Belgium!

Welcome to Marwencol by Mark Hogancamp and Chris Shellen. Princeton Architectural Press, 2016. 9781616894153. 278pp

Gene: Did you ever see a documentary called Marwencol?
Sarah: The name sounds familiar but I don’t think I did.
G: It’s about Mark Hogancamp. He’s had kind of a sad life. He was married, he was in the army. After he got out his wife divorced him and he became an alcoholic living in, I think, rural New York. He went out with some friends one night a while back and got totally plowed — his blood alcohol level was 3.0 or so after this incident. He was drinking boilermakers — whiskey and beer, whiskey and beer. And he admitted to some guys that he’s a cross dresser. After the bar closed down, these guys beat him so badly he was in a coma, unconscious, for 9 days. Lots of brain damage. It knocked him back decades. He had been an artist, he drew a lot, but when he woke up he had to relearn how to walk and talk and it was awful.
And so — I want to admit I’m doing a piss-poor job of summarizing his life, you should see the documentary — he got these 1/6 scale action figures and started taking photos of them. Outside the trailer where he lives he created a World War II era Belgian village he calls Marwencol. There’s a character that’s him, Hogey. There are Nazi SS characters who are stand-ins for the guys who beat him up. There’s a bar, Hogancamp always wanted to own a bar.
Continue reading “Belgium!”

Sweet and Dandy

We Are Dandy: The Elegant Gentleman Around the World by Nathaniel Adams and Rose Callahan. Gestalten Verlag, 2016. 9783899556674.

Mix one part men’s suits, one part vintage shop, one part avant-garde fashion, one part time traveler, and a liberal splash of big personality and you have a dandy. I feel like any of these fellows could be a Time Lord. If they aren’t too cool to go to the public library, the staff definitely have given them nicknames. Everybody who lives on their streets knows them by sight. “Hey, it’s that guy!”

The photographs are really fun. I appreciate that the “around the world” in the title includes dandies from outside the usual fashion centers of London/Paris/Tokyo/New York. The dandies from Johannesburg are really cool: their looks are sleeker and more form-fitting, looking modern without being busy. The American and European dandies used more accessories and had more theatrical looks. The Japanese dandies combined suits with modern casual or traditional Japanese clothing. Some dandies were photographed in their homes. As you might expect, their home decorations are just as eye-catching as their clothing, though I’ll admit to looking askance at the guy with three shelves of books color-coordinated with his wall — buying books solely for the sake of interior decoration just seems wrong.

Medicine and Myth

Malignant Metaphor: Confronting Cancer Myths by Alanna Mitchell. ECW Press, 2015. 9781770412682. 208pp.

Alanna Mitchell’s brother-in-law was diagnosed with malignant melanoma. His extended family rallied around him and Mitchell, because of her background as a science writer, was put in charge of investigating his treatment options to determine whether they were helpful, did more harm than good, or were pure fantasy. In the process she found that people think about cancer in really odd ways.

People are afraid of cancer in ways that have little to do with the reality of the disease. They think it’s inescapable and happening more and more, but when rates are adjusted for a larger population and longer lifespans the rate of cancer is staying about the same and may even be dropping in the US and other western countries. Cancer is much more treatable than it used to be, and more people are surviving it. The general public thinks cancer is preventable, caused by lifestyle choices, diet, or maybe even one’s mood and outlook on life. Sometimes this idea drives people to try to live healthier lives, but other times it can be cruel: people blame those who get cancer or think that they somehow deserve it. Mitchell found that only a few things clearly cause cancer, like smoking, radiation, asbestos, benzene, and HPV. The majority of cancers are caused by some random cell mutation — we don’t yet understand the how or the why.

Mitchell writes clearly and compassionately about the history of these frightening and contradictory ideas and how they affect the ways we respond to the disease and the people who have it. She looks at it as a metaphor for how we feel about ourselves and our relationship to the natural world. And she explores how the war metaphor (battling cancer, winning against cancer) can be counter-productive.

Then her daughter is diagnosed with a completely treatable cancer and, even though Mitchell had read mountains of research dispelling the myths, she immediately panics and begins blaming herself. She spends the last portion of the book examining the emotional impact of cancer. It can feel safer to blame ourselves than to admit that the process is usually random and completely out of our control.

Life and Death in America

Killings by Calvin Trillin. Random House, 2017. 9780399591402.

In the introduction to this expanded reprint of essays originally written for The New Yorker, Trillin writes about how he could cover stories of murder in a very different way than a newspaper could. His column inches weren’t dictated by how important the editor decided the victim was. He wasn’t writing for the paper of record, so he wasn’t required to cover every significant news item. He could write about people who were ordinary without having to justify the reader’s interest with “what reporters call a “nut graf” (“The Iowa murder is a part of a growing national trend toward vaguely disreputable people in small towns killing each other”).” Writing essays on death allowed him to capture moments in time and see the details of lives and communities that would ordinarily be hidden.

Unlike his more famous essays about his family or food, Trillin keeps himself out of these. He sets the scene, delves into the people involved, then tells the story of a death and its aftermath in a way that is never sensationalized. His writing is expert but never feels artful. There are occasional moments lightened by Trillin’s dry wit, but his precise style and elegant reconstruction of events gives each lost life the requisite gravity and respect.

The Trickster’s Two-Wheeler

The Coyote’s Bicycle: The Untold Story of Seven Thousand Bicycles and the Rise of a Borderland Empire by Kimball Taylor. 2016. Tin House Books. 9781941040201.

Kimball Taylor first came across masses of abandoned bicycles littering the Tijuana River Valley after a flood in 2008. Taylor’s pursuit of the story behind these bikes led to this sprawling, riveting non-fiction book.

Undocumented migrants were crossing the rugged border south of California’s Border Field State Park on bikes. Taylor ascribes these organized group rides to “El Indio,” a cautious yet ambitious young man running his own crew of people smugglers. Then the masses of abandoned bikes disappeared from the park! Taylor traced them to an unlikely recycler: a San Diego movie studio working for the Department of Defense.

Border Field State Park photo by Robert.

The biggest draw for me as a reader was the local color. Taylor captures the appearance (and smell) of the horse ranches that line the flat river valley, the steep hills and ravines to the south, and the noxious mire of Border Field State Park. He also describes ongoing, often heartbreaking efforts to restore native plants and forestall erosion in the area. I’ve ridden bikes in that area, and I was astounded both by Taylor’s accuracy and the details I hadn’t known about.

Many of the issues Taylor touches upon should be or are the subjects of full books, from border security and official corruption on both sides of the border to the joy of riding a bike. His focus on one smuggler’s network and methods allows him to write about larger issues with depth as well as feeling.

Thanks to Robert in San Diego for this guest book review!

File Next to Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Rules of Thumb by Tom Parker. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1983. 0395346428.

Rules of Thumb 2 by Tom Parker. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1987. 0395429552.

Sarah: Every superhero has an origin story. I’m not sure if every librarian has an origin story — I need to start asking. But I suspect that, when we were kids, we each had at least one reference book we loved. I bet for most it was usually the World Almanac or The Guinness Book of World Records, both of which you could buy through the Scholastic Book Fair. But these were the reference books for me.
Gene: I read The Guinness Book. I never thought “I’m gonna use this to answer questions.”
S: This has nothing to do with answering questions. This is more about the book that gives you the realization that “information is really interesting and I want to sink into it like a bog.”
Continue reading “File Next to Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”

Pentomino the Giant

Tetris: The Games People Play by Box Brown. First Second, 2016. 9781626723153. 256pp.

Sarah: The most compelling, addictive video game ever invented had a super weird, soap opera style story about how it got out to the rest of the world from the Soviet Union. This is that story.
Gene: Did you play Tetris?
S: Absolutely! Oh god yes. Hours and hours. Did you ever get the Tetris dreams?
G: I did. I was a casual video game kid. But I mostly avoided it for some reason — I don’t know why. Maybe it reminded me too much of Arkanoid? What’s it called? It’s Pong with the blocks on top.
S: Oh yeah yeah — Breakout!
G: Right. Arkanoid is a branded version of that. It had power ups.
Then I played Tetris for about two days, and I totally had the dreams. I was obsessed. I couldn’t really sleep. It invaded my head. So I just stopped cold turkey. I have never stopped playing a video game before or since that I liked that much. But my brain clearly liked it too much.
S: I got a keychain version of it. It’s so simple you can put it on anything.
G: I hear they have condoms with little LED screens and that you can play Tetris on them.
S: Yeah, very small items. The intro to the book talked about games and what they mean in our minds and what competition means and he’s just talking about that this game boils down to some essential aspect of something our brains want to do, some way to solve problems.
G: You’re fitting things together. It’s like shelving books.
Continue reading “Pentomino the Giant”