Obsessed with Stradivarius violins, the Curies, and cupcakes

Lauren Redniss’s latest is a biography of Pierre and Marie Curie in graphic-novel style. Lauren Redniss’s latest is a biography of Pierre and Marie Curie in graphic-novel style. (Abigail Pope)
By Amanda Katz
Globe Correspondent / January 9, 2011

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Lauren Redniss’s gorgeous new book, “Radioactive,’’ is an illustrated biography of Marie and Pierre Curie — part meditation on the Curies’ astonishing discoveries and their implications (X-rays, nuclear bombs), part love story between scientific collaborators “who lived in a preoccupation as complete as that of a dream.”

Redniss, whose glowing cyanotypes and drawings are dreamlike themselves, grew up in New England. She now lives in New York, where she teaches at the Parsons School of Design.

What books did you read in researching “Radioactive’’?

Of course I read lots of biographies of the Curies. Also, much of “Radioactive’’ is about contemporary ramifications of the Curies’ work. So I read Richard Rhodes’s amazing books —“The Making of the Atomic Bomb’’ and “Arsenals of Folly’’ — and Tom Vanderbilt’s “Survival City,’’ David Harvie’s “Deadly Sunshine’’ (about the history of radium), and oral histories from Hiroshima and Three Mile Island. I did much of the research at two libraries: the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, where the Curie archives are held, and the New York Public Library.

What are you reading now?

Two different books by Toby Faber. Oddly, he wrote books on both of my two current obsessions: Stradivarius violins and Fabergé eggs. I read in the paper the other day that a young violinist had her Strad stolen while she bought a sandwich. I thought, not again! There are only something like 600 Stradivarius instruments in the world — can’t people hang on to them? I started doing a little research and found Toby Faber’s book, “Stradivari’s Genius.’’

Meantime, I make cupcakes a lot. I like to have a theme for each batch. It occurred to me that Fabergé egg-themed cupcakes would be the Mount Everest of cupcake challenges —each one would open to reveal some perfectly crafted, bejeweled miniature made of sugar. And go figure, Toby Faber wrote a book about Fabergé eggs. It’s fascinating — a history of Czarist Russia and its demise told through these incredible objects.

What books made the greatest impression on you last year?

I loved Gary Shteyngart’s “Super Sad True Love Story.’’ It’s so brilliant and so funny. Also, a book called “Saisons’’ (“Seasons,’’ in English) by a French artist, Blexbolex. He communicates big ideas with minimal means, simply by the way he juxtaposes images and words. There is one idea per page, and the art is gorgeous. It’s really a philosophy book.

What books do you value most in your personal library?

My most precious books are the one friends have written or given me. Some amazing Japanese children’s books. A collection of reprinted dance posters my parents found in a secondhand store. A Victorian book called “Gaskell’s Compendium of Forms’’ — the subtitle is nearly a page long.

Did you grow up as a reader?

I read a fair amount as a kid. I don’t think I was particularly exceptional. But people in my family were great storytellers. My grandfather talked a lot about being a private in World War II. He talked as much, say, about the vivid blue on the lip of a pitcher that a young Italian girl held as about being on the front lines. Maybe that’s why I turn to oral history in my work.

Given your book’s distinctive design, what’s your take on the shift to e-books?

I think electronic books are a fantastic medium, for portability and access, and for the dimensions of storytelling they are opening up — the possibility of adding sound and moving pictures.

I’d love to create an electronic book. But I’ll continue making bound paper books, too. Painting didn’t vanish when movies came in. A new form has opened up, and that’s great.

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