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Saturday, Apr 5, 2008
by Monica Shores
1001 Books for Every Moodby Hallie EphronAdams MediaMay 2007, 400 pages, $14.95

1001 Books for Every Mood
by Hallie Ephron
Adams Media
May 2007, 400 pages, $14.95


I love books about books. You know the ones I mean—The Western Canon, Books of the Century—those indispensable tools for bluffing my way through dinner conversations with other English majors who paid more attention and probably more money during their education than I did.


These metabooks are so authoritative, so full of imperatives: Here are the greatest novels ever written! The poems you must read before you die! The short stories that changed life for every person on the planet! If these PhD holding gentlemen—they are almost always gentlemen—are to be believed, it’s unlikely that any of the world’s civilizations would have endured without Hamlet.


1001 Books for Every Mood blows a big raspberry in the face of every other book-on-books I’ve encountered. Author Hallie Ephron has taken the unusual approach of assuming that rather than being told what to read her audience might appreciate a bit of choice in the matter. And, furthermore, sometimes her audience likes reading crap.


Ephron’s is a goofy guide to one woman’s egalitarian library, where The Da Vinci Code is just as valid a selection as Lolita. The pages are smattered, too, with occasional “quizzes” to match fictional lovers or literary siblings. From its cerise color scheme to its convoluted symbol system, the whole endeavor is a bit of a mess, albeit a well-meaning one.


Still, some of Ephron’s choices and selections leave more than a bit to be desired. One thousand and one titles was not enough space to acknowledge works by Dostoyevsky, Edith Wharton or—ouch—Shakespeare. I don’t know quite what to make of Oscar Wilde’s exclusion, especially in light of a “Revel in Wit” section. (Mark Twain isn’t in that one, either.)

For those who want to rub salt in these wounds, know that Paul Coelho gets three out of four stars for literary merit, the same as Kafka and Orwell. Poor Henry James, who only gets two, could apparently could learn a few things from Dave Eggers’ “virtuoso performance” in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.


With that kind of table talk, no English major will have the appetite for a meal.


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Wednesday, Apr 2, 2008
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Travel + Leisure’s Unexpected Italy
Nancy Novogrod (Introduction)
DK Publishing
January 2008, 192 pages, $24.95


From the well-traversed urban centers of Venice and Rome to out of the way and rarely visited vineyards producing incredibly robust wines in the northwest Le Langhe region, every reader will come away with a new destination atop their travel list.


As with Unexpected France, the reader is quickly drawn into this fascinating collection of articles from Travel + Leisure magazine. Useful maps, suggestions for lodging, dining, and occasionally, reading material (such as poetry from a famous writer native to the Le Marche region on the northeast coast, or world-class literature inspired by visits to Naples) accompany each section. The focus of each traveling journalist is different, from experiences centering around a single city to the wearying journey around an entire region in search of the boldest Borolo.


Michael Gross describes his quest to find an island getaway more satisfying than touristy Capri, and encounters the Madonna sott’acqua off Lampedusa, an island so far south as to be nearly in Africa. He writers, “We dive down to the ghostly yet benevolent Virgin, who is gazing up from her silent blue sanctuary.” The statue is set in a stone arch nearly fifty feet below the surface of the water.


A journey through “hidden Rome” reveals more than any vegetarian (and possibly most carnivores) would ever want to know about the old slaughterhouse district of the city. True epicureans will revel in the descriptions of various traditional and modern recipes for the “fifth quarter” of certain farm animals.


I noted with curiosity that the entire “Places to Stay” section was contributed by the same Christopher Petkanas, but quickly became enamored of his quick-witted observations and inclusion of unusual elements, not to mention his willingness to be rather critical of service if warranted. Observing historical villas with an artist’s eye, both flaws and impeccable details are pointed out.


And for those wishing to truly commune with great art, a section on Florence details how it is possible not just to observe, but to sign up for amateur figure sketching classes and draw (so to speak) on the inspiration of centuries of painters. The hands on style of this entire book helps it stand out from the normal rank and file of travel guides. Turning a mundane trip into the experience of a lifetime just got a bit easier for those not totally comfortable with venturing into totally undocumented territory, yet wanting to avoid the well-worn pathways of major cultural centers.


With such a promising start to this series of books in Unexpected France and Italy, the first ever compiled and released by the magazine, I definitely hope to see more of these country-specific collections of inspirational articles and stunning photographs.


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Saturday, Mar 22, 2008

Maybe it’s true that Canadians are just simply nicer. While American graphic novels of late have been concerning themselves with abject self hatred (Adrian Tomine), vampire slackers (Jessica Abel), and the like, Michel Rabagliati just goes on creating work that’s just as inherently decent as ever. In Paul Goes Fishing, his third graphic novel—Paul Moves Out and Paul Gets a Summer Job being the previous installments—Rabagliati continues his penchant for crafting delicately hued graphic autobiographies that are just as winning as any of the grimmer and self-lacerating work being produced in the lower 48 states, but often just as psychologically astute. Nice doesn’t have to mean clueless.


A Montreal-based illustrator and family man with practically no experience in the outdoors, Rabagliati spends the first part of his newest volume learning how to go fishing, of course. Using the structure of a summer vacation at a lakeside cabin with some friends, Rabagliati spins off from that basic conceit to explore his relationship with his father, his childhood (sparked by his re-reading in the cabin of Catcher in the Rye, a favorite from his moody youth), and the painful process he and his wife endure in a series of difficult pregnancies. He also finds the time to provide a short history of the graphic arts industry’s transition from hand-work to personal computers that beautifully skewers the designers’ cult of the Macintosh (“between 1987 and 1995, I handed over more than $40,000 to Apple & Co. for equipment that was practically obsolete before I’d even unpacked it.”)


Through all this, Rabagliati keeps a basically upbeat mood, with his freshly energetic black-and-white illustrations and cast of characters who are pretty much always (with a few obvious exceptions) smiling. Rabagliati’s approach verges on Archie comics simplicity at times (when characters cry, it’s actually rendered as “boo hoo”), but it somehow never seems fake, and that’s the beauty of this book. For all their troubles and occasional emotional outbursts, Rabagliati’s cast seems a supremely decent and nice group who anybody would consider themselves lucky to know. To create that kind of world, and to do it in a way that is far from insulting to one’s intelligence, takes a rare kind of talent, something that Rabagliati has in spades. Must be the Canadian in him.


You can view a preview (in .pdf form) of Paul Goes Fishing over at Drawn & Quarterly’s website here.


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Monday, Mar 17, 2008

Welcome to the very first installment of Books About. Here, we will explore and examine how books are featured in popular entertainment. Why do movies name-check particular authors? And who is quoted, where and why? Here we will decipher how entertainment—songs, movies, television, and more—use books to develop characters and extend situations.


Books, writers, and the art of reading show up in the strangest places. As folk/pop singer Regina Spektor reads with her pickle, so does Ren McCormick defend Slaughterhouse Five in Footloose; as Johnny as Pony read Gone with the Wind in The Outsiders, so does Bast fall to his death beneath, that’s right, a wobbly bookcase in Howard’s End. Our purpose here is to celebrate these moments when books make their mark.

Books About in…


Friday the 13th: Part 3
I’m embarrassed to say the idea for Books About presented itself to me during my weekend viewing of this schlocky picture. What can I say—my husband and I managed to get hold of the original 3D print, and after buying the Blue Harvest special edition of Family Guy, we had two sets of 3D glasses just perfect for a 3D movie night in our very own living room.


The very thought had us jumping about like skitty kids high on too many Nerds. 


It all started out so well, too. The film opens on some bedsheets, swaying on a clothesline. The camera moves under and about the sheets, and the effect is such that you feel as if you’re floating through this backyard, the sheets whipping about you. It’s absolutely brilliant.


But then you meet the owners of this backyard and are reminded how really terrible this film is and why you’ve not watched it in decades. Schlock-plus. Still, praise be to the powers that be here—ie., those who come up with interesting and unique ways to kill people in these movies—that they actually considered the book as a fairly decent weapon.


(It’s possible they got their idea from Howard’s End, but somehow I doubt it.)


Chris, the heroine of the piece, is running through a farmhouse. Her boyfriend has just had his eyes popped out by rampaging Jason Voorhees. She’s running, fearing for her life. In true horror heroine form, she runs up some flimsy stairs. But then, she spots a heavy book shelf, crammed with big hardcovers. She grabs hold and pulls it over, intending, of course, to squish her attacker. Or at least keep him momentarily at bay.


It works, though for too brief a time to really make a difference. He does cower a bit, though. I think maybe she would have had some luck if she’d grabbed the books one by one and just pelted Jason. These are some heavy books.


Really, Chris’s retaliation is instinctual: Jason is coming, find something big, and hurl it. Maybe it was just coincidence that she hurled the shelf. Still, someone designed the Friday 3 set. And when you look around that secluded cabin, there are a lot of books. Perhaps it’s not too out there to think that it’s intelligence that fails Chris, that books-smarts are useless when battling Jason’s brand of fierce evil. This girl will need her street-smarts, a quick head, and a sprinter’s agility to bypass him. Point taken.


What happens to Chris? I’ll let you rent the movie to find out. For now, I’m just happy we managed to find a key book-related scene in a Jason flick.



 


 


 


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Tuesday, Jan 29, 2008
Anticraftby Renee Rigdon and Zabet StewartNorth Light BooksNovember 2007, 160 pages, $22.99

Anticraft
by Renee Rigdon and Zabet Stewart
North Light Books
November 2007, 160 pages, $22.99


Let’s get the obligatory mention of the duct tape corset out of the way straight off.


With the small sacrifice of an old tee and possibly the help of a close friend you can craft your own perfectly fitted and ‘slightly sinister’ corset. Besides this project, there are several other excellent features in Anticraft: Knitting, Beading and Stitching for the Slightly Sinister. The photography is sensational, even when the showcased project isn’t overly exciting. Black and white backgrounds provide a fabulous contrast to colorful (think ebony, blood red, and “ichor green”) projects frequently adorned with skull motifs. The settings are invariably dungeon-inspired hangouts with antiqued decorations. Just flipping through and looking at the great pictures might keep you from noticing that a simple skull-accented hat is edged with faux FunFur. Which I didn’t realize came in black. I can’t actually picture this one on any self-respecting goth-chick, but the appeal of The Anticraft is not limited to those with yarn stashes exclusively containing various shades of black and red. All the better for the book sales, really.


A couple of favorite patterns of mine include ‘The Whilameenas,’ a crocheted two-headed rat, and ‘Three Owls,’ a mini-parliament of felted and embroidered feathered friends. There are many goth-leaning crafters out there (witness the success of The Anticraft website, now on issue number nine), and each of them can find something fascinating among the collection’s 25 projects.


The extra material in the book is a big plus. One feature is the ‘mood enhancer’ paragraph the accompanies each project, in the usual manner of listing materials and tools needed to complete it. Here the authors recommend music, movies, or books to match the mood of the project. Themed recipes and comic strips featuring the authors are also great touches. And the whole book is illustrated like an art project, with vine-like doodles, Victorian-style wood-block prints, and explanations of pagan symbols. At the back there is the customary crafting techniques section, although this one contains illustrated instructions on creating your own chain mail. On the whole, the book is a pleasure to flip through, but most of the projects are either too intricate or too impractical to really bother making.


The point is more about the inspiration and finding a place in the community of Anticrafters.


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