It takes a little man
The Remarkable Courtship of General Tom Thumb: A Novel by Nicholas Rinaldi (Scribner, $26).
Based on the life of Charlie Stratton, a little person who was hired at age five by P.T. Barnum and became famous as Tom Thumb (after the small man in the fairy tale), Nicholas Rinaldi’s novel is fast-paced. Full of spectacle and adventure, it’s pleasing as a circus is; there’s less attention to the historical realities and more to the champagne and toasting, as Thumb and his bride, Lavinia Warren (32 inches tall to Thumb’s 35) are feted at a reception in Lincoln’s White House. 
Tom Thumb also serves a secret wartime mission for the Union and keeps spirits up in the midst of Civil War misery. Written in Tom Thumb’s voice, it sounds a bit too contemporary, but it is—like the Big Top itself—an entertaining fiction.

It takes a little man

The Remarkable Courtship of General Tom Thumb: A Novel by Nicholas Rinaldi (Scribner, $26).

Based on the life of Charlie Stratton, a little person who was hired at age five by P.T. Barnum and became famous as Tom Thumb (after the small man in the fairy tale), Nicholas Rinaldi’s novel is fast-paced. Full of spectacle and adventure, it’s pleasing as a circus is; there’s less attention to the historical realities and more to the champagne and toasting, as Thumb and his bride, Lavinia Warren (32 inches tall to Thumb’s 35) are feted at a reception in Lincoln’s White House.

Tom Thumb also serves a secret wartime mission for the Union and keeps spirits up in the midst of Civil War misery. Written in Tom Thumb’s voice, it sounds a bit too contemporary, but it is—like the Big Top itself—an entertaining fiction.

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Gettin’ Zen-ny wid it
Mindful American: The Mutual Transformation of Buddhist Meditation and American Culture by Jeff Wilson (Oxford University Press, $29.95).
Jeff Wilson, a professor of Religious Studies and East Asian Studies, has, in Mindful America: The Mutual Transformation of Buddhist Meditation and American Culture, written a fairly short and extremely insightful analysis of the mutual relationship between Buddhism and our American popular religion. 
He outlines the how the practice of meditation among average practitioners began in Asia in the 19th century—until then, it was the province of priests, monks and nuns—then attracted American interest in the mid to late 20th century. But he’s also clear that the principles of mindfulness as practiced in traditional Buddhism include a mysticism that most Americans eschew; the version of mindfulness that is in full flower here is far more populist and far less time- and energy-consuming. 
The main—and most interesting—thing about the way the Buddhism has influenced American culture is the way that it has been perceived by the public as a pan-religious practice, one that can be incorporated into other religious traditions without too much trouble. This is a far cry from the way that Buddhism is practiced in some Asian countries—for instance, the Buddhist persecution of Muslims in Myanmar and Sri Lanka. Americans tend to think of Buddhism as non-dogmatic, the very opposite of “Western” religions—and it is, at least as practiced in the West.
Wilson’s not overly judgmental, but the sort of context he provides is very useful for understanding how what Americans are doing with Buddhism differs dramatically from its traditional practice. Like spaghetti, pizza and football, when Americans get our hands on something, we make it our own.

Gettin’ Zen-ny wid it

Mindful American: The Mutual Transformation of Buddhist Meditation and American Culture by Jeff Wilson (Oxford University Press, $29.95).

Jeff Wilson, a professor of Religious Studies and East Asian Studies, has, in Mindful America: The Mutual Transformation of Buddhist Meditation and American Culture, written a fairly short and extremely insightful analysis of the mutual relationship between Buddhism and our American popular religion.

He outlines the how the practice of meditation among average practitioners began in Asia in the 19th century—until then, it was the province of priests, monks and nuns—then attracted American interest in the mid to late 20th century. But he’s also clear that the principles of mindfulness as practiced in traditional Buddhism include a mysticism that most Americans eschew; the version of mindfulness that is in full flower here is far more populist and far less time- and energy-consuming.

The main—and most interesting—thing about the way the Buddhism has influenced American culture is the way that it has been perceived by the public as a pan-religious practice, one that can be incorporated into other religious traditions without too much trouble. This is a far cry from the way that Buddhism is practiced in some Asian countries—for instance, the Buddhist persecution of Muslims in Myanmar and Sri Lanka. Americans tend to think of Buddhism as non-dogmatic, the very opposite of “Western” religions—and it is, at least as practiced in the West.

Wilson’s not overly judgmental, but the sort of context he provides is very useful for understanding how what Americans are doing with Buddhism differs dramatically from its traditional practice. Like spaghetti, pizza and football, when Americans get our hands on something, we make it our own.

Hell, with ivied walls
Dear Committee Members: A Novel by Julie Schumacher (Doubleday, $22.95).
Julie Schumacher, a faculty member at the University of Minnesota, has written the best comic academic novel of recent memory, guaranteed to make readers both laugh and cringe in equal measure,  
Jason Fitger is a prickly English professor and novelist at a small, second-tier university where financial cutbacks are stripping his creative writing program to nothing. A graduate of the famous “Seminar” (wanna bet it’s the Iowa Writer’s Workshop?),  his first novel was a big success, but it’s been downhill from there. 
His ex-wife (who also works at the university) and his ex-girlfriend (ditto) have had it with him; he’s burned bridges with colleagues, fellow writers, and his agent; the administration thinks he’s a crank. 
In short, his mid-life crisis has exposed him as a major dick. 
In Dear Committee Members, Schumacher channels the voice of a man desperate to tell the truth but not sure how to do it in epistolary form: through the seemingly endless and apparently unread letters of recommendation and academic committee memos that he writes. 
A well-done epistolary novel—rare in these days of emails and texts—we find ourselves rooting for Fitger to crack open his shell and live as honestly as he writes. While readers in MFA-biz will recognize themselves and others, even non-writers will appreciate the way Schumacher navigates that point at midlife when we’ve grown tired of the game.

 

Hell, with ivied walls

Dear Committee Members: A Novel by Julie Schumacher (Doubleday, $22.95).

Julie Schumacher, a faculty member at the University of Minnesota, has written the best comic academic novel of recent memory, guaranteed to make readers both laugh and cringe in equal measure,  

Jason Fitger is a prickly English professor and novelist at a small, second-tier university where financial cutbacks are stripping his creative writing program to nothing. A graduate of the famous “Seminar” (wanna bet it’s the Iowa Writer’s Workshop?),  his first novel was a big success, but it’s been downhill from there.

His ex-wife (who also works at the university) and his ex-girlfriend (ditto) have had it with him; he’s burned bridges with colleagues, fellow writers, and his agent; the administration thinks he’s a crank.

In short, his mid-life crisis has exposed him as a major dick.

In Dear Committee Members, Schumacher channels the voice of a man desperate to tell the truth but not sure how to do it in epistolary form: through the seemingly endless and apparently unread letters of recommendation and academic committee memos that he writes.

A well-done epistolary novel—rare in these days of emails and texts—we find ourselves rooting for Fitger to crack open his shell and live as honestly as he writes. While readers in MFA-biz will recognize themselves and others, even non-writers will appreciate the way Schumacher navigates that point at midlife when we’ve grown tired of the game.

 

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Slut-shaming starts early
The Truth About Alice by Jennifer Mathieu (Roaring Brook Press/MacMIllan, $16.99).
Here’s the simple truth: Our kids grow up in the same anti-female, anti-sex, slut-shaming culture that we live in. We haven’t fixed it yet.
And that means that girls are still subject to the sort of rumor-fueled anxiety pit that high school always was, existing just below the level of adult awareness, where reputations can be made and lost in an instant and the consequences are sometimes permanent.
That’s why young adult “problem” novels, a genre with a long tradition, have always been necessary. When well-done, fiction has the power to alter the perceptions of youths in the way that lectures from their parents—or even well-meaning adult guidance—can’t. 
After all, we’re too old to understand.
But Alice and the kids she goes to school with? They’re just like us. That’s at least a possibility for young adult readers.
In The Truth About Alice, Jennifer Mathieu has written a novel about how quickly a rumor spreads from a single text: “Alice slept with two guys in one night.”
The willingness to believe—and to pass on—rumors has profound consequences. Mathieu follows the current trend in YA novels with multiple narrators, all with their own agenda and voice. However, Alice—who is at the center of everyone’s attention—doesn’t speak for herself until the very end of the novel, which is troubling. One of the worst aspects of the rumor-mongering culture of teens (and, for that matter, of all the rest of us) is the way it appropriates the experience and silences the voice of the person at the center of the story.
That said, this is a short novel with a very realistic story arc, one that has only grown in power with the advent of social media, and is highly recommended for older tweens and teen readers.
The situation is all too real, and text messages proliferate with a power far beyond the still-troubling rumor-mongering handwritten notes of decades past. The Truth About Alice, in the hands of young readers, opens the possibility of understanding about multiple points of view and the damage that passing along a tale can do to another person.

Slut-shaming starts early

The Truth About Alice by Jennifer Mathieu (Roaring Brook Press/MacMIllan, $16.99).

Here’s the simple truth: Our kids grow up in the same anti-female, anti-sex, slut-shaming culture that we live in. We haven’t fixed it yet.

And that means that girls are still subject to the sort of rumor-fueled anxiety pit that high school always was, existing just below the level of adult awareness, where reputations can be made and lost in an instant and the consequences are sometimes permanent.

That’s why young adult “problem” novels, a genre with a long tradition, have always been necessary. When well-done, fiction has the power to alter the perceptions of youths in the way that lectures from their parents—or even well-meaning adult guidance—can’t. 

After all, we’re too old to understand.

But Alice and the kids she goes to school with? They’re just like us. That’s at least a possibility for young adult readers.

In The Truth About Alice, Jennifer Mathieu has written a novel about how quickly a rumor spreads from a single text: “Alice slept with two guys in one night.”

The willingness to believe—and to pass on—rumors has profound consequences. Mathieu follows the current trend in YA novels with multiple narrators, all with their own agenda and voice. However, Alice—who is at the center of everyone’s attention—doesn’t speak for herself until the very end of the novel, which is troubling. One of the worst aspects of the rumor-mongering culture of teens (and, for that matter, of all the rest of us) is the way it appropriates the experience and silences the voice of the person at the center of the story.

That said, this is a short novel with a very realistic story arc, one that has only grown in power with the advent of social media, and is highly recommended for older tweens and teen readers.

The situation is all too real, and text messages proliferate with a power far beyond the still-troubling rumor-mongering handwritten notes of decades past. The Truth About Alice, in the hands of young readers, opens the possibility of understanding about multiple points of view and the damage that passing along a tale can do to another person.

Friday graphic novel round-up

Displaced Persons by Derek McCulloch and Anthony Peruzzo (Image Comics, $17.99).

Fables, Vol. 20: Camelot by Bill Willingham and Mark Buckingham (Vertigo, $19.99).

In the Heart of the Beast: A Love Story by Dean Motter, Judith Dupree and Sean Phillips (Dynamite Entertainment, $24.99, 20th anniversary hard cover reissue).

This week’s graphic novel collection is a trio of big winners—these all fall into the “definitely purchase” category.

First up, Displaced Persons, in which missing persons form an epic narrative web through the history of San Francisco. While we readers get a linear family history—complete with helpful timelines between sections—we quickly learn that the people who are coming and going are moving through time.

And that means that, yes, it is possible to be your own great-great grandfather. Oh, yeah, one other thing: San Francisco is now and always has been a person.

With beautiful artwork in a sepia style, the stories take on a timeless feel, whether we’re in the early days of settlement or the take-no-prisoners go-go tech 2000s. Displaced Persons is a fresh take on time travel that doesn’t give short shrift to the genre of family epic, either.

Now, on to the latest installment of the Fables epic. It’s as if the Fables-verse can’t get rid of villains—instead, they just keep piling them up, and as veteran readers, we know this means something big is coming.

Although Prince Brandish was “vanquished,” he’s still around, though Rose has a mind to reform him. That’s a twist that sets her grieving sister, Snow, against Rose’s revival of the Knights of the Round Table. 

And of course, when Rose restarts the legend of Arthur and his knights, there are complications: The elements of the story will align themselves, whether she intends it or not. 

Add to that the activities of the now-slim Mrs. Sprat, who avoided punishment for her role with Brandish by pretending to have been his slave. Now, she’s plotting some method of keeping the wizards and witches of Fabletown from restoring Bigby Wolf. 

This latest edition has a plethora of small threads—including bits about Winter, Snow and Bigby’s daughter who’s also the North Wind, and Gepetto, who is not entirely out of the picture yet. While this volume really is an “in-between” collection, it’s setting up all the pieces for the next big catastrophe, and it’s up to the standards we’ve come to expect from Bill Willingham’s series.

Finally, Dynamite Entertainment has a 20th anniversary hard cover re-issue of In the Heart of the Beast: A Love Story. It’s a re-telling of the Mary Shelley’s famous tale of the monster Frankenstein made, with water-color based art from life, as well as some mixed-media (film clips, diaries, newspaper reports).

The gorgeous art would be reason enough to add this volume to your graphic novel library, but the re-imagining of the story is also a fresh and useful take on the traditional narrative. It’s set in the art world, where Sarah, a struggling actress who works as a waiter at museum openings, is thrown into contact with Victor. He has a poet’s soul and a missing history, and he’s the assistant to Dr. Wright, a successful plastic surgeon with several shady side-businesses and a predilection for kinky, unsafe sex.

There’s also Jacob Sistine, “artist” who creates by appropriating great works of art to “call their meaning into question.” Yeah, one of those guys.

There are more than enough new twists on the story to keep readers engaged, though of course it hues closely to the theme of monstrosity’s true nature throughout. 

In the Heart of the Beast is a classic well worth revisiting.

Being a Better Online Reader - The New Yorker

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Demons: Our Changing Attitudes to Alcohol, Tobacco & Drugs by Virginia Berridge (Oxford University Press, $29.95).
While British public health historian Virginia Berridge focuses mostly on the U.K., but her analysis of how booze, smokes and dope have been categorized and regulated is still of great interest.
For example, the use of all these substances was quite common throughout the 19th century (although generally “ladies” refrained); it wasn’t until the post-WWII era that things like drinking ages and prescription regulation came into being, mostly as a means of protecting the public.
While alcohol and tobacco have been treated as consumer products and regulated only in terms of minimum ages and licensed locations for consumption, other substances have been either medicalized—with strong prescription controls—or criminalized altogether. 
This doesn’t always make sense, and Berridge points out that the 19th century opium dens caused far fewer social problems than those caused by public intoxication and driving under the influence. She also makes some interesting observations about the rise of binge drinking, particularly among teenagers (who are legally prohibited from purchasing alcohol, as if that ever stopped anyone), in the last several decades.
The major point in her comprehensive history is that our attitudes toward substances are subject to change over time; one need only look to the surging approval for legalizing marijuana to see evidence of this historical trend in action. In short, she notes, it’s public attitudes that drive regulation; her example of anti-smoking laws following public acceptance of the hazards of smoking is a good one, as are her citation of various prohibition attempts.
Another big issue is the amount of revenue generated, not simply from sales but from government taxes. It’s hard to imagine the various federal and state governments giving up what they earn from the various “sin taxes,” and more likely that substances in addition to alcohol and tobacco will be added to the list of legal and taxed vices.
Berridge uses plenty of story-telling skill in this history, which makes it both an enjoyable and an informative book.

Demons: Our Changing Attitudes to Alcohol, Tobacco & Drugs by Virginia Berridge (Oxford University Press, $29.95).

While British public health historian Virginia Berridge focuses mostly on the U.K., but her analysis of how booze, smokes and dope have been categorized and regulated is still of great interest.

For example, the use of all these substances was quite common throughout the 19th century (although generally “ladies” refrained); it wasn’t until the post-WWII era that things like drinking ages and prescription regulation came into being, mostly as a means of protecting the public.

While alcohol and tobacco have been treated as consumer products and regulated only in terms of minimum ages and licensed locations for consumption, other substances have been either medicalized—with strong prescription controls—or criminalized altogether. 

This doesn’t always make sense, and Berridge points out that the 19th century opium dens caused far fewer social problems than those caused by public intoxication and driving under the influence. She also makes some interesting observations about the rise of binge drinking, particularly among teenagers (who are legally prohibited from purchasing alcohol, as if that ever stopped anyone), in the last several decades.

The major point in her comprehensive history is that our attitudes toward substances are subject to change over time; one need only look to the surging approval for legalizing marijuana to see evidence of this historical trend in action. In short, she notes, it’s public attitudes that drive regulation; her example of anti-smoking laws following public acceptance of the hazards of smoking is a good one, as are her citation of various prohibition attempts.

Another big issue is the amount of revenue generated, not simply from sales but from government taxes. It’s hard to imagine the various federal and state governments giving up what they earn from the various “sin taxes,” and more likely that substances in addition to alcohol and tobacco will be added to the list of legal and taxed vices.

Berridge uses plenty of story-telling skill in this history, which makes it both an enjoyable and an informative book.