You’re Gonna Make It After All

Maker Lab: 28 Super Cool Projects: Build, Invent, Create, Discover by Jack Challoner. DK Publishing, 2016. 9781465451354.

Make: Props and Costume Armor: Create Realistic Science Fiction and Fantasy Weapons, Armor, and Accessories by Shawn Thorsson. Maker Media, 2016. 9781680450064.

I’m really happy that some libraries have started including makerspaces in their services. The hands-on exploration and learning of the maker movement is a great fit with the library’s more traditional learning methods via books and videos. Now that I’m offering maker activities at work, I have to ask myself “What’s a maker activity and what isn’t?” My own working definition is that it must have some problem solving or design decision involved, and that the learning aspect of the activity can be successful even if the final product isn’t beautiful or operational.

Maker Lab and Make: Props and Costume Armor really point to the huge spectrum in making. Maker Lab looks just like the experiments and educational activities that used to go in science fair books and kid magazines. Remember learning about growing crystals by making rock candy? Totally in there. Unlike the books I devoured in my youth, it also shows you how to make a cardboard amplifier for your smartphone. Make: Props and Costume Armor features near-professional-level fabrication, mold making, and painting. It looks like the sort of thing that the Mythbusters do when they’re not busting myths. After my first encounter with the 501st (at Dragoncon), I was curious how they made their armor. Turns out it involves softening a sheet of plastic in your oven and using a homemade vacu-former. Yikes! This book covers that and more: many are definitely the kind of projects that will expose you to toxic fumes and household fire hazards.


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!

House In Middle of Street: Why?

The Geography of Madness: Penis Thieves, Voodoo Death, and the Search for the Meaning of the World’s Strangest Syndromes By Frank Bures. Melville House, 2016. 9781612193724.

In multiple regions of the world, there is a medical syndrome in which men, and sometimes even large groups of men, go into a panic because they believe their penises are disappearing either by shrinking or being pulled inside their bodies. As traumatic as that would be on its own, in some places it’s understood that if the penis disappears fully, the victim will die. People blamed for causing the disappearance by magical means are assaulted and sometimes killed. When the stories appear in the news, they’re reported as regional oddities or some strange resurgence of primitive beliefs. Bures takes it much more seriously. He went on a multi-continent search to interview people who had suffered this malady and the doctors who had treated them. As he tells the story of his journey, he shares his extensive research into medical problems that are limited to certain cultures or countries.

While the doctors he interviewed about penis theft often blamed the syndrome on lack of education and superstition, Bures found research on similar culturally influenced medical problems for almost every country. High levels of education and a scientific viewpoint didn’t seem to prevent them. There is a heart problem that is only diagnosed in Germany, a liver problem that is only diagnosed in France, and a foot problem that only occurs in England. There are conditions that only occur in some places: anorexia is only diagnosed in cultures that value thinness. Syndromes can spread through cultural contact, like the high rates of lower back pain that spread from West Germany to East Germany after reunification. Others rise and fall over time with no change in their supposed physical cause, like carpal tunnel syndrome. These are cultural syndromes: every society has a culture and every culture has its syndromes.

Bures makes it clear that no one is faking or making it up: people who have these illnesses really do suffer, but the biomechanical model of illness can’t fully explain what is happening and why. Your medical diagnosis shouldn’t change when you cross a border, but it happens: Lynn Payer, an editor and medical correspondent for The New York Times got wildly different advice from her doctors when she moved to France. In her book Medicine and Culture (quoted by Bures on p. 85) she wrote that “all one must do to acquire a disease is to enter a country where that disease is recognized — leaving the country will either cure the malady, or turn it into something else.” Incidence rates of some illnesses increase based on how long an immigrant group has been in their new home: exposure to a new culture becomes a risk factor for disease.

Bures’ research is fascinating (don’t miss the chapter endnotes, they contain astonishing stories as well), and he writes in a sympathetic and engaging voice. He’s investigating the cultural sea each of us exists in and can’t recognize. Culture isn’t just native dress and food, it’s how we understand and experience reality.

When You’re In a Flock, You’re Not Alone

All Birds Have Anxiety by Kathy Hoopmann. Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2017. 9781785921827.

In this short book, a compassionate and conversational description of what it feels like to live with anxiety is paired with pictures of birds to illustrate each emotion and physical symptom. It doesn’t sound like much from that description, but each statement starts with “we” and tugs you toward compassion for people having to face this kind of struggle with their thoughts, especially if you’re one of those who struggle. There are some simple suggestions on how to cope and lessen the effects of anxiety, but I think this book is most useful as a way for someone to recognize anxiety in themselves or a loved one and to feel less alone. (For a more practical and in-depth self-help approach, I recommend the phonebook sized Anxiety and Phobia Workbook.)


Sick in the Head: Conversations About Life and Comedy by Judd Apatow. Random House, 2016. 9780812987287. 576pp.

I love Apatow’s films (The 40 Year Old Virgin, This is 40, Trainwreck), TV shows (Freaks and Geeks), and have enjoyed listening to him talk with Terry Gross, but he’s at his best talking to other comedians (Amy Schumer and Jerry Seinfeld). I say “other” because he gave stand up a try a long time back, before he became a comedy writer / producer / director, and is currently giving it another shot. About half of the interviews in this book were conducted when he was a comedy-obsessed high schooler who used shaky press credentials to get interviews with some of the best comedians of that era (and ours). What’s amazing is not only Apatow’s naked need to try to understand how they do what they do, right down to asking how they write jokes, but the comedians’ patience with his questions. (I’m not going to list who he interviews because this is a who’s who of greatness. If you like funny people read this book.) In the more recent interviews he talks to other comedians at the height of his own career, and he still can’t fully hide his wonder at getting to chat with them. (There are some non-comedians interviewed as well, including a few musicians and more than a few film folks.) In addition to discussing performing and writing comedy, there’s a lot of talk about creativity, parenting, marriage, and fame, and having been a serious nerd. It’s all pretty great.

Recommended if you enjoy Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, Paul Provenza’s Satiristas or The Green Room, and listening to comedians discuss their work on podcasts — Marc Maron’s WTF and Jesse Thorn’s Bullseye are two of my favorites.

Dark Dollhouses

The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death by Corrine May Botz. Monacelli Press, 2004. 1580931456.

Sarah: So in the 40s and 50s there was a woman who was born into money, an heiress — this is a true story — she got into forensic criminology and then used some of her money to sponsor forensic criminology classes and a department at Harvard. She ended up working for a police department, training police officers. To do that she made incredibly detailed 1/12th scale dollhouse murder scenes.
G: What???
S: This book is The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, which was the name of her project.
G: (flipping through the book) Oh my God.
Continue reading “Dark Dollhouses”

“We don’t say yinz, our parents say yinz”

How to Speak Midwestern by Edward McClelland. Belt Publishing, 2016. 9780997774276.

Midwesterners think they don’t have an accent, and there’s a reason. Standard American spelling diverged from English spelling because of an influential writer: Noah Webster. He created Webster’s Dictionary, which favored the simpler of alternate spellings of words, and authored spelling textbooks using the same principles. What we think of as the sound of standard American speech was influenced by John S. Kenyon: he wrote books on proper pronunciation and was the pronunciation editor of (what a coincidence!) Webster’s New International Dictionary of American English. Kenyon’s Ohio-based standardizations influenced James F. Bender, author of the NBC Handbook of Pronunciation, so starting in World War II, newscasters adopted them, too.

McClelland makes the academic study of accents accessible, despite terms like rhoticity and Northern cities vowel shift. He gives examples from pop culture, from Bill Swersky’s Superfans (“Da Bearsss”) to Chingy’s “Right Thurr.” For research, he traveled all over the Midwest to talk to locals, and even went to Brainerd, MN, to investigate how people felt about the accents in the movie Fargo. (Their verdict: inaccurate, or at least sorely out of date.)

I really enjoyed learning the history that shaped accents, everything from the lack of social mobility in blue-collar towns, to interstate highways connecting cities, to the early settlers of Minnesota being separated by language at work by the mine bosses. (If nobody on your work crew spoke the same language as you, you couldn’t unionize.) There’s a common shift from developing a regional accent to being embarrassed by it when you leave home to being proud of it as a marker of local belonging. (McClelland only found out he had an accent when he went to college.)

Even if you don’t nerd out over culture and language, pick this up for the vocabulary in the back. I learned that kids in St. Louis are expected to tell a joke before they get their Halloween candy, that the “Michigan left” reduced traffic collisions in the state by 60%, and that there’s a chariot-riding demon called Nain Rouge that haunts Detroit in times of trouble.

McClelland also includes vital sandwich-related research so you’ll know what local delights to order when you travel. Many of them seem engineered to be most appealing when you’re extremely drunk, like Illinois’s Horseshoe: an open faced sandwich with ham, turkey, or hamburger on toast, topped with French fries, then smothered in cheese sauce.