Monday, March 12, 2012

READING: You Can Never Find a Rickshaw When It Monsoons

This week's read:

Rickshaw is illustrator Mo Willems' sketch diary of a year-long trip around the world in the early '90s. There were three reasons I had to have this book:
  1. I'm obsessed with RTW travel and would live on The World if I could. I'd settle for living in the World Showcase at Epcot.
  2. I think Mo Willems is responsible for some of the best children's books ever written -- the Pigeon series, the Knuffle Bunny books, and Edwina, the Dinosaur Who Didn't Know She Was Extinct. Plus he used to be a writer and animator for Sesame Street. In summary, he is awesome. 
  3. Foreword by Dave Barry. More on him later, but the two words that can sell me on any book cover are "Dave Barry." 
Full disclosure: This is basically a picture book. And yet somehow I'd put off reading it for five years. (Well, five years and a week -- this is technically last week's read.) 

While it wasn't as LOL-funny as his children's books, Rickshaw reinforced my love for Willems. Each day of his trip, he sketched a person or experience that stood out to him -- and nothing more. A five-day stop in Paris is encapsulated in sketches of drunken Yankees, car headlights, a flowerpot, a statue, and an angry park employee*. And yet, at the end of the book, I had the urge to visit places (Hohhot? Manali? Kathmandu?) that I'd never considered. Black-and-white cartoons and funny retrospective captions were somehow as bad for my wanderlust as a five-page, photo-heavy spread in Travel & Leisure -- that's impressive.

These are the sketches I dog-eared, so I'll just list them in order: A possible inspiration for the Pigeon books. A superficial conversation overheard at Dachau. A Turkish bus line called Kamilz Koc**. The rejection of pony rides***. Roti vendors. Spending December 26th in a straw hut in Thailand****. A man applauding a peacock. The joys of driving uphill in San Francisco.

And of course, I have to talk about the foreword. I know my writing style (especially my penchant for footnotes) is hugely influenced by Dave Barry. I became obsessed with him after my sixth-grade boyfriend Steve***** basically ordered me to read his books. He was right -- they were hilarious. I usually have to stop several times per paragraph to laugh hysterically and then read the passage aloud to anyone within earshot. I had the chance to meet Dave Barry a few years ago, and it was one of the few times in my adult life that I was starstruck. (The other two: Seeing Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen****** on the carpet at the VMAs, and when Michael Emerson called my house and said, in his creepy Ben Linus voice, "I'm looking for Kara Wahlgren.") I drove four hours to a book signing in Arlington and told him he had inspired me to become a writer. He asked, "How's that going?" And I said, "Oh, um, good I guess." I neglected to tell him that I was actually a writer. Like, a fairly successful one. I just couldn't form coherent thoughts over my brain screaming, "THAAAAT'S DAAAAAVE BAAAARRRYYYY." 

Anyway, Dave Barry wrote the foreword and it's really funny. And, it turns out, Mo Willems shares the penchant for footnotes. So I'm convinced we'd be buds.

* I dog-eared this page because it reminded me of the time we got pulled over (on foot) by a policeman (on horseback) in Munich for running a red light (again, on foot). He clippity-clopped up behind us and asked, "Vhen you are in America, vhat do you do at a red light?" We explained that pedestrians pretty much had the right of way 75% of the time, and the right to risk their lives the other 25%. He let us go.

** The equivalent of Wonder Bread in Mexico is Bimbo. One of the few times I've used my Spanish semi-fluency was in explaining to a street vendor why he could make a lot of money selling bootleg Bimbo t-shirts to America tourists. (Porque en los Estados, es como una, en serio.)

*** I did a silent happy-dance when we went to the Grand Canyon and the mule rides were closed for inclement weather, because I'd failed to come up with a reasonable excuse for chickening out.

**** In 1990, of course. But this hit home for me because my brother -- who almost never travels away from his family -- was staying in a beach hut in Thailand only a few days before the tsunami. He has an uncanny habit of narrowly escaping death. 

***** By "boyfriend," I mean we sat at the same lunch table and usually hung out at recess. 

****** My niece had a similar moment at the JFK airport. She called me screaming hysterically, to the point I couldn't understand any of her words, only her extreme sense of urgency. Assuming there had been a bomb threat, I told her to calm down and explain what was going on. She took a deep breath and said, "Mary-Kate the newsstand...she bought gum."

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