31 August 2009

Horton Hears A Who (as 70's Thriller)

How psyched would you be if you pulled this slim paperback off the musty shelf of a used bookstore?

From the back cover:
This taut psychological thriller from bestselling author Theodor Geisel is the second installment of his acclaimed Horton series. As the book opens, we once again find Detective Horton waking from a weeklong bender. The sun is piercing, his head is pounding in his ears, and even the dust sounds like it's talking to him. As the day goes on, Horton realizes that he can't shake the voices in his head. Horton can't tell if he is psychic or psychotic, but he follows the voices and embarks upon a mind-bending journey. His feverish dedication leads him to social ridicule, lands him in jail, and threatens to leave his sanity in tatters.

"In the bizarre tradition that includes both Dashiell Hammett and Philip K. Dick, Giesel breaks new ground." -The New Yorker

"Destined to become a cult classic." -The San Francisco Chronicle

"Beware the Sour Kangaroo." -Rolling Stone

30 August 2009

BSB Flashback: Hop on Pop

9 April 2007

Author/Illustrator: Dr. Seuss

Many point to Bruno Bettelheim's award winning book, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, as the moment that Freudian psychoanalysis officially came in contact with the realm of children's literature. While it is true that Bettleheim may have been one of the first academics to tackle the subject, it was the seminal work of Theodore Geisel (Dr. Seuss) that introduced children to Freud for the first time. Case in point: his playful exploration of the Oedipal complex: Hop on Pop.

Hop on Pop was published in 1963, a full 13 years before Bettelheim's Enchantment, and decades before Freud was widely dismissed by the psychological community as a coked-up sex fiend. Pop can be read as a thinly veiled introduction to the disturbing psychosexual theory that the father is the enemy who is preventing us from realizing some deeply ingrained sexual need for our mothers. Gross! Luckily, Seuss didn't get too caught up in the raging Sigmundsteria of the times, otherwise he may have been tempted to go all-out Oedipal and written his book as Hop on Pop then Marry Mommy, which probably would have tarnished his otherwise untouchable legacy.

Upon closer inspection, Freud and other psychological influences can be found sprinkled throughout Seuss's work. The Cat in the Hat is nothing more than a hyperkinetic romp through the subconscious with the Id, Ego, and Superego. The entire plot of Green Eggs and Ham is driven by Freud's theories of the repression and sublimation of base impulses. (What else could "Sam I Am" be, other than an anal-retentive individual's guilt-ridden projection of the repressed self and its latent desires?) And Horton Hears a Who? Horton hears a psychiatrist diagnosing him with schizophrenia, that's who he hears. In fact, if you read too closely, Seussville runs the risk of becoming an inescapable labyrinth of Freudian slips and slides... so maybe we're better off reading with eyes wide shut.

26 August 2009

War of Words

Author: Davide Cali
Illustrator: Serge Bloch

This unique book begins with a soldier in his lonely foxhole facing off against a mysterious opponent. His military-issue manual describes the enemy as dangerous and inhuman, and it is this ruthless and menacing description of the opponent that steels the soldier's resolve during combat. It is a simple matter of kill or be killed. As the war wages on, our soldier eventually sneaks into the other foxhole and discovers that his enemy may not be the monster that he was made out to be. The book ends with the two soldiers reaching out to each other, cautiously hopeful that they can end the fighting.

In April, Meghan Cox Gurdon of the Wall Street Journal had this interesting take on the book:
This book is very stylish, but it's pure propaganda: The idea is to perplex children about why war should ever happen and invite them to believe that nothing is worth fighting for -- when adults should know better.
While I'm all for healthy skepticism, I think that there is more depth here than Gurdon realizes. While the book does not hide its antiwar message, there is another message here that is a little more nuanced than War is Bad or (in Gurdon’s words) that “nothing is worth fighting for.”

In the beginning we, through the soldier's experience, think that the enemy is the other soldier, but by the end the real enemy is revealed… and he isn’t the man in the other foxhole. So the question is: if not the other soldier, who is The Enemy in this story?

This is where the underlying message of Cali's book shines through.
It's clear that these two soldiers were merely being manipulated from above and that "The Enemy" in this case is the faceless figure of authority that knowingly promulgated false information in order to justify and fan the flames of war.

History is riddled with examples of governments/movements manipulating information to justify war, and the decision to go to war is too serious for us to take information at face value. Cause if you don’t dig deeper, you may end up digging your own foxhole (or worse). It's not that "nothing is worth fighting for... but in order to know that something is worth fighting for, you have to know the truth.

Bloch’s illustrations do an amazing job of reinforcing this idea that information plays a large role in war. The illustrations take on the style of political cartoons, mimicking a popular vehicle for propaganda. But more interestingly is the way Bloch uses the page itself within the illustrations.

For example, the foxholes appear as torn holes in the page. (You should CLICK HERE to see images from the book, courtesy of the lovely ladies of 7 Impossible Things Before Breakfast). The page itself is the battlefield. This interplay between the page and the image further illustrates (pun sheepishly intended) that wars are fought not just on the front lines, but on the page: through newspaper editorials, policy briefs, political cartoons… wars are waged by words as well as by bullets and bombs.

So while I, like Gurdon, sometimes raise a skeptical eyebrow at overly simplistic anti-war literature, I don’t think that this is the case in The Enemy. Rather than perplexing children about "why war should ever happen", Cali's book tries to make them realize that if war should ever happen, you better make damn sure that you aren’t being duped into it.

I thought I was going to end it there, but a little digging on the internet revealed another interesting angle.

The Enemy was originally published in association with Amnesty International Australia in 2007. The original version features a highly decorated and smiling general (with sunglasses) below large print that says "Enemy".

Before we discuss the illustration, note that this version does not have the subtitle: A Book About Peace. This is interesting because in her WSJ review, one of Gurdon's points is that,
"The Enemy: A Book About Peace," by Davide Cali, does not so much promote peace as repudiate armed conflict.
Which is a valid point and something that kind of bugged me too. But maybe it wasn't originally written as a book about peace at all. Maybe that subtitle was added on afterwards for marketing reasons. I wouldn't be surprised if US publishers were worried that a book about war would be too hard to promote, so they stuck the tagline "A Book About Peace" and switched out the diabolical general and slapped on a picture of an peacefully smiling soldier. Maybe that cover would be less likely to scare parents away.

Now let's look at the difference in the cover art. Interestingly, the smug general doesn't appear on the inside of the book at all. He remains above the fray (and outside the lines) making the decisions to send people to war. He only appears on the cover, which looks almost like a "Wanted" poster, a bold advertisement saying "This is the real enemy."

In fact, take a closer look at the illustration... it's hard to tell with this low resolution, but you can see that the general literally has blood on his hands.

So Gurdon was right about one thing: this is not a book about peace. This is a book about the horrors of war and the need to keep a close eye on those who have the power to declare it.
Because it’s true: adults should know better. They should know better than to blindly accept jingoistic justifications for war without asking questions. After all, a knowledgeable public with the ability to question their leaders and hold them accountable is key to a healthy democracy. Anything that tells you otherwise is pure propaganda.

23 August 2009

The Five Chinese Brothers: The Movie

This controversial children's book classic is just begging to be adapted for the big screen... I can see it now:

Title: The Five Chinese Brothers

Tagline: If They Can’t Tell Us Apart, They Can’t Pick Us Out Of A Line-Up.

Plot: In this subversive action-adventure, five Asian-American friends, sick of people not being able to tell them apart, decide to use their anonymity to their advantage and plan the crime spree of a lifetime.

Director: Wai-keung Lau
Producer: Quentin Tarantino
Screenplay: Claire Huchet Bishop
Art Direction: Kurt Wiese

Note: In case you didn't recognize the poster, here is the original.

19 August 2009

The Curious Garden

Author/Illustrator: Peter Brown

On the surface, this quietly beautiful book is about a boy who discovers and cultivates a garden in the middle of the city. Through persistence (think The Carrot Seed on Miracle-Gro), the garden thrives and takes on a life of it’s own, slowly spreading throughout the city. More importantly, the garden inspires more gardeners, and soon the formerly drab city is blooming.

There is more than meets the eye here. If you scratch beneath the charming tale of environmental stewardship, you'll find an interesting meditation on the nature of ideas in the internet age.

In Brown's book, more important than the spreading of the garden is the spreading of the idea of gardening. Ideas are curious things indeed, and it is true that with a little persistence and cultivation, an idea has the ability to take on a life of its own. In the blink of an eye (or with the click of a mouse) an idea can spread and take root in even the tiniest crack (or niche market). If enough people pick up on the idea and are inspired by it, they will carry it themselves. Like twittering birds that spread vegetation by carrying seeds to distant lands, an idea can be spread by individuals as they fly across the internet.

Indeed, it is when other people in Brown's city get bit by the gardening bug, that the city really begins to explode. One garden by itself has limitations, but a sprawling network of people dedicated to gardening, now that is when broad social change really blossoms.

Whereas the normal term for this hyperkinetic spread of information is the vicious term to "go viral", the Curious Garden presents the phenomenon of this growth model with innocent beauty and childlike wonder. A message in The Curious Garden is that it takes a combination of sustained curiosity and innovative persistence to allow our ideas to bloom (that and a little bit of luck). The flipside of which is that the fertile garden of the imagination can easily dry up into a bleak and desolate landscape without proper care.

So, upon finishing the Curious Garden, I was left with three questions.

The first question is: What is your idea?

The second question is: Whether it is gardening, an innovative plan for universal health care, or customized bobblehead dolls, do you have the curiosity and persistence to cultivate your idea and allow it to grow?

The last question is: Do you believe in your idea enough to see it spread and possibly take on a life of its own?

Note: For a full review and a compendium of other on-line reviews, go check out (as always) A Fuse #8 Production.

11 August 2009

At the Movies

If you are a bit skeptical about the Where The Wild Things Are movie, maybe Maurice Sendak himself can put your mind at ease:

Unfortunately, I don't have anything that can put your mind at ease about this:

10 August 2009

If You Give A Mouse A Dollar... He'll Rob an ATM?!

Looks like that greedy little mouse is at it again:

From AOL News:
LA GRANDE, Ore. (Aug. 8) - A mouse found inside an automatic teller machine — along with a nest it had built with chewed-up $20 bills — gave an Oregon gas station employee the surprise of her life.

The mouse, discovered Thursday, had thoroughly torn up two bills and damaged another 14 to line his nest. Employee Millie Taylor said she screamed and slammed the machine's door shut.

The bank replaced all the money that wasn't extensively damaged, and the ATM has continued to work just fine. The mouse also got a reprieve: He was evicted from his nest but set free outside the station.

Other workers at the Gem Stop Chevron in La Grande in eastern Oregon say they're mystified about how the mouse got inside the machine.