Burn Free – by Brian P. Hudson (Writer@Large)

His pastor had given him the leather-bound holy book as a confirmation gift, and he had carried it with him ever since.  Now, he ran his fingers over the words stamped into the cover–HOLY BIBLE–and then down the gilt-edged pages, worn from years of devoted use. A small part of him hated to use it, but another part of him insisted that, if he was going to do this, he might as well do it right.

Alone in the dark, in front of the flames, he felt nervous. The hands holding the holy book began to sweat. He swallowed hard and then, with trembling fingers, he began.

The leaf pages came first–title, copyright, index, not sacred and therefore less blasphemous. The thin paper burned quickly from the edge in, becoming scattered leaves of ash.

Next he pinched the first page of Genesis and, contesting concern, pulled it from the book. The paper offered no more resistance than one would expect from a page so delicate and thin. Unsteady fingers held it up. The flames snatched at the page. He let them take it, then held his breath and waited.

There was no ominous smoke. No furious flare.  The earth did not shake, nor the seas weep. Creation succumbed to simple combustion: fire transforming paper and ink into carbon and heat. Dark smoke chased motes of cinder on the updraft.

He fed page two to the flames, which burned just the same, and when it was gone he tore out the next page, and the next, all singly, all slowly. Ephemeral embers of original sin blew away on a guilty breeze. By page five, he was no longer sure if he was afraid.

Next came the Ark. He always loved the story–the bold proclamation of destruction, the animals marching two by two (or was it seven by seven?) into a ponderous and impossible boat. The pages went into the fire one by one, forty days and forty nights gone in four seconds of flame. The dove, the mountain, and the rainbow followed, offered just as surely as Noah’s lamb on the side of Mount Ararat.

He tore into the Patriarchs with steadier fingers; Abraham, who begat Issac, who begat Joseph, who fluttered into the fire and burned. No one intervened in this sacrifice, changing the holy pages into excerpts of some lesser work. They burned like the rest.

Then he paused, examining the sacred text that had guided him for so long. The book was ugly now, its binding threads exposed and the torn edges of Genesis clinging to clots of amber glue. The empty space glared at him, conspicuous and accusing.

Guilt flooded in.  Driven to defeat it, he pulled out two and three pages at a time. Moses drifted down the Nile and into the flames, while God’s bush burned, as did Egypt and the plagues. He did not stop as he tore through the Ten Commandments (both the first set and the second set), then the whole of Mosaic Law–Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Duteronomy–and then Joshua, and Judges, and Kings.

Soon a full third of the book was gone. It was light and incomplete in his hands.

Job stared up at him now. They had told him much about Job when he was a child: Job the quiet; Job the patient; Job who had faith and did not complain. But when he finally read the story himself, he saw Job had complained, loudly and bitterly. Job was not patient! Job had rightly bemoaned God’s casual cruelty. Job demanded answers, and God gave him a fistful of wrath.

He tore out Job in two handfuls.

It came easily after that. Psalms and Proverbs and all the prophets, just paper, just words. Ashes to ashes, and dust to dust.

He stayed a moment on the New Testament, let his eyes take in the first few words. Of all of it, these chapters were the most familiar, these stories the most dear. He felt some sadness at letting them go … sadness, but not guilt. That had burned away with the rest. And without guilt, what did these red-lettered pages really offer?

Once the gospels were gone, he didn’t even tear the rest; he just dropped the vestiges of the tome onto the fire, its worn leather cover now as empty as the epistles that remained. He watched it burn until it was gone, ragged embers atop red-orange coals. The flames, now starved for fuel, faded until they were little more than a candle in the dark.

“What now?” he asked the universe with uncertainty.

I can’t tell you that, was the silent reply.

“Can’t? Or won’t?”

Does it matter?

“But how do I go on?”

One day at a time … the same as everyone else.

For the first time in his life, he thought that he could live with that.

Nutwatch – by Queen of Swords

Hi everyone, and welcome to another Nutwatch. Make yourself comfortable on the couch and brace for impact, because though fundamentalism has produced some neurotic nuts, I’ve never come across one quite like this before. This website features an obsession with sex, an equally burning fixation on religion and so much self-loathing that anything I have to say seems redundant. Let’s boldly go where even Freud would fear to tread, because this Nutwatch takes on

Internet Evangelism & Teaching

Don’t be fooled by the dry name. The title page features more rainbows than a gay pride parade, and most of the hundreds of pages are in pretty pastels. That’s right, hundreds. The author, Grantley Morris, makes up in quantity what he lacks in quality, and his biography is pretty revealing.

…the more you know me, the more disappointed you are likely to be. Just as any of us look physically repulsive without our skin, so I look repulsive without Christ.

I’m afraid he comes across as repulsive whether with or without Christ. Something about the intense self-denigration, or could it be his inability to support or take care of himself?

Almost five decades later I’m still in the same side of the same city and I’m still with my mother, who waits on me hand and foot.

He stresses several times that he has never married and never had sex, and I can see why. Someone tell Mr Hitchcock that Psycho is now non-fiction. Naturally, Mr Morris is as qualified as the Pope to advise married people on their sex lives, and he proceeds to do so in great detail.

When Marital Relations are a Shortcut to Hell

When God gave marrieds the gift of sex, he was not handing them a toy. He was entrusting them with nitroglycerin that even within marriage must be handled with holy fear.

Since this nitroglycerin was so dangerous, God gave it to everyone on earth and ensured that a desire to use the nitroglycerin would kick in long before people were permitted to legally handle it. You rock, God! But this terror of sex means that Mr Morris doesn’t want anyone (except himself) even thinking about it unless they’re married. The wedding ring is more powerful than Sauron’s One Ring that way – it magically disarms the nuclear warhead that is sex. Needless to say, people who enjoy sex outside of marriage are anathema in Morrisworld, but far more perverted and depraved are the lost souls who engage in

Sexual Self-Stimulation

I’ve read a lot of anti-masturbation screeds before, but no one has ever written so much on the topic as Mr Morris. Or so hysterically. He’s not alone, though; apparently he has a flock of female fans, and they exchange sexual fantasies while beating themselves up for doing so.

Instead of fantasizing about a normal man, she aroused herself while visualizing Christ, thus developing sexual cravings for the Son of God and even fantasizing about having sex with him.

Anyone who’s gone through the Book of Revelations must have read about the Bride of Christ. Well, this is the Girlfriend of Christ. I hope Mr Morris didn’t get too jealous while hearing about her Christurbation.

Another woman, a committed Christian, told of sexual visions of “Jesus.”… In an e-mail yet another woman wrote of demonic attacks she has suffered:

It has paralyzed me, nearly suffocated me, and, worse, has raped me.

Oh dear, I just hope she didn’t get pregnant with the antichrist. Single women impregnated by demons probably don’t qualify for Welfare; maybe they get Hellfare instead. What’s ironic, though, is that even if this unfortunate woman was telling the truth (which opens up a whole ‘nother can of worms), I’d still be far better off as an atheist, considering that I’ve never so much as seen a demon, let alone been sexually assaulted by one. But let’s cut through the ramblings and get to the meat of the matter, the dangers of

Masturbating

I wonder how many marriages are haunted by the ghost of solo-sex. How many people are forced to compete in bed with the elusive highs of their partners’ previous love affair with a vibrator?

I think that in Mr Morris’s fevered imagination, vibrators stand six feet tall, are darkly handsome, have strong arms to open pickle jars and never forget a woman’s birthday. Seriously, feeling inferior to a vibrator is just pathetic, though in his case it’s entirely realistic. I’d much rather have a vibrator than a man who expects his mother to wait on him “hand and foot”, believes he’s repulsive and is terrified of touching himself. You rock, vibrator! I wuv you. And I shall only cheat on you with Mr. Detachable Shower Head.

The tragedy is that if you have masturbated, you have not just had previous sexual experience, you have been sexually spoilt.

Because “you” are as fragile as some people’s grip on reality, such than one below-the-waist touch will ruin “you” forever. I can’t think of anything more unhealthy than this view of sex as a dirty, dangerous thing which can only be cleansed and neutralized by marriage.

Even if you think of yourself as a virgin when you marry, the fact remains that if you have masturbated, your marriage partner will not be the only person with whom you have experienced sexual pleasure.

The same goes for people who are divorced or widowed. Perhaps Internet Evangelism & Teaching would like to promote the Hindu suttee, so that such spoiled, soiled specimens can be properly disposed of?

You will never be able to change this sad fact. The most you could do is decide to never again masturbate.

Misery loves company (but in a platonic hands-off way).

Singles who see no hope of ever marrying might ask, why would God give me the ability to enjoy sexual pleasure just to leave it lying dormant?

God’s strange that way. After all, he gave every fundamentalist a brain.

…we can bless God by giving him all our potential for sexual pleasure. And since the Lord daily gives us our potential for sexual pleasure, singles have the privilege of daily giving him this precious offering…

Is it really such a “precious offering” if no one else wants it? That makes me imagine the author crooning “My preciousssss” over his virginity.

He will be so thrilled with our faithfulness that our reward will be astounding.

God : Here you go, one vibrator! Batteries not included.

Or consider someone who regularly masturbates in front of a mirror. Could this habit have the potential to make same sex genitals such a turn on that homosexuality becomes a temptation?

Actually, this would act as Pavlovian conditioning, such that you could only become aroused by your reflection or your identical twin. Or by mirrors in general. Driving a car could prove hazardous.

Since Scripture is emphatic that the most casual of sexual encounters makes you one with a person, and it is degrading to become sexually one with an animal, just how dehumanizing is it to have sex with a machine, or with an object?

I hope this guy never watches A. I.. Or even Star Trek for that matter. I also wonder if he thinks people are “dehumanized” if they have pacemakers. I mean, those are inside you 24/7, and you might find it difficult to have sex without them.

If it is an abomination to relate sexually with an animal, what about with an animal’s skin or fur or wool? If it is perverted and degrading to have sex with a beast, what about sex with a plant, or a plant product, such as a cotton sheet?

No, no. The sheet with the eyeholes cut out goes over your head, not over your crotch.

We rightly view child sexual abuse as an horrific crime. What if solo-sex makes you the child of God who is abused, and in this crime you are not only the victim but the offender?

And whenever someone masturbates, Mr Morris and the Holy Spirit are screaming, “No, don’t! Please!” Having sex when someone is pleading with you to stop is nonconsensual. Therefore, masturbation = rape!

And doesn’t the bible say that when we sin, we are dead? So whenever someone masturbates, they are having sex with a dead person. Therefore, masturbation = necrophilia!

Man, this is fun. I could go on and on.

Much of the above amazes me. It reads as if written by someone desperate to attack masturbation and yet I am quite unconscious of any such axe to grind.

It reads as if written by someone desperate, all right. I imagined the author gasping and panting his way through the rhetorical questions; masturbation is to him what homosexuality is to Fred Phelps – a raison d’etre, the Joker to his Batman. Since denial of his obsession might not be convincing enough, he bends over backwards to assure married women that they can enjoy sex (with their husbands), in the article titled

How Holy Wives Express Marital Love

L – Laundry!
O – Ovulation!
V – Vacuuming!
I – Ironing!
N – Nappies!
G – Groceries!

A friend of mine saw in her mind’s eye an unclothed baby girl lying on her back. Next to her was a beautiful pink rosebud. God tenderly kissed the baby. My friend felt God was saying by this symbolism that a particular woman’s genitals were as beautiful and perfect as a rosebud.

I don’t quite know where to start with this one. Firstly, if women’s genitals are so beautiful and perfect, why didn’t the friend envision a woman? The message seems to be that adult sexual organs are OK, as long as you don’t imagine or see or (perish the thought) touch them.

And secondly, I wonder where exactly God kissed the baby. If it was an avuncular peck on the cheek, why would the take-home message from that be “genitals are good”? Too bad He didn’t kiss the rosebud instead, but I think even imaginations this fertile quail at what that would symbolize. Genitals are great, but they’re not that great.

It is sadly common for women to feel uncomfortable about their genitals, especially because adult genitals are naturally not as tight and neat as a baby’s.

This is… disturbing, to say the least. Hopefully the author’s many neuroses prevent him from coming into contact with any babies. No, scratch that – anyone at all. I feel sorry for the author, since it’s evident from his reams and reams of writing that he’s desperately lonely, but I don’t think that anyone’s safe near him.

I still ached to be hugged but although this was most unpleasant, the unexpected consequences of losing much of my sexual response made me too wary to risk praying for the removal of my need for touch. As it happened, the craving to be hugged gradually fell away anyhow.

Aw. I guess the mother who waits on him hand and foot isn’t willing to hug him. Sensible woman; she probably slides his meals into his room through a flap in the door. After the interminable sections on sex and its evil solo counterpart, the theological sections of this website are something of a relief, though of course the author’s take on these is as twisted as you might imagine. Here’s a sample.

Is My Baby in Heaven?

…there is something spiritually special about children who have at least one parent who is in union with Christ… Nevertheless, from what we saw earlier, there is still hope for the offspring of non-Christians.

How generous. Perhaps they’ll be permitted into heaven but told to drink at separate water fountains.

Being born into a people group that does not have the gospel is a key factor in people not hearing the gospel.

You’d think that an omnipotent god who wanted to save people from the fires of his own eternal wrath would make sure that every “people group” had the gospel, wouldn’t you?

It is inevitable that children suffer for the sins of their parents…We are tempted to think it unfair that children should suffer because of their parents’ sins, but consider the alternative: had their ancestors been prevented from having children, these people would not merely have not suffered, they would not even exist.

So it’s better for someone to burn in hell forever than not to exist? By this logic, abortion is by far a better thing than birth control, since at least the former gives children a chance to exist. Heck, it does even more than that – it sends them straight to heaven, and another of Mr Morris’s lady friends has a vision of what life is like for them there.

She found that angels were charged with looking after heaven’s children but they lost all control whenever Jesus arrived. The children would go wild with delight, playing with him and enjoying his presence.

I’m not sure how millions of children could play with one man, and the “wild with delight” part makes me think of groupies at a Guns N Roses concert. Maybe the children all throw their haloes at Jesus, and the one who accurately pegs Him gets to keep Him. And play with Him. Forever.

If a street kid married a millionaire, she would get his riches and he would get her debts.

I take it the millionaire won the lottery, since he seems too halfwitted to have earned fifty cents.

Similarly… we hand our depravity to Jesus, relinquishing even our fondest sin. It becomes his. That’s what killed him.

In other words, Jesus was so depraved that God killed him. Well, that’s a new one on me. Too bad He didn’t have someone who was willing to die for His sins; even godhood has its downfalls.

There’s plenty more of this claptrap – a claim that reading romances will turn straight women into lesbians is my favorite – and the entire website is a testimony to what one man can achieve with no job, no friends, no girlfriend, a personal servant (mom) and every neurosis in the DSM-IV. In summary, Internet Evangelism & Teaching is so sad that I can’t even be offended by it, and as for the author, you know the surgical collars that are put on dogs to prevent them biting their stitches? I imagine him having something similar, except that his fits around his waist and prevents him from touching himself. Or sleeping, which explains all the hundreds of pages in this website.

Till next time, everyone!

Queen of Swords

Profiteroles – by LuisGarcia

Tricky, but worth it.

200ml/7fl oz cold water
85g/3oz unsalted butter
pinch salt
115g/4oz plain flour
3 medium eggs, beaten

Method

1. Preheat the oven to 250C

2. To make the pastry, place the butter and water into a large saucepan.

3. Place over a low heat to melt the butter. Increase the heat and shoot in the flour and salt all in one go.

4. Remove from the heat and quickly beat the mixture vigorously until a smooth paste is formed, stirring continuously to dry out the paste. Now, this is tricky to explain, but try to imagine the inch of air above the mix is an ingredient that you are trying to mix in. The more air you get in there, the better they’ll rise. (Handy hint: you can also cheat a bit and add a pinch of bicarbonate of soda with the flour.)

5. Once the paste curls away from the side of the pan, transfer the mixture into a large bowl.

6. Beat in the eggs, a little at a time, stirring vigorously until the paste is smooth and glossy. This takes a bit of experience, and you may need one more or one less egg than I’ve said, depending on how it mixes.

7. Continue adding the egg until you have a soft dropping consistency. The mixture will be shiny and smooth and will fall reluctantly from a spoon if it is given a sharp jerk.

8. Lightly oil a large baking tray. Dip a teaspoon into some warm water and spoon out a teaspoon of the profiterole mixture. Rub the top of the mixture with a wet finger and spoon on to the baking tray.

9. Cook them for about 5 minutes in the top of the oven, then reduce the temp to 200C for about 15 more minutes.

profiterolessm

For a delicious savoury starter, mix some goats cheese with some steamed vegetables for the filling.

If you prefer them sweet, add half a teaspoon of sugar in with the butter.

Secular Books for Kids – by Octavia

About the author:

My favourite picture book writer and illustrator of the moment! Peter Sís was born in Brno, in (the now) Czech Republic, in 1949 – and so grew up in the Soviet Bloc, behind the Iron Curtain, with all the oppressive political climate that entails. His picture book The Wall chronicles this time, and the difficulties of keeping artistic freedom and freedom of speech. In 1982, he was sent by the Czech government to Los Angeles for a film project, and when that fell through applied for and received asylum in the United States. Correspondence with Maurice Sendak (famously known for Where the Wild Things Are) led to him getting work with book publishers as an illustrator for children’s books. Sís has won numerous awards for his work since.

While Sís illustrates books written by others, the ones below are some of those he has written and illustrated himself. They texts tend to have the same themes running through them: science and nature, exploration and travel, and the importance of thinking and dreaming for oneself instead of doing or believing as one is told. My two favourites are the science biographies of Galileo and Darwin, but the others are pretty good too.

Peter Sís’ website can be found here.

BOOKS OF THE MONTH:

Starry Messenger: Galileo Galilei

starryThere are three things that immediately stick out as being traits of a Peter Sís book. The first is the absolute intricacy of the illustrations. Every corner is used for the fine brush and pen work, and every corner is filled with the bizarre and the fantastic. The second is the characteristic merger of fantasy and landscape, where the normal is submerged and underlined by what lies beneath (often a truer indicator of events that the surface normality). The third is the often-present dual nature of the text. The main story is told in large, typed text suitable for younger children, while their older siblings can amuse themselves deciphering the handwritten notes that stagger drunkenly across the page, fleshing out the main story as they go.

All these traits are present in Starry Messenger, which traces the story of Galileo from birth to death, and focuses quite strongly on his trial for heresy following the publication of his anti-Biblical astronomical ideas.

The illustrations are simply stunning, and the mirroring between them emphasises Galileo’s singularity. “In the city of Pisa, a little boy was born with stars in his eyes”: his birth is pictured as a little boy swaddled in a star-studded blanket – but this little boy is surrounded by dozens of similarly wrapped children, and each child has pictured on their blanket the role that they will play as adults. Shepherds, priests, cheese-makers… all are individually rendered with as much care as Galileo himself, and this “one among many” motif is continued in the next picture of childhood. Dozens and dozens of children playing with various toys fill a 360° town square, and like Where’s Wally, you have to search for Galileo, who is off by himself playing with stars. Much later a more sinister version of “one among many” has Galileo standing in the centre of dozens and dozens of individually rendered cardinals, who stare down with contempt at him, and at the demonic fantasy creatures that are half-embedded around him, a symbol of his heresy: “He was tried in the Pope’s court, and everyone could see that the stars had left his eyes”.

Be warned that there is one picture of Galileo locked in prison, with the dim ghosts of torture victims filling the walls around him, and if you do not want to have to explain to your child burnings at the stake, hangings, the rack, and other assorted monstrosities then you might want to wait until they’re old enough to take it.

Nevertheless, this is one of the best books out there for getting across the story of Galileo to young children, especially in a freethought context. It doesn’t dwell on what happened to other unfortunates in this situation, and neither does it dwell on Galileo backing down from what he believed in the face of torture and death, but the intelligent child will pick this up regardless. It gives the opportunity to discuss the historical role of the Catholic Church in squashing scientific research and freethought, and the horrible position that many freethinkers faced at the time – as well as the validity of science as a method of (eventually) uncovering the truth about the natural world. I can’t recommend this book highly enough – look at it a dozen times, and you will still find in it things you hadn’t seen before. (Don’t worry if you don’t have kids – get a copy for yourself anyway!)

The Tree of Life: Charles Darwin

treeIf The Starry Messenger was aimed at younger children, The Tree of Life is for those a little bit older. The text is smaller, and there’s a lot more of it. Of course, that means it has a lot more detail packed in it – especially in Sís’ usual mixture of texts. Descriptions are in various fonts (the less obtrusive the more revolutionary) and extracts from Darwin’s journals appear in handwriting for that little touch of verisimilitude.

Despite a sour moment when Darwin appears to insult my country (“I believe we were all glad to leave New Zealand. It is not a pleasant place”) I decided to look the other way, my innate generosity having been touched by the early image of him crammed into a horrible school dormitory, praying with a heap of other (indistinguishable) boys like ants in an ant-hill, and lorded over by a headmaster who boasts “I have never flogged the same boy twice in a week”. I can be nice like that. And he did run away from demonstrations of children being operated upon sans anaesthetic. (Dear old Dad was not impressed at such med. school dilettantism and the only thing missing from his complaint “You care for nothing but shooting, dogs, and rat-catching” is the long-suffering tone, but I am sure that any one of us who has had parents can provide that gratis).

Tree of Life can be divided into three parts: life before Beagle, Darwin’s voyage around the world, and his work (primarily focusing on The Origin of Species) when he returned. The first part is the shortest, and makes use of the technique Sís showed in Starry Messenger – crowds of identical individuals indicating a blindly conformist attitude or society, with the stand-out mind getting the hell out of Dodge. The voyage of the Beagle is covered in more detail. There are maps, a cross-section of the ship, and many drawings of plants, animals, and fossils. The main explanation, though, is done through snippets of Darwin’s journals, where naturalist descriptions and humanist observations are combined with humorous and offbeat remarks (my favourites being “Kill a Chilotan fox with a geological hammer” and “The meat [of land iguanas] when cooked is white. Relished by those whose stomachs rise above all prejudices.” Ha! All is forgiven, Charlie).

The final section is the most informative. Sís takes an interesting tactic by running three separate narratives side by side for several pages – Darwin’s public life, his private life, and his secret life (the latter focusing on his thoughts on evolution, and the development of The Origin of Species). Many of the major figures of the time are introduced, including the oft-relegated and over-nice Alfred Russel Wallace, and Sís does not forget to include the contretemps between Thomas Huxley and a rather bloated Bishop Wilberforce. Science definitely comes out on top!

There’s a lot more humour running through Tree of Life than there is Starry Messenger, but then the threat of torture and execution is missing in this one. Still, it’s a welcome change. I won’t embarrass myself by revealing how many reads it took me to catch the fossilised reconstruction of Mylodon holding the wedding bouquet over Charles and Emma Darwin, but it was quite a few! A reasonable excuse is the wealth of detail in the illustrations. Sís is always so detailed that something new appears in his drawings nearly every time you pick up one of his books. Tree of Life and Starry Messenger are both particularly good examples of this. Every freethinking child should have a copy of these two books on their shelf, and it is to be hoped that Sís will follow them up with the life stories of other famous scientists. (I for one would like to see him do Alfred Wegener or Marie Curie – he’s contactable on his website, so enough requests might persuade him to do it!)

Best of the Rest.

wallAs described above, Sís grew up behind the Iron Curtain in Communist Czechoslovakia. As a child, he wore the Young Pioneer’s Red Scarf and stood guard in front of a giant statue of Stalin. In the late 1960s, however, when Sís was an adolescent, input from the outside world began to seep through into his previously closed world, bringing with it illicit books, Coca-Cola, blue jeans, rock bands, and long hair. In the Prague Spring of 1968, however, this brief glimpse at a life of freedom (especially, for the young artist, artistic freedom) was brough to a close when the Soviet Union invaded the country to bring a halt to its political liberalisation. Sís uses all his usual tricks (imaginary landscapes, journal entries, and maps) to trace his own development as an artist. Black and white illustrations change to colour (the scene of youths doggedly painting a wall, despite official harrassment, is a powerful one), and illustrate the growing influence of the West.

The faces of the government officials, transformed into pigs, is reminiscent of Animal Farm, and the journal entries are fascinating reading – they chronicle Sis’ growing awareness of the enforced political and artistic conformity of his life, with shades of Orwell’s other major fiction, Nineteen Eighty-Four: “There is a story in our schoolbook about a Russian man who is a class enemy. He hides his wheat harvest in his cellar instead of giving it to the village cooperative. His son, who is a Young Pioneer, finds out and reports it. The family kills the boy. His name is Pavka Morozov. He is a hero. We are told that if we see our parents doing wrong, we should report them”. History via picture book – it’s fasinating and informative: the little beggars won’t know they’re learning.


keysThe mythological Prague of Sís’ childhood is recreated in The Three Golden Keys. Written for his daughter Madeleine (she reappears in the Madlenka series), Sis and his hot air balloon get sent off course and he ends up in the Prague of some decades back – apparently deserted but for weird shapes wandering the streets. (They’re not even the same shapes – note the subtle picture to picture changes in his old house.) To unlock his childhood home, Sis needs three golden keys, and he traipses round Prague while being delivered dual shots of key and legend. Three of the historical tales of Prague are included as little stories of their own within the picture book – the legend of the Golem, Prince Bruncvik, and clockmaker Hanus. The pictures as are beautiful, as usual, and anyone who has spent any time at Prague will be picking out bits of it that they know and recognise in the drawings. It doesn’t have the emotional punch of The Wall, but it is a nice little semi-anthology for younger children, before starting them on life behind the Iron Curtain.

tibetA particular aspect of Sís’ childhood is explored in Tibet: Through the Red Box. His film-maker father having been sent by Soviet Union to teach documentary film-making in China, became lost and spent fourteen months wandering through Tibet. He kept a diary of his journey, and when he returned it was too a son who had fallen very ill and was confined to bed. Sís recalls the stories his father told him, and these intersperse the diary entries that tell part of the story. Initially, a third narrative device of inserting the child Peter’s experience of colour (for instance: “Red was the color of my youth – red flags, red stars, red tulips, blood…”) seems obtrusive and jarring, but it ties together in the end with his father’s experiences in the Tibetan palace of Potala. The illustrations differ from Sís’ usual, drawing on Tibetan themes (especially the mandala) rather than his usual Eastern European roots.

smalltaleA Small Tall Tale From the Far Far North is a retelling of a Czech folk legend – a man called Jan Welzl who escaped the harshness of Eastern European life in the late 1800s for even greater hardship: thirty years spent travelling in “dreadful privation and suffering” [Welzl’s own words] in Siberia, Alaska, and Northern Canada. This is obviously too great a story to be condensed into a child’s picture books, so Sís sensibly gives a summary of Welzl’s life in a prologue and epilogue, using the bulk of the book to provide snapshots of his life. Sís’ trademark fantasy landscapes are on full show here – dynamited caves have great, leering grins, half-submerged monsters peek out from tiny pools, a traditional Eskimo tale is incorporated into the shape of a whale… The sheer amount of fine detail packed into each of the illustrations is amazing, and absolutely typical of Sís. It’s a delightful accompaniment to the story of a man who decided to strike out on his own path.

madlenkaMadlenka tells the story of a little girl who is so excited about her loose tooth that she must tell all her friends and neighbours. These come from all corners of the globe, so Madlenka’s trip around her neighbourhood block is a world tour in miniature. Alright, the neighbours are complete stereotypes (the French baker, the Indian newsagent, Latin American greengrocer…) but that’s more than made up for by Sís’ continuing run of brilliant illustrations, complete with keyholes, 360° panoramas, and fantasy-intruding-on-real-life illustrations (check out the animal trees on the African savannah – especially the giraffe-tree, which has Madlenka’s school friend hiding between its legs) and the German opera-come-folk tale, complete with a bewigged swordsman being shot out of a cannon.

madsdogAll these characters return in Madlenka’s Dog, where Madlenka, who is desperate for a dog of her own, has to make do with an imaginary one. So she puts a leash on it and wanders round the neighbourhood, just as she did when her tooth was loose. Sís again uses his 360° panoramas and keyholes, but this time introduces pop-up flaps as well – when Madlenka meets her neighbours and introduces them to her invisible dog, these flaps reveal the neighbours as they were as children, with their own dogs – all types and breeds. The fantasy perspective is less present than in the previous book, although when Madlenka meets her school-friend Cleopatra, who has an imaginary horse, the two of them escape into several pages of make believe, with dogs and horses popping up in all sorts of strange places.

komodoThe fascination with animals (and their discovery in strange places) continues in Komodo! where the parents of a little boy obsessed with dragons (and very amiable parents they are too – check out the living room wallpaper!) take him to Indonesia to check out the famous Komodo dragon. This book is for younger children, and the otherwise ubiquitous handwritten notes don’t appear here – although there is quite a sophisticated snark at eco-tourism, as the Komodo dragon hides from the hordes of people descending on his island and expecting him to perform for them. The little boy decides that following the crowds around isn’t for him, and wanders off on his own. Naturally this independence of mind is rewarded when he sees a Komodo dragon and they do not, although the ending I was hoping for (boy gets eaten when assuming wild creature is friendly) did not actually occur. The kid is clever and independent, but we all know that in real life he’s up for the Darwin Award… Personally, this is least interesting of the Peter Sís books I know, but if your kid is into strange beasts and Where’s Wally (the crowd scenes reoccur frequently, and you’ll have to search to find the protagonist) then it might be worth getting a copy.

So you want to be a scientist? – by Octavia

But can’t do maths or chemistry, and the sight of blood makes you go all queasy? Or do you already have a job that you actually like, but are haunted by the road not taken? Maybe you just can’t spare the odd decade to go back to school and get your PhD…

Well fear not, fellow Nexites! From now on, Nexus will give you a way to fulfil that childhood dream in one easy step. Each month in “So you want to be a scientist…?” we’ll direct you to one site where you can do your bit for science and research without leaving the comfort of your chair, and without your having to waste time and temper learning calculus or biochemistry or any other of those other intellectual beasties that make you cringe in the middle of the night having woken from another nightmare of high school lab classes.

This month, we’re introducing the Galaxy Zoo Project.

Galaxy Zoo.