Books Are Pretty

Sunday, April 30, 2006

Hooway for Wodney Wat!

When I was eighteen and doing summer stock in North Carolina, a bunch of us spent one of our days off hiking the Appalachian Trail. We stopped by a waterfall to take a break, and as we watched the water spill over the cliff and dash down to the churning pool below, Joanne gasped.

"What? What?" we all asked.

"I'm having an acid flashback," she replied, staring at the water. "I'll be okay, but you should probably know that right now I'm watching a totally different show from the rest of you."

Her eyes pinwheeled toward the rushing water for several minutes. "Whoa," she whispered. "Whoa."

I had to get up very early this morning (okay, 7:00) to go to work. I slept as late as I could, thinking that the time would be better spent giving up coffee than having extra facetime with the pillow. This thinking was wrong-headed, as the first knock from the caffeine-withdrawl headache fairy started poking me on the back of my skull the second I backed out of the driveway. I pulled into the first Caribou Coffee I saw and oozed through the door, all crusty-eyed and crabby. Sitting in the coffee shop were a group of women, mostly crusty-eyed and crabby themselves, clutching large paper cups of coffee and hanging grimly in there. Some sadist had obviously scheduled some sort of Sunday morning business meeting, perhaps the chic-looking silver-haired woman in her late fifties, propped casually against a barstool to better show off her long, thin legs wrapped in carefully distressed denim. Every now and then, she gave her head a brief jerk, tossing back her hair and exposing tasteful gold hoop earrings as she smoothly led the meeting through the details of her company's workweek, explaining that the Blinker Widgets were still on back order until June, and that the soddering was weak on the Flipper Floos and you all know what that means!

Most of the half dozen or so women attending the meeting stared at her, focusing just enough to avoid accusations of inattention, but not so much that they gave the impression that they could be relied on to answer any questions. One woman, who was clearly shared rank with the crusty-eyed miserable ones, but just as clearly desired to set herself apart as the One Who Cared the Most, had positioned herself at the right hand of the Team Leader, and was forcefully answering all the leader's questions, including the rhetorical ones, and additionally volunteered large amounts of anecdotal information on Blinker Widgets, Flipper Floos, and every other subject raised. She loomed over all the other women, physically bigger and much, much louder. She filled up the whole room with her big mouth and her bigger brain, and I couldn't help but watch her, initially annoyed by the know-it-all and glad I wasn't trapped at that particular meeting.

The longer I watched the know-it-all while my coffee hissed and spit its way into my cup, the more familiar she looked. Soon, it was driving me a little nuts. I closed my eyes to help me remember where I'd seen her, and an image popped immediately into my head of her, enormous and looming over her frightened coworkers, a pink bow pinned to the back of her blonde head. I opened my eyes. No bow. I closed my eyes. Bow. Big bow...big mouth...big bow...big bully...big bow...And then, I knew. I knew, and everything slid into place. I was watching a meeting with Camilla Capybara, the giant rodent villian from Alex's book Hooway for Wodney Wat.

I was totally gobsmacked. Once the idea crystallized before me, it was like the pages of the book opened up underneath me and I fell in, right into Miss Fuzzleworth's classroom at P.S. 142 Elementary School for Rodents. Everything was the same, except for that missing pink bow. She was bigger than any of them, meaner than any of them, and smarter than any of them, and as the silver-haired Miss Fuzzleworth spoke, Camilla Capybara bellowed out her answers, her puffy, rodent-like face triumphant.

Miss Fuzzleworth asked, "What's 2 + 2?"

"Four!" shouted Camilla Capybara without bothering to raise her paw. "And furthermore, 4 + 4 is 8, 8 + 8 is 16, and 243 + 125 is 368!"

And later, when Miss Fuzzleworth asked,"What's the capital of-" Camilla interrupted, "New York. Albany. Population 295, 594."

And during science, when Miss Fuzzleworth shook her tasteful gold hoops and asked, "What plant structure is found beneath the ground?"

Camilla Capybara danced on her desk and sang,"Root! Root! Rooty-toot-toot!"

All the other mice and squirrels hid behind their coffee cups and whispered, "Yup, she's smarter than we are, too."

They felt very, very uncomfortable.*

It was identical. The same booming voice shouting out the correct answers, daring anyone to even try to answer or add something of merit. The same size difference between the capybara and the other mice, rats, and squirrels at the meeting.

It was awesome. I couldn't stop staring, my mouth open, my eyes pinwheeling toward the giant capybara, as if I was Dorothy, walking through the door from gray and rainy Illinois and into the glorious technicolor Caribou Coffee.

"Whoa," I whispered. "Whoa."
*dialogue and partial narration taken from Helen Lester's Hooway for Wodney Wat.

Hooway for Wodney Wat!
by Helen Lester
published in 2002
Paperback, 32 pages
ISBN-10: 061821612X

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Sunday, April 23, 2006


There are two types of girls in the Western world: Jane Eyre girls and Elizabeth Bennett girls. Although most love both of the 19th-century's most famous fictional heroines, the majority will confess, if pressed, that deep down their loyalties lie with either one or the other.

Although I, too, fell in love with Colin Firth's portrayal of Mr. Darcy and will accept no substitutes, when it comes right down to it, I'm a Jane Eyre girl all the way.

I first read Charlotte Brontë's classic gothic novel when I was ten, the same age as the protagonist was when she was abused by her wicked aunt and banished to Lowood, the charity orphanage. Jane's fierce, uncompromising passion struck a deep chord in my middle-class suburban heart, and Jane's defiant statement when being dragged off to the haunted red room, "I resisted all the way," still gives me a vicarious thrill.

When I was given the opportunity to read Douglas A. Martin's Branwell, the fictionalized biography of Charlotte Brontë's underachieving brother, I tore into it, hoping desperately for glimpses of his genius older sister and revelling in each mention of her work on Jane Eyre.

My tendency to crane my neck past Branwell in order to long after Charlotte was, according to the novel, exactly what was wrong with Branwell to begin with.

As Martin writes, a 19th-century boy is "a medal his parents must forever try to polish." If true, the Branwell became irrevocably tarnished, and made even more so by the unheralded success of his three gifted sisters. As the only son of five children, young Branwell was as spoiled and privileged above his sisters as he was burdened with the pressure of the expectations weighing on his shoulders.

Branwell's clergyman father, Patrick Brontë, guarded his prized son to an extreme, homeschooling him from Haworth, their remote home, and refusing to allow him to socialize with other, less worthy boys. Branwell's childhood, then, was spent almost exclusively in the company of his sisters, the late Maria, with whom he had the strongest bond, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne, who all fully expected him to be the brightest star in the family sky.

To paraphrase Sam Lipsyte, things did not pan out.

Branwell bumped around from career to career, spending the money his sisters, father, and aunt sacrificed for him, and never able to display any of the laser-like passion that so focused his sisters, melted under the disappointed gaze of his family. He muffled up their collective disapproval with opium and swallowed his self-loathing with layer upon layer of alcohol, fading into death at the age of 31, ruined and dissolute.

Those looking for the keen determination and righteous anger of Charlotte won't find it in Branwell. The bare bones of Branwell's life, gleaned from scraps of writing and newspaper articles aren't brought into focus. Instead, the entire novel adopts the passive tone of Brontë himself, a man so personally regressive he painted himself out of the family portrait. The permeating voice is listless and dispassionate, as if Branwell himself is telling the story from the bottom of a fingerful of laudanaum. There is no dialogue between characters, and even the questions are all phrased as statements, as if the narrator did not care whether he was heard or not.

When there isn't much happening between plot points, this disaffectation grows a bit tiresome; however, when a big fat sex scandal plops itself in the center of the book, the reader becomes much more drawn in, as the actual events of the drama are ferreted out.

In the end, Branwell puts a very human face on the least successful of the Brontës, albeit a face from far in the distance, and only sharply draws into focus the exact reason why Charlotte Brontë rolled up her worksleeves and got going on her masterpiece.

by Douglas A. Martin
Soft Skull Press
published 2005
232 pages
ISBN - 1-933368-00-4

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Wednesday, April 19, 2006

The Electric Company.

Would you let this man teach your children how to read?

Credit where credit is due: it was my mother who taught me how to read. But it was this man here,


who just made it look so outta sight.

For those of you who didn't have your noses pressed up against the television set from 1971 to 1977, this man is Academy Award winner Morgan Freeman, back when he was busy impressing the shit out of 6-year-olds everywhere in the U.S. as Easy Reader, on PBS' The Electric Company.

And it wasn't just Morgan Freeman teaching me and countless others how to read. There was also Rita Moreno, the first actress in history to win an Oscar, a Tony, a Grammy, and an Emmy (and who also was the one shouting "HEY YOU GUYS!!" at the beginning of the show*). There was Bill Cosby, who had a hand in virtually every single piece of quality children's television thoughout the sixties and seventies. There was Mel Brooks, Joan Rivers, Zero Mostel, and Gene Wilder, but that was almost incidental to the show's ability to suck in a child and spit out a reader.

I acquired the 4 dvd collection of The Best of the Electric Company in the worst possible way: I stayed up way too late surfing, came across some of these old clips, got all sentimental, and the next thing you know it's in our mailbox and Steve is pissed at me for spending money we really don't have.

It was worth every dime, though, because when the kids got home from school and I put it in, they settled in on the couch to see what it was all about. I hung back in the doorway, actually nervous, because, you know, they don't have to like it or anything, it's okay if they don't like it, but it's just that it was a really important show to Mommy a long time ago and she'll be crushed if you hate it, but it's okay. Really. You don't have to like it.

We watched the first episode, originally aired on October 25, 1971. The sets were cheap. Super cheap. In one episode, Morgan Freeman plays Marvin, a very clumsy man who destroys everything he touches. When he leans against the brick fireplace wall, you can see a hand sneak out from behind the set and push the wall on top of him.

And compared to the frenetic pacing in today's children's television shows, The Electric Company seemed agonizingly slow. During the segments, I kept glancing nervously to the kids to see if they were getting restless. They weren't. Alex was staring at Bill Cosby, who was carefully explaining the two different sounds the letter "G" makes.

"Mommy," said Alex, his eyes still on the screen as he spoke in a voice that was genuinely pleased and respectful, "that man is teaching me how to read."

And that's the beauty of it, I think. The Electric Company didn't bother to disguise their intent. Sure, they made it funny, and there was a lot of repetition, but in between that, they slowly and methodically explained how the English language works. They assumed their viewer knew their alphabet and letter sounds, and worked mostly on teaching children to put the sounds together to make words, punctuation, and capitalization. The words they worked on were just out of Alex's reach, reading-wise, words like "great" and "tomorrow" and "light," and they explained them in such a way that you could see the connections being made in his head as he watched.

It was amazingly cool, cooler even than the cast, and that's really saying something. The cast of The Electric Company were adults (except for the Short Circus, the all-kid rock band). They weren't adults pretending to be kids, and they didn't treat their viewers like kids, either. They were hip adults, and they successfully convinced kids that reading was cool. (And speaking of adult, Skip Hennant, who played the popular Fargo, North Decoder, went on to star as the title character in the X-rated cartoon Fritz the Cat.)

Looking cool was the purpose of Easy Reader, I think. And who, I have to say, looked staggeringly pimptastic in the first episode. You have no idea. He appeared in a later episode less macked-out but still sidling up to a diner waitress, played by Lee Chamberlain, and crooning, "Hey, baby, you got a pack of matches?"

This made me scream at the tv, "Oh my God, you're not going to start smoking, are you?"**

Which was a valid question because two scenes prior to this one, Bill Cosby spent the entire sketch teaching the kids how to pronounce "DR" with a big fat cigar stuffed between his fingers.

I would have almost rather Morgan Freeman and Lee Chamberlain get it on atop the diner's formica counter than smoke cigarettes, and given the general clothing vibe and those kissably close silhouettes pushing letter sounds out of their lips and urging them closer and closer until it was certain the letters knew each other in a Biblical sense and a new word was formed, I wouldn't put some literary screwing past those two at all.

Ah, the seventies!

Here's one more clip, "The Adventures of Letterman," featuring the voices of Joan Rivers, Zero Mostel, and Gene Wilder.

*Interesting that the two best shouters in televsion are women - Rita Moreno on The Electric Company and Carol Burnett's imitation of Tarzan.

**Easy Reader, as it turns out, does not smoke.

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Friday, April 14, 2006

The Haunted Hillbilly.

Okay, so: The Haunted Hillbilly is put out here in the U.S. by Soft Skull Press, and as a rule, Soft Skull generally does not put out books that are alarmingly crappy. In fact, I've yet to read a book put out by Soft Skull that wasn't a decent ride. I've reviewed two Soft Skull books so far, Lisa Crystal Carver's Drugs Are Nice, and Michelle Embree's Manstealing for Fat Girls, and both provided strongly compelling evidence supporting my "Soft Skull Good" theory.

Because of this, when I realized that Derek McCormack's 2003 novel was about a gay rapist vampire who drugs and rims Hank Williams, Sr., my first thought was "Why, Soft Skull? Why?"

Then I began enjoying the outrageousness of my one-sentence summary a little too much, and gleefully told anybody who would listen exactly what I was reading.

Best of all was when I discovered that Nudie, the gay vampire, was also a real person, costumer Nudie Cohn, who designed performance clothes for Cher, Elton John, Elvis Presley, and Liberace. The real Nudie Cohn may not have been an actual vampire, but it's difficult to argue with the opinion that he probably farted rhinestones.

No, wait! Best of all is the disclaimer at the start of the book that clearly states that the book is a work of fiction. McCormack then goes on to tell us about the main character, "Hank Williams," an aspiring country singer who, at the start of the book, is married to a woman named "Audrey" and is preparing to audition for the Grand Ole Opry. He meets a flamboyant costume designer named "Nudie," whose fashion sense gives Ray Charles eye pain, and together they have adventures involving alchohol, back pain, getting fired from the Opry, a divorce from Audrey, a girlfriend named Bobbie, who has his child, and Hank's premature death at the age of 29. But I'm sure that's just, as the disclaimer says, coincidental to anybody's actual life. And did I mention gay vampire rape?

I'm sure the Williams and Cohn families have an autographed copy of this book on their mantlepiece.

McCormack is quite the hot ticket in the Canadian indie circuit. His extremely spare prose forces the reader to fill in all the gaps left in the narrative, and I enjoyed the contrast between the way-too-busy clothing and the clipped language used to describe it:

The blazer's ablaze. Sleeves studded with musical bars. Staffs are sequins. Notes are glass beads. A treble clef is scores of rhinestones.

The difficulty with such See-spot-run sentences, as any first grader will tell you, is that the author can't help but get to the point quickly. The Haunted Hillbilly is 124 pages long, double spaced, and devotes several pages to fancy chapter title pages with ink illustrations of western-style font and swirly western patterns surrounding it. Not quite a book, then, although marketed as such. I'm not sure it's even a novella.

The Haunted Hillbilly, truth be told, reminded me of a short story dressed up in a big novel's three-piece suit; hat enveloping a little head, shoes swallowing little feet, borrowed briefcase dragging on the floor.

Had this been a short story I found in a magazine somewhere, I would have loved it just as much. During my second read, I even started coming around to the idea that Hank Williams, a man possessed by demons, was possessed in the fictionalized version of his life by an actual demon. But marketed as a novel it fell short of my expectations.

I loved The Haunted Hillbilly, I did. It's just that, in the end, I think I loved it for all the wrong reasons. Gay rapist vampires, y'all! Yee-haw!

The Haunted Hillbilly
by Derek McCormack
published 2003 by ECW Press, Toronto, Canada
published in the United States 2005 by Soft Skull Press
124 pages

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Saturday, April 08, 2006

Be Happy Or I'll Scream!

Several years ago, my husband, Steve, and I were flying from O'Hare to Augusta, Georgia to visit my family across the Savannah River in South Carolina. Sitting next to us in our cramped coach seats was an old man who tightly gripped Steve's shirt sleeve the minute he collapsed out of the aisle and onto the seat next to us.

"Uh, hello, sir," said Steve, glancing down at the liver-spotted hand grasping his elbow.

"Young man, have you served your country?" he demanded.

"I...was in the Ohio National Guard, yes sir," replied Steve, who shot me a where-is-this-going? look.

"Ah, there's a good man," said the old man pleasedly, and without relaxing his grip on his captive audience, he began to pour out a rush of stories that lasted the entire flight, war stories about his derring-do as a fighter pilot in World War II.

For a little while I politely listened, too, until I realized that my presence by my husband's side was not welcomed. In fact, I couldn't have received a clearer message had the old man handed me a parachute.

Watching Steve writhe under the old man's grip, speaking only in uh-huhs, yes, sirs, and oh, wows, I was somewhat pleased to find that sexism was working in my favor for a change. He thinks I couldn't be a veteran? He thinks because I'm a woman I just wouldn't understand what he had to say? Guess what? He's right! I'm free to read my book and watch Seinfeld on the in-flight tv! I'm off the hook for having to follow the ingrained lessons my mother forced me to obey all those years ago about respecting the elderly! Down with your war stories, old man!

To be truthful, however, both the old man and I were wrong. I love war stories. And the old man was right about one thing - sometimes, to fully appreciate them, it helps to be a soldier yourself.

Nationally syndicated morning radio host Sheri Lynch, author of Hello, My Name Is Mommy, her best selling book about pregnancy and new motherhood, has written a second book about family life with toddlers. Well, Be Happy Or I'll Scream is ostensibly a book about life with toddlers. What it really is, though, is a series of war stories, with Sheri and her husband Mark as the dogfaces in the trenches versus their daughters, three-year-old Olivia and one-year-old Caramia. Despite Sheri and Mark's best efforts to hold the fort and maintain tv sitcom standards, they are out- maneuvered at every turn by the little fascists. And of course, there is dissention in the ranks as Sheri and Mark battle each other for higher rank.

Evidently the Nazis marching down the Champs Elysees doesn't move me as much as a woman writing about her daughter giving the entire family a stomach virus she picked up at preschool. Which is horribly wrong of me, I know, but there it is.

The spine of Lynch's book is her quest to make her family conform to a sitcom ideal. Every month or so, she plans adventures for her brood, à la The Bradys go to Hawaii.

Even though Lynch is less ambitious than Carol Brady, who had an entire unionized crew assisting her, including someone for hair and makeup, after all, things still manage to go horribly awry.

When you haven't fought in this particular war, you really don't realize how agonizing it can be to take two toddlers to the Art Institute of Chicago, as Lynch details in Chapter Three. Or how carried away you can get when planning your children's birthday parties. Or the horror that dawns on you with the realization that you don't need your birth control pills anymore, because your existing children won't allow you to have sex anyway.

All these stories have been told before, of course, but then again, if the stories are well-told, as Lynch's are, they're bound to be entertaining.

The weakest part of the book comes in the end, when Lynch attempts to tie everything together and tell her readers, in a style as saccharine as an episode of Full House, the Valuable Lesson She Learned About Being a Family. The sentimental moralizing may be sugar-coating sprinkled on top to make it palatable, but the meat and guts and spilled blood are what we all secretly love reading about, and when Lynch really gets rolling in misery is when wives everywhere will follow their spouses around the house, reading the book out loud and cackling with that strange combination of sympathy and schadenfreude that other mothers can do so well.

And because misery loves lots and lots of company, I did share one of her tales with Steve, the chapter where her husband rents an RV and takes the family on a Florida vacation. This has been a dream of ours as long as we've been married, and Lynch squashed it flat. And what kind of wife would I be if I hesitated even one second in using the book to squash my husband's dream, too?

"Listen to this," I said to him as he lay sprawled out on the couch. "They rented an RV to travel around the country with, just like we want to do."

"Oh, yeah?" he said.

"Yeah. Guess how much it costs to fill up the gas tank? Eighty-six dollars."


"And guess how often they have to fill the tank? Every two hours!"

Steve stared at me, aghast, then said, "I don't think I'll ever be that rich."

He better work harder then, is all I have to say, because I don't want to miss out on the opportunity to drag my children, like Lynch did, into a restaurant called the Ragged Ass Saloon on Pine Island, the only island in Florida with no beach and 12-inch long mosquitos.

Television sitcoms and battlefields be damned, that's the kind of family memory you want.

P.S. - And since Lynch so kindly gave me the reality check on RVs, let me return the favor by telling her this: in the basement of the Art Institute is a children's library, an enclosed room with rows of books, a nice librarian, and a room full of big cushy pillows to relax in and read. One of you takes the kids downstairs, while the other one sneaks upstairs to look at Warhol's lipsticked Mao. Then switch off.
Be Happy Or I'll Scream!
by Sheri Lynch
St. Martin's Press
Published February, 2006
240 pp
ISBN: 0-312-34233-0

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