Bookmarks: Brief reviews of new and overlooked books

Bookmarks: Brief reviews of new and overlooked books
[27 January 2006]

This week:
The Singing Fish by Peter Markus; The Travel Mom’s Ultimate Book of Family Travel by Emily Kaufman; The Areas of My Expertise: An Almanac of Complete World Knowledge Compiled with Instructive and Annotation and Arranged in Useful Order by Me, John Hodgman, a Professional Writer by John Hodgman

The Singing Fish
by Peter Markus
Calamari Press, May 2005, 88 pages, $10


It is a rare occurrence when a fiction writer can be lauded as a true artist; it is even rarer when such a writer can work his magic in so few pages. Yet Peter Markus, author and artist, has penned a pocket-sized gem of literary brilliance with his latest book, The Singing Fish.

An extension of Markus’ previous short fiction tales, The Singing Fish chronicles the sibling camaraderie of two young brothers, presented in an engaging staccato narrative. Whether having the boys lose themselves in their own private realm of adventure, or interact with external characters, Markus’ talents as a gifted wordsmith are on full display throughout the book’s 88 pages. He uses the backdrop of childhood innocence to paint vivid pictures with his linguistic precision. The simplicity of the structure is as exquisite as it is ironic: Markus’ writing style is sparse but extraordinarily rich in imagery. The verbal repetition and alliteration give the words a musical sensibility; readers are transported into a time of adolescent wonder, getting a visceral feel for the boys’ experiences intertwined with the recurring themes of mud, water and fish.

To some, the abstract nature of Markus’ work may be considered an acquired taste since it deviates so readily from the standard fiction template. The uniqueness of Markus’ voice however, is exactly what makes it so appealing. He expertly creates various contrasts that gently capture, then captivate, his audience: Simple words form complex ideas; divergent stylistic nuances resonate with familiarity; certain scenes take on dream-like qualities, drifting between the real and surreal then back again. It is a testament to the author’s command of his craft that everything flows so effortlessly, creating a magical story in the process, and inviting readers to share that magic with him.

Peter Markus is the literary equivalent of a gifted indie band, carving out a niche with an eye on quality rather than quantity, on substance rather than style. While the fiction marketplace (like the major label recording industry) is glutted with over-hyped and underwhelming product, it is dedicated practitioners like Markus who toil under the mainstream radar in the name of their respective art.

Though lacking in sheer size, The Singing Fish compensates for its modest stature by showcasing a remarkably unique and engaging writing style. Peter Markus need not be concerned with superfluous page count or publishing house clout; he has proven to be a big enough literary fish in the sea of fiction with his wonderful short stories. His words are there to lose oneself in, over and over.

Adam Williams order from publisher

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The Travel Mom’s Ultimate Book of Family Travel
by Emily Kaufman
Broadway, January 2006, 256 pages, $14.00

Reasons to Travel

Emily Kaufman’s advice book on traveling for families is the kind that has to be written every five-to-10 years, if only to make sure that the resort and travel information is up-to-date. Still, in its first printing, Kaufman’s Ultimate Book of Family Travel is refreshing for its practical tone and the author’s obvious of experience, garnered during years of contributing as the Travel Mom to Good Morning America and other media outlets. After taking over a hundred trips with her two children, she has amassed a bewildering amount of tips, anecdotes, and helpful hints, and lays them out with a clarity and pragmatism that makes the book’s lessons easily digestible.

As you might guess, this book will not come in too handy if it’s a sojourn through southeast Asia you’re planning, or if you’re about to take your family on the road and not look back. Kaufman’s main focus is the United States, the Caribbean, and Canada, and her list is heavy on resorts and cruises. While she does mention that traveling extensively with your family requires financial resources and careful budgeting, the book pays little attention to prices. One assumes, then, that the trips Kaufman favors, like Disney cruises and all-inclusive resorts in Hawaii, will be exclusive to the reasonably wealthy.

Commendable here, however, is Travel Mom’s approach to life. It’s so uniquely of our time in that it looks on children as citizens of a greater world, who can benefit from travel in many ways beyond solely seeing grandparents or riding bumper cars at the beach. It encourages parents to introduce their children to different cultures and to take risks and journeys outside of what they are most comfortable with, in a way that is very turn-of-the-21st-century.

As a mother of two small children, the most beneficial lesson from Travel Mom for me was to think of travel as a cornerstone of family life; how each trip can potentially bring us closer together and expand our mental and physical horizons. Family travels, Kaufman notes, are about far more than infrequent escapes and family visits. Another of Kaufman’s more handy hints involves remaining realistic about your family’s limits and the unpredictability of travel itself. In other words, don’t expect each minute to be bathed in golden memories, but strive for them just the same.

Jackie Regales Amazon

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The Areas of My Expertise: An Almanac of Complete World Knowledge Compiled with Instructive and Annotation and Arranged in Useful Order by Me, John Hodgman, a Professional Writer
by John Hodgman
Dutton, October 2005, 240 pages, $22.00


Uber-ironic, aridly witty, a faux almanac … I just don’t understand John Hodgman. Now, I like funny. I like David Sedaris’s wit, Sarah Vowell’s smart humor, and David Rakoff’s social. And I’m a fan of observational humor. The comedian Todd Barry: he can be dry as a bone. Steven Wright’s absurdist comedy? Priceless. But this book? Clearly influenced by the culture of the McSweeney’s journals, it’s riddled with asides, charts, and other such distractions. I can only figure it’s purpose is to be funny — I’m just not feeling it.

Maybe I’m barking up the wrong tree in comparing Hodgman to those comedians and other masters of the short essay form. Hodgman attempts to satirize two different things: future trend books like The Popcorn Report, and trivia books like The Book of Lists. Remember The Book of Lists? This was when trivia was big business; when weird lists meant something to the publishing world. Well, I guess this author has decided that now is the time to say: enough with lists, and enough with forecasts — to damn the trend while adding to it. Where other writers may have been happy with a satirical essay about said topic, Hodgman went and put a whole book together. And got it published!

Hodgman’s book is organized into eight or so sections, generally about the past, present, or future. Each section contains ridiculous sound bytes, wafts of made-up information, and ironically placed photos and illustrations, alongside charts and amusing old photographs of robots, farmers, and fights. The underlying conceit is nothing in this book is true. He devotes many pages to “What You Did Not Know About Hobos”. He lists “Short Words for Use on Submarines to Preserve Oxygen”. He writes truthlessly about lobsters, Skull and Bones, cons, and random info about our 51 states. Pick any page, any quote, and you’ll find something well worded, but ludicrous.

What exactly is the cumulative meaning of a book of “lies”, equally self-deprecating and attention seeking? As with a book of lists, pretty much nothing. There are laughs to be had, but a diagram of werewolves and actuaries, or writing interesting facts about hobos, is kind of silly. Silly can be good. But, disillusioned with literature, this almanac is Hodgman’s way of taking the piss out of it. It is a pedestrian book from a literary insider (Hodgman is a former literary agent) that packs a few fun punches — like when Hodgman criticizes his profession as “a professional writer” — but is ultimately weighted down by its lead-heavy (and stale) irony.

C.W. Thompson Amazon