Pretty Busy

Bees: A Honeyed History by Piotr Socha. Abrams, 2017. 9781419726156. 80pp.

Gene: This book was originally published in Polish —
Sarah: Endpapers!
G: I bought this for my daughter, whose name is shortened to B.B. And yeah, those endpapers, looks like the inside of a perfectly laid out beehive, which is nifty, and the illustrations are just expletively great.
Apparently Poland produces great picture books, because there’s that imprint, Big Picture Press, that publishes so many in English. (Welcome to Mamoko is one of my favorites. They also published Under Water, Under Earth.) But I was wowed by this book so had to buy it for her.
S: It’s cartoony and cute!
G: Kinda. But there’s no black lines around the images, it’s more the style of pieces of color being used to create the pictures.
S: It looks like Mary Blair‘s work.
G: (It does.) Honeybees have been around for millions of years — they coexisted with the dinosaurs. This two-page spread describes what they were like, apparently they were more like wasps, before they started getting food from plants, and at that point they got hairier so it was easier to transport pollen.
(turning page) This is a huge and beautiful picture of a honeybee.
S: That is so great.
G: Queen, drone, and worker, in scale. Honeybees have four wings, which I hadn’t realized. And very gruesome looking horror mouth parts.
The basic layout of this book is there are two-page spreads with, across the bottom 1/10th, some bit of text about the images above. On the anatomy page there’s some content about that, including that their wings beat 230 times per second and that they can reach a speed of about 20 mph.
S: That’s pretty fast.
G: And why you can’t run away from a determined bee.
Here are pictures of the hive, doing different things in there, and how the workers raise a queen. And then a honeybee mating picture — they do it in the air, as the queen is trying to fly off to establish a new hive!
S: Wow.
G: Most of the eggs are fertilized during this mating flight, and those become workers, or new queens if they’re fed royal jelly. Unfertilized eggs hatch in to drones.
S: Weird.
G: There’s a little bit about the waggle dance, swarms — the image is so complicated and layered I can’t imagine anyone creating it without a computer, but I’m probably wrong — there’s a complexity to some of these images that reminds me of medical illustrations.

St. Ambrose

There’s some info on biomimicry, pollination (including other pals that pollinate, like the death’s head moth), small bees, cave people, ancient Egypt (where they kept bees in nifty, stackable clay vessels), the diet of the Greek gods, and then here’s dead Alexander the Great, who was transported home in a huge pot of honey after he died (to preserve him). There’s a lot on Slavic cultures, and more on the Polish culture than I’d normally expect to see in a book on bees, because of the book’s origin. St. Ambrose is the patron saint of bees! And Napoleon and Josephine changed the fleur de lis to a golden bee design, to wipe away all traces of the kings who’d ruled France before him. Here is a fake newspaper broadside with miscellaneous bee facts.
S: Way more text on that page.
G: Some bits on domestication, and then beekeeping through the ages. Weird Polish history note: beekeepers were held in high regard, and in medieval Poland they had a lot of power, including being able to sentence people to death, which was the punishment for anyone who stole bees.

Beekeepers may be your next cosplay.

S: The medieval beekeeper uniforms are fantastic!
G: Bee hives people make (including old styles from other cultures), beekeeping equipment which is fascinating if you’ve never seen it, and then the crazy thing — people make beehive sculptures (in Poland!).
S: I see Jesus.
G: … and St. Francis, Adam and Eve, demons, soldiers…the list goes on. This is my favorite page in the book. I need to see if my friend Dave, who keeps bees, can build something like this.

Curious, Volume 3

Curious Constructions: A Peculiar Portfolio of Fifty Fascinating Structures by Michael Hearst, illustrated by Matt Johnstone. 9781452144849.

Hearst’s previous collections, Unusual Creatures: A Mostly Accurate Account of Some of Earth’s Strangest Animals and Extraordinary People: A Semi-Comprehensive Guide to Some of the World’s Most Fascinating Individuals, were two of my favorite booktalking titles in past years. Hearst has a great eye for lesser known animals and people and includes the most interesting and entertaining facts about each. Now he has a book on constructions: from the famous (Stonehenge) to the humble (various Paul Bunyan statues scattered across the US) to the odd (El Pulpo Mechanical, a massive robotic octopus originally built for Burning Man). He even includes one that’s not man-made: the cathedral termite mounds in Northern Australia. Each gets two pages: one big illustration and a description of what it is and why it’s cool, along with an occasional quiz or poem. It’s perfect to pick up and browse. Hearst has composed albums for his previous two books, I hope he’ll do one for this, as well.

Mo’ Money

Monet: Itinerant of Light by Salva Rubio (writer) and Richard Efa (art). English translation by Montana Kane. NBM, 2017. 9781681121390. 112pp.

I’m not an art expert and I don’t read many biographies — I’m a guy who races through museums, often giggling with my daughter, to find the few works that catch my attention and make me stare at them. I’ve been caught up by a few of Monet’s huge, bright paintings but know little of him or the Impressionist movement — it’s worth noting that Efa’s art and design pays homage to many of his works — but I was still surprised how much I enjoyed this beautiful graphic novel.

The book opens late in the painter’s life, in 1923, with Monet reluctantly getting much-needed cataract surgery, fearing for his vision, and then reflecting on his life. Art was the only thing that took young Monet out of his grief over his mother’s death, and his first mentor was Boudin, who helped him see nature and taught him to paint it outside. Soon Monet dropped out of school, against his father’s wishes, and moved to Paris. But the school he attended there didn’t help him realize his vision, and through many struggles (financial, emotional, internal) he had to find his way to success and acceptance in the art world. He wasn’t always the nicest guy to his family, but his single-mindedness really made me admire him.

As Rubio notes opposite the last page, this is not a history book — a lot of license was used to develop characters, and the works are not always presented in the order they were created. But it gave me a great sense of the artist and his time.

For librarians and art lovers: At the end are 16 pages of reproduced art works (not all by Monet) and the panels in the book they inspired. (If I were going to read this for the first time, I’d probably start with his section, but only because I’m unfamiliar with so many of the paintings that are referenced. But discovering it at the end of my read had me flipping back through the book and enjoying it again, which was fun, too.)

Contest of Champions

The Champions’ Game: A True Story by Saul Ramierez (as told to John Seidlitz) Canter Press, 2017. 9780997740233

One way to write a good chess book is to put the game in the background and use characters and situations instead. Saul Ramirez, a rookie middle school teacher in over his head as a chess team coach in the U.S.’s poorest ZIP code, is a great real-life character. Thanks to his past as a scholastic chess player, he is both a neophyte and an expert who puts himself and his team into tense situations: State Championships, National Championships, fund-raisers, chaperoned trips. Each chapter, from the first (“Go Big or Go Home”) to the last (“Visualize Your Win”) is titled and themed after the lessons about the game and life Ramirez tried to teach to his players.

Playing chess is more than just learning the moves. Ramirez’s troops felt overwhelmed at their first tournaments when they saw other teams had uniforms. (Ramirez scrambled to get the team t-shirts for subsequent events.) Ramirez made a beginning chess coach error when he didn’t protest his players being paired against each other. If they hadn’t been beating one another, the Henderson Middle School kids could have packed the winner’s podium. But there was one mistake Ramirez avoided: he fought for his only female player’s right to compete at State and National events, despite the extra expense of added adult supervision and hotel rooms on road trips. He also made getting good grades a requirement for team participation.

The Champions’ Game is an emotional roller coaster related by someone who was in the front seat on the wild ride.

Thanks to Robert for this guest review.

Dinosaur vs Robot

There’s nothing better than checking in on graphic novel series I loved, finding out I’m 6 books behind, and realizing they’re all excellent. This isn’t an experience I’ve ever had before, but I just checked out a stack of Atomic Robo books at the Seattle Public Library. Here are the two I read last night.

Atomic Robo Volume 7: The Flying She-Devils of the Pacific by Brian Clevinger and Scott Wegener. Red 5 Comics, 2013.  9780986898525. Contains issues #1 – #5 of the series.

A post-WWII pirate adventure set in the South Pacific! Starring a group of jet packing, sky ship flying badasses keeping the world safe! (Plus, of course, that Tesla-invented, atomic-powered adventuring robot we all love.) There are misguided villains, amazing rescues, and a few spectacular dogfights. It’s all totally fun.

And (really cool) all of the She-Devils are based on women working in comics who Clevinger and Wegener have met: Lee Black, Yuko Ota, Lauren Pettapiece, Lindsay Small-Butera, Elizabeth Robbins, Veronica Fish, Sara Richard, and Bridgit Scheide.

Atomic Robo Volume 8: The Savage Sword of Dr. Dinosaur by Brian Clevinger and Scott Wegener. Red 5 Comics, 2014. 9780986898563. Contains #1 – #5 of the series, plus the Atomic Robo Free Comic Book Day 2013 story.

This one starts on Tesladyne Island in 2013. Atomic Robo’s popularity is at an all time low, so when cryptids are sighted in Venezuela, he leads the mission, which is suspiciously close to the heart of a base for the secret Nazi space program. Back at home, there’s some trouble when a nuclear weapon is delivered to Tesladyne. And what Atomic Robo and his team find underground in Venzuela has something to do with that, too — but it’s more about a deranged dinosaur “genius” with Marty Feldman eyes, silicate life forms, and maybe the Hollow Earth theory. The dino has an insane plot to wipe mankind from existence, which is a great excuse for adventure (and a lot of jokes). Good stuff.

I’d tell you how it ends, but it seems like a bit of a spoiler. It’s kind of a cliffhanger that leads right into the next book (which I’m reading tonight).

07734

Dear Fahrenheit 451: Love and Heartbreak in the Stacks: A Librarian’s Love Letters and Breakup Notes to the Books in Her Life by Annie Spence. Flatiron Books, 2017. 9781250106490.

Sarah: Each chapter of this is about a book or a genre. Each is only two or three pages long, and starts with a fake catalog entry — the subject headings are sometimes serious and sometimes hilarious. Each chapter is written like a letter. The first one starts “Dear The Goldfinch,” the book by Donna Tartt.
Gene: Have you read The Goldfinch?
S: No, but I feel like I needed post-it flags or a highlighter to mark all the books in here I want to read now. She writes love letters to the books that changed her life and why she loved them, how they came into her life at the right time…
G: So it’s as much about her as about the books?
S: Is is SO much about her, it’s this great autobiography through books. And she works in a library, so she also writes breakup letters to books she has to weed from the collection!
G: It’s not just love letters?
S: Not just love letters! Breakup letters, hate letters…
G: Hate letters!
S: Here’s one to a book, the subject headings she puts at the top are “Calculators” and “Old as Shit.” It’s to the book The Calculating Book: Fun and Games with Your Pocket Calculator. (laughs)
G: That one’s a breakup letter.
S: “We never go out anymore. To be more specific: you. You are REALLY not getting out much these days. It’s not that recreational mathematics isn’t a thing anymore. I guess it’s just that — how do I say this? Remember how on your book cover you ask if we have ever wanted to greet a friend electronically? People have kind of figured out how to do that without turning their calculators upside down to spell ‘Hello.'”
G: (laughs) Nice!
S: It covers all the relationships you can have with books. She’s got the one she reads every year, that she fell in love with in college…
G: Which one is that?
S: The Virgin Suicides. She’s got another one she fell in love with unexpectedly, and other books that came along at exactly the right time. She writes an angry letter to The Giving Tree for being a piece of shit.
G: (laughs) People love to hate on that book now.
S: Well, it’s a real weird story. I cracked this book open in Browser’s Bookshop in Olympia, to this page… well, I looked at the table of contents and had to flip to it…
G: Did you buy this? Do you own this?
S: Yeah.
G: (admiring) Well, look at you!
S: I opened it to Grey: Fifty Shades of Grey as Told by Christian. She starts he letter with “Whhhhyyyyy do people keep asking me if I’ve read you? Aren’t you the same book as the last one of you I said I didn’t want to read?” Towards the end of the letter she says, “You made me say ‘erotica’ to an old lady, Grey! I’m going to hate you forever for that.”
G: (laughs)
S: And this line, here, “It makes me want to shake readers and scream: YOU’RE SURROUNDED BY GREAT LITERATURE AND THIS SHIT ISN’T EVEN THAT DIRTY!” (laughs)
I was laughing out loud at these letters, I was touched, and she really has a handle on the kind of relationship I have with books. I mean, her life is different from mine, she has a kid and talks about the books she reads with her kid…
G: Does she write letters to them, too?
S: Uh-huh. Here’s one to My Truck Book, which her kid wants her to read out loud one million times! She has this great chapter, it’s not to any book in particular, but it’s her at a party, too shy to talk to anyone, getting progressively drunker, talking to the host’s bookshelf. (laughs)
She writes this one, “Dear Books I Imagine My Upstairs Neighbor Reads,” as a way of complaining about his horrible behavior.
She has a great section at the end that lists her recommendations by topic. One of the categories is Recovery Reads, “the books to turn to when you’re on the mend from a book that gave you nightmares or left you in a dark headspace and you need some lighter fare (but don’t want to give up quality).”
G: AKA The Zero by Jess Walter. (both laugh) What does she recommend?
S: Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk by David Sedaris, Dolly: My Life and Other Unfinished Business by Dolly Parton… she really likes celebrity tell-alls, she’s got a couple letters to them… Nobody’s Fool by Richard Russo, 32 Candles by Ernessa T. Carter…
G: Nobody’s Fool, I’ve meant to read that a couple times, and maybe this will push me towards it again.
S: She’s got other quick lists, “All Time Top Bios and Memoirs,” “Books About Girls and Romance that Don’t Make Me Wince Like Twilight.”
G: What’s on that one?
S: Just One Day by Gayle Forman, The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson, The Bermudez Triangle by Maureen Johnson, Like No Other by Una LaMarche, Dumplin by Julie Murphy. Plus some nonfiction ones.
G: That’s great! How fun! And not previously published on the web?
S: No, it’s an actual book! And worthy of being a book, worthy of being purchased, worthy of being a gift to your friends. Though I did have a coworker I recommended it to and she said it was hard for her to take because there were so many things about bad library interactions. (She read it all in one sitting and I read it over the course of several months, which I think made it more pleasant for me.)

Bald Outliers

Tsu & the Outliers by Eric Johnson. Uncivilized Books, 2018. 9781941250242. 112pp.

Tsu is a kid that never speaks, and he’s bullied by kids who call him a freak. And he’s got powers of some kind — he can either speak with or control a Sasquatch (who visually reminds me a bit of Swamp Thing). After an episode involving a crashed bus, two cryptid hunters (one is a monkey, the other is something stranger) are on his trail. It all gets weird and dangerous and action packed, and Tsu ends up the bait in a trap for his buddy.

The action sequences have a berserk energy that I really enjoyed, and I’m a fan of books like this that use only one color of ink on a page (though there are two on the cover). It’s weird and fun and a little bit groovy — everything I hope for in a small press graphic novel.

Bald Knobber: a graphic novella by Robert Sergel. Secret Acres, 2018. 9780999193518. 84pp.

Unless you’re a student of American history, you’re probably looking the cover and worrying about what sorts of sex sites you’ll pull up if you Google “bald knobber.” That’s what I thought, anyway, though the truth is weirder. The bald knobbers were a vigilante group in 1880s Mississippi who wore horned black hoods. And despite the weird headgear they were guys who mostly sided with the North during the Civil War, at least according to Wikipedia and a few other articles I read online.

If you want to know a little more about them, read this book. When Cole tells his classmates about a book he read over the summer, Bald Knobbers: Vigilantes of the Ozarks, he pulls on his own horned hood before reading his report. The report appears in title boxes as we see what happened to Cole over the summer, which starts him being shuttled between his separated parents, who are both seriously pissed off at each other. There’s also his mom’s live-in boyfriend Brad, who Cole doesn’t like, and an asshat of a neighborhood bully who talks crap about Cole’s mom while burning insects with a magnifying glass. You know: typical children of divorce stuff. (Or at least it’s all very close to what I remember from my childhood, except for the hood.) I won’t ruin Cole’s vigilante justice against Brad, but it’s hilarious. Things between Cole’s parents keep getting worse as the parallels between Cole’s story and the history of the Bald Knobbers becomes clear. The end of both stories kind of beautifully peters out, though things aren’t quite finished between Cole and the bully.

The book is full of black ink, like the fabulous Teenagers from Mars. It’s deadpan and sad and realistic, and Cole’s dad is something of an alcoholic, so I really appreciated the laughs it provides. Some teens will, I’m sure, love this book, but I unreservedly recommend it to adults whose parents were divorced when they were kids. In fact I think I’ll get my middle sister a copy for her birthday.