Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Vacuum Cleaner: A History by Carroll Gantz (2012)

I requested this book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program on the basis of some other everyday-technology-specific histories I'd read that really managed to draw the reader in despite the apparent dullness of their topic. While Carroll Gantz's The Vacuum Cleaner: A History (2012) didn't meet all my expectations for an exciting read, it did manage to pull me along and teach me quite a bit about vacuum cleaners and the history of floor cleaning technology.

Gantz starts with pre-electric floor cleaning, including rug beating, carpet sweeping, and the most adorable sounding two-person floor cleaner where one person works a set of bellows with their feet while the other person moves the brush around to clean the room. When things get motorized, they start with large steam engines that live on a horse drawn cart in the street with nozzles and brushes brought in through the windows for a thorough cleaning. For many years rich people and hotels would have a large gasoline powered central vacuum engine in the cellar with attachments coming off at each floor for suction cleaning. We move through the slow electrification of the country in the 20s-40s, and then the post-war boom of electric gadgets and efficient housewives. Eventually we get all the way to the modern trinity of the Dustbuster, the Dyson, and the Roomba.

Gantz is well-qualified to write this book, since he is the man who designed the Dustbuster in the 1980s and helped push Black and Decker to hand-held-floor-cleaner stardom. The book is at its most interesting when Gantz discusses the history and influence of industrial design on modern life, and at its most dull when he indulges his need to itemize every vacuum make, model, and manufacturer in mind-numbing detail. Gantz has a pretty readable writing style with an occasionally goofy twist borne from a little too much research (for example: "To encourage, benefit, and provide communication opportunities to these somewhat unconventional enthusiasts, the Vacuum Cleaner Collectors Club was co-founded by Robert Tabor and John Lucia in 1983, the same year that Brooks Robinson (b. 1937), former third basement of the Baltimore Orioles, nicknamed 'The Human Vacuum Cleaner,' was coincidentally inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.")

The book is well-illustrated with black and white photographs of vacuum and floor cleaners as well as patent and design drawings. Gantz gets into a little bit of the history of advertising vacuum cleaners, and I would have liked to see more of that as well as some representative advertisements in the illustrations.

I'm not going to recommend that everyone go out and buy this, but if you have a propensity for nerding out on a topic and a general interest in floor cleaning technology, this is probably the book for you. I can't tell you how much more attention I've been paying to those Dyson ads....

Monday, November 18, 2013

Dracula's Guest: A Connoisseur's Collection of Victorian Vampire Stories edited by Michael Sims (2010)

My sweet Dr. Mystery got me a copy of Dracula's Guest: A Connoisseur's Collection of Victorian Vampire Stories edited by Michael Sims* (2010) for my birthday last year, and since we are almost to my birthday this year, I figured I ought to read the thing.

This is a solid collection of vampire stories, both Victorian and near-Victorian, and is readable as much for the supernatural content as it is for a glimpse into historic popular fiction. Sims gives us a solid introduction to the book as a whole as well as brief introductory essays for each story in the book giving some information on the author and context to the story itself.

Most of these stories were new to me, although I had read Fitz-James O'Brien's "What Was It?" before (and OMG if you haven't ever read it, click on that link and check it out. So excellent and weird and sad and funny.) The other stories in the book feature both male and female and old school and new school vampires. There are a lot of academics making lonely journeys into tombs with ominous histories in order to study ancient frescoes (bad idea), and a lot of men and women in the prime of life quickly losing their vitality and dying. There are a few goofy stories and some serious potboilers, but the collection also includes a good number of legitimately freaky tales. Definitely recommended.

*I've read one other Michael Sims book, Adam's Navel: A Natural and Cultural History of the Human Form (2003), which I really liked and wrote about in 2005 when I was very first starting to write book reviews on this blog (hey, remember when I used to write other stuff too -- those were the days...). And then, because there wasn't much on the internet in those days, Sims found my post and wrote me a nice e-mail about it, which I also wrote about.** All this goes to say that I'm predisposed to like the editor of this anthology, even though Josh did not remember that the author had contacted me personally eight years ago.

** In the link above there is also a super cute mention of Amanda linking to me from her Receptionista blog. If you are reading this, you seriously seemed like a celebrity to me in 2005! For anyone following that saga, I have met Amanda in person since then and can confirm that she is very fun and nice and I still read her blog and Tumblr all the time!

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Habibi by Craig Thompson (2011)

So my other new book club is one a friend is putting together where we will read nothing but graphic novels (yay!), and our first selection is Habibi by Craig Thompson (2011). After reading Goodbye, Chunky Rice, Blankets, and Carnet de Voyage I knew that I would not be able to resist anything else that Thompson should ever choose to draw and write. And although it took me a couple years, this book club has finally given me the push to jump into Thompson's most recent book, Habibi, a long epic story of two orphans in a fictional Islamic country.

Dodola is 9 and Cham is 3 when they meet for the first time and she claims him as her brother in a slave market. When she escapes, she takes him with her and they live in an impoverished but happy peace out in the desert for six years before their partnership is brutally snatched away from them.

The first thing to say about this book is that it is absolutely gorgeous. The size and weight of it, the detail on the cover, and Thompson's wonderful drawings dare you to immerse yourself in the book and not come up for air until you've finished it.

The second thing to say about this book is that it is just as brutal as it is beautiful, and if you read it all in one chunk, you might have some kind of nervous breakdown. When I checked this one out from the library, the woman behind the desk said that she loved the book so much but that she could never read it again because it just hurt too much. I can understand how she felt, although the complexity of Thompson's drawings and story make me want to give this one another read where I can pay more attention to the page and less to the plot.

While some readers have taken issue with Thompson's portrayal of sexuality and Islamic culture, I think this book shows his own immersion in an unfamiliar world and his desire to share all he learned about the words and faith of Islam with the graphic-novel-reading West.

Finally: no one draws a naked woman quite like Craig Thompson.

[Check out some sketches and in-progress drawings here!]