Archive for May, 2011

Hey, Kids! Try Some Candy Tobacco!

R.J. Reynolds Tobacco began selling Camel Orbs, Camel Sticks and Camel Strips earlier this year.

“The Orbs look like Tic Tacs, the Sticks look like toothpicks and the Strips look like breath strips,” said Susan Westof, tobacco prevention specialist, with the Jefferson County Public Health Department. …

“The products are packaged in a way that makes them indistinguishable from candy,” said Donna Viverette, the department’s tobacco prevention coordinator. “That’s an issue if they end up in the hands of children.”

— Lance Hernandez, “Health Experts Alarmed By ‘Candy Like’ Tobacco Products: R.J. Reynolds Test Marketing Orbs, Strips, Sticks In Denver,” ABC 7 News, Denver, 24 May 2011.

Kansas is one of three states in which tobacco sticks — products that resemble chocolate-covered toothpicks and are sold in matchbook-sized packages — are being tested

— “KDHE issues ‘tobacco stick’ advisory,” Topeka Capital-Journal, 26 May 2011

I suppose it was inevitable.  To entice children to try their product, cigarette companies have used cartoon characters (Joe Camel) and hip accessories (Marlboro Gear).  Why not take the next logical step and disguise nicotine as candy?  One wonders why they’ve waited so long to do this.

Camel Orbs, Sticks, and StripsR.J.Reynolds company spokesperson alleges that no, of course they wouldn’t market their product to children.  However, these “dissolvables” look and taste like candy — specifically, like chocolate mint.  They come in attractive packages that can be easily hidden in a shirt pocket.  Which, of course, is precisely the idea.  Children can get hooked on these candy-flavored tobacco sticks, and easily conceal the package.  Clever.

And, of course, vital for the industry.  If it hooks a smoker at a young age, then a tobacco company can sell so much more of its product — until, of course, the smoker dies.  But death takes years!  And young people tend to be more susceptible to marketing.  So… tobacco companies have long tried to lure the young user.  It’s good for business.

But disguising nicotine as candy?  Even for an industry not known for any sense of shame, this approach seems particularly brazen.  As Harvard School of Public Health Professor Gregory N. Connolly (the lead researcher on a study of these products) said, “Nicotine is a highly addictive drug, and to make it look like a piece of candy is recklessly playing with the health of children.”

In the same New York Times article from which the above quotation comes, R.J. Reynolds spokesman David Howard says that it’s unfair to single out these candy-like tobacco products for criticism: after all, many households contain products dangerous to children.  Mr. Howard explains, “Virtually every household has products that could be hazardous to children, like cleaning supplies, medicines, health and beauty products, and you compare that to 20 to 25 percent of households that use tobacco products.”  But Dr. Jonathan P. Winickoff, Harvard medical professor, offers a sharp, pithy response to Mr. Howard’s sophistry: “The difference here is that kids potentially will be watching grown-ups ingesting these products. The last time I checked, we don’t have adults drinking toilet bowl cleanser in front of their kids.”

Well, not until R.J. Reynolds finds a way to market a delicious, sweet toilet-bowl-cleanser drink.  And, given the company’s new candy-flavored nicotine, I wouldn’t put anything past them.

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How to Write a Book

Since I’m an English professor and this advice derives from my experience, the following will be more pertinent to writers of non-fiction than it will to writers of fiction.  For good advice on fiction (and on writing in general), please read Elmore Leonard’s “Ten Rules for Writing Fiction.”

1. There is no one foolproof way to write a book.  The main thing you need to do is write.

2. Write the book you’d like to read.

3. If this is a scholarly book, figure out what questions you want to answer, and then draw upon whichever critical methodologies will help you answer them.  To put this another way, I align myself with no one critical approach: the questions I’m asking determine the approach I use.  For a pair of essays on Don DeLillo and gender, I took a feminist approach, but for “Don DeLillo’s Return to Form: The Modernist Poetics of The Body Artist” (Contemporary Literature, 2001) I was an old-school formalist — heavily influenced by Arthur Saltzman’s This Mad Instead: Governing Metaphors in Contemporary American Fiction. For “Horton Hears a Heil!” (the second chapter of Dr. Seuss: American Icon), I was very historicist, but for that book’s fifth chapter, I was more eclectic, more cultural studies.  Experiment until you find what method works, and then be practical — deploy approaches best-suited to your questions.
Books written or edited by Philip Nel, as of 2011

4. Write regularly. Sometimes you write 50 pages to get 10 good ones, but other times you write 10 pages to get 10 good ones.  Once you have text, you can revise, reshape, edit, and so on.  But you need the text first.

5. When I’m writing a book, I often think in terms of writing chapters.  When I’m writing a chapter, I often think in terms of writing individual paragraphs.  When I’m writing paragraphs, I just focus on the sentences.  In other words: take this one step at a time.  Sentences become paragraphs, paragraphs become chapters, chapters add up to form a book.  You’ll get there.  Just keep writing.

6. Write in whatever order makes sense to you.  For academic books, I often write the sections out of order — I write the pieces of the larger work as they grab my attention.  Later, I figure out their sequence in the book, and revise accordingly.  This method works well because I tend to think of each chapter as a stand-alone essay that explores one facet of the larger question or questions.  When writing a narrative, as I did for the biography of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss (forthcoming June 2012), I worked mostly in chronological order.  But only mostly.  I had written versions of later pieces (such as 1950-1955) earlier in the process.  I also wove in other information as I found it, and trimmed sections that went on for too long.

7. Write in whatever medium makes sense to you at that moment.  I do most of my writing on a computer.  However, when I’ve been stuck, I’ve also written longhand.  And I’ve jotted down ideas and sentences on scraps of paper, post-it notes, concert programmes, even the iPhone’s “Notes” app.

8. Write whenever you can.  If you can set aside a specific time each day, that’s ideal.  Some people work best in the mornings, others in the evenings.  If you can’t set a precise daily routine, then just grab pieces of time where you find them — an hour here, 15 minutes there, and so on. (Since I can’t set a daily routine, this is what I do.) The main thing is to write regularly — preferably every day.

9. Read good writers, and then aspire to write as well as they do.  From reading other writers, I learn about style, narrative structure, sentence structure, ways of thinking, and … everything.  Mike Davis‘s City of Quartz taught me how to structure The Avant-Garde and American Postmodernity.  Aiming for accessible but smart literary criticism, I wrote Dr. Seuss: American Icon under the influence of The New Yorker — especially Anthony Lane and Adam GopnikGil Rodman‘s Elvis After Elvis: The Posthumous Career of a Living Legend helped me figure out how to write Chapter 6 (on Seuss’s legacy) of that book.  Many, many books have influenced the biography of Johnson and Krauss: Louis Menand‘s The Metaphysical Club helped me figure out how and why to launch a confident digression into contextual material, Carol Sklenicka‘s Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life taught me how to create character, and many writers taught me the importance of ending a chapter on something suggestive.  Most of these books have little or nothing to do with the subjects of my book.  I saw them solving problems that I was having, and then borrowed or adapted their solutions for my work.

10. Save to help you delete. Worried about “killing your darlings”? Don’t fret. Just save the current manuscript with yesterday’s date, and then close that document.  Open up the manuscript again, give it a new file name, and — knowing that you have a copy of all of those “darlings” — be ruthless.  Cut, reword, restructure.  It’s much easier to do what needs to be done if you already have a backup copy.  I do this often, and rarely do I re-open the older versions.  But knowing that they’re there helps me move forward.

William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White, The Elements of Style, Third Edition (1979)11. The two most important things I learned from Strunk and White’s Elements of Style (Third Ed., 1979) are: 1. “Omit needless words.”  2. “Write with nouns and verbs.”  When I’m writing or editing, I apply these rules all the time.

Explaining the first point, Strunk and White state, “Vigorous writing is concise.  A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.  This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell” (23).  (Neither Strunk nor White believed in gender-inclusive pronouns: so, please edit the preceding pronouns according to your taste.)  Elaborating on the second point, they tell us: “Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs.  The adjective hasn’t been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place” (71).  Though careful “not to disparage adjectives and adverbs,” they argue that, in general, “it is nouns and verbs, not their assistants, that give to good writing its toughness and color” (72).

12. “Writer’s block” is a myth.  If one part of your book is giving you trouble, then write another part.  Or get up, take a walk, and come back to the troubling bit.  Or write about the trouble you’re having.  Or write through the trouble.  But keep going.

13. To those who say “I don’t know that I have the time or energy to write a book,” I’d respond: “If you really believe that, then you don’t and you won’t.  But if writing this book is important to you, you’ll find the time and summon the energy.”  Of course, if writing the book isn’t that important to you, that’s OK, too. Writing a book is a lot of work, and there may well be more pleasant ways for you to spend your time.

14. Finally, if any of the preceding methods do not work for you, then ignore them.  Write in whatever way or ways you find most effective.  Realize that what works may vary from project to project, and even from day to day.  As I said at the outset, there is no one foolproof way to write a book.  Mostly, what you have to do is… keep writing.

Related posts from Nine Kinds of Pie:

Recently finished a dissertation and want to transform it into a book?  Begin by reading this excerpt from William Germano’s From Dissertation to Book (Princeton UP, 2005).  Then, read the rest of the book.

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Crockett Johnson & Ruth Krauss: biography outtakes, Part 6

Crockett Johnson, "How to write a book," illus. from Ruth Krauss's How to Make an EarthquakeIf the Drying-Paint Watchers’ Association has a website, they’re about to face some competition! I’m publishing more cuts from the biography of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss (due out from UP Mississippi next year).  Today, we’ll look at some of the notes I’ve omitted.  I’ve also been making cuts to the body of the manuscript, but — as I think I may make more than one pass through this — I’ll save those for another day.

From Chapter 4, I’ve cut this note:

No death certificate for Crockett Johnson’s father exists. The October 1924 phone book and subsequent ones list Mary Leisk (Dave’s mother), but not David Leisk (his father), suggesting that she had become head of household. However, the 1925 state census reports that on June 1, 1925, David Leisk is 58 and head of household. That he would have already been 59 may not be significant: Not wanting to talk to everyone in the building, a census-taker would talk to whomever answered the front door, and that person might be guessing. On the other hand, Else (Dave’s sister) recalls her father passing away at age 60, suggesting a date later in 1925.

That gives you a sense of the vagaries of biographical research, and the range of sources one must consult — state census, phone book, sister of Dave Leisk (Crockett Johnson).  By the way, the insight into census-taking comes from George Miller, librarian at the excellent Queens Public Library.  Its Long Island History Division played a vital role in constructing Dave’s (Crockett Johnson’s) childhood.  Since its funding is currently being threatened, you might sign this petition in support of it.  Sign petitions in support of your local libraries, too.

Here’s another note omitted from the same chapter:

Despite many assertions that he played professional football, there is no record of David Leisk or Crockett Johnson in David S. Neft, Richard M. Cohen and Rick Korch’s The Football Encyclopedia: The Complete History of Professional Football from 1892 to the Present (1994).

Just about every biographical profile of Crockett Johnson indicates that he played professional football, but I can find no trace of him in any history of the sport.  My educated guess is that he played semi-pro ball in the mid-1920s (a guess I do include in the book).

Another example of ridiculously exhaustive research, cut from Chapter 7:

This directory, which is “Corrected to March 1, 1941” (p. 42) lists Ruth at this address.  The 1941 phone book lists Dave at this address.  These publications claim 1940 as their marriage year: “Crockett Johnson,” Third Book of Junior Authors, ed. Doris De Montreville and Donna Hill (New York: H.W. Wilson Co., 1972). Gale Publications also place the marriage in 1940: Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults (Detroit: Gale Research, 1993), p. 1436; “Leisk, David Johnson 1906-,” Something About the Author (Detroit: Gale Research, Inc., 1971), Vol. 1., ed. Anne Commire, p. 141; “Leisk, David (Johnson),” Something About the Author (Detroit: Gale Research, Inc. , Vol. 30, ed. Anne Commire, p. 141. Two sources place their marriage in the year they met (1939): “‘A Hole Is to Dig? Harold Should Know” (New Haven Register, 12 July 1959, p. 2) says that they “have been married for 20 years”; “Johnson, Crockett 1906-” (Current Biography 1943, p. 347) says, “In 1939 he was married to Ruth Krauss.” Another source places their marriage in 1941: “Wife of Barnaby’s Creator Is Baltimore Authoress,” Baltimore Sun, c. 1 Oct. 1944.  Other source for this paragraph: New York office of FBI, 11 May 1951, FBI file for David Johnson Leisk.

Who the heck cares?  Well, yeah.  All that documentation is there to indicate that when Ruth moved in with Dave (Crockett), they considered themselves married — even though they didn’t officially get married until 1943.  When did she move in with him?  1940 is the most likely date.

And here’s a note cut from Chapter 23, notable mostly because it’s to Dave’s good friend Ad Reinhardt, arranging for Ad to come up from New York to Connecticut, and see his (Dave’s) paintings:

In his 27 Feb. 1966 letter to Ad, Dave writes, “You will know right off whether I ought to try to set up something at this point.  So I am grateful for your offer of appraisal and I am happy to impose on you.  Will you pick your day and mealtime?  Only the next two Sundays are bad days, and these only because Ruth wants to go to bed at sundown to face early Monday dates in town.  Tuesday, March 1, she will be in town to see her English agent and will stay over night to catch a Cafe Cino show that is using some of her stuff; I may go with her (I don’t particularly want to) but if either of these days are best for you I will stay home, happily.  Every other early date in the calendar is free of complication.”

When Dave took up abstract painting, he contacted his old friend, … the preeminent abstract expressionist in America.  And, of course, I do include this story — just not the extended footnote with the long quotation from the letter.

See?  If those drying-paint watchers want to compete with this level of excitement, they certainly have their work cut out for them.

Gluttons for punishment may enjoy other entries in the Interminable Editing of The Purple Crayon and a Hole to Dig: The Lives of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss:

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Rapture Party Mix

If you’re like me, when you heard that the world would be ending this Saturday, your first thought was: but what music would be appropriate for the occasion?  And, if I were to throw a party, what sort of songs might be on the playlist?  Well, your musical worries are over.  (Do feel free keep worrying about the Rapture, of course.)  Our research teams here at Nine Kinds of Pie have conducted a comprehensive, cursory survey of music to celebrate/commemorate/lament the end.  And we’re pleased to present the results in the following series of seven (yes, seven!) mixes featuring all of your End-of-Times favorites!

Rapture Party I: It’s the End of the World (and I Feel Fine)

Rapture Party I1)     Highway to Hell AC/DC (1979)      3:28

Sinners, this track’s for you!  Or, you know, if you make the pronouns third-person, then it could also be for any of the saved who wish to pass judgment on those left behind.  Title track from the final album to feature lead vocalist Bon Scott.

2)     Hell Squirrel Nut Zippers (1996)      3:13

The band’s biggest hit.  From Hot.

3)     Sympathy for the Devil The Rolling Stones (1968)      6:19

Appears on Beggars Banquet and several hits compilations.

4)     You Dress Up For Armageddon, I Dress For Summer The Hives

(2007)            3:10

Such a difficult choice.  Dress for Armageddon?  Or dress for summer?  The Hives tackle a pressing problem for those about to be raptured.  From The Black and White Album.

5)     It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine) R.E.M.

(1987)            4:06

“That’s great.  It starts with an earthquake.  Birds and snakes and airplanes.  And Lenny Bruce is not afraid.”  From Document.

6)     Pretend We’re Dead L7 (1992)      3:55

“They’re neither moral nor majority.”  From Bricks Are Heavy.

7)     I Feel So Good (I Must Be Dead) Maurice King & His Wolverines with Ruby Jackson (vocals) (c. 1949)            2:55

Appears on The Okeh Rhythm and Blues Story 1949-1957.

8)     Birth, School, Work, Death The Godfathers (1987)      4:39

One of the great songs — and great bands — from the 1980s.  They deserve to be better-known.

9)     Can’t Kill Me Twice Slo Leak (1999)      4:14

From When the Clock Strikes 12.

10)  Dead Disco Metric (2003)      3:28

From Old World Underground, Where Are You Now?

11)  Life During Wartime (live) Talking Heads (1984)      5:04

“Burned all my notebooks.  What good are notebooks?  They won’t help me survive.”  Below, the band in concert, from Stop Making Sense.

12)  Murder On The Dancefloor Sophie Ellis-Bextor (2002)      3:37

From the single, though the song also appears on the album Read My Lips (2001).

13)  Do the Panic Phantom Planet (2008)      3:34

From Raise the Dead.

14)  Heads Will Roll Yeah Yeah Yeahs (2009)      3:42

“Dance ’til you’re dead.”  From It’s Blitz!

15)  Zombie Jamboree (Back To Back, Belly To Belly) Charmer (1953)      2:47

Because what would a rapture party be without Louis Farrakhan?  Yes, you read that correctly.  Before becoming a minister in the Nation of Islam, he was a calypso singer who performed under the name “Charmer.”  Appears on The Best of Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour vol. 2.

16)  Cemetery Gates The Smiths (1986)      2:39

“They were born, and then they lived, and then they died.”  From The Queen Is Dead.

17)  Bless Me Father The Saw Doctors (1996)      3:34

“You have no idea what you’ve missed.”  Appears on Play It Again Sham!

18)  Sin Wagon Dixie Chicks (1999)      3:41

From Fly.

19)  Original Sin INXS (1984)      3:47

From The Swing.  Features Daryl Hall on backing vocals.

20)  Personal Jesus (7″ Version) Depeche Mode (1989)      3:45

From the 7″.  Original version appears on Violator.

21)  Lost in the World Kanye West feat. Bon Iver (2010)      4:17

From Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.


Rapture Party II: Sing You Sinners

Rapture Party II1)     Gloria Patti Smith (1975)      5:53

The first track on Horses, and one of the boldest opening lines to any song ever.  So, if you enjoy blasphemy, this song’s for you!  If not, well, then I suppose you can comfort yourself with the surety that Ms. Smith will not be among the elect.

2)     The Diamond Church Street Choir The Gaslight Anthem (2010)      3:12

From American Slang.

3)     Sing You Sinners Erin McKeown (2006)      2:13

From the album of the same name.  Great collection of American standards, including: “Get Happy,” “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” “Rhode Island Is Famous for You.”

4)     Have Mercy Loretta Lynn (2004)      2:35

That’s Jack White on guitar.  From Van Lear Rose.

5)     99 Problems DJ Danger Mouse feat. Jay-Z + The Beatles (2004)      4:07

From the brilliant mash-up record, The Grey Album.

6)     Mr. Bad Example Warren Zevon (1991)      3:22

“Well, I started as an altar boy, working at the church / Learning all my holy moves, doing some research / That led me to a cash box labeled ‘children’s fund.’ / I’d leave the change and tuck the bills inside my cummerbund.”  From the album of the same name.

7)     Run on for a Long Time The Blind Boys of Alabama (2001)      3:24

“God Almighty’s gonna cut you down.”  From Spirit of the Century.

8)     Runnin’ with the Devil Van Halen (1978)      3:37

From the band’s self-titled debut.

9)     The Devil Went Down to Scunthorpe Toy Dolls (1997)      3:28

Purists should feel free to substitute the Charlie Daniels Band’s original here.  I’ve chosen the Toy Dolls’ cover because it’s harder-edged, and fits better between Van Halen and All Time Low.

10)  Damned If I Do Ya (Damned If I Don’t) All Time Low (2009)      3:11

From the single.  Also appears on Nothing Personal.

11)  Temptation Elvis Costello and the Attractions (1980)      2:34

From Get Happy!!

12)  Get Back Temptation Ollabelle (2004)      2:51

From the band’s self-titled debut.

13)  Ya Got Trouble Robert Preston & The Ensemble (1962)      3:59

From The Music Man, one of the greatest musicals ever written.  If you’ve not seen it, do get your hands on a copy — starring Robert Preston, Shirley Jones, Buddy Hackett, and Ron Howard.

14)  You’re the Kind of Trouble The Holmes Brothers (2010)      3:46

From Feed My Soul.

15)  I’m a Believer The Monkees (1966)      2:47

Written by Neil Diamond, and a #1 hit for the group.  Appears on More of the Monkees (1967) and various hits collections.

16)  I Believe in a Thing Called Love The Darkness (2003)      3:37

From Permission to Land.

17)  God Put a Smile on Your Face Mark Ronson featuring the Daptone Horns (2007)            3:13

No, you may not substitute Coldplay’s original for this cover version.  The power of the Daptone Horns are here to save you.  Yes, you!   Appears on the Stop Me EP.

18)  Livin’ on a Prayer Bon Jovi (1986)      4:12

From the band’s breakthrough record, Slippery When Wet.

19)  Like a Prayer The Rondelles (2001)      2:45

A punkier version of the Madonna song.  From Shined Nickels and Loose Change.

20)  Die Another Day (Radio Edit) Madonna (2002)      3:30

Theme from the James Bond film.

21)  People Who Died Jim Carroll (1980)      4:59

“They were all friends of mine.  And they died.”  From Catholic Boy.

22)  Straight to Hell The Clash (1982)      5:33

From the final studio album (Combat Rock) because, well, no one — not even the band — counts Cut the Crap.  And, yes, this is the song that M.I.A. samples on “Paper Planes” (2007)


Rapture Party III: Don’t Believe the Hype

Rapture Party III1)     Paul Is Dead [Radio Report] (1969)      0:18

2)     Live and Let Die Paul McCartney & Wings (1973)      3:13

Themes from James Bond films appear to be a theme here.

3)     Last Night I Nearly Died Duke Special (2006)      3:49

From Songs from the Deep Forest.

4)     Heaven Must Have Sent You The Elgins (1971)      2:33

Appears on The Complete Motown Singles Vol. 11B: 1971

5)     Just Like Heaven The Cure (1987)      3:33

From Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me.

6)     Blue Heaven The Pogues (1989)      3:36

From Peace and Love.

7)     (The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes Elvis Costello (1977)      2:48

From Mr. Costello’s stunning debut record, My Aim Is True.

8)     Angels Of Destruction Marah (2008)      3:16

From the album of the same name.

9)     The Devil Is An Angel Janiva Magness (2010)      3:09

From The Devil Is An Angel Too.

10)  Devil Inside INXS (1987)      5:16

From the band’s best-selling Kick.

11)  Soul Meets Body Death Cab for Cutie (2005)      3:51

From Plans.

12)  Praise You FatBoy Slim (1999)      5:24

Featuring Camille Yarborough on vocals.

13)  Respect Yourself The Staple Singers (1971)      4:55

The song that inspired Maddona’s “Express Yourself,” which in turn inspired Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way.”  A few months back, I shared a few thoughts on this lineage… and other songs that borrow.

14)  Don’t Believe the Hype Public Enemy (1988)      5:19

From the second studio album by PE: It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.

15)  Unplug This Armageddon B-Side Players (2007)      4:01

Wait… you mean we can just unplug this?  Excellent!  From the band’s Fire in the Youth.

16)  (Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below We’re All Going to Go Curtis Mayfield (1970)      3:28

Appears on the compilation What It Is!: Funky Soul and Rare Grooves.

17)  Sheep Go to Heaven Cake (1998)      4:45

… and “goats go to Hell.”  From the band’s third record, Prolonging the Magic.

18)  Only the Good Die Young Me First and the Gimme Gimmes (2008)      2:47

Covering Billy Joel.  From the all-star punk cover band’s seventh full-length LP, Have Another Ball.

19)  One Foot in the Grave Pernice Brothers (2003)      3:15

From Yours, Mine & Ours.

20)  Sukie in the Graveyard Belle & Sebastian (2006)      3:00

From The Life Pursuit.

21)  Rapture Blondie (1980)      5:37

From Blondie’s Autoamerican. Below, the video. With cameo appearances from Fab Five Freddy and Jean-Michel Basquiat, “Rapture” was the first rap video to air on MTV.

22)  Kiss Me, Son Of God They Might Be Giants (1988)      1:53

“I built a little empire out of some crazy garbage called the blood of the exploited working class.”  From TMBG’s second album, Lincoln.


Rapture Party IV: Saturday Night Is Dead

Rapture Party IV1)     Armageddon Days Are Here (Again) The The (1989)      5:41

From Mind Bomb.

2)     The Armageddon Slide Greg Camp (2008)      3:14

If this song sounds a bit like Smash Mouth, that’s because Greg Camp was the band’s guitarist and principle songwriter.  From Defektor.

3)     Devils and Angels Toby Lightman (2004)      3:55

From Little Things.

4)     That’s How You Got Killed Before Dirty Dozen Brass Band with Elvis Costello (1990)            3:15

“I’m just trying to tell you….”  From the Dirty Dozen Brass Band’s New Orleans Album.

5)     Saturday Nite Is Dead Graham Parker & The Rumour (1979)      3:17

“It don’t matter what they said.  I’m going to the funeral Sunday.”  From the classic Squeezing Out Sparks.

6)     Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting Elton John (1973)      4:08

First appears on Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.

7)     Police On My Back The Clash (1980)      3:17

“I’ve been running Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday.  What have I done?  What I have I done?”  The Clash covers the Equals.  From Sandinista!

8)     Karma Police Radiohead (1997)      4:24

“This is what you get when you mess with us.”  From the band’s OK Computer.

9)     Wages of Sin The Proclaimers (2009)      4:28

The group that taught us how to “haver” (in their hit “500 Miles”) hopes and prays “that the wages of sin aren’t due today”: “I need few more years to build up the credit side.”  From Notes & Rhymes.

10)  It’s a Sin Pet Shop Boys (1987)      5:01

The first single from Actually.

11)  You Don’t Have to Belong to the Religious Right The Cute Lepers (2010)            4:18

With a band name like “The Cute Lepers,” we might well assume that the group does not belong to the religious right, a sense which the lyrics confirm: “Headmasters, archbishops aren’t our best thinkers.”  From Smart Accessories.

12)  Losing My Religion R.E.M. (1991)      4:29

“Like a hurt, lost and blinded foal — a fool.  Oh no, I’ve said too much.  I haven’t said enough.”  From R.E.M.’s Out of Time.

13)  Spirits in the Material World The Police (1981)      3:01

From Ghost in the Machine.  The video, below, including (at the end) a fascinating interview with drummer Stewart Copeland.

14)  I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive The Little Willies (2006)      3:22

Hank Williams, covered by a band comprised of: Richard Julian (vocals), Norah Jones (vocals, piano), Lee Alexander (bass), Jim Campilongo (guitar), Dan Rieser (drums).  From the group’s debut (and only) album, The Little Willies.

15)  I Want to Be Buried in Your Backyard Nightmare of You (2005)      4:07

From the band’s self-titled debut.

16)  (Don’t Fear) The Reaper Blue Öyster Cult (1976)      5:08

From Agents of Fortune.

17)  When the Saints Go Marching In Louis Armstrong (1938)      2:45

18)  The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing The Persuasions (2000)      2:46

The Persuasions cover Frank Zappa from their album, the aptly named The Persuasions Sing Zappa.

19)  Ever Since the World Ended Mose Allison (1987)      4:51

From the album of the same name; also appears on the “Best of” collection put out by Blue Note.  Below, Mose Allison performs this song last year.

20)  Last Will and Testament Jake Thackray (1967)      3:01


Rapture Party V: Thou Shalt Always Kill

Rapture Party V1)     Heaven’s on Fire The Radio Dept. (2010)      3:33

2)     Heaven Robyn Hitchcock & The Egyptians (1985)      4:03

From Fegmania!!!

3)     Stairway to Heaven The Beatnix (1994)      2:46

This appears on Stairways to Heaven, a record comprised entirely of covers of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.”  The above version is in the style of the Beatles, circa 1964.

4)     True Faith New Order (1987)      5:52

Appears on Substance, among other places.

5)     Have a Little Faith In People The Lodger (2010)      2:13

From Flashbacks.

6)     I Believe I Can Fly Me First and the Gimme Gimmes (2003)      3:01

Covering R. Kelly, from Take a Break, the band’s fourth album.

7)     Sister Rosetta (Capture the Spirit) Noisettes (2007)      2:57

From What’s the Time, Mr. Wolf?

8)     Like Rasputin Amy Rigby (2005)      2:31

From Little Fugitive.

9)     The Day The Devil Laurie Anderson (1989)      4:02

From Strange Angels, Anderson’s most accessible record, but also one of her best.  Indeed, if you were to pick exactly two Laurie Anderson albums for your collection, you’d want to get this one and Big Science.

10)  The Devil Never Sleeps Iron & Wine (2007)      2:07

From The Shepherd’s Dog.

11)  Hayride to Hell Hoodoo Gurus (1985)      3:17

From Mars Needs Guitars!

12)  Crossroads Cream (1968)      4:14

13)  Two Lost Souls Gwen Verdon & Stephan Douglas (1955)      2:19

From the original cast recording of Damn Yankees.

14)  Agent Double-O-Soul Edwin Starr (1965)      2:46

15)  A View To A Kill Duran Duran (1985)      3:36

Another Bond film theme.

16)  Another Way to Die Alicia Keys & Jack White (2008)      4:23

And yet another Bond film theme.

17)  Freddie’s Dead (Theme from Superfly) Curtis Mayfield (1972)      3:19

18)  Fly on a Windscreen (Final) Depeche Mode (1986)      5:21

“Death is everywhere.  There are flies on the windscreen, for a start, remind us that we could be torn apart… tonight.”  From Black Celebration.

19)  The World Is Gone Peter Thomas Sound Orchestra (1967)      2:30

From the delightful compilation, The In-Kraut, Vol. 3: Hip-Shaking Grooves Made in Germany 1967-1974.

20)  The End of the World Is Bigger Than Love Jens Lekman (2010)      4:40

21)  A Violent Yet Flammable World Au Revoir Simone (2007)      5:03

22)  Thou Shalt Always Kill dan le sac Vs Scroobius Pip (2008)      5:19

The video for this one introduced me to the song.  Whenever I hear the song, I think of the video.  Also, it’s quite a good video.  See for yourself:


Rapture Party VI: End of the Line

Rapture Party VI1)     Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is? (New Edit)  Chicago (1970)            3:19

2)     Are The Good Times Really Over For Good John Doe and The Sadies (2009)            2:39

A cover of the Merle Haggard tune.  From Country Club.

3)     There Is No Time Lou Reed (1989)      3:47

From New York.

4)     The Future Leonard Cohen (1992)      6:43

From The Future, one of Cohen’s best albums.

5)     Mass Destruction (Radio Edit) [Single Version] Faithless (2004)      3:35

6)     World Destruction Time Zone featuring John Lydon & Afrika Bambaataa (1984)      5:33

Did these two ever collaborate again?  Great combination.  Below, the rarely seen video for this song:

7)     Bomb the World Michael Franti & Spearhead (2003)      4:29

From Everyone Deserves Music.

8)     The World (Is Going Up In Flames) Charles Bradley & Menahan Street Band (2009)      3:22

9)     Ball Of Confusion (That’s What The World Is Today) The Temptations (1970)            4:07

10)  Atom Bomb The Apples In Stereo (2007)      2:44

11)  Jesus Hits Like the Atom Bomb The Pilgrim Travelers (1951)      2:28

One of several gospel numbers about atomic energy — another is the Spirit of Memphis Quartet’s “Atomic Telephone.”  I haven’t included that on this mix, but it’s a great a capella gospel number, too.

12)  Jesus Saves, I Spend St. Vincent (2007)      3:57

From Marry Me.

13)  The Devil and Me BR5-49 feat. The Jordanaires (2006)      2:40

“You can’t know good unless you know evil.”  From Dog Days.

14)  Church Lyle Lovett (1992)      6:01

From Joshua Judges Ruth.

15)  This Little Light Mavis Staples (2007)      3:23

From We’ll Never Turn Back, which is one of my desert island discs.  If you don’t have this album, you really owe it to yourself to check it out.

16)  Darkness Is So Deep Hurricane Bells (2009)      3:01

From Tonight Is the Ghost.

17)  Anti-D The Wombats (2011)      4:41

“Still I threw away my citalopram, / Although I felt as grim as the reaper man.”  From This Modern Glitch, a strong follow-up to their excellent debut.  Definitely recommend it — as well as the debut.

18)  Looking at the World from the Bottom of a Well Mike Doughty (2005)            3:59

From Haughty Melodic.

19)  If I Ever Leave This World Alive Flogging Molly (2002)      3:22

From Drunken Lullabies.

20)  End of the Line The Traveling Wilburys (1988)      3:28

From Vol. 1: Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne, George Harrison, Roy Orbison, Tom Petty

21)  Good Riddance (Time of Your Life) Green Day (1997)      2:34

From Nimrod.


Rapture Party VII: What a Wonderful World

Rapture Party VII1)     Panic The Puppini Sisters (2006)      2:17

“Honey pie, you’re not safe here.”  The Puppini Sisters cover the Smiths.  On Betcha Bottom Dollar, the trio’s debut.  Good news for Puppini fans: they’re in the studio, recording a new record.

2)     Time Has Come Today (Single Edit Version 2)  The Chambers Brothers (1966)            4:53

From Time Has Come: The Best of the Chambers Brothers.

3)     Livin’ in the Future Bruce Springsteen (2007)      3:57

“None of this has happened yet.”  From Springsteen’s Magic.

4)     Prophesy The High Decibels (2008)      2:35

From the duo’s self-titled debut.  Great old-school-style hip-hop.

5)     Faith Alejandro Escovedo (2010)      3:24

From Street Songs of Love.

6)     Get Rhythm Reverend Horton Heat (2005)      2:28

The Reverend Horton Heat covers Johnny Cash.  Appears on Texas Fed, Texas Bred: Redefining Country Music Vol. 1.

7)     What a Wonderful World Joey Ramone (2002)      2:23

The late Joey Ramone covers Louis Armstrong.  From the posthumously released Don’t Worry About Me.

8)     Temptation (7″ Edit) New Order (1982)      5:42

From Singles.

9)     How Shall I to Heaven Aspire? Rock Plaza Central (2007)      2:05

From We Are Not Horses.

10)  The Edge of Heaven Susan Rafey (1965)      2:09

From Hurt So Bad.

11)  Earth Angel Death Cab for Cutie (2005)      3:17

Death Cab covers the Penguins.  From the Stubbs the Zombie soundtrack.

12)  Graveyard Girl M83 (2008)      4:53

From Saturday’s Youth.

13)  Richest Guy in the Graveyard Dinah Washington (1949)      2:54

Appears on The Best of Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour.

14)  I’ll Be Mellow When I’m Dead “Weird Al” Yankovic (1982)      3:41

From Yankovic’s self-titled debut, the album that also brought you “Another One Rides the Bus” (parody of Queen) and “Mr. Frump and the Iron Lung” (a “Weird Al” original).

15)  Let’s Think About Living Bob Luman (1960)      2:07

A top ten hit on both the country chart and Billboard’s Hot 100 chart.  His first big hit.  Luman went on to have many other country hits before dying in 1978 at the age of 41.

16)  Closing Time Semisonic (1998)      4:34

From Feeling Strangely Fine.

17)  Closing Time Leonard Cohen (1992)      6:01

From The Future.

18)  A Common Disaster Cowboy Junkies (1996)      3:22

From Lay It Down.

19)  Calamity Song The Decemberists (2011)      3:50

From The King Is Dead.

20)  Turkish Song of the Damned The Pogues (1988)      3:28

From If I Should Fall from Grace with God — an apt album title for Rapture Day, don’t you think?

21)  Waiting for the End of the World Elvis Costello (1977)      3:22

From My Aim Is True, one of the all-time great debut albums: “Watching the Detectives,” “(The Angels Wanna Wear My Red Shoes),” “Allison,” and “Mystery Dance” are all on this one.

22)  The Hand of the Almighty John R. Butler (2003)      2:05

This one has some NSFW language in it.  So, not that you’d be listening to this at work, but… if you are, consider yourself warned.

23)  Atheists Don’t Have No Songs Steve Martin & The Steep Canyon Rangers (2011)      3:51

From their latest album, Rare Bird Alert:

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Introvert Impersonates Extrovert

Comedy and Tragedy MasksYou might think that, with a job like mine, I’d be an extrovert.  I’ve taught thousands of students.  I’ve given dozens of invited talks.  I’ve done a hundred or so radio interviews, and have even appeared on TV a few times.

But I don’t come by extroversion naturally.  It’s something I’ve learned to perform, a role I play, a character I impersonate.  I’ve become so adept at this impersonation that, on those rare occasions when I’ve mentioned my native shyness, the general response has been disbelief.

It’s taken me a while to get here, though.  It began, as many things do, in adolescence.

As a sixteen-year-old, I happened into a minor role — the Second Dead Man in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town.  The director, Terrence Ortwein, was my teacher for a “Theater 101” class.  The student originally playing that role got expelled, and Mr. Ortwein asked me if I would undertake it.  I agreed, memorized the part, and began to attend rehearsals, where I became an extra in other scenes.  Though it was a bit nerve-wracking to be on stage, I also found that… I could do it.  I went on to have minor roles in Spoon River AnthologyGrease, Oliver, and Rogers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella. I lacked the confidence (and, no doubt, the ability) to land a major part, but I was glad to be a member of each cast.

I have no idea why Mr. Ortwein thought I could do it.  Perhaps he thought it would be good for me?

It was good for me.  Acting allowed me to a glimpse a different self.  It taught me that I could discard the script I had been using and try a new one.  When I set off for college, I decided that my tendency towards introversion was unhealthy.  Thus, I would deliberately cast myself in roles that required me to interact with others.  As a freshman, I ran for dorm council president … and won.  I also applied to become a Resident Advisor, and became one of two sophomore RAs the following year — a job I held through my senior year.  I joined the Arts Committee (a student group), and became president of it for a year, too.

In each case, I figured that the job would force me to rise to the occasion.  It did.  Inhabiting these new roles wasn’t easy: I had no leadership experience whatsoever.  But I managed.  Though this seems silly to me now, for each of those dorm council meetings, I would print up and then photocopy an agenda.  Having an agenda gave me a script.  It helped me to perform.

Learning to teach was much harder.  I say “was,” but I should probably say “has been” because it’s something I’m still learning to do.  (And I hope I’m getting better at it!)  Teaching was and is harder because it can’t all be acting.  It also has to be you.  You have to develop a teaching persona that’s a version of yourself — the classroom version.

René Magritte, The Son of Man (1964). Restored by Shimon D. Yanowitz, 2009.I’m sharing this personal narrative because I sense that many “book people” — in which I include academics, librarians, writers, artists — are introverted, or at least tend in that direction.  Yet, as Morrissey sings in the Smiths’ “Ask,” “Shyness is nice, but shyness can stop you / from doing all the things in life you’d like to.”  So, many of us bookish folks have learned to perform a more extroverted version of ourselves.  Indeed, we might even create such a successful “confident” persona that most people would be surprised to learn that they’re talking to a naturally shy person.

One of the most liberating things I learned in college was that, although psychologists study personality, it’s nearly impossible to prove that such a thing as “personality” exists at all.  This insight affirmed my sense of the self as malleable: you may feel shy or insecure, but you don’t always have to be that way.  You can change.

Years of acting have changed my personality.  I’ve become more extroverted.  I enjoy socializing.  I like giving talks.  But I’m also glad when the talk finishes, the party’s over, and I can go home again.

Images: Comedy and Tragedy masks (from FanPop!); René Magritte, The Son of Man (1964).
Explanation for the Images: The first is obvious.  The above piece discusses theatre, after all.  The second — the Magritte painting — is here because it’s a self-portrait in which the artist has hidden his face, which is also a motif of this narrative.

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Those Who Can, Teach. Those Who Cannot, Pass Laws About Teaching

Those Who Can, Teach. Those Who Cannot, Pass Laws About TeachingMaking the rounds on Facebook is a button I’d very much like to purchase.  This sums up the last decade of U.S. educational policy: “Those who can, teach.  Those who cannot, pass laws about teaching.”  From “No Child Left Behind” (promoted by President George W. Bush) to the comparably flawed “Race to the Top” (promoted by President Barack Obama), educational policy has been guided by ludicrous ideas like: rather than giving public schools the funds they need, they should be forced to compete for less money.  Also: instead of creating conditions that foster learning, let’s focus purely on testing.  And let’s not forget this one: instead of making college affordable to all, states should gradually stop supporting higher education, shifting that cost onto those who can least afford it — the students.

Which brings me to my point.  It’s time to end the war on education.  Really.  Stop fighting the people — teachers, librarians, reading specialists, college professors — who are working to educate the next generation of Americans.  Stop slashing budgets, firing teachers, interrogating school librarians, cutting salaries, increasing class sizes.  Worldwide, U.S. students are ranked 14th in reading, 17th in science, and 25th in math.  And we’re dropping steadily.  In secondary education, between 1995 and 2008, the U.S. slipped from ranking second in college graduation rates to 13th in college graduation rates.

So.  Let’s end our race to the bottom.

In his last State of the Union, President Obama said that teachers in America should be regarded with the same respect as they are in South Korea, where they’re considered “nation builders.”  I couldn’t agree more.  But, apart from a tepid acknowledgment of teachers’ rights, the president said little when Wisconsin’s governor sought to cut teachers’ salaries and strip them of their rights to collective bargaining.  In that same State of the Union speech, referring to a number of challenges we face, the president called this a “Sputnik moment.”  Again, this sounds great.  But in response to the last Sputnik moment, the U.S. government invested in education.  Right now, we’re busy divesting — indeed, we’re dismantling our public education system.

Why?  No, it’s not “the sluggish economy” or “we lack the resources” or “in these times of financial exigency, we all must make sacrifices.”  It’s because the dominant idea shaping the national dialogue is that capitalism is a moral system, a smoothly efficient social Darwinism that will allow good ideas to thrive and bad ideas to fail: if the government would simply get out of the business of governing, the argument goes, then everything would improve.  So, let’s slash taxes on the wealthiest, slash funds from public programs, and we’ll all be happy in a libertarian utopia.  This is utter nonsense.

People in both political parties need to acknowledge that a progressive income tax is (a) fair, and (b) has helped sustain our public institutions for eight decades.  People who make more should pay more.  So, yes, eliminating the so-called Bush Tax Cut (extended by President Obama) would be a start.  As, of course, would collecting taxes from companies that avoid paying taxes.  ExxonMobil, Citibank, Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, and others all had profitable years in 2010, but managed to avoid paying taxes.  So, ending corporate welfare would provide another source of revenue.

America is not broke.  It’s pursuing policies that redistribute wealth to the wealthiest, and thus take funds away from everyone and everything else.  One effect is the dismantling of our public institutions — like schools and libraries.  These institutions took generations to build.  And, now, the nation watches as its representatives undo generations of hard work.  We watch as governors and state-appointed lawyers actually accuse educators (in which I include librarians) of being a drain on public funds.


UPDATE, 17 May 2011: Jenipher (below) tells me that one can purchase the buttons via UnionButtons.

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Raymond ScottThe hectic pace of this time of year (grading finals! grading papers! etc!) always makes me think of the music of Raymond Scott (1908-1994), but especially his “Powerhouse” (1937).  If you’ve ever watched any Warner Bros. cartoons, you’ll recognize this as the machinery-out-of-control theme.  Carl Stalling (1891-1972), who created the scores for those cartoons, made liberal — and effective — use of Scott’s melodies.

Here are the Philharmonicas, doing their rendition in the 1939 short “The Dipsy Doodler”:

There’s a video of Raymond Scott conducting his orchestra through this in 1955, but YouTube won’t let me embed it here.  Instead, here’s a more recent (2008) recording from the Raymond Scott Centennial Tribute Concert at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada:

You can also find great versions of “Powerhouse” by Don Byron (on Bug Music, 1996), Jon Rauhouse (Steel Guitar Rodeo, 2003), the Tiptons (Tsunami, 2007), Quartet San Francisco (Whirled Chamber Music, 2007), the Metropole Orchestra feat. the Beau Hunks (Raymond Scott: The Chesterfield Arrangements, 1999), the Raymond Scott Quintette (Reckless Nights and Turkish Twilights, 1992, and other compilations), and many others.  It is, I think, his most popular tune, despite the fact that it’s quite a demanding piece to play.

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Newgarden and Cash, Bow-Wow Bugs a BugA dog.  A bug.  A walk around the block.  From this simple premise comes one of the great picture contemporary picture books — and, while we’re on the subject, great picture books, period.  With a spare, clean design and plenty of humor, Mark Newgarden and Megan Montague Cash’s Bow-Wow Bugs a Bug (2007) is a pleasure to read and to re-read.

Working in a cartoon minimalism reminiscent of Ernie Bushmiller, Crockett Johnson, and Otto Soglow, Newgarden and Cash provide only the details required to tell the story, and omit all else.  The bug is a black dot, the fence a series of long-stemmed “Y”s, and Bow-Wow himself an economy of lines and curves.

Newgarden and Cash, from Bow-Wow Bugs a Bug

Since both foreground and background are iconic, Newgarden and Cash cannot guide readers by (for instance) relying on the difference between an iconic dog and a more detailed rendering of a fence: instead, they direct our attention through movement.  Just after leaving the house, the bug rounds the corner, with Bow-Wow in pursuit.  If you were to draw a line mapping the movement of Bow-Wow’s head across three panels, you’d see that it moves in a shape that resembles a flattened “v.” In the first panel, as the bug moves to the right, Bow-Wow’s head emerges from behind the fence’s edge, at left; this is its highest in the sequence.  In the next panel, Bow-Wow’s head dips to its lowest place in this trio of panels, as his gait traverses the fence’s vertical lines.  In the third and final panel, the head rises up to sniff the other dog’s tail.

Newgarden and Cash, from Bow-Wow Bugs a Bug: with added line of sight

Mapping the movement of Bow-Wow’s head, you’ll see a line that falls, and then rises up to roughly the same height at which it began.  (I’ve drawn in the line to suggest what the eye does when reading these three panels.)

Turn the page, and the book’s delightful sense of the absurd emerges.

Newgarden and Cash, from Bow-Wow Bugs a Bug

Irritated that the bug is hiding among the Dalmation’s spots, Bow-Wow just barks those spots right off.  Later, when Newgarden and Cash’s protagonist meets another terrier who is also following a bug, the dogs sniff each other… and so do the bugs.

Newgarden and Cash, from Bow-Wow Bugs a Bug

Over the next three pages, the dogs undertake an increasingly elaborate ritual of greeting… and the bugs do the same.  Hilarious.

Also wordless.  In its absence of words and iconic style, the book recalls those (mostly) word-free minimalist gems The Little Man with the Eyes (Crockett Johnson) and The Little King (Otto Soglow), the latter of which Newgarden paid tribute to in his The Little Nun strip (1988-1993).

Its debt to comics raises the question of genre.  I’ve been calling it a picture book, but a more accurate claim would be to say that, using the production values of the picture book, Bow-Wow Bugs a Bug uses narrative techniques from comic strips, silent film, and flip books.  I could just sidestep the genre question by calling it a graphic narrative, but Bow-Wow Bugs a Bug is closer to the picture book genre than the six Bow-Wow board books: Bow-Wow Naps by Number (2007), Bow-Wow Orders Lunch (2007), Bow-Wow Attracts Opposites (2008), Bow-Wow Hears Things (2008), Bow-Wow’s Colorful Life (2009), and Bow-Wow Twelve Months Running (2009).

Newgarden and Cash, Bow-Wow Orders Lunch Newgarden and Cash, Bow-Wow Naps by Number Newgarden and Cash, Bow-Wow Hears Things Newgarden and Cash, Bow-Wow Attracts Opposites Newgarden and Cash, Bow-Wow 12 Months Running Newgarden and Cash, Bow-Wow's Colorful Life

With one panel per page, they lack the frequency of juxtapositions common to a comic or to Bow-Wow Bugs a Bug.  Their narratives rely more upon the graphic strategies of picture books.

Less surreal than Bow-Wow Bugs a Bug but just as delightful, the board books are concept books that also have a narrative.  Bow-Wow Attracts Opposites, my favorite of the group, explores the concept of opposites, while our canine protagonist chases a cat.

Newgarden and Cash, "Up. Down." from Bow-Wow Attracts Opposites

Newgarden and Cash, "In. Out." from Bow-Wow Attracts Opposites

As you can see, Bow-Wow is a dog of few words.  Though the board books all have text, it is kept to a minimum.  But that economy of both language and image is precisely why these books work so well.

Small-scale narrative gems, the Bow-Wow stories are masterpieces of economy.  They keep it simple, but are not simplistic.  Indeed, students of graphic narrative should study these  — and Johnson, Soglow, Bushmiller — to learn how to pace and structure an illustrated story.  In restricting themselves to few words (in the board books) or none (in the picture book) and succinct iconic artwork (in both), Newgarden and Cash make their limited palette feel limitless.

Some good news for Bow-Wow fans.  Two new picture books are in the works: Bow-Wow’s Nightmare Neighbors and Bow-Wow’s Curious Comics.

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Biography of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: News, Thanks, and Apologies

A Crockett JohnsonRuth Krauss biography update with good news, thanks, and apologies.  Let’s do the apologies first.

Apologies.  It was unprofessional of me to air this disagreement publicly.  It’s one thing to blog about the editing process, and another to air one’s editorial differences in a public forum.  I’ve already apologized to my editor (who hadn’t read the blog post, and, when I described it to him, said he didn’t mind), but I’d also like to apologize to all of you.  I try to make this blog useful — and I think Wednesday’s post, though it was certainly useful for me, also stemmed from a motivation that was more personal than utilitarian.  I’ve since considered deleting it, but I decided it would be better to leave it up, acknowledge my misstep, and apologize.  So.  Apologies.  I shall strive to do better in future.

Good news.  I had a productive conversation with my editor yesterday morning.  We’ve mapped out a path forward, and I have a much clearer understanding of his expectations for the manuscript.  Now that I understand him, I think we’re mostly on the same page (as it were).  As readers of earlier posts on the editorial process will be aware, I’ve been doing my best to follow the guidance of both editor and readers.  I’ve never written a biography before, and am grateful for the help.  While I have some facility at writing scholarship, I’ve had to teach myself to write narrative.  I’m getting better at it, but I’m well aware that I lack the skills of a fiction writer — skills helpful to constructing narrative.  So, in addition to mixed messages not helping, I also really need very specific advice about precisely what to change.

In our conversation yesterday, I gained some clarity.  My editor’s single most helpful comment was to identify my problem as the conflict between (a) trying to create a completist biography and (b) trying to create a critical biography.  What I should do is focus on the critical biography, and reduce the completist elements.  As he noted earlier in our conversation, were this a new biography of, say, Ernest Hemingway or Maurice Sendak, then the manuscript’s current length could be justified.  Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss do not (yet!) have that kind of cultural importance.  So, grasping the critical vs. completist issue helps me better assess where I need to excise detail, paragraph, section, and so on.  Some of the cuts will end up in The Complete Barnaby (Fantagraphics, 2012-2014).  Others will appear on this blog.  Still others will just stay on my hard drive.

One other important update.  The Purple Crayon and a Hole to Dig: The Lives of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss will not appear in April 2012.  Expect it in June 2012.  I need time to make these revisions, and UP Mississippi needs a year’s production time from receipt of final manuscript.

Crockett Johnson, "Fun at the Post Office" (from Ruth Krauss, How to Make an Earthquake)Thanks.  One happy result of this disagreement has been realizing how many kind and supportive people there are out there.  Thanks to everyone who commented on Wednesday’s post, both on the blog itself and via Facebook.  Thanks to the support offered (via email) by Leda Schubert, Mark Newgarden, and Dan Steffan.  Mark offered to take a look at the ms. Dan’s suggested revisions to the opening paragraphs are so strong that (presuming he grants me permission), I’d like to use some of his suggestions.  Thanks to my editor for the hour-long conversation yesterday morning.  And, of course, thanks to George Nicholson, agent, friend, and cheerleader.  I always benefit from his counsel.

Well.  Onwards with revision and — since it’s the end of term — lots and lots of grading.

Illustration credit: Crockett Johnson, “Fun at the Post Office,” from Ruth Krauss’s How to Make an Earthquake (Harper, 1954).

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Biography of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: Update, Featuring First 5 Paragraphs of the Book!

Crockett Johnson, "How to write a book," illus. from Ruth Krauss's How to Make an EarthquakeI haven’t blogged about the biography of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss for a while because I’ve been waiting.  I sent in the latest version of the manuscript back on the first of the year; my editor finally read it in late March, and sent it out to a reader.  I received the reader’s report this past week.

The good news for those of you (yes, both of you!) interested in the book is that I will be blogging more about it — and thus, you’ll learn a bit more about Johnson and Krauss.  The bad news is that the goal posts keep receding into the distance.  I’m no longer certain that this book will appear in April 2012 (as planned).  At times, I doubt whether it will appear at all.

If you were following the (admittedly dry) chronicles of the revision process this past fall, you may recall that my editor suggested that I restructure the early chapters.  Until the point that Johnson and Krauss meet, I had one chapter on her, then one on him, and so on; after they meet, they share chapters.  He found the alternating-chapter approach flawed: “I don’t think it works.  In fact, I think the opposite reaction occurs — by jumping between the two narratives, the manuscript becomes too fragmented and we lose sight of one of the protagonists for so long that it’s difficult to stay invested in either of them.”  So, I followed his suggestion.  Instead of alternating chapters, I rewrote so that each chapter focused on both protagonists.

The reader for this new version writes, “Nel should not alternate the two lives paragraph by paragraph. The structure is disastrous.”  (I don’t in fact alternate paragraph by paragraph — generally, there are 3-7 paragraphs at a time on each person.)  Instead, the reader suggests, I should devote one chapter to one person, and then one to the other up until the point that they meet.  My editor writes that he “agrees with the reader,” and advises me to do the revisions.  So, now I’ll be reverting to the earlier structure.  Despite the unacknowledged irony, this isn’t all bad: in the process of rewriting during the fall, I was able to cut a lot and make what remained stronger.  I will strive for similar results here.

The bigger problem for me is cutting.  In the last revision, I cut 10,000 words.  Should I manage to cut another 10,000, I still won’t have this down to the 100,000-word length the press wants.  I cannot see how to get it down to that length.  I’ve cut nearly everything that I’ve been asked to cut, but … I’ve also been left to do a lot of this on my own.  And it’s not always clear to me what needs to go.  If I’m editing literary criticism, I just trim the less strong arguments, remove the weaker examples.  In editing a biography, I have a harder time figuring out which life events are less significant.  To give credit where it’s due, I have been grateful for my editor’s advice on the first 100 pages, and have tried to apply his logic of cutting to the rest of the manuscript (apparently without success).

I’m aware of my limits as a writer, storyteller, biographer.  I know I’m not a gifted prose stylist.  For these reasons, I’m of course grateful for editorial advice.  Also, I want to make the book the best possible book that it can be.  So, inasmuch as the criticism helps, I’m in favor of it.  But, at a certain point, I feel like I’m bashing my head against a wall.  Or maybe against a manuscript.  Against something big and solid, certainly.

For instance, referring to my manuscript, the latest reader says, “The beginning is terrible.”  Is it?  Here’s the beginning.  Judge for yourself:

One Friday in August 1950, an FBI agent knocked on their front door.

Crockett Johnson and his wife Ruth Krauss were living in Rowayton, a small coastal community of Norwalk, Connecticut.  He was writing Barnaby (1942-1952), that epitome of the thinking person’s comic strip.  She was gathering material for what would become A Hole Is to Dig (1952), the children’s classic that launched the career of Maurice Sendak (creator of Where the Wild Things Are).

When the FBI knocked, Johnson opened the door, and stepped onto the porch, where he and the agent talked.  Unseen by Johnson, a second agent snapped a photograph. Between April of 1950 and May of 1955, the FBI watched Johnson, his bank account, his mail, and his phone.  Lists of transactions, correspondents, and callers all appear in his 114-page FBI file.

The FBI also began to investigate Krauss.  Agents checked into whether either she or Johnson had applied for a passport to travel abroad.  They read her mail.  They interviewed the manager of the Baltimore apartment building where her mother lived.

During this same period, Sendak was spending weekends at the home of Johnson and Krauss, illustrating some of her best-known books, including the Caldecott Honor-winning A Very Special House (1953).  And Crockett Johnson began writing his best-known book, Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955).  Situated at the intersection of art, politics, and commerce, the lives of Krauss and Johnson lead us into a lost chapter in the histories of children’s books, comics, and the American Left.

Yes, I’m no Neil Gaiman, but I would question “terrible” as a fair assessment for the above.  I realize that you’re seeing only the very beginning of the intro (I suspect that showing more would displease the publisher), but what do you think?

Anyway, as I undertake the eighth revision, I’ll post some more cuts up here on the blog.  Hope you enjoy ’em!

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