Saturday, May 26, 2012

Two New Books I Really Like (With Pictures)

It's been a bit of a whirlwind day/week/month here at Green Apple, and sort of in my life, too. So perhaps it's in search of some simplicity that now, sitting down to blog, all I want to do is tell you all about two of my favorite new books, and to show you what beautiful pictures they have. Don't be fooled, though -- though both of these books are heavily illustrated in some form, they are Very Serious (but oh so delightful) Books. 

The first is Antigonick, the hotly anticipated (er, hotly anticipated by me) new translation/interpretation of  Sophocles' tragedy by the incomparable Anne Carson (and published, beautifully, by New Directions). Re-working a classic tale is nothing new for Carson, a classical scholar whose work often either references, re-tells, or analyzes ancient Greek literature, but her particular style of translation is so unique, poetic and adaptive that it must be read as poetry all its own (creative liberties included -- as in her previous work, Carson often alters the spellings of characters' names and broadens the restrictions of space and time, allowing her, in this case, to reference to Samuel Beckett and Virginia Woolf in the first five pages of a story from 440 BCE.) What really makes this book a lovely object to leaf through, though, is Bianca Stone's beautiful accompanying illustrations, done on translucent pages that overlap Carson's handwritten text. Turning each page feels something like dusting off a relic. 

Despite its modern voice, its wit and its aesthetic charm, Carson is not one to make the tragedy of Antigone easy on the casual reader. And in case you're not familiar, it's a doozy. If you are familiar with Greek tragedy at all (SPOILER ALERT for every Greek tragedy), it won't surprise you to know that pretty much everybody kills themselves by the end, while the Chorus doth protest and mourn and hem and haw. It's great, in a way best summed up by this page:

As Simon Critchley once wrote, "tragedy is like Guinness. It's not supposed to be good for you."

My other favorite book of late is my new kids' "staff favorite", and has been nearly impossible for me to talk about without forcing whatever patient listener I've tricked into listening into full-blown story time mode -- every picture must be shown, every detail of the adventure recounted. Its debatable classification as a kids book aside, this beautifully (and not particularly briefly) written book also has its roots in the oldest of stories, a journey fit for its own Joseph Campbell PBS special. The book is Taka-Chan and I, originally published in 1967 and now in a re-issued edition by the NYRB Children's Collection. It's narrated by Runcible, a Weimerarmer who, according to his author bio, is a firm believer in broadening international understanding ("The world would be a better place if more dogs would travel", Runcible says.) He knows, because, according to this story, he once dug a hole all the way from his home on the beaches of Cape Cod to Japan, where he met a little girl named Taka-Chan. This and all of the adventures that follow are documented in the stunning photography of Eiko Hosoe, and, well, c'mon. Look at this pair and just try not to be charmed to smithereens. 



Turns out, Taka-Chan is being held captive by a fearsome sea dragon. In order to free her, Runcible must find the most loyal creature in all of Japan and lay a flower at his feet. The challenge is accepted, the quest begins. 

I won't give away the ending, but let's just say this is a hero's journey, not a Sophoclean tragedy. No reader will close this book with a heart un-warmed. I can't recommend this highly enough for anyone, of any age, with two feet or four. 

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