November 19, 2009


The Collected Short Works of Poul Anderson: Volume 1—Call Me Joe; Volume 2—The Queen of Air and Darkness. Edited by Rick Katze. NESFA Press. $29 each.

M.C. Escher “Reptiles” 1000-Piece Jigsaw Puzzle. Pomegranate. $17.95.

Lost Worlds. By John Howe. Kingfisher. $22.99.

Versus: Warriors. Illustrated by Steve Stone. Kingfisher. $19.99.

The American Heritage High School Dictionary, Fourth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $26.

     ’Tis the season of gifts, ’tis the season of wonders, ’tis the season of wonderful gifts – if you choose carefully, looking for items that will entertain, enthrall or educate long past the season in which they are given. Thus, ’tis a fine season for the first two volumes of a planned multi-volume Poul Anderson series from NESFA Press. Anderson is one of the grandest of grand masters of science fiction, having won seven Hugos and three Nebulas – the top awards in the field – and actually being named a Grand Master in 1998. Anderson (1926-2001) was a strong advocate of space exploration, a believer in the improvability (if not perfectibility) of humanity, and a dedicated chronicler of larger-than-life characters cast in heroic settings that would try them deeply – leading sometimes to success, sometimes to failure. The Collected Short Works of Poul Anderson is a rather capriciously edited series – the stories appear in no apparent order – but it is also a marvelous one, giving readers a chance to explore Anderson’s world (and worlds) in depth while also showing how his storytelling evolved over time (his later stories are often quieter and less stormingly heroic). The 26 stories and poems in Call Me Joe include Anderson’s first published tale, “Tomorrow’s Children” (1947), and range to as recently as 2001 (“Kinnison’s Band,” a poem with echoes of Aristophanes that is here printed immediately after “Tomorrow’s Children,” on the same page as that story’s ending). The Queen of Air and Darkness includes 19 pieces, one of which is the wonderful title story (published in 1958) and the rest of which appeared between 1956 (“Operation Afreet”) and 1993 (no fewer than 10 different pieces). Anderson was a prolific writer, an old-style SF stylist (which means his works tend to be straightforward and narrative-driven), a man of ideas and action rather than psychology (there is little analysis of characters in his works), and an author unafraid to bring sociopolitical matters into his tales (his philosophy was essentially libertarian). Individually, his tales are a treat. In these two sumptuous volumes – more than 500 pages each – they are a feast that will last long past the winter holiday season.

     Equally outré and equally certain to carry well into 2010 is Pomegranate’s excellent and very difficult jigsaw puzzle based on M.C. Escher’s famous study in two and three dimensions, “Reptiles.” This is one of a series of Escher-based puzzles from this very innovative publisher, and any of them will delight jigsaw fans. “Reptiles” may even make fans for these puzzles, because there is so much in it: a planter containing two cacti, an open book, a stoppered bottle near a glass, and several objects over which a crocodilian creature climbs after emerging into three dimensions from a notebook page on which its basic, flattened form has been drawn two-dimensionally. The creature completes a circuit of its environment before climbing back into the two-dimensional world that gave it birth – but of course the creature only looks three-dimensional, since the medium itself is a two-dimensional one. Since the whole wonderful “Reptiles” concoction is done in black-and-white, it is very difficult indeed to figure out just what piece of the jigsaw puzzle goes just where. Escher’s works are treats for the mind as well as the emotions. So is this puzzle, which takes his work into…well, into yet another dimension.

     The pages of Lost Worlds seem to have three dimensions as well, so realistically and with such care are they drawn by John Howe, who was one of the concept artists for director Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movie trilogy. Visual splendor is what this book is all about, as Howe portrays lands real and fictional with equal skill and attention to detail. The names are the stuff of legend: Ultima Thule, Shambhala, Mohenjo-Daro, Rapa Nui, Cahokia, Cibola – but which existed and which did not? And what of Babylon, Atlantis, Troy, Asgard, Camelot and Avalon? What of them was real? How much is legend? Howe’s marvelous illustrations make every place seem as real as every other, and the brief narratives about each of the Lost Worlds explain what we know and do not know about them. The Garden of Eden, for example, may have been somewhere in the plains of Mesopotamia; Mount Olympus is real, “though no one, of course, has ever seen the gods there”; and so on. The information here is solid, but it is not what makes this book so attractive as a gift for ages 9-12. It is Howe’s great skill at bringing to life long-gone lands, or ones that never were, that makes this a book to treasure.

     History comes to life in a different way in Versus: Warriors, where everything shown is real except the underlying premise of the book: battles between warriors who existed at very different times and in very different places and therefore never met in the real world. Like a gladiatorial video game seen in slow motion (and with far less gore, although plenty of implied violence), Steve Stone’s book posits fights between, for example, an Aztec and a Viking, or a Spartan and a Mongol. Hyper-realistic illustrations show each warrior’s weapons, fighting style and other data – pages are laid out like video-game still shots. Then – and this is where the book gets really interesting – one member of each pair is selected as the winner, for reasons that are cogently argued from a historical perspective. At the end, the five winners are compared and an overall champion is picked – again, based on known skills of the real-world fighters. And then there are “rematch” pages, suggesting alternative matchups whose outcomes it is left for the reader to decide. Offbeat design, strong graphics and a cleverly analytical approach make Versus: Warriors an unusual gift for readers ages 10 and up for whom mindless slash-and-crush video-game action is not quite enough.

     And how about a present for students’ more serious side – one that relies not on strong graphic design but on intelligence, not on punchy action but on words? The American Heritage High School Dictionary, Fourth Edition makes a wonderful gift – yes, in the Internet age; perhaps especially so in the Internet age. It is true that you can look up word definitions online easily, but not necessarily more quickly than you can look them up in this dictionary – because a Web search for a word turns up so many sources, and you may need to jump from one to the next to the next to find a definition that fits the particular circumstances in which you have seen the word. And niceties of this dictionary – a style manual, commentary on alternative pronunciations (“ax” for “ask,” for example), usage notes and more – are available online only if you go actively looking for them. In this dictionary, they are an integral part of the presentation, which they enrich significantly. It is unlikely today that a printed dictionary will be the sole source of word definitions for the high-school-and-up audience for which this one is intended; and that is fine, since the ability to use hyperlinks and other online tools to figure out vocabulary while doing online reading is valuable – and a necessary skill for college and the world after graduation. But as long as school work and pleasure reading continue to involve books (including electronic books), having a handy dictionary like this one nearby is a great boon – and brings the bonus of serendipity. One example: look up “jaguar” and you will find, in the margin of the page giving the definition, a picture of a jaguar – plus pictures of Andrew Jackson, Jesse Jackson and Cheddi Jagan. And maybe, just maybe, a quick, almost subliminal look at those pictures will spark a young reader’s curiosity about something or someone he or she never intended to look up. And maybe, just maybe, that will start his or her thoughts in entirely new and fruitful directions. The Internet is the perfect place to go for a directed search. For an expansive one – one with the potential to take the mind somewhere new – try The American Heritage High School Dictionary, Fourth Edition.

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