Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Pictures. Books.

My favorite coffee shop in Israel (sorry Ba'cafe) is The Coffee Mill in Jerusalem.  It has decent food, a great selection of coffee, and a relaxed atmosphere.  The right-hand wall is filled with bins of different coffee beans, imbuing the small building with a warm, earthy scent.  The rest of the walls are covered with old New Yorker covers spanning at least a couple decades.

I spent many days there whiling away the hours with friends, glancing at the wonderful illustrations constantly.  Each captures the mood of a moment in history, from Bill Clinton's mug during the Lewinsky scandal to the iconic New Yorker monocled man.

A recent cover summed up the unfathomable nature of the disaster in the Gulf.  The reference to Escher is brilliant; like his work, the oil spilling into the ocean tricks our minds.  We cannot comprehend it rationally.  Despite my best efforts, I cannot imagine millions of gallons of oil worming their way through deep waters and onto shores hundreds of miles away.  I cannot fully understand the true extent of the damage wrought on the ecosystem.  All I do when I see pictures of birds covered in brown goo is say, "Wow, that sucks."

The cover is brilliant because it is not didactic; it doesn't leap off the page and smack you on the nose for being an oblivious dolt.  Instead, it blends the timeless with the present to remind us of the limits of our mammalian brains.  Our brains are fantastic pattern-recognition machines provided patterns conform to the scale of our humanity.  But there are events in the world that defy our sensibilities, rendering our efforts to shape them mockeries of competence and comprehension.

In a strange way, the illustrations in "The Goblin Prince" and "The Fox and the Shadow" are wonderful because they work similarly and also at cross purposes as that New Yorker cover.  They work similarly because they combine the classic with the contemporary in exciting ways.  Hetsi and Agorot are green-skinned humanoids (like most mythological goblins) but have expressive ears and body language (Anne's idea, a unique feature).  The Fox and his world start brightly colored and cheerful (classic fable material) but slowly darken as the story twists into something decidedly un-childlike.

However, their intention is to take ideas larger than any individual such as the duty of the parent to a child and the relationship of humanity to the natural world, and make them bite-sized.  That is the great gift any great illustrator gives her writer.  Even if you never read a word of either book, you can understand almost everything through the illustrations.  You can know how much Agorot idolizes Hetsi and how Hetsi adores his son.  You can understand the monstrosity of the Fox's actions toward his shadow.  As "The Fox and the Shadow" moves toward completion, the interplay between the words and images invigorate me like a warm summer afternoon scented by freshly ground coffee.

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