Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Telling by Carol Matas

There is this book that I read when I was younger that made Renaissance Fairs sound really appealing. I mean, I am sure there are a lot of books that probably have the ability to do that, but Carol Matas’ Telling sort of made it seem like it would be one of the places you’d want to go to in the summer like, “Oh hey, medieval times, let’s get a turkey leg!”

The first book I read by Matas, a Canadian author for young adults, was Daniel’s Story. It is set during WWII and follows fifteen-year-old protagonist Daniel as he is moved between cities, concentration camps, and work camps during the Holocaust. Matas followed up Daniel’s Story with several other novels set during WWII such as After the War and The Garden. When I picked up Telling, I didn’t read the back synopsis, I just sort of assumed that it would be another novel set during WWII, like the other Matas novels I had read.

It was really nothing like that. Telling documents the nightly “telling” sessions between three sisters: thirteen-year-old Corey, fifteen-year-old Alex, and eighteen-year-old Sue. They meet in the attic of the house they live in with their mother and take turns talking about how the summer is going for each of them. It’s an interesting multi-character narrative where Matas really gets to experiment with point of view. Each sister embodies a personality that allows for very different situations, ones that Corey, Alex, and Sue can interact with and hear about, and experience without having been there. Matas engages with a way of talking story between the sisters, but the dialogue never feels like a movie script or screenplay. It feels real and organic and captures something about the characters that strict description cannot. Matas really lets the sisters speak for themselves, and share with each other (and the reader) the events that best describe them and reveal how they want to be represented.

Middle sister Alex is the backbone of this narrative. Her stories revolve around the Renaissance Fair that she works at for the summer, her first job as a teenager. She is a self-described writer and composes a play about witches that takes place during the Middle Ages to be performed at the fair. Corey, the youngest sister, talks about her friends as she tries to figure out how she can fit in without succumbing to peer pressure. A shared story between Alex and Corey reveals that Corey interrupts Alex’s play at the fair, and this largely influences the tensions that play out in the real “telling sessions.”

Finally, as the eldest sister, Sue experiences a kind of first love that doesn’t end up being as fulfilling as she hoped it would be. Memory and real time alternate as the sisters share experiences with one another, telling stories and navigating the relationships that result from the content.

Telling is a book that I can’t help but read once a year. It’s short – only 120ish pages – and is mostly driven by dialogue. It draws the reader into the story while also propelling the narrative forward, so that the entire book acts as a small whirlpool of stories that spiral through towards the end. The Renaissance Fair provides an interesting and unique backdrop for many of the conflicts to play out, and feels real without being gimmicky. Alex encounters all of the problems that come with a first job, but these are contained within an almost fantastical situation that arises from the Medieval elements. The succinct length of the novel similarly drives the reader directly into the story: we may not have much time with these characters, but we do get to know them very well in that time.

I think Telling really captures something about young adult experience, and uses tools like dialogue and multi-person narrative to explore them. It’s a book that I read fairly often, this small pocket of a summer recounted at night between three sisters.  

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Summerland by Michael Chabon

I don’t know that much about baseball. But what I do know about it, I learned from Michael Chabon’s Summerland, which is pretty impressive, because now there is a game I know all of these new words for like “designated hitter” and also “walk” and hey, my ability to identify any of that comes from a five hundred page children’s book. Which is funny because baseball definitely makes a small appearance in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight, or you know, plays quite heavily and also brings about the only action that occurs in the entire thing, but I can’t remember learning anything about baseball through that except for that sports would be a lot more fun to watch with vampires playing because of their superhuman abilities that make you think, oh, or also, that’s steroids.

I read Summerland for the first time when I was in middle school, kind of right around the same age as the protagonists are, eleven-year-olds Ethan Feld, Jennifer T. Rideout, and Thor Wignutt. At the time I really thought Michael Chabon was a children’s author and I’d always check the children’s/YA section at the bookstore like, “Oh my god, is there another one, why isn’t there another one?” And I sort of thought that was it for a really long time, until I was in a library and found the Michael Chabon shelf which covered a pretty ridiculous amount of space, and kind of kicked myself and thought, “Oh. Well. That makes sense. Yeah. He’s a Pulitzer Prize winning author whose books have also been turned into movies and also look at these essay collections so I guess what really happened is that he was an adult literary writer who decided to write a children’s book and not the other way around.”

In the last few years I’ve been able to read a good amount of Chabon: The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, Wonder Boys, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Maps and Legends, and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. All of which he’s kind of extremely well-known for. And then last year I picked up Summerland again and it was this really great bookend to all of my Chabon reading. So great that I was like, “Okay! Here is what I’ll defend for my MA! Summerland!” And so I wrote all academically on that book and so it’s maybe cheating a little to go ahead and write a review here, but also not really, because even with all of that time and investment into one book, it’s really the story and the narrative that Chabon writes that brought me back to the book ten years after the first time I read it.

Chabon really brings a lot together in Summerland: Norse mythology, the geography and history of the West Coast, adolescence, and an American mythology of baseball. His main character, Ethan, moves to Clam Island with his father, and plays on the Little League team with Jennifer T. and Thor. But these characters don’t spend too much time in the real world. It isn’t long until they learn that the land that the baseball fields occupy, located at the tip of the island, bridge into the fantastical world of the Summerlands. And that’s where these three characters crossover to.

The Summerlands are ordered by baseball. Ethan and his friends follow a quest narrative that is punctuated by the baseball games that they play against other beings as they travel to the heart of the Summerlands to stop the end of the world. Ethan’s father, you see, has been taken by the trickster Coyote and Coyote has use for Mr. Feld’s patented helium material. He wants to use it to dissolves all of the worlds into nothing, and start over again.

Buried in this overarching quest narrative are tons of allusions to mythology and traditional storytelling that can just be followed endlessly. For example, Chabon largely uses Norse mythology to structure his fantastical worlds and the stories that take place in them are from important Norse characters and structures: Loki, Odin, and Yggdrasill. And then there is that other key mythology, that of the game of American baseball, which Chabon shows has its own legends, lore, characters, heroes, and language. The mythology fleshes out the fantastical, almost as if it backs it with a certain truthfulness or familiarity to readers.

Even after spending a LONG time writing on Summerland, I still really want to keep going back and back to it. There is just so much in there and so many trails of mythology and story.  And it’s really exciting to see what happens when adult literary authors like Chabon turn to writing for children. I kind of feel like I’m going to be checking the shelves again for another one like, “Okay, a lot of time has passed, another kid’s book please?”

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

I Kill Giants by Joe Kelly and JM Ken Niimura

Young adult literature pulls a lot from mythology. I remember reading Absolutely Normal Chaos by Sharon Creech when I was younger, where main character Mary Lou Finney has to read Homer’s The Odyssey over the summer and write frequent book reports on what she thinks about it. At first, Mary Lou expresses an unfavorable opinion of the canonical work and comments, “I skimmed through the Odyssey and think perhaps I made a mistake getting this one. The print is so small (I hate that) and there’s all these weird names in it. Maybe I’ll try reading it tomorrow.” It was pretty neat to encounter this really canonical book that I’d heard about, but hadn’t thought about reading, through the journal of a character who was also my age. It was this sort of secondhand reading of The Odyssey filtered through Mary Lou, who really had her own brand of humor when interacting with the book, where she’d say things like,

I was reading this in the living room after dinner while Carl Ray was watching TV and I got so frustrated I just threw the book down and said, “Telemachus! Who the heck is Telemachus?”
And do you know what Carl Ray did? He said, without even looking away from the TV, “The son of Odysseus.”
You could have knocked me over with a feather. “And how do you know that?” I asked.
            “Simple.” He said, and he kept right on watching The Dating Game.
            I didn’t even think Carl Ray knew how to read.

Greek mythology seemed to be really big for a while in adolescent books (and really still is), and I mean, even J.K. Rowling sort of cited Greek mythology as providing the inspiration for some of the character names that appear in Harry Potter. And then there was Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series, where the titular character discovers that he is the son of Poseidon and that the world of Greek mythology is actually the setting for his own heritage and family connections.

So, Norse mythology seems like it’s coming into it’s own, too. Neil Gaiman’s Odd and the Frost Giants is a nice introduction to this mythology and then Michael Chabon’s Summerland also relies on the structure introduced through Norse mythology to make a fantastical world for his adolescent characters to inhabit. Around the same time that I was reading Gaiman and Chabon, I was able to pick up a copy of Joe Kelly’s graphic novel I Kill Giants. It was a little bit of "Norse mythology overload!" Pair that with the release of the Marvel movie Thor this year, and you know, maybe it's trending. 

But protagonist Barbara Thorson from I Kill Giants, her own name gleaned from an important figure of Norse mythology, was really one of the most vibrant protagonists I’ve encountered in a while. She’s a fifth-grade student who wears bunny ears in her hair, oversized glasses, and a bag slung over her shoulder that is emblazoned with a thorn, this medieval letter that she’s drawn using her own blood. The combination of graphics and text makes Barbara this ridiculously three dimensional character brought to life through the combination of speech balloons that represent that snarkiness of her character and the illustrations of her facial expressions and demeanor that go with it. Her exchanges with her teacher and other students at school are at once funny and heartbreaking, as is her eventual friendship with Sophia, the one girl in her class who is really able to gain her trust and understanding.

Combining elements and fantasy and realism, I Kill Giants makes Barbara into a hero experiencing a very real personal pain, where she creates monsters – giants that strongly resemble the Norse frost giants in mythology – to fight in the absence of a physical antagonist. Throughout the book, the reader is given small hints of Barbara’s situation to learn how the giants come to embody her pain and loneliness. Her older sister takes care of her, home is a place best avoided, and Barbara tries to stay away from the top floor of her house, which seems at once haunted and dangerous. These elements promise that the story is being driven towards an ending that resolves all of those small mysteries, but it’s Kelly’s ability to make this journey to the ending so compelling and vivid that highlights the narrative capability of I Kill Giants.

I really came to care about the main character, her story, and the world that Kelly and artist JM Ken Niimura create in this novel. Barbara is on a very singular journey, one that she has to figure out for herself, despite the fact that she learns to let other people into her life to help her through her experience. I can’t say enough about this book except “Read it! Read it!” And also, “Barbara Thorson is probably going to end up on a list somewhere, one that goes from one to ten and details the best female protagonists in literature. And she’s going to be pretty near the top.”

Monday, August 22, 2011

Noah Barleywater Runs Away by John Boyne

It’s sort of been a summer of follow-ups. It started with the new Brian Selznick book and now it’s ended with Noah Barleywater Runs Away by John Boyne. Because seriously, there is not really anywhere to go after this one.

John Boyne is probably best known for The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, his 2006 novel that was eventually adapted into a movie with a cast that seemed to be culled almost exclusively from the Harry Potter movies. It was one of those books that did everything: it worked on several levels, it told a compelling but simple story, and it appealed to a really large audience while also being something that could totally could be used for a novel study in grade school. I think one thing that really appealed about it is it reads a little bit like a fable, something that Boyne is definitely interested in exploring in Noah Barleywater.

So, Noah Barleywater was another book I was able to pick up recently and I was feeling pretty excited about it. I mean, “John Boyne! Boy in the Striped Pajamas! Something very interesting is going to happen!” The title very much does a nice little synopsis of the novel: Noah Barleywater, unable to deal with the problems he has at home, decides to run away. The further he gets from home, the more people, creatures, and beings he meets as he moves from village to village. They impart some wisdom and perspective, but mostly, they just sort of serve as these kind of annoying stop points that punctuate his journey. Like, “Ohhhh, I’m a donkey, let me tell you something about life,” or “Ohhhh, I’m a tree, listen to my wisdom.”

Boyne plays into the fable form by writing in a similar style. It’s a little straightforward and a little old-fashioned and a little timeless with Boyne throwing in words like “chap” and phrases along the lines of “a stroke of good luck.” And then there’s the reliance on the story of Pinocchio that sort of comes in at the end, something that kind of reminded me of William S. Burroughs and his cut-up technique where he'd take this linear narrative and cut it all apart to make it read in a new way. Maybe Boyne’s first draft had all of the Pinocchio stuff nicely arranged throughout and then he thought, “Cut-up technique! Do it now!” so that what happens now is the Pinocchio story just sort of…appears. The contemporary and the traditional don’t really overlap or flow together. Instead, they just stay at odds with one another throughout the novel and flip back and forth between different temporalities of time. Boyne’s protagonist Noah makes this idea of trying to pinpoint a setting and time period for this novel even more difficult because his age is not consistently represented. At times Noah seems a little like a child prodigy – he lists out the achievements he’s made by the age of eight and then deems them pretty unworthy for his age – and then other times he seems completely unaware of his situation and appears much younger than the age of eight.

But what really threw me in this book was the representation of Noah’s mother. In a book that is geared towards younger readers, Boyne writes a pretty misogynistic description of one of the only female characters (other than a teacher Noah hates) that Boyne includes. Noah expresses his hatred for his mother fairly continuously throughout the book, and Boyne later reveals that it is her terminal illness that has driven Noah from the house since he is unable to deal with the changes to his mother. Which, you know, a lot of adolescent and young adult literature has some parental contempt going on, but this kind of takes that and makes it into the unmitigated hatred an eight-year-old has for his mother. It’s something that I recognized a little in another recently released book, When Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley, which sort of does a terrible job with representing female characters as well while bordering a little bit on misogyny. For two books that were published within the same timeline, it seems like an unfortunate pattern to occur.

You know what? I was just going to go ahead and recommend this graphic novel called I Kill Giants. It’s a little bit similar to Noah Barleywater and it kind of rectifies everything that I’ve talked about in this review like, “Oh hey! Read me! Look at this! I’m awesome!” and it would make kind of a positive end to this review. Because, I mean, the key difference between I Kill Giants and Noah Barleywater is that Giants is actually good. More than that, it does a lot of what Noah Barleywater might have been trying to do, but I Kill Giants actually succeeds. So instead of a recommendation, I’ll do that one next. It’s really kind of amazing. 

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Ghosts of Ashbury High by Jaclyn Moriarty

So, The Ghost of Ashbury High? It has a pretty cool setting.

This book, the entire thing basically, takes place on a high school grade twelve Australian English exam on Gothic fiction. English like Language Arts and Literature, not the learning and speaking of a dialect of Australian English, which, you know, would be its own sort of innovative thing and would probably be shelved over in linguistics instead of young adult fiction, or in something else entirely like “Travel!” or “Grammar!” or “How to Learn this Language Without Even Trying!”

Jaclyn Moriarty has a tendency to play around with form. Her previous books (Feeling Sorry for CeliaThe Year of Secret Assignments, and The Murder of Bindy Mackenzie) tell stories through letters, transcripts, journals, and notes on the fridge. And it doesn’t seem like she sits down and thinks, “Hmmm, how can I take this completely out of the realm of ‘traditional narrative’? Let me brainstorm the ways.” It just really seems like Moriarty has found a mode of writing that is outside of a third person or even traditional first person narrative, like, “Oh hey. This comes pretty natural. Letters and exams. People say some kind of cool stuff on those things.”

Moriarty takes an exam and she uses the questions as guiding points to explore her characters. Continuing in her Ashbury/Brookfield cycle of books (about characters who attend two Australian schools), The Ghosts of Asbury High primarily explores the relationship between Riley and Amelia, two students who have recently transferred from Brookfield to Ashbury. Characters outside of the relationship cite the gothic occurrences that they observe in their experience of Riley and Amelia, and these stories become examples on the examination. In this way, Moriarty writes a gothic story with elements of the fantastical and unexplained hauntings, however, she uses the very explicit mode of an exam that asks students to outline these same tropes to do it. It’s ridiculously metafictional and a lot of fun to read.

Recurring characters Toby, Emily, and Lydia from previous Brookfield/Ashbury books are also at the center of this novel, in addition to narrator Riley. I think Emily will always be my favorite character in any of Moriarty’s books, even if she constitutes a side character rather than a main one. She’s basically addicted to Toblerone bars and she’s always mixing up words and context, like when she describes her friend Lydia and she says, “She is not shy, but she is suspicious and therefore a bit of a reservoir with strangers.” It’s intentional humor by the author Moriarty, but this sort of self consciousness for the character Emily. It’s an interesting effect that really leads itself to a kind of character empathy.

I became really invested in the characters, but even more in the form. Mostly, I think, because it’s the form that allows for this heavy character investment. It sort of reminds me of being stressed in English class in high school when you get one of those assignments that says, “Ok, you totally have free reign here. You know, some creative leeway. Let’s see what you’re going to do with it.” And what you want to do with it is kind of be like, “Creative? I’ll show you creative!” and open up the craft drawer with the felt pens and markers and glitter and a pair of those scissors that cut cool patterns into the paper. Like that might be appreciated by a high school English teacher.

It’s so infrequent that you’re not just dealing with question, answer, multiple choice in high school that something like a creative assignment comes up and it’s pretty exciting and it's kind of stressful to really feel like you're throwing everything into it to make up for the rest of the year. But Moriarty takes the boring question/answer and then says to her characters, “Okay. Creativity. Let’s see what you can do.” And they just go. And they show off. And they become authors writing a story instead of characters taking an exam.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick

Graphic novels saved my life in university.

Okay, so I have never read so many books that I’ve basically done the Thanksgiving equivalent of reading and made myself sick and tired and feeling pretty awful about myself. There is no number of books so high that I’m like, “Oh dear god, not another word, I don’t even think I can manage to make out the simple sentence ‘See Jane Run,’ it is just the most incomprehensible thing and let’s be honest, are those even words? I don’t know if I can tell them apart from numbers at this point.”

But, I have read very high concentrations of particular literary periods, which means I have done things like three solid months of Chaucer, two and a half months of Victorian novels, three months of Shakespeare, etc. etc. etc. In the middle of highlighting and circling literary tropes and writing notes like, “This is going to be very important and also probably on an exam,” I got a little, let’s say, exasperated and also maybe a little frustrated. Usually taking a break to read other books outside of some particular class concentration helped, but ummm, there was a certain point when the block of text in something kind of fun and light totally resembled a similar block of text in something like Heart of Darkness or The Sound and the Fury.

The answer for me was to start to read books with graphics in them to break up straight blocks of text that all started to look alike and tricked me into thinking they were all writing the same canonical story. This way, I still got the story (which is basically my reason for reading), but in a different enough way that it seemed like something separate to what I was doing in English courses. A lot of it was reading Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics. But I also picked up Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret, which is a beautiful book set in historical Paris that uses a back and forth between graphics and text to tell the story of the young clock keeper, Hugo Cabret. Selznick’s illustrations completely interact with the text and both are necessary to communicate the story to the reader. It’s like two threads twisted together, one text and one image, that ultimately create a stronger and more complete story.

So when I was able to pick up an advanced reader’s copy of Selznick’s new novel, Wonderstruck, which engages with the same graphic/text interaction, I was kind of like, “Look at this! New Brian Selznick! This is going to be awesome!”

But it…wasn’t. Wonderstruck tells two separate but interconnected stories. The first is of Ben, a boy who moves in with his aunt and cousins after his mother passes away, and of his escape to New York to search for the father he’s never met. Ben’s story is told through Selznick’s recognizable illustrations and blocks of text that interchange with Rose’s story, which is rendered completely through images. Rose is a young girl who runs away from home to the city to watch silent films and explore the same museum Ben enters later, after the fifty year gap that set these two stories apart. Both characters are deaf, which offers an interesting underlying link to the images used to tell this story (the final pages are dedicated to a few drawings of sign language). It’s these images that take precedence over story in Selznick’s new novel. They are beautiful, detailed, and contain everything that made Hugo Cabret such a success, but they lack the strong story behind them to support their use.

Maybe it’s because I really go in for synchronicity or some kind of pattern to the structure of the books I read, but the format Selznick uses here just seems really unevenly weighted. Rose’s section relies completely on images while Ben’s is given both words and pictures. Although the two stories eventually join up at the end, the reconciliation of both isn’t satisfying enough to call for the amount of investment Selznick asks us to make in each story. It’s an awkward beast of a book that attempts to utilize the same form and style that made Hugo Cabret so engaging. But what Hugo Cabret had was character, story, and intrigue. Wonderstruck abandons these to replicate the familiar style of graphics and text without using either as effectively as Hugo Cabret.

Unfortunately, Wonderstruck was just kind of, “Huh. Okay. The images were pretty beautiful,” for me. But reading this book did the same thing for me that it used to do in university. You can have a whole stack of heavy hitters that you’re halfway or three quarters or five ninths of the way through, with this density that makes it seem like you’ll never even finish one. Break that up with something that’s all text and images? You fly right through one of those and it really feels like those other ones are going to take 0.342 seconds to read when you get back to them.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Going Bovine by Libba Bray

You know, mad cow disease kind of speaks to me. I mean, the degrees of separation between it and me are pretty few. It’s like the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon thing. Or just the six degrees thing. Mad cow disease is sort of center of the universe for me, one of those things that I can trace back to from pretty far away. It’s two reasons, really. 1) My parents did the England-during-mad-cow-crisis thing and so are forbidden to give blood, which, surprise, is not that big of a deal because it would take quite the leap of faith for them to do it anyway (read: needle phobia) and 2) I’m from Alberta which is basically the Canadian epicenter of mad cow disease. A quick google search brings up quite a few disturbing and also entertaining quotes about why its existence is a fallacy, like the western Canadian equivalent of those who deny the reality of global warming.

Libba Bray’s Going Bovine melted my small heart. I held up the book and was like, “This! This is the connecting part that puts everything together! Things make sense now!” It makes the mad cow disease sound like a gimmick, the way I’ve introduced this, but Going Bovine was one of my favorite books that I read in the last year. I mean, I’m not the only one who thinks this. Bray’s book won the Prinz Award in 2010, and those Prinz Award books, they’re the ones that are always pretty awesome to read. The novel follows Cameron, the sixteen-year-old protagonist who contracts mad cow disease. Cameron slides into a hallucinatory/real/dream world structured on a lot of Norse mythology, the culture of reality television, and the very old standby, Disney World. It’s one of those books that blurs that real/imaginary border, that one with the devastating ending where you realize you have to decide for yourself if you’re going to err on the side of reality or instead go ahead and realize that fiction leaves a lot of room for the imaginary. It’s not “choose your own adventure” (good god, those Steve Jackson books that sent you from page 3 to 178 and then back to 9 again when you totally opened the wrong door and got killed by some troll and had to start again), it’s just a subtle reader’s choice that follows through the reading of the novel.

The book reads in part as a travel narrative – accompanied by his friend Gonzo, Cam embarks on a quest across the United States. But it’s the cultural critiques and points of interest that Bray chooses to highlight that sets this book apart. They allow for the subtleties that create corridors and trap doors in the book, which are opened up through an allusion, reference, and character. The novel relies heavily on the canonical Don Quixote. The contemporary and the traditional talk back and forth with one another, and you know what? Sometimes they really get going and you kind of have a feeling like maybe they’ve had an argument like this before, only it’s never been quite so well articulated. Bray’s nuanced and idiosyncratic voice seems like the only vehicle for the ideas explored in Going Bovine. She throws herself completely into this world and builds it up with nerdy references, traditional allusions, pop culture, mythology, and a ridiculously believable teenage narrator. The chapter headings kind of set the stage for how excellent this book is. My favorite is probably chapter three, “Which Treats of the Particulars of High School Hallway Etiquette and the Fact that Staci Johnson is Evil; Also, Unfairly Hot.”

And then there’s Dulcie, the angel that appears to Cam and helps him out on his quest. She’s pretty awesome. She’s the female counterpart necessary to this book, with a great voice and a pretty no-nonsense attitude.

I totally misread the first chapter, though. That’s always kind of been one of my biggest fears as an English student, like, “Oh hey, what if I get this wrong? What if the color grey does not actually symbolize death and also hopelessness like I thought, but instead I just skipped the sentence at the beginning of the book that said grey just so happens to be the favorite color of the protagonist? So, whoops, I guess that changes the entire thing.” Because English is all about right answers, even if you can do a pretty good job of just writing a ton and eventually hitting on a couple of important points. No matter how much hinges on “Interpretation!” there is most certainly something like a Right and a Wrong answer. So I read the first chapter thinking Cameron was a girl. Which might’ve been awesome. But a book like Going Bovine, I don’t think there’s anything to improve on. I mean, least of all the cover art. 

The Wild Things by Dave Eggers

Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s book Where the Wild Things Are was revisited in popular culture last year. The revival occurred in part thanks to Spike Jonze’s movie adaptation, the script of which was co-written by author and social activist Dave Eggers. The Wild Things is Eggers’ novelization of the screenplay, a chance for him to explore further the intricacies of Max and the Wild Things.

Eggers is the ideal vehicle for this novel. His skill lies in finding the balance between two voices: combining his authorial voice with that of Maurice Sendak. His previous works, memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, short story collection How We Are Hungry and the fictional You Shall Know Our Velocity, define Eggers’ voice as clear, imaginative and poetic. Blending his voice with the story of another person constitutes Eggers’ other writing: the life of a Sudanese Lost Boy in What is the What, and a man who experienced Hurricane Katrina in Zeitoun.  By sharing in the story of Where the Wild Things Are, Eggers offers readers something that is more than a revisit, but nothing as simple as déjà vu. Instead, Eggers provides a side door into Sendak’s world. By introducing a contemporized setting of suburban neighbourhoods (those “just-built houses”) and overprotective parents, Eggers reframes the conditions of Max’s need for escape, reverting into an animalistic childhood rather than appropriating the strange older world occupied by his sister and mother.

Eggers articulates the internal thoughts of dynamic protagonist Max, providing perhaps one of the most deftly described languages of childhood experience in novelized form. He gives feelings names and creates metaphors for frustration, rage, and confusion. It takes a very skilled writer to provide words for wordless things, and to create a direct path between writer and reader, describing, for example, the impression, “Every so often Max felt his thoughts could be straightened out, that they could be put in a row and counted; they could be made to behave.” Eggers’ description of Max’s freedom is exhilarating. Short chapters further emphasize Max’s youth, skipping from scene to scene. The Wild Things themselves are unrestrained and offer Max an alternative to the adult alienation he receives at home. They are given personalities here, and dangerous natures that force Max to navigate experiences more difficult than in his normal life. Yet, Max understands reality. He recognizes that his “dad lived in the city and phoned on Wednesdays and Sundays but sometimes did not.” It is this darker imaginative world that creates danger and threat.

Like the book from which it originates, The Wild Things holds appeal for a wide audience. This book can be read by and to older children looking for another version of a picture book, or read by young teens and adults. The feelings associated with Max’s untrammeled youth are beautifully and succinctly described. And for fans of the picture book, Eggers’ novel offers a road leading further into the wild world of Max. Take a chance to live a little with the Wild Things, the strange beasts of childhood. 

Monday, August 15, 2011

Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan

I don’t remember why I picked up Margo Lanagan’s Tender Morsels. Sometimes there are small giveaways that I can trace back. I mean, I’m totally swayed by those cover blurbs, and I can look at a book and see immediately why I bought it. “Miriam Toews thinks this is the best book she has ever read!” “Mark Haddon knows no better book than the one you are right now holding in your hands.” “OMG we are talking Neil Gaiman here, he seriously stayed up all night to finish reading this, I mean, he even phoned all of his friends to say, ‘Do not contact me for the next twelve hours, I will be otherwise preoccupied.’”

I actually think it might have been the recommendation of Tender Morsels by Neil Gaiman, like through a jacket or cover blurb, or maybe he and Margo Lanagan were speaking together somewhere, that finally made me buy the book. I picked it up around Christmas a few years ago, and it was one of those books where the season completely matched with the tone and feel of the book. Lanagan revisits the Grimm fairy tale “Snow-White and Rose-Red,” which is about two sisters who live together in the woods. Lanagan’s sisters are Branza and Urdda, the daughters of protagonist Liga, a young woman who retreats into an idealized fantasy world to escape the all too real experiences she has lived through in the real one. She makes a home to raise her daughters in, but as elements of reality intrude upon her fantasy world, a blending and breaking down of the border in between occurs and returns Liga and her daughters to the real world again.

The narrative Lanagan crafts is enough on its own to deserve praise, but her writing and style elevates the novel to a place of exceptional young adult literature. For both of these reasons it was awarded a Prinz Honor Award in 2009. Lanagan almost creates a language of her own by experimenting with sentence structure, cadence, emphasis, and dialect. The subtle play with internal rhyme and structure reinforces the idea that this book reworks a fairy tale. She adapts language to create a setting that is both medieval and familiar, yet one that is also slightly changed. Her language is a hinge that opens and closes to our expectations. The language creates a complete immersion into this world; it calls for a slow and deliberate read that allows the reader to construct the world, uncovering it piece by piece as the story progresses.

Tender Morsels reminds me so much of Angela Carter’s short story “The Company of Wolves,” which is itself a return to the traditional “Little Red Riding Hood” story. Lanagan introduces to Tender Morsels a bear who befriends Liga and her daughters in the fantastical world. However, this bear represents an intrusion: a man dressed in the skin of a bear in the real world finds a way into Liga’s place where he is transformed into a real bear. Similarly, Carter’s short story blurs the boundary between man and wolf in her own portrayal of the wolf in “Little Red Riding Hood,” and it is unclear throughout the story whether or not the wolf is human, animal, or a little of each. Lanagan’s use of this confusion is both inventive and effective, and emphasizes the focus on borders and boundaries in the novel.

Most affecting, however, is that Tender Morsels focuses on small, quiet moments, balanced within the larger ones. For example, Lanagan writes,

When a girl of fourteen wants a thing – when she has wanted it all her conscious life; when she senses it near and bends all her hope, and all her will, and all her power to it – sometimes, sometimes, her self and her desires will be of such material that worlds will move for her. Or parts of worlds, their skins particularly, will soften to her pressure, and break in a thousands small and undramatic ways, so that she may reach through, so that what seemed a wall reveals itself to be only the thought of a wall, or a wall constructed of bricks of smoke, mortared with mist. There is a smell to such workings, and Urdda smelled it here and now at the rim of the bear-scent, as if someone had held a flaming brand near that bear-fur so that it bean to singe and smoke and reek. (176)

It would make sense, you know, if it was Neil Gaiman’s recommendation on a blurb or a review or a blog that swayed me to buy this. It’s so much like Gaiman’s own The Graveyard Book, which is itself episodic in construction, each chapter a story told incrementally throughout the youth of his protagonist, Bod. This episodic construction allows for the representation of overarching moments interspersed between quiet ones. In Tender Morsels, Liga, Branza, and Urdda grow across time, and Lanagan moves deftly through their experiences to capture all moments, both small and large.  

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Third Class Superhero by Charles Yu

Sometimes math in books confuses me.

I sort of always thought that fiction was the place that you go to escape math, especially when, in high school, math class stopped being about numbers that were added, subtracted, multiplied, and divided, and instead became about dealing with these letters and numbers that didn’t seem like they went together, and when you asked your teacher about it he would just say, “Well, look, it’s like trying to read a sentence,” and you’d be sitting there like, “No. No, it definitely is not.”

I’m really suspicious when I see math sort of dominating the plot in a book. John Green’s An Abundance of Katherines made me really skeptical about how books and math could go together. Green’s main character, a child prodigy named Colin Singleton, is preoccupied with designing a logarithm to explain why he’s dated nineteen girls who are all named Katherine. And he figures it out. He’s a child prodigy after all. He should have some kind of advanced skill with numbers and equations. Green even creates extensive footnotes and an appendix to show how his collaboration with an actual professor of mathematics resulted in the logarithm designed for An Abundance of Katherines. Like, it actually works. If you want to test out why you’re dating some people who have something pretty important in common with one another, you know, like their first name, then the math’s basically done for you.

What is definitely not viable, or even believable though, is how Colin gets nineteen girls to date him. The chances of that happening, let alone the possibility that all of his girlfriends share the same name, is sort of ridiculously improbable. He’s kind of a disconnected asshole. Therefore, fiction and math are not completely compatible.

But lately I’ve kind of been swayed by the way math is being used by authors as a way to tell a story, instead of dominating the plot like Green’s Katherines. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon does this really well, where protagonist Christopher uses math as an explanatory focus when words, sentences, and stories can’t create the language that he wants to communicate. Similar to this is Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, a Pulitzer Prize winning novel with an entire chapter written in Power Point because this format, much like math, communicates more than words do. In both of these books math isn’t the focus, but it becomes inexplicably linked with story.

When I first heard about Charles Yu and his book How To Live Safely in a Science Fiction Universe, I basically decided that I wasn’t going to leave my apartment until I finished reading it. This is because Yu writes about a time travel machine repair man, and I was like, “Oh my god: a) Time travel, b) Cleverly written, and c) There is a paradox involved.” Yu throws some math in there and a little bit of physics, too, because I guess that’s something time travel relies on, some of that science as an explanatory focus. But it’s Yu’s short story “Problems for Self-Study” that appears in his first collection of short stories Third Class Superhero that has kind of turned my general reaction of “Maaaaath? Agaaaaaaaain? Whhhhhhhhy?” completely around because he demonstrates just how effectively it can be used to tell a story. “Problems for Self-Study” examines A and B, a man and woman whose relationship is detailed through equations, points on a grid, physics, and that old go to problem of how to tell when a train will arrive at a certain point depending on a whole bunch of factors such as speed, time, and location.

Told in a series of numbered steps that take the reader through the relationship, Yu uses math as an art form to poignantly and effectively tell a story.  For example, he uses the occasion of pregnancy to discuss “what is well-known in the field of celestial dynamics as the three-body problem” where it is problematic to predict the actions of three bodies, while with two bodies “the equations are solved analytically.” Yu matches situation to equation, word to number, emotion to symbol.

“Problems for Self-Study” was one of the most affecting short stories I’ve read in a while, particularly because the short story seems to be a really good vehicle for mathematics because the equations and ideas can be investigated, but they can also be contained. In Yu’s strong collection of short stories that put him on the National Book Foundation's "5 Under 35" list in 2007, this one stood out among the rest. And it sort of exposed me to more math than I’ve done since high school. I kind of felt like I learned something. 

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Marbury Lens by Andrew Smith

There was this really lovely book that I read by Canadian author Margaret Buffie. It wasn’t Angels Turn Their Backs, which, you know, I enjoyed also, particularly because it was about an agoraphobic teenager who didn’t ever leave the house, which allowed me to justify spending a couple of weeks in my apartment without leaving except to buy food and go to classes by saying, “Well at least I’m not as crazy as that character in Angels Turn Their Backs. I mean, she had some issues. She was afraid to go outside. I’m just too lazy.”

The really lovely Buffie book I’m thinking about was Who is Frances Rain? It was about this girl who found a pair of glasses, and whenever she put them on she could see the past happening through the lenses. Through them, she would watch all of the ghosts who lived on this island in Manitoba act out these things that happened in recent history. It was pretty awesome. And basically, the main character was able to use the stuff that she saw through the glasses to reconcile the past with the present, bring her family together again, learn a lesson, etc. etc. blah blah blah.

So when I picked up The Marbury Lens by Andrew Smith and flipped open the dust jacket I was ridiculously excited to see the following: “Sixteen-year-old Jack gets drunk and is in the wrong place at the wrong time. He is kidnapped. He escapes, narrowly. The only person he tells is his best friend, Conner. When they arrive in London as planned for summer break, a stranger hands Jack a pair of glasses. Through the lenses, he sees another world called Marbury.” My small brain instantly went, “Oh my god it’s Who is Frances Rain? the sequel but with a male protagonist and a different author! Buy it now!”

I read the first seventy pages at night. Then I slept with all of the lights on. And then, the next morning, wrecked from not sleeping at all because I basically had the covers over my head all night and couldn’t breathe through them, I went to Starbucks so I could be all brave among people and finish the rest of it. I mean, by the end of the book I didn’t even want to hold the front cover with my hand. I was just thinking, “This is really kind of ridiculously terrifying and I now know the horror that it holds which is totally seeping through the cover and into my hands through this graphic design of a pair of glasses that some artist has rendered out of the content and oh dear god do you think that is really what those glasses look like? The ones that send Jack to Marbury? Because really, he should’ve known shit was going down. If someone handed me a pair of glasses like that I would be like, ‘No, thank you, I’m definitely going to pass.’”

The Marbury Lens is really young adult horror at its finest, in that, it’s actually terrifying. There is something seriously scary going on. It’s not just the horrific world of Marbury that Smith creates, but it’s also protagonist Jack’s desire to continue to travel there, to leave the real world behind where things are grey and lifeless and maybe a little bit boring and throw himself headfirst into the violence and war of the fantasy world of Marbury. And then there’s Jack’s own experience of horror in the real world, something all too real and vivid, that drives him towards an otherworldly violence that seems safer and more controlled. Smith’s focus on violence and horror lends a maturity to the novel, but he gives credit to his reader by supplementing mature content with a maturity of style. His short, terse sentences create a physicality that underlines the physical violence depicted in the novel.

The really great thing about young adult horror is that the teens who are reading it can totally just stay up late at home and be scared shitless and still be like, “Yeah, well, I guess my Mom’s downstairs in the living room or whatever so it’s not like I’m alone and so even though this was pretty terrifying, there’s still a whole lot of normal reality going on around me.” They don’t have to head to a Starbucks to find some company and be like, “Oh my god! Noisy, busy place with a bunch of people all around! Makes me feel like this isn’t real!” Smith really writes something awesomely scary. More than that, he writes it well. And if you want some horror, some unbelievably good writing, a fantasy world, and a pair of glasses, The Marbury Lens is going to deliver all of that in a pretty gory, exciting, and violent package. And I guess also if you were standing around thinking, “Oh, you know that lovely Margaret Buffie book that I read when I was twelve or something? I’m thinking I could really go for something like that. I really dug that thing about the glasses,” then this might totally do it for you.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Girl(s) to the Rescue

Hey! Hello! Welcome! This is the beginning of Girl to the Rescue, a literary blog that reviews mostly young adult literature, children’s books, graphic novels and fantasy. I’m reviewing books on that little sliding scale from “Best! Book! Ever!” to “Oh my god why did I not just close that thing three pages in?”

Here are some things, I mean like, a small collection:

1. I just finished my MA in English, which means I can go from, “Oh hey, read the canon and only the canon!” to “Wow, I can go back to reading young adult literature again which, you know, is my favorite category of books to read from.” This is my space to write about the books that I read and want to talk about and to start writing for myself again. This primarily means writing about books instead of writing grant applications, progress reports, and lesson plans. For the first time in a long time, I can go back to reading for story, characters, and connection.

2. This September is the first September that I won’t be beginning school again, back after Labor Day until semesters break for holidays and reading weeks, for exams and then the summer. However, I do live across from a public school and I bet that bell is going to ring pretty much every day like it’s saying, “See, you’re really never going to escape this.”

3. Bruce Lansky’s Girls to the Rescue series seems like the best place to start this blog. Lansky was one of the first authors that I met when I was younger, and he was one of the first authors that I actually wanted to meet. His collections of short stories rewrote fairy tales, folk tales, and contemporary stories to feature a female heroine in the place of a Prince Charming or male hero or some kind of champion of the people who also happened to be a man. The books were written for children and adolescents, and I think I started to read them when I was around eight or nine. Lansky’s short story in the first Girls to the Rescue book, “The Fairy Godmother’s Assistant,” was about a young girl who apprentices with the local fairy godmother, however, she “makes lemonade and not magic.” She was this incredibly capable character who doled out advice that you’d read and think, “Hey, you know what? I’m not in a fairy tale or anything but I’m pretty sure I’m going to use that.” I always thought she’d be this really capable person in real life and I’d be able to hear her voice in my head removed from Lansky’s words on the page, and have her say something like, “Oh hey? Cinderella? If you can make a gown for your stepsisters than I bet you can probably make one for yourself. That's just basic logic.” Ten years after reading those stories for the first time I was introduced to Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber in university. That same simple idea of exchanging the hero of a fairy tale with a heroine still sat underneath the complicated layers of language, idea, and setting of Carter’s stories, and I recognized it instantly from my experience reading Girls to the Rescue when I was younger.

4. In a kind of weird sidestep from Lansky’s stories, he’s also known for something else entirely. Now I Google him and the top hits are all for his collections of Baby Name books, even though it was his stories about strong, interesting, and heroic girls that I always knew him by. I can’t remember if the character names he used in some of those Girls to the Rescue stories were the ones you’re always looking for when you’re writing a new character and it’s not going to be any good until you get the name right, like, “Throw me a baby name book, I need some inspiration!”

So: in the next few weeks and months I want to read and write as much as possible. Seriously, I am going to need a new prescription for my glasses and also some sort of brace for carpel tunnel syndrome. Most of what I’ll write about here is young adult literature, but there will also be a strong emphasis on fantasy. I mean, I can quote Lord of the Rings pretty much backwards. Like someone pulled over for a DUI trying to do the straight line walk and starting from Z, I’m doing that starting with maybe those appendices at the end of Return of the King and going all the way back to the Shire or something.

And that’s it. We’re off and also running.