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Reviews by glanderson
Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter
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Alternating between a tiny Italian coastal village in the early 1960s and present-day Hollywood, Beautiful Ruins gives us the story of a young American starlet who didn’t quite make it big, a young Italian hotel owner with dreams of the big-time, a washed-up rock musician, and … Richard Burton.  Author Jess Walter artfully blends all of these plot threads in a bright, entertaining, and sometimes devastating drama that stands in contrast to the fabulous fiasco of the Liz-and-Dick Cleopatra movie and a misguided unmade film about the doomed Donner party. Although some of the dialogue and situations seems a little too much in places, Beautiful Ruins is a captivating novel about the kinds of choices we can make when things get messy, as they inevitably do.


Chip Kidd is the graphic designer of more than a thousand book covers, including Jurassic Park's iconic black-on-white T-rex.  Kidd’s Go:  A Kidd’s Guide to Graphic Design is an entertaining and enlightening trip through graphic design principles that will have readers closely examining the ways that images and typography mix to grab our attention.  Abundantly illustrated with examples from his own work and those of other graphic designers, Go is relevant, interesting, and useful for young designers working with both print and digital designs.


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.  

Disappointing.
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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.