Friday, February 27, 2015

The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami

Murakami window display, December 2014 in Victoria, BC at the bookstore started by Alice Munro.
Strange Library UK ed. left, American right.
Book pocket is stamped 2 Dec 2014.
I'm comparing two editions of The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami. I received the UK (Harvill Secker) edition as a Christmas gift and I borrowed the North American (Knopf) edition from the public library. The text content is the same, translated by Ted Goosen, but the book designs are very different.

The tale begins when, on a whim, a boy on his way home from school asks at the public library for books about tax collection in the Ottoman empire. Then he is held captive in a labyrinth while forced to memorize them. A man in a sheepskin and a mute girl look after him. The story unfolds like a dream--or possibly a nightmare.
   "But, hey, this kind of thing's going on in libraries everywhere, you know. More or less, that is."
   This news staggered me. "In libraries everywhere?" I stammered.
   "If all they did was lend out knowledge for free, what would the payoff be for them?"
   "But that doesn't give them the right to saw off the tops of people's heads and eat their brains. Don't you think that's going a bit too far?"
Designer Chip Kidd (for Knopf) combines magnified, brightly-coloured Japanese paper miscellany, and photos, with text in oversized Typewriter font. The mute girl's dialogue is printed in blue ink.
Strange Library American edition. Look closely to see #BlueandBlack text on left. 
An effective series of illustrations begins with the close-up of a dog's eye, then incorporates a bird image that becomes increasing larger in the pupil of that eye. The moon is an important story element and I like the way Kidd includes it throughout. The overall effect is playfully moody in a fun-house-horror kind of way.
Strange Library American edition detail
Strange Library American edition on left, UK edition on right. Note difference in text size and layout.
Designer Suzanne Dean (for Harvill Secker) has opted for a standard serif font (maybe Dante? which, now that I think of it, would be appropriate for the name alone). The size of the text changes to emphasize words and sometimes is incorporated into illustrations. The lens of vintage eyeglasses magnifies a few letters on one page, for example. The mute girl's dialogue is in angled brackets, like a foreign language.
Strange Library UK edition detail
According to an article* I read online, Dean selected old images from the British Library. As with Kidd, some of the images are greatly enlarged. In both editions, experimentation with size contributes to an Alice in Wonderland-like feeling of disorientation.

The heavy use of black, plus pictures of insects, looming black dogs, and angled walls of books, give it a surreal, sinister atmosphere. Together with the marbled endpapers and an actual date due book pocket stuck to the front cover (brilliant!), the effect is of an arcane volume, unearthed from the stacks.
Both images are from UK edition. Effective use of large size font and manicules!
BTW, Keith Houston has an entire chapter on manicules in Shady Characters.
In their own way, each edition does a good job of emphasizing one of the central themes: coping with fear. I cannot choose which one I like better. I'm a huge fan of Chip Kidd, yet the UK edition may become my favourite simply because I will read it more often.
   "The kiss had shaken me up so much I couldn't think straight. At the same time, my anxiety had turned into an anxiety quite lacking in anxiousness. And any anxiety that is not especially anxious is, in the end, an anxiety hardly worth mentioning."
Strange Library UK edition detail.
If you are already a fan of Murakami's writing, you won't need any encouragement to pick up this lavishly illustrated little gem.

If you haven't yet dipped into his still waters to discover the hallucinations lurking beneath, then The Strange Library is a good test to see whether examples among his works that lean towards the bizarre--like The Wind-up Bird Chronicles--are for you. If you prefer more realism, Murakami's Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage might be more to your taste.

*A review by Buzz Poole in The Millions, comparing three different editions of The Strange Library.
See also an interview with Chip Kidd by Roland Kelts in The New Yorker about illustrating The Strange Library.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Cat Out of Hell by Lynne Truss

Talking immortal cats, a satanic librarian with glowing red eyes, bumbling amateur detectives, and comedy--so much comedy!--are the ingredients in Cat Out of Hell. Lynne Truss, author of Eats, Shoots and Leaves, had me hooked from the title alone.

And stayed hooked, because I listened to the audiobook [Recorded Books: 5 hr 14 min] all in one day. British audiobook narrator Mike Grady has a soothing voice, a counterpoint for the outlandishness of the tale and the moments of horror encountered therein.

The story is set in contemporary England and the narrator is Alec Charlesworth, a retired bookish man with a terrier named Watson. Alec and his wife chose this name especially for the opportunities to quote lines from Sherlock Holmes:

"Come Watson, come. The game's afoot."
"You have a grand gift for silence, Watson. It makes you invaluable as a companion."
"Watson, come at once if convenient. If inconvenient, com all the same."

Cat Out of Hell mixes nineteenth-century occultism with modern culture. Think of the Bunnicula children's stories by James and Deborah Howe which feature a vampire rabbit. At one point in the story, a cat recites lines from Tennyson's "Ulysses" which Alec says "I needn't dwell on because everyone in the world knows them quite well by now because of Judy Dench doing them in Skyfall.

If you are in the mood for a cozy cat mystery with a spike of Beelzebub, or need a devilish touch to convince you to tackle a talking animal tale, this will hit the spot!

Readalikes: Good Omens (Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman); Hold Me Closer, Necromancer (Lish McBride); and Something Rotten (Jasper Fforde)

Sunday, February 22, 2015

100 Sideways Miles by Andrew Smith

Friendship between teenage boys.
First love with a girl.
Frankly realistic dialogue. (Translation: profanity alert.)
Funny as can be.

By the end of a hilarious condom-buying scene in Andrew Smith's 100 Sideways Miles, the thoroughly embarrassed narrator tells the sales clerk, "I'm going to need an extra bag to put over my fucking head."

Finn Easton, the narrator, has epilepsy and his eyes are two different colours. He is very shy. His father happens to be a famous author of a science fiction novel that features an alien named Finn with heterochromatic eyes. The upside down draft horse in the clouds that's pictured on the book's jacket is relevant to Finn's singular backstory of childhood trauma. Finn's best friend Cade Hernandez is charismatic and outgoing and their friendship is at the core of the story. 100 Sideways Miles is thoroughly enjoyable and rewarding.

And yet I might have given up on this book, if it wasn't that my book group will be discussing it later this week. I've been meaning to read Winger and Grasshopper Jungle, but haven't yet, so I while I'd heard praise of Smith's work, I had no firsthand experience. I'm not sure why, but I was skeptical about learning anything new in this novel.

It wasn't until a sentence on page 48 that I reached a turning point and became truly hooked: "The politics of teenage grudges are very complex."

That line prompted me to make a connection to a different book, one that I love very much: The Lesser Blessed by Richard Van Camp. Van Camp's protagonist Larry Sole talks about teenage grudges and he also is healing from a traumatic past. Anyway, that was all it took for me to open my heart to the pleasures of 100 Sideways Miles. I'm so glad that I did.

Readalikes: An Abundance of Katherines (John Green) - for the math-loving, road-tripping camaraderie; Boy Toy (Barry Lyga) - for the baseball buddies and dealing with trauma; Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You (Peter Cameron) - for the dark humour and voice; The Spectacular Now (Tim Tharp) - again, for dark humour and voice; and Flash Burnout (LK Madigan) - for sensitive portrayal of friendship and first love while more complicated things are going on.

Mermaids in Paradise by Lydia Millet

I fall hard for a good narrator and the voice is outstanding in Lydia Millet's satirical Mermaids in Paradise. The book flap description sets the scene: "On the grounds of a Caribbean island resort, newlyweds Deb and Chip--our opinionated, skeptical narrator and her cheerful jock husband--meet a marine biologist who says she's sighted mermaids in a coral reef."

In the first section of the novel, Chip comes up with all kinds of adventurous destinations for their upcoming honeymoon, and Deb vetoes each one in a kindly manner. For example, the "Peaks of the Himalayas" voyage, "with visits to monasteries, meditations and nosebleeds from the lack of oxygen up there. [...] The inner peace a monk projects, combined with never having sex, I don't know if that attitude is really honeymoon material. [...] I'll take a pass on that serenity, I said to Chip, I'm just not in the mood for it."

At the resort, everything gets crazy after mermaids are spotted. I'm going to blank out a bit in the next passage in order to avoid spoilers, while still giving you a sense of Deb's voice and the action of the plot. She's approached at the door of her cabana and asked to accompany some people to a meeting.

   "I found myself jostled and forced away from ____, surrounded by a wall of men.
   At that point I considered making a scene, even yelling/screaming. But that's where my personality got in the way, my personality that, especially as I got older, I hadn't worried about so much. I'm not a screamer, never have been, and it turned out this situation was no exception to the rule. The idea of screaming seemed foolish. Here we were in a Caribbean resort. What was the worst that could happen? Then I caught sight of ____ and thought of ____, but still the scream stuck in my throat."

The characters are all larger-than-life, yet so believable at the same time. Millet adeptly gets at the truth of how we obsess about ourselves and how we relate to other people.

Mermaids in Paradise is a dark and funny story about greed and altruism: human nature at its worst and best. Millet's style is exhilarating and fresh. I adored this book.

Readalikes with comic voice: Come, Thou Tortoise (Jessica Grant); The Blondes (Emily Schultz); and The Death of Bees (Lisa O'Donnell). Also, Beauty Queens (Libba Bray) - for the satire and island adventure.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Bellweather Rhapsody by Kate Racculia

Bellweather Rhapsody is a whimsical romp that takes place amidst a conference of high school music students at a formerly-grand hotel in backwoods New York state, snowed in by a storm and haunted by a murder/suicide from the past.

Author Kate Racculia has a light touch, even while tackling serious topics like grief, post traumatic stress, and suicide. She portrays an assortment of unbalanced power dynamics: between teachers and students, parents and their offspring, and between siblings. A gay teen's struggle to come out to his twin sister is done very well.

Racculia's exuberant style, twisty plot and larger-than-life characters kept me entertained and turning pages. It was a bit like a cross between The Grand Budapest Hotel movie crossed with a YA novel. Last week, the American Library Association announced Bellweather Rhapsody has been chosen as one of the 10 best adult books that appeal to teens, a list called the Alex Award.

Readalikes: Chopsticks (Jessica Anthony) - for the pressured musical prodigy/mystery aspects; and The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving (Jonathan Evison) or Come, Thou Tortoise (Jessica Grant) for the mix of quirky/adventure/pathos.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Thoughts on ALA's 2015 Youth Media Awards

The American Library Association announced its annual youth awards in Chicago this morning. I was as excited as many others as I followed the ceremony on my twitter feed. It feels good to know there are so many other adults who are passionate about great books for young people!

Brown Girl Dreaming, Jacqueline Woodson's superb autobiography-in-vignettes, continues to win medals. Today, the Coretta Scott King Award, a Newbery Honor and a Sibert Honor have been added to the prestigious National Book Award for Young People's Literature it has already received. I am happy, happy, happy. This is a book for everyone to read. And then go read everything else by Woodson.

I am also over the moon about El Deafo winning a Newbery Honor. Such a heartfelt and funny story, based on author Cece Bell's own childhood experiences. And it's in comics format! I wrote about El Deafo here. Monica Edinger speculated on its chances for the Newbery on her Educating Alice blog last month.

Speaking of graphic novels, yay for Canadians Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki's collaboration This One Summer! It received both a Printz Honor and a Caldecott Honor.

Other Canadians recognized include illustrator Jon Klassen (Sam and Dave Dig a Hole - Caldecott Honor) as well as Christine Baldacchino and Isabel Malenfant (Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress - Stonewall Honor). Two very fine picture books.

Another Stonewall Honor book is Beyond Magenta, which I reviewed here. I will seek out This Day in June by Gayle Pitman, the Stonewall winner, which reminds me of another thing that's great about these awards: hearing about titles that are new to me.

Has the We Need Diverse Books campaign had an effect? The diversity recognized by ALA this year seems greater than usual, spread through all of the awards and not just in the specific awards for LGBTQ (Stonewall) and PoC (Coretta Scott King and Pura Belpre). Examples include the previously mentioned Tamaki cousins, Kwame Alexander (Newbery winner), Dan Santat (Caldecott winner), the gay theme in Jandy Nelson's I'll Give You the Sun (Printz winner), Donald Crews (Laura Ingalls Wilder Award), Sharon Draper (Margaret Edwards Award), Pat Mora (Arbuthnot Honor Lecture Award), Christopher Myers (Odyssey Award), and Isabel Quintera (Morris Award). It's all good.

The full list is available online here:

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Euphoria by Lily King

Three young anthropologists are studying tribes in 1930s New Guinea in Euphoria, a brilliant novel inspired by the life of Margaret Mead.

Nell and Fen have been incompatibly married for two years, working together in the field but with radically different approaches. Fen's jealousy over Nell's literary success and her ongoing correspondence with her female ex, Helen, simmers beneath the surface of their relationship.

Bankson, meanwhile, battles despair after a lonely period amidst the Kiona people.

   "Three days earlier, I'd gone to the river to drown myself.
That beautiful image on the cover of
Euphoria is the bark of a
Eucalyptus deglupta. Photo above taken
at Wahiawa Botanic Garden in Oahu.
    They dragged me to shore, flipped me over, pounded me like a sago pancake, and pulled me back up to standing, all the while lecturing me in their language. They found the stones in my pocket. They grabbed them, the two men, their bodies nearly dry already for they wore nothing but rope around their waists while I sagged with the weight of all my clothes. They made a pile of the stones from my pockets on the beach and shifted language to a Kiona worse than mine, explaining that they knew I was Teket's man from Nengai. The stones are beautiful, they said, but dangerous. You can collect them, but leave them on land before you swim. And do not swim in clothes. This is also dangerous. And do not swim alone. Being alone you will only come to harm. They asked me if I knew the way back. They were stern and curt. Grown-ups who didn't have patience for an oversized child."

A few days after this incident, Nell, Fen and Bankson meet at a colonial government Christmas party. A spark is kindled between Nell and Bankson. Would it have been better if Bankson had remained alone?

A quote from Mead is used as an epigraph: "Quarrels over women are the keynote of the New Guinea primitive world."

I felt like I was right in the middle of it all, with the bugs in the tropical heat, mesmerized by the drama unfolding like a train wreck. Short chapters in three shifting perspectives create an engaging sense of discovery. Euphoria is heartbreaking and surprising in equal measure. I loved it.