Thursday, March 28, 2013

Review: The Hypo - The Melancholic Young Lincoln, by Noah Van Sciver

We're so used to seeing Lincoln portrayed as a magisterial president, that we (or at least I) have trouble thinking about him as a person in development, as a youth struggling, as all youth must, to discover who he is. In The Hypo: The Melancholic Young Lincoln, Noah Van Sciver gives us a fine portrait of that Lincoln-in-process by focusing on his private, internal struggles. "The Hypo" (Lincoln's term for his sometimes crippling depression) debilitates him, causing doubt and fear to sometimes rule his life. It's a portrait that any sufferer of depression will recognize.

Van Sciver's drawing is assured and highly detailed (backgrounds and environments are often rendered quite specifically, really grounding the story in its time and place), while remaining a bit "cartoony" - his is an engaging, highly readable style. My one complaint, visually, is that early on, Lincoln and his randy roommate, Joshua Speed, look so much alike that sometimes in conversation I became confused as to who was who.

Narratively, you can't help but empathize with young Lincoln in his struggles - his love life is a shambles, for example, although the book's happy ending reveals that he eventually (if perhaps only temporarily) overcame some of "The Hypo."

I understand the desire to focus on the details of Lincoln's personal life over those of his his professional career, but unfortunately this strategy at times makes for some confusing moments. References that other characters make in passing to Lincoln's growing political influence seem to come out of nowhere. I mean, of course we all know that Abraham Lincoln had a political career, but the Lincoln of The Hypo doesn't quite seem capable of sustaining one. We get a few small glimpses, but they're nowhere nearly as finely developed as are the more intimate moments in the young man's life. I would have appreciated a bit of a broader focus on Lincoln's life and work over the course of The Hypo - I can only imagine that in Van Sciver's hands, Lincoln's professional struggles would become as fascinating as his personal ones surely are here.

The Hypo: The Melancholic Young Lincoln
by Noah Van Sciver
Fantagraphics, 2012
ISBN-10: 1606996193
ISBN-13: 978-1606996195
192 pages, $24.99

Friday, March 22, 2013

Review: Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm, by Philip Pullman

I've loved the fairy tales as collected by the Brothers Grimm for many, many years, and I found Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy to be one of the best-written fantasy series I've ever read (for younger readers or no), so I was predisposed to enjoy his Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version. I was not disappointed. Pullman begins by providing a short but informative introduction to the book, placing the tales into context for readers unfamiliar with the Grimm brothers' nationalistic project from two hundred years ago. He then offers his new translations of fifty of the Grimms' stories, each followed by a brief afterword explaining that tale's history and analogues as well as what, if any, changes he made to the source material at his disposal.

I was surprised at how straightforward his versions of the tales themselves are; there is little trace of his authorial voice here. However, Pullman is a fan of storytelling, not just of telling stories, and his respect for the tradition behind the tales accounts for his minimal presence here. In some of his afterwords he breaks free a bit and talks about how one might have "improved" a tale in this way or that in a literary sense, but how that generally wouldn't be appropriate because, with rare exceptions, none of these tales were very "literary" to begin with. He does make some changes or add material occasionally to a few of the tales, but these are generally created by importing elements from another, analogous version of the tale, a process well in keeping with tradition.

In fact, as Pullman makes clear to readers unfamiliar with the tales' history, the Grimms themselves often changed the tales quite a bit from the versions received from their sources. In addition, they modified tales from edition to edition of their books, usually removing the more disturbing elements to make them more child-friendly as the years passed.

My only complaint with this book? I wish Pullman's afterwords were longer. I realize that the tales themselves are meant to be the main draw here, but I love reading Pullman's thoughts on the craft of storytelling.

For readers who only know their fairy tales from Disney or other modern popularizers, many of the stories here will be shocking in their brutality or darkness. But make no mistake; fairy- and folktales have always acknowledged the fact that life is harsh. Philip Pullman's new edition of the Grimm tales pays tribute to this fact in a very readable and enjoyable collection.

Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version
by Philip Pullman
Viking, 2012
ISBN-10: 067002497X
ISBN-13: 978-0670024971
406 pages, $27.95

Monday, March 18, 2013

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

It's an unfortunate if oft-repeated scenario: An artist goes unrecognized in his or her lifetime, only to have their work discovered and fêted too late for acclaim or riches. Such is the story of Vivian Maier, who spent her formative years in France, then worked as a nanny for a series of families in the United States, mostly in the Chicago area (for a brief stint, she even worked for Phil Donahue). She always carried a camera, but she never allowed anyone to see her photographs, and by all accounts she lived an extremely private life. So, her genius was never known while she lived. Her work was only discovered when her belongings were auctioned off, and someone who won a container full of undeveloped film examined the contents and discovered Art.

I first learned of her work thanks to a Facebook friend posting a link to the trailer for an upcoming documentary about Maier's life and work. I'm so glad that I took the 2-1/2 minutes to watch that video:

Maier's life story is intriguing, yes, full of secrets and mysteries. But her photographs are magical in their honesty and beauty. Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows by Richard Cahan and Michael Williams provides a wonderful introduction to the artist and her art. After a brief biographical introduction, the bulk of the book is given over to chapters highlighting different aspects of her photography, beginning with snapshots from France and then delving into her chronicles of America in the 1950s and 1960s. (She continued photographing her surroundings well into the 1990s, apparently, and in color, too; but this book focuses on her '50s and '60s black-and-white work.)

She was not afraid to visit, regularly, the toughest, most run-down areas of Chicago, her young charges in tow, to photograph anyone she felt worthy of capturing. The humanity and dignity of her subjects, even those skid-row denizens whom most people might cross the street to avoid, come across vividly in her portraits. Some of these photos seem somewhat posed or at least contemplated, while others were obviously taken on the sly.

Amazingly, Maier almost never took multiple shots of the same subject (apart from the children in her care, and a series of pensive self-portraits, sometimes just of her own shadow): One carefully considered image was enough for her. And the results are stunning. The year 1968 was particularly pivotal for America, and indeed for Maier; there's a whole chapter devoted to her chronicles of that tumultuous time, with special attention paid to the life and death of Robert F. Kennedy. While I loved all of the images in the book, my favorites are the portraits in the chapter "Downtown" (pp. 206-241). Here are young people and old people; the rich, the poor, and the once-rich; characters all. These are only single portraits, but I feel as if I can see into these people's souls; the good and the sad are revealed in equal measure.

For all of the hundreds of images in this book, I realize that this collection only scratches the surface; I look forward to finding more of them to marvel at.

Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows
by Richard Cahan and Michael Williams
CityFiles Press, 2012
ISBN-10: 0978545095
ISBN-13: 978-0978545093
288 pages, $60.00

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Review: 100 DIAGRAMS THAT CHANGED THE WORLD, by Scott Christianson

Scott Christianson's 100 Diagrams That Changed the World: From the Earliest Cave Paintings to the Innovation of the iPod will be a good book to spur curiosity: it's wide-ranging, both in historical focus (as the subtitle makes plain) and in terms of the types of diagrams it covers, from scientific discoveries (DNA Double Helix by James Watson, Francis Crick, and Odile Crick, 1953 [pages 190-191]) to information display techniques (Exploded-View Diagram, by Mariano Taccola, c. 1450 [pp. 70-71]) to theater design (The Castle of Perseverance, c. 1405-1425 [pp. 68-69]).

However, I'm sure that the title is entirely accurate. Did The Voynich Manuscript (c. 1404-1438, pp. 66-67), an illuminated manuscript written in a still-undecipherable code or invented language, really "change the world"? Did Leonardo da Vinci's unrealized plans for Helicopter and Flying Machine (c. 1493-1505, pp. 76-77)? They're fascinating documents, undoubtedly; but they don't really rise to the level of "world-changing," I don't think. 100 Diagrams and Concepts that are Really Quite Interesting would be a more appropriate title, but it's not as marketable.

For a book that celebrates the importance of visual representations, the book's own design is troubling. Each diagram is given its own two-page spread: One page for the diagram (and caption, although that caption is sometimes on the facing page), and one page for text. So far so good, but: Each text page begins with the title of the diagram, its author (if known), a one-sentence "highlight summary" of the object and its importance, and the date of the diagram; the paper is colored light grey rather than white. The date, in the upper corner of the page, and the highlight summary are printed in a grey that's only slightly darker than the background color of the page. The date is in a very large typeface, but the highlight summary, at perhaps 7-point size, is very hard to read without strong light (or, perhaps, a loupe). What's worse, the highlight summary usually repeats information in the longer essay on the page, which quite often is repeated yet again in the image caption. Thus, you often read the same information three times on the same two-page spread. No one could expect a lot of depth in a book like this - with only a few hundred words per essay, the book serves as an "intellectual sampler," encouraging further research - so repeating content so often in such a small space really seems like a misuse of precious informational real estate.

Still, the book reminded me of a lot of things I have always meant to read more about, and it introduced me to things I simply hadn't considered before (I had never thought about the importance of "Graded Sewing Patterns" [pp. 144-145] before, but Ebeneezer Butterick's 1863 invention made it easier for people [usually women] to make fashionable clothing for their families - no small feat!). As a pupu platter of interesting concepts, this book makes for a few diverting afternoons, and it just might encourage you to dig further and learn more about some of these fascinating - if not always world-changing - drawings.

100 Diagrams That Changed the World:
From the Earliest Cave Paintings to the Innovation of the iPod
by Scott Christianson
Plume, 2012
ISBN-10: 0452298776
ISBN-13: 978-0452298774
224 pages, $25.00

Monday, March 11, 2013

Review: A Wrinkle in Time: The Graphic Novel by Hope Larson and Madeleine L'Engle

My fifth grade teacher, Miss Wocher, read Madeline L'Engle's classic science-fiction children's novel A Wrinkle in Time to our class, one chapter each Friday afternoon. After a few weeks, I bought my own copy so that I could read along with her. It quickly became one of my favorite books; I was enchanted with its fantastic premise (a group of children travel through time and space, guided by three mysterious women, to rescue their father), its quirky characters, and L'Engle's overall way with words. (Although I was devastated when I looked up tesseract in my dictionary only to conclude that, apparently, she had made it up!) I never forgot the book, and, when I taught Children's Literature courses many years later, AWiT was always on my syllabus.

So I approached Hope Larson's adaptation, A Wrinkle in Time: The Graphic Novel, with no little trepidation, even though I had liked earlier work of Larson's that I had seen. Could this adaptation possibly compare to my experience with the original? (Even though, as I've written about before, hoping for absolute fidelity to an original work in an adaptation is a sucker's game.) However, my fears were for naught. Larson actually achieves a remarkable amount of fidelity to L'Engle's original novel, and the publisher (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) is to be commended for allowing Larson to produce a truly substantial adaptation: At just shy of 400 pages long(!), this book has the room few other adaptations are afforded to really slow down the storytelling and include the smaller, character-enhancing moments that almost always get sacrificed in adaptations for the sake of "just getting the plot across," usually as economically (i.e., briefly) as possible.

We get to see lead character Meg Murray's awkwardness, her hesitancy, her headstrong nature, and her bravery in full measure, and the other characters are also allowed to develop and to shine. For example, during the first and most difficult "tesser" (a sort of space/time dimensional warp), Meg's disconcerting reaction to the process is given about seven full pages to play out, really allowing the reader to experience her disorientation almost as fully as one does in reading the novel itself. If you haven't read many comics adaptations, you cannot imagine how refreshing this luxury of space is. Even most film adaptations of literary works must cut out more detail and texture than Larson needed to here.

The artwork, in black and white with blue tones, manages to be both straightforward and carefully delineated in equal measure. Larson's inkwork is lush and bold, appealingly simple and, yes, cute, but without ever seeming too cloyingly cartoonish. Larson is equally adept at depicting subtle character emotions and otherworldly dimensional realms. Some readers might find the more alien landscapes a bit thinly detailed in places, but I think this is very much in keeping with L'Engle's original book, which excels at creating feeling and mood over intricate technical descriptions. At these books' heart is the emotional arcs of the characters - especially that of Meg, a character with whom I identified a lot as a child - and not thick science-fiction detail.

Is reading the graphic novel the same experience as reading L'Engle's original? Of course not - but then, it's not meant to be. The original novel is still there to thrill and delight young readers. But Hope Larson's A Wrinkle in Time: The Graphic Novel is a more-than-worthy companion to L'Engle's classic book. It's a very assured and appealing work in its own right, one which offers readers a new and richly imagined version of a tale which has already endured for more than fifty years.

Madeleine L'Engle's
A Wrinkle in Time: The Graphic Novel
adapted and illustrated by Hope Larson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012
ISBN-10: 0374386153
ISBN-13: 978-0374386153
392 pages, $19.99