September 5, 2006
Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking is, in a sense, the biography of the author’s own grief. These memoirs carefully chronicle her experiences following the sudden death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne. The husband and wife had returned from visiting their only child, Quintana, at the Intensive Care Unit of a New York Hospital, where she lay in a coma. As the author was preparing dinner, a sudden silence in the midst of their conversation drew her attention, and she looked up to see her husband slumped over the table. “Life changes in an instant,” Didion writes. John had suffered a massive heart attack, and her fellow writer, best friend, and husband of forty years, was gone.
The book is a catalogue of the following year: the things that conjure up memories, the pieces of news or half-made plans that highlight the absence of someone “to agree, disagree, talk back.” Didion was additionally coping with her daughter’s illness, who relapses after a brief period of better health. The author plunged herself into the task of learning everything about Quintana’s malady, but we can tell that this additional test only intensified, rather than served as a distraction for, the original loss. The absence of her husband, palpable at every second of the day, propelled her into a state of “magical thinking,” the inspiration for the title. “We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss,” she writes. “We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe that their husband is about to return and need his shoes.”
But I call it the ‘biography of grief’ with acknowledgement of the “cool”-ness with which Didion surveys her experiences. One hospital worker unwittingly echoes the author’s self-analysis, saying, “Sheâ€™s a pretty cool customer.” And her book is not sentimental; it does not offer the normal platitudes associated with death; it simply offers an unflinching, clear-eyed view of her daily life. She writes from the moment, neither allowing herself disassociation nor melodrama. The book’s discipline is at once comforting and heartbreaking, and the memoir is destined to become a go-to book for anyone coping with recent loss, when sympathy, and not disassociated advice, is truly what we need.
Read a review at the Chicago Sun Times; for an insightful and alternate view, visit 2 Things @ Once.
August 30, 2006
When New Yorker and illustrator Ernie ColÃ³n originally tried to read the 568-page 9/11 Report, he was forced to quit after about fifty pages. The Report, nominated for the National Book Award and widely praised for its unflinching criticism of the government’s failures, was nevertheless difficult to comprehend. “For a government report, it was well written–but still hard to follow,” ColÃ³n said, citing “a lot of things going on at the same time in different places.”
And so, a year later, when ColÃ³n read that a miniseries based on the 9/11 Report was under consideration, he contemplated making a graphic adaptation of the report’s findings. The 75-year-old illustrator, who has worked for Harvey, Marvel and DC Comics, decided to run the idea by his longtime friend and colleague, Sid Jacobson, who served as managing editor and editor-in-chief at Harvey Comics, and executive editor at Marvel Comics. Jacobson’s reaction was, in comic book terms, “Holy @#$%! What a great idea!”
Jacobson’s experience in reading the report was similar, and his difficulty led to further inspiration. “I had trouble following what was happening on the four (hijacked) flights,” he explained, “and it hit me: Wow! You could show this as a timeline. You could really, really explain it.” Adds ColÃ³n: “We’re in the business of clarification.”
The result is a timeline that spans the first 18 pages of the book, utilising a fold-out in the hardcover edition. Not only does it elucidate the events of September 11th, but, like the 9/11 Report, it focuses on the events leading up to it and the failure of governmental agencies to heed the warning signs. Jacobson, working as the author to ColÃ³n’s illustrations, took text almost exclusively from the commission’s report. Unlike the recent movies United 93 and World Trade Center, “it’s not a dramatization. It’s the story of an investigation,” Jacobson insists. “It’s graphic journalism.”
But many worry about whether or not the ‘graphic novel’–if not ‘comic book’–genre can support a topic as weighty as the 9/11 catastrophe. Tim Sumner, whose brother-in-law died in the World Trade Center, supports a new wave of “historical reference,” but has his doubts about the graphic adaptation. “While having not read the book,” he said, “it sounds pretty cheap.”
With concern for its appropriateness, no matter how much he supported the concept, publisher Thomas LeBien sent the book to the former officials of the 9/11 commision. The chair of the commission, New Jersey governor Thomas H. Kean, admitted that he was “very concerned” when he first heard about the project. “But when I looked at it, it was absolutely accurate.” He and vice chairman Lee H. Hamilton even agreed to write a foreward for the graphic.
And both ColÃ³n and Jacobson exercised extreme consideration over what they chose to depict. Some of the images envision the violence aboard the planes, but when the text that reads “as time grew short and desperate, civilians leaped from North Tower upper floors” is left unillustrated. “It would have personally offended me to draw that. I just couldn’t,” ColÃ³n stated. “We knew this was not just politically charged but emotionally charged. We didn’t want to do anything that would offend anyone who lost someone.”
But the stigma of comic books may remain, however considerate the renderings, however factual the prose. The authors deeply pondered the effect of employing classic comic book onomatopoeias such as “Blam!” for explosions and “R-RUMBLE” for the collapse of the South Tower, and ultimately decided to use them. “Our feeling was that it would look like a silent movie without it,” Jacobson explained. “You have captions, you have balloons with text, you have sound effects,” ColÃ³n added. “Doing without any of that would make it not readable.”
Readability is the aim of The 9/11 Report: The Graphic Adaptation, and it seems an admirable goal. From the advent of widespread printing to our contemporary relationship with television, film, and the internet, we are increasingly evolving into a society of visual learners. There’s nothing wrong with a proclivity towards the visual, as long as the facts are not simplified or obscured. Kirkus’s early review notes especially that the book does not fall prey to this trap, calling it “thoughtful â€” and by no means dumbed-down.”
And an education of a large portion of the population that the original report could not reach speaks for the potential for the book’s positive impact. The book arrives in time to mark the 5th anniversary of the original attacks, and now is the time for everyone to learn the truth about the government’s handling of the situation, not the time to bicker over the medium in which it is reported. “There are going to be a whole bunch of kids, teenagers and adults that will not read the report,” ColÃ³n summed up, pointing to his new book as an alternative. “The educational system at large has resisted them, I think, because of the term ‘comic book.’ I like to think of them as something that has more purpose.”
Read articles at USAToday and The WashingtonPost; visit a blog discussion at Cake or Death.
August 19, 2006
My father in law informed me that my married name could produce these two anagrams: Hearty Salmon. Nasty Armhole. I cannot tell you how much I love that.”
This is the first entry in Amy Rosenthal’s Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life. The title is not metaphoric in any sense; this non-fiction memoir of Rosenthal’s life actually takes the form of an encyclopedia, alphabetically ordering both emotional events and the minutiae of everyday living. Rosenthal got the idea in part from her fascination with the fragmentary style of The Pillowbook of Sei Shonagon, in which a court lady in tenth century Japan records anecdotes, descriptions, character sketches, and lists of things that she liked or disliked. And so Rosenthal set about the task of creating a similar record for a twenty-first century regular American woman.
And Rosenthal stresses the ‘ordinary’ nature of her life; her Forward ends with the proclamation, “I have not survived against all odds. I have not lived to tell. I have not witnessed the extraordinary. This is my story.” A happily-married 39-year-old mother of three then proceeds to amuse, enchant and move the reader in a series of entries that range from an entry on ‘Identity,’ which includes two pictures drawn by police sketch artists according to descriptions of the author by first her father and then her husband, to an entry on ‘Dying,’ which concludes, “And we can’t forget malpractice. My sister-in-law died at the age of thirty-two during childbirth because the doctors and nurses missed the red-flagged allergic to anesthesia warning on her medical chart. People don’t die anymore in childbirth, everyone knows that, but yet they do; sweet, stunning, silk-scarf-wearing, multilingual Hilary did. People are just dying everywhere, all the time, every which way. What can the rest of us do but hold on for dear life.”
Whether you are laughing aloud, nodding in recognition, or plunged in thought, the book is fun to read. At first, perhaps, it’s frustrating that there is no story, no arc, but soon this haphazard if alphabetical arrangement becomes part of the book’s charm; after all, the arrangement of life itself is random and will rarely comply with a narrative.
Visit the book’s website here; read a review, an excerpt, or see a video of Amy at USAToday.
August 17, 2006
Not an economist? No matter. This book, whose full title is Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything is written in clean, understandable prose accessible to those with previous knowledge of economics and without. Furthermore, co-authors Levitt and Dubner focus on the statistics of everyday life, not the more intangible world of interest rates. An original profile of Levitt’s new slant on his field, written by Dubner in 2003 for the New York Times Magazine, is sprinkled throughout the book, separating the chapters and serving as a rough organization for Levitt’s myriad topics.
Because Levitt does put statistical data into use to create correlations and causality in surprising situations, sometimes humorous, sometimes disquieting. He has no worldview to expound, no ideology–except, perhaps, that numbers can tell us far more than we think. He shows that fluctuating test scores may point to teachers cheating in order to get credit for their students’ higher grades, weighing it with cheating indicated in tournament records of sumo wrestlers. His chapter “What Makes a Perfect Parent?” examines precisely how much of a role the nurture of a child has in its potential success, with headings such as “Which is more dangerous: a gun or a swimming pool?” and “Eight things that make a child do better in school and eight that don’t.” Perhaps most controversially he links a drop in the crime rate to the legalization of abortion two decades prior. But whether you agree with his conclusions or you don’t, the facts he brings up and the connections he draws are sure to make you think about the world around you.
Read a review in the Wall Street Journal here; read one in the Intuitive Life Business Blog here.
April 7, 2006
We might have all figured out that large, bloodless corporations like Wal-Mart are hardly the feel-good fuzzy puppies and kittens their television commercials would have us believe, but in Anthony Bianco’s The Bully of Bentonville he gives us the damning reasons why. Bianco outlines how Wal-Mart, one of the largest companies in the world, and its policies have driven down retail wages and health care benefits for employees worldwide while forcing outsourcing work and American jobs being sent overseas, killed off local businesses across the nation, and controlled what consumers read, watch, and listen to in their very own homes with its stringent bans on “racy” material and santized versions of popular CDs and DVDs. These aren’t just accusations, they’re backed up by real interviews with real Wal-Mart employees, managers, executives, suppliers, customers, and competitors. It’s time to bring the truth of Wal-Mart into focus.
January 23, 2006
While many are aware of the Cold War, few possess a true understanding of its threat and significance and the events that transpired behind the scenes to wage a war of ideologies. John Gaddis presents a clear and insightful look into this era in his new novel The Cold War: A New History. In 1950, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh, and Kim Il-Sung were seeing the the height of their powers and a bright future for Communism on the horizon. More importantly, the West was morally in debt due to colonialism and their monopoly on nuclear weapons was at an end. The threat of war, both ideological and nuclear, was imminent, and it seemed as if the end of the century would be a very dark one. Gaddis explains events and their import to readers in an organized and effective manner, including strategic dynamics that drove the age, illuminating portraits on major personalities, and fresh perspective on the era’s most crucial events that saw the eventual failure of communist rule and the victory of political and economic freedom.
January 20, 2006
In Physical: An American Checkup, author James McManus is one of many typical middle-aged, privileged Americans: he isn’t as active as he knows he should be, he likes his liquor and cigarettes, and he doesn’t think twice about getting a third helping of his wife’s cooking. Given his family’s long history of early heart attacks and death, these are not good things to be doing. Perhaps he isn’t like so many of us when he spends $8,000 to get a three-day physical at the Mayo Clinic, one of the best medical institutions in the world, but his experience oftentimes proves to be a hilarious and insightful look into not just the inner workings of such a prestigious clinic, but also into his own personal bad habits and impending mortality — habits that are shared by a great many of us.
January 8, 2006
Good interfaces are more difficult to successfully design that designers think. Users demand that interfaces be easy to use, efficient, and good-looking while managers demand they be original and developed quickly. The designer has plenty of tools and technology at his or her disposal, but rarely does he or she know what to do with them.
This is where Jenifer Tidwell’s Designing Interfaces comes to the rescue, crafting a book that not only combines some of the most timeless tricks and designs successful UI designers have been using and evolving through the years, but also an understanding of just why and how they work. You’ll get recommendations, design alternatives, explanations of complicated design topics, and warnings of when good designs don’t work.
This isn’t a book that will design an interface for you, but it will give you plenty of sound guidance and inspiration for creating something that is innovated, sleek, and useful.
January 2, 2006
When Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, it caused billions of dollars in damage, killed and injured thousands, and displaced even more. An entire history, heritage, and culture was literally washed away.
Now that the floodwaters have receded, reconstruction is beginning, but what, Tom Piazza asks in his latest book Why New Orleans Matters, will become of New Orleans now? What will become of its people? And perhaps most important of all, what does New Orleans and its people mean to the rest of America?
Tom Piazza is a New Orleans resident and has a particularly insightful grasp into these important questions. With evident love and affection, he explores the hidden contours of world-renown traditions such as Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest, evoking a sensory paradise of a city that brought us music and creole cooking. He also doesn’t shy away from thecity’s hidden undercurrents of corruption, racism, and injustice — and how New Orleans’ citizens transcend these things.
Why New Orleans Matters is a celebration of the spirit of New Orleans and the resilience of her people. It is a call to America to remember how valuable this city is to the fabric of its existence, and how much would be lost if its light were ever extinguished.
Read what the author has to say on his book here and here.
January 1, 2006
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The third installment of the War Stories series takes us to the heroes of World War II and the Greatest generation’s Greatest Moment, chock full of first-person, harrowing accounts of civillians and military personnel both on the ground, in the air, or battling German U-boats in the waters. The perspectives of British, French, American, Russian, and German individuals come alive in this precisely edited book. Everyone from fighter pilots, to farm boys and field workers, to women working in the factories on the home front is touched upon, giving a well-rounded realistic view of this troublesome time in the last century.