Friday, January 22, 2010

Advanced ABCs


Easy as 1 2 3, A B C? No way. The alphabet, believe it or not, holds many secrets behind its sing-songsy façade. The alphabet can be tricky (C can take the place of K or S), sneaky (like Y, the sometimes vowel, sometimes consonant), loyal (Q is rarely without U), and strange (how many words really start with X anyway?). And then there’s all the troublesome fun that the alphabet can get into when letters combine: H’s affairs with C, P, S and T; I and E’s constant bickering over who goes first; the gleeful sounds of double Es and the mournful noise of double Os. The English language has many faults and foibles, and the books listed here prove that the alphabet is not just for kids anymore. If you think you know your ABCs, turn the pages of these inventive alphabets and think again.

The Gashlycrumb Tinies by Edward Gorey, 1997, Harcourt Books, originally published 1963 (Fiction/ Humor)

A is for apple and B is for bear? Not quite. “A is for Amy who fell down the stairs, B is for Basil assaulted by bears.” Children don’t learn their ABCs in this abecedarian; instead they’re killed off in twenty-six delightfully wicked ways, ending with “Y is for Yorrick whose head was knocked in” and “Z is for Zillah who drank too much gin.” Author and illustrator Edward Gorey (1925-2000) combined a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor, a fanciful style of crosshatched pen-and-ink drawings, and a ghoulish charm to create picture books for adults. The Gashlycrumb Tinies is one of his most famous (or infamous) works. His tiny Edwardian-era children with their proper English names (like Desmond, Neville, and Maud) dwell in stately sitting rooms, smother under rugs, and are mortally damaged by axes, awls, and tacks. In any other author’s hands, the destruction of an alphabet’s-worth of kiddies would be either tactless or downright silly. But Gorey’s slim volume of sweetly rhyming couplets and comically macabre drawings is nothing short of subtle, clever, fine, and funny.

The Dangerous Alphabet by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Gris Grimly, 2008, HarperCollins (Children’s Fiction)


A boy, a girl, and a pet gazelle sneak away from dear old dad and fall into a dark, dank, ABC-filled underground to search for treasure in this ghastly-good picture book that’s more for adults than it is for children. After all, the author of this alphabet is Neil Gaiman, whose other critically-acclaimed children’s books feature beasts out for blood (Wolves in the Walls), obsessively possessive mothers (Coraline), and serial killers (The Graveyard Book; a Newbery winner no less). And when the girl is kidnapped by a decidedly icky ogre and the boy and the gazelle must fight through a nightmarish labyrinth to free her, Gaiman’s colorful partner-in-crime, Gris Grimly, picks up the pace with his spine-tingling illustrations that mix shades of beige and black with splashes of faded reds and pinks. Then, this creepy-crawly alphabet slithers and slinks, and occasionally calls for help as monsters, madmen, fiends, and freaks crowd the pages and threaten readers with this “unreliable” and mysterious alphabet. Rhyming couplets run through the familiar “A is for…” formula and request the watchful eye of the reader to help save the kids and spot the mysteries on the page. The Dangerous Alphabet may be a bit to chilling for children, but its otherworldly tone is sophisticated fantasy in pictorial, alphabetical form.

The ABC Murders by Agatha Christie, 2006, Black Dog and Leventhal Publishers, originally published 1936 (Mystery)

Alice Ascher of Andover is murdered. Betty Barnard of Bexhill-on-Sea is killed. Then Sir Carmichael Clarke of Churston is found dead. Does anyone detect a pattern here? Dapper detective Hercule Poirot certainly does. In fact, prior to each of these alphabetical murders, Poirot receives a taunting note from the killer, giving the time and place of the murder—but Poirot and the police only find dead bodies. And next to the bodies is an ABC Railway Guide. It all seems to be the work of a homicidal maniac, a serial killer who dispatches death in alphabetical order. But then the fourth murder—D in Doncaster—goes awry, and every other chapter or so the standard third-person narrative switches to the point-of-view of a vague, confused fellow who just happens to be named Alexander Bonaparte Cust. This is one of author Agatha Christie’s best mysteries, and Christie (1890-1976) is known as the Queen of Crime. Hercule Poirot is her most famous detective. The neat, eccentric Belgian sleuth with egg-shaped head and sleek mustachios uses his “little grey cells” to observe, reflect, and come up with a flawless solution to every aspect of a seemingly impossible to solve crime. Poirot very nearly meets his match in The ABC Murders, which, even after nearly seventy-five years, remains one of the most ingenious little whodunits out there.

A is for Alibi: A Kinsey Millhone Mystery by Sue Grafton, 2008, St. Martin’s Griffin Press, originally published 1982 (Mystery)


Today, author Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone books are guaranteed best-sellers. But back in 1982, Kinsey was just starting out. Eight years before the novel begins, divorce lawyer Laurence Fife is murdered and his attractive young second wife, Nikki, is convicted and sent to prison. When Nikki gets out on parole, she claims innocence and hires Kinsey, an ex-cop and private investigator, to find the real killer. Fife was a womanizer, a lousy husband, who was killed in a rather unusual way—the allergy pills he took were actually poisoned oleander capsules. When Kinsey uncovers another death—also eight years old, also with oleander disguised as harmless medicine—she begins to suspect that this more than just a case of a philandering husband. She tracks down Fife’s business partners, his secretary, his grown children, his former mistresses. The clues lead from Kinsey’s little corner office in Santa Teresa, California to the bright lights of Los Vegas, and readers peer over the intrepid P.I.’s shoulder every step of the way. Kinsey is of the old-fashioned, hard-boiled school of detectives—a loner who’s fully prepared to do things her way, especially when her way is the hard way. Taking risks is all part of the fun for Kinsey, and this case might just have enough menace to satisfy. Grafton has a fine eye for people and places, but it’s the introduction of Kinsey as a fresh new face in the mystery genre that makes A is for Alibi memorable. Kinsey Millhone is, for all her hard-headed gruffness, a truly likable heroine—smart and wry and tough as nails. Grafton has a specific timeline set for Kinsey’s adventures; A is for Alibi is set in 1982 and the final mystery, already titled Z is for Zero, will coincide with Kinsey’s fortieth birthday in 1990, meaning the entire series takes place over eight years. With twenty-six books total (U is for Undertow is the most recent, published in 2009), the reader is guaranteed to know and love Kinsey from A to Z.

The Wonderful O by James Thurber, illustrated by Marc Simont, 2009, New York Review Children’s Collection, originally published 1957 (Children’s Fiction)


When a wacky pirate named Black and his fellow buccaneer Littlejack land on an island that doesn’t yield up treasure as quickly as the scurvy knaves would like, Black takes out his anger by stripping the land of the letter O, which he’s hated every since his mother got stuck in a porthole and had to be pushed out instead of pulled in. Lacking this valuable vowel means big changes for the island of Ooroo—which is now known as just “r.” Geese have to stay together—if one wanders off, it risks becoming a forbidden goose. Owls can’t hoot—they can’t even be owls. Cats can’t meow, dogs are verboten. The islanders can’t read books, or cook food, or even live in houses. Instead, they have to read magazines, eat snacks, and live in shacks. Shoe becomes she and woe becomes we; life gets very confusing indeed. But these folk are not about to give up without a fight. They keep their poodle dogs—they just speak French and proclaim their canines to be chiens caniche. They meet secretly in the forest where they utter the prohibited letter in hushed but defiant whispers. And, led by clever Andreus and the even wiser Andrea, they refuse to give up on hope, love, valor, and freedom. This children’s classic, first published in 1957, has been rediscovered the republished as part of the New York Review Children’s Collection. Author James Thurber’s wordplay is remarkable—the rhythm of the narrative dips and dives and sings and rhymes, and the jaunty illustrations by Marc Simont add vigor and zest to a sprightly little fable that is already instructive, creative, worldly, and wise.

Ella Minnow Pea:  A Novel in Letters by Mark Dunn, 2001, MacAdam/ Cage (Fiction)


“The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” The island nation of Nollop is founded in honor of Nevin Nollop, the man who created this popular pangram (a sentence that contains all the letters of the alphabet). The residents live in peace—until letters start falling from the inscription of the pangram on Nollop’s memorial statue. The all-powerful government Council rules that these letters can no longer be spoken or written and as they disappear from the statue, they also disappear from the novel. Teenage Ella Minnow Pea is a reader of literature, a writer of letters, and like most of the people on Nollop, has a real way with words. Ella and her cousin Tassie write to each other (the novel is an epistolary one) and form an underground movement to resist the Council’s decision and the fierce consequences that occur when you forget to spell every word out in your mind before you speak it. But standing firm and thinking fast only get the islanders so far—it’s hard to tell anyone what you’ve done when you’ve lost E and D (no –ed past tense endings), and word substitution can only get you so far (“sun” becomes “yellow sphere” when U tumbles to the ground). Soon only Ella and the reader are left to scramble for a solution that will save the island nation from madness and silence. Clever and entertaining, Ella Minnow Pea is a race against time before all the letters fall and language is lost forever. With a healthy dose of fantasy and creativity, author Mark Dunn uses the absurd to get serious about government power and freedom of speech. The English language is stretched to its limits and before you know it, Ella Minnow Pea will have you fighting for the rights of ABC, XYZ, and everything in between.

Alphabet Juice: The Energies, Gists, and Spirits of Letters, Words, and Combinations Thereof; Their Roots, Bones, Innards, Piths, Pips, and Secret Parts, Tinctures, Tonics, and Essences; with Examples of Their Usage Foul and Savory by Roy Blount Jr., 2008, Straus and Giroux (Nonfiction, Humor)


Author Roy Blount loves letters. He loves words. He loves their sounds, their combinations, their meaning, their roots and parts and histories and foreign companions. And as a contributing editor to Atlantic Monthly, a regular panelist on the NPR quiz show “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!” and a usage consultant for the American Heritage Dictionary, Blount has been lucky enough to make a living with his love of language in all its written and spoken forms. Alphabet Juice is a dictionary, of sorts, or an encyclopedia; at least its entries are arranged in a standard A to Z format. But the stupendous subtitle of should supply enough of a hint that this book is interested in sheer fun as much as it is in fact, in the secret origins of the word “stock,” in the joy inherent in the phrase “speckled pup,” in explaining what a “spoonerism” is—and that’s just a few entries from the S section. There are also entries on “tallywacker,” “hmmmm,” “cowlick,” “King Taufa’ahau,” and the controversial “ain’t.” Blount waxes poetic about each letter (such as his detailed discussion of Homer Simpson’s infamous utterance “D’oh!” in D’s entry), makes lists of the best one- and two- and three-word sentences (Touché. Jesus wept. The game’s afoot.), and drops names, literary allusions, and pop culture references a plenty. Blount himself acts as a keen and chatty guide through his engaging lexicon; it’s the kind of friendly book that you pick up, put down, flip through, pass around, and come back to over and over again. The passion in Alphabet Juice knows no bounds, and the reader will be utterly swept away by the glorious surprises of the good old ABCs.

No comments:

Post a Comment