My Granddaughter Has Fleas!! by Cathy Guisewite, 1989

I’m not putting in picture books, and cartoon collections are borderline, but reading Cathy prompts enough thoughts to make an entry. I will never forget Bill Griffith (Zippy the Pinhead) describing Guisewite’s style as “dropping string on the floor and photocopying it.” But the fact that she can’t draw terribly well doesn’t make it a bad strip, because she doesn’t aim beyond what she can execute. In the service of what she’s trying to accomplish, her art is exactly what’s needed. Although in many ways I’m the antithesis of the stereotype of the American woman, and I find most of Cathy’s hangups and insecurities kinda….stupid, still I like the strip. I recognize a lot of people I know in her, and yes, parts of myself too–mostly the family relationships. I acquired most of the collections available in the early 90s, and I wondered whether they would still hold up or whether I might be able to make some shelf room. Well, I still really like this one, which features Cathy getting her dog, Electra. I guess part of what makes Cathy-the-strip so appealing is its obvious autobiographical element–making it sincere where most other mainstream lowest-common-denominator strips like Garfield feel totally calculated. Sure enough, Guiswite had a collie-shepherd cross (which is exactly what Electra looks like!) named Trolley. She said Cathy waited 13 years to get the dog because that’s how long it took her to learn to draw the dog well enough–and the result is pretty cute. I also absolutely love Andrea’s 2-year-old daughter, Zenith, the encapsulation of toddler anarchy and destruction (“EEYAA!”)

Tisha: The Story of a Young Teacher in the Alaska Wilderness, as told to Robert Specht (author listed by LC as Anne Hobbs), 1976

Blogger ate this when I wrote it last week :*( but here goes again. My friend Marc Sheaffer, when he was working at Brodart (library supplies etc. company), polled librarians for their favorite books. Here are the top 100. Tisha was one of the few I’d never heard of (the others are Pillars of the Earth by Follett (not Ken, surely?) and Follow the River by Thom; there are 17 titles I haven’t tried, 7 I’ve started but didn’t finish, and 5 I can’t remember whether I’ve actually read them or not. I love most of the other 68, so it’s a good source for future reading–librarians have great taste!)

I expected this would be a heartwarming tale, but verging on sentimental/romanticized/whitewashed. Nothing of the sort. Heartwarming, yes, but very candid about the difficulties and especially the racism of the Alaskan frontier. Since it was written in the 70s, even though it’s set in the 20s, it has a level of frankness that would be unusual earlier. Anne (called “Tisha” (Teacher) by one of her students) sees the good and the bad in the people around her and is not corrosively bitter about it. And there’s a happy ending–eventually–which since it’s supposedly a true story (seems to be confirmed by witnesses), is especially gratifying. The one weird thing to me is that since Anne herself was 1/4 Native American, and she didn’t make a point of concealing it, I would have expected that to be an issue discussed one way or the other.

The jacket blurb says that Specht “is now working on a sequel to Tisha,” which he never did. Anne Hobbs Purdy wrote another book, Dark Boundary, which I’ll see if I can track down. I wonder how much of the voice is Specht and how much Anne herself; he gets all the credit on the jacket but the Library of Congress record has her as primary author, as do other sources I’ve found on the Internet. Anyway, it’s a terrific, absorbing book, and Anne is a brave and admirable character.

What About the Big Stuff? Finding Strength and Moving Forward When the Stakes Are High by Richard Carlson (2002)

Although, like most self-help authors, he has his moments of self-promotion, and some Chicken-Soup-like sentiment, I think Carlson is wise and well worth reading. Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff deserved its success, and this one is good too. Alas, when I read a book like this I think “Yes, what good advice, I should try to keep that in mind,” but within a few weeks I don’t remember anything specific at all. Mostly because self-help books hardly ever have any new ideas in them; but it’s still valuable to hear all the good old advice in new words. At least I think and hope it is. So reading chapters entitled “Treat others as if they were going to die–tonight” is good for me. If I ever get to the point in my life where I actually take notes and reflect on self-help books as I read them, Carlson’s are books I will go back to.

The only really new/unique ideas I remember coming across in self-help books are those in Neuro-Linguistic Programming, specifically the techniques of recognizing the imagined physical properties of ideas/memories (where you “see” them, how crisp the pictures are, how loud the sound) and adjusting them for desired effects (for example, make a scary idea less real by projecting it on a screen, then shrinking the picture and lowering the volume, etc.) But trying out those techniques never had much effect in my actual life. Flylady, and to a lesser extent Judith Morgenstern’s Organizing from the Inside Out, are the only self-help methods that have really made a difference to my day-to-day life.

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson, 2003

I liked Isaac’s Storm well enough–a good, workman-like job. This book is about the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, which I had never heard of until a few years ago, when I bought a huge portfolio of photos of it at the Blueberry Festival book sale. I was fascinated by the scale and grandeur of the temporary buildings. So I was eager to learn more about it, and this book was moderately satisfying on that score. It’s a bizarre combination of biography, social study, and true crime, all fairly well-done but inevitably a little disjointed. And very few photos, which is really too bad. The best part is the description of building the first Ferris Wheel, invented specifically for the fair by George W. G. Ferris (although Larson’s coy concealment of his name until the last minute, so that we don’t know ahead of time what the great centerpiece of the Fair will be, gets quite annoying). What an astounding feat to pull off perfectly on the first try! Some of the other proposals (the idea was to rival Eiffel’s tower) are amusing:

Another inventor, J. B. McComber, representing the Chicago-Tower Spiral-Spring Ascension and Toboggan Transportation Company, proposed a tower with a height of 8,947 feet, nearly nine times the height of the Eiffel Tower, with a base one thousand feet in diameter sunk two thousand feet into the earth. Elevated rails would lead from the top of the tower all the way to New York, Boston, Baltimore, and other cities. Visitors ready to conclude their visit to the fair and daring enough to ride elevators to the top would then toboggan all the way back home. “As the cost of the tower and its slides is of secondary importance,” McComber noted, “I do not mention it here, but will furnish figures upon application.”

I’m about a dozen books behind… I initially thought of ending every post with “This is probably the last post ever” (instead of the kiss-of-death “I’m going to have more time for this blog soon!”) Maybe I should start doing that now. We’ll see.

H.M.S. Surprise by Patrick O’Brian, 1973

I’m hooked on these now–no warm-up here, I enjoyed it from the start. In this volume they travel to India–great descriptive passages. Stephen Maturin becomes a more & more sympathetic character, and his unrequited love for Diana Villiers (what a fool she is!) is heart-wrenching. Jack Aubrey takes command of yet another ship, and we get to watch his instant loyalty and love for it, as well as his ability to bring the crew together. Lots of good subtext about leadership. My favorite part: Maturin’s difficult recovery from a fever turns the corner after he finds a new species of land tortoise. There’s a great bit also about a sloth he brings on board, which sleeps in the rigging.

Unusually Stupid Americans: A Compendium of All-American Stupidity, by Kathrun Petras and Ross Petras (2003)

Some things in this book made me laugh really hard–notably the product warning labels, some of which I’d seen before but I still like. Collapsible stroller: “Remove child before folding.” Good collections of stupid products, stupid things people have said, stupid tax-writeoffs, etc. and lots of good corporate stupidity and stupid greed. Unfortunately, nothing is documented and quite a few anecdotes reek of urban legend or distortion. As a kid I used to read my grandmother’s Reader’s Digests cover to cover, and I particularly liked Senator William Proxmire’s Golden Fleece awards, which were lauded by RD. Only as an adult did I learn that Proxmire typically misrepresented the scientific studies he reviled. I get the impression these authors take the same liberties, selectively playing up some aspects for their humor or “outrageousness.” Does that matter in a humor book? If it’s presented as fact, yes it does.

Mr. Bass’s Planetoid (1958) and Time and Mr. Bass (1967) by Eleanor Cameron

The last two in my Mushroom Planet collection (I’m missing A Mystery for Mr. Bass). Pretty good, like the others, not great. But the last page of Time is missing! We don’t have it at the library, either. In these later books, Cameron introduces lots of geography and some history, especially of Wales (she must be Welsh or have Welsh connections). But her portrayal of Welsh stereotypes as actually being extraterrestrial is pretty strange, when you think about it. Planetoid has yet another big-headed, childlike person with an unusual name (Prewytt Brumblydge) who turns out to be a Mycetian–you’d think Chuck and David could recognize them on sight by now. Prewytt almost makes the world explode by letting his scientific curiosity get away from him. The only reason David and Chuck need to use the spaceship is to get high enough above the earth that they can do a visual seach for Prewytt–I wonder when satellite surveillance started? I identified completely with Chuck in this passage:

“C’mon Dave–let’s go!” yelled Chuck, about to burst with impatience over his grandfather’s slow, careful deliberations. How he hated waiting while people thought. He never could understand why they just didn’t start in doing something.

Time is much more preoccupied with mythology than science fiction. The Necklace of Ta has been stolen and the gems that make it up distributed among an array of people. The gems make them crazy–obsessed with mushroom shapes and losing touch with everything that mattered to them before. The structure is that of a mystery, as Mr. Bass and the boys track the gems in search of the thief, Penmaen Parry. Stonehenge and the Arthurian legends make an appearance, and an ancient enemy called “Narrow Brain”–love that name.