BOOK REVIEW: The Storyteller’s Handbook by Elise Hurst

The Storyteller's HandbookThe Storyteller’s Handbook by Elise Hurst
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: June 14, 2022

This is a book, but not one that one reads but rather one that one writes. It contains more than 50 imaginative and fantastical artworks intended to help creative parents build their own stories, while helping their children learn to become storytellers. There is a forward by Neil Gaiman (who has worked with the artist on previous occasions) and an introduction by Hurst, but otherwise there’s almost no text.

The animate subjects of the book are children and animals, but not just any animals. They are mis-sized, misplaced, mythical, imaginary, anthropomorphized, and extinct creatures in search of a clever explanation for their existence and behaviors. The usual suspects of our beloved stories are most well-represented: bears, lions, foxes, rabbits, birds, and fish – for example. But there are also less well-known creatures: mollusks, a mantis, kangaroo, koala, and armadillo. The settings are also designed to fuel the imagination: oceans, hot air balloons, impossibly floating places of all sorts, cities of gothic and fantastical architecture.

If you’re looking for a storybook where you have a graphic prompt to trigger your own story, this is a beautifully illustrated example of such a work.


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BOOK REVIEW: Philosophy for Gardeners by Kate Collyns

Philosophy for Gardeners: Ideas and paradoxes to ponder in the gardenPhilosophy for Gardeners: Ideas and paradoxes to ponder in the garden by Kate Collyns
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: March 1, 2022

This book can benefit not only gardeners interested in philosophy, but also philosophers interested in gardening. [If you’re in the intersect of people expert in both philosophy and gardening, the book probably won’t hold a great deal of intrigue as it’s written for a more general audience.] The gist is examples and analogies from gardening applied to elucidating philosophical concepts. In a few cases, these examples feel a bit forced. In most cases, they work just fine. But in a few other cases, the gardening analogies offer a powerful and unique insight that one would be unlikely to take away from a single-axis philosophy guide. For example, I found the relating of utilitarianism to the gardener’s dilemma of whether to start with a wildly overgrown bed or a relatively clean one offered a fresh perspective on the topic.

The book’s twenty chapters are divided into four parts. The parts are labeled “Soil,” “Growth,” “Harvest,” and “Cycles;” which I took to apply to fundamentals, change, outcomes, and the cycle of life and death. Part I, “Soil,” investigates topics in metaphysics, governance, and taxonomy. The second part, “Growth,” explores evolutionary adaptation, altruism / cooperation, the blank slate (and its critique,) and Zeno’s paradoxes. The penultimate section, “Harvest,” delves into topics such as forms, aesthetics, the reliability of senses, epistemology, and economic philosophy. Finally, “Cycles” discusses identity, logic and linguistic limitations, ethics, and pragmatism.

The book uses retro illustrations that look like the plates one might see in a book from the 19th century. There’s a brief bibliography, primarily of philosophical classics.

I’m always on the lookout for books that consider the perspective that humans exist within nature and our ways can’t be understood divorced from our place in the natural world. In that sense, I believe the book has much to offer.

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BOOK REVIEW: Introducing Foucault: A Graphic Guide by Chris Horrocks

Introducing Foucault: A Graphic Guide (Introducing...)Introducing Foucault: A Graphic Guide by Chris Horrocks
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This illustrated guide offers a brief overview of the life and philosophy of Michel Foucault in bite-sized, readable topical blocks. The book is part of a series, a series that I frequently turn to when I need a blast of information on a topic of momentary interest (because the series is readily accessible via Prime.)

Generally, I’ve found the series to be mediocre, but I found this volume to be much more engaging than most. In part this is because Foucault’s work deals in intriguing subject matter. He wrote on madness, prisons / punishment, and sexuality. Saying that the subject matter was more interesting than usual may not sound like a ringing endorsement of the book or its author, but there are a couple things that I think Horrocks can be credited for doing well to make for a more compelling book. First, he doesn’t steer away from the controversial, either in Foucault’s biography or in his work. Second, he clearly and frequently states the criticisms of Foucault, making the book more thought-provoking and useful.

And Foucault did draw his share of criticism, his multi-disciplinary style combined with an approach that didn’t result in unambiguous answers and policy recommendations made many consider him wishy-washy, or irrelevant. And, of course, his brazen willingness to take on provocative topics made many uncomfortable.

If you’re looking for a book to figure out who this Foucault guy was and why people still talk about his work, this book is worth your consideration.


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BOOK REVIEW: Introducing Ethics: A Graphic Guide by Dave Robinson [Ill. by Chris Garratt]

Introducing Ethics: A Graphic Guide (Introducing...)Introducing Ethics: A Graphic Guide by Dave Robinson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is one title in the “A Graphic Guide” series of books, many of which (including this one) are available on Amazon Prime. The books in the series explain fundamentals for a wide range of academic subjects, using simple descriptions supported by graphics. This particular book examines the philosophy of ethics and morality.

The book consists of a large number (almost 130) short topical sections, each with supporting graphics. Each section is just a page or two in length. The book has a chronological flow, moving from Socrates through the Postmodern philosophers. The nature of the topics varies, sometimes it is the view of a particular philosopher or school of philosophy, sometimes it’s a fundamental question or point of contention, and sometimes it’s a specific ethical issue. The last twenty-ish statements elaborate on two specific cases that the book addresses in detail: animal rights and euthanasia.

I felt the author did a good job of laying out a number of fault lines, controversies at the heart of differing views of ethics. The controversy that gets the most attention is that between absolutists and relativists. (Absolutists claim there are a set of core moral rules that are universally applicable, while relativists say one can’t make such rules because the morality of every action is relative, be it: situationally, culturally, or individually. An extreme view from either perspective is inconsistent with what one tends to sees in the real world.) A second point of contention regards whether ethical constraints are determined at the individual level or the societal / tribal / group level? A third controversy consists of a subjectivity versus objectivity divide – i.e. is morality just about what feels right or is there an objective way of defining moral knowledge? A significant portion of the book deals with the rivalries about these points, and – to a lesser degree – others (e.g. is biology the root of ethics or is it a domain devoid of ethics?)

There are cartoon drawings with most of the sections that illustrate key points, and / or depict interactions between rival philosophers. There is a “further reading” section in the back that suggests books to expand one’s grasp of the subject beyond the bare fundamentals that are addressed in this book.

I thought this book did a good job of laying out the issues. The cases (animal rights and euthanasia) helped show how different schools of thought apply their ideas to specific questions. I particularly enjoyed how the book clarified the subject through discussion of key questions of contention. If you have Amazon Prime, it’s definitely worth checking this one out. If not, you may want to see how it compares to the “A Very Short Introduction” guide for Oxford University Press, which is a similar series that explains the basics of a subject in a concise fashion.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Shaman’s Apprentice by Zacharias Kunuk

The Shaman's ApprenticeThe Shaman’s Apprentice by Zacharias Kunuk
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: May 11, 2021

This is an illustrated children’s book that takes the reader on a journey with an Inuit Shaman and her apprentice. The pair make a house call to diagnose and treat a man who is laid up in his sickbed. That diagnosis and treatment involves “visiting” a kind of spirit guide who provides them the information needed to understand the man’s ailment.

The pictures are beautiful, detailed, and rich in insight into the Inuit way of life.  They are full-page illustrations rendered in a painting-like style. The artist is Megan Kyak-Montieth.

The text consists of, at most, a paragraph on each page that opposes the respective illustration, thus making this a book that could easily be read as a bedtime story. It’s a simple and straightforward story.

The book explores the interesting issue of how our behaviors and mindset can influence our physical health. Some parents may be more comfortable than others with the supernatural way in which the patient’s ailment comes to be understood – i.e. through consultation with a spirit. However, if one is at all prone to buy a book featuring “Shaman” in the title, you’re probably not going to be disturbed by the material or the questions that might arise as a result of said material.

I found this book to be interesting and beautifully illustrated. If you’re looking for some diversity in what your children are exposed to, you may want to look into it.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Neil Gaiman Library, Vol. 3 by Neil Gaiman

The Neil Gaiman Library Volume 3The Neil Gaiman Library Volume 3 by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: June 1, 2021

 

This series collects short fiction of Neil Gaiman and presents it via the medium of the graphic novel. While there are four works listed, because two of these works contain multiple stories, there are actually eight stories contained in this volume. The selection is diverse both in terms of genre and artistic style. With respect to genre, the stories cut across fairy tale, fantasy, horror, supernatural, and tales of the weird. The artistic styles range from art nouveau to comic strip style. While this is the third volume, the included stories all stand on their own, and so there is no necessity to have read previous volumes. Because Gaiman draws heavily on fairy tale source material, parents might assume these are kid-friendly stories, but you should check them out first yourself as “Snow, Glass, Apples” and “The Daughter of Owls” both present somewhat sexually explicit content (the former both graphically and with respect to story events and the latter only with respect to story,) and while the horror stories are pretty calm as horror stories go, they are still works of horror.

“Snow, Glass, Apples” is a dark take on the princess-centric fairy tale. It imagines a vampiric young nymph who appears as challenger to the Queen. This is probably the most visually impressive work, being illustrated in a style that mixes art nouveau with Harry Clark’s stain glass artworks. It is definitely not the run-of-the mill graphic novel, graphically speaking. The art is exceptionally detailed and stunning.

“The Problem with Susan and Other Stories”: As the title suggests, this is one of the two multi-story entries in the collection. The titular main story features a retired Professor who is plagued by Narnia-like dreams, and who receives a visit from a reporter for a college paper. The art for this one is much more reminiscent of the typical graphic novel of today. There are three other stories included. “Locks,” the comic strip-esque illustrated story, is a take on “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” as it’s being told to – and imagined by – a little girl. “October in the Chair” imagines a kind of story competition taking place around a campfire by anthropomorphized “months.” It’s a bit more artistically rendered than the other stories in this [sub-] collection (although that may have to do with the dark tone that is used to reinforce that the stories are being told in the middle of the night in the middle of a woods.) The final story is a brief, but artistically dense, story that imagines a day in which everything goes wrong at once.

The sixth story, “Only the End of the World Again,” revolves around a man / werewolf who wakes up to find that he has clearly turned in the preceding night. The tale is set in a small and remote village, where everyone seems to know everything about everyone, and it doesn’t shock the man when select people let slip that they know his secret. As the story unfolds, it’s clear that the man / werewolf is caught up in something bigger than his own tragedy.

The last entry is a two-parter. The first is one of my favorite Neil Gaiman short stories; entitled, “The Price,” it offers an answer to the question of why some indoor / outdoor cats constantly come home battered and bleeding. The second story, “The Daughter of Owls,” revolves around “the baby left on the church steps” plot mechanism. Because the girl is enveloped in owl accoutrements, she is shunned by the village and forced into exile at a dilapidated former abbey. Both of these stories have a more brush-painted style that the usual graphic novel.

I enjoyed this collection immensely. While not all of the stories were new to me, the way they were illustrated shone a new light on the familiar tales. All of the stories are masterfully crafted and illustrated. While Gaiman draws heavily on well-known fairy tales, there is nothing banal about these stories. I’d highly recommend this book, even if you’ve read some of the stories already.

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BOOK REVIEW: Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen [Ill. by Marjolein Bastin]

Pride and Prejudice: Illustrations by Marjolein BastinPride and Prejudice: Illustrations by Marjolein Bastin by Jane Austen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This edition out: March 2, 2021

 

This is a new addition of an early 19th century classic. The value-added of the edition under review comes from illustrations by Marjolein Bastin, making for an aesthetically pleasing hardcopy edition for gifts or for collectors. The attractive color illustrations are of wildflowers, birds, and butterflies, and are widespread throughout – including the first and last page of each chapter. The artwork is beautifully drawn and vibrantly colored.

It’s a testament to the effectiveness of this book’s story and character development that it has withstood the test of time, becoming a widely-adapted classic. If it were being submitted for publishing today, I suspect it would face intense challenges with respect to its flouting of many popular conventions on writing. It has a pretty high telling-to-showing ratio. Description is sparse, so much so that some might find “floating head syndrome” kicks in [i.e. long tracks of dialogue detached from the setting and any action, such that they are imagined as two floating heads in a white void speaking back and forth.] That said, it may be that Austen was ahead of her time in this regard. A number of prominent later writers concluded that there was a general tendency to over-describe in novels. [Readers are going to build their own mental models of setting and character appearance, such that long tracts of description are wasted effort and ultimately hinder readability.]

The story revolves around a family of five sisters, the Bennet’s. Their father is a gentleman, but of modest means and his estate is “entailed.” [I don’t know what “entailed” means legally, but relative to the story, it means that his wife and daughters can’t inherit his estate – rather, the property must go to Mr. Bennet’s nearest male relative, who turns out to be a pompous, self-righteous, and generally irritating clergyman, Mr. Collins.] The significance of that fact is that it exacerbates concern about what will happen to the family when Mr. Bennet dies — particularly if the daughters don’t marry well and Collins decides to be a jerk and put them out on the “street.” This makes Mrs. Bennet anxious about the future and a little cuckoo about getting her daughters married.

Within the Bennet family, the story revolves mostly around the second oldest daughter, Elizabeth. When Mr. Collins asks her hand in marriage, she summarily rejects him. This, of course, is much to the chagrin of her mother, as marriage to Collins would single-handedly secure the family’s future [one can’t very well evict one’s mother-in-law, or at least one would have to be an even bigger jerk than Collins to do so.] Elizabeth soon meets a man she does find very promising, Mr. Wickham, a personable military man. But Elizabeth is nothing if not cautious, which turns out to be a good thing for her. The relationship with Wickham doesn’t go anywhere, and she ultimately discovers that all is not what it seems with the man. She immediately notices hostility between Wickham and a wealthy young bachelor gentleman named Mr. Darcy. Wickham tells Elizabeth his side of the story, which makes Darcy look like a jerk who ruined Wickham’s life. Elizabeth readily believes this Wickham because Mr. Darcy is so proud, and the fact that Darcy is also quiet and reserved makes him seem all the more aloof. [Those of us who are not highly expressive can readily recognize the point that people will write their own stories to fill in the blanks when faced with a lack of intense feedback.] So, here we have explanation of the title. Mr. Darcy is proud, but Elizabeth develops a prejudice against him not only because of his pride but also because he is not as instantaneously likable as Wickham or – for that matter — Darcy’s best friend, Mr. Bingley. This lack of bonhomie makes it easier to believe the bad than the good about Darcy, despite mounting evidence that he’s kind of a quietly great guy.

Elizabeth rejects a second marriage proposal, this one from Darcy, on the twin grounds that she believes Darcy ruined Wickham and also that she came to the conclusion that Darcy poisoned Bingley’s relationship with Elizabeth’s older sister, Jane. [Elizabeth and Jane are close not only in age but in their relationship to each other.] Reeling with rejection, Darcy hands Elizabeth a letter the next day. In it, Darcy admits that he was party to convincing Bingley to drop Jane, but only because he thought the reserved Jane wasn’t into Bingley. That is, it wasn’t that he had anything against Jane, but he didn’t want his friend to be the “reacher” in a “reacher-settler” relationship. But the big bomb regards Wickham, as Darcy’s side of the story paints the affable red-coat as flighty and irresponsible. Gradually, Elizabeth comes to see that Darcy’s is the more complete and accurate depiction of events, and she can even see how he would think as he did about Jane. After several readings, Elizabeth is mortified at her own behavior in light of this new information, but the English countryside is a small pond for the upper crust, and she will continue to run into the man she spurned wrongly.

The events that set up the grand romantic gesture that will turn things around and set up the climax revolve around Elizabeth’s [immediately] younger sister, the ugly bonnet-buying Lydia. Visiting some family friends at Brighton, Lydia falls in with Mr. Wickham and, being less cautious and discerning than Elizabeth [not to mention overeager to be married,] she sidles off with him. This is not so relatable today, but the entire family become obsessed with finding out what happened with Lydia, and fears that she’s brought disgrace on the entire family and may even keep the other daughters from finding suitable suitors. [Mr. Collins, for one, believes they should treat her as if she were dead.] This sets up Mr. Darcy to come in and secretly save the day [get Wickham to marry Lydia, a marriage which satisfies everybody – except Collins who still believes Lydia should be written off because she may or may not have had premarital sex but she certainly created the appearance that she probably did — for which she will spend an eternity in a lake of hellfire for ever and ever without end.]

There is a lot of obsession with the incomes of the various characters, and a lot of “keeping up with the Jones’s” mentality. In one sense, it seems that Austen is critiquing such attitudes – along with a lot of other peculiar attitudes of the day. Certainly, we see the sympathetic protagonist, Elizabeth, is clear in behaving in a way that suggests she is most interested in a happy future. On the other hand, critics have pointed out that the book ends with those with more wealth set to have happier futures. Elizabeth and then Jane are likely to be happy as clams with their rich husbands, but Lydia far less so with the perpetually broke Mr. Wickham. There’s also lot of rigid formality that might be being picked at by the novel as well – or, at least, it appears so problematic to a present-day reader. There is so much reserved refusal to say anything that might violate social norms, even if a person is bursting to do so and everyone would be better off if they did. One might get the feeling Elizabeth is scared as a mouse given her unwillingness to speak openly, but then when Lady de Bourgh (who intimidates almost everyone in the book) tries to get Elizabeth to agree to turn down Darcy’s proposal, Elizabeth refuses her in a very articulate and well-deployed counter-attack – despite being under the impression that there is no engagement to be concerned about in the first place (this after she rejected his proposal.)

I enjoyed reading this story. I expected it would be archaic and generally unrelatable to today’s world. However, it turned out to be a surprisingly engaging story. While I am not one to by a book for ancillary illustrations, if you are into such things, this book has some soothing and beautifully-rendered imagery. It’s definitely worth reading this classic novel.

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BOOK REVIEW: Poems to See By ed. by Julian Peters

Poems to See by: A Comic Artist Interprets Great PoetryPoems to See by: A Comic Artist Interprets Great Poetry by Julian Peters
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Available March 31, 2020

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This anthology of twenty-four classic poems is set apart by the artwork used to convey the illustrator / anthologist’s view of each poem. The poets are all virtuosos, including: Dickinson, Angelou, Cummings, Langston Hughes, Auden, Seamus Heaney, Wordsworth, Shelley, Yeats, Poe, and Eliot. The poems are sometimes, but not always, among the most anthologized of the respective poet’s work. I would say that most poetry readers will probably find something that they haven’t read, but – even if not – it’s worth re-reading them as you enjoy the artwork.

The illustrator, Julian Peters, makes a bold decision to use the widest variety of artistic styles in an attempt to more aptly capture the tone of each poem. I recently reviewed a similar book, Chris Riddell’s “Poems to Live Your Life By,” and that book used a consistent style through out (which isn’t to say that tone and reality / surrealism didn’t change.) I’m not an artist, and don’t really have a vocabulary to describe the various artistic styles employed, but will attempt to give one some insight. There is the obvious shift between monochrome and color strips, but even within each of those categories there is great variation. Some monochrome strips were mostly gray, while others were exclusively black-and-white. Color works ranged from shocking dayglo to subdued pastels to dominant single color (e.g. blue) pics. Various poems were represented by a modern comic book style art, an old fashion comic strip approach, those which looked like paintings, those that were highly realistic, those that were surreal, those that were retro-chic, and even one [for Maya Angelou’s “Caged Bird”] that was in a quilt-like style.

I enjoyed this work tremendously. Most of the poems were short works, single pagers, and the fact that I’d read possibly all of them before wasn’t a problem because these are the kind of poems that should be revisited. Only the postscript poem, Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” was of substantial length.

I’d highly recommend this book for poetry readers, particularly those interested in are of imagery and how it’s conveyed and perceived.

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BOOK REVIEW: Poems to Live Your Life By selected & illustrated by Chris Riddell

Poems to Live Your Life ByPoems to Live Your Life By by Chris Riddell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is an anthology of forty-eight poems arranged into eight life-related topical areas. The connective theme is poems that the editor, Chris Riddell, found to contain valuable life lessons. The span runs from Rumi to poets of the present day. It’s a nice selection in that it includes not only old and new (thus varied styles of verse,) but also greater and lesser known poems and poets. [That’s not to say that any of the poets are unknowns, but some of the oldies are remembered through the ages more than others, and some of the newer individuals are better known for other activities – e.g. Neil Gaiman (novelist / storyteller,) Leonard Cohen (recording artist,) and Riddell, himself (graphic artist.)] There are several much anthologized inclusions that almost any poetry reader will have read, including: Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 18” and the “To be, or not to be” soliloquy from Hamlet, Carroll’s “Jabberwocky,” and Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night.” However, there are many lesser known gems as well, many by masters of poetry such as Seamus Heaney, Christina Rossetti, and Philip Larkin.

The eight topical areas are: Musings, Youth, Family, Love, Imaginings, Nature, War, and Endings. Most of the sections contain five or six poems, though — tellingly — Love contains the most at twelve and War the least at three.

While Riddell not only selected the poems and include a couple of his own, he also illustrates the book. There are beautiful line drawings throughout that offer insight into Riddell’s interpretation of each poem.

I enjoyed this anthology. As I said, it’s a beautiful selection of poems, and the artwork is skillfully done as well. I’d highly recommend this book for poetry readers.

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