Archives for category: Jill H Sullivan

What are you wearing? Plaid (tartan)? Paisley? How about stripes or polka dots? Perhaps a fleur-de-lis pin graces your lapel? Regardless, these motifs and patterns and more have fascinating associations and histories as told by Jude Stewart in his book Patternalia: An Unconventional History of Polka Dots, Stripes, Plaid, Camouflage, and Other Graphic Patterns.

In addition to content, the book itself is somewhat unconventional by design, both physically and stylistically. Titles found in the adult nonfiction collection tend to be large and heavy, whereas Patternalia is small and lightweight. Stylistically, Patternalia defies the typical beginning, middle, end formula for telling such stories. The text is dotted with cross-references so readers may develop an alternate storyline. It’s also embellished with quotes and bold graphics throughout.

Stewart starts us on our journey with a crash course in patterns and pattern lingo as well as an explanation of how our brains perceive “symmetry, orderliness, and simplicity”–basically, a pattern–and how we define and process this into what we see. He discusses ‘pareidolia,’ “the process of seeing imaginary forms, especially faces, in random stimuli,” such as outlets, and ‘apophenia,’ which is the perception of pattern where there is none, which may be either visual or conceptual. A conceptual example of apophenia is that of “gambler’s fallacy.”

Before we delve into particular patterns proper, we learn a bit about the history of patterns and the textile industry. The gist is that as production became increasingly industrialized, patterned textiles became cheaper, easily portable, and shareable across cultures. As patterns and patterned textiles crossed national borders, their meanings could change or evolve, such as with popular “African print” textiles. (Why? Read the book!)

As pattern and textile technology continued to advance, patterns were able to be printed directly onto textiles, which led to disposable fashions. Think Paper Caper dresses and such. Imagine wearing your clothes a few times and throwing them into the trash can rather than the laundry basket. These sorts of disposable fashions didn’t fall out of fashion until the rise of environmental consciousness. (Thank goodness for environmental consciousness!)  

But what about the patterns? I dare say we take them for granted, no doubt due to their ubiquitousness–they’re everywhere! Patterns hold histories and connotations, whether we realize it or not. Take polka dots, for example. According to Stewart, dots and spots–polka dots–gained popularity “from an extended craze for polka music” that overtook Europe in the mid-1800s. But in Medieval Europe, polka dots were reminiscent of disease and death. Specifically, syphilis, bubonic plague, measles, and more. Yet we enjoy polka dot patterns on an array of items, from notebooks to scrapbooking paper, t-shirts to bathing suits, bedding to curtains, and so on, without considering their history. Not to mention the parallel Stewart draws between dot art and activism–bravo!

Overall, Stewart’s Patternalia is as charming as it is interesting. My only criticism is that it ends rather abruptly, not unlike this review. As for the other patterns–plaid, paisley, stripes, fleur-de-lis, checkered, houndstooth, etc.–you’ll have to check it out for yourself. I leave you with this anonymous quote: “Even a small dot can stop a big sentence, but a few more dots can give a continuity…”

As always, happy reading.

The First Day of Spring is but two days away: Easter Lilies, jonquils, irises, and daffodils push up through soil; buds return to trees; avid gardeners start seeds; and cats pounce Springtime prey. Indeed, Spring is upon us. As are the allergies, the thunderstorms, and the bugs. I thought I would try to appreciate these creepy-crawlies by reading David MacNeal’s “Bugged: The Insects Who Rule the World and the People Obsessed with Them.”

We’re introduced to bugs with a staggering statistic: “for every one of us [humans] there are roughly 1.4 billion insects.” According to MacNeal, that’s 10 quintillion bugs, approximately 7,400,000,000 humans and 10,000,000,000,000,000,000 insects. In other words, it’s a bug’s world and we’re all just living in it. It makes sense, then, that we learn about the who, what, when, where, and whys of bugs and the influence they have.

MacNeal opens his self-proclaimed cabinet of curiosities with those who breathe life into dead bugs. That is, bug taxidermists. In an Entomology Department (of a boutique) in Lower Manhattan, we learn that pinning bugs isn’t as simple as catching one and shoving a pin through its thorax. Meet Lorenzo, who’s pinned and mounted bugs for twenty-plus years. He pulls a water bug (cockroach, really) out of an overnight-soak solution. Equally appalling and interesting is that the bug was dried, packaged, and shipped from Thailand to be mounted and purchased in NYC. Lorenzo further prepares this cockroach, I mean water bug, by carefully removing its innards and otherwise making it suitable for mounting and selling. In short, it must look good—collectors like a pretty bug. And, oh, the amounts of money they’ll spend to get one.

Vanity collections and collectors aside, MacNeal illustrates that all sorts of people study all sorts of bugs for all sorts of reasons. Leaving Lower Manhattan’s buggy boutique, we go underground with entomologists who study ants. We discover that their studies and modeling of ant behavior may lead to a better understanding of our own interactions with and impacts on the world. We learn how ants have influenced algorithms, specifically that of the Internet’s transmission-control protocol (TCP).

We come up for air in Colorado, where a woman works with tarantulas in a “Rearing Room” and we head to a “Mosquito Factory” in Brazil. In Brazil, we dig into the seemingly useless lives of mosquitoes not unlike the way they will soon dig into us. Fun fact: Half of human deaths, since the history of humans, are attributed to mosquitoes. Another fun fact: Beetles have destroyed over 60 acres of North American forests since 1994. Yet another: Because of bugs, wallpaper was once infused with DDT (which wasn’t banned until 1972).

Yet, in spite of death and decimation, bugs are, in fact, beneficial. Well, maybe not mosquitoes (or fleas), but bugs spur innovation. Insects can help us become healthier, fight disease, and, according to the author, perhaps help us “end our antibacterial plight.” Not to mention the increasingly apparent health benefits of eating bugs. Seriously! ‘Micro-livestock,’ as those within the field call them, contain significantly more calcium and iron than meats commonly consumed in the Western world. Other bug benefits include “first responders” that gnaw through decay, pest-controlling insects that save billions of dollars per year in the US alone, and the positive affects bugs have had on 21st century medicine.

What I took away from this book is for every bad bug, there is a good bug. Do I have a greater appreciation for these creepy-crawlies? Uh, sure. Other than mosquitoes. Lastly, I might mention that this book is not for the weak-stomached, as the author describes exterminators who allow bed-bugs to feed on their arms (and he tries it himself), the horrific symptoms of those with yellow fever, and other gut-wrenching, stomach-churning matter. Overall, the content of this book was fascinating, if at times appalling, and the writing good, if at times dense. You know, dense like the jungle. Where there are lots of bugs.

As always, happy reading.