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Books To Look For
Viking, 1999; 212pp; $23.95
Hardcover; ISBN 0-670-89152-5
I have to admit something.
Often the strange and off-the-beaten-path books I find and write about in this column (and that some readers thank me for bringing to their attention) come from my stumbling across them in a bookstore or elsewhere all on my own. But the esteemed editor of this very magazine brings a good number of them to my attention as well. I'm not quite sure where he finds them, but every month or so, some unannounced treasure will show up in my post office box bearing his return address. For this, I---and those aforementioned readers---are quite grateful.
The latest addition to those ranks is the book in hand.
Set in the winter of 1821 in the penal colony of Van Dieman's Land (now known as Tasmania), it's an odd story that centers around a convict woman named Sarah Dyer who gives birth to a seal pup. But for the most part, the focus isn't directly on either Dyer or the seal child who is given the name of Arthur. Far more of the book deals with a
There's the alcoholic vicar, Reverend Mr. Kidney, a hero in the movie of his own mind, who spends far more time scheming up ways to get money, free meals, and drinks than he does looking after his flock. Or the self-taught scientist Mr. Sculley with his interests in physiognomy (the study of faces), as well as experiments such as trying to hatch goose eggs in a kangaroo's pouch. Or the fastidious American doctor, Benjamin Banes, who hopes to bring the seal pup back to the States as a sideshow attraction.
But the Dyers and Arthur do have their part to play in the story. Sculley is certain the pup is a sooterkin, a hare-like goblinish creature apparently born in centuries past to a number of Dutch women. Others consider the creature either godless, or a hoax. That is, until they discover Arthur can sing. His mother immediately puts him "on stage" in their house, performing a show with his human brother Ned, until poor Arthur is kidnapped.
The story travels here and there---not exactly a straightforward narrative, but nonetheless a fascinating one. Gilling's prose is evocative throughout and both the setting and characters, however much caricatured they might be, remain vivid and intriguing.
Speaking of characters, there aren't any particularly likeable ones except for Ned who is on stage less than he could be. Normally that would bother me (I prefer to spend my reading time in the company of at least one fictional character I like), but it's a short book and Gilling hits all the right notes throughout the rest of his story.
As a side note, for those interested in shapeshifting seal stories (of which there isn't much in this book besides the premise of the pup born to a human woman), you might want to track down a copy of the 1965 book, The People of the Seal: A Journey in Search of the Seal Legend by David Thomson for a collection of more traditional selchie stories and songs (including notation for some of the tunes).
THE FAERIES' ORACLE - Brian Froud, with Jessica Macbeth
Brian Froud should already be well-known to many of you for his distinctive and wonderful artwork, usually depicting some denizen of Faery. These images have appeared on everything from posters and book covers to interior illustrations, T-shirts, and tattoos, and have been shamelessly copied by any number of artists without his singular vision. (Unless they, too, as Froud says he does, are painting from life.)
I don't doubt that when most of us consider faeries and goblins and the like these days, we visualize them as they've appeared in Froud's work, rather than that of the great illustrators of fairy tale books such as Arthur Rackham, W. Heath Robinson, or even Cicely Mary Barker. So Froud is a perfect choice for a project of this kind.
The art is gorgeous, whether it be the monochrome sketches dotted amidst the text of the book, or the full color paintings that appear on each card. If faeries don't look like this, they should: ethereal and earthy, sometimes no more than flares of magical light, other times so finely detailed you can count the hairs on their heads.
But rather than providing a showcase for Froud's talent, the art is here to illustrate an oracle: something like a Tarot with cards and various layouts, only rather than working with archetypes and intellectual concepts, the aim here is to connect the reader with the various helpful faeries who are depicted on the cards.
Why these faeries? As Froud put it in a recent interview, "Some wanted to be in, some didn't want to be in, and some kept changing their minds. Eventually everyone came to an agreement."
Later in that same interview, Froud explains "that faeries are the personification of the soul of nature and the world. As we are very much a part of nature and the world, we are therefore communicating with our own souls . . . It is all about connection: connecting with the world and yourself." Jessica Macbeth's text is free of hyperbole and explains all of this in greater detail. She also provides the practical explanations needed for hands-on use of the cards as well descriptions for each of the them. All in all, it's a lovely package for anyone interested in various forms of divination, though as Macbeth points out in her text, any futures you might see are only possible ones, because we all have free will.
David & Carol Swing's book takes an entirely different tack to the idea of beings from Faery wanting to communicate with us.
It could have used a Froud cover, or even more appropriately, one by Rien Poortvliet, as it chronicles the authors' firsthand experience with a number of gnomes who have chosen the pair to write down their stories. Most of the book is made up of the gnomes' histories, folklore, and spiritual matter, all of it coming together in a curious mix of what the authors call Celtic Christian teachings.
There's a bit of a lecturing tone throughout, and it doesn't help that all the various faery beings blend together, speaking with the same voice. The prose in general is practical and plainspoken. I get the impression that this is a self-published affair, or at least coming from a vanity press imprint. But there's nothing wrong with that. The stories are still compelling, the authors are certainly earnest, and if they did decide to self-publish, at least it got the material out there where it can be read.
Are either of these books really non-fiction? I have no idea. I think that's up to each reader to decide for him or herself. But they were certainly interesting.
JOURNEYMAN: THE ART OF CHRIS MOORE - Stephen Gallagher
The same, it appears, goes for art.
I was attracted to the Chris Moore book because the text is by Stephen Gallagher---a British writer who's been a long time favorite of mine. And I liked the way the book is set up: it's basically one long interview---perhaps more of a conversation---between Gallagher and the artist. Drawn into the story of their conversation, I found myself paying a different kind of attention to the art.
Yes, it's slick: A lot of air brushing, spacecraft, and shiny people. But the sense of design is tremendous and the more I studied the reproductions of the paintings, the more I began to appreciate them. The images are dramatic, smart, funny, evocative . . . whatever was required to convey the idea of a book through its cover art. Moore is a master of the
By the time I got to the end, Moore's ideas, personality, and art had turned me into a convert.
The text of Harris's book wasn't as interesting to me---perhaps because I got so spoiled by that book-length interview in Moore's. But it does have the one thing the Moore volume lacks and that's a longish section on the development of various pieces with lots of preliminary sketches and studies---one of my favorite things to find in an art book. Harris's images have a somewhat more painterly quality than Moore's---you can really see the brushwork in a lot of them---and the scope of the subject matter is wonderfully large: Huge vistas, enormous floating cities, impossibly tall buildings. The inclusion of some real-world landscapes (India, New Mexico, etc.) show that he's able to bring this same sense of immensity and vast distance to what one might consider to be more mundane settings.
Both books come from the British Paper Tiger imprint (which recently expanded into the US) and, as is usual with books they publish, the production values are superb.
So . . . two pleasant surprises and what does it tell me? To continue to broaden my horizons in what I think I will like.
Now if I could only find more time . . .
Material to be considered for review in this column should be sent to Charles de Lint, P.O. Box 9480, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada K1G 3V2.
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