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.
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.
How To Understand Israel In 60 Days Or Less by Sarah Glidden. Drawn & Quarterly, 2016. 9781770462533.
Emailing my new Israeli librarian pen pal (Hi Karen!) seems to be bringing a lot of books on her country into my orbit, or at least has me moving them to the top of my reading pile.
Glidden’s graphic novel memoir about her birthright tour to Israel is one of the best. At the beginning, she’s on the lookout for pro-Israel propaganda and evidence of the mistreatment of Palestinians. But as she learns more about Israel’s history and it’s people, she sees how complicated the situation is. It’s an awkward, upsetting, emotional journey, and luckily Sarah has her friend Missy along.
This is much more of a personal journey than Joe Sacco’s journalistic Palestine and Footnotes in Gaza, and it lacks the funny moments of Delisle’s Jerusalem. In some ways I think Glidden took on the tougher job in making her uncertainty both inform and entertain. And I really enjoyed the way she characterized the people she met: other visitors, their guides, and the people they met and listened to along the way.
Between the above books, Sattouf’s The Arab of the Future, and Brigitte Findakly’s Coquelicots d’Irak (a graphic novel about growing up in Iraq that’s still only available in French), I’m becoming more and more interested in visiting the Middle East.
The Marvelous Thing That Came From A Spring: The Accidental Invention of the Toy That Swept the Nation by Gilbert Ford. Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2016. 9781481450652.
This is the story of the invention and ingenious marketing of the Slinky, from it’s accidental invention (while Richard James was working on an engineering project for the Navy) to the hard work he and his wife Betty James put in to name, market, and create a machine to make the Slinky from steel wire, then build a factory to make enough Slinkies for the nation. I liked that this story included Betty’s planning and managing their toy company. (As the note at the end mentions, Richard left for Bolivia in 1960 and Betty turned their nearly bankrupt factory into a national phenomenon.)
The illustrations are SO COOL. The jacket flap calls them “dioramic illustrations” — photos show painted and cut-out pictures of people and their surroundings combined with objects like washcloths standing in for suburban lawns and a tiny toy tricycle in Gimbels department store. The Slinkies are real coils of wire! Stuff like dominoes and multicolored toothpicks form picture frames around smaller images. The whole effect is stylish and satisfyingly tactile.
This book is going at the top of my picture-books-based-on-cool-inventions list along with The Day-Glo Brothers and Earmuffs for Everyone.
Step Aside, Pops: A Hark! A Vagrant Collection by Kate Beaton
Drawn and Quarterly, 2015
Kate Beaton, of course, is super awesome and funny. Her gag-strip humor range? Black Canary making friends with a heavy metal singer. Alexander Pushkin enters a cat show. The emotional fallout for a nasty boy called out in Janet Jackson’s Nasty Boys music video. Wuthering Heights jokes. Ida B. Wells. Hard as nails lady Victorian bicyclists. Extra bonus for book nerds: her strips riffing on Nancy Drew and Edward Gorey book covers.
The Anatomical Venus: Wax, God, Death & the Ecstatic by Joanna Ebenstein
D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers, 2016. 9781938922916
I pick up books with awesome photos of creepy beautiful stuff and then feel guilty when I have no interest in or lack the attention span to read their terribly serious academic prose. This time I said, “No More Guilt!” and skipped most of the text.
Here’s what you need to know: When it was hard to get corpses to dissect, in order to learn medical anatomy in 1700s Italy, some extremely talented artists created life-size and near-life-size wax sculptures of women with visible internal organs. The interesting part is that unlike the models of men who were shown without skin at all, standing up and doing things, the women were laid out like Sleeping Beauty, nude, eyes closed, with the skin of their abdomens spread open like a garment. They were extremely realistic, with human hair and eyelashes, and were usually both pregnant and sexy. Just in case you thought, “Well, 1700s Italy — everything was like that,” it didn’t take long until these ladies were made to be displayed in the European equivalent of sideshow tents. You know, “educational” nudity, nudge nudge, wink wink.
Get this book for the pictures, it’s totally worth it. It’s put out in cooperation with Brooklyn’s Morbid Anatomy Museum which unfortunately doesn’t seem to have any of them on display. In the back of the book there’s a list of museums and universities with anatomy exhibits of this sort.
Other books for your creepy art shelf: Paul Koudounaris’ amazing books on the artistic use of skeletons all over the world: Memento Mori: The Dead Among Us, Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures & Spectacular Saints From the Catacombs, and The Empire of Death: A Cultural History of Ossuaries and Charnel Houses.