We have a few tables in our living room that hold an assortment of coffee table books of interest to my wife — most of them hold little or no interest to me. That’s why I’ve recently introduced a few new titles to the collection that will hopefully provide a balance to The Force, ensuring that visitors will understand that our house does not revolve solely around Martha Stewart and artwork of the Renaissance period.
I’m honestly not certain how long these three books will survive in the wild before being tranquilized, roped up, and shipped back to the zoo that is my upstairs office. One can only hope that they’ll be allowed to enjoy as much time as possible in their new habitat before the sheriff discovers the misunderstood and totally innocent newcomers’ presence and lays down a new law for the land.
But until this happens, I’ve got three nice big hardbacks that are enjoying some time in the natural sunlight versus the harsh, fluorescents and the barely-there glow from the LCD panel on the desk. Maybe you can provide a better home for one of these titles. I sure hope so…
The Cult of Lego by John Baichtal and Joe Meno
John’s a fellow contributor here at GeekDad.com and I’ve known Joe since about 2007 when I first met him at the FIRST Lego League World Festival in Atlanta carrying his camera everywhere and making certain to not miss any worthwhile shots of Lego robots in action. Joe’s also the editor-in-chief of BrickJournal magazine, a periodical that covers every aspect of the Lego hobbyist world. These two have joined forces to release what is likely going to be considered the quintessential book on Lego hobbyists.
It’s a full-color, 290 page book that attempts (successfully, in my opinion) to cover as much ground and provide as much variety on the various Lego hobbies, interests, designs, celebs (yes, there are Lego celebs), and much more. Through twelve chapters, ranging from one of the most perfect essays on the history of the company all the way to how Lego bricks and technologies are being used in real-world business, medical, and research organizations, the reader is given as complete a rundown of the who, what, where, why, and how of one of the most recognized companies and products in the world.
They’ve included short interviews with AFOLs (Adult Fans of Lego), a two-page glossary of terms to get you up-to-speed on Lego-speak, an extensive collection of photos and discussion related to the fascination with minifigs (those little Lego people), and photos and interviews with creators of some of the most outlandish Lego designs around.
The authors haven’t missed anything that I can find — software design, dioramas, Bionicle, trains, roller coasters, world records, comics, and, my favorite, Lego robotics. (The Lego Mindstorms robotics kits are how I came to be reintroduced to Lego after so many years away.) Okay, yes… there’s a very good chance that they have missed something, but given the sheer number of fans throughout the world and the unbelievably large number of things that can be done with Lego, you have to give the authors a lot of credit for gathering one of the most comprehensive collections of photos, interviews, and back stories on what is, for all practical purposes, a book on plastic.
If you consider yourself a Lego fanatic… or if you have a spouse or child that grew up or continues to have a fascination with Lego, this is one of those books that is sure to bring a smile. My 4 year old son has caught the bug and is starting to make some interesting stuff from the simple plastic pieces — when I sat down with him and we went through the book together, he couldn’t finish. He jumped off the couch and ran straight for his own collection of pieces, obviously inspired by something he saw in this well-done book.
When I was a young teenager, a family friend who had collected comics for years dropped by with a box for me. Inside was a collection of comic books consisting of somewhere between 100 and 150 comics. Most of them were dog-eared and yellowed, but I didn’t care as they were free. There were a handful of Sgt. Rock and a nice collection of The Unknown Soldier. (This fellow liked his war comics, I guess.) But also inside that box were a handful of comics that didn’t match what I considered to be comic-book material — strange titles filled with violent stories of criminals such as Al Capone and John Dillinger. I’d heard of these men, but it seemed strange to be reading comic books about their exploits and crimes. Those comics were eventually traded away for who-knows-what, and I’d since forgotten all about them until I saw a recent new book that sparked a memory of those old crime story comic books.
Joe Simon and Jack Kirby are legends in the comic book industry — I owned an anthology as a kid of their Captain America stories, and their artwork and style were often recognizable, even at a young age. Folks often refer to the Golden Age of comics, and if I recall correctly, Simon and Kirby are considered masters of the period. Recently a review copy of The Simon & Kirby Library: Crime showed up on my doorstep, and I wasted no time in finding a comfortable chair to see what the book had to offer.
With over 310 pages, I expected it to take a few weeks to read the entire thing. In reality, it took about three days. Titles such as Pay Up or Die, I Worked for The Fence, and I Was a Come-On Girl for Broken Bones, Inc., should give you a general idea of the tone of the book’s 34 stories. While most are supposedly based on real world criminals, there are some that left me really wondering. I knew of Dillinger and Capone, but Simon and Kirby really went all out to include some of the most colorful bad guys of the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s. (There’s even a western thrown in there about the first bullet-proof vest worn by a Texas outlaw.)
There’s a bit of history at the beginning of the book that tells how these kinds of comics weren’t welcomed with open arms by the general populace, forcing Simon and Kirby to stop penning and drawing these kinds of tales in lieu of other, more well-known characters. I can almost imagine mothers of the day discovering a pile of these comics under the bed and calling the police to ask whether they should be worried about their children turning to a life of crime.
But it’s a different period today — there’s honestly nothing in these pages that would disturb most kids these days. And though the artwork and dialogue is dated, I still think there’s something to be said for reading these classic tales with a bit of an understanding of the time period during which they were originally created. I enjoyed the flashback to my own youth when I first read a couple of similar tales. Almost like a graphic novel history book of sorts, the Crime collection offers up a fun and curious look back to a time when comic books were often considered dangerous, and the subjects of the tales were real-life criminals featured on the day’s headlines. Joe Simon recently passed away, and hearing that news after reading this book made me realize that just like traditional literature, comic books also have their own versions of best selling authors and can just as easily be considered rebellious during their day. I took great pleasure in reading these tales of violence and lawlessness as I imagined myself a teenager back in the day hiding the pages inside A History of the World, worrying a bit that my teacher might discover it and report it to my parents. RIP, Joe Simon.
The Hammer Vault by Marcus Hearn
When I was in middle school, I had to ride the bus home. The bad news was that I lived just outside the city limit and the bus would drop me off about a mile from my house, forcing me to have to jump numerous fences of neighbors’s small plots of farm land (with their permission, of course) to make my way home. If my neighbors ever watched my progress through their lightly wooded fields, they might have wondered why in the world I was often running full-tilt with a book bag over my shoulders.
The answer was simple — for about two years, one of the television channels in my neck of the woods ran these old 1950s and ’60s horror and sci-fi films from about 2:30pm to around 5pm (when the local news came on). I am firmly convinced that this time period was selected because the TV stations knew that most parents were working and that young boys (the target audience, I’m sure) will watch anything that has blood, breasts, and monsters in it. And they were right. I don’t remember half of the movie titles, but I do remember the acting and dialogue was horrible. But the movies just had this air of being something Mom and Dad Won’t Like.
I’ve always like horror movies, and I grew up knowing the names Bela Lugosi, Peter Cushing, and Christopher Lee. I also grew up knowing about Hammer Films. I may not have known the titles of so many of these movies I watched as a kid, but after reading The Hammer Vault, I now recognize at least a couple dozen or more.
The Hammer Vault is the history of Hammer Films. For horror buffs, this is not one to miss. Full-color movie posters, black and white behind-the-scenes photos, interviews with actors and directors, snippets of scripts, and tons of secrets related to the movies that got made, the ones that didn’t, and the ones that maybe should never have seen the light of day. Most of the films covered in this book are movies I’ve never seen… and likely never will. But the ones I have seen (so many years ago) popped back in my memory easily enough. I even enjoyed reading about one of my favorite actresses from those films, Caroline Monroe. (She was the unfortunate helicopter pilot in the James Bond film, The Spy Who Loved Me.)
The book definitely isn’t for kids — when it moves into the 1970s era, there’s the occasional topless photo or movie poster, and even though the gore is fake, some of the movie stills could easily be disturbing to a younger audience.
The subtitle of the book is Treasures from the Archive of Hammer Films, and that’s exactly what the book is — a trove of movie scenes, posters, and candid photos with the actors smiling and laughing with makeup applied, waiting for the director to yell Action! I have fond memories of these often slightly tacky, tongue-in-cheek flicks and their low-budget effects.
Hammer is still around, though. I didn’t realize until I read this book that Hammer was responsible for the movie version of the novel, Let Me In, that I’d read a year before the film was released (the movies was so-so, but the novel was outstanding, IMO). And now I’m hearing some good things about an upcoming Hammer Film titled The Woman in Black (with Daniel Radcliffe). I’m now wondering if my son will one day come home from school to find these modern Hammer films running in the afternoon, creating a new fan of Hammer Films and its legacy of having fun being scared.