Picture Books

Love a good quick nonfiction graphic novel read: Andy Warner's Brief Histories of Everyday Objects.

Every now and then I like to read a good graphic novel (fiction or non, I'm open on graphic novels, for the most part) and Andy Warner's stupendously entertaining Brief Histories of Everyday Objects did not disappoint.

Brief historiesI found this title on some booklist of nonfiction graphic novels that I linked to in a weekly Citizen Reading post a few weeks or months back, leading me to once again say, YAY book lists. You gotta love a good book list, particularly one that is outside your normal reading interests or comfort zone.

In this lighthearted history Warner examines (very briefly, in just a few cartoon panels per story) the histories of some objects that we basically could no longer imagine living without: toothbrushes, kitty litter, silk, tupperware, traffic lights, beer cans, kites, and coffee beans (among many others). The drawings are clean and easy to follow (sometimes I'm too lazy to follow graphic novel layouts when they're too dense or complicated; I remain a word girl, not a picture girl, at heart) and the facts are fun, interesting, and very succinctly written. Also, at the end of each short history, Warner throws in a few panels of "Briefer Histories," with all the tidbits of research he couldn't really fit in anywhere else, like "Ingredients in ancient toothpaste included ox hooves, eggshells, oyster shells, and charcoal. Minty fresh!" (p. 5.)

I also really enjoyed running gags throughout the stories, such as when multiple visionaries/inventors failed to cash in on their inventions. In the first such instance, a briefer history discusses how "Walter Hunt's grave in Brooklyn's Greenwood Cemetery sits in the shadow of the monument of Elias Howe, who got rich manufacturing Hunt's unpatented sewing machine." (With a picture of Hunt saying, "Rub it in, why don't you?") (p. 47.) And by the end of the book Walter Hunt and a bunch of other poor visionaries are grouped together, saying "We've decided to move in together to save on rent." (p. 177.) I'm describing it badly, but it's funny stuff.

In other news, this book has a wonderful bibliography, including many popular micro-histories, and Mr. CR gave it the highest praise he can give a nonfiction book: "Hey, that book you've got in the bathroom right now is pretty good."

Now THIS is more like it: Mama Tried, by Emily Flake.

Remember a few weeks ago, when I was going on and on about how I'd love to see a parenting book whose author actually shared some of the gory details of childbirth? All I can say after reading Emily Flake's Mama Tried: Dispatches from the Seamy Underbelly of Modern Parenting, is HUZZAH!

Now THIS is what I'm talking about:

Mama tried"Just like in the movies, I was in the back of a cab making little hoo-hoo-hoo sounds and trying to assure the driver I would not have a baby in his car, though I couldn't guarantee I wouldn't crap all over it. Luckily for everyone concerned, the hospital was only a mile away; when I got out of the cab I was holding my belly and bellowing like a sow. I was put in a wheelchair and whisked into an examination room, where I stroked the wall very, very gently and waited for a real doctor (they'd sent in a med student to take my family history; I was impolite to him). A real doctor showed up, took a look at my lady parts, and took out a walkie-talkie. 'Clear a labor room,' she said into it. 'Wait, am I in labor??' I asked. 'You,' she said, clearly biting off the words 'you idiot,' 'are having a baby RIGHT NOW.' She said this because I was 9.5 centimeters dilated. That promise I made to the cabbie could very easily have been false, and I would have had the New Yorkiest of all possible birth stories to tell.

Only one thing saved the cab's upholstery: the baby was coming face-up. This is not nearly as worrisome as a butt-or feet-first baby, nor as awful as that thing where their head gets jammed to the side and they're somehow coming...neck-first? Yikes--but it does make the whole process a bit more difficult. There was an awful lot of pushing. I moaned piteously for ice...

But: back to my face-up baby, stuck in the canal. After a couple of hours we had all had it with the pushing; I asked if maybe they didn't have one of those vacuum thingies handy? They did. Three contractions, a Hoovering, and a big doctor squeezing down on my belly later, out came the baby. The placenta was less eager to make its debut; the cord snapped, and my OB--a...brisk woman--reached on up there with her hand to pluck it out of me. She regarded it quizzically: 'That's a really raggedy old-looking placenta,' she said." (pp. 86-88.)

Well, fucking hell and thank YOU, Emily Flake, THIS is what I'm looking for in a birth narrative, complete with not knowing when you should go to the hospital, birth not quite going the way you thought, doctor-being-a-dickhead moments. AMEN. And of course there's a reason I responded to this story with every fiber of my being...


When my second CRjr made his way onto the scene it played out much the same way: I dilated nicely and everyone at the hospital thought he would be popping out shortly after we arrived. Of course that is not what happened. I tried to dilate to the full 10 centimeters for many hours, and then pushed for several hours, before which a nurse actually said to me, "Huh, I hope he's not coming face-up, that can be..." and then she trailed off as she saw me looking at her, "...uncomfortable."

Of course he was coming face-up.

To make a long story short, because you, unlike me, may not be into gory birth stories, the littlest CRjr also made his appearance thanks to one of those "vacuum thingies." But, and here's the part you really may not need to know, I still have some physical issues from the experience. So for the last three years, no kidding, I have been beating myself up, thinking if I had just stayed home a little longer, I could have dilated further, birth could have gone faster, and maybe I could have avoided some problems...

But God bless Emily Flake, now I know that even if I'd arrived at that damn hospital at the full 10 centimeters things may not have gone any better. And I cannot tell you the good that this does for my soul. So maybe that's what I'm looking for in these birth narratives: solidarity with what women go through, and what they come back from.


Have I also mentioned that this book is hilarious? Not only is it a quick read, it's illustrated, and Flake's pictures and their captions are really the best parts of the book. Just imagine her pictures and captions for her description of the third trimester: "The Dampening." (Horrifying but hilarious.) At one point the author also asked her sister, a postpartum nurse and lactation consultant, who her least favorite patients were. Her sister's reply? "'Oh, you know, older, professional moms who read too many parenting websites.'" (p. 37.) In other words, patients just like the author. God love modern parenting.

It's a great book. Get it for any new (or newish) mom you know, who doesn't mind a bit of swearing, off-color humor, and a good gory birth story. (Or, even if you don't get this one, consider Let's Panic about Babies!, another hilarious, truthful book about parenting.)

New York, New York.

So I missed a Helene Hanff book!

I think I had been saving Apple of My Eye, a travel guide/love letter to the city of New York, for a treat, and then just kind of forgot about it. Until this summer, when I had a Hanff mini-revival, re-reading all her books and getting Apple of My Eye. What's great about this guide to NYC is that it was written in 1978--how's that for a mind-blower? When the city was broke and seedy and down on its luck. Spoiler alert: Helene still loved her city.

But here's the weird part. Here's what I was reading one night:

"One thing about the World Trade Center: you don't need a map to find it. With our eyes on the severe twin towers jutting skyward, we steered a zigzag course through winding streets until we came to an intersection seething with traffic, across the street from it. As we waited for a green light, we looked across the street and saw, in front of the Trade Center and blocking the entrance to it, cement mixers, mounds of earth, piles of wooden boards and the rest of the construction mess out of which the Center's landscaped plaza will have emerged by the time you read this.

'You know the problem with this book?' I said to Patsy [a friend of Helene's, with whom she was exploring the city to do the research for this book]. 'I want to write about the Trade Center Plaza and I can't because it isn't there yet. I want to write about Radio City Music Hall and I'm not sure it'll still be there when the book comes out. No other city on earth has such a mania for tearing down the old to build the new--which I approve of. My theory is that since New Yorkers mostly come here from somewhere else, they have no interest in the city's past; they come with big plans for its future. And on a narrow strip of island, you can't build the future without tearing down the past first; there isn't room for both. But it's a headache when you're writing a book about it." (pp. 52-53.)

And then, as she and her friend looked out from the 107th-floor observatory, there's this:

"And suddenly, irrationally, I gloried in the highhanded, high-flying, damn-your-eyes audacity that had sent the Trade Center's twin columns rising impudently above the skyline at the moment when New York was declared to be dying, and so deep in debt it couldn't afford workers to dispose of the Center's trash, police its plaza or put out its fires." (pp. 55-56.)

So I paused and thought about that, and then I thought about the date. What are the odds that I would be reading exactly that chapter of this book at 11 p.m. on September 10? WEIRD.

Vivian Swift's "Le Road Trip: A Traveler's Journal of Love and France."

You know that thing that happens when a reader you love gives you a book they love and they want you to love it too?

Le road tripThat's happening to me right now. My favorite reader has given me Vivian Swift's illustrated travel/memoir title Le Road Trip: A Traveler's Journal to Love and France. It's a travelogue in which Swift details her honeymoon trip through France, complete with Swift's watercolors on every page. It is a beautiful book. It's a romantic book. It's a funny book. Each of these attributes is readily apparent: just look at that cover. Now imagine a book chock-full of beautiful watercolor illustrations like that, only many of them include detailed drawings of gorgeous French buildings, the countryside, and various sunsets. (You can also get a better feel for Swift's painting if you visit her excellent blog.)

The romance comes in when Swift describes her new marriage: "It was a rainy Thursday night in Manhattan during a cold Spring, and, at a fine-arts fundraiser/cocktail party, I was looking at a room full of people I didn't know. A distinguished-looking silver-haired gentleman in a tweed jacket asked me if I was alone. 'Yes,' I said.

'So am I,' he told me.

Small talk: he told me about the funeral that he'd been to that afternoon, I told him that I'd stopped off at a record shop on my way to the party to buy a Blow Monkeys CD.

Death and pop music from the 1980s are two of my favorite topics of conversation...

We were married a year later." (p. 9.)

Mercifully, she tempers the romance with her humor, as when she describes what happens when the going gets tough, in love and in travel:

"Wandering with God through the Sinai Desert, His people often grew restless and rebellious of His ever-presence. Their annoyance grew in spite of His miraculous provisions of food and amusements along the way: sweet water and a lo-cal carbohydrate called manna (from Heaven, no less), pillars of fire and cloud. They even tried to ditch him altogether in favor of a golden calf. The whole trip must have worn on God's love, too, because once they all got where they were going He's never taken His people on that kind of journey again." (p. 112.)

I read the whole thing in a couple of days, looked at some of the pictures very carefully (particularly the ones in which I loved the purple-y light of French evenings and nights), and enjoyed it all very much.

So why can't I join my favorite reader in LOVING, no holds barred, this book? I don't know. I think it's just a question of mood. I'm not in a very romantic mood currently, and this is a very romantic book. And although I often really enjoy travel books, I am not really in the mood for travel narratives right now. It's a tricky little bugger, mood. Especially as it pertains to reading.

You ever had a book that someone wanted you to LOVE, right at that moment, and you couldn't match your enthusiasm?*

*Full disclosure: I totally know I've done this to people. When I love a book I won't shut up about it. I try not to tell people they HAVE to read it, and I try not to ask people how they like books I've given them, but it's hard!

Eye candy for Anglophiles: "British Stuff: Life in Britain through 101 Everyday Objects."

So I've pretty much given myself over to just pretending I'm British. Yesterday I was writing something about colors and I almost wrote colours. Today I told a friend I had to go to the piddly diddly department.*

British stuffSo of course when I see books in the library like British Stuff: Life in Britain through 101 Everyday Objects, I have to immediately take them home and read them. I LOVED this one--beautiful photos and just enough text to impart good information while still making it a quick (and fun) read. And yes, I'm totally pathetic and prided myself on how many of these objects I already knew about. Sad that my self-confidence is tied up not with keeping a tidy home or making awesome craft projects with the CRjrs, but rather with how many British things I can identify on sight.

Here's a particularly fun entry, for the simple "Garden shed":

"A shed is usually a simple, single-storey structure in a back garden or on an allotment which is generally used for storage, for hobbies or as a workshop. Of course sheds exist all over the world, but in Britain the shed has particular cultural significance. It is where British people, especially men, retreat to, in order to 'potter,' to escape, to 'do stuff.'

It is their refuge from the rest of the world, a place where they can dismantle a motorbike without having to suffer the abuse they might otherwise earn if they carried out the same task on the kitchen table. In exceptional circumstances the shed may also be used to sleep in if their owners have locked themselves out after a night at the pub. And whilst it may still be men who most often seek refuge in their shed, increasingly women are also enjoying their own space there."

I'm totally going to build a backyard shed to be my refuge. I will go there and pretend I'm British, and I will tell Mr. CR, "I am going to my shed. Kindly do not bother me whilst I am there. I will be back in when I need to go to the piddly diddly department."

It's a great book. Do humour me and go and read it.

*Meaning the bathroom, of course--you would totally know that if you had read Louise Rennison's Georgia Nicolson books like I told you to.

Paul Madonna: Everything Is its Own Reward

Have you ever seen Paul Madonna's art?

If you haven't, you're missing out. I read and loved his first collection, All Over Coffee, a few years back, but I didn't know he'd published a new book (Everything Is Its Own Reward)** until I saw while browsing at the library.*

Finding graphic novels and art collections I enjoy is always a bit of a challenge for me. I am not a very visual person (I cannot follow instruction or direction lists that only include pictures), and I never took any art theory or history courses (which I regret), so most of the time I am very content just to stick with words. But when I find an artist I like? I really, really love them.

Madonna is a case in point. He does very simple (well, they look simple, but I am sure they are very hard to do well) line drawings of buildings, homes, and city streets in his city of San Francisco. Sometimes the pictures contain text, and sometimes they don't. But I love them all and could study them for hours.

*I still love browsing the library and bookstores. Searching or poking around online will just never be as fulfilling.

**Well, newish. It was published in 2011.

Good when you've only got a moment.

I very much enjoyed David McCandless's illustrated book The Visual Miscellaneum: A Colorful Guide to the World's Most Consequential Trivia. This surprised me a bit, as I am almost completely an UN-visual person. Looking at credit card reading machines, I can almost never figure out the correct way to run my card just be looking at the little icon. I never know what most graphic signs mean, and I'm completely stymied by pictures-only, no-text instruction sheets.

But this book is fun. It's a book of a variety of charts, pictures, and graphic illustrations of all sorts of trivia: Colors and Culture; Who Actually Runs the World; a Rock Genre-ology; Rising Sea Levels; Hangover Cures from Around the World; and so on. Perhaps my favorite chart was a list of the wives of dictators, listing their occupations, years of marriage, children, political power rating, obsessions, rumors, and reasons for death.

Still love The Oatmeal; this book, not so much.

Because I love The Oatmeal, I picked up his latest book, The Terrible and Wonderful Reasons Why I Run Long Distances.

I should have known from the title this would not be the book for me. I don't know where I heard this line, but I've used it many times: I only run if I'm the victim or perpetrator of a crime. The cartoon is still interesting, but not enough to carry the whole book, and most of the other cartoons deal with running as well.

But The Oatmeal is very generous with his cartoons on his website, so you can check them out there and decide for yourself if you want to get any of his books. This week you should totally look at "If My Dogs Were a Pair of Middle-Aged Men." I laughed and laughed.

If a book is written about hypothetical science questions...

...how long will it hold my interest before I decide, meh, that's enough of this?

The answer is: about 130 pages.

Last year I saw Randall Munroe's book What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions pop up in a lot of reviews and on a lot of "Best of" lists (go over to earlyword.com and check out their downloadable "best of nonfiction for 2014" spreadsheet--it's pretty high up on that list). And I thought, okay, I don't read enough science (or math).* Let's try it.

So I brought it home, and yeah, it is interesting. Quite interesting. And amusing, very amusing, in parts. Munroe (according to the handy-dandy book jacket) is evidently the creator of the webcomic xkcd, where people ask him absurd hypothetical questions and he answers them, to the best of his ability. Here's one:

"Is it possible to build a jetpack using downward-firing machine guns?"

And here's part of the answer:

"I was sort of surprised to find that the answer was yes!  But to really do it right, you'll want to talk to the Russians.

The principle here is pretty simple. If you fire a bullet forward, the recoil pushes you back. So if you fire downward, the recoil should push you up.

The first question we have to answer is 'can a gun even lift its own weight?' If a machine gun weighs ten pounds but produces only 8 pounds of recoil when firing, it won't be able to lift itself off the ground, let alone lift itself plus a person...

Despite growing up in the South, I'm not really a firearms expert, so to help answer this question, I got in touch with an acquaintance in Texas." And then there's a note, and the note at the bottom of the page says this:

"Judging by the amount of ammunition they had lying around their house ready to measure and weigh for me, Texas has apparently become some kind of Mad Max-esque post-apocalyptic war zone." (p. 68.)

Now that's witty. And some of the questions and answers, like "If every human somehow simply disappeared from the face of the Earth, how long would it be before the last artificial light source would go out?" are downright fascinating. So yeah, it was kind of fun. But at some point I do weary of reading what basically boils down to science factoids, even if they are written well. And because they are all hypotheticals, well, I did catch myself thinking, good lord, only a guy would have this much time and energy to expend on fantastical science hypotheticals.** But that was not a very charitable thought.

I really enjoyed the 130 pages I read, but I'm taking it back to the library with another 170 pages untouched. For my money, I still like a good old-fashioned terrifying biological read, like Carl Zimmer's Parasite Rex or David Quammen's Spillover.

*Mainly because I never understood most of the science classes I took, and I wasn't all that interested (which was most likely the biggest part of the problem).

**I'm also currently reading Rebecca Solnit's Men Explain Things To Me, which, at least while I'm reading it, is making me a bit frustrated with the male gender.

Amber Dusick's Parenting: Illustrated with Crappy Pictures

Oh, I really enjoyed Amber Dusick's book Parenting: Illustrated with Crappy Pictures.

The book delivers exactly what it promises.* Dusick dishes on parenting two small boys, and accompanies her stories with stick-figure drawings of her anecdotes. I laughed my way through it one night in about an hour, and when Mr. CR asked what I was laughing at, I handed it off to him, and then he laughed through it too. Mr. CR has a charming but elusive giggle, rarely spotted in captivity, and I was touched that he laughed at many of the same things in this book that I did.

He even laughed at my favorite chapter, which didn't have as much to do with parenting as it did with marriage. One of the obligatory stories in Dusick's book is about how the entire family got the (throwing-up) flu, starting with the kids, moving to Mom, and finishing up with Dad, who gets his flu on the weekend, and gets to spend his time alone in bed (whereas Mom spent her sick time during the week, caring for the kids). So this is what transpires: "I tell him matter-of-factly that he is not dying. He just had the flu.

The same flu, I remind him, that I had while taking care of the kids all week.

This is where he is supposed to have an epiphany of how amazing I am and what a hard week it has been for me and why I'm ever-so-slightly annoyed and jealous that he has been in bed for two days.

Only he doesn't. Instead he says something that is so completely the opposite of what I was expecting that I'm stunned.

[and this bit is is cartoon form] I must have a stronger, mutated version of the virus." (p. 122.)

Tee hee. Good stuff, this.

*And you've got to love a woman who says this, straight up: "I hate well-child doctor visits. Especially once I started noticing that my kids would get sick approximately forty-eight hours after their well-child visits. Every. Damn. Time." (p. 98.)

Humans of New York

Humans of New York
by Brandon Stanton

Here is a book I love: Humans of New York. The photography is beautiful, the blurbs given about the people in the photographs (quotes from the people pictured, sometimes) short, and perfect.

Don't just visit the website; it's not the same experience. (The website has too much going on for me to follow, and the blurbs are all longer.) Look at the book, slowly. It reminded me it had been way too long since I've enjoyed a book of photography.

That is all.

Dinner: A Love Story (skinny review)

Well, CR3 is nicely settling in to the family's routine (or are we settling into his?), leaving me just a bit more time for reading. However, I am still struggling to find the time to blog, and the books are getting ahead of me just a bit. So I thought this week I would run some "skinny" reviews--like sub sandwiches at our local Milio's shops, where you can buy just the meat and bread in a "skinny" sandwich--these reviews will have just the basics, folks.

Dinner: A Love Story: It All Begins at the Family Table, by Jenny Rosenstrach

What's it all about, briefly?: This book started as a blog, in which Rosenstrach, a publishing professional, posted about her family's nightly dinners (all of which she tracked in a notebook for years). The book covers the years when she was first married, had small children, lost her job, and other life changes.

Representative Quote: In her section on how non-cooking spouses and partners can support the cook: "#5. Take control of the heart sinkers. By this I mean, take care of all the things in the kitchen that routinely make the Cook's heart sink: discovering the dishes in the dishwasher are clean but unloaded, realizing just as you sit down to dinner that no one has anything to drink or that the soy sauce/ketchup/napkins are not on the table." (p. 108.)

The Skinny: An okay read, but the recipes aren't super practical unless you can stop by the big-city grocery or organic co-op on the way home. Beautiful photographs, though.

March Memoir Madness: Once Upon a Flock

For a long while, I read a ton of memoirs each month.

And then, well, I overdosed on memoirs. Too many were leaving me unsatisfied or just plain uninterested, so I stopped reading them for a while. Just lately, however, I've been finding my way back to a few of them. One that I was able to read very quickly was Lauren Scheuer's lightweight but still very enjoyable title Once Upon a Flock: Life with My Soulful Chickens.

This is another book that I think I found while reading about the New Domesticity, and the current hot hobby of keeping chickens in one's yard.* Mercifully, this wasn't any sort of "back to the land," "gonna grow all my own food" type memoir. I really hate most of those.** This was just a nice story of how one woman faced her coming empty nest (her daughter Sarah was a teenager and wasn't around their home or yard as much) by getting a few new tenants, namely actual chickens, in the nest and coop that she wanted to build for them.

What follows is a very nice, actually borderline touching story of how much the author got to know and love her chickens. It includes numerous illustrations and pictures, and along the way you'll actually learn a little something about chickens as animals (like how eggs are actually produced). And this:

"All birds molt. It's a natural occurrence. Feathers are astoundingly durable, but they do require replacement from time to time. All chickens have their own molting style. Some drop a feather here and there, and it's hardly noticeable. Other hens opt for the speed molt. One day they look voluptuous, and the next day the coop looks like a chicken exploded, feathers absolutely everywhere, and a nearly naked hen cowering in the corner." (p. 176.)

I wish I could show you the picture that goes with that quote; it's pretty cute. And that really sums up the whole book. Not an earth-shatteringly great read, but actually pretty cute. It was a nice fresh read while the winter of 2013-14 just drags on and on and on.

*A few years back when I went to the eye doctor, out of nowhere, she said, "Did you grow up on a farm?" I said, yes, how did you know that? She asked if I'd ever been around chickens, or played near their coop, and I said yes, I did play in an empty building that had been a chicken coop. That's when she explained she saw some scarring on one of my eyes that was the result of being infected by some sort of chicken parasite at some point in my youth. Had I had the scarring in a different place, I would have been blind in that eye. So: no one around here is ever keeping chickens in her yard, thank you very much.

**Having grown up on a farm, and never wanting to go back to a farm, these gung-ho earthy memoirs tend to leave me cold. Do you know how many hours farmers (and other "back to the landers") work? ALL THE TIME. 24/7. Me? I'm not all that fond of working 8/5, to tell you the truth. So, for the most part, you won't catch me reading "I just want to farm and grow my own food and get my hands in dirt" memoirs by choice.

I can't even think of a title for this post.

Really. This is how braindead I've become. I was going to leave it blank and see if I came up with a title after I wrote this review, but I've got to mosey on to bed, so it's going to stay the way it is.

Yes, I know, it's getting even more casual than usual here at Citizen Reader. What can I say? Put on your pyjamas and join the party.

A couple of weeks ago a friend sent me the URL to a website called 27bslash6.com, because she is my go-to friend for funny things on the Internet (and she has impeccable taste--she sent me a post from Drew Magary without even knowing how much I love Drew Magary). I can't say I found the website all that hilarious, but that's mainly because after doing freelance work online I get rather sick of reading on the computer and only looked at it for about thirty-nine seconds. I did see that the author of the website, David Thorne, had a new book out, so I just requested that from the library instead.

The book is titled I'll Go Home Then, It's Warm and Has Chairs. the Unpublished Emails, and has a lovely picture on the front of a kitty cat in a flight suit, holding a snowboard.* And that image nicely sums up what I thought of the book: a third of the stuff in the book made me laugh so hard I actually hurt my throat a little bit (although with our continued subzero temps and dry air, my throat's already a bit tender), a third of it I didn't really understand, and the final third made me really, really glad I don't know, work with, or live near David Thorne.

For the most part, the truly hilarious parts of this book are parts of larger vignettes that are too long to quote. But here's a little flavor of some truly laugh-worthy stuff: "The four seasons in Australia [where Thorne is from] consist of 'fuck it's hot,' 'Can you believe how fucking hot it is?' 'I won't be in today because it is too fucking hot' and 'Yes, the dinner plate size spiders come inside to escape from the heat.'" (p. 23.)

The book also includes photoshopped pictures, some of which include cats wearing 3D classes. This is CRjr's favorite part of the book; the other day he picked it up and said, "Where are the kitty pictures?", so I flipped to a page with some kitty pictures. Not the right ones, though--CRjr threw the book back at me and said, "The kitties with the funny glasses." At 3 and a half, already a discerning customer of humor, I couldn't be more proud.

All in all the funny outweighed the not-so-funny and somewhat-discomfiting (as in when he makes life a living hell for his co-workers, neighbors, salespeople, and generally anyone else who annoys him). Give it a try.

*Sometimes it really is as simple as kitty in a funny outfit=funny.

This is where you want to start with Vivian Maier.

Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows
by Richard Cahan and Michael Williams

A while back I posted about a fantastic photography collection by a photographer not known or appreciated while she was alive: Vivian Maier.

I said at that time I wanted to see her other book, Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows. It finally came in for me at the library, and over the past few weeks I've spent some time looking it over. The photographs are gorgeous (I still love the ones of people looking directly at her the most), but what I particularly appreciated in this volume was getting some more of the background on Vivian. I wish I'd seen this book first; but it's okay. Her photography stands on its own merit, even without knowing anything about her. But I did appreciate learning a bit more of her background, which the editors of this collection went to great lengths to provide:

"To better understand Maier, we tracked down everyone we could find--from the suburbs of Chicago to the slopes of the French Alps, where she grew up. We talked to old acquaintances in the beautiful French valley of Champsaur who knew her as a schoolgirl, contacted those for whom she worked on Long Island during the 1950s, and interviewed people who knew her in Chicago. Their portraits of Maier are remarkably similar. She was a tough woman engrossed in photography, cinema (everything from classics to B movies), books (mostly biographies and autobiographies), and politics (liberal and feminist). She cared deeply about the poor and oppressed (Native Americans and African Americans, in particular) and showed little interest in the material world." (p. 19.)

It's a gorgeous book, well worth a look. And it makes me want to revisit some other photography book favorites of mine: Hubert's Freaks: The Rare-Book Dealer, the Times Square Talker, and the Lost Photos of Diane Arbus, and The Oxford Project.

A photography book to consider.

It had been a long time since I brought home any big photography books or collections from the library. Partially this was because we've been taking the little umbrella stroller for CRjr, or just walking to the library with our library bag, and photography books are heavy to lug around. But mostly it was because I'm not very good at tracking down neat photography books through serendipity (which is really how I find most of my reading).

So a while back RickLibrarian came to my rescue again but suggesting a book by a street photographer named Vivian Maier. I got the book (one of two collections that has been published; I'm still hoping to check out the other one), titled simply Vivian Maier: Street Photographer, and found it really beautiful.

LadiesIt's a collection of street photographs that Maier took in Chicago and New York City in the 1950s and 1960s. The photographs are gorgeous--I particularly liked the ones where people are looking directly at her camera--but what's really intriguing is the woman behind the camera. Evidently she worked as a nanny for forty years, and spent most of her time off taking photographs, but she never showed them to anyone. It was not until after she died, in 2009, that her boxes of negatives and her talent were "discovered."

It was just the right sort of book to page through and simply enjoy at night, when I was too tired to read and didn't want to watch TV. I wish the pictures had come with more explanation, but I suppose that Maier didn't leave much in the way of descriptions, and perhaps it would have been too hard to pinpoint the locations pictured in the photographs fifty years later. Perhaps that was just as well. Perhaps it was best just to let the pictures speak for themselves.

Who doesn't enjoy Dame Agatha Christie?

No one, that's who.

Recently I plowed through the travel diary The Grand Tour: Around the World with the Queen of Mystery, in which Christie's grandson Matthew Prichard has gathered together her travel diary entries, letters, photographs, and snippets from her autobiography in order to re-create her 1922 world tour. Then a mother of a young toddler (Rosalind, who stayed home with Christie's mother), Christie and her first husband, Archie Christie, were invited to "join a trade mission to promote the British Empire Exhibition."

Even after reading the book, I'm not really sure what the deal was with the British Empire Exhibition. Don't you just love the early twentieth century? Trade missions! Empire Exhibitions! World's Fairs! Sure they didn't yet have antibiotics, but it sure seemed like people in those times knew how to enjoy themselves.

Anyhoo, the long and short of the matter is that Agatha got to accompany her husband on an around-the-world tour to various locations in the British Empire (South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada among them, with time for a side trip vacation to Hawaii), along with various other British dignitary/bureacrat types, in order to finish planning for the British Empire Exhibition. And the lively accounts she gives of her travels, both in her letters and in her autobiography, should not disappoint fans of Christie's mysteries. In fact, particularly while in Africa, you can see how she was already honing her descriptive style of her surroundings, which is a facet of her mysteries I think I always underestimated. And the chapter on Hawaii, when she's obsessed with surfing? Awesome:

"First you have to recognize the proper wave when it comes, and secondly, even more important, you have to know the wrong wave when it comes, because if that catches you and forces you down to the bottom. Heaven help you!" (p. 266.)

Of course she goes on to describe how she once caught the wrong wave. Scrappy gal.

The pictures of Christie herself are a lot of fun, particularly in her surfing get-ups, but most of the other snapshots are of people (mostly other bureaucrats and ex-pats) she met along the way, and are not that exciting. It's a fun book, if you're looking for something a little different in the travel line. (And if you're looking for something a little different in the review line, consider RickLibrarian's.)

Almost makes you smell the pool.

Yes, I'm still (slowly) making my way through some books that were considered 2012's best. I continue to be a bit underwhelmed.

Swimming Studies
by Leanne Shapton

The latest such title I brought home was Leanne Shapton's Swimming Studies. Other than it appearing on a lot of the year's best lists, I can honestly say I probably wouldn't have looked at it otherwise--I hate swimming and always have. I learned, a bit, when I was little, but I never did learn to tread water and I never really did get used to the sensation of being in a pool. I forget where I was or if it was during lessons or what, but I clearly remember once trying to do the crawl the length of the pool, and no matter how far to the side I turned my head, I kept getting water in my mouth when I was trying to breathe. And I thought, this is stupid. Why I am making it harder to breathe? I don't think I've been in a pool willingly since.*

Anyway. This is a memoir of sorts, of the time Shapton spent swimming, training, and competing in swim tournaments in her youth and throughout her adulthood, even participating in the Canadian Olympic trials (and finishing respectably, although she did not make the Olympics cut). Interspersed throughout the chapters are samples of Shapton's art--including a series of "swimming studies" paintings; a couple of pages of what looks like paint splotches, which correspond to certain smells; and photos of swimming suits she's owned and for what purposes she's used them. If you like your nonfiction a bit eclectic, and you enjoy highly descriptive writing (and the idea of pools doesn't make you throw up) you might actually enjoy this. To her credit, the fact that she could make me remember how pools smelled and felt, really viscerally, says good things about the power of her writing:

"Here is what it sounds like to lane three at the wall: A low thump as her hands hit the touchpad. Brief cheering at an intake of breath, collapsing into bubbles as her head, aligned and steady, dips back and under again at the turn. This is followed immediately by quiet. There is a rippling during the long stroke of her underwater pullout, a tight, thin sigh of effort, a gruff exhalation of air, a grunt at the dolphin kick." (p. 33.)

Shapton is also the author of the humor book Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry, which I read seemingly a million years ago and wasn't all that fond of. Although she seems like a very nice person (and she's Canadian--my favorite!), Shapton always leaves me feeling that I am not quite smart enough or artistic enough for her. Actually, I'm sure that's true. And it's okay.

In other review news: Mr. CR hated the cover. Mr. CR's been starting to talk up a bit lately with his nonfiction opinions, and I must say it's been lovely to hear them. Even if it's just on the cover art.

*My goddamn high school installed a pool LITERALLY the last year I had to take a gym class. I refused to get in and told my gym teacher I had my period for the four week duration of the unit. By the third week she said, "You do not." And I said, "Are you going to check?" And that was the end of that. I got an F for the unit but it was so, SO worth it. Stupid phys ed.

I got sucked in anyway.

For the most part I managed to sidestep "Downton Abbey Fever," which has seemed widespread this past year.

I watched the first episode, and bits of subsequent episodes, but I could never really find the energy to dedicate subsequent Sunday nights to it.* (I prefer my Masterpiece Theatre viewing in one- and two-episode chunks, I find.) I also got a bit bored with it because its popularity has been a big and continuing story, and one that I linked to frequently whenever I blogged for the (aimed at librarians and readers' advisors) Reader's Advisor Online Blog.

DowntonBut of course I couldn't help myself when I saw that a companion guide, The World of Downton Abbey, had been written by Jessica Fellowes. It truly is a companion guide, hewing closely to the storylines of the program and referring to the characters as though they were real people. It does include beautiful photographs, and the chapters cover the topics of family life, society, change, life in service, style, house and estate, romance, war, and behind the scenes.

Although I'd hoped to find more historical information and context, the little there was was quite interesting. Consider this tidbit:

"While bells are now seen as a symbol of servitude, at the time the bell-boards came in, around the 1820s, they were hailed as an absolute liberation. Up until that point, the footmen had to sit on hard wooden chairs within earshot of the family--usually in the hall. They would get a message...find the maid, and then go back to their chair." (p. 20.)

Of course I read the whole thing. It was like candy; I just couldn't stop. It also gave me more of an urge to watch the series, but I'll have to find a whole lot more time to devote to it than I have now.

*Plus I found the main heroine, Mary, to be the most obnoxious leading lady ever, and her romantic interest, played by Dan Stevens, doesn't do anything for me character- or looks-wise. As Mr. CR would say, he's no Mr. Darcy. (The joke on Mr. CR is that Mr. Wentworth and Mr. Tilney both beat out Darcy as my favorite Austen men. Don't tell him--he thinks his "Oh Mr. Darcy..." shtick is very clever.)

George Harrison and a blog recommendation.

HarrisonTo make up for my earlier months of not finding much good nonfiction to read, I have been having a spectacular month so far on nonfiction books. And a lot of that luck is not luck at all--it comes from checking RickLibrarian's blog on a regular basis. Rick Roche is a librarian and the author of a fabulous reading guide about biographies, and just an all-around great guy who I was lucky enough to meet at several library conferences and at his home library. Recently he posted about a biography in photographs--Olivia Harrison's George Harrison: Living in the Material World, and his review made me decide I had to see the book.

I'm so glad I did. Although I have always enjoyed the Beatles, I don't know much about them individually. In this collection, quotes from George Harrison and others who knew him are interspersed with a variety of gorgeous photographs illustrating his life, from showing buildings in his native Liverpool bombed during WWII (he was born in 1943), pages out of his school notebooks, photos from the Beatles' early playing days and travels, and photos from his later travels to India and throughout the world in search of spiritual peace and new experiences. It seems, on balance, that he was a totally fascinating guy. I can't quote from the book for you as I couldn't wait to pass it on to my brother, but it was inspiring to read how much he loved guitars and music from an early age. And just think--being a Beatle at age 17. CRAZY stuff. A wonderful story, great quotes, gorgeous photographs (many taken by George himself), I can't recommend this book highly enough. And I would never have found it without Rick's great blog!