Saturday, January 31, 2015

Book Review: Fire in the Sea: Bioluminescence & Henry Compton's Art of the Deep

Fire in the Sea: Bioluminescence & Henry Compton's Art of the Deep
David A. McKee

‘“What else can you tell me about him?” Unfortunately, not a whole lot.”’ This seems a pitiful way to begin a story, let alone tell the story of a man’s hidden passion, but Fire in the sea : bioluminescence & Henry Compton’s art of the deepFire in the Sea: Bioluminescence & Henry Compton's Art of the Deep by David A. McKee succeeds by focusing on the passion and not the man.

Henry Compton began his professional life as a marine biologist, one of the first in the country, working for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department from the late 1960s to the early 1970s. He was posted aboard the research vessel Western Gulf stationed in Rockport, Texas, and tasked with collecting deep sea samples from the Gulf of Mexico. Compton literally dragged the ocean floor with a heavy net, searching for life forms never before seen. This was dangerous work. “Pulling nets at great depths required large cables and winches under a lot of strain and tension.” However, the Western Gulf had a trick; the crew used “gigantic logging winches used in the timber industry” to haul up the nets. The result was a mound of mud dredged up anywhere from 1000 meters to as deep as 4000 meters to the ocean surface. The resulting sludge was dumped on the deck of the Western Gulf. Compton would immediately begin pawing through the dripping muck as if searching for treasure. Sometimes his efforts would bear no fruit, and sometimes he would dig up a hellish body from a medieval nightmare. He was dredging from the mesopelagic and bathypelagic zones. At this depth, the pressure of their environment warps sea creatures’ bodies into un-natural, nightmarish shapes. In recompense, many of the creatures are endowed with natural bioluminescence. The result is otherworldly, glow in the dark monsters.

Back on shore, Compton rigged a darkroom beneath a stairwell in the marine lab, and took photographs and slides of the fish excavated from the mud for Texas Parks and Wildlife Department publications. When necessary he would augment the photographs with his own spare ink and pencil drawings. What was known only to a few close friends is that Compton the marine biologist was also a highly talented, albeit untrained, artist. He took the half-formed images home in his mind, and completed them by experimenting with gouache, board, and liquid rubber to create his own medium and his own vision of the deep. This medium enabled him to create complex, multi-layered works of art. He still had no way to definitively recreate the creatures’ environment on the canvass, so he left them swimming in pitch blackness, or in one macabre painting, filled out the environment from his own sorrow.

There is no evidence that Compton ever considered his work for public sale or even public viewing. Consequently, the text accompanying the individual pictures can be highly eccentric. He mixed taxonomic information with whimsical tales of imagination that could resemble an elongated fantasy of Lord Dunsany or the voice of Mark Twain relating a salty anecdote. In describing the Sleeper shark he wrote, “He had strange and lovely teeth of two kinds, different as steak knives and cleavers. His uppers were slender and curved in fence of fang; his lowers, a palisade of flat triangular points keen as the face of a razor…He had the mouth of a butcher’s shop.” The life of the gulping Pelican Eel he describes in gambler’s terms. “Red and black. Gambler’s pigment. Rouge and Noir for the spinning wheel of luck. In the deep sea black is black and red is black and all the chips are laid on noir.” The image of the terrifying Shining Bow Dragonfish spawned a tale of timeless Egyptian priestesses, mad Arabian magicians, and a sea goddess dwelling amidst the mermaids of Atlantis.

There’s a strong sense of whimsy and fate meandering not only through Compton’s canvases but their life as well. He died alone in his apartment. When the cleaning service cleared out his living space, they decided, for reasons unknown, not to throw out his life’s work with the rest of his belongings. Instead, they simply left the paintings boxed, and sitting on an outside landing. Miraculously, the skies remained dry until a relative retrieved the boxes and moved them a garage. Years later a professor from Texas A&M tracked down the art and found them to be in remarkably good shape.

In some cases you can learn all there is to know about a man from coworkers, relatives, neighbors, and the occasional newspaper clipping. But in other cases, fate would prefer you learn about the man solely from the passion he leaves behind him.

Illustrations from http://discovermagazine.com/

David Ryan
Social Sciences/Business, Science & Technology Department
Central Library

Friday, January 30, 2015

Book Review: Revival

Revival 
Stephen King

In the 1960s, young Jamie Morton becomes friends with Rev. Charles Jacobs, the new Methodist minister in the little town of Harlowe, Maine. Rev. Jacobs is no ordinary reverend. He has a rather fascinating hobby—the study of electricity and its applications, which he carries out in his garage. In addition to tinkering with electronics and building a mechanical model town, one of his more impressive achievements is using low voltage electricity to heal Jamie’s brother, who lost his voice in an accident. But, alas, Rev. Jacobs can’t heal everything. Soon after he heals Jamie’s brother, he gets word that his wife and son have both been killed in a horrific car accident. In response, he angrily denounces God and religion to his mortified congregation, and consequently loses both his job and his place in the community. After he leaves town, Jamie Morton fears he will never see his friend again, but Fate, it seems, has other plans. Throughout the rest of Jamie’s life, the two keep running into each other in the strangest of circumstances. Although Jamie grows up to become a wash-out musician, his personality and occupation pretty much remain the same. Jacobs, however, turns out to be a chameleon. The first time the two run into each other is at the fairgrounds, where Jacobs is working as a maker of magical “Lightning Portraits.” Years after that, they meet again. This time, Jacobs has once again taken up the mantle of religion, and is now “healing” people at revivals. At their third and last meeting, Jacobs is a wealthy, reclusive old man who tells Jamie a secret: ever since the deaths of his wife and son, he has been pursuing potestas magnum universum, “the force that powers the universe,” which he believes can be harvested through lightning strikes. He then proposes an outrageous experiment: once he has harnessed this energy, he will use it to look beyond death, into the afterlife. Unfortunately for both of them, the consequences of the experiment turn out to be more terrifying than anyone can imagine.
 
As someone who deeply disliked King’s last novel, Joyland, I can happily report that the author gets back on track in this latest offering. Revival is essentially a Frankenstein story that builds on Mary Shelley’s premise: one man defies God. How does he do it, and what are the consequences? If you’re already a Stephen King fan, or simply enjoy slow, ponderous pieces with plenty of creep factor, I will definitely recommend trying out Revival.

Liz Winn
Microforms/Government Documents
Central Library

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Bryce Speed’s Float the Earth: From the Artist’s Perspective

Twins

"Remember that there is always someone, somewhere, that is more passionate and working harder than you are right now. Strive to be that person."

These are the humbling words of Bryce Speed, feature artist in BPL’s first art exhibit of 2015. Twenty paintings of a variety of mixed mediums—from an acrylic/oil/fabric to a graphite/acrylic/ gouache /watercolor—make up Speed’s Float the Earth: The Paintings of Bryce Speed. Patrons can view the exhibit at the Central Library’s 4th Floor Gallery until it floats away on February 27.

For me, Night Deluge X (Tornado) was the most striking of Speed’s pieces in the exhibit, the one I couldn't seem to move away from. A 24x32 acrylic/gouache/pencil/gesso on paper, the oppressive dark swirls sent my thoughts immediately back to the tornadoes that devastated Alabama in 2011. But was this just my own interpretation? Bryce Speed kindly (and eloquently) divulged his take on art, his inspirations, and more.

Bethany: What inspired the making of Night Deluge X (Tornado)?

Bryce: I use destructive weather as a metaphor for the unstable and uncontrollable moments of life. The architectural structures represent facade of ourselves that we strive for, while the weather elements are constantly changing and sometimes invading.

Bethany
: Regarding artistic inspiration, Picasso states, “The artist is a receptacle for emotions that come from all over the place: from the sky, from the earth, from a scrap of paper, from a passing shape, from a spider’s web.” What do you think magnetizes you towards architectural influences in your work and the interplay of interior/exterior, as you state in your introduction to the exhibit?

Bryce: I am interested in the capacity of the spaces we live in to be a receptacle for our identities. I am primarily interested in mid-century architecture because this was a time of optimism in architecture. The homes have very clear definitions of purpose, which I don’t necessarily subscribe to. But nonetheless, they are examples of creativity in domestic architecture.

Bethany: Who are your artistic heroes and how have they influenced you?

Bryce: I like artists that merge representation with abstraction. A historical artist that inspires me is Matisse, who also merges inside and outside in his paintings. A contemporary artist that influences me is Toba Kehdoori, who uses imagery of banal interior scenes to convey a sense of open and empty space that seeks contemplation.

Bethany: Picasso also states that art “washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” What do you hope viewers gain from observing your artwork? Is it a specific feeling?

Bryce: I hope they view my paintings like they might read a poem. Fragments and moments are strung together in a sense to create a larger meaning that hopefully has universal resonance.

Bethany: How do you know when a piece is finished?

Bryce: I prefer to think of pieces as being resolved rather than finished. Since I am interested in drawing (and consider my work to be hybrids of drawing and painting) this affords me the ability to allow the work to not follow the same rules as traditional painting. Sometimes I actively play with the levels of resolve. I believe a piece is resolved when a sense of balance is achieved.

Bethany: In 2013, you started teaching at the University of Alabama. What have your students taught you as an artist?

Bryce: My students teach me through their attitudes about art. I am constantly amazed at their open-mindedness and their faith in the role of art in society and in what art can be.

Bethany: One of your artistic heroes, Matisse, states that creativity “takes courage.” Naysayers abound, particularly for any creative pursuit. What has art taught you about rejection?

Bryce: Remembering that rejection is extremely subjective. Many times one person is making a decision about your work. For example, one juror may be selecting work for an exhibition. I can’t hang up my career based on what one person feels.

Bethany: Finally, what would you like say to aspiring artists here in Birmingham?

Bryce: Keep working, and work every day. Every time someone has told me I couldn’t do something, I made it a point to prove them wrong.

Prove them wrong he did. Speed's work has been included in numerous exhibitions in several states. In 2006 and 2011, his works were selected for publication in Vols. 64 and 69 of New American Paintings. Bryce's work was featured at the PS122 Gallery in New York City in 2009, and in 2011 his works on paper were exhibited as part of the Nebraska Arts Council's Nebraska Governor's Residence Exhibition Program and at the Museum of Nebraska Art.

A Mississippi native and UA graduate, Speed completed a residency at the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center of the Arts in Nebraska City and taught at Omaha Metro Community College, the University of Nebraska at Omaha, and Central Community College in Columbus, NE.

For more information about this artist, visit Bryce Speed’s website. And don't forget to take a look at past, current, and future art exhibits at the Birmingham Public library here.

Speed encouraged growing artists to keep honing their craft. What better way to do so than learning a new technique or exploring a different medium? Check out these new books in the Arts/Literature/Sports Department to expand your artistic horizons:

Creative image transfer : any artist, any style, any surface : 16 new mixed-media projects using transfer artist paper

Reclaimed textiles : techniques for paper, stitch, plastic and mixed media

Rust and patina style

Pinterest perfect! : creative prompts & pin-worthy projects inspired by the artistic community of Pinterest


Bethany Mitchell
Arts/Literature/Sports Department
Central Library

Black History Month at BPL


The Birmingham Public Library will present more than 60 events to help celebrate Black History Month in 2015. All events are free.

Theatrical productions, movie screenings, art projects, and more are scheduled, as well as black history trivia games, story times, and genealogy workshops. Some of the highlights include:

The Local Authors Expo and Book Fair, where more than 100 authors will present and sell their works on Saturday, February 7, from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Author Marie A. Sutton will discuss her new book, The A.G. Gaston Motel in Birmingham: A Civil Rights Landmark. The hotel is an historic landmark that served as a major meeting location for leaders of the civil rights movement. The Birmingham City Council recently voted to approve $10 million to help redevelop the motel, which closed in the 1980s.

On Thursday, February 12, at the Smithfield Library at 10:00 a.m., Birmingham foot soldiers Gwendolyn Sanders-Gamble and Janice Kelsey will present a copy of a New York Fire Department 1963 resolution that’s been lost for more than 50 years. New York sent the resolution to Birmingham in 1963 to speak out against fire hoses being sprayed on peaceful civil rights demonstrators in Kelly Ingram Park. However, Birmingham citizens were never publicly told about the resolution. When the NYC Fire Department discovered in 2013 that Birmingham citizens were never told about the resolution, the fire department presented another one to Sanders-Gamble and Kelsey in 2014. The two women will give a copy of the resolution to the library on February 12. The Birmingham Fire Department and other officials are slated to attend the program.

Race relations and Birmingham native Tanner Colby’s book Some of My Best Friends are Black will be discussed at three Birmingham libraries as part of Magic City Crossings, a citywide dialogue project led by REV Birmingham’s Community Affairs Committee, the Bethesda Life Center, and Joyce Vance, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama. Library talks will take place at Five Points West Library, Monday, February 23, 3:30-6:00 p.m.; Central Library, February 25, 11:00 a.m.-1:30 p.m.; and East Ensley Library, Wednesday, February 25, 3:30-6:00 p.m.

Calendar of Events
BPL Online Calendar
Black History Month 2015 Booklet (download pdf)

African American Resources
African American History Month Subject Guide
This guide provides a listing of books, magazines, newspapers, databases, and websites which can be used to meet your information needs.

Digital Collections: African American Experience in Birmingham
This webpage provides links to the BPL Digital Collections pertaining to Birmingham's African Americans. The page is divided by subjects, formats, and online exhibits.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

What I Learned from Nancy Drew, Part 2

Buzz Kill
Beth Fantaskey
Read by Erin Moon

I just listened to a new audiobook by an author who must have read as many Nancy Drew books as I have: Beth Fantaskey. In her new book, Buzz Kill, Millie Ostermeyer is a non-conformist, full of spunk and determination. A reporter for the high school paper, whose editor is obnoxiously superior, Millie is investigating a story when she discovers a body. Like a modern day Nancy Drew, she is on the case. But this is much more than a well done mystery whose Nancy Drew tie-ins really work. When Millie and Chase, an aloof new boy, team up to solve the mystery, they slowly begin to deal with difficult life problems of their own.

Millie’s mother had read her Nancy Drew books as she was dying from cancer and that makes Nancy special to Millie. When Millie asks herself, “WWNDD?” (What would Nancy Drew Do?), mud- covered Millie realizes Nancy would never be anything but perfect, which Millie would never be. Millie compares her life with her widowed father to Nancy’s relationship with her widowed father, but her public librarian mentions Nancy’s reaction to her father’s dating in the Mystery of the Glowing Eye, where Nancy’s reactions are not so perfect.

As a public librarian, I especially enjoyed her devotion to her public library, and "her librarian." She's right—everyone needs their own librarian.

Lynn Piper
Five Points West Library

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Local Authors Expo and Book Fair Scheduled for Saturday, February 7, at Central Library


Discover a new writer or learn what it takes to write a good book at the Local Authors Expo and Book Fair, Saturday, February 7, from 9:00 a.m.to 3:00 p.m., at the Central Library. The event is free.

Authors will be selling books on a variety of topics: from mystery, romance, and Birmingham history to food, children's stories, and biographies. A 2015 calendar featuring notable Birmingham residents will be available.

There will also be two workshops on how to write books and get them published.

At 10:00 a.m., Birmingham attorney, author, and blogger Keith Lee of the Hamer Law Group will discuss everything from copyright and trademark to what pitfalls to avoid in publishing or self-publishing a book. He has written one book and is in the process of writing a second book. He writes a weekly column for Above the Law, the most popular legal blog in America.

At 1:00 p.m., Marie A. Sutton will discuss what it takes to write about history and how to make it interesting. Marie recently wrote a book about the historic A.G. Gaston Motel in downtown Birmingham titled The A.G. Gaston Motel in Birmingham: A Civil Rights Landmark. Martin Luther King Jr. and other supporters of the civil rights movement stayed there.

There will be something for the kids, too. At 11:30, Alabama's #1 magical mad scientist, the amazing Doctor Osborn will present "Reading Is Magic!" in the Youth Department's Story Castle. As part of the good Doctor's 2015 "Unlock the Madness Tour," children will learn the value of books and the library through Doctor Osborn's unique brand of magic, comedy, and crazy balloon creations.

Books-A-Million and other publishers will be on hand to discuss their publishing process.

For more information, visit http://www.bplonline.org/.

2013 Local Authors Expo

National Chocolate Cake Day

January 27 has to be one of the best days of the year. Why? you ask. Well it’s not because it’s pay-day or even my birthday; January 27 is Chocolate Cake Day! Chocolate Cake Day is a day meant for chocolate lovers all over the world. Your three main objectives for this day are to bake a chocolate cake, decorate a chocolate cake, and eat a chocolate cake. If you don’t have time to make a cake from scratch, a boxed cake mix will do. But if you find yourself not having time to make a chocolate cake from scratch or a boxed cake mix, don’t hesitate to run to your local bakery. It doesn't matter where you get your chocolate cake, just make sure you do!

Young Chocolate Cake lovers, after celebrating the day with a slice of cake and a glass of milk, have fun reading some of our favorite books about…CHOCOLATE CAKE!

The Cake by Dorothee De Monfreid
The Just Desserts Club by by Johanna Hurwitz
Betty Bunny Loves Chocolate Cake by Michael Kaplan
Scaredy Mouse by Alan MacDonald
Cool Cakes & Cupcakes: Easy Recipes for Kids to Bake by Pamela Price
Little Mouse and the Big Cupcake by Thomas Taylor
Grandma’s Whopper Birthday Cake by Karma Wilson

More mature Chocolate Cake lovers we haven’t forgotten about you…
Chocolate from the Cake Mix Doctor by Anne Byrn
Chocolate Cakes: 50 Great Cakes for Every Occasion by Elinor Klivans
Small-batch Baking for Chocolate Lovers by Debby Maugans Nakos
Chocolate Cake: from the Simple to the Sublime by Michele Urvater

Carla Perkins
Avondale Library

Monday, January 26, 2015

Focus on Databases


As noted before on this blog, there are no laws, rules, or regulations stating that anything put on the Internet has to be correct, valid, current, or scholarly. ANYBODY can put ANYTHING on the Internet! This is why some teachers tell their classes that they cannot use the Internet for resources—it prevents them from going to Google or Wikipedia and coming up with questionable research. Now here’s the good news: The Internet, used wisely, can be an awesome source for research. The key is to know where to look.

That’s where library databases come into play. The database links from the Birmingham Public Library homepage connect you to sources that have been checked for accuracy, validity, and currency. Some of these databases are links to external websites, like CIA World Factbook or Medlineplus, but most of them are subscriptions your library pays for that would cost you money if you accessed them outside of the library portal. In other words, your library card gives you access to tons of valuable information, and does the research for you to make sure it’s “good stuff.” Best of all, it’s all FREE to library members!

February is Black History Month, so I’m highlighting three incredibly fabulous sources for information to complete homework assignments next month. Heads up!

The Oxford African American Studies Center provides students, teachers, and scholars with an authoritative and comprehensive source on the African American experience. The site is comprised of five major encyclopedias and content from eighteen additional reference sources from Oxford University Press, including more than 8,000 articles by top scholars in the field. The Oxford African American Studies Center combines the authority of carefully edited reference works with sophisticated technology to create the most comprehensive collection of scholarship available online to focus on the lives and events which have shaped African American and African history and culture.

African-American History Online covers topics such as affirmative action, Africa, black nationalism, civil rights, emancipation, free blacks, the Harlem Renaissance, migrations, racial violence and hate crimes, religion, slave living conditions, slave liberation strategies, social work and philanthropy, sports, and visual arts.

Biography In Context contains biographical information on more than a million notable historical and contemporary individuals. Facts, summaries, articles, and pictures.

To access these databases:

  • Go to the Birmingham Public Library homepage: www.bplonline.org  
  • Click on Databases
  • Use the Database Quick Links scroll down menu to highlight the database you’d like to examine, and click on Go
  • If you are not in a library, you will get a screen which requires you to enter your name and your library card number. Click on submit after typing them in and the database will open. 
  • Follow the instructions to search the database for your subject or topic 

Note the citation information which shows you exactly how to correctly cite the work for your paper. If you’re working in a group you can even e-mail or share the information directly through the database.

Should you have any questions or need help, contact your local library and information professionals will gladly assist you. That’s actually a good tip—anytime you need to find any kind of information, contact your local library!

Kelly Laney
Adult and Teen Services
Springville Road Library

Southern History Department's Book of the Month: The Lady of Godey’s: Sarah Josepha Hale

The Lady of Godey’s: Sarah Josepha Hale
Ruth E. Finley

What do all of the following have in common?

Thanksgiving as a national holiday
Vassar College
Public playgrounds
The historical preservation of Mount Vernon
“Mary Had A Little Lamb”
Women’s magazines

The answer: Sarah Josepha Hale.

She is perhaps best known for her tenure as editor of the 19th century magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book—an accomplishment in itself—but she also championed the establishment of Thanksgiving as a national holiday, helped found Vassar College, lobbied for public playgrounds for children, assisted with the movement to preserve Mount Vernon as a historic residence, and wrote “Mary Had A Little Lamb” in addition to many other works. And even this list falls far short of summarizing the numerous claims to fame in her remarkable life.

Widowed in 1822, Hale turned first to writing in an attempt to earn her living, and after the success of her novel Northwood she was offered a position as editor of what would at first be called the American Ladies’ Magazine and later became Godey’s Lady’s Book, named after the publisher Louis Godey. It was a bold step for him to offer an editor’s position to a woman, but one that paid off handsomely; Hale served as “The Lady Editor” of Godey’s for 40 years and under her direction it became one of the most popular magazines of the century. Expensive to produce and beautiful to look at, the Ladies’ Book featured household management advice, social commentary, poetry and fiction, sheet music, clothing patterns, and fashion drawings so rich in color and detail that they remain highly collectible today. As Margaret Mitchell notes in Gone With the Wind:
“The ladies always felt a little odd when they besieged him [Rhett Butler] with questions about styles, but they did it nevertheless. They were as isolated from the world of fashion as shipwrecked mariners, for few books of fashion came through the blockade. For all they knew the ladies of France might be shaving their heads and wearing coonskin caps, so Rhett's memory for furbelows was an excellent substitute for Godey's Lady's Book.”
An illustration from Godey's Lady's Book
However, Hale did not confine herself to editorials on acceptably genteel topics considered fit for women of the period. For instance, when Elizabeth Blackwell sought admission to medical school and became the center of a storm of controversy, Hale, “who had long been hammering away on questions of health and hygiene, appreciated to the full the neglect of woman’s physical welfare that was behind Miss Blackwell’s ambition . . . When it was all over, the fostering of medical progress was a permanent item of Godey’s policy.” Hale was also an advocate of dress reform who considered tight corsets unhealthy and agitated against them during her entire term as editor—with little success, as one glance at the fashion plates in the magazine can confirm. But this was all of a piece with her constant efforts in favor of social and medical reforms, particularly as they affected the lives of women and children.

Finley’s biography gives us a portrait of Sarah Hale that is as vivid as one of the color illustrations from the Lady’s Book. As I read, I couldn’t help wishing that I could have met her and that she must have been a woman of rare courage, intelligence, charm, and determination. Even though Lady of Godey’s ran to over 300 pages, I almost felt that it was too short for her eventful life. Come take a look at our copy in the Southern History Department and see if you agree.

Mary Anne Ellis
Southern History Department
Central Library

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Registration Open for February RLCC Classes


 Registration is now open for staff and the public for the February 2015 Regional Library Computer Center classes. All classes are held in the Regional Library Computer Center (RLCC) of the Central (downtown) LibraryPRE-REGISTRATION IS REQUIRED FOR ALL CLASSES.

To register for a class: (Please note that registration does not necessarily guarantee you a spot in the class. Please call to confirm.)
  1. Complete name, address and phone information. PLEASE PRINT.
  2. Place a check mark in the check box next to the class(es) you would like to attend.
  3. Return the entire form to a staff person in the Public Computer Services department.
  4. You may also send an email to cenrtc@bham.lib.al.us or use the online form to register.

Book Review: Unruly Places

Unruly Places
Alastair Bonnett

The subtitle gives you an idea of the intriguing contents ahead: Lost Spaces, Secret Cities, and Other Inscrutable Geographies. Not only intriguing, but marvelous, pointed, surprising. I’ve read more in the nonfiction travel genre than in any other, so much so that I long ago found it hard to discover truly new areas of the globe. This book, which is more or less in the travel category, walloped me good. The most jaded geography-lover can find an abundance of very interesting material here. I don’t know how many of these 40-odd places Bonnett (an academic geographer) actually went to, but his library work has paid off in spades. If you think you know the world, this book is proof you don’t.

The section titles go further than the subtitle in organizing the stray threads, lone wolves and anomalies: “No Man’s Lands,” “Dead Cities,” “Enclosures and Breakaway Nations,” “Floating Islands,” and so on. It only took reading a few of these chapters, though, to realize that many subsections could easily be assigned to one or more alternate sections. These places are so unruly they can’t even abide Bonnett’s holding pens.

As for “Dead Cities,” who says you have to have an apocalypse to have a post-apocalyptic place? Wittenoom, an Australian desert ex-town, used to have one industry-asbestos mining. When they found out the real cost of the mineral, they cleared the town of people and made it forbidden property. Pripyat had the unfortunate distinction of sitting next to Chernobyl. It’s estimated it’ll be ready for humans again in about 900 years. The trees there are so badly mutated they don’t know how to grow toward the sun.

Familiar with the underground cities of Cappadocia, Turkey? The ones where the persecuted Christians lived centuries ago? People still live there now (and they did long before the Christians, too). They’ve always been good for those seeking safety. Now they’re just good, cheap housing. Over in Saudi Arabia, Old Mecca is about 95% gone. A tragedy, too, since that means that almost all of the Ottoman and Abbasid architecture is gone with it. The buildings raised too many questions about historical complexity that the current rulers of Mecca wanted to deal with. Manila treats its past differently. Overcrowding there has led to poor people living in a cemetery. This has been going on for years, in Manila and other crowded Third World cities. Some Filipinos object, some call it a sacrilege, but the families whose deceased relatives lie there generally like the arrangement, because the squatters take good care of the gravesites. It’s their way of “paying rent.” Not everybody rents, though. Foxes have moved into British cities in the last few decades. They’re so embedded now the Brits have given up trying to get rid of them. The humans have come around to the notion that it’s not that bad having foxes about. They’re in other cities around the world, too. Could they already be in Birmingham? It’s hard to know, as city foxes are nocturnal and spend almost all their time underground. If they are, can we learn from the Brits? Speaking of territory, according to international law, if your plane is registered in Norway (to take one country for example), even when you are in the air over the mid-Pacific, you’re still in Norway and you are bound by Norwegian law.

Through it all, Alastair Bonnett is almost always fair and dispassionate. I do, however, disagree with him when he objects to Mount Athos, the Greek peninsula made up of monasteries that are off limits to women, even to most female animals. He chastises it for its exclusionary policies, but fails to mention convented women who do the same and for that matter the whole point of religious seclusion, which is primarily about avoiding worldly distractions.

But I can complain little about a book with so many wonders, so many fun obscurities. There’s humor, too, such as an account of British doggers, who do more than just walk in secluded woods and “professional pirates” in Somalia who’ve gotten tired of the hassles of traditional piracy.

In a world that threatens to become homogenized, bland and orderly, it’s good to know that millions of people have decided to remain, or become, defiantly different, often in ways that do no harm to anyone. They might show us new ways of living, or even prospering. And the author’s provided Google Earth coordinates, where possible, so you can see a digital picture of the more fascinating reality it represents. That reality is engagingly described here, and I’m very grateful for it.

Richard Grooms
Fiction Department
Central Library