December 06, 2007


The Gilded Bat. By Edward Gorey. Pomegranate. $14.95.

The Wuggly Ump. By Edward Gorey. Pomegranate. $12.95.

How to Understand, Enjoy and Draw Optical Illusions. By Robert Ausbourne. Pomegranate. $14.95.

M.C. Escher Kaleidocycles. By Doris Schattschneider and Wallace Walker. Pomegranate. $24.95.

      Looking for an unusual stocking stuffer for someone who thinks he or she has everything? Or perhaps a more substantial gift for the same sort of person? Just how offbeat are you willing to be? Here are two small items and two larger ones that are highly unusual – and almost certainly not things that even a picky gift recipient will have seen before.

      Edward Gorey (1925-2000) was an artist whose extraordinarily careful style and attention to detail were inevitably put at the service of subject matter that was a trifle…err…weird. The Golden Bat and The Wuggly Ump are eerily delightful little books that show Gorey at his best, which means at his strangest. The Golden Bat is a ballet story – a very peculiar one, indeed. It starts when a little girl named Maudie Splaytoe is found to be fascinated by a dead bird (this is typical Gorey humor). She learns ballet in a tale sprinkled with realistic pictures of dancers at practice combined with thoroughly offbeat specifics of Maudie’s advances: “She was given her first solo as the Papillon EnragĂ© [“angry butterfly,” superbly portrayed by Gorey] in a revival of Golopine’s Jardin de Regrets. Throughout all her professional progress, though, “her life did not cease to be somewhat dreary” – and Gorey’s blacks and grays beautifully show the dreariness. There is no happy ending here – this is Gorey, after all – but Maudie’s eventual exit, which makes the book’s title clear, represents the sort of grim humor that Gorey fans (and people who do not yet know they are Gorey fans) will find irresistible.

      The Wuggly Ump is grimly humorous in a slightly different way. There is more brightness in the drawings, and the tale is told in the sort of singsong poetry that immediately identifies this as a children’s book. But it is a Gorey children’s book, which means you just know the three wholesome kids seen at the start are going to come to a bad end – and that the Wuggly Ump will have something to do with it: “It eats umbrellas, gunny sacks,/ Brass doorknobs, mud, and carpet tacks./ How most unpleasing, to be sure!/ Its other habits are obscure.” The reader will no doubt guess the other habits well before the end – and see them, in Gorey’s inimitable style, at the end.

      Too grim? Or perhaps not a big enough gift, since the Gorey books are stocking-stuffer size? Consider, then, How to Understand, Enjoy and Draw Optical Illusions, a fascinating and very colorful exploration of pictures that seem to be one thing but in fact are something else. Robert Ausbourne does not merely explain how illusions work (although he does that, and quite clearly). He shows readers exactly how to create 37 of them, each with step-by-step instructions that are a breeze to follow and lead to some truly fascinating completed projects. Ausbourne never takes himself or his subject too seriously (“Serious artists should know where the point end of a pencil is”), but he takes his instructions seriously, and that is what matters. From broken lines that seem not to join (but do), to shapes that look three-dimensional when drawn but cannot be created in a three-dimensional world, Ausbourne shows why the eye is tricked by careful but simple drawings – and how to trick it.

      The great modern master of this sort of trickery was M.C. Escher (1898-1972), who is legendary for his impossible buildings, metamorphoses of two-dimensional objects into three-dimensional ones and back again, and staircases and waterfalls in which it is impossible to tell what is down and what is up. A fantastic gift for a very special person is M.C. Escher Kaleidocycles, in which mathematician Doris Schattschneider and graphic designer Wallace Walker go several steps beyond Ausbourne’s drawn illusions to show readers how to produce 3D objects whose even divisions of the plane form the basis on which Escher created many of his most famous works. The 48-page book contains more than 80 reproductions and diagrams of kaleidocycles, which are closed-chain solids with four identical triangular surfaces that can cycle endlessly through a center hole. These are wonderful to learn about and even more delightful to construct. M.C. Escher Kaleidocycles includes 17 geometric models, each of them die-cut and scored for (relatively) easy assembly. Six are geometric solids, which are highly interesting in themselves; the other 11 are kaleidocycles. This and How to Understand, Enjoy and Draw Optical Illusions are “project” books at their best: unusual, very informative, packed with science and – above all – a great deal of fun. In fact, if you can’t think of an appropriate recipient for them, why not get them for yourself?

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