Kid Lit

"Wizard of Oz is on again", I noticed recently while flipping through my favorite classic movie channels. Then I spotted the year on the movie listing: 1925.

Here it was, the early version I'd always been curious to see! This silent-era Wizard came out fourteen years before the great Judy Garland classic, and even though I'd heard the 1925 version was a box-office dud and an artistic failure, I'd long been curious what this interpretation of L. Frank Baum's children's book contained.

It doesn't take long before the problems with this ambitious production begin to reveal themselves. Departing wildly from L. Frank Baum's story from the very start, the movie introduces a meandering political subplot: a prime minister, a threatened land, a secret lost princess whose identity is sealed inside a mysterious envelope. These dreary machinations barely connect to the familiar story of The Wizard of Oz, and the melodrama makes the movie immediately wearying to watch. We would barely know that this is L. Frank Baum's story at all as the movie begins if we didn't see an old man reading the book to a little girl.

This girl, however, is not Dorothy. The 1925 Wizard of Oz was the masterwork of a then-popular moviemaker and clown named Larry Semon whose spindly motions and sad-sack expressions recall Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Larry Semon financed and directed this movie, and he cast his vivacious starlet wife Dorothy Dwan as Dorothy. Here she is -- a rather worldly child -- with kindly Aunt Em in an early scene on the Kansas farm.

Larry Semon cast himself as the Scarecrow, and surprisingly it's not Dorothy Dwan but Semon himself who prances proudly on camera through much of this movie. Larry Semon's vintage comic routines bear traces of various stage traditions from vaudeville to music hall to mime to slapstick, and he's an energetic marvel to watch, even as he shamelessly hogs the screen. Many of his routines go on too long, but he finds the right note in his initial Scarecrow number, a set piece that clearly informed Ray Bolger's Scarecrow in 1939.

The 1925 Wizard of Oz has no Wicked Witch, no Toto, no yellow brick road. It does have a tornado (as seen in that wild image at the top of this page). It also has a gleaming Land of Oz, and one wonders if Larry Semon's movie might have succeeded if he'd left L. Frank Baum's original plot elements to work their natural magic. (As it happened, this Wizard of Oz destroyed Larry Semon last hope for a breakthrough Hollywood hit. He would die three years later at the age of 39).

Now that the bad news about the 1925 Wizard of Oz being a turkey is out of the way, here's the good news: the film provides a fascinating opportunity to contrast what one film version may do badly and another may do well. While the impeccable and nearly perfect 1939 Wizard of Oz beats the 1925 movie on almost every count, there is a single important innovation in the 1925 version that clearly inspired the 1939 version.

This is the notion of transformation, the idea of a Land of Oz that is a mirror of the farm in Kansas, and the pleasure of watching three clumsy farmhands emerge as their shadow selves: the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion. So much of the beauty of the great 1939 Wizard of Oz is tied up in this magical transformation, which does not occur at all in L. Frank Baum's original book. It is found, however, in Larry Semon's 1925 movie.

Before Larry Semon's Scarecrow becomes a scarecrow, he's one of three farmhands who travels in the flying house with Dorothy to Oz. He then hides himself by stealing the clothes off an actual scarecrow and stuffing them with straw.

It's delightful to see young Oliver Hardy (sans Stan Laurel) as the Tin Man, who similarly adopts his junk-pile uniform in order to hide from predators.

It's an even-bigger surprise, and not a very happy one, that the Cowardly Lion in the 1925 movie is played for broad laughs as a racist caricature of a shiftless African-American. We first meet this character as a farm worker played by G. Howe Black (his real name was Spencer Bell), and even before he reaches Oz he's forced to run through a few variations of the depressingly familiar "scared by a ghost" comedy routines that audiences seemed to always expect from African-American performers in the 1920s and 1930s. Why, we must wonder today, was it so entertaining in this era to watch African-American actors pretend to be scared out of their wits? The 1925 Wizard of Oz mines that trope mercilessly. During the tornado scenes (which, for some reason, are filmed in vivid blue) a blot of lightning tries to chase him down, and this happens:

Later, this character transforms himself into the Cowardly Lion (cowardly -- get it?) by hiding inside a costume that he finds in a cave.

Meanwhile, the Wizard of Oz doesn't stand out much in this movie, and mainly serves as a foil for the other actors:

Despite the many disappointments of this movie, we must give it proper credit for inventing the metafictional device that was used so effectively in the 1939 version when the farmhands played by Ray Bolger, Jack Haley and Bert Lahr morph into the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the (now white, still funny) Cowardly Lion. One wonders if the 1939 script might have missed the innovation of aligning Dorothy's three friends from Oz with real-life counterparts from the farm in Kansas if Larry Semon's movie hadn't come up with it first.

There's something haunting about Larry Semon's face when he hams it up as the Scarecrow. We see in his eyes the deep hopes he held for this expensive production, and can only imagine with sadness how lost he must have felt when the work crashed at the box office, taking his career down with it. The transformation was only half complete.

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Comedian Larry Semon's silent-movie 'Wizard of Oz' from 1925 provides a fascinating case study in what one film version may do well and another may not.

view /Wizard1925
Thursday, July 31, 2014 07:26 am
Screenshot from 1925 Larry Semon film of Wizard of Oz
Story
Levi Asher

Sure, every other obituary of 86-year-old Brooklyn novelist Daniel Keyes is going to talk about Flowers for Algernon. And, yeah, that was his best book. But I'm going to talk about The Touch, simply because I remember this novel well, and because nobody else is going to mention it.

As a lonely middle school kid, I was so desperate for good books that I would bottom-feed the local library stacks, looking for off-hit books by writers who were (I could already tell at my young age) literary one-hit wonders. This is why during the waning years of the Summer of Love and the waxing years of the Me Decade I read Love, Roger by Charles Webb (author of The Graduate), David Meyer is a Mother by Gail Parent (author of Sheila Levine), This Perfect Day by Ira Levin (Rosemary's Baby). And it's why I read The Touch by Daniel Keyes, author of the powerful Flowers for Algernon. I suppose I was also attracted to The Touch by the mod cover design, which reveals Daniel Keyes trying to reach a hip adult literary audience. That never quite happened, but we'll always have Flowers for Algernon.

The Touch was about what happens when radioactivity intrudes upon the life on an ordinary American family. An industrial engineer is briefly exposed to some dangerous dust during a laboratory maneuver. This soon changes everything in his life, as gossip about his accident causes even his best friends to fear his touch of death, so that he and his pregnant wife are suddenly ostracized. We see how an industrial accident ends up turning into an even worse human accident, a collapse of civility, a descent into blind prejudice.

This is a bleak book, but also thrilling in its creepy sense of a systematic mindless menace invading our lives. I distinctly remember being gripped by a couple of vivid scenes: the stunned engineer rushing into a shower to wash off the dangerous substance, and later the frustrated and ruined man taking out his anger on a lump of clay in a studio. (The book's toxic hero, if I remember correctly, worked as an automobile model sculptor).

The Touch was a bleak book, and, well, Flowers for Algernon was a bleak book too. Especially that gut-punch ending, and the way the narrator and hero Charly's mental condition was reflected in the language he used in these final pages.

It's a funny thing: I always hated this book's cover. I thought the book had a lousy title too. Flowers for the mouse? How about some damn flowers for Charly? He suffered a lot worse than the mouse.

Daniel Keyes, fortunately, appears to have lived a happy life, though he never repeated his single great success, which was also turned into a mediocre movie called Charly (an even worse title!) starring Cliff Robertson and Claire Bloom. Before he was a novelist, Daniel Keyes worked in the comics business in New York City, where the germ of the idea that became Flowers for Algernon was first pitched as a possible comic book plot.

Daniel Keyes lived in Brooklyn, making it a good bet that many young writers must have run into him often at corner delis and on Prospect Park walkways without knowing that he was the author who wrote the novel they loved in junior high, like I did too.

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Daniel Keyes, author of "Flowers for Algernon" and "The Touch", has died at the age of 86.

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Tuesday, June 17, 2014 07:53 pm
The Touch by Daniel Keyes
Story
Levi Asher

Two children's books I loved as a kid (and still love as an adult) have been republished in attractive new editions. Whether you've read these two books before or not, they are awesome and well worth checking out.

Funny thing, a trollish article titled "Against YA: Adults Should Be Embarrassed to Read Children's Books" by a person named Ruth Graham was recently published on Slate -- an obvious attempt at clickbait, and clearly the work of a bullying personality similar to that of the mean kid who kept throwing eucalyptus seeds at Mitch and Amy in Beverly Cleary's Mitch and Amy. (But that's another story.) Am I embarrassed to be remembering children's books? Hell no. These are two of the best books I've ever read.

The Pushcart War was the most famous book by a children's author named Jean Merrill. Published in 1964, it's a gentle satire about a protest movement that breaks out in New York City against a greedy oligarchy of trucking companies whose gigantic trucks have made life unliveable in residential neighborhoods like Greenwich Village and the Lower East Side.

The delight of Pushcart War is in the storytelling, which is perfectly calibrated and delicately naunced. Look, for instance, at the names of the three trucking company executives who are the heavies of the fable: Moe Mammoth of Mighty Mammoth, Walter Sweet of Tiger Trucking, Louie Livergreen of LEMA (Lower Eastside Moving Association). Just on the edge of comedy, but also real enough to grab your attention and hold it.

Then there are the heroes of the book, the pushcart peddlers whose livelihoods are threatened as New Yorkers flee the streets to avoid the unpleasant trucks: Frank the Flower, Harry the Hot Dog, Maxie Hammerman the Pushcart King, Carlos, Mr. Jerusalem, Morris the Florist, Eddie Moroney, Papa Peretz. They decide to fight back by blowing up truck tires with pins blown from pea shooters. This disruptive act (a precursor, of course, to Occupy Wall Street) is eventually successful, and the action that gets us there is so enjoyable that I can't believe a movie of Pushcart War has not been made yet. (And it's too bad they've waited so long; James Gandolfini would have been a great Moe Mammoth).

The favorite character that evolved for me (as I read the book over and over as a kid, and later again as a young writer scouting for technique) was General Anna, seller of apples and pears, a noble, quiet old woman with a primitive pushcart who can't even figure out how to use a pea shooter. Determined to support the movement despite her disability, she blows up truck tires by simply placing pins into tires by hand.

The Pushcart War, appropriately for a book published in the era of Rachel Carson and Marshall McLuhan, touches upon issues of both ecology and mass media. We see how the grassroots movement is suddenly helped by a glamorous movie star named Wenda Gambling who makes an unexpected statement in support of the pushcart peddlers' cause. Then, the book's memorable closing sequence presents another reflective moment of media awareness. After the fighting is all over, and the offensive trucking companies have been chased out of town, we learn that the events described in this book have been commemorated by a statue of General Anna in New York City, emblazoned with the words: By Hand.

By hand. Those words on that statue of General Anna killed me when I was a kid. It's great news that the New York Review of books has republished this wonderful children's novel, and I hope new generations will discover it.

There are five All-of-a-Kind Family Books, and I devoured them all as a kid. They contain stories about a poor Jewish family on New York City's Lower East Side in the years before and during the First World War. They are an "all of a kind family" because Papa and Mama somehow turned out five magnificent girls: Ella, Henny, Sara, Charlotte and Gertie. A baby boy named Charlie eventually joins the crew, and during the course of the five books we follow the oldest children into early adulthood.

I'm not sure whether or not these books were so readily available to me as a kid because they describe my own family heritage (my grandparents were poor Brooklyn Jews, not poor Lower East Side Jews, but everything else about the story is my grandparents's world). Maybe out in the midwest people read Little House on the Prairie and in Boston they read Little Women and in Scandinavia they read Pippi Longstocking. In my house, we read All-of-a-Kind Family.

Sydney Taylor's vignettes were often demonstrations of psychological deftness. Mama was the master psychologist: she would play motivational head games with her daughters, like hiding pennies in various dusty corners of a room to inspire the girls to dust thoroughly enough to find all the pennies. The precise descriptions of the candies and treats they would then run and buy with their pennies and eat one by one while lying in bed remain more vivid to me today than the famous food writing of Proust.

All five All-of-a-Kind Family books will eventually be published in fresh new editions by the awesome new venture Lizzie Skurnick Books. The first one out is More All-Of-A-Kind Family, but I am most looking forward to the first book in the series, which contains my favorite Sydney Taylor story of all.

This is the story of the night that Sara decides she doesn't want to eat her soup.

Sara is the middle child in the family, and the character who most seems to represent the author Sydney Taylor (her real name was Sarah Brenner). Sara is the child the worst things happen to, as when she loses a library book, or when she decides she doesn't want her soup.

Dinner is a big deal in the All-of-a-Kind family dining room. Papa has a stern rule: all food that is served must be eaten. If Sara won't eat her soup, then Sara won't get her next course, or any other course. But she won't eat her soup, for no reason that even she can identify. Stubbornness and hunger and tears ensue. As a little kid, I considered this enigmatic story just about the most brilliant piece of psychological writing of all time.

Years later, I would read about Herman Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener, the law clerk who "would prefer not to". I loved Melville's story, but I immediately thought: "right, like Sara and the soup". Ahh, humanity! These wonderful books are full of life, and it's great news that they are being published in bright new editions that will reach future generations of readers.

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Two great children's books have just been republished: Pushcart War by Jean Merrill and More All-of-a-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor.

view /PushcartAllOfAKind
Tuesday, June 10, 2014 12:37 pm
Pushcart War and More All-of-a-Kind Family
Story
Levi Asher

It's probably the best tween book of the modern era; at least it's the best one I can think of. Well, hell, everybody loves Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh, which was published fifty years ago this year.

The anniversary is already getting so much attention -- an event on March 15 at the 92nd Street Y on Harriet's own beloved Manhattan island featuring Gregory Maguire, Leonard Marcus and Rebecca Stead, a Booktrib appreciation featuring crime writers like Laura Lippman, Alafair Burke and Sarah Weinman -- that I almost want to skip mentioning it on Litkicks. Except for one thing: I love the book as much as everyone else. I can't not say so.

Harriet is about a churlish, opinionated 11-year-old who tears bravely through New York City's varied neighborhoods looking for trouble, and finally finds worse trouble than she ever wanted in the trivial atmosphere of her own schoolyard. I value the story for its emotional sophistication, its appreciation for the delicacy of a kid's emotional stability, and for the drama of the devastation that occurs when it breaks. The break in Harriet M. Welsch's swirling life of urban adventure occurs, of course, when her private notebook falls into someone else's hands. All the kids in her school read what she's written about them. The revelations hurt Harriet's own closest friends the worst, and Harriet is shocked to discover that even the dull kids in school that she never bothered to care about suddenly have the power to hurt her back, and badly.

It's a parable about being a writer, of course -- and a particularly instructive one for non-fiction authors or bloggers or journalists who may occasionally have to issue retractions, since it is a published retraction that finally saves Harriet from the depths of misery, restoring her from the stunning blow.

The author Louise Fitzhugh always kept a low profile, so there isn't a lot of material to search through when trying to connect the author to the character. She was born in Memphis, Tennessee but never put herself forward as a Southern writer. Instead she migrated to New York to study at Bard and Barnard and hang out with artists and writers. Her first book is the delightful Suzuki Beane, a smart beatnik parody of Kay Thompson's Eloise, featuring a different kind of city kid quizzically wandering the streets in search of realness. This first book clearly paved the path for the more accessible Harriet the Spy, which established Fitzhugh's career. Later, she lived on Long Island's East End and in Connecticut, privately enjoying her fame, apparently trying not to be too obvious about the fact that she was gay in order to avoid coloring the perception and universal popularity of her girl hero. She died way too young, at 46.

Harriet the Spy is Fitzhugh's most famous book, though my personal favorite would have to be the amazing sequel, The Long Secret. Now, I know I just said Harriet the Spy was probably the best tween book ever -- so you may be wondering how I can say Harriet the Spy is the best tween book ever if it's not even the best tween book by Louise Fitzhugh? Well, I once had the same problem explaining why I think Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks is the best record album of all time, even though Street-Legal is my favorite Bob Dylan album. Like Dylan's Street-Legal, Fitzhugh's The Long Secret is more searingly personal and painful than its more famous predecesor. It goes further into the deep journey, but it's the kind of work that better fits the concept of "favorite" (implying a very distinct personal choice) than "best" (which implies a universal likeability).



The Long Secret is also a parable about being a writer, but the hero of this book is shy Beth Ellen, who only received a glancing look as a bland side character in Harriet the Spy. Harriet doesn't particularly like or respect Beth Ellen, and it's not clear that Beth Ellen likes or respects Harriet either. (In this way, Harriet the Spy and The Long Secret work particularly well together as a dual parable about two writers.)I like Secret slightly better than Spy because of the heightened emotional conflict and the deeper personal stakes. I also think Louise Fitzhugh works an even greater magic with the lazy, luxurious surroundings of Water Mill, Long Island (a real-life beach town near the Hamptons) than she does with the broader, messier pallette of New York City. (I also like the drawing of Water Mill that appears on the first edition cover, an edition I've never seen in real life. Here it is on Etsy.)

A third installment of the Harriet Saga called Sport was published after Louise Fitzhugh's early death, though I can't say anything about it because I aged out of reading it as a kid and was put off by discouraging reviews as an adult. If anybody has read Sport and thinks it bears adult reading today, please post a comment to let us all know.

I eventually took my kids to see the Harriet the Spy movie that came out in 1996, and I think they sorta liked it and I sorta liked it too, but I didn't like it a lot. Michelle Trachtenberg was way too likable and graceful to play boorish, cantankerous Harriet, and the whole movie was infested with a strangely joyful and youthful freshness that must be a good quality in itself, but has nothing to do with the twisted, isolating psychological undertone of the original book.

But the movie did little harm to the Harriet legacy, and we can rest assured that nature will take its course and the movie will be forgotten. The books will stay with us -- forever, I suspect.

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Louise Fitzhugh's 'Harriet the Spy' and 'The Long Secret' are parables about being a writer.

view /HarrietSaga
Wednesday, March 5, 2014 11:18 am
Harriet the Spy original cover
Story
Levi Asher

(Here's a fresh perspective on a classic writer by Alex Strike, a blogger and an essay writing specialist who can be found on Lifehack, Twitter or Facebook.)

When Vladimir Nabokov read his lectures on literature, he closed all the curtains in the room to make it totally dark and started to speak.

“On the horizon of Russian literature, this is Gogol” -- and the small hall light flashed in the corner. “This is Chekhov” -- and one more star appeared on the ceiling. “This is Dostoevsky” -- Nabokov turned the light on here. “And this is Tolstoy!” The lecturer opened the curtains, and a bright blinding sunlight flooded the room.

Count Leo Tolstoy was the first writer who refused a copyright; he was an opponent of the Russian state system; he fulminated an anathema because he did not accept any religious authorities. He had refused the Nobel Prize, he hated money, and he always took the side of peasants. Many of his unique positions and practices are not known today.

He left us 165 000 sheets of manuscripts, 90 volumes of complete works, and 10 000 letters. He had been looking for the meaning of life and the universal happiness throughout his whole life, and he had found them in one word: kindness.

We all know Tolstoy as the author of long novels like War and Peace and Anna Karenina, which is why some do not realize that Tolstoy could write powerful short letters, stories, or novels. Indeed, his writings are filled with extremely long sentences and scrupulous levels of detail. Interestingly, his handwriting was often barely legible. The only person who could understand it was his wife, Sophia. She had to re-write War and Peace many times before Leo chose the final version to send to his editors. Here is the example of his handwriting:

At one time, a famous Italian physician named Cesare Lombroso examined the handwriting of Tolstoy and concluded that it belonged to a woman of pleasure who had psychopathic tendencies.

Despite the evidence of his effusive, rich and prosperous body of work, Tolstoy was a master of brevity. When, you may ask, did he keep it brief?

Tolstoy was capable of writing compact and pithy -- when he wanted to. Along with his great novels, he left behind sixty-one short narratives, each consisting of less than eight thousand words. These stories include such works as What For?, Master and Man, Wisdom of Children, Ivan the Fool, What Men Live By, and others, including a series of fables.

The Fables

Tolstoy's fables teach us morality through vivid images, epithets, metaphors, metonymy, humor, even sarcasm. Just take a look at some of them (Note: these Russian texts were newly translated for this article by its author, Alex Strike).:

The Olive-Tree and The Reed were arguing about who was stronger. The Olive laughed at The Reed and said that he bended from every wind, even a light one. The Reed kept silence. The Storm came: The Reed tottered, dangled, bended to the ground, but survived. The Olive strained against the wind, and broke.

Or:

One man had a hen that gave him golden eggs. He wanted more and more gold, so, he killed the hen (he thought there would be a big piece of gold inside); but it was like all other hens.

Another:

The Hen found snake eggs and began to incubate them. The Swallow noticed it and said: “How stupid you are! You'll be the first one offended by them when they are born”.

Fairy tales

Another unexpected side of Tolstoy can be found in his fairy tales for kids. More than a hundred tales stand as perfect examples of Leo's talent for brevity:

A child has got lost in the street. He is running, screaming, looking for his mother. People ask the child: “What does your mother look like, honey?” And the child answers crying: “Don't you know? My mother is that one who is the best one.”

Thirty-four words. (Well, this is not Hemingway of course, whose shortest masterpiece contained six.) Not short enough? This story requires twenty-two words:

Sergey had three dogs. He teamed them into a triple and drove. The dogs left him all together, and Sergey was not able to catch them.

Letters

The shortest known written text by the genius Leo Tolstoy has been found and published not very long ago. He wrote this letter during the last year of his life, and the story related to it was quite amusing:

Leo had received a letter from one student with the surname Fedorov, who asked to explain the right pronunciation of the word “Rostova”. As far as you all remember, this is a surname of Natasha, one of female characters in Tolstoy's War and Peace. So, the student asked the following question: what was the right word stress here, RostOva or ROstova? And Leo Tolstoy sent him a reply: “RostOva. L. T.” with a stress mark above the letter “O”.

This was described as probably the shortest letter Tolstoy ever wrote in About Tolstoy by Valentin Bulgakov, who was the author's last secretary. The fact that he wrote the letter reveals Tolstoy as a polite person who did not want to leave a correspondence unanswered, but who still did not have enough time to write long sentences, or to explain why he decided to pronounce Natasha's second name this way.

Aphorisms

Finally, Leo Tolstoy left behind some powerful quotes, another testament today to his simple genius:

• There is no more or less in love.

• Everything comes to those who wait.

• Strong people are always simple.

• If you want to be happy, be.

• Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.

• We lost because we told ourselves we lost.

• Boredom: the desire for desires.

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Though Tolstoy is known for long novels, his shortest, pithiest writing fragments contain some of his most powerful messages.

view /TolstoyKeptItBrief
Tuesday, February 18, 2014 09:33 pm
Leo Tolstoy
Story
Alex Strike

A couple of really great finds for you today ...

My temperature was no better than lukewarm as I pondered the cover of a book called The Cool School: Writing from America's Hip Underground, a Library of America anthology edited by Glenn O'Brien. The Library of America isn't known for edginess, and books with the word "hip" in their subtitles don't have the greatest track record with me.

Then I looked at the table of contents and immediately realized I had misjudged this book. Wow! We kick off with an excerpt from Mezz Mezzrow's classic jazz memoir Really The Blues, a hell of a good place to start, and instant evidence of an anthologist who knows his stuff. Then we blast away to Henry Miller, Herbert Huncke and Carl Solomon, a sweet rumination on Shakespeare's Hamlet by Delmore Schwartz, followed by "You're Too Hip, Baby" by Terry Southern ... and then just as I start to wonder where the cool women are, a real surprise: the lyrics to the 1952 song "Twisted" by Annie Ross of the now too-little-remembered folk/hipster trio Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, a comic tune later resurrected by Joni Mitchell that begins with this line:

My analyst told me that I was right out of my head

At this point, there is no doubt that Glenn O'Brien has exceeded his assignment and met the challenge of producing a fresh, sharp literary anthology of cool with more beatnik accuracy and hipster knowledge than anyone could expect. We proceed with moments from Lord Buckley, Gregory Corso, Diane Di Prima, Norman Mailer, Amira Baraka, Fran Landesman, Seymour Krim, Mort Sahl, the well-titled "Siobhnan McKenna Group-Grope" by Ed Sanders, and more from Rudolph Wulitzer, Ishmael Reed, Richard Brautigan, Andy Warhol, Richard Hell, Lynne Tillman, Emily XYZ, Eric Bogosian and (the closer) George Carlin.

Nailed it! If a table of contents can sing, this one is jamming.

I've already raved on this blog about Russ Kick's ambitious project The Graphic Canon, a super-thick multi-volume collection of illustrated spinoffs, takeoffs and impressionist interpretations of great literature from planet Earth. What most impressed me about the first two chronologically-ordered volumes was the broad multi-cultural view of world literature, encompassing illustrated versions of spiritual and religious classics, surprising philosophy texts and plenty of unexpected works of fiction and poetry. The quality of the selections is due to the good taste of Russ Kick, who is far from a member of any academy and was previously the author of You Are Being Lied To: The Disinformation Guide to Media Distortion, Historical Whitewashes and Cultural Myths.

The series has now been completed with the publication of The Graphic Canon, Vol. 3: From Heart of Darkness to Hemingway to Infinite Jest, which begins in the Victorian/pre-modernist era with Matt Kish's dreamy spin on Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Rebecca Migdal's gentle take on Kate Chopin's The Awakening. It ends with a painting by Rey Ortega inspired by Haruki Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Benjamin Birdie's cartoonish take on David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. In between, of course, we have the great span of 20th Century literature, including writers like James Joyce, Zora Neale Hurston, Samuel Beckett, Rainer Maria Rilke, William Golding and Raymond Carver as seen by familiar illustrators like Robert Crumb, Peter Kuper, Ted Rall and Molly Crabapple, along with many less-familiar and hopefully up-and-coming names.

The third volume seems to verge more towards abstract and non-literal interpretations than the first two. Perhaps it reveals some inner squareness on my part that I most enjoyed the more literal interpretations (like Rebecca Migdal's Kate Chopin) and found the less linear illustrations sometimes thrilling but often disappointing. For instance, I was eager to see what an artist named Juliacks would do with one of my all-time favorite novels, In Watermelon Sugar by Richard Brautigan, but the single-image result is as coolly incomprehensible (to me, at least) as a typical expressionist painting in a typical modern art museum, and I can't find a meaningful reference to Brautigan's story in it.

But why would I want to complain about a book so inclusive, so full of potential discovery? A reader could probably spend a full year happily paging through the three volumes of the now-complete Graphic Canon, which is available as a boxed set; I'm not in the habit of recommending holiday presents, but I have to say that this looks like a good gift for anybody who loves literature.

I've also heard that a Graphic Canon of Children's Literature will be hitting the shelves in May 2014. Props to Russ Kick for creating a franchise that the world will long enjoy.

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Two great new books explore the legacy of classic modernist and/or hipster literature.

view /CanonsOfCool
Wednesday, December 11, 2013 01:07 pm
The Cool School by Glenn O'Brein, The Graphic Canon by Russ Kick
Story
Levi Asher

I would have never known about Barbara Park's Junie B. Jones books if my younger daughter hadn't been just the right age to catch on and bring the books home. I enjoyed reading them with her very much, and immediately recognized the character as a delightful 1990s version of Ramona G. Quimby, the inquisitive kindergarten scamp of my own generation.

What made Junie B. Jones different was the first-person voice created for her by Barbara Park -- a voice that dared to capture the real word patterns and thought processes of a little kid. Junie's sentences are blunt, stubby and hilariously self-centered.

Daddy and I have a surprise for you, Junie B.", said Mother.

And so then I got very happy inside. Because maybe I didn't have to eat my stewie pewie tomatoes.

And also sometimes a surprise means a present! And presents are my very favorite things in the whole world!

I bounced up and down.

"What is it? Is it all wrapped up? I don't see it," I said very excited.

Then I looked under the table. Because maybe the surprise was hiding down there with a red ribbon on top. of it.

Mother and Daddy smiled at each other. Then Mother held my hand.

"Junie B., how would you like to have a little baby brother or sister?" she said.

I made my shoulders go up and down.

"I don't know. Maybe," I told her.

Then I looked under my chair.

"Guess what?" I said. "I can't find that silly willy present anywhere."

Mother made me sit up. Then she and my daddy said some more stuff about a baby.

"The baby will be yours, too, Junie B." Daddy said. "Just think. You'll have your very own little brother or sister to play with. Won't that be fun?"

I did my shoulders up and down again. "I don't know. Maybe," I said.

Then I got down from my chair and ran into the living room.

"BAD NEWS, FELLAS!" I hollered very loud. "THE PRESENT ISN"T IN THIS DUMB BUNNY ROOM, EITHER!"

       (Junie B. Jones and a Little Monkey Business)

She doesn't care very much about the rules of grammar or proper word variations, and she has a wonderful way with "Guess what".

I am in the grade of kindergarten. It is the afternoon kind.

Afternoon kindergarten is better than morning kindergarten. That's because you get to sleep late. And watch cartoons.

Only guess what? Today my baby brother named Ollie waked me up very too early.

He was screaming for his bottle.

But screaming is not polite. And so he needed some discipline, I think.

I sat up in my bed.

"HEY! SHUT UP YOUR FACE!" I hollered.

       (Junie B. Jones and the Yucky Blucky Fruitcake)

Junie B. quickly assigns labels to new people she meets, and sticks with them forever:

My teacher shook my hand. Only our hands didn't fit together that good.

Her name was Mrs. --. I can't remember the rest of it. Mrs. said I looked cute.

       (Junie B. Jones and the Stupid Smelly Bus)

Who was this crazy Junie B. Jones that my daughter had brought home? Naturally, at first I couldn't see past the comparison to Beverly Cleary's Ramona Quimby. But Beverly Cleary wrote Ramona the Pest in third person. It was as if Barbara Park created Junie B. Jones by burrowing deep into the childish mind of Ramona Quimby, and letting her tell stories from the inside out.

Barbara Park died of ovarian cancer on November 15, at the age of 66. Her great young character will surely live on.

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Barbara Park, author of the delightful Junie B. Jones books, has died.

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Wednesday, November 20, 2013 09:16 am
Junie B. Jones author Barbara Park
Story
Levi Asher

Here's a timely one, to cap off a week of truly bizarre politics in my country, the United States of America. An Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments by Ali Almossawi looks like a children's book, with appealing and funny drawings by Alejandro Giraldo, but is written for grown-ups. Each page represents a different common form of logical fallacy.

Generously, the authors have placed the entire book online, where it can hopefully help to unwind all the bad philosophical arguments that are hovering thickly in the air. Logical fallacies are timeless and universal, of course, but this book feels especially relevant now, as my country moves cautiously towards implementation of the sorely needed health insurance reform law known as Obamacare, and free market conservatives, corporate lobbyists, Tea Party congressmen and Ayn Rand followers explode in fury.

I remember many of the fallacies listed in this book (like the Slippery Slope, and our old friend the Straw Man) from my years as a philosophy student. Most are self-explanatory (Hasty Generalization, Appeal to Fear). Each is explained in this book with text and a picture, and all can be viewed online.

Reading through these fallacies today, it's easy to map many of them to the virulent arguments currently used against Obamacare (which is, I still insist, an essential program). Here are a few I recognize:

The Straw Man: Barack Obama is a Marxist Muslim with a secret program to destroy everything that is great about this country.

Not a Cause for a Cause: Greece is having severe economic problems, and Greece has universal healthcare. Therefore, Obamacare will turn our country into Greece and destroy our economy.

No True Scotsman: No true conservative can compromise with liberals. Therefore, any Republican politician who votes to fund the current government is not a true conservative.

Slippery Slope: The new Healthcare.gov website has crashed repeatedly in its first two weeks of operation. This shows that the government is fundamentally incapable of ever operating a healthcare exchange, and that every aspect of Obamacare is likely to be mismanaged.

Circular Reasoning (or, Begging the Question): The enemies of Obamacare are going to make sure the program is not a success, because we oppose it. Therefore, Obamacare has no chance of being a success, and you should oppose it.

Appeal to the Bandwagon: Fox News and Rush Limbaugh and two loud guys I work with are against Obamacare. Don't you know that EVERYBODY is against Obamacare? Alternate name: the Echo Chamber.

Okay, I'll be honest: both sides of our current political debate and probably all sides of every political debate resort to bad arguments. I'm sure my fellow liberals have used a couple of bad arguments at some points in history too, though I can't remember ever using a bad argument myself. Or is that an Appeal to Ignorance? Anyway, this is a book that anyone can enjoy.

Here's a bigger question: why do we resort so often to bad arguments, and how do we choose which sides of which arguments to adopt as our own? Surely it's not logic that primarily informs our stances on controversial questions. Rather, our stances are our starting points, and we sculpt logical arguments to support us wherever we stand.

So, when we argue, how do we choose where we stand? How do we decide which bad arguments to condemn, and which to applaud? That's a tougher question that I'd like to tackle here soon.

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A clever visualization of familiar debate fallacies by Ali Almossawi and Alejandro Giraldo.

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Saturday, October 19, 2013 09:02 am
An illustrated book of bad arguments
Story
Levi Asher

E. L. Konigsburg, author of From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, has died at the age of 83. This book had the best concept of pretty much any children's novel I remember ever reading: two spirited tweens (12-year-old Claudia and 9-year-old Jamie) decide to run away from their boring posh suburban home and hide out in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The fascination for readers was to plot with Claudia and Jamie how to pull it off -- hiding in restroom stalls, bathing in the fountain in the middle of the night, having snappy answers ready for inquisitive security guards. Eventually they uncover a secret about a statue that may or may not be a Michelangelo, and meet the elderly art patron of the title.

"Mixed-Up Files" was Konigsburg's only major hit, though she wrote many other books. Published in 1967, it was made into a disappointing movie called The Hideaway (starring a miscast Ingrid Bergman in the title role) in 1973, and is thankfully still in print today.

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E. L. Konigsburg, author of "From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler", has died at the age of 83 ...

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Sunday, April 21, 2013 06:58 pm
From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler
Story
Levi Asher

I've just learned that Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park/Book of Mormon fame have been animating some passages from seminal Western Buddhist author Alan Watts. The videos are excellent! Here's Music and Life, with a message well worth hearing:

I was also intrigued to read in Galley Cat about a new video series called "Explain Like I'm Five", which shows five year olds reacting to various lessons. Here, two adults try to explain the moral philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche to a group of kids.

The grown-ups do a pretty good job of representing our favorite manic German existentialist to these kids, and really try hard to win the group over. Then something very funny happens. Having grasped a simple description of Nietzsche's concept of ethics, one of the kids sums up his feelings: "I HATE NIETZSCHE". The kid then fantasizes about beating up Nietzsche in the street, and the rest of the kids happily pile on.

Notably, it's not that the kids hate learning about Nietzsche. They're happy to learn about him; it's his philosophy that they hate. There's some kind of cataclysmic basic truth being revealed by the innocent reaction of these children. I wonder what Friedrich Nietzsche would say. I wonder what Alan Watts would say.

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Two illuminating (and short) philosophy videos, one on Alan Watts and one on Friedrich Nietzsche.

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Wednesday, March 20, 2013 11:04 pm
Videos representing Alan Watts and Friedrich Nietzsche
Story
Levi Asher