September 2010

Colleen Mondor

bookslut in training

Off the Map

Perhaps one of the coolest things about travel is the notion of “going off the map” and exploring on your own. Michael Trinklein takes this one step further with his fascinating collection of places that never were in Lost States. A self-described collector of unrealized geography, Trinklein had been noting statehood proposals for years before putting the book together. He explains their appeal this way: Maps are a record of individuals trying to make a difference in how the world works. For the generation or two of Americans who have not seen any new states added, this proposition might seem odd. After reading this book, you might see things differently.

In the two-page spreads that follow, Trinklein provides a vintage map of proposed states, and the history behind their near inception. From Forgottonia in the heart of Illinois (populated by those who felt long ignored by their fellow citizens), to real places like Greenland (a nice spot for the military) and Guyana (a nice spot for launching spaceships), the author uncovers the spin behind so many ideas about so many places and explains why they never got off the ground. A few will be familiar, like Puerto Rico, but many are certain to surprise such as No Man’s Land in northern Texas and Shasta in Northern California. What’s important to realize, though are the reasons behind these proposals, which range from water rights to Native American claims to the battle over slavery. While it might seem like Daniel Boone was nuts to consider carving Transylvania out of present-day Kentucky, there are always reasons for such proposals, and just knowing how close we came to the Transylvanian Derby is certainly something to think about.

For all the offbeat humor and oddness that a collection like this will surely trigger, there is a lot of solid history here that makes it the kind of title that you wish you had in school. Cuba was proposed for statehood more than once, for example -- just think how much history would have been different if early twentieth-century politicians had not been so racist (Congressman John Sharp Williams of Mississippi said, “We have enough people of the Negro race”). And Saipan, an island in the United States Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, enjoys the right to place “Made in the USA” on garments made there, but without the kind of strict regulatory controls that afford Northern Marianans the kind of rights and privileges enjoyed by other American workers. In other words, that t-shirt you’re wearing might be made in a sweatshop that is legally part of the USA. (For more on that, see this Ms. magazine article.)

What I love about Lost States is that it provides readers with just enough information to whet their appetite for more. It is also beautifully designed, with full-color maps throughout, and Trinklein has a casual tone that belies the academic nature of his subject -- in other words, he isn’t dull. Teens will love the facts and humor, the “can you believe this?” attitude, and all the maps. Reluctant readers in particular are going to eat this one up. (I hesitate to make gender assignments to titles, but really, Lost States has “boy book” written all over it.) This is another way of seeing the world and considering what might have been; it's addictive and educational at the same time.

Val Ross looks at mapmakers themselves in her collection The Road to There: Mapmakers and Their Stories. Just as she did so effectively with You Can’t Read This: Forbidden Books, Lost Writings, Mistranslations and Codes, Ross excels again at overlooked history and new twists on famous tales in a way that it is far more adventure than textbook. Following a loose chronological order, she touches here on some well-known names like Gerald Mercator and Captain James Cook, but what really made my heart sing was learning about Cheng Ho, who sailed far and wide in the fifteenth century (maybe even to Australia), and Phyllis Pearsall who created the “A to Z” guide of London in 1936 (over 60 million copies have sold since) and fought the mother of all battles against her controlling father in order to maintain control of publishing them. Consider what she was going up against:

Father and daughter had a terrible scene in a London restaurant. Then Sandor [the father] wrote to Phyllis’s brother saying that the Geographer’s A-Z Map Company was too important to be left to a woman. "I therefore have no alternative than to give you control of the London business." Tony had a wife and child to support, and accepted the offer. Phyllis was so shocked by her family’s betrayal that she collapsed and went blind.

As it turned out the employees refused to work for the usurpers, and father and son backed off. Phyllis regained her sight and rebuilt the company, and with her loyal employees eventually became one of the most successful map publishers in the world. She died in 1996, decades after she walked the streets and brought London to life for everyone. That’s what I call a happy ending and one I knew nothing about until Ross’s book -- a perfect example of what she accomplishes in this most accessible and erudite collection. (And with sidebars like the death of the Red Baron, Ross really proves just how exciting mapmaking can be.)

Steve Sheinkin and illustrator Tim Robinson have been very successfully writing about American history for a while with their delightfully subtitled series, “Everything Your Schoolbooks Didn’t Tell You About…” Exploration and cartography find their way into the newest entry, Which Way to the Wild West, which takes readers on a familiar journey across pioneer America and includes everything from the Louisiana Purchase to the Alamo, the gold rush and a whole host of cowboys and Indians. Some of the usual suspects are here, of course, but along with Lewis and Clark, Santa Ana and Samuel Clemens (whose failure as a miner led him to writing) there are also chapters like “Exploring with Blockheads” about mapmaker Charles Preuss who hated every minute with explorer John Fremont but managed to produce some of the most accurate maps of the West in the 1840s anyway. (Sample entries from Preuss’ journals: “I wish I had a drink” and “I wish I were in Washington with my old girl.”)

Sheinkin has cornered the market on popular history for the nine-and-up set, and his books should be considered mandatory reading for any teen bored with the subject who is unprepared for testing. Along with Robinson’s funny caricatures, the author gives you the stories you expect with a thousand unusual twists, like the Donner Party (“You Call This a Party?”) from the perspective of  twelve-year-old Virginia Reed who wrote to a cousin afterward: “We are all very well pleased with California. It is a beautiful country. It ought to be a beautiful country to pay us for our trouble getting there.”

Both author and illustrator acknowledge that some of their readers may be reticent to embrace their subject, and so they approach them from unexpected directions (those familiar with the transcontinental railroad will likely be surprised by the series of chapters entitled “How to Steal Millions”). Which Way to the Wild West is full of stories about those who took chances on the unknown world, and while it certainly has its serious moments (the treatment of Native Americans could never be considered a laughing matter), humor carries the history along. Smart and silly enough to provoke even jaded teens into turning pages, Wild West is another winner for this talented duo.

Cris Peterson employs a much more traditional writing style in her straightforward examination of North American exploration via fur trading, Birchbark Brigade. This is a woefully underexamined subject, especially for teen readers, and Peterson gives it ample attention here, supplementing the text with numerous maps, photographs, illustrations and informative sidebars. What’s really amazing is the sheer breadth of what the “voyageurs” accomplished, and how great their impact was on U.S. expansion. It also doesn’t hurt to learn interesting things like the use of bear grease and skunk oil as the insect repellent of choice. (Not that I’m tempted to try that for myself, but still, it’s a trivia question in the making.)

A lot of Americans are truly unaware of how much the French contributed to our westward expansion. Beyond the obvious (Louisiana), the stories Peterson gathers of canoes going forth by the hundreds into unknown regions are a small revelation. Fur trading was a difficult job that reaped enormous rewards for some while devastating the lives of others (pretty much every Native American tribe they encountered). But it typically warrants only a few paragraphs in standard history texts. With so little Canadian history available to American students (just ask me how appalling my one Canadian History college course was; I dare you), Peterson is pretty much opening up a whole new world with Birchbark Brigade. She nicely ties the history into modern times with news of a discovery and archeological dig in the final pages (that involves a smart kid doing some exploration of his own) which makes the entire text even more accessible. In all it’s a tightly written overview of the very wild and dangerous lives the traders experienced. With extensive notes and bibliography, this one has classroom text and home school resource written all over it, and should be sought out by anyone seeking to research some offbeat history.

Of course we all learned decades ago that the final frontier will always be space, and as someone who grew up standing on her driveway watching rockets launch, I have a serious soft spot for a book like This is Rocket Science: True Stories of the Risk-Taking Scientists Who Figure Out Ways to Explore Beyond Earth. I’ve read a lot of books about the history of the American space program (see last year’s column on the subject), but Gloria Skurzynski does something unique here by writing about the early development of rocket science itself, and includes the work of scientists from a variety of countries including Russia and Germany. She starts with the history of rocketry, going back to China’s development of gunpowder and Italy’s embrace of fireworks (more valuable trivia: the word rocket is based on the Italian word rocce, which means “long thin tube”), and then moves forward into the interesting coincidence that many early rocket scientists were fans of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. Is that cool or what?

This Is Rocket Science is a National Geographic title, so it is wonderfully designed with glossy full-color photographs and a graph paper background that reinforces the scientific nature of the text. Skurzynski doesn’t skimp on the story though, covering everything from the independent research of Konstantin Tsiolovsky, Robert Goddard and Hermann Oberth, who all came to similar conclusions (and enjoyed reading similar science fiction), bringing each of their countries forward as the twentieth century got underway. War is a big theme here, for obvious reasons, and also Sputnik, Laika (we must endure another picture of that cute little doomed dog), and the Apollo program all have key passages in the text. But Skuzynski is more interested in what powered the ships than the occupants, so she consistently breathes new life into the subject of space exploration. This allows a somewhat different perspective on familiar events (it’s not about the moon landing but the Saturn 5 rocket) and is especially refreshing in the final chapter as she looks toward the future. Mostly though, I enjoyed this book because it proves that Jules Verne is practically the greatest writer ever, just in case you were wondering.

If rockets aren’t your thing then consider another vehicle out exploring the far reaches of space with Cars on Mars: Roving the Red Planet. In this thoroughly-researched and heavily-illustrated (with photographs) title, author Alexandra Siy provides an in-depth look at the work of Spirit and Opportunity, the two rovers launched at Mars in 2003 who have since proven the existence of past water on the Red Planet. This is seriously cool stuff, from seeing Mars up close to all the nitty-gritty details of keeping a couple of robots moving from such an extreme long distance. It’s techy enough to keep any gearhead enthralled but also full of the wide open excitement about space that kept millions on the edge of their seats in the 1960s. In other words you can be robotically challenged and still find yourself cheering on these little rovers, so far from home base and tasked with making the kind of explorations that the rest of us can only dream about.

Siy begins at the beginning -- with the creation of the mission, naming of the rovers and introduction of the team who operates them. From there it is right onto Mars and the data they have collected, and how it has been received and interpreted back home. (It’s all a “geologist’s dream come true.”) The action is provided by the movements of the rovers, where they go and the logistical difficulties they encounter. Readers might wonder how a small robot getting stuck in the sand could be gripping, and yet when it is framed in the context of all that the rover might still teach us about Mars, it certainly makes the book a page turner. This is real-time science and real-world science -- and a book that shows the possibility to be part of something larger than yourself. (Plus, the whole project was a major part of an episode of The Big Bang Theory, which increases the pop-culture component immensely.)

Finally, following in the footsteps of early explorers is Geoff Marcy, whose work is described in Planet Hunter by Vicki Oransky Wittenstein. Marcy searches for other planets using the Keck Observatory on top of Mauna Kea in Hawaii, and Wittenstein explains why he got interested in this field in the first place, and how he and his fellow scientists have managed to find more than four hundred “extrasolar” planets. What makes the book appealing for teen readers (other than the whole premise of planet hunting in the first place) is that Marcy was not an exceptional student, and questioned his own abilities for quite some time. His decision to “research something that I really cared about” is an ideal anyone can embrace and will be especially reassuring to teens harboring their own insecurities. The science is deep, and the technology exceptional, but Wittenstein explains the subject clearly, including several full-page sidebars and boxed sections to focus on the particularly tough (or just really interesting) topics. Planet Hunter is about finding life on other worlds -- and acknowledging that life could be very different from what we (or Jules Verne) imagined. It’s also another stirring example of just how interesting a professional life can be, and will certainly inspire as much as it informs.

COOL READ: By far the coolest book I have seen on the history of maps lately is Cartographies of Time: A History of the Timeline by Daniel Rosenberg and Anthony Grafton. Older teens are going to find this offbeat look into the crafting of timelines both interesting to read and impressive to look at. The illustrations are gorgeous, and given first-class treatment by the publisher (which they richly deserve), but it is with the accompanying text, which provides a general history of the visual depiction of timelines, that the full title really sings. What I especially liked was the forgotten history here; the number of cartographers and scientists and dreamers whose stories have been intrinsic to the creation of timelines over the centuries, and yet they were not big enough parts of history to be widely known. You have everyone from Johann Georg Hagelgans with his 1718 engraving of Creation (given a nice two-page spread), to Sheila Levrant de Bretteville who lays her chronologies out on sidewalks, including a 1996 depiction of Little Tokyo in Los Angeles. The historian in me was intrigued by George Maciunas’s manuscript charts (he literally charted all of the historical texts he read), and I couldn’t resist the irony of the many, many doomsday timelines, all of which (happily) were disproved by advancing time. (The reason you may not have heard of William Miller is because his chosen date of 1843 -- as depicted in a truly beautiful doomsday timeline -- was wrong. The authors note that “in the following decades many of the factions that emerged from the ashes of Millerism did away with date-specific predictions of the Apocalypse.” Probably a good decision on their part.)

Cartographies of Time is a thoughtful, scholarly analysis on the one hand, and just a big book of crazy interesting map-related trivia on the other. Future cartographers will find a lot to love here (Reif Larsen’s fictional T.S. Spivet would have gone mad for it), as will historians and anyone who enjoys beautiful maps. This is good stuff and a true gem that should not be overlooked.