Michael Sims

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“Would you like to edit a vampire anthology?” the editor asked me.

“Vampires?”

Victorian vampires,” George clarified.

“I’m your man.” Fresh from writing my fourth book about natural science, I jumped at the thought of a holiday jaunt across misty moors.

The whole project was fun, but the best part was merging the two channels of my career: writing about nature and editing anthologies of fiction. After two collections of Victorian and Edwardian crime stories, this was my first venture into supernatural tales. I planned to include the stories that mark the moment when European writers turned folklore into a mythology of aristocratic decadence and the betrayal of innocence. In the vampire Bible, this collection would be Genesis.

To make this work I realized I had to write a natural history of vampires. So cousin Fritz is coming back from the grave to drink the blood of his widow— This idea did not come out of nowhere. Which natural phenomena were misinterpreted as supernatural evidence of vampires?

First, what can we say about vampires?

1) They’re dead.
2) Despite this considerable obstacle, they’re coming back from the grave.
3) So therefore they’re not really, exactly, precisely dead—not, you know, totally dead dead.
4) They vant to drink your blood.

All the rest varies. Some vampires are very pale, but then so is Taylor Swift, and she’s not a vampire. Probably. Some flee from a cross the way Superman dodges kryptonite, but others could march into a Baptist revival and not blink an eye. Many have a serious case of death breath, but clearly some sparkly tousled young boy vamps do not, or moody teenage girls would not be so eager to kiss them.

Death now is sanitized. How often do you see a dead body except on CSI? But until the last century this wasn’t the case. Often a vigil was held over the dear departed before the corpse—in those days before embalming—was hustled off to the grave. Traitors and murders were executed in public and their bodies left hanging on a gibbet. Rival religious factions might dig up each other’s dead and feed them to their dogs. Back then practically everybody could have whispered, “I see dead people.”

Often they saw corpses again after burial. Cemeteries were overcrowded, bodies stacked and spilling out, causing rampant disease, as well as insomnia-inspiring glimpses of your deceased Aunt Inga. People had strong ideas about what was normal in the grave, but like most of our ideas they had very little basis in reality. Any variation from this mythical norm was weighed as possible evidence of vampirism, in a thoughtful analysis reminiscent of this scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

What if you saw blood around a corpse’s lips? Often bodies were buried upside down, and because they were buried soon after death the blood pooled at the lowest points, which included the mouth. What about skin that seems to be glowing with life? Decomposition can cause skin to look flushed again after it loses its outer layer. What if you knew someone who couldn’t take sunlight? Perhaps he had porphyria, some kinds of which cause light sensitivity. What if dead hands looked like claws? Skin pulls away from the nails, making them look longer. The list goes on and on.

The most important thing I learned—feel free to take notes—is how to predict who might come back as a vampire. The list includes murderers, their victims, battlefield dead, the drowned, stroke victims, the first person to fall in an epidemic, heretics, wizards, and people who talk to themselves. And alcoholics. And grumpy people. And don’t forget women of ill repute. Oh, and redheads.

Michael Sims collects tales of the vampires throughout literature in the anthology Dracula's Guest: A Connoisseur's Collection of Victorian Vampire Stories. He has brown hair.

 

 

“Would you like to edit a vampire anthology?” the editor asked me. “Vampires?” “Victorian vampires,” George clarified. “I’m your man.” Fresh from writing my fourth book about natural science, I jumped at the thought of a holiday jaunt across misty moors. The whole project was fun, but the best part was merging the two channels […]
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Many Irish women and men probably tire of the official version of themselves that is packaged for export nowadays. From the hammering heels of Lord of the Dance to the manic comedy of Waking Ned Devine, books, films and Broadway extravaganzas portray the children of the Emerald Isle (both natives and their descendants) as devout but hard-drinking, sentimental but hard-bitten and colorful to the point of gaudiness.

Several new books alternately confirm and refute this national stereotype. Among the more comprehensive recent accounts is Patrick Bishop's The Irish Empire: The Story of the Irish Abroad. The stories range through the Dromberg stone circle in Cork, New York politicians, the English invasion and oppression of Ireland, lyrical poetry, prison uprisings, shipboard squalor, urban exploitation, religion and political activism. The scope is surprising, for such a brief and comprehensible and well-illustrated book. It's beautiful to look at, but also rich in anecdotes.

Bishop tells, for example, the fascinating Bonnie-and-Clyde epic of Ned Kelly, an Irishman in Australia. Kelly imbibed stories of oppression and outrage at his mother's knee and grew up contemptuous of authority and particularly scornful of Irish policemen, whom he considered traitors. Inevitably he clashed with the abusive, nationalist, class-obsessed rulers. Next, turn to two books that address the American experience. A good place to start is Greatest Irish Americans of the 20th Century, edited by Patricia Harty. At one point the Irish made up 10 percent of all immigrants into the United States. In these 200 oversized pages, you find out some of the consequences of that influx. Included are labor and religious leaders, actors, writers, politicians, gangsters. Everyone is here: Michael Flatley and Grace Kelly, Margaret Bourke-White and Georgia O'Keeffe, John McEnroe and Mark McGwire. No other designation besides "fellow Irish" would corral both Dorothy Day and Andrew Greeley in the same subset.

On the same theme is Maureen Dezell's Irish America: Coming Into Clover, with the second subtitle "The Evolution of a People and a Culture." A staff writer for the Boston Globe, Dezell writes entertainingly and provides rather more historical perspective than Harty does in her browser book. She also goes further back than the recently departed century. Dezell gets into some surprising and fascinating topics. These even include an analysis of the ways the Irish rib each other about everything, comparing the habit to certain aspects of humor among African Americans. She also looks at how female purity and passivity were drilled into the new young Irish Americans after the Famine, and how stereotypes became scapegoats in all sorts of situations. She even thoughtfully critiques anti-Irish attitudes in E. L. Doctorow's novel Ragtime.

Not surprisingly, Ireland has produced an array of wonderful writers. You can find the ultimate sampler of them in a new book edited by Susan Cahill, For the Love of Ireland: A Literary Companion for Readers and Travelers. In a nice original touch, these poems, essays, stories and excerpts from novels are grouped by county and province. Naturally, you will find Sean O'Faolain and James Joyce, William Butler Yeats and Samuel Beckett. But you may be surprised to run across Lorrie Moore, Edna Buchanan and Joyce Cary. There are fine later poets such as Seamus Heaney and Eavan Boland, too, providing an almost musical accompaniment to the beautiful, textured prose around them. For the Love of Ireland has the virtue of following each author's contribution with a note entitled "For the Literary Traveler." These detailed asides get you out to the sites described, warn you about ways in which they have changed and provide lovely cultural footnotes to the main entries.

By now, of course, you will have called your travel agent. Before you go to Ireland yourself, however, read Pete McCarthy's first book, McCarthy's Bar: A Journey of Discovery in the West of Ireland. Then take it with you. McCarthy is a journalist and performer well known on radio and TV in Britain. His book is along the lines of Bill Bryson's Notes From a Small Island. To discover the roots and test the validity of his fascination with his mother's homeland, McCarthy travels throughout Ireland. One of his travel rules is Never Pass a Bar That Has Your Name on It. This is a smart and funny book, and not just because McCarthy learns that there are a great many pubs in Ireland named McCarthy's Bar. He has to plan elaborate strategems to escape the convivial habitués. Along the way he encounters, and recreates for us, some hilarious conversations. Consider this response to his desire to eat an actual meal rather than continue to subsist on fermented liquids: "You're on holiday. You can eat when you're at home. Have a bag of nuts, why don't ya?"

And now for the dark side of this famously hospitable land. Ireland's critically acclaimed and popular novelist Patrick McCabe is back with a scary new book, Emerald Germs of Ireland. No quaint, cheerful volume, this although McCabe is certainly darkly humorous, in a Hitchcockian way. The author of The Butcher Boy and Breakfast on Pluto tells the story of Pat McNab, who definitely murders his mother and who possibly, just possibly, becomes a serial killer. This particular Irish outing is unlikely to become a dance anytime soon, although it would make a good movie. Although this book is in helpfully distancing third-person, its dark psychology may remind you of the twisted narrators of McCabe's fellow Irishman John Banville.

If, after this survey course, you'd like to get in touch with your own Irishness, you can turn to a helpful book by Dwight A. Radford and Kyle J. Betit, A Genealogist's Guide to Discovering Your Irish Ancestors. While not exactly sparkling with scintillating prose, it supplies advice, methods and highly specific references, including a number of fruitful research avenues you would never think of on your own. Replete with case studies and bibliographies, this book seems like the last word on its topic.

Like most history books, these new volumes remind us of the quirks of fate that shape the daily lives of future generations. As a historian once pointed out, if not for the potato famine of the 1800s, John F. Kennedy would have been born an Irishman, not an American.

Michael Sims is fond of Irish coffee and greatly admires redheads.

 

Many Irish women and men probably tire of the official version of themselves that is packaged for export nowadays. From the hammering heels of Lord of the Dance to the manic comedy of Waking Ned Devine, books, films and Broadway extravaganzas portray the children of the Emerald Isle (both natives and their descendants) as devout […]
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For a book-loving child, nothing is more exciting than a row of unread volumes in a newly discovered fiction series. It may sound strange, but it's true: characters in books can become the most reliable friends in a young person's life. A century ago kids were reading the Boxcar Children. Then Tom Swift flew onto the scene with a new invention under each arm. Four generations have cut their teeth on the reckless escapades of the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, whose fresh adventures are now packaged to resemble more contemporary favorites, like the Babysitters Club and Sweet Valley High. These days, as everybody knows, the series most young readers are anxiously following is the one featuring the boy with the lightning-shaped scar on his forehead. Every Muggle child on Earth, it seems, is walking around with a J.K. Rowling book in his or her hand, talking about Harry and Ron and Hermione as if they sit beside them at school. Thanks largely to Rowling, who single-handedly inspired the children's bestseller list, fantasy series in general are flourishing. In fact, we've discovered several worthy alternatives to the Potter chronicles. In between updates from Hogwarts, kids can turn to the exciting new series spotlighted below.

Battling the Queen of Elves
Terry Pratchett is the author of, among many other things, the Discworld books, a series set in a crazy world where magic works (sometimes), and children and frogs converse like Monty Python characters. Pratchett's books have sold more than 27 million copies worldwide. An utterly unpredictable author, he seems to have cobbled together Discworld from medieval superstitions, Victorian novels and a host of fairy tales, all of which are filtered through his modern and intelligent sensibility. His books are often both suspenseful and funny. Best of all, he doesn't cushion his satirical punches. In the recent Carnegie Award-winning The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents, a cat rants about government, and rats debate what happens after death. In the latest Discworld volume, The Wee Free Men, smart young Tiffany Aching finds herself uneasily allied with a wild clan of six-inch-high blue men who help her battle the Queen of the Elves. Along the way, she bests villains, monsters and patronizing adults.

Pratchett's dialogue, as always, is outrageously funny. It's typical of him to put a new spin on classical creatures like fairies and leprechauns. The flying fairies in The Wee Free Men are as scary as the flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz, and Pratchett's grimhounds are fully worthy of The Hound of the Baskervilles. But the chief delight here is the character of Tiffany, a tough, bright heroine.

A one-of-a-kind hero
Any child who has wearied of the virtuous and heroic Harry Potter will delight in the subversive series about Artemis Fowl, written by Irish novelist Eoin Colfer. Artemis, it appears, is giving Harry a run for his money. The third installment in his adventures, Artemis Fowl: The Eternity Code, has a first printing of 250,000 copies. Colfer's young hero is a genius, a criminal mastermind who concocts world-class schemes usually involving stolen Fairy technology. It's easy to imagine the pleasure a young reader will have following his newest escapades. The Eternity Code is a wild tale replete with spies, high-tech inventions, unreliable magic and military centaurs. Artemis' adventures occur all over Earth and, not surprisingly, elsewhere. This time around, the young whiz has constructed a supercomputer from Fairy secrets that, of course, he stole. Does he pay for his crimes? In misadventures, yes.

A cross between Han Solo, Harry Potter and Encyclopedia Brown, Artemis is a one-of-a-kind. With such a wild inheritance Colfer's novels seldom veer toward cliché. His books are long and solid and, like Pratchett's, they lack illustrations. These are stories for older readers who are ready to sink their teeth into a meaty novel.

The amazing Graces
Tony DiTerlizzi is the artist responsible for last year's acclaimed picture book The Spider and the Fly. Before tackling children's books, he illustrated games such as Dungeons &and Dragons and the trading card series Magic the Gathering. Lately, he has focused his talents on a five-book series co-created with fantasy novelist Holly Black. "The Spiderwick Chronicles," a new series from Simon and Schuster, tell the story of the three Grace siblings twins Jared and Simon and their older sister Mallory. When their parents divorce, they move with their mother into a relative's decrepit old house. Jared, the trouble-prone underachiever, is the viewpoint character. In the attic he finds a field guide to faeries and soon sees evidence of them all around the premise upon which the books are based. The first two Spiderwick entries are The Field Guide and The Seeing Stone. The first suspenseful volume lays the necessary groundwork and permits the reader to eavesdrop on Jared's initial puzzling discoveries. Packed with misadventures that will inspire sympathy in readers, both books are fast-paced, with line drawings and full-color paintings that are richly detailed. This fall, the Grace kids' adventures will continue with the publication of Lucinda's Secret.

A dreadful scene
The first book in a trilogy by popular children's author Philip Ardagh, A House Called Awful End stars 11-year-old Eddie Dickens. The first sentence will pull in readers who enjoy Roald Dahl and Lemony Snicket: "When Eddie Dickens was eleven years old, both his parents caught some awful disease that made them turn yellow, go a bit crinkly around the edges, and smell of old hot-water bottles." The hero is named Dickens for a reason. The story takes place in a kind of cartoon-Dickensian London, and Eddie runs into enough misfortunes and eccentrics for an Oliver Twist or a David Copperfield. Dreadful Acts, the sequel to Awful End, has just been published, and the third installment in the series will arrive in the fall. Although it lacks the wit and sophistication of the Discworld and Artemis Fowl tales, the series is endlessly jokey and playful. Many a child will laugh aloud at parenthetical snide remarks, and the illustrations by David Roberts have a very contemporary spookiness. Like the other series, the Eddie Dickens books make the human race look alarmingly freakish, which, as these authors understand, is pretty much how kids view the adult world.

Viking will publish Michael Sims' new book, Adam's Navel, in August.

 

For a book-loving child, nothing is more exciting than a row of unread volumes in a newly discovered fiction series. It may sound strange, but it's true: characters in books can become the most reliable friends in a young person's life. A century ago kids were reading the Boxcar Children. Then Tom Swift flew onto […]
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If you want to take your children to an exotic planet and show them alien monsters worthy of Jurassic Park, you don't need to go back in time or book a family jaunt to Alpha Centauri. You don't even have to visit a movie theater. All you need to do is aim a magnifying glass at any insect on its home turf. Grains of sand become boulders; mosses tower like Cretaceous ferns; and wonderful, terrible creatures prowl for prey.

Four recent books for young children—three nonfiction and one story—capture this Lilliputian world in all its glory. The largest, bearing a frightening close-up of a grasshopper's big-eyed face, is Theresa Greenaway's Big Book of Bugs. In this oversized hardback, children will learn some fascinating tidbits queen bumblebees frequently nest in the abandoned burrows of voles (common mouse-like rodents); even the tiny shield bug has enough maternal instinct to guard its own children; the water boatman clings upside down to the surface film of ponds. The photo and text about the flower mantis alone are enough to impress the reader. This camouflaged killing machine is a praying mantis whose body is mottled pink and green to blend with flowers, while its front legs resemble an unopened bud. All of the photos, as usual with DK's books, are excellent, lushly textured against crisp white backgrounds.

Another hardback stuffed with color photographs zooms in even more closely and stares bugs right in the eye. Darlyne A. Murawski's Bug Faces. It begins, "Chances are you've seen a bug today." Yes, the odds are good. But you've probably never been this close to them before. All those compound eyes and viselike mandibles can be pretty scary and, for that reason, fascinating. Many children will find this book irresistible.

Slightly older readers will enjoy a paperback that is illustrated with handsome line drawings, Sally Kneidel's StinkBugs, Stick Insects, and Stag Beetles. By examining 21 insects or kinds of insects from burying beetles to army ants, from tsetse flies to the Madagascan giant hissing cockroach Kneidel provides a comprehensive introduction to the insect world. She uses recurring sidebars in categories such as "That's Strange!" and "Why Do They Do That?" to compare various kinds of insects. Perhaps the most fun is each insect's treatment in the category "What You Can See and Do." This is a perfect hands-on way for children to learn how to listen to musical insects such as cicadas and katydids or how to watch for "a parade of ants carrying green parasols." And now for the fiction among the facts. Janell Cannon, author and illustrator of such beloved picture books as Stellaluna and Verdi, is back with a suspenseful and amusing new tail, the story of a cockroach named Crickwing. Barely escaping from a hungry toad, a young cockroach is left with a twisted wing and the nickname Crickwing. (We never learn what his name was before his disfiguring accident. Bob? Irving?) Despising his nickname, he becomes reclusive, avoiding his acquaintances and spending his time creating sculpture out of parts of plants. A root here, a leaf there and voila another Crickwing masterpiece. As always with Janell Cannon, the illustrations made with acrylics and colored pencils on illustration board are splendid, bursting with color, life and energy. No wonder both children and adults love her books.

At first Crickwing is not a pleasant fellow and seeks revenge on creatures smaller than himself. In time, of course, like a certain glowing-nosed reindeer and other misunderstood outcasts, Crickwing redeems himself and turns his talent to the good of his comrades. The most realistic aspect of this book might be Crickwing's constant near-death experiences with monkeys, ocelots and other creatures determined to either eat him or torment him. The lesson of all of these insect books is clear: It's a jungle out there.

And these books also pose a question: Are entomologists just children at heart, people who never lost their fascination with insects? Or are children natural-born entomologists who eventually lose their sense of wonder and become accountants?

If you want to take your children to an exotic planet and show them alien monsters worthy of Jurassic Park, you don't need to go back in time or book a family jaunt to Alpha Centauri. You don't even have to visit a movie theater. All you need to do is aim a magnifying glass at […]
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"Let joy be unconfined!" cries Charles the rooster in the children's book Freddy the Detective. Fans of the Freddy the Pig books, by Walter R. Brooks, are echoing Charles' exclamation. In 1997 Overlook Press began reissuing the much-loved but long unavailable series. Thirteen are now back in print, with several more per year coming in the near future. Soon the entire series will be restored to its proper status in the pantheon of immortal children's books. Everyone from the New York Times to USA Today has hailed the resurrection of the literate and witty Freddy books. Recently even CBS News taped material for an upcoming broadcast.

In Freddy the Detective, poor henpecked Charles has been appointed judge of the animals on Bean Farm. To escape his sharp-tongued wife Henrietta, Charles sentences himself to jail time, claiming he feels guilty about a secret past offense. Freddy applies his best detective skills to searching for Charles only to find the rooster in Freddy's own makeshift jail, leading a dance with the above-quoted exclamation.

This is a typical occurrence in the world of Walter R. Brooks. Imagine Charlotte's Web meets Animal Farm; throw in an ensemble cast and affectionately satirical tone worthy of The Andy Griffith Show; and spice with adventures that would impress Indiana Jones. "Some pig," a spider named Charlotte once wrote of Wilbur. She would have said the same of Freddy. Poet, newspaper publisher, detective, pilot, politician, Freddy is, as the New York Times once noted, a "Renaissance pig." Walter R. Brooks has the distinction of having invented two of the 20th century's enduring animal characters. He also created Mr. Ed, the talking horse who first appeared in a short story Brooks wrote for The Saturday Evening Post. Freddy, and his comrades at the Bean Farm in upstate New York, first appeared in a novel published in 1927. Twenty-five more volumes followed before the author's death in 1958.

Brooks had a wonderfully unfettered imagination. Take, for example, the adventures in Freddy the Pilot. A villainous comic book publisher named Watson P. Condiment is terrorizing Mr. Boomschmidt's Stupendous and Unexcelled Circus. To help, Freddy must learn to fly a plane. Along the way he also disguises himself in a woman's garden party dress and a veil, and speaks with a high-pitched Spanish accent. The dialogue is pure Walter Brooks when the famously multisyllabic hotel owner discovers Freddy under the veil and says, "Well now ain't this an unanticipated gratification! And these modish habiliments! Well, well; command me, duchess." Not that most of the characters speak that way. That's why Freddy replies, "I wish I had time to swap polysyllables with you, Mr. Groper, but I've got a lot to do." Walter R. Brooks loved words.

In their initial outing, first published under the uninspired title of To and Again (and later republished as you'll find it in the new reprints, as Freddy Goes to Florida), the characters decide to be the first farm animals to migrate. Naturally they have wonderful adventures on their way southward. In the second book, Freddy Goes to the North Pole, the ever-entrepreneurial pig launches a travel service for animals. The Bean Farm gang heads northward.

Later adventures include Freddy the Detective (one of the best in the series, full of nonstop adventure), Freddy the Pilot (also just about perfect, and one of the funniest children's books around) and Freddy the Politician (which preceded Orwell's Animal Farm by several years in its satire of political chicanery). Incidentally, unlike Orwell's characters, the animals of Bean Farm never have to revolt and overthrow Mr. Bean. That broad-minded farmer has the sense to permit his extraordinary animals great freedom, and they respond with affection and loyalty. One of the triumphs of the series is the way human beings are only mildly surprised to find that the animals speak. Mr. and Mrs. Bean accept that their pig not only talks and walks upright, but also prints a newspaper, learns to fly a plane and becomes famous for his many adventures.

The jacket and interior artwork of recent children's books have metamorphosed Tom Sawyer into a millennial brat and recreated Alice as a blonde moppet in sneakers. Overlook Press understands that the ageless Freddy requires no such cosmetic surgery. They have brought back our porcine hero exactly as he was in his prime. No small part of the series' charm comes from the witty illustrations by Kurt Wiese. Seldom do authors find such a perfect match. The illustrator of everything from Bambi to Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Wiese was especially fond of the Freddy books. He was to Walter Brooks what Garth Williams was to the children's books of E. B. White, or what Ernest H. Shepard was to Pooh. Apparently the facsimile reprints were also a labor of love. The jackets look and feel exactly right. The lovely old two-color endpapers have been precisely recreated. The cloth (not cardboard) bindings are stamped with charming illustrations. Text is printed in its original friendly Baskerville typeface, a look that almost brings a tear to the eye of the bookish child that lurks inside many bookish adults.

If you were a Freddyphile in your youth, these lovingly resurrected books will make you curl up on the sofa with Freddy and renounce the adult world's shallow distractions. There is also a brand-new volume to add to your Freddy shelf. No, Overlook Press hasn't stooped to farming out new adventures. They have wisely limited themselves to fashioning an anthology of greatest witticisms from the famously epigrammatical canon, supplemented with many amusing Wiese drawings. The collaboration of several editors, some of them quite young, The Wit and Wisdom of Freddy the Pig and His Friends distills the best remarks of the characters Mrs. Wiggins, the modestly commonsensical cow who both runs for president and becomes Freddy's partner in the detective business; Jinx, the skeptical cat; Charles, the vain rooster; and of course Freddy himself and many others. A second new volume, a collection of Freddy's delightful poetry and songs, is in the works.

Most of all, the books are about friendship. "Why should we have to put up with his nonsense," Jinx asks Freddy of one character, "just because you think that way down inside him there's some good qualities?" And the good-hearted and (usually) patient Freddy explains: "It's like digging for buried treasure." Not that Freddy is perfect. He is lazy, vain and occasionally short-tempered. But he is also courageous, inventive and devoted to his comrades. As a result, he and his friends have wonderful adventures adventures that finally are available to a new generation of readers.

A total of 13 Freddy titles are now available from Overlook Press. Each one is $23.95.
Freddy and the Bean Home News
Freddy Goes to the North Pole
Freddy and the Space Ship
Freddy and the Flying Saucer Plans
Freddy and the Baseball Team From Mars
Freddy and the Dragon
Freddy the Politician
Freddy Goes to Florida
Freddy the Detective
Freddy and the Ignormus
Freddy and Mr. Camphor
Freddy the Pilot
The Wit and Wisdom of Freddy and His Friends

 

Michael Sims writes about animals both real and fictional, but few mean as much to him as Freddy.

"Let joy be unconfined!" cries Charles the rooster in the children's book Freddy the Detective. Fans of the Freddy the Pig books, by Walter R. Brooks, are echoing Charles' exclamation. In 1997 Overlook Press began reissuing the much-loved but long unavailable series. Thirteen are now back in print, with several more per year coming in the […]
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Why should adults be the only ones with beach books to entertain them when they aren't cavorting in the surf? This summer the kids, too, have plenty of books to choose from. Four examples demonstrate the feast available, beginning with books for toddlers and preschoolers and working our way up to preteen readers.

Younger children will appreciate the sand and surf more if they are prepared for it with a charming picture book by Alice Schertle, illustrated by Barbara Lavallee, All You Need for a Beach. What do you need for a beach? Lively illustrations portray young children acting out the process of adding one element at a time to the beach experience sand, sunlight, umbrella, seagulls and the ocean itself. The story builds well to prove that the book's reader is also an essential part of the perfect beach.

Preschoolers and early graders will enjoy a gorgeous book, My Life with the Wave, based on a story by the Mexican Nobelist Octavio Paz. The lively translation and adaptation for children is by Catherine Cowan, and the luscious illustrations are by Mark Buehner. This is a lyrical, highly imaginative story. One day a boy is playing in the surf. As he departs, one of the waves escapes the ocean and accompanies him. On the train ride home he hides her in the water cooler. At his house she creates as much delight and trouble as the Cat in the Hat. Pulled by moon and sun, the wave is moody. The boy brings her fish, but he becomes jealous of how long she plays with them. As winter approaches, the wave begins to have nightmares. A double-page panoply of these demons will give children a delicious shiver, but a closer look will reveal that the funnel cloud wears spectacles and the sea serpent has a red bow on its tentacle. The story takes a sad turn, but the ending is clever and upbeat.

Another new book reminds us that at any age nonfiction can be as compelling as fiction. Young readers will enjoy One Small Place by the Sea, by Barbara Brenner and illustrated by Tom Leonard. This is the story of the teeming life of a tidepool, "no bigger than a bathtub," among weedy rocks at the sea's edge. "Tides make it and unmake it twice a day." The book begins with a child standing beside the pool and looking at what is visible to the naked eye. Slowly the text and illustrations help us sort out the various plants and animals. Gradually we go beneath the surface and see the multitude of turban snails, blue mussels, hermit crabs, anemones and other wonders. The text is crisp and vivid, the illustrations bright and detailed. The child scoops water into a jar and the illustrations zoom in and magnify its denizens. Then we look more closely at each creature, at the cycles of life and death repeating daily in this miniature ecosystem, this exquisite microcosm.

Friends beneath the waves

Proving that there is a smart beach book for children of every age, Candlewick Press has published the lively and suspenseful The Tail of Emily Windsnap, by Liz Kessler. This first novel, by an English journalist, is already becoming something of an international sensation, and is being published in at least 10 countries. The book begins with Emily Windsnap, our narrator and heroine, asking an irresistible question: "Can you keep a secret?" We aren't revealing plot twists by telling you, because the book jacket does so: Emily is a mermaid. She doesn't know this tidbit about her family legacy when the book opens, but she finds out soon in a compelling scene that draws the reader into the story.

Emily has a convincingly tangled life even without her fishy tendencies. Her father abandoned the family and her mother has long hidden away traumatic memories that will prove crucial to her family's future. Soon Emily is sneaking away in the night to cavort far beneath the waves with newfound marine friends. Naturally the two stories come together in a satisfying ending.

Why should adults be the only ones with beach books to entertain them when they aren't cavorting in the surf? This summer the kids, too, have plenty of books to choose from. Four examples demonstrate the feast available, beginning with books for toddlers and preschoolers and working our way up to preteen readers.

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'He's got plenty of nothing / Because it's not there' might be reason enough to write a book about Nothing, John D. Barrow says, especially if the author has already written a book about Everything. Barrow, a professor of mathematical sciences at Cambridge University, is referring to his earlier book, Theories of Everything, and to his latest, The Book of Nothing: Vacuums, Voids, and the Latest Ideas About the Origins of the Universe. The man gets around, and he loves outrageous topics. Few nonfiction writers seem to enjoy themselves more.

The Book of Nothing is stuffed with wonderful stories. Barrow begins with conceptions of nothingness from around the world and throughout history. Rooted in the paradox-rich soil of philosophy and religion, the concept of nothing has blossomed into many strange ideas, and apparently Barrow is familiar with all of them. Naturally he explores the invention of zero; the evolution of words to express this mathematical (and philosophical) concept; and the religious, especially Christian, opposition to the idea. He also clearly explains the nature and persistence of vacuums; zero-point energy and other conundrums of physics; and many of the logical contradictions that turn out not to be contradictions at all.

Never one to resist wordplay, the author of Pi in the Sky has a field day with the concept of nothing. This feast of clear thinking and fine writing is garnished with wonderful quotations. From Al Jolson's You ain't seen nothin' yet to St. Paul and, inevitably, the absurdity-surrounded Alice, Barrow loves paradox, and revels in quotations such as the immortal line by Epicurus, Nothing is enough for the man to whom enough is too little.

'He's got plenty of nothing / Because it's not there' might be reason enough to write a book about Nothing, John D. Barrow says, especially if the author has already written a book about Everything. Barrow, a professor of mathematical sciences at Cambridge University, is referring to his earlier book, Theories of Everything, and to […]
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Our urge to collect is as natural as other animals' urge to hoard. The big difference is that most of us, unlike squirrels, don't eat our collections. There are many beautifully wrought objets out there calling out for your disposable income, so here's a guide to some recent guides primarily to furniture, but also to jewelry, porcelain and glass.

A good place to start is John T. Kirk's American Furniture: Understanding Styles, Construction, and Quality. Because it's an Abrams book, you know it's going to be handsomely put together and stuffed with information. It is. Kirk, a cabinetmaker and a professor of art history at Boston University, has contagious enthusiasm for many interesting topics the subtleties of finishes and stains and what they say about the period of their popularity, the innate grace of certain styles versus the more labored effects of others. Many color and black-and-white photos of furniture join designers' drawings and early advertisements. Kirk explains everything from recent design revivals to the origins of designs that, like evolutionary dead-ends, no longer seem wise in our modern conception of useful art which, in the long run, is what fine furniture is all about.

Once you've learned the basics from Kirk, you should turn to Caring for Your Family Treasures: Heritage Preservation, with text by Jane S. Long and Richard W. Long. The authors provide useful advice on how to care for books, fabrics, ceramics, dolls, photographs and even such items as military mementos. They also explain insurance and other security measures tailored to your individual needs. The style is friendly and the illustrations lush. However, it's the commonsense but expert information that makes the book surprisingly appealing.

Those encyclopedic twin brothers from Antiques Roadshow, Leigh and Leslie Keno, have written (with Joan Barzilay Freund) a new book, Hidden Treasures: Searching for Masterpieces of American Furniture. The brothers tell countless anecdotes about the thrill of the chase and their delight in well-made objects. At the age of 12, they started a joint diary with the prophetic words, We are antique dealers. They have fulfilled their ambitions. Their stories demonstrate both their passion and their expertise. They have hung exhibitions of chairs from walls to force viewers to confront furniture as sensual forms, and they have organized auctions at Christie's that resulted in almost $600,000 paid for a single table. And along the way they have informed countless viewers of Antiques Roadshow. This book is fun even if you don't have the budget for serious collecting.

Since 1979, collectors have depended on the Miller's Antiques Checklist series of guides. Four of them are out in new editions—Furniture, with Richard Davidson as primary consultant; Jewellery(British spelling), with Stephen Giles; Porcelain, with Gordon Lang; and Glass, with Mark West. These volumes are well-made, pocket-size and illustrated with color photographs and even diagrams for comparison. They address variations on themes, recognizing fakes and determining true condition. They provide helpful background context about periods and styles, and extensive glossaries of terms both common and obscure. Checklists consist of questions to ask yourself about each item. From Wellington chests to Chippendale settees, from the glories of 18th-century Meissen porcelain to the difference between hardstone and shell cameos, from glassmakers' marks to jewelers' tools, these books cover an impressive amount of information in a very small space and do so painlessly. At least one of these should be in your pocket on your next trip to the antique mall.

Michael Sims' next book will be a natural and cultural history of the human body for Viking.

 

Our urge to collect is as natural as other animals' urge to hoard. The big difference is that most of us, unlike squirrels, don't eat our collections. There are many beautifully wrought objets out there calling out for your disposable income, so here's a guide to some recent guides primarily to furniture, but also to […]
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Oh, pity the prodigy, Farkle McBride! With these words, John Lithgow begins his first children's book, The Remarkable Farkle McBride. Young Farkle is so gifted at music that he masters every instrument too quickly. Naturally he becomes bored, and he winds up constantly searching for a new musical high. The story is amusing and charming, and the illustrations are gorgeous.

Lithgow yes, the actor seems something of a prodigy himself. First there were the movies and Third Rock from the Sun; now children's books. He even sings on a recent CD for children, Singin' in the Bathtub. At least, unlike the fictional Farkle, he doesn't play all the instruments.

What he does do, however, is write some wonderful lines. They're musical, surprising and full of words that make a tasty mouthful for a child. Consider this representative quatrain: When Farkle was five, his melodical gift /Once again bore rhapsodical fruit: The woodwinds inspired his spirits to lift, And he rapidly mastered the flute. The bouncing internal rhymes of "melodical" and "rhapsodical," the quick Edward Lear flourish of the last line such things are magical in a rhyme for children. They challenge pronunciation, provoke imagery and inspire a love of words. There is no baby talk here.

Children will also find plenty of comforting repetition alongside rousing onomatopoeia. This is Farkle's trombone playing: "Vroom-pety / Doom-pety / Doom-pety Doom." The meter of the chorus recurs; the sound-words change. Always they end with, "The remarkable Farkle McBride!" By the second time around, kids will pick up the structure of the rhymes and anticipate your reading.

The illustrations by C. F. Payne are irresistible imaginatively composed, beautifully rendered, stuffed with details that reward perusal. The people are gently caricatured, even as instruments, settings and incidental animals are almost photographically rendered.

In a note, Payne thanks the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra for their assistance. This isn't surprising. Every illustration glows with authenticity, even the final double pullout, a four-page spread of the entire orchestra performing under the finally satisfied eye of the truly remarkable Farkle McBride.

Michael Sims is the author of two children's books that will be published in 2001.

Oh, pity the prodigy, Farkle McBride! With these words, John Lithgow begins his first children's book, The Remarkable Farkle McBride. Young Farkle is so gifted at music that he masters every instrument too quickly. Naturally he becomes bored, and he winds up constantly searching for a new musical high. The story is amusing and charming, […]
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To mystery readers, Marcia Muller genuinely needs no introduction, so we'll keep it short. However, for those who aren't already familiar with the creator of the tough but humane California private eye named Sharon McCone, it's worth mentioning that Muller's new book, Listen to the Silence, is the 21st McCone adventure. In it McCone goes home to deal with her father's death, and discovers a long-secret document that changes the lives of everyone in the family. To tell more would be to break the cardinal rule of reviewing mystery novels, because the book is surprising and well, it's a mystery novel. People get hurt; McCone investigates. The only people having a good time are the readers.

Muller published her first Sharon McCone mystery, Edwin of the Iron Shoes, in 1977. "The ironic thing about it," she says from her home in California, "was that after the first book I couldn't sell another word for four years. My first publisher was David McKay Company, and with the publication of my first book they stopped doing fiction." Not surprisingly, at first Muller considered this development an ill omen, but she persevered. "Four years later, I submitted a manuscript that I had been shopping around for almost the entire time to Tom Dunne of St. Martin's Press." Dunne, who now has his own popular mystery imprint at St. Martin's, bought the book.

The so-called hard-boiled female detective was an idea whose time had come. Muller is credited with leading the pack. "It was in three months' order," Muller remembers. "First, Sara Paretsky came out with her first V. I. Warshawski novel; then Sue Grafton came out with Kinsey Millhone; then my second Sharon McCone came out the month after that." Before publishing her first couple of McCone novels, Muller was trying her hand at journalism. "Not very successfully," she adds, and laughs. "I had a tendency to make things up. Editors don't respond too kindly to that." She began to think that perhaps she ought to turn her attention to fiction, where making things up was a virtue rather than a vice.

Muller sees no end in sight for the series. Fortunately her titles aren't forced into a predictable succession, as in the case of Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone books, all of which begin with a letter of the alphabet (for example, O Is for Outlaw).

"You know, Sue and I were talking about that last year, about how she locked herself into 26 novels. You can trap yourself early on with certain things that seem like a good idea then." Over the years, Muller has discovered that, however much fun it may be to keep returning to familiar characters and settings, writing series fiction has its unforeseen complications. "There are things in my series I would have done differently, and things that I had to just stop doing because of changing times. For instance, the legal cooperative that Sharon was working for in the beginning was a product of the '70s, the poverty law movement that was going on then. And after awhile it became very restrictive in terms of the types of cases she could take on. So I had to have her quit that and go out on her own."

The continuing adventures and ever-changing life of Sharon McCone have proven quite successful. Muller has many thousands of devoted fans and has won numerous awards. She has taken home both Anthony and Shamus awards, honors named respectively for deceased mystery writer and critic Anthony Boucher and for an old nickname for private investigators. The Private Eye Writers of America gave Muller their Life Achievement Award in 1993.

Muller is married to mystery writer Bill Pronzini, and they have collaborated on three novels, a dozen or so anthologies (including one published last year by scholarly Oxford University Press), and what she describes as "one very long, five-pound book," 1001 Midnights: The Aficionado's Guide to Mystery and Detective Fiction. Muller suspects that she and her husband will retire from anthologizing. "They're a lot of work, and the introductory material is a type of writing that although we've done it many times neither of us really enjoys doing. It's more fun picking the stories and getting them together, picking a theme for them."

Sharon McCone isn't the only series character Muller has written about. She's also the creator of museum curator Elena Oliverez and international art investigator Joanna Stark. "I've toyed with the idea of bringing one or the other character back in a McCone novel at some point. It might be interesting just to see two characters that I've created separately interact." Muller has already performed a version of this trick, in Double from the mid-1980s, a novel she and her husband co-wrote, starring both Sharon McCone and Pronzini's popular Nameless Detective. Pronzini's career demonstrates other hazards of series writing that occur when writers incorporate certain gimmicks. Not only does his detective have no name, which requires author and readers alike to simply call him Nameless, but Pronzini trapped himself into one-word titles for these books. "He's now doing a lot of non-series things," Muller says, "so he's able to use a wonderful title he finds, but for awhile there he was giving all the really good titles to me."

Asked about the provenance of the title Listen to the Silence, Muller laughs and says, "Now whose was that? It's gotten where I can't remember which ones were mine and which were his. I think that one was his."

Michael Sims is a writer, curator, and regular contributor to BookPage.

To mystery readers, Marcia Muller genuinely needs no introduction, so we'll keep it short. However, for those who aren't already familiar with the creator of the tough but humane California private eye named Sharon McCone, it's worth mentioning that Muller's new book, Listen to the Silence, is the 21st McCone adventure. In it McCone goes […]
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"The religion of the future, Albert Einstein once wrote, "will be a cosmic religion. It should transcend personal God and avoid dogma and theology. . . . If there is any religion that could cope with modern scientific needs it would be Buddhism." Of course, not all of Buddhism transcends the personal and the dogmatic, but much of it strives to. And although it isn't possible to reconcile all its claims with modern science, the religion or some of the many aspects of it is growing in popularity in this country. "America," according to Newsweek, "may be on the verge of Buddhadarma." Naturally this new interest in an Eastern religion manifests itself in all sorts of ways, ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous greater awareness of Tibet's plight, classes on breathing and meditation techniques, a guru lecture circuit, an "Ask the Lama" column on the Internet, some questionable faith-healing practices, and a movie starring Brad Pitt.

And, of course, a spectrum of books to address all these issues. One new book that deals as much with the headlines of the 20th century as with timeless aphorisms is Palden Gyatso's The Autobiography of a Tibetan Monk. Captured by Mao's oppressive regime and imprisoned for 33 years, until 1992, Palden Gyatso suffered torture and persecution simply because he exemplified a Tibetan way of life that the Chinese had vowed to destroy. His is a story of quiet heroism that demonstrates beliefs better than any lecture could describe them.

A good place to begin filling in the background of all this recent history is The Roaring Stream: A New Zen Reader. Out of more than a thousand years of writings about Zen and its predecessor Ch'an, editors Nelson Foster and Jack Shoemaker have mined 350 pages of both classic and lesser-known commentators, from Bodhidharma to the poet Po Chu-i. The selections by each author are introduced with extremely helpful historical and biographical comments. With a deliberate emphasis on writings about women and lay people, The Roaring Stream reveals aspects of a tradition sometimes overlooked today.

An anthology of classic writings is Buddhist Texts Through the Ages, edited by Edward Conze and others. Chinese, Indian, Japanese, Tibetan texts have all contributed to the growth of Buddhism over the centuries. This book offers 214 excerpts from them.

Mary Craig tells a story that falls into the realm of general nonfiction more than that of Eastern thought. Kundun: A Biography of the Dalai Lama focuses on the parents and siblings of the child who, at his birth in 1933, was chosen as the latest incarnation of the Dalai Lama. The story of the family seems to be the story of the nation hardship, struggle, occasional triumph, and the usual tangle of emotions and loyalties that make families so . . . interesting.

For quite a different take on the whole subject of Buddhism, read a lively new anthology entitled Being Bodies: Buddhist Women on the Paradox of Embodiment, edited by Lenore Friedman and Susan Moon. Our very urge to transcend the body demonstrates deep ambivalence about our mortal coil. That "embodiment" could be seen as a paradox at all is one of the questions this challenging book addresses, through essays, poems, and interviews.

An entertaining and even amusing survey of the varied flavors of Buddhism appears in The Compass of Zen, by Seung Sahn. Based upon his talks, this book presents the basic questions in many short, accessible chapters woven around anecdotes and dialogues. From the Four Noble Truths to the Five Human Desires, this book seems to cover the whole mathematics of insight.

If you'd like to apply classic Buddhist writings to your own life, a handy guidebook might be a new book by Lama Surya Das, Awakening the Buddha Within: Eight Steps to Enlightenment. Although the title sounds like a pocket field guide, this book actually consists of 400 pages of explanation, anecdote, and a quietly developing demonstration of a philosophy of life that, even a skeptic must admit, would change the world.

Here's something for the budding Buddhist or the merely curious youngster. Sherab Chodzin and Alexandra Kohn offer a charming book (tainted by the publisher with the old line "for children of all ages," but that's not the book's fault) entitled The Wisdom of the Crows and Other Buddhist Tales. From half a page to several pages long, the fables herein read like a cross between the Brothers Grimm and the Bhagavad Gita. The illustrations are lovely and capture the Eastern flavor while remaining friendly and even humorous. It's difficult to imagine a more entertaining introduction to a different culture.

One recent book answers a question you probably never thought to ask: Can a seeker named after a beef stew find true enlightenment while really just looking around? "I never intended to find a new religion," Dinty W. Moore admits in The Accidental Buddhist: Mindfulness, Enlightenment, and Sitting Still. "I was just passing curious." But his exploration of Buddhism as a cultural phenomenon led him to embrace it as a philosophy of life. Very much a personal, anecdotal account, the book can be refreshingly irreverent while demonstrating the puzzled response of Moore's acquaintances to his new-found faith.

"The religion of the future, Albert Einstein once wrote, "will be a cosmic religion. It should transcend personal God and avoid dogma and theology. . . . If there is any religion that could cope with modern scientific needs it would be Buddhism." Of course, not all of Buddhism transcends the personal and the dogmatic, […]

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