July 2006

Colleen Mondor

bookslut in training

True Story

All nonfiction this month at “Bookslut in Training” -- hope you’re in a mood to visit animals, oceans and zoos! (Plus the history of reading, Reconstruction and space.)

Every now and again a really great book drops into my lap unexpectedly. I have no idea why these books come my way -- there’s no rhyme or reason to the subject matter -- but I’m grateful to the book gods. Knopf sent me a copy of Kathleen Weidner Zoehfeld’s latest nonfiction title, Wild Minds a few months ago and I was delighted. I realize they could not possibly know that I like books about zoos, or that I actually own a turn-of-the-century copy of the natural history book written by the founder of the Bronx Zoo. But somehow the book gods knew and Zoehfeld’s history of the people and animals at the zoo is now happily in my possession.

When the Bronx Zoo opened in 1899 it was the most modern facility of its kind in the world. This should not suggest that life was good for the animals it contained however, as one look at the 1906 photo of a snow leopard in a plain concrete cage with iron bars will attest. Back then, people believed that zoos should exist primarily to entertain visitors and the care, both physical and psychological, of the animals was secondary at best. A lot of animals suffered and died in zoos in the early 20th century and it took years of careful research to determine just how to raise them humanely in captivity.

Zoehfeld does not cover-up the flaws in the early Bronx Zoo, nor the conflicting wishes of its first director, William Hornaday. But the book is not written as a political analysis of the zoo industry; the author is giving her young readers a history lesson on one particular zoo and had access to records that enabled her to do a great job. From early struggles to find a way to save the American Bison right up to current research and conservation projects, Zoehfeld shows how the Bronx Zoo remains in the forefront of changing ideology about zoo and wildlife management. Wild Lives is a great primer on jwhat zoos do and why they exist and also a fascinating historical lesson (with great pictures) on how humanity’s own vision of zoos has changed in the last hundred years.

The Bronx Zoo turned up again in another recent discovery, Out of Shadows: An Artist’s Journey by Neil Waldman. This very well written and gorgeously illustrated autobiography charts the artistic development of a well known children’s book author and illustrator. Waldman grew up in the Bronx, along with three brothers and sisters, and a mother and father who fought constantly. He was an artist from almost the moment he could hold a pen, and spent hours with his brother Bruce creating imaginary worlds on paper. The art was a way to block out his parents’ unhappiness, and fill the hours with something he was good at. His earliest inspiration was Vincent Van Gogh, a mysterious figure he discovered in his mother’s favorite book. Van Gogh’s work showed Waldman that being an artist was possible and his grandfather was the real world figure who held his hand and showed him that adults could be reasonable and kind. It was the grandfather who took Waldman to the zoo where he learned about the American Bison Society which was founded by William Hornaday. Waldman later wrote a book about the society and its efforts to save the bison entitled They Came from the Bronx. (It would make a great companion to readers who love Wild Minds.)

Waldman’s story was interesting on several levels, and should appeal to many different readers. First and foremost, it is about a young boy struggling to deal with a family that is clinging to the edge; and children who are desperate for something that will consume their hands and minds when the shouting starts. There’s a lot more to the book then just a fighting family however, there are the trips to the zoo and the Metropolitan Museum of Art where Waldman sees his first Van Gogh original and the secret world he invents for his brother Bruce that becomes a passion for both boys as the years go by. There is also the author’s discovery in the power of words and pictures to transport him from a difficult reality and when he combines the two through journals he truly makes a leap of consciousness that has stayed with him all of his life.

Neil Waldman’s biography is written for young adults, but with the amazing reproductions of his artwork and other family members, as well as his heartfelt and gripping story, any reader with an interest in art or creativity would be wise to pick it up. I’m always curious about how artists draw or writers write, and Waldman does an excellent job here of showing how he developed his talent from a very young age. This is a really beautiful book and an unusual title for young adults. Waldman treats his readers like they will understand what he’s writing about and his respect for them is apparent and appreciated. It’s a wonderful thing that he is writing for children; from Out of Shadows it is clear that he was ready for this job for a long long time.

You Can’t Read This: Forbidden Books, Lost Writing, Mistranslations and Codes is a history of reading and writing via the lives of a dozen different fascinating historical figures. Val Ross has gone looking for the personal stories behind the history of illiteracy around the world. In particular, Ross is interested in how words were kept from huge segments of the population, and how and where libraries were destroyed or books were burned. What she has managed to do in just over 100 pages is craft an amazing collection of essays about people and events we should all know about but don’t. In many ways, You Can’t Read This reminded me a lot of the work of Nicholas Basbanes, but not as wordy.

Included in Ross’s collection are stories from the ancient city of Ur (not far from the current location of Baghdad), New Zealand, Armenia, Japan and Korea. She writes about the former slave Frederick Douglass, Louis Braille and his break through invention of a language for the blind and “the evil world of comic books.” There is a lot of cool stuff about codes and code breaking (from the broken code that caught Mary Queen of Scots to the Enigma cipher machine) and a prescient discussion of women and reading in Afghanistan under the Taliban. Ross is determined to take her readers around the world and deeply within the history of stolen words and endangered language. Through fascinating historical glimpses she shows how so many people have struggled for so long to have the right to read and how that ability changed their lives. And wonder of wonders -- she has written a really interesting book as well.

I loved reading You Can’t Read This - it was so engrossing and such a continuous surprise that I could hardly put it down. I learned a lot and came to appreciate reading on an entirely new level. This is one of those books that I wanted from the moment I read about it (and saw the killer cover illustration). Ross is a journalist who I certainly hope will continue to share her love of history with young readers. But really, You Can’t Read This is candy for book lovers everywhere and anyone who values the importance of reading.

The mystery of Molly Bang’s Nobody Particular is why the whole country does not know this story. Bang’s comic is the nonfiction account of the life of Diane Wilson, the Texas former shrimper turned environmental activist trying to save the East Texas Bays. Her disgust at the diminishing shrimp catch is catapulted into activism when she learned that the chemical plants in Texas give off more pollution than any other state, and her county, Calhoun County, is ranked first in the nation for pollution. Even though she had no formal legal or scientific training, Wilson could not ignore what was happening around her. So she fought back.

Nobody Particular is the young adult companion to Wilson’s full length story about her struggle against big business, politics and her neighbors who are worried about losing their jobs. In An Unreasonable Woman Wilson goes into much more detail about her fight and particularly the legal wrangling against one specific company, Formosa Plastics. Nobody Particular also details that battle and includes Wilson’s decision to go on a hunger strike and later organize a marine blockade and attempt to sink her boat as an underwater monument to the bays. Every step of the way she is guided by her love of the water and the wildlife that rely upon it for survival.

From start to finish, Bang’s book is an excellent and engaging primer for future environmentalists. When you read what Wilson has done, and Bang has done an first rate job of making the story both readable and thrilling, you will believe that one person can change the world. This is exactly the sort of book that young people need, and that most of them want. Bang has managed to take a brief book and bring it down to less than fifty pages of words and pictures that are wonderfully effective. I never knew about the East Texas Bays until I read this book and now I’m mad as hell, which is probably exactly what Diane Wilson would like to hear.

With Cause author Tonya Bolden explores the period known as Reconstruction that came after the U.S. Civil War. Most young adults will learn about the war in school but all too often it is taught in the most boring and soul crushing manner. By the time you get to 1865 and Lincoln’s bad night out at the theater, a lot of students are more than happy to see the president die. It’s nothing personal; it’s just so horribly dull! (And yes, I’m totally speaking from experience.) Bolden knows that a bunch of guys running around in uniforms shooting at each other and yelling “states' rights” or “union forever” can seem like ancient history to young readers. She tackles that problem head on with Cause and includes enough different and long ignored voices to really spice things up. She also has a ton of historical illustrations to show just what the nation was thinking almost 150 years ago.

One of the questions I had after seeing my first Spike Lee film was just what the deal was with the “forty acres and a mule” story. A lot of textbooks dismiss it with only a cursory sentence or two but Bolden uncovers who made the first suggestion, who followed up on it and where the offer died. She even has a copy of a title from General Rufust Saxton to Peter Lloyd, one of the “thousands of blacks who take advantage of General Sherman’s Special Field Order No. 15,” and received his forty acres.

So it did happen, it just didn’t happen enough, and Bolden explains why the land distributions to former slaves was discontinued and the politics behind that decision.

Throughout Cause Bolden seems determined to reveal all the backroom deals and determinations of President Andrew Johnson and other southern sympathizers to undermine all attempts at spreading equality across the country. One of the most fascinating things about the book is the quotes and illustrations which show how aware Northern journalists (and thus residents) were of the difficult situation blacks were facing in the former Confederacy. (One example is an engraving from the August 12, 1876 issue of Harper’s Weekly showing the result of the Hamburg, South Carolina massacre against black militiamen marching in an Independence Day parade.)

I’ll be honest, history is not always an easy subject for young people and because of that a lot of them end up as adults who have no clue where Oklahoma is on a map, let alone Iraq. Bolding is trying her hardest to bring the past alive with her books and Cause is an excellent example of how good she is at what she does. If you are a Civil War era history buff then Cause is perfect, and if you know someone who could stand to learn a bit more about this period then you couldn’t ask for a better guide.

Finally, Catherine Thimmesh set out with Team Moon to give a new perspective on the successful mission of Apollo 11 in 1969. Rather than focus solely on the astronauts or Mission Control, Thimmesh includes some of the other 400,000 people responsible for getting the rocket to the moon. Each page is illustrated with oversized and impressive period photographs of subjects as varied as a group of Grumman plant workers in New York watching the launch on television to shots of the moon taken by amateur astronomers on earth and from the lunar module itself. Even though readers know that the mission succeeded they will still be caught up in the story and surprised by the many things that happened that most of us have never heard of.

There are dozens and dozens of quotes in Team Moon from people as varied as Grumman engineering manager John Coursen, software expert Jack Garman, who was ready with critical answers as alarms went off on the module’s descent to the lunar surface, and seamstress Eleanor Foracker of ILC Dover who worked on the space suits. It is made clear from their statements that everyone involved in the project carried a deep sense of history to work everyday.

“I think one of the things we had was a common goal; and we all realized that we were into something that was one of the few things in history that was going to stand out over the years. We’re going to go to the moon! We’re putting a man on the moon!” - Charlie Mars, NASA chief lunar module project engineer at Kennedy Space Center

I’m going to admit right now that I’m a total space geek -- blame Star Trek or Ray Bradbury or just growing up minutes from Cape Kennedy. (We actually call the area where I’m from the “Space Coast.”) I am the perfect audience for Thimmesh’s book because this is the kind of stuff I want to know about -- I want to read about the guys at the Parkes Radio Telescope in Australia who struggled against a 70 MPH wind to keep the signal coming through from the moon so the world could witness history. I’m interested in NASA’s Dick Underwood who trained the astronauts to use cameras without viewfinders, “shooting from the hip,” because he knew “if your photographs are great -- they’ll live forever.” Who knew that Underwood and his team were going to have to figure out how to decontaminate the film for “moon bugs” a process that nearly melted the precious film? It seems ridiculous now but was a very real concern in 1969, as were the worries about how the lunar surface would affect the astronaut’s boots. We didn’t know anything about what the moon was really like until Armstrong and Aldrin got there and it was the people in Team Moon who considered all the many possibilities of what it might be like and planned accordingly. Their hard work, on every level, was essential and although we don’t know their names Thimmesh has made sure with Team Moon that at least we can now appreciate their efforts; we can remember what they accomplished.

This is a great book for space fans and couldn’t have been published at a more critical time in NASA’s history. We need to go back, you know. We really need to go back.