Books Are Pretty

Monday, September 25, 2006

The Lump.

There is so much going on in Chris Wisnia’s compilation of The Lump, his hardboiled, macabre murder mystery told through tabloid-colored glasses, that I’m not exactly sure what to focus on. In fact, I don’t think I read it correctly, or, at least, it is perhaps put together in a way that pulled me in two different directions, making it difficult to give my full attention to either one. Which is kind of a shame, because both paths Wisnia takes the reader down are an awful lot of fun.

The Lump storyline, while totally disgusting, is portrayed in such a nostalgic, campy style that it’s impossible to take seriously, and the reader is permitted to just have fun with it.

In a sort of Dashiell-Hammett meets a 60’s sci-fi B movie as told by the Weekly World News, Rob Oder, editor-in-chief of the yellow rag Tabloia, introduces the (“shocking, most anticipated tale in the history of publishing!”) story of a body that is pushed out of a moving car and is struck by at least 7 other cars. The corpse is pulverized, but not before the local medical examiner makes a shocking discovery – the head and the body do not match. Additionally, a third hand is found.

In the melee of flying body parts, the medical examiner, the local police force, and a cynical detective try to figure out whose hand and whose head belongs to who, and who is responsible. Also, two twenty-something tattoo aficionados opine on the fashion statement a head transplant would make and the political ramifications of such a choice.

The fictitious Oder, whose unnatural love of exclamation points is illegal in 13 states, also includes for your reading pleasure his own relentless bragging commentary, unrelated articles on hygiene from Dr. “Cleanie” Santini, bitter reader mail, and assorted sex facts about the animal kingdom submitted by a series of adolescent boys.

Also fun, in a completely different way, is Wisnia’s insertions of his laments of the thankless, loveless life of the self-publishing comic artist. While the story of the self-loathing, broke and sad comic book guy was told to heartless perfection by Daniel Clowes this year in Pussey!, Wisnia is currently the real deal, and his laments of being a talented guy running up against the brick wall that is breaking into the arts industry will have many, many heads nodding along in empathy.

Interspersing the two didn’t work for me very well, because I wanted to devote my brain to either one tale of humorous woe or the other, so the next time I read it, I’ll stick to either the paneled pages or the printed word.

Nevertheless, I feel compelled to urge everyone to run! Run very fast! Run and buy The Lump! It’s the most horrifying! Shocking! Story! Ever! Told!

Plus, Wisnia’s mortgage payment is due next week.


First reviewed at the Journal of the Lincoln Heights Literary Society.

Buy the Book!

The Lump
By Chris Wisnia
Salt Peter Press
July, 2006
158 pp. softcover
ISBN: 0-9778165-0-8

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Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Simply Green Giving.

The problem with these glossy, stylish lifestyle books, even the organic ones, is that you have to have a certain level of income to be able to afford the level of Simple Living portrayed in most of them. One of my favorite book review comments, and oh, do I wish I could remember who said this, described the recipes in one of Charlie Trotter’s cookbooks as being "perfect if God is coming to dinner." Anybody else, though, is not worth the effort.

But celebrity green lifestylist Danny Seo's environmentally conscious book Simply Green Giving seems, for the most part, to be genuinely creative, making gift tags, wrapping paper, and handmade gifts out of items even the most broke among us have piling up in the garage somewhere. Better yet, most of the crafty ideas he employs requires zero artistic talent.

It was so inspiring to see that I could make snappy looking gift ribbon out of old VHS videotape that Christopher and I immediately blew the whole idea of thrifty creativity by jumping in the car and zooming off to the craft store for string. And then of course we each needed our own craft box, which couldn’t be taken home devoid of crafts, so we filled them with crayons, fingerpaint, and Christmas ribbon, and defeated the whole purpose of the book right there in Aisle 29, the handmade soap section.

In an effort to assist you with not being like us, we spent the afternoon working on two crafts that are easy and cheap to do – gift labels out of business cards and soap. The gift labels, which were made using two business cards, old fabric from a soap wrapper, an old gift bag from Alex’s birthday party, a hole punch, white glue and string, turned out pretty good, as you can see.*

The soap was even more fun, but expensive, because I got carried away and bought clear glycerin soap blocks, lilac soap dye, lilac/vanilla soap scent, alphabet tiles, and soap molds. But I had the bright red satin ribbon, (which goes so well with lavender!) a bamboo skewer for poking a hole in the soap to thread the ribbon through, a Pyrex measuring cup, and a microwave, so I felt inexplicably justified in purchasing the items to make this project. The idea is to use craft store alphabet tiles, pouring the melted soap into the soap molds, filling it halfway, putting the alphabet tiles in to spell out the gift recipient’s name, then pouring more melted soap on top and freezing it again.

Except when I got the alphabet tiles home I realized that I had bought long skinny alphabet stamps instead of short flat tiles, and could not use them. The soap with the ribbon through it looks very nice, though, and if I’d bought the right thing I’m sure it would have been great. But it isn’t a complete loss. I can use the alphabet stamps to find fall leaves and stamp someone’s name onto them, another of Seo’s ideas, using the leaf as a gift label. If our neighborhood had trees, that is.

All in all, this gave me a lot of good, economical ways to wrap presents for the upcoming holidays, as well as providing a few hours of creative activities for Christopher.

If you’re a crafty person who is on a tight budget, and can restrain yourself in a craft store, you can find lots to work with using this book. And if your budget isn’t so tight, you can go wild in thrift stores, stocking up on gift-giving supplies for months to come.
Simply Green Giving
By Danny Seo
September, 2006 by Harper Collins
Hardcover, 144 pp
ISBN: 0-06-112277-4

*Glue the business cards together. Let dry. Glue the fabric or decorative paper onto the business cards and let dry. Fold card in half. Punch a hole in the folded corner with a hole punch. Run string through it. Voila!

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Saturday, September 16, 2006

American Genius: A Comedy.

This spring, National Geographic published a photograph of a small prayer book, written in French, and bound in what appears to be leather. According to the article, the leather that is used in bookbinding is very thin, about the thickness of three sheets of paper, and is given its firmness by stretching it over a stiff backing. The leather on this little book of prayers looks worn and supple, a medium tan color, with the wrinkles and scarring that are inherent to leather products visible on its surface. When the book was examined more closely, it was discovered that the leather was made of human skin.

In Judaism, religious books are ornately decorated as an expression of love for the word of God. Islam created beautiful forms of calligraphy to give glory to religious expression in their holy books. What does it say, then, about the religious views of an individual who binds the word of God in human skin?

My thoughts kept coming back to this macabre little book when I read Lynne Tillman’s fifth novel, American Genius: A Comedy. As morbid and repulsive as the concept is, I couldn’t shake the thought that a binding of human leather suited the novel.

American Genius is overwhelmed by obsession, a myriad jumble of interwoven thoughts kaleidoscoping throughout the mind of Helen, a woman living in an unspecified residential institution. She keeps revolving the same interests around in her mind, some of which include:

The Zulu language
Chair design
That Tarot reading she got that one time
The meals served in the institution
Manson girl and convicted killer Leslie Van Houten
Fabric, and, in a very much related way,


Who we are is what covers us, she believes, and of course because she is a sensitive person, she has sensitive skin that she is constantly caring for. As she weaves the thick tapestry of obsessions that occupy her time, it becomes painfully clear how limiting an obsessive mind and a deeply neurotic personality can be. She returns repeatedly to her same sticking points, giving the reader bits of new information each time, and in the cracks between the thick defensive wall she has surrounded herself with, her life is able to happen.

Months ago, when the second or assistant cook arrived, she was in the kitchen and around the dining room first at breakfast, then at dinner, when she had met the standards set by the head cook, and, instantly, she reminded me of Leslie Van Houten, because her hands were unsightly, she was a nailbiter, and though she was clean and scrubbed, a reluctance or remorse in her stained her solid body and made it unsightly, and, though armored, or because, she had an almost palpable vulnerability.

The entire novel is written in a distinctive, rhythmic cadence, words swimming in the opaque tidal pools of each sentence. It’s brilliant how Tillman used sentence structure to immerse the reader completely into the internal monologue of the narrator. Much of the novel flows in a leisurely, uninhibited way, reflecting the copious amounts of time Helen jealously protects and guards almost as much as she protects her sensitive skin, but when Helen is forced to interact with another person – the young kitchen assistant who lusts after her, the eccentric woman who abruptly appears throughout the novel to ask loud, demanding questions, or the other residents who are deeply involved in obsessions of their own (although they all share the same obsession with complaining about the food served in the institution), the language becomes abrupt, choppy, and the reader feels Helen’s apprehension and fear of losing her carefully maintained self control.

In one of the best parts of the book, she comes across the kitchen assistant in a local coffee shop, and when she joins him and his friends at a table, she flatly responds to their questions with odd tangents about Leslie Van Houten. During his overtures to her, rather than responding in the traditional way, she instead becomes engrossed in the construction of the chair she is sitting on. Clearly there is not much room in her thoughts for the kitchen assistant, beyond the fact that he has appealing skin.

American Genius: A Comedy has an incredibly rich texture, revealing so much about the nature of the human mind and human relationships, proving that the threads of both intertwine to form a tapestry, a story of living fabric that is told on the skin of us all.

American Genius: A Comedy
by Lynne Tillman
Soft Skull Press
September, 2006
320pp, Paperback
ISBN: 1-933368-44-6

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