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.

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.)

Oof!

Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War by Mary Roach. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2016. 9780393245448.

Sarah: Mary Roach is awesome at writing books on a topic and giving you all of the cool things you want to know about and not any of the dumb stuff you don’t want to know about.
Gene: Science-ey topics.
S: Yes, she’s a science writer. She wrote one about what happens to your body after you die, called Stiff.
G: I listened to that while driving to North Dakota last year.
S: They’re great on audio. That one had everything you might want to know about donating your body to science. There’s one about the digestive system, the alimentary canal.
G: That’s called Gulp.
S: And Packing for Mars, which is the only one with a long title. I still talk about things I learned from that book, it’s great in conversation.
G: That one’s about the science needed to go to Mars, and how it’s being developed?
S: Yeah. One of my favorite things from that to bring up in conversation, which is why you should invite me to parties, is that there’s a science behind pet food, dog food especially, to minimize the amount of shit that it creates.
G: Really?
S: They want to make really efficiently digested foods so there’s less poo. You need that if you’re on a spaceship because you don’t want to generate a huge amount of waste.
G: But this book is not about shit?
S: The subtitle to this is The Curious Science of Humans at War. Picking it up, I wasn’t sure this was a good topic for Roach, but she always picks the absolute best topics. She’s not talking about missiles, or about being a spy, or any of the stuff that’s been covered elsewhere. She’s got a chapter on the U.S. military’s fabric and fashion designers, she talks about the kind of fabrics you need if people are going to shoot at you. How they’ve changed some of things about the fabric because of IEDs, how they’ve changed some things because of the way fires start in tanks.

Continue reading “Oof!”

et cetera

The Zero by Jess Walter. Harper Perennial, 2006. 9780061189432.

Gene: OK, Sarah, you made me read this book by Jess Walter, your favorite writer. Go!

Sarah: Yeah, and I’ve been sort of rationing his books out because a novelist can only write so fast and I was reluctant to run out of them. Reading this, I realize I need to stop being reluctant and just gobble the rest of them up.

G: What was your favorite? The one where you were in love with the protagonist?

S: Citizen Vince. I was in love with Vince. The Zero is really… I’m going to say it’s different plot-wise, but the stuff that I love about Jess Walter is that he writes the kinds of sentences that make you stop and just appreciate how good they are.

G: Yeah.

S: So I feel like I don’t care what genre he writes in, I don’t care what the plot is, I just want to read his writing. But I am glad that I went into this book without reading the back of it, I didn’t know anything about it except I thought it was a mystery. And it does use bits of the genre — elements of noir and of mystery — but it’s not really in it.

G: You think it was noir? It didn’t feel very noir to me. It was kind of a detective book though. Give me the pitch.

S: The first page, a guy opens his eyes, he sees an empty bottle of booze on its side, and the carpet looks like the treeline of a forest. He starts with this description of what this guy on the floor is seeing and the guy eventually gets that his head hurts and he’s bleeding. He figures out that he shot himself. Possibly on purpose, possibly not. He left a note for himself that said, “et cetera.” This sets the tone of the book. This guy is losing chunks of time.

G: Right, he’s unstuck in his life, like Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse Five.

Continue reading “et cetera”

Shitty Art

Leonardo Was Right by Roland Topor. Translated by Barbara Wright. John Calder, 1978. Playscript 83. 0714536717.

Sarah: Leonardo Was Right by Roland Topor…This is a play.
G: Oh my god, this is the smallest book we’ve talked about so far… just a 25 page tome.
S: Right, it’s a fast read.
G: Translated from what?
S: From French, oui oui. One of the reasons I’m hesitant to talk about this on Bookthreat is that it’s out of print and wildly overpriced online in both French and English.
G: Our friends in the library world have this thing called interlibrary loan, so don’t worry about it.
S: This was a book that Tom loaned me that he thought I’d find funny because it’s a play that’s entirely about shit. (laughs)
G: I’m picking the book back up!
S: He said I might want to recommend it to you! It’s about this couple who visits another couple in the country and, as the play opens, we discover that their toilet’s backed up and they’re having problems unplugging it. So every time someone has to go to the bathroom they have to go to the neighbor’s house! Then, at dinner that evening, there’s a turd in the center of the table. They need to find out who the phantom shitter is.
G: Oh my god.
S: And both of the men in the couples are policemen, high up, and they start to gather all the clues to find out who did it. One of them ends up interrogating his son, dunking his head in water… it’s ridiculous. But it’s really quite funny, even aside from the poop aspect.
G: And it’s French?
S: It’s French, and the whole time I read it, I was trying to imagine someone putting on this production, imagining it on the stage. What kind of prop poo do you use? Do you use one of those rubber dog-doo things from the joke shop?
G: That’s your whole pitch?
S: Yes. I didn’t like the ending, but other than that it was quite entertaining.
G: Obviously, poop is very funny, Sarah, because you’re laughing, and I’m laughing. My favorite episode of TV ever is from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Who Pooped the Bed? (Editor: Season 4, Episode 7)
S: I think you showed that episode at your birthday party.
G: It sounds like they took the idea right from this. Is the author well-known?
S: Yes, he was a political cartoonist, a playwright, a novelist, and he wrote a bunch of pop songs, including some performed by a Japanese-French chanteuse famous for her unusual hats…
G: (laughs) I don’t know why, but that’s perfect.
S: You should listen to his song about an ambulance… or the disco version.

Jazz of the Knitting World

Knitprovisation: 70 Imaginative Projects Mixing Old with New by Cilla Ramnek. St. Martin’s Griffin, 2004. 9780312362942.

Sarah: I grabbed this book because the projects in it are really cool, and I thought you might like it because it makes use of all of your half-finished knitting and crochet projects. If you get started on something and don’t know how to finish it, or get started and it doesn’t look like you thought it was going to look, or if you buy something from the thrift store and want to know how to use it for something else, this is how you do it.
Gene: (looks at a picture of a project, laughs out loud)
S: This one reminded me of the sound suits made of doilies in the Nick Cave book you love.
G: Is the shirt part of this project?
S: This is two projects. A t-shirt with a really fancy multicolored doily sewn to the front of it, with a circle of buttons sewn around it, and then on top of that, the model is wearing a sweater that juuuuust comes to nipple level? It’s sleeves and a neck and just the very top of the body.
G: A long-sleeved half turtleneck sweater. It is very sound suit-ey. I like it.
S: How to take a half-finished thing and make it into something else…
G: Can you make a sweater that’s just from the nipples down, too? A tube-top sweater?
S: Keep reading! (laughs)
G: Oh my god! That looks really unfortunate!
S: It’s a skirt that’s made out of some really plain knitting, maybe a sweater that’s been chopped up, and she’s put on some patterned ribbon and a zipper and a doily and put on some new edging…
G: “Skirt with pot-holder in front” Holy crap. This looks like sweaters I’ve seen in photos from Mongolia, of people packing up a ger.
S: It’s really little pieces made into bigger projects. It’s not overly twee, it’s not cutesy.
G: But there’s kind of an adorableness to this.
S: Yeah!
G: (laughs at another page)
S: There are some garments where people are wearing a t-shirt underneath, and some where they SHOULD be wearing a t-shirt underneath. Stuff that doesn’t totally work as a functional item of clothing.
G: This one is an apron dress worn by a little girl with no shirt on underneath. Paper, plastic and yarn…

S: This is kind of cool, I think she got this bag used, mostly as-is. It’s greeting cards that have holes punched along the edges and then they were crocheted together into this bag.
G: Did you come from a family that had crocheted beer can clothing?
S: No, but I have made a crocheted library card hat.
G: Ooooh!
S: I bought the beer can pattern and made a library card hat. It’s cool to wear for outreach — people can tell you’re from the library, they recognize their cards on the crown.
G: Some of these things look demonic.
S: They do! Which is kind of why I like it. There’s a pair of gloves in here that are just tremendously disturbing. This one is nice, they took a piece of crochet and made an iron-on from a photocopy of it, then put it onto a sweater.
G: I think we have different definitions of the word “nice.”
S: You can’t duplicate any of these projects exactly, because so much of each is based on stuff that the author found, which I kind of like. There are so many craft books that say “here, copy this perfect, beautiful thing” or more like “fail at copying this perfect beautiful thing and then hate yourself.” This is the opposite of that. It’s just ideas, to get you to think differently about creating and about what you can make from what you have.
G: I think someone could re-market this as post-apocalyptic craft fashion, maybe turn it into a book about re-knitting the clothing of the dead (or repurposing their handmade potholders, at least).

Regrets, I Ate a Few

The Gallery of Regrettable Food by James Lileks. Crown Publishers, 2001. 0609607820.

Sarah: Part of the significance of this book, because there are plenty of people out there who make fun of the horrible illustrations in old cookbooks, is that James Lileks was one of the first. He was really early on the Internet scene, he has this wonderful website that he’s been working on since the nineties — it’s a great collection of weird old stuff. He’s also funny; he’ll comment on the pictures and not just say “oh, how disgusting!” He’s really amusing, and he’ll start bizarre mini-fictions that continue within and across his captions.
G: (looks at photo and laughs)
S: He talks about how his mom in, I think, 1962 was given a terrible promo cookbook from the North Dakota durum wheat growers… that was the start of his collection, when he found it in his mom’s closet, untouched, in the 90s.
He has a fictional recipe in there based on all the recipes in these books, where you carefully put one atom of chili powder in a dish with a pound of hamburger meat, 36 pounds of flavorless cheese… “if substituting spackle, crumble one yellow crayon for color,” one cup dusty crumbs from the toaster, three grains pepper, one pound salt, then that one atom of chili powder.
Continue reading “Regrets, I Ate a Few”