Nathan Goldman (managing editor): New parenthood leaves you suddenly full of strong opinions on subjects about which you recently knew nothing: for instance, children’s books. Now I read a few to my twin six-month-old sons every day, as they lie rapt, fixed to the sound of my voice and the arrangements of text and image on the page. Since they’re not old enough yet to have their own preferences—or at least to express them—I’m left to decide for myself which ones are any good and why.
I’ve been developing a theory that children’s books are either excruciatingly bad or transcendently good. One defining characteristic of the genre is that stories need not follow the familiar rules of adult causality. (In that sense, kid lit is inherently avant-garde.) The worst books often tend to simply replace narrative arcs with dull litanies of discrete statements or events; apparently, when the audience is totally new to the world, any old sequence of words will do. But the best ones instead explore the playful possibilities opened up by the departure from logic and linearity. This makes for adorable premises and thrillingly strange bursts of language.
Paolo, Emperor of Rome—written by Marc Barnett and illustrated by Claire Keane—follows a little dog’s escape from a hair salon into the streets of Rome, where he wanders free. He catches an opera, meets the pope, and, subverting my expectations, never returns home. (I love when, standing in awe of the Colosseum, he remarks dolefully, “How beautiful to build such a towering marvel, and how cruel to fill it with barbarism.”) In Esmé Shapiro’s Ooko, the eponymous lonely fox tries to act like a dog to earn human affection, but ultimately befriends a more like-minded raccoon named Oomi. My favorite moment comes right after Ooko and Oomi meet. “This is my stick,” the raccoon declares. “This is my other stick. And this is my other other stick. Wanna play?” The weird effervescence of the phrase “other other stick” gets me every time.
Of course, part of the purpose of children’s books has always been educational. I do bristle at the notion of didactic literature—and indeed, many of the books that are narrowly focused on imparting a lesson ring false and seem hollow. But I’ve quickly found beautiful books that unspool their lessons subtly and without forgoing a sense of play. What Feelings Do When No One’s Looking, written in Polish by Tina Oziewicz, illustrated by Aleksandra Zając, and translated by fellow twin parent Jennifer Croft, provides a tour of anthropomorphic emotions carrying out fitting tasks: “Freedom sails”; “Nostalgia sniffs a scarf”; “Calm pets a dog.” It’s a tender introduction to the varieties of human affect that leaves its implicit moral—that all of these emotions are normal and worth talking about—unspoken.
More explicit but no less lovely is Sheila Heti’s new book, A Garden of Creatures (gorgeously illustrated by Shapiro, the author of Ooko). A companion text to Heti’s most recent novel, Pure Colour, A Garden of Creatures is likewise a book about grief. It opens with two animals, a cat and a bunny, confronting the sudden illness and death of their friend, and follows their conversations about how to process this unassimilable absence. “Where do we go when we die?” the bunny asks, to which the cat responds, “No one knows. But we are all the same as each other, because we all ask this question and wonder.” Later, unable to hold back tears, the bunny says, “When someone dies, we miss them.” The cat replies, “I think missing someone is a way of keeping them close.” The book is bracing in its unsentimental directness. I’ll be grateful to have it when my kids can understand the words and begin to ask questions of their own.
Siddhartha Mahanta (contributing editor): As an undergrad at the University of Texas, I knew next to nothing about organized labor, and even less about socialist and worker movements across the Southern Hemisphere. In my junior year, a course on labor movements in Latin America changed all that. It also served as a backdoor survey into America’s Cold War-era imperial interventions in the region, fueled by corporate and capitalist interests with little tolerance for pro-worker governments and movements in countries like Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. The readings and lively lectures gave me a vocabulary for describing empire and American power that still inform how I think about these topics as a journalist and human being.
I recalled all of this upon finally watching Walker, a 1987 film by the British director Alex Cox. The movie is deeply unhinged, often offensive, and spectacularly violent—so I recommend it both emphatically and with some reservation. It presents a fictionalized account of the bloody misadventures of sometimes-lawyer, sometimes-mercenary, always-deranged William Walker—a fervent believer in American empire, a personification of Manifest Destiny, and a leader of multiple bloody campaigns to extend a slave-holding empire from the American South into Central America. His greatest, albeit short-lived, success came in the 1850s, when he and his group of ragtag soldiers of fortune intervened in Nicaragua’s civil war, sparking a coup that wound up installing Walker as dictator.
The great Ed Harris portrays Walker with just the right mix of sociopathic detachment, world-conquering hunger, and hilarious (perhaps idiotic?) poise, even as his bloody dreams of tyranny begin to collapse. He’s thoroughly invested in Walker’s lunacy. In truth, the entire cast, from René Auberjonois (playing Charles Frederick Henningsen, a commander in Walker’s forces) to Peter Boyle (playing Gilded Age robber baron Cornelius Vanderbilt as a repulsive demigod), seems to get the assignment: skewering Reagan-era jingoism and directly implicating the Cold War project in Central America as a successor to the tyranny of the antebellum South.
Cox shot much of the film in Nicaragua with the full support of the Sandinistas, and he takes the heaviest of hands, drawing on-the-nose parallels between the Walker saga and the Reagan administration’s misadventures in the country in the 1980s. The bombastic screenplay by Rudy Wurlitzer, self-conscious narration by Harris, and chaotic aesthetic play like a homage to Sam Peckinpah (whose name appears onscreen at one point), the director of classics like The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs. As such, Walker is not so much an homage to Westerns as it is a sendup of the genre, its excesses, and its unsettling nods to the Lost Cause.
Since this is a scripted narrative, not a documentary, Cox takes numerous liberties, depicting Vanderbilt as Walker’s prime benefactor and condensing timelines. Cox also indulges in increasingly obvious anachronistic flourishes, ranging from self-consciously ahistorical dialogue, magazine covers hailing Walker’s campaign, and, uh, a helicopter. Cox films Walker’s carnage in hypnotic slow-motion, set to an unnerving synth-heavy score by the great Joe Strummer. Imagine if Cormac McCarthy wrote a book, Werner Herzog adapted it, and Paul Verhoeven re-shot and edited—that is Walker. Alas, that was too much for most respectable critics of the time, who largely despised the movie. It also seems to have largely ended Cox’s career as a rising director of subversive movies like Sid and Nancy and Repo Man.
Walker remains a caricature and an enigma by the end of the film, more an individual curiosity than a clear symbol of a bigger machine or system at work. Still, there is a swagger and a meanness to Cox’s strange film that resonates. Even when it doesn’t entirely work, this sort of visceral, spectacular satire must endure.
David Klion (newsletter editor): Yesterday, I received a galley of Malcolm Harris’s forthcoming Palo Alto: A History of California, Capitalism, and the World. I can’t claim to have read more than the gorgeously written introduction so far, but based on that as well as the high esteem in which I hold Harris’s work in general, I feel comfortable recommending it here. It’s the sort of book I fantasize about writing and am always eager to read: a comprehensive, multifaceted history of a particular urban area (in this case, Silicon Valley) that helps explain the dominant tendencies of our dystopian present and likely future. In that, it reminds me of City of Quartz, the classic survey of Los Angeles by Mike Davis, who has profoundly influenced Harris along with probably every living leftist writer (and who recently announced he has terminal cancer, prompting an outpouring of tributes). But while L.A. may have dominated American and global culture in 1990, when Davis’s book was published, today we are all trapped in the collective headspace of a smaller and decidedly more bubbled California city, where Harris grew up and which in recent years has seen an epidemic of teen suicides that Harris situates in a much deeper context. “What haunts,” writes Harris in his introduction, “are the kinds of large historical crimes that, once committed, can never truly be set right.” That should be enough to hook me for the next 600 pages.
Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): Sometime around 1988, when Paul Auster was a highly esteemed but not yet world-conquering author, I interviewed him at a diner in Park Slope for a short-lived but excellent magazine called BQE. We hit it off immediately, and bonded over, of all things, Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio. The book, he told me, was about being a single father. Paul had raised his son Daniel when he and his first wife split up, and I was raising my then-four-year-old son. I found his idea intriguing, and ever since I’ve wanted to read the book to test out Auster’s theory (Much later, he wrote about Pinocchio in The Invention of Solitude, focusing on Pinocchio’s role in saving his father). I’ve waited decades, but we finally have an adult edition, brilliantly translated and annotated by John Hooper and Anna Kraczyna and published by Penguin Classics.
It is unquestionably a moralizing book, filled with finger-wagging about children who aren’t obedient, stressing the need to go to school and obey teachers and avoid bad company. But in order to tell that moral tale, Collodi portrays Pinocchio as very much like actual children: selfish, greedy, heedless, lazy, and all too ready to take the easy way out, to disregard parental advice. Disney’s Pinocchio is a scamp, but a lovable one; the original is a marionette hellbent on doing everything wrong under the sun. Presented with a choice, he will always, up until the last moment, make the wrong one. This is a cautionary tale for children, but also for parents.
The most familiar things about Pinocchio play a much smaller role in the book than in the Disney version. Pinocchio’s nose only grows in a few chapters, and Jiminy Cricket doesn’t follow the little puppet around trying to keep him on the straight and narrow; he makes an appearance early in the book as The Talking Cricket, and Pinocchio, annoyed with his hectoring, throws a mallet handle at him and kills him, though he somehow reappears later in the book.
Pinocchio is also a social realist novel. The poverty of 19th century Italy is omnipresent. The fire in Gepetto’s hearth and the pot with cooked food in it are drawings: he can’t afford the real things. When a wicked puppeteer asks Pinocchio what his father’s job is, he answers: “being poor.” Bread with butter on both halves is a rare treat, sufficient to attract a large crowd of children to a party. But Collodi’s sympathy for the poor only goes so far: to him, those who don’t work are only getting what they deserve.
Parenting plays a very small part in Pinocchio, as the puppet runs away from Gepetto near the beginning of the book. They only find each other again in the final chapter, when Pinocchio saves Gepetto from the belly of a shark. Pinocchio is not the story of a single father, but of a boy left without guidance.
Auster was writing about his then-adolescent son Daniel when he wrote about Pinocchio: “For the little boy to see Pinocchio, that same foolish puppet who has stumbled his way from one misfortune to the next, who has wanted to be ‘good’ and could not help being ‘bad,’ for this same incompetent little marionette, who is not even a real boy, to become a figure of redemption, the very being who saves his father from the grip of death, is a sublime moment of revelation.”
While reading Pinocchio, I was unable to shake off thoughts of the fate of Daniel Auster, dead from an overdose this past April after a short, tragic life. Daniel was a Pinocchio who, like the original character, fled Gepetto. Unlike the original, he never found him again.