Friday, October 31

The Crows of Pearblossom

by Aldous Huxley
illustrated by Barbara Cooney
Random House / Weekly Reader Books 1967

I'd been meaning to do this for a couple years now, and this week I finally figured out how to make the scanner work, so...

When I was a kid my mom signed me up for the Weekly Reader Book club one summer. I don't remember how often them came but in between book shipments there were book club editions of books. One of them freaked me the heck out at the time but I never said anything about it for fear that I would have the book club taken away from me.

I talked about this book when I was older, in college, and no one believed it existed. My memory of the story was strong but I never remembered the author until one day in my 30's when I caught a passing reference to it in some magazine. It did exist. But I still had to wait another six years or so for the internet to be invented before I could locate a copy of my very own.

The Crows of Pearblossom was Aldous Huxley's only children's book, perhaps for good reason. He wrote originally for his niece in 1944 and a manuscript floated around until Random House and Weekly Reader hooked up with illustrator Barbara Cooney to create a book that creeped me out.

Over time I have come to recognize the value in telling stories that creep kids out. I find the sanitized fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm that are constantly appropriated by Disney, or watered down to "modern sensibilities" to be highly distasteful. It's as if picture books for children must be as sterile as anti-bacterial toys for children, raising a generation of readers so protected from the realities of the world that they don't develop the appropriate immune systems for reading. Could the first wave of these bubble-living readers be the adults looking to ban books for fear of infecting their children?

Anyway, it's Halloween, so here's the treat. The Crows of Pearblossom, scanned and available for your reading pleasure over at my Flickr! account (click on the cover above for the link). Give it a gander and let me know what you think.

Monday, October 27

J. Edgar Hoover

A Graphic Biography
by Rick Geary
Hill and Wang 2008

Just what the world was waiting for, the life of J. Edgar Hoover as a graphic novel. Actually, in a way, I was. Sort of. I mean, I think there any number of political and cultural figures from the 20th century who could use some better coverage than might appeal to a younger audience.

Geary in many ways is a perfect choice for Hoover. His mannered crosshatch style almost bespeaks a certain Victoriana that suits the man who built and ran the FBI for over 50 years. Using almost no dialog but plenty of narrative text, he recounts Hoover's rise and fall with carefully staged scenes and expressions. The effect is almost like a Ken Burns documentary in graphic novel format, which isn't a bad thing. You can practically hear the period music as the narration methodically connects the dots in Hoover's life, from his low days as an average government worker to one of the most powerful unelected figures in American politics.

I joked with friends that I was a little upset that Geary stayed clear of gossip and rumor -- though there is a single panel suggesting what Hoover looked like if the rumor of his attending a party in drag was true -- there is also only the lightest gloss on his one man war against those he felt were his and the nation's enemies. In some ways, the chapter on the Kennedy's could be a book unto itself, as could the chapter on his secret surveillance war on MLK and John Lennon, but these events are passed over and given none of he weight I personally felt they deserved.

I also worry that a reader getting all their information on Hoover from this book might not fully understand that he wasn't really all that good for the country. If that sounds a little biased then it balances the book's non-committal position of Hoover as a politically neutral man who ran his office with an iron fist. he ran more than his office with that fist, and ruined a great many lives, and none of that comes through.

I love Geary's work in general, and hope he does more of these books in Hill and Wang's series of biographical graphic novels.

Sunday, October 26

Screenwriting for Teens

The 100 Principles of Screenwriting Every Budding Writer Must Know
by Christina Hamlett
Michael Wiese Productions 2006

It's been a while since I've run across a book that leaves me running hot and cold depending on my mood when I pick it up. On the one hand what we have is a thorough course in film media awareness, a textbook for exploration of writing for television and film; On the other hand the aim seems to be driven toward raising an army of teen screenwriters armed with the skills to keep turning out the same sort of studio drivel that has been cranked out for decades now. In the end I find myself forced to admit that had this book been around when I was a teen I would have owned it and probably would have been a different writer as a result, for better or worse I couldn't say.

Hamlett presents each of the principles on the right side page with a clear explanation and examples. Flip the page and there is a "look and learn" segment recommending films, TV shows, and even commercials that support the principle at hand. There's also a "brainstorming" section that provides three different exercises to reinforce the lesson and provide young readers with a broader background in understand how to write.

The book opens with a lesson on the differentiation between books and movies, with a brief study of classic story structure, and quickly builds up to short studies on cinematic structure and the Hollywood method for developing a marketable screenplay. In these bite-sized segments a young writer will learn much of what is taught in most other books and seminars on screenwriting and it is highly accessible. The examples are, for the most part, well-chosen and the exercises are solid enough even for experienced writers to get something from them.

Where the book falters for me is how it seems to go out of its way to not look like a textbook or something equally formidable, but in doing so treats the serious student too casually. "If you're not already keeping a daily journal, start one" seems like something that should come at the beginning of the book and not as an aside eight chapters in. Additionally, there is an unspoken assumption that the reader has an endless amount of time and access to watching television shows and movies without really letting the budding writer know what they're getting into. Granted, the serious student will devour these assignments and hunt down whatever looks interesting to them, but just as many might find the task daunting part way through and be tempted to give up.

With the ever-changing television line-ups and cultural phenomena there are references to television shows no longer on the air, as well as films that even most film students have never seen (to say nothing of older films they probably never heard of). And very quickly it becomes clear that this is a book that one cannot breeze through in a month or even a few months. Watching the recommended films and programs, following through on the activities will take time. What Hamlett hasn't also adequately prepared the budding screenwriter with is a lesson in patience.

Yet, I still like what this book does. It says to the teenage screenwriter "Okay, this is what it's all about" and plows ahead with its challenge to keep up. Those who think that writing for television or movies is a shortcut to fame will quickly learn that the modern screenwriter's craft is no less arduous than any other writer's. Serious teens who believe this is truly their destiny should make this a first test of their strength and endurance. This would only be a first stop because there is much more about character and scene development that a solid screenwriter needs to know and should learn from other books on the craft. Syd Field's books, and Robert McKee's Story and, just to get some perspective from a master in the field, William Goldman's Adventures in the Screen Trade.

For the first-timer, the student looking to make solid short films and develop themselves as screenwriters, Hamlett's book is a step in the right direction.

Friday, October 17

short, short poems

An Anthology of Short, Short Poems
Edited by William Cole
Macmillan Company 1967

Sometimes what you want from a poem is short. Brevity the soul of wit and all. This compact little book collects over 250 poems that fit the bill, collected thematically, each chapter heading a line pulled from one of the poems. You get chapter titles like "Here dead lie we..." and "...into the daily accident."

All of the usual suspects are here: Auden, Keats, Pope and Pound, Frost and Yeats and Dickenson, in addition to some upstarts like Brecht and Updike and some woman named Anonymous. There are playground rhymes and terse bits of light verse, though Cole points out in his introduction that short doesn't necessarily mean trivial. Short can whet or cleanse the palate between longer literary journeys, or occupy the mind while visiting the lavatory.

Admittedly this collection, these poems, can be a little stale around the edges, and almost Parade-esque. I like to think of them as holiday cookies left out overnight after the party -- what they lack in freshness is compensated by their continued flavor and the memories they revive.

These are some of my faves from the collection.
By a rich fast moving stream

become a
dragon and
then a poem
about a dragonfly
becoming a dangerous
reader in fast pursuit
of summer transformations.

~John Tagliabue

To a Man in a Picture Window Watching Television

Watching TV,
How aptly
You're framed,
As if on TV --
Observer observed!

Deeper in shade,
Still others may sit
Watching me
Watching you
Watching it.

~Mildred Weston

The Wheel Change

I'm sitting on the grass by the roadside.
The driver is changing the wheel.
I don't like it where I came from.
I don't like it where I'm going to.
Why am I watching the wheel change
With impatience?

~Berthold Brecht, translated by Eric Bentley

Please Tell Me Just the Fabuli

Please tell me just the fabuli,
The miraculi,
The gargantua;
And kindly, kindly spare me
All this insignificia.

~Shel Silverstein


Oh, England.
Sick in the head and sick in the heart,
Sick in the whole and every part:
And yet sicker thou art still
For thinking that thou art not ill.

~Anonymous, seventeenth century (and perhaps a bit closer to home as well)


All this aching
Go to making

~Alun Lewis

The round-up for Poetry Friday is at Becky's Book Reviews today.

Wednesday, October 8

Prince of Persia

Prince of Persia
Created by Jordan Mechner
Written by A.B. Sina
Artwork by LeUyen Pham and Alex Puvilland
First Second 2008

I'm cross-posting today. This is my review from Guys Lit Wire.

Based on the video game, soon to be a major motion picture... eh, forget all that. Prince of Persia purports to be the legend behind the game, but any knowledge of this graphic novel's origins are completely unnecessary. What we have here is a great, multi-layered tale of power and and palace intrigue over the course of centuries, a story rich in Eastern myths and torn allegiances.

In the 9th century city of Marv, the warrior Saman has not only conquered but rebuilt the city in great splendor. Among his children, the twin brother and sister Guiv and Guilan, he has adopted Layth, the orphaned son of his enemy, and raised them as equals. Growing up together they vow strength in unity and insist on ruling as one when their time comes. The problem is that Guilan and Layth have fallen in love and that Guiv becomes an outcast when he tries to kill Layth in his sleep...

The 9th century blends with a 13th century where Shirin, daughter of the current ruler of Marv, leaves a palace that has become the home of decadence and lies to discover the truths that have been hidden from her. After nearly drowning in a well Shirin is rescued and taken to a citadel that is the secret home to Ferdos, who relates the stories of the past to her. The tales of two centuries echo each other as we learn of the rise of two princes, and how the power of the desert city is in the hands of those who control the waterways that have been built from ancient springs.

The thing about Prince of Persia, the element I long for in graphic novels, is the sense of the novel. It isn't merely a question of length, but when a story is rich in character and story threads, that's what pulls me in. I want to get lost in a story, in a time and place, and to know that the storyteller is weaving an elaborate tapestry. For me, it's part of what separates a comic from a graphic novel, this feeling of story heft, and Prince of Persia has it in spades.

I can't ignore how location resonates between the story and our own lives. How different are the days when an elite group of people controlled the means of survival for a larger community? Does it matter that it was water in the 9th and 12th centuries and oil in the 20th and 21st? Is the ancient Persian empire, no matter what it is called today or in the future, destined to be where all of our international battles for power will be set?

I read somewhere (advance word from Publisher's Weekly perhaps?) that the graphic novel wouldn't be as successful for its intended gamer audience because it lacked the interactive element of the game. Excuse me? Are gamers so limited in their abilities that unless a book based on a game is interactive like a game they couldn't appreciate it? That makes no sense, it sells gamers short, and totally ignores what a separate experience the book is from the game.

What we have here is reminiscent of great Eastern myths and storytelling. It may play off familiar images from what most people know of Arabian Nights stories, it has some magic and mythical qualities (no genies, however, but earth- and animal-based magic), but also has some grounding in the real world. In the 12th century the city of Merv was briefly the largest in the world, built on an oasis along the Silk Road, and no doubt a place where stories and myths were built around the tales of travelers in the region. It does not seem out of place that the stories included in Prince of Persia could have sprung from the ancient city of Merv.

My simple wish to those who can grant it: More like this, please.

Wednesday, October 1

Splat the Cat

by Rob Scotton
HarperCollins 2008

I'm going to open with what was originally my closing paragraph. You can decide whether to read further after that.

Note to Publishers and Art Departments everywhere: you never look like greater fools than when you don't have any faith in your books and feel the need to use cover space for advertising copy. It doesn't matter if it's front or back cover, picture book or YA, the minute you sell off the book's real estate you have admitted a lack of confidence and a savvy buying public can smell your desperation.


The National Lampoon, in its heyday back in the late 1970s, used to have a feature in its Photo Funnies section called "Worlds God Never Made," or something similar. Readers would send in snapshots of various businesses that had the word 'world" somewhere in its name, like Chemical World or World of Chicken. It would never cease to amaze me how many people thought they were being clever by naming their business something-world when in fact, the reach and influence of their world scarcely reached across the city limits.

Over time, though, the humor wanes. In a world full of worlds, the idea of yet another world with it's cheap-o plastic yellow sign (always yellow) and its flickering fluorescent bulbs has lost as much of its humorous capital as it does its ginormous placement in the pantheon of large businesses.

Equally, I find that books or movies that lay claim to being "the next (fill in the blank)" or "from the bestselling author of..." are generally trying to sell me the idea that the creator's previous efforts were something so great that I would blindly take on their next creation as brilliant with nary a second thought to its quality. Oddly, in a majority of these cases, I am being sold a familiarity with some other object or product I only know of by reputation. "From the producers of..." tacked at the beginning of a movie title I did not see as a way of proving the pedigree of a another movie I probably won't see is only designed to wedge me into catching the more recent film out of a sense of consumer guilt. Well, I missed that last one, and the ads said it was good, so maybe I better see this one to find out what all the fuss is about. In the end, with so much out there laying claim to some measure of quality we're supposed to all fall in line with -- is there a cultural consensus about anything in this country anymore? -- the idea of quality by association might as well have the word 'world' tacked onto it.

From the director of Psycho comes Frenzy World!

It extends into the world of children's books, and with Splat the Cat I find myself not liking it even before I open the damn thing. Right there under the author's name, on the cover of a book intended for pre-school and pre-reading children are the words "Bestselling Author of Russell the Sheep and Russell and the Lost Treasure." Well, with a one-two combination like that we might just be talking about the next book to top the bestseller list for several months running.

Except we're not.

There's a world of people out there who, surely, this sort of thing must work for. But why? Is it that they loved Russell the Sheep so much but couldn't be bothered to remember the author's name? Could it be that in a world where chain bookstores don't bother to train their staff to handsell children's books that publishers must turn their covers into advertisements for themselves? No kid is going to be sold by this tag line (and if they are then there's something unfortunate about that child's upbringing) and no adult making an informed, conscientious decision about buying a child a book is going to be sold by this attempt to cash in on another set of titles.

After all, if the book cannot sell itself, there's already a problem.

I suppose I ought to actually talk about the book now. The only problem is that everything I've discussed is far more interesting.

Splat is a stand-in for every kid nervous about his first day of school. Splat resists going, comes up with every excuse he can think of to keep from going, finds himself in a class full of new cat friends, and in the end can't wait to go back the next day. That's it in a catnap. Owning a pet mouse, and bringing it to school in his lunch for security, poses the possibility for tension when the teacher informs them that chasing mice is what cats do. But all is diffused when the mouse helps them get to their milk locked in the closet.

Bestselling author of Russell the Sheep? Bestselling? Really? This is supposed to convince me that my thoughts of mediocrity are somehow wrong or misplaced?

I think more than anything what turns me off the most is how much the artwork reminds me of the sort of thing normally found on one of the "edgier" imprints at Hallmark Cards. You know, slick and stylized and not cute little bunnies or soft-focus flowers, art only in the sense of being very workmanlike. There's a sterility to it that makes me feel certain that, if properly shredded, it would prevent a litter box from smelling for weeks.

It's sad when a book causes me to worry about the precious resources being used in its creation. When I start thinking I should go out and plant a replacement tree I get a more than a little disheartened with publishing. A picture book shouldn't make me feel this way; this book does.