What’s Up, You Cool Baby?

Esquivel! Space-age Sound Artist by Susan Wood, illustrated by Duncan Tonatiuh. Charlesbridge, 2016. 9781580896733.

esquivelThe story of the life of out-there pop composer and conductor Esquivel! (the exclamation point is a part of his stage name) illustrated with images in the style of the ancient Mexican Mixtec codex, with photographic textures as color.

The Cosmo-biography of Sun Ra: The Sound of Joy Is Enlightening by Chris Raschka. Candlewick Press, 2014. 9780763658069.

cosmobiographyThe story of the life of the legendary jazz composer and performer Sun Ra illustrated in paintings bursting with color and movement.

As much as writing about music is like dancing about architecture, is a child’s picture book about lesser-known musicians even more so? The stories are fine on their own (probably why they got into books in the first place) but there is no way to convey the power of the artists’ music, much less its impact. Best case scenario, a child will recognize the names from these books when they hear the music. I’m guessing it’s all a part of trying to give a child a cultured (or impressive, or quirky) taste in music. Not matter how interesting his life was, there probably won’t be a picture book biography of Lawrence Welk, he’s just not cool enough. (Though I will admit that Esquivel!’s is pretty close to lounge music, even if it is very experimental.) That said, I think Esquivel! and Sun Ra are good kid-music choices: fun, weird, and enjoyable even outside their cultural contexts.

Two Puns Enter, One Pun Leaves

Away With Words: An Irreverent Tour Through the World of Pun Competitions by Joe Berkowitz. Harper Perennial, 2017. 9780062495600.

awaywithI picked this book up with the question, “There are pun competitions?” Yes, there are, and enough that Berkowitz doesn’t have to stretch too much to find them.

He starts out at the hip, monthly Brooklyn Punderdome to try out performing in a competition. Hearing laughs at and cheers for the kind of wordplay that usually only earns him the stinkeye gets him addicted, even though he doesn’t win. This starts him on the road to the big annual competition in Austin, the O. Henry Pun Off. How do you get better at competitive punning? By taking an improv class to be less afraid of crashing and burning, among other things. He interviews scientists who study the mechanisms of jokes and puns. (They compare punning with a brain disorder.) He talks to the writers at Bob’s Burgers and Veep who incorporate puns into every television episode. Berkowitz investigates the high-pressure headline punning at the New York Post and visits the set of the pun-based game show @midnight. Along the way he interviews a host of pun champions.

As fun as following these threads was (and Berkowitz is funny even outside the punning), the best part was watching him find his people and become appreciated by a tribe that shares his unironic interest in wordplay.

Spivspeak

A Dictionary of the Underworld, British and American, Being the Vocabularies of Crooks, Criminals, Racketeers, Beggars and Tramps, Convicts, The Commercial Underworld, The Drug Traffic, The White Slave Traffic, Spivs by Eric Partridge. Bonanza Books, 1961.

underworld Sarah: My parents are downsizing, so every once in a while they’ll say, “If there’s anything you want, make sure you ask for it.” So I said, “I want A Dictionary of the Underworld.”
G: I’ve got to do the creepy thing. (Sniffs book.) It doesn’t actually smell, but it looks like it would smell.
S: It’s old enough that it should.
G: How old is it?
S: First published in 1949, reprinted with new addenda 1961. Continue reading “Spivspeak”

Magickal Realism

Aleister & Adolf, story by Douglas Rushkoff, art by Michael Avon Oeming, lettering by Nate Piekos. Dark Horse Books, 2016. 9781506701042.

aleisterReader note: This book has a LOT of nudity and fucking in it, in addition to Satan worship*, murder, and Nazi atrocities. So, y’know, if any of those is a deal killer for you, give this one a pass.

A graphic artist in the early days of the web goes in search of the original paper files on the design of a corporate logo, after the digital files he needs to build a web page start to misbehave by refusing to stay put on the screen. He’s horrified to find images of torture and death that played a role in the logo’s development. He meets with an elderly man, now dying, who explains what it all means: in his youth, during World War II, he was tasked by American military strategists to recruit British magician Aleister Crowley because the Americans wanted to find a way to use Hitler’s interest in the occult against him. Instead of completing his mission and reporting back, as ordered, he ended up overwhelmed by Crowley’s ideas and in danger of losing himself to the powerful magicks at play. Crowley became obsessed with creating a symbol powerful enough to defeat the Nazis.

The story is based on real-life strangeness and occult beliefs during WWII, with a story of personal obsession and loss woven throughout. Crowley thinks the Nazis are adding power to the swastika through their horrifying medical experiments and mass murders. His efforts to create a rival symbol involve sex magick and sacrifice. This isn’t just a Hammer style occult horror story, it’s about the power of symbols and how they permeate of our lives. In the notes on his art at the end of the book, Oeming comments that while he usually sells his original cover art, he thinks he will burn the cover of Aleister & Adolf rather than unknowingly sell his depiction of Hitler to a neo-Nazi for any price. The symbols in this book are still powerful, generations later.

*a nerdy footnote: Aleister Crowley in the book (and probably in real life) would strenuously object to someone calling what he did Satan worship or black magic. Then he would give you a long-winded explanation as to why. But that’s what people who will want to steer clear of this book would call it, which is why I’m calling it out with those words.

Like I Need a Reason to Crave Asian Style Pastry

Sherlock Sam and the Missing Heirloom in Katong by A.J. Low. Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2016. 9781449477899.

sherlocksamElementary-aged, Singaporean amateur sleuth Sherlock Sam (real name: Samuel Tan Cher Lock) teams up with his sister, his cousin, and his snarky robot Watson to solve the mystery of his Auntie’s missing heirloom cookbook. Sherlock Sam is earnest, he learned all about problem-solving from Logicomix, he’s annoyed that adults keep pinching his chubby cheeks, and he’s motivated by food. This book made me hungry: it’s packed full of Singaporean delicacies (Sherlock Sam’s love of his Auntie’s ayam buah keluak is the main reason he wants to solve the case quickly).

This is an illustrated chapter book (though Andrews McMeel’s AMP! Kids imprint is known for graphic novels) with delightful black and white spot illustrations by Andrew Tan.

My Mystery Mission: Marple Edition

The Murder at the Vicarage: A Miss Marple Mystery by Agatha Christie. Harper, 1930. 9780062073600.

murdervicarageI’ve decided that my personal reading challenge for 2017 is to sample the classics of the mystery and detective genre. I started early, with the first Sherlock Holmes novel in November. This was my first inkling of how difficult this will be, since I immediately wanted to read the rest of the stories! My next author was Agatha Christie. Now I want to read through all of her mysteries, too. I had only known that Christie’s books had well-crafted puzzles, I had no idea how funny she was!

In The Murder at the Vicarage, local blowhard Colonel Protheroe is murdered in the vicar’s study. No one in the village of St. Mary Mead is terribly sorry that he’s gone, and there is no shortage of suspects. The story is narrated by the vicar, Leonard Clement, who makes hilariously dry internal observations about the odd characters who cross his path as he tries to solve the crime. In a tiny village where everyone knows everyone’s business, a murder is almost gleefully appreciated. Everyone fancies themselves a detective and begins looking for clues. The most observant and knowledgeable about human nature (as well as being an avid mystery reader) is Miss Marple, one of the many spinsters who dominate local life. I loved the various winks to the reader about the conventions of mystery novels — this was written in 1930, as the genre was just beginning its golden age!

Too Much Future

Normal by Warren Ellis. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016. 9780374534974.

normalHidden in an experimental forest in rural Oregon is a facility funded by various government agencies and NGOs, a facility where professionals help mentally ill futurists. They observe trends in technology, finance, and warfare in order to predict what comes next, and are driven mad by what they predict. Foresight strategist Adam Dearden arrives after a breakdown and is ready for time away from the constant inbound information that controlled his life. Then a patient goes missing from his locked and very closely watched room, leaving behind a huge mound of writhing insects on his bed. The facility goes into lockdown and everyone begins to panic. Adam decides that the safest thing to do is to solve the mystery before anyone from the outside world comes and investigates his background too closely.

Ellis provides his usual gonzo, fever-dream take on current and near-future technology, much of it based on the work of futurist friends. He writes a fast-paced mystery that will leave you unsettled by the doomsday scenarios that brought patients to the facility.