Saturday, October 31, 2009

In Memory of My Best Friend

We had the most wonderful dog in the world. It's been 2 years since he died, but I still think of him almost every day. I wrote about it at the time of his death, but shared with only a few people. I'm reposting it now.

Rusty was lethargic today and had been increasingly off his food. We were unable to coax him to get up and go outside. He had an accident while lying on his bed. His expression seemed to say it was humiliating to soil himself and couldn’t we see that it was time? When Charley got home from school today, the three of us talked and agreed it was. He no longer had the strength or will to enjoy life.

It was around 7 PM when he died.

Emergencies delayed Dr. Kelly and his assistant Gail. When they arrived, we talked about what had been happening with Rusty — his decline, increasing seizures (2 last week), almost daily incontinence, loss of appetite, inability to stand or walk, and the faraway look in his eyes. They were kind and compassionate and let us spend as much time as we needed to say goodbye. It was very sad for all of us. When the time came, Dr. Kelly injected Rusty's hind right leg with a sedative that put him to sleep, then eased him into death. David stayed nearby, comforting him while he received the injection, and Charley and I stroked him until he stopped breathing. After a few minutes, Dr. Kelly listened to Rusty's heart and confirmed that he was gone.

Afterward, Dr. Kelly went out to prepare their car which was parked in the driveway, and I walked outside with Gail for a moment. When I went back into the kitchen, Charley was kneeling beside Rusty and wiping tears from his eyes. I don't think he wanted us to see him cry. We tried to close Rusty's eyes, but they stayed partly open. Dr. Kelly and Gail wrapped Rusty in a blanket, then David and Dr. Kelly carried him to their car. While Rusty laid on the blanket, we each gave him one last goodbye.

We asked them to let us know when Rusty's cremated remains would be available for us. We want to keep them until Andrew comes home -- or possibly forever. We thanked them for their willingness to come to our home, sparing Rusty the feeling of fear he would have experienced in his last moments had we taken him to Elliott Bay Animal Hospital to be euthanized. We shook hands with Gail and hugged Dr. Kelly, then said goodbye. I watched them back down the driveway knowing the body of our beloved friend was leaving forever.

And what an unforgettable, loving, wonderful, smart and noble friend he was. I want to remember his soft ears and his fur that never seemed to shed, his random white toes, the white blaze on his chest and the black-tipped tail. I want to remember what it felt like to wrap my arms around his neck and deep chest -- the smell of his head, his beautiful, expressive brown eyes. I want to remember how smart he was, figuring out things in a most human-like manner. And I want to remember how funny he was and how he could make everyone laugh. There will never be another like him.

It felt sad during dinner. David, Charley and I toasted him. We told Rusty stories that both warmed the heart and brought tears to my eyes. After dinner it felt strange to not feed him or walk him. After 14 years, there is a huge emptiness.

Rusty, aka Rusty the wonderdog, Googie, Roosty, Big Dog, Great Big, Great Big Dog (said with a Scottish accent) Dog that I love, Rusticulosis, Rustica, Silly old dog who looks like a log, Sill pill, and many other names of affection that somehow never confused him, who entered our lives for Andrew's 10th birthday (September 1993), gently departed from our lives October 1, 2007. We miss him terribly.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Welcome to Dystopia


If a utopia is a perfect and ideal world, then a dystopia is well, the opposite.  What’s the world coming to?  If a dystopia is set in the not-too-distant future, the population is often under the control of a big powerful Somebody who seems to have the best interests of humanity at heart, but who really just wants to keep everybody under thumb.  If the dystopia is of the post-apocalyptic kind, there’s usually the chaos of fleeing refugees or a desolate landscape populated by a few struggling survivors.  There’s oppression and fear, often some sort of mind-control device, biohazards and disasters natural or man-made galore, but always—lucky for us—one or two rebels who are determined to uncover the truth.  Dystopian fiction has deep roots—Aldous Huxley published Brave New World in 1932; Ray Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451 in 1953; George Orwell’s classic 1984 dates from 1949; even Lois Lowry’s dystopia for young readers, The Giver, has been around since 1993.  Every work of dystopian fiction is unique.  There are a myriad number of ways to image the future, but one thing’s for sure:  Thinking up the worst is a lot more interesting than thinking up the best.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, 1998, Random House Books, originally published 1985 (Literary Fiction/ Science Fiction)


The United States government has fallen and the righteous Republic of Gilead has taken its place.  In Gilead, women need to be protected.  They cannot be trusted with money or employment.  They must dress modestly and avoid the company of unknown men.  They cannot be allowed to read or write; information is too dangerous for the female sex.  Women must stay at home, minding the house, reading the Bible, caring for the children.  There’s a problem with that last womanly duty though--due to too many chemicals in the body and too much pollution in the air, the birthrate has fallen dramatically.  Second marriages and unmarried unions are declared immoral and illegal, and the women involved in any such relationships are rounded up, separated from their families, and—if they’ve given birth before—parceled out to Gilead’s high-ranking Commanders and their childless Wives.  These women are only valued for their wombs and if they fail to reproduce, they’re as good as dead.  They are the Handmaids of Gilead, and Offred is one of them.  The Handmaid’s Tale is her story, her memories of a former life with a husband and daughter, her hints about the events that led to the rise of the Republic, her understanding of Gilead’s rules and crimes, her decisions to trust or fear the Commander, his Wife, the chauffeur, the cook, and the other Handmaids.  With The Handmaid’s Tale, author Margaret Atwood spins a tale about the displays of power that can be made with sex, religion, fear, and obedience.  Offred’s choices are made painfully clear to the reader; the consequences of her oppressive existence linger long after the last page has been turned. 

The Children of Men by P.D. James, 1993, Knopf (Science Fiction)


In The Children of Men, author P.D. James images another future in which birthrates have plummeted.  In fact, there hasn’t been a single baby born for nearly twenty years.  Children are not the future, and civilization has ground to a halt.  War rages, borders are closed, refugees are persecuted, mass suicides are encouraged, desperation is the order of the day.  Theo Faron is one man in this barren future, a depressed, ineffectual history professor who happens to be the cousin of the dictator-like Ward of England.  Due to his connections, Theo is approached by an underground rebellion called the Fishes, a group that still hopes for a promising future because one of its members—a woman named Julian—is miraculously pregnant.  Soon Theo finds himself thrown in with the Fishes as Julian fights to keep her pregnancy secret from the ruthless government.  P.D. James is best known for her series of mysteries starring Detective Adam Dalgliesh; The Children of Men and its science fiction tones are a distinct departure for the bestselling writer.  But even fans who long for Adam’s return should stick with Theo and Julian—after a slow, deliberate start that chronicles the harsh realities of this futureless future, the drama and the pace pick up and new issues are brought to light.  Fans of books-turned-movies should watch 2006’s Children of Men, starring Clive Owen as Theo, Julianne Moore as Julian, and directed by Alfonso Cuarón.  The film takes some fascinating liberties with the plot and breaks new cinematic ground; it is a fine companion piece to the novel. 

Catching Fire:  Book 2 of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, 2009, Scholastic Books (Teen Fiction/ Fantasy/ Adventure)


Against all odds, sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen won the Hunger Games, the forced battle-to-the-death between twenty-four children from the twelve districts of Panem (the nation formerly known as the United States of America). The Capital holds the Hunger Games every year to remind its citizens of a long-ago failed rebellion, and to make sure the people know exactly who is in charge of not only their lives, but their children's lives as well. Now that she's won, Katniss wants nothing more than to get back to ordinary life, living with her mother and sister and hunting with her stoic friend Gale.  But Katniss' win was too unconventional to go unnoticed. To save herself and Peeta, the boy from her district who was also chosen to compete, Katniss pretended to fall in love with Peeta, and that lie broke all the rules. Now Katniss has the attention of the Capital officials and the long-suffering people, and both sides are waiting to see what Katniss will do next. Will she toe the Capital line to ensure the safety of her friends and family, or will she use her rebellion in the Games to spark something bigger? Katniss herself has no idea, but a heart-wrenching tour of the outlying districts and a horrific surprise from the Capital will make up her mind if nothing else does. Catching Fire is the second book in author Suzanne Collin's new trilogy. The first book, 2008's The Hunger Games, focused on Katniss' desperate and action-packed fight for survival. Catching Fire picks up where The Hunger Games left off and opens the story up from the stadium of the Games to the ins and outs of the larger world outside, with a detailed and suspenseful focus on the politics of this under-the-thumb dystopian world. Catching Fire is just as thrilling and gripping as The Hunger Games and with even more to think about. We can only wait with breaths held for the third book to find out how Katniss' superbly told fight turns out.

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, 2003, Doubleday Books (Literary Fiction/ Science Fiction)


Almost twenty years after The Handmaid’s Tale, critically-acclaimed author Margaret Atwood revisits dystopian fiction with Oryx and Crake.  This time, a lone man survives in a post-apocalyptic world along with a tribe of human-like super-beings.  A former resident of the high-tech corporate gated communities, Jimmy (now calling himself the Snowman after that other lonely, isolated, abominable creature of the past) spends his days avoiding bio-hazards and genetically engineered predators, scavenging for supplies from the RejoovenEsence compound, and watching over the peaceful Children of Crake.  Slowly, as he struggles to survive in this not-so brave new world, Jimmy reveals the story of his childhood friend Crake, a genius of genetics even at the age of eight; Oryx, the sexually-exploited girl Jimmy and Crake both obsessed over; and how the three of them brought about the creation of a new species and end of the mankind.  It’s a compelling mystery, supported by horrific details of the biotechnology-obsessed world that flourished before Crake’s work brought about its collapse.  Bleak though this world is, we’re in excellent hands with Margaret Atwood’s superb sense of satire, dark humor, and eerie realism.  Atwood seems to be dreaming of dystopia again in her latest book, 2009’s The Year of the Flood, and by all reports it too is a finely wrought, provocative work of “what if?”    

The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer, 2002, Simon and Schuster (Teen Fiction/ Science Fiction)


The House of the Scorpion is a hard world of drug lords, lost boys, computer implants, and clones.  Between the U.S. and the nation formerly known as Mexico lies Opium, a country covered in poppy fields and ruled by the ruthless drug lord Matteo Alacrán, better known, because of his great age and power, as El Patrón.  El Patrón keeps his country, his “eejits” (servants who have microchips in their brains to keep them slaving away without question), and his extensive family well under his thumb.  El Patrón also has clones.  Most clones get the numbing-and-dumbing brain chip, but not El Patrón’s.  The newest Matteo Alacrán—young Matt—gets to grow up with a normal intelligence, though not, he soon learns, with a normal anything else.  Clones are unnatural, lower than animals, inhuman monsters.  But there are people who love Matt—Celia, the maid who raises him; Tam Lin, the bodyguard appointed by El Patrón; and María, a little girl who’s too young, innocent, and stubborn to let the usual prejudices guide her.  Matt is occasionally called to the side of El Patrón and showered with gifts from the old man, but he’s mostly left to face the cruelty of the Alacrán family.  Even when Matt discovers the truth about the real reason for his existence, escape is no guarantee of freedom.  There are more trials to face, prejudices to overcome, a past to atone for, and a future that is uncertain to say the least.  A Newbery Honor book, a National Book Award winner, and a recipient of the Printz Award for Young Adult Literature, this is work of fiction that borders uneasily on fact.  There’s no guarantee that author Nancy Farmer has imagined a future that couldn’t really happen, which makes The House of the Scorpion a disturbingly addictive read.

Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler, 1993, Warner Books (Science Fiction)


    The year is 2025, and it’s hard to believe that life anywhere on earth could get worse. Massive environmental disasters and unchecked socioeconomic decline have turned the once-prosperous United States into a third world country complete with every imaginable aspect of suffering that entails—government as good as nonexistent, jaded law enforcement, unemployment, poverty, starvation, gang violence. The only relatively safe havens are small communities that build barricades around their streets to protect themselves from the rampant crimes of theft, rape, and murder that lie outside their locked and barred gates. Lauren Olamina, teenage daughter of a Baptist minister, lives with her family in one such walled community in southern California. It’s a close-knit place for its day; the people don’t have much but they can afford to band together, trade supplies, and watch each other’s backs. Lauren, however, is convinced the relative comfort that the neighborhood walls provide won’t last. Things on the outside are getting worse and people are becoming more desperate with every passing year--constant violence, extreme poverty, no water, not a job for miles. There’s even a new high-tech drug nicknamed “pyro” for the arsonist urge it compels in those who abuse it. Lauren is determined that when the time comes and the walls fail, she will be one to survive at any cost. It’s extraordinarily rare in Lauren’s world to meet an individual whose life has not been marred by suffering and loss, but Lauren has a personal philosophy that she calls Earthseed to get her through the pain-filled days. Instead of putting her trust in her father’s religion, Lauren’s God is the only constant in life: Change. Lauren records the discovery of her new faith along with the events of her life in a journal that provides the narrative format for Parable of the Sower. Reading the contents of Lauren’s diary is not always easy. The events of author Octavia E. Butler’s twenty-first century are more tragic than triumphant, but the reader has a reliable and capable narrator in young Lauren who, despite the horrors she endures, is always secure in her belief of a better future. Butler is a highly lauded author (the first science fiction writer to receive a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant and one of the few African American sci-fi writers) who pens her tales with a direct simplicity and grace that is appealing and inviting to readers of all genres. This finely wrought warning of a very possible future continues in a compelling sequel, Parable of the Talents.
    Feed by M.T. Anderson, 2002, Candlewick Press (Teen Fiction/ Science Fiction)


Titus and his friends go to the moon for spring break.  They drive futuristic “upcars.”  And they’re connected twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week to their feeds, computer implants that work like a high-tech hybrid of television, ipod, and Internet, directly networked to their brains.  The feeds tell them what products to buy.  The feeds play music and games.  World news is vastly outnumbered by commercials.  Titus rarely speaks—he can “chat” with others through his feed—but when he does, it’s with a raw, hesitant, barely legible slang.  Even the few news reports about war and toxic waste are instantly forgotten in a blare of consumerism and consumption.  Then Titus and his friends go to a club (on the moon, of course) where a hacker damages the party-goers’ feeds.  Recovering in the hospital--and temporarily unplugged--Titus meets Violet, a strange girl even for this bizarre world.  Violet has been brought up to pay attention to the events around her.  She notices cause and effect, listens to more news reports than commercials, and even turns her feed off once in awhile.  Titus is attracted to Violet, and even begins to question, in his own tentative and uncertain way, the issues and problems that Violet points out.  But when Violet’s feed proves irreparable (or is it just too risky to save the rebellious Violet?), Titus is not exactly equipped to handle his emotions well.  Author M.T. Anderson’s satire of the future is distinctly damaged and hopelessly empty.  There’s a pretty clear cautionary tale here, but it’s the story of an acquisition-obsessed society that rings all too true.  The audiobook version of Feed is a compelling way to experience the novel, with the voiced narration mimicking the commercial interruptions of the all-too invasive feed. 

Uglies by Scott Westerfeld, 2005, Simon Pulse Books (Teen Fiction/ Science Fiction)


The world of Uglies seems pretty ideal.  The future is a place without war, racism, or environmental destruction.  Even better, everyone is physically beautiful and their only job is to have fun.  Ready for the catch?  Up to the age of sixteen, people are ugly.  At least, they’re taught to believe that the faces they’re born with are ugly.  On their sixteenth birthday, everyone undergo a mandatory cosmetic surgery that reshapes their bones, widens their eyes, perfects their physiques, and makes them all conform to an ideal standard of beauty.  Then they’re sent to New Pretty Town to party all day and all night, with nary a care for the rest of their lives.  Tally Youngblood is an almost-sixteen-year-old ugly who can’t wait to be remade as a partying pretty.  But then she meets Shay, who criticizes the concept of beauty and questions the need for a surgery that, no matter how attractive it makes you, also removes any trace of the individuality that we’re all born with.  Tally’s unconvinced, but then Shay runs off to a mysterious place called the Smoke where a band of non-prettied people live in harmony with nature and their natural-born looks.  The very pretty, very scary officials from Special Circumstances come swooping down on Tally and offer her a terrible choice:  If Tally doesn’t follow Shay to the Smoke and betray her to the authorities, they’ll never let her turn pretty at all.  There are tough choices ahead for young Tally, but there’s a lot of fun for the reader—action scenes with hoverboards and bungee jackets, traces of our own modern-day society left in rusty ruins, and suspicions that there’s something much more sinister to being pretty than meets the eye.  Uglies is a gripping page-turner, a cutting-edge social commentary with a killer cliffhanger ending to boot.  Luckily, Uglies is the first of a seriesPretties, Specials, and Extras follow and pack quite the dystopian punch of their own.

Friday, October 23, 2009

I'd Rather Be Reading

Sometimes you’ll see athletes wearing t-shirts that say something like, “Eat, Sleep, Run.”  If you’re a bibliophile, your shirt (or more likely your book bag) says “Eat, Sleep, READ.”  You have stacks of books in your home.  You never go anywhere without a book.  Eating and sleeping are indeed biological requirements that you fulfill solely so that you can read more books.  In other words, you love books and you love to read.  And you’re not alone.  There are millions of bookworms out there, some more obsessed than others, but all with an irresistible urge to buy books, collect books, and/or read books.  And bibliomaniacs will be pleased to know that there is any number of writers who delight in similar book obsessions and write intelligently and lovingly about them.  Fiction, nonfiction, memoirs, essays, scholarly tomes—no genre is untouched by lovers of books.   You’ll come away from this list of books about books knowing full well that these rules of reading are true-blue:  Everyone reads in different ways for different reasons.  Every book has its reader; that reader may or may not be you.  You don’t have to finish every book you read.  You don’t have to read every book you buy.  And never, ever be embarrassed by what you read.  If you love it, read it.  End of story.

A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel, 1997, Penguin Books (Nonfiction/ Literary History)

     Noted Argentine writer Alberto Manguel takes us on a journey through time and geography to explore a single topic:  reading.  Whether ancient tribesmen are reading the pictures they’ve drawn on cave walls or you are reading this paragraph, reading—which Manguel defines as interpreting the meanings of signs or symbols—is something every human can do.  And the history of reading is fascinating.  Manguel does not tell this history from start to end; he jumps around in time and leaps across continents, telling an anecdote here or a explaining a myth there.  From Princess Enheduanna, one of the very few women to read in 2300 B.C. Mesopotamia, to acclaimed author Jorge Luis Borges, who Manguel himself read to when the writer went blind, Manguel shares the lives of the world’s readers.  He explores the role of libraries throughout the ages.  He profiles great authors and writers.  Most of all, Manguel celebrates how every individual reader recreates the written word with his or her own unique experiences and imagination.  Filled with photographs and illustrations that highlight ancient and modern readers alike, A History of Reading is an illuminating look at the deceptively simple act of reading.          

    Ex Libris:  Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman, 2000, Firrar, Straus and Giroux (Nonfiction/ Essays)


Anne Fadiman is a column writer, a journal editor, and an award-winning author.  She’s also a life-long reader, and that means more than all her other scholarly accomplishments in this collection of her eighteen essays that pay tribute to the love of books and reading.  Fadiman writes about how you’re not really married to someone until you combine book collections.  She muses on how reading the same book at different points in your life can change what the book means to you.  She goes into raptures over secondhand bookstores and lovingly critiques the best (and worst) inscriptions people write when they’re giving books to others.  She chronicles the difficulties of being both a lover of sesquipedalians (long words) and an obsessive-compulsive proofreader.  Fadiman is intelligent and passionate about books and her essays are written with a graceful elegance of style that will charm every kind of reader under the sun.  In Fadiman’s hands, reading becomes an art that is to be honed and nurtured over a lifetime.  Fadiman’s life is healthier, richer, funnier, and more rewarding because of her love of books, and that about sums it up for all us bookworms out there.  

     The Polysyllabic Spree by Nick Hornby, 2004, Believer Books/ McSweeney’s Press (Nonfiction/ Essays)




     Nick Hornby tapped into the minds of the rock-n-roll obsessed in his novel High Fidelity.  He wrote about the all-consuming passion for soccer in his memoir Fever Pitch.  Hornby also writes about another obsession in the British magazine Believer—his own obsession with reading.  As long as you’re a reader of books you’ll find something to love in this collection of Hornby’s columns from September 2003 to November 2004.  Each month, Hornby begins by listing books bought and books read.  Then he writes (chats, really) about what he bought and what he read and what he thought about the lot.  Hornby doesn’t read every book he buys.  He doesn’t finish every book he begins.  He wishes biographers didn’t feel the need to detail every moment of their subject’s lives—it would spare the reader a couple hundred pages.  He’s also routinely distracted from his reading by his children, his soccer team, the pub, and a generous supply of amusing anecdotes.  In other words, he’s a reader just like the rest of us—he loves to read but he’s got a life that sometimes gets in the way.  Warm, witty, informative and irresistible, Hornby’s essays are for the bibliophile in all of us.  There are two more collections of Hornby’s Believer columns, Housekeeping vs. the Dirt published in 2006 and 2009’s Shakespeare Wrote for Money.           

Reading in Bed:  Personal Essays on the Glories of Reading edited by Steven Gilbar, 1995, David R. Godine Books (Nonfiction/ Anthologies/ Essays

In this anthology, avid reader Steven Gilbar collects essays from other avid readers.  These other readers are also writers--some of the best writers in history--which makes Reading in Bed some of the most elegant and delightful writing about reading there is.  The essays are presented chronologically; Reading in Bed can be read from start to end or dipped into from time to time.    Thomas Wentworth Higginson assures us that the books on our shelves that we haven’t read are just as important as the books we have.  Clifton Fadiman discusses the best kind of book to read in bed before falling asleep.  Graham Greene loves best the books he read in his childhood; Robertson Davies cherishes the books from adulthood.  Harold Brodkey compares reading a good book to having a love affair.  You may not be very familiar with these authors or even know who they are (though Gilbar thoughtfully includes brief notes about his contributors so you can get to know them), but you will know exactly what they’re talking about.  Because even though these writers are great and esteemed, they’re also everyday readers and lovers of books, just like the rest of us.  
The Uncommon Reader:  A Novella by Alan Bennett, 2007, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux (Fiction)

One day at Buckingham Palace, Queen Elizabeth II finds her runaway royal doggies gathered around a bookmobile that has come to deliver books to the kitchen staff.  The Queen reads books, of course, but not actively or with any real sense of purpose—she does, after all, have Other Things To Do.  But when she feels obligated to make a selection from the bookmobile, she’s quite surprised to find that reading is enjoyable.  The Queen finds herself interested, roused, even impassioned.  This is a woman who does nothing by halves; with the assistance of her kitchen-boy-turned-page Norman, the Queen becomes an avid devotee of literature.  And the English people find themselves with a royal bookworm on their hands.  The consequences are intriguing, to say the least.  Author Alan Bennett is a gifted comic writer who pokes gentle fun at the rigidly ruled world of the British monarchy and all its antiquated mannerisms.  But he writes Queen Elizabeth as a compelling character—an aging woman of great social and political power who still possesses the surprising ability to change and the desire to improve.  For all the fun The Uncommon Reader has with its royal premise, the story is less about the power of the throne than it is about the power of the written word.  This is a sly little what-if tale, a fairy tale about a real person that all book lovers--royal or commoner--will relish. 

Parnassus on Wheels by Christopher Morley, 2008, BiblioLife Press, originally published 1917 (Fiction)

Roger Mifflin is a travelling book salesman who, while small and a bit funny-looking, is confident that “When you sell a man a book, you don’t sell him just twelve ounces of paper and ink and glue, you sell him a whole new life.”  This is news to spinster Helen McGill, who has little to do with books on her brother’s farm.  But cooking and cleaning for her brother is distinctly lacking in delights, and on a whim that surprises herself most of all, Helen jumps onboard Mifflin’s traveling wagon full of books and finds herself smitten with the man’s philosophy of bookselling as a duty and an art—and just maybe smitten with the man as well.  Mifflin uses his characters to expound his own theories about the tremendous joys of book reading, and as readers, we’re simply delighted to let him do so.  There’s a sequel, The Haunted Bookshop, that not only furthers the lives of the Roger Mifflin and Helen McGill, but also offers more opportunities to demonstrate how influential and powerful books can be.  Parnassus on Wheels was written nearly one hundred years ago and the sweet little tale of book love has well withstood the test of time.  It is, after all, a romance between people and books as well as a romance between people.

Biblioholism:  The Literary Addiction (Revised Edition) by Tom Raabe, 2001, Folcrum Press (Nonfiction/ Humor/ Self-Help)

If the above list of books has not yet convinced you of your own bibliomania (and why else would you pour over such a list if you did not share the same love of books as these authors?), then Biblioholism is the book for you.  Diagnosing biblioholism as “the habitual longing to purchase, read, store, admire and consume books in excess,” the book presents itself as a self-help guide for the book addict.  It has a wicked sense of humor about this approach, meaning you’ll chuckle over the biblioholic’s far-flung obsessions and quirks (which range from being finicky about what you read to being picky about where you read to being ferociously particular about the single acid-free slip of paper that must be used as a bookmark) even while admitting their truth.  With comical quizzes to determine your level of addiction and a section on cures (any takers for “total abstinence” from all things book?), this is a gleeful look at the lives and loves of the book addict.  First published in 1991, the 2001 Revised Edition includes extended information on the cures that the Internet can offer in the form of ebooks, book downloads, and online booksellers—if, that is, you want to be cured.  Otherwise go back to the beginning of this list and indulge in book love all over again.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Jean-Paul Fuzzy Wuzzy

On Friday night I went to see Where the Wild Things Are with the family. A fascinating film. I have gotten the sense that people break one way or the other on it: positive response to Spike Jonze's extension of Sendak's premise, or negative reaction to the ambiguity of the narrative. Everybody in our clan liked it, but no small children are included in that group by now. There was some disagreement about how much analysis was warranted: Can't you just enjoy the movie!?

Well, yes and no. Mostly no, because the film does not ask to be enjoyed. I would like to see it again, after a while. But Wild Things struck me as a Sartrean meditation on the difficulty life with others: hell is other people, with fur. Troubled Max is doubled by Carol, the Gandolfini-voiced monster. Carol refashions his world as a make-believe sculptural landscape, and later bashes it in a rage. The interpersonal world of the wild things is richly managed. Needs, fears, uncertainties and frustrations play out in life on the island. Max fails in his reign as king, inflicting wounds in the process. I was reminded of Daniel Keyes famous short story "Flowers for Algernon." Carol's sadness and rage mirror Max's, but do they also prefigure the boy's trajectory into adult life? Things will not be easy for Max. I found myself pondering the evocations and intimations of mental illness in Carol's unraveling.

Don't go expecting a fuzzy grinning happyfest. But the ambiguity is worth it–is it, in fact. And wonderful to look at, too.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Page to Screen: Charming Books and Delightful Movies

Film versions of favorite books don’t always live up to our expectations or our imaginations. The casting doesn’t match the character we see in our mind’s eye; the plot is abridged and our favorite scenes are left out or condensed; the author’s subtle sense of humor or mystery is lost. But there are exceptions to this rule. Quaint, old-fashioned, little-known books very often more than make the grade. The characters and stories in these novels are too charming; their essence cannot be distilled. Cinematic attention only brings out the best in the book, and the resulting union of screen and page results in a delightful film. The book and the movie become enchanting and enjoyable companions for movie-goers and book-lovers alike.

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons, 2008, Penguin Classics, originally published 1932 (Fiction Classics)

Cold Comfort Farm directed by John Schlesinger, 1995, Universal Studios, starring Kate Beckinsdale, Eileen Atkins, Stephen Fry (Period Piece/ Romantic Comedy)

Flora Poste is an elegant, sophisticated young lady living in glamorous London in the 1930s. She’s also an orphan, and her determined sense of order demands that she put her good taste to work and find a new branch of the family to fix. She settles on the oddest bunch she can find—an aunt, uncle, and cousins who live deep in the country on Cold Comfort Farm. Armed with her journal, several issues of Vogue magazine, and a tall pair of rubber boots, Flora sets out to drag Cold Comfort Farm into the modern fashionable age. This act of generosity proves a bit more challenging when Flora finds herself confronted with an over-sexed, moving-picture-obsessed cousin; an uncle who preaches until his congregation literally quivers in Fear of the Lord; a poetry-writing, free-spirited young sprite who’s in love with the dashing lord next door; and a great aunt who’s “seen something nasty in the woodshed.” A parody of the earthy, melodramatic novels of D.H. Lawrence and Thomas Hardy, Cold Comfort Farm is, quite simply, hilarious. The 1995 film version (starring Kate Beckinsdale as the no-nonsense, never-give-up Flora) wonderfully captures Gibbons’ sense of the odd, the eccentric, and the absurd, and genuinely brings the page to life.

A Room with a View by E.M. Forster, 2000, Penguin Classics, originally published 1908 (Fiction Classics/ Romance)

A Room with a View directed by James Ivory, 1986, Merchant & Ivory Pictures, starring Helana Bonham Carter, Julian Sands, Daniel Day-Lewis, Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Denholm Elliot (Period Piece/ Romance)

Edwardian England was a prim and proper era with little time for the real passions of real people. But when young Lucy Honeychurch has a romantic encounter with George Emerson (the son of a free-speaking Socialist—shocking!) in a flower-filled field in Italy, she faces precisely that dilemma—follow convention or follow her heart. Back home in England, surrounded by her charming and well-meaning family and neighbors, Lucy attempts the proper path and engages herself to the very prim Cecil. Less-than-satisfied but encouraged by her spinster aunt, Lucy’s orderly world is thrown into disarray when George reappears in her life. A Room with a View features some of the most delightful characters in literature—the outlandish lady writer Eleanor Lavish, the ultimate snob’s snob Cecil, the truth-speaking clergyman Mr. Beebe, and the primmest and proper-est spinster Aunt Charlotte. These characters are cast to a tee in the 1986 film adaptation which stars some of the day’s great actors, including Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, and Daniel Day-Lewis. The scene where George Emerson meets Lucy’s brother Freddy is priceless—few films these days feature grown men skinny-dipping in a very small pond…

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson, 2008, Persephone Books, originally published 1938 (Fiction Classics, Romance)

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day directed by Bharat Nalluri, 2008, Universal Studios, starring Frances McDormand, Amy Adams, Ciaran Hinds, Lee Pace, Shirley Henderson, Tim Potter (Period Piece/ Romantic Comedy)

When the film version of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day was released in 2008 and a new edition of the book was printed, one critic wrote, “Why has it taken more than half a century for this wonderful flight of humor to be rediscovered?” That critic had a point—Winifred Watson’s captivating tale of how the middle-aged, out-of-touch, ex-governess Miss Pettigrew spends a glamour-filled day with the fetching but flighty nightclub singer Delysia La Fosse is a story most of us have never heard. Pre-World War II London is full of flash and glitter, Delysia’s many entanglements with men are dizzying, and we enjoy the surprises, triumphs, and revelations of the day right along with the wonder-filled Miss Pettigrew. The movie that put this little book back on the map is a fine adaptation starring Frances McDormand as Miss Pettigrew and Amy Adams as Delysia. Some of the action in the book is toned down for the film (references to drug use, such as they are, are deleted) and the romance is played up, but both the film and book are sure to brighten up any day.

The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern's Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure, The “Good Parts” Version, Abridged by William Goldman, 2003, Harcourt Books, originally published 1973 (Fiction/ Teen Fiction/ Adventure/ Romance)

The Princess Bride, directed by Rob Reiner, 1987, MGM Studios, starring Cary Elwes, Robin Wright, Mandy Patinkin, Andre the Giant, Wallace Shawn, Chris Sarandon, Christopher Guest, Peter Falk, Fred Savage (Action/ Adventure/ Romantic Comedy) 

Most of us know The Princess Bride best as swashbuckling action-adventure romantic comedy movie from the 1980s. But first The Princess Bride was a book, and that book is just as swashbuckling and even—if you can believe it—funnier than its big screen counterpart. This is in part because the book’s author, William Goldman, also wrote the screenplay. Goldman frames the book as an abridged version of an old classic by a certain long-winded S. Morgenstern. So Goldman presents the “Good Parts” version, skimming over the supposedly boring (but actually very funny) historical bits and getting right to the good stuff—the adventure of Buttercup and her farm boy Westley. The road to true love is never smooth, and Buttercup and Westley are up against a prince, a pirate, a genius, and a giant—not to mention a drunken swordsman, a six-fingered man, and a species of rodent of unusual size. The Princess Bride is Goldman’s baby from start to finish, and his unique brand of witty humor translates equally well to page and to screen. The film has a narrative frame of a grandfather reading the story to his grandson, home sick in bed. The book goes a step farther—Goldman writes himself into his own book through the notes to the abridgment and becomes as active a character as Westley or Buttercup. Fact and fiction mix for a unique tongue-in-cheek reading experience. And still, of course, there’s the classic Princess Bride story, the real stuff of fantasy, adventure, and legend: “Fencing. Fighting. Torture. Poison. True love. Hate. Revenge. Giants. Hunters. Bad men. Good men. Beautifulest ladies. Snakes. Spiders. Beasts of all natures and descriptions. Pain. Death. Brave men. Coward men. Strongest men. Chases. Escapes. Lies. Truths. Passion. Miracles…”

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen, 2008, Vintage Classics, originally published 1817 (Fiction Classics, Romance)

Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey directed by Jon Jones, 2007, WGBH Boston Studios/Masterpiece Theater Presents, starring Felicity Jones, J.J. Field, Carey Mulligan, Catherine Walker, Liam Cunningham, Sylvestra Le Touzel, William Beck (Period Piece/ Romantic Comedy)

 Northanger Abbey is probably Jane Austen’s least-known novel. It was published after Austen’s death in 1817, but it was written in 1799 and was in fact her first complete novel. The story of Catherine Morland’s introduction to society, her many blunders, and her overactive imagination is usually noted for its parody of the Gothic literature that Catherine obsessively reads. But Northanger Abbey is also a very sweet little romance. Jane Austen is at her most clever and wry in this slim novel and she writes one of her most charming and funny heroes in Henry Tilney, who teases and laughs where Mr. Darcy, Edward Ferrars, or Mr. Knightley would only glower, sulk, or lecture. Northanger Abbey is the only Austen novel that Hollywood has overlooked, but there have been film versions made for television. The most recent—and far and away the most pleasing—is the production that aired as a Masterpiece Theater presentation on Public Television in 2007. Masterpiece Theater is notoriously professional and accurate in their book adaptations so every nuance of Austen’s little masterpiece is distinguished. J.J. Field and Felicity Jones play the witty Tilney and the charmingly naïve Catherine to perfection, and the ending is exceptionally sweet. If you’re an Austen lover, don’t forget about Northanger Abbey in either of its engaging forms.

The African Queen by C.S. Forester, 2000, Little, Brown & Co., originally published 1935, (Fiction Classics, Adventure/ Romance)


The African Queen directed by John Huston, 1951, Warner Bros./MGM Studios, starring Humphrey Bogart, Katherine Hepburn, Theodore Bikel, Walter Gotell, Richard Marner (Black and White Classics/ Adventure/ Romance)

You might know The African Queen as an excellent old movie starring Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn. This is the book that film is based on, and it’s every bit as good--even without Bogie and Kate. They play the characters of Charlie Allnutt and Rose Sayer, a burned-out trader with a beat-up old steamboat and a stern, no-nonsense missionary’s sister. Rose is indignant with anger at the World War I German threat to the British way of life (even in the heart of the African jungle), and Mr. Allnutt is the hapless fellow who gets roped into her outrageous plan. But first, they have to get their boat, the African Queen, down the river past rapids, waterfalls, malaria-ridden swamps, and German outposts. They also have to get to know each other—alone, in the jungle, on a rickety old boat. C.S. Forester knows boats and adventure, and what’s more, he knows character, dialogue, and human nature. The 1951 film is best-known for the performances of Hepburn and Bogart (who won the Oscar for best actor) and they are excellent as Rose and Allnutt, whether wading through swamps or nursing each other’s wounds. The film was shot on location in Africa, and remains as good as an adventure and romance as the book it was based on. Another link between the page and the screen is Katherine Hepburn's funny little 1987 memoir, The Making of The African Queen, or How I went to Africa with Bogart, Bacall and Huston and Almost Lost my Mind.

M*A*S*H by Richard Hooker, 1997, Harper Perennial, originally published 1969, (Fiction/ Humor)

M*A*S*H directed by Robert Altman, 1970, Twentieth Century Fox Studios, starring Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, Tom Skerritt, Sally Kellerman, Robert Duvall (Comedy)

Hawkeye, Duke, Trapper John, Hot Lips Houlihan, Frank Burns, Radar O’Reilly—we know them best from the long-running, much-loved M*A*S*H television show. But these characters first appeared in the pages of a 1969 novel by Richard Hooker (pseudonym for H. Richard Hornberger, a real life army doctor turned writer). Pranks, jokes, minor rebellions, and martinis abound as the doctors of this Korean War Mobile Army Surgical Hospital cope with meatball surgeries on young soldiers who arrive via helicopter fresh from the front lines. The book features a few of the more risqué escapades that didn’t make it to film or TV, the least of which features Trapper John signing autographs as Jesus. Robert Altman’s 1970 film is a masterpiece of comic dialogue and situation comedy that paved the way for the M*A*S*H television series (the actor who played Radar in the movie reprised the same role for TV). Whether fixing football games, mixing martinis, or generally raising hell, the surgeons of the 4077th M*A*S*H are irreverent, disarming, and heartwarming on page and on screen. M*A*S*H takes places decades later than the other books on this list, but it’s got the same mix of charming characters and delightful humor that make these books and films classic companion pieces for the movie theaters and the library.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Rounding Things Out: Three Arrays

Finally, three dissimilar artifacts–an advertisement, an easel painting, an informational bookplate–unified by related approaches. Each of these pictures differentiates between items by constructing a tabular array of images, forms, items. Above, a fabulous illustration from a promotional brochure for the 1960 Dodge Polaris, plainly aimed at an audience of postwar wives (courtesy of the folks at Plan 59). Relevant aspects of the car are presented to The Missus. Has an internal combustion engine ever looked so clean and snappy? Uses the classical rhetorical device of amplification: an assembly of particulars to extend a general topic.

Next, Henri Matisse's famous Red Studio from 1911, a de-spaced selection of objects which retain their positions in a room otherwise flattened out of existence by high-keyed color.

Finally, a set of specimens from a book of English fossil finds; "Eocene Shells at Bracklesham" from The Geology and Fossils of the Tertiary and Cretaceous Formations of Sussex, by Frederick Dixon. 1850. This (and a thousand other printed pictorial excavations) at the wonderful blog Bibliodyssey. Like a stone wall built from tiny pebbles and varied rocks, mortared with negative space.

Spaced Out Cartography

Okay, another map. This one–a tip from Bob Flynn–is a National Geographic map of NASA missions from 1960 to the present. Above, a detail; below, an overview.

The project was a collaboration between illustrator Sean McNaughton at National Geographic and Samuel Velasco at 5W Infographics.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Maps and Information: Words & Pictures Part Two

Following up yesterday's post on maps, I offer a handful of image-driven representations of places, things and processes.

If I noticed anything in Monday's class meetings, it was a sense of deflation: "You mean, I'm supposed to show just what a [blank] is and what it looks like, how it works or what parts it has?" As if the problem of communicating, say, insecthood, were stupefyingly easy. As it turns out, such things are surprisingly difficult to do somewhat well, let alone authoritatively. Not all these samples are maps, strictly speaking, but we're not using the term in a narrow way. Each of these examples is relevant.

London to Dover road map (1801) a forerunner of the AAA Triptik, a fond memory from family car trips. Such maps capture the linear quality of traveling in a compartment. You get in, you go for awhile, you stop; you get out in a new environment. You don't navigate terrain on a highway. You proceed along a path established by engineers. From Tufte's Envisioning Information.

Also reproduced in Tufte: this illustration showing the parts and assembly of an IBM Series III copier, drawn by Gary Graham. 1976. I've pulled a detail. Affectless, elegant articulation.

The story of steam power, narrated in a paragraph but captured in a visual set of surprising variety and control. From Our Friend the Atom, a bookification of a Walt Disney film of the same name. 1956. A stunning reminder of midcentury comfort with, and admiration for, science. Mickey Mouse was a positivist with personality.

At the top of this post, a representation of molecular behavior in water at room temperature versus near the boiling point. What clarity, ease, and abstract presence for a straightforwardly informational picture! Also from Atom, 1956.

Two process images: Clam Respiration, by Elizabeth Buchsbaum for Animals Without Backbones, 1938. A genius of lucidity. I have written admiringly of her work before.

And above, Norman Rockwell does heredity. The Family Tree, 1959. The metamorphosis of "data" into anecdote–typically, the exact opposite of informational work.

Finally, the earliest printed medical illustration: a human skeleton printed in Nuremberg in 1493. A striking combination of a visual/typographic vocabulary we associate with religous works, offered in the service of scientific knowledge.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Maps and Information: Words & Pictures Part One

I am teaching a class called Word & Image 1 this fall with the excellently dry + smart graphic designer Heather Corcoran, a longtime colleague. Heather, a writer and designer for information, strategic and brand contexts, is a great teacher–I get a huge charge out of working with her. Our course stresses creative methodology and 2-dimensional design while also working on a diagnostic level to help students identify whether theirs is a more design-centric or image-centric approach to visual communication. (And yes, that pairing begs a few questions; no time to dwell on the vocabulary today.) Sometimes Heather and I run parallel projects, and sometimes we work together on a single one.

At the moment, we are working with students on a shared project: a Zoo System Map, which asks the group to construct a map (understood broadly) using the St. Louis Zoo as a source or a point of departure. The project sheet reads in part:

Like other zoos around the world, the Saint Louis Zoo is a complex place. You might think about it as a system made up of many smaller systems, visible and invisible. These systems organize animals, grounds, employees, and visitors. They include things that curators consider such as as taxonomies of animals and species, and
evolutionary systems. Systems also include things that visitors experience such as walking and train routes and stroller rental programs. There are systems for donor signage, food distribution, and animal health.

The project calls for an oversize printed project, greater than 10" x 16".

As the course title suggests, these maps will have to engage both words and images. Some will emphasize one more than another. Some will be more schematic than depictive; others will stress the pictorial.

As an aid to the group, we are using this space to provide a set of examples. This post will be devoted to the first set, curated and captioned by Ms. Corcoran. These represent a diverse set of maps, which include geographical, numerical and narrative information to varying degrees.

At the top of this post: Example 1. A Glimpse into our Carbon-Filled Future, Good Magazine. Ironic presentation of information; comfortable, friendly, almost childlike presentation belies negative predictions for the future. Note how each axis (x and y) are used; time is horizontal while emissions are vertical, moving from the ground up.

Example 2. Country by Country Abortion Laws, Good Magazine. Map functions partially as a table of information. Compression of geographic detail in favor of clear shapes that are easy for the eye to perceive and compare. Hue changes at each level, as does value.

(Note: I was unfamiliar with Good Magazine. Four of Heather's examples come from that publication, so I looked it up. The editorial statement reads as follows: "GOOD - a platform for people who want to do well by doing good. We stand as independent media in the form of a bold, visually stimulating magazine and website that blend wit and relevant information. We engage and challenge the people, ideas and institutions driving change in the world." The web-delivered infographic section is called Transparency.)

Example 3. Health Care Costs Vary Widely by Region, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Effective use of value to convey intensity of spending. (Posted to a useful blog about Information Design, Flowing Data.)

Example 4. On News, Good Magazine. Typographic solution; size of word conveys significance of topic in the headlines. Position of words in composition is random, but size and color are carefully controlled.

Example 5. The First Garden, Good Magazine. Geographic map using illustrative icons.

Example 6. The Sad Tally, designed by Todd Trumbull for the San Francisco Chronicle. Schematic map that combines geographic and other forms of data.