Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Orphaned Land, by V.B. Price

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When V. B. Price calls New Mexico an orphaned land, he's hardly kidding -- to its residents, the state often feels ignored or disregarded by the rest of the country, and in my experience that feeling is wrong only because much of the rest of the country doesn't even know it's there.

But Price isn't talking about how the rest of the country views New Mexico. At least, not directly. What he looks at is how many of New Mexico's current environmental issues are rooted in and fueled by its standing as a wasteland desert state, and he takes a heartfelt journalistic look into the problems and concerns facing the region in both an immediate and a long-view context.

This book is the first of its kind, in that no one before Price had so thoroughly gone spelunking into the interactions between modern humans and the New Mexican environment. While it asks for a common-sense approach to providing responsible stewardship to the land -- after all, what we do to our environments we ultimately do to ourselves -- The Orphaned Land is far from a crazed conservationist plea. Price has the science, the history, the sociology, and the politics worked out in his telling. He brings us up to speed on what's happening in New Mexico's environs, and he does it well.

What next, though? Price doesn't make it easy for us. He's done his work, writing a history for New Mexico so that the state may avoid repeating it. The prevention is up to everyone else; no one man can tackle it alone. And the call is not just for New Mexicans, because what happens in the Land of Enchantment will affect the rest of the world, and vice versa, in that lovely interconnected way our planet has of weaving us all together.

Really, I can't say enough about how thorough Price's research is, and how compelling his prose is. He's a master, and his poet's touch dances with his journalist background throughout the book. Whatever your environmental views, this book will get you thinking. It's already influenced my own writing in two separate projects -- neither of which you would expect to be influenced by an environmental history of America's forgotten state. For me, few accomplishments are higher than a book revving up the thinking motor. So thank you, Señor Price.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Triss, by Brian Jacques

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Gah, what a simple treat voices can be.

Think about it: You're reading a book, and it consists of printed words perceived visually on a page or a screen. There's no audio component (unless you're in recorded book zone), and yet a good writer is supposed to convey the sense of voice. The trick is pretty impressively magical, when it's pulled off.

Most of the time, it's not pulled off. Not really. You might make up a voice to go with the characters' speech, and the voice probably matches what you know about the character (gender, age, location, yadda yadda). But how often do the characters truly speak differently? Distinctly?

Brian Jacques might go a bit overboard with voices in Triss and the other Redwall books -- but hot damn, they're fun to read. You're never uncertain whether a Hare or a Guosim Shrew or a Ferret is speaking. And for the same reason your favorite movies and television shows are fun to imitate -- how long can you talk about Austin Powers or the Muppets without trying to sound like them? -- you get these voices stuck in your head.

And with them, the characters. And once a character is in your head, you really begin to care about that character's story. Isn't that a big part of what the joy of reading is all about?

Monday, January 2, 2012

Street Knowledge, by King Adz

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A shift in perspective is seldom a negative experience.

My thoughts about graffiti have been shifting for the past several months as I research a potential story idea, and sure enough, the broadening of my knowledge has proven positive. For years, I had the same reaction to graffiti that I think most people have -- it's a blight on any cityscape, and disrespectful of both the property owner and the community. For me, I lumped together as graffiti anything I saw spray-painted on walls and other surfaces that was not desired by the owners of these surfaces. And then I didn't give the whole idea much more consideration.

Some of what I thought in the past, I still agree with. In vastly over-simplified terms, I don't think people should paint their names (or even draw pictures) on personal property -- that is, homes and other private spaces owned by an individual or a family. And I think that if people are going to paint their names in the public viewing space, they could at least do something to make it either beautiful or (even better) thought-provoking, rather than treating a can of spray-paint as a surrogate penis used to pee on everything in sight.

But my perspectives have been broadened in other ways. First of all, what I lumped together as "graffiti" is, as most encompassing terms are, wildly lacking in the nuance of the different styles of street art. And that term is perhaps the key -- some spray-can folks are out to vandalize, while other people's motivation is the creation of art. The beautification of public space, the recapturing of public visual space (seriously, just think about how many times a day your eyes take in entirely unbidden advertising -- would your life not be better off taking in some form of art instead, whether or not you personally liked the style?), the stimulation of the mind, a raising of social consciousness: all of these are various and different goals of street art, and even so I'm leaving out a whole range of reasons.

The reasons for public art are as diverse as the materials used -- to say that all street art is spray-painted is like saying Renaissance art was all done with a paintbrush. Would I have ever thought of cross-stitched civil disobedience, or vinyl-printed billboard hijacking, or clothing fashion, or even vendored food as street art? Not before reading Street Knowledge, one heck of an introductory encyclopedic look at the world-wide realm of street culture.

I'm not suggesting you should change your own opinions of what you call graffiti. But there's much more to the artistic side of the act than Banksy (though that guy deserves the recognition he gets). Would learning a bit more about the culture of street art harm you in any way? Even if your mind remains unbudged, at least you'd have good solid backing for your beliefs. I'm pretty sure that's simply called an education.

Even the street artists wouldn't want you to agree with them. They'd want you to think about what they're doing. That's about as civil a disobedience as I've ever heard of.