We Have Always Lived in the Castle

By Shirley Jackson


Scratchboard comix artist Thomas Ott does a brilliant job evoking the serene psychosis of Shirley Jackson’s, “We Have Always Lived in the Castle.” The unsettling black and white sketch depicts a crowd gawking in subdued horror at the odd pair, in a scene reminiscent of Shirley Jackson’s best known work, her classic short story, “The Lottery.”

“We Have Always Lived in the Castle,” shares some of the same themes as, “The Lottery.”  Think ostracism, hazing, murder. I was reminded of the Brian De Palma movie version of Stephen King’s “Carrie.”  The mousy, subtly menacing girl on the cover even looks a little like Sissy Spacek, as she appeared to spectacular effect in the movie.

Shirley Jackson wrote “We Have Always Lived in the Castle,” in 1961 yet only the faintest traces of modernity slip into the narrative, a passing car a gentle reminder of what century it is.   Gothic Victorian tropes are leveraged heavily, to suitably spooky effect. Grand old homes and grand old families are depicted in an advanced state of decay. Though skeletons lurk in every closet, propriety still reigns, or tries to reign, the ever-fraying  “Old Lace” of decorum  a sort of fig-leaf to hide the violent, chaotic, poisonous impulses that lurk just beneath the surface of our selves and our society.

Jonathan Lethem writes an excellent introduction giving interesting background on Ms. Jackson’s fraught relationship with the townspeople in the college town where she lived.  “(I)t was her fate, as an eccentric newcomer in a staid, insular village, to absorb the reflexive anti-Semitism and anti-intellectualism felt by the townspeople toward the college,” Lethem writes. “The hostility of the villagers helped shape Jackson’s art.” Suddenly, the recurrent themes of persecution make sense.

Lethem goes on to link the book to “midcentury’s crypto-feminist wave of child-as-devil tales The Bad Seed and Rosemary’s Baby, and the sister-horror film Whatever Happened to Baby Jane.” I’ve never thought of any of those stories as feminist, necessarily, but that is something interesting to ponder. I’d also never considered Carrie as a feminist work, but one could make the case that she is part of a fine tradition of victim turned avenging angel, which does have a feminist flavor, and I mean that as a compliment.

Of Human Bondage

This timeless coming-of-age novel dissects, in visceral detail, the agonies and humiliations of unrequited love. Cupid really does a number on Philip Carey who falls desperately in love with a churlish tea server named Mildred. Here is a woman of no apparent redeeming quality. There is no reason why Philip should love Mildred and that is precisely the point. Love is unreasonable. Love is blind.

Mildred lets Philip take her to dinner and a show, but it’s only out of boredom and a lack of better options. When she gets a marriage proposal from a man of greater means, she casually tosses Philip aside and runs away with her new beau.

It would be easy to judge Mildred for her pathological self-centeredness and for her blunt, heartless rejection of Philip. But I don’t think we’re meant to blame her for the state of affairs. She is simply acting in accordance with the immutable laws of love and attraction. Love cannot be willed into existence, nor can it be argued away. Love is a sub-conscious process that is fully out of our control.

To illustrate the point, Maugham places Philip on the other side of the equation earlier in the novel. He has a fling with an older, more experienced woman and is shocked when he discovers she’s developed real feelings for him. He cuts her off abruptly. The woman is crushed, but further involvement is unthinkable to him, so what is he supposed to do? Maugham seems to suggest that there is nothing to be done about it. The nature of love, especially first, unrequited love, is brutal. There is no way around it. Mildred’s cruel treatment of Philip merely highlights the fact.

After the shock and awe of Mildred’s departure wears off, Philip is able to pull himself together and he settles into a comfortable relationship with a warm, maternal woman who loves him unconditionally. Happy ending? Not quite. The moment Mildred reappears in his life, broke, homeless and pregnant, Philip runs to her, as much in love as ever, leaving his dear Nora in the dust.

You’d think Mildred, in her condition, would be ready to settle down with Philip. And for a time, she does. They keep house together and make arrangements for after the baby comes. He introduces her to his best friend and, do I even need to say what happens next? This final betrayal unlocks the chains of love that had shackled Philip for so long. He is finally out from under the crushing weight of love that had burdened him.

Of Human Bondage conveys, with startling immediacy, the ways in which romantic obsession can overwhelm our better judgment. Love trumps reason, common sense, even common decency. It’s a force of nature, our wits no match for its engulfing flames, and there is nothing to do but hope you come out the other side in one piece.

Continental Drift

Continental Drift charts the downward mobility of a handful of unfortunate souls in the early 1980’s, amid the shrieking death-cries of late capitalism.

Bob Dubois is a blue-collar radiator repairman. He works his dull job and supports his wife and kids. To take the edge off the day he visits a bar near his work and enjoys the warm affections of another woman. Life is relatively stable, if a bit dreary. Anyway, one night he snaps. It’s a combination of a few factors. Mostly he is feeling guilty about sleeping with his girlfriend when he should have been buying ice skates for his daughter. He’s upset that the skates are so expensive and he’s mad that the store is closing and that he’ll be coming home empty-handed without so much as an alibi. So he throws a fit, and starts punching the windshield of his car until he smashes it in an over-the-top meltdown. It was hard for me to work up much sympathy for the man. I wanted to grab him by the shirt and say, “Why are you acting like such an immature little brat? Get a grip!”

He comes home, on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and somehow convinces his wife that what they need to do is make a fresh start in a new state. Bob remembers a summer he spent working on a boat, on the Florida coast and he feels that if he could just get back there, he’d find himself and the happiness that eludes him. Dreams of wealth and leisure glitter temptingly on the horizon.

The ease with which Bob and his wife sell their house and quit their jobs revealed a bit of datedness to the book, I thought. Selling a home in today’s treacherous real estate market would be drama enough to fill these pages. It garners barely a mention here. Walking away from a steady job of 20 years, with two children to support, comes across as far more reckless than courageous. Job security like that doesn’t exist anymore, so tossing it away seems unforgivably wasteful. You get the sense of people heading straight off a cliff, whether they know it or not.

But off they go. Of course, the moment the family arrives in their new home, it becomes apparent that their fantasies of the easy life have little bearing on reality. Bob’s brother has given him a job managing one of the liquor stores he owns, but it pays barely enough to pay for their shabby trailer home. The brother is a boorish character upon whom the entire family is now dependent. He’s a quintessential 1980’s man, ruled by a crude, materialistic ethos. There is an unbearable scene in which his wife describes buying a boat, on a lark, as a surprise birthday present for her husband. The couple is dripping with money and it is obvious to everyone but Bob that the man is involved in a serious drug running operation. His ever-expanding business empire looks more and more like a money-laundering scheme as time goes on. Beneath the shiny surfaces of “success” lies a dank world of corruption, greed and doom.

A dislocating culture shock unsettles Bob when his brother forces him to keep a gun behind the register. He wants nothing to do with the thing, but it isn’t long before he finds occasion to fire it, in an unthinkable break with his former self. Claustrophobia, paranoia and fear hang about the characters like a sickening, choking fog, yielding predictably terrible results. Adrenaline is always high, and the characters are always on the cusp or in the throes of catastrophe.

Continue reading

The Last Werewolf

Fuckkilleat. Fuckkilleat. This is the biological imperative every werewolf must heed. But after two hundred years of this routine, world-weary werewolf Jake Marlowe has had enough. Enough of the full moon gore-fests, enough of his unrelenting sex drive, enough of the inescapable guilt and shame that attend the life of the half man/ half beast. He’s the last of his species, and good riddance as far as he’s concerned.

He was happy once. He married a vivacious, romantic-ideal of a woman and they were deeply in love. Then he ate her. Tooth and claw and a few hundred years to ponder the meaning of it all. He’s condemned to a life of near-eternal damnation; condemned by his own, inescapable nature.

Philosophical, theological and literary references roll right off the narrator’s lycanthropic tongue.  But in spite of the intellectual titillation, The Last Werewolf hits you with gut-pummeling force. Imagine Rocky Balboa, down in the meat locker, slugging away at a hulking carcass of muscle and bone. This is tough, sinewy prose to tear your teeth into.

Be forewarned, Mr.Duncan serves up very hearty portions of sex and violence. Lots of explicit, illicit sex. Animal sex. Decapitation, disembowelment, severed arteries gushing blood, the works. The Last Werewolf veers into pornographic territory from time to time, but occasionally animal physicality propels the action into a realm of spiritual transcendence. “…the sudden plunge tore us out of our bodies and for an unmeasurable moment returned us to the thing that wasn’t God but the aspect of him that was ours, and in which infinitely generous archetype there was neither her nor me but only the rapture that calls you home to unity with the sweetest song and painlessly burns away the straps and buckles of the suffering self.”

The narrative sputters through a handful of very standard action-movie sequences. Gunmen, walkie talkies. Spy vs. spy stuff. Nothing you haven’t seen in a hundred thousand action thrillers. Half a dozen characters fade in and out of the narrative, dutifully marking plot points, weaving loose ends, leaving little trace in the imagination.

A few bit players do make brief, memorable turns, like the music executive in his secluded “sub-Frank Lloyd Wright pad,” an immaculate space of “elephantine white” upholstery, and floor to ceiling windows. You just know the guy is dead meat.

A satirical tone buoys the frequent grotesqueries. Normally I have almost zero tolerance for graphic violence, but there is an almost comical, “Shawn of the Dead” quality about this book that lends a levity to the darkest gallows humor. “Nothing like the blood and meat of the young,” the werewolf confesses. “You can taste the audacity of hope.” A fitting parable for these grisly times.

There are also moments of quiet devastation. Werewolves can’t have children. When Jake breaks the news to his mate, he observes the way the news registers in her body. “I felt it go into her, find the place already there for it.” It is as if, within an instant, time has slowed down, like a replayed clip of a terrible sports accident. A haunting ache for children, unborn children, recurs throughout the story. Even our obnoxious music big-wig flashes, in his last moments of consciousness, that he’d wished for son he could teach music. That longing lends The Last Werewolf a tender underside that makes you want to hold the book to your chest.

The ivory pages, curlicue italics, and red-tipped edges give the book an antique aura. Its almost as if you really have unearthed the centuries old diary of a werewolf. E-books are wonderfully convenient, but the physical book, when designed as well as this, is a very special thing. So, take The Last Werewolf under the covers and cuddle up- if you dare. This is passionate, energetic writing worth savoring.

Swamplandia!

Ghost lovers, abandoned theme parks and teenage alligator wranglers. These are just a few of the many odd delights the amazingly talented Karen Russell conjures in the masterful Southern Gothic, Swamplandia! Not since Geek Love has a novel painted such a luscious portrait of family life in the rich, seedy underground of B-rated, sideshow entertainment.

The swampy smell of decay sticks to these pages. Dreams spoil in the unforgiving sun. People die, cruelly young, or else linger indefinitely in a limbo of demented obsolescence. Supernatural forces lurk in the margins. It is a treacherous journey into the dark heart of the Sunshine State; the sparkling jewels of Ms. Russel’s simile-studded prose, the only light to see.

American Pastoral

American Pastoral is a rise and fall of civilization story. Our hero, “The Swede,” is an idealized, all-American success story. He’s a brilliant high school athlete, and the cherished son of an immigrant family. He builds a factory from the ground up, making women’s gloves, from a time when women wore gloves. He marries a

beauty queen. They buy a comfortable house just outside of town and they have a daughter.

 His factory soldiers on through the battering waves of American industrial history. Race riots rage in the streets and the Swede just keeps going, keeping his small band of employees working. His wife goes on to own and operate a cattle ranch. Work and enterprise are the saving forces, the noble pursuits.
Meanwhile, their daughter grows up to be a kind of deranged political activist. She falls under some radical influences and gradually adopts a fully unhinged philosophy that has her bombing government buildings and going on the run. She ends up in a squalid lean-to, in a no-man’s land under a freeway. Her teeth are rotted and her face is covered in accordance with an obscure religious sect she subscribes to. It’s not a pretty picture.

The book ends on a dark note, with the American dream defiled. It leaves a bitter taste.

Millennium People

Protest is one of the central themes of the book, and it is presented in an exaggerated, absurdist manner. An animal rights protest at a cat show results in a convention center’s worth of terrorized animals pissing in unison. The scene crystallizes (at least for me) the questionable utility of direct action protest. (Not at all sure this was the author’s intent, but this is what I took from it as it confirms my own feelings about the misplaced anger, insufferable self-righteousness, and outright chaos that results from this kind of political action.)

From there, the story becomes more and more absurd as an entire neighborhood of affluent suburbanites abandon their gated community, abdicating their civic responsibilities and setting fire to cultural meccas for the energizing jolt it gives them. A poorly articulated philosophy is thrown about here and there to justify the actions, but it is the thrill of destruction that is the true motivator.

I was reminded of one of my all time favorite books, “Friend of the Earth” by T.C. Boyle. There is a similar thread in that book of the vaguely unsatisfied but otherwise upstanding individual giving themselves to an activist cause and going completely off the deep end with it. Violence and destruction (for a good cause!) offer the means to a new and improved identity for the disaffected man. When the environmental activists in “Friend of the Earth” actually set fire to a second growth forest to stress the importance of their philosophical purity, the absurdity of extremism is laid bare. (The parallels with the Tea Party and their idiotic insistence on “No New Taxes Ever” spring easily to mind.)

The terrorist tactics of the characters in “Millenium People” also bring to mind the recent horrors in Norway. Though much has been made of the ideology of the shooter, I feel like the violence itself is the most relevant issue, as it is for me in this book. Who cares what “reason” people use to justify their violence and vigilantism? It shouldn’t matter, because taking up arms and wreaking havoc is morally indefensible. All the discussion and parsing of various manifestos of mass murderers obscures the only relevant issue which is the violence itself. What I take away from this book is the idea of mindless protest dressed up as something noble, and getting quickly out of hand.

The Long Goodbye

I pictured this story in cinematic detail; black and white, with the the occassional flash of a pale green gimlet or blood red manicure. The dialogue is razor sharp. Marlowe is the master of the put-down punchline. Quick-draw sarcasm and withering retorts are his forte, which, along with piercing intuition and intelligence, keep him just above the fray. If he takes a personal interest in a case he’s tenacious in tracking down the truth, however inconvenient the truth may be. The scenarios are preposterous, and the plot devices obvious, but that does not detract from the pleasure of watching the detective heed his own conscience, do right by a friend, and uncover the dirty laundry and lies of the filthy rich in Los Angeles at the mid-century.

New Year’s Sorting

I’m trying to organize all of my writing in one place.  The preceding book reviews were all posted to GoodReads last year. I’ll continue to collect and post work here.

GoodReads has been so wonderful about helping me keep track of my reading and writing.  They helped establish my identity as a reader and, amazingly, possible book reviewer. Here are some of the books I was inspired to write about last year, with alternating currents of admiration and frustration.

http://www.goodreads.com/review/list/82814?shelf=read

Raiding the Shelves

For all the difficulty involved in traveling across the country during the emotionally-spiked holiday season, there are some definite benefits.  Perhaps the very best is taking a gander at the parents’ bookshelves and helping myself to a few selected works.  Between the storage bins in the garage, the shelves around the living room, and the particleboard credenza in the guest bedroom, I can usually find a handful of must-haves  to come home with me.  This time I picked up, “Roger Ebert’s Book of Film: From Tolstoy to Tarantino, the finest writing from a century of film,” which should keep me well-gorged into the new year.  I was suckled on “At the Movies,” and now, through Roger Ebert’s Facebook page, Twitter account and blog, I continue to find sustenance from his enduring voice.

One of my favorite selections in the anthology is a Rex Reed interview/essay on Ava Gardner. Ms.Gardner becomes very candid, confiding in her interviewer that she never had a good man. “Sinatra?” the interviewer prompts, helpfully. “No comment,” the delicious, mysterious response.  Ava and Rex spend an afternoon together and its all very liquid and intimate and wonderful.
I was also taken with a John Updike essay on one of his great screen loves, Doris Day,which lends all kinds of new depth to the cut-out character.  Updike is a superb essayist (and novelist, of course) so I was thrilled to finally get a copy of Higher Gossip, the posthumously published collection of his essays on art- from sculpture to Snoopy. The man’s writing is a gift to humanity (and he wouldn’t deny it.) The personal essays about retirement in the southwest, “where we come to put our striving to rest,” articulate his cultural elite status, but he’s always honest and straightforward about who he is. He’s not ashamed to admit to retiring on a golf course. Hey, he earned it.

A special touch on the Roger Ebert film book is the sale sticker slapped on the front cover: “Cody’s Books: Bargain Bin- $5.98”    My dad grew up in Berkeley and so we visited the fine town a couple of times a year to celebrate Christmas and birthdays with my grandparents.  No trip was complete without a pilgrimage to Cody’s Books.  Curious to know if the bookstore makes an appearance in  Michael Chabon’s new book. How could it not? I remember the bookstore with a great glass pane entrance and a flower stand in front. It will be fun to compare notes.

The next little gem in my pilfered collection is the 60 cent Signet paperback, “Stern,” by Bruce Jay Friedman.  Time magazine declared the novel “HUGELY COMIC AND HORRENDOUSLY REAL.”  The first 50 pages read like a white-knuckle ride through 1960’s suburban hell.  The man Stern has all this anxiety about gardening.  The caterpillars are taking over and he is freaking out. Some idiot looks up his wife’s skirt and hurls a racial slur at him which begins to eat away at his inner peace. Good thing the book is short because it is very angsty and I can only take so much.

Here is an eeire coincidence: a ticket stub for Wagner’s “Die Walkure” slipped out of the paperback book as I opened it.   The thing is, we had *just* gone to see David Cronenberg’s (ghastly) “A Dangerous Method”  about the proud mysticist Carl Jung and his theories about coincidence. There is a scene where Jung plays a piece from the opera “Die Walkure” as part of a psychological experiment at his clinic. He has his mad mistress/patient record the reactions to the music from the audience.  So then, to come home and see a ticket stub from a long ago performance of the same name is just a perfect piece of synchronicity, a phenomenon Carl Jung expounded upon in his work. I’m just not sure the movie really does the man justice. The takeaway message that the “batshit crazy” mental patient just needed a good spanking to self-actualize is wrong in so many ways, I don’t know where to start. Then there is the scene where she is mashing up her food with her hands and it looks like feces? Again, pointlessly degrading. Why? I will say the art direction was beautiful throughout. The lighting, costumes, set design, the look of it all was lovely. Artistically, I would put it miles ahead of say, The Descendents, which was mediocre at best and yet is getting  accolades from the Art Director’s Guild, of all places. The Hawaiian music soundtrack must have lulled everyone into a feeling of happy satisfaction. I was immune to its charms, apparently.

Getting back to books, I’m happy to say I took with me from the guest bedroom closet at my parent’s house, “The Emotions and The Enneagram.” The enneagram is my go-to self-help mystical system of choice. Psycho-pharmacology is interesting, but I think there are other tools for integrating and transforming the personality. I think some of Laura Dern’s character, Amy Jellicoe, in the HBO series,“Enlightened” is wearing off on me. I love the scene where Amy and her rehab buddy, played to surfer-girl perfection by Robin Wright, go to a new age bookstore together.  Girl dates at metaphysical bookstores are sorely missing from my life. Next time I’m in LA, I’m going to visit The Bodhi Tree. I thought it closed, but it looks like it is still there, just under new ownership. Another excellent New Age book shop, Alexandria II, relocated awhile ago and I’ve yet to visit them in their newly expanded space. There is probably a whole section of the store devoted to family dynamics and I could probably use to spend some time there.

Update: What is this? Reverse synchronicity? Anti-manifestation? Aaargh!

The Art of Cruelty

Artists’ fixation on violence, brutality and depravity has always bothered me. Seeing audiences line up to look at art of this nature bothers me even more. The appeal of popular films, even critically acclaimed movies such as Pulp Fiction, for example, I take to be a sign of deep cultural sickness. So, I started this book with a feeling of real gratitude that someone was addressing the subject in such a sensitive and scholarly way and I was really hoping to come to a more informed understanding of, to use an appalling term, “torture porn” and to get a better handle on my overwhelming aversion to it. The author proves at the outset to be a trustworthy guide and makes you feel that your own reactions are OK, whatever they are.

Somewhere in the middle of this journey, through avant-garde art galleries and basement performance spaces, I began to wish I’d stayed home. As much as I want to better understand the subject of violence and cruelty in art, there is only so far into the muck I am willing to wade. Nearly every single work she cites seemed to me so sordid and vile, I just couldn’t look anymore nor hash out the politics of viewership. Whatever demons the featured artists are exorcising are not my demons. I don’t have to look at any of it, I have the power of refusal, I can walk out. The author asserts that right for herself, and in so doing, gives her readers that power as well.

The Marriage Plot

Jane Eyre has finally gotten on my nerves. The first 350 pages, I was right there with her. The scenes of emotional  and physical deprivation from her childhood are bruisingly moving. You can feel her character being cast by these terrible circumstances. You have nothing but admiration for her bravery in the face of every hardship.

I enjoyed Jane and Edward’s unpredictable conversations and the crackling charge between them. The moment he asks her to marry him, however, that unpredictable alchemy between them dissipates. Though Jane is rosy and aglow with Edward’s avowal of love and marriage, I lost interest in their relationship once it took on the ordinary task of planning a wedding.

When Jane learns of  Edward’s cast-off wife, the “madwoman in the attic,” she flees the mansion and runs through the night. She makes a bed in the forest and begs for trough scraps by day.  I thought to myself, if she doesn’t mind subjecting herself to humiliation like this, then why doesn’t she just accept the humiliation of living in sin, without a valid marriage license? If she is such a bold, creative, independent individual, then why does she cling to such rigid formalities? If she and Edward want to be together, they should. But Jane elects to punish them both by taking a dramatic, even adolescent departure. Maybe that is why the book is a traditional recommendation for young adult/teenage readers.

In the end, Jane goes back to Edward. The pesky wife dies, a little too conveniently, I thought. Jane receives an inheritance, again, a little too conveniently, and now she can marry on equal terms. If the author is making the point that independent wealth is a precondition to pure equality within a marriage, I tend to agree.  Alas, it is not a situation many people find themselves in.  Most of us have to deal with the indignity of being financially dependent on a romantic or marital partner at some point in our lives.  Rarely does a deus ex machina trustfund pop up in the eleventh hour. We may even have to deal with the odd, crazy ex in a spouse’s history.  You have to deal with it, get over it and move on. Or at least try.

Here’s a question: Why does Jane never suspect that maybe Edward was the reason his wife went insane?  Certainly, locking her in the attic and pretending she doesn’t exist didn’t help the mental health situation. If Edward were really a gentleman, he would be by her side. Perhaps she was angry, justifiably so, and Edward’s insensitive reactions just sent her over the edge. There are many possibilities here. Anyway, if I were Jane, I would be on the lookout for mental and emotional abuse in the future.  Jane doesn’t actually know Edward all that well when she marries him. She won’t know that until they are married a long time. The fact that he goes blind hopefully humbles him enough that he doesn’t try to control her as he clearly did with his first wife. Jane is very emotional, but she is a clear thinker and an equal match of wits to Edward. Hopefully these assets are enough to protect her from his dominating impulses throughout their married lives.

Jane Eyre is still, mostly, a very good role model. There were days I felt inspired by her courage and strength of spirit. I hope I can channel her as needed through life. I’ll be forever asking myself, “What would Jane Eyre do?”

A Very Young Skater

Do you remember the series of exquisite photo-journals by Jill Krementz that came out in the 70’s?  I had the skater and dancer books about real girls dedicating themselves to their sports. Ambitious, athletic  girls that pushed themselves to achieve something out of the ordinary.

The children’s book world would really benefit from a resurgence of non-fiction,  photo-filled books like those seen in  “The Very Young,” book series.  A new generation of like-minded books wouldn’t need to be big hardbound things either, like in days of yore.  They could be inexpensive soft-cover floppies, bought in sets, so that you could  survey a bunch of different sports and activities.  Softcover books  sometimes hold up better anyway, since there isn’t a loose paper jacket to rip.

The important thing is that kids have exposure to a wide variety of media depicting people positively engaged in some activity. How about, “A Very Young Skateboarder,” or “Parkour for the Very Young,” or, maybe, “A Very Young Game Programmer”?

I think books like Ms.Krementz’ classics and the hypothetical titles I just listed, might offer young readers inspiration, rather than mere diversion, which is most of what’s on offer today.

Update: Mind blown! There were many more book titles in the series that continued in to the 80’s and 90’s than I ever knew.  A Very Young Actress.  A Very Young Circus Performer. They even came out in paperbacks. So cool.

Tom Tomorrow

I’m a long time fan of his work. His instant-classic comics appear, if you are lucky,  in your local alt-weekly newspaper. Tom Tomorrow has the unmatched ability to lay bare the surrealism of our political discourse. Squeaky clean 1950’s archetypes spout mindless talking points like machines, unaware of how badly they have gone off the rails. The absurdity of it all becomes crystal clear.  It is always a wild ride with Tom Tomorrow at the helm. And yet, the weekly installments leave you feeling more grounded on earth, even as our space cadet  leaders threaten to shoot us all to deep space nine.

A couple of years ago I was excited to see that he’d put out a children’s book called, “The Very Silly Mayor.”  It says a lot about this pointed political satirist that he was able to create a book, which affirms a pro-civic-engagement message without taking any partisan political side. It doesn’t tell kids to be Democrats or Republicans or Anarchists. What it does is demonstrate the  crucial importance of being actively involved in civic matters.

The Very Silly Mayor is an update on The Emperor’s New Clothes, but much sillier and funnier.  Confronting political craziness and engaging with elected officials, making sure they aren’t losing touch with reality- these are the requirements of a functioning democracy.  The book deals with the psychology of speaking out about the silly ideas that sometimes come tumbling out of our elected officials offices. Everyone knows the mayor is full of it, but nobody wants to risk speaking up and getting laughed at. Kids can relate to that. Tom Tomorrow even demonstrates the way that the media contributes to group think, which is a tall order for a book for children, but he totally pulls it off.

So many kids’ books these days lack any point, they seem so slight and ethereal. They don’t have any words, or not the words that kids need to know.  Their main value seems to be in lulling children to sleep. A worthy goal, but surely not the most important quality in children’s lit.  I’d like to see more concrete concepts portrayed in all children’s media.  Good kids’ books should make kids think and “The Very Silly Mayor” does just that.