Saturday, September 26, 2009

Grant Poetry: 1880

In 1880, Ulysses S Grant planned for a third presidency; he was very close to being the Republican candidate for the 1880 election, but James A Garfield was chosen instead. Here in Fargo, however, the newspaper The Argus threw their hat into Grant's ring, and expressed their support by composing short poems, with topics taken from the headlines of the day, and culminating in a comment on Grant. Be sure to check the footnotes; they explain the poem's references. I've got a bunch of 'em, I'll share as I transcribe. Yes, the poems were laid out this way:


The Erie Canal has Busted Its

Straps1—Gladstone Receives a

Knocker2—About a Score off

Scotland's Shore are

Swept to "Jones's


The Dismal Swamp's in Fearful

Blaze4—Hatch, Red Men Largely

Collars5—The Town of Hull,

Its Loss in Full, is

Several Million


John and Jim, Those Champions

Grim7, Believing Their Chances

Scant, Will Come Home Yet,

and Hedge, You Bet;

Wagging Their

Tales For


(The Argus, 23 April 1880.)

Labels: , ,

Banned Book Week 2009

Welcome to Banned Book Week 2009 — the annual acknowledgment of how much effort libraries have to put into being as well-stocked as they are. Classic children's literature is placed in a bank vault to keep it out of innocent hands, threats of a fiery end to books that treat homosexuals with respect, and not even school textbooks, evaluated and vetted by educators themselves, are immune. Just looking at a list of challenged books might not have the same impact (and it seems the 2009 list isn't out as of today; they only have up to 2008), there's an interactive map of challenged books which gives a greater idea of the distribution of the problem, taken from the years 2007 to 2009. Yes, that's only two years' worth of challenges that fill up a U.S. map with little blue flags.

In case you're wondering, I've got kids. The most common argument is, "would you want your children to read this sort of {whatever}?" My answer is, yes, I'm pretty much OK with any book, provided that it done in a way to promote understanding. Destiny's mother bought her a big biography of Guns 'n' Roses' Slash — not my first choice of a good book for a thirteen-year-old, "shooting coke" is a Key Phrase according to Amazon — but Des wanted to read it, and as she went along we asked her about it, made sure she was looking at the rock-and-roll lifestyle through wiser eyes than glorifying it, and made sure she asked questions if she were confused. Nothing bad has happened, I don't know for sure what she took away from the book, and now she's reading those books about talking forest cats and the Twilight series. The kids I worry about are the ones who haven't read anything, and are getting their ideas from each other.

When I was a teen, I read Hunter S Thompson's Hell's Angels and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas; No One Here Gets Out Alive, the Morrison biography; a smattering of 60s sci-fi full of violence and sex, imagining a nude Dejah Thoris in great detail; and, frankly, quite a few Playboys and Penthouses. Other than those last ones (those were thanks to resourceful friends at school), all of the books came from my parents or other relatives. I was buying Soldier of Fortune magazine and Rolling Stone and a mish-mosh of Marvel comics titles with my allowance. None of this — nothing — has brought about my downfall, destroyed my life, hurt the people I love, or resulted in incarceration or institutionalization. If the news were full stories about how a book directly or indirectly caused death, destruction, loss of life and property, caused insanity or anarchy, I might stand up and take notice.

As Starrett said in the textbook investigation, a book can't cause anything to happen. The freedom of choice is how good things and bad things happen. A book may inform, it may contain knowledge that fills in the blanks about those various decisions, but it is still up to the individual to make an educated choice. I don't have a problem with Intelligent Design, Das Kapital, Mein Kampf, The Joy of Sex, or Dworkin books in libraries: somebody will find that information valuable in learning how to lead their lives. While I may not agree with how they choose to use that information, it is not my place to try and manipulate their choices by limiting the information available to them. Censorship is bent on manipulating people's behavior by controlling what they know, a methodology that is perverse and cruel to the freedom-loving world we live in, and I cannot stand for it.

Labels: ,

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Million Dollar Book

While the new million-dollar book doesn't remotely come close to the most expensive book in the world, it's actually more likely to have an appropriate price for its actual value. The Wine Opus isn't just a book, however. The $1.2 million pricetag doesn't stop with the 850-page book documenting the world's top 100 wineries, but comes with six bottles of wine from each vintner. So, expect the book to cost little, and $2,000 a bottle for fine wine is hardly unreasonable (or maybe not), so the purchase price actually gets you a top-of-the-line wine-of-the-month club with a fine book for free, with their compliments. Via.

Labels: , ,

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Weekly Geeks: Blog Burn Out

This week's Weekly Geeks asks how bloggers deal with blogging burnout. You might not know it, but I blog quite a bit: I have a personal blog, a cool-stuff I found blog, a cool-stuff copied from other blogs blog, a kitschy blog, a collectibles blog, and a few others that I write but don't advertise that they're mine, just as venues to write about things on my mind that I don't care to advertise are going on in my mind. Heck, my list of abandoned blogs is just about as long. With all this blogging going on — and a full-time job, to boot — I can accurately say, yes, I get burned out quite a bit.

So, what do I do?

I take the easy route: I stop blogging. Oh, I can't completely abandon all writing, because Collector's Quest pays me to blog, so I better not fall behind there, and something may suddenly strike my fancy and force me to blog despite my embargo. But this blog and The Infomercantile, both of which have some dedicated followers and some high-profile in-links, each has periodic lulls in which nothing happens. The Infomercantile has been pretty much dormant all summer, with some minor exceptions. It's a research-heavy and scanning-heavy blog, which takes a lot of time; when we've got kids, and the weather is nice, and there's a whole big world out there, who wants to sit at the computer and feed photos into a scanner? From the 10th to the 11th, I was in Minot for work, which took a lot out of me, so last week I didn't blog much at all. Frankly, it's not a big concern.

One thing I learned from a public speaking class a few years ago is that when you stop talking, the listeners' brains stop, too. It's a reason to allow yourself a pause without saying "um" or "uh" for fear of having dead space, or freaking out over having to shuffle your notes a second to figure out where you were. Your listeners don't even register the pause: their listening-bone is locked up, waiting for the next word, and time has ceased to move. Eventually people's brains wake up and realize nothing's happened, but that's a good 10, 20 seconds of time for you, as a speaker, to allow yourself some silence to regroup.

Blogs work the same way. If you're cruising along, posting every day or so, and you've got readers who like what you're putting out, a break will not register with them. Give it a few weeks, eventually they will start to realize, "hey, so-and-so hasn't blogged in a while," but even then it probably won't stop them from checking your blog — that anticipation makes the pause insignificant, because once you start blogging again, they'll start back up reading just as they did before. The probloggers who say, "Update daily! Update hourly! Don't stop to pee, blog's gotta be updated!" are working on the high-volume advertiser-friendly kind of blog. They're not trying to attract readers, they're after eyeballs. Doesn't matter who's looking, as long as they're looking. Their traffic drops precipitously when blogging stops, even for a day. That's not the kind of blog I write: when I stop, it doesn't really register to the reader, not enough to lose the reader. A short pause in blogging to cultivate my sanity doesn't hurt a blog, but it helps my writing overall. When I come back to blogging, there's a spring in my step. By spending my days reading books, going to museums, or doing oft-neglected lawncare, my mind is clean and refreshed and ready to come up with new witty and thoughtful ideas to spread wide and far on the internet.

I do have some other tricks, though: to avoid appearing burned-out, I blog ahead. I generally have several posts scheduled out into the future. If I'm good, posting prodigiously, I'll either fit them in and schedule something else for the future, or just move their scheduled date out further. If you completely walk away from the computer for a week, those pending posts will still trickle out, making it look like you only slowed down instead of stopping. I also don't blog on weekends, usually; it's a schedule people understand, but it's almost a third less content than trying to constantly blog. Both of those help mediate the burn-out feeling, because I have some built-in opportunities to stop blogging without having less of a blog.

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Crazy Books Help Your Learn

Maybe I need to take another crack at Naked Lunch: a recent study from researchers at the University of California and University of British Columbia have shown that books with illogical structure make you think more. If a book is confusing or bizarre, readers were shown to have devoted more time to deciphering the text to make sense of it, compared to a more logical story that's easier to follow and understand. Most other articles condense that to "it makes you smarter," but that's not exactly true — the press release describes it as "reading Kafka improves learning." Certainly, the more you exercise those mental skills, the more likely you'll be able to use them with little effort in the future. However, that's not really a case of "Kafka makes you smarter;" it's a case of "reading more makes you a better reader," which I think is far more useful of a statement, if not less headliney and more obvious than the others.

Labels: ,

Monday, September 21, 2009

Book Cover Evolution

You don't think awesome book covers start out that way, do you? Print Magazine talked to several cover designers in order to get a better picture of the design evolution of some recent covers. It's not a bad thing, despite the title "Kill Your Darlings": one designer wisely said, "It’s actually a good exercise to have to redesign something," something I remember being told back when I was in theatrical design classes. Working on one design, you rule out everything else; but what do you get when you rule out everything else and the most obvious option? When that best final option actually hits the bookshelves, designers will be happy to know that it's very unlikely anybody had an epiphany and produced that cover the first time out of the gate: the amount of work exceeds what actually shows up in print.

Labels: ,

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Acquisitions: The Nation's Trashiest Humor

The cover is a bit beat up, and the internal content is all a re-hash of previously published items, but I had to pick this up. The entire title is America The Beautiful: A Collection of the Nation's Trashiest Humor, but there's very little even remotely adult about the comedy therein. This is publication number 2048 of The U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, originally published in 1970. The book consists of thirty comics, from the funny pages like B.C., and some from the editorial pages of publications from the New Yorker to Cleveland Plain Dealer, all focusing on the problem of waste disposal. Amusingly, about half have something to do with outer space, especially with moon-men discouraging us from mucking up their home. I won't be able to read my copy in its entirety, though — several pages are torn out, and a few others are stained. Much to the enjoyment of the people who prepared this book, it has not ended up in the trash: I bought it for seventy-five cents at a local thrift shop, one of the best mechanisms to avoid throwing out trash that doesn't need to be trash. I can, amazingly, read the publication in its entirety online at the EPA's website.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Acquisitions: True's Best Cartoons

True magazine was the poor man's Playboy in a sense, containing the lifestyle content without as much sex and nudity, but it was also in its own category by including all kinds of off-the-wall content about UFOs, pirates, deadly animals of all sizes, and a certain degree of tongue-in-cheek. It was in print from the 1930s until the 1970s, but most issues I own or have seen are late 50s to 1960s in vintage. This book, Best Cartoons from True Magazine, came out in 1955, but was reprinted into the 1960s. The book isn't completely cartoons: throughout are short jokes and humorous stories for the more literary readers. I just flipped through a bit, and found that I really don't get a lot of the humor of the time. These aren't Collier's comics, aren't New Yorker comics, and lack that broad interest that makes the comic cross-generational. These look very rooted in their time, and I suppose I'll have to do some research if I decide to read it.

Labels: , ,

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

WeeklyGeeks: On Reviewing

This week's WeeklyGeeks offers three discussion options, based on the Shannon Hale's connection between book and review. I'm picking #3.

I haven't been reviewing books for very long, and I tend to put a lot of work into it. I don't transcribe a rough synopsis and assign a numerical rating. I am trying to portray the book in an honest way, so that the person reading my review has a good idea of what to expect. I want to frame a reader's expectations, rather than tell them what to read. I don't want to do a disservice to a good book by recommending it to somebody who wouldn't like it; I once knew a guy who'd look through the newspaper movie reviews and invert the number of stars. If it got one star, he was sure he'd like it, and four stars meant too much talking and artsy crap. I'd rather give people like that a review they can use, whether I'd give it one or four stars.

Anticipating reviewing a book definitely alters how I read; often it happens even before I even crack open the book. I write at a couple different blogs, each with a specific type of content, so I have an idea of where the book is going to be reviewed before I even get a copy of the book. That means I need to think up an angle ahead of time, so I'm not requesting a bunch of review copies that I won't have a good place to review them at. When I actually get the galley, I have to be aware that I need to remember more about the book than I would just reading for fun — I know I'll need to regurgitate what I got out of it sometime in the future. That regurgitation, the writing of the review, doesn't inherently change my opinion of a book, but it does force me to look deeper than I might otherwise have invested in the book. The results of that postmortem analysis, after I would have otherwise left a book behind, has altered my opinion of a book before. Some things you miss unless you stop to really, really think about it.

I wouldn't necessarily say I'm 'rating' the book as I read it, like I said, I'm not assigning stars. I am, however, compiling what my review will contain while I'm reading, but I don't necessarily pick "good" or "bad" descriptors. I try to not frame the book in those polar contexts: while I didn't particularly enjoy reading The Dangerous World of Butterflies, and found a lot of flaws in Uncommon Carriers, I expressed my thoughts in the reviews, but I tried to frame it to help a reader avoid being surprised. If I simply said, "boy, they didn't put a lot of effort into editing Uncommon Carriers, as a book goes, it's crappy", I might discourage someone who might otherwise enjoy it. If I went the other route, amplifying only the good stuff I liked about the book, I'll end up pointing an interested reader in the wrong direction. So, I describe what's good, what's bad, how the two work against each other, and give an overall picture. I am painfully aware that this makes me unblurbable. I'm also aware that it's far more like a college-level book report than I probably need to do, but an author who contacted me a couple months ago said he was referred to me, because I do good reviews. I like to think that's because of how I write my reviews, and I'll probably continue to write that way. I'm doing this as much for myself as for the audience, writing the kind of review I'd like to read, so moving to a blurby, star-laden style probably won't happen.

Labels: ,

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Review: Do You Know What Textbooks Your Children Are Really Reading?

Tonight I was flipping channels and caught Tucker Carlson's Fox News exposé on the textbook industry, Do You Know What Textbooks Your Children Are Really Reading?. I'd be remiss to not start out by saying, yes, the inherent political slant of Fox News was conspicuous throughout, and that's the most telling about the textbook problem as a whole.

Carlson has two arguments: activists are trying to include everybody into textbooks, which is diluting knowledge, and there are textbooks furthering a single line of thinking, which excludes the ideas of others. Those all-inclusive thinkers are painted as censors, liberals, and America-haters; the single-issue thinkers are portrayed as bigots, terrorists, white-washers, and America-haters. In many cases, I completely agree: censorship, hate speech, exclusion of truth and the inclusion of bias are all detrimental to the use of textbooks. Carlson's clearly leading towards the revelation that, well, if we can't do either of the extremes, what's left — ah, the Fox World History Textbook is all that's left. It was actually more even-handed than I expected, but they pulled many techniques from the propaganda textbooks: a commentor refers to textbook writers as ignorant, and the show quickly jumps to footage of the Three Stooges; opposing viewpoints are hounded for proof of their statements of fact while sympathetic statements are exempt from proof and are allowed anecdotal evidence; loaded words like "witchhunt", "indoctrination", "manipulation" are suggested by Carlson, not the interviewees, and built on.

Carlson would have had an excellent show if it picked one topic and stuck with it — I would have loved to see a show devoted to picking apart the state textbook review boards, even though it's a long criticized process that shows no sign of weakening anytime soon. An hour of that would have been fascinating, but Carlson stops just before it gets interesting: he has gotten his tidbits of information to assemble into his big picture.

Quickly, he is on to criticizing And Tango Makes Three, referring to it as a gay book even though there is no mention of homosexuality or sex in the book — it's obvious, say the critics, citing context and intent. Later, evolution is criticized for not including dissenting thoughts, not being open to other possibilities — no reading into the possibility that Christian indoctrination is a negative, but evoking hostility towards books on word choice that seems, when viewed a fraction of a sentence at a time, to bias towards Islam. In fact, when they get to the Islamic textbooks, Fox does their own translation and shows only fraction of sentences with heavily charged words, then challenges one of the book's editors. That editor says Fox's translations were off, and offers to show his translation…but is denied, his translation is not shown on the program. That professor, Gregory Starrett, (video here) says the most important thought uttered on the show: textbooks are not causal agents, they do not make people do anything.

The show is jumbled full of "don't teach my children; I do a good enough job," "why won't the schools teach more to our kids", "stop indoctrinating kids with viewpoints I consider negative," "why are my negative viewpoints excluded," with no real answer on what should be done with textbooks, unless textbooks are thus revised to include the viewpoints Fox News approves of. There is no easy answer, until you stop pointing fingers at textbooks — the point is brought up on the edges in several places — and focus on the various curriculum in which the books are included. Carlson is hung up on the isolated flaws, picking apart words and language with the fervor of a politically-correct censor, without really addressing the major flaw: so much weight is placed on the textbook itself. They point out that teachers often revise their curriculum around the book's contents, teachers can pick one viewpoint or another and expand upon it independent of the textbook, they can include an opposing book and juxtapose the two. They use an anecdote of anti-Columbus sentiment in which negative views of our hemisphere's discoverer were given precedence over a more even-handed view. Carlson's report puts up on the screen the cover of the books — but does not point a finger directly at the teacher. A classroom volunteer supporting the Tango book points out anti-gay bullying he's seen in the classroom and is challenged, but what did he do about the bullying?, and ignores the question, continuing to focus on the book. In its interest in censorship of pro-Islamic wording in books, in its willingness to belittle anti-bullying laws because it encourages reading homosexual books to 2nd graders, in trying to show how Creationism is necessary to scientific research, the show misses the point that textbooks are tools used by teachers, by school districts, by education boards. He was close to uncovering the true dangers of textbooks, but failed to look beyond what's printed on the page.

The entire show is online, in YouTube chunks: Part 1, 2, 3, 4, & 5

Labels: , , ,

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Kitty Bookend

I cannot condone it as a primary use for a cat, but as a cat owner, I am fully aware that "bookend" is within a list of feline abilities, alongside "paperweight" and "office chair warmer":

Found at Fark's Caturday celebration.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Acquisitions: Letters from Mamma

That guy there on the right is a direct line to Cougar Town: although he performed as the character Charley Weaver, musician and entertainer Cliff Arquette begat Lewis Arquette, father of David Arquette, who is married to TV and film star Courtney Cox-Arquette. Four degrees of separation from 1950s pun-laden humor to shows based on 21st century pop-culture slang terms, eh?

Charley Weaver's Letters from Mamma
is a collection of jokes by Arquette, from his Tonight Show skits. They're unanimously groaners, both now and back then, but Jack Paar sure thought he was funny, and Weaver's audiences sure thought so, too. Arquette appeared as Weaver on the Tonight Show, and later on the Jack Paar Show, and towards the end of his life he was a regular on Hollywood Squares. This 1959 book was his first of two, and the one directly related to his Letter segments. I don't know that I'm going to read it — just flipping through, the jokes verge on terrible — so I'm guessing that they were better seen than read, and off to YouTube I go!

Labels: , , ,

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Jacket Blurbs 9-1-09

  • "…And great, wet book tears were falling down my face — I think book tears are wetter than normal tears." – editor Susan Hirschmann, on Watership Down and tears (listen here, towards the 47min mark);
  • "By highlighting Wuthering Heights...[she] has introduced Emily Brontë to the Twilight generation." – Wuthering tops charts, thanks to Twilight;
  • "Twelve years of mandatory education, with millions going through sixteen years, and our goal is only to make lifelong readers?" – John Fox, on self-directed gradeschool literature classes;
  • "…readers have this idea that they know you, or want to know you and want to have this personal connection to you, however tenuous…" – Author Dara Horn, on book clubs' impact on sales;
  • "Meanwhile, fans of unicorns, maps, and stilettos had a disappointing year, and perhaps were lost to other genres." –Tim Holman, on fantasy novel cover elements;
  • "they say, 'You don't look like a librarian', and now that I'm a roller derby girl, they say, 'You don't look like a roller derby girl, either.'" – 53-year-old Beth Hollis, roller derby librarian; Via;
  • "…however, getting out of a good book and into their wife's shoes may pose challenges." – Stephen Gertz, on book and shoe collecting parallels;
  • "It is because information has proliferated like Weimar bank notes, with everyone shoveling it into wheelbarrows, till the old economic arrangements have collapsed." – Tom Scocca, on facts in print; Via.

Pseudonymous Bosch at Once Upon A Time, Montrose, CA, 29 Aug 09
(from the Publisher's Weekly email newsletter; sorry, no link)

Labels: ,