For whatever blessed reason, committing poems to memory appears to be back in vogue. Here, Penguin USA and Inkle Studios transport that impulse for learning verse “by heart” from the one-dimensional world of the page to the digital realm’s multimedia expanse with a nifty app.
Readers can download the app for free, then purchase small bundles of thematically grouped classics, creating their own “library” of poems to work through at their own pace. Each poem is tagged with a level of difficulty—Blake’s quatrain “Eternity” is deemed “Easy,” Canto I of the Inferno, “Very Hard”—and prefaced with a brief biographical note. One can read the work in its entirety and/or listen as a voice (female or male) recites the poem. The app’s audio recordings are just serviceable, lacking the drama created by verse performed with a sense of audience. Its most engaging feature sits to the right of each poem, where tapping the “Learn This” button requires the timed filling in of missing words from each clause. One’s score in attempting perfect memorization is then tallied, pinball-machine–like, yielding compliments like “Not bad” and “Amazing.” The sweet reward of successful poetic assimilation awaits on completion of the fifth level of difficulty, when readers can record and save their own recitation of the poem. The repetition involved in attempting such word-for-word recall leads painlessly to fuller comprehension. And while Penguin’s current “poetry store” selections hail from 15 poets as Dead White Male as they come (only Emily Dickinson and Elizabeth Barrett Browning represent the fairer sex, and Wallace Stevens alone saw the 20th century), the app provides unique points of entry to famous poems at the lexical level.
A sophisticated, wildly addictive tool for avowed poetry lovers.
A century in the life of a small American house, told in brief sentences and remixable words.
The top third of the screen of this app has three parts. One is a floor plan of the house at 18 Cadence, with a modest porch, living room, kitchen and two bedrooms. Second is a sentence-long description of a person in one of those rooms. Third is a list of objects in the room. Reed means to show how the American home has changed over time, and despite the concision of its narrative—often just one sentence and a few stray details—the story acquires an emotional resonance. In the early 1920s, the home is occupied by three sisters, one tormented by her homosexuality. In the ’30s and ’40s, a family moves in with three boys who head off to fight in World War II. By the ’80s and ’90s, the decrepit building has become off-campus housing and ultimately a drug den. The objects in the rooms change, from Sears catalogs to portraits to bongs, but the app allows readers to scrapbook while reading. Every word on the top third of the screen can be moved to a “workbench” and manipulated in various ways—stacked to make found poetry, combined to make longer sentences and cut back up again (a razor-knife tool helps with the cutting). Options are limited: Readers can’t, for instance, combine fragments from different rooms or different years into one sentence. But the effect of seeing words accrue on the workbench separately is surprisingly affecting. The books and utensils acquire a kind of personality unique to the time they were used; the military medals of one resident are as totemic as the Pink Floyd poster of another.
Despite a bare-bones narrative, an intriguing and even absorbing exploration of the power of objects across time.
An art photographer’s striking reimagining of Zambia’s unusual effort to launch a space program.
The physical book of The Afronauts caused a sensation in the art world when it was published in 2012; copies currently sell for upward of $4,500. The appeal is obvious: Taking her cue from an article about a schoolteacher’s attempt to enter Africa into the space race in the early ’60s (he was “certain Mars is populated by primitive natives,” he wrote in a newspaper article), De Middel imagines scenes from the training program in ways that address African folklore, Western condescension and romantic notions of space travel. A man is shown in a flight suit with the stereotypical frilled accessories of a “witch doctor”; a colorful but ramshackle miniature rocket is perched in a field, noble but nonfunctioning; a clichéd space alien rests on an examining table; an elephant nuzzles the oversized, bulbous, opaque space helmet of a trainee. (A diagram shows the afronaut’s space gear, including a “coconut water tank.”) De Middel’s photographs, drawings and manipulated news images elegantly capture a sense of wonder and a sense of futility simultaneously; the images’ bleached-out, Instagram-ish palette feels appropriately archival, the stuff of neglected history, but the game-for-anything postures of the would-be astronauts evoke the feeling of Sputnik and Apollo launches. (Aren’t all such photos always a bit propagandistic? Doesn’t spaceflight reflect a primal urge, no matter who’s doing it?) On a technical level, the app asks the user to do a little clumsy hunting around in a large image of stars to find the portal into the images, but the images themselves are well-displayed and retain their resolution with pinch-to-zoom gestures.
Brief but worth lingering on; though the app is wordless and there are only 40 photos, its beguiling imagery is consistently thought-provoking. (Requires iPad 2 and above.)
This sumptuous iBook presents a straightforward telling of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, accompanied by artwork that will send readers down the rabbit hole of delight.
It has been 150 years since Carroll trooped Alice before readers. In that time, there have been illustrations aplenty to go with the text, though arguably, John Tenniel caught the greatest fancy. There’s no Tenniel here, but a parade of gently animated artwork that delivers one pleasure after another. They appear in the form of short videos that convey the story read aloud, and in so many styles readers may wonder if the book couldn’t accommodate something by, say, Warhol, too. It is as though Carroll gave a great, inclusive, Whitman-esque hug to interpretation. Millicent Sowerby gets spooky; Arthur Rackham is all caricature and cream; Margaret Tarrant shimmers on the surface, like sunlight on a lake; Mabel Lucie Attwell is as Deco as a Tiffany lamp; Alice Woodward is mischievous; Gwynedd M. Hudson has the delicacy of a Fabergé egg; George Soper draws dreamscapes. Some of the animations of the old artwork can be a bit creepy—as the White Rabbit appears on the scene, for instance, he hops through four distinct illustrations, changing style with each—but then, so is the story. Chapter by chapter, videos precede sequences of still plates, which themselves precede the printed text. The nice, rich rumble of the narrator is counterpointed with voices of a young girl and strange creatures, all well-characterized.
A stellar—indeed, archival—addition to any library.
(Enhanced e-book/fantasy. 6 & up)
Blast their music at top volume and you will know “what it was like to hear men play rock ’n’ roll music.” So writes Hunter S. Thompson, making a cameo in this thoroughgoing biography of the iconic rock band.
The recent death of founder Ray Manzarek has brought renewed attention to the extent of The Doors’ influence over the last 45 years. Spearheaded by veteran producer and former Electra Records head Jac Holzman, this app bowed in just before Manzarek’s passing. Naturally, it is singer Jim Morrison, a walking train wreck, who commands the most attention, but Holzman and contributors such as David Fricke and Greil Marcus (with smaller pieces by Patti Smith, Barney Hoskyns and the band members themselves) give all due to the brilliant musicianship of Manzarek, guitarist Robby Krieger and drummer John Densmore. Each of the band’s albums is presented in detail, with sound samples that link to full files available from the iTunes store. There are lyrics too (even the blue ones of “The End”), as well as promo videos and technical notes on the details of recording (such as the fact that “Unknown Soldier,” from “Waiting for the Sun,” marks “the first use of 8-track Dolby ‘A’ on a pop record.” An additional gallery offers a trove of still photographs, videos, demos, concert posters and other material. All the material is easily navigable and intuitively laid out. Fair warning to fans and rock geeks: This poses every danger of being an enormous time sink, since each piece is part of the puzzle, from a recent gubernatorial pardon granted to Morrison for the infamous charge of lewd and indecent behavior to Francis Ford Coppola explaining how the opening sequence of Apocalypse Now came into being.
A model of multimedia publishing and an essential for fans of the band and students of rock history alike.
Poe’s classic short story of murder and madness is here subtly but effectively repurposed to haunt the dreams of a whole new generation of readers.
It’s been 170 years since Poe’s chilling first-person narrative was first published in an ill-fated Boston-based magazine called The Pioneer. But this marvelously restrained iPad app might just be the ultimate platform for conveying the claustrophobic creepiness inherent in Poe’s gothic tale of a killer betrayed by his own insanity. Snatches of Poe’s first-person narration are found scrawled on a textured background that resembles a pitted wall; they must be manipulated, twisted and turned in order to discover the next outburst of literary lunacy. Slowly and even painstakingly, tracing the story in this most tactile way brilliantly mirrors the disjointed, zigzagging inner workings of the protagonist’s tortured mind while also creating an uncomfortable intimacy with the unnamed antihero. Additionally, following the crooked etchings—which vary in font as well as physical orientation—up, down, over and around conjures an unmistakable feeling of being alone in the dark with an unwelcome someone reading over your shoulder. Poe’s eerily elegiac prose is faithfully rendered. Isolating it bit by bit while maintaining a linear, if wildly undulating flow adroitly capitalizes on the rising tension.
Poe’s psychological masterpiece is perfectly matched with just enough digital interactivity to chill readers anew. (Requires iOS 6 and above.)
A thoroughly well–thought-through app takes experts and neophytes alike through the tangles—literally—of the human body.
Anatomy is the bane of medical students, art students, dance students—anyone whose work requires knowing the difference between a metatarsal and a mentalis, to say nothing of an acromioclavicular ligament and an annular one. As with real-world lab courses, the app opens with a skeleton in what an art historian might call a relaxed orant pose. Through a process of addition by means of menus on the right-hand side of the screen (which can be moved to the left for those who wish), various layers of muscles, arteries, veins, organs, nerves and other elements can be placed on the skeleton. Each can also be removed, and parts of each can also be taken away to focus on discrete subsections. Each element has an information panel glossing it: For instance, of the gastric arterial branches, users learn, “The left and right gastric arteries and the left and right gastroepiploic arteries supply the lesser and greater curvatures of the stomach respectively. These arteries send branches over the stomach to supply the body, pylorus and fundus of the stomach.” Which is just so, but this can be fed back, so to speak, in numerous ways, including timed or untimed quizzes and rotated views that can be bookmarked for future study. Views can also be annotated with a stylus or finger (the latter of which might help train future doctors to scribble illegibly).
Impeccably designed and one of the best of a wide field of competitors. An invaluable addition to the iPad toolbox of students of the human body. (Requires iOS 6 & up.)
Think you make a good cup of joe? This delightful e-book might have you rethinking your answer—or at least dropping some money on some new gear.
Ordinary consumers may have a jones for java, but authors Haft and Suarez take it to extremes. It’s an addiction they came by honestly as Marine infantry officers, “perpetually sleep-deprived from the training, the planning, the preparations for war.” Having graduated from coffee as a “bitter caffeine-delivery system” to a perfect blend of art and science, they here serve up several strategies for making a perfect cup of brew, and in doing so, they prove that what we once knew is all wrong. For instance, they argue, pouring boiling water on ground coffee lends it a metallic taste, whereas in numerous methods of brewing coffee, such as the French press, “you usually want the water somewhere between 196 and 204 degrees”—which, they note, is below the boiling point. If it seems that Haft and Suarez are demanding the devotion to a cup of coffee that Zen monks pay to the perfect cup of tea, then that’s by design; moreover, they bring to the table a mad scientist’s compulsion to experiment, delivering a few grand discoveries along the way. Not least of these is the fact that it’s possible to brew a delicious, complex cup without boiling water at all, so long as you don’t mind waiting 12 hours or so to drink up. The e-book is well-designed and easy to bookmark, dotted with pleasantly cheerful videos with an appropriately jazzy, jolting soundtrack.
Altogether, an excellent production. The downside: You’ll likely be investing in a burr grinder and industrial-strength Moka pot, as well as relearning the metric system. The upside: Your coffee henceforth is going to be worthy of a world-class barista.