Archive for the ‘Photo-essay’ Category

Animal ArchitectureFrom its arresting cover to its fantastic photographs to its quirky animal facts, Animal Architecture is a winner for art lovers, photographers, and nature lovers.

The term “architecture” usually means buildings. In this book the term can mean structures made of materials from outside of an animal’s body, such as a bird’s nest or beaver dam. It can also mean structures made with materials from animal’s bodies such as webs, or even ones that stay on their bodies such as shells.

Some of the featured animals are very small, such as the caddis fly, but the sparkling photographs with black backgrounds show every hair-like appendage on the tiny creature’s body and every minute piece of wood, stone, leaf, shell or straw in the amazing cases that they build to protect their soft bodies. The photograph with the largest scale goes to another of the smallest animals. The compass termite in northern Australia builds 3 meter (10 feet) high mounds and the aerial photographs taken at dawn and dusk show a flat semiarid field with long shadows highlighting hundreds of aerie gravestones. On any scale, we are not the only creatures who can mold our environment. The changes can be destructive for the host like the galleries of the bark beetle larvae or cause great changes to the entire local environment like beaver dams, termite mounds, or coral reefs.

The photographer, Ingo Arndt, has won numerous awards and been published by National Geographic and it’s easy to see why. These photographs are immediately arresting but also bear long study to examine the intricacies of the galleries of the bark beetle larvae, the bower bird’s opus, or the staggering variety of corals. The text by Jurgen Tautz takes up less space but it provides clear and digestable chunks of information about these spectacular architects.

Try Animal Architecture if you like the spectacular nature photography of The Oldest Living Things in the World, by Rachel Sussman, The Songs of Insects, by Lang Elliott and Wil Hershberger or Sea, by Mark Laita. Or if you are interested in the substances that these creatures use try Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials that Shape Our Man-Made World, by Mark Miodownik.

Check the WRL catalog for Animal Architecture.

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Link to the Past CoverIt can be fun working right next to Colonial Williamsburg, the world’s largest living history museum; not only do we get to see Thomas Jefferson wandering along the street texting, but we also get to walk past old-fashioned zigzag, split rail fences and see fields of farm animals in the middle of the city.

Link to the Past, Bridge to the Future: Colonial Williamsburg’s Animals is a great way to learn about these animals. It includes sections on cows, sheep, pigs, chickens, pigeons, fish, horses and pets, with simple, clear descriptions of animal management and use, in both colonial times and the present day. It points out that in colonial times animals shared people’s daily lives in a way that they don’t often do today. Of course the colonists used the meat, milk, eggs, and wool from their animals but there were also surprising uses such as including animal hair in plaster for house building, which Colonial Williamsburg brickmakers still do, as they always strive for authenticity.

Modern farm animals have been bred for specific traits over the last several hundred years so to be authentic, Colonial Williamsburg has researched, bought and raised rare breeds such as the Leicester Longwool Sheep. Their research includes works written by the colonialists so Link to the Past, Bridge to the Future has several quotes from George Washington about how he managed his animals.

The text explains and complements the pictures, but like the other books about Colonial Williamsburg Link to the Past, Bridge to the Future is an enjoyable and worthwhile book just for the photos. Every page includes wonderful photographs of the interpreters in costumes performing their farming tasks by hand, as well as photographs of the animals as they go about their lives.

This book is great to read with other Colonial Williamsburg titles: Vegetable Gardening the Colonial Williamsburg Way: 18th Century Methods for Today’s Organic Gardener, by Wesley Greene, or The Colonial Williamsburg Tavern Cookbook, by The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. It also includes the history of chickens which you can learn about in greater depth from Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?: The Epic Saga of the Bird that Powers Civilization, by Andrew Lawler.

Check the WRL catalog for Link to the Past, Bridge to the Future.

Baa-bara who came to meet children at Williamsburg Regional Library’s “Sheepish Storytime” on February 21.

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Everything is made of something and on a scale that ordinary people (by ordinary people I mean me) can understand everything is made of elements and molecules. Author Theodore Gray has followed the winning formula (pun intended, sorry) of his 2009 book The Elements and has created another visually stunning book that informs, enlightens and fascinates.

There is no simple way to organize all possible molecular combinations, so Molecules is organised into chapters of how people use or perceive molecules, not necessarily how they are chemically related. So there are chapters on how things smell, on painkillers, and on molecules caught up in politics. He covers everyday substances (soap, nylon), controversial substances (mercury in vaccines), and things made of very odd substances. In Gray’s signature quirky style we find a section on “Keratin Extruded by Warm, Fuzzy Animals.” As you’d expect, this includes wool, mohair and feathers, but also includes a pair of socks that were made out of the hair of a Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever! My dog is part husky, so she frequently sheds the equivalent of a small chihuahua per day, so there must be something I can do with all that hair….

Visually stunning is not an exaggeration for this book, and artistically inclined people can enjoy Molecules for the bright, active photographs and chemical structure diagrams that leap off the page from the black background. Artists will also be fascinated to learn about the origins and chemical analyses of historical pigments like burnt sienna, turquoise, and ultramarine. This is one of the occasions when Theodore Gray goes on flights of poesy not often seen in a chemistry book, such as “sienna, which has been the color of the Earth for as long as there has been an Earth and will stay that way until there is no longer an eye to see it nor a soul to hear its name.”

Molecules should be of interest to everyone, because we are all surrounded by these chemicals every day, but it is a must-read for science fans. It is attractive enough for coffee-table browsing and informative enough for supplementary reading in classrooms. It is the next logical step after Theodore Gray’s 2009 The Elements: A Visual Exploration of Every Known Atom in the Universe. Pair both books with Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials that Shape Our Man-Made World, by Mark Miodownik, which is more narrative non-fiction about chemical properties while Molecules is more visual with basic facts.

Check the WRL catalog for Molecules.

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Several months ago a group of us here at Williamsburg Regional Library presented The Top Five of Five for Non Fiction at the Virginia Library Association Conference. I was assigned science books, and one of the trends I reported on was “Guide Books Plus.” Over the next three days I will be reporting on some science Guide Books that are Plus, Plus, Plus! I think they expand the definition of guide book and that they are superbly readable, informative and visually stunning books. The first one is the loveliest book I have seen for a long time with a quirky and fascinating angle on nature: The Oldest Living Things in the World.

Rachel Sussman spent a decade travelling around the world finding, researching and photographing these enchanting, odd, and sometimes poignant organisms. Everything in the book is over 2000 years old and they go up to tens of thousands of years old. Animals, apart from primitive ones like sponges, simply don’t live that long, so most of the photographs are of plants, but there are also fungi, lichens and coral. Sadly, as the author says, “being old is not the same as being immortal,” so some of the organisms, like Florida’s Senator Cypress tree, are listed as “Deceased.”

Some of these organisms have become so old by using unusual survival techniques, or in everyday language by being very strange, for example the underground forest of southern Africa. The landscape is so dry and devastating fires so common that most of this plant grows underground. The photograph shows reddish desert dirt with an unassuming low-spreading plant with olive green oval leaves—just your average weed, except that the part showing is just the crown peeping through. If a fire rips through, it is only like having your eyebrows singed off and the tree will survive.

This is a large format book (27 x 30 cm according to our catalog) that is worthy to grace any coffee table. The exquisite photographs of varied landscapes from the fjords of Greenland to the rain forest of Eastern Australia to African deserts are dazzling enough to attract the attention of an art photographer, while the text about the organisms is personal and engaging. Rachel Sussman often describes how she heard of some of the more obscure organisms, how she traveled and what adventures she had in all corners of the world. About 3000-year-old Chilean desert plants she says: “Every once in a while you see something so ludicrously beautiful that all you can do is laugh.” Armchair travelers will thrill at seeing some little-visited parts of the world.

This is a great book for readers who like unusual science books with beautiful photographs like The Snowflake, by Kenneth Libbrecht  or quirky guidebooks like The Songs of Insects, by Lang Elliott and Wil Hershberger. And read it if you find yourself ruminating on the brevity of our allotted three-score and ten.

Check the WRL catalog for The Oldest Living Things in the World.

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Nothing speaks teatime more than freshly baked scones, slathered with strawberry jam, and topped with cream.


In my world real scones are plain and stodgy objects which I learned to bake a long time ago, first at Brownies and then as “quick breads” in Cooking class at Intermediate School. When I have made them ever since, I used my Grandmother’s ancient and annotated Edmonds Cookery Book. In the antediluvian antipodes I learned that, as the name quick breads suggests, they are meant to replace bread in a meal, not something sweet, so they are mostly flour and milk and never have eggs. But I am game to try most things once (especially if it involves baking), so tradition be hanged, I exactly followed the Basic Scones recipe from Royal Teas with Grace and Style.  These were not my grandmother’s scones, but light, airy, with cranberries and a crunchy sugary top–they were well worth making (and consuming!)

Author Eileen Shafer has run teashops and tea tours for many years and it shows in this engaging idea, etiquette and recipe book. Almost half the book is hints and advice for making the perfect elegant tea party, and with chapter headings like “Setting a Beautiful Table” and “Creating an Inviting Atmosphere” there is a lot to work with. It is full of exquisite photographs of table settings, tea sets, dignified rooms and (my favorite) food. Eileen Shafer lives part of the year in Williamsburg and the book is part of Williamsburg Regional Library’s Local Author Project.

Royal Teas with Grace and Style has smaller selection of savory tea time recipes such as sandwiches, but comes into its own with a great selection of cakes, cookies and slices. I got carried away one day and made so many cookies and cakes that the chocolate cake didn’t get eaten (unusual in my teenager-filled household). The book gives the splendid idea of using the left over chocolate pound cake to make trifle, but the recipe for trifle calling for cool whip and instant pudding didn’t sound nearly so splendid. This time I stuck with tradition and used whipped cream and custard from imported custard powder for a scrumptious trifle. I also made the lemon drop cookies and they were mouthwatering – strongly lemon flavored and slightly astringent. I like lemon flavor with other flavors so I had the idea of rolling the dough out with a batch of chocolate cookie dough to make lemon and chocolate swirl cookies, with triumphant results.

Try Royal Teas with Grace and Style for great recipes and wonderful ideas about stylish teas. My colleague Janet wrote a lovely review of Eating Royally, by Darren McGrady in 2012, which features how the British Royals really eat. Royal Teas with Grace and Style may not have the British authenticity of Eating Royally but it has plenty to inspire fans of baking and fans of elegant tea parties.

Check the WRL catalog for Royal Teas with Grace and Style.


And here are some of the lemon cookies and scones that I made.

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“The Time Lord has met many aliens, cyborgs, robots, and humans on his journeys through history and across the universe.”

DoctorWhoDoctor Who has clocked  almost eight hundred episodes over thirty-three seasons. If you add in the fact that the Doctor can travel to any time in history and any place in infinity, then it isn’t surprising that it can be a little difficult to keep all the characters straight. That is where the Doctor Who Character Encyclopedia comes in very handy. With more than two hundred entries from Abzorbaloff, the greedy shape shifting humanoid to the Zygons who met the fourth Doctor, it can’t claim to cover all of time and space, but it comes close.

November marked the fiftieth anniversary of Doctor Who–an extremely exciting event for Whovians. Those of us without BBC America on cable would have been left waiting for the Fiftieth Anniversary Special to come out on DVD except that, for the first time I have encountered, the Fiftieth Anniversary Special was kindly shown at movie theaters. Our closest movie theater showed it on IMax 3D on a Monday night, which is not my preferred format or time, but I had to go anyway. I didn’t dress up–unlike dozens of other Whovians young and old. They varied from around ten years old to well into their fifties or even sixties which is a very mixed fan base, but is not surprising for a show that started running before the moon landing and continues to attract fans.

The Doctor Who Character Encyclopedia is a well-organized book in which you can search for characters by name, or browse the Table of Contents where they are categorized by type such as “Alien,” “Companion,” “Cyborg,” or “Entity” with color coding matching their main entries. Each character gets a full page spread with a description, details about their origins, homeworld, which Doctors they met and how they fit into the stories. Sharp, bright photos, typical of Dorling Kindersley publishers clearly show the attributes of each character.

The BBC obviously saw publishing opportunity in the interest around the fiftieth anniversary and this is an official BBC publication. If this book is out, our library has other books of background for desperate Doctor Who fans, such as, Doctor Who: A History by Alan Kistler or Doctor Who Whology: The Official Miscellany, by Cavan Scott and Mark Wright.

The Doctor Who Character Encyclopedia is a must-read (or a must-browse) for Doctor Who fans. If you are not a fan and are wondering what all the fuss is about try my review of the TV series of Doctor Who and check out some of the series on DVD.

Check the WRL catalog for Doctor Who Character Encyclopedia.

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SongsofInsectsThings have changed. Even crickets don’t chirp like they did in the old days. If you think the beat of the summer insects doesn’t sound like it used to, you could be right because the high-pitched songs of insects become inaudible to aging ears.

This is where The Songs of Insects comes in. It is a gorgeously illustrated visual guide to crickets, cicadas, katydids and grasshoppers, with each insect photographed on a natural surroundings and also on a white background, making them very easy to see and differentiate. It also promises to “shower you with auditory pleasures untold” and it lives up to this promise very well through the enclosed CD with the songs of almost eighty species of insect. The authors’ system of “electronics and sensitive microphones” that they used to record the insect songs means that we can listen to insect songs that we can no longer hear in the wild.

Before the guide portion of the book there are several pages of enlightening information about the classification of singing insects and the biology of insect songs. It includes some fascinating tidbits, for instance that some insects are left-handed vs. right-handed singers and their handedness (or wingedness?) is determined by species. Although we call them “songs,” insects have no lungs, so most rub wings or bumps or other modified body parts together to produce their chorus. Cicadas are different because their sound producing organs or “tymbals” resonate like drums, which explains how they can be so loud.

Each insect’s page includes sonograms or “sound pictures” for the technically minded. I was delighted to learn that “each species has its own distinct song, which is recognized by all individuals of the same species” and that pulse rates of songs vary by temperature and songs tend to speed up as the temperature rises so you can use the song to estimate temperature! But the best tidbit of all is discovering that there is an insect enchantingly called the Slightly Musical Conehead (Neoconocephalus exiliscanorous).

The Songs of Insects is a must-read for nature lovers, especially those who like to use books to identify the wildlife around them, like Sibley’s Birding Basics, by David Allen Sibley, or more quirkily, Magical Mushrooms, Mischievous Molds, by George W. Hudler. If you aren’t on the East Coast of North America you won’t necessarily be able to hear all these insects in the wild, but you can enjoy them on the CD. The authors’ ongoing project can be found at http://www.songsofinsects.com/

The Songs of Insects is also a wonderful book for photographers. The authors explain the equipment they used and how they photographed a living creature that isn’t interested in a modeling contract and may hop away at any moment (the answer is to use a custom made “whitebox.”)

Check the WRL catalog for The Songs of Insects.

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Kakapo rescue

Some book titles exaggerate to attract readers, and the subtitle of this book, “Saving The World’s Strangest Parrot,” sounds like hyperbole, but in the case of the kakapo, it is simple fact. The New Zealand Kakapo is the world’s only nocturnal parrot. It is also the heaviest parrot, often weighing eight pounds. Of course, a bird that heavy can’t fly, so it climbs trees using its claws and beak, only to spread its wings and drop to the leafy forest floor like a stone when it is time to get down. To attracts mates in the dense New Zealand forest the male kakapo digs himself a bowl and booms like a drum. And if that isn’t enough, they smell so strongly from a fungus that grows in their feathers that humans can easily pick up their musty, honey-like scent. Sounds like the world’s strangest parrot? It does to me!

Not only is the kakapo strange, but the combination of flightlessness and friendliness mean that it is extremely vulnerable to predation by carnivorous mammals that have been introduced to New Zealand, such as dogs, cats, weasels and stoats. Unwilling to allow the extinction of the bird that once thrived in millions all over New Zealand, the New Zealand government and private charities are scrambling to save it. Kakapo Rescue describes a thrilling story with the bird going from a population of millions in the 1800s to presumed extinction in the 1950s. Over sixty expeditions searched for kakapos in the 1970s, and they found eighteen birds, which was great news for a bird assumed to be extinct, but they all turned out to be male. Finally in 1977 scientists found a surviving population of two hundred on Stewart Island, to the far south of New Zealand. But kakapos breed slowly and they were still struggling, until  by 1995 there were only fifty-one kakapos left. The New Zealand Department of Conservation has set up a remarkable breeding program on tiny Codfish Island, off the coast of Stewart Island. Up to fourteen people live in a hut year-round solely to help the birds. The happy news is that according to the Kakapo Recovery website there are now nearly 150 kakapo, although the number goes up and down a little as some kakapo die while some eggs hatch.

In our library, both copies of Kakapo Rescue are shelved in the children’s department. This book is definitely interesting and detailed enough to capture the attention of bird- and nature-loving adults, while being accessible to older children. Every page has dazzling photographs by renowned wildlife photographer Nic Bishop. I strongly recommend Kakapo Rescue: Saving the World’s Strangest Parrot for people enraptured by dramatic conservation stories and those fascinated by bizarre birds, such as penguins. It will also grab travel buffs who want to learn about the soggy and windswept beauty of southern New Zealand.

Check the WRL catalog for Kakapo Rescue: Saving the World’s Strangest Parrot.

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pillarsOK, so here it is.  In my post for Pillars of the Earth I mentioned that an illustrated source would add to the impact of Ken Follett’s prose.  With  photographer f-stop Fitzgerald’s beautiful work, such a source is available.

We’ve become jaded to the visual elements of the cathedral in our day.  At best, most of us who go to them will take a tour with a guide who repeats the same text 20 times a day; at worst, we will look at, but not see what the average 12th century person would see.  What we see is a big building filled with bits of this and pictures of that.  What even the illiterate masses would see was their own Bible, with clear lessons about sin and salvation, the examples of saints, martyrs, and evangelists, and the everlasting punishments awaiting the damned.  But the technological innovations of the Gothic cathedral would be the psychological setup for congregants to strive for a heaven shown in soaring ceilings, intricate carvings incorporated into the structure, and light pouring through unimaginably large and stained glass windows.

Working with text from Pillars of the Earth (which sadly doesn’t align with the photos), Fitzgerald gives us unique and intimate views of elements that might prove overwhelming or inaccessible to a modern visitor.  The profligate details in medieval churches overwhelm the modern viewer, and are inaccessible both from a physical standpoint and from an iconographic standpoint.  Some of his portraits are black-and-white images that appear to be reproduced as negatives against silver backgrounds.  Others are full-color illustrations drenched with the hues of sunrise and sunset, taking advantage of the east-west alignment required of an cathedral.  And still others are black-and-white closeups of carved figures, including the grotesque gargoyles and monsters that reminded viewers of the imps of hell awaiting sinners.

Fitzgerald doesn’t limit his subject to ancient cathedrals or images—he incorporates a few pieces that have the same feel but an unmistakably modern sensibility.  They show that the fascination and need to build these immense and awe-inspiring buildings was not limited to pre-Reformation communities.  The introduction by sculptor Simon Verity is a reminder that artists are still working in stone to capture visceral religious emotions.

Williamsburg Regional Library has decided to catalog and shelve this kind of book with the original source so that readers will hopefully find them when looking for the original fiction.  (Other authors we’ve done this with include Patrick O’Brian and J.R.R. Tolkien.) Hopefully books like Pillars of the Almighty will drive readers’ imagination and understanding of the story.

Search for Pillars of the Almighty in the WRL Catalog.

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angrybird1I have been an avid birdwatcher for years and I am always on the lookout for new and interesting bird books in the library’s collection, so I was excited to see this on the library’s new book shelf.

This book is unique in that it shows what happens when real birds get angry.

Birds are grouped into four levels of angry behavior: annoyed, testy, outraged and furious.  Each level presents snapshots of a wide variety of birds, which include a photo of the bird, a helpful “rap sheet”  of useful facts about the bird that includes its species, physical description, known whereabouts, aliases, and a very brief description of its angry behaviors along with a one-page summary of the bird and its angry behavior.

I found a few of these birds and their behaviors to be quite common, like the Northern Cardinal fighting its reflection in a car window.  But most were new to me and I think they will be new to most readers here in the United States. I especially enjoyed reading about the following birds.

The Fieldfare is one of the annoyed birds. It is a medium-sized songbird from Europe that groups together for protection—when a larger bird like a raven encroaches on their territory, the alarm call is given, and a flock of fieldfares will mob the intruder and shower it with a burst of their collective poop.  This is not just nasty but can prevent the intruder from flying and staying warm, and can even lead to death.

The Masked Lapwing is a testy bird that looks like a character from a Stars Wars movie. It likes to hang out in open spaces like golf courses and playgrounds. It  screams at any people who get too close, and it will not hesitate to use the sharp spurs on it wings, which like a pocket knife can inflict painful wounds on any intruders.

My favorite bird is the Northern Fulmar, an outraged bird from the Arctic regions that protects itself in a unique way, by vomiting a noxious stomach oil onto its predators (or victims).  This particularly nasty oil, which is based on their diet of seafood that includes fish and shrimp, can cause death  to other birds and some rodents,  but can also be used as an emergency source of nourishment for the Fulmar if the bird is unable to hunt for food.  I think the photo of a baby Northern Fulmar engaging in this behavior is particularly amusing.

Interspersed among the snapshots of these real angry birds are two other features. The first is a series of short feathered facts about birds getting angry and taking action.  The second feature is a description of several of the major birds from the mega-hit Angry Birds game, including Terence, Chuck, Matilda and Red.  Each bird gets a background story, a  description of what makes them mad and a rap sheet much like the real angry birds, all of which can help you better appreciate the game.

This book would definitely appeal to younger readers with the tie-in to the popular Angry Birds game. But the interesting stories, high-quality photographs, and well-organized content make this a must-read for anyone interested in birds.  Highly recommended.

Check the WRL catalog for Angry Birds

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I’ve always been a fish guy, and I’ve had aquariums for as long as I can remember.  About a year ago I made a special trip to Atlanta to see the Georgia Aquarium, the world’s largest aquarium.  I was totally blown away by the size of the exhibits and the incredible diversity of sea life.

I recently discovered this book on the new bookshelf, and I am again blown away by some of the same creatures I saw at the Georgia Aquarium.  Sea features over a hundred incredible photos of sea life from the acclaimed photographer Mark Laita.  The colors are so vibrant that these animals almost jump off the page (which thankfully they don’t do) and many are breathtakingly beautiful.

You will not want to miss my top three favorites: the incredible blue & green colors of the Portuguese man o’ war, which looks like an oversized jellyfish with long tentacles; the tessellate eel, a serpent-like creature with a yellow & white pattern with black dots; and a group of moon jellyfish, with the pale blue colors imbedded with electric neon-white flower patterns.

Laita explains in the introduction how he was able to achieve such amazing detail with his photos.  He did this by recreating the sea in his studio using custom built  fish tanks and lighting where he could frame the animals and control the exposure of his photos.  For some of the bigger creatures, like the whale shark, he visited several aquariums (like the Georgia Aquarium) to get their pictures.  Those pictures are much less interesting, and the colors look rather drab compared to those he took in his studio.  But most of the photos in this book are studio-produced and contain unique details like color that you won’t find in any other resource.

I liked the layout of the book, with a few exceptions.  His photos are presented one per page on a black background without descriptions or page numbers to distract from the visual experience.  There is a helpful information index at the back of the book that includes a small snapshot of each creature’s photo along with their name, temperament, maximum length and distribution.  Some people might find the lack of descriptive information on each page annoying (I found the lack of page numbers to be annoying), but you get used to it.  I do think it would take away from the visual experience if he had included them.  Laita provides very general information about how he took these pictures,  though he does not reveal technical details that many would like to know, like what cameras he used and  what programs he used to develop his pictures.  I would also like to have seen a few photos of his studio when he working on this project to see what his custom built fish tanks looked like and the size and position of the strobe lights he used.

Mark Laita has built quite a reputation as a photographer, and he has worked on a multitude of projects.  You can see many of his photos,  including those in this book,  on his web site,  www.marklaita.com.  You should definitely look at the photos from his latest project, Serpentine, which features amazing colors and  shapes of 100 of the most poisonous snakes in the world.  While working on this project he was actually bitten by a deadly black mamba snake, which he didn’t realize until the next day when he was looking at his photographs.  Check out the story from The Daily Mail.  The snake photos, like the sea photos in this book, are absolutely gorgeous. Hopefully the library will be able to get this book when it comes out later this year.

Check the WRL catalog for Sea


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Grzimek’s Animal Life Encyclopedia lives up to its name. It is definitely an encyclopedia, with 17 huge volumes. I don’t necessarily want to admit to being a nerd who reads the encyclopedia for fun but this one is worth a second look, particularly for animal lovers. Our library has two sets of Grzimek’s and the set shelved at the James City County Library in Croaker Road can be checked out (and requested for library users who prefer to go to the Williamsburg branch), so I challenge anyone who is fascinated by books like Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat or anything by Jane Goodall to try Grzimek’s for the sections on animal behavior. If you love to watch Cesar Milan work his magic with dogs or are moved by Dogtown, you’ll be fascinated by the section on canids. If you’ve a passion for birdwatching, tropical fish, or you just love animals, try these great books.

Grzimek’s is a standard for both public and academic libraries and it is prominent in any standard list of essential science reference titles. The academic library where I previously worked considered them so essential for undergraduate students that we bought them both in print and online. We told biology students starting their important essays that they always needed to start their animal research with Grzimek’s.

This said, these books have a lot to offer the everyday reader. They are beautiful volumes with lots of stunning photographs, drawings of individual species, and species distribution maps (although I have to admit, they are large volumes and I didn’t have much success trying to read them in bed). The first volumes are about invertebrates, and then they go up through fish, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals. I am a sucker for cute, fluffy animals so I pulled out volume 12 about mammals. It starts with general chapters on topics like “Ice Age Giants,” “Migration,” and “Mammals and Humans,” then the accounts of individual species starts with Australian marsupials. For more obscure species, this information may be difficult to find elsewhere. For example, did you know that some species of quolls (carnivorous marsupials in Australia) always die young? They live in an extremely harsh environment and the males die soon after their first breeding season.

Grzimek’s has a lot for bird lovers, including four volumes covering birds from all around the world. I was charmed to learn the one of my favorite childhood birds, the New Zealand Tui, is described as “among the best singers in the world. The song is rich, melodious, and includes soft liquid warbling notes, bell-like calls and chimes.”

We know that our library users are intrigued by animals because circulation is constant on books by  Marc Bekoff, or any DVDs featuring marine life or dogs. So if you are one of the people moved and bewitched by animals and the natural world then these underused library books are well worth another look.

Check the WRL catalog for Grzimek’s Animal Life Encyclopedia 


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This last post of BFGB Fashion Week is for the Jane Austenites. When you’ve paused your latest BBC rewatch or turned the last page of Fitzwilliam Darcy, Rock Star, this catalog from a Milan exhibition is just the eye candy to take you back to the era of Empire waists, flawless white muslin, and feather headdresses. Taken from a private collection of original Napoleonic-era dresses and accessories, exhibit photographs are accompanied by plates from Costume Parisien, the Vogue of the Empire period, and a handful of essays.

Taking their inspiration from the tunics of classical Greece and Rome, ladies put away their corsets in favor of thin-to-transparent cotton muslin gowns that fit the figure. If you associate Empire dress primarily with novels of manners, as I tend to do, it’s easy to overlook what a wild, sensual freedom these dresses actually represent. Gone were the panniers, farthingales, and other heavy infrastructure of earlier court dress—now one could actually dress oneself without a maid… in a gown that silhouetted one’s actual body!

Illustrating trends from 1795 to 1815, this catalog is a great browsing book. Photographs of the preserved and restored clothing are its chief draw, but the essays touch on many topics to do with fashion, trade, and daily life:

  • The exhibition demanded specially-made mannequins, because the made-to-measure dresses—worn by women whose ribcages and shoulders were shaped by years of corsetry and deportment lessons—wouldn’t fit properly on a modern silhouette.
  • Napoleon assigned uniforms for all official positions partly in order to plough some money back into France’s silk and lacemaking industries, still reeling from the beheading of many of their main clients. He also encouraged consumer spending by cultivating a fashionable horror of being seen twice in the same dress, and was not above publicly ridiculing women who dared to repeat an outfit.
  • Where men’s fashion was judged by its close tailoring, a woman’s loose dresses were distinguished by her accessories. First among these was the cashmere shawl, which represented as many as three years of craftsmanship, not counting traveling time from Kashmir to the shops of Paris. Fashionistas like this woman, artfully draped in red, were sporting the financial equivalent of a new car… thus leading to shawl theft, a shawl black market, and, not to be missed, “the affair of the infernal machine” (pages 125-126) in which a shawl saves Joséphine’s life! while Mlle Beauharnais receives a slight hurt on her hand! and an unnamed fashion magazine founder is regrettably killed.

You can preview some of these elegant outfits at the exhibition web site.

Check the WRL catalog for Napoleon and the Empire of Fashion.


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Bud continues BFGB Fashion Week with this review: 

From the 1920s through the 1950s, Valentina Schlee was one of the most famous and successful fashion designers in the world. Valentina: American Couture and the Cult of Celebrity, by Kohle Yohannan, details the life and career of this now forgotten woman in a fine book that’s an interesting amalgam of fashion history and gossipy biography.

Born in Russia in 1899, Valentina’s early years are rather mysterious. Throughout her life, she told conflicting tales about herself in order to engender an aura of mystery, but by 1919 she was working as an actress in a theatre in the Crimea. It was here that she met George Schlee, the man who would be her lifelong companion and business partner.  Fleeing Soviet Russia, the Schlees emigrated to the U.S. and in 1928, she opened Valentina Gowns, Inc. on Madison Avenue in New York City. Immediately successful, the business was financially profitable right up till the salon closed in 1957.

From the start, Valentina fashions targeted the upper echelons of society. No crass, ready-made for her. It was café society, Broadway, and motion picture actresses and the glitterati only. Within a few years she only designed for clients she approved of, cavalierly dismissing all others with the simple phrase, “I’m afraid my gowns would not please you, Madame.”

How did a dress designer achieve this kind of clout?

Primarily by being an expert at self-promotion and as much a celebrity as the movie stars and socialites for whom she designed. She created a public persona that was exotic, mysterious, imperious, and intriguing. A globe-trotting sybarite, she socialized with the right people, went to the right clubs, and routinely dropped colorful quotes. Her innate sense of glamour, style, and drama drew publicity, making her a favorite of the gossip columnists and fashion pages. She further cultivated her image by being the primary model for her design line in advertising layouts.

Of course, the clothes themselves also played a role in her success. Valentina’s couture emphasized clean, simple lines and had a timeless quality. They were chic, void of elaborate embellishments, and always comfortable to wear. She despised fashion trends and did not follow them. Her inspirations were often drawn from classical Greek gowns, nun’s habits, and simple peasant styles. She was skilled at using bias cuts to achieve lovely draping effects. Each outfit was designed specifically for the individual client to suit their particular figure, coloring, and lifestyle, minimizing flaws and emphasizing their best features. Examples of her fashions are found throughout the book, which has many large, lovely photos.

Even if you have no real interest in couture, this book is still worth perusing for the many colorful anecdotes about Valentina’s uber-sophisticated private life, including details of  the long term ménage a trois she and George were rumored to have engaged in with actress Greta Garbo.

Author Kohle Yohannan, an art and design historian, has done a wonderful job in resurrecting a forgotten fashion diva. His book will be enjoyed by anyone interested in 20th century social history, fashio, or stories of remarkable women.

Check the WRL catalog for Valentina.


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Bud continues BFGB Fashion Week with this review: 

One of the challenges on television’s Project Runway last fall was to create a dress inspired by fashions of the 1970s. There were some comments about “timeless 70s style” or something along those lines.

Timeless 1970s style?  Really?!

I lived through the 1970s, and I speak from experience when I say that the only style that came from that period was bad style. I’m talking polyester shirts, skintight jeans with elephant bell legs, gaudy horse-blanket plaid suits kind of bad style.

If you don’t believe me, just watch any episode of the Brady Bunch… or peruse an ABBA music video… or flip through the pages of a little book entitled The 70s: The Decade That Style Forgot. Truer words were never spoken.

This book is a collection of British fashion advertisements from the period, punctuated by pithy comments. Acid-washed denim safari suits for men, shapeless shirtdresses in some hideous brown flowery, swirly, paisley kind of pattern. Oh, the horror, the horror.

This book is not a heavy intellectual tome. For those of us who survived that fashion-failure decade, it’s an amusing look back at a time that should never have a fashion revival… EVER!

Check the WRL catalog for The 70s: The Decade that Style Forgot.


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Bud continues BFGB Fashion Week with this review: 

In 1947, fashion designer Christian Dior opened his couture fashion house in Paris and unleashed his “New Look” designs on a female populace tired of wartime deprivations. The style paired highly structured, form-fitting tops with very full skirts, emphasizing a curvaceous feminine figure.

The “New Look” provoked both acclaim and scorn in the world of fashion, but despite mixed reviews it proved hugely influential, re-defining the mode in women’s fashion and reestablishing Paris as the couture capitol of the world.

The Golden Age of Couture details the world of high fashion in the decade after the Second World War. It reveals the role that fashion played both socially and economically in Paris and London and spotlights several well known designers of the period, including Dior, Cristobal Balenciaga, Pierre Balmain, Hubert de Givenchy, Jacques Fath, and Yves Saint Laurent.

The text is scholarly and interesting with intriguing little details. One paragraph on wedding gowns reveals, “It was a couture workshop tradition to leave a blue bow, a pin, a silver coin and a spot of blood from a virgin in the workroom inside a wedding dress.” And for those who think fashion is just fluff and vanity, the book reveals that for France, haute couture “…was also an important business that, before the Second World War, accounted for over 300 million francs in French exports.”

Of course, as befits a fashion book, the photography is beautiful, with many pictures of the gorgeous suits and dresses. Assembled and written by staff members of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, The Golden Age of Couture is an enjoyable read for fashion fans.

Check the WRL catalog for The Golden Age of Couture.


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Welcome to BFGB Fashion Week! Our weeklong tribute to books for the best-dressed comes to you courtesy of Bud, our resident red-carpet critic.

To me, costume design for the movies reached its apex in the 1930s. Hollywood’s golden age of filmmaking was considerably burnished by the talents of such designers as Travis Banton, Dolly Tree, Orry-Kelly, and Edith Head.

One of the best known and most talented costume designers was Gilbert Adrian. Better known simply as Adrian, his famous film credit line, “Gowns by Adrian,” is always a welcome sight for fashionistas lusting after gloriously glamorous and outrageously outré costumes. Mata Hari, Grand Hotel, Dinner at Eight, The Women, and Marie Antoinette are just a few of the films that he worked on.

Gowns by Adrian: the MGM Years 1928-1941, by Howard Gutner, covers Adrian’s 13-year reign as head costume designer for MGM studios. It’s packed with glossy photos (only a few in color, unfortunately) and interesting behind-the-scene stories of the many movies that Adrian worked on and the stars he worked with. Special emphasis is given to three of the best-known actresses whose on-screen images he meticulously embellished. Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, and Norma Shearer each get a chapter of their own, but Adrian’s early movies and the wonderful spectacle films, like Madam Satan, where his imagination really ran wild, are not slighted.

Adrian retired from MGM studios in 1941 and opened his own couture house in Beverly Hills. This period of his career is covered in Adrian: Silver Screen to Custom Label, by Christian Esquevin.

The book explains Adrian’s design aesthetic and provides detailed descriptions and photographs of his couture collections from 1942 until his untimely death at the age of 56 in 1959. Also detailed are his early years at MGM, his personal life, including his marriage to actress Janet Gaynor, and the lasting influence that he has had on American style and fashion.

Both books provide lovely tributes to a uniquely talented American designer. If you like movies and/or couture you’ll enjoy them both.

Check the WRL catalog for Gowns by Adrian: the MGM Years 1928-1941

Check the WRL catalog for Adrian: Silver Screen to Custom Label.


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I bought this book for my teenage son last Christmas, then found myself curled up with a cup of eggnog, regaling my family with nuggets of wisdom such as: Did you know that iodine disinfects by brute chemical attack on microbes? And that zinc slabs are attached to bridges and ships to stop them rusting? Or even that bananas are radioactive?

Much more than a book about chemistry, The Elements can only be described in hyperbolic phrases such as “a visual extravaganza.”  Each element gets a page or two of remarkable photographs on a deep black background, then a few hundred words of conversational but informative text.  The page on copper starts, “Copper is wonderful stuff.  Just wonderful,” goes on to “Copper is the only reasonably priced element that isn’t more or less gray” but also reveals that copper has “the second highest conductivity of any metal.”

The elements are photographed in their natural state (if possible) and also in the surprising everyday objects in which they occur, such as strontium in toothpaste and manganese in an antique glazed tile.

If you can’t tell helium from hydrogen and you wonder why NaCl means salt, then this book is definitely still worth browsing as it brings together subjects from history to art to biology such as when the author talks about lead piping in Rome, colorful titanium jewelry and the possible role of potassium in evolution.

If you can recite the first twenty elements of the periodic table and love all things science then this book is for you as well.  The side of each page lists an element’s atomic number, weight, density, radius, and emission spectrum, as well as its place on the periodic table and its crystal structure.

For purists, the claim that the book covers “Every Known Atom in the Universe” is, of course, out of date, since scientists have recently named two new elements but that doesn’t detract from this great book, which is a fascinating read but also sneaks in a lot of learning.

Check the WRL catalog for The Elements: A Visual Exploration of Every Known Atom in the Universe.


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