Small Friends Considered

My latest post on the microbiology blog Small Things Considered, hosted by the American Society for Microbiology, features a trio of brief book reviews that should actually be of interest to a broad audience, not just microbiologists. See the reviews here.

The first two are of children’s picture books that tell fictionalized stories telling the biology of symbiosis in the microbial world. They also include fantastically illustrated appendices explaining the science in more detail:

25022719The Squid, The Vibrio & the Moon
by Ailsa Wild (Illustrated by Aviva Reed)
Scale Free Network – September 2014
ISBN 9780992587208 – 36 Pages – Paperback
Source: Publisher

Zobi and the Zoox
by Ailsa Wild (Illustrated by Aviva Reed)
Scale Free Network – December 2014
ISBN 9780992587215 – 44 Pages – Paperback
Source: Publisher

The third book reviewed is of a new graphic novel from the publisher that unfolds on two levels: a macro level from the point of view of a Victorian nurse during World War I, and a micro level from the point of view of the resident gut microbes (including the roles of phage) that fight to keep the nurse alive when she contracts dysentery.

The Invisible War: A Tale on Two Scales
by Ailsa Wild (Illustrated by Ben Hutchins)
Scale Free Network – August 2016
ISBN 9780992587253 – 88 Pages – Paperback
Source: Publisher

Please check out the post on Small Things Considered to read more about these. Also keep your eyes here for an upcoming link there to reviews I’m now writing on The Hidden Half of Nature: The Microbial Roots of Life and Health by David R. Montgomery & Anne Biklé, and of Ed Yong’s new release I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life.

Books Depicted in Art

6a00d8341c464853ef01a3fd291573970b-580wiA fascinating post from the British Library on the depiction of books in art.

“The majority of books throughout history are not the heavily decorated and spectacular versions we tend to hear most about, but instead are plain, and fairly ordinary book blocks […] For this reason, the techniques are perhaps not as well understood or documented. Luckily the keen eye of the artist has captured precise details when depicting books throughout history, showing sewing structures, stitch types, supports, covers and even how they were stored. In this post we will look at some examples of books depicted in art.”

Making and Remaking Horror in the 1970s and 2000s: Why Don’t They Do It Like They Used To?, by David Roche

Making and Remaking Horror in the 1970s and 2000s: Why Don’t They Do It Like They Used To?, by David Roche
Publisher: University Press of Mississippi
335 pages, Kindle Edition
Published February 2014
Source: NetGalley

As a big fan of horror movies and someone who agrees with the sentiment that the originals made in the 1970s were more disturbing (and simply put ‘better’) than the remakes of the 2000s, I happily requested a chance to read this. Seeing the publisher is an academic press I figured it would have an academic tone, but didn’t quite expect the degree to which this is an academic treatment. Its main weakness in terms of appeal is thus that it has portions that are incredibly detailed and dry. Nonetheless, for what it sets out to accomplish, this study does a fine job and will have appeal to certain audiences, particularly certain sections.

The opening chapter serves as an introductory overview or summary to the work as a whole, covering the ‘question’ of the study, the approach to address it, and a brief summary of the author’s conclusions. The next chapters then contain analysis of the films that are considered in their broad purposes and interpretations. These are the chapters that are going to be of the most interest to an average horror movie buff. Even if you have seen all the originals and the remakes several times over, I suspect that there will still be interesting insights raised, particularly to interpretations of aspects of the films, that you may not have considered before.

Having already viewed the films helps. I’ve seen them all save for the Dawn of the Dead films (though I have seen the original “Night of the Living Dead” which comes up in discussion as well). I found myself skipping even the general analyses of the Romero film and its remake then, both because references were unfamiliar to me and I didn’t want some aspects of the story ‘spoiled’. I’ve seen “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” however, countless times, and appreciated its discussions greatly. To be fair, many of the analyses of this section are not Roche’s per se, but summaries and responses to a previous academic study on the topic he is taking up here.

The latter part of the book is taken up with chapters that go into increasing detail into the construction aspects of each film (most interesting to me discussion of the film scores), eventually becoming a literal shot-by-shot summary comparison and analysis between the films. These sections, being less about the plot as much as the process of making the horror films, would be of tremendous interest to anyone wanting to create a work of ‘horror’. Even discussing what the term ‘horror’ means and how that compares to ‘terror’ or other concepts, these chapters are noteworthy of interest not just to those wanting to film horror, but even to those who strive to write a work of horror or suspense.

So, although academic, there is plenty here for a general audience, particularly if reading selective sections. For the horror fan, it may even re-inspire you to watch some titles, as it did for me. Out of all the remakes, Roche appears to look most favorably on Rob Zombie’s Halloween. I recall thinking it had the strongest voice, but was more “Rob Zombie” than “Halloween”, truly his take on it, which had led me to really dislike the movie. With time and consideration of Roche’s book I think it is the one film worth reconsidering now with time of having some merit despite being a less ‘disturbing’ remake.

Four Stars out of Five

Asunder, by Chloe Aridjis

Asunder, by Chloe Aridjis
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
208 pages, Kindle Edition
Published May 2013
Source: NetGalley

Barely reaching 200 pages, “Asunder” is a short novel and a quick read, but it will linger in your memory long after completing those pages. Its length is ideal, because it has precious little plot to stand upon, and a character who is largely defined in her commitment to inaction. Instead, Aridjis fills her pages with richness of mood, with a style that ends up conveying themes in place of a plot that would more commonly be employed.

Yet, to say this novel is all just an exercise of style over actual substance rather does it wrong. It is literary, but is not weighed down in any sort of self-aggrandizing complexity. The style isn’t put in to show the reader what Aridjis is capable of, but serves to accurately portray the character she has created to touch, subtly and briefly on topics of humanity.

The inaction of Marie, the protagonist, is enough to cause some readers to tear their hair in frustration, I imagine. Those that want a character to progress step-by-step into a better life, into a romantic relationship, etc, will be left wanting. Instead Aridjis flirts with these reader expectations, creating throughout a mood of unbalance, of something being on the edge, ready to tip over into some kind of catastrophe, hell, even some kind of activity. This all is embodied perfectly in the character of Marie, a guard who presides over the artwork at the National Gallery in London, spending her days in silence watching the same rooms, the same works, and the varied people of the world who flitter through, a tedium of inactivity and observation. During her times off she creates art of her own, or wanders the streets of London, watching while even off work, resistant to change despite the passage of time.

Hence, the resolutions don’t happen immediately. They are continually delayed, up until the close and the heights of tension (for the reader and for Marie) are reached with a violence that is foreshadowed in events of the past. Throughout the novel this overall construction is patterned in many short sections of the narrative. We follow Marie’s thoughts or routines at work or in London as they build towards something. We read on, expecting the paragraph to end with a conclusion, some clever combination of words that summarizes her current state of character, or prewarns where she is heading. But, we find those lines aren’t there. The paragraph has ended, the chapter has ended, with Marie still apparently in midthought, or yet again firmly in a state of doing nothing particularly new.

I fear that I make this all sound terribly boring, when the novel is anything but. They are different beasts, but it is somewhat like saying Seinfeld is a show about nothing, but is hilarious nonetheless. This is a book about a character named Marie that finds it hard to move past what she is, where she is in life. Yes, somethings eventually do happen, but you have to read to the end to get there. The beautiful journey on the way makes it worth it.

This is also one of those rare books that I think I would actually prefer as a film. Despite the deceptive simplicity of the writing, its frequent moments of beauty, and its perfect synchronicity with the character of Marie, I feel so much could be conveyed even more though images in the hands of the right director. That this could so easily inspire a transition from one medium to another speaks volumes to me at how artistic and special this novel is.

Four Stars out of Five

Negative Space, by Mike Robinson

Negative Space, by Mike Robinson
Publisher: Curiosity Quills Press
169 pages, Kindle Edition
Published August 2013
(Original Publ: 2006)
Source: NetGalley

Unfortunately this novel thoroughly disappointed me. Its description gave me high hopes that it would be a lovely piece of oddball, cult, B-grade fiction, but instead it was just a general mess. The publisher had also advertised automatic approval for future titles on NetGalley upon any review, but apparently that did not include negative ones.

The writing was inconsistent. In rare moments when the story became its most philosophical in discussing art and humanity it would shine. But for the most part the writing style is awkward and forced, filled with cringe worthy similes and metaphors that are simply ill chosen, written not for their bearing to the characters or themes, but simply because one should go in, as incongruous as it may be.

More difficult to get past, however, is just the mess of various threads the extremely short novel tries to take on. The opening chapter is never adequately explained, nor are many of the other ‘events’ that occur at the climax of this book, even through the closing chapters that sort of continue on although nothing much more will occur of substance.

On the plus side, Robinson’s characters are all compelling and unique. With some better editing, expansion, and tightening of the plot this could have easily succeeded, but in this form it did little to impress.

One Star out of Five

Make Good Art, by Neil Gaiman

Make Good Art, by Neil Gaiman16240792
Publisher: William Morrow
ISBN: 0062266764
80 pages, hardcover
Published May 2013
Source: Goodread’s First-Reads

I had not heard this commencement speech, though it is available to view online. I was just interested in anything Gaiman-related. The book arrived  in the mail and I opened it to look over only, yet found myself sucked in, reading it through rapidly. The content of Gaiman’s “Make Good Art” speech is a healthy mix of personal stories/insight with familiar advice (à la ‘do what you enjoy’), and is buffered throughout with Gaiman’s typical brilliant humor.

The text of the speech is laid out by graphic designer Chip Kidd. At times the layout breaks up the flow of Gaiman’s thoughts in an odd fashion, or arranges the words in a way that takes a moment or two to decipher, much as in a poem. This translates Gaiman’s speech into Kidd’s interpretation of Gaiman’s speech, which then is further interpreted by how the reader processes the text. On the whole I found this a positive trait, contrary to some other reviews I’ve seen. Kidd’s design produces an interesting and engaging complement to listening to the speech, and allows new discoveries to be made in the message as one goes through it in this new form, even after multiple times. (Which is an important consideration if buying this slim volume) Adding to its value, the book is physically quite sturdy and well-constructed.

I assume this is intended to be a nice ‘gift book’ for people to give to recent graduates. One wonders whether if after a reading or two the book might just sit and gather dust on a shelf. For many it may, but personally I think it is a message one would do well to revisit again through the years. These words are not just for the graduate, but long-before and long-after such an event as well. As someone who isn’t an artist, but rather a scientist, I found it noteworthy that the message is just as appropriate for people in other fields and passions.

Four Stars out of Five