Reviews by glanderson
Arne Bellstorf’s graphic “novel” Baby’s in Black is the true story of Astrid who becomes involved with Stuart, a guy who plays in a band. He likes the band scene but really wants to be a painter. Astrid becomes friends with the other guys in the band too as she helps Stuart follow his true artistic calling. The girl is Astrid Kirchherr, and her boyfriend is Stuart Sutcliffe. The year is 1960, and the band is The Beatles–at that time John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Stuart Sutcliffe, and Pete Best.
Baby’s in Black comes at the well-known Beatles story by focusing on their friends, Astrid and Klaus Voormann, two German fans and talented artists who are also interested in French art and culture. Bellstorf illuminates what it was like to be around The Beatles in those early days when they were playing nightly at The Cavern, a dingy working-class club in Hamburg, Germany. The Beatles were pure rock and roll, but many of their fans and friends lived at the nexus of the European art world and the rock world.
The convergence of these worlds provides the primary story line of Baby’s in Black–the relationship between Astrid and Stuart–but we also see the other Beatles as secondary characters at this remarkable time in their career. John Lennon is the band’s leader, stormy in outlook and uncompromising in his belief in the band. George Harrison is the 17-year old guitar wonder not legally old enough to be playing in the clubs where The Beatles were making their mark. Paul McCartney is the charismatic musician whose stage presence is a huge part of the band’s appeal. Pete Best is barely seen, foreshadowing that his time with the band will end shortly after this period. Bellstorf presents The Beatles as a tight group who kept most people at a distance: “They share their own special humor,” as Klaus says.
Baby’s in Black provides enough glimpses into Beatles lore to satisfy fans. The Astrid Kirchherr photo session that produced the early iconic images of The Beatles in leather and pompadours is chronicled here, and we see allusions to Astrid’s contributions to the Beatles’ moptop haircuts. Bellstorf also fully imagines the apocryphal moment when Klaus approaches John to show him some album cover art and John tells him, “You’re better off showing Stuart summat like that.” Several years later, of course, Klaus designed the well-known Revolver album cover, a black-and-white rendering, which this book’s design echoes.
The drawings here are simple but evocative, much like the rock music The Beatles were playing in the Cavern years. Some of the characters look quite a bit alike but maybe that’s part of the point. Klaus, John, and George are almost indistinguishable in appearance except for their noses.
Baby’s in Black will appeal to those young readers who wear Beatles shirts more than 40 years after the band’s demise, as well as those interested in the indie music scene, classic rock, or the artistic life. Teachers and librarians for middle grades should know that Baby’s in Black features a lot of smoking. That’s an understatement. Cigarette smoke appears (to great effect) in almost every panel. Other possible areas of concern include a couple of drug references and one f-bomb. But that’s rock and roll.
I usually like the work of David Sedaris. He’s at his best when talking about his family or childhood memories, or wryly observing society’s foibles. Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls has moments of that trademark understated irony, but it’s more self-absorbed than his earlier collections. This book’s primary theme seems to be the travails of a successful author as he fulfills his tiresome obligations to accept invitations to read his work out loud in exotic locations like China, Rotterdam, and Costco. But travel wearies Sedaris, as do most other people. It’s no surprise that he doesn’t allow those who stand in line to purchase an autographed book to take pictures with him. Then he retires to one of his homes in England or France or Japan or New York and writes about how awful it is to be anywhere.
Although this book gave me a few chuckles, some topics are inherently unfunny, although Sedaris uses them as punch lines: teen suicide, cancer, ingestion of human feces, eye socket sex. Yuck. Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls is a disappointment because it is so much meaner and cruder--not to mention less funny--than earlier Sedaris books.
Did you know that the Target ads you receive in the mail are probably different from those in your neighbor's mailbox? How about this: Compulsive gamblers perceive near-misses as wins while more casual gamblers perceive them as losses. So, from lottery tickets to slot machines, gaming designers include a lot of near-misses to snare compulsive gamblers. Filled with interesting anecdotes, The Power of Habit provides insights into how habits are formed, and they can be broken. (Turns out it's not easy to break a habit.) If you just want the how-to part of understanding and changing habits, go straight to the appendix. I wish this book dealt more directly with the realm of education, but maybe that will come along eventually. The part about how social movements are formed was the weakest section, but the other case studies are fascinating.
Michael Streissguth’s books examine the sweet spots where country music transcends popular trends and redefines itself. His previous books dealing with Johnny Cash’s concerts at Folsom Prison, the life of Jim Reeves, and Rosanne Cash’s The List album explored how these pioneers transformed an old art form, forever changing the way we think about country music. Streissguth’s new book Outlaw: Waylon, Willie, Kris, and the Renegades of Nashville examines how a few iconic figures bucked the system both artistically and financially beginning in the late 1960s. The careers of Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson are treated thoroughly in Outlaw, along with interesting discussions of Chet Atkins, Billy Joe Shaver, David Allan Coe, Rodney Crowell and other players. The real “character” of Outlaw though is Nashville itself. Streissguth describes the physical, musical, and business landscapes of the city and takes readers through the changes forced on the country music establishment by television’s "The Johnny Cash Show," the emergence of Kris Kristofferson as a songwriter, the refusal of Waylon Jennings to play by Nashville’s rules, and Willie Nelson’s ascension to the status of cultural icon. If you’re interested at all in this subject matter, Outlaw is well worth your time.
When I’m in the mood to read something funny, sometimes I choose a book by a comedian who makes me laugh. I fall for it every time. The books are not usually all that funny. This has happened with Ellen DeGeneres, Chelsea Handler, George Carlin, and now Jim Gaffigan. (The only comedian I can think of whose books don’t disappoint is Bill Cosby.)
Jim Gaffigan’s Dad Is Fat focuses on raising five young children in New York. Although Jim Gaffigan’s stand-up routines are hilarious, this book provided just enough chuckles to keep me going, probably less than one per chapter. I wish I’d spent my time reading something else.
If you’re looking for a funny book about parenting, see Bill Cosby’s Fatherhood.