Thursday, October 27, 2011

Featured Item of the Week: Oddballs

Our much-anticipated copy of Heavenly Monkey’s latest publication, Oddballs, by Jim Westergard, arrived last week. Upon unwrapping the book, we were immediately drawn in by the quirky biographical sketches and humorous wood-engraved portraits of people who were “quietly or outlandishly out of the ordinary.”

On the Heavenly Monkey Blog, Rollin Millroy mentions how it was fun flipping through the book with customers at the Seattle Book Fair, “watching reactions and seeing how different oddballs stood out to different people.” In the same spirit, and after much debate, Phil, Shannon and I have chosen our own favorite oddballs:

Phil was drawn to the reclusive and eccentric brothers Homer & Langley Collyer (p. 34), who lived and died among the 140 tons of hoarded materials that they accumulated over decades in their three-story Harlem brownstone. These included years of newspapers that Langley claimed to be saving for the day when his brother Homer, who was blind, regained his sight. Langely was eventually done in by one of the booby traps that he had set up to guard against break-ins, while trying to reach his brother by tunneling through the refuse. While he hopes to avoid their fate, Phil nevertheless admires the obsessive focus that defined their oddity, and the touch of irony in their demise.
George Adamski, another Oddball

My oddball of choice has to be Pope Joan (p.72), who, according to Westergard, “deserves the prize for pulling off the grandest hoax.” I first encountered her extraordinary story when cataloging a leaf from the Nuremberg Chronicle. In the 10th century, Joan became the only female pope ever elected (unbeknownst to her electors at the time). As a young, intelligent girl, Joan dressed as a boy in order to obtain an education. After studying in Rome and becoming a priest, she ascended the church hierarchy, finally being named Pope John Anglicus. Legend has it that her true gender was revealed a few years into her reign, when she gave birth to a son while mounting a horse on a street in Rome. After this revelation, she was either killed or confined to a convent, depending on the account. The Nuremberg Chronicle includes a portrait of Pope Joan holding her baby son in her arms, but the portrait was defaced in many copies of the book.

Out of all the oddballs past and present, Shannon’s favorite is the frontispiece self-portrait of the author/artist himself. This portrait alone is worth the price of admission, capturing Westergard’s sense of humor and setting the tone for the rest of the book. In the Foreword, Westergard explains that he collects articles and stories about odd people and situations, which would sometimes become inspiration for prints or drawings.

According to the printer, the book’s glassine wrapper, which has an intricate spiderweb pattern, was only intended to protect the book and was not a deliberate part of its design. We are very fond of this jacket, though, and, like the Collyer brothers, we decided to keep it.

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