May 17, 2013 § Leave a Comment
“Barry’s Best Buddy” by Renee French (Toon Books)
Sometimes friendship can be an antagonistic relationship, despite the best of intentions by at least one of the parties. Renee French introduces young readers to the outgoing and spontaneous Polarhog and his best friend, Barry the Bird.
Polarhog, bemoaning the dull gray house that Barry hides in, takes his friend on a little jaunt of the unexpected. Barry, a squat and uncomfortable looking bird, generally pushes back on any delight Polarhog embraces — not quite Oscar and Felix, but certainly reminiscent of other class odd couples like Frog and Toad or Ernie and Bert.
French is a renowned alternative cartoonist, and her work is often in the realms of absurdist and experimental. With “Barry’s Best Buddy,” she makes perfect use of these qualities within a stripped-down format, offering a entry point for children into a wider world of fiction with these sensibilities that await their attention as they grow up to appreciate the unusual and clever.
“Mr. Flux” by Kyo Maclear and Matte Stephen (Kids Can Press)
Inspired the 1960s art movement that stressed anti-commercialism and even anti-art sentiments as a way of testing and celebrating the done-it-yourself and other everyday material, Maclear’s takes the concept of security as safety and contrasts it to flux, that is change, as a formula for everyday adventure.his rather dull town, Maclears’s story has the goofy Mr. Flux arrive in town. He just oozes change out of his pores, and by just existing in city limits with his pajamas and bowler hat, the effects can be felt.
Obviously, this is a lesson in being flexible and embracing the new, and Mr. Flux’s influence on leads to baby steps that work like a virus through town. A good virus. The very best virus.
Soon enough, house are no longer just gray and breakfast is not just confined to one reliable dish, and Mr. Flux seems to have done his job. But, of course, there’s more — change is one thing, but amusement is an important add-on, and Maclear’s finale shows that though change can become routine, something to cause a little laughter is always a valuable turnabout.
Mclear’s cautionary tale is wonderfully realized through Matte Stephen’s retro art style, reminiscent of Miroslav Sasek, renowned for his “This Is” series of children’s travel books and showing that your own hometown can be just as exotic as London or Paris if you want it to be.
“Rosie’s Magic Horse” by Russell Hoban and Quentin Blake (Candlewick Books)
Illustrator Quentin Blake is a much acknowledged legend in children’s books, and rightfully so, but his creative partner in many endeavors, author Russell Hoban, elicits fewer looks of recognition when you mention his name. Hoban’s biggest claim to fame were the charming Francis books, but his further work — for both children and adults — hit new heights of quirkiness, always representing a very singular mind that expressed itself through a masterful and idiosyncratic writer.
In this release of Hoban’s final picture, his flair for the outrageous is well-matched by a gentle heart and warm sense of humor. The story follows a group of popsicle sticks following their use to careless discard to being added to the collection box of Rosie. Collectively, the popsicle sticks want more to their existence post-popsicle, and require some purpose again.
Meanwhile, Rosie realizes her family’s financial stress, and has her own wishes that she needs to come true.
What happens is that both their desires collide, leading to a silly adventure that solves everyone’s problems. Hoban takes his simple premise further and further, before letting it come back down to earth with a heartwarming denouement. Blake, meanwhile, rises to the occasion as he always does, injecting the whimsy with a dynamic scrappy energy.
As his last work, “Rosie’s Magic Horse” is a marvelous tribute to Hoban and the originality that flowed from his pen, and will hopefully lead to a much-deserved revival of his masterful work.
May 17, 2013 § Leave a Comment
The documentary film, “The Human Tower,” follows three manifestations of human tower festivals around the world — in Spain, Chile and India.
These events involve crowds of people forming multi-level towers by climbing up on one another in competitions and performances
The film, co-directed by Ram Devineni and Cano Rojas, began when Devineni invited Rojas to join him in the research for the project.
Rojas had lived in Barcelona for a year at one point and was already familiar with the phenomenon. In Spain, the towers are an endeavor by the Catalan culture, from northern Spain, and Rojas said that their towers are very professionally done in comparison to others.
“It’s very well-done, very professional, very rigid. They never fall,” he said. “In India, it’s very messy, very chaotic, very organic. It’s like a breathing thing. And then the Chilean one is shy, is full of passion, it’s way below the other two in terms of accomplishment and size.”
In Spain, human towers are a middle-class enthusiasm, and the people involved have the resources and technology to make it a year-round and slick effort. The Indian version is enacted annually by members of the lower caste, who train intensively for two months prior to the event.
“These guys that are ignored by society all year round, for one day a year, they become celebrities, rock stars,” Rojas said, “and that’s something that’s really beautiful to see, how much pride they’ve put in this thing and how much they work to kick ass on this one day. The spectacularity of India is much more entertaining, because you have a huge crowd and it’s much more messy and the colors are just beautiful.”
“Spain is like another level. They have maps of each tower, they do transversal cuts so you can see each person in the base and on each floor. Their program of training in Spain is amazing. It’s a very well-calculated effort, the position of the people, the size of the people that go in each place, there’s no randomness at all in the Spanish one.”
Because of this, the towers created in Spain tend to be more complicated and imposing than those elsewhere.
They also turn it into a communal effort, with trainings set up as family events that include meals and involving all family members, not just those in the tower.
The Chilean effort is still too new to challenge the Spanish ones. Their towers are smaller, but Rojas said the story about building a community that is contained in their efforts is special and engaging.
Human towers aren’t confined to the three locations covered in the film. Rojas points to Italy and China as sites of other efforts.
“We shot the Italian ones for a tiny bit,” he said. “It’s only two levels and they move around and dance. “
Any others in the world are actually off-shoots of the Catalan tradition, who see spreading the tower events as a show of pride in their culture.
“It’s random guys who moved to a town in the middle of nowhere and they started doing this thing,” said Rojas. “Through the team in Spain, they do it in this country and that country. Even in the U.S., there are a couple of people who are trying to start it on the West Coast that are actually part of the team we shot.”
Rojas participated once in a human tower, a small one of four people, that brought him a better understanding of the actual emotions involved.
“Even though it was a tiny tower, the amount of concentration and pressure you have in your head, knowing that you have two kids above you who are depending on your equilibrium and concentration, it’s fascinating,” he said. “It brings you to another level.”
A tower isn’t a collection of individuals piling up on each other, but a super-organism in which the slightest aspect of each part affects all the other parts. Each part is equally important.
“You feel responsible,” said Rojas. “You can’t look to the side, you have to keep pushing and pressing and stay super focused.”
It’s this inherent egalitarianism that holds much of the fascination for Rojas, who sees the human towers as a ground-breaking sport that does not discriminate or exclude.
“It’s like the future of sports,” said Rojas. “It’s an amazing activity where any body of any size or any age can compete on the same team, which is crazy to think about. We had people like 65 years old on the base, we had kids like 6 years old on the top, we had women, we had men, we had the short little stubby guy, we had the long skinny guy, all sizes and all shapes.”
Tower building also is community-building and strengthening, and Rojas thinks all this explains its growing popularity among certain populations — this is not an unattainable, exclusive goal, but just a part of ordinary lives.
“These people are crazy about building towers,” he said. “All they do all day is think about towers.
“You go to their house and all they have is pictures of towers on the walls all over, and they speak tower and breathe tower. It’s amazing.”
“You have this physical activity, you have an artistic approach and you have the every day life. They date people from the team, they marry people from the team. It’s a very interesting phenomenon.”
May 17, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Journalism” by Joe Sacco (Metropolitan Books)
Sacco is known for his in depth work in Palestine and Bosnia, but this collection of shorter works allows readers to get a wider view of the grim world that Sacco has chosen to document.
In the Caucasus, Sacco spends time with Chechen women trying to survive the refugee camps which Russia is eager to force out in order to declare the problem solved. Sacco’s narrative darts between the reality of life in these camps and the nightmare of the experiences that brought the women there, adding up to a harrowing, depressing and angering piece.
In his Iraq pieces, Sacco documents the trials of American soldiers and their harsh lot in wartime, as well as that of torture survivors attempting to sue Donald Rumsfeld for the horrific treatment.
Sacco goes to his native country, Malta, to investigate the influx of African refugees that has created a nightmare of crowding and animosity between the desperate people trying to escape horror and death, and the small country that cannot handle what has descended upon them.
In India, Sacco visits lower caste villages that are beyond bleak. So poor and beaten down are these people that they have given up caring about any human rights they deserve. They survive by raiding rat holes filled with foraged grain. It is a shocking existence perpetuated by the corruption of the higher castes in charge.
As with any of Sacco’s work, the stories he tells will make you cringe and cry, and he does this with clarity as he explains the history and context on a larger scale that leads to the horrors you witness.
It’s reality as too many Americans are unaware of it, but so much of the rest of the world cannot escape. Sacco, in the tradition of the greatest journalists, is on the side of the little guy, and is determined to present the individual stories with dignity and compassion.
His success is greater than many print journalists, and his form of graphic storytelling adds layers that they could never capture. If there is one graphic novelist who should be mandatory reading in American high schools, it is Joe Sacco, an important voice beyond his chosen medium.
May 17, 2013 § Leave a Comment
When author Kate Hosford decided to tackle the concept of infinity in her most recent children’s book, she found there were possibly an infinite number of ways to even approach the subject.
In Hosford’s book, “Infinity and Me,” a little girl works to conceptualize the real meaning of infinity. The book has garnered all kinds of high praise and honors, including being named an American Library Association 2013 Notable Children’s Book and a 2012 Junior Library Guild Selection.
Hosford began as a children’s book illustrator who took up writing and then completely abandoned drawing books once she weighed her work.
“I was actually so much better at the writing than I was at the illustration that I switched,” Hosford said. “It took me years to have one idea, and then once I had one idea, I had two and then suddenly I had a hundred.”
One of those hundred ideas was to do a book about infinity, which Hosford was shocked to realize had not already been done.
“It was odd to me because kids love to talk about infinity and they start to do it really young,” she said. “Whenever I would talk to a parent, inevitably they would say, ‘My child loves to talk about infinity,’ and then they would recount an anecdote about something their child had said, and oftentimes the child wasn’t 9 and 10, they were 4 and 5, young, picture book age.”
Hosford began working on the idea by writing verse, but said she thought it ended up “stupid and trite,” and went through a few other formats before settling on the idea of asking different people to offer their conception of infinity. She enlisted her old friend, Gabi Swiatkowska, and together they put together a dummy book to shop around.
“When editors saw that, they were interested,” Hosford said, “but almost all of them, except for the ones who published, had a hard time convincing their publishers, who were saying things like ‘This isn’t really a topic for kids’ and some people would say things like ‘When is infinity introduced in the math curriculum?’ and I would think to myself, ‘At the same time you introduce love and justice.’ It’s an idea, so it’s not going to be a unit in the math curriculum.”
The book was eventually picked up by Carolrhoda Books, which also published Hosford’s previous picture books and who didn’t have such reservations.
“They immediately got it and immediately wanted to do it,” said Hosford.
Primary in Hosford’s preparation to try and sell the book, and the source of her confidence that her story was perfectly age appropriate, was a series of interviews she did with the kids in her children’s classes and her friend’s children for confirmation. This gave her the evidence she needed and also the energy to keep pursuing the project.
“I’m bowled away every time I meet with a group of kids,” said Hosford. “They have some new fascinating thing to say about infinity and I think it’s one of those topics where you just really want to master it because, if you can get a grip on that, you’ll have a grip on everything.”
“I think kids feel that and feel the urgency around understanding infinity to the extent that they can, although they get pretty immediately that they also are not going to be able to fully understand it, and it’s that paradox that is so interesting to them.”
Hosford has been putting together a curriculum that she can present to schools, with the idea that infinity can be not just expressed through numbers, but anything, really, and having kids write about their own conceptions. She will also provide options for math-oriented activities to the same end.
Writing about math concepts, and then writing guides to help children learn them, was not what she expected to end up doing in her life.
“I was very interested in philosophy from a very young age and ended up majoring in it in college, but I wasn’t the world’s most stellar math student,” said Hosford.
Math is too often thought of as boring or labor intensive, but Hosford’s story manages to meld her primary interest by exploring the philosophical side of a math concept and showing there is more to math than memorizing times tables. In her research on infinity, she became fascinated with concepts like fractals and tessellations that informed the enthusiasm of her text, and cemented also the work that illustrator Swiatkowska provided for the book, taking the philosophical elements and turning them into visual ones to make the concepts even more clear.
“One really cool thing that she did was she has these birds, and in particular this chicken, that appears over and over, throughout the book,” said Hosford, “and she works very intuitively and, to me, the chicken is brilliant because it’s a symbol of infinity in its own way — which came first the chicken or the egg. She may or may not have been thinking that, but it doesn’t matter because a lot of other people can look at it and think that.”
Hosford’s main goal has been communication and connection, and math concepts are just the unexpected way she has ended up pursuing those passions. It was suggested to her early on by one publisher that she should scrap the story of one girl connecting the book and instead make it a collection of what various kids think about infinity. Hosford felt this would undercut an important aspect of the book that coincides with her own world view. It just wouldn’t service the same message without the core character.
“Part of the point of my book is that thinking about this idea can completely flip you out, and in the end, the only thing that grounds us is love and connection to other people,” said Hosford. “Otherwise, if you are lying out in the grass looking at the stars and you feel alone and that’s it, it’s scary to anyone, let alone a child, so the emotional component of the book is actually what makes it work.”
May 17, 2013 § Leave a Comment
“If You Knew Me You Would Care” is a collection of portraiture photography like none I’ve ever seen.
Maifredi is both a fashion photographer and a portrait photographer, who found himself looking for something different to shoot, something meaningful. Salbi and the organization Women For Women International gave him that by providing access to the women they represent, organize, help.
If you’re unfamiliar with Women For Women, one of its most successful aid programs is a direct sponsorship for women in countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Afghanistan and Rwanda, and help them get the training and knowledge they need to start their own businesses, and provide a safe space for them to meet. The book concerns itself with women from these countries and their stories.
What unravels before you is a parade of these women, presented as glittering, vibrant, powerful and spiritually gorgeous. Some have faces of strength, others of weariness, all of experience, and at least several of joy.
What makes the book so harrowing are the first-hand accounts of many of these women’s lives, the circumstance that brought them to the point that Women For Women could transform their lives.
It’s no exaggeration to say that almost every woman in the book has been raped, many of them serially as sex slaves, often shunned by their communities and families after their ordeals — the book pulls no punches as the women recount their horrors.
The personal degradation and violence is just a component of lives surrounded by poverty and war, even genocide and sex slavery, often fueled by male domination that is so ingrained that domestic abuse and child marriage become accepted parts in many of these cultures.
In other words, these women have noticeable odds they have to beat to even make the smallest something of their lives.
With their gleaming and proud eyes on display throughout, it’s tough to claim this is a book about victimhood, and it really isn’t. What is shown here is that within each victim is a survivor and a hero. This book is a tapestry of how not to be defeated by the unimaginable.
Says Zahida from Bosnia and Herzegovina “I know that I’m a fighter, but I can’t believe that someone else recognizes me as a fighter.”
That’s really what the book is, a celebration of fighters and a refutation of our current trend against the idea of a handout. These women show that what they did to earn the charity they receive is to make it through impossible circumstances with the bravery of any solider who would be more typically lauded.
The way they pay you back for the charity is to make something of themselves and seize their own narrative, no longer victims of their history, becoming examples to follow in your darkest of times, proving that good things do happen even in the worst situations and brightening the world with their dignity and joy.
May 17, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Adrian Tomine is best known for two bodies of work — his magazine illustration career, which includes regular work for The New Yorker, and his cartooning one, which began with a series of acclaimed, self-published mini comics.
Unlike many cartoonists who make it in larger field of art, Tomine never really transitioned from one into the other, but maintained both concurrently.
“They were more like parallel careers developing,” Tomine said, “doing a lot of low-end amateur illustration work around the same time I was doing low-end amateur comics work.
“More and more it became useful for me to think of them as two separate jobs and two separate pursuits, in addition to the distinction between sequential and single image.”
The different styles that define the work were accompanied by opposite methods of creating them.
In comics, Tomine has complete autonomy and is left to do whatever he wants.
“Illustration work, by definition, is a collaboration between myself and at least one other person, but often something of a committee, not only in terms of how I create the work physically, but mentally, in terms of how I approach it and what my priorities are become pretty different,” he said.
Tomine says that drawing for The New Yorker is one of the few illustration jobs he actively pursued, and it’s been a point of pride for him for the last 15 years.
“If you have a dream of being a magazine illustrator, that’s definitely one of the top places that you want to get work at eventually,” said Tomine.
That side of his career has finally begun to appear in his own publications. Last year’s “New York Drawings” was his first real art monograph, compiling all his work for The New Yorker, as well as other work related to New York City and his move there from the West Coast. It was also the first book of his that he didn’t design.
“I don’t think this book would exist if I had been a life-long New Yorker,” he said. “I don’t think it’s the kind of book that I would have put together. I certainly wouldn’t have used that title if I had grown up in New York.”
Tomine grew up in mostly in California, and his comics, which have a significant autobiographical segment to them, mostly take place there, except his most recent “Scenes From An Impending Marriage,” which glossed over the bi-coastal aspect of his life for simplicity.
Autobiography has always been a major part of his cartooning from the very beginning.
“Initially, it started out when I’d sit down to draw a comic, it was heavily autobiographical,” said Tomine. “At that point in my life, it was very hard for me to just invent a fictional story. I didn’t have a lot of life experience to draw on when I was 14, at least not that I could process as an artist yet.”
“So to me, that was what kick started me as a person who wrote and drew comics, which is that I discovered you could take the most mundane experience from that day and translate it into comics form and it might be interesting. Not necessarily, but it could be interesting.”
Tomine was influenced by other autobiographical writers and cartoonists who worked the field before him, like Harvey Pekar and Chester Brown. As he grew older and began working more professionally, he began to consider how much of his private life he really wanted to make public, and also whether the raw details really served his storytelling in the way he wanted it to.
“I started to become more interested in having an end result that was as good as I was capable of at that point,” Tomine said, “whether that meant drawing heavily on real experience or inventing a lot of stuff or combining the two. I felt a little more in control of what I was doing at that point and less reliant on everyday experience.”
One of the reasons for Tomine’s success in the form was that, unlike his heroes who came before him, Tomine appeared less an eccentric outsider and more an everyman who young readers could identify with.
“A lot of the best autobiographical work is so compelling and fascinating, and in some ways hindered by more grotesque elements, or a stronger focus on sexuality,” he said, “or sometimes just unintentionally the creator’s personality is such that it’s somewhat self-selecting in its readership. Those very qualities that I think have kept some of those people from being on Oprah’s Book Club are generally the qualities that really fascinate me.”
“It certainly wasn’t by design. I didn’t say I’m going to disguise my eccentric personality and create a fake everyman persona in the hopes of getting my comics in the New Yorker. I’m just not as interesting a guy as some of those other artists.”
Tomine attempted to enter into cartooning through art school training, but quickly found the climate that was not encouraging of that form of creativity.
“I was met with great consternation and hostility in the fine art program at Berkeley,” Tomine said. “At worst, my stuff was made fun of, and at best, there were a few charitable teachers who maybe thought I was trying to do a sort of Roy Lichtenstein commentary on junk culture or something like that. They were very disappointed when I just was like, ‘I’m into comic books and I want to be a cartoonist.’ It was hard for them to process. I just didn’t enjoy my first semester as an art major at all.”
Tomine switched to being an English major, which served him well, not suspecting that he was there at the end of an era.
“I didn’t know it and no one knew it at the time, but North American culture was right on this cusp of saying, ‘We are warming up to the idea of comics and illustration work as being a little more legitimate,’” he said. “We were just behind that turning point.”
Tomine spent his time cartooning after going to school, creating his own mini comics and slowly building to the career he has enjoyed for over a decade.
He says his rise from self-made comics to art books and museum appearances is the art world version of a home recording musician having a hit or an amateur videographer becoming a hot filmmaker that has already become accepted in those mediums.
“I think it’s not as outrageous as it once was” Tomine said, “but certainly if I can be objective enough and look back on my career, it is strange to me that when I sit down at my desk every day, I feel like I’m doing the exact same thing I was doing when I was 14 years old.”
“I use a lot of the same equipment that I used, and not in some beautiful professional studio that I go to like my office. I’m still just working in my bedroom. So to me, it is funny that I’m working in the same way that I have most my life — it’s just some of the work ends up being seen by a lot more people.”
May 17, 2013 § Leave a Comment
In depicting a life behind the Iron Curtain, most films have been more than capable of showing you what it was like, but sometimes less at having you feel it. With “Barbara,” director Christian Petzold is able to weave the sinister grays of East Germany around an intimate drama.
Barbara (Nina Hoss) is a doctor, who has been sent from Berlin to a hospital in the East German boondocks after requesting a visa. Routinely watched, searched and investigated, Barbara approaches her new assignment coldly, partly out of humiliation, partly out of suspicion and partly because of her secret plan to escape the country.
That plan is under the guidance of her lover, who she plans to join in West Germany and with whom she has a series of clandestine meetings to pass the tools of her escape, along with gifts and romance.
That set-up is routine — there are good guys and bad guys — but the lesson of “Barbara” is that a corrupt state winds its way around the citizens and forces a gray pall on everyone, to the point that there may be no black and white.
Such is the case with the chief surgeon at the hospital, Dr. Reiser (Ronald Zehrfeld), a charming and caring doctor, who has been charged by the Stasi with feeding it information about Barbara. Reiser isn’t keen to do the work, nor to hide it from her, and so he walks a tightrope of doing his duty, while still remaining true to his soul in his relationship with Barbara.
As the reality of the police state unfolds for Barbara, it also reveals itself to the film’s audience in a claustrophobic way that demands distrust for well-meaning characters and even sympathy for the possible villains.
As we traverse this world in Barbara’s shoes, the nightmare of knowing where no one stands, and who might stand behind them on a daily and casual basis, becomes all too real, even mundane. Anyone may be a spy, and you may like them, anyhow.
In the end, “Barbara” is a story of sacrifice and the acknowledgment that privilege is not just the circumstance of the moneyed classes in free states, but among the educated, radical and brave in police states, and compassion is the weapon they are required to brandish.