Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Flame and Fur, Fangs and Wicker

As we've seen, Lyttle-Lytton released their results recently, but so has the Big Boy of these competitions, the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. The 2009 Bulwer-Lytton Best In Show is nautically-themed as well: "Folks say that if you listen real close at the height of the full moon, when the wind is blowin' off Nantucket Sound from the nor' east and the dogs are howlin' for no earthly reason, you can hear the awful screams of the crew of the "Ellie May," a sturdy whaler Captained by John McTavish; for it was on just such a night when the rum was flowin' and, Davey Jones be damned, big John brought his men on deck for the first of several screaming contests."

Once a strong and respected genre, the seafaring novel seems to have fallen from favor with the literary illuminati. Or, maybe nautical authors are simply lacking in skill and quality; the lack of opportunities to actually crew a square-rigged ship may mean too much is left to the imagination. I mean, look at this other example I found online: "Here have I been unconsciously toiling, not pleasuring, - aye, and ignorantly smoking to windward all the while; to windward, and with such nervous whiffs, as if, like the dying whale, my final jets were the strongest and fullest of trouble. What business have I with this pipe? This thing that is meant for sereneness, to send up mild white vapors among mild white hairs, not among torn iron-grey locks like mine. I'll smoke no more - " I mean, who does this "Herman Melville" think he is, writing a book about whaling?

Alas, such dreck isn't acceptable to the Bulwer-Lytton contest; being previously-published, the B-L won't accept it. Both contests are parodies of horrible writing, which — as any parodist will tell you — requires nearly as much talent as being a novelist in entirety. B-L does recognize that horrible writing didn't stop in the 19th century with the original Bulwer-Lytton and that hack Melville: they happily show off some recent examples of the obfuscated and poorly done metaphors.

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Sunday, June 28, 2009

Briskly, Pants On Her Legs

The Lyttle-Lytton contest for unintentionally-funny literature has released their 2009 results — the winner, it seems, was the nautically-themed "The mighty frigate Indestructible rounded the Horn of Africa and lurched east'ard." Interestingly, at least according to the internet, "east'ard" is an extremely rare word, although it was featured in the title of a 1936 Time magazine story. This, sadly, lends no credibility to the Lyttle-Lytton winner.

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Thursday, June 25, 2009

Naked Lunch, Disturbing Literature

Naked Lunch, William Burrough's revered drug-fueled tale of anal sex, turns 50 this year, having now addled the brains of more than one generation. I attempted to read this during my twenties, and the copy still sits on my shelf, only the first twenty or so pages with any discernible evidence of having been read. Couldn't make it through the book; it made me feel like all the Sam Shepard and Samuel Beckett I read during my theatre years did — that there was some huge joke on me, or on everybody, but I was the only one to recognize that the jumble of overwrought symbolism really meant far less than the literati would have you believe. The absurdist era never really appealed to me, no matter how much I tried, I just couldn't enjoy any of it, and it seems that none was ment to be enjoyed, but to pondered.

Burrough's masterpiece fills the #8 spot in PopCrunch's list of The 10 Most Disturbing Books Of All Time. Before I even opened the link I knew Naked Lunch had to be somewhere on the list, but I was curious about the rest. My greatest surprise was the number of disturbing books that had been made into movies: Blindness, Requiem for a Dream, American Psycho. What didn't surprise me much is that I hadn't read any of the books. I guess I'm too much of an optimist, that overly depressing and violent books really don't appeal to me. Maybe I'm missing out — many of these books also show up on others' lists of great works of modern literature, so it might be time to try one out. Naked Lunch is still off my list; I don't care if it has lasted through 50 years of literary acclaim, I'm not sure I could get any further than I had already read.

Via, Via.

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Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Body Writing, Esquire And Others

I'm actually an Esquire subscriber — some free-offer thing — but after the first few issues I was actually rather impressed with the magazine. As you might expect, the most recent cover, which, ahem, seems more Playboy than Esquire, doesn't hurt my opinion of the magazine, either. The feature of the issue is a new short story by Stephen King, and the first few lines are painted on the eye-appealing naked body of supermodel Bar Refaeli:

Beauty of the female form has long been a feature of the covers of magazines (Elle, Cosmopolitan, et al are some of the worst, or best, culprits, frankly). The women's website Lemondrop felt that hot men were rather left out in the deal, so they took their favorite literature and "painted" it on to some hot men. Soccer expert David Beckham, honoring Are You There God, It's Me Margaret?, is some funny stuff right there:

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Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Acquisitions: Hansi's New Life

Lastly, a book I picked up more for its internet notoriety than anything. I often see the comic book Hansi: The Girl who Loved the Swastika pop up online as a non sequitur, "WTF?" contribution to the world of online content because the cover looks so "Yay, Nazis!". I actually own a copy: I had bought it long before it was appearing online. The comic was published by a Christian comic house, and is decidedly anti-Nazi throughout, so the funny cover is about the biggest chortle in the funnybook. What few people recognize is that the comic was based on an autobiographical novel by the real "Hansi," Maria Anne Hirschmann, that was first issued with the same title as the comic, but was later revised as "The Girl Who Left the Swastika," probably to cut back on the amusement of loving Nazi symbols. The book above, I believe, is Hirschmann's second book, Hansi's New Life. If you don't believe me that Hirschmann is the real Hansi, here's proof, taped in the front cover:

Yes, folks, that's the real Hansi, sitting in the Fargo Holiday Inn, sometime in the 1980s. Strangely, despite the photo, the book is not autographed, which may mean the book was purchased after the appearance. I currently own a copy of the comic, the original biography, and now the sequel, putting me well on the way to a complete swastika-loving Hansi library.

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Monday, June 22, 2009

Review: West On The 49th Parallel

Early in most American's education, we learn that the 49th parallel of latitude divides the United States from Canada, the longest undefended international border in the world. On a globe or map, it isn't difficult to draw the line and say, "there you go," that's U.S., that's Canada. On the ground, however, it is a difficult prospect. A latitudinal line is a cartographic construct: the border isn't the middle of a river, or the edge of an ocean, or the peaks of a mountain. Those markers can be seen from the ground, while the 49th parallel can not. John E Parson's book, West on the 49th Parallel: Red River to the Rockies, 1873-1876 documents the first successful and somewhat accurate attempt to mark the line along the borders of Minnesota, North Dakota, and Montana. There had been previous attempts to mark the border, with great inaccuracies, but the 1873 product was a joint venture between the British (who held Canada at the time) and U.S. governments. The main method of measuring latitude at the time was by star observations, which at the time had an accuracy within a few dozen feet (amazing, on par with GPS and definitely better than Google Maps' markers), but required a staff of astronomers and mathematicians to correctly interpret. Toss in security to help against the Indian threat, generals and majors to be in charge, the short seasons in which to do the work, and general weirdness involved in being in so remote an area all make for a less than boring adventure.

The book itself, unfortunately, is very dry; it does, however, include quite a bit of dry humor along with the boring parts. The actual process of figuring out the position of the 49th parallel is minor, compared to the pages of anecdotes about life for the crews in charge of the project. You hear of the guy who managed to shoot himself—twice—while on the job, the parties held at remote forts for various holidays, the wild dog conscripted to help pull sleds, the Fenian cook who insisted his innocence but ended up in jail for violent crime before he could even set out with the crew…it's like Best of the West hooked up with Deadwood for a little political cartography. I like Red River history, so the places and situations are familiar to me, but the book won't be for everyone. As a historial reference, it does well with facts and accuracy, but the dryness makes it a less-than-ideal piece of historic entertainment. What somebody needs to do is adapt it to a screenplay; the goofiness of the characters definitely entertains.

West on the 49th Parallel: Red River to the Rockies, 1873-1876
by John E Parsons
Originally published 1963

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Sunday, June 21, 2009

Father's Day Faux Pas

Happy Father's Day everyone! As a dad and a reader, I completely understand books as a way to reward Dad for another year as provider, car-repair-advisor, and master barbecuer (if you don't mind a little stereotyping). Better than another tie or humorous t-shirt anyway. A book I wouldn't recommend is, well, anything to do with Josef Fritzl, the psycho parent who kept his daughter in his basement for 24 years and enjoyed …"intimate"… time with her. That's just my recommendations, however — over in the U.K., however, retail giant Tesco apparently didn't have a problem with daughters buying The Crimes of Josef Fritzl for this Father's Day, until it was brought to their attention and an apology was drafted. From first-hand accounts over at Fark, the book was on a specific Father's Day display in the stores — much to the dismay of sharp-eyed shoppers, but what about those shelf-stockers who put the books out? This didn't happen just at Tesco, but also at W.H. Smith, a large bookselling chain in the U.K. I can understand big-box retailer drones not watching what they're tossing on the shelves, but I'd expect more from a retailer who prides themselves on being a leading example of the book retail industry.

The Daily Mail shows the book on the display, bearing the same "half price" sticker as the rest of the books on the promotional displays, so it wasn't a case of "oops, wrong book on the shelves." Special displays are often paid spots, akin to advertising, where a publisher ensures their big promotions are on the endcap or the table at the entryway where they're likely to get more attention. I dug around to see if Smith's was the one in charge of Tesco's book section, like the K-Mart/Waldenbooks arrangement, but everything I found called the two retailers competitors. Now, I'd hope Harper Collins would be smart enough not to specifically recommend this book for Father's Day, but I find it very suspicious that two different retailers, without shared corporate control, would place the same inappropriate book in the Father's Day display. Somebody — publisher, distributor, retailer — got in their head that they needed a recent, hot-button, True Crime title in their dad's display, because dad's like true crime books, you see, so what have we got? Aw, the book is even about a dad, that works great!

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Friday, June 19, 2009

JD Salinger: Unmasked!

J.D. Salinger wrote Catcher in the Rye over fifty years ago, but while his book has been in the public eye for the better part of a century, the author has been famously reclusive. Salinger has been in the news lately, however, trying to block a book from using his copyrighted characters without his permission, but he still hasn't made any public appearances. AbeBooks has a Salinger retrospective, for people following the story but only familiar with Salinger through Catcher, and they include this "back of a milk carton" look at how Salinger might appear today:

The artist's rendition looks a bit younger than eighty-something; for a more recent look, which purports to be an actual photo of the author, check out his biography's cover:

I'll bet literary historians are hoping this goes to court: it may all be an elaborate scheme to get Salinger to appear as a witness, on the stand, for all to bask in his visage after so many years. Won't everybody be surprised when he shows up looking like Thomas Pynchon on The Simpsons?

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Thursday, June 18, 2009

Acquisitions: Almuric

The Wifey picked up Almuric, by Robert Howard, probably to re-sell, but I'm including it because the cover is so full of awesome. Howard was best known for Conan, but he put out pulp novels of swordfighting loinclothed men like there was no tomorrow. I will note, since it's not obvious in the image above, that the undies the hero on the cover is wearing were heavily outlined in ball-point pen by a previous owner.

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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Sedaris On The Kindle

Marty brought a copy of David Sedaris' new book, When You Are Engulfed in Flames, to a signing in New York, but thought he'd be cute about it: Mary brought an e-book version of Flames, expecting Sedaris to sign it. Sedaris was more than game, and added his thoughts on the Kindle itself: To Marty, this bespells doom


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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Acquisitions: The Mad Scientists' Club

The Mad Scientists' Club, by Bertrand R Brinley, was chosen for one of the kids, probably Hunter, because there's so little good adventure stories for pre-teen boys these days. Also still in print despite decades since its release, this series was compiled from short stories printed in Boy's Life magazine. Brinley is no longer around, but his son is holding down the fort by documenting his father's books with an official website.

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Monday, June 15, 2009

Publisher Logo Taxonomy

Nicholas Felton has created a chart for the New York Times, better organizing the mish-mosh of animals used in logos for publishers and imprints. There are a few things to be learned here: first, there are neither reptile nor fish imprint logos, at least none recognized by Felton. Second: robots are arthropods.

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The Enthusiast, by Charlie Haas

Charlie Haas has made a name for himself writing for a variety of outlets, from the big screen to magazines, but he'd never put out a novel before. His first attempt at long-format fiction, The Enthusiast, has been on shelves for two weeks now, and I got a chance to review it over at Collector's Quest. Maybe I identified well with the main character because I spend hours each week writing about elaborate postage stamp forgeries and Hawai'ian currency. I know what it's like to have to compose an article about something I have little personal interest in, but others take very seriously. It's a wholly enjoyable book, maybe not something that'll change people's lives or spawn a new genre, but worth picking up this summer and reading on vacation while the kids scream and tumble over each other at the beach. The book's characters get over hipstery angst as the book moves along, ending up with pretty much all of the cool, young characters becoming cool, older adults — it's sorta like the fantasy beneath Sex in the City, but where you still get to have kids and a mortgage and mature friendships.

I don't know why I'm surprised, but given our reputation as the northern Edge of the World, I was amused to see a shout-out to North Dakota in the book, in regards to a publisher who buys up little obscure magazines, polishes them, and turns them into commodities:

"People hate us."
"I don't think—"
"Hate us. Because we came along and said, 'What if this was a business?' We go to buy someone , and the first thing they say is, 'Gee, do we have to leave North Dakota?' I say, 'No, because we want to preserve that unique character.' They say, 'Oh, that's great, because my brother Zeke is here, and my dog.' I don't want them near here. A square foot in North Dakota is free

Eh, playing to stereotypes a bit, but it comes from the mouth of a Californian publishing editor, who probably knows about as much about North Dakota as…well…people from any state that doesn't border us. But, Zeke? The only place I've met a Zeke is Missouri; we tend to stick to classic Germanic or Nordic names. But, land does come cheap out here, if you don't plan on driving to the grocery store more than once a month.

The Enthusiast includes some fun towards the back. In a section called "P.S." (that's why Amazon has the weird title in their system), the novel tries to go all BluRay on you by adding a handful of "special features," no doubt traded for fifty pages of advertisments in the library edition. There's a canned interview with an author, an interesting article that in ancient times we would have called a "foreword", a "mix tape" list of appropriate music selections for various characters and locales, and one page of reading group questions. That last one…well, here are the recommended questions for the night scheduled to discuss The Enthusiast:

Who brought this salad?

Is someone sitting here?

Did we talk about changing to Thursdays?

What does anyone think about painting this room orange?

Did you read the book? Will it ruin it for you if I talk about it?

Haas has a strong future with The Onion, it seems. It elicited a chuckle from me, but cost his publisher a few thousandths of a cent to put into every copy of the book, so I don't know whether this sort of additional material adds much value to a book, but I won't complain if all books start coming with it.

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Friday, June 12, 2009

Acquisitions: The Lutefisk Ghetto

The Lutefisk Ghetto, by Art Lee, is still in print (mine is the 10th printing, 1988!), despite being a small press and an obscure title. Since Firefox's spellcheck doesn't understand lutefisk, I better explain: it's a white fish, pickled in lye to make it last longer. When cooked, the lye is drawn out, leaving a jelly-like substance that once was fish. I eat a token amount at Christmas time; Grandpa would eat it for every meal if he could, I'll bet. The book is sub-titled "Life in a Norwegian-American Town," and I suspect it's written in a similar vein to Garrison Keillor's A Prairie Home Companion stories, but with a lot more Norwegian. Wifey is enamored with the self-deprecating Norwegian humor, and buys Ole and Lena books all the time, but I grabbed this both because I love local authors and publishers, but it has personal anecdotes from the area culture.

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Thursday, June 11, 2009

Scandinavian Books In McDonald's

The McDonald's near the mall in Minot, North Dakota, has a Scandinavian theme: rosemaling in the tabletops, Swedish and Norwegian flags hung about, and this display of Scandinavian children's books screwed to the wall—

Sadly, they were quite 'blued' from the lack of UV protection. Here's the books:

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Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Two Books Remembered

Two weekends ago, on the 30th, was a huge rummage sale in the Alerus center in Grand Forks. I didn't buy a lot of books, but I was amused to see two books from my childhood; now I regret not buying them, they were both cheap, but I didn't know what I'd do with them except put them on a shelf. My mom probably has my original copies in the basement somewhere, anyhow.

The cover for The Grizzly, by Annabel and Edgar Johnson, always terrified me as a kid (better picture here). The story is a pretty good suspense novel, for being a youth fiction chapter-book.

Scholastic put this edition of Treasure Island in 1961, with Dom Lupo credited as the illustrator. Lupo falls into that internet cavern, in which his existence is out there (he also did a widely-printed golf book), but wasn't big enough for any fans to dedicate webpages to him in the 200s. As you can tell from those two books, my parents were fans of used books as well.

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Monday, June 08, 2009

Unread Books Are The Most Useful

We have a huge collection of books, between the Wifey, myself, and the kids. It is not worth much in actual financial value, seeing as most are 50¢ thriftshop and garage sale books, but we love them anyway. We do, invariably, get the "boy, you must read a lot" comment from the sellers of the books, and while it's generally true, we purchase far more books than we actually sit down to read. There is an underlying fear that this reflects poorly on us, that there is an unvirtuous imbalance between ambition and effort when it comes to our love for books, but Umberto Eco explains it best in the introduction to The Black Swan:
The writer Umberto Eco belongs to that small class of scholars who are encyclopedic, insightful, and nondull. He is the owner of a large personal library (containing thirty thousand books), and separates visitors into two categories: those who react with "Wow! Signore professore dottore Eco, what a library you have! How many of these books have you read?" and the others—a very small minority—who get the point that a private library is not an ego-boosting appendage but a research tool. Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market will allow you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call this collection of unread books an antilibrary.
Far from just a justification of owning lots of books without reading them, the Black Swan theory explains why this is a necessity to people who understand they do not know it all. In the theory, emphasis is on understanding (but not necessarily predicting) the high-impact but unpredictable factors in understanding the world around you. Discovering a black swan, when all evidence points towards all swans being white, is a paradigm-shifting idea but without any evidence to predict it to be true. People have pointed out how D and I have involved, detailed conversations, and how we talk far more than other couples, and not just "what'd you do today" or "saw the funniest thing on TV last night." Most of the time, we're talking about the new things we've learned recently, stories of Death Valley model railroaders and Irish terrorists in 19th Century Minnesota. This would not be possible if we didn't have a huge resource of unknowns in our immediate vicinity: the only way to learn is to have access to the not-yet-learned. We are constantly extending the reach of our knowledge, expanding out understanding of the world, and we can't do that if we spend our time watching TV or playing video games. Even with the internet in front of us all day, most of the new, amazing things we learn come from old books and vintage magazines, both of which we collect and hoard for the pleasure of owning information that we do not yet know.

Via, but further back via.

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Friday, June 05, 2009

Misty On The Books

This, to the right, is Misty. She is about as catlike as a cat can get, but she doesn't usually sit on the steamer trunk in the living room. Wifey bought a bunch of children's book at a grade school auction last weekend. In unloading, several books got sat on the corner of the trunk. Shortly thereafter, the cat sat herself on the books, and remained there for a great amount of time, long enough for me to take photos, which is not something she generally sits still for. Note the open windowsill behind her: books were a far better seat than the couch, the windowsill, or even the table (which she's not allowed on). Sure, she can't read, but at least she's enjoying books somehow.

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Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Bookaholics Anonymous

As a cute pejorative, calling a book lover a "bookaholic" is somewhat apt. Anyone looking at our house would certainly call us one, with the stacks on the diningroom table waiting to be shelved, provided we have some shelvespace. There is certainly something compulsive about our book acquiring, so much so that we recently grabbed them out of the trash during Cleanup Week. We might be obsessive, but that's just part of our charm, you know.

At the Book Industry Conference recently, Simon Juden of the Publishers Association in the UK announced their new marketing plan, admitting it was edgy, and that was a selling point over duller and less fun plans that came out of the brainstorming. The idea was to promote books under the umbrella of bookaholism. "Once you've started it's hard to stop," as a nod to their addictiveness; "Books are mind expanding," stretching the -aholism suffix to cover drug addiction references; "Consume no less than one a month," to hint that one's consumption must be monitored. There is still that cute pejorative underneath, but, wow, the UK must have a view alcoholism more in a Foster-Brooksian way than a MADD way.

At least here in the U.S., alcoholism is deeply attached to great harm to onesself and loved ones. We to glorify excess drinking more than other countries (the ubiquitousness of beer pong & beer bongs are both big recognizeable icons of that), but there's a distinct gravity to the accusation of being an alcoholic. Once you've moved into alcoholism, you've been branded as destructive to yourself and others, and you've got a disease that you'll need to manage for the rest of your life. Books are already teetering against the accusation of being harmful and dangerous: it's not the best thing to associate books with. Start labelling WeightWatcher's dinners with the tagline "You've Come A Long Way, Baby," and you might see a negative reaction to the product. The music industry could have gone with "CDs are for everybody" in the early eighties. Engendering an underlying uneasiness of a product's safety with a tagline that associates it with disease isn't helpful.

Despite the negative association with alcoholism in the U.S., chocaholics, workaholics, and shopaholics still roam our streets, without people immediately associating them with liver disease and tragic car wrecks. However, I'd say they get passes because chocolate, work, and shopping are all virtues of the American culture; imbuing those virtues with an underlying negative reminds that too much of a virtue could be bad. Lumping books into the 'virtuous' column is an excellent idea, but the publishing industry intends to use it as a way to attract customers, due to an existing negative. Chocolatiers refering to customers as chocaholics is a witty self-deprecating response because, well, most people already like chocolate. They are not going to convert somebody who doesn't like chocolate by associating its addictiveness with alcohol or illicit drugs. Workaholism and shopaholism are even being treated as pop-culture diseases; again, not a way to bolster the economy by declaring all Americans become workaholics and shopaholics (although that's another discussion). With books already tagged with a stigma of not being as fun as other pasttimes, and possibly having dangerous ideas inside, the attempt to make it a cute cultural disease is a nice attempt, but woefully weak when it comes to attracting bookbuyers. Book lovers like myself may understand and appreciate being called a bookaholic, but the rare reader who sees an ad suggesting they become a bookaholic may not be as turned on as the publishing industry hopes.

(cartoon adapted from here)

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