November 16, 2006


Gray Matter: Why It’s Good to Be Old! By Bob Elsdale. Andrews McMeel. $14.95.

A Teaspoon of Courage: A Little Book of Encouragement for Whenever You Need It. By Bradley Trevor Greive. Andrews McMeel. $9.95.

     The usual explanation of why getting old is good runs something like this: “consider the alternative.”  That’s not good enough for Bob Elsdale, who uses composite and digitally enhanced photographs – featuring gray, wrinkled elephants – to make points about the good aspects of aging.  This is intended to be cute but tends to come across as cutesy.  And not all the digital enhancements are of equal quality – for instance, one showing two big elephants carrying outdoor equipment while taking two small ones to the beach is so poorly rendered that one wonders whether Elsdale wanted readers to know that the elephants weren’t really carrying anything.  A lot of the concepts here are enjoyable enough: wind-surfing elephant, elephant on a surfboard, elephants playing chess and tic-tac-toe, and so on.  But the most affecting pages are the ones using the least equipment, such as a two-page layout of the beach and two elephants, with nothing but the words, “Everywhere is memory lane.”  It’s a bit hard to figure out the audience for this book: unless you are a real elephant fancier (or someone you would give it to is one), the book may fall a bit flat.  Certainly it does not have the sheer verve and style of the photo books by Bradley Trevor Greive, who is the master of melding pictures with words.

     Greive’s new book, A Teaspoon of Courage, continues his pattern of finding actual (undoctored) animal photos and playing with them, not by changing the photos themselves but by writing captions that explain human foibles in terms of what the animals seem to be doing (but, of course, really aren’t).  Thus, this book starts with an adorable puppy peeking through a hole in a wall, with the caption, “Sooner or later everyone runs up against a brick wall.”  After this comes a meandering look at what courage does and does not mean.  A bird landing on water near an open-mouthed shark, for example, gets a caption that starts, “Doing things that are inherently dangerous does not necessarily indicate courage.”  This sort of thing is all well and good – but the underlying theme of this book is more serious than in most of Greive’s works, and that makes the cute juxtapositions a little harder to take than usual.  Even Greive cannot come up with a really fitting photo for the words, “Truly brave individuals slowly but surely rebuild their lives after suffering profound personal losses.”  The bear seeming to wipe a tear from its eye is okay for “Heroes cry, too,” but the baby elephant struggling to its feet doesn’t quite work for “Every time you reaffirm your faith in yourself, it grows stronger.”  Furthermore, the language here is somewhat too New Age-y to be universally appealing: “You will find your holy grail.” “If you just keep paddling, your wave will arrive to take you all the way in to the beach.”  But many of the photos are real winners, and if this is not Greive’s most effective book, it certainly has its moments of charm and cuteness – for any and all ages.

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