Magritte’s Marvelous Hat. By D.B. Johnson. Houghton Mifflin. $16.99.
Edgar Allan Poe’s Pie: Math Puzzlers in Classic Poems. By J. Patrick Lewis. Illustrated by Michael Slack. Harcourt. $16.99.
Very infrequently, a book appears that is so inventive, so unusual, that about all a reader can say is, “Wow.” One such rarity is Magritte’s Marvelous Hat, which takes the work of Belgian surrealist René Magritte (1898-1967) as the jumping-off point for a story about a dog like no other and a hat emphatically like no other. In this book, Magritte is a canine, buying a hat from a shop called Les Chapeaux du Ciel (“Sky Hats”). Instead of settling onto Magritte’s head, the hat floats just above it – an image that makes perfect sense in the context of the real Magritte’s odd and well-known paintings of ordinary objects doing extraordinary things or in extraordinary settings. D.B. Johnson’s drawing of the hat fitting appears on a plastic overlay, so one right-hand page (with the overlay) shows the hat maker trying to put the hat on Magritte’s head; turning the overlay puts the plastic atop a left-hand page, where the hat floats as an astonished passerby looks on; and the next right-hand page (the same one as before, but now without the plastic on top) shows the puzzled hat maker in his shop. Several additional plastic overlays grace later pages, ingeniously enlivening a story in which the floating hat becomes key to Magritte creating better and better paintings and having a great deal of fun with the floating topper. But then Magritte decides the hat is a distraction – he wants to focus on painting, not play – and strange problems arise as “the colors [of a just-painted work] splashed onto Magritte’s face. And his brush unpainted the picture.” Magritte realizes he needs the hat, so he starts chasing it – and Johnson produces some wonderful scenes that show the hat just out of Magritte’s sight or reach. Then Magritte decides to lure the hat back by playing hide-and-seek with it. The “Magritte-isms” incorporated into the illustrations are just marvelous, especially those using the kind of reversals and negative space in which the real Magritte specialized: oranges float in front of a fruit-seller’s store, or perhaps are in a picture partly visible through the store’s front door; it rains only underneath an umbrella; a bird flies through a wall that encloses a gigantic green apple; two characters carry a picture frame – or is it an actual picture? – that conceals Magritte’s body but leaves his legs visible, so the frame seems to be walking; and so on. Hat and Magritte are eventually happily reunited, “and every afternoon Magritte painted a new picture better than his best.” And everyone who takes the time to look, really look, at Magritte’s Marvelous Hat will want to reread and reexamine it time and again, and is likely to conclude each time that the best word to describe the book is simply, “Wow.”
There are “wow” elements to Edgar Allan Poe’s Pie, too. It is less amazing, less mind-spinningly entertaining than Magritte’s Marvelous Hat, but it is exceptionally clever and offers something beyond pure entertainment. J. Patrick Lewis’ book is a set of mathematical brain teasers in verse, ringing changes on poetry by Poe, Walt Whitman, Lewis Carroll, Langston Hughes, William Carlos Williams, Shel Silverstein and others. The book will be super-enjoyable for readers who know the original poems, which are not reproduced here; but even those unfamiliar with the originals will find these mathematically inclined modifications amusing, and may be inspired to seek out the “basis” poems after working on the math puzzles. And those puzzles are actually fun to do: they have to be first ferreted out of the poetry, then solved. For example, the first verse of “Emily Dickinson’s Telephone Book,” which Lewis says was “inspired by ‘My Life Closed Twice Before Its Close,’” runs as follows: “My book closed twice before its close—/ The two opposing pages/ That added up to 113—/ Were smudged around the edges.” And the entirety of “Edward Lear’s Elephant with Hot Dog,” inspired by “There Was an Old Man with a Beard,” goes this way: “When an elephant sat down to order/ A half of a third of a quarter/ Of an eighty-foot bun/ And a frankfurter, son,/ Was it longer than three feet, or shorter?” The answers to the math problems are given in small type, upside-down, at the bottom of each page, but of course one point of the book is to answer them, not just read them. Another point is to laugh: some of the poems are hilarious, with “Robert Frost’s Boxer Shorts” (which features a particularly amusing illustration by Michael Slack) perhaps the funniest. The back of the book offers brief biographies of all 14 poets whose works are gently parodied here, with excellent caricatures by Slack. The book is a bit of an odd combination, but it is such an intriguing one that it should even attract at least some of the math-averse.