Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Show & Tell by Dilys Evans

Evans is doing exactly as the subtitle in this book says: Exploring the Fine Art of Children's Book Illustration. She selected 12 illustrators to demonstrate the diversity of styles, techniques and content in the art of the picture book. Half of the artists were familiar names to me (like David Wiesner and Brian Selznick), but then, as soon as I saw the pictures, I recognized the work of the other artists. The Eloise books illustrated by Hilary Knight, for example.

The text reminded me of Sister Wendy's writings about art appreciation. Lots of guidance (pointing out examples of the ways in which a specific artwork leads the eye, creates a mood, pleases the senses, etc.) and lots of passion for her subject.

I have been wanting to learn more about the language for talking about the artwork in graphic novels. This book has much to teach me. I regret that I left it hanging around so long on my to-read pile. With only 3 days to go before leaving on a big trip, I don't have time to do more than a once-through reading. I will definitely borrow this book from the library again, along with many other books referred to within the pages.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv

Nature-deficit disorder is not a medical condition, it is a term Louv has coined to describe the human costs of alienation from nature. This book brings together research that shows how direct exposure to the natural world is essential for healthy childhood development.

I grew up on a farm adjacent to a lake and spent a lot of time outdoors, exploring, observing birds, plants and insects and just sitting. I'm very lucky. According to Louv, I can thank these experiences for being the confident, well-adjusted, creative adult that I am today. I am a self-taught naturalist, always keenly interested in the life forms around us. When I was 10, I was given a book of Alberta wildflowers and I was determined to find every one of them outdoors. Native Alberta plant species remain a passion for me and can be found in my garden.

But natural history is apparently out of favour in the ivory towers. Louv quotes experts claiming that biology undergraduates at many universities are not taught classic botany or zoology. The focus on theoretical population biology and molecular biology results in many first-year graduate students having little or no knowledge of major phyla or of the life history biology of the very organisms they are studying. This is deeply troubling at a time when we need ecological literacy more than ever.

Other alarming news includes the child obesity statistics from the U.S. and the increasing rate at which American children -- including preschoolers! -- are prescribed antidepressants. Louv writes about the barriers that prevent parents from allowing their children to enjoy unstructured outdoor activities. He admits that fear of strangers kept his own children indoors more often than he would have liked. He advises that parents give their children cellphones for peace of mind. (Hmmm. I'm not convinced, but then, I'm not a parent.) Litigation in the case of injury is also apparently a great fear. Louv's solution is for landowners to increase their liability coverage to 1 million dollars. (Another hmmm.)

There is much in the way of good news here. Trends like green urbanism, livable communities, a neo-agriculture movement. We don't have enough space on this planet for everyone to grow up on a farm, but it is entirely possible to live in an urban environment with nature in proximity. And we will be happier and healthier citizens.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Slipping Into Paradise by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson

The subtitle of this book is Why I Live in New Zealand... and it explains why I picked it up. I'll be visiting NZ in less than a week and I like to read about places before travelling. I found another of Masson's books, The Pig Who Sang to the Moon: The Emotional World of Farm Animals, to be thought-provoking and I enjoyed his folksy style. Somehow, that style didn't work so well in Slipping Into Paradise. It is a mix of memoir, travel writing and philosophy, which ends up being too much of a mishmash.

Being restless myself, and having considered where in the world I would most like to live, I especially liked his comparisons of living in various parts of the world. Masson's chapter outlining 50 important dates in New Zealand history was a nice, quick overview, but then I noticed a discrepancy later in the book, which was off-putting and leads me to question other facts stated.

On page 80, fact #41, kohanga reos were established in 1981. (These are "language nests" where preschool children can be immersed in a Maori-speaking environment.) On page 177, in the chapter on Maori people, culture and language, he again explains the concept of kohanga reo, this time stating that they began in 1982.

The chapter about flora and fauna is the one I found most troublesome. The logic is muddled in places and there are a number of complex topics touched upon too lightly. Masson writes that cats are the ultimate enemy of NZ's native birds, since they evolved without the presence of predators. Yet Masson himself has a cat that he apparently allows to roam free, since he mentions that his cat climbs trees every day. It is hypocritical for him to say that he can't enjoy the bucolic scene of grazing sheep because they seem out of place to him, having displaced native trees... so what about that darn cat?

Masson states that he and his wife wanted to use only "native" plants in their garden (his quotes) and then reconsiders this notion, ruminating on what, exactly, is a native plant. Admitting that he can't tell when a plant in his own garden is aggressive (i.e. he is not observant), he also writes "It is hard to see the damage that an 'introduced' tree can do. Botanists say they take over [...] but I can't see irreparable damage, and I say let a million plants grow!" He complains of xenophobia, then states, "The concept of "native" -- as in a native plant, a native animal, and especially a native person -- has always been politically loaded, and usually for good reason." And then leaps to Germany's Third Reich notions of cleansing. All of which raises the hackles of my ecological sensibilities. I want to shout at him, "inform yourself!"

In regards to political correctness, I was glad to read "I always fail to see why intellectuals, especially, feel that if something is politically correct they must sneer at the idea behind it. After all, it only means that somebody has thought about the political implications of something, and persuaded people that there is a hidden politics, which ought to be attended to." Amen to that.

Another book of travel writing, A Land of Two Halves: An Accidental Tour of New Zealand was written by a immigrant to NZ, Joe Bennett. I found his book to be far more engaging than Masson's, but Bennett is one of those people who opposes political correctness and I think I would much rather meet and have a conversation with Masson than Bennett. And New Zealand is such a small country, maybe I'll see him at one of the vegetarian restaurants that he recommends.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti

It is fitting that the book that brings me back to my blog (after a few weeks of being too busy) is one that reminds me very much of the last book I wrote about, Gaiman's The Graveyard Book. The Good Thief is an adult novel, but I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to readers as young as 11 or 12. Like The Graveyard Book, The Good Thief has elements of darkness as well as an uplifting end note. In addition to the similar mood or feel, both stories are of young orphans making their way in the world with help from adults who appear from the outset to be unsuitable guardians.

Ren was abandoned as a baby and raised in an orphanage run by the brothers of Saint Anthony in New England. He has only one hand, and no knowledge of how he lost the other. When Ren is 12, Benjamin Nab, a man who says he is his older brother, claims him. This is the start of Ren's adventures.

Benjamin and his alcholic buddy, Tom, are liars, thieves and shysters. One scheme to make money has them digging up freshly interred bodies to sell to a medical doctor. (Another connection to The Graveyard Book.) Ren befriends a giant simpleton of a man who belives his calling in life is to murder people. All this sounds pretty dark, but the thieves and the murderer are good at heart and Ren does learn the truth about his parents.

I'm guessing that the story takes place in the early 19th century. Setting is not a prominent doorway into this book, which is unusual for historical fiction. Story and character are the main entry points, and inviting ones at that.