a weekly column by
vol. 1, #6, August, 1995
NAMING OF BOOKS
As one who is eternally fascinated with language, I'm also intrigued with names of things: names of people, names of rock groups, names of http sites even. Today I'm going to make you very glad that the world is full of libraries and used book stores, because I'm going to tell you about some of my favorite books which I bought solely because of their titles. Such as:
Golfing for Cats. By Alan Coren. In his intro, Coren dismisses authors who whine about publishers not promoting their works, when they themselves have made no effort whatsoever to make their work saleable. It took only elementary research for him to learn that the best-selling books were about cats, golf, and Hitler (the cover has a swastika on it). His pieces include a sendup of 1984 which reveals the fundamental fallacy in Orwell's vision of the future: it assumes that the Big Brother state functions with perfect efficiency. Just like the governments we know and love.
Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency. By your own Douglas Adams. It's not just anybody that can make a seamless whole out of a hapless detective, an electric monk, and Coleridge. The chapter on the electric monk may be one of the best single chapters in all fiction. (Since you asked, the first four pages of Sense and Sensibility are the best opening four pages in all fiction. Pity the rest of the book wasn't as good.)
Lose Weight through Great Sex with Celebrities the Elvis Way. By Colin McEnroe, who clearly took Alan Coren's marketing advice to heart. McEnroe seems to exist for the purpose of making Douglas Adams seem normal. I can't begin to describe these humorous pieces; I'll just quote you some titles to give you the flavor:
"If God Had Meant Us To Microwave, How Would He Have Let Us Know?"
"Case History: When Bad Things Happen to Good Potatoes."
You Can't Take It With You So Eat It Now. By Nicole Hollander. This is one of several collections of the Sylvia cartoon strip. If you have not encountered Sylvia yet, she is a 50ish woman with cats and limited tolerance for the foibles of men, who reminds me a lot of me, except she is louder and less restrained (and I kind of like men). Given the gift of understanding cat language, she reveals that cats have only two ideas, "Feed me, you fool!" and "Everything here is mine." (The title of another of her collections.)
Bring Me the Head of Willie the Mailboy. By Scott Adams. This is one of several collections of the "Dilbert" cartoon strip. Dilbert is an engineer in a large bureaucratic corporation, forever at war with marketing, purchasing, and his boss, and he has all the social skills of a Kingsley Amis hero. Unless you are self-employed or a hermit, you will swear that Scott Adams works in your organization and knows your boss or your purchasing manager personally. You can sample his cartoon strip at http://www.unitedmedia.com/comics/dilbert/
Thank You for the Giant Sea Tortoise. Mary Ann Madden. This is a collection of winners of the New York Magazine competition, which I understand is modeled on a competition in Punch magazine. "Thank you for the Giant Sea-Tortoise" was a runner-up in the "Most Unusual Greeting Card" competition (my personal favorite was "So, you've been chosen Thane of Cawdor!"). The title of her follow-up book was a real copout, Son of Giant Sea-Tortoise,; the third book, Maybe He's Dead, came from the "What I Should Have Said, What I Did Say" competition. These are a bit old, and some of the material is dated, but most of it is irresistible to lovers of wordplay, like the Classified Directory competition (Salvador Dali, Watch Repair, Bobby Fischer, Pawnbroker, E.E. CUMMINGS, Typewriter Repair), or the Pointless Proverbs competition (a bird in the hand makes it difficult to blow your nose), or the Fortuitous Nomenclature competition (Sonny La Matina, Wake-Up Service, Sonya PaperMoon, Scenic Designer), or the Well-Known Phrases Altered by a Misprint competition (I thank whatever gods may be for my unconquerable soup; God help those that help themselves).
Great Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition. By Ed Regis. Actually, by choosing this wonderful title, Regis guaranteed that people like me would read it, but actual scientists probably wouldn't, which is a pity, because this book is about scientists and fanatics exploring the outer edges of scientific possibility, people who refuse to accept limitations most of us believe are imposed by immutable laws of physics. They ask questions like "Why do we need to die?" and "Why can't we create new life forms," and "Why can't we do surgery inside cells." People involved range from Evil Knievel to Richard Feynmann, from inspired scientists to outright lunatics. This is a fascinating book.
I'll Trade You an Elk. By Charles Goodrum, whose father, a lowly park employee with visions of grandeur, turned a modest park collection of bunnies and chickens into a full-fledged zoo by creative financing and high level wheeling and dealing. Young Charles got into the picture as the reluctant hatcher of peacock chicks for trading stock. This is gently amusing, and is excellent read-aloud material for 8-12 year olds.
The Incomplete Book of Failures: Official Handbook of the Not-Terribly Good Club of Great Britain. By Stephen Pike. (His follow-up book is called Cannibals in the Cafeteria.) This has everything from Least Successful Poet to Least Successful Cat Rescue to Least Successful Military Weapon. If you are able to negotiate the internet to read this column in the first place, you will be unable to believe the levels of stupidity that humans can achieve when they really set their minds to it.
If at All Possible, Involve a Cow. By Neil Steinberg. This is about college pranks through the ages, and serves as a useful reminder of the amount of intelligence and organizational ability required to do really dumb things. The rivalry between the technoweenies of MIT and Cal Tech gets an entire chapter of its own.
Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Day. By Judith Viorst. If you have NOT been reading Judith Viorst to your children, you may technically be guilty of child abuse. She is one of the rare people who have never forgotten exactly what it is like to be a young child (the children's book illustrator and author Steven Kellogg is another; his Can I Keep Him? is a classic). You should also read aloud to your child her other books, like Alexander Who Used To Be Rich Last Sunday, My Mama Says There Aren't Any Zombies, Ghosts, Vampires, Demons, Monsters... and her wonderful collection of funny poems, If I Were in Charge of the World.
I have lots more I could tell you enough, but this is more than enough to keep your bookstore owners and interlibrary loan librarians hopping for a while. Enjoy.
Some of these books are out of print. For advice on how to find out of print books, click HERE
NOTE: My thinking is always a work in progress. You could mentally insert all my columns in between these two sentences: "This is something I've been thinking about," and "Does this make any sense to you?" I welcome your thoughts. Please send your comments about these columns to: marylaine at netexpress.net. Since I've written a lot of these, some of them many years ago, help me out by telling me which column you're referring to.
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