November 2011

Colleen Mondor

bookslut in training

Remembering the Greats

When the journals of the late Dan Eldon were made widely available to the public with the 1997 release of The Journey is the Destination: The Journals of Dan Eldon they were a shock on multiple levels. Gorgeous, startling, very nearly overwhelming, the only credible comparison that could be made between these "scrapbooks" and anyone else was Peter Beard's work (also amazing to see and impossible to define). Eldon, a freelance photographer for Reuters, was killed in Somalia in 1993 at the age of twenty-two. He was an artist, activist, photographer and social game changer who was passionate about leaving the world a better place. The journals were at first a source of solace for his family and friends after Eldon's death but quickly became something much more. After the release of The Journey is the Destination, and the subsequent museum exhibits, author Jennifer New wrote a heavily illustrated biography, Dan Eldon: The Art of Life. Her new book, Dan Eldon: Safari as a Way of Life is combination of the two earlier titles, a deep survey of Dan's journals (with pages never before published) as well as a biography and dozens of photographs from his personal life. While it will be welcome to all of his fans, Safari as a Way of Life is aimed squarely at teens and is, most definitely, a book to change your life.

Chronicle Books has done an outstanding job with Safari, providing full color on every glossy, oversized page. New's narrative follows a straightforward chronology from Dan's early years -- his family moved from London to Kenya when he was seven, when his life "really began" -- through years spent in college and traveling as he sought to find his place in the world. Dan loved Africa and never strayed far from the places and friends that meant to much to him. As unique as his life was (he drove across sections of Africa more than once with his sister and close friends), his story would be known only to a few if he had not created his journals. They are breathtaking and nearly impossible to describe. Dan collected everything he could find for use on the page. As New explains:

He pillaged the house for odds and ends: food labels, cloth, string, ticket stubs, old magazines. When he'd exhausted that supply, he expanded his search zone. The more bizarre or rare the object the better -- an Arabic newspaper was more valuable than one in English, the wrapping from a Russian caviar canister better than an everyday soup label.

He bought a Nikon camera from a National Geographic photographer who stayed with his family and soon after his sister and friends became his muses. Over the years stories would unfold in the journals, both fictional and non, and a unique perspective on life would be exposed. All of Dan's fears and achievements found their way into the pages. They are his life, rendered graphically, unforgettable, impossible to ignore. After the untimely death of Dan and three other photographers, his family knew they had to do something with what he left behind. Their decision to share so much of him with the world is the very definition of commitment. They know Dan sought to change the world and with his example, they want you to try and change it as well.

Could there be a better book for a teenager to receive -- a better life to explore? I can't think of one. Dan Eldon has been part of my life since I first came upon The Journey is the Destination. His art is the kind you rarely come across, and his vision is one you want to hold close to your heart.

For novel lovers, Laini Taylor embraces world-building in a big way with her new fantasy Daughter of Smoke and Bone. Initially a lush urban fantasy set in contemporary Prague, the novel follows the adventures of artist Karou and her unconventional life split between art school and a family steeped in magical secrets. With blue hair, tattooed hands and sketchbooks full of mysteries, Karou seems to be far outside the mainstream. But she is also the girl with a narcissistic ex-boyfriend, a penchant for bowls of goulash at an offbeat cafe (recently spoiled by mention in a Lonely Planet guide), and a friend-to-the-end in talented fellow student and puppeteer Zuzana. If you've ever sought to find your way in the world then you will identify with Karou, which makes what happens to her all the more surprising to readers.

Karou's family is comprised of monsters, or beings who possess an enormous amount of humanity while physically appearing as hybrid animals or mechanical creations. Karou does not know how she came to belong to them, or why "Brimstone" sends her on missions through powerful portals in his shop to collect all kinds of teeth from brokers around the world. She only knows her family has always cared for her and the risk of losing them is too great to push for answers. But then events overcome her and force out all the questions of who and how and why and her world stretches far beyond Prague into locales she can not imagine.

Yeah, of course -- she's the girl who will save us all. But don't get your back up about this because Taylor has created a mythos with Karou that rises above the usual teen fiction dross. She makes the readers comfortable with her main character, all the while introducing more and more elements of the fantastic into the story. Every so carefully, Taylor creates a character you passionately care about and as the plot careens to newer and darker places, readers fall for her more and more. The character has you, and you don't want to let her go. It's a masterful piece of writing and textbook example of effective world-building that reaches beyond hardcore fantasy readers to those more inclined to read coming-of-age. With its lovely writing, Daughter of Smoke and Bone is not to be missed.

The Chronicles of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsburg was one of those picture books that had an equal appeal to adults and children. A series of black and white illustrations with spare captions, it was introduced by Van Allsburg as the lost papers of a mysterious man, pictures that could not be explained and whose meanings were only hinted at by those mysterious captions. Now, more than twenty-five years later, a stellar group of writers have come together in a new anthology of short stories that encompass both the illustrations and captions. Fans of Van Allsburg's book should not fear that these interpretations will affect their love of the original book; the stories are just as soulful as the pictures and complement rather than compete with his work. This book is one of those rare moments when a classic is revisited and good things happen.

Van Allsburg's book opens with a bang as Lemony Snicket provides a sly introduction that addresses the disappearance of the title character as well as providing a sneaky preview for all that follows. The stories begin with Tabitha King's sweet and brave "Archie Smith, Boy Wonder" and then moves into the creepy and downright subversive "Under the Rug" from Jon Scieszka. Sherman Alexie takes a pair of siblings on an adventure that gets out of hand in "A Strange Day in July," and Gregory Maguire tackles the image of a massive ship careening into a canal and gives us the pleasure of a bad man getting his just deserts in "Missing in Venice."

Cory Doctorow wrote what is one of my favorite stories with a pack of children who choose the railroad track not traveled in "Another Place, Another Time." (Truly, it is wonderful.) Jules Feiffer writes a story in "Uninvited Guests" that includes no children at all (a departure from the others) and is both dark and hopeful at the same time -- something that seems exceedingly appropriate for this author. Linda Sue Park is a bit reminiscent of Charles de Lint (in a good way) in "The Harp" and Walter Dean Myers conjures up all that is wonderful about book lovers in "Mr. Linden's Library." That he also manages to show what can be terrifying about books at the same time is a testament to his story's surprise -- in fact I think longtime readers of Myers will be the most surprised by what he accomplishes here and I do hope he returns to urban fantasy or expands on this story because it is one of the fresher pieces I've read from him in a long time.

Lois Lowry tackled an image of a flying nun with "The Seven Chairs" and manages to be solemn and spunky at the same time. She blends religion and fantasy in a unique way that impressed me very much. The epistolary tale by Kate DiCamillo, "The Third-Floor Bedroom," brought both "The Yellow Wallpaper" and "Bedknobs and Broomsticks" to mind; it was understated, not the slightest bit cloying and a return to all that was good about Because of Winn Dixie. I'm not surprised at all that M.T. Anderson would channel The Twilight Zone in "Just Desert," or Louis Sachar would be sentimental in the kind ghost story "Captain Tory," but Chris Van Allsburg's contribution "Oscar and Alphonse" was unexpectedly lighthearted and gives readers another spunky girl heroine they will easily embrace.

And then, Stephen King arrives with "The House on Maple Street" to remind us all that he is still one of the greatest writers at work today when it comes to crafting strong young characters. King gets kids, and every time he writes about them he shows how incredibly well he understand their hopes, fears and motivations. Here he takes a page from Zathura, but manages to make the wonder of spaceflight the least significant thing in his story. "The House on Maple Street" is about children being smart and brave and doing what you have to do to get out alive. In some ways his story is the scariest because for all its fantasy, it is still the most realistic and thus all the more horrifying. Any of us could have been one of these kids with a monster in the house, and many of us have. If you need a reason to buy The Chronicles of Harris Burdick, then Stephen King's story is it. This is the gift that needs to be wrapped up with a big bow.

Jim Ottaviani has written several historical graphic novels of note including T-Minus about the early days of the space race and Bone Sharps, Cowboys, and Thunder Lizards: A Tale of Edward Drinker Cope, Othniel Charles Marsh, and the Gilded Age of Paleontology about late nineteenth century paleontology but with illustrator Leland Myrick and colorist Hilary Sycamore he has hit a new high note in Feynman. This long (262 pages) and astonishingly in-depth study of the physicist's life is both informative and often (like the subject himself) quite funny. It is by far the best way to gain an introduction to Feynman and his many accomplishments, (to say that I wish this book had been around when I was in high school would be a vast understatement), and should be considered an absolute must read for any teen interested in physics or the history of science.

Ottaviani opens with Feynman's thoroughly conventional childhood and then takes readers along as his precociousness matured into a never-ending curiosity. Along the way we see him helping his younger sister with her own scientific questions, (she was constantly urged toward a more feminine direction by others but her brother was steadfast in his support of her interests and ultimately she became a scientist in her own right), becoming a key part of the Manhattan Project and embarking on a lifetime of groundbreaking study in the field of physics culminating with a key position on the Challenger commission. Ottaviani mined the many oral recordings of Feynman as well as his books to mimic his voice and Myrick's realistic artwork keeps the graphic novel very much a biography both in appearance and content. There is no mistaking this for something fanciful -- the story is impressive enough on its own. But aside from all of this -- the cleanly wrought narrative, the injections of humor and sarcasm, the poignant moments of loss and introspection -- it is the very notion that anyone can take not only the life but discoveries of one of the most brilliant people to ever live and make it all easily understandable and enjoyable for the general reader that elevates Feynman above more conventionally crafted biographies. This book is exactly why graphic novels are such a powerful format both for teens and adults -- it removes the intimidation factor from the equation and allows readers to believe they can actually understand what someone like Feynman accomplished. This is a very big deal -- it's not easy to do what Ottaviani and Myrick (and publisher First Second Books) make look easy. Feynman is a perfect example of how to make science achievements relatable to anyone. I never thought I would understand Quantum Electro-Dynamics (QED) until I read Feynman. Now I have a glimmer of comprehension and more importantly, I want to know more.

In 1908 a schoolteacher named Donald MacMillan sailed with Robert Peary on what became the first successful trip to the North Pole. In the years that followed he returned to the arctic more than two dozen times, often as captain of his own vessel and expedition and conducted significant scientific and technological experiments resulting in a redrawing of the northern map and the first uses of aircraft and radio in the high north. In all likelihood you have not heard of him because in the decades since his achievements, MacMillan has fallen into obscurity among all but the most ardent of academics. But this member of the Explorers Club who founded the Peary-MacMillian Arctic Museum and was awarded the National Geographic Society's highest honor should be on everybody's adventurer short list. Donald MacMillan was the real deal -- he not only went to no man's land more than once, he made it a place you can find on the map, and he did it all in the name of science which trumps adventure for the cameras any day of the week. Have I made you curious enough yet? Good. Now you are ready to find out about Mary Morton Cowan's biography of MacMillan, Captain Mac.

Captain Mac follows MacMillan's life from a New England childhood overshadowed by the loss of his father at sea through his years spent in the north. The Peary expedition was not the high point of his career but rather served as the spark to send him adventuring again and again. Cowan writes about the people he met and befriended, the many young men who worked with him, and the near death experiences along the way. The book is filled with photographs -- dozens of them -- that bring the arctic home to readers. Most gripping are those of MacMillan's ship the Bowdoin, which designed and kept sailing even in treacherous circumstances and today is still plying arctic waters with a new generation of scientists and students. What Cowan makes clear is that MacMillan was the real deal: a man committed to learning as much as he possibly could and passing on what he learned to others. He did not want heroics, he wanted to know more and more and more about the north -- his curiosity was insatiable. This endless drive for discovery is a throwback to the oldest and greatest explorers, the ones we haven't forgotten, and it is to Cowan's credit that she has written a biography that gives MacMillan some of the limelight he has long been missing.

Finally, Robert Wiersema impressed me a great deal last year with his darkly heartfelt novella The World More Full of Weeping. His follow-up dazzles in a completely different way as a coming-of-age memoir set to the music of rock legend Bruce Springsteen. Walk Like a Man: Coming of Age with the Music of Bruce Springsteen succeeds on multiple levels both as music writing (a genre often overlooked) and as a reflective story of how to navigate manhood. The young adult genre is full of books about girls learning to make wise choices (or suffering the effects of poor ones) but it's pretty slim pickings for boys (Tim Tharp's novel Knights of the Hill Country is one unforgettable exception). Wiersema did not write Walk Like a Man for teens but by focusing so much of it on his years growing up in rural British Columbia, it is a title that speaks to all of us of the powerlessness of youth and the longing for more that also permeates much of Springsteen's music. The author could not be more removed from the singer's experience (BC is about as far as it gets from New Jersey without crossing an ocean) and yet Wiersema easily shows how Springsteen's music resonated with every aspect of his young adulthood. The trick to the writing is that he not only makes the comparisons between the two of them believable, he makes you realize just how much you might have in common with both men as well.

Walk Like a Man is exceedingly well organized and thus accessible even to those unfamiliar with Springsteen. Wiersema opens with a brief reflection about why this particular musician continues to be important to him and then provides a brief biography of his subject before launching into a series of chapters highlighting individual songs and the way in which they apply to his own life. "My Hometown" reminds him of life before and after his parents' divorce -- the end of childhood in every way that matters ("From then on, nothing was safe. Nothing was certain. Danger lurked around every corner"), "4th of July, Asbury Park" takes him back to high school romances and "Brilliant Disguise" is about one of his oldest friendships and just what it means to have the kind of friends who will stick with you forever.

The miracle of Wiersema's writing is that although he refers to one particular singer-songwriter and although he reveals deeply personal aspects of his own life, everything he writes about conjures up the broadest aspects of the coming-of-age experience. He writes about himself but also about you and me; he writes about Springsteen but the lyrics could be those of any song that takes you back to when your parents split up or your heart was broken or your best friend sat beside you on a great night when all that mattered was the road and the radio. Wiersema bridges all the gaps of time and distance and speaks as one music lover to another, as one former lost kid to another, as one reminiscing adult to others or even to teens eagerly on the road to adulthood. As you turn the last pages of Walk Like a Man it is with the satisfaction of knowing this is a writer at the top of his form, someone who knows where he came from and is happy with who he is today. While not a rock star, Wiersema has a lot in common with Springsteen -- they both have great stories to tell and they both have enormous talent. Put this one in the stocking of any high schooler with a serious love for music and I promise they will delighted; and for Springsteen fans it's a no-brainer, just as it should be.

COOL READ: Thomas Thwaites, a postgraduate design student at the Royal College of Art, had the sort of crazy idea to reverse engineer a toaster and then build one from scratch -- by obtaining all the materials himself -- as a college project. He documents this insanity in the heavily illustrated Princeton Architectural Press title The Toaster Project. I read it on a whim and found myself unexpectedly captivated by Thwaites's chronicles of his travels to obtain things like iron ore, mica and copper. He tries to go out to an oil rig to collect the most basic form of plastic (his email exchanges with BP show they didn't know what to do with him) but settles for mining some from a recycling "dump." Ultimately he smelts metal, discovers how many hundreds of separate pieces are in a toaster (404 in the one he took apart) and the whole thing takes nine months and costs over $1,800. None of this would matter to anyone other than his professors if Thwaites weren't such a good writer. He started on this project because he had no idea where something as basic as a toaster came from or how it was built and by the time he finished he was chagrinned to discover how removed we are from the time when we knew how to wield all the necessary tools to live our lives. We have constructed a society where something as pedestrian as a broken toaster is beyond the abilities of most of us to repair and that, more than all the tales of traveling to hill and dale or the near-miss explosions (there is a reason why he does not plug his final toaster in), is the message of The Toaster Project. Thwaites is a knowledgeable and delightful writer and he makes his point in the most straightforward of manners: we are incapable of fending for ourselves anymore and really ought to think long and hard about the complicated lives we have boxed ourselves into living. For every family with a tinkering teen this will be the kind of book you long for but never expect to find. That fact that it is funny as well as informative makes it a treat truly worth seeking out.