Friday, May 13, 2011

Book reviews

Unconventional books for the unconventional mom
 Originally published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, May , 2011

Mother’s Day will be a time of adjustment for me this year.  My mom, who is 83, and her siter, 85, don’t live near each other, but they travel o my house every other year for a reunion on Mother’s Day.

However, my aunt has had severe back problems lately and my mother had major surgery just last month—so there won’t be any traveling for awhile.  In lieu of the reunion, I’ll be spending the day with my two teenage daughters—both of who have plans to be another state or country by next May.  So Mother’s Day this year will be transitional and bittersweet—missing my mom, and enjoying my daughters before they fly away.

I have stumbled upon three books recently—with bittersweet aspects themselves—that I just have to recommend.  They wouldn’t make conventional Mother’s Day gifts; they’re not about great, self-sacrificing moms (although all three were created by incredibly talented women), and there’s no sentimental storyline.  But, speaking as a mom myself, I wouldn’t want to miss their visual wit and dazzling inventiveness.

Book #1: “infinite City—A San Francisco Atlas” by Rebecca Solnit

You may associate the word “atlas” with an over-sized reference book filled with a variety of detailed maps, which, before GPS and Google Maps, you may have grabbed when looking for the location a particular street, city or region. A good world atlas will give you a sense of perspective as it shows you the relationship of different country’s land areas, elevations, climates, resources and vegetation.

“Infinite City—a San Francisco Atlas” is a whole new kind of atlas—one with inventive maps and well-researched text that makes unexpected connections, and thereby rewrites the history and reshapes the character of this famous city and the surrounding area. Various cartographers, artists and writers have contributed the 22 maps and accompanying text, although Solnit’s writing is some of the best. Two of my favorite maps are:

  • “Poison/Palate—the Bay Area in Your Body” in which Bay Area culinary venues are juxtaposed against potentially poisonous ones. Boudin Bakery, Ghirardelli Square and Anchor Brewing are pinpointed on the SF map, while, just across the Bay are the former Dutch Boy Paint factory, Mount Diablo mercury mine and Shell’s Martinez refinery. In the South Bay, artichoke fields, a Gizdich pies, and farm stands, are identified along with surrounding cement plants, nuclear waste disposal sites (in the Pacific), and semiconductor factories. To drive the point home, the map is also graced by “exuberantly mutant” mermaids, swimming off the coast.

  • In the chapter “Cinema City—Muybridge Inventing Movies, Hitchcock Making ‘Vertigo,’” Solnit makes the case that San Francisco was the birthplace of moving pictures, since photographer Eadweard Muybridge laid the foundation for this new technology while living intermittently in the city during the 1870s. The map shows sites related to Muybridge’s history-making sequential photographs, as well as his wife's extramarital exploits. On the same map, Alfred Hitchcock is also featured, having filmed “Vertigo” in various locations throughout the city in 1957.

Solnit has expanded the definition of what a book can be and how a story can be told in mesmerizing, revolutionary new way.

Book #2: “Regretsy: Where DIY Meets WT*” by April Winchell

“Regretsy” has the potential to offend perhaps every segment of society in a variety of ways. For one, the language is so coarse, even the title needs some cleaning up. For another, folks who earnestly handcraft to the best of their ability probably don’t deserve to be subjected to Winchell are biting criticism in such a public way. And lastly, who is this April Winchell anyway, and why is she the self-proclaimed arbiter of artistic value and good taste?

These are all valid objections, and yet “Regretsy” is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read about art—or any subject for that matter. Winchell’s book is an extension of her blog, in which she plucks e-commerce listings from Etsy (“ugly crap” as she calls it) and then shares her snarky commentary.

Log Purse,” Lynn Cyr Art
April Winchell’s commentary: “If you don’t mind
 carrying a piece of wood around at social functions
, this is a great purse. Oh, you’ll still have to find
 matching shoes, but as long as you’re Dutch,
 it shouldn’t be a problem.”

In her defense, Winchell claims that ultimately became a powerful selling tool for these Etsy merchants, linking their unconventional products with an audience of unusual tastes. As Winchell explains in her book, “When you make coats for farm animals…people aren’t going to find you with a keyword search.”

You will gasp at the photos (like “Glow in the dark zombie brain cameo” or “Obama toilet seat and tank lid cover” or “Jesus was a Yankee fan”), cringe at the prices, and then laugh guiltily over Winchell’s acerbic commentary. If Mom is okay with salty language and a little mean-spirited fun (and doesn’t crochet toilet roll covers), this is the book for her.

Double Hummingbird Feeder Hat,” Roy Road Fish Company
April Winchell’s commentary: “I nearly fell out of my chair when I saw this. And then I saw the YouTube video of this thing in action, and it was all over. The double hummingbird feeder hat immediately rocketed to my top 5 finds, ever.”

Book #3: “Radioactive—Marie & Pierre Curie, A Tale of Love and Fallout” by Lauren Redniss

Lauren Redniss and other writers/artists like her are going to save the book-printing industry. She creates biographies that are an extraordinary pairing of words and pictures, with a gravity and sophistication that may launch a whole new genre. “Radioactive” is Redniss’s second book and it’s even better than her first, “Century Girl: 100 Years in the Life of Doris Eaton Travis, Last Living Star of the Ziegfeld Follies” (2006), which was also ground-breaking.

“Radioactive” is hard to categorize. It’s part biography, part history, part science textbook, and part love story—all immeasurably enhanced by the author’s imaginative illustrations. There’s something impressively all-encompassing about Redniss’s montage-like approach to storytelling—right down to the invented type font and phosphorescent cover art. The picture-book style and haunting imagery are absolutely essential to telling this eye-opening, heart-breaking, history-altering story. As one reviewer puts it, “Like radium itself, [this book] glows with energy.”

The Curie’s lives, faceted with episodes of passion, scandal, Nobel Prize-winning brilliance, and untimely death, would be story enough. But Redniss also weaves in the history of radioactivity itself, and how its discovery by the Curies shook the very foundation of modern chemistry and physics, which ultimately led to a greater understanding of atomic structure and energy.

“Radioactive” was released in March, uncannily coincident with the devastating tsunami and subsequent nuclear crisis in Japan—and will have you pondering your proximity to the nearest nuclear power plant all over again. Of course the Curies realized that radioactivity had the potential to be both lethal and life-saving, and so Redniss also explores the medical benefits in addition to the long-term hazards of radiation exposure, through poignant personal narratives.

I’ve never seen a book quite like “Radioactive” before, and I’m hoping its artistic genius will spark a string of books like in the future.

1 comment:

Elkhorn Trading Company said...

Hummingbird feeder hat for only $37.00? What a deal!