Sunday, September 21, 2014

Review: My Pet Book, by Bob Staake

Where was My Pet Book when I was young? It's beautiful, it worships the power of books, and there's lots of fun little bits to discover in the backgrounds of the images, especially in the signs of this pet-obsessed town. "Breed Limit 35"! "Central Bark"! "Bowowery"! (There's even evidence of a voyage to "Funky Town"!)

Bob Staake has become a Jack-of-all-trades when it comes to art (from newspaper illustration to posters to iconic New Yorker covers), but it's clear that he has a special affinity for children's books and the importance of reading. With its rhymed text and colorful, highly stylized (and stylish!) illustrations, My Pet Book will engage and charm you on every page. I can't wait to recommend this "frisky red hardcover" to all the young reading-lovers at my library.

Bonus! Be sure to check out this great, in-depth interview with Bob Staake at the Washington City Paper website, conducted by my good friend Mike "ComicsDC" Rhode

by Bob Staake
Random House, 2014
40 pages, $17.99
ISBN-10: 0385373120
ISBN-13: 978-0385373128

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Review: CDB! and CDC? by William Steig

One of my favorite books when I was a child was CDB! by William Steig. It was full of black and white drawings, each captioned by a series of letters which, when read aloud, would sound like a phrase or sentence: for example, "CDB!" translates into "See the bee!" Some were pretty straightforward, but some were trickier; the simple, narrative illustrations helped you to decode the captions.

I remember finding the book on a bottom shelf of my neighborhood library. I seem to recall feeling vaguely uneasy about checking it out, as if the book was for "littler kids" than I was (even though I was still very young, myself). After all, I was already reading full sentences, and here was a book that only used letters, not even real words! But I was still fascinated with it, and I've remembered it ever since.

Several months ago, I was amazed to discover that Steig also created a sequel, CDC? I hadn't known about it, but that is probably because it wasn't published until 1984, when I was a high school senior. I requested both books from the library, curious to see what they would be like now, four decades after I first read CDB!

My first shock came with the appearance of the pages. Steig added watercolor to CDB! in 2000, and to CDC? in 2003. So the stark, diagrammatic pictures in my memory here were a bit softer and more gentle. And some of the deciphering was probably just as challenging now as it was when I was a child. I didn't recall there being complex "words," but here they were, especially with names, such as "L-X-&-R." And letters can sometimes sound like different words: S can be either "is" or "yes," depending on context.

Both books are very similar, although CDC?, apart form being about 20 pages longer than its predecessor, contains more grown-up characters, situations, and vocabulary. In one instance, a middle-aged man with a pipe sits and looks at another man, bearded and wild-eyed, who holds bits of a broken chair in his hands. The caption? "M I B-N 2 V-M-N?"

Each book contains, on its final page, an "answer key." I only really needed it once, for an instance in CDC?: what in the world could "D-P" stand for? Turns out it means "dippy." (The slangier the coinages, the more difficult they become to decipher.)

I had a lot of fun re-encountering a childhood friend and meeting its sibling after all this time. They weren't "beneath" me at all. S X-L-R-8-10!

by William Steig
Aladdin, 2003
ISBN-10: 0689857063
ISBN-13: 978-0689857065
48 pages, $7.99

by William Steig
Square Fish, 2008
ISBN-10: 0312380127
ISBN-13: 978-0312380120
64 pages, $8.99

Review: Neanderthal Man, by Svante Pääbo

A very personal account of the successful attempt to map the genome of a Neanderthal, humanity's closest evolutionary link. Svante Pääbo, the project's lead researcher, necessarily mixes autobiography with procedural descriptions, with his history as a scientist and as a person informing and guiding his quest for what appears at first an impossible goal.

What the non-scientist reader (i.e., me) takes away from this book is a much clearer understanding of the ins and outs of the scientific method. Occasionally Pääbo comes upon a valuable insight through sudden inspiration, but much more often, insight arrives only through teamwork, and only after much trial and error (with a big emphasis on the error). Success in this massive and complex project came only after years of painstaking group effort, characterized by mysteries to solve, blind alleys to back out of, assumptions to re-consider, and techniques to continually refine or, sometimes, abandon.

While my eyes did glaze over at times when the science got extremely detailed, those occasions were few, and probably not Pääbo's fault - even the hard science here is presented carefully and clearly, and I found myself understanding a lot more of the specifics than I had assumed I might. (I soon learned not to bother checking the endnotes, as they consist almost entirely of journal article title references - essential for readers who wish to track the intricacies of each new research development, but they contain no real discursive content. The meat of the book is in the text itself.)

Pääbo does an admirable job of communicating both the substance and the struggle of science; politics and personalities mix with publishing and perseverance. In Neanderthal Man we learn about both an evolutionary cousin and what it takes to do successful science.

Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes
by Svante Pääbo

Basic Books, 2014
288 pages, $27.99
ISBN-10: 0465020836
ISBN-13: 978-0465020836

Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes by Svante Pääbo,
with a Blueberry Hill Lager from Samuel Adams.