"review" · Children's · fiction · Illustrator · juvenile lit · non-fiction · Picture book · poet-related · recommend

“The word, gentleman, is a public concern of the first importance.”

The word is dada.

Hugo Ball in costume for reciting a sound poem, 1916, Zurich.

The second time I took a course on Modern British Literature (not because I failed the first), we were again required to present some one or some thing that was contextually relevant to the life&times we were studying. I chose to present on Dada. No, I didn’t listen to Sean and wear a big lobster claw or some other ridiculously Dada Iconic costume. Conforming wasn’t the idea. Besides, I thought my slides were enough. And I wanted people to be able to leave with some concept of Dada, if not a sliver of understanding. Also, my grade depended on coherence and I looked strange enough trying to present anyway. Dada may seem fairly simple in execution, but it is not easily explained. Not when Why? is a reflexive inquiry.

Researching Dada was a lot of fun! Sean was an awesome help as he is an Artist and has learned his Art History. And as an Architect, there was more. We had the best conversations on that which led up to the movements and that which led away. And while this was great geeky fun, it was also necessary because Dada is not easy. Dadaists may seem silly, and often dismissed out of hand, but the dada were serious, “And while we put on a show of being facile, we are actually searching for the central essence of things, and are pleased if we can hide it. […] DADA is neither madness, nor wisdom, nor irony, look at me, dear bourgeois” (Tristan Tzara, in one of his 7 Dada Manifestos in 1918).

[I am by no means an expert on Dada, and I feel my grasp is fairly tenuous at best.  I thought some background was best as I read the following book a bit critically as I am not completely unfamiliar with Shelley Jackson’s subject.]


I am not writing this book to get famous but to give you some tips on living./Listen, kiddo: sometimes you stare at a black dot for an hour and nothing happens./But sometimes it gets up and walks across the floor./ I like bugs. /What I’m trying to say is, Pay attention and expect the best.~Mimi’s Dada Catifesto

Mimi’s Dada Catifesto by Shelley Jackson

Clarion Books, 2010.

hardcover, 48 pages. Picture Book, ages 6 & up

Mimi is an artistic cat in need of a human. But for a cat like her—with the soul of an artist—only an artist will do. Mr. Dada is a human who believes that art can be anything, and that anything can be art. And for a human like him—with the soul of a Dadaist—only an artistic pet will do. Sometimes, though, it takes a while for humans to see what’s right in front of them all along. So it is a good thing that Mimi is loud and silly and surprising and bold. Mimi is a Dada cat, through and through.

This charming story about staying true to yourself sparkles with playful prose and stunning mixed-media illustrations while introducing readers to the Dadaist art movement. ~Publisher’s Comments

I saw Shelley Jackson’s Mimi’s Dada Catifesto face out on a Library display. I was intrigued as to how Dada would do in a children’s picture book. However would the author/illustrator introduce the Reader to Dada, let alone explain what Dada was/is? The answer: some necessary use of oversimplification, and a marvelous “Author’s Note” at the end.

“This is a Dadaist book, and so, like the Dadaists, I borrowed from many famous works of art to make it.” If it were allowed, I think a photocopied set of pages of a first book constructed out of images and other found objects would have been brilliant. As it is, I think Shaun Tan in the construction of this book as well as Jennifer Bryant’s A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams, which is no insult, of course.

Speaking of William Carlos Williams, while certainly regarded as one of the greatest, if not the greatest American Modernist Poet, I was surprised to see a poem inspired by “This Is Just to Say” in a book about Dada, especially when the poem was written in 1934 and the Dada were declared “dead” in 1923 by the Surrealists (a few of whom had been Dada). Yes, yes, I know Dada is not “dead” for plenty. It just—it is not the same. And I acknowledge the fact I am arguing with a children’s picture book**; one I am just glad someone attempted and pulled off. Who wants to dwell on the depressing historical context, let alone share it with a child? Not Shelley Jackson, and not most of the parents who wouldn’t pick up this book, and not most of the parents who would.

Jackson is looking for accessibility and this illustrated piece is that, whether the Reader is a child or adult.  In the “Author’s Note” Jackson walks the Reader back through the book, enumerating her sources, “Mimi’s art show was inspired by Marcel Duchamp, who invented the “ready-made,” “The costumes of Mr. Dada and his friend are inspired by Hugo Ball’s costumes.” A passion and a lively sense of humor lift from the text and artwork. Mimi’s Dada Catifesto is a fun book.

In addition to a narrative, an artistic cat looking to live alongside an artistic human, Jackson inserts games and activities. Count the peas on a page, host a “ready-made” exhibit, and create a poem from clipped-out words. Ideally, someone would have marked in this Library book already, have already pasted their bits of cut-out words to form a poem on the appropriate page. And then the next Reader should paste over a few words and add some at weird angles between the already there. Yes, I am very definitely tempted.



“The world was full of silly things in 1915, just like now (umbrellas! bow ties! false teeth!), but most art ignored the silliness. To the Dadaists, that was the silliest thing of all.”*

Dada is in many ways suited to the young audience Jackson is targeting. Apparently silliness abounds, from the sound poems to the costumes to the raucous performances to the indecipherability of action. The assertions that “art can be anything and anything can be art” to “They thought that when you understand something, you stop thinking about it. Not understanding is much more interesting,” to “The Dadaists made art out of everything. Pieces of newspapers, ads, junk they found on the street—even other works of art.” Jackson examples Marcel Duchamp’s 1919 parody of da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, notably ignoring the added inscription and it’s coarse implication. What an exciting idea, though, right? Art within reach, Art without criticism, while being criticism. Anyone can be a dada. “Many cats are Dadaists.”

In this beautifully ambitious picture book, Shelley Jackson creates a fun introduction to Dada. She begins with beginners and pairs dadaist venues with a sweet story. Not unlike the cat, Dada is also looking for a place to belong. It is a stray beast, a bold and sassy figure, who finds the sacrifices for the sake of integrity and dignity well worth the while. Mimi is told as long as she behaves 1, 2, & 3, all will be well (i.e. purr; look cute; don’t wash your behind while they’re watching). She cannot compromise. There is something at stake. Dada was her response. Dada is her voice.

If you are looking for an unusual subject for an informative yet narrative-driven picture book, especially within the realm of Art, Mimi’s Dada Catifesto is a must. Even if you aren’t, do give Shelley Jackson marvelous little creation a chance. This one would be fun to own, collaborate with, and lend out to friends to make their own additions; then perhaps a soiree? We can deal with the historical, the political, contexts later.


*does the use of “silliness” come across as a bit saccharine to you too? that is, if you are familiar with what was going on.

**In the Author’s Note,” Jackson writes, “Nobody could agree about what Dada meant, and nobody really understood Dada—not even the Dadaists!” This could be seen as convenient, argumentatively, but that doesn’t make it any less true. I like Jackson’s boldness and ingenuity in tackling  this Art Movement, and to good review.

Do check out this review by the wonderful blog “7 Impossible Things Before Breakfast”

I mentioned I thought the “Author’s Note” very good, Jackson also includes a list of resources under “More About Dada;” books, websites, and audio cds. She includes Matthew Gale’s Dada and Surrealism (Phaidon Press, 1997) which I also found to be a brilliant resource.

>The quote in the title is the last line of Hugo Ball’s 1916 Dada Manifesto, which was read at the first public Dada soiree in Zurich on July 14, 1916. I just love the way it resonates; of course, especially in light of that which comes before it.

"review" · fiction · Lit · philosophy/criticism · recommend · wondermous

The Family Fang

“Caleb, we placed our child in a situation that turned her into an earthquake.” […] “She was terrified of Santa Claus. And we were the ones who put her in the fat man’s lap. That seems like the makings of a long-term psychological problem.”
“Do you know how resilient kids are?”
“She’s just a baby,” Camille said.
“She’s an artist, just like us; she just doesn’t know it yet.”
“She’s a baby, Caleb.”
“She’s a Fang,” he replied. “That supersedes everything else.”  (The Family Fang, 172-3)

The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson
ECCO (HarperCollins), 2011.
hardcover, 309 pages.

Raise your hand if you have not heard of The Family Fang or it’s author Kevin Wilson mentioned by at least 15 different Book venues in the past several weeks–all of them raving.  My contrary nature tends to kick in during this kind of hullabaloo, but the premise was just too hard to resist.

Mr. and Mrs. Fang called it art.

Their children called it mischief.

Performance artists Caleb and Camille Fang dedicated themselves to making great art. But when an artist’s work likes in suberting normality, it can be difficult to raise well-adjusted children. Just aske Buster and Annie Fang. For as long as they can remember, they starred (unwillingly) in their parents’ madcap pieces. But not that they are grown up, the chaos of their childhood has made it difficult to cope with life outside the fishbowl of their parents’ strange world.

When the lives they’ve built come crashing down, brother and sister have nowhere to go but home, where they discover that Caleb and Camille are planning one last performance–their magnum opus–whether the kids agree to participate or not. Soon, ambition breeds conflict, bringing the Fangs to face the difficult decision about what’s ultimately more important: their family or their art.

Filled with Kevin Wilson’s endless creativity, vibrant prose, sharp humor, and keen sense of complex performances that unfold in the relationship of people who love one another, The Family Fang is a masterfully executed tale that is as bizarre as it is touching. ~inside cover

It was the “bizarre as it is touching” that cinched it for me. And it is true what they claim, “The Family Fangis a masterfully executed tale that is as bizarre as it is touching.”

One of the reasons, that Kevin Wilson’s novel is wild fire, especially in the Literary community, is due to its conversation on Art.  When I finished and basked and then started thinking about writing a Review I thought about to whom I would recommend this read. It was the crowd who like the bizarre, who like dangerous writing, but overwhelmingly I thought to tell anyone who likes to discuss Art to read this book–even the few I know who might be squeamish about some of the content. I think anyone would be effected by this literary work, but I think it is the creative who find the greatest pleasure.

“[Caleb] had learned the almost magical skills necessary to make the world reconfigure itself in order to fit your own desires. […] Art, if you loved it, was worth any amount of unhappiness and pain. If you had to hurt someone to achieve those ends, so be it. If the outcome was beautiful enough, strange enough, memorable enough, it did not matter. It was worth it.” (190)

Is it really? Is it really worth it? As we meet Child A aka Annie and Child B aka Buster as adults and witness how they have been affected, the question is paramount. As we are provided glimpses into a childhood where parents star their children in some of the most obscene situations for the sake of a performance, of an artistic statement, the question remains that ubiquitous specter.

[Annie] was amazed by these people, what kind of wiring they possessed that would cause a Fang event to occupy a pleasant place in their memories. And the she realized these people were probably talking about seeing a representation of the original Fang event in a museum, which was even more astonishing to Annie. Was this how trauma worked? she wondered. Those closest to it remained dumbfounded by the fact that those who weren’t present could derive meaning from it? (254)

Annie and Buster need to find a meaning for it, while at the same time suspecting that the meaning might not change anything. The reader, brought close, needs meaning–and definitions. The other pervasive interrogation of The Family Fang, is what constitutes Art?

“Their father, on several occasions throughout their childhood, had referred to painting and photography and drawing as dead forms of art, incapable of accurately reflecting the unwieldy nature of real life. “Art happens when things fucking move around,” he told them, “not when you freeze them in a goddamn block of ice.” (124)

“The act is not the art,” he told himself. “The reaction is the art.” (166)

“It almost strains the notion of what constitutes art. The Fangs simply thrown their own bodies into a space as if they were hand grenades and wait for the disruption to occur. They have no expectations other than to cause unrest. It is, if you are one of the few to witness it firsthand, deeply unsettling because of how little the Fangs seem to care about the psychic and sometimes physical pain that accompanies their performances.” (211)

Art and Family are inextricably linked in The Family Fang and in the Fang family. When the children return home again, their lives in pieces, Camille observes, “We’re a family again. This is what we do. This is what the Fangs do. We make strange and memorable things” (109). But we’ve no idea yet the extent to which Camille and Caleb believe this. It is a truly beautiful aspect of the novel in how Kevin Wilson creates this desperate hope in the Reader that for the sake of the children and social graces the parents really do love their children A and B. And yet, when such delusions are irrevocably dispelled, there is a glorious relief; Caleb and Camille Fang really are just incredibly selfish bastards.

Buster wanted to believe that his parents still loved them, that they had planned all of this as a way to save their children from falling apart, to make them strong. Annie, however, was certain that their parents had created something just for themselves, and that they did not care what pain they cause in service of this idea. (223)

”I used to tell all my students, not just Caleb and Camille, but any artist that showed some sliver of promise, that they had to devote themselves to their work. They had to remove all obstructions to making the fantastic thing that needed to exist. I would tell them that kids kill art.” (199) “I found it was impossible for me to see any Fang art without feeling this horrible sense of dread, that something irreparable was being done to the two of you. […] [Your parents] beat me by completely inverting my theory. Kids don’t kill art. Art kills kids.” (200)

But it isn’t that simple, of course. Buster swings from trusting his parents to the surprisingly vehement exclamation of “They can’t do whatever they want, just because they think it’s beautiful” (201) and back again, and then… Perceptive, Annie is just angry, all the time; her parents’ Performance Art in motion, all the time. [Could Wilson have cast any more beautiful stars in these roles? ] If the novel were some easy moral it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting. Again, it returns to worth, to the place and necessity of Art, of perception. And let us not forget Family.

What constitutes Family? What is its worth, its place and necessity? It is a credit to Wilson, the ability to make Caleb and Camille to sound like every other parent on the planet. As one character says, “Think of your parents as directors; they control the circumstances and make all the independent pieces come together to create something beautiful that would otherwise not exist” (146). In an unusual parallel, parents are likened to these performance artists–a discomfiting and brilliant illustration. Buster felt “the inescapable claustrophobia of his parents’ desires” (63). “Is there anything you wouldn’t do if Mom and Dad asked you?” Buster asked his sister (65). At least Caleb and Camille are doing it for the noble purpose of Art, aren’t they? Captured in Art, what truth or meaning can be derived from an idea; however cruelly or humorously or touchingly manifested; such as “Kill all parents, so you can keep living.” Child A and B, Annie and Buster, Camille and Caleb, Kevin Wilson, The Family Fang, they cannot be so easily dismissed out of hand.

Kevin Wilson creates characters with vision and provocative opinion. He does so in a novel that in form would complicate illuminate its content. The Family Fang alternates between [Performances] and Chapters, moving back and forth in time, as does each [Performance] and Chapter shift along more contained time lines. Context is necessary. So is the initial effect/reaction. Wilson establishes then subverts, then subverts and establishes. His revelations are smooth. Really, the way the novel unfolds is something that kept sending me into little aftershocks of euphoria after I was even done with the novel; particularly it was how cleverly relevant and revelatory each piece had become to one another. You can guess and immediately see how the performance pieces came to mind in the context of present day events, but the extent of Wilson’s craftsmanship is more subtle. The Family Fang does not feel as spare as it actually is; which is something to get excited about.

As the end of the novel approached I was anxious about how it could possibly go. For all the torment the characters and Readers received, and likely the author himself, The Family Fang soothes without undermining itself. It continues as it always has. “They had done what they always did, made art out of confusion and strangeness” (178).


I know I quoted the hell out of this book already in my ramble, but these are two more: (really, I had shown restraint) :

Conventional lives are the perfect refuge if you are a terrible artist. (~Waxman, 203)

[Bonnie] had tried for months now to think of her own performance, some unique revelation of the absurdity of life, but she had no capacity for new ideas. She could see an existing artwork and understand why it was or was not successful. But she could not take that knowledge and arrange it into something wholly original, or even a re-interpretation of that existing piece. She was, as Hobart had explained to her, as kindly as possible, simply a critic. (212)


The Family Fang would make for a really good Book Club read.

Not the Ladies Tea kind of club, or just the Literary kind where you name drop and understand every single book and film reference in the novel (because there is that), but more the kind where you might hit someone with your Pint just to make a point. The kind of Book Club where Art and its Craft is something that everyone of you takes seriously. And where the bizarre is always touching.


a note on the cover: the copy I borrowed from the Library had Ann Patchett stressing the word genius rather than simply saying ‘brilliant’ at the end of that quote. Which I was skeptical of the address of genius. But the more I think about it, genius wasn’t a bad word to use at all.