A Magical (and Scientific) Blend of Word and Image

Professor Astro Cat’s Frontiers of Space, by Dr. Dominic Walliman and Ben Newman, (Flying Eye Books), 64 pages, originally released in 2013

Flying Eye Books is an international publishing company, an offshoot of Nobrow Publishers. Nobrow publishes some remarkable graphic novels and non-fiction (I’ll be reviewing several of these in the next month or so). Flying Eye seeks “to retain the same attention to detail in design and excellence in illustrated content as its parent publisher, but with a focus on the craft of Children’s storytelling and non-fiction.”

Normally as a reader, whether of adult or children’s books, I’m focused on story. A good cover might capture my interest momentarily, but it’s story that makes me stick with a book, that makes me love it. Nobrow/Flying Eye are making me rethink my criteria. Yes, story is crucial—but there are books where the visual magic is as significant as the magic of the writing, books that marry image and word in ways that create something neither form could achieve by itself.

Professor Astro Cat’s Frontiers of Space is just such a book. Created by a PhD in Quantum Device Physics (Dr. Dominic Walliman) and an award-winning illustrator and comic book creator (Ben Newman), the book combines scientific rigor (on a level appropriate for younger readers) with delightful imagery. Every page offers a wealth of details. The written text includes compilations of facts, astronomical history, longer descriptive passages, and small asides. The illustrations are busy in the best way: clearly connected to the text, but with all sorts of small flourishes and surprises built in.

This is the kind of book that a grade-school age budding scientist can spend hours with. I wish I’d had a book like this when I was younger, but even now, when I’m well into my fifties, I’m absolutely captivated by it. I want to leaf through it again and again; I want to pore over every page. This is a perfect book for gift-giving and for opening up the universe (literally, the universe) for younger readers.



Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation, by Bill Nye, (St. Martin’s Press), 320 pages, released November 4, 2014

Back on February 4 of last year Bill Nye (the Science Guy) debated Ken Ham founder of the Creation Museum of Kentucky (which I am not going to grace with a link)—if debate is the right word when a system based on developing and testing hypotheses is put up against a system based on faith (and an over-reliance on a text whose original form is buried under centuries of rewrites and later inventions). That’s where Undeniable had its origins.

If you’ve been looking for (or even if you haven’t) a clear, thorough laying out of evolutionary science, Bill Nye is your guy. Her knows his material. He also has a delightfully colloquial voice that makes difficult concepts accessible for the everyday reader. Take, for instance, his description of the fossil record:

The fossil record isn’t a tidy, clean recording. No one went to a studio and methodically laid down some tracks, the way a rock and roll band records an album. The evidence imbedded in the Earth’s rocks is more like the work of a band that recorded with a faulty microphone and then accidentally recorded over most of the tracks. On top of that, when they were finished, they lost almost all of the final versions.

Nothing Nye’s writing is really new, though it’s certainly up-to-date. What makes it so interesting is the way he can bring his material to life and help even those already familiar with it to see it in fresh, new ways. This is a book that will delight both adults and younger readers, that addresses both without talking down (or up) to either group.

Re-Meeting an Icon

The Radical King, by Martin Luther King, Jr., edited and introduced by Cornel West, (Beacon Press), 320 pages, release date 13 January, 2015

Let me just say off the top that The Radical King is a book that belongs on the shelves of anyone with an interest in politics, recent history, social movements, or faith. King is a well-know figure, but the public perception of his life is sadly incomplete. The King we hear about most often is gentle and all-forgiving, concerned exclusively with issues of race.

The real King was a very different man, indeed. One of the 20th Century’s great “what ifs” is “what would have happened if King hadn’t been assassinated?” At the time of his death, his view had broadened to a focus on economic justice. He’d come out as opposed to the war in Viet Nam because of the way existing economic and political structures resulted in its being fought primarily by the poor and by people of color.

He’d worked on racial justice, not just in the south, but also in the midwest—and had found the midwestern struggle even harder than the southern one in many ways. Because inequality was so firmly encoded in southern law, it was easy to make it visible to the nation. Jim Crow, separate white and colored facilities, segregated schools—all these were undeniable markers of a systematic injustice.

In 1966, Martin Luther King, Jr., (and the thousands of committed individuals who worked with him) launched the Chicago Freedom Movement, focused primarily on ending housing segregation in that city. That campaign was one of the least successful of King’s career. A primary cause of this failure was that while much of Chicago was as segregated as the deep south, that segregation wasn’t encoded in law. And because it was de facto, rather than de jure, it was much harder to galvanize the conscience of the nation. The south had its Bull Connors, who embodied the worst of racism before television cameras. Chicago didn’t have an obvious Bull Connor equivalent.

The problems posed by the war in Viet Nam and by Chicago led King to his growing militantism. King never considered abandoning his commitment to nonviolent civil disobedience, but he did start taking stances that alienated him from former allies, most notably the Johnson White House.

It’s this later King that The Radical King allows us to reclaim. The pieces West has chosen to include go back to the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement—but they also move forward to the later King who is less well remembered.

What I most prized about this collection is the pleasure of sinking into King’s reasoning. King was a figure of faith, but he was also a figure of reason, and he can “think on the page” like few others. To watch him sifting faith through the sieve of reason and reason through the sieve of faith is inspiring—whether or not one shares King’s religious beliefs.

The one thing I would have like more of in this collection is West’s commentary. His introductions to the pieces are brief. I assume that’s because he wants readers to focus on King’s words, not his own later interpretations. However, given West’s remarkable breadth of knowledge and (as with King) his balance of faith and reason, I felt as if this was an opportunity missed. We need to read and understand King in his own right, but we could also benefit from West’s insights.


Tragedy Writ Small and Large

The Jaguar’s Children, by John Vaillant, (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), 288 pages, release date January 27, 2015

John Vaillant’s The Jaguar’s Children is an essential, remarkable read. This is a novel about migration, cultural loss (and retention), and the impact of big agriculture and its use of genetic engineering.

The narrator has traveled from Oaxaca to the U.S. border. He and another dozen or so hopeful immigrants have paid to be welded into an empty water truck to travel across the border. The remaining opening in the tank is a hole small enough to pump out the water (if there were any), but much too small for a person to pass through. Who would expect a tanker without access to be carrying a human cargo?

Disaster hits when the truck breaks down just north of the border. The two coyotes driving it abandon their human cargo—but only after demanding additional money, which they claim will be used to pay a mechanic. There is no mechanic; there is no exit. During the desert days the walls of the tank become too hot to touch; during the nights temperatures plummet.

If this sounds like a bleak situation, it is—bleak and all too real. The last few years have seen death rates for migrants ranging from 477 in 2012 to 307 in 2014 (according to AP reports).

The immigrants’ phones have little reception and are losing power. The narrator, Tito, is unable to telephone out and records his life story in a series of audio and text messages he is unable to send. Tito describes the miserable conditions in the tanker. He shares many of the stories his grandfather told—of the old ways in Oaxaca and his work on a series of archaeological digs in the years before World War II.  He also tells a tale of the impending crisis facing small farmers in Oaxaca as genetically modified corn strains contaminate the local crops.

Vaillant succeeds in weaving these different narratives together to create a novel that is both disturbing and beautiful. He avoids polemic; he avoids discontinuity; and, remarkably, he avoids bathos. This is a book that compels readers both because of and despite the sense of menace hanging over it. The Jaguar’s Children deserves to be widely read both for its success as a novel and for the issues it raises.

A Mystery Overshadowed by Romance

Shadow of the Raven: A Doctor Thomas Silkstone Mystery, by Tessa Harris, (Kensignton), 304 pages, release date January 27, 2015

Shadow of the Raven has the makings of a good mystery. The central character, Thomas Silkstone, is an American living in England at the close of the American revolution. He is a doctor with training in pathology, one who is treated with suspicion by most of those around him because he is a colonist. This offers all sorts of possibilities in depicting both the medicine and the politics of the period. Unfortunately, Shadow of the Raven reads more like a historical romance than a historical mystery and suffers as a result.

This fifth book in the Thomas Silkstone series is as much about the relationship between Silkstone and his beloved Lady Lydia as it is a mystery novel. One of the mysteries here is the fate of Lydia, who has been consigned to a madhouse by her wicked, unknown-until-recently father (Lydia’s mother had an on-going affair with the man) who has forged Silkstone’s signature on the committal documents and who intends to enclose the lands of Lydia’s estate—something she would surely refuse to allow under normal circumstances. (You can see why the book reads as historical romance.)

There’s a lot of back story packed into the first part of this novel, which explains the Thomas-Lydia relationship, but also interrupts the narrative flow. Readers are told “how ordered and logical [Thomas’] life had been up until the day Lydia has walked into his laboratory. She had pleaded for his help to uncover how her brother, Edward, the sixth Earl Crick, had died, and [Thomas] had found himself incapable of resisting her entreaties.” Silkstone tries repeatedly to contact Lydia in the madhouse, but “there seemed no logical way of dealing with these Machiavellian charlatans who had so blighted his beloved Lydia’s life and, therefore, his own.”

The second mystery of the novel is the more interesting one: a surveyor hired to facilitate the enclosure is murdered, presumably by one of the villagers who will lose his livelihood once the estate is enclosed. Here we see the impact of enclosure on rural villagers and also the justice system of the time, which acts with swiftness and, often, brutality—and which serves as a form of public entertainment.

The second mystery is resolved shortly before the end of the novel, while the Thomas-Lydia relationship provides a cliff-hanger ending, which again emphasizes romance over mystery. So, if you enjoy romance, you’ll probably find this  novel a good read, but for those of us who prefer a more complex mystery, this book may prove satisfactory, but not more.

A Good Food Day, Indeed

A Good Food Day: Reboot Your Health with Food that Tastes Great, by Marco Canora with Tammy Walker, foreword by Tim Ferriss, (Clarkson Potter), 272 pages, release date 30 December 2014

Marco Canora’s A Good Food Day is a great book for anyone hoping to establish healthier—and more delicious—eating habits in 2015. A long-time chef, Canora had to rethink his eating practices after being diagnosed with type two diabetes. His kind of good food day is one that works well, not just for diabetics, but for people looking to add plant-based foods to their diets. There is a “Fish” chapter and a “Meat and Poultry” chapter, but my favorites were “Salads,” “Vegetables,” “Beans and Lentils,” and “Great Grains.”

These dishes have enough going on to make them interesting without demanding unreasonable prep and cooking time. We recently had Roasted Carrots with Millet and Mint-Pistachio Pesto for dinner (we often cook vegetable sides for four, then split them between the two of us as a full meal). The millet is toasted, which adds both flavor and texture. The mint-pistachio pesto is worth working up on its own, as well as using as part of this dish. If you don’t have millet, try wild or brown rice instead.

Tonight’s dinner was Spinach Salad with Roasted Fennel, Oil-Cured Olives, and Grapefruit. The roasted fennel is mixed warm into the rest of the ingredients, so the dish provides a variety of temperatures, as well as varieties of flavors and textures. As a general rule, I am not a subtle cook, so if I prepared this dish again, I might well double the amounts of fennel and grapefruit to push the flavor contrasts a bit more—but the fact that I’m thinking about variations doesn’t mean we were unsatisfied with the original recipe. It was a delight!

The one drawback to this book (at least from my perspective as one of Canora’s fellow type two diabetics) is that it doesn’t provide nutritional information for each dish. These are definitely healthy dishes, but I would like to know the crabs-to-protein ratios, if only to see which dishes I might pair up together.

If you’re trying to improve your eating habits in 2015, this is definitely a book you’ll want to check out.

A Moroccan Noir

Street of Thieves, by Matias Énard, translated by Charlotte Mandel, (Open Letter), 350 pages, released November 11, 2014

Street of Thieves is an interesting novel—originally published in French and set in Morocco and Spain. Lakhdar, the central character, is a young man cast out by his family, managing in one way or another to keep himself alive on the fringes of society.

The arc of this novel is subtle. Yes, there’s a central action, but for the most part the reader wanders along with Lakhdar, settling in one temporary home after another. Lakhdar is a reader of French noires, a believing, but uneven Muslim, who prays, but also drinks beer and roams the local bars in Tangier with fantasies of picking up European tourists.

The action of this novel plays out against the background of the Arab Spring and Europe’s Occupy Movement. This is one of the novel’s real strengths, as it offer readers opportunities to view these events from multiple perspectives. Readers see parallels between the two movements; there are also parallels between the noir literature Lakhdar reads and his own situation.

I don’t want to say more about the plot. This is a book worth reading and worth coming to without too much prior knowledge. While Lakhdar initially seems aimless, readers ultimately come to understand the trajectory of Lakhdar’s life as they work their way through the book.

Street of Thieves is published by Open Letter, a literary translation press located at the University of Rochester. Open Letter describes itself as “search[ing] for works that are extraordinary and influential that… will become the classics of tomorrow. Making world literature available in English is crucial to opening our cultural borders, and its availability plays a role in maintaining a healthy and vibrant book culture.” Street of Thieves certainly contributes to these goals.

Note: I received an electronic copy of this book for review purposes.

Another Title for the “Best of 2015”: A Novel About Intersexed Identity

Alex as Well, Alyssa Brugman, (Henry Holt & Co.), 224 pages, released January 20, 2015

I am going to step out on a limb and say that Alyssa Brugman’s Alex as Well is going to be on my “ten best of 2015” list. Yes, there’s an awful lot of 2015 left to go, but this book is a marvel: original, funny, infuriating, hopeful, intelligent.

Alex, the title character, was born intersexed and raised male, but she’s come to realize that she’s a she. That doesn’t mean the male Alex she’s lived as has disappeared—just that the female Alex feels more truthful.

The book opens five days after Alex has decided to stop taking her medication. She’s hanging out at a mall, the Clinique-counter girl asks Alex if she wants a makeover, and Alex tells us “I hesitate, because five days ago I would have thrust my hands in my pockets and scooted out of there. Instead, I steal across the floor and into the seat she has spun around for me.”

Soon after, Alex looks into a mirror; she sees both of her selves and they see her: “He [the male Alex] looks at me and sees a hot chick—a smooth Clinique girl. I [the female Alex] look at him and see a chimpanzee tugging on his little noodle.” Her two selves know each other well.

Most of the book is narrated by Alex, but interspersed with Alex’s chapters are her mother’s posts on a chat forum for mothers. She is not at all happy to find herself with a daughter and makes this clear to Alex, as well as to her chat forum-mates. Alex describes her mother in mid-rant: “My mother is screeching. Her face is all purple, her eyes are bulging, and there is a vein in her forehead, like the one Julia Roberts gets, but it doesn’t make my mother vulnerable and endearing, no, she looks like she’s having a forehead hernia.”

That description gives you a sense of the sort of person Alex is: exceptionally perceptive, exceptionally smart, and with a fatalistic sense of humor that helps see her through the hard times—of which there are plenty.

I don’t want to say much about the plot because this is one of those cases where the reader wants to travel along with the narrator, encountering challenges and successes at the same time she does. Suffice it to say, things are not perfect, but Alex’s sense that she’s finally following the path that’s right for her gives her the strength to keep going.

If you know anyone in the fourteen-to-twenty (give or take) age range who’s frustrated by the limitations of traditional gender roles, this book would make the perfect gift. You don’t have to be intersexed to appreciate Alex; you just need to know that the world is a whole lot more complicated than our cultural dichotomies would have us believe. And regardless of your own age range, check this book out. Really, it’s one of 2015’s best.

A Darkly Comic Novel about Writers

The Rabbit Back Literature Society, by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen, translated by Lola M. Rogers, (Thomas Dunne Books), 352 pages, release date January 20, 2015

The Rabbit Back Literature Society is one of those books that breaks the boundaries of genre in a delightful way. It’s a mix of literary novel, mystery, and dark comedy, with a substantial dose of magical realism thrown in as well.

Set in the small Finnish town of Rabbit Back, the novel focuses on a group of nine writers, the literature society of the title, who were hand-chosen as children to join a writer’s workshop run by a famous Finnish author, Laura White. Decades later, White disappears in an indoor snow storm—one of the bits of magical realism—as a tenth member is about to be added to the society.

This tenth member of the society is Ella Amanda Milana—an aspiring literary scholar currently working as a substitute teacher in her hometown of Rabbit Back. Once White disappears, Milana becomes obsessed with uncovering the carefully hidden history of the society. At first, she hopes to be able to use her findings as a doctoral dissertation, but the situation becomes increasingly complex as she meets the other society members. What happened to the first tenth member of the society? Why are the society members so careful to avoid one another? What demands did Laura White place upon the children she was mentoring? Why (and how) are literary classics in the Rabbit Back library rewriting themselves as they wait upon shelves?

Discovering the answers to these and other questions takes the reader on a dark, but oddly delightful, journey that explores the nature of writers—observers eager to gather pieces of others’ lives that they can reshape into their own stories. Give yourself the pleasure of reading this novel, both for its unexpectedness and its depth.

Finding Family on the Road

Mobile Library: A Novel, by David Whitehouse, (Scribner), 272 pages, release date January 20, 2015

David Whitehouse’s Mobile Library is a hard book to categorize—both painful and funny, absurd and wise.

Young Bobby has become an archivist of his own home and life, compulsively recording every minor event and fact so he can share them with his mother, who has disappeared, but who he’s sure will return. Bullied at school and ignored (at best) by his father, Bobby builds his own family among people he meets who share, each in her or his own way, his sense of isolation.

There’s Sunny, who is determined to become a cyborg in order to protect his friend—breaking one bone at a time, so that they can be repaired with steel plates. There’s Rosa, who is developmentally disabled and who has a fascination with names, and her mother Val. When Sunny disappears and Bobby’s father grows violent, the remaining three—Bobby, Rosa, and Val—take to the road in a mobile library.

I’d expected this book to be a lighter read than it is. In fact, it is at times distressing. Nonetheless, the characters compel the reader to keep going—and the solution, though unexpected, is quite satisfactory.