Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Thunder and Lightning by Lauren Redniss

When art and science get married, I am first in line with the confetti. That's why I want to shower Lauren Redniss' work with rose petals. Thunder and Lightning: Weather Past, Present, Future is full of fascinating information about weather, the font and unusual page layout are all part of the author's design and it's illustrated with hand-coloured photogravure and photopolymer prints. So gorgeous!

"I hoped to [...] capture a certain feeling - a sensation of strangeness, wonder, terror - that we experience in the presence of nature, most powerfully perhaps when encountering the forces of the elements: a howling wind, a thunderstorm, the beating sun."

Yes, Redniss captures that feeling very well. She also steps up to the challenge "to embrace the whole sky with the mind." (This is from a Latin inscription 'Totum animo comprendere caelum" on the wall at the National Weather Center on the University of Oklahoma's Norman campus.)

From Arctic explorations to desert ecology to classic Greek literature to meteorological warfare to interviews with folks at the Old Farmer's Almanac, Redniss covers a whole lot of ground. With such range, it should not have surprised me to encounter mention of the Humboldt current while I concurrently was listening to the audiobook about Alexander von Humboldt, The Invention of Nature (by Andrea Wulf). Redniss also writes about endurance swimmer Diana Nyad, whom I've recently encountered in other books: The Thing About Jellyfish (Ali Benjamin) and The Argonauts (Margo Nelson).

Thunder and Lightning is a book that can be revisited with much pleasure and enjoyed by curious minds age 12 and up.

Readalikes: Maps (Aleksandra Mizielinska & Daniel Mizielinski); Animalium (Jenny Broom & Katie Scott); The Where, The Why and the How: 75 Artists Illustrate Wondrous Mysteries of Science (Jenny Volvovski et al) and Unflattening (Nick Sousanis).

See also my review of Lauren Redniss' book about Marie Curie, Radioactive.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Drawing Blood by Molly Crabapple

"Without art, you're dead!"

The opening line in Molly Crabapple's memoir, Drawing Blood, is a quote from her great-grandfather. Crabapple loved to draw from the time she could hold a crayon, but she hated being a child and describes that feeling of powerlessness very well.

Crabapple supported herself through art school and beyond as a model. She performed burlesque. She regularly attended an exclusive nightclub, where she sat in near-darkness, sketching the louche goings-on. She slept with men and women.

The point in Crabapple's narrative where I felt my interest kick into high gear was when she began using her art as a vehicle for activism. Her New York City apartment was right next to the site of Occupy Wall Street. In London, Crabapple bonded with feminist writer Laurie Penny. (I love Penny's work. If you haven't read her essays, go check out Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution.)

   "Unhealthily, we pored over conservative British message boards, where trolls talked about garroting Laurie to death, or tying me to a post and smothering me with shit. White men never seemed to provoke this sort of rage."
Poster by Molly Crabapple
Full colour artwork, like the teargas poster above, accompanies the text in Drawing Blood. If you want to see more of Crabapple's work, I recommend her scenes from the Syrian War, viewable on her website.

   "Art is hope against cynicism, creation against entropy. To make art is an act of both love and defiance. Though I'm a cynic, I believe these things are all we have."

Drawing Blood is fiercely feminist and compelling.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Here by Richard McGuire

Richard McGuire's Here is the visual story across time about one small corner of the world. It's a literal corner: in contemporary times, it's the corner of a living room in an American house. Through full colour images and a very few words, readers experience the diversity of events that have happened in this spot. Most of the action takes place in the twentieth century, but some scenes stretch as far back as primordial history, while others imagine near and distant futures.

Several years are usually represented on one page, in overlapping panels. It's remarkable how well this works to build a rich sense of the passage of time. The circle of life is timeless, so the overall narrative can be read in any order. I comfortably flipped backwards and forwards through the book to confirm details and sort out sequences. To make it easier, each panel is labelled with a small date in the upper left corner and the colour schemes remain consistent for each year. The prominent shades are mustard, grey-blue and plum.
Here (partial page detail): against a background scene from 1775, 
an inset labelled 1564 shows the maple when it was a seedling, 
while a man hopes for the best in 1953.
There is meticulous attention to small details. For example, a museum poster advertising a Vermeer exhibit occupies the same place on the wall in 2015 where a print of Vermeer's The Letter hung in 1943. A child hiding behind a tree in 1775 echoes a child hiding behind a window curtain in 1936. 

In the same place where a circle of chairs are set up for a children's party game in 1993, a dinosaur walks in 80,000,000 BCE, a bison rests in 10,000 BCE, a buck forages beneath the snow (moments before being struck by an arrow) in 1402, a wolf carries a deer leg in 1430, indigenous women scoop water from a stream in 1553, an indigenous couple flirt with each other in 1609, a cow grazes in 1869, we see the house being built in 1907, and a child builds a tower of blocks in 2017. One of the final images is of children playing ring-around-the-rosy outdoors in that spot in 1899. "Ashes! Ashes! We all fall down!!!"

We all have a place on this planet we call Earth. For McGuire's humans and nonhumans alike, that place is Here.

Readalikes: One Soul (Ray Fawkes); Building Stories (Chris Ware); and several picture books by Jeannie Baker: Where the Forest Meets the Sea, Home, and Window.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Beastly Verse by Joohee Yoon

Joohee Yoon's hallucinogenic art is what makes Beastly Verse an outstanding collection of poetry for readers of all ages. All of the poems are about animals, and the beasts Yoon portrays are those of folklore and imagination. They wear clothes and cheshire-cat-smiles with nightmarish teeth. There are no black lines. Instead, borders overlap in a style that mimics traditional block printing, using transparent cyan, yellow and magenta inks.

Walter de la Mare, Christina Rosetti, William Blake, Ogden Nash, Lewis Carroll and DH Lawrence are among the authors included. The humour in their work is amplified by the playful images. If their poems had instead been combined with photographs of animals in the wild or in a zoo, they would have provoked a completely different response. Animals hold a place in our culture that is separate from their physical reality. They occupy a place of wonder, dream and metaphor. That is what Yoon has captured in this mesmerizing picture book.

Readalikes: Dark Emperor (Joyce Sidman and Rick Allen); In the Wild (David Elliott and Holly Meade); and the edition of Alice in Wonderland that's illustrated by Yayoi Kusama.

Check out more of Joohee Yoon's art on her website.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Fishbowl by Bradley Somer

Warm-hearted. Funny. Interconnected lives.

Assorted characters in Bradley Somer's novel Fishbowl include:

  • homeschooled Herman (who passes out whenever he's under stress)
  • stoic Jimenez (who is not so good at elevator repair)
  • evil seductress Faye (experiences panties from heaven)
  • pregnant Petunia Delilah (her baby is due any minute)
  • Claire the shut-in (an agoraphobic with the perfect quiche recipe)
  • secretive Garth (who brings home a very special package)
  • the villain Connor (a lothario who has ensnared our heroine)
  • our heroine Katie

"Katie's sure there are other people in the world with her ability to fall in love. She sees her affliction as a good thing and refuses to become jaded by her many rejections. Her belief is that love doesn't make one weak; it does the opposite. She thinks that falling in love is her superpower. It makes her strong."

A goldfish named Ian leaps from his bowl on the 27th floor of the Seville and glimpses human lives in the apartments as he descends.

"Ian is a bon vivant [...]. He's always been happy as a goldfish. It doesn't dawn on him that, with the passing of another twenty-five floors, unless something drastically unpredictable and miraculous happens, he'll meet the pavement at considerable speed."

Miracles do happen. Bravery can overcome loneliness. Insight can pierce selfishness. There is birth and also death. People are changed. Queer folk find happiness. The action in the entire story spans a mere 30 minutes; nearly enough time to bake a quiche. The ending is upbeat and the whole experience is lots of fun.

I love that the book is designed with a drawing of a goldfish in the margin of each right-hand page. Ruffle the pages like a flipbook and you can watch the fish descend. This trick will give you an idea about what happens to Ian, but not how it happens.


It's odd that I've recently read and heard about a couple of other stories that take place during the time that a body falls. "Robin" by David Whitton (originally published in Taddle Creek) is in the voice of a young woman with some regrets about lemon gin and her spring break trip to Daytona beach. The story was day 19 of the 2015 Short Story Advent Calendar. On the Guardian Books podcast, Philip Hensher praised Malachi Whitaker (pseudonym for Marjorie Whitaker) and mentioned one she wrote that was about the events that take place between the time a retired grocer falls out of a fifth-floor window and his death on impact.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Mrs Engels by Gavin McCrea

Voice, voice, voice - and setting too. I'm always looking for an immersive reading experience and Gavin McCrea's Mrs Engels delivers big.


  • Includes real historical figures: Karl Marx and Frederick (Friedrich) Engels.
  • An unforgettable first-person female narrator: Lizzie Burns, the illiterate common-law wife of Frederick Engels. She's an Irish woman who grew up working in the mills of Manchester.
  • All the small details that bring nineteenth-century England alive.
  • Expands my view of women's lives in other places and other times.

Following are a couple of excerpts to give you an idea of McCrea's flair.

   "Mary used to say my feet were like boats, that in the last detail God mixed me up with Moss, whose dainty little yokes keep him upright only with the help of the angels. I follow the girl's gander down to them - my boat-feet - and we stand together a minute, marvelling at their reach: several long inches over the threshold, and solid as blocks, hobnails like rods, no hope of closing a door against them.
   Defeated, she lets me in."

At a communist party meeting in London after the fall of the Paris Commune in 1871:

   "Karl lumbers off and Frederick gets back up to take questions. They come in the guise of insults, most of them. But Frederick is quick with the right responses, just enough honour and sincerity to take the sting out of the attacks. He doesn't get riled, nor does he resort to insults himself, and this--when he has the public to himself--is when he's at his most seducing. He can handle his words like no one else, and even if you don't catch their meaning first time, you hold on to them, somewhere, they've been said with so much believing."

Complex lives in a rich historical setting. It's fabulous.

Friday, January 8, 2016

The Mare by Mary Gaitskill

The Mare is not what I was expecting from its ingredients: a woman, a girl and a horse. Mary Gaitskill is a master storyteller and that is what makes all the difference. The woman is Ginger, an Anglo artist and alcoholic, living in rural upstate New York. The girl is 11-year-old Velveteen, whose Dominican mother struggles to support her two children in Brooklyn. The horse is Fugly Girl--abused, untrustworthy, and boarded in a second-rate stable.

The narrative alternates between Ginger and Velvet, with occasional chapters in the voice of Ginger's husband Paul or Velvet's mother Silvia. Each voice is distinctive and each chapter is short, sometimes just half a page, so the pace is quick.

Ginger and Paul host Velvet for a couple of weeks one summer as part of a charity program to get inner-city kids into the countryside. At a nearby stable, Velvet discovers her affinity for horses. Ginger and Velvet develop a bond that extends past the length of the program and so Velvet continues to visit.

I was never certain where this novel was headed. Explosive scenarios are real possibilities because these characters are all negotiating emotional minefields. I'm not giving away any spoilers, so I'll just say that this book is fantastic. Don't worry if horses aren't your thing, because that is only nominally what this is about. Don't miss it!