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Marie Curie, in 'Radioactive'

November 7, 2011 |  2:53 pm

RadioactiveToday's Google Doodle let searchers know that Nov. 7 is the 144th anniversary of Marie Curie's birth. That seemed like the perfect occasion to take a quick look at one of the most unusual books among this year's National Book Award finalists: "Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love And Fallout" by Laura Redniss.

Redniss is an author and artist; her version of the story of Nobel Prize-winning scientist Marie Curie's life (and Pierre's) is up for the nonfiction award. What makes that unusual is that "Radioactive," published by It Books, a pop culture imprint of HarperCollins, is a blend of artwork and text wherein the art is just as important as the words. It's not a graphic novel, exactly -- for one thing, it's not fiction, and for another, it has no pages in which panels advance the story. The artwork and text take over each page or page spread completely. Maybe that is a graphic novel -- and graphic nonfiction? A graphic dual history-biography?

What looks like pretty, slightly sadly romantic artwork is actually well-researched. Redniss visited the house in Warsaw where Marie Curie was born, interviewed her granddaughter at the Curie Institute in Paris, went to Idaho to learn about nuclear research and space, visited Nevada to talk to nuclear weapons specialists and went to San Bernardino to learn about new radiation treatment for cancer.

But what's really lovely about "Radioactive" is how closely the form of the book hews to the content (see some pages here). On her website, Redniss writes:

I made the artwork for the book using a process called “cyanotype.” Cyanotype is a camera‐less photographic technique in which paper is coated with light‐sensitive chemicals. When the chemically treated paper is exposed to the sun’s ultraviolet rays, it turns a deep blue color. Photographic imaging was critical to both the discovery of X-rays and of radioactivity, so it made sense to me to use a process based on the idea of exposure to create the images in Radioactive.

The cover of the book is even printed, in part, with glow-in-the-dark ink. "I always loved things that glowed in the dark," she told the Economist's More Intelligent Life earlier this year. "I love anything from underwater creatures that phosphoresce to luminescent ink. I went through a period a few years ago when I was doing a lot of silkscreen printing, and in every print I included luminescent ink. So all of those prints would have one presence with the lights on and if you turned the lights off they would become different prints. I just find it magical."

The National Book Awards will be Nov. 16 in New York.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

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