I Cannot Wait Till Lunchtime

English as She Is Spoke by José Da Fonseca & Pedro Carolino, edited by Paul Collins. McSweeney’s Books, 1855.

Sarah: In 1855, two Portuguese guys decided to write a Portuguese-English phrasebook, the drawback being that neither of them spoke English and neither had access to any Portuguese-English dictionaries. So they used a Portuguese-French dictionary and and French-English dictionary to create their phrasebook.
Gene: (laughs)
S: And they published it. This is a reprint of that book, which immediately became an early comedy hit. Because it is hilarious.
G: Unintentionally hilarious?
S: Unintentionally hilarious. You do have to remember… well, like when you read Bram Stoker’s Dracula and you think “Well, this isn’t that spooky,” but it was the first one. Sometimes if it limps a little, you have to remember it was the original. And this was before machine translation, so they were doing this by hand. It’s artisinal translation.
G: Are we at the point where we’re calling translations artisinal? That’s kind of sad. Continue reading “I Cannot Wait Till Lunchtime”

I Want A Fish Purse

I Don’t Know What To Call My Cat by Simon Philip, illustrated by Ella Bailey. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016. 9780544971431.

A grey cat shows up on a little girl’s doorstep. She’s thrilled when it decides to stay, but she can’t decide what to call it! Kitty isn’t specific enough, and Princess High-and-Mighty doesn’t fit after the cat rejects being dressed in a ballgown. Then it disappears and the little girl is left to play with her rambunctious replacement pet, a gorilla, until it reappears with a surprising new identity.

The illustrations are cute, bright, and full of eye-catching detail: the little girl’s room is crammed with cat-themed everything, the grey cat shows up at her door wearing a red scarf and carrying a fish-shaped purse and tiny violin case, and the vet discovers that the cat is a boy when he checks that box on a survey clipboard. Kids in cat-owning families will laugh at the girl’s attempts at loud and physical play with her new pet. This is worth reading again and again.

Legendary Friendship

Mac & Cheese by James Proimos. Henry Holt and Company, 2016. 9780805091564.

A macaroni noodle in a tie and glasses and a cube of cheese in an ear-flap hat are best friends despite their differences. They have three adventures together: they discuss tricky questions, have a disagreement about the artistic depiction of oranges, and go for a walk under the stars. Along the way they run into other pairs of friends: PB and Jay, Salt and Salt, and Oil and Water (who argue a lot).

This is a tremendously silly and sweet tribute to those classics on kid friendship like Frog and Toad Are Friends and George and Martha. (In fact the book is dedicated to authors Arnold Lobel and James Marshall.) Mac and Cheese sport delightful goofy expressions and stick arms. Their adventures have a lot of kid-appeal, even if kids don’t get the nods to earlier writers: Proimos has a knack for that well-structured and deceptively simple storytelling that made Lobel and Marshall legends.

Mrs Vince Camden Written on a Pee Chee

Citizen Vince by Jess Walter. Harper Perennial, 2008. 9780061577659.

Sarah: So when you first talked about Book Wows, you pitched the idea to me as we grab a book from our collection and talk about why we love it. So this is the first book I thought about, but I didn’t want to start out with it. It’s almost too much for me to talk about. The book is Citizen Vince by Jess Walter.
Gene: OK!
S: It’s the first or second book by him that I read.
G: He was a journalist somewhere in Washington state, I think — he’s somewhat local, right?
S: He still lives in Spokane.
G: He used to work with my friend Jonathan. I was at a party at Jonathan’s house and he and another reporter talked about how Jess Walter had escaped journalism much like librarians talk about those who escape the library.
S: Walter and Sherman Alexie do this podcast together, it went on hiatus while Alexie was ill, but it’s rumored that it’s coming back. It’s so good: two really smart guys who are incredibly good writers interviewing other writers they like. It is the best way to get to know authors that you need to read.
G: So tell me about this book. Is it a mystery? Continue reading “Mrs Vince Camden Written on a Pee Chee”

Neither On the American Continent nor States: Discuss

The Not-Quite States of America: Dispatches From the Territories and Other Far-Flung Outposts of the USA by Doug Mack. W.W. Norton & Company, 2017. 9780393247602.

While sorting laundry quarters to see which should go in his wife’s state quarters collection, Mack noticed an extra five off to the side for the US territories: the US Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and Puerto Rico. He realized he knew almost nothing about these parts of the US, despite being both a travel writer and having a degree in American studies. He set out to visit them. He imagined white picket fences, baseball, and banana trees: a tropical all-America. Instead, he found the world’s largest K-Mart, a park filled with erotic statues, a machine-gun shooting range for Japanese tourists, and huge tropical national parks.

Mack is a great guide — he’s funny, well-informed, curious, and has enough Minnesotan friendliness that he ends up being taken in and shown around by people he’s just met. His firsthand observations are interspersed with history and politics. These places became part of America during its “Imperial Moment,” an odd span of time when the US had aspirations to become an empire. There were a series of Supreme Court cases that established that the Constitution does not necessarily follow the flag. There are strange side-effects of not living within a state, like not having votes in the Electoral College (assuming the locals are allowed to vote in US elections, which in Samoa they aren’t). The details of their truly bizarre legal and political landscapes are jaw-dropping: not just the shockingly un-American laws (early Naval governors of Guam forbade speaking the native Chamorro language in public), but the laundry list of ways the territories are treated poorly or just plain forgotten that causes high rates of poverty and crime, and provides little to address these problems. I hope this book starts discussions about how we treat these parts of our country.

I kept telling people about things I learned as I was reading: the territories have the higher rates of joining the armed services than any state, the US Virgin Islands has the highest murder rate in the US, American Samoa prohibits non-Samoans from owning land (thus there are no resort hotels) while Guam allows non-Guamanians to lease land for 50 years, and the shade of blue on the Puerto Rican flag you fly indicates how you feel about independence vs statehood (a topic at every gathering). The story of how the US “colonized” one of the Mariana Islands by having Hawaiian high school boys stay there, fishing and gathering food, in shifts for four months at a time is unforgettable.  This book reminded me of the wonderful, engaging histories by Sarah Vowell. I hope Mack will be just as prolific.

Who Would You Pick As Your Literary Guide Through Hell?

The Life After, Volume 1 by Joshua Hale Fialkov and Gabo. Oni Press, 2015. 9781620103890.

Contains The Life After #1-5

Jude lives the same dull, unsatisfying day over and over while unseen operators (think Cabin in the Woods) manage every detail of his reality. When he decides to change his pattern and talk to the beautiful woman who drops her handkerchief on the bus, reality begins to change around him. He sees visions of violent tragedies involving the people he touches, from the distant past and the far future. The city seems to be pieced together from parts of other times, too. When someone vanishes in a beam of light, he starts looking for answers with his new friend, Ernest Hemingway. The forces behind the scenes scramble to stop them.

The Life After draws an unsettlingly legalistic afterlife that’s part-technological, part-spiritual, where everything’s about the rules, no matter how baffling or unfair, and which is run like an office building behind the scenes. As out-there as some of it seems (part-robot six-winged seraphim, a supreme being that looks like a fleshy teratoma and acts like a horndog), the rules of the various realms of punishment will all be familiar to graduates of Sunday school. A poignant two-page spread shows the sin that brought one of the souls there: stealing a sheep to feed a family, returning it out of guilt, leading to the death of a child from hunger. Jude, baffled (“Well, what the fuck was that?”), recounts his vision to Ernest and asks, “Which part is he here for?” Ernest: “I suppose the stealing part.” Elsewhere, they find caves packed with souls suffering because they “pre-dated the current system.”

There are many artists who process their religious upbringing through their art (I think of it as the “Whaaaaaat?” they were too afraid to shout as a kid). The Life After is one of the more fun explorations I’ve read.

Marathon Men

The Wildest Race Ever: The Story of the 1904 Olympic Marathon by Meghan McCarthy. Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books, 2016. 9781481406390.

I know some people don’t like the big round eyes and simple faces on McCarthy’s painted character illustrations, but I love them: they make historical figures cute and charming. In her book on the first Olympic Marathon in the US, I found out there’s something even more adorable: the bushy mustache on Cuban runner Felix Carvajal, who showed up to the race in his street clothes and made stops along the route to practice English with bystanders. He. Is. So. Cute. Someone please start making Hello Kitty-like merchandise about historical figures. I want a Felix Carvajal pencil case.

A historic marathon might seem like a stretch for an exciting picture book, but the race was nuts. The route had to be totally redone a few days before it started, after rain washed out some roads. Huge clouds of dust kicked up by cars and bicycles choked the runners. There were only two water stops, and the water made competitors sick. A runner was chased off course by a dog. A car carrying a doctor for the runners plunged down a 30 foot embankment. Add to that the then-current practice of downing strychnine mixed with egg white instead of drinking water  (check out this Sawbones episode for more on this crazy but true performance enhancer) and you have some drama. The additional information at the end is great — it’s clear McCarthy did some amazing primary-source research.