Saturday, February 24, 2007


Stool Pidgin

Over at The Dizzies:
Sounds like a job for Weekend Stubble:

"In the 1930s, a novel was published which told its story from the perspective of a Chippendale chair." —"By the Yard," TLS, Feb. 9, 2007 (review of Deborah Cohen's Household Gods)
I will see you a chair-narrated novel and raise you one!

Turns out there are at least two books told from the perspective of a chair. Chinlun Lee's No 39 Animal Surgery is a Taiwanese children's book, which Geraldine Brennan reports from the Bologna Children's Book Fair is "a day in the life of a vet's dog from the perspective of a chair in the corner of the clinic."

Who knew?


Edwardian Mad Libs

I'm on NPR Weekend Edition today to talk about one of my odder recent finds: an Edwardian version of Mad Libs. (And yes, I got Scott Simon to play!)

Mad Libs were famously created in the living room of Leonard Stern and Roger Price in 1953, when the two were working as writers for The Honeymooners. But it turns out our Edwardian great-grandparents were playing the exact same game in their parlors. Utterly forgotten today, around 1912 London publishers released Revelations of My Friends, a cleverly designed book of paired perforated pages to pass around to friends at a party. The top page contained cut outs directing them to write in place names, terms of abuse, numbers, and so forth:

Open it up at the perforation, and the page below revealed their life story with nonsense words filled in at appropriately embarrassing spots. Such as this one, for instance:

...the original Mad Lib!

The book was one of a series. The Fortunes of My Friends invited friends to calculate a magic number based on their initials; this corresponded to a page and a fortune within the book. The Truth About My Friends simply used a flap over a page. Autograph the bottom and lift the flap, and you discover you've signed your name to such "Truths" as "I am very conceited!" or "I have Socialist tendencies!" Very scandalous for 1915, no doubt. My copy of Truths has a page razored out -- presumably by someone none too pleased with what they signed. Another page revealing "I like naughty stories!" has a signature that's been crossed out.

While Mad Libs now release tie-in editions for The Office and Napoleon Dynamite, "Revelations of My Friends" remains rather more of its time. For one thing, it has a charming art-nouveau cover...

...for another, its stories begin with such sentiments as "I am an ardent Suffragette." But few surviving copies are ever entirely filled in. Unperforated pages remain, waiting for Proper Nouns, Terms of Abuse, and Favorite Colors... waiting, almost a century later, to reveal a truth about your friends.

If, at least, your friends happen to be suffragettes.

Sunday, February 18, 2007


Living Alone

Books that we almost reprinted but didn't: another in our continuing series of Collins Library near-misses...

Living Alone, by Stella Benson.

A deeply odd 1919 novel that begins when a flustered woman blunders into a London air-raid shelter during a zeppelin attack. She accidentally leaves behind a broomstick she was carrying, and when another young woman in the shelter tracks down the owner to return it to her, she discovers an island in the Thames inhabited by a very matter-of-fact population of eccentric witches and grumpy wizards. The island's visitor lodgings, such as it is, is an establishment called Living Alone, and it proves to be inhabited by those who...

"dislike hotels, clubs, settlements, hostels, boarding-houses, & lodges only less than their own homes; who detest landladies, waiters, husbands & wives, charwomen, & all forms of lookers after. This house is a monastery & a convent for monks & nuns dedicated to unknown gods. Men & women who are tired of being laboriously kind to their bodies, who like to be a little uncomfortable & quite uncared-for, who love to live from week to week without speaking, except to confide their destinations to 'bus-conductors, who are weary of woolly decorations, aspidistras, & the eternal two generations of roses which riot along blue ribbons on hireling wall-papers, who are ignorant of the science of tipping & thanking, who do not know how to cook yet hate to be cooked for, will here find the thing they have desired, & something else as well..."

It being World War I, the book features an aerial dogfight between broomstick-wielding British and German witches in the skies over London (!). If J.K. Rowling doesn't own a copy of this book, she certainly should.

This is one of those books that is more fun to summarize than to actually read -- check out this Weird Review essay on it, for instance. The idea of it is splendid, though, and there are passages of truly wonderful peculiarity. It's been out of print since its first and only edition in 1919, and it certainly deserves to have somebody reprint it. Better still, as a book with a great idea and so-so execution, it's probably perfect for a film adaptation.

Until then, though, you can have a look at it yourself -- Project Gutenberg now has this e-text online.

Saturday, February 17, 2007


In Praise of Forgotten Books

The next Collins Library release will be out in a matter of weeks -- days, even! -- and it's made me think upon a few of the also-rans. I'm constantly eyeing old books wondering if they warrant reprint; of those thousands, I read a few, seriously consider even fewer, and actually print... well, it'll be six, so far.

So over the next couple weeks I'll be posting on a few books that didn't quite make it for the Collins Library. They're very worthy books -- well worth finding used -- and in each case 826ers and I seriously mulled over taking them on. Each landed awfully close to the printer's in-box, but for one reason or another didn't quite make it.


Sinister Street, by Compton Mackenzie.

A groundbreaking tale following a small boy up through young adulthood, this book was considered faintly scandalous when it came out in 1914, and praised by everyone from Henry James to F. Scott Fitzgerald. (George Orwell was once punished by a schoolmaster for owning a contraband copy.) It probably tells you something that of the two reviews on Amazon, one gives five stars and the other gives one star. It's a fascinating work, particularly in the early sections with a toddler's-eye view of the world and, looming over it all, his nanny.

It's not lost enough. Though this book is out of print and even battered used copies are pricey -- a good indicator of pent-up demand -- it does usually make some sort of reappearance every few decades. (Penguin even did what appears to be a surreptitiously small print run in 1992.) It helps that Mackenzie also wrote Whiskey Galore and the popular The Monarch of the Glen. So even if this particular volume has its ups and downs, Mackenzie remains a well-appreciated author. I suspect that it's only a matter of time before Sinister Street makes a return appearance.

Oh, also: the book's really long. And, did you know? -- I rather like to preserve my sanity from proofing a thousand pages.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007


Batting 500

The Blogger dashboard tells me this is Weekend Stubble post number 500: and that seems as good a time as any to mess things up by posting on a Tuesday.

One of my first entries read, in its entirety, "The Morrison Hotel, of album cover fame, is now overrun with rats." (The title on that post: "Ironically, So Is Jim Morrison.") But to this day, my single favorite Weekend Stubble entry -- for the sheer jawdropping unbelievability of it on so many levels -- remains this one from May 15th 2005. I now rerun it in its entirety:


Someone at the Times Literary Supplement deserves a case of wine for including an entire transcript of a frontal lobotomy operation within their review of Trepanation: History, Discovery and Theory. The doctor is Walter Freeman, the patient a 24-year old laborer named Frank, and the whole thing is the weirdest book excerpt I have ever seen. Read on...

Doctor: Are you scared?

Frank: Yeh.

Doctor: What of?

Frank: I don't know doctor.

Doctor: What do you want?

Frank: Not a lot. I just want friends. That's all. How long's this going on?

Doctor: Two hours.

Frank: Two hours? I can't last that long. (Squeezes hand)

Doctor: How do you feel?

Frank: I don't feel anything, but they're cutting me now.

Doctor: You wanted it?

Frank: Yes, but I didn't think you would do it awake. Oh Gee whiz, I'm dying. Oh doctor. Please stop. Oh, God, I'm goin again. Oh, oh, oh. Ow (Chisel). Oh, this is awful. Ow. (he grabs my hand and sinks his nails into it) Oh, God, I'm goin, please stop.

Doctor: Frank?

Frank: Yeh?

Doctor: What work have you done?

Frank: A little bit of everything.

Doctor: Such as what?

Frank: Brakeman on a railroad. That was a good job. Ow . . . and a material checker . . . Ow . . . stop, unh, unh, uhn. (The doctor records that at this point the patient is scarcely controllable, even though fastened down to the operating table) I liked that one, too. Hey listen, cut it out for God's sake. Oh, quit, I'm goin. What's goin on? . . . Hey, give me some air. (The towels have slipped a bit) Hey, what's goin on? Oh, please stop.

Doctor: Relax!

Frank: I can't relax. Oh, what's going on here? (Rongeur (a device for removing bone)) (Admits he feels no pain) Hey this is . . . Oh, you know I can't go on. Oh, I'm having trouble breathing. Oh, stop experimenting.

Doctor: Stop what?

Frank: I don't know. How long's this goin on? Fix it up. I'm having trouble breathing.

Doctor: Feel better now?

Frank: No, I'm getting worse. I'm goin. Oh, come on, will you?

Doctor: How much is a hundred minus seven?

Frank: Ninety-three, Unh, unh, Ow! (Tapping) eighty-six, seventy-nine, seventy-two, sixty five (Drilling) Ow! I don't know. Give me some air. Air, Air.

Ow! Hey, Cut it out. Cut it out! (Trembling hands still cold. He is quick to grab my hand when I try to take it away)

Doctor: How do you feel?

Frank: Yes, sir. Click.

Doctor: What's it like?

Frank: Oh, a pickle puffle phl, hey stop it will ya?

Doctor: You're grabbing me awful tight.

Frank: Am I? I can't help it. How long does this go on?

(Right lower cuts)

Doctor: Glad you're being operated?

Frank: Yes, it makes me feel better.

Doctor: Why all the fuss?

Frank: Oh, I can't help it. I can't breathe. Hey, what are you doing there?

(Right upper cuts)

Doctor: Feel all right now?

Frank: Yeh, I can't breathe. Hey, when is this thing over?

Doctor: What will you do when you are well?

Frank: Oh, go back to work. Oh, I can't stand it.

Doctor: What job?

Frank: Oh, it's a good job, brakeman with a railroad.

Doctor: Scared?

Frank: Yeh.

Doctor: Sing God Bless America.

Frank: (He starts rather high and does a couple of lines, then grunts and continues his chatter) Ow! That's hot. What's going on here? (Warm saline) (Left lower cut) (Left upper cut) (Stabs left)

Doctor: Was that hot?

Frank: No, it wasn't hot.

Doctor: How do you feel?

Frank: Yes, yes.

(10.15 a.m. He is moving his head about during the stabs) (Stabs right) (Voice suddenly becomes muffled)

Doctor: Who's operating?

Frank: I dunno.

Doctor: Are you uncomfortable?

Frank: No.

Doctor: Why do you jerk around?

Frank: I don't know.

Doctor: Can you breathe?

Frank: Yes. (He thumps with his hands which are now quite warm and pink)

Now, let me first admit that I had my doubts about this book review when I noticed that the book's authors include one "Stanley Finger" and -- so help me -- a certain "C.U.M. Smith." Or that the TLS reviewer for Trepanation is... wait for it... "Andrew Scull." At that point I threw my hands up and said -- alright, this is a pretty good wheeze directed at Jack El-Hai's The Lobotomist.

But damned if I didn't find that both the book and reviewer ... do in fact exist.

Saturday, February 03, 2007


Getting Drunk With...

... Gilbert and George over at The Guardian.


The Chamber-Horsemen of the Apocalypse

The iGallop is already famed for, uh, well... you'll just have to see for yourself:

They've only just started showing up the US, though, and it wasn't until I saw an iGallop in the window of an airport Brookstone that I found myself doing a double-take. Wait... No... it couldn't be!

Last October I wrote in New Scientist about George Cheyne, a popular 18th century diet doctor -- this despite his weighing 440 pounds at the height of his popularity. Cheyne was also responsible for a long-forgotten exercise fad:

Cheyne championed the “chamber horse”, a chair sporting an elevated seat on what resembled an accordion bellows. Inside was a large spring, and by gripping the chair’s arms you could bounce up and down in a simulation of horse-riding.... Even the dour Methodist theologian John Wesley spent time each day bouncing up and down on one. Cheyne recommended to Samuel Richardson that he compose his novel Pamela by dictating it while bouncing on a chamber horse... Nearly a century later the physician Benjamin Rush was still prescribing chamber-horses, and Jane Austen's characters also resorted to them. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries estate sales regularly turned up abandoned chamber-horses — though any resemblance to our own garages of dusty treadmills and exercise bicycles is, of course, surely coincidental.

Amazingly, the iGallop appears to be exactly that: a souped-up chamber-horse rendered in high-impact plastic and vinyl. I suspect, though, that like the chamber horse it will be chiefly remembered for its unintentional humor:


Night of the Living Doughnut

Neal Pollack and I at Voodoo Doughnut last night:

"Ah, here's the pl.... what the hell?"

Hand lettered sign on door:

"Should I sign up? I should sign up."

"You should!"

"This could be a really bad idea."

"No. No. It's a great idea."

"Where do I sign u... Sweet jesus, look at the size of that doughnut."

[Long pause.]

[We back carefully out of the shop.]


Dancing About Architecture

Instead of trying to explain Japanese rock in writing, this week I played it on NPR's Day to Day.

A sound clip is worth a thousand words -- or at least a pretty solid 500.

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