Bald Outliers

Tsu & the Outliers by Eric Johnson. Uncivilized Books, 2018. 9781941250242. 112pp.

Tsu is a kid that never speaks, and he’s bullied by kids who call him a freak. And he’s got powers of some kind — he can either speak with or control a Sasquatch (who visually reminds me a bit of Swamp Thing). After an episode involving a crashed bus, two cryptid hunters (one is a monkey, the other is something stranger) are on his trail. It all gets weird and dangerous and action packed, and Tsu ends up the bait in a trap for his buddy.

The action sequences have a berserk energy that I really enjoyed, and I’m a fan of books like this that use only one color of ink on a page (though there are two on the cover). It’s weird and fun and a little bit groovy — everything I hope for in a small press graphic novel.

Bald Knobber: a graphic novella by Robert Sergel. Secret Acres, 2018. 9780999193518. 84pp.

Unless you’re a student of American history, you’re probably looking the cover and worrying about what sorts of sex sites you’ll pull up if you Google “bald knobber.” That’s what I thought, anyway, though the truth is weirder. The bald knobbers were a vigilante group in 1880s Mississippi who wore horned black hoods. And despite the weird headgear they were guys who mostly sided with the North during the Civil War, at least according to Wikipedia and a few other articles I read online.

If you want to know a little more about them, read this book. When Cole tells his classmates about a book he read over the summer, Bald Knobbers: Vigilantes of the Ozarks, he pulls on his own horned hood before reading his report. The report appears in title boxes as we see what happened to Cole over the summer, which starts him being shuttled between his separated parents, who are both seriously pissed off at each other. There’s also his mom’s live-in boyfriend Brad, who Cole doesn’t like, and an asshat of a neighborhood bully who talks crap about Cole’s mom while burning insects with a magnifying glass. You know: typical children of divorce stuff. (Or at least it’s all very close to what I remember from my childhood, except for the hood.) I won’t ruin Cole’s vigilante justice against Brad, but it’s hilarious. Things between Cole’s parents keep getting worse as the parallels between Cole’s story and the history of the Bald Knobbers becomes clear. The end of both stories kind of beautifully peters out, though things aren’t quite finished between Cole and the bully.

The book is full of black ink, like the fabulous Teenagers from Mars. It’s deadpan and sad and realistic, and Cole’s dad is something of an alcoholic, so I really appreciated the laughs it provides. Some teens will, I’m sure, love this book, but I unreservedly recommend it to adults whose parents were divorced when they were kids. In fact I think I’ll get my middle sister a copy for her birthday.

Regrets, I Ate a Few

The Gallery of Regrettable Food by James Lileks. Crown Publishers, 2001. 0609607820.

Sarah: Part of the significance of this book, because there are plenty of people out there who make fun of the horrible illustrations in old cookbooks, is that James Lileks was one of the first. He was really early on the Internet scene, he has this wonderful website that he’s been working on since the nineties — it’s a great collection of weird old stuff. He’s also funny; he’ll comment on the pictures and not just say “oh, how disgusting!” He’s really amusing, and he’ll start bizarre mini-fictions that continue within and across his captions.
G: (looks at photo and laughs)
S: He talks about how his mom in, I think, 1962 was given a terrible promo cookbook from the North Dakota durum wheat growers… that was the start of his collection, when he found it in his mom’s closet, untouched, in the 90s.
He has a fictional recipe in there based on all the recipes in these books, where you carefully put one atom of chili powder in a dish with a pound of hamburger meat, 36 pounds of flavorless cheese… “if substituting spackle, crumble one yellow crayon for color,” one cup dusty crumbs from the toaster, three grains pepper, one pound salt, then that one atom of chili powder.
Continue reading “Regrets, I Ate a Few”

Why does that guy’s name always come first?

Lewis & Clark by Nick Bertozzi. First Second, 2011. 9781596434509. 144pp.

Gene: This is the Lewis & Clark graphic novel by Nick Bertozzi, who is amazing. His Shackleton graphic novel is also famous among librarians. I really like his books. I have some of the original art from the Shackelton graphic novel on my wall. I’m a huge fan of his work. And I’m happy to report he seems super cool — I met him at SPX a few years ago.
I love this one even though I don’t enjoy nonfiction graphic novels much. I read it again recently because I wanted to have a sense of Lewis and Clark’s journey after seeing so many places they stopped on my drive from Seattle to North Dakota and back last summer.
Bertozzi’s art gives a great sense of being on the plains. And I’m sending it to my library school advisor Carol Doll (who I visited in North Dakota) because I’ve been looking for graphic novels she’d like. (I also sent her Marzi, about a girl growing up in Poland behind the Iron Curtain, and 3 volumes of Northlanders, and Brian Wood’s comic series about Vikings, which she said was a little too violent.) So I’m sending this, Sharon Shinn’s graphic novel from First Second (she’s a fan), and, because she’s interested in the history of the west, the Audubon graphic novel as well, which is my go-to gift of the year along with F*ck That’s Delicious.

Continue reading “Why does that guy’s name always come first?”

Best Use of Poorly-Remembered Lessons Since Let’s Parler Franglais

What I Think Happened: An Underresearched History of the Western World by Evany Rosen. Arsenal Pulp Press, 2017. 9781551526955.

I was already pretty excited for this book before I even started: it’s the first volume in a new humor imprint of Arsenal Pulp Press edited by the comedian/author Charles Demers AND it’s written by the delightful Evany Rosen. Then I laughed out loud at least twice reading the first page of the introduction. Rosen recounts English and American history based on:

  1. her sketchy recollections of the history degree she barely finished in an honors program that was much too ambitious for her college-aged self,
  2. her avid enthusiasm for history as a series of fascinating anecdotes, and
  3. her strong and judgmental (and funny) opinions on history.

This is EXACTLY my speed. She has a hilarious and extremely useful chapter on how to evaluate what kind of military history your boyfriend’s dad is into (“If you don’t share my own unabashedly dad-like fondness for mentally storing partially correct factoids about tactical military history so you can spout them off at random while you drag your flabbergasted partner through an out-of-the-way tank museum that you seem to have Yelped into existence through sheer force of will, this chapter is for you.”), plus others on “America’s Dumpiest Presidents” and “My Personal Obsession with Napoleon.” There’s even a chapter on the history of cheese, which she admits is the best-researched in the book. I gave this book to my mom who, like me, enjoys a good tank museum, and I am eagerly awaiting the second book in the imprint (by the also delightful Alicia Tobin) later this year.

Marathons: Not a Spectator Sport

The Great American Foot Race: Ballyhoo for the Bunion Derby! by Andrew Speno. Calkins Creek, 2017. 9781629796024.

A book about an ultramarathon from Los Angeles to New York City in 1928 might be a hard sell for most readers, but this book packs in a huge amount of fascinating information about the race, the runners, and the issues of the time: the rise of professional sports, corporate sponsorship, the emergence of agents, the dawn of the US interstate highway system (the race was run on the newly-completed Route 66), city boosterism, ballyhoo and humbug (there was a lot of overstated publicity for the race), and even the rivalry between running and race walking. Segregation became an issue as the black runners passed through Texas and Oklahoma — some received threats as they ran. A total of 55 men finished the race. Doctors were astonished that none seemed to suffer long-term health problems. This book is the paper equivalent of those ESPN 30 for 30 documentaries that suck you in even if you had no previous interest in the topic.

My Neighbor Igort

Japanese Notebooks: A Journey To The Empire Of Signs by Igort. Translated by Jamie Richards. Chronicle Books, 2017. 9781452158709.

Italian comics creator Igort is a bit obsessed with Japan and its culture. The book opens with drawings of Astro Boy and comics and masks and action figures and ingredients before he shows us the Tokyo neighborhood he lived while making comics for a Japanese publisher, Kodansha, in the 1990s. He describes how Japan seemed like a treasure chest filled with amazing things (but especially its old prints) that called to him. The book moves back and forth between Igort’s experiences there (the most harrowing of which is mid-book, when he is being put to the test by his publisher) and the subjects that interest him most: Mishima, manga artists like Jiro Taniguchi, the B-movies of Seijun Suzuki, Menko cards, chrysanthemums, Tanizaki, iki, Sada Abe, and more. His story of spending a day with Hayao Miyazaki made me totally jealous.

A lot of the sense of peace he had being in Japan comes through as he writes about it, and it’s clear that he’s writing about the country and its culture as part of an effort to understand it. The art is soft and beautiful, supplemented by prints and photographs where appropriate. It’s a bit adult in places, so I wouldn’t recommend it for school libraries, but I believe it will find a ready audience with adults interested in traveling to Japan, or the country’s art and literature.

Uprooted vs. Married to the Sea

I finally picked up Uprooted: The Japanese American Experience During World War II by Albert Marrin. This book was a National Book Award finalist and on several best-of lists for 2016. And on page 15, I saw this:

Page 15 of Uprooted

If you have spent any time looking at old newspapers or old medical ads, this looks nothing like an ad from the 1800s. If you pause for even a moment to read the text, you may wonder at a drug ad for something called “Placebo.” If you pause for two moments, you may be struck by how unlikely the phrase “drink it on the go” is for an ad of that time. Perhaps you suspect this this may instead be a joke.

Librarian powers activate! I flipped back to the picture credits to look for a source. The image was listed as PD-US: public domain in the United States, no original source listed. A quick Google search turned the image up on Pinterest, tagged as a Victorian advertisement. I put that image through the TinEye reverse image search engine and hey presto: a link to the original source. It’s a comic from the (awesome) webcomic by Drew Fairweather and Natalie Dee, Married to the Sea, which uses public domain clip art. The image in Uprooted and on Pinterest is trimmed to remove the URL of Married to the Sea, denying them credit as its source.

I really hope this was not the work of the author. I hope this was put into the book some underpaid intern charged with finding no-cost illustrations. But this really really really shouldn’t have made it into the final version of a serious work of history for young readers. This is absolutely going into my classroom presentation on finding reliable sources online. (Why not try the US National Library of Medicine Digital Collection? There you could find this actual public domain ad for a children’s medicine that contained morphine.)

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!

Politics and Piroshky

CCCP Cook Book: True Stories of Soviet Cuisine by Olga & Pavel Syutkin. Fuel Publishing, 2015. 9780993191114.

I picked this book up because of the vintage food illustrations. I’m a sucker for them in the cookbooks I collect, and I’d never seen any from the Soviet Union. Unlike the similar-looking promotional pictures for Crisco and Jell-O, the photos in this book promoted entire state-owned industries, or were illustrations from the cookbook that contained the required menu for all of the USSR’s cafeterias. The recipes are interesting (including a few I wouldn’t mind trying), but the short essays explaining each are solid gold. The recipe for Stolichny Salad tells the story of the elimination of Christmas and the gradual return of elements of it in later decades as a part of New Year’s celebrations. The one for Mimosa Salad tells how the ministry of fisheries used money earmarked for the Moscow Metro to purchase refrigerators so that fish could be processed immediately after it was caught. Later, there was a PR stunt to encourage people to buy canned fish: a rumor that smugglers had hidden jewelry inside the cans. The recipe for Solyanka Soup tells of the difficulties in providing something like fast food in time for the 1980 Olympics. (McDonald’s couldn’t be used because they wouldn’t reveal their ingredients, and Soviet officials were terrified that they would be jailed if something banned by their stringent regulations was found in the food.) And Pasta a la Navy starts with the delightful rumor that Soviet pasta was made on repurposed gun cartridge machinery because the noodles were the same caliber as Kalashnikov rifle rounds!

Argyle Socks: A Sign of True Love

People Knitting: A Century of Photographs by Barbara Levine. Princeton Architectural Press, 2016. 9781616893927.

In my reference class in library school, I had to pick a subject to look up in each book we studied. Since then, I’ve used the same technique to explore historical archives and databases. My current go-to searches? Accordions and knitting. So of course I’ll pick up a book of historic knitting photographs! Since this is an ordinary occupation, there is usually another reason each picture was taken: there are casual snapshots that contain incidental knitting, formal portraits of women holding their knitting, pictures of celebrities knitting while waiting for their close-ups, and a whole lot of images of people knitting for world war efforts (both I and II). The pictures are charming!

A 1918 postcard shows George E. Hill, bald and white-bearded, knitting alongside a picture of the 100th pair of socks he knit for the war effort. Those were for President Woodrow Wilson, complete with Wilson’s name and an American flag stitched in the cuff! The text on the reverse says Hill did his knitting from 3 am to 7 am and on Sundays, when he could finish a pair of socks in a day. I want to know that guy’s whole life story.

There’s a wonderful excerpt from a 1918 magazine article about Colorado’s “Rocky Mountain knitter boys:” when they were knitting, they didn’t fidget with their pencils or throw erasers in class. Now I’ve got an idea for a new school outreach program!

And if you’re a knitter, the pictures are even cooler. A photo of a maintenance man knitting in front of a furnace has a caption that says he’s knitting for the baby he and his wife are expecting. He took up knitting to relax, on the advice of his doctor, “and he’s since become an expert.” No kidding! He’s doing intarsia with five bobbins of yarn on size one needles!