Book Heaven

Where the world of books and life intersect

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Location: South Amboy, New Jersey

I am deeply involved in trying to solve the discrepancy between being interested in zen and trying to acquire all the things I've been accumulating

Friday, October 28, 2005

Move Over, Lovecraft!!!

They don't make too many mistakes at the Strand but a recent purchase might have been one of them. Or maybe it's really me that made the mistake.

I was just about finished with another dollar book hunting expedition when I spied two books sitting on a box, having evidently been rejected by someone who first thought about buying them. I rejected the first one instantly but the second one held my attention a lot longer. The cover design was sort of eye catching but derivative -- I've seen a similar design on several recent books, but still ....

In any event, the book in question is Robert Rankin's The Brightonomicon (Gollancz, 2005). The 2005 publication date tells me that this book doesn't belong in the dollar pile ... at least not yet. I can't even begin to describe what this one's about so I'll just reprint the jacket copy:

When our teenage hero takes his beloved one, Enid Earles, away for a dirty weekend in Brighton, things do not go as he might have wished. Instead of a night of passion -- his first -- our young hero is thrown from the pier by the leader of the Canvey Island Mod Squad. He narrowly escapes death by drowning when he is brought ashore by the Perfect Master, Cosmic Dick and self-styled Logos of the Aeon (not to mention the reinventer of the ocarina), Hugo Rune Himself.

But our hero has lost his memory and, in desperation, agrees to join the Lad himself in the solving of twelve cases, or conundrums, based upon the Brightonomicon, the new zodiac signs formed by the alignment of Brighton streets and discovered by Rune: carriageway constellations. Together they must find the Chronovision, invented in the 1950s by a Benedectine monk, which affords the viewer scenes of past events ... and, should it fall into the wrong hands, afford ultimate power to the would-be World Dictator.

And this being an adventure most exciting, they must find it before the sinister Otto Black, would-be World Dictator and all-around bad guy.

Or the whole world will all go to pot.

Which it will to a certain extent anyway: these are the 1960s after all.

In this, a stand-alone novel in its own right (in case this is the only Rankin novel on the bookshelves and you're wondering whether to fork over your precious pounds to buy it), Rankin's extraordinary imagination rises to new heights of madness. How he continues to get published is anyone's guess -- but let's all thank the Lord that he does. Because he saves mankind once more and still has time for a pint.

How's that for some snappy promo copy? In case you've just come in from the wilderness and don't know who the Rankin chap is, rest assured that he is a highly published author. Across from the title page is a list of his books, several of which are trilogies. My favorite is the Brentford Trilogy which consists of seven (?) volumes:

  • The Antipope
  • The Brentford Triangle
  • East of Ealing
  • The Sprouts of Wrath
  • The Brentford Chainstore Massacre
  • Sex and Drugs and Sausage Rolls
  • Knees Up Mother Earth

Lest you think this is some struggling author, at the back of the book you are entreated to join the Official Robert Rankin Fan Club which promises "Details of Major Sproutlore events and tours." There is even an accolade from the author himself: They are quite mad, yet brilliant. Amazing Stuff!"

Methinks I might just let this one age a bit longer before tackling it.

Monday, October 24, 2005

The Man Who Collected Lightbulbs

What kind of excuse can a man offer when asked why he was possessed to collect 75,000 lightbulbs? When psychiatrists came to interview Baltimore dentist Hugh Francis Hicks about his collecting, he pointed to someone even more obsessive -- William J. Hammer, an engineer who worked for Edison, who had collected 130,000 different bulbs. While that might have made his collection seem almost second rate, Hicks probably conveniently forgot to mention though one area in which the engineer probably wasn't as obsessive -- the times Hicks abandoned patients in the middle of dental procedures to give tours of his Museum of Incandescent Lighting.

I found this wonderful story in Michael Kimmelman's absorbing The Accidental Masterpiece: On the Art of Life and Vice Versa (The Penguin Press, 2005 hc $24.95), a book that is not so much about collecting as it is about the relationship of art to our lives. From the front flap copy comes this explanation about the books' premise: "The idea behind The Accidental Masterpiece is that art provides us with clues about how to live our own lives more fully ... about how creating, collecting, and even just appreciating art can make living a daily masterpiece."

This is simply a wonderful book that can make you more concious of art and the world around you. I'll just leave you with the chapter headings which hopefully will intrigue you enough to make you look for this book:

  • The Art of Making a World
  • The Art of Being Artless
  • The Art of Having a Lofty Perspective
  • The Art of Making Art Without Lifting a Finger
  • The Art of Collecting Lightbulbs
  • The Art of Maximizing Your Time
  • The Art of Finding Yourself When You're Lost
  • The Art of Staring Productively at Naked Bodies
  • The Art of the Pilgrimage
  • The Art of Gum-Ball Machines, and Other Simple Pleasures

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Mr. Know-It-All, Part the Last

Oh, the outrage of it all! You get a great idea for a book, you work hard at writing it, and then you get savaged by a review from a writer who is essentially tilling the same field that you are. My outrage at this situation has been smouldering for a little over a year now and I have finally reached the point where I have to get it out of my system.

When I first picked up A.J. Jacobs' THE KNOW-IT-ALL: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World (Simon & Schuster, 2004), the story of one (apparently slightly deranged) man's attempt to read The Encyclopedia Britannica from cover to cover (reportedly 33,000 pages and some 44 million words give or take a couple) I wasn't sufficiently impressed to even read a word of it. My first feeling was that a book like this should have a denser design -- it should have more heft and the words should be shoehorned in so tightly that you'd be curious enough to investigate further. At first glance, it looked shockingly lightweight. A couple of weeks later I picked the book up again and actually started skimming it and reading random entries (the book is comprised of entries arranged alphabetically as the encyclopedia is). I quickly became addicted to reading the book and read perhaps seventy pages or so without being sidetracked by another book (an all too rare occurence as any book addict knows and the highest compliment you can pay to a book). I only stopped at that point because I wanted to save the rest of the book to savor in a few more installments.

One thing was immediately clear -- this A.J. Jacobs was one witty guy. Jacobs, an editor at Esquire, had achieved something remarkable. He took an idea anybody could have thought of (and no doubt almost every writer wished they had) and he created a book that had you smiling on every page. I kept waiting for this book to disappoint me but it never did. Jacobs' interweaving of his personal life and his family into the entries made the book even more compelling (at great expense to Jacobs no doubt as I'm sure the retribution was quick to follow).

It has now been more than a year since Joe Queenan wrote his unfavorable review -- 'The Know-It-All': A Little Learning Is a Dangerous Thing (published October 3, 2004 in The New York Times). He called Jacobs' book interminable: corny, juvenile, smug, tired. Worse, he called Jacobs "a poor man's Dave Barry; no, a bag person's Dave Barry." Queenan then went on to pick apart several entries as if he were vetting a real encyclopedia rather than a witty take on an encyclopedia. Here's some of the other unflattering comments in the review: mesmerizingly uninformative, this misguided endeavor, lack of sophistication, the pedigreed simpleton, his staggering lack of sophistication.

It seems though that Queenan is the one guilty of a lack of sophistication. There's nothing quite as illogical as a humorist trying to write a serious review of a humorous book. Queenan missed the point entirely -- it should have been obvious to anyone that Jacobs didn't read every word in The Encyclopedia Britannica (nor did he need to) or that he really thought he would become the smartest person for having done so. Queenan's attempts to discredit Jacobs by dissecting a few entries and parading some of the critic's obscure knowledge was nothing if not embarrassing. It's unfortunate that because he couldn't find a hook for his review, he had to stoop to trashing the book and insulting its author.

A.J. Jacobs, to his credit, didn't even fire a return volley until February 13th, 2005 when his essay "I Am Not A Jackass" appeared in The New York Times. Not surprisingly, it possessed the same sparkling wit that his book did and stood in contrast to Queenan's witless review. Calling Queenan's review "one of the most mean-spirited reviews in the 154 year history of The New York Times", Jacobs went on to say: "The writer --- a humorist named Joe Queenan -- seemed genuinely angry at me, as if I had transported his niece across state lines." Jacob's most satisfying blow was dealt at the end of his piece when he said : "Oh, and you can make sure your Amazon ranking for the bully's new book is much, much lower than yours. Which it is."

Queenan's negative review stands in stark contrast to the other reviews of the book which are uniformly positive. Both his review and Jacob's essay are available on The New York Times website and are certainly worth reading (at least Jacobs' is). After comparing Queenan's witless rant to Jacobs' measured and wit-filled response, I know why I'm still a subscriber to Esquire after thirty plus years and why I stopped buying Queenan's books a long time ago. In fact, if I can find the Queenan books I have I think I'll deposit them in the garbage. If it'll let me.

My only regret is that Jacobs didn't challenge Queenan to some sort of intellectual duel.


Next up: The Man Who Collected Lightbulbs

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Mr. Know It All, Part the First

If you were Mr. Know-It-All you'd already know the answer to the following two questions (I'm not embarrassed to admit that I didn't know either of them):

1) What was the origin of the TV Dinner?
2) What the hell is Spam made of?

The story behind the TV Dinner comes from a really cool book that I picked out of the Barnes & Noble clearance section: 50s: A Perfect View of the Past (Barnes & Noble Books, 2004). This is an attractive little hardcover with a $14.95 cover price. It comes with a DVD and was only $4.99. Anyway, here's what it says about the TV Dinner:

In 1953, C.A. Swanson & Sons had a problem -- 270 tons of left over Thanksgiving turkey! After Thanksgiving Swanson had ten refrigerated railroad cars -- each containing 520,000 pounds of unsold turkeys -- going back and forth across the USA because there was nowhere to store them.

A breakthrough idea came from the trays used to serve airline food -- and the TV Dinner was born. Swanson sold ten million of them that year.

And now for the grisly truth about SPAM courtesy of W.C Privy's Original Bathroom Companion Number 2 edited by Erin Barrett and Jack Mingo (St. Martin's Grifffin, 2003): Seeing pork shoulders piling up in the coolers of the George A. Hormel Company in 1937 gave one of its executives an idea. Why not chop the meat up, add some spices and ham from other parts of the pig and form it into small ham-like loaves? Put it in a can and fill the excess space with gelatin from the pig's leftover skin and bones -- you could probably keep the meat edible for months without refrigeration.

Coming up next: Who is actually Mr. Know-It-All and which writer/critic thinks he's really Mr. Know-It-All? (he isn't even close).

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Gentlemen, Start Your Camels!

Holy dromedary, Batman! Shouldn't we stop whining about our problems and think of some of the hardships people are enduring in other parts of the world?

Take the tiny country of Qatar. You'd think their only problem was worrying about sinking into the desert sands with the weight of all that American firepower that went through there. But nooooo ....... they have a much more serious problem -- a shortage of jockeys for the camel races. Dubbed "the sport of sheiks," camel racing in that part of the world is supposedly on par with the Kentucky Derby or the somewhat lesser well known Royal Ascot. Or so we are told in a fascinating article in yesterday's Wall Street Journal entitled Ride 'em Robot: Qatar Offers Solution To A Jockey Shortage by Yasmine El-Rashidi (no new York based scribe for this prestigious publication).

It seems that the camels (which run for as much as six miles) prefer jockeys that weigh less than sixty pounds. As enlightened as they are over there, this is after all a favored pasttime and underage children were pressed into duty raising a hue and cry from human rights groups. What's a sport minded Arab to do? Well, using that good old Arab ingenuity (and leaving American ingenuity in the dust, er .... sand) they looked into the use of robots. Now I'm not really doing them justice when I say that they looked into it. Unlike this country that gives out multi billions of dollars in no bid contracts, they did it the right way. They formed a Robotic Jockey Committee and pressed a Swiss robotics company into action. The company did 100 hours of testing with 20 prototypes.

I can't begin to do justice to the thought and deliberation that went into this breakthrough. You'd have to read the article to see how much care and effort went into a project like this. You'd also probably be surprised to learn that the government offers a two day course in robotic jockeying leading to a diploma. Why I bet if their State Department prepared a 14 volume work on going to war, the powers that be would probably actually read it. But of course that wouldn't happen because unlike some countries, these people are enlightened and have better things to do than go to war.

On a lighter note, there are many camel racing publications. I'm happy to report that I don't get any of them. See I do have some willpower.