Sunday, August 31, 2014

A boy and his tiger

My hometown newspaper was one of the original 35 newspapers that ran Calvin and Hobbes when it debuted on November 18th, 1985 (eventually it was in over 2,400 papers).  Reading the funny pages was a daily ritual, and I loved strips like Bloom County and Peanuts.  And honestly, I didn't think much of Calvin and Hobbes that first day, or even the second.  The art was a little rough and the jokes weren't especially creative.  But on day 3, I was hooked.  That's when you first glimpse the dual-reality of Calvin and Hobbes – Calvin's view compared to everyone else's.  Some people make the mistake of thinking Hobbes is only "alive" when he's alone with Calvin, but that's wrong.  The truth is that Calvin sees and believes Hobbes is real, not just a stuffed tiger; that is his REALITY.  It's the same as when he thinks he's Spaceman Spiff, Tracer Bullet, Stupendous Man, or even Safari Al (yeah, I know - Safari Al was only in one strip, but I loved that one!).

Can you tell I'm a little passionate about Calvin and Hobbes?

I've had Looking for Calvin and Hobbes: The Unconventional Story of Bill Watterson and his Revolutionary Comic Strip by Nevin Martell on my to-read list for quite a while, and always been put off by the negative reviews.  But when Watterson recently emerged from his self-imposed exile to contribute to several days of Pearls Before Swine, I decided it was time to check it out (and those few days were the only times when Pearls Before Swine was actually worth reading), and what I realized was that many of the negative reviews were missing the point.  Everyone knows Watterson disliked the fame and hates being interviewed, so why would you complain when the book doesn't have an interview with him?  And if you're already aware of Watterson's abhorrence of licensing and merchandising his product, why would you expect this book to be full of reproductions of the strips?

What Nevin Martell did - despite his best but failed efforts to interview Watterson - was to talk to a lot of other cartoonists and those who knew or know Watterson.  That's about as close as we get folks.  A few words from Watterson's mom, some friends, his agent, and those cartoonists who wish they could be as good as Watterson.  He chronicles what is known about the reclusive artist, his ordinary upbringing, and a few jobs before Calvin and Hobbes debuted and became an instant classic.  He talks about the strip's evolution, as well as the artist and the struggles he had with his syndicate.  He explains what is known of Watterson's views (from what he's written and said in a few interviews and other speaking engagements), especially as it relates to his wish not to see his creations plastered all over calendars, t-shirts, coffee mugs, post-its, television commercials, etc. etc. etc.  Watterson could have made a FORTUNE, and we'd all have stuffed Hobbes' in our homes and suctioned to the back windows of our cars (remember the ubiquitous Garfield dolls?).  But he didn't.

See, to him, his art was special, and he worked hard to make it something worthy of being called art.  Remember all those strips where Calvin talks about art, usually in relation to his snowmen?  That's likely Watterson talking, and the way the artwork improved and became something special is because of his commitment to it – not to making a buck.  Take a close look at the furniture, the trees, the movements and facial expressions of the characters – then compare it to other strips.  There is no comparison.  He transcended all the others, and it took a huge toll on the man.

So, maybe you've already obsessively read everything about Calvin and Hobbes online that you can, and you own every single book that ever came out (as well as the rare calendar and t-shirt), and you read it all over and over again.  If so, there might not be much new here for you – and you might very well be a stalker.  This book isn't amazing, but it's good enough, and for those of us who admire and applaud Watterson's decision NOT to cash in and make a FORTUNE, it's a fun and interesting little insight into the ten years of absolute joy in the funny pages – even though we desperately miss Calvin and Hobbes (and would have bought the calendars and t-shirts and everything else).  Thanks Mr. Watterson – it was fun.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

"What happened to Chocodiles?"

Whenever I'm trying to lose weight, I always have the most intense cravings for baked goods like bread and sweets.  I come by it naturally: I come from a long line of inveterate "sweet-tooth's."  I frequently make my mom's recipes for chocolate-chip cookies and zucchini bread.  When Jamie was pregnant and wishing for Chocodiles, I was a more-than-willing accomplice (and even after she wasn't pregnant anymore).  And, not a sugary treat, but I think one of my dad's favorite snacks when I was a kid was Coke and a box of Cheese Nips (and the rest of us were happy to share).

So, when I saw Treat Yourself: 70 Classic Snacks You Loved as a Kid (and Still Love Today) by Jennifer Steinhauer, I couldn't resist.  She's experimented to discover the recipes for lots of classic treats that we all loved as kids, and she's tried to make them as close to the originals as possible.  You can make your own Oreos, Nilla Wafers, Nutter Butters, or Chips Ahoy cookies; Hostess Twinkies, Cup Cakes, or Sno Balls; even Fig Newtons, Pop Tarts, and Twix.  She's even got recipes for a couple of Girl Scout cookies.  Some of the recipes are a bit involved, and I wonder if it's worth the effort when I can get an Almond Joy for less than a buck, and store-bought marshmallows are a lot easier, but I guess a lot of people prefer the challenge of making them at home (she says many people say her recipes are even better than the real thing).  We've only tried a few recipes so far, and not all of them were as delicious as we expected, so the fun nostalgia-factor is certainly at play here - but still, everything was eaten rather quickly regardless!

Still, this is a nice cookbook for those of us who love goodies (maybe not so good for my diet, however).  And I really like the comments she has for each recipe and section - the bits of information she provides are helpful as well as entertaining.  And as someone who's not known for his kitchen skills, I also appreciate the section where she talks about equipment that's nice to have even if it's not entirely necessary.  It's a beautiful cookbook with lots of great pictures, so if you're like me this might be the most "fun" cookbook you'll want to have.  (I received a free copy from BloggingForBooks in exchange for an honest review.)

Saturday, August 16, 2014

"They will be driven to become soldiers"

August 24, 2014 marks an important event in American history.  It is the 200th anniversary of the burning of Washington D.C. by the British. It's probably an event remembered by very few and not one you were planning to celebrate, and yet because of it and the events that followed, we got one of our most enduring symbols of America... and you might even say it saved our country.

Most histories I've read treat the War of 1812 almost as an extension of the Revolutionary War. But in Through the Perilous Fight: From the Burning of Washington to the Star-Spangled Banner: The Six Weeks That Saved the Nation, Steve Vogel takes a slightly different approach.  He emphasizes the more immediate causes, namely the impressments of American sailors by the British into the Royal Navy, and the opportunistic invasion of Canada by American forces. Britain was fighting Napoleon and France at the time, and when they began to run low of manpower they simply grabbed Americans on merchant vessels under the guise that they were still 'British citizens.' To combat this violation of rights, America attacked Britain along the Canadian border, believing that the Canadians would willingly and enthusiastically join the U.S. The timing seemed ideal - Britain was distracted with another war - but the Canadians fought back. But using those attacks as justification, the British navy sailed into Chesapeake Bay and burned many towns, culminating in the conquest and burning of government buildings in Washington, including the president's house and the Capitol and sent James and Dolly Madison running.

Vogel also carefully weaves the story of Francis Scott Key, an attorney, into the greater history. Key was sent as a delegate to win the release of an American who had been captured by the British. Admiral Cochrane agreed to release him, but not until after the planned destruction of Baltimore, which they decided needed to be a more strongly received message than Washington had been, and Key ended up being an eye-witness to the bombardment of Fort McHenry from the middle of the British fleet. Fortunately, American militias were in a better state of readiness this time, and the British were driven back. Upon seeing the American flag still flying the next morning, Key came up with the words to "The Star Spangled Banner." Vogel explains how it was printed in newspapers and its popularity in short time prompted a greater pride in the American flag (although it took a while before it was adopted as the national anthem).

Vogel does an excellent job in telling the story of the battles for Washington and Baltimore. Key is never the central figure of the narrative, which focuses more on the actual leaders, but his part in it provides an element anyone who has stood to sing the national anthem can identify with. I'm not sure that the point of the subtitle - "Six Weeks that Saved the Nation" - is explicitly proven, but it certainly proved as a wake-up call to the new nation and drove certain changes that helped to strengthen it - as well as giving Americans an anthem to bind them together (although not all, as he explains). And Vogel tells the story in a rousing and uplifting way. His descriptions of the battles are exciting and you get a feeling for the personalities involved in the events. There's a good deal of well-researched information in this book and it's an exciting read. (I received this book from the GoodReads "FirstReads" program.)

If you're interested in some other good books that deal with the War of 1812, these are ones I can recommend: Perilous Fight: America's Intrepid War with Britain on the High Seas, 1812-1815 by Stephen Budiansky and Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy by Ian W. Toll.