Free Books, Free Reviews.

January 17, 2007

Loyal Readers,

Welcome to the first instance of a new column, which will offer reviews of books that have been conveniently left outside of Powell’s Used Books, located in Chicago’s friendly Hyde Park neighborhood. These books, which have been more or less disavowed by the staff at Powell’s (I’ve often seen the otherwise friendly clerks neglect to take the box of said books out of the rain), simply didn’t make the store’s draconian buying policy. Accordingly, most of the books are dross, but on rare occasion, you’ll find a book that changes your life… or so goes the underlying conceit of today’s free book, Blue Balliett’s Chasing Vermeer.

Chasing Vermeer follows Petra and Calder, two students at the University of Chicago’s Laboratory School, who are drawn to the sensational theft of a Vermeer painting after they find a book of mysterious coincidences, Charles Fort’s Lo!, in the free book box at Powell’s. Mentored by an idealistic teacher, the two pint-sized detectives begin to investigate the theft, while looking for similarities between the coincidences happening in their lives and those enumerated in Lo!. However, as the two begin to link the events of their lives with Vermeer’s, the thief, who had claimed that the theft was only intended to provoke a public discussion, is revealed to have more sinister intentions, and Calder and Petra must hurry to save both the painting and themselves. As one might hope for in a children’s mystery novel, there are plenty of red herrings and cryptic clues along the way.

For all of its resemblance to a Harry Potter adventure or Lemony Snicket tale, Chasing Vermeer is not a simple children’s novel, full of whimsy and imagination. For starters, Balliett, herself a teacher at the Laboratory School, isn’t just following the old adage of “write what you know” by setting the book in scenic Hyde Park. Almost every location mentioned in the book, from Powell’s to the cleverly renamed University Coffee Shop, is described as a place of magic, wonder, and mystery. This fabrication is so blatant that one cannot help but suspect that Ms. Balliet is in the pay of the noted scandal-rag, the Hyde Park Herald. In truth, these locations are entirely lacking in wonder and unlikely to fascinate pre-adolescents. Instead, they are full of University of Chicago students: wild-eyed hunchbacks who are obsessed with critical theory and liable to scare small children.

If the only danger of the book was that it might spoil Hyde Park for its natives, who would be forced to endure countless tourists searching for a walking tour of Petra and Calder’s hang-outs, it would not merit mention. However, the real danger of the book is that it is not a simple children’s novel so much as it is a skillful and dangerous piece of agitprop. While investigating the mystery surrounding the missing painting, whenever the children find a new clue, they analyze it and form hypotheses about how it fits into the larger picture, which they later test. In the process, they learn much about Vermeer, pentominoes, the suspicious lives of grown-ups, and pragmatism, all without the aid of a textbook. Sound familiar?

Chasing Vermeer might as well be an offering at the unholy altar of John Dewey and his vision of a new world order. The only real surprise contained within the book is that the childrens’ mentor, Ms. Hussey (no doubt the result of a telling Freudian slip), does not demand that her class rip pages out of their J. Evans-Pritchard readings. Thus, as a public service, this reviewer will be happy to rewrite select portions from readers’ copies of Chasing Vermeer, providing a new ending wherein the children manage to solve the mystery only with the aid of the complete Grove Dictionary of Art, and Ms. Hussey suffers a fate similar to that of Remarque’s Schoolmaster Kantorek.

For those who do not wish to see their children turn into little Gramscis and Althussers, make sure to keep them away from the book’s sequel, The Wright 3The Wright 3 follows the same thought-controlling mould, as Petra and Calder save the nearby eyesore Robie House from demolition, while learning about the “organic architecture” theories of noted degenerate Frank Lloyd Wright.  Given that Warner Brothers has already optioned the first book for a film (one hopes that the change in medium will innoculate moviegoers from the thought that one may learn from a novel), a third book is surely in the works.   If it will involve the children overcoming the menacing Whomping Willow tree in the Lab School’s Scammons Garden playground, only to find that the scary old man across the street is none other than John Paul Stevens (Lab ’37) who will teach them the value of rejecting constitutional originalism, is a question that only time and the Trotskyist poppinjays over at Scholastic Press, Inc. will tell.

6 Responses to “Free Books, Free Reviews.”

  1. codyhess Says:

    Neglecting my vehement belief that the market is not the ultimate arbiter of quality, do you really have time to read enough books so clearly rejected by the used bookstore system as to support a regular column? when there is such a plethora of acknowledged great books available for low low prices?

  2. lpmandrake Says:

    I’m pretty impressed that you found Chasing Vermeer in the free box. Usually all you can find are technical manuals from the 1970s or decent books that have been horribly disfigured. Had a Homeless-American used it for a toilet or something?

  3. notwithabangbutawhimper Says:

    The trade paperback of Chasing Vermeer is on sale at Powell’s for $1.50, down from the list price of $2.99. I think someone read it and just as soon figured they could do better things with the amount of shelf space it took up.

  4. […] Books, Theory, words — dailysalad @ 7:00 pm i’m a big supporter of the whole “free books. free reviews” project. in fact, i may have suggested the idea. but such is the curse of the editor that he […]

  5. DPH Eaton Says:

    There is a new novel about Vermeer’s early years as an apprentice called FAITH.

    In April of 1653, Joannis Vermeer married Catharina Bolnes. He was twenty and she just twenty-one. The marriage had been opposed for numerous reasons: He was still an apprentice; He had no money; He came from a social class which was beneath hers and he was not a Catholic. Still, their marriage endured until his untimely death at the age of forty-three. FAITH is the story of three winter months before his marriage, the most important months of his life. It was a time when his ideas about art, technique and ‘reality’ were being formed, ideas that would be developed and reflected in all his later work. FAITH is also a love story, a ‘probable’ love story since nothing is known about the artist’s life during this period. The people and events around him in this story are real. There is nothing in this book that could not have happened. Most of it must have.

    Available at

  6. […] by Charles Fort, which itself figured into a more recent work, “Chasing Vermeer” (reviewed here at YS). So too, it is easy to see where “lo!” could be better incorporated into modern usage; […]

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