Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul by Jeff Kinney; Amulet Books, 217 pages, $15.95. Ages 8 to 12.
“If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my years of being a kid, it’s that you have ZERO control over your own life.”
Thus begins the entertaining ninth installment of Jeff Kinney’s blockbuster best-selling series about Wimpy Kid Greg Heffley. (The cover is orange; the kids were wondering.)
This time the Heffleys are going on a road trip, towing their boat behind them, and Kinney mines comic gold from this family vacation story as the Heffleys experience one unbelievable but hilarious mishap after another, whether it’s having to stay at a seedy motel, a seagull invading through the sunroof, a lost locker key, or a prize baby pig won at the local fair.
With their cartoon illustrations, kid-style printed text and out-there comedy, Wimpy Kid books appeal to reluctant readers, but parents who read them aloud will enjoy some of the references, and appreciate the fact that Kinney has eased up on the anti-social inclinations that made Greg rather alarming in the initial installments. The censorship of a series called “The Underpants Bandits” is a nod to Dav Pilkey and his frequently censored Captain Underpants books: “I hope these adults are happy when a whole generation of boys grow up not knowing how to read.” Greg’s fifth-grade book report assignment to write a letter to a famous author (“Dear Nathaniel,”) elicits a response from the publisher: “We regret to inform you that the author to whom you have written, Mr. Hawthorne, passed away more than a century ago.” Then there are the song lyrics playing in the car on the country music station “My truck is busted but my dog he loves me.”
– Jean Westmoore
Stories of Art and Artists by Diana Secker Tesdell; Everyman’s Pocket Classics, 400 pages, $16
Some tales selected by Diana Secker Tesdell for her excellent new anthology, “Stories of Art and Artists,” depict artists as magically powerful. In Marguerite Yourcenar’s fable, “How Wang-Fo Was Saved,” an old painter makes art so vivid that reality pales next to it, infuriating the emperor, who plans to put the painter to death. Of course the painter and his devoted acolyte find a way out through art itself.
Tesdell ranges as far back as Honoré de Balzac and Nathaniel Hawthorne, while also including contemporary fiction as recent as Rebecca Lee’s 2013 collection, “Bobcat.” Unsurprisingly, 14 of the 20 stories feature painters, painting and closely related arts. Edgar Allan Poe’s spooky short “The Oval Portrait” depicts a painting that draws life literally from its subject. In Guy de Maupassant’s “A Portrait,” the painting of his mother solves the mystery of what makes a graying Don Juan so attractive.
A few stories address the hothouse intimacy that can develop between a painter and model, though in unexpected ways. In Penelope Fitzgerald’s “The Red-Haired Girl,” a young painter becomes preoccupied with the redheaded servant who poses for him but refuses him any access to her emotions. In the collection’s oddest story, Henry James’ “The Real Thing,” a gentleman and lady of declining resources desperately want to model for book illustrations – but the art depicting them keeps turning out lifeless and unacceptable.
Tesdell includes stories by John Berger and A.S. Byatt, two writers strongly associated with aesthetics. In Berger’s “A Brush,” the gift of a brush leads to unexpected friendship between an artist and a Khmer refugee in Paris. Byatt’s “A Lamia in the Cévennes” pits a blocked painter against a possessive talking demon in the form of a snake.
While no photographers or video artists found their way into this collection, Tesdell does include the greatest story ever written about a performance or conceptual artist, Franz Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist.” He plies his art for years, relegated to the fringes of the circus, until he is all but forgotten. “I always wanted you to admire my fasting,” the hunger artist says, delivering one of 20th century literature’s most devastating lines.
If you enjoy stories of artists behaving badly, Tesdell does not disappoint. In Bernard Malamud’s “Rembrandt’s Hat,” a taciturn sculptor and an art historian engage in a draining, passive-aggressive struggle after one makes a remark about the other’s chapeau. Rebecca Lee’s “Fialta,” set in southwestern Wisconsin, depicts the cult around an architect a la Frank Lloyd Wright, with an apprentice and the Master hungry for the love of the same woman.