Sunday, June 25, 2006


Choose Your Own Headline

Wired covers the reissue of the Choose Your Own Adventure series, whose readers were not easily fooled by jacket copy on Space Vampire:

When the back of the book says "You're the star of more than 24 endings," it isn't lying. Of course, I'm not sure why they couldn't just say "You're the star of exactly 25 endings." I'll never understand marketers.
A sample line: "Do you eject the vampire through the airlock?"

Saturday, June 24, 2006


Plop Indeed

The Worst Poem Ever!

...and no, it's not even by Jewel. I present you a passage from Theophilis Marzials's 1874 poem "A Tragedy":

So what do I care,
And my head is empty as air --
I can do,
I can dare,
(Plop, plop
The barges flop
Drip drop.)
I can dare! I can dare!
And let myself all run away with my head
And stop.
Plop, flop.


Two More SF Bookstores Closing...

First Cody's, then A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books. Now comes word this week from the SF Examiner that Valencia Street Books is closing.

And now so is my favorite used bookstore, Acorn Books. My wife lived just a few blocks from there when we first met, and to me the store always basks in the glow of that time.

Glen Gold gave me a heads-up that they were holding a going-out-business sale, and sure enough, now there's an interview on Abebooks with retiring owner Joel Chapman.

One odd "who knew?" anecdote from the interview:

Whoopi Goldberg walked into his bookstore one afternoon dressed in a nun’s habit accompanied by her entourage. "She was making some movie and was in costume," explained Joel. "She bought a large number of books, from Edgar Rice Burroughs to Haggard, but took interest in a box of books on the floor that I hadn’t priced up yet. The box contained L. Frank Baum Oz first editions with dust jackets. She asked if she could return the next day and if I could close the shop. Of course, I agreed."

"She came back, looked at the books, and said: 'I’ll take them all' and that was $14,000 worth of books. She clearly knew a lot about turn-of-the-century fantasy novels."


You Otter Know

...about a book starring an otter and a half-ton statue.

Sunday, June 18, 2006


American As She Is Spoke

In today's Telegraph Philip Hensher addresses an age-old question: why are American and British novelists so awful at imitating each other's dialogue? Naturally, much of the article is dedicated to cringeworthy American attempts at British diction. Not only is this is like shooting fish in barrel, it's like shooting them in one marked "BARREL OF FISH: PLEASE SHOOT US."

Say, remember when Jim Varney tried to play a European prince on Roseanne? No? Anyway, it turns out The Da Vinci Code is pretty much like that:

The idea of English life in The Da Vinci Code is hilarious enough. "I was knighted," the villainous Sir Leigh Teabing explains as he prepares to skip customs and immigration on landing in Britain. "Membership [sic] has its privileges."

But it's his speech that really nails the ludicrousness. "Just because I am returning to the Queen's realm does not mean I intend to subject my palate to bangers and mash for the rest of my days. I'm planning to buy a splendid villa in Devon…"

To be fair, British books are almost equally inept at imitating Americans. But only one has ever surpassed our unutterably egregious dialogue, and it goes strangely unmentioned by Hensher: DBC Pierre's Vernon God Little.

Mark my words: DBC is the Karl May of our time.

Hey, wait a second....

He IS Karl May!


Hey, That's Professor Stubble To You

Postings will be a little sparse on here over the next few weeks, as Jen and I will be busy packing moving boxes with PDX scrawled on them.

Why? Because of this and this. I start this fall as an Assistant Prof in creative nonfiction at Portland State University!

Sunday, June 11, 2006


Cheap Summer Reads...

First, for those of you have been asking: yes, the next Collins Library title has been chosen and will be officially announced soon for a release late this year. In fact, it seems the cat is already meowing in its bag.

In the meantime, all this month the McSweeney's store is having a $5 backlist sale, including Collins Library hardcovers of To Ruhleben and Back and Lady Into Fox. They're normally priced $18, so... load up!


Rock On!

This week I discovered that the splendid Museum of Hoaxes convened to decide whether or not my "Victorian Rock Bands" story on NPR and The Believer (full article now up) was in fact true.

Their verdict: indeed it is.

(A reader alerts me that this is not the first time I have been honored by the Museum's skeptics...)


Black Beauty Rides Again

Given my interest in obscure lit, I get asked occasionally -- what's the single most overlooked book I've ever come across? My answer remains the same as it was in The Believer a couple years ago: Black Beauty is the most neglected major work in the English language. (The entire article is on The Believer's site.)

Anna Sewell's 1877 novel was the cultural precursor of the animal rights movement, and far more radical than its bowdlerized modern versions -- early editions were subtitled The Uncle Tom's Cabin of Horses, and included illustrated instructions on how to humanely shoot a downed horse. Try putting that in a modern children's book.

In the early 1970s Black Beauty was estimated to have sold 30 million copies worldwide in dozens of languages; there's no telling how much higher the total is now. In my Believer article I compained that there was not a single scholarly study of this book -- not one -- and the last bio of the author, a slim and obscure volume, was three decades ago. That, happily, was changing even as I wrote. Adrienne Gavin's biography Dark Horse came out just a couple months later. It's still a novel calling out for scholarly attention, though.

Antiquarian collectors, at least, are more clued in than academia has been. The BBC reported this week that an extraordinary first edition of Black Beauty -- inscribed by Sewell (who died just three months after it was published) to her mother -- sold this week at Christie's for £33,000, more than four times the presale estimate.

I hope the buyer loans it to the British Library, and I hope it goes on permanent display. It's about time.

Saturday, June 10, 2006


A Haunting Book...

.... Boo!


Be Kind To Your Straw-Footed Friends

One of my favorite finds in London a few months back, a reprint of the 1924 oddball classic The Week-End Book, is now available in the US and reviewed in this week's Christian Science Monitor, who note:

There are birdsongs set in a treble clef. The section "Travels with a Donkey" inexplicably enumerates the speed at which an emu runs: 40 m.p.h. And under the guise of driving etiquette, we're told one must always stop for pedestrians and that "any chump can stop for a pretty girl, but try being kind to a few scarecrows."

Seriously -- you need this book.


Stephen Cubed to the Steventh Power

Ed Park discovered a Baldwin brother's memoir press release that must be seen to be believed.

A brief excerpt:

Baldwin explains that it took everything life has shown him, from his experiences at the PLAYBOY Mansion to being on many sets and jet-setting across the world to make him realize that none of these material accomplishments compare to his faith.... Baldwin will take the country by storm by driving in his CUSTOMIZED GM CUBE called the “Lord’s Lounge” which boasts the cover of the book shrink wrapped around the gnarly vehicle while also creating the spectacle of the true STEVIE B experience, illustrating what it is like to be the UNUSAL SUSPSECT. Be on the look out for baby Baldwin driving the CUBE to a city near you!

Apparently the "Stevie B experience" did not involve spellchecking. Know why? Because spellcheck's for sissies! Boo-yah!

One thing Ed and I haven't been able to figure out: what the hell is a GM Cube? It doesn't turn up on google, which leads me to the only logical conclusion: Stephen Baldwin is conducting his book tour in an actual cube.... filled with water.

Take that, David Blaine!

For a chaser to follow your Stevie B Experience, might I suggest this amazing Portland Mercury interview with Steven Seagal about his blues band? (No, not a misprint.) And, of course, his next movie project....

Is it a movie about the blues?

Yeah. I mean, in my opinion, this will be the most important blues movie ever made, and that's not to say someone won't make a better one, but up until now I will promise you this will be the most authentic blues movie ever made....

So it's blues and action at the same time?

Yeah, of course.

Yeah. Of course!

Sunday, June 04, 2006


Lit Crit... Now With Fewer Facts!

An article by Helen Rumblelow in the Times of London compares today's writers to the Beats and finds us to be infantilized:

Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac wrote as adults, their faces pressed to the front windscreen of an old jalopy; Mitchell, Smith, Coe, Sedaris and others write as teenagers, looking back through the rear window of the school bus.

The Beats would have found this preoccupation with adolescent histories bizarre. Kerouac dismissed his past with hardly a parting glance in On the Road. “What is the feeling when you’re driving away from people, and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing?” he wrote. “It’s the too huge world vaulting us, and it’s goodbye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.”

What a fascinating thesis. Particularly if, like the delightfully named Ms. Rumblelow, you apparently have not read any of the authors cited.

Kerouac's writing obsessed over his childhood -- his first book, The Town and the City, is a Thomas Wolfe-like ode to his childhood in Lowell. His 1959 novel Doctor Sax is essentially one long drawn-out riff on his childhood, fueled by old radio-drama and pulp fantasies. And what of Neal Cassady, the model for On The Road's Dean Moriarty? Well, he only wrote one book. It's a memoir called The First Third, and it focuses on... you guessed it... his childhood.

Oh, and Helen? -- Jack Kerouac lived with his mom almost his entire life.

But I'm sure you already knew that.


Dept. of Neologisms

This week has seen plenty of gnashing of teeth over a Sunday Times of London article revealing that "Britain's biggest bookseller is demanding payments of £50,000 a week from publishers to get books on its supposedly impartial list of 'recommended' reads in the run-up to Christmas this year."

The issue of "co-op" money gets an occasional airing in this country too, accompanied by astonished reactions of customer betrayal. Then everybody forgets it again, 12 to 18 months pass, and the same story runs again with different bestsellers fingered. Cue astonished reactions of customer betrayal.

To stick in people's minds, what this phenomenon needs is a name. "Co-op" just doesn't do it. Co-op sounds nice, like kindergarteners sharing wheat paste -- or desirable, like a Manhattan prewar apt w/ mod cons -- or crunchy and wholesome, like hippies with reusable burlap bags buying a pound of granola.

Might I instead suggest....


It's catchy! It's retro! It's at a store near you!


We Heart Cabinet

Issue 20 of Cabinet gets a nice write-up in yesterday's Guardian, along with this look at a particularly entertaining piece by Paul Laity:

Paul Laity's "Brief History of Cranks" is a spry and opportune look at the "brown rice and bicycle" mob who first urged Britons to commune with nature, renounce meat and cast off their shoes - or "leather coffins", to use the rather emotive phrase preferred by the gay nudist sandal apostle Edward Carpenter. George Bernard Shaw was one vegetarian socialist, however, who failed to be won over by such progressive footwear. Given a pair, he found they cut his feet and vowed never to wear them again.

Actually, the Guardian's a little slow off the mark here, because issue 21 is already out -- but no matter, all the praise for one issue of Cabinet is just as apt for another. Cabinet and The Believer are the only magazines I've saved every issue of, if that tells you something.

Saturday, June 03, 2006


Hummers Saved The World

This week's comic highlight was surely the Competitive Enterprise's "We Call It Life" ads in favor of CO2. But as I found in an article a year ago for the Village Voice, it's actually only the latest in over a century of pro-warming lobbying...


During the Power Ballad, You Held Up An Oil Lamp

I'll be on NPR's Weekend Edition to talk about my article in the latest issue of The Believer on Victorian Rock Bands.

That's right... rock bands. In the 1800s.

You'll just have to trust me on this. And on this.

Like all my favorite articles, this one seems like a ridiculous put-on... but is entirely factual. Two tidbits not in either piece: supposedly (though I couldn't confirm this) the Richardson Rock Band played a command performance for Queen Victoria. This, presumably, makes her the original rocker chick. Better yet, I found old ads in the archives of the newspaper The Scotsman showing a "rock music" act in an 1853 Edinburgh performance by the circus of Pablo Fanque... yes, of "Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite!" fame....


Turns Out The Great American Novel...

...Isn't American.

This week in The Stranger I track down the historical origins of the phrase "The Great American Novel," a challenge I relished mainly because it gave me an excuse to write this sentence: "Unlike Carl Van Doren, I was backed by the greatest intellectual resource in human history: a university library that sells Mountain Dew in the lobby."

Some of the phrase's early appearances reflected the ugly nativist politics of the 1850s, but there's another early use that I don't mention in the piece. The phrase was trumpeted by Rebecca Harding Davis's publisher in ads for her 1867 novel Waiting for the Verdict. My reading of Davis doesn't extend beyond Life in the Iron Mills, but I'm curious to find this one -- if it's not what we call the Great American Novel now, it at least is what the Great American Novel was then. The first and latest GAN involve slavery. And -- surprise! -- apparently Waiting for the Verdict involves the fate of free blacks seeking their fortune in the North.

Race, it seems, remains the Great American Topic....

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