Thursday, October 10, 2013

Book Review: In the Presence of Dinosaurs

The book this week is In the Presence of Dinosaurs, written by John Colagrande and Larry Felder and also illustrated by Larry Felder.  This large hardcover book was published by Time Life books in 2000, and should be available if you look hard enough. It should be found in the section on dinosaurs in a bookstore or library, and although there are narratives and not talk of actual fossils or palaeontologists, it is firmly a nonfiction book.

What marks this book as special are two things: art and narrative. The art is by far the greatest strength of the book; Felder’s animals have lifelike texture, weight, and colors, his environments are atmospheric and vivid, and his scenes are naturalistic but with a cinematic grandeur. His style seems inspired by Charles R. Knight and Brian Franczak (Dave Hone had an excellent interview with him here: The illustrations take up most of the space in the text. The animals don’t stand statically, but move realistically and seem to have brains and hearts and life in them.

The text is an interesting combination between a wildlife narrative (for example, Walking With Dinosaurs, with focal animals being the object of study) and an overview of fauna (as in a more reference-based book). It is divided into six chapters, each concentrating on a different environment at a different time. I’m very fond of looks at fauna and environments. The entire ecosystems of the areas are described, creating a vivid picture of the place and date. Of course, most of the fauna and their world are illustrated in corresponding panels. In chronological order, the locations are the Chinle Formation in the American Southwest (Coelophysis and co), Newark Supergroup in New England (Anchisaurus and friends), Morrison formation in Utah and Colorado (Apatosaurus, Allosaurus and all the famous ones), the Niobrara sea in the Midwest (Pteranodon and all the sea creatures), Judith River Formation, Alberta (Parasaurolophus and the great Canadian dinosaurs), and, of course, Hell Creek Formation, Montana (Tyrannosaurus of course). 

The approach does have its limits, and I would not consider this a truly great book. One problem is that as beautiful as the art is, it takes up a great deal of space that could be used to further flesh out the book. The art also makes dubious conjectures, such as putting feathers on some dinosaurs and not others, with no particular rhyme or reason why. Another problem is the format itself; just like the “Walking With Dinosaurs” series (more on them some other time), it makes a great deal of speculations which range from reasonable (Pteranodon rookeries) to outdated (turns out Stegosaurus DID live in herds) to ridiculous (how would Dicynodonts have trouble with plains plants?). There is an appendix in the book, explaining what science the narrative is based on, but the inherent problem in speculation is still extant. Another problem is that the all-American view has been played out by now-South America, Africa, Europe, Asia, and Australia are relatively unexplored in such works. 
 Another problem is that the Early Cretaceous is skipped entirely. I would have loved for such a look at Zuniceratops, Acrocanthosaurus or Utahraptor or the American iguanodonts.

Ultimately, this book is very straightforward and unambitious, and does that well. It sticks to its task, and does it in an efficient way. It is what it is, and I enjoy this kind of narrative overview of prehistoric fauna. It’s not flawless, but it’s very good book. I wouldn’t go out of my way to look for it, but certainly would buy it if I stumbled across it in a store.  Larry Felder’s website has more of his gorgeous art:

Next up, I’ll take a look at a classic silent film that remains a first in many ways, and the best retelling of a classic book!

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