Thursday, March 24, 2011

Do You Need to Phone Home First?

Apparently no one gave the staff a heads-up about his return. See video of the President trying to get into the Oval Office at the White House unsuccessfully.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Participation in a Challenge Again? Maybe

As it happens, Carl over at Stainless Steel Droppings is once again hosting his delightful springtime tradition, the Once Upon A Time reading challenge. I think I participated in either the first or the second of these, or maybe I simply entertained the possibility of it. (I know I did complete one of his Readers in Peril (RIP) challenge.) At any rate, I am feeling nostalgic about fantasy at the moment and I have a number of titles available that qualify.
(1) Tales from 1,001 Arabian Nights: Aladdin, Ali Baba and Other Favorites (Penguin Hardcover Classic)
(2) Thomas the Rhymer by Ellen Kushner
(3) The Desert of Souls by Howard Andrew Jones
(4) The Gates of Sleep by Mercedes Lackey (a retelling of Sleeping Beauty)
(5) The Victorian Fairy Tale Book (Pantheon Fairy Tale and Folklore Library) by Michael Patrick Hearn
At the same time, there's a nuance that Carl has added this year that I like - the option of reading two non-fiction titles about the four genres on which this challenge focuses -- mythology, fairy tales, folklore and fantasy. Of course, that one would require selecting which collection of expert essays I would want to read. I have ordered a new (to me) fairy tale book edited by Jack Zipes (actually published in 2000) and I never did finish Maria Tatar's Enchanted Hunters. So should I do this? Perhaps. Anyone know of a good retelling of Puss in Boots?

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Are Fine Editions The Same as Fine Apps?

I have before me two beautiful editions of Jane Eyre - one is the New York Public Library edition published in 1997 in conjunction with Doubleday's centennial  and the 150th anniversary of the text’s initial publication. The other edition is more recent, published in 2010 by White's Books a publisher specializing in artistic book cover design -- in this instance one designed by Petra Borner (  

Both editions have high-quality production values associated with them. Acid-free paper, good solid bindings,  The New York Public Library (NYPL) Edition is clearly a labor of both scholarship and pride. It features a brief biography of Charlotte Bronte with images not just of her but of manuscripts by and about the author of Jane Eyre, many of which are held in the NYPL collection. You see her written correspondence to a publisher signed as "Currer Bell", the pseudonym she used. There is a photo of her writing desk. These are not half-tones dropped in as an insert on photographic glossy stock but are instead are placed so expertly in the introduction that they do not intrude on the reader's experience of the primary text. Instead the supporting materials within this book’s binding are arranged to satisfy any curiosity on the part of that reader to know more of the text's background and context. 
The NYPL edition’s cover is less striking than the White’s edition, which according to the paper wrapped around the back cover at purchase reflects the artist's inspiration found in the natural symbolism of Jane Eyre with the intent of conveying “the brooding romanticism of the story”. The intent behind White's edition is to feature the cover art of the designer. The production values are perhaps even higher than those used for the NYPL edition; the quality of paper is superior as is the legibility delivered via combined font and leading on the page.

For real bibliophiles, these are important criteria. There is appreciation of the external packaging of the internal text.

What strikes me is that today (even as I type this) there is a panel at the South by Southwest conference in Austin, TX on the discussion of print as it impacts on the design of apps and other digital reading environments. From the panel’s descriptive abstract: ...Print Design is becoming an important influence in the evolution of Interaction Design. As a craft, design for printed media has a rich history. Several generations of designers have pushed its boundaries in countless directions. It has been shaped over several hundred years as both a functional and aesthetic discipline, with a deep foundation of principles, practices, theories, and professional dialogue. In comparison, Interaction and UI Design is still a relatively young field. Its history has largely been driven by technology and functional goals. The dialogue around it has been centered on usability, which has been its purpose in the context of technological advancement. The visual language of UI has evolved from that standpoint: that it should evoke the familiar, analog experience of tools, buttons, knobs, and dials. That foundation has led to a very specific visual language in interactive experiences. In the past ten years however, the relevant technologies that support the design of Interfaces - displays, processing speeds, and rendering engines - have matured to a point that they provide a more capable canvas for design. Meanwhile, our culture has become visibly more comfortable with the technologies that surround it. These combination of trends are creating an important inflection point for designers. The aesthetic experience of the digital surface can now be considered and explored in a more sophisticated manner.

Production values in a physical book matter. It is a visible demonstration as to whether this is a publication that someone deemed to be of such value as to deserve the best of treatment in production in order to attract the highest number of buyers at a sufficiently profitable price.

Knowing that bottom-of-the-line apps can cost in the range of $26,000, one wonders how we’re going to recognize quality in the digital reading environment. Will it just be determined through a slick interface (and I’m not intending to denigrate the difficulty of that achievement) but rather I’m wondering how long it will take for the navigational conventions as well as the packaging to be set for trade books in a digital environment.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Odd and the Frost Giants [Review]

Title: Odd and the Frost Giants
Author: Neil Gaiman (his site:
Illustrator: Brian Helquist  (his blog:
Copyright: 2009, Harper, ISBN 978-006-167173-9
Genre: Literary fairy tale
Length: 117 pages

Summary: Odd is a 12-year old boy very much at odds with the rest of his Viking environment. He’s lame in one leg and even he admits it was due to his own failure to think through his actions. His father is dead and his mother has remarried a man who has no particular interest in Odd. Winter has dragged on for far too long, affecting overall spirits in the village. Can anything be done to improve his lot in life?

This literary fairy tale satisfies our appetite for stories about coming of age and quests. Odd encounters members of the Norse pantheon in animal form (with one of the priceless scenes being one with Odd awakened by those animals indulging in human speech when they think he’s still asleep.)  Ultimately, Odd thinks his way through the resolution of the conflict that has kept Spring from arriving when it ought. If there is a take-away from this reassuring fairy tale. He returns to his home and to his mother having grown in a variety of ways.

Excerpt:Winter hung in there, like an invalid refusing to die. Day after grey day, the ice stayed hard; the world remained unfriendly and cold.
In the village, people began to get on one anothers’ nerves. They’d been staring at each other across the Great Hall for four months now. It was time for the men to make the longship seaworthy, time for the women to start clearing the ground for planting. The games became nasty. The jokes became mean. Fights were to hurt.”

Spring is of course the antidote to this type of illness as is beauty.

Also relevant: I liked this story just as I liked the companion illustrations by Brett Helquist. (For a taste of those illustrations, make a point of viewing the book trailer found here:  That said, I doubt that Odd and the Frost Giants is the most timeless of Gaiman’s works, but, on the whole, it is a satisfying story -- satisfying rather than being charming or adorable or enchanting. This short (14,000 words) tale is explanatory in many ways, helping younger readers better understand what is required in life. Odd is called upon to be smart; he must think  things out. He must be resourceful in meeting the challenge of putting things back on track. Far from being able to turn to his creature companions for assistance, he has to figure out the answers. The Norse Gods while helpful at times in Odd’s quest just as readily demonstrate their well-known character flaws. (Odin is overly taciturn while Loki tends to boast of his cleverness).

The length is right for the tale; it spins out over the course of six chapters, suitable for reading out loud over the course of an evening or two. Sentence structure is simple but appropriate. Nothing has been dumbed down.

One tidbit, this story has aleady been tranmuted into another medium; this link takes you to a puppeteer’s blog where she discusses her challenges in delivering Gaiman’s tale to an audience.

Perhaps I’m wrong and this work will live longer than I anticipate.  If it’s any indication, I don’t think I will be passing my own copy on to the local library friends book sale.  I too need to be reminded of Spring and the importance of Beauty.

My 2007 review of Gaiman's Stardust.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

A Time to Keep Silence [Review]

Title: A Time to Keep Silence 

Author: Patrick Leigh Fermor, Introduction by Karen Armstrong

Copyright: New York Review of Books, 2007, New York, ISBN: 978-1-59017-244-5

Length: 96 pages

Genre: Essays

Summary: On the surface this tale is about visits to several religious houses, taken not on the basis of any religious fervor but in the hope of finding a quiet place to work. Back in the '50's, Patrick Leigh Fermor visited St. Wandrille des Fontanes, La Grande Trappe,  and Solesmes, and an even more ancient form of monastic shelter found in the Turkish rock monasteries of Cappadocia with the purpose of writing a book. The three essays in this book were drawn from letters written by Fermor during the course of those visits to the woman who would later become his wife.

This is one-third travel, one-third history, one-third Fermor's meditation on a life that he finds as much disconcerting as it is engaging. He is respectful of the monastic life, but clearly has no idea why it would be pursued. What he finds most striking is the monastic pursuit of devotional silence in contrast to the rest of modern life. He writes with erudition, assuming that his reader will be comfortable with historical details as well as with untranslated phrases in French or Latin throughout A Time to Keep Silence. A 2005 newspaper profile of the author characterizes this work as “exquisite” and the lyricism of Fermor's descriptions are indeed beautiful.

Excerpt: The faces of the seated monks are hidden in their hoods; their heads are bowed; and they themselves are only just discernible under the accumulation of shadows. The solitary voice reading aloud seems to issue from an inner silence even greater than the silence that surrounds them. The reading comes to an end; the single light is extinguished; and the chanted psalms follow one another in total darkness. The whole service is a kind of precautionary exorcism of the terrors of the night; a warding off of the powers of darkness, each word throwing up a barrier or shooting home a bolt against the prowling regions of the Evil One. “Scapulus suis obumbrabit tibi”, the voices sing; “et sub pennis ejus sperabis”. The New York Review of Books site links to a Googl Books preview; visit

Also Relevant: This book reminded me however fleetingly of James Hilton's Lost Horizon. The desire to escape a society constantly moving in haste to the next Big Thing discounts the value of older approaches to solitude and sustaining inner quiet. Hilton's novel is, of course, more frivolous than this short series of essays but the mindset of Conway, the novel's protagonist, reflects the feelings of the author Fermor.

For this New York Review of Books edition, Karen Armstrong's introduction picks up on the similar attraction of Fermor's work for a distracted audience in the 21st century, “As time advances, the stress of work and the threat of outside distractions make the need for silence and privacy more urgent than ever...” We all benefit from pursuing some form of sabbatical from our pell-mell daily race towards – what? Seeking the silence of another form of life is sometimes the right answer.