The Elements of Graphic Design, Alex W. White, 2002 First Edition

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The functional difference between a shovel and a pitchfork is the metal that is missing. Alex W. White

In my pre-kids life, I worked as a graphic designer. Though I don’t get to do it as much as I used to, I still love the work and study of graphic design. For the subject I’m passionate about challenge (2018 Reading Challenge), I chose a book I picked up at a used book store, but never read completely. I got it for $4 and because of the heavily discounted price, I feel I got a great deal. However, if I had paid full price for the book…well, I probably wouldn’t have bought it for full price.

At about 140 pages (half of which is pictures and white space) it’s a quick read. Quick but not light. White gives a cerebral look at a branch of communication that touches everyone’s life, from the layout of user manuals to eye-catching billboards. The subject of design–specifically white space–obviously intrigues him, and he shares his knowledge in scholarly prose. White offers clear verbal explanations for what is, in essence, a visual medium. I don’t know that I would recommend this book for beginners. This book isn’t about teaching the elements of design as much as delving deeper into the concepts of good design and scrutizining why things work or don’t work.

The Good:

  • He references other artistic fields like music, painting, sculpture and architecture.
  • He gives numerous visual examples to illustrate his points
  • He often gives variations of examples to show the impact small changes can make on a piece
  • Kudos to White for not using Bernhard’s glorious but overused Priester ad.
  • Included is a helpful glossary of terms and a 90+ designer checklist questionnaire.

The Bad:

  • Not all the examples are great at making his point. The Herman Miller ad may be artistic, but it is illegible and contrary to good design.
  • The layout doesn’t flow naturally. Text is on the right page, graphics on the left and the captions don’t line up with the pictures they refer to.
  • The physical size of the book is about 6 inches by 9 inches. The smaller sized pages paired with the sheer number of graphics mean reduced picture size.

The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead, 2016

Underground

“She has stopped running. Reward remains unclaimed. SHE WAS NEVER PROPERTY.” Colson Whitehead

Spoiler Alert

I’m not a huge fan of what I call road trip stories, the ones where main characters are plunked down in a strange new world and must find their way home. Books like The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland where we’re constantly having to adjust to the odd rules of the different fantastical locations and deal with the supposedly quaint but more often creepy and annoying inhabitants. Neil Gaiman did it well in Neverwhere, other than that, meh. I’m just not into whimsy.

So, when I heard that Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad was an actual subway system and the protagonist “encounters different worlds at each stage of her journey”, well, I put off reading it for a couple years. Between the comparison to Gulliver’s Travels and use of words like ‘adventure’ and ‘odyssey’, it sounded too cutesy. Like the Polar Express meets the dehumanizing institution of slavery. But, as with other tomes on the list, the book jacket doesn’t do the real story justice.

The Pulitzer Prize winner (2018 Reading Challenge) focuses on Cora, a rightfully bitter scrapper who lives her life in survival mode. When fellow slave Caesar presents the chance to run, she takes it. But Cora isn’t an ordinary runaway. Her mother is the only runaway renowned slave catcher Ridgeway has never caught and returned. And so, to him, Cora is a symbol of redemption. Recovering her will recover his ego so he is relentless in his pursuit.

And that’s what the book jacket should have focused on.

Much has been made about Whitehead’s choice to make the Underground Railroad an actual train, but it ultimately doesn’t affect the story. She only rides it a few times. It’s underground, so she doesn’t see the world rolling by. Missing a train doesn’t seem to have many negative consequences. Another one will come along. In fact, she ends up in an abandoned station and despite all odds, a train comes along. The train is reduced to unnecessary gimmick.

The real story is heavy and sad and beautifully written. Whitehead’s unsentimental writing style fits perfectly with Cora’s detached and deadened outlook. Abandoned, ostracized and abused, Cora has no reason to look at the bright side of life. She confronts what’s in front of her and absorbs it without flinching.

Forgoing linear timelines, Whitehead imprints historical events, some decades in the future, into Cora’s world. The Tuskegee Syphilis studies and forced sterilizations happen in Pre-Civil War North Carolina. A Rosewood Massacre-esque tragedy happens in a place Cora finds sanctuary. At one point, her life mirrors that of Linda Brent, the protagonist of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.

This was a difficult but compelling read that left me drained. Filled with disturbing events and heartbreaking revelations it still ends on as positive a note as a story like this could. Whitehead’s precise insight to and scrutiny of slavery illuminates the absurdity of a world that allowed the institution and all its trappings to exist. It doesn’t wallow in the misery of what has been. It reminds the reader of what has been overcome.

Rose Gold, Walter Mosley, 2014

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“That was the name of my quarry–Rosemary Goldsmith, Rose Gold.” Walter Mosley

Spoiler Alerts

 Disclaimer, Rose Gold is the thirteenth book in the Easy Rawlins Mysteries series, which in hindsight wasn’t a good place to start.  Easy’s relationships with many characters began in earlier books and some of his past experiences from those books affect him in this one. I have no doubt that starting at the end has cost me some understanding and confusion and I’m mindful of that.

I’m fairly new to the Mystery genre, this week’s challenge (2018 Reading Challenge). I’ve started mysteries where the detective/coroner/journalist tries to solve the case while ruthless entities pursue them. I felt obligated to search for clues as if I were required to turn in my hypothesis at the end of the book. It never occurred to me sit back and let the story unfold as with other genres. Enter Easy Rawlins.

Mosley takes us to 1967 Los Angeles. Vietnam rages, police corruption looms, the Civil Rights Movement spotlights racial inequity. But Easy’s just trying to start a new life for himself and his adopted daughter, Feather. Special Assistant Frisk arrives to disrupt his peace. Frisk needs help on a case involving Rosemary Goldsmith, the missing daughter of Foster Goldsmith, a powerful armaments dealer (and political contributor).

Like a lot of young people tired of the corruption and cruelty of the old guard, Rosemary sympathizes with the revolutionary counter culture, moving up the ranks in certain circles.

The real mystery: Is she the perfect hostage commanding a hefty ransom or the brilliant architect of an extortion scheme?

They need Easy, a black man, because Rosemary’s supposed kidnapper is a young black boxer named Bob Mantle who’s reinvented himself as Uhuru Nolice, the leader of the militant group Scorched Earth. The plan is to find Rosemary through Nolice and find Nolice through Easy. And so the adventure begins.

As he tries to sort out the mystery he meets a slew of interesting characters ranging from helpful to dangerous. He always keeps his cool and gets himself in and out of dangerous situations with street smarts and charm.

The fun comes from Mosley’s writing style. While his descriptions are poetic they paint a clear picture of the character:

“Sixty or more, that face had seen a hundred thousand punches coming and avoided maybe two.”

“Somewhere in his thirties, the man had dark eyes that seemed to contain centuries.”

“She lived in a realm where true knowledge passed between those that were a part of history, not subjects to it.”

Descriptive enough to put you in the scene but not burdened with unnecessary detail, I never felt like I was being overloaded with too much information about characters and locations. The number of characters did prove a tad daunting. However, Mosley infuses each with unique qualities that set them apart from each other. Most of the characters only stay long enough to serve their purpose then disappear, so I didn’t have to keep them in my mental inventory.

Rose Gold could be considered historical fiction given Mosely’s skill at weaving the social and political upheaval of the time throughout the story. While some could argue that Los Angeles is a character in this book, I would say that this particular era is a presence that touches every character action and reaction. While some stories have a timeless quality, Rose Gold could only unfold in 1967 Los Angeles.

 

The Giver, Lois Lowry, 1993

The Giver

“Jonas…you will be trained to be our next Receiver of Memory. We thank you for your childhood.” Lois Lowry

Spoilers

For the Young Adult Bestseller challenge (2018 Reading Challenge), I chose the dystopian coming of age tale, The Giver by Lois Lowry. Today, dystopian themes are a mainstay in the Young Adult category, a perfect allegory for adolescents discovering that the world isn’t the sugar-coated haven authority figures claim it is. However, when published in 1993, The Giver was one of the first teen targeted books set in a dystopian universe.

Lowry’s tale begins in a false utopian world called The Communities where the philosophy of Sameness applies to all aspects of daily life. Climate Control eradicated inclement weather. Flat terrain replaced dangerous and inconvenient hills. Everyone shares the same birthday—a baby born in January and another born in November of the same year would both turn one in December.

Major life choices are made by the Elders for the good of society. The committee assigns career paths when the kids turn twelve and training begins immediately. As adults, they are matched and married. They can apply to raise children. Each family gets one boy and one girl. The women who birth the children don’t get to raise any. And there are only fifty born a year.

Systems set in place generations earlier pre-empt potentially dangerous, painful or unpleasant situations. The result is a society structured to the extreme, driving emotions, passion, curiosity, joy and even colors into extinction.

After a brief introduction into this world, we focus on twelve-year-old Jonas as he begins his training to be Receiver of Memories, a high-ranking position. The Receiver of Memories is given the painful lonely task of being the only one to know what life was like before Sameness. Since there is only one Receiver of Memories at a time, the Elder who trains Jonas becomes The Giver and passes down the memories thought to be too painful or emotional for the people.

The memories range from fun to horrific.

While Jonas gets the exhilaration of a downhill sled ride (the world he inhabits no longer as snow or hills) he also experiences the memory of a crash that leaves him broken and bleeding. While physically unhurt his mind feels the pain. Jonas learns feelings and emotions by reliving memories that range from a family Christmas gathering to war and famine.

The training opens his mind and world. Not surprisingly, distance grows between Jonas and everyone he knows. As his world expands he longs to share what he’s learned yet is forbidden to speak of these memories. Really, only The Giver could relate anyway.

As Jonas matures, the rules that govern the society seem arbitrary and, in some cases, immoral. Once those rules begin to affect his family unit Jonas realizes he must take desperate measures bring awareness and free will to the others.

Though written in a flat, detached style reflecting the society our main character inhabits, Lowry doesn’t tame the dark subject matter. Cruelty done for the good of all is still cruelty and she shows it numerous times, from the public humiliation of Jonas’ friend Asher to Jonas’ torturous training. But perhaps the worst is in relation to the euphemism “release”. In an uncomfortably detailed scene she describes the event that pushes Jonas to action. It is sparse but unflinching.

At roughly 220 pages it is a quick read. For a teen, it can open a dialogue about several topics that are relevant like conformity, unquestioning obedience and forced “sameness”. It can also serve as a jumping off point for imagining a world without memories, choice or even difference.

Some aspects of Jonas’ world were chilling but familiar call backs to other dystopian universes. Birth mother assignments have a hint of Handmaid Tale. The removal of any meaningful emotional connection is reminiscent of Brave New World. The erasure of history smacks of Nineteen-Eighty-Four. Despite those minor similarities, Jonas and his haunting dystopian universe hold their own among the other books that serve as forewarnings of a bleak future if free thought and choice is crushed.