Tuesday, December 27, 2011

How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr

Sara Zarr is probably best known for Story of a Girl, which was nominated for the National Book Award in 2007. It was followed by Sweethearts, my favorite Zarr book out of the two, as it details the friendship of teenagers Jennifer and Cam. But now my favorite Zarr book has been replaced by her yet-to-be-released How to Save a Life. The novel will be published in January, and I was able to fly through an ARC that I really couldn’t put it down.

How to Save a Life is told through the dual perspectives of Jill MacSweeney and Mandy Kalinowski, two teenagers whose lives are pushed together at the beginning of the novel. Mandy answers a post on a message board left by Jill’s mother, Robin, who is looking for a baby to adopt. Jill’s father, her mother’s husband, recently died in a car crash. Both Jill’s dad and mom had been looking to adopt a new baby, even though they are both in their early fifties and already have a daughter, seventeen-year-old Jill. After her husband dies, Jill’s mom decides to go ahead with adoption, which leads to her discovery of Mandy, a pregnant teenager desperate to find a loving family for her baby, due in just a few weeks. Although Jill seems to initially disagree with her mother’s choice to adopt, the imperceptible revealing of information about Jill’s mother throughout the book also offers an interesting character study. What seems like a whim, the choice to adopt a baby, initially makes Jill’s mother seem almost immature, yet, her competence, intelligence, and caring nature are slowly revealed as the story unravels, a subtle part of the novel that builds towards a much greater impact.

Although the situation is necessary to explaining how Jill and Mandy enter one another’s lives, this book is really about them. The story and situation is compelling from both of their perspectives, but this novel reads more as a character study, a brief stay with two important people. And what is effective about both of them is that they have character traits that make them so unlikeable at times. For instance, the first glimpse of Mandy that the reader gets is of her journey by train to Denver, Colorado, where she is going to stay with Jill and her mother for the weeks until her baby is born. This small chapter shows her cycling the advice about men her mother has passed onto her, most of which greatly hints at the life that Mandy is leaving behind. When she sits next to a man on the train, she reflects, “I close my eyes and imagine him watching me, wondering about me, thinking how pretty I am while I sleep. My mother says men like to see you like that. In sleep you look vulnerable, and it makes them want to take care of you.” These reflections are cringe-worthy, as is Mandy’s insistence that Jill will not like her because her mother has always emphasized the competitiveness between women to her daughter. Yet as the novel goes on and the reader spends more and more time with Mandy – especially as she wanders throughout the MacSweeney house during the day, when Jill and her mother are at school and work – she starts to seem more like a real person. The unlikeable nature that has been built into her character begins to pull away, enacting an overwhelming empathy for Mandy. Halfway through, Mandy thinks:

"There’s a daydream I’ve had ever since I was little. I don’t know where it comes from – maybe I saw something like it in a movie or on TV, or maybe I read it in a book. Except I haven’t read very many books so that’s probably not it. Maybe I thought it up all on my own. In it I live in a log cabin by a small lake, and on the other side of the lake is another log cabin, exactly like mine. A perfect square. A man lives in it, and he carves tiny animals out of wood. For me. A bear, a deer, a raccoon. And puts them in a boat to float them to my side of the lake. I can never think what to send back, because I don’t have anything, but I’m never lonely. Every time I walk out of the cabin door and look across my lake, he’s there on his porch, carving. Water and wildflowers between us, but we’re still together.

"The baby will always have Robin. Jill, too, even though now she acts like she doesn’t care. She will. In a way the baby will have me, also. I’ll be like the man in the cabin across the lake, and for once I can be the one sending things across – letters, money, presents – and the baby won’t have to send anything back. I can give and give and give and never have to take, because I won’t really be the mother. We won’t fight like mothers and daughters do. I won’t be able to hurt her or mess up her life with my bad decisions. For instance if I pick the wrong boyfriend, it won’t affect her, and I won’t be able to make her feel bad about herself; she’ll always be protected by the space between us."

Mandy is paired with Jill, who is overcoming experiences of her own. She is left reeling after the death of her father, unable to move on since his passing almost a year ago. She finds herself isolated and alone after pushing her friends and her boyfriend away, relying on the space that her job at a bookstore creates for her, a built-in community and place to go. Mandy moving into Jill’s house doesn’t make any sense to her. Jill is angry at her mother for thinking that adopting a new baby will help them move on, and her bitterness and hurt makes things tense in the household. But when she meets Ravi Desai at work, a nineteen-year-old who has been hired to investigate thefts at the bookstore, she quickly convinces him to investigate another mystery: why Mandy is so willing to give up her baby and move to Denver to be with Jill and her mother.

This book hooked me the second that I read a perspective from both Mandy and Jill. I don’t think I can recommend this book highly enough, and with a publication date next month, it’s not far away from being available! Jill and Mandy and their story stuck with me for a while after I was finished the novel, and now I’m doubling back to read Sara Zarr’s third novel, Once Was Lost, because I’m really enjoying the stories that she tells.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Winter Town by Stephen Emond

Winter Town by Stephen Emond is advertised as “an illustrated Garden State meets Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist,” and I think that those two comparisons really immediately describe the book as something that has been seen in other places, and will be immediately recognizable to a new audience.

The novel is set in New England at Christmas, and although the bulk of it takes place during one set of Christmas holidays in particular, Emond starts and ends the book both a year in the past and a year in the future from the present story. The Christmas holidays create the occasion of the return of protagonist Evan’s childhood friend Lucy to New England, where she visits her father for Christmas. For the rest of the year she lives with her mother in Georgia, and the return to New England allows her to also catch up with Evan. A year before this story takes place shows the Lucy that Evan knows, a normal girl with long brown hair who can relate to Evan on many levels. The bulk of the book takes place during the Christmas when Lucy returns home with her hair dyed black and chopped off, with heavy eye makeup and her nose pierced. Evan is the focus of the novel, along with his trying to come to terms with what he calls “The New Lucy.” The story takes place over a week or so, during the days leading up to Christmas until New Year’s, when Lucy has to return to Georgia.

As a standalone character (I mean in another book, without the relationship with Lucy), Evan is a great, relatable character. He feels the pressure from his father about university applications, and is trying to navigate between the future that his parents want for him and the future that he wants for himself. He is smart, kind, but overwhelmingly confused. However, when Lucy enters the picture, everything that makes Evan so likeable is immediately reversed. He can’t come to terms with the changes that have taken place in his friend, and because of his own confusion, Lucy becomes less of a character than an object for Evan to examine, question, and try to understand. And the difficult thing about that is that Lucy is an incredibly interesting and dynamic character. She’s funny, cool, and incredibly intelligent. When we do get a glimpse into Lucy’s life in Georgia during a short chapter halfway through the novel, I think we almost want to stay there, and experience the overwhelming feelings that Lucy has felt, rather than return to the banal world that Evan inhabits.

Yet, Evan goes one step further by actually turning Lucy into a character in a comic strip that he creates and titles “Aelysthia” after a fantasy world that he and Lucy made up when they were younger. As a character in his comic strip, Lucy becomes further stripped of everything that makes her so interesting and dynamic, as Evan has her speak lines such as, “Feh. I’ll be stuck here. I’ll meet some dumb guy and have dumb kids. I’ll never see the ivory tower, just ivory soap. And then I’ll die.” This oversimplification is not just in comic form; there are also hints at this through Evan’s descriptions of Lucy. The reader gets a sense, especially from the one chapter that does talk about Lucy’s life in Georgia, that there is a lot more to her, and as a reader I felt almost cheated out of her story.

Additionally, the art, music, movies, and books that this book references create this small bubble of culture, one that calls on the intertextuality between the different art forms to define the ideal audience of the book. For example, throughout this book, Emond calls on Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comic series, Stephen King’s The Dark Tower, Lord of the Rings, Ben Folds, the Beatles, and web comic series Achewood and Gunnerkrigg Court. As exciting as it is as a reader to see references to familiar works, at times the references seem artificial, as if they come with a preconceived idea about who the people who consume this culture are, and as an effect, references can take the place of more in-depth character description. That Lucy and Evan consume this culture seems to say more about them that Emond does. Still, it does lead readers down a reference rabbit hole, one that Emond sets up with care.

A focus on art is at the heart of the book. Lucy’s troubled home life and experience in Georgia have given her a drive towards expression, and she believes that Evan will never be able to be the artist he could be because his home life is so ideal. She believes that art has to come out of a place of pain and hurting, and she has a desire to almost set this up for Evan, so that he can experience the heartbreak necessary to be an artist. It is a conversation that is familiar, the origins of art and whether it can come out of an ideal situation or rather that there has to be heartbreak and loss to nurture an artist’s work. Emond resolves this discussion by the end of the novel, and whether it seems contrived or easily achieved depends on how invested the reader becomes in these two characters and their story. For me, Lucy’s pain and heartbreak was definitely where I wished the story would go towards more often, yet we return to Evan, whose ideal home life does seem boring and uneventful at times. His “with it” grandma is the one character who stands out in Evan’s family, but if Emond wants to convince readers that art can come from anywhere, he seems to double back on this by making Lucy’s story so much more engaging than Evan’s own.

This book really reads as a contemporary novel for young adults, and it does it through a fusion of words and graphics. However, I think Bryan O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim series did what Emond is looking to do here – use comics, words, and culture alongside a male character trying to figure out how to read a female one – but I liked the way O’Malley did it a little bit better. But this novel is still an interesting reflection on a relationship, one that happens for one week out of every year, and it captures two teenagers on the cusp of the transition between high school and college both realistically and effectively. 

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Salem Brownstone by John Harris Dunning and Nikhil Singh

Salem Brownstone: All Along the Watchtowers by John Harris Dunning and Nikhil Singh is a graphic novel that I picked up last spring because of a recommendation on Robin McKinley’s website (I really take book suggestions by authors seriously, and this book is made even more highly recommended through a note by Alan Moore on the front cover). It is a beautiful, unique book with illustrations that go into more detail than it seems can fit on the page.

The story begins with a telegram, informing protagonist Salem Brownstone about he death of his father, Jedidiah. The note comes from a stranger, Lola Q., who urges Salem to leave behind the Sit and Spin Laundromat that he runs and take possession of his father’s house and all of its contents. The telegram is sent on Halloween, but the year is conspicuously absent, making this story timeless; it feels both recent and far in the past at the same time.

Salem’s relationship with his father is one full of secrets and absences. He arrives at his father’s house regretting the time that he can’t reclaim to get to know his now deceased father. The only clues that he has to explain his father’s life exist inside the house, a towering Victorian mansion next to a circus encampment (Salem picks up a flyer that has drifted over that reads “Dr. Kinoshita’s Circus of Unearthly Delights”), and his initial response is to believe that his father was a magician. Salem’s new life brings him into contact with Cassandra, a contortionist who feels like she has to take care of Salem because he is Jedidiah’s son. When a group called the Shadow Boys appear at Salem’s father’s house, Cassandra pulls Salem into the world of the circus, where he begins to learn about the secrets of his father and the ways that he will continue his lineage of magic and wonder.

This is an interesting book to read in tandem with Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, because both novels see their story and characters eclipsed by the setting that the authors create. Salem Brownstone introduces another circus, but rather than using prose to describe this place, Dunning and Singh use the format of the graphic novel to immerse the reader in a fascinating and magical environment. Like The Night Circus, Dr. Kinoshita’s Circus is populated with strange and talented people, such as Roscoe Dillinger “Tiger Tamer Extraordinaire,” Jynx Monkeygirl, Cookie Hereo, and Dr. Kinoshita. As Salem learns the ways of the circus, he also becomes aware of who he is going to have to fight against, and why his father died, and what, exactly, is taking place in the dark world of Mu’brie, the Midnight City. This is as much a coming of age story as it is an immersion into a fantasy world, where magicians duel and carry on old antagonisms. The loss of Salem’s father and what that means for the rest of his life draws attention to the everyday aspects of this story that are tucked within the more magical ones.

It’s a fun, beautifully drawn book. I love the way that the setting of the circus impacts the format of the illustrations, where Cassandra the Contortionist has her speech bubbles turned upside down and to the side depending on what position she’s in. This is the ideal format to explore story and setting, and I think this is one place where the graphic novel becomes a blend of words and illustrations because the narrative calls for it. 

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

It's Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini

Reading It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini is kind of like sitting down with protagonist Craig Gilner and hanging out with him for as long as it takes to listen to what he has to say. He starts off his narrative at his friend Aaron’s house, sitting with his friends and finding that he can’t really get into the conversation:

“It’s so hard to talk when you want to kill yourself. That’s above and beyond everything else, and it’s not a mental complaint – it’s a physical thing, like it’s physically hard to open your mouth and make the words come out. They don’t come out smooth and in conjunction with your brain the way normal people’s words do; they come out in chunks as if from a crushed-ice dispenser; you stumble on them as they gather behind your lower lip. So you just keep quiet.”

Except for his inner monologue and the constant reminder of the crippling depression that leaves him sitting in darkened bathrooms for a lot longer than is normal, Craig seems like a normal fifteen-year-old. He has a group of friends who hang out, and within that group are romantic couplings and best friendships and acquaintances. He goes to school, he comes home, he has a normal family that lives in a Brooklyn neighborhood. But once Craig explains something as simple as the difficulty to talk to the rest of his friends, the reader is immediately aware that this book is going to be something important. The novel was inspired by Ned Vizzini’s own hospitalization for depression as a teenager, and the close and personal nature of that situation is clearly communicated through the narrative.

Not long after this first night with his friends, Craig details a visit to his psychiatrist and his eventual decision to check himself into the psychiatric ward of a hospital. His decision comes from a telephone call to 1-800-SUICIDE, where he is kindly advised to make this positive decision for himself. The majority of Craig’s narrative takes place in the hospital, where he must stay for a prescribed amount of time before he is allowed to leave. He meets other patients in the hospital, and these individuals become the personality of the book, as Vizzini crafts a breadth of representation of characters that Craig meets on his stay. The other patients are young and old, male and female, friendly and reclusive, seemingly normal or delusional. While he is there, Craig becomes particularly close with Noelle, a female patient who is the same age he is, and Bobby, who becomes a mentor to Craig while he is in the hospital. These two relationships develop throughout the novel, and provide Craig with a network that begins to pull him towards another direction.

Craig’s goal, what he needs to do, is to make a “mental shift” happen. The description that Craig uses to talk about his depression is one of the strongest aspects of the novel. He speaks in terms of feeling a shift that has to happen to pull him out of one space and into another, something that feels both immaterial and tangible at the same time. It is his passion for art that he eventually rediscovers at the hospital that makes this shift possible. One of the reasons Craig has suffered a breakdown is the stress and anxiety accrued from the competitive nature of applying to the Executive Pre-Professional High School at the end of middle school. Craig placed all of his efforts into studying for the entrance exam for the school, only to find that it was just as difficult and as much work once when was then accepted. He didn’t have spare time or any time that wasn’t spent on flashcards and practice problems and math equations. He finds that he has regained this spare time during his stay in the hospital, time that he uses for art.

Craig’s stay at the hospital is interrupted by brief flashbacks to his life, where he brings into light the evidence that shows why he felt like the hospital was the only answer for his problems. These flashbacks contain one of my favorite descriptions, one where Craig talks about his depression arriving like the legs and tentacles of an octopus, each of which he must wrestle down before another one springs up.

I would really compare this novel to something like Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar or J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, two books that deal with a sort of teenage depression told in the first person. I think Vizzini updates these classics and makes the same feelings and situations relevant and appealing to a younger reading audience. These three authors – Plath, Salinger, and Vizzini – are speaking about depression, but each of them uses a protagonist so different than the others, that the emotional state becomes tangible in a multitude of ways. Vizzini’s novel is a powerful, immediate story with a lot of humor in it, and it is definitely worth reading. 

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was probably one of my favorite books that I read when it came out a few years ago. It was the first book that I read by Alexie, which was neat, because I would encounter his short stories and adult literary novels in university courses, where, in discussions of Alexie, there were no mentions of his young adult novel (which won the National Book Award in 2007!). As much as I have really enjoyed the rest of Alexie’s work, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is still my favorite by far.

In Alexie’s novel, fourteen-year-old protagonist Arnold Spirit Jr. introduces himself by stating that he was “born with water on the brain.” The first chapter of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, titled “The Black-Eye-of-the-Month Club” introduces the reader to Junior’s personable and frank style of writing. He details his medical record, which reads long like a list of defects and problems, among them a stutter, seizures, and a large head that he describes as “Epic.” The novel follows Junior’s decision to leave the Spokane reservation that he lives on with his family to attend the nearby school of Reardan in order to complete his education at a predominantly white school. Although the decision to leave the reservation is made early in the book – on the occasion of Junior finding his mother’s name written in his school textbook, and his anger and frustration over the fact that the school cannot update even the textbooks – Junior has been thinking about the possibility of leaving long before he chooses to go to Reardan. Junior draws cartoons and pictures as a way to exercise his creative impetus and he notes, “I draw because I feel like it might be my only real chance to escape the reservation.” Although Reardan represents a contrast of Junior’s experiences so far, he knows that leaving the reservation to attend school each day and return home at night will provide him with the opportunity he needs to get his education. It is a brave and informed decision, as Junior understands that he will be ostracized by his tribe on the reservation while Reardan is hardly a safe and welcoming environment for him. Junior describes Reardan as “the rich, white farm town that sits in the wheat fields exactly twenty-two miles away form the rez. And it’s a hick town, I suppose, filled with farmers and rednecks and racist cops who stop every Indian that drives through.”

This move exposes Junior to models of identity, both white and Indigenous, that continue to see-saw between the reservation and Reardan throughout the novel. In each place Junior responds to the rules, relationships, and organization that govern experience on and off the reservation. These differences are usually depicted in oppositional terms that desire a model of “compare and contrast” to describe them. Junior understands how the origins of racialized difference effect experience while also using “difference” as a lens through which he can view his adolescent identity. Junior constantly reevaluates his identity position between the reservation and Reardan, where he “woke up on the reservation as an Indian, and somewhere on the road to Reardan, I became something less than Indian. And once I arrived at Reardan, I became something less than less than less than Indian.”

One of the most affecting scenes in the novel comes because Junior makes the basketball team at Reardan, only to play the first and last games against Wellpinit, his old school on the reservation. Although they lose the first game, Junior’s Reardan team beats Wellpinit the second time in order to end the winning streak of the reservation school. At the end of the game Junior says,

"We had defeated the enemy! We had defeated the champions! We were David who’d thrown a stone into the brain of Goliath!
And then I realized something.
I realized that my team, the Reardan Indians, was Goliath."

Junior’s early recognition of difference unravels into his understanding of the difference between his experience as an Indigenous fourteen-year-old in comparison to the formation of white adolescence that he observes off the reservation. Junior’s ability to mature is directly connected to his ability to experience aspects of identity of those other people that he meets and understands, and he becomes cognizant of how difference is constructed. In his speech after winning the Horn Book Award, Sherman Alexie insists that this is a goal of the novel: to find a balance between opposing structures of identity. He writes, “And this book says something else: that as much as you can love your parents, as much as you can love your community, as much as you can love your family, you can also be radically different from them. It says that you can be part of your family and yet distinct from it, and that doesn’t change your love for your family, but it changes who you become. And I think that’s a lot of what teenagers have responded to: they see in a book that you can make your own decisions for yourself and still be a loving member of you family and your community.”

The novel points to Junior’s reconciliation with himself: the impetus to leave and the desire to hold onto the family, friends, and community that provide safety and reinforcement for him. At the beginning of the novel, Junior expresses a distinction between these two halves of his forming identity when he says, “I felt like a magician slicing myself in half, with Junior living on the north side of the Spokane River and Arnold living on the south.” At the end of the novel he realizes,

"And no matter how good I was, I would always be an Indian. And some folks just found it difficult to compare an Indian to a white guy. It wasn’t racism, not exactly. It was, well, I don’t know what it was. I was something different, something new."

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

This is the second time that I’ve reviewed the lesser known book by an author before the more well-known one, using that review to just mention the well-known book. I reviewed Brian Selznick’s Wonderstruck before The Invention of Hugo Cabret, and then I reviewed Markus Zusak’s The Messenger before The Book Thief. Mostly, this is because because the well-known books – these incredible stories by both Selznick and Zusak – seem almost untouchable because of their notoriety, their recognition through awards (Hugo Cabret picked up the Caldecott and The Book Thief was a Prinz Honor Book), and their popularity with readers.

But then again, to call The Messenger and Wonderstruck “lesser known books” seems a little ridiculous, which goes to show just how important these “well-known books” are.

Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief is a book that is a huge, wild undertaking, and it seems possible to talk about it only in small parts, diving into various meaningful moments because the overarching story is so intricate, complicated, and unparalleled. Even the plot summary is difficult to capture in a paragraph. Narrated by Death during WWII, The Book Thief focuses primarily on young Liesel Meminger, who is herself a self-named “book thief.” Death observes and notes the first time Liesel steals a book, The Grave Digger’s Handbook, which she finds on the day of her brother’s funeral. Liesel is taken in by a foster family, where she learns how to read the books that she finds, steals, and accumulates (and one she rescues from a book burning, risking everything in Nazi Germany because of the draw and magnetism of words). Everything that Liesel knows changes when her foster parents hide a young Jewish man in the basement of their house, when history, politics, and narratives begin to intertwine, drawing Liesel into the stories that she never thought she would be able to live and tell.

Liesel’s relationship with Max, the young Jewish man in the basement, quickly becomes the heart of the story. Or at least he shares that center part, this text and word version of how it is to look at a painting and find that you focus in on certain places and points. Young and not completely understanding of the situation between Germans and Jews, the careful negotiation of the relationship between Liesel and Max is at once heartbreaking and remarkable. Max illustrates a story he entitles The Standover Man on pages of Mein Kampf that he has painted over in white, and Zusak includes this in its entirety at the center of the novel.

Yet, Liesel’s friend Rudy is one of the most affecting characters in the novel. His story is set up using a strange method of revealing: Death frequently reminds the reader that Rudy is going to die. Rudy’s ending is revealed, and the tension comes from the reader having to continue to read the novel in order to get to this ending that we know is coming. Rudy is a vibrant character who “runs like Jesse Owens” and is one of the most brilliant examples of the juxtaposition of youth and war.

And then there is Death’s narration. A device that could be distracting and obvious instead treats the subject matter with the thoughtfulness that it deserves. I was wary of this narration going into the novel, particularly because the only experience I had with Death as a narrator was from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, where it is used much more humorously and ironically. This is different from the first person narratives of WWII that come from novels and memoirs, and different still from the third person narration of present day authors who set their novels during WWII. This is something that sits between the two, an almost-second-person, a perspective that isn’t seen regularly in novels. This difference is exactly what is necessary to insist that this is a new perspective: this is a new way to examine WWII and the Holocaust through literature.  

The reason I think I’ve put off this review, even though this is one book that I would like to share the most, is that not being able to capture it precisely seems to not say anything at all about what this book is. I can’t recommend this book enough, but leaving this review with Zusak’s own writing provides the best reason for reading:

"For now, Rudy and Liesel made their way onto Himmel Street in the rain.
He was the crazy one who had painted himself black and defeated the world.
She was the book thief without the words.
Trust me, though, the words were on their way, and when they arrived, Liesel would hold them in her hands like the clouds, and she would wring them out like rain."

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick

It seems like I’m really going wild with the “books to TV/movie” reviews lately. Game of Thrones, The Night Circus, Swamplandia, The Wild Things… This time it’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick that has received the movie treatment, a book that I loved the first time I read it. Hugo Cabret is a dynamic and unique book, composed of both Selznick’s words and illustrations.

Totaling over 500 pages, the novel begins with this introduction from one Professor H. Alcofrisbas:

The story I am about to share with you takes place in 1931, under the roofs of Paris. Here you will meet a boy named Hugo Cabret, who once, long ago, discovered a mysterious drawing that changed his life forever.
But before you turn the page, I want you to picture yourself sitting in the darkness, like the beginning of a movie. On screen, the sun will soon rise, and you will find yourself zooming toward a train station in the middle of the city. You will rush through the doors into a crowded lobby. You will eventually spot a boy amid the crowd, and he will start to move through the train station. Follow him, because this is Hugo Cabret. His head is full of secrets, and he’s waiting for his story to begin.

Hugo’s life revolves around clocks. He lives in a train station in Paris and winds the clocks daily, a skill that he has inherited from both his father and uncle. He watches the toyshop across the street from behind the face of a clock in the train station, frequently stealing small windup toys from the counter in order to remove their springs and mechanical parts to use for his own devices. An older man owns the shop, and Hugo notices a young girl who frequently accompanies him at his work. However, on the day that Hugo tries to steal a windup mouse, the owner catches him. The man doesn’t just take back the toy that has been stolen. He steals Hugo’s notebook, entranced by a drawing that he recognizes and notes that, upon looking at it, he feels like the ghosts of memory have found him again.

The drawing in the notebook is of a mechanical man, windup insides exposed, the replica of the actual figure that Hugo guards inside the train station. Hugo’s father once found the figure at the museum he worked at, noting, “It’s a windup figure, like a music box or toy, except it’s infinitely more complicated. I’ve seen a few before, a singing bird in a cage and a mechanical acrobat on a trapeze. But this one is far more complex and interesting than those.” The secret of this one, this automaton, is that it has the ability to write. It holds a pen, and Hugo believes that one it’s wound up, it will write a message. The mechanical man became an obsession for Hugo’s father, and one night he locked himself in the attic of the museum to work on it, succumbing to a fire that engulfed the museum. Hugo is left to live with his uncle, a clockmaker also, yet, at the beginning of Hugo Cabret Hugo’s Uncle Claude has disappeared, leaving Hugo to tend to the clocks of the train station on his own. Now, living alone, it falls to Hugo to continue the work on the automaton. He believes that before his death, his father may have recorded a new message for Hugo alone.

Repairing the automaton brings him in contact with the young girl, Isabelle, and Georges Melies, the toyshop owner. Both attend to the shop, and Hugo begins working there in order to facilitate the return of his notebook. In this way, Selznick weaves together the areas of clockwork, 1930s film, and pre-WWII Paris. Hugo finds out that Isabelle has the key that is needed to wind the automaton, and his relationship with her and Georges Melies progress until he is able to attain the key from Isabelle and watches the message unfold (with an annoyed Isabelle by his side).

But, rather than a message, the automaton draws a picture, one that Hugo discovers is from a Georges Melies movie. The book breaks in half at this point, because, as Alcofrisbas notes, “stories lead to other stories, and this one leads all the way to the moon.” The second half of the story revolves around Melies, and one of the most beautiful sections of the book includes a collection of his illustrations. Melies, haunted by his works in the film industry, does not want the “ghosts” of his past creativity coming back. He tears his pictures apart and shouts, “How could this be mine? I am not an artist! I am nothing! I’m a penniless merchant, a prisoner! A shell! A windup toy!” The two children endeavor to bring Melies back to appreciating his own art. This includes the beautiful chapter, “The Invention of Dreams,” where Hugo takes the subway to the Academie du Cinema Francais and is given an introduction to Melies by Etienne, a friend of Isabelle’s.

The novel ultimately draws Etienne (who loves Melies’ films and thought that the filmmaker was dead), Isabelle, and Hugo together to help Melies return to his art. The mysterious origins of the automaton are revealed. The intricacies of heartbreak, loss, and shutting the door on the past are threaded throughout the separate experiences of Hugo, Isabelle, and Melies. The visual images capture character while the story fills in other details. Watching the images zoom in on Melies the first time that he is introduced to the story show a hopelessness and loss in his eyes that is not explained or explored until much later in the novel. The fact that both Isabelle and Hugo have lost their parents is lessened when they find each other. Art and looking towards creativity (and reading! Isabelle frequents a small Parisian bookstore that Hugo begins to visit, and the spine by spine illustrations of close space and too many books are magnificent) seem to be Selznick’s answers, both of which are carefully laid out in a series of artistic forms in the book. Not only does Selznick use words and images, but he also calls upon the crafts of clockwork and filmmaking that round out other options for expressing creativity. This creativity brings respite to the characters in the story and allows them to push their pain into something tangible, meaningful, and beautiful.

Again, Selnick’s Wonderstruck just came out a few months ago, but I still prefer Hugo Cabret. Hugo Cabret shows how art can be created out of a painful and isolated place, but that it enacts a sort of connection and beauty that shows a transition from one form to the other. It is a brilliant work of art in itself, using this medium to express something important about creating. I haven’t gone to see the movie yet, but I’m really looking forward to seeing where it takes the book, and if Selznick’s thread of creativity stays in tact. 

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Maus by Art Spiegelman

I know that I’m late to reading Art Spiegelman’s Maus. It has been one of those glaring omissions from the books that I’ve read, one of those admissions to, “What really canonical important novels haven’t you read?” I had always been meaning to read the graphic novels (and I’m actually only one in – I picked up volume one, My Father Bleeds History, from a secondhand bookstore, but the other volume was no where to be found), but other books seemed to take priority. It was just luck that I was able to find a copy of the book the other day, but finally reading Maus now seems really convenient. 2011 overlaps with the twenty-fifth anniversary of publication, which coincides with the October release of MetaMaus: A Look Inside a Modern Classic (the book also includes a section of rejection letters Spiegelman received when sending Maus to publishing houses). And because of this recent publication, Spiegelman has been back in the spotlight, with interviews cropping up in major newspapers. They are all really great to read, particularly his interview with the Guardian where Spiegelman says, “Having a writer in the family is to have a traitor in it; it's basic to the project.” So everything is really going on with Maus again right now, and it seems like a happy miracle that I found the book now to read.

Maus tells the story of Spiegelman’s father, Vladek, a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust. It is recounted through a series of interviews between Spiegelman and his father, which reveal a frustration between father and son that speaks towards a relationship that does not appear completely in the novel. The graphic novel form casts the Jewish characters as mice and the Nazis as cats, and these representations both refigure the events of the Holocaust while also changing nothing (Polish characters are drawn as pigs, and Americans as dogs). As Spiegelman meets regularly with his father at his New York apartment, he pieces together the history that is related to him at each meeting. The story meanders, backtracks, and loops at times (and this occurs because when Spiegelman’s interruptions cause his father to scold him for confusing the order in which things are told), which is underlined by the conditions under which Spiegelman’s father tells the story. At times father and son walk and talk, but mostly their meetings occur while Spiegelman’s father rides an exercise bike in the apartment. All of this present action precludes and influences the story of the Holocaust that Spiegelman is so interested in, reconnecting with his father in order to find out the details of his personal experience. The story unravels from the early 1930s to the relocation of Spiegelman’s parents to Auschwitz in the 1940s, at which point the second volume continues the story.

I was fascinated by the structure of the movement between present and past, between listening and telling, particularly for what it reveals about Spiegelman‘s father during the process. The present Vladek lives with his second wife Mala, who is also a survivor of the Holocaust. He treats her like a servant, and is impatient, controlling, and erratic in his relationship with her. He yells at her when she hangs up his son’s coat (“Acch, Mala! A wire hanger you give him! I haven’t seen Artie in almost two years – we have plenty wooden hangers” [and the two year gap in their visits seems to signal early the relationship between father and son]), and complains when she cooks dinner (“Pfeh – the chicken was, I thought, too dry…I tell you, with Mala I don’t know what to do. She –“). But these vagaries of Vladek’s present relationship and life, which are introduced before returning to the events of the Holocaust, cast a light backwards on the rest of the book. It becomes a way of reading with the end in mind, and knowing that Vladek’s character in the present may influence or change the way he describes his character in the past to his son. He has the ability to construct a past character, and the reader has the ability to see him as a present character, and understand how that might change the construction of the past.

I am, of course, looking for the second volume, and am a little bit disappointed that I didn’t just find MetaMaus and buy that instead. To look for a sequel to this novel seems strange, particularly because as a reader, I know it will take me right back into the suffering and difficulty of the first volume. However, Spiegelman’s past/present construction seems to make this important, and his characterization of the father/son relationship in the present makes this even more effective. I’m late in reading this story, but I’m glad I finally did pick it up, and I’m eager to see what comes next.