Category Archives: Books

Q and A: Stephan Pastis tosses a few pearls

This Q&A will appear in Sunday’s Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, or see it online at

Pig, friend of Rat, product of Stephan Pastis’s brain.

Lawyer-turned-cartoonist-turned-tweener-novelist Stephan Pastis visits Milwaukee Monday to promote his 20th collection of “Pearls Before Swine” comic strips. “Pearls Freaks the #*%# Out!” (Andrews McMeel Publishing, $16.99) collects two years’ worth of strips, and reminds us that Pastis’s dysfunctional menagerie has lost none of its twisted charm.

It’s been 10 years since Milwaukee Journal Sentinel readers were first introduced to Rat, Pig and the rest of the gang. Rat’s still the cynical, know-it-all rodent who plays yin to Pig’s exasperatingly clueless yang. The world they share with professorial Goat, long-suffering Zebra, volatile Guard Duck and other sidekicks remains goofy, irreverent, and off-kilter enough to keep you guessing.

Pastis, meanwhile, has seen his strip picked up by more than 600 newspapers worldwide, has launched a “Pearls” iPad app, and shows real star quality in his promotional videos. Just in case that comic-strip thing doesn’t work out (and perhaps desperate not to resort to his original law career), he has two more books due in the next six months: “Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made,” an illustrated novel aimed at kids 8 to 12, and “Friends Should Know When They’re Not Wanted: A Sociopath’s Guide to Friendship.

In “Freaks,” Pastis annotates many strips with pithy comments and insightful asides (sample: “‘Sigh’ is a great way to end a strip for which you otherwise have no ending”). We asked him for a few more in advance of his appearance at Boswell Book Company.

Q. As one of our foremost promoters of pigs in popular culture, how do you feel about “Angry Birds?”
A. Rat loves any game that abuses pigs. Though as the creator of both, I try to remain neutral. On a much more insightful note, I, Stephan Pastis, have gotten all three stars on every single level of Angry Birds, including the latest update. It is the proudest accomplishment of my life.

Q. Your new book reveals your secret desire to do the Lambeau Leap after book signings. Should we be ready to catch you in Boswell’s fiction section tomorrow?

A. I fear that any fans of Rat would get more joy in seeing me fall than actually catching me. And I applaud them for that.

Q. Comic-strip celebrities often make appearances in your strip. Have they ever made odd demands? All-yellow M&Ms in the break room, things like that?

A. Dennis the Menace had demands involving women that I cannot repeat here.

Q. Album cover art, hand-written letters, the ode – all once popular, mainstream practices and now, not so much. Will the comic strip go the way of the ode, something respected but with a small, eccentric audience?

A. I’d tell you if I knew what the hell an ode was.

Q. Did Rat have an unhappy childhood?

A. His father was killed by a circus clown. Other than that, pretty normal.

Q. In “Freaks,” you remark that some characters never caught on, one tragic example being Feral Ballerina. Any particularly big disappointments?

A. There was a killer whale that lived next door to some seals and he was always trying to get into their house to eat them. I loved that whale. But I don’t think anyone else did. So I had him die as a result of an exploding meatloaf.

Q. “Freaks” also resurrects a dizzying array of characters who never re-appeared – Kiko The Lonely Cactus, Jenny Jellyfish and J. Rutherford Shrimp to name a few. Have you ever resurrected a character by popular demand?

A. I believe the aforementioned whale has died, undied, died, and undied again. He’s quite flexible.

Q. Action figures, amusement park ride, Broadway musical, clay animation movie, talk show: If you had your choice, which would be your dream PBS brand extension?

A. Guard Duck action figure that lobs actual hand grenades. (Don’t worry. We’d include detailed safety instructions.)

Q. “Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made” is coming out in February. It’s about a kid who can’t do anything right. Autobiographical?
A. Timmy is a detective who can take any mystery and make it more mysterious. He has few friends, is very arrogant, and is profoundly delusional. And yes, that about sums me up.

:: Stephan Pastis will sign books 7 p.m. Monday, Oct. 7, at Boswell Book Company, 2559 N. Downer Ave.


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A gaga book nerd, part 2

Schwartz logo guy, now with Boswell

I wrote yesterday about being all awestruck at this year’s American Academy of Arts and Letters awards event. It was an opportunity for me to chat with other people who care about punctuation, grammar, and beautiful sentences, not to mention what happens when they all come together behind a spine. I need to mention one more lovely thing that happened twice during my literary conversations.

Upon mentioning I was from Milwaukee, two different people asked me about Schwartz/Boswell Books. They knew about Daniel Goldin, and clearly appreciated what a special thing we’ve got going here. Now these are fancy book publishing people, one of them someone who edits one of the most renowned U.S. fiction writers of the day (I don’t want to drop names but — Jonathan Franzen).

I was happy to say I live just around the corner from Boswell Book Company and run into Daniel, its proprietor, all the time. It was a heartbreaking moment in our city’s history when Schwartz Bookshops closed down after 83 years in business and after bringing (it must have been) tens of thousands of authors to the city for readings, signings, talks. But Daniel stepped in to keep the Downer Avenue shop open, renaming it Boswell and retaining that funky little guy in the logo. The Downer shop is as wonderful as ever. Daniel is one of the most amazing readers I have met (a point made by one of the fancy NY people, too). He still brings scores of writers into town. Titles and authors and imprints just tumble out of him. Give him a word and he’ll give you a list. Travel. Romance. Squirrels. Corduroy slacks. He’s a lovable presence on NPR from time to time, and writes a great blog. My boss and I recently took him out to lunch so we could pick his brain about book events (we have a project in the works) and he gifted us with a generous helping of his considerable experience.

Thank you, Harry and David Schwartz for the years you gave us. Thank you, Daniel, for giving us more of those years. Because of you, I can go to luncheons in New York, say the word “Milwaukee,” and talk about books instead of football.

>> Daniel wrote a post for the blog Publishing Trends, you can read it right here.

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A book nerd goes a little gaga

I got a chance to attend the annual awards event at the Academy of Arts and Letters in NYC this week (someone I know was being honored). I also had the chance to be a little like a kid at a Lady Gaga concert, because there were quite a number of arts and letters luminaries. Tony Kushner! Edward Albee!  Suzan Lori-Parks! Lorrie Moore! Cy Twombly’s son! Also, Garrison Keillor in red socks!

But the best part was that my luncheon table was full of writers and editors.

The guy to my left was a fellow named Brando Skyhorse, and the woman to my right was his publisher, Martha Levin of  Free Press. Brando’s wonderful book, “The Madonnas of Echo Park,” won the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction, which goes to the best work of first fiction (novel or short stories) published in 2010.  Brando, who now lives in Jersey City, is a charming man with an interesting story. Growing up in LA he assumed he was Native American, because that’s what his mom told him. He later learned he was Mexican.

Of course I couldn’t help myself but ask Martha, What upcoming books are you excited about? Which is a little like asking my Uncle Bill his favorite bad joke — I knew I’d get an earful, but I was ready to. She told me about two in particular I am going to watch for. It’s interesting to me that both authors deal with race, otherness, and ethnic identity.

The first is by Julia Scheeres, the author of “Jesus Land.” Like Bando, Julia has a fascinating back story. She was raised in rural Indiana in a fundamentalist-religious family with an adopted brother. She’s white, her brother’s black. At one point, the two were shipped off to a reform school in the Dominican Republic. The memoir recounts her story. I haven’t read it but I’m putting it on my list. Julia’s next book, due out this fall, is titled “A Thousand Lives.” Martha tells me that Julia wanted to write a piece of fiction about a charismatic religious leader, so she started researching Jim Jones for inspiration. In doing so, Julia discovered scores of records from the Jonestown massacre investigation that hadn’t been written about. She also realized that there were survivors (which I didn’t recall). She switched course and decided to write a piece of nonfiction about Jones. Her fundamentalist upbringing was her secret handshake. One survivor, a teen-ager at the time, didn’t want to talk to her until he read “Jesus Land.” After reading Julia’s account of growing up in a zealously religious community he realized: she’d get it.

As we talked, Martha pointed out that nearly all the Jonestown followers were African American — another detail I didn’t recall. I’m looking forward to reading about a chilling piece of American lore with fresh eyes, through fresh eyes.

Brando and Julia are flip-flopping. His next book is a memoir called “Things My Fathers Taught Me.” He laughed when I asked him, “Tell me about it” as his publisher was listening, because he had to have his pitch down. Among the  urgent need-to-read phrases he delivered was “just in time for father’s day,” “best memoir ever,” and “I had five step-fathers.”

At about that time a squall arrived, fluttering the sides of the tent and sending streams of water under our luncheon tables, requiring me to pick up my soaking purse and compelling several other tables to evacuate. The talk turned to a John Ashbery poem about a squall. The award recipients were called away to assemble on the stage, and we tip-toed around the puddles to the auditorium. I knew I shouldn’t have worn open-toed shoes.

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Office supply geekout: Bookmarks

This is brilliant. Grass-blade book markers by a company called Yuruliki Design. At first I asked myself: Would a person mark that many pages? But then I think of all the passages I circled in “The Sand County Almanac” and the blades become a way of marking favorite moments. Nice.

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It’s book club morning

I am in a wonderful book club, one that deserves better from me. We are now reading “A Sand County Almanac” by Aldo Leopold, and I woke up early this morning to catch up. It’s a sad fact that I haven’t finished a book club book in more than a year, and so far this one isn’t likely to be an exception. However, I am (again) thankful to my clubmates for giving me a reason to read something wonderful, however sluggishly I’m doing it.

I want to share a few things I’ve circled so far.

Reflecting upon the eagerness of a trout to take the bait, and of a fisherman to cast it:  How like fish we are: ready, nay eager, to seize upon whatever new thing some wind of circumstance shakes down upon the river to time! And how we rue our haste … Even so, I think there is some virtue in eagerness, whether its object prove true or false. How utterly dull would be a wholly prudent man, or trout, or world!

Reflecting on the irony of killing off wolves to protect the deer, which in turn means large swaths of defoliation: Too much safety seems to yield only danger in the long run.

And this one needs no set-up: … all conservation of wildness is self-defeating, for to cherish we must see and fondle, and when enough have seen and fondled, there is no wilderness left to cherish.

Aldo’s prose strikes me as old-fashioned in a wonderful way (he died in 1948 and the first of these essays were published a year later).  It has the effect of being very much of its time, and also respectful of its topic. The natural world — be it a pristine lagoon in the Delta of the Colorado or bird poop on a Wisconsin farm — is elevated through a more formal (to our modern ears) language, and I’m transported to a more slow-moving moment in the history of language and syntax.

Change came more gradually then, but Aldo’s writings explain that it was sudden in the greater context of the natural world.

*  *  *

I won’t belabor the point about Wisconsin’s pokey springs. They put us through an annual agony. I’ll just fast-forward to the fact that the temperature went above 80 (!) yesterday, a stunning development in May for these parts. Between errands, I took my car through Estabrook Park. Trees were coming into leaf (as opposed to promising it for weeks) and some of them were in bloom (as opposed to bud). As the road curved gently through this new green and pink and white, and as I felt the sensation, for the first time in six months, of an open window, my eyes teared up. This is a little embarrassing to admit.

How must it have felt, then, for Aldo Leopold to take his canoe down a wild river in the 1930s, when “wild” meant something more true to its meaning?

I’ve been thinking about that all morning and can’t shake the feeling of loss.

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