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March 2012

Degrading Our Children

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Given how much of their waking life our children spend at school, shouldn’t it be an impossibly magical and wonderful place? You might have your own ideas about what would make a school great (more green space, sustainable architecture, free nutritious lunch programs), and I would readily agree, but to my mind a crucial aspect would be this: a redefinition of merit.

Where I live, the public schools assign letter grades at the end of each term. By grade one most kids are being ranked and filed into categories of lesser or greater achievement, sorted, as education writer Alfie Kohn has described, “like so many potatoes.” These detailed report cards, the ministry of education contends, are necessary for “growing success.” After all, don’t grades motivate students to work harder and hence learn more?

I appreciate that for some people this fixation on goals and evaluation may seem benign or even desirable, but not in my family’s experience. I have never witnessed anything more distorting of my children’s learning and self-esteem.

Excerpted from an essay that appears in the May 2012 issue of Shambhala Sun.

(Drawing by Patrick Dunaway)

Adrienne Rich (1929-2012)

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I have always wondered about the left-over
energy, the way water goes rushing down a hill
long after the rains have stopped

or the fire you want to go to bed from
but cannot leave, burning-down but not burnt-down
the red coals more extreme, more curious
in their flashing and dying
than you wish they were
sitting long after midnight

—Adrienne Rich (from “For the Dead”)

A Picture Book I Love

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“I want every children’s book editor and also every primary and middle school teacher and librarian in America to read this book. It is the antidote to plodding, plot-driven, two-line synopsizable, anti-imagination books. Ounce Dice Trice can be read cover to cover, back to front, middle to end, upside down, any way you like.” —Daniel Pinkwater, NPR

The Unknowable Personal Component

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As a child, I remember my father whirling around the world. I seldom knew where he was going. But I knew the news would take him there. I also knew that of all the countries he visited, it was Vietnam that stole his heart. He made his first trip there in 1959, more than a decade before I was born, and continued to revisit on and off over twenty years. He was the first Western television reporter to show the bomb damage to civilian areas caused by American raids (“a countryside bombed so totally that it looked like the craters of the Moon”). In 1969, he broke the news of Ho Chi Minh’s death to the world and was the only reporter invited to attend the funeral. A year later he was the first reporter to interview American Prisoners of War. “In prison cells replete with Christmas trees for the extraordinary occasion, for the first time a few of the POWs are allowed to tell of their conditions and their sentiments.” These interviews caused a stir in the United States. In 1972, he saw the first US air strike on Hanoi. In the late 1970s, he obtained exclusive access to film from Hanoi’s military archives and began work on a comprehensive TV documentary on the war in Vietnam. Dien Bien Phu, My Lai, Khe Sanh… I grew up with the Vietnam War scrolling in the background. I have often wondered what it was like for other children of war reporters.

As a war reporter and later a documentary filmmaker, my father made a life of doing what most people avoid—he rushed towards disaster. He faced forward when others would have looked or run away. For reasons I never fully understood, war beckoned my father. Perhaps the brutal act of fighting was a clearcut expression of the drama of living. Or maybe it allowed him to step into a meaningful narrative. War is a good story. Someone is always losing something.

A few months ago, I clipped an article about a documentary called Under Fire: Journalists in Combat. When the filmmaker, Martyn Burke, was asked why he felt his subjects felt compelled to keep putting themselves in harm’s way, he replied that he didn’t know: “none of them ever gave me a real answer that I could hold onto…There are all the answers that are true—that it’s important, that it brings us news from places we need to know about, that there’s an adrenalin high and more—but there’s this unknowable personal component that’s still floating around in the ether and has not been bottled and examined, and may never be.”

It’s this “unknowable personal component” that continues to fascinate me when I meet people who put themselves in the line of fire. It’s the elusive backstory and motivation, not yet “bottled and examined.” In the end, I think it’s our fictions (the stories we dream up) that allow us to we get closest to these mysteries.

(My drawings of men and women who reported from Vietnam.)

When Anne Carson meets Charles Schultz: Picture Books for Grown-ups

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I looked at the bookshelf in my study this morning and found Anne Carson sitting alongside Charles Schultz. I have no idea what they were doing there together, but I would like to think they were having a fruitful conversation. (They both like to draw. They are both observant and funny.)

There are picture books of all kinds on my “grown-up” shelf. Some I pilfered from my children. Some I bought for myself. Some are a little beyond me but I figure I’ll grow into them.

Lately unaccompanied prose feels bereft to me. Perhaps it’s all the time I have spent in the company of my young sons, who believe a book without pictures is a travesty. (Why not just make a book without a binding, or page numbers?)

In the belief that grownups need pictures too, I’ve assembled a selection of adult-friendly visual reads.

Here it is.

That’s a Nice Jacket

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There were at least ten cover ideas for my novel Stray Love before the final version was selected. One was beautifully hand-lettered and featured a 1960’s photo of a young boy drawing at a desk. One featured a Hepburn-look-a-like sporting an elaborate hat, set against a bold red background. One showed a man’s head from behind with the type hammered out in white. Another had a close-up view of a woman wearing a psychedelic mini-skirt and go-go boots. Then there was the battered suitcase and forlorn teddy bear.

Speaking from experience, I know it’s sometimes (always) hard for an author to yield control of her book at the design stage. After years of working, you hope and pray that the designer assigned to the job will have the interest and flair to make a jacket that can reflect the content and tone of the story. The dream is that the jacket will end up being punchy, beautiful, smart, funny, or simply odd enough to grab the attention of book shoppers in a busy environment.

Having worked at a design studio for five years, I also know that an author is not always the best judge of what his/her book should look like. Peter Mendelsund, an associate art director at Knopf, and an art director at Pantheon and Vertical Press, has pointed out that writers are often too close to their stories to see the Gestalt. Add to this the fact that a knack for narrative does not always translate into visual talent or even good taste and you can imagine the surge of freewheeling comments. As Mendelsund notes, the discussion can quickly become farcical. “That’s when you start to hear things like ‘I hate the color blue,’ and ‘Here’s a drawing my niece made, can you work it in?’ and my favorite: ‘There’s not enough blood.’”

Mendelsund is the dynamo behind some of today’s most recognizable covers. He has a penchant for abstract illustrated jackets (see his Kafka and Foucault series), which tend to leave more to the reader’s imagination. He reminds me of mid-century modern designers Alvin Lustig and Paul Rand—though not all his work is as simple or rectilinear. He has also, for example, designed the more arabesque The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (the bright yellow one with the swirling dragon design.)

In reading about Mendelsund recently I learned that he started off as a classical musician, transitioning after 25 years of study into design for the prosaic reason that he wanted health insurance for this young family. He had a eureka moment when he came across Zone books one day. “I hardly noticed covers at all before I was a cover designer… The memorable exception would be my first encounter with the Zone books in the late eighties. I remember walking into the old Columbia University Bookforum and seeing those jackets, and some deep, limbic, animal part of me just going berserk. I bought the Zone Henri Bergson on the spot. And I still haven’t read it.”

I had a eureka moment while reading this. The design studio I worked for was none other than Bruce Mau’s. I fell in love with Zone books when I was in University and walked into Bruce’s Toronto studio one day (a tiny space above a local cake factory) and asked if I could intern. I learned a great deal during my time working with Bruce on books. He raised the bar for intelligent design and taught me that, at its best, good form was not a pretty shell for content but rather its expressive embodiment.

p.s. Thank you to Ingrid Paulson and the art team at HarperCollins for showing such patience and dedication.

The Beautiful Afterlife of Dead Books

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A few weeks ago, I spent several afternoons at a book morgue, otherwise known as The Monkey’s Paw secondhand bookshop in Toronto. It was a refuge of sorts. I had been feeling slightly down about writing and wanted to linger in a place of pure bibliophilia. Like many novelists, I tend to experience an existential crisis every time I finish a book. Why bother? Why engage in such an intangible and self-involved vocation when I could be doing something more tangibly and socially useful? (i.e., stopping a pipeline, regrouting the bathroom.) Why write longform narrative in a world that prefers to live swiftly and episodically?

In the past, this soul searching has lodged itself in the personal-neurotic realm. But lately it has ballooned into a broader crisis about how much less novels matter to the mainstream than when I started writing.

I don’t want to sound self-pitying or ungrateful (I’ve been very fortunate) but the work of writing novels — literary fiction no less — just seems an increasingly weird and arcane thing to be doing with my time. It’s fairly obvious when I look around that fewer and fewer people I know and love are reading books. (And, here, I’m not referring to people who are opting to read books on screen over print — I’m talking about reading books period.) They don’t see the point. They’d rather be watching Downton Abbey or clicking through obscure indie news sites. They would prefer to be resting in Supta Baddhakonasana or sitting on a meditation cushion at their neighborhood Sangha. Or hanging out with circus friends in the park or blogging at their local coffee joint. You get the idea. They are drawn to culture, just not the culture of reading books. And to my dismay, this lack of books does not seem to have left a yawning void in their lives.

(To read the rest, click here.)

A Wide Perspective: Raymond Cauchetier

By Blog

Raymond Cauchetier was best known as a set photographer for the French New Wave. He created dozens of the most iconic movie photographs of that era. There were his stunning and sexy close-ups of Anouk Aimée and Jeanne Moreau and, of course, there was his signature shot of Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg walking down the Champs-Élysées in Breathless —an image that defined Iowa-born Seberg as the original French gamine, and inspirer of a million pixie-cuts.

But Cauchetier was not always taking shots of beautiful free-love heroines. Given the setting and subject of my forthcoming novel, Stray Love, I was interested to learn that he had his real start a few years earlier when he worked for the press corps of the French Air Force in (what was then known as) Indochina. Toting around a Rolleiflex, he recorded France’s aerial war and its changing fortunes in the last years of its colonial era—a decade before the Americans embarked on an equally futile war.

Cauchetier had a knack for being in a place at the decisive moment and for preferring a street level, human-scale vantage point. As he put it: “You have to be ready, to anticipate, because by the time it takes for your brain to tell your finger to activate the shutter, the moment has gone…My approach to set photography was really that of a photojournalist.”

This toggling between worlds, between life and death, happiness and horror, style and substance, was not unique to Cauchetier. Lee Miller who started as a fashion and fine art photographer became an acclaimed war correspondent for Vogue during WWII, covering the London Blitz, the liberation of Paris, and the concentration camps at Buchenwald and Dachau. Cecil Beaton, best known for his glittering portraits of High Society, was also an accredited war photographer for the Ministry of Information. There was Gloria Emerson, born to wealthy American bluebloods, who went from writing about shoes and clothes to writing about the physical and psychic damage of war in Vietnam, Algeria and Gaza. And there were Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson, both of whom captured life’s extremes and departures from the ordinary: people at their elegant best and humilated worst.

Raymond Cauchetier was not the only one but he was certainly one of the greats.