Glass Shark

If Sharks Disappeared by Lily Williams. Roaring Brook Press, 2017. 9781626724136.

It says something about the power of art and storytelling (and a lot about Lily Williams) that she can make a complex idea like a trophic cascade (the drastic changes in an ecosystem resulting from the disappearance of an apex predator) clear and compelling to a young audience. As she shows, even though sharks can seem scary, they are absolutely necessary to the health of the oceans. They keep their prey populations in balance which in turn keeps their food sources in balance, and so on and so on, which extends to populations on land as well. The book ends with steps ordinary people can take to protect sharks that are vulnerable to extinction, from buying sustainably caught fish to creating their own shark art.

The Prisoner

Hostage by Guy Delisle. Drawn & Quarterly, 2017. 9781770462793. 436pp.

Sarah: This is the story of when Christophe André was kidnapped and held hostage in the Caucuses when he was working for Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders). I know from his other books that Guy Delisle’s wife worked for MSF, which is why he was in Burma and wrote the book about living there. So Delisle has links to that group.
Gene: Is she his wife or partner? Maybe the latter?
Sarah: We’ll fact check.
Gene: We probably won’t.
Sarah: Okay.
Gene: This is the story of André being kidnapped and then enduring captivity.
Sarah: They show where he was taken while in “a small Russian republic west of Chechnya.” It was so interesting that the kidnapping…I think I’ve been too affected by efficient TV kidnappings. His kidnappers were bumbling. André knew there was a huge amount of cash in the office safe. His kidnappers didn’t.
Gene: They pretended to be police. They were not after the money, apparently.
Sarah: Or they didn’t know about it. But then later they asked for money for his release. And maybe more than was in the safe? But they could have had both. André had the key to the safe in his pants.
Gene: Yeah but who would think a medical NGO would have a safe full of money?
S: They had it to pay everyone’s salaries in cash. And if that was the norm there, maybe people would know that?
G: The thing I liked was that it opens with him talking to Delisle, so you know he survived. So after they picked him up, he was imagining the worst things happening. They made him get out of a car in the middle of nowhere and he imagined being shot in the back of the head. But there was not a sense of terror because we knew that didn’t happen.
S: And the book is hugely long. So you know there’s more to the story. But yeah, they took him to someone’s apartment and handcuffed him to a radiator. All there was in the room was a thin mattress and a radiator. And the only time he was released from his handcuffs was when he needed to eat or go to the bathroom.
G: The story is so long and so repetitive that it gives a sense of what it was like for him to be stuck there. Turning the page sometimes, and between the panels, there’s an amazing sense of time. It doesn’t feel like Delisle digitally copied panels, it feels like he drew each panel, even though many of them are so similar in the captivity sequences, over and over and over again. So I felt the effort.
I think it’s important to say when pitching this book, you have to set aside an hour or an hour and a half to read it all at once to get a sense of the story’s time.
S: Yeah.
G: I think it wouldn’t have worked as a prose book because you would have put it down and left it and then come back to it over and over again, as one does. But I didn’t. I read straight through.
S: Me, too.
G: Didn’t it feel compulsive? Like you had to?
S: Yes! Each day he hoped it would be the day he got released. And he honestly had this hope all the time. And when he started to lose heart, when he felt like everyone had forgotten about him, it brought me back to the Tehran hostages. There were people in the US who were saying, we need them to know they haven’t been forgotten. And I realized that was a real thing.
G: I love the light and darkness in panels. I love everything about the design. Andre’s internal dialogue just kind of floats on the panels, and the spoken dialogue, the word balloons, they don’t have borders. It all deadens the color palette, so that nothing is distinct or set apart. And as the nights get darker and the room does, there are slightly darker shades of blue and the grey. Delisle really plays with them. It looks so simple but it’s masterful.
S: There are numbers at the beginning of the sections that tell how long he’s been held, but he couldn’t always remember what day it was, though it was really important to him to hang on to that.
G: There were really tense moment where — I don’t remember how long he was held captive — weird things happened that broke up his captivity. Someone’s wife came in to sweep up his room.
S: He saw her one other time, too.
G: Another time the door was left open, and there was a kid in the hallway looking at him.
S: That was so hard for me to read. It wasn’t just that André was humiliated, chained to a radiator like a dog while this little kid just stared at him, but to me that this little kid was in a situation where it wasn’t weird that there was a hostage in the house. He didn’t go oh my god I need to call the police! It’s like, oh yeah, okay.
G: That’s not a good neighborhood to live in.
S: No!
G: For me the most harrowing moment was when he figured out the door was unlocked, and then tried to decide what to do. That was absolutely scary. He’d been trying to find a way to escape but suddenly, after becoming so real, his terror at the thought of being caught trying to escape and what his captors might do to him after that —
S: I felt so much of this. And every day he was drinking thin vegetable soup and tea, and that’s all they give him, and you could see his pants getting looser and looser. It wasn’t until much later that he realized they were falling down and he’d lost weight. But Delisle shows it.
This book terrified me. It was really well done.
G: It’s so unlike anything by Delisle that I’ve read. I fell in love with his books about living in foreign places — Pyongyang, Shenzhen, Jerusalem, and Burma. Did you ever see the strange little books he did for D&Q, the first of his that were published in English? Albert and the Others, Aline and the Others — so wacky, so strange.
S: I liked the ones about bad parenting!
G: Those are funny. But he did these wordless little books in French about a little boy named Louis that are amazing, too. (Louis Au Ski, Louis À La Plage) They’re in that beautifully big French graphic album format. It’s good to see Delisle can escape being pigeonholed as an author. He’s much more than the guy who wrote about living in foreign countries
S: I really want to give this book to adult book clubs.
G: Right. It belongs right up there with Safe Area Gorazde and The Photographer. And it reminds me a little of Alan’s War by Guibert, about an American soldier in World War II whose service was pretty boring.

Atlassed

Mapping It Out: An Alternative Atlas of Contemporary Cartography edited by Hans Ulrich Obrist, introduction by Tom McCarthy. 2014, Thames & Hudson, 9780500239186.

Guest book review by Robert in San Diego

I like maps and atlases, but grit my teeth when I find mistakes. The town up the coast is Solana Beach, not Solano Beach! And if you ever visit San Diego, I’d like to apologize in advance for Friars Road and Pacific Highway being grade separated and having no interchange.

When I feel the onset of mapping rage, I calm down by thinking of Mapping It Out — a witty coffee table book and fantasy atlas. Its staid red buckram cover, reminiscent of mid 20th century reference books, conceals 131 astounding “maps” by a wide range of contributors. These maps cover topics in a range from the DNA of artificially created organisms to memories of the New York City art scene in the 1960’s. Editor Obrist curated an art gallery installation along similar lines as part of the 2012 London Olympics. Mapping It Out is a followup project.

On each page, a section of text describes the contributor and their motivation. The rest of the page is their map. Marcus Du Sautoy, who identifies himself as a mathematician instead of an artist, uses his map to compare the “Seven Bridges of Konigsberg” problem (which helped launched the study of graph theory) with the modern city of Kaliningrad’s water crossings. The much-lionized Tim Berners-Lee shares his map of the World Wide Web; it looks like a sketched map of a role playing game’s world, right down to the dubious entities inhabiting marginal lands. Albert-Laszlo Barabari’s map of the relationships between human diseases is remarkable. Artist Qin Zhijie’s fantastical “Mapping the 21st Century” includes a Nuclear Battery Store and the ominously named Food Shortage Crisis Park.

Rereading Mapping it Out calms me down when confronting the little discrepancies between a map and the territory.

Thanks to Robert in San Diego for this guest review!

Croooooow! (Wise cracker)

Crow Smarts: Inside the Brain of the World’s Brightest Bird by Pamela S. Turner, photographs by Andy Comins, art by Guido de Filippo. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016. 9780544416192.

Crows are so cool! Crow Smarts follows current research in the field on New Caledonian crows and puts it in context with other animal behavior, theories about the brain, and the complexities of animal use of tools. There’s also the funny story of a kid crow learning from its parent how to use a stick to get a juicy grub, as observed by the author. The book is entertaining, engaging, and I learned a lot.

I had heard bits and pieces about crow intelligence, but I had sort of lumped all of them together. Turns out New Caledonian crows are unique even among their clever relatives: they not only use tools, they design tools by carefully snipping twigs and pandan leaves and are able to solve multi-part puzzles like using one tool to retrieve another tool to grab a treat, and bending a piece of wire into a hook to pull up a tiny bucket. (There’s a pretty amusing chapter on some captive New Caledonian crows in a behavior lab in Oxford going through different tests of reasoning and problem solving. They are more successful than human children!) New Caledonian crows have straighter beaks (so it’s easier to hold tools), forward-facing eyes (better depth perception for tools), and no competition for the grubs that burrow in tree trunks (yum).

There’s great information on whether or not big brains are evolutionarily advantageous (only sometimes, as they require a lot of extra food), the overlap in brain processing for tool use and language use, and how both humans and crows live socially and are flexible in what they eat, which encourages cooperation and may have evolved at the same time as tool use.

Every Scientists in the Field book includes the background of a scientist that will broaden your idea of who can go into science fields. This one has a scientist who didn’t start college until he was 30, one who is also an artist and sketches in his field notes (he contributed illustrations for the book), and a local New Caledonian grandfather who captures and re-releases the crows, and is learning about their behavior along with the scientists.

Let’s cheat a bit, and flip to the end of the book: Turner’s bibliography is a long list of articles from peer-reviewed science journals and not, as is the case in many science books for kids, a list of other science books for kids.

Travels of a Brooklyn Boy

Thank You for Coming to Hattiesburg: One Comedian’s Tour of Not-Quite-the-Biggest Cities in the World by Todd Barry. Gallery Books, 2017. 9781501117428.

Sarah: I recently read The Not-Quite States of America, too, so this is my year for “Not Quite” books. Todd Barry is a working comedian, really well established. I wouldn’t say he can work wherever he wants, but he does mention several times in the book that he opened for Louie CK at Madison Square Garden.
G: Right. He’s not super famous, but he’s been in a lot of movies.
S: People know him.
G: You would recognize him instantly. But it feels like he’s a comedian’s comedian.
S: I can see that.
G: One of the things people kept saying to him that he interpreted as “this show may not go well” was, “I’m a little worried you’re too smart for this audience.”
S: Yes. And he might be a little to smart for any audience. This is about his year of going to secondary markets, as he calls them. Not the big towns, but the next ones down or the college towns, partly because he likes playing those venues but also because he likes finding indie coffee shops…
G: Coffee shops that make him feel like he’s still in Brooklyn.
S: Yes! Which is kind of hilarious. He lives in Brooklyn and tries to have the same experience everywhere. Continue reading “Travels of a Brooklyn Boy”

One Memoir A Day

High on Arrival: A Memoir by Mackenzie Phillips, Gallery Books, 2011. 9781439153864. 320pp.

Guest review by Murphy’s Mom

I remember watching Mackenzie Phillips on TV as Julie Cooper on One Day At A Time. I was too young to know who her father was, let alone how twisted her real life really was.

Her father, Papa John Phillips, from the 1970’s band The Mamas and Papas, was in and out of Mackenzie’s life. Whenever he came around to visit, he was usually high or drunk or both. To maintain a relationship with him, Mackenzie began do drugs with him at an alarmingly young age (11). Her father is the one who injected her with cocaine the first time she got high.

Mackenzie is utterly blunt and honest about her failed stints in rehab and getting fired from One Day... But the most horrific part of her memoir is when she talks about the time she woke up from a blackout in bed with her father.  The two continued a consensual sexual relationship for 10 years! 

I feel sorry for her if that’s the truth, but honestly, it would be worse if she is lying for attention. This is one of the most sick and twisted celebrity memoirs — if you’re like me, you’ll probably keep reading it for the shock value alone.

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!