George Herriman, a Life in Black and White
By Michael Tisserand. Harper, 560 pp., $35
Beloved by fans – including E.E. Cummings, Carl Sandburg, Dr. Seuss, and Stan Lee — the comic strip “Krazy Kat” was filled with “philosophical musings, literary allusions, restless desert scenery” and an unsettling blend of joy and despair. In the ambigious relationships between the black Krazy and his tormentor, the white mouse Ignatz, “Krazy Kat” played relentlessly with references (some playful, others not) to race — this at a time in American history when eugenics and race science reigned supreme and when racial passing was a scandalous topic. Known for its “meditations on language, identity, and the nature of reality,” the comic strip sometimes turned to the secret of Krazy’s own origins — “a tale which must never be told, and yet which everyone knows.”
In one of the year’s best biographies, Michael Tisserand profiles George Herriman, the man behind “Krazy Kat,” who was born black in Louisiana in 1880 but who passed, along with his family, into whiteness in Los Angeles in 1890. A New Orleans writer who has previously published a history of zydeco music, Tisserand writes beautifully about the man and his art, as well as the lively world both inhabited. Herriman’s early work drawing sports comics often touched on racial controversy — this was the era in which Jack Johnson broke boxing’s color line — and he soaked up influences as well from modern art, jazz, and the Navajo culture he grew to love. Herriman, who struggled with poor health and an almost crippling habit of self-deprecation, emerges as a kind of cultural hero, like his comic strip, “in a state of constant reinvention, an emblem of a modern age.”
PERFUME: A Century of Scents
By Lizzie Ostrom. Pegasus, 384 pp., $26.95
“For most of us, a particular fragrance will always offer much more than smell alone,” writes Lizzie Ostrom, a historian of perfume. In this witty, entertaining new book, Ostrom surveys the 20th century by examining 10 key scents created in each decade from the forgotten scents of the belle époque to midcentury classics like White Shoulders, L’Air du Temps, and Youth Dew to more recent fads (remember when we all wore the ubiquitous CK One?). Smell, she points out, is our most nostalgic sense, “the magic key to unlocking memory.” But behind each scent is its own story — from the chemical compounds used to produce it to the marketing and advertising used to convince us that wearing it will transform our lives.
It turns out that a history of perfume is both wide-ranging and oddly intimate; after all, Ostrom writes, “a scent is as much about the people who wear it as the people who make it.” A perfume’s connotations change over time, especially when those who wear it grow older: Those scents that seemed so young and vibrant in the 1950s now signal alert children that their grandmother is visiting. The same fate looms for 1970s blockbuster Charlie, which Ostrom dubs “the disco perfume,” and even for good-old CK One, “the grunge perfume” of the 1990s. Ostrom is English, and some of her references are quite specific to her London-based life and research; still, American readers will share many of her memories, whether of Giorgio Beverly Hills, “infamous for its tenacity,” or the more innocent pleasures of the Body Shop’s White Musk, beloved by schoolgirls for its “safe sophistication.”
Why You Get More Done When You Work Less
By Alex Soojung-Kim Pang
Basic, 320 pp., $27.50
Americans are known for overworking, notes Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, along with rushing, multitasking, and frowning on those who sleep or daydream. Especially in Silicon Valley, where the author lives, “the reigning assumption is that success is a race against time and obsolescence.” But time spent in England convinced Pang to take a look at the idea of rest — whether through sleep, vacation, and nonwork activities like walking and other exercise — and its relationship to creativity and productivity. “Rest is not work’s adversary,” he concludes. “Rest is work’s partner. They complement and complete each other.”
Pang blends advice, storytelling, and scientific research in a way that’s been familiar since readers first met Malcolm Gladwell (and with its one-word title and simple cover — a vintage beach chair against a blank background — Pang’s book looks as if it’s related to blockbusters by the author of “Blink” and “Outliers”). But he writes with an admirable focus on balance, on pleasure as well as success; in the end, it’s difficult to argue with his conclusions. “If you want to burn out and die young, no one will stop you,” Pang writes, “but if you want to live to a ripe old age, enjoy that life, and be engaged and active throughout, it seems deliberate rest can help you get there.”
Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at email@example.com.