Hello, Everybody—nice seeing you again.
I thought August was a pretty good month for me. I’ve been feeling better and was able to get out and have a little summer fun--I went to a couple of parties, an art opening, and a wedding, and I saw Jean Nathan speak in Bryant Park about her brilliant book, “The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll.” But then I looked at the books I’ve read over the past month, and I started to wonder about what’s really been on my mind: Two of ‘em are about my childhood homeland, two of ‘em have the word “gothic” in the title, one of ‘em is about surviving in extreme circumstances, and one of ‘em made me think of a very dear, dead friend.
American Signs: Form and Meaning on Route 66, by Lisa Mahar (2002, The Monicelli Press). Is there anything better than reading a book by someone whose mind works just like yours? Lisa Mahar traveled Route 66 from Chicago to L.A. and analyzed the motel signs along the way--their history, evolution, construction, function, and the messages they convey--with charts, illustrations, and many photos. The fact that she even thought to do this thrills me, but the execution--the book itself--is even better. Here is the caption to one of my favorite illustrations: “Motels signs that included a saguaro [cactus] illustration were relatively common along Route 66, but none were located within the natural range of the species. This illustration, which locates the motels in relation to the plant’s native habitat, is based on an illustration in Douglas Towne’s ‘The Mysteries of the Wandering Cactus Unearthed.’” Okay, maybe she could have used a better copy editor, but the book is a real treasure. It’s 272 pages long, and I thought of Mr. Boyd as I read every page.
Goth-Icky: A Macabre Menagerie of Morbid Monstrosities, by Charles S. Anderson Design Co. with text by Michael J. Nelson (2005, Harry N. Abrams). You know the old Warner Bros. cartoons where Bugs Bunny tricks Elmer Fudd, and Elmer turns into a giant lolly and his head’s encased in a wrapper that says “SUCKER”? Yeah, okay. That’s me. This is the second in the series that began with “Happy Kitty Bunny Pony,” but it has some big full-page reproductions of details from old comic book backgrounds and some old Halloween art. As bad as I felt about buying it, I felt even worse for poor Michael J. Nelson. I imagined him having signed a contract to write the text for these things, and then sitting in front of his computer wishing he would go blind so he wouldn’t have to write them any more. But maybe that’s projecting. I hope he’s at least getting some money for this, ‘cause it really sounds like he’s not having any fun at all.
Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why, by Laurence Gonzales (2003, W.W. Norton & Company). I wrote a lot about this book last week in my September 5 post, “Only the Realistic Survive,” so please refer to that for more about it. For 30 years, Gonzales has studied the stories of people who have survived extreme situations--and those who haven’t--and he’s distilled his conclusions into an extremely wise book. I feel very lucky to have come across it, and I recommend that you read it, too.
O Pioneers! by Willa Cather. (1993, Dover Publications , Inc.) How did I get through high school without reading Willa Cather? Especially since I grew up in southwestern Iowa, right on the Missouri River border with Nebraska, you’d think this would have been assigned reading at some point in my public school career, but no. It’s an old-fashioned book, and I know that at some point Ms. Cather consciously chose to be a 19th-Century writer instead of a 20th-Century one, but if more fiction were like this, I would read more fiction. The thing that struck me most was the way Cather described the main character’s complete aloneness (as opposed to loneliness, which is something quite different). The character of Alexandra Bergson is written without pity; I doubt anyone could write such a character that way now. I picked this up at our local independent bookstore, which has just begun carrying the Dover Thrift Editions--$2 each, just the thing for those of us experiencing a long-term income malfunction.
American Gothic, by Steven Biel. (2005, W.W. Norton & Co.) This is a funny little history of “America’s most popular painting” by Iowa’s greatest artist, Grant Wood. Biel traces the different ways the painting’s been perceived since it was created in 1930, beginning with an attempt to pin down Wood’s actual purpose in painting it. Was it really a critique of narrow-minded, puritanical Midwesterners? Well, sure, but apparently Wood back-pedaled like crazy on that once the painting gained widespread popularity. For anyone who became familiar with “American Gothic” because of the 1960s corn flakes commercial, it’s pretty surprising to discover that the painting was at one time taken as a dead serious representation of core American values. And who knew there once were all those Iowans working so hard to try to impress H.L. Mencken? Hmmm.
I hope these wee reviews give you some ideas for your own reading list. Personally, I’m looking forward to more fun and a lot less reading in September.
Thanks for reading my blog entry, and may God bless.