Sunday, December 28, 2008


The Only 2008 Award That Matters...

... is the honorary Harry Stephen Keeler character of the Year.

And the prize goes to: Death-Ray Matthews.

HE WORKED on a killer beam aimed at knocking out aircraft engines and killing all on board. The eccentric inventor also claimed the deadly ray could shrivel plants, electrocute mice and ignite lamps up to four miles away. Now a new book about Welshman Harry Grindell Matthews has been published, and could be turned into a film.

The scientist established a lab surrounded by barbed wire and searchlights in the lower Swansea Valley during the early 1930s. People travelled for miles to peek at the bungalow where the inventor said he was working on the beam, which used high intensity radio waves. Dubbed “Death Ray Matthews”, he also worked on the development of sound in film and a string of other innovations, including a device to cast images onto clouds...

(from the Western Mail of Wales)

And yes, so help me, here is his actual photo:

Saturday, December 27, 2008


Victorian Roller Derby!

An 1895 issue of The Strand magazine includes this (unbuilt) design for city buildings to have ramp access (!) -- not for wheelchairs, mind you, but to keep up with the Victorian craze for roller skates:

As the writer notes: "Pedestrians could... just stand erect at the top of the slope, and allow themselves to travel down without further effort -- unless it be to maintain equilibrium or to avoid violent contact with fellow-skaters."

Really, I think violent contact between top-hatted and hoop-skirted skaters would be the point of building this.

Sunday, December 21, 2008


Brother, Can You Spare a Dime Novel?

Over at The Stranger, under-$5 Gift Books for the New Depression include Jack Chick pamphlets, cheapo little cookbooks from the supermarket checkout line, Archie comics, and -- of course -- old paperbacks:
They literally don't make them like this anymore. There's real joy to be found in these sprawling novels of the 1970s; other long-out-of-print paperbacks like The Boys from the Mail Room, The Man Who Killed Mick Jagger, and Little America are sitting, battered, on used-bookstore discount shelves for a dollar or two, just waiting to be snapped up and given to an ardent lover of fiction.


Kids These Days

From 1883, it's...

From his Preface:

I have for a certain number of years concluded that out present age has become vastly too swift for that which, by a contradictory metaphor, may be called "safe running"... [the] previous time was very greatly superior to the hasty and conceited period in which we live.

Chapter titles include "The Generally False, Affected and Pretentious Literature of the Present Day" and "Modern Advertising -- Its Emptiness -- Its Falseness -- Its Probable Collapse on the Future."

I'm glad to hear that we'll have worked that out by now.


Tommy Wallach on iTunes

Tommy Wallach (one of the earliest McSweeney's contributors) has his new Decca EP out! To find it on iTunes, as he emails -- "Click on Pop, then scroll over one page. That's me, between Christina Aguilera and The Pussycat Dolls."

Here, as an encore from posts past, is the home-brew video he made last year for "Elodie," now the first track on his EP:

Saturday, December 20, 2008



Sunday, December 14, 2008


Curiouser and Curiouser

Just in time for the Christmas -- it's the newest Collins Library book!

This time around I'm reprinting the essays of eccentric Victorian naturalist and surgeon Frank Buckland -- that's him, administering medicine to a sick porpoise -- and a snippet from my preface will give you a sense of the fellow:

Whenever a mysterious oddity arrived in Victorian London, readers knew there was one man they could rely on being at scene: Frank Buckland. A barrel-chested surgeon chomping an ever-present cigar, Buckland was one of the most outsized eccentrics of his time—a naturalist who seriously proposed kangaroo and yak ranching in England, and a raconteur whose London home was filled with a freakish array of stuffed animals and grinning skulls, and an all-too-alive menagerie of bickering meerkats, otters, scorpions, and a gang of monkeys who snatched food off visitors' dinner plates.

Not that his guests were too sorry to miss dinner, since Buckland was also famous as a man who'd eat anything—except earwigs. ("Horribly bitter," he explained.) Fried rotten porpoise, he found, tasted "like a broiled lamp wick." His odd palate was only matched by that of his father, an equally eccentric geologist and respected theologian. When the elder Buckland was shown a miraculous cathedral where "martyr's blood" accumulated on the stones, the old man dipped his finger in the puddle and tasted it. "I can tell you what it is," he announced to the horrified faithful—"It is bat urine."
Much of his work has been out of print for a century, so I've culled and abridged thousand of pages of his published essays into a brief collection titled Curious Men.

McSweeney's now has Buckland's essay on mummies up, including this anecdote about Liverpool sailors trying to hoodwink a showman into buying the mummies they'd smuggled into the country:

To make him more desirous of obtaining the curiosities, my friends found out where his show was situated, and for two or three evenings remained smoking their cigars about the show, and paid boys and idle people they found about the place a small fee to go to the door of the show and ask to "see the wonderful mummies which had just arrived."

"We have not got them yet, sir" was the showman's answer.

"What? Not got the mummies! Never heard such a thing. No mummies! Can't possibly go into the show," said the visitors.

The fact of so many people coming, night after night, so quickened the showman's appetite that he made a higher bid of several hundred pounds, which offer, foolishly, not being accepted, the owners brought the mummies up to London.

The last thing I heard of them was from my friend, who told me that he had left his mummies at his lodgings while he went on another voyage; when he returned, he found his landlord had got into trouble, and had pawned the mummies for £10 at some pawnbroker's by the Docks. Reader, if you are very anxious to have them, there may still be a chance of getting the mummies cheap.

Incidentally: for those who have pondered joining the McSweeney's Book Release Club, memberships currently kick off with this book, and upcoming releases include an Art Spiegelman collection and the latest Dave and Toph Eggers book of absolutely accurate science from Dr. and Mr. Doris Haggis-on-Whey.

How can you go wrong? You cannot go wrong.

Saturday, December 13, 2008


A Little Background Reading

Best title-catch since Nicholson Baker took a magnifying glass to Pottery Barn catalogues:
Tom at Omnivoracious has done a little detective work to figure out what those books behind Obama in his presidential addresses are: He's pretty sure they're a collection titled Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: John F. Kennedy, 1961, 1962 and 1963. Now the question is: Are they a gift? Is Obama really reading them? Are they subliminal advertising? I can't believe I care so much about what a president-elect is reading.

(Via Paul Constant at Slog)

Saturday, December 06, 2008


The Man Who Knew Too Much

I'm in the NY Times Book Review with an essay on sporting goods retailer and inimitable advice author George Leonard Herter:

His enchantingly bombastic catalogs included listings for more than a dozen of his self-published works, bound in metallic silver and gold covers, and bearing titles like “How to Get Out of the Rat Race and Live on $10 a Month” — which apparently involves moving to Alaska and zapping up fresh fish by running two car batteries into a stream’s shallows. (If you don’t have batteries, “drop 10 pounds of quicklime” upstream.) George often listed his wife, Berthe, as a co-author, though she’s notably absent from his marriage guide, “How to Live With a Bitch.” This, perhaps, accounts for the revised edition’s chastened advice to “under no circumstances call your wife a bitch.”
Herter catalogs are an extraordinary slice of eccentric Americana, not least because Herter's inventiveness extended to creating many of the goods that he sold. There's piles of patents in his name; one of my favorites is his notion for a Fish Calling Device:

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