"A Secret History of Coffee, Coca and Cola" by Ricardo Cortes (Akashic Books)
The story of cocaine -- and the drug war itself -- is mixed up with our own history of industry and medicine, as well as our compulsion to squash other cultures.
Writer/artist Ricardo Cortes, who most recently gained notoriety as the illustrator of the questionable classic picture book, "Go The F*** To Sleep," has taken it upon himself to, as clearly as possible, relate cultural connections in a way should leave plenty of question marks floating in your head.
Tracing the origins of coffee and cola, and relating the scientific effort to isolate the source of their invigorating properties -- caffeine -- Cor tes moves into similar territory with coca, the plant which is used to manufacture cocaine.
Cortes manages to put all this information into proper context, though. Rather than is olate anti-coca mania as a reaction to a specific drug, he documents the previous hysteria a gainst caffeine and the way such attitudes were used not only to control the behavior of children, but to direct racist attitudes toward African and Jewish Amer icans, and he looks at co caine's early days as a miracle drug.
In the case of coca, Cortes lays out documentation for a collusion between government and the Coca Cola Company to outlaw a thousands-of-years old tradition of coca leaf chewing and completely redirect the rights to grow the plant to Coke.
It's a bit of cultural rape that South American countries have not really been able to override -- the United States continually stops any attempt at protest -- and it allows the government to grow its own cocaine for use in the development of pesticides and biological wea pons for the war on drugs.
Take into account that this is a picture book, though -- Cortes' presentation is not the typical dense, non-fiction work, but a highly illustrated one, where emotions and im pact are present in brief graphical terms, dancing with the harder history, and with a meticulous bibliography.
Regardless of your feelings about cocaine, Cortes has created a powerful retelling of cultural bullying on the part of the United States and, taken as an example of a wider view toward the world, the book should be mandatory reading in at least middle school history classes.
"Cancellations" by Thomas Barrow (Powerhouse Books)
As a symbol, an "x" is not a kind one. It is generally used to mark something either for further use or as completed, or to cross out something that is wrong. Either way, some form of violence comes to mind -- further use might be digging or maybe demolition.
We've all seen the red x's that adorn condemned buildings as signposts for destruction. In proofread copy, a red x is a mark of violence, certainly, demanding that whatever mark lurks below it should now be wiped out from the work.
In "Cancellations," photographer Thomas Barrow makes use of the shock of the x as a way to mark his images of a mostly desolate and often industrial landscape. Begun in 1973 and finished in 1981, the project had Barrow capturing spots in New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and California. Humans pop up exactly once in the work; the rest is devoted to metal debris, abandoned parking lots, dilapidated factories, fencing, abandoned project sites, displaced storage bins and anything else you can think of that, though inanimate, looks sad and lonely against a desert highway and barren landscape.
Most of these images has an x ripped across the negative -- Barrow apparently used an ice pick to make these marks -- except for the few that have several hole punches in them instead, and these physical marks offer a fiction that links all the images beyond their subject matter, an extra dimension to the flat space that extends into the imagination of the viewer.
What about these sites needed to be crossed off? Is it a symbol that we are done with them? Are they like makeshift gravestones that stand solemnly and physically etched on an image that is nothing more than light and shadow? Or is it a statement on photography itself? Is the act of capturing the moments of these sites in their sad afterlife a conceit that deserves to be blotted out?
It's for the viewer to ponder, though I'm certain no actual answer will be forthcoming.
What you are left with is the beauty of Barrow's photographic renderings, the magnetism of his tour of a haunting landscape abandoned by innovation and a psychological mark that this is something more than a mere photograph we are looking at.
In that way, Barrow has perfectly captured the nature of the American landscape, a place defined by what has lived there and then abandoned it. It's the perfect series of portraits of our country.