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.

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.


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!”

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).

I Want It Now!

Polaroid: The Complete Guide to Experimental Instant Photography by Rhiannon Adam. Thames & Hudson, 2017. 9780500544600. 240pp. 840 illustrations. (A weird thing to say, especially about a book about photography, but it’s noted on the title page, so there.)

Gene: This is not the kind of book I read cover to cover, and I don’t think it’s supposed to be that kind of book.
Sarah: I’ve got to start bringing more cookbooks. I don’t “read” them, so I don’t think of them as being “books I have read.”
G: Bring any books you’ve loved. (Flips the book over for the reveal.)
S: OooooooOOoooOOoh!
G: You seen any experimental Polaroid photography? Where people draw on photos or scratch them and do crazy things?
S: Yeah!
G: I find analog photography compelling, just the idea that you can’t mess with it forever like digital. Somehow it feels like mistakes are more natural, more allowed, more a part of the process. And here’s my guidebook. There’s a How to Use This Book section, which I of course skipped. There’s a Quick Start Guide, which tells about types of cameras. And then there’s a Film Compatability Guide, because there’s a lot of old film stock out there and folks covet it. Will it fit your camera? Find out here. This is instant camera porn. There are so many more instant cameras in the world (and in this book) than I ever knew about.
S: Here’s a Party Time Instant Camera.
G: It goes right up to now, with some instant cameras funded via Kickstarter. I think the core of this is the Impossible Camera. There are lots of dated photos. It starts with old peel-apart cameras. It details which accessories are compatible with which cameras in case you’re buying on the secondary market.
S: This is the book to have next to you when you’re shopping eBay.
G: And it gives a user guide with troubleshooting tips for each style of camera covered. It explains how peel-apart film works — apparently you can do things with it you can’t do with other film types.
S: Double exposures and stuff?
G: Weirder. And apparently it depends on how you peel.
And there are tips on dealing with jams, and lots of buying advice for each type of camera.
These are boxes for drying and storing instant film. And then there are little bits and pieces. Large format 20 inch x 24 inch Polaroid cameras, which are a thing. A primer on how instant film works, the chemical processes. It is apparently one of the most complex chemical processes developed by man and available at the consumer level. And then different camera series. It gives ideas of what happens to film when things go wrong (but maybe that’s what you want?). Pictures on different kinds of film stock.
S: More buying advice.
G: Here’s my favorite, the Tasmanian Devil instant camera. And look, the outline of the photo makes it look like the camera was in the character’s mouth (which is what the camera looks like). There’s a Hello Kitty camera of course, but also a Jaegermeister branded camera and other oddities, Legoland, McDonald’s, other branded cameras.
S: Is that an ER medical camera?
G: It’s for emergency medicine, somehow. Then there’s a transparent camera.
Here’s a guide for swapping film. This whole thing is very practical.
It starts to hint at how to do different things. This camera has a stand people use to create instant film mosaics. It doesn’t quite explain how… Accessories continue, different types of cameras, and then it gets to the Impossible Camera Lab, which you can use with your smart phone to create instant photos. Ridiculous? Maybe. But cool.
These are the instant cameras that took photos on little stickers, like Japanese photo booths.
S: I remember those, yeah.
G: And this is the Impossible Camera that I talked about earlier, which you can control with your phone and of course it has an app. There’s a user guide, lots of info. There are machines that let you print from slides onto instant film.
That’s a little more than 1/3 of the book.
And then it gets into creative techniques, all the cool things you can do with the film, my favorite of which is lifting off the front part where the image is printed and using it as a transparency.
S: Cool!
G: You can lay it across surfaces to create different effects.
So many more techniques. More troubleshooting. Lots of examples to inspire you or scare you off, including using expired film to get weird effects, because apparently no one knows what it’s going to do. And the great thing is they don’t care — it’s all part of the art.

You won’t like him when he’s angry

The Angry Chef: Bad Science and the Truth About Healthy Eating by Anthony Warner. Oneworld Publications, 2017. 9781786072160.

Sarah: I went to Seattle’s cookbook bookstore, Book Larder, and ended up buying a bunch. I highly recommend this bookstore because they don’t have everything, they just have good things. I grabbed several cookbooks plus this one, because the summary of it said it’s exactly the kind of thing I like to read. It’s by this guy with a background in cooking and in chemistry who is angry about fad diets and the bad science and the bad dietary advice they propagate. He covers some of the more recent fad diets and what’s wrong with them, and then has chapters in between where he talks about how to think more critically, more scientifically, how to ask the questions that you need to ask, why you might seem to have good results from a diet even if it doesn’t really work, and how people will recommend a diet if they think it has an effect but if it doesn’t they won’t discourage you.
Gene: If it doesn’t have an effect?
S: So if you try the amazing new whatever diet and it doesn’t do anything for you, are you going to put a testimonial to that effect on the website promoting the diet?
G: Probably not.
S: So I picked it up, expecting to love it because it’s exactly my speed. But I ended up not loving it.
G: Not loving this book?
S: Because it turns out I’ve already read this information. I’m already aware of all of the things he’s talking about, and he covers more of the how to think critically part and less about the crazy diets and where they came from. I ended up skimming to the parts about the new crazy diets and how they originated. I think it’s a good book, but it’s the wrong time for me to read it. This book would have been great for me twenty years ago.
G: Where did you get that information, did you find it in diet books and on websites?
S: I have read other, similar works by medical people and people writing general debunking and critical thinking books. It’s a genre that I read.
G: So you’re wowed by this book because it’s all there.
S: It’s all there! It’s all in one book.
G: And you’ve read enough on the subject that you know it’s good.
S: It’s really good!
G: But this is not the book for you right now because you have read enough books on critical thinking, especially about diets, that what you would get from this book you already have.
S: Exactly!
G: This is a new kind of Book Wow! So it did wow you, you just didn’t need to read it.
S: Right! He has this really great chapter explaining regression to the mean where he explains the concept in a really clear way with an example from his life.
G: What was it?
S: He had this sous chef, mostly he did fine, but every once in a while he would do terribly, he would really mess up in the kitchen. Then he’d get yelled at and the next day he would be better. And every once in a while he would have an awesome day and his bosses would think he finally was getting the hang of this and then the day after, he would drop back to his normal level again. But the author and another chef were talking about this, trying to figure out how help him. The author tried to be encouraging when he did really well, but the other guy only ever yelled at him when he sucked. Now he’s realizing that the whole thing was regression to the mean. The highs and the lows… if you have a really high day, do the best you’ve ever done, you’re not going to stay at the highest point, you’re going to drift back to your average. The worst day you’ve ever had, same thing. So if your health is terrible, and you don’t have a degenerative condition, you’re going to feel better eventually no matter what you do. No matter what diet you try, if you feel cruddy, eventually you’re going to feel better. And the reverse is the same, if you do really awesome, you’re going to get back to normal at some point. It’s this thing that makes an effect appear to happen with all sorts of interventions. If you’re doing a scientific study, you need to have various controls to spot this. He talks about how it’s very difficult to spot, and the whole idea of regression to the mean is recent, it’s only been around since the late 1800s, even though people have been evaluating information like this for a long time. But this was really hard to see.
G: This kind of non-effect effect.
S: You see something happen, but it didn’t happen for the reason you think it did.
G: So things seem to work for you because you are generally OK. Whatever you’re doing is OK. If you feel super-shitty after you ate X, then you feel better when you eat Y, you think you feel better because you ate Y, but not really. You just feel better because you generally feel better.
S: Yeah, and they have to control for this in medicine, when they test a new drug, because that’s exactly what happens with everything. The author says people will ask him, “If this guy feels better after he stops eating gluten, what’s the harm?” and he says that it’s because it’s really limiting your diet, it’s hard to get all the nutrients you need. People who legit have celiac disease have to be super careful. And people will tend to keep eliminating more and more things from their diet.
G: Yeah, that’s interesting.
S: And he has a very carefully-written chapter about eating disorders. He says that he had previously made this statement, that now he realizes is incorrect and apologizes for saying it and for being insensitive about it, and he’d had a lot of people talk to him and correct him: he had said that these fad diets cause people to get eating disorders. Now he says that it isn’t that they cause eating disorders, but people may have an underlying susceptibility to eating disorders and sometimes the thing that triggers them or maybe is the first sign of eating disorders manifesting is that they start doing Clean Eating, which is a particular type of fad diet. You’ll talk to someone who works at an eating disorder clinic and they’ll say, “Oh, yeah, like 90 percent of people in this clinic started out with Clean Eating.”
G: What is Clean Eating?
S: It designates certain foods as “dirty” and certain foods as “clean.” Theoretically it’s emphasizing eating more vegetables, eating less processed food, but it ends up giving people a huge array of foods to avoid, that they must remember which are good and which are bad. You end up eliminating the bad foods, and feeling happy that you were able to eliminate the bad foods, that you are good and not bad. It’s really appealing to the part of your brain that can get disordered. The idea of cleanliness, the idea of goodness, the idea of purity associated with your eating really sinks its claws into the part of you that wants to have an eating disorder.
G: Is this like when people talk about a cleanse? Like a blueberry cleanse?
S: I think there’s some overlap, but I think it’s slightly different. (There’s a good overview of it in The Guardian by food writer Bee Wilson.)
You’re going to see it everywhere now, it’s been a fad for maybe five years. I had been seeing books on Clean Eating at the library and wondered, “Clean? How so?”
A lot of this originated on his blog and he talks about how it has changed based on input from his readers, people who wrote in and gave him more context and more information.