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26 AUGUST, 2015

Mad About Monkeys: A Loving Illustrated Encyclopedia of Weird and Wonderful Kindred Creatures

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A captivating primer on our fellow primates, from belligerent baboons to brilliant macaques.

We share this planet we call home with an astonishing array of equally astonishing creatures. But, perhaps because we judge everything by our solipsistic human criteria, few elicit our admiring fascination more potently than monkeys — our fellow primates, which evolved some 35 million years ago; we share with them a distant common ancestor, from which we diverged on our separate evolutionary paths. (But, contrary to a common misconception, we did not evolve from monkeys.)

In Mad About Monkeys (public library), a wonderful addition to the best children’s books celebrating science, British illustrator Owen Davey presents a stunning and richly informative primer on these marvelous primates.

However wildly different the 260 known species of monkeys may be from one another and from us, we continue to share surprising commonality with these distant cousins — from our highly networked societies to our capacity for play, that peculiar activity serving no other purpose than providing pleasure and delight.

Davey traces how their evolutionary history set monkeys apart from gibbons, lemurs, and chimpanzees — lest we forget, Jane Goodall has spent a good chunk of her career patiently debunking the popular misconception that chimps are monkeys — and how monkeys migrated from Africa to Asia to North America to develop into the distinctly different Old World and New World classes.

With art that calls to mind Charley Harper and the golden age of mid-century children’s book illustration, Davey explores the glorious diversity of these weird and wonderful creatures, their sophisticated social life, and their elaborate communication style — from West Africa’s Diana monkeys, which send sentence-like messages to each other by combining a variety of call sounds, to Ethiopia’s geladas, which broadcast their reproductive readiness via the brightness of a skin patch on the female’s chest, to South and Central America’s howler monkeys, which are among Earth’s most vocal animals and have the loudest call of any primate.

Davey spotlights a few fascinating record-holders, including a Rhesus Macaque named Albert, who became the first primate to fly in space in June of 1949, more than a decade before the first human primate, and the Bearded Emperor Tamarin, which puts all of Williamsburg to shame and uncontestedly earns the title of Earth’s “best facial hair.”

From mythology to ecology, Davey explores both the role of monkeys in human culture and humanity’s responsibility toward them — the book’s final pages take a sobering look at the detrimental effects of deforestation on monkey habitats and explore what we can do, as individuals and as a civilization, to protect these remarkable but vulnerable kindred creatures.

Mad About Monkeys comes from independent British children’s book press Flying Eye Books, makers of such treasures as the illustrated biography of Shackleton, Emily Hughes’s marvelous The Little Gardener and Wild, the imaginative encyclopedia Monsters & Legends, and the cosmic primer Professor Astro Cat’s Frontiers of Space.

For an illustrated love letter to another magnificent mammal, see Jenni Desmond’s The Blue Whale.

Illustrations courtesy of Flying Eye Books

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25 AUGUST, 2015

Michael Rosen’s Sad Book: A Beautiful Anatomy of Loss, Illustrated by Quentin Blake

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“Sometimes I’m sad and I don’t know why. It’s just a cloud that comes along and covers me up.”

“Grief, when it comes, is nothing like we expect it to be,” Joan Didion wrote after losing the love of her life. “The people we most love do become a physical part of us,” Meghan O’Rourke observed in her magnificent memoir of loss, “ingrained in our synapses, in the pathways where memories are created.” Those wildly unexpected dimensions of grief and the synaptic traces of love are what celebrated British children’s book writer and poet Michael Rosen confronted when his eighteen-year-old son Eddie died suddenly of meningitis. Never-ending though the process of mourning may be, Rosen set out to exorcise its hardest edges and subtlest shapes five years later in Michael Rosen’s Sad Book (public library) — an immensely moving addition to the finest children’s books about loss, illustrated by none other than the great Quentin Blake.

With extraordinary emotional elegance, Rosen welcomes the layers of grief, each unmasking a different shade of sadness — sadness that sneaks up on you mid-stride in the street; sadness that lurks as a backdrop to the happiest of moments; sadness that wraps around you like a shawl you don’t take off even in the shower.

What emerges is a breathtaking bow before the central paradox of the human experience — the awareness that the heart’s enormous capacity for love is matched with an equal capacity for pain, and yet we love anyway and somehow find fragments of that love even amid the ruins of loss.

This is me being sad.
Maybe you think I’m happy in this picture.
Really I’m sad but pretending I’m happy.
I’m doing this because I think people won’t like me if I look sad.

Sometimes sad is very big.
It’s everywhere. All over me.

Then I look like this.
And there’s nothing I can do about it.

What makes me most sad is when I think about my son Eddie. I loved him very, very much but he died anyway.

With exquisite nuance, Rosen captures the contradictory feelings undergirding mourning — affection and anger, self-conscious introspection and longing for communion — and the way loss lodges itself in the psyche so that the vestiges of a particular loss always awaken the sadness of the all loss, that perennial heartbreak of beholding the absurdity of our longing for permanence in a universe of constant change.

Sometimes this makes me really angry.
I say to myself, “How dare he go and die like that?
How dare he make me sad?”

Eddie doesn’t say anything,
because he’s not here anymore.

Sometimes I want to talk about all this to someone.
Like my mum. But she’s not here anymore, either. So I can’t.
I find someone else. And I tell them all about it.

Sometimes I don’t want to talk about it.
Not to anyone. No one at all.
I just want to think about it on my own.
Because it’s mine. And no one else’s.

But what makes the story most singular and rewarding is that it refuses to indulge the cultural cliché of cushioning tragedy with the promise of a silver lining. It is redemptive not in manufacturing redemption but in being true to the human experience — intensely, beautifully, tragically true.

Sometimes because I’m sad I do crazy things — like shouting in the shower…

Sometimes I’m sad and I don’t know why.
It’s just a cloud that comes along and covers me up.
It’s not because Eddie’s gone.
It’s not because my mum’s gone. It’s just because.

Blake, who has previously illustrated Sylvia Plath’s little-known children’s book and many of Roald Dahl’s stories, brings his unmistakably expressive sensibility to the book, here and there concretizing Rosen’s abstract words into visual vignettes that make you wonder what losses of his own he is holding in the mind’s eye as he draws.

Where is sad?
Sad is everywhere.
It comes along and finds you.

When is sad?
Sad is anytime.
It comes along and finds you.

Who is sad?
Sad is anyone.
It comes along and finds you.

Complement the absolutely breath-stopping Michael Rosen’s Sad Book with Oliver Jeffers’s The Heart and the Bottle and the Japanese masterpiece Little Tree, then revisit Joan Didion on grief.

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25 AUGUST, 2015

August 25, 1944: Picasso, the Liberation of Paris, and the Meaning of Heroism

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“It’s easy to be a hero when you’re only risking your life.”

“To be an artist,” Louise Bourgeois wrote in her diary, “is a guarantee to your fellow humans that the wear and tear of living will not let you become a murderer.” But how is an artist to be when the world itself becomes murderous? Nowhere is the wear and tear of living more trying for the creative spirit — for the human spirit — than in war. And yet generations of artists have not only persevered through some of the ugliest, most gruesome periods in our civilizational history but have helped the rest of us endure by bolstering the spirit of their fellow humans. Bourgeois herself lived through two world wars, as did the artist she considered the greatest master: Pablo Picasso (October 25, 1881–April 8, 1973), a man whose unflinching creative courage became nothing short of heroism under the duress of war.

Despite frequent harassment by the Gestapo, Picasso refused to leave Nazi-occupied Paris. He was forbidden from exhibiting or publishing, all of his books were banned, and even the reproduction of his work was prohibited — but he continued to make art. When the Germans outlawed bronze casting, he went on making sculptures with bronze smuggled by the French Resistance — a symbolic act which the deflated creative community saw as an emboldening beam of hope.

Portrait of Picasso by Brassaï

In Conversations with Picasso (public library) — the same vintage treasure that gave us the artist’s views on success, where ideas come from, and the glory of dust — Hungarian photographer Brassaï recounts a 1943 conversation with the French poet Jacques Prévert, another friend of Picasso’s. Brassaï, who had been visiting the artist’s studio and interviewing him for over a decade, reflects on the bravery with which Picasso had withstood the occupation of Paris since the Nazis had taken over three years earlier:

At the time of the invasion, he could have left if he had wanted, could have gone anywhere he wished, to Mexico, Brazil, the United States. He didn’t lack for money or opportunities or invitations. Even during the Occupation, the United States consul requested several times that he leave France. But he stayed. His presence among us is a comfort and a spur, not only for those of us who are his friends, but even for those who don’t know him.

Prévert agrees and considers the true meaning of heroism:

It was an act of courage. The man is not a hero. He is afraid, just like anyone who has something to say or defend. It’s easy to be a hero when you’re only risking your life. For his part, he could, and still can, lose everything. Who knows what turn the war will take? Paris may be destroyed. He’s got a bad record with the Nazis, and could be interned, deported, taken hostage. Even his works — “degenerate” art, “Bolshevik” art — have already been condemned and may be burned at the stake. No one in the world, not the pope or the Holy Ghost, could prevent such an auto-da-fé. And the more desperate Hitler and his acolytes become, the more dangerous, deadly, and destructive their rage may be. Can Picasso guess how they might react? He has assumed the risk. He has come back to occupied Paris. He is with us. Picasso is a great guy.

Picasso's Guernica (1937), one of history's most significant anti-war artworks, created three years after Hitler's rise to power and three years before the invasion of Paris.

But the city was not destroyed. On August 25, 1944, the Liberation of Paris took place after a seven-day coup, in which Hemingway himself participated. “JOY. JOY. JOY. JOY. JOY. JOY. JOY. JOY. JOY.” Anaïs Nin wrote in her diary that day.

Brassaï reflects on the larger payoff of Picasso’s courageous resistance, recounting a very different kind of joyous invasion:

From one day to the next, Picasso’s studio was invaded. His courageous attitude made him a standard-bearer, and the whole world wanted to salute him as the symbol of recovered freedom. Poets, painters, art critics, museum directors, writers dressed in the uniform of Allied armies, officers or simple soldiers, climbed the steep staircase in a compact mob. There was a crush of people at his place. He has become just as popular in Red China, in Soviet Russia, as he was in the United States after his major exhibition in New York. And, for months, Picasso good-naturedly relished universal glory, graciously made himself available to journalists, to photographers, and even to the curious who wanted to see him “in the flesh.”

Conversations with Picasso is an indispensable read in its totality, full of the great artist’s ideas on every aspect of art and life, and strewn with cameos and recollections by some of his most influential contemporaries, including Henri Matisse, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Henry Miller.

Complement this particular portion with Hemingway’s first-hand account of the Liberation coup.

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24 AUGUST, 2015

Borges on Public Opinion, Literature vs. the Other Arts, and the True Measure of Success

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“When you come right down to it, opinions are the most superficial things about anyone.”

Jorge Luis Borges (August 24, 1899–June 14 1986) is among humanity’s most beloved and influential writers. His work has inspired mathematical revelations, philosophical children’s books, and a universe of literature. After his death, Susan Sontag commemorated him in the most beautiful homage in the history of letters.

In 1972, in his seventies and already completely blind, Borges agreed to meet with a young Argentinian writer and passionate reader named Fernando Sorrentino for a series of conversations. On seven afternoons, the two men, separated by more than forty years and united by a profound love of literature, sat down in a secluded room at the National Library of Argentina and conversed candidly about literature and life. The record of these revelatory encounters, offering the most direct glimpse of the beloved author’s mind, was published as Seven Conversations with Jorge Luis Borges (public library) in 1974 — the same magnificent volume that gave us Borges’s enduring wisdom on writing.

In one of the most timeless yet intensely timely portions of the conversation, Borges examines the question of success and its true measures through the lens of his extraordinary artistic integrity and cultural insight. When asked whether he cares about the opinions of readers and spectators, he considers the difference between literature and other arts:

It’s possible that a book won’t attract any attention when it’s published; it may be discovered afterward. On the other hand, in the case of a film (and this makes everything more dramatic; the same thing happens, let’s say, with the dancer’s or performer’s art), the failure or success has to be immediate… I think the circumstance of a hall filled with people in itself creates a special atmosphere.

Literature and fine art seem to share this time-scale of success, quite different from that of the popular and performance arts. One wonders whether Borges thought of his younger sister, Norah, in contemplating this question of latent recognition — while she was an enormously prolific graphic artist during her life, it was only after her death that she came to be celebrated as a pioneer of modern art.

Art by Norah Borges. Click image for more.

With an eye to the psychology of crowds, he adds:

When people join in a group they react in a more exaggerated way; this is something you must have noticed very often. For instance, if someone tells a joke in a small group, people laugh, but they don’t laugh in the same way that five hundred or a thousand people laugh when they hear a joke in a play or a movie. That is, there’s a tendency to greater exaggeration, a tendency for everything to happen in a more emphatic manner. And it’s strange, the fact that people let themselves go more when they’re in a group. On the other hand, a solitary reader, a solitary spectator, seems to have less of a reaction or to react more modestly than when with other people.

[…]

The solitary reading of a work is best for its true evaluation. But at any rate, it’s a different kind of evaluation.

Art by Norah Borges. Click image for more.

Returning to the travesty of evaluation by popular opinion — something Kierkegaard lamented and Georgia O’Keeffe admonished against — Borges observes:

When you come right down to it, opinions are the most superficial things about anyone.

In a sentiment triply poignant today, nearly half a century of commercialism later, Borges considers how the commodification of literature has warped its metrics of success:

It’s possible that the fact that literature has been commercialized now in a way it never was before has had an influence. That is, the fact that people now talk about “bestsellers,” that fashion has an influence (something that didn’t use to happen). I remember that when I began to write, we never thought about the success or failure of a book. What’s called “success” now didn’t exist at that time. And what’s called “failure” was taken for granted. One wrote for oneself and, maybe, as Stevenson used to say, for a small group of friends. On the other hand, one now thinks of sales. I know there are writers who publicly announce they’ve had their fifth, sixth, or seventh edition released and that they’ve earned such and such an amount of money. All that would have appeared totally ridiculous when I was a young man; it would have appeared incredible. People would have thought that a writer who talks about what he earns on his books is implying: “I know what I write is bad but I do it for financial reasons or because I have to support my family.” So I view that attitude almost as a form of modesty. Or of plain foolishness.

Art by Norah Borges. Click image for more.

This resonates with Borges’s earlier remark about the different time-scales of appreciation for literature versus more commercial arts like film and popular music. The notion of the “bestseller” shares cultural genes with the “blockbuster” and the “hit” — notice how very violent our laudatory language tends to be — and yet the success of literature, Borges suggests and countless other writers have corroborated, is measured by an entirely different metric of inner light.

Seven Conversations with Jorge Luis Borges is a magnificent read in its entirety. Complement it with more of the beloved writer’s wisdom on writing and a marvelous children’s book inspired by his ideas about memory, then revisit Thoreau on defining your own success.

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