August 24th, 2016
The 55 essays that follow this book’s preface are divided into three sections, “Reading Things,” “Seeing Things,” and “Being There” (plus an epilogue). The essays in the first section are literary criticism, mostly; the essays in the second section are about art (mostly, but not only, photography); the essays in the last section are sometimes travel essays and sometimes other kinds of essays about places/being in the world. I found myself pleased by this book right from the prologue: I like that Teju Cole is apparently someone who tries out pens in shops often enough to have something he always writes when doing so, and also that the thing he writes when doing so is a snippet of Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf. There are things about Cole’s sensibility that make me nod with recognition: he likes poems by Tomas Tranströmer and essays by André Aciman, and it seems like he likes them for some of the same reasons that I also like those things. (It was a pleasure to read Cole’s essay about Aciman’s Alibis, and to remember my own reading of Alibis, where I was when I read it and how the prose made me pause and grin.) I like how Cole is drawn to moments of/the idea of epiphany. I like sentences like this, from “Black Body”: “The music you travel with helps you to create your own internal weather” (7).
In the section of the book about art, highlights for me included a piece about 20th-century West African photographic portraiture by Malick Sidibé and others, and a piece about Roy DeCarava’s photos and photographing black skin when film was calibrated based on white skin and a piece about Howard French’s Shanghai Photographs, and a piece about Richard Renaldi’s Touching Strangers project, and a really really great piece about Dina Kelberman’s I’m Google, which is such a cool project. I also love this list, from a piece about Saul Leiter: “He returned again and again to a small constellation of subjects: mirrors and glass, shadows and silhouettes, reflection, blur, fog, rain, snow, doors, buses, cars, fedoras” (141). I appreciate that there are color inserts that show some of the artwork being discussed, including some of Cole’s own photographs (which are great, especially the one of the US/Mexico border in Sasabe).
The first piece in the last section of the book, “Far Away from Here,” is probably my favorite in this section: it’s about being in Switzerland and taking photos in the Alps and the history of Alpine tourism and travel/travel photos in general, and about homesickness and its opposite. You can read it online here, with more photos than in the book, and it’s excellent. I also really liked the piece about voting in the 2008 presidential election, and pieces about trips to Brazil and Rome and what Cole sees there, partly but not entirely focused on race/race relations/history, and the piece about another trip to Brazil in which Cole tries to find the spot from which René Burri’s “Men on a Rooftop” was taken.
In Kiss & Tell, after telling the story of her parents’ meeting, courtship, and marriage (her mom was 16 when they met; her dad was 25; they married when her mom was 19), MariNaomi recounts all of her romantic/sexual encounters from childhood to age 22—from the boy who kissed her on the cheek in kindergarten to a five-year-long relationship that lasted longer than it probably should have, with all the crushes and hook-ups in between. There are funny stories and awkward stories and stories that are kinda sad; there are drug-fuelled stories (including a really pleasing depiction of an acid trip) and alcohol-fuelled stories and threesome-stories. There are stories driven by wanting, and stories driven by being wanted, and stories about the kind of hook-ups that just kind of happen for lack of anything else more interesting.
I liked the longer pieces in the book most—like the one about a relationship with a model who was in trouble with the law for stealing car stereos, and several intertwining stories about that five-year-long relationship—but the whole thing was pretty pleasing.
I liked this second “Hilda” book more than the first: the art is as whimsical and gorgeous as it was in the first book, and there’s a bit more of a story. Just after the book opens, Hilda and her mom hear a knock on their door: but when Hilda opens it, no one’s there. Hilda finds a tiny envelope on the grass outside: it’s the latest in a series of threatening letters (all equally tiny). The letters, all of which are from local elves (who are invisible to Hilda and her mom) all say that Hilda and her mom have to leave their home. But things quickly escalate after the arrival of this letter: stones come through the windows, and the elves announce that Hilda and her mom are being forcibly evicted. Hilda manages to prevent that from happening, but her mom suggests that maybe they should move to town anyway: it’d be better for her career, and maybe better for Hilda, too. Hilda’s having none of it, and her mom agrees that if she can get the elves to let them stay without further harassment, then they can stay.
Meanwhile, the elves aren’t the only fantastical creatures around: late at night, Hilda keeps seeing a giant who’s unfathomably enormous, mountain-sized. Size is relative, of course: Hilda’s as much of a giant to the elves as this giant is to her, and the idea that we’re all going about our lives, possibly oblivious to/overlooking others around us, gets played with in humorous and satisfying ways.
August 13th, 2016
I’ve been quite liking Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence since reading the first-published one, Three Parts Dead, two years ago. I like the world of this series (which features gods and demons and magic that looks like lawyering), and the way the different stories in the different books intertwine, and the way each book basically centers around a problem to be solved, but contains lots else besides. In this book, which is the fifth to be published but the fourth in terms of internal chronology, the problem is Seril, the moon-goddess who everyone thought had died but who is, in fact, alive, though much weaker than she used to be. In her absence, the city of Alt Coulumb and its inhabitants have been used to having one god, the fire-god Kos, and Seril’s reappearance threatens to seriously destabilize the city, and possibly even the whole world. So the book is about the city (and also certain key characters from Three Parts Dead) figuring out how to handle Seril’s presence. But also, it’s about finance and magic and faith and friendship and love and how to carry on in the face of existential threats.
There’s a whole lot of plot in this book, lots of action and excitement and danger, and also a little romance and a bunch of humor, and I totally enjoyed it. I mean, how could I not like a book that includes a chapter that starts with this?
“I never thought I could have so little fun after dark with ropes, knots, and a partner,” Cat said as they sailed into the bay. (298)
August 3rd, 2016
How to Train Your Dragon wasn’t really on my list of books I was curious about until I saw the mention of the audiobook (narrated by David Tennant!) in this post over at Shelf Love. I had never actually listened to an audiobook before this, and a kids’ book with a talented actor as narrator seemed like a good one to start with.
The novel centers on a story from the childhood of one Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III, a member of the Hairy Hooligan tribe on an island called Berk. As part of the tribe’s initiation rites, Hiccup and the rest of the boys his age all have to catch—and train—dragons. Hiccup is a skinny kid who doesn’t really fit in with the rest of the Hairy Hooligans: he and his friend Fishlegs are convinced they’re not going to be able to catch dragons, let alone train them, and are therefore convinced they’ll end up sent into exile. Hiccup does end up with a dragon, but things still don’t seem promising: his dragon, Toothless, is an undersized creature who doesn’t look particularly threatening, but also is strong-willed/has no interest in being trained. And Hiccup is no good at the normal way of training dragons, which is simply to yell at them. So Hiccup has to figure out how to get Toothless trained, but that turns out to actually be the least of his problems.
This book is often quite funny, and I especially liked the little humorous details – we learn that the grown-up Hiccup is a “regular writer for Big Dragon Monthly,” and a book he consults has a blurb from “Squidface the Terrible” and a price of “one small chicken, twenty oysters.” And David Tennant does a brilliant job with the audiobook—so very many good voices, dramatic pauses, perfect intonations.
July 30th, 2016
Wonderstruck alternates between two (intertwining) stories, one told in words and the other told in pictures, and it totally worked for me—it’s dreamy and beautiful and very satisfyingly full of excellent New York City scenes/moments. The book starts with Ben, a twelve-year-old kid in northeastern Minnesota in 1977. His mom died in a car accident three months ago; he’s living with his aunt and uncle and cousins and feeling adrift—his mom raised him alone (he doesn’t know anything about his dad) and they were close/he misses her lots. After we learn a little about Ben (how he was born deaf in one ear, how he’s always been a quiet/solitary kid, how he has a wooden box in which he keeps little treasures—rocks and twigs and a fossil and such) we jump to Rose, a twelve-year-old kid in Hoboken in 1927. She’s solitary, too, and isolated, partly because she’s a deaf child of hearing parents who worry it’s not safe for her to navigate the world by herself. (We see her sneaking out to go to a silent movie, and then to a theatre in Manhattan.) Back to Ben: a series of events leads to him getting on a bus to New York City, having found some things in his mom’s bedroom that make him think his father might be there, and that he might be able to find him.
I don’t want to say more because so much of the pleasure of this book is in watching the stories unfold, but I will say that, in a nod to From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, Ben ends up sleeping at the American Museum of Natural History, and it’s totally excellent. The NYC-drawings are some of my favorite things in this book—dioramas and a cabinet-of-wonders exhibit at AMNH, the Panorama at the Queens Museum of Art (now the Queens Museum), the Unisphere, buildings with lit-up windows, the city skyline. It’s all so lovely. Here is a picture I took when I was reading this the other day, so you can see some of Selznick’s art:
July 27th, 2016
In general, I tend to enjoy graphic memoirs, so when I saw this on the New Books shelf at the library, I clearly had to check it out. Turning Japanese is about being young and adrift—between cities, between jobs, between cultures, and in various personal situations, family-wise and relationship-wise. It’s set in 1995, when MariNaomi was 22 and had recently broken up with her boyfriend of five years, quit her job, and moved from San Francisco to San Jose with her new boyfriend. He has a friend who works as a hostess in a bar for Japanese expats; she’s half-Japanese (her mom left Japan at 19 to be with her dad) and thinks maybe being a hostess will be a good way to learn the language and feel more connected to Japanese culture. This isn’t as easy or straightforward as she had thought it would be, and the experience of working as a hostess is not entirely positive, but she does save enough money and gain enough proficiency in the language to plan a 3-month trip to Japan with her boyfriend, the story of which makes up the second half of the book. In Japan, MariNaomi works as a hostess in Tokyo and she and her boyfriend, Giuseppe, do various touristy things, then head south to visit her grandparents in Fukuoka. We see the tensions in her relationship with Giuseppe, but also moments of sweetness, though ultimately a sense of separateness/aloneness prevails. Similar tensions/sweetness/separateness surface in regard to MariNaomi’s grandparents: this trip is the first time MariNaomi has been able to communicate with them without her mother between them to act as translator, and being able to communicate with them directly in some ways highlights the generation/culture/personality gaps between them.
Throughout the book there are various little vignettes—some about work, some about family, some about MariNaomi’s relationship with Giuseppe, some about travel. We get stories about co-workers and customers at the bars in San Jose and in Tokyo, stories about MariNaomi’s previous visits to Japan (and her relatives’ previous visits to the US to see her family), trips to the dog statue at Shibuya Station in Tokyo, and a trip to an ancient temple in the countryside, among other things. The black & white art is a pleasing mix of pages with 6 or 8 or 9 panels and pages with bigger segments, and I found the combination of the art and the story totally engrossing—I read a big chunk of this book on the subway between Queens and Brooklyn, and I was glad to have the big unmissable outdoor stretch over the Manhattan Bridge to remind me my stop was coming up soon—I was totally into the book/not particularly paying attention to where I was for most of the journey.
July 23rd, 2016
The 37 pieces in this book were written in the 1860s, published in a weekly magazine/journal that Dickens ran, and later collected and printed in book form. They range fairly widely in theme and tone, but as Daniel Tyler argues in his introduction to the edition I read, they can be seen to make up “a volume-length consideration of how far (and to whom) sympathy can be extended” (xix). (In one essay I liked a lot, Dickens visits a boat about to depart England with hundreds of emigrating Mormons on board: he clearly isn’t expecting to be particularly charmed by them, but clearly is.) Some pieces were moving, some interesting, some funny, others kind of a slog—I wonder if I might have liked this more if I’d taken breaks from it, but it was a library book, so I didn’t.
Which isn’t to say I didn’t find a lot to like anyway. Not surprisingly, I really liked the essays/parts of essays featuring descriptive passages about London, like this, from “Wapping Workhouse”:
Pleasantly wallowing in the abundant mud of that thoroughfare, and greatly enjoying the huge piles of building belonging to the sugar refiners, the little masts and vanes in small back gardens in back streets, the neighbouring canals and docks, the India-vans lumbering along their stone tramway, and the pawnbrokers’ shops where hard-up Mates had pawned so many sextants and quadrants, that I should have bought a few cheap if I had the least notion how to use them, I at last began to file off to the right, towards Wapping. (19)
Or this, from “City of London Churches”:
Whether I think of the church where the sails of the oyster-boats in the river almost flapped against the windows, or of the church where the railroad made the bells hum as the train rushed by above the roof, I recal a curious experience. (92)
Other high points included a really good outraged essay about the poor treatment of soldiers (“The Great Tasmania’s Cargo”), a piece about being very seasick crossing to Calais (“The Calais Night Mail”), a piece about stories remembered from childhood, including stories that were terrifying at the time (“Nurse’s Stories”), and a piece about walking in normally busy parts of London that become quiet on summer weekends (“The City of the Absent”).
At the start of We Love You, Charlie Freeman, the Freemans (Laurel, Charles, and their daughters—Charlotte, who’s 14, and Callie, who’s 9) are in a shiny new car, driving from Dorchester to the Berkshires, where they’re going to be living at the Toneybee Institute and participating in a research experiment. The Toneybee Institute studies apes, and they’ll be living with a chimp named Charlie: they’re supposed to treat him like a family member and teach him sign language (which they know because Laurel learned it as an isolated/lonely kid in Maine). This storyline, which is set in 1990, alternates with a 1929 storyline that also involves the Toneybee, this time focusing on a woman named Nymphadora and the experiences she and her neighbors (who, like the Freemans, are black) have with the Institute. Spoiler alert: the Institute’s past is horrible and racist, and maybe its present is, too, but Laurel is still convinced that the experiment is going to be a great opportunity for her and her family.
The style and structure of this book really worked for me: sections of first-person narration by Charlotte and Nymphadora alternate with other sections, most but not all of which are third-person narration about Charlotte’s family members, and I liked the shifting focus. I also liked Charlotte’s voice, and the story of her freshman year of high school (including her sexual awakening) made for a satisfying through-line amidst all the darker things (which were also really satisfying and interesting, though differently). I took this book with me for a weekend away and found myself reading it pretty much nonstop on the train to and from Philadelphia, not wanting to put it down.
July 10th, 2016
Hildafolk is a quick and sweet graphic novel for kids that made me want a backyard and a tent and a rainstorm. At the start, we see the little red cottage where Hilda lives with her mother: it looks very cozy, with yellow-lit windows and smoke coming out of a chimney, a spot of warmth in a rocky landscape. Inside, Hilda is listening to the weather report on the radio and reading a book about trolls. When she hears it’s going to rain, she asks her mom if she can sleep in the tent that night; her mom says she can.
But sleeping in the tent is only a little adventure: the next day, Hilda and Twig (her animal companion, who is like a small blue fox with antlers) go outside so Hilda can draw. She sees a rock that has a protrusion like a nose: she’s sure it’s really a troll, so she sketches it, but only after taking the precaution of tying a bell to the protrusion so she’ll hear it if the rock moves. Hilda and Twig fall asleep, then wake to the darkening sky and the sound of the bell—and things get more exciting from there.
I like Hilda’s boldness, and the whimsy of her world – the troll is not the only fantastical creature around. There’s also a sea-spirit (see picture below—depicted in a way that makes me think of Miyazaki, particularly Spirited Away), a wood man who comes into Hilda’s cottage when she leaves the door open (and brings firewood), a giant, and other creatures we only glimpse.
I found the art stronger than the writing—I love, for example, the panel showing rain falling on the outside of Hilda’s tent, with the KSSSHHH sound of the rain appearing as letters in the sky, or the panel showing Hilda’s bedroom in which you can see that she has a picture over her bed of a boat with the arms of a kraken reaching out of the water next to it. Not that the writing is bad—I thought some of it was quite funny—but the flow of the art was stronger, I thought. Still, I enjoyed this and will be reading the next one.