Meanwhile, back in Mosul…

Poppies of Iraq by Brigitte Findakly and Lewis Trondheim. Translated by Helge Dascher. Drawn and Quarterly, 2017. 9781770462939. 120pp.

Gene: This graphic novel is by Brigitte Findakly and drawn by her husband, Lewis Trondheim, who is my favorite cartoonist. (She’s his colorist, and apparently does some coloring for other cartoonists as well.)

It’s the story of her growing up in Iraq. Her mom is French, her dad is an Iraqi dentist. Her mom moved to Iraq after they married — she met Findakly’s dad when he was in dental school in France. And they lived in Mosul, which has been in news for all of the wrong reasons lately. So this is her story about growing up Christian in Mosul, half Iraqi, French-speaking at home…
Sarah: Oh yeah.
G: …going to Arab schools. It’s written so that a kid can get it, but there’s some adult level weirdness, too. It tells the history of Iraq, it has photos of her family, and it has cultural tidbits about Iraq that were a bit surprising.
What struck me were a few parallels between Korea (where I lived for a few years) and Iraq. Here’s a moment  where all of the kids are out running behind a truck spraying a fog of DDT to kill mosquitos. I saw this in Korea in the early 1990s (and my wife Silver remembers it in her neighborhood farther back than that), though there the kids breathed it in and out as they pretended to smoke.
S: I remember a similar story from the U.S. in Frank Zappa’s autobiography.
G: This can’t be safe. I hope they’re not still doing it. Or if they are that they’re using some safer chemical.
Another moment that reminded me of Korea is when Findakly says that if a family has a whole bunch of kids, but a married sibling doesn’t have any, they’ll just give a kid to the couple. Silver’s mother was actually given to one of her aunts for a time. (She lived in Manchuria for a bit in the 1930s until that aunt lost her fortune and returned Silver’s mom to her birth family.) I’ve heard this is done in India, too…
It really gives fascinating day-to-day details, too. Here’s a bit about Findakly’s mothers’ magazines from France. Iraqi customs officials would cut out any photos of Jewish people.
And this is my favorite cultural tidbit, a two page sequence that ends with this: “In Iraq, before a wedding, the future husband is asked if he wants his fiancée’s pubic hair completely removed or left as is.” (laughing) The groom said, “Completely,” so the bride is crying. Relatives carry the message between them.
S: Oooooh!
G: Here are some nicely done pages about the history of Mosul, and some really old photos of Findakly’s ancestors and relatives.
Here her parents are on the phone, speaking French, while her father was in Baghdad. The government officials listening in interrupt and tell them not to speak French because they can’t understand.
Here’s a bit about Iraqi manners. Findakly’s mom never got the hang of the fact that people were supposed to refuse second helpings even if they wanted more, so she’d just put her amazing French desserts away. (Their guests eventually adapted and started taking seconds.)
S: Nice.
G: Overall it’s a kids-eye view of the country. At one point people were angry at Christians and they were being killed but in Findakly’s experience, she wasn’t really alarmed. Her father was a dentist for the army, and that protected them a bit, even from looting by soldiers.
(minor spoiler) Her parents are still alive. And so the narrative not only moves between all of what I’ve mentioned before, it also moves between the past and the present. They’re in their late 80s or early 90s and live across the street from her. Sometimes when she needs to clarify something for the book she goes and talks to her mom.
S: I’m glad there’s another book that reminds me of Persepolis.
G: Yeah, they’re both great, and neither of them ever comes across like an after school special.
And just one more point, after the family eventually moves to France, it becomes a bit of an immigration story. Her father can’t work as a dentist, and she’s told she can’t be Arab because she’s Christian. (She walks away from the kid who said that, calling him an idiot. Findakly seems to feel like Iraq is home, and even goes back to visit a few times.)

Thanks to my friend Dawn who got me a signed copy at Comic-Con in July. Trondheim and Findakly even drew this in my book!

Politics and Piroshky

CCCP Cook Book: True Stories of Soviet Cuisine by Olga & Pavel Syutkin. Fuel Publishing, 2015. 9780993191114.

I picked this book up because of the vintage food illustrations. I’m a sucker for them in the cookbooks I collect, and I’d never seen any from the Soviet Union. Unlike the similar-looking promotional pictures for Crisco and Jell-O, the photos in this book promoted entire state-owned industries, or were illustrations from the cookbook that contained the required menu for all of the USSR’s cafeterias. The recipes are interesting (including a few I wouldn’t mind trying), but the short essays explaining each are solid gold. The recipe for Stolichny Salad tells the story of the elimination of Christmas and the gradual return of elements of it in later decades as a part of New Year’s celebrations. The one for Mimosa Salad tells how the ministry of fisheries used money earmarked for the Moscow Metro to purchase refrigerators so that fish could be processed immediately after it was caught. Later, there was a PR stunt to encourage people to buy canned fish: a rumor that smugglers had hidden jewelry inside the cans. The recipe for Solyanka Soup tells of the difficulties in providing something like fast food in time for the 1980 Olympics. (McDonald’s couldn’t be used because they wouldn’t reveal their ingredients, and Soviet officials were terrified that they would be jailed if something banned by their stringent regulations was found in the food.) And Pasta a la Navy starts with the delightful rumor that Soviet pasta was made on repurposed gun cartridge machinery because the noodles were the same caliber as Kalashnikov rifle rounds!

Argyle Socks: A Sign of True Love

People Knitting: A Century of Photographs by Barbara Levine. Princeton Architectural Press, 2016. 9781616893927.

In my reference class in library school, I had to pick a subject to look up in each book we studied. Since then, I’ve used the same technique to explore historical archives and databases. My current go-to searches? Accordions and knitting. So of course I’ll pick up a book of historic knitting photographs! Since this is an ordinary occupation, there is usually another reason each picture was taken: there are casual snapshots that contain incidental knitting, formal portraits of women holding their knitting, pictures of celebrities knitting while waiting for their close-ups, and a whole lot of images of people knitting for world war efforts (both I and II). The pictures are charming!

A 1918 postcard shows George E. Hill, bald and white-bearded, knitting alongside a picture of the 100th pair of socks he knit for the war effort. Those were for President Woodrow Wilson, complete with Wilson’s name and an American flag stitched in the cuff! The text on the reverse says Hill did his knitting from 3 am to 7 am and on Sundays, when he could finish a pair of socks in a day. I want to know that guy’s whole life story.

There’s a wonderful excerpt from a 1918 magazine article about Colorado’s “Rocky Mountain knitter boys:” when they were knitting, they didn’t fidget with their pencils or throw erasers in class. Now I’ve got an idea for a new school outreach program!

And if you’re a knitter, the pictures are even cooler. A photo of a maintenance man knitting in front of a furnace has a caption that says he’s knitting for the baby he and his wife are expecting. He took up knitting to relax, on the advice of his doctor, “and he’s since become an expert.” No kidding! He’s doing intarsia with five bobbins of yarn on size one needles!

On The Wings Of Lots Of Dead Birds

Audubon: On the Wings of the World by Fabien Grolleau & Jérémie Royer. Nobrow, 2016. 9781910620151.

I’m not someone who longs for walks in primeval wilderness, I don’t read history books, and most biographies leave me cold, but this beautifully drawn and colored graphic novel was amazing. Audubon was obsessed with painting the birds of America. He left his family behind to undertake dangerous trips into the unsettled wilderness to paint the birds he found there. Two moments that stand out to me: Audubon climbing into a hollow sycamore tree to investigate the thousands of swallows nesting inside, and shooting at a flock of pigeons in which birds may have numbered over a billion. (The most shocking thing about the book was the cavalier way he killed so many birds so that he could pose them in lifelike ways to paint. He’d sometimes be so captivated by them that he let them live, but those exceptions were few and far between. It was more like: “Look at that beautiful bird!” Pow!) The scientific community in the U.S. wasn’t supportive of Audubon’s work — they saw him as an artist, not a naturalist — so he eventually had to travel to England to find support for his famous book.

I often say that the key to pursuing one’s artistic goals is a supportive spouse or partner, and Audubon’s wife goes above and beyond in terms the number of years she spends without him, raising all their children. (I’d love to read a graphic novel about her life next.)

Pair this with Nick Bertozzi’s epic Lewis & Clark to try to give the comic readers in your life a love of nature and history. It’s too late for me, but I’m sure that could work for someone with fewer plant allergies.

Bookmobiles!

Bookmobiles in America: An Illustrated History by Orty Ortwein. Createspace, 2015. 9781514813171.

Bookmobiles in America definitely looks self-published: the pictures are black and white and sometimes low resolution, and there is the occasional misspelling (though let’s be honest: too many books from mainstream publishers have them, too). But the research is top notch, the writing is enthusiastic, and the book is much-needed. Ortwein gathered information from libraries all over America and delved into historic documents to tell a fascinating story.

There’s a section on early mobile libraries, which were often small wooden cabinets moved from city to city and left in non-library buildings. There’s a page on the man who may have been the first bookmobile driver: John Sanderson of the Perambulating Library of Mealsgate, England, who rotated mobile collections between cities using a kind of wheelbarrow. (There’s a picture and it’s great.) The earliest American bookmobiles were horse-drawn When automobiles and trucks were first used, the drivers were often library janitors. Custom-built bookmobiles followed. Military mobile libraries during World War II increased not only reading among the soldiers and sailors but support for libraries after the war.

Politics, weather, geography, money, and even the fuel shortages of the 1970s influenced the look and use of bookmobiles from state to state. Mobile library service was even shaped by segregation, a topic too rarely covered in library history. The WPA library projects of the thirties initially tried not to rock the boat over race. Later they collaborated with black philanthropic societies to fund depository collections and bookmobiles for black communities. Even then, the WPA estimated that there were two million people without access in areas served by whites-only libraries. Some of libraries that did serve blacks had separate bookmobiles for their black and white patrons.

The pictures are just delightful and make the book worth picking up even if you don’t read the history. There are historic bookmobiles galore, including boats, planes, streetcars, and converted military vehicles. But I recommend you do read the text. Don’t miss the story of a bookmobile in rural Montana in the 1950s that showed movies at a local tavern (chosen because they had electricity) called the Dirty Shame, Jr!

Neither On the American Continent nor States: Discuss

The Not-Quite States of America: Dispatches From the Territories and Other Far-Flung Outposts of the USA by Doug Mack. W.W. Norton & Company, 2017. 9780393247602.

While sorting laundry quarters to see which should go in his wife’s state quarters collection, Mack noticed an extra five off to the side for the US territories: the US Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and Puerto Rico. He realized he knew almost nothing about these parts of the US, despite being both a travel writer and having a degree in American studies. He set out to visit them. He imagined white picket fences, baseball, and banana trees: a tropical all-America. Instead, he found the world’s largest K-Mart, a park filled with erotic statues, a machine-gun shooting range for Japanese tourists, and huge tropical national parks.

Mack is a great guide — he’s funny, well-informed, curious, and has enough Minnesotan friendliness that he ends up being taken in and shown around by people he’s just met. His firsthand observations are interspersed with history and politics. These places became part of America during its “Imperial Moment,” an odd span of time when the US had aspirations to become an empire. There were a series of Supreme Court cases that established that the Constitution does not necessarily follow the flag. There are strange side-effects of not living within a state, like not having votes in the Electoral College (assuming the locals are allowed to vote in US elections, which in Samoa they aren’t). The details of their truly bizarre legal and political landscapes are jaw-dropping: not just the shockingly un-American laws (early Naval governors of Guam forbade speaking the native Chamorro language in public), but the laundry list of ways the territories are treated poorly or just plain forgotten that causes high rates of poverty and crime, and provides little to address these problems. I hope this book starts discussions about how we treat these parts of our country.

I kept telling people about things I learned as I was reading: the territories have the higher rates of joining the armed services than any state, the US Virgin Islands has the highest murder rate in the US, American Samoa prohibits non-Samoans from owning land (thus there are no resort hotels) while Guam allows non-Guamanians to lease land for 50 years, and the shade of blue on the Puerto Rican flag you fly indicates how you feel about independence vs statehood (a topic at every gathering). The story of how the US “colonized” one of the Mariana Islands by having Hawaiian high school boys stay there, fishing and gathering food, in shifts for four months at a time is unforgettable.  This book reminded me of the wonderful, engaging histories by Sarah Vowell. I hope Mack will be just as prolific.

Marathon Men

The Wildest Race Ever: The Story of the 1904 Olympic Marathon by Meghan McCarthy. Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books, 2016. 9781481406390.

I know some people don’t like the big round eyes and simple faces on McCarthy’s painted character illustrations, but I love them: they make historical figures cute and charming. In her book on the first Olympic Marathon in the US, I found out there’s something even more adorable: the bushy mustache on Cuban runner Felix Carvajal, who showed up to the race in his street clothes and made stops along the route to practice English with bystanders. He. Is. So. Cute. Someone please start making Hello Kitty-like merchandise about historical figures. I want a Felix Carvajal pencil case.

A historic marathon might seem like a stretch for an exciting picture book, but the race was nuts. The route had to be totally redone a few days before it started, after rain washed out some roads. Huge clouds of dust kicked up by cars and bicycles choked the runners. There were only two water stops, and the water made competitors sick. A runner was chased off course by a dog. A car carrying a doctor for the runners plunged down a 30 foot embankment. Add to that the then-current practice of downing strychnine mixed with egg white instead of drinking water  (check out this Sawbones episode for more on this crazy but true performance enhancer) and you have some drama. The additional information at the end is great — it’s clear McCarthy did some amazing primary-source research.