and the way Stardust can grab said baddies by the shoulder and just crumple up their bodies like a coat. Essentially: Hanks' comics are fun in a pure, childlike way, like running around with your arms out pretending to be an airplane or stomping about making T-rex noises (which I certainly never do when I'm grumpy. Ask anybody!). Exactly what I look for in a superhero comic.

06 January 2012

O HAI 2012

You know what? I'm not even going to go into my (valid) excuses for the blog's falling off last month. Because they are boring. And because wild inconsistency is, after all, the God-given right of the amateur blogger. Instead, I'll just do better in the future--one of my (extremely specific yet unambitious) goals-not-resolutions for 2012 is two blog posts a week. I can do that! I read at least two books a week!

Still, since the year's off to a rough start, I'm beginning with the softest of softie-woftie softballs that is ZooBorns Cats!: The Newest, Cutest Kittens and Cubs from the World's Zoos, a surprise gift from a friend at Simon & Schuster waiting in my work locker when I returned from vacation last week. This adorbs little photobook showcases "the largest number of juvenile feline photos from different species assembled in one publication." Which is essentially all you need to know, and much more articulate than my own limb-flailing THE BEBEH KITTEHS WITH THEIR ITSLE EARS AND FEETS AND NOSES!!!

The coolest thing about ZooBorns Cats!, though, is its sheer range: of course, there are lion and cheetah and tiger cubs, but there are also little-known wild felines from around the world. From South America, there's the Geoffroy's cat, which will stand up on its high legs to survey its surroundings; the round-eared guiña; the dexterous margay, which can rotate its ankles 180 degrees--useful for an almost entirely arboreal existence. Asia has the fishing cat, the teensy-weensy rusty-spotted cat (adults top out at 3.5 pounds!), and the Iriomote cat, the remaining 100 wild individuals of which live only on a remote Japanese island. And there's the Pallas's cat, the jungle cat, the pampas cat, the sand cat, the oncilla . . . really, more kittens on heaven and earth than my wildest dreams of floofiness.

Most of them are endangered--through habitat loss and interbreeding with domestic cats. So all this cuteness has a cause: not only to bring attention to animals we've never even heard of, but to spur us to support the efforts of zoos and other conservation organizations to keep these animals from disappearing. Some of these babies represent years of work, money, and science--proceeds from the book go to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums Conservation Endowment Fund. (The ZooBorns website doesn't limit itself to just cats, or even to mammals: the top story right now is an Andean condor chick named--very appropriately--Muppet.) Donating to which, I realize, needs to be another goal for the year.
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