Two Puns Enter, One Pun Leaves

Away With Words: An Irreverent Tour Through the World of Pun Competitions by Joe Berkowitz. Harper Perennial, 2017. 9780062495600.

awaywithI picked this book up with the question, “There are pun competitions?” Yes, there are, and enough that Berkowitz doesn’t have to stretch too much to find them.

He starts out at the hip, monthly Brooklyn Punderdome to try out performing in a competition. Hearing laughs at and cheers for the kind of wordplay that usually only earns him the stinkeye gets him addicted, even though he doesn’t win. This starts him on the road to the big annual competition in Austin, the O. Henry Pun Off. How do you get better at competitive punning? By taking an improv class to be less afraid of crashing and burning, among other things. He interviews scientists who study the mechanisms of jokes and puns. (They compare punning with a brain disorder.) He talks to the writers at Bob’s Burgers and Veep who incorporate puns into every television episode. Berkowitz investigates the high-pressure headline punning at the New York Post and visits the set of the pun-based game show @midnight. Along the way he interviews a host of pun champions.

As fun as following these threads was (and Berkowitz is funny even outside the punning), the best part was watching him find his people and become appreciated by a tribe that shares his unironic interest in wordplay.

Spivspeak

A Dictionary of the Underworld, British and American, Being the Vocabularies of Crooks, Criminals, Racketeers, Beggars and Tramps, Convicts, The Commercial Underworld, The Drug Traffic, The White Slave Traffic, Spivs by Eric Partridge. Bonanza Books, 1961.

underworld Sarah: My parents are downsizing, so every once in a while they’ll say, “If there’s anything you want, make sure you ask for it.” So I said, “I want A Dictionary of the Underworld.”
G: I’ve got to do the creepy thing. (Sniffs book.) It doesn’t actually smell, but it looks like it would smell.
S: It’s old enough that it should.
G: How old is it?
S: First published in 1949, reprinted with new addenda 1961. Continue reading “Spivspeak”

Infinite Playset

Let’s Go Camping! Crochet Your Own Adventure by Kate Bruning. Martingale, 2015. 9781604688153.

campingLet’s Go Camping provides you with ideas and crochet patterns to make camping-based playsets for Playmobil-sized people. The accommodations range from teepees and trailers to canal boats and cabins. Every accessory is included, down to tiny dishes in the trailer’s kitchen and ice cream cones sold from the ice cream truck. Even the landscape is included, with patterns for a lake playmat for canoes to cruise on, mountains, and trees. I picked it up looking for ideas for toys to make for kids, and was instead absorbed by the idea of creating and furnishing my own camper. I have absolutely nowhere to keep a camper, so one about the size of a small loaf of bread would be much easier to handle. I can make tiny rugs and bunting for it, wee cabinets, and bedspreads! I think the kids in my life may be out of luck: I will want to keep all of these toys for myself.

Understanding Israel

How To Understand Israel In 60 Days Or Less by Sarah Glidden. Drawn & Quarterly, 2016. 9781770462533.

how-to-understand-isreal-in-60Emailing 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.

First Ones to Go Viral

Virus by Marilyn J. Roossinck. Princeton University Press, 2016. 9780691166964.

virusThe cover says “an illustrated guide to 101 incredible microbes,” which is why I picked it up. Each two-page profile of a virus includes: 1) a large colorized photograph of the virus, 2) a diagram of its anatomy, 3) a thumbnail guide to how it’s classified and what it does, and 4) a paragraph on its discovery and significance. There are also sections on virus basics like reproduction and immunity.

Each page I flipped to was fascinating and strange and beautiful. I liked it even though some of the science was beyond me. You can learn a lot about viruses or just ogle the crazy pictures: either way, this book is cool.

How to Use Pink to Draw the North

How To Survive In The North by Luke Healy. Nobrow, 2016. 9781910620069.

how-to-survive-in-the-northFor epic tales of icy climes that will make you feel the cold in your bones, read Leiber’s Whiteout or Bertozzi’s Shackleton. But for a beautifully rendered meditation on loneliness, bad choices, and survival, look no farther than How To Survive In The North.

There are three intertwined narratives. One begins in Nome, Alaska, in 1913 as explorer Robert Bartlett sets off on a scientific expedition to the arctic aboard The Karluk. (All does not go well.) The second begins in Nome in 1921 when young native Ada Blackjack signs on as seamstress for an expedition to claim Wrangel Island for Canada. (All does not go well.) The third, unlike the other two, is not based in fact. It involves a tenured professor in trouble with his school for having an inappropriate relationship with a student. On a forced sabbatical, he starts going through the papers of a former professor named Stefannson, learning about Bartlett and Ada Blackjack (via her diary) in the process. But he can’t get the student out of his mind. (All does not go well.)

There are two striking things about the way Healy drew this graphic novel. First, the colors — he uses a the washed out pink, yellow, and blue green that make up the aurora on the cover, along with white, to tell the stories. And somehow it totally works. Second, Healy creates the impression of maintaining a constant distance from is characters. Before taking another look just now, I could have sworn there were no drawings of them at a distance or close-up, that they were all framed as if seen from the same distance throughout. I would have been wrong, but somehow the work as a whole gives this impression — it feels like I’ve been watching an art film that I loved but that I can’t quite explain.

This is one of my favorite graphic novels from Nobrow, which is putting out some great books. Be sure to check out Luke Pearson’s Hildafolk books, Louis Roskosch’s Leeroy and Popo, and Marion Fayolle’s In Pieces.

Unsolved Mysteries

The Voynich Manuscript. Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library in association with Yale University Press, 2016. 9780300217230.

voynich-manuscriptAn unassuming little book, the original Voynich Manuscript is hand-written on vellum with no intricate binding or decoration, and there is no clear history of its authorship or ownership. (It pops up from time to time in historical records, then disappears.) The text is written in an unknown language (possibly a code) using an unknown alphabet. The botanical illustrations found on most pages are of plants that don’t exist. The celestial charts at its center are indecipherable. No one has been able to understand the text, and there is only speculation as to the book’s purpose. It is the world’s most mysterious book.

This is a page by page reproduction of the original with lots of space in the margins for you to scribble your theories. Plus there are essays on what the book might be and the results of various scientific tests done on it. It’s your own copy of a real mystery. I was pretty excited to finally get to see it after hearing about it for years, but then I was somehow disappointed that to me (not an expert on languages, codes, alchemy, or any esoteric arts) it’s pretty much still a mystery. I guess I was hoping that I would somehow be able to divine it’s true meaning.