Selected Book Reviews

from New Times and Contrary

A Lady’s Grisly Collection of Pressed Fairies

by Jeff McMahon

Lady Cottington’s Pressed Fairy Book by Terry Jones and Brian Froud, Turner Publishing, Inc., 64 pp., 1994.

In 1907, the British magazine The Regular published a photograph that shocked the world. The photograph portrayed an English girl surrounded by fairies. Some insisted this photograph had proven at last the existence of fairies. Others called it a hoax. Mostly people forgot about it until 1991 when the diary kept by the little girl—who grew up to be Lady Angelica Cottington—was found on the grounds of her estate in Bovey.

The diary once again provided evidence of the existence of fairies—this time quite irrefutable. Over a period of 14 years—from 1895 to 1909—fairies regularly visited Lady Cottington. Armed with a book intended for the pressing of flowers, the lady recorded each visit with an entry, and, when possible, preserved the fairy in pressed form within its pages.

On Aug. 8, 1899, Angelica Cottington, then a young girl, wrote the following entry:

“ It has been three years since I last saw a fairy. I was beginning to think I would never see one again. But I was down by the potting shed and suddenly I saw one. I crept up behind it and opened my book and SMACK! I caught it! It’s a funny looking one. I think it must be a goblin or elf.”

Some readers may find the book gruesome. The published version is a photographic reproduction of Lady Cottington’s original diary, so it displays the splattered fairies and the bodily fluids that seeped from them over the years and stained the pages. Nonetheless, the volume is worthy for no other reason than it certainly represents the largest collection of authentic fairy images to date.

Terry Jones, the Welsh writer and actor known best for his role in Monty Python’s Flying Circus, took the diary under his wing and personally saw to its publication.

“This is a unique and remarkable book—perhaps the most extraordinary volume that it has been my privilege to supervise for publication,” Jones writes in the introduction. “I hope it will bring lasting pleasure and happy memories to those who are already familiar with the fairy world, and, for those who have not as yet been granted that privilege, I hope this book will bring some illumination.”

The book is likely to inspire howls of execration from those who sympathize with the unfortunate spirits preserved in its pages. The publisher—Turner Publishing Inc., a subsidiary of Turner Broadcasting System, Inc.—prefaces the book with the following disclaimer:

“The RSPCF (The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Fairies) has asked the publisher to make it clear that no fairies were injured or killed during the manufacturing of this book. The pictures in this book are psychic impressions of fairies….”

However, the Turner corporation’s disclaimer seems refuted by Lady Cottington herself. She wrote with the impression that she was preserving the bodies of fairies.

The book also can be read as the story of a young English girl growing to maturity at the turn of the century. However, it tells a distubing tale of the troubles brought to the emerging lady by the mischievious fairies, and by her belief in them. It is somewhat graphic in its descriptions at times and may be inappropriate for chidren with chronically nervous, puckered-up parents.


 

Stories of Blazing Burpers for Dragon Lovers and Slayers

by Jeff McMahon

Dragons, A Natural History, by Dr. Karl Shuker, 1995 Simon & Schuster, 120 pp., $22.50.

They’ve soared through the skies and roared out of the caves of every earthly realm. They plagued the Western World in the Middle Ages—or at least in the imagination of the Middle Ages—by eating damsels and torching towns and farm fields. In the East, however, they represent graceful and peaceful shape-shifting gods whose presence represents a blessing.

Dr. Karl Shuker, billed as “one of the world’s leading experts on dracontology,” takes the reader on a survey of the world’s dragon stories in his new book. He recounts famous dragon tales from England, France, Asia, the Americas, and other realms. He also analyzes the different forms dragons take in their lore:

• The serpent dragons that rise snakelike and foul smelling from bodies of water to devour humans and lay waste to their communities;

• The two-legged semi-dragons that fall somewhere between the definition of serpent and dragon;

• The fire-belching, four-legged classical dragon with its long bat-like wings, such as the one slain by St. George in the most famous of dragon vs. knight stories;

• The sky dragons that soared above Ancient Asia and Central America;

• And a catch-all category of bizarre creatures Shuker calls “neo-dragons” that usually consist of a combination of fierce animal shapes.

In preparing his book, Shuker may have read too much old English prose. The verbose and pompous language creeps into his retelling. Check out his opening sentence: “Dragons! Fire-belching damsel devourers mortally skewered upon a valiant knight’s lance, or ethereal serpentine deities wafting langorously through the skies in celestial tranquillity.”

Not only does Shuker begin his book with a fragment, but he bogs it down with voluminous verbage.

Maybe he was trying to evoke the feeling of an era when dragons roamed the earth and writers believed the words should “waft langorously” through readers’ minds. Instead Shuker succeeded in making his book less fun to read than it could be.

For dragon aficionados, however, this thorough survey of the world’s dragon lore is hard to beat.


 

It’s Not That Scary, Really

by Jeff McMahon

Life Doesn’t Frighten Me, poem by Maya Angelou, paintings by Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1993, Stewart, Tabori, and Chang, $15.95

When Maya Angelou speaks, the time has come to listen. She grew up in an atmosphere of poverty and racial hatred in St. Louis. She found her voice in the turbulent silence that followed a childhood rape. She raised it to become only the second poet to read at the inauguration of a United States president.

Angelou earned her stripes as a survivor, a novelist, a playwright, an actress, a dancer, and a civil rights activist before William Jefferson Clinton asked her to compose and read a poem to commemorate his swearing in. Her recital remains, to some, the highlight of Clinton’s presidency.

Few can speak about rising from fear and misfortune with as much authority and eloquence. She told her story in a series of autobiographies beginning with “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” (1970), but in “Life Doesn’t Frighten Me,” she offers something of the courage that aided her.

Angelou wrote “Life” agelessly for children or adults. It reaches the reader intuitively. Ghosts, dragons, lions, tough guys, strangers in the dark, panthers in the park—none can match Angelou’s wisdom and simple truth.

The poem first appeared in Angelou’s 1978 book “And I Still Rise.” Editor Sara Jane Boyers reprints it here alongside the stark, chaotic renderings of the late artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. Basquiat’s skeletal figures reside in dark or firey realms, where spikey scratchy elements crowd and bombard them. Basquiat’s images might scare a few readers themselves if Angelou’s grandmotherly words didn’t soothe them into perspective.

Basquiat burst into the public eye by tagging the lower Manhattan and Brooklyn walls and buildings of his youth with words and images reflecting the city around him. He developed quickly from fugitive graffiti artist to revered painter, then died in his studio in 1988, at age 27, of an accidental drug overdose.

Together, Angelou’s words and Basquiat’s images will boost your courage even if you don’t realize how much life frightens you.


 

You Can’t Tell a Book by Its Cover

by Jeff McMahon

Let Sleeping Dogs Lie and Other Proverbs from Around the World, by Axel Scheffler, 1997, Barron’s Educational Series, hardback, $12.95.

“If you have escaped the jaws of a crocodile while bathing in the river,” the West Africans say, “you will surely meet a leopard on the way home.” That is why the wisdom of the common people can be such a great help.

Simply remembering that “the chameleon does not leave one tree until he is sure of another,” as they say in Arabia, can instill the kind of caution one needs to survive in this world of perils.

So an English fop named Axel Scheffler has gathered 125 of the world’s proverbs, which are at once humorous and timelessly wise. Then Scheffler, who studied graphic design at the Bath Academy, illustrated each with a cartoon. His drawings themselves are funny, particularly in their capture of applicable but exaggerated facial expressions on the people and animals he portrays.

Scheffler divides the book into sixteen subjects, things like luck, envy, patience, caution, gratitude, and age. Often he gathers similar proverbs from distant places, in which far corners of the world express the same lessons in their unique ways.

Whereas the Greek say “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush,” the Blackfoot of North America say, “A sparrow in the bush is better than a vulture flying.” Their European interlopers say “A dirty hog in the house is better than no hog at all,” whereas in Ireland, “A trout in the pot is worth two salmon in the sea.”

It’s all about contentment, you know. Fortunately, when the bed breaks, we have the ground to sleep on.

Barron’s Educational Series published “Let Sleeping Dogs Lie” by arrangement with Macmillan Children’s Books. And while the volume is suitable for children, it is equally appealing to adults. Perhaps more so.

Some proverbs require a moment of thought, such as this one from the Chinese: “If you would avoid suspicion, don’t lace your shoes in a melon field.”

The book would do better on a coffee table than on a shelf, for it is a quick easy read and universally appealing. Most of all, it’s fun and funny. Anyone who fails to appreciate the humor should be suspect, because “If the baboon could see his own behind, he would laugh, too.” ?


 

Insightful Survey of Feline Artistic Ambition

by Jeff McMahon

Why Cats Paint, A Theory of Feline Aesthetics, by Heather Busch and Burton Silver, Ten Speed Press, 1994, 96 pages, quality paperback, $14.95.

You can count on human arrogance. Homo Sapiens Sapiens’ insistence upon recognizing only its own intelligence has long hindered understanding of the way apes organize their societies, the way dolphins communicate concepts over miles of cold ocean water, or the reason cats paint.

“Why Cats Paint” is a groundbreaking tome that shatters “scientific” dogma about the behavioral sources of cat marking and painting behavior. It looks at evidence of cat painting through the ages, from the earliest known examples preserved in Egyptian tombs to its dark ages in the freak shows of the late 19th Century. It reveals the groundbreaking work of Dr. Arthur Mann, whose discoveries in the early 1980s gave cat painting its first serious consideration as art. It is sad commentary indeed upon humanity that not until the last quarter of the 20th Century did noble human lay dish of pigment wherefore a feline to dip her paw.

“Why Cats Paint” presents a far more convincing argument for cat interest in the arts than the condescending rationalizations of squinty-eyed, knock-kneed, bed-wetting human biologists. It also serves as an introduction to some of the greatest feline artists who ever laid paw to canvas, rendering it essential text for any serious inter-species study of art history.

We meet Wong Wong and Lu Lu, whose tempestuous relationship produces brilliant collaborative paintings. We meet Pepper, whose absorption in his self image resulted first in a series of abstract self-portraits, then in spirited portrayals of Venus, his concubine:

“It was not until 1987 that Pepper showed any interest in painting Venus,  the silver tabby with whom he shared his apartment; and then it was with an impulsive enthusiasm as if he’d never seen her before.”

We meet Tiger, a spontaneous reductionist; Misty, a formal expansionist; Minnie, an abstract expressionist; and seven other leading feline painters.

Authors Heather Busch and Burton Silver have created a work of art in the book itself, which is filled with beautiful photographs and tasteful typography. The authors attempt to portray the artists without imposing upon them human constraints:

“As human beings, we must suppress our desire to see cats confirming our perceptions and values through their “art”, and, rather than attempting to determine the direction of their aesthetic development on our terms, we must allow those few cats who paint to develop their own special potential,” they write in their Preface.

Busch and Silver won praise for “permitting the cats to speak for themselves.” Yet inevitably, the authors undo their own purpose. Their insistence upon labeling feline art styles with terms easily digestible to human critics may be the beginning of the end of understanding between the species.

Only when we look at cat art through slitty cat eyes and react to it with a silent arch of the back, a warm purr, or low growl, will we give our rat-catching compatriots in paint their rightful due. ?


 

Illustrated Kong Takes the Best of Both Films

by Jeff McMahon

Anthony Browne’s King Kong, by Anthony Browne, from the story by Edgar Wallace and Merian C. Cooper, Turner Publishing, 1994, 92 pp., hardback, $16.95.

Well, I guess there’s something compelling about that tiny screaming blond ingenue chained to those posts with that huge black ape gawking at her. British illustrator Anthony Browne has certainly had that image rattling around in his cranium for a while.

Browne won prestigious awards for “Gorilla” and “Zoo,” his two most popular previous illustrated books. He’s also produced three books about a chimp named Willy.

Now Browne has plunged into his King Kong fascination full bore in “Anthony Browne’s King Kong.” The new illustrated book features Browne’s powerful drawings throughout a super-abridged version of the original “King Kong” screenplay by Edgar Wallace and Merian C. Cooper. Cooper directed the 1933 blockbuster, and Browne’s book fortunately reflects that film rather than the 1976 remake.

Browne’s vivid, sometimes haunting illustrations of Kong, however, more closely resemble the 1976 Kong—perhaps because of his familiar use of  color. Browne’s illustrations are at their best when Kong is angry. He doesn’t do as well conveying Kong’s love for Ann Darrow, which hampers the book from matching the film’s supreme achievement—creating sympathy for the ape.

Browne doesn’t miss Kong’s phallic symbolism, though, as the giant ape swings tree limbs at tiny men and pops his arm through feeble hotel windows.

The text echoes with the film’s greatest lines, such as showmaster Carl Denham’s introduction of Kong to a New York audience:

“Ladies and gentlemen, I’m here tonight to tell you a very strange story, a story so strange no one will believe it. But, ladies and gentlemen, seeing is believing, and we’ve brought back the living proof of our adventure. I want you to see for yourselves the greatest thing your eyes have ever beheld. He was a king and a god in the world he knew, but now he comes to civilisation merely a captive, a show to gratify your curiosity.

“So, ladies and gentlemen, behold the Eight Wonder of the World. The mighty—King Kong!”

Browne’s “King Kong” allows readers to relive the King Kong movie without heading to the video store. He has created a tribute to the myth and the film that any Kong-lover should have, and a vivid introduction to the story for monster-loving punks.


It Seems to Me
by Heywood Broun
Contrary, 2008

Diary of a Bad Year
by J.M. Coetzee
Contrary, 2008

The Story of French
by Jean Benoit-Nadeau and Julie Barlow
Contrary, 2007

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