Archive for ‘guests’

July 26, 2011

Cat Fancy… Unhinged

by karolinawaclawiak

Have you ever heard of Louis Wain? He was a Victorian artist who painted pictures of anthropomorphic cats. Cats playing ball and smoking cigarettes. Cats in Victorian garb, sporting monocles, playing trumpets and dancing wildly in posh party scenes. Comic strip cats, children’s books full of cats and cats running through postcards. You get the idea.

(Photo courtesy of http://www.wonderranchpublishing.com)

He started painting his house cat, Peter, to comfort his dying wife and continued on an artistic journey that would last a lifetime. Wain was quite successful, with double-page spreads in the Illustrated London News, books, awards. He was so well-known for his paintings of cats that he was elected as President of the National Cat Club after writing the book In Animal Land With Louis Wain. However, after World War I people no longer held the same interest in images of frolicking cats, perhaps the chaos of war couldn’t afford room for whimsy anymore.

(Photo courtesy of Fanny G Illustrations)

As popularity of Wain’s cat portraiture waned a new kind of energy started sprouting up in his work. Wain’s cats started betraying more and more anxiety, perhaps in response to the world around him. His cats suddenly had fear in their eyes, near panic, and a new kind of distrust. More than likely, they mirrored the frenetic energy taking over his own mind.

(Photo courtesy of BrixPicks)

Their anxious progression began to show the trajectory of Wain’s own mental illness as a diagnosed schizophrenic. His cats’ large, yellow eyes illustrated a consuming paranoia.

(Photo Courtesy of Rodrigo O.)

I’m continually struck by the eyes of his cats and how much tension, and ultimately terror, he housed in their small frames. Wain would later push himself further, creating such abstract work that the nearly pulsating lines only hinted at a cat underneath. (Photo Courtesy of Sunny Down Snuff)

Although he had a huge body of work the poor business decisions he made, such as failing to retain the rights of his own work, led him to destitution. Eventually, he was committed as his mental health deteriorated and in 1925 was found in a low-grade mental hospital by H.G. Wells. What did Wells do? Rounded up benefactors, including the Prime Minister, so that Wain could be moved to a better facility to live out his life in safety and comfort. He continued painting his cats through the end of his life. I recently found a Louis Wain quote from the IDLER(1896):

“I used to wander in the parks studying nature, and visited all the docks and museums. I consider that my boyish fancy did much towards my future artistic life, for it taught me to use my powers of observation, and to concentrate my mind on the details of nature which I should otherwise never have noticed.”

It makes me think of how writers and artists really have no choice but to convey their own peculiar views, no matter how strange the picture may be.

(Photo courtesy of Sunny Down Snuff)

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June 19, 2011

Murder, In Song

by karolinawaclawiak

As much as I crave a good book about murder or a crime scene photo to dissect, nothing compares to a musical ballad about murder and mayhem. One of my old favorites is a rendition of “Knoxville Girl” by the Louvin Brothers off the Tragic Songs of Life album (1956). These country brothers crooned about the violent riverside murder of an unnamed young woman by her suitor. Voices sweet and lamenting, the Louvin brothers obscured the shock of violence with their lullaby composition.

“I met a little girl in Knoxville, a town we all know well,

And every Sunday evening, out in her home I’d dwell,

We went to take an evening walk about a mile from town,

I picked a stick up off the ground and knocked that fair girl down.”

You can only imagine where it goes from there.  Listen here.

The Louvin Brothers can’t be credited with inventing the murder ballad. In fact, “Knoxville Girl” is based on an old Irish ballad, “The Wexford Girl”, which has a more elaborate warning against murdering your loved one. Murder Ballads can be traced back even further to England and to the broadsheet ballad “The Cruel Miller” and well, it’s anyone’s game from there.

Now, take the traditional murder ballad and mix it with the poetry of a notorious serial killer, with a nod toward Joyce Carol Oates, and you have Jon Derosa’s “Ladies in Love.” Based on a poem of the same name by Charles Schmid, Jr., DeRosa weaves some lines from Schmid’s prison writing into his evocative ballad and gives us a precise window into the macabre mind of The Pied Piper of Tuscon. For those of you who don’t know, Schmid was an odd character who wreaked havoc on  the city of Tucson in the 1960’s and served as the inspiration for Joyce Carol Oates’ short story, Where are You Going and Where Have You Been?

Photo courtesy of the Tucson Citizen.

He blurred his natural attractive features with cartoonish makeup and clothing, turning himself into a minstrel Elvis Presley – dark tan pancake makeup, white lipstick and the King’s jet black mane. He added his own touches too: a beauty mark on his cheek made from a mixture of putty and axle grease and oversized cowboy boots stuffed with detritus to make him seem taller, attempts at being a more appealing lady magnet to the disaffected youth of Tuscon.

Here, DeRosa has crafted a hauntingly beautiful murder ballad with flutes and woodwinds by Jon Natchez (of Beirut/Yellow Ostrich) and gentle violins and cellos by Claudia Chopek and Julia Kent, respectively.  Schmid’s chilling proclamation that “ladies should never fall in love,” is sung sweetly, like a lullaby by DeRosa. And Schmid’s poetic line about women’s voices “being like small animals waiting to be fed” is seemingly easier to take here, layered and somber. But, his complicated and perverse relationship with his victims isn’t celebrated here; instead, DeRosa’s tale of woe serves as a time capsule of terror that I believe, deserves a place in the history of disquieting murder ballads.

Listen to “Ladies in Love” exclusively on The Abbott Gran Medicine show:

http://soundcloud.com/jonderosa/jon-derosa-ladies-in-love

Jon DeRosa’s Anchored EP can be picked up on Itunes or here.

June 1, 2011

called on account of darkness

by Vince Keenan

The rise of Bill James is the secret fantasy of every bookish type. The details are practically Dickensian. James, a lifelong obsessive baseball fan, begins recording his thoughts on the game while working as night watchman at a Kansas pork and beans factory. He assembles what he calls a book, almost six dozen photocopied pages long, and sells it via a single ad in The Sporting News. Only seventy-five people would buy the 1977 Baseball Abstract: Featuring 18 Categories of Statistical Information That You Just Can’t Find Anywhere Else. But those happy few would be present at the birth of a legend.

James’s approach is based on rigorous objective analysis or as James put it, “counting things.” It dared to challenge much of baseball’s conventional wisdom, which in a sport that prizes its traditions is tantamount to heresy. James had a steadily growing number of admirers among hardcore fans, but the powers that be thought him a crank. Until they didn’t.

Michael Lewis’s Moneyball beautifully recounts what happened next. The front office of the Oakland Athletics relied on Jamesean analysis, known as sabermetrics, to turn a cash-strapped small-market franchise into a perennial contender. Other teams followed suit. James himself would become an advisor to the Boston Red Sox. His ideas would spread to other disciplines; Nate Silver applied the science of fantasy baseball to the American electoral process in 2008 and became a political guru. The man who, as Lewis wrote, “perfected the art of sounding like a sane man in an insane world” ultimately persuaded that world to think as he did. James represents the triumph of the wonk, the vindication of the studious kid watching others play outside, confident in the knowledge that they’re doing it wrong.

Bill James’s other great passion is crime stories, which he tackles in his new book Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence. I share those two interests, so I picked up a copy. Little did I know when I cracked it open, coincidentally during the uproar following the Casey Anthony verdict, what a singularly odd experience I had in store. Popular Crime would prove to be one of the strangest books I’ve ever loved.

To begin, how to describe it? The subtitle, for instance, is a misnomer in that it sounds judgmental while the book itself is not. James is an unabashed enthusiast of crime stories, and laments that “opinion-makers and the ‘opinion elites’ … turn up their noses” at them. James, on the other hand, is eager to discuss them at length. In nearly 500 pages he surveys decades of tabloid fodder. It’s a deeply idiosyncratic study; James did no original research, basing his conclusions solely on exhaustive reading. It soon becomes apparent that James has been thinking about crime for years, and now wants to share his many, many thoughts. That sense of beliefs long bottled up finally spilling forth powers the book through some bizarre passages. Michael Lewis described the Baseball Abstracts as “one long, elaborate aside.” The same holds true of Popular Crime.

James breezes through horrors infamous and otherwise, sizing up the evidence and issuing his own verdicts. He makes a case for Lizzie Borden’s innocence that surprisingly holds water, blasts the widely accepted “solution” to the mystery of the Zodiac Killer’s identity, logically argues that Elizabeth Short, the Black Dahlia, could not have been her murderer’s first or only victim. His take on the Kennedy assassination, based on ballistic evidence from a single source, is less convincing yet disturbingly plausible in an Occam’s Razor kind of way.

James engages in some bravura historical profiling of the Cleveland Torso Murderer, aka the Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run. He even plays favorites. It galls James that the enterprising serial murderer H. H. Holmes has been the subject of only one book, Erik Larson’s acclaimed The Devil in the White City, when by contrast “Jack the Ripper, as much as the British love him, was just some dumb jackass with a knife who ran around slashing hookers. And there are 75 books about him.” Only Bill James could view a man who built a “torture castle” near the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair like an undervalued infielder who draws a lot of walks.

The book is at its best when dealing with how crimes are reported and by extension remembered. James astutely assesses the evolution of the American press, noting that in the wake of the Lindbergh kidnapping—Bruno Hauptmann done it, in James’s opinion—media consolidation kept sensationalistic impulses in check until the next “Crime of the Century,” O. J. Simpson (also guilty), when the cable news landscape resembled the earlier era.

James consumes true crime books, rightly observing that aside from Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood the form is largely ignored, and peppers Popular Crime with terse, unsparing reviews. While he admires The Devil in the White City, James disdains the author’s “turn-up-your-nose-at-the-crime-story attitude … Did you ever know one of those people in college who was a good guy but so responsible that you always wanted to set his shoes on fire? It’s 5 o’clock on Saturday afternoon, and he’s studying his Latin. Larson is kind of like that.” Jolene Babyak’s book on Robert Stroud, the “Birdman of Alcatraz,” suffers because it includes excerpts of Stroud’s own unpublished manuscripts. “Stroud’s writing is trim and graceful, while Babyak’s is harsh and blocky.” James also comments regularly on the once de rigueur TV movie and miniseries adaptations spawned by these books, which rightly or wrongly are as much a part of the recollection of such crimes as police reports and trial transcripts are.

But 500 pages of such detail-oriented fixation takes it toll. The opening chapters are like falling into conversation with a cantankerous but engaging fellow at a bar. A few drinks later, you find yourself eyeing the exits and wondering “Is this guy nuts?” James compares the defense of Sacco and Vanzetti, which presented the two radicals “as simple men swept up in a tide of onrushing events,” to Che Guevara and Fidel Castro “finding themselves portrayed by their lawyer as Gilligan and the Skipper.”

An obvious observation made in a book about the Jon-Benet Ramsey case—the Ramseys are innocent, by the by—is met with the timeless rejoinder “No shit, Sherlock.” He interrupts his train of thought for digressions both relevant (the excesses of the Warren Court) and not (how to save the American automobile industry). He addresses readers directly, identifying passages written years earlier and hinting at ideas he’s hoarding for a future book.

The last third of Popular Crime is something of a slog, focused largely on a subject James doesn’t care for:

The stories of serial murderers are repetitive and gloomy, but I will tell a few of them and then meet with my editor to decide which ones to throw out, and the ones we throw out I will throw up on the internet.

And then—then—are James’s efforts to bring his vaunted statistical analysis to bear, crafting a sabermetrics of crime. James lists his eighteen categories for classifying a crime by level of public interest; devises a new ten-level penal system; and develops a six-tiered ranking of witness descriptions offered to the police. Most impressive and deeply foolhardy by turns is the value system he assigns to evidence, weighting various types in wholly arbitrary fashion with a score of 100 required to convince a skeptic.

Michael Lewis wrote that Bill James set out to prove in baseball “that the statistics were beside the point. The point was understanding; the point was to make life on earth just a bit more intelligible.” But here James’s efforts fall woefully short. Evil, for lack of a better term, is a lot like that ineffable quality in sports known as heart. It’s an intangible. It cannot be measured.

But that willingness to make the attempt is why I found James’s bizarre opus so compelling. He claims, “I am trying to write here about the serious consequences of the trivial events.”

At other times, Popular Crime is a prickly defense of his interest in a subject frequently frowned-upon by cultural arbiters. Ultimately, though, the book is a sincere attempt to identify what it is about the darkness that fascinates and lures so many of us.

See also Bill James’s memorable appearance on the Colbert Report….

May 9, 2011

latches

by Megan Abbott

photo: Jon Crispin

Hat tip to Karolina Waclawiak, assistant editor at The Believer and one of our beloved guest posters for this fascinating online exhibit devoted to images by photographer Lisa Rinzler of suitcases (and their contents) left behind at Willard Psychiatric Center in the Finger Lakes region.

I lived for a year near Seneca Lake, where the hospital operated for more than a century (1869-1995), and it is lovely, haunting place that always reminded me, vaguely of Twin Peaks.

When the facility closed, workers uncovered 427 trunks, suitcases, satchels and crates in the attic of one of the buildings. It appeared many of them remained unopened since the patients (or family members) originally packed them for their hospital stay.

The stories of each suitcase, each patient, is a tale of mental health history but also those kind of universal tales of people whose circumstances limit their options, whose yearnings exceed those acceptable by their era, whose families abandon them or whom life treats with alarming cruelty.

But you almost don’t need the narratives provide (though they are unbearably poignant–many in need of help who never received any therapeutic treatment, and many who didn’t seem to need to be there at all, such as one young man, Roderigo, institutionalized from the age of 29 after a bout of depression. A note in his case file, written more than 50 years into his 64-year stay, says “years of institutionalization appears to be a mistake… as this man appears in perfect mental condition”).

The items themselves carry so much of the story. The intricately embroidered baby booties, penny arcade photos, the delicate lady’s tea-cup, a pair of ice skates. You can tell the story; somehow you know it.

A book followed the exhibition. And here’s a NY Times article about the exhibit, and some great pictures of it.

May 6, 2011

RIP(pped, &) TORN (Assunder): The Austin Gospel According To Dino McLeish

by craigmmcdonald


Wille Nelson: “I underestimated you, Dino.”

Rip Torn: “All you sons o’ bitches do.”

—Songwriter, 1984

When it comes to B-movies and oft-repeated viewings, Songwriter, directed by Alan Rudolph, probably cracks my Top Ten. The pithy elevator pitch for the flick would likely go like this: “Robert Altman’s Nashville meets The Sting.”

In other words, it’s a minor miracle this film even exists.

Although it’s one of my favorite movies, it’s far from a perfect or even great film. What it is, for me at any rate, is quirky, engaging and comfortable as old boots. Guilty pleasure? Nah…more like a dear, dissolute and semi-dangerous friend you know you shouldn’t spend so much time with, and yet…? Hell, how couldn’t you?

Iconic songwriters Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson essentially play themselves in a film that amiably pitches bricks at the stained glassed windows of Music Row orthodoxy and the soul-siphoning demands the marketplace exacts from creative types who view themselves, first and foremost, as artists. (“Say he did it for the love, but he was not above the money,” Kristofferson’s Blackie Buck stipulates in the film’s opening monologue. The business is, he says, “A day-to-day war between the sorry and the soulful.”)

That songwriter’s soliloquy overlays a montage that deftly and hilariously establishes Willie’s character’s sketchy acumen as a speculator. Doc’s failed enterprises include investing in the semen of transgendered bulls and in fast food restaurants (“Doc Jenkin’s Chicken Fried German Food To Go,” is located hard up-side a KFC).

“Songwriting was making someone a whole of bucks,” a rueful Blackie observes. “Since it wasn’t us, it had to be someone.” Doc opines to music mogul Rodeo Rocky—an east coast sleaze who owns Doc and the rights to all his songs, coming and going—“You always were sentimental when you had your hand in my pocket.”

“I took a couple of uppers, that’s true.”

—Dino McLeish

Appealing as Kris and Willie are (and they have acres of charm to spare in this outing), the crazy, dark heart of the film is Rip Torn’s sleazy music promoter Dino McLeish (“Word’s out you on, Hoss. You don’t pay your talent.”). He’s a cowboy and western suit wearing dervish “who’s been up since Korea.” He has a Mephistophelean mustache and goatee. Dino subsists on amphetamines, booze and a scuffling drive to turn a buck any way he can. Dino is also the kind of operator whose reputation for failing to deliver the goods is so notorious that casual country music fans routinely boo him and chuck their empties at Dino as he jeers and spews profanity from behind chicken wire curtains strung across the stages of the Texas roadhouses he infests.

Doc: “How many tickets did you sell?”

Dino: “7,200.”

Doc: “Building only holds 5,000.”

Dino: “Well, shit, Bubba, airlines do that all the time.”

Dino’s trademark modus operandi: He books a hall and announces a major performer (say, KK’s Blackie Buck or Willie’s “Doc Jenkins”). Dino sells beaucoup tickets, then, the night of the show, he announces the never-booked-headliner has phoned-in sick, and pushes on stage some untalented unknown. Dino attempts this shakedown using Blackie one night in Austin. Blackie turns up at the concert anyway, where he finds Dino’s bait-and-switch has resulted in a busty and vocally impressive Leslie Ann Warren taking the stage.

Thus is born an uneasy partnership and eventual “Big Store” con (ala “The Sting” or James Garner’s Maverick’s “Shady Deal at Sunny Acres.”)—a scheme fostered between Dino, boozy Blackie (“The only reason I drink is so people won’t think I’m a dope fiend!”), Doc and Warren’s fetching “Gilda.”

“Listen, nine times out of ten, you know, they think people start this.

But sheep is good and they know it.

They’ll flirt with you, don’t think they won’t.”

—Dino McLeish

Dino’s an uneasy family man. His wife is a young and randy strayer. Their baby son is named Buster. During a brief provisioning stopover at home (the interior décor of the McLeish crib runs heavy on pleather and neon bar signs), Dino is confronted by his wife and her desire to accompany him to his next bogus concert spectacular.

Angling, Dino pauses. He frames the image of his wife and his child between his hands and says, “Hold it! I wish the vision of how beautiful you all are could be painted on the Great Wall of China. Man, I mean that… We’re family, you know? Know what that means? Deep stuff.” Every ounce of his demeanor says otherwise.

“You’re going to chop them down like dead limbs.”

—Dino McLeish

Devoid of conscience as he is, Dino happily goes along with cash-strapped, contract-shackled Doc Jenkins’ scheme to subvert his required services for an unscrupulous music label by continuing to write hit songs but publish and release those gems as the alleged works of Blackie and Gilda.

Gilda, on the other hand, chafes under this duplicity: she turns to whiskey and drugs in increasingly copious quantities to offset her sense of guilt. Dino sums up their eventual business prospects with his usual blunt panache: “Dang it, Doc…it’s a classic. We put all our chips on a hysterical, neurotic drunk woman; she’s gonna make us rich…or dead.”

Songwriter is lush with clever dialogue, sardonic, memorable turns of phrase, and just enough underlying drama to pierce your heart at unexpected moments.

It also boasts a running commentary about the torturous tension of art and commerce (a motif Rudolph would explore more directly in his films Trouble in Mind and, particularly, The Moderns). As it happens, the film’s embittered take from the artist’s perspective freshly reverberates for anyone endeavoring to make a living with words in the “disruptive technology”-rich atmosphere of the eBook and Internet era.

But Songwriter is also a meditation on the destructive (sometimes seductive) myth of the tortured artist and their resulting top-drawer output. Blackie, strumming his guitar in a Ramada Inn, laments, “Do you suppose a man’s got to be a miserable son of a bitch, all the time, just to write a good song every now and then? That’s a terrible thought.”

Rudolph has indicated he stepped in as replacement director of Songwriter in order to fund his making of closer-to-his-heart Trouble in Mind, also starring Kristofferson. Even if it’s so, Songwriter is very much of a piece with Rudolph’s later 1980s, signature works.

It’s been a long while since the last Rudolph film. The director says it’s because he doesn’t have the heart or stomach to go out there and try and raise the gelt to mount another production.

That’s a damned shame. In this case, I’d welcome his taking the money to do it for the (cockeyed) art.

Doc to Dino: “How’d you do?”

Dino to Doc: “I did pretty good. You got robbed.”



April 22, 2011

Boys Will Be Boys

by Vince Keenan

[Editor’s note: Today we have a guest post from Vince Keenan, whom I met many years ago in Seattle and with whom I  have been talking noir, Mack Sennett, the Mets and other matters ever since. A renaissance man married to a renaissance woman, the lovely Rosemarie, Vince is a screenwriter,  journalist, video game designer and cocktail enthusiast. His blog has its seven-year anniversary this week. –MA]

Megan was kind enough to ask me to represent a male perspective on young adult fiction. Because boys do read. Not openly and not often, but they do.

I could start with a sepia-toned reminiscence of the mail order Scholastic Book Club, which sounds so archaic now I might as well say that in my youth I was a regular user of the Pony Express. Amazon before there was Amazon, it was the best way to feed my reading habit in a section of New York identified on maps as Darkest Queens, where bookstores were thin on the ground. I could then follow up with some signature titles fished out of the packages delivered to Sister Maureen’s office every six to eight weeks. Like Esther Forbes’ Johnny Tremain, about a silversmith’s apprentice crippled in an accident who winds up at the center of the American Revolution. (Bart Simpson said it should be called Johnny Deformed. He has a point.) Or A Taste of Blackberries by Doris Buchanan Smith, in which a young boy dies as a result of an allergy to a bee sting and his best friend spends the rest of the summer learning to grieve for him. It seemed so adult, a book about death, and I read it more than once in the hope of growing up faster.

But that wouldn’t be accurate. I’d be projecting my current neuroses onto my youthful reading habits. Yes, I did enjoy those books, but I’d be pointing them out to make me seem interesting and well-rounded, the way I’ll casually mention that I’ve recently finished some award-winner.

The truth is that then as now, I consumed heroic quantities of crime fiction. And that meant The Hardy Boys. It’s fashionable to mock the series in all its gee-whiz, asexual glory. But I refuse to do that. I come here to praise Frank and Joe Hardy, not to bury them with scorn. The boys put me on a glide path that led to Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, to Lawrence Block and James Ellroy. For good and ill, they made me the reader that I am today.

The series is a remarkable American narrative in itself. Created by Edward Stratemeyer, the pioneer of book packaging. Cranked out by countless ghostwriters. (I never believed in Santa Claus, but it crushed me to learn that Franklin W. Dixon wasn’t real.) The first 38 entries were substantially revised beginning in 1959 to simplify them in the face of television’s popularity and to eliminate racial stereotyping. As a result, two completely different novels with the same title could be in simultaneous circulation, a lesson I learned the hard way. Buying the “wrong” version of The Missing Chums (#4 in the series) prompted a crash course in typefaces. I soon discovered that the original editions had denser text in every sense.

Yes, the novels are deeply square, replete with outdated technology (#24 is called The Short-Wave Mystery, for crying out loud) and cardboard characters. Joe was only differentiated from older brother Frank in that he was dark of hair and hot of temper. Their friends were designated by ethnicity (Jewish, Italian) and weight (Chet Morton, forever branded “chubby” and my surrogate). I read the books over and over anyway. Screw Middle Earth and Narnia. I wanted to be in what I thought of as the real world, solving real problems.

That sense of engagement fuels every Hardy Boys story. The brothers hero-worship their famous shamus father Fenton Hardy, a remote figure who represents the dark and separate adult universe they agitate to be a part of. OK, sex was a mystery neither bright boy would ever solve; while Frank and Joe have girlfriends, their idea of a date is taking them out in a jalopy for hamburgers. But in the best of the books, sturdily constructed mysteries studded with local color, knowledge is power and the globe there to be trotted. High school familiarity with German explains The Clue of the Screeching Owl (#41). I still remember how to say thank you in Greek thanks to The Shattered Helmet (#52) – it’s efharisto, pronounced “F. Harry Stowe,” not “Harry F. Stowe” as poor hapless Chet mangles it – and learned that residents of the French section of Marrakesh roll pieces of bread into tiny balls as they eat in The Mysterious Caravan (#54). Some day that factoid will come in handy.

Even better are the spinoffs. My copy of The Hardy Boys’ Detective Handbook, consisting of short stories illustrating authentic police techniques, eventually fell apart from overuse. The Handbook had to be extensively revised by an FBI agent when the original consultant was indicted on corruption charges while an official with the Newark Police Department, the kind of case the brothers somehow never investigated. Repeated readings of their Seven Stories of Survival taught me how to produce water in the desert with nothing more than a hubcap, a rock and a dry cleaning bag. That tidbit has so far proven as useful as the Marrakesh bread balls, but it’s there when I need it.

Eventually I abandoned Frank and Joe for more sophisticated pre-teen crimefighters. The Three Investigators featured better writing (Edgar Award winner Dennis Lynds penned several series entries under the name William Arden), a team member I could emulate in that his sole skill was research, and a show business angle; Alfred Hitchcock introduced the first 30 or so books and appeared in the closing chapter as Jupiter, Pete and Bob wrapped up each case. Their adventures were in every way more sophisticated than the Hardy Boys’, but looking back I can’t recall the name of a single villain or any plot turn as memorable as Frank and Joe’s solution to The Disappearing Floor (#19). (The Three Investigators have proven hugely popular internationally, with a particularly fervent following in Germany. There are even Austrian movies. Here’s a trailer.)

There was no subtext to speak of in the books of my youth, which is a subtext in itself. My friend George’s father pressed a copy of Clifford B. HicksAlvin Fernald, Mayor for a Day on me by saying, “At least you’ll learn about politics while you’re reading it.” A boy couldn’t waste time with a book. He had to get something out of it. That relentless pragmatism is the entire point of another strain of YA fiction, about making, building, doing. The Danny Dunn series strove to make technology interesting, even positing the notion of a computer that could help you with your homework. The Mad Scientists’ Club stories, written by Lockheed systems analyst turned career army man Bertrand R. Brinley, had a troop of boys with names out of Damon Runyon (Freddy Muldoon, Mortimer Dalrymple) meeting every challenge with soldering irons.

Reading the posts at the Medicine Show this week has been eye-opening. The boy books of my 1980s childhood didn’t have much in the way of angst and existential dread. They seem almost quaint, offering a steady drumbeat of advice that could come from a disinterested guidance counselor. Learn a trade, son. Get out there and be productive. It’s shocking to compare them to contemporary variants like Frank Portman’s King Dork, packed with references to sex, drugs and, mirabile dictu, popular music. Would it have killed Frank Hardy to pick up Callie Shaw, crank up some Queen and get his freak on? But perhaps that’s the ultimate form of escapism as well as a critical life lesson: planting the seed that someday you’ll live in a world where there are no bullies or bad lunch tables, and the biggest problem is facing down a gang of smugglers.

April 22, 2011

who would win: the great brain vs. encyclopedia brown

by Megan Abbott

[Editor’s note:  Today we are supremely lucky to have a special post from the multi-award-winning writer and cartoonist, Ed Brubaker, the man behind the dazzling Criminal series (which is how I first discovered him–it’s every noir-lover’s dream). Today, below, he writes about a series I remember well (Encyclopdia Brown, a favorite of my brother’s) and another I had read but long forgotten, The Great Brain. As soon as I saw the cover below, it came hurtling back. I even remember seeing the movie and I’m sure I’m not the only one. What a time machine this week has been.–MA]

WHO WOULD WIN IN A FIGHT—THE GREAT BRAIN OR ENCYCLOPEDIA BROWN?

By Ed Brubaker

I grew up reading comics and watching old noir films, which explains a lot about my career so far, but I rarely talk about my favorite Young Adult characters—Encyclopedia Brown and the Great Brain.

I think I discovered them both at around the same time, snooping around in my big brother’s room. He read more books than me, and I mostly read comics, but the drawings on the covers of these ones really grabbed me, so I started flipping through them. A kid who is super smart and is a private detective? A kid who is super smart and is basically a conman? They didn’t make comics like this.

The Great Brain series by John D. Fitzgerald takes place in 1890s Utah, but is based on Fitzgerald and his siblings, who were actually born about 20 years later— so it’s a strange fiction/real life hybrid. The books are narrated by a young JD, who’s always cleaning up after his brother Tom—known as the Great Brain in the family—who is constantly swindling the Mormon kids out of their Christmas presents or allowances. It was a bit Tom Sawyer-y, sure, but it was darker and more fun, and you got to follow The Great Brain’s progress as he grew up and tried to reform his wicked ways.

I’m pretty sure it was the only kids’ book series in the 60s where the star is actually a crook. “It’s like Parker meets Tom Sawyer” isn’t a pitch I can imagine going over well at the average children’s book publisher back then.

And as it turns out, the entire series came about by accident. Fitzgerald had written a few popular fiction books about his family in the 1950s, Pappa Married a Mormon and Momma’s Boarding House. What became The Great Brain was supposed to be the next in that series, but by the time he finished the manuscript, adult tastes had changed. As the book went from publisher to publisher, collecting rejections, an editor suggested cutting out over half the text—all the stuff about the adults—and just leaving the parts about the kids.

So Fitzgerald rewrote the book and it ended up becoming one of the most popular young adult series of its day. They even made a terrible movie starring Jimmy Osmond.

I’m sort of stunned people don’t know about these books today. The Great Brain at the Academy is probably one of my favorite young adult books ever. Right up there with Harriet the Spy and The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death. Sent to a boarding school, the Great Brain immediately sets out to profit from all the rich kids, working out schemes to get extra candy and sneak out at night. And in the other books in the series he even solved crimes, stopped a corporation bilking the town out of their savings, and escaped kidnappers.

I can’t think of a kid I’d rather have been friends with than the Great Brain. But I wanted to be Encyclopedia Brown. I wouldn’t have wanted to be friends with him because he’s a narc-y little nerd. But being him would have been cool.

The Encyclopedia Brown series is a strange one. You remember the characters more than the crimes. You remember flipping the books over to read the solutions, and you remember feeling cheated by them pretty often—“What? He couldn’t have been playing guitar at the time of the theft because he didn’t have calluses on his fingertips? Are you fucking kidding me?”

But that’s not a knock on them, because Donald J. Sobol’s characters were so much fun that I didn’t care. Encyclopedia and his partner/bodyguard Sally, who is tall and pretty and can beat up anyone who messes with our hero. Bugs Meany, the town bully who never gets away with any of his pranks or minor crimes, but who has a gang called the Tigers, who will do anything he says. The town of Idaville felt like a strange island off the coast of California somewhere—fake and too small—and its emptiness reminded me of the military base homes of my childhood. So I could read these books and imagine myself as some kid detective riding up the lane to solve the case of the candy shoplifter (it was my brother).

Of course, Donald J. Sobol’s Encyclopedia Brown series has never gone out of print in almost 50 years (it was so popular that John D. Fitzgerald even tried his hand at a kid detective in 1974 with Private Eye) while the Great Brain books have been basically forgotten. But both of them meant a whole hell of lot to me, as both a kid and a writer.

April 20, 2011

through the keyhole

by karolinawaclawiak

I came to know V.C. Andrews at a young age. Eight years old, actually.

My sister, five years older, was always a voracious reader. She brought Flowers in the Attic into our house clandestinely, from a friend. Or, perhaps she used her babysitting money to buy it at the grocery store from one of those spiral racks of paperbacks. I’m not sure.

All I know is that my sister treated the book like a secret and naturally I wanted in on it. I usually snuck into her room to read her diary and when I saw the book in its place, I knew it had to be something good.

The book’s keyhole cover was unlike anything I had ever seen. What was this ghostly girl’s face doing locked behind that attic window? Opening the front cover led to an even more shocking discovery. There were other ghost-faced children lurking behind the cover of the house. All in white, they looked dead to me. Powdery and frightened and beautiful. These were the four siblings, Cathy, Chris, Carrie and Cory, who spawned the Dollanganger series.

I was so enamored with the heroine Cathy that I used to sneak into my sister’s room and stare at her for hours. I wanted to be her, with her hair parted down the middle and perfect nose. I didn’t even want to open the book and read. The cover was enough.

The oldest brother, Chris, had a protective stare that made me fall for him immediately … years before I knew that Cathy had fallen for him too. I asked my mother to do my hair like little Carrie’s, pinned back on both sides with barrettes and she did without question. Cory looked like he could be my twin. I belonged with them. I was blonde too!

Flowers in the Attic was my first foray into the world of the Dollangangers and I didn’t even know V.C. Andrews’ version of their story until a few years later. I had constructed my own narrative for these children and let it play on a film reel in my mind day in and day out. They were mysterious while the other children in my suburban landscape seemed ordinary and without secrets. I wanted to live in a hush-hush world.

When Petals on the Wind arrived in my sister’s drawer a few weeks later I couldn’t take my eyes off it. This cover was even more sinister! A foreboding flower with crimson petals, three suspended in falling! What could it mean? And what of the two faces in the center of the petals, where the stigma and other reproductive organs of the flower should have been?

I stared at them and recognized her immediately. My Cathy. It had to be her. And Chris? He seemed older and worn. They both did. I hesitated to open the keyhole and then, when I couldn’t stand it anymore, I did. I was unprepared for what I saw. Satin ballerina dress. Satin robe. A corpse lying on a bed. Where was Cory? I wasn’t ready to think about it.

They were all colorless and gaunt. What happened? I took notice of how Chris held Cathy’s waist. He was mine, not hers. I felt a tinge of jealousy seeing their closeness and resigned myself to heartbreak in my own version of their story.

More books followed and in I snuck, bringing them into my closet with a tiny desk lamp, and locking myself in to daydream about this family and their secrets. If There Be Thorns with its prickly flower and little lost boy staring out at me. Seeds of Yesterday with another flaxen-haired girl looking at me with an attitude among scores of what I believed were grapes. Inside, Cathy and Chris were old, a new guard of terrifying children surrounding them.

photo courtesy of araik91

I devoured cover after cover until I decided to break the spell and read them myself. It was a different story than what I had constructed and my pre-teen brain couldn’t comprehend what I was reading. A mother starving her children? Incest? Torture?

I was too shy to ask my sister about any of it. What If I was misreading? I would implicate myself in some kind of perversion and have to spend longer hours in confession. I would finally have something more sinister to confess than the standard sin I had been using for years – being a liar. No one could find out about this. I couldn’t fathom that my sister had spent so much time reading these books and didn’t know what was going on inside of them. I looked at her with a new kind of suspicion. I looked at her like she knew everything and I was still a child.

I even went so far as to convince myself that the “V” in V.C. stood for Victor. It was incomprehensible to me that a woman could write such things. Could envision these things! I was always reaching for darkness but didn’t understand the true limitless nature of it until I read this series. It served as a kind of awakening for me. I never thought women could write this kind of violence, inhabit such darkness. We were supposed to nurture, not destroy.

I was wrong and thrilled to have learned that lesson early in life. “V” stood for Virginia and Virginia was fearless in her writing. She helped me embrace my darkness and channel my destructive tendencies onto the page. I can thank her for that now.

April 20, 2011

Judy Blume, Vincent Bugliosi and Me

by alisongaylin

[Editor’s note: Today, we have a special guest post by writer  Alison Gaylin. Not only is Alison the Edgar-nominated author of a string of terrific thrillers, she is also the co-author (with me!) of the upcoming graphic novel, Normandy Gold, a sordid 1970s tale of small-town sheriff who comes to Washington DC to avenge the murder of her call girl sister (forthcoming, DC-Vertigo). Alison’s upcoming novel, And She Was, comes out next year. And she used to work as a tabloid reporter, which is so exotic and wonderful I feel extra lucky to count her as a friend.–MA]

When Megan first mentioned to me that it was YA week at this wonderful blog, I thought, ‘Great!’ As the mom of a nine year old, and a veteran Edgar judge in the children’s book category, I felt reasonably qualified to discuss what I’ve discovered to be a vital and exciting genre, and a real pleasant surprise for me—especially since I didn’t read many YA books as a kid.

Then Megan said, “I’d love for you to write about the YA books you read as a kid.”

Okay…

My first thought was, Does Helter Skelter count?

Because when I was in fifth grade, I stumbled across that book—my very first true crime—while trolling my parents’ drawer of grown-up books in search of The Joy of Sex. I can still remember the paperback book—the lurid title bleeding off the cover in that enticing raised red foil.

I thought it was going to be about The Beatles—until I flipped to the pictures section and saw the inside of the house on Cielo Drive, what had happened there…

I read it cover to cover, in secret. It gave me horrible nightmares. I loved it.

That book, along with all the Edgar Allen Poe stories my dad had introduced me to a year earlier, showed me an ugly, fascinating side of human nature—intricate and real as the underbelly of a bug. I couldn’t look away. While my other friends were obsessed by dragonslayers and castles—shimmering fantasy worlds they could escape into, the stories I was drawn to were the darker, all-too-real ones that made my life seem better by comparison. (No matter how horribly I’d bombed that math test, at least there wasn’t a dead body under my floorboards.)

That was the type of book I liked as a kid, and it’s probably why I went on to become a crime fiction writer myself. But I knew Vincent Bugliosi and Edgar Allen Poe wouldn’t qualify as Young Adult writers, nor would my other early favorite, Xaviera Hollander

But then I remembered someone who would.

From fourth through seventh grade, I must have read every Judy Blume book—and the strange thing is, I believe I loved them for similar reasons as Bugliosi and Poe. I never was a fan of romance or fantasy. Xaviera aside, the fictional escapes I craved were the ones that made my own life seem better, or at least, more understandable… and that’s where Judy Blume came in.

While most all the other books for girls my age featured beautiful shiny-haired heroines that oozed confidence (and yes, I’m looking at you, Nancy Drew) Blume wrote about girls with zits and weight problems and scoliosis casts and crippling anxiety. She wrote about girls who so desperately want to fit in, they find themselves—as Jill Brenner does in Blubber—becoming the very people they hate.

In short, Blume, too, was a type of dark escape. While she didn’t write about murderous cults or hidden dead bodies, she tackled the horrors of adolescence—the awkwardness, the ugliness, the cruelty and the shame—in a way that made you physically cringe while turning the pages. (While reading Deenie, I swear I could feel that scoliosis cast, digging into my sides…) But she did it with a remarkable sense of humor and a voice that was all too human.

Rather than dragging you into the tortured mind of a psychopath, Blume allowed you to make friends with a kid who was entertaining and funny, but maybe just a little bit more screwed up than you. (What was with Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret’s  heroine wanting to get her period? Was she insane?)

After reading Margaret, or  Blubber, or Deenie or even that slumber party favorite, Forever, which detailed sex in a way that romance novels never did—for all of its awkwardness and silliness and potential for heartbreak—I would come away feeling satisfied, and strangely relieved to be back in my own flawed, adolescent skin.

I’ll be honest with you: Not many people made me feel that way back then, even on occasion. Judy Blume always did.

April 15, 2011

Coming up next: YA week, with Lois Duncan!

by Sara Gran

Hey kids! Next week is going to be YOUNG ADULT week here at the Abbott Gran House of Fun! We have special guests coming, special posts by Megan and I, special book give-aways and even more specialness than that! There will be even be Megan’s interview with one of her favorite girlhood authors, YA pioneeress Lois Duncan! Plus, we hope to hear your (yes, we’re talking to YOU!) vintage YA favorites!

So stay tuned and listen to Megan and I rant about teen hookers, child psychics, the politics of YA fiction, and much more!