April 29, 2011

Words of the Month - Who Cares?

I've got no pictures that are relevant to this post,
so instead here's an epimedium, because they're just
starting to bloom in our yard this morning.
        A couple of weeks ago we had a Nydam Family Movie Event and watched the "Series of Unfortunate Events" movie.  In it the unfortunate (and somewhat nutso) Aunt Josephine is thrown to the carnivorous leeches for an ill-timed quibble about the villain's grammar.  It's true that a precise knowledge of Correct English is used earlier to send and decode an important secret letter, but on the whole the movie's message is all too clear: no one likes  someone who's too picky about grammar.  Alas, I must confess that I may have a leech-infested end in store for me, since I do like proper use of the English language.  And any leeches who read this blog are sure to be smacking their lips (if leeches have lips), because today I will be complaining about the frequent confusion of this month's words.

uninterested - having no feeling of interest, indifferent… in other words, you just
                          don't care

disinterested - unbiased by personal advantage… in other words, impartial

ambivalent - uncertain or fluctuating because of a simultaneous desire to do two
                          opposite things… in other words, you may care very much, but you
                          sympathize with the arguments for both sides of an issue

        As a prescriptivist I find myself infuriated when people use the latter two words as synonyms of the first.  Each of these words has a very clear, very distinct, and very useful meaning, and to muddle them up makes them all meaningless.  When people are prone to misusing a word, then you can never be sure what anyone means by it, and the word loses all power.
        As a descriptivist, however, I have to admit that this is not a case of vile modern ignorance dragging the language down from a state of perfection.  The entire history of the first two words, at least, has been muddy.  Right from its early seventeenth century beginnings the word disinterested (and disinterest) has been used to mean both "indifferent" and "impartial."  Uninterested, on the other hand, which appeared about a quarter of a century later, began with the "unbiased, impartial" meaning.  It was not until the late eighteenth century that it had come to mean "unconcerned, indifferent," and its earlier meaning had become obsolete.  So these two annoyingly closely-related words somehow traded meanings over time, although disinterested clearly never entirely lost its "indifferent" usage, however much it bugs me to hear it used that way.
        At least ambivalent is really perfectly clear.  It was coined by psychologist Eugen Bleuler in 1910 from the Latin roots ambi - "both" and valentia - "strength" in order to describe conflicted feelings.  My prescriptivist self can declare without any qualms that to use this word to say you don't care is just plain out-and-out unequivocally wrong!
        (Oh no!  Are those leeches I see squirming voraciously toward me???)

[Picture: Epimedium, rubber block print by AEGN, 2006.]

April 26, 2011

Dürer's Prints

        I don't suppose there's anything I can say in a short blog post that could add to the general knowledge about Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) and his work as one of the most famous European artists of block prints.  Like many Renaissance artists, Dürer was also interested in math and science, especially perspective, anatomy, and fortifications.  He also combined elements of the Northern and Italian styles of art as no other artist did.
        I feature Dürer, of course, for his fame as a maker of relief prints.  In his own lifetime his paintings were not widely seen, but prints were (relatively) inexpensive, portable, and numerous.  The prints not only made Dürer famous, they also made him rich.  Indeed, he complained that paintings weren't worth his time compared with prints.  On the other hand, Dürer didn't spend as much time on the making of a print as I do, because his job was only to draw the design.  It was someone else's job to carve the wood block, and someone else again who did the printing.
        Dürer got his earliest training as an apprentice in the workshop responsible for the Nuremberg Chronicle.  There he would have learned how to work with the Formschneider (wood block cutters), and how to push the limits of what was possible with the woodcut
medium.  But he proceeded to learn from a variety of masters and artists in a variety of media, including goldsmithing, oil painting, drypoint engraving (an intaglio technique), and watercolor.  Strange as it is for me to say such a crazy thing, I actually tend to like Dürer's watercolors better than his woodcuts!  Still, it's impossible not to admire the ambition and detail of his woodcuts and wood engravings.  Many of them show an eye for authentically observed detail that not only sets his work apart from Gothic style, but also makes it fun to look closely at the corners and backgrounds of his pieces.  There are often hidden treasures to be found.
        My favorite Dürer woodcut is definitely the famous Indian rhinoceros, a portrait of a beast that was sent to Lisbon in 1515.  Dürer never actually saw the creature, which explains some of the features in his version.  (No one else in Europe had seen a rhino, either, which explains why his picture was taken to be scientifically accurate right up into the eighteenth century.)  He based his picture on a written description and a sketch.  (I haven't seen the sketch in question.  I'm assuming it is not still extant, but I don't know that for sure.)  But I love all the details of pattern and texture on this guy.  It is one of the first pieces I saw for which I remember being aware that it was the woodcut medium that gave it a look I really liked.

Rhinoceros, woodcut by Dürer, 1515;
Noli me tangere, woodcut by Dürer, 1511;
Little Owl, watercolor by Dürer, 1508;
The Flight Into Egypt, woodcut by Dürer, 1503;
Chelidonium, watercolor by Dürer, 1526.
(All pictures courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. 
     Thank you!)]

April 22, 2011

In Memory of a Muse named Deadly Nightshade

        Two weeks ago we had to say goodbye to our geriatric cat Nightshade, and have her put to sleep.  So this post is dedicated to our Nightshade, aka die Schnurrmeisterin, aka La Sombra de la Noche, aka Shady-shade…
        I never wanted a cat, but D did, so I knew that upon our marriage a cat would be part of the deal.  My recompense was that I would be allowed to choose the one I thought was prettiest at the shelter.  After some searching at all the local shelters I picked a handsome young tuxedo cat… but as we sat in the waiting room to fill out the forms, we noticed that this adorable creature was far more
interested in the other cats than he was in us.  He was clearly not going to be happy as the only cat in the house.  And the cat who did have more interest in us than in anything else?  The ugliest colored fur in the entire shelter!  (For P and T, who have heard this story many times, this is the quintessential lesson on why character is more important than appearance.)  Yes, our beloved Nightshade was a color that T when she was in preschool called "mulch" and I generally called "mud in a blender."  (Technically it's "dilute tortoiseshell and white.")
        If you're wondering why a light mud-colored cat should be called Deadly Nightshade, that story actually began a long time ago, when I was around 12.  My goofy best friend proposed a Solemn Vow to which we both agreed: she promised she would name her firstborn child Pondscum if I would name mine Deadly Nightshade.  Years passed, and I was the first to get married.  From the first moment D and I planned to get a cat, it was a given that it would have to be called Nightshade whether it was male or female, and no matter what it looked like.  After all, I had to fulfill my Solemn Vow -- or at least get by on a technicality!  And that's how we got a Nightshade.  (A few years later my friend got married and they got a puppy.  And what do you think she named the dog?  Nope.  The dog was called Spencer.  Uh oh.  Then my friend was the first of us to get pregnant, and what do you think she named her daughter?  …I used to tell this
story to my middle school students and here their eyes would get wide with horror.  "Oh no!  She didn't!!!"  No; she didn't.  Her daughter is named Claire.  She broke the Solemn Vow.  But that is why our cat was named Nightshade, anyway.)
        Nightshade was a klutz, a wimp, and the color of mulch, but she was nevertheless a muse to me.  She inspired and modeled for many a block print, (I hope not all mere Cat Art!)  Block prints featuring some version of Nightshade are now hanging on walls all over the USA from New England to Ohio to California, and even in Japan.  Nightshade was also the inspiration for the cat Nasturtium in the Kate and Sam Adventures.  The fictional Nasturtium's personality is what I imagined Nightshade's would be… if she could talk to humans and go on adventures with us.  It was fun reimagining our silly, stay-at-home Nightshade as a fantasy hero.
        Perhaps there is a lesson here on finding muses everywhere, on using our ordinary lives as the building blocks of even the most fantastic artistic creations.  I could even bring back Nightshade's mulch-colored fur as a metaphor for how it's plain old compost that makes it possible for a garden to grow bright flowers and delicious
foods.  But I wouldn't want such generalizations to detract from just how special our Nightshade was.  She was soft, affectionate, loyal, and a generous dispenser of purr therapy until the very end.  She will be greatly missed.  But she will live on, memorialized in both art and writing.

[Pictures: Nightshade, rubber stamp by AEGN, 1997;
Happy Place, rubber block print by AEGN, 1999 (sold out);
Cat in a Box, rubber block print by AEGN, 1999;
Nightshade in the Sunlight, rubber block print by AEGN, 2007 (sold out);
Nasturtium, chapter heading from Kate and Sam and the Chipmunks of Doom p102, colored pencil by AEGN, 2009.]

April 19, 2011

"Print" - Original or Reproduction?

        There seems to be quite a bit of confusion caused by the fact that the word "print" has two meanings that are close enough to seem similar, but are different enough to have major implications.  One of those meanings is the product of a mechanical process of reproduction, so that any newspaper, magazine, poster, greeting card, or photocopy can be called a print.  The other meaning is an original piece of art produced by hand, so that each one is uniquely created.  Needless to say, artists are eager to have this difference understood and respected, to explain why our work should cost more and be valued more than a mere reproduction.  But it isn't always a clear-cut distinction.
        First of all, all printing methods were invented in order to make cheap (or at least cheaper) and more identical reproductions.  It wasn't until the nineteenth century that the concept of a limited edition was invented, with the convention of numbering and signing original work that is in use today.  Before that, most printmakers were anonymous, and even those, like Dürer, who were acknowledged as great artists, probably thought of their printed work as an artist today might think of a poster or a book that reproduces their work.  The idea of limited editions was invented explicitly as a sales gimmick - to convince buyers that this print wasn't a mere reproduction but was a valuable piece of art in its own right.  But as more mechanical methods of reproduction were invented, the distinction between those and art printmaking grew, and was reflected in the status of limited edition hand-pulled prints. 
        A second question is how much "by hand" must each piece be in order to count as an original piece and not a reproduction?  When I myself carve the block, roll the ink, place the paper, and press the back with a wooden spoon, as I do for my work, that's pretty clearly made by hand.  But what about a printing press?  Is that still "by hand?"  And then what about screen printing in which the screen is made by a photocopy process?  What about the artists using offset lithography and Iris prints as mentioned in my post "Hard Pressed"?  The fact is, all prints with multiples in an edition are in some sense reproductions… yet there nevertheless remains (in most cases!) a huge difference between the "prints" that are original pieces and the "prints" that are copies.  I've written about The Value of Original Art in another post.
        Muddy as the distinction can be at times, it is still very important to be aware that the word "print" can have these two significantly different meanings.  If you try to search for original printmaking on the internet, you'll run into an awful lot of sites selling reproductions and calling them "art prints," and such.  Some of these sites seem to be in good faith, while others are deliberately trying to take advantage of the confusion in order to make a buck on ignorant buyers.  Either way, being educated about what's out there is important, and it's always best to make completely sure that everyone's talking about the same kind of "print."  As for me, I hope you're talking about original printmaking, because that's just a whole lot more interesting!

[Picture: photo of me printing 1914 Locomobile Model 38 Berline, rubber block print, 2007.]

April 15, 2011

First Read-Aloud Fantasy Chapter Books

        My children P and T are now 8 and even though they're able to read just about any juvenile book I put in their hands, we still love reading together, and I read aloud to them for 10-30 minutes every night before bed (and sometimes more at other times.)  There are dozens of studies showing dozens of benefits of all kinds for children who are read aloud to, but the bottom line is simply that this is a truly precious time when we are all calm, all happy, all interested in something together…
        By third grade the options for possible read-aloud books are almost endless and I've shared many of my favorites with T and P as well as discovering many new ones with them.  But when we first started reading chapter books around the time they turned 4, the choices were much more limited.
        The basic requirements of a good early read-aloud chapter book were as follows:
• must have a reasonably literate vocabulary and grammar, not overly simplified as
    easy reader books are
• must not deal with subjects that require too much background information for
    preschoolers to understand  (I'm always happy to explain things, but if there was
    too much unfamiliar background the telling of the story  got bogged down.)
• must not be overly scary, suspenseful, stressful, or violent
• must be a sufficiently engaging story that I enjoyed it, too (plus older children need
    to enjoy it too, if any are also listening)
        The difficulty with these requirements is that there is a strong correlation between gentle subjects and baby-fied writing style.  P and T could understand vocabulary at a high level, and I didn't enjoy reading "words of one syllable," but they were not ready for the plots written for older children.  So, what to read?
        Here are the early read-aloud chapter books that T, P, and I most enjoyed, and that can be considered fantasy.  (Believe it or not, I actually read non-fantasy books with my children sometimes!  But there's no denying that we do tend to favor fantasy, and those are the books I'm including here.  To see reviews of some other first read-aloud chapter books, you can check out my shelf on Goodreads.)

My Father's Dragon by Ruth Stiles Gannett
     This is the number one best choice with which to begin the move into chapter books.  There's adventure but not too much scariness, wrongs to be righted but not too much violence, some humor, some kid-logic, some whimsical illustrations, and, of course, a dragon.  (Although the dragon actually doesn't appear until the very end.)  The plot and writing are simple enough for the young children but interesting enough for the adult.  There are sequels Elmer and the Dragon and The Dragons of Blueland, and although I don't think they capture quite the same charm as the first book, we did enjoy them all.

The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
     If you've seen the movie but never read the book, the book is not as scary as the movie, and nor does it have the whole intro and conclusion setting Oz up as a dream.  The narration is quite matter-of-fact with little stressful drama.  There are things I like better about the movie (in particular how and why Dorothy comes to melt the Wicked Witch of the West) but the book is a good, solid, enjoyable fantasy appropriate for young listeners.  There are about a million sequels, of varying quality and by multiple authors.  (I read them all in my youth, but we read only a handful together.)  My favorite is Ozma of Oz.

The Search for Delicious by Natalie Babbitt
     A lovely tale about a boy sent off to poll the rather rebellious citizens of the kingdom on what they think is the most delicious thing in the world.  Suspense is provided by a sinister villain intent on sowing discord, and help is provided by assorted mythological creatures who hold the secret to a solution. 

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin
     This book was not yet published when P and T were in that first read-aloud chapter book stage, so I admit that I have not road-tested this one on younger children.  I also found the writing a bit clunky so that in places I stumbled over the reading.  That said, it's a really nice story and I think would be appropriate for a fairly broad range of ages.  It might require a bit of historical background explanation in places, but most of the setting can be taken as standard fairy tale fare.  T particularly liked the structure of stories within the story.

The Story of Doctor Dolittle by Hugh Lofting
        I'm not sure I count this entirely as fantasy (for my thought on that, see my blog post The Borders of Fantasy) but it's certainly speculative fiction of some sort.  In any case, it's a pleasant, entertaining adventure.  There are several sequels, but these books do date back to the '20's, so you have to be a little careful of the depiction of non-Europeans in some of them.  I actually think that Lofting does a pretty good job of showing people of all backgrounds as equally likely to be good-hearted or villainous, equally likely to be noble or silly, but the illustrations are cartoonish in a way that may bother some, and as I was reading I did occasionally edit to downplay mention of skin color or ethnicity.  (Also, Dr Dolittle smokes, which you can choose not to read if you like.  I generally went with the side commentary about how people at that time didn't know that smoking was so unhealthy.)  Anyway, all in all, a fun read, and quite inspirational to P and T in the matter of talking with animals.

Kate and Sam to the Rescue, by Anne E.G. Nydam
        We had a hard time finding books with that perfect balance of requirements.  This led me to the classic solution "If you want something done right, do it yourself."  So I wrote the sort of book we needed: a story with solid vocabulary and complex sentences, but no particular background knowledge necessary for comprehension; a story with plenty of interesting plot twists, but never any doubt that it will all end up
happily ever after.  I also wanted a book in which our heroes prevail by kindness, bravery, and creativity, rather than by violence.  T and P were closely consulted in the writing of this book, provided me with lists of elements they thought a book needed (elements such as fairies, a tiger, and being able to talk with animals), and approved my ideas as I wrote.
     It was followed by a sequel, Kate and Sam and the Chipmunks of Doom.  (At the request of P and T and their classmates I began a third: "Kate and Sam and the Cheesemonster," but I got bogged down.  Since finishing my last book I've turned back to this one, so we'll see how it goes...)

        If you're not inspired by any of these suggestions, look at my Goodreads list, or ask a librarian, or get recommendations from friends... but whatever you do, make sure you're reading something aloud to your children.  You'll never regret it, and neither will they.

[Pictures: "Elmer rescuing the dragon," illustration by Ruth Chrisman Gannett, p 82 of My Father's Dragon by Ruth Stiles Gannett, 1948;
     "They belong to me and I shall keep them," illustration by John R. Neill, p 167 of Ozma of Oz by L. Frank Baum, 1907;
     "Kate and Sam saw a worm between the rabbits," illustration by AEGN, p 7 of Kate and Sam and the Chipmunks of Doom by AEGN, 2009.]

April 12, 2011

Mary Azarian's Wood Block Prints

        Mary Azarian is the author and illustrator of two of the block print alphabet books I've been featuring, but I wanted to give her her own post, too.  She's probably best known for her technique of hand coloring her woodcut prints with watercolor, as in The Gardener's Alphabet, and these pieces are indeed beautiful, often very bright and cheerful.  On the other hand, I always
favor woodcuts in straight black and white for their crispness, drama, and look of hand-carving.  After all, while I certainly do love bright color, when color is what you want, any sort of painting will do as well.  I feel that what relief printing does best is shown most clearly without the addition of overpainting.  Be that as it may, Azarian does beautiful work both with and without color.
        Azarian is known for her lovely illustrations of over 50 books.  Her most famous of these is Snowflake Bentley by Jacqueline Briggs Martin, which won her the Caldecott Award in 1999.  The pictures I've posted here all come from The Four Seasons of Mary Azarian, which is sort of a compilation album.  Much of Azarian's work focuses on rural themes, because she's lived pretty much her entire life on farms and clearly has a deep love of farming, all sorts of gardening, and life out in the country.  My favorites of her pieces tend to be the ones of landscapes and things, rather than people or animals.  I love that the detail and various interesting textures are balanced with a style that's not so slick and smooth that it loses its hand-carved look.
         Azarian has a nice web site with biographical information, photos of her printing press and working process, and lots more of her art.  Check it out.  (You can buy original work there, too.  I'm awfully tempted, myself!)

[Pictures: Summer Kitchen, woodcut by Mary Azarian;
Chill Morning, woodcut with watercolor by M Azarian;
Blossom Bough, woodcut by M Azarian;
Preserving Summer, woodcut by M Azarian;  (all pictures are from The Four Seasons of Mary Azarian, published by David R. Godine, 2000.)]

April 8, 2011

Introducing: Ruin of Ancient Powers

        If you leave Sisoa and travel east and north for many days into the desert, traveling past the mesas of the Lierven sky-dwarves until the land begins to rise and you can see the low rusty hills of rock climbing from the desert, and beyond them the mountains, purple after the pale gold of the sand, you may come to the Ring of Gods in the place called Edah.  The Ring of Gods of Edah is old, old beyond any song to tell of it, and the stones rise up out of the desert worn by the wind and the wind-blown sand.  Some of the figures rise crooked; on the far side of the circle one leans against another.  It is long, long since any mortal knew words of praise for these gods, long since any mortal brought meat for these gods.  They are ancient gods, and they are not your gods, but they are hungry, and the wise do not try to see their faces, for no one may look on the face of a god…

        I'm excited to announce that I've finally published Ruin of Ancient Powers, the sixth (and last?) book in the Otherworld series!  On the back cover I've described it thus:
        From the ancient ruins of a lost civilization to the sudden ruin of a new city, a mysterious power stalks the desert.  Oru of Sisoa leads an expedition to investigate, accompanied by his beloved Jiriya, the bard Svarnil, and the librarian Nulif.  Their group also includes two young sky-dwarf orphans who may carry a curse from the destruction of their home, and three nomads of bitterly feuding tribes.  Together the diverse members of this expedition must solve the mystery of the ancient curse of Edah and turn aside its terrible danger.  But the greatest danger of all may not be the nameless gods of Edah, but the conflicts these travelers bring with them on the journey.
     (Da Dum!  Please imagine dramatic music there, if you will.)
        A slightly more detailed plot summary is that Oru and Jiriya, who were central characters in the second book, Sleeping Legends Lie, must postpone their wedding because Oru's boss, the vizier, is sending him to the eastern desert to ascertain whether the mysterious and sudden destruction of a sky-dwarf town is part of a larger danger to the region.  Svarnil and Nulif, who are visiting for the wedding, end up accompanying them.  (Svarnil, for those who don't know, is the character who carries the entire series, a bard whose calling is to learn the truth about history and share it.  Nulif, whose job is sort of a combination of librarian and archaeologist, is introduced in the fourth book, Vision Revealed.)  There's a slow build-up of tension as the expedition comes nearer and nearer to the site of the ancient city of Edah, a lost civilization of which nothing is now known except that its ancient gods are said to have cursed the site of the ruins.  Along the way there are cool new places, fabulous new creatures, intriguing new characters, and challenging new conflicts.  Since I don't want to include any spoilers, I'll just say here that mystery, disaster, magic, suspense, murder, and ultimately hope ensue.
        With this story I've been exploring a number of themes that have been on my mind a lot for the past few years - themes including good people doing bad things, how cycles of violence feed themselves, and perhaps most of all the idea that we are not called to succeed, but only to be faithful to what we are supposed to do.  I've also enjoyed further exploring the relationships between characters I've been working with for a long time now, as well as some new characters.
        I've already added the book to my web site.  (This update added 2012)  The Kindle edition and paperback edition are also available on amazon.com.
        For those who have already read the rest of the series, I hope you enjoy this one.  Let me know what you think!  And for those who haven't yet read the others, if this sounds at all interesting, I encourage you to give it a try, starting with Song Against Shadow.
        This now concludes the Shameful Self-Promotion segment of our blog.  Thank You!
        (And now to turn to the next project!  Hmmm...)

[Pictures: sketch of the Ring of Gods of Edah, pencil and pen by AEGN, 1995;
cover of Ruin of Ancient Powers, by AEGN, 2o11;
detail from the cover of Song Against Shadow, border from a rubber block print combined with pen and ink drawing of harp, by AEGN, 2008.]