Today I had the opportunity to hear one of the most creative artists/authors in modern times. Collin College chooses a Book-in-Common for all the campuses to read at the beginning of every academic school year.
This year’s selection was Lauren Redniss’ Radioactive—Marie & Pierre Curie, A Tale of Love and Fallout.
The publicbooks.org website describes Redniss’ books as
“genre defying” and “combin[ing] oral history, visual art, reportage, and archival research to create volumes that look a bit like graphic novels but read like nothing else you’ve ever experienced.”
Another website, The Comics Grid, offers Radioactive,
“uses expressive drawings, lettering, layouts, tableaus, colour, photographs and archival documents to challenge traditional biographical conventions.”
These quotes express my sentiment as I searched for words to describe this unique reading experience.
Lauren’s writing background: From 2001–2010, she wrote Op-Ed Pages for the New York Times non-fiction drawings.
Her literary publications: Century Girl (2006), Thunder & Lighting (2015), Oak Flats- A Fight for Sacred Land in the American West (2020) video interview.
She started with the black-and white, one-dimensional Op-Ed’s shown below:
Redniss’ extraordinary portraits of the people who work behind the scenes at the New York City Ballet are prominently displayed in the ballet entrance building. The article “Portraits of Backstage Stars of the New York City Ballet” gives readers the story behind this noteworthy project.
Her nonfiction books draw from primary research sources, such as Charles Darwin’s handwritten notes, Marie & Pierre Currie’s handwritten love letters, and more.
Lauren takes the stage at the Collin College McKinney campus conference center.
Here’s a deeper dive into her nonfiction art book RADIOACTIVE–Marie & Pierre Curie, A Tale of Love and Fallout. Click here for her 2011 National Book Award Finalists Reading video. Parts of the cover of this 8-inch x 11-inch, 205-page book have a slightly raised sandpaper feel and glow in the dark, which was a surprise.
Lauren Redniss met with Marie and Pierre’s great-granddaughter in Paris to obtain first-hand research items for her book. She briefly described this meeting, and I wish I had audio-taped her presentation to give all the accurate details.
The thick, construction-like paper used for Redniss’ book have a weighty feel and nicely display her artwork, colored pages, real photographs, and writing. Chapters 1-3 comprise Part I, and Part II contains Chapters 4-9.
“The sensitive plate, the gas which is ionized, the fluorescent screen, are in reality receivers, into another kind of energy, chemical energy, ionic energy . . . luminous energy.”–Marie Curie
Redniss’ artwork has an elongated, ethereal, and almost uncomfortable feel about it. The font type of the book is set in Eusapia LR. Perhaps keeping with an artistic flow, the author created many of the pages to have irregular top, bottom, and side margins. The spacing between the typed lines also varies, seeming to follow a natural pattern of their own.
Redniss explains her use of Cyanotype Print (video) as shown and described in the pictures below:
An example of a Cyanotype Print page below:
Beyond the artwork, Radioactive is knit together with researched facts, historical photos, and direct quotations from the people of relevance during this period of scientific discovery.
On the page below, notice how the author slips in and out of fact giving and direct quotes…
MARIE: “He caught the habit of speaking to me of his dream of an existence consecrated entirely to scientific research, and asked me to share that life.”
This is a useful literary tactic for the average, non-scientific reader. And I consider myself a non-science person, in general, so having these personal voices interjected amongst the scientific jargon and artwork, helped pull me in to the story.
Marie Currie’s love affair with Paul Langevin will need to wait for another blog post! it is a complicated one that deserves more time than this post allows.
There’s A LOT of brain power represented in the picture below… do you recognize anyone?
Redniss’ use of solid colored pages announces specific themes and moods in her book. For instance, these two black pages preface the WWI years in Marie and the collective world’s lives.
Along with the irregular font, page format, and artwork, the book’s copyright page placement caught my attention. It is placed on the second to last page of the book. Another artistic feature that keeps readers’ interest.
Redniss uses real photos to pull readers into the WWI frenzy. It was interesting to read about Marie’s contribution to the war efforts. The IEEE Spectrum website offers:
“When World War I broke out in Europe that year, Curie saw a way to apply her expertise to help save the lives of wounded soldiers.
She realized that the electromagnetic radiation of X-rays could help doctors see the bullets and shrapnel embedded in the soldiers’ bodies and remove them, as well as locate broken bones.”
The Curie’s and Marie’s legacy will live on throughout human history. Radioactive highlights many more of their (her) accomplishments, accolades, and personal life details. But I have run out of time… those details will have to come to life in another post:)
This book is a must-read if you enjoy reading about history and world changers!
Looking forward to reading all of Lauren Redniss’ books!
Many THANKS to the Collin College Book-in-Common team who brought Lauren Redniss to the Collin campuses.
And thanks to my writing center manager, Katie Wallace, for giving me time to learn from this experience.
If you have read this beautiful book, please comment!
Sarah Heinzelmann Andersen