Good Things, Small Packages

Muriel Spark's The Abbess of Crewe, roughly the size and weight of a CD jewel box, and which I found for $3 in a used book store (the Fremont branch of the very estimable Twice Sold Tales) is a wonderful little gem of a book. Written in 1974, it's a Watergate novel, and somehow Spark came up with the inspired idea of making her Nixon figure an abbess. The book spirals around Watergate and its themes in a graceful manner, eventually converging a bit to history with a brilliant couple of connections in the last few pages. Spark's language is also wonderfully arch.

Winifrede, land of the midnight sun, looks at the Abbess, and presently that little sun, the disc of light and its aurora, appears in her brain like a miracle.

. . . nor was she present in the refectory at eleven for lunch, which comprised barley broth and and a perfectly nourishing and tasty, although uncommon, dish of something unnamed on toast, that something being in fact a cat-food by the name of Mew, bought cheaply and in bulk.

"What are scenarios?" says Winifrede.

"They are an art form," says the Abbess of Crewe, "based on facts. A good scenario is a garble. A bad one is a bungle. They need not be plausible, only hypnotic, like all good art."

Also in the extremely cool column, Dylan and Allie presented me with a private-printing copy of the complete collected Stick, a comic strip drawn by the one and only Jeremy Smith. Before this wonderful gift, I thought of Smith's work with some fondness -- it was usually one of the better inducements to picking up the paper in the morning -- although my memories of it were that it was somewhat uneven. The collected volume belies those memories, though. Dylan pointed that what the under-one-roof aspect of the compendium brings out one of Stick's salient features: the way that the plot lines would build in a lackadaisical way for weeks. At the time, a day or two of missed delivery would be enough to derail the plot, and the dribbling out really cut down on the sense of connection from one strip to the next. Reading them three-to-a-page, I'm cracking up now, because the strips work really well in teams. The running jokes -- jokes that took years to develop in the original run -- hang together now, and his gentle goofy alternate universe of stick figures and superintelligent chickens gets the extended treatment required for one's sense of humor to click into line with Smith's silly sensibilities. In Stick's words, "A man's gotta moonwalk when a man's gotta moonwalk."