She didn’t write about super heroes

February 10, 1930-April 20, 2013.

February 10, 1930-April 20, 2013.

     The problem about getting older is that the people you know become the people you knew.  Never has this been clearer than this winter, which for those in the Midwest has been cold, dark and unending.  It has been a winter of loss, personal and public, and the most recent caught me by surprise. E. L Konigsburg passed away over the weekend, and although not young, it still came as something of a shock – because in life her work seemed so timeless.

Others are more qualified to judge the merit of her work, although there is little debate about its universal appeal. She won the Newbery twice, one of  only five authors to do so.  Her first two books were published the same year, for those she won a Newbery Honor and the Medal, and she is the only author to ever to have managed that.

Her masterpiece was her second book, From the Mixed-Up Files of Ms Basil E. Frankweiler, but that wasn’t my first exposure to her. That would be her first book, “Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth. I’m sure I chose it because I was a precocious little thing, and no doubt thought such a long title would impress my teachers. I ended up being mostly confused; there were no robots or motorcycle riding mice. Their was a character who said she was a witch (well and good,) but she didn’t do any fancy magic. When the book ended, I immediately did the most natural thing in the world for a kid who’s fallen in love. I read it again.

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(I don’t think I’m the only one: when I finished Rebecca Stead’s recent Liar & Spy, I thought Mrs. Stead must be a card carrying member of the Kongisburg Fan Club.)

From the Mixed-Up Files I’ve read lord knows how many times. Even more so than Jennifer, it set the tone for much of the rest of my life. It opened up a world other than the worlds of science fiction and fantasy I had been consuming. It made me appreciate smart, independent heroines, something that would get me into trouble several years later when I started appreciating smart, independent young women. It made me feel the importance of  a mystery. And perhaps most importantly it made me appreciate the value of curiosity. As Monica Hesse has pointed out (http://wapo.st/109ypsu ) Claudia and Jamie don’t run away to have wacky hi-jinks. They spend their time hanging around in an art museum, attempting to unravel a centuries’ old mystery. For a young kid who felt a bit of an outsider, Ms. Frankweiler opened the door and allowed me to follow my own curiosity, knowing that I was in good company. Ms. Frankweiler made me feel like I wasn’t so alone.

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And she was just getting started. Mrs. Konigsburg would have a long and illustrious career, with many well deserved honors. I especially appreciated her Outcasts of 19 Schuyler Place, perhaps because it featured another smart heroine. In this way perhaps she reminds me of another wicked smart writer who wrote mysteries, Ellen Raskin. Both women wrote about outsiders, wrote about the joy solving mysteries, wrote about finding out you’re not as alone as you sometimes think you are.  Most importantly, they wrote with honesty about the world, they never pretended things weren’t as bad as they were, bur made you believe they could always be better.

And now she is gone. This is usually the point where you say, “they live on forever in their work,” and that would be true. But Kongisburg was one of a kind. She didn’t write in any genre but her own, she wrote about a wide ranging set of interests, and she treated her readers like they were the smartest kids in the world.  She didn’t write about superheroes. She just made us feel like one.

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The Golden Age of Science Fiction Still Lives

Ray Bradbury as a young man

Ray Bradbury

August 22, 1920 – June 6, 2012

Critics  say the Golden Age of Science Fiction was from 1938-1946. Readers have often said the golden age of science fiction was when you ‘re twelve. That seems right to me, and that’s when I discovered Ray Bradbury. As news of his passing spread, other writers posted their touching tributes  (Neil Gaiman for one). Others may have know him more or better but nobody loved his stories more.

I discovered him in the public library, something he would have enjoyed, being a lifelong supporter of libraries. I couldn’t tell you the first story I read, it may have been “The Swan,” later a chapter in Dandelion Wine (and first published in “Cosmopolitan”, of all places). It may have been “The Veldt” his masterpiece that shocked me with it’s brutal ending. It may have been “The Fog Horn” the story of a lonesome sea monster doomed by passion (a favorite of Christopher Moore’s too) I know by 15 I’d forever fallen in love with carnivals because of Something Wicked this Way Comes:  and I had  stumbled onto “The Scythe” (from October Country)and carried it in a dark corner of my heart ever since.  The truth is, I could go on and on listing Ray Bradbury stories I loved as others have done since his passing. But you owe it to yourself to discover your own favorites. The Martian Chronicles has been read by many precocious 8 year olds, but really you can start anywhere. My advice? Read it all.

Critics have said that his stories are sentimental and nostalgic, and I would agree. But having sentiment is not something I would condemn; Bradbury’s stories may seemingly be about aliens and ghosts, robots and dinosaurs, but mostly their about people (and others) struggling to find their place in the world. Bradbury stories are not meant to be coldly analyzed or over-critically reviewed. They are meant to be lived. They are meant to get under your skin, to shake you up and open your eyes. If given a chance, they live with you forever.  As for nostalgia, as a teenager I didn’t notice and as an adult I am now at that age where I walk with one foot in the past.

In recent interviews he had become increasingly cranky and conservative, which is why when I heard about his death, I warily picked up a copy of Dandelion Wine. I had not looked at it in at least 10 years; it had been one of my favorites once upon a time; what if it wasn’t what I remembered?

Cover of Dandelion Wine

The cover opens and I am instantly 12 again. My grandparents are still alive, in fact I’m at their house. It’s late, the house is still,  the only noise is the creaking of my old chair and the occasional rumbling of a passing train. I am hunched up in the chair, telling myself that to read just one more chapter, just one more. But Lavina Nebbs is crossing through the Ravine, with the Lonely One somewhere out there in the darkness. How can I sleep until she’s home safe?

What happens next?

Ray Bradbury once said that if he had not discovered writing, he would have become a magician; to me he was both. As someone who lives in both worlds, I think I can say (as so many others have) that he was a genre unto himself. So while the golden age of science fiction may have passed, and the age of Bradbury may have passed, he has left behind for us a gift.

A box.  Open it, but carefully, it’s dangerous. It is a magic box, filled with detectives and ghosts, robots and banshees, astronauts and explorers. There are mothers and sons, fathers and daughters, sea monsters and Martians.  It is a box filled with dreams. And every time I open it, I am twelve again.

Translated Literature from Around the World

At some point in the future, I hope to include an annotated list on children’s books that have been translated into English; that is they were originally in some other language. However in the meantime here is one for adults: for one of my classes this semester I chose to write up a Genre Study on Translated Literature. This is a pretty broad list, and it includes:

  • Literary Fiction
  • Graphic Novels
  • Science Fiction
  • Fantasy
  • Mysteries
  • And some crazy awesome writers.

Initially I’m just pointing the list, and slowly working in the annotations. So check back and see how things shape up.

(and next week, we should be back to our regular schedule).

The List

GenreLiterature in Translation

  • Abouet, Marguerite & Ouberie, Clemente.  Aya Series (books 1-4)(2005-2012). Translated from the original French by Dag Dasher.
Cover of Aya
              -Graphic novel: coming-of-age story. Marguerite Abouet set out to show a happier side of her country, one  far removed from the the war torn stories of Africa the media often reports. Set in the sunny 1970’s, Anya lives on the Ivory Coast and spends her days with her best friends Adjoua and Bintou in the working class city of Yopoogon, aka “Yop City.” The everyday  joys and sorrows of life in Yop city are observed and experienced by Anya, our 19 year old protagonist. The simple stories are supported by Clemente Oubrie’s (her husband’s) warm and evocative drawings.
  •  Allende, Isabel.    Island Beneath the Sea. (2010). Translated from the original Spanish by Margaret Sayers Pedan
               -Literary Fiction
  • Bronsky, Alina. The Hottest Dishes of the Tatar Regime (2010). Translated from the original Russian by Tim Mohr.
              -Literary Fiction
  • Catel (Mueller) & Bocquet, Jose-Luis. (2012). Kiki de Montparnasse. Translated from the original French by Nora Mahoney.
               -Graphic Novel/Biography
  • Eco, Umberto.  The Prague Cemetary. Translated from the original Italian by Richard Dixon.
              -Literary Fiction
  • Evans, Brecht.  The Wrong Place. Translated from the original Dutch by Rhian Heppleston, Michele Hutchison, & Laura Watkinson. **
             -Literary Fiction
  • Lackberg, Camilla. The Drowning (2012). Translated from the original Swedish by Tina Nunnaly
               -Mystery
  • Linke, Yann. Dream of Ding Vilaage (2011). Translated from the original Chinese by Cindy Carter.
              -Literary Fiction
  •  Luiselli, Valeria.  Faces in the Crowd (2012). Translated from the original Spanish by Christina McSweeney.
               -Literary Fiction
  • Mizuki, Shigeru. Onwards Towards Our Noble Deaths (2012).  Translated from the original Japanese by Jocelynne Allen. **
              -Manga, semi-biography, WW II
  • Murikami, Haruki. (2011). IQ84. Translated from the original Japanese by Jay Rubin & Phil Gabriel.
              -Literary Fiction
  • Mysliwski, Wieslaw. Stone Upon Stone. (2010). Translated from the Polish by Bill Johnson. *
              -Literary Fiction
  • Neuman, Andres. (2012). Traveler of the Century.(2012). Translated from the original Spanish by Nick Caistor & Lorenz Garcia.
            – Literary Fiction
  • Oz, Amos. Scenes from a Village Life (2011). Translated from the original Hebrew by Nicholas de Lange.
              -Literary Fiction
  • Palma, Felix J. (2011). A Map of Time (2011). Translated from the original Spanish by Nick Caisto

              -Science Fiction 

  • Perez-Reverte, Arturo. Pirates of the Levant (Captain Alatriste, Book 6). (2010). Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jill Costa.
              -Action-Adventure/Historical Fiction
  • Pehov, Aleksey. Shadow Prowler. (2010). Translated from the original Russian by Aleksey Pehov.

             -Fantasy

  • Potzsch, Oliver. The Hangman’s Daughter (2011). Translated from the original German by Lee Chadeayne. (AmazonCrossing).
              -Literary Fiction
  • Rodari, Gianni. Lamberto Lamberto Lamberto! (2011). Translated from the Italian by Antony Shugar.
             -Children’s book
  • Siguradottir, Yrsa. Ashes to Dust (2012). Translated from the original Icelandic by Philip Roughton
              -Mystery
  • Sjon. From the Mouth of the Whale (2011). Translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb.
             -Literary Fiction
  • Ugresic, Dubravka. Baba Yaga Laid an Egg (2010). Translated from the original Croatian by Ellen Elias-Bursac, Celia Hawkesworth, & Mark Thompson.
             -Literary Fiction
  • Valenzuela, Luisa. Dark Desires and Others (2011).Translated from the original Spanish by Susan E. Clark.
               -Literary Fiction

* Best Translated Book Award 3%, 2011.

**  Graphic Novel

He’s Gone to Look for the Wild Things

RIP

June 10, 1928-May 8, 2012.

     I’m not sure how old I was when I first came across Where the Wild Things Are . More than likely my mother checked it out from the library and read it to us, but it could have been an early teacher. I do know I was young, and it’s been a part of my DNA for as long as I remember.  As I grew older I learned how much respect Sendak had from anyone, including critics. I had the opportunity to briefly talk with Dr. Perry Nodelman as part of my coursework. When he was asked what the greatest picture book was, I think the class expected him to protest, or hem-and-haw about choosing one. Instead he said “there was no doubt the greatest picture book was Where the Wild Thins Are”.  Who am I to disagree?

There have already been several tributes and memorials, by adults and children, critics and fans. Although honestly EVERYONE seemed to become a fan around Sendak. So for my personal memorial, I will share two quick stories; one of my own and one of another’s.

The first comes from a story author Jonathan Carroll. (It may well be apocryphal, but I like to believe it is true):

Sendak has said readers often ask what he thinks happened to Max when he grew up. One night years ago the author was at a dinner party in New York. Seated next to him was the actress Sigourney Weaver. It turned out the glamorous Weaver was a big fan of his work and they chatted throughout the meal. Later she pointed to a man sitting across the table. She said he was her husband and one of the reasons why she fell in love with him was he reminded her so much of Max in WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE. Delighted, Sendak said he finally knew what happened to his famous character: Max grew up and married Sigourney Weaver.
And that’s what he tells anyone now when they ask what happened to the boy.

http://www.jonathancarroll.com/blog1/2009/09/carrollblog_923_4.html

The other story is mine. Wild Things was one of the first books I remember reading my son. By the time his sister was there and ready, we had already established the pattern of pausing in the middle to put down the book, put our hands in the air, and LET THE WILD RUMPUS BEGIN! We would then dance around like lunatics yelling “RUMPUS”.

So today in honor of the brilliant Maurice Sendak, let’s pause. Put our books down. Remember.

AND THAN LET THE WILD RUMPUS BEGIN!!!

Wisconsin Hardy Boys. Sort of.

In Defense of Regionalism

 Unless you are an enormous fan of August Derleth, or a fan of Wisconsin authors; there is probably no good reason for you to have read his 1970 children’s novel The Three Straw Men.  Although published in 1970, the novel is set much earlier; that vague nostalgic time in small towns when everyone knew everyone, boys would fish until midnight, and the town stopped working promptly at noon so everyone could go home to eat lunch (which was fixed by mom). Although classic popular series such as Hardy Boys and Bobsey Twins are also dated; they have been kept in print and relevant due to their enormous popularity and bland focus; of you’ve read one, you’ve read them all.

The Three Straw Men is different. Set in Derleth’s imagined “Sac Prairie” Wisconsin, the book focuses on a set of crime solvers whose relationship is very different from Frank and Joe Hardy. For one, the Hardy’s always work together. In Derleth’s series; Steve spends much of the book convincing Sim to help him investigate. What are they investigating? Arsonists? Terrorists? Spies? No, something much more exciting; the theft of sugar!

Umm, it is a large amount of sugar. . .

Not that excited? It is a bit dated; in this case literally since it’s set in 1925. Steve and Sim get  their first jobs in the local cannery, and while on the job Steve notices a load of hundred pound sugar bags being taken from the store. Nothing illegal, but somewhat fishy; something Steve believes is worth investigating. So for the rest of the book the boys fish, they argue, and they investigate the shady doings of powerful in-town businessman.

Other books apparently feature more exciting plots; but The Three Straw Men is not abnormal. Through much of the ten book series the boys are off often off fishing or camping and stumble on “suspicious activity;” as is standard in juvenile mysteries the cases are pretty cut and dried, with satisfying conclusions in which the bad guy or guys are always caught. So should they be read or recommended to those who enjoyed the Hardy Boys or other kid detectives?

No?

The Hardy Boys have a long history of loyal readers. Kids grew up with the and passed their love on to their kids who passed their love onto their kids…. the results being there is a lot of nostalgic love for the brothers (let’s not forget the beloved seventies series)

Soooo coool!

Hardy Boys Nancy Drew Mysteries

So for all the corny dialog and ludicrous plots, people have a lot of emotional investment in the series. The Mill Creek Books have no such history or investment, and without it come across as bizarre and archaic. Adults may enjoy it for the fun writing, but to young readers these would be a tough read. (Please feel free to disagree and let me know why!)

I finished The Three Straw Men disappointed. Because if one thing was clear in Derleth’s career was that he loved the Midwest, loved Wisconsin, loved his hometown of Sauk City. While today Derleth is best known for either Arkham, writing horror, or his excellent Sherlock Holmes pastiches, he actually focused much of his career on celebrating Sauk City and Wisconsin History. He intended an epic series of novels about the area which would be a Midwest version of Remembrance of Things Past.

I think we can unfortunately say he failed. In that while he was indeed prolific and at the time well-regarded, today almost all of this work is forgotten.  So again, “disappointed”. Because Derleth’s love and commitment to his area have seldom been equaled. Oh we have regional writers still, in Minnesota we are remembered for Garrison Keillor and there are a slew of New York writers or L.A. Crime writers. But small or medium size towns deserve representation as well.  In youth literature “regionalism”  is even rarer, we have substituted fantasy for realistic settings; we don’t think of Harry Potter’s London much. Even before the current influx of fantasy authors would often simply invent their cities of make them generic enough so as not to matter. They of course are not unique, as much adult fiction has the same issue.  So the exceptions stand out; I just wish there were more of them.

I could have called this post “longing for regionalism” or “why I wish there were more books about real cities” or just included a list of good regional authors (my favorite book about Minneapolis is not by Keillor, but this

Eighties Minneapolis Rock meets Urban Fiction

But instead I discussed Derleth. Because he loved where he came from, he wrote about it, and now he is gone. Who will write about small town Wisconsin now?

This post in ridiculously late; hopefully we’re back on track! Next week ruminations on libraries. . .

For anyone interested in knowing more about the Mill Creek books, here is one great rundown: http://www.threeinvestigatorsbooks.com/Mill_Creek_Irregulars.pdf

Cthulhu’s Uncle Writes Children’s Books?

H.P Lovecraft is considered one of the grandfathers of  the horror novel. He created a Cthulu, a horrific cosmic space entity If H.P. However, if Lovecraft is the father of Cthulu, than August Derleth is it’s uncle. When Lovecraft died, Derleth and Donald Wandrei started Arkham House to continue publishing Lovecraft’s work. Arkham House today continues to publish tales of the weird and strange.

What does this have to do with children’s literature?

I’m getting there.

August Derleth. Best known as a publisher and writer of horror, Derleth was so much more. Often described as “a regional writer,” Derleth published extensively in his lifetime, in and out of the horror genre.  Novels, natural histories, detective fiction, horror, poetry, biographies, ; Derleth grew up and lived in or around his beloved Sauk City Wisconsin for much of his life., and much of the area found its way into his writing. (Sauk City is near Madison, in case you’re wondering).  He wrote extensively about his town and state, both in fiction and non-fiction, for adults and children.

Yes, children. Derleth’s Steve and Sim Mystery Series (aka The Mill Creek Investigators)  was a ten volume mystery series set in Sauk City. That may seem like a lot, but depending on how you count it, the Hardy Boys has 58 volumes plus. Featuring the adventures of Steve Grendon and Sim(oleon) Jones, the stories focus on the two boys adventures.  Because they focus on two boys, it could be compared to the Hardy Brothers adventures, except Steve and Sim were written by one man, set in a highly detailed specific local. The entire series is long out of print and mostly forgotten, although some volumes are easily found through interlibrary loans (the series had three different publishers). Today Derleth’s name now almost solely associated with horror, there is almost mention of him in children’s literature scholarship. But more important than scholars is the readers; as with everything featured here in The Looking Glass, the question is always, is it still worth reading today?

For the answer to that, you’ll have to wait ’til next week!

 

Happy Birthday Dr. Seuss; You Deserve Better

In case you have been living under a rock, here’s the synopsis:

  1. It is Dr. Seuss’s Birthday today
  2. In what I am sure is a coincidence, a new adaptation of The Lorax is also premiering today.
  3. People are freaking out.

This freak out is happening in two ways. First there is this man

Lou Dobbs

His name is Lou Dobbs and he really, really doesn’t like the Lorax. Or The Secret World of Arrietty.  To recap briefly, he believes the film is nothing but  propaganda aimed at indoctrinating the young into being liberals.  And his attack his not entirely(although mostly) based on made up facts. Dr. Seuss (Ted Geisel) was well known for “liberal views;” the Lorax book was very pro-environmental, anti-“planet destroying” business. How this ties into President Obama I am not sure, considering the book was published in 1971. I suppose the argument could be made that the only reason the re-release is being done now is to further the Obama administrations political goals. However, the book and TV special were both done under a Republican administration, so maybe the Office of the President has more important things to do than worry about children’s media. So I am forced to conclude that Mr. Lou Dobbs is a silly man.

But the freak out is happening in another way as well. Anyone visiting Amazon recently would be assaulted by relentless ads for the film, and then there is the massive product tie-in. This has been reported any number of places, but the funniest is probably here:

Movies Attacking Our Freedom

Suess has in many ways always been misunderstood. His book Horton Hears a Who was a very personal book, and although Suess had a political goal it was getting out the vote participation in the first Japanese election, not the message numerous other groups have ascribed. Of course, once a book goes out into the world, the author loses all control of what people will believe. However both Seuss and his widow have long been vocal opponents of the books hijacking. It seems to me that should matter.

However that’s not even the worst insult. As if by having your work hijacked by political pundits or hypocrites who are “promoting your message”. No the worst insult is that, by most accounts, the movie isn’t very good. Although it’s just opening this weekend, reviews have been mixed. Visually appealing yes, but a thin plot stretched to the breaking point.and padded with fluff seem to be the overall consensus. Screen Rant says the film is no threat to anyone’s politics,and I say “too bad”.

There is no doubt I will see it; the young people in my life have been quite clear about that point. But after the hype has died down, I intend to introduce them to my favorite Dr. Seuss film The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T.

It is extremely weird and wonderful and subversive as all get out. It of course bombed at the box office, and even Seuss distanced himself from the film. And yet it still has the power to shock and amaze, as does the best of Dr. Seuss’s work.

So Happy Birthday Dr. Seuss. You deserve so much better than this, but there is always hope. Hope as long as some kid can open your books and have them go off like a bomb in their mind.

Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind

Theodore Geisel

Note For a recent recap of Dr. Seuss and his career: Seussapalooza

Public “Thank You” to Mr. Paris for pointing out the original Lou Dobbs rant.

John Henry: Three Views of a Myth

       What is a myth? If you asked most adults and children you would probably get answers of “Zeus” and “Thor,” but I would contend there are many more. To me, once a character becomes so recognizable that stories may be told of them without remaining faithful to the orignal, they’ve become a myth. Not the most literary analysis, but there you go. Sherlock Holmes would be a perfect example. Yes, there is a source material, but there have been so many adaptations of the character that by now he’s become myth. The recent BBC show Sherlock keeps the main tenants of Doyle’s detective, but both modernizes and adapts him in amazing ways. So with that definition out of the way, I want to talk about the myth of John Henry….

     Need a little refresher course? Let Harry Belafonte tell you the tale…

John Henry:  An American Legen...

     For nearly half a  century, the most popular version of the John Henry story has been that of the remarkable Ezra Jack Keats  John Henry, an American Man  (1965) is memorable book for several reasons. For one, Keats’ striking stylized illustrations feature his trademark collage style and bright colors. Towards the end, there’s a fantastic illustration of  Henry swinging through the rock with a hammer in each hand, and you can almost hear the sound ringing out from the pages. The book is still popular, nearly 50 years from when it was first published. Other retellings have been popular, but none (so far) has had the staying power of Keats.  This achievement is even more remarkable since their were few if any picture books at the time for children featuring African Americans. This would shift starting in the 1960’s  (the next wave would include Lester and Pinkney), but Keats was one of the pioneers.  One of the main reasons for the book’s staying power is the way Keats’ positions the character as an Everyman,one who helps all others as he encounters them.

John Henry

     Julius Lester and Jerry Pinkney’s John Henry (1994) frames the situation differently. In Lester and Pinkney’s  retelling, John Henry is positioned firmly within the context of African American History. As Lester writes in his introduction: “I’m not certain what the connection is between John Henry and King. However, I suspect it is the connection all of us feel to both figures – namely, to have the courage to hammer until our hearts break and to leave our mourners smiling in their tears.”  Lester takes some chances in trying to both connect his retelling to previous versions, as well as adapt the tale for a modern audience, and like all experiments this doesn’t work for everyone. In particular, readers seem confused by John Henry using his super human strength to add a jacuzzi to his folks home. For many adults fondly remembering both the John Henry songs and stories they grew up with, this is a difficult adaptation to accept.

Ain't Nothing but a Man: My Qu...

      Perhaps my favorite view of the legend is Scott Reynold Nelson’s Aint Nothin but a Man: My Quest to Find the Real John Henry (2007). Aimed at older readers, the book explores the roots of the John Henry legend as historian Nelson traces the roots of the song back and forth through history, uncovering everything from Railroad history to Reconstruction to the creation of blues and rock & roll. Recommended once you’ve moved beyond Lester and Keats.

We create legends for a reason. Some last, others do not. Part of the mission of The Looking Glass is to ensure that important legends last into the future, and John Henry is one that represents the past social struggles of our nation in ways that other American myths do not (Pecos Bill and Paul Bunyan come to mind). So sing with me now. . .

 Yes I’ll die with a hammer in my hand, lord lord, I’ll die with a hammer in my hand

 To Learn More:

Belafonte, Harry (1959). Belafonte Live at Carnegie Hall. RCA.

Nelson, Scott Reynold. (2006). Steel Drivin Man: John Henry: the Untold Story of an American Legend. Oxford University Press.

Nikola-Lisa, W. (1998).  John Henry, than and Now. African American Review 32(1). pp. 51-56

 ADDENDUM (5/19)  John Henry did not die. At least not in being a relevant character in fiction. He is one of the major characters in John Claude Bemis’ Nine Pound Hammer, the first book in his Clock Work Dark Trilogy. In fact, the title comes from John Henry’s Hammer. It’s a fun book, incorporating Americana, folk-legends, magic, pirates, mermaids, and adventure. 

Barnes and Noble will save us all? A rant.

Last weekend the New York Times ran a long article by Julie Bowman (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/29/business/barnes-noble-taking-on-amazon-in-the-fight-of-its-life.html?pagewanted=all) about the future of Barnes and Noble, an article that argued the future of publishing depended on Barnes and Noble staying afloat. The author noted the irony of rooting for B & N, as just a few years ago it was seen main reason that many small, independent chains were driven out of business (which probably hurt the publishers as well). Now publishers need the giant, as many in the industry believe that without B & N, publishers will not be able to reach the audience’s they need to survive. There seems to be a great fear that this is already happening; anyone who’s been inside one of the stores over the last year would have noticed the steady increase in “non-book items” (i.e. toys, games, and Nooks). Fewer space for books means fewer dollars for publishers, possibly crippling an already struggling industry. As Ms. Bowman points out, no one is worried that the store will fold up over night, rather that they will slowly “wither” away, with books losing more and more ground  After all, one reason they’ve been able to stay in the game this long is due to the popularity of the Nook, but even there they face stiff competition.

What book publishers seem to fear most is the loss of the”browsing factor:” that is customers entering the bookstore for one book leave with three others. There is simply no better way (apparently) than browsing in a bookstore for encouraging customers to buy. Of course the main drive of the article is to point out how Amazon is now the Goliath in this war. They’ve recently begun a highly publicized publishing venture, luring some big name authors into their fold, while encouraging new ones to apply. This does not sit well with the big publishing houses.

How can Barnes and Noble, the behemoth that represents the “best-seller” be the great savior of all readers (as one executive claimed?)  Why is it so bad for authors to explore new ways of distributing their content? Say what you want against Amazon (seriously, go on), but there’s little doubt that if it’s the quick, efficient distribution of content, than Amazon simply does it much better. Would it be terrible if traditional publishing houses went away? People wouldn’t stop writing books, new ways could be found to distribute them. Would all this be such a bad thing?

Yes. And no. While there is no doubt B & N has their own incentives for combatting Amazon, the fact remains any institution that supports a wide variety of voices to be heard is essential for the creation of community. Yes, there are other places for alternative voices to be heard (independent stores, libraries, etc.), but not enough. Say what you want against the publishers (again: seriously, go ahead), but the domino effect that  “could” happen would almost certainly ensure that the entire industry would crumble. Fewer publishing houses will in the end mean one thing, fewer choices in what we get to read. And those choices that do remain would be controlled by one company, Amazon.

I don’t like to be told what to do. I don’t like to be told what I can read. Or see. Or think. Thank you very much Amazon,but no.

Am I overstating the case? I don’t think so. The future may be impossible to predict, but it’s pretty clear even without a crystal ball that Amazon wants to own everything (including as much information about you as they possible can). I don’t think we need or should shop Barnes and Noble every day. But we do need to start thinking about what we want our future reading life to be like. Customizable content, delivered to the door at our convenience is without a doubt an incredible thing (even if that “door” is metaphorical; today it’s more than likely our computer, perhaps tomorrow it will be directly into our brain). Except. . .discovering what I want to read is at least half the fun. There’s nothing like browsing in a bookstore. Or a library.

The Bookstore’s Last Stand? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Whether you support Barnes and Noble is your call. But if not Barnes & Noble, than what? Amazon? Both? Neither? Something new? If so, than what? What do you want the future of your reading life to look like?

Next week we’ll be back with a new author and post. Who it will be? As of midnight tonight I have no idea, but I do know this great place to go browsing for books. . .

PS: And if you want a tour of perhaps the world’s most Beautiful Bookstore…

The Mystery of Ellen Raskin (Part 2)

Rumors abound that we may someday get a new, posthumous Ellen Raskin mystery! (http://www.amazon.com/Murder-Macaroni-Cheese-Ellen-Raskin/dp/0525422919/ref=tmm_hrd_title_0) In the meantime:

The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel) (1971)

The Mysterious Disappearence of Leon (I Mean Noel)

The lightest of her novels, Leon begins with arranged marriage of Caroline Fish and Leon Carillon. The children grow up to be heirs of the vast Carillon Pomato Soup Fortune, although kept separate until age 19. Their first meeting as husband and wife goes horribly awry, and Ms. Carillon is left searching for her missing husband Leon (or Noel).  This rather simple premise doesn’t do justice to the ferocious energy with which Raskin powers the book. Ms. Carillon’s search takes decades, involves adopting a family, starting a riot in Bloomingdale’s, the confusion between sea lions and seals, characters with names like “Ambrose Ambergis” and, of course, Raskin’s trademark puzzles. “It is a game about names” claims the jacket and yes, it is that, but so much more.  One of the joys of the book is Raskin’s authorial asides; sometimes teasing clues, sometimes commenting on the story. Even though it’s a funny fast read, there are traces of dark humor that will keep readers on their toes. It ends happily, but Raskin sneaks in perhaps one of my favorite quotes:

Most of the people in our story lived to be a ripe old age. . .One was hit by a truck and another one disappeared: but when all is tallied and compared to real life, this is truly a happy ending

Figgs & Phantoms(1974)

Figgs  &  Phantoms

Critics have called it her masterpiece, yet there are reasons why it is less fondly remembered. Much less accessible than her other mysteries, Figgs and Phantoms is a dark book that examines a lonely girls searching for a reason to live.  A curious protagonist, Mona Figg is the youngest member of the extended Figg family, an eccentric group of former circus performers, book collectors, car salesmen, tap dancers, sign painters, and tour guides; all seen as “failures” by the town. Already desperately unhappy, tragedy strikes when her beloved uncle Florence Figg health begins to fail and he threatens to leave her for Capri. “What is Capri?” you ask? Well naturally that’s where the Figg Family believes they go after death. The question for much of the book is “what will Mona do if she believes he Uncle has left her?” Dark and mysterious, the book is propelled along in Raskin’s tight prose; it’s amazing how much she is able to put just 150 pages. Life, death, Joseph Conrad, Figgs (the fruit), along with Raskins signature word play. Recommended for sophisticated readers 10 and up. Although it may be a less straightforward “mystery,” it is perhaps her most ambitious work. And she wasn’t done yet. . .

The Tattooed Potato Chip(1975).

The Tattooed Potato (Paperback)

The book announces itself as a Raskin novel from the first page when we meet the protagonist, Dickory Dock. Yes, that’s really her name, and her brother has an even crazier name. I think only Roald Dahl came close to Raskin for sheer lunacy of names, and this book is chock full of them: Julius Panzpresser, Shrimps Marinara, Manny Mallomar, and four detectives named Finkel, Dinkel, Winkle & Hinkle.  Beyond Raskin’s trademark wordplay she sets up several interlocked mysteries, ala Encyclopedia Brown. Dickory is a young woman who becomes the assistant to Garson, a slick portrait painter. During the course of her apprenticeship, they are contacted by the police to use their artistic and observational skills to solve several mysteries. However unlike the Encyclopedia Brown or the popular Two-minute Mysteries, there is an overarching plot tying it all together.  Who is the mysterious artist Garson, and what is he hiding? Who is Issac Bickerstaff, and what great tragedy did he survive? Blackmail, Murder, Stolen Identities, all make their appearance as Dickory races to unravel the mysteries of the past before it is too late. The real fun though is not solving the mysteries but Raskin’s writing; she zings along here throwing out clues, false clues, funny names, art history, puzzles, wordplay, nursery rhymes, all while keeping the plot moving along. Recommended for mystery and art lovers 10 and up.

And of course The Westing Game (1978). If you are not familiar with it, go RIGHT NOW and find a copy. In fact find all of Raskins novels. Perhaps that is the best answer to confront the mystery of who Ellen Raskin is; her work. When someone asks you who they can read that’s just like The Westing Game, simply give them the rest of Raskin’s novel’s. Because no one tells a mystery like Ellen Raskin.

I try to say one thing with my work: A book is a wonderful place to be. A book is a package, a gift package, a surprise package – and within the wrapping is a whole new world and beyond.