October 25, 2012

(++++) ATTITUDE ADJUSTMENTS


Mutts: A Shtinky Little Christmas. By Patrick McDonnell. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

Stupid Ancient History. By Leland Gregory. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

You Are Old: Sobering Affirmations for Your Rapidly Disappearing Life. By “Dr. Oswald T. Pratt” and Scott Dikkers. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

Gross America: Your Coast-to-Coast Guide to All Things Gross. By Richard Faulk. Tarcher/Penguin. $13.95.

      Back in 1997, Patrick McDonnell created a wonderful Christmas fable for what was then a rather new comic strip, Mutts. It involved the discovery by Earl the dog and Mooch the cat, the strip’s two central characters, of a little lost kitten that Mooch decided to call Shtinky and Earl wanted to name Puddin'. So the kitten became Shtinky Puddin' and the three animals had some modest but amusing cold-weather adventures until they all became stuck outdoors in a snowstorm and had to be rescued by a certain white-bearded gentleman in a bright red coat who sported a most un-Santa-like hat. This is the story retold 15 years later in a lovely small gift book called Mutts: A Shtinky Little Christmas, and it is just as charming now as it was when McDonnell first wrote and drew it. The Mutts strip has become more of a “cause” comic over the years, sometimes a bit too much so, but it retains the warmth and gentle amusement of its early days a great deal of the time – and this little book, a seasonal delight that readers can enjoy all year, shows just what made the strip great in its early years and why it so often retains the ability to touch readers’ hearts today.

      The attitude that readers will have toward McDonnell’s characters and story is clear from those elements themselves, but lesser writers seem determined to tell readers what their attitudes should be…even if the words of the writers are at odds with what they want readers to feel. Thus, Stupid Ancient History, despite its title, is really not stupid at all. In fact, this (+++) book contains fascinating insights into the mores and interests of ancient Greece, Rome and other civilizations – presented, unfortunately, with a sense of smirking superiority that is designed to make readers feel “better” than those of an earlier time and “above” them. This is ridiculous, and not in a good way: it represents ridicule of civilizations that were, of course, very different from our modern Western ones, but that made many of the best elements of the modern world possible. And in fact, some of the most remarkable things in this book were not stupid at all. For example, there are numerous examples given of the famous graffiti discovered written all over Pompeii, the town that was buried in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 C.E. It is fascinating, not stupid at all, to learn that the walls in a gladiator barracks contained such messages as “On April 19th, I made bread” and “Antiochus hung out here with his girlfriend Cithera,” and to learn that the wall of one house bears the writing, “Satura was here.” On a different level, it is amusing but certainly not stupid to learn that King Tut’s tomb contained a royal toilet seat and to discover the belief that well-played flute music could cure snakebites – this may be wrong but is surely no stupider than many folk beliefs still held today. Indeed, many of the supposedly stupid things in this book are wise, such as the comment in a book by a Greek physician that a wet nurse should not drink, because it could lead her to “leave the baby untended or even fall down upon it in a dangerous way.” There is little stupid in Stupid Ancient History, and little that deserves laughter from modern readers – even though Leland Gregory insists that that is an appropriate response.

      Yet the attitude that Gregory seeks is superior to that sought by Scott Dikkers, supposedly writing with the fictitious “Dr. Oswald T. Pratt,” in You Are Old. There is certainly nothing wrong with jokes about aging – provided there is also nothing wrong with jokes about religion, skin color or ethnicity. Oh, those are off limits? Then that is one issue with this book: it attempts to make fun of things that are unfunny and is, perhaps more to the point, unkind in the way it goes about what it does. It is easy to say “oh, that’s just a joke,” but jokes can be so mean-spirited that they lose all or most of their humor, as do many of the “affirmations” here.  “Your muscles are like dry and brittle string beans,” writes Dikkers. And: “Why would your children invest in a dying generation?” And: “Are you in a nursing home now. Look out the window. What do you see? Nothing, because you’re old, and you can’t see.” And: “Nobody respects you. Nobody disrespects you either, which is worse, because you aren’t even crossing their mind. You’re just some old person.” Page after page of this, and nothing but this, make this 122-page book seem much, much longer, although a few of the cartoons (such as “the devolution of a pony tail” – it turns into a bun) are amusing enough to gain the book a (++) rating. Really, for whom is this book intended? Dikkers is former editor-in-chief of The Onion, which sometimes overshoots the mark but generally has pretty good aim in its satire. You Are Old doesn’t bother to aim at all – it is a scattershot piece of unrepentant, poorly written nastiness that has less dignity than it ascribes to all the elderly. Presumably Dikkers never intends to be among them, as his pages recommending suicide suggest.

      Gross America is better, funnier, and more pointed, earning a (+++) rating as a guide to odd attractions in 26 states and the District of Columbia. These museums, roadside stops and other things and places are not always “gross,” even if that is how Richard Faulk wants readers to think about them. Much of the time they, like the thoughts of the ancient Greeks and Romans, are simply interesting in a very offbeat way. There are, for example, the “vampire redwoods” of California, which have colorless leaves and weak trunks and live by feeding parasitically on other trees, and the Berkeley Pit of Butte, Montana, a four-mile-circumference lake that represents the remnants of what was once the nation’s largest copper-extraction mine and is now an unplanned monument to ecological disaster. There are tin-and-lead nipple shields, seen at a museum in Louisiana and used in the 19th century to protect nursing mothers, and the largest collection of live rattlesnakes in the world, in New Mexico. Faulk writes about these and other attractions sometimes with tongue in cheek, sometimes with a certain degree of acceptance and even understanding, as when he says of the museum containing all the rattlers (and a number of other dangerous creatures), “The point is not to strive for purity, but to win some love for the whole maligned family of venomous animals.” Faulk includes information on visiting the various places about which he writes, and Web sites where readers can find out more – a nice service. The book meanders quite a bit, not only geographically but also in its approach to its material, which ranges from the overtly humorous to the reasonably serious to the wry: “Today’s surgeons may see themselves as the top guns of the medical profession, but it wasn’t so long ago that they were considered its bottom feeders.”  Gross America combines elements of travel guide with ones of a trivia contest – not always successfully. But there is enough in it that is intriguing to provide a bit of thoughtfulness in readers, if not necessarily to inspire them to tour all the oddities that Faulk has ferreted out.

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