October 14, 2010


You’re Old, I’m Old…Get Used to It! By Virginia Ironside. Viking. $25.95.

Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Never Set Foot on and Never Will. By Judith Schalansky. Translated by Christine Lo. Penguin. $28.

Forces of Nature. By Chana Stiefel. Scholastic. $9.99.

Scholastic Almanac 2011: Facts & Stats. Edited by Delja Greve. Scholastic. $13.99.

Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Special Edition 2011. Edited by Rosie Alexander. Scholastic. $16.99.

     Little bits of the real world, human and natural and interconnected, peek through all of these works, whether a book is designed for adults or for children. But each has an agenda that keeps its worldview narrow while pretending it is expansive. Virginia Ironside, for instance, wants to present “20 Reasons Why Growing Older Is Great” (as the subtitle of her book puts it), but from the start, she creates limits for her 65-year-old self: “The only people who think sixty is young, in my experience, are seventy-year-olds, eighty-year-olds, and ninety-year-olds – in other words, the extremely old and the ancient.” This ought to be tongue in cheek but apparently, in context, is not – which means it is either setting up a series of books that Ironside will write later, or shows her own age prejudice regarding “the ancient” whose years she herself has not yet reached. “People who keep pretending to be young are just pathetic specimens,” writes Ironside. “They are tragic failures, full of vanity, who can’t come to terms with being old.” Perhaps; or perhaps “the lady doth protest too much, methinks” (for those old enough to remember reading Hamlet). In any case, Ironside defiantly proclaims herself old and then sets about explaining why it is good to be boring (“a curse for [listeners] but, no question, a great pleasure for you”); good to be sexual (“if you are one of the people who still enjoy sex despite the fact that these days you sometimes feel you’d like a ladder to help you get up into bed”); good to be coming closer to death (“I’ve already lived far longer than most people were expected to live a hundred years ago”); good to be alone (“you don’t have to suffer the misery of finding that the person you’re living with is suddenly, for reasons of his own, not speaking to you that day”). Again and again, the apparent sincerity of Ironside’s sentiments is undermined by the flip manner in which she expresses them – almost as if she is, at heart, ambivalent about being 65 and continuing to age, her protestations to the contrary. Some elements of her writing certainly ring true, such as her short chapters on old friends and wisdom. And her whimsical style makes for pleasant reading. But as a whole, You’re Old, I’m Old…Get Used to It! is at most a semi-celebration of the age at which Ironside happens to find herself.

     Geographically, Ironside finds herself on an island – England. But it is nothing like the islands that Judith Schalansky explores verbally (but definitely not in person) in her Atlas of Remote Islands. A fascinating concept marred by uneven execution, this book is written by someone whose birthplace no longer exists, as she points out in her introduction: Schalansky was born in East Germany. The introduction to her book is every bit as fascinating as her pages on individual islands, and indeed is necessary to understand those individual pages, because what Schalansky does not do is give consistent information about the very, very remote islands she discusses. A few names of these islands are familiar: Easter Island, St. Helena, Iwo Jima. But many more are not: Annobón, South Keeling, Tromelin, Atlasov, Raoul, Laurie, Takuu. Where do the names come from? Schalansky sometimes explains, sometimes does not. Why are the islands presented in this particular order? No explanation (the book is arranged by ocean, but within each section, the arrangement is unclear). How did intriguing elements of the islands’ names or histories come to pass? Schalansky does not say – for instance, she mentions how odd it is that Semisopochnoi, “perhaps the westernmost part of the United States,” has a Russian name but is an American territory, but she does not say why; and regarding that “perhaps the westernmost,” she says that “no one wants to know exactly,” which seems unlikely and is also unexplained. Essentially, Atlas of Remote Islands is a series of beautifully illustrated anecdotes (the map of each individual island is very well rendered). For Napuka, she talks about the horrors of the voyage during which Magellan is thought to have discovered the island; for Campbell, about an attempt to view a transit of the planet Venus in 1874; for Trindade, about overexposed photos taken there of what may have been a UFO; for Pitcairn, about Marlon Brando’s performance as Fletcher Christian in Mutiny on the Bounty; for Tikopia, about a longstanding tradition of infanticide created because of the land’s extremely meager resources. This is a book for browsers – for people who like to find unexpected things in print and pick up arcane bits of knowledge. For such people, it is fascinating; but it is not a travelogue, not a history, not a geographical or topological discussion of out-of-the-way places, and it does not have an organized or easily graspable approach to its subject. It simply is – like many of these islands themselves.

     Forces of nature created the islands and continue to shape the Earth, and Forces of Nature intends to interest young readers in some of the more dramatic events that have happened and continue to occur worldwide. Filled with colorful photos and easy-to-digest information – under such headings as “Fab Facts,” “Quake-itude” and “Cell Mates” – the book’s scattershot approach does provide some interesting scientific information. But you have to search for it. “Fog is a stratus cloud that forms in contact with the ground.” Hurricanes “are tropical monsters – the world’s largest and most destructive storms.” “Avalanches of hot ash, lava rocks, and gas [are] called pyroclastic flows.” Forces of Nature offers once-over-lightly treatment of floods, tsunamis, wind, tornadoes, winter storms, earthquakes, plate tectonics, volcanic eruptions – plus, in a format that seems rather capriciously organized, Yellowstone National Park; Earth’s crust, mantle and core; the sun; and Hurricane Katrina. The mixture of general and specific information can make the book confusing to follow, but this is less a read-it-cover-to-cover sort of work than a chance to look at some amazing photos from The Weather Channel and get snippets of information related to them.

     Photos are also the driving force in Scholastic Almanac 2011 and the latest edition of Ripley’s Believe It or Not! These books do not pretend to be anything but oceans of fact and oddity, presented in bright colors and with just enough text to retain a reader’s interest for a few seconds per item. Almanac 2011 includes sections on animals, buildings, games, movies, music, space, sports, technology and much more. You cannot easily find anything specific here, but browsing turns up interesting facts, charts, photos and tables: 10 longest animal life spans; the 2010 children’s book award winners; 22 items that should always be recycled; flags of the world’s countries; the six systems of the human body; the rock cycle. Browsing is the way to go in the Ripley’s volume, too. This series has moved well past the “freak show” approach that it had many years ago, although human oddities are sprinkled throughout the 2011 volume: an Indian man who held his arms above his head for 20 years, a man who has made 1,000 potato portraits, a baby that weighed 92 pounds when six months old. As if the photos (including a number of old black-and-white ones) were not visually dramatic enough, the book includes “look at me” layout elements – such as arrows pointing to pictures, photos of an open-mouthed boy with the words “Mind Boggler!” next to certain items, and various small photos with the words “Leap to It!” next to them to draw attention to items found elsewhere in the book (a sort of in-book “coming attractions” feature). The Ripley’s book is so overdone – from its 3-D cover of a man in extreme body paint to the in-training parakeet at the end – that it is as hard to dislike as to take seriously. It and Almanac 2011 are reference books only in the broadest sense. More precisely, they are slices of a very small part of life, writ large and photographed larger.

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