Review of “The Writer’s Map: An Atlas of Imaginary Lands” edited by Huw Lewis-Jones

We love maps and atlases. We have a very large collection of atlases, and maps adorn most of our walls. Jim likes historical and topographic maps, and I prefer maps of fantasy lands. This gorgeous book, which features all kinds of maps along with essays about them, is the perfect addition to our library, but not one to file; rather, it will stay out, to be savored over and over again.

Most of the authors who have contributed to this book report having spent hours in their own childhoods looking at maps and imagining the worlds depicted in them. I too, spent hours doing so, beginning with maps in The Story of Doctor Dolittle by Hugh Lofting. Even today, when I read a fantasy with a map at the beginning, I return to it over and over as I read.

The essays in the book are delightful, but it is the illustrations that accompany the text that make this book so wonderful. It includes famous maps as well as idiosyncratic maps that inspired writers, often on two page colorful spreads. For example, one can spend hours examining the details of “The Land of Make Believe” drawn by Jaro Hess in 1930. It shows everything from “Old Mother Hubbard’s Place” to the hill climbed by Jack and Jill. Other landmarks indicate that “Peter Rabbit Lived in This Hole” and “Here the Blackbird Picked Off The Maid’s Hose.”

The Land of Make Believe

In Huw Lewis-Jones’s own chapter, he opines:

“[It is] what is not on the map [that] proves tantalizing. The edges of the maps, the blanks, the borderlands, this is where many writers, myself included, are inexorably drawn. It’s good to head to places where we’re not sure what is going to happen.”

I, on the other hand, am drawn to what is included. My favorite maps when I was little were maps from the earliest times that had features like the representations of the four winds in each corner, turtles holding up the world, or dragons in the unknown areas.

Lewis-Jones reports that the first atlases were made in sixteenth-century Italy, containing many features from classical mythology, such as a representation of Atlas holding up the Earth. [In Greek mythology, Atlas was a Titan condemned to hold up the sky for eternity. The great cartographer Gerardus Mercator, born in 1512, was the first to title a collection of maps (and a treatise on the universe) as an “atlas.” He chose the word as a commemoration of the legendary King Atlas of Mauretania whom he considered to be the first great geographer. This King Atlas was a son of the Titan Atlas but the two myths coalesced.]

Individual maps were made much earlier; this book includes a reproduction of Ptolemy’s world map from 1482 – the first to appear in color.

Ptolemy’s 1482 map of the world

The historical maps reveal much about the state of epistemology at the time. We saw some wonderful early maps in the Vatican Gallery of Maps in Rome, and notably they reveal religious conceptions of the shape of the world, with Jerusalem at the center.

1452 Mappamundi (Map of  the world) shows Jerusalem is at the center of the map, which depicts the European view of the world during the Middle Ages.

Lewis-Jones also uses the idea of mapping as a metaphor for the way authors plot out a story as part of their creative process. Readers can often “see” such maps hovering above texts when, for example, they dive into mysteries with red herrings and/or clues strewn throughout the text – these elements had to be figured out in advance, with physical or mental maps carefully followed so both author and readers wouldn’t get lost along the way.

Map in the Vatican’s Hall of Maps

Sometimes writers don’t include actual maps in their work, but depict places so real you envision them yourselves, as, Lewis-Jones points out, did Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his poem “Kubla Khan”, which begins:

“In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round;
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.”

Maps in the book that also have essays about them include Robert Louis Stevenson’s story of Treasure Island, Jonathan Swift’s tales of Gulliver’s Travels, A. A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh (with maps of the Hundred Acre Wood), C.S. Lewis in The Chronicles of Narnia, the Mary Poppins books by P.L. Travers (illustrated by Mary Shepard, whose father E.H.Shepard had drawn Winnie-the-Pooh), and of course the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. The works of some authors have inspired maps to be made by others, like J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books. As one essay notes, “Each new generation finds its favourite literary maps…”

Isabel Greenberg, in her chapter, expresses the opinion:

“Maps of places that would be impossible to traverse in reality, or visit, are the ones that are most exciting: Faerie, Heaven, the Constellations, Middle-earth, Earthsea; even old maps of our Earth, long before we knew what lay beyond the fringes of experience. The kind of maps with wide-eyed women blowing winds from the four corners, and shaky, beautiful penned lines. It doesn’t matter that you can’t follow them; in fact that makes them better.”

I totally agree. And this book allows you to visit many of those types of maps over and over, via not only the essays but also from the 167 beautiful full-color images. Chapters include, inter alia, not only discussions of grid maps and story maps, but explorations of women cartographers, anatomical maps, maps of other planets, and a survey of discoveries that were made in pursuit of erroneous information on maps (e.g., the discovery of America).

Mosaic map in the pavement in Lisbon depicting history of Portuguese navigation

Huw Lewis-Jones wraps up the book by discussing the accuracy of Google Earth maps, juxtaposing these maps with the need we retain for “there to be some mystery in the world”:

“Imaginary places can offer us new kinds of discovery. Some of the pleasure of spending time with maps comes not only from the idea of exploring areas unknown, but also from remembering that where we stand is just a small part of a massive, and bewildering, whole. Maps remind us that there is so much more out there, and so much more at stake.”

Evaluation: What a great gift this book would make to any lucky recipient who still takes time to revel in travels of the imagination. It is true the book primarily highlights works done in the West, and a companion book that would include more diverse contributions and influences would be most welcome. Nevertheless, it is highly recommended.

Rating: 5/5

Published by the University of Chicago Press. 2018

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Kid Lit Review of “Felix” by Giovanna Zoboli

This adorable story will thrill young cat lovers.

Felix, “a fine city cat” is looking for adventure, and so he goes off to visit his “family.” First he travels to India to visit a tiger, China to visit a snow leopard, Russia to see his cousin Mr. Lynx, the Southwest desert of the U.S. to see his cousin Mr. Puma, Brazil to see a panther, and Africa to see his cousin Mr. Lion. There are cultural references in each place Felix visits. He finally returns home and is happy to see his own city.

The author ends with, “And so, dear reader, when in the future you can’t find your cat…” and you’ve looked everywhere, just maybe your cat is:

“. . . off eating midnight snacks in Brazil, prawns and scrambled eggs in India, blinis and caviar in Russia, or tea and herring from the Bering Strait in China. Or maybe your cat is somewhere in Africa, sunk in a dreamy sleep under an acacia tree. Remember that. And be patient.”

Acrylics by Simona Mulazzani are colorful and fun – a bit in the style of Henri Rousseau – and make it clear the nighttime travels of the cat are fantasies or maybe dreams. The back endpapers are full of drawings of cats.

Evaluation: This is sort of a “Where the Wild Things Are” for cats. Children will learn about faraway places, and a little biology in the process.

Published in the U.S. by Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 2018

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Review of “Wildcard” by Marie Lu

Note: Some spoilers for book one of this duology, Warcross, but no spoilers for this sequel.

In Warcross, we met Hideo Tanaka, 21, who invented the game of Warcross and the NeuroLink algorithm that powered it. The NeuroLink did more than help run virtual reality games, however. All of society had come to depend on it to facilitate everything from navigation, to safety mechanisms, to the enhancement of life for the sick and disabled.

The NeuroLink has also given Hideo a great deal of power through upgrades he can download into the lenses. The program for the lenses everyone wears to gain access to the algorithm is controlled by Hideo, and he has decided to use it to manipulate people’s minds to eliminate evil. Every person who wears the lenses (some 98% of mankind) is now unable to break the law or harm another person. There are only a few people who haven’t yet gotten Hideo’s “upgrade.” But there have been unintended consequences already, and of course there is the danger that the ability to manipulate people like this could fall into the wrong hands. Emika (“Emi”) Chen, 18, broke up with Hideo over this issue.

In Wildcard, Emi is contacted by the mysterious person named Zero, who actually is – as Emi discovered at the end of Warcross, Hideo’s long-lost brother Sasuke. Zero explains he is part of an underground group of vigilantes calling themselves “Blackcoats” who want to save the world from Hideo’s algorithm. As Emi herself thinks:

“The algorithm is supposed to be neutral. Free from human imperfection, more efficient and thorough than current law enforcement. But that’s always been Hideo’s ridiculous pipe dream. It’s barely been a couple of weeks since he triggered the algorithm, and already, the inefficiencies and tangled webs of human behavior are complicating and corrupting it.”

Emi understands though why Hideo developed it, and why he has refused to let it stop running. She feels like she is “walking a tightrope between Hideo and Zero, the algorithm and the Blackcoats.”

As in Warcross, Emi discovers that what is really happening is much different than what she or anyone else assumed. Emi must choose the right course of action, for the stakes are huge, and a matter of life and death for all of them.

Discussion: Lu increases the impact of this young adult virtual gaming story by packaging it inside ethical and philosophical questions. In a way, it is like the current issue surrounding Facebook, writ large. Facebook started out as a wonderful way to connect people, but gives a lot of power to people with evil intent, from the possibility of driving kids to suicide through online bullying, to affecting elections through the promulgation of fake news, to the invasion of privacy and using Facebook data for profit or politics. In just one example, a story leaked about an internal Facebook pitch to advertisers boasting that Facebook could identify teens who felt insecure and worthless. As the author of the article observed:

“Gathering, then labelling people to strangers, is an unacceptable breach of privacy and a threat to personal security as well. The intention may be to provide data to help companies sell anti-depressants or acne medicine, but such data could also be used by those who recruit terrorists.”

Where that much power is concerned, is it ever safe? Is there anyone you can trust? Lu explores this issues in an intriguing way that includes eye-popping virtual reality creations, a couple of romances, and plenty of page-turning action.

Evaluation: The story is full of twists, and the characters are interesting, well-written and multi-dimensional. I liked the fact that good and evil were not only very nuanced, but that Emi always tried to find a reason to understand those who acted badly, and to feel compassion for them.

Rating: 4/5

Published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, an imprint of Penguin Random House, 2018

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Review of “Lamarck’s Revenge: How Epigenetics Is Revolutionizing Our Understanding of Evolution’s Past and Present” by Peter Ward

Note: This review is by my husband Jim.

Most people have at least heard of the scientific consensus that species evolve through the process of natural selection, whereby the individual members of a species best suited to reproduce in their environment pass along their genes (and their genomes) to the next generation. (A gene consists of enough DNA to code for one protein, and a genome is simply the sum total of an organism’s DNA.) Individuals less suited to their environments pass along fewer genes to the next generation. Over time – a long time – species tend to resemble those individuals better suited to the environment. Biologists were aware of the phenomenon of species evolution long before the development of the science of genetics enabled them to understand the mechanism of how characteristics were passed from generation to generation.

An early theory of species evolution was articulated by Jean-Baptiste Pierre Antoine de Monet, Chevalier de Lamarck, a French naturalist who lived from 1744 to 1829. He theorized that parents can pass on changes they’ve acquiring during their lifetimes to their offspring. August Weismann, the father of modern Darwinian genetics, successfully refuted Lamarck’s ideas when he cut tails off mice to show that their tailless state would not in fact be transmuted to their offspring.

Lamarck’s theory was even more widely discredited once Charles Darwin published Origin of Species, which provided a different, more convincing, mechanism for evolution.

Lamarckian theory was nevertheless given an extensive trial in the Soviet Union when Stalin entrusted national agricultural policy to Trofim Lysenko, an avowed believer in Lamarck. Lysenko’s Lamarckian experiments dominated Communist agronomy for decades, leading to, according to historians, China’s disastrous famine during the late 1950s.

But Lamarck has had a “comeback” as of late, albeit with his ideas no longer called Lamarckian theory but “epigenetics.” Specifically, epigenetics is the study of heritable changes in organisms caused by modification of gene expression rather than alteration of the underlying DNA. Epigenetics posits that change can be influenced by several factors including age, the environment/lifestyle, and disease state.

Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, 1893

Epigenetics certainly raises questions that bear further study. We know that prenatal and early postnatal environmental factors influence the risk of developing various chronic diseases and behavioral disorders. But does this change the DNA and if so, is this change passed down to offspring? As Richard Francis writes in his book on these new findings, Epigenetics: How Environment Shapes Our Genes:

“In the epigenetic view of things, genes are mere members of an ensemble cast of biochemicals in a cell, susceptible, like other members of the cast, to what goes on in the vicinity of the cell.”

Francis is just one of a number of writers who have jumped on the bandwagon to explore this new direction in the study of evolution. Ward appears to have a further agenda, however. He clearly wants to rehabilitate Lamarckian theory beyond where the evidence can take us thus far, such as speculation on the long-lasting generational effects of phenomena like violence, war, and famine.

Ward would have done better to adhere to data verified thus far by molecular phylogenetics. The reason Lamarck had a bad reputation is that he strayed too far from scientific verification. Ward seems to repeat the error.

Rating: 3/5

Published by Bloomsbury, 2018

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Kid Lit Review of “Dreamers” by Yuyi Morales

Author and illustrator Yuyi Morales (her first name is pronounced “ZHOO-zhee”) tells her own immigration experience story in this gorgeous picture book, first in a style appropriate for a young audience and then in an Afterword at the back of the book for older readers.

Morales was born in Xalapa, Mexico. In 1994 she crossed a bridge from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, to El Paso, Texas with her two-month-old son Kelly. She had come to introduce her son to his dying great-grandfather Ernie, and to marry Kelly’s father, a U.S. citizen.

As a new immigrant, she “missed things that felt familiar” and did not yet speak the language. She felt alone and invisible until something miraculous occurred, as she describes it vividly in the Afterword:

“Then one day Kelly’s grandmother brought us to a building that would change our lives forever. We discovered the public library, and it was SPECTACULAR! I had never been in a place where you could just take books from the shelves without asking and without being scolded for taking them. And there were picture books, something I had not encountered before. I could not believe how beautiful and sturdy they were – and then, when I opened them, I was amazed at the power of their illustrations. Even though I could understand very few of the words, I realized that I could understand the story through those images – a realization that would come to inspire me later on.”

As she says in the book:

“Books became our language.
Books became our home.
Books became our lives.”

In the Afterword she explained:

“One of the most important things I learned at the library is that through books we can find our path and our purpose. I also learned that I love to tell stories, and that I could tell them through books. I studied the books I admired so much and became determined to make my own.”

She bought some paint, took creative writing extension classes at U.C. Berkley and joined an author/illustrator group. In 2000, she received a Don Freeman Grant and in 2015, Morales received the 2015 Caldecott Book Honor. She has received the Pura Belpré Award for illustration five times, including in 2015 for Viva Frida.

Although she uses the word “dreamers” she stresses she is not using it in the same way it is used the U.S. today to refer to a specific group of undocumented immigrants:

“Kelly and I were Dreamers in the sense that all immigrants, regardless of our status, are Dreamers: we enter a new country carried by hopes and dreams, and carrying our own special gifts, to build a better future.”

In the book, she ends with:

“Someday we will become
Something we haven’t even
Yet imagined.
But right now….
We are stories.
We are two languages.
We are lucha. [Lucha is the Spanish for “fight, struggle.”]
We are resilience.
We are hope.
We are dreamers,
Soñadores [dreamers] of the world.
We are Love Amor Love.”

The vibrant, mixed-media illustrations are outstanding. Morales painted with acrylics and drew on paper with ink and brushes and a nib pen that once belonged to Maurice Sendak! She also photographed and scanned many things to add to the pictures. Though the artwork has somewhat of a folk-art, primitivism feel, it is actually more complex, and there are details hidden in each frame that will give children hours of delight to find and identify.

Evaluation: This is a book desperately needed in today’s hostile climate toward people of color who come to the United States – even those who come here legally – dreaming of better lives. Many “Americans” seem to forget that almost all of us were immigrants once, except for Native Americans.

One is reminded of the words of Supreme Court Justice Frank Murphy, in his famous dissent in the 1944 Korematsu case that authorized wartime internment of Americans of Japanese descent. He deplored the racism inherent in the decision, observing:

“All residents of this nation are kin in some way by blood or culture to a foreign land. Yet they are primarily and necessarily a part of the new and distinct civilization of the United States. They must, accordingly, be treated at all times as the heirs of the American experiment, and as entitled to all the rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution.”

Yuyi Morales doesn’t address any conflicts or political concerns in her story. It is just a celebration – of change, of dreams, and of books, which can take us lands away and elevate our lives. Her story and the illustrations are enchanting, and have a lot to teach with messages that are unsaid, but obvious to readers. The publisher suggests it is appropriate for ages 4 to 8; I would add “and above.”

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Neal Porter Books, Holiday House, 2018

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